Friday, October 22, 2010

assignment 4

"This week’s exercise concerns the Unreliable Narrator, and it should be fun. Some of you already know what this means and some do not. An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator who cannot entirely be trusted to be telling the whole truth. In real life, we are all unreliable narrators, and we understand this, and when we listen to someone tell us a 'true' story (why he got fired; why her parents are totally unreasonable; how his bike went missing; how her husband is the greatest guy in the world; why she doesn’t really care about getting published...), we listen in two ways, simultaneously: (1) we listen in good faith, willing to believe everything we’re being told, and (2) we listen skeptically, alert to nuances, improbabilities, echoes of contradictions. We all do this. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to function, socially or in any other way, because the fact is that we are all unreliable when it comes to assessing our own experiences. If we believed every story we heard, we’d make lots of dumb decisions. This is not to say that we can’t approach the truth when we tell stories—only that, being human, we often miss it, sometimes by a mile, sometimes by inches. We know this about ourselves, which means we know it about one another.

When I say 'unreliable narrator,' I’m not talking about a liar. I’m talking about someone who honestly believes the story she’s telling but who is, on some level, fooling herself. But not her listener. Not her reader.

It’s a show/tell contradiction, really. The unreliable narrator tells us one thing and shows us something quite different. For an interesting list of U.N. novels, see:

Exercise 4 will be—you guessed it—try your hand at unreliable narration.

1. Page limit: 3 pages, double-spaced.
2. First person (I) narration.
3. Essentially, this will be a monologue."

My Exercise 4:

It started out as a good day for a ride. I left the house before I could wake up to the rhythmic, lazy slap of my wife’s thighs as she walked from the master bedroom to the master bathroom to her closet to the main kitchen. Every morning, I heard Judy's thighs smacking each other as I lay awake in the guest bedroom and counted the stucco mounds on the ceiling and wished for unassailable silence. Lately, I was noticing all of the sounds surrounding me every morning: the aforementioned thigh slaps and the stupid espresso machine hissing and all of those clattering dishes and the children waking up late and slamming car doors with teenage finesse and backing out of the driveway too quickly. I wanted good, strong silence.

This year, my tolerance for loud things and loud people and loud sounds had disappeared. My head was hurting more and my knee was bothering me, even though I was no longer spending twelve hours a day on my feet. Ever since I stepped down, presumably because the company wanted to reward my service and I wanted to spend more time with my family and work on my golf game and pursue other, unexplored career paths, the pains were getting worse.

Once outside, the sun was a predatory thing, unblinking and unyielding. A nervous bird flew near the garage and pitched onto a nearby tree. I grabbed my bicycle out of the side yard. It was a Masi bicycle, blue and slightly crooked, but it was mine. I had seen a sign for a yard sale and stopped and bought the bike, even though I could have bought the yard itself and the accompanying house and the rest of the neighborhood. When I brought the bike home, Judy shuffled over and laughed that annoying laugh of hers and said that I was going through a mid-life crisis and why didn’t I buy a shiny Harley Davidson like Mike next door or look into a new car or even hair transplants? I threw her a ferocious look that spelled death, the kind that I usually save for a deserving employee, and she promptly shut her mouth. I felt pleased when this happened.

Ever since that day, I had been riding and riding and riding that bike around the neighborhood. I was pedaling furiously through pristine lawns and manicured flowerbeds, which brought me some sort of deep, untapped satisfaction. When I rode the bike, everything stopped somersaulting in my skull. I could only hear the wind; even then, it was a soft wind. I thought that I would start training for some type of race. I would become one of those hard-bodied men who wore spandex and weathered grins. I would spend hours at the gym and hire a trainer. My stomach would shrink and my shoulders would harden. I’d become one of those men who look good bald.

Riding the bike meant that I was getting exercise, which was supposed to be good for my condition. It meant that I was outside, breathing fresh air and stretching my limbs, not inside the house, watching the Tour de France in a muted reverie or scaling the walls all afternoon or fixing things that could be working more efficiently or sitting the Jacuzzi for hours with earplugs nestled firmly in my ears. Judy was afraid that I would fall asleep in there and wake up with wrinkles across my back like cobwebs.

Today I started riding the bike around the cul-de-sac, which sent me in a never-ending infinity loop. I counted the loops and lost track and started up again and lost track again until I noticed Mike standing the corner of his yard, watching my looping. Mike held up his hand but I ignored the gesture and concentrated on my riding. Lately, I could feel the whole neighborhood flashing me the same bright, false smiles. They were jealous of me; I knew they were jealous of me. I owned the biggest house in the neighborhood but I still held onto my aspirations while all of those neighbors had settled into their sad, noisy lives.

Mike continued staring at me, enviously, with a shovel in his fist. Unlike him, I would become a professional cyclist and inspire a whole generation of riders. I would ride aggressively, soundlessly, like a falcon skirting the sky. With each thought, I began a fresh, happy thought trail. I would wear a yellow jersey the color of cornbread. I would finish the Tour de France in Paris. I thought that I would buy a house in Toulouse or Marseille or Bourdeax. A house with thick, soundproof walls. I would never have to wake up in the guestroom again.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

in-class writing exercise and recent obsession

In-class writing exercise from last week: write three things about yourself. They can either be two true things and one false thing or one true thing and two false things.

1) My great-grandfather courted and married four different women - successively, not all at once. My grandmother adored him anyway, even though she grew up without a father. Now she's a hoarder.

2) My sister is married to a cheap car salesman. Last Christmas, my parents and I received oil change coupons and matching clogs from him. We don't like him.

3) My dad left my mother at the altar on her wedding day because he got cold feet. She was devastated and would not leave her bedroom for two weeks. Apparently, she forgave him.


"Ordinary People" by John Legend moves my heart in embarrassing ways. When he sings "though it's not a fantasy, I still want you to stay", my chest always jumps into my throat.

Monday, October 11, 2010

writing assignment number one

Part one: write a real story.
Part two: take that story, change the gender POV, change a bunch of details, change the underlying moral or message.

This is what I came up with on Sunday night:


Hollywood has become enamored of travel-as-self-discovery storylines lately, but before Julia Roberts started traipsing through whatever third world country she needed to travel through to find herself, my younger and stupider self flew to Mongolia to mend a Broken Heart.

For a month, I lived on the steppes like a nomad. I galloped across the valleys on a tiny horse while worrying about my insurance coverage. I swigged homemade vodka from an ancient, plastic crystal geyser water bottle. I chewed on preserved curls of yak cheese. I drank frothy, fermented yak milk. I laid awake, nervously, in my little ger, while wild animals pawed outside in the dark. I chopped firewood with a machete. I stopped showering. I put a pause on my worries.

I made friends through generous use of gesticulations. One of these new friends, who spoke halting English, took me to her home for a visit. The home was a one room shack that housed three generations of family members and an army of flies. My friend called her mother ahead of time to let her know we were coming. Like all mothers everywhere, in anticipation of her arrival, her mother had prepared her daughter’s favorite meal. It was waiting for us, hot and steaming, when we walked through the tin door.

Her mother was all smiles and eager, sturdy hands. She pulled out stained, chipped plates while the rest of the family surrounded us, curiously, and watched me eat. Her mother served us horshu, which is a pocket of fried dough that is usually filled with meat. This particular horshu was filled with chopped organs. I took one bite and almost choked.

The taste was pungent and earthy. It tasted like animal. The organs traveled down my esophagus and tickled my stomach. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep the food down and that I’d be forever branded as an Awful, Ungrateful, and Ugly American.

Her mother nodded and pointed to the wall on my right. There was an empty, fresh goat carcass tacked to the wall, devoid of its kidneys and stomach and heart. The goat looked surprised. Its organs had been chopped up and wrapped with dough and lovingly fried and now I was eating it in a shack filled with flies and grinning strangers and wishing, suddenly, that I had never come to Mongolia at all.

PART TWO to be posted later.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

writing class

I attended my first ever writing class last week. I liked the writing instructor right away. She was straightforward and had a wry smile and long silver hair. I was the second youngest person there. Everyone present was some sort of working professional, mostly women. There were a few pretentious personalities, but I won't get into those unnecessary details.

I think it will be a tough class, only because it's forcing me to write more and weave together adjectives and think about characters and employ those long-unused neurons in my head that have forgotten how to be creative.

We wrote various in-class exercises. Our instructor gave us a few noun prompts and we pieced together unfinished stories based on these prompts.* I thought about whipping up a story based on vignettes that I had already written in the past, but I want everything that comes from this class to be raw, unwritten, and completely spontaneous. So I wrote the following, which I am neither proud nor ashamed of:

"She blamed it on the chocolate. The man in the stetson hat, while coaxing her into a date, had dropped off a small box of chocolate, which she had promptly razed. The chocolates tasted dusty. She woke up the next morning and found a rash smiling from one end of her torso to the other. The rash looked wet and slick and careless, as though someone had painted it on her body in the dark and had left in a hurry, before she could discover the intruder. She felt her way into the bathroom and fished her first aid kid out of an antique wire basket and that is how everything looked when the paramedics arrived and saw her with her arm spilling into the wire basket and clutching the first aid kit and the rest of her laying in a heap.

Unbeknownst to the paramedics, termites had overtaken a wing of the hospital so that the building looked as though it were crippled, too.

The man in the stetson hat took his hat off for work, which was appropriate when her body arrived for an autopsy. He signed and swallowed hard when he saw her still body. He folded back her breast, neatly, like a pancake, and sliced into her chest."

*Noun prompts in bold.

I wrote it in a feverish hurry. I don't know where the "smiling" rash came from but I liked it. I read those paragraphs to the class in a shaky voice and it was met with a strange silence and the instructor commented that it was very "minimalistic". In any case, it felt really good to put myself out there. I feel like I'm on my way.