A Writer’s Notebook: Outrunning the Critic

This comes from Brian Kiteley‘s The 3 A.M. Epiphany, some exercises from which appear on his University of Denver web page.  For the exercise (which I copied and pasted below), click here.

  1. Sharon works as a bookkeeper for a senior center on the backside of town.
  2. Sharon knows her husband is distracted, knows he loved someone once more than he loves her now.
  3. When the rain starts, Sharon always stops whatever she’s doing and steps outside, or opens a window, or pulls to the side of the road and shuts off the engine to hear the rain drum against the roof of the car.
  4. Once, in high school, Sharon got high in the girl’s locker room after soccer practice, and even though it wasn’t something she enjoyed at the time and has never done since, once in a while she wonders if she ought to try it again.
  5. The smell of the old folks at her senior center makes Sharon want to cry, because it always reminds her of her own grandmother alone in some nursing home, forgotten by the family when Sharon was too young and later too poor to do anything to help her.
  6. In the middle of sex—ever since she first started having sex, but especially since she met Mark—she gets the urge to sing like Robert Plant just to hear the sound of it.
  7. Most people who meet her think Sharon is distant and dry.
  8. When the baby died in her womb and she miscarried in the bathroom at work, she had no idea she’d even been pregnant.
  9. She’s never told her husband and she never will.
  10. Colorado has always seemed like a such a romantic place.
  11. Sharon likes Western novels even though she can’t stand to read the details of the shootouts—the violence feels so long and unnecessary, the writing so cheap.
  12. Her hair has never had a mind of its own—she hears other women complain about this in their own hair, but Sharon envies them, her own hair lifeless and at its best when it’s just tossed back in a ponytail.
  13. Mark’s job at the grocery store pays the bills, but it doesn’t feel right, and maybe part of his distance is tied up in that more than anything else; Sharon wants so much more for him but knows saying so out loud would just make things worse.
  14. If she could get rid of one thing that Mark brought into the marriage, she’d get rid of his beer cap collection, or at least make him do something creative with them, like mount them on a board or trim the kitchen cabinets with them.
  15. If she could get rid of one thing she brought into the marriage, she’d get rid of her piano, because it’s just so big and hard to maintain and she’s never been interested in playing it.
  16. Sharon is bored to tears with math.
  17. Her sister lives so far away Sharon never gets to see her niece and nephews, and thank god for that, because after the miscarriage the last thing she wants is for her damned biological clock to start up.
  18. All that blood, it still haunts her, turns up in her dreams in the most sickening ways: blood in her breakfast cereal, her nose running clots and fetuses, her legs tangled up in yards of umbilical cord  and the blood swiping streaky bands around her ankles, blood in her hair in the shower, blood running over Mark’s face and shoulders and gleaming under the flat white fluorescents in some huge grocery store she’s never actually been in and him utterly unaware of why she’s staring at him and screaming, that same expression on his face when she wakes sobbing in the night.
  19. When the letter arrives telling her she’s died and the insurance is canceling her account, she thinks at first it’s some joke her father has organized, because he does that sometimes.
  20. Sharon wishes people saw the world the way she sees it.
  21. In middle school, she spent an entire weekend holed up in her room, only emerging to eat, and she didn’t say a word for two and a half days, not even to ask for a soda or to say goodnight.
  22. Her mother said she was acting like a nun and for six whole months Sharon considered converting to Catholicism just so she could join a convent, because she liked being quiet and by herself sometimes and she thought that’s all being a nun would entail.
  23. If George Clooney and Denzel Washington knocked on her door and offered to run away with her if only she could choose between them, she would lose them both just standing there in the doorway trying to decide.
  24. Sometimes she sneaks out of bed in the middle of the night and turns on the tv in the living room, huddled in the dark on the floor just inches from the screen, and watches old black and white movies with the sound off.
  25. Sharon sometimes daydreams about visiting her own funeral, a shade in the corner behind the wreaths of flowers and the potted plants, and watching to see which people weep and which smile fondly over memories of her and most of all how Mark would react, would he sit there stone-faced and lost without her or would he fidget and glance around and wonder how long before he could drive away and forget it all, and when she gets the letter in the mail from the insurance company telling her she’s dead, she thinks this might be her chance to find out.

Kiteley’s web page includes 25 selected exercises; I used #23:

Outrunning the Critic. Write 100 short sentences about a character you are working on in a piece of fiction. The sentences should not connect and should not follow one another in any logical way.  The idea of this exercise is to force you to outrun your own thoughts and intelligence and critical mind.  Be careful not to be monotonous, using the name of your character or a pronoun to start each sentence.  A better exercise would be to write 200 or 500 sentences about this character, but 100 sentences is still enough of a stretch to make this useful.  The idea for this exercise comes from a collaboration the poet John Yau did with a painter, which was to match 1,000 small watercolors with sentences by Yau.  John Yau is the author of Edificio Sayonara, Forbidden Entries, and Hawaiian Cowboys, among other books.

The Sharon in these sentences is a character in two stories, one finished and already making the rounds but the other still in very rough draft mode.  The first story is from her husband Mark’s POV, and because of some of Mark’s issues, he never gives us a full picture of Sharon.  In the second story, I wanted to focus on Sharon, but I have found that, thanks for Mark, I don’t know her very well, so even though I have the story idea down (she gets a letter informing her she’s been mistakenly filed as “deceased” by her insurance company, and things unfold from there), I’ve had a terrible time trying to write my way into it because I don’t know enough about her character.  Hence, this exercise.

I only wrote 25 sentences just to keep things brief for the post, though I do plan to keep pushing this through the full 100.  Of course, I also know enough about my own process to understand that I’ll probably latch onto an idea and start working on the story before I hit 100 in pure exercise mode.


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