I have several friends who are visual artists, some of whom also write. In comments on previous blog posts and via several e-mails, I’ve been chatting about the relationship between art and writing with my friends Lori Ann Bloomfield and Crystal Elerson, and I thought it might be fun to try a sketching exercise as a lead-in to a writing exercise. The results (with my deepest apologies to artists everywhere, especially my friends who know what they’re doing) follow, but for the explanation of what I did, and for the exercise Crystal Elerson recommended for me, see below. The top two images, by the way, are photos of the object I drew and the “sketches” I did in PhotoShop, because I love playing in that program. The bottom two are my sad little drawings.
Tiger Lily chuffed and flattened her palm over her breast when she saw him. She turned toward Ilene. “Oh lordy, it’s him, that man. You know that man, that Ford?” Ilene opened her thin mouth like a bird expecting food but Tiger Lily continued without her. “No, you don’t remember poop. I remember.” They watched the man together as he crossed the wide floor of the former gymnasium and scanned the outer walls of the senior center. He put a hand in one jeans pocket and posed, his bearded face pivoting on his thick neck.
“What was that girl’s name?” Tiger Lily said. “The young one. It was something foreign, Chinese maybe. Only girl like that in town. You’d think I’d remember.”
Ford looked over at them and Tiger Lily ducked her head and fiddled with her fingers as though she was arranging flowers in her lap. Ilene’s eyes went wide and bright and she opened her little mouth to call out to him, but he’d already looked on, searching for something else. He saw Martha poke her head from her small cubicle office in the corner by the kitchen and he walked away from the old ladies, toward the office. He went inside.
“That man is sick.” Tiger Lily put a hand on Ilene’s arm.
Ford walked in the door and leaned against the formica counter and rang the bell but it died away among the dissonance of yapping dogs. He waited, listened with his open palm above the bell’s small button. The yapping rose and fell like the noise of passing traffic. He discerned some kind of pattern in it. When he heard a lull in the racket he slapped the bell. He waited and listened, slapped it again.
At length a man appeared, balding and brownskinned with a heavy shadow of stubble along his jaw. The plastic badge on his shirt pocket said Sergio. He wiped his brow and asked what Ford wanted, peering at him the while.
“I come to see about my dog,” Ford said.
“We ain’t got your dog.”
“If you find him could you let me know? My name’s Ford and I—”
“Buddy, I know who you are. I saw the flyers.”
Ford stood from the counter and sighed. Sergio shook his head and pressed his palms firm into the countertop, the muscles in his forearms taut.
“Let me tell you something, friend, we don’t owe you any favors. You being here in this town is favor enough. I see your dog or any dog you ever choose to get, I’ll round it up and keep it here to give to someone else or just kill it if it’s here long enough.”
“Look,” Ford said, but Sergio held up his palms. Ford went on anyway. “I just wanted some company.”
“You got all the company you ever deserved when you took that little girl.”
“It wasn’t like that.” Ford shook his head and turned and shouldered his way out the door.
As he left, Sergio shouted after him, “There ain’t nothing for you anywheres.”
Sharon stood still in the foyer of the HEB, the air conditioning washing over her from the long box over the sliding doors. Her hair kept whisking into her mouth. The bunched straps of her plastic shopping bags dug into the crooks of her fingers but she lingered to read. She’d not known Ford Kemp, had in fact moved here long after the crime he’d gone to jail for, but she feared his return and could not explain why.
When he got back to town, goddamn, it was like a miracle and a nightmare at once. I mean, I know what he’s supposed to have done, but I’ve seen this boy play. I had hopes for this boy. Just a few years back, there was that Gary Maltsberger who went and played defensive end for UT, he was damn good and did our town proud. But old Ford, he would have been better, and it’s a damn shame what happened with that girl. Of course, there’s the other side to that story that nobody talks about. He always said it was consensual, and I for one believe him. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be with Ford Randall Kemp? Hell, I would have dated the boy. If I was a girl.
My friend Crystal Elerson gave me this (and several other) exercises to try. For the drawing, she says to “divide your page into three columns. In each column draw the same still life (a vase? A potted plant? An apple?) from three different perspectives. On another sheet do the same thing except instead of changing perspectives, change techniques. In this way, you can see how things relate to each other spatially, and from there you may have insights about how story parts relate spatially.”
Crystal goes on to explain that a suggestion she’d made on my dissertation novel (that I should try breaking up my opening sections into dispersed chunks separated by varying lengths of white space) “was, in part, born out of this type of exercise.” She was right, too–that technique helped me organize the opening bits and really nail down the disorientation of the character. Because it’s all about perspective, about seeing things from new angles or in new lights.
For the writing portion of my exercise this week, I adapted Crystal’s exercise to come at a character from multiple perspectives. This is a guy–and a story–I’d long struggled with, and I’d decided a while ago to try writing it from some perspective other than his own. This exercise gives me a chance to come at it from many perspectives at once, to develop an almost Cubist sense of three-dimensionality. It’s similar to an exercise Robert Flynn uses in his writing workshops (I took one of his summer workshops at West Texas A&M), and which led to my dual-perspective story “The Simple Things,” though you can find versions of the exercise in most writing guides: Write a story (or read an item in a newspaper), then pick someone who seems a minor character and tell the story from that perspective.
This particular exercise is also related to the use of negative space in drawing–defining something by what’s it’s not, shaping it out of what isn’t there–in that I’m trying to describe this character without ever getting into his head, but instead by looking at how others see him. This, too, is a fairly common writing exercise: describing things in terms of what they aren’t.