A Writer’s Notebook: notes from a reading (the results so far)

So, as I promised last week, I’m attempting a draft of something based on notes I took at a literary reading here in PDX last week. And, thanks to a conversation in the comments with EJ Runyon, I decided to try the story about rearranging furniture.

She opened the door but it stopped on its chain. Her one eye blinked in the crack and she stammered through something about forgetting she’d latched it. The door closed, the chain danced against the wood, and then the door flew open so it blew back her silk robe. She was still dressed for work, ill-fitted tweed slacks and flowery blouse like a sack, but her mussed hair sprung from her head in strange limbs and shelves, and I could tell she’d taken her bra off, and she’d slipped this fluttering dragon-printed robe over her clothes as though this, somehow, constituted unwinding. Or maybe it was just a part of her, because when she waved me inside, the loose, fabricky flutter of her forearm-wrist-hand-fingers looked like it was part of the wind from the door, like the silky sleeve was dragging her thin arm with it.

“Come in can I get you some tea?” she said, all one sentence, and she was already through to the kitchen before I’d crossed the threshold. I told her no, that I was fine, and she came out of the kitchen, all one motion, like she’d just gone in to run a quick lap on her way to the living room. “Oh, good,” she said. “I’m not actually sure I have any tea.”

The long, narrow entryway had two balls of light, one a few paces past the kitchen and the other off at the end of the hall, both from small desk lamps dropped on the floor, their black cords snaking against the baseboards like a cat rubbing your leg. In that far ball of light on the floor, I could just make out the twin squares of empty doorways, both of which sifted into blackness as they rose, like the whole end of the hallway was filled with smoke that was trying hard to penetrate that little circle of light on the floor.

But Hope had already disappeared into the watery gray of a huge living room on the left, and I followed her.

The floor was tile but it might as well have been cement, the unpolished marble a grayish pink that sucked up all the thin yellow light slipping in through the narrow windows from the building across the street. The plaster walls were a muted yellow the reminded me of a sick dog’s urine. Our footsteps echoed. I felt like I was back in the warehouse; I half expected to find a forklift parked along the back wall next to the leather couch and the cardboard boxes.

“So, this is it,” she said. “I just bought the couch, but I’ve had the side tables for years.” She pointed to boxy wooden chests, one with an unlit lamp on it and the other piled with loose file folders and a paperback novel. “I still need to buy a coffee table. What size should I get? I have my eye on this great brass-and-glass thing, but I worry about breaking it and it doesn’t have much storage. And I don’t know if it’ll match my other stuff in here. What do you think?”

“Ma’am, I don’t know. I’m no decorator.”

“Not that everything has to match, of course. I’m not a slave to style. Form over function, right? No, wait, I have that backward, don’t I?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Well, anyway, I need a coffee table. What kind do you think I should get? What size would work best in here?”

Just about any damned size she wanted, really. She could have sawed the legs off a formal dining table and dropped it in front of the couch and the room still would have felt cavernous.

“I guess a bigger one would work,” I said. “Unless you wanted to use parts of this room for something else — you got plenty of space.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea! I could use part of it for an office. Not a real office, because I’m using one of the bedrooms for that, but I could set up a little laptop desk over here” — she ran away into a shadowy corner of the room, her phone hollow against the walls so it came to me like a long-distance phone call — “and a lamp, like a floor lamp, and a bookshelf. Oh, I’m so glad I asked you here! You have such good ideas!”

I nodded, for some reason, and I looked around the space, but I couldn’t even see her anymore in the dark.

I spent a long time thinking about this piece. I knew where the ideas were coming from, but I had no idea how to enter the story. Then I remembered that I didn’t have to enter the story — not from the beginning, anyway. I just needed to start getting words on paper. So I started with the one thing I knew, an experience I once had helping a relative stranger move her furniture, and just started writing.

Still, I hit a wall, and I knew it was because even while I was writing, my mind was leaping to other ideas, still thinking of other influences, still trying to figure out who these two people are and where they’re coming from and why they’re here.

I could have resorted to my mindfulness practice and tried to let go of all those competing voices, and ordinarily, that’s what I would do. But that practice can sometimes take a while, and I needed to get words on paper — for this post you’re reading now — on a deadline. So instead, I decided to use the excess mental energy and actually try to chase down all those competing thoughts in one space.

Which is where notecards come in handy. Or, because I love working on a computer: Scrivener.

I pixelated the names of some real-life inspirations.

This way, I can write little “notecards” about character backgrounds, inspirations, and ideas, and I can work on the text of the story itself, all in the same place. And later, when I need to collate these people and scenes and ideas into something like a coherent draft, I can pull them together, export them to a Word file, and keep writing and revising from there.

But I’m still a long way from coherence, let alone revision. I don’t even have any story here — it’s just this scene, and it’s all description and characterization, and I’ll probably throw most of this away. But I still think there’s a story in here somewhere. So, I write on!

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

4 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: notes from a reading (the results so far)

  1. Your approach is pretty much what I’d do. Write first. Think later.
    (I think that line came from Finding Forrester)
    But, what I mean is – Work from the inside out, a future rounds can work you towards filling in those edges for a fuller image of it all at the end.

    Good start, and great to see the Scrivener examples. You make me want to start up a new short story.
    Keep writing ✍

  2. Great beginning, I am hooked. Want to know what happens next and while I wonder already putting in my own thoughts about what is happening with the characters and the furniture. Love that you share your thought process of how you write. Do you do this with your students? I am wanting to write (actually started) my teacher story but finding it hard so thanks for some tips.

  3. Thanks for your personal marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author.
    I will be sure to bookmark your blog and may come back down the road.

    I want to encourage you to continue your great writing, have
    a nice weekend!

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