Day 15: Cracking Eggs & Writing Fears

The other day, my friend Michelle and I were having coffee at Java Joes, shooting the shit and talking–as we do–about the general nature of life.  Why is it, we wondered, that people get stuck?

We were talking about the nature of stagnation.  The person who stays in the job they hate even though it is sucking down their soul.  The person sleeping in the bedroom that reminds them of death.  The person in the unfulfilling relationship who stays because it is easy and safe.  Instance after instance, person after person, so many examples it is impossible to count.  Every person rutted.  Every person only moderately happy.

“This is my biggest fear,” I said.  And then, remembering my novel, I asked, “How does one get out of it?”

My novel, The View From Here, is told from the point of view of four different characters.  Each character is stuck in her own way.  Coincidentally, I’ve been spending the last two months working on the chapters for a character who is also named Michelle.  This is what I know about Michelle the character: She works a lot.  She travels a lot.  She is having an affair with a younger woman.  She is married to a very honest and good man named Jim.  She is unhappy.  I know that she and Jim will split (sorry for the spoiler), and though I’ve written many many drafts already, I’m still ironing out HOW this splitting will happen.  And so when I asked Michelle, “How do you get out of it?” I was trying to find an answer to the thing I’ve been struggling with for weeks.

Michelle, in true Michelle fashion, diverted the conversation.  She began talking about something else.  I brought her back.  “I mean it,” I say.  “How does this happen?  Do you know anyone who has gotten out?  Who’s changed their life for the better?”

Michelle shrugged.  She sipped coffee.  “Not really,” she said.

Dan Mueller, one of my teachers/mentors at UNM, likes to describe characters as eggs.  In a story, he says, there are many forces exerted upon a character.  Each one adds more and more pressure to that character’s shell until eventually, the pressure is too much, and the character cracks.

These are eggs from my community garden. They have very hard shells...

We may love our characters, but we want them to crack.  We need them to.  Otherwise, we don’t have a story.  Today, writers, try using the pressure of fear.  Let fear push your writing and your characters closer to that necessary edge.  And to get us there, here’s a writing exercise I snagged from Alice La Plante’s The Making of a Story.  I did this one with my English 321 class, and it is, perhaps, my favorite writing exercise ever.  I don’t have the book so this isn’t verbatim, but here is the gist of the exercise:

What’s behind the door of Room 101?

In George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-four, room 101 contained whatever a prisoner feared most.

  • First, take a character you are working with (or use yourself if you are writing Creative Nonfiction or Poetry), and imagine the character walking into his or her version of Room 101.  What does he/she see?  The key here is to stay specific.  Do not use abstractions (loneliness, anger, lust, etc).  Instead, render through concrete significant details (think of your five senses here.  We want to hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it, and see it).  Write for 10 minutes.
  • Then, for the next ten minutes, render a scene (or poem) in which the character encounters something that reminds him or her of this fear.  DO NOT mention the fear.

Good luck!

7 thoughts on “Day 15: Cracking Eggs & Writing Fears

  1. I got out. I got unstuck from my safe, predictable, boring life. I just realized that’s what my memoir is really about–how I managed to extract myself from the life I thought I wanted but didn’t. I can tell you this: it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fun. My whole life imploded. And I didn’t do it consciously, although maybe on some level I did. I’ll have to think about that.

    But I do know the act that pushed everything and everyone over the edge: after years of infertility, my ex-husband and I adopted a child. And then the egg cracking commenced….

      • Probably a bit of both. But the fact remains that for a long time I wanted to stay married even though it was becoming increasingly clear that my ex had a lot of issues and maybe wasn’t the best candidate for parenthood. And worse, I wasn’t terribly happy. But I stayed. Just like most people stay.

        And here’s something interesting that I just realized: I don’t think I figured out that I didn’t want that life until AFTER it imploded. I knew I was unhappy before, I knew I was getting close to my breaking point, but it wasn’t until Katie was born (and the shit started hitting the fan) that I really took a hard look at what was working for me and what was not.

        Even after I figured that out, family and friends (well, some friends) were telling me to stay. Those are probably the same people who now tell me I should have given my daughter back. Which for me would have been the biggest mistake of my life.

      • Yes, I’ve got plenty of story–ask Jenn! But I think I may have just discovered the situation. 🙂

  2. this may help me today… trying to remember/ imagine what made me stop doing the dumb things I had been doing and get back on track. What was it I feared? stagnation! Now, to imagine what that looked like, what was behind that door… and give myself credit for making the choice, that will make it a story…

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