was starting (trying to start) The Rope Eater, I did a series of simple,
but effective writing exercises with a friend. We sent each other sets
of 3 words (reckoning, waver, simple); the task was to write something--anything--that
used the three words in any way. It became an easy forum to play with
different characters, styles and settings. And something about balancing
the three words makes you pay attention and creates enough form to challenge
you to unearth something interesting. With nothing at stake, it also made
it easy to experiment.
a second exercise; again, the words are at the end.
2: Mr. Li's Guide to the Good Life
The walls flashed
red, then pink, red, then pink; then a pause of darkness and the cycle
began again. Mr. Li had paid the electricity bill this month, but he preferred
to rely on the red-pink flash. Next month he wouldn't pay.
He strained his eyes to read, but the pause of darkness left him time
to gather, to think about the lines he read, a pulse of thought to gather,
and then a blare again to see if he had seen what he thought. It was slow,
this stopping and starting, stopping and starting, constantly returning
to the words he had just read as his eye struggled to find its place on
the page and he oriented himself, connected thought to line, the space
of a long breath, and again, red, pink. Black.
It was the world, he thought, the red-pink light, jarring and jazzy, invading
with its inhuman relentlessness and forcing him to adjust to it; then
the retreat of the world, like the tide falling and a moment of blissful
quiet, a settling, then the inhuman jerk into life again.
In response to this rhythm, his thoughts never settled. Each broke, like
a wave, and retreated, and the next built on its remains. Each left a
layer, a little, overlapping layer, uneven, and these accreted, layer
on layer, forming a rolling, roiling landscape where nothing could be
fixed, but washed on and washed over. There were so many beginnings and
so many ends; sometimes in the darkness, an old beginning would well up,
and he would remember its shadowy path, trace it again for a few steps,
then jar back into the lines before him, retreat and skip ahead again.
One night, the light was out. It was, in all probability, simply the construction
on the street below--he strained at the window to see them far below,
like ants moving in the beating rain.
He settled in his chair, with the lights out, and held the book in his
hands. He liked the darkness now, the peace of it, the soft edgelessness
of the world. He passed his fingers over the spine, the fraying binding,
over a page as if he were reading. He breathed slowly and deeply and let
the endless beginnings and endings wash up and over him, let them rise
and fade and let himself sink in among them in the darkness.
At first it was a peaceful feeling--to slide out inot the darkness, sinking
into washing waves of past lines and past thoughts, returning to shadowy
thoughts that he had never had the chance to pursue; he turned now down
these paths, took another few wandering steps, then fell back into the
darkness. The world of his mind seemed so rich and full--all of these
beginnings, these paths, a lifetime of steps to take, an endless sea for
But as he wandered, he began to feel uneasy. Those paths he had became
wavering and indistinct, dissolving under his feet like sand in water.
All the beginnings took on the air of sameness, endless variations of
the same path, endless ends the same in the darkness. He could not tell
where he himself ended, where in the landscape he had gone, could go.
He began to panic as he felt himself dissolving into the dissolving landscape.
Now he rushed frantically around in his mind, grasping after the disappearing
paths, fighting to hang onto one path, one thought, one end and one beginning,
but they eluded him. He began to feel accused by the darkness, menaced
by it, challenged to show himself and deny his dissolution.
He started from the chair, his heart pounding, letting the book crash
to the floor. He groped his way to the wall and fell on the light switch.
He sighed gratefully and flipped it. Nothing. There must be no power in
the entire building, no light anywhere. He sagged back against the wall,
let his eyes slide shut and open and only felt the difference. The darkness
After a long moment, he groped his way to the desk and sat heavily. He
could feel the room unmooring around him, starting to spin and stretch;
he gripped the edge of the desk in terror, reassured by its hardness;
a point of mooring. In the darkness, he reached into his drawer and found
there a pen and some paper. He laid the paper on the desk, smoothing it
with his fingers, touching the edges, trying to align it with his hands,
and to align himself behind it. He straightened and took a breath. Then,
taking the pen, he measured a margin carefully with his fingers; he did
not write, but paused, the tip of the pen resting slightly on the paper.
He knew he could not let it rest for too long, or the ink would flow out
and stain the paper; he could not lift it, or he might lose the margin
in the darkness.
He wrote slowly and deliberately, trying to trace out the letters in his
head. He gripped the pen tightly; he wanted to keep the margin straight
with his other hand, but he knew he would smear the ink, so he did not.
Slowly, barely breathing, he wrote out across the top of the page: MR.
LI'S GUIDE TO THE GOOD LIFE. At the end of the line he slumped back, exhausted
with the effort of keeping his focus in the darkness. He kept his finger
at the end of the line, so he could find his place again. He did not want
to write too much; it was too hard to keep the lines in order. He needed
to be concise, to be essential. He gathered himself and began again, measuring
the distance carefully, trying not to smear the ink, trying not to stray
from the line, not to let his thoughts wander, not to let himself dissolve
in the darkness.
He decided a list would be best, no more than four. Four would be all
he could stand, his hands starting to ache from gripping the pen. He began
again and wrote a word, two, then paused, pen on paper. he was not sure
that this was what he wanted to say; the pen was resting; he could feel
the ink leaking out into the darkness, a spreading stain on the paper.
he began to write again, still unsure, but afraid of the leaking ink.
He wrote and wrote, discovering his thoughts as he wrote, losing them,
catching up to them again. He paused at the end of every line and tried
to recall what he had done. He did not want to repeat himself, did not
want to miss anything, skip anything. He could not remember.
He paused a long time and started again slowly. This time was better;
he remembered some of the previous line, and had a clearer sight of his
thought. he wrote more quickly, excitement building, and rushed, line
on line, two three four five another and then another, finding more to
say as he said it. He began to worry about having enough room on his page.
He slowed, and felt the rush of his thoughts subside. He paused. Yes,
surely that would be enough, One more to finish and that would do. Eight
in all, a good number. He sat back and let the pen slide from his fingers.
He let the darkness slide around himself, like a blanket, let it envelop
him, and he let his eyes close, feeling the slide of the lids in the darkness.
The words: smear,
pursue, waver (and, you can see, I was reading a LOT of Beckett...)
#1: brittle, lick, sparkle
Team Fiction with Brian Hall: La Morte D'Ina
Melanie and Peter