Three Words

When I 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.

Here's a second exercise; again, the words are at the end.

Exercise 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 swimming in.

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 was total.

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...)


Previous Selections:

Exercise #1: brittle, lick, sparkle

Tag Team Fiction with Brian Hall: La Morte D'Ina

The 22nd March

For Melanie and Peter