A Single Set of Circumstances

The first creative writing course I took in college used an early edition of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. After college, I returned to the book only occasionally. My stories were terrible but I kept writing , unguided. When I began teaching creative writing to high school students, I found the third edition of What If? and have used the prompts to draft and revise my own work since.

Here is one I love:

Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event or set of circumstances, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.

When I use this prompt in the classroom, we make a long list of situations. A year ago, a student offered

Three teenagers in a gas station

And I wrote five mini-stories. I titled each after towns I knew in Wisconsin. This week I zipped through a revision of each piece. I like the idea that a series of mini-stories could stand as a whole piece. My five are not strong enough to warrant that yet, but the point is: I’m practicing revision. And enjoying the practice!

Below, are two of the pieces. Read only the revisions or take a look at the drafts too, to see changes.

(Revision) The Pitstop
The joke is the whole town is a giant truckstop. North-south and east-west interchanges make a cross of cheap motels, gas stations and a Super Wal-mart. Mike, Jessie and Jennifer started hanging out at the Pitstop their freshman year. They made friends with Delores and Mary who called Mike, Jessie and Jennifer “young things” and made up for burnt coffee with complimentary pie. The five of them, and whichever trucker cared to weigh in, shot the shit.

At some point in the evening, Delores would step out for a cigarette and then let Mary have her turn. “This place was better when we could smoke,” Mary said. Delores coughed and pointed at the three young things. She said, “We’re saving their young lungs.” Mike said he liked a little gravel in the voice and the two waitresses laughed like it was the best joke they’d heard.

When Mike turned eighteen, he stopped at the Pitstop’s front counter, showed his license and bought a pack of Marlboros. At the back counter, when it was time for Delores to go have her smoke, Mike asked to join her. “You’re a baby,” Delores said. Mike shrugged. They stood in the damp alley next to a Dumpster. Delores offered her lighter and Mike sucked a lungful of smoke, coughed. Delores didn’t laugh or look away. When Mike quit coughing, he looked at her, his eyes watering, and said, “Don’t tell.” Delores took a long drag of her own, held it for a moment, exhaled in a slow stream. “Tell what?”

(Draft) Tomah, Wisconsin
The whole town is a giant truck stop. That’s the joke. North-south and east-west interchanges make a cross of cheap motels, gas stations and a Super Wal-mart. When they were freshmen, Mike, Jessie and Jennifer started hanging out at The Pitstop on Friday nights when the rest of the school was at a football or basketball game. They made friends with Delores and Mary who called Mike, Jessie and Jennifer “young things” and made up for burnt coffee with complimentary pie. The five of them, and whichever trucker cared to weigh in, shot the shit. At some point in the evening, Delores would step out for a cigarette, return to the counter and let Mary have her turn. “This place was better when we could smoke,” Mary said. Delores coughed and waved a hand at her friend and then pointed at the three young things, “We’re saving their young lungs.” Mike said he liked a little gravel in the voice and the two waitresses roared. When Mike turned eighteen, he met Jessie and Jennifer at the Pitstop; instead of walking through the gas station to the restaurant in back, Mike stopped at the front counter, took out his license and bought a pack of Marlboros. At the back counter, when it was time for Delores to go have her smoke, Mike stood and asked if he could join her. “You’re a baby,” Delores laughed and Mike shrugged. They stood in the damp alley next to a Dumpster. Delores offered her lighter and Mike sucked a lungful of smoke, coughed. Delores didn’t laugh or look away. When Mike quit coughing, he looked at her, his eyes watering, “Don’t tell.” Delores took a long drag of her own, held it for a moment, exhaled in a slow stream, “Tell what?”

(Revision) Ric’s Kwik Trip
It took a week for Mrs. Nefger to figure out what the three boys were doing. They showed up during the afternoon lull and walked up and down the aisles giggling, occasionally bending or kneeling and then standing quickly, glancing her way. She sat behind the counter flipping through a magazine or checking the tobacco inventory. Each day the boys stopped at the back cooler for neon Gatorades. The medium size cost $1.39.

One day Mrs. Nefger was helping a customer find baby wipes when she noticed the price stickers on the shelves. The thirty-nines were circled in green Sharpie. The next afternoon, when the boys were halfway down the chips aisle, Mrs. Nefger called from her perch, “Hey, you. What’s with the thirty-nines?” The trio froze, looked at one another, then at Mrs. Nefger. She said, “Yeah, I noticed. Is it some kinda pervert thing?” One of the boys blushed up to his white blonde hair, shook his head. “Then what is it?” she said, stepping down from the stool, leaning on the counter. The one wearing a hat pointed thumbs at the other two and said, “We’re all thirteen, that’s all. Adds up to thirty-nine. We call ourselves Thirty-Nine.”

Mrs. Nefger could have said that was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard, but didn’t. Instead she half smiled. “Better than the Three Musketeers.” The baby-faced one giggled. She said, “What are you gonna do when one of you turns fourteen?”

(Draft) Orfordville, Wisconsin
It took a week for Mrs. Nefger to figure out what the three boys were doing. Every afternoon they showed up at Ric’s Kwik Trip during the lull before commuters stopped for gas. The boys walked up and down the aisles giggling, occasionally bending or kneeling and standing quickly, glancing her way. She sat on stool behind the counter flipping through a magazine when she should be checking the tobacco inventory. Each day the boys stopped at the back cooler and picked neon colored Gatorades to drink on their walk home. The medium size cost $1.39. One day Mrs. Nefger was helping another customer find baby wipes when she noticed the price stickers on the shelves. The thirty-nines were circled in green Sharpie. The next afternoon, when the boys were halfway down the chip aisle, Mrs. Nefger called from her perch, “Hey. Yeah, you. What’s with the thirty-nines?” The trio froze, looked at one another, then at Mrs. Nefger. She said, “Yeah, I noticed. Is it some kinda pervert thing?” One of the boys blushed up to his white blonde hair, shook his head. “Then what is it?” she said, stepping down from the stool, leaning on the counter. The one wearing a hat pointed thumbs at the other two and said, “We’re all thirteen, that’s all. Adds up to thirty-nine. We call ourselves Thirty-Nine.” Mrs. Nefger could have said that was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard, but she didn’t. Instead she half smiled, “Better than the Three Musketeers, I guess.” The baby-faced one giggled. “What are you gonna do when one of you turns fourteen?” The three boys shrugged; one of them said they had awhile yet.

 

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