No Ideas, But In Things

This exercise comes from 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. 3 AM Epiphany is one of many writing books I’ve browsed in bookstores or spotted on colleagues’ shelves but never bothered reading past a few flipped pages. But a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about teaching creative writing and he mentioned how much he loves this book, how great the exercises are for writers. He sounded like me talking about Writing Down The Bones or What If? Later that day I bought the book and found the first exercise I wanted to try.

No Ideas, But In Things

Write a very brief story told only in images – concrete, simple, visually efficient movements and details. This exercise does not ask you to eliminate people from your prose, just too watch what they do and what objects they crave and caress rather than what they say or think about these objects and actions. 300 words.

The book says more about the exercise itself but this was the direction I reread when beginning again. Two comments more, from the book: The phrase no ideas, but in things comes from William Carlos Williams, who firmly believed in presenting the world the way it looked… And: If you need an operating metaphor for this exercise , think in terms of a silent movie or the moments when a contemporary film truly uses visual storytelling.

This is a challenging exercise. I started with two separate images in my mind: a walk up a hill for coffee and a woman digging in dirt. But then I included the narrator’s thoughts. (Which fails the exercise). And then I blew the 300 word limit by a thousand. But go ahead and do the same, for the practice. Or try writing a few short-short, connected pieces.

Here is the yield.


Isaac walked up the hill for coffee. The walk up the hill was shadowed. On one side of the quiet street was a cement wall painted white and from the other side of the wall trees grew tall enough to shadow the street. On the wide sidewalk where he walked, smaller trees with smooth bark were planted in dirt squares bordered by red brick. The roots of these smooth bark trees were just beginning to lift slabs of sidewalk at a corner to catch the toe of a shoe, make a stutter step. Isaac walked up the hill for coffee and to think a little before returning to campus to pick up his grade twos from P.E. or art or music, one of the specials that gave him this moment to walk up the hill.

He went to a place called Zoo Coffee which served coffees and juices and sandwiches without meat. The barista knew enough English to spare him gestures. She would duck her head a little and turn to tamp espresso grounds, press buttons, add a pump of syrup. He would take his drink, sit at the long table near the front of the cafe. He would take out his phone and scroll through the news, reread an email he should reply to, like photos his sister posts. At two or three other tables, housewives or women his mother’s age sat with their cups and small plates of cake or rolls but he didn’t look at them, only knew  they were there. After ten or so minutes he would push back his chair, bow slightly at the barista who echoed his kamsahamnida. Then he walked back down the hill to campus to prepare his room for the next morning or do paperwork or discover where one of the students hid morning snack. At 2:13 he would pick up his grade twos for the very last part of the school day.

When he walked up the hill he might see an older man with a dog on a leash or a woman pushing a stroller or a man or woman walking with hands clasped at the back. He might not walk up the hill for coffee if the street was loud, if he had to cross a busy intersection, if he bumped into others.

One afternoon he saw an old Korean woman squatting  by a smooth bark tree, trailing a finger over the hardened dirt, around a root. The tree was the first on its block, at the bottom of the hill. Isaac neared the old woman, ready to bow a greeting, but the woman was intent at the pattern she made with the pads of her fingers, quiet waves radiating from the base of the tree. He continued up the hill. She was there when he walked down the hill, coffee in hand. She did not show she heard him walk by.

On Monday morning, after walking his class to art (walking feet, walking feet! Thank you), Isaac checked his phone for messages and emails, saw he had no meetings, nothing he couldn’t do in twenty minutes when he was back, and walked out the back gate, turned right to go up the hill. The old woman was at the fourth tree now, squatting nearest the curb. She must start the day at one side, he thought, and circle her way around the tree as the day goes. Again, the old woman did not look up as Isaac passed her on the way to Zoo Coffee or when he returned, caramel macchiato in hand. He stopped at the bottom of the hill before crossing and turned to watch her. He took a drink of coffee. It was  a little too sweet but he didn’t buy a caramel macchiato every day. Most days he filled his mug at a colleague’s ever brewing pot. He took another drink. The old woman reminded him of his mother or grandmother, both of them gardeners who didn’t squat but knelt at the soil, who spoke to the soil as this old woman was now doing. Isaac couldn’t hear any language sounds but the woman’s lips moved. She nodded agreement or affirmation.

On Tuesday Isaac was right. The old woman was at the fifth tree and on Wednesday, at the sixth tree. Her posture and attentiveness remained the same. Her clothes changed but Isaac wouldn’t have noticed if he were not now watching for this old woman. She wore patterned blouses and pants and this too reminded him of his mother and grandmother – as they wore endless combinations of black and gray, this woman seemed to have a closet composed of wildflower and rose prints. On Thursday the old woman was halfway up the hill at the seventh tree. On Friday she looked up as Isaac passed and said in English, Is here. She patted the dirt with her small palm, erased the waves she’d made. Isaac squatted next to her. What’s here, he asked. What is here? He pointed to the dirt. The old woman began to make waves again. Isaac felt a twinge in his knee. His thighs burned. He wondered how she squatted like that, hours a day he guessed, without her limbs going to needles. He asked again, What is here? but the old woman didn’t seem to hear and when she shifted her weight to move she didn’t look at Isaac to ask with her eyes that he move over too. He stood then, stepped back so the old woman could have her next place. He wiggled his toes to wake his calves, bowed his head in a farewell the old woman didn’t see and walked up the hill to order a caramel macchiato even though he was tired of caramel macchiatos.

He was surprised by the old woman’s English. He wondered if he imagined the English. If his brain reconstructed the old woman’s sounds into a word he could hear. He wanted to know her name. He opened a translation app on his phone, typed

my name is
what is your name

and practiced making his mouth and tongue fit the pronunciations. He looked up

what are you doing

and went to bed thinking of this old woman tending dirt, just drifting when he remembered to email his father in the morning to wish him a happy birthday.

The next day, Friday, Isaac wasn’t certain he would see the old woman. He had a team meeting in the morning and report card comments were due at the end of the day. He typed through lunch and his second prep, pausing only for refills from his colleague’s ever brewing pot. All day Isaac thought of the old woman, of the designs she drew in the dirt. He practiced his phrases in whispers. At the end of the day, a little jittery from a skipped lunch and the ever brewing coffee, he cut through the back gate to see if the old woman was still at the tree she would have been at all day. She was there. Isaac practiced his phrases. They jumbled on his lips. He slowed his steps, took out his phone, opened the app and typed

my name is Isaac

watched the Hangul characters appear. He looked up.

Her head was low on her breast, like her neck was the neck of a duck, able to bend, turn, tuck. She was still. For a moment Isaac thought she was sleeping. Her hands were at the dirt, fingers spread but curled at the knuckles like claws on a perch. The dirt was brushed, fanned, swiped away from the tree roots. There were divots in the packed earth. Pocks. It was then the old woman uncurled her fingers so her hands rested flat. Her nails were broken, peeled back, packed with dirt. She was bleeding. Isaac held his breath without knowing. His thumb moved and a woman’s voice intoned a string of syllables and his name. The old woman’s head swiveled. Isaac felt his empty lungs. She looked at him – she might have glared – and then looked away, but Isaac didn’t understand if she said anything to him in that moment she held his gaze, before her head was back at her breast.

Her shoulders lifted, ribs expanded with a full inhalation which she let go in a shudder. Isaac realized the old woman was crying. He took a breath as full as hers, slid his phone in his back pocket. He stood above this sad woman, wanting to say something but all he knew was hello, thank you and how to say shrimp when ordering kimbap.

Isaac bent a little at the waist, reached a hand to touch the old woman’s shoulder. He hesitated, fingertips hovering where his own shoulders tightened, and then she drew another giant breath so her shoulders rose to his fingertips and he kept his hand steady through her shuddering exhale. She didn’t flinch or turn stone or scoot away. He kept his hand steady on her warm shoulder where a tight cord tied to a delicate knob of bone and they stayed like that for a while until Isaac’s back pinched near the waist from leaning over this old woman, sorry for something he didn’t know.

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