I am in Maine to begin my MFA program. I arrived a couple days early to shift my body to east coast time. Yesterday I walked downtown and sat to write.
When I return to Korea I am covering a maternity leave. One of the classes I’ll teach is creative writing – I’ve missed teaching this course and had fun planning. One of the books I pulled material from is Writing Alone & With Others by Pat Schneider, and yesterday I practiced the following exercise from memory. Which means I didn’t do the exercise exactly.
Take a small bit of writing – a page or so – from your journal. Or write a straight narrative account of something that happened to you. (Give yourself only five or seven minutes to do this, and write fast, without editing).
When you have finished, put it aside, and without looking at it, begin again to write the same narrative. Do not look back! Allow yourself to say exactly the same words if they come to you, or to change it in any way you wish. After a bit, introduce into the narrative an object that was not there in the first draft, and that was not there in your memory. Make it completely imagined. Go on writing the narrative for a bit, and then introduce a character (again, completely imagined) that wasn’t there, and give him or her a significant place in the narrative.
This is fun – and for many people it simply magically erases the big problem of how to break out of literal memory into imagined scenes and characters.
I wrote for a couple of hours. What I did was quick write the narrative. One block page. Then I rewrote this narrative twice, introducing a new object in the second telling, and playing with dynamic between the two characters in the third. The point is to get comfortable pulling from life, turning fiction. Successive rewrites are a constraint too, pressing your creativity to work with your immediate imagination – one, two, three – rather than giving space between drafts. Successive rewrites are also a challenge to keep yourself interested as you write. I like the way I finally describe the salt rimed sidewalk, and the subtle (uncomfortable) conflict of the third draft.
Try this by way of Schneider’s original exercise, or with my accidental modification.
I am walking down the street when I see a man with a beard step to the middle of the sidewalk. He is holding a piece of cardboard with faint lettering and he sees me looking. He looks at me and looks away, looks at me. Can you help a homeless man? he asks. There is another man behind me who walks around but I stop and ask if he’d like a coffee. Yes, I would, he says. His voice is a little garbled, like he is talking around a bite. I am on my way to another shop. Can you give me ten minutes? I ask. He says he can wait. I go off, jogging a little to make my errand quick and when I return, coming up the hill, I don’t see him. Then I hear him ask, Can you help a homeless man? And there he is on the other side of the street. A woman walks around him. Hey! I call to him, Do you still want your coffee? He sees me, lifts a hand, smiles. We walk the block to Starbucks. I ask why he is homeless and he tells me he and his father had a falling out ten months ago. Do you have friends you can stay with? No? He is from Portland though. That makes me wonder about an addiction, if his disease has caused rifts. You stay at a shelter? Yeah, I stay at a shelter. You want to come in for coffee? He tells me he will wait outside. It’s cold. You sure? I ask what he wants. A dark roast. Cream and sugar. Why don’t you come on in? He agrees, to get the coffee but not to sit. He needs cash. He wants to be back on the sidewalk. I am about to order when he asks why the coffee, do I not have cash? I look at him. A dollar would be cheaper than learning a little about this man. I say I want to give him something to enjoy. I think hot coffee on a cold day sounds good. And no, I don’t have much cash. He nods. He doesn’t want anything to eat. I give him his coffee to fix, he says thank you. And then he goes while I sit here and write this.
The day is bright and cold. The brick sidewalks are clear from the last storm, all the snow piled at the curb, iced miniature mountain ranges. Salt residue like white chalk on the red bricks. When I turn a corner a wind gust cuts through my coat. Ahead of me a young man with a dark beard steps into the middle of the sidewalk. He’s holding a small cardboard sign with faint lettering and as I approach we look at each other. He looks away and then at me again, then away. Can you help a homeless man? he asks. He could be asking anyone, leaning forward as at the edge of a stage asking an audience to believe, come along.
He is asking anyone.
The man behind me goes around when I stop. The dark haired man wears a knit cap and a down jacket. He is missing a tooth. Do you want a coffee? I ask.
Okay, what kind?
Cream and sugar.
I am on an errand. I have a letter to mail. Can you wait ten minutes and I’ll come back, we can get a coffee?
Yeah, he says, Yeah, I can do that.
I jog to make the errand quick. I wonder if he believes I will come back. But I do, after I have bought a stamp to post my letter, and as I jog up the hill I hear him in a stage voice: Can you help a homeless man? He is on the other side of the street now and three women walk by him like water slipping around a rock. Hey, I call, You still want a coffee? He turns, lifts a hand, smiles.
We walk up the block to a Starbucks. Do you want anything to eat?
He thinks for a moment. No, I’m good.
So why are you homeless?
I had a falling out with my dad, he tells me. That was ten months ago.
Are you from Portland?
Do you have friends you can stay with?
No. But he had friends once. He stays at a shelter.
We are at the corner where a man is registering voters. He already asked me when I walked by alone, but he does not ask the dark bearded man with me now. I ask, Do you want to come in? He looks down the street of boutiques and pedestrians.
I need cash, he says, I can come in for coffee but I got to get back out.
Sure. We go inside. I am about to order his dark roast when he asks if I have cash. Why coffee? he wants to know. It’s cold. I want you to have something to enjoy. He nods. I don’t have much cash, I say, but when I unzip my bag to take out my card there is a five and a few ones. He is over my shoulder. I complete the order, hand him his dark roast and watch as he adds cream and sugar.
Thank you, he says.
You’re welcome. I think about giving him the cash too. But I don’t. I wait for my latte and then I sit facing the window, watching people walk by smiling and unsmiling. I say at the window spot long enough that the cafe is no longer warm to me and each time the door opens it is like that wind gust at the corner.
The day is bright and cold. The red brick sidewalk is rimed with salt melt. Snowbanks like miniature mountain ranges at the curb. At each corner a new gust of wind cuts through my wool jacket. I promised a postcard, but need a stamp. I am walking to the post office when I see the dark bearded man half a block ahead step into the center of the sidewalk. He leans forward, speaks as from a stage. Can you help a homeless man? His voice is loud and garbled, like he should swallow a bite before talking. His eyes move from me to the man behind me, to me again. I step aside to let the man behind pass. The homeless man holds a small cardboard sign lettered in pencil. Do you want a coffee? I ask.
Yeah, he says, Yeah.
What do you like?
Dark roast. Cream and sugar.
Alright. Can you wait ten minutes? I got a quick errand.
Yeah, he says, Yeah, I can do that.
Okay. I’ll come back. Then I introduce myself. He is Tim.
I jog the five blocks to the post office, buy a stamp, mail the postcard. I wonder if Tim expects me to return at all. I jog back and see him on the other side of the street. Can you help a homeless man? he asks three women who move past him like water around a rock. Hey! I call and Tim turns, raises a hand, smiles. You still want a coffee? He crosses the street and we walk toward the Starbucks.
We talk side by side. I look over at him. He wears a knit cap and down coat. He is missing a tooth. I want to know why he is homeless and he tells me he had a falling out with this dad. That was ten months ago.
Are you from Portland?
Do you have friends to stay with?
Tim is quiet for a moment. He says no. He stays at a shelter. He needs cash.
At the corner a man with a clipboard asks if we are registered to vote. I’m not from here, I say, and Tim echoes that he isn’t from here either. He holds the door for me. At the counter I am about to order when Tim asks why coffee, do I have no cash? I turn. I don’t have cash, I say, I thought a coffee would be nice. It’s cold. Tim nods. I gesture to a table but he shakes his head no. We are on a street of boutiques, pedestrians on their lunch hour.
One grande dark roast to go, I tell the barista, And one grande latte for here. Tim is at my shoulder when I open my bag and we both look at the five and ones I move aside to find my card. I watch Tim add cream and sugar. Before he goes he says thank you and I think about giving him the cash but I don’t. You’re welcome, I say. I take a seat by the window and when he leaves it is like the wind gust at a corner. When he passes by he raises the paper cup, a thin stream of steam trailing, and smiles like he’s made a toast.