Thursday, December 13, 2007

Writing with Rules

As a writer, I know one thing—writing isn’t very fun. I would rather clean my toilet or snack myself into a coma than write something more taxing than an email.

I’ve started to think that I’m going about this in the wrong way.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with my friend, Molly, about my condition. Molly is a poet living in Maine. She butchers animals on the side, so I consider her an expert on fun.

Molly proposed an exercise. We would come up with a list of requirements to follow in a short piece of writing. She insisted that we generate this list immediately and share our efforts in ten days time.

Molly’s first pronouncement: We must use one noun as a verb.

I know, she’s a nerd, but I decided to play along.

“We must use one infix,” I declared.

Actually, I couldn’t remember the word infix, so I had to search for it on the Internet. It refers to the rare grammatical occasion when one word is inserted inside of another. The only example I could think of was abso-fucking-lutely. Try putting that into a poem.

A day before the exercise was due, I sat down and wrote something. What I discovered wasn’t profound—nothing makes writing fun, but a deadline and some structure help.

That first effort was a little raw, but I’d like to share a subsequent exercise that I did with my friend Edan, a fiction writer living in Los Angeles. The procedure was the same, but we settled on a few less requirements. I’ll include them below the text.



Pork sausage kisses skillet and I wake up. The smell of frying fat spills into frosted sugar cookie air. I roll across the sleeper sofa for my long underwear in the duffle bag on the floor. My cousins, Kayla and Michael, watch from the kitchen table. It’s nine o’clock and they’re eating candy. I pull on jogging pants, a hooded sweatshirt, a hat and gloves.

“Want a Jolly Rancher?” Kayla asks.

“What flavor?” I ask.

“Persimmon,” she says.

“Bullshit. That’s peach,” Michael says.

Aunt Ruby crosses the living room with an armful of gifts, followed by a gust of cold air and Sally, the inside dog.

“Sleep good?” Ruby asks.

“Yeah.” I double knot my laces. “I’m going for a run.”

“There’s a frozen bird out there,” she says and struggles into the den.

Grandma sets a coffee cake on the table.

“No more candy,” she says. “You gonna eat, Ryan?”

“I’ll eat after.”

“Your mom and dad went to the cemetery, but I told them not to wake you.”

She closes the candy bag with a rubber band and smoothes down Michael’s hair.

“That’s fine,” I say.

I hit the door. The cold punches out my first breath. Spot, the outside dog, hobbles from behind the garage. He follows me to the road, where his invisible leg tells him not to go.

The tire ruts run to the trees at the edge of my grandparents’ property. They sold most of their land after a rolling tractor killed Uncle Jim, the only son, besides Denis, who would've wanted it.

“Melissa Etheridge died,” Uncle Denis once said.

We’d been taking shots at a soda can propped on a fence post. He sipped his beer and I watched him.

“Really?” I asked.

I didn’t listen to her music, but I felt regret. I could remember one of her songs. Come to my window. Crawl inside. Wait by the light of the moon.

“They found her face down in Ricki Lake,” he said and fired his twenty-two.

The dead oak is out of reach. I’ll just run to exhaustion and turn around. In the summer, there would be soybeans on either side. Now the ground looks like it’s been broken up with an axe. My lips are chapped and the sweat on my neck helps the cold find its grip.

Dad’s SUV crosses the creek bridge. I try to run quickly, but my knees aren’t bending right.

I imagine our drive home on Christmas Day. My sister will want to hear the story of how my parents almost bought a farm after they got married, almost changing the course of our lives, and how the loan fell through. Mom will tell it. I’ll look at the freckles on Dad’s hands as he concentrates on the drive.

“You’re crazy!” Mom yells out the passenger window.

“Want a ride back?” Dad asks.

“No,” I say, just loud enough to be heard.

The ice snaps under their tires. I run for heat, but it whips away in the wind.

At the crossroads a half-mile from the house, I turn west. The sky or the ground smells like diesel. The sun is diffuse. A cross stands in the field, twenty yards from the road. There are teddy bears tied to it, wrapped in plastic bags.

This is where a woman was dumped last year. Her family put up a memorial—the fake flowers and wreathes, the photos covered with cellophane. A man had given her a ride from one of the bars and stabbed her, or something. I cross the field, wondering when I will step on the spot where she died.

We loved you for the most ordinary things that you did and for loving us for our ordinary things and for being perfect just as you were.

That’s what one of the notes should say, but there aren’t any notes. I wipe the frost off her name and run home.


1. Persimmon should appear in the text.
2. There should be one proper noun, aside from any characters' names.
3. A character should wonder about something in the future.
4. Someone should alter his/her physical surroundings.
5. There should be a run on sentence.
6. There should be one joke.


Molly said...

Ryan, thanks for not announcing to the world that I've missed our appointed deadline by approximately fifty days. Thanks for still calling me your friend.

joni said...

Ryan, you should use a very different word that isn't one normally used to help educate your readers, as well as entertain...such as perendinate something Molly appears to be good at...or my personal favorite and one that coincides with the way I look at life... kalopsia or a creepy word like the way - why did you wait until we left STL to move into the 'hood?

Edan said...

Shame on you, Molly! Now the only way to make up for your lateness is to post your efforts as a comment, so that we can all glory in your genius.

Biased Mom said...

I'm laughing!It's great you're surrounded by creative, encouaging friends. You've geared me up for a return to Carrollton- looking for the sugar high!

The Scott Blog said...

i think i met you last night. you're blog was on lori's blogroll.

whenever i need inspiration writing (which is often), i usually start writing out my reaction to an episode of one of my favorite shows. once i start writing about, let's say "roseanne," then that usually leads to a topic that might just be something worth reading.

of course the piece of work that transpires sometimes leaves the reader asking themselves, "didn't i just see that on nick at nite?"

Dad said...

Ah, Carrollton. Can wait to get there; can't wait to leave. But hey, it was a good basis for a nice story. Nice job, SonnyBoy!

Anonymous said...

I gota sense that bald eagles should be flying somewhere...