Short Story Workshop
Round 1: Workshop - Short Story: Excerpt 1
Each day this week we will be posting an anonymous excerpt from these five short stories currently being readied for this year's competition.
Both of my divorces had something in common. I was left both times with a large industrial roll of cling wrap. The first one in 1984. The second one in 2001. The first roll served as a testimony of my marriage to the father of my three girls. I think it finally ran out when I met my second husband in 1994. Ten years of the same greasy cardboard dispenser useless as the vows we took in 1974 with its twisted and bent sawtooth edge.
There was more than leftover plastic wrap from the second marriage - the devastating effects of betrayal for one. The stomach dropping discovery of adultery that stops dead the roller coaster of symptoms of a marriage decayed. How do you pick up the pieces of trust when your world is shattered? One shard at a time.
I enjoyed pressing buttons on typewriters and running my fingers through my grandmother Ruth's button drawer. I have her love of books, articles, and all things stationery. My house is an eclectic collection of things that remind me of her. Some of her stuff is in my possession. The china pig cream jug that my father gave her for a birthday present when he was little boy of six. The cabbage leaf salad bowl and tongs that once held Sunday dinner cole slaws. She nurtured the wounded and often tucked beaten women and frightened children between crisp white laundered sheets. I wish she was here to wrap me in flannel.
This excerpt comes near the beginning of an untitled story that recalls the narrator's marriages, abuse, betrayals and the specific friendship of grandmother Ruth. It is a 'reminiscence' piece: flashback told in an unadorned style with no action -the focus is on objects. The effect is supposed to be elegiac but it ends up being flattened out because there is no conflict, no dialogue, and no dynamic.
"Both of my divorces had something in common."That's a good line, and it could be the first sentence of the story. It plays with the idea of all divorces being unhappy in their own way. And even the Cling Wrap has a sense of play to it. In the midst of pain, there is still Cling Wrap. I want this tone to continue, but it doesn't. (The last sentence in the first paragraph is awkward and should be reworked, if kept.) We drop into the world of Grandmother Ruth's 'things.' The word things should go. Be more specific. You do this when you say that Grandma Ruth "tucked beaten women and frightened children between crisp white laundered sheets." Here we have a small window into her life, but elsewhere the sentiments are general and adoring.
The main character in this story is the narrator. Is she fateful, ironic, full of self-pity, angry? When you show her to us, do it through her actions, and through what she says. You mention that she has three daughters. We never see them, or hear from them. They must have been aware of the abuse, the life the narrator led.
There is a line halfway through the story, right after Grandmother Ruth dies:
"That was my first big loss."Not true. She's lost two husbands, herself, her daughters. Make sure you know who this character is, and how she thinks, and how she acts. Work on the first section, trying to find a consistent voice, and put her into a situation that is perhaps uncomfortable. Maybe show her in real time, talking to one of her daughters. Or fighting with a daughter. Or in a specific situation with Grandma Ruth. It won't work to simply rely on memory and flashback. We need more than that to shape our impressions of this woman, and to understand her. Read all excerpts from the Short Story Workshop with David Bergen »