Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Not Taking Short Cuts

I'm just returning from Wiscon and am on a writing spree. All I want to do is write - for hours and hours. I have to tell myself to stop so I can get all the other necessaries done. And then I don't listen and keep on writing over the growling of my stomach.

So, for me the conference was a success. The panels, the readings, the conversations about reading and writing all helped re-awaken those creative muscles. (Plus, it doesn't hurt that the semester is over and my reservoir of ideas isn't being tapped by planning classes.)

One of my "conference sparks" flashed during the writing workshop. I got good feedback on the story I'd submitted, but some of the conversation surrounding another participant's story has, so far, helped me the most.

In that workshop Kat Köhler offered her view that she's personally tired of reading stories about abused women. Because her comment wasn't in reference to my own story, I wasn't taking notes, but this is some of what I remember of her thinking: Abused-woman is a very common theme that has been overdone (making it seem as though this is what women have to accept as the reality of their future lives.) Also, it is often not done well because the healing from the abuse is too easy and/or unrealistic (quick fixes like finding a new partner.)

And I realized I'd done exactly that in the story I'm currently revising.

So, I thought I'd try something different to see what might happen to the story. And in the process of re-visioning, I realized that the abused-woman side-story (at least in my own story) was just a short cut, a cheat. I wanted a quick way to bond Cecily and Zamzam, and what better way (I thought) than to have Zamzam be instrumental in Cecily's getting away from an abusive boyfriend. It was all quick-quick, and no thought. Because woman-as-abused is a cliché, you feel as though you can just fall back on it without inviting or offering any real exploration. (And of course, when I say "you," I am really meaning "I"!)

Rather than offering a clear vision of a unique life or inviting the reader to think/feel deeply, that device, it seems to me, merely offers up to the reader an empty box. A place-holder. A throwaway. And it feels now that this might be the heart of the matter: who wants their words to be empty boxes? Writing isn't about taking the easy way out. That's the very opposite of creativity. Creativity is meant to offer something new to the world.

I've been having fun exploring how to rewrite the scene. I think it is better. I know I understand my characters better. I also know it became more personal: rather than using an empty box to stand in for real writing, I wrote out of my own experiences.

Here's a taste of the before:

Zamzam wasn't fooled by my lies about bumping into the cabinets. Twenty years younger than me, but twenty years wiser. She hauled me to the self-defense class she led for Somali women.  
I stood out, the only one in the room without a hijab. At first they kept their scarfs on because of me, but eventually they must have decided I was alright, and they'd take them off for the rough and tumble.  
It wasn't what I learned in that class that gave me what I needed to end that eight year on-off with Nicky. It was knowing I wouldn't be able to look into Zamzam's clean brown eyes if I ended up sporting another bruise. Nicky came at me for the last time and I crushed his cheekbone, put him in the hospital.  
Never saw him again. 
By the time he would've gotten out, the restraining orders were in place and we'd moved away.
And now that scene after the revision:
One evening when Nicky was out late with friends, Zamzam invited me for dinner. I remember we ate Somali tostadas that first night. Urbano in the kitchen making the flat bread they called canjeelo. It became a regular ritual: Urbano cooking, while Zamzam and I got in his way, picking at his ingredients, the two of us chattering away, laughing.
But Zamzam saw through the brightness of my smiles, my joking complaints about Nicky. She teased me years later that it was the way I watched her and her husband; always the scientist, compelled to explore the unknown.  
And I did watch Zamzam and Urbano. I noticed the way a smile would creep into her whole body whenever he entered the room, I took in how when he would put a hand on her hip or the small of her back, needing her to move out of the way of his chopping, and she would lose the train of her words. I heard the subtle vibrations in their voices as they so casually called to each other from across the apartment: Amor de me vida. Gacaliso. Amorcito. Habibi. I heeded those observations; the world was trying to tell me something. Being with them, that’s when I first saw a truer color of love. One that might flow between two people and fill a room, reeling anyone paying attention into its embrace. 
Thirty years younger than me, but forty years wiser, Zamzam hauled me to the yoga class she led for orthodox Somali women. I stood out, the only student without a hijab. At first they kept their scarfs on because of me, but eventually they must have decided I was alright, and they’d take them off for the vinyasas.   
It wasn’t really what I learned in that class that gave me the centering I needed to end that thirteen year on-off with Nicky. It was knowing I wouldn’t be able to look into Zamzam’s clean brown eyes if I explained one more time how Nicky was not so argumentative, was less dismissive when it was just the two of us. How things were good enough for me. Good enough for now. 
So I called it quits and I found myself gathered up into a more true family. The Telarañas: Zamzam, Urbano, and me. 
Some closing thoughts. Writing empty boxes is quick: they really are short cuts! The new version is much longer. And, as Mark nicely reminded me at Scribblerati's last critique session, even short stories need to be mindful of word count. I haven't really done that kind of trimming work since I started focusing on short stories.

May I find that balance between the real and the compact.


Qlaudie said...

Excellent! I love this!

Shawn Enderlin said...

That's an awesome improvement!

I don't think the problem was that you were saying she was abused, but like you said, that you were using it as a shortcut for real writing. A not so obvious but true example of showing us her character rather than telling us who she is through story.

Nicely done. :-)