So, as I was perusing the bargain racks at my local bookstore and saw this baby for only 3.99, I thought I might have something in common with the main character.
(picture of cover links to author's blog)
Arabella Hicks is (just like me) a wannabe novelist struggling with her text (although she, poor thing, has been struggling for seven years and I just wrangled with mine for two before completely giving up on the thing) (don't know which is more pathetic, really). She is a freelance editor, but also (here comes the like-Kir part of the book) teaches a creative writing class. Arabella, though, teaches an adult ed class. Her collection of students is quite a mixed bag. A couple nut jobs, a guy fascinated with porn, another guy who won't stop asking "craft questions," a pill popping suburbian mom, and a closet transvestite. Oh, and an older guy who dresses fabulously--and who spends most of the class period hitting on her. I don't usually have such an eclectic collection in my classroom.
Arabella juggles her time between classes with the work she hates and visits with her mother, which she hates almost as much. Arabella had to put her mother in a nursing home, and she has recently become quite frail. But Vera's frailty doesn't stop her from putting Arabella in her place. And of course, Arabella struggles with the guilt she feels for not caring for her mother at home.
It's a quick read, and I enjoyed Arabella's lessons and lectures immensely. The stuff about her mother felt a bit whiny, though, and there were times Arabella just lost all my sympathy. She floundered through her life most of the time, never able to figure out what she wanted and how she was going to get it. She knew she wasn't happy, but she couldn't figure out why. But instead of bending her brain to that issue, she just complained about it.
Here's something I found, though, on page 52 that spoke so clearly to how and why I teach:
Arabella's mom was asking her why she teaches and whether it really is possible to teach someone to write.
"It's not so much about teaching them the craft of writing," Arabella says, "because they could probably figure that out from reading a book...It's about creating an environment in which they think they can write. That's the secret of a writing class. A good teacher makes her students feel secure enough to write their stories."
Exactly. So, students of writing, here are some exercises for you straight from Arabella's class.
1) Make a list of your five obsessions. Now write a few paragraphs about one of them.
2) Think of a person from history who intrigues you. Write a description of that person eating a meal. What would he eat? How would he eat? Who would eat with him? What would they say?
3) A boat sinks during a storm, and only ten of its passengers make it onto the lifeboat. One by one the survivors are knocked off until, after a month at sea, only two survivors are left. There is not enough food for both of them, and one of them is going to have to get rid of the other. One of them is a teenage girl who is very strong for her age, but she is blind. The other is a musician from a successful boys' band. He is twenty-six years old and smaller than the girl. Who will survive? Write the final scene.
4) Think about a family gathering: a holiday, a birthday, a funeral. Write about that gathering in the first person from the point of view of a child.
5) Write about a place that was important to you growing up, but don't put people in it. Just describe it as though you were painting a picture with words.
6) Two people are having a conversation. It can be any two people you want, but this is the first line of dialogue: "Kiss me."
7) Imagine a moment of crisis: someone shooting a bullet into you, someone about to be hung, someone going under anesthesia, someone falling in love at first sight across a crowded room. Write a few paragraphs describing the crisis, trying to expand time as you write so that the moment becomes as tense as possible.
8) Choose a novel or short story that you like and try to discover its theme. How does the author get the theme across? Title? Plot? Names of characters?
9) This is an exercise in learning to find creative solutions or how to write yourself out of a corner. There is a man sitting in a tree, and he is wearing a tutu. What happened?
Try one of these exercises, and let me know how it turns out.
Exercises taken from Breen, Susan. The Fiction Class. New York: Plume, 2008.