I mainly use two books for my writing exercises. One of them, as I’ve mentioned before, is Room To Write by Bonnie Goldberg, which I’ve had for years. The other is Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway, a textbook I kept after finishing my Intro to Creative Writing class.
As I flip through the pages, I try to pick an exercise at random & do it, just to see what spontaneity brings. However, I often find myself moving back & forth through the exercises, trying to pick one that actually appeals to me.
Create a scene from an overheard piece of dialogue. Hmm, maybe on a different day. Study a picture and write a piece on the action occurring in it. What are the motivations of the people depicted? How do they relate to one another? No, too involved. Using Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants as an example, write a story that focuses on what isn’t said. Whatever, screw Hemingway.
While I was scanning these exercises the other day, one caught my eye; it mentioned the short story “The Lady, Or the Tiger?”. Which reminded me of an assignment I had done back in middle school, where the teacher read us the story & asked us to write an ending. I clearly remember writing a few brief but action-packed paragraphs where the lowly suitor opens the door the princess points to & is mauled to death by the tiger that emerges. I’m sure I used my most gore-tastic language to describe the scene. But, my immature sense of “poetic justice” wasn’t satiated. I had the princess kill herself as well, throwing herself off a parapet & leaving behind the briefest & most poignant of suicide notes: I loved him.
I laughed as I remembered all of this & started to wonder how I had decided on such a melodramatic ending. I figured it must have been because of the little I knew, at the time, of love, impulse, action & consequence. I mean, what were my references then? Myths, fairy tales, fantasy novels, Romeo & Juliet (they never felt this way I bet): all works whose profundity I had misunderstood in various ways.
It wasn’t until I actually went back & reread the story that I realized just how much the author guides the reader to such a response. His language is rendered in the high, faux-flowery tone of fairy tales. His very descriptions of “exuberant and barbaric fancy”, “an ardor that had enough of barbarism in it to make it exceedingly warm and strong”, and “the devious mazes of passion” leave you little room to imagine anything than some violently passionate ending. At the very least, the author insists that the ending must end either way, involving the lady or the tiger. & the rebellious streak in me asks who’s to say it must?
Either way, the point of the story lies in its ability to continue beyond the words that are written & challenges us not only to imagine how, but to see if there is some bit of trickery in what is presented. Despite the traps our author has set for us readers, he has also committed his story to the world & to the contentious people in it, who will change, bend & reinterpret the rules at their will in order to gain the ending they want. Which leads us to this week’s scrap.