Christmas was different this year. For one thing, we celebrated it in two family occasions where we usually had one. The first was on Friday, a sit-down turkey dinner at my parents’ house with my immediate family and maternal grandparents, which amounted to twenty-one people, six of whom were children. The second was a soup-and-buns buffet-style lunch with the extended family, also at my parents’ house. The other big difference is that family gatherings are very much kid-centred now. Not that this is a new thing — my sister and my cousin had five kids between them last year (two of them infants) — but now my other two sisters also have kids of their own (one set of infant twins and one pair of step-kids-to-be), so the proportion of kids versus adults has greatly increased. For the last ten years or so, we’ve done Secret Santas or gift exchange games because almost everyone was old enough to buy gifts for each other, but this year, everyone brought gifts for the kids. The pendulum has swung back into the madness my siblings and cousins and I made when we were kids ourselves.
As a devoted aunt, I took it upon myself to serve as child-wrangler. Of course I was only one in an army of child-wranglers, and I was only willing to wrangle a subset of all possible children, but playing with the kids is one of the best parts of family gatherings, so I took full advantage of this duty while everyone else prepared food or washed dishes or had grown-up conversations.
I followed one-year-old Isabel around to make sure she didn’t climb up the stairs by herself or open a bottle of ginger ale or drink someone’s wine or eat any wrapping paper. I carried her around and hummed a song and rubbed her back when she showed signs of being sleepy, although this only ever led to a thirty-second power nap after which she gabbled at me, clearly thanking me for the rest but asking if she could please get down now so she can try the stairs again?
My greatest accomplishment this Christmas (other than the raw-egg-white-less eggnog!) was getting three-year-old Alexander to say a whole sentence. He knows a lot of words and will repeat what you say (when I say, “Hey, buddy!” to him, he says it right back to me. We’re good pals), but he doesn’t do sentences yet. So we were upstairs by ourselves in the spare room, where it was much quieter and cooler, playing a game that involved me dragging him across the bed by his legs and tickling him until he crawled away (a variation on an earlier game that involved me dragging him out from under a piece of furniture and throwing him onto the sofa, over and over again. My knees are still bruised from that). Every time he wanted me to do it again, I asked him to say, “Grab my legs.” (Completely by accident, it’s also a quote from Castle, although the associations might not be terribly appropriate.) At first he would only say any two of the three words, but finally he started saying the whole thing, following it each time with an enormous grin because he knew very well he was being cute.
The three-month-old twins are not yet of wrangling age (they’re getting close though; they’re not even scary to hold anymore), but I fed, burped, and put to sleep little Moriah. I was cool with not doing the same for Ethan because the last time I held him he threw up on me a lot. They look nothing like twins and less like aliens every time I see them. Ethan has gigantic eyes and makes the best crazy baby faces ever. Moriah is a little more chillax and has grown some impressively chubby cheeks. It’s hard to find something to say about these two because they are still at the eat/burp/sleep/diaper-change time of life, but I’m really looking forward to hearing what they think about the book of nursery rhyme comics I gave them for Christmas.
Yesterday I handed in my last assignment — a 10-page short story — for the creative writing class I took this past term. The story evolved throughout the course by means of various assignments — a plot summary, then a first page, then the first draft for workshop, and then a final version. For me, each of these things (except the first page) were completely different stories. So I’m going to talk about how I arrived at the final version.
I knew going into this class that writing a real short story, a story more developed than the little bizarre plotless globs of fiction that I usually write, was going to be hard. I had a lot of half-formed ideas, most of them based on characters I had been writing very short pieces about for the last year or so, but then it was really difficult to find a plot to put them into. I usually like writing characters within a setting, making something happen, and going from there. I’ve never been able to map something out first and then write to those specifications without hating it. By the same token, however, the short pieces I write are very ‘underdetermined,’ as the prof would say, so I knew I had to crack down and make something happen to these characters that a reader could get invested in, something that could be sustained over much longer than I was used to writing. The prof was big on the short story as a moment in time/space, a portrait, or a revelation, rather than a real story arc with character development, etc. that you would find in a novel. He didn’t want a story that really wanted to be a novel. (I broke that rule; my story does actually want to be a novel.)
So I figured out something of a plot for these characters (without actually trying to write any of it. Ha! That was my big problem right there) and wrote up a plot summary. But the prof’s response was that I was taking risks and there didn’t seem to be a ‘core moment’ or ‘central metaphor’. And he brought up that fatal question: what exactly is the point of the story? Ugh, I hate it when people ask that question. It makes me want to curl up in a ball and wait for death. What is the point of anything?
So I dropped my original plan outlined in the plot summary and wrote the first draft, retaining only one element of what I first planned to write. Without actually trying to describe it, the story took place in a vaguely futuristic urban setting wherein a team of professional something-or-anothers found out some bad-but-good news that resulted in their decision to go on the run from the law. The first draft is what was workshopped.
The workshops went like this: everyone was supposed to have read the story before class and have comments ready. (The prof said to give actual handwritten comments to each person after workshopping their story, but very few people actually did that. I printed out the stories and made extensive comments directly on the manuscript, but I don’t think anyone else did that. I received comments from three other people, when I had given comments on every single person’s story.) Someone, not the author, gave a brief summary of the story to help remind everyone what it was about, then everyone discussed the story for 10-20 minutes. The author was not allowed to say anything during the discussion but had a few minutes afterward to respond to the discussion if they wished. I will say that the vast majority the criticism in this class was remarkably constructive; we had good, thoughtful discussions and, as far as I could tell, very few hard feelings or resentment. I was expecting that to be a very difficult thing to achieve; people really put themselves out there when they write (especially since we did a lot of poetry), but everyone was very positive and kind while still being constructive.
When the class workshopped my first draft, almost all of the comments had to do with how they wanted to know more about what the professional something-or-another was exactly. There was a lot of intrigue and a sense of danger but it was too dreamy and mysterious and there weren’t enough concrete details to understand what was at stake or what all the intrigue was really about. I had make a few very vague references to the area of profession but gave no further details. It wasn’t really important to the plot, but it seemed to be important in order to understand the characters better. Also, no one came out and said it directly, but the story was too confusing. There was a parade and a circus, the first taking place in the present, starting and ending the story, and the second was a memory plunked into the middle of the story that kind of mirrored what was happening in the present. But there were too many commonalities between the two settings, and I think most people assumed that they were the same thing.
The prof made a comment right off the bat that for me really got to the heart of my problem. He often asked a few general questions to help get the discussion going, and regarding my story he asked whether it belonged to a specific genre. As I thought about it, I realized that I had been tilting toward genre but still trying to avoid it; I wanted a futuristic, dystopian setting without creating a world within which it would make sense; I wanted smart, intriguing characters invested in a profession I didn’t want to describe. So I needed to make some decisions.
So over two weeks I ended up writing some 20 pages of ideas about the world in which the story takes place — mostly about what was going on socially and politically, the implications of certain events I had made happen, what exactly my characters’ jobs were. I did some superficial research and picked some superficial details that I hoped would evoke a sense of what the world was like rather than having to describe it. I went through dozens of versions of the universe I was writing about and wondered how I could possibly write a story based in something that was so nebulous and tenuous inside my head. I simplified the plot, I toned down the exuberant settings, and pumped up the exposition. (This was all done much less methodically than it sounds.)
I took another week to rewrite the story almost completely, pulling my hair out and putting off decisions for as long as possible, like usual. When I was more or less happy enough with it, I let Scott read it (an hour before I was planning to hand it in). We had a productive discussion about the problems and I made a few changes before deciding I was done with it. I reached maximum saturation and was ready to hand it in.
I’m not anxious about the grade. There are so many different ways to write a story, and this class gave me an opportunity to create something I’ve never been good at creating — specific forms of writing that fall outside my comfort zone. It was a good exercise. But I still prefer to write bizarre little plotless globs of fiction.
anecdotal evidence supports questioning whether Scott did ANY of the driving
Scientific inquiry would find that I only drive when Scott is a) not in the car, b) intoxicated, c) too tired to keep his eyes open, or d) playing the ukulele. I was happy to display my driving chops finally on camera this year, except that the steering wheel blocks the view of my Kate Beaton and Captain Hammer t-shirts.