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No. 9 - Exercises in Fiction
I Need to Exercise Some More
Howdy, people. Welcome to another Friday with Practice Space! We’ll soon be celebrating our 10th issue, and I’ve gotta admit I never thought I’d get to say this. Looking back over all of this writing, all of this constant, anxiety-filled but ultimately thrilling publishing, I’m feeling really grateful. Right now, writing comes easily to me, and the fact that I’ve been able to consistently put out this newsletter is a testament to that. But the reality is that sometimes writing feels like a struggle. Fortunately, I’ve found strategies to help me get through those cloudy times and enjoy it again, and among these, one of my favourites is to take a writing course. Let’s talk about this for a minute.
I’m a sucker for good writing courses. I love the vibe, the dozens (or hundreds) of pupils primed to capture every morsel of wisdom escaping their enthusiastic teachers’ mouths, everyone eager to learn and connect, and the overall super positive and encouraging atmosphere. Writing is hard business, as scribblers throughout history have been quick to inform unsuspecting and often uninterested friends and family, so it’s great to spend some time with other people of your ilk in a space accommodating of controlled commiseration.
I have taken around half a dozen courses in the years since I started writing seriously. That may not sound like much, but it amounts to around two courses per year. And every year since 2020, I have attended a class offered by leading literary magazine One Story. At this point, it’s tradition.
I usually take writing courses when I can’t write, in order to get the ball rolling. And mostly, it works, even if not right away. I was going through a bout of writer’s block in August 2020, when I attended Write a Short Story with Hana Tinti, and during that period I wrote my first published story. The autumn of 2021, when I booked a place for Crafting Your Writing Life with Ann Napolitano, I’d just been admitted to the Bar, and in the aftermath of a period of intensive study, I was, you guessed it, writer’s blocked. I wrote a few short stories which I haven’t published, but the course with Ann was a much-needed pick-me-up, one I think back on quite a bit, and it got me through the toughest period of creative drought I’ve ever faced.
In the summer of 2022, I attended an edition of Write with One Story. It’s a generative writing course, which is what drew me to it, because I was dealing with…writer’s block. I’m getting boring, aren’t I?
A generative writing course, in One Story’s vision, means that for seven days straight, seven different writers guide you through various writing exercises they’ve found useful, and the outcome of the week should be to have a new short story almost ready for publication, or fragments of a few new stories you can continue to work on.
I did not publish anything I wrote during this course, but looking back on it now, I see I came up with some pretty decent stuff. At the time, I didn’t think so. I was overly critical of myself, which left me feeling uninspired and demotivated, and I’m certain this contributed to my getting stuck. The causes of a creative block are different from person to person, and many artists don’t even believe it exists. From my experience, writer’s block is a plague, and often the combined result of emotional exhaustion, perfectionism, and/or not reading enough.
I want to share two little stories (or perhaps it’s more apt to call them vignettes), which I wrote during Write with One Story, lightly edited for consistency. They had no titles, and I have elected to keep them that way and let them speak for themselves. But maybe, after reading through them, you have some suggestions for potential titles. If so, don’t hesitate to drop them in the comments section below. I’d love to read them!
The one on the right is my mom. She was mugged and killed one year ago today. Her sisters grieved for her in their own ways, but most were too busy to come down to Kyoto for the funeral. Naoko came, though; she always cared very much for these things. She’d changed, in all the years we hadn’t seen each other. She’s ten years older than me, and she’d never shown her age before, but she did now. She smoked, and she had a fresh cluster of tattoos around her left shoulder. Concentric circles of text written in Kanji, which I still haven’t learned to read, surrounding a simple drawing of a dog and a cat playing chase. She seemed so struck by Mom’s death, even more than I was. I suppose that’s not so surprising, since Mom practically raised her for a while. She moved in with us in college, then left town for a time, “to pursue a business opportunity”, as she’d announced, but she’d been seeing a man, an older divorcee who smelled like trouble and old boots, and we knew she must have gone with him. She came back for a while after things went sour, and now she makes her living writing poetry for an obscure Tokyo newspaper. We kept in touch after the funeral. She’s the only one in my mother’s family still available to me; another of the sisters, the second oldest, is dead, and the remaining one I’ve never met. And of the four of them, Naoko looks the most like my mother, now that she cut her hair short. That’s why sometimes when she phones I let myself imagine that it’s her, that Mom never left, that she’s just living a different life. Her voice is different, sure—my mother never smoked—but I can overlook that.
Carter knew he should brush his teeth first. But he hadn’t slept so well last night, and the bee-like hum of the electric toothbrush was the last thing he wanted to hear right now. He tapped the button that said “Welcome” and the shower tube’s glass door slid open. He stepped inside and chose the one minute cycle, the only one available, which for some occult reason you were supposed to select anew each morning. The glass door closed and the shower tube began to whirr. And it whirred. And whirred. And then a blast of hot water hit him from all angles, making him yelp. He hated this fucking shower tube. He couldn’t even take a decent shower anymore—a long, lazy shower, with drops of lukewarm water spilling from his long-gone brown curls onto his toes, where he could think about life. Everything these days had to be efficient. The countdown in his head reached 58, then 59, then a minute.
But the aquatic assault didn’t cease. Water was firing from every direction, for five seconds, turning ten, and then Carter knew it wasn’t going to stop. He tried to control his breathing like they taught him in training, but still the water got into his nostrils and he choked. None of the buttons worked. Was this how he was going to die? A war raging on outside the compound and a fucking shower was going to do him in? God, he missed Earth. He missed his mother. He kept pressing buttons, and now was shouting after his roommate, “Help! Drew! Help!”, but he was probably unintelligible since he was also swallowing water. He felt dizzy and wanted to sit on the floor, but there was no space. His head bumped against the glass and he slid down anyway. The water was scalding; he could barely breathe; and nobody heard him. Nobody was coming to his rescue. It had already been five minutes.
The last thing he heard before everything went dark was another whirr.
Revisiting these writing exercises makes me nostalgic. Maybe it’s time to take another writing course. After all, I’ve got nothing booked for this year, and one can always use a little reminder of the fundamentals.
As well, I can’t help but notice a few funny parallels between these stories and my life.
My grandmother’s younger sister (who’s also my godmother) looks almost exactly like her, so much so that, from a distance, people they are not intimately acquainted with often can’t tell them apart. They act baffled whenever it happens, but secretly I think they find it pretty funny.
And I too. Hate. Brushing my teeth in the morning. I still haven’t reached the stage of Spartan badassery of taking a shower with unbrushed teeth (and I may never do so, since I consider it kind of sacrilegious), but I have reverted back to a regular toothbrush because I couldn’t stand the onomatopoeia my electric Oral-B brush used to make.
I only noticed these things when I started writing this post, and maybe they’re just coincidences. Or perhaps there’s something to be said about the weird way our brain repurposes our lives, our memories and thoughts, as material to fill its need to come up with stories. I dunno.
All I know is I had fun, and I need to do more writing exercises.
Maybe a bit more living, too.
P.S. This issue was only meant to touch upon the topic of writer’s block. It’s a heavy, sensitive topic, and one could write (and many people have written) much more about it. I’ll likely return to it multiple times in the future and explore it further, because writing about it helps me understand it better. I hope my musings on the subject will be of some help to my fellow creatives struggling against this blight.
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