Edit the Editor 40: Shake It
I am writing every day for 41 days for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, the writing workshop of which I am Board Chair. And I’m posting my writing here to give anyone who wishes a chance to edit the editor.
These are not necessarily full stories: they may be scenes, conversations, bits and pieces. All the work is absolutely new, and will often be quite raw. I’ll comment on my own process and ideas, and I hope you’ll comment too: what do you see that’s working, or not working? How would you fix this piece? What can you apply to your own writing? Is there anything you’d like me to comment on? Let’s talk about whatever you like.
You can read all the pieces and comments here. I hope you’ll find them interesting and useful.
Maybe it was the goddamn rain, or the guy next door with the relentless topiary sculpture impulse and the chainsaw; or maybe it was simply everyday life that was starting to get Danny down. He couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that he was on a treadmill, a little hamster going round and round. It made him want to roll over and go back to sleep, just say fuck it for once… But oh my god the Lawrence file deadline, was that today? And now he was already late.
Out on the street, he discovered his car boxed in by SUVs, bumper to bumper. He maneuvered out carefully, and took a deep breath, and launched himself into the mad rush of the commute. Everyone with day jobs will now please do the crazy chicken to get onto the expressway. Everyone on the expressway will now please immediately come to a stop and proceed to your destination one meter at a time. Thanks for playing our game! Enjoy your day!
He didn’t have time to stop for coffee, so he called his admin and begged. By the time he got to work, he was totally off schedule. He slung his briefcase in the corner and sat. The desk was a mess. Did Marshall even know how to file?
“Here’s your fix,” Marshall said. One ear was plugged into his iPod; the other earbud dangled down his shirt front, next to his tie. Tinny music leaked out as he leaned to put Danny’s grande non-fat fair-trade macchiato on the corner of the desk. Was that the Miami Sound Machine? Apparently, it was: Marshall plugged back in and did a little conga step out the office door. Must be nice to have nothing more to do than dance. Like filing.
He opened the Lawrence file. Jesus, what a giant spaghetti mess this meatball’s life was; everything turned upside down in a single bad-judgment moment of signing an employment contract without reading all the words. The document itself was a masterwork of convoluted language and parenthetical clauses, a solid one-way trip to Don’t look now, you’re fucked, and Joe Lawrence was just another schleb who had followed a boss cow into a chute and then gone white-eyed at the slaughterhouse door.
Deep breath. It was his job to help this guy. Dig in and figure it out. So he got to work. But then there was a crisis on the McCready filing and he had to do an emergency conference call. And then just as he got back into the zone on Lawrence, there was a fucking fire drill. Blaaat blaaat wroop wroop wroop. Effectively loud: he wanted to keep working but he couldn’t stand the noise, so he grabbed his coffee and headed for the stairs, and wow, he needed a caffeine blast right about now, and that’s when he found out the coffee was cold.
There was a garbage can by the stairway door. He ditched the latte. Marshall saw, and said, “I’ll get you another,” and they joined the throng funnelling into the stairwell and trotting down two by two, side by side, very orderly in the stairwells and then shifting and jostling as new people came in at the landing on each floor. The alarm racket made any conversation impossible, and the flashing red and white lights made it all seem more urgent. He was glad to get out into the parking lot, where there was more space.
When he got tired of standing, he opened his car doors and windows and sat in the driver’s seat. He put his hands on the wheel. Maybe he should just say fuck it after all. Get on the expressway and move with ease between lanes, because everyone with day jobs was jobbing. Text in his resignation from the airport while he was boarding for Guadelajara or Venice or Vegas. But then what? The fact was that he liked his house in spite of the chainsaw artist next door, and he liked his car, and he even liked his job saving dumb fuckers like Joe Lawrence from the axe. He didn’t want to be free of those things. He just didn’t like the feeling sometimes that he was in a chute.
Deep breath. Soon it would be time to go upstairs and make more documents for Marshall to not file. And here came the Dancing Queen himself with Danny’s latte, plugged into his iPod again.
Something inside Danny shook itself awake.
Danny said, “Give me that.” And when Marshall offered the coffee, Danny said, “No, that,” and pointed to the iPod.
He was conscious of Marshall staring as he found the song and plugged the player into his car system. And turned it up loud. Marshall’s eyebrows were in the stratosphere.
Danny said, “Come on, shake your body, baby.” And showed him how. Marshall grinned, and took hold, and did. People stared. People smiled. And people lined up and followed Danny, just like he was the boss cow leading them to greener pastures, and they did the conga around the parking lot until it was time to get back to work.
Kelley’s notes: I think this is the piece in which it’s easiest to see that the writing schedule is taking its toll, and so perhaps it’s useful to analyze what happens when the writer is too tired.
What happens to me is that the piece never achieves that final organic integration that makes it a true story experience. The sentences are fine: even when I’m tired, I can write an interesting sentence. And I’m experienced enough that I can write a lot of good sentences in a row, and create some emotional truth — put a reader into a moment of experience.
However, on a structural level, this piece needs a lot of work. There are too many metaphor systems competing for attention here: the cattle chute/being boxed in, dancing, putting out fires. They don’t really flow smoothly, and the ending moment with the conga line is, I think, a workable idea, but not yet properly executed. It’s not properly set up, and so doesn’t provide as satisfactory of a payoff. If I were to work on this piece, I would start by developing a couple more “office characters” that Danny could interact with, so that when he dances at the end we can better visualize actual people in a parking lot. I also would want to establish something about dancing early on that relates more directly to Danny: maybe he hates dancing, or maybe he embarrassed himself mightily on the dance floor last night with a date (a guy? a woman? maybe a guy…) and drank too much and overslept and now he’s late… (Actually, I am liking this idea!).
At any rate, the point is that the conga feels just a bit too random right now, a bit too contrived, and that’s because it’s not properly emotionally linked as an overall concept to Danny.
When I get tired, I start relying on my ability to create emotion: I think on some level I am hoping that if I just sell it hard enough, the reader will believe. Sadly, this is generally not good enough, and it shouldn’t be good enough for you. It’s not the reader’s job to create a plausible story: it’s the writer’s job. The beginning needs to resonate at the end; the end needs to be causally connected, both emotionally and by events, to the beginning. And it all needs to be important somehow to this particular character in this particular moment. Connections of event, feeling and choice — that’s the fabric of story. Neglect it, and the reader will know either consciously or unconsciously.
Posted by: Kelley