Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Anecdote Part I

“Did I ever tell you about the time we made that homeless guy drink bong water?” Adam asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, you have.”
“Fucked up. So, we took him home and we smoked up. I don't know where the gun came from.” He stood before me and held two fingers out in a gun pantomime. He lowered them to my forehead just above and between my eyes. “Drink it, Ted says to the guy. Drink it.”
“Let me guess, he drank it?”
“Yup,” he said with satisfaction. “Then the gun went off. Hit the ceiling and the bong water went all over my bed. It was like five o'clock too, and no one did anything.”
“Great story man,” I said. At least I think I said it the first time he told me the story.
When a writer leaves home and wanders into the world, or into daily life, it's prospecting time. When it comes to a writer noticing things, I think about Graham Greene's Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair, when he confronts the private investigator. I'm paraphrasing here, but Maurice says something to the affect: “I'm a writer,” this way he notices things.
But this ability to notice things whether it is the color of the sky, the sounds of rain, the looks on the faces of people waiting to cross the street is only one small facet of a writer's work.
Now, let's take Adam's anecdote of the gun, the bum and the bong water as an example. As writers, we can take his story for what it is, a story that is somewhat shocking, but that's about it. As Adam told me this story, more than once, I can't write it and leave it as it is and expect any great rewards as a writer.
In two of the writer's workshops I teach at Umbrella Factory, I ask my students to write a story using an anecdote that is not their own. I do this for a few reasons. The first reason is simply because we have all heard stories from others and some of those storytellers have impeccable memories for the events and details. Occasionally, these storytellers lack the memory of who (and how many times) they told the story to. Have you ever had a person in your life who tells you the same story so many times that you feel like you were practically there? As we sit down to record a story that someone told us, we can capture the voice of the teller, perhaps we can capture the vernacular, the body language and the general feeling. This anecdote exercise is great for voice and for character development.
Then comes the next choice. As writers of fiction, we must make the readers believe the story. With most anecdotes we tend toward a message or a moral or a system of events that make the audience feel a certain way.
Back to the bong water. Adam and I grew up together. He told me this story sometime in the fall of 1997, shortly after he returned to Denver from Seattle. Now, should I choose to craft a short story from the anecdote, I have unlimited possibilities. I could choose to focus on Adam and my relationship with him. The whole story could take place on a warm winter day on Denver's Auraria Campus which is where I worked at the time and he was attempting another go at college. This may be all right if I wanted a first person narrator and a simple reporting of events. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights comes to mind here. As you may remember the book, Mr. Lockwood is our narrator. Of course, he's telling us the story of Heathcliff and the Lintons with the information he gets through Nellie the housekeeper. In short, by the time Mr. Lockwood arrives on the scene most of the people in the story are already dead. So, is Mr. Lockwood the best choice of narrator? I think he is, but let's consider where he gets his information.
I digress, we were busy on campus on a sunny day in late 1997.
I think this may be a lousy setting for the bong water story. As a writer, I think the story would be more interesting in the Capital Hill apartment in Seattle, Washington and at the time it unfolded. So, I've now put myself, my writer self into the situation. As I begin my retelling of the story, I know that for fiction I should have a beginning, a middle and an end. When Adam told the anecdote, the beginning was on the street somewhere when he and his friends decided to go home and smoke pot. Then they pick up a bum who wants to smoke pot too. The middle is the group of them passing around the bong. The end is the gun to the bum's head and another character telling him to drink. The gun goes off, end of story. This needs some help. Although there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, the characters don't seem very interesting.
As a writer, I choose to begin the story on a Monday morning:

Guns, Bums and Bong Water
Adam stared at the bullet hole in the bedroom ceiling. Thankful for the century old concrete and the faded paranoia, he rolled over in the stiff sheets of his bed. On the night stand, the old Bell Systems phone stood tall, proud, erect. If his service was still on, he would call Jill, the brunette in Denver who used very diplomatic language as she broke his heart. She made the breakup his idea when it was anything but.
Adam stood at the window. Outside the wavy ancient glass he dreaded going out into the rainy Seattle day. Only very reluctantly he made his way through people and raindrops to his job at the sandwich shop.
“Good morning,” he said. He stood at the time clock in the small nook in the back room.
“Good weekend?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “You?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Do anything?”
“I bought new bed sheets,” he said.
“Oh, I love new sheets.”
“Too starchy.”
“You have to wash them,” she said. Sarah looked at the clipboard and the daily prep sheet on it.
“No change,” Adam said.
“For the laundry,” he added.
“Oh. Why would you buy new bed sheets anyway?”
“I think I'm going home to Denver.”
“Denver? Why?”
“The zenith of the sky is so beautiful there, so blue.”
“It's sunny there?” she asked.
“Everyday,” he said.
“Are you feeling all right today, did something happen?”
“It's the most fucked up thing, Sarah. I don't want to do it anymore,” he said. He tied the apron around his middle just below the navel. His head dropped, the chin to his chest. He didn't see her stare, but he could feel it. He dreaded crying in front of her.
“What's happened?” she asked. The concern in her voice felt more like the true definition of irony. She looked at her watch. 8:30. There was less than half an hour to be ready for the day.
“Me and Ted, well. Never mind.”
“Ted? Our Ted?”
“Yeah, after work on Friday night.”
“Did you go out?”
“Well, no. Not exactly.”
“Did his wife know?” Sarah asked. “She doesn't like him out all night.”
“We weren't out all night, he went home early.”
“By the looks of the place, it looks like you left here early too.”
“Sorry,” Adam said.
“Ted's the boss, he should know better.”
“Did you know he's Mr. NRA?”
“What?” Sarah asked. “What did you two do?”
The back door of the sandwich shop opened. The slow creaking of rusted hinges echoed through the prep room of the sandwich shop. “Come on, let's go,” Ted said in a gentle urging voice. “Hello?” he called into the room.
Sarah stood straight, the clipboard fell to her side. Adam stared first at Ted then at Michelle, Ted's daughter.
“What?” Ted said. “Bring your kid to work day today.”

Michelle played under tables as Adam gently pulled chairs off them and put them in their places. By opening time Michelle stayed well clear of the sandwich counter. The apron Ted tied around her looked more like a soiled burlap wedding dress than anything. Ted, too busy with his daughter and his business did not notice the severity of Adam's avoidance, or Sarah's concern. The general mood was quiet, busy.
Ted's daughter had more staying power for work than Ted. Sarah and Ted began to wind down their day shortly after the lunch rush. Sarah put on her raincoat and waited as Ted did the same. “I'll just stay with Adam for a minute,” she said.
“That's a good idea,” Ted said. “Come on Michelle,” Ted urged. He pulled the child by the wrist as they neared the door.
Once they were outside the building, Sarah shook her head. “It's shameful,” she said. She turned to face Adam in the prep room. There were no longer traces of any sandwich eaters to remain in the afternoon shop. “Don't you think it is Adam?”
“Yeah, to use your children like that,” she said. “Anyhow, what happened?”
“Well, after work we were out in the alley, you know throwing away the trash, when Ted practically steps on this bum. So, we start talking to him, and we're all about the pot and then Ted invites him to smoke some with us. Which is all good, but we didn't have any, all the pot we had was at my house. So, I invite him back there. It was going along just fine, we were listening to his stories and passing around the bong, and it was fine. Then, all of a sudden it was like Ted just cracked. “Drink the bong water, drink it,” he said. So when this bum refuses, Ted takes out this gun, puts it the guy's head and tells him to drink it, he's not going to ask again, and all that. It was so fucked up. I'm going back to Denver.”
“Wait, a gun? Why did you need new bed sheets Adam?”
“I'm not going to do this anymore, you know?” he said. “I can't work in the sandwich shop forever, I can't work for a guy like Ted, you know? Oh, no offense.”
“None taken. Why did you need new bedsheets.”
“Besides, I could go to school maybe get a good job, or a different one anyway. And I'm never touching pot again, do you know how paranoid I got after the gun went off?”
“The gun went off?”
“Oh, it was fucked up,” Adam said.
“As you were saying?”
“I was paranoid and after I kicked them out I went to get new sheets.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“No, Jesus, no. Ted started waving the thing around, it went off, into the ceiling, and it was like five o'clock too. We jumped up, the bong tipped over, and all that resin and shit, well, it ruined the sheets.”
“And now, you're going back to Denver.”
“Yes,” Adam said. “I don't want to be here anymore.”

The End

So, I don't know how well I stack up in the whole anecdote arena here, but it is a good exercise. It's a great way to get going, and it's a great writing workshop. I hope everyone out there gets to try it out.

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