I'm going to do something I haven't done before: post some of my writing, but not a finished piece. I just finished John Gardener's The Art of Fiction a few days ago, and I've decided to do some of the exercises he provides at the end of the book. For example:
Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling...Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc.). Make sure the styles are radically different; otherwise, the exercise is wasted.
Well, I ran out of time to do five, but here's what I produced when I did this exercise last night.
Perrin pushed the tape. Nothing happened so he pushed it again; this time the woman's voice announced Stop requested. At the corner the bus slid to the curb and rolled to a halt. He threaded through the crowded aisle, ready to breathe the fresh spring air outside, and he lunged for the door. Before he made it his movement ceased to be under his control and, rushing forward, he hugged empty air. His toes had caught against something solid and unmoveable. He caught himself in midair by kicking forward his back foot and slamming it onto the aisle, which left a strange sharp pain in his sole.
He was hot and breathing hard but at least he hadn't fallen; that was important. He could breathe easy. It was over. Just keep walking and he'd soon be home, as usual, at three in the afternoon, with the sun still above his neighbor's rooftop and the TV news still some hours away.
Then he saw her face and it made him think something else had happened, that he had in fact fallen, or worse. She, this young white girl, was smiling! Her eyes clearly had been on him; they jerked away in an instant when he looked at her. He burned now under his coat, and hated himself for it. People tripped. It happened. Maybe it had been her foot that did it—no, she was too far, a few seats back. Well, fuck her. Some part of him was ashamed even for thinking those words but he was hot and to think them made him, not cooler, but it made the heat come from inside him rather than from without. Fuck her. That same part of him said that the way she'd looked away had been with remorse, that her eyes had jammed a sense of desparate apology into the split second their gaze was connected, but the rest of him said that did not matter because she laughed at him and he didn't care who was doing the laughing or why, it was obnoxious and rude, and fuck her again.
The black man, one of many on the bus, jammed his thumb against the yellow tape that lined the bus windows until the Stop Requested box illuminated and the automatic voice confirmed the request. He sat in his seat, looking out the window, until the bus came to a stop, and then he rose, picked his way out of his window seat past his neighbor, and started up the aisle. He passed Latino men and women, black men and women, an Asian woman, a white couple, a single white girl, more black women and men. He approached the door but before he could step out of it he tripped and wheeled forward, his arms flying up from his sides, and his head pitching down. His back foot reared up and landed its black leather shoe with a heavy clump on the rubber aisle flooring. The man jerked forward but he did not fall, and then he straightened up. A few passengers were watching him with blank expressions, and once he stood they turned to look out the window or back to their books and device. The white girl sitting on the bench between a Latino man and an Asian woman laughed. She had been watching him the entire time and when he stood up her mouth broke apart and a laugh came out. He at the same moment looked around behind him, and he saw her. She looked away and raised her hand to her mouth. He paused for a fraction of a second and then resume looking forward, and made his way out the door and down onto the sidewalk. She did not look at him again, and by the time he took his second step on the sidewalk, shoulders hunched, not a trace of a smile remained on her face.
I feel terrible about it. Absolutely awful. I'm a horrible human being, I've always known that, and tonight just confirmed it. Really, I don't know why Kayley or Rachel or anyone else is friends with me. Oh, I shouldn't be so hard on myself. It's little, really, in the scheme of things. But when you add up the little things, they add up to something bigger, don't they? That's the whole point of addition. And the bigger the product of that addition is, the worse a person I am, right? And what if it's far bigger than I think it is?
I laughed at a man who fell down. That's what I did. When I should have been, I don't know, offering to help him, or reading or doing something useful, I was laughing. What happened is this: I was riding the 42 home from Dupont, because I didn't want to walk all that way even though it was a nice night, starting to get warm again finally. I had had a beer with the girls. Two beers, and, well, three really, because I had most of Kayley's last one. She didn't want it and it seemed awful to let it go to waste, you know? I'm such a lightweight, and three made the sidewalks a little too narrow and the streetlights a bit too bright, and as soon as we stepped out onto the street, a bus was pulling into the stop just outside the lounge, like magic, a big red bus right on time just the way you'd wish it to be. So of course I hopped on. This is why it's great to live in a city! I took a seat—how lucky is that, that a seat was available?—and the next thing I remember is that this older man, a black man, I guess, with white hair, was trying to get off—but actually, that's not the next thing I remember. If it were I would have had to have blanked out during the ride, which I didn't do—three beers won't do that even to me—though I have been just exhausted lately, and I could easily have slept the entire ride. I didn't, though. No, I remember staring out the window, my eyes loose in my head, watching everything pass by, the stores and banks and restaurants scrolling from left to right, logos and signs and posters in the windows, and all the people, all different sizes and shapes and ages, were all going about their business, and it just seemed to me that the world, or at least this city on this sparkling night, with the fresh spring air breathing into the bus through the open windows up front, was a really beautiful place and that most of our problems aren't so big that we should spend as much time worrying over them as we do because that just makes them worse, sort of gives them power in a way, and—but I sound ridiculous now, don't I, saying the kind of thing an awful woman, or girl—because, really, that's still how I think of myself—would say after she did what I did, which was to laugh at this man when he got up to get off the bus and stumbled and almost fell. He could have hurt himself, and I laughed! Who does that? No one! No one normal. But I did. I don't know how they put up with me.
It was the expression on his face, how serious it looked, and then the way he flung his arms around. It reminded me of a chicken dance, with his eyes going wide at the same time, and it was such a silly way to move that it made me laugh. Of course he looked at me right then and I was so embarrassed and ashamed, even though the laugh was really in support of him, if you see what I mean, because I knew he was happy to have caught himself and I have felt just exactly that way, myself, many times and if only I could have said so, if only I could have communicated that to him—but here I am justifying myself. Which is what awful people must do to keep going on with their awful lives and their awful lies.
This bus is a lie. I'm home, practically. What's outside the windows or the woman sitting next to me or anyone else on the bus isn't real like home is real. And home is real. With my real vision I see the snack I'm going to eat as soon as get in the door, the chair I'm going to sit in when I prop my feet up and play those records I bought last weekend, and that I'll still be sitting in when the news tells me what today's inflicted on the world. This is what I see with my vision, not what's out those windows, people spending their money on $10 sandwiches and drinks with names and other such necessary things. It's Thursday and the vision is always strong on Thursdays.
I push the tape when we get close, and the driver lays on the brakes. I get my things together, pull my coat from under this woman's ass, one of these squat and heavy Spanish women who most of the time are very polite, but this one doesn't even notice she's sitting on my coat until jerk it away, and then I stand up. The bus is crowded the way it always is, even more than normal tonight, what with the crowds and all who were out at the bars and bright stores, and I got to step around this woman and pass her. I can see I'm going to have to deal with a fog of feet and bags and all the stuff people carry with them all over and back again. Deal with that but then I'm home for real, with a cold beer in my hand and a dish of salted almonds and nowhere to go till tomorrow.
So I step and tiptoe and get around these folks without hurting anybody, but just before I get to the door, things get stupid. A foot or a briefcase or a bag of damn bricks catches my foot like a trap and practically breaks my toes. You ever catch yourself from falling on a crowded bus? It's not easy, no sir. Like being running back for the Clerks all over again, all about pulling your limbs in and taking command of your balance, and maybe my arms and legs aren't finished yet because I do it, I stay in charge, standing up, and that's for real. What gets me, though, is that I look around to see what caught my foot and instead I see something else, something _un_real, this girl sitting in her little seat with her corn blonde hair all pulled tight on her head like it's holding her brains in, and she is laughing her face off, bright white teeth flashing and eyes tearing up. Now, what is necessary about that? She looks away which I understand because she is certainly ashamed, that much I know, but why she laughs in the first place, I am much less understanding of. Oh, she didn't mean anything by it, no sir. But if I were holding a fancy cup of coffee? If I had one of those big bags strapped across my shoulder and jeans like Seran wrap, would she be be laughing?
Do any of them come alive more than the others? I think so--I know which ones I like best. You may have noticed I made a mistake in keeping the setting the same. I wanted to correct that when I realized what I'd done, but being an exercise I'm not going to revise it. Also, it seems like an indicator of something--not having realized the scene well enough in my head, perhaps. A lesson. Anyway, I'm not sure whether this was a good idea or not, but hey.