Archive for small town

How I wrote “Front and Center”

When I was in high school and totaled my car at sixteen, my parents decided I should get a part-time job to help pay for a new car. I ended up waitressing at The Standard, a job I was terrible at. It never struck me as odd that a restaurant would be named “The Standard” as if that was the best they could hope for, and in retrospect, I’m not even sure if that was the name or just what everyone called it. Their only local competition was the country club which seemed to always be under new management, and the pizza place, which for some reason in my mind is connected to religious zealots. So maybe The Standard, or even the sub-standard, was enough to aspire to.

When I worked there I was often on shift with a short, sketchy guy who in memory was in his thirties but might have been as young as twenty-four. He had a moustache and tinted glasses, and while I can recognize now he was flirting with me, I didn’t know it at the time.

I started this story based on a writing exercise Ron Carlson did at the Sinclair Annual Writers’ Workshop. The assignment was to start a story with this line:

“The first time I heard (song title) by (artist) I was with (person – first, middle, last name) down/at/by/etc the (place) doing (action).”

The purpose here is momentum and authority–get enough interesting details and action together with enough authority based on the specifics and you’ve got a hook. The second part of the assignment was to pick a number between one and five, and based on your number, you had to write a very long sentence based on one of those fill-in-the-blanks. Pick #1 and you had to write about the song title; pick #2 and you had to write about the artist, etc. It was about “turning left” or not writing about what might be the most interesting hook, but something else to give yourself more momentum, more details, to keep building the story.

Carlson kept saying two things: you want sentences with enough momentum they give you the next sentence, and the goal is to survive the draft. If you set the bar at “I want to write a brilliant story” you’ll never get there.

Of course, none of this exercise made it in the story, although the song I choose was “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones, and when I had to write more about the song title I brought up the video with Mick Jagger and Bette Midler, and how watching that video made the character realize for the first time that unconventionally attractive people could be sexy, which may have led me back to the cook at The Standard. Regardless, that start gave me enough momentum to survive the draft, which might seem like a sub-standard goal, but is about all I ever ask of myself in the beginning.

“I was dancing in the dark with strangers / No love around me”

Do you remember how awful junior high dances were? The girls on one side of the room, boys on the other, some terrible anthem like “Eye of the Tiger” blasting through some shitty sound system, a cafeteria table set up next to the speaker covered in stale rice crispy treats someone’s mom had made?

Back in junior high, I had an incredible crush on this boy, Jay, who seemed hellbent on not acknowledging me. Then one night, at a junior high dance, he covered the expanse of the gym floor (in front of everybody!) and came over to ask me to dance. I linked my fingers around his neck and he put his palms on my sides, somehow keeping at least six inches between our torsos, and we rocked back and forth, foot to foot. The song was “Every Woman in the World” by Air Supply and I took this to be a sign–a sign Jay had waited for the perfect song, that he really did want me to be his every woman in the world. Was Shelly watching? Was Tonya? How about Lisa? Did Jay think my sides felt pudgy? I kept my mouth closed in case my breath was bad, or overly sweet form the bakery table where I’d spent a good amount of time, assuming I was invisible.

In my sophisticated mind it seemed that all of my thirteen years had been building to this, the moment when Jay and I would finally become a couple, Air Supply already leading off the mixed tape I knew he’d make me for our one-week anniversary. Had he been listening to the lyrics in his room at night? Did he own Air Supply’s Greatest Hits and have easy access to this song, or would he have to wait until it played on the radio and try to tape it himself, his finger perched on the “record” button for hours at a time. Did he like my dress? Had my hair stayed poofy or was it starting to deflate from all the sweating? Was Shelly catching this?

It was almost over, not a word spoken, when Jay finally looked at me and said, “Wow. This is a really long song.”

I’m sure this moment devastated me at the time, but for whatever reason it’s one of my favorites to tell my students, or really, anyone who will listen. I think it’s hilarious we were reading this moment so differently, and how disconnected both of us (or at least me, for sure) were from the actuality of the moment.

Think back in your life. What humiliating moment could you include in a story that both exposes your character for being not as sharp as she or he thinks, but that also gains them some sympathy? How can you use your writing to get back at people from junior high?

And Jay, for the record, that song is only three minutes and twenty-eight seconds. But you’re right, it felt like a lifetime.