Lit Lesson #26: Follow that Voice

Pg. 305
Afterthought # 5

In Sept, as we opened the first three weeks of the Studio in II, III, & IV (the longer-term immersion groups) we studied a chapter of the Saunders book that featured The Nose by Nikoli Gogol, 1936. I assigned a prompt from the Afterthought #5, and it was my own take on what Saunders was trying to show through his own example. He had followed a particular voice in his own writing, and in that same section wrote, “So, one way to get a story out of ‘the plane of its original conception’ is to try not to have a conception. To do this, we need a method. For me, that method is…’follow the voice.'” Later he wrote that there are many methods and each proceeds in a way that… “honors or helps her (the writer) pursue something about which she has strong opinions.” And later, he added that strong opinions includes being “delighted.” So, this was a tad confusing to me because, well, strong opinions don’t often connect with delight. Okay. Fine. Lets figure out why they might, I suggested in class and pondering this, I came up with a few lines of my own that “delighted me,” and that I also had “strong opinions” about and all the lines came from things my kids had said. I am delighted by my kid (what parent isn’t?) and I have strong opinions about their delightful-ness. And that’s what I had suggested in the Studio’s, find a line in your life, in your world, that arouses strong feelings and that you found delightful…and then “follow that voice” but I clearly made mud soup of the prompt because what came back was largely confusion. There were a few attempts and I believe Taylor S in SIV got it, but overall, I knew I needed to try again. So, here we go:

Scratch everything I’ve said about delight, and strong feelings, and go back to: Think of a line of dialogue someone has used, or you read, one that made you laugh, pissed you off, or just stuck in your head and turned around and around. Once you’ve got that line, write it down, and follow that particular voice, keep the energy contained in the line going by developing more lines that evolve into a story, or at least a scene, or a moment in time where something might be about to happen. Saunders has his own example but I wrote the following from the line Susan C. in SII, offered up from the movie Cool Hand Luke, to show what I mean…or what Saunders meant…or what I think he meant…oh hell, let’s just go to the example:

“What we have here, is a failure to communicate,” he said. “And a failure to communicate is a failure to regulate, to regurgitate, to relegate. You get me? You get my meaning?” 

The man stood before a group of silent men and women who stared up at him, blinking with those God-damned blank expressions that began his outburst. They were…this crowd of tech-types-behind-screens-all-damn-day like those zombies his kids were always going off about. They were un-dead and it was here that Frank decided something different need to happen, and right-damn-now because they were like kids, these people, adult-sized-children. Frank clapped his hands. “C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-E.” 

The people before him flinched with each clap of his hands and each loud letter he spoke. Good. We’re getting somewhere, he thought and turned to the white board, uncapped a think tipped black pen and wrote the same on the board. COMMUNICATE. Frank was one of those people who felt sure that if you spoke louder, if you wrote the words down for folks, it would sink in. The squeak of the pen on the board. The snap of the cap as he re-capped. The turning, slowly and with deliberation, to face them group once again.  

Front row, dead center, sat a puny man-baby with a goatee. Frank hated goatees. Grow a real beard, he wanted to bark at the wimpy guy in the striped shirt with a pocket protector…seriously? A f-ing pocket protector? No wonder this whole damn country was going to shit. Frank almost didn’t call on the man-baby-pocket-protector-wearing-idiot but none of the other zombies moved.

“Yeah. You. What?” Frank finally said, short and curt, and right off cursed himself for the “tone.” Impatience leads to helplessness and helplessness is not safe and a lack of safety leads to rage, that’s what Frank’s anger management coach had told him again and again. Pay attention to the pattern and you’ll find the source of this anger that’s trying to ruin your life. It was true. Frank was about to get fired if he didn’t tone it down and he needed this job, needed the insurance for his wife’s meds and doctor appointments and the full-time nurse…Always catch yourself, correct yourself, apologize when the anger fires out, his anger management coach advised. Right. Right, Frank said. “Sorry, man,” Frank said to the guy, starting again. “How can I help?”

Pocket-Protector’s hand went down and he opened his mouth filled with tiny teeth, baby teeth. He closed that mouth, opened it again, trying to speak…

Back to me, Jennifer, the teacher who wrote this example, which is pretty lame, but this is the general idea (I think? I hope?). As I wrote, I had no idea who Frank was, or why I picked the name “Frank,” or what this meeting was about, or anything. I ONLY built on the line Susan provided, and I even tried like hell to keep my experience of that movie out of my head and that actor, Strother Martin, who spoke the line as a punishing prison warden to the Paul Newman character of Luke. The only thing I devoted myself to was keeping the energy in Frank’s way of speaking, thinking, reacting, etc….

We’re done with this prompt, or trying to be done (but honestly, I don’t think we are done), so, if you find yourself intrigued, maybe try again. Rather than bring it into class, post here. Show me what you’ve got…

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