I had a really interesting experience the other day in class, and I’ve been debating with myself as to whether or not to share it here. Given our current national debate about guns and violence, it feels like one of those hot topics that I tend to veer away from. You know how it is, in fiction conflict is EVERYTHING, but in life, I have lots of company in the avoidance category.
So I have this assignment that my young students just love. Even the older ones tend to like it. It begins as a setting exercise. I tell the students to take out their notebooks and do a “here and now” (as Priscilla Long calls it), jotting down everything they observe about our classroom. Sometimes, when I remember, I have a candy bar for the student who comes up with the longest list.
The next step is to write a scene using ONLY what turned up in the setting exercise. That’s your stage set, I tell them. It’s all you have. No bombs or Uzi’s in your bookbags. In this scene, they have to kill someone. “Can we save someone,” a student asked me this time around. I liked that. “Yes.”
Vampires sometimes turn up in the scene. More often, the flat-screen TVs fall off the walls. People are bludgeoned with Rockstar cans, choked with scarves, tossed out windows, stabbed with pens. Once, a student was stabbed by the clock hands. (The writer hadn’t put anything else vaguely weapon-like on stage.)
We read all of the scenes out loud (they get only 5 to 7 minutes to write it), and who knows why we all have such a good time. There must be some catharsis going on. We laugh. Everyone is better friends afterward.
The reason I’ve been wanting to tell you about it, is because this time around, for the first time ever, several students killed me. For the first time ever, I killed myself!
In my morning writing time I’ve been carrying on a series of dialogues (David Morrell suggests this in The Successful Novelist) and one of the issues that keeps coming up for me is a need to get myself — or my ego, I guess — out of the way. I think, really, that I’ve just been given a clear signal that this is the right work for me to be doing. Who am I? Who is the real me? What does she need? If she had permission to act, to confront whatever conflict, what would she do? In truth, we can say we avoid conflict all we want, but it’s here all around us all the time, not just in our stories.
As I walked out of class, I felt lighter than I had in days.