Mannequin Monday. A day to dress the blank page. To fill the empty screen. To chip away at the block of stone. To shape the blob of clay.
The mannequin’s purpose is to be draped by the dresser. Blank media exists for the artist. Let’s fill and shape, let’s make art, with our words, our visions, our hands.
Every week I will post a story I have read, a bit of discussion on the story, another reference to a podcast, article, or interview, and then an excerpt from my current writing. The outline will mimic the structure of several online fiction courses I have taken with the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I hope you may find inspiration here.
1. This Week’s Reading:
Narrative magazine – “Befriended” by Shaily Menon
A simple act of befriending a young boy has consequences for a scientist ten to twelve years later. The scientist tracks a group of monkeys in a rainforest in India, studying their eating habits. She goes out into the jungle daily from her base camp, always accompanied by her tracker. One morning, as a drenching rain soaks the jungle, the tracker refuses to go out with the scientist. She ventures out alone. What drives her is the motto of grad students – “Give us data or give us death.” She finds a boy of about nine or ten following her in the forest. They strike up a limited conversation. She does not speak Tamil. Nor he English. Over time he often follows her as she tracks the monkeys.
When her project is complete and she is returning home, the boy begs to go with her. She agrees to bring him to stay with her parents for one year, to educate him and provide a service to her parents. After a year he returns to his own family. All go on with their lives.
Ten years later the boy, now around nineteen, calls the scientist out of the blue. They talk briefly. Again, they lose touch for several more years. Another call. The young man’s father is in need of cardiac surgery. The scientist makes arrangements for money to be wired to help with the medical expense.
I won’t reveal the ending.
The story is told from the scientist’s first person point of view, speaking to the young man. You followed me. You spent a year with my parents. You returned home. You called me. Thank you for calling. So good to hear you are well.
We never hear the scientist’s name. Or the boy’s. It’s a conversation between two people. No need for names. A story devoid of description. She is not talking to us, the readers. She speaks to him. Directly.
3. This Week’s Podcast/Interview:
Several years ago I posted on my blog Creating Story about urban underground photographer Steve Duncan. Duncan has spent years exploring and photographing urban underground arteries that include New York City’s subway and sewer tunnels, as well as the Paris and London underground.
Duncan was afraid of the dark.
In a 2010 interview in Columbia Magazine, Duncan said, “I figured if I could venture alone into this dark and terrifying tunnel, I could be proud of myself. There was the sense that if I didn’t push through with it, I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye.”
What a great metaphor for writing. Afraid of the dark. Moving into the underground. Pushing through. And looking yourself in the eye when done.
4. My Current Writing:
Steve Duncan has inspired part of Tessa Warren’s brother Ryder’s psyche. In my upcoming Surfrider, Tessa talks to Kelsey, one of Ryder’s friends from film school. Here’s a draft of the conversation:
Kelsey thought for a moment. “It’s all about story.”
“Film. It’s story. Storytelling.”
“If I know you, you’ve watched Ryder’s films many times.”
Tessa smiled. “Hundreds.”
“Do you recall the one he shot in the New York subway tunnels?”
“Sure. One of my favorites.”
“What was the story?”
“The conversation with the woman who lived in the tunnel. The one who had lived there for years.”
“That’s the story everyone sees.”
“What else is there?”
“What you don’t know. What you should be able to sense.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Ryder was terrified in those tunnels.”
“Oh yeah. He grew up out here in LA. Wide open. Light. Breezy. Lots of sun and space. Most of your houses don’t even have basements, right?”
Tessa nodded. Where was this going?
“New York is a great city, don’t get me wrong. I grew up there. I was used to the dark side. Basements, alleys, subway tunnels, tunnels under the rivers. Blackouts. Ryder didn’t know that.”
“But he lived there for four years.”
“He did. But he would never walk through an alley. Never walk down a narrow street or a dark street. He would walk around it. He was never comfortable with the subway. He often walked where he had to go. Sometimes preferred a bus.”
“But he did that movie.”
“That’s my point. If you watch that film closely, you realize first that of course he himself is not on screen. What you don’t see is what he is feeling.”
“He went down into those tunnels alone. In every case he was trespassing. It’s illegal to be in there. He started out talking to homeless people up on the streets. The ones in the bus and railroad terminals. The ones who slept outdoors over the sidewalk steam grates.”
“The woman he talked to in the tunnel…he met her up on the street. He worked on building trust with her. Would bring her coffee. Talk to her. She told him, you want do a story, come see where I live. Where a lot of us live.”
“And he did?”
“He followed her into the tunnels. The blackness. She had no flashlight. She knew the way. Told him not to use a light. He followed her in the pitch black. For a long way. Where she lived is an isolated part of the subway system. She would not let him turn on his camera light till they reached her alcove, hidden in a maze of tunnels.”
Tessa shivered involuntarily.
“I talked to him later when he came back. He was filthy. He was shaking. He took a long shower. We sat and talked about it. He had been terrified. He had to face his own fears. Face down his terror.”
Tessa thought of the film she had watched so many times. Began to sense the tremor in his voice as he spoke with the homeless woman. Began to imagine the blackness beyond the camera light.
“The story, Tessa, is deeper than what you see. There is an art there. Ryder was a telling a story, sure. A story of the homeless woman. But there was the story of him getting the footage. The story of facing up to fear. Confronting oneself.”