Writing workshop exercises, parts I-III
by Sam Kriss
Prompt: Write a passage in which the narrator watches another character handle something. While your narrator does not try to interpret the actions of the watched character, the way that character deals with the object economically gives information that is essential to our impression of him or her
Execution: Steal a character from a Jean-Luc Godard film
“I don’t like your photography.”
Veronique wasn’t looking at me; she was rolling a cigarette, a look of perfect absorption on her face, the filter poking from the corner of her mouth. The paper was spread out on a book in her lap; the table between us was still damp with that morning’s rain.
“You don’t like my photography?”
“No. I don’t like it.”
“That’s the first thing you could think of?”
“So what if it is? You have this way of taking photographs. You line up the camera with the object. You make sure it stands out against the background. You fiddle about with the shutter speed and the aperture for a bit. Then you open the shutter. I don’t like it.” She started crumbling tobacco into the paper.
“That’s how you’re supposed to take photos,” I said.
“Supposed to, supposed to. I don’t care about supposed to! Everything you take has all these straight lines and symmetry. There’s nothing of you in it. You see something and you reproduce it exactly. Technically it’s very good. But you turn it into a science. It’s not art.” She tucked the edge of the paper under the filter, licked along the top, and rolled it up in a single fluid motion. She could roll better than any machine: her cigarette was perfectly cylindrical, the tobacco evenly distributed, its surface mathematically smooth. There was a half-smoked cigarette still giving off faint wisps of smoke in the ashtray. She didn’t seem to notice it as she lit hers.
“What else?” I said.
Veronique took a long, hungry draw. “You read too much fiction,” she said. “It’s indulgent.”
“It’s indulgent. What was that phrase you had? The untransfigured suffering of man. How is that not indulgent? You just like to wallow in your own disaffection.”
She set down her cigarette on the ashtray to take a sip of wine.
“I don’t like your line on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,” she said. “It’s revisionist.” She started to roll another cigarette.
“Taraki asked them-”
“I know Taraki asked for intervention!” she said. “It doesn’t matter. The people of Afghanistan didn’t. They knew the Soviet Union was just another imperialist power by then.” Again she brought her half-rolled cigarette up to her lips, brushed them against one edge, and rolled it up. “I don’t like the fact that when you want to meet up we do, but when I want to meet up you’re sometimes busy,” she said, lighting it. “I cancel my plans for you. It’s an expression of male privilege.”
“You enable it,” I said.
She leant her cigarette against the ashtray to knock softly on the table. “I know. You should criticise me for it.”
“Maybe I will.”
“You should. What else? I don’t like the fact that you hardly ever drink. And you only ever smoke when you’re drinking.”
“Why not? Drinking and smoking isn’t productive.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re right. I just don’t like it. It’s puritan, isn’t it?” She started to roll another cigarette. “I don’t like the fact that you grow a beard for a couple of days and then shave it off. I don’t like it when we’re in bed and you don’t let me know when you’re about to come. I don’t like the way you treat everything we do like a hobby. As if it’s not important.”
Veronique finished rolling her cigarette. For the first time she seemed to notice the neat little row of half-smoked cigarettes on the ashtray. She smiled. “OK,” she said, softly. “You do me now.”
Prompt: Try to locate a narrator’s voice that is fluid, uninhibited, connected to breath, natural cadence, with an automatic sense of what’s important. Look closely at ordinary events or behaviours and write about them in close detail. Develop this voice until it begins to focus on an event, person, or image that seems damaging, upsetting, or scalding.
Execution: Write as a psychopath.
In sci-fi films the monsters are always disgusting. They ooze fluids from every pore, their exoskeletons glisten with mucus, their digestive juices slop about in wide arcs, their goo splatters everywhere once our heroes inevitably blow them up. That’s us. It’s not the unknown that really scares us, it’s ourselves. It fascinates us too.
I’m in the food court of a mall in San Antonio, watching people eat. One guy in particular, a fat old geezer in one of those mobility scooters. He lifts the cheeseburger up to his face. As he bites into it the crumbs stick to the grease surrounding his mouth, the oil runs in rivulets down his face, little specks of gristle wedge themselves inbetween his teeth. When he eats the skin hanging down from his neck sways from side to side. Ripples pass across it, as slow and solemn as the tides. He’s not looking in any particular direction, he just stares into the hazy distance, his eyes moistening with – with what? Regret? Shame? Self-loathing? I wish, but it’s unlikely. I don’t really care. It’s hard to feel sorry for him.
I can see it all. I can see the blood rushing through his fat-clogged arteries, the phlegm in the back of his throat that gives his breath its laboured wheeze, the yeasty cells swarming in the pits and folds of his belly. His jeans are rubbing against his thighs; the skin there is breaking out in livid sores; the pus bubbles away just underneath. His ears are caked with wax, slimy stuff, clotted with particles of dust. Somewhere in the fetid depths of his intestines the walls of his gut are pulsing and contracting, squeezing along a half-formed turd inch by gruesome inch.
The burger is finished; now he’s moving on to the chips. He grabs a couple with one swollen hand, he smears them in the ketchup, he shoves them roughly into his mouth. A big gulp of Coke. More stray liquid drips courses down his cheeks, collecting in little puddles around the stubble that bristles from his skin. I see the burp shuddering in his chest before it bursts out. His lips wobble about like plates of jelly. A light spray of saliva splatters against his plate, curdling with the juices from his meal.
A few tables down two slim blonde girls are eating with their mother. They’re seventeen, maybe; their chatter fills the air with spittle, their nostrils are plugged with mucus, stringy conduits squirm and writhe inside their bodies. They seem to hardly notice that the spectre of their future is just across from them. She sits glumly, her sour, defeated look telling me all I need to know: she has a wardrobe full of polyester pantsuits and a big grey minivan, there’s a bottle of Diazepam on the bathroom counter of her sprawling bungalow in the suburbs. Eventually she’ll grow tired with it all and die; the kids will cry about it for a while, then they’ll slowly start to forget. The microbes will disperse her fluids through the soil.
I don’t eat much these days; some dry crackers, occasionally, with a glass of water. I’ve given up on sex entirely – all that grunting and sweating and squirting; I don’t miss it at all, it’s better to observe people from a distance. I’m smoking a lot; I’ve grown quite attached to amphetamines. I make do with one or two hours of sleep a night. My friends tell me I’m wasting away; they say it in voices dripping with self-righteous concern. I’ve never felt more alive. Once you detach yourself from the world you can see it for what it is. It’s a joke. It’s all one big joke, and only I seem to get it.
Prompt: Describe a setting employing a neutral 3rd person narrator who moves close to the point of view of another character, intensifying the emotional level of the narrative tone.
Execution: Clichéd cynicism.
Millennium Square was trying its hardest to look festive. The blackened spire of the town hall had been garlanded with red and green lamps, but the light that cast long shadows against its neo-Gothic striations couldn’t help but look slightly ominous; the fiddly architectural decorations took on the aspect of gargoyles, their pareidoliatic faces leering menacingly at the shoppers below. The whole building shone against the darkening sky with a dull glow; its gloomy shades were reflected in the clouds that hung overhead like swarming zeppelins.
In the square itself, a small ice-rink had been set up, rimmed with plastic holly. On its surface a few parents spun in tightening circles, hand in hand with their children; to one side a kid bawled as his mother gingerly dabbed the wound on his knee with a paper tissue. Elsewhere there were plasterboard stalls made up to look like log cabins, selling plasticky ornaments and hot dogs. Their names – Hans’s Giftorium, Authentischen Wiener Würstchen – were carved in Gothic lettering above the window; the attendants shivered in lederhosen and greeted shoppers with chirping Northern accents. (A deep scar ran through the paving stones to the side of one stall, the memory of a bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe seventy years before.) In a grotto decked out with cardboard cutouts of reindeer and Christmas trees, a freckled child idly massaged his snot into Santa’s cotton-wool beard as he reeled off a list of videogames. More lights were strung between the coal-grey buildings that lined the roads feeding into the square, forming snowflakes and gift-wrapped boxes, and at the end an illuminated sign reminding revellers that their Bacchanalian enjoyment had been made possible by the Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce. Fairytale of New York was blaring out from a stereo system:
You scumbag you maggot
You cheap lousy f—–
The snow that had fallen in a giddy tumult three days previously had condensed into blanketing layer of slurry, stained yellow by grit, brown by dog shit, black by the cigarette-ends that could just be seen buried under its semitransparency. A thousand worn-out boots trudged through it: bloated old women with shopping bags and expressions of harried resentment, children in scuffed wellies kicking ice into each other’s faces, students dithering drunkenly.
Sajid elbowed his way through the crowd. He loved Christmas. It was when he did his best business, of course – all the recovering addicts would balk at the thought of having to spend time with their family and run straight back into a nonjudgemental opiate embrace. It wasn’t just that, though. There was something beautiful about the lights and the sounds and the enforced merriment, about the way they coincided so perfectly with the spike in suicides and deaths from alcohol poisoning.
There’d been no Christmas in his family. He’d come home from school one day loudly demanding a Game Boy and a pair of Nikes; his father had intoned from behind his beard that Christmas was for the kuffar, that Christmas was when the unbelievers worshipped Isa and Iblis. Despite everything he’d done since then, the red and white hat perched jauntily on his head still gave him an illicit thrill.
He saw his guy leaning against the side of Santa’s Grotto. Terry had managed to find his way off the dole queue for a couple of weeks; he was dressed in an elf’s green uniform. That was good. More dough meant more business. Their eyes met as he crossed the square. As he passed, Sajid slipped a little package into Terry’s hand; Terry nervously passed him a tightly rolled wad of banknotes. They didn’t say a word to each other.
Sajid set off down the street, passing under the Chamber of Commerce’s glowing sign. They were doing exactly the same thing as him: selling misery and calling it happiness. The only difference was that Sajid was better at it. After all, what more could anyone want for Christmas than a quarter-ounce of smack and ten tabs of alprazolam?