WIR #2: Steering the Craft

Steering the CraftLe Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press. Copyright © 1998, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ursula K. Le Guin's web site:
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/


Le Guin's chapter, "Subject Pronoun and Verb," contains a fascinating exercise in person and verb tense. I had lots of fun with this one, and I thought I'd share the results. First, though, the instructions she provided:

THE OLD WOMAN
This should run a page or so; keep it short and not too ambitious, because you're going to have to write the same story at least twice.

The subject is this: An old woman is washing the dishes, or gardening, or editing a Ph.D. dissertation in mathematics, or... whatever you like, as she thinks about an event that happened in her youth.

You're going to write this sketch by intercutting between two times. "Now" is in the kitchen, the garden, the desk, whatever, and "then" is what happened when she was young. Your narration will move back and forth between "now" and "then." There should be at least two of these moves or time-jumps.

VERSION ONE:
Choose a PERSON:
  1. first person (I)
  2. third person (her name/she)

Choose a TENSE:
  1. all in past tense
  2. all in present tense
  3. "now" in present tense, "then" in past tense
  4. "now" in past tense, "then" in present tense

Write the story. Label it — Person (a), Tenses (c) — or whichever you chose.

VERSION TWO:
Now write the same story in the other person and a different choice of tenses. (Label it.)

Don't strain to keep the wording of the two versions identical, and please don't just go through it on a computer changing the pronoun and the verb endings. Write it over. Changing the person and the tense will almost certainly bring about some changes in the working, the telling; and these changes are interesting.

Within one version, the verb tense may shift, but the person of the verb can't. Stick with either "I" or "she" in Version One. Then use the other person in Version Two.

My examples follow:

VERSION ONE — Third Person; All in Past Tense
Molly was washing the dishes. They had had tacos, refried beans, and Spanish rice for dinner. Robbie and Randy, her twin grandsons, were out playing in the backyard, and she watched them through the kitchen window.

A hedge marked the boundaries of her yard. When Molly was a girl and the house had been owned by her father, the hedge had stood perhaps four or five feet high. Now, though, years after her parents’ deaths, and with David, her husband, having to trim the hedges, they stood five or six feet high.

Robbie, the eldest of her grandsons, ran about the yard, dribbling the soccer ball, feinting left, then right, then neatly kicking it between Randy’s legs, and ran around him and raised his hands in victory when he scored a goal. Molly shook her head when she saw Randy pouting. She rinsed off the dish she had been washing, and placed it to dry in the rack next to the sink.

Randy had the ball now and — foolishly, she thought — he attempted the same move on Robbie. Robbie was too observant, though, and stole the ball away. His face flush with frustration, Randy slid towards the ball, and kicked it away, sending into the hedge on the right side of the yard.

“Hah!” Robbie cried. “You have to go after it now, and it’s my ball when you bring it back.”

“Don’t gloat,” Molly said, knowing he couldn't hear her. She shoved the sponge-wand into a glass, swirled it, pulled it out, then rinsed the glass and put it on the rack.

She looked back out the window. Randy sneered at Robbie, then went to the hedge. He bent down, crawled into the hedge until all Molly could see was his back half. She stopped rinsing the dish she had in her hand and stared. She felt tense, nervous, seeing Randy like that. “Randy,” she said, her mind drifting back to her youth.

Albert, her brother, had thrown her favourite doll into the hedge. She sneered at him, pushed him, and he laughed at her, then ran off, leaving her to go after her doll.

Molly got down on her hands and knees and looked into the hedge where Albert had thrown it. She thought she could see it, but it seemed to be on the other side. She crawled into the hedge. First her head and arms went in, then she was in up to her waist, and she paused. Had the hedge gotten thicker, tighter? She crawled in further. She could feel the hedge scratching at her thighs.

Someone grabbed her hands, pulled her through. She heard her skirt rip.

“Randy!” Molly dropped the dish she had been holding, and ran out the back door to the backyard, fearing that Randy had disappeared.

“Grandma?” Randy stood next to the hedge, holding the soccer ball. “You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he said.

“Yeah,” Molly said. “I’m fine. Just don’t go kicking the ball into the hedge again, okay?”

“No problem. You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.” She turned and went back into the house.

In the kitchen, the dish was on the floor, broken. She hadn’t heard it break when she had dropped it. She sighed and went into the laundry room to get the broom and dust pan, then returned to the kitchen.

She threw the larger pieces into the trash can, then started sweeping up the rest, her thoughts going back to Randy and the hedge, and to the day she had been pulled through.

When she came through on the other side, her skirt had been torn so that it had a slit that ran down the side of her leg, and her leg was bleeding.

She looked up at the man who had pulled her through. He was tall, taller than her father, and he had a larger chest, too. He was muscular, and his chest gleamed silver. She saw then that he was a knight, and she wasn’t standing in Sally’s yard. She stood in a different world altogether.

“Grandma?”

Molly came out of her reverie, looked at Randy.

“Is it okay if Robbie and I go over to Tommy’s house to play?”

“Yeah, sure. Make sure you're home for dinner.”

“Thanks.”

She finished sweeping up the broken dish.

VERSION TWO — First Person; "Now" in Past; "Then" in Present
I was washing the the dishes. We had had tacos, refried beans, and Spanish rice for dinner, and I was cursing myself for not having taken care of it earlier. The refried beans had dried onto the plates. Robbie and Randy, my twin grandsons, were out playing in the backyard, and I watched them through the kitchen window.

When My father had owned this house, he had planted a hedge to mark the boundaries of the yard. Back then the hedge had stood perhaps four or five feet high. It had seemed like an insurmountable wall to me back then, towering over me as it did. David, my husband, took care of the hedge now, and it stood even taller than it did when I was a child.

Robbie, the eldest of the twins by two minutes, ran about the yard, dribbling a soccer ball, trying to get it past his brother Randy, to put it in the makeshift goal they had constructed at the back of the yard. He feinted left, then right, and I shifted my weight, trying to use body-english to help Randy out. Then Robbie pushed it between Randy’s legs, ran around him, easily scored a goal, and raised his hands in victory. Randy pouted and I shook my head. I rinsed off the dish I had been washing, and placed it to dry in the rack next to the sink.

Randy had the ball now and he was attempting to make the same move on his brother. Silly boy, I thought. Do you think he doesn’t know what you’re doing? His brother, being slightly more skillful at soccer, easily stole the ball from him. Randy’s face flushed with frustration, and he ran at hard at his brother, slid, and knocked the ball away, sending it deep into the hedge on the right.

“Hah!” Robbie cried. “You have to go after it now, and it’s my ball when you bring it back.”

“Don’t gloat,” I said, even though I knew he couldn’t hear me. I shoved the sponge-wand into a glass, swirled it, pulled it out, rinsed the glass, then put it on the rack to dry.

I looked back out the window. Randy sneered at Robbie, then went to the hedge. He bent down, crawled in until all I could see was his back half. I paused, still holding a dish under the water. Seeing Randy like that made me shiver with fear, and I became nervous. “Randy?” My mind drifted back to my youth.

Albert, my older brother, rips my favourite doll out of my hands and he laughs at me. He towers over me, mocks me, taunts me, and then throws my doll into the hedge. Screams fill my ears. It’s me screaming I realize, and I push my brother. I yell at him, I scratch him, I try to bite him, but he pushes me away, laughing, and runs off, leaving me to go after my doll.

I walk over to the hedge. I stare at this thick, green wall, loathing it. Why did my father have to plant this beast? I get down on my hands and knees, look in. I can see my doll. It’s on the other side. I crawl in until my head and arms are inside, and I pause. I’m scared. The hedge seems thicker, feels like it's closing in on me. I crawl in further and the hedge scratches my right thigh.

Two hands reach through from the other side, grab mine, pull me through. I scream and I feel my skirt rip.

“Randy!” I dropped the dish I’d been holding and ran out the door to the backyard, afraid that Randy had disappeared.

“Grandma?” Randy stood next to the hedge, holding the soccer ball. “You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, still shaken at the memory. “I’m fine. Just don’t go kicking the ball into the hedge again, okay?”

“No problem. You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.” I turned and went back into the house.

When I stepped into the kitchen, I sighed. The dish I’d dropped was on the floor, broken. I hadn’t heard it break when I’d dropped it. I went into the laundry room for the broom and dust pan, then returned to the kitchen.

The larger pieces I threw into the trash can, then I started to sweep up the rest. My thoughts went back to Randy and the hedge, and to that day that I’d been pulled through to the other side.

I look down at my skirt. It’s torn from my hip all the way down, and my right thigh is bleeding.

I look up at the man who pulled me through. He’s tall, much taller than my father. His chest is thick, as big around as a steel trash can. He’s muscular, and his chest gleams like silver. He’s a knight and he’s wearing armor, I realize, and I’m not standing in Sally’s back yard. I’m in a different world altogether.

“Grandma?”

I came out of my reverie, and looked at Randy.

“Is it okay if Robbie and I go over to Tommy’s house to play?”

“Yeah, sure. Just be home by dinner time.”

“Thanks.”

I finished sweeping up the broken dish.

Le Guin is right. The changes experienced between the two were, indeed, interesting, and the changes, I felt, were necessary. I thought they added to the experience of the story. I actually like the second version better. The flashback has an immediacy to it, and the present tense seems to give it an otherworldly feeling, too, since it's not used very often in fiction.

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