A Year in the Life, Week 24: This is a Story About …

Although I’ve been keeping up with my Year in the Life journaling, the last two exercises, which I wrote while on my trip to Puerto Rico, were not especially inspiring. Now that I’m home, today’s exercise helped me crystallize the experience in Puerto Rico. I find I often can’t or don’t write about trips while I’m on them. I know people who hardly ever write except to keep “trip journals,” who need something to shake them up a little to inspire them to write. While I’m traveling, I’m too immersed and overwhelmed by the experience itself to write about it — but that doesn’t bother me anymore, because now I know that the memories and meanings will continue to surface for the rest of my life in “ordinary time,” and that there will be many more opportunities to write about it, from a place that understands more.

This week’s prompt was to begin (and to repeat) your writing with the words, “This is a story about …” So, without further ado, my story about Puerto Rico.

This is a story about an airplane shaking over an ocean, and not knowing what I would find when it landed. It’s about the white-haired cabby who picked us up but conversed very little, and the way seeing Walgreen’s comforted me. It’s about my misgivings when I saw balconies and windows enclosed with iron bars, and how soon I was so used to it that it meant very little.

This is a story about driving around Ponce for hours looking for non-existent laundromats, and finally finding one manned by a teenager in Arecibo. It’s about saving chicken from Burger King to give to a frightened stray dog, and leaving our hotel room ate night hoping to find the resident cat. It’s about Church doors wide open, and how you were hesitant to go inside. This is a story about a world that smelled strange — fish and seaweed and garbage and sand and sun. It’s about huge metallic structures I never did understand, and some that I kind of did. It’s about being with you 24/7, and how hard being apart again was when we returned. It’s about fights while washing laundry in the sink, and the anger that propelled me all the way up to the Arecibo Observatory.

Arecibo Observatory, the largest radio telescope in the world.

This is a story about the beauty and terror of unexpected, narrow mountain roads, and the queasy mix of sadness and relief when it was over. It’s about people who buried their chiefs two thousand years ago, and the hurricane that revealed them. It’s about getting lost on public transportation, eating too much Mofongo, watching too much reality TV and Juno three times in one day. It’s about not remembering my Spanish until the very end.

It’s about the way I held your hand during the explosions in Iron Man, and how we cried watching a movie with English subtitles. It’s about how we couldn’t spend all our arcade tokens in time, and how I came home with a folder full of tickets and itineraries I can’t bring myself to throw away.

8 Responses to A Year in the Life, Week 24: This is a Story About …

  1. G says:

    Do you have an opinion on writing a novel first person, present tense? Do you think it’s inherently difficult, flawed or limited in some way?

    • I thinking writing a novel first-person, present tense is a tool that can be effectively utilized, and I’ve done it before. One has to cast aside the illogical nature of it, since one cannot literally be writing something as s/he is living it; but the same case can be made about first-person accounts in which the narrator is illiterate. It can lend a sense of immediacy that works well with some stories, particularly in the YA genre, I think. I don’t think it has inherent problems, but the wrong writer can introduce all sorts of problems into it. 😉 What are your thoughts?

      • G says:

        I’ve been getting along well with a new novel in this tense, but it’s early enough to change my mind. I didn’t consider the merits of various tenses beforehand; I simply decided that it would be the best tense to show the way the protagonist’s mind changes over the course of the story. I’ve had various ideas about writing in this tense as I find it philosophically interesting.

        I began to wonder if it might, contrary to what one might suppose, slow down the pace of rapid, immediate events. I’ve come to a part with shocking, sudden violence. When a story is recounted to you in past tense, you understand the nature of storytelling, and you reconstruct the events and create the sense of immediacy in your mind’s eye. But first-person, present tense may tend to force the reader into the narrator’s pace. This could make it seem as though events are taking as long to happen as it takes the narrator to describe them. Because it’s as though you’re in the narrator’s head as the events happen. But, of course, when shocking, violent events happen and you respond to them, you may not have any verbal thoughts at all.

      • G says:

        Heeeeelllp Laceeeeeyyy… I’m super-psyched to continue, but too hung up on this issue. I need

        Actually, I think I just decided. I went and checked something. I think my misgivings were correct.

  2. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to respond sooner! I was away from home for the weekend at a wedding. But I think I see what you’re saying. I’d never considered it before, but it makes sense that in a very abrupt scene, the present-tense could actually “slow” the action. Interesting.

    Don’t despair about being hung up on the issue! Remember that you can always revise. Write the scene(s) one way, and then write them another way so you can see which feels best. You’re not writing in stone (I hope!) Good luck!

    • G says:

      You’re going to shake your head, but after all that, I decided to go back to present tense? Why? Cos I’ve never done it before. I had a look at bits of The Hunger Games, and I thought “yep, this works well enough”.

      This question about commas has been bugging me: where I wrote, “…but after all that, I decided…” and where you wrote, “in a very abrupt scene, the present-tense…”, I am in two minds as to whether commas are really needed here. They’re like introductory clauses that are further into the sentences, yeah, but I don’t see how the comma is at all necessary to clarify meaning in either case.

      I think if you set both of those off in commas before and after, it would slow the sentences down too much. It would seem really drawn-out compared with how they would be spoken.

      I can see how in my example, the reader might momentarily have an alternate interpretation in mind (“after all that I decided”–after I decided a load of stuff), but I think the context makes it clear enough. In your example, there’s no possible misinterpretation.

      It’s exciting to write a novel, but really painful. I don’t think this is likely to ever change, either, unless I stop caring about how good it is.

      • Are you working on your first novel? I agree — it is both exciting and painful. And you’re right, that doesn’t go away! I try not to care how good something is, especially when I’m writing the first draft, but I can’t stop caring completely; I still feel bummed when I feel a scene didn’t come out right, even though I know I can revise it later.

        Congrats on deciding on a tense for your story! What is the genre?

        There seem to be two schools when it comes to commas: one that avoids them whenever possible and one that uses them quite generously. I tend to be more of a generous comma user, although I only use them in places where it’s “technically” correct. Using them less often is mostly a stylistic choice, though, and not really incorrect per se. I recently started working with a new client who is in the “less commas” camp, so perhaps I’ll be changing my ways! I also think, from the editing I’ve done of U.S. English vs. U.K. English, that American writers tend to sprinkle commas more liberally than our European counterparts. Perhaps that contributes to your own preference?

      • G says:

        Well. This year has been my year of trying to write, having not persisted with it much since university. At least, not fiction, anyway. I’d sometimes get a notion, but I’d get frustrated too easily when it didn’t come off.

        This is the first novel I’ve actually begun. Over this year, I’ve had many ideas and have written some shorter things. A lot of the ideas were pretty high-concept–huge projects to take on, daunting.

        I had a notion I would write an erotic novel and maybe make money out of it. It’s the most profitable genre by far. But one that I’ve never read! I thought I could make it more interesting for the reader and for myself by setting it in a post-apocalyptic scenario; I’m not sure whether this has ever been done before. I had what seemed like a good angle.

        I went for a walk to think about it, and the plot outline and feel rapidly coalesced, but it was more like a serious, literary novel than a smut book. Oh well. So I thought I’d just write the bloody thing as it seems more manageable than my other ideas. It’s as good a start as any–I don’t want to go back to the drawing board again.

        So think The Road but not as good, basically. Bit less Biblical, a lot more political. Set in Scotland after a breakaway from the UK and some (so far) unspecified calamity that overwhelmed the govt.

        I wouldn’t go the full Cormack, but I do like to eliminate commas-for-the-sake-of-commas, yeah.

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