Who's Coming to Dinner?
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Lee K. Abbott (http://leekabbottwriter.wordpress.com/) one of my favorite writers and teachers of writing– advises his students to start with the trouble. I have Lee’s words taped to the wall of my writing room, because they remind me to get to the point already…an invocation that I definitely must heed in my own work.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love setting and scene. In fact, there’s a terrific essay by Benjamin Percy (http://benjaminpercy.com/) in The Writer’s Chronicle (http://www.awpwriter.org/magazine_media/writers_chronicle_overview) whose story “Refresh, Refresh” remains one of my all-time favorites for its masterful rendering of place. Still, it’s important to avoid falling into a trap- particularly with prose work- in which writers can bog down action with florid description, lingering on the title of every book on the shelf and detailing the just-so- shade of orange thread fringing an iconic tapestry that hangs on the castle wall. These lovely turns of phrase aren’t worth a tinker’s wink if your reader doesn’t know what is at stake. Starting with the trouble allows writers to heighten suspense, establish stakes, and immediately clarify conflict.
Writers of all genres must start with the trouble so that readers get it: to what end is the protagonists’ affection for her toy poodles? Why does Hester wear that scarlet A on her breast? Why did ee cummings eat the plums in the refrigerator? It’s vital that readers know what matters to characters. This is the stuff of conflict. Conflict keeps readers turning pages. Without conflict our memoirs are lengthier than they are readable, our poems descend into self-indulgent reporting, and our stories stew in their own juices, losing all their flavor.
In my writing classes, I ask students to get to that trouble no later than the bottom of the first page. As writers, we want our readers to feel the same sharp intake of breath that your character feels when just the wrong person walks into the room and takes a seat at the table. Naturally, tables fraught with conflict got me thinking about Thanksgiving. Holiday dinners force our lives into sharp focus. Whether you eat dinner with your friends, nuclear family, romantic partner, or in a nursing home with an aging relative, Thanksgiving is an occasion.
Occasions have high stakes: has the food been cooked well, or even properly- Aunt Enid may be circling round the stuffing to make sure your brother’s new wife is seasoning it just the way Aunt Enid knows it ought to be seasoned. Does grandmother always try to slip meat onto the plate of your vegan cousin? Is there- heaven forbid- any discussion of race and politics? Has one of your uncles fortified himself to such an extent that is has lowered his inhibitions and turned him into a bore? Perhaps your Thanksgiving table gives you good reason to exploit the tangled conceits, hidden secrets, unrepentant hypocrisy, maligned goodwill, and shifting alliances of your own family. (Note: you are smart to do so, but must also be wise enough to change names, delicately render composite characters, and make sure your close relatives never, ever read your work.)
Wherever you are and whomever you consider family—turkey and stuffing at grandmother’s, or Red Bull and pizza at the squat in Bushwick with your pierced, tattooed and pangender punk rock friends- holiday dinner is public. Reputations are on the line. Marriages that were tense last year may be entirely strained to pulp now. Perhaps a family member is has boycotted the event. The great thing about a holiday dinner is its combination of high stakes, uncertain terrain, competing agendas, the dance of manners– and the potential for all of it to explode.
For this week’s writing prompt, let’s practice starting with the trouble, and let’s just say the trouble is Thanksgiving dinner. In two typewritten pages- no more, no less- write a short story, poem, play, or a memoir that puts us in scene and immediately announces tension between two characters. Whatever you write, it must have a beginning, middle, and end. Consider this to be a piece of flashfiction, flashpoetry- whatever you will- but keep it below 1000 words. After all, Shakespeare himself says that “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
If you write something you like, send it to us via email. We’ll post our four favorites on the blog. Happy writing & happy Thanksgiving!