I learned great lessons in improving writing skills from my University of Toronto instructor, Marnie Woodrow. In the years following her instruction she has become my writing mentor, friend, and novel editor (I’m still working on the final – final draft). Marnie’s writing mentor and dear friend was the exceptional, Timothy Findley. Findley penned many a best seller including: The Wars, Not Wanted on the Voyage, Headhunter, & The Piano Man’s Daughter.
Needless to say – the lessons passed from Findley to Woodrow and on to me are cherished!
During one of our U of T writing courses Marnie was talking about the importance of finding our own unique writing voices. Our three-hour class was dedicated to writing exercises, discussion, and as always an assignment due the following week. (If I have not mentioned previously that Marnie is a brilliant writer that you all should read – I’m saying it now!)
The assignment was one that gave me nervous pause. We had to read another writer and write a short story in their voice. We were given a story by John Cheever and told to create in his voice. Cheever, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with his work, gave life to objects in his stories. Objects were a part of the fabric and not filler. He also tended toward “dark” themes.
It was a challenge for me to get into his head and write as a man. Harder still was giving life to things that are not alive. The interesting thing was to read the work of 16 students trying to write in ONE voice. The end result: We all started out Cheever’esque but ended up writing in our own voices. Yes – mimicking the writing style and voice of another will actually bring you back to your own style. It is unavoidable.
The following is my attempt at John Cheever’s voice:
Struggling artist Amy Rettuc lives a modest life with her live-in fiancée of eight years – Stewart Smith – failed writer turned loan officer. The pair moved into their Queen West loft four years ago, after Stewart landed his secure job at CIBC (following his thirtieth birthday Stewart decided it was time to be a responsible provider). The building – a three-story walk-up – housed a textile manufacturer in the 70’s. They were the second couple to occupy the space since its 1995 conversion. The modest furnishings were mainly un-matching second-hand pieces Amy picked up in and around Kensington Market. The décor rounded out with Amy’s un-sold paintings displayed gallery style throughout the loft, giving it a sense of distinction. The couple planned to wed – yet there always seemed to be a reason for delaying each time the topic of a wedding date arose. The one thing they agreed on from day one – no children – they were artists – a lifestyle that left no room for conventional living. Of course the conventional world started to unavoidably seep in when Stewart took a job in commerce.
“Good evening Stewart,” Mrs. Myers greeted him as they met mid way up the stairs, he on his way home, she on her way out.
“Mrs. Myers,” he smiled nodding politely, having no desire to stop for a pointless conversation.
“I don’t know how Amy can stand to wear long sleeves in the heat of July.”
“Amy is an artist – artists tend to have eccentricities.”
“Yes, well, eccentric or not, the relative humidity is thirty-five degrees today.”
“There is an element of practicality in her atire.”
“The sleeves – she uses them to wipe her hands – she’s always short of rags or misplacing them.”
Moving past he didn’t wait for her response.
Amy was perched on an old, paint splattered, wooden stool, diligently working the canvas, making no attempt to acknowledge Stewarts arrival. On the far wall the hands of an antique clock made their way past 9pm, it’s ticking keeping perfect time to the satin jazz tones of DE PHAZZ, appropriately enough the track “Love’s Labour’s Lost” filled the room.
“Busy day today,” he said.
“Lots of busy days lately,” she flatly replied without looking in his direction. He proceeded into the bathroom to take a shower.
The exuberance of morning bore down on night’s bleakness – Stewart left for the office at sunrise, before Amy woke – she was glad to have the loft to her-self again. The ugliness of painters block descended by 9:30am – Amy persevered, doubting every stroke forced from the tip of her brush.
“I’m almost thirty-five,” Stewart had said the previous evening before they slept.
“Yes you are,” she replied.
“The impetuous plans laid in our twenties are not steadfast – things change – we’ve changed, change is a necessary part of life.”
“I won’t sacrifice my work.”
“You won’t have to – I just want you to be happy – I want to give you everything. That’s why I work so hard, so many long hours.”
“We agreed Stewart – no children,” her tone matter-of-fact.
“Just think about it.”
“I’ve thought about it – still not interested – the deal was — no babies.”
“Just consider it.”
“Why don’t you consider keeping “bankers hours” for a change?”
“Is that supposed to mean something?”
“Just an observation.”
The air hung uneasily in toxic silence.
Mindlessly pushing globs of paint around the canvas Amy’s mind wandered, a baby – is he insane? Why would anyone bring a baby into the emptiness of life, into our home? He can’t be thinking clearly. Working late – Does he think I’m some sort of idiot? Loan officers don’t put in twelve-hour days three and four times a week. I wonder if she works with him? Or maybe that counter attendant at the sandwich shop on the corner – He eats there at least three times a week. The trashy little blond, always flirting – What the hell is her name? Not that it matters. She tossed a dirty brush into the water jar, wiped her hands on opposite sleeves, then got up and started pacing – No – not that it really matters if he’s having an affair – which he most assuredly is – all of the tell-tale signs are there – the hang-ups and wrong numbers, the endless long hours at the office, his emotional detachment, and the list goes on, and on, and on. Does it really matter? Why aren’t I the least bit angry?
During dinner Stewart decided to give his crusade for a child one more try. His voice broke the monotony of cutlery scraping on plates, “What do you think? Have you given things a little more thought?”
“You know what I’m talking about Amy – the baby – you and I and a baby.”
“I made my feelings clear last night.”
His frustration was evident as he sat rigid boned looking into the face of the woman he loved, unable to understand her reluctance. “So that’s it then?”
“What’s her name?”
“Her? Who her? What are you talking about?”
“Whoever it is keeping you out at night.” She answered then reached for a drink of juice.
“That’s – Well I don’t even know how to respond – It’s absurd.”
“Do you think a baby will fix us? Maybe keep you home at night?”
“There’s nobody but you,” he said with great fervor.
‘Un-huh.” She took another dismissive sip of juice.
Her listless demeanor angered him, “Maybe it’s you that needs to stop hiding your dirty little secret and stop projecting your guilt onto me.”
“I have nothing to feel guilty about.”
“Really? – I saw Stanley – tell me, you haven’t started that up again have you?”
“You said you wouldn’t bring it up again – it’s over – a dead issue, I told you that.”
“So swear to God it’s really over.”
“To God? What would an atheist swearing to God affirm for you?” A clever answer to be sure, were this a chess match she’s be winning – she smiled slightly.
He was not so impressed with her response. “Well then, swear to that God-dammed hole in the ground you’ll rot in after the lights go out. Eternity or nothingness – pick one and swear to it. Swear that your passionate affair with Stanly hasn’t been rekindled.”
Guilt quietly festered in the pit of her soul, she forced her lips together to form a weak smile. “I haven’t – I swear to anything and everything.” Stewart continued his tirade – she heard none of his words – her mind plagued by a defining affirmation, I’m a liar – like my mother before me – a liar, I am exactly what I vowed I would never become.
“Well, say something.” He stared intently.
“I told you no. Nothing’s going on. It’s over – for good.”
“Really.” Stewart got up and went to the cupboards, opening the drawer where the dishtowels are kept, he lifted the fresh towels to reveal a bright yellow Stanley exacto-knife. The pristine steel blade glinted from the reflection of the sink light. The flawless edge appeared to be immaculate – that is – until Stewarts’s eyes traced to the tip of the blade, where a small speck of dried blood sullied its perfection. Slamming the hard plastic handle against the counter top he crossed to Amy and pulled back one sleeve then the other, revealing the fresh cuts on her inner arms a few inches above the wrists. The new wounds stood out like the neon signs at Kenny Rogers Roasters, blaring obscenities among the thousands of fine white scars completely tattooing her arms – the product of many years of self-mutilation.
“Why?” was all he could manage.
“To feel something beyond the numbness this life affords me daily.”
He loosened his grip from her right arm, letting it go – he walked to the door, grabbed his keys from the rack and slid the large door open. “Where are you going?” Amy called after him – he did not respond.
Tags: & The Piano Man's Daughter., Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, artist, blog, Blogger, CIBC, cutter, DE PHAZZ, discussion, exacto-knife., Headhunter, imeem music, John Cheever, Kenny Rogers Roasters, Kensington Market, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Marnie Woodrow, Not Wanted on the Voyage, Painting, Pamela Detlor, Queen West, self-mutilation, Stanley, The Thought Vox, The Wars, theme, Timothy Findley, University Of Toronto, voice, Writing, writing exercises