Since January, I’ve been noodling around with an online MIT OpenCourseware class called Reading and Writing Short Stories. It’s been a lot of fun; I love reading short stories, and I thought it might be fun to try writing some because I haven’t done that since high school.
This was a short exercise, one where I didn’t take a lot of time on the actual writing. The goal was to show how things that happened in your life could be changed and used as story ideas. Although there were so many incidents I could have drawn from, this one from when I was very young was the first thing that popped into my head.
My problem was trying to use it in a fictional scene. It took a while, but I decided to go with karaoke because that was sort of close to me and my brother using a microphone as kids. I threw in a person with hearing loss because I always like it when I read fiction and there’s a character with hearing loss … it doesn’t happen often, so it’s a nice surprise for me. Since the scene was supposed to convey strong emotion, I had the fictional character react in a completely different way than I would (which was kind of fun to write). I had her react with the same level of out-of-proportion anger and indignation that I felt as a six year old.
Here’s the exercise: Think about an event early in your life that is still powerful for you – that made you cry, or afraid, or angry, or triumphant with revenge. Sketch it out – focus on the emotional power. Now – make it fiction. Change something. Change character, change ages, change place, gender – see how this changes the center of the story.
My nonfiction and fiction scenes:
It’s 1970, and we’re in the living room — my dad, my brother Joey, and I. I’m six and Joey is four, and we’re taking turns speaking and singing into the microphone attached to the hi-fi. My dad was so proud of this system, and we kids loved watching the amplifier needle jump whenever we used the microphone.
We’re all sitting on the couch, which is nearly the same shade of brown as the paneled walls. I’ve got my feet propped up on the coffee table, slouching back against the cushions, waiting for my turn at the mic. Finally, I get to sing. I belt a rousing rendition of Susy Snowflake, making sure to hold that last note for as long as possible. I begrudgingly hand the microphone over to Joey, and my dad ‘interviews’ him.
“What do you want for Christmas, Joey?”
“I want a gowbidge truck!”
“A what?” My dad grins, knowing the real answer, playing dumb to give Joey a chance to mispronounce garbage again.
“A GOWBIDGE truck! A big one!”
The interview ends and Joey starts to sing a song he learned in preschool. I am apoplectic. “But it’s MY turn! He already got to talk!”
My dad, always calm in the face of my youthful rage, tells me that I’ll get my chance soon – just let Joey finish his song. But I am furious – it’s so unfair! I feel they always favor Joey because he’s the baby of the family.
I stand up in a huff, ready to stomp off to my bedroom, where I can slam my door and pull all the sheets off my bed and expend all the rage inside of me. As I walk between the couch and the coffee table, my dad’s foot slips out just enough to catch mine as I walk past. I trip and fall to my knees.
“You TRIPPED me!” I wail, and then the tears come. I sob and sob, feeling unloved and unwanted, as my dad tries to cover his smile, telling me it was an accident. He didn’t do it on purpose.
I argue with him for a minute, because I am absolutely 100% certain it was not an accident. It was intentional. But there is no swaying him, and finally I get to slam my bedroom door, fling myself onto my bed, and rail at the injustice. Every sound, every word, is captured for posterity on the cassette tape in the deck. Over the years, I could never listen to that tape without my face burning hot with embarrassment.
Becca leaned forward and shouted in my direction. I watched her lips move, but couldn’t understand a word over the background noise of the bar. “What?” I shouted, fighting off a wave of irritation. I turned my hearing aid up a little more, which just made the clamor louder.
This time she leaned sideways, aiming her mouth at my ear. I reared back, pulling my ear out of her reach. For someone who’s known me most of my life, she should really know better. Talking into my ear is completely useless; I need to see her face, so I can read her lips. I twisted around to face her and leaned forward. “Say it again, Becca. I didn’t catch it the first time.”
Exaggerating the movement of her mouth, she yelled slowly, “I. Signed. You. Up.”
“What does that mean? Did I hear you right – did you sign me up for something?”
“Yes! Well, I signed ME up too, but we’re both on the list now.”
I shook my head, sure that I was misunderstanding. “The list? What list?”
“Karaoke!” she grinned, raising her glass. I just stared at her, stubbornly anchoring my glass to the bar. There was no way I was toasting this insane idea.
Why would Becca, my friend who watched me suffer through years of music class in elementary school, silently mouthing the words to songs so my classmates couldn’t hear my tone-deaf voice, sign me up to sing in front of a bunch of drunk strangers?
“Are you pissed at me for something? Is there some reason you want to deliberately humiliate me?” I realized I was shouting. I couldn’t hear myself very well, but I could see heads swiveling in our direction. Ignoring them, I continued. “Of all the things in the world, singing in front of people is my worst nightmare. And you KNOW that. What the hell, Becca?”
Becca looked stunned. And a little drunk. Frowning, she said, “I’m SORRY, I never thought you’d be upset. I didn’t do it on purpose. I just thought it would be fun!”
“Bullshit!” I yelled, grabbing my purse off the bar. “I can see you trying not to laugh. Go ahead, see how funny it is when you’re trying to get home tonight!” I waved the car keys at her as I stood up to leave, fighting back tears.
If she protested, if she tried to apologize some more, I never heard her because I never looked back. Slinging my purse over my shoulder, I headed straight to the parking lot. All I wanted was the safety and the quiet of my car.
– – – – –
If you like to write, it’s a fun exercise to try. Give it a shot!
Posted on February 19, 2014, in Family, Memory Lane and tagged characters with hearing loss, fiction, hearing loss, karaoke, MIT OpenCourseware, nonfiction, tone deaf with hearing loss, using real life as basis for fiction, writing, Writing and Reading Short Stories, writing exercise. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.