Writing Exercise, or The Unreliable Third

Several typewriters in a row on a long table.

From Brian Kitely’s The 3:00 A.M. Epiphany: Write a fragment of a story from the POV of an unreliable narrator – third person limited (or attached) narration. This is a deliberate misuse of the more objective third-person narration. 500 words.

My attempt:

Sindra pulled the fire alarm but not before she shot the man – her father – dead. The click, click, click of the empty cartridge had ceased her efforts, unexpectedly and regrettably. She would have continued happily had she more bullets. Endings were never her strong suit anyway.

The idea to pull the alarm came to her when she heard people mumbling and screaming outside the man’s door. They are so done! The thump of the body slumping to the floor interrupted her flow to the door. Damn him! He was always interfering with her style.

“Get the fuck out of my way!” She flashed her now useless gun. The man’s minions cowered and ducked and two of them fell to the floor. Sindra strode to the alarm pull, turned to his fan club, pulled the bar down, pointed the .38 at the man’s number one fan, the one he had been banging for years, and shouted “run.” The single-action plastic bar with the words “pull down” written in red snapped in Sindra’s forefinger and thumb.

“I’m glad your dead motherfucker,” she said, back in the office, standing over the body. “And I’m glad I’m the one that did it.” His right arm flopped down to the floor from the force of her kick.

Steadying herself against the desk she thought about the first time he touched her and all the times after that and the secrets. Oh the goddamn secrets!

No one could know. She was a bad girl if she told so she kept quiet. She kept quiet when her mother or her boyfriend asked why she was so sad. She kept quiet when he would sneak off with her to the family bathroom at the mall and it would all be over in five minutes. And she kept very quiet when their very last five minutes together created a difficult situation – that’s what he called it – nine months later.

Sindra worked up a large pool of saliva in her mouth. Perfect! The globular, gooey mass hung from his right eye. “There won’t be anymore difficult situations now will there motherfucker?” She began applauding herself and bowing slightly to an imaginary audience.

“Does she do that a lot?” The psychiatric tech asked the nurse.

“Several times a week.”  Sindra stopped for a moment, as though a window opened between her and the two psychiatric hospital employees and somehow she and the two staff dwelled together in the same three blinks of reality. The window slammed shut. Sindra went back to applauding.

“She experienced a psychotic break several years ago. Sort of left and never came back. Used to get a car load’s worth of visitors every week. Now she gets just one.”

“That guy that visits her every week?”

“Yes, her father.” Sindra’s hands stopped mid-air.

“He’s been coming every week for five years. And every week for five years Sindra sits in front of him and rocks herself and hums. Even the doctor told him there was no point in visiting anymore.”

Sindra chortled to herself.


You and She, The Narrators – A Hybrid Form

A man's hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view
photo by Will White

Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a coming-of-age story using an unusual hybrid point of view. Unlike a traditional second-person point of view or the very common omniscient third-person point of view, Hamid adopts both a second-person and third-person omniscient point of view, often within the same chapter. A bold move, a unique move and a move I am not sure works.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia tells the story of You from the rural village of his birth to the unnamed bustling city of his elementary and high schools to his time with the Idealists on through his rise to corporate king of the world. Mohsin uses the self-help genre to examine notions of the self, success and the extent to which we can ever transcend our childhoods.

Mohsin’s philosophical threads combined with a masterful ability to describe the details of extreme poverty make the book memorable. Where he stumbles, I think, is his use of the third-person point of view. As I’ve said elsewhere, all novels require suspension of disbelief, even novels purporting to be in the realist genre. The compression of time is but one example of how realist authors require us to suspend our natural disbelief in order to follow the story. So it isn’t his multiple uses of different points of view per se that is the problem.

Mohsin’s story fails, in part, because his use of the third person seems clunky. In his case, because he is a genius storyteller, it seems lazy, as though he dispensed with the challenge of writing the entire novel in the second person because he had more important sentences to write. As I learned when I wrote 500 or so words using the imperative, restricting myself to one point of view presented enormous challenges, challenges Mohsin seems unwilling to pursue.

An example: our protagonist endures a punishment at the hands of a cruel teacher.

Most of you (note: this is the second person plural) have in the past been punished by your teacher. You, as one of the brightest students, have drawn some of the most severe punishments. You attempt to hide your knowledge, but every so often bravado gets the better of you and it comes out, as it just has, and then there is hell to pay. Today your teacher reaches into the pocket of his tunic, where he keeps a small amount of course sand, and grips you by the ear, the sand on his fingertips adding abrasion to the enormous pressure he applies, so that your earlobe is not only crushed but also made raw and slightly bloody.

Besides the odd intrusion of the second-person plural at the sentence’s start, this paragraph follows a second-person point of view. So far so good.

But then Hamid decides to explain yet another level of nepotism alive in our protagonist’s community, which would be really cool in the second person. But Hamid dashes off a few sentences in the third-person omniscient.

Your teacher did not want to be a teacher. He wanted to be  a meter reader at the electric utility. Meter readers do not have to put up with children, work comparatively little, and what is more important, have greater opportunity for corruption and are hence both better off and held in higher regard in society. Nor was becoming a meter reader out of your teacher’s reach. His uncle worked for the electric utility. But the one position as meter reader this uncle was able to facilitate went, as all things most desirable in life invariably went, to your teacher’s elder brother.

Here what Hamid wants to tell us takes precedence over how he tells us. It is far easier to provide this information using the third person than it is in the second person. I’m not sure it works.

What do you think? Does Hamid’s hybrid approach work, especially when he moves from two different points-of-view within the same chapter?

Have read other books that does something similar?


The Big O: Mohsin Hamid

A building where Observation and Curiosity are written in chalk beneath the industrial name of the building, Glasgow Association
“Glasgow Association of Observation and Curiosity” by Michael Gallacher

Original detail distinguishes an average writer from a good one.

An average writer might describe her character as poor. What does that mean? It depends, I think, based on what each of us brings to the word. Going without a cell phone and cable might seem like poverty for one reader while lack of access to fresh water might be poor for another.

A good writer, like Mohsin Hamid, describes his character’s poverty in exacting detail. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia charts the journey of a nameless man from rural poverty to corporate tycoon.

As a child he befriends a neighbor, a former bodybuilder now middle-aged gunman. The gunman teaches him a series of calisthentics designed to build his physique. The main character works out constantly but sees few results.

The gunman blames his diet. “You are not getting enough protein.”

An average writer might then tells us something vague like the main character doesn’t have much chance to eat protein because his family is poor. But Hamid is far from average.

“These are relatively good times for your family….Still, protein is prohibitively expensive.”

Those two sentences are good. Hamid, though, wants us to know exactly how expensive protein is for the child’s family.

“After debt payments and donations to needy extended relatives, your immediate family is only able to afford a dozen eggs per week, or four each for your mother, brother, and you, and a half-liter of a milk per day, of which your share works out to half a glass.”

Detailed, direct and unequivocal. I know what poverty looks like for the main character and his family. Hamid’s original detail makes the character and the book far more compelling.

How can you add original detail to your writing to make it more compelling?


Do This Exercise, or The Imperative

Several typewriters in a row on a long table.

In this exercise, we explore a tool Lorrie Moore used in Self-Help, the imperative.

Directions for the Exercise

From Brian Kitely’s The 3:00 am Epiphany.

Write a fragment of a story that is made up entirely of imperative commands, e.g. “Do this; do that; contemplate the rear end of the woman who is walking out of your life.” This exercise will be a sort of second-person narration.

Wordcount: 500 (+/- 10%)

Jay’s Attempt at the Exercise

Stare at the white woman, the one you think a moment ago you had a connection with. Hear “jackass.” Wonder if she just said that. Wonder how this thing between you two went bad. Think “What did I say?”

Watch her set her drink down on the table next to you, hard. See the drops of vodka (you got her drink after all), slosh over the sides and onto the table. Feel your face flush as conversations stop and people turn and stare.

Feel your cheeks burn as the other man who had been part of your threesome, which has, through no fault of your own you think, now become a twosome, stares down at his feet.  Look at the man lift his head up, blink and turn from you like a colonizing white woman in any colonized land.

Learn from your friend on the car ride home what you did to that woman to piss her off. Hear him say, “You wagged her finger at her. And you cut her off.” Struggle to recall doing either of those things. Recall her lovely breasts, her beautiful cleavage, like pillows – a place for your head!

Laugh when your friend tells you you behaved like a sexist jerk.  Laugh so hard you miss your friend’s street and now must drive him the long way home.

Say you find it hilarious to be called sexist. Say you can’t be sexist. Say you don’t have male privilege. Tell him you are a committed feminist.

Eye your friend’s now laughing face. Feel your face get red, again.

Say that what ever privilege you have can be taken away when they discover you have a vagina. Use airquotes with the word privilege.

Listen to your friend’s snort. Resist telling him to shut up when asks you how people perceive you when they don’t know you have a vagina. Refuse to answer his stupid question.

Miss the next best place to turn. Curse yourself under your breath. Hear him say, “At this point the freeway will be the fastest way home.” Shift into fifth gear to race up the onramp.

Continue to hear yucking coming from the passenger seat. Notice sweat on the steering wheel.

Mount a defense. Remind your friend of the countless transwomen who have been murdered because they were found out. Forget to remember they are mostly transwomen of color. Forget to remember you are not.

Remind him that it’s really scary to be trans. Remind him you can’t have male privilege because you’ve only recently become a man. Remind him you didn’t grow up being told you were the center of the universe. Remind him that your privilege can be taken away with EMTs, at the scene of accident. Raise your voice to emphasize your point.

Yell your are a feminist. State again – emphatically and righteously – that you can’t have been sexist. Spat through your clinched teeth, “I still have a vagina, after all.”

Your Attempt at the Exercise

Do this exercise, please. Providing supporting details, bits of characterization and plot points using the imperative is a challenge, yes? This exercise really made me think, and hard, too. Good luck.