More Exercises

Last night I attended the local writers’ group, which you may remember from previous meetings.  It was entertaining as ever and I will tell you all about it, but not tonight. I’ve also been reading some good books that I will review, but not tonight.  It’s turning into another busy week, so in the absence of coherent thought, I wondered whether you might be interested in hearing about last week’s writing course exercise? I’m longing for someone else to do one of these, you know.

Anyway, the prompt was simple and therefore a bit daunting.  My instructions were to:  ‘invent a scene on a commuter train. It’s 9am and a man and a woman enter a carriage from different ends and grab the last two facing seats. Each is conscious of the other’s presence. There is no instruction beyond this.’  I had 500 words to tell the story of the journey from each perspective and my first thought was, yikes. As you may know, I am a hopeless plotter. However, when I thought about it, and remembered that this was supposed to be an exercise in character, I felt a bit more in my comfort zone. My tutor suggested I draw on life for my people, and so I decided to make the them a mother and an academic, given that those the types I know most about. The result was as follows, and I post it here because my tutor was quite pleased with it, which means it can’t be too awful. Afterwards I’ll briefly mention the feedback she gave me.


Unaccustomed to her heeled shoes, she snagged one on the plastic runner and nearly pitched onto the lap of the elderly gentleman. His hand, surprisingly strong, held hers until she was seated, but she withdrew her own quickly then. Something about his dry parchmenty skin was repulsive after all those months of holding sweet new flesh in her arms. The commute was horribly familiar and yet, after six months away, she was completely changed to it. Without her baby she felt starkly, nakedly alone. And so exquisitely exhausted, vulnerable and skinless, as if she had been flayed of her natural defences. As the train’s brakes juddered beneath the carriage and they moved off in that swaying, snakey, syncopated movement, she knew that the motion was pressing itself onto her soul and that every time she closed her eyes today, she would feel it again; would feel, too, the clasp of the old man’s dried up fingers, and see his image imprinted on her retina, his unashamedly curious gaze.

Nursing in the middle of the night she had longed to be here, free from the relentless demands, alone and undivided, not sucked clean of any purpose of her own. She had imagined liberation, the solidity of her self returned. Instead all she could feel were the physical sensations of hunger and thirst (she was always feeling hungry and thirsty), the ache of a pulled muscle. She felt hollowed out inside, and scraps of disjointed emotions rattled around, magnified by the space. It was peaceful in its way, to feel this disconnected from what used to be her real life. It seemed she had pushed her vital core out into the world and without it she was just a husk, just a shell. She seemed oddly irrelevant in this train, an invisible woman, no longer at home in herself.

But now the image of her baby without her dealt a series of glancing blows. The precious part of her was left behind, growing, laughing, learning to speak and walk without her, maybe learning how to do without her altogether. She could see it all in her mind, the process monstrously accelerated, as he grew into a small boy, kicking a football, shoveling fish fingers and ketchup into his mouth, tearing off on a wobbly bike, learning to kick that ball through the neighbours’ windows, turning sullen and moody (oh no, no, not so fast as that), bringing girlfriends home, getting drunk with unsuitable mates, leaving home, going to work, maybe commuting like herself until (and her gaze was drawn irresistibly to the specimen in front of her) one day his gorgeous peachy skin would be shriveled and calloused, his blue eyes sunken and weak. It was intolerable. She wanted him to stay the way he was forever, and felt with mad certainty that to miss a moment might somehow deprive her of his entire lifetime.


It was extraordinary how much she reminded him of Botticelli’s Abundance. It was that long, distended belly, of course, a point of ugliness, almost, in the original if he hadn’t drawn it to be so enticing. When she sat down opposite he felt quite frustrated, and briefly entertained the notion of asking her to stand up again. But of course he could never have explained himself. He could not have told her, some uneducated and probably uninterested young girl, what a compliment it was, to remind him of Botticelli’s loveliest, most delicate portrait. Not, in any case, when the comparison hinged on an over-long abdomen. Although there was something about her face, too, in the way it had the same curious flatness, the same wide-spaced eyes, vacant in expression, looking inward towards some cosseted flame of feminine mystique. In reality the woman before him was probably thinking of nothing, or some trivial domestic incident. Botticelli’s greatness lay, amongst many other qualities, in the charm with which he infused his beauties, their maidenly fragility cleverly aligned with a powerful, almost mythical, strength. Their faces dreamt gentle dreams, while their bodies gave strong, supple birth. Abundance, he could recall quite clearly, had hold of a pudgy infant in one hand, and there was another child, too, he was fairly sure. The drawing was bold and clear of the woman, but he seemed to recall that its edges faded away, as so many Renaissance sketches did. He was troubled, deeply irritated for a moment, by his uncertainty over those uncertain margins of the drawing, and wondered whether there would be time after his lecture to call in at the British museum and look at the image again.

Before he could properly weigh up his timetable, he found himself drifting back to the heat of a distant Italian summer. Thinking of Abundance carried his memories seamlessly to that first glimpse he’d ever had of a Botticelli, his magnificent Primavera in the Uffizi in Florence. The same woman, of course, had modeled for both figures, that glorious pear-shaped belly less nakedly obvious in the painting, but unmistakably outlined by the flowing folds of her dress. He had been coming down with a fever at the time although he didn’t know it. He simply thought it was the fault of the painting that he continued to burn inside, despite the clammy chill of the museum. He had been full of passions then, abrupt and devastating ones that propelled him through heatwaves up hillsides in search of dazzling tryptiches in dark churches, that saw him almost kneeling in supplication before heart-stopping beauty. When his eyes drew back from the past, he unconsciously clicked his tongue in exasperation. The woman’s hair, he noted now, was stringy, her dress was soiled with some sort of food deposit. When she bent over her capacious hold-all and rummaged around in it, he glimpsed some kind of hideous milking contraption, a plastic bottle attached to a suction cap, that made him turn aside in faint disgust. Fervently, he felt an almost physical pain to see that drawing of Abundance once more. He was sure he could make the time for it, so long as that silly fool Carstairs didn’t keep him talking. He had been refuting Carstairs’ feeble arguments for some thirty years now but amazingly he kept at it. One might think he would eventually take the hint.


I still feel tremendously self-conscious writing fiction – where are my lovely facts I can hide behind? Anyhow, my tutor’s main comment was that I might have marked more difference between the two voices, and in particular, might have made the mother’s more congruent with her personality and her emotional temperature. So a bit less smooth and polished, then, a bit more harried and chaotic. I thought that once again, this was spot-on in terms of critique. Next week, is dialogue week, in which I must fictionalise a conversation with my husband. Now that I am looking forward to!

ps. having a nightmare here trying to get some formatting on this post, grrrrr. Silly wordpress. Apologies if I can’t manage to make some distinctions!

19 thoughts on “More Exercises

  1. What I really liked about these character sketches are the points of intersection and departure between them, both touching on woman as mother and her relationship with baby, but in such different ways, which say a lot about the characters. Well done. You’re making tremendous progress!

  2. Very nice! I would really like to take a class like this, but I just haven’t made the time. I like the exercises you are given. They seem to my untutored mind as if they would be very helpful in honing one’s writing skills. Next week’s assignment sounds delicious. Although, I guess it could be dangerous, depending…

  3. So well done! I was touched by the contrast between these two characters -the one focused on new life and the future, while the other seems mired in the past.

    These are interesting exercises. I’m so glad you decided to share your work in the class with us. What a treat!

  4. I love him turning away in faint disgust – that strikes me as exactly true to life. I was surprised when it came to his description of her… I’d clocked her as an educated professional [but even lawyers i know returning from maternity leave do so with foodstuffs embedded in their suits!], so yeah, i guess that voice comment from your tutor seems right, although it’s very nuanced writing, too, and I’m thoroughly impressed.

  5. I’ve always thought you have a really wonderful way with words, and this just confirms it. I would be afraid to do something like this–I wouldn’t even know where to start, so I admire you for taking the plunge. They were both great, but I especially liked the second with the comparison to the Botticelli and then the realization that this was a real woman, breast pump and all! 🙂

  6. I think you’re doing wonderfully well. I also really enjoyed the intersection of the characters, and it also really made me think of the fact that one never knows how someone else is perceiving at any given time. It’s kind of frightening, really.

  7. Oh Litlove, you really are progressing wonderfully! I think your tutor’s suggestion is a good one even though I liked both sketches. You captured the mother’s fear of being separated from her baby nicely. I loved in the man’s sketch the contrast between the idealized version of motherhood as pictured by Botticelli and the reality of it as embodied by the woman. Can’t wait for next week’s dialogue! (assuming you will share it) 🙂

  8. So when are you developing this into a short story? Such a lot of your interests surface here – mothers, academia, life (real and imagined), interpretation, exploration of the self. So you have the character, the themes, the contrast. It would be good to know more of these people. Perhaps after the dialogue work, they could get into a conversation. Well done – and you keep saying you can’t do fiction!

  9. Lilian – Bless you! Thank you for such encouraging words, which I am treasuring!

    Lisa – my poor husband is used to being misconstrued on this blog, so he is taking it in good part! I’m finding the course doesn’t eat into my time too much at all. I have a whole week to write my assignment, and it has never been more than 1,000 words, which really isn’t much. And when you get good assignments then there’s no trouble with motivation. You should have a go, if you think you can possibly take it on; it really is fun.

    Becca – hugs to you! Thank you for such a lovely comment. It still feels a bit odd to post this kind of thing here, but with such encouragement from my blogging friends, I will keep doing it occasionally (though not the bad ones, perhaps! 🙂 )

    Doctordi – thank you – I do take that as a compliment, coming from a professional like you! I must say I hadn’t really given my mother a job in my head. I had her fixed in a moment in time, without much back story! But I did also think the tutor had a very good point. She wrote a bit out for me with a more staccato rhythm and it really worked.

    Danielle – believe me, I had no idea where to start at first! Seriously no idea. I must admit I have a marked preference for the academic. He just sort of came out in one piece, probably because I am so surrounded by his kind at work – lol! And thank you for such a lovely comment.

    David – I admire your writing so much, I couldn’t be more chuffed if you think I’m making progress – thank you! And I worry about what people are thinking of me all the time, so am particularly aware of how different inner worlds and the external perceptions of them might be! 🙂

    Stefanie – big hugs to you! Thank you so much for such wonderful encouragement. I confess that the Botticelli drawing hangs in my college rooms, so I had a very well known image in mind (oh not the real Botticelli – that is in the National, just a poster print – lol!). I am priming my husband for his role in this week’s homework – he is so used to appearing on the blog that he’s relatively laid-back about the prospect! I’ll post it if it’s any good. 😉

    Bookboxed – it’s funny, as I was writing this thinking, well, I can imagine them, but what would happen to them next, I have NO idea! I am a seriously rubbish plotter. If someone told me what to do, I might be able to write it, but that’s not a sure thing. But I do appreciate enormously your kind encouragement. I do feel I might be inching along towards a bit more confidence in different kinds of writing!

  10. I think the characters here are wonderful – very strong. I’d certainly read on. I’d love to see what happens if they actually have a real conversation together.



  11. thanks for sharing – the act of writing and sharing that writing takes guts, takes courage (esp the sharing) but I think classes and workshops have a lot to do with getting people to scale the writing mountain and than share it. Well, I’m just trying to say I’m glad you have. I enjoyed it, enjoyed thinking about the exercise, seeing how you handled it, and then meeting those two people on the train. Actually, I saw the mother quite in a different way than the gentleman across from her, likely even different from the way you wrote her. One of the things I love about fiction – the same place, story, event but ehn heaped on with allt he different perspectives. What fun! I am looking forward to your next one, if you share it!

  12. I neglected to say how much I admire your putting up some of your fiction, Litlove – which I know you’ve traditionally not felt confident about – for all of us to enjoy. It can’t have been easy to do, but I think you’ll agree it was worth it. Just look at the reception! Very exciting.

  13. I loved this! I think it’s a great exercise — I’m sure it has a lot to teach a writer, and I really like getting people’s perspectives on each other and being able to compare them. I love thinking about the difference between what the academic thought was going on in the woman’s mind vs. what really was and vice versa — how the woman imagined her son looking like the elderly academic. Fantastic!

  14. Anne – thank you so much! Coming from a real professional, I do feel extremely honoured by that comment. Not, you understand, that I have a clue what they would say to one another – lol! That’s still what divides me from the proper writers! 🙂 Big hugs! xoxox

    oh – thank you so much for being encouraging! It is still quite a thing for me to share my writing exercises – it usually takes several days before I feel able to post them up in public! But my blogging friends really are the kindest, gentlest souls in the blogosphere. Thank you.

    Doctordi – it’s only up here because blogging friends have been SO generous and compassionate to me! I really value your responses – just one more amongst the plentiful reasons to love blogging. 🙂

    Dorothy – oh thank you, you are so very kind! To begin with I was very alarmed by the exercise, but once I had decided on my characters, it felt a little easier. I’m just waiting for the one that will derail me completely and I will have no idea what to do – it will arrive, I’m sure! 🙂

    Grad – thank you. I really do treasure the encouragement.

  15. You have been very brave here, Litlove, publishing for the whole world to see, something outside of your comfort zone. And you did a wonderful job of the prompt, which doesn’t surprise me at all. All of you non-fiction “stories” that you tell us read like good fiction. I remember your dear, darling husband (it was him, wasn’t it?) climbing the rain pipe outside the window – what a great tale!
    I hope you will continue to share.

  16. They both seem highly preoccupied with bodily matters. I can’t help but wonder where dialogue might have taken this. The disgust really works, especially from when the process with the child is imagined in its ‘monstrously accelerated’ form, and perhaps this is what the piece is about. Thanks for putting this out, and well done – it’s not an easy thing to do.

  17. Loved this. I thought the woman was wonderfully realised and the intersection between the two was masterful. Roll on the next one. And you should consider writing up that into a fully-fledged sketch. Really excellent.

  18. Oh, Litlove, this is really, really good. I love what you’ve done here. The thing that strikes me the most is the academic’s interior life, the way he wanders back to Italy, the beauty of that time in his life, but this wouldn’t be as terrific without the mother, and her thoughts first. I would so much like to hear more about this academic — what happened in his past, what is going to happen to him now.

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