Writing 101: Sex and Death

2 skelatons

They go so nicely together!


The new Clare story  has the girls being pushed and pulled by sex: one is sort of done with it, the other just WANTS it.  I can’t be the only one who has tossed between these two since the dawn of my first lustful urge. The pivot between chastity and whoredom creates whiplash, which is how this story first came to me.

Two diametrically opposing forces bear down on Clare and her friend–a frightening implication and a fairly graphic event. This one wasn’t hard to write, I just needed to be careful, explicit about every detail–what the girls wear, where they are geographically in a room, car, bar, home and apartment. I got up from my desk a lot and acted things out, which meant wheedling whoever was around to just stand over there a second or come with me here and pretend we’re in a crowded bar. At one point I closed the door and made sure I was getting some parts of the sex scene right–which, I have to tell you, sounds better than it is because I needed to remind myself to focus: this was business and nothing else. The point was to stay close to how the girls were experiencing and dealing with their situations, both in the moment and internally for the long haul into other stories. Like the other stories, there is no resolution and that’s just fine. It makes writing these short story–something I was never ever good at–so demanding for me.

I obsessively read obits. I find there are two classifications of people on this score: those who love them and those who don’t. No one seems to take a middling opinion and I have never been able to convert a non-obit reader by forcing them to listen to even the most juicy particulars of my daily favorite dead people.  I don’t give up, though,  which is why sometimes you see people running from me.

You can stop here if you’re not with me on this one but stick around if you are a writer and/or reader and/or possibly my first convert:

Today, there’s a big one about Anthony Smith “Explore with a Zest for Land, Sea and Air,” which is pretty good but I always value the ordinary column ones the most:

Fergus O’Daly, Jr: Fergus was born in Brooklyn “where he grew up with the vibrancy that accompanies being the fifth of 10 children. …At age 16 he got a summer job as an assistant in an art department at a small ad shop, and the die was cast–Fergus knew advertising would be his passion.”

Elena V. “Helen” Benson: cherished mother of four children, two predeceasing, and an avid bridge player–“she enjoyed reading the Bridge column from as many newspapers as possible.”

Ann Williams: “a former top high fashion model in New York City” from 1929 to 1949 “when she decided it was time to marry.”

Consider the revealing details: the ambitious talented Brooklyn boy; the mother, intimate with loss, a wicked Bridge player; the model working long enough to experience being overshadowed by younger girls.

Everything you need to build a whole creative work is right here–all the tools, all the knowledge to understand and portray the human race. Obits are daily mini-lessons for writers, a graduate course in the importance of precise language, a storehouse of features and incidents; a goldmine of character development. People who Cheever-Chekhov- Dickens- Diaz-Monro and thousands of other writers imagined live in the space of a one-inch wide column, for you to imagine and use.

Which is why, if you are a serious observer of life and the human condition you should begin to read the obits.

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pat willard

Grew up in Philadelphia. Live in Brooklyn. Written four books best described as about memory and cultural history, food and some pretty good recipes. Works in progress may be viewed at www.patwillard.org

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