We all need to make tribute to our favorite artists now and then, to remind ourselves why we admire them, and to echo what those artists did to make our world more lively, more lovely, more true. One of my particular favorites is Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read (almost) his entire body of work. I’ve read more of Vonnegut than I have of Joyce or Dickens or Faulkner. Here is my Kurt Vonnegut Exercise.
Vonnegut famously asserted that he felt his novels were actually one HUGE novel, that they all worked as parts of a larger whole. That may or may not be true. Still, he did do some things that set his work apart. First, he was always funny. Why so? He wrote everything in such a way as to make his sister laugh. Second, he wrote realistically about wildly imaginative possibilities. Why so? Because in addition to being a remarkable writer, he was a visual artist as well. Third, he used scientific theory in entirely pragmatic ways, especially the theories of modern Physics. Why so? His brother was a great physicist.
All right…here we go.
Write a poem or story of any length that explores, in a humorous fashion, a world where the wildest of all scientific theories proves to be absolutely true.
MY VERSION(Part I)
The day Kyla Jones fell down behind her desk, hit her head, and came back to consciousness staring into a wormhole, she thought she was having one of those realistic dreams, so real you keep asking, “Is this really happening? Is it?”
Of course, in Kyla’s case it was not a dream. The tiny glowing sphincter of light showed the underside of a desk oriented in mirror form to her own, and between the legs of a expensively formed desk chair she saw a woman resting on a pink yoga mat. The woman was Kyla’s height and in a similar position, except her head was closer to the wormhole but facing the other way, and her legs were braced against the wall. She seemed to be chanting, but the sounds made no sense to Kyla. The other Kyla, in that other universe was a yoga instructor, and as perfect a physical specimen as had ever been spawned. Kyla did not recognize her spooky double, and before she had time to understand what she was observing, one of the other second rate Boeing engineers who worked in her sector came into her office, spotted her feet extending out from under her desk, and over-reacted.
“Kyla, are you okay?” she shouted and the shoved Kyla’s desk chair out of her way, causing it to careen across the shining linoleum floor. “Where is the pain? IS IT IN YOUR ARM? IS IT IN YOUR BACK?”
“Calm down, Beth. I’m not having a heart attack.”
(There’s my start. How does yours sound?)
This exercise is intended to enliven the imagination with the challenge from seemingly random bits of language. I learned it from at teacher at Warren Wilson College, but I can’t really remember which teacher it was. The idea is to pick a book (you can choose any book you like, whether you admire it or not). You take a straight pin and page by page you pierce the book. When you remove the pin, you record the words that have been pierced. Write a poem or prose piece of any length in which the words appear. Tense and number changes are fine.
Let’s begin with a list of twenty-five words.
drum, easy, drop, and, clothed, talk, our, ground, here, imagine, tell, strings, birds, scuff, the, run, vibrating, in, here, eagles, hearts, charge, hear, puddles, do
They tell stories
of antelope running
of hearts thumping
and the easy, urgent thunder
in our blood.
The strings of tendons
vibrating, hair singing
in our flying charge.
All of it drops to a hush
when we leave the ground.
Do the birds hear the wind
in their feathers?
Do they hear their breath
singing in and out?
The dogs hear the pads
of their paws scuff the asphalt,
jumping the puddles
jumping the puddles
jumping the puddles,
they imagine themselves
carrying knights clothed in steel,
and the horses imagine the eagles
above the fray.
What do the eagles imagine?
Here’s an attempt at beginning a piece of prose with the same words:
Nita never felt easy just talking. She would drum her fingers on the table, fiddle with the strings on her hooded jacket, scuff her shoes on the grimy floor, fairly vibrating with excess energy. I found it maddening, but I eventually discovered a way around the distractions. As long as she was working, she could relax and tell me her stories, the adventures of a childhood clothed in uniforms. I never expected her to stop what she was doing just to talk. Visiting her garden reminded me somehow of performance art. She would charge from here to there, drop to her knees in a puddle of pansies and discuss just anything, but her favorite subject was birds. “The mocking birds are calling for love,” she would say. Or, she might explain why she longed to have golden eagles nesting in the tall cottonwood at the far end of her property.
That’s all there is to it. Just give it a try. Take out an old, ragged paper back and invite a new poem or story into your life.