Words To Drive By “Superman Falling”

EPISODE 06: “Superman Falling”
To save his marriage, a New York advertising exec reluctantly accompanies his wife to the Midwest.

Superman Falling lives near to my heart, first because it came from an emotional place, and second, because it I learned so much working on it.

The emotional origin was years ago. I was recovering from a major abdominal surgery – the removal of a cancerous tumor that had been discovered as during tests as I was trying to get pregnant – and I had a dream.

In the dream, I was standing near a window on a high floor of a building, holding a baby. The baby slipped from my hands and fell out a window. After he fell, I started running as fast as I could down a stairwell, desperately hoping… for what? That all wasn’t lost – or that I would make it to the ground first and somehow catch him? But as I ran and ran, the realization sank in that there was no saving this. The sorrow and guilt was overwhelming.

When I woke, I felt compelled to write the dream, which I did, making up some of the circumstances that weren’t clear in the dream, but leaving its core – the child falling and someone running down flight after flight of stairs, hoping desperately, and at the same time knowing what waits at the bottom.

A couple years later I had gone back to school for writing, and I took a version of the pages I’d written after the dream to a writing workshop.

Where I learned something important. Just because you feel certain emotions when you’re writing, doesn’t mean readers will feel those emotions when they read what you’ve written.

The folks in my writing workshop didn’t feel what I felt. Instead, they were confused. They floated different theories as to why the story “wasn’t working yet,” and offered advice on how to possibly fix it. But the killing blow was the instructor’s note. He said, “The moment you’ve written about isn’t the real story, the real story is what happens after this moment.”

Notes that are versions of “go write something completely different,” are tough to swallow. I’m sad to say that I have entire projects sitting on aging hard drives after getting similar notes. So kudos to my past self — determined and energetic and a little bit dumb — because she went off and actually wrote the “after this moment” story.

Which still didn’t work.

My instructor read it, and gave me a new note: You want to have two stories, not just one. There’s a present-tense story, then there’s a chronic tension born of the past that puts pressure on what’s happening in the present.

These weren’t words I was ready to I understand completely, but something about them resonated. And when I went back to the page and bludgeoned my way through another draft—I began to experience a slow-motion epiphany: The past shapes the present and adds meaning to it—and there are different ways weaving this into a narrative. Later, I’d study screenwriting, and recognize this more clearly. Even today, I often find myself thinking about how what I’m watching or reading is a “two-story” story.

In the final version of Superman Falling, the plot is entirely fictional, the protagonist is not me—his guilt has different roots, the situation is different – my own experience mostly replaced. But somehow the act of replacing almost everything, and transplanting my sense of grief and guilt – made the story “work” more effectively—not perfectly at all, but the best I was capable of then!

And the process of crafting the story was part of a transformation in my life. Those flashes of understanding and fleeting moments of control I’d felt whet my appetite for learning more… and that hunger is something that has given my life purpose and meaning for more than a decade.

“Superman Falling” was first published in Colorado Review.

Cover art by Ted Giffin. Sound design by Greg Gordon Smith.

Words to Drive By “How to Write Your Own Biography”

EPISODE 05: “How to Write Your Own Biography”
When her best friend is diagnosed with cancer an empty-nester takes a road trip, leaving her husband at home.

This past Thursday, I came home to the treat of this copy of Chariton Review in my mailbox. Lest you be misled by the 2018 date on the cover, it is actually the most recent volume that just came out. Apparently they got a little bit behind. I’m interested by the choice they’ve apparently made not to skip any issues. I wonder, will they henceforth be a year behind?

chariton review journal

But I’m not one to talk, I guess, since it took me years to get around to doing a second round of submissions with it.

The characters and events of this story are entirely fictional, but the layout of the home where Jean and her husband Bradley live is based on the home I grew up in. I can see them moving around each other in that house of my memory.

As always, thanks to Greg Gordon Smith, who composes and sound designs this and every episode, and Ted Giffin, who designed the cover art!

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Words to Drive By — Monster Leaves Dog

EPISODE 3: “Monster Leaves Dog”
(After the Storms, Part 3)

As a long-married couple prepares to part ways, the husband tries to convince his wife to change her mind.

This story is the third of three interrelated stories called After the Storms.
As with “Room” this story originated with a prompt:

Two characters part ways forever.

We were asked also to think about the questions: “Who and when and where?” “Do they know it’s forever?” “Do they have different feelings about it?” and “What causes the parting?”

I let years pass — literal years! — before I came back and finished this one. As the third story in the trilogy, it felt like writing a flashback episode of television. I enjoy flashback episodes, but they present their own set of challenges to the writer. Often a flashback episode needs to incorporate information the audience has already knows from regular episodes and that can change the source of dramatic tension in the story. If this story stands alone, the main question that unifies the narrative is “can Jerry change Beth’s mind and convince her to stay in the city?” But someone who reads it with the context of the previous stories already knows the answer. So for them the the question is not “what happened?” but “how and why did it happen?” Which tends to be a “weaker” dramatic tension…

… but hopefully still worthwhile! For me, the appeal of a flashback episode is traveling back in time and seeing characters I already know as they once were — before I knew them. In this case, seeing Jerry in “Room” and Beth in “Tribe” each reminiscing about the other made me want to see them together for a little while, and witness the moment that sent them on their separate trajectories.

Greg Gordon Smith composes and sound designs this and every episode. Ted Giffin did the show art.
And Barrington Smith-Seetachitt (that’s me!) wrote and read the story.

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Words To Drive By “Tribe”

EPISODE 02: “Tribe”
(After the Storms, Part 2)

SUMMARY: In a dystopian future, a woman juggles memories of her former life with her growing feelings for someone new as she and her nomadic tribe face a dwindling water supply in the desert.

NOTES:
This story was first published in an anthology, *Turning Points: Stories About Choice and Change*.
The story was published singly, but is the second of three interrelated stories called “After the Storms.”

Greg Gordon Smith composes and sound designs this and every episode. He has a website. Ted Giffin made the show art.

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Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.

THE END