Teaching An Old Brain New Tricks


As my readers may have noticed, I only posted three times in October. I was busy taking two online fiction writing courses with Jordan Rosenfeld, and while I enjoyed them, they consumed all my energy. To date, my previous writing has been dependent on research and facts, whereas fiction writing draws heavily on your own personal experiences and interpretation of events. In essence, these experiences help you to determine how your characters might feel and react in a given situation. This new way of thinking required a lot of energy and a person to bounce my ideas off of (Thanks husband!).

The central event of my writing this month involved a very clear childhood memory of a neighborhood teenager who had been the victim of an attempted rape. It happened right around the time we were watching the first man on the moon (July 20, 1969).

From a street away, I heard a teenager repeatedly scream "rape" and ran over to see what was going on. I saw a young girl running down the street in her underwear with her arms in the air in obvious distress. What shocked me the most was the fact that everyone, children and adults alike, stood on the side of the street watching her, but no one reached out to help her. Obviously, the slack-jawed adults were all stunned, but the young girl's distress marked me for life.

I went home immediately to tell my mother. I asked her what rape was, and I watched her eyes widen and then she quickly turned around and went back to washing the dishes. She eventually told me that rape was when "someone was forced to do something that they didn't want to." The subject was then dropped. Although the neighborhood children continued to use the word rape, which eventually morphed into "rake" (as in, she was raked, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how you rake someone), no one in the neighborhood ever mentioned the event or girl again. I always wondered what happened to her and if she got the counseling she needed.

I tied this theme in with my first experience with feminism: my mother going back to school in the late sixties to become a nurse. I often remember her and her friends sitting around our kitchen table discussing the very short "or goddamned" uniform they had to wear, even in the winter, and the unwanted attention it garnered, which came from everyone, including authority figures. (Click here for a picture of a vintage nurse's uniform pattern. For the record, I remember the uniforms being much shorter.)

The following is the third draft of a scene I wrote for one of my classes with Jordan. I discovered that fiction writing starts as a skeleton (and sounds a little like a court report), and then details, or layers, are added with each subsequent draft. As you will see, this scene is still stiff and if I were to revise it again I would add more details to give it more of a sixties feel.

Scene 10

(Main protagonist has arrived at a child psychiatrist's office at the hospital where she is a nurse. She wants to speak to a psychiatrist about a delicate issue involving her daughter.)

A few minutes later, the doctor came out of his office wearing a white lab coat. Tall, gaunt and balding, the psychiatrist ushered Ann into his office.

As she entered the room, Ann was immediately struck by the smell of stale coffee and cigar smoke. The venetian blinds were coated with dust, and the windows were smeared and cloudy. When she looked at the psychiatrist, he was swiveling in his chair, leering at her legs. He motioned for her to sit down in the chair across from him. As she took a seat, she glanced at several diplomas displayed on the wall. Seeing that his focus of attention had not shifted, Ann pulled her uniform dress down as far as she could over her knees.

“I see you work at the hospital,” said the doctor.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You’re husband doesn’t mind you working?”
“Sir, I’m here to discuss my daughter.”
The psychiatrist interrupted Ann, “What’s your name?”
“Ann Meadows. My six-year-old daughter,” she started, “ recently witnessed a crime.”
“What type of crime?” asked the psychiatrist.
“A teenage girl was attacked in front of our apartment a few nights ago. My daughter was out of bed, and she saw some of it from our kitchen window.”
“And where were you?”
“I was doing laundry across the hall.”
“You mean you left your six-year-old daughter unattended? A mother shouldn’t be out gallivanting.”

Ann paused for a moment to compose herself. She could feel a mixture of guilt and anger well up inside of her chest, but she pressed on.

“Doctor, I don’t want to waste your time. We aren’t sure what my daughter saw exactly, but the police want to talk to her, and we want to ensure that this will not make it worse for her. Is there anything we can do to limit any further trauma?”

“This ‘we’ you’re talking about is your husband I gather.”
“Yes.”
“Good. I’m glad this girl has a caring father. Now, tell me. Has your daughter exhibited any regressive behavior since the incident?”
“Well, she has become clingy and wants to sleep with the lights on.”
“Then she is going to need a lot of reassurance from both you and your husband. Let her follow you around, and let her sleep with a light on in her room. You could even let her sleep in the same room with you for a little while. I know that this might be inconvenient… but if she has the necessary assurance then these behaviors should cease.”

Ann fidgeted and shifted her legs completely to the right.

“I also wanted to know if we should let the police talk to her?”
“I’m not sure. That would be up to you. Do you know exactly what she saw?” asked the psychiatrist with his gaze squarely focused on Ann’s legs, which she shifted to the left.
“Very little. We live in the basement, so she could only see their feet and legs, and hear some…noises.”
There was a long pause. Ann pursed her lips and deeply inhaled and exhaled.
“Did your daughter know the teenager who was attacked?”
“Yes, she recognized her from her shoes.”
“Did she recognize the attacker?”
“We don’t know. We never thought to ask.”
“Well, if you decide to let the police question her, ask to be present and reassure her throughout the interview. If she doesn’t answer the question then put it into a child’s terms. For instance, she may have thought they were just fighting, like what she would see in a schoolyard. She doesn’t have to know what type of assault was really going on…Ask her simple questions about what she saw. For instance, what colour were the man’s shoes or if she has ever seen shoes like those before?”
“Okay. That’s helpful.”
“Is the girl who was attacked all right?”
“Yes, a little shaken, but she’s fine now.”
“It’s not safe for women to go out alone at night. Anyway, make sure your daughter knows that she’s all right now. That’s important.”
“Thank you,” said Ann. As she stood up, she saw the doctor looking again unabashedly at her legs.
“And Mrs. uh…”
“Mrs. Meadows,” said Ann baring her teeth.
“Yes, you were wrong to leave your daughter alone.”
“Doctor, I came here for advice on my daughter not to be morali…”
Ann was interrupted, “I’m a professional, and if I wanted to I could report you to Child Services. If you were doing what you were supposed to, you….”

Ann didn’t let him finish his sentence. Choking back tears of rage, she walked out the door without saying good-bye. She followed the worn carpet marks through the office without looking up. She needed some fresh air to get rid of that foul cigar odor that seemed to linger on her uniform. She would also make sure to scrub her hands a little longer before she started work. She had paid more than enough for this information, but at least now she and Ward had what they needed to make an informed decision.

If you're interested in taking these online fiction courses with Jordan Rosenfeld click here. I highly recommend her Method Writing class.

2 comments:

Jordan E. Rosenfeld | November 1, 2009 at 4:03 PM

Great stuff. Love the tension between the therapist and the mother...the sense that she's being persecuted. Powerful!!

C.McKane | November 2, 2009 at 1:36 AM

Heather,

I felt like I was there and that I was suffocating in that dingy room and that I wanted to belt that scuzzy man!

Really amazing piece. Thanks for sharing.

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