I had my Using Margaret Atwood class last night and there was more talk of rules for short stories. Last week it was about point of view–there should be only one–and this week it was about time covered in the story. I’m not clear on the exact rule, but it seems covering more than a short period of time is not a good idea. But of course, Margaret Atwood flaunts the rules and in one story, “Uncles” she covers about 50 years in 20 pages. In the second story, “Wilderness Tips,” there are not only three different points of view, but each character’s thoughts jump around in time from childhood to the present. It is brilliant and it all seems so effortless, surely I can write a story like that too?
We had an in-class writing exercise in which we got to play with chronology. We chose a personal life event, wrote it out as a list, bracketed off an A-B-C timeline and then we started (not enough time to do more than start) to write it out as a story, mixing up the timeline. I had a dramatic moment in A, a dramatic moment in B, and C was sort of wrap up. I began with the dramatic B moment, something I am not generally inclined to do, and I liked it. I liked it not only because of where I started, but also because I wrote it in first person when my inclination is to write in 3rd person, and I used the present tense when I generally stick to past tense. At the risk of making you wonder why I am even bothering to take a writing class because it is obvious I am hopeless, here is what I wrote in class:

I try not to run from my car into the emergency room. Try to be calm. Try not to shake. I wait my turn at the desk. When the nurse behind it looks up at me I try to smile, be pleasant, keep my voice steady. “I got a call from the police that my husband was in a car accident and brought here.” My heart is pounding. She must be able to see how terrified I am.

“What’s his name?”

“W–, J–,” I tell her.

She types in his name and looks at her screen for too long. “I’m sorry, but he’s not here,” she says.

“But the police officer said this is where the ambulance was taking him.”

She looks at the computer again, asks the other nurse next to her if he knows anything about a J– W–. He shakes his head and looks sympathetic.

“Where is he then?” I ask. I must look like I’m about to lose it because without a word both nurses jump into action, calling emergency rooms all over the city to find my husband.

He’s not in any of them.

And just from this exercise I appreciate Atwood more and more. Her effortless point of view changing and time skipping are not effortless at all. But by having had to write out a timeline I get a tiny glimpse of how, with a lot of work, something like “Wilderness Tips” can be done.
We also spoke briefly last night about the difficulties of reading as a writer. The teacher and a few others commented that once they knew how to look for the tricks, they lost their ability to read for pleasure. Maybe I haven’t been doing it long enough, or maybe I’m just dazzled by getting a look “behind the scenes,” but I am finding it enhances my enjoyment of the story. Then again, it’s Margaret Atwood I’m reading and I might not feel the same way about mediocre brain-candy kind of writing.