Existentialism on tax day

The Reluctant “I” (Exercise from “The 3 A.M. Epiphany” by Brian Kiteley)

Write a first-person story in which you use the first-person pronoun (I or me or my) only two times – but keep the “I” somehow important to the narrative you’re constructing. The point of this exercise is to imagine a narrator who is less interested in himself than in what he is observing. You can make your narrator someone who sees an interesting event in which he is not necessarily a participant. Or you can make him self-effacing, yet a major participant in the events related. It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, forty or fifty words into the piece, to realize this is a first-person narration. Show us quickly who is observing the scene.

Caution: Do not read if you are feeling depressed today. Close this window. Come back tomorrow.

The pallets roll in off the truck. Under the shrink-wrap are boxes. In the boxes are bottles, the slender, half-liter size filled with bubbly lo-cal sugar-free flavored water for rich, middle-aged white ladies. Hundreds of bottles, more bottles than any person should have to look at in a lifetime. I am a cog. The pallets move from the truck and the boxes from the pallets and the bottles from the boxes and the shelves fill up as if by their own volition. And then the bottles will move from the shelves into carts and into bags and into cars and into pantries and into mouths and into recycling bins. And then the plastic factories will take them back and grind them down and make them into new bottles inside of new boxes stacked on new pallets, and the same old trucks will bring them through the same old delivery door and the same old cog will put them back on the same old shelf again.

It’s all very existential, but it pays the bills.

For fifteen minutes I get to stand outside and have a smoke and feel a little bit better about things. It’s cold; the smoke could be pure breath. It smears together with the sky and the black smog pumping out of the back of the store. A delivery truck idles by the dock, churning out its own poison. More god damned pallets. Why do people need so much shit?

The truck roars to life. Even the dumpsters jump in surprise. Eighteen wheels strain against the stationary truck and it rips free from the loading station with an almighty screech.

The cigarette drops and burns a dead leaf to cinders before the wind blows it out. People are shouting, leaning out of the store and shaking fists at the runaway truck. Someone leaps out and runs for the cab. Idiot. An unsurprising gunshot rings out, and when the truck rolls aside there is a body in its wake. A strong body, until only moments ago; a thickset Hispanic man with a wide mouth that always looked like it was smiling, even when it wasn’t, who had dedicated four years to the machine.

He was a good cog.



Writing exercise: Write about a mundane activity, but incorporate random nouns supplied by others in the group, drawn from a hat.

Between the inner space and the outer night, four of us packed closely together inside the church’s door, our breath clouding the windows of the Narthex. Equipment littered the small space: a stack of binders teetered beside the recycling bin, a power cable strangled a miniature palm tree, and heavy black boxes of sound equipment framed a platypus someone had drawn on the chalkboard wall. All around lay disassembled shelves, collapsed paper lanterns, milk crates of odds and ends. Projectors. An Oriental carpet, 5-foot by 8-foot. What all these things had in common was that our pastor and his wife needed to fit them in their car and transport them to Pennsylvania for a conference. Bonus: pastor and wife also needed to fit in said car.

Outside, the trunk of the red coupe waited, seeming to cock its eyebrow at the amount of things we were about force-feed it. We got started. It was a tornado of lifting, shoving, sharing, and stubbing toes, punctuated by Tetris-themed advice. At last the church was empty and the car was full and we sent our friends on their way, wishing them safe travels and cheap clothes shopping: for the equipment left no space for a wardrobe.

Taste the future

Writing group exercise: write about a single, pivotal moment in someone’s life. Describe this moment using the senses of sight, touch, sound, taste and smell.

He could not have asked for a more perfect October day. As Noah and the children climbed out of the Land Rover, the round, ripe, tart aroma of apples hit them in a wave. A curtain of blue sky hung beneath the sun like a robe, or a blanket, snugging them all together in the warmth of tradition and quintessence. Esther and Abel skipped off into the dappled tunnel between the careful rows of trees, trailing plastic bags and shrieks of laughter while their father hung back and paid for their harvest. He followed the sound of his children’s bickering, turning his ankle every so often on an apple too eager to wait on the branch. Yellow jackets defended the fallen fruit, brandishing their daggers with a warning growl. Noah’s eyes roved the treetops idly. He reached for a large pink apple and bit into it with a sharp crunch. The juice welled up around his teeth and ran onto his chin, more tart than sweet. The meat proved a little mealy but he chewed it with gusto. They had done this every year since Abel was born. This was the first time without Melissa, but the kids, fighting and laughing in the next row, didn’t seem to mind that their mother had to work. Noah was the only one alone. He tried to infuse each bite, each step, each breath with the sweet, sweet flavor he’d always associated with apple-picking day.

Abruptly, and without the sense that he had become any less alone, Noah suddenly was not alone. A man in white reclined against a nearby tree trunk, eating, like Noah, with noisy gusto. Noah had to squint, for the man seemed bright and out of focus, as though he’d been pasted in from a different location, or a portrait of angels. When he noticed Noah looking, the man in white hurled the apple’s core over his shoulder and stood to his full height: a good seven feet, now that he wasn’t slouching.

“Noah,” he said, striding into the broad sunlight. Noah shielded his eyes, dazzled. “I have an important message for you.”

“Um,” said Noah, trying very hard to look at the man and failing. “Okay. What is it?”

“I need you,” said the man, “to build an igloo.”