by Carol Brennan King March 27, 2020

Welcome to our online writing class.

Since we are living in a story right now, the true story of the pandemic not yet completely written, I thought it might be a good idea to use that as our exercise this week. We will write a short story related to our real life.

This may become part of your memoir one day, nonfiction students, or it might be a piece of fiction for you fiction writers, one you dress up even more. For fiction writers, take part of your experience and flesh it out through someone else’s eyes. For nonfiction writers, think through the many short stories you have lived, and choose one to tell.

You all know that a story needs a protagonist or key character. As the writer of this story, you need to know a lot about this character, certainly more about the character than you are going to tell your readers. BUT, definitely you will be showing your readers who your protagonist is by their choices and behaviors.

So think about all the short stories or pieces of flash fiction that you have seen or lived this week. Maybe it was at the grocery story, when it was clear that a shopper was nervous about this new experience of shopping in the shadow of Covid 19. Or maybe you watched someone have to make a choice, not an easy choice, about what she was going to buy, or how much, or where she was going to put it in the cart. Or you saw a cart so full it left a trail as the middle aged lady pushed it down the aisle. Those are only a few examples, but I am sure that if you give yourself 15 minutes you will come up with many ideas or stories.

Then what does this key character want to achieve or avoid? And how do they go about it? What did you see that was unusual, that caught your eye? Or maybe what did you do that you have never done before? Write your character into the scene you lived.

What happens at the climax or most interesting part of the story? I heard a story this week about a woman who did not have enough money for her items, and the next lady in line told the clerk she would pay for them. What do you suppose happened then? What if you write the story three times, once from each perspective? Or maybe from the perspective of the next person in line who saw all of this? How could they have responded?

Then how does the piece end?  Write it. Or perhaps you want to outline several versions of something you saw or experienced this week. And finally choose one to write as a short story…and send it on to me.

Meanwhile, here’s a sample, and you guess whether it is nonfiction or fiction:

I saw the old lady pull a worn red bifold wallet out of her black fake leather purse, white showing through on the corners where the plastic cracked. She leaned over the carriage, whether for support or not I wasn’t sure. But I could see a four pack of no name toilet paper, a jar of instant coffee, two cans of Weis chicken noodle soup, a small package of crackers, and a can of hand sanitizer rolling around in the bottom of the basket.

My own shopping done, I was curious about her now. It was like she reminded me of someone I used to know. Anyway, I followed her back through the store as she checked the price of each item and totaled them up on the back of the used envelope she pulled from her bag. She looked into the bill section of the wallet, and I watched her finger through the invisible-to- me dollar bills, just before she slapped her face with that same hand she had touched the bills with.

Then I felt like I was watching a magician’s act. She pulled each of the items out of the big basket one at a time, placing them in the child’s seat beside her open handbag and headed to the check out.

Fortunately, all I had was bread, eggs, and orange juice, so I followed her into the 10 items or less checkout. I watched her line her items up on the counter: toilet paper, coffee, sanitizer, and crackers. No soup. And I hadn’t seen her put anything back.

The cashier rang her up and handed her back a single and ten cents, all the while the old lady kept brushing her hands through her straggly gray hair, like it was in her eyes, but it wasn’t, or like she was nervous.

I followed her out to the parking lot, even if my car was two aisles over, and watched her put the sack of groceries in the back seat. Then I saw her take the soup out of her purse and put it into that same bag with everything else.

I’d never really seen someone steal before, and I wasn’t sure what to do. All I could think of was that poor old lady. That poor old lady.

Tears running down my face, I knew I could not take my groceries home. I knew I would be sick before I could eat that bread or eggs or do anything with that orange juice. So, I ran over to her car, just before she slammed the back door shut. “Mam,” I yelled. “You left these groceries inside.” I threw the bag inside the car and slammed the door, running as fast as I could back inside, knowing she couldn’t follow me. Or wouldn’t follow me.

It was only as I got inside and grabbed another cart that it hit me. I didn’t have any money left, and Joe was going to be stinking mad when I got home without the juice he liked to cut his liquor with, now that he lost his job.

by Carol Brennan King

Image Credits: Creator: fehimeren Credit: Getty Images Copyright: fehimeren

One thought on “Pandemic: Writing It Real: For Fiction and Nonfiction Students

  1. Carol,

    You packed a punch with that piece you wrote. It pains me to think we’re heading in that direction. For how quickly our lives have changed in two weeks, I can’t imagine what another two weeks, or longer, could bring.

    You take care, and keep on writing!

    Love, Josette


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