Exercising the mental muscles. Part I: The Shore is Grey

February 19th, 2017Posted by Nancy


I’ve been less productive than hoped since Christmas (work, events, general laziness to blame) but I did revisit some of the exercises I did from Wonderbook by jeff Vandermeer.  The last one was quite challenging, as it involved rewriting a scene multiple times (some of which I admit to having skipped from lack of interest).  Because I generally have very little to post here, I thought – aha! – I’ll post the exercise.

The first step was to write a scene between two characters with no dialogue and with only description to convey what is happening between them.  I cheated a bit by having them observing a third character but she never speaks. This version automatically assumed the present tense and I quite liked parts of it. I’ll be the first to confess that it did bog down in the unheard dialogue section.  What did I learn?  Well, I already knew that I have a ridiculous love of writing descriptions of weather and nature.  My favorite words reappear.  But I learned some things about the woman with the hat that I had known before and that was very useful.

The photo here is actually Lake Minnewanka, near Banff.  It was taken by my husband on his iphone in colour and has no filters. This is really what it looked like. It’s not exactly the landscape for the scene that follows but it seemed appropriate.

SPEAK, DON’T SPEAK Exercise Part I

The shore is grey. There is no sand on the wide beach, only stones. The cliffs beyond it rise fifty feet high, grey shale and winter-whitened lichen. Here and there, a weathered tree clings to a split in the stone, but they too are grey with salt and struggle. A path winds its way in switchbacks down the side of the cliff. There are footprints in the loose grit and gouges were a foot has slipped.

The dark, rolling waves of the sea mirror the slate-coloured clouds that billow and belly above them. They break on half-hidden rocks and hit the pebbled beach with a rush and a hiss. Somewhere beyond the clouds, the sun is sloping downwards, southward in the sky, but no hint of light breaks through.

From the sea, if one rode those waves, the beach would look like a stage, set for some grim northern tragedy. There is only one spot of colour in all that grey; the somber burgundy of the long coat worn by the woman standing at the base of the wall of shale. She had worn a hat of matching hue but the wind threatened to send it cartwheeling down the beach so now she holds it in her hands. If there were a setting sun to touch it, her hair would shine auburn. Beneath the lowered sky, it looks merely dark, pulled tightly back from her face. The face itself is smooth, like the sea-tumbled rocks, but it is not a young woman’s face. Her hands, ungloved, are not a young woman’s hands. There is a beginning of thickening in the bones of the knuckles and when she tightens her grip on the hat, the fine bones move beneath skin the texture of crepe.

Her gaze is seaward, towards the young woman who crouches near the water’s edge. Her clothes are dark, her unbound hair a flag in the wind from the water.  Her bare hands rest on the stones and once in while her fingers dig into the mass of them, turning and tumbling them.  When the waves are strong, the water rushes up and around her, turning her long skirts darker as they lift away from her ankles. It must be bone-chilling, that water, but she gives no sign of it. Her eyes are closed, her face lifted and tilted, as if she is listening to something very faint and far away. Her lips move, once in a while, on words that are not clear.

Beside the woman in burgundy, a man paces, measured steps back and forth across the rocks. Like his companion, he carries his broad-brimmed black hat, revealing iron-grey hair tossed by the wind. His coat is the same hue, though there is the flash of white from the lace at his wrists when he lifts his hand to brush away a tangle of hair from his eyes.  His face is narrow and sharp, from high forehead to neatly trimmed beard. He watches the woman on the shore, though once in a while he glances up towards the cliff-top, as if expecting to see something there.

The woman touches the sharp line of her hair where it meets her forehead. She looks at the man as he begins another turn and speaks. His brows lift a little and his shoulders shift in the faintest of shrugs as he replies.

As she speaks again, he pauses in his motion, and they both look towards the woman on the beach.  Words die for a moment; a frown folds her smooth forehead. There is something tentative in her voice then.

His answer is short and he resumes his pacing, staring down at his boots for a moment before glancing back up at the escarpment above him. Whatever he expects to see is not visible, for he looks away again. He glances at his companion and says something, the equivocal shrug returning.

On the beach, the young woman bends her head and the wind winds her hair like a veil over her face. Her hands are in the numbing water, fanned out as she can grasp the waves and hold them there. As she watches, the woman in burgundy pulls her coat tighter and shifts her weight. The man in black stops pacing.

A sound comes from the figure at the water’s edge but it caught by the wind before the observers can tell if it is a cry of triumph or despair. She rises in a column of black and turns to pick hers way back across the jumbled beach towards them. Her hair flows and flashes across her face but she does to try to push it back.

As she nears the waiting pair, the man steps forward and speaks. She nods and smiles and walks past them without another look, to begin the walk up the slanting path. Her wet skirts drag the lines of her passing the loose grit. She lifts them up for a moment then lets them drop, her head high, her hair swirling around her head like seaweed.

After a moment, the man sighs and holds out his arm. The older woman accepts it and then takes a breath visible in the lift of her shoulders. She says something softly and he tilts his head to hear her then shakes his head with another sigh. They climb the path, following the lines in the sand.

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