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Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Writing exercise

Every now and again I sign up to an adult-ed writing class, one that'll make me do writing exercises, so that I can be in a room with other people working away and have to bend my imagination to solving the short-term problem that's been set me. It's like joining a gym: once you commit to going, you get a work-out, and your health benefits.

So, last Saturday was the first class of term. And since writing exercises can be interesting, I thought I'd share.

The exercise was this: pair off with your neighbour and tell each other a story from your childhood or adolescence about a time when you did something you aren't proud of. A time you shoplifted, or bunked school, or were mean to someone; something that wasn't to your credit. The wonderful fictional space of childish misbehaviour: one of the great imaginative wells. Then, take your neighbour's story and write a piece based on it, using the first person.

With names changed for privacy, I'm posting here what I wrote. What you get in writing classes is not as polished as the stuff you put out professionally; we had a limited time span (half to three-quarters of an hour, I think; I'm not good at keeping track of time when I write), and you have to improvise. But rough-edged stuff has an interest of its own, so here it is:

They must have bred Miss Mapplethorpe in a lab like a guinea pig, that's what Janet said. A white lab rat, I suggested, with that pale face of hers blinking at the doctors above a white coat; she wasn't born naked like a normal person, she was born in a miniature lab coat and handed a pipette to drink her milk from. Janet and Claire shrieked with laughter, and at that point Miss Mapplethorpe herson came in, but there was no need to stop laughing. Miss Mapplethorpe never said anything except a nervous, 'Good morning, girls,' and waited for us to subside. At the sound of her voice, that anxious little squeak in it like a real lab rat, we all burst out with giggles again, not just us but the whole of the middle row.

 Miss Mapplethorpe blinked at us, waited. When we didn't stop, she tried again: 'Now, girls, today we'll be studying the properties of potassium. I hope you'll find it ... er ...' She stopped, groped for a joke; the pause went on too long and Claire nudged me, ankle-to-ankle under the table. 'Lots of fun,' Miss Mapplethorpe concluded, then added, 'Lots to fizz about.'

'Lots to fizz about' was a phrase we said for the rest of the year. 'How's your sandwich, Claire?' I'd ask of a particularly bland-looking concoction. 'Lots to fizz about?' And Claire would snort through her nose, cursing me as the crumbs stuck, and I blinked at her in lab-rat innocence.

Miss Mapplethorpe had the key to the cupboard, and as she unlocked it - Hazardous, Staff Only, blared the letters above her head - it was then that I had my idea. I knew what potassium did; it exploded in water. Half the class knew that already; that was why they punished us with Mapplethorpe the Mouse. We were supposed to be the good ones. But really, that pasty face and those flickering eyes; even if you spoke to her politely she acted like you'd given her a shove. After a while, it was so infuriating that you just had to give her a push, just a little one.

I passed it along in a whisper: Time to get light-fingered. Potassium was far too much fun to leave under the care of that dreary old girl; the day was bright outside and her voice, drip drip drip, could take the sparkle out of anything, even a chemical explosion.

'I'll had it out, Miss Mapplethorpe,' I said, and bounced up to the front.

'Oh, no, Yani, let me...'

'I'll be really careful, Miss Mapplethorpe, honest!' I said in my best six-year-old goody-two-shoes voice, and I had it out of her hands before she could say anything more about it. Round the room I went, dishing out the little chunks, saying like the perfect girl, 'One for you, Janet. One for you, Claire. One for you, Lisa. One for you, Diya.' One for Janet's desk, one for her pocket. One for Claire's desk, one for her pencil case. One for Lisa's desk, one vanished up her sleeve. One for Diya's desk, another one into her pocket, and I'd waltzed halfway around the room before Miss Mapplethorpe got to me and said, 'Thank you, Yani, really, let me do it, please.'

We had enough, so I handed it over with a dazzling smile. The girls giggled again as I tipped a little curtsey and bobbed back to my desk.

'Now,' said Miss Mapplethorpe, 'the interesting thing about potassium is that it releases gas when exposed to water...'

We filled our beakers, toasted each other.

'Please, girls,' said Miss Mapplethorpe, 'you must be careful with glass in the lab!'

'Oh, we weren't going to drink it, Miss Mapplethorpe, we're not stupid!'

'We're hurt that you think we're stupid, Miss Mapplethorpe!'

'Really, girls,' she said. 'I said to be careful with the glass.'

'Oh, we're careful,' said Janet, 'look how careful I am!' and she dropped her little chunk of rock into the beaker.

Fizz, went the glass. Fizz, went mine. The bubbles burst like little bombs, and Miss Mapplethorpe said, 'Now girls, do be careful!'

'I don't think,' I said, 'that on careful reflection, I feel very fizzy about this.'

Miss Mapplethorpe gave me a look from her pale eyes, dull, tired bewilderment. There was just a moment when I stopped, I slowed down on my bouncing feet. I almost said, 'Sorry.' But then Claire behind me said, 'I feel totally fizzy!' and we were all laughing again, and the laughter carried us all the way to the bell. We set down our beakers and grabbed up oru books and burst through the doors into break, where we raced each other to the pond, tumbling and giggling, each pushing ahead and falling back until we came right to the edge.

Down in the green depths, the goldfish flicked their slow tails. I gasped, 'One, two, three - aim - fire!', and the water exploded in mirth.


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