I’m participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge for this year, in which the goal is to write 50,000 words of a fictional novel between November 1 and November 30, 2007. The goal is quantity, not quality, something that is designed to smash down the perfectionist’s writer’s block. I’m giving it a shot for the first time in my life. I’ve never so much as written a fictional short story, so this will be a real challenge and growth experience.
Here’s a fragment from yesterday’s writing:
â€œWhy did he have to give me a name like â€˜Bingley?â€™â€ asked the boy over a dinner of chicken drumsticks, jasmine rice and green peppers an hour and a half later.
With a teenager in the house, Carl had learned the value of maintaining what he called â€œmeal setsâ€ at the ready for deployment at a momentâ€™s notice. Not only could a kid in high school be occasionally too moody to come down for a scheduled dinner, but there were the second breakfasts, the midnight snacks, and the unannounced visitors who seemed to have a way of nudging a space open at the dinner table. Carl didnâ€™t mind this challenge; on the contrary, he seemed to savor it as a test of his abilities as a parental surrogate not just for Bingley but for all the kids who found their way to his kitchen.
When he was growing up, Carlâ€™s mother on occasion would tell him stories about his grandfather, who would bring all sorts of what sheâ€™d call â€œcharactersâ€ home for dinner without so much as a phone call. Grandma would complain around the edges, but she always seemed to be able to pull a meal together out of the contents in the pantry, no matter how meager they were. Any complaints by Carl as a boy when he was denied a wanted toy were met by his motherâ€™s story about the potato â€“ one large russet potato split six ways to feed a family of four and two homeless guests.
Even now, the bare mention of the potato story would prompt Carl to roll his eyes. Nevertheless, the taleâ€™s repetition had accomplished its intended purpose in setting a standard for Carl to meet in his domestic life as an adult. â€œJust in case,â€ Carl would mutter to himself at the grocery store when he encountered an unnecessary item that might prove useful in the future. A pork tenderloin that surely would fit in the basement freezer. A head of cabbage; now that would keep from wilting or rotting longer than most other fresh vegetables. Packets of ramen would do in a pinch, too, as long as there was some green onion, some leftover chicken to shred, and maybe an egg to scramble into it.
Carl didnâ€™t stock his kitchen like this for the hobos. Really, Carl had no idea how he would even find people to help out like that. Maybe homeless travelers didnâ€™t make themselves public like they used to; almost nobody hitchhiked any more or stayed in the parks past dawn. Maybe Carlâ€™s grandfatherâ€™d just had the knack, or maybe heâ€™d had an open face. Or maybe it was Carl who had an unusual deficit in that regard. Carl had joked more a few too many times to his friends that he wouldnâ€™t know how to find recreational drugs if heâ€™d even wanted to try them, or how to find a prostitute if heâ€™d been feeling lonely and inclined. His friends would to pause a few uncomfortable seconds before bringing up another more wholesome subject.
No, Carl wouldnâ€™t know how to find such people to bring home for dinner. The way it had worked instead was that the kids found Carl. Heâ€™d stocked his kitchen well-enough, and treated area kids to delicious snacks and meals at odd times of the day for long enough, that eventually one of those kids would get locked out of the house accidentally and just know where to go until mom came home with her extra key. From there it was a combination of word spreading from friend to friend and the acceleration of events. From a kid getting locked out accidentally, to a kid whoâ€™d gotten drunk and didnâ€™t want to face the music at home just yet, to a kid needing refuge from fights at school, to a kid getting locked out on purpose, to a kid finding refuge from getting knocked around at home. Because Carl worked from home, his kitchen was pretty much always open, and he just wasnâ€™t the kind of man to say no to someone with a need. With some of the kids, heâ€™d never even get to know their name; theyâ€™d just come in on the trails of someone else and drift out before anybody noticed. Some of the kids would stick around a while longer.
If I can write this dreck, surely you can write something better. Go ahead, give it a shot.