Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Getting Back Into Things

Well, the break is over, we’re getting back into the swing of normal life now. The Magpie has gone back to school after a nice visit. She was anxious to be home, but anxious to return, I’m sure, I remember those feelings well.

For today, I decided to share something I wrote yesterday in my writer’s circle. It’s a short piece, 200 or so words. Most of the time I write bits and pieces that don’t feel like they’re going anywhere. Sometimes I write a piece that immediately feels like it’s got a life behind a forty-five minute burst of writing. I’m not sure where this one fits. We used as our prompt the first six paragraphs of Jack London’s “The Heathen,” which has about as great an opening line as I’ve seen:

“I met him first in a hurricane; and though we had gone through the hurricane on the same schooner, it was not until the schooner had gone to pieces under us that I first laid eyes on him.”

That is a powerful beginning, as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, I made a conscious effort to write in an ‘older’ style, and I like what I’ve done. Part of me feels like I can do something more with it. The problem is, I have no idea what that is. Anyway, this is an untitled piece. It has not been edited beyond the circles and arrows scrawled around my notebook pages yesterday, so is still rather raw. Here you go:

The storm battered our ship and I sought refuge below, in a cramped cargo hold that smelled of bananas, pitch, and, distressingly, sea water.

Better, thought I, to protect myself within the strong hull of the ship than to risk being washed overboard or struck by a falling spar. And so I ensconced myself in the midst of the hold, wrapped tight in my bed roll, wedging into the small space between walls of steamer trunks with shiny brass latches. Over my head, bunches of yellow-green bananas hung from a spiderweb of wires criss-crossing the ceiling. Dislodged bananas, thought I, were softer and far more forgiving than the coconuts suspended over the other side of the hold.
Waves pounded at the ship. Timbers creaked and groaned at the onslaught. We rolled left and right, up and down, rocked forward and back, a constant, stomach-heaving motion in all directions at once. I felt safe in my crevice, however, warm in my blanket, embraced by the leather trunks around me, a metal bucket clamped between my knees for emergency use.
Safe, that is, until the first banana spider fell into my lap. Had I known there were spiders, I would have taken my chances with the coconuts.
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Photo copyright Natalie McNear

Something I’ve noticed about my writing, at least when I’m writing in my writer’s group, is a tendency to really try and pack the opening paragraphs with a lot of description. When I get into longer works, I think I get better about spreading the description out more. But the short works, if I stretch into five or six hundred words or so, the description is packed in up front, and ends up being very spare on the back end. I’m thinking it’s probably a case of mental ‘throat clearing’, as they say, where I’m using the description as a way to kind of prime myself for what’s to follow. A warm-up, if you will. It’s something I have to watch for.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that little bit, have a great week!

18 Responses

  1. I like it. Sort of soothing. Perhaps you're packing the description early on because you're used to reading novels where the first chapter or so is setting things up and generally has less dialogue and other things.

  2. Thanks, Richard, I'm glad you liked it. It was a fun piece. And after I was finished, I continued reading 'The Heathen' and found it was definitely NOT a fun piece. I didn't get to finish, but what I read was harrowing.

  3. I grew up on a small island in the tropics and your banana spider reference got my attention quickly. (Those bast$^ds are fast and they still make me uncomfortable.)

    But my point is this: Iโ€™m no-one special, but what you have engaged me โ€“ donโ€™t stop. I want to know more about the ship that went down under your feet. (You managed to pull me onto the deck in a scene from White Squallโ€ฆ) What's next?

  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Dan. I wish I could take credit for that first quote, but that's Jack London. As for 'what's next?' Sadly, I don't know! I got to the end, and wrote 'What Next?' in my notebook. I'll have to give it some thought.

  5. I'm getting a message here: No More Spiders. I'll have to remember that. And, yes, reaction is always good (unless you threw your monitor against the wall).

  6. Awh man, I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight now that I've seen that picture… we might not have banana spiders here, but they still get pretty big and pretty venomous. Really great opening you have there. The 'older' style was very effective, though I've never been able to appreciate the 'thought I' or 'said she' thing. It just feels too backwards… bleh. Now I'm thinking of Emma by Jane Austen. Bleh. But seriously, cool opening ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Sorry to ruin your night, both with the picture and with making you think about about 'Emma'. Glad you liked the piece, though.

  8. The ending made me smile, but the picture might give some people a heart attack! Your piece was nicely done, with a good flow. Sounds like an excerpt from what could be a great historical novel.

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