Express Yourself

Closeness; or Herb Goes for a Swim

A fiction lesson in a one-act play

Person in water mid-motion from rear view of their neck.
Person in water mid-motion from rear view of their neck.
Photo: VV Nincic/Flickr

SETTING: A dark, bare stage. Beaten wood floors, well-trod. Two chairs are set out at oblique angles to one another.

YOUR CHARACTER: Can we talk?

YOU: Sure. What’s up?

YOUR CHARACTER: I feel like we’re growing apart. Like we don’t know each other anymore.

YOU: Oh. (scratches chin) Okay.

YOUR CHARACTER: Don’t get defensive.

YOU: No, I’m not —

YOUR CHARACTER: Don’t make excuses either.

YOU: I —

YOUR CHARACTER: Just hear me out.

YOU: Okay, okay! You got it. What’s this about? What can I do?

YOUR CHARACTER: Thank you. This means a lot to me. Because this is, like, my world. You know. The world as I see it. But sometimes I’m frightened, and you don’t even seem to understand that. You’re like, “The lamp in the corner was not on.” Or, “The bulb was only 40 watts.” Like, what is that about? That’s not how I see it. I’m not reading the fine print on the bulb packaging, you know? I’m in the corner, peering out the window, afraid for my life, hoping to God that Barb pulls in, coming back from bridge club.

YOU: You’re talking about that thing we did in the short story when it was late at night…

YOUR CHARACTER: Man, that’s just one example.

YOU: Okay…

YOUR CHARACTER: The pool thing. That was really off.

YOU: What? Swimming laps? Really? I loved that scene! I thought you were into that.

YOUR CHARACTER: “Olympic-sized,” you called it. I didn’t for a minute come at it that way. I’ve never been in the Olympics. I don’t even watch the Olympics. I come out of the shower room in my trunks; I’m totally exposed. Everyone’s looking at my flab, my rolls. I’ve just renewed my membership. I’m out of shape. The others are, like, gliding through the water, breathing correctly. I nearly bought the farm on the slippery tiles. The chlorine smell made me sick. I’m feeling totally out of my element. All this stuff I was experiencing—you’re doing it your own way. Who cares if the lights are fluorescent? It’s a high school. Lights in high schools everywhere are fluorescent. That didn’t even cross my mind.

YOU: Wow, I… I had no idea.

YOUR CHARACTER: I’m sorry to be harsh. But we gotta be working together, man, you know? Like in the olden days. I feel like now you’re overthinking. Or you’re not tuned in to me.

YOU: Boy. This is a big deal. Are you breaking up with me?

YOUR CHARACTER: (laughs) No, no. That’s not an option.

YOU: Good. Well… how do we move forward from here?

YOUR CHARACTER: I think, to me, it’s a case of “my senses are your senses,” okay? Mi casa es su casa. Right? Even if you’re third person. Just swoop in at will. Use my eyes. Use my ears. I don’t mind. You don’t need to be across the room or up in the rafters all the time.

YOU: Hmm. Okay. I guess I thought you were doing your thing, going for the workout to think about Barb and your anger. And I’m the writer. I can’t do the swimming for you.

YOUR CHARACTER: That’s just it, though. If you don’t do it, how do you know what you’re talking about? You gotta do it in your mind—like you’re me. I’m feeling the anger, and you’re over there like a zoologist in the bush. (stiffly) “Our subject is feeling upset now.” I can’t swim like me in some generic pool world where the water is light blue. I’m not seeing light blue! To me, the water is the same as my tears. I’m swimming in a whole pool of my own tears.

YOU: Damn.

YOUR CHARACTER: You feel me?

YOU: Yeah. What’s the line? Can I write that down?

YOUR CHARACTER: You don’t need my permission!

YOU: Ha-ha. Right.

YOUR CHARACTER: Just bring that all the time. Not some canned @#%.

YOU: Okay, okay. I got it. Wow. This gives me a lot to think about.

YOUR CHARACTER: No! Don’t think. Just feel.

YOU: Just feel. (awkwardly) I feel you. (fist bump)

YOUR CHARACTER: (uncertainly) It’s a start.

PROMPT: Rewrite the fantasized scene discussed above. A man — he needs a name — goes to the gym for some laps in the pool in order to work through some stress about Barb. Whoever Barb is. Might be his wife. Might be his girlfriend. Might be his grandmother. Figure it out. See what your man says about that.

Start with him coming out of the shower. And then be with him, closely, through third person. Bring us into his experience. Be in his body rather than detached and reporterly.

You are to write this to spec, like a freelance writer for hire. Your editor sends the specs below.

Tense: Present (for example, Herb wraps his arms over his bare belly and steps out…)

POV: Third-person limited

Style: A brisk style with snappy action and clear, bright detail

Setting: The pool at a high school or fitness center or YMCA

Scene opener: your character walks from the shower room/locker room into the pool

Use sensory details woven into descriptions, capturing the mood of this place as the character feels it.

Instructor at @GothamWriters, NYC. Ed.-in-Chief of AspiringWriterSyndrome.com, where fiction is the focus and inspiration is the goal. #Javascotia @PenguinBooks

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