Here’s a writing exercise from Gigi Fenster called ‘Then my mother turned to me and said…’
Gigi says: I don’t know where I got this exercise from. Possibly one of Bill’s? It is an opening sentence that demands to be completed. An opening sentence that has, I think, all the elements of a short story already – the knowledge that something has happened, the promise that something more will happen, the way it catches the characters at what is, literally, a turning point.
My mother doesn’t turn to speak to me out of the blue, for no reason. She turns in response to some other event, possibly one of my making. The writer must create an event which is sufficiently important as to make a mother stop what she is doing, pause, turn towards her child, and say something. I love the opportunities this gives one to simultaneously create a history for the story and advance it.
The act of turning, too, is useful – the bodily movement demands that mother and child are placed in a physical environment. The writer is called on to imagine where they are and also to imagine the activities they’re engaged in when the mother pauses and turns.
It has to be a mother who has something to say. Not a friend or sibling. Not an aunt or husband, cousin or boyfriend. Not a father. The relationship between mother and child inevitably defines both of their characters and impacts on their choices. With a mother there is depth of intimacy and honesty. If this intimacy is lacking there are reasons why, reasons worth exploring. Any inclination to maintain distance is curbed by the exercise’s demand that one write in the first person.
This exercise sets up a history, a turning point, physical context, a naked relationship rich with promise for any writer. After all this, what the mother actually said, which appeared at first glance to be the key to the exercise, may well write itself.
Gigi Fenster was born into a family of five children in South Africa. She did the usual student jobs before studying law, then worked as a law lecturer and construction lawyer before moving to New Zealand. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, and her short stories have been published in various literary journals in New Zealand and abroad. Her work has been translated into Telugu and published in an Indian daily newspaper. She lives in Wellington with her husband and two daughters. Her first novel The Intentions Book was launched this year to rave reviews.