Saturday, January 9, 2010

In-Class Exercise #2 - Beth Brett's East Village Bar Scene, With Tennis Racket

Today, a former star tennis athlete transforms her writing with the help of her psychic racket. Read on for another in-class exercise from the ongoing book-writing workshop. I hope these posts inspire you to try your hand at timed writings yourselves -- whether you are in a workshop right now or not.

Over the many years I've been teaching, I've witnessed magic happen when people write in-class, timed exercises. Everyone seems to get out of their own way and write better than themselves. There is simply no time for the critical voices to surface or for the self-conscious "writer" to tamper with the unconscious natural gift. This time, in the space of 15 minutes, Beth Brett departed from her conventional tennis racket approach to the page, and summoned a much groovier, imaginative, psychedelic version!
Our in-class exercise was inspired by the book we're reading, The Secret Life Of Puppets. We'd just read and discussed the first chapter. Intrigued by, among other things, the concept of the "grotto," I suggested everyone write a scene that was somehow magical, spiritual, sacred. Include an animal -- a real animal, or animal as metaphor. Then set the scene in either a cave, catacomb, dungeon or cellar. Extra credit offered for including a glockenspiel. (The random, and humorous element, never hurts!) Fifteen minutes. And they were off! Scribbling and tapping away.
As usual, I let them know when they were halfway through. And when they had one minute to go. That's not an invitation to wrap things up with a pretty pink bow. Not in my workshops. In that last minute, I often nudge people to throw away any last vestiges of censorship and let it rip.
Because this is an ongoing book-writing workshop, each person forged a scene that featured their protagonists and figured into their book somehow. 
Here is Beth Brett's offering. Beth currently works as a publicist for The Getty. A Princeton graduate and a lifelong tennis star who started her court odyssey as a young child, Beth brings a determination and focus to her work that is mind-bending. However, her hard-working "good girl" mode sometimes gets in the way of allowing characters to misbehave. Not when the character of Frankie enters the scene! This in-class exercise was a bona fide breakthrough. A grand slam. Beth wrote in a fluid, loose style. Her sentences were shorter, crisper, more authoritative. She dared to skip around in time with ease, and evoked the jampacked, adrenalized bar crowd and its Beauty Bar environs with grit and verve in a way we had not seen in her other carefully prepared, manicured and somehow sanitized early pages. Actually, there were two modes in her submitted pages: good girl Disneyfication, and then fascinating flare-ups of a hidden angry, harsh tone. Yet they were like split personalities. Unintegrated. Until this exercise! Everything came together -- and humor volleyed through the vivid prose. There was a playfulness and warmth throughout. Since this point, Beth's acing her pages. I hope this inspires all of you to try out these exercises yourselves.
FYI, I did not allow any of the workshop participants to alter their exercises from how they dashed them off in those 15 minutes. So flaws and frenzy are all laid bare, revealing the raw power of what they've wrought as well as giving insight into their process. There's plenty of time to nip, tuck and tweak later. The triumph is in experiencing a more integrated and focused style of writing. The writer suggests meaning by vividly rendering what's happening on the scene's surface - as well as pointing toward what's churning beneath. No mean feat!
It was Manhattan, the winter of 1998. I don’t recall the date, which may have had something to do with being drunk off my ass. I was a free bird. No courses. No senior thesis. No tennis. I was out with friends, barhopping in the East Village. We were getting slaphappy and silly. Frankie, my boyfriend of four years was getting belligerent as he had a tendency to do when he had one too many.
The scene played out in my head before it happened. There was the time in Cambridge, when I tried to sneak past the bouncer and punches were thrown. There was the time we had the drunken munchies and ate omelets at the diner and left without paying. The time we tried to sneak Zorbie, the dwarf rabbit, into the fancy French bistro, which didn’t allow pets, but, instead, offered rabbit stew on the menu. And, then there was this night.
Our fingers were almost frostbitten as we waited outside to be let into the Beauty Bar. Dressed like he was headed into the Alaskan outback, the bouncer seemed to enjoy letting us suffer in the cold. I glanced in his direction, flipped my hair and batted my eyelashes, but nothing seemed to penetrate his icy glaze.

“Let’s get out of here, this place isn’t worth the wait,” I said loudly once we were within earshot of the bouncer, I’d come to call the bar Nazi.
Frankie wouldn’t budge. He was beyond listening, focused on the frosty beverage almost within range. We inched forward. I was still wearing my tennis shirt over my black warm-up pants. I had hit earlier that day. Come to think of it, I was still carrying my racquets. Clearly, I didn’t fit Nazi bouncer’s version of an “It” girl. Maybe we’d be lucky if we got in at all.
He patrolled his turf, making sure everyone was single file in the line, enjoying his power. Finally, we made it to the checkpoint. We had our IDs. I was finally 21, so now I had proper identification. He let us pass. No questions asked.
Finally, Frankie’s beer was in reach. We maneuvered past steamy bodies, glad for the body heat. Old school hair dryers were set up through the dark bar. We crushed peanut shells with our footsteps as Madonna’s Ray of Light played over the speakers crushing attempts at conversation.
Frankie was long and lean and used his Gumby-like physique to lean over the patrons at the bar to get his order in. Ever the chivalrous knight, he managed to find me a thread-worn barstool in the midst of the madness. “Two Coronas, please,” he said to the scaly bar wench. He chugged it. He croaked hideously, the stench lingering. It was smoke-filled and steamy. New York’s “No Smoking” rule would take another five years to go into effect.
To Frankie, hanging out in a bar, even a dive one as lowly as this, was a little slice of heaven, but to me, this was without question, one of Dante’s Rings of Hell. I could pretend to keep up, to enjoy these outings, but when it came down to it, there was no place I’d rather be than the tennis court. It was my version of Dorothy’s Kansas. 

Tonight, we were 21, in the moment, still had our college drinking sea legs, ready to enjoy some beers and darts with old friends in a bar that felt close to home for Frankie, with its peanut shell-crusted carpet, ripped red leather booths, chipped, beer-stained banquets and tipsy barstools, mannequins of the clientele.
“I need to use the loo.”
“I need to take a leak, too,” said Frankie, putting it ever so eloquently.
Hell, we decided to make a field trip of it. We hit the single stall bathroom together. We weren’t planning anything. No kinky sex. No drugs. After four years together and a half-year living together, we were old hat at this, eating together, sleeping together, taking leaks together, that’s just what best friends with benefits did, I thought.
There was a knock on the door. It came quickly. I was almost done peeing. “Hold on, there’s someone in here.”
“Get out now,” came the authoritative voice on the other side of the wall.
I quickly pulled up my pants and washed my hands. I was shaking a little. We opened the door slowly, Frankie putting himself in front of me, neither of us knowing what to expect.
“You two need to leave now,” shouted the Nazi bouncer, who had changed shifts from his outside post to inside the Beauty Bar.
I was no troublemaker and he looked as though he meant it. Frankie was furious. He tried to argue as the bouncer gripped him by arm, escorting us both to the curb.
“It’s one at a time, no one enters the bathroom together.” He said without apology.
“Let’s go,” I pleaded with Frankie for the second time that evening.

As I turned around to hail a cab to take us out of this messed up, deranged city to our one-bedroom on Fleet Street in Forest Hills, I missed Frankie spray-painting the front of the Beauty Bar with a stream of piss, spelling out F-U-C-K Y-O-U as he left his John Hancock on a detail of a German beer wench in her Lederhosen.
The bouncer was not amused. Punches were thrown. My man’s watch was ripped off and then crushed with the stomp of the Nazi’s boot. I watched the scene with eyes half closed. Wondering if I should bring out the big gun, my tennis racquet. I prayed to G-d the cops wouldn’t arrest him; that we’d make it back safely to our cozy warm apartment in Forest Hills.
It was probably a matter of seconds rather than minutes, but my prayers were answered and a more sympathetic bouncer and a few friskier guys out on the town came to our rescue. They let Frankie go, with the words “You’re not welcome here. Don’t ever come back here again,” throwing his watch at him for emphasis.
I had half my body in the taxi, waiting to be carried out of this night. From his running meter, it looked like only a minute had passed since the beginning and end of this horrible fight scene. “Where to?” 66-69 Fleet Street, I murmured, my eyes now half-closed. I relaxed now, leaning my head against Frankie’s shoulder. I warm and content now, knowing we lived to die another day. I feel asleep, lulled by the cab transporting away from what seemed like Dante’s Rings of Hell. Next thing I knew, Frankie was shaking me gently, “B, we’re home,” he said. He practically lifted me out of the cab like a sleeping child. My racquet was forgotten. The cab already pulling away from us and was heading down Fleet Street towards his next fare.


  1. I had the same thing happen to me! Only, sadly, the bouncer did not let me finish peeing. Also I was alone. Also it was the men's room. Okay maybe it wasn't the same. But it was similar.

  2. It was Missoula, 2003, I don't recall the date,which may have had something to do with the fact that I was drunk off of my ass, and this might not have really happened. Hence the date would become a moot point. I was free. No job, no steady chick, no gigs lined up. I was out with the best friends money can buy; drinking buddies, and that lunachick Mo, my shagmate of late who was getting loud and louder as she was wont to do when her 5'3" 99 pound butt did when she drank. She never drank two many, just too many of one.
    I had had this scene play out before me numerous times on these little binges. Like the time we got stopped driving the wrong way down a one way street In Portland, and the cop asked me "didn't you see the arrows back there?" and I slurred back at him that I didn't even see the fucking Indians!" The time, 2 weeks before In Missoula where we had a 3 am food fight with some college kids at the Oxford. Our weapons being plates of 'Cow brains', which was a 3 am after drinking special. Then there was tonight.
    We had gone into Stockmans, and It was standing room only. The dregs of the Montana city night life. Standing two deep at the bar, we couldn't seem to get a bartenders attention, even though we were all, for the most part, well known to the staff there. Mo, being the tiny and wiry and In your face gal that she was started elbowing her way through the drunks that had been standing there, presumably a lot longer then us, waiting for a drink. Next thing I knew the crowd In front of us had opened up a circle to the bar, and Mo was squatting In the center of It pissing. I saw this as an opening... & my 15 minute timer just went off.Good exercise & her story reminded me of this one

  3. Dufflyn -- you are channeling your stand-up comic self! Hysterical post. So multi-faceted you are -- with your talent and your fantabulous hair!

    MontanaBeachBum -- your exercise rocked!!! Groovy flow, funny as hell, vivid and fulla life. Are you going to work on it more? Shape and send off somewhere? We are honored to feature it on this blog! You're clearly a natural. Great storytelling. You were inspired and in turn you inspire. You in Missoula?