If you have never encountered a writing exercise by Brian Kiteley before, do not be put off. Kiteley’s exercises are as distant from the joyless and thoughtless writing prompts that litter the internet as can be. There is no ‘imagine you were a hungry dog’ or ‘write about a time you were scared’ here. Instead, Kiteley’s exercises are, paradoxically, precise directions into the unmapped. Follow them and you discover uncanny new territories in your own writing. As often as not, they function like a more embodied version of the constraints of the Oulipo, allowing writers to shed the blinkers of their first thoughts to reveal a multiverse of second sight.
An Exercise in Love and Happiness
Write a 500-word fragment of fiction about a happy couple who try to solve a simple mystery. Tell us the story from the point of view of only one member of this couple. Maybe they’re in the early bloom of love, or maybe they’ve been together quite a while. The fact that they’re in love and relatively happy is not what concerns this piece of narrative, but the way these two people (man and man, woman and woman, or woman and man) work together is crucial to the resolution of the problem at the heart of the story. Each knows something about the mystery the other doesn’t know. They should work together and separately. Don’t make the happiness of this couple a large part of the narrative. Let it be a subtle undercurrent of the story. The mystery does not have to be serious – murder, kidnapping. It can and should be just a puzzle, something that needs two minds to decipher.
Early in the Twentieth Century, novelist, playwright, and critic William Dean Howells complained that ‘what the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending’. This may be a comment on American sentimentality or our relentless cheerfulness, what Stanley Cavell calls our ‘best contributions to world happiness’, public friendliness. But I am also interested in pressing fiction writers to explore happiness, joy, or contentment, which appears rarely in contemporary writing and is harder to convey than you may imagine.
“The fact that they’re in love and relatively happy is not what concerns this piece of narrative, but the way these two people (man and man, woman and woman, or woman and man) work together is crucial to the resolution of the problem at the heart of the story.”
More recently, Victoria Shannon, in The New York Times, points out that ‘Happy kids learn faster, think more creatively, tend to be more resilient in the face of failures, have stronger relationships and make friends more easily.’ But she also laments that ‘fifteen-year-old girls were found to be the unhappiest group’ among the young around the world. Helen Fisher, in the journal Nautilus, says:
Even a happy lover shows all of the characteristics of an addict. Foremost, besotted men and women crave emotional and physical union with their beloved. This craving is a central component of all addictions. Lovers also feel a rush of exhilaration when thinking about him or her, a form of “intoxication.” As their obsession builds, the lover seeks to interact with the beloved more and more, known in addiction literature as “intensification.” They also think obsessively about their beloved, a form of intrusive thinking fundamental to drug dependence. Lovers … distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the beloved, and often do inappropriate, dangerous, or extreme things to remain in contact with or impress this special other.
Dashiell Hammett, in his last novel, The Thin Man, presents a couple that obviously love and trust each other, and much of the time they work together to solve a mystery. The relationship was made perhaps more vivid in the film, with Myrna Loy and William Powell, but even from this brief snippet in the novel we can see the heart and soul of their marriage:
We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
“If you like them like that.”
She grinned at me. “You got types?”
“Only you, darling – lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
“And how about the red-head you wandered off with at Quinns’ last night?”
“That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”
They tease each other. They flirt with other people. They bicker gently. But Nick and Nora are secure that each loves the other, that neither will harm the other. The vast majority of detective novels have one point of view and one private eye. Hammett’s story is unique in that there are two sets of eyes and minds working to puzzle through the problem. It is also a very unusual American novel all by itself because of this happy marriage, this loving, functional, and productive bond at its centre.
Cavell, Stanley. Humanities, Vol. 6, No. 4 (August 1985), pp. 3-7
Fisher, Helen. ‘Love Is Like Cocaine: From Ecstasy to Withdrawal, the Lover Resembles an Addict’, Nautilus, 4 Feb. 2016. http://nautil.us/issue/33/attraction/love-is-like-cocaine/
Hammett, Dashiell. The Thin Man. 1934. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011.
Photo: LOVE by Steve Snodgrass