By Thomas Page
Pictured before you is a Sunday Chicken Dinner. There are greens, macaroni & cheese, biscuits, and a pitcher of sweet tea. Around this banquet there sits our characters: the Petersons. There’s Adam who is the father. He sits at the head of the table. He works at the swanky office downtown and generally lives a fairly tony life. Seated beside him is his second wife Colette. She volunteers at the local spouses’ club and makes nanaimo bars for the police officers during National Night Out. Around the table are Adam’s children Seth, Michael, and Teagan. They are teenagers who attend the local high school and generally make no impression on anyone they meet. There’s also Harper, who is the daughter of Adam and Colette. She is in grade school and is in the GATE program. They are like any normal family except they will be put through an onslaught that would even make Job himself cry like a child. They are the subject of someone’s MFA Thesis.
There are a couple of ways our graduate student could go from here. One is to look at the deterioration of Adam and Colette’s marriage.That will always be appropriate for someone’s book club where around half of the readers are divorcees. In about twenty years, it will mostly be common-law marriages and partners who wish to reject the meaning of marriage. Very scandalous. Regardless, you can find cracks in the veneer. Men and women, at least according to the pink-and-red self-help books, cannot exist together without becoming Judith and Holofernes. You could look at Colette’s isolation and her fear of being seen as the “hand the rocks the cradle.” There’s always something suspicious about someone married to a divorced man. The graduate student will go through a variety of metaphors until finally settling on a used microwave–technically fine but you have no idea what has been cooked in there. You could also look at Adam’s fear of becoming old. He is older than Colette and his hair is receding behind his crown is making him more and more of what he will eventually become: his father. Ain’t that the way it always is in these types of stories? Becoming one’s parents is the fear of all novelists who spend hours and hours typing about how these happen to everyone but them. This marriage is only a misplaced undergarment or a misread text message away from becoming another breakup story.
Another angle is to look at the kids. Having more than one means that someone is bound to mess up royally. It could be the black sheep who doesn’t want to go into Dad’s swanky job and become an artist. Let’s make it Seth. There’s the biblical allusion there as a plus as well as he is the oldest. Or it could be the honor student who gets with the wrong crowd and becomes the subject of some D.A.R.E. story ten years down the line. Maybe Michael? Middle children are always seeking validation. Or even maybe it can be the sport of many writers of making the perfect child have a deep, dark, and troublesome secret. Maybe they solve crimes or are gay or are both. Whatever it is, the child will hide it to protect the family from the strains of the secret. Then there will be a reveal and everyone will have cake or die or something. That can be Teagan. Younger children tend to rebel and Teagan is a gender-neutral name. It’s up to our writer. Regarding youngest children, there is only one fate for them: death or destruction. Poor little Harper. She didn’t even have a chance to be characterized.
Ooh, what about an intergenerational conflict? No one is an island and Adam’s father must have done something vile if the family is comfortable. Or at least that’s what the Marxist narrative of the class conflict says happened. You could also see it as the effects of the roles each person plays. No one wants to just be a Commedia dell’Arte character. People want to have depth. They want to be more than what others may think of them if they saw them on a train. These roles tend to rip people apart– Adam the father and Adam the company man, Colette the mother and Colette the society woman, Seth the eldest son and Seth the bohemian. The possibilities are endless. Moreover, these can show the uselessness of trying to escape your roles in life even though the grad student is trying to avoid becoming a dentist like his father or a lawyer like his mother. The cherry on top is the fact that all though these weigh down on these people they have the appearance that nothing is going on at all. They live in a society.
Now that we have the basis of our conflict, we know wait for our grad student to set up the conflict. Although these are the types of things which make teachers and critics mewl with delight at the idea that people aren’t perfect, it has to be natural. Everything nowadays has to be natural. It has to give credence to experiences oxymoronically universal and unique. No one can just open a story with the blatant idea that we want the Petersons to die in a trashcan fire. We want that to happen later. Classic setups include mysterious relatives, new houses, disasters, and falls from graces. Of course, this will be woven in in a later chapter. We have to know the Petersons first.
Dialogue is always a bother. No one really wants to write it. They just want to read it. Eventually, though, someone has to speak.
“I really like this chicken, Mom! Did you use paprika?”
“Mmm. Good chicken. Did you use paprika?”
Do people talk like this? Who would even say this? The rule is “show, don’t tell” but that is nearly impossible when the student has to fuss over every word. Let’s fall back on this being stream-of-consciousness and let the reader figure out what is happening. But how do we establish the life of the Petersons before we destroy it all?
Ah, our grad student has found a way out. He will have each character describe the same Sunday Chicken Dinner and have them fill out the rest. It worked for Faulkner. It has to work for him. Hollywood rehashes the same story over and over and over again so why not the fledgling writer? We all know that the novel since the Silent Generation has to be a novel of turmoil wrapped up in different paper. Everyone suffers so that will be our universal and unique experience. Moreover, the grad student has a unique perspective on suffering because he has suffered through this MFA program. He got a C on that Shakespeare paper which was totally unwarranted.
Who should speak first? This is a toughie because how he orders it will impact the overall message of it. Even though the author is dead someone has to write it. The grad student doesn’t believe he’s a monkey at the keyboard; maybe an ape. Regardless, he decides on this order: Adam, Colette, Seth, Michael, Teagan, and Harper. He’ll have each talk about the impending doom that is to befall this family after this dinner. Kind of like a last supper. Maybe that should be the title. Each of the Petersons’ lives will be changed forever after this dinner. This was to be their fates: Adam would lose his job due to a false allegation of embezzlement, Colette would be accused of poisoning the Sheriff with her nanaimo bars, Seth would not get into Yale (a good writer never has a character hope for Harvard) because he got a bad grade on his statistics class and he tries to resolve it with the teacher but only makes his worse, Michael would get outcasted for trying to tell the truth about what happened on Saturday, Teagan would get outed with whatever the secret is, and to top it all off Harper would disappear on her way to school. People eat that kind of devilish suffering up like crab legs. Now all our grad student needs to do is to clarify the butter.
This story will have to end where it began because that is the fashion. There will be some closing thought that will really make all of this suffering worth it to the reader. Maybe a comment like this:
And despite it all, the Petersons knew what really mattered was that they kept doing traditions like having dinner at the table even if a seat was empty.
Harper looked at the dishes and the bones on the table. She reached for the wishbone. Her mother took it and went through the ritual with her. She closed her eyes and wished that it could always be like this, having everyone together. She tugged and felt the wishbone snap. When her eyes were opened, she saw that the larger half was in her mother’s hand.
“What did you wish for, Mommy?” she asked.
“If I say it, it won’t come true,” her mother said.
Her mother turned her head away from her to let out a worried sigh. Harper heard it and wondered what her mother had wished for.
Whatever it may be, it will be bound and the pages cut and set on some display on the window after getting an okay grade from the thesis board. It will be placed next to the other miseries of other families like the Petersons with glossy covers. It will eventually be turned into a movie starring some Chris and some Jennifer that will be a contender but not win an Oscar.
There will be a day when you’re talking about the grad student’s book and the response will be “Who?”