Backstory: July 21
Putting real people in unfamiliar territory
Last week in workshop, to deepen our understanding of character, we wrote character sketches of folks we knew well: real people in the real world. Then, we put these people in completely unfamiliar settings.
I had participants visualize environments in detail — buildings, city or country, weather, indoors or outdoors. The idea was to see the ways characters respond to situations, what triggers them, where they have edges and where they blossom. Writers could take these renderings of actual people and use the skills when writing fictional characters.
In his piece “Mammoth,” Tom Wilkerson approached the prompt this way:
‘Mammoth’ By Tom Wilkerson
Dawn crept through vertical blinds and threw shadows on the wall. The shadows looked like bars of a jail cell. Monitors beeped, and every 15 minutes, the blood pressure cuff tightened mercilessly above his
There were people asleep in his room. God, they looked awful. Linda slouched in a green recliner, her arms crossed over her chest. Kenny lay on a cot beside the bed snoring like a coffeemaker. Then, as though it was nothing at all, no big deal, he stopped breathing. It grew suddenly dark, and everything was sucked away. He tumbled from side to side like a small toy in a large box. He threw his arms out looking for something to hold onto but then the lid came off and he was shaken — that was the only word for it — shaken from the box onto the ground. He felt something like grass under his fingers. He waited to open his eyes until he was ready for the unimaginable.
The first things he saw were clouds the color of grapes. There was sky, too, an infinite white sand beach. There was the sun; no, there were two, three, no, four suns, all glowing in a perfectly normal, perfectly yellowish way. Something came into focus. It was a large woolly beast with two large eyes and one ivory tusk on either side of its gargantuan nose. The mammoth sat in a thronelike mesh of saplings and green leaves. It appeared to be giving itself a manicure.
“Um, hello,” Robin said, with some hesitation.
The beast looked up and directly at him. “Oh. Hello there. What’s your name?”
“What’s my name?” said Robin. “Don’t you know?”
The animal gave what might have been a smile and said, “Well, I meet a lot of people on any given day. Help me out. Are you Bob?”
“No. That was my father’s name.”
“Hum,” said the mammoth. “Well, I haven’t got all day, sonny. Why don’t you just tell me who you are?”
“I’m Robin. Michaels. From Atlanta. Who are you?” he asked, a wee bit impatient.
The large woolly animal snorted. “Who do you think I am? Santa Claus?”
“Are you God?” Am I in heaven?”
“That would be correct on both counts,” said the mammoth.
“But you don’t look anything like I expected,” said Robin, thinking of long ago Sunday schools.
“My job is not to live up to your expectations,” said God, “so don’t start in on me.”
To say that Robin never expected this — or anything — after he died would be an understatement. There was no heaven. Or hell. Or afterlife. And there was certainly no God. He looked around. As far as he could see, and that seemed a very great distance, he saw lush grape arbors tended by people dressed in white robes. Was heaven a winery? God the vintner?
Not far away he saw a swimming pool-sized wooden vat. It was filled with deep purple orbs and naked women, waist deep, bouncing up and down. They giggled and laughed merrily, the purest ringing of fine crystal toasting life everlasting.
Robin turned back to the woolly mammoth who called himself God. Next to him stood a man dressed in a white linen suit. He had long, reddish brown hair and a sparse beard. Robin couldn’t help but stare. It was a face he’d seen in hundreds of paintings.
“Care for a glass of wine?” God asked. “It’s the first press of the season. Kind of Beaujolais-like, you know? Young. Unpretentious. Impertinent.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Robin, taking the proffered glass. He tasted the wine and found it perfectly acceptable.
“It’s very good,” he said. “For a Beaujolais.”
“Of course it is, you ninny,” said God, laughing a laugh that made the ground tremble. “So, have a sip and let’s get down to business.”
“Uh, OK,” said Robin. “May I ask a question?”
“Of course, son. What’s your question?”
Robin nodded to the man standing beside God’s throne. “Who’s this?”
“I’m Jesus,” the man said. “Jesus Christ.”
“No shit?” said Robin.
“No shit,” said Jesus.
Robin downed his wine. They got down to business.
▲ No portion of “Mammoth” may be used without the consent of the author.