Imitation of John Cheever

 

I was so entertained and informed by last week's exercise, in which you built off one another's opening sentences, so I thought it might be helpful to give you a space to share your John Cheever imitation, so you can share what you're working on. (Don't feel as though you MUST post your work here, but if you wanted to, here it is. . .)

Here's the exercise, for reference. You can also find it in the class Google Doc.

Write an Imitation of John Cheever’s 

“The Enormous Radio”

 

“Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.”

 

This is the opening sentence and paragraph of the story. Here Cheever is giving us an opinion about the two main characters of the story—he is basically saying that they are average.

 

1. Let’s think of some opening sentences that introduce characters the same way, with a statement that judges them. Write three, either about a singular character or about, as Cheever does here, a pair of characters. Try to phrase these openings as Cheever does: “(Character name) and (Character name) were the kind of  _____________who seem to _____________.”

 

Examples:

 

Angela Martin was that kind of girl who seemed to glow with the improbable light of teenage perfection.

 

Sarah and Maureen Maughan were the type of sisters who seem to embody entirely opposite qualities—the sun and the moon, respectively, in both looks and temperament.

 

Megan Pendley and Mateo Diaz were the kind of ultra-hip urban couple who seem to have sprung from the pages of an REI catalog.

 



“They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house in the East Seventies between Fifth and Madison Avenues, they went to the theatre on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester.”

 

Next Cheever gives us a concise description of the couple, starting with the basic facts—how many kids they had, how long they’d been married, where they lived—and moving to slightly more telling details: that they go to the theatre 10.3 times a year, and what they hope to do in the future. Let’s try to do the same. Pick one of your sentences from before and start a new paragraph afterwards that follows the same pattern: “They were ___________, they had been ______________, they lived________________, they (some habit or hobby), and they hoped/wished/dream about__________________.”

Example:

 

Sarah and Maureen Maughan were the type of sisters who seem to embody entirely opposite qualities—the sun and the moon, respectively, in both looks and temperament. They were sixteen and eighteen years old, a barely-C student and the class valedictorian at Madison High School, they shared a cramped bedroom in one of those boxy 1970s-style houses on the east side of Eagle City, they fought an average of 3.5 times a day, and they both dreamed about living in California.

 


 

“Irene Westcott was a pleasant, rather plain girl with soft brown hair and a wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written, and in cold weather she wore a coat of fitch skins dyed to resemble mink. You could not say that Jim Westcott, at thirty-seven, looked younger than he was, but you could at least say of him that he seemed to feel younger. He wore his graying hair cut very short, he dressed in the kind of clothes his class had worn at Andover, and his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally naive.”

 

Now Cheever begins to speak of the characters separately. He does give us a bit of physical description, but largely he gives us very specific, telling details that help us understand who the characters are beyond their looks, or uses their looks and clothes to say something more important about them. Let’s try to imitate this, too. “(Character name) was a (adjective 1), (adjective 2) _________, with (physical description 1) and (physical description 2 that speaks to her character), and in (situation) she/he/they (telling action that also gives us an image). Then continue with the second character (if you have one) or add more for the first character.

 

Example: 

 

Sarah Maughan was a cautious, close-mouthed girl with sharp brown eyes and cornsilk blond hair that she hastily braided every morning into one long plait over her shoulder, and even on the warmest days she wore chunky, oversized sweaters that swallowed her thin frame. You couldn’t say that Maureen Maughan, in contrast, was more personable than Sarah, but you could at least say that she seemed friendlier. She wore her dark hair in a classic bob, with bangs, she dressed out of the pages of a Land’s End catalog, and she prided herself on being honest, optimistic, and aggressively kind. 

 

 

By now you should have a pretty decent idea of who these characters are, which is a great start for any story. At this point, Cheever moves to talking about how the Westcotts are different from their neighbors in their love of music, which is what leads us to the main subject of this story: the radio, and how it’s going to alter the relationship between them. 

 

Think about how you might do the same. Move on from describing the characters to introducing the element that is going to change them.

 

Example:

 

The Maughan sisters were as different from each other as night and day, but they both noticed the new boy at school, who’d they later come to find out was named Peter—Peter Sato—at the exact same moment at the spirit assembly that Friday afternoon. An unfamiliar boy was a rare thing in this school of under five hundred students. A newcomer. A stranger.

Comments

  1. Hannah and Mary were the kind of family whose life seemed to revolve around food. They were mother and daughter, they had been accumulating an average of 3.2 new cookbooks a month, they lived walking distance from a specialty cheese shop, they discussed what they would have for tomorrow’s dinner every night over dinner, and they dreamed about someday having their own vegetable garden. Hannah was a withdrawn, opinionated girl, with a mole on her temple and straight black hair that seemed determined to escape any attempt to tie it up, and in snowstorms she continued to order iced coffee with half and half and no sugar from the local coffee shop. You could not say that Mary, with her sharp eyes and worn skin looked delicate, but you could at least say of her that she seemed poised. She stood stiff backed and upright, she wore her greying hair in the same topknot her mother had, and her words were pointed, intentional, but unnervingly gentle. Hannah and Mary considered themselves to be rather unremarkable, but prided themselves in their closeness. Any mundane task performed outside of their separate bedrooms—most often, cooking— came with the unspoken invitation for company and conversation.
    -Cassie

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    1. I love how this exercise just pulls out the characters. Nice details. My only suggestion is to add one or two details that suggest a flaw or conflict.

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  2. Caroline and Valerie Gallo were twin sisters who looked like on another, however they seem to act as if the other sister is a plague. They lived together in their flat in central london, which was paid for by their father. Just as most things in their life had been. Originally they were from the states, from Albany New York with New York on the weekends. Everyone laughed, even if they didn’t realize it was a nearly 3 hour drive they took every weekend. Each had brown hair so dark it was black, with grey eyes that appeared nearly hauntingly beautiful. Like they were one step away from being a horror movie monster, at least if they stepped into a pool to wet their hair. But neither of them can ever cut it, or color it fully.

    Caroline, ever the first, is pushy and determined, and wants a position in journalism. Especially since her father once was high up in a prime news network, and can use that to her advantage. Dressing in fashionable clothes and bold makeup, drawing attention to the points that she believes matter. The eyes. Hair up in a pony tail to accentuate her features and make a bigger splash. Valerie is quiet, a little less pushy than Caroline (but not by much), especially as she makes her way quickly. At least as quickly as being a well known scholar in academia can get you. She wears comfortable clothes and softer makeup, but always seems to have a pair of thick soled Doc Martins on as if she is ready to do some heavy lifting. Her hair is up as well, but with a few more strands loose about her ears, providing a softness that Caroline seems to lack.

    - Nicole

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    1. Really good! I got lost a little in the opening paragraph but you brought it back around.

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  3. Felicity Faith is the kind of girl who puts on a mask in the morning to present to the world a happy, care-free person, but crumbles as she stands alone in front of her mirror.

    She was happy when she was a child , like most people are, and had a relatively good upbringing in a small suburban town in the middle of Oklahoma. She was pushed into sports by her parents because that’s what her older brothers did, but she made it a point to visit the rundown art museum at least once a week. She dreamed of days where she could wander through the MET for a day, two days, three days, or maybe forever.

    Felicity Faith was a reserved, quiet eighteen-year-old girl, with pin-straight red hair that fell to just above her shoulders and a splatter of freckles across her cheeks and nose that she occasionally tried to make constellations from. She often thought about what it must be like for people who don’t live in suburban Oklahoma . She added black heart clips to her hair to tell everyone, “hey, I am not suppose to be here. Not suppose to be in this town filled with crop fields, cows and people who only care about their small town.”

    As a Faith, she always had an expectation of shoes to fill, whether it was following in her brothers’ popular footsteps, or having to acquire her mother’s charitable heart—it was always something. What Felicity was not expecting was to now have to follow in the footsteps of a southern-style, perfectly-paired wedding and marriage. It honestly should not have come as a surprise that Frederick would marry his high school sweetheart, but sitting at their rehearsal dinner was the final straw. A cracker to shatter it all. A gust of wind to push her off the edge.
    -Taylor

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    1. Faith is really coming through clearly. How can we make the details even more specific? What sports? A suburb or what, Oklahoma? Can you give us a sense of what detail at the rehearsal dinner becomes the final straw?

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    2. Uh, Felicity. I did get a little confused on two first names as a name, but I caught myself here.

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  4. Timothee Short and Jonathan Merriweather were the kind of business partners that seemed to be stuck together in a glue of misinformed decisions and fruitful prospects. They were respectively fifty-seven and sixty-four years old, they shared an apartment on the outskirts of Queens, New York, they played cards often, and they hoped to find an appropriate investor for their hedge fund start up.
    Jonathan Merriweather was a fiery retired welder with a beard like a wire brush and a head like a polished bauble that he sadly covered with a torn Yankees baseball cap everytime he left his abode. You might say that Timothee Short had more potential because of his younger age, but you would be wrong. Timothee had been dealt all the right cards in life, but he just didn’t know how to play them. He took pride in his full head of black locks in the same way that Jonathan didn’t, and he shoved people out of his way if they didn’t move. The business partners greatly differed on their approach, but they both had a unifying tornado of a dream that had wound them together to the point of inseparability.

    - Elizabeth S.

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    1. I loved this! The characters are so vivid. the wire brush and polished (I was looking for another word for bauble, but the image was pretty good, even still) were so vivid!

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  5. 1.)
    Jermey and Kass Farlow were the kind of newly weds who seem to only find flaws in each other when forced to confront them.

    Chris Burns was the kind of child who seemed to take and give at his leisure with his silver spoon in one hand and the whims of his servants in the other.

    Salem DeNucchi and Courtney Casburough were the kind of extravagance who seemed to find themselves lost in the torrent of travel very easily.

    2.)
    They were taking their youth in stride, they had just finished their degrees to dine and dash the colleges that trained them, they lived day by day by the skin of their teeth, they have visited every western european country past the german border, they wished themselves immortal until they see the world in its entirety.

    3.)
    Salem DeNucchi was a meticulous, suspicious boy with slick backed brown hair and equally sharped eyebrows that could chisel stone as quick as they fluctuated between expressions of concern and curiosity, and even within the warmest conditions, he fails to leave behind a worn sweater that smells of english clippings. In the cold and calculated demeanor of the boy, the same cannot be said in Courney Casburough, whose child-like glee and wonderment require the acrobatics of smile wrinkles, dark circles, blonde hair whipped into the bobbing of a ponytail, and a petite frame hidden under the perpetual motion of a sun dress that ebbs and flows.

    4.)
    The two who say they are not a couple only watch the faces of the familiar through the screens they carry, these overseas ties to their former, non-nomadic life. The only other connection with this strength is a new device, a sat-phone that will reach where their own devices will not.

    - Tomio

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    1. I had a little trouble following this at first, because I was trying to pin down the abstracts: "extravagance" "torrents of travel," but I caught on. I especially loved the description of Courtney. My advice here would be to ground us a little more. You say a great deal about what these two want, but not a lot about WHO they are and where they come from or why they would want to travel. Also watch your tenses. :)

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  6. Bruce Osborne and Lily Walters were the kind of figure skaters who seem to always get a silver medal.They were of indeterminate age, as all good figure skaters’ are, and the age they told others varied wildly depending on the day, mood and occasion. They had been to the Salt Lake City Olympics three and a half years ago. They lived in side by side apartments on the 12th floor of a beige-colored high rise building on the south side of Miami, Florida. They gorged on Cuban sandwiches whenever their trainer wasn’t looking. They hoped, of course, to win gold at some point, but more specifically, Lily hoped Bruce would agree to the name change to Skip and stop skating in a way that sent his ice spray directly in her face, and Bruce hoped their number of apartments would go down to one.

    Lily Walters was a small woman, with short thin limbs and slender frame, the kind that made being thrown, for instance, across an ice rink possible. The only large feature about her was her straight, fiery hair that grew all the way down her back, which she kept in a tight braid that twirled around her on the ice like a gymnast’s ribbon. Unlike Lily, Bruce Osborne was starting to show signs of all the Cubans in his belly, but you could at least say that he was taller. A week ago, the strap of his gym bag had broken, and so he just wore his skating clothes, including the puffy coat, as he walked to the rink in the Florida sun with his skates slung across his shoulder. He had always hung them that way since getting his mother gave him his first pair at age 7, and ever since, he had just gone with the flow.

    The duo had skated together since they were 12 years old, and had lived next to each other for the last ten. Every morning, Bruce would tap out most of “Shave and a Haircut” on their shared wall, and after a few seconds, give or take depending on if she was in the bathroom, Lily would knock the last to notes. Yesterday morning, Bruce wandered over to the wall with his bagel clenched between his teeth, and just as he brought his fist up he heard a male voice on the other side.

    -Logan O.

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    1. Lovely opening line, and really great inciting moment, with the raised fist. I can picture them both so clearly. What a good start.

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  7. 11.Justin and Landon were the type of teenagers that you would not think would ever be friends. Polar opposites of each other.
    2.Sally was the kind of girl that you would think was the most pretentious and annoying girl in school.
    3.Gary and Taylor Jones were the kind of siblings that seemed to embody completely different personalities.

    Gary and Taylor Jones were the kind of siblings that seemed to embody completely different personalities. They were fifteen and seventeen years old. One the popular athlete and the other being a bookish nerd. They shared an average-sized two-story house and had their own rooms at the border of Boise and Meridian Idaho. They often got into arguments about who got to use the car that weekend, and they both dreamed of moving out and going to college. Gary Jones was tall, bulky guy with bright blue eyes and a letterman's jacket that he always kept clean and wore everyday (even in the summer). You could say that in contrast, Taylor Jones was weaker and less handsome looking than his brother. But you least say he was kinder and smarter than his jock of a brother.
    The Jones brothers were as polar opposite from each other as you could get. But they later found out that their cousin, Robby was staying with them for the summer who was well known for constantly getting in trouble with the law. They never really got to know him when they were younger due to " unexpected reasons" as their parents told them back then.

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    1. Good. I feel like we need a house for these rooms at the border of Boise and Meridian. :) I wonder if there'd be a way to work a glimmer of conflict into the second paragraph.

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