Imitation of John Cheever
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 _____________.”
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__________________.”
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.
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.
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.