Garbage Piece

by Jeff Oaks

A garbage piece is based on an exercise my friend Liz Ahl taught me called The Garbage Poem. The basic rules are these:

1. Everyone involved gets to create a rule everyone in the group must follow.
2. There’s a set amount of time.
3. Everyone reads his or her draft.

For practical purposes, I only allowed nine rules. I had to veto a couple that I knew would be impossible (no figurative language one kid said) or excruciating (make every sentence begin and end on the same word) or too easy (use all simple sentences). At first they were fairly simple rules but as time went on, they grew more and more eager to torture themselves and their classmates. Making the rules themselves is exciting.

I gave them a subject well known to students everywhere: write about something that happened over Spring Break. Tell us a story, I said.

I gave them thirty minutes. I said don’t worry about making anything good. It’s called a Garbage Piece for a reason: there’s way you should be able to produce anything good. Now try to, I said, smiling.

I did it too:

You start dating after eight years of nothing but living alone. You will lose some things, you think. Days and days turn into nothing but writing, writing for days and days. The dog is the only one who looks at you some days. At night when you walk the dark train tracks so he can find relief, he sometimes disappears after a rabbit. You hear their hearts race in the dark ahead, a muttered half-curse from the dog as he comes back with nothing. He is a strange horse, a black panther, an ancient priest as he walks beside you, walking through a variety of floodlights, each one throwing off a different you. You loosen up. You tell yourself that. You begin to say hi to strangers who know you only through text. (You begin to realize how all those years of reading and writing pay off now, in that you can tell lies from half-truths, texts from terrified aging men who are afraid they’re too fat, too bald, too old.) You are praised for your honesty and articulation by a number of men who later admit to lying about facts, who are in a variety of relationships–open, partnered, looking, single, married, divorced. You begin to talk, by which is meant text–to a couple of them who interest you. One is bigger than you. One is smaller. One seems to have a better occupation, one seems quieter. It turns out you’re not as broken down as you thought. It turns out you remember the right things to say to attract attention. Some of them send you naked pictures as a way of saying hello. Every so often you invite one home. Hey, they like to begin, and you write back to them, if you want to, and say Hey. The dog starts avoiding the bed. Or he slides off the bed when the sound of your breathing changes. It turns out he is tired of watching over you every night to make sure you won’t run away. He goes down and looks out the windows at the dark street. “It’ll be all right now,” you hear him whisper in the hallway who might be your dead mother. “Good,” says a voice in return, more Chanel Number Five than words.

Here is a picture of the board, so if you feel like writing Garbage, you can give it a try. One warning: the time rule is important. Don’t do it over the course of the day. Set a timer and then go. Good luck!