By Gordon Jones, J.G. Lewis, Susana Molinolo, and Lee Parpart
Ashley steps off the elevator into a long hallway at the end of the insurance company’s foyer. She’s been here three months, finally past probation. She clears a gauntlet of plastic palms and admires the cleanliness of the floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides, congratulating herself on landing a job in such a beautiful building in Toronto’s financial district.
A woman’s voice carries clearly from inside the cafeteria and just reaches Ashley as she walks past a goldfish pool.
“Everybody’s been talking about it,” the woman said.
Talking about what? She’s curious, but she’s also due across town for her weekly improv class, and she doesn’t want to be late.
As she walks towards the cafeteria, she decides she’ll just poke her head in, find out what’s going on, and make her exit.
It’s probably just the usual talk of coronavirus, anyway. It’s almost getting to be annoying, the number of times people are mentioning it every day. Goddamn Bob from the actuarial group wore a mask to work the other day. Jesus, Bob, just wash your hands and get a grip. The funniest part was when he couldn’t get the Timbit under the mask without loosening it and exposing himself to certain death. Ashley is already thinking about how she can work him into tonight’s sketch.
She checks her phone. Half an hour to class. Just enough time walk up Spadina instead of taking the streetcar, if she can avoid being pulled into the drama that’s unfolding fifteen feet away.
Just outside the glowing doors of the cafeteria, she zips up her ratty MEC jacket, and that’s when hears it: a low, sickly gasp. Ashley peeks into the room, staying out of sight, and sees two women huddled together near a vending machine. One is visibly upset. They are both staring up at a TV in the corner. The sound is off, but Ashley can see a steady stream of images of people with masks over their mouths, and interviews with people in white coats. Underneath those boxed news segments, in the crawl, CP24 reports that Meghan and Harry are “under siege in Canada.” Poor Meghan and Harry.
Ashley assumes it’s safe to move on. Of course it’s just more drama about the coronavirus — or the Crown. Whatever. Figuring it’s still a good idea to say goodnight, she cranes her neck into the room and catches the eye of the woman facing her, the one who was upset. She recognizes her from a training session earlier in the day. A middle-aged woman with a shock of chemically dependent red hair. The other woman turns and sees Ashley, and says “Have you heard the news?”
In a hoarse voice, the trainer chokes out one word: “Layoffs.”
As if on cue, the crawl on the TV switches from royals to news of her employer, the second largest insurance company in Canada: “Job cuts across the board: undisclosed number of layoffs this quarter and next.”
Ashley freezes. This is going to make for such shitty improv.
January 30, 2020 The Journey: A Group Writing Session Group 1
A note on the process of writing The Crawl by Lee Parpart
Our group consisted of four writers: Susana Molinolo, me (Lee Parpart), Gordon Jones, and J.G. Lewis. Susana and Lee know each other well from a shared writing circle outside of Authors–Toronto, whereas neither of us had met Gordon or J.G. before, and they had not met each other. Gordon is a member of Authors–Toronto, while J.G. made a last-minute decision to join his first branch event after seeing our group writing session listed on social media.
We started by talking about our trip over to the CSI Spadina that evening. Two of us got lost (and a little stressed) on the way to the venue; one came in from Montreal; and another stayed late at work to deal with a presentation the next day, then popped into a tea shop along Spadina. From this mishmash of starting points, we quickly settled on what we hoped would be a tight but moody narrative about a female protagonist who was trying and failing to exert control over every aspect of her life, from work to domestic routines, as she managed escalating tensions over health ahd money concerns.
We imagined a woman whose smug confidence about her own work ethic and preparedness for anything gradually unravelled under pressure from an array of competing threats to her tidy existence. The mood of the piece was going to reflect a heightened sense of worry that all of us had noticed in our movements around the city recently.
Unlike the other group, we wrote our story on the computer. Lee is a fast typist who is used to taking notes while people are speaking, so she fired up her laptop and became the group’s secretary. The time pressure we were under seemed to keep us all very focused. We began to function like a TV writing room, pitching ideas and making decisions quickly, accepting lines and ideas that seemed to be working and leaving others out. There seemed to be no time for ego or tiptoeing around. This was storytelling triage, and we were all crowding around doing chest compressions at the same time.
One surprising element of our process had to do with how, and how much, the story and the main character evolved. Small decisions about plot and character introduced dramatic changes that then affected everything else. For example, we were having trouble figuring out what kind of meeting to have the woman attend, and we cycled through several options, including Alcoholics Anonymous and circus training. As soon as we settled on having her attend an improv class, that changed everything; from a smug narrator obsessed with micro-managing every aspect of her life, our protagonist, Ashley, evolved into a darkly funny person whose inner dialogue included a sarcastic critique of her colleague’s attempts to control their environment. In other words, Ashley went from being a control freak to criticizing the control freaks around her, as we wrote her into being.
Introducing voice into the piece also shaped our main character; as soon as we heard her venting about “Bob from the actuarial group” at work, we knew we had an aspiring comedian on our hands, and the rest of the story began to fall into line with that aspect of her character. This meant that we had to sacrifice large chunks of the story that were already written, but it also gave us the focus we needed to finish the story within 45 minutes.
Creating something from scratch always feels like a high-wire act, and it’s incredibly satisfying when you see your creation begin to take shape, even when it’s as lumpy and incomplete as the raw draft you see here. We all agreed that the collaborative process was very organic and fluid, and that we could imagine working with the same group to write a longer piece.