Creating a Scene with Charles Baxter

One of my favorite sections in Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot is “Creating a Scene.” Baxter points out that “In daily life, a writer may practice conflict-avoidance, but in fiction a writer must welcome conflict and walk straight into it.” I was reminded of this recently when I avoided in real life a conflict with SOFI.

SOFI is the scary, off-putting fitness instructor I encountered while trying out a class at a gym I was considering joining. The gym offers a one-week free trial. I had already sampled the Abdominatrix class, a muscle training class, and another class in the sculpt/core category designed for the health club novice. Aside from yoga, I’d never taken exercise classes. These first three classes went fine. The instructors were welcoming and good-natured, even downright pert in one case. On the last day of my free trial I walked into a class with “boot camp” in the title. Okay, so that should’ve been a clue.

Let me say here that I consider myself pretty fit. It’s a fitness derived from over thirty years of running. I’ve done other activities over the years—softball, soccer, biking—but running has always been the constant, even during both my pregnancies.

In recent years, my running has decreased. I turn 59 next month and 60 looms on a very short horizon. I’m, of course, much slower than I was in my twenties and thirties, even forties. I no longer get the mileage in and I try to make up the deficit by biking. I added yoga ten years ago mostly to de-stress, but also to stay flexible, improve my strength, and fix my posture.

I wondered whether at this point of my life I needed a revised exercise routine that involved less bone-jarring action like running and more strength and conditioning done indoors on a spring-loaded floor. Which is what led me to SOFI’s class.

It was a small class, but there was no acknowledgement on SOFI’s part of me as a newcomer. When she ordered us to get a kettle-bell, I asked her what we would be using it for. I wanted to be able to match the weight to my strength level for the exercise. “I’m not telling you,” she snapped. “Just don’t get a five-pounder.” Immediately after, a man a few feet away asked the same question and to my astonishment, SOFI replied, “Lunges.”

I shrugged it off and went about gathering the other props she told us we would need—a mat and a small, squishable plastic ball.

SOFI started us on an abdominal exercise. On our backs with knees bent and the ball squished between sacrum and mat, we lifted elbow to opposite leg. “Not like that,” she yelled at me. Yes, yelled—at me, a grown-up. I must have looked as startled as I felt.

“That’s just how I am,” SOFI explained. It was no comfort, especially after she jabbed her fingers into my belly and commanded, “Keep that pulled in.” My impulse was to flee, but I didn’t want to make a scene. Even if it was a quiet exit, it would’ve been obvious, especially since I would’ve felt compelled to observe gym etiquette and wipe down my mat and props with the little antiseptic wipes in the prominently placed dispensers. For 55 minutes, I endured SOFI’s repeated yelling. “You’re doing it wrong! Don’t do it like that!

I left the gym like a beaten dog, abused and humiliated, still feeling SOFI’s fingers in my gut.

Baxter: People who have practiced good manners and conflict-avoidance all their lives have to remember to leave those habits of mind at the door when they enter the theater of fiction.

So here’s the scene fictionalized:

SOFI struts in. She’s a petite woman, made bold with blue-streaked, very black hair, a pink, body-skimming, workout tank top and black exercise pants. Multicolored tattoos swirl around her biceps, obscuring their definition.

Baxter: The writer may be aided in creating a narrative by having a repellant character in the story…

I try to decide if the smirk on her face is deliberate, or just the effect from the particular arrangement of her features.

I wonder if I, the newcomer, should introduce myself. But SOFI seems not to notice me. “Everyone, get a kettle-bell,” she orders.

“What are we going to use it for,” I ask, wanting to select the weight most appropriate to the exercise and my strength level.

Baxter: The first definition of scene creation is the almost ritualistic inability to follow the conventions of good manners.

“I’m not telling you,” SOFI replies.

“Okay,” I mutter to myself, “you’re the teacher.”

But then a man a few feet away from me asks the same question.

“Lunges,” SOFI tells him.

“Um, excuse me. You answered his question.”


“Well, when I asked, you wouldn’t tell me.”


I‘m holding a fifteen-pound kettle-bell. I’m emboldened. “I’m taken aback by your rudeness,” I say, taken aback by the idiocy of my words. I swing the kettle-bell up near my shoulder, dangle it from two fingers.

“No one’s making you stay,” SOFI says. She swivels on her cross-trainers which squawk on the floor.

I watch her retreat and I drop the kettle-bell. It thuds and keels on its side.

SOFI swings back around, her hair whipping her cheek, a strand catching at her lip making a mustache, blue-black and villainous.

“Oops,” I say, righting the kettle-bell. Then I add, “I’ll leave when I’m ready.”

SOFI laces her fingers together and cracks her knuckles. “Suit yourself.”

She demonstrates the sit-up variation she wants us to do with the little pink ball placed beneath the sacrum, not the low back, not the shoulder blades, but the sacrum. I follow her instructions, squeezing my sacrum into the ball as I lift my elbow to opposite knee.


“I’m sorry, but did you just yell at me?” I’ve begun to sweat, not so much from the exertion from sit-ups as from the surge of fight-or-flight adrenaline.

“I’m sorry,” mocks SOFI, “yes, I did.”

Baxter: Bad manners make us visible… We become a spectacle.

I’m in a near-supine position. SOFI is leaning over me, hands on hips, face in full smirk.

I remove the plastic ball from beneath my sacrum, and, balancing on my tailbone, belly muscles pulled in, I bop her on the nose with the ball. I roll to my side and spring to my feet.

Baxter: Fiction is the antidote to the conduct manual.

I exit without wiping down my mat.


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