Category Archives: writing

Prompt – taking something apart

Prompt: Write about a character taking something apart

It’s considered “cheating” to explain one’s writing in advance because the writing is supposed to stand on its own. I’m gonna do it anyway.

If a second novel is harder to write (whether the first one bombs or succeeds), it might be wise to have a second subject on deck and maybe even some rough notes before finishing the first.

Most of the initial scenes in the piece of historic fiction I’m now editing came in response to prompts. It’s incredible how participating in an AWA class over time can produce a novel.

Lately, I’ve been “getting” scenes of a family living in Massachusetts in the 1970’s. Closer to home in every respect. No research necessary (except maybe for headlines and number one hit songs). No worries about whether or not it is my story to tell.

What follows is a narrator ‘taking apart’ those initial efforts. Believe it or not, it was fun to write.

Listen, listen. You can’t have a character called Bernadette and one called Bridgette. They’re too much the same, even though it might be common to have certain sounds in a family, like yours — K_____y, D____y, and Finny.  And switching out the sex of the oldest child in this fictional family might be interesting to you and maybe even essential in creating distance from your older sister — a person who, after all, had been called not by one or two people but by several, “a monster” —  but not interesting to others. Have you pondered the gender change enough to make Robert credible? How would behaviors that were high risk for a 22 year old woman, for instance, translate to a 22 year old man? They’re overlapping but not congruent, especially when it comes to sex. Also, aggressive belligerence goes one way in a female body and another way in a male body. Have you considered adding: drunken brawls and late night visits to the ER? Instead of lawsuits for eviction and reckless driving, there might be criminal charges of assault and battery.  In other words, by being male, this character would be softened and teased in some regards and badly amped up in others.

And listen, if Maeve is 17, she has to be 17. She can’t go having experiences from her late 20’s. Compression for the sake of a story is one thing, credibility is another.

Start over. A different place. A different family. Make them Polish instead of Irish. Plunk them near Lake Oswego instead of in the Berkshires. I mean, my god, work a little.

The mother could be a drunk instead of the father and let’s make her a low functioning alcoholic instead of a high functioning one. Give the father a shovel instead of a briefcase. Now we’re talking. It’s a miracle if a kid gets to college, not utterly expected and paid for. The failure of birth control instead of its careful insertion. Instead of zero abortions, how about five? And one baby born out of wedlock. The rebellious antics of middle class kids might just bore the shit out of any audience you can name.

Unless you make one of them a terrorist, like Roth did in “American Pastoral.” Then, of course, you’d go back to making them Irish. What is it about the Irish and bombs, anyway? There are MacVeighs on your father’s side, a fact that of course (of course!) led your sister to assert familial ties to the Oklahoma bomber. But there was reputedly a murderer somewhere out west (in the Yukon? Alaska?) during the Gold Rush. Probably called Kevin. Maybe even Mallon. Or was he the victim?

I’ll say this flat out. Do. Not. Write. About. The. Loss. of a Child. Colum McCann’s character losing a son to the IRA in “TransAtlantic.” John Irving’s parents losing TWO children in “A Widow for One Year.” You do not need to spend time there. Better the fucking self-destructive foibles of teenagers who were given most things, than that.

Given most things, including a genetic inclination toward violence and drink.

Mary Mallon. Typhoid Mary. Reading about her is like reading a character study of any number of your relatives. No problem believing genetic links there! A symptom-free, disease vector. A servant in the kitchen. She stuck to her guns, boy! She wasn’t the problem (YOU’RE THE PROBLEM!). Slamming the door on the way out, you imagine, flinging down her apron in rage. Circulating from one kitchen to the next. Cough. Cough. How do you like the soup? Forcing one to wonder, was this vicious disregard for others or blinding belligerence? Does it matter to the dead?

And by the way, winning the lottery a plot does not make. Shit has to HAPPEN. And one thing that happens has to lead to another thing that happens. Even in character-driven fiction, this is true. Forget about striving to articulate how a character’s cluster fuck of impairments stung and slashed at a younger sibling. You might care about capturing the full toxic flavor of it, and no one else. See? Nothing happening.

Throw out those rough beginnings. I beseech you to make an outline. Instead of writing tangled knots, like fabric coming out of the drier in a clump, it’ll be like hanging ribbons of color off a tree — branches there already, waiting for adornment.

Day 68

Rereading writing from my teaching notebook this afternoon. Themes emerge. Below are three excerpts.

But first, some wisdom from Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life.”

She advocates writing about what most interests us, possibly a thing no one else could write but us. She counsels, like Jude does actually, to give it all away.

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

I’m not suggesting the paragraphs below meet that level of urgency but here they are anyway.

2/20 Prompt: something about Going Big

In the fraught days between impeachment and acquittal, women in black hold large letters spelling REMOVE TRUMP, protesting in silence because otherwise they might be arrested. They walk in repetitive loops as if enacting a strange monastic ritual or like an orderly colony of ants, because to be still, they’re told, is an impermissible barricade of the Senate halls and could also result in arrest.

The darkest hour might be before the dawn, but it’s also true that things die. Even Republics.

Heroes come, rise up, and are crucified, goes one story. Now all my heroines shout and shout again: “NO ONE IS COMING TO SAVE YOU. There is only us.”

On good days, this inspires. On bad days, a silent and sour question emerges: “Oh yeah? And what are WE going to do?”

2/20 Prompt: “Finally, you wonder, why does Gaia tolerate all this?”

How quickly we run into our obstinate, unyielding consumptive need! Maybe Gaia, being a goddess and all, doesn’t care if we make it as a species. Maybe Gaia doesn’t care if earth remains livable for human beings, either.

That’s kind of like what Ram Dass said that time he shared the stage with someone calling herself a visionary Christian, someone passionately committed to our survival, to our waking up to the nature of our self-destruction. Correct course! Before it’s too late! Ram Dass sat there, so alive, so himself, and asked the question right out: “Why should I be invested in our survival? In one result over another?”

4/20 Prompt: speak as a part of the body — I chose spine

We prepare for darkness, the dust to dust part. Such preparations are not morbid. In fact, they are joyous. How lovely to breathe. How lovely to breathe knowing one day you will not. We crumble and compress on our way to the grave. Such is the way of all structures, not just skeletons, but empires and republics.

Did it ever occur to you that much of your daily agonies arise from wanting, desperately wanting, our Republic to survive?

Saved up words

I went looking for a quote about how areas in our life that are the messiest are often the areas where the most progress is being made. Couldn’t find it. Here’s what I found instead. Enjoy!

“Good writing begins where there is a knot.”
Margaret Atwood

“Art is not about telling our secrets… but it does have to be free to go wherever it needs to go and usually our pain comes out first.”
Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others“We are large enough to encompass our losses. We are brave enough to dream again, risk again, love again. We just need the assurance that we really can do so, and this assurance will come to us in a thousand forms, large and very small, if we ask for it. But ask we must.”
Julia Cameron, The Vein of Gold

“There is no courage without vulnerability.” Brene Brown

“It is not what we do which makes us holy, but we ought to make holy what we do … ” Meister Eckhart

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
Denis Levertov, as quoted by Pat Schneider

“Any life will provide material for writing if it is attended to.” Wallace Stegner

“Anger is loaded with information and power.” Audre Lord, Sister Outsider

“We pick and choose what we think is most important, forgetting that it’s all important.” Jude Hill, Spirit Cloth

All SoulCollage by me. Some fairly old.

Cover ‘em up

You know why it snowed here just outside of Boston, don’t you? In May? Because I just at long last and much later than usual put away the winter hats, scarves, mittens, and gloves.

With a chill wind at our backs, we three set out. Signs of the season were everywhere, most notably an abundance of maple flowers. They littered the road, sewer grates, and rock walls as if spring’s answer to snow.

Crystal Lake was closed, not due to social distancing measures, but because it’s being treated to prevent algae growth. Last year, a bloom turned deadly and killed quite a few unsuspecting dogs.

If ever I stayed behind for too long to take a picture, Finn turned back over and over to check on my progress. Look at him as I photograph a dramatic bole.

Lastly, I apologize for not yet responding to the comments of my last post. There’s been a bit of a funk going on here which isn’t depression but kinda resembles it. I don’t know what it is. I’ll chalk it up to the pandemic.

But let me say how grateful I am for the depth of sharing here. I know I keep saying this but it feels necessary to do so and true.

I will not likely burn my Pages until I have done SOMETHING with them, but the timing of that something matters. A strategy will matter. At Deb’s suggestion, I boxed them up and got them out of my writing space. An energetic shift, for sure — a sense of relief, of space opening up. Clutter management but more. I’ll have more to say about this soon.

Day 59 of Home Containment.

Purple rice joy

Last night was one of those nights when we might’ve eaten out were it not for the pandemic. I was tired and had no ideas on deck and by the time I got around to fixing dinner, it was too late to roast the chicken waiting in the cellar fridge.

Et voila! Cooked up a batch of toothsome purple rice and served it up with sautéed shallots, yellow peppers, and chicken sausage. Satisfying! Then, even better, I had two servings of rice left for lunch. Tired celery? Throw it in. Red onion? Yes, please.

After a thorough search, I found NINE more notebooks from the relevant time period (A Tale of Two Sisters, 2009 – 2019). I am so appreciative of the many ideas posted in the comments yesterday.

Things I might not have thought of. Beautiful role modeling. Support offered before asked for. I have such a gracious, smart, and warm circle of friends here!

The notebook pile I’m referring to is to the left of the desk.

Today’s class was really good as usual. Because I had just finished Alice Hoffman’s WWII novel, “The World That We Knew,” (which features a golem as a prominent character), I offered the golem as a prompt.

If you could have a creature made out of mud and temporarily animated to serve you, how would it protect you? How would it offer solace?

Mine ended up being a Hosta Spirit, offering resilience and adaptability. It directly addressed how to approach writing about my sister.

It’s a thread-the-needle situation: how to revisit awful, awful scenes without catapulting myself back into that mess? I don’t think it’s impossible, but I need to have some strategies.

The writing that’s already come about her kind of had a life of its own, arriving on the page as if waiting to be written. I really trust that.

Novel excerpt — Freedom

Freedom

Sept 1739, SC

             The dream of freedom was tangible like a sinew pulled taut in pleasure. It had heft. The dream of freedom could be felt as a push, like the wind blowing rice husks off the grains when women jerked the fanner baskets in efficient and elegant rituals of home or it could be felt as a pull, like a rope hauling a barge upriver. The dream tugged nerves and sleep, and underlay casual conversations about trivial matters. It pulled a body toward the future and also curled in the twists of memory, both a beautiful haunting of things to come and ancestral whispers of things gone by. The wounding clime of bondage built arguments in support of freedom as naturally and with as much necessity as skin growing over an ugly gash. But to be clear, scars spoke the language of resilience, which was related to the dream of freedom, but not the dream itself. That spoke in shining eyes, secret language, and sly disguises. Or in violence.  

            Brewing coffee for the family, setting out parasols for walks, making candles, serving guests at parties, being afraid to love, to go off-plantation, to speak one’s thoughts — all evidence of a tainted universe. It was the white person’s pleasure that mattered. Their need. Their piles of sterling. Their margins of profit. Their luxuriant strolls along the river. Their indolent, well-tended naps. Their Madeira, Barbadian rum, Meyer lemons, and hyssop honeys. Their sparkling gatherings. Their baths after sunset, with captive hands to light the lanterns, scrub the scalp, and hold out the towels. Daily inequities both small and transient and weighty and monumental all built arguments toward freedom without a slave having to utter a single word. Proof after ugly proof of despotism, proof after ugly proof of the delusion of their owners’ claimed superiority, proof after ugly proof of theft on an ungodly scale — all the arguments readily made.

            Despair both stifled and enlived the dream of freedom. Sometimes sorrow laid its damp hand on the shoulder of the enslaved and whispered mournfully, ‘The hound is fed better than you.’ Clarifying. Inescapable. Sometimes the weight of exhaustion and defeat made the bound ones turn eyes heavenward, where on many a night even the cold glitter of stars seemed against them. Suffering was a place, a task, a state of mind, and all of the enslaved dwelt in it even as they sometimes knew they were not of it.

            The dream of freedom showed up as a complex counterpoint to their weary or rage-filled situation or as a simple expression of basic humanity. Complex and simple, both. How could anyone so thoroughly deprive a people of their essential selves and on such a large scale? What god allowed it to happen and then let the damage accrue through the generations? What could be harder to correct?

            For instance, what would it take to get Moses on a ship to Baltimore or Philadelphia, under whose watchful eye and with what money passage purchased? Could the dream of freedom, so ever-present but generally lacking particulars, coalesce into a plan for Maggie and her mother, Saffron, providing both a map to a maroon community in the swamps and the courage to get there? The codes exchanged. The secret slips. Literacy grabbed and then hidden. Currency tucked under conspiring earth in burlap sacks. Mo turning deadfall into rice pestles, selling them on the sly. Quash earned his legitimate carpenter’s fees. There were some means, some measures of will (large and small), some hearts exploding with desire to live else-wise. There were a thousands of pitfalls to avoid.

            Little did the planters know that in two weeks’ time, the dream of freedom would announce itself in the blazing specificity of blood and fire. Near the Stono River. Direction: south. Means: stolen muskets, strikers and flints, powder, strong legs. Leaders: Jemma and Cato. Required: all manner of bravery – the bravery of leadership, the bravery to trust and follow, the bravery of youth, the bravery of experience, the bravery of men with nothing to lose and those with everything to lose, the bravery of men acting as men can and should in holy alliances forged with their fundamental right to live. 

            It was a cruel irony that this dream of freedom, acted in a crescent of violence with such rugged hope, would end up dashing Mo’s chances at learning a trade, a trade that would’ve offered him a shaky but potentially viable path to manumission. As for the other slaves at Wappoo, one would eventually sail north aboard a ship where his pale skin would fool the sailors and their captain, and then, perhaps more critically, deceive the vicious slave catchers and traders who roamed the northern cities with menacing greed. The boy’s freedom would rely on the sacrifice of many, on their successful collusion, and on luck. Freedom at the cost of his mother’s heartbreak was worth it, always worth it, even to her — offering not just one young person his chance, but giving others testimony that glittered in the telling, a telling to be handed down for twelve generations, even as they knew there was no shame in staying put.

            Another would eventually be freed through the so-called ‘charitable grace’ of his owner. He would change his name to ‘John Williams.’ Mr. Williams would proceed to buy his wife, free his daughters, and buy land with the help of a prominent slave owner named Dr. Alexander Gardner.  Williams will buy slaves too, of course, because that was how once succeeded in a slave-economy. A simple-minded reader of history might condemn the former-slave-turned-slave-owner, but presumably his ‘property’ was treated better than that belonging to his white-skinned counterparts and presumably, too, he trained them in the skills for which he was renowned: carpentry. 

            Further along in time, Williams’ obvious wealth and success would itch and wound his white land-owning brethren, causing them to ask: ‘how dare he succeed with such flourish?’ thus precipitating the free black man’s swift exit north in the direction of the Santee River, ending the carpenter’s known story and for all we know, his life as well. We don’t know. The dark blot of silence that surrounds so many black lives of history leaves us unsatisfied, uninformed, and guessing. Ignorant.

This chapter came out because, to use John Gardner‘s metaphor, it interrupted the dream. He has said that novelists invite readers into a dream, and our job is to maintain that dream. Anything that interrupts, should be rewritten or jettisoned. Typical interruptions: inconsistent POV, showing off, placing style over the needs of the story, inconsistent character.

There are several places in my draft where I switch from first person to omniscient narrator, and who knows maybe they will also need to come out, but this one was a clear interruption. Sometimes making sense of history generally, and of slavery in particular, I needed to write like this — almost to explain to myself the raw and brutal dimensions of my subject matter.

There is a lot I could tell you about the Stono Slave Rebellion, but I don’t have the energy for it now. You can get a quick sense of it with a google search.

We have Big Wind today. Sirens going all morning — I’m certain for downed trees and not corona virus [even though Massachusetts is vying with Florida and Pennsylvania for third most cases (after New York and New Jersey)].

It’s a cool wind and so, so assertive. I spent a part of the morning sitting in the shelter of the garage and just witnessing the effects of it — clouds scudding by, maple tops dancing vigorously, gulls blown inland from the coast.

Upstairs, I was so happy to open windows and snuggle under a small humble quilt that Deb sent to me not long ago. Where she is in the south, even bigger winds blew through.

Don’t ask why WP has offered such a variety of font changes. Beats the shit out of me. How interesting to LET IT BE and not fuss!

Body as writing prompt

Writing Prompt: “Throw consciousness to some particular part of the body. Put the whole mind there… what are the reports?

This sounds like a Gestalt exercise, but it comes from an old book entitled, “Power of Will,” by Frank Channing Haddock. 1918.

(How weird to see that the book was published during the Spanish flu).

Here is a part of what I wrote, neck speaking:

Wasn’t it funny that you had a nail in your pocket during your bone scan? The x-ray technician queried, “Are you sure there’s nothing else in your pockets?” And there it was: a three inch nail, left over from a day of hanging mirrors on the wall where you come in. On the wall where you come in now light gathers on various rectangles of glass, a pleasing magic no less potent for being ordinary.

The diagnostics designed to show my crumbling demise partner with a tool for bringing in more light.

The scan sees through shirt and pants and flesh, all the way down to the bone. Look! There we are, the C-3’s and C-4’s, just below your skull. Perhaps a little gratitude is in order. How long we’ve upheld your head — through dance class, Take Back the Night Rallies, and snowstorms and screaming sex and giving birth and closing doors and making soup. . . Everything you can name and lots you can’t name as well.

Crumbling is one way to describe us. Compression: average to moderate. Waiting for severe. Still going, albeit with a crunch.

We could use your kind attention right now and in the right nows that follow. Please baby our nerves, stretch our muscles. Let the phone buzz and the screen stay dark. Take a bath with salts. Scrub your knees and elbows with the salt. Remember that you are an electrical being.

Sunlight is disinfecting, healing, which is why hanging mirrors is never merely ornamental. Find it. Sit in it.

Piggyback prayer. Burn a punk or two. It’s time to go deeper.

Remember how we used to say, “the breath knows how”?

Well, the breath knows how.

May all sentient beings by joyful, etc.

We prepare for darkness — the dust to dust part. Such preparations are not morbid. In fact, they are joyous. How lovely to breathe knowing that one day you will not. We crumble and compress on our way to the grave. Such is the way of all structures, not just skeletons, but also empires and republics.

Did it ever occur to you how much of your agonies arise from wanting, desperately wanting, the Republic to survive?

It might. It might not. Do your calls, your protests and postcards, but forget a return, a preservation, a rekindling or a revolution. Give all those ideas up. This we say to you.