Category Archives: Writing

A 1000 Words & Too Many Frowns

This week’s Daily Post Writing Challenge is a creative writing prompt: A picture is worth a 1000 words. 1000 words on this picture that the Daily Post provided. See links below and in the comments on the Challenge post for what others wrote about the same photo. Maybe a picture is worth more than 1000 words after all! Here are my 1000 words, a fictional story inspired by the photograph:

It is one of those days — one of those memories — I don’t think of too often, but when I see that photograph, my sister and I standing there holding my father’s hands, I’m sure that I will never forget — have never forgotten — that day.   But, the thing is, I don’t know if I really do remember it.  Maybe I only remember the photograph from its perch on my mother’s dresser.   I wonder if it helped her to remember.

The three of us in front of our building on a cold Spring day.   My dad never wore a coat after March, so it must have been early April.    Years later — during my punk rocker days in the 80’s — I had a skinny, grey tie just like his.  My hair was dark like his too in the 80’s.   Without the Brylcreem look.  I thought it looked natural. Never would have had a sports coat, though.

In the photo, I’m wearing a coat that had this stupid velvet bit around the neck.  It was really itchy.   I remember my mother leaning over me to button the coat and straighten my tie.  Her perfume was strong and she was careful not to get any of her makeup on me. She kissed the top of my head before she put on the hat.  I got lipstick on your hair.  Now you have to wear your cap so it doesn’t show in the picture she said.  My sister had a new coat too.  She could barely say the word pink but we all knew it was her favorite.  Pink is still her favorite color.  The two of us haven’t changed that much I suppose — she loves pink. I hate coats and ties.  My father?  I don’t remember my father any other way except how he looks in that old photo.

The old apartment building.  Mother used to send us to the basement to play among the storage units and the washers, avoiding the Super, in the days after this was taken.  Later in the Spring, there were flowers growing up that trellis, though she wouldn’t have planted them.  Mother wouldn’t have noticed those bits of pink and red that showed through the window of our street-level apartment.  I don’t know.  Maybe she never opened the blinds.  It was always dark.

My sister says that she remembers her coat.  Pink with white pearly buttons and a bonnet to match.  No, the roses in front weren’t pink, she tells me, but she doesn’t remember what color they were.   I remember the color; she remembers the flower.   And that coat, she exclaims.  My first new coat!  Her chubby little legs must have been freezing.   I think she only remembers from the photograph too, but she insists.

My mother’s handwriting scrawled on the back:  Easter Sunday, 1961.   The year is certain, but I don’t ever remember going to church.  Isn’t that what families do on Easter?  Go to church?  Maybe that was the last Easter we went.

Or maybe we were only going to my grandparents.  Mother would have made me wear a bow tie for that.  My perfect little gentleman! my grandmother would sing.  Maybe I was that way in first grade.  But I can look behind my eyes in that photograph and see the truant, the troublemaker, the punk that I surely always was but had not yet become.  I wanted to run and play, get away, not smile for a silly photo.  Even  at age five I knew it was all crap.  I’m sure of it.  I must have known.

Do I remember my father that day?   Do I remember his frown?  My sister and I were mimicking him.  Did we really look that much alike?   Do we always have a look of fleeing on our faces?

Daddy yelled at us to be still, my sister states.  She tells me that I kept squirming out of the frame until he took my hand.  He yelled at Mother too, telling her to hurry up and press the damn button.

Would he have said ‘damn’?  I asked.  She remembers it that way.   I see it in the photograph.   Perturbed.  Annoyed.   Press the damn button, will ya?  That was what made my sister cry.  In her pretty pink Spring coat and being yelled at.   I remember it now that she mentions it.

No wonder I wanted to pull away.   Wanted to run away.  Away from my sister.  Away from my mother.  Away from my father.   To the playground or the ball park.  Later to some parking lot where I could smoke a cigarette and talk about chicks with my friends.   Run away from all that stifled and cramped and itched like that grey coat and hat.

Yea, I remember it alright.   Like it was yesterday.   Because, after that day, it was my whole life.  Wanting to run, just like my dad.  Away to someplace mysterious where there weren’t ties and suitcoats and hats and wives who wanted to take pictures and drive to the grandparents on Easter Day.

Runaway to places where I could smile.  To places where I could be free.   Just like my father.

I remember that photo in its place of honor on my mother’s dressing table for years.   I wondered if it helped her to remember him or to forget him.  My sister says it was to remember him.  The whisky was to forget.

For me, I remember that as the last time I saw my father although history tells me something else.   But, the photograph, the three of us standing there in front of our building trying to look like it was a happy occasion:  that I remember.   Mostly grey, a bit of pink, but no details about what types of flowers colored my Mother’s world.

How can you remember it that way? my mother protests.  It was a happy day!  My sister smiles.  I guess I never could talk to them.      I remember the photo, Mother, I reply.   On your dresser.  In a brass frame.  

A few other Picture Worth A 1000 Words for the DPChallenge:

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words (bouhaha-access)
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words (My Sanctuary Journal
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words (Pride in Madness)
Weekly Writing Challenge (S1ngal)
The Easter That Wasn’t (NRHatch)

A lesson learned

This week’s Daily Post Writing Challenge is focused on grammar, specifically about using the active rather than the passive voice.   While this issue of voice vexes some writers, I do not find to be a writing hurdle.  The DP challenge isn’t to write about the active voice, but to be sure to use the active voice.  The challenge reminded me of a time when I learned about  a grammar problem that I didn’t even realize was an issue until I had it called out in a memorable manner.   You can find other entries into the WP Daily Post Writing Challenge here.  

Over 30 years later, I still remember, as if it occurred yesterday, the humiliation of having my first composition read aloud by the exacting English professor.  I know the sentence that caused my face to burn bright red and made me wish that the floor would open wide and swallow me up, ejecting me forever from the English building.  I surely didn’t belong there.

Filled with pigeons, people roamed in Trafalgar Square.  

I had been warned that Dr. H was scary — scary looking and scary acting.

“She’s exacting.  Never be late to her class.  But I don’t know about scary looking.  She looks and sounds just like Katherine Hepburn!” one of my friends said.

“Katherine Hepburn playing the Wicked Witch of the West” another friend replied.  “Have you seen her riding that bike to campus?  If she saw Toto, she’d have him in the basket in no time flat!”

The snotty girl from my semester abroad in London was in the class on the first day.  I knew I wasn’t in Kansas, but Kansas wasn’t where I wanted to be.

Why on earth are you taking Advanced Composition?  Aren’t you a Journalism major? she said with her little nose crinkled into the air as if my mere presence had tainted the hallowed grounds of the third floor of the building.

I thought it would be interesting.   Maybe I’ll be an English major.  I searched her expression to see if I raised a few notches in her estimation.  The punk-rock chick seated nearby, who I would later find out was my former boyfriend’s roommate — and later, after I had rejected the opportunity to make her an ally, would find out she was a lesbian — looked at both of us and let out a slightly audible but clearly disdainful snicker.  I was never sure who she was snickering at:  the uppity preppy co-ed whose destiny was to be a Wall Street lawyer (or the lawyer’s wife, I don’t recall) or the naive girl who didn’t have much confidence in anything she dared do or dream.

The first assigned composition was an easy task:  describe a town or city that you know well.   I knew little about the city where I had spent most of my life, only the suburban area near my parents’ home and my school.   I didn’t want to waste my words on the nearby cornfields or the big new mall out by the highway.  But, having just returned from a semester in London, I knew that I could write passionately about the city.  I even knew, before I began, how I would end it:  with Jonson’s famous quote When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.   I had no idea at the time that I was a cliché, much less that I would write several in my first essays.

For nearly a week I struggled with the assignment.  I re-read my journals and studied my photographs.  I could close my eyes and walk down Edgeware Road from Warrington Circle towards the Marble Arch, recalling each block.  I retraced my route to the Tate Gallery where I took an art class each week and often sat for hours, mesmerized by paintings by Blake.  The paintings still burned bright, like his Tyger, in my memory.  I struggled to write all of the details, to make London known to the reader, but it was a worthwhile struggle.  I thought I was like Elohim over Adam, creating a masterpiece of the English Department.  I proudly turned in the essay just before the deadline.

I did not expect that the essays would be read in their entirety to the class.  That painful exercise took several sessions.  There was no jockeying for position, no volunteering to have your essay read.   Like my classmates, I searched for an order to the essays.  Alphabetical?  By grade?  Were the A‘s first — or the F‘s?  Although no names were spoken,  all the students knew the author of each composition by a few furtive glances around the room.

Finally, mine was read.  Had Dr. H been saving the best for last?  Did this mean that I received an A?   She began:

London.  She looked around the room, snapping a rubber band at her wrist.  What an interesting title, she said dryly. 

I winced.

The first paragraph was read while my brain blurred.  I tried not to give away the authorship.  Sweat gathered along my hairline.  And then came the bolt of lighting that zapped me out of my seat:

Filled with pigeons, people roamed in Trafalgar Square.  

Oh my, Dr. H said in her quavering Kate Hepburn voice.  Did they have squab for lunch?  She laughed for the first time that semester at her joke while I fought back tears.

What the hell is squab? I wrote in my invisible notebook, too embarrassed to be seen writing a note on paper.

Dr. H continued with a brief statement of the unacceptable nature of dangling modifiers.  As if that were needed.

I have been aware of modifiers at the beginning of sentences ever since that day. Modifying clauses elsewhere in a sentence make my internal grammarian sit up and pay attention as well.  I somehow survived the entire semester, passing with an A and would take two more classes from Dr. H before I graduated.

I owe much to the classes I took from her.  One lesson was to never intimidate or humiliate someone eager to learn.  Another was to be sensitive to jokes at the expense of a student.  But there were positive lessons as well.  If it weren’t for a brief five-week summer class she taught, I never would have read and fallen in love with Moby-Dick.  I’ve never seen squab on a menu or a pigeon-filled plaza without thinking about her with a smile.  And, I’m a better writer because of her — even if like all writers I occasionally make a grammatical mistake here or there. Rarely do those mistake involve dangling modifiers.

Quantum Physics and Driving

It was a beautiful, but hot, August day.   Having tested my ability to drive following a summer spent with my right foot in casts and orthoboots, I borrowed my son’s beat-up college car to drive myself to work.   Freedom, at last!  I always knew that my city had a poor public transportation system, but until I was forced to find alternative transportation, I didn’t realize how bad it was.  Unable to bike or to walk, I was forced to rely on others.

At the first stop light, my phone rang.  Without any thought, I picked it up and began chatting with a friend.  I slowed for a school bus stop but barely noticed when the bus turned right as I turned left.  I had been a passenger along this route for months, had memorized nearly every aspect of the scenery as husband, son, mother, or friend transported me to work on a daily basis.  There was the neatly maintained red brick home, like all the other neatly maintained homes in the neighborhood, except for a chain link fence surrounding the house on all sides, including barricading the front door.   There was the two-story house that had been designed to be in a Tudor style; it’s owners had painted all of the faux wooden “beams” in vivid colors as if it were a Victorian Grand Painted Lady. There was a house with three minivans, one undrivable, in the drive, and a Splash and Play in the front yard.  There was the mansion on the north side of the road, seated at a distance from the road at the top of a hill.   It backed up to a creek where my friend Carrie and I used to play when we were nine years-olds.  Sneaking through the back fence was scary, thrilling, and freeing.  Our reward:  a large grassy field filled with wildflowers that we thought was unseen from everyone in the world.  Lying on the ground, looking up at the clouds, we felt that we were the rulers of the universe.

I knew this road.  Knew the houses, knew the hills, knew the hidden drives and the narrow shoulders. I knew this road, just like the main streets to the north and south of it, connecting two main highways and the quickest route to avoid the morning interstate congestion. I knew it as part of my world for decades.

I continued talking on the phone, discussing the current anti-inflams prescribed by my orthopedist with my pharmacist friend.  The phone call ended abruptly when I exclaimed — well, you can fill in the blanks!

The one thing about this road I didn’t know was the speed trap; vanquished all summer by heat and humidity, it had reappeared on this, the first day of school.

“Do you know how fast you were going, mam?” the officer asked.

The first response that came to mind:   “No, but I know exactly where I am.”

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: physics never fails. Not realizing speed limit signs as part of the landscape frequently does.

Nothing or Not(One)Thing

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the A-to-Z Challenge. I don’t typically do blog challenges or memes or group themes. Yet, it struck me as a good framework for blogging, a way to force myself to figure out something to write about, something when it often seemed that there was nothing to write about. For about eight months, I’ve been attempting — mostly succeeding in recent months although that wasn’t the case when I started — to blog everyday.

I like the rhythm of seven posts a week, one a day Monday through Saturday, and one for Sunday written in advance and scheduled. (I try to stay away from the blog on Sundays, although that isn’t always the case.) Since I tend to be an all-or-nothing sort of person, once I commit to something — like daily blogging — I don’t like to slip up and miss a day. Sometimes it becomes a bit obsessive. I worry that if I miss a day I will ruin some sort of personal record and never return to the blog at all. At those times, I need to remind myself that I control my schedule and not the other way around and one miss won’t wreak havoc in the universe, not even in a tiny corner of it.

Although it wasn’t my original intent, posting photographs has become a way to generate content when composing and editing a written post seemed too daunting. The fact that I have recently discovered a passion for photography aided in this, and — I’m glad to admit — has made those don’t want to write posts less lame. Otherwise, blog content around here might subsist on a steady diet of too many links and empty calorie YouTube videos.

The A-to-Z Challenge has been a way for me to write most days. It isn’t impossible, but, I’ve discovered, it is far more difficult than I once imagined to match photographs to a letter of the alphabet, especially if your subjects are shot almost entirely within a radius of about 2 miles during your daily walk. I have recognized over the last few weeks that while I have no shortage of things to write about, I often have difficulties finding a focus. It isn’t that there is nothing to write about, but there are too many things to write about. What is this blog about? It isn’t about nothing; it is not about just one thing. It is about everything.

Some may think that not having a focus, that not being about one particular thing, is a problem. I don’t see it that way. I write about what I know, what I ponder, what I observe, what I read. I take photos of things that occur in the world but that tend to go unnoticed, things that deserve a closer look, things that I have looked upon anew, from a different perspective. I hope that you, dear reader, continue to find something of interest in these posts, these observations of words and images, these bits and pieces from my little space on the planet. At least through the letter Z — and that, in the end, it doesn’t leave you thinking that this is about zilch!

Now, because I like posting photos, here is one that I shot today.  It has nothing to do with the rest of this post.   I was working on manually cleaning the sensor on my camera (yes, it worked!  happy dance!) when I shot a picture of the sky.   A few tree branches and clouds crowded into the frame uninvited.   Naomi, at Poetic Aperture, wrote recently about using textures.  When I commented that I knew little about post-processing — so many choices make it a bit overwhelming to know which apps to use and applications like Gimp and Photoshop with their abundant features present an intimidating barrier to beginning — Naomi suggested that I play with PicMonkey.    With a few more options than iPhoto and an easy interface, this was fun to work with.  Here is one of the results that I came up with.

Artsy? Or overdone?

I also created another version using a  manuscript and paper texture.  I think it will make a nice notecard, maybe to send to one of my oft-forgotten pen pals, like Emily.  (Psst:  you should check out their blogs!)  

Letter writing should come back into style

This post is part of the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Today’s letter is N. Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. You can find other A to Z participants by clicking on the A-Z graphic above. You’ll find an index of all of my A to Z blog posts here.

Sunday Quote (2012 Week 7)

‎A poet’s work…to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.  ~ Salman Rushdie

Mysteries & the Deep Blue Sea

Writing Contest: Abandoned

What's my story?

The talented and imaginative Gabriel (aka Dad Who Writes) gave me an idea when he commented on my Abandoned post.

Here are the rules:

1. Go read this post and Gabriel’s comment.

2. Create & submit one piece of original*, imaginative, writing (whatever you construe that to be**) based on these photos: Lost Car 1, Lost Car 2, Lost Car 3, Lost Car 4 or Lost Car 5

3. Maximum 1000 words in length. (Because, you know, “A picture is worth….“)
Note: No skill is needed for this, other than the ability to count to 1000. Or allow software to count for you. Or just estimate.

4. Post on your blog and include a link to this post no later than 11:59 pm (EST) Friday, Feb 17. That gives you about 346 hours (plus/minus a few extra minutes depending on when you read this) to get this done.

5. Add your link to the the link list below. Same deadline applies (11:59pm EST 17-Feb-12; or 4:59 GMT 18Feb-12 if that makes it easier for you!) ***

Be sure to link directly to the post, not your main blog page. This will make it easier for others to read your work.

6. Have fun!****

* Original means it’s your work! If you plagiarize, you’ll be banned.

** This can be poetry, fiction, drama, memoir (if you are the “owner” of said vehicle, or just want to pretend that you are).

*** This is my first time using one of this kind of link tool. If you are a user and have a better suggestion for next time I do this, please let me know. I picked this because it looked the simplest to use and it was the right price (free!) for my freshman effort at something like this.

**** If it isn’t fun, why are you doing this?

Judging: (because it is, after all, a contest)
1. All judging will be done by me. I reserve the right to get input from others in the case of a tie. These other(s) will be those who have not submitted a piece to be judged. They will also be those who I can impel to assist me, such as husband, son, or best friend. None of them blog.

2. All judging is final. At least it will be final once I publish the name of the winner. No telling how many times I may change my mind before the final decision. And by “no telling” I mean that I will NOT reveal how indecisive I may or may not be. See #1 with regards to any “tie”.

3. I will announce the winner around Feb. 24. If there will be a delay in announcing, I’ll post revised date. (See #1 w/r/t ties.)

Prizes: (Keep in mind that I’m an unemployed and struggling writer…)
1. The honor of winning the first ever Four Deer Oak writing contest.

2. A shout-out here about how great your story is and a link to your blog.

3. A print of one of the Lost Car photos (may substitute a print of any other photograph on this blog to which I own the copyright).

4. An awesome certificate indicating that you are the winner!

5. One book of your choice valued at no more than $15.00. If you live outside of N. America, and shipping is an issue, we’ll work something out.)

Early morning, near freezing

A few months ago, as I was headed to the checkout at the library, I saw a copy of Winter Morning Walks: one hundred postcards to Jim Harrison by Ted Kooser sitting in the return bin. I picked it up and checked it out not knowing anything about the book and not very familiar with Kooser’s poetry.

This slim volume contains poems that Kooser wrote and pasted on postcards and sent to his friend Jim. Kooser was recuperating from cancer at the time and used his morning walks as inspiration. All of the poems begin with reporting the weather condition.

I was thinking about this work the other day and was inspired to pen the poem below:

7:41, 37 degrees

The sky is the color of wet paint.
Trees outlined against the quickly lightening gray blue sky.
Later, snow will fall, dissolving as it hits the still warm earth,
becoming rain drops that will remember the cold, early morning.

I like the idea of taking inspiration from the world around you, of being aware of your physical surroundings and using them as a springboard to write about other things. But you know what? It’s pretty damn hard. I would have to write a ton of these to come anywhere close to choosing 100 that would be good. I can’t just scrawl a few lines on a piece of paper and mail it off to someone. But, perhaps Mr. Kooser worked for hours on each of these before sending: the finished work of an experienced writer makes it look too easy.

You can read more about Kooser and some of his poems at The Poetry Foundation or at Poets.Org

23 examples of one skill I possess

I have a skill in my skill set that I’m not very proud of.  It is something that I know that I’ve been able to do — and do well — since I was in junior high.   My ability probably manifested itself before that time.  In fact, I recall when I was in my 20’s, my mother found my kindergarten report card.  The signs were there then:  doesn’t always play well with others (I’m better now, thank you) and has difficulty staying on task.

That’s right:  I excel at Procrastination.   Take today as an example.   I said that I was going to work on my novel today.   I didn’t set any goals for word count, but I was hoping to write until about 2pm.  It is now 1:47 EST.  So far, I have:

* Experimented with some new hair product that my stylist gave me last Friday.

* Checked on due dates for library books.

* Read email.   Several times.

* Looked up doctors in my son’s college town for him.  Gave him remedies for his cold.  Verified his insurance.

* Exchanged some email jokes with a friend.

* Read through several posts on Open Salon.   Made several of the authors a ‘favorite’.  Checked my current stats on the essay I posted last week.  (Bragging:  was made an “editor’s pick” and on the weekend cover page.  It is a revised version of this post.)

* Made breakfast.

* Made lunch.

*Made soup for dinner. Looked up recipes to make soup taste better. Improved soup.

* Tried on my new outfit (for a function next weekend) to determine what shoes would go best with it.   Finding a blouse is probably more important, but I was focused on the shoes.

* Called my sister and figured out a time when she can help me hem said outfit.   Debriefed a family event yesterday.   Restrained myself from being catty.   Really, I did!

* Thought of four new essay ideas.

* Played a game on the computer.

* Played Facebook.  Not really much different from a game, except for formatting.  And no points.

* Observed the woodpeckers and robins in the yard.

* Answered a few phone calls.

* Ignored a few phone calls.

* Investigated a limited offer coupon deal.   Spoke with stone mason about said deal.

* Gathered up recycling.

* Investigated getting a flu shot today.

* Checked blog stats.  Tried to figure out some of the referer links.  (Always a mystery to me).

* Deleted spam comments.

* Wrote this.

Word count on novel remains the same. Productivity is all a matter of framing.

A few remarks on writing

I went to hear John Green give a reading at Butler University the other day. He read from his forthcoming book, The Fault of Our Stars and then did the obligatory author thing of answering questions before signing books.

One of the things that Green said about writing I find to be true: that at its core, writing is an emphatic act. Not only do you need to figure out how to be another person (your character) so that you can write about them, but also, as is the writer’s purpose in telling a story, to “bring a story to life in someone else’s mind”, which requires empathy as well*.

The other thing that Green said that I liked was that he said that starting a new novel must be like what it feels like to be on the last uncharted piece of land in the universe.

And, with those thoughts, back to my NaNoWriMo novel…..

* I’m pretty sure that I got that quote recorded verbatim. If not, I’m sure I captured the gist of it.

Onboard story

Usually, on a plane, I sleep. It is my way of keeping flight anxiety at bay. I’m not terribly afraid of flying. Only a little bit. I like looking out the window, but then I see other planes and wonder if they are really at least a mile away. Or if I look at the ground too much, I wonder what the plane would auger into if it crashed, how many more lives would be touched than just the friends and relatives of those on board. And I’m never at rest over the ocean. I understand that logically the rates of surviving a crash mid-air are probably no different over land than over the ocean, but I worry about not really knowing how to swim. If I’m seated near a window, then I wonder if that is really ice that is accumulating on the wings, or if the flaps are really supposed to do whatever they are doing at the moment. And I wonder why on earth they need to paint “DO NOT STEP” warnings on the wings.

So, mostly I sleep.

Only occasionally do I read, but I can’t seem to keep up with reading a novel at 500 miles per hour. A diversion, sometimes, but usually only when waiting to leave the gate, is to look at the SkyMall magazine. I play a game with my cousin C where we cut out the most ridiculous ad we can find and send it to the other with threats to purchase for the next gift occasion. But, for the last year, the only contender has been the plastic Big Foot peaking out coyly from behind a tree. Even the jaded can’t find anything to poke fun at in Sky Mall anymore.

Last week, on a flight from New York to Chicago, I fell asleep before we left the runway. I didn’t look out the window and bid the Big Apple adieu, and I didn’t worry about those geese in the marshes at the end of the runway, or worry that we might land in Long Island Sound. However, I didn’t sleep for long, just long enough to miss the beverage service and stale peanuts, waking up as Cleveland was probably appearing on the horizon off the starboard.

Too lazy to climb over my seatmate to get to my bag for a book, I reached for the seatback pocket magazine. Although it was only the 4th, both October Sudoku puzzles had been worked. I’m not very good at them anyway. So I started to page through Spirit magazine, Southwest’s inflight magazine. I was completely taken with their main feature, Storytelling.

I’m working on my own story this evening, one that’s due for a workshop review tomorrow. While I’m struggling with my storytelling adventure, enjoy looking at Spirit’s storytelling. While the website has two great videos — the Nokia Shorts 2011 film “Split Screen: A Love Story” that went viral for about a minute a few months ago, and a moving music video “Copenhagen” by the marvelous Lucinda Williams — you really should download the PDF version, available via link at the bottom of the page, to see the entire spread from the magazine. The typesetting was great. The storytelling, even better.

Here is the Williams video: