Writing Prompts: A Hate-Love Relationship

“I don’t have TIME for writing prompts. I have serious revisions to work on!” 

Those were my thoughts a couple of weeks ago when my writing group met without anyone’s writing to workshop. We’d made a commitment, as a group, that when this happened, we would do writing exercises. Whoever hosted that week got to assign one.

My writing colleague/friend chose, “Create a list of scents from your childhood, good and bad. Then pick one and write about it.”

Luckily I LOVE my writing group. So I submerged my bad attitude in a pool of pleasant acquiescence. Inside I was thinking, “Argh. I’ve just ripped the guts out of chapters 5-8 of my new novel–the last thing I need is to be freewriting about my childhood!” But I followed instructions.

Here’s what my pen wrote:

Most people would call it a stink, not a smell: goats and their manure, goats and their milk. Goaty. Yes, hay is involved, and other sweet notes: warmth; cream; the nuzzle of a muzzle; baby-goat lips; that conversational “meh-eh-eh.” But mostly: ew. Little pellets everywhere, like those imported chocolate cordials, only made of shit. But they didn’t smell like shit. They smelled goaty. Hearty. Healthy. Researchy. Unique. Cute. Intelligent. Second-class but proud of it—“alternative,” like my school, my entire childhood. Goat Barn. Who has goat barns? No one I knew. Who could tell proud stories of being butted, of making “milkshakes” by bouncing a goat on one of the gangplanks across the muck? Who could use a goat as a safe spot in a game of tag and turn her teats into milk-guns?

Don’t worry. This stroll through the goat barns of yore is not going to cause a sudden veer toward memoir. I’m still working on chapters 5-8, and I’m still blogging about–as you see–whatever I feel like.

But this writing prompt, unwelcome as it was, did me an unexpected service: it reminded me of how important my weird childhood is to me, how I treasure that uniqueness…

My folks still have a goat or two, just for funsies.

…like everyone treasures his/hers/theirs. How we define ourselves gives us the courage to move forward. Sometimes that self-definition inhibits, and boy, when that happens, we have work to do. But when it empowers? We need to run with that.

So now, when my revisions start getting the better of me, when I start to wonder, Is this work even worth it? Is anyone even going to read this? Who cares?…all I have to do is think about that goat barn. And I’m armed “to the teat” with a powerful sense of worth.

Darn right, I have a story to tell. I was practically born in a barn. Thanks, Writing Prompt!

That same writing friend also shared this post, “On Hating Writing From Prompts,” by Alice Lowe, on Brevity’s Blog. Writing? You’ll love this. You know why.

 

 

Return to Kiwiland, Final Installment: Why New Zealand? The Coast to Coast Triathlon

And finally…Reason #2 why I’m headed back to New Zealand after 20 years: for a triathlon.

Not to run. To observe. To take notes. The next novel I’m planning is set in New Zealand, and this triathlon plays a major role. Because this is no ordinary triathlon. This is the Coast to Coast.

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Kiwis take the phrase "cross-country" literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

Kiwis take the phrase “cross-country” literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

This race spans the skinniest part of the South Island, Kumara to Christchurch–243 kilometers (about 180 miles) of running, biking, and–no, not swimming–whitewater kayaking. Here’s the course:

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Oh, did I forget to mention it crosses a mountain pass?

Thanks to Kiwi friends, I’ve been invited to “pit crew” for a woman who’s doing the triathlon. I’m going to grab her bike or hold her wetsuit or whatever she needs, all while soaking up the sights and sounds and scents and trying not to make a pest of myself.

For years, the race was sponsored by a beer company. Now its sponsor is Kathmandu, an outdoor gear company that seems much better suited. But notice how little else I know about the Coast to Coast! I’m excited to learn how much more I have to learn.

Like...how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Like…how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Also thrilled that I don’t have to run/ride/paddle the damn thing myself. The elites take about 13 hours to finish. The woman whose crew I’m joining expects to take 15-16 hours.

Funny story:  when I first chatted with “my” triathlete, she asked, “So, this American athlete and her coach…will they be joining you as well?”

It took me a moment to process this. Then: “Oh, no! They’re fictional. I mean, they’re what the book’s going to be about. So, no, they won’t be coming with me.”

Except they will, of course. In my head. Assessing their fictional future.

So if you’re reading this–cheers! The next time you’ll hear from me will be in mid-February, when our Great Kiwi Re-adventure is behind us. Till then, keep reading and writing and running or whatever it is you do. Hug your family. Talk with a stranger. Be well.

 

 

One Week After…Not Quite Ready To Leave The Bubble

I finally turned on the news today, a week after the election. I lasted exactly 11 minutes before turning it off again.

I know. I’m a wuss. I promise I’ll get tougher. But right now I want to stay in my bubble a little longer…a bubble I created, by scheming behind my husband’s back for six months.

…for a surprise birthday party, people! What were you thinking? Really! For shame.

Yeah, my Mate turns 70 in two weeks. I figured the only way to truly surprise him was to have the party two weeks early. Since that date coincided with a three-day weekend (thank you, Veterans!), my Evite received many Yesses.

I sent that Evite out first in May. I’ve been party-planning ever since. The triumph of the surprise, I knew, would be the arrival of Son One (all the way from Puerto Rico) and Son Two (from Vermont)  And when election day blew up in our faces happened, the anticipation of that surprise kept me going like a warm stove in an otherwise frozen house. Like a light at the end of a tunnel. Like…oh, just pick a simile, would you? You know what I mean.

The only problem? I couldn’t share that anticipation with my Mate. Miserable as we both were last week, my misery was alleviated by hope and love, and his…well, his had to wait till Friday at 2 pm, when Sons One and Two snuck in the back door and said, “Hi, Dad.”

At that, my Mate entered the bubble with me. Finally.

I’ll get back to regular posting soon enough. I’m already hard at work on my writing, and the other components that make up the life of a baking ex-teacher.

We'll think about the election tomorrow...or maybe the day after that...

We’ll think about the election tomorrow…or maybe the day after that…

But for now…I think I’d like to stay in my bubble just a few more days. Can you blame me? There was lots of love and lots of pie.

Why Revising Writing Is Like Caulking Your Bathtub

There’s not much nastier than a grimy old bathtub, right? Who wants to scrub up in something that looks like this?

It's amazing what you can not-see when all you want is a hot shower...

It’s amazing what you can not-see when all you want is a hot shower…

Except when it’s YOUR grime, built up over (let’s not count how many) years, you kinda…how shall I say…fail to notice how grody it looks. It’s just, y’know–your bathtub. Hop in and soak your cares away.

But my parents are coming to visit. And even though Martha Stewart is NOWHERE in my family tree, parents still count as guests. And guests cause my vision to change. As in, “Oh, GROSS! Who bathes in THAT?”

So I re-caulked the sucker.

It was a messy job. As it happens, being deep in revisions of Book Three (of The Flying Burgowski series), I couldn’t help noticing the parallels between re-caulking and re-vising.

Here I am, for example, getting rid of some crusty old adverbs and parenthetical phrases that had built up through two previous drafts and were now gumming up the forward motion:

Away with you, needless exposition!

Away with you, needless exposition!

The old caulk fought back. “But I must be serving some purpose or you wouldn’t have kept me around for so long, right? If you get rid of me, you’re going to have to start ALL OVER! And who knows how many more leaks that’ll cause?”

Sound familiar, fellow writers? Those are the same protestations your words and paragraphs make under your editorial knife. That’s why Stephen King calls revising “murdering your darlings.”

Well, I murdered the heck out of that old bathtub grime. The new caulk felt silky as cake frosting beneath my index finger. 

Can you say "final draft"?

Oh, dear–now I need to bleach all the shower walls. Better, but a final draft this ain’t.

And I’m going to try and remember that smooth, fresh finish as I continue to peel away at built-up prose. 

But I’m also curious–for what other activities does re-caulking serve as apt metaphor? Let me hear.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Daddy: A Personal Evolution Story

When I say Personal Evolution Story, I mean that literally: this story has to do with me and my dad, and with evolution–as in, Darwin’s Theory Of.

My first post-college job was teaching at the school I had graduated from only five years prior. Since it was a private school–woohoo, Carolina Friends School, go Quakers!–ahem, as I was saying, since it was a private school, no certification was necessary. They knew me, they liked me, they hired me, and I trained on the job. Some of the Upper School courses I taught included Lit & Comp I and II, Geography, History of the Vietnam War, Running, Romance and Satire…that’s all I remember. For a brand-newbie, I wasn’t bad. Considering how at home I felt at CFS, that’s not too surprising.

I felt a bit of pride in myself, becoming a teacher. But as a college graduate, I was well aware of my lowly status compared to the rest of my family. Both my sisters had a Master’s; one was working on her Ph.D, the other on her veterinary degree.

Some time during my second year, as I remember, one of the science teachers needed to go on maternity leave. My father offered to step in as a long-term sub.

This is also not surprising, if you know that my father a) was one of the founders of the school and a perpetual Board member, and b) taught Zoology at Duke. As far as he was concerned, science teaching was science teaching. Apparently the school agreed, and they took him on (probably for free). He taught good ol’ Biology.

After the first couple of weeks, he gave a test. Most of the class failed. Dismayed, he came to me with the test: did I think it was too hard? I remember reading it and thinking, “No, this looks like pretty standard stuff.” Still, his next practice quiz–yuck. Again with the failures. My dad couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

To his credit–and my surprise–Dad then asked me to observe his class to see if I could spot the problem. I’ll never forget how proud I felt at that moment: proud of him for having the grace to ask his youngest daughter for help, and proud of myself for being enough of a Teacher that I could teach a tenured professor a thing or two.

The Upper School Head Teacher and I observed Dad’s class together. Minutes into the period we looked at each other and smiled. Bingo.

The problem wasn’t the scope of my dad’s lessons, nor their sequence. The problem was that, in his normal, everyday speech patterns, he rarely used words of fewer than four syllables. Latin phrases like sine qua non or de facto were a dime a dozen. Having grown up with this high-falutin’ conversation, I didn’t notice, but as soon as I heard him through the ears of a hapless 10th-grader…ohhhh. Uh-huh. It’s not your lessons you have to bring down a few levels, Dad–it’s yourself.

Fast-forward to the end of the story: my dad learned to simplify his language, and to ask his students when he needed to rephrase something. His passing rates went up. Biology was learned.

Now, fast-forward another 30 years, to 2014. I publish my first novel, The Flying Burgowski. That is to say, I self-publish. My dad is supportive and proud, but I’m pretty sure that, as the author of a dozen traditionally-published academic books, he’d be even prouder if my book boasted the imprimatur of Random House instead of Amazon’s CreateSpace.

Meanwhile, however, my father and my veterinarian sister have teamed up to write a children’s book about evolution. It’s well written and clear: nice, pronounceable words, not a Latin phrase in sight! Beautiful illustrations grace the text. It’s a gem of a book. I’m excited for them, and for it.

Unfortunately, as with my novel, they can’t find a publisher. So, this past month, they self-publish. Through CreateSpace.

Here’s the result:

51515907_high-resolution-front-cover_6057779

And here’s the link, if you want to check it out or, even better, buy a copy: Darwin and the First Grandfather

And here’s the point of the story, in case it’s not clear yet: for the sake of the science he loves, my hyper-academic father has come a LONG way. From speaking only Academese, he has (with my sister’s help) made himself fluent in Common-Tongue Science. From publishing only with traditional, academic publishers, he has joined the proud ranks of the Indies. 

(Orig. photo courtesy Wikimedia)

(Orig. photo courtesy Wikimedia)

Not to mention–did I mention?–he and my big sis have written a damn fine book, one which fills a need. Please take a look and pass it on.

Confessions of an Imperfectionist: On Second Thoughts, I’ve Nothing to Confess

I am proud to call myself an imperfectionist. Are you one too? Take this simple test to find out.

  1. When frosting a cake, do you skip the “crumb layer” and just start slathering that stuff on there?
  2. When sewing, do you skip the basting step, and use as few pins as possible?
  3. When doing carpentry, do you conveniently forget the mantra, “Measure twice, cut once”?
  4. When practicing a piece of music, do you more often than not say “good enough” and move on?
  5. Do you like yourself anyway?

If you answered No to any of these, congratulations–you have standards. If you said Yes, welcome to my world. Imperfectionists unite!

Nothing like working in the worlds of food, crafts, or arts to remind me how much I don’t care to push myself that extra step. After fifty-some years, however, I have found the one area where I can’t stop polishing, tweaking, fixing, de- or re-constructing: WRITING.

It’s hopeless. I’m a words girl. When it comes to words on the page, good enough is never good enough.

I think I know why. Writing was my first success, something people have told me I’m good at since grade school. Therefore continuing to improve has a high promise of reward, and I think the urge is deeply rooted in my psyche. Adult stuff like sewing? I’d have to work WAY too hard to get any compliments there.

(courtesy bernijourney.wordpress.com)

(courtesy bernijourney.wordpress.com)

Come to think of it, I’ve had compliments on my pies from a young age too. So there you go.

Yup--perfect.

Yup–perfect.

Am I on to something? Anyone else out there a perfectionist in only SOME areas? What are they, and what accounts for their special place in your otherwise imperfectionist life? Note: all you perfectionists out there, feel free to chime in too.

Writers, dental blocks and spotted owlets

Gallery

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on verseherder:
A writer’s block can be the most perfect thing in the world. It isn’t a melody that went?out of tune. Neither a slip of a brushstroke nor an itch on a sculptor’s wrist.?A writer’s block is…

Themes to Me Thomebody Needth Kicking Out of Her Comfort Thone

“Your problem is,” said my website angel consultant the other day, “your website theme doesn’t include a menu with social media buttons. You need a new theme.”

That’s what came out of her mouth, anyway. This is what I heard:

“Return ye to that fearsome Land of Tech where live every vile Insecurity and Fear of Failure your puny writer mind can devise!!!”

Yep. I have to go back to  Wordpress Central, whose user-friendly greeting might as well say, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

(Orig. drawing Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, presented by Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia)

(Orig. drawing Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, presented by Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia)

So…this should be interesting. I’m gonna take a few days off to welcome Son One home from his year abroad and celebrate a couple of late holidays with the whole fam. (Merry Thanksmas, everyone!) Then I will pull on the big-girl panties and try. To. Update. My. Blog. All by my ownself.

You should know by next week how that went. Wish me luck, people! Oh, and send me recommendations for great, easy-to-read WordPress themes if you have any.

See you later! And Merry Thanksmas. 

 

Does Your Muse Have ADD?

What’s your M.O. when your creative brain refuses to buckle down and do its thing?

Here’s me the other day, arguing with my Muse:

Me: OK, so, Vivian [new character in Book 3] originally was going to ___________, but now I need her to ____________ instead.  [sorry–no spoilers!]

Muse: la, la, la, I can’t hear youuuu….

Me: Help me out here! If Vivian _______ then Jocelyn would have to ___________, and that’s totally out of character.  What should I do?

Muse: Well, I dunno, maybe you could–ooh, shiny! Squirrel! All other indicators that my attention is elsewhere!

Don’t know what you do in this scenario. Me? I took my Muse for a walk in the wind. It took an hour and a half, but when we got back, I had my plot unsnarled, and hey! I got some exercise too.

This has happened to me enough that I even wrote a song about it. Don’t have a recording good enough to share, but all you need are the lyrics:

Muse

My Muse detests the interstate—in fact she hates to drive

But set my bike on a country road and then she might arrive.

My Muse is happiest outdoors; she’s never at the mall

And in a doctor’s waiting room I can’t find her at all.

 

But walk along a windy shore and soon she’s joining me

To whisper, prompt, or point me toward what she needs m to see.

She doesn’t love computer keys, but visits when I think

With notebook full of paper and a pen with real ink.

 

Her favorite drink is Earl Grey—it makes her twirl and leap,

But though wine may make me cheerful, it puts her right to sleep.

She’ll drop in when I exercise; she loves to see me sweat—

Not in a gym all safe and warm, but out in the wind and wet.

 

A nest of pillows on the couch she doesn’t seem to min

But never if there’s company of the distracting kind

Unless it be a small café with loud, generic din

Then she’ll consent to visit me to lay her treasures in.

 

But if I’m stuck inside a car, she’ll trail sadly along

And toss me wisps of poetry to turn into a song.

And though the life I call her to is busy, loud and crude,

She’s granted me these humble lines to show my gratitude.

DSC03360

 

Yeah. So that’s me. What do you do to get your Muse to settle down? Go for a walk, then let me know.