Sunday, October 14, 2007

Writer's Words

"Over the years I have come across several places that offered the ideal conditions in which to work. The room in Montepulciano, for example, with the lovely wooden bed and white sheets, the window gazing out over the Tuscan countryside. the terrace formed by what had once been a little bridge connecting our building to the one next door. Or the house in Lauzun with the room overlooking a field of wheat, facing west so that in the evening, the paper on the desk was bathed red. Or an apartment on rue Popincourt with the floor-to-ceiling window from which you could see right down rue de la Roquette, as far as the Bastille almost. What they all had in common, these ideal places for working, was that I never got any work done in them."

~Geoff Dyer
from How I Write, The Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe

How about you? Have you the "perfect place to work"? Do you get any work done there??

Sunday, October 7, 2007

This Week in Writing-Five Minute Free Writes

Courage and Craft, a new book by Barbara Abercrombie, is chock full of good, practical writing advice and exercises for the writer at any stage. Based on the course of the same name,which she teaches at the Writers' Program-UCLA Extension, the books focus is on "turning your life into story"~molding the events and experiences of your life into meaningful essays, stories, or books.

In the first chapter alone there were at least several positive writing "igniters," as I call them, ideas to get your pen moving across the page. My favorite is the "five minute free write." Take a topic, a sentence, even just one word, set a timer for five minutes and write without not lift the pen from the paper, or your fingers from the keys.

"Don't think," Abercrombie cautions, "you just write whatever comes into your head. If the subject or word you've given yourself to write about stops you dead in your tracks, you write your way out of it by writing about being stopped dead in your tracks. If you stop to erase something, or pause to think, you'll get in your own way. Even if you're writing nonsense or what you're going to have for lunch, you're writing. And writing leads to more writing."

The five minute time frame seems to allow for the most potent bursts of creativity, the wildest unleashing of ideas and emotions, since we feel some sense of pressure to get everything on the page we possibly can.

Write about the room you're sitting in, get down every detail you can. Write about your first time at the beach. Write about falling in love, or out of love. Write about strong coffee or good wine. Write about snow. Write about the thing that most often keeps you from writing!

Set the timer...ready, set...


Abercrombie also co-authors a great blog called Writing Time, with excellent tips and encouragement for writers of all levels. She's currently posting lessons from her class on Courage and Craft.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What's It All About?

Remember your 9th grade English teachers harping on the subject of theme? "What's the point of the story, boys and girls? What is the author trying to tell us?" As annoying those persistent questions could be, encouraging us to discover the central idea of what we were reading was vital to insuring our understanding and appreciation of the work.

As writers, it's even more crucial to know what we're trying to say in our stories and essays. Why should the reader care about this? What's it all about?

"Theme is some kind of unifying idea in a story," writes Terry Bain, in her article "Theme: So What's Your Story Really About?" (Gotham Writers Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction) It is a "container to hold all the elements of your story in place."

The best news is that theme needn't be a lofty principle or message - in fact, that's probably the last thing you want. The writer, particularly the fiction writer, shouldn't worry about solving the worlds problems in their tales. It's enough to "shine your flashlight on some aspect of life and let the reader see what's there," Bain continues. "Not every aspect. Some aspect."

For instance, I've been working on a short story about a couple who find their relationship in jeopardy because of the young man's intense attachment to his dead mother's dog. I could have set out to preach about the importance of setting healthy boundaries with parents, or even the necessity of dog training. But, in terms of a basic theme, I've settled on "relationships" as the "container" who focus my story around. Everyone deals with relationships with parents, significant others, and, yes, pets. My story is built around this aspect of life on several levels, so there is something for everyone to relate to.

Bain advises us not to set out writing our stories with theme in mind. Write a draft first, and then study it to see what emerges as a theme. Often, ideas for theme will emerge as you are writing this draft. If not, as you reread it, begin looking at your characters actions, to see whether they imply any universal truths, or whether there is a dominant social context to the story. Try to simplify the story into a few words ~ how would you answer the question "what is your story about?"

Once you have determined your theme, you can revise the story to insure that all its elements relate to that general aspect. As you review your plot and characters with theme in mind, you'll be able to see where the theme could be enhanced and find ways to illuminate it. Knowing the theme provides a deeper focus for revision, and helps sharpen your direction for the story.

Best of all, unlike Freshman English class, this time there is no right or wrong answer. Identifying the theme of your story is up to you, the writer, to decide.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Seven Deadly Sins

Tagged! Michele, Writing the Cyber Highway, has challenged me to identify seven things that make blog readers cringe.

I confess~the role of critic scares me just a little. I hesitate to set standards for others, particularly when I don't consider myself any kind of expert. However, during my blog hopping of the past 18 months, I have become aware of certain blog "attributes" that are off-putting.
  • Clutter. I don't like "stuff" everywhere in my house, and I don't like it all over the page;
  • Tiny type. My eyes are getting old - I need bigger letters!
  • Overly long posts. My brain is getting old too. Keep things short and sweet;
  • Wordiness. As William Zinsser advised us so well in his classic treatise On Writing Well-"Strip every sentence to its cleanest components" and "simplify";
  • Straying from the subject. Stick to one topic per post. Write another post to deal with separate subjects;
  • Lack of punctuation. Forgoing capital letters, sentence structure and paragraphing does not make you a more creative writer, it simply makes your writing more difficult to read;
  • Commenting without linking. If you leave a comment, please leave a link to your blog so I can return the visit.

There. Most of these observations relate to basic rules of good writing. For me, they are the least appealing qualities in weblog writing.

Cruise down the cyber highway to Michele's to see what she has identified as her seven deadly blogging sins.

If you'd like to play, consider yourself tagged!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Writer's Words

"There is a gap in understanding between me and our friends and acquaintances. I cannot quite understand a life without books and music and study and pictures and a driving passion. And they, on the other hand, can't understand why I have to write, why I am a writer. When, for instance, I say to someone that I have to get home to work, the assumption is that I mean housecleaning or ironing, not writing a book. I'm very kindly permitted to be a writer but not to take time in pursuing my trade. Nor can they understand the importance of music, or why an hour with a Mozart sonata at the piano is not wasted time but time spent on a real value. Or really listening, without talking, to music. Or going for a walk simply to see the beauty around one, or the real importance of a view from a window." Two Part Invention, the Story of a Marriage, Madeleine L'Engle

Monday, September 10, 2007

This Week in Writing-Talking it Up

This week's exercise is from the Gotham Writer's Workshop Fiction Writing Guide. In "Diaglogue: Talking it Up," Allison Amend discusses the way dialogue can reveal relationships between characters, and offers this exercise:
Jessica, a somewhat stuffy university professor, stops at a gas station in some backwater place. As she fills her tank, Alvin, the attendant, approaches her. He is an undeducated sort (though not dim) and being both bored and friendly, wants to chat. Jessica would rather not chat, but she also doesn't want to alienate Alvin, because she would like directions to a nearby restaurant that won't be too greasy or too ghastly. Write a scene between Jessica and Alvin, using dialogue, tags, and stage directions. The main goal is to capture the flavor of these two people through how they speak.

"You're wastin' money puttin' that high test gasoline in yer car."

"Excuse me?" Jessica turned her head slightly to see where the rude remark had come from.

"That engine will run just fine on reg'lar," Alvin answered, removing his stained baseball cap with its faded Mobil One insignia, and returning it to his head in one swift, well-rehearsed gesture.

"Thank you very much, sir," Jessica said, "but I'm just following the directons in the owners manual."

"Suit yourself then. I was just tryin' to save you some dough."

Jessica peered at Alvin over the tops of her Ray Ban's, taking in the baggy jeans settled low around his waist and slopping into pools of denim over the top of each tennis shoe.

"Do I look like I need to 'save dough?'" she asked.

Alvin grinned a little sheepishly. "I reckon not," he agreed, his eyes appraising her black leather jacket, high heeled pumps, and lingering most appreciatively on the sleek BMW convertible.

"I jes' thought a little friendly advice might be appreciated."

"I'm quite well acquainted with the needs of my car," Jessica answered, replacing the nozzle into the pump with a resounding thunk. "However," she went on, removing her sunglasses and giving Alvin the full benefit of her deep-set black eyes, "I could use directions to the nearest decent restaurant."
Alvin paused a moment before he replied. "That would be Kate's Kitchen, straight on down this road about four miles. Best homemade beef stew and cherry pie outside of your mama's dining room."

Not exactly Andiamo's on Fifth, Jessica thought, but apparently it would have to do.

"Thanks," she said, replacing her sunglasses and pulling open the driver's door. "I'll give it a try."

"You won't be sorry," Alvin assured her. "Drive safe, now, y'hear?"

Friday, September 7, 2007

Booking Through Thursday

This Week's Question at Booking Through Thursday:

Okay, so the other day, a friend was commenting on my monthly reading list and asked when I found the time to read. In the ensuing discussion, she described herself as a “goldilocks” when it comes to reading–she needs to have everything juuuuuust right to be able to focus. This caught my attention because, first, I thought that was a charming way of describing the condition, but, two, while we’ve talked about our reading habits, this is an interesting wrinkle. I’d never really thought about it that way.

So, this is my question to you–are you a Goldilocks kind of reader?
Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum?
Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital–as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’re happy to read?

A Goldilocks reader I am not, although I find the definition rather endearing. Books are as much a part of my life as food and drink, and I'm perfectly content to indulge my palate anywhere, any time, with no preamble or formal preparation.

As a child, I was likely the talk of the neighborhood, wandering along the familiar route to elementary school with my nose stuck between the covers of a book. And though I don't read while driving, I keep a book of short stories and essays in the car to peruse while waiting in traffic jams or at the drive through.

Reading is the last thing I do at night, the book often falling with a thud on my face because I couldn't relinquish it before falling asleep. And reading is the first thing I do in the morning, propped up in bed with a comforting blanket wrapped around my shoulders and a steaming mug of coffee on the table beside me.

I read while waiting in the doctor's or dentist's, while waiting for the teakettle to boil or the coffee to drip, while standing in line, while eating my lunch (or dinner if I'm alone).

I read when I'm happy, with a joyous abandon, and I read when I'm miserable, to distract me from suffering.

I read on planes and trains, in the car when I'm a passenger, in hotel lobbies and airport terminals.

And yes, I read in the bathroom, albeit mostly in the tub, whilst sunken neck deep in fragant bubbles.

I just read.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Write Stuff Short Story Contest

Behind The Mask

“How many times have I told you not to wear that idiotic mask to the table?"

From behind hollow latex eye sockets, Jenna could see her mother's slender fingers tipped in deep crimson reaching toward her face. Reflexively, Jenna raised her small hands to protect herself, but not before her mother snatched the mask from her forehead and dashed it to the floor.

Jenna shivered, recalling the dangerous feeling of exposure that caused her to shrink within her 10-year old self, lower her eyes, and try to become as small as possible. Her eyes fixed on the translucent china plate before her, resting on her grandmother's Irish linen tablecloth. She reached for her fork as slowly and silently as possible.

"Not that one!" came her mother's razor sharp cry, the one Jenna tried to avoid whenever possible. "The large fork is for your meal, the small one on the farthest left for your salad. Why can't you learn that?"

Jenna longed for the mask to protect her from the cold disdain in her mother's stare. She had chosen the Cleopatra mask that day, the dark beauty of this ancient queen the perfect counterpart to her mother's white blonde hair and icy expression. The masks had so often saved her, even though her mother either complained bitterly about them or, depending on the number of Gin and Tonic's she had consumed, angrily ripped them from Jenna's face.

"One of these days, missy, you'll come home and all those ugly faces you hide behind will be gone, gobbled up by the big green garbage truck,” she would threaten, stalking off into the den to refill her glass.

Jenna quaked at the thought of Cinderella, Scarlet O'Hara, even Wonder Woman (who wasn't actually a favorite) being crushed and shredded in the jaws of the huge waste disposal truck roaming the back alley behind their house. Somehow, though, she had felt sure her mother wouldn't carry out this threat. As much as she complained about the different faces Jenna wore, they were easier for her to look at than Jenna's real face, the one that people always said looked just like her father’s, with its smoky dark eyes and olive skin.

Sitting at her own table, some 20 years later, Jenna picked at the small salad before her. Perhaps if her father hadn't disappeared before she was born, things would have been different for her and her mother, she thought, as she had so many times before. But Jenna had grown up relying on the safety she felt behind the mask, protected from the contempt of a woman who should have loved her most, hoping one of the persona she chose each day would be the one her mother would find acceptable, even pleasing.

Jenna rose from her seat and scraped the remains of her salad into the garbage. Her small apartment was silent, save for the ticking of the clock which told her she had dawdled too long, lost in those memories of unhappier times. She had promised her mother she would visit today, although she was certain the woman had lost all concept of time, along with most of her other faculties, her brain ravished by years of alcohol and now dementia. Stopping to button her coat, Jenna glanced at her reflection in the mirror that hung beside her front door.

Yes, she thought, quite satisfied with what she saw, it was a good day for Cleopatra.

~go here to read other entries in the Write Stuff story contest

Monday, August 6, 2007

This Week in Writing

The Five Senses
~Dan Wakefield
In Now Write!, Sherry Ellis has compiled a marvelous assortment of writing exercises from published authors, exercises they use in teaching or to stimulate their own creativity. Today, I'm working with this exercise from novelist and journalist Dan Wakefield, who says he uses it as part of his workshops on "Releasing the Creative Spirit."
Our senses are "doorways to our own stories," Wakefield says. Using the "idea" of one of the senses can evoke memories from our past which bring stories to mind. In one workshop, he writes that the "simple suggestion of the taste of bacon to a group of factory workers" inspired one of them to write a moving story that was evoked for him. "The heart of the story was that as a child, when he woke up and smelled bacon frying, he knew it would be a good day in his home; if he woke and didn't smell bacon, it meant his parents had hangovers from drinking too much the night before, and things in the house would not be pleasant."
Wakefield suggests taking some common foods, such as the taste of applesauce; the taste of popcorn; the taste of hot dogs; the taste of coffee; the taste of chocolate, and writing everything you remember about it for the ten minutes. Write as if you were telling a friend what you would remember...don't edit or second guess yourself, just let the story "come forth."
You could also choose sound memories to evoke stories. For instance, the sound of an alarm clock; the sound of a dog barking; the sound of bells ringing; the sound of a far off train whistle.
~grab your notebook, pick a sensation, and start's what I came up with:
Hot Dog Heaven
Call it a reward or call it a bribe, whenever my mother and grandmother went shopping at the big Sears store on Dix Road, I was eager to go along because I knew a hot dog and orange soda would be coming my way.
The snack bar was right inside the door, and conveniently located next to the shoe department so there were places to sit. As soon as we walked in, my eye was drawn to the electric rotisserie case, plump hot dogs turning invitingly on their individual spits. I was always allowed to place my own order- one dog, plain, and a small orange pop. My grandfather, who acted as chauffeur and babysitter on these shopping expeditions, would pay for my food while I settled in a seat. The lady in the shoe department always had a smile for me, and didn't seem to mind that I was using her department as an eating area.
Oddly enough, I barely remember the taste of the hot dog. I'm sure it was good, but the whole ritual was almost more important than the food. Most of the time, I'd probably had a good lunch at home before we came, since our shopping trips usually took place in the early afternoon. Just getting that hot dog, nestled in it's steaming bun, and lying neatly in that white paper boat, was the most exciting part of the day for me.
I remember gobbling it up pretty quickly, because once the hot dog was done, then my grandfather would take me to the next best place in the store for the second part of my reward/bribe~the book department!

Monday, July 30, 2007

This Week in Writing

Each Monday I plan to post a weekly writing activity taken from my current reading and study on the craft of writing. This activity will be one that I have chosen to work on myself, and invite all of you to be my "writing buddies" in the effort!

The Narrative Time Line
(The Right to Write, Julia Cameron)

Cameron assigns this activity to her writing classes, along with Morning Pages. The Narrative Time Line is a "longhand, autobiographical account" of your life, best written in five year intervals. "Grab a new notebook, your fastest pen, and preferably a writing buddy," Cameron writes. Prepare to write for one hour, and when you set pen to paper, focus on the major events and people in your life. Try to avoid delving into too much emotional detail (you'll have the opportunity to do that in another activity!) Cameron recommends this activity should be completed in several sessions over a period of one month.

What's the point? "What arises from this exercise," Cameron says, "is a sense of fascination and self worth regarding the events of one's life. Inevitably, certain episodes and people beg for deeper writing than the mere facts will allow." These incidents and people will form the basis for another writing opportunity later on.

"The rewards of the Narrative Time Line are enormous," she goes on. It helps you win a version of yourself that is "self-determined and autonomous." You can "make connections that have eluded you," even in years of therapy. And, you may discover that your own life contains some fascinating material!

I'm off to my favorite cafe, new notebook and pen in hand to begin my own Narrative Time Line. Grab yourself a second cup of coffee or tea and join me, won't you?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sunday Scribbling-Wicked

"I'm sure you must think I'm the most wicked thing ever."

Susanna watched her friend Alaina delicately scrape up the last bits of chocolate edging her desert plate and lift the fork to her moist lips. "Mmmm," she sighed, closing her eyes and tilting her head back slightly, savoring this final morsel of a dessert that had been meant to share between the two of them. "I just can't help wanting to have it all...even though I know I shouldn't."

If only Alaina had been speaking about this slice of chocolate torte, Susanna thought, eyeing her friend with a familiar mixture of envy and distaste. Taking the last sip of her coffee, now grown cold and murky at the bottom of her cup, Susanna replied in the way she knew Alaina expected her to.

"You're not being wicked, exactly," she ventured, wishing she had the courage to lay bare her true feelings. "But you could be setting yourself up for a lot of problems and heartache down the road with this relationship."

"Susanna, honey," Alaina said, "if I worried about what might happen 'down the road' I'd never have any kind of life at all." With a characteristic toss of her head, black hair coming to rest languorously over her shoulder, Alaina leaned across the table conspiratorially. "Besides, I just cannot ignore this marvelous chemistry between us~it's irrefutable."

Susanna sighed, having heard this tone of voice many times in the 20 years she and Alaina had been friends. Not for the first time, she wondered what had drawn the two of them together, back in Mrs. Allen's seventh grade history class. Susanna, though pretty and popular enough by junior high school standards, was certainly no match for Alaina's fiery beauty and burgeoning sensuality. Even in those simpler days, Alaina's desires were not easily sated. Susanna remembered her friend's dangerous relationship with the mechanic at Steve's Garage, who had been less than pleased when he discovered his eager girlfriend had lied about her age, and was in eighth grade at St. Andrew's. Try as she might, Susanna had been unable to convince her friend that dating a 23 year old wasn't a good idea. Green eyes alight with excitement, Alaina had merely tossed Susanna's objections aside. "Why shouldn't I do whatever makes me happy?" she said.

Alaina glanced at her watch and reached into the slim Prada handbag lying at her elbow. "Have to run," she said, placing a twenty dollar bill on the table. "I'm meeting him at the Hyatt for drinks before we head to the airport."

Susanna knew that this "he" was the latest in a long string of Alaina's forbidden lovers. Mostly older, mostly married, usually rich, and always completely smitten with her dark beauty. Susanna couldn't help but feel fascinated with this woman's ability to entice any man she wanted, and even those she didn't. There is something almost wicked about her, Susanna admitted to herself. Yet, somehow, I don't think she realizes it.

Alaina leaned down and brushed Susanna's cheek with an airy, Chanel scented kiss. "Darling, you do worry so," she admonished. "Haven't I always managed to come out of these things on top~so to speak!"

Susanna's narrowed eyes remained on Alaina's back, cutting an elegant swath around the other diners on its path to the door. "Perhaps you have," she thought, taking her cellphone from the leather case she wore attached to her belt. "But you know what they say, my wicked little friend...all good things must eventually come to an end."

Clicking through her speed dial directory, Susanna stopped at Martin's number. Dialing her husband's phone, she hoped she could catch him before he arrived at the Hyatt's lobby bar. She had a feeling he would want this conversation to be held in private.

links to more wickedness

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Sunday Scribbling-Slippery

Trent told her how slippery the roads would be - warned her, actually, as she was grabbing her jacket from the hall closet, sending the heavy wooden hanger ricocheting around the rod and clattering to the floor. "You'll not want to be walking very far, Daisy," he cautioned. "It's a solid sheet of ice on them sidewalks."

"I'll be careful," she had promised, not wishing to worry her brother, just desperate to get away from the stifling atmosphere in the little house they shared. Though now, inching her way along the street with each step a potential disaster, Daisy felt her body become more tense than ever as she struggled to maintain her balance on the icy road.

Gritting her teeth, Daisy ached to stretch her long legs into a free and easy stride, to march purposefully along as if she were heading toward some positive future. Yet once again, she thought ruefully, I'm tiptoeing along in baby steps, just doing my level best to stay upright. I'm always being careful - careful at home, making sure Trent is taken care of, careful at work, making sure all the numbers add up right at the end of the day, careful with Davis, trying so hard not to slide down that slippery slope and let myself fall into love with him.

By this time, Daisy had made her way onto Main Street, where at least some small effort had been made to clear the snow and ice from in front of the storefronts. But the east wind blowing off Lake Erie kept sending more snow flying in swirls around her head, lashing her cheeks with stinging pellets that settled onto the pavement like dusting's from a jar of baby powder. Relaxing her posture and lengthening her stride, Daisy passed the nearly deserted shops and restaurants, remembering the phone call from her sister Lauren that had sent her barreling out of the house on this angry winter night.

"Daisy, you're letting life pass you right by," Lauren had proclaimed, as if telling Daisy something she didn't already know for herself. "You're almost 35 years old! You've got to quit being so darned cautious about everything and take a chance now and then. Why, where would I be if I had never gone out on a limb and...."

At this point in the conversation, Daisy dropped a steel barricade in her mind, letting the words of Lauren's familiar refrain slam themselves against it and lie in a soundless heap just short of her consciousness. It was all so easy for Lauren to say, with her happy marriage, two perfect children, and fancy city career. Lauren wasn't the one left holding the bag when mom and dad were killed in that train accident, Lauren wasn't the one who took over the family business and became responsible for Trent's care.

Daisy could feel her heart racing, and noticed the first inkling of dull pain at the back of her head announcing "migraine coming soon." She tried to quicken her step, noting that she had come out on the other side of town and would need to double back through Harden Park in order to make it home. Dusk was settling over town, leaden grey skies darkening ominously over Daisy's head. She shuffled warily across the slick road and into the park, wishing she had taken a few extra minutes to put her Igloo's on.

Within a split second, Daisy felt her right foot fly from under her, her left slipping along behind it. She wrenched her back and flailed her arms about, trying to keep her body upright, but the ground beneath her was solid ice, and she didn't stand a chance of righting herself. Her tailbone jarred as it hit the frozen ground, sending shock waves of pain running up her spine, and cold wind lashed her face as she went careening down the hill into the valley that ran along Hayden Creek.

Stunned and shaken, her head throbbing in a full blown migraine, Daisy came to rest in a heap at the bottom of the hill. As her heart began to slow its frantic beat, she recalled the sensation of sliding out of control down the hillside. To her surprise, exhilaration began to replace fright, and the misstep that sent her tumbling became reminiscent of an insistent hand at her back providing a nudge of encouragement.

"That was certainly throwing caution to the wind," she thought, grabbing hold of a tree trunk for support and gingerly getting to her feet. "But, actually, it wasn't half bad." Breathing deeply, she faced the slippery uphill battle ahead of her, and started inching her way carefully toward home.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-What's Your Sign

Even before she saw the rumpled bedclothes beside her, Teresa knew that Lawrence was already up and gone. A cold emptiness exuded from his side of the bed, one she felt sure had woken her from a rather pleasant dream.

"It's not a good sign," she thought, running her hands across the indentation in the sheets where his lean body should be sleeping peacefully. "Today of all days, he should be here." Although his intentions were magnanimous, allowing her to sleep while he dressed for early rounds at the hospital, she somehow felt cheated when he rose before her. Denied the opportunity for their customary good-bye, she was usually out of sorts for the rest of the day, and plagued with a niggling little fear that "something would happen" to him, and her last memory of him would be some trivial, nearly forgotten moment from the evening before.

Scooting over into the indentation left by her husband's body, Teresa curled herself into his space and buried her face in the pillow, inhaling the scent of his Prell shampoo and Irish Spring bath soap. She liked it when they started the day as a team - after all, as two Gemini's they were fated to work as a pair. The sign of the Twins, perfectly matched astrologically to one another. Teresa smiled, recalling that moment during their first meeting when she had posed the question which usually earned a derogatory chuckle.

"If you don't mind me asking," she had ventured, taking a sip of the rum and coke she had nursed throughout the evening, "what's your sign?"

Lawrence hadn't laughed, he had only raised his lovely thick eyebrows and regarded her thoughtfully for a moment. "Gemini," he answered. "June 12, 1978."

Teresa felt sure the whole room must have heard the bells that went off in her head at that moment, for here was the man she had been looking for her entire life. Perfect twins, they were, born on the same day. She had smiled at him, knowing that their fate was sealed.

Lost in this happy remembrance, she must have dozed off, and was startled to feel a warm hand cupped protectively around her belly.

"Happy birthday," Lawrence's deep voice whispered in her ear.

"Same to you," she answered sleepily, turning to wrap her arms around his neck. "Where were you, anyway?" she asked, still sulky that he had left her to waken alone.

"I went to get your present," he replied, dangling a thin plastic bag from Walgreen's in front of her face.

Teresa grinned and snatched the package from him. "I never thought I'd be this excited about a present from Walgreen's," she quipped. Tearing into the box, she removed the pencil shaped stick from it's container and headed toward the bathroom. Lawrence held up both hands, his fingers crossed hopefully.

"No need for superstition this time," she told him cheerily. "I'm already positive of the outcome. After all, aren't we the perfect pair?"

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-I Have A Secret

"Your secret is safe with me, " Damien reluctantly told his sister, reaching across the scarred wooden table of their favorite booth in Crandall's Pub. Her pale blue eyes, mirror images of his own, welled with tears as she smiled her gratitude.

"What would I do without you?" she asked.

Hopefully, you'll never have to know, he thought to himself. His thoughts wandered over all the times during their lives she had placed him in this position, entrusting him with some information about her life that must be kept secret. Perhaps it was all part and parcel of being a twin, sharing every aspect your siblings existence, knowing their personality inside and out. At times, the weight of all this knowledge weighed heavily on Damien's heart, making him feel too full, as if he had indulged in excessive amounts of rich food.

And yet, Damien thought, picking up the check for the beers they had downed during the telling of this latest tale, Denise knew so little about his life. He smiled ruefully to himself. He did have a secret or two of his own, after all. This first year of college life had provided several opportunities for some interesting personal encounters.

"Damien, are you listening?" Denise asked, as she shrugged her shoulders into the black leather jacket she had started wearing when he outgrew it during his senior year of high school. "I asked if you were going home for Christmas vacation this year."

"Most likely," he answered. "Aren't you?"

She just stared at him, her face clearly expressing disbelief that he would ask such a question. "After what I've just told you," she said, "how could you expect me to spend 10 days there? I was hoping you'd stay here with me," she continued. "I really don't want to be alone - especially now."

"Right," he replied absently. "I suppose I could stay," he went on, although even as he said it, he found himself wondering how to explain this to their mother, who looked forward to the Christmas holiday with childish anticipation.

"Good," she said, tucking her arm through his as they pushed through the pub door and into the frosty winter night. "You'll square it away with Mom then, won't you?"

Damien knew Denise took his acquiesence for granted, as she did his willingness to safeguard her confidences. His sister was one of those girls who managed to find trouble around every corner and set both feet squarely in it every time. From the moment they emerged from the womb, he had borne the burden of her neediness, hiding the evidence of her mistakes, taking the blame for her wrongdoing to protect her from their father's wrath.

Damien glanced at his sister, walking briskly beside him, a pleased smile playing across her lips.
As ususal, after unburdening herself of whatever secret was troubling her, she became relaxed and carefree. While Damien continued to stockpile these secrets of hers, allowing them to fester away inside him, unable to share them with anyone.

His eyes narrowed as he trudged along the dark pathway toward their dorm. Denise began whistling "Jingle Bells," her breath marking the rhythm in the frosty air. Perhaps, Damien thought, it was time to make some changes in their relationship.

"Guess what, twin sister," he thought, "I just might have a secret to share with you, too."

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Eccentricity

Karen had never seen anything like it. Everything in the entire room was white - the trio of candlesticks on the white coffee table, the grand piano tucked in the alcove, the two high backed armchairs set at right angles in front of the white laminate wall unit, the plush carpeting, the smooth ceramic tile, all of it pristine, icy, perfectly white.

The slender elderly woman didn't so much walk as glide soundlessly toward Karen, her hand outstretched in greeting. Virtually indistinguishable from her surroundings, her perfectly coiffed platinum hair framing her patrician features, the warmth of her smile lent some relief to the starkness of their surroundings. "Sylvia Warner, " she said, her voice low pitched and elegant.
"I'm very pleased to meet you."

Karen blinked, pulling her eyes away from their amazed inventory of white furnishings. "Thank you," she said. "I'm looking forward to working with you." What an understatement, she thought. Karen had admired Sylvia Warner's poetry for years, and included it in every one of her poetry workshops. Being hired as her personal assistant was the opportunity of a lifetime. Surely just being in her presence would provide the inspiration she needed to revive her own creative process. Yet, how could a woman whose poetry was filled with colorful, evocative images, live in such colorless surroundings?

"Please, come in, sit down," Sylvia invited her. "When we spoke on the telephone the other day, we only touched briefly on the responsibilities of this position. I'd like to discuss in more detail..." Her voice trailed off as she noticed Karen's eyes wandering around the room. "It's quite different, I know," she said.

Karen quickly refocused her attention on the woman in front of her. "I'm so sorry," she stammered. "It's just that...well, I've never seen a room quite like this before."

"Yes, of course," Sylvia continued. "And I admit, it's rather eccentric of me." She sighed and pursed her lips, obviously wondering how much to reveal to this stranger sitting in front of her. Karen returned her gaze with what she hoped was polite interest.

"You see," Sylvia continued, "after my husband died, I just couldn't seem to bear the assault of color on my eyes. It was almost as if, without him, all the color had been drained from my life, and I wanted - no needed- my surroundings to reflect that."

"Yet, your poetry," Karen said, "it's so vibrant and full of - well, color!"

Sylvia smiled wanly. "It was," she said. "Lately, I have not been able to write in the same way at all." Her eyes, unnervingly blue in a face so pale, were suddenly awash with tears. "In all honesty," she said, "I find myself unable to write at all."

A chill ran down Karen's spine. Suddenly the pervasive lack of color seemed ominous to her, as if the oxygen had been removed from the room along with the pigment. There could be no revival of creative energy here, in this room devoid of color, devoid almost of life itself. She quickly rose to her feet. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Warner," she gasped. "I don't think this will work out after all."

The thin hand desperately gripped Karen's wrist. "Please," Sylvia whispered, "I am in need of your assistance. I can tell just by looking at you that you would understand, that you of all people could help me find my way back to color again."

Taking a deep breath, Karen stopped. Could this woman possibly know the depth of the void in her own life? The way all words had stopped for her a year ago, on the day her six year old daughter Katie ran into the path of an oncoming car. From that day forward, nothing but darkness had existed in Karen's heart and mind, a darkness far removed from this woman's surrealistic world of white.

Karen stared down at the slightly gnarled fingers wrapped tightly around her wrist. This was the hand that had written some of the most touching poetry Karen had ever read, poetry that blossomed in her spirit and allowed it to soar. Was it possible that together they could restore a small bit of the vibrancy that had been snatched from their lives?

Sensing Karen's acquiescence, a sigh of relief escaped from the older woman's lips. "Thank you," she said softly. "I can't tell you how pleased I am. Now, let me fix you a cup of tea," she said, turning to leave the room. "I have something special that has been waiting for just the right moment, and I believe this could be it."

Within moments, she had returned carrying a large white lacquer tray, a lace cloth draped smoothly over it. Karen's eye was drawn immediately to two bright red cups with gold handles, set smartly on matching saucers.

"When I disposed of all my colored china, I set this red tea service aside," Sylvia said. "I suppose I was hopeful that someday a bit of brightness would return to my world."

Setting the tray on the coffee table, she smiled and gently touched Karen's hand. "Perhaps I must reinstate the color into life myself," she said, "not wait for someone or something else to do it for me."

She offered Karen the brightly colored cup, curls of fragrant steam rising from its rim. "Please," she said. "Join me."

Friday, June 8, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Spicy

"This should spice up our lives, don't you think?"

Petra gazed in disbelief at Danny's face, barely visible beneath the tinted visor of his helmet. The rumbling engine of the motorcycle he cradled between his knees couldn't drown out the excitement in his voice as he gazed up at her with a Cheshire cat smile. Petra shook her head in amazement. It'll certainly spice up yours, she thought ruefully, imagining him cruising down Michigan Avenue on Saturday nights, meeting friends at Diego's Roadhouse or the Blue Martini, while she sat home curled up with the cat and her knitting.

With a flick of his wrist, Danny gunned the engine and whirled off down the driveway. Petra watched him tooling happily down the blacktop lane, heading toward the highway from the converted barn they had renovated during their 15 years of marriage. She had to admit, since she and Danny had finally finished the work on the barn, it seemed as if life was a little dull. They worked so well together, everything from sketching plans to painting to laying ceramic tile in the master bathroom. There was a constant sense of excitement in the air, finishing one project and going on to the next.

Petra wandered through the house admiring again the fruits of their partnership. The dark oak floors, sanded to a satiny finish, the high cross beams arcing overhead, her shiny kitchen, illuminated by a skylight over the worktop. Danny had paid particular attention to that, and to the bay window in the front room, knowing how she adored sunlight.

Sighing, Petra peered out that bay window, trying not to admit that she was already missing him, wishing he were home with her instead of roaring around alone on a motorcycle. She had been so sure they wouldn't be one of those couples that grew apart after years of marriage. Yet, perhaps it took more than a common interest in renovation to make a marriage exciting. Maybe something fresh was needed to add a dash of spice to their relationship, Petra thought. But couldn't it have been something a little more inviting - like ballroom dancing or even birdwatching?

With a sigh, Petra turned toward the kitchen to start dinner. If he wants spice, then spice he'll get, she thought, remembering some chorizio in the freezer that would make a nice hot pasta sauce. She stopped short at the kitchen door, catching her reflection in a deep purple metallic helmet propped against on the black granite counter top. She pulled the pink sticky note off the visor.

"Pet, this one's for you, and its your favorite color too.
Riding won't be any fun unless you're sitting behind me.

Almost gingerly, Petra lifted the helmet from the counter. Reflected in the smoky visor, she took stock of her heart shaped face, her high forehead camouflaged with wispy bangs, her dark hair tucked neatly behind her ears. "Not really the face you'd imagine for a motorcycle mama, is it? But then again," she thought, tugging the helmet securely over her head, "variety is the spice of life!"

Hearing the distant rumble of the Harley engine, already recognizable even to her untrained ear, Petra strode purposefully toward the porch, ready to join her partner in a brand new project.

Monday, June 4, 2007

A Matter of Character-Part III

Once you've created your character (s) with all of his or her idiosyncrasies, how do you reveal these important traits, making them evident to the reader with only words?

Character can be revealed through straight narrative, and sometimes that's the most effective way. Diana Lee placed herself backstage where she could keep an eye on Ashleigh during her performance. Her black skirt grazed the top of her flat ballerina slippers as she stood in the familiar singer's pose - feet six inches apart, right foot slightly forward. Her long hair, undone from it's usual tortoise shell barrette, swept down and across her broad shoulders. Ashleigh was Diana Lee's top student, and had an excellent chance of winning this competition. If only she remained focused, and didn't allow her nerves to get the best of her.

Or, you can use a combination of action, speech, thought, and appearance to create a sense of depth in the story as you reveal aspects of your character. "In real life," Reissenweber writes, we experience people in a variety of ways, often simultaneously, and mixing the methods re-creates this sense of reality." Diana Lee stood backstage, her broad shoulders thrust back, her feet planted firmly six inches apart, watching closely as Ashleigh took her place alongside the pianist. Squinting through the thick lenses of her eyeglasses, Diana Lee peered intently at the tall, slender girl preparing to sing. "Stay focused, breathe, be passionate," she willed her thoughts toward her student. "You have what it takes to win it all, and you'd better not screw it up!"

You can also use a discrepancy in these elements to reveal conflicting aspects of your character's personality. The judge greeted Diana Lee with an effusive smile, and possessively took Diana's Lee hand in both of her own. "How thrilled you must be with her performance," she gushed. Diana Lee narrowed her eyes slightly at the woman, yet smiled warmly in return. "Yes, of course I'm so pleased," she answered, turning away as soon as politely possible. "You quack," she thought in distaste. "You wouldn't know a good soprano from a frog in a pond!"
In her article, Character: Casting Shadow, from the Gotham Writers Workshop Guide to Writing FIction, Brandi Reissenweber cautions the writer not to "go overboard" in revealing details about your characters. "Every character detail you use in your fiction should serve to advance or enhance the story you're telling."

Lastly, Reissenweber mentions the role of name choice in revealing character. "Names are like the wrapping on a present," she states, "offering just a hint of what's inside the person." I chose the name Diana Lee for my character to portray her dramatic, "diva-esque" nature.

Obviously, a great deal of thought and practice goes into creating the kinds of characters a reader will care about, identify with, or even love to hate!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Matter of Character-Part II

Where do characters come from ? The answer is simple - everywhere! Every person you know, the strangers you observe at the mall or coffee shop, your family, and of course, youself, give you the perfect material for creating characters. My character Diana Lee was inspired by a voice teacher who recently hired me to accompany her students for a major vocal competition

In her article, Character: Casting Shadow, from the Gotham Writer's Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction, Brandi Reissenweber, cautions us that if we use people we know for characters, we have to be willing and able to "use creative invention." In other words, we mustn't drive ourselves crazy trying to make our characters act just the way their "real life" counterpart would. "Let youself fictionalize these people," Reissenweber advises. "Transform them into characters that suit the needs of your story."

This is where the real fun of characterization begins. With the spark of an idea for a character, I now have complete control over who this person is and what she will become. But in order to create someone believeable to my reader, I have to know my character inside and out. Reissenweber offers a very thorough set of questions to help me mold character into the person I want and need her to become.

  • Describe the character's physical appearance, distinguishing characteristics or mannerisms. Diana Lee is a large woman, in her mid-40's, big boned and somewhat overweight. Her long wavy, hair, which was once true blonde, has now turned a muddy shade of dishwater. When she's teaching, she wears it pulled back and captured with a large barrette. She wears 70's style horned rimmed glasses, with thick, "coke bottle" lenses, indicating her poor eyesight, and is constantly pushing them up onto her nose.

  • What is the character's family background? Diana Lee has two sisters, both of whom live nearby, but with whom she isn't particularly close. She is, however, very close to her neice Laura, as well as to Laura's children. Laura often helps Diana Lee in caring for Harriet, Diana Lee's mother, who has been immobilized following a stroke. Diana Lee returned to the suburban town where she was born five years prior; she's currently living in the home where she grew up, caring for her mother. She spent some years after college living in Italy, where she was working as a professional singer and trying to "make it" in the world of opera.

  • Delving deeper into the character's psyche, what is her biggest fear? what makes her laugh out loud? has she ever been in love? Diana Lee's biggest fear is that her career is over, and that she has never acheived the kind of recognition of her talent that she feels she deserves. She is amused by little - she takes a rather sardonic view of her students, and finds their attempts to create art "amusing." Her biggest pleasure comes from being with her young niece and nephew, and from playing with her cat, Isadora. She has been invovled in relationships with men during the time she spent in Italy - she would say she was "never in love" with any of them, when the truth is that she never allowed any relationship to progress to that point for fear of being sidetracked from her ambitions.

Reisenweber also offers additional, less obvious questions to consider about the character, such as~

  • What is in the character's refrigerator? on her nightstand? in her bookshelves? on her CD player?
  • Describe the charcter's feet~what are her shoes and socks like? does she wear shoes at all?
  • What sights and smells would your character associate with their childhood kitchen?
  • It's Sunday morning~what is your character doing? going to church? reading the New York Times in a coffee shop? lounging in bed with a lover?
  • What is your character's strongest childhood memory?
  • Your character is getting ready for a night out ~where is she going? what is she wearing? who is she going out with?

The answers to these in-depth questions allow the writer to create a real, three dimensional person. Not all of these characteristics will present themselves to the reader, and in fact, many of them probably should not. "But the more you know your characters, the more you will be able to present them on the page in a believable way," Reissenweber advises.

Obviously, a lot of thought and attention go into the creation of characters, much more so than I had realized. These are all the kinds of details that make characters jump off the page and into the reader's mind and heart, make them the sort of people the reader simply has to know more about.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Matter of Character-Part I

When I read novels, I'm all about the characters. I'm simply fascinated to read about other peoples lives and delve into what makes them tick - even if those people are completely imaginary. It's the characters in a book that keep me reading avidly, just to see what happens to them. So as I dabble around with writing fiction, naturally I'm interested in what it takes to make characters believable and interesting, and mostly, how to infuse them with the spirit that makes them come alive in the readers mind.

I've been reading and working through the exercises in the Gotham Writer's Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction. In an article entitled Character: Casting Shadow, Brandi Reissenweber defines the elements involved in creating characters. First, they must have a "burning desire." They have to want something, whether it's something major, like the lead in a Broadway production, or something seemingly less earth shaking, such as learning to make a killer chocolate souffle. This is the desire that will motivate their actions throughout the story, and from which the story line itself will develop.

**my main character is a middle aged woman, once an aspiring opera singer whose career never really took off. she now teaches voice to college students, and her prize pupil, Ashleigh, is a young blind woman whom she is grooming for the stage. her "burning desire" is for this young woman to succeed where she did not - in effect, to "make it" for her.

Characters have to be complex, neither a complete goody two shoes, nor a total dastardly villian. No matter how bad or good someone is, there must always be an element of an opposing characteristic, which will become evident in some way during the pursuit of their desire.

**my character, let's call her Diana Lee, is the model of dignity and decorum in her teaching and her dealing with the public. she is warm, intelligent, vivacious, yet can sometimes be outspoken and a bit of a prima donna. the real contrast in her character becomes evident in her relationship with her invalid mother, whom she cares for, and with whom she is impatient and occasionally cruel.

Every character must have the ability to change, and their potential for change is often the culminating point of the story. The reader doesn't always have to see the change come to fruition, but must be aware that the possibility exists, and that the character recognizes their capability for change.

**Diana Lee will realize she must let go of her dream for Ashleigh when the young woman decides to pursue a career as a teacher herself, and not a performer. At this point, Diana will come to terms with the disappointments in her own life and accept herself as she is. She will also develop a better relationship with her mother, as she comes to understand the ways in which her mother's dreams were not realized as she had hoped.

Where do characters come from, and how do you get to know them inside and out? I'll let you know when I finish reading the chapter!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Simple

It should be such a simple thing, Diana thought. Arrange for a minister, order a cake and some champagne, wear a nice dress or suit, carry a bouquet of white roses, and there you have it. A wedding.

She gazed dolefully at the display Peter had set before her -huge books filled with hundreds of sample invitations, complete with matching cocktail napkins, coasters, matchbooks, and swizzle sticks. Menus from caterers, sample CD's of bands promising the diversity of disco to swing. The only thing that captured Diana's interest were the DVD's promising to immortalize every minute of your "big day" so you could relive it in the comfort of your living room for years to come. It might come in handy, she thought, popping the DVD into the player to remind yourself of the vows you made, see the starry eyed gaze of your beloved once again, after it had glazed over from years of paying bills and taking out garbage.

"Look at this, Diana," Peter was saying, pointing excitedly at the brochure from St. Andrew's Hall, the historic seminary they (more accurately, he) had chosen for the momentous occasion.
"They have a bagpiper who will "pipe us out" after the ceremony, and then we can be driven around the grounds in one of three classic cars - a 1914 Model A, a 1924 Stutz Bearcat, or a 1938 Packard convertible!"

Diana shuddered inwardly, imagining their guests standing around outside listening to the wail of bagpipes playing Scotland the Brave while she and Peter stuffed themselves into the backseat of an old car and rode around like two movie stars on parade. "Fascinating," she replied with a weak smile.

Peter turned toward her. "You aren't very gung ho about this, are you?"

How perceptive of you, she thought. We've lived together for ten years now, and you're finally beginning to understand me.

"I was just thinking of something a little more~understated?" she faltered. "Something simple."

"Simple!" Peter exclaimed. "Why would you want your first wedding to be simple?"

Diana felt the rising flush of a hot flash, predictably induced by emotional stress. As a wave of nausea passed over her, she rose quickly and dashed to ther refrigerator for a bottle of water which she held to her forehead. Breathing deeply, she waited for it to pass.

Her first wedding had actually taken place 25 years before, and it had been anything but simple. The elaborateness of the affair astounded her even today, as she remembered choosing "only" seven bridesmaids from among her bevy of friends, deciding on gold or silver rimmed china, debating whether to engrave "black tie optional" at the bottom of the parchment invitations. "You girls today," her grandmother had said, shaking her head, "you're so busy with the wedding that you forget about the marriage."

Sure enough, somewhere, in the midst of all that planning, combined with the stress of constant dieting so she could fasten the 47 seed pearl buttons up the back of her dress, she had realized that she really didn't love Trevor, didn't really even like him very much, and certainly did not want to live with him the rest of her life. By then, with the final dress fitting only two days away, the chocolate fountain on order, 275 rsvp cards piled neatly on her desk waiting to be sorted for dinner choices, and a roomful of gifts wrapped in white and silver paper waiting to be opened like, it was much to late to back out.

The brevity of that marriage, over before it had even begun, had never seemed worth mentioning to Peter. In truth, Diana was a little ashamed of that moment in her life when she had allowed her common sense to fly out the window and succumbed to the pagentry of planning a "dream" wedding.

The hormonally induced heat at last fading from her body, Diana walked back into the living room, breathing deeply. "Let's face it, Peter," she said. "I'm much to old to play the blushing bride. We've been together a long time already - why make such a big production out of this?"

"Precisely because we've been "together" for such a long time," he said, gently taking her hands in his. "We're simultaneously celebrating the union we've already achieved and proclaiming our intention to go forward into the future."

"It's not that simple," she told him, gazing ernestly into the dark eyes of this gentle man, the man who had supported her through the death of both her parents, nursed her back to health after her hysterectomy, shared her joy when her radio show was picked up for syndication and her first book was published. "I want this day to be personal - just between us," she said. "I don't want to spend the next six months creating this fantasy wedding, and then spending the entire wedding day worrying about whether everything will go just right." She squeezed Peter's hand, as if to underscore the sincerity of her feeling. "I don't want to get so caught up in the wedding that I forget about the marriage."

Peter's gaze bore into hers, a familiar intense stare meaning "do you know what you're saying?" Diana stared back, firm in her conviction that, this time, the event itself would not eclipse the motivation for it.

Resigned, Peter nodded slightly and released her hands. "Allright then," he said. "I was just trying to make it a special day. I've wanted you to marry me for so long now, perhaps I did get carried away."

What could be more special, Diana thought, bringing her lips to his in a grateful kiss, than a relationship like this, based on love and mutual respect, with such concern for the other's well being and happiness. That's what marriage was all about. Really, it was as simple as that.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Mask

"How many times have I told you not to wear that idiotic mask to the table?" From deep within the hollowed latex eye sockets, Jenna could see her mother's slender fingers tipped in deep crimson reaching toward her face. Reflexively, Jenna raised her small hands to protect her face, but not before her mother snatched the mask away from her forehead and dashed it to the floor.

Jenna shivered, recalling the sudden feeling of dangerous exposure that caused her to shrink within her 10 year old self, lower her eyes, and try to become as small as possible. Her eyes had fixed on the nearly translucent china plate in front of her as it rested on her grandmother's Irish linen tablecloth. She had reached for her fork as slowly and silently as possible.

"Not that one!" came her mother's razor sharp cry, the one Jenna tried to avoid whenever possible. "The large fork is for your meal, the small one on the farthest left for your salad. Why can't you learn that?" Jenna longed for the mask to protect her from the cold disdain in her mother's stare. She had chosen the Cleopatra mask that day, the dark beauty of this ancient queen the perfect counterpart to her mother's white blonde hair and icy expression.

The masks had so often saved her, even though her mother either complained bitterly about them or, depending on the number of Gin and Tonic's she had consumed, ripped them from Jenna's face. She continually threatened to destroy Jenna's entire collection, words that struck fear into through Jenna's heart.

"One of these days, missy, you'll come home and all those ugly faces you hide behind will be gone, gobbled up by the big green garbage truck."

Jenna quaked at the thought of Princess Diana, Cinderalla, Scarlett O'Hara, even Wonder Woman (who wasn't actually a favorite) being crushed and shredded in the jaws of the huge waste disposal truck roaming the back alley behind their house. Somehow, though, she had felt sure her mother wouldn't carry out this threat. As much as she complained about the different faces Jenna wore, they were easier for her to look at than Jenna's real face, the one that people always said looked just like her fathers, with it's smoky dark eyes and olive skin.

Sitting at her own table now, some 20 years later, Jenna picked at the small salad before her. Perhaps if her father hadn't dissappeared before she had been born, things would have been different for her and her mother, she thought, as she had so many times before. As it was, Jenna had grown accustomed to the saftey she felt behind the masks, protected somehow from the contempt of the woman who should have loved her most, hoping one of the persona she chose each day would be the one her mother would find acceptable, even pleasing.

Jenna rose from her seat and scraped the remains of her salad into the garbage. Her small apartment was silent, save for the ticking of the clock which told her she had dawdled too long, lost in those memories of unhappier times. She had promised her mother she would visit today, although she was quite certain the woman had lost all concept of time, along with most of her other faculties, her brain ravished by years of alcohol and now dementia. Stopping to button her coat, Jenna glanced at her reflection in the mirror that hung beside her front door.

Yes, she thought, quite satisfied with what she saw, it was a good day for Cleopatra.

Friday, May 18, 2007

I Met Someone Today

For the first time today, I experienced a feeling I've only read about up until now~a character, inserting themselves into my head, popping into my subconscious while I'm clearing the kitchen after breakfast, peeking in as I'm putting on tennis shoes to go for a walk, interrupting me as I'm talking to my husband about plans for the day.

Where did she come from, this woman with slightly sad dark eyes and long auburn hair, streaked with gray? She smiles at me, but there is pain behind the smile, a sorrow that comes from unimaginable loss.

Last night I was thinking about a friend who lost her son to suicide about 18 months ago. I've written about Jeff and his impact on my life, and while I still think about him quite often, its his mother Vicky for whom I feel the pain. You see, Jeff got his wish, at least I'm supposing he did, awful as it seems to me. But Vicky ~ she's the one who lost so much, whose life he changed in an inalterable and cruel way.

This woman who keeps nagging my mind is not Vicky, but her pain seems somehow the same. There is an unmistable aura of it surrounding her, and I find myself thinking about some way to help her dispel this darkness that engulfs her.

I think there's a story here...a long one, perhaps even a book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Last Chance Kid

Carol hoped she hadn't made a mistake, forcing Chuck to come on this field trip. After 20 years of teaching, Chuck was one of the few students who had confounded every technique in Carol's book of teacher tricks. Rude, angry, insubordinate, disrespectful, he never missed an opportunity to flaunt authority or buck the system. When his counselor had begged Carol to allow him in the Choraliers, she was reluctant to say the least.

"I can't have unruly kids in that group," she warned.

"Come on, Carol," Lee Washington had cajoled. "I've seen you work miracles with kids before. This is pretty much his last chance before he hits the streets."

Always a sucker for a "last chance kid," Carol had reluctantly agreed. In the three months since school started, Chuck had made no progress toward assimilating himself into her advanced group of singers. He blew off rehearsals, stood in the back of the room with his arms folded when the choreographer was teaching steps, and wore a chip of his shoulder the size of Dallas. So, she sighed, watching the kids pile out of their cars on this sunny December afternoon, bringing him to perform for their annual program at Ridgeway Convalescent Center was probably a huge mistake.

The choir members trekked happily inside, familiar with the punch and cookie reception they knew would be waiting for them. Eager and excited, they passed through a gauntlet of elderly, infirm residents waiting silently in their wheelchairs, reaching out gnarled and trembling fingers to touch the girls bright dance dresses, shake the boys firm hands.

Taking their positions in the middle of the dining room, the choir smiled, sang, shared their youthful exuberance with unguarded selflessness. Carol let her eyes run the gamut of singers as they finished their last song, noticing Chuck's sullen look in the farthest corner of the bass section. His eyes remained downcast and hooded, his mouth barely moving, even as they concluded with Silent Night, that most familiar of all carols.

Their set done, the students moved around the room one last time, bending down to greet those who made eye contact, saying a few words here and there in exaggeratedly loud voices. Then, hastily throwing on coats and hats, they were rushing through the sliding doors, heading off to one more performance at the local mall.

Carol took a quick head count as they passed into the frosty air. Chuck was missing. Had he managed to sneak out the back, heading for the nearest arcade or even bar? Snatching up her car keys, Carol quickly turned toward her car. Suddenly, she heard loud guffaws emanating from the dining room behind her. There he was, his large, bulky frame seated comfortably on the sofa between two wizend grey haired women, laughing and joking. Both women were grinning broadly, and one reached up to gently pat his large back. "Such a sweet boy!" she exclaimed.

Noticing Carol's amazed look, he rose hastily from his seat. "Ms. Woodward," he said, "I'll be right there. I just wanted to speak to these ladies for a moment."

"That's fine, Chuck," Carol said, doing her best not to sound as dumbfounded as she felt.

"You know, I just love old people," he confided, shoving his arms into the sleeve of his padded down jacket. "My grandma, she's the one that raised me. She lives in a nursing home now, too, and I go see here every chance I get."

Carol followed him to the cars, watching as the group he was riding with called out joyfully for him to "Hustle up, bud!"

Maybe Chuck's last chance would pay off after all, she thought.

Written for an exercise in the Gotham Writers Workshop on Fiction Writing

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Second Chance

The young woman seated at the desk had barely reacted when Kate said, "Well, I can't have it." She probably heard that same statement a dozen times a day, maybe more. From the looks of the waiting room, there were dozens of young women in Kate's shoes, slumped dejectedly in the molded plastic chairs, waiting for a stranger to tell them the results of a question they already knew the answer to.

"Then you'll want to schedule an appointment as soon as possible," the nurse replied, reaching for an oversized black appointment book. "You're already 10 weeks along."

September 30. That was the day Kate had chosen, the one day of many empty squares in the clinic's calendar. Kate stared again at the masthead of the discarded New York Times she had picked up from the counter after ordering her usual Cafe Mocha - September 30, 2006. Thirty years ago today.

What would it be like to have a 30 year old daughter, Kate wondered, settling into her usual table by the back window. For some reason, she was convinced of the femaleness of that unwanted child, even though her body had produced four male children in the three decades since. She smiled, thinking of her boys, each one so much like his father~big, masculine men, who loved ribald jokes and roughhousing, and whose idea of cultural entertainment was James Bond movies and Bruce Springsteen concerts. They were good men, all of them, strong yet tenderhearted, always around when she needed a hand. One or the other of them stopped by nearly every day now, since Robert had died. Usually they would pretend to be looking for a handout-a fresh cup of coffee, some homemade cookies or cake, a meatloaf sandwich if it happened to be lunchtime. She knew they were just checking on her, making sure she wasn't lonely, rambling around alone in their big house.

Kate sipped her warm coffee and reflexively wiped a dab of whipped cream from the tip of her nose. Funny thing, Robert had really wanted her to have that baby. Even though it wasn't his, even though its due date was just days shy of the elaborate wedding they had already finished planning.

"I can't have it!" she had cried out to him. "My mother would never forgive me!"

"Kate, you're 23 years old, and about to be married," he had said. "Isn't it time you stopped worrying about what your mother will think?"

But that's what daughters did, Kate thought. They worried about their mothers - what they thought, whether they approved. Kate wondered again about this daughter she might have had, the one that would be almost 30 years old now. Would they be close, going to concerts together, meeting for coffee in this very Starbucks to talk about the latest bestseller they had read? Or would they have butted heads from the very beginning, ending up as family but not friends, walking on eggshells with one another, avoiding revelations that would be greeted with disapproval or scorn.

Kate shook her head, clearing these cobwebs from her mind. Too late now, she told herself, briskly turning to the editorial section. It's water under the bridge, as her own mother used to say. "You don't get second chances with life," she would warn, usually when Kate had made a decision she didn't agree with.

Maybe not, Kate thought, tucking the blanket tighter around her granddaughter, who had been sleeping peacefully in the stroller while Kate finished her coffee. She smiled wistfully at the tiny face, full of possibility. Maybe there are no second chances, she thought, but at least there are new opportunities.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Seeking Shelter

Clearly, someone had been living here, Devyn realized, staring at dirty dishes piled haphazardly in the sink. The fossilized remnants of canned pasta and beans were evident, even from where he stood in the doorway. A wide ray of afternoon sunshine beamed like a spotlight through the grimy window above the counter, illuminating the disarray left behind by the cottage’s mysterious inhabitant.

There was an odor as well, Devyn noticed as he stepped further into the room, the pungent odor of unwashed skin, the sour, musty aroma of damp towels left to dry in humid lake breezes. His mother had despised that smell, warned them against it every time they returned from the lake. “Hang those towels out on the line!” she’d cry, usually from her vantage point in front of this very sink, where she was likely washing dishes, or preparing one of the many fruits and vegetables their father might have gathered in from his garden that morning. “They’ll get to smelling if you bring them in the house.”

Devyn grimaced, thinking how much she would hate the smell of this place right now, her constant battle against dirt and dampness over the years of summers gone for naught. While he and his brother had scampered through the woods behind the cottage, relishing their seemingly innocent games of war and private eye, she had remained inside working furiously at her cleanliness project for the day– sweeping sand from the floors, cleaning foggy lake breeze residue from windows, removing ceiling light fixtures that became the final resting place for tiny black bugs and moths.

Gingerly, he picked an orange plastic coffee cup out of the sink, -melamine, he thought it was called. “Perfect for cottage use,” his mother had said with satisfaction, purchasing a set of six at the local Ben Franklin. Now grimy and discolored inside, a gritty residue of instant coffee granules cemented to the bottom, Devyn let it fall from his fingertips, and clatter back into the sink. He could recall his mother quickly downing a half cup of instant coffee from this cup every morning, then hurrying off to her "chores." Why did she never take the time to sit comfortably on the back porch, watching the sun rise over the lake, sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee? It seemed to Devyn as if his mother and father had never really lived here - between his mother's cleaning and his father's gardening, the cottage was a workplace, rather than a place to enjoy life.

Five summers had passed since his mother had been here, the cottage carefully closed and locked that last autumn morning. Devyn could picture his father, walking through the rooms with his tattered checklist in hand, carefully consulting the list of duties that must be performed before closing the place for the winter, not knowing he would sicken and die before spring's arrival. Almost immediately after, Devyn's mother had begun her descent into the neverland of dementia that had by now claimed all memory of this summer cottage and the times she had spent there.

Devyn knew they should have rented the place out, not let it sit empty all these summers. The local sheriff had warned him about “squatters”. “Folks ‘round here are hurtin’ these days,” he’d said when Devyn had called and asked him to keep an eye out. “And some are desperate enough to seek shelter anywhere, even if it don’t belong to ‘em.”

Whoever was living here must be desperate indeed, Devyn thought, turning his back on the sink filled with crusty dishes and focusing his eyes on the door in front of him. He didn’t bother to lock it behind him – after all, someone was clearly living here now.

~written in response to this short story contest

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Baby Makes Three

Clarissa always drove fast cars, Ellen thought, watching the snub nosed grille of the new Saab Turbo come roaring up the tree lined driveway. She apparently wanted people to think she was daring and outrageous, buying those expensive European cars and bragging about red-lining the speedometer. Ellen's fairly large Italian nose wrinkled, slightly disgusted, as the chrome wheels on the dark green convertible sent a billowing cloud of dust trailing behind them. Instinctively, she stepped back from the door as the car made it's approach toward the house, narrowing her eyes and inadvertently preparing herself to jump back even farther should Clarrisa be unable to stop the car in time and come crashing into Ellen's living room.

Further retreat proved unnecessary, as Clarissa executed a perfect braking maneuver, setting the car perfectly in line with the garage and well away from the front of the cottage. Ellen quickly smoothed her freshly high-lighted auburn bob, and slipped on her navy blue Crocs- ridiculous looking shoes, she was the first to admit, but so perfectly suited to life at the lake. A quick glance over her shoulder insured that the living room looked it's best. The cushions on the blue and white checked sofa were neatly plumped, the navy blue chenille throw tossed artfully across one corner. Her reading chairs-two captains chairs recently reupholstered in denim blue-faced each other companionably in front of the fireplace, the gate legged table between them stacked with her latest book stack. The aroma of lemony furniture polish filled the air, mixed with the fresh clean scent from the brisk summer breeze blowing off the lake. A white milk glass pitcher had been placed in the center of the heavy oak coffee table, filled with a carefully arranged bouquet of flowers.

She stopped just shy of the back screen door, taking a few moment to observe Clarissa before she announced her presence. What in the world was she doing? Ellen thought, marveling once again at the way her friend could spend so much time in commonplace activities. Was she putting on makeup? Freshening her lipstick? Making a phone call? Ellen peered around the corner of the door, but all she could see was Clarissa’s shadowy figure, twisted uncomfortably toward the back seat of the blue sports sedan.

Abruptly, the driver’s door swung open, and a long slender leg emerged, tanned slightly golden in color, with the glint of delicate diamond bracelet encircling the ankle. Ellen couldn’t help but sniff disdainfully-after all, Clarissa was pushing 50. Wasn’t an ankle bracelet just a little bit over the top?

~to be continued

Prefab Story

I have a new project this week, The Four Page Traditional Story exercise, as presented by Rick Hillis, in Now Write. Here's the "rules" for creating this story, which Hillis says he generally assigns to creative writing students very early in their semester, allowing them no more than three days to write it (don't know whether that's viable for me with my schedule, but it's the deadline I'm setting now at least).

  • The story is to be between three and five pages in length;
  • The action happens over a long weekend;
  • The story opens with a line of exposition as the protagonist watches the antagonist arrive;
  • The antagonist has something the protagonist wants or thinks he or she deserves;
  • Over the course of the weekend, the protagonist is presented with the opportunity of taking this object of desire...or not;
  • Important, this "thing" should have metaphorical suggestiveness. It should be the controlling metaphor and the title of the story;
  • As important, nothing is explained; we are told nothing or almost nothing. Everything - meaning, feeling, thought-unfolds through action, detail, description.

The object of desire...the protagonists friend arrives for a long weekend at her friend's cottage on the lake, unexpectedly bringing her grandchild (a toddler) with her. The protagonist, who is yearning for a grandchild of her own, becomes secretly angry with her friend for the way she feels she does not love or appreciate the child enough, and begins plotting ways to abscond to Canada with the child.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Why Write

I've been reading Brenda Ueland's book, If You Want To Write , a book that is uncannily reflective of everything I've been thinking and experiencing about writing in the past year. Here are some of the things that have resonated with me just in the first couple of chapters~

~We all have a creative power, we're born with it, and we all have a need to express it. Children know this, and do it without thinking. But this free expression of creativity often gets "drummed out of us" by critical teachers, parents, friends, and society. We let this happen, because we fail to see how imporant it is to nurture this in ourselves by using it, and to encourage it in others by listening to them. For the only good "teachers" are the friends who will love you and encourage you, and think what you have to say is important and worthwhile, who will say, "tell me more" about the things you think and say and feel...

~We must practice our creativity with great intention, "with all your intelligence and love," and not perfunctorily..."a great musician once said that you should never play a note without hearing it, feeling that it is true, and thinking that it is beautiful."

~We must not let "duty" (the everyday things we must do) come before writing, because "writing~the creative effort, the use of the imagination~should come first, at least for some part of every day of your life. " The benefits are will become "happier, more alive, more enlightened, impassioned, light hearted, and more generous to everyone. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear, as will all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom..."

~Don't get caught up in modern society's view that if "there is no money in it, it's not worth doing." The intrinsic rewards of writing have been known for centuries. You know your own feelings better, you offer these feelings as a gift to the world, a world as Van Gogh said, was "so beautiful, he had to show others how it looked."

~The creative impulse is "a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and, in a direct, simple, passionate, and true way, you try to show this beauty to others by drawing (or writing) it." Don't be discouraged into believing that what you think about something isn't important or worth sharing..

~When you learn these things, you can write feeling, without feeling driven to succeed (at least according to socieities standards), but to accomplish your own best work for your own delight and satisfaction...

In just these ideas, in just these two chapter, Ueland has validated everything I've come to learn about the process of writing over the past year. And this blogging community~what better group of "loving friends" to offer my insight and feelings too, all of us encouraging and listening to one another.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of what she has to say...