Archive for category writing workshop notes
Power Outage, August 20, 2019
I like the sound of the cars, passing lonely on the rainy afternoon street, the way the sound of the rain rises up like a wave crashing, then falls softly to patter. I like the way the Catalpa dances, tossing her branches like girls toss long hair.
I wait for the power to surge back, for the refrigerator to chime in with the cicadas and crickets cued up by a pause in the rain, I wait for work to resume and life to go back online.
Far away, an alarm siren is hyperventilating, wailing up and down, hiccupping distress. Birds sing and then go silent as the rain begins and thunder rumbles again; chirping and trilling rise up as the sky dries.
The lights flicker on, and with them, low drone of machines waking and then gasping dark and dumb as the power drops out again. Nature rushes to fill the vacuum of quiet, thunder’s rolling again—or is it a dump truck, rumbling up Hamilton?
I like the feeling I have of being all alone, floating in a bubble of sounds that stream around me, under me, over me, as if I am bobbing in a warm river of thrum and strum, rattle and hum.
Across the street, Mary’s raspy voice floats, softened by the weather, “Hey,” she asks her next-door neighbor, “Hey, is your power off, too?” She sings the syllables. Fading rain pats the roof, gently, gently. The catalpa sways slowly now, back and forth, back and forth, steady, steady, like I swayed when I held my babies long ago.
I close my eyes, remembering the feeling of baby skin against my chest. Suddenly Mama’s right next to me, as if the storm has swept her into the house like a wind-sucked sparrow. Eyes closed, window open. Breeze tickling. We listen to the clouds lifting, to the birds calling. We take turns guessing Goldfinch or Cardinal, Robin or Wren, some silly game we began in 1992 and take up this August afternoon as if nothing’s changed, as if no time has passed, and nothing is ever lost.
This was the result of a two-part prompt. In a nutshell, part one is listening, eyes closed, for 6 minutes. Just breathing and listening, noticing whatever sounds are present. Part two was reading the poem “Aware” by Denise Levertov, then beginning a ten-minute fastwrite starting with “I liked the sound”. (one of the phrases from the poem). Any poem that focuses on sound or listening would work for this two-part prompt. Try it and see what happens.
(Following is an excerpt from my novel, The Last Butterfly, that I’m workshopping this week at Colgate University in New York…feeling excited to reconnect with these characters…finally going to finish my edits/plot-hole fixes! It’s told in the voice of Luna, a 15 year old who lives in the deadzone of what was once central Indiana, in the year 2196.)
May 16, 2196
I thought he was a bad man, come to kill me in my sleep. Or rape me. I opened my mouth to scream, and a hard hand clamped my mouth shut. It was a man, a tall man looming over me in the darkness.
Then I saw it was Reece, whispering to be quiet. He’d climbed in my window, silently, like a cat.
I was dreaming. I thought I was dreaming.
Until he said my name, said to come with him, hurry.
“There’s not much time, Luna, hurry. Shh. Don’t wake Augusta.”
“Where’s your Papa?” he hissed, then shook his head when I began to answer. “Never mind. See if your Mama is sleeping,” he whispered. “Don’t wake her.”
I peeked through the doorway in the adjoining room. Mama slept with Stella curled on one side and Thor on the other.
We crept silently past Mama, through the dome, and out into the yard. A thousand stars lit the clear night. I looked up at Reece. He looked stronger, taller, thinner. His hair was loose, and past his shoulders now.
I threw my arms around him, felt myself dissolving in tears of joy at seeing him again. He wrapped his arms around me, hugged me tight to his hard bony chest. He smelled of sweat and dirt and fire. “I don’t have much time,” he said. He took hold of my upper arms and pushed me gently away.
“Luna, I have to go, I can’t stay. I came to warn you. I was going to tell Daniel, or Chan—where is everyone?” I started to tell him everything, how Bart and Crimson and David left, about the bone, about Chan and Nikki and Lev and Antonia leaving the colony.
He cut me off. “Where’s your Papa?”
“How did you know he’s gone?”
“It doesn’t matter—I looked through the windows, all of them. Is my father the only man here?”
“He’s supposed to be on watch,” I said.
“Well, he’s watching with his eyes closed,” Reece said, he smiled a little, a flash of his old joking self.
“Don’t you want to see him? And Grammie? Why are we whispering?”
His dark eyes met mine. “There’s no time, I have to go or I’ll be missed. “ He looked old, suddenly, and hard. Dangerous. “I don’t want anyone tracking me here. Soldiers have no hearts, Luna, even in the Freedom League. They’d kill your chickens and take the goats, take all your food, and probably do – horrible things…” He took a deep breath, and then kissed the top of my head. “People do horrible things, Luna,” he whispered.
He thrust me away again. His voice was edged with panic. “Just listen, okay? No more talking. You have to tell everyone what I’m telling you, and you have to get it right.”
And then he told me how South Bend was in Junt’s control, how the Junt army had slaughtered everyone, and taken control of the IonoWave.
“But– Chan! Nikki! Lev—they’re going there! To work, to earn freehold –“
“There’s no time, Luna. I have to go! You need to leave here, right away. Leave and head south. Indianapolis is still safe, and fortified. There are Junt guerillas heading south. They’ll do more than kill your chickens, do you understand?” He shook my shoulders. “If they find you, they’ll kill you all. You can’t be here! Do you understand?”
“I have to go. I have to get back before I’m missed.”
“But…” I began, dazed. “Don’t, please, don’t go!”
“Take this.” He pulled a big, sheathed knife from his pocket. “Tie this onto you. If someone tries to take you, stab him in the eye, or in the balls. Then run, hear me? Run!”
“Reece, you’re scaring me. Stay with us! Come with us!”
He shook his head. His long dark hair shone in the starlight. “You don’t understand. I’ve pledged my service. We have to try to stop them, Luna. I have to go. Please. Wake everyone when I’ve gone. And then go! Go south.” His words spilled out in a rush. “Don’t let my father come after me. Tell him I love him. Tell Grammie…” his deep voice caught. He pulled me into his arms for just a moment. One of those long moments, where time stretches out. I felt his heart beating hard in his chest.
“I love you, Luna,” he whispered. I looked up at him, wordless. He kissed me hard, on the mouth. I tasted salt. I gripped onto his arm. He wrenched himself away, pulling free from my grasp. I dropped the knife.
He bent and picked it up. His face was wet with tears. “Don’t let this go,” he said, handing the knife to me again. “Wait five minutes. Then wake everyone, and go!”
“But Papa’s in Greenfield,” I said.
“If he’s not back when you’ve packed, go without him,” Reece said. “Just go.”
He left me then, alone under the black sweep of the sky, the amaranth dancing in the soft breeze, the goats and chickens stirring softly, the crickets chirping.
If I hadn’t had the knife to prove he’d come, no one would have believed it.
Fastwrite prompt from a recent writing workshop:
Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Feel your shoulders relax.
Remember a time you were held, and rocked. Or a time you held someone, and rocked them. Any time you felt safe, held.
Begin there. Write for 7 minutes, focusing on the sensations, the moment.
Here’s what came up for me:
Sea-salt air hammock snugged around my sturdy body
little me in my chlorine-bleached Speedo
rope-web diamonding my solid thighs
Kennebunk sun, north sun
light as a cotton sweater on a cool morning
swaying, swaying, swaying, swaying away
Gulls overhead blue sky then pines then smoke bushes
green gaze rolling like a marble in the swing, swing
springs of the hammock singing along with my
Nonsense syllables wiggling toes and goosebumps
Queen Anne’s lacy head tickling my back
shivering me in the carrot-scented breeze
Summer waning, sliding swaying
far off a tractor growls in the Ricker’s potato fields…
at the fringe edge of the forest, a deer watches, dark eyed.
plump smell, like baby skin, blooming
so beautiful so smooth
(everyone says so)
and I think of daisies and lilies and youth,
smooth and slippery
the sweet smooth skin holding memories in,
pressed like petals between book covers
dried papery flat, crackly as a map of a lost world:
how to find our way back when
we are all falling apart,
cell by cell,
moment by moment
going, going, gone—
still springtime’s tap pours out, keeps pouring
children smooth-skinned happy laughing cranky cries rise
on the wind near the playground
little feet wiggle in strollers pushed by vacant fathers, mothers
eyes lost in thoughts, worries
little griefs trip us, cracks in the sidewalk
all we can feel sometimes is the hard fall, smooth
stripped away scraped bloody
while above the sidewalk, a canopy of tulip trees
unfurls hundreds—no thousands—of trembles
tiny flags alive in the breeze
when falling apart,
Prompt: Hold a flower. Examine the petals, smell it. Breathe in.
Now: close your eyes, and think of a time from memory or imagination, when there were flowers. Go: write for 11 minutes.
Dear 19-year-old Me,
You were SO excited, do you remember? I mean, you were on the move and it wasn’t New York, or even Chicago—but it was somewhere—another state, albeit in the absolute wrong direction, away from the coast, even further from the Atlantic you dreamed of living near one fine day.
I’m writing to remind you of the sheer newness, the joy of that. Do you remember? Learning a new city, by getting lost in its flat expanses, gridded broad streets radiating out from a center point, the grand procession of green-lawned parks marching up Meridian Avenue, dotted with statues, obelisks, monuments of wars long past…one-way streets and diagonals and even a traffic circle!
Remember cruising the city in Georgia McGuire’s shiny red Mercedes Benz—parking with flashers on in truck zones or in alleys to run contact sheets into Ad agencies and design studios? You pretended the car was yours, and Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” played in the sound track in your bubbly young mind.
Back then, it seemed money and a fancy foreign car might add up to happiness, or something like it.
At the end of the work day it was back to your old wood-grained Chrysler wagon, drinking 3-for-$1 beers with Jane and her friend—was it Amy? Angie?—who were in their late twenties, and regulars, so no one carded you even though you looked about fourteen, so fresh-faced, even with makeup on.
There was an air of possibility surrounding you like a bubble that humid Indianapolis summer. Even though nothing really happened—well, there was that brief crush on Georgia’s handsome young son (whose name has vanished now into the summer haze). He was tall and dark-haired and had a sweet slow Alabama drawl and the careless manners of someone born with money. The tobacco-chewing habit—the way he spit the chaw into a coke bottle like that was normal—was a crush-breaker. But still. For a few heart-thumping flirtatious days, you’d dipped into fantasy the way he dipped into Skoal. Imagined being part of the family, rich, unconcerned about the price of a Mercedes or a mansion. Because back then, happiness seemed like something you could maybe buy, if you were lucky. Something you could purchase and keep, like a trinket from some far-off hotel gift shop. Something just out of reach for a girl like you.
If I could really send you a postcard now, I’d tell you to sit and feel the pain of what you were running from, because happiness was folded underneath all along. You just needed to take your foot off that accelerator. Slow down. Unpack.
Love from your future self,
Note: this was written from a prompt where each person chose (at random) a postcard, and wrote a “postcard” to an earlier version of themselves; we wrote for 10 minutes, and the above is a quick polishing of the fastwrite back to the past.
Today in workshop: coloring back in time
In today’s Amherst Artists & Writers workshop, we finished with a prompt rooted in mindfulness and childhood memory. Here’s how it goes: you choose a few crayons from a big bowl, make sure everyone has drawing paper, and together we all breathe in the smell of the crayolas.
Now imagine you are sinking back in time, drawing with crayons, when someone’s told you to go color. You have nothing else to do, and busily you begin to draw what you would have drawn then. We have twelve minutes. Draw until you feel moved to begin writing, just noticing the feel of the crayon as you make lines and scribble—as long as you want to, you can skip writing entirely—and then write until the time is up.
…What came up for my workshoppers was wonderfully diverse in tone, ranging from wry to meditative to inspiring. I’m always blown away by how writers can take risks and write from the heart when we relax and get in front of that internal critic. Try it yourself sometime! Playing is fun, and brings out creative ideas.
Here’s what came up for me:
My mother never called anyone an asshole
Orange, I thought it was orange but the name on the label said “scarlet.”
I remember the fatter crayons they gave us in kindergarten, fat like our fingers were. I remember the way the color flowed out onto paper and everyone noticed I could draw what I saw, a gift, they said, pointing. But I just wanted to be small and unseen.
Seen, I blushed like the red crayon and inside turned cyan and chilly like the car on winter mornings on the way to school.
Seen, they said, “Oh, look how cute, she’s so shy!” And how my mother never told them to “stop talking about her as if she’s not here. She’s listening, assholes.”
(My mother never called anyone an asshole, but if she were alive now, I think she would.)
Mama got feistier and feistier as she grew older. But back when I was in Kindergarten, she was shrinking pale blue and gray and lots of black skies. There were no petal or dandelion-colored flowers blooming in her smiles. I drew her tulips and daisies and roses. I used all the crayons in the big box, sharpening them with the little sharpener to make the flowers as real as I could make them, but they were never real enough for her to feel them in her heart, it seemed.
She was blue and alone but much later, when I was all grown up and she was dying, she was brave and alone, instead. She would have called an asshole an asshole, I’m sure of it—if only she’d lived a little longer.
She was blooming like a warm summer day, right as she died back.
(I just wish she could come back.)
In this one, you are standing by the old canal at Holcolm Gardens. The sun has made your hair catch fire, the sun is coating your tanned legs and long arms with a honeyed light, and for some silly reason lost to me now, you are holding up a big red box of Cheetos, holding it proudly, as if you are Carol Merrill and the box of snacks is a glistening prize that a nervous contestant is pondering.
In this one, you’ve driven back east to visit me, with a loaded Magnum 357 tucked under the front seat for company. It was the last time I would ever see you, but I didn’t know that then.
I guess you never really do know?
In this one, you are as I imagine you still are — slender and strong, tough and flexible as a zip tie. I was sure, in the way only a young person can hope to be, that somehow we’d stay best friends forever. That some how the trauma-bond of our shared childhoods and barbed wire moments of our teen years would bridge the miles, bridge the chasm growing between us, already as deep as a Colorado ravine.
In this one, I was laughing and my boyfriend was squirting lighter fluid on the grill and you were smiling, that sharp sickle-shaped smile of yours. Behind your mirrored aviators, your sky-blue eyes must have been smiling too.
In this one, I already missed you, even though your were still right there, holding the Cheetos.
(This was a fastwrite from a prompt: imagine a photograph that you have in an album or on your phone; get a picture of it in your mind, and begin with “In this one, you’re…” Write for 10 minutes.)
Vaguely heartshaped, that’s how you described her face, and I always imagined her—with my child’s-eye, literal imagining—as having a face the color of a pink valentine’s candy heart, a face with a pointy chin and also big eyes made of chocolate, because you said hers were brown and melty.
That’s how I saw her, my grandmother I never knew.
The photos were all lost in the legendary house fire, so I never got to see her, how she really looked. I used to long to be able to visit her, like my friend Annie did her Nana. I thought that the first thing I’d do was crawl in her lap and tell her how much you missed her and how much you talked about her. It seemed that would please her, and the way your face looked when your talked about how her singing made the moon rise, how she played a mean game of cribbage and could bait a hook with one hand made me want to know her, and please her.
Later, when I was near-grown, everyone began to remark how like her I was. I used to pull my dark curls away from my face and look for signs of the tell-tale sweetness emerging, but to me, the eyes reflecting back in the mirror were cold as the glass itself, cold as any Canadian January. My face itself was more of a pillow shape. I began to wonder what sort of sieve memories run through, to sugar them so.
Much later still, describing you to my own children, I honeyed your brown hair, I made your eyes the color of the ice on a bright day in March, that fresh slate color, and I made your hugs as warm as raisin-oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven. I waited for them to pepper me with the questions I once would have asked.
My children were raised on your photographs, though. Raised, too, on reality TV and iPods and textbooks, not fed random poetry and left to wander woods and libraries alone, the way I was.
I thought I was doing the right thing, educating them, drilling them with the math facts that I myself could never pin down, the after-school tutoring, summer enrichment programs, sending them to the Catholic school for good discipline and rigor.
But I think I made them blind.
This short piece was written from a prompt in workshop, using the Amherst Writer’s and Artists method.
Another day, another prompt. Today I let my worry stone do the writing. Find something or choose someone, and let them write to you. See what happens.
Finally. I get to tell you my worries. About damn time. Our relationship, up until now, has been entirely one way.
From that moment on the chilly October morning when you stooped down and plucked me from my place in Mississauga, on the shore of mighty Lake Ontario, and tucked me into the tight pocket of your skinny jearns — I have been your captive. I have worried, too, even though I know it’s futile. Worried I’ll never see the sky again.
I long for another sight of that last sky, low clouds backlit by the sun, turning it and the shining water to silver. Silver sky, silver lake, and that smudge of Toronto on the horizon. You think I don’t know about the things of man? (or in your case, woman?) — Oh, E, I’ve been soaking you up for months now. I know everything and now you’ve let me speak. I may never stop.
You picked me, palmed me, smiling. I do fit perfectly in your hand, and your happiness that morning filled me with excitement. So at first I was swept up, pleased to be going somewhere new. You were in love, blushing love, your core worries blotted out in the gush of that. It was a little dull, absorbing your petty insecurities. Mostly I sat on your dresser, alone. You only held me when you felt lonely, and how tiresome that was.
I fell in love with you a little, though. The way you do when someone trusts you to hear their deepest fears. Still, after nearly two years, I miss sprawling in all weathers with the others who were born with me from the crumbling bluffs when winter ice thawed one spring and we all slid free to the lake shore.
Sometimes you worry about the ice melting, which makes me recall the cold years I spent, inching along, swept up in the belly of that glacier, like Jonah in the belly of a great fish.
Your pocket, though warmer, reminded me of that time.
I guess it is my fate, being swallowed and carried. I have stories of my own to tell, beyond your worries of — oh, what don’t you find to worry about? As you hold me in your left hand I soak up your troubles like the earth soaks up rain.
Yesterday, you thought back to the windy morning we met, to your spinning thoughts, to the way you couldn’t believe how beautiful the world was, the water, you thought, looked like a great silver tray polished by the cloudy sun, and the geese flew low over the calm surface. You remembered that feeling, and wondered if you could ever feel just that way again.
And I try to emit an answer into your palm. I try to tell you, no. You will never feel that way again. The woman of that day, elated, heart bursting with love and hand sweaty with worry over losing love, she is gone now.
She had to get swallowed into the darkness, like the glacier, like the belly of the whale, to discover that no matter how dark, you must stay and let the darkness be your home, accept it, know it. And trust that in three days, three months, three years, three eons — sometime, somehow, the silvery light will return. Because it never really leaves.
So you can go back, looking. You can even retrace your steps on the shore of Lake Ontario. If you do, please put me back near the crook of that inlet, the place the geese gather at dawn and sunset. Take me back, even though I cannot revisit that day, either. It is gone. All my old loves will have sunk down or washed out into the lake. But it would feel so good, to tell new friends old tales. To laugh together about worrying over flesh and blood and human failings.
Perhaps I will lie under the sky, let your many worries loose in the breeze. Do not fret, E, about growing old. Let that one go. Only worry about not growing. Your fear of infirmity is comical to a stone like me, dependent on nature to move me at all. And still — I have, over millions of years, seen much of the world. Seen beauty you cannot even imagine. Do you understand?
The world will hold you, if you just let go.
Surrender. Let go of me, of controlling things, of fearfulness. I think you are figuring it out, just a little. From the darkness, you will emerge, you already are — to find the next world you are meant to explore.