Archive for category writing workshop notes

jump into the well of fear

graffiti saying 'jump in do it i did' pointing to water
Prompt: Close your eyes. Breathe. 
Name a fear you have. Breathe again.
Now, write about where it lives in your body. 10 minutes, go: 

My fear is not being understood by the people I love.

This fear lives in the dungeon of my throat. It is the murky water at the bottom of a bottomless well. There is no light here, and so I have to imagine how it looks: like a midnight mirror on a starless forever after. Nothing shines back at me, there are no glimmers of recognition, no waves of love, only swells of anger, churning the black water.

There are military ships crisscrossing the water, painted with lead-based gunmetal gray, their decks studded with heavy guns and heat-seeking missiles in evil-looking launchers.

My fear holds me hostage below decks on the largest of the battleships. I’m in a metal-caged brig in the deepest hold. The light is yellow and blurry and the air tastes stale.

A row of judges sit, dark-robed, heavy browed, convicting me of the crime of being myself. The primary judge is a white-wigged woman with a sharp nose. She addresses me, in a bored tone. “How could you expect to be understood,” she asks rhetorically. “You are not understandable, not acceptable.” She looks at me as if I’m a used tissue someone has dropped. She shakes her head in disgust. “Not understandable,” she repeats.

Like the queen in Alice in Wonderland, she only wants me to lose: my head, my heart, my voice, my confidence. But most especially, my heart.

My heart lies beneath this dark sea, at the bottom of the bottomlessness of this well in the dungeon of my throat. In my panic at being alone and not understood, I’d forgotten where I was. Here, in my body. I remember suddenly to breathe in, and when I do, I turn my gaze away from the judges. I listen to my steady inhale instead of their scornful murmurs. And I hear it. My heart. It is beating, far, far below the prison ship.

Steady dear heart. The dark water glows green. I know this even with my eyes closed, even in the prison of my fears, even as the judges cough and scritchy-scratch their pens across banishment decrees.

My heart swells, filling me with hope. A rising tide lifts all boats, even heart-sinking gunmetal battleships. The fleet of war ships circling my throat dissolves like sugar candy in the warmth welling up.

I think I’m ready to go deeper.

_____

I think about fear a lot. I read about it, too. Fear can literally get stuck in your body. Fear tends to incubate rather than dissipate over time, according to Joseph Le Doux, researcher/expert on the amygdala. Naming your fears and feeling them in your body can help you move past fear.

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my phone case is an asshole

phonecase

My phone case is shiny plastic, scarred now from use. It is the color of a cartoon character’s eyes, the mischievous female sidekick with a heart of gold’s eyes, eyes that sparkle and pop out from the screen a bright teal-y blue not found in nature.

The edges surrounding the black glass face of the phone are a matte-rubbery black, shaped like the buffering edges of the old Carrom pool table in the basement growing up. It’s a sturdy enough case, chosen entirely because it was on sale at Meijers and I did not want to wait for one to come via Amazon. I just bought what was on sale, in an okay color I didn’t hate, so I could stop worrying about dropping it.

I didn’t notice that on the back, in raised black emboss, the phone case sports a logo composed of a black asterisk set within the hug of two parenthesis.

I think of Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Galapagos, where he told readers up front he was going to kill off a lot of people in the story, and to lessen the shock, he would add an asterisk before the character’s name in the chapter preceding their untimely demise.

Vonnegut had a thing about asterisks. In Breakfast of Champions, he includes an illustration of an asterisk and explains it is a drawing of his asshole. Or an asshole, anyway. I don’t quite remember the specifics, just that, ever after, I cannot look at an asterisk without thinking of a puckered anus.

I think of this every damn time I drive past a Walmart.

I imagine a group of designers coming up with the 205th round of logos.
One of the designer is maybe was a big reader.
Maybe she threw in the asterisk, as a joke.

This is how things go. You’re joking, and they take you seriously.
You are serious and they think you are joking.

I think of the little towns, in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, all across the country, hollowing out in their pretty centers, ringed with ugly box stores that you cannot walk to without risking your life.

I wonder if anyone’s ever watched me talking on my phone and thought, “Oh hey! Asshole!”

I wonder if I will ever be able to think of asterisks as I did as a girl, when I read in a book I can no longer summon to memory that aster means star, and that makes me think of skies and night air and falling in love and not finding the book you were looking for, but finding something else entirely.

Of driving as the sun sets and the stars come out, but you are driving too fast to see them until you stop like you did last night, and open the back door for the cat. The house is pitch dark and the sky is covered with stars and the nearer glows of the fireflies.

 

Note: this was a fast write from a prompt in Pat Schneider’s “Writing Alone and With Others,” in which she suggests that if you find yourself blocked, to stop trying to write that novel or poem or whatever it is that won’t come, and instead, choose an object and begin describing it. You can jump from one object to another. What is important is that you choose something concrete, and just go! See what comes up. I picked my phone case and was surprised at where it went and what it brought up. It was fun. I forgot to worry about my novel which isn’t going anywhere!

 

 

 

 

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someday I’ll love (your name here)

Attachment-1(23)

someday I’ll love Elaine Olund

(after Ocean Vuong/after Frank O’Hara/after Roger Reeves)

Someday I’ll smile every time
I bump into myself.
Even when that self is a mess,
an ooze, tears and unwashed hair
undone tasks
and hiccups
and wrinkles
and regrets that smell like
Marlboro Lights and malt liquor
And I’ll smile even when that self has
a pulsing nose zit and writes terrible poems
— I mean, why not? —
might as well plan for the worst-case.

That someday is
seemingly so near and
sometimes so far

like a wet glimmer always ahead on the highway
an illusion of cool
place I can dive into
emerge from
dripping wet and laughing
it’s like that
I find myself and lose myself and find myself
again and again
in the stomach-churn backseat of the hot station wagon
sweaty and skinned-knees
watching mirages
appear and disappear as Pennsylvania miles
turn to New York miles
turn to Massachusetts miles
hot sun turns to clouds and clouds
turn to rain

And someday, Elaine, I’ll love the sound of your name
the way I love the sound of the rain

Someday I’ll love even your inconvenient needs
the ones that turn green and churn when interstate
turns to twisty backroads, dark night
father lost
you have to pee
not yet Mama says
in a little while
Mama says

Someday I’ll love you — you used to be called something else,
remember? Lainey the baby who couldn’t wait
Lainey peeing on the side of the road,
Mama blocking
passing headlamps,
hot urine a glowing stream
the one who can’t wait
the one needing
something embarrassing
needing

Someday Lainey will reappear
dressed for Halloween in the body of a middle-aged woman
(someday she’ll have to grow up, won’t she?)
— even though oh, she needs
still, even now, she needs and needs — damn it

And someday
at the very next exit or 268 miles ahead —
some sweet day that will maybe smell just like the bread my mother
took to baking when she was widowed, just for herself,
just because she wanted to

That someday
I will rise up, a miracle, like the punched-down dough
swelling up in a bowl in an avocado-green long-lost kitchen
I will be full, I will be home

That someday
I will look at myself and melt
melt like butter on
chewy warm grainy bread, fresh from the oven

I will love every last crumb of myself.

Notes: I’ve been thinking about self-love a lot, how hard it is. How essential and impossible in moments (which is why we need our friends).

I really am drawn to Ocean Vuong’s amazing work.
My piece (not really a poem yet, maybe someday?) is from a fast-write from a prompt based on Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” — a poem he notes is “after Frank O’Hara and after Roger Reeves”… which made me curious and google revealed Roger Reeves’ intro to his poem:
We can’t stay in poetry world forever. It’s a poem that I kind of wrote to myself. It’s a love poem, again. I read this poem for my MFA compatriots struggling in the muck of all types of criticism and self-doubt. It doesn’t stop. It will keep going. No, actually I was struggling in my MFA a lot. I don’t know if you guys are the type of poets that are trying to write poems that last beyond your life, which is what I’m always trying to do. I’m always trying to make something that can outlast me, because why else would we make something? Frank O’Hara is a guy I always turn to. He had this one line in his poem — I can’t find the poem again because you know Frank O’Hara has a lot of poems — and it’s a poem where he says “someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara.” I thought, that is the best thing to say in the middle of a poem — someday you’ll love yourself. So I said, I’m going to title a poem “Someday I’ll love Roger Reeves.”

Try it yourself — read Vuong’s poem and then take a deep slow breath and write for 10 minutes beginning with “Someday I’ll love (your name here)” …see what happens.

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sunday sketch

Swedish wooden toy horse on window sill beside daybed

Sunday Morning: a sketch

pillows play on the daybed
housecat swishes her tail
radio paints music chocolate-dark delicious as my espresso

the Swedish horse with the broken leg assesses my mental state
the coffee cup outlines the circle of its base onto the table
my sandals inscribe lines on my feet, a loose sundress erases my figure

my journal sketches my thoughts, lines, lines, line
I fade from the scene
I am just inscribed lines

the gel pen observes the work like a skinny foreman,
rigid, impatient at the pace
dear old patient threadbare linen napkin blots up the drips of minty water

life is messy, observes the old Swedish horse

my gel pen climbs down into
the deep hole with me
helps me dig

while Yo-Yo’s cello deckles the morning sunshine

________
Musical interlude: Yo-yo plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto

————
Notes: this is from a Natalie Goldberg prompt in her wonderful book, Writing Down the Bones;
1. write 10 nouns as a list. (I wrote ten things I could see/hear in the room)
2. write ten active verbs (she suggests thinking of verb relating to an occupation; I used “artist” as the verb-source)—sketches, inscribes, erases, observes, blots, outlines, paints, plays, swishes, deckles…
3. combine the nouns with the verbs and see what emerges
Have fun, see what happens. Why not?

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window seat warm up

picture of my window seat Warm up! Write eleven three-line poems about things you see right where you are, right now.

Eleven Miniature Poems, March 25, 2017

1 |Roots
The cutting in the windowsill vase
is shooting out roots
but it cannot grow there forever

2 | Fur
Cordelia is striped, like a tyger burning bright
descendant of some fierce African wildcat
trapped now in domesticity

3 | iPhone
Black glass gleams like your eyes did
if I touch the screen it will light up with worlds and words and wayz
I think of the mirages on hot highways in summer

4 | Coffee
Bittering now, sitting alone on the ledge
waiting to be held again in my hands
longing to be swallowed in my mouth

5 | Highlighter
Neon-yellow, it seeks and finds what
should be remembered, the important bits
is the rest really forgettable? Unimportant?

6 | Quilt
Grape jelly purple, my round babies once
sighed and slept beneath you
Sometimes I see you breathe

7 | Berry
Stray, lost, dried-up scarlet berry
remnant of Christmas past
(it’s almost April)

8 | Postcard
Dear Mama, it begins
I’m feeling excited, it continues
I see it tremble in the window breeze

9 | Clothespin
Tiny clothespin, tiny strung line
I have hung memories on you
they shine on me every day

10 | Sketch
She’s playing the sonata forever
her left foot pedals, her fingers fly
I can still hear the music

11 | Lintbrush
Lurking like an aunt before the funeral
descending to pick away any flaws
I feel judged

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feeling trapped

A wall, Eastern State Penitentiary.

A wall, Eastern State Penitentiary.

I’m doing a forty-day series of writing prompts to jump-start a novel that I’d let go of working on.

I write each prompt in the voice of the character of my story. A lot of it won’t be in the story, but it is a lot of fun and I’m getting to know my character much better.

Here’s today’s: Imagine a time you felt trapped or were trapped, literally. What happened? (Prompt inspired by a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary​, in Philadelphia, a prison where solitary confinement was pioneered as a punishment.)

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Failure

Magic Garden, Philadelphia

Magic Garden, Philadelphia

I’m no scientist, but still, I’m fascinated by the process of scientific exploration and discovery. I enjoy reading non-fiction written by scientists, like Michio Kaku, Hannah Holmes, Candace Pert; my favorite column in the New York Times Magazine is “Diagnosis,” where there’s a patient who presents with mysterious symptoms who is puzzled over and prodded by many well-meaning, smart doctors until one of them hits on the “Eureka!” moment (and yes, I like the TV show “House,” too). Reading and watching TV—that’s pretty much where I learned all I know about science. (And I’ll admit it, it’s sketchy at best.)

Still, it’s gotten to be kind of an obsession the last few years, this science-reading. I read things way over my head, about string theory and physics and opiate receptors. (I’ve learned to accept some obsessions, and this one seems harmless enough.)

I can’t explain quantum theory or recite the periodic table of elements, and after quizzing two kids in preparation for AP Bio, I’m sure I’d never pass if I had to take it myself. But I learned something important. I learned that scientists know and accept something that many writers want to banish from our lives: failure. With a capital F.

Every scientist understands that the way to a breakthrough is via failure. Failure is expected. Every wrong exploration produces not wasted time but valuable knowledge. Knowing what doesn’t work leads you closer to what does work.

Somehow, many of us writers are led to believe that every effort needs to be our very best work. What counts, I’ve decided, is giving our best EFFORT. Sinking in, enjoying the process, imagining the possibilities, letting an idea carry us as far as it will go, knowing that some of those ideas aren’t strong enough to go all the way. And that is okay.

A scientist doesn’t go in hoping or thinking they will fail. They go in excited about what they might discover. Sure, it’s frustrating. What worth doing isn’t sometimes frustrating? Showing up to write and trying it from many angles, showing up and learning what works and what doesn’t, plain old trial and error, is the way to the moment where something alchemical happens.

Where your dozens of tiny words fall away and suddenly, a story or a poem, a beautiful whole thing, appears in their place.

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