Posts Tagged #writing prompt
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.)
Waiting for the sunshine
You stood in the kitchen, waiting for the sunshine.
Oh, Mama. You waited.
You waited while the tickle in your throat rattled and rattled. Every phone call, eruptions of coughing. I listened, there was nothing else I could do—and sometimes I’d cut in, “hey, I’ll call you back, how about, when you’re feeling better.”
Now I see it through a backwards lens, time is funny like that, now I’m about how old YOU were then and my daughters are the ages I was then; I was your little last bird flown. Now I know the feeling of that emptiness, that new empty-nest, and how precious those calls become. Now I can feel, all these years later, how alone you must have sometimes felt, in your small kitchen, especially that last winter, coughing, insisting, talking, waiting, insisting that you were just fine.
You couldn’t really talk, but you didn’t want to hang up. It was a tickle, the end of a long lingering cold, a cold-on-top-of-a-cold, it was nothing.
Now I see you, frozen in the amber of that long-ago cold alone kitchen. Me not so far away in miles, but twenty-something me. So busy, busy, busy. A budding Bokonist, junior capitalist, believing that being an adult meant staying on the spinning hamster wheel. And also believing that you were going to be around for years and years, Mama. You were my mother. Life without you wasn’t comprehensible, and I didn’t imagine it, wouldn’t even try.
So I believed you, about the cough being nothing.
And still you coughed. I began to notice the unendingness of it. Worry crept in. I insisted you go to the doctor, but not soon enough. You locked my worries out and I let you. I locked them up, I guess. They were scary. Where did I learn to lock up so well? From you, Mama, you who waited in your small kitchen, vinyl-tiled, traces of avocado green barely visible in the corner, a little spot you missed when you carefully painted over with eggshell cream.
The wall phone is still avocado green in the mists of my memory. The round orb of the pendulum lamp casts a golden glow over the Formica table of the past, littered with bridge hands and newspapers and you, sitting there, smiling. So warm. I wish I could climb back into that kitchen, climb back to you.
I went to a movie with a friend the other day, an art film. Over ice cream afterwards he asked me, wonderingly, did I think the movie meant that all a man really wanted was a mother? I looked into his slate-gray eyes, and I thought of you, Mama.
No, I thought. It’s not just men who want that.
I thought of that horrible Psychology textbook photo, of the poor little monkey in the experiment who could choose, while starving, between a wire-framed “mother” equipped with milk and a nipple, or a fur-covered “mother” to cling to.
The little monkey always chose gnawing hunger and the fuzzy mama.
My friend’s sad eyes after the movie made me slide backwards through all the years. His eyes made me want to find you again, find you and fold you in my arms, to mother you, Mama. Because that is what you must’ve most wanted.
Because sometimes, life is scary, and you just want your mother.
But life is a funny circle, too. Scary and funny. In seeing how I failed you, I found you once again.
You’re here, waiting in the sunshine. Sometimes the darkness covers your shine, like a cloud. But you’re always there.
(Fastwrite from a prompt on regret).
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.)
I’ve been a bit sick the last few days. Actually, I’ve felt really, really crappy, and unable to work until today. I felt both emotionally and physically ill. The anniversary of the election of the pussy-grabber, the unfolding exposure of so many #metoo stories, and the fact that there are still so many supporters & deniers of the pervasive poison of misogyny and abuse all collided with a nasty virus and exploded in bad dreams where I woke feeling in danger, panicked (and also, sick!).
The bad dreams are an old pattern, one I am learning to heal with writing and movement, study and support. I really thought I was past all that. But when it came roaring back I felt like I was a failure, like my efforts were futile in this world. I felt defeated there for a little bit. Old pattern, that.
But not all old patterns are damaging. I find drawing what is in front of me so very soothing. I draw, and then color or paint it in. This never fails to make me feel joyful in the moment. I drew obsessively during my whole childhood, then put it away, for the most part. Until recently. Now when I feel unable to drop down past fear, and relax into what I feel—I draw. Being sick, my usual go-to plan of walking and yoga and meditation just seemed too hard.
And drawing? It seemed too fun. (When untangling old patterns, maybe look for the fun, too? I feel better already.)
PS The poem in the picture is a line of a fragment, by the poet Praxilla of Sícyon, 450 BC. She composed many, many poems and was known for her scolia (short lyric poems for after-dinner entertainment). One of the lyric muses, only eight of her fragments survive.
Here is the fragment in its entirety:
Fragment 1 | Praxilla of Sícyon, 450 BC
Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face,
but also the cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.
This fragment makes a wonderful writing prompt. Think about what is the loveliest in your life, in this moment. What would you miss, if you had to leave this moment?
The other thing I loved as a child was writing poetry and stories. Old patterns, re-emerging, to help me make new ones.
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.
I, too, am from a sift of lost faces
from patterns I can’t untangle
from an endless string of cats purring
from tall pines and the hum of box fans in the window
from Carolina humidity and red dirt
and Spanish moss dripping everywhere
like paint from my sloppy brush, messy
And now, I am from here.
(snippet from a writing prompt using the classic George Ella Lyon poem, Where I’m from, a poem that has inspired many, many poems, and is one of my favorites.)
back through time
I lumber back through time unrooted
over boulders gap-eyed water glinting pink sunset
unrooted I slide through mud
into sand into lake
stone wash hillsides caving in
I am caving in
all I have to hold onto
all I can carry
this basket, sweet-grass woven
Inside is my pacifer
rubbery round I sucked hard to make the world
go away, and a half-empty pack of Marlboro Lights
that got me through the night
and my mother’s dark gaze, and the way I waited and waited
but she died when I left
In the sweet, sweet basket, a satin ribbon, blue of my father’s
wave and smile from the hospital bed in Kettering
I want, I think, to keep that?
I want to keep the window seat and the slanting roof top
on Cornell Place, keep it in the basket so I can climb back
lie, watch the sky with handfuls of clouds sliding by
I want to keep the way you said “why do you think you’re crazy?”
I want to keep the puzzlement of that
sweet belief sparkling
floating like golden moats in the sunset
I want belief, a thin film of it like magic dust
I want to carry my children’s laughter, and every single hug
and the brick of anger I lobbed through the glass window of us
I want to keep that, too, to remind me
broken is something to keep, too
But mostly I want to keep those giggles that skipped like stones
across the mirror lake
that shone like a string of lights in a summer garden
I want to keep every purring swirl I ever held
and even the ghost who stood there
watching me heartbeating fast, pretending sleep
It’s my basket. I can keep what I want.
The above was written in a twelve-minute fastwrite from a prompt developed by one of my classmates at Amherst Writers & Artist’s Workshop Leader training in Chicago this September. Along with my fellow students, I delved into the AWA method, which you can read more about here. I was drawn to the method, based on the work of Pat Schneider, because of her bedrock belief that every single one of us is born with creative genius, that EVERYONE is a writer/storyteller (regardless of educational level, age, or socio-economic status). Writing that moves us, inspires us, makes us feel, makes us laugh, makes us cry—such writing is the result of connecting to our deepest voices. Our true selves.
I already knew this to be true—that everyone has within them a unique and creative voice. I learned it from the skilled leaders and community at Cincinnati’s Women Writing for (a) Change, where I found my voice (which I had all but lost) in core classes, workshops, and retreats.
This summer it became clear to me that what I most wanted is to learn ways to unlock that magic for others. All kinds of others. People who aspire to write books, people who have written many books, people who want to write poems, people who don’t think anyone wants to hear their stories, people who think no one is listening, or that no one cares. The act of expression—genuine, authentic expression—is an act of liberation. For me, it is transcendent.
Writing is when I connect to my soul-self.
At AWA training, my classmates and I learned about taking creative risks, about creating an environment that welcomes the seeds of new ideas and allows craft to bloom. It was a transformational week.
I’m happy to say I’m a certified AWA Workshop Leader now!
Tonight I led my first small-but-mighty AWA-method workshop at Clifton Cultural Arts Center.
I think I will put tonight in my basket, and keep that, too.