Last week, I attended One Story‘s week-long Craft Lecture Series on Zoom. Most of the lecturers dedicated a chunk of their time to a generative writing exercise. I enjoyed all of the exercises, but I felt most inspired by a very simple but restrictive exercise presented by Don Lee during his lecture on flash fiction.
Before we began, he’d used a random word generator to gather several sets of words. We each chose one group. Each of these words needed to appear in our piece of flash fiction, which we were to try to keep to 120 words or less. We were to try, within those 120 words, to stick to a pretty basic plot arc:
Begin with one situation
Something happens to someone.
End with a different situation, after which nothing is ever the same again.
This is a lot to ask in so few words, but I loved this exercise because I love a challenge. I work well within prescribed structures and I like to meet a goal. For my exercise, I chose the words stingy, questionable, and violet. You can go to the word generator on your own, or choose from some of the word groups I’ve gathered for you:
guitar, wealth, pasture agenda, tree, instruction bronze, perforate, passage rage, village, short slime, handy, Mars
As always, I’d love to read what you come up with! Here’s mine:
To find today’s prompt, I scrolled through the photos on my laptop. Most of them were of my daughter, in a pink dress, frolicking with our dogs. She’s wearing a peacock feather in her hair and holding a few fake flowers. There’s paint or ink on her arms.
Twenty minutes before these photos were taken, my daughter was not smiling. She moped around the house, growled, grumbled. She was BORED. Everything was BORING.
For a moment, I saw myself at five. I remembered a day when my mom dressed me in a new outfit and took me to the playground, camera in hand. Just us. She had me climb the slide, sit on the swings, look over my shoulder while she took pictures. She used up the roll of film. Just on me. It was one of the very best days of my life.
So I did the same for my daughter. I let her put gel in her hair and loaned her my fanciest headband. She had a great afternoon.
Looking at these photos, I initially titled the exercise “Happy Place.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what made those moments special for my daughter and me, and it wasn’t the place. It wasn’t the clothes or even the photos. It was time spent with our mothers, but that wasn’t quite it, either. It was time with our mothers’ undivided attention.
So I want you to think about one of your characters, or if you’re writing memoir, yourself. I want you to think about a time when they (or you) were the center of attention–the very center–and if they/you never were, I want you to imagine it, preferably in a positive light. This might mean the character has to be very young, and the attention will probably come from an adult whose attention feels terribly important.
Give yourself ten minutes. Try to fill them.
When you’re finished, I’d love to read them! Post in the comments!
The other day, I had a meeting with my lovely friend Antoinette. I say “meeting” because while I’ve known her (off and on) since second grade and I consider her my friend, this was not just coffee talk. Antoinette is a business coach, and I had booked an hour of her time.
When I was little, my mother used to take me to the garden center. We’d stay there for what felt like hours, walking every aisle, examining every plant. My mother was so happy among the leaves and flowers, the smell of recently watered soil. Sometimes we bought something, sometimes we didn’t. My mother was happy to browse.
These were my least favorite outings. I didn’t understand: we weren’t gardeners. Not really. Mom had some houseplants and she sometimes planted flowers. Mostly, by her own admission, she had a “black thumb,” meaning the plants in her care would inevitably wither. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t dream.
Now that I’m older, I’m starting to understand. No, I don’t drag my kids through the garden center–especially because my daughter is obsessed with flowers and would beg me to buy them like other kids beg for toys–but I find myself drawn to the idea of growing things. There’s a competency required to coax food from the soil (I’m far too practical for flowers; I’ve planted a few perennials at my daughter’s request but I refuse to waste energy on blooms that need regular replanting), a feeling of accomplishment that comes with a crop.
Or so I assume. I have yet to harvest anything from my garden but this year, I’ve decided I will grow something. I’ve got zucchini plants out back (which I grew from seeds!) and potatoes that I’ve planted totally improperly but seem to be growing anyway and a burgeoning pumpkin vine and a tower of tomato blossoms. I’ve planted so much in part to hedge my bets: if only one of these projects bears fruit (or vegetable), I will consider myself successful.
I first planted these things more than a month ago. Now, as they enter some sort of vegetal adolescence, I find myself flipping through books and searching the internet for reassurances, tips, tricks–anything to help me nurse my plants through to fruition. Not everything I’ve found is going to make me a great gardener, but here are some highlights of my research:
The word “bumper” used to refer to a glass of wine, filled to the brim. Thus, an abundant harvest became known as a “bumper crop.”
This year, most people I know are citing survival as their greatest accomplishment. Most of us barely went anywhere and because of that, we feel like we didn’t do anything. Honestly, I think most of us braved trials and tribulations much more difficult than we would have in a more normal year; I think “survival,” for most of us, encompasses a great many more accomplishments than a whole checklist of quantifiable goals. We had our weaknesses exposed and we couldn’t breeze past them. Some of us thrived in these circumstances, some are still struggling, and some went into denial. However we got through–those of us who are lucky enough, sincerely, to have gotten to the end of this year with our lives–I think most of us would say it was complicated. Too much to unpack in an end-of-the-year round-up. So we say, “We survived.”
This year got derailed, yes. My family took a February trip to Disneyland, when the whispers of Covid were still vague and distant. It was right about the time we got home that the first confirmed case landed in the USA, in the very hospital where I gave birth to my son seven years before. My husband had planned–for Valentine’s Day, I think, or maybe Mother’s Day, but the timeline is a bit smeary–to give me the gift of a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland. That obviously got cancelled but I got to visit Iceland virtually when Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga came to Netflix–a timely release, for me, which played on repeat for a couple of weeks.
I spent a lot of time in front of the TV, hibernating. I watched the first six seasons of Dark Shadows while crocheting an enormous, wonky blanket from all the partial skeins of yarn I’d accumulated over the years. I made the obligatory sourdough starter (Neville) and eventually left him out on the counter too long, where he molded. I rearranged my living room and dining room (now classroom) about seventeen times. I started decorating for Christmas two weeks before Thanksgiving and I didn’t regret it.
Then there was distance learning, which evolved into actual homeschooling. There was my stint with Noom (which I should really write about sometime) during which I lost about twenty pounds. There was a pretty successful NaNoWriMo. But the things that really stand out about 2020, to me, are the small things–the oddball details–that made the year truly unique for my family. For example:
My kids and I have an amazing series of books called Little People, Big Dreams, which tells the stories of many inspiring and trailblazing people throughout history. My son has become particularly interested in Jane Goodall, so this week’s quote of the week is:
I’m not a trained artist. I won’t spend money on professional ink. Visual arts are a hobby for me, not a vocation, and I don’t maintain any illusions about my talent or prospects.
So this year, I wasn’t planning to do it. I really don’t have time, what with homeschooling–or, I do, but it’s time I should devote to writing, exercising, playing with my pets and children. But then I learned that the Inktober guy had muddied the whole event a bit with lawsuits over the term “Inktober” and its logo and that people weren’t super pumped about it this year, anyway. Lots of alternatives have popped up, many of them highly themed.
Well, I thought, who needs it? I’ll draw what I want.
But it was fun to keep up with a challenge. Even more fun when people would “like” my posts on Instagram… pity likes or not, I will take them. It’s fun to share your work with others, even if it sucks. Sometimes it’s fun to say, “Look how badly this turned out!” and revel in your own mistakes–for me, anyway. (I mean, sometimes things are so bad they’re hilarious. I think there’s a whole TV show dedicated to bakers who can’t make it work–right? And my sense of humor is nothing if not self-deprecating.)
I know this isn’t necessarily true for the pros. I know that when I read a terrible piece of writing, I have a harder time appreciating the amazing feat that the writer accomplished just in doing it than I used to. The kid in creative writing class who wants a Pulitzer for his haiku–that’s probably me in the art world.
I don’t want to be annoying. I do want to draw. Not because I’ll ever be a great artist, but because I enjoy it. When I commit a certain portion of my day to visual art, I light up parts of my brain that make me feel better about myself, about my family–about everything. And I could use some of that right now.
So here’s my own drawing challenge. Join me if you will. No talent required, no specific materials must be used. My kids helped me come up with the prompt list and a few times I called to my husband, “What’s a silly word?” Post them on Instagram with #DoodleDays2020 or keep them to yourself–your choice. But join me in doodling if you like.
There’s a nonprofit called Popcorn for the People that was created to employ adults with Autism. On their website, I learned a fun fact: popcorn kernels found in a cave in New Mexico were carbon dated and shown to be approximately 5,600 years old.
One of my favorite authors, Lydia Millet, has a book on the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction.
Regarding my adventures in homeschooling: my best way for me–an English major and avid reader whose only poor grades were ever in science class–to teach science is most definitely reading (and rereading and applying the lessons from) The Magic School Bus.
Washington State not only has a state bird, a state flower, and a state tree. It also has a state fossil: the Columbian Mammoth. It was established as the state fossil thanks to the efforts of a group of elementary school students.
And the quote of the week:
The wound is the place where the light enters you.