Friday, November 26, 2010

in-class assignments: exam anxiety and Amanda's legs

We used Jamie Cat Callan's Writer's Toolbox ( for a few in-class exercises.

Exercise 1:

We were presented with various popsicle sticks, each with a different type of writing prompt. Choose a "first sentence" prompt at random. Based on the sentence prompt, begin writing a story for two minutes. After the minutes are up, choose a "non sequitur" prompt at random (definition: a sentence that lacks meaning relative to what it follows; can denote an abrupt, illogical, unexpected or absurd turn of plot or dialogue not normally associated with or appropriate to that preceding it). Based on the prompt, continue writing your story for two minutes. Repeat with another "non sequitur" and "last straw" prompt.

Prompts are denoted in bold.

The only way John could pass the exam was by cheating. I didn’t know how to help him. We constructed elaborate, paper-thin schemes. We installed small, hidden cameras all over the center. We bought small mirrors and pasted them on the toes of our sneakers. We copied intricate formulas and rolled them up and forced them into the transparent bodies of ballpoint pens.

The plane was two hours late. Subsequently, the exams were delivered to the center two hours late and everything was postponed. It was two more hours wasted. We fumbled and waited and copied more formulas into the crooks of our arms. We prayed that the sweat would not wipe away our inky attempts at passing.

It wasn’t so much that I had been blind to the truth. It was just that I had seen the truth differently. When I was younger, I thought that hard work equated success. Now that we were older and wiser and lazier, we could see that no amount of studying would have allowed us to jump over that invisible threshold. We were doomed.

The lemon sherbert that melted all over the counter
sent my mind into a sugar-induced haze. We sat in the ice cream shop, counting down the last two hours and numbing our nerves with cold sweets. One last hurrah, one last enjoyable sherbert before it was showtime. Maybe I was in denial, maybe I was protecting myself from failure, but John and I never noticed that the clock in the ice cream shop was broken. We waited and waited too long, like a pair of frozen, sitting ducks. So we ended up missing the exam, after all.


Exercise 2:

You will be given four prompts: a protagonist, a goal, an obstacle, and an action. Spend a few minutes writing a story that incorporates these four prompts.

Protagonist: Amanda with amazing legs
Goal: king of the heap
Obstacle: fear of heights
Action: research at library

Our small town lived in a small valley and cowered under the shadow of a mountain. We called the mountain "The Heap" because it looked like a gigantic heap of pancakes, stacked up to the heavens. No one had ever climbed to the top and returned to tell the tale, except Amanda with the amazing legs.

Amanda was before our time. My uncle's best friend's little sister had been in the same class with her. Amanda had legendary stems. They glistened, year-round, unrestricted by pants. Those legs sashayed around the local park, the musty old library, the main boulevard. Male and female eyes moved with those legs.

Amanda was determined to conquer The Heap, but she was crippled by a devastating fear of heights.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I kid, I kid

If the criminal defense lawyer in my writing class reminds us one more time that he is a criminal defense lawyer, I think I am going to strangle him with my bare hands! Just kidding.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

art imitates life - assignment 7

"As promised, this week's exercise is a dialogue one, again lifted from John Gardner:

Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example the dialogue might be between a husband who has just lost his job and hasn’t worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom. Purpose: to give two characters individual ways of speaking, and to make dialogue crackle with feelings not expressed."

I discovered that I really like writing dialogue! That's a new thing for me. I've always felt much safer with descriptions. Anyway, I am somewhat dissatisfied with the end product. It actually kept me up all last night because I kept worrying that it wasn't believable because 1) wouldn't Sue tell her sister that her husband has pancreatic cancer? and 2) a blue bra is way, way too obvious. Then I rationalized that Sue was in shock + didn't have time to process the information + suspecting that her sister hooked up with her husband would cause her to hold back some information. Also because some families operate that way. And the earring-in-the-couch is too cliche.

Assignment 7:

The phone rang and little Jimmy picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hi Jimmy. Is your mom home?”

“Hi Aunt Peggy,” said Jimmy. “Hold on a sec.” He turned away from the phone. “Moooommm! Phone! It’s Aunt Peggy!”

Sue picked up the phone. “Hey Peg. Did you get the message about Ma’s present?”

“Yeah, I signed the card from both of us,” said Peggy.

“Oh, ok, good. While you’re on the phone – I wanted to tell you that Mike and I decided to take Emily out of the after-school program. Sorry to mess up the carpool schedule but we figured it’s a good opportunity for them to spend more time together.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Peggy. “That’s fine. You aren’t even scheduled to take over til next month. So Mike’s no longer working late?”

“Yeah, he rearranged his schedule to spend more time with the kids… and me.”

“That’s great!” said Peggy. “So he’s finally taking Dr. MacPherson’s advice to heart?”

“Yeah, you know how he is. She was saying that he couldn’t expect to work on us without juggling his work schedule and he kept saying no no no, it’s impossible to work fewer hours… well, his health scare knocked some sense into him.”

“Blessing in disguise, huh,” said Peggy. “So what was it after all?”

“Oh, it was a… a pinched nerve, just like we thought,” said Sue, a little too quickly. “The doctors told him to take it easy.”

“That’s such a relief! I was so worried!” Peggy paused. “Hmm, you better tell Ma, then.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sue.

“She called me last night at 10 pm-“

“Again? I thought the director was finally going to take the phone out of her room-”

“-Crying and saying that Mike has cancer…?”

“Oh. My. God. You know how she is. She thinks everyone has cancer.”

“Yeah, but she said you told her that.”


“She said that you said that Mike has pancreatic cancer.”

“What the heck? Where did she get that idea from?” Sue sounded like she was on the verge of tears.

“I don’t know-“

“You know what, last week when I was there, you know Mr. Rogers, the crazy guy in 302? Mr. Rogers was talking to us about his son who had pancreatic cancer. Couldn’t get away from him for an hour! That’s probably where she got the idea from.” Sue was slightly out of breath.

“Oh, ok.”

“We need to tell the director to keep Mr. Rogers away from her!”
“He can’t keep Mr. Rogers away from her if she’s always sitting in the TV room,” said Peggy. “It’s the common area.”

“I don’t care,” Sue said. “He’s a crazy old coot.”

“He’s a nice old man. He’s harmless.”

Sue grunted. “Oh, I wanted to ask if you and Scott can watch Jimmy next Thursday night? Mike and I scheduled in a date night.”

“Um, sure, let me check – ok, yeah, I think we’ll be free.”

“Ok, great! Thanks. Let me pencil that in.” Sue paused, almost casually. “By the way, you left a bra behind last time you were here. Jimmy found it near the couch.”

“What? Are you sure it was mine?" Peggy asked.

"Definitely yours, it was the blue one that you bought when we went to Macy's last month."

“Oh, I’m so sorry!" Peggy laughed. "Thanks. It must have fallen out of my gym bag.”

Sue sounded slightly relieved. “Oh, you’re doing yoga again? I thought you hated the new instructor.”

“Yeahhhh. I do hate the new instructor. But it’s good for me.”

“Ok,” said Sue. “So when did you start doing yoga again?”

“Um, last Thursday.”

“Oh. Did you go to class last Thursday?”

“Mmmm hmmm,” said Peggy.

“Which one? The late one?”

“The late one? I think so.”

“Oh, that’s weird,” said Sue. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Oh. Actually, I think I went to the earlier one.”

“Oh, ok.”

Both sisters paused.

Sue said quietly, “Let me know the next time you go, Pegs, we can go together."

“Ok. Hey, Pegs, I gotta run. Talk to you later?”


Peggy's secret: she hooked up with Mike. Sue's secret: Mike has pancreatic cancer.

Monday, November 8, 2010

assignment 6

"I want you to do a two-part third-person single point of view exercise. That's a lot of numbers, but basically it just comes down to this: You'll be presenting the point of view of one character, but that character's direct thoughts and feelings will not be described. Your focus will be on his perceptions: what he sees/hears/feels/smells/tastes. Here are the two parts:

A middle-aged man (or woman) is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the SETTING from the man's point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. For example: How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odors? Colors? What will this man notice? What will his clothes feel like? You don't have to address those specific questions, but you do have to describe the man's perceptions in detail. Write a 250 word description.

Here is the second part:

A middle aged man (or woman) is waiting at a bus stop. He has just gotten unexpectedly good medical news (a negative biopsy, for example). Describe the SETTING from the man's point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. For example: How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odors? Colors? What will this man notice? What will his clothes feel like? You don't have to address those specific questions, but you do have to describe the man's perceptions in detail. Write a 250 word description."


The man’s eyes were two unwashed clams, salty and gritty and full of unshed tears. The two clams sat on the cracked bus stop bench next to the man and rubbed their shells ferociously to stem the tide and refused to acknowledge the soiled homeless woman who interrupted herself long enough to demand spare change and shuffle away, empty-handed and cursing. The homeless woman stopped to smooth away stringy bits of hair with a practiced, gloved hand and rocked back and forth on worn heels.

The street in front of the bus stop was a thick street with dense lanes of rush hour traffic. The two clams blinked and protested noisily every time ambulance sirens pierced the air, which was too often. Tired-looking passengers hovered near the bus stop and carefully avoided making eye contact with each other. They carried scuffed briefcases and dirty tupperware and newspaper rolled into tight cylinders. They smelled like stale cubicles and florescent lighting.

The man’s clothes were thick and clumsy. They were checkered, rumpled garments stained with old coffee and cigar smoke. It was too hot to be wearing such a heavy coat and too cold to leave it off for long, for the air was viscous and clammy.

The bench was raw and splintered in several places. It had been painted dark green once but was now bleached and weathered beyond recognition. Near the bench sat an overflowing trashcan; near the trashcan lay an empty coffee cup that had been carelessly discarded.


Sunlight filtered through the sieve of recent rain clouds. The new sun brought out everyone’s appetites: even the homeless woman wearing a red scarf sifted through the damp contents of her shopping cart, humming cheerfully and pulling out a package of old crackers. The wet sidewalk was punctuated by the quick clatter of busy stilettos on their way to lunch.

Creamy maple trees lined the sidewalk in front of the bus stop and waved to everyone. In front of the sidewalk, traffic was moving at a pleasant, brisk clip. Taxi cabs skirted other taxi cabs like a flock of bright birds at play, teasing each other with friendly honking. Buses paused in front of the stop, emptied out its contents, and refilled themselves with eager passengers standing in messy lines. A boy on a bicycle rolled by, whistling and clutching a package with a pink bow.

The man wore a good, solid coat with soft sleeves and polished buttons and careful stitching. The coat smelled as though the wearer had been recently hugged by a woman donning perfume and pearls.

The bench wore a fresh coat of paint. The trashcan near the bench had been caught in the sprinkler’s gentle crossfire so that its exterior was glistening with water.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

railing against liars and other semi-palindromes

This is a reminder to myself. This is a reminder of what it feels like to be right here, right now, right state of mind.

Not to get all X-files on everyone, but I don't know how else to put it except: I don't believe anymore. Shrug.

Forever and ever and amen and all that jazz.