Monday, December 27, 2010

Oh the winter post-Christmas blues have hit hard, write about summer. Oh glorious heat that makes you sweat and hide in the air-conditioning.

It was uncomfortably hot like most Augusts in Chicago; we bought fresh lemonade from the overpriced vendor outside the museum, and we both commented on how concentrate wasn’t really fresh, and how this tourist spot's lemonade was a fraud. It was sugar water masked with a squeeze of juice.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas.
I hope a little bit of joy drifted into your life today, and if it did not find it's way to you, you got one god damn good story out of it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

It's Christmas Eve, and I am thinking about hyphens. Oh my... The spellcheck on yesterday's post wanted to separate oversized. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, over is a compound that is closed with no hyphen. Refer to the chart on page 383, 7.85, of the 16th edition.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A constant winter gray has descended on Chicago, write about sunshine.

The sun bursted into Kevin's oversized eastern windows, I was startled to find myself waking up from such a deep sleep in a puddle of sunshine. I had been desperate for sleep; searching for it like an addict needing to find their next fix. I looked around, I have been traveling for months, each morning I had to get my bearings to remember why I was not in my own bed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Write about plastic glassware. When was the last time you drank cheap wine out of a plastic cup?

I ordered another drink and imagined that my new life will be drunken out of plastic glassware like the one in my hand. The stranger settled down, read his book and only had an occasional twitch. I fell asleep with an empty drink in my hand. I woke up to the flight attendant prying the plastic glassware from my hand.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My spell check is confused by midwestern, cap, or no cap.

8.46 Regions of the world and national regions.

midwestern and midwesterner are lowercase, and the West is capitalized.

The Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition

Monday, December 20, 2010

I have changed tense again, and I am taking a machete to weedy words. It has come alive for me again, edit, edit, edit!

I imagined trying to fall in love with this gridded cement city, how I would have to surrender to its massive buildings and leave the mountains and ocean behind me. This is a hard task to fathom knowing that ice will build on the cement sidewalks in December and not melt until March. The West may be wild but survival skills take on a completely new meaning during a midwestern winter.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Tell me a memory associated with a bicycle." 
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

There is a nonprofit bike shop in Chicago, Working Bikes, which is only open to the public two days a week. Frequently in the spring, there is a line out the door for the best find, a rehabbed metal-fendered Schwinn for less than thirty dollars. I wasn’t fast enough to grab the green one, I settled on the 1970s brown cruiser.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What was your first childhood home like? Did you stay there until you left home for good?

I was born in a house too big for me, my sister was born in a trailer. I feel our destinies have been switched. I crave small places, cozy warm rooms, and she thinks of grand dining rooms with extra long formal tables.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Watering the plants suddenly feels urgently important, instead of getting to work on my novel. Digging up the past so that I can write from the heart has created a fierce case of writer's block. I am frozen in my tracks, with all of this great material at my fingertips. It's time to move forward, write a sentence about the main character.

Her first memory of the people appearing in the attic is just after the Christmas Santa kidnapped her Sue-Sue doll.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Monkey Mind
"One basic thing the mind does is generate thoughts. The problem is: it's hard to settle it down. The mind has a tendency to wander and drift off or barrage us. Even before we get a first thought—the ones that carry vitality, that are connected to the body—we are lost in critical second and third thoughts: "I can't do this writing. There's a sale on tuna. My kids need attention. I have nothing to say. I'm boring." These divisive, churning thoughts are telling you a lot, but not what they are actually saying. It's an indication of nervousness and energy. It tells you you want to writing bad, but at the same time are terrified to write."

Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Remember
Two minutes on each of these topics:
  A memory of cabbage
  Some instance of a war
  A cup you loved
  A peace march you didn't attend
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I remember my mother and I were the only ones in the family that like cabbage smothered in butter and pepper. It was a meal that was our communion, the others would not even sit with us.

I remember hearing the start of the first Gulf War on the radio on my way to traffic school. A right turn on red in a no-turn on red zone seemed so silly at that moment when I was convinced my boyfriend would be sent off to war.

I have a tea cup with a lid that I cherish so much I am afraid to use it.

I marched as a teenager in many anti-war rallies, later I took to photographing them but not really feeling a part of the movement, soon I just stop attending all together.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The subconscious is a powerful thing. I have been avoiding revisiting a section of writing in my father's memoir, woke up in a panic, as this particular event had become a scene in an episode of Criminal Minds. Write something you have been avoiding to write.

There is a long stretch of country road in between Lansing and Flint, Michigan. We have driven it too frequently during the months my mother was sick. As we approached the intersection, where an acquaintance had just gotten in a bad accident and lost her children and husband, my wife said, "I don't know why she can't just move on, she can start over, start a whole new life." My wife was depressed at the time, she was suffering from postpartum depression, was sad about my mother having cancer, and overall just miserable. I knew she didn't mean what she was saying, she really didn't wanted us all dead so she could start over, but just as I my career was making me unaffected by random stranger's murders, my wife was developing my same detachment for random violence.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"What bold restless extremes do you carry inside? Write."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I want chickens and goats. I live in a three flat on the second floor with rats in the backyard, which I am convinced they will gnaw off the feet of all my chickens. I am in love with a country boy who hates the country. I am a city girl who hates the city. We have cheese in common but he doesn't like goat cheese.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

You will be surprised what people tell you when they are being interviewed for a book. Watch out, the Pandora's box may pop open. Be fearless, interview someone, and rewrite his or her words to fit your book. Below is a line from my interview with my father.

I don't know if we cared or not, I hate to say that we didn't care but that was not part of the process to care who it was or why it happen, other than to find out who done it and how it happen.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Write about a time you itched. It could be physical or metaphorical."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

It was the day before Christmas; I was five and had chicken pox. My sister had it the week before; it was the first Christmas present she ever gave me. I remember standing in the bathroom for hours while my mother scolded me for scratching as she put pink stuff all over each bump.

Friday, November 26, 2010

No. 62
On Persistence

If it seems as if a thousand people begin their first novels today, remember that a good ten thousand probably quit working on their first novels today. Remember that writing is neither a spectator sport nor a competition with other writers. Every writer who was meant to write, and who continues to write over a long period of time, will succeed.

George Singleton, Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving.

I am thankful for the laughter circling the dinner table while we discuss the mass amounts of cream we have all just ingested.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What do you see right in front of you, right now.

My eye glasses have small dirty dots as if it rained in between me and my frames.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Part Three: 
You vs. Page One
Having started, starting

You can stop right there. Sure, the blank page is challenging, but that's all. Heart surgery is terrifying; a blank page is just wood pulp. And besides, it's never really blank. Take comfort in the fact that you've never starting from zero. You're writing a memoir; you're already way ahead of aspiring novelists. You already know what happens; you know the characters, the plot, th outcome.
So in a sense, you've already started. Now all you have to do is keep going.  

The Autobiographer's Handbook edited by Jennifer Traig

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Part Two: 
You vs. Page One
Having started, starting

Eventually, however, if you want to be a writer, you'll have to write something. Yes, it's true: there's little as daunting as the blank page. There's the fear that everything you write will suck, and the dread that even if you manage one good page you'll still break under the weight of the 199 blank pages that will have to be filled after that one to make a book. And even if you do finish it, there's the dread of finding an agent and a publisher, and then the dread of bad reviews, and then the dread of follow-up, and what if the movie adaptation sucks, too?

The Autobiographer's Handbook edited by Jennifer Traig


Friday, November 19, 2010

Part One: 
You vs. Page One
Having started, starting

There may be no literary form that lends itself to procrastination as much as the memoir. When you're writing about your life, the temptation is just go live it is overwhelming. Somehow, spending half a day watching talk shows becomes research; going for a beer at 3 p.m. is gathering material. It's an awful nice day, who knows what could happen—what say you take the rest of the afternoon off?

The Autobiographer's Handbook edited by Jennifer Traig

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I do dare you to free-write for twenty minutes while listening to Yo-Yo's version of Bach. Do not tell me the details of the personal tragedy this journey with Yo-Yo may uncover, just give me one unforgettable fictional line this writing exercise produces.

I stare at the midget-sized door in the room where I hear my father spell-out why he has done what he did with his life. I imagine small clowns opening the door, and telling me "come along, this room is too quiet, down through here you will find joy."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Tell me everything you remember about kindergarten. Don't remember much? You know what to do. Begin from there."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I had a rug made out of different colored cloth woven together that I used for nap time. It rolled perfectly into my cubbyhole. There was a sandbox on stilts inside out classroom. My teacher's name was Ms. Brown, her house was toilet papered routinely on devil's night each year. I remember a reading test that I was very nervous about because Ms. Brown told our parents the results. I remember holding hands in line whenever we went anywhere in the building, and I had a hard time choosing to hold Tommy or Steve's hand.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"What is your novel about?"
Louise Doughty, A Novel in a Year

My novel is about two weeks of muddled happenstance that leads to tragedy and an unexpected recovery. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Tell me about your "romance" with chocolate. An incident with vanilla. Give me a "journal page" of your experience with tapioca—or rice pudding. Bread pudding more like it?" 
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

As a young girl, once I learned how to negotiate our electric stove, I had an infatuation with making the perfect no-bake cookie. My grandmother's recipe flopped every other time, so I made batch after batch, using up heresy's coco tins one after another, each day after school until I figured out why a batch failed. My family ate dozens of cookies, some too moist, some too dry, and some just the perfect texture, although no batch being the same. I blamed my bad batches on the level of humidity or too much boiling, but like my grandmother, my no-bake cookies are never perfect every time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"What do you think your passions are? Don't think. Make a list. Now write for ten minutes, keep the hand going, what are your obsessions? Go."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Really good food made from scratch, writing random things, nature (especially trees), coffee, photography, art, birds, dogs, words, train rides, the fiddle, Beth Orton's voice, Andrew Bird's silly words.

I have an obsessive habit of picking at my fingernails; anything jagged must be smoothed out. I have inherited the need to be on time, which has lead to an undesired result of always being early. I hate clutter; I have tossed out all of my belongings at least a half of a dozen times. Oh, and there is healthy food; I read labels for unwanted dyes and unnatural ingredients.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I just finished Lucky, a book can alter your way of thinking, and Alice Sebold has done this twice for me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"What is the third thing? There is you and there is writing. But you can't write about writing. It's ingrown. You and writing must gaze out at a third thing.
What is your third thing?"

Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Strangers, it has always been strangers. Ironically, I spend most of my days alone now, but I write about strangers. The ones that crossed my path at that need moment when I was lonely or just looking for a character to write about. The nice guy I shared a cab with because it was freezing rain and no cabs were in sight. And there was the time when I was fourteen and an acquaintance picked my up will I was walking alone at too late of an our in my hometown. Maybe he was the why I started trusting the power of strangers.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Noise: Write about something noisy.

My nighttime ritual has recently changed to creating a silent environment in the city. I put in orange squishy earplugs, I turn on a small fan, make sure the noise and light insulated curtain is fully closed, and the final armor is a pillow over my head. I am ready to battle the snores, trains, sirens, and garbage trucks, all of the things I have slept through for the last twenty years, it is my dreams that are noisy: I am being chased, I'm driving cars that are streaming downhill too fast, I am struggling from murders and rapists.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Tell me about a funny or odd thing that has happened in or around your car."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

As a child, Brian's blanket was sucked out the car window on the interstate. His father refused to stop and retrieve the blanket that his brother recklessly used for a sunshade.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Skip the church and/or therapy, find your salvation through writing your memoir, or for that matter your fathers.

I asked my father these tough questions at our last memoir meeting. Ask your character to answer them.

1. How did I get my name? How did you get yours?
2. What do you remember most about your mother?
Your father?
3. If you had a time machine, what decision would go back to undo?
4. What are you most proud of?
5. What is the thing you always hid from your parents?
6. How did my coming into your life change your life?
7. Who’s had the biggest impact on your life?
8. What’s your earliest memory?
9. What event made you feel like you were suddenly an adult?
10. What do you know now that you didn’t then?
11. What didn’t I know then that you want to admit to me now?
12. What was your favorite age?
13. When [big life event] was going on, what did you tell your friends about it?
14. What has been your greatest worry?
15. What used to thrill you? What thrills you now?

Question from: Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook

Monday, November 8, 2010

First or Third?
What point of view is your novel written from and why?

My novel started out in first person, then I changed it to third, felt I was too close to the character and she need to be developed further. After my five draft, I am switching back to first, truly writing an autobiographical novel. Memoir style just works in my head, now I have firm grasp of my main character, and her differences from my actual accounts of this time in my life, but I feel the reader will relate if I am speaking directly to them about these truly absurd two weeks.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Tell me about a storage unit or someplace you stored things."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

My grandfather converted his apartment basement storage unit into a woodworking shop. In the dimly lit hallway leading to his caged unit, you could see his workbenches; they had spotlights including metal reflectors. The ball jars filled with nails and screws sparkled on the floodlights. I always found it strange that he worked amongst other's unwanted belongings. It felt cold and lonely in the basement, where the laundry machines and my grandfather's whistling under his breath were the only noises.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Write about one of the things listed on your list from yesterday.

My cheese grater is from a bag of things my stepmother was going to toss in the trash. It is one of the flat metal graters with a looped handle. It is stainless steal and does not have a dot of rust on it, even though I frequently use it to drain my pasta.
This little piece of metal grates my favorite food into a meltable delight. Before my college friend, Tina, taught me to grate in one direction, I used to fiercely go up and down along its surface. The grater seems much happier now that it is only required to go one direction, and it is packed in with many other less loved kitchen utensils.

Friday, November 5, 2010

I love lists.

I am grateful in this moment for these seven places:
Ocean Beach in San Francisco
Chicago's lakefront
The green grass in Humboldt Park
The reading loft in my office
My cozy pillow-top bed
A booth in any diner
The open road along Highway 1

I am grateful in this moment for these seven things:
My cheese grater
My book collection
The stacks at Harold Washington Library
My plants
My new winter boots
My pizza stone
My computer

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Tell me some details about an uncle or grandfather."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

My grandfather Jimmie was strict; he liked rules and enforcing them. I am not sure if his profession as a principal of an all-boys school made him this way or if he chose his profession, so he could spend his days cracking a ruler on the wrongdoers. I did not fear my grandfather as much as my brother did, or maybe I had less to fear because my brother was taking all the beatings. Either way, I had it easier.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why isn't your novel done? List five excuses, then take action, and eliminate one of your answers.

1. Time management, not spending free-time writing
2. Fear of showing others my work
3. The ending is not written
4. Fear of rejection, slowly writing/editing prolongs this
5. Not writing every day

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"I want you to write a paragraph from the point of view of an inanimate object."
Louise Doughty, A Novel in a Year

As I pull the knife from the victim's chest, I can hear the knife saying,
    "How did I get here, this isn't what I wanted to do with my life in this kitchen. Now I am being stuffed in a plastic bag, and I will travel through the chain of evidence and finally end up in trial to convict some guy of murder. I just wanted a lazy life of cutting fresh bread or slicing my owners morning bagel. These groves on my blade were not meant to cut flesh, I am a bread knife for god's sake."

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Tell me how you felt about math. Don't just say, "I hated it." Write about an experience around it: counting out change, a math course, a situation in school, using division or multiplication, keeping an expense account—or maybe you are one of the rare ones that keeps a math journal."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I was not a big fan of math in high school. What I remember most is there was a rumor that my geometry teacher was sleeping with one of my classmates, I blame my bad grade on that distraction. It was not until I started dating a math major in college that endlessly tutored me for my calculus class that I remember having the joy of getting a 100% on a math test. My math skills have continued to decline since our breakup.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Oh, give me something scary; juice it up with gore.

It was reported that when Mary arrived at her north side home at 3:00 a.m., one cold January morning, she found her teenage babysitter dead on the living room floor. I was called to the scene at 3:30 a.m. I saw a teenage girl, brutally raped and stabbed to death. The crime scene was littered with Linda’s torn blue panties, her plaid skirt, a knife, and two forks. She was clad only in a white sweater and white socks; her torn brassiere was inside her sweater and a knife protruded from her throat. Fluids seeped from all of her orifices. As latent print specialists dusted for fingerprints, I surveyed the scene and began collecting trace evidence. No fingerprints were developed on bloody knives and forks used as murder weapons and no unidentified fingerprints were available for searching with AFIS. One foreign head hair was recovered from her left sock. As I photographed the autopsy, later the same day, my film recorded bruises on the sides of her face, and more knife and puncture wounds in her chest.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

That vs. Which


If you leave off the clause that says which is bad news, it doesn't change the meaning of the rest of the sentence. A quick and dirty tip (with apologies to Wiccans and Hermione Granger) is to remember that you can throw out the “whiches” and no harm will be done. You use which in nonrestrictive clauses, and if you eliminate a nonrestrictive clause, the meaning of the remaining part of the sentence will be the same as it was before.... On the other hand, if it would change the meaning to throw out the clause, you need a that."
Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Tell me how you first learned to read."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I cannot remember how I first learned to read, but I do remember when I started to like reading.
    I was fourteen and sent away for the summer to my godparents who lived on a small lake in Michigan. I am not sure if this retreat was my request to get away from my family or if I my parents sent me away because I was a pain in the ass teenager. Either way, I stowed away in their basement with a pullout bed surrounded by a pool table and a player piano. I had my own bathroom, a luxury I never had again until my first apartment in college. I am sure I spent endless hours in the mirror of that bathroom, perfecting my blue eye shadow that I put on nearly every day even though I did not see anyone other than my godparents for most of the summer.
    I had brought a few books with me because my godmother was an English teacher and I figured she would be appalled if I planned only to daydream the whole summer and not do any reading. So after a few weeks of paddling out to the middle of the lake by myself and getting over my fear of jumping off the dock, I pick up my copy of a trashy novel with a teenage love story that I have forgotten the name of. There were gangs and the hint of sex, and I just could not put it down. After that book, I invaded my godparent's collection, and I have not stopped repeatedly escaping into a good novel.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"What do you remember most about your mother? Your father?"
Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook

My mother was a classic 1950's housewife. My mother did all of the laundry, including ironing anything that could wrinkle. She did all of the cleaning. which involved compulsively vacuuming and regularly steam cleaning the carpet. She did all of the cooking and hosting for the holidays. She also hosted tea parties and dinner parties for friends and members of the church; she planned and prepared all of our family picnics. She cook classic German food, she cooked what her mother taught her to cook. The only chore I do not remember her doing alone was shopping; she did not drive or have a checking account, so my father went with her to Hamady Bros. My mother dedicated her life to being a mom, she mothered everyone she met, and there is not a person I know that has anything bad to say about my mother.

What I remember about my father was that he was strict. He lived by a set of rules, ones he learned from his father that he enforced on my brother and me. I am not sure if this set of rules was any harsher than other children's experiences in the 1950s and 1960s but in our house, there was little toleration for error.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Teach me something. It doesn't have to be the traditional subjects. How about how to tie a shoe...? Something that is deep in your bones—driving in rush hour on I-94 to work each day." 
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

"I am the daughter of a man that calls a tow truck for a flat tire. Alan made me change the tire on his Land Rover my first trip to the Congo. He said something to the affect that people will not always come running to help a pretty white woman.
    "I was a weak little girl back then (Miller laughs, she is still a size four with very little muscle mass). So, Alan teaches me how to change a tire that came up to my waist. It was quite the scene with Alan trying to give instructions in Swahili and half in English, lunging to help as I am rolling in the dirt beneath the wheel shaft hoping the truck will not fall on me.
    "In return, I teach Alan how to process film in the middle of the bush with a limited supply of water surround by film's number one enemy, dust and dirt. I toss scissors, a roll of film and a plastic film reel and canister in a changing bag and tell him to remove the film from the canister and put it on the reel, and seal it in the can. No problem he says with confidence. He tucked his hand in the armholes and pried open the film with the edge of the scissors. I had showed him in the light how to load the film on the reel but his fumbling large hands in the black changing bag could not get the flimsy roll of film on the plastic reel. I roared with laughter as he got more and more frustrated, he could fix anything but could not get the film to roll smoothly in the groves of the reel. And he new I wanted what was on that roll so he couldn't give up and pull his hands out of the sleeves without messing up the film. I had neglected to tell him that he could just put the film loose in the can to save the film from the light and I could finish it. It took him over thirty minutes and I was tackled to the ground after I told him about the canister trick."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"I want you to write another paragraph but this time from the point of view of a character living in the past."
Louise Doughty, A Novel in a Year

As a young boy watching Checkmate, it was not the pretty ladies or the dashing young detective that grab my attention; it was the frumpy bearded overweight man talking with a slight English accent. A British criminologist, and one-time Oxford professor, Dr. Carl Hyatt is the brain behind the criminal cases Checkmate were hired to solve. He takes the smallest bit of evidence and solves the case. As a young boy, I was in awe over his three-piece tweed suit with chain across his potbelly accented with polka-dotted bow tie. In addition, I admired his top hat and cane; his cane seemed more for show than providing support, I thought someday I could get away with such a prop.
    In my twenties, I tired wearing tweed it just did not fit my personality and left fibers all over the evidence. I wondered if I could grow a beard like his but I recall the State Police had a clean-shaven rule. The only facial hair that I wore in my early days as a forensic scientist was a mustache. They were big in the 70s and my large upper lip was the perfect platform for a dark straight caterpillar mustache. My daughter Jenny was never fond of mustaches; she used to tell my father that he had to kiss her goodbye with “just one lip.” My father would puff out his bottom lip as far as he could and kiss her. She would squish up her nose, retract her lips, and say his mustache still tickled. The only similarities I ended up sharing with Dr. Hyatt was his home lab resembled my basement collection: walls lines with file cabinets, endless about of reference books, and old microscopes dotting each surface.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Go back to the beginning, there are so many places to start. Work on your opening paragraph.

The phone rings, it is after midnight, I reach for the rotary phone on the nightstand next to my bed, my wife rolls over and moans. By now my children have been conditioned that when the phone rings in the middle of the night, someone is likely dead in the Saginaw County. But this is not where I want my story to begin; it started long before the Bridgeport Crime Lab called me away in the middle of the night to process a crime scene.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgement, doom, guilt. Also, sever hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched—like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon ever ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you're working, and you say yeah, because you are."

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Mood. Verbs have 1 to 3 moods: (1) the indicative (the most common; used for ordinary objective statements), (2) the impermative (used for responding or comanding), and (3) the subjunctive.    
   Subjunctive verbs cause the most difficulty; they are used to primarily for expressing a wish. ... The subjunctive is sometimes used uncorrectly, eg, where matters of fact—not supposition—are discussed."

AMA Manual of Style: 10th Edition

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Tell me about how a relationship ended."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I have worked at my career more than any personal relationship, it does not surprise me how feed up my wife is with the long hours, midnight interruptions, and canceled family vacations because I am due in court. It is not the death that I have witnessed, it is the day-to-day obsession with finding the facts and answers to these cases that has caused turmoil in my relationships. I am told that my escape into my books has ended my marriage.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"What about a time you slept outside?"
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I was a bit younger and less afraid of strange bugs crawling on me during the night. It was harvest season in California wine country, I had spent the day picking grapes, and drinking home-brewed wine while overeating grilled delights. I slept in the third row of grapes on a slanted hill, propped up in line with the spotlight moon. The late night sambuca had left me fearless, and when the deer approached my toes, I did not screech. He ate the remainder of grapes in the row that I thought I had picked clean.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How might your main character die? Give me two possible outcomes.

A gunman armed with an AK-47 sprayed bullets through Miller's bedroom door, hitting her in the leg and back. She was found dead as result of bleeding profusely from her gunshot wounds. There is no report of how long she was lying in bedroom. It was a reported by the Congolese government to have been a robbery but there was very little missing from Miller's home.

Early in the morning, Miller was driving up a curvy road alongside the Cheyenne River in South Dakota. She had been up too late the night before. She must have fallen asleep. Her car flipped, and she landed in a streambed, she drowned.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Let’s start by doing the writer’s version of Mapquest.
– First, write a few sentences about your town, big strokes.
– Next, write about your neighborhood, with more detail.
– Now, describe your house, your block, fleshed-out."

Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook

DeWitt, Michigan was named after DeWitt Clinton, it is a Midwestern farming town with a downtown just a block long. In 1930, a great fire swept though the downtown business district, destroying eight historic and business buildings.

Our neighborhood was along the main drag that led to Bath Road, which was a short cut between Flint and DeWitt. Two-story Sears' homes with large front porches lined our street.

Our Sears' house factory exterior was pale blue stucco with white trimmed windows and the protruding oversized front porch offset its square shape. We had a large yard bordered by a gravel driveway to the east, a sidewalk to the south, and a line of trees along the back. Our yard to the west bled right into our neighbors. Our neighbor's yard is where my youngest liked to play; she loved the wheelbarrow rides from our retired neighbor, Roger.

Monday, October 18, 2010

It’s time for you to create your memoir-writing battle plan. Once that’s done, all you have to do is follow your own instructions. You’ll probably end up changing them once things are underway; be prepared for some experimentation and false starts. That’s part of the process, too. 
By now you should have a pretty good idea of what the book is -going to look like. So let’s plot out the actual writing time, pen to paper, -fingers to keyboard. We’ve got two tracks for you here: one is --time-driven, the other a little more free-floating. Pick the one that suits you best and fill it in.
Time-Driven. Start by giving yourself a year. Some people take three months, some a decade, but a year is reasonable. Get your -calendar, and mark each month with a big (but achievable) goal, like “Write outline,” “Write first chapter,” etc. Then, on each Sunday, write down the weekly tasks that will get you to that goal: -“Interview Mom.” “Write four pages.” etc. On the last day of the month, write in the reward you earn when you meet your goal.
Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"What event made you suddenly fell like an adult?"
Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook

I had been married for over two years, but it was not until my first crime scene that I felt like an adult. I was in Joliet, Illinois working as an intern, and my first crime scene was the murder of a two-year-old boy.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Ellipse defined. An ellipsis is the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage. Such omissions are made of material that is considered irrelevant to the discussion at hand (or, occasionally, to adjust the grammar of the surrounding text). Chicago style is to indicate such omissions by the use of three spaced periods rather than by another device such as asterisks. These points (or dots) are called ellipsis points when they indicate an ellipsis and suspension points when they indicate suspended or interrupted thought. They must always appear together on the same line (through the use of nonbreaking spaces, available in most software applications), along with any following punctuation (including a period) will appear at the end of the line above."

Chicago Manual of Style: Sixteenth Edition

Friday, October 15, 2010

Where is home for you?
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

My first home was a prefabricated trailer in Lansing, Michigan. I was working for the Health Department, in a sterile environment all day; I came home to cookie–cutter construction decorated with wedding presents and hand–me–down family furnishings. I walked through the door every evening to a pregnant wife learning how to cook the meals my mother used to make me.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Tell me what you thought was ugly."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

There was one predictable factor of going to a crime scene on the poor side of Saginaw; the house was going to be a "shithole." The buildup of trash in some of these homes was remarkable. At one scene, there was a dead body spread out on the kitchen floor, and it was the only patch of movable area; empty bottles, trash bags, and fast–food wrappers clutter the remainder of the linoleum. I don't even have a sense of smell, but the debris was grotesque. Each time I returned home to a clean bed and house was a great relief.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Tell me about a breakfast you were once privileged to have. Eggs over easy? Grapefruit? One thin slice of toast? Not even that, you ate a pickle—and it never tasted so good. You vowed to eat pickles for breakfast for the rest of your life. Then what happened? Tell me. Be specific."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I had a regular routine of getting up early enough so that I could go to Tony's before work. I was addicted to there $2.25 special. The special was two eggs anyway you liked them, one pound of bacon and two pieces of toast that were dipped in melted butter. I usually put back a couple cups of black coffee but that was extra. I was the only state police employee in a mob-run joint but the waitress was just as nice to me as the mobsters at the next table were. It seemed the pound of bacon gave me the energy to face working with the dead. After a few years of this routine meal, extra hours on the job, and too many murders, my blood pressure went the roof. My wife insisted on making me each light cottage cheese and fruit for months, until I started leaving early again for my $2.25 special.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

List ten things you remember about the month of October and being surrounded by farmland and a national forest.

Tall looming trees across the open field
The smell of rotting leaves
The boisterous crunch of drying grass under my feet
A cool approaching winter breeze picking up speed across the open landscape
Roadside pumpkin stands
The cafe's sign advertising hot cider
A river not in my sight but a faint hiss of moving water
The smell of a distant fireplace burning fresh-cut wood
The wide-open crimson sky at dusk
Silence on a dirt road, interrupted by nervous conversation

Monday, October 11, 2010

"When was the first time you were afraid?"
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

It must have been getting lost or separated from my mother in a public place. I was a shy little girl that didn't really like strangers. I remember being scared when staying over at my grandparents apartment, the walls made so many strange noises. I remember when Santa Claus took my doll. My mother thought if she slipped into my room on Christmas Eve and took my doll that all would be fine because Santa had put a new one under the tree. I was terrified at the thought of Santa in my room. A few years later, my mother did the same horrifying maneuver with my stuffed dog.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Beginning a sentence with a conjunction. There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice."
Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition

Saturday, October 9, 2010

When you don't know whether to use who or whom, try substituting he or him.

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Tell me about a time you washed the dishes."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I take great pleasure in walking a dog on hot summer nights, baking fresh bread on Sunday mornings, cooking with fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden, cleaning out attics full of family possessions, ripping up old shag carpet to find manicured hardwood floors and don't tell a soul that I like mowing the lawn. But when is comes to doing dishes, taking out the trash, dusting, mopping, vacuuming, making my bed and picking up dirty clothes off the floor, I am like a spoiled rotten fourteen-year-old. I am not sure I ever saw my father do dishes. My mother always did the dishes and on rare occasions, I was asked to help load the dishwasher. I still seem to avoid soapy sinks and crusted plates.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Tell me everything you know about Jell-O. Go Ten minutes. Let it rip."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Oh, Julie will never understand why I have invested ten minutes to the subject of Jell-O when there are so many other things to discuss.
I have told you about my first encounter with Jell-O in pre-school, I did not disclose that I had it every birthday party until high school. I never really like things put in my Jell-O. I do not know why it is called Jell-O; I never thought to ask, and the answer would not matter to me. I am now one of those people that does not eat red dye #40, so it has been sometime since I have had Jell-O. Red was always my favorite and usually the only color Jell-O I would eat. What is there to know about Jell-O, this is not something I will look up on Wikipedia. It is made of horse hooves, or maybe they have come up with some more kosher method of making it harden into a delicious flimsy pancake of sugar.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Tell me what you will miss when you die."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I will miss: A hot summer rain where thunder cracks so loud that your insides shake, ice cream melting faster than I can lick, the touch of my lover, the sound of Tom Waits' voice singing when I feel blue, laughing so hard your eyes uncontrollably tear, green grass under my bare feet, my mother's healing hugs, the sound of the ocean hitting the shore, the city at night when it is all still besides the glittering lights, a fiddle solo, big loyal dogs, reading a good book, my nephews laugh, and climbing a mountain even though I can barely feel my legs or take another breath.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Now give me ten minutes of "I don't remember." Another approach is" I forget," but "I don't remember" is right on target."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I don't remember the name of the hotel in Kenya.
I forgot the name of the hotel that I stayed at in Victoria Falls.
I don't remember what food I ate while camping in the bush other than sweet potatoes and fresh passion fruit.
I don't remember what kind of tea was served.
I don't remember what the streets were like downtown Harare.
I don't remember what side of the road you drive on in Zimbabwe.
I don't remember if I ever got cold while I was there.
I don't remember how old Alan was or where he went to school.
I forgot what roads we took to get to Hwange National Park.

Monday, October 4, 2010

For writers block, I recommend putting in your headphones and use your ipod as an imaginary microphone, and sing at the top of your lungs. Dancing solo with fuzzy slippers on always chases away my paralyzing dry spell.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Right now list ten smells you remember. Be specific."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away 

campfire smoke
misty-musty trees
roasting meat
brewing tea
over-worn tea-shirt
damp backpack
unfamiliar spices

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Tell me about how you drink coffee (tea). When? Where?" 
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Miller pleaded, “Can we take a break for a cup of tea?”
Alan smiled, “Having a cup of tea with you is my favorite part of the day.”
Alan started a fire faster than Miller could pack up her camera, the teapot was whistling within minutes. As Miller reached to take her cup of sweetened gunpowder tea from Alan, an umbrella-tree leaf landed in her hand. She was startled, and thought someone had ran his fingers across her skin. Miller’s eyes welled up with tears.
Alan adamantly said, “I remember when you use to hop and skip for a good cup of coffee or when you saw a elephant on the plains. I remember when you wanted to dance with the baboons and I had to restrain you. Where is that Miller?”
“Alan there is a war!”

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Writing and talking about writing are two different acts, much like how driving nails with a framing hammer and watching home improvement shows are different. Grilling salmon and watching a chef on a television show are two separate activities. I have encountered people who meet their "writer's group" weekly. I've met people who are members of two or three different groups. They bring in their work, read it aloud, and listen to their comrades' comments. These meetings last three or four hours, and the members enjoy lots of snack foods, coffee, wine, and so on. They usually have some kind of newsletter about themselves. I would bet that they wear berets privately. When they're not meeting each other, they go to readings and writers conferences nonstop.  They talk about writing. For the most part, they do not get published in real magazines or by real publishing houses. If they would stay home, they'd have some good time to actually write."
George Singleton, Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Tell me about a time you remember rain. Rain might not be the main focus of a memory but write about a time when it was there with you as you said good-bye to your grandmother on cold day in November or kissed your first girlfriend on the lips before school at eight a.m."
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

While in Israel, Derek and I danced in the rain imitating Linus and Snoopy in Charlie Brown Christmas. Standing under the eves, I let the dirty water cleanse my shame of photographing the dying.  In the middle of a civil war, we found our own patch of peace. It was almost shameful; a lobby full of journalist smashed up against the windows to watch us.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Tell me about a meal you loved. Where were you when you ate it? What was the weather like out the window? Who were you with? How old were you?"
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Kevin’s ping-pong table doubled for a dining room table that sat ten. He arranged it so the table sat in the middle of a wide-open loft; only candles and the glow from the handmade bulky industrial lamps lit the unusually large space. As multiple voices carried across the table, there was a hint of a ball bouncing back and forth. Miller nibbled at the catered gourmet food while listening to Derek talk and then abruptly excused herself to have a smoke and gravitated to the open gigantic six-paned window in the northeast corner overlooking church-like structure that she thought must have been a school at some point.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Write about the most frightened you've ever been."
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Miller looked out the window and there was a truck making an unprotected left turn right into the side of the bus at too fast of a speed for the slow-moving refurbished Halsted bus to move out of the way. The well-read stranger instinctually grabbed her, not knowing where he was going to take her. They moved inches into the narrow isle, but possibly just far enough to remove them from the spray of glass and the impact against the window seat. A whole sheet of glass detached from the window frame, flew like a plastic bag floating in the air, and landed on the women rows ahead of where Miller was sitting. The remaining glass in the windows flopped around like jagged leaves.
    The yellow metal supports every two rows crumbled like plastic under pressure. The sound was explosive as if a steam engine train just whizzed by. The child’s stroller parked in the front handicap seating was pushed to the middle of the bus. The passengers in the rear seating, were tossed around like rag dolls and thrown into the isles in piles. One woman flew from the back raised section and smacked her head on the back door pole; she blacked out.
    Miller heard muffled screaming after the crash and people crying. Someone kept saying, “Can you please let me out” as he was pressed against the back door. There were no visible red emergency window handles. The mangled bus had spun in a complete circle, taking out parking meters and parked cars. The island by the front door was pushed almost in front of the door. The hand-straps above each seat seemed to be swinging even thought the bus was no longer moving.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Write about what you can smell while sitting at your desk.

The smell of coffee seeped up through the floorboards.  The whistle of the neighbor's teapot came down through the heating duct.  She drinks both and does not prefer one to the other but always adds cream and sugar. She cannot find either in his cupboards; she frantically headed to the cafe down the street.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"When not to capitalize. Personal, national, or geographical names, and words derived from such names, are often lowercased when used with a nonliteral meaning. For example, the cheese known as "gruyère" takes its name from a district in Switzerland but is not necessarily from there; "swiss cheese" (lowercase s) is a cheese that resembles Swiss emmentaler (which derives its name from the Emme River valley). Although some of the terms in this paragraph and the examples that follow are capitalized in Webster's, Chicago perfers to lowercase them in their nonliteral use."
Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won't die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Every time a characters in your novel speak, they should be: (1) telling us something about themselves; (2) conveying information that may well advance the story line and/or plot; (3) adding to the music or the mood of the scene, story, or novel; (4) giving us a scene from a different POV; and/or (5) giving the novel a pedestrian feel."
Walter Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel

Derek cut Miller off, “Remember when I found you in that village in Rwanda, sleeping in a hammock with a tiny orphan child nestled on your chest?”
Miller looked shocked, “We have never talked about that day.”
“We would have to acknowledge some divine force, and it is hard to speak of beauty and God in the middle of a civil war. This seems like a safe place to reflect on such a moment.”
“How did you find me? Were you even looking for me? Did you even know I was in Rwanda?”
“Which question do you want the answer to, Miller? I cannot tell you how I found you and I don’t think I was looking for you. I think is crossed my mind that you may be in the country at that time. The moment I saw your figure gently swaying in the womb-like hammock, I thought I was hallucinating. Then as I got closer, I was overcome with tears; had to stop and compose myself before I approached you. Then you opened your eyes as I touched your arm and looked in my eyes without a hint of surprise, it was as if I had been sleeping next to you and woke you up for work. It was also the first time I have ever wanted children. You holding that child was the most peace I had seen in weeks.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In one short paragraph, tell me about yourself, and then in a similar fashion tell me about your main character in third person.

I am a writer that has been working on the same novel for eight years. This may be determination and commitment to writing one great novel or sheer cowardice on my part to put the story out into the world. Either way, I keep working on it. I have rewritten the ending over a dozen times. I have changed all the character's names several times. Instead of finishing, I started my own business, volunteered long hours with community organizations and started ghost writing a memoir. Recently, I have gone back to school for editing. I must say after ten years in the photography business, editing feels like a better fit. I have approached it like learning science. I see words on a page differently; they have become formulas that need the correct arrangements. I am obsessed with the comma.

Miller has been trying to solve the world's problems through the lens of her camera. Her determination to show the world horrific images of injustice landed her in therapy. Regardless of her own wellbeing, she continues to go to war zones and cover stories that end up hidden in the back section of world news. She is currently in the Congo covering the civil war. She is obsessed with photographing mass graves.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tell me about a time you were driving down the road. Or riding in the passenger seat. What did you see? What were you daydreaming about? Freewrite, go!

A turkey vulture circles the ditch. I want to jump out of this moving car and run through the soybean field, until I reach that charming white farmhouse, and ask if I can move in. Can I stay, I won’t be much trouble. I just want to stare up at the sky, feed your chickens, ride ponies, and eat homemade rhubarb pie. I’ll wash your clothes and mow the fields, just don’t send me back to that dirty cement city. I’ll sleep in the grass and keep the fox out of your coop.

It never crossed my mind that this country couple didn’t like strangers running across their field. I finally noticed the shotgun cradled in the woman’s arms. I ran back to stand in front of the no hitch hiking sign and wait for the next truck carrying an industrial load to another cement city. I thought there must be something magic in the fields; something the city could never give me. I think I am headed to Texas going east. Maybe not, Alabama is singing about playing in Texas. Where is this trucker from anyway? The driver is swinging his arms like a chicken trying to fly; get me back to the city where white men don’t dance.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Take a poetry book. Open to any page, grab a line, write it down, and continue from there."
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

"Moloch the incomprehensible prison!" I have no brother, no sister, no father, no mother, no country, no lover, no camera, and no passport, just this rifle and this war. This war is my core; I am only here for this war. It has taken me, it is I, and I am nothing without this war. I am fighting for each orphan child. I am an orphan ripped from my life. What existed before no longer exists for me. I will never be able to walk on the ground that I once stood on. The mud on the sole of my shoe seeps into my system--I am made of different minerals.

(Poem quote: Allen Ginsberg, Howl)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Edit, edit, edit! 
Go back and look at the last ten pages you have written. Did you use a comma before but?

"When independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, so, yet, or any other conjunctions a comma usually precedes the conjunction."

Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Write about green places."
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Miller wondered why her hometown was called Western Springs. She had never seen a spring. It would be more fitting for the town to be named after a tree. This place was nothing, but a tree town with big lawns and enormous maples that visiting city dwellers mistook for the county. Miller looked around at all of the trees that lined the front yards towering over the houses and draping over the streets are red buds, maples, honey suckles, birch, oak, crabapple, magnolias, and evergreen shrubs in all shapes and sizes. Strip away the too-close-together houses, then you have the country. In the fall, it snows red maple’s helicopter seedpods. Every seven years, the cicada bug invades this sleepy suburb; for weeks, locals talk about the invasion instead of the weather.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Spin your globe or leaf through your atlas. Pick a country, but not the country where you live or any country that you are particularly familiar with. I want you to create an entirely fictional character from that country and write a paragraph in which that person introduces him or herself."
Louise Doughty, A Novel in a Year

Alan is from a small village near Katanga Plateau where only a few hundred people speak the local language. Alan spoke five languages by the time he was twenty. Miller met him just after he had returned from school in France. After visiting his village, Miller was astounded that he found his way to France from such a remote place in the middle of the Congo.
    Alan's father was the chief of the village and his uncle was the medicine man. His mother was killed during Africa's First World War, in which most of the women in their village were raped and murdered. Miller always assumed that was why Alan was such a good armed driver for foreign women. In addition to female foreign journalists, he drove diplomats and presidents. Miller never feared for her life in his care while driving through war zones, but as Derek would say, "Miller is laced with luck."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

“I want you to write an account of a time you felt trapped.”
Louise Doughty, A Novel in a Year

Locked in an Airstream, with a man that I had only known for a month, I had an overwhelming sensation to flee. I was cornered in the bed against aluminum walls, with the weight of two down comforters on top of me, staring at a low aluminum ceiling. I was somewhere in the woods, bordered by farmland with no farm houses in sight other than the old school house with rickety plumbing and an occupant that smoke a lot of pot. I didn't know which direction was Fennville, Saugatuck, or Douglas, Michigan. There was no posted address, my cell phone had a shaky signal, but I decided walking somewhere would relieve my trapped feelings. I quietly left the camper, peed in the woods, and headed for the road.
    After walking for over forty minutes, I ascended a slight hill as the horizon shifted with each step closer to a stop sign. I didn’t know which way led to town. I stood at the intersection for quite some time before I turned back to camp.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

“Write in different places: Write in bus stops, in cafes. Write about what is going on around you.”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Miller was standing next to L car door when someone sat down on the train's floor near her feet facing the opposite door. At the next stop, a man entered the car with three-inch metal rods protruding from his jaw and he stood across from Miller leaning on the metal dividers. The man on the floor said, “Everything that smells good, doesn’t taste good.” Before another strange man had a chance to enter the car, Miller decided to sit in a seats as far away from the door as possible. Her seat selection proved unwise, a homeless man chattered at Miller from the seat behind her. He rambled on about strange Chicago weather and how the end of the world was coming. Miller unconsciously shifted in her seat. The man stopped mumbling, leaned close to Miller and said, “Don’t worry, Miss, I am not going to shoot you in the back.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

“Give me a picture of a teacher you had in elementary (or high) school.”
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Miss Hodges, an eccentric spinster and a tough grader, thought history. She dressed in drab clothing and always had her dark slightly graying hair pinned back. Until that one day, she showed up with a short butch haircut. She sparked fear amongst my peers with the sheer volume of homework she assigned. She refused to accept papers turned in fifteen minutes too late. It was hard to earn an A in her class and I am sure I only got a B or maybe even a C. Grades didn’t matter, the Federalist Papers enthralled me. I wanted to read every thing I could on Chief Justice John Marshall. I tentatively listened to every argument Miss Hodges presented about the history of our constitution.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Write about growing up or becoming an adult. A memory of you physically changing.

    I was once fearless on a 4-inch wide balance beam. For six years during my 90 second choreographed routine of leaps, somersaults, turns, flips and dancing on a lightly padded beam, I gracefully rolled off its right-angled sides like there was a Jell-O pit below. But then my legs grew, then my boobs grew and things just didn’t work the same. All in one summer I lost my trained agility, co-ordination, balance, and grace. I had to relearn how to walk on that narrow death trap. One unbalanced spin after another sent me with a thud to the blue mat below.  I could hear the moms’ winces in the balcony seating each time I fell.
    The beam was the first to become unmanageable, then came the harmless wide vaulting horse. My sturdy bulging thighs that once didn’t fit into little girls pants now looked like skinny sticks that might break upon a knee-locked dismount.  One try after another I would sprint down the vault carpeted runway stopping short before I hit the springboard. I would make up some silly excuse about how my footing was wrong or I got tripped up on a string popping out of the carpet.  I would inspect the microscopic shag flaw as the other girls nagged for me to just go over the vault.
    I was terrified and it had been my strongest event. How would I ever make regionals, then nationals, and make it to Can-Am games this year?  I couldn’t even do a round off and get over the vault without thinking about crashing into the horse, let alone land cleanly with no hops or steps, and within a set lined-in zone on the landing mat.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Write about what you remember about your first year in school.

While sitting at the community table with mini chairs in my preschool classroom, I remember thinking that I didn’t know why all the moms didn’t just bring finger Jell-O for snack time. It was the best snack. It was slightly messy, it could be cut into odd shapes, usually red, tasty and it wiggled. Food that jiggled was delightful at that age. A case could be made regarding Jell-O is a science lesson and food all wrapped in one. I remember being scolded for taking too many pieces, and to my defense, I said, ‘but I don’t eat the other snacks that people bring.’ 
    The preschool’s automatic front door was troubling to me at age four. It was either my first experience with such a mechanism or maybe I had a close encounter with its monster-size motorized door. Either way, I dreaded stepping on the treaded rectangular doormat each morning for a year in Lansing, Michigan. I can still hear the grinding motor noise the door made as it swung open. Ironically, I do not remember exiting through the automatic door; there must have been another way out. Thankfully, this trauma did not translate into any phobias of moving sidewalks, escalators, or automatic doors.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Write about swimming. Don’t be abstract. Write the real stuff. Be honest and detailed."
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Miller slouched down, and tried to sleep in a cab headed towards Claire’s house on the north side of Chicago. The motion of the cab, erratically speeding on the highway, felt as if she was riding up the side of a mountain. With her eyes closed, she imagined ascending Colorado’s Continental Divide. When she opened her eyes, and saw the city of Chicago around her, she had a mild panic attack. She closed her eyes again and drifted off.
    Miller dreamt she was at the edge of a cliff, while a woman handed her a baby girl. Miller repeatedly said, “No, I can’t,” as she pushed the woman and baby away. The other unrecognizable people, standing on the edge of the cliff jumped in the water and yelled, "Miller jump!" Miller is deathly afraid of going underwater. The woman tossed the naked infant over the cliff. Miller jumped. As the cab came to a sudden stop, Miller woke up before she resurfaced from underwater. Miller would never know if she drowned or caught the baby.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

 “Write about leaving. Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, or a friend dying.”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

    Her plane was leaving for Chicago in three hours, she packed only necessities. She cleared out the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, dropping several containers of Airborne and a full bottle of Advil in a flimsy Clinique bag. This tiny bag has traveled with her around the world, she could barely zip it up. She closed the mirror. She opened the mirror again and placed two Advil on the empty shelf in case Brian needed some that afternoon.
    She went into the living room, milled around their matching furniture and color coordinated fabrics, looking for anything she forgot to pack. She picked up a crystal vase. She put it down. She touched the framed photo of Brian in which he resembles Tom Cruise’s minus the muscles. Brian surely had a deeper voice than Cruise, which was more becoming to Miller than Cruise’s Top Gun six-pack. She packed the framed photo of Brian as a teenager with a fuzzy unibrow. This was how she wanted to remember him, the way he looked when they met in junior high. She left Brian the wedding photos, the silver, and china. She ran her hand across her grandfather’s walnut dining-room table, lined up all eight antique chairs, and walked out the front door.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Write about a place that you really love, be there, see the details. What colors are there, sounds, smells?"
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Amongst the thick early morning fog, Fort Funston’s mysterious camouflaged bunkers, built in the hills of the sandy landscape, were a treasured escape for Miller. This terrain of ice plants, out of place cypress and acacia trees, plus the sand grasses Millie ran through, smelled like a fish tank on damp mornings and eucalyptus on windy afternoons. Typically, Millie would persistently drag Miller down the steep banks towards the ocean just to get a closer look at the sea birds that were always too fast for Millie to catch. On the return climb, Millie’s nose found a nesting bank swallow and caused a precarious tug of war. Miller would miss this sanctuary; her eyes welled with tears as she headed down the paved path back to
Lake Merced.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

“Write your own word portraits of the three people who’ve been most important in your life: one-paragraph each, bold strokes.”
Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook

Claire has perfect straight hair that surrounds her cute Irish freckled face. She dresses in clothes made for a princess but talks as if she grew up on a farm in Ireland with five older brothers. She grew up a fortunate American New England girl and is generous with her money but is annoyed with the needy and the unfashionable. Claire barely tolerates Miller’s lack of a decent wardrobe.

Monday, September 6, 2010

“Write a one-page travel guide to your town, -naming all the not-to-be-missed highlights. Use any tone you like: -insider-tipster, snarky outsider, booster given to hyperbole, bewildered -foreigner.”
Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook

Always afraid of missing the train, she breezed passed the shops along the north side of the tracks on Burlington Avenue. She realized she was extremely early, and paused to peer in Mr. Nicks, the local barbershop that has changed names several times, but still has the original barber chairs. There used to be a locally owned video store along here, where she remembered renting movies with her mom back in high school.
    She proceeded to the water tower that was nicely lit like an advertisement for suburban living; each town had their name painted on the new globe shaped water towers. This historic-narrow-brick tower was just for show. Too bad the perfectly placed maple tree they planted when they built it is now taller than the tower and obstructs the view from across the street.
    She saw the newly opened Starbucks out of the corner of her eye, she was sure it was closed at this hour in this sleepy town. She walked over to Oberweis, the small Illinois chain ice cream shop; it was closed. She strolled passed The Fruit Store, Dye Hard Salon, and stopped in front of The Uptown Shop, that was new since Miller was home in April. Stems and Twigs oddly left their displays out all night long; they would be gone and resold by morning if this was Chicago. Vintage Cottage was another knick-knack store that seemed too impractical even for Western Springs. Casey’s Market appeared to just keep growing; it has expanded to two storefronts. Snacker’s Café has great kid food; Miller was fond of the grilled cheese sandwich. Miller paused in front of a clothing store called Clever Girl; it was a clothing store for suburban moms, no girls involved. Harris Bank has been so many different banks.
    Across the street, True Value Hardware has expanded to a double-wide storefront. Her father is a loyal customer and wouldn’t step foot in a Home Depot even though the hardware jacked up its prices. She stopped in front of Kirchbaums, an old-fashioned women-run bakery, glazed in at the four empty cookie shelves behind the cased-in sweets. She loved their yellow-smiley-faced cookies; grown children traveled states to indulge in the childhood pastime of eating too many smiles. Their sauerkraut bread brought Germans from all over the Greater Chicago area. Miller has heard they have the best éclairs in the world, but she has not tested that survey. The clock across the street from the bakery always displays the correct time. Miller wondered how much the city paid someone to keep it working properly.
    Western Springs was a nice place to come from. The manicured lawns would not lure her back as it has for so many burned-out city dwellers. She found conventional kitsch and over manicured landscaping suffocating. She had reached the end of the block at what used to be Tischler’s, a local grocer; she was not sure what the name was now, but she recalled it had a really slow automatic door.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

“I want you to write about a time you got lost.” 
Louise Doughty, A Novel in a Year

I was driving at night without a map around the outskirts of Charlevoix, Michigan. I was looking for the cabin I had rented. It being my first night in the Northern Michigan town, I closely followed my friend’s car to the small lakeside cabin. The following night, I hadn’t written down directions, but figured it would be easy to find. With no streetlights and no major landmarks, I got lost. I had no cell service and I panicked. I turned around several times looking for something that looked familiar. Everything looked familiar. Each turn seemed to be the right one. I ended up back where I had stopped the first time. Finally, cell service bars appeared long enough for me to get directions, then the connection went dead. I found my cabin with a deer waiting in my parking spot.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

“Tell a story, a complete story with an arc, including climax and -conclusion, in 250
words. It can be fiction, or memoir, or a fairy tale, or a mystery.”
Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook

The Easter my sterile cat ran away, I continuously walked around our one square block searching the shrubbery and looking up each tree. After losing my grandmother months earlier, I was a skeptical seven year old convinced I would never see my cat again. I believed if we found my cat, that she would be bald and dead like my grandmother. I never would have thought to look in a barn a mile away where we found her shacked up with a scruffy black male cat.
    This particular childhood cat was a fat-longhaired-lazy tabby that cried when she up a tree, and relied on her humans' to save her. I could not imagine her surviving alone in the wild over the whole Spring Break. Turned out being a renegade house cat shacked up in a barn with a dinghy boy cat is similar to living in a two star hotel with room service. I can only assume she got him to hunt for her; she was not much of a hunter. I am not even sure she liked to kill bugs, maybe paw at them, but never follow thru with murder.    
    My mother sounded shocked when the barn owner called to say she thought our cat was living in their barn. This runaway took place before answering machines, so the fact that she reached my mother to tell us about a vagabond cat squatting in her barn was a miracle by today’s communication standards.              Mom rounded us up; we hopped in the Monte Carlo and headed across two subdivisions to a busy main drag of Saginaw Township. We pulled in their long gravel driveway and left the car running. My cat did not come running; I guess she did not recognize the car engine.   
    One of the farm-kids ran into the dilapidated barn and scooped up our Tabby. She was saved from a vagrant lifestyle hiding out in a wild unincorporated farmstead, dining on fresh kills, and living in sin in an unkempt barn. Purring in the back seat window, she was headed back to perpetual napping on Berber carpet and incessant eating of canned salmon.