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.

Friday, September 3, 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 sat on the dirty wood bench in the igloo-glass-bus stop, and waited for the Clark bus heading north to meet up with a couple of girlfriends. She watched a group of pigeons pick at fried chicken wings. She found it strange that birds ate birds. Entranced by the spectacle of hurried feasting, she did not notice the bus had pulled up.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Write four possible first lines. You are not carving them in stone; you can go back and change them at any time. The sentence can even just be fragments.” Jennifer Traig, Part II The Autobiographer's Handbook 
  1. There was no fresh cream to cool down her first sip of thick bitter coffee on that hot morning.
  2. Miller burnt her tongue.
  3. There was no fresh cream to cool down her first sip of thick bitter coffee on that sultry morning, the same morning Miller had her last cup of coffee.
  4. On that sultry morning, there was no fresh cream to cool down Miller’s last cup of thick bitter coffee.