2 workshops, 2 prompts, and 1 weird writing season

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Who even am I? Is pandemic time throwing anyone else’s writing for a loop? Just me then?

Really, I remember thinking to myself way back in March that I was going to use the time I was no longer spending driving my kids to and from school to write. I definitely wasn’t going to fill that time with shower-cries or deciding if I’m a chocolate-loving, peanut butter-loving, or original goodness-loving sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups connoisseur.

Silly me.

I have, despite these pandemic extracurriculars, been writing some–but certainly not the same as I was. Fiction has been tough-going, but I’ve written some short essays and snippets someone really nice (or related to me) might call prose poems. I’ll say it again: I am not a poet.

And while I’m not a big fan of Zooming as substitute for activities I was engaged with, pre-pandemic; I’ve enjoyed new Zoom opportunities, in particular two writing workshops I wouldn’t have made in person because of distance.

I thought of these workshops, one I attended just yesterday, when Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade mentioned writing prompts. (You’re going to want to visit her if you don’t already.)

Ah, writing prompts. Controversial stuff, right? I’ll admit to assuming most of my writing teachers who started every class with a prompt were using the time to lesson-plan on the fly. Maybe some were. I know I did just that, once I began teaching. As a student, however, I generally used writing prompt time to work on whatever short story or novel chapter I was mulling over, largely ignoring said prompt.

Prompts were for memoirists and poets always gazing longingly out the window for inspiration.

What a stubborn idiot I was. Sure, some prompts don’t hit you right, some work better than others. But the best ones flip a kind of switch in your brain to get at often-forgotten and sometimes really-weird-good material in there. I’d wade through a million mediocre prompts, now, to come across the best ones.

That said, there was no wading in either of the workshops I took this spring–both of which included several generative writing prompts. So, here are a couple of my favorite prompts and my responses.

Maybe one of these will flip your writing switch today?

You might remember that I interviewed poet and editor Jessica Fischoff, just the day before I took her Persona Workshop. Over Zoom from her home in Cincinnati, Jessica discussed persona poetry and character in prose–and then let us writers loose, scribbling to her prompts. Jessica is a prompts queen, but the one that flipped the right switch for me was to…

Use an inanimate object as the persona of a poem or prose piece, and here’s my attempt:

Figures the Ferris Wheel

If I could count, I would tell you
how many proposals I've heard
proposed at the apex of my grand wheel.
How many rings dropped, how many squeals
of delight, and how many women murmured
under their breathes, looked down at their bare fingers
gripping my bar, and said something like
"I have to think," softly, as if they knew I was listening.
I am always listening.

If I could count, I'd tell you how many boys scared girls,
and girls scared boys, shaking my cars, pretending they would 
break a spoke, heave this wheel, and make it all come crashing down
to the ground, where they would keep falling out of fear.
How many times.

~~~

Yesterday’s workshop with memoirist, essayist, and writing professor Sonja Livingston, who I interviewed right here and here for Rust Belt Girl, was also just what I needed to get out of my own way and write for an afternoon: new stuff, which is gratifying (especially when at work on a novel). New starts mean the writing well is not dry, folks! One of my attempts came in response to a prompt inspired by the work of Ross Gay. (If you’ve been here a while you know I’m always, always inspired by Ross Gay.):

Write about a “delight” or a list of “delights” and I picked one of my little guys:

My Son's Buckteeth

the orthodontist wants to fix
the goofy faces he pulls with them
the way his cowlick makes his blond hair stick up
hair that will go dirty like mine
and fall out like my brother's
the fact he still gives a good squeeze I don't have to take
the fact his hugs put him at my chest height but
he doesn't yet think this is weird

~~~

What weird and wonderful stuff have you come up with from a good writing prompt? Let me know if the comments.

What are you reading and writing this week? Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Take note: Discover Prompts, Day 23

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Though I’ve been writing creatively (and otherwise, believe me) for a long time, I’ve always balked at journaling. You know the kind: the unfocused early-morning stare out the window at the lifting fog and write until the well runs dry kind of thing. The stuff of dream revelations, unlocked memories, and Hallmark card feelings.

I take notes, sure. Furiously jotted questions to research; those in-shower aha moments for revision; essays to read; agents to query. But if I’m writing, I’m not engaging in stream-of-consciousness free-writing exercises. I’m not unlocking a poet’s chakra I didn’t know I had in me. I’m really writing: characters, scenes, story arc, conflict, resolution.

Then came this pandemic.

Shutdowns and closures haven’t meant isolation chez this girl. They haven’t meant I get quiet time and space in which to research, write, revise, edit, repeat, and submit, submit, submit. Those with school-age kids are nodding their heads right now. Shutdowns have meant the exact opposite. We’re fine around here. We’re lucky. We have jobs, our health, a house and a yard. We’re also stressed and frustrated and not sleeping well and are really missing normal. Let’s just say it’s a little bit of an Isolation Circus–and this ring leader is tired.

But I can’t not write.

Writing is how I remember and process. It’s the way I make sense of things–especially things that make zero sense. So, when the world shuts down, abnormal is normal, topsey is turvey, and all else fails. What is this writer to do?

Kind reader, I journaled.

No, not at dawn, while musing on lifting fog. More like right now, on this blog. I mean, what else is this but journaling? Color you disappointed, maybe, but these are my innermost thoughts.

I’ve said it before, strange times call for taking strange measures. Some advice that’s been working for me: Stories not coming? Try it as a prose poem. Stuck on the next chapter of your WIP? Begin an off-the-book essay that utilizes some of your research. Stuck in your own head, arrange to interview a writer you admire. Don’t journal on some strange and cynical principle? Try it! (Trust me.)

And, forever and ever, read everything you can. Buy books from your local bookstores or straight from the author. Join in with the virtual book clubs popping up online. And let’s all work together to keep the book world from shutting down, too.

Know of an author whose book is releasing during these pandemic times? Share the title in the comments. I’ll start, as I have two books arriving soon I’m super excited for: Amy Jo Burns’ (who I interviewed here) novel, Shiner; and Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s memoir, What You Become in Flight.

Your turn: what are you writing and reading now?

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Note. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

a bit of writerly advice for March 7, 2020…

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It’s been a minute, or much more than a minute, since I checked in with my blogger-reader-writer friends. How’s it been? Around here, work and family life have filled every spare moment of mine this past month, except for a few precious minutes before bed–that I give to reading (just finished Dominico Starnone’s Trick, trans. by Jhumpa Lahiri–and I’ll definitely be blogging about it).

Any creative writing I’ve been doing has been mostly in my mind. One thing I’ve been mulling over: why do we write about what we write about? Some write to excise their greatest anxieties. (“Write toward your fear,” go the writing prompts.) Some write to work through a conundrum, to better understand. Why do we pick the subjects we pick? Love, sex, parenthood, sickness, birds, flight, death, water, dance…

An artist chooses his subjects. That is the way he praises.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Why do you create what you create? Why do you write about, what you write about? What compels you? What are you writing–or reading–this weekend? I hope it’s a good one!

Want some more writerly advice? See my categories, above. And, as always, you can also find me at FB and @moonruark on Twitter.

a bit of writerly advice for July 20, 2019

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It’s been a long time since I’ve shared some good writing advice from an author. This piece comes from Ross Gay, award-winning poet and essayist, whose latest collection, The Book of Delights: Essays came out earlier this year. He’s also a professor at Indiana University and a big sports fan and former college football player–and what delights Gay are many and varied things, which is, for this reader, delightful.

Before I share his advice, I’ll share a story: I’m a little embarrassed to say that while I’m only 27K into my new WIP, I already have its epigraph–you know, the quote or quotes at the start of a book that suggest theme. In my WIP’s case, the working themes are around loss, sorrow, and joy. Loss we can all try to get our heads around together.

But sorrow is really loaded–especially for me as a Catholic. Funny thing, a friend of ours recently learned what my family’s parish is called. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said. “How depressing.” I’d never thought about the name, a common descriptor for Jesus’s mother, Mary, as depressing. For, like Mary’s, our sorrows are borne together; sometimes, they’re necessary, even life-changing, lifting us all up. I couldn’t articulate this to our friend at the time, but his words got me to thinking about the transformative power of sorrow.

That’s about when I started reading Ross Gay, and who knows if his words will stick as one of two quotes in the epigraph of a novel not even half finished, but these words of his, from his essay “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” have served as a good thematic guide:

What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. / I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Ross Gay, The BOOK Of Delights: Essays

About the time I jotted this quote down was when I learned that Gay, like this aspiring author, is a Northeast Ohio native–making the possibility that I might one day hear him read in person pretty decent. (Joy!)

Until then, I’ll read his poems and essays and delight in learning about this inspirational author through interviews, like this one with Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer, in which Gay talks about his writing inspirations and process–our writing advice for the day:

…usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit.

Ross Gay

Of Fathers, Sons, and Seasons: Reading Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD

The first good snow of the season on our Crepe Myrtle

I was weeping before 8:30 am. Not because of the cold and old pipes and our living room soaked, stripped, and drying now–like a child pulled from a furtive dip in the lake. No, I was weeping over a book about fathers and sons and the seasons of life–and wouldn’t you think my avid reader-cynicism could have borne me up better than that? Nope, there I was weeping, listening to the end of the story, as I trained my eyes on the winding roads that take me from my sons’ school to home and back, again and again.

Not a chance I could have held it together in the face of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, narrated by Tim Jerome of Broadway fame. From the cursory Goodreads summary: Gilead presents an “intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.”

I will admit right here that it took me this long to read anything by the matriarch of the Midwestern religious novel, and I’ll tell you why. I thought it would be not just “churchy”–an attribute Robinson has said did not define her background–but preachy. After reading (and weeping), I’d define the novel as “teachy” maybe, but only in the best way–as the narrative is presented as a sort of last will and testament from an elderly father, the Reverend John Ames, to the seven-year-old son he won’t get to see grow up. In short, it’s a quiet wonder of a book.

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Little Patuxent Review issue launch

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I’m delighted that my story, “While Our Grown Men Played,” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Little Patuxent Review. I’m also delighted to be reading at the issue launch event. For more information or to purchase the issue–or subscribe to this lovely regional literary magazine–click on through.

There’s truth in every piece of fiction, of course–despite my penchant for writerly distance. But if there’s one story of mine that tells the tale of my mom and me, it’s this one. In it, I got to call my mom a “world-class whiner,” which she was. But she never whined about what mattered: the breasts that failed her when they let cancer in, twice; the chemo and wig; the daughter living 12 hours away by Greyhound bus. She whined about the little things we could share: overdue library book fines, our pear shapes, cold noses in winter.

“While Our Grown Men Played” is a story about being female, sure; but even more so, it’s about being together, despite distance over roads and time–and cosmos, even. As I write, she’s still with me in the way I am, the things I whine about, and in my body: our ballet bearing, my veiny hands that are hers, the accent that won’t leave me.

Maybe most stories don’t take years and great personal loss to write, but this one did. It is a bittersweet thing to let it go, to read from it in front of others, to somehow tie a bow on grief. But it is sweet, and a testament to perseverance in writing and in living. I hope my mom would agree.

So, today I urge against writerly distance. Let’s try it, together. Let’s close the distances between past and present, between the living and the dead, between fact and fiction–and mine for story that heals.

That’s what I’ll be doing anyway.

~ Rebecca

“Out there”…toward some semblance of literary citizenship

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Out where? Well, there, and there, and there.

I’m talking about getting the creative writing out there, into the great wide open–beyond the blog, and into news outlets, magazines, and journals–and so are a lot of other bloggers. So, I thought I might start a convo here, where we can collect some pros, cons, and lessons learned.

Sound good? I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am no expert. I have an MFA in Creative Writing under my belt (along with a lot of Xmas cheese); yet we rarely discussed in short fiction and novel-writing courses what to do with our pieces after we’d written them–past the Sisyphean process of write-edit-trash-revisit-rewrite-edit, that is. Really, a piece of writing may never be “finished,” but eventually, it’s good to let it go. How do you know if your writing might be ready to submit?

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“Do not hoard…”

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Annie Dillard, American author

This felt like appropriate writing advice for the season, so I thought I’d re-post this gem from Annie Dillard today.

Over the past few days, my writing energies have been poured into Christmas cards. (Yep, I still do those.) It’s the one time of year I connect across the many miles with family and friends who don’t do social media (which was me, too, until just a couple years ago).

It’s the one time of year I “give it all”–braggin’ on my boys and sharing declarations of affection, longing, and even shared loss that might feel sappy at any other time.

Which gets me to thinking about something a friend of mine posted (on social media) about not being afraid to speak of those we’ve lost over the holidays. This is my twelfth Christmas after my mom’s death. The cynical and deflecting part of me thinks I could make up a funny song about my grief–to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas…” (Or maybe something along the lines of “Goodly Mom I lost looked out on the feast of (what rhymes with Stephen?)” Instead, I share her stories with my boys, carry on tying the family ties, and speak her name.

“…give it, give it all, give it now.” That seems like good writing–and living–advice, during this and every season.

All the best and sincerest holiday wishes to you and yours,

Rebecca

P.S. Pics from my family’s “Thanksmas” celebration: the obligatory sister and me in the kitchen selfie; a nearby beach looking not at all Christmas-y; and one amazing elf.

a bit of writerly advice for #NaNo day 13…

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

Read.

Yep, that’s my writing advice for this luckiest of days during NaNoWriMo (at a point when my word count is stalled at 8,237).

Last night, I finished the novella (remember those; they’re having a renaissance, I hope) titled Camp Olvido. I could have been writing or plotting (ha, that’s a joke), but I needed to recharge. So I read.

Written by Lawrence Coates, Camp Olvido is set in a Depression-era migrant workers’ camp in California and will remind you of Steinbeck’s work, but this 2015 book is its own rare and wonderful gem. Read it for the compelling history, story, images and language that will leave you awed. It’s that good.

So, I wrote the author to tell him. OK, maybe it’s two pieces of writing advice today: No. 1: read. No. 2: respond to what sings true and clear for you on the page.

Happy reading and writing. Happy NaNo!

How’s it going, if it’s going? No NaNo for you this year? What are you reading and loving right now?

Feeling social? Let’s connect on FB and Twitter. Like a post of mine; I hope you’ll share with your friends–both social and otherwise!