No Ideas, But In Things

This exercise comes from 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. 3 AM Epiphany is one of many writing books I’ve browsed in bookstores or spotted on colleagues’ shelves but never bothered reading past a few flipped pages. But a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about teaching creative writing and he mentioned how much he loves this book, how great the exercises are for writers. He sounded like me talking about Writing Down The Bones or What If? Later that day I bought the book and found the first exercise I wanted to try.

No Ideas, But In Things

Write a very brief story told only in images – concrete, simple, visually efficient movements and details. This exercise does not ask you to eliminate people from your prose, just too watch what they do and what objects they crave and caress rather than what they say or think about these objects and actions. 300 words.

The book says more about the exercise itself but this was the direction I reread when beginning again. Two comments more, from the book: The phrase no ideas, but in things comes from William Carlos Williams, who firmly believed in presenting the world the way it looked… And: If you need an operating metaphor for this exercise , think in terms of a silent movie or the moments when a contemporary film truly uses visual storytelling.

This is a challenging exercise. I started with two separate images in my mind: a walk up a hill for coffee and a woman digging in dirt. But then I included the narrator’s thoughts. (Which fails the exercise). And then I blew the 300 word limit by a thousand. But go ahead and do the same, for the practice. Or try writing a few short-short, connected pieces.

Here is the yield.


Isaac walked up the hill for coffee. The walk up the hill was shadowed. On one side of the quiet street was a cement wall painted white and from the other side of the wall trees grew tall enough to shadow the street. On the wide sidewalk where he walked, smaller trees with smooth bark were planted in dirt squares bordered by red brick. The roots of these smooth bark trees were just beginning to lift slabs of sidewalk at a corner to catch the toe of a shoe, make a stutter step. Isaac walked up the hill for coffee and to think a little before returning to campus to pick up his grade twos from P.E. or art or music, one of the specials that gave him this moment to walk up the hill.

He went to a place called Zoo Coffee which served coffees and juices and sandwiches without meat. The barista knew enough English to spare him gestures. She would duck her head a little and turn to tamp espresso grounds, press buttons, add a pump of syrup. He would take his drink, sit at the long table near the front of the cafe. He would take out his phone and scroll through the news, reread an email he should reply to, like photos his sister posts. At two or three other tables, housewives or women his mother’s age sat with their cups and small plates of cake or rolls but he didn’t look at them, only knew  they were there. After ten or so minutes he would push back his chair, bow slightly at the barista who echoed his kamsahamnida. Then he walked back down the hill to campus to prepare his room for the next morning or do paperwork or discover where one of the students hid morning snack. At 2:13 he would pick up his grade twos for the very last part of the school day.

When he walked up the hill he might see an older man with a dog on a leash or a woman pushing a stroller or a man or woman walking with hands clasped at the back. He might not walk up the hill for coffee if the street was loud, if he had to cross a busy intersection, if he bumped into others.

One afternoon he saw an old Korean woman squatting  by a smooth bark tree, trailing a finger over the hardened dirt, around a root. The tree was the first on its block, at the bottom of the hill. Isaac neared the old woman, ready to bow a greeting, but the woman was intent at the pattern she made with the pads of her fingers, quiet waves radiating from the base of the tree. He continued up the hill. She was there when he walked down the hill, coffee in hand. She did not show she heard him walk by.

On Monday morning, after walking his class to art (walking feet, walking feet! Thank you), Isaac checked his phone for messages and emails, saw he had no meetings, nothing he couldn’t do in twenty minutes when he was back, and walked out the back gate, turned right to go up the hill. The old woman was at the fourth tree now, squatting nearest the curb. She must start the day at one side, he thought, and circle her way around the tree as the day goes. Again, the old woman did not look up as Isaac passed her on the way to Zoo Coffee or when he returned, caramel macchiato in hand. He stopped at the bottom of the hill before crossing and turned to watch her. He took a drink of coffee. It was  a little too sweet but he didn’t buy a caramel macchiato every day. Most days he filled his mug at a colleague’s ever brewing pot. He took another drink. The old woman reminded him of his mother or grandmother, both of them gardeners who didn’t squat but knelt at the soil, who spoke to the soil as this old woman was now doing. Isaac couldn’t hear any language sounds but the woman’s lips moved. She nodded agreement or affirmation.

On Tuesday Isaac was right. The old woman was at the fifth tree and on Wednesday, at the sixth tree. Her posture and attentiveness remained the same. Her clothes changed but Isaac wouldn’t have noticed if he were not now watching for this old woman. She wore patterned blouses and pants and this too reminded him of his mother and grandmother – as they wore endless combinations of black and gray, this woman seemed to have a closet composed of wildflower and rose prints. On Thursday the old woman was halfway up the hill at the seventh tree. On Friday she looked up as Isaac passed and said in English, Is here. She patted the dirt with her small palm, erased the waves she’d made. Isaac squatted next to her. What’s here, he asked. What is here? He pointed to the dirt. The old woman began to make waves again. Isaac felt a twinge in his knee. His thighs burned. He wondered how she squatted like that, hours a day he guessed, without her limbs going to needles. He asked again, What is here? but the old woman didn’t seem to hear and when she shifted her weight to move she didn’t look at Isaac to ask with her eyes that he move over too. He stood then, stepped back so the old woman could have her next place. He wiggled his toes to wake his calves, bowed his head in a farewell the old woman didn’t see and walked up the hill to order a caramel macchiato even though he was tired of caramel macchiatos.

He was surprised by the old woman’s English. He wondered if he imagined the English. If his brain reconstructed the old woman’s sounds into a word he could hear. He wanted to know her name. He opened a translation app on his phone, typed

my name is
what is your name

and practiced making his mouth and tongue fit the pronunciations. He looked up

what are you doing

and went to bed thinking of this old woman tending dirt, just drifting when he remembered to email his father in the morning to wish him a happy birthday.

The next day, Friday, Isaac wasn’t certain he would see the old woman. He had a team meeting in the morning and report card comments were due at the end of the day. He typed through lunch and his second prep, pausing only for refills from his colleague’s ever brewing pot. All day Isaac thought of the old woman, of the designs she drew in the dirt. He practiced his phrases in whispers. At the end of the day, a little jittery from a skipped lunch and the ever brewing coffee, he cut through the back gate to see if the old woman was still at the tree she would have been at all day. She was there. Isaac practiced his phrases. They jumbled on his lips. He slowed his steps, took out his phone, opened the app and typed

my name is Isaac

watched the Hangul characters appear. He looked up.

Her head was low on her breast, like her neck was the neck of a duck, able to bend, turn, tuck. She was still. For a moment Isaac thought she was sleeping. Her hands were at the dirt, fingers spread but curled at the knuckles like claws on a perch. The dirt was brushed, fanned, swiped away from the tree roots. There were divots in the packed earth. Pocks. It was then the old woman uncurled her fingers so her hands rested flat. Her nails were broken, peeled back, packed with dirt. She was bleeding. Isaac held his breath without knowing. His thumb moved and a woman’s voice intoned a string of syllables and his name. The old woman’s head swiveled. Isaac felt his empty lungs. She looked at him – she might have glared – and then looked away, but Isaac didn’t understand if she said anything to him in that moment she held his gaze, before her head was back at her breast.

Her shoulders lifted, ribs expanded with a full inhalation which she let go in a shudder. Isaac realized the old woman was crying. He took a breath as full as hers, slid his phone in his back pocket. He stood above this sad woman, wanting to say something but all he knew was hello, thank you and how to say shrimp when ordering kimbap.

Isaac bent a little at the waist, reached a hand to touch the old woman’s shoulder. He hesitated, fingertips hovering where his own shoulders tightened, and then she drew another giant breath so her shoulders rose to his fingertips and he kept his hand steady through her shuddering exhale. She didn’t flinch or turn stone or scoot away. He kept his hand steady on her warm shoulder where a tight cord tied to a delicate knob of bone and they stayed like that for a while until Isaac’s back pinched near the waist from leaning over this old woman, sorry for something he didn’t know.

One Situation, Three Flash Fiction Pieces

I’ve been working on one school’s application for two weeks and I wish that was an exaggeration. The application is made up of tough questions I can’t answer in the space provided, questions that would meet a pause before answering in an interview. I understand the thoroughness of the process – the school is Christian in deed, not just name, and administrators want to know not only what kind of teacher I am but also how my faith works. And in between drafting and revising the application for this school, I’m writing cover letters to other places too.

This is not a post about job search stuff though. This is a post about how I missed writing fiction and joined a class for one of my favorite exercises from What If? which is to write five mini-stories of a single situation. 

Situation examples:
Mom walks into her daughter’s room
Two strangers next to each other on a plane
Someone takes something from someone else

I stole the last idea from a student (apropos) but only managed three mini-stories. Even so, what fun and challenge to step away from cover letter land.


Some Of Us Know
The sophomores were stealing again. Mr. Shannon already talked about it at the grade level assembly in October, then again in December. Don’t leave your bags around, he said, but the kids all left their bags in heaps outside the canteen or strewn like dots on the outside of the track. Security and maintenance staff had to show their backpacks, turn out their pockets at the end of a shift. Then the scholarship kids got called in one by one. A girl named Valentina laughed when Mr. Shannon asked if she knew who was stealing. You think it’s me, she said, Because I wear sandals from Bata?

It was too easy, Eduardo found. And fun, to slow his breathing and steady his pulse. The first time he stole on a dare. He took the slim phone to a booth in Unicentro, swapped the sim card and sold it for the cost of a good sushi dinner to a taxi driver. Now, in history class, Eduardo saw a rose gold line under a paperback on Catalina’s desk. He hadn’t stolen from a girl before. He had a small collection of black and silver devices at the back of his wardrobe that he almost wanted his maid to find, for the relief of contrition and repentance. Daniel and Santiago hadn’t stolen since right before winter break. Eduardo wasn’t sure anyone else was still in the game.

Catalina looked up then. Eduardo didn’t look away. She bent over her notebook, one hand cupped around what she wrote. Then she tore the page from its spiral and folded it over twice. Catalina held the note in her hand. Eduardo got up and walked over to her, took the note. His heart was wild. He sat at his desk again and unfolded the paper. Some of us know. Eduardo swallowed. He could feel Catalina waiting. He looked up but she was only bent over a book, her finger following the lines.

I Give You
For a week I do not put you in a bassinet or crib. I hold you against my breast, let you suck. I have no milk yet. I have only white pain at your strong suck. For a week I wait for my milk to come and you pull at the nipple, turn away, sleep, wake to pull again while I believe all the literature I read about colostrum nourishing you until my body decides the milk comes. I drink a beer. There is something about the malt. I remember a woman saying a beer relaxes the mother, reminds her body to let go. I hold you and wonder what I need to let go. Women carry emotion in their hips, I read.

My hips sink into the sofa. Paper dolls come with little skirts or shorts that fold over the abdomen, the upper thigh. That’s what hurts, the middle band of my body, like my hips opened all their doors and everything fell out. Your suck tightens my uterus. I know this is good. I read it was good.

I haven’t held a baby in years but now, you fit my arms. You snug against my belly. You flop over my shoulder. When you are nursing, I watch your jaw work. I touch the nape of your neck. This is the most delicate we are, together, and I have this surge that goes up my body that makes me say out loud, Be careful. I am so tired. For a week I have dozed and started, afraid to let go of you. But now I am tired and make a little nest for you on the floor next to the sofa and I stretch my legs out and close my eyes. We sleep for a long time.

When I wake, my breasts are engorged. I read this might happen. How the milk comes fast and fills the soft tissue to bursting. I sit up. I need you more now. I pick you up and hold you to my breast, help you latch because the nipple isn’t slipping easily into your mouth. I watch your jaw work. My breast is like a firework, warm sparks of milk letting down and you choke, pull away. My breasts are leaking and I help you again. You find a steady suck and I think of the empty cradle of my hips, the better weight of you in my arms, and I wonder what we will hold together as we make our way.

What I Can Do
Tasha’s daughter came down the stairs one morning with her hair combed in a slant across her face. Tasha said, “Lizzi, I can’t see your eyes,” and reached a hand to brush aside the curtain but Lizzi ducked away, went to the cupboard for a bowl. “You look mysterious,” Tasha said but Lizzi only hunched over her cereal. When the style lasted a few days, Tasha suggested they go to the Cut ‘n Curl next weekend, have the fringe done like that actress that’s everywhere, what’s her name. Lizzi didn’t answer. “Would you like that?” Tasha asked. Lizzi said she guessed so. A year ago, Lizzi dyed a pink streak in her hair. She’d worn a red cape to school most of spring semester. Now in seventh grade, Lizzi didn’t know if she wanted her hair cut.

That Saturday, Lizzi sat in a salon chair while Tasha watched her daughter from a fake leather couch, flipping through a magazine. The stylist was a woman in her early twenties who asked questions about school and favorite bands. Lizzi was quiet. The stylist got quiet too. She took her time, pulling lengths of hair to check evenness and snip strays before blow drying the cut, showing Lizzi how to work a bit of gel through her hair for texture. “There,” the stylist said, “You look great. This cut suits you.” Lizzi looked at her reflection and smiled. Tasha wanted to hold her daughter, kiss her forehead. They bought a bottle of gel and a round brush. Tasha hugged the stylist.

On the sidewalk, Tasha reached for Lizzi’s hand and for a couple of blocks, it felt like nothing invisible had shifted, like Tasha had only imagined the tremor. Tasha suggested a pastry or hot chocolate. A trio of girls was walking toward them. Lizzi’s grip tightened. All three girls smiled. “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” Lizzi ducked her head. “You must be Lizzi’s mom,” said one of the girls.

“I am,” Tasha said.

“Lizzi is in my social studies class with Ms. Bryant,” said the girl.

“Lizzi, your hair looks gorgeous,” said the second girl.

“Did you go to Candace?” asked the third girl.

Lizzi didn’t say anything. The girls blocked the sidewalk. They looked from Lizzi to Tasha with wide eyes and lip gloss smiles. Tasha understood then. There had been a tremor in her daughter. Tiny fractures in rock that could shift and open a wound at the surface.

“Excuse us, girls,” Tasha said and the three made way for her and Lizzi to walk on. Tasha could hear the trio behind them now. “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” Tasha held Lizzi’s hand all the way to the bakery, ordered two mugs of hot chocolate and two almond croissants and found the table near the bookshelf where they always sat. “Lizzi,” Tasha said.

“Don’t, Mom.”

“Lizzi, those girls might never be nice to you.”

“I know, Mom. I don’t care.”

Tasha didn’t say anything for a moment. She cared. Those tiny fractures in rock might not open a gaping ravine at the surface. Those tiny fractures might instead compound where no one sees, turn rock to gravel, cause a landslide. Tasha took a sip of hot chocolate. She watched Lizzi bite into the croissant. “Tell me what I can do, love,” Tasha said. Lizzi looked up, powdered sugar on her lip. “This is nice, Mom.” Tasha had another sip of hot chocolate. “This is nice,” she said.

First He Was A Gift

Postsecret flash fiction! I wrote the following over two days. Minor edits, no major revision yet.

always

First He Was A Gift

Every Father’s Day Chelsea emails me. For two years it’s been the only time I hear from her. The first Father’s Day, she sent a long email about our baby who wasn’t ours anymore. She picked a couple from West Bend to raise our son and we signed the papers because we thought it was best. The couple stayed in touch with both of us. They invited us to Matt’s baptism and first birthday. That first Father’s Day was a couple of weeks before our son turned one and Chelsea’s email was one long apology why she couldn’t see him again. I went to Matt’s birthday party alone and helped in the kitchen, clearing plates and pouring soda for all of Matt’s little cousins.

I get that Matt belongs to Teo and June. They’re great parents. Matt gets a regular life with a big lawn and family vacations. At his first birthday, June gave me a hug and started to cry. For the first few years, Teo and June sent me photos or called to say Matt’s first word was bird, which sounded more like “buh” but they knew he said bird. I saved their messages, showed Mom. At the end of my junior year, Teo met me for breakfast at a diner. They were moving back to California, near June’s parents.

“We’ll still call, be in touch,” Teo said, “We’ll fly you out if you like. You’re part of Matt’s life.”

I couldn’t swallow. I was afraid I’d choke on egg and biscuit. I took a drink of orange juice. That helped.

“I know this isn’t how you pictured it,” Teo said.

He doesn’t know how I pictured it. I was living in a house with five other guys who didn’t know I had a son. Chelsea didn’t answer my calls or texts anymore and only acknowledged Matt in Father’s Day ecards. Whenever I talked to Mom about Matt, she said I’d made the right decision. Teo and June seemed to be the only people who understood Matt is my son too. But he’s their son more.

Continue reading

Postsecret Flash Fiction

13.theyaretalkingaboutyouPart 1

In school I sit at the back of the classroom, except for Mrs. Perkins’s chemistry lab because her room is set up with tables and she teaches from a different one every day. I think she waits for me to drop my bag before she picks which table to stand at. I see Mrs. Perkins up close a lot. During lunch, I’m out the side door by the art room. We’d get suspended if we were ever caught, not because we’re smoking (well, maybe) but because just leaving a door open at our school is this huge security violation. We could let anyone in with a gun I guess. And after school, I’m even further away than I was during school.

At home I am in my room. My half of my room. I share with my baby brother Shane. He’s only two which means I have to watch my language when I’m mad. When he was first learning to talk he called me TaTas which just about killed me even if he was cute. Tally, I’d say.

Mom put Shane in my room when he was only one. I pointed out his crib took up half the room but Mom just leaned against the door and sighed. She had to get up early with her job. She didn’t want to wake Shane before the sitter came and I left for school. The sitter is Charlene from next door. She’s such a tiny woman, hunched over. I don’t think she should be picking up babies anymore but Mom says Charlene’s fine. She was my sitter when I was little, when Dad took Mom on a date to Country Kitchen. Now when I get home from school Charlene talks a waterfall of the whole day, starting with breakfast.

Charlene is the one who found the water bottle of vodka under my bed. She found it because Shane found it and was rolling the bottle back and forth. Charlene got a cup to pour Shane a little water but he dropped the cup and started crying on the first sip. Charlene took a drink and yelled when I came in the door. Tally Ann! You don’t drink! You’re too young! Hold it together, girl! She waved the bottle at me and unscrewed the cap, poured the twenty dollars I’d given Carl Atkins down the kitchen sink. I tried not to cry. Shane was in his crib when I went in my room. I picked him up and said sorry.

Sorry means change, was something Charlene said once to Mom, after Dad apologized (again) for running around on her. This happened a lot before Shane was born and then not at all after because Dad didn’t come back. Mom never said anything to me but Charlene would come over late at night and sit at the kitchen table outside my bedroom while Mom whispered the latest betrayal. Charlene’s whisper was anyone else’s regular talk, so I picked it up. That man is a cad, Charlene said. That was the only time I heard Mom speak loudly to Charlene, when she said, No he’s not.

Dad’s rum was the first I tried. I had it the weekend after he left. Only a little, as much as I’d ever seen him drink. It was enough, burning my mouth and warming my belly. Dad wasn’t a cad. He was nice. It’s just he was nice to a lot of other women too. I settled on that conclusion, feeling a loyalty to him and a solidarity with Mom. Even after Dad left and Mom had to go back to work with a baby and a teenager to raise, she didn’t say anything mean so I didn’t either.

Someday I’ll probably explode from all the not saying anything mean. It happens at school when Sara laughs at my outfit and says, Dumpster vintage. Or when Mr. Oliver thinks I’m not trying hard when I spent an entire weekend writing his stupid paper about the Roman guard. It even happens out the side door sometimes, when Wolf or Midget says you never know, we might be siblings. As a joke, but still.

After Charlene yelled at me I begged her not to tell Mom, I won’t do it again. The next time I had twenty dollars (sorry, Mom), I went to Carl Atkins and asked what he had besides vodka and rum. Whiskey? he said so I tried whiskey. It wasn’t vodka, which meant I hadn’t lied.

That was a month ago. Sometimes I think I really am going to explode. I can’t because Shane is in the room. I think that was the point, like Shane is a goat in the horse’s stall. I can’t kick down doors if my baby brother is stretched out in his footie pajamas, arm’s length away. So I sit in my bed in the dark listening to Shane’s soft breathing, watching the passing headlights move across the wall behind his crib, and I take small sips from a jelly glass.

The next time I take twenty dollars (sorry, Mom) to Carl Atkins and ask for another water bottle of whiskey, he leans back and looks at me, head to toe. Not like when Sara finds a hole in my tee shirt or points out I’m wearing Mom’s old Reeboks. Carl assesses me fairly: quiet, pimply, a little doughy. He doesn’t take the bills I’m holding out. Instead, he asks if I’ve got any friends. I open my mouth and he holds up his hand and says, Please don’t say Wolf or Midget.

I was going to say Wolf and Midget. I think for a minute and say, I had a good friend, Jessica. Remember her? Red hair?

Carl looks up at the sky, thinking. Maybe, he says, Did she have an older brother?

Yeah. They moved last year.

Did you two drink together?

No, I say.

You’ve been drinking by yourself?

I look down at my shoes.

You’re kidding me.

I keep looking at my shoes.

Carl clicks his tongue, but not like a grandma. Shit, he says, You gotta stop. Lemme think. Carl looks back up at the sky. He says, Okay. You make a bottle like this last a month. You can’t be that bad. Are you that bad?

I shake my head.

Tell me how you do it.

I look at Carl. Really?

Really.

I take a breath and tell him about Charlene calling Dad a cad and how after he left for good I found his rum. I can’t drink rum anymore and I can’t drink vodka either because I told Charlene I wouldn’t. I drink like this, I say, and measure the bottom of a jelly glass, and tell him it’s only on the weekends after I know Mom is asleep and I just want to float a little.

Carl doesn’t laugh or snort. He doesn’t wrinkle his brow or roll his eyes. Is it fun? he asks.

It’s something, I say. I mean it that way. If Jessica were still here, we’d go to a basketball game and sit at one end of the bleachers, away from the girls wearing pastel sweaters and Uggs. We’d whisper what boys we thought were cute and do the wave even if we wouldn’t be in that gym when it was lit with twinkle lights for prom. I can’t sit at the end of the bleachers by myself. I think of Mrs. Perkins standing near me and looking up from her notes to catch my eye, a slight nod toward my pencil reminding me to take notes.

Carl sighs. You gotta find something better.

Like knitting? I don’t say it to be funny but it is and we both laugh. Charlene is always offering to teach me to knit.

Tell you what, he says, looking at the sky again, Let’s go fishing.

Part 2 tomorrow or the next day.

Flash Fiction From Old Postsecret

Here’s an old Postsecret I wrote down

I keep myself incomprehensibly busy so I never have time to feel unwanted.

I wrote around the line a few different times. Again, last week and this. What I ended up with is a piece that doesn’t feel directly tied to the secret but works okay on its own. Worth a later revision at least.

I run a nonprofit. I believe in the work. Promoting girls’ literacy in underdeveloped nations. I have spools of statistics and anecdotes in my mouth. I could go on and on. Anyone listening hears about these village girls prohibited from going to school, married at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Anyone listening hears the turn in the story –

Girls learned to read. That’s the short end of it. That’s what people like to hear, that their tax deductible money gives words to girls who read by candlelight after their old men husbands are sleeping. No one likes the old men husbands. Everyone thinks these girls would be brilliant if not for the old men husbands. That might be true.

The girls hide their literacy. It’s like secreted candy in the top cupboard or in a wooden box under the bed. Some girls never get to say what they know to anyone but the babies breaking open their hips. This wasn’t our plan but this is what’s happened. We aren’t sure what will come when the babies are thirteen or fourteen, if they’ll have more words than their mothers. Believing is more work now. A decade ago I thought it’d be a wildfire: words and poetry sweeping through villages. The women negotiating life with men, the men realizing the beauty of a wise woman. All this wisdom brought in crates of elementary readers, blank notebooks and weekly lessons.

I need the busyness. I might believe in that more than the girls now. The girls aren’t saving me. The busyness is. I have three smartphones, a tablet and a laptop with me. Something is always dinging or buzzing. When I was a kid I played office with a JC Penney catalog, filling in the order form stuck in the middle, flagging pages with post-its, answering a dead phone with authority. I wore my mom’s heels and clicked across the floor. Striding through an airport I get the same high. My staccato heel strike, phone at my ear. At the airport bar, one glass of wine and a fan of devices in front of me. I’m doing good work.

I am doing good work. I miss Christmas. I forget my mom’s birthday. I don’t date anymore. Shortly after I joined the nonprofit, I loved explaining the cause to men. I felt hot, forgoing self for these girls living in countries that had just sent a wave of terrorists to our city. We were all looking for a reason. Something. I found these girls and wouldn’t let go.

I started off low. Standing at a folding table, passing out brochures with our periwinkle logo. Cold calling for donations. I might have quit after a year, except I took a plane to Afghanistan and spent a week in a bare apartment where girls came to read and write. We weren’t in villages then. But that week was my conversion. I gave my body to the cause. I went back again and again.

The busyness is killing me. I don’t know who I am. I can’t say that over a glass of wine. All I talk about are the girls. I win commendation for my dedication. I’m on NPR, talking about these girls. The nonprofit is huge. Our outreach includes elders. Some fathers and brothers are allowing the girls to learn in daylight. I hear occasional news of a delayed marriage because a girl wants to finish school. I used to cry when I heard things like that.

I get my hair highlighted on stopovers in Paris. You need something if you’re in this work. Booze, women, an expensive pair of shoes, God. I have highlights.

A decade ago we were all hot for each other. All of us doing good work, earnest. We wavered, resolved. We missed Christmas together, made crude paper chains and toasted each other in a cold apartment. I can’t get a date anymore. I can’t find someone who believes as much as I do. Sometimes I’m in the middle of talking about the girls and literacy rates and I go out of body. It’s like a near death experience except that instead of looking down at a surgery and tubes, I look down at the clicker in my hand, the nodding heads in the conference room. I keep talking, floating.

At some point I have to get out of this. There’s this woman named Marcy who’s been doing this kind of work her whole life. We may as well be nuns, she said once, and at least get heaven. We were all together a few months ago, Marcy and me and a few others. We forget what the other side feels like. We all have old friends, siblings with mortgages and children. We go home and see nieces and nephews with more toys than whole villages. If we wanted that, we should have left sooner. Getting any of that now would kill us.

We wouldn’t stay dead. We’d like making box mac and cheese for our seven-year old. We’d like complaining that was all she’d eat.

I don’t know if anyone wants me anymore. No one tries. Sometimes we fall against one another and have a warm week. But I’m beginning to think I’ll never be always warm. I’m not sure what I’m doing this for. I’m doing this for the girls.

Long Sentence Short Story

I am making use, after Raymond Carver. I’m using what I see. I’m using what I’m in the middle of. I’m not electric about anything new. So lately my writing has been the very prompts I give my students. That’s fine. I’ll take the practice.

Another What If? goodie. Write a short story that is one long sentence. Three years ago I had a student do this very well. I made him reread the story. It was about a businessman on a beach. He hadn’t written much all semester and I loved this glimpse of his imagination. Since then, whenever I write long sentence short stories (usually alongside students) I think of this kid leaning back in his chair, casually writing.

There is no race to the end-stop. Take as much sentence as you need.

Here’s my latest try, brought to you by the countdown to winter break:

I keep forgetting what I’m supposed to do in which class and it’s gotten so bad I have a rash like a paint swipe across my belly that Mom blames on gluten and I call junior year; it starts itching at the end of the weekend when I look at my backpack and remember I completely forgot my history homework (summary of chapter five) which takes an hour because I have to read chapter five first (I mostly skim, but still!) and then when that’s done I find a crumpled biology worksheet assigned two weeks ago due tomorrow and my stomach gets really itchy filling out the Genetic Traits worksheet – I close my eyes and remember my Mom’s natural hair color and the color of Dad’s eyes –  and finally that’s done and I’m about to zip the bag when I see my Creative Writing notebook and the skin on my belly turns to fire because I have two poems to write – “About anything,” she said but I know she really means about something poetic or deep and I’m no good at that (slit your wrist stuff makes me ill and mushy stuff makes me gag) and I’m about to put the notebook back, no new poems, no new thoughts when I decide to try writing what I really want to say which is I hope this is all Good Enough For Now:

I am at the edge of dying
On a cliff called school
Built of rocks called
Biology, Human Geography
Algebra, American Literature
Intro To Art, Creative Writing
Graphic Design, Office Aide

I am at the edge of falling
I am at the edge of quitting
I am scratching my way to the end
Of this poem I hope is
Good enough for now

and after I finish writing that sloppy mess I close my notebook, shove everything in my bag and decide to find that cream Mom bought at the pharmacy and maybe quit eating so much bread (I love it too much to quit it all at once) and then I go upstairs and have a good cry when I set the alarm and calculate my sleep and realize I have five days of itchy belly ahead and countless things I’ll forget until the end of next weekend.

5 Situations: A Student Is Late To Class

The prompt from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event of circumstances, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.

My modification: come in under 500 words each.

This is one of my favorite flash-fiction exercises. It scratches the itch. It allows for quick, messy experimentation. I like to revise and re-order the five parts to read as one work. That said, what follows are very light edits and no re-ordering. The situation I chose is: A student is late to class. In the order I wrote:

Sophomore Chem Lab Partner

Krissy is a senior. She is always late to first period. I think it is because she smokes. She looks like she might. I think that most of first quarter until she shows me a picture on her phone of baby with dark hair. I ask if that’s her niece. She laughs and says it’s her baby, Lake. That’s a nice name, I say. Maybe she’ll have a brother named Tree one day. Krissy looks at me like I’m crazy and I think she might never talk to me again but she does, the next day, when she shows me a picture from Lake’s first birthday party.

It was fun, Krissy said. Later she takes her phone up to Mrs. Schwartz and shows her Lake’s birthday party pictures too. Mrs. Schwartz gives Krissy a giant mom hug.

We usually finish our labs before the rest of the class and take out our phones. I have a driving game. Krissy scrolls through pictures of Lake. Sometimes she leans over and shows me: Lake tasting orange for the first time, Lake in a pile of leaves, Lake dressed like a pumpkin. I think Krissy must be a good mom and tell her that. She gets real quiet. Then she says, I used to be good at a lot of things. If I get this right.

She doesn’t say anything else.

The Color Of Hope

Do you know how many tardies you have? Ms. Jacobs answers her own question. Twenty-nine. You have twenty-nine tardies in this class, this quarter. Do you know how many days are in this quarter? She answers herself again. Forty-three.

I nod.

She puts her hands on her hips. I don’t know what to do. You’re serving detentions?

I nod. She doesn’t know where. I serve with Mr. Thayer. I have his class before hers too. I’m working on this oil painting the size of a door and it takes a lot of time. Mr. Thayer tells us to clean brushes five minutes before class ends but I work up to the bell and a little into passing period. It’s on you, he said in September when he quit writing me passes to math.

This painting is supposed to be about hope. I keep getting the color wrong. Last year I had two watercolors in a student art display in Milwaukee. One was chosen for a show in Chicago.

Ms. Jacobs sighs. Her face gets quieter. She says she saw my painting in Mr. Thayer’s room. It’s amazing.

I look down at my hands. My cuticles are rimmed violet. Ms. Jacobs touches my shoulder and I look up. You have to pass this class, she says. You need a C for your GPA. Talk to Mr. Thayer. Talk to Mrs. Rutledge. You need to show up. I want to you get into art school.

I almost don’t believe her. But she looks tired.

Stone Cold

The halls smell like rock salt and wet down. Janitors wait for first bell so they can mop the melted snow brought in on boots, shaken from hats. Everyone complains it should have been a snow day, all the other districts have the day off. There’s five inches on the ground already. They’re gonna have to do an early release. Home by lunch.

During second passing period a freshman named Annabelle slips while crossing the foyer. Her books fly in the air like a cartoon. Her arms pinwheel and she lands on her back. A few upperclassmen nearby laugh. Annabelle isn’t moving. Travis is a trained lifeguard and kneels down, shouts. Can you hear me? Are you okay? She doesn’t flinch.

Oh shit, says one of the boys and runs to the gym to get Coach.

The principal comes. Travis is leaning close to feel for Annabelle’s breath. He knows her from his street. He’s never seen her this close though. Her lids are dusted with silver. She has tiny gold stars in her ears. The bell rings and the principal tells the kids get to class. An ambulance is on its way. Travis backs away and his place is taken by Coach who places two fingers at Annabelle’s neck.

Is she okay? Travis asks.

Go to class, the principal says. Now.

Coach leans over Annabelle, tilts her head back, places his mouth on hers. Travis can’t move. She can’t die like this, can she, from a slip?

Travis, the principal says, Go to class. You don’t need to see this.

But that was all he saw, sitting in the back row of biology. Annabelle’s silver eyeshadow and gold star earrings. The ambulance came and went. Everyone’s phones were vibrating and dinging with messages about Annabelle. By eleven, school was called for the day. Eight inches on the ground, another five to seven on the way.

Yousef Cuts

Yousef leaves through the side gate. He’s tall for his age, and graceful. Last summer he spent six weeks in Paris not speaking a word of French but sensing the assumption of those around him, that he belonged there anyway. Since that revelation, that people take his height and ease as age and purpose, Yousef quit worrying about getting in trouble. He smokes in front of the security guards at the Avenues, cuts the line at the bank, snaps his fingers at waiters, speaks without making eye contact. His grace is wearing into arrogance but he’s never behaved like this before and it’s too fun to quit.

He doesn’t talk to the gate guard when he leaves and doesn’t say a word to the man in the tiny bakala. Yousef buys chips and Red Bull. He’s ten minutes late for history but Mr. Gartner doesn’t pause the lecture. Instead, he looks past Yousef.

For the next week, Mr. Gartner looks at the air above Yousef’s head. He won’t say hi to Yousef in the hall. He doesn’t take any of Yousef’s questions. Yousef boils, cuts an entire class. Then one morning, Mr. Gartner dismisses class but asks Yousef to stay.

I liked you better last year, Mr. Gartner says. Yousef can’t think what to say. Mr. Gartner shrugs. That’s all. Go.

From One End To The Other

You can’t stop. Stay to the middle of the hall, keep your head down. They get you anyway. A kick to your shin, a thump on your arm, a yank of your backpack. Sing a song in your head. Chant a rap. Find a chorus to loop. Avoid the bathrooms in the senior wing. If you have to go, ask for a pass next period.

Sometimes they make a barricade in the hall. Twenty of them with classes two feet away stop up the hall. The bell rings and one of them says fuckers and laughs. They run into class and you’re left in the middle of the hall with five or six others just like you, scrawny or fat with bad hair. You all have to run down the hall. You’re all late.

You can’t say what happens. There’s cameras. The office could look if they want. Teachers see sometimes. But you can’t say. You close the door quietly and have your book out of your bag before you sit. You smell your fear. You feel your heart. It’s like a nature show, the gazelle that keeps up with the pack. But every year, one of you runs too wide. Every year one of you doesn’t make it from one end to the other.

One Syllable Flash Fiction

This is fun and challenging, taken from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Write a short story using words of only one syllable.

Sometimes I need a kick in my WP pants. Yesterday’s pantoum was a kick. This single syllable exercise is a good kick. I decided to write a story idea I thought of last week: an art student pays someone to complete his portfolio. When I get an idea like that I try not to make the whole story in my mind. I need to keep a lot unanswered or the writing is forced, boring. I turned this idea over for a few days. This morning I decided to write it with the above constraint: single syllable words.

There is a lot you cannot say when you’re only allowed a monosyllabic vocabulary. My story changed. I couldn’t elaborate some things. I wanted to say she can’t draw people. Two syllables. Nix.

I’m going to keep working on this. It’s tough. It feels a bit like working your way up to fifty push-ups just to say you can. (I can’t. I wish).

Here you go:

I go to the same beach each day. I take my pad and pens in a tote bag and sit on the same bench and draw the same stretch of sand. I didn’t plan this when I came in June. It was too hot but I walked to the beach each day when I woke, to draw and think. I sweat a lot. My hand slips on the page. My days smudge. But it gets me out of the flat.

I try to make the shape of the sand new. The sea and sky too. I try to see what is new from last time I sat on the bench.

I don’t draw men, their wives or kids. I don’t draw packs of boys on bikes. I don’t draw the man there to fish, up to his thigh in the gulf, a whip arc of line lost on the flat sky. I leave white space where they should be, ghosts on my page.

One day a kid comes up to me and asks can he see that. I tilt my pad so he can see. He looks from the sketch to what’s in front of us. You’re good, he says. I am, but don’t say.

I am very good at this sand, most of the time. I could show him work that didn’t turn out but don’t.

You sell this?

I squint up at him, shake my head. No.

Well, would you? I’d take this. He lifts the top page. Or this.

I don’t know, I say.

I’ll give you ten.

For this?

Yeah.

I think. It’s mine. Each page a day here. I have two more pads at home, full. I can’t, I say.

He gets mad. More then, he says. I don’t care. How much?

I write down a five, a zero. I can’t breathe. A rich friend said price high, you got to think that way. The kid shrugs, counts out the bills. I tear the page and give it to him. He folds it in half, then in half once more. I want it back.

Can you draw fruit? If I come here next week, can you have fruit done? Same price.

I nod. He leaves with my day. I draw it all, two hours off now. The ghosts find new spots. I add red and orange, burn the sand.

I Love You I Never Stopped, Take 2

Yesterday I scrolled through my blog archive to find a few unfinished prompts or exercises. Remember this? I’m not reposting the PostSecret postcard because when I sat down to write around

I love you
I never stopped
Call me
Lets make
a crazy
life together

I kept the note in mind, but dismissed the picture. Also, when I imagine my narrator writing this note, she has different penmanship and puts the apostrophe in “let’s.” Perhaps if I were true to the postcard, I’d write a narrator who prints and doesn’t think about punctuation. I’m not promising I’ll write this postcard prompt again, but maybe…

We were supposed to save everything for marriage. I remember Mom walking down the basement steps and seeing you and me snuggled on the couch. After you left, she asked if we’d kissed. I looked at my feet. “Hana,” she said, “You only get one honeymoon.” The next time you pulled me close, I wondered if that was too far. I was inches from everything, sitting next to you and watching a PBS documentary about Rwanda. Your hand burned a print on my thigh. You said we should go do something to help.

After dates, Mom asked how my honeymoon was. “Still there,” I’d say.

Once, you asked to listen to my heart and pressed your head against my left breast. I couldn’t breathe. I felt our restraint.

“Do you think we’ll get married one day?” I asked.

“Yes,” you said. I inched my sweater up so you could look at my belly and bra. You saw this when we swam in the summer, but this was winter. A little noise came out your mouth. I heard a creak upstairs and pulled my sweater down. Our youth group leader said a long kiss was hard to stop.

When we kissed, I was always thinking is this too far?

We had to let our universities know. We both cried. I hadn’t been accepted at Marquette. Every weekend, we promised. I missed you too much. At winter break you took me out for dinner and we both knew we couldn’t do another semester of texting, driving home every weekend.

I loved you more, after, when you still emailed me and called. I typed and deleted messages back. I replayed your voice, but never called. I didn’t go home that spring and when I saw you over the summer, you gave me a hug. I loved you more then, for your kindness.

I loved you more when the first boy I dated my sophomore year unhooked my bra with one hand and grinned. “Practice,” he said.

Remember we were going to Africa, to be what the church is supposed to be. We were going to take care of widows and orphans, feed the hungry. Remember we were going to learn Spanish and go to Ecuador and teach sustainable farming. Remember we were going to go to college together and spend junior year in France. Remember you were going to propose to me there and we’d get married after graduation and take my nursing degree and your teaching degree to jungles and deserts and mountains.

We knew all of this, sitting too close on the couch. We said it. We felt something as close to the Spirit as I’ve ever felt.

I’m a nurse. I emailed Doctors Without Borders. I’m going.

Come with me.

Sit too close. I have a little honeymoon left. I think of us, seventeen or eighteen, and how careful we were. It was too far to kiss long, but we were ready to fly to a country cut open by genocide.

I love you. I never stopped.

Revision: We Want Tone

I cut just over a third of the words from the previous draft of “We Want Tone.” I like to practice revision on pieces I’m not radically invested in. Sometimes, the drafting and revising of a so-so work gives me a piece I’m more likely to continue exploring or revising. Even if I eventually abandon a practice piece, the practice remains worthwhile. I spent about an hour cutting words from the following and re-ordering some of the dialogue. I also made small changes to format.


Kelly leaves the gym dressed in the spandex tights and moisture-wicking shirt she put on that morning. She’s late to meet two prospective clients, who wave her over at the coffee shop. Jill nudges an iced latte across the table and points to Kelly’s shirt. Strong Is The New Sexy. “I love that,” says Jill, “I wanna be the new sexy.”

“Me too,” Abi says.

Kelly smiles, takes out her tablet, swiping the screen to open

Jill and Abi

“I really need this,” says Jill, “I feel like a box after two kids. No waist.” She runs her palms ribs to hips. “Forty-eight kilos, but I want a waist again.”

“We want tone,” Abi says.

Jill and Abi
Tone

“And I want a butt,” Jill says, “I used to dance. But I want a butt like yours.”

Kelly laughs. “Well, squats work.”

“I have a butt,” Abi says, “And a belly.” She takes handfuls of her stomach rolls and laughs. “I’m mostly in this for health. She suggested it.”

“If we do it together, we’ll actually workout,” Jill says.

Health
Routine

Kelly types, looks up. “I can meet twice a week. We’ll use bodyweight and progress to small weights.”

“How long is a session?” Abi asks.

“One hour.”

“I’m gonna die after ten minutes,” says Jill, “I’ll be like, begging to stop.”

“What about food? Do you do any nutritional consultation?” Abi asks.

“We saw your grilled chicken on Instagram,” Jill says.

“Yeah, we looked you up. You eat really healthy,” says Abi.

Kelly isn’t surprised they looked her up. “I can give you a few recipes. Meats and veg.”

“I love love love veg,” Jill says, “Just so expensive. I buy frozen.”

“I prefer raw,” Kelly says, “But, yeah, expensive. Especially organic.”

“Oh my God,” Jill says, “I bought a little tray of organic blueberries at Sultan and paid like twenty-three dollars. Kids ate them like candy.”

“I can’t afford organic,” says Abi.

“Co-ops are good for produce,” Kelly says.

“Yes, totally,” Jill says.

“I started making green smoothies for breakfast,” says Abi.

“Yummy,” says Kelly.

“I eat a couple eggs too.”

“I thought egg was bad,” Jill says.

“No. Good,” says Kelly.

“They’ll be bad again. I read leeks cause cancer. Everything is bad.”

“Except booze,” Abi says and the two friends laugh. “You should see her drink,” Abi says.

Jill holds up her hands. “Guilty. Which is why I so need this.”

“Right,” says Kelly, “Let’s figure out days.”

“Anything,” says Jill, “I mean, forty-eight kilos means nothing if I’m not healthy. I want a waist.”

“Having a waist doesn’t mean healthy,” Kelly says.

“So I get healthy and get a waist.”

“Sure, that can happen.”

“And a butt.”

“And a butt.” Kelly adds to her note.

Nutrition
Waist
Butt

Abi pulls her phone from her bag and opens the calendar. “I can do Saturdays.”

“And Mondays,” Jill says, “Sevenish okay?”

“Sure. You’ll go to bed tired.”

“Good,” Abi says, “I can’t fall asleep.”

“Okay,” says Kelly, “I’ll probably need you to move furniture to have enough space.”

“No problem,” says Jill, “Hubby can pick up stuff on base too. What do we need?”

“Just mats for now.”

“Okay. I’m so excited. My body just – I’m gonna die.” Jill finishes her iced latte.

Gonna Die

Kelly closes her tablet, smiles, holds up her empty coffee. “Thanks for this. I’ll see you ladies Saturday at seven.”

“Awesome. I’ll text directions,” Jill says.

“Awesome,” says Kelly.