Single Syllable Writing

I’ve been thinking about how constraints allow a different kind of creativity. Last month students tried two poetry exercises I promised would yield poems they wouldn’t have otherwise written. Safe bet I was right. And you’ve experienced the same in your writing when you follow a prompt or form.

This week I gave another challenge: single syllable writing. This is an old favorite that slows me down. I start with an idea and then spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling. Try it for ten minutes. Write a poem, journal, draft a story.

I decided to write about going to the desert last winter to see the kites. I went with that idea because kite is a single syllable word. After finishing the piece I thought about what else I could tell using one syllable words. I’d like to draft another two or three vignettes of our life in Kuwait and see how they read as a whole.

See The Kites

One day we go see the kites. We drive to a stretch of sand and wind and walk to where men send kites in the air, the strings staked in place. The kites are big. On the ground, a kite looks like a tent laid out. In the air it takes shape, sharp and bright on the sky. We squint, point. There is fish. There is a bird.

The wind plays with my girl’s hair. The wind takes my boy’s shout.

More come by noon. The kids run, yell, laugh. I stand back. I like to see how the day looks. There is a tent where tea and snacks are served. Out front of that, rugs are laid on the sand and chairs set so we can sit and look up. The kites whip and flap, dive and rise. Kites crowd the sky, some so close I think their strings weave knots. They snap and shake, dance and fall but don’t come loose. My mind goes still. Wind goes through me. The sun keeps me in one place.

There is still day left when we go. Out of the wind there is no sound. The kites get small. Blue dots, orange squares, green tails on a white sky.

& Other Places

A year or two ago I saw a picture of dead Syrian children in a street, their bodies piled against a cinder block wall. The photo was published in the paper and nothing was blurred to make the image easier to look at. What I remember most are the shoes because some of the children were too young to tie or buckle their own shoes. I looked at their shoes. When I help my son with his shoes, I’m bending or kneeling in front of him. He plays with my hair or gives me a hug. I kiss his forehead and say, Let’s go.

Shortly after Friday’s attack in Paris I saw a picture that reminded me of the Syrian children. This of a man on the streets of Paris, covered by a sheet. I thought of the Syrian children because at the time I’d wondered what we’d talk about if this pile of children were British or French or American. And now, instead of a Syrian or Iraqi man covered by a sheet, here was a French man and what will we talk about now? I was sad. And I was sad later because I read about Beirut and thought couldn’t that French man on the sidewalk just as easily be Lebanese?

There is a writing exercise I like because the process distills an idea or narrative. I was writing about the attacks and bombings already and this confined my expression.

The exercise is called Ten To One, taken from What If? and it works like this: ten sentences, the first with ten words, the second with nine and so on until the last sentence is a single word.

I Read About Paris

He is on his back on cement, under a sheet.
Only one hand, the white cuff, dark blazer shows.
And the soles of his shoes splayed, relaxed.
He might lay like this while sunning.
Someone knows him but hasn’t heard.
I have seen him before.
He is from Paris.
And other places.
From Lebanon.
Syria.

 

For an interesting perspective on media coverage of Paris and Beirut, read David A. Graham’s essay “The Empathy Gap Between Paris And Beirut” in The Atlantic.

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

This exercise is by Jon Simmerman, included in The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Open the poem with the first project and close it with the last. Otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like, giving each project at least one line. Try to use all twenty projects. Feel free to repeat those you like. Fool around. Enjoy.


And below is my latest try, but with explanation first. This week there was a rumor that a teacher at another school was deported for driving without a license. That is within the law and expats are deported for that offense, but this was the first time I’d heard of a Western expat deported for that reason. Turns out, this expat wasn’t deported, only held overnight. I started thinking what I would do if I were picked up and taken to the deportation center, made to board a plane without a phone call to Justin. I started thinking why this teacher was allowed to stay in-country. Because he was Western? (Was he Western? I don’t actually know. I assume.) Because his employer lobbied on his behalf? I don’t know.

Also, ethnicity and socioeconomic status put a tag on people. I think this happens everywhere. Sometimes seeing people as equal is conscious work. (Change my heart!) I am uncomfortable with how noticeably differently I am treated as a white Western woman. My skin and nationality play more in my favor here than not, but I don’t like that. Or more so, I don’t like that I sometimes like what leniency white Western gets me. (Forgive me.)

So with all of that rolling around my head, and the challenge of (mostly!) completing twenty little poetry projects, the following draft:

By Way Of Deportation

My legs are roots
this chair a cliff ledge

I sit so still my thighs hurt,
my bladder burns

Around me: gray hum, sparks of yellow orange
when an Indian woman shouts like a song

If I move I will wet my pants

If I am released
there is a God
or wasta, Inshallah

I am called across the room
to an office where I sit across
from a man smoking a bored cigarette

The full knowledge of power
is sitting still and not wetting my pants
Easy-peasy, as my son says
Easy-pee-sy Sarah can hold it
in this windowless holding room
under fluorescent day/night

You’re the one who got caught?
No license? He smokes,
considers my tight pressed knees

I haven’t got a lie

I have one lie

Deportation as escape:
no last anything:
no last drive down Gulf Road
no last shwarma
no last sign-in at work

I don’t lie
I sit. He shifts
He lectures, I hear

Every year hundreds of brown-skinned
workers are relieved to be deported so
quickly and efficiently that suitcases and
passports are unnecessary, and you –

Equality by way of deportation

I will make it all the way to Chicago,
all the way to Kathryn, without crying

And you –

I sit long enough, white enough, that
he stubs his cigarette, lights another,
sighs, waves his hand, dismisses me

My bladder screams when I stand
I get a cot
no phone
no toilet paper
I get a morning taxi to my husband,
who is angry and relieved,
my children who cry

I might be over the Atlantic now
if I’d shouted or wet my pants
I might be drinking wine,
my ears full of gray noise

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.

Try This: Sweet Syntax

I love Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The following is one of my favorite writing exercises from her book (my paraphrase):

1. Find three or four lines from your writing practice. The sentences do not have to be brilliant.
2. Copy those three or four lines at the top of a new page.
3. Picture each word as a wooden block. For a quarter or a third of the page, set one block next to another next to another. To keep yourself from the intrinsic impulse to make sense, try this: only glance at the top lines for your next word; be quick about it. Block block block. You will repeat the words from your three or four lines. Don’t worry about making it all come out even.
4. Now, this is the picky part. Add punctuation. Copy the block block block, adding punctuation to make visual sense.
5. Read aloud, with expression. Make auditory sense. Notice what role punctuation plays. Also note any fun phrases or images that inadvertently appeared.

Here’s mine:

I ran unplugged for only part of my run this morning, sometimes more distressed by what I may hear or what I may think – too distressed by what may come up to really want quiet.

unplugged part distressed what part I may quiet really want the by may hear or what what sometimes this for I the to by I more what distressed really up come hear think ran unplugged part this run may by I the think more what for I only this think what morning to think run part only unplugged up to run sometimes the distressed quiet may for may what hear may the want ran part by more quiet really or sometimes I only or may really

Whoa. If that doesn’t rattle your teeth.

Unplugged, part distressed, what part I? May quiet: really want by may hear or. What! What sometimes this for I the to? By I more what distressed really up come hear think; ran unplugged part this.Run may by I the think more what for I only! This think what morning to think run part only. Unplugged up to. Run sometimes the distressed quiet may – for may what hear? May the want ran part? By more quiet. Really or sometimes, I only or may really.

Language is less intimidating if we take time to play with it. Mess around with syntax. No one has to know but you.

Underscoring Nothing

Today I played with syntax. More on that tomorrow. Near the end of my writing session, I decided: One more page. Usually one more page is my push to say what I really want to say, but today, it was my push away from what I really want to say. We all have things that show up in our notebooks every other session. Sometimes I want a break from that repetitive thought – whether an idea, worry, memory, feeling, prayer. Sometimes I just want to not scratch the itch. I want to pretend ___ isn’t there.

I think composting is a valuable part of writing practice, but sometimes I just don’t want to rake through the mulch again. So today when I sat to write one more page, I was (and wasn’t) surprised how difficult it was not to give ___ its space, or even to name it.

Because I’d just finished messing around with a syntax exercise, some of my phrases seem looser, coming unbidden. That was unexpected and fun.

In the following I’ve boldfaced ideas I might return to. Do that in your own WP, circling or underlining words, phrases or ideas that you want to come back to at another session.

I want to rearrange, order effort my home. Pull a room from dropping off. All there out there first thoughts penned carefully one word one word one word but still a tinge of wild, like smeared paint. This is what happens when I quit thinking about ___ (always at the base of my skull, a little stone). I need a break from ___.

Steadily writing one plodding word after another, one more away from ___ which shows up here even when I want to quit thinking it: a little stone taking up space in my page as a short underscore. Underscoring nothing. Literally underscoring nothing.

All that nothing holds at least a hundred words I am not wanting here because those hundred words (more) have been written a few pages back, a few notebooks back; those hundred words have been prayed on the treadmill, cried on my bedroom floor, whispered at the kitchen sink. If only I could whittle ___ to one hundred words.

I would feel better and worse about everything.

I was going to write about my home. ___ gets in my way. God, please.

My daughter wants an art table. I want one too, to keep our dining table. Our dining table. We orbit. We put stuff on every surface. I have a box of papers I think might be too important to pitch but I’m not sure. Sometimes I think about the mess we’d leave if we all died in a car accident: know our lives by a cupboard of child’s drawings, bins of Lego, hidden chocolate bars, writing on walls, garlic stuffed green olives, a baking stone, mismatched furniture. It kills me to think of anyone else deciding what to keep when they open a drawer of hair bands, sunglasses and a lone playing card.

This makes me sad. It makes me want a kind of order. An art table. A world map.

I think I can stop now. I can go home and open the drawers, decide what we keep.  I am afraid once I quit putting one word after another here that I’ll be full of ___ again, giving ___ more than a hundred words. I almost want to write my way through the end of this notebook, about anything but ___. Fuck. Instead, I finish here. Go make room for an art table.