More Of The Moment: Found Starts

This summer I join Justin on his morning bike ride. Country road, bike path, side streets, giant hill to a coffee shop that opens at five. We don’t arrive at five. We get there around seven, seven-thirty, stay an hour or so. Justin orders a latte. I drink green tea, not because I’m a tea fanatic but because I intermittent fast. I am not fanatic about intermittent fasting either, but it’s what works for my body/ mind now.

All spring I put together an MFA application portfolio and a week ago submitted the work to two programs. Then I fretted about one of the fiction pieces because it needs more revision before I’d call it really done. (I like to revise for months or years though, so). Then I found a small typo in an essay. So this morning I sat with my green tea and an open notebook, thinking whether to email program directors to ask permission to resend an essay (the errant s removed) and the latest revision of a piece I titled but think of by its protagonist, Eugene. As in: I’ve got to work on Eugene or I keep picking at Eugene. I will get to those emails. But first.

I opened my notebook to write some calm. When the kids were little and squabbling I’d say, I want peace in the house. They picked up on this and the phrase still comes as a reminder to ourselves or a prayer, that we want peace in our house, minds, bodies. Sometimes I write my way to steady. This morning I just wanted to remind myself again that



will be okay. I was a sentence into fear that everything will not be okay when the table next to me started talking about hotel stays. A couple in their sixties, another woman in her fifties or sixties. Last month the couple showed up at a hotel and at check-in were asked to please check the room and if it didn’t meet their standard the hotel would provide a different room. We had a couple of farmers in last night, the clerk told the couple, And we’ve changed all the bedding but the scent lingers.

So at that point I just start transcribing the lines I catch. The couple couldn’t sniff out farmer in their hotel room but their friend remembered working at Farm & Fleet, following men’s muddy footprints around with a mop and bucket. No way their wives would put up with that! she said, At least kick your boots!

Maybe it was the cadence of their voices, or volume, but I could not not listen. The range of conversation! A house on fire, or thought to be on fire. The temperature yesterday, ninety-six degrees. An elderly mother who refuses to eat more than two bites of supper. Orange-y sweaters. Waiting in line to be served. A man with gout who might have quit drinking except the pain was too great. Desire to be a homebody. An angry man who never meant to hurt her. He was creative too. One of the women said, A lot of creative people are troubled. They think too much. The man said, Sometimes creative people are angry. The other woman said, Look at Hemingway. He shot himself.

I have salvaged one line and will start a story with: I don’t take the heat like I used to. Give me a week.

A Short Narrative Poem

An exercise from The Practice Of Poetry. Parameters: 11-15 lines, 9-11 syllables / line, no rhyme. Varied sentence length.

She wakes just after four when the sky
leaves night. When she cannot sleep again
she puts on running shorts and a bright coral
shirt made to feel like nothing at all, even
when it’s hot. She finds her shoes, unlocks the door
and walks three flights to the street, turns left
on a street of antique (antik) shops, galleries,
cafes. There are stoops wide enough for sleeping
homeless men (she counts three but returning
an hour and a half later, only one, arms crossed,
eyes closed like he means it, and where the others
were, the smell of urine). She crosses the bridge,
meeting a pack of drunk young men who cheer
when one of them runs backwards, keeps
her pace for ten or fifteen meters.
On Margaret (Margit) Island she passes
a couple who is like a performance piece:
they stand toe to toe, his head bent to hers,
unmoving. She passes another couple
kissing on a bench, limbs overlapping. Now
each are part of Sunday morning together.

Knee Deep In Narrative

Timing is everything. At school we’ve left poetry for fiction. Today I introduced one of my favorite flash fiction prompts (more below). And at home I’m taking an online creative nonfiction workshop through Stanford Continuing Studies. This week I’m working on a personal essay for workshop, but the flash fiction prompt is too tempting to skip, one I return to each semester and still love.

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 or circumstance, 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.

So this time I’ve asked my students to use this exercise to explore narrative choices: first/ second/ third person; limited or omniscient narrator; past or present tense. Since we have five (super short, nonthreatening) stories to write, we can play with the choices we make as authors. Play along at home!

If you’re looking for a situation or circumstance to get you started, here are some we came up with in class today:

A father and son at a football match

A young woman steps onstage

Two friends at lunch

The power goes out

The phone rings but no one answers it

I like the idea of this prompt generating a finished piece, either as a longer story born of an itty bitty draft; or as a series whose parts stand alone but, when purposefully ordered, create a stronger whole.

Ending In The Middle

I like a tidy end. The messy made right. With my essay work especially, I want the last paragraph to tell me everything turns out okay. A year ago, an editor I work with encouraged me to resist tidying too much.

Readers don’t need a didactic summary after I’ve just unloaded all my junk. I need it. I want that conclusion to tell me why I went through a year or two of ___.

I’ve referenced my unpretty lust, envy and pride here before. There are certain experiences and relationships I want to write a tidy end for. Like looking at ___ from another distance, in a different light might reveal its purpose. I write ___ again, hoping this time I’ll understand something new. I wish composting would yield not only the right way to say what I want to say, but also a conclusion that makes sense of the sorrow, shame or anger. More often, an experience or relationship remains just that, waiting for time or heart to change the perspective.

This is my tenth year of marriage. The seven-year itch started early and ended late, unscratched. Finally, I looked at lust. I wrote about it in my notebooks, in essay and fiction. I didn’t find a tidy end to my experience. I’m still embarrassed. A little mad. Marriage and monogamy are work, boring sometimes, even when comfortable. I could have answered that without a long run of unsatisfied want.

Here’s an unfun prompt: Write what isn’t finished. Write the junk you want made into a mosaic. You might only find sharp edges and weird colors. Fine. Write it anyway. You’ll still see a bit of art.

I need to be okay with untidy ends. They reflect living in the middle. Which is where I am. You too.

(That wasn’t too tidy was it?)

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.

I Judged A Writing Exercise By Its Name, But Tried It Anyway

I love The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. The book offers a range of exercises that compliment my other favorite poetry text, Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem by Wendy Bishop. While I have my favorite go-to prompts from each book, I like to find something new each time I teach poetry writing. I do this mostly for myself. I don’t want to get bored midway through a poetry writing unit. I want to have fun.

My copy of The Practice of Poetry (I think of it as PoP) is flagged with sticky notes. Some notes are even labeled: GOOD, SUPER GOOD, DIFFICULT BUT FUN!! No label on page 111 though. Page 111 is Linnea Johnson’s exercise called “Personal Universe Deck.”

For years I flipped right past that one. The name! The name! When I think “Personal Universe Deck,” I picture a swirling purple sky and multiple moons over a surrealist desert scape. I really don’t like the name. I spent last week trying to think why Linnea Johnson decided to call her writing exercise that. I have an idea. But first, her exercise (some paraphrase by me, modifications noted after):


Make a list of 100 words:

16 words each of the five senses
The words must suggest taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing. For instance, frozen might suggest touch to you; birdsong might suggest hearing.

10 words of motion
The words must mean, suggest, motion to you. They do not necessarily need to be verbs. Baby could be a motion word to someone.

3 abstractions
Like love or truth or freedom.

7 anything else
Names, days of the week, any word with meaning to you which does not fit into the other categories

All words on the list, in the deck must
1. have significance to/for you
2. be specific; that is, the word must not be “bird” but “robin”
3. sound good to your ear

Use no adverbs. Use no plurals.

My modification: 10 for each sense for a total of 70 words.


Linnea Johnson herself modified the exercise from a 1975 workshop with Anita Skeen. I only know that because she says so in her short PoP chapter.

Here’s what we can do with our Personal Universe Decks. (Every time I type that title I think Do NOT mess up the vowel):

We can make skeletons of poems
We can mine for wild, unlikely images or expressions
We can use colored paper and make patterns and hope the words offer something, anything
We can pull one card out and say it describes us perfectly
Or make someone else choose their word (A student did that in my class. I drew “police” from his words)
We can use a single word as a WP prompt
We can toss them in the air like confetti

And we can make a new list of 70 or 100 words again in another couple of months because our lives – our personal universes, if you will – tend to shift! So maybe the words I listed in October aren’t mine in January. I think that’s the draw of this exercise: it’s versatile and can sketch an unexpected outline of our current personal universe.

Prompt: Prepping Edition

A couple of years ago I wrote a story about a young couple, Jonah and Lily, whose first year of marriage centers on his prepper instincts. They move to the middle of nowhere and begin stockpiling goods. I revised the piece a couple of times and think I’d like to return to it soon.

I started the piece from curiosity about the prepper community. I’m fascinated by people who make preparation for catastrophe their end. Google any combination of:

off the grid
food stockpiles
shelf life
water purification
more guns
also bullets

Okay. I’m making fun with the last few. But guns seem to be a part of the prepper population. And if you want to go down a rabbit hole, go ahead and Google what everyone is prepping for:

world financial collapse
nuclear war
(do the above three go together?)
biological warfare
chemical warfare

Okay. Making fun again. I’ll be begging for their tinned meat in twenty years. And my only stockpile is chocolate bars.

I started thinking about Jonah and Lily again because of the current coverage of Ebola. Pictures of DIY hazmat suits and coverage of the U.S. congressional freakout about borders make light of the greater, truer tragedy in western Africa. And though religious and environmental reasons may play into a prepper’s motivation, a primary ingredient of the lifestyle is panic. If not panic for the present, then panic for what might happen.

Because what might happen can take its time, there are websites posting expiration of dry goods and hosting forums about whether you can eat mealy flour.

Go write about prepping. The world ends in fire or disease or war and you’ve got a year’s supply of dry beans, chlorine tablets and flares. If you’re a really good prepper, you’ve got more than that. Go explore the prepper lifestyle.

If you’re a prepper who found this post hoping for a tutorial on boiling water using a piece of tinfoil and a cloudy sky (and that last joke didn’t completely offend), please post your blog or recommended sites in the comments. I often write about what I don’t know to learn it.

Phrase Response x 50

One of my favorite writing prompts books is Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg. Here is a prompt I like. Paraphrased:

Choose a phrase you hear a lot. Write it. On the next line, respond with your first thoughts. Now write the phrase again and your response. Do this fifty times. Rewriting the phrase is a natural reboot, prompting a fresh response.

I like this rapid-fire exercise because it’s designed to keep you  moving from one first thought to the next, pushing the editor away. 

Some phrases you might hear a lot:
I love you
What do you mean?
Can I help you?
Wait a minute
I’m fine

I’ll post what I come up with.

Multigenre Narrative

I wrote hardly anything my first year of teaching. I took a crate of student journals home and read those, but neglected my own.* During my second year of teaching, I figured out a way to keep a writing habit. I completed my own assignments. At first, because I needed examples to show students and I wanted to model the writing process. But after a couple of years of this, I thought it’d be fun to compile all my comparison/contrast essays, pantoums and opinion pieces in a collection I’d call My Assignments. This idea never went beyond the image of a book cover and Oprah appearance, stalling out when I realized very few people would enjoy reading a comparison/contrast of  my parents’ and in-laws’ garages. My parents and in-laws might enjoy such a piece least.

I still write alongside my students. And I have a new assignment to start the semester: the multigenre narrative. This serves me well, too, because I need a kick in my creative pants. I’ve assigned multigenre narratives in the past, drowning students in genre options. This time, I’m requiring only five genres, three already set: fiction, poetry, nonfiction.

Parameters, if you want to play along at home:

Tell a story or explore a theme using five distinct genres. Each piece should be able to stand alone. The pieces, ordered purposefully, build a complete narrative.

Fiction: 500-1000 words
Poetry: Whatever you can defend as poetry
Nonfiction: 500-1000 words
2 Super Special Bonus Genres of Your Choice: Go nuts

The pieces are short, the turnaround is quick, and the yield will be a group of young writers ready for more fun.

I’ll post what I come up with. Give me a couple of weeks. If you try this, or have completed multigenre narratives or seen great examples, please let me know. Post a link in the comments.


*I don’t read read my students’ writing practice anymore. I take a close look only if they ask, respecting their privacy, glancing through to check completion. When a word or phrase catches my attention, I ask. I like talking about the process. But beyond that, I prefer my students’ notebooks to be their own space.