Tag Archives: Ariel Gore

Sweaters, Shoes, and Books: More on Letting Go

Last Sunday, I wrote about cleaning out and clearing out and making way for all things new. Part of that process includes a giveaway: gifts from my shelves to yours.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about, “hey, I just cleaned out my closet and wouldn’t you love a few of my pill-ridden, old sweaters….” And, no I won’t raffle off those doc martin wannabe shoes, the ones with monster heels and rounded toes that oozed “cool” ten years ago but now holler “red nose, balloon animals, and Lucky the Clown.” Those things, I will toss or burn, thank you.

What I am giving away is a book near and dear to my heart, On the Fly: Stories in Eight Minutes or Less.

This book represents my writing journey in many ways. Some of my early pieces appear on the pages and signify my willingness to put myself out there.

The book’s premise is based on writing prompts, which is a technique I depend on, often, to urge me forward into creating new pieces.

And, the book as a whole is the product of a collaborative effort between an amazing group of women writers. We called ourselves the Lit Star Collective.

We published this book not for profit, but in order to document our time together, to showcase the work we had done, and to spread the word about the kind of writing that can happen in a very short time — well-formed images and prose can emerge, like tiny treasures, from a flurry of words when you let go of inhibitions and dive into the work.

On the Fly is a book of flash fiction, flash narratives (a term coined by Lisa Rivero), and creative nonfiction. Each piece originated from a prompt (given by our instructor, Ariel Gore), was written in eight minutes of timed writing, and is presented in either its raw form or a peer-edited version. Sometimes the prompts were one word; sometimes they were a phrase. Always, they inspired great writing.

As a teaser, here’s an excerpt of a piece by Catherine Anderson, a devoted Mother and a prolific Writer. She blogs, at Mama C and the Boys, about raising multi racial families (by birth or adoption), single parenting, and the writing that evolves from those life experiences. In On the Fly, Catherine expands on the prompt, “Where I’m From.”

Inheritance

Where I’m from, is mapped out all over my nose. Bulbous, just like Pepe’s. Loved that man. As grandparents go, he mapped that out pretty well too; if I live to be old enough to see these boys have children of their own. The French-by way of Guadeloupe-sailor and storyteller with chocolates and exotic perfume samples hidden in his silk robe for me to find in his suitcase every other December when he came to visit. You have to forgive a few things, like how he espoused that black people were beneath him, and Jewish people were, too. It becomes tricky to understand how come his mistress of twenty-five years was half black and half Jewish. Look deeper inside my cells and you will see his wife, my Meme, curled up in a little ball in my abdomen abandoned over and over her entire life. First, by her mother who died of typhoid when she was three, then by her father who left her in a hotel room with a cousin he didn’t know so he could remarry. And then every day she waited for Pepe to come back to the marriage he had consummated on land….

…There’s more. Of this narrative and of other amazing short pieces.

On the Fly includes several other writing prompts, too, that will stir your muse. If you’re a writing prompt junkie, or if you’d like a peek into the works of sixteen women writers, leave a comment. On Sunday, May 1st, my pals at Random.org will choose three lucky winners who will each receive a copy.

To read more of Catherine’s work, you can visit her blog or follow her on Twitter.


Pumping Up Your Image

During one of the early writing classes I took, I received a red envelope from my instructor, Ariel Gore. This wasn’t just any red envelope. It was small and was decorated with Vietnamese characters written in gold. A drawing of a young boy and a young girl, in what seemed to be ceremonial dress, bowed to each other.

The envelope held promise, but I wasn’t allowed to open it until Ariel gave the instructions.

We were to choose an event we wanted to write about, she said, a powerful image from our past or a scene from a story in progress. Inside the red envelope was a series of cards with questions. We were to pull out the cards, one at a time, without peeking). She wanted us to answer each question and then use those responses to write – or rewrite – our story.

There was no order to the questions, and we didn’t have to answer them all. But, even the few that I drew were enough to widen my perspective of the scene, to see what the character saw, and to incorporate details I overlooked when I had written an earlier draft.

I loved this writing exercise.

The little red envelope appeared mystical with it’s Vietnamese writing, the hopeful expressions of the young boy and girl, and the secret cards; it was bound to do magic on my writing.

The assignment wasn’t daunting; all I had to do was read and answer a few questions. I could even make up the answers. There was no wrong way to do it.

And, the answers put me front and center into the image. They helped me color the scene, add texture, and reveal insight into my character.

As I stepped behind my character’s eyes, I drew these cards:

  • About how old are you?
  • What is to your left?
  • What is to your right?
  • Is anyone else in the image?
  • Why are you there?
  • Is there anyone who just left or who may be coming?
  • What are some of the sounds in the image?
  • What does the air smell like?

I thought it would be fun to try this exercise again. Here’s a snippet of a story – a before and after. Hopefully, the power of the exercise will still shine through:

Before:

One by one they got up from the bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed upstairs with me. He wanted to smoke, so I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside onto the roof.

There, under the stars, we sat on a small ledge. He smoked. I pulled in my knees and wrapped up in a blanket. We talked. For a long time, we just talked. He laughed at my jokes. But still, he looked me in the eyes when he spoke. I sat with him until the mosquitoes got the best of me.

After: *

At twenty-one years old, I was accustomed to staying awake into the wee hours of the morning. But, I wasn’t used to being woken up at 3am by a posse of four. My roommate Mollie, her friend Jan, and two guys I had just met all sat on Mollie’s bed, across the room from mine. They stared at me and giggled. Knowing they weren’t leaving any time soon, I sat up, wrapped my comforter around me, and listened while they recounted their evening.

Their tale ended, and one by one they got up from Mollie’s bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed in the room with me. As the sounds of Jimi Hendrix climbed the stairs, Paul stood up.

“I need a smoke,” he said. “Can we go out on the roof?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. I wasn’t tired any more.

I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside. The roof was cool and the air crisp. I pulled my comforter out with me, and we sat on a small ledge that jutted out just enough. We sat side by side, my toes barely over the edge and Paul’s legs dangling.

Paul lit a match, and, even though I didn’t smoke, the first whiff of his cigarette filled my nose with a satisfaction. We sat under the stars and talked about the fresh smell of Spring time in the morning – wet grass and dirt, about the quiet, and the light of the full moon.

It was easy, sitting there with Paul. I pulled in my knees but let the comforter fall off of one shoulder. For a long time, we just talked. He looked me in the eyes when he spoke. And, he laughed at my jokes. I sat with him past the last drag of his cigarette, through the songs of the early morning birds, until the mosquitoes and hunger got the best of us.

Whether you write memoir or fiction, your story is full of imagery. Details settle the reader into time and place, and they give flavor and richness to your story.

If you’re considering a rewrite, ask yourself this: From behind whose eyes does your story unfold?

Who’s got the angle on perspective?

And then, answer a few simple questions of your own.

________________________________________________________

* Funny, I said I wasn’t going to write flash fiction every Wednesday for a while. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.

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Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.'” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?

I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.

But hear me out.

My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.

Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.

I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago.  In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.

In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.

As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.

Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.

Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.

“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”

When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.

Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:

“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”

Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.

There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.

What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?

*****

Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p.  Print.

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Wednesday’s Word: On Vacation and Thinking of Cake.

Every Wednesday, on Writing Under Pressure, you’ll find a post based on Today’s Word (from Wordsmith.org). You can find past essays, poems, or flash fiction pieces under the Wednesday’s Word category on the sidebar to the right.

*****

This week, I’m out of town and mostly unplugged, so I’m taking a break from the usual Word of the Day challenge. But, I’m not ignoring my commitment to post a flash piece.

I dove head first into writing when I signed up for Ariel Gore’s online class over a year and a half ago. During her course, we began each week with a quick write assignment. We were given a prompt – a phrase, a photo, or just one word – and given a limit of seven minutes to free write.

Many of these quick writes, from myself as well as from other writers in class, ended up in an Anthology that we put together and published in July 2009: On the Fly: Stories in Eight Minutes of Less. It’s a great little book that illustrates the kind of powerful writing that can result from letting your mind go and your words fall onto paper.

Below is one of my pieces published in that anthology, one based on the word I pulled out from a word bag: cake. Enjoy, and at the end of this post, check out the links to other sites with word prompts or writing prompts.

*****

Cake. My Nemesis.

2003: Find out that my son has an egg allergy. Remember that chemistry was never my best subject, but realize the importance of eggs when it comes to making a birthday cake. Wonder how egg substitutes will work. Hold head high and promise to be the best mom ever and make the best birthday cakes of all time.

2004: First attempt at an egg-free birthday cake. Things fall apart. No worries – next year will be better.

2005: The dinosaur cake. Recipe calls for no eggs – perfect. Cake stands eight inches high. Okay, plenty of eats for everyone. Decorations, which play well with the overall monstrosity of cakeness, include small, plastic dinosaurs and palm trees. Dinosaurs are a big hit, but the cake is dry. Cut myself a huge piece and pretend it’s the best ever (then slam 8 ounces of water nonstop, to wash it down).

2006: Block out all memory of cake, too painful to report.

2007: The Transformer cake. Recipe from a box, which calls for three eggs. Proceed with caution. Find a bubbling concoction of baking powder, vinegar, and milk to substitute. Looks good out of the oven, crumbles during icing. Decorations include small Decepticon figure climbing up the corner of the cake that fell apart. No one seems to notice. Disaster averted, this year.

2008: Wave the white flag cake. Recipe from a box, three eggs. Whatever. Find a pre-made substitute that looks like a fine white powder and smells funny, but works better than bubbling concoction from past years. Decide to bake and keep cake in metal 9×13 pan (to make sure the sides hold together). Decorations include a variety of sugary goodness: icing, sprinkles, more icing, and interesting candles. Tape wrapping paper around the outside of the pan in hopes no one will think I’m lazy.

2009: Hear a remake of that old song, Someone left the cake out in the rain. Empathize with woman in song who can’t bear to do it again. Wonder why cake is such a big deal anyway.

*****

If you love writing prompts, here are a few sites to inspire your best ten minutes of writing:

Wordnik.com: This site offers a “word of the day” and a “random word” option. With “random word,” you can gamble for your word of choice: if you don’t like the first word, click “random” again. And, again. And, then twenty more times (I did when I tried it). But, eventually you’ll have to stop clicking and start writing.

Wordsmith.org: My usual favorite. There’s always a weekly theme and never a dull moment in word choice. Plus, there’s no “random” option. As my son says – in a mocking way at dinner sometimes – “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”

A recent post from Lisa Rivero, where she lists a host of links to writing prompts and writing exercises.

Take a peek at those sites and punch out your own flash fiction or quick write. Happy Writing!



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Back Online and Dreaming

I’ve had little time to write lately, and that disconnect is beginning to wear on me.

Today, I stared at a blank screen.
The blink
Of the cursor,
A taunt.

“Write something. Anything.” I told myself.

I searched through my files for an old writing prompt to stir me into new material, and I found this one from an online course I took with Ariel Gore:

Allow a beautiful vision of your life to come to mind.

As cliché as it sounds, this is a great time of year for me to reflect on the past and envision the future — especially when I sit in front of a screen and wonder, what do I, little writer that I am, have to offer?

Reflecting on the past year, I see that I passed more benchmarks in writing this year than in the past:

  • I saw my work in print on the pages of a few different publications.
  • I “met” several writers online who offer encouragement, support, and excellent feedback on my work.
  • I wrote almost every single day, in the form of a post or a rewrite or morning pages.
  • I signed on to Twitter and found an even greater pool of resources and authors online.

Small successes, I tell myself, are as important as signing with an agent for a three book deal (though maybe not quite as exciting).

This year, I dream:

  • I find time to write every day — not just minutes pieced together here and there but good, solid, time.
  • I see myself opening my email to a message from a literary magazine, saying “yes.”
  • I watch my hand reach into an envelope and pull out a check for a story published.
  • I envision holding a finished manuscript, passed through the virtual hands of beta readers, reworked, and queried.

Then, I imagine I put down my manuscript and turn away. Let the story go, I tell myself, and let it land where it may.

I step outside into the brisk air of early summer. The wind raises goosebumps on my arms, but the sun warms my back. With bare hands and a spade, I dig in the ground for a while. I turn the soil. I wake the earthworms. I plan a plot of fresh herbs, tomatoes, maybe some wildflowers.

What do you envision this year?

Wednesday’s Word: What does it look like to you?

Today’s word, from wordsmith.org:
legerdemain. noun. slight of hand

***

Ariel Gore recently posted an excerpt from Comics and Serendipity’s blog, entitled “Please Don’t Bomb the Moon” – a letter to NASA about their intentions to do just that.

Bomb the moon?! That’s right. I googled NASA and bomb and moon. The first hit links to an article from Scientific American (NASA’s mission to bomb the moon) describing the expedition as “spectacular” and a blast “so powerful.” NASA already has a rocket in route, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m not a scientist, but I assume they’ve researched the possible after-shocks and effects of sending explosives towards a celestial body. However, the article from Scientific American doesn’t really list any negative backlash. It does, however, suggest a large projectile chunk of debris will be visible in the viewer of your layman’s telescope. Cool.

Even more interesting, October 15th is Blog Action Day, when well over 2500 bloggers will unite to post on one topic – climate change – in support of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (December 7-18, 2009). In Copenhagen, international leaders will gather to negotiate a global climate agreement. But by December, the damage on the moon will be done. Maybe the bombing effects will be minuscule. Maybe not. Either way, NASA’s blow to the moon takes climate change to a much higher level. International leaders might have to focus on changing tides and changing pressure, along side carbon footprints and global warming.

Even if you don’t write a blog, go to Blog Action Day’s website for more information on what you can do. Click the links to other sponsors (like 350) and find out what events are happening in or around your area on Oct 24th, International Day of Climate Action.

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For more information on NASA’s moon project, click NASA Ames Research Center in the news.

Finding my focus

A little over a year ago, I decided to investigate my passion for writing. Actually, I was kicked into gear by a good friend. She heard me complain, just about enough, about someone else’s pursuit into writing.

“You know, you’re just jealous. Why don’t you take some action for yourself?”

Maybe those weren’t the exact words, but I remember jealous and take action. I started off with small commitments: work through The Artist’s Way, start a blog. I signed up for National Novel Writing Month, thinking what have I got to lose? Then, I passed the NaNoWriMo 50,000 word benchmark, and I fell into a frenzy of sorts.

I took two online writing classes with Ariel Gore, back to back. I submitted several pieces to lit mags, reworked a few more, joined some writing sites, started another blog. Been reading on writing. Been staying up too late.  Shut down my laptop after midnight, only to open it five minutes later to change the last line of a late night blog post.

In such a frenzy, I lose sight of my reason for writing (not to mention, sleep). So, I recently made a list of my little successes in one short year. I held off on submitting a few pieces that, a week ago, I thought I just had to get out there. And, I honed in on this quote yesterday:

Remind me each day that the race is not always to the swift; that there is more to life than increasing its speed. Let me look upward into the towering oak and know that it grew great and strong because it grew slowly and well.” –Orin L. Crain

I don’t know anything about Orin L. Crain. But, I love this quote, and this gentle reminder, that becoming a writer is only a race in my mind.