Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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The Gift of Prompts

I used to find writing prompts annoying. I mean, they didn’t add up to anything. They just sat there in a notebook. Magnificent or pointless, they were words that would never be published or publishable, that would probably never be read again.

But lately I’ve been giving prompts in most of my classes. I’m doing them myself and finding them oddly freeing. Sometimes they’re just a single word or simple concept: “Write about insects… a spatula…. your first memory…. Write about something worth stealing.”

In class, we generally free-write only for about ten minutes. Sharing is always optional. Since we’re really just spitting on the page, it’s stupid to expect much. Often enough, I’ve gone back to read my own responses to my exercises and discovered just a bunch of mismatched thoughts. Free association, irrelevancies. Other times, I’ve found kernels of brilliance.

These prompt-writing moments bring back a feeling that I’d forgotten – when I was 7 years old, discovering that I loved to dance. I had no dreams of tutus and sugarplum fairies when I first heard the music coming from that rundown rec-hall at my New Hampshire summer camp. It was a beautiful solo piano piece – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that it called to me.

The dance counselor was working on some choreography when I quietly took a corner and started to move. After a moment she paused her own work to watch, and a few weeks later, I performed my improvisation before an audience of campers and counselors. In that moment of complete freedom, the marriage of movement and music, and the succeeding applause, my future plan to become a dancer was sealed.

Well, I can’t dance like that anymore, not only because I’m no longer so young or in shape for pirouettes and grand jetes. It’s because I spent years learning what was right and wrong through training. Technique embedded itself in my body until the initial inspiration and joy were nearly strangled. It took me years to undo the binds of that rigorous training until I found a shadow of the original joy that had moved me before I knew anything about anything.

The same danger lies in the process of writing. We can get caught up, even lost, as we work our way through a big project, or even a small one. We can write ourselves into corners, or edit until we’ve killed the very thing we were attempting to nurture. We can work so hard that we forget why we’re writing in the first place.

Herein lies the grace and benefit of prompts. They’re moments of total letting go. They have no greater purpose than to explore, to recall the freedom that comes at that first, naive moment of free-writing. We use them to stretch, to reach deep into muscles that perhaps we’ve forgotten to use in the midst of our struggles with an especially difficult story, memoir or novel. The only objective of a prompt is to let the words flow, just as I danced as a child.

Oddly, my youngest writing students often struggle with prompts. They can verbalize fantastic stories, but when they have to write them down, it’s as if the words get stuck somewhere between their minds, mouths and pencils. I’ve often asked kids to just tell me what they imagine, then simply say, “Great. Now write that down.” Over and over, moment by moment, “What’s next? What will your character do? How does your character feel about what just happened? OK. Write that down.” They often speak their thoughts in simple, beautiful words. So I say, “Now grab them! Just write them down on the paper before they fly away.”

Because words are difficult to master – their shape, their spelling, their syntax, are not natural to us the way they are in spoken form. Just the opposite of the primal act of dance, music, even storytelling, with writing, training must come before inspiration. To solidify our thoughts into lasting form is a sophisticated skill that requires education and practice.

So, with older students and adults, I take joy in the smoother flow of pen on paper. I revel in the scratchings as we all open the gates and let the words slip down. As I listen, sometimes I hear pauses, breathing spaces, or perhaps tighter curves in the flow of thought. I murmur, “Don’t worry. Just keep going,” recalling Natalie Goldberg’s advice to just keep your pen moving no matter what.

I assure my students that these ten minute spitting sessions won’t add up to brilliance. They shouldn’t. Just like stretching before a run or a dance, these fluid moments of non-judgment and free writing are just that – warm-ups. Improvisations.

So I give you the gift of a few prompts for the holidays. This week’s New York Times Magazine online featured a series of videos, Fourteen Actors Acting. Each short film is wordless, accompanied only by music. The actors’ emotions are vivid and clear. As the subtitle states, they are intentionally iconic character types from the silver screen, but each moment can be interpreted in infinite ways.
14 Actors Acting
Click and watch a few. Absorb their feeling, their moment. Imagine their circumstances, their settings, their lives. Then write for ten minutes or as long as you like. And don’t judge what you write. If there’s a glittering kernel there, you’ll find it. Just enjoy the slip and flow of pen on paper, jamming, improvising, dancing as words form on the page.

Happy holidays. I wish you all good writing.

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The South Orange-Maplewood Adult School Short Story Contest

In the past few years, The Writers Circle has been honored to see several of its writers win or place in the annual South Orange-Maplewood Adult School Short Story Contest. Our first winner was Ross Minichiello back in 2007: and Mary Mann placed second last spring. 2009’s winner was Jim McHugh who is in our circle now. Though he wrote his winning story before he joined us, we’re fascinated by the new work he shares with us each week.

So here’s your chance to make it happen again. Details on the contest are below. I encourage everyone to enter. And since we have some time before the submission deadline, feel free to bring your work into the group to get it ready.

The South Orange-Maplewood Adult School is accepting short stories to be honored at Celebrity Readings, the school’s annual literary showcase featuring theater actors performing selections of short fiction. The winning story will be published in Matters Magazine.

The deadline for submissions is Feb. 5, 2010.

The contest is open to any adult (18 or older). Manuscripts must be submitted by email only to schoolinfo AT somadultschool.org. One entry per person. Entries must be 4,000 words or fewer, double spaced. Your name, address and phone number must appear at top of the first page. Place your name at the top of each subsequent page. Type exact word count at the top of manuscript.

The first-prize winner will receive $200 and will be honored on Monday, March 22 at Celebrity Readings.

Good luck, everyone!


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Imagining the Well-Imagined Story

From the start of The Writers Circle, I made it my weekly habit to share interesting readings about writing, publishing and the writing life. The very first one, I recall, was Francine Prose’s Atlantic Monthly article “Close Reading” which introduced the core topics of her equally wise book, Reading Like a Writer. Prose’s premise – that to learn to write well, one must read not only well, but closely – invited all of us to read for details of technique, voice, character, plot development and more. By doing so, we all become students of the true masters of literature.

I find myself enlightened and amused once again by an Atlantic Monthly essay, this time Tim O’Brien’s “Telling Tails“. O’Brien points out a blunt but inescapable truth: that unsuccessful stories don’t necessarily lack of technique. Sometimes, they are simply boring.

Many writers workshops harp endlessly on the need for truth portrayed in full detail. But lacking imagination, all the exquisite detail in the world won’t hold a reader’s attention.

O’Brien lists several things that a well-imagined story is NOT (I’m paraphrasing here):

  • It is not predictable, or not wholly predictable;
  • It is not melodramatic, relying on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes;
  • It is not formulaic or cliche;
  • It does not rely on coincidence to achieve dramatic effects;
  • It does not use purple prose to attempt to elevate events beyond their due.

But what IS a well-imagined story?

O’Brien’s answer: a story that is “…organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”

Imagination
This doesn’t mean that all good stories must dip into the supernatural or superhuman. Everyday people often face unexpected events that shape and reshape their understanding of the world. How each person handles them, with all the idiosyncracies of character, history and circumstance, are the stuff that make extraordinary fiction.

A well-imagined story must force us to pay attention. It tries to reach into the rich complexity of existence, even as it might be destined to portray very ordinary lives. Each sentence must be crafted to build upon that last, begging us to read just a little bit farther. And within those sentences that depict our characters and their struggles, we are helped along immensely by vivid, engaging and believable detail.


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Writing Contests and Opportunities

I came across several writing contests that look really intriguing:

Narratives Fall Contest Narrative’s FALL CONTEST is open to all fiction and nonfiction writers. They’re looking for short shorts, short stories, essays, memoirs, photo essays, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction.

Narrative is a high quality literary magazine looking for works with a strong narrative drive, characters that affect us as human beings, and with language, situation, and insight that are intense and total. They look for works that have the ambition of enlarging our view of ourselves and the world.

• $3,250 First Prize
• $1,500 Second Prize
• $750 Third Prize
• Ten finalists receive $100 each.
• All entries will be considered for publication.

There is a submission Fee of $20 for each entry, but with your entry, you’ll receive three months of complimentary access to Narrative Backstage.

The contest deadline is November 30, 2009.

Glimmer Train regularly holds contests in a number of categories. Right now, the Fiction Open and Best Start competitions are accepting submissions until September 30.

Fiction Open (2,000-20,000 words)
Prizes:
1st place—$2,000 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories.
2nd-place—$1,000 and possible publication.
3rd-place—$600 and possible publication.

Reading fee is $20 per story. Open to all writers.

Results post November 30, winning story publishes in issue 77.

Best Start (not to exceed 1,000 words)
Prizes: The 50 most engaging pieces will each win $50 and make Glimmer Train’s Best Start list, which will be announced in our December bulletin as well as on other major blogs for writers.

Reading fee is $10 per piece. Open only to new writers whose fiction has not appeared in a nationally distributed print publication with a
circulation over 3,000.

Also upcoming are their Family Matters and Standard contests. Check out their site for full details.

* * *

Finally, for anyone who knows an ambitious young writer or two, one of my favorite local bookstores, Watchung Booksellers, is publishing its FIRST EVER LITERARY ZINE. They’re accepting written works from 4th to 12th graders for a Fall Literary Zine as well as suggestions for a creative and catchy title.

The Watchung Booksellers’ staff will choose works based on content, organization of ideas and mechanics, creativity, and originality. This FIRST EVER Literary Zine will be unveiled at an author signing party on the evening of Friday, October 23rd for family and friends. Copies of the Zine will be sold at the store – all proceeds will go to IMANI, Improving Montclair Achievement Network Initiative.

CATEGORIES:
Poem (up to 2 pages long)
Short Story (no more than 1000 words)
Essay (no more than 1000 words)

DETAILS:
* for 4th – 12th graders
* entries must be received by September 25, 2009
* winners will be notified by October 9, 2009
* all work must be original and done without adult help
* entries must contain appropriate language
* two entries can be submitted per person
* all entries must be typed in 12 point font and double spaced
* fill out an entry form and attach it to your work
* DO NOT write your name on your piece, so we can judge it fairly

I wish my own sons were old enough to participate!

Good luck, everyone. Keep us posted if you submit. We’re rooting for you.


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Briefer Stories for Our Times

Take a look at A.O. Scott’s lovely and appropriately brief survey and prediction of the American short story in Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the American Short Story. It’s especially relevant to so many creative writers who often focus at least initially on the short story form.

Short stories have only very rarely brought any writer the attention of the reading world. Even finding a home for these carefully crafted vignettes can be frustrating and is almost never lucrative. The short story’s true reward must be in savoring the satisfaction that comes from the realization of refinement and excellence.

Yet A.O. Scott predicts that, like so many other forms of media, literature too is undergoing a monumental transformation in our ever more scattered and digitized world. As with music and movies, perhaps the future writer’s goal will no longer be the “Great American Novel” but something more compact, more succinct, more digestible, more suited to shortened time and attention spans. To distill the total essence of the “now” in a single story of 20 or 30 pages is an almost inconceivable challenge. But perhaps that is precisely the correct way to attempt to capture this American moment. It’s certainly something for all writers to strive to achieve.