Monthly Archives: June 2010

First Draft; The Phone Call

The first draft of a piece inspired by this prompt…

Filled with apprehension, he picked up the telephone and, with shaking fingers, he dialed…

Her number hadn’t changed in decades – he’d double-checked, again, just to be sure – and as he heard the clicking of the call connecting, he resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to hang up.  This was at least the sixth time he’d dialed this number – maybe it was more, he didn’t know – but this was the first time he actually let the call go through; in fact, more than once he’d left the last “3” off the sequence of seven and put the phone back in its cradle, lit another cigarette, and told himself that he was being an asshole.

There was nothing he had to say that she wanted to hear – he knew that and, more importantly, he finally understood why – but that wasn’t enough to keep him from coming back to the phone – what was it now?  Seven?  Maybe eight times – to dial the number he kept on a scrap of paper even though he knew it by heart.  As he tapped the ashes off the end of his Winston and waited to hear the first ring through the receiver, he looked at the number written on an old library book slip, the kind they used to keep in the backs of books to stamp the due date on before the whole system went electronic.  He hadn’t gone electronic, though – he had to go to the library to use the public computers to look up her number (did they even print phone books anymore?),  had written it on the card kept in a neat pile with its fellow castoffs on the desks next to stubby pencils so the patrons could jot down notes from their work at the old terminals.  He noticed, idly, that the last date stamped on his slip was June 3rd, 1999.  That’s about right, he thought ruefully; that was just about then that he’d last laid eyes on her.

She had been irredeemably angry then, strangely cool and resigned, but he didn’t know that then, hadn’t been able to see that through his own rage and indignation to really understand what was happening.  He sat there, on a green plastic chair at a green plastic picnic table, listening to her tell him that she was done.  SHE was done!  What the fuck did SHE know about being done?  What the fuck did she know about ANYTHING?  Everything in him raged at the nerve of the kid; what the hell makes you think that you can just tell me to fuck off and be done with it? For the longest time, he could remember nothing about that afternoon but the blinding rage, the look on her face, and the way the heat of the afternoon had made the green plastic chair leave his shirt sticking to his back in a lattice pattern as he walked away for the last time.

But the truth of the matter – the truth that he couldn’t see until it broke over him a week ago like a car crash – sudden and unexpected, completely unintended, wrenchingly violent and instantly, heartbreakingly clear – was that she had been right.  There was nothing that he was offering her then that she needed, and certainly nothing she wanted, though she had something he had wanted so badly that he wasn’t even able to even think about her for months after that afternoon.  He could easily have reached across that cheap, plastic table and strangled her that afternoon – or at least cracked her a good one -  and as he imagined her phone ringing in her kitchen, it occurred to him, for the first time, that that had to be one of the reasons why she had wanted nothing to do with him.  How could he begin to explain to her that he knew now; that he saw and understood and that he sometimes wanted to kill himself for being so pigheadedly fucking stupid?

In that moment, at the third ring, he realized couldn’t do this; he wasn’t ready; he understood, just as he heard the click of the call being answered, that he didn’t understand enough.  Shit; maybe he didn’t understand anything.

As he moved the phone away from his ear toward the hook, he caught his daughter’s voice, at the same time familiar and eerie, like a long-lost memory or a phantom that he wasn’t quite sure he heard; not “hello,” but the scripted outgoing message from her answering machine.  “We can’t come to the phone right now.  Please leave a message and we’ll get back to you.”  But there would be no getting back, and he knew that now.

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First Draft; Daddy

This was inspired by Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid.

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Do you see that man there?  Of course you do, he has been a part of you like the air you breathe, like the warm blanket lending its comforting weight on your body on cold nights when the dark comes early and I’m not tired yet but you fall asleep almost immediately, anyway; this man who randomly bursts into song with disembodied lines from every musical he’s ever heard, who makes up lyrics when he doesn’t know the words, and who takes the entire song completely out of context, but still you understand it; this man who puts you to bed with a magic spell – go to bed with a 1, 2, 3 - and wakes you with a sing-song invitation to come to the faire; this man who needs only to crook his index finger to send you into peals of hysterical laughter and who lulls you into forgetting, while you’re watching that finger, that he’s got another one just like it circling around out of your vision to find the tickle spot just under your ribs; this man who turns compliant black cats into Russian ushankas and stiffly demands your papers; this quiet man who yells for those same cats from the back door at dusk in a voice that can be heard far beyond the neighborhood and that rattles the glasses in the cabinet, but that never fails to result in little black lawn lions emerging from the veld eager for their supper; this man who demands of you your very best work because that’s what he demands of himself; this man who allows you, even at your advanced ages, to sit on his lap or to sock-ski around the kitchen while hanging on, at both your peril, to the pockets of his jeans as he runs laps around the linoleum; this man who does not flinch at nail polish or tampons, and who is better at keeping your birthday parties running than your mother could ever be; this man who works at a job he doesn’t love because it gives him the freedom to be home in 7 minutes if that’s what’s required – or wanted – and which lets him sit in the bleachers for band concerts and climb on the bus to chaperone field trips; this man who does laundry and vacuums and changes sheets with the same kind of ease with which he wields a wrench in service to a fussy washing machine or swings a hammer to build a shed; this man who grills a killer steak and can whip a cheese soufflé that his girls almost beat one another with their spoons to get to first; this man who gives up his baseball game on ESPN for a couple of episodes of Phineas and Ferb on the Disney Channel; this man who carried you around like a tiny, wriggling footballs and perfected his interpretation of the baby burrito and bathed you every single night in a cloud of bubbles don’t poach the baby; this man who has taught you how to climb the stairs and ride a bike and tie a knot and who will teach you how to pack for school and pay your bills and work a clutch – though mom will cover parallel parking; this man who plans vacations that balance perfectly staid historical tours with noisy water parks; this man who teaches you what love looks like as he sweeps your mother into a music-less dance in the dining room or hands her a book after supper – go to bed; I’ll clean the kitchen; this man who has set the bar for your definition of manhood so impossibly high that your mother wonders whether he has ruined every boy in your futures because none of them could ever measure up, but you will love them, anyway.

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Adding On

Here’s where I went with the rest stop prompt:

Two people meet at a rest stop…

She’s driving a dark blue Kawasaki Ninja, and he’s intrigued by the way she guides the thing, like a missile, into the narrow space he left between his rusting Toyota pickup and the Coke machine.  He watches, holding the end of Steinway’s leash, as she feeds five quarters into the machine and jabs with a closed fist the button for Diet, listens as the can makes its way through the chute and falls to the door.  She lifts the can, pops the top, and takes a sip before she notices him standing there.  She nods at him, a faint smile, and says “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a dog that big.”

“Steinway’s a handful,” he said.  “I’m not exactly sure how he happened, but I suspect that he’s a mix between a St. Bernard and Sasquatch.”

She snorted a little giggle, took another sip of her Coke, and put her helmet, sparkling the same dark blue as her bike, on the ground to ruffle Steinway’s ears.  Whether in sympathy for his owner or his own laziness, the enormous dog immediately flopped to the ground and rolled over, begging to have his belly rubbed.  “Not exactly a dangerous pooch, I see,” she said as she set the can next to the helmet to dig in with both hands.  Steinway’s left rear leg twitched as his enormous tail swept a wide arc in the grass beneath him.

“Nice bike,” he said.  “How fast have you managed to get it going?”

“Well, that depends,” she said, “if you’re a cop, my answer is ‘65, officer.’  If you’re an accountant or something, that number changes to 140.”

“I’m a teacher,” he said, “so you’re safe.  Where are you heading in such a hurry” he joked, though he could tell, as soon as the words were out, that it was the wrong thing to say.  She clouded over, stood up, and tried to shake Steinway fur from between her fingers.  “I’m not really going anywhere in particular,” she said.  “It’s a good afternoon for a ride on the highway, that’s all.”

“I’m coming back from visiting my parents,” he offered, a hint of awkward apology in his voice, though he had no idea what he was sorry for.  “They don’t  have grandkids, so I like to bring Steinway by every couple of months.  I’m pretty sure he has more fun than they do; Mom doesn’t complain much about the drool, but I see her wiping up when she thinks I’m not looking.  He loves it, though; he can’t get enough of riding in the car.”

“I’m surprised he fits,” she said, eyeing the little truck next to her bike.  “Though I suppose you have an easier time moving him around than I would.”

”I don’t know,” he said, glancing down at the still lounging mass of fur and slobber at his feet, “I’m not sure he wouldn’t try to go home with you if you asked him.”

She tipped back the last of the Coke, then crouched to give Steinway one last scritch before scooping up her helmet and turning back to the parking lot.  “It was great talking to you,” she said.  “Maybe I’ll see you again; it’s not like you’d be hard to miss with that traveling companion of yours.”  She tossed the can in the trash, donned the helmet, and swung her leg over the bike.  A quick kick and a rev of engine, and she was gone.  He waited until he couldn’t hear the whine of her bike anymore before he nudged Steinway back to his giant feet and led him to his seat in the truck.

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Three Minute Prompts

This afternoon was spent with a pile of writing prompts we generated, and here’s what I came up with. I think there are a number of these I can work with (we were only given three minutes for each idea, after all).

Two people meet at a rest stop…

She’s driving a dark blue Kawasaki Ninja, and he’s intrigued by the way she guides the thing, like a missile, into the narrow space he left between his rusting Toyota pickup and the Coke machine. He watches, holding the end of Steinway’s leash, as she feeds five quarters into the machine and jabs with a closed fist the button for Diet, listens as the can makes its way through the chute, and falls to the door. She lifts the can, pops the top, and takes a sip before she notices him standing there.

Pick your favorite cartoon character and don the person:

(I came up with nothing for this one; I tried to write like Hobbes, and then I thought about trying to write like Mushu from Mulan, but I still came up with nothing…)

Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans…

Before they knew it, they’d been married 14 years. Of course, they’d planned that – they didn’t go into this exercise thinking it’d be a short-term thing – but it seemed like all of a sudden they looked up and had two teenage daughters and were nearly halfway through their mortgage. Not bad, when they stopped to think about it , which they almost never did. Neither of them longed for any other view out their window, in fact, they joked that their marriage had a fifteen year warranty and that they needed to renew that sucker next year. Oil change and tune up, they’d say, new spark plugs and tires.

This is where I want to go…

“Life isn’t the destination, it’s the journey,” they say. Yeah, whatever. After so many years of setting goals – finish high school, get into college, Master’s degree – after so many years of working toward something, it’s nice to, you know, finally BE here. I can appreciate that everything that happened before leads us to our places – whatever those places are – but I don’t get the people who can’t be happy. Why do we use the word “settle” like it’s a bad thing; “you get what you settle for.” Settling for what you want is kind of the point, isn’t it? If you can’t do that, you’re always waiting for the next thing, always hoping it will be better after the next milestone, always seeing greener grass. I like my lawn just fine, thank you very much.

Write about a fear….

I fear the monster that may or may not be in my closet. I fear whatever it is that sends my heart rate racing and my insides clenching at something stupid and trivial; something that doesn’t matter a bit in any scheme of things, grand or not. I fear the day when I go to the door, expecting a Girl Scout or the kid across the street, and come face to face with my biological mother, unprepared for whatever she comes bearing, olive branch or club. I fear that my words won’t be sufficient to convey the enormity of my feeling, that my message won’t get through, that I won’t be enough.

It was a cold fall, and the wind came down from the mountains…

As he pulled the cord that hauled the garage door closed, he saw the kitchen light turn off. She had finished the dishes while he cleaned up the leavings of the long overdue oil change, and as he walked in rubbing grease from his fingers on a rag that used to be his favorite shirt, she called to him from upstairs, “don’t forget to latch the screen door; it’s going to be a windy night.” The downstairs smelled faintly of smoke blown back through the stove pipe, the black hulk in the corner merrily radiating waves of comforting heat that were just intense enough to keep the cats at bay. One of them, the orange tiger, got up, stretched, and followed him as he left his coat on the hook by the door and made his way up the stairs.

Eating…

I don’t understand people who eat to live. I mean, sure; I get the idea of healthy diets and balanced meals, but it seems to me that the people who are most concerned about those things miss out on the sheer joy of eating. I remember the scene in Ratatouille where Remy is trying to explain to his brother what real eating is; the mixture of taste and texture, the subtlety of the perfect flavor, and I wonder how people can live on salad and energy bars. I wonder at my children in this way, too; glorious little gluttons, I’m often amazed that they can taste anything, and I’ve spent most of their whole lives trying to teach them the meaning of “savor.” I don’t waste the good chocolate on the kids; Hershey Kisses will do until they learn to really appreciate their food.

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First Draft: Falling Apples

Driving to school this morning, I listened as a neuroscientist
told the world that he has the brain of a psychopath.
There are biological components
to how we behave, he explained, and he discovered that killer’s brains
make different patterns of light and color in the PET scanner
than those of people who keep their hands to themselves.

His mother, whatever her motives but with a knowing certainty,
spurred him to shake
his father’s family tree
to see what fell out.
Cousin Lizzie Borden, she of the famous Fall River Axe,
lurks among the branches,
along with no fewer than seven
other decidedly rotten apples.
Looking at the colorful map of his own brain,
our intrepid scientist learns that, but for the grace
of parents who loved him well as a child,
he could have been rotten, too.

In defense of our dreams, we are the kings and queens of promise.
Nature and nurture vie for supremacy
in a never ending push and pull of aspiration and desire,
and what wins out depends on an astonishingly delicate balance,
razor thin and just as sharp.

At what moment did our neuroscientist murder
the psychopath he has all the markers for being?

At what point did I brick off
the path that led,
with clear certainty,
to bitter desperation?

It is said that, until the moment of choice,
all possibilities exist in the same span
of time and space;
that it is not until the coin actually lands
heads up
that the tails becomes an impossibility.

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First Draft: Fourteen

My husband and I celebrate 14 years of marriage today (or, we would be celebrating, except that he’s away on business and I’m at this writing conference, but that’s kind of beside the point).

To commemorate the day, I worked out this first attempt at a poem.  Now, I should note here that I’m not a poet… at least, not yet.  I have a great deal of appreciation for poets; I marvel at the way just these few words can unearth so much meaning.  I remember explaining to my kids once that writing poetry is like making maple syrup; the idea is to take these gallons and gallons of feelings and experiences and boil them down to a few sweet, rich, perfectly balanced words.  I also use a keyhole metaphor; poetry is this tiny little opening through which one can see whole worlds.

I haven’t quite got there yet, though I have to admit that I’ve not worked too terribly hard at poetry, either.  I’ve been thinking more about it, though, since taking Will into my classroom.  He has a gorgeous way with poetry (I may ask him permission to post his piece about writing the dates on the bellies of stars), and the truth of the matter is that I aspire to write with the kind of depth and intensity that he does.  I’m still dabbling at this poetry stuff, though, and I’m still trying to find whatever it is – my stride, my rhythm, my feet beneath me – that will make it click.

I wrote most of this piece in my head in the car on my way home from yesterday’s workshop.  I’m not sure I like it… yet.  I find, as a result of keeping a couple of blogs, that I do a lot of personal writing; there’s a lot of “I” in my work.  For this reason (and because we had a really great conversation in my workshop yesterday about using voice to create a creative and critical distance from an experience), I decided to try to write this in the third person.  I like the effect of it, but I’m not sure I’ve captured yet what I’m really looking to convey with this.

I beg for welcome your critique.  Please; ask me questions, make suggestions, or even tear it apart.  I want to figure out what my poet sounds like, and I’d like your help in finding her.

People say that they can finish each other’s sentences,
but what those people don’t understand
is that they don’t need to.
Words are unnecessary.
Their shared vocabulary
is wide and deep
and most often conveyed
with the twitch of an eyebrow
or a sly glance.

They dance to each other’s music
their movements quick and light
and seemingly effortless
to those looking in
on this pair as they move through the world
in near perfect rhythm
never once looking down at their feet.

Their world is made of innumerable small things.
She doesn’t eat breakfast, but makes sure
his favorite cereal is always in the cupboard.
He doesn’t mind the cold, and so
ventures into the freezing basement in winter
to retrieve the laundry.

To those looking in, the facts don’t add up;
how can so much mundane and commonplace
equal such unmistakable contentment?
Yet there they are,
still radiating
their particular brand of quiet, certain, and
unshakable joy.

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The First Draft of the First Draft

We workshopped this afternoon, and I decided to present the first of the three drafts I posted in the entry below.

We were seven including me, and the deal was that we would read the piece we chose out loud while our workshop partners listened and read along.  That was the only talking the author was allowed to do; once the final word of the piece was spoken, the writer had to sit silent while the others conferenced about the work.

It was wonderful.  I am used to responding to questions that my readers have in real time, so it was a new and exciting experience to watch my colleagues talk amongst themselves about my writing (as we do in classes when we talk about the things we read; the authors aren’t there to tell us whether we’re on the right track).  I came away with some really interesting insights into how other people see my work, and some really great ideas about how to make my writing say what I really mean.

I’m going to do some more work on that first piece, trying to incorporate some of the suggestions that my peers made.  When I get a revision done, I’ll post it.

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