Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “The Rear Window” was about a photographer who was stranded in his house with a broken leg. He begins to watch his neighbors’ comings and goings through his telephoto lens. Then he witnesses a murder, but no one believes him. He enlists his friends’ help—and his beautiful girlfriend played by Grace Kelly—to prove his neighbor murdered his wife.

In Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Main Street, Mrs. Dr. Kennicott is a newbie in a small closeknit town. She feels she is an outsider under scrutiny as well as the town’s current curiosity. In one scene she overhears a group of boys and their observations of her from outside her living room window. One boy imitates her mannerisms and ridicules the way she tried to straighten a painting on her living room wall. In another scene while strolling through town, she observes her neighbors watching her from behind their curtains and shrubs. But were they watching her as much as she imagined? Her paranoia might have been a product of her sensitivity to being an outsider.

Many of my characters in my novel, Living in the City, were inspired by real-life neighbors (or compilations of them). A man who drove around the neighborhood in an ice cream truck and sold carnival toys and cotton candy up and down the alley was the inspiration for my character Junior, who called himself an entrepreneur. As the novel went on, this scrungy man who at first I didn’t like became a lovable, eccentric man I enjoyed spending time with.

What’s outside your window? Who’s coming and going? Who has lived in your neighbors’ houses? What conflicts do your neighbors have with themselves, their families, or each other? What are the neighbors are saying about each other? We can approach writing about our neighbors from various angles.

First write about what is going on outside your window from an objective point of view. Report what you see without editorializing. For instance, Mrs. Adams and her chubby daughters are planting marigolds around the mailbox. Chris, the 17-year-old boy bolts through the door and hops into the back of a waiting pick up truck with four other boys. One boy tosses out a beer can. The boys whoop and holler, the truck tires squeal, and Mrs. Adams runs after them, shouting and shaking a trowel. After you’ve written a page or so, ask questions regarding the scene you just reported. What is going on between the mother and her children? What will happen next? What are their individual conflicts? Freewrite from each of their points of view. Try exaggerating one of more character traits. Try this exercise at different times of the day and from different vantage points. If you can’t answer the questions to your original reportage, tuck the piece away for later. Another variation is to string the individual scenes together to form a longer story. Also, try this from the angle of the Sinclair Lewis scenes. Write what your character thinks her neighbors think of her. Or combine the variations. The variations are as limitless as your imagination.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Unlikely Friends

I recently finished a 5-week training class for my job. Including our patient instructor, there were twelve of us. We ranged in ages from 22 to 44 and came from various backgrounds. We instantly bonded, and each day was something to look forward to. The instructor and my new friends made work not seem like work at all. There were random moments when someone would break into song, and the rest of us would join in. We were a rambunctious bunch. I have a deep fondness for everyone I’ve met. Because of our various backgrounds, we may have never met, except maybe to discuss the attributes of avocadoes in our local produce department. We’ve stayed in touch through silly emails and by visiting each other at our respective cubicles, and we’re planning a picnic this coming weekend. To say it warms my heart every time I think of them seems so inadequate. I’ve been given a wonderful gift.

In a 1991 movie called “Married to It” three couples who at first glance seem to have nothing in common are thrown together. The first couple is a young professional couple from Iowa. The young husband is a stockbroker, and his wife is a school psychologist. The second couple is a pair of former hippies (love beads and all) who have two sons who attend the school where the young psychologist works. The third couple is a man working on his second marriage to a wealthy socialite. He has a 13-year-old daughter from his previous marriage. The three women meet at a school function and end up on the same committee. When they have their first meeting, there are long blocks of silence and tension in the air. With each consecutive meeting, these three couples find they have more to talk about, more in common. When the young stockbroker gets into trouble, and the man who’s been married a second time have problems, they discover the meaning of friendship. These unlikely friends support and trust each other.

For this exercise you’re going to create three unlikely friends (or couples) and throw them together in a situation. They don’t need to become friends, as in the movie, but they must have something in common. To begin, freewrite for ten or fifteen minutes to brainstorm ideas. If it’s easier, do a character sketch for your three characters. Each has a conflict. In one or two sentences, write their conflicts. Outline your story. How do they get together? What do they have in common? What are the dynamics of their relationship? Do they part friends, enemies, or indifferent?

Now write one scene for each of your characters showing them at home in the world. For instance, the young psychologist is settling into her closet-office. The socialite and her husband enjoy a lavish dinner. The former hippie couple are in their noisy home trying to have dinner with their two boys. Remember to use sensory details like sights, sounds, smells, etc.

For your next scene, create a situation which throws your characters together. Are they at a party? A school function? A gallery opening? The grocery store? Use description, dialogue and action. How do they treat one another? Do they resist each other? Become friends? What? Let your characters guide you. Use your imagination. If you want, continue writing the rest of the story. The genre is of your choosing. You may use any source to create your characters. Create them from scratch or use characters you’ve already created, or use characters from several published works. As always, have fun with it!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Mother of Mother's Day

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the observance of Mother’s Day. While Anna Jarvis is credited with the observance, Julia Ward Howe was the first to suggest a national observance.

Anna Jarvis was known as the Mother of Mother’s Day. She never married nor had children. Ms. Jarvis was inspired by her own mother, Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis, who expressed a desire to pay tribute to all mothers, both living and dead, for all their contributions. Anna’s mother was a community activist and a social worker. Most noted were her efforts to heal the divide between north and central West Virginia after the Civil War by organizing Mothers’ Friendship Day. In her community she fought for improved sanitation. For 22 years she taught Sunday School at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church. She was a popular public speaker, uncommon for a woman in those days. When she died in 1905, the church bells tolled 72 times in her honor.

After her mother’s death, Anna Jarvis became more resolved in establishing a Mother’s Day. She distributed white carnations during a church service at the West Virginia church. She chose white carnations because carnations were her mother’s favorite flower, and white because she felt it represented the purity of a mother’s love. She and other supporters lobbied for an official observance of Mother’s Day. West Virginia was the first state to recognize it as a holiday. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson approved a resolution to designate the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

This should have pleased Anna Jarvis, but instead, the observances upset her. She argued that Mother’s Day had turned into a commercialized event. She became notorious for her criticism of those who purchased greeting cards and accused them of being to lazy to write personal letters to “the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Before her death in 1948 Jarvis publicly protested a Mother’s Day celebration in New York City and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She was bitter and angry about what the Mother’s Day observance had become. She said she “wished [I] had never started the day because it became so out of control.”

In your writings this week, think about things you were initially passionate about, but in the end did not turn out as you intended. Maybe as in Jarvis’ case, things got out of control. You might want to start with a freewrite with “I am passionate about…” or “I want…” or “I wish…” Another suggestion is to freewrite about things going out of control. Freewrite for at least fifteen minutes and see where it takes you. As always…have fun with it!

Joyce Maynard, one of my favorite authors wrote a touching essay on Mother's Day. Here's the link: http://www.joycemaynard.com/home.shtml
[Note: Scroll midway down the page until you see "Letter From Joyce.]

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Newspapers, Obituaries and "Dear Abby"

A newspaper article about a Texas girl who cut Elvis Presley’s name into her forehead was the inspiration for Anne Tyler’s novel, The Slipping Down Life. Flannery O’Connor admitted to collecting “oddities” from the newspaper. Joyce Carol Oates has used newspapers, the Ann Landers columns and True Confessions magazines for sources of her stories. In her essay, “The Nature of Short Fiction,” Oates wrote, “…it is the very skeletal nature of the newspaper, I think, that attracts me to it, the need it inspires in me to give flesh to such neatly and thinly-told tales, to resurrect this event which has already become history and will never be understood unless it is re-lived, redramatized.” Some examples of stories that resulted from such collecting are, “Where are you going, Where have you been?” and her novel, Black Water.

If you haven't already done so, I recommend starting an idea file. Cut out news stories, obituaries, photos, columns, or whatever else sparks interest. Read the tabloids as well as your local newspaper. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have an idea to go with the clipping yet. From time to time flip through your file. Ask, “What if?” Freewrite or cluster ideas.

Usually news stories report the end of the story, like, for instance, the crime for which the criminal was arrested or the winner of the bologna eating contest. You have to supply the details which led up to the headline. Or ask, “What happened next?” and construct your story that way. After reading an advice column, I often wonder what happened. Did the letter writer take the columnist’s advice? Did the situation get worse? The columnist could become part of the story as well.

Sometimes larger newspapers, like The New York Times, include essays about newly married or affianced couples which include details about how they met. Try obituaries. Sometimes they include extensive bios. Fill in whatever details that aren’t supplied. Read the personal ads and the classifieds. List the ad poster’s conflicts. Create a profile. Mix and match details and wants from several ads. Write a scene where your characters meet for the first time. If you have a story idea, keep going.

As always, have fun with it!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Eggs

A year ago, if you had said the words, "Easter egg," to me, you would have received either a flat response or a cynical remark. And I never would have imagined that I, as a middle-aged adult, would ever be coloring Easter eggs and smiling about it.

This past Good Friday, my sweetheart and I colored Easter eggs. We were at his sister's farmhouse with her family. Mozart's Requiem played in the background. Spread all over the table were various types of dyes, the traditional vinegar and water ones as well as the new-fangled Q-tips with the dyes built in. I colored my eggs tentatively, afraid to experiment, lest I dye an ugly egg no one would want to look at, much less eat. The youngest participant, 18-year-old Leo, approached our egg decorating the Natalie Goldberg method. His first egg he decorated (with his girlfriend's encouragement) as ugly as he could. After that, his eggs were artistic with complicated designs. sister Kathy was absorbed mostly with silent concentration and furrowed brow as she made each egg look like a luscious piece of fruit. At one point, my sweetheart donned a jewler's loupe as he etched teeny words,"DO NOT EAT" on a robin's egg blue Easter egg.

Amazing what the years do to shift one's perception of things. Until recently, the memory of Easter Egg hunts elicited groans. I remember being shouted at not to snag my scratchy Easter dress on the azaela bushes or to not scuff my white patent leather shoes as I peeked under daffodils for brightly colored eggs. We had pretty Easter baskets, but after the flashbulbs were spent, we could not touch them and had to wait for Mother to dole out the sweets. Now Easter egg hunts make me laugh mischievously, and make me wish I had started planning ours weeks ago. Kathy's husband sends her and their daughter yearly Easter egg hunts that take an entire day and a tank of gas. I laugh when I think about the fun I could have with that.

When you write this week, think about your shifts in perception regarding family traditions and holidays. Maybe there wasn't a whole lot of thought or tradition given to your holidays. Write everything you can remember (try daily freewrites of at least ten minutes each) until you can't think of anything else. Tuck those writings away until the same time next year. Then write about the same subject. When you are finished, compare the freewrites. Can you detect any changes in perceptions...yet? And as always...have fun with it!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Our Dreams

A few years ago after my uncle’s funeral, I had a dream I still remember clearly. I was running, and breathlessly, I ended up in front of a beautiful brick house. The front lawn was filled with birdhouses—not those square boxes with a hole, but rather, beautiful scale models of Victorian homes with gingerbread trim. My cousin opened the door and ushered me in. Every time we tried to speak, someone new arrived and interrupted our conversation. Soon his living room was crowded with relatives, dead and alive.

For a long time I tried to figure out what this dream meant. Why would I be dreaming about this cousin? We had lost touch, seeing each other only at family funerals. Why were the dead relatives in his living room? And what was the urgent subject of the conversation we never finished? I looked for messages and warnings. Maybe I was supposed to call my cousin. Maybe the birdhouses symbolized something. I was grasping for a logical meaning. I never figured out what the dream was supposed to mean, if anything. Now I have a recurring dream about a white house. In some dreams it crashes into the ocean. I’m not going to drive myself crazy trying to figure out what that one means.

Dreams don’t have to mean anything. According to a therapist I know, she says dreams don’t mean anything unless they’re about your mother or umbrellas. I’m not sure if she was kidding. I bought a dream dictionary anyway. Instead of trying to find a logical meaning in our dreams, we should focus on the vivid images, the colors, the lights, the feeling that sticks in our gut when we wake up. Hone in on those images and jot them down.

In her book, Word Painting, Rebecca McClanahan suggests if we stop trying to figure out our dreams in order to "apply our conscious minds to the unconscious mind it is painting," we may begin to feel the power of the images. We can use those images in our own writing. Or you can use your dreams to help unblock your writing. Amy Tan would let her dreams help solve her story endings. Dreams may also be a source of story ideas. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice was sparked by a dream. I used the actual dream I mentioned at the beginning in my short story, "Dead Relatives."

Keep a dream journal at your bedside. Record your dreams upon awakening, while they’re still fresh. Record as many details as you can remember—textures, colors, smells, sounds, lighting, and the feeling in your gut. Use your dream journal to record daydreams or other reverie. If you get into the habit of recording your dreams, you’ll probably remember them more and remember more details. After a week, review your journal. Are there any echoing themes or images? What images evoke strong negative or positive reactions? Freewrite about those. Can you use them in your other writing? Maybe an image fits into a short story you’re been working on. Or it is the ideal image with which you can start an article. It'’ possible to find a story idea in your dreams. Dreams lack the logical cause and effect sequence of fiction, but they can be seeds for stories. Or use them in stories, as I did.

Let’s go back to my recurring dream. In trying to figure out what it meant, I asked a lot of questions: Why were there dead relatives in the living room? What was the urgent subject of the conversation we never finished? Who made all the birdhouses? If I answer these questions, they could be bases for story conflicts. Pull out one of your dreams. Ask the five basic questions: Why? What? When? Where? How? Why? Then write possible answers for these questions. Remember, you’re not trying to interpret what the dream means. You’re brainstorming story ideas. If nothing comes to you at the moment, set it aside. An idea may come to you later, perhaps while you’re dreaming.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Thin Threads

Kiwi Publishing is hosting a Thin Threads Story Collection contest. The publisher defines a thin thread as "a moment that led to a positive change (not a thought through process or decision)." We make decisions on a daily basis. What to wear. What to eat for breakfast. Paper or plastic? Sometimes the decision is impulsive, and the result is life-altering.

Months ago, I made the decision to leave my bad marriage and move in with my dad who has dementia. Within twenty-four hours of making that decision, I packed whatever possessions I could fit into my VW. While I had had years of experience taking care of Alzheimer's and dementia patients, I was prepared for what I would face in trying to take care of my dad. It was a daily grieving process. I can't tell you the number of times I sat on the floor, crying on the phone to anyone who would listen, "I can't do this anymore." Somehow I managed, and meanwhile, I bounced through the five stages of grief, staying in some stages more than the others. I hate to admit, there were times I regretted my decision and was ready to go back to my marriage, as unstable and ugly as it was.

My life has changed for the better. I didn't have much help taking care of my father. The one person who did, was a childhood friend. Through the years, he became close to my dad, probably closer than I was able to be. Whenever I needed help, he was always right there. To use the cliche, one thing led to another, and now we're planning to get married someday.

Think about your own forks in the road. Were any of the decisions life-altering? Kiwi Publishing asks these questions to help you define your thin thread: Did you ever find yourself in a strange place or had any strange encounters? Did you ever make an impulsive decision that ended up changing your life for the better? What were you doing when you met your spouse or partner?

Set your timer for ten minutes and freewrite about "thin threads," "a fork in the road" or any similar theme. If you're interested in submitting your polished piece to Kiwi Publishing, the submission guidelines are here. Also, come join me in the discussion. See you there!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Creating Drama

I've been reading Julia Cameron's book, Finding Water. Today I read something that struck a deep, resounding chord within me. She wrote, "Artists love drama and when we do not create it on the page or on the stage, we often create it in our lives." While I've been avoiding being wrangled into other people's dramas, I've been using my own as excuses for not writing. My dad has dementia and I'm his primary caregiver, his nurse, his maid, his cook and personal shopper. My impending divorce is getting messy. I have to find a real job. I can't write because I'm too uspet, angry or busy. I can't write because Daddy doesn't let me.

Yesterday morning I allowed myself to get so stressed out that I accomplished nothing. I kept complaining about having too much to do. As soon as I started one task, I found ten others that were undone. I became angry with the world because I didn't have enough "me" time. Then I felt guilty for being so selfish. I had allowed myself to get caught up in my own vicious circle. Nothing was getting done.

"I want to write, but no one is letting me," I yelled at my cats who were really starting to work my last nerve because they were getting in my way.

My dad was safely at his adult day care, and I had several hours before I had to pick him up. He certainly wasn't keeping me from writing. I turned off the television and the vacuum cleaner and went to my desk. I started to write. Almost immediately, I felt better. After writing non-stop for two hours, I didn't feel so overwhelmed with the other aspects of my life. The drama I was creating on the page was much more interesting and satisfying that the drama I had created in my brain. I was more patient with Dad and his asking the same question over and over again. He became more pleasant, maybe because for once I felt relaxed. This morning as I drove through the rain to take my dad to day care, we laughed and joked. He didn't try to jump out of the car before we arrived at the facility. I knew I would be going home to write. I couldn't wait to fill up blank pages and to spend the day with my characters.

Cameron also writes, "We hear so often that the artist's temperament is restless, irritable, and discontented. All of that is very true--when we are not working." She suggests that we are "restless, irritable, and discontent because we are not cherishing the life we have." I especially like her line, "Any life--and I mean any--has some things in it that are well worth noticing and appreciating." For our writing exercise, I'm going to borrow Cameron's. Write a list of ten things that you cherish in your life. For instance, "I cherish another day with my dad," or "I cherish the smell of coffee as I get out of bed." Cameron says that the things you cherish may surprise you and you may not cherish the things you think you "should." If you have time, do a ten-minute freewrite on at least one from your list. Feel free to share your lists here.