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:
[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!