Cantaloupe

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I’d like to credit the book 3AM Epiphany by Brian Kitely for the following writing exercise…

Looking Backwards. Write according to the following rigorous formula: Tell a story from a person’s childhood, using three sentences from deep inside the child’s POV(letting the adult mind interfere as little as possible) and then five sentences from the adult’s POV. Keep going back and forth this way. Show us both the very adult feelings of the narrator and the very childlike (and hence mystified or incompletely understood) feelings. Don’t let the child know more than the adult. The adult version of this self is always removed from the moment, always a bit more relaxed. 700 words.

As I read the various exercises in the book I selected this one because it immediately grabbed my attention and inspired me. It was a pleasure writing this memory from my own childhood. The following is a true story.

Miss O’Lenski told us there’d be a fire drill that day but I forgot. The alarm went off and it was so loud I got scared. We were supposed to walk in single file but I ran.

At eight years old, it’s my first memory of a fire drill but the day was a memorable one all around. It started with the evacuation but then I panicked and fell down a flight of steps, twisted my ankle and had to go to the nurse’s office. It was pretty swollen and appeared to be sprained so the nurse called my mother. I was a clumsy kid so my mom wasn’t at all shocked when she had to leave work and get me. She came right away, brought me home, laid me down and told me to elevate my leg.

When my brother got home from school, I was on the couch. He was being mean and wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t get him to stop it so I yelled, “Dad!”

When my father saw what my brother was doing, he shouted, “Franklin, I swear to God, if you drop that cantaloupe on your sister’s face, I’m going to kick your ass!” To which, my smart aleck brother scoffed and said, “I’m not gonna hit her with it, Dad. I’m just messin’ with her.” My father quietly sat, watched and waited as my brother continued to toss that cantaloupe from one hand to the other. Frank laughed every time I flinched which was every time he caught it within mere inches from my face.

He threw it like a million times. I was scared he’d miss. I kept telling him to stop but he called me a baby. 

Meanwhile, the phone rang and my mom answered it. It was an old rotary phone, beige and attached to the wall, and as she anxiously paced the room the cord stretched and twisted around her. My brother, father and I were far too busy with our cantaloupe drama to pay any attention to her or to the conversation she was having. But apparently it was a producer calling from one of those spin-the-wheel-and-then-answer-a-trivia-question game shows popular back in the 80s. She excitedly jumped up, switched on the television and then turned and shushed us.

Frankie was looking at Mom the last time he threw the cantaloupe. He missed. It hit me right in the face.

Over the years my mom must have told me a dozen times but for the life of me I cannot recall the question she was asked but she answered correctly and won $3000. She jumped up and screamed, and the next thing I remember is our neighbors rushing in to congratulate and hug her. I clutched my nose with both hands and cried hysterically while my dad shouted and chased my brother around the house. Suddenly I was invisible and not exactly happy about that. The worst part was that after being sent home from school one day with a sprained ankle I returned the next day with two black eyes.

My stupid brother broke my nose!  It hurt so bad I couldn’t stop crying. Nobody even cared.

That’s the story about how my brother broke my nose with a cantaloupe. Though our mom remembers it as the day she won the money that paid off our house. And oddly enough our dad hardly remembers it at all. I know Frank didn’t mean to actually hurt me; he was just being a kid and trying to be funny. And in retrospect it was funny and even though it really sucked I still laugh every time I think about it.

The next day at school everyone asked me what happened. I told the truth. They still called my mom.

Earlier this year, 28 years later, I finally went to see an ear, nose and throat specialist. When the doctor asked me what happened I told him this story. He laughed and said he didn’t expect my reply. Then he scoped my nose and diagnosed me with a deviated septum. Afterwards, I called my brother and told him all about it. I even threatened to send him the bill.

Saturn in Scorpio: My Personal To Do List

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This may seem silly but since I’m a Scorpio and since Saturn has entered Scorpio’s first house and will be hanging around for the next almost three years, I decided to make myself a “short” To Do list.

I have a lot to accomplish and Saturn is sort of like a personal trainer. Saturn pushes hard and makes sure we learn the lessons we need to learn and do the things we say we want to do. In a nutshell, Saturn makes sure we stick to our word.

I think Saturn and I will get along just fine.

Val’s to do list for Saturn in Scorpio:

  1. Write write write!!! Get my novels published. Sell my screenplays.
  2. Study. Learn. Get good grades. Graduate.
  3. Lose weight. Join Weight Watchers. Go to meetings. Work out.
  4. Eat healthy. More vegetables. More fruit. Less junk.
  5. Save money. Spend less. Pay off debt.
  6. Meditate. Burn candles. Connect with nature.
  7. Take more baths. Relax. Get massages and reflexology.
  8. Sleep more. Take naps. Rest.
  9. Clean house. Get rid of unnecessary things. Dust. Clean car.
  10. Whiten teeth. Shower. Moisturize. Paint nails. Dress up.
  11. Ignore toxic people. Leave the past behind. Forgive and forget.

Okay, now someone remind me in 3 years to come back and check the list to see if I actually did (and more importantly continued to do) the things I’ve set out to do.

I hope you accomplish everything you set out to accomplish, too.

xoxo

That Evening Sun – William Faulkner

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It’s been one of those weeks, and I must confess when I first read this my mind just wasn’t in it. That may be why I fought my way through during my initial read. I had to sometimes read things over again just to figure out what was being said and, to be honest, I found that incredibly annoying. I struggled with what seemed like grammatical flaws and purposeful misspellings. I had trouble with the diction itself and, at times, I found the dialogue almost mockingly horrendous—even flamboyantly racist here and there. There were moments when I found myself scratching my head, like at the seemingly superfluous use of the word “nigger” and asking myself did the author really say that… again?   

That said there was a point where everything just clicked for me. I found the rhythm and a purpose in the redundancies. I started feeling what Faulkner was attempting to accomplish and it began flowing for me somehow. The story started coming together and it gripped me powerfully. Suddenly, I was amazed how my perception could be swayed so quickly and so strongly, and what felt like a poor first impression became a potential lifelong friendship. When I started I couldn’t wait to finish and when I finished I started over and read it again.

I typed this paragraph so I could print it and post in my office:

Nancy whispered something. It was oh or no. I don’t know which. Like nobody had made it, like it came from nowhere and went nowhere, until it was like Nancy was not there at all; that I had looked so hard at her eyes on the stairs that they had got printed on my eyeballs, like the sun does when you have closed your eyes and there is no sun. “Jesus,” Nancy whispered. “Jesus.”

The way this paragraph is bookended with Nancy’s whisper with the narrator’s frightened, confused and innocent thoughts set in the middle really made this work for me.

I wish I could write sentences so awesomely authentic. Maybe I can. Thinking back to Prose and what she says about studying sentences, maybe I need to study these types of sentences more, break them down and figure out what caused my change of heart and inspired this connection. I don’t know. What I do know is that it takes courage to write something that people might not fully understand or even feel comfortable reading.

It took courage to write this and now I get that. 

Beautiful Sentences

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In  her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose writes, “By now you may be asking: what is a beautiful sentence? The answer is that beauty, in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face.”

She says this and I completely agree with it but then she goes on to point out specifics about what makes a sentence beautiful. That’s when I started to disagree. In reading her examples, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was maybe something wrong with me since the sentences Prose uses to define “beauty” and “good sentences” didn’t speak to me the way they spoke to her.

Doctor Johnson’s sentence on page 39, for example, that Prose uses to exemplify a good sentence felt wordy and overstated and, to me, the rhythm felt off. While the sentence is easy to understand it’s not exactly what I’d call beautiful.

This is the sentence:

It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.

And while Prose says “the quality that this sentence shares in common with all good sentences is first and most obviously clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.” I agree that the sentence, though long, is clear. But Prose goes on to say, “Despite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete.” I disagree.

Perhaps Prose is talking to (readers like) me when she says “the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word.” I love to read but I’m not always the most patient reader, I admit. As a recovering event planner, my motto has often been “keep it moving!” I tend to read fast and even skip a few words here and there when things get overly descriptive for me. And there are times when I need to go back and reread because I missed something critical.

So maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m in too big a hurry. And maybe I don’t, yet, understand true sentence beauty the way Francine Prose does. I certainly have a lot to learn. That’s why I’m here. But in addition to that, to use a favorite cliché of mine, perhaps it’s true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This cliché basically says the same thing as Prose when she says beauty is difficult to quantify.

I understand that as writers we try to steer clear of clichés and find more creative ways but sometimes (not always but sometimes) clichés work. Isn’t that how they came to be clichés in the first place?

More words packed into a sentence don’t necessarily mean more beauty. Beautiful sentences can also be concise. Sometimes short and long sentences say, more or less, the same thing. And (gasp!) in some cases, at least to me, clichés can be beautiful, too.

Writing Short Stories

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Joyce Carol Oates says, “Fairy tales are miniature narratives that typically begin Once upon a time and swiftly, sometimes bluntly summarize entire lives within a few paragraphs.”

Oates also says, “The miniature narrative is often most effective when boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘surreal’ are dissolved.

I’ve never been very good at writing short stories. I think this is mainly because so much needs to be covered in such a short span in a short story that my mind cramps trying to think how I might fit it all into just a few short pages.

It might seem silly but I get nervous thinking about them and tangled up writing them.
But, before now, I’d never thought of fairy tales as miniature narratives. 

Being the mother of a three-year-old girl, I’ve certainly read (and memorized) my fair share of fairy tales. I’ve even composed a few impromptu fairy tales typically at the bedtime request of my very own Princess Lyla (my daughter’s name and her preferred character title). All of which have been met with smiles and gleeful giggles. Of course, she’s not exactly the toughest critic and as long as she lives happily ever after in them, well, then she’s happy (and I am, too).

But using Oates’ thought process, maybe it is simply about dissolving that line between real and surreal. If dissolving the boundaries between real and surreal is what makes fairy tales more effective, then wouldn’t that be true of other types of writing, as well? In a fairy tale, those boundaries dissolve immediately, of course, as we open our minds in a carefree fashion to the magic behind fairies, frogs and princesses. But couldn’t we, as writers, achieve that same effect by working to dissolve that line between real and make believe in non-fairytales, as well?

Isn’t writing fiction about creating something that someone will be willing to believe in whether or not the subject in and of itself is naturally believable? Isn’t our job as writers to make our stories believable? Or perhaps it’s simply (or not-so-simply) to inspire our readers to believe.    

I believe it’s the pressure we put on ourselves that makes one thing seem more or less challenging to accomplish. What is a challenge to one is a piece of cake to another. For example, I’ve never been able to do a cartwheel. Ironically, my brother can. If you asked him, he’d claim he could never write a novel. I think he could if he put his mind to it. He’d say the same about me and that cartwheel. Clearly, we both have our fears.

These pages have inspired me to make a real attempt at a “real” fairy tale. Not just an off-the-cuff version of someone else’s tale with my daughter’s name and favorite past times slotted in but something tangible, written down and that other children might enjoy, as well. Maybe that will be the push that will help me conquer my silly little fear of short stories, too.

I’m still not ready for the cartwheel.

You Oxymoron!

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It was rush hour and I was on my way home from work in my Hyundai Excel sitting in traffic and going nowhere with a terrific headache and a mild case of PMS. I had nothing much planned for the evening and I was desperately in need of a quick fix so I decided to make a fast stop at the convenience store and pick up some non-aspirin, white chocolate, low fat ice cream and a tube of Icy Hot.

It was then when I remembered the bottle of dry wine my sweet mother-in-law gave me for my birthday and figured I might as well pick up something for dinner to complement it.

So I was standing all alone at the seafood counter trying to decide between the jumbo shrimp and the extra large shrimp. Both were on the daily special board though seemed enormously small and a whole lot freezer burnt.  I grabbed a can of genuine imitation crabmeat and turned to peek at the fresh fish and was stuck between the fresh frozen salmon and the catch of the day.  I was absolutely unsure which to choose when I was approached by a customer service associate who told me that there was a sale on boneless ribs in the meat department.  That was awfully nice of him, I thought, and off I went.

That’s when I spotted the biggest baby I’d ever seen! Good grief!  If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say the baby was an old newborn or maybe a young toddler and easily 50 pounds and all head. A head butt from that kid would knock you into next Tuesday! While that’s seriously funny it’s also a true story! And in case you think I’m exaggerating I’m nearly 100% sure that it’s actually a pretty accurate estimate.

While my brain was sadly amused my body was ridiculously horrified. The baby’s mother was enormously small, too. On first impression, I wondered was that even humanly possible? While common sense says no, it seemed like Mother Nature’s idea of a rather unfunny joke to me. Perhaps the most unbelievable part was that the woman was slightly pregnant again. The little tank was undeniably cute and favored his mother. She was awfully pretty and had the glow everyone’s always talking about. But all I kept thinking was ‘is she a glutton for punishment?’ That’s most definitely my initial conclusion since it didn’t seem like an easy labor and, Lord knows, our bodies aren’t exactly one size fits all.

But it’s really neither here nor there because it’s a free world. And what I see as her bad luck proved to be my good luck when I remembered to call in my prescription for birth control. It’ll be safe sex for me from here on out! So I whipped out my cell and used my free minutes to get it done. It may seem like insane logic to some but I’m no dimwit and I’m so not ready for that kind of a fine mess.

Then I realized I was still staring at her with a mean smile on my face. Not wanting to make a negative impact on her day, I had to tell myself to act naturally but I just couldn’t do it. So since I was almost done anyway I skipped the spare ribs, hopped in the self-checkout line and decided to stop for some good fast food–maybe a gourmet burger or chicken fajitas–on my way home instead.