Happily Ever After

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This exercise came from the book 4AM Breakthrough by Brian Kitely. The instructions say to write a 250 word story without repeating a single word. Each word must be different, even the title.

Whoa… this was hard! Not being able to repeat words like “the” or “a” and “an” proved pretty challenging! But to make it easier I chose to write it about my favorite muse: my daughter, Lyla. Awwww!

(Let me know if you spot any repeats!)

Happily Ever After:

Once upon a time (this one right now), there was an incredibly sweet, sassy, beautiful, bright, happy, healthy (thank God) 3-year-old little girl named Lyla Rain Henderson.

With passionate adoration for some pretty random if not wildly ordinary things, including but not limited to: vanilla ice cream, hugs, kisses, apple juice, family, friends, preschool, stars, triangles, octagons, shapes in general really, princesses, puppies, pirates, picnics, fairies, racecars, road trips, running, singing, dancing, ballet class, bologna, butterflies, baseball, the moon, stars, Looney Tunes, rainbows, horses, squirrels, cupcakes, castles, spaghetti, school busses, clouds, laughing, fruit (specifically bananas, strawberries, apples, pears, blueberries, cantaloupe…), vacation, movies, milk, McDonald’s, muddy puddles, playing games, reading, coloring, flowers, snacks, snow, knock-knock jokes, make believe, glitter, buttered toast, Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, toys, her hair, airplanes, fairy tales, scaring people, dresses, candy sprinkles, yogurt smoothies, green grass, taking baths, going fast, flying over railroad tracks, big trucks, hay bales, helping, holding hands, cornfields, carrots, crocodiles, edamame, using chopsticks (well, trying), magic, cardboard boxes, pancakes, presents, unicorns, Dora, being best friends, talking your ear off, telling stories, learning math (not me!), eating graham crackers (AKA: yummy rectangles), giving mosquito bites (you might say “pinching”), food shopping, swimming, smiling, stirring liquids (yeah!), swinging on swings, spinning herself dizzy and, finally, all things pink, she makes our world so much better just by being part of it.

Run-on? Maybe. Long list? Definitely. But it’s okay.

Another fortunate mommy, I love my daughter more than anything. Oops. Check that. Everything.

Word Count=250

“The Writer in the Family”

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This week’s lecture posed the questions: “Why do you write? What does it mean for you to be a writer? What do you want your stories and novels to do?”

I write because I love to write. Even when I don’t love what I’m writing or when the pain of writer’s block sets in, I continue to write because I love writing. It’s who I am. I’m a writer. I want my stories to fulfill my need to write them.

In the short story “The Writer in the Family,” E.L. Doctorow opens: “In 1955, my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” As a reader, I’m chuckling uncomfortably already and asking myself questions. For one, why doesn’t he refer to his father’s mother as grandma, nana, mum-mum or any other cutesy name we tend to use when describing our parents’ parents?

“The Writer in the Family” grabbed me immediately. Maybe it was the empty way the narrator spoke of his recently deceased father or maybe it was Doctorow’s snarky “ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” The way the story is narrated is both bitter and funny, and I love that. Would she have been dead in a nursing home? It also reminds me of the way we as people speak sarcastically of our families when we have deep-rooted, hard to understand issues with them.

Non-writers get to simply speak this stuff out. Whether the stuff, if you will, is good or bad, they talk about it, deal with it and move on. They brag about their kids at family functions, bash their in-laws in the form of a joke at a cocktail party, update a passive aggressive Facebook status or two, and/or commiserate mutual marital problems with friends over coffee. Or maybe they skip all of those middle men (and women) and go directly to a psychiatrist. Well, writers write. This is how we deal with it… whatever it is.

The part in the story I most related to came early. “You’re the writer in the family,” the narrator’s aunt says. She butters him up with flattery, lays on the guilt and then asks him to write a fake letter to his grandmother pretending to be his father. The narrator clearly doesn’t want to do this. Who would? But he goes on: “That evening, at the kitchen table, I pushed my homework aside and composed a letter.” He writes the letter and the aunt is brought to tears by it.

Being the writer in my family has its advantages and disadvantages, too. I get to be the “artistic” and the “creative” one. However, I also get to be the “moody” and “obsessive” one. I can’t argue. I am all of those things. I get to write all the resumes (my dad once said “you made me sound like me only better.”), cover letters, eulogies, holiday card messages, love poems, complaint and/or thank you letters which typically start out “dear sir or madam.” I get to proofread all the homework (well, all but math). Last week my brother Frank called and asked me to write him a “fake note” saying why he kept his 16-year-old son, my nephew C.J., home from school. When he argued that “raging diarrhea” wasn’t a good enough reason, I argued it was much better than “I took him to the Eagles game. They lost… again.” Even though these things can be, at times, annoying, I say “I get to…” because, even when it feels like a curse, it is still a privilege to write.

As Doctorow’s story continues, the letters (and the guilt) progress and they weave into a sort of life story. It’s not a true story but in a way that doesn’t matter. It becomes Jonathan’s father’s story, a legacy of sorts, and though it begins as a way to protect the frail dying grandmother, it becomes something bigger. The letters help the family to grieve and they help Jonathan learn and come to terms with his father’s life and death, as well. Even when Jonathan expresses his desire to stop writing the letters, he can’t. He needs to do this. He is being called to do this. Not simply by guilt or grief or love or some sort of family obligation, but by that inner voice inside of him who tells him who and what he is. Like you and me, he is a writer.

Thank You and You and You and You and You…

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It’s not the things we have and don’t have that make us who we are. It’s the people who we love and who love us.

I am so thankful for my family, my friends and for all the people who have come in and out of my life. Thank you for making this life such a wonderful journey.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.



Lyla’s Shopping List

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I need to go to the supermarket today and do some pre-Thankgiving food shopping so this morning I decided to put together a list. While doing so, my 3-yr-old daughter, Lyla, approached and asked me what I was doing.

I told her I was making a list of food and groceries to get at the supermarket and she replied that she wanted to make one, too. So, mostly humoring her, I asked her what needed to be on the list, though I’m not sure why I bother humoring her when it’s becoming clear that she’s smarter than me.

Anyway, (without any prompting and in the order she mentioned each item) the following is exactly what she told me to put on her list:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Bologna
  • Milk
  • Apple Juicey
  • Fruit Snacks
  • Rectangle Crackers (AKA: Graham Crackers)
  • Sour Creamy
  • Colored Cereal
  • Charm Cereal
  • More veggies for dipping
  • Yo-grut (this is spelled incorrectly on purpose per her pronunciation)
  • Ranch Dressing

Not a bad list. I’ll need to add a few items of my own and maybe remove at least one (or perhaps both) of those sugary cereals she seems to love so much but all in all it’s a pretty decent shopping list… especially for a 3-yr-old.

I’m actually kind of surprised she didn’t include ice cream (Va-lil-la is her fave). I think I’ll go ahead and add that one in anyway!




Works in Progress

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When I quit my job as an event planner to pursue my literary dream, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t realize my life was changing forever.

I banged out a novel in three months. I was proud of it though I knew it needed work. But I’d reached the finish line on something that had been a goal of mine for a very long time. It felt good. The feeling was so good that I decided to submit it to agencies and publishing houses. I received feedback from several, rejections from most. All of this inspired my second draft.

Joyce Carol Oates says: “Any artist who is impatient with revision is probably doomed to be forever an amateur: “promising” through a lifetime.”

How fitting. Each of us shows promise as writers. Whether it’s through talent or drive or a combination of the two, there is a promise for something more.

I’ve now written two whole novels, though neither is finished. Now I’m writing a third and a fourth while revising the first two. Friends say funny things, like “You’ll never be happy. Just self publish already” or “You’re just afraid to be finished.”

No, that’s not it at all. I’m afraid to say something is finished when it’s not. I’m afraid of putting my name on something that hasn’t reached its potential. I’m afraid that finishing it now would be the equivalent of throwing in the towel long before the game is over. I have so much to learn and my writing continues to improve with each new lesson. Self-publishing certainly has its merits but I’m not ready for that either. If I knew my work was “perfect” or even close, maybe I’d consider it. But though I‘ve come so far I know I’m not even close to where I need to be.   

Oates says: “Writing can be revised, living cannot.”

What a great Facebook status! Also, what a fun way to look at this process we have chosen! Writing gives us the opportunity to strive for perfection or at least our idea of perfection. As writers we can continue to improve through our writing and we never have to stop improving—even after we say something is final. I’ve heard of many professional writers who continue to tweak their manuscripts even after they’ve been published. Perhaps that’s the perfectionist spirit or maybe it’s hard to break the habit of consistent improvement? Maybe it’s the promise to be the best we can be or to see the writing reach its purpose. Are we ever really done? 

Oates says: “We don’t know what we’ve written until we read it through as a reader, expelled from the process of the work, and no longer as a writer enthralled by its creation.”

This seems true and yet I wonder if I’ll ever be able to separate myself enough from my work to be able to be a reader and not also the writer? How is it possible to make that distinction? As a mother, I know it’s impossible to see my daughter as a child without also being her mother. I gave birth to her. Whether it’s a child or a creative work being born from another, how can the person giving birth be expected to be objective? Is it possible?

Oates says: “Lady Chatterly’s Lover exists in three quite unique manuscript versions of which the last was the one to be published, and become infamous.” In her lecture this week, my writing professor says: “Those who have been writing for a long time will usually tell you that what they start out with only bears a partial resemblance to what they reach at the end.”

Being on my fourth complete overhaul of my first novel, this gives me hope. This draft will be nothing like the first. Versions two and three were already dramatically different. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever “finish” this novel. I don’t know. But I know I’ll never stop trying.

Another Sleepless Night (a short short)

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Note: This short short story was inspired by an exercise in the book “3AM Epiphany.”

The instructions of the exercise were to combine an original poem of my own with a poem previously written by a professional poet, and use them to create a new 700 word short story.

For the professional poem, I chose one called Sleepless Night written by Tiziano Thomas Dossena and made a few tense changes for the sake of consistency in my story. This is what I came up with…

Another Sleepless Night:

A sleepless night spent struggling through the meanders of my mind in endless explorations, I laid there staring at the ceiling wondering and worrying about nothing important while waiting for the Sandman to come.

Instead of counting sheep, an exercise that never made much sense to me, I counted nonessential items I’d lost and random things I’d forgotten to do. In fact, it wasn’t until my 3AM epiphany when I realized those infinitely unimportant items on my life’s ‘to do’ list.

Innumerable considerations scattered around as stars in the sky, none with enough light of its own but adaptable in their interconnection to show me the way. The harmony of the universe, confined for a moment in the boundaries of my head, exploded in its beauty.

At some point in between stressing over that missing flip flop and trying to recall if I remembered to set the timer on the coffee pot, I sank into slumber. The thirst for knowledge had kneeled at my need of sensations.

Bittersweet memories of lovers past, some real and others made up in my mind, erased all the powerful thoughts leaving a proven soul sighing in an exhausted body. The dread of the night had subsided and a sudden warmth had overtaken me. While the first sunbeam snuck through the window I suddenly remembered how to sleep.

A split second or maybe an eternity passed and I was asleep and, yet, I was aware I was dreaming. I didn’t mind. I’d had this dream before. And it was a good one.

“Hello, Alejandro,” I said in a fuck me tone I’d have probably never used in real life.

Alejandro didn’t respond. He knew there was no time for conversation or mindless chit chat. There was business that needed attending to and he and I were on a stiff deadline.

Wasting no time, Alejandro climbed into my bed and kissed me. His breath was close and warm like a space heater. In retrospect, it may have been the space heater. I tried to focus while he drew a line from my mouth downward with his tongue. My mind fell away and my skin seized the day. My spine lifted as I pushed into him. He pulled back, pursed his lips and blew a cool concentrated breath across my stomach. I gripped the sheet beneath me tightly and hoped it wasn’t a cold wind coming in through my window being sent to interrupt us.

Not wanting to take any chances, I turned over onto him and returned the favor.

“Let’s get this party started,” I said.

In real life, I never would have said that. I was aware of that. Still, my dream lover, Alejandro, smiled like it was the coolest thing he’d ever heard. So I rewarded him.

It took but a split second to satisfy him. It was my dream and my rules after all and I was anxious to take my turn.

Alejandro was just about to go down on me again when Mother tapped on my window that morning seizing my skin with her breeze and my mind with the click-clack of leaves falling from trees. Still I squeezed my pillow in denial. If you knew Alejandro like I’d known him, you wouldn’t have blamed me.

My thighs held on to Alejandro’s face and my eyes held on tightly to slumber—a slumber that had eluded me for so long. I pressed hard on my subconscious Snooze and I writhed in pleasure as Alejandro finished what he came to do.

Afterward I wanted to snuggle but my brain wouldn’t allow it. Like a cheap date with an adventurous streak, he dined and dashed. Unfortunately, the man of my dreams was also a jerk. He came and went as he pleased.

I didn’t have time to miss him or pine over him or negotiate him back. I wasn’t beyond lying to myself to keep a good dream going—or a bad man, like Alejandro.

But my loving Mother found another way to keep us apart. She sent the rain to trickle and tickle sweetly on my subconscious mind with its dripdropdrip dripdropdrip. Autumn sensations replaced with those of coffee and cream and delicious caffeine.

Apparently I remembered to set the timer. Suddenly I was awake.

More Prose, Stuff She Says and How It Relates

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When asked by her students to share one final lesson on writing, Francine Prose replied: “The most important things (are) observations and consciousness. Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means.” As writers and as writing students we should take this advice to heart. We often hear the words: “Write what you know.” This is basically another way of saying that. Prose is saying write what you know but she is also saying think critically about what you know and what you think you know. In order to write, we need to truly know what we’re writing about. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Octavia Butler makes it a point to know what she’s writing about. Not only does she clearly research the past and incorporate what she has learned about that distant time and place into her novel but she also incorporates her own experience and feelings into it. In Kindred, The Storm (page 191), Butler writes: “Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch.”

Butler’s working knowledge of the past and the present (1976: Dana’s present and Butler’s) is profound. She shares what she knows about both settings and she incorporates her own raw human emotion so that we can be right there with her, feeling with her.  I believe this is what makes great writers—the ability to emotionally connect the story to its readers.  

Prose also says: “I told my class that we should, ideally, have some notion of whom or what a story is about—in other words, as they say so often in workshops, whose story is it? To offer a reader that simple knowledge, I said, wasn’t really giving much. A little clarity of focus costs the writer nothing and paid off.”

In Kindred, Olivia Butler never loses sight of whom and what her story is about. Dana’s journey, the people and places she encounters, and the lessons she learns along the way are not simply revealed but they are carried throughout the whole novel and interlocked thematically. We can’t lose sight of things which are always there and which stay with us as we turn each page. 

Butler does not write for the sake of writing or give us anything that isn’t critical to the story’s progression. Every element she shares has a purpose. As a student who is studying Butler, I’d love to know if this is something that comes naturally to her or if it’s a product of stringent editing. My gut tells me it’s probably a combination of the two and as I nurture my craft that gives me hope.

When I write I often get lost in the writing and I sometimes lose track of the big picture. Sometimes I don’t even see the big picture until I’m editing. Because of that, I often have a lot to chop. Chopping these days isn’t as painful as it used to be (these days I think of editing like getting a haircut—if the ends are dead, why keep them?). Back when chopping was more painful, I used to keep a growing list of my chopped lines and phrases. I didn’t want to throw them away altogether so instead I saved them so that I could later turn to them if and when I felt stuck in a story. I stopped doing that because I realized it was holding me back. Those words and sentences were cut for a reason. Recycling is great for the environment but I’m not so sure the same can be said about recycling words or relationships. In my opinion, it’s better to say goodbye for good to an old flame (or old words and sentences in this case) instead of holding on and hoping he or she might eventually be right for a friend.  

As with most things in life, my writing is getting better with practice and, of course, reading the work of other writers helps too. By studying novels like Kindred and paying close attention to such masterpieces and deconstructing them with the help of the lectures and lessons, I’m learning the importance of the big picture and how that concept relates back to my own writing. It’s not just about telling a story, manifesting themes and communicating messages. It’s also about creating something—not just a sum of parts, but rather something whole—that delivers on its promise and ties all the pieces together without leaving anything important out or stuffing anything irrelevant in.

Gesture Abuse

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In  the chapter on Gesture in “Reading Like a Writer,” Prose says: “Perhaps I should say that my definition of gesture includes small physical actions, often unconscious or semi-reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture. On the other hand, language—that is, word choice—can function as a gesture: the way certain married refer to their spouses as him or her is a sort of gesture communication passion, intimacy, pride, annoyance, tolerance, or some combination of the above.”

In the story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” Flannery O’Connor is very descriptive. Through his vivid descriptions he makes it so easy to picture settings and characters in our mind. In fact, he describes each character in his story so explicitly that he inevitably uses gestures to continue his descriptions. Throughout the story, he bounces back and forth between description and gesture, peppering in at least one or the other (and often both) into every single sentence.

Flannery begins the story with multiple descriptions and gestures. In the very first line, he says: “All week end the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanne who had spots on her face anyway.”

“Temple One” and “Temple Two” are gestures similar to Prose’ example of “him” or “her” being intimacy gestures for a married couple. In addition, “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” are also gestures. These gestures get O’Connor’s message across more eloquently and pointedly than any description could. We know immediately that these two girls have a close connection since not only do they have pet names for each other but even their pet names are tied together (the names themselves reminded me of Disney’s Thing One and Thing Two). Then in the same sentence “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” gives the reader images of hilarity and an overall giddy BFF-ness that cannot be misinterpreted. These two are not just friends; they are best friends.

Prose also says: “Even the greatest writers may use stock gestures or employ gesture badly.” When O’Connor writes, on page 462, “…and the child was convulsed afresh, threw herself backward in her chair, fell out of it, rolled on the floor and lay there heaving” is a good example of this. It was just too much. While each phrase is familiar and gets the message across that the child was hysterical, the sum unfortunately breaks the believability of the story. Basically, he went too far with the gestures. 

As I grow as a writer, I’m learning that overusing gestures, putting them where they don’t belong or stuffing them in useless spots where they do nothing for story progression are all easy things to do. Perhaps too easy.

Prose explains:  “Too often gestures are used as markers, to create beats and pauses in a conversation that, we fear, may rush by too quickly.” I do this all the time. In a misguided attempt to find a nice cadence, I often lean on gestures. I wasn’t aware of it until now but I’m guilty. To break up dialogue or to add action where none exists I’ll throw in the unnecessary hair flip or the occasional eye-roll. I shudder to think how many times I’ve made a character glance down at the floor or sigh in disbelief. Not only do I agree with Prose that we employ gestures when we’re seeking a certain rhythm but I think we also lean on them during times when we’re simply at a loss for action.

I want to keep this lesson and some others in the forefront of my mind as I approach my revisions. Reading Prose’ chapter on gestures and realizing that even highly successful writers, at times, lean too heavily on, overuse and downright abuse gestures altogether is helping me come to terms with my own gesture addiction.

Reading Out Loud

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I often read out loud.

In fact, I feel the need to read everything I write out loud, not just because I like to hear my own words (though I’m sure that’s part of it) but more so because I have to hear the words in order to know for sure whether or not they’re right—contextually, rhythmically and, if it’s dialogue, right for the character speaking. No matter what I write, I need to hear the words.

For similar reasons, I recently started purchasing audio books and listening to the narrator read out loud while I visually read along.

I like to read others’ works out loud, too. In workshops, I often read the submissions of other writers, those I’m meant to critique, out loud. Doing so helps me focus entirely on the words and phrases as if my own voice cancels out distracting noises. Just the act of reading aloud helps me better absorb the information and it keeps me connected to it instead of spiraling off into my own head to add bullet points to any number of mental ‘to do’ lists.

I once lost my voice (literally) reading a 300 page manuscript out loud before submitting it for consideration to an agency.

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading Kindred by Octavia Butler to my three-year-old. I’m reading and analyzing it for a class and since I read to my daughter everyday anyway, I guess you could say I’m killing two birds with one stone (you’d probably only say that if you love clichés as much as I do).

Anyway, it’s not your typical toddler story but Lyla doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to enjoy hearing me read it to her. Maybe she somehow knows how much it’s helping me.