Writing Revelation

5 Mar
Cynthia's foot.

Cynthia’s summer foot.

In the spirit of my friend and former colleague Cynthia Newberry Martin’s current writing project, here’s one true thing about me: I detest baby showers.

Cynthia’s year-long writing challenge is such a terrific idea that I’m almost jealous I didn’t think of it for myself. Almost, but not quite, because I’m enjoying her work far too much to let it be tainted by anything negative. Her project is as simple as it is rich: She’s sharing one true thing about herself every day for a year at her blog Catching Days, where she also blogs about books, shares thoughts about the (mostly novel-) writing process, and posts an in-depth “a day in the writing life” piece about a different writer every month. Sometimes a “true things” post is just a line or two, other times she writes a mini-essay. All are good reads. Here’s the contents page for the project.

And here’s another revelation: I am incapable of telling the truth if you ask me about your new haircut and I don’t like it. You can say all you want that I should be honest and that you really want, even need, my opinion. I will nod and say of course and smile and lie my ass off. And you will believe me. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

You must and WILL submit!

4 Mar

Just in time for the big build-up to spring, I have declared Re-Orientation Time. To the writing life, that is. Join me?

Re-orienting to the writing life means getting submissions out. This is the perennially painful duty that I and all my writing friends complain about. Through the years I’ve experimented with various ways of making submissions less painful, and one that works well for nerdy me is to think of the whole complex of tasks we call “submitting” as a kind of game–a role-playing, problem-solving game with its own rewards entirely apart from the outcome of each submission.

WuerfelCharacter: 21st Century Writer.

Outfit: Your favorite sweater, comfy jeans, lucky socks.

Tools: A laptop / Notebook / iPad. A scruffy, spiral-bound, PAPER notebook with a blot-ey pen shoved into the spiral. A favorite book. Lumbar support. Snacks, both salty and sweet.

Primary Task: Find one good (and currently open) market for your finished story and submit to that market. Depending on the kind of submitter you are, you might need to create a chart in Word before you can choose that market, or make an inky list in your spiral notebook. If your eyes go blurry, rest them on that favorite book, the one that reminds you why you’re called, today, to ask an editor to consider your 2400-word story about the people passing through a flower garden, or 7500-word essay on the apron your grandmother passed to you, skipping your resentful mother. Remember that you don’t offer work to the world because PEOPLE NEED IT. You offer it because you are more whole when you write, and even more whole again when you share what you have written. That is ALWAYS enough reason to submit. ALWAYS. Plus: SOMEBODY NEEDS IT.

Secondary Task: School your brain to ignore the fact that you have always known the word “submission” to mean the act of bowing to someone else’s will. Your brain fixates on this meaning and makes you feel nervous and small, even pitiful, when you’re offering up that story or essay or poem. But the absurdly bold act of submitting your work makes you a pirate, a warrior, or maybe just a really nice person who wants to make meaning and then share it. In this context, “submission” means “gift.” Now give the brain a snack.

Rewards for Completing Tasks: Snacks, obviously, both salty and sweet. Also 3 points for Participation, 2 points for Confidence. Bonus reward: An entertaining and commiserating e-mail exchange (or Facebook status update parade) about your submission session with a writer friend or friends, initiated by newly participating and more confident you.

50 points gets you a meal at your favorite restaurant OR a new book OR an ice cream cone OR a new pair of socks OR [fill in the treat of your choice].

Good luck! Oh, and if you’re the kind of submitter who considers a magazine’s prestige as a factor when choosing a market–I am sometimes that kind of submitter, sometimes not–then you might want to use this list of ranked magazines, put together by writer Clifford Garstang, as one of your guides. (Hat tip to my friend Cheryl Wilder.)

*Picture (cropped) from Wikimedia Commons, here.

Back in with Both Feet

3 Mar

289px-Oscar_Wilde_portrait_by_Napoleon_Sarony_-_albumenWell THAT was a long break!

Oscar Wilde said, “One’s real life is so often the life that one doesn’t lead.” Because I didn’t write much in 2014, I could say it was a year in which I didn’t live my “real life.” But that would be claiming a kind of writerly angst I don’t feel. True, it wasn’t a banner year for productivity, and 2015, so far, has been so stuffed with other concerns that I hardly know what it feels like, just now, to settle into a sentence meant to be shared. Just give me a moment.

It feels great! The keyboard is warm, the keys silky smooth. Particularly the N, E, and D, so worn that when I look at them now I see starbursts of jagged silver-gray, rather than the tidy, type-written white letter on black. L, C, and M aren’t far behind. Oh, the joy of thinking on the virtual page, the sublime joining of silent words to faint tap-tapping of fingers to this pretty font on a pale background.

Writing, I am happy to say—whether meant for sharing or not—is the same as it ever was: My one small miracle.

And now to reorient to the writing life in 2015.


*Photo from Wikimedia Commons, here.

Blog Tour: My Writing Process

9 Mar

Lately words are making me feel old. Soon enough “answering machine” will make no sense to people, “carbon copy” is probably all but lost, and “pencil it in” is likely cruising into oblivion very soon as well. With little effort anyone over the age of 30 can produce a dozen more recently retired expressions, then rattle off a series of new words that fall neatly into the gaps. My latest acquisitions: listicle, selfie, and blog tour. Yes, I know, I’m slow on the uptake. That makes me feel old, too, but I can moan about that with the husband. For now I should get on with the tour.

I’m honored to have been invited by my dear (and dearly gifted) friend Suzanne Farrell Smith to talk about my writing process as part of a tour of writers’ blogs (a trip to Google will fetch a slew of the tour’s wonderful posts). Suzanne’s post is so rich that I wasn’t sure why I should add my own thoughts to the tour, but then I remembered the reason I started this blog: To share. To share my enthusiasm for short stories, my energy for writing, and whatever advice or inspiration could be lifted from the documentation of my Daily Shorty year and ongoing writerly thoughts and obsessions. I’m just here to share. So off I go with a smallish splat of Q & A.

1)        What am I working on?

In recent weeks I’ve devoted most of my writerly energy to putting together my first short story collection. I’ve been amazed at how hard it is to select from my files the stories that truly go together, and then to discover the best arrangement of the selections.

I developed my current (tentative) manuscript using index cards, each bearing a story title and notes on voice, length, form, themes, and arresting images and phrases. As I arranged and rearranged and arranged again my stack of cards, I kept drifting, mentally, into the fetal position, marveling that the gift of wordskill can morph into manacled ankles before you can say, “A speculative flash piece in narrative form exploring mortality, confused identity, and ruptured familial ties, with metaphors and analogies using water and blood.”

I’ve conjured countless rationales and justifications in this life—I am the much youngest of three kids, so to make up for my relative lack of strength and stature, I mastered early the arts of argument and persuasion. Which is to say that I can stack the index cards any which way and then explain why the order is absolutely right, and by the third attempt (of many, many) I was overwhelmed by my own spin. The goal is to get behind the justifications to the truth, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with, regardless of context. In other words: I’m not done. And wish me luck.

2)        How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In one of my MFA semester evaluations, my mentor began his characterization of my work like this: “Claire does not write realist fiction.” I was taken aback, and at our end-of-semester meeting I asked—with some pique—why he’d said that. He gave me that “Oh dear, she’s slipped into her native Russian” look, and said, “Well, Claire, because… you don’t in fact write realist fiction??” Somehow I’d read his comment as saying that my stories don’t reflect the cares and worries of real people. Of course they do, dammit. Yes, he agreed, of course they do. But they do that using satire or a sprinkling of fairy tale or the form of a product label.

We’ve seen more experimentation and weirdness in short stories over the last decade+, thanks to writers like Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret, and George Saunders, but it’s still true that the vast majority of the stories I read in litmags are written in the realist tradition. My graduation manuscript didn’t include a single story that could be called realist, though many were written in narrative form. After writing a story every day for a year, I do now have some realist shorties under my belt. And when I get the word-alchemy right, I like these stories just as much as anything else I’ve written.

Realist or not, narrative form or not, I like dark, I like funny. I like weird. Every story I write hits one or more of those notes.

3)        Why do I write what I do?

When I won a literary fellowship from the State of Maine, one of the judges commented that I give life to characters who “live in the margins.” I hadn’t realized that before, but it’s true. I write about these people because no one will notice them if I don’t. I put them in short stories because I’m completely in love with the form, so much so that I have to remind myself to read novels.

I hate to sound over-serious nor too full of myself, but I am both of those things, so here it is: I write odd, dark, often darkly funny short stories because I want so badly to tell the truth, and pushing art beyond the boundaries of what feels “normal” gets me to that truth well and fast. I could write a hundred essays (and hopefully someday I will) but the whole lot of them couldn’t possibly tell as much truth as I can reveal in one small piece of fiction. Isn’t that just the sort of preposterous thing sniffy, pashmina-wearing writers say? But I truly believe it. At the very same time that I know it’s preposterous, I believe it. And now someone needs to give me a pashmina, because I’ll never buy one for myself.

4)        How does your writing process work?

I noticed long ago that I both love and despise routine. I crave order and feel comforted by rules and frames, but once I know the rules and frames, once I’ve had to bow to order, I begin to chafe. And I will rebel, it’s just a matter of time and style. So with regard to my writing practice, I establish order and then plan for the rebellion.

When I find myself unable to write immediately upon waking, I’ll shift my writing time to after lunch. When I begin to hate my post-lunch commitment, I’ll save writing time for after dinner. Deep into my Daily Shorty year, every month or so for about a week, I addressed my mental exhaustion by giving myself whole days to do everything but writing, which meant I didn’t start writing until 10:00 PM or even much later. I would sneak up on myself and then have to take a headlong rush at the story before I became too incoherent to write. So whatever the context, I just keep adapting to the new me, with ever-changing targets and ever-evolving strategies.

As for the writing itself, I am a vertical writer who has learned how to incorporate some horizontal habits. And I’ll mention one other element of my process because I’ve discovered that it surprises people when they hear it, yet I can’t understand why: I never consider a story finished (well, as finished as possible, anyway, which is more how I see a story that I think is ready for submission) until I have gone through that final draft for the purpose of examining every single individual word. Is this word necessary? Yes, I think it is. Can you justify that belief? Yes, I think I can. Okay, how about this word? You know, now that you ask me, I have to say that this word is unnecessary. There, it’s gone. Okay, how about this word? And so on.


And so ends my part of this tour! Next week, my friend and fellow alum Stephanie Friedman will talk about her process. Stephanie writes short stories that start off quiet but then sneak up on you before you’re quite prepared, which makes the surprise revelation or action or image particularly satisfying. As I’ve told her a couple of times, her work reminds me of Grace Paley, and I don’t see how a writer can ever go wrong doing that. She’s also an astute reader, a generous teacher, a loving wife and mom, and just an all-around thoroughly fantastic person. Here’s a page devoted to the Daily Shorty week Stephanie did with me. Her bio:

Stephanie Friedman is the program director of the Writer’s Studio, a continuing education program in creative writing at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, and online for Hunger MountainBlood Orange Review, and Literary Mama. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.

Stephanie intends to post Saturday, March 15, here.

My friend Cheryl Wilder will do a post for this tour, as well, here. And I particularly enjoyed Diane Lefer’s and Laurie Cannady’s stops on the tour. Happy reading!

February’s Daily Shorty Week

28 Feb
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien is my all-time favorite suspense novel.

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien is my all-time favorite suspense novel.

I am so uninterested in writing a novel, and so annoyed at those who think of short stories as stepping stones to book-length fictions, that I based my graduation lecture in my MFA program on the declaration that short story writers need never even think of writing a novel. Which likely guaranteed, I thought at the time, that I would, one day, pine to write one. Would I tell anyone, I wondered, when that day came?

Writer friends: That day has not yet arrived. Thank you, World, for Pride and Prejudice and Song of the Lark and Mrs. Dalloway and Lolita and Wide Sargasso Sea. Keep up the good work! I’ll be over here, dancing with Chekhov, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Gina Berriault, Etgar Keret, Aimee Bender, the incomparable George Saunders. Oh, and gulping my latest mystery.

A mystery! Now there’s something I’d love to write. Something? Somethings. A series! One after another, galloping along with humor and only the coziest kind of gore, or maybe slithering in noir shadows dragging along empty whiskey bottles and dirty needles, possibly buttoned into the uniform of a police procedural and slinging a gun with the safety off. Oh, I could get behind a mystery series, hell yeah. Why I haven’t before “counted” mysteries as novels, I don’t know—some silly, delusional genre-posturing, I suppose. Yet how I would love to write something half as good as a favorite mystery.

Writer friends: Correction. The day, I fear, has arrived. I do not wish to write a book about coming of age on a motorcycle road trip or battling cancer in a remote fishing village or weathering a mid-life crisis in Italy. I don’t have a new perspective on the Holocaust or a tale of three mothers or a fascination with Wall Street. But I’ve got some mystery-love to pour on the page. And so was born in February a new approach to Daily Shorty.

I love Sara Gran’s fresh approach. This second Claire Dewitt is particularly good and I’m really looking forward to the next.

My assignment the first 7 days of February was to do a freewrite, each day, on a mystery idea that’s been sitting in the back of my mental filing cabinet for a few years. After I wrote one freewrite, I’d give myself a specific assignment to tackle in my freewrite the next day. The overall goal was to finish the week with a set of plot possibilities and character sketches to inspire some research I’ll have to do to pursue my rough idea for the mystery. So not my usual Daily Shorty week, and no Story Facts to share. Just my confession that I might yet lurk in the land of the novel. Packing heat, of course.

First Week of January 2014: Done!

7 Jan

800px-Mmm..._fish_sammich_(4620256228)Celebrate my final story of the week with me by feasting on this gorgeous fish sandwich and onion rings. Mmm. Today I learned from my mistake the last two days and prioritized writing, and because I did I was reminded, once again, of how much joy it brings me to sit and compose, compose, compose. I do a lot of staring and re-reading, editing heavily as I go. I think hard, distract myself, think hard again. I re-imagine that turn, try something new, discard it, try something else, and so on and on, at a fat, sleepy snail’s pace. Sure, occasionally a story comes raging out, words tumbling to the page faster than I can type them almost, but typically drafting for me is just that slow and meticulous, and it is never, ever tedious. Anyway, I’ll save my reflections on the week for my next post and finish here with a note on the day’s shorty: For some unfathomable reason, I went wandering into sci-fi territory today, of all things into post-apocalyptic land. I had a pretty full picture of the world I was in and I was determined to write a piece that rendered that world in as few words as possible. I don’t know that I was successful—the piece is strange and maybe confusing. But I loved writing it and I hope I’ll come back to it, see how I can make it better. For now, big congrats to me for another glorious week of writing a story every day! It was a lovely way to say hello to 2014.

Working Title: “Deliverance”
1st Sentence: A woman stood at the front of the room, wearing a floor-length, plush, glittering scarlet robe, its train as long as she was tall and snaking behind and then around to curl at her feet.
Favorite Sentence: The almost-thought that had been born in her an instant ago, wordless, unacknowledged, the… impression that had already transmuted into mental vapor, it had at first the shape and texture of “why.”
Word Length: 405

Scrumptious picture found here.

Hint Fiction!

6 Jan

I have heard of “hint fiction” but have never dared to hope that I could write a successful story in fewer than 100 words. I can’t say this little bitty shorty works—it doesn’t. The material is flat. But I do like the way I played with language to merely hint at a situation. Sadly, the imagined situation is just not that interesting. But I like pushing for as short as possible, so I’m happy with this bit of practice. I wrote the shorty by starting with an image that came to me with attendant words, then writing from that to a natural end, which is the most common way I generate stories. I probably should have done a better job of imagining what might lie behind that image if I wanted to capture emotional truth, something compelling. Next time! Oh, and it couldn’t have helped that I woke up with the husband’s announcement that the toilet wouldn’t flush. Another day packed with other concerns and story coming up only at the end of it….

Working Title: “Odds”
1st Sentence: That tight-lipped smile, the one with her chin up, her arms crossed over her chest, the one that sat on her rigid face for a long, slow count to ten, easy, probably longer.
Favorite Sentence: Same as above.
Word Length: 52

Art + Story?

5 Jan

In keeping with my practice during my year of story, I haven’t always blogged a shorty this week on the same day I wrote it, but once I write the post that goes with the shorty, I date it to match the date I composed the draft. I’m writing this post now late evening January 7, after having written my final story for this Daily Shorty week, so my reflections here are influenced by a few days of hindsight. In any case, one question that came up for me this week is whether doing arts and crafts feeds my writing—a friend recently asked me that question and I was surprised to find that I had no answer. On Sunday January 5, I had an appointment first thing in the morning (when I usually take my first crack at the day’s story), then spent the vast majority of the day working on a craft project, something like 8 or 9 hours. Then I wrote the day’s shorty just before bed. My answer, for that day, is no, my other creative work didn’t feed my writing. I was tired and drained from focusing on my project for so many hours and I’m sure that didn’t help me with story-brain. But in general I have to believe that doing anything creative feeds not only other creative pursuits but our spirit otherwise. Do I have to believe it because I sense that it’s true or just because it suits me to believe so? Not sure. Anyway, I’m surprised to find that although I struggled to come up with the day’s shorty, definitely regretted all those hours spent on something else, and felt no great love for the writing that night, I’m pleased with it now. It’s very short and has a nice little punch at the end. A submittable keeper maybe not, but I have some affection for it. Success!

Working Title: “Tearless”
1st Sentence: He’s seen her cry over a fallen cake, a broken shoelace, the first birdsong of the season.
Favorite Sentence: She once teared up over a fortune cookie and she has been brought to shuddering sobs, twice in his presence, by a nature show.
Word Length: 123

Already a tough one!

4 Jan

I didn’t expect to have to push hard for a story when doing only one week of shorties, but I’m crossing a lot of other things off my list, too, this first week of January, so my energy level is not so high. I stayed up later than I wanted to with absolutely no ideas, then finally wrote something in a rush. It’s not a keeper but I do like the idea, so maybe I’ll come up with a better version one day. Still, easy ones or tough ones, nothing compares to the high of producing a story every day for any stretch of time. It’s just lovely to be making things.

Working Title: Being Tammi
1st Sentence: Since regression therapy she had insisted on being called Princess Mariponi.
Favorite Sentence: Still it was Prima this, Prima that. And so Princess Mariponi did what any self-respecting princess would do, she put a princess foot on the back of the old lady’s chair and gave it a princess push.
Word Length: 405

More Brutal Cold, More Disconnect

3 Jan

Winter Campus AveI think for writers all personal experience inevitably lends itself in some way to our stories but I wonder about things that feel so abstract as landscape and weather. It’s been TOO COLD here in Maine these first few days of the year, so I have been spending all my time in the house, cut off even from my beloved snow-shoveling–despite quality snow boots and socks, my crummy toes can stay out in sub-zero weather for only about 45 minutes before I’m in danger of the first stage of frostbite. And as it happens, the shorty I wrote each day starred a deeply disconnected person. Coincidence?

Working Title: “Basically Poison”
1st Sentence: She had declared her love for the Russian novelists and he had stuttered something about Conrad and she blinked, tensed.
Favorite Sentence: Did he know that tomatoes were in the nightshade family and would he eat the second cousin of hemlock, no he would not, so why do we eat tomatoes and eggplant when they’re basically poison?
Word Length: 256

This is one of my favorite snow pictures, taken by my husband on a street very near our house, in a far less brutal winter.

A Day To Bundle Up and Write!

2 Jan

imageSerious sub-zero weather, today. I had to come back in from shoveling snow after only 45 minutes of fun because I realized that my toes had moved from ordinary uncomfortably cold to really hurting. That kind of cold is sneaky. Most of the day I was fortunate to be inside, peering at the falling snow and windblown branches while I wordsmithed this little shorty. I hope I always remember to be grateful to be a writer.

Working Title: “Just So”
1st Sentence: If here and inclined to comment, Saul would agree.
Favorite Sentence: The William Tell Overture was “too full of itself,” even if that was the point, still, just… too.
Word Length: 195

Here’s a recent picture of our house. I was trying to get a good photo of that tree covered in ice to the right, the sun sneaking through… anyway. That was just a few days ago and already we have twice the snow. I have no idea where we’re going to put it all.

A Week of Story for 2014

1 Jan

Laptop peek sized iiI couldn’t resist. I’m doing a Daily Shorty week these first 7 days of January. I’ve taken a really long break and it’s time to jump back into my writing world. What better way to do it than to write 7 stories in 7 days?

Working Title: “Ancient Greek for Doom”
1st Sentence: This last year in particular she had looked for it, the thing that would finally lay her flat.
Favorite Sentence: “Marketing Coordinator” in black and white but really administrative assistant, those lunch-and-learns on ancient Greek thus entirely wasted.
Word Length: 341

Ahh. Typing out those story facts was almost as satisfying as writing the story. Thank you, 2014! I love you already.

How is writing a story like a cat?

31 Dec

Or like buying a house? Like moving? How is writing a story like shoveling snow?


Tillie and Willa

I would like to say that I have been pondering these questions in the last months of 2013, while my husband and I delighted in our two new kittens, now regal young ladies of 9 months, while we found the house of our dreams and somehow managed to acquire it, while we lugged badly packed boxes and overstuffed duffel bags and the movers hoisted our bed on a rope from the front yard and through the bedroom window. How is writing a story like settling a snow shovel under a foot of fluffy snow, then tipping the shovel and pushing the snow across the paved driveway and into the growing snowbank, leaving a narrow black strip of sugar-powdered asphalt in its place?

My final quarter of 2013 was about cats and e-mails to the realtor and corralling old tax forms and blanching at heating bills and calling the gas company and tipping the movers and learning how to shovel snow (in Maine we have always before been renters) and, above all, about measuring. Oh, the measuring. We own 4 measuring tapes and they live in as many rooms. My final quarter was about the stuff of story but not writing story. So I will have to find out how writing a story is like a cat in 2014.

Happy New Year! To my writing friends, happy writing and submitting. It’s going to be a glorious year.

Daily Shorty Textile Art

16 Aug

My multi-talented and over-scheduled friend Patty Weidler was one of my biggest cheerleaders as I wrote my way through the Daily Shorty year. Patty is also a writer, and occasionally I’d ask her if she wanted to do a week of stories with me. “Soon,” she’d say, “just let me get past these next couple of projects.” As it happened, I’d finished my year when Patty decided to take me up on a Daily Shorty week. But she wanted to tackle TWO weeks, she told me, and she’d decided to write her stories with a sewing machine.


Patty’s Day 6. It was very hard to choose, but I picked it as my favorite.

For two weeks in July, I sent encouraging e-mails to Patty as she made a piece of textile art every day. When I work with a writer, I can tailor advice to her experience and approach. But I have no training in visual art, so I didn’t have much in the way of tips for Patty. Instead I focused on what I know generally about the creative process, and I provided sustained encouragement and gentle accountability. I reminded her of her goals, sent the occasional inspiring quotation or poem, and of course checked in with her on how her day went, congratulating her always for showing up. When was the last time you made 3 pieces of art in 3 days? I asked on the evening of Day 3. Never! she replied.

Patty sent me a write-up of her reflections on her Daily Shorty challenge. Here’s an excerpt:

At first I had grandiose plans to maneuver fabric, paper, thread, and the written word together, expecting key words and reflections to be part of my creative process. I tried that on the first day, then let go of any thought of including writing in my Daily Shorty challenge. Clearly I was in visual mode. And soon I discovered that I hungered most to work with fabric in a quilting medium. I gave myself no constraints as to size, number of pieces of fabric used, or direction. Sometimes I would get an idea from something I saw the day before so that when I woke up, I knew approximately what sort of color or fabric with which I wished to begin. Other times I had no clue when I walked into my sewing room what I was going to make. After I finished each piece, I moved on to my job and regular life. Throughout the day I would think about how sweet and interesting the creative time had been that morning, notice how good I felt, and wonder what I would end up creating next.

Now I can ask, When was the last time you made 14 pieces of art in 14 days? And both Patty and I feel happily awash in color and texture. We’ve each chosen a favorite of her 2 weeks of work to display here, although I have to say that these pictures don’t begin to capture their beauty. Thank you, Patty, for sharing your process with me and for honoring us all with your art.

Patty's Day 12 and her favorite.

Patty’s Day 12 and her favorite.

In Defense of Scribble

23 Jul
A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I carried around during my Daily Shorty year.

A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I used during my Daily Shorty year.

I’ve been brainstorming names for a writing project, and one of the words I played with is “scribble.” Not a good idea, said my husband, “Scribbling is bad.” The word “scribble,” said my friends, should never be applied to a professional enterprise. Nor, for that matter, to an adult one. I expected my smart sounding board to object to the word because of course I know just as well how it’s used. Yet scribbling is such an important part of the writing process.

If, unlike most writers, you are an excellent manager of your time, and you maintain a daily writing practice, say every morning from 6:00 to 8:00, you will, of course, reap benefits. But if you reserve your writing energy for that timeframe alone, you will miss opportunities to spice up your stories. Sure, Scribble doesn’t always dot her i’s and cross her t’s. Scribble badly needs a haircut, and a manicure wouldn’t hurt. But these are surface concerns. Harried, slovenly, too impulsive Scribble earns her right place in the writer’s work life by capturing inspiration in the fast-food line, on the stretch mat at the gym, in the produce section of the grocery store. Just caught yourself staring at a really bad polyester dress from Mrs. Brady’s closet? Did I hear you laugh because the guy in the car ahead of you ordered his burger in the cadence and volume of a Barnum & Bailey ringmaster? That’s Scribble-worthy.

Scribble rescues your story when you’re at a friend’s house for dinner, and between the salad and the salmon, you realize exactly what drives your hero to throw that jar of raspberry jam at the kitchen wall… but your keyboard didn’t come to dinner. Your purse containing that tiny pad of paper and pen, whispers Scribble, is in the foyer. Or you could use your phone to take notes, right, that fancy phone you use for GPS, for restaurant reviews, to check your e-mail? Maybe. But I’m convinced that pushing buttons that in turn print perfect letters neatly across your screen does not access the same bubbling mess—sweet mess, spicy mess—that comes from your scribbling pen, hand to page.

Professionals scribble. Adults scribble. The more scribbling the better. But I get it. Scribble doesn’t have a driver’s license nor a checking account. Scribble wears the same shirt three days in a row. Because she has no idea how to show a little decorum, Scribble will come only to those of us who don’t mind her bare feet and scraped knees. Okay. Until we play Pygmalion, dear Scribble—will you consider bangs?—you will have to tiptoe in the margins. But then again, I think that’s just how Scribble likes it.

Navigating Outer Limits

2 Jul

Outer LimitsFirst, apologies for the month-long standstill. I have the patience to write only these two words — technical difficulties — and then on to the subject of this glad-to-be-back post: Controlling the horizontal and the vertical.

You’ve seen that old clip, right, from the opening of the 1960s television series The Outer Limits? “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. … We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.” Today I thought of those lines when considering one of the greatest benefits of the Daily Shorty challenge, even if you take the challenge only for a week. Throughout that week you will reap the rewards of both horizontal and vertical writing.

Andre Dubus introduced this horizontal vs. vertical idea in his essay “The Habit of Writing.” He had always been a horizontal writer—one who rushes headlong across the page, sweeping from left to right and back again, recording the thoughts as they fall, go go go. This is the kind of writing Anne Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird when she talks about “shitty first drafts,” and the concept being applied in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones series. Just write. Write it all. Don’t stop until you’re out of words. Then you look at all your lovely words, enjoy the satisfaction of having produced, and tackle revision.

When wrestling with a particularly difficult story, Dubus one day told himself that he was not allowed to move on to the next word until he was certain the one he had recorded was right. Can you hear the screech of brakes? Never run when you can jog. Never jog when you can walk. Why are you walking? Be still already. If you’re writing vertically, you are drilling down into the meaning of the story with each additional word, then doubling back to review phrases and sentences, editing with meticulous care as you proceed. It takes much longer to write a draft but when you do, it will need only a fraction of the revision and polish that your horizontal drafts need.

There is some overlap, of course, but in my experience writers tend to quickly claim to be mostly horizontal or vertical. I am emphatically a vertical writer, myself. Which is why I love the horizontal writing the Daily Shorty approach forced out of me.

If you’re a vertical writer, having to complete a piece in a day forces some horizontal writing, which harvests ideas as they bubble up and allows you to let the energy of those ideas propel you forward. Often vertical writers miss richness and freshness and weirdness that can spice the work because we’re trying so hard to refine, polish, perfect—we are pressing all the time and so we don’t leave any gaps wide enough for the really deep, oddly shaped stuff to bubble up.

Pushing for completion by lights out forces vertical writing, too, though, because we have to be thinking from the start—Does this beginning work, Is it leading naturally to this next bit, How’s the shape coming, Am I heading to an ending that makes sense? Asking those questions as urgently as we must to ensure completing the piece that day, causes us to double-back and strengthen that part of the foundation, then this part here, then over there. We push hard for a big picture that works because we have to finish this thing, which means often we will write more coherently and with a more sound structure than our rough drafts typically have.

You control the horizontal. You control the vertical. Celebrate both as you write yourself to the outer limits of what you can imagine.

Photo of oscilli attribution: Rippey574 at en.wikipedia.

Prompt Power and Objectivity Fail

24 May

I just realized that all five of the shorties I have published so far have two things in common. (1) I wrote each one with the use of a writing prompt. The prompts I used included a photo, a paragraph I had written and stored in my idea file, and three paintings. The shorties are “Her Postcards” from September 18, “Reflections” from October 17, “High Water” from December 5, “Vanilla” from January 17, and “Imaginary i” from January 19.

Honeymoon Bay SunsetInterested in writing prompts? I often used a “Picture of the Day” at Wikimedia Commons for inspiration. Here’s one for you, if you’d like to stop right now and let it inspire a story. Go!

(2) Despite my understanding throughout my Daily Shorty year that the challenge was about process, and my insistence that the Inner Critic must be banned during the drafting phase, I habitually (and reflexively) commented in story posts when I considered a story a “keeper.” So under the “What the hell do I know” file: I made no such comment about any of these five shorties. Apparently I was underwhelmed when I first wrote them and only discovered their worth later, when I selected them for submissions. Good to be reminded that initial judgments should always be questioned.

Photo of Honeymoon Bay, Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia, by JJ Harrison 7/2009.

Daily Shorty Snapshot

8 May

Story Facts IIt’s going to take me a while to process this experience and catch up on all the pages I owe—a ravenous, demanding beast, this site. For now, some preliminary Daily Shorty stats.

1: Number of times my body has forgotten that I’ve completed the challenge. Wow, only once! I expected that to happen more. Apparently relief sugars the brain better than habit.

2: Daily Shorties accepted for publication. A few are out but it’s been a while since I’ve submitted, so, note to self….

5: Days passed before I wanted to work on this site.

8: Writer-Athletes who have taken on the Daily Shorty challenge for one week. (Thank you for that term, Suzanne!)

1: Number of weeks before I woke up with the urge to write. This morning I began my post-Daily Shorty almost-daily writing practice.

1.75: Number of days I enjoyed a full sense of satisfaction and contentment after having written my final story. At around 1:00 pm on Thursday, May 2, my inner voice said, “Shouldn’t you be doing something productive? You call yourself a writer and yet here you sit, doing nothing. You embarrass me.” And, so, proof that the inner voice will never be satisfied. 365 stories in a row but the inner voice wants more. Let the record show that this happened a full 1.25 days later than I expected. Victory!

Final Daily Shorty!

30 Apr

Peanut Butter Soft ServeI did it. I actually did it. I was hoping to end the year with a really good story but it was even more important to me to finish before it was too late in the day, so that I could enjoy the accomplishment this evening and go to bed knowing that all is well. So once something took hold this morning, I worked it and worked it, then came back to it after lunch and worked it some more until I’ve got the best story I could make of the premise. It’s not so great. The ending feels wrong. But after a couple of hours of final tinkering, I called it DONE. To celebrate I got a peanut butter supreme from the Dairy Joy in Lewiston, which happens to be within easy walking distance of my apartment, something to both cheer and boo, but mostly to cheer. A peanut butter supreme is a cup of peanut butter soft serve with hot fudge. Sadly I didn’t think to photograph it before I ate it, but it looked a lot like the picture here (but mentally add hot fudge). YUM. Tomorrow I’m having dinner at my favorite Maine restaurant, Fore Street in Portland, as a more complete celebration. And… well, that’s it. I’ll be playing on this site some more, adding nerd romps I didn’t have time for while producing my stories, including Story Facts pages for the 8 months I haven’t analyzed, and a page for each of the writer friends who joined me for a week during the challenge. Otherwise my only immediate plans are to sleep and read, read and sleep, sleep and read.

Working Title: Wide Ride
1st Sentence: Torment.
Favorite Sentence: The more creative, smart and inventive, like Alexander, referred to her as “Wading Pool” or Mattress Pants” or “Rear Admiral Caboose.”
Word Length: 497

Photo by Deva Hoffman here.

Only one more….

29 Apr

Rice Pudding FrittersAnd this completes week 52. GULP. Enjoy these rice pudding fritters with orange-honey sauce to celebrate! I have never heard of such but they look and sound DELICIOUS. As for the day’s work, I went meta again. I like the approach, the shape, the kind of ending I chose. But the story doesn’t have depth and that’s mostly the fault of an ending that doesn’t suit. It’s the right kind of ending but composed of the wrong words. Maybe I can make it better in revision. Anyway, it’s done, and I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I have only ONE MORE to write! Until tomorrow….

Working Title: Smokey
1st Sentence: When Smokey the Bear came to our third-grade classroom to teach us about fire safety, Jenny Hite leapt from her chair, shrieked “Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod,” and then burst into tears while flailing her balled fists and running in place.
Favorite Sentence: Oh, the full, satisfying mouthfeel of drama and despair.
Word Length: 563

Photo by Recipetaster 5/2011.

Only two more….

28 Apr

Baby AlligatorHow did I get to the count-down of my last 3 shorties? What the hell happened?? As tough as April has been, it’s also disappearing at a record pace. I’m equal parts relieved and unmoored at the thought of finishing my year. Best to put those thoughts aside for now. As for the day’s shorty, my friend Patty is in Houston right now, petting alligators. She sent me an e-mail describing an encounter with a baby alligator who calmed to her warm touch. I know  a good prompt when I see it.

Working Title: Baby Alligator
1st Sentence: No, said my mother, no, Grace isn’t the best name for her.
Favorite Sentence: Like naming an alligator “cupcake,” muttered my husband, or a T-Rex “Prissy.”
Word Length: 336

Photo by Ianaré Sévi.

Umm. Dinner.

27 Apr

SamosasWhen the muse has taken a dislike to you and refuses to come even when you have asked her in your best Virginia honey-dipped voice, pretty, pretty please with peaches on top, then you just say, fine, I’ll make a story out of dinner. We had Indian takeout.

Working Title: David 2.0
1st Sentence: Don’t forget the samosas!
Favorite Sentence: She’d understood that at the time, and before closing the door she’d given him her heavy-lidded, sly-smiling sexy look as an apology.
Word Length: 344

Photo of samosas by Adrião 1/2008.

Running Out

26 Apr

Old Rag RocksUPDATE. I polished this quirky shorty and submitted it to CHEAP POP, who published it October 2016. Many thanks for your love of oddball micros, CP editors!

I really do feel as though I’m out of good ideas, good words. I so badly need a break. I just keep telling myself to push, push, push. The only mountain I ever climbed was Old Rag Mountain in Virginia, a very small mountain that poses no challenge at all for anyone in reasonable health until you get to a tumble of rocks near the summit. These rocks aren’t much of a challenge, either, but you do have to be strong enough to haul yourself up and over a handful of them before you can get the reward of the lovely view at the summit. This last push to the end of my year of stories is really tough but I remind myself that I’m in the rocks, now, I’m in the pretty rocks, and I just have to use a little muscle, and then I’ll be at the top. I had to push long and hard for the day’s shorty, which conformed to the standard April Daily Shorty experience and resisted me for all it was worth. I do see some promise in it for revision but that’s the best I can say for it. On to the next rock.

Working Title: Just Asking
1st Sentence: It was the way he said, “Of course, Sweetie”—heavy on “course,” long on “ie”—that made her wonder.
Favorite Sentence: A faint scar, the length of an eyelash, curled up from the right corner of his upper lip, a capital C for… cute? clever? charismatic?
Word Length: 256

Photo of rocks near the summit of Old Rag Mountain in Virginia, by Madison60 11/2009.

Pirate Story #2

25 Apr

PirateIn June I used the Daily Shorty challenge to play into a running joke that my husband and I have enjoyed for many years. He’ll comment that there just aren’t enough people writing pirate stories or he’ll look at me when I’m writing and say, “I hope you’re writing a pirate story.” He began to indulge in these comments in a big way once I started writing a story every day. “Have you written a pirate story yet? When are you going to write a pirate story? If you would just write pirate stories, this would all be so easy.” So in June I wrote him a pirate story. And it occurred to me as I was struggling to come up with an idea for the day’s shorty, that I should write him one more as the year comes to an end.

Working Title: Origin Story
1st Sentence: They met at a Halloween party over a punch bowl filled with hard cider and apples.
Favorite Sentence: He had been so proud of the hat, of the perfectly rakish angle, the piratical dip and fold of it.
Word Length: 499

Photo of John Baur (“Ol’ Chumbucket”), one of the founders of Talk Like a Pirate Day, 2005.

Fun Again but Super-Tough

24 Apr

Sock PuppetsI lost count of how many times I started the day’s shorty. I just couldn’t find my way into anything until I remembered a character I created last month, I think—a sock puppet named Lemonade. So this is what you do at the tail end of a year-long commitment that has mostly eaten your brain: You write stories about sock puppets. Because it’s the only thing that makes you laugh. Lemonade, I thank you.

Working Title: Puppet Court
1st Sentence: What is the first rule of puppetry?
Favorite Sentence: While his person sang Little Rabbit Foo-Foo for the kindergarteners, Lemonade hung from his hand like a wet dishrag, too hung-over even to bob his sock-puppet head to the rhythm of such a simple melody.
Word Length: 589

Photo by Elke Wetzig 4/2006.


23 Apr

ChocolateIt’s quite a treat at this point when I have fun with a story. As I’ve already moaned about too much, April has been a pretty sad-sack month, all about gritting my teeth and keeping my head down. The day’s shorty took many tries and then once something stuck I had to work well into the night (morning) to complete it, but, dammit, it was fun to write! I see that it needs more meat on its bones but that just means more fun when I come back to it. Onward!

Working Title: Lent
1st Sentence: Always before she’d given up chocolate for Lent.
Favorite Sentence: But her high school boyfriend was a crisply seamed, closely cropped Episcopalian, and in solidarity she had traveled the brutal road of Lenten sacrifice with him.
Word Length: 901

Photo by Jules 8/2009.

Goodbye Week 51!

22 Apr

Coconut CakeYep, I have now completed my penultimate week. Almost impossible to comprehend. I’m writing this a couple of days later and I’m still finding it really hard to accept that I have fewer than 10 days left in my challenge. How the hell did that happen? Anyway… it happened! Enjoy this lovely coconut cake with me to celebrate. It’s my birthday cake from a couple of weeks ago and it was DELICIOUS. As for the day’s shorty, it has promise and I enjoyed writing it. So both a big victory and a small victory for the day.

Working Title: Phone Call
1st Sentence: The voice was thin, quavery.
Favorite Sentence: Let’s see, yes, she had been dreaming one of her classic anxiety numbers, the one where she’s in the back seat of a tiny car with her family, her father at the wheel, the car climbing a fragile bridge constructed of a narrow, braided metal track that is headed straight up, for miles, with no structural supports on either side, every inch of progress adding to the terror of being so far up, so vulnerable, so obviously about to slip off the side and tumble down through the clouds and into the ocean below.
Word Length: 404

Photo of a coconut cake from Grant’s Bakery in Lewiston. Happy birthday to me!

Going Meta

21 Apr

WriterAfter a number of frustrated tries at story that didn’t take, I started chatting with my all-purpose main character, the one I pull like taffy into whatever personality suits the day’s shorty, and it turns out she’s as tired as I am (today she’s a she). More so, maybe. She asks that she be allowed to live on the margins for a while, pop up only once or twice in a piece, to deliver a crucial piece of information or highlight a flaw in someone else for a change. That is, of course, impossible, but I avoided saying so and let her vent.

Working Title: Dear Writer
1st Sentence: She was fine as long as the writer needed only minor character support from her.
Favorite Sentence: So if she wasn’t slamming a door or flopping onto a couch, she was trying to deliver word play as though it was realistic, she was tossing out metaphors that no human being would ever say, and it was exhausting.
Word Length: 520

Photo by Tasylda Putri, 6/2009.


20 Apr

Pretty MoonAgain, this is not a month of winners. I hope I will find plenty of good ideas to build on when I come back to my April shorties but unlike all other months of my challenge, I doubt if I’ve produced even one story yet that I could submit in its current form. And I’ve produced only a few drafts that excited me while I was writing them. In all other months I’m fairly certain I produced a couple of those a week, at least, often more. But I choose to be happy right now with small victories. The day’s shorty is not among the few April pieces that excite me but it is tidy, a good exercise in compression, and I don’t hate it. Victory!

Working Title: This Much
1st Sentence: She smiled, leaned into me, and asked, as she always does when I tell her I love her, “How much?”
Favorite Sentence: Lately I’ve been saying, “As much as the moon,” but that’s already old.
Word Length: 350

Photo by Mary Hollinger, NODC biologist, NOAA, 5/1999.

Hard Drive Fodder

19 Apr

Candy ApplesApril has been my most lackluster month so far and I’ve just had to accept that I am (A) running out of whatever steam is necessary to write something brand new and finish it every day, and (B) falling prey to the increasing anxiety I’ve been feeling as the end date approaches—will I make it, is it possible, will I actually do this? Those questions are literally keeping me up at night and it’s not like I’m not already tired enough. Sadly, I’ve had to devote energy to just staying on the path and that’s energy I need for inspiration and focused critical attention to every sentence I write. So these days I am less demanding and I take what I can get. But even with that low standard… well. I wrote a story about a candy apple. Not how I was poisoned by a candy apple or how some old guy made a fortune in candy apples or how a bite of a candy apple brought a Proustian memory to some middle-aged woman but a simple meditation—and that is too elevated a word—on the humble candy apple itself. Why did I do that? Because the universe would give me NOTHING ELSE and I was, when I hammered it out in the wee hours of the morning after a frustrating day of sad nothings, well beyond caring if I ever wrote another intelligent word. What can you do. Perhaps it will entertain the other shorties destined to live out their lives on my hard drive.

Working Title: Candy Apple
1st Sentence: As they wandered the grounds of the fair, she found herself searching for one thing: a candy apple like the ones she’d eaten as a child.
Favorite Sentence: Mostly she wanted that sensation of cracking the shell with her teeth, then scooping out the crisp-white flesh and chewing the soft apple against the crackling, sticky piece of candy.
Word Length: 314

Photo by Constantin Barbu 9/2009.

A Patty Story

18 Apr

Woman with Heavy BurdenIn a recent post I mentioned that sometimes I look at my husband Pat and ask him what my story should be about and he tosses out some silly word or phrase that I sometimes use as my launching pad (or as a short writing exercise I then delete, mind warmed up, and head for story). I was at the office my friend Patty and I rent when I started the day’s shorty using the same trick. Patty, give me a word. She happened to be writing at the time and said she had just typed the word “overburdened.” Okay, then. Thanks Patty!

Working Title: Overburdened
1st Sentence: Overburdened.
Favorite Sentence: “Enthusiastic” could be read as too Bambi and chipper, but then again, a little stupidity and relentless good cheer is exactly what the world wants from women.
Word Length: 600

Photo by Frank Kovalcheck 6/2008.