Posts Tagged ‘Creative writing’

I’ve been so busy with “stuff,” I almost forgot to post about the beginning of a new course that I am enrolled in. It’s Fiction Writing through Gotham Writing Workshop, led by the same instructor as my previous Creative Writing 101, Chip Livingston. It’s week two, in which we learn about CHARACTER. This week’s assignment is to list five personality flaws I see in myself, pick a flaw, then give this flaw to a fictional character, who may or may not be similar to myself and show the flaw in action in under 500 words. I don’t like the word “flaws.” I rather prefer “idiosyncrasies.” So, I picked one of my idiosyncrasies and gave it to one of the main characters in a story that I started last week. I exaggerated and tweaked it, of course, since it’s fiction writing. I would greatly appreciate if you, upon reading the scene, could tell me if I succeeded in showing the unnamed idiosyncrasy(ies). What do you think my character is struggling with?

Her phone rang. “Yes?.. At the toy store… No, I am not done yet… I don’t know. The freaking store is full of ’em and I’ve no idea what to buy… Why don’t you join me and we’ll be done and over with… Of course, you can’t! How could I forget: You never have time for such mundane things…Gotta go. Bye.” Grimacing as if she swallowed an entire lemon, Alys returned her cell phone in the pocket of her jacket and resumed her quest for the perfect toy. Toys, actually. Her sister, Lisa, had triplets: three adorable baby girls, three cute objects for doting by their parents, relatives and friends alike. What do you get for the babies who want for nothing?

She heaved a sigh and continued along the endless isles filled with dolls, transformers, Lego sets, small soldiers, cubes, stackers, puzzles, toy cars, toy trucks, ducks, teddy bears, winny the poohs, piglets, tigers, lions, kittens, musical boxes, books with pictures… With all the bright colours screaming at her and making her head spin, Alys slowed down in the baby section and froze at the sight of an enigmatic blue monster reminiscent of an octopus with a crazy eye attached to each of its eight tentacles and complete with an eerie toothless grin. Are you kidding me? Is this horror meant for babies? She grabbed the toy and squeezed it lightly.

The monster squealed.

Alys winced, threw the toy back on the shelf and spun on her heels. Maybe instead of trying to pick the most attractive toy… She smacked herself on the forehead. How could she possibly know what toys babies find most attractive? She kicked at the bottom shelf in frustration and glanced around surreptitiously: to her relief, toys were the only witnesses of her outburst.

Chewing on her lip, she pulled out her cell phone to check the time. Oh, crap! She had already spent two hours inside the store and was still empty-handed! Lisa would kill her if she were late tonight for the triplets’ birthday party. A hot wave of anger, anxiety and frustration washed over her. She tore her jacket off and was about to throw it angrily on the floor, then thought better of it, took several deep breaths and raised her face toward the top shelf so as tears welling in her eyes didn’t spill and ruin her makeup.

A middle-aged woman with a look of deep concentration on her face stepped into the narrow isle.

“Excuse me,” Alys said quickly, swallowing her tears and forcing the friendliest smile she could muster. “Do you happen to know what kind of toys are liked by babies?”

The woman broke off her concentration and smiled back at Alys. “How old is the baby?”

“One…I need three. Toys, I mean. They are triplets, my nieces. Today’s their birthday,” she said all in one breath.

“Oh! That’s a doozy!” the lady exclaimed shaking her head. She eyed Alys noting her dishevelled appearance. “But I am sure it can be helped.”

There was nothing special about the nice lady, but Alys could have sworn that for a brief moment she caught a glimpse of a halo above the lady’s head and heard angels sing.

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Image by reflectionsinapuddle

I found her in the forest, where light and shadow romp in a fanciful dance; where timid light slinks away with a hint of a cloud in the sky; where earth is soft with moss and air is filled with the smells of tree bark and sap and damp dirt.

She was sitting motionless in her hammock that was spread among tree branches. I sat beside her and watched.

“You are staring,” she said with a hint of reproach.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to be rude.” I replied taking my eyes off her.

“You have to be quiet, or you’ll ruin my story.”

“Your story? I didn’t know… What kind of story is it?”

“This kind, “ She waved her skinny arm ambiguously.

“Can you tell it to me?” I pleaded, intrigued.

She looked at me bemused and shook her head.

“You are big, but you can’t see beyond the end of your nose. You’ve been looking at it all the while.”

She rolled her four pairs of eyes at my ignorance, and went back to spinning her web.

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photo by Ed Yourdon

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon (Creative Commons)

My GWW creative writing 101 is on the home stretch and will soon approach the finish line. I’ve submitted my last assignment for peer feedback — not without heart palpitations and butterflies launching attacks on my stomach. A couple of good comments from my classmates assuaged my anxiety, but I wasn’t as lucky as some other students who received a “whopping” number of comments – three! (Peer feedback was something I’d really missed in this class.) After the instructor provides his comments on our stories, the course is officially over.

Usually when a course ends, I feel proud that I’ve made it that far and accomplished something worthwhile along the way, but this always comes with an immense sense of relief: pressure’s off, no more poring over textbooks, no more burning midnight oil, trying to get things done by a looming deadline, or at least not until I decide I really need to take some other course. In that sense, CW101 is a refreshing change — I just don’t want the course to end! At the beginning of it, I was enthusiastic, yet dubious about my ability to write a single sentence that could remotely qualify as creative. And despite my misgivings, I fell in love with fiction writing. I am still unsure whether the love is reciprocal. Will I ever be?

So, what’s next on the horizon? GWW offers an online fiction course that spans 10 weeks (with CW101 it was only six), which I will likely take with the same instructor, Chip Livingston, who’s been very supportive and responsive and provided really good feedback (in a sense that his feedback was constructive and helpful.) But that’s almost a month away. Meanwhile, I’d like to go through the CW101 lectures and do some of the suggested exercises that I didn’t have the time to complete during the course, and – fingers crossed – I’ll have enough time and motivation to keep writing.

All in all it was a great course, well worth money, time and effort spent, with a lot of useful tips and inspiration.

Six most important lessons learned:

  1. Treat writing like a job: show up (preferably every day), write on schedule and toward a goal (word count is a good place to start)
  2. Read and learn (any piece of writing, good or bad, can teach something, but good literature is the best source of learning)
  3. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open to new experiences and ideas
  4. Assume that the first draft is never good enough – write and re-write, then edit more
  5. Make it a goal not to be good, but to get better, draft by draft, piece by piece
  6. As with any creative pursuit, have fun!

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vortex of colour

Image by reflectionsinapuddle

She floated in darkness, tranquil, like an autumn leaf on a puddle, when, from an ocean of nothingness, a tiny speck of light the size of an ant’s eye blinked shyly and lodged at the base of her soul. As she focused on the light, it began to swirl and shimmer, vibrating and expanding, until it burst into a myriad of shards, carving an opening in her heart. Through it she fell into a wormhole filled with incessant chirping of legions of invisible crickets. The wormhole twisted and turned, its raging waterless rapids battering her like a leaky raft. She was falling… whether eons had passed or a second, she couldn’t tell. At some point, it came to her — she was falling upward.

As her endurance began to wane, the wormhole suddenly collapsed, and she was in the dark again. But this time there was a change. She felt tingling in her palms. Weak at first, the tingling grew more intense with every breath she took, spreading through her body like a forest fire. When it reached her face, her lids fluttered, and she opened her eyes.

She found herself curled up in what seemed like a cave with its porous walls lit up with faint green light; she sniffed at the wall, then licked its surface – it was rock solid and tasted of sand and fire. Following an ancient instinct, she began to crawl clumsily in search of an exit, twisting her sinuous body and clawing at the rock under her feet. After coming across the same crevice the third time, she realized she was going in circles and… there was something else. As she looked in disbelief at her sharp talons and a long powerful tail covered with scales and spikes dragging along, her mouth opened wide, as if on its own, and a blood chilling shriek rolled out of her throat, an echo bouncing off the walls like thunder.


“Jake, Jake, wake up! You have to look at this… Now, quick, come to the window!”
“Go back to sleep, Sam…”
“Look, look, Jake, the moon is cracking! Just like an egg!”

Jake yawned, rubbed his eyes, and got out of the bed. If that again had to do with the elusive monsters hiding in the closet, his younger brother was in big trouble. Jake didn’t bother with the slippers, just headed straight for the window, and stopped dead in his tracks: outside, a huge glowing orb of the moon was suspended in the black sky. The orb cracked open, like an egg, and spit out a creature that looked part like a bird and part like a snake. The beast regarded the two gaping boys with its emerald eyes, unfolded a pair of magnificent wings, and soared toward the stars, its serpentine tail waving. Farewell.

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Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston  is the author of the poetry collection Museum of False Starts. His fiction and non-fiction are also widely published, in journals including Ploughshares, Cincinnati Review, Potomac Review, Court Green, Subtropics, and Crazyhorse. He holds a BS in Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Florida, an MA in Fiction Writing from the University of Colorado, and an MFA in Poetry Writing from Brooklyn College. He teaches creative writing, poetry and fiction at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently taking creative writing 101. I asked Chip if he could do a short interview for my blog, and he kindly agreed. Some of you submitted questions for Chip; they are included in the interview. I appreciate your participation very much. I would also like to thank Chip for his insightful responses.

Natalie (reflectionsinapuddle): Do you write for a specific audience? If so, how would you describe your ideal reader?

Chip Livingston: Usually I don’t write with a specific audience in mind. With poetry, I keep in mind that not all my readers are poets or even poetry readers. I don’t want to deny anyone access to my work, so I hope I am making myself as clear as possible.

There are times when I’ll see a call for submissions from a literary magazine I admire having a special themed issue, and sometimes this will spur me to come up with something appropriate to the theme, but that’s not a common inspiration. Usually I just try to write what I think will translate to the page.

N: What are you working on right now?

ChL: Right now I’m proofing the layout of my new book of poetry, “CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK,” which will be published May 1, 2012 by New York Quarterly Books. I’m writing new poems for the eventual third poetry collection. And I’m trying to revise an old novel manuscript to see if it’s salvageable. And constantly working on short fiction. I’ve always got a couple of stories in process.

N: Could you tell us more about CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK?

ChL: CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK is a project I’m really proud of. It’s poetry, and the book is divided in two sections, Crow-Blue, which covers the southerner’s experience in New York City, and Crow-Black, which covers the experience of the North American in South America. The first section is strongly influenced by the New York School of poetics, whereas the second section is more influenced by Native American and South American literature.

Catherine: What are  your suggestions on getting published. In your experience, what was the best route to take? What were some of the challenges you faced?

ChL: Catherine, the best way for an unknown writer to publish a book is by getting it in the hands of someone who would seriously consider it. In poetry, the typical route is through “first book contests” run by small, independent or university presses.

Usually, the manuscripts that win these contests contain poems that have already been published in literary magazines, and especially when sending a manuscript to a press for publication consideration in a non-contest scenario, being able to mention that you’ve previously published some of the contents of the manuscript individually can help you get your work a more serious look. The best way to get individual poems and stories published is to read and submit to literary journals. There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of literary journals in print and online that accept submissions from writers, and these are usually the first places beginning poets and prose writers “emerge.”

Catherine: How do you feel about self publishing now that companies like Amazon and Apple make it possible to do?

ChL: Another good question. I think electronic books and the ability to distribute them through Amazon, Apple and other outlets allow for a lot more writers to have access to sharing their words/works, and there are several well-known examples of these self-published titles getting such a record of sales and recommendations that they catch on to big presses and get the book put into ‘print.’

The drawback [of self-publishing] is advertising and distribution. If a writer self-publishes, how does he/she let the world know that the book exists. Traditional press publishing comes with some plan of media promotion and the press has contacts at bookstores across the country or world as well as access to online and electronic sales.

If you want your book to change the world, you need an agent or publisher with a network of connections to get your book to the world.

Malena: My question is about the roles of writer and author. When is it that one can say he/she is an author?

ChL: Malena, the way I think it’s generally accepted is that an “author” is a writer who has published a book. I think of the ways authors and writers are written about in bios in literary magazines and blurbs, and if they have published books, the bio will generally refer to the writer as “The author of __.”  Or “Jane Doe has authored five books of poetry.”

N: You travel a lot. Do you find your inspiration in discovering new places?

ChL: I absolutely attribute much of my inspiration to new places and new things in new places, new perspectives. And learning and speaking Spanish has also given me a lot to think about in terms of sentence structure and the ways words can combine to modify each other.

N: Have you ever experienced being “chased” by a poem or a creative idea?

ChL: Yes, there have been times, even with the writing of “Yesterday my father was dying,” where the words themselves rattled in my head over and over until I had them on paper, though the initial impulse was witnessing the ants carry the cricket like pall bearers carrying a coffin.

And I had the experience of having the ghost of a poet follow me around and whisper poems to me. It was a once in a lifetime occasion. A professor loaned me a poetry collection by Tim Dlugos because she said she saw something similar in my recent work to his poetry. I became obsessed with the poet, felt like his presence was literally following me around, and I asked the poet Kenward Elmslie, who was the owner of the building I lived in, if he knew anything about Dlugos, and he told me that Dlugos had lived in my apartment twenty years earlier.

N: Sounds like a great idea for a novel! Speaking of which, your first novel is unpublished, but won numerous awards. Can you tell us more about it?

ChL: Yes, it’s the project I’m thinking of returning to. It won a contest from University of Arizona Press, but the press had a very similar manuscript under contract (two gay Creek Indian novels) and they worried the two titles would compete with each other. My agent at the time didn’t want me to sell it to a university press, so we agreed not to publish it with Univ. of Arizona. It won another contest as a short story collection, because much of the novel had been published as short stories, but the contest press said they thought it was a novel and not a story collection, so they withdrew it from consideration. I took a lot of the material and turned them into poems that went into my first poetry book, and lent its title, MUSEUM OF FALSE STARTS. But I worked so hard taking it apart that when Univ. of Oklahoma asked me if they could read and consider it a few years ago, I felt it was unpresentable. Now I have it in mind to see if I can put it back together again. Wish me luck.

N: Good luck with your novel! I would really like to read it some time.

N: We often hear that a writer has to “show-up” to do his or her work. But what about talent? Do you think it can be taught?

ChL: I think talent can be taught. Ideas can be nurtured and texts can be studied as examples. I don’t think any writer starts out great. It takes practice and practice and practice and practice, and then editing and editing and editing and editing. I don’t think it takes any special gene or gift to make something artful, but it’s not easy. It takes showing up for the work and the prewriting (of reading) and postwriting (of editing). I absolutely believe that everything I know about writing has been either taught to me by my mentors and professors or has been taught to me by the authors of the books I read.

N: What was the best piece of advice you received from your mentors? And what is the best piece of advice you can give to your students and aspiring writers?

ChL: The best piece of writing advice I received was from poet/novelist/memoirist Linda Hogan, who remains my all-time favorite writer in any genre. She told us in a fiction workshop to always try and “write two pages past what you think is the end of the story.” I particularly had the tendency to end the story right before the punchline, so it was good advice for me.

My advice to aspiring writers: Read good literature and study it. Don’t give up.

N: Once again, thank you very much for the interview! Maybe you could share with our readers one of your favourite poems by Chip Livingston?

ChL: My favorite poem so far is from my first book. It was first published in Ploughshares literary magazine.

poem by Chip Livingston

That owl was an omen
Driving home from the airport
Not once but twice
It rose in my headlights
From rain black asphalt
Great white wings nearly touching
Windshield wipers    that low flying escort
Stretching sixty miles toward Alabama
The owl was always right
Something died and something else
Was just about to
I checked my daughter’s red-eye slumber
In the rearview mirror
No need to worry her with divination
An hour drive delayed by rain
And now this trepidation on the slick black road
Certain as miscarried fortune
Her coming home to Mama in an autumn storm
And no such thing as California
Just a red clay creekbed down the road
From the house I birthed her in
Filling up to bathe away a sorrow
Blinking lights behind us
Before I hear the sirens
Firetruck passes on the narrow bridge
Then Crabtree Church in flames beyond the graveyard
My daughter wakes and guesses lightning
But I never heard the thunder crack
And only saw the lightning white of dreaded wings
I pull in   step out   open an umbrella
Stand with the firemen    watch the frame fall down
The Marshall asks if we saw anything
Like kids driving away in a four-wheeler
They found tracks in the mud
Whiskey and beer bottles    a gas can
Burn!  All those years of homecoming
Annual dinners on the grounds
Hymns around a weather-warped piano
Burn!  My granddad’s Indian education
Walls that heard a thousand lessons
A thousand prayers in high soprano
Burn!  Fifty paper funeral parlor fans
Cokesbury hymnals and sixteen pews
Reduced to flakey carbon tamped with rain
The death of wood and glass
And half a baby’s ashes in my daughter’s pocketbook
All the little names we’ll never sing
I aim to find that messenger again and scare him off
Litter the road with his insolent feathers

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I wrote this short story for my creative writing class. The rule was to use an opening line suggested by the instructor. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. 🙂


Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip. First, nothing went to plan. Second, his plane crashed.

It all came back to him now: the smell of burning rubber in the cabin, shrieks of a woman two rows behind him, cries for help, a deafening BANG! and an endless gut-wrenching scream above the din.

He jolted in his seat and gasped. Someone was tapping him on his shoulder. Chris opened his eyes. A young flight-attendant`s face was hovering above him.

“Are you Okay, sir? Would you like some water?”

Chris nodded, his heart still in his throat. The flight-attendant rushed to get him water.

“A bad dream, hon?” A soft voice asked.

He turned his head: a benevolent-looking elderly woman was peering at him from above her reading glasses. He recognized her at once. She was the old woman with the cat, and she was responsible for this mess. When they boarded the first time, the stupid cat ran off and hid in the cockpit among some stupid wires where no one could get at it for several hours. And when they boarded the second time, Chris was seated next to the woman, with her stupid pet tucked in a cat carrier under the front seat.

“I get them sometimes. Nightmares,” The old woman continued, ignoring Chris’s resentful stare. “I even scream in my dreams.”

The woman gave him a reassuring smile. Her teeth were white, in stark contrast with her saggy wizened skin covered with brown age spots. Dentures, no doubt. She looked like she could be 80 or 100. Her eyes though…

“Your water, sir,” the pretty flight attendant was back with a glass.

Chris swallowed water in one gulp and felt almost himself. He glanced furtively in the old woman’s direction. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but he couldn’t place it. He decided, she looked like a really aged Mary Poppins from the old musical. Besides, she had this really odd looking bag, and sticking out of the bag was today`s paper with the front page headline  “HUNDREDS DIE IN A HORRIFIC PLANE CRASH…”

“Excuse me, sir?” The flight-attendant was back.

Chris turned toward her. Why did she have to be such a nuisance?

“Would you like some lunch, sir? We have chicken and vegetarian lasagna.”

“Chicken, please.”

Now everyone was busy eating lunch. Chris searched for the bag with the newspaper, but the woman must have put it away. He ate his lunch, stealing glances at his neighbour, while she was daintily picking at her vegetarian lasagna, smiling to herself, as if it were a funny joke, her cat getting into the cockpit and causing all the commotion and delays. There were a lot of angry and tired people, who had missed their connecting flights and had been late for their meetings and conferences — all courtesy of the stupid feline. Maybe after this incident, they will ban cats, or any pets, in the cabin.

As if she’d heard his thoughts, the old woman dabbed her lips with a napkin, and said,“You are not a cat person, are you?”

“No, not particularly.”

“Are you a dog person then?”

“Uh… don’t know, never had a dog.”

“Would you like to meet Casper?”

Before Chris knew what was going on, the old woman looked around to make sure no one was watching, then reached under the front seat and pulled out the cat carrier.

“Casper – Chris. Chris – Casper.”

The carrier inhabitant was snow-white and fluffy. He gave Chris a cursory glance, squinting his bright-blue feline eyes, and yawned wide showing all his sharp teeth and a pink tongue. Then he rearranged himself inside the carrier, so Chris could only see his rear end with a bushy tail, which meant the audience was over.

“He is a special kitty,” the old woman said, putting the cat carrier back under the front seat.

“Oh yeah? What’s his specialty?”

“Oh…” The old woman suddenly looked hesitant. “He can perform… tricks.”

“Like the one he pulled off just several hours ago? How many hijacked planes does he have under his furry belt? And how do you know my name? I don’t think I’ve introduced myself.”

Oddly, the woman seemed relieved with the new turn in conversation. She produced a business card that read “Chris LaLonde, Business Development.” It was his business card.

“I must have dropped it,” Chris took his card and put it back in his pocket. He already regretted his angry outburst. Besides, the old lady and her fluffy, if a bit snooty, friend, radiated such peace and tranquility that his anger melted away.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s been a long day and I feel exhausted,” he said.

“No worries, hon. No worries.” The old lady purred.

Chris closed his eyes. Although he was quite spent, he didn’t want to fall asleep, lest he had the same horrible dream and screamed again. The dream seemed so vivid though, almost real, and the acrid taste of burnt rubber was still flickering on his tongue. Deep in his reverie, he missed the point when his thoughts turned from his nightmare to the old lady. Why was she traveling alone? Why would she bring her cat along? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone, including the cat, if it had been left at home? Cats can do that; they are not as attached to their owners as dogs are. Maybe the woman was moving in with her children, or grand children, and couldn’t leave her beloved cat behind. Something about her was still tugging at Chris. It must have been her eyes, so blue, so clear, so young, so out of place on her wizened face.


By the gate, waiting for him was Irene, young and pretty, beaming with joy, her lovely blue eyes deep with love and affection. She kissed him passionately and hugged as if they haven’t seen each other for an eternity.

“Let’s go home. I’ve a surprise for you.”

When they got to their little cozy apartment on a quiet street, Irene opened the door with her key, and asked Chris to cover his eyes. He heard rustling in the kitchen; then Irene moved to the living room and called out softly; then she was back and instructed him to open his eyes. He did. Staring at him were two blue buttons on a tiny ball of white fur. The furball yawned wide showing his pink tongue and tiny sharp teeth.

“Casper – Chris. Chris – Casper,” Irene announced and kissed the cute little creature on its face. “I found him on the doorstep last night. He is a very special kitten.”


Later that evening, when things quieted down a bit, and Irene was in the kitchen, doling out treats to Casper-the kitten, Chris searched the Internet for the news of today’s plane crash, the one he saw in the old lady’s paper. There was no mention of any plane crash on the Internet though. The only big news today was that of a cat wreaking havoc with the air traffic in early morning and delaying hundreds of passengers. One news website featured a photo of a white cat. It was Casper all right. And although the media said the cat was “scared and miserable,” he looked quite satisfied, almost smug.

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Photo credit: Mait Jüriado (Creative Commons)

Have you ever killed a story? A story that you are trying to tell. I bet you are thinking, why on earth would I want to kill my story? Really, WHY? Yet, many people do that every day. They write their stories (articles, news releases, novels, reports, essays, blog posts etc.) and kill them on the spot.

There are so many ways to kill a piece of writing, it would take a book to discuss all the killing implements and methods. But the most common one is death by drowning. Drowning in verbiage.

Guess, how I know that. Correct. Guilty as charged. 🙂 My excuse is, or rather, was – I tend to overwrite. In the creative writing course I am currently taking, my weekly assignments are limited to 500 words, and sometimes 250 per piece. Up until now the very idea of a word count limit in creative writing made me cringe, because like many beginners I mistook verbosity for eloquence.

From discussions with my classmates, I gathered that most of them were also wrestling with the word count limit. So I decided that “overwriting” wasn’t such a big deal and my pieces were fine. Then I read a comment from another classmate who said,”I am actually enjoying the challenge of the word count.  I am finding that the word count pressures me into finding the “best” word possible.  Additionally, I suspect that it mirrors how writing for publication in the real world works!

That little comment hit home and got me thinking. I re-read what I’d written and found that my stories were not that interesting after all. They lacked panache. They were ridden with run-on sentences and wordiness, and I’d exceeded the word count limit before bringing the story to its conclusion. So, I re-wrote my pieces cutting ruthlessly everything that didn’t add to the story or the character and found better words and metaphors. Doing just that improved the flow and made the narrative a lot more entertaining and dramatic.

As I am not ready yet to share my pieces here, I thought I’d share a short short story that our instructor posted on the discussion board, to demonstrate how much can be said with fewer words. Enjoy!


by Etgar Keret (700 words)

She said, “Don’t touch that.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s glue,” she said. “Special glue. The best kind.”

“What did you buy it for?”

“Because I need it,” she said. “A lot of things around here need gluing.”

“Nothing around here needs gluing,” I said. “I wish I understood why you buy all this stuff.”

“For the same reason I married you,” she murmured. “To help pass the time.”

I didn’t want to fight, so I kept quiet, and so did she.

“Is it any good, this glue?” I asked. She showed me the picture on the box, with this guy hanging upside-down from the ceiling.

“No glue can really make a person stick like that,” I said. “They just took the picture upside-down. They must have put a light fixture on the floor.” I took the box from her and peered at it. “And there, look at the window. They didn’t even bother to hang the blinds the other way. They’re upside-down, if he’s really standing on the ceiling. Look,” I said again, pointing to the window. She didn’t look.

“It’s 8 already,” I said. “I’ve got to run.” I picked up my briefcase and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be back pretty late. I’m working –”

“Overtime,” she said. “Yes, I know.”

I called Abby from the office.

“I can’t make it today,” I said. “I’ve got to get home early.”

“Why?” Abby asked. “Something happen?”

“No . . . I mean, maybe. I think she suspects something.”

There was a long silence. I could hear Abby’s breathing on the other end.

“I don’t see why you stay with her,” she whispered. “You never do anything together. You don’t even fight. I’ll never understand it.” There was a pause, and then she repeated, “I wish I understood.” She was crying.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Abby. Listen, someone just came in,” I lied. “I’ve got to hang up. I’ll come over tomorrow. I promise. We’ll talk about everything then.”

I got home early. I said “Hi” as I walked in, but there was no reply. I went through all the rooms in the house. She wasn’t in any of them. On the kitchen table I found the tube of glue, completely empty. I tried to move one of the chairs, to sit down. It didn’t budge. I tried again. Not an inch. She’d glued it to the floor. The fridge wouldn’t open. She’d glued it shut. I didn’t understand what was happening, what would make her do such a thing. I didn’t know where she was. I went into the living room to call her mother’s. I couldn’t lift the receiver; she’d glued that too. I kicked the table and almost broke my toe.

And then I heard her laughing. It was coming from somewhere above me. I looked up, and there she was, standing barefoot on the living-room ceiling.

I stared open-mouthed. When I found my voice I could only ask, “What the hell . . . are you out of your mind?”

She didn’t answer, just smiled. Her smile seemed so natural, with her hanging upside-down like that, as if her lips were just stretching on their own by the sheer force of gravity.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you down,” I said, hurrying to the shelf and grabbing the largest books. I made a tower of encyclopedia volumes and clambered on top of the pile.

“This may hurt a little,” I said, trying to keep my balance. She went on smiling. I pulled as hard as I could, but nothing happened. Carefully, I climbed down.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get the neighbors or something. I’ll go next door and call for help.”

“Fine,” she laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

I laughed too. She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside-down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downwards, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books tumbled out from under my feet, but I stayed floating in midair, hanging just from her lips.

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“… the first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.” Dorothea Brande

First, please allow me to explain what morning pages are. In a nutshell, it’s a form of premeditated self-torture — of a sophisticated kind, mind you — for refined individuals like you and me. That is if you look at it from a psychological point of view, because the scribbling of morning pages occurs, as the name suggests, in the morning, first thing after you get out of bed. You wake up 15 -30 minutes earlier than your normal routine (in my case it happens to be 5 am), drag yourself to your kitchen table or your desk, whichever is nearest, and scribble away for 15 minutes while still half asleep. From a technical point of view, it’s free-writing at its finest – as free of inhibition (and sometimes intelligent thought), as a nudist is free of clothes on a nudist beach.

Why not call it journaling then, you might ask. Because there is one significant difference between morning pages and a journal. With the journal, there is no limitation as to when you can write in it. The morning pages, however, must be done in a zombie-like limbo state, before your waking mind hijacks your full attention, and your inner critic starts punching you in the face and kicking you in the butt. Your main objective in this pre-dawn ordeal is to keep your hand moving across the page for a set period of time, writing anything that is not complete nonsense.

Like in free-writing, you write whatever comes to mind, as fast as you can, without giving it too much thought, and you, or your inner critic, are not allowed to correct. That’s why my MPs look like notes of a mental patient. I don’t know about other morning scribblers, but I am never able to decipher what I’ve written afterward. And that works just fine, because you are not supposed to read what you’ve written anyway, at least for several days. But even after several days, I am not inclined to read my MPs, lest I lose heart and  claim those extra minutes of sleep. All I read is usually the title of the previous page. Today it happens to be “Day 59.” Tomorrow, the title will be “Day 60.” No need for dates or re-reads. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps, that’s the best way for me to keep my overactive critical faculty at bay, at least for a short while.

Another rule with MPs that will make you scream is regularity, meaning you are supposed to write your MPs every day seven days a week. I break this rule every once in a while. So what? Do I look like a superwoman to you? I didn’t think so. But writing MPs for 59 days, almost straight, is an accomplishment I am proud of.

By now you must be pretty intrigued. You must also be thinking I am obsessive-compulsive or downright crazy, otherwise WHY on earth would I do it? Well, crazy can’t even begin to describe it. My psychiatrist said… Gotcha! 🙂 Actually, contrary to common sense, writing MPs helps me maintain emotional balance. It is also partially responsible for this blog and my creative writing pursuit.  My morning page challenge convinced me that MPs are a powerful inspiration machine, a perpetuum mobile of creativity. Try it and see it for yourself. The trick is to stay with the challenge for more than 35 days straight, 40 to be sure. It may vary for different folks though. Some say it takes 21-28 days to form a new habit, while others say the magic number is 66. I say 40 days, because this is when I began to feel the effect.  Before the MP challenge, I would sit at my desk, staring at a blank page and asking myself,”What should I write about?” Now, my question is “What should I write about first?” Before, I couldn’t drag myself to my computer to write and would come up with all kinds of excuses, like the need to do the dishes right this moment, or walk the dogs, or make dinner. Now I have to curb the time I spend writing, because dishes need to be done, the dogs walked, and dinner made.

Of course, writing MPs alone won’t make you a new Chekhov or Proust. Not right away. But it will help you establish a habit that you will be thankful for for the rest of your life as a writer, artist, and a creative person.

Just to make one thing clear before I wrap it up. As you might rightfully suspect, I didn’t come up with the idea of morning pages myself, and I resisted it for quite some time. I made three attempts at it over several years, but each time I would quit after seven days of writing MPs. I’ve learned from my mistakes and finally found the format that works for me: I do it in longhand, there are no computers involved, because when I use a computer I tend to re-read and correct what I’ve written. I also write no more than 15 minutes on weekdays, because I don’t want to be late for work, and a little longer on weekends.

Three books that gave me this wonderful crazy idea:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge

And if you are a morning scribbler yourself, I would love to hear about your experience.

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As I mentioned in my previous post, I would like to share with you what I’ve learned in my CW101 class so far. I’ll start with my second week’s assignment and skip week one. That one I’ll save for later, because it has the potential to become a full-fledged story, and I would like to work on it in secret. Just to be sure I am not infringing on anyone’s copyright, I checked with Gotham’s administration about what I can and cannot share about the class. I was told two exercises are OK. (I suppose I can share my own stories (not the actual instructions or themes), because stories are mine and I can do with them however I please.)

Assignment rules the way I remember them: Write a scene under 500 words, based on a short “telling” paragraph. Stick to the facts; show rather than tell.

The paragraph the way I remember it: Mick and Loretta, are driving along a lonely wintry highway. Suddenly they hear a loud noise. They start bickering about who’s been drinking. Then they get out of the car to only find … nothing.

Just a couple of notes before the actual scene. I didn’t want to write in 3rd person (whatever it’s called in proper terms.) And I didn’t want Loretta to be the narrator. I didn’t come up with the title as it was not required by the rules, but tried to stick to 500 word count and found it incredibly hard. I actually wrote over 600 words, but then had to pare it down. I struggled with the collision paragraph, because it was  hard to incorporate the loud noise into the story — it would change everything, and the scene wanted to be written with a “heavy thud.” Oh, almost forgot: the female character swears.

I will greatly appreciate your ideas about how I can improve the scene without increasing the word count. I haven’t gotten any feedback on this yet, so you can go to town ripping it apart. I think I’ve grown thick enough skin to take criticism, if not with acceptance, but at least with dignity. 🙂 Enough talk though.

~ \ ~

The night fell and enveloped the world in a soft blanket of falling snow. A ribbon of treacherous ice that was the highway streamed beneath the wheels of my Land Rover. On both sides of the road, pine trees raced — solemn, watchful, wary — their spires reaching for the pregnant firmament that was about to collapse under its own weight and relieve itself in one monstrous dump.

I looked at my watch. 8:05 pm. We had to hurry. If we didn’t reach the cabin within the next hour, we could be stranded in this godforsaken wilderness until morning. I glanced at Loretta’s profile silhouetted against the backdrop of the blurred hibernal landscape – she was fast asleep. My left hand on the steering, I rummaged through her purse with my right hand, fished out her cell phone and checked the screen. Just as I expected, the screen flashed lugubriously “No Service.”

I was about to return the cell to the purse, when suddenly, with a heavy thud the Rover shook like a giant beast and lurched into the empty oncoming traffic lane. I slammed on the brakes, and the truck screeched to a halt barely an inch away from the edge of the road.

“What the f*** was that?” Loretta croaked.

“I’ve no clue. I think I hit something.” I replied unbuckling my seat belt and shifting the gear into “park.”

“What could that be? A deer?” Loretta asked. She turned around to look at the highway.

I followed her gaze, but couldn’t see much – the rear view was half blocked by snow.

“Mick,” Loretta was now staring at me, her eyes glistening with suspicion. “Have you been drinking?”

“No. Why would I be drinking?”

She continued to stare at me in silence, her eyes growing harder, her mouth tightening and turning into a straight line, her chin pushing slightly forward. At that moment, she looked like a pitbull ready to attack.

“You tell me why,” she finally uttered. Her hoarse voice didn’t portend forgiveness.

“I haven’t,” I coughed up, my throat suddenly dry. “I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in my mouth for several months.” It was a lie, but she didn’t need to know that. Not now, not ever.

“And you expect me to believe this? Of course, you haven’t been drinking. Why then are we sitting here in the middle of nowhere and having this conversation?”

“Get off my back,” I opened the door and jumped out of the quietly humming truck. Loretta followed suit.

We made a few steps in the direction where our collision ought to have occurred, expecting to see… something. A deer?.. Santa Clause? All we saw, however, was a deserted highway, sentry pine trees, and a promise of big trouble if we didn’t get out of here soon.

Loretta touched me lightly on the shoulder. “Listen!” she whispered. I strained my hearing, and realized that the world grew quieter than in a coffin.

“The truck!”

The end

Related posts:

Adventures in Creative Writing

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Taking creative writing classes has been my longtime desire, but until recently I haven’t had the courage to act on it. Unlike many aspiring writers, I never claim to have wanted to be a writer ever since I learned my first letters. Although I remember writing poems in secret. Once, in a summer camp, I wrote a poem and put it in my drawer; another girl found it and said it was no good. My feelings were hurt beyond measure. After that I only wrote poems-parodies and shared them with a few friends. I even attempted to write a sci-fi story and sent the manuscript to a youth newspaper — the story never got published. Over the years, I’ve come to think of myself as a “visual” person, rather than a “word” person. But life happens, changing the way we see the world and our place in it. So here I am, hooked on writing at 44, venturing into the wonderful world of fiction not as a spectator, but a storyteller. And, oh boy, is this fun!

I am now two weeks into Creative Writing 101 offered by Gotham Writer’s Workshop. It’s an online course, and my classmates and instructor are all connecting from different locations and time zones. Once a week, we receive a lecture and, using a discussion board and live chat, discuss among ourselves what we’ve learned. Our weekly material also includes an array of writing exercises for practice and one assignment that we turn in by the end of the week for instructor’s feedback. The course is well-paced and fits into my busy schedule nicely. It gives me enough breathing space, so I can focus on my writing assignments without feeling overwhelmed or pressured. Although it’s still early in the course, what I’ve learned so far has already changed the way I read fiction. I began to pay more attention to the aspects of language and storytelling that I often took for granted. In that sense, I can say my reading experience has acquired a new dimension and is becoming more enjoyable the more I learn about creative writing process.

What I find especially enticing about this course is an opportunity to learn from a master of the craft. My course is led by Chip Livingston, author of Museum of False Starts; his next book is slated to come out this spring. Without doubt, I am impressed with Chip’s accomplishments, but most importantly, I appreciate his leadership and active engagement in the class. I also find his timely feedback on our assignments invaluable, unlike some other programs I took in the past, where I had to wait for instructor’s feedback for weeks.

To my utter delight, Chip kindly agreed to do a short interview for this blog. I think it might be of interest to those of you who are passionate about writing. I also think it is only fair to give you an opportunity to take part in it. So, you are welcome to submit one or two questions about writing (via comments to this post) that will be used in our interview with Chip. Questions in the interview post will be properly attributed with a link to your blog, or to your Twitter/Facebook account, in case you don’t have a blog. Below I included one of Chip’s prose poems from his Museum of False Starts book, which he shared in our class.

I am also planning on sharing more of what I learn in the class in my future posts (within Gotham’s guidelines, of course.)

Stay tuned and I look forward to your interview questions!


Yesterday my father was dying
by Chip Livingston, Museum of False Starts

Yesterday my father was dying, and he asked me why – in a voice so hoarse and dry I had to lean in close to hear him – why I flew two-thousand miles.  I asked myself: about the odor from the cracked shell of his skin; about his breath, which smelled as if he’d crawled from underneath the house, or drifted up from ocean’s depths, like the one I flew across, only to borrow the truck he could not drive, and race to a gas station for cigarettes, when I had not smoked in years.

I sit out on his front porch swing, another thing untouched since I’ve been here, and watch a trail of ants raise a cricket from the ground.  Paralyzed, swollen, and I hope numbed, she drags her egg stick on the cement like a broken magic wand, her feelers twitching uselessly as they lift her up and carry her – like the clumsy paramedics hauled my father to the funeral home.

We’re all alone, I thought, that cricket and my father’s wife and me.  And we can’t grasp what carries us.  It isn’t grief, at least not mine, that moves us to another’s house, for days or weeks, a time of strangers leaving chicken made in casseroles, and frozen, labeled with dates, names, and numbers, like toe tags, so we know where to return the clean dishes and Tupperware.

I sit and smoke and stare in space, watch the insects scale the bricks, not knowing if the cricket laid her eggs, or where the ants will carry her, or if I give a damn what they do with my father.

How would I know what he wanted?  I wasn’t here, and we weren’t close. His wife should know better than to ask me if I care if she buries him in her hometown three states away; or if she keeps the urn; or if I want to share his ashes.

Though, maybe I do.

There is a hint of rain in this morning’s humid air, and the ants have moved the cricket to the concrete’s edge, where she teeters before falling in the weedy flower bed.

I find their nest.  The sandhill’s higher on the western side to keep the rain from rushing down and flooding them.  The hole, too small to fit the carcass underground, is perfect for a final cigarette.

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