Sunday, March 31, 2013


As soon as my classes are over (at the end of April), I'll try to write posts more regularly. In the meantime, here's an essay I wrote for the latest issue of Philadelphia Stories.

I include a recent picture of the cats outside, enjoying the stirrings of spring, as compensation.

The Right Prompts

Recently, I attended the joyous funeral of my 94 year old grandmother, Lurye LaBrie, mother of ten kids all raised in the Midwest on a small farm in a tiny rural town populated by grain elevators, a town hall, and a juke-boxless tavern (not a bar, it was always called a "tavern"). I use the word joyous to describe the event because she had lived a long and prosperous life and the funeral was evidence of that--all ten children and their spouses were there, along with the twenty-nine grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren. Rather than being solemn occasion, it felt more like a celebration.

At the reception, I shared a piece of church-made sheet cake with my younger cousin, Allison, who was
complaining about her college creative writing class. "We keep getting these prompts, and then we have to write a story from them."

Thrilled at the sudden opportunity to talk about writing, I offered her some quick advice. "Well, I hope you never start a story with an alarm clock going off. "

She looked back at me blankly. "Why not?" I told her that you should begin the story with something going wrong; not just the start of an ordinary day. I borrowed one of my favorite lines from Janet Burroway, who wrote The Art of Fiction: "Only trouble is interesting."

"Mine started with her getting in the shower," she said.

"That's okay, as long as it didn't end with, It was all a dream."

"Oh, no," she said. "It ended with her realizing that she was really a dog locked in a kennel."

I swallowed the last sweet bite of cake. "What was your writing prompt?"

"The professor told us to write about a person discovering she has some kind of deformity. I made my character's deformity 'craziness.'"

My guess is that sixty to seventy percent of the class did the same. To me, this is primes example of a bad writing prompt, one that sets the students up for failure. While it does ask the student to use her imagination, it also takes away from another piece of solid writing advice: write what you know. Maybe some of the students wrote about their own real or perceived deformities--noses too big or too small, weight issues, maybe several had club foots. Still, is this something a character would discover one day? If you have a deformity, aren't you often aware of it or have you been avoiding public spaces and mirrors for decades, locked in a tower by an evil, jealous queen?

The prompt also sets the writer up for a few amateur mistakes; one being beginning the story with the aforementioned alarm clock moment; another being the O. Henry "ah-ha" reveal where the story is turned on its head; a third being the narrator telling the story from the locked ward on an asylum (or, in Allison's case, a kennel). If you are Robert Olen Butler, you can write a whole short story from the point of view of a parrot, and if you are Franz Kafka, make him a cockroach, but for most new fiction writers, it helps to first get familiar with the form before playing with it too much. Learn it first, and then unlearn it all you want.

A good writing prompt inspires you to think about an idea, situation, or character in new and unexpected ways. Some of the best first lines in short stories start with the juxtaposition between two incongruous ideas.  Take this one, from Bharati Mukherjee's "The Management of Grief" which place a stranger in what should be a familiar and private place: "A woman I don't know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen, whispering and moving tactfully."

Putting unlike things together helps to create a necessary sense of tension--that idea that you're stepping immediately into a scene where something appears slightly "off," like a crooked picture on the wall. This discombobulated feeling from the very first line makes the reader want to keep reading to see if it gets straightened out.

My advice to you the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page is to find two disparate things and put them together--a happy funeral, a tragic wedding, a bloody birthday cake. Use this marriage of two unlike things to see if you can shape the idea into a good 750 word short piece.

As with any writing prompt, take only what's useful, interesting, or familiar to you. If you need to change the word "funeral" to "Miles Davis concert" or "happy" to "deep shame," then do it. You may also find that setting the story on a day something is happening will give even the most clich├ęd situation a sense of urgency, as in "His alarm clock went off the morning of his grandmother's funeral and he leaped from the bed with anticipation."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


We rented Blue Valentine this weekend, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. I have a soft spot in my heart for Michelle Williams as that wrong-side-of-the-tracks teenage love interest of Dawson on Dawson's Creek. I mean, I always wanted Dawson to get together with the Katie Holmes character (this was way before KH signed the 10 year, one baby marriage and publicity contract with Tom Cruise), but I liked Michelle Williams, and liked her again in Brokeback Mountain ("I can't quit you, Ennis!"--said by one of the gay cowboys in that movie). She was great in Blue Valentine; she can still look like a sixteen year old girl and then like a jaded, twenty-five year old woman. I didn't mind Ryan Gosling either, thought was more aware of him acting older in the present day parts of the movie, where they tried to ick him up by giving him a receding hair line and a beer belly and a penchant for chain smoking Marlboro Reds. If you haven't seen the movie, don't go if you're thinking of getting married or if you're thinking of getting a divorce, because the story is really about the end of a relationship, and there's also the worst part of the movie, which is where a Labrador retriever is found dead on the side of the round (hint: foreshadowing of where their love is headed). I thought they could've done a better job of presenting evidence as to why she wanted so bad to get out of the relationship. Yes, he's immature and teaches her little girl to eat oatmeal off the kitchen table,  and yes, he paints houses for living, and yes, he drinks beer at 8 AM while driving his truck to work, but he was also loving and committed and funny and talented. Dan and my favorite, favorite part of the movie was  a joke Michelle Williams character told to him after they first met on the bus. If you want, I'll tell it to you. I've been practicing. I now want to see My Weekend with Marilyn, because I heard she's great in that too.

Just found an interesting blog post about this movie and its possible gender stereotypes and misogyny. Of course, I've only scanned it briefly, but I feel like I;m ready to agree with it already.

Oh, but this reminds me of something from my feminist theater class last week. Our teacher was talking about Uta Hagen (a famous acting coach) talking about how she received her training--how she was taught that brave acting for women involved the actress showing vulnerability by being able to either (1). cry onstage; or (2). take her shirt off onstage and (3). preferably doing both at the same time. And how they were taught method-acting for scene study to get to these places, which basically asked them to channel times in their lives where they felt victimized in some way. I just thought that was interesting--that method acting for women could be read as this extra reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Someday, I'd like to write a story about my time as a theater major at Florida State or my time doing community theater after that and how much I hated feeling like I was auditioning all the time, even when I was just standing around at a theater party, holding  a plastic cup of warm beer.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Reading list

My friend at work lent me Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You're Worth. On the cover is the author's photo. Twenty pages in and it's a quick read, but also slightly embarrassing to be seen with-- this self-helpy volume that seems to shout out, "I read books that attempt to improve my low self-esteem!"

Whatever. You have to start somewhere.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fashion Forward

Having some non-heated arguments with co-workers about the male gaze, spawned in part by the now old news Seth McFarland skit at the Academy Awards about all the actresses who have shown their boobs in movies. And then someone else sent me a link to a video response about all of the men who've show themselves, so to speak in movies. It was sung by a guy though, so does that count? It's called "We Saw Your Junk."

And then I recently realized that I still have this sexist speech sometimes--like today, we went to lunch at Houston Hall and there happened to be a set up for coffee. I wanted some coffee, but I knew it was for an event and so felt like I might get in trouble if I took any. Molly, on the other hand, very confidently went up and got a small cup, took her time to add sugar and creamer, and paused to take a sip, all in line of a security guard who said nothing. So, I took some too, and then later, I said to Molly, "That took balls." But...Can I find another way to say that? Like, so the implication is that what she did--this being confident and taking what she wanted--was a masculine thing to do. Courage = male. What can I say instead? She and Liz P. suggested we exchange the word "balls" with "nips." The new phrase then is, "That took nips." This is neither masculine or feminine--everyone has them (for an explanation as to why men have nipples, go here).

And then in class the other day--this feminist theater class I'm taking at Penn--one of the women mentioned that Yoko Ono is creating a line of clothes, and some of them play with the counter gaze...Dressing men in ways that emphasize their crotches in the same way that so much of women's clothing accentuates chest, hips, ass. Here's an example:

 I think it's funny. I'm ordering a pair of pants for Dan

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sticking Point

For my grad class, we're reading Made to Stick, a book about why some ideas survive and others die. The authors have a smart little formula to keep revisiting when creating your ad/idea:  SUCCESS. Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories...Pretty handy little acronym. The writers also do a good job of going back to the stories in the previous chapters so that you can be reminded of how they fit into the bigger picture. It's one of the few books I've read that require the reader to engage with the text in these specific ways--to take a memory test, to try to recall the first lines of "Hey Jude," or memories of your first childhood home, or to write down a list of all the white things in your refrigerator.  Then they make a point about how these things are relevant to your audience only if they relate back to your overall message. Like, let's say your creating an ad and you recognize that you need to start with something unexpected, and then link it back later.  But it's not enough to make it startling---it also has to be revelatory and connect back to the simple core message of the argument or idea.

So, like an example they give of of a good ad is one that appears to be about an ad for a new can called Escada (or something like that). It starts in a typical way, by showing a family of four getting into the van, and then relating all of the van's many awesome features, and then, as the family is pulling out of the driveway, the van gets blindsided by another car and the screen goes to this message "Didn't see that coming, did you? You never do."  And you realize that it's not an ad for a new kind of vehicle,  it's a PSA about buckling up. And most importantly, the elements leading up to it make sense because they have to do with the message--how accidents happen in your neighborhood on ordinary days and how you can't predict them so you should wear your seat belt. Then a bad example would be this ad at the half-time of the Super Bowl where a band is playing and then a pack of wolves invades the field and it's supposed to be about a search engine, but it's hard to make the connection--you might remember the surprise of the message, but since it doesn't fully connect back to a core idea of the search engine, it's less sticky, harder to recall.

The authors also talk about mysteries and stories and arousing curiosity in the viewer/reader/audience. People stay tuned even to bad movies because they want to know what happened; they want to solve the mystery. Not knowing is uncomfortable, like an itch in the middle of your back--people will stay put until that itch to know is resolved. I need to create more itchiness in my screenplay idea---not in a whodunit kind of way, but in a "I need to know how this turns out" kind of way.

Friday, March 1, 2013

5 Things That Are Happening in the Office Right Now

1. I have invented a new hair clip out of a thing meant to keep paper together.

2. Over the last 3 days, I have bought this much cold medicine and I still don't feel any better.

3. Molly is pretending to help a volunteer on the phone.

 4. Kiera is visiting us from California in her fancy blue stockings.

5. We are all deciding where to place our lovely clocks as part of a lovely staff thank you for a very successful capital campaign.