The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Someone Else’s Life May 25, 2011

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 7:16 am

This prompt addresses POV: the way a character sees life. To get the writers in the room thinking about this, I asked them to think about being in someone else’s head, seeing life through his or her eyes. For fiction writers, this could be a character you’re working with or wanting to work with, for non-fiction writers, it could be a person in your life you often think about.

I used Jane Kenyon’s poem, “At the IGA: Franklin, New Hampshire” as the prompt. As with all my prompts, I encouraged everyone to write whatever came to mind. But with poems as prompts, I often encourage the writers in the room to use a line or a passage from the poem as the prompt if they feel stuck.

The part of the poem that really got me was that thin woman with lots of rings observing the family.

Here’s Kenyon’s poem, followed by what I wrote.

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At the IGA: Franklin, New Hampshire

by Jane Kenyon

This is where I would shop
if my husband worked felling trees
for the mill, hurting himself badly
from time to time; where I would bring
my three kids; where I would push
one basket and pull another
because the boxes of diapers and cereal
and gallon milk jugs take so much room.

I would already have put the clothes
in the two largest washers next door
at the Norge Laundry Village. Done shopping,
I’d pile the wet wash in trash bags
and take it home to dry on the line.

And I would think, hanging out the baby’s
shirts and sleepers, and cranking the pulley
away from me, how it would be
to change lives with someone,
like the woman who came after us
in the checkout, thin, with lots of rings
on her hands, who looked us over openly.

Things would have been different
if I hadn’t let Bob climb on top of me
for ninety seconds in 1979.
It was raining lightly in the state park
and so we were alone. The charcoal fire
hissed as the first drops fell….
In ninety seconds we made this life—
a trailer on a windy hill, dangerous jobs
in the woods or night work at the packing plant;
Roy, Kimberly, Bobby; too much in the hamper,
never enough in the bank.

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I spend more time than I should, really, feeling my life is too small. The larger, wiser part of me knows that the three rooms and the sun-filled bathroom I inhabit are a kind of sanctuary. The tidy open square of my kitchen with new appliances is enough; my apartment building near the base of a large hill is quiet in a way most city dwellers know little about. I’m lucky to have a yard, green views out the windows, a safe place to park my safe car. And just a ten minute walk down the street, there’s a grocery store filled with some of the best food in the world on clean shelves, lit by full-spectrum lights.

Still, I sometimes mourn the life I don’t have and—I want to avoid the words now, but here they come—the life I may never have. A home full of warm bodies—a real house with a real garden and a real dog (maybe two, so they can keep each other company). I even want chickens, so I can have fresh eggs.

It’s not as bourgeois as it sounds. I’ve tasted it. There was that weekend my flight to Germany was detoured and I spent three nights in LA with a close friend and her family—a husband, a son and a daughter, a dog named Zoe. I loved being in the fullness of their lives: the overstocked refrigerator, the shelves bulging with food, the non-stop laundry, the dryer ticking in a room off the kitchen. The lively chatter at the dinner table, the promise of dessert, or the threat of getting none if some proper food wasn’t ingested first.

During Thanksgiving weekend, I loved cooking for my nephews on Friday morning: eggs, bacon, pancakes. I even liked the football games on TV, sitting with my older nephew on the couch, the dog thumping her tail at my feet.

I know how lucky I am. One recent Saturday evening I had coffee at a friend’s house with her very active 18 month-old daughter. We stood in her cluttered kitchen together as she prepared dinner for her daughter at 5:15. She spoke about a 7:00 bedtime for the baby, 9:00 for herself. I left her house at 6:00 with a night of dancing ahead of me; a close friend promised martinis and we were going to dance to a familiar, beloved deejay.

I know how free I am. I do. But I still long for the fullness only a house filled with people you love can offer. I want to stop establishing a garden and simply have one: white clematis covering the fence, a level patio space, bright cushions for the chairs and love seat, firewood for the chimnea.

“I’m always amazed at how clean your refrigerator is,” a friend recently said, and I told her it’s easy to wipe down a refrigerator when it’s nearly empty. Cooking for one? I resent it, actually.

Would I have been able to see Kylie Minogue last Saturday night if I were a parent? My friends who are parents tell me no. They envy my freedom. But sometimes, I really don’t want it anymore. Instead, I want the sticky, messy commotion of a family.

I came pretty close once. My yoga mat still has teeth marks from the bad dog I lived with part-time; my Ex lived in chaos and it often stressed me out. Still, I miss them both. I ran into that dog recently. She was with a dog walker. She and I had a joyous reunion right there on the dirty sidewalk. As he pulled her away, she looked back at me, her face filled with longing, and right there in public, on a Friday afternoon, I cried.

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Papa (Part Two) May 12, 2011

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 9:14 pm

Some of my prompts have titles; this one is “Similes and Metaphors.”

First, I ask everyone to make a list down the left-hand margin of five  nouns and five verbs ending in “ing.” This is a free write, so I remind them to just write whatever words pop into their heads.

Then I have them write “is like” next to each of those words, setting up the foundation for a simile.

Next, I have them finish the phrase using whatever words come to mind, or borrowing from other words on their lists. So we get phrases like, “Coffee tables are like friendships,” and “Kisses are like promises,” or Flying is like freedom.”

We each choose one of these and read them around to hear the variations.

Next, we cross out the phrase “is like” and create a metaphor. Now we have, “Coffee tables are friendships,” and “Kisses are promises.” Very different indeed.

As with all of my list exercises, I have everyone choose three that they’d feel comfortable reading out loud, and we read them around, leaving enough time between each reader to write down any we find inspiring or interesting in any way.

Finally, we choose one, write it at the top of a blank page, and begin writing, using the metaphor as a prompt, repeating it if and when we feel stuck. We write for twenty minutes.

My metaphor was, “Postcards are memories.” Here’s what I wrote:

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The most difficult part of death is what’s left behind: furniture, photos, letters, people. My inheritance is in a few small spaces: the flat leather box on his old dresser (now mine), the box I bought to hold my cufflinks (and his), the orange Le Creuset pots and pans (and a new matching gratin pan I bought for myself), the wine box stuffed with photo albums (some black and white photos with scalloped edges, and color photos, of which I own most of the duplicates). And then there’s that envelope of letters and cards. They’re all letters and cards we sent to him—all five of us—as far back as 1986, including that silly card I wrote to him when I moved out of the house (a card that read, “I’m so proud of us”).

These items—and his two marble-topped coffee tables (one went to my brother and the other went to me)—are his whole estate. No one needed to manage that, but the envelope of cards and letters somehow came to me, so I divided them up, gave each pile to the appropriate sibling, and read through my own pile in chronological order, a record of my life in communication with him.

The postcards I kept separate—that part of my life that began at thirty and continued for fifteen more years of his life—France, England, Italy, Germany, Mexico. Later, on a Baltic Sea cruise, I would send one from every country I visited (except Russia); I nearly missed the shuttle back to the ship in Estonia, determined to find postage stamps and a mailbox on a Saturday afternoon.

I became obsessive about sending him postcards whenever I traveled, partially because I knew he’d appreciate being there with me in that cafe moment, and partially because I felt guilty traveling to places he’d never been to and would never get to: British Columbia, Quebec, Switzerland, the Bahamas. He saved every one of them.

The last few years of his life, my sister pinned several of these postcards to the wall of his tiny room in the nursing home. It didn’t take more than an hour or so to pack up what was left of his long life. I saved the postcards for last, reading each one as I took them down, savoring the thought of my sister reading them out loud to him as they arrived, re-tracing my steps, seeing myself through his eyes all over again.

 

For Scott May 3, 2011

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 7:17 am

For this exercise,  I offered three prompts:

A temporary malady

Wanting a bigger life

That’s the way love goes.

We wrote for 15 minutes in response, anything that came to mind.

Offering two or three phrases as prompts gives the writers some choice; they can write in response to one now and take a few home with them. Sometimes though, all of the phrases seem to tell a story.

Here’s what I wrote in response.

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It’s a temporary malady, I want to tell him. It won’t hurt forever. It’s a loss, but not a death, really. A broken heart is an ending, but not a death. You’ll heal, I want to tell him.

And there he sits, so dignified in his snug fitting, periwinkle, long-sleeve tee, the smart grey vest. He’s wearing a new version of facial hair as art: perfectly sculpted. You’re nothing but beautiful, I want to tell him, as we press our forks into the squash dumplings, breaking them cleanly in half.

The mornings are the hardest, he says. So lonely and empty, no good morning phone calls at 9:00 a.m. on the dot, no sweet texts. Nothing but emptiness. Just me, alone in the world, he says.

I want to tell him that later he will find those mornings precious, he will wake without the alarm one rare lazy day, and feel happy, peaceful, content in his own bed, in his own company. He will feel beautiful without having to be told he’s beautiful. He will shower and shave and eat his toast and listen to the news and he will feel safe again, finally, alone.

I never thought I could feel love like this, he says, and I want to tell him it’s universal. Love. Heartache. The fracture he writes about. The bone sets, and broken bones are stronger when healed. He listens, but he doesn’t believe any of it yet,  just as I didn’t. I sat at a dining table and thought I will never have love like that again. But I did. I did. The possibilities are endless, I want to tell him. Endless.

You might get asked out to coffee in the Safeway parking lot, on a too hot day in October, the trunk of your car wide open, your groceries in their floppy, mismatched canvas bags, your underarms sweating. Or you might re-ignite an old flame, give your phone number to the flirtatious waiter, meet a man on a grey day in Dolores Park when his King Charles Spaniel decides you and only you are kissable.

These things happen, you want to tell him. But you know how it feels to be told such things; they are someone else’s truths, not yours. Someone else’s truth. Your reality—his reality—is nothing but emptiness and an aging body, a cold bed, lips hungry for a kiss. Infinite loneliness.

He doesn’t want dessert, so you pay the bill and he invites you out dancing. Two hours later you’re both in a room filled with beautiful bodies. Any one of them could be your next lover, you want to tell him. The best sex you ever had, your next big big love. You want to tell him this, but the music is too loud, and besides, he’s smiling now. The flashing lights behind him, the deejay bobbing to the beat, the whole crowd swaying together, lost this way.

 

Parallel Lifetimes May 2, 2011

Filed under: Craft,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 12:22 am

This prompt uses memory and free association to help the writer build a series of images. Ultimately, this writing exercise helps develop setting and plays with metaphor. Like the five word free write, I ask my participants to generate a quick list of 1) a few cities they are familiar with 2) their two favorite seasons and 3) a list of several colors they love. Then I tell them to begin with one of these words and use the other words to fill in the blank in this phrase: “Spring is just like________.” This can work many ways. For instance, “Spring is just like Paris,” or “Paris is just like summer,” or “Orange is just like spring.”

Once they have a few of these phrases, I have them cross out the words, “just like,” so they end up with a metaphor: “Spring is Paris,” or “Orange is summer.” We each choose one of these metaphors and take turns reading out loud. Then we choose one as a prompt (ours, or someone else’s we particularly liked) and we write for 15 minutes, whatever comes to mind.

My phrase was, “Paris is violet.” Here’s what I wrote.

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Are you ready yet? I think, but don’t dare nag.

She comes out of the bathroom we’re sharing, smelling like rose oil.

“Je suis prêt,” she says. Then asks, “Shall we?” her voice rising upward, the sweet sing-song of French from her familiar lips.

“Oui,” I reply, giving her my arm, and we laugh, knowing our promise to speak French all day won’t make it far past the hotel lobby.

Still, there we are, both in our early 40’s, the place I’ve locked her in my memory before the illness, before the world we had together crumbled.

In the street we remain arm in arm, two tiny Italians with the same eyes. People assume we’re siblings, and I like that idea: my fantasy, my dream.

At the pâtisserie we share a violet mousse on puff pastry, sip tiny glasses of water with a single mint leaf floating on top. We drink cappucinos and luxuriate in a day unplanned.

“Do you want to see the Rodin museum again?” I ask as she sits back and drops her shoulders. I like watching her relax.

“Sure, ‘Hon,” she says. “Pourquoi pas?”

“All the pink roses,” I say.

“And the coconut gelato,” she adds.

“We should go shopping at some point,” I say.

“Oh, definitely,” she adds, and we laugh, knowing we sound like the two chipmunks on the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the ones with the English accents. So we ham it up and do our best Brit.

“Indubitably,” she says.

“Absolutely,” I reply.

And we cackle.

The day spreads out before us like a cat in the sun: lazy and warm.

“Let’s go back to Mariage Frères for lunch,” she says, “even though it’s over-priced.”

“Okay,” I say, “I want to stick my face into the mouth of one of those huge metal tea canisters.”

“Held by a handsome Frenchman,” she adds.

She’s a flirt.

So am I.

There’s a mirror in front of me: mother, sister, friend, spirit.

How she surprises me now, coming to visit unexpectedly, laughing with me, welcoming me back to a place I love.