The Catalyst

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

Mexico August 15, 2011

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:04 pm

The prompt this time was to simply begin with a list of cities you are familiar with (not necessarily cities you’ve lived in, or even visited more than once). After making a list, we all chose one of those cities, and wrote as many images that came to mind as we could in five minutes (in phrases or single words). After that, we wrote for 15 minutes.

Here’s a piece about Puerto Vallarta:


“I know why you like it here so much,” Jackie said as we followed the group up the steep flight of outdoor steps. “Everybody kisses and hugs you here. They make eye contact; they say hello.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s true.”

“It’s nice,” she said, “to be seen, to be spoken to.”

The crickets were singing their nighttime song, and the uneven sidewalk sloped ahead of us and turned toward our house. I could smell meat cooking at a taco stand one street over. In the morning, I will take the same walk in reverse, down Callejon de Igualdad, down Frederico Rodriguez, past the white stucco homes with their wrought iron doors. I will peer through the black latticework into impeccable courtyards and wonder what it would be like to live in a house with a name: Casa Lupita, or Casa Felicidades, each labeled by a hand-painted oval tile, cemented above the doorway.

Outside the houses, flowers grow wild: varieties I don’t recognize, except for the magenta hibiscus and the rainbow of bougainvillea (hot pink, purple, white), and some miniature birds of paradise. The bushes are covered in tiny blossoms (cantaloupe, rose, lemon yellow), and flowers crawl across telephone lines (green and orange), or up from cracks in the sidewalks (tiny yellow daisies).

After the writing retreat is over, and I have said goodbye to everyone, I will spend a few days alone. It’s January, and the horizon lights up blue in the distance, a thin line between sky and sea. The morning air is cool, but the afternoon will bring light humidity and a hot sun. I’ll sit under a palapa at the beach, and a beautiful man dressed in blue and white (with gingerbread calves), will bring me a Piña Colada.

“Why is this so good?” I ask in Spanish. “It’s so different in the US.”

“It’s the Calahua,” he says, which I later learn is a kind of condensed coconut milk when he brings me a can.

And though I am nearly out of spending money, I still pay the guitarist when he comes by, thin as a scarecrow, and asks, “Musica?”

“Play something happy,” says a woman who is selling pedicures nearby, “The American looks sad.”

It’s my last day in Mexico, after all.

“Dance with me?” she asks. She’s a stranger, but her eyes light up like an old friend I haven’t seen in a long time.

“Here?” I ask. “On the beach?” She nods, and takes my hand.

And so we dance, right there on the sand.


Baron August 5, 2011

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:19 am

In this prompt, I empty a suitcase full of everyday objects onto a large table. Some of the objects include: a tube of lipstick, a Fisher Price telephone with squeaky wheels and rolling eyes, a red plastic “kegger” cup, a melon scooper, a black velvet pump, a copy of “The Zone,” and many, many others. Everyone chooses an object, and then writes in response. I chose a big rawhide dog bone. Here’s what I wrote:


There were two golden retrievers in our family, but only one of them was mine: Baron. Our first dog was named Vino (my dad was in the wine business, and we’re Italian), and he died when I was twelve. We were the same age, so I have no memories of him when he was a puppy; in those black and white photos, he looks foreign to me. But I chose Baron, and I named him (inspired, no doubt, by the Peanuts comic strip—Snoopy and the Red Baron). And since he was a rusty cedar color, even as a puppy, the name suited him.

I talked my father into puppy shopping about two years after Vino’s death. By then, I was growing out of my stocky thirteen-year-old body and starting to look like a lanky teenager. I felt older too, felt my mother slipping way from me, saw my sister living away at college; I felt old enough to take care of a pet.

Mary was home the weekend we went to see our first—and last—litter. The four of us stood on the front porch of a military home and my father said, “Now, we’re just going to look. That’s all.” In the garage, ten Golden Retriever puppies of various shades—blonde to deep chestnut—greeted us by crawling over one another to get to the edge of their wooden pen. They were only six weeks old, so when one of us picked them up, they whined, but also offered puppy kisses and Puppy Chow breath.

One puppy was knocked out; he slept through our entire visit. “Let’s choose him,” I said. “He’s mellow.” That was Baron, and an orange ribbon was tied around his neck to mark him for us when we returned. I learned years later that a sleepy puppy in a litter of active pups is not the trait of a mellow dog; it usually means that puppy is tired out because he’s the one who is the most hyperactive.

That was Baron.

In the months that followed, I potty trained Baron with my dad’s guidance; I taught him to descend the steep, carpeted steps to my room in the basement (though for a few months he had to be carried up those same stairs until he learned how to do that). I taught him how to lie down, and to shake and speak. He would do anything to please us. “He’s a good dog, really,” my mom always said.

When we moved to California that January, Baron was only seven months old. He flew across the country on his own in a crate. When we claimed him at SFO, he was so happy to see us (and most likely, so stressed out from the flight) that he peed all over the concrete floor in the cargo area.

I want to tell you that he was more than a dog. (I know, every dog owner says something like this: “He was a family member, a companion”), but Baron was with me through all of the madness that was my adolescence. The nights I stayed up late and found Mom wandering in the hall, confused and crying. The days I came home from school and found the front door swung wide open, my mother talking to a wall in the garage. Any other dog would have taken that opportunity to escape into the great outdoors, leash free at last, but he stayed with her, and he waited for me.

Years later, after he died, I often dreamt about him. He was always leading me back to her, swimming across a lake to an island where she waited for me, barking for me to follow him down dark roads where she sat in a car, the headlights on, the engine running. He was a guide, somehow. We needed him, and he knew it.


Thirteen (Again) August 2, 2011

Filed under: Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 9:42 am

This prompt is a simple one: I ask everyone to generate a list of what they’re grateful for (or a character they’re working with might be grateful for), and we spend about five minutes doing this. These can be single words or phrases. Then we choose three from our list and read them out loud. Finally, we choose one as a place to begin writing. Sometimes what someone else reads out loud sparks something. The night I wrote this piece, someone had included “A good therapist,” on her list.

Here’s what I wrote.


There’s no beating a good therapist, he thinks, pressing the familiar code at the door, climbing up the stairs to the waiting room, getting himself a cup of tea. When he comes to get him, the familiar grey eyes, the hair flecked with silver, he feels seen, really seen.

The comfortable brown sofa, the magenta Bougainvillea outside the tall windows, the kimono on the wall to his left: this is a kind of home.

Today they’re working on his timeline: events and memories from each year of his life, a catalog of the psyche, a trail leading up to and away from the trauma.

Today begins with thirteen. “I’m scared,” he tells his therapist, the moment he sits down, and suddenly, he’s that suntanned little boy, the gymnast with the curly hair who thinks he’s going to be on Broadway someday, the one who sings his heart out in his room in the basement: Annie and Cabaret and Olivia Newton John’s Greatest Hits,I Honestly Love You.

There’s a big gold dog and Hollyhocks in the summer and a Robin’s nest in the apple tree in the backyard, but he’s scared. Because this is where the shift began, where Mama started repeating herself and losing her keys, this is where she wants the car radio off when she drives because it makes her nervous, when only a month earlier they had a ritual of singing in the car together, KFRC 1210 AM and the disco diva crying, Go on now,  go! Walk out the door!  Now, she’s afraid to drive at all, she cries a lot, gets confused by the huge piles of laundry, and his whole safe world is about to turn upside down.

“You’re safe now,” his therapist says. “You’re here in this room with me, with the Tonga on the wall behind me and the Berber carpet under your feet. It’s not 1978, it’s 2011, and you’re safe.”

Early onset dementia. She was 55, 56, the age his friends are now, the age he’s still afraid to become because it’s genetic, you know, and he wonders who’s next? His brother? His sister? Early onset. Upsetting the whole balance of home, at thirteen, the cusp between boyhood and adolescence, the cusp between safety and madness.

“You’re safe now,” his therapist says.

And why is thirteen so much worse than seventeen, or nineteen, or twenty-two, when the illness morphed into all the terrible faces it wore those long sixteen years? Incontinence. Chaos. Anger. Despondence. Why is that cusp so much worse?

At the end of the fifty-minute session, he’s made it all the way to sixteen, and he’s survived his mother, again. This time, he travels down the stairs holding his thirteen year-old self close. “It’s time for lunch,” he says. “Time to feed yourself.” They buy a big sloppy sandwich, the kind their mother used to make, before the illness—always before the illness and after the illness, before and after. Everything measured this way.

He can’t find a bench in the sun, and the air is too cool to sit in the shade, so they share the sandwich in the car, sit here, eat, the boy and the man he has become. Afterward, they drive home together, to the neat little apartment with the photographs of his young mother, they drive home, the stereo blasting Kylie Minogue asking,How does it feel in my arms? Singing, the three of them, harmonizing beautifully together.