The Catalyst

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

Pets Tell the Story October 1, 2013

Filed under: Craft,Short Stories/Short Shorts,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 3:41 am

 

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The prompt this time is one I call, “Pets Tell the Story,” and is a POV (point of view) exercise. Here’s how it goes:

Begin with a list of pets you have known, yours or others’. (Note: these don’t have to be pets you particularly liked, but ones you have known, even superficially).

Simply name them.

Now choose two and make a few notes about their attitude, general personality, and something these pets might say: an expression or a comment. Choose one of these animal characters and write in his or her voice. Tell us what it’s like to live in the place he or she lives, and what he or she thinks of the human he or she lives with. Be as serious or as playful as you like.

What I wrote is below.

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Is it time to eat? Is it time to eat yet? Eat? Eat? Oh! You want love? You just want love? Okay. Love, love, love, love, love. I’m stretching, stretching, stretching up. Oh, it’s hard work to wake up. Come on down here for kisses instead. Warm morning kisses. Love, love, love, love, love. My mouth is dry. Let me lick my chops. Come back for more now. Love, love, love, love, love.

He plays the TV too loud in the morning. And he burns the toast. That stinks. But he cracks an egg for me sometimes, fries it up, and breaks it into little pieces. Then I crawl out of bed for breakfast. Eat eat, eat, eat, eat. Then back to bed. Sleep. Ah. The TV finally off; he’s gone. Deep, deep late morning sleep.

At noon my walker arrives. I love him. Martin. He comes to the gate at the kitchen door and I’m up shakin’, shakin’, shakin’ this bulldog booty for this handsome man.

“Good morning my dear one,” he says, stepping over the gate, squatting down to kiss me. Love, love, love, love, love. Then he lets me out the back door, and I run down the steps to pee. Ahhh. I should have gone this morning, but I was so sleepy and he was running late. He’s always running late. Late, late, late, late. He’s always late. But Martin’s always on time, and he always lets me out. Always Martin. And that other one, Ryan. I love Ryan. Love, love, love Ryan. Where did he go?

After I pee, I chase that stupid squirrel up the lemon tree. Ruff! Stupid squirrel! Then I grab a lemon and bite down. Sweet tart, sweetheart. Sweetheart. That’s what Ryan called me. Where is he? He is part of the pack. Where did he go?

“Penelope!” Martin calls. “Let’s go for our walk.” Our walk! Our walk! Walk, walk, walk! The stupid leash clicks on. I bite it. Bite it! Bite it! I hate this leash. Grrrr. “Penelope, stop it now,” Martin coos, and I only do what he asks because I love him. I love him. I love him.

Down the hill, I sniff the little girls with their mama. They run over to me. “Penelope!” they scream in unison. Oh, yes! I love the girls too. Love, love, love, love, love. Every day before lunch, this love, that love. Sometimes Mochi, that curly black beast comes up and barks at me. C’mon, let’s do this, Mochi! C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!

Then down the hill for lunch at the cafe. Me under the table, cooler here, and Martin eating his wrap. Little bites dropping down. Snacks. A little marinated onion. Yes. A piece of chicken? Wow! A pepper. Forget it. Too hot. And then I hear a familiar voice. Who’s that? Ryan? Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!

I come bolting from under the table, but my leash is caught. Thunk! I see him there. right there, talking to another man! Not my main man, some new man. He doesn’t see me. “Penelope!” Martin says. “Easy. What is it?” I’m stretching, stretching, stretching, stretching. And I start barking. Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!

“Penelope?” Ryan turns to me. Those big brown eyes. Oh, Ryan! At last! Back in the pack, get back in the pack! “Oh my God, Penelope!” Ryan kneels down. Love, love, love, love, love. Crazy love. Crazy, crazy, crazy love. Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!

“I take it you two know each other,” Martin says,

“Yeah. Her dad and I used to date.”

“Oh. Are you Ryan?”

Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!

“Yeah.”

“I’m Martin.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Ryan stands up. He’s sniffling and wiping his eyes. I crawl up his legs. Come back, come back, come back, come back!

“Oh, Penelope.” He comes down for more love. “I miss you, girl.” Then he says, “I gotta go.” And he starts walking away. What?

“I’ll tell James we saw you,” Martin hollers, but Ryan just keeps walking and doesn’t look back. No! Ryan! Come back, come back, come back, come back!

“Calm down, Penelope, jeez,” Martin says. And when he slips me off the leash for a second to untangle me from the table legs, I almost get away. But he grabs me by the collar. “Stop it!”

Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!

First, he’s a dot in the distance. And then he’s gone.

 

Comrades in Cyberspace May 13, 2013

Filed under: Craft,Recipes,Teaching,Videos,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 4:55 pm
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This prompt is one I call, “Absurd Modifiers.” Everyone begins with a sheet of notebook paper folded in half lengthwise, creating two columns (one in front and one on the back). On one side, I ask everyone to write down ten nouns (a person, place, or thing).

Then everyone flips over the folded sheet and passes it to the person on his or her right, BLANK side up. On this blank side, I ask everyone to write ten adjectives (colors, texture, size, speed, attitude—bitchy is an adjective I often suggest).

I ask everyone to pass the folded sheet to his or her right one more time, and for the person who receives to open it up: now both lists are visible. Finally, everyone takes the two lists and matches up the nouns and adjectives in the most absurd combinations.

Examples of the resulting pairs look something like this:

Red Dachshund

Obnoxious Broccoli

Jealous Fire Escape

Bitchy End Tables

Exuberant Cream Cheese

     

What I wrote is below.

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There were many nights during the spring semester when a stack of student essays sat on my kitchen table waiting impatiently for me to grade them. And although I knew an eight hour marathon grading session was worse than chipping away at them a few hours a day, my resistance seemed to mount the longer they sat there.

This went on day after day.

I wanted to do everything else: watch Dynasty reruns with a close friend, clean up my iPhoto library, read The Huffington Post, see a drag show—I even chose ironing once, a chore I detest.

Who gave them this assignment? I sometimes wondered as I read about human rights violations and environmental disasters. But of course, I knew the assignments were my own creations, foreign to me now in ways I couldn’t articulate.

Another stack consisted of short essays that asked ESL students to summarize, to quote, and to paraphrase. The students also had to construct argumentative theses and integrate outside sources. I looked forward to their repetition the way I look forward to a trip to the gym: with a lack of enthusiasm and a fat dose of guilt.

I had to grade those essays, but I wanted to do everything else: drink white wine from New Zealand, perfect the lemon bar recipe, bake a champagne cake, whip up a double batch of chocolate peanut butter cookies.

Instead of grading papers, I poured over photos on Pinterest and got lost in recipes and food blogs. I dreamt about coconut loaves, cream cheese chocolate chip cookies, Greek macaroni and cheese. I read the bios of business men and women who became food blog celebrities, who survived painful divorces, years being single, and dead end jobs. They all seemed to find a path out of hopelessness that was lined with peppermint cupcakes, pesto-stuffed halibut filets, and mascarpone mashed potatoes, piped into an enamel-coated cast iron baking dish, beautifully browned.

I left the essays behind for awhile and entered this edible world instead.

It gave me hope.

 

Similes, Metaphors, and Kisses September 7, 2012

Filed under: Craft,Poems,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:42 am

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, “Kissing is Flying” Here’s what I wrote:

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Kissing is Flying

a mouth open as wide as the sky

a whole cloud of birds between two wet lips

the world opening up beneath you:

fields covered in the shadows of clouds,

trees reaching roots into river beds

 

the breath coming quickly as you travel under bridges,

over buildings, sloping down, down, down, then soaring

up, up, up into the horizon, through a passage of towering

rock formations, rushing over great bodies of water,

suspended in bright air, the sun rising out of the ocean

 

past a flock of gulls, blindingly white,

the sun reflecting off their wings,

or a murder of Crows, darkening the sky.

For a moment, for a moment

for a fantastic moment you transcend

 

this body: bone, flesh, muscle, tail spread out

behind you, you take flight, and there is only this

only this, no gravity, no sorrow nothing to hold you

down, so just for a moment

you rise and rise and rise

 

 

 

Playing with Point of View (POV) August 10, 2012

Filed under: Craft,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 4:40 pm

This prompt asks everyone to begin with a list of inanimate objects found in a home.  After a few minutes of generating a list, I ask everyone to choose one object and write from the point of view (POV) of that object. When we enter the POV of an object, we are able to see details that humans might not notice. And what’s often surprising about this exercise is what we learn about the humans in that same space.

My list is below. What I wrote (from the POV of a land line phone) follows.

The bed on the floor

The armoire in the living room                           

The bedside table, covered with dust

The stove downstairs

The desk in the window

The couch downstairs

The highboy

The huge old hutch

The blue chair

The TV

The old console stereo

The ivory couch in the window

The blue dish rack

The little, flat, cheap phone from Walgreen’s

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I’m not worried, really. I mean, nobody in this little house can do what I do. And certainly there’s no reason to worry about being replaced: I only cost $10.99 at Walgreen’s, and as far as the old man’s concerned, I work just fine.

“Pop,” his daughter says, holding me open, my dial tone humming right in her beautiful face, “why don’t you let me buy you a cordless phone? They’re so much more convenient.”

The old man is washing dishes at the sink, staring out the window at the fat, pink roses.

“Honey, that phone is just fine.”

“But Dad!” she exclaims, “all these cords!”

He rinses the dishes gently, rolling a pale blue plate under the running water, placing it carefully in the wire rack.

“I like the cords,” he says, turning off the water, drying his hands on a yellow towel. “They keep me in one place. When I was young, there was only one phone in the house,  and it was in a nook in the hallway.”

I start beeping at her—she’s left me off the hook too long— so she presses a lavender acrylic nail into my belly and shuts me up.

“There’s a nook here,” she says thoughtfully. “The house was probably built in the ’40’s, right?”

He nods.

“Back then, the phone didn’t move around. Call me nostalgic, but I like sitting there, at that nook, talking.”

After she leaves, he scoops two large balls of strawberry ice cream into a bowl, sits down at the table next to me, and reads the sports section of the newspaper. He often spends his weekend afternoons this way, and leaves me later for that obnoxious TV in the other room.

But tonight I can tell by the way he carefully rinses that bowl that he’s going to make a call. He’s lonely. And when he pulls the worn black vinyl book from our shelf, I feel a joint anticipation. He will turn the pages, squint behind his glasses, then pick me up gently and dial slowly. On the other end, a familiar ring. His closest friend. An old man, also lonely, on an old phone, with a cord, like me.

“Hello, Jack,” he’ll say. “Got some time to bat the breeze?”

His breath smells like milk and strawberries, and all four of us feel warm.

 

Parallel Lifetimes May 2, 2011

Filed under: Craft,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. 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.

 

Love, Again (Part Two) April 28, 2011

Filed under: Craft,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:56 am

This is a two-part exercise. First, I ask everyone in the room to free write for a minute on each of these phrases and to describe them in any way they want: full sentences, single words, other phrases.

1. an accident

2. an annoying person

3. a delicious meal

4. great sex, or something sexy

5. a dog or a cat, a pet (and not necessarily a beloved one)

Next, I have them cross out these phrases, and write “Love is,” in their place. So we end up with “Love is a bloody car crash,” or “Love is chewy macaroni  and cheese.”  The meaning completely changes and a metaphor appears. Using one of these free writes as a place to begin, we then write for 15 minutes, anything that comes to mind.

You might also ask everyone to try continuing with the metaphor and see how crazy it gets.

I have been writing a lot about Love as a character. Here’s part two.

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Love, you keep threatening to show up with a dog that doesn’t shed, a big extended family, and two seats side by side on a propeller plane. But I want to claim you for myself. I want you to be the meals I dream up reading Bon Appétit and Saveur, as I relish an hour in the sky sitting in crowded Coach.

Love, I want to stop hoping you’ll change, that  you’ll surprise me somehow, that you will be like my parents or the romantic comedies I claim to hate so much.

Love, we need one another. I need you to survive the lonely days, days when the world is coming to an end. You need me to believe in you, to spread the word. We’re co-dependent, Love.

So let’s work out a deal: I’ll stop talking about you behind your back and you stop hanging around with Romance so much. Instead of showing up with rose bushes, show up on time for dinner with a bottle of wine I like. Sit down at my table without candles, or my parents’ champagne flutes, and eat with me, Love. Eat meatloaf and mashed potatoes, without worrying about fat calipers or liposuction. Have chocolate cake for dessert and compliment me on my meal, Love, and I’ll compliment you on your excellent wine pairing.

Let’s not talk about beautiful eyes, or cry out of the fear of loss. If we watch a movie together, let’s not snuggle, Love. You can rub my feet and I’ll rub yours, but let’s watch the movie, Love, each in our own space. Let’s not cling, Love, or hope; let’s discuss the movie afterward like two adults, Love. Let’s not be childlike together.

And when we’re tired, let’s sleep together, Love, spooned or not; let’s sleep deeply. I’ll kiss you goodnight, Love; I won’t be stingy. And you can complement my skin, Love, but I promise I’ll chalk it up to my expensive skin care products and my good genes. In other words, Love, you can tell me what I already know.