The Catalyst

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

Beginnings and Endings August 27, 2016

Filed under: Grief,Uncategorized,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:26 am
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The prompts this time were:        FullSizeRender

I never can say goodbye.

Where do I begin?

There’s no love like the future love.

What I wrote is below.


My youngest nephew recently graduated from high school; in three months he’ll head to Oregon for college, and I will have to send him the care packages I promised my older nephew, but never delivered.

Does it matter, really, how good I am or how much I bake? Because I know that his love for me comes from feeling safe and heard, from receiving advice he can’t ask for from his mother, his father, or his sibling.

“No offense,” he said when he was fourteen, while we were shopping for new school clothes in a practically empty suburban Sears, “but sometimes I wish I were gay. Women can be so confusing.”

“No offense taken,” I said, and we sat together in that quiet, ridiculous, navy blue waiting area outside of the dressing rooms, the table between us holding a vase of silk flowers, the dim light buzzing above us. That day his gay uncle gave him advice about loving women and learning more about them. That day he asked about my dead mother—his grandma, a woman he never met—and my oldest brother, a man he doesn’t quite remember. That day we really became friends.

But he was always familiar. At six weeks, colicky and cranky, we passed him around the church before his baptism, while the priest droned on and on. The baby boy was wailing. Exhausted when he finally got to me, he fell asleep in my arms. I looked down at his tiny face and knew I already loved him.

At two-and-a-half, while playing in my new car, he suddenly turned to me and asked with great seriousness, “Where’s Pop-Pop?” It was what he called his grandfather, an Italian-American, who was, of course, in the kitchen, cooking. “C’mon!” he said, and we ran inside. “Pop-Pop,” he said, reaching out to take my father’s hand, “are you okay?” Pop laughed.

“Why yes, Tiger,” he said. “I’m fine.”

He has my mother’s pale skin, my grandfather’s big brows, his mother’s sarcasm, and a beautiful head of dark, shiny hair that is all his own. And I wonder who he might have been already, in another lifetime, determined this time to come back as a tall, sensitive, strong young man. And now of course, I wonder who he’ll become.

Am I allowed to feel this proud? He’s not my child after all; I didn’t choose an outfit for his kindergarten portrait; I didn’t drive him to the DMV to get his driver’s permit. But some part of me knows, beyond this projection of a childless man who wanted so much to be a parent, that we are somehow linked beyond DNA or history. We belong to a tribe of truth-seekers and sensitive men, of deep feelers and get-down-on-the-sidewalk dog lovers. We know one another; we will never be strangers.

At my father’s memorial, my nephew was barely twelve years old. Shy at the time, and quiet, he surprised me when he voluntarily spoke to the whole room—twenty or more of us, and many strangers to him—about a memory he had. My father witnessed him hitting a homerun one day, and he said it was “the best homerun” he had ever made. My father’s presence there that day on the baseball field had stayed in his young mind as a moment of being, a bright memory of being seen.

Pop-Pop had been a witness to the perfect crack of wood meeting leather, the little white ball arcing up into a pale blue afternoon sky. He still heard him clapping and cheering from the green bleachers, and my father’s voice, filled with praise, was still ringing in his ears.

And while I was surprised that he spoke, I was not surprised at the beautiful way he brought our beloved back to life again, because he has always done that for me. He reminds me of so many people in my family I have loved and lost. He reminds me to keep loving, to never stop, no matter the distance. And for that, I’m so very thankful.


Nonna* January 29, 2016

The prompt this time was two lines from David Ray’s poem, “At Emily’s in Amherst“:Scan 26

Outside, standing between Cypresses

I imagine her 

What I wrote in response is below.


The angel, Gabriel, came to her in a dream, she said. He told her to get her affairs in order: she only had two weeks to live. So she gathered her grown children from as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles, and brought them to their childhood home on Mt. Washington.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked my mother, who was only six weeks late.

“I think I am,” Mom said.

“Yes,” my grandmother said. “And it’s going to be a boy.”

She was right.

We never met. That kidney-shaped fetus was me, and she did, in fact, die two weeks after having that dream.

Here’s what I know: she was a healer. Women would bring their colicky babies to her and she would lick her thumb and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. “Don’t wash it off,” she’d say, and send them home to sleep.

She baked her own bread and grew her own tomatoes. Made lasagna from a simple recipe handed down to Mom, to Pop, and then to me. Everyone always asks for the recipe.

She never learned to speak English. When my father was a little boy, she used to make him translate for her at the open markets in Pittsburgh, haggling over prices in two languages.

She gave birth to eight children. The oldest, Nicholas, died of pneumonia after crossing the Atlantic with her alone in 1903. They were processed at Ellis Island. Her name is not on the wall there, but she exists in the ship’s manifest in curly script. Nucito was her maiden name.

When I visited her hometown in Basilicata—a hilltop town called Corleto Peticara—I stood in front of the altar in the exact spot where she married my grandfather in the tiny church built in the 15th century.

Life was hard for them. They picked olives and grapes, they tended sheep and cows. To her young, strong body and mind, America seemed like a magical place where life would be clean and new and modern.

Here’s what happened: they lived in poverty, in an Italian, Irish, Jewish ghetto. Her husband had an affair with the homely widow up the street who had a witch’s hook nose and always wore black. My grandmother grew older and had a stern, handsome face, but my sister said she was kind and quiet and always smelled good. She always wore an apron. My mother only spoke a little Italian, but they still managed to have long conversations, and they often held hands.

Sometimes, I still see her in the old country, her hair in a long, dark braid. I imagine her standing between two Cypress trees. I want to tell her not to marry him, to stay in Italy, but I know she won’t listen to me. She wants to come to America. She wants me to have a better life than she had.


*Italian for Grandmother




Knock, Knock: It’s your Inner Critic Calling June 5, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 3:29 pm
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This prompt addresses your inner critic directly. I have found personifying this voice in our heads is helpful as writers, mainly because we can laugh at the absurdity of what this voice sometimes gets away with saying. And although I’ve done this exercise for years with my writing groups, recently I’ve been encouraging them to think of this exercise as a kind of exorcism, a way to disempower this beast.

First, I read this out loud:

You open the door, and there he or she is: the voice inside you personified. The one who tells you that you can’t write, have no talent, shouldn’t bother, are making a fool of yourself.

In this exercise, I want you to externalize your inner critic: introduce us to him or her by showing us what he or she looks like, sounds like, acts like. Have a conversation with your critic. Give us a little bit of dialogue (or a lot of dialogue!). Let us see, hear, smell this character who is a part of your writing life: the one who throws up roadblocks, who deflates your enthusiasm, who has nothing nice to say and says it anyway.

In this exercise, go all out. Show us the whole picture. Make us laugh, make us cry, allow an exorcism; let us have a conversation with this demon. We’ll wrestle with it too. We’ll flip him off. We’ll rebuff her.

(What I wrote in response is below. It surprised me, because one of my muses showed up to help me out.)

________________________________________________     mousie

She leaves me alone most mornings until 10:00.

“You’re already running behind,” she says, looking at her sensible Timex. “You’re going to have to let go of finishing a few things if you want to make it to work on time today.”

The bitch is back. All dressed up and ready to go since 7:00 a.m.; she’s already been working on her new manuscript for two hours. She’s had her black coffee and a soft-boiled egg, one slice of whole wheat toast (jam, no butter), and half a pomelo.

“No time to type up your next blog post. You don’t get those published very often, do you?” She’s wearing the Rebozo she bought in Puebla, and her silver filagree earrings from Kerala, where she took a sabattical to write her last novel.

“I average once a week,” I lie, sipping my cold tea. I’ve been grading student essays for 90 minutes; I’m still in my sweatpants and angry dog t-shirt.

“Really?” she says, pulling out her iPhone 6, tapping the screen. “It says here you only posted once in February.”

“You’re visiting my blog?” My stomach growls loudly. “Are you borrowing the prompts?” She laughs.

“No, dear. I just click on it here and there when I need some light, mindless reading.”

“I’ve published some pieces on there I’m proud of,” I say, feeling a little defiant.

“Oh, yes. All those melodramas about your poor, dead mommy. You do pathos so well.”

“Fuck you,” I say.

“Oh! Did I touch a nerve?”

“You’re extra nasty today,” I say. “Isn’t a little early?”

“It’s nearly 10:15,” she snaps. “Real published authors, professors of English with PhD’s in literature and three-book contracts, have already written 2000 words and have answered all their emails. And what have you done?”

“Yoga,” I say, pushing past her and her $125 haircut. “And I’ve graded eight essays.”

“Oh, yes,” she says, “you’re doing such a service to the community teaching composition. It’s such a noble profession, part-time teaching.” She’s hit all the buttons this morning, but I’m too tired to engage her anymore.

“Please leave,” I say, putting a piece of whole grain bread into the toaster oven. She sits down at the dining room table, picks up one of the essays I’ve just graded.

“B+? Really?”

“He has a learning disability,” I say, hands on my hips. I feel protective of Shawn, remember how hard he worked through four drafts, pushing through his embarrassment, his negative self-talk.

“And that’s your excuse for supporting grade inflation? I mean—”

“Who the hell are you?” We both turn to see my inner adolescent coming through the front door with daffodils. My inner critic is thrown off for a moment, but she catches on quickly.

“You must be the little dreamer,” she sighs. “What a treat. See?” She sweeps her hand from me to him. “This is the reason you are still thinking about writing a book and not publishing one.” My inner adolescent approaches her.

“You smell bad,” he says.

“This is your future inner voice,” I say, introducing him to her evilness. “Your inner demon, all dressed up like a professor.”

He looks her up and down.

“You’re just an old hippie,” he says, “a snooty old hag in stupid clothes.”

“I beg your—”

“You’re a—you’re just a mouse!” he says. “You’re nothing but a mouse!” It’s an incantation, because then POOF! She turns into a little grey mouse, running away from us. My inner adolescent stomps his foot; the little mouse jumps, then squeezes herself under the door.

“She’ll be back,” I say. He shrugs, hands me the flowers.

“This is for the progress you made last week on your cookbook manuscript. You’re almost done, you know that, right?”

The bell dings on the toaster, and we both smile.






Lust Before Love May 29, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 12:17 pm
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For this prompt I have everyone free write—for one minute—any words, phrases, or complete sentences in response to the following five noun phrases:             jesus-and-madonna-jesus-luz-17577293-500-344

1. an accident

2. a delicious meal

3. an annoying person

4. great sex (or someone or something sexy)

5. a dog or a cat—a pet, or someone else’s pet, even one you didn’t like very much

After everyone has written these descriptive free writes, place the words “Love is” in front of each one. Suddenly you have a metaphor. Read three of these out loud, allowing some time between each reading, and encouraging everyone to write down images, words or phrases that stand out from each person’s piece. Read around three times. Then write for 20 minutes, whatever comes to mind. 

What I wrote is below.


He liked not being in love. It had an easy way about it, the day to day without distraction or worry, without obligation or expectation. Without Love, Lust had long visits, and he could luxuriate in the naked stickiness of, say, a shirtless man lying on his stomach in Dolores Park, or tight jeans and a nice bulge in the crosswalk.

Lust allowed him to stare—hard—at muscular, chocolate calves with a dusting of black fur, or the big nose on the Croatian man at the Honda dealership. There were lovely crevices where that nose could go, followed by a tongue.

Love, in contrast, was stuck in one place. Love was cooking breakfast, or packing a lunch, making dinner reservations, meeting other couples for brunch. Love was boring: the same old fantasies about cutting a wedding cake and smiling for black and white photos. Love asked too many questions and forgot to call because he fell asleep. Love brought up ex-lovers and longed for someone skinnier, someone with a bigger dick or a tighter ass.

But Lust was always happy to discover whatever package was waiting for him when those pants came down. Lust could have a party anywhere: under thin grey blankets on a Trans-Atlantic flight, in the backroom of a disco, even in the park at sunset. Lust was easy and free and seldom felt disappointing. If Lust was sometimes lame, so be it. He could always move on.

Love made promises it couldn’t keep, sent sweet texts, fed off anticipation, then arrived 20 minutes after the film began, asking, “What did I miss?” Love came with baggage: bad mommies and dead daddies, religious values; sometimes Love stumbled right into the bedroom to find infidelity going at it with its lifelong partner.

Still, Love wasn’t all bad. Sometimes Love brought thoughtful gifts from far away places, or planned surprise parties, and once in a while, Love surprised him with a weekend away, or even a trip to Paris. Love slept in sometimes, too, or watched him sleep, lovingly. Love looked, watched, planned. Sometimes Love was strong and kind and resilient. Every now and then, Love was forgiving too.

But Lust never got his hopes up, didn’t expect to spend the night, didn’t get down on his knees to propose. Lust ordered another beer and shared the pork belly appetizer, winked, then engaged in flirtatious banter. Lust was that little point on the v-neck sweater where the periwinkle fabric met the tendons of the neck, the clavicle, the line drawn between firm pectoral muscles. Lust darted out its tongue, licked its lips, and smiled knowingly.

Lust didn’t order dessert; it never needed to.