A couple of months ago, I joined up with a writing prompt workshop. A group of writers sit around and throw prompts out. Furiously write for 20-30 minutes. Read your work. Wash and repeat. For three hours. I went two Mondays in a row and then life intervened. I went back today for the first time in a month or so. (Thank you for that holiday, State of California.)
Jean, Barb, Julie and I sat around a table and wrote and read and talked. Here are my three efforts for the day.
The first prompt I used was “the history of a four-poster bed.”
Maddy’s parents slept in it first. A gift to them on their wedding night. Gladys and William. Or Mrs. Kifner and Mr. Kifner. Or, when he’d had one too many whiskeys in him, “call me Bill.”
I hate to think of it now. Who does? Old people sleeping and doing the things people do in beds when they’re married. Maybe Maddy was even conceived in it. It’s a wonder I was able to sleep in it when it became ours, with all those hideous visions of somebody’s parents filling my head.
When they died — first, William in the summer of ’98 and then Gladys thirteen months later — the bed became ours. Maddy and her brother gathered to divide the household belongs. Junior, smart man that he was, wanted nothing to do with the bed. Maddy couldn’t stand to see it go. “We need a new bed anyway, honey,” she said. “Please.”
“It’s free at least.” And it was a king. Out went our old queen-sized bed. The one that had followed her from her childhood bedroom, to college, and into married life, where we had conceived our own two children. In went, sigh, her parents’ bed. After a week, I asked, “Could we at least get new mattresses?” There was something about the dip in the middle that I just didn’t like.
Of course we got new mattresses, and a new comforter she called a duvet, and one of those skirts that covers the space between the mattress and the floor. Wouldn’t want the guests to see under your bed. But, then, why would guests be coming into our bedroom?
The thing about that bed is that it provided more room. For the dog to sleep in between us. I shouldn’t complain. With that added space, the little mutt’s paws jabbed me in the back less than before. And, in the summers when it paced back and forth from the head of the bed to its foot, it’s tail didn’t swish against my leg, waking me from a sound sleep.
More room. What had been a small space between us, sleeping on our sides. Her on the right. Me on the left. Our backs to each other. Felt more and more like a canyon at times.
Then she got her diagnosis. At first, we had hope. The doctors said her chances were good. We built a bridge across the canyon. We touched and held each other in our sleep again. We lazed in the scattered blankets and sheets in the mornings.
The hope turned to naught. Something didn’t work the way it was supposed to. The good poison didn’t kill the bad poison. The bed became hers in those final months.
Now, it’s mine. I changed the mattresses again. I had to. But I kept the duvet. Had to do that, too. That bed is too damn big when you sleep in it alone.
* * * * * * * *
The second prompt was a choice of four, based on pages pulled from one of those 365 day calendars — this one focused on momentous events in history. The choices were the act that created NASA in 1958; canestoga wagons in the first half of the 19th century; something about Buddha; and Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein. I chose, well, you figure it out…
“Why so angry?” the Rinpoche asked.
The man next to him did not respond. He stared straight ahead, his face set. Emotionless.
They sat on a park bench. Children scampered about on the playground. Every once in a while one would stop and stare. Point and giggle. Before being called back to their games.
“You must find your center. Find your peace and let your anger go.” Rinpoche patted the man on his knee. “Two people have been living in you all your life. One is the ego, garrulous, demanding, hysterical, calculating; the other is the hidden spiritual being, whose still voice of wisdom you have only rarely heard or attended to. ”
The man grunted and turned his head slowly to the Rinpoche. “Wouldn’t you be angry if you had bolts comin’ outta your neck?”
Rinpoche smiled serenely. “It is what it is. Your anger changes nothing.”
“The top of my head is flat. You could set a glass on it. Hell, you could put an entire place setting up there.” He looked up in an effort to see what it might look like.
“You should try meditation. When you feel anger, close your eyes. Breathe in and breathe out. Recognize your anger for what it is and release it.”
Frankenstein grumbled. “I wheeze when I breathe. It’s hardly peaceful.”
A child approached them. “Why is your skin green, mister?”
The Rinpoche stood and bowed to the child. “Why ask why?”
Frankenstein steamed, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead.
“Breathe in, Frank. Breathe out.”
Frankenstein tried it. He closed his eyes and listened for a moment. The children laughed. The Rinpoche’s robes rustled as he sat down again. In the distance, the noise of a busy street intruded. He breathed in and thought of his bolts. He breathed out and thought, this is how God made me.
“Mister?” the child said.
“Ssshh,” the Rinpoche cautioned.
A child screamed in delight. The whirring of a bicyclist’s wheels and pedals on the path behind him. A dog barking. He breathed in. The child turned and ran back to the playground, his footsteps on the damp grass squishing away. He breathed out.
“Fill your head. With nothing. Take your thoughts and cast them to the side.”
Frankstein breathed in. “Your mind is empty. You hear nothing. You feel nothing.”
He breathed out. “Recognize your anger.” Frankstein thought of something that made him angry – when a child laughed at him. “Now, let it go.” And, he did. His mind was blank. He breathed in, feeling the warm air in his nostrils. He thought of Igor at the lab always causing trouble and frowned. “No, no. Let it go.” Frankenstein blew the breath out harshly and with it the image of Igor in his head disintegrated and disappeared.
“Gently. Gently. Quiet your thoughts. Let go of your anger. Release it all.”
They remained like that for five or ten minutes more. The Rinpoche whispering to Frankenstein, who breathed through his anger.
“Well done,” the Rinpoche said when Frankenstein opened his eyes again. “That is a start.
* * * * * *
And, yes, I stole a bit from Breakfast with Buddha for that piece, but there’s no plagiarism involved. Frankenstein definitely did not make an appearance in the book. Which leads to the third prompt. Taken from the magazine The Sun, the following words/phrases. Pick one and go…
Breaking the rules
In the dark
In the novel I’m working on, the narrator’s father, who is an artist, tells him that a blank canvas is more beautiful than a canvas that has been covered with paint. The reason? Because of its potential. A blank canvas can become anything and everything.
A fellow blogger said the same thing about the blank page yesterday. When a writer first sits down to write. When the story has yet to begin. It could be anything and everything. The power of that blank page can be awesome.
Except when trying to fill that blank page, the writer draws, well, a blank.
Eyes. Winging it. Skin. Breaking the rules. Bullies. In the dark. I’ve drawn a blank, not because those words don’t stir story ideas in me. No, instead, there are times when I write that I want to step out of my head as much as I possibly can. I want to write fiction that has no trace of me in it. Rarely do I succeed. There’s always a piece of me. But I try anyway.
I see these words. Eyes. And think of what my eyes see. Winging it. And I think of how I did that with my first two efforts today. Skin. I think of how incredible the touch of skin on skin is – a most basic human need, as far as I’m concerned. Breaking the rules. I think of how I have always followed the rules. Almost anyway. And, how, I like what a speaker said at a writing conference – in writing, there are no rules as long as you write a good story. Bullies. I think, well, a complete blank on this. And in the dark. I was terrified of the dark as a child and all I can think is to write about that terror.
You know, the four poster bed had a bit of me in it. We have the dog that sleeps between us. Two dogs actually. And I was right there with the Rinpoche and Frankstein. Over the last few months, I’ve tried yoga and meditation and other things to release some of my anger and frustration at life’s mysteries. At the things that don’t go my way. That line at the end when the Rinpoche tells Frankstein “that is a start” defines my efforts as well.
Even when I write stories that are far removed from the me that is me, I still creep in. So, we have these six prompts and I have no idea what to do with them because, at this moment, I want nothing more then to write outside of my head, outside of my life and all those prompts do is bring me right back in.
The trick then is to come up with a character as far removed from me as possible. A woman in a marriage set up to keep her gay Afghan friend from being expelled. A 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who finds out after his father died that his life has been a lie. A women going through the box of belongings left by her mother who passed away a year before. A 70-year-old man who sits on the porch of his Sullivan Bay home, who is lonely and miserable and wants nothing to do with his past or his present.
Sometimes, I can’t do that and I turn my laptop off. The blank page sometimes stays blank. Until I can, once again, get outside of my head and write stories that, rather than being 90% me, are only 10%, or 5%, or hopefully, less than 1% me.