Tuesday, December 9, 2014

writing prompts

The purpose of writing prompts - to encourage you to write.

They give you a chance to practice your writing skills.
They can get the creative juices flowing.
They offer a challenge.
They are fun.

Can you write something passable in a short amount of time on a specific subject? Let your imagination run free. No one else has to read it unless that is what you want.

Some dictionary definitions for prompt include: To move to action, to incite, to bring forth, and to be ready and quick to act as occasion demands.

A prompt is just a topic. It can be one word, a sentence or even a picture. You jot down ideas and then try to quickly write something from it.

What if your topic was “night writers.” Would you write a memoir about how you do most of your creative writing at night, after everyone else is in bed? Maybe you could create a story where the revolutionaries met at night to write and print information to distribute the next day. Could what they write lead to the overthrow of a dictator or just land them in prison? Is the pen really mightier than the sword? It is your story and it can go where you want it to go.

Prompts can help a writer get past writer’s block by trying different approaches. Instead of just staring at a blank page, a prompt can get you writing.

It is beneficial to write just for fun, to experiment, to see things from a different viewpoint, before returning to your main project. This is less stressful writing.

Many writing magazines provide prompts for their readers. There are entire books written about the value of prompts to ignite the creative process. You also can find sites that offer prompts online.

Writers are pushed to practice, practice, practice. Prompts give you a chance to do just that.

In our writing group, we can share our prompts and receive feedback on what we have written and also see what others wrote. It is interesting to see the different writing topics and styles that come from people using the same prompt.

You might even take the same idea and rewrite it with different characters or set it in a different time period. Sometimes you might expand your short prompt piece into something longer.

I save most of my prompts and sometimes review them for possible story ideas for future writing.
Whether you use prompts to spur creativity, kick-start a writing project, win a contest, or just to have fun, prompts are a writer’s friend.

So here we go. The following prompt was suggested for one of our recent critique group meetings.

The prompt: 

You wake up one morning to find that you are your five-year-old self, with your parents again, with all of the memories and experiences of your current life. Write this scene and express the emotion and frustration your character undergoes as you internally try to sort this out. 

My story using that prompt: 

It was Christmas morning. I was five years old. My brothers were pulling me out of bed, wanting to go downstairs and see what Santa had brought us. I threw on my slippers and raced down the steps with them.

“Mom and Dad get up. It’s Christmas. Santa’s been here.”

We reached for our stockings, which were hung on the banister. We could go through them while we waited for our parents. Jacks and yoyos, candy and fruit, a new comb and a sock? You never knew what Santa would put in your stocking. It was a fun way to wait until Dad came out to turn on the tree.

We could open one present while Mom fixed coffee, then she and Dad watched us open the rest, one at a time. Torn wrapping paper began to pile up around us. I didn’t take time to play with one thing before I was opening another. Finally, the gifts were open and I looked around to decide where to start.

Suddenly I realized everything seemed so immature. I’d feel silly playing with silly putty and did I really want to be a cowboy, with a red felt hat and plastic gun? Something  didn’t feel right. I looked at Mom and Dad, my brothers and then looked at myself in the hall mirror. Yes, I was five, but something was wrong.

I didn’t feel like five. I felt at least five times older than that. Wasn’t I just thinking last night of going to work today to finish the Bromberg contract?  Thinking that Christmas just wasn’t fun anymore. The magic was gone.

Now it was here again, at least for the rest of the family, and for me at least for a little while. But now I was thinking like an adult again, even if I didn’t look it. How was I going to get out of this mess?

They wouldn’t let a five year old into the office. How would I get there? Would Dad take me? He probably didn’t even know how to get to New York, much less where Clark and Patrick, Inc. was located.  He probably would think I was just playing being an adult.

Suddenly I began to perspire and sat back horrified. How long would I be stuck here? True, no one was waiting for this 25-year-old workaholic, but how long could I pretend to be five?

“Are you okay Billy?” Dad asked, moving over to ruffle my hair. I looked up at him and smiled.

“I’ll fix some pancakes for breakfast,” Mom said, giving each of us a hug before going into the 
kitchen. “Just play with your toys until I call you.”

“I guess Santa thought you were all good,” Dad joked. “He must not have been paying much attention.”

“Can we go sledding after breakfast?” Danny asked. “There’s plenty of snow. We’ll show Billy how to steer his new sled.”

“Sure,” he said, but I was no longer listening. I had forgotten how good it felt to do things with my brothers. I still received letters from them, sometimes with pictures of young nieces and nephews, but I hadn’t been home since graduating college and had never invited any of them to my apartment.

I had forgotten what love and security meant  since leaving my family in the cold mountains of West Virginia for the excitement of New York City. I had moved on and up, no longer embarrassed by my coal mining father nor store clerk mother. But I hadn’t realized how lonely life could be, even surrounded by millions of people.

Just last week I was wishing I could turn back the clock to when life seemed full of possibilities. Had that happened? Was this just a dream or part of a Christmas miracle?

“Pancakes are on the table. Come and get them,” Mom called.

 Rushing to the kitchen with my brothers, I decided to forget the Bromberg contract and just enjoy some of Mom’s hotcakes and homemade jam. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Christmas Gift

After months of working on a local anthology, we finally have it in print. Holding physical copies of Christmas Carroll and reading the stories and poems makes it all worthwhile. It is a gift to our writers, artists, photographers and Carroll County, Maryland.

How did this happen, you might ask? Well here is some of the basic information.

Several of us in our critique group thought about producing an anthology of works by Carroll County writers. This would give new writers in groups an opportunity to see their name and their writing in print. We also wanted to include published writers.

We thought about a holiday book and our coordinator Joelle Jarvis came up with the name Christmas Carroll, a play on the county name and our musical traditions. However, even with the emphasis on Christmas, we wanted an anthology that provided variety, including other holidays, traditions and winter stories.

We sent out invitations to critique members first, stressing that this was an experiment and publication was not guaranteed. We requested submissions from our friends in the Carroll County Chapter of the Maryland Writers Association and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Then we encouraged other writers we knew in Carroll County to submit various holiday celebrations, winter stories, etc. We also sent everyone submission guidelines and authorization forms.

We wanted to have the book out before Christmas. If this happened, members volunteered to help sell it at various author and craft events. Besides relatives and friends, the holiday book would make a nice gift.

Joelle, Mary Stojak and I volunteered to critique the submitted works, to catch errors, and make suggestions for improvements, but we did not require writers to change. It was their writings and we wanted to respect their views. Not all writing nor photographs submitted were accepted, but we considered the best.

A member of our group who is tech savvy, Mike Crowl, offered to prepare the manuscript for CreateSpace. He took charge of the layout and design and did a wonderful job. The front cover art is by Lona Queen, writer and artist. The back cover art was from photographer Mary Anne Baker. Mike did the design for both the front and back of the book.

It may not be a “Best of..” but it was a chance to showcase some of the talent in our county and I am proud of everyone who submitted their stories, memoirs or poems.

We also encouraged artists and photographers to submit something to increase the book’s visual appeal. Shawn B. Lockhart, well known artist and owner of Eclecticity, also provided us with some sketches.

My daughter submitted a memoir and my son let us use a sketch he did when he was young to go along with one of my memoirs.

Funds raised may bring additional speakers and educational programs to the county. If this project is successful, we may do another anthology next year. Perhaps we will choose a broader topic and allow more time for writers to write.

Putting this book together was a lot of work, but it also was challenging, exciting and rewarding. I would encourage other writing groups to try something like this to encourage their writers.

Including brief biographies and photos of the authors and artists makes Christmas Carroll special. As it says on the back cover, “…this anthology written by our writing family for yours.”

Check it out on www.amazon.com.

Friday, October 24, 2014

More Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was a prolific letter writer, expressing his activities, thoughts and writing process.

If you read my September 20th post about Steinbeck, you will know how much I enjoyed learning about his life from Steinbeck, A Life in Letters, which was compiled by his wife Elaine Steinbeck and good friend Robert Wallsten.

After a week’s break, I continued reading the 800-plus page book and I found so much more I wanted to share. I had trouble finding time to read all his letters, often containing minor information to friends, but I kept finding gems among Steinbeck’s letters, and just couldn’t stop reading.
He was a complex man, as most people are, but few people can reveal their feelings as well as he did. 

He loved writing and penned:

“I must say I do have fun with my profession…”

“I’m starting a new book and it is fun. They are all painful fun while I am doing them.”

“I approach the table every morning with a sense of Joy.”  “The yellow pages are beginning to be populated with people and with ideas.”

 “To be a writer implies a kind of promise that one will do the best he can without reference to external pressures of any kind.”

One winter he wrote, “The air has muscle.” What a great way to describe it.

“It takes just as long to write a short piece as a long one.”

About plays – “Dialogue carry the whole burden not only of movement but of character.”

“…it never gets any easier. The process of writing a book is the process of outgrowing it. I am just as scared now as I was 25 years ago.”

He wrote to Peter Benchley in 1956, “”A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.”

“Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends and this is arbitrary because there are no beginnings nor any ends.”

As a former journalist, I was pleased that he was not completely against journalism, as so many people are today.

To John P. McKnight of the U S Information Service in Rome he wrote, “What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have and yet it is the tool of the worst men. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many men, it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended.”

He included some basic hints about writing in a letter to Robert Wallsten, 1962. I am just using excerpts from the letter.

“I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.”

  1. “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.” He advises Wallsten to write just one page for each day. “Then when it is finished you are always surprised.”
  2. “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down….” Good advice if you are planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo).
  3. “Forget your generalized audience…..In writing, your audience is one single reader….”
  4. “If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it – bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.”
  5. “Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you.”
  6. “If you are using dialogue – say it aloud as you write it.”
We’ve heard most of this before, but it never hurts to be reminded.

In 1960s, he wrote, “I find I love words very much. And gradually I am getting the a series of dictionaries of modern languages. The crazy thing about all this is that I don’t use a great variety of words in my work at all. I just love them for themselves.”

Steinbeck wrote newspaper and magazine articles, plays, short stories and even some poetry, besides his famous novels. He was often controversial. But he wrote with feeling and clarity. It was not surprising that he was awarded the Novel Prize for Literature 1962 and received Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

“…a writer like a knight – must aim at perfection, and failing, not fall back on the cushion that there is no perfection. He must believe himself capable of perfection even when he fails. And that is probably why it is the loneliest profession in the world and the most lost,” he wrote. “I come toward the ending of my life with the same ache for perfection I had as a child.”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Less Distance Between Us

Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us, recently spoke about her experiences as a young undocumented immigrant and becoming an American at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster. 
Her story is relevant in light of the government stalemate on a new immigration bill and media coverage of undocumented children coming to the United States.

Reyna was nine when she came to the U.S. from Mexico, crossing the border with her parents and brother and sister. She was undocumented and not able to speak English when she started school in California.

Like generations of immigrants before them, her parents chased the American dream and wanted a better life for their children. They and their children worked hard to obtain that better life.

Only four years old when her father left, she had a picture of him but to her, he was just a face behind the glass. The children’s situation and life without her parents was more difficult for her older sister, who tried to take care of the younger children, she said. Her sister and brother helped with the book, sharing their memories.

Dr. Bryn Upton, a professor at McDaniel College, led the Question and Answer period. He asked Reyna about life “in the shadows” and to describe her early life as an undocumented immigrant. She said that taking ESL classes and being able to speak English increased her confidence in school. Then President George W. Bush’s amnesty bill allowed her to get her green card at 13. That helped bring her out of the shadows.

After attending Pasadena City College for two years, she went to the University of California, Santa Cruz and graduated with a B.A in creative writing and film and video. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college. Later she received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch College.  Now she teaches creative writing at UCLA Extension.

She couldn’t write this book when she was 22. It still was not easy at this stage of life, but it has been a catharsis, she said. The writing was cleansing. It was therapy.

A professor told her what she was writing at first was an autobiography. She was writing about too much of her life A memoir covers a limited amount of time.

Reyna realized she had to stop looking at her parents as a daughter and look at them through the viewpoint of an author. She began to look at them as characters in a story. As characters, their good points as well as their bad points were revealed, as well as the history that affected them, that made them who they were. She saw her parents were products of their own upbringing.

Before writing this memoir she had written two novels. She received an American Book Award in 2007 for Across a Hundred Mountains. In 2009, Dancing with Butterflies was published.

In her novels, portions of her life are revealed. Worry about a father not returning, came from fear when she was younger that he wouldn’t return for her.

Thoughts about writing were scattered throughout her speech and during the question and answer period.

She said, “Whenever I listen to another writer speak, I am inspired and motivated.” I also think new ideas or changes to an existing work while listening to other writers, just as I did during Reyna’s talk.
“These ‘ghosts inside’ were demanding attention,” she said. “I also am reminded about the basics: good characterization and setting.”

It bothers her that so many people look at immigration as numbers, not as people. Individuals lose their identity. She included only one statistic in the book: that 80 percent of children in ESL classes come from families split by immigration, and hopes teachers keep in mind the hurdles they are facing.

All Americans are immigrants, but the younger generations tend to forget where their ancestors came from. All had difficulties when they first came to their new country.

I wish I had written this blog right away instead of just jotting down notes. I feel I’ve lost a lot of the impact of the evening. It was interesting and enlightening to share some of this writer’s life and thoughts. If you have a chance to attend one of the events featuring Reyna Grande I definitely would recommend you go.

Thanks to the Maryland Humanities Council, the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, United Hands of Carroll County, McDaniel College  and the Carroll Library Partnership for sponsoring this program.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Steinbeck in letters

Reading Steinbeck, A Life in Letters has proven more enjoyable than I expected and I wanted to share some of what I have been getting from the book.

John Steinbeck preferred writing letters to face-to-face contact. I can understand that. Don’t many of us writers feel we can communicate our thoughts better by putting words on a page than through speaking?

“In sixty years, I‘ve left a lot of tracks,” he wrote in 1962. Following those tracks through his letters led to this book edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallston. They collected several thousand letters and compiled them, primarily in date order, with an occasional comment about his life at that time.

Besides revealing a lot of Steinbeck’s personality, the letters contain a lot of information about writing. He took his craft seriously. In spite of writing about the darker side of human nature and often being depressed, he did have a sense of humor.

In 1931, he wrote, “I learn that all of my manuscripts have been rejected three or four times since I last heard. It is a nice thing to know that so many people are reading my books. That is one way of getting an audience.” He also wrote, “Kids don’t believe in emotion in adults since they invented it themselves.”

He sometimes used “Pegasus the flying pig as a symbol of himself, “earth-bound but aspiring. A lumbering soul, but trying to fly,” he once explained. Another time he wrote “not enough wingspread, but plenty of intention.”

Depressed after the death of one of his best friends and divorce from his second wife, he wrote, “If I can write again then I can be happy again.” By this time he had already become famous for The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, but worried that it had all drained out of him.

Advice on writing appears often throughout his letters. In 1949, he wrote to John O’Hara, “But we must first use the adjectives before we can know how to leave them out.” In 1950 he wrote, “…all filler wants to come out… I’ll want no word in dialogue that has not some definite reference to the story.”

He was very good with keeping to a schedule and meeting deadlines and was not adverse to taking advice from his publishers and editing his work. However, he refused when asked about changing the ending of The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck wrote, “I have never been touchy about changes, but I have too many thousands of hours on this book, every incident has been too carefully chose and its weight judged and fitted. The balance is there. One other thing – I am not writing a satisfying story. I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.”

He also kept a journal, he called his “diary day book.”  Steinbeck wrote, “It is a kind of warm-up book. When I am working it is good to write a page before going to work. It both resolves the day things that might be distracting and warms up my pens the way a pitcher warms up.”

I worried when I first started reading this book, published in 1975 and more than 850 pages long. But I couldn’t stop reading it after a letter Steinbeck wrote in late 1930. “It is a gloomy day: low gray fog and a wet wind contribute to my own gloominess. Whether the fog has escaped from my soul like ectoplasm to envelope the peninsula or whether it has seeped in through my nose and eyes to create the gloom, I don’t know.”

What a picture of emotion. I can see the fog and almost feel it seeping into my body. Also I can understand how we sometimes feel that negative emotions escape us and create a fog-like atmosphere.

Steinbeck wrote in1961, “I am just as terrified of my next book as I was of my first. It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder and more heartbreaking and finally, it must be that one must accept the failure which is the end of every writer’s life no matter what stir he may have made…… So it is that I would greatly prefer to die in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a book and so leave it as all life must be – unfinished.”

He was awarded the Novel Prize for literature in 1962. In 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.

Steinbeck had been a war correspondent during World War II and went to write about Vietnam, as a correspondent for Newsday in 1967. Besides his 29 published titles, he was a journalist, short story writer and playwright. He is known primarily for his novels: Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize winner, Cannery Row and East of Eden. He died in 1968 at the age of 66.

In one of his last letters (1967), he wrote “And do you know, journalism, even my version of it, gives me the crazy desire to go out to my little house on the point, to sharpen fifty pencils, and put out a yellow pad. Early in the morning to hear what the birds are saying and to pass the time of day with Angel and then to hitch up my chair to my writing board and to set down the words—‘Once upon a time…”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Beginning Again

I am ready to start blogging again after taking an extended break to finish working on my middle grade novel and finish some other projects. Not that I ever really stopped, I only stopped writing about observing. I was surprised to find that I missed the writing. Although writing the blog was time-consuming, it often helped me clarify my thoughts.

 After initially choose the title of this blog - josobservations, I questioned why I had chosen something so long and forgettable. I planned to write primarily about writing and writers. However, I sometimes strayed away from that limiting premise. An art exhibit isn’t writing, but I find all creativity is inspiring.

After I started thinking about writing my blog again, I realized that I did want to discuss a variety of subjects, primarily still connected to writing, creativity, inspiration, etc. I promise I won’t write about what I had for breakfast, unless it was amazing.

I am lucky that I was able to earn a living with my writing. I wrote for a newspaper while going to college and later freelanced for several newspapers and an aviation magazine. There I wrote features and a monthly column. For a few years, most of my writing was in business. 

Then I returned to journalism, writing for a daily newspaper, The Cumberland Times-News and winning several awards.   Next, I wrote about business and tourism in Mountain Maryland for the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Recently I have been trying my hand at fiction.

I do still love non-fiction and admit I enjoyed journalism for its variety. I might cover a government meeting, explain an educational budget, or be paid to have fun at a festival, as long as I wrote about it. I liked writing about a program that helped seniors pay for their medicines or about Special Olympians conquering the slopes.

As a writer, I held a bear cub, went into a deep coalmine, climbed through a children’s play area in a new Burger King, went into the woods with a Search and Rescue crew and flew in a glider. Many articles were educational, at least for me, if not for my readers. Some stories, I wrote through tears.

Like most writers, I also like to read and may share my thoughts on certain books. In addition, I like to learn and am interested in hearing from others. What have you read, written or learned?

So now, I am a blogger again. I won’t promise to be as consistent as many others (I envy them), but I will try to write often. So here I am and here I will be next week. I hope you enjoy reading these blogs as much as I enjoy writing them.