Wednesday Writing Prompt: “And Og, King of the Land of Bashan” — Whom Did You Overcome?

King Og’s Bed

At St. Seraphim Camp a few years ago, some old friends and I sat around talking about all the various groups and charismatic men that had tried, and failed, to hijack our church and use it for their own ends, some nefarious. As we listed name after name, I thought of the Psalm that we sometimes sing before Communion, Psalm 135 in the Septuagint and 136 in the King James Version. “Oh give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, Alleluia, for His mercy endureth forever, Alleluia.” In the Psalm, we sing of first of the wonders of God:

5 To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.

6 To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.

7 To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:

8 The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:

9 The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

But then follows a list of everyone who ever tried to overtake God’s people, and who failed, either at once or eventually:

10 To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:

11 And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:

12 With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.

13 To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:

14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:

15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.

16 To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.

17 To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

18 And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

19 Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:

20 And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:

21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever:

22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever.

23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:

24 And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

All of us could make such a list, and perhaps it’s time that we did.

The writing component:

When I started writing my MFA thesis, a memoir that I’m still not ready to share with the world, my advisor, Carol Ann Davis, was only half joking when she said, “The nice thing about writing nonfiction is that you already know that you survived.

Poetry

From ancient war songs to modern songs of triumph, whether you reach for the sacred or the profane, the lists are there. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “Death, be not proud” rebukes death itself, while Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” addresses those who would oppress her:

“You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

Edwin Markhan’s “Outwitted” takes on an unnamed “he” tries to exclude the speaker:

“He drew a circle that shut me out—

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”

Victory takes many forms — some of them just look like survival.

“But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!”

Prose:

Fiction is full of tales of survival — in young adult fiction, see the Hunger Games trilogy. Science Fiction offers “Enders Game.” In nonfiction, there are moving books like Da Chen’s “Colors of the Mountain,” John McCain’s “Six Years at the Hanoi Hilton,” or, more Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

There are also fictionalized versions of true stories. Eugenia Kim’s “The Calligraphers’ Daughter” tells a relative’s story in the first person, while Solzhenitsyn fictionalizes his own illness in the “Cancer Ward” and time in the Gulag in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”


What this means to you:

Maybe you’re not ready to write a whole book. But you can write an essay, a poem, or a scene.

In fiction you can have one character give another a pep talk listing the things they’ve already overcome. Your speaker can be reliable or unreliable. A reliable speaker who never-the-less is lying would be Wesley in “The Princess Bride” (on Hulu this month) telling Buttercup how they’ve already overcome the dangers of the Fire Swamp. But it could also be a coach giving a half-time talk or a parent trying to reassure a child about a new situation that is not what either expected.

Poetry and Nonfiction lend themselves to lists. Like the Psalmist, you could make a list of people or situations that almost killed you, and put a lyrical twist on it. It may be comical to alphabetize your tormentors, or informative, to list them chronologically.

Thanksgiving The psalm that came to mind is one of thanksgiving rather than complaint. Without giving it away, the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy has much the same feel. You might write (or have your character write) a list of the strengths that came from each assault. Because you believed the first person who lied to you, you were protected slightly against the second. You never would have taken the self defense class where you met your best friend if you hadn’t had your purse stolen as you walked down the street. Look at your own life or the adventures of your characters, and trace the Hand of God.

What did you win? We know about King Og’s bed because Moses captured it. And told us about it!

“For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.”

Deut. 3:11

Did you win a job? A boyfriend? Something intangible? Something very tangible? Take some time to reflect upon it in writing. Look, describe, appreciate. Think of your nephew describing his new Transformer and all the things it can do. Look at your own prizes with child-like appreciation.

How do you express your joy at winning? Trust me, not all of us can or should, like Maya Angelou, “dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs.” But there should be a follow-up to each revelation. The pain that you or your character overcomes should lead to a virtue (generativity, compassion, a little healthy self-doubt). Overflowing joy should spill on someone else. You might look at something kind you’ve done and ask who taught you how to do that, and what you were going through at the time.

We’ve all overcome some serious dangers and craziness in the past year. Write it down and see where it has led, and where it could lead, and what you can build with it. What did you not know that you could endure? But through the mercy of God, here you are!

Write! And enjoy!

Wednesday Writing Prompt — Time Travel Field Trip

Why yes, I do kind of want to go on a time travel field trip to my grandmother’s backyard and run through the sprinkler with my brothers and cousins.

West Medford, MA is about eleven miles from Roslindale, the part of Boston where we lived. My grandparents house was on a hill, and the backyard had Grandpa’s garden, a shrine to the Virgin, a tree, and the roof of the garage, which was built into the hill. There was a small greenhouse off the dining room, and through its windows the adults could see us as we played and we could see them, sitting at the table and talking over tea. My cousins and I, who in cold weather would be inside, singing into hair brushes as if they were microphones or trying on my grandmother’s hats, in the summer instead shrieked under the arcing ice cold water. When the sun was just right, we saw the miracle of a rainbow. Then we went back to shrieking.

That house has been sold twice since and I have moved to three different States. But on a day like this, hot and humid, I can almost taste that hot-rubber flavored water and feel the grass, so much longer than ours in Roslindale.

And I want to look through the window and see my aunts and parents and Mimi and Grandpa, all casually glancing to make sure that the noises they hear are good shrieks. Afterwards, we can have tea with milk and sugar.

You may want to go on a similar field trip of the brain. Choose a time and space where you are not, but where you have been.

Writing prompt:

Choose a year and write about what you would be doing on this day — melting in a classroom with no a.c.; nursing a baby who now is grown; freezing in Australia; working in the garden.

If your present is better than your past, you could write about what was vs. what is.

If your present is worse than you thought it would be, write about where you were and where you are.

Write about what someone else was doing while you were in the place of your reverie. For example, if I chose this day in 1977, I would be graduating from the Mary E. Curley Middle School. My husband, not quite ten years my senior, was just home from a semester abroad from grad school, and was looking for work. We both found ourselves in strange places shortly after — he found a job drafting, and my father leased a variety store, where my brother and I worked, to help pay for our high school tuition.

When you’re done….

These short pieces could become a poem or could be part of something longer. In a longer piece of writing, you want to give a character in transition a chance to reflect. My one time mentor, the late writer Da Chen, said in an interview:

Younger writers feel compelled to have their characters do one thing after another in an almost commercial, cinematic vision. But a novel is different. Your writing should in some way reflect the rhythm of life. If your character is being chased, riding a horse through the desert from one oasis to another, okay, that’s great, but the sun comes up and goes down, he stops sometimes, he has to eat, and he has to sleep. Let the writing reflect that a little. Sometimes you need to take a break. The break can be thoughts, in the heart, in the soul. Sometimes you need a spatial break. Pad the passage with an additional three lines. That is enough to make a difference.

The guy goes from one oasis to another drinking water, you should let him sleep. He’s sitting on his horse, give him a break, let him look up at the moon. Write about the moon for a few sentences. Otherwise it’s just fatiguing. And you will run out of deserts.

            If you want your writing to be lyrical, pause. Sometimes the man has to get off of the freaking horse.

The moment in time that you choose to revisit could be just such a passage. The next part is also a challenge: Where was your freaking horse taking you?

Wednesday Writing Prompt — Cicadas

The cicadas which are emerging from underground all over North America are a great gift to writers. Their life cycle offers so many metaphors. They leave their shells behind, as so many of us do in June when people graduate, marry, or move. They travel in large numbers to thwart predators. Their shells repulse some people while others find the translucent wings, their struggle to arise from the earth, and their flight from the ground a thing of beauty. But also, they offer the canny writer a new angle for writing about the passage of time.

A generation, in the Bible, is fourteen years. Cicadas emerge every seventeen years. This year, I am fifty-eight and living in Ohio with my semi-retired husband. Seventeen years ago, I was 41. We had arrived in Connecticut just four years before; the oldest of our children was about to graduate high school and start college in another State. Seventeen years before that, we were newlyweds with two children, living in Boston. I had not yet had a miscarriage. My husband’s ordination to the priesthood, our life in Texas, and the birth of half our children took place while the cicadas were growing underground. And the cicada season before that, I was only seven. I have no memory of the insects themselves, but I remember being horrified by the sporadic empty shell still clinging to the tree like one of the frozen figures in Pompeii after the volcano. (I came from a family that would have told me more about Pompeii than about cicadas.)

Projecting time forward puts a new twist on the phenomenon. If I live to see the cicadas emerge again, I will be seventy-five. Will I have written That Book yet or not?

Rich soil here for planting ideas. The existence, life span, structure, and perception of cicadas offer a variety of frameworks for writers. Here are some prompts:

  1. Write a piece in which two people stumble across a cicada (alive or a shell) and show their different reactions to it.

Comparing and contrasting two people works across all writing genres — Natalia Ginzburg does it brilliantly in her essay “He and I.” Pearl S. Buck masterfully handles this in “A Pavilion of Women” when she contrasts what the heroine, Madame Wu, knows about her best friend’s husband vs. what Mr. Kang knows about her. Borges does this in “Borges and I.” Parents know that two children can have very different reactions to something. A poet may write on one side of the page about being repulsed and on the other about being touched by beauty.

2) Look closely at a cicada shell and write your own response to it.

3) What were you doing last time the cicadas emerged? Were you alive yet? Did you see them? How old will you be when you see them again?

4) Make a list of concrete nouns about cicadas. Now make a list of abstract nouns. Now use them both in an essay, poem, or story.

5) Scientific writers could write about some aspect of the life of cicadas that has been overlooked — their environmental impact, the chasm between how people perceive cicadas and what they actually do. Make a list according to your specialty, then compare and contrast — cicadas have no teeth, but cicadas slice holes in plants in which they lay their eggs. Cicadas are not poisonous, but their shells are hard for dogs to digest.

6) Cicadas are noisy. Write a piece in which the hero is trying to concentrate on one thing and the sound of the cicadas is a distraction. (Bonus points if you can make the character relate this to the last time he or she heard the cicadas.)

Once you’ve done this with cicadas, you might try it with other insects — contrast cicadas with earthworms, write an “ant and grasshopper” type story about cicadas during their frolic, write a story about edible insects and the recipes people have created for cicadas… make it your own.

But write fast, because when they’re hidden, they won’t be back for another seventeen years.

What Do They Even Eat Here? — Wednesday Writing Prompt

“There’s no Prince Spaghetti here. There’s no Hood Ice Cream. There’s no Salada Tea. What do they even eat here? How am I going to feed myself?”

My older brother had just taken a new job at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and his first trip to the grocery store was an exercise in culture shock. We are Bostonians, and that means that we grew up drinking Salada tea with milk and sugar around our grandparents’ dining room table, we ate Hoodsies (ice cream in a cup) at birthday parties, and Wednesday was always Prince Spaghetti Day. Our family did not buy a lot of name brands, but these were staples. When we move from Boston and can no longer smell the ocean, these are among the things that we miss.

I understood his shock, because when he called me, my husband and children and I had been living in Texas, where one also could not find these things. Tea had been the first shock. Salada teabags had sayings on their tags. Some of these were profound, others were bad puns. In Texas, when I drank a cup of tea and looked at the tag, all it said was the name of the brand. I took to drinking coffee, instead. But at restaurants and gas stations, one could not get coffee “regular” (milk and two sugars), which was a New England Thing long before Starbucks had people ordering ventis and lattes. No, because it was hot outside, coffee came not with cream but with non-dairy creamer — in powder form.

I had a sister-in-law to guide me through this strange new world. She and my husband’s brother had moved from Michigan to Houston to work for NASA back when there were fewer Yankees in town, and at the local Kroger no one had heard of rhubarb or Vernors. But after one of the hurricanes, Kroger diverted all their trucks to Texas, to fill the emptied shelves, and these strange products became popular. My children grew to love Vernors, and after we moved to Connecticut, our trips to visit my in-laws in Michigan always ended with a Vernors run. The soda was rationed, saved for birthdays and illnesses.

My sister-in-law explained to me about heat and food, about how Yankee food has to be kept cold and Southern food was designed for warmer weather, and for people who, before air conditioning, needed more salt and sugar, both of which my children’s classmates put on their watermelon slices. People needed sweet iced tea, and buffet foods that could be kept warm without losing their flavor.

She gave me brands to try. Blue Bell Ice Cream turned out out to be as good as Hood. Skinner Pasta had as much of a cult following as Prince Spaghetti, in part because they made Texas shaped pasta for the State’s Sesquicententennial and they were so popular that they just kept making them. Over the course of our time in Texas, each of my children glued Texas-shaped pasta to an outline of the State of Texas for “Go Texas Day,” something my son was sad to learn, when we moved, that Connecticut did not celebrate. “That’s okay,” he told his first grade teacher. “Just tell me, when is ‘Go Connecticut Day?'” Alas, there exists no such beast. Texaroni cost no more than any other pasta, so it became part of our Wednesday pasta supper, and also made a nice gift for visitors.

I told my brother he had to adapt, and learn to eat for the region where he was living, and come to appreciate the good things that Missouri had to offer. He tried, but told friends who asked where he was working that he was “living in the State of Misery,” and when he had a chance to teach at Princeton, it wasn’t just the prestige and the salary that attracted him — it was that he could find good Italian food at the local Shoprite.

When you are young, you don’t know what is local and what is everywhere. A friend from Long Island who was planning on visiting Wellesley as a prospective student asked me if Wellesley got New York television stations. I told her no, Wellesley got Boston stations. Her face fell. “I’ll die if I can’t get NBC, CBS, and ABC,” she said. I explained the difference between nation wide networks and their affiliates, and it made more sense to her once she started classes.

The Prompt: What brands did you assume were everywhere, and not find when you moved? How did you cope? Or, what things did you think you would never see again, and were surprised to encounter?

Using brands in your writing: Name brands can ground a story in space and time. In “Summer of My German Soldier,” the narrator hears the family maid singing the “Rinso White” laundry jingle. This small nod to 1940’s Arkansas domestic life also subtly hints at race issues which arise later in the book. The cleaning products your characters use, the brand of coffee that they prefer, the brand of detergent the family can afford, all can be a shorthand introduction to their lives.

What you remember: Some brands don’t exist any more. Some people who preferred these brands also are no longer with us. Write about a product that you remember that you can no longer find, whether because you moved or because it no longer exists.

Write about revisiting something you used to love but don’t buy any more. It can be those disgusting orange candy peanuts or your father’s aftershave, lemon oil furniture polish or your ex-boyfriend’s brand of soap. Smelling and tasting things again brings back a flood of memories that do not exist in words. When you put words to them, you gain some mastery over your past and present. You can find many discontinued products online.

There is one value in a planned encounter. But you could also write about finding an old friend in a strange place. There was one dessert my late mother made that I could not find a recipe for anywhere. We had called them “date nut bars,” and all the recipes that I had found under that name were…wrong. Then at an estate sale, I bought a cookbook that did have the recipe. I made them and brought them to church. “Oh! Chinese Chews,” the ladies said. Had I known the other name, I could have found the recipe sooner.

You were a different person when you ate these foods, used these products, smelled these scents. There may be things you forgot that you did or thought that will come back to you when you explore.

Putting It Together — Wednesday Writing Prompt

When my goddaughter was old enough to ride without a car seat, her family let her celebrate by riding home from church in my car. My car doubles, sometimes, as a purse, so in preparation, I had crammed everything that had been in the back seat into the netting behind the driver’s seat, and she was intrigued and pulled something out. “You have a lot of interesting things here! What’s this? Is it lotion?”

I could see that she was holding a tube, but I couldn’t see what it was. “I don’t remember! What does it say?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t read yet.”

“I forgot! Okay, can you tell me the letters and I can spell it out?”

“Okay. I see an A, and a G, and an E, and a D-E-F….”

“This isn’t working. Why don’t you hand it to me at the red light.”

When we stopped for the red light, she handed me the tube. “Age-defying sun screen.”

“Oh!” I said, “This is what I wear in the sun, so I don’t get wrinkles.”

“Oh! I can use that!” she said. “Sometimes the tips of my fingers wrinkle.”

Putting things together from clues is an imprecise art. What one person infers from what another describes can be the catalyst for wonderful stories. The late writer Vasili Aksyonov used this technique brilliantly in his story “Papa, Slozhi,” “Daddy, Put it Together,” where a young girl spending Saturday with her father spells out words for her father to read, and in the process drops clues about another situation he needs to spell out for himself.

In Aksyonov’s work, the revelation is poignant. Modern cartoonist Nathan Pyle uses the technique humorously, referring to familiar body parts as “flavormuscle” and “mouthstones,” while making universal observations about human troubles.

Mystery writers love problems with letters. On “Columbo” the detective solves a mystery by re-arranging the stencils that a slain millionaire was going to use to paint a word on his boat. In other mysteries, a message is typed with the hands three letters off, and ripped pages with words that are incomplete are a trope.

There are also abecedarian essays and poems.  I don’t really care for these, but sometimes having to use a form makes you realize what you really do want to write. 

Writing Prompt: Letters

Write about someone figuring out what a word really is, and thereby figuring out something bigger.

Examples: A person misreads a word in a friend’s post or note in a way that reveals an underlying fear.

The rest of a word or sign is obscured, and the reader reaches a conclusion that is unfounded and debunked.

Parents spell something in front of their children, and the children conclude the wrong thing from it.

In a letter someone spells a word wrong in a way that changes the meaning, and another person reads the letter and reaches a wrong conclusion. (Example: when I was substitute teaching some young readers kept using the word “pride” out of context. It took me a while to realize they were aiming for “pretty.”)

Play around with the idea, see what you come up with and consider having it published if it’s any good.