Writing Prompt: Fever Dreams

 

This is late because I am sick.

I do not feel like a truck hit me.

I feel like I was out in a field some place warm, picking flowers, and a friendly but distracted bovine knocked me over.

I am lying on the grass, not in a cow plop but near enough to smell it, and grateful to be able to smell, staring up at the sky and thinking of all the things the clouds look like.

Yeah, I may just have a fever.

I don’t think I have the disease that is going around, I think I got ground down. My list of newly departed to pray for is unusually long, and includes two priests and two strong women of prayer whom I really love. I think when I get too sad my body makes me go rest. My brain doesn’t know how to do that, and I have weird dreams.

When my brother died, I got swine flu. My husband and all the sons who were home brought me liquids and pain relief and folded damp face cloths to put on my forehead, and a Cuba Libre, at my request, when I couldn’t get warm any other way, and things to read, which I let sit near me as once did my dolls and teddy bear.

My husband is also sick, this time, and we are taking turns being the one who is up. I was able to make pot roast and beef and barley soup. He was able to get the dishes into the dishwasher. We are a team.

But for something to write about, you really can’t beat fever dreams. We are not supposed to put too much stock in dreams. but I find they can show me what’s on my mind. When we lived in Texas, where there were cows near all the oil pumps for tax reasons, we didn’t have a dining room, my sister-in-law\s family moved from Houston to Palestine, and our parents were in Boston and Michigan. Then my dad died. Some time thereafter, when I was sick, I had a dream that all my relatives were coming in the door carrying chairs, for Sunday dinner in my dining room. I could not be happy. My aunt Rita was among the last to arrive and said, “Aren’t you going in?” I told her that if I went in there, I would have to remember all over that my dad had died. She shrugged and went into the dining room and I woke up and sobbed.

I needed to sob. I hadn’t done that.

Nobody handles dreams like “The Sopranos.” The show is brutal and their language is terrible. It is a series about how being in the mob ruins everyone in it and around it, and so some of the dreams are about hell. I used to watch the show to learn about good writing, and then I took to writing about it when I was angry at someone, to remind me where anger and vengeance lead. When I am sick and can’t talk to friends about books or movies, I watch YouTube videos that discuss aspects of plot and character development from the series. Also, it reminds me that I might be sick but at least I don’t work for the mob in New Jersey, so there’s that.

As I mentioned, I may have a fever.

Writing prompt: What weird dreams have you had, and what have them led you to realize?

Dreams can lead to change.

When I was pregnant with my first child, we bought one dozen cloth diapers, and my husband thought that would do. I didn’t. I had a dream that I had sextuplets and they were crying and I realized that I could change each child once and then we’d be in trouble. So we bought more diapers.

Dreams can be nightmares, but they can be refuge.

If your dreams take you to a good place, and bring back good memories, write about it so you will have something to think about in bad times. The martyred Tsarina Alexandra kept a scrap book of poems and thoughts to read over during difficult times. I have a “comforting images” section of photos on my personal Facebook page, icons and photos that remind me of what is good.

If your dreams are scary, what are you afraid of? With whom can you examine it? Never go swimming or spelunking alone. Have a friend, a counselor, a priest, or someone else whom you trust go in with you.

If you write fiction, what do your characters dream of? 

In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the ship goes through a fog where everyone’s dreams seem real. It sounds like a beautiful thought, until you remember what you have actually dreamed.

On the Julian Calendar, 2022 has not yet began. There is still time to think about what you want to change in the new year. Keep a notebook and pen by your bed and write about the dreams that come of their own accord. And then, do some editing. You don’t have to believe everything you think, or accept every thought that knocks on your door. Keep what is good and laugh off the rest. Write about the dreams you really want to pursue. God endowed us with free will. Think about what you want to work toward, and what you wish would go away. God gave us all gifts. Sometimes we have to hunt for the best place to use them.

 

 

Writing Prompt: Creatures of Habit

In the eighties, I worked summers on the eleven to seven shift in nursing homes as a nurse’s aid. Alzheimer’s was newly discovered, and part of the treatment was severe reality therapy, with huge calendars everywhere and patients constantly being re-told the current circumstances of their lives. The therapy had a harsh side, with women re-living afresh the death of their husbands and men being told over and over that they were not at work, that they no longer had a job. Treatment has changed for the better. But even then, in a home where reality was the rule, there was one room where we were told not to change the date on the calendar when the month was nearing an end. Bob’s room (not his real name) was exempt. Why?

On the first of the month, Bob went back to Roxbury to collect the rent. He had owned an apartment builing that he lost when he lost his memory and his wife. But for so long, going door to door to collect the rent envelopes was part of his life, that he could not lose the habit even when he had lost everything else. The head nurse on the shift had a soft spot for Bob, and had given her number to the new tenants, so if Bob managed to escape supervision (and he was creative!) and take the bus to his former home, she could go get him. Seeing her triggered him to remember the year. But Bob’s calendar sat on the 28th for two days and the 29th for three and then was switched to the proper date a few days into the new month, for safety’s sake.

Writing: What routine do you still have burned in your brain, even though circumstances have changed? My husband was rector of various parishes for more than two decades, and I was in charge of editing his monthly bulletin. As the first of the month draws near, I share Bob’s anxiety — there is a job that I haven’t done yet! The email hasn’t arrived for me to look over! Then I remember that we have moved on, our current rector has that taken care of already, I don’t need to do anything, and I relax.

If you write fiction, one way to open your story is for a creature of habit to realize that habit is no longer required. Like Mole abandoning his white-washing in “Wind in the Willows,” a character can reject a habit. A former monastic can hear a chime and consider that it is time for prayer. A retired teacher can enjoy a second cup of coffee and look out on the school bus arriving for the neighbor kids on the first snowy day of the year.

Or the habit can be different. In Bible class with Mr. Merrill at Commonwealth School, he pointed out that the Jewish custom of shaving the heads of women who were enslaved meant that every time a woman reached for her hair and it wasn’t there to tuck behind her ear, she had to remember and adjust, once more, to her new reality. A patient who has had something amputated may go to wash or dress that limb.

Writing prompt: A habit or routine has ended. What happens when your narrator hears the traditional prompt?

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.

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.