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.


I was thrilled to be part of  a small cadre of writers asked to write ekphrastic poems or flash fiction about art on display at the Fairfield University Art Museum. Ekphrastic poetry relates to a piece of art — the way it was made, the experience of seeing it, the experience of being in the picture. I had read some and gone to readings by friends, but this was my solo voyage. I chose to write the poem in two parts, the first about the experience of being able to choose a piece about which to write, the second being what happened to me when I saw the sketch.

The exhibit was “Sketching the Landscape: A Plein Air Journal” by artist Michael Gallagher. I was moved by the sketches, and chased down the artist at the opening to ask about his technique. He sketches in charcoal and paints in water color, but he enhances his work with wax — beeswax. candle wax, even crayon — which changes the quality of light in the piece.

In the poem, which I will link to, I describe finding the piece of art that captured me. I wrote about the one that left me breathless. I took a picture, Carey Weber from the Museum took a better picture, and I looked at it, repeatedly. I visited it at the museum a few more times. I looked at the lines and the colors, the strokes of the brush and the pencil and wax, squinting close and standing back, until finally the words bubbled out. I had been torn between writing about the experience of choosing a picture or about what the picture evoked within me, so I decided to do both.

Others wrote poems and stories about different pieces, and the Museum had them all in a binder. Visitors to the exhibit could walk around the gallery with the poems and stories and stand in front of each piece, reading. I enjoyed seeing all the different takes as much as I enjoyed seeing all the different sketches.

Finally came the day when the artist and writers converged. First Michael Gallagher gave a lecture on some of his restoration work. I was fascinated at the amount of detail that goes into analyzing the pigments, stripping the varnish, replacing the damaged section, and insuring that the repairs can be fixed again when time wears away again at the colors. In his restoration work, the artist removes himself, and focuses on keeping the work intact, restored rather than repainted. In his Pleine Air sketches, he does the same, he said, leaving no sign that he had been to the places (temples, seasides, forests) that he depicted.

Later, we had a reading of the pieces. It was a joy to watch the artist actively listen, leaning in toward each of us as we read our pieces in the gallery, surrounded by writer and artist friends who themselves crowded in to see and to hear. As a group, we walked from sketch to sketch, listening to each new response by a writer. Over wine and cheese after, we talked about writing and the museum, art and what it inspires. I went into the experience feeling like a recent grad student. I left the museum feeling like a writer among writers and artists. I am so grateful for the opportunity, for the inspiring art, and for all those who brought together words and images.

Many thanks to Carey Weber from the Museum both for organizing the event and for obtaining for me both such a brilliant copy of the sketch and permission to post it. I also appreciate Elizabeth Hastings and our program leader, Sonya Huber, from Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program for connecting us with the museum and for attending the reading. And special thanks to Michael Gallagher, whose striking images inspired each of us differently.

Here’s the poem. 

The image was provided by the artist himself, for which I thank him.




A Found Writing Prompt is a True Gift

My friend Alana was writing about experiencing synesthesia during choir rehearsal. The basses sounded like mud, or sand, another voice like caramel, another like aluminum foil. Friends asked questions about the condition, and about her perceptions. Her examples were unexpected. She gave me permission to use this line as a writing prompt:

I realized my talents when I noticed that Whitney Houston sounded like tomatoes.

While we don’t all have synesthesia, we all make odd associations. If you write nonfiction, you could examine some of yours. If you write fiction, you might use one of these strange associations to help show certain facets of a character. If you write poetry, the associations you make would be a fresh juxtaposition.

For my part, I realized that I associated perfumes with colors, in that I would coordinate my perfume with the color of the clothes I was wearing. When I wore brown, I wore Chanel Number Five. Arpege went with beige. Tea Rose Oil went with light colors, while lilac went with blue. I never questioned it until I read Alana’s post.

I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained these associations were for me until they were questioned. But recently I was at a graveside service for a friend’s mother, and the sun was hot. Everyone there was properly dressed, but under the canopy set up by the funeral home where we all were standing for the shade, there was a miasma of accumulated light fragrances — sweet citrus and flowery things that one spritzes on in the summer. For a moment, I was scandalized. This was, after all, a funeral. But, what did I expect? Incense. Damask rose. At the most, lavender. (Now, I myself was wearing essential oils, rose geranium, to be exact, but that was as a form of insect repellent, and, further, it worked. Or perhaps there were no bugs.)

That’s when it occurred to me that probably nobody else thought this way. Men and women who took the time to wear proper suits and sleek black dresses would not deliberately do anything untoward when they went to apply scent. To the best of my knowledge, no one had judged me for what I wore.  It would scandalize no one if I were to have applied, even, Baby Love, Wind Song, or anything that Avon sells in a sculpted glass bottle. Why was I judging them? Where did this idea come from? That is, indeed, essay fodder.

Help yourself to my prompt. What thing occurs to you that is other than normative, that mixes senses, that conflates unusual objects, and, more importantly, why? It is a point of demarcation, both in our own lives and in the lives of those whom we invent, when we realize and then question something we have always thought of as fact.


Writing Prompt — Jump Rope Songs

As a requirement for my MFA program, I gave a lesson on how to research your own past. I wrote out writing prompts on index cards and encouraged people to take them with them. Instead, they took pictures with their cell phones, and asked me to put the prompts here on my web site. I will do so, but at the rate of one per week.

Something that happened in another part of my life, the part where I am a substitute teacher, recently brought one of these prompts to mind and motivated me to get moving with posting them.

Here’s the story:

We were at recess when one of the second grade boys ran up to me, breathless, in what looked like a panic. I was afraid that someone had been hurt.

The boy said, urgently: “Mrs. Lardas! Mrs. Lardas! We need you to [unintelligible]!”
Me: “What?”
He: “We need you to [unintelligible] Strawberry Shortcake!”
Me, perplexed: “What? I cannot make sense of the words you’re using.”
He, almost frantically: “We need you to help us play Strawberry Shortcake!”
Me: “How do I do that? And, why?”
He: “Strawberry Shortcake! You know, you hold the end of the jump rope and say, ‘Strawberry Shortcake with a cherry onna top, how many girlfriends do you got?’ while a guy jumps rope in the middle, and you count while he jumps, until the rope hits his foot, and then that’s how many girlfriends he’s got. But Mrs. Lardas! None of us are tall enough to put the rope over [Name]’s head! We NEED you!”
Which is how I came to hold one end of the jump rope today for the boys at recess.

What this brought to mind was this:

In my day, it went:

“Ice cream soda with a cherry on the top!
Pop the initials of your sweetheart!
Capital A, Bee-ee,
C, Dee-ee […..]”

Only girls were allowed to jump rope, and for a few years there only boys were allowed to play ball.

The writing prompt has two parts. The first is this:
What songs or rhymes did you use as a child at recess?

This could bring up jump rope songs, ways of counting people out (“One potato, two potato…”), singing games, general games played at recess, etc.
Write down what you remember, and use a lot of detail, beyond the words of the songs themselves. Capture the feeling of the sun on your face or of your nose growing cold and moist, how you felt about the school and your classmates, etc.

Then, think of fallout or consequences of one of those songs. For example, in high school, there were two boys whom I liked and who liked me. I couldn’t eat my dessert one day at lunch, and they both finished their own and wanted mine when I offered it to the others at our table, so I used my elementary school’s version of “Eenie, meanie, miney, moo,” which ended with “And you are out, o-u-t-out,” to choose.
This wasn’t how their school ended the song, and one of the boys accused me of doing it to manipulate things so the other one got my cake.

I remember feeling unjustly accused, I remember realizing that it must reflect how he felt at not being the one.
I could write it from several different angles — the tension of the choosing and the reaction of each boys, the memory of high school lunches at Commonwealth, the deeper memory of my early childhood and how I felt more comfortable remembering it at school than at home…..

What I should do is write something, and see what comes of it.

And you should, too. Think back on the games you played, the songs you sang for school performances and for games at recess, the ways in which you chose teams and what it felt like to be chosen, what it felt like not to be chosen, what it felt like to have to choose.

And if your memories come out too philosophical or wordy, ask yourself the question I learned to ask of every packet that I sent to my mentor — is there anything, in those pages, that you can smell? If not, go back and be more concrete.

Happy writing!