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.

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.

Ekphrasis

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.