Not What You Think It Means — A Writing Prompt

So many languages to choose from!

Professor Irina Lynch of the Wellesley College Russian Department was one of the pioneers of machine translation, something we now call artificial intelligence. She told our class how they tested the success of a translation by running a phrase through, English to Russian, and then running the Russian phrase back, to see how close or far it was from the original. Sometimes the results were good. Sometimes they were bad. Sometimes they were hilarious.

Her group used English aphorisms and Bible verses. They tried “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It came back, “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.”

They tried again, with “Out of sight, out of mind.” The result? “Blind idiot.”

I have sometimes been surprised, while workshopping a piece I’ve written, but the way it was perceived. “Wow, that’s really catty,” they said of a heartfelt poem about why I hadn’t contacted friends in a while. “That’s really funny,” they said of another work which was about something I thought tragic.

It can be entertaining and even useful to see how your writing comes across in translation. Take something short that you’ve written, use Google Translate or the program of your choice, and then translate it back into English.

I tried this with Shakespeare. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I turned it into Mongolian: “Би чамайг зуны өдөртэй зүйрлэх үү?” And I flipped it back into English. “Can I compare you to a summer day?”

The translation is technically accurate, but the nuance has changed.

Writing Prompt: Translate a piece you wrote into another language.

Translate it back into the language in which you wrote it.

Ponder the differences. Is the translation more direct? Does it lose something you loved?

You might try rewriting the piece using the tone of the translation, just to see what it would be like.

For an added twist, compare the translation into two or more languages. How does the Italian differ from the German? What if you translate it into a language that doesn’t use articles?

Enjoy!

Snow Day! A Writing Prompt

Looking Out from My Nice Warm Living Room, photo by the author

When I was a student, we listened to the radio for Jess Cain on WHDH to call no school for Boston, as part of a long list of public, private, and parochial schools who cancelled classes for the day. (The S’s were long, because of all the saints.) Snow days meant shoveling snow first and then playing in it. Other times when school was cancelled, as for the Teacher’s Strike, my parents created assignments for us, forcing my younger brother and me to learn a song in Spanish from an album they checked out from the Boston Public Library. My high school cancelled classes for only ten days during the Great Blizzard of ’78, and then only because the T, Boston’s subway system, was not running. When the trains were running again we were back in class.

We had one snow day when I was at Wellesley. I was supposed to meet with a visiting professor, the ever-memorable Dimitri Obolensky who I only later learned was also a prince and, later, a knight. I was taking two classes, through the Religion Department; “The Making of Eastern Europe, 800 – 1100 AD” and a three hundred level course, “The Mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.” The meeting was to discuss my paper on the Bogomils. But the snow changed all that.

We had a beautiful, empty day in front of us. I was one of 54 freshmen in Shafer Hall, and we were something of a giddy pack. about to run in five directions. Some students were going to go “traying,” sliding down the hill near Severance. Others were gathering in the rec room with its orange couch to watch television. Some were gathering in the more formal living room, with its good couches, framed paintings, and shelves of books. A group of Hawaiians were going to build their first snowman. I was contemplating having Constant Comment Tea and reading something non-academic, and both thoughts were delicious.

However, I was thwarted. Boston, where my family lived, of course cancelled school. The town of Stoughton, where my father taught high school English, had also cancelled. Dad called to make sure that the dorm had electricity and food — I am pretty sure he would have brought me home otherwise, storm or no. I assured him that I was fine and told him that I guess that means I wouldn’t be meeting with my professor.

Dad exploded. He knew that Professor Obolensky had translated the much beloved “Penguin Book of Russian Verse” which both he and I had both worn out with much reading, and that the professor was visiting from Oxford. “That man,” Dad said, “is a professional. He will not care how much snow there is. He will find a way to get there and you had jolly well better be waiting there when he comes!”

I doubted it, but I knew my father was serious. I grabbed my research materials and bundled up and trudged to the Religion Department, which was empty. But there were cups and tea bags and a means of heating water. I took off my snowy clothes and boots and made a cup of tea, settling into a couch in my stocking feet, when the doorway was blocked by a tall, snowy being. Professor Obolensky had somehow borrowed a pair of snowshoes from another professor, because our meeting was that important to him. He was dressed, as Russians are, appropriately for the weather, with a huge hat, a muffler, gloves, and an appropriate overcoat, all covered with snow. “I am rather proud,” he said, “that I only fell three times.”

I jumped to attention, offered him tea, and scrambled to put my thoughts in order. Later I did write the paper. It turns out that the best book on the Bogomils was written by Prof. Obolensky himself, which made quoting him problematic. Do I write, “As Obolensky writes,” as I would of any other author? That seemed presumptuous. Do I write “As you write?” That would be brown nosing. After much tea, prayer, and thought, I wrote, “As one author puts it,” and put the name of the author and the book in the footnotes. Professor Obolensky returned my paper to me with a good grade and a wry smile.

I got married, had children, moved to Texas, and had more children, and no snow days, although a few days were lost to the after-effect of hurricanes. By then we watched the television for storm coverage, so there was no waiting by the radio. But when we moved to Boston, my children were thrilled with three new discoveries: delayed openings, Jewish holidays off from school, and snow days. I didn’t need to listen to the radio or watch the names of school districts scroll across the television screen. I could lie in bed and listen to the cheers or moans from upstairs.

Then I became a substitute teacher, and I listened to Jerry Kristafer on WELI and then Tony Reno on WICC with the keen interest that I had in Jess Cain’s list. Whatever children were home and I shouted when “Stratford” was read from the list, whether for delayed opening or no school at all. There is no age at which it is not wonderful to be given the unexpected boon of a free day. When everyone was finally launched and we moved to Ohio, I thought those days were behind me.

However, I was supposed to have an operation for cataracts on Thursday, and I spent most of Wednesday going through the pre-op physical, blood work, etc. that surgery entails. I understand that the operation is for the best, that it is a blessing that we live in a place where I can have it done, and that I will be so much happier after it is over. But that is then, and this is now. Now I just try not to think of Locutus of Borg.

But as I drove around from the hospital to the pharmacy to the gas station to the grocery store, signs on the road warned of bad storms ahead. The radio announced that the Governor asked everyone to stay off the road tomorrow. It rained Wednesday. It is supposed to snow, extensively, on Thursday, melt a little on Friday and then re-freeze. Good weather for reading at home.

I had my phone’s ringer off and I try not to check it when I drive. When I got home and looked at the phone, I had a message — surgery is postponed because of the weather. Internally, I did the Happy Snow Day Dance. Externally, I made supper. But I smiled while making it.

Thursday I get to sleep in, eat breakfast, wash my hair, get water in my eyes, and, yes, help dig out the cars. The surgery will be rescheduled and then I will enjoy the benefits that come from no longer having cloudy vision. But I can hear the rain outside my window getting ready to transition. The thermostat is dropping. By the time the sun is up, I can sit inside and watch the flakes fall out there, where I will not be. It is a huge inconvenience and a big disruption. But it is a glorious boon.

Writing Prompt: Write about a snow day in your past. You could write a poem, like “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, set in a time when the snow plows were pulled by oxen. You could write prose for children, like “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Use detail. What did you wear in the snow? Mittens or gloves? Or unmatched socks on your hands, because you had no gloves? Were you allowed to frolic or forced to stay inside — or did you have to shovel?

Did you shovel for money? What did you do when you came in? Did you miss school or were you glad for one day of respite?

Use details, colors, textures, smells.

If you have never seen snow, you could write about what you imagine doing.

Writing Prompt — Love Something Enough to Do It Badly

At one point my life as a substitute teacher and my life as a grad student in an MFA program intertwined. I had taken amazing classes with Kim Dana Kupperman, who showed us a variety of structures for essays, and with Bill Patrick, whose writing prompts took us so far away from the usual that I found myself writing about things that I hadn’t known had bothered me. In imitation, I tried to use daily teaching events and objects as a prompt. Some of them worked. Others gave me great stories to use to console young authors some day. The periodic table of elements exercise was the latter.

I had double majored in English and Russian at Wellesley, and got my teaching certification in high school English, but Massachusetts changed the rules after I was certified for life and required teachers to get a Master’s in Education. Even if I hadn’t had four school aged children, I could not have managed taking classes, being a clergyman’s wife, and keeping up with my own writing. But I became a substitute teacher when our youngest started middle school, searching for a grade level that would make me want to take education classes once more. Special needs pre-school? First grade? Third? Wonderful children, but no. Middle school? High school? My husband took Alternative Certification courses and I read his materials. No. I couldn’t do it.

I thought I would substitute for English, but the dirty secret is that very few English teachers leave good sub plans. Some teachers are so good at what they do that they don’t have to think about it. Having to explain it to someone else was just too much on top of the illness or event that took them out of school for the day. Others didn’t mind if their students had a day off, without considering the consequences of a room full of teenagers whose work and behavior will not be graded. If you throw in an outdated seating chart and attendance list, you have anonymous bad behavior with a ripple effect. What is a good sub plan? On the occasion when I have subbed for a former Teacher of the Year, I have had good instructions, a seating chart with names and, in later years, photos; a copy of the assignment with answers; a list of students who are helpful and students who cannot be together; phone extensions for the guidance counselor and favorite people of students with anxiety or special needs who may want a familiar face. There is also a list of who can disobey certain rules (“X may leave without a pass. Y may go to the nurse at any time.”)

There were some people for whom I substituted cheerfully. Good English teachers left me a copy of the book and the assignment, an answer key, and a place to leave the collected papers. The teachers who made my private “never again” list had instructions that said, “The students will continue to work on t heir Hamlet papers that are due Monday,” because that statement never turned out to be true, and the ones who made the list I shared with the secretary at the front desk (who changed assignments at the last minute as needed and to whom I tried not to say no) were those who have the students an assignment on Google Classroom that a) did not need to be completed that day and b) that I couldn’t even see.

I found myself gravitating to the Science Department at one high school because both the department head and the teachers were so dedicated to making sure their students didn’t miss a day of learning just because the teacher was out. The department head always came in, made sure there were enough books, that there was paper, there were pencils, the assignment was appropriate, that I had an answer key, and he collected the completed work and asked to be debriefed at the end of the day. God bless him. He was also someone who took notes for the teacher and the appropriate administrators if I told him a student had a bad day (one had seen bodies removed from a burnt building on his way to school) or were having or causing problems. I learned so much science that I joke about going on Jeopardy as a retirement plan.

The day of the Periodic Table experiment, I had been thinking about time and contrast. I had read Natalia Ginzburg‘s essay, “He and I,” and I thought about my husband and me. I decided I would contrast us by comparing what element of the periodic table represented our age at key events in our life together — when we first met, our first date, our marriages and moves and the birth of our children, etc. I decided I would be mysterious, and not give our actual age, but make the reader look up the element to find the answer. I started out with when we met.

When we met, I was chlorine
and you were iron.
I was pure but anemic,
and you
were all I needed.

Reader, there were more verses. And they were worse.

But I filled a notebook later with stray notes and images that were better than these, that sprung from my dissatisfaction with these. And I learned the value of bad writing. It’s like the water you run through the faucet in an older home to clear the pipes before you get to the water that you can actually drink.

I have since had many more opportunities to write badly. Covid has inspired me.

I sip my coffee
but taste only bitterness.
This
is how people die.

I have been taking classes in things that are enormously difficult for me, lately, both professionally and to become a better choir singer and conductor. I am learning about liturgics and musical intervals, design and marketing, Library of Congress data and online newsletters. My fingers know how to type what I am thinking, and my brain automatically punctuates words and phrases as they flow, but all this else is new and hard. In college I almost never took a class that wasn’t in something in which I had some talent. A friend accused me of taking classes only from people whom I loved. Well, of course! Life is short, college is shorter, and even with getting permission to take five classes some semesters and auditing a sixth others, four years of college means no more than twenty classes at your disposal. Filter out the requirements and the prerequisites, and you only get a fistful of opportunities to learn about the things that give you strength and joy. But now I need to learn the things I can’t pick up intuitively. I cried to my husband about how bad I was at this. “Annie,” he said, “you will never get better unless you can accept being bad first. When you were born, could you walk? No, and you fell a lot while learning! Did you learn how to read without making mistakes? This is like that.”

My class dean, Pamela Daniels, herself an author, taught her writing students the concept of “the box” where you store the parts of a story or book that don’t fit this situation. Those words are not lost; they just are not right for this project. That made editing easier for some. Author Diana Giovinazzo wrote a powerful essay on how writing about her grief at the death of her friend changed the writing she planned to do, but the bad prose had good consequences. She found some solace, and the ideas she visited showed up in her unrelated prose.

“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent. You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period. It may very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You may be ready to move into your good period and your excellent period. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”

—Ray Bradbury

So, be bad first. Write bad poetry. Create esoteric essays that go on for too many pages. Forge underdeveloped characters in anachronistic situations. Write too much. Write with too much detail. Write without giving the reader enough to follow. Write with pathos, with malice, with hunger, and with love. And then, set it aside for a little. You might want to edit it. You might want to set it on fire and dance around it howling. Or you might use erasure to find the heart of the matter.

And find someone who loves you or your writing (Venn diagram that has a beautiful middle) to give you some feedback.

Once, in college, I wrote seventeen stanzas of poetry because there were three lines that I really loved, but I didn’t think they were strong enough to stand alone. I showed them to Arthur Gold, the department chair at the time, who would read my work closely and with respect when I still felt inchoate. He chomped on his pipe and said, through half his teeth, “These three lines are good. Put them in the middle of a page and give it a title.” And I won an honorable mention in a contest with them.

But if I hadn’t, I would still remember that he taught me to trust that the three lines were good, and didn’t need sixteen stanzas of insulation.

Writing Prompt: Go write something badly. Start with a topic that doesn’t mean anything to you, and from there, and from that, learn what it is you need to write.

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?