Writing prompts are good for stoking the creative fire. They get us closer to the blaze and help write stories we didn’t realize we had inside us. I-Ching for Writers by Sarah Jane Sloane is a book of writing prompts, inspiration, and advice rooted in the I-Ching philosophy; it’s one of my personal favorites. Also the Writer’s Digest has a solid online inventory of brief weekly writing prompts, and this random list I came across assembled by the editors of WordPress offers 365, one for each day of the year. I especially like the prompt entitled “Festivus for the rest of us,” where we are to imagine we’ve just been crowned the “supreme ruler of the universe.”
My self-assigned writing prompt that started a first draft of a short story was a lot simpler than that. While standing in the kitchen, I threw a bread tie inside a book to keep the page. In between scorching my coffee in the microwave and burning toast, I thought about all the objects I’ve stuffed inside of books – nothing too exciting, I know. But then came the prompt: Write about those objects as they were used as bookmarks, use those “bookmarks” as sections to create vignettes, and, because I love fiction, make some stuff up.
Anyone who’s ever written anything knows that first drafts can be shitty. (Anne Lamott dedicated an entire section of Bird by Bird to this reality.) They often look nothing like final drafts, after characters disappear, dialogue, setting, or events change and, well, the whole thing’s been completely rewritten. Who knows, for example, if the criteria I set for my prompt will remain a part of the story once moving into later drafts?
I’ll be adding two vignettes every week over the next four weeks to find out. While trying my best to be objective, I’ll ask developmental questions and address concerns that may be useful to your writing and will hopefully, eventually, get my story closer to the one it wants and needs to be. The first two vignettes are below.
She used rectangles of burlap to wrap it all in and set the tone. The sage bouquets were rustic, multi-textured, and unfinished, like the parts of herself she liked the most, but there was something reassuring in the sound a honey locust pod makes. It reminded her of a baby’s rattle, a handmade one with just a few beans inside, pleasant and comforting. With close to a hundred pods she gathered out front after they’d fallen, she placed about ten as garnish in each arrangement.
Eight months pregnant with their first child, nesting, and worrying a little about her husband’s untimely and too-soon-to-tell-if-it’s-successful business venture, she hand wrote notes, complete instructions on how to burn the sage, why you’d want to, what it means. And she was into it, might even get a bush tattooed on her shoulder once she dropped the load.
Most appreciated the bouquets or had an inkling of decency to tell the lie and spare her feelings. A good call since any transition can be a sensitive time. Who knows what hurt feelings might look like on a very pregnant woman, who’s tired of being pregnant, who lately can’t even relax with a glass or two of wine without someone making an ignorant comment? And god the heat of Southern California’s December, which was peculiarly hot this year. She never envisioned living in a place where seasons lack distinction, where she has to learn to rely more on her instincts to know when things should die, when they should born, when it’s time to plant new, etcetera. Besides, making the bouquets was also a gift to herself, a way of returning to an innate connection to nature things and gifting that wasn’t about money, which came at a good time because her and her husband were out of it.
With at least a dozen pods left, she put some in the vase over the fireplace and then pulled one from where she’d tucked it to keep her page in Ivey’s Snow Child – anything to get her close to winter, even though the gaudy decorations of Christmas were down and New Year’s would soon be done and that baby persevered, hell-bent it seemed on staying in. For the better she decided, because a splintery, ill-mouthed receiver of a bouquet served to remind her that although she felt pretty good about birthing a tiny being into the world, the world, specific people really, could be damn rude and just ungrateful.
Her husband had nothing to say about it other than delivering the message himself. “I’m not burning that in my house!” the splintery one said to his cousin Asia, who then told his brother Mark, who told him. “God it stinks! And who drinks wine when they’re pregnant but drunks…I always knew she was a weird one.”
What she couldn’t figure was why her husband felt compelled to tell her at all. Swallowing it down and choking on it would have been better. Unless, in some way, realized or not, he felt the same about her as his family did. As expected, the more years they spent together the more she saw how much of jerk he could be. But they could figure it out, would have to, because it would be an even harder deal trying to renege on their togetherness after pushing out his baby.
A moth’s corpse:
After he moved out the house, this was the first outing he and his seven year old son had together. They spent the day staring at life-like displays of the Neolithic era. The more he stared while feeling a tinge of superiority, given the strides the human race had made, the more he expected the wildly bearded man and matted-haired woman to move accidentally or toss a jeering, “What are you looking at?” through the glass.
The moth was tucked between plastic and bought from the museum gift shop out of a $0.99 bucket. It wasn’t really a focus of the Neolithic era that he recalled, and wasn’t meant at all to be a bookmark, which is what his son wanted to use it for. He hated the idea of it – his son looking at a dead, monochromatic moth every time he turned a page of a sci-fi adventure with a little boy protagonist, who had to save the planet, again. It was like looking at a shadow to him, a nocturnal and secretive shadow of the butterfly that was unequivocally attached to the butterfly’s life without much of a say. It somehow felt similar to those statues he stared at behind the glass, as if they were the shadows, and to the way those darker parts of himself had stared at his wife when they were married, relentlessly pointing out what he and his family saw as flaws.
But the divorce was final; it was over, and it had only cost him the usual things, like the house he sweated to pay for, a car, half his bank accounts, a few good friends, a little of his pride and some bruising to the ego. Oh, and their daughter – his twelve year old daughter who wouldn’t speak to him now.
“Thanks for the moth, Dad,” the boy told him as he walked towards the front door of the house where they all used to live.
“Ok, but next time I’ll get you something better,” he called after him. “That only cost a dollar.” But as he drove off in the privacy of his car, he had to ask himself: How could he so crudely put a price on death, any size? Who do we think we are?
Pressing questions and thoughts. More of these will arise during the revision process, but here are a couple of questions and thoughts for starters:
1. Physical bookmarks versus digital ones. If the bookmark theme is to stay present, then I want to make sure I use their functions to frame the story the best I can. Physical bookmarks temporarily hold places, create pauses, and visually tell us how far we have to go until we’ve digested all the words cover to cover. Digital bookmarks can do some of that, but they mostly help quickly relocate interesting sites and group these interests together, which could later become really important when revising. This idea could help determine what order the vignettes appear and which threads I strengthen to hold them together.
2. Giant leaps. As it is now, there’s a giant leap in time. In the first vignette, the wife is pregnant with their first child. In the second vignette, the couple has already divorced, there’s a second child, and twelve years have passed, hence the age of the daughter. Without knowing, a reader could assume I was writing about two different families, although I’m not. So what happens during that time? A whole lot should, right? And the vignettes to follow should fill in the time hop.
3. Drawing it clearer. There are some things I could clarify for the reader. I don’t name my characters, and I don’t feel that needs to change (at least not yet) but I would like to see them clearly. The story may not warrant serious detail on this, but I could offer up something: glasses for the father, a baseball cap for the son, brown lipstick that accentuates the mother’s green eyes, a crinkled brow for the angry 12 year old. In the first section, I could also name specifically the type of work the father does – anything that makes them feel more like complete characters.
For the next two sections along with questions and thoughts, check back next week. If you’d like to leave a comment, please do so below.