Writing Prompt: Only Part of the Story …

IT WAS THE DAY BEFORE my father’s last Father’s Day. As was our custom, we were hanging out at Barnes and Noble, and my father told me to go pick out a book. Which I did. Then he inscribed it:

If tomorrow were Pal’s Day, instead of another tired Father’s Day, you’d get the flower for being the BEST PAL of ALL, signed, Daddy.

This sentiment may or may not have been accurate. But, at any rate, it was certainly only part of the story.

Another part of the story is this: My relationship with my father was like dancing with a lion in a cage. In this dance, a father-daughter two-step, I struggled to assert my own strength, while he unfailingly maintained the whip hand. Not, by the way, that this seemed much different to me than his other relationships—with his wives (all four of them), his other kids, his stepkids, his siblings, his colleagues.

A professor of philosophy, my father had little of the equilibrium, the perspective, the tolerance of his fellow human being you might expect of a person who has spent a lifetime studying higher thought.

Instead, he was often slashingly critical. Even vicious. Sometimes, even violent. And he was not to be questioned. For instance, once, when I asked if he had ever hit my then-adolescent stepbrother, my father rose up roaring and ordered me out of his house.

And he never really mellowed.

For my part, over the years, I alternately challenged my father and tried to appease the beast that lived inside him. For his part, he backed, against all comers, that beast—a beast that, to the end, was never done roaring.

Of course, this, too, is only part of the story.

WRITING PROMPT
Set aside thirty minutes of journaling time. Allow your writing to reflect on a less-than-perfect relationship—perhaps with your own father or a father figure. What power struggles occur within the relationship? What role do you play in that dynamic? Can you give concrete examples to illustrate the struggle?

Next, consider what might happen if you were to challenge the power dynamic, even gently—by asking a question, for instance, or changing your own behavior in some small way. Play out that potential shift by writing a scene about it.

If this personal approach cuts too close to the bone, write about a fictional character, instead, and spend some pages examining their relationship with their father.

This post was inspired by the Strength card of the tarot deck, which can refer both to our use of our personal power and to the taming of various instinctual aspects of our personality. Strength is a neutral attribute: Awareness, intention, and mastery of self all help us to use our strength wisely.

In this version of Strength, from LeGrande Circus & Sideshow Tarot, the lion tamer seems to have met her match. It’s up to the viewer to imagine how this dance will end. (Image used by kind permission of U.S. Games Systems.)

Congratulations Station

Congratulations to artist REBECCA SCHOENECKER on the publication of her stunningly beautiful, four-years-in-the-making CREATURES OF THE MOON: A Storytelling Oracle. This oracle deck’s 32 full-color cards, featuring both animal-totem guidance and moon-cycle guidance, is accompanied by a 308-page companion book, which includes original, fairy-tale-like stories for each image. I am so proud to have been project coach and first editor on this fascinating new oracle. May the Creatures be with you, Rebecca!

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A big shout out, too, to CINDY KNOEBEL, whose (brilliant!) short humor piece “THE GREAT METAPHOR” was included in the spring 2017 issue of online literary magazine PHREN-Z. (Click HERE to read the entire piece.) Cindy is currently seeking representation for her first novel, a high-stakes, high-spirited Wall Street romp (complete with dismembered Barbie dolls and attempted murder).

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Woo-hoo! Just one year old, South Florida magazine CYCLING QUARTERLY (which I am pleased as punch to edit!) is a finalist for two of FLORIDA MAGAZINE ASSOCIATION’S Charlie Awards—one for Best Advertisement: Self-Promotional (congrats, to CQ publisher MICHAEL GALE and to GARY DAVIDSON and BRUCE BORICH), and another for Best Writing: Column (yay, MARIAH REED!). If you’re a South Florida cyclist, grab the latest issue free from most SoFla bike shops.

 

Writing Prompt: A Horse to Water

SOMETIMES, A CHARACTER NEEDS A SWIFT KICK in the “but” to get going. Maybe he wants to quit his soul-sucking corporate job and study journalism, but the golden handcuffs of his benefits hold him back. Or maybe she wants to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, but her family’s conservative values give her pause.

A main character who hears—but ignores—the call of their story is known as a “reluctant hero.” Their motto? “I know I should, but …” Whatever their road to adventure, they’ll find a “but” to avoid it. When you have a character like that to manage, Dear Writer, you just have to take matters into your own hands.

WRITING PROMPT
Find a reluctant hero. Perhaps you have one waiting in the wings! Give them a concrete goal (to adopt a child? run a marathon? start a cat rescue?)—but not enough motivation to act on it.

Now, write a scene in which they demonstrate (and justify) their reluctance.

It’s late. Jenna passes the feral cat colony on her way to the mailbox. Wary eyes shine out at her from the bushes. Recently, she has noticed the cats seem thinner. She would love to help, she really would, but … There are so many animals in need, so many cats, and she’s just one person. Exhausted by the mere thought of yet another responsibility—on top of the kids, the overtime, the house that needs painted—Jenna grabs her mail and heads back, making sure not to glance at the bushes.

Next, create circumstances that kick your hero right in their “but.”

Jenna’s foot clunks against something. A plastic bowl. She picks it up and sees it’s filled with kibble. Someone must be feeding the cats, she thinks, relieved. And then she smells it. A chemically, garlicky odor. Stepping under the streetlight, she looks again. The kibble has been sprinkled with white powder. Rat poison, unless she misses her guess. And with that, Jenna feels the soft, heavy weight of the lives of dozens of cats descend upon her shoulders. Like it or not, it seems it’s up to her to save them.

THE PRECIOUS CHILD: Like Jenna, even the most reluctant of heroes is likely to jump into action if something they value—something that can’t fight back—is threatened. The literary term for that “something” is “precious child.” This might be an actual child, or it might be an adult whose spiritual or political beliefs make them vulnerable. It could also be a family home under risk of foreclosure, an imperiled natural environment, or a member of an endangered species, to name just a few possibilities.

As writers, we manipulate our characters however we must to get them fully committed to their story—even if that means putting out a bowl of fictional poison or dropping a lit cigarette in the dry brush at the edge of a fictional old-growth forest. But once they’re committed? We can only hope our heroes outgrow their reluctance and learn to meet the challenges of their story head on!

This post was inspired by The Chariot card of the tarot, which advises us to focus on our goals and harness our will to achieve them. In this version of The Chariot (cleverly combined with the Seven of Spades/Swords), from THE ILLUMINATED TAROT, by Caitlin Keegan, published by Penguin Random House, two horses, representing the “horsepower” of focused will, have left the confines and comforts of the barn and are joining dynamic forces to achieve new aims. (Image used by kind permission of Caitlin Keegan.)

Congratulations Station

Very heARTy congrats to two artist pals …

PAULA JEFFERY on her recently published collection of dog portraits, DOG DAYS: The Art of the Dog, available on Amazon, and JADE HERRIMAN on being tapped to illustrate the upcoming personal style book DEAR CONFIDENCE, now funding on Kickstarter. (P.S. The bonus waiting for you at the bottom of Jade’s home page, her free journaling ebook, contains 25 fresh ways to get your thoughts and feelings on the page!)

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Kudos, too, to SHARON SPANO, PHD, on the completion of her new book, THE PURSUIT OF TIME AND MONEY, which can now be pre-ordered on Amazon.

The (New) Illuminated Tarot

THE ILLUMINATED TAROT is a tarot deck that’s been created using just the 52 cards of a standard playing card deck (plus a 53rd card for The Fool), rather than the 78 cards that usually comprise a tarot. I’m not a playing-card reader, but I am an avid tarot reader, so I wasn’t sure how the deck would work for me. But the imagery in this tarot/playing card deck is so gorgeous—and the price so reasonable—that I was happy to take a chance on it just to see the images up close and personal. And they fulfill their on-line promise beautifully, in hand.

Bright, graphic, and personality-filled, the cards are a joy to look at. I assumed they would be standard playing card size, but in fact they are oversized cards. At 5″ high by 3.5″ wide, their proportions are closer to playing cards than to a relatively longer, narrower standard tarot. Their generous size allows the viewer to see all the details of the artwork (which is a particular pleasure for someone with aging eyes).

So, how does deck creator/artist Caitlin Keegan get a 78-card tarot into 53 cards? Very cleverly! First, she eliminated the four Knights, leaving her court cards as Jack (Page), Queen, and King. But all the other cards are there! Really! By finding some very sharp connections between the Majors and the Minors, she makes 21 of the cards to do double duty. For instance, the Ace of Wands is also Strength: That card illustration (did I mention clever?) shows a lion holding a wand in its mouth.

Some of the connections work better—that is to say, more immediately—for me than others, but all of them make me think, most bring a smile of recognition and understanding, and one, Seven of Swords/Chariot, brought tears to my eyes. (Not sure why. I do have thing for horses, though.) I won’t list any of the other pairings, as it would spoil the fun of discovering them for yourself.

Not that you’re left to decipher the “translations” on your own! Keegan provides a beautifully designed, full-color “little white book,” which reveals where the doubles appear. Her card meanings (key words, only) do not adhere strictly to standard Rider-Waite-Smith meanings, but stray a bit here and there, perhaps toward Crowley, maybe toward playing-card divination. However, although I’m neither a Crowley-style reader nor a playing-card reader, I found the images expressed themselves clearly to me. (Still, the combining of images and meanings make this a deck best suited for experienced readers.)

I did a quick four-card reading for a friend, to test drive the deck, and WOW! It really delivered! So smart, so spot on, and so easy to interpret. I was surprised and impressed! And, like every deck worth its salt, it gave me new insights about the cards drawn.

Like the playing cards their graphic vibe borrows from, many of the cards are mirror-image reversible. And the suits are Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, and Spades, rather than tarot’s Wands, Coins, Cups, and Swords.

Produced by Potter Style, an imprint of the Crown Publishing group, the beautifully designed deck and book are housed together in a useful, equally well designed hard-shell box that hinges on the left side. A ribbon lies across the well for the cards, which facilitates removing the cards easily.

My only disappointment is the card stock. It’s too “paper-y” for my taste, feeling a lot like cardboard, rather than playing-card or tarot stock. However, I’ve riffle-shuffled the cards pretty thoroughly, and they held up just fine … so far. But for sure I’m going to purchase another copy. Just in case. And because it rocks.

Writing Prompt: What the Heart Wants . . .

THE HEART WANTS WHAT THE HEART WANTS. It’s true. And the heart is so strong willed (remember, it’s a muscle!) that, even when the mind votes otherwise, the heart often gets its unruly way.

In Patti Smith’s new book, M TRAIN, a collection of dreamy, journal-like essays (which I bought to inspire my own writing practice—and look! it did!), she talks about renting a space in New York City in which to open a cafe, a long-held dream of hers. She was preparing for the necessary renovations, but, Smith writes,

In the end I was obliged to abandon my cafe. Two years before, I had met the musician Fred Sonic Smith in Detroit. It was an unexpected encounter that slowly altered the course of my life. My yearning for him permeated everything…. We endured a parallel existence, shuttling back and forth between New York and Detroit, brief rendezvous that always ended in wrenching separation. Just as I was mapping out where to install a sink and coffee machine, Fred implored me to come and live with him in Detroit. Nothing seemed more vital than to join my love…. Saying good-bye to New York City and the aspirations it contained, I packed what was most precious and left all else behind….

We’ve all done it. Abandoned something that held great value for us “just” to satisfy the demands of our heart. Sometimes painful, sometimes wildly fulfilling, these experiences can provide potent creative fuel.

WRITING PROMPT
Remember such a situation from your past (or imagine one for a character) and write about someone reneging on a well-laid plan to follow the call of their heart. Make it a fair fight. Let us know how important the plan was—and how compelling the call. And don’t forget to include the consequences. Because there are always consequences.

This post was inspired by The Lovers card of the tarot deck, which can refer to the need to make a choice between two desirable options. Typically, a Lovers-like decision will be life-changing. Therefore, in such a circumstance, we do well to listen closely to what our heart has to say about the matter—and also to consider the cost of following its lead.

In this version of The Lovers, from The Cat’s Eye Tarot, the big tabby is glancing out the window at a lone, black cat, who is making his nonchalant way across a stone wall. This suggests that the tabby has made a choice between the safety of his domestic life, which he lovingly shares with the other tabby, and the more risky life of freedom the black cat is enjoying. (Image used by kind permission of U.S. Games Systems.)

Congratulations Station

Congratulations to LORI NORMAN on the publication of BEYOND THE DRAWBRIDGE, winner of a Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association.

Norman had always believed it was her calling to become a nun, but bound by rules, expectations of church and family, and her vows, she felt trapped and unable to escape. This inspirational memoir traces Norman’s journey from her entry into the novitiate at the age of eighteen to the eventual reexamination of all she knew and trusted.

Writing Prompt: Better Than 1000 Days

BETTER THAN A THOUSAND DAYS OF DILIGENT STUDY is one day with a great teacher. So says an old Japanese proverb. But you won’t even need a whole day for this exercise! You might, however, want to set aside an hour or two … perhaps with a cup of tea at your side. You’ll also want to gather some supplies: paper, a pen, and something to bookmark passages—highlighter? sticky notes? We’re going old-school, here!

WRITING PROMPT
First, choose your “teacher.” This would be a writer whose style you really admire. Grab several examples of her work—articles, books, essays, stories, poems, depending on her genre—to have at hand. Next, take your time browsing through the pieces you’ve chosen. Be on the lookout for passages (lines? paragraphs? scenes?) that are particularly pleasing to you, and bookmark them in some way.

After you’ve made it through your stack, revisit the passages you’ve marked. Now, grab that pen and a piece of paper and, simply, but with Zen-like attention, copy one (or more) of the passages exactly. This will give you almost a literal feel for the way the author puts together a paragraph (or composes a stanza or delivers a punchline). As you write, notice which parts of the passage give you particular pleasure to copy.

Once you’ve completed your copy-catting, take a few moments to name (in writing—bullet list, anybody?) what you think the writer is doing particularly well in that passage. Then, imagine how you might benefit from (further) developing the skill(s) the author demonstrates there.

FOR EXAMPLE
I picked a passage from the first chapter of Julie Compton’s Rescuing Olivia (used with permission) which I particularly admire.

“Mr. Mayfield?”

[Olivia’s] father looked up over the top of the reading glasses as if he was surprised to see Anders still in the room.

“Did I do something to offend you, sir? Is there a reason you don’t want me to see her?”

The man leaned back into his chair and sighed. “Olivia’s mother and I think that you have done quite enough for her, Andy. I’m sure the two of you have had a hell of a time together—God knows I cringe to think of the details—but it’s time for her to come home and be with family. If she’s lucky, that is.”

For a moment, Anders stood speechless, staring at him and trying to process the meaning of what he’d just said. What he’d just accused him of. If Anders had been a different sort of man, more like Lenny, he would have considered taking a swing at the guy. But if he’d been more like Lenny, he would never have been standing there discussing Olivia with her father. Olivia would never have been in his life.

“Are you saying you think I caused the accident? That it was my fault?”

Her father had turned his attention back to his damn papers, and he answered this time without even looking up. “You were driving the motorcycle, weren’t you?”

As I was copying out this passage (long hand!), I noticed how much I enjoyed the “For a moment …” paragraph. As internal narration, it both adds depth and meaning to the immediacy of the back-and-forth of the dialogue and balances it well. Also, I love the way it takes me winging out of the present of the scene with Olivia’s father into consideration of Lenny, a character I’ve yet to meet, but now am eager to—implying backstory, as it does so.

Not only does Compton’s use of internal narration and back story not slow the forward motion of the scene, but, somehow, she uses them in a way that creates suspense and builds tension. I’d like learn from this piece how to make internal narration do triple-duty in my own work—and tuck it in as seamlessly as Compton does!

UM … AND THEN?
Once I’ve completed this exercise, I trust my inner writer to take what it likes and leave the rest. At times, I find that I assimilate something of an author’s technique into my own work with little further attention. Evidently, in the words of my pal Kathleen (quoting a Zen master!), “The work will teach you how to do it.”

This post was inspired by the Hierophant, the teacher of the tarot deck. The Hierophant, who knows what’s worked in the past, suggests you learn from those who have been successful. In this way, you stand on a sturdy foundation as you prepare to make your own creative mark. Or, as my friend Daily Tarot Girl Kate said about the Hierophant, recently, “There’s something to be said for learning from people who have walked the path before you and using their way of doing things to save yourself time and energy.”

Here, the Hierophant is represented by Hermione, as “The Scholar,” from nasubionna’s Harry Potter Tarot (used with permission). Hermione is a character who studies conventional ways and wisdom—before putting her own brilliant spin on what she’s learned.

Congratulations Station

ELIZABETH SIMS’ recently published CRIMES IN A SECOND LANGUAGE starts when protagonist Elnice Coker and her husband Arthur, retired schoolteachers, move from Indiana to the Hollywood Hills in a last-ditch attempt at novelty and happiness … and then the (fabulous!) wild ride begins! Mystery readers, get on board. You’ll be glad you did!

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KRISTEN SCHEIDER, founder of Wellblends, has a new book out. YOUR LIFE IS MEDICINE: AYURVEDA FOR YOGIS, for which the late Dr. Wayne Dyer was consultant editor, is for anyone seeking a more balanced, healthful life. Check it out!

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SHERRY TURNER’S long-awaited memoir about her time spent care-giving for her beloved mother-in-law, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, titled, LIFE WITH MOLLIE, BUT REALLY IT’S ALL ABOUT ME, is now available.

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LAURA BOLDIN FOURNIER’S first picture book was published late last year. Big congrats, Laura, on AN ORANGUTAN’S NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS and on your profile on Inky Girl!

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Congratulations to DR. KATHLEEN RUDDY, founder and president of the Breast Health and Healing Foundation, on her new, fabulous YouTube channel. Dr. Ruddy is a renowned breast-cancer specialist as well as a budding novelist. (FYI, her channel concerns the former, not the latter!)

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My good pal (and brilliant writer) MARY K SWANSON (nope, no period after the “K”) is in mid-portfolio-site creation. But OMG, even as a WIP, it’s GORGEOUS. Take a look at her Writing Dreamer site.

Writing Prompt: DIY Pleasure-Dome

WHAT DO THE WONDERUL WIZARD OF OZ, PERELANDRA, and JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL have in common?

Their respective authors—L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, and Susanna Clarke—each cooked up an entire world where their characters could play out their dramatic lives.

(For OZ, Baum created a land divided into four segments and separated it from our world with the impassable Deadly Desert. In PERELANDRA, Lewis set a battle between good and evil on a Edenic planet not far from ours. And in JONATHAN STRANGE, Clarke layered a fictional tradition of “English magic” onto a [mostly] historical 18th century England.)

This task—creating a fictional world with rules and people and a past—is called “worldbuilding.” A well-constructed fictional world includes, among other things, a distinctive landscape, a logical infrastructure, and consistent laws—natural, magical (where needed), and legislative.

WRITING PROMPT: Conjure up a city of any sort. Sketch (or bullet point) a megalopolis or an intentional community or, heck, make like Kubla Khan and create yourself a stately pleasure-dome.

Questions like these might help you think through the details:

  • What is the best thing about your city? The worst?
  • What do the folks of your fair city do to earn a wage?
  • Do they live well? Or are they living on the edge?
  • Are they divided into tribes? Factions? Castes?
  • What type of government lays down the law?
  • Has there ever been an insurrection? Should there be?

Got it? Good! Now, get up close and personal with one of your citizens. Establish a goal for him—one your city impedes. For instance: Are ramps obsolete? Put your character in a wheelchair and give him a life-or-death mission (on the other side of town, of course). Is artistic expression illegal? Provide him with an unstoppable creative gift. Is education taboo? Let his hunger for knowledge entice him into a fictional world’s worth of trouble.

Whatever the issue, use it to pit your character’s will against your city’s structure. And write until you discover what happens next.

a7f604a669d5124c563006f046942956This prompt was inspired by The Emperor, tarot’s archetypal worldbuilder, shown here as Caesar, from The Golden Tarot (with permission of U.S. Games Systems). Associated with structure and governance, the tarot Emperor is firmly in charge. A gone-wrong emperor is willful and vengeful. He sacrifices his people’s well-being to satisfy his ego. A healthy emperor may care for the well-being of those in his rule, but, at best, he provides for the good of the many while sacrificing the good of the few.

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