Dueling Pens: Writing Together

MONA AND I WRITE TOGETHER EVERY FEW WEEKS. Well. “Together.” Since she lives in Colorado and I’m in Florida, we meet by phone, pulling prompts from our back pockets and slinging them down the phone line like challenges, then setting a timer, and writing as fast as we can.

Generally, we write three times—never for long. Five minutes, ten at the most. But why write together at all? Because we find working this way freshens our brains. It pushes us to write faster, stretch further, and let ourselves get just a little bit wilder. We loosen up, timed writing by timed writing, until, usually, we both end up with something we like, even if it’s just a few sentences.

Today, we started with Natalie Goldberg’s “I remember” prompt. While I wrote about palmettos and pines and a sweet, young calico cat who followed my friend Mary and me on a meandering walk in the woods, Mona wrote about a recently stolen bike, remembering it as “thistle-colored,” like the favorite Crayola crayon of her youth.

For our second prompt, I texted Mona a photo of an abstract painting. After we wrote, we read to one another, and I learned that while I saw the red-and-black center of the painting as a black box of shame going up in flames, Mona saw it as a poppy. Hmm.

For our final prompt, I read us the poem “How to Listen,” by Major Jackson, from his collection LEAVING SATURN. Because time was short, we wrote for just three minutes.

Mona started from Jackson’s imagery, then left him behind and blazed her own trail:

The crackly stars, gray corkscrew curls pull into the feeling of listening, how we might listen to our loved ones, friends, and neighbors. The Vietnam War. How could we not listen to that crackling sound of guns and whirr of helicopters on the nightly news? How could anyone turn away.

For my part, I made some wild associative leaps:

What?

Did I tell you about my deaf ear?
And my mother’s? And my grandmother’s?
“Is it on purpose?” you ask.
“Maybe. It’s easier that way—to hear less.”

And Winter the cat, with mangled cartilage for ears.
“How is his hearing?” I asked the woman who’d fostered him.
“Selective,” she said.
Which has proved to be right.

But when I tried to explain my own hearing
to the eager girl on the yoga mat beside me,
whom I can never understand,
her words, sentences, ideas, baffling, like moths,
furry in my ears,
she told me, as clearly as anything she’s ever said,
“I’m blind in my right eye.”

Group writing inspiration

In WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, Pat Schneider shares many wonderful writing prompts and offers valuable guidelines to keep writing with others safe and productive.

Natalie Goldberg‘s WRITING DOWN THE BONES and WILD MIND have provided seemingly endless inspiration for myself and the writers I work with, encouraging us to be fresh and free-minded, and to seek the healthy companionship of other writers.

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