Thursday, June 27, 2013

Prompted to Write

Links for Writers
Every middle- and high-school English teacher knows a good writing prompt spurs fluency on the page. Even students who claim they hate to write will produce three paragraphs if the prompt is interesting/inspiring enough. The challenge, of course, is to devise an assignment that makes students reach for their pens or pencils.

Recently, Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the  memoir WILD: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, gave a group of writers some of her favorite prompts. Make no mistake; writers need good prompts as much as the eleven-year-old who insists he hates school and anything that's not skateboarding. Ever spend half the precious hour you scheduled for writing locked in resistance? (Don't wanna write. Can't. Have nothing to say. Who cares what I think?)

Here are a few of Strayed's prompts:

Write about all the secrets that have been kept from you.
Write about a gift that was not well received.
Write about a time when you’d dressed inappropriately for the occasion.
Write about a question you wished you’d asked.
Write about when you knew something was over (or had begun).
Strayed told the writers she met with to respond in their own voice or that of a character. I don't know about you, but I see character turning points in her prompts.
Find more from Strayed in this blog post from Albert Flynn DeSilver:  Albert Flynn DeSilver » Great Writing Prompts. Thank you Cheryl Strayed! Meanwhile, keep the prompts handy for your don't wanna/can't moments
Writer and editor William Zinsser, author of ON WRITING WELL, is losing is vision to glaucoma, but his editing skills remain sharp, so he listens while students read their drafts to him. “People read with their ears, whether they know it or not,” Mr. Zinsser says. I dare you to say don't wanna/can't after you read about Zinsser. (Anna DeStefano pointed me to the article. Thanks!)

The next two links come from a post I did this past Sunday for the Women's Fiction Writers Association. I repeat them here because they deserve attention.

Want to be a better critique partner and focus on big-picture problems rather than grammar? Becca Puglisi shares the questions she uses as a checklist when reading her critique partners' work. (I found this one via Gene Lempp's Writing Resources blog post) 

Writer Elle Cosimano didn't coin the expression "high stakes plotting," but she explains how to do it

Your turn: How do you break through don't wanna/can't moments? 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lemonade and License Plates

Houston enjoyed a long, delicious spring, but the heat of summer has descended, and the kids on my street have set up a slip-and-slide and are busy fashioning a lemonade stand from appliance boxes. The stand will open for business at an upcoming garage sale. I know this because I bounded over to the pint-sized entrepreneurs as soon as I figured out what they were doing. Alas, I noticed a slight standoffishness on their part. Did they think I'd criticize their construction methods? Give them a hard time about blocking my view of a neighbor's bouganvillia? Never! I'd hurried over to advise them to use concentrate instead of the powdered stuff. 

Shoot. I'm that interfering adult. 

Ever have a string of days when you could do or say nothing right? My streak started last Friday and lasted through Tuesday, and, boy, was it a doozy. It started with day job matters and went on to encompass every part of my life. For example, the Daughters came over on Father's Day, and one of them spied my new license plates. (They'd come in the mail and were sitting atop a chest of drawers in the family room. I should have tidied them out of sight but had a streak going, remember?) Older Daughter approved of the new plates, but I disagreed. 

"I like the current plates with the cowboy, the oil rigs, the space shuttle, and the starry sky."

Older Daughter's lip curled. "Those are cliches."

"All states have cliches on their plates. Georgia has a peach, Oklahoma has the Native American headdress."

Older Daughter is pleased I've proved her point. "Exactly."

When comes to license plates, I like cliches. Meanwhile, I regret ever encouraging OD and her sister to "collect" sightings of out-of-state tags while on road trips. I should have made them stick with "I Spy" and "Slug-a-Bug."

It's been almost five years since Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, and some of us (okay, me) in the Houston area have lost our preparedness edge. While we ached for victims of Hurricane Sandy, that storm didn't send water sloshing into our houses and thus didn't prod us into topping up our stash of batteries and canned goods.

After Ike, Older Daughter's house and neighborhood was without power for 17 days. The experience turned her into a survivalist, but even she's grown a bit complacent. 

Show hurricane season some r-e-s-p-e-c-t and check out writer/publisher and former Green Beret Bob Mayer's posts on preparedness. Here's the first: The Green Beret Survival Guide: Ref Tornadoes and Hurricanes | Write on the River And here's the second: The Grab and Go Bag: An Essential Survival Thing You Must Have | Write on the River

If there was a lesson in my can-do-nothing-right streak, I missed it, so I can't say I made lemonade from lemons. I did make lemonade, though. From concentrate. 

What's your view on license-plates? Do you like them plain? Illustrated? Do you have a favorite state plate? 

If you live near the coast, are you ready for hurricane season? 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Nature and Nurture Trump Nitwits

When driving, I mutter and mumble about other drivers' lack of skills and use an antiquated vocabulary particular to people who grew up in a certain place and time. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," pops out of my mouth most often.  "Nitwit," the ultimate insult, is reserved for the person who cuts across four lanes of traffic without signaling.

I prefer to watch televised sports with the sound muted, Why? Some broadcasters are nitwits.

A cardigan sweater is a wardrobe staple.

The quintessential summer cocktail is a gin and tonic. I'd never make one for myself, though, and wouldn't ask my husband to make one for me. The world's best G&T is made by a particular individual. 

The ultimate accolade for a restaurant, cafe, or bar is to call it "a good stop." 

Oatmeal is the perfect breakfast food.

The best family vacations involve water: a lake, a pool, or the Jersey Shore.

When forecasters predict a storm, I make sure I have at least half a tank of gas in my car. If I have less, I drive to the station and fill 'er up. 

The list above shows the influence of my dad, Joe O'Dea. His greatest gift may be that I, deep down, believe I'm his favorite--and my sisters and brother would say the same about themselves. 

Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Time Keeps on Slippin'

"Next time will be different." I make that vow whenever I find myself in a huddle of strangers in front of a painting, sculpture, or piece of history at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Crowds give me the shudders, and I hate the feeling I'm holding up the line when I peer at a brush stroke or stare at portrait that speaks to me. Why oh why do I hit exhibits on their dead-last day or uncomfortably close to it? And why do others do the same?

In late May, on the last evening showing of the Picasso Black and White exhibit at MFAH, I edged around the clumps of headset-wearers who'd stopped dead to listen to the exhibit's audio tour, skirted the couple who couldn't keep their hands off one another, but got stuck in a pack of strangers. When that happens, do I rejoice in Picasso's relevance? Do I give the MFAH props for mounting a popular show? No. I decide I don't like people very much.

Picasso Black and White ran from February 24 until May 27. That three-month window means I could have circled a date in the middle of March, ordered tickets, shown up and had Picasso, Olga, Jacqueline, and Woman Ironing to myself. Was the window too wide? Nope. My focus is too narrow, and I suspect yours is, too.

Every person in that last-Thursday-evening-of-the-exhibit crowd put off their visit until it was almost too late. We delay gratification and turn desired outings into rewards for work completed, tasks finished, chores done. But when is work ever completed? As soon as we finish one chore, another pops up. 

If we can schedule work meetings weeks ahead of time and hold them sacrosanct, surely we can do the same for leisure activities that lift our spirits and help us see differently. A Picasso exhibit may not float your boat, but a concert might. Maybe it's time for you to dance, take a ferry ride, go kayaking, or pick up the guitar that's missed you.

Next time you type an important work assignment or appointment into your phone's calendar, set a play date for yourself. The play date's not a reward or carrot, mind you; it's a scheduled break you get to enjoy whether or not the assignment's going well. (When the assignment's cratering, you really, really need that play date.)

Did you mark a fun activity on your calendar? Good. Now I've got a question: Do crowds energize you or make you cranky?