Mega Shadow Day Creativity Challenge

This afternoon was “Mega Shadow Day” at my school. This is a rather ominous sounding name for a day intended to convince accepted 8th graders to come to the school next year. My principal refers to it as a busman’s holiday as the 8th graders leave their schools to come take classes at ours for the afternoon. But it must work. Year after year, there are 9th graders who tell me that they remember my activity from their Mega Shadow Day the year before.

I am an English teacher with all that that comprises: reading comp, grammar, writing, literary analysis, research methods, but for Mega Shadow Day, I put all that aside and run a little creative writing workshop. I give the girls lollipops, introduce myself, have them introduce themselves, and then provide them with a story starter, telling them that from one sentence, we can create vastly different stories. Then we write for ten minutes. Finally, we share what we’ve come up with so far. It passes the time and is fun, even if some of the girls are a little shy about reading their stories at first.

I ran two sessions today with different 8th graders each time, but the same 9th grade helpers, so I gave two different story starters. See what you can do with one or both of these. Where does it lead you? The only “rule” is that you must start your story with this sentence. Everything that follows is up to you.

  1. I knew I shouldn’t have taken that short cut through the cemetery.
  2. I can’t believe I let Lindsay talk me into taking this short cut.

If you feel inspired, post your story in the comments below or give me a pingback if you post it on your own blog. Happy writing!

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No, No, No

Today was a banner day. I received not one, not two, but three rejections. Rather disheartening, especially for the short story that was only submitted four days ago. Rejection form letters, or as it’s done these days emails, assure us writers that each and every submission is read completely and with care, yet when a nearly 2,700 word story returns so quickly, one cannot help but wonder. And become dejected.

I received two of the rejections while I was still at art school this afternoon, but I kept the news to myself. One rejection was, dare I say it, expected. Each week Rattle publishes a poem based on that week’s news. I sometimes submit but have yet to be published there. Writing on the week’s news is an interesting exercise. The news these days certainly provides much fodder for contemplation and reaction. Yet, writing quickly for a weekly, Friday night deadline is tough. Sometimes, the poem is a bit raw. This week’s poem has promise but was not quite ready–particularly in finding a title. I was not surprised, yet still disappointed.

The second rejection was harder. It was another poem that had originally been written for Rattle’s Poet’s Respond, but this one was a week or so old, and therefore, I have had time to do some revising. I think it is a good poem. But, alas, this site I sent it to, only four days ago has (foolishly, in my opinion) decided it is not for them. This was disheartening for me because I debated with myself at length whether or not to even submit to this market as it is a non-paying market. Usually, I don’t submit to non-paying markets; if I’m not going to be paid for my poetry, I’ll publish it here. Yet, this particular site notes on their “About” page that the editors are volunteers. That swayed my opinion towards giving them a shot.

Then, there was the third rejection, the short story. As I was driving home, my phone chimed that a new message came in, but, of course, I did not look at it. Yet, then once I parked, I called my husband to help me with the packages, and while I waited for him, I succumbed to opening the email. Dismay.

I cannot say that I did not get discouraged. I did. For a fleeting moment, I thought, why do I do it? But that moment passed, and I got back on the horse, as they say. This evening, I did some revising and then sent out three new submissions: the short story, the poem from this week’s Poet’s Respond, and other poems. Back to crossing my fingers and wishing on a star. Send your good thoughts my way, and to my prospective editors!!

And now to a new story…

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Opening Line Challenge

Opening lines. We writers are well aware of the importance of opening lines, and of the few great ones that bandied about, epitomes of the genre:
Dickens, of course: ” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Austen: “It is s a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

I could go on, but I digress from my main purpose. Today is December 1st, and I forgot to put this month’s train pass in my wallet. On the way in to work, I received a courtesy pass, but coming home, I had to pay. So to, I noticed, did many others on the train. So, I said to the conductor as he punched my ticket,

“I think December took many people by surprise today.”

He agreed and went on his busy way, and I was left with what sounds to me like a great opening line.

So I challenge you, my friends, to finish the thought. Using fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or even drama, write a post or a comment starting with “December took many people by surprise today.” (We’ll leave off the “I think” so you can choose your own point of view.) Write in the comments here or on your own blog with a pingback.

I hope many of you will participate. I look forward to reading your works!!!

Rejection

We’ve all heard the stories of writer’s who have saved every rejection slip or have papered their bathroom walls with them. They are the impetus for many to hone their craft, to push themselves forward. For others they are dejection, a reason to drink, a debilitation. For most, I would guess, they are a little of both.

I am a fan of Castle. In “Head Case,” his daughter is rejected from early admission to Stanford. Their exchange goes like this:

Alexis Castle: How do you do it, dad?
Richard Castle: Do what?
Alexis Castle: Well, that letter that you have framed in your office.
Richard Castle: [reminiscently] My first manuscript rejection.
Alexis Castle: Yeah. How can you stand having it there?
Richard Castle: Because it drives me. And I got twenty more of those before Black Pawn ever agreed to publish “In a Hail of Bullets”. That letter… that letter reminds me of what I’ve overcome. Rejection isn’t failure.
Alexis Castle: It sure feels like failure.
Richard Castle: No, failure is giving up. Everybody gets rejected. It’s how you handle it that determines where you’ll end up.
Alexis Castle: My whole life has been about making sure I could get into any college I wanted. What’s it about now?
Richard Castle: Give it time. You’ll figure it out.

(http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0136542/quotes)

One of the reasons I like the show is for scenes like this. Castle, the character, is a writer–yes, he’s a playboy, an amateur detective, a child at times, but he is also a writer. He writes; he procrastinates; he feels pressured by deadlines; plus, he creates; he makes up stories. He can’t help himself. And in this scene, he puts a writer’s spin (okay a published writer’s spin) on rejection.

I want to feel this way when I get those, “Thank you for submission. Unfortunately,…” letters (or as is more and more common these days emails). I want to frame one of those letters and let it drive me. I want to tell the story some day of how I overcame the rejection slips.But, most of the time, I just feel like hitting the delete button or shredding the letter, and crawling under the covers for a while.

I tell myself that art is subjective and I just haven’t found the right reader yet, but the form letters most publishers send out are cold. There is nothing in them to encourage the writer, to validate her craft, or to offer constructive criticism. The writer is left wondering why. And in the solitude of the writer’s room, that wondering can spiral into a maelstrom of doubt.

Of course, it is easy to understand why presses, publishers, literary magazines use the form letter. The field of literary magazines is shrinking, but the pool of prospective writers continues to grow. The small staffs and volunteers are overrun with submissions. Yet, that understanding only holds firm when one is not holding a rejection letter in her hand (or screen).

Over the summer, I entered a number of contests for both poetry and prose. Last week, I received a form letter. Thanks, but no thanks. Then today I received a different kind of rejection. “Although you didn’t win, I enjoyed reading this piece. It was unsettling in a pleasurable way, and the writing was good.” Well, that’s positive, for a rejection. Then the editor went on to express his “one quibble” with the piece that he thought ” it’s kind of ‘cheating’ to introduce a stranger at the end to serve as an observer and to wrap things up.” This quibble did a couple of things for me. The first, knee-jerk, reaction is to think that the reader missed something. That character isn’t introduced just at the end. The second reaction is that at least this editor read the story. I once received a rejection letter that stated, “Honestly, I didn’t read beyond the first page.” How dejecting was that! I’ll take a form letter over such harsh honesty any day. But this editor did read my story. And as I thought about it more, I have decided to go back to the story and beef up that character’s part so that he does not feel like such a stranger when the end rolls around. I have an even clearer sense now of “what the story’s about.” I have hope that this insight will lead to revisions that truly strengthen the piece.

I won’t be re-papering my bathroom any time soon, but I’ll save this rejection email to remind myself that there are editors who care even if they do not choose my piece. The entire email is six sentences, but, like Castle says, it drives me.

The Need to Weed

As I was returning home today, I noticed that my flower bed needs weeding. Even though the impatiens are not doing well, I still don’t want them surrounded by weeds. I need to get out there and pull those green shoots and clovers that distract the eye from the flowers.

Coming inside and sitting down at my desk, I began to reread a short story I wrote a few years ago. I had sent it out to a professional editor for an assessment and was a bit disheartened by the response. I really felt he didn’t get it. The commentary focused on a character I considered minor. And, many of the mark ups were stylistic rather than content based. I had not submitted this to the magazine, but rather for a professional commentary. To direct much of the energy of the marginalia to changing the manuscript to that particular journal’s style guide seemed disingenuous to me, fraudulent even. I thought I was paying for a content assessment, not a comma check. My knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss the review altogether. However, after some time has passed and the initial dejection experienced by the editor’s comments has dissipated, I can more objectively look at the advice given.  I reread the story, and there is some weeding to be done there as well.

“Kill your darlings.” Every writer has heard this advice, but it is hard isn’t it? Sometimes the perfect sentence just doesn’t add anything to the story. I have read advice of creating a file of the darlings you excise for use in some other story, but I find that just doesn’t work. Once they’re dead, they’re dead.

In other creative endeavors, this advice still rings true. Tonight, I was crocheting a blanket–a pattern of my own making–, and I noticed that after a few rows, it was growing wider. I recounted the stitches, and indeed, I had somehow gone from 56 to 59. I tried first to figure if I could adjust the next few rows down again to a happy medium. There will be an outer edge crocheted on at the end to finish the project which could hide this imperfection. But, no. I thought of my mother-in-law and how proficient and precise she was with her crafting. Her works are truly heirlooms to be treasured not only because they came from her hands but also because they are truly works of art.  So, I did what I needed to do and I ripped it out to the point where the mistake happened and started over. I killed my darlings and started over. I weeded out the extra stitches.

Now I am contemplating the same thing with a painting I am working on. The painting, which I blogged about back in March (https://crcreateaday.wordpress.com/2015/03/14/angelic-assistance/), is a copy of the face of Mary during the Annunciation. However, in my version, I think she looks like a character on The Simpsons. Not exactly what I was going for. While I may not exactly “kill this darling,” I think she needs to be put aside for a while until my skills improve. In the meantime, I will sketch and paint other things. My teachers will give me projects and assignments to help me improve. Hopefully, by the time I am ready to go back to Mary, I will be ready to weed out what needs to be gone from the painting in order for Mary to leave The Simpsons and regain her ultimate innocence.

We all need to weed from time to time, in all different areas of our lives. Next week, I will attack the flower beds and then the other creative endeavors. Weeding helps the beautiful flowers grow.

NaNoWriMo

Today on the way home, I began my blog on National Novel Writing Month, and without intending to, I was kind of trashing it. You see I had signed up for NaNoWriMo a few years ago, but, alas, I failed miserably at it. I found that not only wasn’t I magically inspired to write a novel just by signing up, but I also felt stunted in my other writing because I felt I was “cheating” on my novel writing by writing poetry, short stories, or non-fiction. And, of course, stunting one’s writing is NOT the point of NaNoWriMo. What I didn’t do was take advantage of the community of the website. What I did do was let “life” get too much in the way. And, looking at this November, I’m already feeling the load of “life” bearing down. What’s awful about that statement is that much of that “life” is good stuff–birthdays, Thanksgiving, time out with friends–but add to that essays, the end of a marking period, and Parent-Teacher Night, and “life” begins to really fill up. I need to reread my own post “Butt in Chair” and write.

So, what made me reconsider my quasi-negative NaNoWriMo post? My friend Linda posted to Facebook that she has started on her third NaNoWriMo and will keep us posted as to her word counts. Immediately I knew I couldn’t post what I had written. NaNoWriMo works for hundreds (thousands? millions?) of people. And I hadn’t meant knock it as much as it sounded. The tone just wasn’t right. Instead, I’ll applaud Linda’s efforts and redouble my own. Butt in Chair. Time to write. Tomorrow a friend is coming to stay a few days; I’m throwing a dinner party; the house is not clean yet; and, grades are due in a week, but I will find time to write. In fact, I’m doing it right now when I “should” be cleaning. Maybe, just maybe I’ll even sign up for NaNoWriMo again. Quite honestly, the only thing that really irks me about it is the acronym. It’s awful. It slows me down–when I type it; when I speak it, heck; even when I think it! You would think that a group dedicated to writing, to the beauty of language, to word play could come up with a better acronym.

What about you? Will you write that novel this month? Finish your book of poems? Complete a short story that’s been begging for revision? Or maybe this is your month to send things out. Let’s call it NCM—National Creativity Month–and get down to the business of art.