Writing Challenge: Textuality #5

The radio station I listen to in the mornings (now that my FAVORITE station is off the air, sigh, sadness) has a feature on Wednesdays in which they discuss "things that must go." I love this segment. Even though I believe firmly in the power of kindness, and of trying to be flexible and going with the flow and not being easily annoyed...I get annoyed at stupid things, and it is cheery to hear other peoples' annoyances. (One of the "things that must go" this morning: people using the word "troop" to refer to just one soldier. "Troop" is a collective, not a singular, noun. Yay for people getting snarky over word choice!)

Honestly, this morning? I am annoyed. In my personal journal I wrote a Dennis-Leary-esque entry berating the person who started all this annoyance that is so rude I probably shouldn't save it for posterity to read in the future; I'm thinking about deleting it later today. But it did make me feel a little bit less annoyed. Which brings me to today's writing challenge.

It's good to have a whole bunch of techniques in your writing toolbox. Try writing something in second person, for example, using the "you" as a sort of generic everywoman you're writing about. Start in the middle of the story, or the very end, and then write towards it. You don't always have to go with a traditional structure either. Today, rather than writing in paragraphs, write your response to the topic in a list format.

Here's the thing about writing lists. Sometimes they turn out as, well, lists. Sometimes, though, you get sidetracked on one item, and end up writing a list that morphs into something more focused. That is great, too!

Today's Writing Prompt:
Write a list of things that annoy you. Use the writing time as an excuse to vent—to get all those annoyances out of your brain and away from your creative self. For the ten minutes you're writing, you're excused from all responsibilities such as politeness, or worrying about hurting other people's feelings, or the ramifications of your annoyances. Just get them out!

Here's mine:

  • People who mispronounce the word "library" and say "libery." There are two Rs in there, people!
  • The fact that the word "library," when you say it quickly, sometimes slips out as "libery." How embarrassing that I also, every once in awhile and only very occasionally, just perhaps once a month or so, slip out a "libery." I take solace in the fact that it is an accident and I really do know how to say it correctly.
  • Library patrons who think they are the exception to the rule. "Yes, i know there are 227 people waiting for this book, but *I* am not finished with it yet."
  • The sense of entitlement that seems pervasive in society today.
  • No, "being angry" isn't really on the list of things you are entitled to. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, ok. That's all on the list. Your all-encompassing anger isn't.
  • Nathan's spelling homework, which all year has had the word "you're" on it, in a spot where "your" should be used instead.
  • The fact that every week I've circled that "you're" but his teacher hasn't fixed it. I know, I know, I sound petty don't I? But I think teachers should get it right. I can say that because I was a teacher, and I had literal nightmares about finding typos on my handouts.
  • McDonald's advertising. They have it down to a science, so every day I must argue with my 4-year-old about not having a cheeseburger for lunch. Every day.
  • Kids not closing the bread bag, so the first slice is dried out.
  • The oil spill in the Gulf. OK, that's really more than a personal annoyance. (Honestly, I get so worked up about it that if I think about it too much I get a stomach ache.) But it gets me fired up to think of all that waste, and the filth, and whatever bureaucratic mistake made it happen in the first place.
  • The weather. It's May 5 and 42 degrees, and yesterday it snowed. WTH?
  • My favorite radio station is gone. Replaced with "generation X" style music, which is apparently lots of crap with an occasional only half-way decent song thrown in for good works.
  • My insatiable chocolate urge. Those forty days of Lent aside, it is back with a vengeance. I KNOW I can conquer it. I just don't want to. I'm eating a peppermint patty right now as I write this. After drinking hot chocolate with my breakfast. Which was, at least, toast. Without chocolate on it. (I made toast because someone left the bread bag open and the first slice was dry anyway.)

And I'm really hoping I will still be loved & adored (LOL!) after posting this...Even though I must say: totally liberating!

Writing Challenge: Textuality #4

My husband isn't a fan of blogging. He doesn't really see the draw to it, and if he sees me reading someone's blog he'll say something like "are you checking to see what they had for dinner last night?"

It's a sure way to annoy me.

On the other hand, though, he's partly right: some blogs do  read like a sort of appointment book, a list of what-I-did-today. And while I don't think there's anything wrong with that, I tend to not read them. Instead, I like the blogs that make me think, or laugh, or be surprised, or maybe even get a lump in my throat. In other words, I like writing that makes me feel something.

I like writing with a "so what."

I think scrapbooking journaling especially requires a "so what." It's that thing that makes the writing memorable, that takes it from just a pretty description to a string of words that provokes emotion or thought in the reader. It's also the thing that people struggle with. It's not always obviously apparent when you start writing, what your "so what" will be. And that's OK. Remember, the origin of the word "essay" (and I think that scrapbook journaling is, in effect, a mini personal essay) doesn't have anything to do with proving the symbolic import of Hester's letter A or the metaphoric impact in Eliot's poetry. It comes from the French word for "to try." Writing an essay—even of the mini persuasion that you'll put on your layout—is really about trying. Trying to find a point,  to convey something important, or to figure out what it is you think. You don't always start with the knowledge. Sometimes you find it through the process of writing.

So! For today's prompt, I want you to try. Start with the topic—I kept it vague and short on purpose—and see what you discover about what you think of it. You might have to write for a few minutes, filtering through the obvious choices to something more important. Move toward a specific experience—the event you're describing—and push deeper. So what?

Today's Writing Prompt:
The thing I forgot to do...

Here's mine:

Lately I forget a lot of things. My cell phone is the most-often-forgotten item in my little world. I write a shopping list and then leave it in the car; I leave the house without coupons or the mail I needed to drop off at the post office. Last week I forgot to wash the basketful of undies. I'm not really sure how I forgot them. The basket was right there at the doorway of the laundry room. Being a working mom for awhile has taught me the importance of this truth: you should always have at least two weeks' worth of underwear and socks for every person in your family. That way if you skip a week of laundry, everyone still has enough clean things to get them through.

But I forgot to do the undies basket. And apparently Kendell doesn't have two weeks' worth, because Saturday arrived—the Saturday I had to leave for work—and he was out. No clean undies. The unthinkable happened: he had to be responsible for a load of laundry. And while I could start down the path of "why doesn't he help more often?" I don't want to go there. I mostly don't care that I do most of the laundry. I mostly don't care that my family seems to believe clean laundry appears magically in drawers and closets. Do I do the things I do so that they can tell me thank you? Not really. I do them so that they feel taken care of.

And so they can leave the house in clean clothes.

Of course, one of my personal strengths is self flagellation. I felt a little bit like beating myself up for forgetting to wash that load of clothes. But I didn't. Because I had this little inkling of an idea. Maybe clean laundry notappearing magically might be good for them once in awhile. Not because I want them to walk around feeling inordinate amounts of guilt for the sweat-and-tears effort of laundry. Not because I need to be thanked for hanging up the shrinkables so they don't shrink, or for washing the blacks carefully to minimize fading, or for pairing up all the socks. But so they can not take it for granted. Clean laundry is sort of a synecdoche: a clean pair of jeans is a bit of the person who washed them for you. If they take clean laundry for granted, they take me for granted, and then maybe they forget that, in the end, their clothes are clean because I love them.

And I don't want them to forget that.

Writing Challenge: Textuality #3

Maybe because my sister Becky is moving to a new house, I have been thinking about houses and homes lately. A quote I love about where we live:

Home is a place where you can catch a dream and ride it to the end of the line and back. Where you can watch shadow and light doing a tight little tango on a wooden floor or an intoxicated moon rising through an empty window. Home is a place to become yourself. It’s the right spot, the bright spot, or just the spot where you can land on your feet or recline in a tub of sparkling brew if you’re so inclined. It’s a place of silence where harmony and chaos are shuffled like a deck of cards and it’s your draw. It’s somewhere you can close a door and open your heart. (Theo Pelletier)

and a bit of poem, from Anne Sexton’s "Welcome Morning":

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing

Today’s prompt has to do with houses, obviously! Writing about place is essential, no matter what kind of writing you do. What would a novel be without a setting, a travelogue without a place traveled to, a biography without a description of the house the subject grew up in? Places help to define us, and perhaps our home defines more than anything. Onto the writing!

Today’s Writing Prompt:

Pick a place in your home that has a significance to you. Describe it, but also push past appearance to explain why the spot matters and to illuminate why and how it helps to define you.

Here's mine:

Once I’ve dragged myself out of bed each morning, I walk down the hall and, through the frame of the doorway, look across the front room and out the window to see the type of weather the day might hold. Then I turn and walk into my kitchen, around the table, and to the back door. I stand there and look. Looking starts my day. Sometimes I press my forehead against the glass pane; maybe I am wearing slippers or socks or maybe my feet are bare against the wood floor. The back doors are the French style, made of glass and framed with white that needs, desperately, to be painted; usually they are smudged with children’s fingerprints. Beyond the doors is the back porch, which is sometimes a place of refuge, sometimes a peaceful spot for contemplation. When I am in a sleep-walking span of time, I tend to end up there often in the darkness, muddled with laughter and confusion when I wake. The kitchen behind me is one of my favorite parts of our house, its purple paint, its accumulation of good meals and arguments and laughter and sicknesses and homework at the table, but for the beginning moments, even if just thirty seconds, what matters is the exit of the kitchen, the looking outward.

I take the temperature of the mountain every morning, through the view of my back door. I note the progress of its snows (rising or lowering upon its flanks, depending on the season) and of its scant greenness; I measure the day’s possibilities with the length and breadth of blue (or grey or cloud or white wind) along the peak. I take a deep breath, I draw my gaze downward into my own realm, my oddly-shaped backyard with my family’s marks left on it—sidewalk-chalk portraits, flowers I haven’t deadheaded yet, brilliant green lawn, someone’s flip flop buried in new snow, the neat winter stackings of patio furniture. My own yard full of memories.

This morning looking done at the portal of doors, however short it lasts, helps focus me. It brings the peace of nature into my heart, which gives me courage; it reminds me that our struggles are small compared to the world and also that our small struggles are all we have. All we are, and so are the most important thing, too. It brings me solace when I am discouraged and adds a silver edge when I am joyful. It is inward and outward, all at once.

(I am trying a different linky because the other one didn't seem to be working...hopefully this one will!)

Writing Challenge: Textuality #2

It's grey and dark here today—that temperature of light that makes you turn lights on, even during the day. Sleet, snow, rain, hail, and wind. Driving the carpool this morning in this weather, I found myself daydreaming about our February trip to California. It wasn't hot weather then, but it was definitely warmer than the end of winter in Utah. The air there already smelled like spring.


A fragment of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Questions of Travel" came to mind: "and then a sudden golden silence in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes." Right there, in the car at the stoplight by the McDonald's where eight or ten school buses visit every morning, I decided to change today's writing challenge. First, a recap of the rules:


The writing exercise rules:


1.Write for at least ten minutes.

2.Let the topic be a starting point and see where it takes you—if you veer off in an entirely different direction, that's fabulous!

3.Keep writing. Don't let your fingers stop. If you run out of ideas, simply transcribe the thoughts in your head.

4.NO EDITING! Don't backspace or cross out or stop to look up how to spell a word. You can do that after your writing time is up.

5.If you want to publish what you wrote—on your blog, or on the Textuality website, you can edit. But only AFTER the writing, not during!


Today's writing prompt

Write a vacation memory. It can be from a trip you took last week or one you took seventeen years ago; the time of the experience doesn't matter. Rather than writing a list of what you did on the trip, try to focus on exploring one small moment, some small experience (it can be good or bad) that has stuck in your memory. Write with the goal of getting your reader to feel what you felt.


Here's mine:


As if some great wave had picked us all up and then randomly spread us out on the beach, we are scattered like seashells ourselves as we look for seashells. Kendell is near the pier, with its glimmering shadows and the teal underbelly of waves wrapped around the poles, ostensibly watching the pelicans, which stay always one step ahead of you, but only one, and seem to be tripled: their shadow, their reflection in the thin sheet of water they stand in, and their very bodies—a heavy machinework that seems too bulky for flight.


Really he is talking on his cell phone.


Jacob is racing the waves, trying not to get wet but not caring if he does. Nathan, halfway between his older brother and his dad, probes the sand with his toes. That blonde hair seems to make him the epitome of a California surfer but really, he's probably shivering, even with his sweatshirt. Haley, far down the sand, flips to a different song on her MP3, caught in her individual beach experience, blissed out from being at her favorite place in the world but still annoyed and prickly. Kaleb, who was toppled by a wave when we came to the beach three days ago, has been my shadow, glued to my side, but while I have been looking for everyone else he's gotten braver, wandered ahead of me, and is now almost caught up with Haley.


So I run.

My feet are bare. I'm wearing a swimsuit and a sweatshirt and goosebumps; the wind catches my hair up into Medusa swirls and maybe the light—which is so beautiful, glinting off the waves, bronzing the sand, tripling everything—catches it, too. I run for three minutes, and then for five, past Kaleb, past Haley. Not breathless, my heart barely seeming to pound even though I am sprinting. I'm running as hard and as fast as I can, not for the exercise or the conditioning but just for the sheer joy of running, of freedom, of being alive right at this very second. It is painless, effortless, joyful running, the way I run when I am dreaming, the way I wish running could always be—movement as a translation of joy. I sprint down the sand, everything (children and husband and obligations and sorrow and aches, those awkwardly beautiful pelicans) behind me, everything in front of me (time, distance, water, wind).

Writing Challenge: Textuality #1

On my shelf of favorite books, I have a stack of books about writing. A twelve-books-tall stack. And I am 100% certain of one thing: every single one of them says, it's this: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. Here's Brenda Ueland, for example (whose book, If You Want to Write, is one I think every creatively-minded person should read): "Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first, at least for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you will use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, lighthearted and generous." Or Marge Piercy: "The real writer is one who really writes." Or Natalie Goldberg: " if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot."

If you want to write good journaling you need to practice writing.

This Textuality class (which you can still register for, until the end of Wednesday, if you're so inclined!) was a different sort of class for me to create. My other Big Picture classes are writing classes, built on my belief that everyone can learn how to write good, strong journaling. Part of that belief is knowing that to become a better journaler, you have to practice writing—you have to work at it. Of course, writing is one of my favorite types of work, but still. People who are successful writers don't just pick up a pen (or plunk down in front of their keyboards) and spit out a Pulitzer. They write and they work at it, and somewhere in the process the novel starts to emerge.

In my other Big Picture classes, I included a daily email with a writing prompt, something to get people thinking about what to write that day. The point of writing practice isn't necessarily really good writing. Instead, it is more about playing with language and words and syntax. Practicing description, practicing metaphor, practicing rhythm and pacing and rhetorical techniques. And sometimes, having an assigned topic to write about helps because you can move past the "what should I write about today?" anxiety and lets you get right down to writing.

So! To celebrate and work along with my Textuality class, and because it didn't fit exactly with the scope of Textuality but I still want my students to practice, I'm going to be doing a series of writing challenges/exercises three times a week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I'll post a new writing challenge. I might even work an extra one in on a weekend or two! I'm trying to design them to help you jump right in and start writing. First, though, I have to share this idea, from writer Ander Monson's   book Vanishing Point:

"the pockmarked surface of the I: that’s where all the good stuff is, the fair and foul, that which is rent, that which is whole, that which engages the whole reader. Let us linger there, not rush past it.”

When we journal for our scrapbooks, we're often writing about someone else—our kids if we have them, our pets or spouses or friends. It becomes difficult to write about ourselves, as if it's something we need to apologize for. But I think Ander is right: within the I, within the self, is where the "good stuff" is—the interesting, intriguing stuff. It is OK—good, even—to linger with the I. Plus, there's that assumption that everyone who scrapbooks does it for their kids, which is simply incorrect. Plenty of people who don't have kids scrapbook. So the writing prompts are going to be designed to make you think about you. You could alter them, of course, and write about someone else. But I think if you focus on yourself just for these writings, you'll be surprised at what you discover. There are things we can learn about ourselves, I am convinced, only through the process of writing.

The writing exercise rules:

  1. Write for at least ten minutes.
  2. Let the topic be a starting point and see where it takes you—if you veer off in an entirely different direction, that's fabulous!
  3. Keep writing. Don't let your fingers stop. If you run out of ideas, simply transcribe the thoughts in your head.
  4. NO EDITING! Don't backspace or cross out or stop to look up how to spell a word. You can do that after your writing time is up.
  5. If you want to publish what you wrote—on your blog, or on the Textuality website, you can edit. But only AFTER the writing, not during!

Today's writing prompt:Describe some small moment from the first hour of your day. Rather than listing the the things that happened, try to describe: what you saw, felt, heard, tasted, and/or smelled.

Here's mine:

A rare moment. I woke up feeling bruise-purple. Driving Haley to school this morning felt luxurious, as all the trees on the tree-lined streets have burst open with new leaves. They are tiny and bright green, small daytime stars littered across the blue sky. The street a spring-green arc, an event made of precise timing that sparks a sort of hope in me. She bustled into the school, arms full of her student-council campaign materials and my stomach bunched into anxious nerves for her. She never seems nervous, at least not in my presence, but confident and outgoing. I am happy to feel nervous in her place, and hope she can hold on to her confidence, win or lose.

But the rare moment: at home, I found Kendell was in the shower, and the boys still asleep—even Kaleb. Silence, and a few minutes all to myself before I needed to start the morning rituals. I couldn't decide: crawl back into bed for a few more minutes of sleep? Write? Eat breakfast? Read? I'm not sure if it was really a decision, but I found myself sitting on the front porch with my few minutes of solitude. Just sitting. My little bluebells are blooming in the front flowerbeds and they caught the morning sun, the delicate blossoms beaming that spring color of light. Which is silver, its own unique whiteness, so different from fall's gold-tinged light or winter's blue. Cold seeped in: up through the porch into my hipbones, across my cheek on the wind, down to finger joints. There was that spring fragrance, which here is a very slight floral and the cold smell of mountain snow still deep. Dust, and wet dirt, and damp, chill grass. I imagine somewhere else spring smells differently. I had woken with a feeling in my heart just like the dinosaur in Geisel's My Many Colored Days : On purple days, I'm sad. I groan. I drag my tail. I walk alone. What does it say about me that I have that page memorized? I don't know. But it started as a purple day. Will the light—the stars of new leaves, the glimmer of whiteness through purple flowers—brighten my purple shadows? I don't know. It was time to wake up the boys, but I went into the house a shade more lilac.

That's it! If you blog your entry, leave a link so others will find it, too (just click to add your blog):

Fear of Writing

On the message board for my Gift of Words class, we've been having an interesting discussion about writing, and about how being afraid makes writing hard. I'd written a long post, and then my computer decided to do the wonky thing it's been doing lately (just randomly, at unpredictable moments when I'm online, popping up with that spinning blue O which usually means "just a second" but in this instant means "hope what you were working on wasn't important because it is LONG GONE. Have fun with the Task Manager") and yeah: I lost it all. Which, in a weird way, is good because it prompted this blog post, which I am writing it in WordPerfect (yes, of course: I still use it) and, you know, saving along the way. A post that doesn't answer any of my students' questions, really, but just expounds upon my writing opinions.
A good friend of mine, who recently discovered my blog (as I am not in the habit of just spurting out "hey, did you read my blog today?" because, well, I don't want to seem bloggily desperate), asked me how long it takes me to write my entries. Some things I am able to get down fairly quickly, but most of my entries take quite a while. The writing goes something like this: I write a sentence, and then my internal editor (IE: you know, the voice that criticizes whatever creative endeavor you're attempting) pipes up. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard, he says, or could you be more obvious/redundant/boring/mawkish/inelegant? So I backspace, and rewrite the sentence, and get a few words into the next, and IE pipes up again. Wow. All those years of education have really paid off for you, because I'm certain that idea couldn't be less obvious. On it goes, backspacing and rewriting and trying to ignore the IE, who is just as insistent: that might offend someone, you can't say that because what if your mom reads it!, what a dumb idea, no wonder you've got a pile of rejection letters.
Probably your IE says something completely different than mine. The specifics aren't important. (Like, right now my IE is saying Amy! Why are you writing this? You are a writing nobody. Why would YOU try to write about writing? Who would want to read what you have to say?) The important thing is trying to get past the IE to write the thing you want to write. Only, how do you do that? Here is what I know: All that the IE does is mimic back your own creative fears. When we do creative stuff, it is a mixed blessing. That happiness of finishing something, of having written, spiked through with the hard work of the task and the fulfilled fear: not quite good enough. Fear of failure gives your IE sarcasm and venom and piercing comments, because they are your comments, built on your fears. Fear of the Grammar Police. Fear of failing. Fear that this time, there won't be any words. Fear that whatever iota of talent you think you might posses isn't really talent but empty conceit. Fear that you'll say the wrong thing in the wrong way: offend someone, hurt someone, or, maybe the worst: sound cheesy.
How you grapple with your IE is to write anyway. It is just, it is just like doing a back flip on the balance beam. You stand there with only leather and wood as your support—4 inches of width 4 feet from the ground, and hello: you're in a leotard! practically naked! And you take a deep breath, you wiggle a bit until your toes and your heels are in the exactly correct position, and then despite the voice screaming don't do this, are you crazy, you're going to break your neck, you can't do it, you're not strong enough, you throw yourself backward. You flip. Sometimes you miss the beam completely. Sometimes you hit it with your shin or your elbow or your cheekbone; sometimes it's only your ponytail that keeps you from breaking your neck.
But sometimes you stick it.
And it's so awesome to stick it, awesome in the literal sense, full of awe—to stand there, toes gripping the beam, and know: I just did this amazing thing with my body, and I want to do it again. Right now. Jubilation and exuberance and euphoria make you take a step forward, find the magic spot for your feet, but before you throw yourself backward into the air, you are consumed with fear again, the fear very nearly overpowers your previous glee. Almost. But there is a second, right before you flip, when you are filled with knowledge: the falling wide, the bruised hipbones, even the times you land it, none of that is the point. The trying—no, the doing—is the point, and it's that knowledge that pushes you off the beam into a flip.
Writing is a back flip. It's scary mostly because it exposes you: inner thoughts, inner feelings, inner fears. And because sometimes it hurts. And because maybe someone---your team mates, the coach, your mom who sacrificed everything to get you that coach—is watching, and what if they laugh? It's crazy, throwing yourself out there in words, letting the world in on your ideas. In a sense, your IE is only trying to protect you by reminding you of how terrifying what you're doing really is. The only cure is to write anyway. Write despite the voice telling you you can't.
And, of course, learn everything you can. (It's much easier to land that back flip if you do it knowing some technique: don't twist your hips at all, and the trajectory isn't straight up or straight back but a sort of angle, and swing your arms down then fling them back up again as you jump.) Take the fear-of-sounding-cheesy fear. How it plagues me! I don't want to sound like a Hallmark card. (Much as I love receiving Hallmark cards in the mail, mind you.) That is one thing I love about my favorite writer (Atwood, of course!): she does this thing where her writing is spare and lean, without any emotive words—no "love," no "sooooo much," no "very,"—but the words she does use, and the way she uses them, evoke an emotive response. So, to avoid writing cheesy, I read other writers with an eye to see how they do it. I read poems because I love them but also because they are concentrated bits of language, miniworks in evocation. I practice: I try to write about, say, being sad without ever using the word. Or any of its synonyms. I read about avoiding sentimentality in writing (avoid cliches and worn-out language, strive for figurative language, use concrete details—the shoveled pathway—instead of vague generalities—love him so much—evoke sensory connection). I try to be honest, because sentimentality is based on nothing but vaporous emotion, not truth. I try to feel things in my life partly so that people can feel things in my writing. Most of the time, of course, I fail; I land on the mat instead of the beam, or I get just close enough to crack my toes on the wood. Maybe (probably) this metaphor is one of those times. But sometimes I manage to stick it: write something that conveys an emotion without dripping cheese.
Study, and work; also thought, concentration, dedication (which I abundantly lack). Writing well takes all of that, even though we want it to be easy. Maybe everyone wishes they could do a back flip, but only a few people will get up early to train, and practice even with bruises, and sacrifice their social lives. The rest of us sit on the couch eating almond M&Ms while watching the Olympics. In my experience, there's no getting rid of the fear, no getting that annoying IE to just shut the hell up. There isn't an easy way. There is only doing it, or not doing it.
There's writing, and there's not writing.
And I hope you'll flip. I hope you'll take the deep breath and then fling yourself backward into the unknown with only a ponytail and some hope to keep you in the air. Because when you are flipping, when you are writing and you've kept writing even though it's not perfect or maybe even not good or really, even, bad, and you're writing anyway, you eventually get to this place, with both feet in the air: a sort of creative flying. When you get there, the IE is silent, everything is silent, everything but what you are writing. Keep writing! That is how you best the fear. Write anyway.

Christmas Writing Challenge #8: on Christmas Day in the Morning

(sorta-but-not-really-very-closely-related aside: Sting's version of "I Saw Three Ships" is officially Kaleb's favorite Christmas song this year. When we get in the car, he says "sing it with me, Christmas morning song," so I turn it on and we listen to it and sing along where ever we go. I'm not sure how to explain just how cute his lispy little rendition of "on Christmas day in the mornin'" is.)

Writing Prompt: Write about your Christmas mornings. Where you early-morning openers? Did you follow a certain M.O.? Or was it something random every year? Who passed out gifts? Did you open one at a time or all at once? Did you eat before or after opening gifts? What were your Christmas-morning breakfasts like? Is there something specific or unique that stands out in your memory?

Some French literary theorist---Derrida, maybe---who I am too lazy to look up right now said that desiring a thing is better than having a thing, and that once you get the thing you want, desire goes away. Which really means: anticipation is more pleasurable than receiving. Of course, I didn't have the language to put it that way when I was seven years old, but I intuitively got it. I'd stay in my bed on Christmas morning, awake before Becky, filled with that tingly anticipation of the first sight of the tree, skirted with gifts. Once all the kids were awake, then started the long process of getting Dad out of bed. We'd beg and plead and make furtive trips to the bathroom, carefully closing our eyes so as not to even tempt a glance at the tree. Even being the snoop that I was, I never peaked into the front room where the presents from Santa waited; I wanted to savor the anticipation. Plus, Santa always left out a few unwrapped gifts, and I didn't want to spoil my pretend surprise.

I was always mystified: how was it that my mom, who passed out the gifts, always managed to have us open similar gifts at once? Even after I knew about the Santa-Clause Secret, this still baffled me. How could she remember? Of course, now that I'm playing Santa, I realize she probably  had some system, but back then, it was puzzling. I would ponder that question as I sat in front of the glittering tree, wondering which gifts were for me.

Once we finally got started, we opened gifts one at a time, so as to stretch out the anticipation. We'd admire each other's gifts before hurrying to open the next one, every so often remembering our parents in the glut and frenzy of present-opening and giving them a gift to open. We sort of had assigned seats; your gift that Santa didn't wrap was sitting on your chair, and that's where you'd sit to open gifts. Slowly through the morning, opened gifts piled up around us. Once we'd finished opening, and for a few days after Christmas, we'd all leave our new treasures on our individual chairs. It made the feeling of newness stretch out, because once you took your stuff off your chair and it was absorbed by the dressers and cupboards and closets in the house, it didn't seem new any longer.

Amy16_edit Here I am, about five years old I think. That year I had this particular stretch of couch as my chair, and I have a vague impression that I asked Mom to take this picture of me with all my new stuff. That red-and-white tablecloth-looking thing is one of my favorite dresses; it had Holly Hobby on it, and my mom sewed it. I don't remember the doll or the doll car, but I do remember playing with that Play Doh.

Resolution: at my house, Santa wraps all the gifts, so there's no assigned seating method. But somehow, it all falls into place that the kids sit in the same spot every year, gathering their new possessions around them. This year, I'm resolving to take a photo of each of them like this one, a snapshot of everything they got.

Christmas Writing Challenge #7: Holiday Treats

The Prompt: Write about the foods you had during the holidays, growing up. You can also include recipes if you want!

The foods we make and serve during the holidays give us a visceral connection, in both senses of the word. The pulling-out of recipes we only use at Christmas is an activity that can draw us backward into memories while it pulls us forward in anticipation to the moment we finally get to sink our teeth in. Because they’re only used on special days, holiday foods are integral to making the holiday feel like the holiday.

This afternoon, a neighbor dropped off a bag of chocolate-dipped pretzels; last night, a different neighbor brought us a scrumptious cheese ball (I am so going to get the recipe). There’s a half-finished bag of caramel popcorn in the pantry and a cute package of s’mores fixin’s on the counter (the card attached reads "wish we had s’more friends like you!" how cute is that?). And even though the sharing of goodies between neighbors wasn’t something we did much of growing up, all of these treats and snacks have left me thinking about the snacks and treats my mom made sure to include in our holidays. There were only a few things that we always had, but there was always something special during Christmas.

I can confess to being one of those strange, few people who actually like fruitcake. I have a vague memory of my grandma’s fruitcake, but the clearest impression was made by our next-door neighbor, Jean’s fruitcake. I loved the rich, dense, buttery cake and the bits of chewy fruit, the fragrant spices. Sometimes she’ll still drop off a cake or two just before Christmas, and the few times I’ve tasted it again I’ve been instantly transported back to sneaking a bite or two as a girl.

We also usually had cookies. My favorites were the candy cane cookies and the peanut butter ones. The candy cane cookies were made with a batch of dough, half colored pink, the other half left dough-colored (it’s not exactly white, right?). I clearly remember rolling out pink ropes of dough, then wrapping them around the white ropes and forming a cane shape. Somewhere along the line, my mom has misplaced the recipe. I’ve tried a few variations, but none of them have been the candy-cane cookie recipe. I look nearly ever year for one. (If you have a good one, please share!) The magic of the peanut-butter cookie came in the hands-on approach you took with the dough. There was something so fun in pressing the balls of dough with a fork, two times crossways to form a grid pattern, but the best part was sinking the Hershey’s kiss into the center of the just-baked cookie. Writing about these, I am realizing that my memories don’t really focus on the eating of the cookies—instead, they’re devoted to the making of them.

Of course, there were years of random treats. One year, my mom learned how to make home made suckers. That year, she built a tree out of square dowels, arranged in a concentric pattern to make the "tree" shape, drilled down the length with holes. Then she filled the holes in with suckers. There must have been two dozen or more homemade suckers. (If you look very closely, you can see the very edge of the sucker tree in that photo of us in our nightgowns a few posts further down.) And of course, who could forget the year of the gingerbread house? After Christmas it stayed downstairs, getting staler and staler in the basement, nibbled on every once in awhile by a child desperate for some kind of candy, even eight-months-old M&Ms.

But the thread that runs through all of our holiday treats is made of two things: caramel and fudge. Every year, they would be there, as much a part of Christmas as the tree or Santa Claus. Sometimes my mom would fill a tiered plate with hunks of them. I remember one year, she made the caramel too soft, so we dipped it in chocolate—even better! I’m not going to share the caramel recipe, because even though it makes a delicious caramel, it’s one of those tetchy recipes, the kind that require you to "cook until done" and you don’t know what "done" looks like until you’ve cooked it five or six times, and I wouldn’t want to add to any holiday frustration you might be feeling. But I will share the recipe for PERFECT fudge. It is creamy and rich and never grainy. Just smooth and delicious. If you make it, be sure to post!

Perfect Fudge

1 can evaporated milk
4 cups sugar
24 ounces chocolate (a mix of dark and milk is best)
2 squares very soft (but not melted) butter (1 cup)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup nuts (pecans, walnuts, or almonds) (optional)

Pour the evaporated milk into a large sauce pan; add the sugar and stir till dissolved. Bring to a gentle boil, then boil for exactly 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a large bowl, break the chocolate into pieces. Cut the butter into chunks, and put into the bowl with the chocolate. When the milk/sugar combo has boiled for ten minutes, pour it over the chocolate and butter. Working quickly, stir until smooth, adding the vanilla once the chocolate is melted. Pour into a buttered 8x11" pan. Allow to cool completely before serving. If using nuts, you can either stir them in just before pouring the fudge in the pan, or sprinkle over the top after the fudge is in the pan.

Christmas Writing Challenge #6: An Overdue Thank-You Letter

(I’m sorry to have vanished from my writing prompts. Life got in the way for awhile! I’ve been feeling way too stressed; this writing prompt is a way of making myself feel better. It’s a strange thing, but writing a thank-you letter gives me a very welcome sense of peacefulness.)

Writing Prompt: Write a letter to someone who made one, a few, or all of your childhood Christmases special, thanking them for what they did.

During last week, which was insanely busy, crowded with a bunch of last-minute gift decisions and on-line orders, three church activities, one baby shower, one family party, plenty of food preparations, and other small crises, I found myself thinking about my mom, and about the grown-up Haley in the future, when she’s the mom and feeling overwhelmed. I had this idea, that when she’s grown up she’ll realize all the effort I put into the holidays, and feel grateful, and then I thought—maybe my mother thought the same thing, and here I am, The Mom of this family, overstressed and wishing someone would just acknowledge something, and realizing that my mom must have felt the same way. Only I’ve never told her I am grateful for it. So, this is me, thanking my mom.

Dear Mom:

Today, standing at my kitchen sink washing pans, a mental to-do list repeating itself over and over in my head while the scent of pine tree brought an edge of anxiety to my heartbeat, I thought of how many times you must have stood in these very same shoes (or battered, pink, fuzzy slippers, the left one stained with a smear of homemade fudge, as the case may be), your mind whirring with the complicated processes of being the Christmas magician. I’m certain Dad didn’t help you much, and you carried, too, this whole burden: the shopping and the searching and the deciding about gifts, the wrapping, the hiding, the finding; the meals and snacks; the fun activities, the family parties, the mandatory school choirs; even the self-imposed Extra Credit stress (sewing pajamas and dresses instead of buying them, the unrelenting imperative that everything must be perfect). You even flocked your own tree. Maybe you, too, comforted yourself, like I did today, by thinking of your children in the future, at the moment we would realize all the stuff you did for us.

So—today I’m here thanking you. Thank you for the home-sewn pajamas and for the years you bought them. Thank you for always preparing an enormous meal for us, for working hard to be the kind of mom who always tried for extraordinary food. Thank you for letting us have two trees—I will never forget the two distinct emotions of standing before the "pretty tree" upstairs and then in front of the "kids’ tree" downstairs. My memories of both of our trees still make me tingle with anticipation. Thank you for all your late nights, spent on wrapping, cooking, sewing, planning, and probably worrying. Thank you for the hours of shopping and fighting crowds. Thank you for the years you got the perfect gifts, like the year you got me a Cabbage Patch doll even though I thought I was too old, and for knowing she had to have red hair and green eyes. Thank you for always including your parents in our celebrations, so that my memories are made all the richer. Thank you for feeding my love of books by making sure I owned my own. Thank you for candy cane cookies and peanut-butter cookies (with a Hershey’s kiss pressed on top), for homemade fudge and caramel, for roasted turkey and brussels-sprout casserole. Thank you for surviving my adolescent Christmases and for playing Santa up until I got married and moved out. Thank you for giving me a watch, that year I was about what—nine or ten? Do you know, I still have that watch, even though it no longer tells time and the band is mostly worn away; it is a sort of treasure to me because it reminds me of being young and innocent and not yet jaded. Thank you for the beautiful picture of J. Thank you for all the things I’ve forgotten, too. I’m certain I wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been, but now you know: I was grateful then and I am grateful now, for all the work you put into making our Christmases magical.

PS—I have mostly forgiven you for the ringlets.

PPS: I wish I had a picture of you and me on a Christmas morning!

A Little Bonus Challenge: If you can, let the person you wrote the letter to read it---either on your blog or by printing and sending the letter to them.

Christmas Writing Challenge #5: Traditional Gifts

Writing Prompt: What traditional gifts---things you received every year---did you get? Out of those traditional gifts, which individual one stands out the most in your memory?

Traditions give a personal shape to our holiday experiences. It seems like each family develops its own, unique spin on more universal traditions. Traditional gifts are important, I think, because they are a combination of knowledge (you know you're getting something from that category) and surprise (you don't know what specific thing it'll be). These are the gifts that, if they were missing, the holidays wouldn't feel right.

In our family, we had several traditional gifts:

Playing with baby dolls was one of my favorite things to do as a child, and we received a new one every year. They'd come in boxes, usually, with accessories like little combs and brushes, different clothes, tiny dishes. Those baby dolls sparked my innate love of babies, I think; even now, when I happen to catch the plastic smell of a new baby doll, I am flooded with the feeling of anticipating being a mother that I felt even as a three-year-old. Amy12

(Becky and me holding our new baby dolls; I think I was six and she was three here.) There isn't a picture of my favorite dolls. These were rag dolls, a boy and a girl, with yellow yarn hair. I got them when I was in second grade, and my best friend Amy and I spent many, many hours dressing them with the baby clothes I found (no doubt snooping!) one day.

My mom isn't a reader like the rest of us are. But I am certain she knew how important reading and books were to her daughters, because every Christmas we received at least one new book. My clearest memory of Christmas books is of the Christmas I was 15. My parents had given me Jean Auel's books, Clan of the Cave Bear etc, and when I found myself with an empty hour that afternoon, I dove into my new books. My dad was reading something downstairs by the tree, with a fire roaring in the fireplace, so I sat down there with him (after putting my new record, Forever Young by Alphaville, on the record player) and started reading. That is an indelible memory for me: fire, music, lights on the tree, a good new book, all in the silent company of my dad.

New Outfit
It wouldn't be Christmas without something new to wear. Finding boots, shirts, dresses, or jeans in your pile of gifts was always thrilling. Once I was a little bit older, I would shop with my mom so she knew exactly what I wanted to have for my new Christmas clothes, but when I was younger, I always loved what she gave me. Check out this outfit, circa 1979; I remember opening those boots and just loving them:Amy6_boots_edit

Christmas-Eve PJs
Because you have to look good in the Christmas-morning pictures! Many years, my mom sewed our Christmas-Eve PJs. I SO wish this picture was in focus (in my mind it is), because this was my FAVORITE nightgown I ever had. My mom made them for Becky and me out of flannel-backed satin, only it wasn't the cheap, thin stuff you can find now. The flannel was thick on the inside, and the satin was substantial. I loved that nightgown! My older sister Suzette is in the picture with us, and our niece Alicia, who we were always babysitting (her mom was a young teenager, struggling to figure out how to be a mom and a wife and everything that entails at about 16, so we helped her out); she almost felt like another sister! Amy8

Resolution: I do all of these traditional gifts for my kids (except for the baby doll thing, obviously; Haley was more of a Barbie doll kind of girl), but I'm not sure I've ever shared the stories behind them. This year, I will!