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Prompt: I come from . . .
Time: 10 minutes

I come from the earth. From the mud, from the grime, from the moss. The moss with its teeny, tiny, tree-like structures. I want to be a millimeter tall and climb them. Look out from the top across the wet, green mini-forest, the damp, brown earth below. More green, more brown above.

I come from the air—the expansive, deep breath of air I take in at the top of the mountain or just above the water as I rise from underneath the surface of the lake—or my bathtub.

I come from the fire—the smoky wood smell, the red- and orange- and blue-flamed fire. The fires I’ve seen of a house across the street, of the hotel where my parents worked—flames shooting up from the roof. From the fire of emotions—of anger, of love, of something equally strong but in between. From the fire deep within me, inextinguishable, sometimes raging, sometimes crackling, sometimes merely quietly smoldering.

I come from everywhere. And anywhere. And some places in particular. A dark corner in a carpeted closet. A warmly lighted entryway into a cozy apartment. A dream.

Prompt: What I’m listening to right now.
Time: 10 minutes.

I’m listening to Ani DiFranco. I’m listening to Kris Delmhorst’s Horses Swimming over and over again—never old, never tired. I’m listening to the sound of rain on my car as I drive on this road and that, in search of something, something. I’m listening to the buzz of my speakers. I’m listening to the buzz of my refrigerator. I’m listening to a mix entitled Time Past and Time Future. And indeed, I’m listening to my past and my future for clues to my present. I’m listening to people living small pieces of their lives in the hallway outside of my apartment door—bringing their clothes to the laundry room, locking or unlocking their doors, greeting cheerfully or not their neighbors in passing. I am listening to the whirring thoughts in my head and the pressure of feelings building in my chest. I’m not sure yet what they’re all saying to me, or what to focus on out of all of the many messages they’re delivering or seem to be delivering or I want them to be delivering. But there is something—something deep, something real, something important—in this listening. The creak of the floorboards and the wind outside my huge windows and the hum of my computer. The scratch of my pen against paper, the click of my knitting needles against one another, the intake of breath as I awake from a dream. Surely they each have something to tell me.

Prompt: There is a new kind of night.
Time: 10 minutes.

There is a new kind of night. It is not completely dark. There are no empty spaces, in your neighborhood, in your apartment, in your heart. There is a softness, a rounded-edges-ness to the night. There is certainty and calm where once there was otherwise. There is no scary in this new kind of night, just comfort, just warmth. There is enough sleep and enough dreaming and enough quiet reflecting. There is no yearning, no fear. There is no need to line all of your stuffed animals—armed guards, sentinels—along the outline of your body under the covers. There is no clutter, no piles of books, no electronic devices to tether you to the outside world. There is always fresh air. There are moonlit walks, no matter the season. And the day dawning from this new kind of night is similarly transformed.

Prompt: The house we live in…
Time: 10 minutes

There is a light in the kitchen by the back door that I look for at night as I pull into the parking lot. It signals warmth, coziness, presence. There is a large, brown couch in the living room, in the shape of an “L,” only each side is equally long. It’s the kind of couch you plop down on at the end of a long day. Or burrow in on days when you feel as rainy as it is outside. The one corner, by the lamp, has a permanent dip where I sit all the time. It’s pronounced, so I make sure that when our guests spend the night that they sleep at the other end. My purple blanket—I like to call it mine—often sits in the corner, folded up. In the kitchen, there is soup on the stove. The hole in the window lets in a small, welcome breeze—we stuff a dish towel in it usually—and the cookbook lays open on the long, but not wide, breakfast-bar-type counter. On it also sits a pin that reads “la cocina que canta”—the kitchen that sings. My apron hangs on a hook by the door; you are using yours. I’ve already made up the table—placemats, spoons for the soup and the yogurt, napkins that usually live in the basket in the corner. I sit, curled up on the couch, reading, breathing in the smells—onions, chicken, carrots, and yes, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. And that song plays in my head for a few minutes until I come up against the part where I lose the melody and am thrust back into the aromas.

Prompt: You stand there…
Time: 10 minutes

You stand there. You stand there. At the edge. The edge of a doorway, of a decision, of a new life. Pulled back, propelled forward. It’s like how you felt on that ridge. Wind, clouds, rime ice all around you, you stepped to the edge of the trail. All of the people, and there were a lot of people on the trail that day—the Canadians that weren’t nearly as annoying as your friends thought they were, the college kids in jeans and sweatshirts that had partied the whole last night through, the friendly guy who fired guns for a living (a consultant, he said)—they all fell away, disappeared. And it was just you and the edge. It was exhilarating, and you wanted to see it all from a step closer. But the wave of not exactly panic but some distant cousin rose from your toes up through your core into your stomach and heart and throat and ears. And it makes you think about that cheesy quote—the kind of cheesy that you can’t help but love—about stepping to the edge and one of two things will happen and there’s wings involved or maybe it’s like Indiana Jones or was it Harry Potter where the ground doesn’t appear until you take the step?

Prompt: My first car…
Time: 15 minutes

My first car was named Matilda. She was a ’91 Dodge Spirit, technically maroon (but really more of a dirt brown), boxy and spunky and reliable—an old lady of a car. She came from a shady, fat used car dealer whose name was Skippy or Bub. She was the means of independence, of freedom, of excitement, as cars are to young people who grow up in small, spread-out towns. Her windshield wipers would fail, her shocks would fail, and ultimately, her brakes would fail, but she still felt reliable, like it must have been something I did to anger her, like that was her way of showing me. Maybe it was the wrong air freshener or maybe it was one bumper sticker too many. Maybe it was the 9,000-mile road trip—when the air conditioning failed and the console of our portable radio melted in the Arizona heat—maybe it was a couple miles too many. Or maybe it was just a machine. A machine a little worse for the wear. How do we become so attached to metal, plastic, rubber? We become attached to the people we became in our first cars, to the places they bring us, to the people that share the journey. Was I crazy, strange, just plain silly for pulling over to savor the 100,000-mile mark, to take a picture of the odometer? Or was I just celebrating my own 100,000 miles? And how Matilda helped me get there.

This freewrite is from a couple years ago, but it’s a great prompt to revisit again and again.

Prompt: The things I carry.
Time: 10 minutes.

I carry lists. Lists of what I need to do, of what I want to do, of what I should do. Lists of groceries, of songs to look up, of books to read. I carry the knowledge that my grandmother wrote lists, loved lists, carried her own lists, and this is perhaps why I look fondly on my compulsion to write things down and order them in some way accordingly. I carry stories of my grandmother—good stories, sad stories, stories we share. Stories of my whole family—some that have been told year after year, meal after meal, others that have rarely, if ever, been told. I carry emergency contact numbers and my blood donor card (A positive; the sticker says “active” even though I’ve only donated once)—just in case. In case something happens and a stranger needs to find out who I am, who to call. If I can’t tell the stranger myself. I carry things to hold—a rock, a trinket my mother gave me, a notebook. The notebook, for thoughts that I carry and wish to put down, on paper, in writing. Before they get lost along the way, like coins falling from a hole in my pocket or like that extra button whose thread has unraveled.

Prompt: I’m gonna be a farmer, plowing the field in the morning sun. (opening line of the song “Sweet Life,” by Science for Girls)
Time: 10ish minutes

I’m gonna be a farmer, plowing the field in the morning sun. I’m gonna get down on my knees and put my hands in the dirt and feel the midday sweat on the back of my neck. I’m going to fall into bed at the end of the day with strong, sore muscles, delivered swiftly into dreams of the life I am already living. I will grow ideas, from seed. Fed and nurtured by the sun—by words, by feelings, by time, by a community of fellow thinkers. Watered by music, each voice, each instrument, each note a raindrop. I will work hard. I will work on and on and on. There will be seasons of drought, of blight, of flooding. And there will be seasons of bounty. Barn raisings and hoedowns. Milking time and market time. And sitting on the porch in the late afternoon drinking sun tea with a fellow farmer, talking about crops and weather and so-and-so down the road who’s feeling better today.

Sometime last year I wrote an article for a new online women’s magazine that was starting up. It never actually started up, and this article has been sitting around since then. So I’m sharing it with you!

Not Just Another Night at the Movies
By Jessica L. Atcheson

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Quiet Revolution. Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. These movies are not playing at a theatre near you. They never did. But they have been shown in community centers, churches, and people’s homes throughout the country. I’ve seen progressive, independent grassroots documentaries in various settings over the past five years: Outfoxed in a community room above a fair-trade store in New Hampshire; Quiet Revolution in the privacy of my own living room; Iraq for Sale in a small independent bookstore in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Documentaries like these are taking a look at a range of compelling issues: politics, war, the media, civil liberties, consumerism, domestic and sexual violence, the environment. It almost hurts how important these issues are. These films are independent, they’re informative, they’re infuriating. They’re on the edge, out of the mainstream, and crucial to our awakening. And when I say awakening, I don’t mean that you necessarily have to agree with them. But they will make you think. And form opinions. And spur you to further research, discussion, and hopefully action. They aim to jolt you out of your day-to-day existence.

I find, though, that each time I see a film like this in a community screening, I hear three comments in particular in the discussion afterward that bewilder or frustrate me: “But it’s not even being shown in the big theaters.” “But I don’t think it was a really great film.” “We’re just preaching to the choir.” So, I want to respond. I think that the first two arguments and criticisms are a convenient way for people to distance themselves from the scary truths about the state of our country and our world. It’s a lot easier and less overwhelming to say, “Well, no one’s going to see it” or “But the camera angles…” than it is to get to the down-and-dirty business of addressing the issues that these documentaries bring to light.

“But it’s not even being shown in the big theaters.”

No, it may not be. But it is being shown in hundreds of homes, community centers, churches, and other venues throughout the country, often for free. This allows a new kind of access and a higher level of participation. These screenings have the potential to create movements. I think that the way these films are distributed and displayed encourages connection and discussion, not just paying your $8 (or $10 or $12) to watch a movie for a couple hours and then walk away. It supports community members that care coming together for discussion—the beginning of grassroots activism that can and will make a difference.

“But I don’t think it was a really great film.”

The editing may not be perfect. They may have spent a minute too long with one interviewee or the transitions may be a bit clumsy. Overlook this. I don’t think that most of these films were made in hopes of winning Oscars or Sundance awards. They are not here to be judged on the merits of picture-perfect filmmaking. Often made on strict deadlines with little budget and with no powerful film industry backing, they exist to make a point and to provide information. It’s one thing if a film is so badly made that you are unable to see or hear the point or look past the deficiencies; I don’t find that to be the case with these documentaries. The nitpicky film criticisms are not useful. We are not here to discuss the merits of Robert Greenwald’s directorial style. We are here to be inspired, to learn, to discuss the issues, and begin taking action.

“We’re just preaching to the choir.”

This one goes for more than just grassroots documentaries; I hear this argument and observation at nearly every grassroots progressive event I attend, and I think it’s defeatist unless coupled with constructive ideas for action. To assume that a gathering of likeminded people is pointless is unhelpful. It’s good to know that you’re not alone, that people share your views and are willing to stand up with you for them. Groups can make things that seem impossible and hopeless when you’re alone take a step toward the possible. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe that there comes a point when more discussion amongst the choir has to turn into action or it becomes redundant and pointless. Action is absolutely essential, and because of that, we mustn’t underestimate the importance of energizing people and their beliefs toward action.

Let’s be honest, even if we are preaching to the choir, not everyone in the choir is singing. Though the film (discussion, rally, etc.) may not change any minds, it may galvanize them and spur them to action, give them the tools to reach out to someone whose mind could be changed. If such a gathering inspires a quiet or unsure or lazy member of the choir to finally sing—to speak out, engage other people, take action, then it is valuable. If it gives someone the information they need (or challenges them to actively seek out further information) to intelligently debate a progressive cause with others, then such an event is not unimportant. If it motivates people to discuss with their friends and family and raise awareness, then it is not meritless. If it prompts someone to finally write a letter to the editor of their local paper or to contact their senators or call to encourage others to vote, then it’s not worthless.

If these films push people to organize and resist the dominant paradigm in whatever way they can, then it is not insignificant—in fact, it’s eminently vital. And I hope that’s what they have done, are doing, and will continue to do. You can be part of it: host your own screening, form your own opinion, start your own discussion—and then take action.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a short list of films to check out:
Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil
Quiet Revolution (Alliance for Justice)
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Searching for Angela Shelton
Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

And looking for even more?
Check out Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films.
Subscribe to Ironweed, a DVD film club that delivers a monthly selection of socially-conscious independent films straight to your doorstep.

Jessica L. Atcheson is an editor and writer whose work has been published in regional newspapers and online. Currently serving as Associate Editor at large nonprofit in western Massachusetts, she is an avid reader who knits mason-jar cozies for the resistance and is trying to figure out how to live a thoughtful and sustainable life on this planet.

A few years ago, I took a writing workshop called Writing from the Heart with Nancy Slonim Aronie. A first for me, and it was a breakthrough. Timed writing exercises (10 minutes, here’s your prompt, just write—whatever comes out, just write, no editing), reading my words out loud in front of other people (voice wavering, but speaking nonetheless), taking in others’ stories. We only offered positive feedback. Following that workshop, I was part of a writer’s group for a year or so in which we came together every week or two and did timed writing using various prompts, and then we shared (if we so desired), and instead of positive or critical feedback, we simply reflected back words or phrases or sentences that struck us, stuck with us (“recall”). For me, timed writing with prompts is a great way to elude my inner editor and just get some words down on paper. Sometimes they stand on their own or get forgotten as soon as the ink has dried, other times they provide the seed for a longer piece that I work on later. Hearing others’ recall can be a great window into what resonates with an audience. For the freewrites, I generally write for 10 or 12 minutes. The timed piece makes it so that I actually do it (rather than getting overwhelmed with the idea of working on a big essay and forgoing it in favor of reorganizing my files or doing the dishes or obsessively checking my e-mail and RSS feeds; writing for 10 minutes seems less daunting).

Here’s a random (and short) example from my freewrite notebook.

Prompt: This happened.

This happened. I put my fingertips, then my whole hand in. The cold water was electricity. So I sat down on the rock in my orange shorts and took off my left shoe and my left sock, and then my right shoe and my right sock. And I was not alone, but part of me was—the part of me that is often alone when surrounded by people. And I plunged my toes, my feet, my ankles, my shins into that ice-cold mountain water just to feel it. Feel it shoot, and slowly creep at the same time, through my body.

And that’s that. I’ll post various freewrites I’ve done periodically. Keep in mind they’re unedited snippets—while I can guarantee that I won’t be posting any of the ones that make me really cringe, I still feel the need for that disclaimer. The freewrite above was based on a memory from a hike in the Rockies I did with dear old friends when I was out in Colorado visiting in 2004, so I leave you with this associated image.

Me and Jaime in Dream Lake

Jaime and I in Dream Lake

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