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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.

National Novel Writing Month

Ready to write?

Always wanted to pen a novel? Ready to make your own contribution to the literary greatness? Well, it’s your month: National Novel Writing Month—”thirty days and thirty nights of literary abandon,” as they say.

Affectionately known as NaNoWriMo, the project aims for participants to start writing on November 1 (but you can still  start now!) and churn out 175 pages (or 50,000 words) by midnight on November 30. Intense. But just think of the great benefits: lots of writing (a whole book!), a convenient excuse to avoid any undesirable Thanksgiving obligations or social events you’d rather avoid (“Sorry, I have to write a novel. It’s due next week. Otherwise I totally would have loved to be there.”), and being able to say you did it.

What I’d admire about NaNoWriMo is that it’s all about sitting down and writing. Getting it down on paper. Editing, crafting, refining—that can come later. You have to start somewhere, and NaNoWriMo gives you the opportunity to do just that. While I’m not participating myself (not this year, at least), I think it’s a pretty awesome phenomenon.

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.

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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