At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.
H.P. Lovecraft, early 20th century horror writer
H. P. Lovecraft had a point. There is something magical about writing when the rest of the household is fast asleep. It’s like a space “between” where creativity vibrates just on the edge of sound, and artists of all kinds allow their minds to search the shadows for change and possibility.
Given last week’s post by Gwynn on light, it made me wonder about the ideas, images, stories and characters that arise from turning out the lights and just sitting still in the dim after the sun has set. As I write this, I’m at my cottage where, if we choose, it’s easy to create a natural darkness.
But in the city, unless there’s a power out (as happened during the recent windstorm for much of Ontario and Quebec) a total absence of unnatural light is not possible. Even if you use blackout curtains and line the walls with soundproofing, knowing that beyond those walls artificial light still exists lingers in your mind.
Nonetheless, in the wee hours just past midnight, when traffic lessens and media sources and lighting shut down, the magic still happens. At least it does for me.
Nudging the muse
Some of my deepest and most satisfying writing arrives in that between stage. Is my tired mind more open to my muse? Is the silence charging up my right brain? Are the distractions no longer pulling my attention elsewhere?
No thanks, honey. I don’t need a cup of tea right now…
Can somebody let the dog out please…
Oh sure, I’m happy to chat. Nope. Not busy at all…
…moments from a writer’s life
Maybe some of that sounds a bit familiar, or at least, variations of the theme. Or maybe you live alone, have no family or friends or interests other than writing brilliant prose 24/7. I’m guessing not if you’re reading this blog.
So, besides H.P. Lovecraft, what do others offer us about the gifts found in the dark?
Other voices on darkness
Using the dark as a theme to develop characters, Sarah Maas gives us information on two different characters through one character’s words and the other character’s reaction to those words.
“There are different kinds of darkness,” Rhys said. I kept my eyes shut. “There is the darkness that frightens, the darkness that soothes, the darkness that is restful.” I pictured each. “There is the darkness of lovers, and the darkness of assassins. It becomes what the bearer wishes it to be, needs it to be. It is not wholly bad or good.”
Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Mist and Fury
And before we start thinking that fear of “the dark” is a modern concept, let’s trip back to Ancient Greece and our old friend Plato’s take on it all.
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
The Dark as a tool
As Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) famously said “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” So, too, the most skilled memoirists shed light on that dark side of their lives. Biographers know that no subject can be perfect, so they look for the human being behind the myth.
For writers of fiction, our characters — especially main characters and heroes — benefit from being dipped into the dark.
Here’s an exercise adapted from our workshop vaults. See if it brings a bit more light onto the dark side of your character’s moon:
A moral compass
Imagine a scene in which one of your characters must make a moral choice:
To kill or set free
To steal or resist the impulse
To enter a forbidden place or walk past
Allow your character to make a choice. And then rewrite the scene with them making the opposite choice.
After you’ve given this a try, let us know if you made any discoveries. At the very least, you might have uncovered some secrets your character was holding back.
In these stressful times, Diwali, the five-day Festival of Lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world November 13 to 18, seems like precisely the sentiment I want to occupy my brain at the moment. This festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance is such a hopeful state, it lifts my spirit, gives me a break from the stresses that seem ever present in the shadows.
One of the ways people celebrate Diwali is with strings of celebratory lights and with fireworks. For this week’s blog, I decided that I would lighten up too and celebrate by giving you a fireworks display of writing prompts based on light and shadow.
up your pens, and have fun!
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” –Mary Oliver
Write a scene that “shines
light” on something to see it as it really is.
Story starter: What appeared in the flames was certainly not what she was expecting.
Write a scene where “It’s
always darkest before the dawn.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
What imagery does the word “fireworks”
“When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Story starter: The light blinded her….
It’s the holiday season and outdoor lights are everywhere…
Write a scene around the campfire.
Write a scene that takes place during an eclipse
Write a scene involving the lighting of a candle.
“There is the darkness that frightens, the darkness that soothes, the darkness that is restful. There is the darkness of lovers and the darkness of assassins. It becomes what the bearer wishes it to be, needs it to be. It is not wholly bad or good.” – Sarah J. Maas
Ask your character, “What’s the
most evil thing you’ve ever done, thought or said?”
Is darkness a lack of light or
a conscious decision to stay out of it? Write about someone who chooses the
dark to hide from the world.
Are dark and light symbiotic? Write about a character who believes “It’s only in darkness you can see the stars.”
Every hundred years, the seven
deadly sins meet for a tournament. The winner gets to be humanity’s most
prominent sin for the next century. Who won in the year 2000?
Story starter: On Tuesday I discovered I had no shadow…..
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” – Stephen King
To suggest that this year, in particular, has been a challenge for all of us is an understatement. Disappointments, detours and disruptions govern all aspects of our lives, from the mundane to the extraordinary. And in some weird way, that upside-down-ness is becoming ordinary. Perhaps that’s why more and more, people are finding ways to deliver what we once took for granted.
I signed up for this fall’s Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performer’s annual conference, Packaging Your Imagination. It’s been a few years since I attended my last PYI, so I was ready to learn what’s new. But with a switch to virtual, I confess to wondering if sitting all day in front of my laptop was going to be worth it.
I was not disappointed
Beforehand, I worried about video quality. I was at the cottage where our satellite internet is not always great connection-wise. But the cyber gods were smiling, and I had almost no issues on that front. Each of the sessions – from the opening remarks through to the final sign off – were presented from the homes and/or offices of the speakers. Overall, they were delivered issue-free through a live-streamed broadcast.
The day before, I was sent links for each of the sessions I’d registered for as well as links for the opening and closing keynote speakers, the after party and the trivia game. There were no glitches.
The one-to-one I booked with an editor was scheduled in advance, and Katie Scott from Kids Can Press and I chatted privately over the Zoom platform at the end of the day.
Each session presented me with new ideas and a couple were absolutely inspiring. Children’s author and journalist, Monique Polak’s dive into research had me scribbling like mad to capture everything she offered. And that was between laugh-out-loud moments because Monique is, frankly, hilarious, engaging and slightly off the wall.
And I learned:
Get excited and engaged when interviewing &
sometimes quiet people open up
Be like a buzzard on roadkill – real life situations
can be ridiculous but also inspire your muse
When people drink something warm (tea, coffee)
they’re more likely to reveal more than when they’re drinking something cold –
when we can return to in-person interviews, I’m going to test that one out
Multiple award-winning author and senior editor, Shelley Tanaka focused on finding the theme in our book. She started with exploring what many of us face when we sit down to write a book.
We start strong and in love with our story, and we go
merrily along, writing with our authentic voice. We’re on a roll, we’ve sorted
out all the wants, the obstacles and the stakes in our story, it’s going great.
We’ve lost our way, lost interest and admit to ourselves that the story is simply not working. She suggests this is a good time to sit back and ask ourselves: What is this story about? In writing for children, she says we should consider the following when thinking about a story’s theme.
And I learned:
Theme is not a “message” or moral
It’s also not simply entertainment
Whatever it is, it should inspire kids (and adults
in my opinion) to ask questions about themselves
The professionals’ panel shared what three different publishers were looking for. They discussed the pleasure of seeing a growing market for BIPOC books and they briefly discussed trends. Forget about trends, they encouraged – write the story you want to write. By the time you finish writing to a trend, readers have moved on.
From a focus on Nadia L. Hohn‘s Malaika series, I learned what goes into an illustrated picture book that is linked to another: collaboration. Between the author, the illustrator and the editor/publisher, they build on each other’s ideas and artistic qualities to connect the books in the series while bringing in freshness with each new publication.
Beginnings and endings
Both keynote presenters were perfect for their respective tasks: storyteller and author Adwoa Badoe brought the music and literary flavours of her birthplace Ghana into her opening remarks. From her welcome song to the consistent thread of “Story is an Old Woman”, we were shifted in time and place, ready to absorb what the rest of the day offered.
Teresa Toten, on the other hand, took us through her journey of ups and downs, sharing rejections and personal difficulties but always offering a counterpoint of touchstone music and joyful celebrations. An award-winning author of 10 books for young adults, Teresa was remarkably candid and inspiring at a time when many writers are facing challenging times. It was a perfect closing keynote.
Virtual is not in-person
Of course, there were so many conference elements that couldn’t be replicated. Networking with colleague writers, chatting directly with industry professionals over lunch, and browsing the book tables were sorely missed. While we could post questions online, the energy of a live Q&A in the same room with others wasn’t there.
Bio breaks, on the other hand, didn’t mean a rush down crowded hallways to the cafeteria or standing in line outside the bathroom. Nobody cared if I brushed my hair or had spill stains on my homestyle attire. And yes, I could stand up, stretch, pace the room for exercise and not miss a single detail. And I didn’t disturb a single soul.
I look forward to more conferences and gatherings with real live people in the same room with me, breathing the same air and no one wearing a surgical mask. As I said last week to my six-year-old grandson: When this is over, Reid, I’m going to hug you for 27 hours straight. He just grinned but he knew exactly what I meant.
In the interim, I’m sticking with virtual. Gwynn and I are dipping our toes in as presenters next week with our Find & Fix editing masterclass. Sponsored by The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, you can find out more about it here.
Recently, I filled out a Query Manager form as part of my search for an agent for my YA sci-fi manuscript. Query Manager is an online form that writers complete with samples, query letter, synopsis – whatever the agent’s submission guidelines state.
Most agents’ Query Manager forms are similar, with generic questions designed to get information on the book, the writer, etc. This particular agent had some interesting additional questions, such as: Are you a Marvel or DC fan? That was a no-brainer: Marvel all the way. Except, I added, I still had room in my heart for Superman and Batman. (Call me old-fashioned but classic DC had a steadiness that served as a nice counterpoint to Marvel’s edge.)
Back to the agent. For me, that question was an intriguing insight to the agent’s personality. A response time of 8 to 10 weeks means it will be a while before I can ask her why she uses that particular question. But I’d like to thank her for another couple of questions on her online form. It’s a question that reminded me of the power a character or storyline can have, even if it’s been abandoned for some time.
What inspired you to write this book?
Character, I answered. (It’s always been my entry to almost all of my writing.) But then I went on to explain how my protagonist Garnet was a character rattling around in my brain while I worked on literary manuscripts. Some years before, I imagined this young feisty female in a warrior role she’s born for despite the odds. She’s a battlewipe – a job loosely combined with field medic, battlefield scavenger and skilled assassin. Don’t ask me how. She just was—and still is. I wrote a single paragraph to get her out of my system and filed it.
Despite the intervening manuscripts, Garnet wouldn’t leave me alone. And finally, I had a chance to dust off her one-paragraph character study and see if she could sustain a longer work. I signed up for the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour writing marathon to fundraise for literacy in the Muskoka Region.
Garnet could – and did – sustain the longer work: 27,000 words approximately. By the time I’d worked and reworked her over the years, she now fills 98,000 words and is clearly part of a duology. (and yes, I’ve started the sequel.)
Why are you the author to write this book?
My fingers quivered at this one. My published poetry, stories and novels are in the literary stream. I have no stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Strange Horizons. And I’ve published nothing in the Young Adult genre up to now. Was I kidding myself?
I hope not.
I’d loved science fiction as a young reader, and continued to selectively read sci-fi over the years. Ray Bradbury’s R is for Rocket (which I stole from the school library–and still have) and The Martian Chronicles kick-started my interest. And then Star Trek and James T. Kirk, et al, captured my idealistic heart. The stories told in science fiction are stories about the human condition, even those termed “hard science” novels. From Asimov’s Foundation series to Andy Weir’s The Martian, science is the brain but characters form the heart.
And I had a character who happened to exist on a planet with two suns. This feral teen had hopes and dreams that she kept whispering in my ear until I had the chance to breathe more life into her. That early draft I wrote at the marathon won the YA category, high praise from the editor judge and, later on, a Works-in-Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council.
When characters insist
Notice I used the relative pronoun “who” in the paragraph above instead of “that” which is what you are supposed to use for non-human things. My character is quite real to me and I won’t be able to let her go until she has a home inside a book.
So she’s a who.
And that’s what I mean about a character who sticks like glue. I’ve got a few more rattling around in my brain but Garnet is one insistent voice. She even shows up when I’m focusing on other things. And that’s a good thing because one other question this agent asks in her Query Manager form: If your book was a movie, who would play your main character? That one was easy: Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) or Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things.) Fierce and vulnerable.
I may only get a “no” from this query. But that’s okay because it let me dive even deeper into the who of my character and firm up my confidence on being the one to tell this story. The heck with all the rest. As my friend Sue Reynolds says: follow the energy. So I did. Do you?
I’m an organized person. I set big-picture goals and break the big plan down into small achievable pieces. I’ve always made a daily to-do list and I get great satisfaction from ticking them off – done!
But I also put my obligations to others waaaay ahead of my own wants and needs, especially creatively. Even when I “schedule” creative time, or add “finish chapter 5” to my to-do list, you can be sure that it’s the one item on that list that doesn’t get done.
The pandemic gave me a gift this year. Unused commuting time. So, I gave myself another gift: I cleared the deck of a number of outside obligations, told people “no” for a change and decided to make my own health and creativity more important in my life.
At first, predictably, my creativity intentions became the same undone items on the daily to-do list. I needed a new approach, a whole new rethink. It took time, some trial and error, but I found a new strategy for giving creativity a more meaningful—and attainable—place in my life. I developed what I call my “Butterflies, frogs and tadpoles” approach.
Ditch the daily
I’ve stopped making a daily to-do
Yes, that’s right. No more daily
chances to feel like I’ve failed. No more only crossing off the obligations and
neglecting the things I want to do. No more setting myself up for guilt, and
disappointment at myself and the world. No more dwelling on the negative.
My new approach involves a master list
each for butterflies, frogs and tadpoles – in that order!
Frogs and Tadpoles?
BUTTERFLIES are the things I WANT to
do: creative things, personal things, social things, family things, hobbies,
relationships and anything else that will feed my soul, make my life pleasant
or feed into the achieving of my chosen personal goals. And while it may not be
intuitive to goal setting in any way, I include things that are not necessarily
“good for me” like eating a chocolate bar, or a third cup of coffee or a Netflix
Okay okay! I
hear you. That’s all very well, but what about all the stuff that HAS to get
done. Be patient Young Grasshopper. I’m coming to that.
A FROG is something that MUST be done because
it has a time restraint on it. The term comes from the “eat that frog” concept
originated by Mark Twain who once said that if you start the day by eating a
frog (your biggest and most important task) you will have the satisfaction of
knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day.
But for me, there is a difference. My
frogs are not necessarily my biggest or most important tasks. They are not
necessarily things I don’t want to do. They are simply tasks governed by time
deadlines. A frog can be as simple as reordering my prescription or calling
Aunt Mable about the food for next weekend or as big and complicated as filing my
taxes or meeting a client deadline.
I also often take big frogs and break
them into smaller frogs. For instance, “filing my taxes” could be broken down
into finding my paperwork, sorting receipts, compiling my mileage log; printing
off my online charitable receipts etc etc. I prefer this approach, because it
makes the frogs less intimidating, and I get to “complete” more things along
the way. I can see and feel the progress.
A TADPOLE is an item that SHOULD be
tackled soon because it will become a frog in the near future. Like frogs, tadpoles
can be obligations or not, big or small. Tadpoles might be things like cleaning
out my clothes closet, buying new boots or Christmas shopping, updating my
website, getting the propane tanks refilled, filling out that grant
application, finishing chapter 5, or submitting to a contest.
Some tadpoles can remain tadpoles for
a very long time, but I know in my heart of hearts that if I don’t turn them
into frogs at some point, I will regret it. So, yes, I may miss moving the writing
contest entry to the frog list, but I know that if I don’t do it and the
deadline passes, I will be upset with myself. And that if I continue to let
those tadpoles die, my chosen goals will not be realized. I also recognize that
many psychological reasons probably exist for my resistance, and so I cut
myself some slack on tadpoles.
As I said earlier, I run a master list each for butterflies, frogs (with deadlines) and tadpoles – in that order!
I add to those lists whenever I think of something I want, must or should do. Remember these are master lists, not “to-do” lists, so I no longer get overwhelmed by how long they are.
When I started this, my Frogs list ran
to several pages, my tadpoles were plentiful, but I could only come up with a
scant list of butterflies.
I realized that I was so used to
gearing my actions to what I “should” do that I was out of touch with what I
really wanted to do. Over time, I’ve asked myself questions like: What makes me
happy? What would a perfect day look like? If I died tomorrow, what would I
regret not having done?
Each month, I pick from the master
lists for my monthly tasks and activities. Note, I work by month, not by day. I
have 3 sections in my day book for each of the categories: Butterflies, Frogs
I begin with a Butterfly choice. That’s
right, put what’s important to you first! That goes on my monthly list of Butterflies.
Then I pick a Frog or Tadpole and put them on my monthly Frog and Tadpole lists.
I repeat the process until I have three lists that will fill my month with time
left over for unexpected happenings that always arise.
Admittedly, the number of Frogs on the
Frog list is often governed by deadlines. If it is a formidable list, I
consider the old Ditch, Delegate or Defer approach to make it more manageable.
But whatever I do, I make sure to have as many butterflies on my list as I have
frogs and tadpoles combined.
Once a week I grab a highlighter and decide which Frogs need to be done by the end of the week. With the same colour highlighter, I highlight an equal number of Butterflies. Those are the ones I concentrate on that week. I forget about the others on the list. The next week I use a different colour highlighter and do the same thing. Spreading my expectations of myself over a week instead of a day means six less opportunities to feel like I failed, time to make up for a slow day and a better sense of achievement over time.
I always start my day with a
Butterfly. This sounds counter-productive if there are Frog deadlines looming,
but it isn’t. I’ve found that I procrastinate far less and I don’t fill my time
with pointless activity because I’m getting my wants up front and not feeling
overwhelmed by musts. Today for example, I had this blog to write, a report to
finish and email around to colleagues and an editing assignment due tomorrow.
Those three things I knew would eat up a big piece of my day, so I chose butterflies
that would not take a big time grab but would leave me feeling fulfilled: A 20
minute yoga session at the lake; a video call to my brother overseas and time
to read a poetry collection I have just bought. Tomorrow I have only one Frog
deadline, so I will choose a large butterfly, like working for a full morning
on my poetry, before I tackle that one frog.
While this may not work for everyone, it’s working for me. Slowly my mind is learning to put what’s important to me at the forefront of what I do. I feel less frustrated with tasks I have to do because I’m balancing them with things I want to do rather than trying to fit my wants in or neglecting them altogether.
Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc
Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster
Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers, e.e.cummings
Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake
Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver
Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them.
Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses. But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed with 4 white crosses for those who did not quite make this curve because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski
Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?
Pacing – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page
Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.
Gwynn’s home county, Northumberland County, Ontario, has a vibrant arts community, including the dedicated and prolific Spirit of the Hills Writer’s Group of which Gwynn is a member. The group has been publishing a blog since April: A Journal in Time of Pandemic and Lockdown. Today’s guest post originally appeared on July 3 on that blog, and we reprint it here with author and poet Kim Aubrey’s permission.
Kim shares her personal story of keeping in touch with relatives far from home during the pandemic, and also her new found method of journalling that works for a time when our minds aren’t as focused or creative as we’d like.
The call for lockdown came just as my husband and I were preparing to drive to New Hampshire to care for my mother during her recovery from surgery. Her hip replacement was scheduled for March 18. On March 14, I read the Prime Minister’s online message advising Canadians to stay home, and my husband read that our health insurance would probably not cover us if we went to the States.
The next day I talked
to my younger brother M. in Texas. He prepared to step in and take care of Mom.
The stress mounts
“We can’t come,” I told
my mother. “Maybe you should postpone your surgery.”
“Not going to happen,”
she said, determined to go ahead with the hip replacement which would relieve
March 16 the surgeon’s office called her to reschedule for May.
My middle brother E. survived a terrible traffic accident when he was nineteen. Since then he’s lived with a brain injury. He and Mom share a house and are company for one another, but during the past few years, he’s had trouble keeping his balance and has suffered a few bad falls.
On March 19, he fell for the second time in the space of a week. Mom called an ambulance, which took him to the Emergency Room. Luckily, he didn’t break any bones, but he was in pain for over a month. I wanted to be there to help my mother and brother, but all I could do was call by phone and Skype, remind him to ice his shoulder, remind her to take the anti-inflammatory pills the surgeon had prescribed.
As May approached, I waited for the surgeon to postpone again, but it didn’t happen. My brother M. once again agreed to stay with Mom during and after her surgery. Despite my worries, the surgery was a success, no one got sick, and Mom has had a good recovery.
New routines needed
Since mid-March I’ve been talking to her and E. every day. I used to call once or twice a week, but knowing I can’t visit anytime soon and aware of the danger the virus poses, I feel the need to check in more often. It’s become part of my pandemic routine, like working on my novel, online yoga and Nia classes, and the journal I’ve been keeping since December, inspired by an exercise in Lynda Barry’s wondrous book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.
Barry’s book is based
on the writing/drawing classes she taught at the University of Wisconsin. I’m a
fan of her comics and have been wanting to write/draw a graphic novel for many
years now. To prepare myself, I started doing a couple of the exercises Barry
set her students—a quick daily self-portrait and daily lists of seven things
done, seven things seen, and one thing heard, along with another quick drawing.
I’m grateful I began this practice before the lockdown as it’s been an easy and satisfying way to keep track of these pandemic days.
Meet Kim Aubrey
Kim Aubrey’s stories, essays, and poems have appeared in journals and anthologies, including Best Canadian Stories, Event, Numero Cinq, Room and The New Quarterly. Her story collection, What We Hold in Our Hands, won an Honorable Mention in the Bermuda Literary Awards. Kim leads an annual writers’ retreat in Bermuda.
Our congratulations to Helen Bajorek-MacDonald for winning Writescape’s summer Postcard Story Contest, with her story Woman with Cigarette
You can read her winning story below, followed by our comments on why we chose this story as our winner. And after our comments, read why and how Helen wrote this story. Truly inspirational!
If you missed them, please follow these links for the 2nd-place and 3rd-place winning stories and our comments on those.
Here again is the contest image that inspired this story.
Woman with Cigarette
by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald
You think you want to crawl over me, slither across my skin, creep into my soul.
You think you can create a masterpiece with your authoritative direction and with darkroom magic. One that will earn what you expect: praise for your technical skill, for your ability to render beauty.
You think you can possess me, after you gift me with your obsessive eye, and the promise of immortality.
And you think you can do all this with a click of the shutter.
You perform as artiste.
Uncompromising behind the camera, you peer through the viewfinder.
Then the sound of the film advance lever.
Again, again, between prompts and coos and directives barked by a lusty hound.
“Good! Almost there! Lift your face. No, don’t look up. Chin up! A little. Eyes on the camera. Look deep into the lens.”
The staccato rhythm of the shutter-and-advance-lever echoes the intensity of your tone and commands.
“Don’t move. Just look. Right at me.”
My head’s right, but the eyes aren’t.
My neck’s right, but the shoulders aren’t
“Raise your arm over your head.”
Not a question.
I thought it would be easy and fun. First one, then the other, taking photos for our first portraiture assignment. It’s just a few weeks into our photography programme where I am the sole female student, and already it’s all insistent tones and breathless snapping. Just another reminder that I am – merely – subject. For your camera and of your desires.
You complain that there’s not enough light because of the storm.
The rain beating against the window of your shabby one-room apartment makes me shiver, and I wonder … when will you ask me to take off my clothes, for the sake of art?
“Back in a minute,” you announce as you get up from your crouched position on the hardwood floor.
As she stands to stretch, her eyes sweep the room. Her camera waits on its tripod. Atop a beaten dresser, cup circle stains are partially exposed under the clutter of keys, cigarette packs, matchbooks, a brimming ashtray, and other miscellany.
Maybe it was the clatter of thunder that drums an idea into her mind.
She moves quickly and purposefully.
She sets up her camera. Pre-focusses on the couch. One frame left in the roll of film. One chance to get the focus and exposure right, and to coolly pose herself.
She grabs a cigarette from atop the dresser, sets the camera’s self-timer, dashes to her position at the couch.
Pose. Gaze into the lens. Be you!
She and her camera are gone before he emerges from the bathroom.
Later, under her darkroom’s safelight, the image reveals itself in the developer tray.
A whisper: Woman with Cigarette.
Why we chose this entry as the winner
Risk in any art form is part of stretching the creative soul and we feel that in this story, huge risks were taken, and they worked. Risks in POV and content themes.
Narration/voice/POV – the writer took a huge risk in moving from what seems to be second-person narration but what the reader is surprised to realize is first-person narration by the character directed at an anonymous “you” — followed by a full shift into third-person narration at the point the “I” narrator takes control of her movements and poses, makes the decision to photograph herself with the last shot in her film (which means she likely expended all but one on the fellow student who is male.) It’s unexpected and despite common advice to not switch POV in a short piece, in this story it works. It does take time to realize what is happening and may challenge some readers, but the payoff was worth it. The story begs a second read to savour the story again with that realization.
Theme: Tackling a familiar subject — the female as object — is also risky because it has been done and done and done. But this feels fresh, partly because of the intriguing shift in POV.
Intensity of the moment which is always a plus for a postcard story — like the click of the camera, a few minutes only are captured and shared to create an emotional effect on readers. Little is given as background or character relationships, but a lot is implied.
Layers – even though we see only a few moments of story action, there are big issues presented for readers to consider: We’re asked to consider the idea of “subject” as seen through the lens of the camera — and that that lens takes a perspective from the person lining up the shot. We are asked to consider the trope of female model posing equals permission for sex. We are asked who has control – of the art and of the model?
Twist: the tropes of subject and model and control as part of the production of perfect art is upended with the sense of the personal as she takes control of the last photo — she chooses the lighting, the pose and backdrop — all of it her decision.
The style of the first part is staccato like the click click of the camera. Short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes even just one word per line. No descriptions of setting or characters. Everything is focussed, mechanical, shallow, artificial, dehumanizing. In the second half, the writing becomes more fluid and human. We see some of the surroundings and there is character movement and building to a motivated point. The reader is involved in the action and outcome.
Both of us felt that the writer’s attention to craft in this fine story was as strong as any we’ve read over the years in various journals and anthologies.
We asked Helen why she entered and what was it about this photograph that took her into this story…
Over the last two years I have been home ill, battling sarcoidosis. Symptoms include debilitating fatigue and visual and cognitive impairment. Not good for a college professor who teaches communications!
When the Covid-19 quarantine struck, I was already accustomed to self-quarantine. But, my world grew even smaller. While unable to devote more than a few minutes each day to reading or writing, I decided as the quarantine dragged on that I needed something to do. So, I turned to Writescape as I knew of the work of Gwynn and Ruth from Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). A blog is short, requiring little time and energy, and it is easy to enlarge text on a computer screen. It was something I could give precious time and resources to, without compounding my health challenges.
Ruth’s blog, “Picturing Inspiration” resonated especially strongly. Firstly, because it combined two things I love to do: writing and photography.
Secondly, the image haunted me. Maybe because of the times, but I kept thinking about the masks we wear. Yet, the woman in the photograph seems to be unmasked.
Further, she is in repose, but this didn’t make visual sense to me, so I kept turning the picture around to see what the image might ‘say’ if she were erect.
I was especially struck by the direct gaze of the woman in the photograph. Not blank, I wondered what she was projecting to the photographer. What was the photographer trying to achieve? And who was the photographer? Further, there was a nagging whisper over my shoulder … why was her cigarette unlit?
These and other questions led me to conclude that the woman must be the photographer. Her gaze suggests a certain confidence, defiance, direct communication with the camera’s lens. Though this is no 21st century selfie. It’s a self-portrait. It’s art. But how did she come to take the photograph? And what was her motivation for the self-portrait?
I began to think about the reasons one does a self-portrait. Lots of history and critical mass of the male self-portrait, in painting, photography and in writing. Not so for women. Even less awareness of the female self-portrait.
Perhaps predictably, I imagined the woman in the image to be a student in a photography programme. I determined she was a trailblazer. Defiant. Confident. Keenly aware how others might view her self-portraiture – as ‘less than’ in the art world [yes, I imagined her an artist; she’s got something of a beatnik look to her which helped me determined her era] – similar to the reception given to painters Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka, who woman-with-cigarette might have known, and photographers Elsa Dorfman and Vivian Maier, who remained largely unknown throughout their lives, and about whom woman-with-cigarette likely would not learn of in a school of photography.
As I thought of the challenges woman-with-cigarette would face in her aspirations to be a photographer, I was reminded of the work of African-American photographer Deborah Willis, who was told when she entered an all-male Bachelor of Fine Arts (photography) program in the early 1970s that she was taking up a man’s seat, when all she’d end up doing was have babies. One of her earliest and most profound works is Willis’ self-portrait triptych, “I made space for a good man.” A direct, confident, and political response to those who would silence her creative voice.
And so, I envisioned the woman-with-cigarette in the late 1960s; maybe early 1970s. A nascent feminist and emerging artist, committed to the study of photography, and most certainly possessing some skill and creative talent. She was going places with her art!
And, I determined, she knew enough about art history to know that Woman with Cigarette is almost a cliché over-saturated subject for painters. The greatest challenge in writing “Woman with Cigarette” was to find a subtle way to expose her ironic joke with self.
Writescape’s contest became a much-needed distraction during challenging times, as well as allowed writing to become part of my wellness plan.
Thank you to Writescape for offering the writing challenge, “Picturing Inspiration”. It’s not easy to write to spec. But, Ruth’s blog and the image were a perfect Goldilocks challenge for me. Absolutely, the right time! Just the right length to manage with my limited personal resources. The image checked all of the right inspirational boxes. And, most important, because I struggle with brevity, clarity, and conciseness in my writing, the postcard parameter of the competition offered a perfect opportunity to wrestle with these skills. As Timothy Findlay once observed, a writer must learn to “kill her darlings”. Not so easy! My first draft was almost 900 words.
Thank you, Ruth and Gwynn, for this writing challenge, for your feedback, and for allowing readers to read the three finalist stories. It is inspiring to read the unique approaches to the telling of ‘her’ story.
Helen Bajorek-MacDonald is an educator, writer and photo-text artist, whose writing has been published in books, journals, anthologies, magazines and newspapers.
Helen has exhibited collaborative visual/textual works with partner Jean-Michel Komarnicki, such as “Water and Iron” in Clarington Taken (Visual Arts Centre of Clarington), and in a group exhibition, Reading the Image (Whitby Station Gallery).
Today we continue with our 2nd-Place winner, Lori Twining and her story Smoke Job. Our comments and suggestions appear after the story.
Here again is the contest inspiration image.
by Lori Twining
There’s an off-duty cop in the backyard blowing leaf-litter all over the grey Ford sedan and the black Cadillac SUV, both stolen days before in a violent carjacking. There’s an ex-con sprawled out on the living room floor wielding a highlighter over a set of blueprints. There’s a young techie perched over the kitchen table setting all four watches—stolen in a smash and grab last month—to the same time because seconds are crucial.
Lastly, there’s a liar, a thief, and a snitch stretched across the leather couch enjoying her last dart. She contemplates several of her life choices, especially the ones she neglected to make, and the one she made hours ago, but regrets already.
Individually, the four of them are troubled souls with big dreams, but together, a powerful force.
Stella blows a smoke ring above the ex-con’s head and stares at the clock. In less than two hours, she’ll be celebrating her last heist, boarding a plane, and sinking her toes into the soft sand of the Virgin Islands. Nothing beats the smell of deep-fried conch fritters basted with sweet and spicy sauce wafting from Hemingway’s Caribbean Café unless it’s the salty taste of her forever sea.
* * *
The sedan stops in front of the building. Four individuals touch their watches to begin the countdown. They are clothed in black, wearing balaclavas, with guns firmly gripped in gloved hands. They step out of the car, leaving the doors wide open and rush toward the bank.
Ten seconds later, Techie has them inside. He uses a jamming device to knock out the security cameras, along with the alarm system. Blueprint guy heads to the vault, with off-duty guy hot on his heels. They have five minutes.
Stella stands in the shadows scanning the street for activity. Waits three minutes. She reaches into her backpack and retrieves the item, pulling the pin and tossing the frag into the sedan. She races into the bank, down the hall, and out the backdoor to the waiting Cadillac. She climbs behind the wheel.
Her mind wanders as she tries to remain calm…Serial killers still feed their goldfish, pyromaniacs still swim with dolphins and the president still swears on an upside-down and backward Bible, while spewing lies.
She holds an imaginary cigarette between her fingers and blows another invisible smoke ring. This will be her last. She’ll be sure to tell her offspring she never smoked a day in her life.
Sirens sound. Soon, they’ll be running for their lives from Police with dogs, helicopters with reporters, and grandmas with their I-told-you-so wagging fingers. There are many decisions in life, and now, she wonders, should she stay or should she bolt?
The snitch would kill for another smoke. Instead, she drops her hand to her belly, fingers splayed. She whispers, “Time for Mommy to disappear and time for Daddy to have a 20-year sleepover with all the men who hate him.” She presses the gas pedal to the floor.
Authentic voice — hard-edged and worldly yet tentative. Stella is a complicated narrator telling a tale of betrayal. The slow reveal of her betrayal is tantalizing with tension building nicely and the ending packs a nice punch.
Deliberate attention to detail and word choice – This is a story that invites a second read to look for the clues offered. The two cars: the team think she’s distracting by blowing one up but she’s faster than they are, and the SUV waits at the back door for her to leave the three holding the bag. She’s “the snitch” — and told us so in the beginning. We just didn’t know she was snitching on these particular three at this particular moment. No names here but hers which helps us believe she can be that cool to make this choice. And the coming baby – lots of echoes in the text — “offspring” and “Virgin Islands” for example — that fit with her pregnant state.
The twist: Her motivation for betrayal becomes crystal clear — it’s not the lure of escape for herself but for her baby. After all, she’s already given up smoking for that baby.
Loaded title: Smoke Job. So many definitions for that title and all of them relevant to this story. Smoke job – hiding the truth; smoke job – exposing others; smoke job – sexual heightening by the woman; smoke job – destruction.
There’s subtle, clever and topical humour here. Very difficult to pull off successfully, but well done in this piece. “Serial killers still feed their goldfish, pyromaniacs still swim with dolphins and the president (purposely lower case) still swears on an upside-down and backward Bible (purposely uppercase), while spewing lies.” Or “She’ll be sure to tell her offspring she never smoked a day in her life”
What could be stronger:
In such a tight piece, clarity must be paramount. Readers should not need to re-read a line to be sure to understand the events. The leaf-litter being blown over the cars was intriguing but didn’t seem logical as the heist was “in less than two hours”. Was the leaf-litter to hide the cars? Was the leaf-litter being blown OFF the cars in readiness? They were stolen days earlier.
Postcard stories are stories of the moment – resist long lead- ins and begin “in media res” if possible. We know you wanted the image (like the contest image) of Stella “enjoying her last dart”, but perhaps consider starting instead driving to the bank, and converting the beginning part to her thoughts on the ride.
Naming only Stella was a good choice, but “tag-names” can get confusing. Especially when they change: Off-duty cop became off duty guy; ex-con became blue-print guy. Suggest using consistent tags as names with Caps – still impersonal, but easier to understand: “Off-duty Cop blows leaf-litter …. Ex-con sprawls on the living room floor… Techie perches…..
Passive construction rears it’s ugly head a fair amount in this story. Lots of “to be” verbs keep readers distanced from the rising tension. Look for “was/is/are” and replace with more active verbs or reorder the sentence to avoid them as much as possible.
Also, proofread to catch grammar errors like police vs Police — generic so no capitalization.
A quirky and fun ride, Lori. We enjoyed reading this story — congratulations!
That’s two winning stories down and one to go….the 1st Place winner. We’ll publish the winner next week complete with our comments.
In the meantime, perhaps you have a flash fiction piece you can polish up and submit to one of these contests or journals:
Thank you once again to all who entered our contest from Canada and abroad, and to our longlist finalists announced last week.
Today we take great pleasure in announcing and congratulating the top three winners:
Drum roll please……
1st Place: Helen Bajorek-MacDonald – Woman with Cigarette
2nd Place: Lori Twining – Smoke Job
3rd Place: Ann Rocchi – Quarantine Dreams
Beginning today with our 3rd-Place winner, we will share these stories with you over the next three weeks and tell you why we chose them.
Before you read Ann Rocchi’s story Quarantine Dreams, here again is the contest image that served as inspiration.
by Ann Rocchi
Like a bad penny, her smoking returned. It was something to do! Something to fill the empty hours. Adrienne was usually a busy person – too busy, her friends said. This enforced isolation was not going well for her. She was lethargic, unmotivated…she felt like she had a piano tied to her ass. So. Cigarettes. Social media was advising everyone to reach out to connections from the past. She always felt connected when she was smoking. Connected to the cool kids, the ones who wore buffalo plaid shirts over their school uniforms and reigned over the rearmost bench of the bus. Connected to the hip crowd in college, lighting up after one-off sex with whoever you had brought home from the pub. Connected to her ex-husband; even when they could no longer hold a civil conversation, they could sit in silent communion with their smokes. She still smoked when she drank. And her drinking had skyrocketed lately, too. Kool-Aid coloured cocktails with paper parasols in fishbowl-sized glasses. Why, oh why, had she gone through with the whole fortieth birthday trip? Of course, everything was booked and paid for long before a whisper of “pandemic”. But they deserved it, right, she and her posse of single moms? They had worked hard all winter, shoveled their own driveways, carpooled till the cows came home and now it was time to park the kids with the grandparents and party. It felt so good to lie in the sun, a lovely buzz going from that fourth fruity drink, without some sticky little hand grabbing at her. There had been one sticky hand that trip, though, and not so little, either… Brendon? Brandan? One of those boy band names. He was tanned, taut and tattooed. They were partners for the Traditional Firewalking Event at the resort. He had talked her into it, had even done it already as a team building exercise back home with his work, Millennials R Us, or some other bullshit company she couldn’t remember. She was sauced, and when their leader exclaimed how empowered and spiritually connected she would feel afterwards, she ditched her shoes, grabbed the young hipster’s hand, and casually strolled across a fiery path of burning coals. She had ridden him like a goddess that night. Adrienne leaned over, chugged her beer, then tapped her cigarette butt in a houseplant to dislodge the ash. She took a quick peek through the curtains at her kids playing in the yard, then nestled back into the curvature of the couch. She inhaled deeply, held, exhaled. She felt like a lazy, good-for-nothing underachiever. This was her last smoke, she vowed. She would get up and make a healthy dinner for everyone. Baby steps. Just a quick rest first. Resolved, Adrienne finally relaxed. Her head bobbed, her cigarette drooped. Her vision blurred, hazy and ash gray, like the smoke of the firewalk. Adrienne slid into a deep sleep, not even the whiff of charred fabric interrupting her descent.
voice — believable narrator, unreliable and sad – always in character of bargaining, denial, trying to fit in, lacking self-confidence etc.
the ending — oh we fear for her, for the smoking fabric, the fact she’s been drinking, the kids in the yard — it’s all about to go up in smoke.
especially enjoyed that the element of surprise at the end is built logically through the story but is still unexpected. The girls trip and that one night with Brendan/Brandan feels real from risking the firewalking to risking a random one-night stand.
setting the story during Covid19 lends a topical and contemporary feel. We all understand how depression and so many other feelings seem to be heightened in these times. Makes this scenario all the more believable.
good subtle foreshadowing throughout starting with the first line. We know things will not go well: Her smoking returned like a bad penny.This was her last smoke… ash grey, like the smoke of the firewalk.
style — mix of sentence lengths for effect, repetition and sets of 3 for effect, building on ideas such as “connected” from school to adulthood: Connected to her ex-husband; even when they could no longer hold a civil conversation, they could sit in silent communion with their smokes. (Especially effective as this narrator is clearly not connected emotionally to much — a worsening drunk making deals with herself to manage everyday life.)
some fresh and effective figurative language: like she had a piano tied to her ass; her posse of single moms; nestled into the curvature of the couch.
As she begins her final decent into lethargy, the language becomes slower and more lethargic too. No vivid descriptions. Short simple sentences. And one moment of heightened tension (peek at the kids in the back yard) to make the reader want to reach into the story and shake her out of her stupor.
What might strengthen this piece:
While this character is certainly increasingly passive and reflective as she slips deeper into her drink and eventual sleep, we suggest fewer instances of passive verb construction: lots of “to be” verbs, especially at the beginning, keep readers distanced from the rising tension. Look for “was/is/are” and replace with more active verbs or reorder the sentence to avoid it as much as possible: This enforced isolation was not going well for her. She was lethargic, unmotivated. Other possibilities: Enforced isolation left her lethargic, unmotivated. Or Lethargy and lack of motivation had gripped her during this enforced isolation.
Timeline glitch: 40th birthday trip took place “long before a whisper of pandemic”, but she went after “they had worked hard all winter.” The pandemic started at end of 2019. It reached us around end of Jan and into Feb. Lockdown began in March.
Quarantine Dreams was a pleasure to read. Congratulations Ann on crafting such a great story.
Next week we publish the second-place winner along with our comments and suggestions. In the meantime, if you would like to enjoy reading or learning more about flash fiction or postcard stories, check out these links.