10 things poets can teach us

10 things poets can teach us

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.

Keeping in touch and keeping track

Keeping in touch and keeping track

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 LockdownToday’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.

Kim Aubrey

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 her pain.

But on 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.

Top of the podium

Top of the podium

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.

Maybe.

You perform as artiste. 

Uncompromising behind the camera, you peer through the viewfinder.

Click.

Then the sound of the film advance lever.

Click-advance.

Again, again, between prompts and coos and directives barked by a lusty hound.

Click-advance.

“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.

More barking.

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?

More instructions.

“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!

Click. 

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…

Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

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.

Frida Kahlo 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).

Postcard Story 2nd-Place Winner

Postcard Story 2nd-Place Winner

Last week we announced our Top Three winners and published the 3rd place winner’s story and comments.

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.

SMOKE JOB

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.

Strengths:  

  • 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:

Postcard Story Winners!

Postcard Story Winners!

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.




Quarantine Dreams

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.

Strengths:

  • 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.

10 Stay-at-home Prompts

10 Stay-at-home Prompts

Feeling cooped up a little these days? Use writing to break free for a while. After all, there are no boundaries on the imagination. Here are 10 safe prompts to try without leaving home.

  1. There’s a group on Facebook called View From My Window. It’s a fascinating group with views from people’s windows all over the world. Some have magnificent vistas, some just a modest balcony, some a brick wall. What is most fascinating is the stories of the people with these different views. Write about the view from your window today. Or write about a window view from your past like perhaps a child’s bedroom window; window of a first apartment; window travelling to….

2. On social media people are reporting how increased time at home has allowed them to observe their own surroundings more closely. They are seeing and hearing birds they’ve not noticed before. Close your eyes and listen: note the sounds you hear – identify at least 5 – work those sounds into a poem or prose piece.

3. If social media is anything to go by, cooking from scratch has been a favourite activity lately. Find a recipe from an old cookbook and attempt it (or imagine attempting it). Keep a notebook at hand. Respond to the directions (what the heck is a roux anyway? what will happen if I substitute margarine for butter?) Make notes about the smells as you mix, roast, bake, BBQ or sautée. What about sounds: metal spoons scraping bowls, sizzles in the pan, chimes of the timer. Taste as you go forward. Remember to write it all down. It’s life or death: imagine serving the finished dish to people who can decide your fate.

4. Have you been sorting through drawers and closets lately? Go to your clothes closet or the linen closet. Close your eyes and try and identify the fabrics by feel (terry cloth; cotton; satin; wool; etc.) What memory of a piece of clothing or furnishing comes to mind as you feel the fabrics? Write about it.

5. Archaeology at home. Dig into the back of your closet or crawl space or rummage around in that junk drawer we all have. Look for something you haven’t held or seen in a long time. What’s the story? Where did you last have it and why? And why is it now a forgotten item?

6. Non-fiction: How have you made your surroundings more positive this year prompted by the pandemic? Started a veggie garden for the first time? Bought extra hanging baskets because you’ll be home more? Bought a bird book because you are noticing the birds more?

7. Magazine mania. Pull out a couple of magazines you’ve already read. Make a list of 10 article titles. Using most if not all, rearrange the titles or pieces from the titles to create a poem. Do the same thing with 10 books. 

8. Zoom in on distancing. Think about how natural responses to fellow human beings have changed during this strange time. No hugs. No handshakes. No communal sharing of food. Write about another time or place where what we think of as natural responses are denied either by rules (prison); circumstance (hands in bandages from burns), geography (travelling in space), custom (love between a royal and a commoner).

9. Dance into a story. Play some music you like and get up on your feet. Be creative. Dance like no one’s watching (which is probably the case, anyway.) Now, change it up. Play music you’d never dance to — something way outside your comfort zone. Pay attention to how you try to move to the music. Your frustrations. Your attempts. When you stop, create a scene about a character at a party (remember those?) who doesn’t know how to dance. 

10. Time travel. Locate yourself in the same spot for one minute every hour. Do this for at least 6 hours — more if you can manage it. At every hour, look around and pay attention to what you see. What is the quality of the light? Does it shift position? What else do you notice? Imagine what it could be like for someone who can’t move, who can only stay stationary and observe. Write about it.

Picturing Inspiration

Picturing Inspiration

Ruth E. Walker

A picture is, indeed, “worth a thousand words.” An excellent photograph offers the eye a doorway into imagination and emotion. We often use images in our workshops and retreats as prompts or to underscore an important point.

It’s always a matter of perspective — both the perspective taken in the framing of the photo or painting and the perspective of the viewer. We bring our experience, our baggage and our emotions to how we see what is before us.

Here’s a favourite of mine. The clever overlay of shadow and light draws the eye to the jumble of papers. I suppose it reminds me of my desk, often a sea of papers — mine and those of others I’m working on. The solitary blue pen invites me to pick it up. The touch of green prismed onto the papers is a subtle contrast to the snow outside the window.

So why else does this photograph appeal to me?

There’s a story here. These papers are a mix of note cards, graph paper and full scratch sheets. The different coloured ink and the variety of writing styles suggest that various hands have held these papers. And the script doesn’t look like it’s English on any of the papers.

And of course, the blank lined note card in the bottom left. Ready for…what?


There are secrets here

A group of papers that don’t seem to be someone’s journalling or manuscript could be plans or formulas. There are numbers, lists, notations in the margins.

The room is otherwise unlit with the only light arriving through the window. It begs the question: why take this photograph in particular? Was it a surreptious snapshot taken in the only light available because to turn on the lights otherwise might give away the photographer’s presence? Was the power out?

But for me, the big question is what are the slivers of green light from? We can’t see it. We can only guess at what it is. There’s no shadow of a shelf so it must be hanging there. Or is it hovering? I get lovely shivers thinking of ghosts or aliens.

Follow the questions

For writers, a great visual is one that triggers questions, emotions and ideas. Here’s a couple more to take a look at and see what they trigger for you.


There’s something about black and white photos, as in the one above. The eye needs to interpret a scene without the use of colour and with the use of shadows and light. What might be missed in a colour shot comes into stark relief with the absence of colour.

Immediately, my mind slipped back to my tour last year of the old Kingston Penitentiary. Two things continue strong in my memory from that historic place: the solitary confinement cells and the graffiti on the walls of almost every spot that held prisoners. Prisoner messages were everywhere. Rude. Full of misspelling. Poignant. Denoting territory. Despairing. And often just practical: Don’t plug in the toaster when the microwave is on.

The graffiti in this black and white photo makes me wonder if this is an homage, a snippet of poetry or a threat. Story gold, in my opinion. Message in a photo instead of in a bottle.

Conversely, colour excites other ideas and emotions in the viewer, especially in this photo with the dark twisty tree limbs that layer the forefront. Behind that “barrier” rests a bridge of possibility: red for excitement…or danger? A curved shape makes the first half an effort to climb and the last half an effort to keep from racing down.

See those leaves on the ground and the early yellows of late August or early September in the trees? What does autumn represent? Is this a bridge to “the other side” of life or a way to leave the past behind?

People who need people…are writers

Finally, here’s something just for you, writer. A story found in a face. Spend some time with this photograph and see where it takes you. Can you craft a postcard story (500-word maximum)? Can you see beyond the obvious and look deeper into this image, imagining the past, forecasting the future? Find one detail and follow that thread.

Image: Uki Eiri from Pixa
bay

Deadline: Midnight, Friday, June 5, 2020 (12:00 p.m. EST)

Prize: We’ll publish the best postcard story right here in Writescape’s The Top Drawer weekly blog, along with your bio and a friendly interview on what inspired your entry. Bragging rights!

Judges: Gwynn and Ruth. And we might invite one more judge to join us — someone to balance out the panel.

Open to writers age 16 or up at any stage of the writing process: published, unpublished or in between. Winner and runners up will be announced by June 30, 2020.

SUBMIT: by email to info@writescape.ca with your entry attached as a Word doc and in ms format (double spaced; 12 pt font Times New Roman or similar). Email Subject: Postcard Story Writescape

Just a note that many of our photographs come from pixabay.com with photos and graphics created by artists from all over the world. If you use Pixabay, it’s free of charge. Just remember to “buy a cup of coffee for the creators” by occasionally donating.

The Unexpected Visitor

The Unexpected Visitor

Gwynn Scheltema

Saturday, April 18 was the third Saturday of the month and the usual day for the breakfast meeting of my Northumberland County writers’ group “Spirit of the Hills”. Each month we meet in person at a local inn to check in on what everyone is doing and listen to a guest speaker. We usually go around the table and everyone has a minute or so to talk about what they are working on, share writing news and events and anything else writing related that might be of interest to the members. After that we have a guest speaker or a discussion. The whole thing lasts about two hours.

This month we tried on a new format—we met on ZOOM.

And I have to give a big shout out to our organizers, Kim, Felicity and Katie who made some interesting choices on the flow and content of the meeting so that it was long enough, but not too long, easily participated in without being a free-for-all and most of all for sending us away with inspiration to keep on writing.

The Guest House

Because April is poetry month, they chose that as a theme for the meeting.

Kim started us off with a reading of Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House”. This was such a good choice, not only because Rumi is much loved by so many, but because this particular poem, even though written in the 13th century, was able to speak to what we are experiencing as creators right now. For many of us, the muse is not showing up as she usually does. This poem reminded us to welcome whatever she brings.

Check-in

In our regular meetings, we would then have proceeded with our round-the-table check-in with everyone. Instead, earlier in the week, Felicity emailed those planning to attend asking them to email their usual personal “minute update” to her by the Wednesday before the meeting. She then compiled the responses into a document and emailed it to the group prior to the meeting.

I found this a great idea, because I find ZOOM meetings require more concentration than meeting in person, and so the meeting wasn’t as long as our usual in-person meeting and I have a copy of what’s going on among my friends and colleagues to read at my leisure.

Rumi’s poem in action

Next, Kim called on each of us in turn to read something we had worked on recently (max 4 minutes). We were all prepared, as the Zoom invitation had told us what the plan was.

It was interesting to see Rumi’s poem in action—the muse welcomed no matter what she brought. Several members read pieces in response to the pandemic (prose and poetry); others read pieces as far removed from the pandemic as possible. Some, it was clear, had managed to soldier on with existing projects despite it all.

In their introductions, readers commented on how these strange times had affected them creatively, and again, like the guests at the Guest House, some had found unexpected visits of creativity.

Keep the visitors inspired

Finally, Katie closed the meeting with some comments and resources to check out to keep the visitors to the Guest House inspired. I have shared some of them below for your inspiration too.

Brava Ladies! A job well done.

A poem a day (or week)

  • Poetry Present: If you haven’t signed up to receive or be a part of this delightful project from Cobourg’s own phenomenal poet laureate, Jessica Outram, now’s the time! Residents and friends of Cobourg and the surrounding area are encouraged to send in their own poetry, to be distributed to a growing number of subscribers, one poem a week from a different poet.
  • Poetry Foundation
  • Academy of American Poets’ Poets.org
  • Poetry 180 Project for schools of then-poet laureate of the U.S., Billy Collins:

Other Resources

Nobody’s Fool

Nobody’s Fool

Ruth E. Walker

On the first day of April, it feels right to consider all the times I’ve been fooled in the past. Despite the pandemic upending our world right now, it is probable that plenty of people had something pulled on them this morning.

Of course, some of the April Fools’ Day jokes I’ve endured have been the usual silliness, like the kids hiding under the bed so I’d think they disappeared. Or a decidedly less-than-brilliant piece of mischief like putting plastic wrap between the bowl and the toilet seat (saw the plastic before I sat down…phew!)

Corporate chuckles…

April Fools jokes even find traction in news media. I recall a front page story in London, Ontario, that confirmed a massive dome would be built to cover the city (just think — no more shovelling snow and one bad-ass form of isolation).

The corporate world has had its fair share of April Fools’ foolery. Ikea once had a recall on its “left-handed Allen key.” Can you imagine all the toolboxes upended to find the faulty item?

But for readers of thrilling fiction, Amazon launched a Twitter ad on April 1, 2018 that goes one step further in terms of “delivering” books. Author Patricia Cornwall jumps off her yatch and scuba dives to California to get her book to an avid fan.

How about that for delivering the goods? It’s a joke, of course. But fun to imagine. I’ve always said I’d do anything for my book, but I guess scuba diving is not on that list after all.

Put funny in your fiction?

I suppose we could all benefit from things to laugh about — especially these days. But also consider the power of humour to capture our imaginations and remind us of our gullible, fallible selves. It’s a useful writers’ tool to keep in your writing workshop: the human condition, warts and all.

We Canadians have a long line of writers whose sense of the absurd finds its understated way into stories and novels, chief among them Margaret Atwood. I once told her that her novel Life Before Man was the first novel that made me laugh out loud. In retrospect, I hope she took that as a compliment.

The great American storyteller, Mark Twain, opined that “there are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind — the humorous.”

Indeed. But it’s not often recognized as such. In a May 1, 1916 Maclean’s magazine article, beloved Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock wrote:

“…ordinary people, quite unconsciously, rate humor very low: I mean, they underestimate the difficulty of “making humor.” It would never occur to them that the thing is hard, meritorious, and dignified. Because the result is gay and light, they think the process must be.”  

While writing humour well is difficult, readers do value the end result. Especially from brilliant writers like Margaret Atwood, as well as in the works of Twain and Leacock. Great storytellers have always understood that to hold difficult truths up to the light, humour in its many forms can keep us reading. And more importantly, it can plant the seeds of changed perspectives.

And that is one powerful tool for any writer.

What funny novels or stories have tickled your funnybone just when you needed it most? What writers made you laugh first and then stop and think? On this April Fool’s Day, share with us in the comments.

Writing in Difficult Times

Writing in Difficult Times

Jessica Faust, BookEnds Literary Agency 

Originally posted in BookEnds’ blog, the following is such sage and practical advice for writers that we requested and received permission from Jessica to share her words on our Top Drawer blog. This is an unprecedented and uncertain time in modern history. But there are ways we can all keep our creative flames lit. Write on, as best you can, knowing that we hold the mirrors for the world in which they see themselves. Let’s encourage only the best in each other.

There is no doubt that difficult times make writing harder. When the world seems like it is blowing up, focusing and being creative feels nearly impossible. And yet, deadlines don’t stop just because the world is crazy.

No one thing will work for all people and, certainly, everyone’s situation will be different. But for those seeking guidance, I have some tips.

1. Just keep writing. It doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good, but sitting down every day to put words on paper makes a difference.

2. Shut down social media. When the world is crazy-making we all go to social media for information. It’s useful, but can also be destructive. Pick a few times each day to check-in, limit your time, and get out.

3. Talk about it. If you’re truly struggling, reach out to your agent [or mentors or writing colleagues] and let them know. Sometimes just sharing can release what’s holding you back. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling.

4. Do something else creative–make a cake, knit a scarf, take a photograph, or build a coatrack. Finding something you enjoy outside of writing helps take your mind off what is blocking you.

5. Give yourself a break. Times are tough and it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re struggling. Allow yourself some time if you need it.

I wish you all good health. And promise, the words will come again.

Jessica Faust is President and founder of BookEnds Literary Agency where she represents adult fiction and nonfiction. Her areas of expertise are mystery, suspense, thrillers, women’s fiction, literary and upmarket fiction. She also represents select areas of nonfiction. More about Jessica can be found through her blog, YouTube, and Twitter.