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.