“We write to…”

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We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

-Anaïs Nin

Writing Prompt: On The Road

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Write a story, no more than 500 words, that takes place during a car trip. The entire story must take place in the car, though character(s) can think or talk about events that took place outside of the car.

Behind The Scenes: Happy Birthday, Dad

My father would have been 71 years old today. Two years ago, on his 69th birthday, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. His fight against this horrid disease lasted until September 9, 2016. To be honest, it doesn’t always feel like he’s really gone. He traveled a lot for work, so it really just feels sometimes like he’s been on a really long business trip.

My dad wanted to be a forest ranger. Before he died, I promised him I would immortalize him in fiction. I can think of no better way than to name my protagonist after him and base this character on my father in many ways. While James Stanworth, my main character, is also based on Thomas Stanton, a real guy who lived in 17th-century Connecticut, there’s a lot of my father in his characterization as well.

Two years ago, I got the worst news I’d ever received in my whole life. Now, it feels good to be able to honor my father in the best way I know how. Happy birthday, Dad.

Rhyming Poetry

This poem is one I wrote at least seven years ago, but I always liked its whimsicality.

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I’m horrible at writing rhyming poetry. 

I tried it once and failed, you see. 

I climbed many an eloquent tree 

To grab that elusive singsong soliloquy. 

Matching tails of verses evaded 

Yet my breath was always bated 

I pined and counted hours and waited 

For a muse–my writing to be aided. 

At last, long cloud-covered day ended 

My wordsmith spirit undefended 

A rhyme on paper was thus pended 

Until dawn, from sleep I was up-ended… 

And in the face of sun that shines, 

I found, written in my hand, these lines 

What grace from Euterpe this page divines 

Maybe I can rhyme sometimes. 

Pathogen: Gene – 5

PathogenBy the time Gene actually left his office, it was well past nine. At least he didn’t have to sit in traffic, he thought, and maybe Barbara would still be out with her friends so that he could just go to sleep to rest for tomorrow. When he pulled into his driveway and saw the whole house lit up, he knew she was home and awake. Like a teenager still hoping not to get caught for breaking curfew, Gene eased his car door shut after stepping out onto the stamped concrete driveway. Unlocking the door, he slipped inside and lowered his computer case to the floor. Voices floated from the living room; he hoped it was just the television.

Barbara bustled out into the foyer in a dress and heels, wearing flawless makeup and her hair pulled back into something she called a French twist. He didn’t know what was so French about it, but he knew better than to argue with his wife about hair or fashion. “Welcome home,” she greeted him with a plastic smile and a peck on his cheek. Letting her voice carry, she added, “I knew how disappointed you were that you couldn’t come to dinner, so I invited everyone over here. We’re having hors d’oeuvres; dinner is warming in the dining room. You must be famished dear.”

The way she squeezed his hand was enough to confirm he was in for another lecture later, but Gene knew he could lessen the blow by playing the friendly host now. “Oh, good. Let me just straighten my tie.” He shifted the knot back into place and adjusted his collar before following her into the next room. “Good evening, everyone. You didn’t need to wait for me to eat.”

“Nonsense,” Barbara cooed. “I know how hard you work, and how hungry you are when you get home. Let me put the finishing touches on dinner and you can sit with our guests.”

Barbara’s friends didn’t leave until after midnight. Then she scolded him for at least another half hour so that by the time he fell asleep, it was nearly one in the morning. His four-thirty alarm rang all too soon for Gene’s liking, and he rose from bed like a zombie from the grave, shuffling his way toward the bathroom for a shower. By eight-thirty, he was waiting outside the office of the Deputy Director in the Washington, DC office of the CDC. Gene rested his computer case against the foot of his chair and forced down the burnt black coffee some intern brought him a few minutes ago. He stifled a yawn; when he looked up, Hannah Mercer smiled down at him.

“You know, the best way to ward off disease is to be well-rested,” she lilted in her Southern accent.

“I thought it was washing your hands,” he remarked wryly. They’d spoken over the phone a few times and always seemed to get along. Hannah was probably a good fifteen years younger than he was–he guessed in her late thirties–and way too young for her job. This report was going to cause a lot of trouble for her and she might end up hating him. He stood and lifted his computer case onto his shoulder. “Lead the way, Miss Mercer.” He followed to her office. The room was bright with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls. “Very nice,” he remarked.

“Thanks. I like it here. The weather is better than Atlanta, at least.”

“I’m not sure that’s much of a comparison. So…where do you want to do this? At your desk? On the couch?”

“Let’s use the desk; that way you can comfortably type.” She walked around to sit in her chair after indicating one of the two chairs opposite. Hannah cleared off one half of her desk to make room for his computer.

“Thank you.” As he booted his laptop, Gene asked, “how about the added work? Settling in okay?”

“I don’t mind it. Later hours but I’ve never been a social butterfly. There are changes I want to make in the CDC and the only way to do that is to move up the ladder. That’s off the record, Mr. Dockery.”

She had a toothy smile, Gene thought. Her teeth were straight and white, but they seemed too large for her face. “Of course. I wouldn’t do anything intentionally to hurt your career. Not when you’ve been so helpful to me over the last six months, especially.” No sense in putting her ill at ease, he figured. His questions were going to do that soon enough. “Are you ready to begin?”

“I am. Fire away.”

“Can I record our conversation?”

“Sure.”

“Great. My first question is this. Why did the CDC hide the fact that this disease–the Sweats–is not viral or bacterial in nature?” He saw the color drain from her face and wished this interview was on camera. Even so, the soundbites would have to do. He’d not been given permission to film the interview, though he never got a straight answer as to why that was. Being that he was interviewing the second in command in the Washington office, Gene hadn’t argued beyond being told three times that he wouldn’t get the interview on video. He figured this was why.

“At first,” she began, hedging her answer, “we didn’t really know what we were looking at. The disease sprang up so fast in the Middle East, and by the time we were able to run significant tests, it was already on its way here.”

“So you knew who Patient Zero was here in the US?” It wasn’t uncommon to stray from his planned questions; he’d get back to them.

“Not exactly, no.”

“Was the CDC working with Homeland Security or the FBI to track this disease? Some have speculated that its outbreak on American soil was an act of terrorism.”

“The CDC has worked with the World Health Organization, but as far as I know, we did not believe its appearance in the United States to be an act of terrorism. Just an unfortunate accident.”

“An accident? Is transmission of a disease ever intentional?”

“Of course not.” Hannah’s face flushed. “Of course it’s never intentional. Who would want anyone to get sick like this?”

“Well there are some theories about that.”

“Conspiracy theories at best, Mr. Dockery. I should have thought you’d be above giving credence to them.”

“So you dismiss any and all theories that the disease was created on purpose.”

She sighed and gripped the arms of her chair. “To the best of my knowledge, the disease was not created on purpose, nor brought to the United States on purpose.”

Gene smiled slowly. “Is there a possibility then that someone else might know something different? Someone higher up?”

“I can only answer for the information I have, Mr. Dockery.”

He was silent a moment. “Very well. Let’s move on to the next part of the interview.” The rest of the questions were about her speculations on what the future might bring. That’s all she offered him–speculations–but none of those mattered. Gene got what he came for in the first ten minutes. If she was lying, he’d find out–and if Hannah Mercer spoke truthfully, then he’d go above her to find out what was really going on. Besides, now he had an ally. He’d planted a seed of doubt. Gene wouldn’t nurture it just yet, but if there was one thing he knew from working in the media, it was that doubt was one of the most powerful feelings a person could have. Hannah Mercer would either go down in flames, or help him light the fire.

MFA Update: 6 More Days

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With my final deadline of the semester in less than a week, I’ll be focusing my efforts this week on my craft essays. I have two more to write to close out the semester, and some reading to do in order to write them. My 30 pages of fiction are written, and I’ve taken them through one round of edits. Ideally, I’d like to do one more round before sending them on to my mentor next week.

What I’ve Learned This Semester

I had such fun this semester experimenting with my thesis. I played with structure, style, and point of view. I tried everything from an epistolary approach to writing the story as though it were in an online forum. I thought about my novel in terms of a linked collection of short stories.

After all of this, I’ve come back around closer to my original approach, but I definitely learned a lot about myself as a writer along the way, including the value of experimenting with my story.

I wrote the same scenes in so many ways that I now feel confident in my approach. Oh, and my story changed. I always expect that to happen, and it’d happened already a few times…but it’s changed even more and the change is freeing.

Speaking of freeing, I found a way to loosen up my prose. I’m sure my reading list has something to do with it–prior to entering this program, most of the books I read were classics. I am still reading classics, but for many of them, the language is a bit stiffer than contemporary prose. By bringing my reading list forward in time and studying more contemporary authors, my voice has loosened up a bit.

Residency Is In 2.5 Weeks

And I’ve critiqued three stories for peer workshop, but I still have five to go. I’m really enjoying them, and am trying to finish one every other day so I have almost the whole week before residency free.

Going into my third residency, the only cause for sadness is that it means I’ll only have one more left.

This summer, I’ll be teaching a self-defense seminar because so many people in the program have expressed an interest in learning. Some of my fellow MFA candidates have some martial arts experience already, and I know of at least one who also holds a black belt. At the least, it’ll be an opportunity to move around for about an hour or so. As wonderful as residency is, it involves a lot of sitting.

I’m looking forward to the trip up to the mountains this year, too. I’ll have the company of a good friend (who is attending her fourth residency), and with good company, the ride will be great. It’s about 4-4.5 hours.

For My Third Semester

Residency is when I find out who my next mentor will be, but I’d be more than happy with any of the three I requested. Third semester works a bit differently than the first and second semesters in that I don’t have to write the ten craft essays anymore.

Instead, I’ll be writing a 10-15-page close reading essay. I’m psyched about this because to be honest, I’m a little weary of the craft essays and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the close reading. I’m eager to dive deep into a text and really pick it apart.

My goals for my thesis are to produce as much of it as I can. Aside from the 30-pages-every-five-weeks deadlines, I’d love to have a rough draft finished by the end of this year. According to Scrivener, about 270 words a day will do the trick. That’s pretty easy, especially when I know where I’m headed with my story. I’ve been writing more than that each day, so I imagine I’ll hit my goal of 75,000 words before the year is out.

I’m so glad I delayed trying to pump out a first draft. Last residency, one of the other students (who is graduating this June), cautioned me against doing that in my second semester. He advised me to have fun in my second semester and to give myself room to play and experiment with my text. This was fantastic advice and I’ll be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to slow down.

Final Thoughts

Time is passing so quickly in retrospect, but there are times when it passes so slowly in the middle of the semester. I think the next few weeks are going to fly by because I’ll be focused on preparing for residency and finishing my submission for the next week and a half. Then, the week after that, I’ll want to finish my Pride and Prejudice guides for Literature Lessons so they’re complete before I leave. Residency week always goes fast. Always.

When I get back from residency, it’ll be time to start my work for my next submission as well as planning for next fall, when I’ll be teaching freshman composition. I’ll also be teaching a creative writing class, but I have that course almost entirely worked out from when I was pursuing my M.A. I just have to look over the lesson plans and materials, and make sure everything still fits.

My main goal for next semester is to produce a complete draft. My other goals will depend on which mentor I’m assigned. I’ll post my next MFA update after residency.

Surf’s Up

I saw a show recently where someone’s stomach got pumped. I got to thinking about a character who might have undergone that, and apparently, she was talking for this prompt.

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“It’s like a scene right out of Jaws,” Jane said, eying the beach. She stood on the boardwalk, beach towel and cooler in hand. The beach towel was white, with large blue words that read, “Surf’s up” on one side. She wasn’t a surfer, but the towel, threadbare in places, had been her brother’s. Since he lost his mind and went to school in the frigidity of Canada, she decided he couldn’t be a surfer anymore. 

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” her older sister claimed. “Come on.” 

They wove between blankets and beach chairs. Boomboxes blared. Babies and little children tipped buckets of water onto piles of sand, and with frantic digging, tried to make tunnels and castles before the sand could dry. 

“There’s no space anywhere. And it’s really hot out here,” Jane whined. “Why did we come here again?”

“I’m not missing the holiday weekend at the beach. Not when it’s this nice out. And I can’t exactly leave you home alone.” 

Jane’s face flushed. “It’s been a whole year, Sara. I wouldn’t do anything—”

“Yeah, right. Mom and Dad come home tomorrow with Dave to find you OD’ed on the kitchen floor. Nice image. You promised we could do what I want today. I took you to the bookstore yesterday, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but I hate the beach.”

“Get over it.” 

They found a few square feet about three feet back from the tide and spread their towels. Jane sat on hers, wrapping her arms around her knees. Sara rolled her eyes. 

“You’re not going to sit there covered head-to-toe.”

“I’m here. What does it matter what I wear?”

“I know you’ve got a bikini on underneath. I had the happy task of checking your closet and dresser last week. You don’t own a one-piece. Show off a little.”

Jane shook her head and chewed her cheek. She’d been clean for over twelve months and had the chip to prove it. But she didn’t want Sara to see the long thin scars she’d made with a steak knife she snagged from the kitchen as soon as Mom and Dad went away for the weekend. If she’d known the beach would be the payment Sara demanded for a full morning at the local bookshop, Jane wouldn’t have cut herself Friday night. She would have waited. Because she knew how Sara was, how she could get—for some reason it mattered to her if Jane was covered up. 

“You’re so weird.”

“Thanks,” Jane said, a half smile peeking out. “I resemble that remark.”

Another eye roll. “Whatever. Just be quiet and let me enjoy the sun.” 

Jane didn’t nod but she didn’t disagree either. She watched the surf rolling onto the beach, and timed her breathing to each breaker. Breathe out, slam the sand. Breathe in, pull the sand back into the water. She imagined it churning, and her with it, spinning under the water. Dave once told her about a time the riptide had sucked him under. She wondered if it was more uncomfortable than having her stomach pumped. That’s what happened the last time she overdosed. 

“I’m going for a swim,” she said. Sara made some noncommittal noise, and Jane stood. She didn’t take off her teeshirt or shorts, but kicked off her flip flops. She hoped some sand got into Sara’s eyes. Jane wove her way toward the water, and when the next wave rolled, she dove under it.

This work of fiction is in response to my writing prompt from this Sunday. All characters and events are completely fictional, and in no way created to represent myself or anyone else I know.