Friday I had the privilege of working with the savvy students in Miss Leonard’s class of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. These BCA students soaked up poetry and story writing tips like eager little sponges! Such energy packed into polite and respectful kids.
I’ll visit your class anytime. Blessings on your precious little heads!
I’m home after a very successful set of workshops at the Whatcom County Youth Fair. Creativity flowed and fun was had by all! Students enjoyed the games and activities, as well as the learning material presented. They even had the opportunity to share their work before a live audience.
We wrote stories and poetry together as a group, as well as individually. What a wonderful experience!
Here is (amended) content that accompanies one of the slides from my upcoming workshop.
Time doesn’t just fall from the clock, offering itself like a piece of spontaneously generated cake. We must make time to write. Musicians practice their instrument. Horse owners groom their animals and exercise them. We write. We are writers. As writers, we live part of our lives in our own imaginations. We are dreamers, visionaries, and creators. Throughout history, it is the poet and author who aid in sanity in the shadows of the ache of war or other pestilence. We’re like sled dogs that have the wolf blood only partially contained. We want to run with the wind in our faces, even if the ice sometimes bites at our eyes. We paint pictures with words and try to transport ourselves, and our readers, into a world of our own creation. We don’t just write stories, we weave tapestries with language. We build castles out of sentence structure. We provide an escape from reality on the wings of our own inspiration. We track the trail of a muse and document its every shiver. To borrow a phrase from the movie, Dead Poet Society, “We didn’t just read poetry, we let it drip from our tongues like honey.” Only, we don’t just read it or recite it, we write it. And so I encourage you; Don’t just write. Write! Use your thesaurus. Use your tools. Take language in your hand like a new shade of paint and transform your virtual canvas into a masterpiece. Never settle. Never. For that is not who we are. Fanciful escape artists molding reality into moments of peaceful quiescence; that is who we are.
The cold goaded me forward, half reluctantly, as I strolled down the familiar cemetery row to her grave. I pulled the collar of my jacket up as the morning air chilled my bare neck on the bright September morning. I do this ritual on holidays as well as on her birthday – today she would have been seventy-eight.
As I walked, passing row after row of grave markers I imagined what it would be like if these lying here could shed their posthumous state and have a final speech. What would they say? One stone was of a baby no more than a month old. The speech would have been nothing more than babble and the thought saddened me greatly. The next, a young man in his early twenties. Each marker I passed represented someone. Someone loved by someone else. Their graves, most of them, were certainly well watered with fresh tears at some point.
Nicole J. Gleeson
born September 13, 1930 – died May 25, 1988
I squatted down and brushed the leaves from the aging stone as if pushing hair from her face.
“Happy birthday, mom,” I said. A gust of wind came from nowhere sending a chill down my spine and cleared the last of the leaves. For a moment I wished I had worn the wool sweater I taken out the night before. I lay a single, black rose across the stone just under her name as if underlining it. It was her favorite kind of flower. As I stood, I realized I was not alone on this early morning in fall. A woman standing next to me wore a long black coat and hung her head with her hands in her pockets looking down at the grave stones. I glanced around the cemetery for a moment, thinking how engrossed I must have been to not have heard her walk up. Looking at the parking lot I spied my old, overused minivan. Man, I need to retire that old machine, I thought to myself as my eyes then returned to the lonely rose as it lay on the cold cemetery floor. The stranger and I stood in silence; our hearts aching in similar fashion for what could no longer be touched.
My heart ached as I saw the grass growing around the cement marker. In the end, we are all fertilizer, returning to the earth. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It is like this every time I come to mom’s grave. Though I usually have the place to myself, I always dread coming, and yet once here I always find it difficult to tare myself away. I began to think about the last time I had seen her alive. Silently, I began to cry, wiping my tears as they emerged.
“It never goes away, does it?” said the stranger softly.
Somewhat startled, it took me a moment to reply. I looked at her as she stared at the ground. Her long, gray hair fell around her shoulders in a glorious flow. The wrinkles on her face were evidence of a full life lived with all it’s pain and joy. I imagined that at her age she had lost many more loved ones than I.
“No, it never does,” I said and returned my gaze to mom’s grave marker. “It’s been just over twenty years and I still come here and cry.” Silence fell between us once again as we stood as if suspended in time. I felt another tear make a trail down my cheek in an unstoppable journey to the grass beneath me. “I don’t know why I come here,” I said, feeling overwhelmed by the emotion of it. I really spoke more to myself then to anyone else, but the stranger standing there provided me a pleasant confessional and so I allowed myself to ramble. “We barely spoke to one another. I wasn’t even there when she died and I knew she was sick. She… uh… she really wasn’t much of a mom. I basically raised myself.” I stopped my rambling for a moment and saw she was looking at me. Her wrinkled face was drenched in compassion so rich it was almost painful for me to look at. I turned back to the marker with the unspeakable impression that I had just made a friend.
“She really left quite a hole, didn’t she?” said the stranger in the sweetest voice.
I nodded and the tears rolled as if from a broken dam. She put her hand on one of my shoulders and my tears gushed forth in an inexorable current.
“It’s okay,” she said compassionately. “Withholding the pressure only deepens the wound.” Thus she granted me the reins to pour out my secrets.
“I can still hear the sound of dishes smashing as she threw them against the wall in one of her manic rages.” My own voice surprised me as I began to allow my heart to drain the pain I’d held in for so many years. “I remember trembling, cowering in my room like a frightened mouse as I heard her slam my step father into a wall, causing a plaster piece of art work to smash onto his head… then the subsequent cries in panic as she called for help. Even years after I left, I would cry as I sat on my bed in my foster home as my foster mom would hug me and say, ‘I wish I could be your mommy for you.’ She abandoned me and yet, somehow, I can’t abandon her.” The stranger gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Oh man, listen to me, confessing to a total stranger.” I felt sheepish; foolish. “Sorry to puke my guts on you. I’m sure you came here to see someone.”
“Yes, I did,” said the woman with a gentle melancholy smile as she dropped her hand from my shoulder. “I came to see my daughter.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling very badly that I’d rambled on about my mom. “It has to be really tough losing one of your kids. They’re supposed to out last you.”
The woman took a deep breath and let it out slowly; the steam drifting away from her in the cool air. “It hurts more than anyone could possibly know.” There was silence for a moment before the woman continued. “I think I know why you cry at your mother’s grave. There is an invisible bond between a child and mom. It’s unexplainable really. It’s unbreakable and therefore either heavenly or cruel depending on whom you’re born to. I believe you feel the tug of the bond that should have been. What a mother and child relationship should be is haunting when it is denied. I think you stand here and cry, not just over her loss, but over the loss of what you will never have.”
I burst into tears all over again and she put her arms around me as she began to cry, too.
She continued her comforting speech. “I think if your mother was here, she’d say how sorry she is. She’d tell you how strong and how amazing you are – how she watches you from Heaven every day, proud as any parent can be. She’d hug you and tell you it’s all okay – we both made mistakes; mine were more costly. Then she’d beg your forgiveness.”
“I’d forgive her,” I sobbed. “I miss her so much. I’d give almost anything to hear her call me by the silly pet name she had for me. She never even got to see my kids.”
“I think she sees them.”
We both cried for a moment longer before releasing one another. My phone chirped and I pulled it out to see a text message from my oldest daughter.
“My daughter can’t find her swimsuit and she’s going to be late for her lesson,” I said with a smile, the text message breaking the tension of the moment. I put my phone back in my pocket. “I better go.”
“Always another crisis to solve as a mom, isn’t there?” said the woman with smile as she wiped the last of the tears from her cheeks.
“You know it,” I said with a slight laugh. “Look, I don’t know how to thank you. I feel like I’ve just been through therapy.” I smiled a little self consciously, even though I had a feeling of genuine peace from our meeting that I had not felt in years.
“It was therapy for me, too,” she said, pulling a small business card and a pen from her pocket. She scribbled something on the back of it and handed it to me. “Maybe we’ll see each other again someday.”
“Sure. Maybe.” I felt closeness to this stranger who understood my pain like no one else ever had.
“Beautiful flower, by the way. I love black roses.” The stranger motioned to the flower I had placed on the grave.
“Yeah, they were her favorite.”
“Okay, well… have a good day.” With her parting wave she turned and began to walk away.
“You, too,” I said as I looked down at the card. The card was blank except for a short note in familiar handwriting: “Mandy’s swimsuit is under her bed. Love you, Munchkin.” I raised my head to try to find her and began to run aimlessly; searching. But she was nowhere. She had simply disappeared. Only then did it dawn on me that there was no other car in the parking lot that morning but mine. My mother had never gotten her driver’s license her whole life. Apparently, she still walks – in Heaven.
Choices. They line the path of our lives like colorful memory stones. Like jewels reflecting in the light that is the vibrance of our lives. Our paths are filled with them; good and bad. Light and dark. And we arrive at our final destination at the mercy of the choices we make.
You will never arrive at the island of Hawaii by train. To arrive there your feet must leave solid ground. To arrive at your dreams your choices must urge your feet to do the same. But to arrive at a destination is not an elective; the path builds even if your choice is to do nothing.
I knew a man who made choices that lined his path with jewels. In his youth he chose a bride and didn’t leave her side until she made her journey into the arms of Jesus; a journey she embarked on while holding her husband’s hand. Together they raised four jewels and those jewels had their own jewels until the couple could claim ten grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
In 1959, the man made a choice that took a road less traveled. A road that altered their lives as dramatically as his choice of salvation and his choice of a spouse. He left a well paying job filled with money, authority and satisfaction, to pursue the call God had placed on his life. He chose to enter the ministry as a pastor.
Pastoral ministry may sound glorious to some – a position where you stand in the spotlight as the leader of a dedicated congregation. But most of true pastoring takes place outside of the pulpit. Visiting a troubled family or a dying congregation member. Taking time out of your day to comfort, counsel, guide, and console. Owning pain that doesn’t belong to you as if it did. Only true pastors know the sacrifices they make. It is sometimes a thankless job that siphons energy and life. A pastor is a special servant who allows himself to be inconvenienced consistently by the needs of others. It involves a repeated choice of throwing your own life ring out to someone else, to your own neglect.
His well lighted path glows with jewels from prayers for the sick, baptisms of the converted, marriage ceremonies, baby dedications, and funerals. There are stones laid with sharp angles that cut him, there were others that healed. Hours upon hours, days upon days, months upon months, and years upon years of choices that placed him in counseling sessions for those in torment or confusion, and in homes to console grieving loved ones. There were jewels molded by the pressure of poverty. There were others polished and laid in hours of pacing the floor at 2am in prayer; not once. Not twice, but with tiring regularity. Answering the phone in the night hours for an emergency situation; these built jewel after jewel of his path.
His was a life filled with choices right and wrong, like any one of the rest of us, but he never regretted setting down the large paycheck to bind up the broken hearted, and there are lives today that have been bettered by the jewels he laid.
One thing to be learned from the life of Len Schmautz is that choices create a path that only one can walk and that the choice of apathy or indifference is no less a choice. Choosing not to choose is still, in and of itself, a choice. More stones, more jewels, or more rocks.
As for Len, three months to the very day he had held the hand of his precious bride as she stepped across the distinction between her jeweled path and that golden road, he followed. He never could find contentment without her, so now he is once again complete.
Len, may God rest your dedicated soul for laying your life down and being a man of deliberate choices. An example to us all.
This is an example of Flash Fiction I sometimes use in my classes. I have a couple posts coming up that will refer to this and another piece, so I’m posting it in preparation.
“It’s only a small bit of change,” she said, tugging on her boyfriend’s arm with a sweet smile. Reluctantly, he stooped and dropped a few coins into the man’s cup.
“Bless you,” said the man, who sat cross-legged on the ground. “My daughter will really appreciate it.” He was middle-aged and looked convincingly deplorable. Before him was propped a tattered cardboard sign bearing the words: “Will work for food.”
It was getting toward dark so the man gathered his few possessions and headed for a private spot in a nearby alley. “Not a bad day,” he chuckled to himself as he finished counting his money. He tied the strings of his moneybag together with his dirty fingers. “It should be just enough.”
He put the moneybag in an old backpack and then donned the pack for travel. Walking slowly, he looked around the streets that he’d called home for nearly a year. He said good night to some familiar faces as he continued his reminiscent journey. He looked up at the tall buildings and apartments. He stopped to look in a shop window at a train set that ran its course endlessly. His heart ached as he recalled a similar set he had bought his daughter when she was young. They’d both laughed for hours as they took turns putting various toys on the train only for them to be knocked off at the bridge. An ache gripped his gut as he thought of the loss of her mother.
“What would you do, Tilly?” he mumbled, staring at the train, his filthy reflection superimposed in the glass. “I know you’d scold me, but our little girl’s in trouble and I don’t know what else to do.”
He took a deep breath and returned to current time; reality. Horns honking. People talking. Arguing. Vendors trying to sell their wares, though they never bothered the man with the tattered backpack. They waved but did not solicit; knowing from experience the man would buy nothing.
The shop was well known and respected, but it was the back door he used to make his purchase. He had thirty-seven cents left as he walked down the alley with his new prize; a gift for his daughter.
His walk led up to the steps of a shambles called “The Ritz Apartments”. He pushed the button and his daughter called down.
“It’s just me, Mandy,” he replied. “Can your old man come up for a minute?”
“Jack’s here,” she said timidly.
“Who are you talking to, moron?”
“It’s Dad, Jack,” she answered.
“It’s okay, Mandy,” said her dad. “I’d like to come up, if it’s okay. I brought you a present. It won’t take long.”
“Probably road kill,” said Jack mockingly in the background. “Useless old goat. Let him come up I guess. For a minute. Worthless fool. Why can’t he get a job?”
“Come on up, Daddy,” she said, and a buzzing sound declared that the building could now be entered.
Mandy said nothing and barely made eye contact as she opened the door for her dad. He could see that her eye was black and she was severely underweight; gaunt. She was thinner every time he saw her. Before he could say anything, Jack showed up at the door, irritated.
“A pan fell out of the cupboard and hit her in the eye,” he explained. “You’re daughter’s a grade-A klutz.”
Mandy stared at the floor as her dad stepped past her. A haze of stale, cheap cigarette smoke filled the small apartment, mingled with what smelled like tacos and old coffee.
“She’s got a lot to do, Roger,” Jack snapped. “The lazy cow didn’t do a thing today. So make it quick, old man. I’m sure you’ve got more pan handling to do.”
Jack stood waiting and an awkward silence filled the air. As usual, there was no offer to enter the apartment further than just inside the front door, which remained open.
“I got you something, Mandy,” Roger said with a soft smile. He pulled out a candy bar; her favorite. He held it out to her and she reached to take it.
SMACK! The sound of Jack slapping the candy bar out of her hand jolted Roger.
“Don’t give her that garbage. She’s fat enough! Get out of here, old man!”
“Just one more thing,” said Roger. Stepping in, he closed the door.
Sirens filled the streets as they always did on a Friday night. Roger could see his daughter, Mandy, staring blankly out the window, tears dripping past a subdued smile. She had her arms crossed over the front of a baggy flannel coat with a broken zipper as she rocked back and forth. Roger’s backpack sat at her feet. Roger couldn’t help but smile to himself.
“When did you purchase this firearm, Mr. Calvin?” The detective demanded.
“Just today, sir.” Roger was timid but truthful.
“In an alley.”
The officer looked at him in disbelief for a moment before removing his glasses.
“Why’d you do it?”
Roger looked over at his daughter.
“Do you have children, Detective Brooks?”
“Answer the question, Mr. Calvin.”
“The devil had my daughter,” he said, looking the detective in the eye with a decisive, strong gaze. “Now he’s in hell where he belongs.”
“So, you became police, judge and executioner. There are laws in place, Mr. Calvin. There are proper ways of dealing with men like Jack Bolton.”
“You mean, like the restraining orders that don’t work or the calls to the police that only got the man more fired up and violent?” Roger spat out.
“Mind who you’re speaking with or you’ll make things a whole lot worse,” Detective Brooks said.
“Yes, sir,” Roger said, lowering his voice and returning his gaze to his daughter. She looked so peaceful. She didn’t stare at the floor as she usually did, but rather out the window. It felt to Roger as if she was looking into a hopeful future.
“Well, you’ll have your time before the judge. You’ll probably never hug your daughter again. Was it worth it?” The officer was sarcastic and cold.
“I’ve done a lot of bad stuff in my life, sir. I’ve failed her so bad. But now she won’t get the crap beat out of her any more for something as stupid as dropping a pencil.” Roger spoke calmly and respectfully. “So, yeah, it was worth it. Even the death sentence would be worth it.”
Mandy walked out of the courthouse on a sunny day in July after she and her boyfriend, Ron, had visited her dad. They laughed as they talked.
“Can you spare some change?” said a middle-aged man sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk.
Mandy smiled at Ron.
“All I have is thirty-seven cents,” said Ron.
“Sometimes all it takes is a small bit,” she said, taking it from Ron and dropping it into the man’s hand.
“Bless you,” said the man. “My daughter will really appreciate it.”
“I’m sure she will,” said Mandy.
Copyright Shai Adair
When I was first learning to improve my writing skills, I happened upon a list of the major literary forms. Among the other forms I saw “Flash” and was reluctant to read the definition, since in the generation I grew up in “flash” usually referred to someone dressed only in an overcoat and sneakers. But as I read the definition I soon realized Flash was not synonymous with adult content, nor was it a fishing lure or comic book hero. Now that I’ve told you what it isn’t, let’s explore what it is.
In short, it’s short. Not like a miniskirt or Martin Short – it’s brief. It is a fictional work of loosely 1000 words. Along with brevity, it has its own literary flavor. It’s not so much what it contains as much as what it leaves out or alludes to. It’s a story that usually hits the ground running, keeps your attention, and then (usually) leaves you like, “Woah, dude! I totally did not see that coming!”
I have come to think of Flash as the writer’s Sudoku – fun and challenging! It is a word puzzle with unpredictable pieces that mold together to conclude in unexpected ways. And it’s the perfect answer for scenes from larger works that must be cut for whatever reason.
For more information on Flash Fiction, join my next Literary Clay workshop on the topic. To stay informed as to when these occur, fill out the form below.
Cheers and happy writing,
I took a trip to help a dear friend move recently and rediscovered a simple, fundamental truth that transcends all of life: camouflage hides stuff, whether you want it to or not. This holds true with your kitchen counter top, and your story.
“Where’s the packing tape,” I mumbled to myself as I looked over the cluttered counter tops. There were half filled boxes, contents of drawers, an open bag of Veggie Straws, a half filled coffee cup, my cell phone, and lots of other clutter caused when one is moving out of a house. I eventually located the tape when I flipped a box lid closed.
I used every packing box I brought! I either lucked out or I’m just that good.
“Uh…. Shai, what does you ability to properly estimate the number of packing boxes have to do with my story?”
Precisely nothing. And therein rests my point. My main purpose for putting this information into print is to help you avoid unnecessary clutter in your story. Brevity keeps a reader’s attention. Anything not directly related to your plot, character or scene development should litter the cutting room floor.
If Steve’s gift of making the perfect cup of coffee doesn’t develop him as a character or drive the plot forward, skip it. But if it serves a specific purpose, keep it. If the mailbox having an orange stripe comes up strategically later in your story, include it. If it has nothing to do with anything, ditch it. It’s that simple.
“But, Shai, I really like this scene. I don’t want to ditch it.”
Unless your reader is your teacher, your best friend, or your Great Aunt Nettie May, you’ll lose them at the first weak point. Readers are fickle (and we’re all readers). We’ll read until the writer gives us an opportunity to bail. I’ve made some pretty hard cuts before and I have never regretted it.
That being said, don’t feel like you need to delete it altogether; turn it into a Flash piece, or keep it in your own private stash of inspirational material. If you accumulate enough Flash pieces you will have an anthology, and there’s a nice group of us out there who love anthologies.
“I can’t write Flash! My grandmother reads my stuff!”
No, no, no. Flash doesn’t speak of the content as much as how the content is put together. You could write a flash piece about lizards and snow machines, or maybe dung beetles. I would love to explain further but it doesn’t fit the topic at hand. Ha! Wanna know more? Click here…. FLASH
Now, shouldn’t you be writing something?
It is December 31st, 2018. For some it is the night before a new beginning. Others would call it an ending. Many make resolutions. I resolved years ago (as many of you already know) not to make resolutions, choosing to make changes in behavior when I found them necessary. Although I don’t plan to make any solid resolutions, I do have a percolating character alteration begging for activation.
For the majority of my life I thought I was an extrovert. It wasn’t until 2018 that someone suggested the true differentiation between extrovert and introvert was determined by how one unwinds or recharges; with or without people. I was posed with the question, “Do your batteries recharge in a night out with friends, or by yourself?” My answer came to me without hesitation. I recharge by myself with my a guitar or banjo, with a walk in the woods, or with a book. Or just sitting with a cup of tea, staring out at my garden or at the wood burning in my fireplace. I am, alas, an introvert.
For many of my friends this is frustrating because when I am afforded a precious nugget of free time, I head to one of my recharging stations and not to the phone. In fact, I think I may be allergic to phone calls, and perhaps communication in general. I’m one of those people who can go on a long car ride with a friend and not say anything, gaining enjoyment from the companionship with very few words exchanged. I have so many precious friends that I seemingly neglect, gaining enjoyment simply from knowing they are there. But to my friends this resounds as neglect.
It’s silly really, because once I’m on the phone or receive an email reply, etc., I enjoy the connection. And being a friend more or less necessitates a bit of effort on both sides, I suppose. So my unresolution is to let the door to my lair creek open more frequently, knock down some cobwebs, and refresh myself on how to dial out on my phone.
So, as I battle the tension between my introverted nature and my desire to be a better friend (and responsible blogging author) I’ll stare down my cell phone until I finally goad myself into renewing some contacts. Maybe I’ll practice finger exercises so I don’t sprain a digit making my first phone call or email. And to those of you, my friends, who have faithfully put up with my ongoing silence, I thank you very sincerely. My silence is not a negative reflection on you, but a statement of faith in our friendship.
Happy New Year! May it take you around many happy corners.