Writing Exercise: What’s in the Road Ahead?

Richard Bausch’s Cake

Years ago, at the 2011 AWP (Association for Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Washington, D.C., I attended a panel session with Richard Bausch, C. Michael Curtis, Elizabeth Cox, Jill McCorkle and Michael Croley called “Jets vs. Sharks?” The subject matter was whether it was good to learn the “craft” of writing in writing programs. Bausch proved to be one of those writers with an impeccable memory, quotes from authors throughout the ages bubbled up from him. He also proved a great story teller.

My memory is not as good as his (I wish I could find my notes), but this is how I remember what happened. Bausch was telling the audience about a writing exercise he’d given his students. The prompt was “write about a cake in the middle of the road.” Curtis started laughing. At the time, he was the fiction editor at The Atlantic. “So, that’s why I’ve been getting all these submissions with cakes in the middle of the road!” The room erupted.

A cake in the middle of the road. It’s a great image. As author Amy Hempel would say, that’s a story. An image can be a story.

What’s in the Road Ahead?

What’s on the road? A head?

My sister Sarah told me a story with a similar great image, which reminded me of Bausch’s assignment and inspired the perfect pandemic prompt. While driving through her neighborhood, she came upon paper shopping bag in the middle of the street. It was upright, undisturbed, as if it was carefully placed there. The bag was full of groceries. A lot of people are getting their food delivered rather than facing the supermarket aisles with their directional arrows and masked shoppers on a quest for flour and toilet paper. Because the name and address of the groceries’ owner were on the bag and because my sister is kind, she delivered the bag to a grateful man.

Writing prompt: Bag in the Middle of the Road

Write about a brown paper shopping bag sitting upright in the middle of the road. Begin with the image. What’s in it? Do you know who’s bag it is? What do you do?

Let me know what you discovered in the comments below!

Filling in the Blanks, Sitting with Racism

In the early 1990s I worked for a management consulting firm owned and operated by an African-American man. We taught Diversity Training in Corporate America. For the most part, he was the only Black person in the room. Often, I was the only woman, the only white woman. Our clientele was not diversified, hence the training. 

At the beginning of class I would distribute an icebreaker handout, asking participants to write their names at the top. They were to complete the one-page worksheet with about twenty fill-in-the-blank statements as quickly as possible with the first thing that popped into their heads. Some of the sentences were:

All Southerners are ______________________________ .

All bad drivers are _______________________________.

All hairdressers are _______________________________.

All lazy people are _______________________________. 

The majority would scribble down their answers, others didn’t fill them out, but there was usually one man who would protest. “What is this?! I’m not filling this out!” Once a man threw the paper at my boss and me, and for a moment I thought he might flip the table, but he just stomped out of the conference room. It made you wonder what kind of things popped into his head. 

Diversity training handout

And that was precisely the point of the exercise. 

That man was not alone in hearing ugly words and ideas leap into his consciousness and that was why we never asked participants to share what words came to mind. All of us were fed stereotypes, bigotry, misogyny, and racism from the moment we were born. We might not have been aware of them, but they were there, and they were influencing how we interacted with people, especially those who were different than us.

This still holds true in the 21st century. We are not a post-racism nation. Today, Americans in all 50 states are marching for Black Lives Matter. To move forward, white Americans need to face racism not only in our country, but in our own minds. Closing our eyes, saying we don’t see color, isn’t helpful. Saying we are not racist, because we don’t use the n-word, or we voted for Obama is not enough.

While that Diversity exercise showed me how our minds fill in the blanks, it was mindfulness that taught me how to see and to be with my mind’s activity – good and bad. How to recognize these thoughts when they arise (not just when prompted in a training class) and how to sit with them, investigate where they come from, and understand how they affect the way I move through the world.

In my Mindful Writing classes, I remind students that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spirits having a human experience. Now, we, in particular white Americans, must see that Blacks in America are having a different human experience. 

It is incredibly uncomfortable to recognize our privilege and own our role in systemic racism, but as practitioners of mindfulness we are trained to sit with our discomfort, to acknowledge how our brains automatically fill in the blanks, and to see the truth, treating ourselves with compassion and patience. We need to recognize that our silence, our unwillingness to break those thought patterns, is costing Black lives. Once we do this difficult inner work, we can begin to have these difficult conversations with others, treating them with compassion and patience. Through our mindfulness practices, we have the tools we need to be actively engaged anti-racists.

Writing Exercise: Addressing your dreams

There is this idea that people don’t want to hear about your dreams. Whenever I have an interesting dream, I call my friend Susan, who is not only happy to listen, but is great at interpreting. She’s an amateur Jungian and will remind me that everyone in my dream is me. Fascinating.

Tell me your dream

Recently, I called her about a dream I had in which my daughter and I got into a Lyft and left my parents’ house. (No one was home.) After a few minutes of driving around, we passed their house again. I told the driver to stop, I was angry. When I said, “Why didn’t you take us where we needed to go?” He just laughed and shook his head. Back at the house, my parents’ front door was unhinged, lying across the threshold, half in, half out of the house. The railings and a short wrought iron fence were disassembled and spread across the lawn and walkway. My daughter reminded me of the cats (!) and we wrangled a couple of cats and three kittens nestled together under a bush, back into the house. Then we set about finding screws for the door, railings, and gate.

Talk to your dream

Susan wasn’t certain how to interpret this one and recommended I ask the driver why he was laughing, since he was the one I was angry with in the dream. So, I put pen to paper and wrote his response. He said, “I laughed, because I had brought you were you needed to go. The house was coming apart when you left. You didn’t notice. You didn’t want to notice.”

He went into more detail, but I fear I may be boring you. (Perhaps I should keep my dreams to myself and Susan.) But I think this is a great writing exercise.

Whether you are addressing a character in a dream or a character in you WIP, this can bring up some insightful motives. It can let you see things you’re not seeing and understand that which you ignore.

Writing Prompt

Meditate for a few moments, placing yourself in the scene. Imagine the person’s face as you ask them the question you want answered. Write down what they tell you. Don’t stop to interpret. Just listen and take notes.

Ask SBT: I finished my novel. Now what?

Q: I work in the corporate world but my dream is to be a novelist. I recently finished my first novel and I’ve come to realize that I have NO idea what to do next. I’ve scoured blogs and message boards and I think I’m more confused than when I started! I wanted to know if you have any advice for someone at this stage in their writing career. ~ Ryan H.

A: Congratulations on finishing a novel! That’s fantastic. I began my first novel when I was stuck in a corporate pen as a data administrator for an HMO. ARGH!!

My first piece of advice is to find readers if you haven’t already. It’s important to know that you are reaching your audience. These readers should be intelligent and well-read people, who know what it is you are trying to do in your book. Or, you could join a novel writing workshop. Try to work with a teacher/author you admire. With any feedback, take only that which serves you. You are the author. Make sure your first chapters are the best they can be. This will be your calling card for agent submissions.

I finished my novel. Now what?

There are many ways to publish, but I’m only going to speak to traditional publishing. For the most part, you will need an agent to submit your book to a publishing house. Where to find an agent? Do your research to find a good fit. Look at novels similar to yours and see who the author’s agent is. Often, they thank them in the acknowledgements. Find out what you can about these agents–most importantly, if they are open to submissions and what their submission guidelines are. They receive a lot of queries, so make sure you give them exactly what they ask for. A few have blogs with helpful tips. You can google interviews. Follow them on twitter. (A couple times a year, some agents participate in #mswl. Manuscript wish list, in which they say what they’re looking for.) Usually, you send a query letter and the first 20 pages of your manuscript. Sometimes a 1-2 page summary as well.

In short, make sure your novel is the best it can be. Hire an editor or proofreader if you need one. Do your research on agents. Try not to waste your time or theirs. Stay strong. It only take one to get representation. 

Writing Exercise: Celebrate Earth Day 2020

Earth Day 2020

Earth Day turns 50

Today is Earth Day! It’s no mistake that when they conceived of Earth Day 50 years ago, they planned it for the Spring. The season with the most change in the natural world, or at least the most optimistic change. The season of rebirth, renewal, fresh starts.

Earth Day is about reconnecting with the earth. It’s about stirring our activism and educating us about how to take care of the earth we share.

COVID-19 Spring

Because of the COVID-19 Quarantine, I think this may be the most observed Spring on the record books for a century. Even though we are watching mostly through our windows, we are noticing the incremental changes each day. We’ve witnessed barren branches sprouting buds that slowly bloomed into pinks, purples and whites, and seen bold green stems pushing through the dirt. We’ve listened to the call and response of bird songs, much clearer without the sounds of traffic to squelch them. We’ve watched the light of day creep well into the evening. We are comforted by the beauty of nature’s spectacular shows of clouds, rains, winds, even thunder and lightening outside our windows.

The earth continues to tilt and spin, nature continues to burst into color, even as we stay home protecting ourselves, our families and communities.We are all in this together, we are all on earth together. One people, one planet.

Writing Prompt: Creation Story

Celebrate Earth Day with this writing exercise, in which we remember that we are of this earth.

Before freewriting this exercise, take a few minutes to meditate. Come into the body. Relax your muscles. Notice your breath. Let it naturally flow. Then ask yourself, what is my true nature?

Imagine your own creation story. How were you born of earth?

  • Did you awake on the seedy bed of a sunflower?
  • Did you land on your fresh new feet, released from the embrace of a lush fruit tree?
  • Did gleeful dolphins deliver you to the foamy shore?

Take up your pen and write. Have fun! No editing. No judging. Just write.

Let me know where you came from!