Challenge – Inspired by Dorothy Parker

As I mentioned in a recent post, Dorothy Parker has a number of pieces which I call “monologue stories”.  These tend to be just the inner thoughts of the MC or the MC’s one-side of a conversation.  I’ve always enjoyed reading these as they allow the reader to become fully immersed in the personality of the MC.  You are literally experiencing the events of the story through the MC.  

I have written one of these styled stories before, but it wasn’t that great.  However, I am challenging myself, and anyone else who is interested, to give it a try.  Can you tell an entire story through only the thoughts of your MC?  It’s a lot more challenging than it sounds.  If you need inspiration, you can turn to Parker – Lady With a Lamp, or her more humorous examples, The Waltz or A Telephone Call.  I will see if I can keep mine down to flash fiction length (a constant challenge for me), and post a final here when I’m done.

Happy writing!

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Happy International Literacy Day!!

The Literacy Site blog informs me that today is International literacy day, and in celebration I thought I would share my experience of the importance of literacy.

Now, I don’t remember my first book, but knowing my mother it was read to me and at a very young age.  By young, I mean before I had a conscious concept of myself much less something so abstract as a book.  I have no doubt that it was something like The Little Engine That Could, or Green Eggs and Ham, or some other childhood classic.  It is to this that I attest my obsession with growing my collection of children’s books.  That is in circles where the explanation, “Because I like children’s books” is not an acceptable enough reason for such a collection.

However, if I were to rely on the memory of my childhood bookshelves and boxes eventually given to the used bookstore, I would guess that I have read or been read, at least, the following:

  • Caps for Sale
  • How to Eat Fried Worms
  • The Velveteen Rabbit
  • Curious George      
  • Goodnight Moon
  • Charlotte’s Web    
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
  • The Giving Tree  
  • Madeline 
  • The Monster at the End of this Book
  • James and the Giant Peach   
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but I have no specific memory of reading these or any other childhood books.  None whatsoever.  I’m sure that I’ve read them, of course.  I mean they sat in my room until I was 10, but of most of them, I couldn’t recite a single line.  

My passion for the importance of reading and advocating for literacy education comes from the books that I do remember – the books that meant something, and continue to mean something today.  Some of them were integral to my understanding of human nature.  Some of them helped me cope with the challenges I have faced in my life.  Some of them touched me so deeply that I still carry with me the same feeling that I had when I shut the cover every time I think of them.  And some of them were just plain fun!  

It was recommended to me once that I write a memoir, and I remember thinking, who would read a memoir about me?  What would I write about?  I’m not that interesting, or at least nothing of interest has really happened to me.  A straight memoir about my life can be summed up in a few words: Born in suburbs; Attended public school; 2.5 adorable children and a dog (of which I was one – the children, not the dog).  As you can see, there isn’t a lot there.  Pretty much every other kid in suburbia has had my life.  We are not the Kennedys; we are not the Jacksons; we are not the Clintons; we’re not even the Joneses – although we were the first ones in my neighborhood to own a CD player and, I think, a computer.  So you see, I wasn’t even deprived of anything, except the Power Wheels I always wanted.   And why didn’t I get the Power Wheels?  Because my parents agreed that they wanted my brother and I to have self-propelling vehicles to encourage activity and exercise.  That’s right.  I don’t even have a weight problem.  What the could I possibly write about in a memoir?

But a trip to the bookstore made me see things in a different light. As I browsed the shelves, both in the children’s section and general fiction, I saw book after book which, for me, defined a certain experience or time in my life  As I walked out, and got in my car, I started thinking of my life in books, and when I did that I found remembering a book that I read made me remember a specific event, which for one reason or another, was tied to it.  Maybe it was because the book made an event more meaningful, or maybe I read the book during a secure or happy time and it brings me a contented feeling, or maybe I had to stand in line for an hour because all of a sudden Everybody In The World has to have the latest Harry Potter.  Whatever the reason, it turns out I can associate most of the memories I have with one book or another.  Just like one song can bring you back to your high school prom, so can one book touch you so deeply that it will remain with you forever.  That is the importance of literacy.

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Short Fiction: A Weekly Dedication – Week 2

I just finished reading my short story for the day – Flannery O’Conner’s, “A Good Man is Hard to Find“. I’m surprised I made it through 12 years of grade school, and a combined 8 years of college without ever having read it.  Perhaps if I had remained in a literature program, I would have, but I don’t think it would be completely off topic to have a story like this one examined in a psychology or sociology class so my confusion remains. Just like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, this one sets you up quietly to be dropped on your head with the ending.  That’s as much as I’ll give away for those of you who have not read it.  Those of you who have, I would think, know what I mean.

This week, I also read a fun little O. Henry story. His story was called, “Tobin’s Palm“.  The twist ending, in this case, turned out to be somewhat uplifting.  There are always those endings that are left open to interpretation, whether everything ends “happily ever after”, and when given the choice, I usually choose to believe in the “happily ever after”.  Especially since this week was rough for endings.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth was the Lovecraft this week. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is actually a novella, so it took a little longer than one sitting to finish.  This being one of his later stories, though, he had certainly honed his craft by the time of it’s writing.  The buildup was slow, but just added to the suspense and mystery surrounding the title town.  The narrator plays the cynic unbeliever, so the reader falls right in line with him believing none of this could be true.  It was hard to put this one down.

I was disappointed in Poe this week.  “Loss of Breath” left something to be desired, and required a great suspension of disbelief, so much so that I found it hard to get on board.  The title phenomenon is taken to the most absurd extreme, and it lost a lot in the telling.  The antiquated writing style indicative of the day is something I can usually ignore, or at least grow accustomed to, when reading a good story, but with this one I ended up focusing on it.  Somehow, the flowery language made the whole thing that much more absurd.

I think my favorite this week was Dorothy Parker’s, “Lady With a Lamp“.  At the beginning, we get the idea the two main characters sometimes go quite a while without seeing each other. This time one was shocked to discover the other was terribly ill. The POV was intriguing as this is one of Parker’s “monologue stories” (my own term, as far as I know).  Some of my favorite stories of hers have been told in first person as an extended monologue, usually in the form of thoughts that run through one’s mind in certain situations.  This time, the “monologue” was actually just one side of a conversation about why the speaker’s friend is ill.  And over the course of the conversation, we discover a lot.  Though the ailment is never directly mentioned, it doesn’t take long to figure out what has happened, and considering, I have to wonder if this story created a huge scandal when it was released in 1932.  Five stars.

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Space Controversy

I read an article today about double-spacing behind a period and, I have to say, I didn’t know how prevalent the new rule had become. As I considered the reason for it – stemming from the change in technology from the monospaced characters of typewriters to the proportional spacing of computers – I realize it makes complete sense. The vast fonts and styles of the computer age lessens the need for hard and fast rules for affecting readability. I read newspaper articles and word processor submissions and see how unnecessary a second space is. Sure, I’ll give you that.

But change is hard! I, myself, have never been especially good at it, and certainly not when the change involves something that I’ve only ever learned one way of doing.

Usually, I’m resistant to change. For instance, while I am happy to read the occasional article online, I am in no hurry to give up printed newspapers, books, and magazines in favor of a handheld device for all my reading. I also will not bow down to popular word usage and grammar exceptions simply because enough people use their first language incorrectly. (It doesn’t matter how many dictionaries include it, “irregardless” is almost always noted as “nonstandard” or “incorrect” usage. It’s definition tells you it’s wrong. Stop it!)

But in the case of the double-space (hee hee, rhyming is fun), I claim the old but true adage, “Old habits die hard”. Even now, as I type, I am making a very conscious effort tot only tap the SPACEBAR once. And it feels wrong.

After typing for so many years, and increasing my QWERTY speed such that I don’t even recognize what keys I’m hitting, I struggle to stop long enough to actually realize that, not only did I just tap the SPACEBAR twice in quick succession, but I also used TAB to indent this paragraph, which is also unnecessary. This changing of the times, while understandable, is going to require a lot of BACKSPACE.

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Short Fiction: A Weekly Dedication – Week 1

I read this article that said reading short stories is an excellent way for a writer to get examples of narrative structure in quick succession.  As we all know reading is extremely important for writers to hone their craft, but as many of us tend to delve into novel writing, we also tend to read more novels for inspiration and example.  Per the advice in this article and for the reasons given, I decided to start reading short fiction on a (somewhat) daily basis.  Lucky me, I discovered that I was unknowingly surrounded by it!  Here is what I read and gained from my first week:

I began with O. Henry’s “The Plutonian Fire”, which was somewhat of a treatise on the nature of writing – the lengths we writers must go to and the deceptions we sometimes must act for the better of our craft.

I read another O. Henry after that –  “The Princess and the Puma”; the “Princess” in this case being the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Middle America.  This story – being very similar in theme to the Poe I read today, “Spectacles” – demonstrated the folly of the vanity and pride of men. In the case of the O. Henry story, pride of masculine vs feminine roles, and in the case of the Poe pure vanity of appearance.  The end result in both cases is likely to elicit an “Oh-you-silly-man”-style giggle.

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” – an excellent example of the feminist themes for which this author is so celebrated – is heartbreaking.  And it is an interesting contrast to Dorothy Parker’s piece, “Mr. Durant” which shames the title character indirectly for his callousness.

Finally, H.P. Lovecraft, who I have wanted to read for sometime, and for which I have my cousin and her clever idea for wedding favor to thank.  “The Beast in the Cave” was a great example of the thriller/horror genre that Lovecraft is touted for.  However, I learned a very important lesson about reading short fiction. You see, I have for years, got into the habit of flipping ahead to see how much further I have to go before the end of a chapter of\r at least a natural stopping point.  Now, this is fine when reading a novel (save for the danger of seeing a statement so enticing that you won’t put the book down anyway).  However, this is very dangerous when done with short fiction.  In order to not ruin your own reading, I will use an example to illustrate this danger.  I happen to look at the last line, which for all of it’s twisty surprise-iness is this story’s equivalent to, “He’s Keyser Soze.”

Moral:  Don’t read ahead in short fiction!!

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Everybody Has A Story

Recently, I’ve read several articles about personal essay writing.  They’ve ranged from writing tips to how to get your personal essay published.  Now I don’t know if any of my readers are this way, but when I repeatedly run into the same theme across several different mediums over at least a few days I will usually succumb to the inspiration.  In this case, I did, and I am inviting you to share in the inspiration with me.

My theory is that a personal essay is the best practice you can do as a writer.  While it is important to exercise your imagination by coming up with new stories, that creative measure can be distracting.  If your intent is to practice your wordsmithing, what better place to begin than in your memory.  We know our own stories, certainly better than someone else’s and even better than those we could make up since we haven’t actually made them up yet. It seems to me an ideal way to play with narrative – description, dialog, and character – since you know the whole story so intimately.

So, I challenge you to pick an event – big or small – from your life and write it.  The only recommendation I would put forth is to make sure the event you choose is one that was transforming in some way.  Like any good story, your main character should be dynamic, and, in this case, that main character is you.  Feel free to come back and share your experience in the comments.  Let us know if you seek publication!

Enjoy!

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Reading Helps Us Empathize

As writers, we must also be avid readers.  (What a shame, eh?) Yes, we use the excuse of improving our writing to explain the constant burying of our heads in books, but according to studies from 2012 and 2013 it seems reading improves us more than we may think.  It turns out that reading doesn’t just inform us on specific subjects or improve vocabulary and grammar.  It also makes us more emotionally intelligent; specifically empathetic.

Now, if there is anyone reading this wondering how reading can improve the sense of empathy, consider some of you favorite novels.  When I reflect on mine, I realize that The Little Prince has caused me to be more attune to taking notice of the smallest pleasures – a child’s laugh, the breeze brushing through my hair, that first sip of clean cool water when you feel a deep thirst.  I think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – how easily I recognized the story as an allusion to substance abuse and addiction and felt the chronic strain on both the addict and his loved ones.  I think of how easy it was for me to relate to Steve Martin’s Shopgirl but just as easy to see the perspective of her companion.

One of the studies conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Costano explored further finding evidence distinguishing the “empathetic benefits” of literary fiction vs. “pop” fiction.  Due to the “complexity in stories and their characters”, literary fiction appears to be the clear winner here.  When I reflect on my reading of The Life of Pi, I can most certainly agree.  Not only the beautiful story of the loss at sea, which makes up the bulk of the story, but the final explanation of “what really happened” gave me such a rush of emotion and understanding of what the mind can do to compensate a horrible trauma.
But how does this inform our own writing.  Well, just as our personal experience of places and events serve to help us better describe a variety of settings and experiences, empathizing with well-written characters can only serve as a means of experience.  Perhaps there are many events, tragedies, and celebrations we will never experience, but when we read to exercise our empathetic muscles, we become better able to imagine ourselves in the minds and skins of our characters as we put them in these circumstances.

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