Writing Prompt: Simple Pleasures

Sometimes we think we need to do something grand or noteworthy with our day or else we’ll be judged as frivolous or we’ll feel guilty ourselves. I know in times past, I’ve wanted to watch a cheesy film, take a nap or just spend hours playing a game on my iPad or just browse the online shops, even if I don’t need anything or intend to buy. I’ve spent days doing this and ended up feeling guilty, as though I need to spend every hour of every day doing something useful. I’ve recently come to realise that this is not so.

It’s ok to do nothing. It’s ok to spend the day yielding to my personal desires and whims. It’s ok because these useless things are not useless. They make me happy, they relax me and I learn about myself and all sorts of things by watching a film, online shopping or browsing or just plain snoozing on the sofa. I’m calmer, I’m rested and I’m better able to deal with the intense stuff when I have energy reserves gained by doing the “lazy” stuff in my enthusiasm tank.

Sometimes, the thing that makes me happiest is just sitting at the top of the stairs petting my cat. We sit together and I either pick him up and cuddle him in my arms or he rolls around on the floor of the landing begging me to rub his belly and stroke his bushy tail. I’ve spent ages doing this, paying no attention to tasks that need completing or the time flying by. When I finally pick myself up, I notice that I’m calmer and my cat is purring away, ready to follow me down the stairs. It’s the easiest thing I can possibly spend my time doing and one of my favourites. It make me and my cat happy and I’ve never stood up and reprimanded myself for wasting time in this activity. When we’re done playing on the stairs, my cat follows me all over the house and at night he cries at my bedroom door if I close it behind me. I usually hold out for about three minutes before I cave in and open the door. He springs onto the bed and nestles into the duvet at my feet. It’s silly, but I feel like through simple petting, the odd cat treat and some soothing chatter (yes, I talk to my cat), I’ve earned his affection.

So, I’ve rambled a bit, but the point is that it’s good to reflect on the simple things. They’re probably more important than you think.

If you fancy a bit of writing, describe some of the so called trivial things you do and see if they aren’t more meaningful than you give them credit for. In short, what simple things make you happy?

Happy writing.

Happy New Year 2019

So, it’s officially 2019 and I’m happy to see the back of 2018. It was the year of a new job, house extension and horrid, bloody, sodding cancer. I finished the first round of chemotherapy (9 weeks’ worth) and tomorrow I have my first scan since October. I admit, I’m a bit nervous, but I also feel like the 1st phase of treatment is over and the next phase is about to begin.

It has been a challenging time but I’m glad to say that with the exception of my hair issues, (floppy hat and wig modelling), I’m still myself. I’m a stone lighter and I’m happy to say that at least that’s one upside to all this. My wardrobe fits me better.

From what I can see on FB and other social media networks, a lot of people haven’t been too enamoured with 2018. There was something a bit sinister about this past year. Here’s hoping 2019 is better. For my part, I’m starting today as I mean to go on. I’m writing and not censoring myself. I’m just writing what springs to mind. At present, I’m thinking about my friends and what we all hope for in 2019. Most of my close friends are simply happy to wish for good health and a little less stress. A few of us are being greedy and are also hoping for a shift in politics. For me, its binning Trump and a 2nd EU Referendum.

When it comes to this blog, I think I’m going to change the format a bit and rather than write “writing prompts”, I’ll be happy to just write whatever springs to mind and see if a theme emerges as I go. This post is loosely about 2018 and looking into 2019. I have a lot of goals for this year. I’m going to Croatia, starting and MA in Creative writing, reading over 52 books this year, beating cancer, going back to work, learning a new skill (maybe sewing, class booked in February) and writing a significant body of work (novel draft). I don’t think any of these is unreasonable for a year’s achievements. Obviously, the beating cancer goal is the most important, but it should be mutually exclusive to any of the other goals (maybe travel).

I’m actually looking forward to 2019. I think there’s a load I can accomplish and I think I feel more optimistic than I have in years past. Maybe because I’ve had a warning shot across the bow and I need to focus on what I have and what I want to achieve rather that the mundane business of work and job related issues. Some things are more important. I’ve also learned who my real friends are over the past few months. Some people I expected to be there for me have flaked and others who I never expected have been very obvious fixtures in my life and have made me feel loved and important. Funny how crisis make people reveal themselves.

I’ve sent my intention to apply for an MA to the university and now need to send some documentation to get the ball rolling. The course doesn’t start until October, but there’s no harm in getting things moving now. In the meantime, I’m writing every day, even if it’s just a few line of my brain spilled out on this blog. Likewise, I have over 20+ blank notebooks of various sizes, designs and colours that I intend to fill with hand written stories and notes. This post is day one. It’s a rambling mess, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that I’m writing.

Wish me luck and Happy 2019. More to follow. X

Writing Prompt: Failure

Have you ever failed any anything? We sometimes forget that with failure comes unique opportunities to learn and observe our reactions (or the reactions of others). It can be a job interview, a failed relationship, a bad date, a wardrobe malfunction, a failed exam, a botched driving test or a missed opportunity. Think about times when you have failed. What happened? What did you learn from the experience and how did you react? What did you feel and how did that failure affect your life or the lives of others? With failure comes a wealth of material for story telling. Write some examples of either personal or witnessed failure. Create a 300 word narrative describing the conflict, reactions and resolutions.

Enjoy!

Writing Prompt: Texture

Beige, brown, shades of creamy white, magnolia and dark wood. These were the colours I chose for my first house. They were safe colours, practical and inoffensive. They go with everything, I said. I was around 29 years old when I bought my first house. It was a new build in a housing estate outside of Edinburgh with a mock tudor set of windows that gave the house a bit of character, but apart from that, it was as cookie cut out as the rest of the homes in the three blocks that made up the neighbourhood on that hill.

I chose the colours because I didn’t really know what I liked and I didn’t dare put a foot wrong, not when there was so much money at stake. Looking back, I could just as easily painted the house blue or red or added splashes of colour to give it warmth, but the truth is, it never felt like home, I never believed it was really mine. It felt temporary, like it wasn’t worth inserting anything of myself into it because at any moment, I could leave and my tastes would no longer apply. It would sell easier as a blank canvas, I though, not really know when or to whom I would ever sell it.

As it turns out, I stayed 10 years. Too long, too too long in all than lifeless interior and beige.

I’m planning some construction work on my current house, the next one I bought, but not the next one I lived in. The next one I lived in was a rental, but it was only a year. When I chose this house, I fell in love with the openness of the kitchen, the brightness and green of the garden. It was bathed in sunlight and I could picture myself sitting on the grass or on the patio having BBQs. This is not something I ever wanted to do at my old house, there was too much rain and cold and it was too remote for company.

As I look at the construction plans, I can picture the finished room, the new kitchen, pictures on the walls and coloured and quirky cushions on the sofas. I see a huge TV and a cabinet with a hundred vinyl records. I see reds and dangling lamps, a hole in the wall fireplace, a skylight, folding glass doors into my bright flower-filled garden with iron bird feeders. I see a hard tile floor of dark grey ceramic textured tiles and a shaggy rug of light grey and flecks of red woven into the soft material. I tiptoe in the room then plant my shoeless feet firmly on the tiles and they’re warm from the underfloor heating. There are pictures in frames and images mounted on canvas. I run my hand along the shining countertop of the kitchen that smells of coriander, basil and parsley, from the red pebble textured pots on the window sill. There are comical pictures of movie posters or an artist’s interpretation of them. There are magnets on the fridge from all our travels. The cats are curled up on the light grey sofa, curled up on the throw of burnt orange and yellow. One of them sits on the red poof of my reading chair, next to the fake but warm fire produced by the electric fireplace. There are bookcases with all of my treasures on either side of the overstuffed chair. There’s a light hanging over it producing a warm glow from the energy efficient bulbs. Amongst the soft finishings and sleeping cats, there I sit, in a room of my design and at last, I feel at home.

For this prompt, try to focus on different textures and colours. Describe a room or something will multiple textures. Have fun.

Writing Prompt: Bookcase

I’m getting ready to rip up my house and add an extension. I’ve been in denial about how disruptive this is going to be to my life for three-four months and I’ve buried my head in the sand with regards to how much this is going to cost, but the builders are engaged, the movers are booked an I’ve started packing my things into cardboard boxes that are being recycled from my last house move. They’ve survived the elements in the garden shed, though I had expected them to deteriorate, they seem to be able to handle the books I’ve stacking into them.

This exercise is making me aware of how many books I have (and in some cases multiple copies of particularly loved works) and how many I have yet to read. As I’ve been putting them into boxes, I’ve been creating a little pile of books I’m not prepared to part with during the demolition.

Among the books I can’t bring myself to store for three months are the following:

  1. Candide – This book is one of my favourites and I think i’ve read it about 10 times To be fair, it’s short, but that’s not the point. It’s funny, sad, crude and manages to convey everything about the nature of human beings. It flashes a mirror into the face of mankind and forces us to acknowledge that we’re never satisfied, are hypocritical, unforgiving, petty, ignorant and yet, we can also be romantic, charitable, ironic and mindlessly optimistic in the face of all the other reprehensible characteristics. It’s a perfect little book that reminds me that sometimes, you just have to laugh.
  2. Dracula – It’s one of the most original, well craft stories of all time. The narrative is unique in that it tells the story from all of the main characters points of view through a collection of note, diaries, journals and audio recordings. Dracula is evil incarnate and the characters that fight him, both men and women (unusual for that time) are heroic in a way I’d like to think I’d be when faced with a monster.
  3. Lolita – This controversial book stands out in it’s twisted 1st person narrative. The main character, “Humbert Humbert” is one of the classic voices in modern literature. His opinions and thoughts are sickening, yet compelling. There is something sympathetic in his tale but taken as a whole, it’s shocking, sad, drives me to anger and although I hate Humbert Humbert as a character, there’s a fucked up comedy to the story and how he delivers his case to the reader. I think I know every word of this book. It reminds me of what human beings are capable of and what a precarious world we live in. Unlike Dracula, Humbert Humbert represents the real monsters among us and that’s worth a spot in the list.
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – There is nothing I don’t love about this book. The characters are funny and original, the plot stands above the rest as one of the most imaginative science fictions books of all time and it never fails to make me laugh. There’s nothing I can really add to this. I’ve read it and listened to the audio book countless times and it never gets old. There is something comforting in the familiarity of the story and I think it’s safe to say that although I’ve probably covered it 20 or 30 times, I think I’l be reading it 20-30 more before I check out.
  5. The Age of Innocence – never mind that it’s the first Pulitzer Prize winning book by a female author (though that’s a strong recommendation). It’s tragic, beautiful and makes astute observations about American society (late 1800s) that makes you feel like you’re there watching the splendour, riches, hypocrisy and subtlety of the New York upper classes. As you read it, you feel like a fly on the wall, willing our hero and heroine to drop kick convention and do as they please. On more than one occasion, I’ve practically yelled at the pages with full knowledge that there is nothing anyone can do to change the inevitable car crash that our characters are heading for. Yet, I love watching the struggle unfold and wonder if, under the same circumstances, I would behave in the same way? It makes me think of our 21st century sensibilities and I wonder, are we really better off or have we just managed to disguise our prejudices better? I can go on about this one for ages, but it’s better if I leave you to read it or watch the beautifully crafted film adaptation by Martin Scorsese.

So, that’s my bookcase. These are the books that never leave my side and I can’t store away. If you had to cling to only 5 books, which would they be and why?

The Playing Field – A Short Story

The field stretched out four acres behind the schoolhouse. Two long rows of evergreens spanned from one end of the field to the other, creating a sense of protective separation from the school grounds and the outside world. It had been snowing incessantly for three days so that the grounds were white. The tree branches, heavy with snow, hung close to the ground and occasionally dropped heavy clumps of it forming high mounds that almost reached the branches that created them.

As the children returned to school, they walked quietly. Some of them in groups of three or four, others in pairs and one alone with his head down and hands buried deep in his pockets. A group of three girls stood around whispering to each other in front on the boutique across the square. As they shared their chewing gum and gossip about the other girls in the class, they watched the other children walk past through the main gate and into the playground.

Justin walked alone up the tree-lined street beyond Janet’s Café and up the path to the school. He heard the girls huddled by the boutique giggle as he passed them. He dropped his head lower so that his eyes were almost hidden behind the rim of his woolly hat and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. He willed his feet to moved faster while trying to make as little noise as possible. When he reached the door to the classroom, he paused, listening for a moment to the voices beyond, then pushed open the door and slipped inside.

Most of the class had been assembled. At the front right corner of the room, Mrs. Lawson sat facing the class with her hands folded on her desk. The tidy desk spread out before her held neat piles of paper in four stacks, waiting to be distributed. Her dark, emotionless face glanced frequently towards the clock, waiting for the three minutes remaining for class to start to pass. As Justin took his seat and the last students stumbled into the room behind him, she began to speak.

“Good Morning, Class.” She said.

The class responded in unison, “Good Morning, Mrs. Lawson.” Their even voices filled the room.

She glanced around at them without smiling. Most of them hand their hands on their desks and some on their laps, but all of their eyes were forward. She liked what she saw; polite, obedient children with polished shoes and combed hair. Most of their mothers made sure that their uniforms were carefully pressed and their white shirts well starched. One or two had less breeding and looked a little ragged, but that couldn’t be helped, she supposed.

“Today we are going to start with a spelling test.” She said, and then sharply looked around, hoping to catch one or two children showing their disapproval. All eyes stayed forward and fixed on her except two. Justin’s eyes dropped and concentrated on his lap. He could feel her looking at him. She continued to speak.

“There will be twenty-five words. When I call them out, please write down the correct spelling. Please print your answer so that there is no mistake about handwriting. This test will be graded.” She said, and then walked around the room while the children prepared their papers. They each took a fresh piece of paper from their notepads and numbered them from one to twenty-five. When she was satisfied that they were ready, she wandered up and down the rows of desks and called out the words to be spelled.

Justin leaned over his paper, carefully writing down his answers. Beside him, he could feel Billy O’Kelly staring at him. The large boy leaned towards him and whispered.  “J. P., how do you spell successful? Is it one “s” or two?”

Justin ignored him. Billy tried again, “Psst…J.P…J.P….” Justin gave him a sideways glance then turned his head back quickly. He had no desire to be caught cheating.

Billy raised his head and glared at Justin in comprehension. Justin heard him whisper one last time. “You’re dead at recess.” He hissed.

When the test was over, Mrs. Lawson went to the front of the room and addressed the class.

“Please pass your papers forward. Do not speak until the papers have been collected. Once I have them all, please open your reading books to chapter five and read quietly while I grade your papers. You will be required to write a summary of what you have read after recess.”

She took the papers from each of the children sitting in the front rows then sat at her desk to grade them.

Justin sat rigid in his seat. His left had cradled the book on his desk so that Billy could not see his face behind the cover. Recess was in an hour.

When the spelling test had been graded, Mrs. Lawson handed them back to the students. Some quiet moans spread throughout the room as the students saw their grades. Billy received a 44%.

Justin looked at the mistakes on his paper and noticed an error in the grading. He raised his hand and his eyes to the teacher. Her eyes darted towards him and she sighed heavily.

“Yes, Mr. Pierce? What is it?” She said. The class turned and looked at him.

“Mrs. Lawson, I…Well…”

“Yes, what is it boy?” She said impatiently.

“There seems to be a mistake on my paper. I spelled recommendation right. It’s one “c” and two “m’s”.

She couldn’t believe it. This shabby, little boy was telling her how to spell. “Pierce, I graded these papers and all papers very carefully. I’m sure you’ll find that you are mistaken. It’s double “c” and double “m”.” She said then turned away and began to write the next assignment on the blackboard. Billy looked at Justin and smirked at him.

Justin looked at his paper. He was certain he was correct. He had studied. He always studied.

“Mrs. Lawson, “ He said quietly. “I’m sure I’m right. Could we double check in the dictionary?” His voice was shaking.

 

She turned around with the chalk in her hand and glared at him. She looked at his trousers, faded at the knees and the scuffed black shoes on his awkward feet. His black hair was always in need of a haircut. She resented the fact that the school had allowed such scruffy child from “that neighbourhood” to attend their school.

“Very well. Please yourself.” She said then turned back to the blackboard.

A moment later, Justin walked up to her and showed her the entry in the dictionary. She looked at it, but the stern expression on her face never changed.

“I see.” She said. “I’ll make the change in the grade-book. Now go back to your seat.”

Justin obeyed and went back to his reading assignment until the recess bell rang. The children slipped out of their chairs and went out the back door of the classroom and into the playground.

Justin walked toward the open field where he could sit on a stone bench and watch the others play their games. He had been daydreaming, not really paying attention when he felt his arms being pinned behind him and someone’s arm around his neck as he was dragged from the bench. It took only a moment to realise that Billy had made good on his threat. Adam Fisher, a gangly, profusely-freckled boy held Justin’s arms while Billy choked the air out of his lungs.  As Justin tried to free himself, Adam laughed till tears rolled down his cheeks.

Justin looked around the playground while he struggled. The other children were at the far end of the field enjoying a game of tag. Across the field he could see the classroom door and the window beside it. For a moment, a woman’s face appeared and he felt a surge of relief at seeing her, but it faded as she raised her arm across the window, her eyes fixed on him until they disappeared behind the curtain.

Finally, as his began to faint, Billy let him drop. As Justin slid onto the snow, his chin hit the edge of the stone bench. Blood poured from the wound as Billy and Adam walked away arm and arm. Justin put his hand to his chin and was sure that he would be left with a scar.

Writing Prompt: YA Fiction

I’m currently doing a course that focuses on Young Adult fiction and one of the interesting exercises we’re doing is going through a listing the most influential books we read when we were growing up. For my part, Judy Blume played a big part in my reading enjoyment as a young adult and the themes are still relevant today. (Loss, religion, friendship, bullying, conformity, siding rivalry, etc).

For this exercise, think about the types of books you read growing up. What is it you liked about them? What were some of the common themes? Are they still relevant?

Next, try writing a short outline for a story based on a teenage experience. Write it in the 1st person and from the point of view of your younger self. Next, read it back, what would you stay to your younger self based on the experiences you’ve had as an adult? Have fun strolling down memory lane.

 

Writing Prompt: Your Opening Line

Grabbing your reader is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do it writing. How do you get someone to stick with your narrative? Having a brilliant story is great, but if you don’t get your reader’s attention, you’ll lose them and they’ll never get to the end.

So, having a strong opening line is critical to inspiring your reader to plow ahead with your story. Try this, have some fun writing compelling opening lines and see what story springs from them. Here are a few of my attempts.

  1. The phone rang just after midnight.
  2. He stood at the end of the road waiting to cross when he spotted her.
  3. As she stood at the hearth tending to the fire, the chain around her neck fell into the flames.
  4. The evening bloated with wine and high spirits started well enough but soon to an ugly turn.
  5. Effy sat on the window sill every afternoon, staring through the glass, watching the world go by and waiting for her human to come home.

Enjoy.

Writing Prompt: Scene and Memory

Nabokov once wrote, “There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open […]; and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face…”

As time and distance separate me from those I care for, I find myself staring off into the distance, or a blank space on the wall, trying to recall my last moments with them, piecing together our words, gestures, our attire and surroundings to bring back what I was feeling when we last met. I sometimes doubt my memory and struggle to recall their features and although I can tell tell myself that I love their eyes, their smile or a signature gesture, I cannot recall it. It is not until I close my eyes and fix on one key detail, that the whole picture re-forms in my mind’s eye. When the image is complete, it’s like I’m there with them, sharing a laugh or an embrace. In some cases, it takes the generation of the memory of a twisted frown, an argument or a flash of sad eyes to bring them back to me. From there, I can trace the steps to the features I adore and the person attached to them .

For this exercise, close your eyes and recreate the face and expression of someone in your life. Try to recall everything about their features, If you want to expand, try to remember the last words you exchanged or the circumstances of your last meeting. What were they wearing? Where was it? Were you sitting, standing walking? Be as descriptive as you can and try to do it for a couple of people. You’ll be surprised how much comes out. Don’t forget to try to write what you were feeling.

Example: When I close my eyes, I see her quite clearly, a pretty-nosed girl of sixteen. She sits on a stool in the kitchen with her slashed black jeans tight against her slim frame. I feel at once pride and envy, remembering my figure at her age. I glance down and realise I’m wearing the same jeans and chuckle at the stark difference. She’s tapping away on her phone and her head is low with her brows furrowed in concentration, the hood of her black hoodie back and her long brown hair tucked behind her ear. It occurs to me that my niece is beautiful. I’m filled with both admiration and fear and a sudden protective flash of preemptive hatred for anyone who ever dares to hurt her. Then, in a wink, the calm voice inside my head reminds me of who’s daughter she is, what a strong and sensible character they have raised and hate turns to pity for the imagined future enemy.

When she turns her head and notices me standing there, only a few seconds later and a few feet away from where she sits with her back to the kitchen door, the precious phone drops from her hand and her face bursts into an endearing grin. She hops from the kitchen stool and reaches for me, arms outstretched, and as I pull her to me in a rib-crunching embrace, I release she is taller, nearly matching my height. She’ll pass me and be model height I think. I look at her intelligent face, and clock the row of subtle freckles across the bridge of her nose, her lovely long lashes framing her brown eyes and the English rose complexion of her cheeks.

“How’s it going kid?” I ask and we pour ourselves into adjoining kitchen stools for a good gossip. The other grown ups melt into the background and begin to chatter while we, 16 and middle-aged talk movies, books and music, my favourite subjects in good company. My sister in law offers Prosecco (though more to me) and we nod assent in unison.

 

Example: We walked into the room and closed the glass door. Even before I reached the chair, the words where forming in my mind, “I owe you an apology.” I went on with what I had to say, trying to focus on the response, looking for some sign in his face that I would be forgiven. We sat on opposite sides of a small round table, in low green plastic chairs. He leaned back lazily as he so often did, with his legs stretched out before him with a posture of such nonchalance, it was hard to feel anything but warmth, ease and the genuine desire to be forgiven, for us to go back to the nervous yet friendly demeanour that so often categorised our talks.

As he spoke, I listened for the tone of his voice to provide me with some clue as to our future. Although we were discussing serious matters, when I met his eyes I could see they were smiling.  As we took turns talking, it was as though we were both searching for some understanding from the other.

With the awkwardness melting away, I too began to lean back and relax. We talked of things that matter to each of us and that sharing gave way to the equilibrium that we had temporarily disturbed through misunderstanding.

I now see the scene of our parting quite clearly. He, turning to walk in the opposite direction with his white-shirted back angling itself towards to door. I, quickly moving to leave the scene, while muttering a final disclaimer until we turned and looked back one last time. “See ya, Mate.” were my last words to him, uncertain if we would ever meet again, but with a flutter of hope in my chest that time and circumstance would allow it. He smiled, a subtle, knowing smile, and there his face remains frozen in my mind, complete with short, dark beard, the smiling eyes and an almost imperceptible expression of relief.

 

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