Excuse Machine

(Or why I’m giving up on the whole Writing 101 thing…or at least skipping a few days of prompts.)

I don’t think I’m going to continue responding in turn to each of the prompts from the last go-round of Writing 101 here on WordPress. But, boy, do I have some great excuses.

There’s Day 6:

Who’s the most interesting person (or people) you’ve met this year?

Today, write a post focusing on one — or more — of the people that have recently entered your life, and tell us how your narratives intersected. It can be your new partner, your newborn child, or the friendly barista whose real story you’d love to learn (or imagine), or any other person you’ve met for the first time in the past year.

Today’s twist: Turn your post into a character study.

I am not particularly good at describing people. People tend to have the personal characteristics of “sweet” or “intelligent” or “a jerk” when I describe them. Looks – that’s even worse. Average Height. Brownish hair. Looks like a high school kid. It’s not that I don’t pay attention to how people look or act, it’s just that I can’t describe them unless I talk in examples. Oh, how I enjoy to talk in examples. It’s one of my crutches in life, the explain-by-example. Or, technique, yes, you could call it a technique.

The most interesting person I met this year, well, I’m not so sure I met anyone all that interesting.

Who did I actually meet this year, other than Squirms? (I could describe her to you, all at once, but that’d quickly get tiring and I’m going to be doing enough of that, already, without excuses for doing so.)

I met new coworkers; no one wants to write about coworkers when they have an office job – it’s too work-interfering-with-personal-life.

At a wedding, I met the wife of a friend and a couple who’s been friends with Matt’s parents for years.

I honestly can’t think of anyone else who made an actual impression. Coworkers. Mary. Stan. Carolyn. That’s it.

The Day 7 prompt wanted a conversation of contrasts:

Write a post based on the contrast between two things — whether people, objects, emotions, places, or something else.

Bringing together two different things — from the abstract and the inanimate to the living and breathing — creates a natural source of tension, and conflict drives writing forward. It makes your reader want to continue to the next sentence, to the next page. So, focus on your two starkly different siblings, or your competing love for tacos and macarons, or whether thoughts are more powerful than words, or…you get the idea.

Today’s twist: write your post in the form of a dialogue. You can create a strong opposition between the two speakers — a lovers’ quarrel or a fierce political debate, for example. Or you could aim to highlight the difference in tone and style between the two different speakers — your call!

I’ve never really written dialog before and am not likely to here or elsewhere. In person, I often describe conversations I’ve participated in but I do it by (badly) imitating peoples’ voices. (My friend, Dan, uses a Jimmy Stewart voice every time he mimics someone, even though he tries to actually talk like them. Me, everyone talks like me, but with a deeper voice.)

And that “stark contrast” part? Eh. I hate conflict so that’s out. Style and tone would just lead to me pretending that Squirms and I were having a conversation and she was saying things that would just be silly coming from a baby (“Let’s go skydiving!” is a common phrase Matt and I pretend she’s saying.)

Day 8 reminded me too much of English class:

Go to a local café, park, or public place and report on what you see. Get detailed: leave no nuance behind.

Thoughtful writers create meaning by choosing precise words to create vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. As you strive to create strong imagery, show your readers what’s going on; avoid telling them.

Today’s twist: write an adverb-free post. If you’d rather not write a new post, revisit and edit a previous one: excise your adverbs and replace them with strong, precise verbs.

Yeah, yeah yeah. Show don’t tell. Avoid adverbs and forms of the verb “to be.” Text in parenthesis can almost always be omitted. I follow almost none of these rules – though I don’t think I use adverbs very often. Heh.

Day 9 wanted you to write from a different point of view.

A man and a woman walk through the park together, holding hands. They pass an old woman sitting on a bench. The old woman is knitting a small, red sweater. The man begins to cry. Write this scene.

Today’s twist: write the scene from three different points of view: from the perspective of the man, then the woman, and finally the old woman.

I read the words “knitting a small, red sweater” and got completely off track.

But, Day 10, oh, I could do Day 10. But I’ll leave that for tomorrow.

Other Peoples’ Letters

Day Five is a real challenge for me and it’s not for the reason you’re thinking:

You stumble upon a random letter on the path. You read it. It affects you deeply, and you wish it could be returned to the person to which it’s addressed. Write a story about this encounter.

Today’s twist: Approach this post in as few words as possible.

I can be brief, really I can. My work requires me to be able to distill complex topics into very succinct forms like a single page white paper or two Power Point slides or three minutes of audio explanation. Brief I can do, it’s the invasion of privacy that the prompt is asking you to consider that bothers me.

Like my notebooks, I would hate for someone else to read my letters. Even though they’re usually not all that personal, just sort of a rundown of what’s going on in my life or the life of whomever is writing me. I hate knowing someone else has read something that’s supposed to be private, no matter how small.

Like when Mike, the kid who sat next to me in 8th grade science class, found and read my journal, one with sunflowers on a bright blue background (really, brain, you remember this and yet can’t remember to take out the trash each Tuesday morning). At one level, I was mortified because he would now know that I liked him; this secret was already blatantly obvious to everyone, with the way I fawned all over him in class. At another, it was that he knew everything else I’d bothered to write down. I spent the week he held onto my journal – why I never complained to an adult to make him give it back, I will never understand – not being able to sleep, worried what other revelations he would reveal. He never did say anything other than that he already knew I liked him. We went to different high schools and I ran into him at a football game in eleventh grade, both of us drinking cool, made-from-powder lemonade after performing in our schools’ halftime shows. I asked him why he never said anything to anyone about what he’d learned; his response “Who would have cared?”

There is a narcissism there, that someone else would care about what I wrote in a letter or had written to me. For most people, my letters would be banal, beyond boring. Little notes about what new tricks Squirms had learned or how our (pathetic) attempt at gardening was growing. (Like, you know, the sort of thing I write about here. Heh.)

That letter, the letter I find on the path. I don’t try to return it to its owner, not because I don’t care about my fellow human beings, but because returning the letter means the correct recipient (or sender) would know that someone else did read it. They now know that I know whatever that very private thing is. And who wants that?

Serial Creator

Day Four of Writing 101 got a little dark with its prompt (and it’s title — The Serial Killer):

Write about a loss: something (or someone) that was part of your life, and isn’t any more.

This doesn’t need to be a depressing exercise; you can write about that time you lost the three-legged race at a picnic. What’s important is reflecting on this experience and what it meant for you — how it felt, why it happened, and what changed because of it.

Today’s twist: Make today’s post the first in a three-post series.

Which is why I’m going to ignore that whole part about writing about a loss – not that I won’t write about it later – but am going to run with the idea of a serial.

You’ll notice a new page will appear on my blog the same time this posts does with a list of Features. These are recurring topics for blog posts I’m planning to get started with, well, tomorrow. This will provide me some much-needed structure and direction for this blog because without either I’m likely to post about as often as I did on my previous blogs (which averages to once a month over the last 15 years).

See you tomorrow.


Songs of My Life

[I don’t know how long I’m going to stick to following the daily prompts for Writing 101 but I’m really enjoying them so far. Things aren’t super exciting in my life right now so it’s giving me something to do to completion each day that’s unique to that particular day. Also – I’m not sure if I’m a fan of people being able to like posts on here. It’s nice to have some indication that people, well, like my writing but I could really go for actual comments. Hint. Hint. Yes, mom, that’s directed at you.]

Here’s the day 3 prompt from the WordPress Writing 101 folks:

Write about the three most important songs in your life — what do they mean to you?

Today, try free writing. To begin, empty your mind onto the page. Don’t censor yourself; don’t think. Just let go. Let the emotions or memories connected to your three songs carry you.

Today’s twist: You’ll commit to a writing practice. The frequency and the amount of time you choose to spend today — and moving forward — are up to you, but we recommend a minimum of fifteen uninterrupted minutes per day.

(The writing practice part will be a different post, but I wanted to include it for completeness. If I remember, I’ll edit this post later to point to that one. Someone please ping me – man, I hate that phrase but still use it – if you don’t see something about establishing a writing practice on here in a week or two.)

When I was in high school, I was obsessed with music. I listened to it anytime I could get away with it – radio in the car to and from school, doing homework at the kitchen table, cleaning the bathroom on a Saturday morning. It didn’t hurt that, for most of ninth and tenth grade, I was also into a guy who was obsessed with music. Now, I always tell people that I really enjoy music and i listen to it a lot, but nothing like back then. Now, it’s background noise or something to sing along to on the way to work. I don’t really, truly enjoy it anymore. It’s just..there.

But that’s not what the prompt asked for, it asked for the three most important songs in my life. Two popped into my head immediately: “If you’re happy and you know it” and “Oye Como Va.” The other, well, I still haven’t come up with a third yet. We’ll see if one identifies itself later on.

If You’re Happy and you Know it (Traditional children’s song)

Anyone who grew up in the US – and maybe elsewhere, but I don’t want to assume – knows “If you’re happy and you know it” and it’s structure. It goes like this:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

*Clap* *Clap*

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

*Clap* *Clap*

If you’re happy and you know it, (and you really want to show it)
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

*Clap* *Clap*

On subsequent verses, the actions to show how happy you are change. I don’t actually remember the “real” verses after this first one, though it’s easy enough to make them up as you go along.

So, why this song? Because Squirms loves it. If she’s upset, we’ll sing it to her, making her perform each of the actions as we go and it’s like MAGIC. And it’s not always “if you’re happy” – common variations are “if you’re squirmy” and “if you’re fussy.” I guess you could say it represents my life right now – I am her mom. I sing silly songs to get my daughter to calm down, to smile at me.

It makes me smile every time I sing it to her and I often hear the tune in my head when I talk about her other people. It’s her theme. I can’t wait until she’s old enough to clap and squirm and kick and pat along with it though I do like the current Squirms-as-parents’-puppet version for the closeness it requires.

Oye Como Va (Tito Puente)

I grew up on this song and music like it. My dad, he’s a classically trained percussionist who idolizes the speed and passion of the playing of Tito Puente. My mom, she likes music with a good beat. And I grew up in South Florida where you can’t deny the Cuban influences.  You’ve probably heard it before (here’s a link to Santana’s version on YouTube).

I’ll admit, I never knew what the words actually meant though I could piece it together if I wracked my three-years-of-high-school-Spanish brain. Wikipedia tells me it’s “Listen to how it goes.” The whole repeated phrasing (“Oye como va…mi ritmo / Bueno pa’ gozar”) translates to “listen to how my rhythm goes / good for enjoying.” He just about begs you to dance. And I have, many a time, even if it’s just in the shower or in my chair at work.

My favorite version is from a  concert that happened back in 2000 called “Jam Miami.” All of the biggest names in Latin, particularly Cuban, jazz got together for a big concert and they recorded a CD (Amazon link) of it, which I still have in heavy rotation at work (sorry, Dad, I swiped it from you years ago). It’s in a medley with Ran Kan Kan called, appropriately enough, “Medley para Tito.”

I think of my parents and going to concerts in parks in the summer when I hear it. I especially think of going to see Nestor Torres  who was just some dude who played Latin Jazz flute then, at my hometown’s arts festival in elementary school. (My dad made a comment about how he could be really great with a better backup band; a couple years later, his CD popped up at Barnes and Noble on one of those little “listen before you buy” stations.) We got a seat only about five feet from the edge of the stage and I sat there, transfixed, for the entire concert. My brother was somewhere nearby but not quite listening, my mom probably hoping he’d burn off some energy dancing along or running around the grassy seating area. It’s the first concert I remember going to and really enjoying.

A Third Song? Eh.

I can’t think of anything that jumps right into my head and really means anything to me at the same level as these other two songs. I leave you with my list of possibilities: It’s a Small World, Let’s go to the Mall (from How I Met Your Mother), Do Re Mi,…

Take me Away (to the Alhambra)

[Quick update from yesterday: I didn’t actually end up writing at all in the evening. Instead, I sat and talked with Matt for a good while and just relaxed. Still not great because I didn’t follow-through on my commitment to myself but, hey, Matt and I got some time to talk and we didn’t just talk about work or Squirms, which is quite rare. Also – I did write a little this morning so that’s something. I’ll try to take time to write again tonight, as I wait for the laundry to be done.]

In keeping with my lack of creativity on what to write about – let’s move on to Day 2 of WordPress’s latest go-round of Writing 101. The instructions for day 2 are:

Today, choose a place to which you’d like to be transported if you could — and tell us the backstory. How does this specific location affect you? Is it somewhere you’ve been, luring you with the power of nostalgia, or a place you’re aching to explore for the first time?

Today’s twist: organize your post around the description of a setting.

I’ll be honest with you all – the very first place that popped into my head when I read this was “anywhere dark and quiet but that has cell service so I can play on my phone.” Because – right now – I have a blistering headache that’s trying to become a migraine except I’ve downed some Advil and a half of a Diet Coke so I’m winning this battle.

But, if I ignore my present state, where would I want to be if I could? No thought is even required – the Alhambra.

(This is a VERY photo-heavy post so you’ll want to come back when you’ve got a fast internet connection and probably on a regular computer or tablet to the photos at teeny tiny.) Continue reading “Take me Away (to the Alhambra)”

Rattling Around

I’ve got a million thoughts rattling around in my head today and all of them want to be allowed to escape. It’s like my fingers can’t type fast enough or writing fast enough to keep up with everything zooming around in there. I should just crack open a notebook and empty my head. I could even use a list or a diagram – I love my lists and diagrams – of the topics I need to think about or take action on. But despite having the time and the place, I can’t bring myself to actually do it.

These sort of rattlings thoughts drive me crazy because it means I do things like get distracted when I’m heating up my lunch (mac-n-cheese with tasso ham) and nearly melt the plastic container. They keep me from focusing on what I should be – like going through the online tutorial on common Java design patterns (singletons! builders! compose entities!).

See, I got myself this brand new, shiny notebook this weekend. Matt and I were at the Crate and Barrel outlet (all alone – gasp!) and I saw this little notebook that’s bound with thread and a hard paper cover. I held it in my head for the entire 20 minutes we were in the store, begging for an excuse to buy it. It was $3.50 and we’re not in such financial straights that buying was going to bankrupt us, but I felt guilty. Thing is, I always manage to buy myself a notebook when either Matt isn’t with me or he’s not in a mood to point out that I’ve already got a good dozen notebooks that are either totally blank or only partially filled. I’ve really got a problem when it comes to new notebooks. I buy them each time we travel, when I was in school and started a new semester, when I found out I was going to be induced (so Squirms would be joining the world soon), when I switched jobs. Just about any excuse or access to an inexpensive notebook will do.

And, right now, it’s still blank, even though I’ve had all sorts of time and opportunities to sit down and write in it. And I feel like writing. And I have a pen I really like that will probably work well on the paper in the notebook. And I had no other purpose for the notebook than to contain my actual day-to-day thoughts.

What’s my problem?I blame Natalie Goldberg. Yes, I blame an author of a famous book on writing (who’s also a writing teacher, novelist, and artist) who has zero idea I even exist.This is all her fault.

Continue reading “Rattling Around”