Take a Rest

On Saturday, I sat down to write something for this website, but nothing came. I also felt a tendonitis-like pain in my right wrist. The pain was probably due to weeding I’ve been doing in my yard. My husband kindly wrapped my wrist in bandaging, which had an immediate, beneficial effect. I don’t know what led to my blank mind. What a fool’s day.

Ticket to an entertaining evening with the writer Sybil Schreiber who read from Safranhimmel.

In the evening, we went with my youngest daughter and her partner to a reading by the Swiss-German writer Sybil Schreiber. She delivered one of the best readings I’ve ever attended. Witty, charming, and clever, she worked without a moderator, discussing with ease the premise of her latest collection of short stories, Safranhimmel. She read sections from the collection and answered questions about the work and her writing life. Actually, in recognizing how slow a question session can take to get rolling, who awkward an audience can feel about asking her anything, she wrote out several questions on cards which she pinned to the undersides of random seats in the theater. My daughter got one, “Wieso heisst das Buch, Safranhimmel?” – but a woman behind us asked about her choice of title before my daughter had a chance to. Never mind.

We left, happy to have attended the reading and discovered a new voice to follow. Her trick with the question cards delighted us. How clever! Someone in the audience asked if Safranhimmel would be out in English, which got me thinking about trying my hand at translating fiction from German to English. I’m experienced with translating work-related copy. Wouldn’t it be fun to explore applying my creative-writing skills to translating creative copy?

Here, I’ll stop. My wrist demands I take a rest from typing, which is all right. Of course, all sorts of ideas about what to share today came flooding in as soon as I decided not to think about what to write—so here we are. I didn’t intended to muse this month, but I have. And I’m pleased. Creativity thrives on a clear running source of ideas. Although I may experience a few obstacles in the flow of my creativity, I’ve never stayed blocked for long.

A local beaver dam. As long a there’s flow, a few obstacles to writing simply alters the terrain.

The Zinger Still Zinging

We all know the fun of collective nouns. A murder of crows! A parliament of owls! A lying of pardoners!

Kathy Fish, seasoned teacher and writer of brilliant flash fiction, lures us into her “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” (which appeared in Jellyfish Review in 2017) with what reads like an innocent vocabulary romp. Some romps are pure fun, some combine fun with a lesson. Kathy Fish’s 135–word romp is a lesson in social commentary.

The story ends with a zinger. Not a twist, which once was the aim of most flash-fiction writers. No, it ends with one of the art form’s best ever zingers. Where Kathy Fish ends her story will send shock waves through your marrow. I don’t exaggerate and I won’t elaborate. Read it.

Read it for its impact. Once you recover, go back and look at the rhythm she creates by using a simple switching of nouns and noun phrases. One precedes the other; switch. Note her use of single-sentence paragraphs. For punch. And how, once she’s lured us into the fun complete, and mesmerized us wither her use of rhythm, she lands the ending. Whomp.

Grass is Grass

Whenever I think of point of view and details, I think of grass.

Grass is grass—right? We may find it more attractive when it thrives in a proper place, like a suburban lawn rather than between slabs of sidewalk. And perhaps more attractive still, when it’s carefully tended to, watered, mowed, and fertilized.

Growing up in a military family, I moved around a lot. From place to place, lawns changed. In Texas, their trimmed blades were scratchy. Lawns resembled green pot-scrubbers. In Arizona, our base-housing lawns looked inviting, but run barefoot across one, and you might hit a thorn as sharp as a dagger. Ow! In North Carolina, our grass struggled to thrive in the clay soil. In Ohio, it grew lush and soft.

But when I was fourteen, Dad hung up his uniform, and we moved to the Oregon countryside. We bought horses, and the world of grasses really transformed. From ornamentation to food. Our horses rushed to lush blades, their teeth cropping them with vigor.

I began to gauge a pasture’s appeal from a horse’s perspective. Mmm, well-watered and fetlock-high grasses. Spring grasses grew rich and inviting—but too much, too fast, could produce an aching belly. And, oh, dear, how heartbreaking; anything nibbled to dust levels or dried to hay or worse, dried to brittle, seedless stalks.

Names grew in fields—meadow fescue, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and sweet timothy. Complexity grew, too. The best pastures offered grazers a mix of grasses and herbs. The suburban gardener might detest clover, yarrow, and dandelions but not the grazing horse.

I could go on and on about pastures—and don’t get me started about horses—but you might be asking what grass has to do with writing. It’s about learning to take a detail and detailing it.

Grass. You can allude to a season in a story by whether the grass is frost-covered, new-growth lush, or sun withered. You can describe its setting—city, suburbs, countryside—and its color and texture. And what about metaphor? What does grass mean from the perspective of suburban child, growing in friendly or unfriendly soils? A picked-over monoculture, chock full of weeds, or a bounty of nutritious and healing herbs?

Take a detail you think you know. View your “grass” from a fresh perspective. Get down on your knees and dig deeper. What’s there? Strawberries? Primroses? An orchid or mushroom? Stinging nettles or poison ivy? You may think you understand your lawns or pastures, but worlds of wildlife live below the blades of grasses and herbs, mammals, insects, spiders. Mosses, fungi, bacteria, microbes, viruses, and more. How can a fresh perspective impact your story? Its setting, conflict, or characters?

Fly Like Evel Knievel

One time, years before I knew anything about physics, I was pedaling my bike down a sloping stretch of our suburban street and I saw a single brick lying on the pavement. Construction was ongoing in the neighborhood, and builders’ trucks shed things regularly, like ropes, a thermos, or a leather glove. I imagined hitting that brick and flying through the air a là Evel Knievel, the stunt motorcyclist shown on TV recently, jumping fifteen Ford Mustangs.

I pedaled faster, gaining speed, and a roaring crowd filled my ears. A news reporter narrated my approach moment by moment. I pedaled faster. Harder. To fly higher.

(Source: Davey Cooms, “CW Classics: The Sum of All Evel – First Look”, Cycle World, December 10, 2007. )

I hit the brick, and—yes!—I flew.

Oh boy, did I fly.

This is the beginning of story: in a familiar landscape, something is different. Oh, look! A brick. Add some form of what if to that difference and you take off. What if I hit that brick going full speed on my bike?

I will fly.

A familiar landscape can be just about anything, particular or abstract. The street you once lived on, live on now, or one you’ve been imagining and visiting since childhood. It can be memory evoked. Kept it simple or add layers of complexity. Here I am, an unremarkable Caucasian woman in her sixties, walking down a busy street in Zurich, Switzerland, thinking random thoughts in Swiss-German, when I smell steaming white rice. Fresh pineapple hits a wok sizzling with garlic, onions, and pork. Time and place shift. I’m twelve years old, in the center of Tainan, Taiwan, surrounded by the buzz and horns of local traffic and conversations in Taiwanese. A dog barks. A street vendor scrapes a wok with a metal spatula. The wok releases the scents of garlic, onions, pork, and carmaelizing pineapple. What if that vendor opens a rice cooker, fragrant steam escaping, and a kernel of rice screams for help?

(Source: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images)

Remember that brick lying in the street? I was going Top Speed when I hit it. And sure enough, I flew.

Right. Over. My handlebars.

Is that a story? Not quite, right? But it’s change powerful enough to incite a story. Add layers of What ifs and see what happens:

What if a little girl’s boarding a school bus the day after she rode her bike into a brick? She’s sore and  ashamed of the Band-Aids covering her nose, upper lip, and chin. What if a boy on the bus sticks out a foot and trips her? Or what if she so enraged she beats up the mean boy? What if her class crush stops her instead, just before she trips? Or what if she falls on her wounded face and sees, huddled beneath the seats, a dog-faced creature with pointy ears and hair that grows like a flame from the top of its head? She smiles and feels herself immediately transformed and transported . . .

Take an event from your childhood. Add layers of what ifs and see where they might lead you.