Abandonement by Numbers (an exercise)

 

abandonment

As some of you may know, I participated in the MOOC from Iowa Writer’s Workshop again this year. I actually wasn’t able to finish due to some demands on my time but I did wind up in an online writing group with my friends from last year. It has been wonderful to reconnect and be able to give each other feedback, suggestions, and support from the comfort of home. I wanted to share an exercise I completed in the group because I think the prompt is pretty challenging and I had a lot of fun writing this. Let me know if you attempt a numbered writing – I’d love to read it!

The prompt required each sentence to contain a number, 1-10. They are, of course, not in order.

I was nine when I watched the family station wagon lurch down the drive, spraying mud when it dipped in low. I wasn’t surprised; I’d seen it coming for six months or so but, from my mother’s hiccuping sobs I could tell it had broadsided her. My father had never really been in the picture, popping in for a birthday when I was three and popping back out for what felt like forever, always ready with an apology and a stick of gum; like that would make everything better. I felt bad for my mom; she always believed the best, even after two divorces and three kids. But the reality of our situation was that none of us would ever find a way to make him stay; though there were four of us to love him, it would never be enough. I remember standing under the light of the Christmas tree, begging for just ten minutes to talk with him, to make him understand how he made us feel, made my mom feel. But Santa or God or whoever was supposed to be up there never seemed to hear the prayers of an eight year old boy who needed a father, not just for himself, but for his brothers and his mom. Not one of my desperate kid prayers was answered. So I watched the lights wink, three, four, five times in the distance and then fade away to nothing. I slipped one arm around my mother’s waist and draped the other over my seven-year old brother’s shoulders; we would be fine, we would always be fine.

Copyright 2016 Katharine Brown
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The Girl Who Dreamed

In our first week of class, we were required to write a piece featuring a female protagonist. It was important to pay attention to voice and identity because so often we can reveal what we want known through interactions and what is left unsaid rather than directly coming out and speaking it over the character. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote for class. Hope you enjoy it!

Once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed. She didn’t dream of flying or being free or other happy things. Instead, she dreamed of faces she had never seen, of people facing challenges that she had never heard of, obstacles that she didn’t understand. Sometimes they won and sometimes they lost and she watched it all play out in her head in black and white.

The first time she told her parents about her dreams, they encouraged her to forget them. The daughter of an innkeeper shouldn’t be bothering herself with such fantasies, they would tell her. Get on with your chores. While the dreams became more regular, her confessions of them became less frequent until she stopped sharing them all together. Her parents were relieved, believing the dreams to have stopped, as they had hoped for. Her friends wondered why she didn’t wish the faces away, or take something to help her sleep a dreamless sleep. Why did she care what happened to strangers she would never know? And so she soon ceased to confide in them as well. No one, it seemed, could understand how she felt.

Because the girl had come to love her dreams and the people she saw there. She kept a sketchbook of their faces under her mattress; a testament to their struggles, a memorial of their outcomes. She rejoiced when the strangers were victorious and she wept when they were overcome. She felt as if she were taking part in the drama of a life that was bigger and more meaningful than the one she lived out in her small village. And her life was more exciting than most since all the strangers that visited their hamlet had to pass through her father’s inn. Even the travelers from across the lake were not as exotic as the people from her dreams.

Until one day, when the face in her dream was a familiar one. And the obstacle, which seemed so trivial, was not overcome. The girl awoke in a panic, tangled in her sheets, her face wet with tears. She felt that she must tell the blacksmith’s wife what she had seen, but was unsure of how to go about it. She was distraught. For days she prayed for a happy ending, tried to convince herself she’d seen the wrong ending. But each time she looked at her sketchbook she knew it was only a matter of time. She wrote a letter and then another and another and then burned them all and finally went to seek the counsel of her mother.

Her mother seemed deeply bothered by their conversation, refusing even to look the girl in the eyes while she pleaded for help regarding the best approach.  She offered no comfort or counsel and, as the days passed, seemed to avoid the girl altogether. Even during the funeral, she still refused to meet the girl’s eyes and the two became like strangers.

© 2016 Katharine Anne Brown All Rights Reserved

An Exercise: Working with Plot

This week’s assignment was to create two characters, both with clear desires, and pit them against one another. Writers can be evil, can’t they? I hope you enjoy what I came up with!

Maggie had finished loading the dishwasher and was filling the sink with warm soapy water when she realized that Patrick hadn’t headed into the living room to watch Jeopardy but was, instead, puttering about the kitchen and looking at her out of the corner of his eye. When he cleared his throat for the third time without saying anything, she knew that he wanted to talk about something serious. She turned off the tap and moved the kettle onto the front burner, pulling two mugs from the cabinet. As she got the tea ready she wondered if this sudden change in routine had anything to do with the meeting he’d told her about yesterday. Something his boss had wanted to talk to him about. It wasn’t like him to beat about the bush like this, so it must be something significant. She poured the hot water over the tea bags and watched the brown slowly rise through the water.

“Patrick,” she said, holding his mug out to him, “should we sit and chat?”

Patrick felt panic rising as he wrapped his strong hands around the mug and headed through the swinging door into the living room. He knew Maggie wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

They both settled into their matching recliners and Maggie put her mug on an ornate glass coaster she’d gotten from her mum and waited for him to tell her what it was that had him so flustered.

Patrick took a few swigs of tea, swallowing hard as the hot liquid burned his tongue, and a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Mags, I had that meeting I was telling you about yesterday, with Mr. Dillard? Actually, that’s why I was late to dinner. He wanted to talk to me about my retirement, well about something that’s to do with my retirement. The thing is, well, the company wants me to take a position, a supervisor position, actually. So that means when I retire in a few years we’ll have more to work with than we thought.” Patrick stopped talking and took another gulp of his tea. He wasn’t sure where to go from here and he looked over at his wife, sipping her tea and gazing at him thoughtfully.

Maggie wasn’t sure what Patrick was so nervous about. She was proud of his achievements at work and was looking forward to his retirement in a year or two. She was ready to spend her days with him underfoot and the kids and grandkids streaming in and out of the old house, as they did on the weekends. She smiled at him lovingly as he dashed on.

“So, I told him I’d think about it because, of course, I had to talk to you first and, well,” he paused for a moment and then it came out of him, all in a rush, “we’d have to move, Mags.”

Maggie froze; her mug hovered near the middle of her chest, arrested on its return trip to the coaster. She looked blankly at her husband, her brain refusing to process the information he had just relayed. She couldn’t look him in the eye and her breath came quicker as she fought down the pain and confusion and anger that were welling up into her throat. Snapping the footrest of her recliner down suddenly, she launched herself up, banged through the swinging door into the kitchen, and turned on the tap.

Patrick ran his hand over his face as he heard the sound of water running into the kitchen sink. When Maggie was mad, she cleaned and she wouldn’t stop cleaning until she was ready to talk. He left his tea on her coaster and headed upstairs, knowing that pursuing a conversation with her was pointless.

Maggie finished washing the dishes and wiped her hands on the scratchy, red kitchen towel her grandsons had given her for her birthday. It didn’t dry all that much, but it was the thought that counted. She walked slowly through the downstairs, lowering blinds and turning off lights. The house was silent, but not lonely. Each room was full of memories, of laughter, of family, of happiness. She stood at the foot of the stairs, in the dark, and listened to the sound of Patrick’s heavy breathing and occasional snores coming from their room upstairs. Then she climbed heavily past the framed photographs of weddings and birthdays, babies and anniversaries, proms and senior portraits. She peeked in on Liam, fast asleep across his father’s childhood bed, his curls etched in the shadows cast by the nightlight.

She washed her face and brushed her teeth in the chipped porcelain sink in the bathroom before sliding into cool sheets in the guest bedroom. She was calmer now, but she wouldn’t stay calm sleeping next to Patrick. She could hear his muffled snorts and snores as she tossed and turned, trying to silence her brain, trying not to think about what tomorrow would bring.

Patrick woke to the smell of bacon and coffee. It wafted up the stairs, as it did every Saturday. Maggie was up and puttering around downstairs, making breakfast for the kids and grandkids like she did every weekend. They would all be over soon and the house would be full of noise and smiles, just like it used to. Patrick dressed in a hurry, anxious to speak with Maggie before the kids arrived. He trotted downstairs and into the kitchen, nearly colliding with Liam as he ran out to the tire swing.

“Morning, Papa! Bacon’s good!” And he was gone, out the sliding glass door on his way to an adventure.

Patrick stood in the kitchen and watched his wife pull down her mother’s china. It had been handed down ages ago, for special occasions, but Maggie felt that time with family was reason enough to use it and so every family meal was eaten off those flowered plates. She turned to set the table and caught his eye across the kitchen, the tears welling up at once.

“I’m sorry, Maggie. I really am. But it’s move or take early retirement and I just don’t know if we can afford for me to do that.” He waited for her to move, to say something, for a glimpse into what was going on in her mind, in her heart. He needed to know what she thought.

Maggie swallowed the lump in her throat and held out a stack of plates. “We can tell the kids at breakfast,” she said. “When you retire, we can come back. Derek and June will keep it just so for us.”

Patrick took the stack of plates and set them on the counter, turning to wrap Maggie tight in his arms. He felt her heart beating fast against his ribs and smelled the tart, citrus scent of her hair. “Are you sure?” he whispered.

Maggie pulled back to look up at her husband, her arms still around his waist, her fingers interlocking at the small of his back. “I’m sure,” she smiled through the tears. “What’s two or three years in a new place if it means you’ll be around to bother me all day once it’s done? And we’ve always wanted to travel.”

The kids arrived, noisy and scattered, to find the table half set and their parents wrapped in one another’s arms, laughing and crying, in a world of their own.

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.of

An Exercise: Cast and Dialogue

As many of you know, I am taking an online class through University of Iowa. Each week I have to write a short piece to be evaluated by my peers. Each week I am also supposed to write a blog post. I love when the world conspires to make my life a little easier! Here is the piece I wrote for this week’s assignment on cast and dialogue. I hope you enjoy it!

*****

“Pregnant?” All the air seemed to rush from Rachel’s body, leaving her light-headed and panicky. “Pregnant?” She was suddenly aware of the sound of the fish tank, in desperate need of topping off, and the pounding of her own heartbeat in her ears. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

The dog walker just sat there, her hands clenching and unclenching in her lap. “He didn’t want me to say anything,” she finally said. “He said he’d, you know, take care of it. No one would have to know. And I said ok but…”

Rachel waited, not wanting to give the girl any comfort, unable to feel anything. And suddenly, she had to move. She rose abruptly and went into the kitchen. She filled a glass pitcher at the sink and added three drops of the blue ph balance into the water, watching it swirl through the center of the jug, then returned to the living room.

The dog sitter, Becky, was it? hadn’t moved and she began speaking again, all in a rush, as Rachel slowly added the water into the tank.

“I mean, I don’t think I can just…get rid of it. Or whatever.  And I wouldn’t ask for anything from you, from either of you.”

“What more could you possibly ask of me?” Rachel didn’t bother to turn around from the tank, her vehemence leaving little flecks of spit against the glass. “You’re pregnant.” Her hands were starting to shake. “You’re pregnant,” she whispered, and the tears were suddenly there.

Neither of them spoke for what seemed like hours. Rachel’s heaving shoulders and Becky’s nervous hands were all that moved. Then there was the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, a key in the lock, and still, neither of them said a word.

Matt sauntered in, a smile in his eyes and a whistle on his lips. He slipped the bouquet behind his back as he walked across the living room. Rachel imagined his smile beginning to fade when he noticed Becky, her usual exuberance replaced with red-rimmed eyes and twisting fingers.

“Uh, hey there, Becky.”

Rachel could hear his attempted nonchalance and his footsteps continuing toward her. She slowly  turned to face him and he froze in the middle of the room. All traces of tears had vanished and her eyes were dark and hot and angry.

“She’s pregnant?”

The flowers dropped slowly from behind Matt’s back and hung limply at his side.

“She’s pregnant with our baby and you wanted her to…get rid of it?” Her voice was rising and cracking and her cheeks were pink. “How long? How long have we been trying?” She was screaming now, grabbing blindly at anything she could grab and lobbing it at Matt with all of her strength. “Trying to have a baby! All the shots, all the disappointments, and then this? You screwed the dog walker?”

“Please,” said Becky, standing to her feet, “it was just the one time. It didn’t…”

“One time? One time?” Rachel snatched the glass pitcher from the tank table and hurled it at Becky. “One. Time!”

In three steps Matt was at Rachel’s side, crushing her in his arms, gritting his teeth as she thrashed and struggled. Her hair whipped across his face and she tried to bite him, sobbing hysterically.

“I told you I’d take care of it,” he grunted. “Why would you come here and do this to her, to us?”

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.

Work In Progress

An excerpt from another Mecca of Junk story I’m working on:

It was Saturday and the floors of the shop were packed with weekend tourists and left-over college students. I hadn’t been expecting such a rush, what with the snow and spring break, but the gods of ancient stuff must have been smiling on the Mecca and here I was, coffee in hand, watching old ladies outmaneuver one another with their elbows. It was amusing to watch them fighting so desperately over their figurines and doodads. I wondered if it was their increasing understanding of the coming end that caused them to pursue their treasures with such ferocity. A word to the wise: never, ever get in the way of an old lady who wants a miniature china cat.

I ambled back through the booths, nodding at vendors and picking up the occasional scarf or pillow which had fallen, unseen, into the path of the oncoming shoppers. Everyone seemed happy with the steady stream of customers so I headed back to the register. The line was dwindling down when a small woman in a crocheted sweater scooted to the side of the counter and laid her ice-cold hands on my arm.

“Please,” she said, glancing furtively around, “please, I can’t find my husband anywhere. I think someone took him!”

I snorted. I couldn’t help myself. I covered it with a fit of fake coughing and then waved my boss over to cover the counter. After a short conversation, we realized that the woman was serious and I called the non-emergency police line. Officer Mike Barry, who patrolled the main street in the evenings, assured us that he would be over as soon as possible. He sounded excited, probably hoping someone had kidnapped a little old man. Anything is better than handing out parking tickets and snooping around the walking paths to make sure dog owners clean up after their pets.

I led the little lady towards the office at the back of the first floor, stopping only long enough to refill my coffee. I figured Mike would want to talk to her in private. She sank slowly onto the hard plastic chair which rocked with each shift of her body. She had pulled an embroidered handkerchief from her pocket and was dabbing at her eyes behind her thick-framed glasses. There was a small bubble of mucus that was slowly making its way down her top lip and I found myself mesmerized by the shining trail it left behind, like a slug across cucumbers. She was talking and I nodded, tuning in.

“Jasper and I come here every Saturday,” she said, “ever since we were married. Of course, when he got sick, that made things more difficult – ” She broke off as Officer Barry arrived, hands on his wide utility belt which looked tiny compared to his enormous girth now filling the office doorway.

“You the bird who’s missing her husband?” he asked, gruffly.

I shot him a look. He acknowledged my judgement with a slight coloring of his massive neck and rocked back on his heels.

“No offense,” he added.

 

Copyright © 2015 Katharine Brown.

Untitled Circa 2005

I was browsing through some old notebooks this week and found this short-short story that I’d written back in 2005. It seems like maybe it needs some tweaking and it could stand to be a little longer, but I like the idea. This concept came from a conversation I had with my roommate Laura in which she basically told me the same thing that Jackson tells the main character. And I felt much the same way about it. Enjoy!

Norman and I have loved each other since the day we met. He believes that he fell into my life entirely by chance, but I know it was a gift of fate. I had just moved into a new house in a new neighborhood and, although the apartment was everything I had hoped for, it was a lonely place in the summer. My new neighbors, Russell and Lillian, were an older couple who had three cats and no children. Russell liked to wear corduroy trousers and I could always hear him coming down the hall, swish-swish, swish-swish. The dim, overhead lights in the corridor shone off of his bald, shiny head as he held the door open for Lillian. Lillian in her voluminous, brightly-colored house dress and plastic shoes clumping into my foyer with a huge grin on her wrinkly face.

“Emma, this is Norman.”

I felt my breath catch in my throat at the sight of him and my cheeks turned the same delicate shade as my pale sweater. I smiled, he stayed and here we are; happy and content. He is simple, so much less complicated than I. His big, gentle eyes melt my heart and we spend the evenings together, side by side; I read or write poetry and he contemplates the existence of a bigger reality. I have never felt so fulfilled.

Today though, Jackson brought to light certain behavior patterns in the life of my love that have me worried. Jackson lives in an apartment complex on the other side of town. I met him at work and we took turns making dinner once a week. Tonight was my night and we were chopping peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes for the salad. I refused to believe that Norman cares as little for me as Jackson tells me he does. I tried to convince both Jackson and myself that Norman and I had something special, something that brought us together and would keep us together.

“He gets excited when I come home and I know he is happy to see me,” I informed Jackson while he diced the tomatoes. “I can tell by the look on his face that he loves me.” I tossed a handful of lettuce into the wooden bowl on the counter defiantly.

Jackson looked at me out of the corner of his eye, “Emma, goldfish have, like, a three-second memory. Not only is he not happy to see you, he doesn’t even remember who you are. Maybe you should get a dog.”

Copyright 2005 – Katharine A. Newell

Up in the sky! It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s flash fiction!

Remember I had all those great monthly writing goals that were going to have me cranking out work, editing it with no headaches, and publishing my rear end off this year? Yeah. I’ve been doing pretty well with my word count but I realized that I don’t have enough finished pieces. Writing is all well and good but eventually, I have to sit down with a red pen and strive for something a little closer to finished. I missed February’s submission goal because I don’t have enough stories I feel are good enough to submit. So this month, my goal is to complete four stories! Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Except with flash fiction, it’s entirely possible!

If you’re not sure what flash fiction is, you are in good company. Up until about a year ago, I had never even heard of it. In the early 90’s I wrote a story for a book called 50 Word Fiction but after submission I never heard back so I returned to the pursuit of the longer story. Last year, in the middle of looking for publications currently taking submissions, I happened across The Lascaux Review and was intrigued by the idea of a super short story. I especially liked that they used a piece of art as inspiration for the story.

The guidelines are pretty simple, though there are differing opinions on how long a piece of flash fiction should be. They usually run anywhere from 50-1,000 words, and involve some kind of plot twist, surprise ending, or something that shocks the reader and stays with them for a while. While it can be difficult to tell a story in such few words, there are huge benefits to writing flash. As a mom of three girls 5 and under, I can sit down and sketch out an entire story in the space of an hour. Once the bare bones are there, I can come back to it over the next few days and tweak it. Usually by the end of a week, I have a story I am proud of and no one had to go without lunch to get there!

If you haven’t tried flash fiction before, you should give it a go. If you’re not sure where to start, I’ll give you a hand. Check out the prompt below and see what 300 words gets you!

Write a story that takes place over breakfast.

Jumpstarting the Process

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have sat down to write only to sit there, mind and page as blank as can be. There are days where no amount of coffee is going to stimulate my brain into action and my creative juices feel as if they will never flow again. I used to throw in the towel at this point and just walk away from the notebook, hoping for the muse to descend tomorrow and bring me something truly wonderful. The problem was, I wasn’t creating a habit of writing by doing that. I was actually creating the habit of giving up…which isn’t really a habit I want to cultivate. I knew I needed help so I turned to Google for some answers. That gave me tons of great writing sites that offered prompt ideas and I tried them all out. I have a few favorites that I turn to now, when I can’t really get in the mood to write.

creativewritingpromts.com is my all-time go to site when I just can’t get pen to paper. Some of their prompts are ridiculously cheesy (write about the saying “revenge is bliss”) but many of them have led me to some really cool places (write from the point of view of a glass on the edge of a table). I love that they are numbered so you can actually choose a prompt at random.

Creative writing now is another great site for prompts. Their ideas are a little more fleshed out, a little more “writerly” if you will, and they make for some super easy word counts. They don’t have a ton of prompts on there so I try to save them for when I have a large chunk of writing time and can really put in the effort. My words seem to come much easier when using one of these prompts.

If you want to waste some time (always good for writer’s block) and get in a few laughs, you should definitely check out Seventh Sanctum Story Generator. They are hilarious and weird prompts (The story is about an alliance of queens. It takes place at a portal to another solar system. The effect of magic on technology is a major part of the story.) that give you lots of room for imagination.

Short story ideas is my last stop on the inspiration train. Like, Seventh Sanctum, they have some strange prompts (A motor home is the location, blood is thicker than water is the theme. A radio is an object that plays a part in the story.) but they try to make a complete picture for you to work with. There is a little more brain work needed for these prompts which is a good thing when you are stuck.

So there you are, a few places to turn if you are stuck with a blank page in front of you and a word count looming over you. Let me know if you find a prompt you love or one that really takes off into a story.