The Writing Sprint Challenge Prompt Was: Mercy

Have you ever participated in a writing sprint challenge?

Neither had I until a couple of weeks ago. Someone was doing one on Instagram and I signed up right away because there were prizes. There are probably a lot of things that I can be motivated to do for the sake of artisanal smelly candles. I should remember that. 

Ok, back to the writing sprint.

The challenge was that there were prompts for each day and you would write for a set amount of time and then post on Instagram for accountability. The writing sprint prompt one day really captured my attention and I decided to turn it into this blog post. It was just one word: mercy.

Mercy. It isn’t an unusual or exotic word. But it struck me that this is not a word that I use or hear a lot. It’s not really in the zeitgeist the way that forgiveness is for example. It’s an ordinary word, why did it feel uncommon? What thoughts/ideas/feelings does the word evoke?

My first thought was that mercy correlates to surrender. Not that there is some sort of causal relationship, they’re not two sides of the same coin; but maybe they live in the same room.

So where does that correlation come from?

I started to pull my idea apart. Mercy is an act from a position of power, isn’t it? Whereas surrender seems to be something that the one who is being acted upon would do. Asking for mercy is a means of surrender.

That got me thinking about affirmations and all that jargon. Forgiveness is very trendy these days. But what about mercy?

Mercy means that you were in an acknowledged position of power and chose to relinquish your advantage. That rather than impose your will, you showed restraint. I suppose that mercy takes a good deal more awareness and self-control than forgiveness.

By the time that you get to forgiveness the thing is done. You stayed strong and kept plowing ahead with a single-minded determination, then when it’s over, you can evaluate and choose to forgive.

Mercy requires evaluating the impact of your actions while in process. That’s no fun.

If you follow the etymology of mercy all the way back to its Latin root, you find the word merx which means “wares” or “merchandise.” There is something tangible about giving up one’s advantage in a power dynamic, isn’t there?

All that being said, I wonder if we all couldn’t use a little more mercy in our hearts, even more so than forgiveness.

Just because something is within our power to make happen doesn’t mean that we always need to. Maybe have mercy for your feet by not wearing those shoes (you know which ones I’m talking about – they are really cute). Rather than say the unkind thing that you will apologize for later, demonstrate mercy by not saying it at all. You could even get meta with it – I’m thinking things like buying hand soap at the refill-your-own-container store (mercy) instead of putting another plastic container in the recycling bin (forgiveness).

What do you think? Did I get too in-between on this?

Flash Fiction Friday – Prose to Poetry

Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? I love to read poetry though I don’t do it regularly. Last year, I tried to post a poem (not written by me) every day on social media. The best part about the endeavor is that it got me reading and thinking about poetry again and I’ve been playing around with the form here and there ever since.

A while back, the prompt from my writing group was:

I want you to paint a picture with words. Set the scene where the action is taking place. Where is the character in your story: mall, bookstore, the kitchen. It could also be France, Italy, or the desert! You could describe a house, room in the house.

I knew that there would be roses. That was about it. There was no story, no plot. I just wanted to create something indulgently descriptive. It felt more like writing poetry than prose fiction. So after I presented it to my group, I decided to take the original 350-word draft and turn it into a poem. It was really fun to take the sentences apart, just keeping the juiciest words and essential ideas, and to play with the typesetting – using line breaks, spacing, and punctuation in ways that I would never let anyone get away with in text.

Here is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

She stepped into the garden

The loamy, chocolate brown soil
     hugged her ghostly bare feet
          the way that children hug each other –
                                                                      in an ecstatic, joyful embrace

Unkempt rosemary sentinels
     guarded the open-air hide-away and
     brushed her threadbare, calico-printed skirt,
lush branches of spiky green leaves releasing their spell
                                                                               … remember, remember …

As she inhaled deeply,
a long-forgotten door in her addled mind
     began to open

The air was still heavy with the chill of the previous night
     and she shuddered
     (did that door create a draft?)

Morning’s golden rays
     flooded into the small clearing,
illuminating a stone bench
     that resembled a leopard, lounging
     on a low-hanging Buffalothorn branch
Somber black granite shone like polished obsidian,
     the leopard luxuriating in the sunlight
          as if alive

Eleven paces to the beckoning beast
     (how did she know that?)
Eleven paces to the warmth that the stone creature offered
     (how long since she felt warm?)
But she didn’t move, 
     hesitant to mar the pristine surface of the undisturbed, tender dirt path
     with her footprints

Roses the size of outstretched hands lined the path
The petals,
     yellow near the center,
          graduating to peach,
               then to salmon,
     a coral flourish dancing along the edges
Blossoms stretching toward the morning sun,
     asking it to lighten the burden of last night’s dew

For one bloom, the sunlight came too late
Its laden petals could no longer hold the weight
     and collapsed

She sprung toward the disintegrating rose,
attempting to capture it
     before the pieces
     fluttered to the ground

Crushing the petals in her hands,
     the heady fragrance engulfed her
Her timid demeanor
     evaporated in rose-scented sunlight

She strode confidently to,
     and then reclined upon,
the sunlit cat

Rough Writers 2020 Anthology

rough writers 2020 anthology

I have an exciting announcement for y’all today: we have just published the Rough Writers 2020 Anthology: A Field Day for Creativity. This is the third Rough Writers Anthology (they published a collection in 2017, before I joined the club) and I think we’re really starting to get the hang of it.

You may remember last year’s post about the 2019 Anthology. Well, as we all know, no good deed goes unpunished and I agreed to serve as Editor for this year’s anthology as well. At least this way, I was able to apply some of the lessons that I learned the hard way putting together the 2019 book.

The subtitle, A Field Day for Creativity, was proposed by one of our members as a response to the prompt and our club’s innovative way of applying Toastmaster’s curriculum to our creative writing pursuits.

Rough Writers 2020 Anthology writing prompt
This image was our writing prompt. Photo by Branislav Belko on Unsplash.

Intrigued? 

Good. Here’s an excerpt from my story:

Mrs. Bistone’s perfectly rendered exterior was her armor. It was a barrier both invisible and impenetrable. People were so taken with the apparition in front of them that they didn’t even notice what she was getting them to do, or say, or agree to. Her directives tended to be delivered in the form of questions, those kinds of small requests that would be rude to decline. She wouldn’t say she was manipulative. She just understood that by exercising absolute control over how she presented herself, she could exercise the same control over that to which she presented herself.

Everyone who had met her would say that they knew her, that they were dear friends. They would describe her poise and immaculate appearance in detail, but no one could ever recall one personal thing about her – where she grew up, what her interests were beyond the banal hobbies of any woman of means, or even the date of her birthday.  Moreover, no one ever seemed to notice, which was the way that Mrs. Bistone preferred it.

Aren’t you dying to know how that has anything to do with the photo?

Well guess what? I’m giving away several copies of the Rough Writers 2020 Anthology!

All you have to do is be a subscriber to this blog and leave a comment below by 5:00pm on Friday, November 20.

I only have a limited number of author copies, so depending on the response, I’ll come up with some random way to select winners.

If you don’t want to leave it up to chance, you can order your own copy on Amazon (and if you don’t want to use the hyperlink, just put “Rough Writers 2020 Anthology” in your Amazon search bar). There is even a Kindle version if you prefer.

Monday, November 23 at 7:00 pm is our official book launch on Zoom. If you would like to find out more about the diverse voices who contributed stories to this volume, please join us – just leave a comment below and I will send you the sign-in details.

Flash Fiction Friday – Cat Mask

Ok guys, here’s another delight for you for Flash Fiction Friday. It’s been a tense week and I thought you might enjoy a little something to lighten the mood. Something about a cat mask maybe.

This time the exercise given to my writing group involved exploring using a point of view in storytelling.

Our instructions were: write a scene involving a central character and one or more strangers (people the character has never met before) using either the first-person, third-person limited, or third-person omniscient point of view. Try to pick a point of view that you don’t normally use. Also, try to limit the use of dialog, instead using descriptive language to show how people behave and interact.

I had forgotten what I wrote for this exercise and when I pulled it out, I laughed out loud. Hopefully, you will too. 

Cat Mask

Ugh, what is that guy looking at?  He is totally staring at me in a super creepy way. As if I can’t tell just because he is wearing a mask. As bizarre as it seems, wearing a mask these days is not creepy. But even with everyone’s face covered, you can still tell when someone is giving off a creepy vibe.

That’s one thing I mostly love about COVID times, the mask wearing. I feel very conspicuous, but in a completely anonymous way. I’ve taken to wearing the flashiest masks possible, confident in the knowledge that if anyone had to describe me later, they would say something along the lines of, “Oh, she was wearing a bejeweled Día de los Muertos mask,” and that would be it.

By the same token, this guy’s interest in me goes beyond delight at the fact that today’s embroidered kitty-cat mask sports very realistic-looking whiskers. And, yes, of course I accessorized my accessory with cat-eye sunglasses. And no, I am not planning on taking them off inside of the store, it is part of the look.  Geez!

I planned my entire ensemble today as an expression of my inner cattiness. The cat-eye sunglasses and be-whiskered mask are just the icing on the cake. It is finally cool enough to wear a sweater and I have the perfect cardigan with a faux fur collar and cuffs that can be pulled down over my hands. Fuzzy slippers seemed like completely appropriate footwear for the occasion. The only problem I had when I was getting dressed was deciding on the right pants to wear. In the end, I wound up going with … um … well shoot, this is embarrassing.

I may have been so excited about my whisker mask that I might have gotten distracted and forgotten to put on pants before I left the house. Yikes! Well alright creepy guy, you win. I suppose a chubby, middle-aged lady prancing through the Trader Joes parking lot without any pants on would get my attention as well.

At least no one will know that it’s me!

P.S. If anyone knows where I can get a cat face mask with whiskers, let me know!

Fresh Flash Fiction

The other week, my writing group had a flash fiction exercise. We were to write 350 words on the photo below.  That was it. The entire prompt.

Photo by Starr Canon
www.Instagram.com/starrchez

I had a lot of fun writing my story and decided that I would share it with you here. Let me know what you think!

The Unbridled Fury of a Woman of a Certain Age

As I merged into freeway traffic, a smile spread across my face. Ah, this is what they mean when they say precision, German engineering.

The irony of driving a vehicle manufactured by the same company that built engines for the last fascist regime to nearly conquer the free world in order to escape from the current fascist takeover of the western United States is almost too much. I mean, if this car actually belonged to me and hadn’t just been stolen, I might not care about the militarized takeover of every major city on the western seaboard.

Unfortunately, I have the great misfortune of believing in the beautiful idea of constitutional, representative democracy. However flawed the execution of it has been over the past 200+ years, there has at least been a modicum of respect for the rule of law by those who would choose to usurp it. Today, the Constitution may as well be used paper in a golden toilet.

When I arrive at the nearest resistance encampment in the Sierras, the “baby on board” sticker in the rear window will guarantee my access. I was able to procure an older model station wagon, we will have enough seatbelts to take six (not including the driver) on protest runs. I just hope that the fact that I’m not actually a mom won’t keep me from being able to join the most effective resistance faction, the Wall of Moms.

People seem surprised that the most effective, most radical branch of the resistance is middle-aged women. That’s because the patriarchal hegemony doesn’t understand the superpowers that this segment of the population possesses. It turns out that women are born with a finite number of both eggs and fucks to give. They tend to run out around the same age. This is also around the time that women discover that they have the power of invisibility.  

Think about it, what would you do if you were invisible and out of fucks? Drink chardonnay and shoplift? I know, that was my plan too, until the fascists came to town.

I Published a Book!

Rough Writers Anthology 2019:
Moments in Space & Time

Guys, something cool happened … I published a book!  Crazy right? Full disclosure, I didn’t WRITE a whole book, I published a book with my writing club. I did however write many parts of a book.  First, I contributed a story and then I somehow got tricked into being the editor. 

Once I had agreed, I found out that being the editor didn’t mean just working with the other authors on their stories and/or editing the manuscript, it also happened to include project managing the whole shebang and creating the other bits of text that go into a book (which I learned is called the front matter and back matter).

Since I have been on a bit of a hiatus from project managing, I may have taken a few things for granted and not kept as tight reigns on things as I used to.  Fortunately, I had a talented and motivated team working with me and we finally crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s and now we have a book!

The book is a collection of stories contributed by members of the Rough Writers Toastmasters club.  We named it the Rough Writers Anthology 2019 because we have some delusion (at least I do) that we will do this annually. Moments in Space & Time is a nod to the writing prompt.

Everyone wrote their story using the same photo as a prompt (I don’t have permission to publish the photo here, but it is in the back matter of the book).  One of the benefits of being the editor was that I had early access to read everyone’s work.  I was so entertained by the range of perspectives. Even the stories that sort-of took the same tack are very different. Some folks had a specific message that they wanted to get across.  I let the photo take me for a ride (it was a strange ride, don’t ask me how I got there).

Here is a little snippet from my story:

As Bill approached the clipboard girl, she eyed him up and down and shot a look to the man standing next to her who was roughly the size of a refrigerator. This girl could tell Bill was trouble from 50 yards. The refrigerator nodded. Bill was used to being aggressive and intimidating to girls to get his way, but her disdainful gaze and pet refrigerator made him feel very small as he approached. Clipboard girl was already on to his game.

from Carl’s Green Galaxy by Cynthia Gellis

Our book, the Rough Writers Anthology 2019: Moments in Space & Time is available on Amazon!  Mr. Man says that it is the perfect size for a stocking stuffer (wink, wink).  If you want me to get you a signed copy, comment below or message me and we can make that happen.

I hope you’ll check it out!

The Nicholl Fellowships

My neighbor works for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  Yeah, that’s pretty cool.  What’s even cooler is that she invited me to attend an event at the Academy last week!  And even though I generally try to avoid the mid-Wilshire are for any reason, I couldn’t turn down such a special invitation.

The event was the celebration of the 2019 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.  This is an international screenwriting competition that was established in 1985 to identify and encourage talented new screenwriters. The first year of the competition, 99 entrants – all California college students, submitted work. This year, the competition received over 7,000 submissions from all over the world.

Previous fellows include Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Doug Atchison (Akeelah and the Bee), and Andrew Marlowe (Air Force One).

This year’s fellows were Aaron Chung, a recent college graduate from Florida; Karen McDermott, a former attorney who now teaches at Cal State LA; Renee Pillai from Malaysia – who, when she was notified that she had won, had to find someone to drive her the two hours to Kuala Lumpur so that she could apply for a passport; Sean Malcolm, who certainly gets the tenacity award for submitting screenplays to this competition for something like 20 years; and Walker McKnight.

The formal awards presentation included a live read of scenes from each winning screenplay. Amandla Stenberg (Rue in The Hunger Games), Rosa Salazar (Parenthood, American Horror Story), Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, Avatar) and Tyrese Gibson (The Fast and the Furious franchise) performed the live read, which was directed by 2016 Nicholl fellow Geeta Malik.

I had never been to a live read before and it was very fun.  I loved watching the actors sitting on stools, with the scripts in front of them and then jumping into their parts. I felt like I could really see the acting, if that makes any sense.  They were going from regular person to performer just right in front of our eyes. Rosa Salazar was especially act-y and I mean that as a big compliment.  She really used her voice and her physicality (even though she was perched on a barstool) for all of her different characters.

The scene from Karen McDermott’s screenplay gave me an idea for a short story and I was so glad that I had brought a little notebook with me so that I could jot down some quick notes.  I roughed out a first draft the next day and yikes!  It is going to need a lot of work. I will be sure to let you know when I manage to get it pulled together.

It is so exciting to get to see up-and-comers succeeding in their field. The Nicholl Fellowships are the kind of thing that really makes a huge difference in someone’s life and it was a treat to have the opportunity to share in the celebration of their creative success. I am so proud of all of the winners and of the Academy for having a great program like this to encourage new talent. It was a great evening.

The Real Housewives Triad

Twice a month, my writing group does flash fiction writing exercises.  This is not a strong area for me, and most efforts are nothing that I would try to get you to read.  This one however just makes me giggle.  Here is the photo and below, my story about the Real Housewives Triad.

Photo courtesy of: Starrchez; character: Anann (Sara Maraffino) from short film, Killing Anann; courtesy of C3Stories and Dreamwalker Productions
Photo courtesy of: Starrchez; character: Anann (Sara Maraffino) from short film, Killing Anann; courtesy of C3Stories and Dreamwalker Productions 

The Real Housewives Triad

In behavioral psychology the “dark triad” describes the convergence of psychopathy, narcissism, and machiavellianism.  Researchers have also identified a “light triad.”  But there is another, less understood triad, the “Real Housewives triad.”  This describes the convergence of hunger, drunkenness, and menopause resulting in explosive and irrational behavior.

Jen had had it!  Who did he think he was?  After taking two bites of the extra-large slice of princess cake that he had requested, he stood up, dropped the rest in the trash, set his plate in the sink, and headed for the sofa in the other room.  He wouldn’t even put his plate in the dishwasher.  Two bites!  He had no idea what she would give for two bites of princess cake.  The heavenly combination of raspberry, almond, and cream.  Princess cake was everything to her that he wasn’t and she had had enough.

Calmly, she pushed her chair back from the table.  There was a locked box in the kitchen junk drawer. 

He padded into the kitchen, “hey, do we have any ice cream?” 

The look in her eye told him that he had asked the wrong question.  She raised her right arm, pointing the barrel of the 9-millimeter Luger at his head. 

“Outside, now.” She was not about to get brains all over her new marble backsplash. 

The End

I learned about the light and dark triads from this article by Scott Barry Kaufman.  His website also has a personality test to see where you fall on the light triad scale.  As far as I’m aware, no one has begun conducting research on the Real Housewives triad…yet.

Estate Secrets

My writing club had a flash fiction contest so I made my first attempt at writing a 1,000 word short story.  The writing prompt was:

The wacky antiques dealer took pictures near a broken refrigerator about an hour ago to discover the secret.

Here is my story:

Estate Secrets

I never expected this to be my life. 

Sure, getting into the estate sale business seemed like a good idea.  Think about getting paid to go through someone else’s lifetime accumulation of treasures.  Imagine being the one to discover that rare item that would send Leigh and Leslie Keno into a tizzy.  Every day would be an adventure of discovery!

I’ll tell you what, it’s not like that.

What it is like is long, dirty days of sorting through mountains of someone else’s junk, trying to create some semblance of organization in order to encourage today’s hoarders – excuse me, I mean my future clients – to pay me for the privilege of taking as much stuff as possible off of my hands.

Our fiduciary responsibility to the estate means that my team has to go through every item, catalogue it, and research its value.  We can’t just skip the piles of magazines and overflowing linen closets, and we can’t make someone a bro deal to get them to take that 120-piece collection of Waterford crystal.  It is tedious and often smelly work.

I never thought that I would say this, but I should have listened to my father and gone to law school after all.

I’ve been in the estate sale business for long enough that I thought that I had seen it all.  I mean, did I tell you about the crazy cat lady who, in addition to the dozen living cats which were the beneficiaries of her estate, had a collection of nearly 3,000 cat objects?  Sure, plenty were from the Dollar Store, but there were also dozens and dozens of Baccarat and Lalique crystal and Herend porcelain figurines. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars of cat tchotchkes.

Then there was the guy who had every issue of Playboy magazine from 1953 through 2003.  Someone bought the entire set.  And yes, we did wear gloves the entire time we were at that house. 

But this house really took the cake.

This tutor-style bungalow has always been something of a landmark in town.  Let’s just say that no one else had a Stonehenge-style garden folly in their front yard, much less one illuminated with gas-powered, flaming torches (at least until the fire marshal had something to say about it).  And, I have to admit that I was looking forward to getting to see what was inside…until I did.

I was expecting to find the suit of armor, the elaborately carved, throne-like chairs next to the fireplace, and the endless yards of heavy, red, velvet curtains.  I was not surprised by the well-stocked library with floor-to-ceiling shelves of leather-bound, first editions.  Frankly, I was not even surprised when we were cataloguing the library and discovered the volume that revealed a secret passage.

What we found when we explored the passage was surprising to say the least.  Horrifying is probably a better word.  But in spite of how disturbing it was, it was not illegal and was no reason for us not to carry out our responsibilities in terms of liquidating the estate. 

A rare book dealer from Archer City, Texas had agreed to take the entire collection site-unseen so we wouldn’t have to worry about having the library accessible to the parade of antiques dealers and lookie-loos who we were expecting for the sale.  We moved on to the kitchen.

#

It was the first day of the sale.  I peeked out at the line of early birds and my heart sank.  Roger, that wacky antiques dealer from Glendora was at the front of the line, pontificating about the home’s provenance and extemporizing about the value of the items that he expected to find.

The doors opened and we admitted the first 15 from the line.  The house was immediately buzzing with the excited energy of the treasure hunters.  It was a welcome relief from the ominous feeling that had come over my entire team after we found the chamber.  Now if only we could get Roger out of here before he discovered the secret.

From the moment he walked in the door, it was clear that he was not here to shop.  Watching him snooping around the fireplace and tugging on the sconces in the hall, I knew that it was just a matter of time before he asked me why we had placed that enormous credenza in front of the locked door to the library.  I did enjoy letting him know that Larry McMurtry had already wired the funds for the contents of the library and that there was nothing in there for him to see.

With a sniff, he proceeded to the kitchen.

“Why isn’t the refrigerator priced?” he asked Monica.

“Oh, it’s broken, and we don’t know that it is reparable, so the family chose not to put it up for sale,” she replied in her fantastically, disdainful manner. 

What did he think she was going to say? “Oh, it’s a second passageway to the most horrible thing that I have ever seen,”  Monica was too smart for Roger’s games.

He sniffed again.  “Well, you won’t mind if I take a few photos so that I can look up the model then. I may still be interested.”

The only thing interesting about that refrigerator was its secret.

#

About an hour later, I came through the kitchen to check on Monica.

“I didn’t see Roger leave; do you know where he went?”

She shrugged and glanced toward the broken refrigerator, “You know those wacky antiques dealers,” she deadpanned, “sometimes they just disappear right out from under your nose.”

The End

Sometimes Ken Kesey

I recently read a historical biography of Ken Kesey called Its All Kind of Magic, the Young Ken Kesey by Rick Dodgson.  It reminded me of my fondness for Kesey’s writing.

I became interested in Ken Kesey when I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test in high school. It was not assigned reading, I think I borrowed it from the cool crunchy girl who lived down the street when I was going through my hippie phase (I had to abandon my goth phase when I got a convertible, it was impossible to stay pale and sullen).

Then in English class senior year, we were asked to pick our favorite writer then the teacher would assign each of us another author based on who we liked.  I picked Ken Kesey.  Then I was assigned Charles Dickens (the guy who loved Kurt Vonnegut was assigned someone comparable to Dickens, the very prim girl was assigned D.H. Lawrence, you get the picture).  So, I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, then Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Ok, I really didn’t read very much of the Dickens books, just enough to write the book reports.  Anyways…

Do you like to go back and read books over again?  I don’t tend to re-read books, even books that I really like.  There are just too many books out there and I’m never going to get through all the ones that I want to read anyway.  In spite of that, I have re-read Sometimes a Great Notion several times over the years. It is so richly written, and I get more out of it every time.  The way that the scenes melt into each other is so interesting.

Sometimes a Great Notion would probably still be a good book if it was written in a more linear format, but the structure makes it so fascinating to me. Rick Dodgson talked about the process that Kesey went through when he wrote the book.  It was intense.  He had some sort of notated flowchart pinned up on the walls of the room where he worked. I really can’t imagine writing something with such a complicated structure.  Especially on a typewriter.  I mean, he was literally cutting and pasting sections together.  With scissors and tape, no CTRL X for him.  It’s no wonder that he didn’t write anything after it for a very long time.

As much as I love books, I try very hard to purge my hoard semi-regularly. Every so often I regret that I got rid of something like my collection of Larry McMurtry books, but in general, I try to only hang onto certain books (vintage etiquette books and dance histories are two big categories that get a pass).  For some reason, Sometimes a Great Notion has survived every book purge in the past 25 years.  After reading The Young Ken Kesey, I think that it is probably about time to dig it out and put it back on the “to read”pile.