Story Seeds; writing prompts for non-writers.

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If you think you have a story to tell, you’re right.

Everyone who has experienced fear, sadness, rage, love, loneliness, has a story worth telling. In many of my writing workshops, new writers doubt their talent. They also question their depth of experience- they think if they haven’t been held captive by marauding pirates or been stranded at the base of Mt. Everest, they really don’t have anything interesting to write about. In short, they question their right to write.

If you’re one of these people, I challenge you to change the way you think about storytelling. Storytelling is not a talent reserved for an elite few. Storytelling is a craft, like furniture building or cross-stitching. It’s something you care about and refine.

Don’t believe me? You tell stories all day long. “I went to the grocery store and this old man cut me off at the mandarin oranges.” or “A deer jumped right out in front of my car. I swerved all over the place!” Sometimes you tell stories to your kids or your grandchildren. You are a storyteller. Of course you are, you’re human and humans make really good storytellers.

The original human stories are in pictograph form, cave paintings that tell exciting stories of the hunt, often painting the hunter as brave and skillful with the spear. Story researchers believe we first told stories to create a balance for our failures.

I think we tell stories to connect our lives to other lives. Some stories offer examples of how to live morally. Bible stories are a great example of stories as lessons.

 

After our holiday dinner this year, we sat by the fireplace having coffee. My sister-in-law told us of the night she lost her little dog, an aged blind little teacup of a dog that wouldn’t last five minutes in the cold and dark on her own. We were riveted. We knew there was a happy ending, but we were riveted.

The rest of us chimed in with our own pet stories and, just as the ancients did, we passed an evening by the fire, telling stories.

So, go ahead. Write your story. It helps to think of a small thing; instead of My Life in 1500 Pages or Less, start with a crack in the door; the first time you rode your banana bike to the five and dime, for example. Buy yourself a notebook that you love. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. I buy plain hardcover journals from Wal-Mart for $5.99. My pens are gel or rollerball, maybe 5.99 for four. They last forever.

Here are a few writing prompts to get you started:

  • Write for ten minutes on the first thing that comes to mind when you think of swimming.
  • Write for ten minutes about your grandmother’s shoes.
  • Write for ten minutes about a baseball game you never went to.
  • Write for ten minutes about a crush you had on someone in grade school.
  • Write for ten minutes on a memory you have of a shower cap (or bathing cap).
  • Write for ten minutes about a time when you were embarrassed.
  • Write for ten minutes about something you know will never happen, but you wish to heck it would.

 

O Tannenbaum

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This year our neighbors, Bob and Bette, swiped our Christmas tree.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, they walked through our meadow and stumbled upon a little spruce tree growing on the path that connects our properties. Spruce trees are rare here in the northwest hills of Connecticut. Most of our fir trees are white pines with needles as fine as baby hair; unsuitable for holding ornaments. A spruce is a find. A real gem. One in a gazillion.

“We found a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree at the edge of your meadow,” Bette texted. “We don’t know if it’s growing on your property or ours, but we want to take it for our last Christmas in Connecticut! Do you mind?” They’re moving to California next year and we’re a little bummed out about it. Things just won’t be the same around here.

I asked her to tag the tree so I could have a look at it before I gave the go ahead. Not because I had any right to say no, property lines are fuzzy in the woods, but a sudden possessive ‘Mine!’ rose up in me; that perverse feeling you get when you think you’re losing something, even if, until now, you hadn’t known of it’s existence.

The next day, Bette did more than tag the tree; she tied a big red bow on its uppermost branch. I couldn’t miss it as I crested the hill with my dog. It was that big red bow. Truth is, I couldn’t remember ever noticing that perfect little tree until the big red bow.

I’ve always thought of trees as spiritual beings. They’re perhaps the most generous beings on earth, offering shade when things get too hot, wood to build our shelters with, the warmth of a fire, ashes that regenerate life, and even oxygen. Trees give us life. They give us breath. They’re a quiet and gentle reminder to live our lives as they do, with compassion and generosity.

This little tree with its big red bow looked to be in high spirits.

And why not? Right in the middle of nowhere, growing quite by accident, it had been noticed. I realized the little tree must have been on that path for a few years now. I’ve tripped over it, gotten my dog’s leash tangled in it, pushed the branches out of my way a million times, but there’s one thing I hadn’t done; I hadn’t actually noticed it. Bob and Bette did.

Game over.

I didn’t really have a say in it; everything was now just a formality, but I texted Bette. “Go ahead and cut the tree. It looks so cute!” And it did, look cute and…somehow jovial. The way you feel when you doll yourself up and the right people pay attention.


I half-heartedly looked around the meadow for a second spruce, but the chances were slim and I knew it, so Saturday afternoon, Dave and I began the annual hunt for our own Christmas tree.

“We’ll go back to the place we went last year,” I suggested, “with the fun Edison lights and the Christmas shop. We’ll buy a new ornament for the tree.” When we pulled in, there were a few people wandering around the Christmas shop, but not many people seemed to be buying trees. I found a beautiful Douglas fir and flipped over the tag.

$120. I bent down to look at the stump. Maybe this was one of those potted trees we could plant in the spring. But, no. One hundred and twenty dollars for a cut tree that would only last through the holidays.

“$120!!!” This from Dave. “That’s highway robbery!”

And seeing my disappointment, he added, “but, if you really want one of these trees…” He pulled his wallet out. Acts of love come in all sorts of packages. You just have to keep your heart open so you don’t miss them. Except I couldn’t let him do it. He’d been at work from sunup to sundown for the last six days.

I turned on my heel. “Let’s go,” I said. “At those prices they can keep them!” Dave agreed. We left in a huff. We became a team, a force against Christmas corruption!

But where to go? We sat in the car for a moment thinking of other places that were selling trees.

“Price gouging,” I heard Dave grumble.

“If we buy an artificial one at Walmart,” I said, “we’ll never have to do this again.” He turned to look at me.

Never have to do this again? 

Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? Wasn’t this supposed to be a ritual that exemplified our Christmas spirit! This was a lack of Christmas cheer!

Then… a dastardly thought…Bob and Bette’s tree. The little spruce all lit up in their living room. On Christmas morning, they’d leave to visit their daughter in California. If they left early enough, we could steal our tree back, lift it from their living room, ornaments and all, Grinch-style, and put it up in our living room. Who would know?

I started the car, ditched the idea. “There’s the cider mill,” I said, “They were selling trees.”

The cider mill, just up the road a mile or two, was a bustle of activity. Four old men ran the show. The temperature hovered around 22 degrees and the air felt raw. A meagre fire in a rusty old barrel threw out half-hearted sparks, but no warmth. Dave asked one of the old guys how much they were asking for the trees.

“They range in price from $55 to $110, sir. All different kinds.” The old man’s nose was purple-veined and swollen from the cold.

“So,” Dave said pulling his wallet out, “which ones are the…”

The old man spit. “Sir! point to a tree! Just point and I’ll give you a price!” Dave and I shot each other a look.

There are moments-we’ve all experienced them-when the world, for contrary reasons of its own, is determined to knock the weak spark of Christmas tree joy right the heck out of you.

This was one of them.

Dave scowled and disappeared into the trees as the old man went off in the other direction.

I found Dave working out three $20 bills from his wallet with his own set of frozen, working-man’s hands. His coat had come undone, exposing his chest to the cold. He looked done in.

“Um,” I said, “I heard that man say he must be tired.”

“Yeah…well,” Dave sighed, “I guess we’re all tired.”

We went back to the old man and the two of us obediently pointed to a tree. I watched the old man’s raw and calloused fingers as he snugged it to the roof rack. “Well, anyway,” he said, “Merry Christmas!” And he even waved.

As Dave backed the car out, I saw the old man standing by the fire, waiting for his next customer.

They say that Christmas is not about the presents or the food. I think they’re right. It’s a time to slow down, pay attention. If your leash gets tangled, take a moment to see just what the heck.

If you think about it, Christmas trees prove that transforming yourself from something ordinary into something magnificent isn’t as hard as you imagine.

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Poetry for People who Don’t Like Poetry. No, really. This stuff will knock you flat.

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To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

___ William Blake

I have a confession to make. I love poetry. Yes, I’m one of those people, but I have a theory for those of you who don’t like poetry.

You’re probably reading the wrong stuff.

Consider this; poetry is as personal as music. If you find a style that fits, poetry is just as accessible as music. Are you into classic rock? Me, too. Hip-hop and rapper music doesn’t appeal, but I still love music.

So, if you do sometimes see heaven in a wildflower or your dog’s limpid brown eyes, then you like poetry. Plain and simple.

Here are three great collections of poetry for people who thought they didn’t like poetry.

img_8376 From the book jacket: ” Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs is a celebration of the special bond between human and dog, as understood through the poet’s relationships to the canines that have accompanied her daily walks, warmed her home, and inspired her work. Oliver’s poems begin in the small everyday moments familiar to all dog lovers, but through her extraordinary vision, these observations become higher meditations on the world and our place in it.”

img_8377 From the jacket: “Berry’s poetry is alternately a testimony to the harrowing of his (and our) world and an ardent invocation of that once and still-glimpsed world. The peace of wild things was in him in the writing and it is in us in the reading.”

img_8378 Daring, funny, and highly accessible. Most people know Cisneros for her novel, The House on Mango Street, but she’s also a talented poet. I highly recommend this book.