Writing Exercise: Time Shift (Part 2 of 2)

Photo by Kyle Loftus on Unsplash

Below is the second half of a short story, my writing exercise for the day. To read the first half, you can click here.

The man continued, still staring down at the half-empty glass in front of him.

“Three years ago, I spent the summer out in New Mexico, in Albuquerque, working on a farm in the South Valley. It was an internship for my senior year of college, and I was gathering information for a research paper. The paper was for my environmental studies class and detailed acequias and their irrigation benefits throughout the region. I was there from June through August, the hottest parts of the year, working on the farm every day that summer.

It was hard work, too, the hardest physical work I had encountered thus far. I didn’t know many people my age, and so I spent most of my free time exploring the landscape. In the late afternoons when the work was done for the day, I made the half-hour drive up to the eastern border of the city where the Sandia Mountains are. The foothills of these mountains hold countless trailheads, and I took to hiking along these trails each day to catch the sunset. I’d never seen sunsets like that, turning the mountains pink for a few minutes each evening, just like a sandia, a watermelon.”

Here, the man stopped to take a swig of his drink before continuing.

“One of these evenings, I was hiking on a trail that circled around a small mountain’s edge, offering breathtaking views of the city down below. Out there, the land stretches ahead of you for dozens of miles, and you can make out the buildings downtown, and even specific streets. During this hike, I stopped at a gathering of boulders and sat on one of them to wait for the sun to set. It was almost a meditative experience up there for me, with the clear skies and winds blowing down the mountainside, all around me.

I had been there maybe fifteen minutes or so when I heard footsteps behind me. A guy my age was coming up the mountain from the opposite direction from which I had come. He had dark brown hair that was parted neatly along one side and was dressed what I thought was a bit formal, a button up shirt and pants like my grandpa used to wear. The guy waved to me and asked to join me on the group of rocks.

“Of course,” I told him, glad to see someone my age after so many weeks on the farm with older workers.

As he sat down on a nearby boulder, I noticed his shoes – brown, flat, leather ones that looked like they had next to no traction. They must have been slicker than anything on that dusty, crumbly trail.

‘How can you wear those things?’ I asked him. ‘I’m hardly making it up the trail in these hiking shoes.’ I lifted my own foot to show him. He looked puzzled and mildly amused at my own shoes, a pair of sneakers I had used throughout college.

“I don’t have any trouble with these. Those shoes of yours though, I’ve never seen anything like them,” he told me. At the time, I thought that was a strange remark, but he seemed friendly, and I thought nothing more of it. We got to talking more, and I learned his name was Marco. He worked downtown at the drug store and was in medical school at a local university. I told him about my research paper on acequias, and he said he was familiar with them as many of his friends were farmers.

As the sun set, we saw that it was getting late and parted ways; I didn’t think anything more of Marco or our conversation. However, the next day, I ran into him again and so on for the next week or two. We hiked together several times, and one day I ran into him as I was walking up from my car which I always parked in the lot just outside the trailhead. Instead of offering to hike, he invited me to his home where his sister was making an enchilada dinner.

I had grown tired of the farm meals and accepted gladly. I learned that he walked from his house to the trailhead, so we turned away from the trail on foot. I followed him down the street, surprised that I had not noticed there was no sidewalk before; I supposed I was always too hurried to get on the trail to notice each evening.

It was after just a few minutes that I began to feel a little uneasy, kind of like that feeling when you know you’re getting the flu but you don’t have any real symptoms yet. My head had a slight ache and the sun seemed to be beaming down hotter than ever, but Marco didn’t notice. He just chattered on about his sister’s ability to cook anything you asked.

The sun was beginning to sink in the sky, and feeling the dryness in my throat, I thought I might ask him for a glass of water when we reached his house. I found myself wishing we’d taken my car, as we would already have been there by now.

At that moment, I abruptly realized what had unsettled me. Turning back at the trailhead with Marco, I had not seen my own car. Nor the lot that had been filled with so many other vehicles of people visiting the trail. My mind could not recall anything but the dead end of the street opening into grass and a post marking the trail’s entrance.

‘Marco,’ I asked him, ‘Are we nearly there? I’m not feeling well.’ The ground felt uneven below my feet although it looked perfectly flat.

He replied that his house was just around the next street corner, and I could rest there. As we rounded the corner, we came into a neighborhood filled with quaint houses. We were met with what seemed to be an old-fashioned car show, with the vehicles parked along the street and strangely, in people’s driveways.

I remarked on the amount of antique cars in the neighborhood, but Marco didn’t seem to notice and just shrugged my comment off. He led me into the yard of one of the old style houses and opened the front door. The house was immaculate inside, but again, all the furniture seemed to be of a style even my grandmother would have thought out-dated. I followed Marco further into the house and into the kitchen, with the impression that I was on the set of a historical movie.

A woman who I presumed to be his sister was stirring a pot of something on the stove. She wiped her hands on the apron around her waist and turned to greet me. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Although she seemed nice, something about her made me feel ill-at-ease. Her clothes were all wrong, too bulky, too grandmotherly. Her makeup was too dark, eyebrows too thin, like she was dressed in a turn of the century costume.

She extended her hand in greeting, but I found myself only staring, alternately at her and then Marco, the ache in my head getting more intense. My gaze landed on the wall behind the sister’s shoulder. On the wall hung a calendar, and as I read its marking, the floor seemed to fall out from under me. My head was swimming and I lost consciousness, but not before I distinguished the number “1926.”

When I came to, I was lying in the parking lot at the trailhead, beside my car. Neither Marco nor his sister were anywhere in sight. I drove to the farm as fast as I could. That night, I told only a few of the farmers there what had happened, but of course they didn’t believe the story, and they were worried I’d come down with sunstroke.

I went back to the trailhead every day until my internship was over, but I never saw Marco again. When I tried to retrace the path to his house, it was just as I thought. No neighborhood existed near that particular trail.”

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Writing Exercise: Time Shift (Part 1 of 2)

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

The passage below is the first half of a short story that came to mind a few days ago. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s stories of their own experiences with the supernatural and the reactions others have upon hearing these tales that seem to defy rational explanation.


I’m not usually one who enjoys talking to strangers. No, twenty-odd years of working in my line of business – accounting – have instilled within me an appreciation for the quiet comfort of numbers and order over the convoluted speech patterns enjoyed by so many others in our society. I’ve never been particularly interested in overhearing the droll gossip of strangers in the supermarket check-out lines or the impassioned stories guests on local radio stations so vehemently recount.

However, despite this somewhat reclusive personality trait, there are times during the winter season that I do recall a story relayed to me (and several others) by a young gentleman years ago. The tale was of the type so unique and without comparison that my mind only drifts to it on nights like these, when the snow and wind are fierce allies, and the air has that peculiar crispness which only winter nights offer.

Forgive me for my long-winded manner, but the sequence of strange events seems even more disordered with the passing of time (if time truly does pass one by), and I will do my best to communicate it all as it happened.

I believe the year I heard the story was 1984, as I was in Aspen for a skiing tournament that winter. That was the last year that I skied, due to my knee injury slipping on the porch stairs the following spring, but until that complication, I was still agile enough to compete. I wasn’t very skilled and certainly didn’t place high in the rankings that year (nor the year prior), but I held my own on the slopes that afternoon. My competing was more for a chance to breathe fresh air after a year of working behind the bank’s austere walls.

After the competition that day, all the participants went to the nearest bar in hopes of having a few beers to diminish the chill of the snow and to numb our overexerted muscles. I noticed that most of the skiers in the group sat with competitors who had placed similarly in ranking. I suppose to them, it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do, but in my typical fashion, I took a lone seat at the end of the bar.

I was soon accompanied by a young, sandy-haired man, his hair being of that in-between color that is often mistaken for red in certain angles of sunlight. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties and had ruddy cheeks, brightened with the burnt look most of us skiers got that day from exposure to the sun and wind high on the mountain. The skin around his eyes was pale and undamaged from where his ski goggles had protected it. I recognized him as having scored close to my own level.

He struck up a conversation, and I learned he was from Los Angeles and came up for the tournament each year to escape California and clear his mind. He had a quiet demeanor, and I imagined his personality wasn’t suited for such a large city, much as my own is not.

We hadn’t been seated long before we were joined by two boisterous and somewhat intoxicated skiers, one with a military haircut and one with a wispy moustache that seemed to have given up on growing itself out. In their drunken state, they generously bought a round of beers for both myself, the Californian, and several other skiers scattered around the bar. The two had done very well in the tournament and seemed eager to share their good humor. It wasn’t long before a circle of skiers had formed around us, everybody comparing that year’s trails to those of previous competitions.

As often happens with inebriated and adventurous groups like that which we had created, the conversation turned to sharing tales of evading danger and acts of bravado. One skier, an older man with thinning hair, talked about scaring off a mother grizzly and her cub while on a solo camping trip in Washington. Another man, only college-aged or so, recounted his experience nearly drowning during a poorly planned rafting trip down the Rio Grande.

The stories grew more outrageous as more drinks were consumed. I remained silent, as my vault of stories from working at the bank were limited to balancing books and skimming financial records, hardly death-defying.

During a lull in the conversation, the man with the military cut suggested the Californian share a story, as surely he had encountered some wild creatures in that state.

With the group’s attention on him, the Californian slowly set down his glass in a way that silenced the room. It had grown late, and we skiers were the only ones left in the bar. He wiped a bit of the beer’s foam from his lip and seemed to collect himself before beginning.

“I have a story, but it’s not from California. It’s not about bears, or rivers, or anything like that. There aren’t many people who believe me and that is fine. I don’t know that I would, in their position. But I guess there might be some people who don’t believe that man here wrestled that cougar.” The skier in the crowd who’d shared a dubious account of an encounter with a cougar didn’t protest, only laughing good-naturedly.

The Californian remained serious, and kept his eyes lowered as he began.


This is the end of the first half. I will post the second half tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by! Happy reading and writing!

How I’ve Used Notebooks to Organize My Writing Ideas

Photo by Mike Tinnion on Unsplash

At any given time, I probably have half a dozen notebooks stashed around my desk, in my purse, or on my bookshelf. I have used various styles of notebooks for practically every form of writing.

When I was a kid, I would make my own “books” by putting loose leaf paper in a simple two-pocket folder with brass fasteners (complete with poorly drawn illustrations, in case you were wondering). More recently, I have kept my writing in composition notebooks, notebooks with no lines, cheap spiral notebooks, fancy expensive Barnes and Noble leather bound books, and the list goes on and on.

Over time, I have learned that I am unable to go back to using a notebook (i.e, pen and paper) to write full drafts of pretty much anything. I am a fast typist (my one and only superpower – rather lame, admittedly), and I am able to get sentences out faster and smoother by using a computer. I can edit much quicker on the computer as well, so I don’t get as hung up on structuring my writing.

With that said, however, I still prefer to start my ideas and organize them on paper. In the past, this took the form of compiling every bit of writing into one notebook. A journal entry might be followed by a piece of dialogue I overheard and thought was interesting, followed by an inspirational writing quote I read, then a character sketch for a sci-fi story, etc. It was too much chaos for me to sift through and make sense of, and so I now multiple notebooks with distinct purposes. I typically use three main ones. That seems like a lot, but I don’t necessarily use each one each day.

Notebook 1: Personal Journal

I have a particular notebook strictly for journaling. Sometimes I need to get a whirlwind of emotions out on paper, and that’s all that particular writing is used for. Keeping that personal, unstructured writing away from my fiction projects is helpful to keep me focused so that I am not distracted by the events of the day.

That doesn’t mean that my journal doesn’t sometimes lead to inspiration for a story or poem, but I find it is easier to have my journal entries all in one place. Otherwise I spend too much time flipping through the pages of my personal life when I should be finishing a project.

Notebook 2: A “Catch All” Notebook

I also keep a notebook that I use to collect information that I may want to incorporate into a story one day. I have it sectioned off into different categories including tabs for Characters, Settings, Dialogue, Outlines, and Miscellaneous. Any time I overhear an interesting piece of dialogue, I write it in that corresponding section. Or if I meet someone that strikes me as inspiration for a character, I describe them in the Character section. Same idea for settings. I use the Outlines section to brainstorm story outlines which I refer to when typing up the first draft of a story on the computer.

I’ve sectioned off my notebook by using small Post-It notes (3″ x 1.5″) and writing on the edges of them, which then stick out from the notebook and are visible like tabs. You can get fancy of course and use actual dividers, so I would experiment with what works best for you. Sometimes when I am stuck for ideas, scanning the pages of the Catch All notebook will inspire me.

Notebook 3: Daily Writing Book

This notebook is a little less defined for me. I have a plain bullet journal (a notebook with all dotted pages) which I use to keep track of how long I write each day. If you’re into tracking your writing habit and are feeling somewhat artsy, you can go here for ideas on how to begin tracking using a bullet journal.

I also use my Daily Writing Book for planning out my writing tasks for each day. For example, I might begin an entry under January 31 and include a list of blog post ideas for the day, some poem ideas, or even start scribbling out the first couple paragraphs of a story or essay. I basically use this book as a daily writing journal for rough, rough drafts of what I am working on that day.

Photo by Simson Petrol on Unsplash

In terms of actual types of notebooks, I prefer keeping cost to a minimum without sacrificing quality. Moleskine products are much too expensive for my budget due to the amount of notebooks I go through (but if you can afford them in multitudes, I envy you). The cheapest notebooks out there all seem to have flimsy covers and thin pages that let ink bleed through.

I have found a few brands that I like (and no, I’m not paid to link to products. I am just a huge nerd for writing supplies!).

Bullet Journal

The bullet journal I use is this one, and it has worked well for me since it lies flat (a must for me). No pages have fallen out, and it seems it is a popular choice as it was the only one left in the store.

Personal Journal & Catch All Notebook

For both of these, I have used two different products from the Greenroom company (sold at Target). I don’t believe you can purchase them online, only at certain stores, but my personal journal is just a plain blue, faux leather cover with sewn pages that again, don’t fall out and lie flat no matter how far along you are in it.

My Catch All book is also from Greenroom and is hardcover with a bungee band on the edge to keep it closed. I love the quality of the paper (nothing bleeds through), but the first couple pages did start to get loose as I used it over time. I just taped them in and didn’t have any more problems after that.

Pens

I’ve known people to get into near boxing matches while debating the pros and cons of particular brands of pens, but I will go ahead and put it out there that I am in love with the Pilot G2 0.7. I like these gel pens since they don’t bleed through, although I know I might be in the minority with this one. This pen also doesn’t smear (important for a Lefty like myself) and isn’t too expensive. I also use highlighters, Post-It notes, and colorful gel pens to organize sections of my writing.

Do you have tips for organizing your writing? Or suggestions for writing products? I would love to hear them in the comment section below!

Stories Told Through Objects: A Reflection

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I have never been one to collect things, mostly because I hate clutter. I love being in open, simple environments that invite relaxation and calmness. I appreciate spaces that are free of things, preferring to focus on mental creativity. That being said, I do have just one weakness when it comes to material items: jewelry.

I didn’t think I was all that bad until after I moved in with Alex. For weeks, he cast horrified glances at my overflowing jewelry box, filled to the brim with bracelets, earrings, rings, necklaces, a chaotic treasure chest of sparkles and dainty pieces of metal and strings of beads. In the mornings, late for work, I would shuffle through the huge, disorganized pile, trying to find a pair of earrings to match my mood, whether it be an extra large hoop kind of day, or maybe a small flower stud kind of day.

I imagine waking to the sound of your girlfriend frantically digging through a box of jewelry at 7:00 AM each day is not entirely ideal and played at least a slight role in his decision to hand-make me a jewelry holder for Christmas. Whatever the motivation, I was delighted that he did.

The jewelry holder is beautiful. He took the time to saw pieces of wood to create an outer frame and included different components for each type of jewelry: a backboard to put my big earrings on, a corkboard for my stud earrings, a bar to display my bracelets, and pretty knobs to hang my necklaces on. He then painted the frame the exact shade of teal/turquoise that I wanted.

We have the finished jewelry holder hanging up in the house now, and when I first saw my jewelry displayed up on the wall, I was suddenly aware of how many stories the pieces represented for me. Seeing the pieces organized beside one another was like seeing many chapters of my life come together all at once.

There is my beaded bracelet, a mosaic of bright colors, that I got when I was in South Africa for Peace Corps six years ago. Its colorful hues remind me of the friendships I made with so many people while I was there. A pair of black, wooden, fan-shaped earrings from Mexico, laced with rainbow threads, that a friend in an Albuquerque hostel left me. They were a thank you present for giving her a ride during her stay, and she left them on my luggage while I was sleeping the morning she left.

A lone lightning bolt earring hangs uselessly on the holder, as its match has a broken hook. Seeing it hang alone is fitting because the college friend who bought the lightning bolts for me gave them to me during our study abroad trip in London years ago. She had previously lost one of my own feather earrings that I lent her for a night out in Camden. She returned to the flat the next morning, very hungover and slightly sheepish, handing me the inexplicably single feather earring as a wordless statement about how her night out had been.

The stories are endless.

There, too, is my grandmother’s metal cuff bracelet which her mother (my great-grandmother) had given me after her daughter passed away when I was young. My great-grandmother referred to the cheap metal bracelet as “costume jewelry,” a term I had not heard before, and which led my childish mind to believe her daughter had been an actress before she died.

My great-grandmother had a jewelry collection of her own, and there were many times she asked me to pull out the box from the drawer where she kept it. She would spend what seemed like forever turning over dozens of brooches and trying on old rings, all of it jewelry which she never wore anymore. I didn’t understand at the time why she seemed to love them so much when she didn’t wear them and kept them put away.

Now I understand. I understand that if you listen carefully enough, you can still hear whispers of adventure coming from each piece. You can feel the dust of New Mexico in your hands when you slide on the snake ring you purchased there. You can still hear the Appalachian Mountain winds blowing through the leaf earrings you bought during a museum visit in North Carolina. And you remember that sometimes our memories are not meant to be kept locked away in a box somewhere but instead are meant to be heard, looked at, held, returned to time and time again.

My much-loved jewelry holder!

Writing Exercise: The Last Plant in the Neighborhood

Photo by Christian Widell on Unsplash

This snippet was written from another prompt I gleaned off the Poets and Writers:The Time is Now” list. The prompt I used was:

“The Humboldt Glacier, located high in the Andes mountain range in Venezuela, is the country’s last glacier. Glaciers are disappearing around the world due to climate change, which has also been a factor in declines and extinctions of animal species elsewhere. This month saw the death of George, the last snail of the Hawaiian species Achatinella apexfulva, named after Lonesome George who died in 2012, the last of the Galápagos tortoises. Write a poem about an object that is the last of its kind to ever exist, either in reality or hypothetically. How is the disappearance of your chosen subject significant in its own way?”

As you will see, I bent the prompt slightly and did not go for a poem but instead wrote a short scene. I often do this with writing prompts. I try not to worry about following the guidelines too strictly (unless it is a submission of course) as my goal with exercise prompts is really just to get the ideas churning.

My passage below is a science fiction piece about an adult reflecting on a memory from her childhood when she saw the last plant growing in her neighborhood.


A crowd was slowly growing around the square of earth, and it was impossible for me to see what everyone was looking at.

The people – neighbors, a teacher from my prior grade, my father’s boss, everyone it seemed – were all murmuring to one another, consoling each other, but I didn’t understand what was going on. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve, hoping she would translate the scene in front of me.

“What is it? What is everyone looking at?”

She pulled her arm away, and I saw that she was crying, holding one hand over her mouth. At that age, I always felt cross when I didn’t understand what was happening, and I took it to mean I was purposefully being left out of things. Older now and looking back at the memory, I am ashamed by my selfishness in that moment.

I grew impatient trying to see past the thick cloud of skirts and jeans that obstructed my view of the object, and I left my mother’s side before she could protest. Ducking through the small gaps in the crowd, I made my way to the front of the sea of people. I pushed past dozens of onlookers until the tips of my shoes bumped against something hard. Nearly tripping, I looked down and saw I was standing with my feet against a beam of wood that, with three other beams, formed a square. The wooden square bordered a small plot of earth, and this few feet of dirt seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention.

In the middle of the box was one tiny yellow flower, its head bent over. Frail petals radiated from its center, but I noticed each petal was tinged with spots of brown that gave the flower the appearance of leopard skin. What should have been a green stem was covered with the same fuzzy gray mold that our neighborhood had seen take over the forest down the road, dozens of trees at a time. That same disease which had destroyed the grassy field in the school grounds, turning the whole thing into a rancid swamp, and eradicating, too, the dandelions on the hill that Ben and I climbed during vacation days. I knew this yellow flower before us would soon become the same moldy, sludgy mess that all those other plants had deteriorated into, eventually sinking back into the earth in a rotten heap.

As I stared at the flower, I felt a sharp nudge in my ribs. I glanced up to see a gray-haired woman much older than my mother looking at me. Her hair was long and wiry, held in place by a floppy hat made of straw.

“Look at that,” the woman said, pointing a bony finger at the plant. “You will not see the likes of that flower again. It’s the last of its kind. You remember how beautiful it is, so you can tell the others. They will want to know.”

At the time, I didn’t understand her words. I didn’t know the woman and what she meant by the “others” that she referred to. Frightened, I ran back through the crowd, back to my mother who I saw talking to one of the guards standing near the gate. When he pointed to me, she looked over and I saw her face overcome with relief. I told her about the old woman and asked her what she had meant about the plant being the last of its kind.

As my mother talked to me, I saw the way she looked down and fidgeted with her rings, which was her habit when she was worried. She explained how the guards had let us see the plant today because they knew it was dying too, like every other plant had in the neighborhood. It had been the last one for miles and miles and they thought maybe it would survive, but it wasn’t going to, and so we all go to see it at last.

We can’t live here with no plants. No plants means no food, no true food at least, she said.

“Why don’t we move?” I asked, envisioning a trip to Guatemala where Ana’s family had lived when she was little or maybe England, where my father had taken his business trip last summer.

“All the neighborhoods are like this,” my mother answered, turning her face away again so I couldn’t see the tears forming in her eyes. “All of them.”

Book Review: “The Quilter’s Homecoming” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Some days, I gravitate to books that are quick, cozy reads for a particularly low-key weekend. This past week, I was in just that kind of mood and picked up a copy of The Quilter’s Homecoming in a local used bookstore. We recently had a bout of cold, rainy weather, and the idea of reading a historical fiction book involving quilts seemed like just the cure for cabin fever. This book, paired with a cup of chamomile tea and some cookies, is a perfect complement to any winter weather.

The Quilter’s Homecoming is part of the Elm Creek Quilts series, which I had never read before until picking up this book. As one can probably guess from both this book and the series titles, the novels do involve quilts and sewing, but also tell the stories of the quilts’ makers, including how the handicraft links the generations of women making them.

This particular novel focuses on the story of Elizabeth, a young newlywed who, in 1925, agrees to move across the country with her new husband in order to finalize the purchase of a California ranch. Upon arrival, they discover that they have been given a fake deed to the ranch, which they had intended to make their permanent home. After finding themselves out of money and no where to live, they are forced to work for the ranch’s actual owners.

The story is set against the backdrop of the Prohibition years and involves various characters that Elizabeth encounters in her journey, including a nearby family who has been involved in tragedy. The histories of all the town’s families are public knowledge, and Elizabeth gets wrapped up in the drama as she learns more about the families. The book is overall light in tone despite some occasional heavy subject matter (never too graphic, at least for me).

My favorite parts of the story were probably the quilting references, even though I am not a quilter myself. The author doesn’t get too technical with the quilting but does make references such as quilters sometimes choosing certain patterns to represent different themes or ideas. I grew curious myself about how quilts can tell a story in many ways, from the fabrics the creators use to the stitching techniques and patterns chosen. My great-grandmother made quilts, and this story made me wish I could go back in time and ask her whether any of her own quilts had stories attached to them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book as a light read for a dreary day and will be looking into the rest of the series.

Do you have any recommendations for books to get you through those long winter days? If so, please leave a link or comment below. I would love more suggestions!

Establishing Our Creative Roots this Winter


Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

I have been trying my hand at growing plants this past year, and one of the things I’ve learned is that some plant bulbs, such as daffodils (which bloom in early spring), should be planted in the cold soil of fall and winter. I was surprised to learn this planting technique, as I would have assumed the bitter coldness of winter would kill off such delicate bulbs in the ground.

I discovered that gardeners plant them in such a way because they want to give the bulbs time to establish a root system before the harshness of winter occurs.

This past week, I have felt like one of those daffodil bulbs, sitting quietly waiting for my writing to take root. My creativity has been sluggish, as if it, too, is burying itself deep in the soil of my mind for winter.

Hoping to find some inspiration today, I took one of my writer friends up on her offer to have me come stay with her for a few days so that we could accomplish some writing together. This morning, despite the current twenty degree weather, I made the long drive up to the mountains to see her.

The drive is a good four hours, and I passed the time by listening to a few episodes of the podcast Story Grid. I just discovered this podcast today, and I am definitely making a note of it for future reference. The podcast has two co-hosts: Shawn, a published author, and Tim, who is a writer working on improving his craft. One episode I listened to today involved Shawn offering advice on Tim’s initial scene for a book. This information provided great advice that I will be able to apply to my own writing.

If you are like me and frequently make long drives, podcasts are a great way to not only pass the hours but to also fit in some writing-focused time. I was in better spirits already just from listening to the podcast on the drive, as it took off the pressure I’d put on myself to produce writing. Instead, I was able to spend a couple hours listening to others talk about their writing which indirectly helped my own.

Once I arrived, my friend and I met up with another member of our writing group, and we three spent the afternoon writing in coffee and tea shops around town. Each of us swapped stories about our inability to write much in the past week, and it occurred to me that maybe I haven’t been alone with trying to re-energize my dormant creativity the last couple days. Could we all be simultaneously trying to establish our creative roots this month?

Perhaps we are not that different from the daffodils and need these few weeks to soak up the world around us so that in time, we, too, can harden our roots and allow the stories within us to blossom.

It inspired me to hear how both of my friends were working through their writing difficulties, not letting a few days keep them down. They created plans that would help them to keep their work going, aiming to finish a certain chapter by the end of the day and to meet up another day this week to continue writing. After a tough week, they were establishing the roots for their works in progress.

This morning, writing anything seemed next to impossible, but after taking the time to listen to other writers and their own creative journeys, I find myself inspired once again. Allowing myself to experience a short period of writing dormancy was just what I needed and will probably need again later this winter. In the meantime however, I can be satisfied that I have written a blog post, so maybe I am establishing some roots of my own after all . . .

Snowstorm


Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

The woods rose up all around me, towers of dead trees and bare branches that grasped my clothing and hair as I ran. I took no notice of their thorns as they scratched through my sleeves and left strands of hair snagged on their limbs.

It was after me, and the dread that fueled my escape was like nothing I had ever felt. I dared not to look back, driven onward by the fear of being caught.

I followed no path yet instinctively darted around the trees, leaping over fallen logs and exposed roots. A half-moon was overhead, an impartial observer to this chase between predator and prey. It offered only a dim reflection of the snow, aiding not only my vision but also that of my pursuer.

The deathly silence of the forest was only broken by the sound of my boots striking the snow and of my own breath, frantic gasps that left trails of condensation in the cold winter night’s air.

The slope of the earth below me changed, and I was soon running downward into a section of trees that thinned out and were easier to see through. At the other end of this section of trees, I saw the house, a rectangular structure that was lit up from within. I ran the final paces, barely striking the ground like a rabbit leaping to its burrow, and upon reaching the porch, I knew I was finally safe.

I had reached sanctuary. I was now aware some boundary existed between this house and the woods, between me and it. It could no longer follow me; it would go no further than the woods.

I turned and faced the creature for the first time. It remained at the edge of the treeline, barely visible in the pale moonlight and forest shadows. I could see it was part human and part beast, bearing the head of a deer with fearsome antlers crowning its image. The upper torso and arms were that of a human, but the rest of it was the form of a deer with four cloven hooves.

We stared at one another, caught in a stalemate. It had lost the hunt tonight, but it was only one of many. That we both knew. The deer creature reared on its hind legs and thundered back into the woods, kicking up slivers of ice and snow behind it.

I opened the front door and walked inside the house, met with the warmth and welcoming light of the fireplace someone had left burning for me.

This passage was based on a dream I had last winter. It occurred during a major winter storm and has stuck in my mind as one of the more unsettling dreams I’ve had.

Writing Exercise: A Pocket Watch, a Flea Market, and a Bit of Time Travel

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Tentes

Can objects haunt us? I considered this question today when responding to a writing prompt. The answer I came up with turned into the beginning of a science fiction story, which you will find a little further below.

The prompt comes from the Shut Up and Write group, an international writing community that is (despite the harsh name) a friendly group that gets together to write for an hour or two. I joined a local chapter and have received e-mail prompts every day in January, including this one:

“You’ve heard rumors that a flea market in a nearby town is selling something that sounds suspiciously like a family heirloom that went missing years ago. As you carry the story forward, ask yourself:

  • What is this object? Why was it important to your family?
  • Do you (your character) find it?
  • Does the vendor explain how they got it?
  • Is it your family’s long lost heirloom? And do you get it back?”

The passage I wrote in response to this prompt is below.

It wasn’t a matter of luck or common coincidence that I saw the lost pocket watch in the newspaper advertisement for your Flea Market this morning, Sir. You might be inclined to think of it as such before knowing the family history, but as you are not a member of the family, I wouldn’t expect you to understand outright.

It’s like this. Of course a person hears tell of lost hounds finding their way home halfway across the country, their owners having lost sight of them while vacationing hundreds of miles from home. Or those birds that, in winter, leave their nests in the north to fly south on a month-long flight to Mexico. They return north the following spring, where they find their way back to those same exact nests that they left months prior.

I suppose our family pocket watch might equate to one of those lost hounds or migrating birds, despite the fact it has no wings to carry it home nor nose to sniff out a trail. Yes, come to think of it, that’s exactly how you might begin to understand the whole issue, it being such a curious matter and all.

You see, I was not in the least surprised to find the pocket watch in your advertisement because it wasn’t I who found it. Rather, it was the other way around: the pocket watch found me.

The pocket watch always finds us – my family, that is. We have tried to lose it countless times over the years. Generation after generation of Templetons has dropped it in rivers, hoping it will float far away downstream. My great-grandfather left it on a railroad track all the way out in Amarillo when he was there on business, praying a passing train would crush the watch into smithereens, and that would be the end of all the trouble.

But, as it happens, just before the 6:05 morning train passed through Amarillo that day, a train-hopper looking to sneak a lift East was walking along those very tracks and picked the watch up. He put it in his pocket and carried it all the way back on the train ride to Charleston. He accidentally left the watch in the pocket of a coat he traded for a cigarette packet, offered by a fellow coming off the train as it stopped in South Carolina.

That cigarette trader happened to be my Uncle Clarence, who returned home that evening and pulled the watch from his new coat’s pocket as he was sitting at the dinner table. My great-grandfather, who had been home just two weeks by this point, was said to have shouted so loudly upon seeing the watch that the neighbors rushed over to see what the fuss was about.

Why go through all this trouble to rid ourselves of a pocket watch, you may ask, Sir? You won’t believe me when I tell you, but still, if I expect your assistance, I must try to explain.

This pocket watch is an instrument surely designed by the Devil himself. How else could it let my family members turn back the events of time and return to prior weeks, prior years even, allowing us to try to correct our past mistakes? You must be laughing now at such nonsense, but do try to understand.

Surely such power would be great; after all, how often does one wish for the chance to revisit the past? you might ask me if you were here before me, attempting to humor my perceived madness. Would this not be a delight for mankind, to amend the wrongs of history? you would ask me.

But you would be naive to think this. Our family has been driven to insanity with this temptation, incessantly using the pocket watch to return to the past and achieve different outcomes. We hope for different outcomes for our individual histories and even the world’s history, but never, never I stress, are we happy with the results. And yet, we are but human and still we continue to try.

And this is why, Sir, I beg you, please take this watch under your own supervision and guard it. Do not sell it to anyone at the Flea Market, as it will invariably return to our family’s hands. It seems to affect no one else, only us Templetons, and I implore you to let it not affect us any longer.

Book Review: “Translator, Trader” by Douglas Hofstadter


Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

I’ve just finished reading Translator, Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation by Douglas Hofstadter and am still trying to digest the big translation questions that the author raises in it. As you might discern from the title, this essay – which reaches 100 pages – is a playful description of a translator’s quest to faithfully translate a piece of work. What a quest it is!

Hofstadter takes us through his process of translating the French book La Chamade (by Françoise Sagan) into English. He states that the idea of his essay is to demonstrate “that high-quality conversion of a novel from Language A to Language B reflects the depths of the translator’s soul no less than Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter reflects the depths of Ella’s soul.” In a nutshell, that translation is an art form involving endless translation choices, numerous “trades” between the languages, and carefully selected words which go beyond simple literal translation.

Regrettably, I am not bilingual, but I expect that speakers of multiple languages frequently encounter the conundrums he discusses. Even as a monolingual speaker I was able to get an understanding of the difficulties he faces with translations.

Hofstadter supports a non-literal translation style as opposed to a literal one, which he characterizes as typically dry and often rendering the finished translation as “wooden.” He humorously defends his choice to translate La Chamade with his own “translator” voice, even admitting when he may have pushed the line just a little when translating a word or phrase.

His essay introduces various struggles related to translation that readers might not typically know exist. For example, he discusses the original French text making use of the two forms of the French second-person singular: the familiar “tu” and the more formal “vous“. How should a translator express this difference in English, or should they even attempt to do so?

While a literal English translation of the text might do away with any such distinction and simply substitute the word “you” for both tu and vous, Hofstadter makes the argument that the original author, Sagan, made a deliberate choice to distinguish between the two forms. To solve this translation issue, Hofstadter chooses to capitalize “You” when referencing the “vous” form and uses the lowercase “you” when referencing the “tu” form.

If this sort of thing appeals to you, you are in luck as his essay is full of subtleties in this regard. What could have been a very technical book is a fascinating read. One strong point of his essay is how passionate Hofstadter obviously is about his work as a translator. It is apparent that he loves the original text and I got the idea while reading it that he lost a lot of sleep in his effort to represent the original text as best he could.

This unique essay is a must-read for anyone who reads translated texts. Even if you don’t agree with every point he makes, you will gain a much greater appreciation for the artistry of translation. I plan to read the accompanying copy of Hofstadter’s translation of La Chamade (That Mad Ache) in the near future. I have no doubt that my experience will be all the more richer having read his essay about the translation process beforehand.

Have you had your own experiences translating texts from one language to another? Or have you read a book that you felt was particularly well-translated? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.