Writing Prompt: Write About Someone Doing An Everyday Task

The prompt: write about someone doing an everyday task that reveals something fundamental about who they are.

She had started before first light, making her way to the laundry in the yard and getting the boiler started as the household slept. The clothes had been sorted the day before and she’d made sure that there was enough kindling and firewood to get the laundry done. The first load was ready to hang out by the time the dawn chorus began to swell around her.

She tucked the basket on her hip, the canes creaking a little. Mary made her way to the clothes lines, long strands of wire held in place by wooden poles which seemed too feeble to hold the heavy sheets and household clothes but they were up to the task.

Just before starting to hang the linen she paused, listening for movement, sniffing in the cold dark morning for other wood smoke. A small smile tugged at her lips. She would be the first to have her washing out again. Last week she’d noticed that Maggie from next door had hung her washing out the night before. It didn’t count, doing it late in the day. With the dust and muck from the mines it wasn’t worth it anyway; the clothes would need washing twice if you tried that trick.

With wooden pegs tucked into her mouth, Mary flicked and pulled and straightened the cotton sheets until they flapped neatly in the light breeze. A quick glance upwards at the lightening sky as the stars retreated then she was heading back towards the laundry, stepping carefully on a well-worn track, her mind slipping forward to what the day ahead would require of her. The weekly rhythm was ingrained and she liked to get a head start on washing day to set herself up for the week ahead.

[Photo: display of laundry at Cascades Female Factory in Hobart]

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Writing Prompt: Something Adorable

There are times when my writing seems to dwell upon serious themes. At a writing group session a couple of months back, we worked through several prompts together. There is the option to share your work if you are comfortable to do so, and I did although I was aware that the pieces were darker than usual. At the end of my second piece I’d scrawled “One of these days I’ll write something cheerful”.

The very next prompt was a short challenge to write about something adorable, something as cute as a button. This is what I came up with.

Little girls in fairy costumes,

waving magic wands

Dark green leaves of maiden ferns

delicate, curling fronds

Laughter swirling on the breeze

the wonderful sound of joy

Bright brown eyes of my Buster boy

as he spots a favourite toy.

Do you find your writing tends to find an emotional rut, and if so how do you get out of it?

[Photo: pottery dog amidst ferns at the Driving Creek Railway, Coromandel, North Island, New Zealand]

The Reading Hour

Whilst catching up on some podcasts recently I discovered that I had missed the inaugural annual reading hour. This event, promoted by the Australian Library and Information Association, called for Australians to spend one hour reading. One of the activities was to encourage parents to read to their children for at least 10 minutes a day over a week. There was also encouragement for anyone to make a date with a book. It  made me reflect on my reading habits and what reading means to me.

It is hard to think back to a time when I didn’t read, when the words were merely scribbles on a page, yet to be deciphered. I remember some early reading books such as Dick and Jane (anything that had my name in it assumed greater importance) and books of fairy tales. There were illustrated versions of the childhood classics, including Black Beauty and a book of Aboriginal legends. I delighted in odd compendiums of facts, like The Big Book of How and Why or something similar.

A lesson learnt early on was the incredible power of books to transport me to another time or place, to parts of the world both familiar and strange, to characters that seemed as real and complex as any that were in my daily life. The pleasure of being so caught up in a story that it slips into your mind whilst you’re doing other things, as you ponder on what might happen to this character, or how this seemingly impossible situation will resolve itself – these are some of the many joys that reading provides.

In the podcast, a few writers were interviewed to see what reading meant to them. For Chris Womersley reading takes place anywhere and it is difficult to imagine life without it. Sometimes life is understood more through literature than real life, and books play an important part in his internal narrative about what was going on in his life at a particular time. Kevin Kwan spoke of the pleasure that reading gives him – more pleasure than just about anything else, opening up a world of possibilities. For Kamila Shamsie, happiness is being in a hammock, reading. Reading means you never have to be alone, or that your life is limited to your own experiences. According to Shamsie, it enables you to develop empathy and imagination.

It is often claimed by many writers that to write, one must read. Reading widely is encouraged, not just in the genre that you write in or your particular field of expertise. Reading widely offers insights and approaches that can complement various styles, and I’ve heard interviews where some authors deliberately read non-fiction whilst writing fiction, for example.

I like to read a couple of books at any given time, and over the years this has evolved into a mixture of books, ebooks and audiobooks. I’ve just finished reading The Dunbar Case by Peter Corris as an ebook from the library after listening to The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman for my book group. Next on the book group list is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, an author I haven’t read in decades since I toted War and Peace around at the end of my teens. Recently I finished reading The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain, which was beautiful and devastating. I’m also reading Where Song Began by Tim Low. A friend has given me a couple of books on meditation and I’m also keen to read a couple of Australian crime thrillers that have been in my reading pile after reading some enthusiastic reviews lately.

What does your reading life look like?

[Photo: detail from my favourite reading chair]

Writing By Hand

I was rather bemused to see a large stationery chain advocating the benefits of writing by hand. With actual pens and paper. There was a mention of an Australian survey which confirmed that people who wrote in this way for 15-20 minutes a day reported various benefits including a greater sense of well-being and life satisfaction. My inner cynic wondered if this was just another way to sell more stationery.

But perhaps that is because I already do what is advocated by the survey. For years I have kept a brief diary with a line or two about each day. Looking back, I’m not sure what started it. I think it may have been a way to record subtle changes and events, and it has come in handy when I’ve wanted to see how I reacted to something months or years after the event. These record of the passing of days have been on Filofax diaries, and I have years of these scored with pens of varying colour, the pages heavy with the moments of a life. In recent months I have added three things I’m grateful for to the end of each day.

The twenty minutes of handwriting happens in my A5 journals. These are usually hard backed books with enough pages to capture three months or so worth of daily morning pages. These pages capture in more detail what is going on in my life and the world in general, along with snippets of news and updates on people I care about. Frustrations and victories are afforded equal billing, and I always feel better for having spent the time to write, even on days when I think there is absolutely nothing in my mind worth recording.

Occasionally I flick back through these pages, and I am usually rewarded with something to smile or laugh about, or reminded of something that seemed to dominate my life at a particular point. Until the next obsession came along. And there are snatches of dreams and story ideas which can be teased into something more substantial.  It has become a habit, and it is rare for me to miss a morning session. Occasionally I write at the end of the day, but I prefer to start the day with the rhythm and routine of the words on the page.

And I still write some creative work by hand. My notebooks are full of scratchings and thoughts, and as I write much slower than I type there is a different level of focus or energy about these writing sessions.

Do you write by hand?

[Photo: writing notebook scratchings]

Writing Prompt: I Only Turned Away For A Moment

I only turned away for a moment. Read any women’s magazine promising true life stories and you will know that’s about as long as it usually takes for disaster to strike. The difference was, I was hoping he’d disappear. Not for me the fear of loss, that distraction which draws you in whilst something happens to those you cherish. I had started to seek these opportunities, the wrinkles in time.

When I turned back he was still beside me, one grubby finger poked up a nostril. I muttered something, pushed his hand away and absently plumbed the depths of my handbag for something to wipe his face with. No matter how I tried, his face was always smeared with something, even if we left the house in a pristine state.

We’d rarely eat out. It was too much, too exhausting to make sure he didn’t throw his food around like he did at home. I’d seen the blank horror on the faces of the staff in enough cafes to know that all I could hope for over the next few years was for us to eat in McDonald’s where poor nutrition cultivated poor behaviour, or al fresco in parks. Parks without other people, that is.

And so I’d started to daydream of losing him, of accidentally leaving him behind. But he always found me, was always returned to me in more or less the same state. He was like a homing pigeon, wired to remain within my orbit. Even when I didn’t want him nearby.

Even though I knew it was futile, I persisted with the fantasy. I got so deep into the daydream this time that when I bumped into someone waiting at the traffic lights I ricocheted back, lost my footing and tumbled down, a swift yet slow collapse to the ground. All the shopping bags clattered, a tin of alphabet spaghetti bounced and hit me in the forehead. I closed my eyes as noise and people swirled around me. Someone helped me sit up, a woman’s voice calmly told me everything was all right. I could hear things being gathered, the crackle of plastic bags. I wanted to leave my eyes closed, for someone else to sort and fix everything for a change.

But the woman must have brushed something off my face, the touch was gentle and reassuring. I opened my eyes, expecting to see a kind stranger’s face. But it was Billy, using my handkerchief to wipe away the tears that had started to roll down my cheeks.

Inspired by a writing group prompt.

[Photo: writing journal collection]

In Anticipation of Creative Endeavours

Earlier this week I wrote about anticipating spring, and how this shows itself in a myriad of ways from early blossoms to the proliferation of buds. It reminded me of the importance of having something to look forward to, that intoxicating sense of anticipation.

This has resulted in a quick assessment of where I am at the moment in a creative sense. In my working life I am task oriented and love crossing items off my to-do list. Occasionally I think that if I applied the same approach in my creative life, I’d get a lot more done. This is probably true, but my creative side seems to resist any attempt to contain it in such a structured format. I know I could, but I don’t want to. Somehow it seems too important to have the flexibility to go where my creativity leads, rather than corralling it with constraints.

So what am I looking forward to, creatively speaking? I have a few ideas tucked into the pages of my writing notebooks for future projects, and these will continue to germinate as I go about my daily routines. I have two stories on the go at the moment, one of them triggered by a vivid dream. Both are longer than my usual outings and that in itself creates a sense of delight. Usually with a short story I have a fair idea of what I’m working towards, but both of these stories are taking their own sweet time to reveal the end and that makes the process quite intriguing.

Recently I have started reading a book of ten short stories with accompanying essays by the writers revealing insights into their craft and the genesis of their particular story. I have dipped in and read a couple so far and have been invigorated but have resisted the urge to read them too quickly. Some things are better digested slowly and savoured.

Another source of creative anticipation is something about me but not something that I have created. By chance I came across some interesting drawings on Instagram by an artist called Carly Zandstra. A few weeks back she posted a drawing of her head in a phrenological kind of way. There is a link to the post here which will make more sense. I was so impressed that I made contact and Carly is creating something similar for me, based on things that matter to me. I am really looking forward to what Carly has come up with – another version of my creative self.

So right now there are still stories to write, different worlds to ponder, stories to be read and a head full of ideas to fuel my sense of creative anticipation.

What are you looking forward to, creatively speaking?

[Photo: phrenology head spotted at a market]

Writing Snippets

It isn’t possible to jot down everything that might come in handy one day in a writerly sense. There are some things which seem momentous, and are recorded, but when rediscovered at a later date there is some head scratching at context or simply general bewilderment about what was so important about a snatched phrase or idea. Other isolated thoughts, sometimes as simple as a word or two, seem to resonate with possibilities.

Whilst flicking through my latest writing notebook, I have come across some odd scratchings. Sometimes it is testing out an idea, or gathering notes on something I have listened to. The following was recorded after listening to how phrases from some obsolete (for the most part) occupations still appear today. One of the phrases was ‘a whale in the bay’, which was popular during the decades of whaling, and indicated someone with money to spend, a captive audience. The fluke is the tail fin of a whale, and is used when a whale lifts its tail before diving, usually after arching its back.

There are patches of word association: circuit breaker, mindfulness, visualisation techniques, creativity, calm, relaxation, invigorating, breath, breathing. These words helped to shape a post on mindfulness.

Then there are the random bits. Build the life you want in the time you’ve got. Not sure if I read this or heard it, but it captured my attention long enough to ensure it was recorded. There are bits from other people’s blogs. Comfort zone: a place where boredom lives and fear dominates. This was spotted on Susans130 in January this year.  And lots of things like this. Tuxedo: what a funny word. Where does it come from? Answer: named after a country club at Tuxedo Park, New York.

Writing notebooks are there to capture moments which otherwise might be lost. One last example below from March this year.

One of the reasons why I go out is to experience life – the essence of surprise. The lift door opened to let in another lady and an amazing burst of German opera. A man in black pants, white dress shirt and a stunning voice. Just magic, really.

How do you keep track of odd moments in your writing life?

[Photo: wren spotted scratching about at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mt Tomah]

Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

Deadlines: whooshing or otherwise?

An oft quoted phrase attributed to Douglas Adams is “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” I’m not sure if it is emblematic of my tendency to comply, but deadlines tend to translate into results for me.

A simple example would be my blog posts. I made a decision before I started to blog that I would try to write two posts a week. This was based on wanting to write about the Blue Mountains area in particular, effectively from the viewpoint of being a tourist in my adopted home, but I also wanted to explore writing habits and practices. Occasionally I have meandered off the track at times, but in essence this remains the focus for my blogging.

There have been times when I have faced the blank page, bereft of thoughts let alone ideas. But so far – touch wood – I have managed to come up with something before each due date. There are times when there is an abundance of ideas for one theme but not the other, reflective perhaps of where my mind is at that point of time. These ideas are captured and explored when time allows. Having a writing rhythm helps, and I know that it is preferable to have a draft, no matter how insignificant or rough, which can be expanded and edited at least a day or two before I’m due to post. There are times though when it is more of a last minute dash to get the words down.

My blogging schedule is self-imposed, but I try to apply the same discipline to writing competition deadlines. I keep an eye out for upcoming competitions and jot down key details on a whiteboard so I can submit a piece if appropriate. When I first started to mix with other writers, I was fortunate to meet an accomplished and prolific poet and short story writer in the central west. He invited me around for a chat one afternoon and showed me how he kept a stack of polished works ready for upcoming competitions, and explained how he would write new pieces for competition themes when necessary. A piece might not succeed in one competition but could place or win in another. The key was to be ready to meet the deadline and to adhere to the competition entry requirements.

Due to time constraints I am selective about the competitions I enter, but I find that deadlines hold me accountable and encourage me to produce and polish a piece for submission, rather than just scratching in the margins of a writing life.

What do writing deadlines mean to you?

[Photo: old typewriter]

Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]