Category Archives: Small Assignments

Three-Minute Fiction

Okay. Here’s the deal. I do not write fiction. I have tried to write fiction, and I am a terrible, nigh unto dismal, fiction writer. But this blog is about building some chops, and so I’m going to throw this assignment out there.

NPR has an ongoing series called Three-Minute Fiction. A few times a year, they have a special celebrity judge who gives a theme, or a phrase, or some kind of rule. You can read about it here. Go on. I’ll wait.

So, stealing this assignment from NPA, I am putting this assignment out there. Write a three-minute piece of fiction (about 600 words or so) that features a US president: real or imagined, past or present. If you want to submit it to NPR, go to the website referenced above. The deadline is Sunday, September 23 at 11:59PM.

(I am going to attempt this, but I will place a disclaimer excusing anyone from actually reading it. I will also probably drink some whiskey first.) (See above, with regards to my fiction writing.)

For those new to Small Assignments, if you choose to accept the challenge, just post your link in the comments here, so we can all read each other’s work.

 

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On Inspiration

This is a post in response to Small Assignment 4. Also check out responses from Anecdotaltales and Prajjwal. Thanks for writing and sharing!

A few years ago, I had a supervisor who drove me crazy. The reason for the crazy-making is that I was supposed to get a written review every quarter, but quarter after quarter, I did not get a written review. Then, all of a sudden, I would receive four quarterly reviews on the same day. This was… unhelpful. The excuse that my supervisor gave for the late reviews was that he needed to “be inspired” to write. Let’s be clear. He had to be “inspired” to simply do his job.

Now, years later, I am a writer. I get assignments and deadlines, and I must meet those deadlines or not get paid. When I get to work (often still wearing my pajamas), my first step is staring at a blank screen, or maybe write a little chicken scratch on a notebook or on the back side of an envelope. But at the end of the day, the deadline does not move, and the deadline does not wait for inspiration.

The experience of writing professionally and on deadline has crystallized one thing for me: writing is NOT about inspiration. Writing is about, well, writing. The moments when I feel inspired are wonderful moments, but if I’m honest, I must admit that those moments are rather few and far between. I am always more capable of finding an excuse to not write than I am of finding “inspiration.” In fact, not feeling inspired becomes a wonderfully convenient excuse to avoid writing. It’s right up there with “I have two babies” and “I don’t get any sleep.”

Last week, some old friends came to visit us for a few days, and then we drove out to middle Tennessee a rented a cabin for the weekend. While there, all gathered under one roof, we decided to work on a little group art project, which took the form of a book for each of the three families. Most people drew a little picture or a sketch. The kids who could be trusted to not eat the pens made drawings of their own. Now, I am not an artist. The best I can do on most days is draw a cartoon cow, although I do think I happen to draw a mean cartoon cow. So it was suggested that I write a little something.

Now, we were in a beautiful cabin out in the woods. We were half a mile from a beautiful lake, surrounded by friends and children and a hundred different reasons to feel inspired. But I did not feel inspired. I felt pressured and on the spot and a little weird. I was busy trying to keep my kids from destroying the other kids’ toys, and I really just wanted to pour another glass of wine. But one afternoon, I sat down and wrote a little something to put in the memory book. It was not the best something I’ve ever read; in fact, it was a poem. I am really not a very good poet. But it fit on the small sheet of paper, and it was written.

I believe in inspiration. I do believe that there are times when the Muse whispers in my ear and the words fit together like pieces of a puzzle. But most of the time, writing is just about getting the words down. So let me go and pour myself a glass of wine, (or coffee, as it is not yet noon), and let’s get to work.

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Small Assignment 4: Inspiration

Sitting down to write and staring at a blank screen (or notebook, or whiteboard, or whatever) can be one of the single most paralyzing experiences I have on any given day. In fact, the time when I am most likely to walk away in defeat is in those moments when I am simply terrified that I will not have anything worth writing.

This is when many writers (and creative people, generally) begin to look for inspiration. We wait for the muse to show up and hit us over the head (hopefully with some kind of a Nerf implement).

Once upon a time, when writing was a hobby for me, and not much else, it was easy to walk away due to lack of inspiration. But now, writing is not only a hobby. It is my livelihood. It has become a way of life. Inspiration really can’t keep up with that. So now, I am going to write about inspiration.

The small assignment this week is to write about inspiration. Think about where you find inspiration (if you do, in fact, find inspiration.) Write about a time when you felt particularly inspired. Write an inspirational haiku. Write a short story about a musician seeking inspiration from the Niagara Falls. Whatever. Your inspiration is inspiration. Go! Good scribbling!

As usual, if you choose to write something based on the prompt, write it and post the link in a comment here. Also, please “share” the small assignments with anyone who might be interested in writing them!

 

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And.. I’m back!

Right. So, I went out of town there for a while.

I took the kids and spent the week with my parents, where there is a pool a block away and where someone else always did the cooking. From there we went and spent a few days with my grandmother, who turned 94 in May. It was wonderful to spend the time with family and to watch the kids discover the joys of swimming. It was a week of sun and light and laughter. But it was not particularly conducive to writing anything worthy of publication (on the blog or otherwise.)

So now we’re back in Memphis, and the kids are going through typical grandparent withdraw, what with the drag of just hanging out with me now. We’re all getting back into the swing of things, just in time for another little trip out of town next weekend. And then another trip out of town a couple of weeks after that. I know. My life is so hard. First world problems.

I am hoping, though, that in the next few days I will manage to get something worth reading written down and posted here. For now, though, let me encourage you all to keep on writing. Put pen to paper. That’s what counts!

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The Impossible Days

I’m working on thinking up a new Small Assignment, but in the mean time, I want to talk about impossible days.

Since we have gotten back from Nashville, writing has been kind of like… pulling teeth?  No. Pulling teeth is kind of cliche. More like trying to catch fruit flies in a butterfly net, except not quite so whimsical. Maybe it’s been like walking through foot-deep mud – the really thick kind that clings to your boots and sucks the shoes right off of your foot.  So I’m left wading through the mud with my butterfly net. Or something.

Of course, Maggie has been kind of sick since the return from Nashville, though no return of the puke-like symptoms. She just occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night whimpering “My tummy hurts.” It is both the most adorable and the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. We have continued the experiment of the shared room, and while it is getting better, Maggie seems to prefer sleeping on the floor right next to Beckett.  When she whimpers, he wakes up.  And the cycle continues.

So I’m tired.  I feel like creativity is kind of leaking out of my ears.  I have tried writing on the computer, in a notebook, on scratch paper, on a great big tablet with a sharpie.  Most of what I keep coming up with is halting and weirdly worded, at best.  Most of time I just end up doodling.  I can draw a MEAN cartoon pig, let me tell you.

So here I am.  Tired.  Trying desperately to remember that word.  You know, the one that means… that thing?

My guru Anne Lammott says we all have impossible days, and maybe even impossible weeks. During those impossible times, we need to keep on writing, even when it’s just a wet trail of snail slime.

So, here goes. Writing snail slime.

Time to strap on those boots and grab that butterfly net.  I’m hunting some words.

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Vacation: It ain’t what it used to be.

Warning: In what follows, there will be mention of vomit.  You are not obligated to read any more.  You have been warned.

Right, so I posted this last week, and then we packed up the car and flew the coop.  So this is my response to my third Small Assignment.

Last week, the small vacation that we had planned to go visit some friends in Nashville kind of… appeared.  I found myself running around the house making sure that the kids had enough clean clothes to get through three days plus sunblock, and Oh Yeah Maggie’s things that she insists on having in bed with her these days, including the plastic purple Easter basket that we got for an Easter egg hunt last year.

We stayed with the same person we always stay with when we go to Nashville.  The last time we visited, I was pregnant with Beckett, and our friend was living in a three-bedroom townhouse.  These days, though, he is in the process of building a house, so he sold the townhouse and is living temporarily in a one-bedroom high rise loft.  This meant that the whole family – David, me, Maggie, and Beckett – all stayed in the same room.  Beckett was immediately beside me and Maggie slept on the floor on a little toddler-sized sleeping bag.

All went about as well as we possibly could have hoped.  The kids went to sleep several hours before David and I crept into the room and climbed into bed.  Then in the morning, the kids somehow both ended up in bed with David and me as we tried to protect our friend (who was sleeping on the couch) from the noises of small children in the morning.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a vacation without some kind of hiccup, right?  That came when something shorted in the elevator on Friday evening, and the power to the entire building was blown.  It was about 4:30PM when it happened.  We spent the rest of our visit without power.  Fortunately for us, our friend lives on the 4th floor and not the 20th.  Maggie can handle four flights of stairs.  (For that matter, I can also make four flights of stairs while carrying Beckett.)  We figured that was our adventure for this vacation.

After spending a wonderful couple of days in Nashville (even despite the power outage), we headed back to Memphis, deciding that we would stop for gas .  The kids were exhausted, and so we figured they would probably just pass out for most of the 3-hour drive.  Well, 15 minutes into our drive back to Memphis, we ran into a traffic jam of rather epic proportions.  After about 40 minutes or so, we came to an exit (3 miles from where the traffic jam began), and we took it.  We wound our way to a gas station, where we stopped to fill up the tank.

While we were sitting in the car, letting the gas tank fill up, our leisurely drive took a turn toward the gross.

Maggie was singing peacefully in the back seat when suddenly, she puked.  All the way down her front, all over the car seat, in the buckles, everywhere.  It was unbelievably gross.  I got out of the car and got her out of the car seat.  I undressed her, and started cleaning her up as best I could.  Fortunately we were stopped at a gas station and could buy some cleaning supplies.  David bought a package of “Wet Ones,” which we used to clean the car seat and surrounding area.  Then we gave Maggie her little plastic Easter basket, in case she had to hurl further on down the road, said a little prayer, and took off to drive the rest of the way.

Maggie is doing better today.  She hasn’t puked since we were stopped at the gas station outside of Nashville.  But that event is likely to be the defining mark of this vacation.

I remember when my vacations were largely about reading a few good books, getting a little sun, and maybe sleeping in.  Now my vacation is about trying to keep my kids quiet so that we don’t wake up other people before 7AM, and then cleaning up puke on the way home.

Funny thing is that I’m having the time of my life going on vacation with my kids, puke and all.

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Small Assignment 3: Vacation

(Once again, there was one responder to the small assignment last week on School Lunches.  If you haven’t already, go and read his response here.)

I don’t really know about elsewhere in the world, but in Memphis, though it is not yet summer by the calendar, it certainly is summer in terms of temperature.

It is also the time of year when I look at the next three months and see travel plans stacking up every two weeks or so.  Now is the beginning of a season of traveling to visit family and friends and having family and friends come and visit us.  We’ll be taking some shorter jaunts to some more-or-less local-ish places, and one big, pack-the-rented-car-and-drive-for-two-days trip.

All of this planning makes me think of the days before adulthood when vacation meant waking up one day and getting in the car.  Being magically transported to a new place with new smells and new sights.  These days, vacation is more about watching my kids have that experience.  (Maggie is already running around saying, “Beach!” even though we won’t be leaving for our beach vacation for another two months.)

So the assignment this week is to write about vacation.  It can be a memory of a particular vacation, a meditation on vacations more generally, a short story about a dude who goes on vacation and gets more than he bargained for, or a haiku about a beach ball.

As usual, if you choose to write about this assignment, post the link to your response in a comment here, and I’ll share it at the end of the week on this sight.  Also, as usual, if you or someone you know might be interested in this little virtual writing group we’ve got going, share this post.  Anyone is invited to participate, with any writing style and really, any topic.  (Also, if you have a suggestion for a small assignment, let me know!)

Good scribbling!

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A Sunny Disposition

(This post is written in response to my second Small Assignment.)

I honestly don’t have many memories of my elementary and middle school lunches, but the few that I have are important.

I remember a classmate named Stuart breaking a lunch tray over another student’s head while the whole cafeteria full of kids shouted “Fight! Fight!” I did not actually see the lunch tray being broken, because I remained seated at the table, hunched over my sandwich, until it was over, willing the violence to come to an end, scared that somehow the violence would bleed onto me.

I also remember that Stuart did not graduate from high school with me, and it wasn’t because he moved.

I remember approaching the cafeteria with a certain dread.  The school building in which I attended elementary and middle school was a three-floor building with carpeted hallways. The carpet color coded the floors.  The top floor was red, or rather burgundy.  Burgundy was kindergarten, first and second grades.  Blue was the middle floor, and third, fourth, and fifth grades.  The school cafeteria was also located on the floor with the blue carpet.  The green floor was sixth, seventh and eighth grade.  The green floor was in the basement.  Keep the inmates as far from the door as possible.

So I remember approaching the cafeteria, staring down at the dingy blue carpet, turning the corner and smelling the stale, greasy smell of cafeteria food.  Most days, I brought my own lunch, with a turkey sandwich, carrots, and some kind of fruit, so I didn’t need to stand in line. I would go straight to the tables.  Some of the tables were round, eight-top tables, where, if you had eight friends to sit with, you could occupy an entire table.  Those tables, though, filled up very quickly.  In all my years at that school, I almost never sat at the eight-top round tables. The other tables were long tables with built-in stools.  The stools were uncomfortable, and the tables always smelled like industrial cleaner.  Often the stools broke.  The worst possible scenario walking into the cafeteria was that you would end up being required to sit on a broken stool at the long table.  The jagged plastic would dig into your thighs, and if you were wearing a skirt, it would snag your tights.  I hated those seats, and I always seemed to be the person who ended up sitting on them, because at the time, I hadn’t yet learned how to advocate for myself.

My final memory in this montage is of one teacher, who always seemed to have lunch duty.  Her name, paradoxically, was Miss Sunny.  So far as I can tell, Miss Sunny was about a thousand years old, and was there forever.  I don’t actually know what she taught, as the only time I ever saw her was in the lunch room.  She took a zero-tolerance approach to noise, with a husky voice that had to have been shadowed by years of cigaret smoking.  When the volume got just a little too loud, she would flap her arms as if she was about to take off and yell, “WHOA.”  If the noise did not immediately stop, she would impose silent lunches, during which every child in the cafeteria was required to sit and eat lunch in total silence, under threat of detention and a call to the parents.

I was a good kid in school.  I was even a bit of a teacher’s pet, and so the very idea that I might get detention for sneezing a little too loud during a silent lunch scared the pants off of me.  When the volume in the cafeteria started to go up, I would focus all of my efforts on being quiet, thinking that maybe, if I were quiet enough, I could compensate for the loud kids who were sitting at the round tables with their seven friends.

It never worked.

Eventually, I finished middle school, as most of us do, and went to high school. There, I learned the joy of eating lunch in the band room with a group of other kindred spirits – other kids who had been forced to eat lunch in silence while sitting on the edge of a broken plastic stool.  Together, we would have filled up an eight-top round table or two.  But I still really hate the thought of that blue carpet.

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Small Assignment 2: Lunch

(Last week’s assignment was to Find Your Funny Voice.  One person took the challenge.  Read his response here.)

Today, we had a family lunch.  David and I ate some leftover Vietnamese food, which we ordered the other day after a very long and exhausting day.  When we get food from that place, we always have enough leftovers for one or two more meals.  Maggie requested, in this order, apples, celery, biscuits (which she “helped” me make) and then some of the Vietnamese curry from my plate.  Beckett ate bits of sauteed mushrooms and zucchini with feta cheese, and then had a biscuit, and finally tried a little of the Vietnamese curry from my plate.

Meals are so integrally important to shaping who we are and who we become.  We do not yet have “family” dinners, because the kids go to bed quite early.  But David and I do our best to make sure that at least one meal a day is one that we eat together as a family.  (Usually, that meal is breakfast, but you get what you get, right?)

But as we were sitting at lunch today, I started thinking about how much my lunches have changed over the course of my life to this point.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lammott describes a moment in her writing class where she instructs a student who is panicking to write about school lunches.  (No, really, if you have not read this book and you are a writer, you should go and read this book.  Right now.)  Describe the lunch.  Describe the setting.  Pay some attention to detail.  Some of this you might pick up and continue to write about later.

I know we all have stories from our school days about lunch.  So the assignment this week is borrowed from Anne Lammott.  Write a piece about school lunches.  Write your own memory about a school lunch.  Write a short story that includes a school lunch.  Write an ode to your lunchbox.  Just write something.

As usual, write a piece and post the link in the comments section here.  Please share the project with anyone who might be interested.

Good scribbling!

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