Read/Write Challenge – Day 30

Hi readers! We’ve come to the last day of our challenge. And our last short story, A Visit of Charity,” by Eudora Welty. The story is about a young girl who has to visit an elderly person in order to earn points as a campfire girl and sets off on the bus with a potted plant to visit some old ladies in a nursing home. It is a humorous encounter between youth and age. The two bickering old ladies the girl visits descend upon her, questioning her, drawing her into their ongoing feud, and, even as she’s leaving, begging her for money. The girl is repulsed by everything about the experience. She is doing it only because she has to and can’t wait to escape. 

One Thing I Noticed: The story is written in the third person limited point of view. We are privy to the girl Marian’s thoughts, but no one else’s. In a lot of ways, this can be the best of both worlds.  The reader is not trapped in the head of a single character but can roam about and observe things independently. But there is continuity in following the experience of one character that you lose if you write from the third person omniscient point of view, which gives the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters.

One Idea: Play with genre. Try writing one kind of story in the style of another. “A Visit of Charity,” for example, is a humorous little drama that unfolds like a horror story. The old ladies have animal and plant qualities; when they laugh they sound like bleating sheep and their hands feel like clinging petunia leaves. The place feels damp and “smells like the interior of a clock.” We see the terror rising in the main character, until she finally breaks free, pursued, asked to stay for dinner, as if the place itself wants to consume her. Try writing a suspenseful love scene, a mystery in the form of a fairy tale (or vice versa), a ghost story that unfolds as a romantic comedy, or a sci-fi story as political satire.

July Playwriting Workshop – Preview

Hi writers, are you ready for a new monthly challenge? How about a summer playwriting workshop? I’m a pretty regular theatergoer and sometimes, when I have an idea for a story, I think, wow, that might actually be a cool play. Small problem: I have no idea how to write a play. I looked into taking a class and there are a few, but they’re pretty pricey and don’t always meet at convenient times. So I’m going to give myself a one-month crash course in playwriting. Sound fun?

Here’s the plan. We’re going to do daily writing exercises adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn. (Note: this book appears to be out of print, but used copies can still be found. You don’t need to find a copy to follow along with what we’re doing here.) In Week 1 we’ll do some warm-up exercises to get us thinking about characters, setting, dialogue, and conflict. In Week 2 we’ll do intermediate-level scene-writing exercises. And in Weeks 3 and 4 we’ll work on the first draft of a full-length play.

We are also going to be reading and thinking about a few plays. I’ll post comments about a new one each Saturday, starting on Saturday, July 7. If you want to follow along, here are the plays. We’ll start with Death of a Salesman because it is easy to get your hands on quickly (most libraries have a few copies and the Kindle download is only a few dollars). I was able to get the others by interlibrary loan, but they are also available on Amazon and your local bookstore can order them for you. I tried to select a mix of plays from different time periods, involving different types of relationships (friends, siblings, spouses), written by both male and female playwrights.

Playwriting Workshop Reading List

  • July 7, 2018: Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller (1949) – learn more about the play here
  • July 14, 2018: Topdog Underdog, by Susan-Lori Parks (2001) – learn more about the play here
  • July 21, 2018: Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne (1956) – learn more about the play here
  • July 28, 2018: Art, by Yasmina Reza (1994) – learn more about the play here

I’m excited to start this challenge. I hope you’ll join me on Sunday!

Read/Write Challenge – Day 29

[continued from Day 28]

Fenton “Fen,” Jr., a lanky boy of 13, with closely trimmed hair, took the stand, swore on a bible, said “yes ma’am,” and “yes, sir,” and did a pretty good job of appearing to be what he was, a kid from a tough neighborhood who had somehow managed to stay out of trouble. Until now.

“Fen, is your father Fenton Walker, Sr., the defendant in this case?”

“Yeah, that’s my dad.”

“And the victim, Tanya Walker, that was your sister?”

“Yeah.” Fen’s eyes dropped to his lap, where his hands lay clasped in his lap.

“Fen, would you please take a look at this photo, marked as People’s Exhibit No. 25. Can you tell the jury what you see there?”

“A blue hat. It’s a Fila baseball hat.”

“Fen, did you and your father live together?”

“Yeah, we all did. Me, Tanya, my dad, my mom.”

“And you saw your father often?”

“Objection, Your Honor.” The ASA was losing her patience.

“Overruled.” Judge Kilwin gave me a look that could wilt lettuce. “Counsel, lay your foundation and get to the point.” To Fen, he said “Son, you can answer.”

“I saw him every day.” 

“Would you say you are familiar with your father’s clothing, then?” I said, eyeing the judge.

“Yeah, I’m familiar. We ain’t rich, okay? My dad don’t got a lot of different clothes.”

And so I got right to the point. “Fen, did your father own a blue Fila baseball hat like the one in People’s Exhibit 25?”

“No.” Fen shook his head twice. “He ain’t never had a hat like that.”

I could have stopped here. I thought about it. But that wasn’t the plan. So I asked my last question.

“You’re sure about that, Fen?”

“I’m positive.” And he did look positive. Damn. The kid had done great.

“No further questions, Your Honor.” The Judge narrowed his eyes at me. He knew I was up to something but wasn’t sure what. I got the impression that the judge didn’t think too highly of my skills as a litigator. And that was fine. I wasn’t here to win an award. I was here to get my client acquitted. I returned to counsel’s table wearing my best poker face. I pretended to look through a file, watching the ASA from the corner of my eye.

She was thinking, tapping her pen on her lower lip. Maybe she smelled a trap. But that bait … those two words–I’m positive–dangling there in the space of the courtroom. One thing you have to understand about lawyers, certainty in an adverse witness is like blood in the water. It triggers something primitive.

“Counsel?” Judge Kilwin was eager to wrap things up.

The ASA stopped her tapping and stood. She’d decided. “Just a few questions, your honor.” Atta girl.

She took her time approaching the witness stand, pacing back and forth as if she was debating something serious. You had to admire the theatrics. Finally she asked, “Mr. Walker …,” and then, as if it had just occurred to her, “May I call you Fen?”

“Most do.” He was being nice, just like I’d told him.

“Fen, have you memorized every article of clothing in your father’s closet?”

“I wouldn’t say memorized.”

“You wouldn’t?” The ASA raised her eyebrows about as high as they would go.


“Well I’m a little confused, then. When you say you’re positive that your father didn’t have a blue hat like that, isn’t that what you’re really saying?”

“No.” Fen looked a little indignant. I couldn’t blame him.

“Well, let me put it this way. Is it possible your father bought a new hat and wore it once or twice before you knew about it?”

“I guess.”

“Does your dad own a lot of hats?”

“Some.” Now Fen was looking at her like she was a complete idiot. Keep cool, kid, I thought.

“How many would you say. More than five?”


“More than ten?”


“More than ten!” The ASA’s eyebrows appeared ready to take flight from her face. “More than 15?”

“Nah, not that many.” The eyebrows settled back down to earth.

“Ten to fifteen hats.” She let that sink in for a moment. “Sitting here today, Fen, could you describe each one of those hats to us?”

“No ma’am.”

“Fen, are you still willing to tell this jury–and I want to remind you that you are under oath–are you still willing to tell them you are positive that is not your father’s blue hat?

Fen didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

The ASA was smirking now. She should stop. But I could already see she wouldn’t. “But how can you be so certain?” I stopped breathing. That was it. She’d stepped into the trap. And just like that, it slammed shut on her.

“Because that’s my hat, ma’am. Ain’t nobody wearing it that night but me.”

Read/Write Challenge – Day 28

” ‘There is one more thing, Your Honor,’ I said.” From Anatomy of a Murder, by Robert Traver, p. 259.

* * *

“There is one more thing, Your Honor,” I said.

“Yes, Mr. Turling?”

“Your Honor, the defense calls Fenton Walker, Jr.”

Judge Kilwin looked up from the papers he was shuffling and peered sternly at me over his glasses, one eyebrow raised. “Approach.”

I strode to the podium, the assistant state’s attorney clacking behind me in her high heels. She’d been flipping through notes for her closing argument. She thought we were done. We weren’t done.

The ASA pushed a piece of hair behind her ear and glared at me before starting in. “Your Honor, this witness was not disclosed. And frankly, I’m not sure what he could possibly offer. The defendant himself told the police that his son was not at home on the night of June 8, 2009, and the neighbor, Mrs. … Mrs. …”

“Fairview,” I offered, trying to be helpful.

“Mrs. Fairview. She testified that Fenton Jr., “Fen,” I think she called him, was sleeping over at her house that night. He was in the basement with her son Carl, playing video games. She checked on them at 9 p.m. and again just after midnight. Your honor, this is a pretty transparent effort, in my view, to garner sympathy from the jury–to say, hey, look at this poor boy who will grow up without a father if you find the defendant guilty. The time for that is at sentencing, not at a jury trial for first degree murder. I would ask …”

Judge Kilwin had heard enough. “Mr. Turling? Your response?”

“Rebuttal witness, Your Honor.”

“And what, exactly, will the young Mr. Walker be rebutting?”

“Your Honor, Officer May, the forensic evidence tech, testified that he found a blue Fila hat at the scene of the crime. Fen is gong to testify that his father owned no such hat.”

“That’s it?” The judge seemed confused.

“That’s it.”

“Fine. Get him up there, get your answer and get him down. We’re not parading family members around now. This trial is almost over with.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

The ASA looked disgusted.

[To be continued …]

Read/Write Challenge – Day 27

“It was a face to which almost any door would have opened of its own accord.” The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, p. 96

* * *

It was a face to which almost any door would have opened of its own accord. The boy’s thick brown hair, standing up in crests, was dented in the front from the rim of the baseball hat he held in one hand. He had mischievous eyes, cheeks still flushed from the game, a broad smile, and a dimpled chin. Claire stared at him. And then she chided herself. She could be his mother.

Standing next to the boy was a smaller version of himself–same smile, same hair, the ears sticking out a bit from under his hat—what the boy looked like two years ago, Claire guessed. And then he’d grown into the ears, shot up a foot, and adopted a grown person’s manners. “Hi ma’am, I’m Joe, and this is my brother Paul. We’re looking to do some yardwork around the neighborhood this summer. Mowing and weeding, mostly. We can do leaves in the fall too.”

Claire recognized him then: Joey Granger. Theresa Granger’s oldest child. How was that possible? She remembered him, at four or five years old, pedaling around the block on a little blue tricycle. The Granger’s had that massive dog. A Saint Bernard, maybe? And they’d let little Joey have the reign of the neighborhood, knowing the dog would never leave his side. Claire had a vision of the dog’s massive paw pressing on the front fender of the tricycle, stopping the boy from pedaling out into the street.

“Joey, my god, I’m Claire Forster, I used to be friends with your mother.” His face underwent some barely perceptible transformation. “But that was so long ago. Didn’t you all move out to Fox Hills?”

“We did ma’am.” He shifted the duffel bag full of baseball equipment from one shoulder to the other. The younger boy bit his lip and studied the tip of his shoe, grinding it into the pavement in a rocking motion.

“We moved back here a few months ago, though,”  the boy explained.

“Not into the same house?” Claire remembered with a tinge of jealousy the beautiful old timber and stone Craftsman with the eyebrow dormers.

“No, but it’s the same street.”

“Oh, your mother must be so pleased! She always loved that block.” The boys stared at her, as if she’d suggested something obscene. Claire felt herself smiling stiffly, a twinge of uncertainty now playing at the corner of her mouth.

“No, ma’am.”

“No?” She felt something inside her sink and then settle again.

“Our mom is … she died. Last year. She got cancer.” The boy blinked, pretended to look down the block.

“Oh my god. I’m so sorry, Joey.” She hadn’t meant to call him that. It was too familiar, a little boy’s name.

He turned and looked her right in the eye. “So do you need some help with your yard, ma’am? I mean, Mrs. Forster?”

Read/Write Challenge – Day 26

“He rode over the drawbridge into the great courtyard, and the echo of his horse’s hoof beats was the only sound that greeted him.” From Stories of the Knights of the Round Table, by Henry Gilbert, p. 106.

* * *

He rode over the drawbridge into the great courtyard, and the echo of his horse’s hoof beats was the only sound that greeted him. With a tug of the reigns the horse reared up and whinnied, eyes bulging and nostrils flaring. Faldo scanned the courtyard’s perimeter, shaded by the massive timber balconies above. Matching his movement, the horse turned in a slow, wary circle. Something was wrong.

The last time Faldo had set foot in this courtyard it had been bursting with noise, on the first market day of spring. People from the surrounding towns had flung off the stinking furs of a long, dark winter, scrubbed themselves pink in the brooks and streams, and donned clean linen breaches and tight-laced kirtles. They’d traveled for days, then waited in long queues to gain entry to the massive courtyard. Once inside the near-circular enclosure, goods were arrayed by type, in baskets and barrels, on makeshift tables, and in the backs of wagons. There were spring vegetables and herbs, mounds of cut flowers, wood carvings and ironworks toiled over in the cold months, embroidery, skeins of wool, beeswax candles, pies and cakes, gleaming jars of new honey, and baskets of speckled blue and brown eggs.

Children chased each other between the wagons and stalls, tossing hoops and balls, or clattering together in mock battle with rough wooden swords. Performers were generally relegated to the grounds outside the castle, but the odd juggler or stilt-walker still made his way through the crowd, knowing that folks were more apt to part with their coins before they’d buried them in their pockets than after.

A sudden motion made Faldo spin in his saddle. He squinted, peering into the heaps of discarded wood and moldering bales of hay stacked in the shadow of the far stone wall. A cat, piebald, with one ice-blue eye, sat on an old barrel, twitching its tail seductively. It was thin, half-starved probably, but he recognized it all the same. It was the seer’s cat.

He could picture her now, the old woman with the gnarled fingers full of rings, gold filigree and blood-red rubies stacked next to bands of braided wheatgrass and twine–totemic looking things. He remembered how her eyes, so like those of her cat, had given him such a start in the dim candlelight of her smoke-filled tent. It was just there, he thought, at the edge of the courtyard, that she’d taken his own hand in hers and told him. Told him everything. That this would come to pass. that he would live to see this place hushed, full of ghosts. And now he had.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 24

Hi readers! Our second-to-last story for the month is Home,” by Alice Munro. It’s a bit longer than some of the other stories we’ve read, but perfect for a lazy summer Sunday. Something interesting I learned researching the story is that it was first published back in 1974, when Munro was in her mid-40s. She continued to revise it over the next 30 years, finally publishing it again in 2014, in a collection of newer stories called Family Furnishings

One Thing (Okay, Two Things) I Noticed: This story showcases a form Munro perfected, which I’ve seen described as a pastiche or “not quite story,” and which she herself described as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred. There is no clearly defined problem for the characters to solve or obstacle for them to overcome. Instead, as one article puts it, her characters are portrayed “not at [a] crossroads exactly but for whom life is a series of crossroads” whose choices have worked “a narrowing” in their lives.

And Munro’s character descriptions are just incredible, plucking out finely-observed details about people that say so much about who they are. Just listen to the narrator’s description of her stepmother Irlma:

“Irlma is a stout and rosy woman, with tinted butterscotch curls, brown eyes in which there is still a sparkle, a look of emotional readiness, of being always on the brink of hilarity. Or on the brink of impatience flaring into outrage. She likes to make people laugh, and to laugh herself. At other times she will put her hands on her hips and thrust her head forward and make some harsh statement, as if she hoped to provoke a fight. She connects this behavior with being Irish and with being born on a moving train.”

One Idea: Write about revisiting your childhood home. Describe how it is the same or different than when you lived there. If you no longer have access to this place, imagine what it is like now.

One More Idea: Write a scene in which you reveal your characters’ personalities through a conversation in which they gossip about someone in their community who’s done something the speakers consider scandalous.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 23

Hi readers! Ready for another short story? Today let’s look at a piece of contemporary fiction, The Boundary, by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in the January 29, 2018, issue of The New Yorker.  The story is told from the point of view of a teenage girl whose immigrant family works to keep up the vacation house where a writer (maybe the author?) and her family are staying while on vacation. We learn quite a lot about the narrator through her voyeuristic recounting of the family’s stay.

Incredibly, Lahiri taught herself Italian and wrote this story first in Italian and then translated it into English. Check out this earlier interview–in which she discusses the difficulties and rewards of writing in a different language and of translating her own work–and an excerpt from her book, In Other Words, her dual-language memoir about what prompted her to reinvent her writing life in this way.

One Thing I Noticed: As Lahiri notes in the interview, there are things about this story that we as readers simply don’t know. We know that this is a vacation home, maybe in Italy, but nothing more specific. We know that the narrator’s parents are immigrants struggling to fit in in a foreign place, but nothing about where they’ve come from. We only know what the narrator knows or cares about and, to her, the place where her parents came from, which they may not talk very much about, is simply not worth mentioning.

You might note this, as a reader, and appreciate the fact that it gives the story a more universal applicability. Cool, you think, these could be the experiences of a lot of different people, in a lot of different places.

But as a writer, this is a pretty big deal! One of the most paralyzing things about sitting down and putting words on a blank page is the thought that you need to know everything about a place, or a person, or a situation, before you can write. Unless you’ve lived a jet-setting, adventurous life, writing what you know gets boring. But writing what you don’t know seems risky. You might misapply a fundamental law of physics if you try to write sci-fi, or write about a historical character using a household appliance that was not invented during her lifetime. So yes, sometimes research is necessary. But sometimes it isn’t. If you don’t know something, just say your character doesn’t either and charge right ahead, describing things just as your character sees them and just as he or she understands them. You can use point of view to get yourself off the hook sometimes.

One Idea: Think of a vacation you have been on. Write about yourself and your fellow vacationers from an outsider’s point of view, someone who knows nothing about you except what can be observed. Treat yourself anonymously. Tell us something about your narrator based on what details about you he or she notices.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 22

“Lady Brackenstall was no ordinary person.” From “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, p. 608.

* * *

Lady Brackenstall was no ordinary person. Those given to superstition indeed questioned whether she was a person at all, and not some phantasmal presence clinging to the creaking hallways and wrought-iron ballustrades of Larchmere Manor. And she was a lady–une grande dame, bien sur–only in the ironical sense of the word. Une grande dame de la nuit, in point of fact.

Lady Brackenstall was–even lady Brackenstall would admit–now well beyond her prime, having been the proprietress of Larchmere Manor for over 25 years. Even presuming she had been a precocious young entrepreneur (and she had been), flinging open the heavy double doors of her establishment at the tender age of 20 or even 18 (and she had), the madame was still firmly settled in middle age.

But settled there with dignity. That was important. Many women her age, Lady Brackenstall had observed, grieved their youth like untimely widows, feeling abandoned and betrayed by each crease and fold, each wiry gray hair springing up where once only golden or chestnut waves had once flowed. Those ladies were preyed upon in their desperation by every door-to-door snake oil salesman and bent-backed midwife on the Eastern seaboard, soaking in vile tinctures, rubbing their skin with greasy liniments, wrapping it in stinking poultices, imbibing foul-smelling tonics and teas made of thistle of this and nettle of that.

Lady Brackenstall, ever with an eye for a swindle, steered clear of such nastiness. Without a husband to keep, already shunned by the social circles who might otherwise judge her, and uniformly feared by all who mattered, Lady Brackenstall embraced age as one relishing a due reward. She donned silk kimonos, brewed herself expensive little cups of Portuguese coffee, and had tropical flowers and sweet-smelling sachets placed all around her boudoir. She took breakfast in bed, never before 11:00, and commanded respect from all the young beautiful things in her employ.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 20

“As she knelt by her, feeling with her palm the wet, burning forehead, she prayed a thousand times.” Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, p. 85.

* * *

As she knelt by her, feeling with her palm the wet, burning forehead, she prayed a thousand times. At first she prayed for the old woman to get better, to wake groggy and confused, demanding green tea with lemon and the Sunday crossword puzzle.

Over time, her prayers became more discrete. An hour of sleep without the wracking pains that sent the woman’s knobby fingers, with their strangely beautiful shaped nails, clutching the railing of the hospital bed. An hour without the pitiful moans and whimpers, the subterranean growl of failing organs. An hour without the indignity of being rolled this way and that so that others, strangers with strong, capable hands, could inspect, wipe, apply cream, as if to an infant.

In the final days, Mother Morphine presiding, Kaylin’s prayers branched in other directions. That the hospice literature was correct, that death in this manner–essentially by dehydration–was painless. That the very ill felt no hunger, in the end. That it was a kindness to let them sink into sleep, not to force them to take liquids or soft foods, which their bodies, already preparing, shrunk from like poison.

And finally, because the waiting was unendurable, because it was surely impossible for a person to survive four full days without a drop of water, because the reality of it made her question all reassurances, because what happens to the sinking flesh, hung on the bone structure of the face like clothes on hangers, is a slow and silent terror, for all of these reasons Kaylin wished in the end only for death. And one morning it came for the woman, simply, without fanfare, as it had for the others.

“So where do  they go?” Jack asked her later in the nurses’ lounge.


“The people you sit with. The old ladies. Heaven? Or do you think they’re … just gone?”

Kaylin looked up at him, but didn’t stop pushing the bits of lettuce around on her plate. She shrugged. “How would I know that?”

“No reason. Only, you’ve seen it more than most. The passing. The exit. Whatever you want to call it.”

She supposed that was true.

And … well, you’re different about it. Different from the others. You see Michelle get all bent out of shape each time. Carl jokes about it, but that’s a cover. But you, when you came in here just now your face was almost … serene. Like pictures of the saints in church.”

That made her giggle.

“Like you know something we don’t.”

Kaylin rolled her eyes and took a bite. “Well I don’t,” she said.

“Knowing. Believing. You must at least have an opinion?”

“No Jack, I really don’t.” But that wasn’t true. And she could tell he didn’t believe her.