Read/Write Challenge – Day 10

Hi readers! My apologies for this late post! I was traveling most of the day yesterday and could not find a moment to sit down at my computer. Although I often do my daily writing and post it the next day, I try to keep the weekend posts current for you. But remember there is no need to wait for me! Our whole reading list of weekend short stories can be found here.

Yesterday we read The Yellow Wall-Paper,” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, an 1892 story about the progression of a woman’s mental illness that reveals much about then-contemporary attitudes toward women’s health. The narrator tells us, through a series of diary entries, that she has been diagnosed–by her husband and brother, both doctors–with a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” Her treatment consists of removal from ordinary life and tasks (she is not permitted to work or to do anything intellectually stimulating, like writing), a lot of fresh air, and rest. This seems to have quite the opposite of the desired effect, as the narrator becomes obsessed with the intricate wall-paper of the room she is confined to in a vacation home she is staying in with her husband. We witness the steady loss of her grasp on reality.

The story is considered an important early work of feminist literature, revealing the oppression of 19th century patriarchal society and the ill-effects of a woman lacking any sort of life outside the home. Read more here about how the story was inspired by the author’s own experience.

The story is also often placed in the gothic/macabre/horror genre, for its intimation of a haunting and exploration of mental illness.

One Thing I Noticed: This story makes very effective use of an unreliable narrator: a narrator who is too subjective to be entirely credible, whose personal experience does not correspond to reality, or who, frankly, we suspect might be lying to us (or to herself). The first time the narrator mentions the damage “the children” have done to the nursery, we accept this as true, but it becomes clear as the story goes on that the narrator herself is likely the one who has done these things, over her period of confinement. This realization makes us question other things that the narrator reports, such as what her husband and their housekeeper have done or said to her.

In some ways, you have an unreliable narrator problem any time you write from the first-person point of view, because there is no such thing as a perfectly objective character. But in cases of mental illness, altered states, and stories told from more than one character’s point of view, the unreliability can be an effective tool for engaging the reader in the story. We are not passively receiving this story, but actively trying to figure out which parts of it are true and which are imagined.

One Idea: Write a story in which your character becomes obsessed with something. Let this obsession unfold over time through a series of diary entries or other writings (blog posts, e-mails, notes from therapy sessions, etc.).

And now, on to our weekday freewriting sessions! If you’re new to the challenge, read more here about how we are working this month with literary writing prompts. Happy writing!

Read/Write Challenge – Day 9

Welcome to week 2 of our Read/Write Challenge guys, and our next two short stories. Today we’re going to look at Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid. This very short story is wonderful to read but even better to listen to. You can hear it at the New Yorker’s Fiction podcast, read by Edwidge Danticat. The Fiction podcast enlists contemporary authors to read and comment on short stories by their favorite authors, chosen from the magazine’s archives. I highly recommend it, as well as the New Yorker’s Author’s Voice podcast, which showcases authors reading their own short fiction, from current issues of the magazine.

One Thing I Noticed: If Ursula Le Guin’s story “Walking Away from Omelas” defies genre, then Kincaid’s story “Girl” defies form. In it, a mother gives instructions to her daughter, both mundane (how to do laundry, how to make pumpkin fritters) and revealing (how to negotiate a man’s world). The tone varies from motherly and thoughtful, to aggrieved and accusatory. The story is not only very short, it is a single sentence. Kincaid employs repetition in a way that makes the piece incantatory, that begs you read it aloud. In this way, it blurs the boundary between fiction and prose poetry. The piece also does not have a traditional linear narrative. It offers instead a glimpse, much like a piece of flash fiction and is structured as a list story.

One Idea: Write a story in which the narrator gives the reader “the rules for surviving in this place.” Maybe the “place” is a physical location (the New York subway), maybe it is an occupation (tenured university professor), a role (motherhood), a relationship (marriage). Try to reveal something about the narrator and the person he or she is speaking to through the narrator’s elucidation of “the rules.”

See you tomorrow for another story!

Read/Write Challenge – Day 8

“You can’t accuse her of not facing facts, can you?” A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, p. 27.

* * *

“You can’t accuse her of not facing facts, can you? It’s what she does, after all.”

“Sure. But facts and inferences drawn from facts are different.”

James looked up from his microscope. “So what are you saying?”

At the next workstation Joe screwed two halves of a plastic petri dish together, affixed it with a label, and slid it into an empty slot in a large gridded tray. “I’m saying, James, that FALDA is resultsdriven.” He articulated the last two words carefully, but quietly, Stressing their significance.

James thought about this for a moment, then began typing figures into the wireless keyboard he used with his tablet, which never left his side, in or out of the lab.

They all had one. It was Compact protocol. Keep your data with you. Upload it at the end of the day to a secure server. Researchers could not access each other’s data, could not even access their own data, except through the official weekly and monthly reports, which were notoriously cryptic.

The idea behind FALDA (the Fibril Analytics-Led Data Assemblage)  had been a simple one. Let the computers decide the course of the research. Scientists had been looking for a cure for cancer for decades with–in Joe’s view–only modest success. The problem was that experiments going on in different labs around the world, with different sources of funding, testing the various hypotheses of ego-driven researchers, were uncoordinated, full of redundancies and inefficiencies.

With FALDA, the strands of data were fed through a uniform series of algorithms. Researchers around the world were suddenly working together, waking up each morning to slightly altered or sometimes completely new instructions, based on FALDA’s high-powered processing of the previous day’s global data dump. No researcher directed the course of the experiments. And only a select few on the Review Council had access to FALDA’s decision-making process.

James stopped typing and swiveled his chair around to face Joe. “What you’re suggesting is not possible,” he said, so quietly he could almost not be heard.

Joe nodded. “I know. Listen, if you don’t believe me, fine. But just let me show you this one thing.”

Read/Write Challenge – Day 7

“It was only one letter, but she carried it up the stairs like a sack of bricks.” From The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, p. 358.

* * *

It was only one letter, but she carried it up the stairs like a sack of bricks. The handwriting on the envelope was the lady doctor’s, from Boston, the one with the liquid black hair and long brown legs. Dr. Navya Barsar. Throughout the summer and into the fall, Sydney had been Dr. Barsar’s silent shadow, following her at a close distance as she walked up and down the steep cliffside path into town.

If she closed her eyes, Sydney could almost hear the soft slapping sound of the doctor’s leather thong sandals against the bottoms of her feet. The doctor’s feet were a marvel. Finely boned and flexible, with elegant toes capped in little dark rounded toenails. They were painted a shade that, at first, appeared a glossy nut brown but, upon closer inspection, was a rusty purple, the color of the trembling wands of pollen at the heart of a stargazer lily.

Dr. Barsar arrived first, some weeks before her colleague, Dr. Nash, on a tiny motor boat from the next island, which itself was a short seaplane ride from St. Martin, the closest place with nonstop flights from the United States. Sydney had watched from the wharf as the doctor negotiated with the boat’s pilot to help carry her equipment. There was a lot of head-shaking, the man squinting in the sun and pointing up the steep dirt path to the summit at the center of the island. To the place where Sydney lived with Gamma Gay.

The doctor seemed unconcerned. She produced a floppy straw hat from her bag and, in the circle of shade it produced, peeled off two American dollars from a roll of bills. Observing the man’s unbroken scowl, she peeled off one more for good measure, and they were off, balancing countless canvas bags and metal containers like fishing tackle boxes on their arms and across their backs. Sydney had scurried along behind them, watching carefully to see if they dropped anything.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 6

“Without his life, each of theirs fell to pieces.” From Beloved, by Toni Morrison, p. 220.

* * *

Without his life, each of theirs fell to pieces. That was how Kyrin saw it, at least. Kiara wasn’t so sure.

She ran her tongue over her front teeth and grimaced for the mirror. Her mouth tasted faintly of blood and mint-waxed dental floss. She did not floss every day, but lied and told the hygienist that she did. To make it feel like less of a lie, she savaged her mouth with thrice-daily flossings in the week before a cleaning. The hygienist knew, but she didn’t call Kiara out on it. No one called Kiara out on anything. Not anymore. Big Daddy had always been the one to confront Kiara with an objective reality, one not of her own making. And now that he was gone, not one of them was willing to assume that burden.

Big Daddy was a judge. A justice, in fact, of the Michigan Court of Appeals. He died on a Wednesday morning, in the little bathroom adjoining his chambers. If given the choice, Kiara thought, one would surely not choose to die in a gray-tiled bathroom, beneath the harsh glare of fluorescent bulbs. One would not choose to inhale, in one’s dying breaths, faint wisps of Clorox bleach and ammonia. One would not wish, as one’s last glimpse of this world, a foreshortened grid of mildewed grout and a shoe-scuffed rubber baseboard.

All things considered, however, it had not been an unrespectable death. At 9:45 a.m., Presiding Justice Joseph Lee Hendridge put down the morning paper, donned his robe for argument, and rinsed his coffee mug in the bathroom sink. He was seized, as if by an invisible hand, sank swiftly to one knee, bowed his head as if in prayer, and collapsed. His body, curled peacefully in the fetal position, was found by his clerks exactly 25 minutes later.

Kiara had asked once, how Big Daddy got his name. She was told it went back to little Jesse Clark, the first foster child who ever came to live with Judge (not yet Justice) Hendridge and his wife, Ada Lucia, in their modest bungalow at the end of Wynona Circle. The judge was not a particularly large man–about 5’9″ or 5’10” and 185 lbs, give or take–but Jesse’s biological father was just a skinny kid, who somehow managed to get his 13-year-old girlfriend pregnant one star-filled night in their church parking lot. To four-year-old Jesse, there was “Little Daddy,” who he saw less and less frequently, and “Big Daddy,” who took him fishing and taught him how to read. There was “Big Mama” (though only 13, Candice Grimwald was a corpulent young lady, even before she birthed a child), who cried each time Jesse was brought to see her, and “Little Mama,” the diminutive Ada Lucia, who pulled a stepstool to the big butcher-block counter so he could help her make snickerdoodles.

The names stuck. And so, to three generations of foster children to pass through the arched hedges of the little white house on Wynona Court, Judge Hendridge and Ada Lucia were known simply as Big Daddy and Little Mama.

And so it had been for the twins, Kyrin and Kiara, who arrived there one rainy afternoon in late May, two days after their father shot their mother in the chest and, as she lay dying, put the gun in his own mouth and fired.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 5

Hi guys, here’s what I wrote for Day 5 of our June Read/Write Challenge. Hope you’re having fun generating your own literary writing prompts. Keep writing!

“To reach the restaurant we had to climb down seven dimly lit steps into a sort of cellar.” From The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, p. 78.

* * *

To reach the restaurant we had to climb down seven dimly lit steps into a  sort of cellar. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Our small group shuffled silently down into the space and, as I reached the last step, I must have placed my weight on it in just such a way, because it gave a great creaking sigh, as it had not done for any of the others. Like a dog, I thought, like the rumbling, deep-throated whine my mother’s old border collie made when it saw you’d come to the last bite of hamburger, pinched between your fingers.

I slowly removed my foot from the offended spot, thinking a gradual motion was likely to produce the least noise. This had the effect of drawing the sound out–unimaginably–ascending octaves from a low thrum to the prolonged groan of a man in ecstasy to–quickly, in the last instant as, abandoning all stealth, I stepped back off of the step and crushed the toes of the little girl and her mother waiting behind me to enter the room–the piercing wail of a hungry baby, cut off and left ringing in the air.

As the sound ratcheted through the pillowy silence, my face burned in the dark. A dozen pairs of eyes turned accusatorily towards me. But at that moment our guide, who had crossed the narrow space below, threw aside a stiff square of curtain, revealing a tiny glass-block window, the metal grommets screaming across the brass curtain rod like a steam engine pulling into the station.

The pairs of eyes all swung around in unison, as a shaft of sunlight sliced through the room, revealing small round tables and curving café chairs. Each table was set for two, with little glass candle holders and crumbling paper cocktail menus. Flocks of dust motes rushed through the air as if scurrying from the light. Through them, I could make out a tiny stage, raised one step from the floor, and a green velvet curtain hanging crookedly to one side.

“Welcome folks,” boomed the guide, “to prohibition-era Chicago, and to the Sugar Jar, the speakeasy that time forgot.”

Read/Write Challenge – Day 4

Hi writers! Welcome to the first full week of free-writing in our June Read/Write Challenge. Grab a book, choose a first line, and WRITE WORDS NOW!

“My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.” From “The Merchant of Venice,” by William Shakespeare, Act I, Scene 3.

* * *

“My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient. Sufficient, as in, I cannot point to any one reason why you should not marry this man.”


Madeline’s mother sat across the table, eyeing her over a narrow pair of frameless reading glasses on a thin gold chain. She nudged them up the bridge of her nose and returned to the brunch menu, suddenly gushing “Oooh, brioche waffles and duck leg confit, with bourbon-sherry maple syrup and fried quail eggs. Can you imagine, Maddy?”

Madeline didn’t respond.

“House-made Berkshire sausage and cheddar-sage biscuits. Honey-poached shrimp and locally milled grits. Really!”

It was as if just reading the items aloud was an acceptable substitute for physically indulging in them, something Madeline’s mother—looking trim and well-preserved in a salmon-pink wrap dress and real pearls—would never do. The waiter came and, after fawning some more over the elaborate concoctions (“Really so creative, so decadent!”) Madeline’s mother ordered a poached egg and toast.

Madeline ordered the same. The toast here really was exceptional. They brought it on a wood plank with salted butter and a tiny white jar of imported marmalade. The waiter turned to leave and, as a distraction or to delay the inevitable for one more minute, Madeline ordered two cappuccinos. Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Oh mom, splurge a little. It will save you from taking your calcium supplement.”

Her mother accepted this without comment, spread her napkin across her lap, and looked at Madeline, with the full intensity of her searching gaze; an intensity Madeline had been subjected to many times but had never grown accustomed to.

“He loves you, I suppose?” her mother asked plainly.

After just a half a beat: “Yes Mom, he loves me.”

The hum of conversation and the bump and clank of dishes being cleared from nearby tables filled the silence between them.


“And what, Mom?”

“This is the part, dear, where you assure me that you love him too, more than anything in the world. That you cannot live without him and will marry him no matter what anyone says.”

“Yes,” Madeline said, slouching. “Well I do. I love him very much.”

Their eyes met and held each other. Madeline squirmed.

“Of course you do, dear.” The waiter brought their coffees. “My god, would you look at them! Big as soup bowls, Maddy. What a treat.”

Read/Write Challenge – Day 3

Hi readers, on Day 3 of our Read/Write Challenge we take a look at The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” by Ursula Le Guin. There is so much going on here! I had a hard time choosing just one feature to discuss.

One Thing (Okay, Three Things) I Noticed: The story defies genre. It describes Omelas, a beautiful town on a sparkling bay, surrounded by majestic mountains, and inhabited by a peaceful people with rich traditions and a seemingly perfect life. It is speculative fiction, in a “what if,” sense, but not true sci-fi or fantasy. It has elements of magical realism and fairy tales, but those don’t seem quite right either. Omelas is a place without government, war, political struggle, or poverty. But there is just one thing. The town has a dirty little secret that makes all of that possible. It is revealed to us–though we know it already–that privilege like this is built on a foundation of injustice.

The story also demonstrates the power of naming things. This is not “once upon a time there was a town.” It has a proper name, Omelas (fun fact, Le Guin came up with the name while looking at a sign for Salem, Oregon, in her rear-view mirror). So do the Green Fields and the Eighteen Peaks. Names make a place come to life. They evoke many things. Most of all, they tell us what features of this place the inhabitants find important.

Finally, this is a great example of metafiction, “a form of literature that emphasizes its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the reader to be aware that they are reading or viewing a fictional world.” Le Guin wants to paint a picture of a certain kind of place. She gives her readers some options here. Maybe the town is like this. Or maybe it is like this. Maybe the people do this, or maybe they do this, or this, instead. She invites us to incorporate whichever of these details do the trick for us as readers. By doing this, she reminds us that the place is not real-real. It can’t be, because she hasn’t told us its horrible truth. Le Guin then addresses us directly, asking if that terrible piece of information doesn’t make the place more credible in our minds. And it does. Le Guin achieves something powerful here. We are no longer innocent bystanders. In a way, we have helped her construct this world, from our own experiences. We are complicit.

One Idea: Write a story in which you describe a place, person, or event in different ways, addressing the reader directly and leaving it to him or her to decide which details ring true, which best serve the story.

I hope you enjoyed our first two weekend stories! See you tomorrow for more weekday writing!

Read/Write Challenge – Day 2

Okay readers, time for the first short story on our list, Ghosts,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As promised, here is one thing I noticed about Adichie’s writing and one idea the story gave me for my own writing. 

One Thing I Noticed: The story is written from the first-person singular point of view. The narrator is a retired professor who runs into an old acquaintance who he thought died years ago. The two have a somewhat tentative conversation, and the narrator realizes how much their paths have diverged. Rather than tell us about the main character through third-person exposition, Adichie gives us his background story in bits and pieces, through the conversation and through the memories that the conversation sparks in the narrator’s mind.

First-person is a good point of view to use when blurring the line between what is real (here, what happened to the narrator’s family after the war) and what may not be (the visions of his wife’s ghost visiting him) because everything that is happening to the narrator is real, at least to him.

One Idea: Write a story about a person who does not believe in ghosts and is visited by one.

* * *

Read more here about Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War.

And check out both Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun and Chinua Achebe’s (author of Things Fall Apart) 2013 memoir There Was a Country.

If you would like to read ahead this month, here is the whole reading list of short stories. Happy reading!

Read/Write Challenge – Day 1

Shall we dive into our new monthly challenge? Here is my first 20-minute free write prompted by a line from a book.

“I woke up lying naked in my own bed.” The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama, p. 53.

* * *

I woke up lying naked in my own bed. Well, almost naked. Pretty stripped down. Not dripping with sweat, as I had been earlier in the week, but chalky, covered in a salty frost bloom that was the remembrance of past drenchings. I stared at the ceiling. The same black drywall nail the paint had flaked off long ago stared down at me like a single star in a photo-negative sky. Mustering the energy from who knew where, I grasped a steepled paperback half-nestled beneath the wrinkled sheets and flung it at the nail. The book crashed down again and I had to roll away to avoid it, covering my face with the palms of my hands.

Imagine living your life in a prison cell, I thought. Even a spacious one like this, painted some sunlight-catching Sherwin Williams shade called “fawn” or “buttered bread.” Even one with a four-poster bed and 800-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Even one with a flat-screen TV tucked elegantly into a framed white bead-board recess in the wall. Even one with light-blocking curtains and central air. In the end, no matter how well-appointed the cell, you wanted to leave. And you couldn’t.

I had been lying in that bed for the better part of two weeks. Criminals on TV received sentences of 30 years to life. I wondered how they managed it. Perhaps, if asked, they would tell you the first two weeks are the hardest. After that, you find God. Or you lose him forever. You come to terms with things.

Do the electrical impulses in the brain that signal a desire to be free eventually stop firing, I wondered. Do they sizzle like a licked-finger-pinched match? Or do they just lie dormant, like a blossomless orchid, dry and forgotten on a windowsill but with creeping air roots still blindly plumbing the space all around for nourishment?

I wasn’t going to find out. Nelson had spoken with the doctor, called ahead to check the emergency room wait times. I was going to the hospital. It was Christmas Eve.