Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Argument

Two people are arguing--a man and a woman. They don't have to be a couple. Each is convinced he or she is right. You, as the writer, do not want to know who is right, but you will have exquisite sympathy for both points of view, both sides of the argument. Give us enough background and history, but try to stay in the moment as much as possible. Choose an accidental arbitrator. This narrator knows and likes both these people well, but doesn't and can't favor one over the other.
(from prompt #44 in The 3 AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

The Crowd Kiss

"The Crowd Kiss" by hipposrunsuperfast

The full room, swollen with the scents and sounds of too many people, nonetheless invited private conversations. The worst place to be if you don’t want anyone to hear you is the place where there’s nothing else to hear. Near me a little girl told her father that sometimes dogs are brown, and somewhere behind me a man decided outloud and seemingly to himself that he’d like an egg salad sandwich for lunch, even though they are never satisfying, but that’s why he’d have chips as well. I don’t mean to eavesdrop, most people don’t, and if I’d had a companion I’d be absorbed with them, and not others. When I heard her voice I knew it immediately, and I was about to shout her name when I heard the edge in it.

“What are you trying to say then, that bodies are public property? Like a tree? Like a ROCK? So you have as much right to look at a woman’s ass as at a fucking rock, is that correct? I’m sorry, babe, maybe I’m confused, but honestly you sound like an asshole.”

“I never said it’s the same to look at a girl’s ass as a rock. Well, it depends on the ass actually, if the girl worked out a lot…Babe I’m kidding. Calm down. All I said was you can’t blame me if we are out in public and I see things. You look too.”

“I look at men’s asses all the time, yep. Sometimes I buy magazines just to stare at a naked man’s ass, you know. That’s what girls do, they just go look at men’s bodies for the sheer pleasure of it, all the time. Oh my God, I can’t even look at you you are so stupid. You don’t even get it, you don’t even have any idea what its like. ”

“Don’t be mean. You don’t have to attack me just because you’re insecure. What don’t I get? Tell me. I definitely don’t get what made you get so pissy in three fucking seconds. We are IN PUBLIC.”

“Don’t be mean? How am I being mean? I am not being mean! I am trying to explain that it’s a really asshole thing to say that it’s totally okay to stare at another woman’s tits when you are IN PUBLIC with your GIRLFRIEND right next to you, dammit. But obviously I guess I am a bitch for that, and anyway anything I say has nothing to do with respect or maybe the fact that you see nothing wrong with objectifying women, but clearly it all comes down to me being insecure. And jealous. So I guess nothing that I say even matters.”

“Holy shit. You have called me an asshole like ten times. You have. And you are attacking me. You are. Can we just be done now? I love you, you are beautiful, all of that, I respect women as equal to a man, except for certain things, and I’m sorry you caught me looking at another woman’s boobs, okay? But you have to admit they were pretty much on display.”

I looked over to see if she was seething or laughing, as it could have gone either way with her. But then I made eye contact and immediately felt my forehead growing warm with embarrassment. I could not hide how much I’d heard, it was written all over my face. He gave me a sheepish nod, and turned with her to head out the door. Just behind them, a beautiful woman nursing her baby on her functionally engorged breast stood with an expression of amusment that I could only admire from afar.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


If you are a man, write a short scen from the POV of a woman totally dominated by a boyfriend or husband who has a long history of controlling this woman. If you are a woman, write a short scene from the POV of this same man. In either case, avoid an eruption of physical violence and build a logical, reasonable set of explanations for the character's awful or humiliated behavior, no matter what you yourself feel about this character's behavior.
(from prompt #43 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

Amber Fireworks

"Amber Fireworks" by wanathan101

A rat scurried under the fire pit and found itself trapped between the heat overhead and the surrounding threat of the people standing and talking around the fire. I watched the rat pace under the metal pit before darting for the garden wall, bravely going between the high heeled feet of our neighbor and nearly brushing her foot without her noticing. From where I stood I could see the pattern of the party, people gathered in groups and moving predictably. I watched Susie laughing, looking to me from time to time, nursing a glass of Chardonnay while she listened to her best college friend tell a nauseating story about her children. Susie and Gina had been far too attached to each other in school, calling each other sisters and developing their own language of codes; entire discussions could take place in my presence without me knowing, back in the day. It tested my patience for years, explaining to Susie how toxic Gina is; eventually Gina revealed herself to Susie, revealed how obsessed with Susie she’d been. Now that Gina had moved back to town and had her kids to obsess over instead, I’d allowed Susie to talk to her occasionally, but within reason. Given the option, Susie and Gina would never leave each other’s side, they’d fill each others ears with the nonsense of their mutual language, and where would that leave me? Out in the cold is where, with examples of their collected stupidity pouring out of my mouth but never quite making it in their ears.

Susie had always gathered people around her, I found myself drawn to her during a party just like this years ago. She was animated, her hands flickering around her while she imitated a professor. She was radiant, even in the night, and I felt warmer standing by her. But just as nice as it was near her, it was awful away from her, awful being crowded out by her gaggle of girlfriends and shoved aside by the healthy dose of male “friends” hanging on her, too. Just my luck, the one girl that’s actually decent, actually worth spending time with, and then just as I was knotting the noose of self-pity around my neck she came and loosened it, loosened it all up. She poked fun at me, poked me in the ribs and told me to relax—my wife, standing there with perfect posture and with her hair pulled back like Grace Kelly. Just like I like it, just like she knows I like it. She’s my wife, not a girl at a college bonfire, and all the same, there she is, keeping warm while I have to navigate through a sea of worthless work associates just to talk to my own damn wife. Let me stand out on the fringe of my own party, in my own backyard, watching rats scurry, and if I didn’t know better I’d think she was enjoying herself, enjoying the attention. Yes, she enjoys seeing me pace and sweat, swinging her Chardonnay around and laughing so much that she throws back her head. Careless drunk, like a little girl away from her parents, seeing what she can get away with, and I’m right here.

“How much have you had to drink?” I ask her. Not that it matters, it was too much. Gina rolls her eyes and murmurs something, and Susie snuggles up to her like it’s a conspiracy.

“She’s an adult, at her own home, does it matter?” Gina tells me. Did I ask Gina a question? I did not. Do I want Gina to shut her mouth? I do. Do I think a hearty slap across that mouth would help shut it? I know it would, but Gina is not my wife, nor my problem.

“Susie, honey, party’s over. Time for bed, the mess can wait.” Susie looks over at Gina and all I can see is the back of her head, Susie’s blonde curls resting on her neck after falling out of place from the crown of her head where the rest of the strands have been twisted into place. I’d helped pin them, in the places she couldn’t see.

The party is hushed now, looking sideways at our triangle to see the domestic squabble, and I can feel my place now. Pretty blonde and her strong best friend and then me, this mean man they don’t understand. Leave her alone, they think. I pace, threatened by the crushing opinion of the crowd and by the threat that if I leave her alone, I’ll be alone, I’ll lose her warmth and she won’t even notice if I don’t make some noise.

A scream from across the yard saves me, and everyone turns to see the rat’s tail whipping a woman’s ankle before darting under cover again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Invisible Woman

Write a short scene in which a woman becomes invisible, briefly, for no explained reason. I leave it up to you what she will observe in her state of lucidity and transparency: her boyfriend's or husband's or male friend's life, a short scene of men without women, or a scene of another woman and her man (innocent or not). No one can see or hear her. She is not a ghost, and at the end of your narrative return her to her fully fleshed out self, again with no explanations. In other words, don't worry too much about the problems of imperceptibility. Just jump into the story and follow its political, rather than science fiction, consequences.
(from prompt #42 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

The gym
"The Gym" by combust

When she looked sideways at the mirror, she saw an empty seat where she should have seen herself sitting. The handle she held dropped and the weight swung down from the pivot point; in the middle of arm extensions, she glanced to her left to examine her tricep and saw nothing but suspended equipment. The gym remained the same, there were rows of women running in place above her, and men spotting each other in bench presses among the free weights. But in the mirror, the seat she occupied looked available. Testing this, she again extended herself, felt the dull strain in her upper arm, saw the weight lift and the handle rise and then drop with a clang that no one else seemed to hear.

She stood up, looked down, saw her own shoes tied tightly, felt up and confirmed a swinging ponytail on her head. The mirror reflected nothing. She walked up to a man laying on his back and lifted her shirt, jumped up and down, and waited. No reaction, just a grunt while he hefted up a bar stacked with more weight than she contained. She did a little shimmy and almost cried that he didn’t stop, gaping in wonderment at her naked breasts. He just kept lifting weight for the sake of it, completely ignoring her.

“I am invisible.” She didn’t say it out loud, she kept her thoughts in her head, and she sat, dazed, at the foot of the man in front of her.

She felt free and a little ecstatic; like someone had given her a superpower in the middle of the night and while part of her felt irritated at being disturbed, every other part of her delighted in the possibilities of what to do when no one can see.

She explored the idea of pranks; she considered mischief like a foreign language. She stepped on the scale behind a woman weighing herself, gave her a fright. She pulled the pin on a man bracing himself for a shoulder press and watched his face display surprise, then embarrassment, then cool recovery in a moment. The treadmills tempted her but she resisted ruining anyone’s stride, and instead she turned all the televisions to Spanish cartoons and laughed by herself at the few people this confused.

She wandered to the gym’s front desk and put herself up for free membership for the next year. Then thinking further she gave herself back credit for all the years she’d been a member, in addition to free membership going forward. It felt very bad and she surprised herself by doing it anyway.

In the locker room, she looked in the mirror out of habit. Realizing this habit sobered her up, she felt lonely without a reflection and lost, though she could still feel her hair pulled back and see her shoes laced. Things tied to her, around her, proved her existence but it scared her to not recognize herself among the images of women changing in the room. She watched women in the mirror, glancing at themselves or pausing and staring and pulling and prodding themselves, but her philosophizing was interrupted by her name.

Instead of herself she saw friend Emily balancing a cell phone on her shoulder while using both her hands to tie her shoes. With a thrill she realized she could hear Emily talk about her, she could hear what someone thought of her. But the words coming out of Emily sounded like they were describing someone else, someone awful. So she left Emily to frown at her reflection, she left the locker room and rushed towards the door of the gym, rushing towards somewhere without strangers or mirrors.

At the door she stopped, holding the handle, bracing herself for the rest of the world and the people in it who couldn’t see her. She gathered her strength and reached out and nearly fell forward through the open door, being held open for her by a man staring down at her chest.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Oxymoron

Use a dozen of these lovely phrases (like "she was gaily grieving" or "he had many pleasing pains") to describe a large oxymoron--a person, place, or event. The thing you're looking for in a good oxymoron is the surprise of the connections.
(from prompt #41 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

door number 1
"door number 1" by tanjatiziana

Before the interview I prayed like the devil for God knows what: luck, confidence, something that could instigate a permanent change of life for me. Everyone tried encouraging me, telling me to act natural, to just be myself. Whatever that means, because if I were to act natural I’m not sure it would be myself, and lately what felt natural is more ostrich than human. Inside I just wanted to hide from the outside world, filled as it is with voices telling me what I ought and ought not to want, but I’d been stuck inside so long that what I wanted most was fresh air. Handing a stranger a single sheet of paper declaring my value made me hyperventilate, which is a generous exchange when it comes to being able to breathe.

When they asked me why I’d had such an extended experience with temporary employment, as I figured they would, I had some prepared answer about personal business that could demonstrate maturity and responsibility. Something I could say that sounded more dignified than the truth, that it had been a pretty ugly year, spent hiding my head in the sands of time and debt piling up on me.

I know better than to admit some things, I know that leaving things unsaid saves others the trouble of pretending things are gonna be okay. We’d gone out to the cliffs the week before I left and looked out at the edge, silent and alone together on a clear summer day. The only words I remember were asking whats wrong with me, but I’m not sure who asked, it’s the same difference whichever of us did. The answer both of us knew without saying was, nothing you can fix. At a close distance the surf beat against the wall we were standing on, over and over, in big swells of water and in small laps, but from where we were we couldn’t see anything but the wide stretch of water resting fitfully around us, as far as we could see and farther. Just the deep Pacific, dark blue and torrid against a calm cloudless sky, and neither of us could appreciate the dueling expanses because we were just trying not to talk about much we couldn’t say. When we left the cliffs something had changed in an instant but we didn’t realize it for months.

It surprised me one day, about a year ago, to comprehend my ignorance, to understand that things always change. That day, a Tuesday, I woke up with dreams and went to bed without them. I felt numb. And the shock stuck to me and gathered and grew, like all things electric it made the natural appear unnatural and my thoughts were conducted accordingly. Mostly misdirected, searching for something to connect with, my thoughts circled round themselves straight to nowhere. Thinking so much about my meaningless life was the most destructive action, it nearly killed me trying to figure out how to live.

After I got the job, my boss mentioned in passing what I’d done that had stayed with her, that had gotten me hired. She said that, luckily, it was the confident manner in which I spoke, thanks to my habit of taking two deep breaths before speaking or even reacting. She said I was living proof that sometimes you just need to remember to breathe, but of course its just the opposite. Remembering to breathe being proof of living.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Doubling Up

Write two paragraph-long character sketches of two people you know well. Wait a day, then write another long paragraph sketch that takes elements from the two people you know to create a third, fictional character. The key here is to use the two pieces of writing, not the two people you've written about. Fit together two paragraphs of prose into one character sketch, making sense of the combination somehow.
(from prompt #40 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

"Laugh" by sflovestory

She isn't the heroine of a novel written in first person. The novel she imagines for herself uses a lot of adverbs: she laughs flirtatiously, she gazes directly. She sits quietly and responds promptly; she is never too absorbed in a task, always just absorbed enough to keep from being bored.

With a polite and quiet base level, her political opinions are unexpected: she cares (passionately) about ideals, she is liberal, she is knowledgable. She reads the CNN website and follows certain stories: Nancy Grace stories about child abduction as well as political stories about bills up, scandals, injustices. She worries. She is afraid of men, of being alone, of change. She is not afraid of her own power. She wants to be a social care worker and her family amuses her, with their antics and Mexicanness, her nieces and nephews running around and nearly knocking over her abuelita. She dates but with a wary eye, she isn't seduced by a sweet talker. Sex doesn't alarm her, but she respects it, its place, and allows it. She always notices attractive men and points them out. She sleeps with stuffed animals. She likes shopping websites, shoes, and romantic comedies.

She has a certain neutralness, and could be called generic if you didnt look closer. She has a big smile and luxurious hair. She has broad shoulders and breasts that spill out, as if she is unaware of their existence. She smiles (widely) and giggles about dogs, about slips of the tongue, about innocent mistakes, about the behavior of animals and the characteristics of people working with animals. She is enthusiastic and expects this enthusiasm to be met by those around her. She gets confused by things outside her norm, and she doesn't like to be asked to adapt. She eats rich foods and warms her bread. She worries about her weight.

She knows she is a good friend. Her friends describe her as she sees herself: she laughs flirtatiously, she gazes directly. Anyone could write her story, but she doesn't know who would.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Letters from Inside the Story

Have one character in a story you're working on write a letter to another character in the same story. The character writing the letter will not send it. Therefore this letter writer can say a great deal more, without restraints or censorship (from above or from within). You should also think of this as a piece of writing that will not go into what you're writing—just deep background material (even if this turns out to be a useful lie).
(from prompt #39 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response: 

"THANK YOU" by psd

Hey. I want to say thanks, but I'm not good at that. When people compliment me, I don't know, I get weird. If I feel like things are going well, when someone demonstrates appreciation, I get nervous about maintaining that. My biggest fear, my Achille's heel, is disappointing people, I guess if you know that than you know me. I use disclaimers a lot. This is going to sound weird. I know it's not a big deal. It's about confidence, not walking into a room confidence, but staying in a room confidence. Ruin terrifies me, destruction from the inside out: like the fall of Rome.

I haven't said thanks. Thank you. Thank you for being unabashed. The things you say, the comments you make, they boost me up and they make me feel like I'm doing something right. I'm trying to force this idea on myself, the idea that it is okay. Okay as it is, as I am: that I can be open, and myself, and if people like what I'm not hiding, I don't need to hide.
See, this is becoming about me, it is about me.

You make music. People who make music, I’m jealous of that. I hear songs in my head, and I don’t know how to translate that into ways that other people can hear too. Words do a lot, what I like about music is the words, mostly, but its not all the way. Its not enough to carry and land where I want. I wonder what its like, I think it must be like knowing another language, or having another sense. I’m fine, I’m complete, but still it must be like not being able to hear, the way that I lack an ability to produce music from myself. So you, how you make music, its like you have a sixth sense, you have another way to communicate.

Music and travel, things I don’t have any experience with, but I feel it all the same. The idea of these experiences—does this make sense? I’m sure it doesn’t, fuck, sorry, I want it to, I want to say it right—the idea of experiencing something outside yourself, of connecting in a new way, beyond the limits of body or space, that isn’t alien to me. It’s a feeling like a word on the tip of my tongue, I can sound it out, and there is a space, just beyond, that is waiting to be filled. By the experience, or the word.

It’s frustrating. I feel guilty all the time for all that I haven’t done. I feel most alive when I’m outside myself, it keeps me believing in God. The feeling alive. And I feel outside myself when I can connect. I think that’s what we are all looking for, or at least all of us like us. People who push and fall and look at things the wrong way so that they know what the right way really means. Do you know what I mean? And its things like that, words that I’ve got space for, and I haven’t found them yet. I feel bad about that space, that I’m keeping it all inside myself and I should be reaching out more.

I think sometimes people look at me and they see all that I’m keeping inside, and they know. They know I’m selfish and I’m scared. And sometimes I think no one has any idea, that they see me and they don’t, and if I get it all out I will scare the hell out of them. I think maybe I should hold back, try to fit in, try to be good. It’s knowing what good is, really.

This is the worst thank you letter ever. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I do want to thank you. For making music and for writing and for trying to connect, for always doing what I wish I could do. And for telling me that I’m doing the same, that I’m connecting.

I was thinking about something you said, and I was listening to a song, and it felt a little bit epic.

Thank you, from inside myself and as far out as I can reach, thank you for reading from the same place that I’m trying to reach.

If that makes any sense, if you know what I mean, if this isn’t all dumb. Then you’ll know. Thank you.

Sentenced to Death

Take a sentence from a writer you admire or who provokes strong feelings in your gut. Preferably, this should be a fairly long sentence with a lot of different words in it. Use any of the words and only those words (repeating words from the sentence as often as you want) to make up fifteen sentences of your own—adhering around a character or situation that seems related to the author of this sentence, but it need not be a direct response to the author. This is a very difficult exercise, but you may find a handful of crucial ideas about your character from the struggle of coming up with these sentences. The word length of this exercise depends on how long each of these fifteen sentences is, but will probably be about 200 words.
(from prompt #38 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

"As long as you don't let your exhaustion get to you, as long as you remember that you always have choices, as long as you're willing to read the book and see where it's taking you, as long as you love the book and the sum total of things that have brought you to this place, right now, this very second, you'll stay
-Jacob Clifton,

Remember the exhaustion the choices brought? You don’t have that exhaustion now, you have love. The right love, and the right place, and you’re willing to stay. And as long as you’re willing to stay, you get to see this love taking place. You don’t have to remember the choices, right?

It’s the things you don’t remember, the choices and the exhaustion, that you have to remember. The very things. The things that brought you to this love, always remember.

You read a book, you remember the total book. You don’t read a long book and have the love stay afloat; you have to have things taking place. The things taking place that you’re willing to read, you have to be willing to remember.

Second place choices, you don’t have to always remember, as long as you remember choices taking place. And don’t let exhaustion stay where you’re willing to have love. Always stay willing to have love.

Face Recognition

Write a short scene in which the ability to recognize faces is crucial to the outcome of the scene (it doesn't have to be correct face recognition--it could be mistaken face recognition). How do you describe a face? This is one of the most difficult tasks fiction writers encounter--describing something so ineffable that we nevertheless know instinctually so well. How do you describe a sudden understanding of anything, let alone a face?
(from prompt #37 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

David Alexander
"David Alexander" by Alex Barth

Before anyone sees him, he sees their kneecaps. He studies how calves and thighs bind together, how veins run and bulge blue, he watches joints bend and muscles twitch and flex. He looks at all these knees and other parts of people with his own knees tucked up under his chin, hugging his legs and rocking slightly. His mom is shopping for clothes, for girl clothes, and she doesn’t know it but he snuck away to a round clothing carousel and hid behind a curtain of women’s coats. It’s past coat season, and no one yet has rifled through his observatory cave.

He waits for his mom and plots how he’ll greet her when she comes by, when he hears her shoes hurrying after she’s noticed he’s missing: he’ll pull the coats open and yell “Boo!” and she’ll jump back with her hand on her heart and say “You scared me! I was looking everywhere for you!” While he waits he pretends he is a spy watching everyone. He pretends he is a fox that is too smart for anyone to find. He pretends he is an orphan, and then he hopes his mom comes by soon so he can grab her legs and surprise her and then play a new game.

He sits rocking and resting his head on his knees. The legs he sees passing by march around like alien soldiers with faces but no features, just blank discs that pause and bend, different legs but with the same bald, expressionless knees. The longer he waits the more he wants to see her. When she wears socks she lets him pick them out, funny ones with stripes or little dogs, but today she’s wearing sandals, just like everyone else.

When he gets scared, when people ask him questions he doesn’t understand or when they stare at him too much, sometimes he holds her legs and hides behind them, with his face at the bend behind her kneecaps. When he does that, when he tucks his face away, she’ll smooth his hair and lets him hide for as long as needs. Right now though, he doesn’t want to hide.

He crawls out and there are women of all ages occupying themselves with price tags and sizes. He stares at all the different faces without shying, and studies how every feature, noses and cheekbones and eyebrows and lips, bind together and still aren’t everything. He studies how lips stretch and purse and pucker and spread into thoughts or smiles without saying words, eyes flick and follow and give as much light as they take in, and he watches all this to find one face. She is bent, searching knee-high among the shoppers. Before she sees him, he sees her face.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Beyond Words

Create a brief fragment of an epiphany, a moment beyond words, beyond explaining, in which a character sees the necessity of change.
(from prompt #36 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

feist:I feel it all
"feist: I feel it all" by visualpanic

I feel it all, I feel it all. I feel it all, I feel it all. I don’t know how to sing but I keep repeating the words, repeating the track. The bay looks overwhelming, driving over it, more expansive than I’ve ever noticed, has there always so much? The wings are wide, the wings are wide. I am going home but I want to keep driving. I want to know where I’m going but right now I don’t want to go where I’m going. I want to keep driving and make the decision to go home or go on, somewhere else, later. Wild card inside, wild card inside. I feel like breaking down but I don’t know what to break, or how. Maybe I am breaking down, maybe it isn’t something you know until the existence of pieces. I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart. I scream the words without trying to make them sound pretty. Just to scream, I’ll be the one to hold the gun. No matter how loud I yell it isn’t loud enough, I keep trying to find the right way to scream the words I’ll be the one to hold the gun. I’m shouting and crying without any idea how I sound anymore or how I look, just sobbing and trying to make noise that I can hear, that sounds right, until I do, and it shames me, my selfishness. I know more than I knew before, I know more than I knew before. I know how to say words, and I want God to hear, so I pray and I pray. I didn’t rest, I didn’t stop. Yelling at God, in my car driving over the bay. Did we fight or did we talk? I yell the words. I love you more.


Put two characters you already know from your own fiction in a wilderness of some sort. It could be a desert or a big foreign city where the characters don't speak the language. Do not explain to us why these characters have landed in this wilderness. Stick to one POV. Slowly describe the other character, which does not want to be seen but which leave a handful of traces. The idea of this exercise is a little like Absent, to help you to make a human recognizable even from the things she left behind on purpose and by accident.
(from prompt #35 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

"Untitled" by Zenat El3ain

The kindergartners sitting in a semi semi-circle looked to him like Dante’s unfinished inferno. They didn’t even have all their teeth. He grinded his and looked around for Lucy. He could hear her, making uncouth remarks into the speaker of a Blackberry—a sound he found soothing after being presented with something like a song by a creature that was nearly human, but smaller and without shame. He tried to insist that he would not, in fact, enjoy an encore of noises about stars that twinkle, but he and Lucy’s ardent wishes were drowned out by an outburst so loud and off key he could only wonder what they were. He felt lost, and he wanted her to finish yelling into her phone. He went to find her. She waved him off with a manicured hand and a panicked look in her eye, pleading with someone on another line. He stood with his hand in his pocket, appraising her, her posture and her starched collar, and he liked the lines, enough to almost forget about his almost circle of hell waiting for him.

Meanwhile he took her clutch, a status symbol with intersecting semi-circles, and pawed through for something dulling. Pain meds, anti-anxiety, maybe something really good. Maybe she’d even have some candy he could throw to the pack of five year olds, Ted understood that they liked candy and that it could be used to shut them up. Her purse, while compact, held a great deal, usually anything he needed, but the best it held today were black ear buds strung by wire to connect to a slim rectangle. With relief he plugged his ears and walked back into the den of din, now with a different tone. It was almost like a music video, if Ted had ever chosen to use his time to watch one, but since he hadn’t he thought it quite an original experience, to see wild things moving about as if to the music he was hearing. A little one sat on the floor and for a moment she had an expression like Lucy, but maybe it was just her eyes. She sat still, even as the others had abandoned the attempt to be herded into shape and were now all doing some activity that may have been a war over territory or a game of tag. She seemed detached from the group, and soon enough she went and collected two dolls and sat back down in the same spot. With Lucy’s soundtrack filling his ears, he watched the little girl march her dolls down a straight line in the pattern of the fabric. At best it was a weird experience.

He stood in the room without anything to lean against, and the kindergartners ran circles around him, weaving in and out without regard for how uncomfortable it made him. One of them ran snot-nosed first into his leg, leaving a shiny knot of phlegm, and ran off again before he could figure out which one it was. He wondered if Lucy could see him, if she was sympathetic or disgusted or amused. The little girl with Lucy’s eyes had a face that managed to convey all three, even though she wasn’t looking at him. Ted found this fitting, considering the crime.

Ted and Lucy first appeared in The Ironist.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Chaos Follows

Write a set of short scenes in which confusion or chaos follows a character, as if in his wake. The character does not cause this, knowingly or unknowingly, but disorder nearly always happens after he has left a room, an intersection, or an elevator. This should not be magic. Imagine an exotic wake, but try to make these effects and aftereffects grow naturally out of the character you're describing.
(from prompt #34 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

"Grass" by Robyn Gallagher

Everyone had just eaten dinner when Georgie came home, so she went to the counter to pick garbanzo beans out of the salad with her fingers while her mother collected dishes.
“Why don’t you get a plate, honey?”
Georgie rolled her eyes and picked out two more garbanzo beans and a chunk of feta, leaning onto the counter and balancing on one leg so that her butt stuck out. Her mother could see her phone light up in her back pocket, and said so. Georgie took out the phone with another eye roll and walked out of the kitchen whispering and cupping her hands around her phone and mouth.
“That girl,” her mother said, to no one in particular. Georgie’s father walked into the kitchen with a beer and rubbed his wife’s back.
“It’s just a stage,” he said, and she leaned back into him. He set down his beer, to put both arms around her, and her elbow brushed the bottle as she turned around to face her husband.
“Oh God!” and she bent to pick up the shards. Even as he cautioned her to be careful, she split open her palm and cursed. She bit her lip but cried anyway when traces of salad dressing that had been on her hand got in the wound. The tears fell out of embarrassment, and pain, and from something else, vague and unformed, buried in her since she’d become a mother. They fell and blended with the blood and beer, which gathered in little lakes in the uneven kitchen tile and ran, muddied, in miniature rivers in the grout.

Upstairs in her bedroom, Georgie hung up the phone and opened her window. She swung her legs over and sat on the sill smoking a cigarette, flicking ash onto her father’s lawn and kicking her heels against her home’s exterior. After a bit she flicked the cigarette out and watched the ember die before hopping down two stories by way of the first floor’s eave. She snuck out the usual way, through her neighbor’s yard, and she threw the cigarette butt she had picked up in her neighbor’s trash on her way out. The noise disturbed the visiting dog of her neighbor’s in-laws, and the yipping beast startled the family’s three year old. He had just been put to bed, minutes past wakefulness but not quite asleep, and the dark barking brought him running in complete terror to the living room. His parents, having gone to shush the dog, weren’t there, just a chair rocking in his mother’s absence and a deep indent where his father had been on the couch. The little boy stared out the window into his backyard, where the damp grass still held the shape of Georgie’s footprint, and in his confusion thought he was the only person alive in the whole world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Imagine a character who is kind, whose every act is based on the notion that other people need help, and who rarely thinks of himself first. This should be a person of great empathy. The character walks into a room and notices immediately the other person in the room who most wants something—a drink, the last cookie on the tray, help remembering a movie character’s name. It would be very tempting to punish this good person in your exercise. Don't punish the character. Don't make a big deal of this goodness, either. Let readers follow this agent of kindness through a handful of encounters. Give as little background information about this character as you can without sacrificing our natural need to know something about this Good Samaritan.
(from prompt #33 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

Open it !
"Open it!" by Anders Ljungberg

The body slumped street side against a car’s front wheel looked dead. His legs stretched out on the road and his head had lolled to one shoulder, like a rag doll. She almost missed him, driving past, the idea to stop and confirm the existence of a possibly dead body laying in the road was delayed. So as an afterthought, almost a whim, she put her car into reverse and drove back to the dark part of the road, flashing her brights on the body’s face and honking her horn. Even though the body didn’t flinch, didn’t give any sign of life, death seemed abstract to her. She left the car in park with her warning lights flashing and walked in front of the body, bent down, and tried to feel for a pulse. She didn’t know what a pulse felt like, but she thought there might be one, and in the meantime she slapped his face and yelled “Hey!” so close it was like she was shouting up his nostrils. He woke up groggy, eyes unfocused, and she realized she now had to deal with this, which was awful. She wanted to go home and lay curled like a shrimp in her bed with the TV on, she didn’t want to think. And here now, she had to think about what to do with this sour-breathed, but breathing, body.

Mid-way through her struggle to lift the still basically dead-weight of a drunken 22 year old frat boy, a door opened and light came on. She yelled out “Is this your car?” and the door-opener came out and said that it wasn’t. He stepped down and walked over to the two, and within a minute he and the girl had the body, now slurring speech that sounded like “birdie” or maybe “buddy,” hanging off each shoulder. They dumped Birdie/Buddy on the safer-than-the-street sidewalk. She thought it might be a good idea to look through the drunk guy’s pockets for a phone or a license, and asked the boy what he thought. He encouraged her to do so, and then, when her hand recoiled as soon as it touched Birdie/Buddy’s wet, soiled jeans, did so himself. Birdie/Buddy batted away the male hand, but the boy who opened the door persisted. He pulled out a wallet just as Birdie/Buddy sprung to life, flailing about and putting a great deal of effort into a limp punch that landed in the air near the girl’s head. The boy who had opened the door put his hands on the wild ones of Birdie/Buddy and held them into submission. The girl’s hands fluttered too, through the punched air, and so with a glance back, the boy said “You did a good deed by stopping, you should be proud. But you look tired, go home and don’t give this anymore thought.”

She nodded without hiding her relief. Alone with Birdie, the door-opener looked through the wallet. Three ones, a condom, and a local driver’s license. He went back inside his house for some water bottles—dropping one off by his girlfriend—and some cash. By the time the cab came, Birdie had passed out again with the water bottle crushed in his hand. The cab driver received an extra ten, in case there were any more accidents on the way, and Birdie never know his wallet had been removed when he woke up face down on his driveway the next morning. The boy who opened the door closed it now behind him, and was there in the bed just as girlfriend turned and reached for him.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Write a 500 word story about friendship in response to the paragraph below from Samuel Beckett's Proust. I hope you notice what a lyrically dark view of friendship Beckett (and by extension Proust) has. You need not share Beckett's view, but I hope a little poison leaks into the otherwise sunny world the word friendship usually evokes.
But if love, for Proust, is a function of man's sadness, friendship is a function of his cowardice; and if neither can be realized because of the impenetrability (isolation) of all this is not "cosa mentale," at least the failure to possess may have all the nobility of that which is tragic, whereas to communicate where no communication is possible is merely simian vulgarity, or horribly comic, like the madness that holds a conversation with furniture. Friendship, according to Proust, is the negation of that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned. Friendship implies an almost piteous acceptance of face values.
(from prompt #32 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

Walking Man Takes his licks
"Walking Man takes his licks" by katmere

On his 30th birthday, Chris woke up late in his bedroom. His black out blinds kept his room in his preferred cave-like state, and so when he emerged he always acted a bit like a bear. Territorially, he lumbered into the kitchen—his kitchen, but also the kitchen of his three other roommates—and pawed through the cupboards looking for cereal. Someone ate his cereal. On his goddamn birthday, when all he wanted was a goddamn bowl of Cheerios.

On his best friend’s 30th birthday, Luke woke up early in his bedroom. His room had a door that led to the yard, and he left the door open during warm evenings so that his dog could wander out, and so ladies could wander in. Or out. He took his dog out for a walk, showered, and helped himself to some Cheerios.

Chris knew, for months, that his 30th birthday would be the worst day of his life. He knew because months ago he’d received an invitation to attend the wedding of the only girl he’d ever wanted to marry. The man whose name was engraved above hers was a wealthy orthodontist, and Chris’ teeth were fucked up and made him self-conscious about smiling. They were getting married on his birthday, and he did not have a date. There was a girl he wouldn’t mind taking, and she was, of course, Luke’s date. Chris was assured he would have a good time, which only made him more sure that he would not.

Luke knew that weddings suck, most of the time, so he was going for the free booze and for Chris. Luke didn’t have a really firm grasp on it all, but Chris had stared at the invitation, hung on the fridge with a Domino’s magnet, every single night for a significant amount of time. Chris had also been ordering pizza a lot more, but even Luke could see that as a symptom, not a cause. So for whatever reason, Luke canceled the surprise party he’d planned—a couple of guys from college could fly out, and they could go to the strip club and the Indian casino—and dry-cleaned his suit. Clearly it meant something to Chris, and it might be kinda lame but Luke was guaranteed to get laid, at least.

Standing in front of the mirror in his bedroom, Chris tried to hold his back straight. At least this evening, he didn’t want to slouch. He heard a girl giggle in Luke’s room, and he swallowed a mouthful of air as he walked out to the front porch. They had a cab waiting, and as Luke and their adorable neighbor, in a backless dress and kitten heels, joined him outside, Chris had a sudden urge to lay down under the back tires and feel his skull crushed by the weight of 30 years of life. Instead, he stood up straight, let out a low whistle of appreciation for the backless dress and kitten heels, and slapped his best friend’s shoulder to signal that he was ready to go.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Create a smart character. Show us this person’s unusual intelligence. Write a fragment of fiction at the center of which is one character’s uncommon and somewhat visible intelligence. You’ll probably want to display this person’s intelligence by means of action rather than conversation. If you choose the latter method of indicating a character’s braininess, you should probably decide in advance if you want readers to like this intellect or fear it (or both). 600 words.
(from prompt #31 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

"Rubidoux" by Spencer Finnley

Instrument in hand, he creates a world much like the world around him. Earlier, while driving, the white headlights driving opposite him had disturbed him, and to avoid being blinded he trained his eyes to stare straight ahead, focusing his vision just enough that he remained aware of what occurred around him without being distracted by the brightness of the other vehicles. His gaze steadied, and he remembered that she could cry with blinking, a trait that she would probably say was indicative of cowardice: she’d insist that her open eyes were too afraid to close. He knows better than to tell her the obvious truth, that it is uncommon because it is hard, and hard because it takes a lot of courage to look at the world without blinking, never mind the tears. Telling her wouldn’t convince her, but anyway she needs to realize things like that on her own. Maybe someday he will tell her “la calma è la virtù dei forti,” calm is the virtue of the strong. Speak Italian to women, and he remembers the rest of Henry V’s line: Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse. He made a mental note to look up the year that Henry V said so, and he did, later.

He creates a world much like the world around him. Stuck in traffic, reminding him of her again, he turned down the radio and listened. Around him people sat still or fidgeted or talked or sang, all going somewhere, all contained in vehicles; he thought how we all are alone in this together, he thought how many tiny worlds we have, how inside each person inside each car is a tiny world, inside each car, freeway, town, state, country is a tiny world that is at once its own world and a part of the whole world. Synecdoche, he thought, and he allowed himself to be amazed at the miniature grandeur. He tried to keep the amazement as long as possible, to control his thoughts, to corral his active mind into a pen that was also its own tiny world. The traffic, heaving forward like an exhausted lover, calms him; he steadfastly refuses to be frustrated by anything constraining or restricting his forward movement, and instead believes the constraints strengthen him, challenge him. His thoughts, and the cars around him, come from all over and he enjoys creating a singular story from it all, even if the story is just “Move forward.”

Instrument in hand, he creates a world much like the world around him. He remembers, translates, experiences. From the road he remembered her, hummed a song. The science of it all: to create, for the sake of creation, he has to focus straight ahead; “those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things…and the road to it is rough.” He tries to forget her but she is his own tiny world, and so instead he takes his instrument, the tool of his trade, and recreates her, as he remembers nothing else. Thoughts focused, gaze steady, he works without blinking to create a world without her in it but that is still her. He begins his story with all he has, which is memories and observations and loose sayings and half-recalled quotes, and the sensation of an instrument held in his hand.

He creates a world much like the world around him.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Absent Commentary

Absence of....
"Absence of..." by ky_olsen

The "Absent" prompt was one of the most difficult for me to write about, and I'm not sure why. I'm not satisfied with how it turned out, either: I got a couple good lines in here and there, but ultimately I wrote more about the nature of missing someone than the true nature of the absent person. Sadly, this prompt asked a lot of good questions: how do we know of people? how do we characterize people? and I can't help but feel that I ignored those questions in order to answer other, unasked questions. Which is fine of course: there are no Epiphanizing police that will come arrest me if I don't follow the rules. But to be honest with myself, I didn't create a character, I didn't rise to that challenge. This was part laziness, a dash of indulgence to let me get away with doing something else. It was also honesty, because no matter how many different ways I tried to approach this prompt, I kept coming back to this story.

At some point, as my friend over at The Leafblower pointed out a while back, you have to let go of trying to do things "right." I missed a week of posting because I felt that nothing I wrote was good enough: I decided that nothing was better than something. Which is true sometimes, I guess, but when it comes to creation, as Brian pointed out, you paralyze yourself when you try to write something good. Just writing, everyday, no matter what, frees you. If you aren't afraid of what comes out, much more comes out. That sounds gross. It doesn't necessarily apply to bodily functions.


Construct a character who is not present, who is offstage for the entire piece. You have many options here: people may talk about this character before meeting him, or after meeting her; you might choose to examine what this character owns, how he lives, and under what conditions; you might uses indirect approaches, like letters or documents that attest to the existence but not presence of the person. How do we know of people? Examine the ways we build characters in our minds and social environments before and after we meet them.
(from prompt #30 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

"IMG_3021" by SolYoung

I feel my phantom phone vibrating; it’s nowhere near me, and wherever it is, it’s far too broken and damaged to alert me of anything after last night. But I feel it still, persistent and self-contained, buzzing close to me. It’s like it’s my twin that broke her arm at summer camp and my arm, while whole, is pulsing with a vague pain a hundred miles away.

I’ve reached for it a half dozen times already, and I still haven’t made it to a cab, let alone my car. Of all days, today is the day my phone isn't here for me.

Late last night I had a screaming fight in an empty parking garage. Our shouts carried farther than we needed them to carry, because as many hours ago as they occurred, they are still ringing in my ears. It’s a funny situation, and if it wasn’t so heartbreaking I would laugh. There we were, a bridesmaid and the bride, screaming obscenities after a bachelorette party gone horribly awry: she’s still got a cheap veil clipped in her hair, and I held baggies of homemade frosted cookies in the shape of penises up until she dropped me off at my hotel, when I chucked them with all the ferocity of a jilted lover casting off an engagement ring. And then I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, felt the actual moment that my heart broke—a dull crumbling, like the cookies, instead of the more dramatic shatter that I’d expected, listening to pop songs—and it was literally my tears that destroyed my phone. Water damage.

I want so badly to call so many people. I want her voice out of my head and I want to replace her voice with other voices. Her angry, awful voice echoing angry, awful things. She isn’t here but I hear her. She yells combinations of words, and I’m still sorting out their various meanings. When she says my life is a mess, and that I can’t take care of myself, is that a pronouncement or a theory? Is it coming to pass because she said so, or did she say so because it’s come to pass?

Her voice used to be comforting to me. We talked often, about books mostly, and ourselves. Once we talked in front of a Starbucks for four hours; she told me that dreaming in color is a sign of intelligence, and we were both satisfied with the nature of our dreams. She told me about relaying the same fact to a mutual friend, who had replied that she dreamt in black and white, and what of it. We giggled about people who weren’t intelligent enough to dream in a full spectrum of shades, people who weren’t intelligent enough to know what they were missing.

On my dead and useless phone, I had the text message she sent me the night she got engaged—just a picture of the ring on her finger, and the words “Shhhhh! I can’t tell anyone yet!” and I replied with tens of exclamation points, and still it wasn’t exclamatory enough. Her sparkly little diamond on her ring finger, catching all the light even in the dark night: even in the depths of my depression, I felt so buoyed by her happiness, by the joy of my best friend, and for a while there was nothing I enjoyed more than helping her plan her wedding.

What I want to say isn’t poor me, even though I’m feeling sorry for myself—I’m saying poor me, but it isn’t what I want. I want to say all that I can’t say, because she isn’t here, because my phone doesn’t work, because for the last month, when I was half swimming, half drowning in a pool of self-pity (that felt like an ocean,) I was trying too hard to keep my head above water to talk much about dreams or their colors. All I could see was what I was missing. And right now its her, because I can feel her and hear her in her absence: right now I can only think of all the things I can’t say.

I can’t say sorry, or thank you, or ask why, anymore than I can call her up to talk about how ridiculous Twilight is, or how awesome Gossip Girl. I can’t move on, or let go. I can’t ask if she ever started listening to The National, or if she still writes, or if she misses me. I can’t hear what she thinks about Palin or listen to her joke about Prejean. I can’t call, and joke about TV shows or listen to her vent about her sister or joke about her soon to be husband.

The one I tell everything is gone.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Write a fragment of a story about a villain who gets away with a serious and perhaps brutal crime and enjoys the fruits of his crime (or simply enjoys the fact that nothing happens after this crime). Love this character, and try to make him somewhat loveable to us. Think in terms of class distinctions, an uncomfortable subject in the United States, as we tend to deny they exist here. Crime is often an act of envy. According to an early meaning of the word, someone is evil who crosses class boundaries.
(from prompt #29 in The 3AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

*disclaimer: this is an exaggeration of a perception of a public figure; it was loosely inspired by Sarah Palin, but is entirely fiction. by pure coincidence, the prompt had a word limit of 600, but somehow, I ended up writing 666 words.

Naughty Monkey pumps clip clop and echo more than other brands. This truth comes from experience, not science, because the only truths worth recognizing are the ones in your mind, from personal experience. The “clip clop” conveys power and a sharp efficiency; she likes the echo of this sound even more. She imagines an army of women in fuck-me pumps marching behind her, as the sound of her heels is magnified in an empty, narrow hallway. Just as importantly, these shoes show sass, they show she’s a woman with a girlish determination to pinch her body into something desirable. No matter how much power she has, men can still masturbate to the image of her, and that’s important. She may act like a man but no doubt about it, she looks like a woman. Some things just go against nature—butch women even more so than effeminate men, because what woman doesn’t want to be beautiful?

Today, as she walks, she catches a glimpse of herself in a darkened window. She likes what she sees. She’s thin, thinner than she’d been in her twenties, and it elevates her above, well, everyone else. The women who like her, they aren’t like her. She hasn’t been fattened by the middle age spread of middle class Americans living in the mid-west. She doesn’t eat any crunchy granola or that damned Whole Foods, she doesn’t buy into that propaganda about “going green,” but she’s better than those fast-food addicted idiots stuffing their faces. What they see when they look in the mirror is a nightmare, she imagines. Pausing for a moment at herself, she reflects. Here is a woman in control, a woman who takes control. Thank God for, well, for God. For God and for country, both of which she has been called upon to serve—called, if by nothing else, then by virtue of her superiority. Her beauty, her drive, her faith. Her obedience to God, to ritual, to tradition. Her discipline, her focus. All these qualities, these treasures she values as dearly as she values her home or her children. These treasures that she’s acquired by winning, by playing the right game the right way. These treasures she has been awarded by virtue of being better than white trash, better than her roots, better than the small town whore she could have been.

In the moments before the press conference, she goes through a little ritual. It’s like any competitive sport, any arena where one person emerges as the victor, the better competitor, against another, less worthy person. She visualizes her success, and she must be alone. In this most private moment, she imagines all the enemies she must go against, all those she must destroy. She thinks about sodomites, about godless heathens, about terrorists, foreigners. She imagines all their tiny deaths, she shrinks the whole world of them away in her mind until they are tiny enough to shut up in a little box. She closes the lid and she hears their screams, she hears them begging for forgiveness in fading voices. They call out to her, beg her to help them, but she doesn’t bend. She imagines herself crushing them under her stiletto heel, until they flatten out and disappear. Then she imagines the world she will create instead, a new pretty world, where everyone will listen to her. She breathes in and out, in a Christian fashion, visualizing her success just as her political coach taught her to do daily. People will be thin and healthy, women will know their place, men will be heroes. Breathing in, breathing out, until she can just see this new world, her new world, and she is ready to speak to the masses.

Stepping out onto the stage, lit by lights and by an internal passion, she is suddenly flanked by her four bodyguards in dark suits. She grabs the podium and begins to speak. “I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA…”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Write about a person you love. This apparently simple instruction may be much more difficult than you think. Your greatest challenge will be to make you reader love this person, too. Healthy love is one of the more rarely written about emotions in fiction, especially smart, literary fiction.
(from prompt #28 in The 3 AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

She has a thick bruise on her arm and both my dad and I just ask her what happened to the other guy. The other guy was a middle-aged woman, and Megs laughs when she tells us we don’t want to know. Her soccer team played against some corporate office team, and this older woman started aiming for my sister.

“I wasn’t gonna let her push me around,” and she shrugs. She gets red-carded all the time. Usually for being the aggressor, and usually in defense of a teammate getting picked on. She’s quicker to fight for someone than against someone, but she’s a fighter all the same.

She’s standing in the kitchen, drinking Gatorade like she’s advertising for them. Her hair sits knotted up on her head, stray strands everywhere, and she’s got her usual “I just ran 8 miles for fun” flush. Seven years younger and three inches taller. It’s unsettling to look up to the growing up version of someone I used to carry on my hip. She’s got hips of her own, which she denies out loud (“I’m straight down like a boy”) and without speaking, wearing her soccer shorts and baggy t-shirt and standing straight up like a man. She doesn’t slouch, or bend easily. Even as a baby, she wouldn’t let herself be held. She’ll hold you, she understands people and the idea of comfort, it’s just not anything she needs herself.

She skirts around being the girliest girl, by her habits, but just barely: with blue eyes that inspire comparisons to clear skies, birds of happiness, Frank Sinatra, at first glance she's called angelic. But she uses her eyes to see, rather than be seen, and I don’t that it’s ever occurred to her that it could be the other way around.

Her boyfriend, in his Manchester United jersey, holds up her arm and she flexes. He and my dad nod at each other, mutually acknowledging whatever it is dads and boyfriends mutually acknowledge, and it’s heartbreaking to see how much this kid loves her. She makes a menacing face, flexing her bicep, and she moves from mock punching him to putting her arms around him without relaxing her muscles. She cocks back her head to look at him, and says, “You saw, right? She was being a bully.”

“She didn’t expect you to do anything, that’s for sure.”

Our littlest brother, autistic and a little bit of a drama queen, comes running through, practically knocking her boyfriend down to get to her. “Joshie! Be nice to Charlie!” Joshie is throwing all of his weight into his sobs. He has this amazing way of crying so that it sounds like demons dying, but sort of tenderly; simultaneously frightening and vulnerable. How I imagine Grendel sounds.

Megs bends, puts her hands on his shoulders, soothing and steadying him without saying anything. Sometimes when she talks, she gets nervous and talks too fast. Her words get jumbled together, and sometimes she’ll say something bland as if it were exciting. It frustrates me, hearing a story told so clumsily, and our fights revolve around this difference: my instinct for words, and hers for action. She struggles to understand my slowness, my reluctance for movement, my cautiousness and my laziness. She is quick to shove me when I talk over her, when I interrupt her stutter for a smoother, more mature interpretation of whatever she’s attempting to express. We approach problems from opposite ends. As much as this results in pulling against each other, it allows for mutual support, too. Once what I needed was money, and I didn’t know how to get it: dumb with fear, all I could do was cry, complain, telling my mother and myself that I just didn’t know what to do. Megs overheard but didn’t say anything, just left, and returned suddenly with more than I needed, handed it to me with a hug, and left again. I tried to express some fraction of the complicated emotions this provoked, and she just said, because it was all that mattered, “Well, you’re my sister.”

I keep staring at the blackened fist-shaped mark on her arm, and she notices, and turns a deeper shade of flushed. We have such different arms, the two of us, and hers so far today have defended, fought, flexed, flirted, calmed, soothed and steadied. They’ve barely rested. How can anyone look at her and not expect her to do anything?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Create a character around this sentence: Nobody has ever loved me as much as I have loved him. Do not use this sentence in the fraction of fiction that you write. The sentence comes from Guy Davenport's aunt, Mary Elizabeth Davenport Morrow, via his essay "On Reading" in the The Hunter Graccus. Resist the temptation this exercise offers for a completely self-indulgent character. Resist applying your own tale of woe to the formula here. Extend yourself, inhabit other people—friends, enemies, people who puzzle you.
(from prompt #27 in The 3 AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

Bass guitar
"Bass guitar" by Jsome1

Bassists are the wide receivers, lead guitar is the quarterback. Why play bass? For love of the music, for love of the band, for love of the guitar. Love of the guitarist. He became successful, buoyed by the girl, by affection. And here I am, with my hands dangling, with my fingers curled, with no one to hear what I don’t have to play.

What I remember most is after. Long before now, before myself as I am now. I remember after us, before me. Let me clarify: I try to forget all the rest.

After the band, I felt free. That’s the time between being trapped, when nothings bound. Between imprisonment by commitment and by brick and mortar restriction. That free space, if I recall, lasted long enough for me to see him off, to go see about a girl. Was I angry? I ask myself. Yes. Didn’t he love the band and didn’t he know how much it meant to me? No. I don’t know how to fill in the blanks. That’s what I remember. I saw him off, wished him the best, said, don’t worry about me.

Here. The moment is the length of a hand before it snaps into a fist. When we were full, tiny pots and pans laying out in the world, collecting everything that leaked from above. Or felt like we did. When life was hard enough to sing about it, easy enough to turn into a song.

He wrote the most, I filled in the blanks where I could. What brought us together was inconsequential, circumstances like any other band. Two play an instrument, eventually it gets to testing who plays best. He did, of course. Which is why where he is is far from me. I played bass, I tried to deserve good graces, but. The struggle in playing is the audience. I always played for him, and he played for himself. I don't know how much he heard. Enough to get away, ha. Just kidding, right, it’s never so bad. I wish him the best. We played well, we both had the same audience to please. Now I try not to remember too much, did I say so? Jail cells, when they are figurative, they're good imagery. There isn’t any real imagery in real jail. I mean literally.

My music after was an ode to him, to us. I played for different bands. I played for different audiences, never for myself. I tried to focus on the music, on what its all about. That’s what I try to remember, that’s what I don’t want to forget.

Eventually, with a hole in your soul, you know the story. Drugs, right, and fights. It's never so bad as you make it sound, it never sounds right when you try to tell a story that only you know. It’s nice to hear him sometimes, on the radio. It is. It’s nicer than anything else, better than sex. Well, maybe I just don’t remember sex, ha. But here I am, there we were. It was a pause between chords, my freedom, and it’s the only thing I want to remember.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Closet: Guest Response

Epiphanizing is meant to prompt writing, and I'd like to start posting "epiphanies" from others, in addition to my own. Part of the fun of prompts, and of blogging, is seeing different views on a subject.

I'm very pleased to post Krissy's heartwrenching response to last Tuesday's prompt, "The Closet." She took a very different and exciting approach to this prompt, and I really like how she built suspense. Read more about Krissy at her highly entertaining blog "On the Border."

Read Krissy's response:

"Hide and Seek" by Faithful Chant

He is there. That is why I am here, in this closet. I didn't expect anyone to be home. I can't see him. He must still be in the front of the apartment. My heart is thudding in my chest. Adrenaline? Fear? Excitement? The smell of him permeates my nose and no doubt when I get out of here, if I ever get out of here, my clothes will smell of his detergent. Why did he have to come home?
Wait. Footsteps. More than one pair. The bedroom door squeaks open but the light is left off. There are whispers. He's with someone. The clickity clack of heels indicates he's with a woman. Her breathy giggles float through the closet door and into my ears. I know that laugh. It is the laugh of the woman who I have known since we were in elementary school. The woman who, when we were girls, I shared my favorite clothes with. The woman who rode the bus with me, as teenagers, to summer camp. The woman who I confided my deepest secrets to. And she is here with him. He brought her here. To his apartment.
Questions reel through my mind. When did they start seeing each other? Why didn't I know? How long has this been going on? Why her?
There is a rustle of material. I can see nothing through the slats of the closet except for a very dim shadow cast on the far wall by the sliver of the moon shining in the window. The thudding of my heart quickens. I don't want to witness this. I close my eyes, inhale. Him. That is all I smell.
Wait. No, I smell her too. That familiar perfume. The one we shared. The one I have given her as a gift every year on her birthday since she was seventeen. My throat closes. I open my eyes. I don't want to see, but I must see what can be seen. The creak of the bedframe as weight is set upon it startles me. Can they hear me breathing? How can I make this stop? There is silence, more material rustling, the bedframe creaks again and there is soft whispering. No movement. No more creaking.
From the dim shadow on the wall it looks as though one or both of them are lying on the bed. But what are they doing? I still hear faint whispers but I see no movement. My heart still thuds a steady, almost painful beat in my chest. I close my eyes, brace myself on the wall of the closet. This isn't happening. And then, there is only the sound of deep inhales, staggered by the other's exhales. No other noise accompanies the breathing. They're asleep. Together. Lying on his bed, where we used to lay. Together. And I am stuck here in his closet, accompanied only by his smell. Alone.



Take the full name (including middle name) of someone you love. Write down as many words from this name as you can. You can repeat letters from the name as many times as you wish. Treat the letters of this name as the only letters in a new alphabet. You cannot use any words containing letters that do not exist in this name. Because this is so difficult, you'll probably only be able to come up with about 200 words for this exercise--that's okay. When you have built a sufficient list of words (maybe breaking the list down into nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc.) write a fragment of fiction that has to do with a fictionalized situation this person, or someone like this person, would be involved in.
(from prompt #25 in The 3 AM Epiphany)


As an alternative to "Names," use the letters of the first names of four or five ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends as your only alphabet for a very short story. The effect of this change, (from "Names") when I tried just the list of words (not the exercise) myself, was electric. See if you can look back to earlier failed relationships with something like affection--or at least some balance.
(from prompt #26 in The 3 AM Epiphany)

Read my commentary on these prompts:

Look, I did do it, okay? Ask my roommates: I sat around with this list of words, obsessively organized into parts of speech (at the conjunction junction, I was incredibly grateful for my TWO highly functioning words: "if" and "and") and I wrote a silly little story involving barf, and running (although I couldn't use the word "running," just the form "ran"). I used my baby brother's name, which gave me this alphabet:


Please note the lack of any of the letters given to the finalist trying to make a phrase at the bonus end section of "Wheel of Fortune." No 's,' no 't,' no kind little 'm' or 'y.' No, I couldn't even make the word 'no.'

I also started to do the one with ex-boyfriends, which would actually have been way easier. That alphabet, in comparison, is awesome:


Until you remember that in normal life, you get all the letters. Unrestricted! Weird experience, to be sure. I had such gratitude for letters, for the use of words. Weird, but rewarding.

The reward is not necessarily what it produced in writing, however, and that put me in an awkward position. The writing that came out of this felt silly, gimmicky, and I wasn't sure how to post it. Kiteley, in The 3 AM Epiphany, said as much elsewhere in the prompt: "happy for the difficulty and the experience but...failed at a proper piece of fiction." His advice was to let it gestate, unmolested (so, very, very much like a child, I guess) and in a few YEARS look back at it. Great, but I'm posting every week, and I'm itching to start at #27 and #28. I was just gonna skip over them, but it was weird how much it felt like I was breaking my own rules. Coincidentally, this prompt was inspired by the Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians who meet in Paris to create almost impossible restraints; one description is "rats who build the maze from which they plan to escape." And here I am starting to feel like that with my own blog.

So, what you've just read was the solution to my self-created problem. I do recommend trying both prompts. I had to fight my self from dismissing these, as in, aw, this is just a game, not real writing, doesn't count. But, as I'm also choosing to look at each prompt as a lesson, it does count. (Plus slippery slope, if don't do one cause it doesn't appeal to me, how am I gonna stay disciplined to do any of them?) The lesson in this is really the heart of creativity: what do you do with what you have? Anyone can find a way to fill a blank canvas, but can anyone still find a way to create art without paint, or even a canvas? It was looking at the myriad meanings of common words, and at the power of rare ones, using each one carefully. A trite metaphor, but a lot like stringing beads together, looking at each word as a little bead, and evaluating its worth and where it belonged. So, yay for that. Meanwhile, do I post all the words I had (175 words) to use, do I post a story that is sort of adorable in its repetitive nothingness? (Sample sentence: "A barn, deer, fern: an errand in Eden.") Kiteley wrote that the voice used in this exercise is so forced, so unnatural, that it seems useless, but that, with patience, that becomes precisely the use: it teaches you to use something unnatural, a voice besides your own, which a good writer should be able to produce.

If anyone does try this and create something super cool, please please e-mail me at ehbarnard (at) hotmail (dot) com or leave a comment, and I will post that bad boy on up here.

Also, I recommend loving someone named like, Molly Bonnie Moorehousecricketski, or something.

Ways of Seeing

Imagine a person with an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world. Have this character witness a traumatic event that does not directly involve her. Narrate the event from a first-person POV in 600 words, making sure that the perspective is carefully built around the idiosyncrasies of this personality.
(from prompt #24 in The 3 AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

Daily Traffic
"Daily Traffic" by Burning Image

Like something in a movie, the only way to describe it. Day started out bad; clouds hanging heavy overhead, traffic stopped dead. The soundtrack to There Will Be Blood has been stuck in my car all week, setting the tone. Tense. Just another Joe driving to work, in my suit, blank face. What kind of films would Hitchcock make today? Something about our faceless society, anonymity thanks to cell phones, the internet, all the rest, I'd bet. There hasn’t been a good cell phone related thriller, has there? Like Birds did with birds, can’t see a flock flying south without looking for where I’d run for cover. So my phone rings, scares the shit out of me, thought it was on silent. I keep it that way, less disruptive. I don’t need a lot of dialogue in my life, I’m okay just watching things happen without a lot of discussion. Cell phones scare me even when they aren’t ringing, maybe its good no one has made “Final Destination VIII: Death Calls Again.” I’d see it and have one more thing to watch out for, one more symbol of terror. God, it keeps ringing. Look at the phone, asshole. My sister.
“Yeah. Hey. It’s early, its way before noon, what are you doing up?”
“Sorry…hold on.”
“Okay sorry I’m back. Scout won’t stop barking this morning, you know how dogs can tell when it’s gonna storm. Joe. It sounds weird but okay, so I just had this dream. Is everything okay?”
“Uh, yes. I could ask you the same thing. What dream?”
“I just, I um. Had a dream that you killed yourself. So I got scared and wanted to make sure. Sorry. I mean, you know how sometimes you just wake up and you feel super weird like something bad is gonna happen?”
“Yeah, yeah. Jesus Christ. I am not suicidal. Everything is completely normal, I’m driving to work. Scare me enough, Jesus.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Okay. Well that was all. So you’re okay?”
“Yes, everything is fine. Go back to sleep.”
We hang up. When we were kids we used to make fun of how in movies no one says bye when they hang up; it stuck.
So that’s my morning, her call repeating in my head like bad omen, no matter how much I’m trying to concentrate on the present scene: just stop and go cars, like a goddamn traffic montage, same old every day of my life. Plus I’ve got this accelerating music in the background making me want to tear my hair out the way nothings happening in my car on the road.
Then it happens. Inching along, finally get to the exit. Red light. Changes to green, I make my right and some fuck cuts me off, perfect. Slamming on the breaks I almost rear end this Lexus piece of shit, I lurch forward and back and my heart rate soars. I take a deep breath and start to relax cause I didn’t hit him. Disaster avoided. I’m under the overpass and the car in front is just beyond. Then the body falls.
I see it hit the Lexus and bounce off, like a dummy. But a dummy with real blood and guts. Its all viscera, on the road, on this jackass’ car. Vivid, red so red its purple. I’ve never seen anything like it, I’m on the edge of my seat and everything is so real, like the whole world got digitally re-mastered. Playing my morning back in my head it, its like there were clues everywhere, but. Damn. It shocks me, it’s so fucking dramatic. Just like that, someone is dead. I don’t know if it made sense, I don’t know what lead him to this. Lexus is freaking out, I can see him through my window; it’s like it was scripted, getting cut off meaning I got spared.
What does one do, call 911? I’ll call 911. Tell them they need to see this…

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Closet

Write a story in which the character is snooping around an ex-boyfriend’s (or girlfriend’s) apartment because he or she still has a key. The whole story takes place in a closet in the bedroom that the narrator retreats to when the ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend comes home with the narrator’s best friend. The narrator must endure, inside the closet, maybe the sounds of this couple making love for the first time or perhaps simply a loving conversation unlike any the narrator has ever had with this former paramour. Describe only what the narrator can see and smell inside the closet and what she can hear and guess is going on outside the closet...you will show us your narrator’s deep sadness or anger or a combination of the two, without having to describe it.

This exercise forces you to blindfold your observer. Every image presented in a piece of prose is like the image this narrator will perceive—imagined, reconstructed, simplified.
(from prompt #23 in The 3 AM Epiphany)

Read my response:

"Hide and Seek" by Faithful Chant

Oh, R.Kelly. How I wish I could fly. Or piss on someone. Anything besides trapped in the closet. It’s the way they talk, so quietly, as if it’s just the two of them and no one else matters. I mean. I’m not here, as far as they are concerned. But shouldn’t they be concerned? They should be. They talk quietly, they don’t want anyone else to hear them with no one else around. She even laughs quietly. She's in the door frame, he's walking towards the desk. He’s telling her…oh. No. Do not put on Dashboard. If there is anything I hate more than finding out my boyfriend, I mean my ex-boyfriend, is sleeping with my best friend, because apparently my life is a clip they make fun of on The Soup, it’s Dashboard Confessional. Please do not have Dashboard sex.

Chris Carrabba, sing. She giggles, and it’s like he’s tickling her to elicit more. Whatever he is saying, it isn’t much, or loudly, as she and Chris Carrabba wailing “Don’t you see, don’t you see that the charade is over?” are the only sounds, and feet barely moving, skimming the carpet, planting themselves standing. (1) Too close. So much fun she must be having. She must not be paying attention to the music, because it isn’t fun or even funny. A little funny.

“And all the best deceptions and the clever clever story awards go to you.” (1)

She stops, starts to say “I never…” and then he kisses her. Or punches her, who knows. He doesn’t punch her. She just stops and there are no sounds but crescendos of a song for feeling touchy-feely.

“So kiss me hard, because this will be the last time that I let you. You will be back someday, and this awkward kiss that screams of other people’s lips…” (1)

He moves, I hear his arms fall—he was holding her in his arms—and the song changes. Thank God for small mercies. He’s by the desk then, where the picture of us—he was holding me in his arms—used to be, the picture I printed and put in a frame from Ikea and gave to him when I had no money for better gifts. What sits there now, it was…well. Probably nothing yet. He probably moves his hand over the empty space where we used to be and doesn’t notice the absence. Or maybe he does, pauses over the laptop half-bent, remembers, rights himself.

“What do you want to hear?” he asks. Her. She moves over to him now, without the music I can hear her walking with bare feet, a skirt rustle. They are in the corner farthest from me, farthest from the closet, and I can just see through the grates that the skirt is pink and her hair is up, but I cannot see him. She leans into him before she bends to look at the songs, and it’s just a second before it starts to play. They move again, I can’t hear them now but if I squint I see them, broken in my view through the shades. I don’t recognize the song; how is it he has a song I’m unfamiliar with? That she knew to select. They are on the bed, just in front, I close my eyes when I see a pink flag fall from three feet in the air.

“And you feel like something is about to begin, but you don't know what, and you don't know when, so you tear at your hair, and you scratch at your skin.” (2)

I hear them breathing, heavy, with gasps syncopated, she breathes in, he breathes out. It reminds me I have to do the same, I take air in and slowly let it out.

“Caught in your room on a concrete shelf, fighting all alone, with yourself, with yourself, and you just wanna feel like a coin that's been tossed in a wishing well, a wishing well, a wishing well, a wishing well. Well, you're tossed in the air and you fell and you fell through the dark blue waters where you cast your spell, like you were just a wish that could turn out well. So you stand on the corner where the angels sit and you think to yourself, ‘This is it, this is it, this is all that I have, all I can stand is this air in my lungs and this coin in my hand that you tossed in the air and I fell, and I fell all the way to the bottom of the well, of the well, like those soft little secrets that you tell, that you tell to yourself when you think no one's listening too well" (2)

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