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.
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