My Girls Write Now mentee in Newsweek!

anthology coverEvery June, Girls Write Now, where I volunteer as a writing mentor for a teenager, publishes an anthology of specially polished pieces by that year’s group of girls. This year Newsweek ran a big story on the GWN program, featuring six selections from the anthology. And one was by my own mentee, Winkie Ma! I am beyond thrilled.

Her piece came out of one of GWN’s monthly genre workshops: Dystopian Flash Fiction. I had vaguely heard of flash fiction but had never met it, so to speak. I haven’t written fiction since my 20s, so a fiction workshop is a challenge for me. Adding a 500-word limit and making the piece dystopian didn’t make it easier. I was happy to find myself producing a bare-bones concept of a piece with a strong theme and a twist at the end that could actually be done in 500 words (currently on my list of things-to-work-on).

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Creativity all dried up? Try this

https://www.flickr.com/photos/samanthalevang/14474813623/

Gold Dust Day Gecko, by Samantha Levang, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

If ever your brain battery feels dead, this exercise will give you a recharge. I learned it in my Girls Write Now mentoring program and tried it out with Winkie Ma, my teenage mentee.

Start by generating a random list of 5 words. We used a smartphone set to Swype. Squiggle a finger across the keyboard and it’ll pop out a word. We took turns doing this til we had five words. (Half the fun is inventing new swyping patterns and seeing what words you get.) You can also use a website like this one to generate your words. Or there’s the pre-digital close-your-eyes-and-stab-a-finger-on-a-dictionary-page technique.

Now set a timer. You have 5 minutes to write something—anything—that includes all 5 words. To make it harder you can require that the words be used in the order they were generated in (we didn’t).

I’m not good under time pressure so was gratified by how quickly my brain woke up and produced a coherent piece of text for each set of words. And it was probably the most fun of everything we did this year.

Here’s our best set.

 earth chap gecko omits kings

(I was impressed that Swype knew the word “gecko.”)

Me:

As climate change warms the earth, my skin begins to chap under the hot dry sun. Before long, I’ll be as leathery and warty as a gecko. And I won’t be alone. The sun shines on everyone—kings, queens, and commoners. It omits none from its intense, baking attention.

“That’s dark!” Winkie exclaimed when I read it to her. Her own invention was sunnier:

“Oh, Lizzy,” the king sighed, slumping into his diamond-encrusted throne. “You won’t believe the day I’ve had so far.”

The king’s gecko glanced back at him, its tongue flickering. The king took this as an invitation to continue.

 “It’s been so hectic. Nearly the whole declaration had to be omitted because of how vile my writers are. Then, I lost my speech, and the media was not impressed. And just now, my subjects burned my robe!” he exclaimed, showing off the burnt edges of the silk. “It’s just been so long.”

Lizzy looked back and cocked its head.

The king smiled. “Lizzy, you’re such a down-to-earth chap. You’re my only true friend here. You know that?”

The gecko snaked its way to the king’s shoulder, and both of them took a nap in peace.

I particularly enjoy the way the same group of words evokes such disparate visions. It reminds me, when I feel stuck in well-worn phrases, that writing is infinite.

And so, it seems, are the varieties of geckos.

Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), Andasibe, Madagascar, by Frank Vassen,  used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), Andasibe, Madagascar, by Frank Vassen, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

Writing—and paying attention

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The plaza on a different day. Imagine us on the bench at the right, looking over at a bench on the left.

This fall I became a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs New York City public high school girls who have a passion for writing with professional women writers who pass on their craft. I find myself going back to basics, trying different writing styles and genres; it’s a little like being a baby writer again.

My mentee and I began with exercises in the building blocks of writing: interviewing, note-taking, description. Last week, we did character description. We sat on a bench in a plaza outside a mall and picked out a man sitting a couple of benches away. For 15 minutes, we both wrote as minutely detailed a description of him as we could, then compared our texts. We chose a woman and repeated the exercise, this time trying to write in the other’s voice.

As it turned out, the comparison wasn’t that interesting, for we had noted pretty much the same items—clothes, details of face, hair, what the woman was carrying, what we thought the person was feeling—and made rather similar observations. What really struck me was how interested and involved I became in these two quite unremarkable people.

I had felt rather resistant to this exercise, perhaps because I associated it with fiction, which I haven’t tried to write in a long time, although I’ve done essentially the same type of description in my nonfiction. But it turned out to be intensely engaging. By the time we finished I was dying to know these people. The man appeared to be Latino, maybe 60, with a poker face; the woman was black, about 40, very well groomed and dressed, and looked tired. Each obligingly stayed put on a bench for just the 15 minutes we needed.

I see now that my shift from faint hostility to fascination resulted purely from the quality of attention forced on me by the exercise. Because of the set, almost grim expression on the man’s face I assumed he was bad-tempered. I kept watching, because I had to, and saw him smile at the antics of a couple of children running around; his expression changed completely. Suddenly I saw him as quite kindly.

We had guessed that the woman might be waiting for someone (since she looked at her watch), but then I thought: maybe she was taking this rest on the bench as a brief respite—time for herself before she had to go home, cook dinner, and take care of other people. The more I watched, the more I felt for her, shouldering these obligations after working all day. Maybe I was right—no one came, and eventually she hoisted her bags and walked off. But I wished I could have talked to both of them and found out.

So what generated this involvement? Simply: paying attention. There’s a famous story about Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who taught for many years at Harvard. His new students were presented with a preserved fish on a tin platter. He would tell the student to look carefully at the fish, then leave the room, not to return for hours. One student,

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Haemulon carbonarium, a member of the fish family that Samuel Scudder observed. By Williams, J. T.; Carpenter, K. E.; Van Tassell, J. L.; Hoetjes, P.; Toller, W.; Etnoyer, P.; Smith, M. [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Scudder, wrote an account of being left alone with the smelly, hideous fish. He thought he had seen everything there was to see in that fish after 10 minutes; but after several hours, desperate, he had the idea of drawing it, “and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.” But when Agassiz returned, and he proudly recited his discoveries, the professor said, “‘You have not looked very carefully… Look again; look again!’” And he left me to my misery.” With nothing else to do, Scudder started to see still more in the fish. Each time he gave Agassiz a new list of observations, the professor said, “That is good, but that is not all; go on.” The misery continued for “three long days.” Only later did Scudder realize “the inestimable value” of this lesson in how to observe.

And here was I, feeling pressured by having to observe for 15 minutes. After 10, I too thought there wasn’t much left to notice. What would have happened if I had extended my observation for an hour?

The lesson I draw isn’t the same as Scudder’s. It’s about a different effect of close attention: the emergence of interest, curiosity, empathy, even loving kindness. In meditation you are supposed to observe with nonjudging “bare attention,” without agenda or assumptions. I wasn’t even doing that—I had the opposite of an open mind—yet look how this brief exercise changed my mental state.