(Aka: The Creative Opportunity of Extreme Social Distancing)
Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” is a new virtual resource to take the place of our weekly in-person Pen to Paper class, which we’ve had to suspend due to Coronavirus.
On Wednesdays, newsletter subscribers will receive a free mini craft lesson and prompt, which will also be posted on this page. These lessons and prompts will come from Charlotte Lit co-founders Kathie Collins and Paul Reali, Pen to Paper’s lead teacher Megan Rich, and other Lit faculty and members. Enjoy!
July 29: Contour Writing
by Megan Rich
Often when we sit down to write, we are thinking systematically, trying to create sentences rather than recall or create sensations. This can sometimes hinder the full, fleshing-out of settings, characters, emotions, and other details within scenes. So, I propose we take a hint from artists and try some “Contour Writing.”
Contour drawing is when you draw something by only looking at the object you are drawing, not the drawing itself. It challenges artists to revel in the process of simply seeing an object, not the end product. In contour writing, focus first on details themselves, not the construction of sentences, unlocking new details by fully fleshing them out. Only then will we turn to communicating them to an audience.
1. For five minutes, consider a character/person, a setting, or an important object in a scene you are trying to convey. (This can be a work-in-progress or something you have always wanted to write about.) Instead of writing sentences, simply list words or phrases — even better to do this on paper, where you can write them haphazardly all over the page, not on a screen, where they are in neat little lines. :) These words and phrases should be:
a) Sensory details (see, touch, smell, taste, hear)
b) Emotions associated with this person, place, or object
c) Phrases that a character/person might say, or that are associated with this place or object
2. Spend 30 minutes writing about these characters, objects, or settings in scene and see if this exercise helped to “unlock” new details.
July 15: The Burden of Choice
by Paul Reali
The field of philosophy contains a great number of lovely concepts regarding choice. Here are prompts based on two of my favorites.
Buridan’s Ass represents a choice between two equally good options that renders a person unable to choose either. The classic example that gives the construct its name is where a donkey, desperately hungry and thirsty, is placed equidistant between water and hay—and dies because it’s unable to choose. (Real donkeys are not like this, but you get the point.) Your task is to write a fictional or true story of someone with two good choices who failed to choose either—and what the outcome of that indecision was.
Hobson’s Choice is a supposed free choice in which only one thing is offered—that is, a take it or leave it scenario where it would be very difficult or impossible to refuse. Consider the software licensing agreements where you have to click “Agree” to use the software at all. Your task is to write a fictional or true story of someone given such a choice, but who refused the choice anyway—and what the outcome of that refusal was.
July 8: Debate
by Paul Reali
This week, 153 prominent writers, artists and intellectuals (including Margaret Atwood, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Wynton Marsalis) signed an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” At the risk of simplifying, here’s one passage: “We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”
For today’s prompt, first read the open letter. Then, write a scene in which two characters are having a debate. Create a moment when one character expresses something that makes the other respond with, “You can’t say that” or “You can’t think that.” Use this debate to explore the issue and the nature of open debate. As with most any prompt, this scene can involve fictional characters, or can come from a nonfiction perspective in which you are one of the characters, or is related as a conversation overheard.
July 1: Independence Day
by Paul Reali and Kathie Collins
Independence Day in this country celebrates both a specific day in our history, and also—more so—a set of underlying principles which have independence at their root. At this moment in our history it has become crystal clear that the underlying principles are not yet granted equally to us all—and in fact never were. While the Founding Fathers were declaring that all men are created equal and making liberty a bedrock principle, most were slaveowners and opponents of equal rights for women. If the ideals of a nation—independence, freedom, liberty—are not truly granted to all, then they are held by none.
Two choices for a prompt today:
The first is to write a short essay or reflection about an experience, either your own or one that you witnessed, in which someone is denied by another person or system the kind of freedom guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.
The second is to examine how this theme––this contradiction—is repeated in our personal lives and the lives of our fictional characters. Write a fictional or memoir scene focused on a character (who could be yourself) seeking or achieving some kind of independence, and facing the contradictions at the heart of that desire.
Today we bring you a set of fill-in-the-blank prompts from: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays & Pamela Painter. This prompt method is one of my favorites, because it provides both a starting suggestion (the sentence) and an easy way—indeed, a requirement—to to make it one’s own (the blank).
Here’s how you might use these:
Select one of the prompts.
Fill in the blank(s) with either a) quickly, without a particular character or situation in mind; or b) deliberately, with a particular character and/or situation in mind.
Build the sentence into a scene. The prompt sentence does not have to be the first sentence of the piece.
People were probably saying _________________.
This time last year she/he was _________________.
Secretly, she/he collected _________________.
Suddenly, she/he remembered she/he had forgotten to _________________.
The smell of _________________ brought back _________________.
As a child, she/he had learned _________________.
June 17: Time
by Paul Reali
Books, scenes, and stories always have elements of time, and writers use these elements to ground the story for the reader: what year is it, what season is it, what time of day, how much time passes. The writer doesn’t always have to make these clear to the reader—the story dictates that—yet the writer needs to know them. Your prompts this week give you ways to play with time and to see how they affect a scene.
1. Write a scene in which one or two characters stop at a convenience store to buy something they really need—in the current year, at seven in the morning.
2. Write another scene in which the same character(s) stop at the same store to buy something they really need—in the current year, at two in the morning.
3. Rewrite either or both of these scenes—set in 1969.
June 10: Friendships*
by Megan Rich
Friendships are often neglected in literature, which is strange, considering their importance in our everyday lives and the intense connections we often form in them. Friends are some of the most influential and powerful people we have in our lives, especially if we look to them as a substitute or chosen family, and yet, they are often some of the most conflicted or complicated, also. They do not have a traditional social construct, such as romantic relationships, work colleagues, or families, but are instead voluntary, as Tim Krieder points out in We Learn Nothing: “The same thing that makes friendship so valuable is what makes it so tenuous: it is purely voluntary. You enter into it freely, without the imperatives of biology or the agenda of desire. Officially, you owe each other nothing.” In other words, there is no rule for how it might end, nor are there common rituals, rites, or even responsibilities, expected of us.
We have all encountered friendships that changed the course of our lives, nurtured us in ways we didn’t know we needed, broke our hearts, and/or left us with or without resolution. These are the friendships I would like you to consider today.
Prompt: Write about a troubled friendship from your past and what it means to you now. It should be complicated in some way, perhaps deeply nurturing, but also somehow traumatic. Be sure to give us the context of when the friendship occurred, grounding us in the world, its rituals and rules. Tell us how it began and in what ways it “saved you,” and then tell us in what ways it brought you down. If you have time, share how it ended, too. Take us back there, but try to be simple and direct: no fancy writing required. You can also include how you feel about the friendship now. Lastly, if you would like to do this exercise for one of your fictional characters instead, please feel free, writing from their point of view.
*This concept and prompt were inspired by a recent class I took with Steve Almond.
June 3: Breath
by Kathie Collins
Our lives are marked by breath. The first thing that happens when we leave the warm water of our mother’s body is the in breath. The very last thing we do, the thing that marks our passage from this world into the next, is the out breath. In between is a constant tide––inhale meeting exhale meeting inhale meeting exhale.
Last week, many of us watched video (and all of us heard reports) of a man’s desperate plea for breath. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd cried, as a police officer held a knee to the back of his neck. “I can’t breathe.” This week, between fear of the breath-stealing Corona virus and the image of Floyd’s murder, few of us can think of anything else.
Ironically, we don’t usually think about breathing at all. Our bodies do the work for us. Until something goes awry––a stuffy room, a strenuous workout, a panic attack, asthma, a bout of Covid pneumonia, a pillow over your face, a canister of tear gas, or a knee on the back of your throat. This week, I’ve tried to be more mindful of my breath and, after many years of meditation practice, I’ve developed an entirely new appreciation for breathing.
Without the breath, we are nothing. We do nothing. We say nothing. The breath conveys our emotional state. It’s behind every word we say. And, it’s just as much the force behind every written utterance. For this week’s writing prompt, I invite you to rediscover that force.
Begin by setting a timer for five minutes. Sit quietly. Close your eyes. First notice the weight of your physical body in your chair. Then gradually bring your attention to your breath. Without trying to control it, simply pay attention to the shape of each breath—the length and depth of your inhale and exhale, its changing rhythm, the sound, the taste, and even the smell of your breath as your body carries on this most basic life function. When your timer goes off, bring your attention back to the rest of your body, and when you feel ready, open your eyes.
Now, some choices for writing:
Write a scene recounting your first (or an early) memory in which you are suddenly aware of your breath. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you? How did you feel? In what ways did (or does) this experience inform your understanding about life and your relationship to the world and others in it?
Write a scene with dialogue (fiction or memoir) in which breathing is central to one or more of the characters. Perhaps one character has had the wind knocked out of them, is having a panic attack, is giving birth, or breathing their final breaths. Or, perhaps, one of the characters displays their emotional state through the way in which they breathe their speech.
May 27: Hearing Voices
by Paul Reali
Writers who are developing their craft are frequently encouraged to find their voice. This can be confusing. Many of us write in many different forms — poems, personal essays, fiction, screeds, and so on — and different forms, even from the same writer, can require different voices.
So how might we learn the nuances of voice?
One of my favorite methods is to copy. And I mean this literally: open up a book by a writer whose voice you like or find interesting, and copy out (long hand or with your computer) a page or two. Then, continue the scene or start a new scene trying to emulate that voice. Repeat with two other writers.
This helps you to find your own voice in several ways. First, it immerses you in writing that has a distinct voice, in a way that’s different than just reading it. If you can find the cadence and choices of, say, Anne Patchett, you are on your way to understanding voice more deeply. Second, it should help you to better understand that your voice is not something that springs forth naturally and without effort. You choose your voice; you cultivate it over time. At Charlotte Lit, we like to remind writers that the finished product is not the result of magic, not of luck, not just of talent. Rather, “it’s a made thing.” You make it what it is. And so too do you make your voice what it is.
May 20: Surviving a Difficult Time
by Megan Rich
Many of us are experiencing a difficult period of life, and, no doubt, we have gone through difficult periods in the past. Read “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner and consider another, earlier difficult period in your or your character’s life and how you or they survived. Now, in the vein of Eighner’s piece, write a ‘how to’ on surviving a difficult period. What advice would you (or your character) give your reader, specifically and generally? What strength and quirks might it reveal about yourself or your character?
May 13: Be Here Now
by Kathie Collins
If you were alive and awake during the 1970s or have practiced much yoga or meditation during the last two decades, you’ve probably heard the refrain Be Here Now, which also happens to be the title of a best-selling book by author and one-time Harvard University professor Ram Dass.
Ram Dass was a psychologist and researcher in the field of consciousness studies. He participated in Timothy Leary’s research on psychedelics in the 60s and eventually journeyed to India in pursuit of higher levels of consciousness, the highest of which in eastern religions is called enlightenment.
He became a serious student of Hindu yoga and meditation and began to understand enlightenment not as an earned place or a spiritual goal, but as a state of perception that can be achieved only when we are willing to accept the reality of our current circumstances and to maintain a fully conscious attitude toward them.
The phrase popped into my head while I was walking yesterday. I happen to get a lot of my best ideas when I’m walking. I think it’s because the activity grounds me in the Here and Now better than most of the other things I do each day. Let’s face it, sitting in front of a computer isn’t particularly conducive to living in the present moment.
What does it mean to be here now? To live in the present moment? To me, it means slowing down, paying attention to what is, dealing with what is rather than trying to escape, ignore, or reject it.
I think the reason the phrase popped into my head is that this is what all of us are being asked to do in our lives right now. We’re being asked to stop, slow down, stay put, tolerate the uncomfortable tension of not going, not doing.
Suddenly, we need to be more aware of our bodies and the way we interact with others. We’ve also become more aware of essential services and workers we’ve too often taken for granted in the past.
Of course, even if we’re not going to work, out to dinner, or to the movies, there are still plenty of ways to distract ourselves. We can binge on tv and news shows. We can clean closets and tend other tasks on our to-do lists. We can escape down the Google rabbit hole. We can anesthetize ourselves with alcohol and sleeping pills. As benign as it seems, sometimes even maintaining our commitment to work as usual is a way to escape being in the current situation.
The internet, of course, provides us with a kind of space in which to be, whether a Zoom room or a website. But the internet can also feel fragmenting because it quite literally asks us to be in at leasttwo spaces at once––the physical world in which we sit and the virtual world(s) we’re visiting.
a) Write a scene from your current personal life. What is it like for you to Be Here Now in these days of covid? Describe your quarantine space and the people in your pod using good sensory detail. How do you get through your days? What do you like about being here now? What do you hate? How do you try to get around current restrictions? Does this experience bring up some episode from your personal past? If so, consider option b.
b) Write about a time in which you patently refused to Be Here Now. What were you resisting? What tactics did you use to avoid what was being asked of you? What awareness arose from the experience?
Put one or more fictional characters into a situation in which they are forced to Be Here Now, that is, they are pushed into accepting something or someone they hadn’t expected. Using rich sensory detail, show your character(s) develop some new awareness about themselves or the world.
May 6: Writing as Ritual
by Lisa Zerkle
Sometimes writers come to the page with an idea, a character, or an event in mind. But what if you sit down to write and your head is suddenly blank as your page? Poet CA Conrad has a helpful practice in using ritual to spark ideas for a poem. Many writers use some form of ritual to aide the writing process, whether lighting a candle or favoring a specific pen or notebook. Conrad has formalized ritual in a more structured way to coax notes for a poem. For a period of seven days, they contemplate the same brief filmed scene and then write about what they’ve seen for the 15 minutes that follow. Conrad’s website offers a variety of video scenes like water rushing down a mountain stream, insects visiting a blooming tree, or sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge. The scenes are meant to be contemplative. You can find an archive of Conrad’s prompts here. Watch the scene, write your notes, and at the end of the seven days, go back over your pages to see what you’ve come up with. This is the raw material from which to build your poem.
I was surprised by the unexpected leaps and connections that showed up for me in this writing exercise. It is for the most part an exercise in paying attention and being acutely present to the details before you. Each day, I realized subtleties I’d missed the day before—a cloud crossing the sky, the sound made by a sudden breeze. This exercise can be adapted if you’re working on a memoir or a novel. Instead of watching Conrad’s films, choose one item central to your story or your character and give that item your full attention for ten minutes a day and then write about what you discover. Remember this is a kind of meditation and as such it’s normal to lose your focus. As with any meditation, bring your attention back to the item and try again.
Recalling the particular details of the world brings our writing to life, but we can’t write about what we don’t notice. Ritual attention strengthens that muscle and makes us better writers.
April 29: Future Self
by Megan Rich
Right now, it is difficult to envision and plan for the future, something we would take for granted through most periods of our life. Therefore, I thought it might be a cathartic experience to imagine ourselves in an indefinite future (one year, ten years, fifty years from now?) in which we are past our current crisis, looking back.
Consider how your life may change by then, whether due to the coronavirus or the typical march of time, and think about the good things you might notice and appreciate. Now, write a letter to yourself from the future, aimed at comfort and acceptance.
April 22: Show and Tell
by Paul Reali
One of the great lies of writing instruction is “show don’t tell.” The truth is, you’ll need both. Here’s a quick primer, and an activity to help you to understand and use showing and telling.
Showing is a catchier way of saying “in scene.” When we write in immediate scene, the action is happening on the page. If you’re writing dialogue, you’re in scene. If you want the reader to experience the moment, write in scene.
Telling is another way of saying “summary.” When we write in summary, we’re explaining. You will write in summary when you need to speed up time or to describe events or give information that doesn’t have to happen in real time. A good hint: when there is unnatural dialogue—two characters telling each other things they already know for the reader’s benefit (“Well, brother, I know we’ve been estranged since Dad died and Mom ran off with the church organist…”)—that’s a good sign it should have been told in summary.
It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. This can be true even in a single paragraph, where some of what happens is live and some is summarized.
Here’s your prompt for the week, adapted from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, which is used as the textbook in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.
Think about something you witnessed in the past week or month. You could be a bystander or involved in the event.
Take 15 minutes to write a pure narration (telling) version of the event.
Take another 15 minutes and re-write the event using only immediate scene (showing).
Write a version that combines the parts that are best shown and those that are best told.
April 15: What Do We Owe Each Other?
by Paul Reali
Today is (usually) tax day in the U.S., which got me thinking about the biblical exchange where Jesus is asked whether it’s lawful to pay tax to Caesar. He asks whose image is on their coins; they reply: ‘Caesar’s.’ To which Jesus says, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’ Whatever your beliefs, it’s a good story, and a great allegory.
And it led me to a question: what do we owe each other? Today’s prompts allow you to dig into that idea.
For fiction writers: Imagine a conversation between one character who believes we owe nothing to anyone (that is, entirely selfish) and a character who feels that everyone else’s needs are above our own (that is, entirely selfless). Both characters are extremes, of course, but writing from extreme points of view can sometimes help us to find the nuance that represents our own position. For extra credit, don’t make one the hero and one the villain. Try to make each person earnest in their beliefs.
For nonfiction writers: Make a list, including items both serious and lighthearted, of things we owe each other. This can be specific things we owe to specific people, or more generally things that a person owes to another person in this city, in this country, on this planet.
April 8: The Mask!
by Kathie Collins
Until a few weeks ago, the only surgical masks I encountered were those worn by characters on my favorite medical TV dramas—ER, Gray’s Anatomy, and House, M.D.—and by my dentist and dental hygienist at my twice-yearly cleanings and checkups. Now, the surgical mask is haute couture, which has me thinking about “masking” as metaphor and archetype.
Wearing a mask is a way of touching the archetypal world of forms. When we intentionally cover our ever-changing faces with something plastic or static, we focus on just one aspect of our being. It’s a way of entering mythical time, of experiencing one of life’s highest, lowest, or most often repeated human dramas—an initiation like graduation, marriage, or parenthood; or a typical situation like birth, falling in love, heartbreak, old age, or death.
Masking puts a barrier between us and the world. When we don a mask, whether literal or figurative, we protect, veil, or conceal our total selves from others. At the same time, we reveal or shine a light on particular aspects of our characters. Psychologist C. G. Jung posited that we all present a masked self, a specifically curated version of our more complex wholeness, to the world. He called this self the Persona, a term he borrowed from the masks worn by actors in classical Greek theatre. The Persona isn’t a problem unless we begin to believe that the mask is all we are.
This is where writers have an advantage. We study the roles beneath the masks we typically show the world by trying on other aspects of ourselves. We cloak our personal experiences inside the characters we create. And, we “try on” experiences we’ve not yet had by imagining ourselves into new situations, allowing ourselves to act out hidden desires and impulses.
Nonfiction writers also assume a mask: the mask of the writer. This mask permits us to step back, to become less active as participants and more active as observers. Imagine a carnival wallflower hiding behind his or her mask while sipping champagne in a shadowy corner of the ballroom. We can see life very differently from this vantage point.
This week’s writing prompt wears three masks:
Reflect on a “mask” experience you’ve had or witnessed over the last week. This might be a surface-level exploration of life in the age of COVID-19 or a humorous riff on the theme of surgical masks.
Write about a mask you have worn, physical or metaphoric. How did you feel beneath the mask? In what ways were you different? What feelings and impulses did the mask allow you to express? How did others engage differently with you?
Explore “masking” from the point of view of a fictional character. What aspect of themselves does your character hide behind? How does this mask benefit your character? What does it cost them? (Bonus points: What part of yourself does this character mask or protect? What do they say or do that you can’t or won’t?)
April 1: KonMari Objects
by Megan Rich
Stuck at home for the unforeseeable future, many of us are holding our spring cleaning up to painstakingly high standards, and what better way to do that than harness the cultural phenom Marie Kondo? Perhaps you’ve unearthed an object in your attic or a sweater in the way-way back of your closet that once sparked such joy for you, it almost felt like a friend? Or maybe you’ve come to realize in the face of this existential threat to mankind that perhaps you don’t need quite that many books? (Yes we do, Marie; don’t touch our books!)
In this vein, please take a few minutes to choose one character (fiction), persona (poem), or person (memoir/nonfiction), and imagine one object in each of Marie’s categories that would “spark joy” for him or her and one that would not.
Misc. stuff (read: crap)
Now, choose one of these objects and do the following:
Describe it in great physical detail. Consider giving it anthropomorphic qualities that help us feel what the owner feels about it.
Tell the story of how that object came into his or her life. (This might be particularly interesting if it something that no longer sparks joy but once did, showing a transformation.)
Use this object in an emotionally-charged scene. How might the object itself, and his or her feelings toward it, raise the stakes or tension?
Write for at least 40 minutes, if you can.
March 25: Using the Sense of Smell
by Paul Reali
Writers paint a picture for our readers. We want them to see what we see, or what we’ve imagined. So it makes sense that the most of our writing focuses on what we see—that is, uses the sense of sight. But if you want to paint a more vivid picture for your readers, be sure to sprinkle in the other senses: smell, taste, hearing, and touch.
In today’s mini lesson and prompt, we’ll focus on the sense of smell. Here are some examples of writing using the sense of smell.
Let’s face it. Life in the outer world is typically so busy, most of us hurry through our days with little awareness of what’s going on inside us. We awaken each morning with to-do lists so long and loud, our nighttime dreams evaporate before we even open our eyes. And, we climb into bed at night so dog-tired we’re lucky to read ten minutes before our eyes slam shut again.
When last week’s (March 11) Pen to Paper class ended, we said, as we typically do, “Thanks for coming. We’ll see you next week.” Little did we know that within a few days our city would be on a light version of lockdown and that we’d have to cancel all in-person programming. We’re all anxious about the uncertainty we’re now living through. And we realize that some of our community members may find themselves temporarily unemployed or in need of assistance. If that’s you, please reach out. One of the great things about our community is that it’s full of caring people.
Indeed, we created Charlotte Lit for the purpose of building community through the literary arts, and we’re going to do our best to stay connected during these days of extreme social distancing. One of the ways we’ll do this is by continuing with our Pen to Paper program in a virtual format. Newsletter subscribers will receive a free mini craft lesson and prompt each week. This week’s issue is low-tech—which is my favorite kind of tech! But future issues may include short video lectures and readings.
If the current Covid-19 precautions remain in effect for an extended period, Charlotte Lit will develop an online format for next season’s classes. For now, however, we’ve decided to embrace the “found” time this situation has gifted us to read, write, and reconnect with our creative selves. Charlotte Lit’s entire staff and faculty invite you to join us—at a safe distance, of course.