Shared Prompt: “Get Your Story Started” from The Writer magazine

English: penulis = writer

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I came across an exercise in The Writer magazine that I thought would be fun to assign in workshop.  But first, I need to test it. “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, is featured in the January 2012 issue, and is a five-step process to jump-start a piece of fiction.  Lately, especially in this blog, I’ve been focused on nonfiction for whatever reason, so really, I’m not too far from the self-focused students in my soon-to-be ENG 210 class.  I am a pretty good specimen for this experiment.

Smolens prefaces his process by saying he’s used it with both novices and experienced fiction writers.  This exercise is meant to concentrate not on length, but on time spent writing.  The five steps are meant to be followed on five nights, respectively and consecutively, and each step has a prescribed amount of time.  I am following the steps exactly as they are described.

So, taken verbatim from The Writer magazine, January 2012 issue, is the first step:

1. Focus on where you write (45 minutes).

Write for a minimum of 45 minutes, describing where you are as you write, how you are writing (using pencil and paper, computer, etc.) and why you have chosen this particular time of day to write, Simply describe your physical location, what about it makes you comfortable–or uncomfortable.

…the first step prompt continues on for a while, so I won’t bore everyone with its description here.  If you’d like it, let me know, and I’ll find a way to get the article to you.

Here’s my response to the test.  Start time: 9:20 p.m.

1. To my left, there is a banker’s lamp from my grandfather.  My father meant to discard the lamp because he was skeptical it would work.  The glass shade was tilted, dusty, and loosely screwed on.  I took it from the back of his Jeep and told him I’d work on it.  Though I won’t leave it on unattended, it really brightens up my writing area.  I also like the irony of the “banker’s lamp” on my writing desk.

I’m sitting at the desk in my purple study, which was finished shortly before my second son was born.  I chose the color, and now I can’t remember the name of the specific shade, based on the responses I received on a Facebook poll.  Ridiculous.  Cory says it’s purple.  It’s more complicated than that.  A purply-brown, maybe?  The walls are covered with found art, photographs (new and old), and gifts from friends.  Some things on the walls are not photos or pictures at all:  I have a menu from Java’s on Gibbs, that I’ve framed.  I have a cowgirl coaster set from my friend, Anne, that is tiled precisely square, with looming horse heads on each, just below an old vintage bird “silhouette” art piece that my husband, Cory, bought for me for our four-year anniversary from the failing antique shop north of Main St.

Cory is nearly sleeping, leaning up against the wall on the built-in bench/hidden storage area he and his father installed for me.  I’ve just turned off the Sabres game, which was playing on the radio from a window behind my blog post.  They won, so I’m guessing he’s having a good dream.  He’s asleep at this point.  Though he was reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the novel that the Showtime series, Dexter, is based on, so maybe his dream is not so pleasant.  When I’m writing and he’s reading he takes a deep breath, and that’s when I know he’s going to interrupt me.  Then he’ll say, “Sorry to interrupt you, but…”  This time it was, “Do you remember the first person Dexter killed in the first season?”  Oh, seriously? I think.  Aren’t you about to read about it?  Dexter came into our life via Netflix (is this the right spelling?  I guess the spell check probably wouldn’t recognize it).  Cory found the series one day when he was off work and I was teaching.  Since, we’ve been pretty hooked.  We watched all five (or maybe six?) seasons before this last season began.  Now it’s over, and I have to wait until next fall, I guess.  This is probably why Cor bought the book.  He needed a fix.  Now, he’s snoring.  In twenty-five minutes, when the experiment is over, and I get up from the computer, he will deny falling asleep, like he always does.  It bothers me, and I’m not sure why.

I’m drinking a pomegranate martini.  This is unusual for me.  I’m not a desperate housewife, or raging alcoholic, but I had a rough day today, as far as cleaning up Johnny and Sammy’s messes go.  This was part of the reward.

Cory is still sleeping, but has sighed and rubbed at his nose.  I stop to look at him, and think the absence of the clicking will wake him, but it doesn’t.  He is so sleeping.  When he sat down to read, he said, “Man, sitting on this is like getting into a coffin.”  I know he’s never been in a coffin, but I let that go.  “At least you’re alive,” I said.

Directly in front of me is one of my favorite pictures.  Partly because it’s so unbelievably believable, and also because it’s of my brothers.  In the background of the picture is a large wall calendar.  It’s 1971, a year that I really believe I should have lived through.  My brother, Darrin, is sitting on a formica table in a white overall jumpsuit with what looks like a matching conductor’s hat.  It’s cute, but he’s a dork.  No, he’s actually only three.  Three-year-olds get a pass.  My other brother, Jamie, is barely able to sit up on the table.  My mother’s arm is holding him up, but I can’t see her fully.  All I can see is the dark outline of her arm, the shadow cast slightly just beneath.  Her arms haven’t changed.  They even had burn marks from the oven racks then.  Between my brother’s legs is a liquor bottle that reads Penn.  I’m not sure what type this is (if I wanted to stop, I could Google it), though I’m betting it’s whiskey.  In his mouth is an unlit (I hope) cigarette.  He is also wearing a conductor’s hat, though his is either pink or orange, not white.  He is not yet a year old.  I’m guessing less he is less than six months old.  I wonder where that table is now.  I would like to have it.  Gladly, I  know exactly where my brothers are: Darrin is the smoker.  Jamie is not.  Hmm.

My martini glass is persimmon in color.  I hadn’t heard that color in ages, and then I heard it on Phineas and Ferb, and have been dying to use it since.  Dalmation-like spots pepper the glass.  I love this glass.

Before I started writing, Cory and I were watching Teen Mom 2.  It’s one of my guilty pleasures.  Very few television shows can captivate me like this.  I almost didn’t write at all, but Cory turned off the tv before the second episode came on.  The third episode starts in one minute.  There were a couple reasons I didn’t want to stop watching: A baby girl had to be sedated for an MRI, and her parents were crying wrecks while she was slid into the machine, her big toe monitored by a gray plastic apparatus to be sure her heart didn’t stop.  Another reason, a little boy’s mother had left him to be with her boyfriend, and when she broke up with her boyfriend after a domestic dispute, his mother returned to the boy, who was being cared for by his grandmother.  He ran, smiling huge, with his arms outstretched to his mother.  I wanted to swoop in and pick up the poor boy, and then trip his mother.  (I think Cory just woke himself up with his own snoring.  It scared me a little.)

Cory just sat up and asked, “What time is it?”

I told him, “It’s 10:03.  I have two more minutes I’m supposed to write.”

He squinted at me.

“How was your nap?”  I asked.

“I didn’t nap,” he said.

One last sip of the martini.

End time: 10:05 p.m.

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About Sarah Cedeño

Sarah Cedeño received her BA and MA in Creative Writing from SUNY-Brockport, and her MFA in fiction from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, The Bellevue Literary Review, Literary Mama, and Redactions. She lives in Brockport with her husband and two sons and teaches writing at SUNY-Brockport. View all posts by Sarah Cedeño

3 responses to “Shared Prompt: “Get Your Story Started” from The Writer magazine

  • christine

    oh i loved this! i felt like i was right there with you. i want to do this assignment, too!

    and dexter is pretty much awesome. does cory like the book?

    • copyright1982

      i’ll do step two tonight! we’re going to dinner to be voyeurs! i have an eaves dropping problem, anyway.
      …and i don’t think cory got far enough in to make a decision yet. but yes, i love dexter!
      let me know how your response goes 🙂 maybe blog it?

  • christine

    I might not do all steps (not really a fiction writer), but I’ll give this one a try! I’ll let you know if i blog it. 🙂

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