The Clear Choice

The Clear Choice

Emily Hanlon’s Writing Retreat 1999

As promised in yesterday’s post, Not Set in Stone, here is the story told to me by artist Aleksandra Kasuba.

I met Aleksandra years ago at Emily Hanlon’s Writing Retreat, where we instantly liked one another’s writing and became fast friends. Years before this, as Aleksandra told the story, she had been one of five finalists to design the plaza for the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. Aleksandra was the only woman competing, at the time, for an honor typically given to a man. She knew this. She also knew what she could do.

She built a model of the Old Post Office, but she did not design a plaza. She designed three. And when it was her turn to present her design to the panel of judges, she began with the model, surrounded by her first design. She pointed out the features of the design. The panel was impressed. Then she pointed out the features of the Old Post Office and showed the judges why that first design didn’t work. Then she did the same with the second, first selling it and then picking it apart and in effect, teaching the judges to look through the eyes of a mosaic artist. Finally, she presented her third and best design, and this time, the judging panel led the discussion as to why this design was far superior, point by point, and why it was the clear choice.

Aleksandra was chosen to build her plaza, some 7,000 square feet along Pennsylvania Avenue.

I think of this story often, and especially when I need to figure out a way to do something. Getting back to yesterday and the whole reason for telling you this story, one can easily look at the layers of analysis that go into writing a story and the snowball effect of changing one detail early on and wonder, Why not just write it right the first time?

Well, quite frankly, because stories can be like puzzles, and you learn so much more from putting puzzles together different ways (and even from taking them apart and starting again) than you do by laying them out perfectly and moving on. When everything can be used as a learning experience, you can take chances, make bold moves, and be fearless in your work. Aleksandra taught me that.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

A Curious Little Story: The Edge of the Field

A Curious Little Story: The Edge of the Field
I had just arrived. I stood in a friend’s kitchen, looking at a curious little radio of sorts that was on the countertop. There was a strange feeling hanging in the air. I could hear voices in the dining room, so I headed that direction.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

I was told that these were the last days. “The Earth will be completely destroyed in 30 days,” one friend said.

I didn’t believe him, but everyone else in the room vouched for this truth.

“Everyone knows that,” one person said.

“The government announced it,” another said.

I still didn’t believe them. “This is the fault of that blasted box on the counter,” I said. “We need to unplug it immediately so you all realize this nonsense.”

I went back to the box, but it didn’t have a plug. There were no batteries, either. I picked up the little 3×4 inch box and saw that it was counting off the days and marking other factors to the end of the Earth. The box said 30 in one of the little windows.

A vague memory of a person at a bus stop reading a newspaper with a headline about the end of the world flashed through my mine. It was all true? And I’d only just arrived.

My friends weren’t upset in the least. To them, this box and its future were just a small part of their otherwise good and happy lives.

A Curious Little Story: The Edge of the FieldI went outside and found a large, grassy field in front of me with soldiers all sporting differently designed uniforms, according to the lines they were in.

The four lines on the left were charging the four lines on the right, head-to-head. There was a lot of noise and chaos, but there was only one canon, held by the white team (left side, closest to me). Everyone else was fighting: on the ground, man to man with swords and sticks. And bodies were strewn across the field.

There was an announcer, like at a high school football game, calling the play-by-play and reading off the impressive stats of the teams. The Irish had four straight victories, and were currently kicking and fighting their way to a fifth against the Japanese.

Then they announced some teams that were out of combat altogether because they’d lost too many times. The Czech team had just beaten the French team, so the French were out.

In my mind came old words I remembered learning as a kid, “In the last days, great wars were waged…”

I realized everyone had interpreted this and were simply trying to fulfill it the best way they could. There would be destruction, violence, war, death. These were the wars. Sardonically colorful wars.

Everyone had accepted this, and instead of fighting it or denying it, the world united in making the best of it.

These were people of an ending world who were honestly and sincerely making the very best of their situation.

I stood on the edge of the battlefield, and it seemed a burden lifted off of me. I breathed in an easy breath, deep and sweet. It was time to enjoy these days to the fullest.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing. 

Confusing the Times

Confusing the TimesThere once was a beautiful place of retreat, where only a select few were sent. The retreat offered very specialized arts classes, but class participation was not mandatory. Those who sat in class glued small seashells together. Others went on nature hikes around the property.

One particular artist wanted to do both. She had a place at the seashell table, but wanted to get her bearings first. She opted to look around the property, seeking to discover its beauty and to find inspiration in these discoveries before committing to a seashell class.

Throughout the week, she saw cliffs and valleys, birds in the air and critters of the ground, trees and the smell of the rain, and also plenty of sunshine. Wonderful as these were, something was missing for her. Each day she went out looking for it, waiting to experience that familiar feeling, that connection, that opens wide the ability to make a story. Once she got that, she would have what she came for and would be able to sit still in the shell class and make a trinket.

Toward the end of the week, she finally returned to the seashell class to find that some of her friends had been there the whole time and were putting the finishing touches on their projects. She saw that they’d made the most amazing and beautifully intricate items out of the shells.

She suddenly looked around the classroom with a sense of importance. It wasn’t about making tchotchke items from the shells. It was always about working with the convoluted, the details, the complex minutiae. She’d been concerned about the big picture, making a big splash with big projects. She hadn’t seen that the precise placement of the small and diverse shells would have exercised her mind in all the ways needed to strengthen the story writing itself in her head.

As she stood there, admiring the work of her friends, she felt the connection she’d been seeking. Every shell demarcated a decision made, a plot twist, a character’s growth. She looked to her own place at the table, and the pile of shells placed for her at the beginning of the retreat. There are times for lofty thinking and inspiration, and there are times for getting down to task and doing the work.

She sat down and started to look over the abundance of shells, knowing the hard work ahead of her and eager to do it, but there was no time. The retreat was over.

–Jody here. I thought I’d share with you the above, which is a dream I had a couple days ago. From this dream, I woke up thinking, “Work with the shells. Work with the shells.”

Enjoy your shellwork today, my friends.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

Adventures of Happy Birthday

For my Mom’s birthday one December, my Dad tied a helium balloon to the gift he gave her, as a bit of whimsy. The Happy Birthday balloon wound up staying with us for nearly six months. It had deflated somewhat, but managed to stay aloft–about five and a half feet above the level of the floor—never less, never more.

Somebody told me it was traveling on the air currents in the house, because, though we kept returning it to the living room corner by the mantle, it was always found wandering in the house and would need to be returned again. It moved silently and slowly, with a slight bob effect. And it seemed to have a front side and a back, since the Happy Birthday side always faced the direction it was moving. Happy Birthday would enter the room, travel around as if exploring, then turn to leave as you stared after its plain silver back.

It bobbed around, room to room, month after month, traveling from the living room down the hallway to each of the bedrooms in turn, and then back to the living room. It never ventured down the stairs to the lower level of the house.

One Saturday morning, I awoke to find it entering my room. It lowered down to the level of my bed and floated right across me toward the window. It bobbed up for a moment, and then turned back and lowered again to travel just above me. “Knock it off, Happy Birthday,” I yawned, rolling over. I watched it float back up to its typical height and leave my room, Happy Birthday side facing the hallway.

Adventures of Happy BirthdayOne spring afternoon in May, Happy Birthday got out. I’d been keeping a close eye one it for a few weeks because, with the nicer weather, sometimes the back door of the house would get left open. On that day, I remember Happy Birthday was in his spot in the living room, toward the front of the house. When the back door opened, he headed toward the open door. I ran—no kidding, ran—to cut him off and shut the door, and I returned him to his living room spot. A few moments later, I returned to the living room and he was gone. Curious, I turned to see that the back door was open again, and I just caught the shimmer of silver floating out. I took off after him, but he was nowhere in sight. I checked the roofline, looked to the sky. I even looked low, as Happy Birthday never floated very high. I even stood still and felt for the direction of the wind. There was no wind. So I ran around the entire outside of the house searching for him, but he’d vanished. Finally, I simply waved at the sky and whispered, “Farewell, friend. Have good adventures.”

My parents and sister hadn’t seen him go. I imagine H.B. planned it that way. The call to adventure is unmistakable, and strong.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler full of poignant whimsy. Her current writing projects, including this daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

The Picture of Change

photoBack in December, I wrote a blog called “Storytellers” that included an anecdote about a murder mystery I wrote during recess in grade school. Well, “Ta da!” this is the picture from 1987. Ah, it takes me back–big glasses, crooked teeth, messy hair—and who cares about any of that when you’re writing the best murder mystery ever dreamt up on the J.F.K. Elementary playground?

I remember the day well, though. I had my blue winter coat on because it was damp and cold outside, though there wasn’t any snow. My friend Wendy and I sat down against the school at the far end of the playground to have a little peace and quiet in order to write stories. I don’t remember what Wendy was writing, but I was working on “Midnight… Murder?” it was called. Technically, the working title was “Midnight Murder,” but I changed it upon completion to keep readers guessing. (Why anyone would “guess” the victim possibly stabbed herself in the back and hopped into the base of the Grandfather clock where she was found at the sleepover party is beyond me. But at the time, I believed the title change left a little room in readers’ minds for that to happen. They’d have to rule it out, in any case, and getting your readers to think is good storytelling.)

Anyway, we were working on our stories when a reporter approached us and asked what we were doing. We’d been watching him as fiddled with his camera and a notebook from the other side of the fence, and we kept watching him as he entered the schoolyard and talked to the Playground Lady. The two of them approached us together and asked what we were doing.

We panicked. One false move and they’d take our stories away from us and probably read them to the older kids so they’d make fun of us. I’d be in particularly worse shape: Fifth graders weren’t supposed to write murder mysteries. That kind of thing got put on your Permanent Record Card. We hemmed and hawed as we screwed up the determination to tell the truth and defend our work and then suddenly, Wendy blurted out, “Homework,” which seemed to satisfy them. We later agreed that “homework” kept us out of trouble.

With our permission, the reporter took our picture and wrote down our names. The article turned out to be a piece about a Pittsburgh school district in favor of banning recess. I don’t think it ever happened. My mom laminated the article, though, and gave it to my Grandpap. Then she found it tucked away in his house 25 years later when he died.

So here the picture sits in front of me today, with its ridiculous recess story that didn’t even involve our own school district, and a caption that included our names and the fake homework cover story. But this laminated falsified record is a reminder to me of the day I realized how much writing meant to me, how far I could go to defend it, and it was the day I began to see the only way to keep it safe would be to put it out there myself.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

Writer Nightmares: The Pencil Ride of Supposed To

photo-4I’ve had the same dream three times this week: I’m high in the air, looking down on a city skyline, but I’m not flying. I’m sitting on what seems to be a platform, and on further inspection turns out to be a giant eraser pad of an even more giant No. 2 pencil. The pencil tip is on the ground, far, far below. Up here, I need to steer the pencil safely to a tall building where I can jump off, while keeping the pencil vertical. Besides being absolutely terrifying, it’s arduous. And windy. After what seems like a lifetime, I reach the building in front of me, and jump off the pencil, landing on the roof. I vow never to do that again.

The second time I have the dream, my dog is with me on the eraser. I don’t know why I’m up here again, but I just keep fighting to get us to safety. The wind is really blustery this time, and I have to hold onto the dog’s collar to keep him from sliding off the eraser edge.

Last night I have the dream for the third time. This time, another person joins the dog and me on the eraser. Instead of traveling to the building far in front of us, I decide to jump onto the nondescript beige building to our left. The other person jumps with the dog and me, and insists that I re-board to go to the “proper” building further away. It’s expected of me. My mind is racing. I have no idea how to get us safely to the ground from this rooftop.

I look over the other person’s shoulder to the giant waiting pencil and the pink eraser. I hate disappointing anyone. But I hate more the thought of going along with this bad idea. My thoughts keep swirling and then suddenly join hands: Every time I’m stuck up there, I have no idea how I got there. This time, I can choose. Strangely, it seems to surprise my travel companion when, with all my own authority, I say, “No.”

The choice was mine. The spell is broken. I wake up. Apparently refusal wasn’t part of the dream’s programming.

What does it mean? I don’t know. But if I dream it again, you’ll hear about it.

~
My first book, Upside Down Kingdom, is available on Amazon. I’m working on the second.

Old School Gaming

photo-3We played outside a lot when I was a kid. The best games seemed to involve the entire neighborhood.

I remember once when we started out trying to play Capture the Flag, but none of us really knew how to play that. We started with two teams, and each team had an object belonging to the opposite team. The objects were hidden, and then we all ran around like crazy giving one another hints and clues as to the hiding places. It turned into a crazy game of espionage, and some kids even partnered up to give elaborate and false clues. You never knew who was giving you a truthful hint and who was sending you on a wild goose chase, especially since the teams changed as kids got called to dinner, and as other kids returned from grandparents’ houses to join in late. Some kids switched teams outright to be better allied with their friends. Many who joined late in the game had no idea where the original objects were even hidden, yet clues, lures, and traps—the plots and subplots–were rampant.

Because we didn’t want to stop playing, the game kept evolving. You had to stay on your toes, weigh everything you were told and its source, and keep rolling with the constant changes.

We called the game “Life in Times Square.” None of us had ever been to Times Square at that point, but we imagined it to be a place where you had to always be alert. It was exhilarating; exercising skills we didn’t know we even had.

It was the greatest game we ever played.

~
My first book, Upside Down Kingdom, is available on Amazon. I’m working on the second.

Marshmallow Fields

balesWhen I told a friend of mine about the road trip to the candy store where I met the giant turtle, Mr. R. Sullivan, on the way, she had this to share:

She and her husband were driving through the countryside one afternoon and they saw a field with, I think, hay bales (as opposed to straw because they’re not the same). The bales were wrapped tight with white plastic. In the afternoon sun, she dreamily looked at them and said, “Those look like giant marshmallows.”

“Take a picture,” her husband said. “We’ll tell the kids we found where marshmallows grow.”

A good road trip opens the imagination.

~
Follow the blog! And check out my first book, Upside Down Kingdom, on Amazon.

Movie Heroes

IMG_5284Another thought on movies today: Nothing is worse than going to a movie with someone who insists on being the movie hero, someone who tells everyone else that they couldn’t have had a bonding experience with the movie because this person alone did.

There’s one in every crowd; the movie was obviously made for them, and that’s that, and they won’t stop saying so until you agree.

Here’s the thing: Don’t agree with these people. We’re all allowed to be movie heroes.

~
Check out my first book, Upside Down Kingdom, on Amazon.

 

Known & Unknown

photoOne of the first movies I saw in the theater was Ghostbusters, which is my favorite movie to this day. I find the writing superb and the humor just tickles me. As a kid, I remember going to see that movie with my sister, and each of us brought along a friend. When we got there, we ran into some more school friends. Plus, my favorite cousin, Joey, (who is everyone’s favorite), was there with his own friends. The lot of us decided to sit together in one long row while the adults sat together a few rows behind us. We passed our popcorn and our movie chocolate along our row and felt the autonomy of not sitting with our parents.

This experience is only rivaled, much later, by movies I’d see in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Dupont has small movie theaters that fill quickly so that you’re elbow-to-elbow with strangers. And the general temperament and personality in Dupont means you’ll watch the movie with people who are calling out to the screen. It’s not really heckling because it’s not mean-spirited. It’s unruly in a hilarious way, and most of the time, it’s exactly what you’re thinking yourself.

Normally I like going to the movies to escape and, in a way, to be alone. But sometimes, escapism only happens when surrounded by others, known and unknown.

~
Check out my first book, Upside Down Kingdom, on Amazon.