I found THE BUTTERFLY HOURS by chance. I had stopped in at the bookstore one Saturday afternoon for an author event. First thing’s first: I bought the author’s book (KRAZY by Michael Tisserand) and a new pack of stationary. Then, I settled into a plush chair two rows back from the speaker podium. I figured I’d thumb through the book while I waited, but I was twenty minutes early and the author had just arrived and people were still setting things up. So instead, I decided to browse the tables of good reads nearby.
With the store set up for author and audience, furniture had been rearranged. The table of current staff favorites that’s usually parked who knows where sat off to the side but steps in front of me now, with the last copy of Patty Dann’s book directly in my line of sight.
The book’s appearance, meek and thin with a simple cover, drew me in. Its subtitle, transforming memories into memoir, clinched my attention, since I’m in the last stages of editing Family Stories from the Attic with Lisa Rivero and in the midst of my online Flash Nonfiction course. After reading through the first three pages, I didn’t hesitate in my second run at the cashier; having finished the book, I’m eager to recommend it. Dann offers chapter after chapter of advice, encouragement, and examples of how writing prompts work–really, how writing in general works.
You have to do the messy part because even if you write ten pages and you only like one phrase, three weeks later, during lunch or in the middle of the night, you might feel compelled to continue that phrase. If you don’t have that one phrase written down, there will be nowhere to begin.
People sometimes freeze up at prompts, get stuck on the literal meaning of a word or the exact image in a phrase. But Dann suggests that the point of a prompt is to start. Write awkward; write clunky. Prompt or no prompt, just write. Last Sunday I “just wrote” the opening scene to a new story–200 words of awful and 10 words of “this might work” (with those 10 being part of a definition from the dictionary). Still, if nothing was written, I would nothing to revise.
Shut your eyes and listen to the church bell, the train whistle, and the snow falling on the roof. Open your eyes and see how children speak into one another’s mouths rather than their ears. Recall the lilac smell of your grandmother as she bent to kiss your cheek. Touch the dried snakeskin on the ground and imagine the way your throat burned the first time you tried hot peppers.
Paying attention to sensory details like touch, smell, and taste can bring a story to life or a memory back to life, benefitting the writer as well as the reader. For writers, such focus on our surroundings can “open us up,” as Dinty W. Moore says (THE MINDFUL WRITER, another of my favorite reads), “help us to see the story or poem or play or monologue or memoir in everyone and everything.” For readers, intimate specifics make way for greater connections with the work.
There are days, even weeks, or certain months of the year, when you simply cannot write. Don’t bother to feel deflated. Accept the fact that you have time off and fill the well.
Ah, there is my saving grace.
Taste new foods, listen to music from childhood, hike trails you’ve long forgotten, try your hand at watercolors, recite the names of the presidents of the United States, and interview your elders.
Because it’s been several months since I opened the draft of my novel. When anyone asks, How’s the book coming along? I cringe, silently berate myself, dance around my answer, hope they won’t notice the shame in my eyes. I wonder what’s wrong with me, worry about whether or not I will ever finish.
All good questions; all good food for though. But as Dann reminds us, nothing to be ashamed of.
Look at the other creative things you’re doing during those quiet weeks or months. There’s much to be said for how a simple sketch or a twist in the recipe of your favorite meal or a day with the camera may feed your creative side. There are plenty of ways to engage in the work, even with your pen tossed aside. And we need that bounty as much as we need to fill the page.
Every essay I read brings me closer to my idea of how I want ( or don’t want) to write. Every story I edit reminds me of structure, what works and what doesn’t. Every book I find by chance re-energizes and renews my affection for the craft and for the power of story. Some might say this is not writing, but others, like Dann, would suggest that respite from one piece of work or another gives way for a writer to “fill the well” once again.
About THE BUTTERFLY HOURS (from Indiebound.org): Sometimes all it takes is a single word to spark a strong memory. Bicycle. Snowstorm. Washing machine. By presenting one-word prompts and simple phrases, author and writing teacher Patty Dann gives us the keys to unlock our life stories. Organized around her ten rules for writing memoir, Dann’s lyrical vignettes offer glimpses into her own life while, surprisingly, opening us up to our own. This book is a small but powerful guide and companion for anyone wanting to get their own story on the page.