“Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.”
~ Boris Pasternak (as quoted in Patty Dann’s The Butterfly Hours)
A few weeks ago, I opened up my studio as part of a city-wide event and scheduled a couple of writing sprints. Visitors were shy to pick up a pen (it took several invitations to convince some folks that yes, the pumpkin bread was for eating).
But one group of familiar faces (husband, daughter, in-laws) plopped down in the chairs minutes before the next writing sprint was set to begin, and it was my husband who said finally, “It’s 4 o’clock. Let’s get this thing started.”
Writers will surprise you, especially writers incognito. I had no idea. But four clipboards and two prompts later, we had the beginnings of several stories.
In The Butterfly Hours, Patty Dann writes about the power of prompts, not only as a way to explore memory but as a way to explore story. In my time teaching groups of writers, I’ve seen how one prompt will work differently for two people. A father and son, for example, starting from an image and a sentence, will reveal vastly different tales.
In her book, Dann give us sample after sample of her students’ work in order to prove her theories on prompts. Following in her footsteps (& with permission), I give you two of the stories written and shared that afternoon in the studio to illustrate mine: Father and Son and a moment in the salon.
She told her everything.
When I was a small boy, my mom always went to the same beauty parlor to have her hair done, which she called a “permanent.” The shop was on the southwest corner of North Oakland Avenue and East Linwood Street. It was called “Marge’s Beauty Shop,” and I will always remember how her hair smelled when she came home. It smelled like vinegar and some other noxious chemicals. She was always proud of how she looked, I think.
This beauty parlor is part church, part tavern. Hopes are built there, dreams are shared. Short, bobbed, blunt, shaved. A place of comfort, a place of hope. If you can dream it, she will achieve it. The tales that are shared can be cut, cropped, and sometimes even washed away. Rinse and set, rinse and set…on that day, as the secret was revealed, she told her everything.
I love both of these tiny stories for the surprises within:
- In Father, a son’s recollection of (likely) a most important day of the week for his mother, where we anticipate admiration but read “noxious chemicals,” (I laugh out loud every time I reach that phrase). But then, in the next line, the last line, the story and narrator go soft again.
- And in Son, the dreams shared, as so often they are, when we sit in those chairs at the salon, “short, blunt…[sometimes] shaved” after reasoning them out. Plus, the truth in the repetition of Rinse and set. Rinse and set. Dreams, like writing, are always in flux; formed, reconsidered, and pressed into shape again.
Often, writers approach prompts with fear, but in truth, prompts are meant to be fun, to loosen the mind, and the pen. We had such a good time in the studio that day that there was a group consensus: this would be our next family party game. Pen & Paper, Prompts & Play.
While we’re planning our grab-bag of words and phrases for the next Holiday gathering, know that you can join the party online during Principles & Prompts, a 6-week course for writers here there and anywhere. Starting November 5th, you can log in weekly with others and enjoy a little inspiration, camaraderie, time with pen and paper. And by “enjoy,” I really do mean F.U.N!