Writer's Workshop Prompts
For the past few weeks I've been meeting up with a few friends of mine and holding a writer's workshop. We meet up every two weeks and at the end of each meeting we assign some homework for the next meeting based on a prompt we all agree on. I thought I'd get in the practice of posting the material I come up with for each prompt on the blog, we've only met twice so far, but this should become a pretty regular thing as time goes on. I hammered both of these out pretty quickly and without a ton of editing, so forgive any first draft sloppiness.
Hope you guys enjoy it.
Use this Opening Sentence: She pulls the arrow back, with slight hesitation.
She pulls the arrow back, with slight hesitation.
“That’s a compound bow, honey.” her father said, over her shoulder, “You’ve gotta pull on it and mean it.”
There was a strain on her arms as she pulled the cable as tight as she possibly could. A burning that ran up through the muscles and tendons, “It’s really hard, pa…” she complained.
“Come on.” he said, “You wanna shoot straight don’t you? You pull back loose like that, that arrow’s gonna just flop off into the underbrush.”
She tried to surmount all of her strength and pull even harder, but her arms were tight, locking up now. They would move no further. She whined, “I’m sorry, pa…” she said, “It hurts.”
He took the bow and arrow from her and in one swift motion pulled back tight on the cable and released. The arrow shot straight with force, into the distant pine tree that had been her target, planting its sharp metal head deep within the tree’s bark.
“See?” he said, not looking at her, “That’s how it’s gotta be. You wanna freeze up like that when somebody comes out here? Wants our water, our food? Your momma’s sick in there, you think she can defend herself?”
“I’m sorry, pa…” the girl said, her eyes downcast. She stared at the dry leaves and fallen twigs beneath her feet.
“Yeah, I’m sorry too.” he said, “Sorry you can’t shoot straight. Sorry, momma’s sick. Sorry, the world’s gone to hell in a fucking handbasket. Sorry, ain’t gonna change any of that, little girl.”
Her father sniffs and spits, walking away, back towards the house behind them, with the compound bow in hand. Before he walks in through the front door, she hears him say, “Tend to the swine, we need enough meat to keep us through the season before the first snow-falls…” the heavy wooden door opens and shuts. The girl’s head remains down, looking at the dead leaves, the twisting sprigs of branches fallen from trees, laying across a bed of coarse dirt and pine needles. With the leaves changing and falling, and the temperature dropping, the snows would be here soon enough.
She looked up at the sky, it had been in an almost permanent overcast for the past few weeks, a misty rain falling lightly here and there. The sight of the white clouds, turning and ragged around shades of grey, chilled her soul. She knew what it meant, it meant preparation, it meant stocking up for the impending frost, the snows. A season of survival, which they would have to weather through with momma already sick, and looking bad. What would happen to her pa if momma died? He had become cold and hard since they escaped the city since he had shot that man.
She remembers it vividly, the man’s eyes fiery as he came at them in a spasm, the rage of survival, of basic body-level terror exploded out onto fellow man, for food, for water and scraps. And then a bang, a sudden red hole appeared in his forehead and the eyes abruptly went out. Where a moment before they had been full of rage and terror and fire, they flicked off like a pair of light bulbs, suddenly dark, lifeless. Her pa had said it was all coming down, that everything was over. And the TV signals had all flickered out and there were no more cartoons for her to watch in the morning.
With all that had happened, would pa be okay without momma? Sometimes, very privately, in a place inside herself that not even she could fully accept or acknowledge, she wondered if her pa might kill her then. But that was impossible, he would never do that. He had told her that she and her momma were his charges, his responsibility and that now nothing else mattered. If they were his whole purpose, she reasoned, he would never harm her, he could never break that much.
She sighed and turned her eyes up, walking around the house to feed the pigs in the fenced off sty out back. They would need enough food to keep them through the cold season and when the world thawed out again, in the Spring, everything would be fine again. The plants and flowers and people would all bloom back into a sense of normalcy.
Object: Mechanical Arm
Situation: The feeling of being watched while skimming through a journal.
Christopher Fleish woke up in the middle of the night with an itch that he couldn’t scratch. He felt it, like a little tingle, on his forearm, where red-blonde hairs used to curl, signaling him in the dark. A ghost frequency coming in over dead airwaves. At first he went to scratch it, but when he reached his hand out and felt nothing but wet sheets, he remembered it was impossible and pulled back. An anxious feeling set into that deep uncomfortable part of his brain-matter, where the memories live, and he felt his chest tighten and heart-rate begin to speed up. He clenched his eyes shut in the dark and pressed his face into his pillow, trying to will the itch away by telling himself it wasn’t real but it just kept tingling, very lightly, almost imperceptibly.
He knew that it was all inside of his head, like the other things, but it wasn’t so easy as to just tell himself that it wasn’t there, to hit the brakes and turn around once his illness picked up speed. It almost seemed to react to his paying attention to it, of his attempts to fight it. And it got bigger and bigger, the itch went from a light tingle, an errant floater on the edge of his vision, to a sensation deep in the flesh, that ran in chills all throughout his body. It seemed to itch so much that it burned and he groaned, pressing his sweating face deep into the pillow and gritting his teeth together. Maybe if he just ignored it, it would lose some of its momentum. It would quiet back down, subside into the tingle it had been before.
But there was no stopping it from running its full course now, he knew that. He had a need to look at it head on, to try and untangle its cryptic dimensions and find some way to solve the problem, to diffuse it. Diffuse it like a roadside IED, laid along the truck routes near Kabul where Ranger APCs were transporting heavy armaments to forces near the Iraqi border. Fleish cleared them one at a time, one after the other in maddening sequence, sometimes suited up in heavy blast-resistant gear, others in nothing but his standard kevlar. Sweat dripping down his face, his military kevlar and helmet heavy on his body and neck, all the gear, all the provisions, as he stared into a tangle of improvised wiring and guerilla kill-switches and trip mechanisms.
One at time, one at time, clearing roads so his brothers could pass through to the border safe and blast Haji with a few kilotons of artillery fire, payloads that make Dresden and Hiroshima look pussy. Get them back for all the stress and anxiety and pain and suffering they visited on us, he thought, the colors that don’t run but just keep coming back, harder and harder. But each and every job was life and death, it wasn’t like being an exterminator with his roaches or an electrician dicking around with some civvy wiring in their cushy game rooms or air-conditioned dens back home.
Each and every cent of his salary was paid for these drops of sweat, these moments holding his breath tight in his chest, these moments of absolute tension, one after another. Finally, on a hot day in the desert, the sun shining down harshly from a dry blue sky, with the light glinting off of the parked truck, where Toomes waited for him, he slid off his helmet, his kevlar, his camouflage fatigues and all of his weapons. He stripped himself barenaked in the hot sun and with a hollow look in his eyes, he set about work on another roadside bomb, the last bomb. It had been poorly constructed so it only took a piece of him, not the whole him. But he often wished that it had. He laid in that bed at night, wrestling with the itch that didn’t exist in the arm that was no longer there, and he bit deeply into his pillow, so deeply that the fabric tore.
He didn’t remember when he finally fell asleep, but eventually he did, and he had relocated to the floor, beneath the bedroom window. It looked sort of odd the next morning, as he stared at his face in the bathroom mirror, the grooves of the carpeting that had impressed themselves temporarily onto his face on one side and the permanent scarring from burns and shrapnel on the other, where patches of hair, on the side of his head, and beard would never grow again. It reminded him of what General Walter T Sherman had called “scorched earth”. His mother had cried to him in the Veteran’s Hospital, even before the bandages had come off, to please let her and his father pay for plastic surgery, please, please, it’ll be just like normal again, don’t you worry son. She emailed him the contact info for a number of plastic surgeons over the next few years that he had been back, but he never so much as skimmed one of their webpages, most of the emails went unopened.
Why would he want to look normal again? He didn’t feel normal. It was the same reason he hated those limp-dick flesh tone prosthetic arms. The imitation of normalcy, the notion that you could lull yourself, or anyone else for that matter, into any kind of security with flesh-colored rubber. Christopher Fleish had no delusions about what he was, what he’d become in a single concussive blast and flurry of shrapnel; he remembers his ears rang and blood dripped from them, he felt like his brains had been scrambled as black filled the edges of his vision and the words Toomes shouted at him stopped making sense.
The physical trauma was the least of it, at least his scarred face and dismemberment became bearable over time. Human beings are resilient, they learn to adapt to their limitations. But the inside of his head was much more difficult to deal with, even before his injury. Something had been going wrong, in his last dozen or so diffusals, back in the sandpit, this idea had crept into his mind more and more aggressively until it became unbearable. The first few times he thought maybe a sniper was trained on him while he was diffusing the explosives. There he was thinking the boom would come from underneath his hands, the thing his eyes were fixed on, the thing he was expecting, and BAM a high-caliber round cracks his helmet like a bloody walnut from a distant hill. He shook the feeling off the first time and then the second and third time he started checking, more and more thoroughly scanning the horizon, looking for any trace of the enemy, the glint of a sniper scope or binoculars.
By the final time, when he lost his arm, everything happened in a blur, without thinking his body went through the motions on its own, enacting his unconscious fears and stepping boldly into them, in being completely vulnerable, in being visible to distant watchers who might do him harm. And he stripped naked in the sun, muttering to himself, and went to work on the crudest trashiest IED he’d ever been charged with disposing of. It was such a piece of shit, with all of his experience, all of his know-how, he didn’t even know what to do with it. So he just went into it, barewires and duct-taped blast canisters and all, and if it blew, relief would be on him at last.
After he’d had his morning coffee and checked the emails on his laptop, he sat in his living room, on his favorite chair, and paged through his journal. A therapist he had seen a few times had recommended he keep one. He paged through it with his physical hand and held it in place with his prosthetic one. A multi-jointed metal prosthetic controlled by muscle twitches, which he spent most of his G.I. Bill on. He turned a page and read the scribbled rambling words, the anxiety, the confusion, all the thoughts and feelings that turned his stomach and made him feel disgust when he looked in the mirror at his face. It sometimes helped putting them down though, even if he tore many of them out and burned a previous journal in the fire-pit out back, he just had trouble with them after the fact. With knowing that they existed on paper, condensed and solidified from the ephemeral murk of the inside of his head.
As he looked through the journal and attempted to wrestle with all of these thoughts, all the tangles of neuroses and insecurity, the post-traumatic triggers and stressors, he felt a tingle run up his spine. That old sensation came back, for the first time since he’d been on his tour of duty. A sniper? No, that’s insane, he thought, even though part of him still believed it. He was sitting in his living room, away from the window which had its blinds drawn, it was impossible. Maybe from the TV then? The TV was on, the volume turned way down, and an anchorman on Fox delivered the news, discussing the incumbent party’s chances in the midterms. Maybe there was a sniper, with its sights trained on him, angled just behind the news desk, leaning around the anchor, ready to pop him off. He knew the thought was insane, but he was still afraid to look at the screen. He began sweating and he closed his eyes, trying to take inventory of the things around him, to ground himself in the living room with an exercise the therapist had shown him:
--the TV is on, blinds are closed, I’m sitting in my armchair, I can feel the fabric on my elbow, my name is Corporal Christopher Allen Fleish, it is 9:13 in the morning, Donald Trump is president, the Republicans are the incumbent party, there’s a trade war, war with China, I am in my house, wars warring, war, I am in my house in Missouri, war, boom, cracked like a walnut, I am in America, seared flesh, I am NOT in Iraq, young men are expected to serve, I am in America, someone’s watching me, these colors don’t run, keep coming back and back and back and back, the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting by the dawn’s early light, coming back and back and back, over and over again…