Writing Challenges

“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” wrote T.S. Eliot. To help make productive use of our self-isolation and social distancing, Lit Cleveland will be offering free writing challenges each week via our newsletter.
Writing Challenge 1: Daily Writing
If you started “free” writing for at least ten minutes each day, as we suggested last week, you’d now have more than 2000 words expressing your joys, fears, wonderment and confusion.

Out of that rich material, you may find threads that you want to follow as you discover where your writing might take you. (Or where you might take it.)

In any case, we urge you to keep writing for at least ten minutes every day—not thinking and editing, just writing—during this crisis, and hopefully many days beyond that.
And we trust you’ll find in that daily writing some pathways to creating new works—from slam poetry to sonnets and from creative non-fiction to maybe a new genre no one’s ever heard of before (horror/romance folk song?). Happy writing!
Writing Challenge 2: Prompt
Write a creative response to the following prompt in 500 words or less and send it to us at info@litcleveland.org by the following Monday. We’ll pick our favorite submission(s) to publish online on our website. All genres welcome.

There are a lot of reasons writing about our current situation is difficult: stress, lack of perspective, competition. But one key challenge is the problem of scale. Writing about something as big as a global pandemic is too large for most narratives. And while narrowing the story to the personal is more effective, you can lose the full scope of the issue. So how do you capture the individual within the backdrop of the larger event?

One great example comes from Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Take a look at how these opening paragraphs from the novel situate a very human, relatable story within the backdrop of a much larger setting:
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.
It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.

Saeed noticed that Nadia had a beauty mark on her neck, a tawny oval that sometimes, rarely but not never, moved with her pulse.

This opening is breathtaking, mixing what we’ll call local and global conflict. At one level, there is the relatable boy meets girl story. This local conflict is romantic: will they or won’t they? Hamid makes this story compelling through specific details (beard, black robes, beauty mark) and subversion of expectation (did not speak, corporate identity and product branding). At another level, there is a much larger backdrop: the story of a city “at the edge of the abyss.” This global conflict is driven by bigger questions about the fate of a nation, but they also relate back to the local conflict be making us ask: will Saeed and Nadia survive? Here Hamid dodges abstraction or cliché through the perspective of the narrative voice, along with the stylish long sentences (as in the single-sentence second paragraph).

Shifting between local and global conflicts creates a kind of parallax—a realistic sense of scope and depth. To make it work, Hamid modulates the perspective of the narrative voice, looking one moment at an object in the foreground (stubble) and in the next moment stepping back to take the long view (that is the way of things, with cities as with life). The second paragraph even makes that juxtaposition explicit, showing how the global can encroach on the local in a single breath (“one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying”).

Think of this modulation of perspective like looking at the side of the road from a moving car. You can focus on the telephone poles in the near distance that whip past with great speed (the local conflict between individual characters). Or you can shift your gaze to the mountains in the distance which are also moving, but much more slowly (the global conflict of the city near collapse). By looking at one then the other you can achieve parallax—a sense of distance and scale.

Now you try: Write a brief scene between two people in the midst of this pandemic. Modulate the perspective to give us a view of both the local conflict and the global conflict. All genres welcome. Max 500 words. To be considered for online publication, please email your piece to info@litcleveland.org by noon on Monday, March 30.

Pro tips: Think of a relationship between two people (romantic, familial, workplace, strangers, etc.) and what their local conflict might be. Show them interacting in scene. When tackling the global conflict of this pandemic, consider how to bring a fresh perspective (perhaps imagining a narrator/speaker from the future looking back on today). Remember as always that specific, unique detail is key to helping your story, poem, or essay come to life.
Negative Definition Prompt Responses
Thanks to everyone who wrote in response to last week’s writing prompt using negative definitions! We published a few on our website. Check them out below!

“Live Performance” by Kevin Tasker“The stillness had not outlawed the soul-craft birthed out of dial tones. Every night the halls of his apartment building echoing with bleary human laughter, with unspooling stories….”

“COVID-19 Coffee Routine” by Joseph Daly“No longer will the first sip of my second cup be during the walk to my office. I won’t grimace and imagine the coffee tastes burnt…”

“When Your Condo Burns Down Just Before a Pandemic Hits” by John Zajc“Life in the time of pandemic is not in-person, day-of-election voting. It’s not March Madness. It’s not Tax Day in April. It’s not a snow day. It’s not a party. Not a disco. It’s not foolin’ around…”

“Monologue of the Unknown” by Jerry W. Vandal“I’m not a man with a sign and unkempt salt and pepper beard standing at the end of the highway for you to ignore…”

“The Pragmatist” by Julie Harper“It’s not surprising,” says my 16-year-old son,”People just haven’t been paying attention…”

“Not Your Mother’s Coronavirus” by Lisa Ferranti“I’m part of the online writers’ community, which is a lifeline for me, along with my local writing group, not only at times like this, but always. Yet, these are the first words I’ve written in weeks…”

“Act of God” by Theresa Göttl Brightman“No man with a long white beard and a staff told us to paint our lintels in lamb’s blood. There were no rivers running red, no swarms of biting flies or deforesting locusts or frogs on a migration march. There were no boils…”

“Pandemic Negative Definition” by Trudy Hutchinson“A simple walk can be a metaphor for life, can’t it?…”

“It’s Not Nothing” by Eastshore Writers J. Blakeney; M. Miller; D. Millett“It’s not the time to forgo love, compassion, empathy. And it’s not the time to reject kindness, laughter, and the simpler joys. It’s not the time to give up on life…”

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Author: Geauga News