In Praise of Prompts

What is a prompt? It is a trigger to get the subconscious boogying. Prompts come in all sorts and varieties. For the creative person, they can be very useful.

Food, that piece of broccoli lying on your plate, may remind you of a teacher you remember fondly. He was a wonderful teacher. You haven’t seen him for years and you’re wondering what happened to him. He had a kind face, an interesting face. He was a vegetarian with a fondness for broccoli. You haven’t thought of that man in twenty years. Over the next few days your mind keeps returning to that stalk of broccoli, how similar it was to your teacher’s face. Your mind just won’t let go of that teacher. Then it hits you. You decide to paint a portrait of that face. And you are off on a new adventure, rediscovering the face that lunched on a thousand stalks of broccoli. The painting you finally complete may be of the teacher as a husband or father, as an old man or a young man. That trigger, of broccoli, made you explore the many facets of that man’s life.

One day you are leaving school and you see a penny dropped onto the concrete. You reach down and pick it up. For some reason, you accidentally drop it again. It makes a sound. An interesting sound that causes you to go hmmmm. You drop it again and there’s that sound. You bounce that penny against the brick wall next to you. The sound is different. Pretty soon you are dropping all sorts of change onto the concrete and the dirt or against the brick wall. You are listening, listening hard. This activity is becoming all consuming. You spend hour after hour dropping things, not just change, but pots and pans, wallets and knives. You are falling in love with the sounds. Before you know it, you sit at the piano, trying to reproduce those sounds. Within a short period of time, you have a completed piece of music. All because of one little penny you found in the parking lot.

You are a scientist and you have been working on a problem for twenty years. It’s had you stumped. You are at a party and someone hands you a glass of wine. You accidentally drop a crumb into the wine. You start to drink the wine. You go to sip the wine. You notice that crumb staring back at you. Hmmm. You sit the glass onto the table, then you drop another crumb into the wine. They are close together. Looks like those two crumbs like each other. Looks like they may even want to date. You take your finger and stir the wine. Now they are across the glass from each other. You stir again. Now it looks like they are near, but not so near that they are waltzing. Again and again you stir the wine, fascinated by those crumbs in that glass of wine. You go to the lab the next morning and reproduce the experience from the night before. Bells and whistles go off inside your head. It’s the answer to your twenty-year quest thanks to that prompt of a crumb in a glass of wine.

You observe a grasshopper on a leaf. You watch him for a few minutes. He leaps to another leaf. He spends a few minutes there and you shoo him off. He is not a quitter. He goes to another leaf, and then another, and then another. It’s a dance and you are the choreographer. It hits you what a perfect dance nature can present. You start observing squirrels scampering in their quest for nuts. You watch your cat jump high in the air, your dog go catch. Before you know it, you have choreographed a complete new dance all because of that grasshopper.

Prompts, triggers can be very useful to a writer. They help the subconscious come up with new lines of poetry, new dialogue, new characters. Say you have a heavy case of writer’s block. You’ve been trying for months to shake it off. It just won’t quit. You set your writing aside. You are just not going to try anymore. You turn on a piece of Beethoven’s music. Perhaps “Fur Elise” or “The Emperor’s Concerto”. You sit there totally absorbed in the wonder of that music. Or you find yourself looking through some old postcards from the early part of the twentieth century, or you are reading a novel you have read at least thirty times. One line jumps out at you and knocks your subconscious on its rump. Suddenly you are writing, not just for a few minutes but for hours.

Sometimes when I don’t know where to begin a chapter or a blog or a story, I pull out a book of photographs. I start looking deeply at one of them, letting my mind explore that time and that place. There are other times I will be watching a movie and I get the answer to a problem that I had been trying to solve in a story. Or I read a line of prose, like this one from A Moveable Feast: “And then there was the bad weather.” It starts me on a whole new journey with a character or a story, detouring me from what I thought might be the plot. It may start me me off on a new story or a new poem.

We are lucky. Writers have so many choices when it comes to prompts. It may be a woman in a restaurant, a man in a nursing home, a blanket with a strange pattern, the cover of a book, a stack of dirty laundry, a neighbor’s cat, the words from a dream, a postcard. You name it. Anything can prompt our subconscious with inspiration.

So be brave and trust. You never know where that subconscious of yours will lead.

What is your favorite kind of prompt?

Fermenting

One of my favorite words is fermenting. It’s such a fine word. Letting something sit on the brain and allowing the subconscious to work on it. That’s fermenting for you. I get a line like: “I am a horse, have always been a horse, would always be a horse. Until the witch turned me into a boy.”

The first thing that happens: I am startled. Where did a line like that come from? I don’t know but I am ready to follow wherever it leads. Whatever dance it chooses to perform.

Now some may think I should whip it into shape, make it become what my little pea-sized brain wants.

But that’s not the way of the tao, as Laotse let us know over twenty-five centuries ago. I let it go fermenting. I stick it in the back of my mind, check in every so often. Used to think I was the only one who did this. Then I heard the playwright Edward Albee talk. He said that he will get an idea, stick it away to allow the subconscious to work on it. Check in six months later and see where the idea has flown. Then back into the subconscious again. He does this over a two-year period. Eventually it is full-grown, and a work of art.

After a bit of fermenting, I pull it out for the old look-see. Just so you know, a bit may be six months, sometimes shorter, sometimes more. Nope, it’s not ripened and back into the old subby-conscious it goes, tucked away in the cool, dark places where it gets a chance to grow healthy. From time to time, I pull it out for some nourishment.

Once the idea is ready for the garden, I take it out into the warm sunlight of consciousness. Water it some. Feed it some plant food. And off it sprouts. Soon I have a full-blown work.

It takes a lot of patience for fermenting. It is well worth the time I give it. Look at what it did for Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen. What a lot of writers blame on writer’s block, I call fermenting, giving a work time to sprout muscles and spread its roots.

So be patient. Do some fermenting.

Do you have a favorite word?

J. D. Salinger and Me

So there I am half asleep, sprawled out in my bed with the covers pulled over me. I duck my head under the covers because I am not sure I am seeing what I am seeing. After all it is early morning and I am still in a fog. I am always this way before I’ve had my first five cups of coffee in the morning.

I stick my head back out from under my covers, and yep, he’s there. It’s none other than Jerome David. I am talking the world-famous J. D., author of “Catcher in the Rye”. I recognize him from the jacket pictures. He’s as young as he once was. Somehow he’s dropped all those years since he died and he’s back to his youthful genius of a self. He’s standing at the end of my bed and he’s puffing on a cigar. I’m thinking it’s a Cuban cause they’re not banned from importing them in the hereafter. He’s halfway through the stogie and he is frowning at me.

“So you didn’t care for Catcher in the Rye?” he asks, his foot propped up on the end of my bed.

“What? Who?” I ask from my prone position.

He sits his foot back down on the floor. “I asked you if you didn’t like my book. You responded with a what and a who. Who the hell do you think it is? It sure isn’t that son-of-a-bitch Hemingway. What an asshole. Papa indeed. I never much cared for him. Now Scott Fitzgerald, there was a writer who could write.”

“Go away.” I rub my eyes and turn over on my side, hoping that this is a nightmare and I will wake up soon.

“I will not go away. You’ve got a lot of gall not liking my book. I did some damned good writing with that book. Not as good as later but still it’s a great book, even if I say so myself, and you don’t like it. Who the hell are you?”

I turn over and face Salinger. “I am the fellow who is telling you to get out of here. That’s who.”

“It’s all about alienation, you know?”

“I. Know. That.”

“Oh, you do. Well, I guess you were never a teenager, suffering from all that teenage angst, were you?”

Now I am mad. How dare this s.o.b. come into my bedroom and tell me I was never a teenager suffering from teenage angst. I had more teenage angst in my little toe than his spoiled prep school kid had in his whole body. Holden Caulfield’s biggest problem was that he had one hell of a chip on his shoulder.

“That book is all bullshit. Pure All American bullshit.”

“Bullshit. What do you mean bullshit? I worked my butt off on that book for over ten years. Put my whole life into it and you say it is bullshit.”

“That’s what I say. I read it in high school and I just didn’t get it. I understand Hemingway’s Old Man. He was fighting for survival. I understand the Joads. They were fighting for survival. I understand Gatsby. He was fighting for romance. And, as far as angst, existential angst, goes, I understand Camus’ Stranger. He didn’t mourn his mother the way he was expected to. And he was condemned for it. But Holden Caulfield, all he was fighting for was to be an asshole. I kept wanting to say, ‘Get a life.'”

I can see Salinger clearly now. I’m awake and I can see the fake Buddhist with his hands in a fist. He crushes that cigar against the bottom of my foot.

“Oh. That hurt. Thought you were a Buddhist. You’re going to screw up your karma, you know.”

He ignores my Buddhist comment. Somehow I knew he would. “Critics. That’s why I gave up on a public life. Became a hermit. You’re all full of shit. A big bag of shit. Here I am, the world-famous J. D. Salinger, standing at the foot of your bed, trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Trying to give you some insight into my brilliance. And all you can do is insult me. Why do I even care? But that’s my problem. I care too damned much. If you only knew how much blood I sweated into that book. Trying to make every word perfect.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” I say. “I didn’t say the writing wasn’t good. It was. Damned good. Some of your best. But it was so wasted over that Holden Caulfield. Thing is that I’ve known people who complained about their good fortune their whole lives. In my book that’s Holden Caulfield. I just don’t care one iota about those kind of people. Never did. Never will.”

“But that’s not the point,” Salinger goes on. “He brought out the best in me. I guess you just don’t get it. But a lot of other teenagers did. And still do. That’s why it’s so popular. Not that I wrote it to be popular. I didn’t. I wanted to call attention to what it felt like to be a teenager in fifties America. I hit the nail on the head. That’s why I went into seclusion. I got tired of all that hero worship. Like I had the answers to all of life’s questions. I was good, but I wasn’t that good. I had more questions than answers. Anyway I tired of it.”

Suddenly he had a martini in his hand. Where the martini came from I did not know.

He noticing me noticing his martini. “Shaken, not stirred. The way I like it. You know, Ian Fleming got that from me. We were at a party once. I had been invited down to Jamaica by some friends. I was thinking that the Glasses would be Jamaican. Who do you think shows up at this party? Ian Fleming. We were talking when I asked for a martini. When I said shaken not stirred, he said, ‘Oh, I can use that.'” He took a sip from his martini. “Mmmm. That’s good.”

“So you think,” I say, “Holden Caulfield was like every teenager in America at that time?”

“I don’t know about every teenager but it sure was the way I felt. I must say that all those people coming to me and telling me that I had saved them, that was a little too much. Like I am a Messiah or something. If you want stories about messiahs, read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.'”

I am wide awake now. “Well, I am sorry I offended you with my comment. It’s just my opinion. You can take it for what it’s worth. Every writer has the write to create whatever character he wants. And every reader has the right to not like that character. Personally I liked your stories much more. Thought you had great insight into how children saw the adult world and how they communicated that. ”

Then I realize I am talking to myself. The mirage, or was it a mirage, a hallucination, well, it’s gone. Since I am awake already, I throw off the covers and jump out of bed. Oh, I cry out. My right foot hurts. I sit on the side of the bed and take a look at the bottom of my foot. There’s a burn mark there all right. It can’t be. It just can’t be.

An Uncle Bardie Writing Tip: The Odor That Keeps On Giving

So this is the twenty-seventh month of writer’s block. You look at your last few words of Chapter 13, better known to you as “The Martians Need Tweezers”. You love the characters and you love the plot. But somehow your muse slipped on a banana peel and had to go to the ER. The doctors tell you she is going to recover, but, for now, she is in a coma in intensive care. You just don’t know what to do. You have a royal case of the stuck in a holeskies and don’t know how to dig yourself out.

Well, Uncle Bardie is coming to your rescue. He has the perfect first aid to get you through.

All you need do is introduce a new character and a new smell. Every time Mr. Newby walks into a room, the other characters discuss the character and the smell. Here’s an example of how that might work:

It’s a party. All the neighborhood is there. Two neighbors are in the corner, discussing the world situation.

Then Neighbor 2 asks Neighbor 1, “What’s that smell?” He has concern in his voice.

“Oh, that’s John,” Neighbor 1 says. “Quite pungent, isn’t he?”

“Who invited him to the party?”

“The Author.”

“Well, can’t we get rid of him?” Neighbor 2 wants to know.

“I wish,” Neighbor 1 says.

Neighbor 2 is ready for some action. “Then let’s do it.”

“Hold on now. You know what happened to the last Character who tried to do something like that?”

“No,” Neighbor 2 says, kind of worried now.

“He ended up in a lake with a bullet in his head. Author was not pleased at Mr. Character’s reaction to the introduction of Character 2 in the story. I think Mr. Character was a bit jealous. After all, he had done all that work, slogging his way through ten chapters. Then Author has to introduce Character 2 at Plot Point One to give him some competition for his Lady Love, Miss Sure Thing. Well, Miss Sure Thing was no longer Miss Sure Thing. Mr. Character took care of Character 2 all right. Author was  mad about that turn of events. Not only did Mr. Character end up with a hole in his head. Author made him suffer before he went to the Character Graveyard.”

“Hmmm…” Neighbor 2 says.

“But John over there, I don’t know about. He sure has a good case of fouluptheroomitis. Unfortunately it’s quite common in new characters these days. I do hear that they have a vaccine in the works for it.”

“That’s good to know. You think I would get some brownie points from Author if I went over and talked to Smelly John.”

“I doubt it,” Neighbor 1 says. “But you can try.”

Neighbor 2 drifts over to the other side of the room.

Neighbor 1 says to a friend, “Guess there goes another smoozer.”

Friend says, “Yeah, the smoozers are always the first to go. Author sure hates a butt kisser.”

As you can see by this example, this exercise should get the story back on track. It sure helped me.

Autobiographicles Please

You’ve heard of the Tea Party? You know the thing Alice did with the Mad Hatter? Now c’mon. Not that kind of thing. Get your mind out of the gutter. They had tea. Lately I have been thinking about having me a Me Party.

You see I am three people in one. A Me, a Myself and an I. It’s time I let one of them loose to celebrate. So I am starting with Me. This Me Party will celebrate the Wit and Wisdom of Uncle Bardie’s Me self and will kick off the publication of “Me: The Autobiographical Uncle Bardie”. For those who can’t get enough of Uncle Bardie, there will come a sequel, “More of Me”, then a sequel of a sequel, “Most of Me”. Who knows where it will end? There might even be an “Uncle Bardie’s Magical Mystery Tour”.

All the greats and the near-greats and the not-so-greats and the none-too-greats get to extoll their virtues and their sins in memoirs these days. Why not Uncle Bardie? It is only fair to my multitude of fans. Though I have nothing to say about life, I figure I can say it better than all the others with nothing to say. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to those with inquiring minds if I didn’t. In fact, it would be downright cruel. Uncle Bardie, being a kind man, would never commit cruelty knowingly.

So where to begin? How about at the beginning. I can think of no better place.

I was born on a dark and stormy night in the best of times, in the worst of times. My mama was going to call me Ishmael but that name had been taken by some feller name of Melville. Like Abe Lincoln, I was born in a log cabin. Not actually a log cabin but it sounds better than a trailer park. When I say that, it makes me sound like some kind of Honey Boo Boo. We weren’t trailer trash but my mama sure knew what to do with the garbage. That was why we had a big green dumpster down the way from our trailer.

I was born on the cusp of Virgo and Libra. In other words, my Virgo was slanting into Libra. Guess that makes me a bi-cuspid. There are days when my Virgo gets out of hand and I want to study a problem to death. Other days the only fight I want to participate in is a food fight. Then I want to make sure that everyone in the fight gets at least one pie in the face. Anything to be fair.

The first word out of my mouth was “y’all”. Before I was knee-high to a grasshopper, my mama had me saying, “Y’all come back, you hear?” Like good old Abe, I walked uphill to school five miles, then I walked five miles uphill to get home. I know Abe may not have done that but it sure sounds good on my resume. And who am I to call Abe a liar? You can, if you want. That is your prerogative. Next thing you’ll be saying is that Abe didn’t lick them vampires. At least, Abe read books, which is more than we can say for some presidents.

Early on, I spent a lot of my time curling up into a feeble position. Then I became an introvert who overcompensated. I learned to twerk at an early age. It was my way of mooning the world. As I grew older, I did my best to nip it in the butt. But, as you can see, it didn’t take.

Guess Seinfeld was right. There’s a whole lot of nothing that can be said about nothing and still say nothing. And this is only the first chapter. Just think. This could go on for nine seasons and you’d still have nothing. Makes me want to rejoice in the nothing that is not there and do it nada-istically.

Talk about adverbs. That’s one heck of an adverb. Nada-istically.

If you were writing your memoir, what would its theme be?