I used to be in a town called Panic
in Charleston, SC,
floating in a lake of despair wondering, “How many clouds do I swallow to keep my head above water?”
I once was lost, but now am found,
trapped between layers of ether,
in steamy heat and a cacophony of cicadas surrounding me
I don’t know where I’m going now.
To the land of I don’t know?
Let it go, let it go, that perfect girl is gone,
back to Alaska someday
to trust my inner voice again and walk into the thick mist which seems to wrap its arms around me.
I’m going to create magic, mischief, & mayhem
wherever I choose.
I learned what everyone else learns – adulting can be hard sometimes.
I’m going to continue traveling because I enjoy learning about history
to embrace the chaos in order to organize it.
Together we will seek out and entwine our arms around each other like the roots of the tree and walk onward grounded in our truth,
everything, and nothing at all.
If it makes you happy do it!
You belong among the wild flowers; you belong somewhere you feel free.
* * * * * * *
Mindy Wells Hoffbauer
Coriander in the Spice Rack
This month’s prompt asked contributors to respond to three questions:
Where did you used to be?
Where are you going?
What’s something you’ve learned along the way?
Originally, each person’s responses were going to stay together to form each stanza, but when I saw the submissions it was clear that if I removed the the sentence intros of “I used to be” or “I am doing”, collectively each person’s responses to each question organically built on each other. So in the final poem, the seven answers to “Where did you used to be” make up the first stanza; the seven responses to “Where are you going?” make up the second stanza; same with the last.
I confess that this might be one of my favorite pieces so far.
Thanks to Rebecca Flanders who has been chronicling her up close and personal interactions with cicadas all summer, and was willing to share a photo to go with this poem.
This Exquisite Collaboration Project is based on the Exquisite Corpse, a technique created by Surrealists in the early 1900s, in which participants add to a work with no one seeing what the other participants contributed. My goal is to encourage non-writers and artists to embrace their creative selves in a safe, supportive, “you can’t fail” environment. What began as a way to maintain some sort of connection with other people during the early days of the Covid lockdown has continued to unite strangers from around the world in creative collaboration.
This morning, a memory popped up on Facebook reminding me that three years ago today I was almost done writing what would become “Suddenly Stardust: A Memoir (of sorts) About Fear, Freedom & Improv”. At the time, the book had no name and was a pile of loosely connected thoughts and ideas, but I was in the midst of the most creatively productive phase of my entire life and I knew in my soul that what I was writing would be transformative for both myself and anyone who needed to hear the message.
Three year later, and this book is not a best seller. It’s not a mildly mediocre seller. I don’t even promote it that often because I feel guilty taking money from people. But then I remember that my publisher needs to eat, too, and part of my job as an author is to not just write but also sell books.
I sold two copies “Suddenly Stardust” at an open house last week at Central Creatives CoWork of Art, where I recently moved into studio space. I wasn’t even talking about the book. I was just talking with people about pour painting and improv/writing classes I have coming up and the power of “Yes And” in all of them. People spotted the book themselves – or the book called them to itself as it sat all pretty on a display table. I don’t know how the magic of book sales works.
But it was a good feeling to know those books were going home with someone who might read the words and find courage to take a chance, to try something new, or at least see the world a little differently the next day.
Right now, I’m no longer in a creatively productive phase. In fact, I’m in a rut – physically, emotionally, mentally – which is especially frustrating since 1) my job is to help other people through their own creative ruts; 2) I have boatloads of resources at my fingertips so I have no excuses; and 3) at the new studio space I’m surrounded by wildly creative and incredibly supportive people.
I’ve been blaming this funk in on Mercury being in retrograde, and there’s some truth to that. But it’s also just been an exhausting, exhausting, exhausting 18 months and, while some wonderful things have definitely happened during lockdown, the struggle of trying to find the silver linings and keep moving forward while also being stuck in place is finally catching up. It would be easy to sit back and wallow in that.
Then I realize that sometimes I need to go back and read my own words, because when it comes down to it, I wrote them for myself as much as for the reader. And so my message to myself today?
“You’ve got business to attend to, Buttercup. The world is waiting.”
from “Suddenly Stardust: A Memoir (of sorts) About Fear, Freedom & Improv”
No one is asking me to move mountains. Just to put one foot in front of the other. Just to type a few words on a page. Just to open a bottle of paint and make a few brush strokes. I don’t need to know the next step or the end result or the why of anything. Just that if I’m not contributing my part – insignificant as it might seem to me – I may be holding someone else up, which holds someone else up, and on and on and on.
You can find “Suddenly Stardust” in ebook, paperback, and hardcover at your favorite online retailer. Or you can just click here: https://amzn.to/39zRZLs
Note: This collaborative work was created during National Poetry Month with participants across the US and around the world. At the end, you can see a list of the participants and information about the prompt.
A DAY IN OUR ROOM
A chilly, rainy spring morning
In my Springboro, Ohio, US kitchen
Shiny granite countertops, stained-glass back splash, a blooming white orchid, new leaves emerging from acres of trees, a sleepy ginger tabby tom
My bougie cat’s water fountain, the refrigerator humming, typing fingers click-clacking away in fits and starts, slow deep breaths
A chair warm from sitting too long, the lined texture from my mouse’s scroll wheel, the random whiskers on my chin
The kitchen hand soap’s lingering vanilla scent, freshly ground coffee beans
My cinnamon toothpaste
Rochester, NY, 2nd floor home “office”
“I Voted Today” sticker, jar of butterscotch candies, upstairs hallway, calculator, Wi-Fi thingie
Keys on my laptop, Pandora music stream, my breathing, scratchiness of unshaven face
Fingertips on fingertips (spider doing push-ups on a mirror), computer mouse, scissors
Soapy smell of hands, coffee – really, you too?
Triple berry yogurt
Living room, sitting in my rocking chair, looking out the window
Snow, trees, yellow, pillows, hands
Birds, furnace, thoughts, breath
Mug, pen, heart
At my desk in an international school in Hong Kong
Smelly markers, green grass, masks, lipstick, my lunch
Vowel practice, playground chatter, air con humming, chair squeaks
Curly hair, a new wart, tangled phone cord
New Jo Malone, bleach
My couch in Texas
Squirrel, creek, tree, sculpture, sky
Airplane, siren, traffic, voices
Laptop, blanket, mug
Fresh air, leftovers
Computer, lamp, mug, scissors, frame
Chirping, snoring, raindrops, train whistle
Paper, printer, phone
My favorite chair in the family room, Vero Beach, Florida, US
Mug, sofa, cat, computer, bookcase
TV, traffic, air conditioner, husband talking
Keyboard, computer mouse, pencil
Remnants of breakfast, coffee
Aftertaste of peach yogurt
11:30 a.m. in the morning
Sitting at the table in my great room looking outside in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA
Birds, butterflies, books, bench, beauty all around me
Music, wind chimes, clock ticking, birds chirping
Mug, table, chair
Coffee, wet plant soil
East Rochester, NY, US
My sister, the television, three lamps, a dreary day outside, dog toys
Voices on a TV show, music from the same show, dogs outside talking to each other, birds chastising the squirrels in the food dishes
My iPad screen, my coffee mug, the remote
Coffee, air freshener
Morning work hours
A safe place, USA
Roses in a vase, computer screen, credit card, reminder note, rain
Children bustling, husband’s work meeting, food wrapper, rain
Wood desk, smooth keys, cozy sweater
Dust (ha!), rain
On a couch in my daughter’s home in Lititz, PA, USA
Folded laundry, three lime green pillows, a bag of Reese’s pieces, a pencil with a cow topper, a charging cord
The fire siren, an amber alert on my phone, a ticking clock, clicking of laptop keys
A TV tray, my laptop, my coffee mug
Rotting lilies in a nearby vase, a watermelon candle
My morning coffee
Rochester, NY, USA, my bedroom office
Computer monitor, window, printer, wall, calculator
Rain, computer fan, grandkid singing, cars on wet road
Chair, desk, keyboard
Cat box, the shoes I just took off
Left over pieces of lunch in my teeth
Home office space, in a comfy office chair, green screen behind me, in Bangor, Maine, USA
Zoom screen, cup of coffee, water bottle, cell phone, cat
Zoom meeting, keyboard, can of air, cat
Cat, keyboard, cushion
Coffee, litter box
Sitting in my home office
Coffee, cat, dinosaur, cape, sword
Fan, chewing, computer humming, rattling
Lunch, keyboard, phone
Cup, wallet, books, boxes, stars
Car horns, rock music, water dripping, bees buzzing
Alabaster, apples, records
Barbecue, cough medicine
My Office Chair, Georgia, US
Paper, computer, mug, deck of cards, stapler,
Hum of the computer fan, clicking of the keyboard, my own pulse, notifications
The letters on my keyboard, the linen of my shirt, the plaque on my teeth
Leftover lunch, stale coffee
A Dining Room in Western NY
Chinese Checkers board, Thimk board, Parcheesi board, Chess board, Scrabble board
Neighbor’s ATV, the Thruway, clock ticking, footsteps
Laptop keys, notebook, placemat
Hand soap, coffee
My kitchen, Chelsea, Michigan, United States
Houseplants, ceramic piggies, stove, bananas, plates
Pages flipping, refrigerator humming, dog whining, husband talking
Measuring cup, spatula, oven timer
Bacon, peanut butter
In bed in Rochester New York
Philip Glass reminds me
The hours that pass by blindly
While it snows in April
I am lost in thought through mines
From borrowed ideas recycled like the cans on these pages
Bedtime in an American suburb
Two black cats, one yellow dog, my 4-year-old daughter, a wall full of art
White noise, crunching, a snoring cat, my own heartbeat
Fur, a warm cheek, a cool window
Vegan cheddar puffs, damp sphagnum moss
William is a cat.
A companion to his humans, the mayor of his neighborhood, the center of his own universe.
William is a cat who hides his scat.
He’s not sharing and that’s that.
His tiny turds of kitty poo-poo, all speckled with litter,
Dropped into baggies. Hip hip hooray!
William the cat keeps to himself most of the time,
but his heart is big, he cares deeply, and is a true friend.
The son of Prince William
He’s a gentle fellow, soft as a marshmallow.
William is a very intelligent cat
He knows that while the birds are off limits the mice aren’t.
William is happening and all knowing, just as a cat should be.
Any further input would be redundant and superfluous.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(William’s portrait provided by Zeina Salame)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Earlier this year, I took an Impro for Collaborating class with Theresa Robbins Dudeck through the Artists Repertory Theater in Portland, OR. One of the participants, Diane, talked occasionally about William. Most of us just assumed William was her partner, until one day she talked about William using his litter box. “William is a cat?” someone asked, and we all had a good laugh about it – and then met William, the cat, via Zoom.
What better way to capture the moment of collective, spontaneous delight than with a collaborative poem! The prompt, of course was “William is a cat”. Contributors could include the phrase if they wanted it wasn’t required. And just for fun, I asked a few non-classmates to add a verse.
Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry comprised of short lines that don’t rhyme but work together to create powerful imagery. For this Exquisite Collaboration, participants were asked to write a haiku following a 5-7-5 syllable structure. The following prompts were offered for inspiration.
You’ll notice that one of the verses doesn’t follow the haiku format. That’s the test entry I did to make sure the form worked before the prompt went live. I forgot to delete it from the contributions but when I saw it I realized that it still worked as part of the collaboration.
I’m trying these days to embrace mistakes as creative gifts. This was one of those mistakes.
The results are in for the finals of the NYC Midnight 250-word Microfiction contest. While I didn’t place, I am absolutely thrilled – thrilled!! – to have been part of this experience. Here’s my round three story, followed by the judges feedback, in it’s entirety, links to my rounds one and two stories, and some thoughts on the contest.
THE DEAD OF WINTER by Joanne Brokaw
Rachel lay awake listening to scurrying behind the aging farmhouse walls, the sound of nesting mingling with the bitter wind howling across the plains, destroying everything in its path. She sensed tiny life drawing nigh, and it brought her comfort.
“I’ll get the poison from the barn,” William said when he heard the scratching.
“Please don’t. I can’t sleep and it keeps me company.”
“I’ve warned you, wife. The delicate of heart have no place here.”
“Then I’ll catch it and release it into the forest before the first snow.”
“Poison, winter freeze. What do I care. It’ll soon be dead either way.”
Rachel crafted a small wicker basket for a trap, baited it with cheese, and quickly captured a pregnant little mouse. William sneered when he saw the animal cupped gently in his young wife’s small hands, then offered to wring its neck.
“It deserves a chance!” Rachel cried, tucking the mouse into her apron pocket before flying out the door and into the darkness. An icy wind tore at her skin. She ran to the edge of the forest, collapsing to her knees before an inconspicuous cross marking the grave of the sickly infant recently dispatched by her husband. As the mouse escaped her pocket and scampered towards shelter in the nearby underbrush, Rachel felt a heavy hand upon her shoulder.
“There’s no room for weakness on the prairie, wife,” William said, then bashed her skull in with a rock.
There’s a moment in season one, episode eight of “WandaVision,” when Agnes (played by Kathyrn Hahn) and Wanda (played by Elizabeth Olsen) are engaged in a fierce battle of magical power. (I’m trying not to give anything away.) After revealing a secret about Wanda’s true identity, Agnes chides her with this line:
“You’re supposed to be a myth, a being capable of spontaneous creation. And here you are making breakfast for dinner.”
I used to be in too much of a hurry to notice the little things, but now I am more intentional and focused and thankful for nearly all of it–even the stuff I wouldn’t choose, for it all contains a lesson.
I used to be together, but now I am scattered, lonely, alone.
I used to be the happy, hopeful mother of two living children, but now I am a grieving, sorrowful mother who has lost one of them.
I used to be hopeful but now I am cynical.
I used to be hopeful but now I am resigned.
I used to be a garbage can collecting all the sin, but now I am a refrigerator that has to stay plugged in.
I used to be good looking but now I am old
I used to be a public frog but now I am nobody
I used to be moldy, but now I am cold-y.
I used to be tan, but now I am not.
I used to be troubled but now I am better.
I used to be an empty rain-catch but now I am a reliable well.
I used to be busy doing, but now I focus on being.
I used to be young and ambitious but now I’m older and wiser.
I used to be the guy saying ‘stick it to the man’, but now I am a safe, careful part of the establishment machine.
I used to be a scientist, but now I am an experiment.
I used to be the one who asked the questions, but now I am the one who knows the Answer.
I used to be unsure, but now I am aware that I don’t have to have all the answers.
I used to be opposed to opposition, but now I am content embracing hugs.
I used to be too old for this shit but now, thank heavens, I am a child again.
I used to be young, wild, and free but now I am old, wild, and free.
I used to be a guitar but now I am a trombone.
I used to be timid, but now I am fearless.
I used to be burning, perhaps not the fire, but the wad of documents, flaked edges aglow, the light hypnotic, paper on the verge of becoming ash, a supply of memory, the inked word shrinking into nonsense as they were consumed; but now I am rising, a spark gleaming in the air, the cascade of heat shimmering above the coals, the searing chronicle of the blaze.
Last fall I entered the NYC Midnight Microflash Fiction contest. In January, I made it through the first round, and last night I learned that I’ve made it through to the next round! Here’s the story that moved me to the finals. At the end is some of the judge’s feedback.
Assigned genre: Historical Fiction
Action that had to be included: bricklaying
Word that had to be included: step
Time to write the 250 word story: 24 hours
A WHISPERED AGITATION by Joanne Brokaw
Martin filled his trowel with cement, slopped the mortar onto the growing barrier, and topped it with a brick. “You’ll not see that neighbor again, Emily.” More slop. “She’s an agitator.” Another brick.
Emily knew enough to remain silent when her husband was mid-tirade. His word was law, by God, and she best not forget it. But while her lips were quiet, her spirit was not.
Days earlier, that neighbor, Clara, had returned from visiting cousins in Auburn and whispered to Emily rumors of a coming women’s rights movement.
“Can you imagine?” Clara marveled. “To have the vote?”
“That’s preposterous. Surely you’re mistaken. ”
“No, Emily, there’s to be a convention next week. We will be heard.”
For days, dreams of equality girded Emily with confidence. She sewed a new dress; Martin accused her of putting on airs. Her request to see the household ledger was met with icy silence. But it was her utterance of the word “suffrage” that prompted Martin to build the wall.
“You think we don’t know what our wives are up to behind our backs?”
Emily spied Clara on her porch, her black eye and swollen lip visible even at a distance. Clara quickly turned away.
Emily decided. With Martin distracted, she slipped away, donning her bonnet as she walked determinedly to the train station. She stepped up to the ticket counter and pushed a few pilfered coins towards the agent. “One fare to Seneca Falls, please.”
This is a fiction contest where, at the designated start time, participants are sent their assignment, which includes the genre they are supposed to write in, an action that has to take place, and a word they must include in the story, and they all write a story. The top writers in their groups move on for two more rounds, until a winner is crowned.
Oh, and did I mention participants have 24 hours to write their story?
Here’s the thing. I don’t write fiction. OK, well, I do, sort of. As part of my “write like a mad scientist for the first draft” practice, I often will ask friends for three random words, set a timer, and then use those words as prompts to write anything that comes to mind during the designated free writing time.
Often, it’s some weird story that comes from out of nowhere, something that if I was trying to write it would never appear. I just “Yes And” whatever comes out (improv has improved my writing as well as my life), and I rarely edit those mad scientist drafts. They go into a file I pull the out once in a while and think, “This would make a great story,” panic at the thought of having to actually write the story, and promptly put it all back in a drawer. I do, however, share them with my besties and creative cheerleaders Roberta Gore and Carrie Anne Noble, two accomplished fiction writers.
“You do write fiction, Joanne,” they keep telling me, but I still disagree. To me, a fiction writer plots story lines and crafts characters and pays attention to themes and irony and other literary devices. I just splash something on the page and leave it to fend for itself.
My non-fiction career? Not a problem. I can pen a fabulous feature story, spin a delightful humor column, muse poetically in an essay. I have a few awards to prove I’m pretty good at that.
But making stuff up and creating worlds? Not really my thing. (Except on the improv stage. Are you noticing a theme here?)
So anyway, back to the contest.
The contest entry fee was $25, and every participant receives feedback on their piece, whether they move on to the next round or not. That sounded like a good deal to me.
Here’s the wrinkle: I thought I had entered the Flash Fiction contest, where entries had to be 500 words or less. When I saw the assignment I realized I actually entered was theMicro Flash Fiction contest, where entries were limited to 250 words.
As we enter into this new year, I have a confession about 2020: once I got over the initial “lockdown put the brakes on everything” depression, I thrived creatively in isolation.
The “aha” moment came when the bird landed on my head and ushered in a mindset of magical possibility. After that, it was far easier for me to do big things even though I was confined in a small box. Maybe because I controlled the box and the box could take me around the world with just the click of a mouse, a sort of pandemic TARDIS. Having the freedom to just do something without needing to find a host or get permission allowed me to…well, just do shit. Whatever shit I wanted to do.
Notice anything? I didn’t do this alone. You were there the whole time.
And with that, I am going out on a limb to say out loud that I’m starting my next book, tentatively titled “The Story of You: A Creative Journey.”
Once upon a time you did not exist. Then one day something happened, and viola! There you were. Then some more things happened, and are happening, and will happen soon, Until one day, in the blink of an eye, you will be no more. That is the story of you, in a nutshell. But when you crack that nutshell, out spills an avalanche of those things that happened, and are happening, and will happen soon. Those things are the heart of your story. They explain who you are. They define why you are here. They show where you came from. They guide where you are going. They create what you will leave behind. Inside the nutshell is the story of your journey. And that is the real story of you.
I’m telling you this because throughout 2021, you can help me work through ideas by responding to prompts and answering questions and playing games and participating in reflective exercises. If you want to stay updated, make sure you’re on my mailing list. You can find the sign up on the home page of my website. http://joannebrokaw.com/index.html
While I can take this journey alone, it’s more fun with friends. And let’s be honest: while I am confidently at the starting point, I have no itinerary or road map. If I don’t take someone along for the ride, I may just sit in the parking lot with the engine idling.
So we’re going on a fun, introspective journey together, my lovelies, starting soon. No seat belts required.
Here’s to a new year that overflows with beautiful things.
For this final exquisite collaboration project of 2020, almost 40 people from around the world contributed one sentence expressing a hope for the new year. These sentences were then sorted to create the following poem that, despite everyone contributing independently of each other, echoed common themes of peace, health, and the desperate desire to hug again.
I want to thank everyone who participated in these poems this year. Facilitating these gave me a creative purpose during the pandemic lockdown and put into action what has been my writing motto for more than 20 years:
Connect. Inspire. Change the world.
May your 2021 overflow with all things beautiful, and may we have many more opportunities to create magic together. xo
If we all treated each other and the planet with kindness and respect,
Then there would be no need for war,
And the world would be at peace.
If you recall, a hooded stranger ran up to me in the street.
Then I greeted them warmly, and asked them to join me at the community faire.
And the world sang joyously at our arrival.
If the skies burn and the storms rage and the winds rush and the seas churn
Then no human life will have the privilege of comfort and safety
And the world will laugh and dance to celebrate the new life to take our place.
If I could climb to the top of the apple tree
Then I could breathe in fall like the starlings and the last of the butterflies
And the world would hurt a little less.
If they told me to go home and make crafts with my daughters
Then I’ll craft my ambition to show them what’s possible
And the world, doubters and believers alike, will watch me rise.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Maur J DeLaney
Carrie the Bat
The poets hailed from Hong Kong; Rochester, NY; and Pennsylvania.
The video presentation of the poem was created by Crystal Hayduk, who also provided the poem’s title. She hails from Michigan.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
For this poem, each participant wrote three lines that together form one stanza or thought.
Line 1 began with the word “If”
Line 2 began with the word “Then”
Line 3 began with the phrase “And the world”
This Exquisite Collaboration Project is based on the Exquisite Corpse, a technique created by Surrealists in the early 1900s, in which participants add to a work one bit at a time, with no one seeing what the previous participants contributed. The goal is to encourage non-writers and artists to embrace their creative selves in a safe, supportive, “you can’t fail” environment.
This morning I hosted a Zoom Creative Space with some friends – a dedicated time to write, paint, sew, create, whatever anyone wanted to do, but in the virtual company of other people also creating.
I haven’t been writing myself lately; for most of the last two years I’ve been focused on helping other people capture their own creative energy. I needed this time just as much as I wanted to facilitate the time for other people. But since I’m not actually working on anything at the moment, to get started I asked my Facebook friends to give me three words to use as free writing prompts. The first three words offered – from Chris Stoker, Yvonne Ransel, and Larry Ploscowe – were:
Here’s what I mean by “free writing”. I’m taking those word suggestions and, with as little editing or thinking as possible, writing for an allotted time (in this case about 45 minutes with a few breaks), and then letting it settle to see what might come out. The goal is simply to write – what I write is irrelevant.
I call this the Mad Scientist draft – anything is possible and everything is allowed. I love being a creative mad scientist.
Full disclosure: I’ve gone back and done a wee bit of tweaking before I posted this – mostly taking very long run on sentences and turning them into slightly less long run on sentences, and fixing some typos (I’m sure I missed a ton). But keep in mind this is still a very rough draft of…something. I’m being creatively vulnerable here because I want to encourage you to create without fear, to turn off that internal editor and let words flow however they want. Worry what it means later.
I had fun with this. I hope you have fun reading (or watching the video). And for the dozens of people still posting word suggestions, I have an idea to use all of them so stay tuned.