Erma, Fiction, and Free Writing with the Queens

One of the sessions I attended at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop a few weeks ago was with Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, best friends and authors of the book Queen of Your Own Life.

My year started with the rug being pulled out from under me, and while the shock of betrayal definitely threw me off course, in the end I realize I’ve been given a gift: the chance to pursue the things I feel like I’m supposed to be pursuing, and learning to become the human I’m supposed to be.

This is a year of change, of healing, of forgiving and being forgiven, of saying “No” to others and saying “Yes” to myself, and to demanding that people who say they love me actually treat me with respect – and, I’m realizing, learning to respect myself.

In other words, I’ve been given permission to put myself first.

But enough blathering about me.

Erma. The workshop session. So…

Kathy and Cindy gave us all timers, and we did 10 minute burst of free writing using prompts. I always say that I don’t write fiction, that I don’t know how to write fiction, as if  you have to have been born with some magic talent for making sh*t up. What I got out of this session? I can do anything, if I just stop thinking about how much I don’t know how to do it.

A lesson for life, in this year of discovery and change.

Here are the three writing exercises, and what my brain banged out in each 10 minute burst. I actually love free writing, and have used it to create some great stuff. I won an award for a column I once wrote, which was basically a free writing exercise. (An award, I might add, for a contest someone else entered on my behalf. This fact will become relevant in a minute.)

Kathy and Cindy gave us four elements, and the only guide was that the elements should be in whatever we wrote. I’m posting what I wrote, with almost no editing (in fact, I didn’t even fix the places I’ve spelled the names wrong), but I can see nuggets of stories that could be explored, hints of how these fictional women are becoming the queens of their own lives.

So who knows. Maybe I do write fiction. Or maybe I’m learning fiction has a bit of fact nestled inside. Anyway, timers ready? And, write…

* * * * * * *

Coco LeFleur sat at the cafe table, her left ankle resting on her right knee. As the waiter poured her espresso she rubbed the instep of her foot and tried to remember the previous night.

It was a blur. Music, lights, soft breezes, and of course, Jacques Du Monde. The artist had been one of the judges as the 1927 Parisian Dance Finals, and Coco had caught his attention the moment her red tap shoes hit the stage. After all the participants had strutted, and Coco, as expected, had been crowned winner, Jacques had whisked her off into the night for more dancing, down the Rue Du Something and up the stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Coco had been atop some of the world’s most famous landmarks, but dancing with Paris’ most famous painter atop  Paris’ most famous structure was an adventure even for her. Mostly because Jacques insisted that she dance sans shoes – and, foggy though the memory was, sans dress – while he sat on the rail, sketch pad in hand, capturing her whirling gracefully under the starry night sky.

Coco remembered little else about the evening after her dress came off. There was champagne, and tourists looking on, and on the way down perhaps a policeman delicately holding her arm to keep her from tumbling to earth. When the sun rose this morning, all Coco really had to remember the evening was a crumpled winner’s sash, sore feet, and a pounding headache. What had become of her underwear was still a mystery.

* * * * * * *

Dee Dee stood at the deli counter surveying the array of sliced cheeses. She was scheduled to appear on Tuesday night at the Women of Wisconsin’s Cooking Club to demonstrate her recipe for mac & cheese, a recipe that had just been named Casserole of the Year at the annual cooking competition.

She’d been surprised by the honor, mostly because, technically, she hadn’t even entered the contest.

The week before, like every Tuesday, she’d prepared dinner for the family and left it warming in the oven while she went to book club. Her husband had spotted the ad for the competition only that morning. Excited at the prospect of possibly seeing his name in the paper, even if it was just as “husband of”, he’d rushed the glass baking dish down to the Women of Wisconsin’s offices, where the competition was taking place.

It won.

Dee Dee is an honest person, and she knew if her family ever found out that her now award-winning mac & cheese was actually a Stouffer’s frozen casserole that she simply dumped into one of her own baking dishes, she’d never live down the embarrassment. When she learned she’d won, she thought she could just accept the ribbon and quietly move on.

Except now, as the official contest winner, she was expected to prepare the dish live, on the local PBS show, Cheeses of Chester County, while show host and renowned chef Jacques Du Monde watched on.

Dee Dee was fairly sure that opening a frozen dinner and dumping it into a dish didn’t count as cooking, so there she stood, at Hegadorn’s Grocery, deciding which cheese to pair with the boxed macaroni she’d stacked in the cart. One box dry penne to one pound sliced Gouda? Two slices American to a box of elbows? She wondered if she could smuggle a frozen Stouffers under her apron.

* * * * * * *

Gertrude Svenson looked at the notepaper crumpled in her hand and then, hesitatingly, handed it over to the librarian.

“Could you make twenty copies of this for me?” Gertrude whispered.

The librarian snatched the paper and stomped off to the office. Gertrude could hear the click and whir of the machine as it spat out words that, once embedded in indelible ink, might change her life.

Or not.

Gertrude had decided to enter the mayoral race after her last visit to town hall, her most recent attempt to get a stop sign erected at the corner of the street where she lived. The cars whizzing by had created a hazard for her free range chickens and after Aunt Bea was tragically struck down last summer, and the town refused to take her complaint seriously, Gertrude decided it was time to take matters into her own hands.

Not an easy task for a 64 year old woman who spoke less than 64 words a year to other humans. Her language was eggs in trade. But enough was enough. What had the world come to when a chicken couldn’t cross the road safely anymore?

The problem with running for mayor of Bimiji, Minnesota, was that almost all of the town’s current residents were related to the current mayor, Harold Lindquist. Which meant that Gertrude’s chicken battle was going to be an uphill fight. She knew that. But there comes a time in every woman’s life when push comes to shove, and a small voice needs to speak loudly. Even a chicken needs governmental representation.

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