Cinderella, a Twister #writingexercise

I gave this assignment to my 5000 Words students.

Take a fairy tale and either:

  1. Re-tell the whole thing in a modern adaptation or
  2. Choose a scene from the middle and use it to begin a story of your own that diverges from the original.

Sometimes as my students write, I do too. Here’s my twisted Cinderella story:

Cinderella lived with her father, stepmother, and step-sisters in a beautiful, flat country. One day a tornado touched down. As Cinderella’s father ushered the panicked horses into the barn, Cinderella waited dutifully in the storm cellar.

From outside came a terrible crash and a scream. Cinderella knew something happened to her father.

Against his command, she cracked open the storm door. Instantly a gale wind whipped it from her hands, slammed the oak door to the earth and snapped off the hinges, throwing the iron hardware into her face. She was knocked unconscious and slumped down the cement stairs.

For the duration of the storm Cinderella lay, the rainwater soaking her socks, her petticoat, her dress. Only her face was dry, still under the basement ceiling where the rain couldn’t reach. Blood flowed from the spade-shaped gash on her face.

Once Cinderella was beautiful, but the storm changed all that. It took her father too. The cry she heard was his last, as the barn supports fell on him. Cinderella’s stepmother and her two step-sisters were away at the market when the tornado hit. Upon their return they made the gruesome discoveries. Carelessly, Cinderella’s stepmother sewed the stitches on Cinderella’s face, and the resulting scar was grotesquely jagged. It pulled her lip on one side into a perpetual frown, and though her eyes remained beautiful, no man would look past the scarred lips to her kind and lonely eyes.

Worse, Cinderella’s step-sisters made fun of her, taunted her, called her Cinder-hella. Because she was so ugly, Cinderella kept to herself. The small farm animals were the only ones who saw past her damaged form. Especially the mice; they were dear friends. It was the mice who helped her with her chores and made beautiful music with her. Dancing and singing with her animal friends, Cinderella almost forgot her ugliness.

A ball was to be held, a masquerade ball. There would be music and dancing, and most wonderful: there would be masks. Cinderella could feel gloriously beautiful for one enchanted evening. All she needed was a dress and a mask. The mice heard her muttering about it as she scraped the dinner plates.

The step-sisters, already gangly and towering, seemed to be going through a growth spurt. Several of their best silk dresses were obscenely above their ankles and had to be thrown out.

“Oh, may I have them?” Cinderella asked.

“Are you kidding?” They answered, “What on earth could you possibly do with such beautiful cloth? Burn them. And burn yourself while you’re at it, Cinder-hella.” They were off to town for new dresses.

Cinderella couldn’t bring herself to immediately burn the sparkling silk. She put it to her face and luxuriated in the kind fabric. She wore the gowns, danced with imaginary partners, and pretended to be at the ball. The mice knew her well. They waited in their holes until she was done. As Cinderella gathered sticks for the fire, the mice stole pieces of the gowns, working in pairs with scissors, enlisting the help of the cat, the dog (his canine teeth), and even the crows. It was a miracle of animal cooperation and all unknown to Cinderella, who gathered wood as slowly as she could because she hated to see the gorgeous gowns wasted.

Tears blurred Cinderella’s vision as she picked up the bundles. She didn’t even know the dresses had been ransacked. This cheered the mice, because they knew a surprise would be the best present.

On the day of the great ball, Cinderella felt as if her heart would break, watching her step-sisters and her stepmother pile into the carriage in their finery and sweet-smelling perfumes. Their faces were painted to perfection; jewels glittered from every appendage. With masks, the sisters were almost glamorous. How Cinderella wished she could wear one, always.

As the carriage dust settled and they were alone, the mice emerged from the basement, the same basement in which Cinderella had lain and bled, the one place she refused to go. In their little mouths and draped over the dog’s back, the mice carried a silk gown more beautiful than any other. Behind them trotted the cat holding a magnificent mask, carefully clenched in his teeth. It was iridescent; the mice had used duck neck as their base color and copied it perfectly onto the stolen cloth. They’d unraveled the threads, one by one, and re-sewed them together into green and purple perfection.

“Oh!” Cinderella fell back a few steps. Her hands fluttered to her mouth.

One of the great horses took her to the ball on his strong back. She arrived just as they were beginning her favorite dance. Vibrantly clad figures flitted and flirted and clanged their golden goblets together, sloshing punch as they twirled.

One night.

Cinderella had one night to live a whole life of wonders. To be thought beautiful, to engage in conversation like anyone else. To dance and sing and be carefree and merry. To feel real, strong hands hold hers and lead her around the dance floor. For one night Cinderella’s dream could come true.

 

 

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Flash Fiction for Microcosms

1 Thessalonians 5:2

Charles Floyd began dying the night of the buffalo. Seaman was hailed a hero, and the whole Corps of Discovery was giddy over the near miss: how the Newfoundland kept the buffalo from trampling the officers’ tent. No one was hurt, not even Charles. Still, death had settled upon him like the dreaded foxtail seeds.

Charles’ talisman, his journal, went missing that night.

At the last encampment, Charles noted an Ottowa youth slavering over it. The brute had offered to trade, and Charles waved him off derisively. Ever since, Charles felt watched. His skin crawled each time he opened his journal and brought out the gilded page. He couldn’t take the whole volume, and by now Mother knew he’d ripped Psalm 23 out of the family tome.

And now it was ripped from him.

Sometime later, Charles’ stomach turned against him. A fire inside his body set all his fluids to defecting. Eventually, Charles collapsed. From the bluff he had a panoramic view of the valley they’d just traversed. A fitting last sight.

Charles tore his gaze away, and with longing for the land he’d not be meeting– said to Clark, “I am going away. I want you to write me a letter.”

Charles Floyd, only fatality on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and subject of my fanciful flash fiction

For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. – 1 Thessalonians 5:2

This flash fiction is in response to Microcosms 90: historical/thief/mountains. The historical genre gave me the most pleasure. And pain. Truth is so inflexible, and so is a 200 word limit (But I got confused, because I actually had 300 with which to work. Argh! My flash fiction contests all run together).  The buffalo night, foxtail seeds, and the last words of Charles Floyd (who died of appendicitis) are truth– from the story of Lewis & Clark. And I got an honorable mention for my tale. 🙂

Zeroflash Fiction: Rampart

He studies her. Must be she’s grading stories because her smile ebbs and flows. His heart’s been slogging through the desert for years and now this– mirage, his new team teacher. Like all mirages, getting too close strikes the vision, and he very badly wants to keep her.

She’s absent to the aura of her beauty. More than that. Her back is bowed in the fashion of a tied package. He imagines this. He imagines himself unstringing her, pulling her to her full height with his hands.

A paper ball hits him on the cheek. Oh yes, his students. They’re giggling. He rubs his face in mock hurt and tells them sticks and stones will break his bones but paper balls put him in a reading mood. “Due tomorrow: a thousand words.”

She watches too. A wall of glass separates, but doesn’t separate them. The true barrier is the truth he cannot bring himself to speak. Sometimes he imagines he writes her– a love story he’d slip into her pile. It feels like shooting an arrow over a rampart. Once shot, it can never be taken back, and part of him doesn’t want to play the odds. The fantasy, as is, remains intact. Sometimes she glances up and smiles, unreserved, guileless.

First, he loved her through the testimonies: a teacher who could suss passion out of these blocks of teenage cement. She was a fire hose of inspiration. He fell for that. But seeing made it worse. He’d hoped she’d be ugly. Unsure as to whether he wants to rush her, crush and loose himself upon her– or plant a brotherly kiss on the crown of her hair, he’d do whichever she wished. Take it as deep or as shallow as she wished. If only he knew what she wished.

This was a venture into less comfortable territory for me: romance. My novel-in-progress, I Trespass, has a broad romantic theme, but I take a long time building it. Romantic flash fiction? A person can get scared quickly or confused or have a spontaneous laugh… but I believe love takes longer. 

Dante’s Barn: A Short Story About the Gauntlet of Adolescence

Publication. That great Other reads your writing and deems it worthy to print. I’m pumped to share with you my short story is out today on Fiction on the Web, the oldest internet short story platform in existence (since 1996). They have a feedback field for readers. No sign-up necessary. I hope you’ll read my story (3 minutes) and click a reaction (3 seconds). Please! I’d be so grateful. To read it, click here.

The story originally came out on my blog, but I reworked it extensively and had my beautiful writer’s group give it a make-over. “Dante’s Barn” explores a pivotal evening in a young man’s life when a snow storm and a flat tire become more than just annoyances. They are prisms through which he sees his world afresh. I’ve always been interested in coming-of-age stories because they teem with metamorphosis moments, the cocoon magic we all hope will play upon us and make us better people.

But I also like ambiguity. Jude, my protagonist, my son of humiliation– it’s unclear whether or not he learned the lesson. Even I don’t know if he learned it, and I wrote him. Jude has become real to me, and like real people you can never tell just what they’ll do with information.

Some other flash pieces: horror, metafiction, and a piece I dusted off.

 

Writing Conference Memoirette

I just attended the Lorain County  Library’s (awesome!) writer’s conference led by Chuck Sambuchino. The most interesting moment of the conference was when Chuck read manuscripts and murdered them in front of us. Until that moment, I’d never actually experienced group tension in the flesh. It was like an invisible spider web stretched across the room and we all vibrated in sympathetic agony when one of our own was being devoured. I have several friends whose work I recognized, and my heart went out to them. It got so bad I started passing notes like a manic teenager.

 

I took preemptive action, telling myself things like: what does he know? and maybe he won’t get to mine. And if he didn’t… hallelujah. Amen.

He did get to mine, and I had a wonderful moment of peace as the librarian read my manuscript aloud. To hear a stranger read, with the inflection I meant it to have was a gift. Then she stopped reading. I braced myself. Stopped breathing. My face flushed.

“Pretty good,” were his first words. “I actually wrote ‘good’ in three places on this.” Then he went on to say that the language carried him through the first page, but I better have something happen on page two, by god. I wrote in the top margin: SURVIVED.

My friends were more optimistic. They clapped me on the back as if I’d had a victory. One called me “Miss Good Good Good,” which is almost as gratifying as “Oh captain, my captain” or “the queen,” but that’s taken (Kathleen!).

Our writer’s group would describe themselves as pulling no punches, maybe even cutthroat. But I think they give the medicine with a spoon full of sugar, as Mary Poppins would say. They’re gentle when they cut you.

Not so, Chuck-the-ripper.

Yet we are thankful. We all know, we collectively agree even if we singularly squirm in humiliation and shame: your medicine is good for us, and we’ll come out the other side better writers. I’m humbled and awed by the spirit of grit and determination I see in my friends. I get a front row seat on seriously amazing journeys, watching flesh and blood people take their licks at our meeting, apply the lessons and grow. I look at them and I say, if they can grow, so can I. We look at each other and say, if she can gracefully take the hit and come back swinging, so can we.

 

The Things I Carry

“What’s it like, being dead?”

“…I don’t know, I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.” – From Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This quote bowled me over. Not just because it’s a fresh look at death, but because it captures my feelings. While I’m writing I Trespass, I’m “inside a book nobody’s reading.”

Which is to say, sometimes I feel dead.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad dead. Let’s pretend there’s good dead and bad dead, and this is more of the with-my-fellow-dead, dead. My characters and I are someplace everybody else isn’t.

In the Bible, the word death is never defined by lexicographers as annihilation or extinction or even unconsciousness, but as separation. And that distinction helps me wrap my mind around death. I hope it helps you too. So while I’m writing my book nobody’s reading, I feel a separation– like I have a secret or a double life. This is the thing I carry: my story. The one for which I presently labor, and the ones waiting in the queue of my imagination.

Yesterday I finished a short story based on a family member. I began writing with real names and only at the end did I do a find/replace. (Well look at that, some members of my family are paying attention.) Keeping as much truth as possible for as long as possible helps me in the initial slog-through of the story. Once I get momentum, truth and fiction blur. I mash together an uncle and a nephew into a new little boy of my own creation. The truth is, I had a feeling I wanted to convey. I can’t even name it, but it’s the way you feel when you’re unprotected and it begins to rain and home is a long way off. It’s one to which I keep returning– children and the forces that play upon them. I have an uncle who committed suicide, and I’ve often wondered how that went down the day they were told. Rather than ask (what fun is that?), I made up how it went down that day, the day they were told.

Anyway, I wanted so badly to share this story with somebody, anybody who could say yes, I get it! or no, you’re unclear, etc. I often draft my children into literary service. Gabe is a precocious twelve year old and has often shown me plot holes or character flaws, but this story is rather sordid. I spared him. Tory, my mature and insightful writing critic is overwhelmed with school and work, and only a selfish brute would put a manuscript under her nose (for the second time this week), so I didn’t. I thought of putting a call out to my friends on Facebook or WordPress along the lines of Ahoy! Anybody sitting around wishing for a beta read? The deadline is October 1st, and I need immediate assistance… But also a part of me wanted to just ship it off, which I did.

Writing is also like war time communication, pamphlets dropped by the thousands on an uncaring population. Even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki no one bothered to read the warnings dropped from American planes that said something along the lines of: Evacuate or die. And my missives are not nearly that important. You can imagine how few people read them. Well, maybe you can’t, but I can. You’d think the inverse relationship between labor output and actual reads would send me running to another, more impactful activity. On the contrary, If I can’t write something wonderful I know no one will read, I’ll write about the process of writing something I think is wonderful I know no one will read… Exhibit A: this post.

I meant to write about a harvest, which was my prompt from Carrot Ranch. Unfortunately, I got side-tracked. When I think harvest, the first thing that comes to mind is the harvest of souls talked about in Matthew 9:37. Jesus compares proselytizing to harvesting. Actually, harvesting is one of God’s favorite metaphors. At the end of all things, He says, there will be a great harvest where the wheat and the weeds will be gathered and sorted and– woe to you weeds out there. That’s the gist. Don’t be a weed.

Because separation doesn’t feel so cozy as a book nobody’s reading.