For my fourth week mentoring in the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, I’m giving my writers a prompt for a personal essay or short story. I’ve found that it can be difficult to write about the big moments in our lives without getting overly sentimental or morose. But often if we come at those moments less directly, a story can bubble up more subtly – and be more effective as a result. So I’m asking the writers to try this:
1. Think of a big moment in your life that you shared with someone, say the birth of a child, or the loss of one. (Can you tell I’m about to send my youngest off to college?)
2. Think of a small moment that includes that same person and that makes you think of that big event, or the emotion of that big event. It might be anything. Something as simple as, say, taking a child to pick out a holiday decoration.
3. Now try writing about the small moment, but in doing so keep in mind the big event. See if you can’t capture the essence of the big event in telling about the small moment.
One example of this – and the reason I chose the examples of a lost child and taking a child to pick out a holiday decoration – is an amazingly moving short piece titled “Along the Frontage Road” by Michael Chabon. It’s a story in which, in taking a child to pick out a pumpkin for Halloween, he deals with the emotion of a miscarriage from which his wife (and he) are recovering. I read the story in 2001, and still remember it vividly.
With apologies that I can’t link to the story – it’s behind the New Yorker paywall – I offer also a much less worthy example in the first piece I ever published, “What the Medal Means.” It’s about a training run I did for a marathon, and about my dad’s support in helping me recover from failure. It’s flawed, for sure (for starters, two paragraphs in a row start with “then”). But I’m using this excuse to trot it out because … well, its publication was the first time I saw “by Meg Waite Clayton” in print, fourteen years ago this month. And seeing it still makes me smile. If you haven’t been there yet, trust me, it’s a special moment. If you have, you know what I mean.
So is it your turn to see your name in print if you haven’t already, or even if you have? As many of you know, I’m generally wary of writing contests, but I came across a few in the most recent Poets & Writers. They are fee-free and offered by reputable groups or publications – with deadlines coming up:
University of Iowa Press Short Fiction Award – Award-winning manuscripts will be published by the University of Iowa Press under the Press’s standard contract;
Real Simple Life Lessons Essay Contest – the prize here is $3,000, publication in Real Simple, AND a trip to New York to meet the editors; and/or
The Writer’s Center Emerging Writers Fellowship – from the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD (a wonderful organization), but you do have to live within 250 miles to qualify
Good luck, and happy writing! – Meg