Story Published in Underwater New York

It’s a bit of an unusual premise: create something prompted by one of many strange objects and phenomenon submerged in NYC’s various bodies of water. The list of objects includes things like a shinbone in the New York Harbor, a dead giraffe in the Lower New York Bay, a bag full of lottery tickets in Prospect Park, and lizard skin purses in Dead Horse Bay. Just think of all the possibilities!  My flash fiction story, for example, was inspired by a pair of silicone breast implants that were found washed up on Coney Island; if you look, there are three other interpretations of the implants’ origins. Underwater New York is a digital journal that publishes these “stories from the deep,” in whatever form they come: short fiction, flash fiction, songs, and artwork.

If you’re interested in submitting something yourself, the only rule is that you stay true to the object; for example, if it was found on Coney Island, then it must be located there in your story too.

Hope this helps get your creative juices flowing!

(Image)

The Cure to Writer’s Block: Tell the Story Behind PostSecrets

Two weeks ago I attended the PostSecret event at Rutgers University, Camden campus with my younger sister.  For those of you who don’t know, PostSecret is a community art project started by Frank Warren a handful of years ago where people send in anonymous postcards inscribed with a secret they’ve never shared before and Frank posts a collection of them on the Postsecret blog every Sunday; some of you might remember its initial launch to fame with the All American Reject’s popular music video.

 

Since then, Frank has compiled five PostSecret books–the newest one being Confessions on Life, Death, and God

and has done hundreds of presentations on the lecture circuit.  Two weeks ago, people revealed secrets varying from embarrassing public peeing experiences, to admitting considering suicide, to getting down on one knee and proposing to a girlfriend left completely out of the loop until that moment (this kind of made my sister and mine’s lives).

Wedding Proposal Rutgers University, Camden 2011

Wedding Proposal at PostSecret Event

All it took was a single sentence; a single honest, trembling-voice sentence and the entire room felt like they knew the speaker.  Secrets are like an introduction to a person; their hopes, fears, and driving motivations.   As I sat there listening to people’s secrets, I felt like I was surrounded by characters.  When writing fiction, sometimes I have a hard time identifying what the main character’s driving motivations are; I have a hard time rationalizing what they should/would say or do because I don’t know what makes them tick.

Secrets are what make people tick.  I’ve talked about this recently concerning  family ancestors and the need to dig up those secrets to write good memoir.  When writing fiction, as the author, you need to know your characters secrets; if you know their inner-most secret, then you’ll know how they’ll react to every scene you put them in.  The audience doesn’t have to know that secret until the end of the book.  Theory: this is a good writer’s dirty little secret.

Here’s my favorite writing prompt: go to the PostSecret blog, or pick up one of the books and read until you connect with a particular secret.  Use it as the first sentence to a new story; it can be your story–one thing Frank mentioned during the event was that a lot of people have the same secret–or a fictional character’s story.  It can be a story about what lead them to admit that secret; the emotional struggle that led them to physically mail it in.

What’s your character’s secret?

Get Writing Inspiration from Your Family’s Dirty Secrets

From left to right, row by row: My great-great-grandmother (nameless), great-grandfather William Guest Hechinger, great-grandmother Theresa, grandfather Theodore and his siblings Viola, William "Dizzy," and Russel.

Secret:  I am totally obsessed with family research on ancestry.com.  I love picking family members’ brains for memories, dates, and the vaguely remembered names of cousins.  I love sifting through the scanned census records, copying out tiny details–like that my great-grandfather (a different branch, not in this photograph) worked at a cigar factory in Berks County, Pa–and patchwork piecing together generations of lives.  (The two most exciting moments for me are when I either figure out how a certain couple met and fell in love–job, church, or family friend–or when I dig back far enough to figure out which generation immigrated and from where.)   When I don’t have much information to go on, I love visiting the graveyards where my relatives are buried.  Gravestones, in my opinion, are the greatest short stories, and I love imagining what happened in-between that birth and death date.

My great-Uncle Dick remembers where everyone is buried and took us on a little field trip to Edgewood Cemetery and Temple Road Cemetery in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, this past weekend and I was able to trace back three generations in one row of gravestones.

My maternal grandparent's gravestone, at Temple Road. Mildred Bedulia (awful name, right!?) and Theodore Peter Hechinger (shown as a boy, above).

To me, researching family history is like learning the back story to a cast of characters; you dig and read until you understand their motivations, the turning-points, the red and black letter days in their lives.  You learn their occupation, their hobbies, who they lived with, and–ofttimes a surprise–how many times they might have secretly divorced and remarried.  For writers who have a difficult time fully developing their fictional characters, I think plucking someone from your own family tree is a great writing exercise.  Even if you don’t think your ancestors lead terribly important or interesting lives–or perhaps they took all their secrets to the grave–thereby denying you enough materials to write an entire book (such as the super fabulous memoir, Glass Castle, and the historical-fiction-memoir-blend Half-Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls and the less fabulous, but wonderfully titled conversation-style memoir Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness), I’m sure that there’s a family story that has been told so many times that the details are burned into your memory.  It might be small–as small as the fact that my father was a lefty, but got hit by the principal of his public elementary school so many times that he became ambidextrous–but I’m sure it’s enough to inspire you to write a historical short story.  When you have writer’s block, try to integrate a family story.  You don’t have to imagine or think-up something believable, because it’s already done for you.  You probably know your relatives better than you know your fictional characters, so use that to your advantage!

For example, there’s some mystery surrounding my maternal grandfather (see above).  In the top photograph you can see him, his siblings, his father, mother, and maternal grandmother.  The story goes that the mother, Theresa, ran off with another man, leaving William with four children to raise.  Financially, he couldn’t do it.  So he put his daughter, Viola, on a farm and put the boys in the Home for Friendless Children.  It was basically an orphanage, but the Hechinger boys got treated better because their father would visit them once a week and give a little money to the Home.  He didn’t like talking about it so we don’t know what daily life was like.  All we know is that at one point, the three brothers ran away and never returned to the Home.  We don’t know if they made it on their own, or if they moved back in with their Dad.  Isn’t that story just ripe for the writing?

P.S. If you’re particularly interested in family stories, what they mean, and considering writing down all of yours, I’d highly recommend Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins, a book I’m halfway through reading and loving.