Writing Exercise 22.7

In my previous post, I had a wonderful conversation with Erica Plouffe Lazure about her new linked-story collection Proof of Me. Today, Erica is sharing a very short story from her collection. Originally published in Swink, Erica’s story, “Re: Division Unification,” is a mere six paragraph structured in the form of an inter-office memo. I appreciate interesting narrative structures such as in this one. Another story in Proof of Me, “Azimuth and Altitude,” is told through a series of phone messages. These kinds of structure lend towards a monological confession. In other words, it’s a great way to let a character loose to better reveal their voice and their particular narrative. Read Erica’s story below, and afterwards, I’ll share Erica’s advice about how to use interesting structures in your own work regardless of genre.

RE: Division Unification

Golden Poultry Processing Plant
To: All Golden Poultry Division Employees
From: Kitty Ingram Lanford
RE: Division Unification

As you know, Boss Karpinski likes to say that we here at Golden Poultry should all aim for division unification. Better workers, he says, produce better teams; better teams make for better projects; better projects create a better office atmosphere, which brings better leadership, all of which contributes to a better, more unified division, which, in turn, makes our company succeed. The company is considered successful when it makes more money. And it is the division’s office’s leader’s team’s project’s members—each of us—who are charged with making that happen.

To motivate us into further unifying our division, Karpinski tells us to get our “ducks in a row,” to “think outside the box,” and to always leave “room on our plate.” Achieving these three goals, he says, will no doubt put “a feather in our cap.”

More than once, he has noted that members of our division’s team must “wear many hats” in order to succeed. This in particular caught my attention because I have yet to see anyone in our division, save for myself, wear a single hat, let alone several. I did a good stretch of knitting a few years back, after my father died and before my daughter joined the Marching Tigers, and those of you who work on my team in our division’s office know that I actually own and wear an extensive collection of woolen hats—although not at the same time. I’d like to know why Boss Karpinski suggests that we all wear hats, then, when in fact I am the division’s sole multiple hat wearer. I can imagine he’ll read this memo and say, “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ Kitty Ingram.” But there’s no ‘we” in team, either. Only “me,” mixed up. And wearing all the hats. And while I see boxes of chocolates and boxed pens doled to my colleagues as quarterly rewards, I—the lone multi-hat wearer of our division—have yet to see a reward, let alone a single feather, for my cap—or caps, as it were—come my way.

Perhaps the source of these elusive feathers is the ducks which Mr. Karpinski is so fond of aligning. Every time he urges us to get our “ducks in a row,” I can’t help but think we are getting bad advice. My father was a prize duck hunter out at Mattamuskeet each year, Mallard Class, and I know that, unless they are stuffed and mounted on your mantle, ducks do not readily get in rows, nor do they like to. As everyone knows, ducks in flight make v-shaped formations, which is not a row but rather an elegant, egalitarian arc. And anyone who’s ever watched ducks in a marsh could tell you they aren’t about to line up for you when they’re sitting in the water. That’s why they make buckshot. Yet Mr. Karpinski seems to believe that there is some relationship between row-friendly ducks and our mission of division unification. But to put them in rows is contrary not only to the natural tendencies of ducks, but also to the true aim of the statement, by which I assume he means: get organized.

But in order to get organized, he wants us to think outside the very object that would help us, logistically, to achieve it. It has been nearly three decades since I have been able to maneuver my body to fit inside a box, let alone think inside of one. And, unless you are compelled to place a box over your head as inspiration to get the neurons firing, thinking outside of a box is a natural, if not logical, thing to do. It begs the question why a box would even need to be present in order for thought to occur. My experience suggests that thinking happens—and should happen—when no box is present. So it makes one wonder: why the emphasis on the box? If, perhaps, the word “box” is meant to suggest my rather boxlike “cubicle,” then I heartily agree. And, since boxes tend to stay where you put them—except if that box happens to be in the supply room closet filled with staples and designer pushpins and the four-dollars-a-pop fountain pens and deluxe desk calendar—it seems a far simpler and more logical task to put your boxes in a row, and to let the ducks outside where they belong.

By solving the dilemmas of box placement and duck-alignment, it frees us, then, to consider Mr. Karpinski’s third piece of advice to achieve division unification. When I first heard him say, “don’t tell me your plate is full; always leave a little room,” I thought he was talking about the holiday all-you-can-eat chicken buffet the division pays for down in the break room. It’s advice I get from my dietician, too. And my therapist. But I always want to know, and no one ever tells me: what are we leaving room on our plates for? Ducks? In boxes? But then I realized that leaving room on a plate simply means that there is more to life than ducks and boxes and Golden Poultry, for that matter, and that you need to be ready for it. Leaving room on your plate is, in essence, making room for change, something that would mix up and rehash stale leftovers, be it food or phrase. Maybe it’s something that might inspire you to leave the division’s office for a while, even for just an hour, to take a walk in the woods to experience box-free thinking. And maybe you’d find in the woods a lake, where, if you are lucky enough, you may come across a family of ducks and observe them. You would know how unwilling they’d be to get in rows for you, how easily they spook if you rush at them, scare them a little into taking flight. I used to do this when I was a girl, on those Saturday mornings duck hunting with my dad. I’d rush at the ducks and when they flew away, a feather sometimes would fall from their fold, and land, miraculously, at my feet.


Erica Plouffe Lazure: When I wrote RE: Division Unification, I was working in an office at a university, and often had to edit the somewhat formalized and (at times abstruse) language of professional communication. And my brain is always looking for something to be entertained by—I’m a terrible punster—and so I thought it would be fun to see what would happen if one of my characters were to co-opt some of the hackneyed phrases we always hear in corporate settings, and use them to address a topic that is personal in nature while maintaining a somewhat formal tone.

I think stories that steal from other formats (with essays they’re called “hermit crabs”) can work, due to the sense of urgency (that “confessional” feel) and the familiarity of the format itself. Something that I always think about when I compose stories (no matter what format they take) is what circumstance would motivate, or even force, my character to ACT? What would push them into divulging something that they might not otherwise? Something I would caution against is using unusual forms gratuitously—there’s a fine line between coopting an unusual format to bring the writer (and character) closer to the truth of a situation, and using it as a gimmick.

As far as Kitty Ingram Lanford, we are introduced to her in the story “Marchers,” but we don’t know precisely what motivates her until she has a chance to speak on her own behalf via the memo in “RE: Division Unification.” Here we see a woman who is probably unseen and ignored at work, who dedicates a lot of time to causes she cares for, who is likely still grieving the death of her father, and who is sick of having people steal office supplies from the closet. To refer back to our earlier conversation about how I shaped my story collection, “RE: Division Unification” is a good example of how I’d reworked the names and some of the minor points of the original story (published in the now-defunct Swink journal) and found a space and voice for her in Proof of Me as Kitty Ingram Lanford.

Prompt: Start by making a list of unique structures along the lines of an office memo/email, or a voicemail. Pick one that allows a character to tell their story. Be sure to allow your character to confess something to their audience. Include a memory from the character’s past.

If you are writing nonfiction, try to recall a job you once held, and write about a time when you wanted to express something to a co-worker or boss, but didn’t. Use a memo, email, or voicemail format to recall that moment to your former colleague, and why it still stays with you.

If you are writing poetry, make a list of the objects of a workspace that is familiar to you. Then make a list of words you associate with that profession (feel free to look them up). Mix and match the words to see what story or throughline surfaces. Or, find a format within the workspace (an admission ticket or order form, for example) that you might borrow to “contain” the poem.

If this prompt helps you, I’d love to see the final product. In the meantime, please check out Erica Plouffe Lazure’s website, and don’t forget to buy her collection, Proof of Me, available from online retailers and your local bookstore.

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Writing Exercise 22.4

If you missed my previous post, please check out my conversation with Walter M. Robinson about his new essay collection What Cannot Be Undone—True Stories of a Life in Medicine. Also yesterday, What Cannot Be Undone was included in Kathleen Stone’s list of Eleven Over Sixty over at LitHub. Now, I’m sharing a writing exercise that Walter shared with me.

Writing Exercise 22.4: Everyone has experiences in a waiting room, whether a physical room at the doctor’s office or a virtual room before a Zoom call. Many stories start or end in a waiting room: Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin waits in a doctor’s office filled with people she disapproves so openly that one of them disapproves of her right back by smacking her with a textbook, and Anthony Perkins hopes to impress the police that he is harmless at the end of Psycho, saying, “I’m not even gonna swat that fly.”

Describe a waiting room, real or imagined, in as much detail as necessary to create the beginning or end of a story.

Walter’s writing prompt triggered the memory of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, In the Waiting Room, and when I searched for it online, I came across a poem by Thomas Hardy that I’d never read before but that uses a similar title, In A Waiting-room.

I love this prompt because waiting rooms, although they can be incredibly unique from each other, have a universal quality that readers can immediately connect with. I’m so grateful to Walter for taking the time to talk about his writing and for offering this exercise. I’m anxious to try it myself.

Please buy Walter’s new book, What Cannot Be Undone—True Stories of a Life in Medicine, available from University of New Mexico Press, online retailers, and your local bookstore.

Writing Exercise 22.3

If you missed my previous post, please check out my conversation with Lauren Davis about her new poetry collection, Home Beneath the Church. Lauren talked about how difficult it was her to write deeply personal poems about her body and health. The poems in Home Beneath the Church also explore holy spaces. Those holy spaces begin and end with the body, but there are also churches, French basilicas, and other spaces reserved for traditional religious figures. And there is also the outside world. Lauren’s poems are never far from nature. It’s clear that she is a gifted student of observation, although I must assume there’s some amount of research that supports her knowledge of the natural world.

Two of my favorite poems in this collection are “If I Were a Resurrection Fern” and “I am a New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar.”

If I Were a Resurrection Fern

And you were the wind-shipped rain,
I’d draw you up. My fronds bright soaked

without shame. Imagine my grief this past
drought. I shivered in my little

plot of lack. Come my mineral nip,
my sky-dropped lake.

Nothing can keep us apart,
not even climate nor gods.

you come down and down
and never stop coming down,

and I revive, baptized.

I am a New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar

Unseen since 1998,
I am nearly a lost breed.

No one has heard my voice but you—
a different genus of bird
who sought and discovered me.

I beat my wings against yours
unable to mate, but look

how groomed my semiplumes.
I pluck them into dead air.

Now I am ready
to be collected beneath
your breast.

Let scientists say I dared to survive—
that you came down from your perch

to quiver against me,
my last known touch.

They will find me in the brushweed,
virgin. But a song in my throat.

In both poems, the narrator takes on the identity of non-human forms in order to express very human yearning. One poem is qualified with the word “if.” The second poem is more declaratory: “I am.” But in both poems, the narrator embodies another form.

For this writing exercise, start with a quick online search for vulnerable species in the region where you live or within a geographic area that has significance for you.

Reading these poems prompted me to think about what animal or plant I would choose to speak through in a poem. So I started with a quick online search for “endangered birds of Appalachia.” The first link expanded my original idea by taking me to a website that listed vulnerable species beyond birds. I chose to search for species in Appalachia because that’s where I live, and it felt more appropriate for my writing.

I love that a minimal amount of research can keep me from feeling that I don’t know what to write. So once you’ve selected your species, see what you can find about their behaviors. This will help you embody that species for yourself by borrowing where they are and what they do.

Notice that in both poems, the narrator speaks directly to a beloved by addressing that person as “you.” Do the same in your poem by speaking directly to someone.

Speaking from a non-human voice is not limited to poetry. A New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar likely would have just as much to say in a short story as she does in a poem. The same is true in an essay, and in an essay, there’s even more room for research. Whatever form you’re writing in, you may find it wonderfully freeing to speak through this other voice.

Huge thanks to Lauren Davis for speaking to me about her new book and for inspiring this writing exercise. If you enjoyed Lauren’s poem, you’ll want to hear her read from Home Beneath the Church on Tuesday March 1, 2022 at the Birch Bark Editing Reading (online). For more opportunities to hear Lauren read, keep on eye on her event listings online.

Writing Exercise 22.1

If you missed my previous post, please check out my conversation with Rosemary Royston where Rosemary talked about the process that inspired the poems in her poetry collection, Second Sight. She also talked about how writers should think about writing about traumatic events, and some revision tricks to make poetry sound and feel less prosaic. The poems in Second Sight combine folk traditions, superstitions, sixth sense, and the powers of suggestion and intention. Now, I’m sharing a writing exercise that Rosemary shared with me. Before you start, read Rosemary’s “Appalachian Ghazal” online at the museum of americana, and “Rumex acetosella” online at Split Rock Review.

Writing Exercise 22.1: I challenge readers to do some quick research on a superstition, belief, colloquialism, or a nagging question they’ve had, and to take what they find and turn it into a poem (or an essay or a scene for a short story or a novel chapter). It can be a narrative or list poem or even a lyric! Whatever comes out, but be sure to pay close attention to sound, imagery, and diction.

I love prompts like this one that involve a little research. For this one, I suggest writing into any superstition or belief that you already hold, but if you need more help to get started, check out ScaryMommy.com’s list of common superstitions, or Good Housekeeping’s list of 55 of the Strangest Superstitions From Around the World.

Rosemary Royston, author of Second Sight

I’m so grateful for the time and energy Rosemary took to talk about her writing and to offer this prompt. Please buy Rosemary’s book, Second Sight, available through Kelsay Press and Amazon), and give her a follow for regular updates at her blog “The Luxury of Trees.”

Rosemary is also teaching at two upcoming events, both of which I highly recommend:

February 5, 2022Poetry Workshop, Mildred Haun Conference, Walters State Community College. Rosemary says, “In this poetry workshop, I’m addressing the overall theme of the conference: Coming or Staying Home: the Appalachian Dilemma, by focusing on places/emotions/relationships/etc. that we wrestle leaving or staying with. So the workshop will be both place-based and universal.”

May 8-14, 2022 Creative Writing across the Genres, John C. Campbell Folk School. Rosemary says, “In this week-long class at the wonderful John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, participants will read, write, and discuss poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. It is always lovely to be at the Folk School.”