If you wanna try this exercise, send me four words. You'll find full instructions at the end.
When you have no time to write, try this: Choose four words at random. Send them to a friend with instructions to write one sentence that includes all four words and send it back to you, along with four more words. Now it's your turn to write a sentence that incorporates the four new words. Keep this up, like Ping-Pong, for a week. Now you've got a bunch of sentences. What are you going to do with them? I invented this exercise to entertain a friend who is in the middle of renovating a house. This same friend has recently remarried and moved to another town. With everything else going on during this crazy year, no wonder she can't write. But she managed to play the game with me by exchanging daily emails. At the end, I gathered up all the sentences and turned them into a story. I should explain here that I don't write fiction, normally, so writing "A Parable for Nancy" was a stretch. I'm sharing it to make several points: (1) Penpals are useful and fun. (2) When you exercise, it's important to stretch. (3) Don't take your writing too seriously. It's just writing.
Nancy and I fell into the habit of using various sources—books and magazines, mostly—for our random four words. Our sources included the Williams-Sonoma Cookbook for Muffins, Archer Mayor’s Open Season, a French housekeeping manual published in 1926, a children’s book called Beetles and Bugs, and North Star Monthly.
Here are some of the four-word combinations we played with:
· feminist, alienation, peanut, discover
· distributed, golden, heat, delicious
· cravat, sensitive, adopted, cold
· dramatically, trimmed, cat, perpetual
· rubbish, launched, shed, dream
· dear, flashed, tunnel, empty
· creature, survive, notice, record
· potential, discarded, rural, future.
· home, road, brothers, claim
· wildflowers, survey, dauntless, spare
· little, buggy, gem, acquired
· telemarketers, herald, granted, materialized
Sometimes I cheated. Instead of writing a single sentence, I wrote several. And when I wrote “A Parable for Nancy” I accidentally left out the following: "Telemarketers heralded the apocalypse by calling up people all over the world and urging them to buy life insurance and other useless consumer products. Granted, the apocalypse hasn't materialized, but the telemarketers promised it would come. Just give it a little more time, they said."
A Parable for Nancy
It was Sara who sold me the car that brought me to Mrs. Thimbleberry’s house. Sara was an English professor before she sold her car, her jewelry, and her condo and became a Buddhist. She, too, was fed up with her existence, just like me. You see, Sara discovered that the male members of the faculty had little tolerance for her feminist views. She felt alienated from them; their collective understanding of womens' issues was so meager it could fit inside a peanut shell. This dissatisfaction snowballed, leading ultimately to an existential crisis followed by a psychic reckoning. In the process, she sold me her car. “You, too, can change your life,” she said, and then she related a parable about a queen who was imprisoned but used her imagination to escape—I frankly don’t remember all the details. I remember the queen surveyed her tiny cell, which was very spare indeed, containing only a narrow cot, a wooden chair, and a writing desk equipped with pen, ink, and paper. Dauntless, her royal highness sat at the desk, dipped the pen, and paused, staring through the barred window at a steep hillside sprinkled with wildflowers. Her mind drifted.
The point Sara was making, if I understood it correctly, was that you must first imagine yourself to be free before you can actually be free. When my friend sold me her old VW, I acquired a gem of a little buggy. Since I have a habit of naming inanimate objects, I named my VW Sara. In fact, Sara the VW was not inanimate at all. She went everywhere. She was unstoppable. I decided my life was afflicted by perpetual sameness—same-old same-old for days, months, and years on end—and that I would start to change it by having my hair not just trimmed, but dramatically cut in such a way that even my cat would notice. I made an appointment with my hairdresser. “Mehitabel,” I said, “I am changing my life. I want to look extravagant.” “It’s about time,” said Mehitabel. Mehitabel, I should mention, was much more than a hairdresser. She also read tea leaves, did accounts, and made doll clothes out of flour sacks. This, despite having to care for an elderly cousin who was a perfect ogre. “Oh, Uncle Ernie,” she would say, “Stop that foolishness. You’re giving us both apoplexia. You should be ashamed of yourself.” And then she’d laugh. Mehitabel was a very adaptable creature whose innate good humour allowed her to survive all sorts of unpleasant conditions without complaint, and as she spent her days patiently working the treadle of her little sewing machine and drinking copious cups of mint tea laced with the tiniest amount of "eau de vie," she seemed to barely notice that the summer of 2020 set a new record for villainy, calumny, and malfeasance. Unike Mehitable, I let everything bother me. I couldn’t help it. That summer, I was riveted to the TV. The news was dreadful. I even followed the presidential campaign—talk about masochism. One night, I was eating popcorn and watching a convention speech when Alice, the Trumpster from next door, wandered in and stood in front of the TV, mesmerized. She was going on about "libtards" when suddenly the lights in the auditorium flashed, the sound system exploded and all went dark. I would like to say that Dear Alice quickly realized she was no longer in Wonderland. She had not gone down a rabbit hole. This was instead the Republican National Convention and she had just gone down a tunnel of emptiness, shaped by deceit and hatred. But no. When the sound came back on, Alice said, “That was close. They said the Democrat libtards were gonna try to sabotage the convention. But God is on our side. So far, anyways.” The next day, I loaded up the backseat of my buggy with a backpack, a cooler, and Felice, my cat, in her little cat carrier, and the three of us—Sara, Felice, and me—set off to see the world. Our first stop was a bed-and-breakfast in the Far North. Our hostess, Mrs. Thimbleberry, greeted us with a big hug. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “For years! What took you so long? Oh, never mind, I think I know. I used to be a procrastinator, just like you. Tomorrow was my middle name. But I got over it. Come in, have a cup of tea.” We curled up by the fire, Felice on an ottoman, Mrs. Thimbleberry in her rocking chair, and me in a couch so cozy I could barely keep my eyes open. Soon I drifted off. When I awoke, the shadows were long. Mrs. Thimbleberry was nowhere in sight. “I had the strangest dream,” I said to Felice, who was still curled up on the ottoman. She flicked an ear, as if to say, “Don’t bother me, can’t you see I’m having a catnap?” “I dreamed about Jean-Luc,” I said. “You remember Jean-Luc.” The other ear flicked. “I was walking along the Seine—you know, the river that runs through Paris—with my new haircut, feeling very chic, thinking about Jean-Luc and how he had died so young and tragically. I must have been hallucinating, because then he appeared, wearing a morning coat with cravat and carrying a walking stick. With this simple change of costume, the man I knew to be sensitive and affectionate had now adopted a cold and distant demeanor. “ ‘Jean-Luc,' I said. ‘What are you doing here?’ “ ‘I beg your pardon,’ said the man with the walking stick. He wasn’t Jean-Luc at all. He was a perfect stranger.” Felice stretched and yawned. She had never warmed to Jean-Luc. I stood, feeling a bit low in spirits. I hadn’t realized how much I still missed him. Jean-Luc and I went through a lot together. You could even say he changed my life. His suggestion that we sign up for roadside rubbish pick-up shed me of one more burden and launched me toward my dream of having more time. More time for adventure. More time for fun. More time for meeting interesting people like our hostess. Dinner that evening was in the open air—en plein air, as we say in Paris. We were joined by Minnie, a friend of Mrs. Thimbleberry. “Look what I brought!” she said, handing each of us a long, slender stick. “I spent all afternoon peeling them,” she said. “They’re for marshmallows, dear,” she added, seeing my puzzled expression. After a dinner of fresh corn, roasted potatoes, and a colorful salad with flowers in it, we gathered around the fire with our nicely peeled sticks, and Mrs. Thimblebury distributed marshmallows for us to heat in the flames until golden and delicious. Minnie was a charmer. She wore an extraordinary outfit—a kind of dreamy, lacy, sleeveless chiffon dress, white, that hung almost to her ankles, lots of silver bangles on both arms, and ornately tooled cowgirl boots. “In fact, it’s a nightgown,” she said, when I complimented her on her dress. “I thought it was too pretty to wear to bed.” Minnie lived on the Cape but spent a few weeks each summer camping beside a little brook that ran through Mrs. Thimbleberry’s property. Her camper van was within view of the house. It was a nice setup, with a picnic table and some wicker chairs under an awning. Minnie, whose family name was Thresher, was working on a family geneology. “The Thresher brothers filed a claim for what became the family home along Cudworth Road in Assonet, Massachusetts in 1820," she said. “They—” and here she stopped mid-sentence and let out a holler. Mrs. Thimbleberry and I followed her gaze, which was directed toward the camper van. A black bear had emerged from the woods and was ransacking the place. Food items were strewn everywhere. Minnie stood, waved her marshmallow stick, and began yelling at the bear. Then, before we could stop her, she took off. The potential for disaster was all too plain as Minnie strode across the field in her nightgown, waving a stick at the bear, which had discarded the cooler and was now eyeing the camper van. “Git!” yelled Minnie. Mrs. Thimbleberry and I watched, frozen, our mouths full of marshmallow. “Shoo!” Minnie menaced the bear with her marshmallow. She stamped her cowgirl boot. The bear git. “And don’t come back!” she added. I laughed so hard I almost fell down. Mrs. Thimbleberry cheered and clapped her hands. Minnie returned to the campfire. “Whatever were you thinking?” cried Mrs. Thimbleberry. Somewhere in Minnie’s response to a bear attacking her pantry lies the difference between girls like her and girls like me. As she strode across the field in her cowgirl boots and her nightgown, waving a marshmallow, Minnie had no fear, none at all. Well, thought Minnie, such is rural life; in the future, she would be more careful with food items.
Choose four words at random and send them to a friend*, with the following instructions:
1. Write a sentence using the four words.
2. Choose another four words at random.
3. Send your sentence and the additional four words back to your writing partner and ask her to do the same.
4. Go back and forth like this for several days, until you have about a dozen sentences.
5. Now take all the sentences and turn them into a story.
*or post them in a comment, below, or email them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Below: Photo by Mrs. Thimbleberry, a.k.a. Nancy Tucker, a member of the Korongo Writers Group who recently moved to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom with her new husband.