Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writing Prompt: Only Two Hands

Prompt: Begin a story describing only two hands. Use the physical characteristics of the hands, as well as any relevant activity or movement, gesture, fidgeting, and so on, to reveal who the hands belong to.

                                                                                     photo by  MogieG123


He played the piano. Or at least I assume he did.

Slender fingers held his wine glass lightly and without thought. I watched those hands, hypnotized by their choreographed dance as they sauntered from knife to fork and back again.


Those hands held the end of my noose. And he didn't even know it. Fingers flickering like the moon on a disturbed pond. Pale. I couldn't hear his words.


How could he not play piano? With hands like those... They lingered on the rest.


He signed the words. Fun. A dismissive wave. While it lasted. Que sara. A mimicry of cursive and fatalism. His face faded like dull scenery painted on flat canvas.


His hands played my death. Shakespearean in that they refused to let me die. Illustrating the poison. The dagger.


Then the curtain fell. Check please. He slipped those hands into pockets.

The End.

So this one was a bit more poetic than my previous prose. Any thoughts?

Don't forget to check out ClaudiaBookwright's very different response to this prompt here.

Copyright to Grace Wagner 2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Girl that Haunts Me

In addition to writing, I am also a visual artist. Pen and ink are my normal go-to media, but I also enjoy acrylics and color pencil (watercolors are my mortal enemy!). Many of the things that inspire my stories also inspire my pictures. Death. The future. Human experience. Yet there is one source of inspiration that has followed - perhaps haunted - me for years, and that inspiration started with a book.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier was inspired by a 17th century painting of the same name by Johannes Vermeer. Not much is actually known about the painting or the artist, for that matter. Chevalier's book was an attempt to discover the woman and the story behind the painting.

Not only does the concept of a writer delving into the past through fiction appeal to me, the painting itself struck a chord. Who was this girl? Her expression changes every time I study her. Sometimes she's full of innocence and hope. Sometimes her dark eyes fail to reflect the coy smile on her lips. Sometimes she looks lonely. Sometimes lost. Sometimes wise beyond her years.

I have studied this painting relentlessly. As a writer, I need to figure out who she is. I need to understand what she feels, what she dreams, what she desires with the utmost depths of herself. As an artist, I draw her. Over and over again. Maybe by creating her image I will find a deeper understanding. From sketches to paintings, I have recreated this girl many times. Often, instead of finding her, I find someone else entirely.

These are two very different version of the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" that I've done.

               "Girl with a Pearl Piercing"                       "Runner with a Pearl Earring"

Both of the women in my pictures are very different from the original and very different from each other. By studying one intriguing face, I have found many new characters. These two pieces are a small sampling of my efforts to capture the girl who wears the pearl earring. They are the most recent, but they won't be the last. 

I know that I will return to this painting, trying to tease out it secrets with words and paint. As a writer and an artist, inspiration is key to my success and, thanks to this painting, I have never lacked a mystery to follow. 

So let me end with a quote from the book that started this lifelong obsession:

“You're so calm and quiet, you never say. But there are things inside you. I see them sometimes, hiding in your eyes.” 

"Girl with a Pearl Piercing" and "Runner with a Pearl Earring" are copyright to Grace Wagner. Do not reproduce or use without permission. 2013

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: IQ84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is an asymmetrical, deeply intriguing fairytale. Told from radically different perspectives, Murakami weaves together a picture of the past, present, and possible futures. He places the story in the past (1984) while simultaneously creating futuristic events and an alternate timeline, namely the world of 1Q84. This juxtaposition of a pre-mobile phone world and post-modern philosophy creates a captivating and poetic style.

While at points the plot can drag – and I’m still not certain why American publishers decided to print three books as one gigantic volume – the premise proved interesting enough to keep me going.

The main characters, like the world itself, can at times be both relatable and frustrating. Tengo, an oblivious aspiring-author, seems to wander through his world unable to grasp the indefinable strangeness around him until he meets Fuka-eri. A high-schooler with an improbably good story to tell, the eccentric Fuka-eri breaks into Tengo’s dull life like a wave crashing into a sandcastle. He is transfixed by this unusual girl and falls in love with her story more than with her. He becomes her ghost-writer, an act which wrenches him out of his casual, uninteresting life and lands him squarely in a world that is quite literally stranger than fiction.

Meanwhile, Aomame, a fierce yet flawed character who at first appears utterly detached from the main story descends into the world 1Q84 in an abrupt and observable fashion. Reflecting the two worlds she inhabits, she leads a dual life of energetic fitness trainer-cum-righteous assassin. Slowly, her own life becomes more and more entangled with the parallel stories of Tengo and Fuka-eri.

Aside from a single shared moment in their childhood, Tengo and Aomame have in common a deep and unsettling emptiness. Both have tried to fill it in their own ways, Tengo with words and Aomame with deeds, but both remain unsatisfied. As they attempt to navigate the world of 1Q84, they come closer and closer to each other and fulfillment.

Fuka-eri herself is actually not so much a character as a convenient plot-device. Her behavior is strange and her responses unpredictable and emotionless. Rather than being portrayed as the abused child that she is, she’s set up as some sort of spiritual receptacle. Here Murakami dives into a deeply disturbing plot twist that forces the reader to reconsider their basic moral ideas.

As a reader, I was both profoundly revolted and unrelentingly curious. Did I actually fully grasp the concepts presented to me? Was I capable of forming moral judgments on something so entirely foreign? I’m still not comfortable with the aspects of sexual exploitation and abuse that are addressed by this book, but perhaps that was the writer’s goal. Murakami’s magnum opus constantly circles in on itself taking the reader to deeper and deeper levels of plot and morality. The cyclical nature of change and duality, of both the world and the characters, is captured in a single well-illustrated metaphor: the double moon in the sky of 1Q84.

Although there are times when it feels as if the writer wanders through his world as unwittingly as his character Tengo and many instances where Murakami failed to “kill his darlings,” the prose is ultimately successful.  The writing, as strange as the story itself, is perhaps a result of translation from the original Japanese, but with his startling and unusual style of prose, Murakami surpasses any language barriers. The writing became itself a character in this intricately crafted story. Murakami’s world and lyrical use of language mesh inextricably.

For those of you willing to devote a significant amount of time and brainpower to this book, you will be rewarded with a world of unflinching strangeness and beauty that forces you to question your own concepts of religion, love, and even reality. What would happen if one day you descended into a world that, while similar to you own, was ever so slightly different? What would you do if you looked up to find two moons in your once familiar sky?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Writing Prompt: Do You Confront Him?

Prompt: You know the person with whom you're talking is lying. Do you confront him or let him continue?


The lie was written across his face. His tears and heartfelt pleas felt as honest as fool's gold. The reporters pretended to be concerned, sympathetic. The police chief issued a statement of support. The T.V. flickered, the only interruption in the continuous coverage of this so-called tragedy. I knew he was guilty. The memory of his hands crept up my arms. I knew her pain. The missing girl was another version of myself. I knew he was guilty and I knew they would never find her.

Copyrighted to Grace Wagner. Do not replicate without out written permission. 2013

This one was a lot shorter. This book has them split into four different sizes: full page, half page, third of a page, and a quarter. The lengths when handwritten of course end up longer, but I thought I'd upload a couple of the shorter ones. This prompt was a third of the page.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you want to join in!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rally in the Rain

Yesterday, across the nation, people gathered to protest the recent wave of restrictions on reproductive rights. Here in Texas, with the spectacular rise of Senator Wendy Davis and the original success of an incredible act of civil disobedience known as "The People's Filibuster," the fervor is especially fierce. A rally in Dallas pulled my boyfriend and I into the fray.

When Senator Davis stood for over twelve hours and a multitude of protesters shouted down the unconstitutional SB5, I was, ironically, in Washington, D.C. I followed the event on Facebook and Twitter and wished I could have been there to lend my support. Sadly, Texas Governor Rick Perry called a second "special session" and a duplicate bill has since been passed. This egregious assault on women's right to choose and on access to family planning services is why we attended the rally.  

Bob and I were both a little skeptical. What would this rally be like? Would anyone actually show up? The day of the rally dawned bleak and overcast. It was supposed to rain. I spent the day arguing with myself. Should I go? Does it really matter? Of course it does, but could I actually make a difference?

I decided that one way or another at least I was doing something. I think one of the defining characteristics of my generation, the so called "millennials," is a feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming odds. We  feel powerless in the face of a bleak economy, in the face of continued racial injustice, in the dehumanizing way people continue to treat one another. We tried Occupy Wall Street and for the first time we felt powerful, but even then our voices weren't heard. 

And in the light of new and increasingly restrictive bills limiting women's control over their own bodies, what can I do? I can show up. 

So I did. My boyfriend, who also supports women's rights, though perhaps not as intensely as I, decided to go as well. We got all of the information. We wore orange shirts in solidarity. And we arrived an hour early. 

We were quite literally the only ones there. The sky remained overcast, but it was pleasantly cool. Would anyone else actually show up? It was at City Hall, right? I double and triple checked the Facebook event page. Yup. We were in the right place. So we waited. 

Eventually people began to trickle in. Organizers showed up with tents and sound equipment. Bob and I helped carry what we could and get the tents set up. Slowly the trickle turned into a stream. The clouds began sprinkling though not enough to illicit the unfurling of umbrellas. Not yet. 

Still, there weren't as many people as I'd hoped. I'm sure the threat of rain scared many off. Though if you can't stand up to a little weather, how do you expect to stand up to the controlling opposition? But the people who did show up brought signs and good intentions. 

The diversity of the participants is what struck me the most. Old, young. White, black. Middle-class, poor. Students, unemployed, and business professionals. People from across the LGBT spectrum. People with children. Couples, friends, and individuals. All ready to fight for equal rights for women. All demanding that they and only they are in control of their bodies and their choices. And the speakers were amazing. 

Rabbi Steve (sorry, I didn't catch his last name!) was one of the first speakers and wonderfully eloquent. He argued that controlling your own choices is fundamental to religious freedom and that restrictions on that freedom are both immoral and intolerable. He approached the topic with due seriousness, but also with self-deprecating humor and several nods to famous philosopher-cum-comedian George Carlin. While censoring the more colorful language of Mr. Carlin, Rabbi Steve would pause giving the willing crowd an opportunity to vocally fill in the blanks. They responded with pleasure. 

Other speakers stepped up to share their experiences and thoughts, including the president of the Texas Equal Access Fund, or TEA Fund, an organization that helps disadvantaged women bear the heavy burden of abortion costs and access. After the scheduled speakers, the mic was turned over to any person who wanted to share their stories. After all, that is what it is all about. Stories. 

So there we stood, in the rain, as women shared their heartbreaking and deeply personal tales of their own experiences with burdensome abortion restrictions and emotional anguish. This isn't a fight for an abstract woman that you don't know and could never understand. This is about mothers and friends and colleagues. And one day, if things don't go as you hope, it could be about you. As one woman so aptly put it, "The political IS personal." The shame used to silence so many was shouted down last night. 

We will not be quiet. We will not stand by as our rights are chipped away to nothing. We will fight back.

And we will win.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Writing Prompt: Favorite Song Title

Prompt: Write a story based on the title of your favorite song.

Response: "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie

The room smelled of age and paper and stories. You led me between rows of leather-bound spines. The library had been abandoned for years. The grand old building lay tucked between skyscrapers and busy lives. In the eyes of the government it was "historic" and thus immune to demolition. In the eyes of entrepreneurs it was a waste of space.

I closed my eyes, feeling my way behind you. No one read physical books anymore. No one but you.

The cadence of your voice lilting over small, enigmatic type was a stark contrast to the drone of pre-recorded, pre-approved novels. Poetry lingered in your pauses, your breath drifting away from the small LED light into the blackness around us. My thoughts followed it.

Now I stand between empty rows. The books were packed and shipped away to some museum back east. That happened almost a year ago. I see your face like an afterimage. Burned into my retina as you grin over your shoulder.

What should we read tonight?

I shrug. Whatever you want.

I sit down, folding my legs beneath me. The emptiness presses down on me like a coffin lid. I lean back, closing my eyes. In the dark, I find your words. They become you.

"Adieu, adieu! my native shore / Fades o'er the waters blue; / The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar, / and shrieks the wild sea-mew."

I follow you into the dark.

Copyrighted to Grace Wagner. Do not replicate without out written permission. 2013

UPDATE: Claudia Bookwright has also uploaded her answer to the prompt. Check it out here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Oobleck: A Messy (And Fun!) Science Experiment

Hello, everyone! Sorry for my recent hiatus. I just got back from a trip to Washington, D.C. and I'm having trouble re-adjusting to my "normal" life. It's been kind of chaotic on the writing side. I've sent one manuscript submission and one query. I've gotten some feedback from my betareaders and I'm involved in two new writing projects, one cooperative and one seriously epic. But in the interim, I'd like to share this story (and video) about my youngest nephew and our adventures in the world of science.

Interestingly enough, our chosen project has roots in literature!

We decided to make oobleck. What's oobleck? The word, originally coined by Dr. Seuss, describes a non-Newtonian liquid. That means it doesn't conform to the laws of physics as laid out by Newton. It's not really a liquid and it's not quite a solid. When the oobleck is at rest, it acts like a liquid. You can pour it or swish it around and it conforms to the shape of its container. However, when you apply force (i.e. hitting or slapping it) it turns into a solid. There are videos on youtube of people running across pools of oobleck. If they go fast enough, they can run along the top, but if they slow down, the oobleck reacts like a liquid and they sink into the goopy mess.

Here's a quick video I made of our results:

The recipe is very simple. 2 cups cornstarch to 1 cup water. 

The box of cornstarch I bought was 16 oz, so I figured, hey,  8 oz to a cup so the whole box plus one cup water. WRONG! I forgot there was a difference between solid and liquid ounces, so I ended up with a mess that was very much a solid and impossible to stir. 

Silas was terribly unimpressed with the so-called "science experiment" that his daft aunt was trying to make. He ate dinner while my boyfriend and I desperately tried to mix the concoction, eventually gradually adding water. I also discovered that a material designed to repel force is terribly difficult to mix. When you push a spoon through it, it pushes back. But eventually, we got a successful result. 

After the video, I showed Silas that you could put your whole hand in and lift up a chunk of the goo. While you squeeze it in your hand, it remains solid, but as soon as you let go, it turns back  into a liquid and appears to melt out of your hand. His eyes lit up. He wanted to try too! So we moved the party to the bathtub...

...where we proceed to make a huge mess and have lots of fun. After we splashed all the oobleck out of the bowl, we simply turned on the shower and washed it down the drain. Messy science and an easy clean-up!

Everyone should try this inexpensive and fun project, even if you don't have a four year old nephew as an excuse! Let me know if you have any questions.