Writing Challenges

I like challenges, don’t you? Well, that kind, too. But what I meant was imposed challenges. For instance, among my hidden talents, I am a quiltmaker. A quiltmaking challenge might include a hideously ugly fabric everyone in the group is required to incorporate into a project. Often, the challenge pieces are displayed in a show. The results are fascinating, even stunning.

Writing challenges can take different forms. When I attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference, one of the presenters, Janet Fitch, described her writing group. There, members would rotate the task of bringing one word. They would all write a piece incorporating that word and bring it to the next gathering. At one particular meeting, a member posed “wind”. Fitch began with that word, and the result was the best-selling novel White Oleander.

Publishing guru-diva-teacher Jane Friedman advocates that writers share their work on their blogs. To read an interesting article she wrote on the subject, click here. And while you’re at it, I suggest subscribing to her blog There Are No Rules. In that spirit, below you will find a short piece of mine that grew from a challenge in a workshop Charlotte McGuin Freeman led. We had been reading memoir vignettes such as comprises Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Our assignment was to write either a memoir vignette or a fake memoir vignette. (A few of those fake ones around these days, am I right?) We weren’t to tell the group whether our memoir was real or embellished. This turned out to be great fun.

So, I ask you, who so well know the nature of my soul, is the following real or is it fake?

Bodywork by Deb Atwood

Just goes to show you can’t believe what you read. I am no motorcycle mama!

So you ogled a picture of me in the paper. So I’m perched on the back of a Harley. So, so.

Take it from me, I was never anyone’s mama.

Fact is, I ride solo. And getting tangled up in a brawl is not my idea of fun. Nope. I like my fights like my men—fair and hands on. Most times, I can stop a fight without throwing a punch just by peeling down to my tank top, though I’ve never figured out what does it—that tip of lace marking cleavage or my sixteen inch biceps. You weigh less than 225 pounds, rest assured I can bench-press you.

My friends love to go out with me—south of Market, West Oakland clubs, whatever. My enemies get a good look at me and head the other way. Guess that’s how I got the nickname: Detour Deb.

Not my style to brag, just wanted to let you know I ride backseat to nobody. That day in question, I was tooling home from the Las Vegas Natural Bobybuilding Championships—where I took second, if you must know—and pulled into Boomtown, just me and Fat Boy. Trouble with me is, I gotta take in lots of protein. Otherwise, with my regimen, I flop belly-side up, and that’s not something you want out on the highway, straddling 665 pounds of hog.

Boomtown’s a biker-friendly hangout, but still, I park out on the back 40 lot. No sense inviting scratches when Fat Boy’s strutting the original paint job.

When the gunshots cracked, I was in the checkout line holding my protein shake and a map I’d snagged to chart my next route, just standing there dreaming of Nationals. The mart was swarming with bikers and mamas on account of the Harley centennial. Tons more than usual hitting the road, doing this whole Easy Rider thing, maybe. Anyhow, the shots fly, and we duck and scramble and pour out of the doors onto this wooden sidewalk they got going around the place.

The snarl of hogs firing up is deafening, I can tell you. Everyone shoving to get out of the way. Or into the fight. Chaos.

And I’m looking, and here’s this guy struggling with his hog, totally panicked. His bike knocked down and pinned in all the pandemonium, and it was a real shame, too. I’d noticed it earlier—cherry paint job. Shinier than it had a right to be, but isn’t that always the way? Like at my gym, the tightest spandex on the mushiest bodies. So this guy’s struggling with his machine and bullets are streaking. It was just a good idea to hightail it out of there.

You guessed it. I stopped. He was lucky that number one, I keep a cool head under fire, and second, my deadlift pull is 385 pounds. That, and his ride was a Hugger, a lightweight, IMHO. Found out later it weighed 486 pounds. Where are the judges when you need them? But to give this man credit, he could probably pull the remaining 101 pounds. This guy was so grateful he asks can he give me a lift.

Ha, ha, give me a lift. I had to laugh at that one. So I said he could truck me over to Fat Boy. When I climbed on the back of his bike, some idiot had the balls to shoot a pic, and that’s the photo you saw with the stupid caption: Bodybuilding Champion Turns Motorcycle Mama. You’d think they had enough stuff to write with the brawl going on.

Just not me to take a back seat, as I said, but I can’t say I minded the scenery in this case. The man’s backside was none too shabby—black leather vest all studded with silver and a thick ponytail. He wasn’t my type, but now and then I do like to get a good hank of tail between my teeth.

Ghost Novel Review: Heart-Shaped Box


The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Publisher: Harper Collins, 366 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

What it’s about:

Ex-rock star Judas Coyne (born Justin Cowzinski) has seen it all and done everything good and bad, or believes he has. Now he collects grisly artifacts or memento mori just to make himself feel alive.When he hears about a ghost for sale on an auction site, he cannot resist purchasing it.

Once the black heart-shaped box arrives, Judas opens it to discover an old suit. Soon the suit manifests itself as a ghost whose purpose is to kill Judas and anyone associated with him, all related to the suicide of his step-daughter whom Judas had callously mistreated in his former metal band days. This ghost of misdeeds past is named Craddock—just about as Dickensian a name as you can get this side of 1843.   

Fortunately for Judas, and despite his actions to the contrary, his equally damaged, reformed drug addict/pole dancer girlfriend, Mary Beth, refuses to forsake him. She never blames him for the ill-advised purchase of the heart-shaped box that delivers to their doorstep a malevolent, revenge-seeking ghost with links to Coyne’s past.

Just like Dickens’s Scrooge, Judas must put the past right. With Mary Beth at his side, Judas drives his mustang deep into the South to find the woman who sold him the ghost and make amends. And in the process attempt to rid the world of the murderous Craddock.


What I thought:

Burned out but not burned up Judas Coyne (Symbolic allusion, anyone?) doth confess too much…as in he believes himself more monstrous than he is. A refreshing change, this sort of anti-Judas in search of justice. (Naturally, his given name is Justin.)

Joe Hill is a skilled practitioner of terse, tight writing. Every word seems to have been placed just so to evoke maximum effect with minimal prose. The language is darkly comic at times, grotesque at others, The writer knows how to infuse heart into a character who believes himself to be heartless. This is a journey novel, a sort of Huckleberry Finn trip down the Ohio River, or in this case, the long highway south in search of soul.    

If you like your ghosts on the dark side—or, I should say, char-broiled, as in burnt in hell—then I recommend Heart-Shaped Box. Generally speaking, I prefer my ghosts angst-ridden rather than demon-driven. Bemused rather than evil. However, once I cleared the hurdle of the demonic ghost, I enjoyed the ride, barreling through the rural South on a throaty Mustang in search of redemption.

So, yes, this novel is about revelation and redemption. (I’m a sucker for redemption novels as long as they are not saccharine; this one is anything but.) Instead, it is about the peeling away of sin and memory and the names by which we label both and each other. As Mary Beth (the afore-named Georgia) says to Justin (the erstwhile Judas), “The right words have a charge in them. Enough charge to bring the dead back to the living.”

Ah, yes, that would be redemption.

Take an Author to Book Group

Bringing Home an Author

I’ve mentioned Laurie’s book group before. We are a mixed group of mature (interpret this word as you wish!) and urbane women who meet monthly to chaw over books as diverse as The Invisible Man (Ellison’s, not Wells’) and Persuasion (Austen’s not Lakhani’s). Plus women’s fiction and exposés and mysteries and story collections.

For our last meeting we read Breaking Out of Bedlam by Leslie Larson. As a special treat, the author Herself graced our gathering.

She was a delight. Leslie joked that this was one book group meeting in which she wouldn’t have to fake reading the book.

We discussed the novel, heaping praise on the author for use of voice and a keen understanding of family dynamics. The core of the novel, according to Leslie, derived from the peeling away of a grandmother’s indiscretion. This led our group to discuss the domino consequences of family secrets. (Note to self: family secret = oxymoron.)

Soon, the conversation generated its own domino effect as we began to disclose, commiserate with and laugh over our own cached skeletons. (Though none as unfortunate as Poe’s Fortunato.)

As this was our first author appearance, none of us knew how it would go. Yet the evening proved so lively that I now recommend author participation whenever possible. To those of you in the Bay Area, consider inviting Leslie Larson. You won’t be disappointed.

Deb’s Very Own Prologue

Jindo, Korea Grandmother and Tiger Monument

Hi Everyone,

As promised, I am posting the prologue to my novel Moonlight Dancer. You can decide if I violate any of agent Kristin Nelson’s prologue injunctions that I discussed in my previous post. I would love to hear what you think.

Well, sort of. I’m also scared to hear what you think! Therein lies the writer’s dilemma. But–GULP–here goes. (I included page one of chapter one to give you some reference.)

*                     *                     *                      *                      *

Jindo, Korea


By the time I reached the end of the land I had renounced prayer.

The gods no longer spoke to me.

Standing there, wind whipping my skirts, looking toward Jindo, I couldn’t help but remember the legend of our island. Why not, if doing so would delay me? I welcomed even a pause of ten heartbeats. I could slice open my palm and apply a red pepper poultice to the wound, yet the pain in my heart would exceed that 10,000 times.

If only the gods had spoken to me that day. If only I had seen their silence as disapproval. But as we say, wheat bows its head deeper as it ripens. This means, Kendra JinJu MacGregor, wise people are humble.

On that day I was neither wise nor humble.

Instead, I stood at the end of the land unable to move forward, unable to retreat, and thought of the legend. Once, in the long past time of tigers and dragons, Grandmother Bbong yearned to rejoin her family.

A streak of hungry tigers, so the old ones say, had driven the villagers from their homes. Grandmother fled, but churning seawater surrounded her so she could not cross to Modo Island where her family had rafted to safety.

At the end of the land Grandmother wailed and prayed, prayed and wailed.

That night, the Sea King appeared in her dream. “Tomorrow,” he told her, “follow the rainbow.”

In the morning a ribbon of dazzling colors rose over the waters. As Grandmother stepped forward, the Sea King parted the waves. Suddenly, a walking path broke through the waters all the way to her family on Modo Island.

Every year since then, the sea splits for one hour on one day in the fourth lunar month, and the mysterious path between the islands appears.

That’s where I paused, unable to do what I came here to do. The sand beneath my feet was dry, but time was short. Below the cloud layer, a muted gray sky pressed into the sea, pressed into my heart.

I fingered a triton I had fished from the rocks. I didn’t bend my ear to the shell in case the ocean echo no longer chuffed inside its delicate coils. Kneeling, I kissed the baby’s ear, nuzzled the soft down on his head and offered him the shell.

“HanGyu, listen,” I said.

But he was distracted. Following his upward gaze, I spied a white-tailed eagle arcing her wings. No doubt she had cached her chicks beneath her.

I should have seen that as my sign. An eagle protects her young. In this way my older sister had implored me to protect HanGyu.

As she lay dying, Unni held my hand. “Tell me you will raise my son.”

My tongue lay like a sleeping dragon in a rocky cave.

Unni raised herself on one elbow. “Promise me. Take my son to a village where we—our class—are not known. You have money. Purchase him a good name.”

She clasped my arm in a fierce grip, a strength I had not seen in life. A pity she had not this strength to fight the devilish Japanese soldier.

“Promise me,” she said. Her fingers loosened.

Younger sister, I wanted to say, “This is nonsense. You will not die.” But that was impossible since I could foresee her future.

If only I had foreseen my own.

Unni’s chin trembled in her last moments. I’ll never forget her chin, that dimple. How could I when I see it now reflected in her son, his face pointed to the sea eagle? But his eyes—a soldier’s eyes, dark and alert.

As we watched, HanGyu and I, the eagle tumbled toward the sea, trailing a ghostly shock of white in her wake. A glance at the sky—I had meant to keep the sun in my sight, but while I wasn’t looking it had crept away.

No time, no time.

Water stole over my toes. Flicks of sea gained the sandbar.

Of all hard things I will tell you, younger sister, this is the hardest. I gathered my skirts, already stained by the water tip-toeing up the sides of the sandbar. I gathered my nerve and kissed the soft spot on HanGyu’s head as I set him down. I hardened my mouth against the soft spot in my heart.

How misguided I was! How I burn now with gnawing, unending sorrow. Unlike the Sea King, I cannot roll back the waters of time. This scene I have watched in my mind 10,000 times in the four hundred years since the day I turned and walked and would not witness the cold waters close over the baby’s head.

(End of prologue; now, first page of chapter one.)

Berkeley, California


The doll wore white silk and a melancholy gaze.

Kendra MacGregor stared at the twelve-inch figure.

Rays of light glinted on the cloisonné hairpick that pierced the doll’s chignon. Its Korean skirt billowed like parachute silk over what Kendra knew, without knowing how she knew, would be underneath—inner trousers and a stiff underskirt.

“Kenni, come on,” her friend Anna called from the next aisle. “I’m starving.”

Lips parted, Kendra remained motionless. The shaft of sunlight pierced the glass globe and played about the doll’s features, dancing in its dark irises. For a moment she thought she heard the doll whisper.

The shelf was not so high. Kendra stole a glance around. Good, she was alone in the dimly lit warehouse aisle. Without further thought, she climbed. She wedged a foot at the base of one shelf and reached to the next, pulling herself up. Almost there—

“Can I…help you?”

She jerked, concentration broken. Her fingers lost their grip. She clawed the air but tumbled backward. Just as her foot collapsed beneath her, firm hands grabbed her. Her blood stirred beneath the sure touch.

“Oh,” she gasped.