Something To Hang On To - Teachers’ Guide

Something To Hang On To

Writing Activities prepared by the author:
Saskatoon-based educator Beverley A. Brenna


These writing ideas are geared for grades eight and up and are intended as offerings from which students may choose rather than a prescribed “writing program.” Many of them relate to process activities that I explored during the development of the short stories in this collection.

Dragon Tamer

Sometimes writing can help you deal with the raw moments in life that are difficult to process. I found this to be true as I scratched out heartfelt notes during time spent at the side of my young son, in hospital with double pneumonia. Later, after he was better, these notes became ideas for this fictional story, continuing to help me think about the precious and tenuous nature of life.

This story began as an episode in a young boy’s life. Try writing about a critical incident from your childhood, working on sensory images to help the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the experiences you describe. After you have a clear version of the episode, transpose the character from yourself as a child to someone else, someone imaginary. How does this new person deal with the events you describe? Then, for an extra take on the subject, frame the story by having this person as an older adolescent—someone your age, perhaps—remember the incident through memory, flashback, or dreaming. How has the critical incident helped to shape the human being this character is now?

Another exercise related to this story is to select a character—either fictional or from your own experience—and describe them metaphorically, as William sees the “cat nurse.” Reread the sections of this story where the nurse is described. If you own a copy of the book, you may wish to highlight these parts. Consider purposes for describing a character in this way and what makes it effective or not. When this story was initially written, there were many more parts about the “cat nurse” but I felt it gave the story a rather irritating presence, outweighing the rest of the narrative, and so I took some of them out.

Finally, note how the children’s story about Wei Loong is embedded in William’s experience. What is the first story you remember being read? Why do you think it has stayed in your memory? Jot down your memories of the story within the context of its being shared with you. This has the potential to become a strong scene in your future writing, whether or not you include it as non-fiction or whether you fictionalize it to involve a character other than yourself.

Foil Butterflies

This story was crafted as I considered whose voices have not been well heard in children’s fiction and contemplated a character who might have some kind of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) on the autism spectrum.

The setting of the story is close to home, and, in fact, it is home. I live on an acreage with a small wooded area and a tree house, just like the one described in the story.

Take the time to consider where you live, and document in writing a space you know well. Use as many of your senses as you can to present this space to your readers. This narrative has the potential to find its way into some of your future writing, and may involve a fictional character other than yourself taking ownership of it.

In one of my adult short stories, I considered the cupboard under the stairs of my childhood home, and here is a passage from that writing, to offer another example:

There was a lighted cupboard under the stairs where Maggie would go to read, and even on the hottest of summer days, the air there remained moist and cool. The large paint cans on the shelves were sources of endless speculation--which color had gone where, and what had been painted over. There were smaller containers of glue and varnish and new, shiny brushes scented like apples that felt cool against Maggie’s lips. Along the back of the cupboard, the floor polisher invited exploration and its one furred foot was slippery smooth with wax that could be scraped off and arranged in anthills on the floor.

Maggie wasn’t supposed to be there. Just for paints and poisons, her mother would say. Not for little girls trying to hide from their mistakes. But hide there Maggie did, when she had broken a glass or tipped over the tin table that was always top-heavy and leaning into the kitchen doorway, her mother’s words burning in her ears. Stupid, stupid, what are you, stupid? The sense you have wouldn’t fill the end of a pin.

Jazz Shoes

In this short story, I rework a memory that originated in my teens, when I had bought a pair of jazz shoes from a dance shop only to discover that they squeaked. I returned them, with great difficulty as the woman in the store did not wish to cater to my complaints, and took another pair home, only to discover that they, too, squeaked. Perhaps they were designed for the stage where sound effects wouldn’t cause too much of a problem. They definitely were a problem as I walked to school, or headed down the aisle of my grade nine classroom.

Consider an item in your closet that you coveted but that once owned caused disappointment. Write down the details of longing for it, its purchase, and then the awakening of displeasure.

Aunt Dora, though a minor character, is one I particularly like. Just as the saying goes in theatre, “There are no small parts, just small actors…” consider creating a new characterization of a person who is confined to a hospital bed and entertains a visitor. Work on a short scene that demonstrates a number of characteristics of this person and build on these characteristics until, in a very short segment of text, you have a strong, multi-faceted individual giving a cameo performance.

Gift of the Old Wives

I heard the legend of Old Wives’ Lake long before I wrote this story. Think about legends or myths you know, or look up some on the internet. Choose one of these “found stories” and think about how you might personalize it, developing a new take on it through characters and events that allow it to unfold in a new and unique way. Make sure that you give credit to the culture and context in which it originated once you finish your work.

This story, and others I enjoyed reading such as Cora Taylor’s Julie, and some of Carol Matas’s recent novels, explore what it might be like to have second sight. Work on your own story about a gifted “seer” and compare it to mine.

Finding Your Voice

Making friends is a theme often explored in literature. Select two characters of whatever age you wish—small children, people your age, seniors, or two people of mixed ages—and develop a series of scenes that shows them becoming close.

One of the difficult scenes in this story was the one at the end, where I wanted to show the difference in opinion between Janine`s mother and Samantha`s father without them having a direct conversation that illustrated this. Practice writing a scene where two people disagree on something, and figure out a way for them to convey their perspectives indirectly.

One Of The Guys

This story was developed as stream of consciousness writing, where the thoughts and feelings of a character are channeled out onto the page in pretty much the same way they occur to the individual himself. Try out this form for yourself, either writing about an incident as it seems to be happening to you, or inventing an incident that you could comment on in much this same way.

Take a scene that you are working on in a piece of writing and see what happens when you remove all punctuation. How does this change the tone of the writing? What about when you leave some formal conventions but not others, as I have done here (leaving paragraph structure and periods, for example)?

The Phone Call

Shakespeare has many plot lines and themes that are now in the public domain, free to experiment with as long as credit is given where credit is due. Jot down the plot line of a play by The Bard with which you are familiar. Think about how you might modernize it into a contemporary tale, and then work on a draft that you can share with someone else who is writing from the same play. It will be interesting to see the twists and turns that two different writers create.

Think about a phone survey you have experienced and try writing about it as closely as you can to the actual dialogue. If you have ideas for expansion, see what happens with added conversation or the insertion of fictional characters.

Toe Jam

This story is based on a real experience between my big toe and a vacuum cleaner. Dwell on an embarrassing incident in your past or the past of someone you know, and then write about it as accurately as you can. Next, using this writing as your base, fictionalize the incident so that it involves an imagined character and added circumstances.

Dating can often conjure up funny moments for those involved. I once heard a story about a girl who got her finger stuck in one of the holes in the steering wheel of her boyfriend`s car. They had to remove the steering wheel and take her (and the wheel) to the hospital so that she could be released.

Use this incident if you wish to come up with a funny story. Try it in third person, and then try it in first person. From which voice do you think it reads best?

Life Looks Different from the South End of a Parachute at Five-Thousand Feet
Above Sea Level

Consider an extreme sport that you have heard about or brainstorm as many sports as you can think of and then select one that appeals to you. Do some research, using the internet or direct sources to discover further information about this sport. Create a character experiencing this sport, and write about the incident. Your job here is to make the passage believable by including authentic details as well as using accurate vocabulary.

In this story, Dustin and Dexter are two friends with very different qualities. Invent two characters who have an authentic base for friendship, but who also have contrasting characteristics. Do a joint character sketch that includes a description of both individuals.

Something To Hang On To

This story extends the plot from where it left off at the end of my novel Wild Orchid. Choose a book you have read, and develop a short story that goes one step further, making sure to credit your original source for the characters.

The situation of a job interview lends itself well to real life storytelling as well as imagined scenes. Create your own passage that illustrates either an interview you have experienced, or one you invent. One way to begin a task such as this is to brainstorm all the possible jobs you can think of in a period of five minutes. Then select a job from your list, and think about two contrasting characters: the interviewer and the interviewee.

If you and a number of classmates are working on job interview stories, finished drafts could be combined in a very readable collection as this theme is a popular one for readers.

Travelling Light: An Existentialist Play in One Act

Parents and children and the many conversational topics with which they engage seem to me to be the perfect basis for existentialist drama. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can think of for a dialogue between a parent and a child. Then work to create it in the absurdist style I model in this short story. Make sure you read it aloud with a writing partner, as this will help you refine the language patterns and vocabulary.

Try modifying the drama you have conceptualized above as free verse poetry, and compare how dealing with the topic changes depending on the form that is used.

Starting with Angels

Many Christmas stories are written that sound a lot like each other. Person wants gift. Person doesn`t think they`re going to get gift. Person gets gift after all, or something better, and realizes the meaning of Christmas. Jot down some Christmas memories of your own and pick one that you think nobody else will have experienced. Write it with as much sensory detail as you can, either in traditional narrative or as a prose poem.

Using the piece of writing above, try revising it in another tense (present tense if the work was originally crafted in the past tense, past tense if the work was originally developed in the present tense, or future tense just to give that one a whirl). Which tense do you like best? Why?

The frame of this story is loosely reminiscent of O Henry`s Gift of the Magi, where Della sells her long hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and John sells his watch in order to purchase Della tortoiseshell combs for her hair. Try using this pattern to come up with an original story of your own, but if your version borrows obviously from the original, don`t forget to give credit where credit is due.

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