Friday, April 1, 2011

School Lunches & the Perfect Button, Maybe

Announcement! Our winner of The Hinge of Your History goodies, chosen by, is Susan Gregory! Susan, email us at with your mailing address. Congratulations!

Welcome to our book talk of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Although first published in 1974, the book remains influential and entertaining for burgeoning and seasoned writers. Anne is the kind of writing friend you want giving you advice. She's honest and practical. Join us in discussing the chapter "School Lunches" today. Remember, reading the chapter is not a prerequisite for adding to the conversation.

Okay, so this is my poopy first draft about school lunches as assigned in the chapter:
Lunchtime at Hudnall Elementary School was an orderly affair. Tables folded from the wall of the auditorium, where, besides eating our lunches, we watched the Dodgers play in the World Series and learned folk dances, which meant touching boys. Nothing so scintillating happened during lunch. Each grade was assigned a table, the boys sat on one side, the girls on the other. We didn't jockey for position to sit by our friends. We stepped into our seats in the order we stood in line.

Back in the classroom, the kids who bought hot lunches had lined up first. Because a 25-cent lunch was a luxury, I squirmed in my seat at the hot-lunch students seemed to have descended from Mount Olympus, so confident were they. On the days my harried mother pressed a quarter into my hand and I lined up with the privileged few, I stood taller, felt the inclusion. I bought my lunch maybe three times a year.

The rest of the time, I ate the very same thing every day. While my fellow students munched on
thick sandwiches of American cheese and deli meats with lettuce on white bread, I ate a bologna sandwich on wheat bread smothered with Miracle Whip, no lettuce. Also included, on the bottom of the bag to prevent my sandwich from being squished, were the requisite bag of celery and carrot sticks and a pithy apple. Mom used those plastic bags with the fold-over closure, so the sandwich was dry around the edges. Other students munched on Cheetos, Bugles, or cookies. I tried not to drool. Some kids carried 8 cents to buy ice cream for dessert. They sat on the patio, fully visible through a giant window, chasing rivilets of chocolate down their arms. I drank tepid milk from a plaid Thermos.

We raised our hands to be excused. Our plates and lunch bags were examined to see that we'd finished eating. We lined up silently to go out to noon recess. Who kept this order? Mrs. Zolatell, built like a pawn on a chess board. She carried a whistle and the power to make disruptive students sit on the bench during recess. I've always been a little chatty. That fact landed me on the bench--just once--where I cried for 30 minutes, and then threw up.

According to Anne, now that I've completed my poopy first draft, I have the
option to delete or revise, or to tip the memories over like a box of buttons. There might be something shiny and useful in there. I won't be writing about pithy apples soon, that's for sure. I ran into Mrs. Zolatell several years later, and she stood nearly a head shorter than me. By that time, the angst had drained out of me. I just found it creepy that they allowed her out during the day. Yes, yes, of course you're right. The interesting part is me losing my lunch. I missed a student council meeting. I hated being thought of as the kind of kid who would have to sit on the bench. I wanted to be good. Hmm. There's an interesting "button." How far would a character go to protect their reputation?

Is it too late to confess that I hate writing exercises like this? None of this dreck has anything to do with what I'm working on. And my writing time is so precious that a game like this seems foolhardy, wasteful. Okay, so it was fun to remember the lunchroom. The fresh faces of Nina and Ginny and Larry and Ivon are in front of me as I write this. And I feel downright lacsidazical. Maybe I do need to loosen up and play a little more.

Do you work this way? Do you do writing exercises, just follow the writing butterfly through a memory, to find something golden to enrich your writing? Can you convince me to give it a try?

So what did you carry in your lunch bag?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I get persnickety about those type of exercises too.

I also ate bologna (spelling thanks to commercial) and Miracle Whip. Obsessed with them. And I had the carrots.

My fav. was the sunflower seeds my mom packed for me that my first grade teacher would sneak over and steal. It made me feel special that she ate some of my lunch every day.

~ Wendy

BK said...

When I first began on this writing journey, I did do ad hoc writing exercises from books. I remember that "Fiction Writers Workshop" (I'm packing so I don't remember author's name Josef N...something) was very helpful in this way.

But now it drives me crazy to do them. I have a hard enough time writing scenes that directly relate to my projects. Maybe some day the tables will turn again and I'll be willing, but for now, I stick to my WIPS.

l said...

You're not alone--I hardly ever do writing exercises either. Once in a while, I'll squeeze one out, but only if it has to do with what I'm writing about at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I seldom do the exercises, but I do feel guilty about it. Not guilty enough to do them ... but guilty.

I was one of those kids who "had" to buy school lunches. I remember being very young, maybe 1st or 2nd grade, and once a week or so the cafeteria served chili beans and cornbread. They put syrup jars on the table (like at IHOP) for the cornbread (I think it was Karo). But I didn't like chili, so I began putting syrup in it and found I could eat it that way. I actually put syrup in my chili til long after I was married.

Later on, in 5th grade, my best friend Terry always took her lunch, but whenever she brought chopped olive sandwiches I would trade my hot lunch for her cold lunch. I'd never heard of chopped olive sandwiches before Terry, but I loved them! Haven't had one in years.

Latayne C Scott said...

Oh, do I remember the baloney sandwiches with mustard and mayonnaise on gummy white bread. And the thermos.

I took lunches all the way through high school. I remember a Jewish girl bringing a tongue sandwich. Grossed me out. But I was brave and tasted it, and it was a lot like... baloney.

Of course after grade school we sat with our friends. We would often trade items from our paper bags. My mother knew that, and one Halloween she packed me egg shells (labeled "witches potato chips"), the stems from grapes, and other inedibles. I can still see her snickering when I got home.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I was the kid with braunschweiger sandwiches (don't know what that're it. It's N.A.S.T.Y.) and sliced up green peppers. Plus, my mom worked at the school and made sure I ate every last bite of the pasty meat product. Uck.

I do writing assignments for fun when I'm between real writing projects. They usually end up being silly. I actually enjoy them! Why? Because I'm a nerd!

I'm a nerd that smells of braunschweiger and green peppers.

Oh, that's not really all that attractive.

Marian said...

When I did this exercise it made me wonder about all the details I was not able to recall and if my brothers would remember their school lunches in any way remotely similar to the way I remembered mine.

Megan Sayer said...

I remember baloney sandwiches...

I remember being a little girl watching Sesame Street in the 1970s and wondering what on earth baloney sandwiches were, and how anyone's mum would let them eat jelly in a peanut butter sandwich (translation - jello? wobbly stuff you eat with ice-cream). Made me feel...different...again, and slightly awkward in case I was the only kid in my school who didn't know.

Turns out I was just like every other kid in school...vegemite, vegemite and cheese, or vegemite and lettuce; nicely gladwrapped into the orange lunchbox that my mum still uses some thirty-odd years later.

Today, though, I feel fulfilled. I have googled baloney, and read its wikipedia entry. I might have had spoonfuls of salt spread on my bread, but at least it didn't have cubes of lard!

(And what is it about writers who don't do writing exercises? I've only just knuckled down in the last few months and started a couple - but even that is such a chore!)

Steve G said...

Sharon, Maybe you weren't a traditional household where the wife tended to make most (all) of the meals, but I had to laugh 'cause I pictured you sitting down eating chili with your new husband, scooping honey into it and saying, "Chili! Chili! I hate chili, and it seems it is all I ever eat!" ...right after you finished making it.

Dina Sleiman said...

Once I got past college writing classes, I never wanted to do writing assignments. They're good for helping beginners discover how their writing processes work, though.

I have written a very Lamottesque sort of narrative nonfiction book, though. That was a very organic and spiritual experience for me. I based it off of a collection of poems I had written years earlier and let the story explode out of those lyric essay style.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

My journal is my writing assignment. I get to write whatever comes to mind, fiction or not for as long as it takes. This began in High School when we were required to write for 10 minutes. We were supposed to write about our day but I invented characters and sent them on adventures entirely unrelated to my drudgery.
No, I don't do this every day but it consolidates my ideas and allows God a free venue to speak.
In grade school I was severely persecuted for being a foreigner and lunch break was the prime hunting hour. Therefore I walked home no matter the distance. In High School, long past the need, it was about a mile each way. I had about 12.5 minutes to eat. In a health class exercise we added our calories against our physical activity. My numbers only increased my isolation from 'normal'.

Anonymous said...

Steve, that was funny. And it was funny the first time Rick watched me pour syrup into my chili. I don't know when I stopped -- or why -- but now I make a mean pot of chili, and love it.

Henrietta, that's sad. But I can somewhat relate. I went to 5 different high schools, 3 my sophomore year alone. So I was an outsider through much of my high school years. I hated the lunch hour, because only the LOSERS ate alone. But I knew I wasn't a loser, just a loner. I don't have too many fond memories of high school.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Susie, your comment made me laugh. And Megan, my sandwiches held vegemite, cheese and lettuce. Together. So funny to see all those familiar variations you mentioned.

Also, you weren't the only one to wonder why those weird Americans had slices of quivery Jell-O on their peanut butter sandwiches! (Jelly = Jell-O in Australia.) That baffled me for years. Much like the mystery of why anyone would want to eat cookies and gravy for breakfast. (Our word for cookies is biscuits.) Quite amusing how simple things can get so lost in translation.

Henrietta and Sharon, amazing how school memories from long ago can still feel so recent and painful. I can identify.

Megan Sayer said...

Karen have you got a translation on the biscuits for breakfast thing? I read Bret Lott's A Song I Knew By Heart the other week, and one of the key images in it was Ruth making biscuits on the skillet using the flour and lard the way Naomi always made them. I know enough to know they're not cookies, but it's completely stumped me - what are they? My interpretation is waffles.

Niki Turner said...

I think this was my favorite chapter in this book. School lunch experiences are so poignantly PAINFUL for must of us they are guaranteed to stir up some creativity.

I never had the right lunch box. When I finally HAD the right lunch box, everyone else was taking brown paper bags. When it was cool to to take your lunch (Susie, I feel your braunschweiger pain) I had to have hot lunch, which involved its own terrors: dropping your tray, losing your retainer, and so on and so forth.

As for writing exercises, I guess my blog is my writing exercise. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Megan, I think I'll let one of the Americans step in with an answer, because mine is sure to be wrong. From what I've gathered they're kind of like savoury scones, served with gravy, which is more like a sauce than what we'd normally think of as gravy. Basically I'm still pretty much lost. Biscuits and gravy... anyone?

(Sorry Patti... I know I've gone off on a tangent. But I guess writing exercises are supposed to encourage tangental thinking, right?) ;)

Megan Sayer said...

Thanks Karen : )
I read your comment and then did what I probably should have done three weeks ago...went to Wikipedia.
It appears you're right. Scones, with bechamel sauce. Ewwwwww...
I can't even begin to get my brain around that, let alone my taste buds. Let alone having it for breakfast every morning.

(Yeah I'm sorry too Patti. I'll go to the back of the class...again!)

PatriciaW said...

I'm with you, Patti. Although I get that there's value in writing exercises, I hate them. For writers with limited writing time, if the exercise doesn't directly help me with my work, it's not going to get my time or attention.

LeAnne Hardy said...

Patti, I used to change the exercise to fit what I was working on. What did my character have for school lunch? How did he feel about it? No doubt a lot of my own experiences would have contributed, but it was a great way to get to know my character better and practice the concepts in the writing book.