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Gift: Writing Exercise

writing promptsA million years ago, I posted a writing exercise on my blog.

Right now, I'm going to do an uncharacteristic thing and write something like, "You totally don't have to read this.  It's probably really lame.  I mean, don't read it.  It's fine."

I'm comfortable writing about myself, the world, anything, really, in open and direct terms.  But, I want to be good at other kinds of writing.  The thing is, a writing exercise doesn't do much good just sitting on your hard drive.

I'd love to hear what you think.  And, not just, ""Wow, so good."  Or, "Keep practicing, you'll get better."

Tell me what you think and how you think I can be better.  If you feel like it.  It's probably totally lame.  I mean, don't read it.  It's fine.

Also?  I'd love to see how you would do this exercise.  E-mail me and let me know if you write something similar.


Prompt: Read A Letter To Dear Abby (or like) but ignore the reply.  Write a piece that centers on or resolves the conflict.

DEAR ABBY: I work with another woman who always comes to the office in professional attire. She is lovely. My only problem with her clothing is that it's so devoid of color that it makes her appear incredibly drab and depressed. She wears all beige, all black or all white, which does nothing to enhance her beauty.

She is a quiet person, so I understand her not wearing flashy reds or loud colors, but a little bit would bring out her inner vitality.

Would it be presumptuous of me to suggest she might add some color to her wardrobe, or should I just leave it alone? Should I buy her a scarf to brighten up all those muted ensembles? -- SUFFERING IN BEIGE-LAND



It was a small package with a card taped to the bottom.  She picked it up with muted surprise, it wasn’t her birthday. Panic enveloped her as she considered the possibility that she may have forgotten a holiday or some special event when co-workers were supposed to exchange presents, and one that had somehow completely missed her attention.  The feeling was momentary, of course, because that sort of thing never happened to her.

If anything, she was meticulous.

Meticulous about work, about cooking, about driving, about talking, about dressing.  No, she hadn’t forgotten some special event.  Someone had just given her something for no clear reason.

Sara peeled back the purple wrapping paper with a sense of wonder.

She fumbled with the rest of the packaging and opened the box.  A scarf.  Specifically, a bright red scarf.  She picked up the silky material and pulled it out of the box.  A note card in a slightly muted shade of the wrapping paper fell on her right foot.

She bent over quickly to pick it up and read it as she straightened up.  Flourishing letters loudly declared “Sara, a small gift to brighten your day!  Best, Janine!”  The exclamation points had hearts instead of dots.

Strange.  Besides brief interactions in office meetings, a few group lunches and several coincidental meetings at the company coffee pot, Sara didn’t really know Janine.  A gift to brighten her day?  What did Janine know about her days or whether they even needed brightening or not?

She spread the scarf out on her table and examined it.  It was so... red.  A minute later, she carefully folded it and placed it in its box, resolving to thank Janine for such a lovely gift and firmly deciding that this is just the sort of thing that her little sister would wear.  Since Janine didn’t know Sonia and the mathematical probability of them ever meeting was infinitesimally small, re-gifting was a win win situation.

After clearing her e-mail box, Sara set about the task of thanking Janine for a gift that had just been given for the sole and strange purpose of “brightening her day.”

Holding the boxed scarf in her right hand, she poked her head over Janine’s cubicle and stood silently watching the older woman intently pecking at her computer.  Sara smiled to herself as she thought of all the endless questions she had answered for Janine about simple things like setting up smartboxes for her e-mail or how to retrieve her Intranet password.  Janine was legacy in the temp business... invaluable in her experience yet slightly irritating in her ignorance.

“Hi,” Sara smiled as she lifted the box, “what’s all this about?”

“Oh, honey, I hope you liked it... I just saw it in the store and thought of you.  It was on sale...  I just wanted to get it for someone.”

“It was really sweet of you, I love it,” Sara felt uncomfortable with the effortless way the insincere words flowed from her mouth.  She hated lying, but she also knew that sometimes it was better to lie than to spew truth in an unsuspecting face.

“I’m so glad!” Janine’s subtly dismissive air vanished and a new energy spurted forth, “you know, you’re just so beautiful, honey... like a young Sophia Loren with your dark eyes and everything.”

The conversation had officially entered total and complete awkwardness.

“I just thought, with your coloring and everything, what you really need is something to accent it... I love the neutrals you wear, but without accents it all looks so drab.”

Sara felt her face fall a little, but just for a second.  It was imperceptible to Janine, and it would have been so to anyone else standing there.  She recovered within fractions of a second.  The feeling migrated from her face and settled deep inside her core.    It raced down into her throat and sent a pinching feeling into the center of her chest.

In one moment, she relived everything.

She heard her mother extol the virtues of flowing materials in pastel patterns that reinforced a sense of femininity.

She saw her father’s scowl as she emerged from her bedroom dressed in faded graphic tees and torn jeans.

She remembered her sister’s eyes rolling at chunky lace up boots.

Slowly, but surely, she had expelled the t-shirts, the worn out jeans and the boxy shoes leaving them to their fate in cartons destined for Goodwill.  It hadn’t been intentional, really.  It was just a slow, peaceful letting go.  As each piece disappeared, it was replaced by another item that garnered a nod of approval or a look of admiration.  It had felt worth it then... each relinquishment had earned just a little more love from the people she loved best in all the world.  So many years later, with her parents gone from this world and her sister immersed in a life of her own that left little time for inspection of a big sister’s wardrobe, the victory no longer felt like a victory.

So many years later, she had started thinking about the things she had lost in order to win.

Now, here was this stranger telling her that she needed more color.  Everyone, even strangers had opinions, didn’t they?  This will make you better, I can make you better, you can be better... or, simply put, you are not good enough the way that you are.

This feeling would be eternal.  It didn’t make sense to brood.  Walking away from this choice would leave a hole that she didn't have the slightest idea how to fill.  It was better to just keep walking on this path, and, besides, she was tired.

She regrouped, held the box up again in a seemingly loving gesture that masked the deep resentment she felt.  She smiled hard, “Yes, that’s a good point, I think... thank you so much, I really appreciate it.”  And, like she had done so many times before, she quietly swallowed another’s contempt for the truth of who she really was.

She saw Janine beam at her and then she watched as the woman’s eyes float back to her computer screen.

“You’re welcome, honey.  It was nothing, really.”

Photo Credit: Bright Meadow

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Reader Comments (10)

Faiqa .... my response goes way beyond "wow, so good"

It touches on a part of me that resonates with Sara ... yet resonates with Janine ...

and then leaves me wondering how the hell you got all of THAT out of such a simple Dear Ann prompt!

Wow ... so good!

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternaomi

Oh wow. This is really good, Faiqa.

It's funny (not funny haha either) how oblivious well-meaning people can be. Next time I'm in this position myself I'll definitely think about this story. People are like icebergs...there is always more under the surface that you can't see.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I'm sorry, So. Good.

If every Dear Abby (or like) column were answered in this fashion, we'd have a lot more people minding their own businesses, wouldn't we?! You really forced the questioner to walk a mile in Beige-Land.

I wonder how Janine would respond if she knew Sara's Story. Would she understand and let it be, or would she believe even more strongly that Sara needs rescuing from Beige-Land?

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpienary

What I love about this is the parts of you that I can see in Sara, even though no one would ever accuse you of being beige.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Britt

Pretty impressive, and I'm glad Ive never bought you a scarf.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJared

Pretty impressive, and I'm glad Ive never bought you a scarf.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJared

It seems it's up to me to be the asshole who expands beyond "so good" (which it is from a narrative standpoint) and explore the piece a little further.

From the limited information at my disposal about you, it sounds like Sara was, at least in part, based on you, which makes the characters lack of self-awareness so surprising to me. (Again, this is my interpretation of your piece; I am openly admitting I may have completely missed the mark.)

We are told that Sara's current wardrobe is based on the slow erosion of her own personal style through the criticism of her immediate family members, which explains her frustration on the one hand, but ignores that fact that Janine, either through dumb luck or possibly intuition, had the insight to purchase something for the "real" (or "original", if you will) Sara.

Like I said, it was good, and I may have misunderstood, but that ending left me with more confusion and less closure.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSciFi Dad

I am short on time so I can't offer more than I liked it. Well done.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJack@TheJackB

fuck. that was better than good! loved your take from a dear abby question.

my first instinct after reading the question was to tell the writer to mind her own fucking business if she isn't actually friends with the quiet woman in neutral tones. i will freely admit that part of what i loved so much about your writing is that you almost had me changing my mind, only to zing me back to feeling like i had the "correct" feeling the first time.

again, well done. xoxo

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterhello haha narf

Faiqua, I read your blog often and I enjoy your take on life and the sensibility you convey through your blog.

I read this piece and thought it was well-written and engaging, just as is your blog.

What I found interesting is the interaction between the 2 women and how the younger Sara simply accepted that what was a well-meaning if misguided attempt of a co-worker was actually a criticism of her. One on very facile level, I suppose it could be taken that way. However given the tone of the piece, I expected a slightly different response.

Sara could have used this interaction as a opportunity to address within herself why she continues to allow her family's criticism to shape not only her wardrobe, but her responses to a co-worker's fumbling attempt to pay her a compliment.

Yes, there is an implication in Janine's assessment of Sara's wardrobe, of criticism; however, the way you wrote the character of Janine, it never occurred to me while reading that she had anything but good intentions.

I suppose this is more personal to me than it might be to others as I was constantly criticized by my family for my appearance as I grew up as well.

You have a unique and interesting voice Faiqua, I think you should take this piece and flesh it out a little more, draw the characters more fully. It is clear how engaging your voice and style are, as from this very short piece of fiction, I am interested and want to know more about these characters and this story. Good job.

June 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJustaquietreader

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