Breaking the Rules

While Zac takes some time off, today’s Promptly guest post comes from WD Editor Jessica Strawser.


Back when I was a student in journalism school, I took an advanced magazine feature writing class. We began by studying selections from master feature writers—our visiting professor among them—and discussing what made them such exemplary pieces. Then, each of us undertook an elaborate article project that involved extensive research in the field or, in my case, at the local library, studying local newspaper archives on microfilm to research the history of a Main Street theater that was under restoration.

When it came time to workshop our articles in class, I felt fairly confident about my story. I’d interviewed owners and employees, past and present. I’d drawn a narrative thread of the building’s transformation from performance hall to Vaudeville house to movie theater through various eras in the small town’s history. When it was my turn to garner feedback, I fidgeted only a little in my chair.

One of my classmates raised her hand. “I think when the overall writing is strong like this is, it’s OK to have broken some rules,” she said. Others nodded.

Because the consensus was generally positive, I smiled self-consciously and looked down at my own copy of my story. I hoped no one could read the baffled expression I was concealing. I hadn’t been aware that I’d broken any rules. Which ones?

It nagged me for days—if I didn’t know what they were, how would I know whether or not it was really OK to break them again? And how could I not have known in the first place? I was at the top of my class—but had I missed something crucial on the way there? I was too embarrassed to ask.

Ultimately, I decided that it didn’t really matter either way, as long as I was doing something right. My new rule, I decided, would be to keep making my own. But I can still remember the details of that workshop today—perhaps because, truth be told, I still don’t have the slightest idea what they were referring to.

Which leads me to today’s prompt.

WRITING PROMPT

Write a story about unknowingly breaking a rule, in 500 words or fewer. (Feel free to break some “rules” in writing it, too.)

As always, feel free to post your response (500
words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional
around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your story to
writersdigest@fwmedia.com with “Promptly” in the subject line, and we’ll
make sure it gets posted.

Happy writing!
Jessica


For more inspiration to go your own way in the writing life, don’t miss my interview with bestselling author Elizabeth Berg in the March/April issue of WD, on newsstands now and available for instant download right here.

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

8 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules

  1. Martha W

    Thanks for filling in, Jessica! Great post!

    And welcome to all the newbies… you’ll love it here!

    ########################

    Her pretty blue eyes glistened with tears as she looked into his tired face. "Why won’t you stay?"

    "Angel, I gotta go." He sighed, set his duffel bag down by the front door. He leaned outside, held a finger up to the driver waiting for him. "You’ll be okay."

    "Is it because I wrote that note?" Her bottom lip trembled, bordered dangerously close to forming a full-blown pout. "It is, isn’t it?"

    "No." He sank down in front of her where she sat on the stairs. "It has nothing to do with you."

    She sniffed. "I’ve heard that before."

    "Not from me." He gripped her chin, dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Tell me you’ll be fine."

    Her delicate face crumpled, her shoulders shook with the sobs racking her body. What if he really didn’t come back? She felt him sit next to her and wrap an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him, loving the heat she could feel through his dress shirt. "I’ll be fine."

    "Okay." He released her, pulled on his coat. "I’ll call in a couple days when I get there. I’ll check on you."

    She nodded.

    He swept up his bag and he was gone. Just like the other times, but she knew. This time felt different.

    She pulled herself up from the step and watched his car leave; a woman in the driver’s seat. It was always a woman, she’d noticed.

    Angel set her shoulders and went to the kitchen where her mother waited to comfort her yet again. It seemed like the swoosh of the swinging door was the loudest sound in the world.

    "Momma." The tears were so thick she couldn’t see anymore. "When’s he coming back?"

    Her mother’s strong arms circled her and guided her to the table. "Would you like something to drink?"

    "No. I want him to come back."

    "He will."

    Her confidence bouyed Angel’s heart. "Then I want some milk."

    ###

    It had been a week without word. He always called on Monday nights, every week for two months. Cheaper he said. But this was the second Monday she climbed the stairs with a heavy heart.

    Her Momma kept trying to boost her spirits, keep her mind off of what wasn’t happening. She kept saying they’d cross that bridge when they got there. But she knew.

    Just like she’d known when he left. This time was different.

    Halfway up Angel heard the jangle of the old rotary phone. Her heart thundered in her chest, felt like it wanted to jump out and race her to answer.

    As she reached the bottom, her mother beat her there. "Hello."

    Silence.

    The longest silence in a seven-year-old’s life.

    As her momma sank to the cold tile floor, broken, she knew.

    There’s only one reason a soldier doesn’t call home.

  2. MelissaInk

    First time posting. First time writing in a long time, actually. Thanks for the prompt.
    *****

    I stare at the front door, streaks of glue run below the stained glass. Too many summers facing the Texas summer, it didn’t stand a chance. The sticky stripes remind me of maple trees pouring sap in the fall. In Michigan, we had the Maple Sugar Festival. In Texas, we have heat. And wind.

    I spray the door with Goo Gone and work the melted glue away. I sand the entire door lightly and wipe it down with a damp cloth. I trot to the garage for the drop cloth and paint. I open up the can of bright red and stir, the oily red bleeds into the stark white base. I stir for a while then methodically begin dipping in the paintbrush and changing the beige door into a welcoming red masterpiece.

    The first coat dries quickly and I finish the job. I stand back to admire my work and claim victory over the Texas sun – at least this summer.

    Ron from next door walks by with his two Shih Tzus, two yappy dogs that leave skinny piles of poop along the sidewalks. It always looks like a pile a baby snakes till I realize it’s not moving.

    “Paint the door?” he says in the way older people often ask a question as a statement.

    “That damn sun destroys everything. I got the melted glue off and decided to go for something different.”

    “Red isn’t in the neighborhood by-laws, neighbor.” He tilts his hat the side. “You’re gonna have to paint it back beige or that chocolate brown the Copes’s got theirs painted.”

    We stand there, staring at my door. I look over at the Shih Tzus. One is standing stoically by its fresh pile of baby snakes.

    I walk slowly towards the door and wave. “Well, let the neighbors complain for a while."

  3. MelissaInk

    First time posting. First time writing in a long time, actually. Thanks for the prompt.
    *****

    I stare at the front door, streaks of glue run below the stained glass. Too many summers facing the Texas summer, it didn’t stand a chance. The sticky stripes remind me of maple trees pouring sap in the fall. In Michigan, we had the Maple Sugar Festival. In Texas, we have heat. And wind.

    I spray the door with Goo Gone and work the melted glue away. I sand the entire door lightly and wipe it down with a damp cloth. I trot to the garage for the drop cloth and paint. I open up the can of bright red and stir, the oily red bleeds into the stark white base. I stir for a while then methodically begin dipping in the paintbrush and changing the beige door into a welcoming red masterpiece.

    The first coat dries quickly and I finish the job. I stand back to admire my work and claim victory over the Texas sun – at least this summer.

    Ron from next door walks by with his two Shih Tzus, two yappy dogs that leave skinny piles of poop along the sidewalks. It always looks like a pile a baby snakes till I realize it’s not moving.

    “Paint the door?” he says in the way older people often ask a question as a statement.

    “That damn sun destroys everything. I got the melted glue off and decided to go for something different.”

    “Red isn’t in the neighborhood by-laws, neighbor.” He tilts his hat the side. “You’re gonna have to paint it back beige or that chocolate brown the Copes’s got theirs painted.”

    We stand there, staring at my door. I look over at the Shih Tzus. One is standing stoically by its fresh pile of baby snakes.

    I walk slowly towards the door and wave. “Well, let the neighbors complain for a while."

  4. Dan

    Hi Jessica & Zac,

    First time posting, just getting started with creative writing. Thanks for the prompt look forward to posting more!

    Dan
    _______________________________________________________________________

    “Free Lunch”

    Before I could even see the sandwich, I smelled it. It was a familiar scent, probably ham, but to be honest it didn’t matter. Labs aren’t picky…especially when they’re stomachs are rumbling.

    For a big dog I can be surprisingly nimble, I like to call it my “stealth mode.” No people around would make this easier than usual, but really is it my fault? I mean, you left your sandwich sitting right out in the open, like a beacon of light in an otherwise dimly light kitchen. I’m a dog for crying out loud, I am literally bred to “retrieve” this sandwich!

    I need to make my move before anyone comes back, and I take down the object of my obsession in a matter of seconds. I don’t chew – chewing only takes time and I don’t have that luxury right now. I can hear footsteps coming, and their pace is quickening. I can feel the vibrations in the floor as they approach. There’s only a sprinkling of crumbs left by this point, but hell I got what I came for and it’s time to revert to “who, me?” mode.

    “Damnit Lucas! Bad dog, that was very bad!”

    My owner is upset, but I’ve trained him well. I immediately start to wag my tail and give him my puppy dog eyes. He seems really mad this time, so I start licking his hands, which is admittedly difficult given how frantically he is waving them.

    Then he trots in. Arlo. Just the sight of him nauseates me. He’s always got that smirk on his face, like he just found a nice patch of grass to roll around in and he sure as hell isn’t telling you where it is. I had stool samples bigger than this dog, but he was the preverbal thorn in my paw.

    Then it hits me, what tipped my owner off? I noticed that little punk trotting away from the future crime scene. I don’t trust a dog that doesn’t think with his stomach, and my instincts were right this time…Arlo had tipped him off. I probably couldn’t even hear his little yipping as I inhaled that beautiful sub (which to my surprise had pickles too!).

    “Good boy Arlo, you get a biscuit. Lucas, no dinner for YOU pal”

    I met eyes with Arlo, and not surprisingly that smirk started to go from ear to ear. I had no regrets, my free lunch was certainly tastier then my dinner would be, but Arlo had gone too far this time. If he had been a lookout I even would have let him have a nibble of bread. He broke the “dog code,” again.

    I curled up near the heater. Normally I would be fully satisfied with what had just taken place, but my mind was already figuring out my next move. I was no cannibal like those savages I saw on TV, but Arlo had better get a good night’s sleep. He could use a little training himself…starting tomorrow.

  5. Mark James

    Jessica, thanks for filling in for Zac. . . saved me and Martha having to hijack his blog. . . 🙂

    "Fighting experience?”

    When I saw his gold breastplate and the sword and scabbard across his back, I should’ve kept my attitude to myself. Instead I said, “I got beat up a couple times in middle school. Does that count?”

    He stopped his quill in midair and looked up at me. “How did you get here?”

    “I guess this isn’t the check-in desk at Cancun?”

    He leaned back in the big chair that was more like a throne and said, like he was talking to himself, “Raphael.”

    An angel with gold wings walked through the wall behind the desk. “Bright greetings, brother.”

    “Don’t bright me,” the angel with the quill said. “What’s a sixteen-year-old on vacation in Mexico doing here, checking in with me?”

    “The plane went down,” Raphael said.

    “I know he’s dead.” He threw down his quill. “What’s he doing here?”

    Raphael smiled at me. “Would you tell us which way you went when you got to the gate with the pearls on it?”

    I gave him the same look I used to give dad when he asked how much I paid my little sister to clean my room. “I went over the bridge, past the sign that said Easy Way Out.”

    “All right, fine,” the angel behind the desk said. “We’ll play your way. I’m Michael. Archangel. You’re my new assistant.”

    “Angels can’t boss people around,” I said. “Bible says so.”

    Michael started writing with his quill, and I saw that the ink was too red to be anything but blood. “Which edition did you read that in?”

    “There’s only one,” I said.

    “You mean the one that made it to Earth? That was a rough draft.”

    “What if I say I won’t be your assistant?”

    Raphael said, “That would be a poor choice indeed.”

    I looked him up and down. “And what are you going to do about it? Flap your gold wings me?”

    “You better watch it with my brother, kid. He was born nice.” Michael’s eyes flashed. “They had to teach me. I’m a real slow learner.”

    Angel or not, Michael was giving me the creeps. “Send me back to the gates. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to come this way.”

    Michael shook his head. “With all the attitude you been giving me? Too late.” He leaned back, closed his eyes. I thought he’d strike me with lightning or something, but he just said real soft, “Lucifer.”

    Another angel walked through the wall, all in white, but he looked a little dingy, like he needed to do laundry. “Brightest greetings, brother,” he said.

    “He came across the bridge.” Michael looked at me. “Says it was an accident, and now he’s giving me attitude about being my assistant. You need any help down there?”

    “Be kind, Lucifer. His transgressions were few,” Raphael said. “Keep him from the flames.”

    “Wait,” I said. “I’m not going to Hell.”

    “Done.” Lucifer said.

    So here I am, in Hell’s laundry, washing angel robes. I’m getting used to the ball and thousand chains around my ankle. It’s all this soot that’s really bad; makes it hard to get the whites clean.

  6. Mandy

    "The moment I realized it? I couldn’t tell you that. I don’t even know that there was a moment. It was more like an accumulation of moments. I guess I don’t really know what it’s like, I just know what it is. I know what it feels like to me. Or what it felt like."

    The tremble in her voice rippled around the room. She could feel that ripple in her own body. What was she doing here? Why had she even agreed to this in the first place? Yes, she could see that gay folk sharing their stories with a bunch of straight folk was somehow useful and progressive and "opened the dialogue", but why her story? At this moment, she didn’t even really feel like she had a story. She was, as her Mother would say, dropping the thread.

    "Ok, well yeah. Maybe that would be a better approach. OK, well her name was Alison. I thought she was the most unbelievably cool person I had never met. Within days of meeting her, I was consumed. Entirely. Sixteen years old and wholly overtaken. She occupied me completely. Seamlessly really. It was all ‘Alison this’ and "Alison that’. Crazy as it sounds, it happened so totally that I never saw it at all. I guess you don’t always see everything at sixteen though, do you? Although my parents seemed to see plenty, or my Mom did for sure. You know,actually, maybe there was a moment after all. Or at least the start of one. She was driving me to school. My Mom I mean. It was just the two of us and I was rattling about a movie that Alison had raved about that I just had to see. Going on and on without any awareness of how quiet my Mom was being. How she wasn’t really participating in the conversation. We slowed for a stop sign and I glanced over to her side of the van. She was just looking through the windshield, but I could see something in her face. It surprised me, made me aware of myself somehow. Like she snapped her fingers and everything came into focus. That face told me that I had gone off the track. Until that morning I didn’t even know I was playing a game, but the set of her jaw let me know that I was breaking the most important rules".

  7. Sarah

    Jessica,
    I just recently discovered this site as I am trying to improve my writing skills. As I mention below, I am a pastor, which means that I do a significant amount of writing as a part of my preaching every week. I don’t know if that qualifies me as a ‘professional writer’ per se; however, I do want to work on the craft of writing. That is what brings me to writing exercises such as this one. Thank you!
    Sarah
    ________________________________________

    Illegal Garbage?

    I turned the corner onto the highway to head out of town and as I looked in the rear view mirror I suddenly saw lights flashing on the car behind me. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach, my heart rate increased and my mind raced, quickly reviewing in my mind the turn I had just made. I wondered what I could have possibly done wrong.

    I saw the sheriff’s deputy get out of the car and as he walked toward me I realized that I knew him. He was from the neighboring town where I had met him at a church function. I knew him to have a very dry sense of humor, a purveyor of practical jokes and, well, a smart-ass. For a few seconds I thought maybe that’s what this was, just a way to give me a bad time. Would he really do that? Use his professional standing to play a practical joke? It seemed inappropriate, even for him.

    As the deputy approached my driver’s side door, I rolled down my window and greeted him.

    “Good Morning,” I squeezed out, meekly.

    He sternly queried me, “Did you just put garbage in the city dumpster back there?”

    “Yes, I did. Did I do something wrong?”

    He rattled off some reason why I should not have just put a bag of garbage into the city’s dumpster.

    I breathed a little sigh of relief as I had recently gotten permission from the small village’s mayor who offered us, community pastors no less, this privilege should we ever have more garbage than would fit in our dumpster.

    Offering this explanation to the deputy gave him pause and said that he would talk to the mayor to verify my story. While I felt justified in my actions given my explanation, there was no sense of humor evident in his responses. He repeated his warning, which only served to raise my blood pressure further as I felt a mixture of shame and self-righteousness coarse through my veins.

    Having been pulled over by law enforcement for only the second time in my life, I was both shamed and embarrassed. How many people had seen a local pastor pulled over by a local deputy sheriff? The embarrassment morphed into self-righteous anger, yet I held my tongue and kept my feelings at bay.

    As the deputy returned to his car, I reached for my cell phone in my purse beside me to call my husband. As I began to explain to him what had just happened, tears began to flow, soon to become a river of sobs as the emotions came rushing out like rapids.

    Had I known that my actions could have been perceived or deemed illegal, I never would have thrown my garbage in the city dumpster whether I had permission from the mayor or not. Sometimes you just never know what’s wrong or right.

  8. Dorraine

    Well, Jessica, those rules didn’t matter much since your story was the shiz! I hope you saved it.

    Thanks for the prompt. I’m a rule breaker from way back, but half the time I don’t realize I’m breaking them. I’ll give it a whirl.

    Lunch Bunch

    Friend Beth says, "Hey, you wanna go to lunch?"

    Me, "Uh, yeah."

    Beth, "Fab, I’ll drive."

    Later that day, the phone rings.

    Beth, "Hey can you drive? I just looked at my inspection sticker, which is six months overdo."

    Me, "Sure thing."

    I went outside and gawked at my inspection sticker. It was expired by a year.

    Beth drove.

    Now, I hadn’t thought about that sticker all year, obviously, but I was sure thinking about it now. Later that day, I was driving through our neighborhood and got pulled over by Mr. Policeman.

    Muscle man Policeman, looking annoyed. "Ma’am, did you know your inspection sticker is expired?" He leaned in for a closer view and I saw him smirk. "By a whole year?"

    Me, "Uh hem…cough, cough. Well, sir, believe it or not, I just checked it today, so I did know. But I’ve only known for a couple of hours." I don’t have long lashes, but I batted what I had like crazy and held my breath.

    Muscle man Policeman cracked a smile. "I’m going to let it slide this time but get it taken care of soon."

    Me, thinking, well, hot dang! "Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir." I wanted to hug his neck but of course I didn’t. It might have ruined the magic.

COMMENT