You can find Sam’s writing exercises by clicking here.
Grouped by exercise. (Shared with permission.)
Fulfildown n. The disappointment that comes immediately after getting what you want.
— Samantha Schlemm
Auridilate v. to have the psychological sensation of being underwater as it relates to sound; the slowing down of an auditory (usually singular) awareness; to experience inside one’s head an echoing, expanding pitch or tone that hums and vibrates, resulting in a hallucinatory-like, otherworldly consciousness.
— Jennifer Meng
Horrorscope n. A horoscope so bad that it strikes fear into the heart of the reader, rendering them unable to take action or make a decision on anything or to even leave the house. This is caused by a paralyzing fear that those actions or decisions may cause the predictions to come true.
— Megan Bontrager
Seeking the Extraordinary
“A meditation on Chicken McNuggets” by Matthew Ribel
I have seen a man stare into the eye of God only once.
On the evening of September 2nd, 2016, Naader Reda performed a feat never before attempted—not once, in 200,000 years of human history. He keeps his survival tools close, as his Paleolithic ancestors did with flint and obsidian blades and such. Sprawled across Reda’s table are four different soft drinks, and twenty-six packets of condiments, meticulously laid out. Visibly fatigued and eyes unfocused, he throws his hands to the heavens—he’s done it. He’s forced one-hundred-and-seventy Chicken McNuggets down his esophagus.
I hold great respect for competitive eaters. Gutsport requires tremendous physical and mental fortitude. But compared to Coney Island, Reda’s performance feels mirthless. But I don’t judge him. For I, too, have fallen under the spell of the McNugget, that ochre temptress. Over time, The McDonald’s Corporation has shifted the Overton Window. Menu items have ballooned from six McNuggets, to ten, to twenty, to forty. You can measure servings in scores now. Every year, 30 million chickens are slaughtered for McNuggets alone.
But why do we keep eating? Because McNuggets are engineered to trick the mind, setting off as little physiological alarm as possible. They tap into some sort of culinary golden ratio. When I bring my tongue to the breading—something approximating tempura—no tastebuds fire. I can’t even detect salt; it’s like licking fresh concrete. And as I chew, there’s a total absence of richness. The mouthfeel is perfectly unobjectionable, developed in a high-security lab somewhere in the heartland. I feel no guilt, because it doesn’t feel like I’m eating food—just texture.
McNuggets induce synesthesia—the smell becomes the taste, and the taste becomes the smell. And that essence lingers. It leaves a legacy, filling every crevice of a room, like the fumes from a cigarette. In a deranged way, the McNugget is a monument to human progress. Over decades, leading food scientists, with the help of dozens of focus groups, have formulated a smell unlike any other in the known universe. Even once our species has decayed into loose carbon, floating through the cosmos, that scent will endure in some form.
Any McNugget magnate can tell you that they come in four vaguely ovular forms: The Bell, The Boot, The Bone, and The Ball. But their cosmetic imperfections are merely simulated—for the McNugget is organic only at the atomic level. Its constituent elements have been violently broken down into their most basic form, and then reconstituted: ground chicken, brined with salt and vinegar, bound together with powdered milk and pulverized grain, and then squeezed into laser-cut molds.
The great irony, of course, is that while the McNugget has been patented, tested, and, and perfected over forty-three years, it still maintains a primordial quality. The texture of the crust is almost topographical, littered with craters and ridges and black specks that look more like detritus than seasoning. The meat slurry, though bleached to a ghastly white, solidifies into a network of filaments, resembling human neurons. Look into a McNugget—really look into it—and you’ll bear witness to images past, present, and future: the vast expanses of Andean empires, the aging visage of a grandparent, or the desiccated landscape of tomorrow’s Earth.
Look into the soul of a McNugget, and you too can stare into the eye of God.
Sample #1: “Dandelions and the universe” by Cheyanne Leonardo
- I love dandelions. Maybe because my dad hates them. Maybe because yellow is my favorite color. Maybe both. I also love the word dandelion. I love how some people pronounce it dandy lion. What a happy image. If you say dandelion with a French accent, it sounds like dent de lion, which means lion’s tooth. Sure enough, dent de lion is precisely the French word for dandelion. So the English word is just a corruption of the French. And for some reason, I love this, too.
- I think if I ever get married (I won’t), I will hold a bouquet of dandelions. Maybe to make my dad mad or to get back at everyone who calls them weeds. Who could hate little blooming stars growing right out of the ground, close enough to touch and even pick and hold in your own two hands? And when they turn old and grey, you can blow the seeds away and make a wish. I find them magical. I want a front yard full of them.
- I can’t let myself think too much about the stars in the sky. How they are so unfathomably far away. I get freaked out when I think about outer space and the solar system. How the storm on Jupiter is as big as the entire Earth! How the rings of Saturn are 170,000 miles across! How all these raging, colorful spheres orbit a local star and God only knows what might lie at the real center of it all. I prefer to think about the dandelions. Maybe in all their meekness they hold some kind of key to understanding the universe, too.
- L’absurde naît de cette confrontation entre l’appel humain et le silence déraisonnable du monde. Translation: the absurd is born of the confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. Albert Camus. I think about this quote almost every time I think about the universe. How we can shout into the void forever and no real reason for the whole thing will ever be given to us. We just have to live anyway. Dandelions are as good a reason as any to keep going. They are something to believe in.
- My ex-boyfriend’s family in Germany kept a turtle as a pet. His name was Hildebrand (the turtle, not my ex). His favorite food was dandelions, but he could only eat the leaves, not the flowers. If you held a green dandelion leaf in front of his face he would stick his little turtle tongue out and bite into it like an old man without any teeth. A tiny toothless turtle eating lion’s teeth. That is poetry.
- When I was a little girl, my dad offered to pay me a penny a piece to pick dandelions out of the yard. He hated the “weeds.” I was determined to pick one hundred dandelions because at the time it was the biggest number I could possibly imagine and also I knew that one hundred pennies made a dollar. I think I only picked about ninety-two dandelions. He gave me a whole dollar anyway.
- My mom used to press dandelions in a book until they were flat and laminate them to make bookmarks. Or maybe those were only four-leaf clovers and I am just remembering dandelions because I like the image of putting dandelions between the pages of a book and tucking away their beauty and using them for something noble like holding one’s place among words.
- The best thing about making a wish on a dandelion is that doing so promises the birth of another generation of dandelions. The seeds will spread out and more lion’s teeth and blooming stars will populate the yard. More opportunities for pennies, for counting one’s way not just to a hundred but to infinity. I think I can understand forever in terms of dandelions.
Sample #2: “Ubering” by Maureen Nicholl
Every Uber has a smell. It’s normally an overwhelming synthetic air freshener odor that hits you like a wall when you get into the car. But sometimes it’s cigarettes, sometimes its dirt and sweat, sometimes it’s something harder to pinpoint. When I was a kid, every other kid’s house that I went to had a very distinctive smell. The smell was neither bad nor good, just unique. I often would notice the smell lingering on my hair and clothes after I left my friend’s house. I don’t notice this as much anymore going to other people’s houses as an adult, and I wonder if kids have sharper senses of smell or if I’m just less aware of these things.
Two years ago, my Uber driver informed me that I had a low passenger rating of 4.7 stars. She said she debated on whether or not to accept my ride, but said when she saw my name was Maureen she assumed it was because I was an old lady. I felt personally attacked. First, I had no idea I was being rated as a passenger, and the fact that I had been found to be lacking was really hurtful. It felt like I had been judged and dismissed as a person. I’m generally a punctual and friendly passenger, so the idea that I would be unsatisfactory was startling. Also, was 4.7 out of 5 stars really that low? Who didn’t give me 5 stars and why? Also, I know my name is unusual but is it really an old lady name?
There is a box you can check now when you call for an Uber that says “no conversation.” I’m not sure how I feel about this. Often when I take an Uber, it is a relief when the driver doesn’t make conversation with me. However, I have had rides with a chatty driver whose story I ended up enjoying, and I always left those rides feeling happier. I’ve had several rides with retired people who simply drive Uber to get out of the house, and these people are usually really nice to converse with. I’ve taken Ubers to first dates and job interviews and other situations I was really nervous going into, and a kind and friendly driver made a world of difference in putting my mind at ease. However, I’ve also had drivers who have hit on me, asked how much I paid for my house, and lectured me on why I should accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. So it’s always a gamble. Still, the idea of just removing that factor makes me kind of sad. I often think of an older driver who picked me up from the airport one night. We had a nice chat about how he used to work as a cryptologist, and I told him about my travels to Dallas. When he dropped me off, he got out of the car and shook my hand, and we both told each other how much we had enjoyed the other’s company. This world can be a lonely place, and sometimes a few kind words with a stranger make all the difference. I have had many comfortable and forgettable silent Uber rides, but it’s the ones where I’m (often reluctantly) engaged in conversation that I’ll always remember. All that being said, I’ll probably still check the “no conversation” box the next time I ride. It’s just easier.
I feel like the conversation preference should be information you can enter upon requesting a ride. This way like-minded passengers and drivers can connect. If I’m in a chatty mood, I can ask for a chatty driver. And when I don’t feel like talking, I’d be less likely to get matched with a driver who wants to talk. I’m honestly surprised Uber hasn’t customized this more yet. I guess they’re still just trying to make sure their passengers don’t get abducted.
Some Uber drivers truly care about their work. They get out and open the door for you, offer you a bottle of water or a hard candy, or ask what kind of music you want on the radio. Others don’t even look up from their cell phone conversations when you get in the car. It’s always the drivers in the crappy cars who offer you a beat-up, generic brand bottle of water that I find to be the most touching.
Many of the Ubers I have ridden in had Christian radio stations playing. Are Uber drivers more religious, or are people in general more religious than I thought? I wonder what their thought process is in playing this while they drive. Perhaps they think their gospel will influence a passenger. Perhaps they really don’t care one way or the other what the passenger thinks, although that doesn’t seem very Christian of them.
I used to travel with my bass guitar a lot, and it always amazed me how the faces of otherwise tired and disinterested-looking drivers would light up when they saw I was a musician. They would often jump out of the car to help me stow my guitar in the trunk with care. Many of them were aspiring musicians themselves, or knew aspiring musicians, or were simply passionate about music. That bored looking driver has a rich inner life full of dreams. So does the passenger. In this busy, social media driven world, we often forget that about each other.
I’m too anxious and empathetic to be a good Uber driver. I would be so concerned about whether or not my passenger was comfortable that I’d end up accidentally driving into a lake. I heard the police often can’t use female detection dogs because the females will keep running out of whatever building they’re inspecting to check on their handlers and make sure they’re okay, and in the process fail to sniff out whatever they’re supposed to. That would be me driving an Uber. And then I’d constantly worry about the drunk passengers throwing up. Your car is never the same after someone throws up in it. My friend threw up in my car once seven years ago and managed to get it all under and in between the seats. She had had spinach for dinner. I had to clean it up.
“An alien report on sleep and morning routines” by Liwa Sun
Humans tend to do many things of no utility. Every eighteen time-units or so they position themselves horizontally on a rectangular elevated surface and stay there motionless for a couple of time-units. Not exactly motionless: sometimes their limbs move around senselessly, sometimes they turn upside down. After a couple time-units spent horizontally on this surface, they reopen their organs for vision slightly and reach for their glowy rectangular slab immediately.
Humans each have one glowy slab for themselves and they spend many, many time-units staring at their stab, regardless of where they are. Humans continue to stay in their horizontal position and stare at their slab for a portion of a time-unit, and then they position themselves vertically. We later learn that this horizontal business is called sleep, a human function that is supposed to reset their exhaustion. We are unsure if this thing called sleep actually serves its purpose.
From our observations, humans are at their weakest after they revert to their vertical position, physically and emotionally. They totter towards their designated space for excretion and cleaning. They splatter clear liquid on the top bit of their body and stare into a reflective surface on the wall. The surface reflects faithfully their body, all bilious and puffy from their horizontal position. They stare for a while, and then splatter more clear liquid. Then, they absorb the clear liquid with a piece of fabric. This baffles us: why would humans splatter liquid on their face just to absorb them with the fabric later?
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