Author Archive | Melissa Bartell

Sunday Brunch: 28 Plays Later

Last month, I wrote about the first few days of an intense writing challenge I was part of: writing twenty-eight plays in twenty-eight days. The project, sponsored by Theatre Delicatessen in London, involved a couple of hundred writers from around the world (mostly in the U.K., though) and one Evil Overlord (well, he’s not really evil) named Sebastian.

Every day at 4:00 PM (U.S. Central Time), we’d receive the daily brief from Sebastian, and then we’d have thirty-six hours to write a play using his brief for inspiration, although the last twelve hours of a given brief overlapped with the first twelve of the next.

Copyright: <a href=''>dedivan1923 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Very quickly, I began to question the wisdom of committing to the project. I’d never written a play before (not really, anyway) and I spent a good chunk of the first week fighting with formatting. WORD, my software of choice, has a downloadable screenplay template, but not one for stage plays, and even the screenplay one is kind of klunky. Eventually, with some encouragement from friends, I scrapped the template and did my own thing. Freeing myself from the constraints of someone else’s formatting did much for my mindset.

But I was still floundering.

The first few briefs had been relatively simple. The initial prompt, for example, was the phrase, “Brave Little Soldier,” with bonus points for setting it in your hometown. Well, my actual hometown (as opposed to the town where I live) had a significant number of losses when the towers fell on 9/11/01, so I made my characters the adult children of people who had died that day. Emotional, yes, but relatively easy.

As the challenge progressed, the briefs became more demanding. When I wrote about this in February, I mentioned the first weekend challenge, about nightmares, but once I got past my fear of the material (my nightmares are weird… and personal…) I ended up having fun with it. After all, the brief also said we had an unlimited budget to work with.

More than once, I was tempted to throw my laptop into the pool and never write again. Ever.

More than once I whined to friends, family, and the dogs – basically whomever would listen, or pretend to – that I was too stupid or too boring to respond to these things that expected you to come up with edgy, even avant garde ideas.

More than once my husband had to talk me down from the proverbial ledge.

My friend Clay, the Creativity Guru I mentioned in my previous post – the one I’d convinced to do this challenge with me – finally gave me the key to my frustration.

“Look,” he said. “You’re a level 40-something human.”

“Forty-seven,” I specified.

“Okay, but you’re only a level one playwright.”

“That’s fair,” I responded, “But I’m a level thirty-seven writer.” (The first ten years of your life don’t count.)

“Yes,” he said, “but you’re using that writing muscle in a new and different way. And really, this shouldn’t be called ’28 plays in 28 days.’ It should be ’28 shitty first drafts of plays.'”

That conversation became my guidepost, and parts of it morphed into a mantra, over the rest of the month.

And as things evolved, it turned out that the briefs I balked at the most, or felt like I had nothing to offer for, ended up resulting in my best work.

An instruction to “write shite” and “let yourself go” inspired me to pull a bunch of my notecards (sticky notes leftover from the 100 Days of Making challenge, each with a scene, sentence, or snippet of dialogue) off the fridge and order them into a play. A couple of weeks later, given a time-restriction exercise, I went back to the fridge for more notecards, and I really feel that the two plays that resulted from those  – “Scenes From a Marriage” and “Theories of Everything” – are the most cohesive of my creations.

But there are others I’m proud of. The math brief led me to a piece where the dialogue was all based on the Fibonacci sequence, and mentioned Phi and the nautilus shells. (“Nautilus”) A brief asking us to interview people and then write a monologue suitable for teens, making it seem as if it was one person speaking, gave me “Wo(Man)Hood” about a young woman who experiences anxiety but is also bi-gender, and a brief asking us to write about truth and art inspired me to write a monologue about body positivity – and the really cool thing about that one is that when my friend Nuchtchas read it, it inspired her to make art.

One brief, in particular, I have dubbed “Calvinball from Hell,” and when I read it, I told Clay that I was certain Sebastian had once been kicked out of an improv troupe. Here are the instructions we were given:

Let’s be super duper strict. Below are the rules for your play:

1. You must have 4 characters in the play – and the gender for 3 of them must be undefined! You can add two more – but only if they are not human.
2. One of the characters plays the banjo – really badly, and one character only speaks in rhyming couplets (can be the same if you like).
3. There must be a minimum of 3 pauses in the play, one of them must be a super long pause (think Pinter to the power of Pinter).
4. One of the characters has had relations with everybody else in the play (as well as characters that are mentioned but not seen).
5. Every line of dialogue must have one of the following: either 7 words, 12 words, 22 words, 29 words, 56 words or 99 words (you can punctuate as you like).
6. The play will contain three acts/scenes, but you can add one more if it’s a dream.
7. At some point, everybody on stage falls down to the ground.
8. Each scene/act must contain one person being told off for shouting (even though they didn’t shout), and another person revealing a big secret (even though it may not be true).
9. Each scene/act must have at least 10 lines of dialogue and 10 lines of actions.
10. Oh – and you must pick one letter of the alphabet (not Q, X or Z) for each character (each one can have a different one or the same) that they are not allowed to use in their dialogue at all.

If just reading that gave you pause, you’re not alone. And I admit, I whined about it  and railed against it for a good chunk of my available writing time. But in the end, I ended up with a play called “Frapping Pachelbel,” where all the characters were the instruments in a string quartet, except the Conductor, and Cello complained about their part, but in the end Viola was jealous over Conductor’s relationship with Cello, and started a duel (with bows used as swords, obviously) and everyone died.

Admittedly, it was kind of silly, but being outrageous felt like a breath of fresh air at the halfway point.

Others of the difficult challenges were less happy.

One of our challenges was to write something that would offend people. The obvious choice would have been using a lot of blue language – and honestly, that was one of Sebastian’s suggestions – but after nearly twenty hours with zero ideas, a meme posted in a feminist forum I belong to resulted in a play about the way men who commit domestic violence are not out of control, but so very in control that a group of them was able to come to a consensus about how long to wait, after starting a new relationship, before actually abusing their partners.

Chilling stuff.

Writing it made me squirm, and after I submitted it, I had to have my husband bring me a mug of cocoa and stay with me for cuddles.

The final week was my favorite. One challenge was to complete an unfinished piece of our own writing. Since I didn’t have any unfinished scripts, or any scripts from the challenge that I was ready to revisit, I adapted one of my own pieces of flash-fic into a play: “The Weather Man,” and for the penultimate challenge, which was to pick a previous challenge and go a different direction with it, I asked two of the people who’d read everything to pick for me.

My friend Fran asked me to revisit the challenge that required us to begin with this line: “Take of the girdle, Gertl, and tell me everything about Onun’s onions, or else little Dicklberg here will get it.” My first use of the line went in a science-fiction direction. My second use, for challenge 27, went to a more noir place, though, technically, there was a voiceover line before the first exchange of dialogue. Still “Up in Smoke,” is one of the pieces I’m really proud of.

So. What did I learn from this experience?

Well, I’m probably never going to be a playwright – and that’s okay, because I don’t really want to be a playwright. I much prefer to watch theatre or perform on stage. When it comes to writing, essays and narrative fiction are where I’m really comfortable, and I prefer to exercise those muscles.

Still, it’s good to stretch, from time to time. I accomplished something that scared me, and I learned a lot about myself, as a person and as a writer, in the process.

Will I participate again next year?

Ask me next January.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.  All 28 of the plays she wrote for 2018’s 28 Plays Later challenge can be found here:


Portrait in Pen and Ink by Melissa A. Bartell

Paper and Ink

She didn’t collect selfies on her phone, and rarely allowed photos to be taken at all. When asked why she would joke that she was the most unphotogenic (which isn’t a word, but should be) person in the world.

But it wasn’t true.

The truth was that when she was five, her mother’s first husband (NOT her biological father – that’s a different story) said that when she smiled she looked like she’d swallowed lemons.


She lived a lifetime of avoiding photos because no matter what she did the image on the film or the screen was always sullen, or silly, or stupid, and she was none of those things.


She never kept a journal.

Why write things that no one will ever read? she asked, not really rhetorically.

But no one ever gave her a satisfying answer.


So she filled spiral notebooks with stories, stacks upon stacks of green-lined paper filled with glossy black or peacock blue. Wet ink. Roller balls. Micro-fine points. And when writing online became accessible to the masses, she did that, too, coding her first website in Lynx, creating her first blog in OpenDiary because LiveJournal hadn’t yet been invented.

(But you don’t keep diaries, she was reminded.)

(No, she said, I don’t write words that no one will read; people read this.)


The archives on her current blog, which is too infrequently updated these days, go back sixteen years. For a long time, she posted content daily, until she realized she didn’t want to write who she was.


She wanted to write who she wasn’t.

She wanted to take reality and give it a twist – just there – and a tweak – and in so doing, she revealed far more of herself than people realized.


She doesn’t keep journals. She doesn’t save photos of herself or others.

She doesn’t need external sources to help her retain the things that are printed indelibly on her memory: her mother’s singing (off-key, but enthusiastic), her husband’s eyes (twinkling blue, like the ocean she loves, and full of adoration), her grandmother’s gnarled hands and crooked fingers, her grandfather’s slightly bow-legged walk, the way her dog comes to visit her when she’s in the bath – biting at the bubbles and then shaking his head in confusion.


If you want to see me, she doesn’t say out loud, but expects people to understand, read my words.


That ink is my blood.

That paper is my body.


Handwritten scenes stuck to the fridge on brightly colored post-its.

Scrawled phrases in purse-sized Moleskine notebooks.

Digital files full of stories, some that are ready and some that are still perking.


She thinks in music, because music was her first language. (Foghorns and sea birds and boat horns and her mother’s singing. )

But she lives in lines of text.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: The Play’s the Thing

I wrote a play yesterday.

Actually, I wrote plays on Thursday and Friday as well, and, with the exception of a couple of audio drama scripts for which an outline was provided, these are the first three plays I’ve ever written.

Copyright: <a href=''>icetray / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I don’t have any plans to become a professional playwright or screenwriter. In fact, these last three days have taught me that I vastly prefer writing straight narratives to scripts, but I’ve committed to a challenge to write twenty-eight plays in twenty-eight days, and even though I want to quit about once an hour, my husband and the friends who are following this process with me won’t allow it.

Truthfully, I won’t allow it, either.

Even more truthfully, I don’t think I’ve felt as unprepared or afraid of a creative project since the night I walked into the West End Market in downtown Dallas to audition for ComedySportz.

While I’m not an organization queen, or even a basic list-maker, I do like to be somewhat ready for these undertakings. When I’m auditioning for (or have been cast in) an acting role, even if it’s just bit part in an unpaid audio drama, I make sure I’ve read the whole script (not just my part), listened to a few episodes to get a feel for the piece, and/or done research on the setting, theme, and creators.  I won’t interview authors unless I’ve had time to read their books, and when I used to interview celebrities for All Things Girl, I made sure I knew their work, but also what sorts of questions they’d responded to favorably in other interviews.

But this project, “28 Plays Later,” which is sponsored by Theatre Delicatessen in London, isn’t something I could really prepare for. I mean, I didn’t even know about it until sometime in January, and the first prompt was issued at 4:00 PM (U.S. Central Time) last Wednesday. I’ve been in plays and musicals, and I’ve read a lot of scripts, but I’ve never really tried to write one.

When I told some of my friends what I was doing, I was asked if I could pre-write anything.


Technically, I suppose, I could. After all, there’s no requirement that you accept the daily challenge prompts, only that you submit a play every day by the deadline. (Challenges are issued every 24 hours, but you have 36 hours to complete each one, so there’s a twelve-hour overlap. So far, I have finished each challenge before the next was assigned, but today, I went down to the wire.)

The prompts, however, are useful. They give you a jumping-off point. They also foster community, because we all discuss how we’re interpreting the instructions.

Yesterday’s assignment was to use our dreams and nightmares as fodder for a surreal piece of theatre. We had an unlimited imaginary budget and were encouraged to create ‘hallucinatory images’ and disrupt order.

Despite the fact that I’ve been dabbling in writing horror for almost the last six months and consider the original A Nightmare on Elm Street to be one of the best horror movies of all time, at least conceptually, I was in tears as I tried to figure out how to approach this challenge. I’m not proud of it, but I complained about having no ideas to everyone who would even pretend to listen. I asked my husband for ideas. I whined about the fact that I don’t know how to translate things into a visual medium.

I even asked a friend who is also participating if Day Three was too early to quit.

“Yes,” he said simply.

“If I asked the same question on Day Fifteen would your answer be the same?” I demanded.

It was.

And so, even though I’m typically nocturnal, and my husband had an online game event that was going to keep him awake until well after three in the morning, I went to bed at midnight, with a frustrated brain and a discouraged heart.

Three hours later, I was awake again, dragging my laptop into bed with me, doing research on the amygdalae – the two almond-shaped clusters in the human brain where emotions and memories live. Two hours after that, I had an outline of a three-act play that included nightmares, tangos, Dracula, Winnie-the-Pooh, and a finale that took place on roller skates.

By nine yesterday morning, I was awake again, and writing like a demon, until, finally, I had twenty pages of script that involved a Dreamer giving lessons in ‘dreamology’ and a Child going through her safe sleep ritual.

Is it next year’s Tony winner?

Not even close.

But writing it forced me to stretch beyond my creative comfort zone, to try new things, and think of new ways of expressing old concepts.

Eleanor Roosevelt never actually said that you should do one thing every day that scares you, but she did say, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

I wrote a play yesterday that scared me, just thinking about it. I was sure I would miss the deadline and fail the challenge.

Instead, exhausted and jumpy, I wrote – and shared – something I never thought I could start, let alone finish.

And now?

Now, I’m going to brew a pot of tea and maybe open one of the boxes of Girl Scout cookies that my husband bought for me, and then I’m going to do what I did yesterday.

I’m going to write a play.

Photo Copyright: icetray / 123RF Stock Photo


About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: On Silence

Silence. Most of us either love it or hate it, sometimes both depending on the circumstances.

From our earliest ages we’re taught that certain places are meant for silence. We are shushed in church, and reminded to be quiet when we visit libraries. We write poems about silence, repeat proverbs about it, and even sing songs lauding it, or, in the case of lullabies, we sing songs to coax it from others.

But those early types of silence, the enforced silences, are radically different from the kinds of quiet, of silence, that we embrace as adults. We might take our morning coffee out to the deck or patio to enjoy the quiet of an early morning. We make time in the middle of a busy day to meditate or pray. We seclude ourselves in the bathroom and soak in a scented bath in the evening.

And in all those moments, we think we’re experiencing silence, but really, we’re not. What we’re truly hearing is the lack of intentional sound. We may have turned off the radio, set our phones to do not disturb, or locked the bathroom door against chattery interlopers, but that isn’t really silence.


Last Wednesday evening, my husband and I sat in our darkened living room and listened to the crackle of the fireplace. We’d just finished eating tacos by candlelight. It wasn’t the meal I’d planned for us – I try to limit our ‘wrapper food’ to the occasional lunch – but the power had gone out late that afternoon, and our house has an all-electric kitchen.

It was late enough in the day that neither of us had fully-charged phones or laptops. We’d received an initial text that power would be restored at five pm, then seven, and finally midnight. It was supposed to dip below freezing that night – not as cold as the conditions our friends and family in the Midwest and Midlantic states were experiencing, but cold for Texas, where houses are built to shed heat, not retain it.

So we stoked the fire, and we lit all the candles and we brought blankets out to the living room and cuddled on the couch. We played games on our phones while we could, but eventually, we lapsed into quiet.

Into silence.

It’s a strange thing about modern life. We so rarely experience true silence. Even when snow blankets the world with its special, magical hush, we are still surrounded by electrical hum.

But when the power is out… when the fridge ceases cycling and the clocks stop blinking in digital blue or green… when light pollution is suddenly dimmed… that’s when silence truly falls.

As a rule, I’m not a fan of silence. I can’t sleep without white noise distracting me from the external house sounds that come with life in outer suburbia and muting the often too-loud thoughts inside my own head.

Last Wednesday, silence was an annoyance. I complained loudly to my husband. I even texted one of my friends that it was too quiet, that instead of being soothing, the silence felt oppressive and creepy.

But eventually, I relaxed into the softness, the cool darkness, and the almost perfect soundlessness. I went to the bedroom to curl up with my dogs and let the steady sound of their breathing – the only discernable noise – lull me into sleep.

My husband guarded the fire until it had burned low enough that it was safe to leave it, and then joined me in the bed. We lay together in the darkness, not speaking. Not really touching. Just breathing in the silence.

Shortly after midnight, the power returned, jarring us out of our quietude and into wakefulness. I wish I could say that we looked at each other, laughed, and turned the lights back off, but we’re tech addicts and habitual night owls.

We went back to bed around two in the morning, our usual hour, but something of our evening of enforced silence lingered. We were gentler with each other that night and the next day, more mindful.

I’m still not fond of silence.

But I like quiet.

And I love the peacefulness of snuggling on the couch with my husband, not talking, not watching television, just being together.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Happy New Year from Modern Creative Life

Happy New Year from all of us at Modern Creative Life.

A new year is like a blank page or a fresh canvas. It’s our opportunity to declare our intentions for the future (because resolutions never work) and to bid a fond goodbye to the things of the past that no longer serve us. It’s not just a fresh calendar page, but a whole, new calendar.

To open the new year, we’re sharing some of our favorite quotations about hope, wonder, and possibility.

Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier’…”
~Alfred Tennyson

“Take a leap of faith and begin this wondrous by believing. Believe in yourself. And believe that there is a loving Source – a Sower of Dreams – just waiting to be asked to help you make your dreams come true.”
~Sarah Ban Breathnach

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Hope and faith flower from the cheerful seeds of the old year to the sprouting garden of the new year’s dawn.”
–Terri Guillemets

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.”
~Neil Gaiman

“A Happy New Year! There is a glow of cheer and optimism in the very words “New Year.” The old year, with its anxieties and worries, is over. It too brought happy days and sunshine, and in memory we must cherish the bright places.”
~May Louise Crane

May the hope and wonder of the holiday season carry you through the New Year and beyond.

The Staff of Modern Creative Life

Image: Edd Sowden for Flickr Creative Commons

Sunday Brunch: Winter Flames

“The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle.”  ~Robert Altinger

Christmas. Hanukkah. Yule. Whether you come from a single faith tradition, or from a family like mine, that blends and merges traditions from several cultures, there is no shortage of winter holidays to choose from.

All are radically different. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Hanukkah remembers the Maccabees and their defeat of the Seleucids as well as the rededication of their temple and the miracle of the oil, which was only enough for one night, but lasted for eight. Yule originated as Nordic and Germanic midwinter celebration that involved feasting and gift-giving (and in the oldest celebrations, sacrifices).

And yet, these winter holidays all have something in common as well – aside from the tendency to celebrate with incredibly delicious, albeit unhealthy foods. They all bring light to the longest nights of the year.

Copyright: arcticphotoworks / 123RF Stock Photo

True, in this age of technological wonders when we can have books in our hands at the touch of a button, and get antsy when we’re away from our smart-phones or tablets for more than a few minutes, and are limited in our ability to work late into the wee hours, not by waning daylight, but only by our stamina and the amount of caffeine we’re willing to ingest, we no longer rely on candles or firelight for physical illumination.

And yet…

And yet we light candles to mark the progress through Advent.

We light them, one at a time, to count the eight days of Hanukkah.

We build fires in our hearths as symbolic representations of the bonfires our ancestors might have danced around, or we build actual bonfires and invite our friends to dance with us.

We fill our homes with candles that represent nothing more than a cozy glow, and we gather ’round our gas logs or Franklin stoves even when our houses are fitted with central heating systems, because there’s something – some magical thing – about fire that seems to drive away the stress and darkness of winter in a way that electric light never can.

I think we forget, sometimes, that the holidays aren’t always merry and bright. They’re not always full of smiling faces and joyous laughter.

These winter holidays come to us at the end of the year, which means they’re both an ending, a sort of finish line we’re all racing toward, and a final hurdle we must overcome before we have the opportunity to start anew. We fill our homes with those colorful candles and crackling fires as much to keep the shadows at bay and drive away the darkness, as we do to celebrate the light.

Our flames aren’t some form of denial, though. Rather, they’re sort of a nightlight for our souls. They keep our hearts warm and our homes welcoming, and remind us that all winters end.

Hanukkah begins on Tuesday evening. Yule comes with the Winter Solstice on December 21st. Christmas follows a few days after that. Whether you’re celebrating one of those old holidays, or you’ve embraced something newer, like Kwanzaa or Chalica – or even Festivus – may the flames you ignite keep you warm in body and soul this winter.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog,  listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Instrumental: Farmbox Adventures by Melissa A. Bartell

Two years ago, driving home from a visit to my husband’s family in South Dakota, we were in rural Nebraska when we passed by a lush, green, field. It was the kind of farmland typical of a postcard image, and it was beautiful, until we saw the sign “Presented by Monsanto” at the corner of the field, just outside the fence, and our hearts fell.

Summer Farmbox by Melissa A. BartellNearly ten years ago, on another trip to South Dakota, we saw the number of family farms that had been bought by commercial soybean growers, and found an eerie response in the fact that the high school had been made smaller, and the population was going down.

Both of these images have haunted me for years, but even though I strive to buy vegetables in season, to buy locally-sourced or organic products whenever possible, when you live in Outer Suburbia doing so can be a challenge, and while my city does have a farmer’s market that operates throughout the year, its hours are far too early to be compatible with my extremely nocturnal tendencies.

Ironically, it was my friend Tabitha (she of Sunday Sensations) who gave me the key to making a difference in my own life, as well as in my community. She’d mentioned her recent delivery from a local-to-her CSA (community supported agriculture) organization, and it spurred me to find something similar in my own neighborhood.

Choosing a CSA was easy for me: of the several that exist in my region, only one delivers to my address. I spent the weekend of my birthday reading all their information, and made my first order that week. Thus began my relationship with

While many CSAs operate as co-ops – you buy shares and get a box that represents the number of shares you have – this one is a bit simpler. They have several ‘sizes’ of boxes ranging from wee (which is apparently their most popular option, and, they say, is ideal for a two-adult household) to boxes large enough for corporations to share out (or use in the company kitchen, maybe?), and we also have the option of choosing all fruit, all vegetables, or a mix.

Even better, there’s a way to ban certain items from ever showing up in my box. I’m one of those people for whom cilantro tastes like soap (this is genetic – it means I lack a specific enzyme), so I’ve asked that they never deliver cilantro. Similarly, I’m not a fan of kale (and as someone who is extremely hypothyroid, I’m not supposed to eat it, anyway) so I’ve asked them never to send me that.

My CSA allows me to customize my box, as well. Every Friday, I can access the list of the next week’s box, and if there’s something I have too much of, or isn’t included but is available, I can add or change a few items. As well, I can add some meats, dairy, and eggs, all from local farmers. We’ve become big fans of the cherry-smoked bacon and Mexican-style ground chicken sausage we can get, and I no longer buy milk in the grocery store unless I’m making something that requires a lot of it. The milk we get with our farm box isn’t raw, but it is low-temperature pasteurized, and it comes with the cream on top.

In addition to exploring many of the various add-on options, I’m having a blast discovering new-to-me vegetables, or learning new ways of preparing familiar ones. Farmbox Sausage by Melissa A. Bartell

This fall, I’ve received acorn squash three times, butternut squash once, and delicata squash twice, and the latter was previously unknown to me. Another week, I received Swiss chard, which I’d never cooked before, and really enjoyed trying.

Even though the farm box I receive is meant for two people, there are days when I’m just not in the mood to cook, or I’m not home. When we had to make an emergency trip to South Dakota over Labor Day weekend because my mother-in-law died, the friend who kindly took care of my dogs was invited to take home anything that wouldn’t keep, and when we get behind on using things, she isn’t offended if I beg her to take things off my hands, so they won’t go to waste.

My Wednesday night routine now involves setting the empty carton from the previous week’s farm box out on the front porch (along with any empty egg cartons or cold-bags) to be picked up when the new box is dropped on Thursday.

My new Thursday ritual is opening the new farm box.

Often, I am greeted by the earthy smell of potatoes – they leave them loose in the box – but equally frequently the first thing I encounter is the greens. (I confess, I often sing “The Witch’s Rap” from Into the Woods when I’m unboxing lettuces and other greens. My life is a musical, after all.)

As I write this, we’ve just finished a lovely dinner of broiled teriyaki salmon, Yukon gold potatoes sautéed with yellow onions and garlic, and a salad of green leaf lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and except for the garlic, every vegetable came from my farm box. This is a fairly usual occurrence now, and there are some nights when I try to make an entire meal solely from farm box products (so far, our favorite is quiche made with the afore-mentioned chicken sausage and mushrooms).

You might be asking me, is it worth the money? Well, I pay about $25/week for my box. $5 of that is a delivery fee but when I add milk and eggs, the total isn’t much different, because I’m over the minimum price for free delivery. It’s probably slightly more expensive doing this than it would be just buying veggies at the store, but not only does it mean I’m not heading to the grocery store as often, I’m also supporting local farmers, which is vitally important.

If only my CSA delivered coffee, I’d be completely happy.

Farmbox Unboxing by Melissa A. Bartell

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Welcome to Issue #8: Hope & Wonder

“God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us — in the dreariest and most dreaded moments — can see a possibility of hope.”
~Maya Angelou

You see a rainbow emerging from a cloudy sky, and you can’t help but smile.

You stop at the mailbox on your way home from work, and take a moment to consider what might be inside. A letter or card from a dear friend, maybe, or the latest issue of a favorite magazine.

You catch a glimpse of your dog or cat, nose pressed to the window, waiting for you to come home – even though you’ve only been out for ten minutes.

“A snow day literally and figuratively falls from the sky, unbidden, and seems a thing of wonder.”
~ Susan Orlean

You stand on the patio as a squall builds, and you let the mounting energy of the storm invigorate your heart, mind, and body.

You spend more time in the kitchen, cooking amazing foods, laughing with your best friend, your partner, your parents, as you slice and dice and saute and stir.

You wake in the middle of the night to silence, the magical hush of the season’s first snow.

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
~John Burroughs

You try to capture these feelings – hope and wonder – that exist hand in hand, and are so close to the surface as the holidays approach.

Maybe something you overhear in a café or witness while shopping sparks a story. Perhaps there’s a poem waiting in the crackle of your fireplace or the pattering of rain on the roof. A child playing in the last of the autumn leaves might make a perfect photo, or inspire a memory of your own childhood, your cheeks rosy from playing in chilly air.

“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”
~Christopher Reeve

Welcome to Hope & Wonder, the 8th issue of Modern Creative Life, and the end-cap of our second year of publication.

While this issue is slightly abbreviated (the first issue of our third year will launch in mid-January), it’s also packed with content.

In Hope & Wonder, you’ll get a peek into the daily lives of other creative folk in our Studio Tours and Typical Tuesday series, and meet people walking fascinating creative pathways in Conversations Over Coffee. With photos and fiction, poetry and prompts, essays and enlightenment, you’ll find a deeper understanding into all the ways in which we all create.

As always, our mission at Modern Creative Life is to honor the pursuit and practice of joyful creativity. We believe that the creative arts enrich our everyday living, enhance our environment, create lasting connections, and sustain our souls. Please join us as we look to other creatives for ways in which they find peace in the shadows, or succor in the sunshine.

As we share the stories of other makers, we invite you to use their experiences as a guide on your quest for your own Modern Creative Life.

What do you hope for, or wonder about? What gives you hope, or makes that childlike bubble of delight and wonder surround you? We invite you to share your stories, poems, essays and photos with us as we celebrate the hope and wonder all around us, and the way each helps to nourish our creative selves. We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: The Coming of the Cardinals

Like the swallows that return to Capistrano every year, the heart of fall brings the cardinals back to my yard, and I return to my morning routine of coffee and writing at the kitchen table so I can watch as they flit from tree to tree, sometimes visiting the bird feeder outside my window, and sometimes avoiding it (likely because the smell of squirrel is too strong).

I’ve always loved watching birds. I don’t mean that I sling a pair of binoculars around my neck and go tromping through fields and forests on a avian hunt, though I understand the appeal of capturing a rare moment on film.

Copyright: <a href=''>steve_byland / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Rather, I’m a backyard bird-watcher. I enjoy following the antics of the bully Blue Jay who drives the starlings and finches out of the trees, only for them to settle right back in. Winter comes with doves, one of whom insists that the birdfeeder is really her nest. She never stays in it for long, though. In spring and summer, we have robins and hummingbirds who buzz our windows and skim low over the puppy pool, stealing sips of water, or using it as a bath. (We don’t chlorinate the puppy pool.)

But November, always a dark for me because it’s the anniversary month of so many family deaths, is brightened by the arrival of the cardinals.

We have a whole family of those bright red birds, and they return every year. The females are feathered grey and rust and red, and arrive with the first signs of being egg-heavy. The males are brilliant crimson and scarlet, and when they cock their heads and stare at me from their bright eyes, I’m convinced they’re appraising me in the same way I’m assessing them.

At the beginning of the season, I watch them building nests, but as the fall deepens into what passes for winter in this part of Texas, they aren’t quite so visible. Instead of witnessing constant activity, a morning visit feels like a kind of gift from Mother Nature herself.

It’s not only live cardinals that come into my life each year, however. As I slowly turn the decorations in my house from fall and harvest, Halloween and Thanksgiving, to winter, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day, these ruby-plumed birds have a presence inside my house.

First, there is the candle wreath. It’s not an Advent wreath, since it only has holders for four candles (though I sometimes place a pillar candle in the center and use it as such) but its theme is very much winter and not a specific holiday, with tiny pine trees and even tinier cardinals tucked in a wreath of greens. Since it isn’t specifically Christmas, it comes out in late November and stays until mid-February.

Then the napkin rings and guest towels come out. My grandmother taught her daughters and granddaughters to decorate all through the house for holidays, so I have cardinal-themed towels in the guest bath, and I try to find cardinal-themed paper napkins for parties and casual use, as well as a couple of candles – the kind that you never actually burn – to add punches of color to the guest room, the dining room, and even my office.

The last cardinals come at Christmas, in the form of stuffed birds that have wire clips so they can perch on the branches of our (plastic, pre-lit) tree. A couple of them are recent additions, but two of them are quite old, and much bedraggled. One of them bears tooth-marks – the scars from a barely-won battle against the curiosity of a puppy. Even though they’re faded and worn, however, I keep putting them on my tree, half-convinced that, in the words of the skin horse, they will Become Real.

My grandmother, I am told, loved cardinals. I never knew this until I found the napkin rings I mentioned earlier. It was on a trip to Tuesday Morning with my mother, and something about them spoke to me. We don’t actually use napkin rings (or cloth napkins, though we should) with any real frequency, but I had to buy them, even if it was just to have them.

More recently, I learned that my mother-in-law also loved the bright red birds. I imagine her looking out of the farmhouse window as a young bride, and seeing a streak of scarlet adding colorful cheer to a snow-blanketed prairie, and this image, whether it’s erroneous or not, makes me smile to myself.

They say that when you’re visited by cardinals you’re really being touched by the spirit of a loved one who has died. My grandmother died over a decade ago, but since there are times I swear I can smell her bath powder, or feel her cool hand soothing my brow in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t be surprised if she sent a bird or two to check up on me. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, died on the last day of August, just a couple of months ago, so maybe she’s the reason the avian family in my yard seems to have more members this year.

Of course, I’m a bit premature with some of this. Thanksgiving is weeks away, and Christmas doesn’t come until fall is truly over and winter has arrived. My wreath will remain in storage for a while longer, wrapped in a festive tablecloth, nestled in a box with dessert plates shaped like leaves and a ceramic turkey gravy boat.

In the meantime, I’m pouring another cup of coffee and returning to the library desk that serves as our kitchen table to write stories and watch the birds.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Not Exactly Persephone by Melissa A. Bartell

Forest Hat via Flash PromptIn the end, it was his hat that clinched it.

She’d taken the short-cut through the forest for as long as she could remember, maybe even longer. As a child, she’d skipped down the path, heedless of what the brambles might be doing to the hem of her blue dress, or the ruffles on her white pinafore.

Who sent a child out to play dressed in such frippery anyway? Mary-Janes were great if you wanted to tap-dance down the circular stairway in the entrance hall, but they were next to useless on a dirt path, and even worse if it had rained the day before.

Black patent-leather and squelching mud puddles did not mix well.

As she grew older, and could dictate her own wardrobe, she chose more appropriate attire – hiking boots and jeans with duster-length cardigans were her unofficial uniform.

She still cut through the forest, though, breathing in the scents of earth and leaves and growing things on her way to work every morning. She carried her laptop in a messenger bag slung across her body, and tucked her hair up into one of her many berets, a different color almost every day.

It was her trademark, she said. A beret with a butterfly pin was how the world would know she was herself.

The first time she saw him, it was when she rounded the bend just this side of the creek. He was preternaturally still, focused on the winged creature perched on his fingertips (he had long, graceful fingers, she noticed) and she froze mid-step, afraid to disturb him, or spook the colorful insect he was studying.

But even one small-ish woman’s breathing is enough to change the melody of the forest, and when he glanced up, their eyes met.

It wasn’t a cosmic thing, not really. Just two people acknowledging each other’s presence, and moving along on separate paths.

The met in the forest several times after that, never speaking.

Sometimes, he would beckon her closer, and point to a small bird sipping from a puddle, and they would watch together in communal rapture.

Sometimes, she would offer him a piece of fruit leftover from her day – an apple, maybe, or a banana – once it was half a pomegranate and a plastic spork – and he’d grinned at her, and called her Persephone.

His voice was like the ripples of water flowing over stone.

That one word, the name that wasn’t hers, but should have been, opened the floodgates of conversation. He was an art teacher at the local magnet school, he said. He came to the woods for inspiration.

When he learned that she owned the local café and was also trying to write a novel, he asked to read her pages.

She finally relented when he came into her workplace with a sketch of her on a purple beret day, sitting on a rock, surrounded by dragonflies. (In reality there had only been one or two, but she liked his enhancement.) Looking at the sketch, she realized she’d never thought of herself as being pretty, but that she looked so, at least when depicted in pencil-strokes.

Let me take you to dinner, he asked.

She demurred. She didn’t have time to date, she said.

In truth, she knew that it wouldn’t be just a date, or even just dinner. There was something about this man whom butterflies trusted that made her heart flutter like papery wings.

When you’re ready, he told her, I’ll be here.

She avoided the forest for days, after. Embarrassed. Attracted. Confused. She took the longer route to work. She even drove there, on the day it rained.

She missed him, she realized.

She returned to her usual path the next morning, and when she stepped into a puddle, she laughed at the squelching sound her boot made.

He appeared, as if from nowhere, with a green top-hat covering his dark, curly hair. You’re back, he didn’t say. I’ve missed you, his lips did not utter. But his eyes were shining, and his smile was like a ray of sun cutting through fog.

His hat looked as though the forest had gifted it to him, as if it were made from leaves and branches. It wasn’t, of course. It was only felted wool. But the effect caught her attention.

Nice hat, she said.

A student’s project, he explained. They were supposed to capture nature in an ordinary object.

I hope they got an ‘A,’ she replied.

He assured her that they had.

When he appeared in her café the next day, she accepted his invitation to dinner.

She had to, you see.

She’d always been a sucker for men in hats.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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