A few weeks ago I became obsessed with a sign in front of the Union Congregational Church in my small New Hampshire town. The black sidewalk sign often broadcasts homey messages in blocky, neon pink or yellow hand lettering. It might say, "Thank you God for the rain," or "God loves you, and you, and, yes, even you." It stands next to the church's driveway, clearly intended to attract parishioners, or at least make passersby smile.
Then, one day, the sign spoke directly to me: "Handbell choir needs ringers." I was mesmerized. I drove by that sign multiple times on my way to the bank, to the bookstore, to coffee with friends. I kept reading the top-hinged sign, front and back, back and front.
It wasn't because I was a closet handbell ringer. It was the word "ringers." I knew the intent; the church choir needed another person to ring a handbell. But my mind wandered. I thought of dead ringers, or of being put through a wringer. Then I settled on the definition of a ringer as a cheater; someone who is intentionally placed in a strategic position to game an outcome. I envisioned Double Indemnity, imagining Barbara Stanwyck in a handbell choir.
I was fascinated by a phrase. I knew the word "ringer" had to appear in my writing. I'd just need to wait it out and slip it into a sentence when the time was right.
A few days later, I found myself in a fine chocolate and patisserie shop that I often visit for the sheer delight of looking through the glass cases at the hazelnut orange cakes or linzer tortes. The exquisitely crafted delicacies are so beautiful, but oh so expensive. I try to limit my purchases there by buying seconds: the little white chocolate mice with broken ears or dark chocolate truffles that lack just the right amount of raspberry crunch topping.
After inspecting the entire pastry case, bags of chocolate-dipped pears on the side counters, and perfectly formed bars of chocolate nougat at the back wall, I chased down my quarry. I found the seconds in a little basket lined with gift paper. An elegant sign labeled them as "Imperfect bonbons." I snapped a photo so I wouldn't forget those two little words.
I thought about those imperfect bonbons all the way home. How best to use that phrase? In a poem I was writing about the end of a relationship? In an essay about aging in a culture that idolizes youth? Those words were more delectable than the candy itself. I couldn't wait to showcase them in just the right line, at just the right time, in some piece of unsuspecting work.
Later that same night, I had dinner with a group of writers. We were telling stories over our Savignon Blancs about how and where we grew up. Somehow the conversation turned to cuisine and the food we grew up with. I spoke about the Italian dishes that my mother made: the simmering red sauce with homemade meatballs, the pasta fagioli, the polenta with pheasant. My mom made the occasional blackberry pie or sponge cake, but desserts did not play a huge role in our family kitchen.
"There was not a lot of dessert in my house growing up. There just wasn't enough dessert," I said, smiling, mostly for effect.
A new acquaintance, another writer, had an immediate response. "That's a great line," she said. "You need to write about that."
I let out a giggle. My childhood home was filled with love. It didn't seem like a line that spoke to me in a metaphorical way. It was really just a fact: Italians don't make a lot of big desserts. We're mostly a fruit, nut, and biscotti crowd.
But that line spoke to her. She touched my forearm lightly and stared hard into my eyes to be sure she had my attention. "No, really," she said. "You need to use that line in your writing. Just the way you said it."
She made me realize that writing prompts are like speed bumps that slow you down and demand you take notice. It's important to explore them whether they speak to you (the writer) or to someone else (the reader). Maybe they are those imperfect bonbons that serve to keep writing fresh. Or ringers, even, for the truth.