writing prompt

Can’t See The Forest For The Trees

by Toti O’Brien

When I first came to the US and the English language, this saying baffled me for a while. No equivalent exists in my mother tongue. I kept asking what it meant—to me it wasn’t evident. Once explained, the meaning eluded me still, at least it confused me. I often mismatched the words’ order—can’t you see the trees for the forest?—of course unintentionally.

My story in Rooted has a tree (a single one) as its main character—yet later the fellow reveals a few hundreds of mates, which literally were hiding behind it. Tree-number-one didn’t conceal them—on the contrary it took care of them, preserving their memory and essence. A place holder, or else a custodian.

The tree of the story is a domestic presence, a thing near and common. As I start observing it, though, engaging in dialogue, the thing has a lot to tell. It stands—not alone. “Things” rarely do. It opens up, works as a portal.

In fairy tales, trees often have doors in their trunk. Sometimes they are invisible, their hinges and perimeter are enmeshed within the bark. The hero might find one by chance. She gets in. She finds stairs, a palace, a town, a whole world—so wide, you know it couldn’t possibly fit. How does it? Wrong question. Sometimes the small door in the tree trunk goes straight to the open—to the fields, the ocean, the woods. You got it—right into the tree is the forest.

You can’t miss the forest.

Writing prompt one: pick a single thing—unanimated or usually considered so. One you can see this moment, or one you see often. A thing that appeals to you or else you dislike, for no apparent reason, is best— but “neutral” things work. Just focus on it with description, brief history, use, interaction, then whatever comes to mind, letting associations unfold without a set plan. Try with a few subjects/objects. Discover which work as a portal, and where they lead. So many are symbols—they wrap in long chains of information, all linked like DNA. You just grab the tip of the thread, then unspool.

Writing prompt two: pick a popular saying you heard quite a lot. One you really like or frankly dislike works best—but “neutral” is okay, if it comes to mind. Now turn it around, dislocate it. Change some of the words as in, for example, “sensitivity killed the cat,” or “the grass always looks messy when Mother peeks into my room.” Unravel.


Toti O’Brien’s work most recently appeared in Door Is A Jar, Syntax & Salt, Wilderness House and Litro UK. More about her can be found at totihan.net/writer.html