Name, Please

A Young Man Reading at Candlelight by Matthias Stom, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Not much weighs less than a name. Still –

Names connote more than letters on a birth certificate. They are the blessings of our parents and the identity for our national placement. They are the curse of our enemies and the honor of those who love us. They may boost our aspirations or cost our freedom. They are our paycheck and our passport to class reunions, our marriage bond and our legal rights, a memory of our failures and a trophy for our successes.

Think of Dwight David Eisenhower and you think of a brilliant commander. Think of Albert Einstein and you think of a brilliant physicist. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a gifted African American writer, his name as unique as he is. And who doesn’t know Madonna? Not the blue-robed statue in church – the barely robed one on the stage. Princess Diana will always be remembered, her name associated with compassion, royalty, and a horrible death. Or Buddha, his calm figure seated in a temple, his singular name easy to recall. Mahatma Gandhi is always thought of as a man of peaceful civil disobedience, and Sun Tzu always as a man of war. Mother Teresa recalls a kindly nun bringing hope to the poor and disenfranchised. Think of Hannibal and you will also think of the Alps, maybe a bit of history. If you like history, you might remember Betsy Ross and the first American flag, or of Florence Nightingale who raised the profession of nursing. And who could ever forget young Nobel laureate Malala, the face of courage in the face of terror? Or Abraham Lincoln and the brief speech that makes us value the cost of freedom? Or Anne Frank whose teenage diary forces us to remember the cost of bigotry?

There are more ordinary folks also, whose names carry weight for them. Renee is called Naynay because her younger sister couldn’t say the letter R. Samantha hates her name and demanded to be Manda until her friends convinced her Sammie was way better. Howard is Howie even as an adult, though it’s a bit babyish now, and Leonardo was always better known as Leo, which fit well as a child and an adult. Carol and Leslie are twins, male twins, and though their names are unisex, they chose less androgynous monikers. Call them George and Arnold today, their given middle names, no mistaking them in person or print. Neither Sherry nor Brandy has a taste for alcohol, given their mum and dad were drunks, so soon as they could, they chose less addictive names.

Dano’s real name is Rupert Daniel, but God forgive anyone who calls him by that first tag assigned him by his insistent great-grandfather. Since he couldn’t pronounce his own name at two, he became Dano – the way he said it, and better all around. Bertha Agnes Froog was visited at nineteen, a week after she left her parents’ home for good, by a dream spirit who divined her true name: Indigo Wave. Seriously, were I named something as awful as Bertha Agnes Froog, I’d also have run from it. Well, maybe not to Indigo Wave.

Given names (was Hero an honor or a joke played on the baby?). Inherited names (how many James Smiths does the world need? OK for James Smith Jr., or the III, even the IV, maybe the V, but the VI – now we’re bored and the exclusivity has worn off). Family names (no one on earth wants to be known as a Hitler or a Torquemada, even if the first name is Juliet or Aiden). Baby names (don’t call anyone Pootie Pie if they are older than two). Pseudonyms (are you hiding or running away?). Nom des plumes (so past acquaintances can’t catch up to you, or because someone else has made your real name famous, Marilyn Monroe?). Nicknames (Stinky, Button, and Ladybug were fine back in the day, but it’s no longer back in the day).

Authors have much fun making up names. My favorites are those who create unpronounceable letter combinations but get angry when we say them incorrectly. Why shouldn’t I say Jacob if someone writes Jkb? If they want me to say it as Ickbo, it should be spelled that way, no matter that Jkb is a creature from the planet Zxqkn. That’s Zisqueen to me but Ekshozsa to the writer – they intended the final n to be silent. And if anyone chooses #*^^)(@% as a name, I will pronounce it Joe or Sue, depending on gender – if I’m able to determine gender – I get to choose.

Favorite book characters include Cordelia, Ebenezer Scrooge, Holden Caulfield, Lolita, Huckleberry Finn, Kunta Kinte, Ayla, Atticus Finch, Jane Eyre, Jay Gatsby, Scarlet O’Hara, Ifemelu and Obinze, Tess, Sherlock Holmes, Sethe, Amir and Hassan, Anna Karenina, Wonder Woman and Superman (yes, they’re comic book characters,) Okonkwo, Heathcliff, Hester Prynne, Celie and Shug, Inigo Montoya and Buttercup, and Hamlet – because I must begin and end with Shakespeare. You know these characters if you’ve read the books, though the titles are absent here.

I’ve chosen names for my stories according to the decade and country where a person was born. And to my whim. Elaine is an American character I like, though she is deeply flawed, Harvey is an unlikable jerk. John is strong and protective, and Junko is Japanese and wise. Rivka is a hero in the same story as Janusz, while Egon is a brute, and his name means the edge of a sword. Gittle, meaning good, is a sweet if naïve woman while Mendel’s name is changed several times.  Jocelyn, called Joey, links together generations and continents. In another story, Mama has no other name, but her daughter, Kimberly, is called by different names depending upon who is talking to her.

So now for my own name: I was born Sharon Lynne Bonin. I found it an awkward mouthful for a kid who liked pink ruffles and wanted to be a flower girl more than anything in the world. My last name was changed to Pratt when I married, and friends call me Shari though there’s nothing documented to show it as a legal attribute. Look up a number of combinations on Google and you’ll find more than one Sharon Pratt, or Shari Pratt. But there is only one Sharon Bonin-Pratt. Me. And this is my chosen nom de plume.

Names lug meaning and history along with the letters. Noble, debased, inventive, ethnic, silly, responsible, criminal, fickle, powerful, romantic. Reputations tip the scale. Not much weighs less than a name. Or more. Choose carefully.

 

 

 

 

 

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Daydream, Writer

I wonder what you remember of being a kid in school. What was the most common remark you heard from your teachers? It might have been anything of the myriad activities that engage young children at the perimeter of studies. Don’t write on the desk. Stop running in the hall. Sit up straight. Throw out your gum. Turn to the right page. Stop talking to Sally (Henry, Willis, Coralee.) Sharpen your pencil before class. That’s not a word we use in school. We heard all those comments directed at kids who needed reminding about the purpose of school: practicing times tables, practicing spelling words, practicing cursive writing, practicing reading, practicing memorizing. School instruction was not interesting so much as required. School instruction was not creative at all. It was practice for something else.

None of those comments were directed at me, however. I heard another order – often – from every teacher through the elementary grades. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” Because there I’d be, my head turned toward the huge windows along the back wall, staring out at the gray and yellow skies, the bare limbs of the trees, the steeple of the church across the street. Caught daydreaming again about all the possibilities of life outside our classroom, wondering what it would be like if. My teachers thought I was wasting time but I was imagining a different world. I turned back to the current lesson though not for long. I’d be daydreaming again before the end of the day.

I recently read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. The first chapter was about Albert Einstein and the fact that he spent a year doing nothing but daydreaming. Einstein’s daydreams led him to conceptualize some of the most revolutionary ideas about the nature of physics and the role of light, energy, and matter in the origin of the universe. After that daydream year, he had a creative explosion that resulted in him writing four important papers that identified the connective nature of just about everything in the cosmos. Eventually he won the Noble Prize.

Everyone should daydream. Children should daydream, inventors should daydream, lovers, the aged, politicians, priests, laborers, and travelers should daydream. It isn’t enough to do the ordinary and expected, to take notes and photos, to make lists and plans. We writers should daydream. Inside the daydream is the inception of wonder, the place where everything begins.

Writers need a break from ordinary routine. We put too much emphasis into the strategy we think should result in brilliant writing. It’s like buying the most expensive computer system, adding an outstanding writing program, lining up research files, then drawing a creative blank. The novel doesn’t emerge.  Great story writing doesn’t come from elaborate equipment. It comes from slow and careful observation about the world, thinking about the human experience until the artist has insight about life.

Once we start to write, we should not try to write well. We should just write. Let the words flow and don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. That’s not for us to judge anyway – that’s for readers to judge. And maybe what we should be doing is not writing at all for a while but continue the daydream until writing organically enters our stage.

Everybody knows Einstein did poorly in school, that he appeared to do nothing for a while. But it isn’t true that he didn’t do anything – he observed, he thought, he let ideas flourish in his brain. He wondered. That year of daydreaming was the catalyst for the extraordinary and continuing bursts of brilliance that allowed him to cultivate his curiosity and resulted in the synthesis of his ideas. That led him to develop one of the pillars of modern physics, the theory of relativity.

Maybe we don’t have everything yet.  Maybe we need time spent looking around the world, observing, thinking, wondering, the way Einstein spent that year looking at the universe. Because if we don’t find the world enchanting – the way the clouds gather around the moon, the way we can talk to a stranger who doesn’t speak our language, the way the horizon stretches to infinity yet never really exists at all – we might as well stick with writing shopping lists.

 

 

Photograph of Albert Einstein courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

 

 

I, Wanderer

The commencement address at university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least to get a decent job and pay your own bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into crap-what-do-I-do-now. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months or had a terrific entry level position in a company that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the proof of solid accomplishments that look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and bologna sandwiches, and housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a writer had been sustained by only marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (If you’re 30 or under, you don’t know about the classifieds – no worries.)

Over the next decade I wandered into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in lackluster positions paid bills until marriage. Then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with them, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with celebrations, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, museums visits, scouts, theater outings, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first as occasional work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program, then as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. (I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “Free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings. “Lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon. Or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separations.)

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint under pressure and with peculiar requirements. Like board short designs with no orange as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange, damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics is the norm, stealing credit is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, joyously.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned – to paint fast and accurately – and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, how color suggests mood or seasons, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head, and that less glue is better than more. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, docents, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art.

I taught children to paint, I loved those years, and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Unable to continue to teach art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Three completed novels, another well on its way, short stories and poetry as proof: I am a writer.

Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation – it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that’s left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair solution but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable to bear the weight. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were: stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold your loved ones as if their lives and yours depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day.

And harbor no regrets.

 

mortarboard art courtesy Clip Art

 

 

 

Getting it All Wrong to Make It Write

or, Responding Graciously to Awful Critiques

I must apologize.

About 15 years ago I sat nervously on the hot seat of my first official writing critique session, having balanced on sword points for two weeks while my new-found group of reviewers read the first chapter of my book. Certainly they were about to skewer me because what else would they do to someone who dared enter the heady realm of Writer with no more credentials than a college degree in Creative Writing and years of doing everything but write? I deserved to be skewered, burned over hot coals, and served a la carte with freshly shaved horseradish.

I can’t even remember what those folks said about my first chapter. Can’t remember because though I tried to listen, I heard nothing. I sat through the crits and quaked, tried to smile but grimaced, to breathe evenly but choked. Should have listened better so I’d have something memorable to tell you, but I have nothing to show for that first critique except the edge of the chair imprinted on the backs of my thighs.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about critique groups, mostly by doing nearly everything wrong. I’ve been so arrogant that I actually thought I was qualified to tell someone else how to write. I mean, I read – lots. Didn’t that qualify me to tell other novice writers, many more veteran than myself, how to describe a character’s motives without a melodramatic voice, how to show and not tell? I’d read all those writers’ books and articles, dug up my old college notes, sat back on my sofa and trawled through my memory to unearth the pearls of my college professors’ wisdom – even remembered a few pithy points. Talk about arrogant, cynical, smarmy, and self righteous. I have been way too insensitive to the feelings of others.

It was no surprise I would get it back in kind, finally a long overdue rounding of my pointed little head. I was critiqued a few nights ago, and though many of the critters (shall we use that silly term, for brevity’s sake?) spoke fairly of my recent work while offering useful ideas to improve it, one person came at me with lance drawn. His critique infuriated me, right from the top. I’d submitted chapter 11 of what I’ve oft made clear is a 24 chapter book, nearly the half way point. Goodspeak (why not call him Goodspeak?) began by stating he was going to critique my work as if it was chapter one. Why? Because he hadn’t read the first ten chapters. I’d been saddled for the wrong rodeo and felt a bit put off by the horse poo. It’s fair to say, if you’ve been out of the reading loop of a particular book, that you wouldn’t quite get who a character is or why a scene occurs. It’s more than fair to request a synopsis be included to make it easier for new readers to cut into a well established story.  Note taken – synopsis will be provided next time.

But Goodspeak wanted to treat chapter 11 as if it were chapter one, along with concerns about what he just couldn’t understand. Like where did the cake come from (um, even if you didn’t read the first ten, it’s a book about a senior residence, and it doesn’t take a very long tape measure to realize that every birthday, every anniversary is celebrated with cake in an old folks’ home. You never know if it will be Granny’s last chocolate frosted nibble – please don’t tell me you never thought of that. Only a four-year-old hasn’t thought of that, but four-year-olds love cake and parties every half hour, so even they get it!)

Nobody writes a mid chapter and includes a detailed rewrite of all the stuff that happened in the first half. A book written that way would be a great new sleep aid. Goodspeak’s crit was bogus at that point, and I should have realized that little of worth would be stated. I should have done what I often did in boring college classes: slept with my eyes open. Still I continued my pasted if bogus smiling until the next comment threw me over the edge.

In the book, two teenage brothers jabber about their older brother and the young woman he’s just introduced to them. The younger brother “wiggles his rear” to communicate how sexy he found the woman. Goodspeak found my language archaic. Could be. His suggestion was that I update and use the word twerk.

I know what you just did. You guffawed as you saw in your mind’s eye a famous singer at a packed concert who jiggled her nearly bare butt cheeks into the crotch of a male performer while her tongue lolled all the way to the floor. Ain’t nobody in this whole wide world who didn’t see that girl’s keister quiver, ‘cept the poor deprived citizens of North Korea and the aborigines of New Guinea. Maybe even only the North Koreans. Bet Kim Jong-un saw it – probably downloaded it to his desktop – the first thing he sees every morning while playing with his nukes. Ahem.

If deciding to crit my story as if chapter 11 were chapter one wasn’t way off the appropriate target, then suggesting I “upgrade” a playful wiggle to a suggestive twerk absolutely missed any hope of a bull’s eye. My book has nothing to do with the awful behavior of a childish performer whose best talent resides in the Most Suggestive category. Anyone reading that word in my book would toss it immediately into the trash where all minimal performers ultimately end up. Wrong word, wrong image, wrong association.

Goodspeak’s patter dumped me square into the category of Total Outrage.

I had a right to stew.

I didn’t have a right to let everyone know how outraged I felt.

I dropped myself into the pit of Ungrateful Critique Group Member. I shouted out in the middle of his review (a rule we are never ever to break ever) that I would never use such a stupid and nasty word in anything I write. I told Goodspeak in front of everyone in the group what a dumb idea he’d made.

Shame on me for not being gracious that Goodspeak had even read my chapter and offered insight.

I had his comments coming. I’d earned his unflattering critique. He was not diminished in the sight of the other group members.

I was.

Because I’ve often made stupid and ill considered comments to other writers. Because I’ve been arrogant and thoughtless and damn stupid about my choice of nits to pick. Because I’ve read the work of others without truly considering their hard driven craftsmanship, their sleep deprived nights hunched over the computer, their pacing feet and drumming fingers as they worked out the best phrases and sharpest observations. Their hearts thwonked in their chests as they pounded out the best they had to give because nobody, but nobody, puts their work out into the critique community without having produced their very best at that moment, even as they realize there is more to do. I often forgot the sincerity of their oeuvre.

Writing is hard work. Writing well stands at a pinnacle higher than Mt. Everest. I haven’t gotten there yet. However far I may have trekked on my journey, however brilliant my occasional sentence, whatever the few accolades I’ve earned, this is the truth about me: I am not a published writer. Nothing I say to any other writer is any more significant or meritorious than anything that anyone else says about my writing.

This is my apology to Goodspeak:

It behooves me to be humble. Always very humble. You read my chapter and gave me the best of your thoughts with your critique. I was way off in my reaction and I’m truly sorry. Thank you for your effort on my behalf. You’ve made me a better writer.

 

Don’t Quote Me on That

If you decide to quote me after all, for crying out loud, use quotation marks. One of my biggest pet peeves, as in stuff that really peeves me off, is writers who write dialogue but refuse to bind the words with quotation marks. It’s like marking your property with disappearing ink and then expecting the folks next door not to build a pool in your yard.

I know unbound dialogue is a popular trope for some writers. Cormac McCarthy writes lengthy pages of dialogue without benefit of quotation marks, as in his book, All the Pretty Horses. Which, by the way, I loved. So does Michael Ondaatje in another of my most favorite books, The English Patient. Neither of the boys in this club like tags either.

So here I am trooping along in a Mc or Ond story, and I encounter pages and pages of dialogue between Shem and Flopsie without benefit of quotation marks at the beginning and ending of dialogue, and with almost no tags at all. After a while, I’ve lost the character stream and am thinking, “Wait, who’s talking now? I can’t remember.” So back I plod through pages of the story and over the mountains and through the fields, trying to find a place where a person’s name comes up. Then I have to tramp through the lines of dialogue. Let’s see, this one is attributable to Shem, so the next one must be Flopsie, and now we’re back to Shem. Oops. This is not a line of dialogue but internal reminiscence, and the next one is actually narration. What is it with this cute Irish boychik and this nice Canuck boyo that they can’t spend a few pennies on quotation marks so this old Yankee dame can read their books more easily?

It would also help if both authors tagged once in a while. I don’t mean every line of speech, and certainly not with fluff like, “Shem said impatiently”, or “Flopsie answered angrily.” But enough name tags that I can identify who’s talking now and who’s talking next without having to keep a score sheet next to me. If either of these writers drops me a line, I’ll send them hand-penned tag sheets, no extra charge for the serifs.

Obviously I’m not going to make any headway with convincing respected, adored, brilliant, and published writers. They won’t even bother to laugh because they’ve never heard of me and never will. They’ll continue to write dialogue unbound by quotation marks because it’s their shtick, and their readers recognize their work by their quirky traits. Same with the character tags they can’t be bothered to attach. They must find me an inattentive ditz not to be able to figure out when Shem or Flopsie are speaking.

All this does not, however, give you or me permission to veer off the beaten track and venture into the country of Imakemyowngrammarrules. Writing is a hard enough track to plow. Leaving divots for readers to fall into is dangerous, especially for writers of my ilk: not yet published. Here’s the rule for us: reader falls into a grammar divot, reader crawls out of the book.

I heed the rules of writing because I want my readers (My readers? Funny old broad – I don’t have any readers yet, but I’m planning ahead.) not to be distracted by figuring out the parts that are dialogue or who is talking, but to focus on the story. Which I hope one day to publish.

If you’re Ondaatje or McCarthy, you can write your own rule books – hell, you’ve already done so. You, No Name Schlub, (like me) should stick to what works for precisely that reason – it’s what works. You will build readers who make comments on Good Reads, such as, “The book was a pleasure to read.” That’s worthy of a few quotation marks and character tags, and I’m certain you don’t want to peeve anyone off.

 

 

Image courtesy: Clip Art

 

 

All Fall Down

Look on the jacket back at the photo of the writer whose book you’re reading. That’s right, the image of the man or woman with artfully tousled hair, a somber expression in their eyes, leaning on a stack of books. The photos don’t show the lower extremities of the authors, or if they do, legs are covered in slacks or long skirts and tall boots.

And why is that? Because otherwise their knees would show. No worries about knobby or fleshy joints. It’s the danger of revealing the purple scrapes from falling down, the swollen bumps of landing hard on one’s patella, the bloody bruises endured while writing. Writers fall; banged up knees are proof.

We writers must be willing to fall if we’re going to achieve memorable writing. Like kids who learn to ride bikes, ice skate, or leap over hurdles, we tumble, we topple, we trip, we land on our butts and our knees. It’s the only way to learn to do challenging things. Child athletes and adult writers follow the same scenario. We get up and try it again. Fear of falling on our faces prevents mastering skills, so we try again, sometimes writing crap, and fall again, aiming for our personal best. Who knew that writing would be so dangerous? In what writing course did the instructor advise you to invest in Johnson & Johnson stock so you could recoup on your investment in band aids?

If you are so afraid of falling that you never venture beyond the safety of the formulae for “successful” writing, if you shy from trying strange plot twists to settle for the tried and true, if you are risk averse to including controversy in your stories, you may be too rigid to write your personal best. Your knees will be picture perfect but your story dry and predictable.

Consider the work of Andre Dubus III. My favorite is House of Sand and Fog. It’s about people who would never meet were it not for the house they all claim to own. Many readers agree there is no sympathetic main character because everyone is so flawed that it’s hard to admire anyone. Perhaps the only positive characters are the house itself, an innocent object at the center of wretched human behavior, or the young son, another innocent caught in a whirlwind that stokes the terrible end of the story. Beneath the surface battle for the house is a battle about damaged people caught up in social dysfunction that mirrors fractured contemporary desires and addictions. Read that synopsis again and you will see little ordinary element. Dubus took an enormous risk by ignoring the formula.

The story isn’t a thinly disguised autobiography, but I bet his sensitive portrayal of each injured character is drawn from his own cache of injuries. It’s likely he pulled from the depths of what has wounded him to be able to portray the wounded souls that inhabit the book. He was willing to be vulnerable, to tear out his heart and examine what hurts, in order to write convincingly about the vulnerabilities of others. If we can’t see ourselves committing the reckless acts of his characters, we can at least feel the pain of their awful choices. The result is an unforgettable book that generates deserved admiration among readers. It is the work of a master.

Creativity blooms from being vulnerable. An open heart, an open mind, an open hand reaching out to grasp what is strange and unknown, to welcome what hurts, humiliates, or makes us sob. A writer willing to fall. Do not fear a wound. Wounds heal. Tear open your heart, examine the pain – because that’s what writing is all about. Now turn out your gut – because that’s where the truth is. That which is rigid is stagnant. Vulnerability allows creativity.

All together now: All fall down. Then get up and write your best. Smile for the camera, your knees won’t show.

 

Painting: Caravaggio, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, circa 1600, public domain

 

Kicked Down, Got Back Up

Anyone want to read about spreading peanut butter? No one, not even the person who invented peanut butter. OK, maybe John Harvey Kellogg (yep, Kellogg Cereal) would enjoy reading about the golden paste, but even he would probably get bored with an ordinary description. Now someone nearly dying of peanut allergy and being saved by a homeless man who’s broken into the house to steal your peanut butter – that could be exciting. (I didn’t say scary or unlikely was out.)

Felt like kicking myself around the block a few times when I discovered the peanut butter in my own story. A writing fact I knew so well, yet somehow it eluded me. I’d written peanut butter – worse, it could even be thought of as a story of cold cereal, and we all know how interesting that is. We recognize weakness in other writer’s stories yet somehow the ordinary event slips into our own as if we’d given it a silver lined invitation.

Don’t ask Mom about this one. She’ll tell you, “It’s a wonderful story, darling, did you get a nice advance?” We all know Mom doesn’t read with discretion. She spreads good cheer, most of it based on how much she loves you and all the glory she expects from you. Let’s face it, Mom cannot hold down the bile of realizing that you, her baby, are all grown up and capable of writing about war, violence, sex, hatred, and evil beings in sinister plots. She’s just as happy to let a story slide along on its lazy butt rather than reveal the darker side of life, the side that’s interesting to write about. The side that’s interesting to read.

Consider a story you know well. Jack and Jill went up the hill. Jack fell down and Jill tumbled after. Expected and predictable and about as interesting as, well, you know what. But you don’t know the whole story. May I elaborate?

Jack didn’t pull up the bucket of water. He leaned across the top of the well and tugged on Jill’s braids, trying to yank her closer. She had braids as thick and supple as a jungle vine, eyes as deep and mysterious as an abandoned gold mine. Jack’s love quotient lurched about three times his shirt size. Didn’t want water, that boyo. He wanted a kiss and puckered up expectantly, hoping his gleaming pompadour and rockabilly swagger were attractive enough to impress the beauteous object of his desire.

Jill however had other intentions, finding Jack’s breath a bit rot-guttish and his opening moves more Don Juan the Creep than Romeo the Sleek. Besides, she was merely thirsty for a plain old drink of water. She planted not a smooch on his cheek but a sock in the kisser. Well, what should have been the kisser. Jack flipped over backwards, heels kicking up the dust, and Jill lost her balance because she’d leaned to land such a hard right. Both kids tumbled down the hill, pell mell, ass over head and head over ass until all parts of both kids landed at the bottom, one red faced and pissed off, the other red faced and sore. Jill’s braids flew behind her like a war pennant, a one person cavalry in wild pursuit. Jack’s teeth bolted from his jaw, a declaration of surrender in ivory and blood.

Jill gave him a swift kick to the, well, you know where she kicked him, and he did too. She smoothed the wrinkles out of her designer jeans, planted her hands on her hips, and flashed burning embers at Jack. “Watch it, buster. I ain’t no cheap carnival bait puckering up for a sloppy bucket of H2O out of the village well.” She stomped her snake skin boot on the ground beside the prone unrequited suitor, the pointed toe jamming him in the ribs.

Jack stood up, very, very slowly, and rubbed the rising proof on his crown of his fall from grace, tongued the new cavities in his mouth, groaned at the pain in his you-know-where, and reassessed the situation. Jill didn’t like him all that much.  And she wasn’t that thirsty. As he cast his glance toward the ground where he’d lately been, he noticed a glint of gold among the broken picket fence of his scattered teeth. Jack pocketed the gold, figuring he’d find a more agreeable love interest to share his bounty with.

Pompadour now flat as his ego, our boyo learned a valuable lesson. Don’t try for a first kiss with the fashionable girl at the top of a hill, especially if soft pillows don’t aggregate at the bottom. Get the damned bucket of water, ignore the snobby chick at your side, and seek your trysts like the other kids. Behind the bleachers with the eager tomatoes who wait there. And he brought a better gift than a free bucket of H2O. He offered a bag of French fries, fresh from, well, you know where.

You might not like my new take on an old standard. Trust me, Mom didn’t approve either. She found it lurid and in bad taste. But you have to admit, it’s far less bland than the sing song drill you learned in nursery school. A bit of work and I could make even more out of less. That’s what writing is. An imaginative take on old ideas. Most new stories are fresh takes on old ones. You knew that already and can name at least a dozen re-imaginings that have garnered troops of admirers and taken in bags of loot. Remember the story of a very green kingdom and the young lady who ventured there on a funnel cloud? Now think about how long you stood in line to buy tickets for the musical version, based on the book by a very famous writer. Uh huh. An old tale revamped by a younger story teller.

Now make your staid story exciting. Unpredictable. Quirky. Worthy of an agent and an adoring audience. Yeah, that kind of innovation. Give it a good kick in the you-know-where.

 

 

 

 

 

Journal Your Way to Authentic Detail

My mom gave me my first diary when I was nine years old, a birthday present that promised immortality for my brilliant observations of the world. It had a bubble gum pink vinyl cover with a picture of a teenager sitting on the floor, her body folded into a V, legs scissoring in the air, toes pointed like a ballerina’s. She held a black telephone handset in one hand (yes, we’re talking very old school here) and wrapped the serpentine cord around the other. Her pony tail flipped out in a curl. I could never figure out who she was talking to, but it was certainly someone more popular than I.

There I was, an awkward little kid with widely spaced teeth too big for my face, ears jutting like trowels from my head, jealous of a cartoon character of a girl as realistically drawn as Wonder Woman. Besides the beauty queen on the cover of my diary, one of the other things I loved was the silver lock at the edge of the pages and the two keys that would keep my words private, my inner world a secret from my prying public. As if.

The problem I had with my new diary was the same problem that faced the whole class. I had a dearth of words to write, an anemic bunch of experiences to record. My first entry reflected my life. I got up, got dressed, walked to school, sat in class and studied, stopped off at Perry’s store where my dime bought a package of chocolate Tastykakes, walked home, and went to bed after dinner and some TV time. At nine, my middle class life was predictably boring. The most interesting parts were also those I could not record because no lock would keep mom’s nosy eyes out of the pages of my diary, and no teenage cartoon coquette could heft a shield strong enough to protect my thoughts. My intuition kept me silent.

I suspect many little girls would have sensed our deepest thoughts should be kept to ourselves and never written, even in a lockable diary. The conflicts we had with our families and the worries we had about ourselves were not for public sharing. Mom might have given me a diary but she didn’t really want me to write what I thought about my world. Eventually the boring sameness that I could safely record each day even bored me. It wasn’t interesting to write or read, so I quit.

Decades later I wish I had that pink diary. I’m certain there were a few descriptions I’d love to have at hand, maybe the way the wax paper wrapper had to be gently pried from my Tastykakes to preserve the frosting, or the sound of cracking ice as I stepped onto a frozen puddle and skidded a few inches. Perhaps I recorded the yellow sky that arched over our house because wherever I looked, the blue of artists’ paintings never showed up over Trenton. Maybe I wrote about the parades that marched down Parkway Avenue, passing our corner on their way to glory. The itch of my wool skirts, the way my baby sister cooed at me, that my little brother learned jujitsu moves. I don’t know. All I do know is that I gave up trying to write in my diary. Someplace between my surrendered pencil and our family’s move first to Hawaii and then to California, the pink diary didn’t make it. Probably got tossed in a bin, another worthless token too expensive to cart from place to place.

My current journal is likely similar to one you might keep. I write on my computer, the pages protected by a password locked in a virtual file marked “Journal.” Not an original undertaking but an easy one for me to access. I can keyboard write even when the aches in my hands won’t put up with marking an inky scrawl. A close friend writes in leather bound journals using a code she created years ago. She’s diligent in recording her thoughts and vigilant in maintaining her privacy. Another friend writes in well crafted Moleskin books that will keep for decades, filling a dozen or so every year.

As a writer, the value of keeping a diary or journal is the rich description of experiences I might be wise enough to record. Journaling can be a window into authentic details I might otherwise have forgotten but can now include in my current story. The black landline telephone drawn on the cover of my pink diary is no longer a common device. Readers might have no idea what I’m writing about from personal encounter in the 1950s, but hopefully my words, culled from remembering the cover of a diary long gone, convey an image they can envision. Journals can provide detailed passages about the incidents and items that make stories ring true. They are sometimes an incentive to write. If I have trouble kick starting my writing muse, I can look to my journal as an opportunity to write every day. I get to write about anything that inspires or incites me, and about every common thing I want to record.

I might call it a diary; you might prefer the word journal. It’s writing it that’s most important. It may prove to be the source of an authentic voice, a description of an article that makes my story ring true. Readers will crow about how I, brilliant writer, drop them into the middle of my story and keep them in suspense as they read the genuine details that assure them I really know what I’m talking about. And that’s just where I want them to be, no locks or keys keeping them at bay. Just a reader and my book, tight as a teenage girl and her phone.

 

 

 

Finding My Voice

Don’t know about you, but I’ve had a voice ever since I was born. A piercing sound box that I used to alert the armed forces I was hungry or other uncomfortable physical situations. I continued with that wail until I learned to speak, first with a decidedly New Jersey slur, not too dissimilar from the Southern drawl I later adopted the year I lived in Alabama and attended kindergarten. Even later I picked up a bit of pidgin from Hawaii when my family lived there for a few years. Finally I settled on California’s western twang after moving here on my thirteenth birthday and making it my permanent home except for three crazy years early in our marriage when we lived in Detroit. (Don’t ask, just don’t.)

My writer’s voice came in about as slowly and with as many distractions along the way as my baby and childish ones. I learned to speak and anticipate because I learned first to listen and observe. I even fidgeted when writing my first book with present tense versus simple past tense. Though this is not exactly the same thing, it does affect the writers’ voice. Fortunately I recognized that present tense is an awkward attempt to sound edgy and urgent while simple past covers content and character more comfortably. My developed writer’s voice sounds like my alter ego, notable for the realization that this is a desirable state and I should be so lucky to maintain my voice throughout my novels. Every writer reveals her voice in her work though the subject may be unique, book to book. It’s the way she depicts characters, the style of her sentence structure, and her grasp of dialogue.

Not a very specific strategy for defining the single most personality driven quality of our writing, is it? Confused? Shouldn’t be, because voice is as recognizable and distinct as other identifiable traits. After all, I’d know Beyoncé’s music from Taylor Swift’s even if they’re belting songs I’ve never heard. I can tell the difference between Beethoven’s rousing classical symphonies and the contemporary vernacular of Aaron Copeland’s ballets. I can distinguish impromptu jazz from free style rap no matter which I prefer (not telling you here.) I can look at a landscape painting of bold, thick oil strokes and declare it’s by Van Gogh or at a delicate watercolor painting of an animal and know it’s by Albrecht Durer. Writing voice is not much different, though the characteristics of voice description are a bit more nebulous.  Maybe a bit harder to pinpoint, to fit into rigid templates, but still unique.

More important than being fluent at describing writing voice to comprehend the distinctions is being honest about presenting my voice in my writing. I learned early to drop the pretense of mimicking Shakespeare, whose luminous and melodic voice I can’t assume on the best of my days, or Barbara Kingsolver, whose deft mind creates stories that stick with me years after I’ve read her books but whose masterful style eludes me. Still, I have begun to write with my own voice, a skill confirmed by readers in my critique group. It comes most vividly when I allow it to come most naturally, letting the material dictate my story and the way I present characters and plot.

Aspects of my writing style come to me from my crazy quilt background, not just the way I heard and adopted dialect when I was a kid, but the way I noted how people lived in different parts of the country, how they interacted with each other and conducted their lives. It came from the sights that lured me to explore the outdoors, from the smells that tempted me into the kitchen, from the various cultures across the country, and from my joy or distress over those experiences. I discovered that reading my WIP aloud gave me a sense of what was powerful: short sentences, driving hammer-like against steel nails. Or what was poetic: comparisons between unlikely subjects, forcing them to dance duets. Or what was insightful: drawing conclusions from mystery.

My voice is subjective, wet clay of my thoughts molded by my imagination. I hope my readers will love my voice. I’ll settle for them liking it, but I have to remain true to who I am or my story falls apart like broken pottery. My rhythm and syntax must engage my reader because let’s face it: as original as I try to be, as all writers try to be, there are only so many themes and plots out there. It’s the writer’s voice that seduces the reader. I mewled as an infant. Now I howl, I whisper, I recite, I shout, and I chant. Come read my work, come listen to the sound of my stories. Hear my voice.

 

 

 

The Road Best Traveled

A book is not a concrete highway going straight to purgatory. Plenty of people are trying to get there fast but who needs to be reminded? It’s not a rambling road with divergent tracks in multiple planes going nowhere. Well, maybe scatterfall stories are that chaotic, but I haven’t written one of those since I was six. Eventually we want the story to end, well or ill, but first to travel in spellbinding fashion.  A good book is more a path in some order of forward movement across stepping stones. How I lay those stones is endemic to my tale and my writing style. How you traverse the stones is influenced by your willingness to step where the path is tricky, or unpersuasive. Did I convince you that you’re safe and that the stones are worth crossing? A lot of metaphor here, yet reading a book is as much a leap of faith as writing one is, and there is no bigger metaphor for life than that. (Perhaps, you say, and you might be right.)

I cannot write every single word and neither would you want to read them, no matter that you as reader may still have questions at the very last word. Knowing when to stop, when I’ve said everything germane, when the plot has run its course, and the characters have learned everything or nothing is my decision as a writer. Readers begin their opportunity to interact the moment my book is in print. (That’s another story!)

This may sound like an authoritarian mandate but it’s really more a question I’m asking myself. My newest work in progress is based loosely on stories my parents told me about their childhoods. In order to protect their dignity and privacy, in order to protect myself from angry relatives, all names in the book have been changed. As I began to write I had immediate questions. Like, whoa there, the dates don’t align, how could that be true? Or, hey dad, can you provide a few more details so the story has more gravitas? Or, mom, are you telling me this actually happened? Really? Do either of you know of a few juicy incidents that might make someone stop in their tracks and sob – or scream – or run? Because that’s the stuff stories are made of and I could use a little help here. Everything just got quiet. Hmm – secrets?

In my case I’m at an impasse. My father has passed and my mom has advanced Alzheimer’s, so there are no answers forthcoming from the folks who told me the original stories. Perhaps they held back those most controversial or unflattering – read interesting – moments. Cousins know a few details but not enough to fill all of the gaps. So I’m doing what writers do – making stuff up. Emerging from the inchoate racket in my head is a story of a different sort than what I’d intended. Not memoir, not creative non-fiction, barely recognizable as lives related to my family, the story is entirely fabricated. And that’s OK. A good yarn is what I wanted to tell.  Gather around the fire, and let me begin. Once there was a young boy and a young girl who…

We’ve all stood there at the fork in the road, wondering if a unicorn awaits at the end of one path, a treasure chest at the other. We’ve all wondered what if? What if I’d taken the other road, would my life be better? If I’d asked more questions of the right people when they could be answered, would I know enough to write a better story, a more exciting one? If I had never tried to base this story on any semblance of my parents’ lives but chosen to create entirely fictional characters? The unknown is all I have. It’s all any writer has. It doesn’t really matter which road I take. It matters the adventures I invent, the people who confront and resolve their crises, what truths I expose along the way, and how riveting a story I write.

So here I go, right foot first, left foot next, each leading until it is the one that follows. You, dear reader, will have to fill in some of the blanks along the way (Hey, writer, you missed the butterfly with seven wings) but I certainly hope to lure you down a merry, magnificent, mysterious path. We’ll only know if it was the best choice when you come to the end and declare what a fabulous journey into the unknown it was. Or don’t. Because the other one might have been just as good or even better – had I written it instead.

(Thank you, Mr. Frost, for the reminder.)