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

 

 

 

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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.)

 

Make it Short – I Got a Plane to Catch

planetocatchThe modern reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with significant character development and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss in the garbage disposal.

We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snobby Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just have dude take dudette to dinner.

Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.

One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a scene (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.

One of my all time most favorite first sentences is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the yin and yang of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.

One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book in some bookstore, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety.

But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor,  knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with words. And those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.

The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing the noggins of your readers. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more attractive. The concept may still abide in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”

Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there on the Internet, you can find them for yourself. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”

We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our books at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.

Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those left, then breaking them into short reading bites. Try it – it can’t hurt.

 

Artwork courtesy Clip Art.

I Remember It Well

telephoneMy parents told me stories about their families when I was growing up. Stories about them when they were growing up, and stories about their own parents and extended family.

I wish I’d listened better, remembered more. I wish I could ask if I’ve remembered correctly and to fill in the details. How ironic that just as I wanted to know more about who they were before I’d ever met them, they were both gone.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ten years ago. Seven years ago my father died. For the next eighteen months, as my mother and I struggled to construct an entirely new relationship based on her awareness of her illness, her widowhood, and my new position as her durable power of attorney, I also tried to help her resurrect her life’s memories. My mother now lives with a brain so fractured she cannot remember anything that happened even one minute before. My opportunity to question her about her childhood is long past.

Most of us know ourselves through our direct memories of the events that impressed us as we grew up, as well as through the stories other people tell about us. As my adult children age and my grandchildren grow up, the old family stories only I know are going to be lost. In fact, the incidents my parents told me so long ago are glimpses into lives so distant, their lifestyle is recognized as archaic and quaint. My grandkids, for instance, can’t imagine a time when everyone didn’t carry a cell phone. I’m not even certain when my parents’ parents would have gotten the first phones in their homes, but it’s a safe bet my parents would have ecstatically celebrated those old phones getting installed into their childhood homes when they were very young. I can only guess about the telephones, however, because neither of them ever told me about a time when their families might not have had a home telephone.

I remember from personal experience the telephones that were installed in our home in Trenton, New Jersey in 1954 because no one else was fortunate enough to have six phones with their own phone numbers. We were a very unique family.

My dad was a physician, starting his first private practice in part of our two-story Dutch Colonial house, converted to waiting, x-ray, and examining rooms, and his office. We needed two phones because one had to be dedicated to his medical practice, but the technology for putting more than one phone line on one device didn’t yet exist. In our kitchen, the two phones sat side by side, one for our family, the other for my dad’s practice so patients could reach him in an emergency any time of day or night, 365 days a year. Also for non-emergencies, but that’s another story. The double telephone system was also installed in my parents’ upstairs bedroom and of course in the medical office.

I am the only person left who remembers the wonderful day those phones were installed. My brother was too young to know how extraordinary our situation was, my sister wasn’t yet born. With my father now gone and my mother’s disease having long savaged her memory, only I recall the splendor of those two machines. None of the other kids at school had two telephones in their homes, plugged in side by side, with two different phone numbers, and in fact, we had six! I memorized the two phone numbers, one for our family, the other for dad’s medical office, which I was never supposed to use unless no other adult was near enough to answer. I can no longer remember the numbers but they were something like: MA (for Maple) 2-5873. Some folks still had party lines they shared with neighbors, where they could rudely listen to someone else’s phone conversation and save a few bucks for the risk of no privacy.

The few times I answered my dad’s office line, I used the professional voice and demeanor I’d practiced for just such an occasion, “Hello, this is Dr. Bonin’s office, can I help you?” I learned to write messages from people in distress, to get their names spelled correctly, to copy down their phone numbers, and to promise I’d have my dad call as soon as he came home. Big stuff for a six-year-old. Strut worthy. I saved lives. OK, maybe not, but I saved messages from patients.

Many families today don’t even have a land line. Instead, every member of the family has a cell phone with more technological intelligence than the space ship Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958 from Cape Canaveral. In the mid 1970s, the early days of mobile phones, owners looked exclusive walking around holding devices about the size of a quart milk box, chatting important information about plane flights and dry cleaning. Then phones became as small as a credit card, easily concealed and imparting status to folks picking up dry cleaning. Today they’re larger again but no thicker than a knife blade, and loaded with enough technology to sustain a computer, music, shopping lists, games, GPS,  movies, TV, personal calendars, Internet access, reading apps, a camera, and a – wait for it – cell phone. Sixty years after the installation of the six amazing, modern phones in our home, and today most people no longer need anything so clumsy and old fashioned. Archaic and quaint in less than a hundred years. Of course, no one talks on their phones anymore – they text. Too often while driving and ignoring present company.

As for me – I’m no longer the high tech envy of the kids at my school. I have an old fashioned flip phone, bought only because all pay phones were removed. It’ll be in my memoir someday.

 

 

Phone image courtesy Clip Art