Praise the Saints and Dish Up the Dirt

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wpid-img_20140825_103611.jpg There’s always a black sheep in every family.

If there isn’t…well, somebody must have scared ‘em off long ago !

There was a certain aunt in my hubby’s family who was evidently removed from the planet at some point.  I stumbled upon her on an early census.  She lived at home with her parents and two brothers until she was about 20.  Then all of a sudden she is married, and widowed within about a year.  Hmmm.  His death certificate (signed by her) states his cause of death as homicide, fatal gun shot wound.  His body was claimed by his parents and I as far as I can tell, was hauled back to Tennessee.  See ya Robert !  That’s around the time that Aunt Mary walked off the face of the earth.  Poof!  Gone.

Now heaven knows, my bloodline is not Saint-laden.  I am probably descended from more than my share of bootleggers, moonshiners, batterers and hatchet murdering types than I care to claim.  A couple of them even got caught!

Honestly, one end of my gene-pool had a real “thing” for smacking others in the head with a hammer. I can’t imagine it was their fault. Maybe hammers were just laying around waiting in those days…maybe it’s what most women carried in their handbags…maybe they didn’t know how to “use your words” to settle differences. I’m not really sure, but as far as I’ve found, none of them ever seemed to have been ever proven directly fatal.

Some tales are a bit less violent, but illegal nonetheless. Like the bootlegger faction of the family who warehoused their stock on underground shelves dug into the sidewalls of the outhouse. Bathtub Gin was the (out)house specialty. When a buy order came in, one of the kids was lowered down the hole–yes, that hole–by rope to retrieve the merchandise.

I would like to think that the customers sat on the front porch  or maybe stood around on the curb chatting while their order was being filled from the “stockroom”. But, who knows, maybe they didn’t give a…

Well, you could guess where that was about to go!

So think aloud around the table today and dig up a few of your “less than suitable for Sainthood” stories. You could start by Googling some names of cousins or other “contemporaries.”   They could be more recent than you think!

Who knows what you may or may not find. But if it’s ‘juicy’…you know what Mom always says:

Maybe someone should write that down!

 

6 Things Every Writer Needs

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In a departure from my norm on family storytelling, I’ve decided to share something that I think is a pretty big deal in any sort of writing. Recently in my Writer’s Group, we brainstormed an invaluable list:

 6 Things Every Writer Needs

The beauty of this compilation is that we are a highly diverse group writing everything from CNF (Creative Non Fiction) to Poetry, to Screen Plays, to Educational Materials, Memoirs, and on and on. Our voices and styles are vastly different (some lyrical, some concise, some babbling…me) But we were able to distill our lists down to six key elements, and then to start holding each other accountable for creating our own perfect environment for productivity while honoring our chosen genre.  We meet every other week and do a check in with the group over how close we are to honoring and providing for our writerly needs. In short, this has made a huge difference for all of us!

Now a word of caution before you peruse the list…This is not open license for dilly dallying and lamenting that you simply cannot write because you’ve made no progress past numbers 1-3 (yet). The idea is to have a vision of your perfect writing situation and to mindfully work toward that as you keep chugging along with less than ideal circumstances.

Shall I pull out the JK Rowling card? She was a single mom, on welfare, who loaded the babies up in the stroller, went to the corner coffee house and started writing down this big story thing that was in her head. There was no MFA, no Macbook, no Scribner, no editor, blog platform or fan base. There were only stolen moments when the kids were lulled to sleep for their naps by fresh air and the soothing buggy ride along the bumpy sidewalk. It seems to have worked out well for her, wouldn’t you agree?

*So here it is* Pay Attention* It’s for your own good* Do it*

1. Tools  Readily usable, reliable, in good repair, comfortable tools. I waffle between the soothing sound of a pencil skipping across paper, and the ease of spellcheck on my super light weight laptop. I also cannot leave the house without my smart phone and portable full page scanner. I’m picky about my pencils too. They either have to be all black, old fashioned wood with pink eraser #2s or a Pentel 0.5 mechanical. Why? Couldn’t tell ya…they’re just comfortable and don’t annoy me when I’m writing.

2. Inspiration What starts a story out for you? Is it a conversation with a cousin? Seeing old photos? A daily prompt from a book or webpage you like? How about your journal, or the writings or possessions of a family member–an heirloom that you admire in a case, or use everyday. For some it’s a place, a date or an occasion. Others write methodically from a task list. They have a neat outline of what they want to say and can go down the list working one subject at a time and feeling a great deal of accomplishment. Some look for contests or open calls for submissions and can write inspired by the given topic. Maybe it’s something you notice on the ground, the funny title of a book, or a childhood memory. Pinpoint your inspirations and gather them up.

3.  Space Oh this is one that’s a bee in my bonnet. The beautiful red cabin above is my oasis, nestled in a meadow of wildflowers, just at the edge of the woodland, a bit disheveled..OK…there are buckets all around to catch the drips when it rains…it is my land of sweet creative repose. My mind unwinds into dazzling sentences and the prose created while there, though lightly written, is unnoticeably heavy in deeper meanings and rich detail.  Or, maybe that’s my dream sequence and this is a photo from Lady Grace (click on “red cabin” to see more of her fabulousness) that she let me borrow and drool over as I patter away on my Chromebook, from the love-seat, in my family room, with an obese Golden Retriever hogging more than his share! Yes, space is my bugaboo.  Right now some of my best writing is done on a legal pad balanced on my knee under the steering wheel as I’m headed down the highway.

A little hint here…if you’re ever behind a grey Volvo on I-65, give it room!

4.  Support I could have easily called this community, feedback or cheerleaders. Don’t cringe. I know most of us who write are rather solitary by nature. We were the kids in the family who could entertain ourselves. But let me say this–Do not try to write in a vacuum! I know it sounds like you’ll have your ideas stolen and dreams quashed, but sidestep your shyness/anxiety/fear and join some sort of group to support you as you write! It could be as simple as a local genealogy club, a critique group, or a class series on creative writing. The blogging community is a great place to look for help too. For women (sorry guys) there’s a great group I belong to called The Story Circle Network. Having fellow writers (not relatives) critique your work and help you along the way is the best thing you will ever do as a writer. Doesn’t matter what your talent or experience level is…do it!

5.  Organization and Techno Savvy  It’s just a fact of our modern lives that we are busy, connected, constantly interrupted and short on time. To be serious about writing, you have to value the writing you do. I keep print outs of all of my submitted pieces, including blog posts and guest posts I do in binders separated by what they are. Some are Chapters for my book, some are short stories and essays, I even occasionally pop out an accidental poem. I keep a note on the printed page of where they are out for review, what the status is, and what my publication rights are, and what I was paid for it/ when it was rejected.  I have a big wall calendar too where I note submission deadlines and when mine was sent and how (electronic or mailed). But most importantly, everything I write gets saved in multiple ways. I copy all the docs onto Word, Google Docs, Google Drive, Drop Box, WordPress, and onto flash drives, and of course slip a hard copy into my handy dandy 3 ring binders.

6.  Accountability  Did I hear you mumble “Ouch!”? This is perhaps the biggest one of all…accountability. There’s an old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and I would add that the desk drawer is loaded with the empty pages we’ve never begun writing on! Writing can be quite self directed and introverted, and because of that…easily neglected. You must make it a priority in your day (you would be amazed at what you can get done in just 10 minutes with a kitchen timer ticking at you!). Accountability is also, across the board, mandatory in every one of the other 5 needs we’ve listed. You must set goals, share them with others, and be responsible for achieving them. Otherwise, your family history, your great american novel, your spy thriller, or your weight loss cook book will just pave the road…while you burn your favorite candle, sharpen those black pencils, and listen to Pandora.

Without “Accountability” I would loll around in my red cottage moving rain buckets and thinking about redecorating instead of tackling the book I’ve been assigned to review, the approaching column deadline, or the blog post I should care about. Let’s look at that cabin again ~ sigh…0171

Yep, I’m accountable to getting that too!

 

 

 

For the Love of What I’ll Never Have

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The most beautiful face in the world is the one I can only recognize across time

The most beautiful face in the world is the one I can only recognize across time

Today’s work is about what we have lost.  It’s a wish list of sorts, or maybe put another way, its a love letter to the ones we probably can’t have.  I don’t use real names in my posts to protect family privacy etc.  This photo is of my Grandmother a few generations back who immigrated from a small country in the Balkans. I refer to her in my blog posts as Grandma Urbanski.  I gave her this name because she lived and worked in the city (thus the Urban part of the name) and the” ski “just makes sense with the other surnames in the area.

I count her as one of my Lost because unfortunately, there is almost nothing of her left behind. Oh, I will never give up searching for more scraps of Grandma U, but the chances of finding anything more than her grave marker or this photo from her Naturalization Papers are pretty dim.

I am not ungrateful, having this photo alone is so very meaningful to me.  But, I wish that I could also see the face of her husband, of their 8 kids when they were young, or even another one of her.  The saddest part of this is that the artifacts of her life were not blown away in a storm or great calamity.

Her own children destroyed the entire contents of the house after Grandma and Grandpa Urbanski died.  Not out of dislike for them, but even worse it seems, out of the shame of them.

I know that they came here on a steamer ship, likely in the underbelly as 2nd or 3rd class passengers. They were young and newly married. How brave, adventurous and hopeful they must have been! They spoke no English and upon arrival and through the ends of their days they persisted in their “Old Country” ways.

What I would have found marvelous and fascinating about them, their own “first generation born here” children found insufferably humiliating.

These foreign born, huddled-masses parents who worked ceaselessly until the day they dropped were a complete embarrassment to their own children~the very ones they were working so hard for. I guess I would be angry at that generation of ungrateful offspring if it weren’t such a commonality across the board with all the “new Americans” and their children around that time.

Take some time today and write about who and what you feel is lost to your family.  Maybe it’s a story like mine. Maybe it is about the native tongue that you regret never learning. Perhaps you miss a certain food and don’t have any trace of the recipe. Or maybe you just miss your own Grandparents. Mine were all incredible and simply larger than life to me when I was a child. I was fortunate enough to know one of my Grandmothers, Gramcracker, well into my adulthood.  What an experience! To know her as a Grandma, and then, as an adult to know her heart as a woman.

I wish to know my lost Grandma “Urbanski” as well. I think she’s the one I’ll never give up on <3

 

 

 

How to: Maybe someone should write that down…the Prequel

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wpid-0918140950.jpgHere’s your chance to be the alpha super-hero to your future generations~~Now we all know family isn’t a competition…but who doesn’t want to win?

Recently, I’ve run into a couple of bloggers who are doing something cool. We’re talking about the “Mom” thing~ preserving family stories. These clever authors are doing it “as it happens,” starting with babyhood for their Grandbaby or own little one!

This is what I call a fabulous idea!

Dorian and her Mama are doing a bang-up job of documenting her little, adorable, wanna-smoosh-and-kiss-those-fleshy-baby-cheeks days!  Longtime blogger Locksands welcomed her new Grandbaby with a round of thoughts describing the world, and the day, and the people she was being born in to the arms of in contrast to her own years here. It was fabulous! What a terrific idea, certainly a way to go over and above the perfunctory “Baby’s 1st Year” book.

…Man, if they would have only invented blogging sooner…

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Here in “Mom-land” I have a long standing tradition (let’s count here…my oldest is now in the 22nd grade…yes…I’ve done it now for 23 years). Annually, on the first day of school, I’ve made my Sweeties stand in front of the same bush at the front of our house to have a photo taken. For the sake of identifying the grade level, they’ve been directed to hold up enough fingers to correspond with the grade they were about to start… that part didn’t always work.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kindergarten was a zero made to look like an “OK” sign. Freshman year of high school, we reverted back to one and worked our way back up to four for Senior year. As college started, again, the single finger for Freshman year and so on.

Siblings joined into and left the photo as they aged in and out of the school yard.

One summer we moved to a new house before school started. Along with the excitement of their new rooms, the kids thought they would also be gifted with an end to the annual ritual. Sorry kids, a new crop of photo-shrubs came with the new home!10613140_352181668262308_7817412307034460731_n

 Some years the kids were excited and compliant. Other years they were surly and down right grouchy. In many shots they seem to be cringing with embarrassment because cars were passing by on the street. 

“What if someone sees us?!” they growled into my camera.

 But, kid after kid–year after year–Mom won. I got my photo!

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My God Child’s parents came up with an exceptionally clever idea before she was born. Recently we all enjoyed the fruits their dedication at their daughter’s wedding. Brit was born on the 22nd of the month. Starting in the first moments of her arrival and continuing monthly then,on each subsequent 22nd through her second birthday they filmed her for a few minutes. With imperfect (some times they missed by a week or so) but amazing amount of diligence, they were able to select a quick little 15-30 second snippet of video showcasing who she was on that particular day and what she was doing.

Beyond her 2nd birthday party, they continued with small clips of each subsequent birthday, First Communion, Christmas mornings by the tree ringed knee deep in gifts etc.  Sort of like the bush in our “First day of school” photo shoots, their backdrops changed over the years. So did the video recording equipment and format. Eventually siblings started to appear in “cameos” on the “22nd” video clips– not to worry though, each of the younger brothers and sisters also had their own day of the month for “stardom.”

The real struggle to persevere for their parents was in the giant (and often expensive) leaps that technology took over the years. They had to constantly upgrade and transfer their precious moments from 8mm to Beta to VHS to digital and on to the “Cloud” and YouTube.

And, amazingly enough, they upheld their video documenting tradition through and after divorcing!

  At Brit’s wedding reception, seeing this near 30 year compilation roll by on a small screen in the corner was a huge treat. Certainly an awesome payoff for the proud in-house Paparazzi. My beautiful bride of a Goddaughter was truly moved. I don’t think she ever considered that Mom and Dad were constantly organizing and preserving all those silly films clips into a larger work.

What are you letting slip by? It’s never too early or late to start racking up the story fodder and amassing the data.

Ask yourself:

Would the “fam” be more eager to participate if they understood the method behind your madness?

*Could you begin work now on a top secret surprise masterpiece for a special day in their lives?

* How do you visually document and organize your clan?

*Are you keeping current with the technology needed to preserve all those “snaps”?

Perhaps most importantly–Do you suppose a day will dawn when I’m forced to rename my blog: “Maybe someone should hologram that…” ??????????????????????????????????????

Kill Your Darlings…figuratively of course

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...kill your darlings, darling

…kill your darlings, darling

On the heels of last week’s Naked in School post, lots of comments and commiseration erupted over crazy writing styles and public humiliations.

 While reading through all the fun responses, I kept thinking of a particular fellow who did a recent writing workshop with me. We’ll call him Bill. Nice, anonymous Bill.

He had oodles of fabulous stories that he (near desperately) wanted to get out of his head and onto paper. He had been divorced for many years now, was nearing retirement and really felt it was time to consider leaving some sort of legacy to future generations.  I sensed both guilt and nostalgia welling up and about to leak from the corner of his eye each time we spoke.

 Bill had a great career, was well liked and respected in his field. In his job, he was required to do a lot of writing. Granted, he had to perform his profession’s writing with great precision and succinct wording. Still, he knew his way around a paragraph and the basic mechanics of sentence structure. Writing family stories should have been a breeze for the guy.

Everything that he wanted to “write up” for his kids, the grandchildren, and those to come was just like everyone else’s stuff in the group. He wanted a good, enjoyable account of family and the events and remembrances of his early life. He yearned to convey the sort of stuff a parent would probably share with their offspring in the natural course of child rearing.

Some of it was of the cautionary tale genre that we are apt to share--do as I say, not as I did–but mostly it was about his life, growing up on a certain street with 8 brothers and sisters in a much gentler world than we live in today.

He wanted to tell them in a keepsake form, perhaps printed and beautifully bound, about their big German family, his loving mother, the funny but philandering dad who died when Bill was so young, the hi-jinx and capers of his teen years and the thrill he felt the first time he slow danced with a girl to an Elvis song.

But with each in-class writing prompt, something darker came forth and over shadowed the lighthearted tales. He told everyone he felt no simmering vendetta against his ex wife whom he had left to raise their children. All those years and that part of their lives was water under the bridge he insisted. They had parted and lived their lives. He freely admitted that she had done well by the children. He was generous in praising and crediting his ex for that. Just as quickly, Bill added that he had dutifully paid support for years without complaint and without ever being one minute late.

Bill chuckled when he went on to say that after many years apart he had made peace with the different parenting styles that he and his ex had embraced. He was pretty sure that was the deal breaker in their marriage. For his part, Bill felt fully comfortable stopping for a drink or two at the Club after a long day of work.  “Mrs Bill” on the other hand was not amused when family dinners consistently culminated with dad face down on his plate and reeking of bourbon.  One day, she loudly announced that she had a different vision for marriage, child rearing and table etiquette in general.

She threw his stuff out onto the porch and had him served with divorce papers the next week at his office

In finding the words his pencil was lost at every turn. There was so much to be said, so many years to make up for, and an awful lot he was driven to explain away. That’s what stopped him. The explanations. Each piece he started to write suddenly became a diatribe explaining his actions (or absences) in his children’s lives for so long.  In each piece he wrote he allowed in a seeping stain of his darlings, the topics that he came circling around to time and again. No matter where he started, the excuses soon jumped into the picture, jarring the story and destroying the mood of his good writing.

 No matter how hard he tried, his reasoning and excuses for why he wasn’t there to tell these tales when they would have mattered was the story he kept telling and couldn’t stand clear of

Before a son’s first crush, before a daughter’s first kiss, before selecting a college, before enlisting with a recruiter because of a broken heart; these things he began writing down would have, could have made a difference. Poor Bill was busily getting nowhere while working himself to death trying to write two books at the same time without realizing it. The painful guilt ached through him. When he wrote he felt a long buried sadness from all the missed moments with his own children. What tore at his heart couldn’t be smoothed away by telling simple boyhood stories. The result was always a mishmash of thoughts that started on a fresh road and ended by crashing into the same-head-on-a-dinner-plate.

 Finally I jumped the Mom-curb offering a suggestion

“Hey, if you want to write family history and boyhood stories, do it. It’s a great idea and I’m sure someone will appreciate it. But maybe you have start by chopping out all the other stuff and writing it separately. Even if it’s as a memoir to not be looked at by anyone else ever, this stuff has to get out of your way. As it stands now, your plate is too crowded. It’s a mess. You’re serving up Spaghetti with Sushi. Either start with a story about the favorite fishing holes the guys in your neighborhood went to and finish it, or, talk exclusively about how you started drinking and what it did to your life, but don’t try to tell an adult story in the middle of a book about Sally, Dick and Jane. You have to kill your darlings, not everyone fits into the same boat. You’ll sink it.”

 Bill looked at me as if I’d just suggested that he skip the whole writing idea and axe murder his children instead. I went on to explain that it’s actually an old writer’s axiom attributable to William Faulkner when he famously said “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

That’s called editing. Weeding out what doesn’t belong. Some “stuff” just doesn’t fit no matter how much it moves you, thrills you, obsesses you. Just like a garden, there’s room for weeds, but it doesn’t mean they’re desirable. Given space where they don’t belong, weeds will quickly get crowded and messy. Once the weeds infiltrate, you’ll never get what you want out of the “good” plants. What doesn’t belong will suck up all the sunshine and rainwater.

I’ve been guilty of this a ba-jillion times in my own writing. I’ll fall in love with a certain word, phrase or side note and just go crazy with it. I can even read a disjointed and confused chapter aloud and still love it because I’m in “darling” mode with the part that doesn’t belong.

But unlike Faulkner I’m a Mom and so I am sympathetic to the darlings who get “cut from the team.”  I save mine, in a folder, scribbled on the back of my checkbook, or on a special page I keep in my Google docs I call my “drops.” Occasionally I’ll visit them, the dropped darlings, and I’ll work them into their own essay, short story, chapter or blog post. After all, there has to be some reason I was so in love with, badgered by, drawn to, fascinated or haunted by these bits and pieces.

They probably aren’t as deep and substantial as Bill’s, but they are always worth a second look.

What do you think? Are there any darlings that are keeping you from working through your great stories, muddying the waters, or just plain stabbing you between the eyes? Which darling do you need to kill (or file away for later)?

 

Schmoozing and Boozing

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My, my…how fancy and devilish!

Schmoozing and Boozing

the Night Club my Grandparents owned

‘John Dillinger Drinks Here’ could be the subtitle on this old business card.  My Grandparents owned this bar, reportedly frequented by gangster John and his band of guys and their ‘Molls’ who were “Wild and Woolly and Full of Fleas.”


So who lives in your family tree?  Most of us don’t really have a famous relative, but you can bet that every branch has had a little brush with fame or scandalous rogues somewhere along the line! Think about that “one” story always itching to be retold. You know, the one that gets passed around the Thanksgiving Dinner table each year. Once the heavy carbohydrates and Turkey-tranquility begin to take effect, the stage is set for storytelling time. Waistbands get loosened, dessert is served with a second (or 5th) glass of wine. Guards are lowered and tongues start wagging…Have your pencil sharpened and in ready position!

 The movie star Frances Farmer used to come into my Aunt’s dry cleaning store. Imagine that–right here in the heartland of farm crops and auto racing. I wrote a bit about how Aunt Mitz did Movie Star cleaning and pressing in another post written about my Uncle Joe. Frances had her own whale of a tale in general. If you aren’t familiar with what this poor woman suffered in the wake of Hollywood glitz, read her biography. It’ll rival most nightmares Tinsel-Town could ever conjure.

And if it be nightmares you seek~ are there any connections between your family and a famous crime…

…or victim

or perpetrator…

…or unsolved “doing”

that went on near enough to your world giving you all the heebie-jeebies?

 A lot of my dad’s family was out working the carnival and county fair circuit with Sylvia Liken’s parents the summer the teen was brutally tortured to death by a woman they paid to watch over their daughter while they were working out-of-state.  Oh, and the real “kicker” if you aren’t familiar with the sad, sick tale was that Sylvia’s “caretaker” Gertrude also included  a bunch of the neighborhood kids in the crime. Gertrude invited them in to practice judo moves, do cigarette branding and urinate on the poor girl.

Moving Along…

Mr Penney (as in J. C. himself) once stepped in during a busy lunch time shopping rush and helped my aunt ring up customers.  When Steve McQueen was a kid he lived with his mom and grandparents around the corner from some of my kin.  And yes, John Dillinger hung out at and loved Granny Kate’s hot stew from her Wooden Shoe Tavern.

Abraham Lincoln and my Great Uncle Jimmy were law partners, or at least classmates in “lawyering school.”  Well, that’s how the story went for years until I started doing some math and blew that tall tale all the way to China. The truth can be a bitter, bitter pill for some. And of course, my husband’s birth-brood (along with every other old South family) is related to Daniel Boone AND Davy Crockett :)

Then there are the ones I haven’t chased down yet–Like our familial claim to Warwick Castle. Or the one about some sort of half Royal love child with Franz Josef Hapsburg, or maybe it was his heir Franz Ferdinand, you know, the guy with the whole Sarajevo/1st shot fired in WWI thing.

Why not shake up your Family Tree with a little something spicy and exciting? Take some time this week to recall the lore and to tell about the famous and the famous near-by. Those who you may claim as your own or those who may be mingled-in-with your ancestors can be a very juicy spit of a story. Big connection, made up, misinformed or one heck of a stretch, all of them are a thread in the tapestry of our own family story

 Maybe someone should write that down…

 

 

 

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