Read This if You Want to Become a Novelist

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Many of you enjoyed and have sent little notes to me about the Francine Prose book Reading Like a Writer I reviewed. Well, in that spirit, here’s my other all-time favorite, On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner which I’ve also reviewed for my part-time reviewer gig at CatholicFiction.net and Tuscany Press. This is another nugget of gold for your bookshelf! Read on, then read the real book, and better writing is a sure bet!

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Here it is. With the definitive line at last drawn in the sand, we can know the truth. The real talents, tricks and learned abilities that absolutely separate the hobbiest from the serious writer.  Admittedly, I hesitate to describe On Becoming a Novelist in this tone. It sounds either rather snarky, really mean or sarcastic. But in truth, the description is apt for the contents of this book. Gardner himself was a prolific author, educator, and curmudgeonous guardian of art expressed via perfectly selected words. He dissects the work of “noveling” like a scientist dismantling an important new insect. He wants us to know what makes a story written as marks onto paper into what he refers to as a “fictive dream.”

I love that description; a story as a fictive dream. Indeed, the best told tales are always enchanting and nearly magical to experience. Each time a written scene draws us into it, we become a part of the book and author’s own trance of imagery. We are transported, and when the writing is right, the spell wraps around each person who cracks open the fresh new book and settles in to be transported in place.

The first time I read John Gardner’s book, I was flying in criss-crosses around the country trying to get from Asheville, North Carolina to Indianapolis. With nothing even resembling a direct flight available, I had plenty of time onboard and during layovers to read the entire contents of On Becoming… I have to say that I was fascinated and found myself scribbling notes on the over leafs, in the margins and circling large blocks of text. After nearly twelve hours, four separate airports and too many chatty seatmates, I decided that I needed to set the book aside and reread it when the pleasant distraction from travel trauma wouldn’t cloud my opinion.

Round two proved to be just as fascinating and worthwhile. More notes were taken and by the end of my second reading, I found I was just as impressed as I was originally. I was glad on both readings that I had taken care to read the foreword written by Gardner’s student Raymond Carver and the author’s preface. Generally, I skip these long winded, boring Oscar Award-style thank you notes. But for some reason, I opened the book at Foreword page “i” and read the entire preamble (both foreword and preface). In a book that weighs in at a scant 150 pages, the more than one dozen pages written before the “book” starts are a surprisingly worthwhile portion.

Published posthumously in 1983 by the writer’s estate, one year after his passing, the Library of Congress indexes it perfectly.

1. Fiction–Authorship–Vocational guidance.

Gardner gathered his thoughts into four headings.  Parts 1 (The Writer’s Nature) and 4 (Faith) hold my attention like a vise grip every time I read them. The middle sections include, naturally, Part 2 (The Writer’s Training and Education) followed by Part 3’s description of “Publication and Survival.” Did I mention that this guy both knows his stuff, and is hilarious too? On page 46, the author talks about people who press and pry and how a writer can respond to such muse battering inquisitions:

The development of fully competent technique calls for further psychological armor. If a writer learns his craft slowly and carefully, laboriously strengthening his style, not publishing too fast, people may begin to look at the writer aslant and ask suspiciously, “And what do you do?” meaning: “How come you sit around all the time? How come your dog’s so thin?” Here the virtue of childishness is helpful–the writer’s tendency to cry, especially when drunk, a trick that makes persecutors quit.  If the pressure grows intense, the oral and anal fixations swing into action: one relieves pressure by chewing things, chattering mindlessly, or straightening and restraightening one’s clothes.

This is fully representative of the writer’s wry style. He proclaims the things that are often thought but not said aloud during polite conversation. Things I will paraphrase here like “education can ruin a perfectly good writer” or “one must be damaged, but not too horrifically, to be an effective author” and “gin is sometimes what it takes to understand the essence of a character.” He makes mention several times of his own struggles with organized religion and whether or not he is cool enough, or dull enough to either bail out completely or whole heartedly jump back in. Throughout his own novels he writes extensively on early classic story themes such as the days of King Arthur and his noble guardians of the grail. In these, he shows a deep understanding of the lyricism and poetry originally funded and commissioned often by the Church. He uses many of these as inspiration for his written chronicles into the “fictive dream.”

I recommend this book highly to all aspiring writers and those who already find themselves flailing neck deep in lyrical prose passages and story arc. Although tongue-in-cheek at times, there are abundant kernels of wisdom. My only disappointment is that I was never fortunate enough to try my hand at enrolling and surviving one of his classes.

 

The Old Mare Knew the Way Home

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Image of Alabama and Market street stands circa 1912. Families who had "truck gardens" came here to sell their wares

Image of Alabama and Market street stands circa 1912. Families who had “truck gardens” came here to sell their wares

This is the perfect photo–the one I’ve waited on for many years–to help me tell one of the most heart wrenching stories in our family lore~

When one branch of my family arrived in Indianapolis, they took up the trade of “truck farming.” Truck farming meant generally anything you could grow or produce on a bit of land, and then take into the city to sell. Depending on one’s farming skills, acreage, connections–and time of year, one could buy or sell about anything from a stall along the street.

At times, beautifully crocheted lace work, wool yarns, eggs, honey, fish, baked items, seasonal produce, smoked hams, tobacco, even rags or “whittled” children’s toys were available for the asking.

The work was unceasing for these families. I would imagine that getting to Market Street and being able to stand back and take a breath seeing your stall ready for trading must have felt like a day off. The rest of the week was spent tending gardens and animals, preparing for market, the chores of family and daily living of course.

Until very recently, I never had a real photo of what the Truck Farm Market might look like. Then, by a fluke, I ran into the kindness of Darron Chadwick of the Chadwick Studios who lent me this image. When he posted the photo above to a “remember when” type of local webpage, I knew immediately what I was looking at pure gold for my storytelling.

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Grandma Marie and the Old Mare

     When I was enormously pregnant with our second child, there were some some scary moments. I remember my own grandmother, Gramcracker, looking at me as if she were watching someone else in those days. She visited more often than usual–as if she wanted to keep an extra close eye on me during that pregnancy. My husband and I had never told anyone about the near miscarriage. We didn’t want anyone else worrying.

One day in late July on the driveway as she was in her car preparing to leave, she rolled down the window to say goodbye. But instead of “goodbye” she said the oddest thing to me.

“You know, we’ve been worried about you.

You look so much like my Great Grandmother Marie. ” 

I dutifully lied, assuring her that I was fine, the baby was fine…insisting that everyone and everything was in fact “fine.”

Now, would you like to hear something a little eerie about what she said to me?

When Gramcracker said “we’ve been worried” she wasn’t speaking of her and my uncle who was her chauffeur and live-in caretaker.

Nor was she referring to conversations she’d had lately with other family members…well…not living ones.

Gramcracker was very “in-touch” as they say.

I guess I wasn’t creeped-out, because she had half raised me and I was quite accustomed to hearing such talk–I completely believed in it. Gramcracker could always see things deep beneath a surface that most folks never knew existed.

I went back into the air conditioned house, curled up on the sofa and thought to myself–

“Well crap, now she knows this pregnancy is a  fragile one, I really didn’t want to worry her.”

I never gave another thought to the second thing she’d said to me–about her Great Grandmother, Marie.

Of course, was not surprised that I looked like Grandma Marie! I looked like all the women on that side of the family.

What I didn’t account for was that special way Gramcracker saw things, most all things, in a way different from most people.

 Once Babykins was delivered, and both she and I were pronounced healthy, Gramcracker came to visit. She wanted to express her reasoning for gratitude and general feeling of relief that I’d “made it.” She very gentley unfolded the story of Grandma Marie with me as I listened, holding my perfect baby in my arms.

To this day, I wonder if what she told me about Grandma Marie accounts for my life-long tendency to panic if I feel too cold…

On Christmas Eve in 1904, Grandma Marie and Grandpa Paul were in the city with their oldest boys working at the Saturday Truck market. It was a busy day. Many vendors had purchased crates of oranges fresh off the trains coming up from the Mexican farmlands. Oranges were a favorite treat in a wealthy child’s Christmas Stocking. Business was good for everyone the day before Christmas. Even the bitter cold hadn’t slowed the sales. 

Grandma and Grandpa Paul’s younger children were home at their small farm on the fringe edge of the county. Under the care of an older sister Lizzy, the children were very busy with chores and tending the house. Late December weather is generally cruel in the Midwest. Since this year was unusually so, the children busily kept the stove stoked and frequently checked the water troughs in the barn to be sure they hadn’t frozen solid.

Around noon-time at the Market, Grandma Marie began feeling ill and looking pale. A small woman, but a hard worker, she was nearing the due date of their 8th child. While carrying this baby she seemed to get tired quicker than she had with previous pregnancies. Grandpa Paul told her to take the wagon and their reliable old mare home early. That way she could get out of the bitter cold and help Lizzy watch over the little ones. Grandpa and the sons would walk home or hitch a ride with some neighbors.

With everything arranged for the boys, her husband, and any unsold goods to get home safely, Marie finally agreed to leave early. She set off alone on the short five mile trip towards home. As she rode along the rutted and frozen stretch of the bumpy Old National Road (Route 40), she began feeling the familiar pains of labor. The intensity and quick on-set let her know there wasn’t much time. Knowing that the baby’s birth was imminent, she dropped the reigns and climbed into the back of the open wagon. She had little choice, but no worries about making it home. The horse was indeed an old and reliable mare who always found her way to the barn.

Marie didn’t make it back to the farm. She gave birth in the moving wagon to a tiny girl and instinctively tucked her under her clothes next to her warm skin; sheltering her baby from the cold.

When Lizzy and the young ones heard the mare’s familiar clip-clop coming up the frozen barn drive they were delighted the family had come home early. The children set the kettle on the wood stove and began heating up water for coffee and gathering bread and jam to tide the others over until dinner could be prepared.

After a few minutes of excitement, the children were puzzled that no one had come inside. When they peered out the back window, all they saw was the old mare standing patiently before the closed door of the barn. Her head bobbed up and down as she waited to be let in and unhitched from the empty looking wagon. There was no one else, only the driverless horse and wagon. After a few moments of trying to understand what was happening, Lizzy bundled up against the cold and approached the barn lot to investigate.

What the poor teen found was her mother, covered in blood, dead, in the back of the buckboard. On closer inspection she found the nearly frozen baby girl clinging to life on her mother’s chest. Lizzy called to the other children to run across the big field to get the neighbors. By the time the children returned with help, the baby had died too.

I sat there dumbstruck as I listened to my own Grandmother tell this story. I knew how Marie had died without hearing a medical explanation. Marie had suffered a placenta previa–the same condition that had threatened my own recent pregnancy. My Great, Great Grandmother had bled to death in that wagon–long before her body froze. She never had a chance.

Gramcracker didn’t have to tell me. I knew what had happened. The answer danced in the air, just as it had danced around me as Gramcracker watched over me through the long fretful weeks of that pregnancy.

And that was when I understood what she truly meant as she told me at the car window that I “looked” so much like her Great Grandma Marie.

Grandma Marie ~A woman who had died seven years before dear Gramcracker was born.

 The ground stayed rock hard the rest of that long winter. The temperatures and northerly winds kept everything frozen solid past Easter. The baby and Marie were covered in blankets and laid in a small shed near the barn until the earth finally give way to shovels in April. Then they were buried together, one wrapped tight against the other forever– the baby never named. Grandpa Paul never forgave himself for letting Marie out of his sight that day. He died about a year and a half later. Reportedly, he drank himself to death.    

 Now I’m the one who is so grateful, finally I got to write this story down…

*again, my heartfelt thanks to Darron Chadwick for allowing me to share this photo and thus finally feel I could share this story exactly as it needed to be told <3, what a true kindness from a stranger!

What to Wear to a Writers’ Conference?

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My Lucky Mary Poppins Boots

My Lucky Mary Poppins Boots

This one has been eating away at me, figuratively of course. In reality I am no smaller, seeming any slimmer, more willowy looking nor am I blissfully dropping sizes rapidly. In fact, whilst wringing my hands in worry, I have knocked back more than one box of each variety of Girl Scout Cookies–I HAD to buy them–Dollbaby was selling them.

Although there is no chance this quandary of “what to wear” will send me over the edge (let’s not digress), I just can’t believe that no one else frets about this! I have Google-searched my brains out and the things that pop immediately are things I consider no-brainers.

Q. What to wear to a Prom?  A. Formal

Q. What to wear to a friends’ wedding?  A. Don’t wear white or black and never look better than the bride

Q. What to wear to a funeral?  A. Black, black always works except for weddings

Q. What to wear to a murder?  A. Gloves and a Mustache–DUH!

Now of course, there are a few bloggers out there who have graciously tried to offer up helpful advice on the matter. Probably the biggest and most commonly proclaimed one is the selection and rather forcibly encouraged wearing of suitable footwear. Lots of walking and standing at these things they bark…except that doesn’t hold true at this one. Of course.

Besides, I am not walking in with my resume chock full of Catholic-related “works published” in sensible shoes. They’ll think I’m a Nun–until I open my mouth of course while having the misfortune of stubbing my toe as I fall into the classroom. 

Yes~ I can make a hell of an entrance!

This conference is a little different. It’s a one-day intensive for the Midwest Writer’s Workshop with only a handful of very specific, day-long offerings. These are held separately from the Mother-ship conference in late July so that anyone wanting to do the “intensives” can still participate in breakout sessions during the biggy later in the summer. Genius.

So why does it matter what I wear? Because I’ve signed up for the heart breaker…the Manuscript Review.

eek.

The workshop is indeed intense, and very limited (only 20 writers allowed in that one room to participate). We start at 9, end at 3 and eat our sack lunches at our desks. Shoes are not an issue. I’ve heard nothing of bathroom breaks.

All submissions (a full-page synopsis “Once Upon a Time” all the way through to “The End”) along with the polished and perfected double-spaced, Times New Roman 12pt first nine pages were due to the presenters weeks ago. They’ve had plenty of time to nit-pick, shred, gut and throw back their heads in a deep voiced jackal-laugh over each tiny misstep.

Nine measly pages. I can barely say hello to my dentist in 9 pages!

Here’s the kicker…I’m taking my baby…my NaNoWriMo project. You know, the one that consumed my life and brain for day upon day during last November! And the manuscript reviews are blind. Blind, in that, no one knows whose work is being shown and mauled and critiqued on the Smart-board. So no one has a spotlight shining over their head while they are beaten to a pulp alongside their masterpiece. Humane.

Except, my main character and me–well– we look an awful lot alike in the real world. It’s not a memoir, but parts of it are perhaps too true. And even though most of it is the stuff of complete and utter fiction, people who know me and have read excerpts swear that some of the most outlandish parts are the true parts!

So, should I be myself and sit comfortably with all my normal attire (and risk outing myself as the inspiration for the wildly unstable character up there on the class board)–or should I try to pick something neither my Protagonist nor I would ever choose? I have a feeling the latter would make me conspicuously squirmy and itchy!

I have a feeling it’s coming down to eeny-meeny-miny-mo in the morning…and my Mary Poppins boots :) . So I’ll keep ya posted–if I survive that is

#MWW15Saturday

A List of To-Dos for March

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this little cutie is from the image collections available on The Old Design Shop web page

This is not my favorite month.  Maybe its a wee bit’o jealousy because the only Irish in my family’s DNA runs through my husband’s side of the equation.  St Patrick’s Day has always been a fun day of green beer and sheepish pretense.

I’m not Irish, but kiss me or pinch me anyway!  I do have green eyes though…the better to be “pea green with envy” with my dear…

Perhaps my disdainful attitude toward March is more about the weather here in the heartland.  Good Lord what a ride!  I, like many Hoosiers, dream of retirement in the desert, any desert.  A place where the humidity level rarely flinches.  Here, my sinus cavity is under a constant state of attack with it’s little faucet running full on, then suddenly dried up to a painful pinching sensation, only to find a tortured relief in the post-nasal agony of the drip..drip..drip.  Yep, Indiana weather~ if you don’t like it ~ stick around for an hour, it’ll change.

Regardless of the snow, no snow, shorts and t-shirt weather and/or tornado laden skies outside, we Family Historians must push on.  For that end, I offer you a list of  To-Dos for March~

1.  Do something really nice for yourself this month~ begin a little achievement journal.  Nothing big and fancy (unless you just crave that kind of candy…I don’t judge).  This can be as simple as making a to-do list on your calendar at the beginning of the week, and then checking off the “done-did-its” as you go.  It’s a gift to give yourself.  Mark down exciting (to you) stuff that happens on that day:  Found cousin Dehlia’s Christmas card with her contact info under the sofa cushion…bonus…also cleared the underside of all sofa cushions!

During points of drought over the seeker’s field, these can be reviewed to help you re-inspire yourself..  RahRah Me!

2.  Start getting the kids involved.  This is a great time to plan and gather.  Spring break car travel-time looms, or being stuck at home with “bored” loved ones.  Instead of hiding inside your head, invite them to start their own spiffy project. Call in the cousins for support and reinforcement.   If you would like to see a shining example of what a kid’s book can look like click the link and visit Raelyn of Telling Family Tales…all her little book projects are fringed with magnificence.  You don’t have to be this elaborate, just drink it in for inspiration ~ http://tellingfamilytales.com/2013/03/04/when-he-was-young/

3.  Toward the end of the month, prepare and send out another “mailing” to let everyone know you are still working on this project (call it the “story of us” or something clever and inclusive).  Include a little crumb of “reactive bait” like a photo, or a couple of little questions (does anyone recall the name of the road Grandfather’s farm was on? Was it named? Was it always paved?). If you have been lucky enough to elicit a response or two from the last letter binge…build on it.  I find that others are kinda generous with sharing scans of photos, and that they love telling me about how much fun it was “digging through the dusty boxes with mum” but, they don’t really convey the meat of that to me~without direct and subtle inquiry :)

 Human nature…sigh!

So, I then start feeding back to them…hey, that pic of Granny and Harry, where do you think that was taken?  Do you know about when?  What the heck were they doing there in that place? Wonder who took the picture? That looks like the 60’s to me (when clearly it’s more like the 20’s…trust me on this one…try it!).

Then, it never hurts to throw in something utterly stupid (this is a great technique to get info…everyone loves “correcting” me). Ask a questions that you are sure you know the answer to ~

Say something really, profoundly, ignorant…”Did Harry have any bothers?”  This would be a good one if in fact, Harry comes from a brood of 10-12 assorted gender children, or was the younger brother of a famous prize-fighter, or was taken in as an infant or purchased from Gypsies (as my family generally insists about me)

Everyone loves to be right. Everyone likes to “school those fools who have it wrong.” So say your dumbest stuff, and listen to every little utterance that comes at you as fall-out. That’s YOUR pot o’ gold! Have fun with March where ever the weather and the “stupid questions” land you, and I hope you get kissed on St Paddy’s day too!

xoxo

Mom

ps…definately make sure that Someone writes this down!

Take Care What You Donate and to Whom

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Ancestors, locked away and held for ransom!

Ancestors, locked away and held for ransom!

My Ancestors, and perhaps many millions more of your own, are actively being held for ransom. Donating to a local Historical Society seems like a kind and generous act when you have finished scanning and scrutinizing photos and papers. BUT. Lately, I’ve been learning a tough lesson about handing over the “goods” to a big omnipotent archive.

Well of course I’ll elaborate…thanks for asking!

Remember 10 or 15 years ago when the digital imaging thingy was hotly debated and very new? I clearly recall telling my oldest daughter she couldn’t have a “camera phone” because I was sure they would be quickly outlawed. Copyright and plagiarism issues were the angst du’ jour.

Well, that didn’t happen. And now, I cannot imagine doing my job, any of them…without my smartphone. I use it more for photos than I use it for incoming/outgoing calls. It’s cheap. One micro SD card = a bazillion images stored. It’s immediate. The clarity of the photos is startling and WYSIWYG (blog-speak for “What You See Is What You Get) lets me know immediately whether or not the pic is good.

And this brings me to the digital scanners we dedicated family history hounds tow along in our purses and dity-bags.  The amount of light these wonders of the modern age expose delicate pieces of documentation to is minimal. They are relatively safe and will not markedly degrade the object. With our memory cards, once again we can store a bazillion images inexpensively. We can then upload the images and SHARE with loved ones. Or use them to head up blog articles (guilty :) )

Meanwhile, back to the real late 90’s and copyright infringement and book-snarfing via blatant acts of plagiarism like photographing each page for free ala a Boris and Natasha…

I went into our local climate controlled, nothing-allowed-in but a #2 pencil and a single sheet of standard notebook paper, air locked and hushed-if you-whispered image archive room. My mission for the day was to find a photo and perhaps some biographical info on my husband’s Granddad who was a big shot in banking. It was a really cool place with little self-serve lockers in the airlock where you could lock away all the stuff you weren’t allowed to bring in. That most certainly would include a camera–phone!

I dutifully used my #2 to request the file box that I wanted to see, and about 20 minutes later, was happily pawing through it elbow deep. Now, it seems the archive had been in possession of this box for about 20 some years. However, they had not gotten around to cataloging the specific contents. I had struck gold by devine intervention during a discerning round of eeny-meeny-miny-mo. I was only allowed one box at a time.

All the goodies were not delicately preserved in acid free sleeves– handled only with the long surgical steel tongs and white gloves I had imagined. Some warehouse guy heaved the box up the basement stairs and plopped the cardboard box on the austere table before me. “Dig in” he gruffly stated as he disappeared back through the “staff only” door to the stairwell.

After an hour or so, I found a couple of trade journal articles talking about BankerBilly with a press photo included. Elated, I filled out another form requesting a photo copy of these items. I forked over $2.25 (after being allowed to go back to my locker to bring back only my check book and driver’s license) and left. You see, there was about a two week turn around on photocopy requests. As guardians of the frail past, the archive had a strict standard for xeroxing anything. Each item was only allowed to be exposed to the copier “X” amount of times. After that, only a copy of a copy would be offered. The two week turn-around was necessary for the staff to research the number of times on record the same items had gone “through the light.” Respectable I thought, prudent of them.

In about 16 days, I had my copies in hand. Happiness.

Now let’s enter the digital age. How exciting. Everything is less adverse to the integrity of images, the work of a scanner is cheap, Memory cards and flash drives are rather universal to most scanners and results are immediate. Life is good.

Except. It’s expensive. Because there’s a ransom to be paid.

My local archive has done a real bang-up job in acquiring mounds of historic and familial documents. Still mostly uncatalogued, these items have been dropped at their feet by the bushel-full from institutions, families, and new owners of old homes with trunks full of goodies found in the attic. I would guess all of the donors felt like they were really doing a good deed. A public service–preserving history. Walking to the dumpster and giving this stuff the “heave-ho” isn’t illegal as far as I know. And although I would find such an act “unthinkable” it sure would be easier than driving the stuff downtown, dodging Hobos, and paying to park.

So several weeks ago, I went tootling down to the archive to order digital copies of several images I need for a book I’m working on. It’s a local history thing. It’s not going to hit the NYT top ten or rival John Grisham. Frankly, I am hoping for robust sales in order to break even on the hours of research etc. I brought new, clean, still in their packages sets of memory cards and a large flash drive. I purchased these thinking it would make the whole transaction less expensive ( I was looking for over 100 images) and one less step for the curating staff.

Imagine my shock to learn the “new” pricing structure. With the upgrade from copy machine to digital imaging, each image I wanted to take home would cost me $15. For that $15, I didn’t even get a lousy sheet of copier paper. Additionally, to publicly use any images in their holdings, a separate fee of $75 was imposed as a “use” fee. In short, those same images of Grandpa BankerBilly whose own last name was the property and birthright of my own children, would have cost me nearly $600 to walk out the door with that day! Back during the copy machine days, I was dinged for around $20 with postage.

Needless to say, I was stunned and a little more than just pissed off!

So before you haul a bunch of stuff to the mother-ship of your Historic Archives, I suggest doing a little bit of research first. What exactly is their policy for sharing and cataloging, and storage. Does it seem like they care? Is there another, smaller institution–even your local, small town library–who would like first dibs on this stuff?

Can it be deposited somewhere where it will be more than warehoused and shared at extortionist prices? Look for these places first. Please!

Bitter? Yes

Abhorred may be the more succinct description. How dare you hold my Grandpa-in-law hostage in a box in the basement on a warehouse shelf…unopened, ignored.

Maybe someone should write that down…

 

 

I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?

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How many times have we said this, written it on a card, spoken these words genuinely? Or conversely, been on the receiving end of these words as they are spoken to us?    What can I do to help?

While all is well with me and within my own house, at one time it was not. And now, there seems to be a startling rash of catastrophic diagnosis all around me, involving my friends, my family and others who I care deeply for.

In a departure from my norm, I am writing today about what are heart wrenching situations that are simply a part of living. There are moments when all that can be felt is helpless desperation– for those dear to us, as well as ourselves.

The year is still young but already I have attended too many funerals, heard news of too many devastating diagnosis, freak injuries, life changing illnesses and emergency surgeries. There are also instances of loss all around that are not so obvious–jobs, addictions, nasty divorces, financial devastation, ill treatment, and parental heartbreaks of every sort–both expected and unimaginable. There is, simply put, too much sadness going around. And when it’s close to us, if we can speak at all…we often say those words:

I’m so sorry. Let me know if you need anything. What can I do to help?

Let me pull up my pink soap box for a moment.When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2008, I needed a lot of help. I wanted a lot of things. But I was so overwhelmed by trying to make it through the next breath without crying, I didn’t have room in my head to think of what specific things I could ask for. Don’t get me wrong, hearing the above words from family and friends was much appreciated. I felt the genuine concern behind what they were saying and I was grateful for it. But I couldn’t respond. I was burning up every neuron I owned just trying to keep going in a forward direction. I was scared to death…not so much about what could happen to me, but about how much this was hurting my family right now.

There were the crazy things that only my heart knew. Like my wish to wake up as Dorothy had without the Ruby Slippers on my feet, realizing that none of it was real at all. I longed to be a 4 year old again, wrapped in the loving arms of my dear Gramcracker, covered in dog hair, wearing all the jewelry my hands could grab with black garden dirt under my nails from playing “dig to China” under the grape arbor.  And I desperately wanted to find relief from the nagging pain I couldn’t put aside as I ached for God to answer my list of questions that all began with “Why?”

Your head does crazy stuff to you. It demands you to give it the impossible, the ridiculous and the immediate gratification of “this” being only a cruel trick of the mind…a dream…a hallucination…a mistake.

It also straps a mask across your face and listens to all of the rah-rah encouragement, clings to the assuring words on cards, and holds a stiff upper lip to not scare others around us. Those closest to us are the ones we most want to protect from the horror show inside of us. We want to spare them from knowing how scared we feel, how little we trust, and how very angry and tortured we’re feeling.

And then there is the jealousy, and the guilt for all the feelings dancing around it. The friend standing before me, holding a lasagna and a handful of posies with a greeting card hand-picked for its uplifting verse doesn’t know shit about how I feel, or how dark every corner of my being feels. In that same moment I feel badly that I had the ingratitude to even let those kind of thoughts cross through my mind. Clearly, everything that isn’t already broken within me, is upside down. What a mess. What a pitiable, hurting mess I am.

With rare exception, we have all been there, or will be one day–whether as the one wounded or the one struggling to help. I would like to offer up a list of things that I wish I would have had the sense to ask for during those dark times. This comes from what I’ve learned to do for my friends who are hurting. I have the luxury of distance from my darkness- that luxurious distance is called “survival.” And what I learned from it is that the overwhelming sense of helplessness we feel when faced with death, dying, disaster or any true midnight of the soul, can only be eased by allowing others a chance to help us.

So Here’s Mom’s List, I hope it will help you when you find yourself sincerely wanting to help, but being without direction from your loved one, friend, or neighbor. And, if you are the one in need, please help another by asking to be helped in one of these ways. It is not weakness, it is a sign of dignity and strength. To those who are on the giving end, it is not a burden to help, it is a relief knowing there really is something real to be done to ease a loved one’s suffering during a terrible time.

If you are wanting to help, here are simple things that you can do~

As my friend, let me tell you my story. This is so important!  Processing this hurtful thing helps me heal it in my heart. It helps me to make peace with, if not sense of what is going on. As a family stands next to a casket in a receiving line, they speak the story of who they loved and knew in many different pieces. Undertakers and therapists have long known that this is an important step in the grief process. This repetitive talk therapy carries the buried grief out into the air from the places we want to hide it and pretend it’s not true.

This same talking helps cancer patients, their family members, victims of violence, returning troops, displaced workers, parents fighting their child’s self inflicted harm, death, mental illness or drug addiction…the list goes on. Everyone needs an outlet for their story. You don’t have to have answers, just compassion. You shouldn’t offer up knee jerk solutions or opinions, just hear what I have to say. Fight back your urge to say things like–“Oh, you mustn’t think like that, everything will be Okay.” Because I won’t believe it, the words are trite, and I won’t feel you are honoring my pain and fear–your good intentions will be useless. After listening, then hold these things in a pact of confidence if that is what is asked for. Gossip, exaggeration, blame-placing, doomsday predictions, opining what is not yours to have an opinion on is all very cruel.

Comfort and help my Loved ones. I am sick, but they are exhausted with worry. They spend sleepless nights, hours at my bedside, double up their workload to pick up what I can no-longer do. All while trying to stay proficient at their own job, or maintain their grades and get rides to where they need to be for activities. Listen to them, and try to find ways you can ease their burden. Bring them a hospital survival bag filled with the things that can make their life less miserable as they are camped at my bedside. Shuttle my kids. Pick up their cafeteria tab for the week at school, or deliver them a weeks’ worth of lunches packed up and ready to go. Give them wake up calls. Be sure the football pants get laundered, the mail comes in from the mailbox, and the pets have food and are cared for.

Offer to “be there” by temporarily adopting one of my kids or my spouse.  This one of course goes without saying…if the wife is ill, her husband should be “adopted” by a friend who is also a husband–and vice-versa. Don’t inadvertently add to my worries! Commit to calling or texting your adopted person every day. Check in with them.Get to know them, let them tell the story of how they’re feeling--how this is for them.

Be there for them by acting as the bridge between normal and what is happening. Trust me, they don’t have a tether to the ground right now. The rug beneath their feet has been jerked out from under them too.

Don’t let them miss anything they love because the person who is usually in that role can’t be there to remind them or accompany them to the game. Go to Target after school and get science fair poster boards.  Become the official driver my daughter’s volleyball practice, pick up my carpool, take my kid to lunch on Saturday, do homework with them, take them to the mall, ask about their day.

Perhaps the hardest one~ if I have passed–help my spouse by rounding up suits for the boys to wear to my services. They grow so fast. Don’t forget shoes. Check in with the girls too, but chances are, they’re in better shape clothing-wise. And if my spouse has nothing to wear, and is in no shape to go out in public, go shopping yourself with sizes in hand and buy three or four outfits for them to try on at home. Return what doesn’t work. If your budget won’t allow this, gather a group of wardrobe helpers together to divvy up the expenditures or final cost.

Do the quiet, unseen small things, and be specific about what your plan is. Remember, I am simply not able to “ask” because filling your very loving need to help just isn’t something I have the space in my heart or head for right now.Tell me to leave the back door open on Tuesday afternoons so I can stop by to run the vacuum and do your laundry. Or let me be in charge of changing trash bags and wheeling the garbage to the curb for the next day’s pick up. Maybe offer to scoop the litter box twice a week, take the dog for a run, or put his flea and tick medicine on monthly. Bring over your son’s football team to mulch the flower beds this spring. If you’re my neighbor, snow-blow my driveway or cut my grass without saying a word. Sneak over and put a fresh planter full of seasonal annuals on my front porch.

Go to the grocery, or through your own pantry and make up a bag full of the irritating-to-run-out-of stuff for daily living. Things like paper towels, trash bags, feminine products, chap stick, dish soap, TP, sandwich bags, coffee filters, Q-Tips, a Sudoku book or anything else that can sit quietly on the front porch without spoiling until someone comes home to take it inside.

Most importantly, don’t do more than one or two of these things yourself. Work in cooperation with others. Doing too much, even when it comes from the heart, seems invasive. Doing nothing makes you feel awful and helpless like you are standing on the sidelines wringing your quite capable hands. I don’t like feeling helpless and out of control–no matter on which side of the equation I’m currently sitting.

By writing this, I guess I hope a lot of things. I hope that it will be helpful if you use it. I hope that this list can spark some ideas tailored to your own unique situation. I hope it helps you to understand needing help, but not being able to pinpoint how or where. I hope you can print it off and hand it to your friends and family when you can’t speak these words by yourself. I hope you’ll step around your pride and allow others the comforting feeling of being able to do something helpful. I hope you can hand it to a loved one and ask them to kindly circle what would help them most.

But mostly, I hope you never need to use this list

xoxo~ Mom

Best Book on How to Become a Writer

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Lots of folks are out there selling the latest and greatest (usually written by them) books on How to Become a Great Writer. 

Personally, I have nothing against promoting your own work. In today’s cyber-spaced-out-twitterpedia market, it’s just what is demanded of authors. But before all this instant gratification culture hit us, there were writers who took it slow. Who did the deed deeply and with precision. These are the ones to follow and sit quietly studying if you truly want a shot at stardom.

Of course, that’s just Mom’s opinion :). And we all know how Moms are in general when it comes to having a thought about something–right. Just blatantly, unarguably, right.

If you are interested in peering in over the shoulder of many great writers, take a look at Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like a Writer.” My review of this “rocked my world” book follows. It was originally written for my gig as a reviewer at CatholicFiction.Net for Tuscany Press. If you want to write, buy this book, dog-ear it, go in deep, savor it and don’t spare the highlighter markings! I promise it will up your game, no matter whether you’re a wannabe, a beginner or a seasoned pro!

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In her book Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose sets out to explain the art of reading and enjoying words written by some of the world’s most gifted authors. In artfully dissecting great works piece by piece, Prose succeeds without lecturing.  In Reading like a Writer she uses sample passages by literary giants to teach her readers, while simultaneously demonstrating her love for the written word. The only part of this book that nearly caused me to knock it down to four stars from the deserved five, was the passage where she tells of her passion and enjoyment of diagramming sentences! Mercifully, this errant exaltation only lasts for a scant few sentences and then Prose is back to the beautifully told stories of and about the stories we love to read.

Anyone who loves books, read books, writes them or hoards them in tall stacks should own Reading like a Writer. The 300+ pages are crafted like a tour of a well curated library.  Each point made by Prose (whose ironic last name is quite telling) unfolds before the reader as a gift. At no time does this book feel like a required text for a tiresome Lit class.  Francine Prose herself is a gifted writer. She sets out to teach appreciation of the perfection laid onto pages for readers by the greatest of the great writers and succeeds fully.

Prose begins Chapter 1 by explaining the method and joys of “Close Reading.”  This is something I have never thought of or experienced.  Like most people, I am a casual reader. I am generally not “deep.”  I tend to read at face value, simply closing the book when the last page ends. “Close Reading” totally changed my approach to pleasure reading.  I pulled a couple of my favorite books down from the bookcase to “play along” as I read on.

Chapter 2 is about “Words.”  She teaches the reader to intimately consider each word chosen for a sentence. We learn here that one by one, the writer of substance discerns each word and asks if it is meaningful, meaty, or simply acting as a place holder.  I was on fire with the idea of the power of a single word given to or taken from a sentence. Back at my bookcase, into my personal manuscripts, the same questions and word scrutiny was happening alongside Francine’s coaching.  All the way through her book, Prose introduces and then thoroughly demonstrates her method for understanding and appreciating one narrow topic after another.

We are led through such chapters as “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” “Character,” “Dialogue,” “Details,” and “Gesture.”  Each part inspired another look back at my own beloved books and indeed, my own writing to make comparisons. Just as it seemed no other topic is possible to explore, Francine Prose walks right up to the lofty and learned principles of the author Chekhov in her chapter “Reading for Courage.” This chapter is one where the true God-given talent of the author is revealed between words.

While the head spins with happiness from the new enjoyment that one is able to extract from old favorites, Prose hits the reader with her personal recommendations.  This is a lengthy list of titles (117 but who is counting?) which she names as “Books to Be Read Immediately.”  A tall order?  Absolutely, considering that no fewer than five are tomes by Tolstoy.  However, being armed with these new insights imparted by Reading like a Writer I feel inspired and capable.  Those 117 books will all go on my bucket list alongside my well-worn copy of Francine Prose’s wonderful field guide to absorbing great writing!

What Samuel Johnson said so perfectly — “A writer only begins a book; a reader finishes it” — Francine Prose eloquently proves in Reading like a Writer.

When You’re Bored, Write Nothing

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Bleachers made from well worn boards at an indoor hockey rink

These boards have weathered it all over the years. Wish they could talk!

Yes, I said that. 

When boredom strikes, there just seems to be nothing sparky or interesting. So, it’s time for some Nothings.

Nothing writing is my way of resetting my brain. Maybe it’s a close cousin to Electric Shock Therapy. I’m not sure. Sometimes these exercises seem like torture, that’s for sure! So it may be a good idea to grab a sturdy stick to bite on before you try your hand at these…remember, you’ve been warned! 

The basic concept behind these creative mind games, is to do your normal thing (write) with some very abnormal restrictions in place. It’s sort of a board game for your ho-humming Muse.  Try one or all of these and see what tests you most. There are a number of them out there, but these three are my all time favorites. At times I get so frustrated by the “Nothings” my annoyance in itself is enough to relight the fire under my lethargic hiney.

Nothing I: Write a pyramid of sentences. This is an indefinate exercise. You decide when it ends. Simply start a story with a one word “sentence.” Your tale’s next sentence will be only 2 words. Guess what’s next? Yes, a 3 word     sentence. Sound easy? Give it a try. And remember, you’re writing a story     as this is going on! 

Shhh…

What the?

Who is there?

Did you hear that..

Let’s get out of here

Wait, who took  my car keys?

 

Are you an overachiever by nature? Make your pyramid story rhyme line by line!

Nothing II:  If bouncing your brain from the left to the right with counting and prose isn’t enough of a mental pickle to get your synapses firing, try the letters only brain assault. Write an essay. Title it with a word starting with the first letter of your first name. Now, the opening sentence of the piece         needs to start with a word that beginning with the next letter in the                 alphabet. Keep going from there, moving your way alphabetically through       the story until you have circled back around after writing 26 sentences.         For example, my essay would be titled with a “K” word and begin with an       “L” word, and the last sentence would start with a “J”word. 

Kicking

Lately, I’ve had a few run-ins with farm animals. Mainly cows and goats. No chickens or pigs have crossed my path. Of course there have been brushes with sheep as well….

For the overachiever faction, you can do the same exercise placing the “letter word” at the END of each of the 26 sentences.

Nothing III: Roll a pair of dice. The number that comes up is the number of                          sentences you will be writing in a paragraph.

                     Roll again for the number of paragraphs.

                     Roll one last time for the number of words you are allowed for                          each of the sentences you use. 

Give yourself bonus accolades if you can also work the number words in to each of these elements. This added challenge gives you practice with dimension for repetition, cadence and alliteration in your writing. Sounds pretty sexy doesn’t it? 

So next time you’re bored, write “Nothing” exercises. The simple little brain tricks behind them are fun, frustrating and sure to knock you back on track!

Let me know which you like best, and if you have any favorite boredom busters up your sleeve. Mom says it’s always polite to share!

It’s Not Where They’re Dead, It’s Where They’re Honored

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Where better to read Little Orphant Annie than atop his tomb from a bronze book  inscribed with the famous last lines

Where better to read Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie than atop his tomb from a bronze book inscribed with the famous last lines

Taking kids to a cemetery for the first time can be a tricky business. I always wanted mine to visit their ancestors and loved ones, and I didn’t want them to be terrified and jumpy while they were there. I’ve always tried to put the emphasis on the grave markers as a way that we honor people, rather than a way to mark where their bodies are now.

Recently, I decided that my 1st grade granddaughter (I like to refer to her as Doll-baby) was old enough to be intro’d to leaf viewing at the graveyard with Grandmama. So, last week over her Fall Break from school, I resurrected (sorry, there are just too many terrible puns to resist on this topic) an old tradition from when her mommy was small. We loaded up the car, the dog, and ourselves and headed to the old city neighborhood surrounding Crown Hill Cemetery.

We passed through the ornate brick and iron entrance gates and drove by the Victorian era mourning station. For what seems like miles, the larger than life (haha) winged angels, obelisks, fancy tombs and little cave-like crypts are lined up in rolling winding rows. They look like randomly placed sculptures set in an outdoor gallery. The bleached white marble seemed to glow against a backdrop of red and gold maples.

Crown Hill is a big place. Covering over 550 acres, and currently just short of a quarter of a million interned, the cemetery has 25 miles of paved roads within it’s gates. With no road signs and so much to look at, it is an easy place to get lost in. To find the way to our destination (the famous “Strawberry Hill”) we follow a white line discreetly painted along one of the of narrow lanes winding through the graveyard.

The hill is the absolute best place I know of in Indianapolis for fall color viewing. It is unofficially the highest point in the city. From here, the view of the downtown skyline and all the rest of the panoramic scenery is breathtaking.  And it ls from here that Mom begins her sneaky, slipped-in-before-they-notice-what’s-happening local history lesson. Doll-baby has expected to go trekking with crazy Grandma to see the pretty fall colors at the big city cemetery.

We are really there to soak up a little poetry and culture without getting spooked.

Here, scattered across the landscaped sections lie a US President, several “Veeps” all sorts of Senators and Ambassadors, a bunch of Union Generals, athletes, pillars of industry and society, gangsters (yep, over there that’s where ol’ John Dillenger is),the man who played Uncle Remus in Disney’s movie Song of the South, and even a Gypsy King and some race car drivers. It’s really quite the assortment at rest, eternally planted here together.

James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, Kurt Vonnegut and that “Fault in our Stars” kid Augustus Waters are all buried here in our local cemetery (well, not Augustus really, he’s just a fictional character). I, like many of the “old timers” of Central Indiana, often refer to Crown Hill Cemetery merely as “out at 38th Street” and usually call the most swanky and coveted section of Crown Hill “Strawberry Hill.”

True, we are headed up the marked lane to see the city from it’s highest point, but we are also going to visit and leave a little gift for Mr Riley. It’s a tradition whenever you scale Strawberry Hill. And though I am not creeped out by graves and burial grounds, I sure would never want to get that way by snubbing tradition!

220px-Mary_Allice_Smith, _c_1863Famous for his poem about goblins who would come and get misbehaving kids, Little Orphant Annie was a poem often read to children around Halloween– or bedtime when ill behavior warranted.

Crowning Strawberry Hill, James Whitcomb Riley’s tomb has the best spot available out of every inch available in all of the massive cemetery.

“Annie” was a real girl who worked as a housekeeper and sort of nanny to the Riley children. She is pictured here in this photo from 1885. When her father went off to fight in the Civil War, her mother had already been dead for many years. When he was killed in action, little Annie was orphaned (or “orphant” in Hoosier talk).  Her name in real life was actually Mary Alice, and the poem written about her was to be titled “Little Orphant Allie” but it was misread during typesetting and became famous instead as “Annie.”

Amazingly enough, Mary Alice wasn’t aware she was the inspiration for “Annie” for several years, or that James (or Jim as she knew him) had spent many years searching for her. He ran numerous ads in Indiana newspapers trying to find her and reconnect. In about 1915, just before his death, “Annie’s” daughter happened upon one of the advertisements and contacted him. You can read about it in Mary Allice’s obituary.

If you are unfamiliar, you can click on the poem’s title above if you’d like experience the sort of dark humor Mom was raised with. Those who are not at least partially fluent in “Hoosier” as a language will probably have a pretty tough time understanding the written words. So, for your convenience, enjoyment, and usage if you ever find yourself in need of a way to snap those pesky grandchildren in line…here’s an actual recording of Mr Riley, the old coot himself, reciting “Little Orphant Annie” around 1912.

220px-James_Whitcomb_Riley,_1913The recording is also a bit tough to understand between the accent and the poet’s age when the recording was made, and likely his general condition. It seems that JW was an enthusiastic imbiber. So maybe he sounds a little slurry because he was a little sloshed?

I do recall times in my own childhood when by chance or by well planned attack, our Grandparents would somehow end up with all 9 of us grandchildren for the weekend. Occasionally things got a bit rowdy. I have flashbacks to scenes of our Grandpa  (ol George the Methodist aka “The Dog Nab”) loudly reciting the lines of the Goblin poem in our direction. Then he would shew all of us, still white faced and breathless up the terrifying narrow stairway to our beds. In present times, this would probably be considered emotional abuse enough. However, the real abuse started when the snarling, howling gasps and whistling grunts started to waft up the steep stairwell as he slept denture-less and his snores crawled up from the master bedroom below us.

 Sweet Jesus! We were all sure goblins and werewolves roamed those hallways at night!

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We ended up having a wonderful and educational day. We gathered loose change up from the car and participated in the Riley Tomb tradition. Doll-baby thought that was really cool. Her class was always collecting soda tabs for “Riley.”

The tradition? Well it seems that although Mr Riley was widely known, well published and dearly loved by children and adults alike, he died completely broke. When the children of the city heard that their beloved spooky poem writing favorite was buried without a marker, they began coin drives until one could be purchased. Funds poured in from around the world and in 1922 the cornerstone was laid on the Riley Hospital for Children, in no small part funded by the coin drives of his young fans. Today, the Riley hospital is a beacon of hope for the sickest children from around the nation. And that’s why the tradition of leaving coins on his tomb lives on today, a hundred years after his passing. The grounds crew gather the money each day and deposit it into the Riley Children’s Fund. 

Maybe those ol Goblins did more good than they could ever know!

So Write Like It’s Your Job

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Write like it’s your job? Who’s job? Mine? Yours? Maybe it’s just L. Frank Baum’s job to entertain us all. In his short career, Baum wrote just under 60 novels, 83 short stories and a couple hundred poems. He did all this within a 25 year time span. He created new worlds, wrote about politics, women’s rights, and all kinds of socio-political topics using friendly little characters and totally manual typewriters. He foretold some pretty awesome inventions and changes in daily living while selling the heck out of all these kiddy books!

So, what keeps you from sitting before your spell-checking, no white-out needed, multiple tab opening keyboard to write down a little story about Uncle Roscoe and his prize winning Blue Tick Hound Dogs?

If you follow along on the Mom blog here, you’ll know that right now I’m deeply immersed in NaNoWriMo. If that means nothing to you, the quick description is this:

Every November for many years (about 15 I think…wiser NaNo’s please feel free to correct me) writers can commit, totally on a voluntary basis, to writing 50,000 words, over the course of 30 days, yeilding 1 rough manuscript with room for 0 excuses. It is the Hell-dive we call National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo  for short. So I’m doing that!

There are of course incentives for finishing early (like having a clear path through the house when all the relatives land expecting Turkey and all the fixins on November 28th!). To “Win” the NaNo, one simply completes the aforementioned task…get 50K semi-coherant words written down within 30 days. It’s a hoot. Or a form of self flagellation :) What I have learned from writing for many years with or without participating in the fall NaNo frolic is this…

In order to be successful, all you have to do is Write Like it’s Your Job!

I know, I know~ There’s that whole “life” and responsibilities thing. Well guess what? Try explaining that one to your boss and see how many buyers you get for the excuse you’re selling! If you want to write, need to write, feel it and believe it in your bones that you were born to write…you just have to make time to write. Or else no one, not even you, will ever know the difference.

How many blank sheets of paper go wanting and wasted by those who were meant to write the next great American novel? Who but you could give Alex Haley a run for his Roots? Nobody but you has walked in your moccasins Powhatan and Pocahontas, so get on that Memoir and let your story be known! Honor your own need to tell the stories, whether fact or fiction or fantastic vision or expose by taking control and managing yourself. Be the boss, look over your shoulder, reward a good day’s work, and don’t be too quick to forgive a lackluster performance or a string of uneventful and unnecessary “personal days.”

Is it a dry day? No way to start, nothing dazzling rearing it’s head, pushing your fingers to glide swiftly with flair across the cosmic keyboard?

Tough @#$%.

I like the old saying used in retail and restaurant work:

If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean!

If your day-job is that of a switchboard operator (do they still have those?) and you are scheduled and paid to work 8-5 Monday through Friday with one hour each day for lunch, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the phone rings. If and when it does, while you are clocked in, you better be chipper, proficient and professional when you respond to the chiming bell. Your dedication to writing needs to be revered in the same manner. On a day when nothing worth noting passes through your head to your empty pages, you need to side step the urge to “lean” and busy yourself with the opportunity to “clean.”

That’s the real life, real world, school of hard knocks truth of writing for any sort of long-term project. It has to have your full attention. You have to treat yourself like an employee, set expectations,  and work full speed to get the job done.

Any day where there is just not a word to say (and yes, those are real) is a day made for cleaning. Not literal–unless you make a pigsty of your work space–but cleaning up your prose. Do some edits, spend some time with Grammarly, catch up on your correspondence with distant cousins, seek out a nice map of the home town of your pilgrim forefathers, surf the web for museum collections of clothing common to a time period you’re working on. Re-read your stories and improve your sentence structure or descriptive word usage. Sort or scan photographs, do a little more research, go out to the closest family cemetery and walk around. Take some photos of former family homes, do some research on Aunt Zelda’s flatware that’s been handed down to you.

Like finding the base of your family heritage all the way back to the Garden of Eden, writing the story is a work with endless opportunities to be fuller, richer and more rewarding. 

Even if the only shift you can manage for your job as a writer is a scant 20 minutes per day, don’t squander the time with the equivalent of break-room chatter, laziness or habitual leaning like the perpetual “ne’r do well” (look that one up some day when there’s nothing to do). Use and cherish every opportune moment to get your Genealogy stories written and make them come dancing off the page.

Time spent writing stories down for those who come next is never wasted time or work unrewarded.

By the way, did you happen to notice someone missing on the photo above? I cannot seem to find my Lion finger puppet, he’s usually right here on the desk with the others. Maybe during my next break I’ll ask the dog…wpid-2014-11-04-12.31.55.jpg.jpeg

 

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!

 

 

 

What Hoosier Hysteria Looks Like

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Dateline 3/17/2015 In Indianapolis Indiana: The Canal has become bright green, the whole town is Irish for the day and we’re all chomping at the bit for a little Basketball!

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#whatitmeanstobeahoosierinmarch  ;)

Here’s what one of our largest hotels looks like in anticipation of the NCAA Final Four Event! Yes, that’s a giant graphic directly on the side of the Marriott, and yes, they are filling it in and keeping it up to date as the teams are seeded and eliminated. This is especially for Aunt Beulah~ because apparently images won’t post in comments on WordPress, and this just has to be seen to be believed!

*note~no, that is not the Indy 500 racetrack in the background, it’s the Parkway to the Zoo and some Museumy things in Indianapolis…including the NCAA national headquarters :)

 

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