Are Ghosts Real?

There were only six of us sitting around the table at Books on Broad, a local bookstore, this morning. Four people had submitted work to be critiqued, and I erroneously assumed we would wrap up in two hours. Wrong. The official meeting lasted until noon, and then some of us adjourned to a local eatery for omelets and conversation. Death and religion were high on the list today. But I digress.

We talked business and then got down to the real business at hand–the work of critiquing and encouraging. I reminded everyone of the South Carolina Writers’ Association website and encouraged all to read “The Quill.” This month’s issue includes links to submission opportunities, information about the annual conference in October, and The Petigru Review. There was some discussion on where, when, and who—who  is going from our chapter, who is speaking at the conference, and who is judging the entries for The Petigru Review. Dubbed Petigru by many familiar with it, TPR is the association’s literary journal.

Business behind us for the time being, we critiqued the submissions in the order in which they were sent. Every critique group works a little differently, but we have until midnight on Monday to submit work for a Thursday morning meeting. Members print, read, and make comments on all submissions and come prepared to give constructive advice to fellow writers. Honestly, until I joined this group, I didn’t fully grasp the terms character development or show, don’t tell. Primarily a nonfiction writer, I still struggle with many aspects of writing fiction.

I learn something at every critique meeting, and today was no exception. I learned a newly coined word, thanaboite, by a logophile in the group. I was also reminded of how people are free to use regular words (whatever that means) in new ways. If a writer wants to describe an alarm as tart-sounding, that’s fine by me. A couple of us semi-argued against it, but the writer is going to leave it as it.  Familiar with Mark Twain’s, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning  bug and  lightening,” we all strive to find exactly the right word. Ecru or beige? Tart or sharp?

We want to get our facts accurate, too. This week we saw a revision for a piece about a ghost inhabiting the second floor of an old home. When first presented with this story a few weeks ago, some members got involved in dialogue that, in retrospect, is quite amusing.

“Do ghosts talk? Would the old woman really say something?”

“I don’t’ know about talking. They don’t eat…I know that”

“This is crazy, y’all. Everyone knows ghosts aren’t real.”

“Oh really? Well, don’t tell my aunt that because she’s heard one talking, throwing things, and causing all kinds of havoc!”

As a nonfiction writer, I’m amazed by what more creative writers can do. A few weeks ago, a story revealed a painter who discovered a ghost upstairs in an old family home. This week we learned that murder and mayhem likely occurred there. We also know where the home is, what it looks like, and some detail about the protagonist (age, career, and financial status). In another story, the writer fleshed out a tale of marital discord and in another, we learned of a a place and time unknown and unimaginable to me, a “just the facts, please” person.

As is usually the case, today I left the meeting amazed at the variety of stories, some that will stay stories, although more developed, and some that will become part of novels. Three stories left me feeling uptight.  I’m fearful for Zippy, Hope, and Merillee and will have to ponder their decisions and fates until next month. In the meantime, I’m reminding myself that these are not real people, but fictitious creations of my writer friends’ minds.

So tell me…are ghosts real? What kinds of questions has your writing group posed?

 

 

 

 

Posted in Camden Writers, critique groups, nonfiction, Uncategorized, writing, writing conferences, writing fiction, writing groups | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Kettle Corn and Fried Pies

 

It’s funny how a little taste of something can conjure up a memory. I just opened a canister of delicious kettle corn that I bought nine days ago, and the rich caramel smell of the sweet and salty mix forced me to grab a handful. While not as crunchy or hot as it was last Saturday, the corn was still mighty tasty. I scooped up another handful and remembered the day one of my daughters, my sister and her daughter, and I headed for the mountains of North Carolina to check out the Vintage Market Days in Fletcher, a town outside of Asheville.

At the show, we oohed and aahed at the variety of merchandise available. From jewelry and clothing to furniture and repurposed barn doors, creativity abounded. The two large tents and the building were all crowded, yes. And we got jostled about in the crowd and separated from one another, yes. Several times. Still, the evidence of so many different interests and talents was mind boggling and well worth waiting in line to see.

I’ve heard that there are no uninteresting people, just disinterested ones. Fascinating people surrounded us. Some were artists, entrepreneurs, and vendors; others were shoppers like us, agog at the sights and sounds. One shopper was wearing a “Raised by Wolves” t-shirt that Elizabeth and I found unique, and we asked where she found it. “Look online,” she said, laughing while her mother rolled her eyes.

Intrigued by some of the displays, I asked questions of a few vendors. I chatted with two artsy gals to find out the what, why, and when of their jewelry making business. Turns out they had worked together at a dental office, and although they liked the work well enough, they longed for more. Life was ticking by and they yearned for adventure and freedom from the structure of a 9 to 5 workday.

The more the two talked, the more eager they were to leave the world of bridges and braces. At some point, they got exercise fever and thought maybe they’d run a marathon or two. Why not? One day, the friends followed Nike’s advice to “Just Do It.” The marathons didn’t work out so well, but the jewelry design and creation did.

After a couple of hours of browsing, the four of us decided to recharge our batteries with lunch and were soon enveloped in a carnival type atmosphere. Kiosks and food vendors lined one side of the exit, each stand with a long line in front. In order to have some variety, we each went to different vendors and bought kettle corn, chicken salad on a croissant, fried pies (peach and chocolate), chips, and lemonade.

Missions accomplished, we sat around a table in the hot sun, dazed by the crazy chaos of the noise and movement around us. We sipped lemonade, divvied up our food portions, and shared secrets. My sister, a math teacher, was in charge of equally dividing the food into quarters. She liked the fried chocolate pie so much that she kept a half for herself. Hmmm. She gave me her fourth of the peach pie to compensate, but….

Fortified by food, we made our final forays through the three structures and made our purchases, including bracelets from the former dental hygienists. Nine days later, I’m remembering the salty sweetness of kettle corn and the people who sold it. When I asked for a twist tie for my opened bag, they offered to “top it off with more hot corn.” That gesture, genuine and upbeat, was typical of the entire event.

I’m looking forward to the next Vintage Market Days event. Next time, I’m cutting the pies. 🙂

 

 

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Whose Candy Was It?

A variation on an old theme: there are always more beginners than enders in just about any enterprise worth pursuing. That’s on my mind this morning because of the challenge of writing the family history to the bitter end (at least the first edition) and the more recent challenge of getting back to this blog to chronicle the book’s progress.

Silly me. I thought people would be happy to have someone record the births, deaths, major events, stories, offspring, personality traits, and quirks of their ancestors. Some were and some weren’t. I persevered, realizing the need to be as accurate and unbiased and fair as possible. I followed the adage to do the least harm and included information that might be helpful to future generations without tarnishing the character or reputation of ancestors.

Below are some paragraphs from the first chapter that illustrate my feelings about pressing forward.

Although I didn’t really need further incentive to write a family history, it came. One day as I contemplated Ruth and Boaz and their place in the lineage of Jesus Christ, it occurred to me how important the compilers/translators of the Bible must have considered this to be. Not to mention Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Then there’s King David, Tamar, and Jesse.

We don’t need all the begats in the Old Testament to tell us the importance of genealogy, and yet it’s nice to have that confirmation. Recently I attempted reading the third chapter of Luke in the New Testament and got bogged down around verse 35. The first chapter of Matthew is enlightening, too.

The Bible is made even more fascinating because of story. Nearly half of the Old and New Testaments are narrative, the rest being discourse and poetry. Stories are powerful. Whether it’s Daniel and the lion’s den, Hannah and her promise to Eli, or Mary giving birth to the only begotten Son of God in a stable, stories convey messages in a way no other medium can. While the stories of my/our family might not be as important or far-reaching as those of the Bible, they’re our stories and thus have meaning and significance.

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Incidents and experiences involving all four offspring are included in the primary narrative. I’ve recorded my memories as accurately as possible from my perspective. Psychologists are clear about the inaccuracies of memory, especially episodic memory or personal memory. Although we may insist that this is what happened, experts say otherwise and insist that our personal memories are part fact and part fiction.

A perfect example of this concept rests in this black and white photo taken of Mike and me at the kitchen table in the house on Haile Street. He thinks I’m smiling because I sneaked a piece of “his” candy while his head was turned. I think the smile is one of delighted anticipation of tasting that sweet chocolate kiss.

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We bring our temperament, mood, experience, and perception into each moment, and we process and interpret them accordingly. When we retrieve them from our memory banks, past events are colored not only by our consciousness, mood, age, and mood but also by our state of mind at the time of recollection.

About that kiss photo and how people’s interpretations differ, I was the older sister, my brother’s playmate and fierce protector. Why would I take his candy?

What are some of your family memories, and what’s stopping you from sharing them?

Posted in ancestry, books, family histories, genealogy, Bible, memory, memoir, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Lighted Seasons

It’s one thing to get an idea and quite another to make it a reality. I wanted to compile information about my ancestry and put it into a family history, but how to do it was a mystery. Where was the information coming from? What was the best way to organize the narrative? Just how far back in my family’s history should I go? Would my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews care about Ida Brown Cunningham? Probably. But they’d be more curious about their grandparents.

I soon realized that thinking and rethinking my ideas was nothing more than procrastination, and I took Nike’s advice to “Just do it!” I started with what I knew and added tidbits of information as the work progressed. I went right to the sources who had the facts, figures, and stories—my aunts, one on my mother’s side and one on my father’s side. They were virtual founts of information.

I already knew when my great aunt Lillie was born and when she died. Same for her parents. I was saddened by her death and whelmed with compassion for the grief her parents must have suffered. But what did she die of? I never found the answer to that one, but I realized that niggling question was getting me off track and was something I could come back to later. Too, Lillie was just one person, and there were dozens and dozens of people I wanted to include.

But still…how to do it? During this time of indecision, a writer friend, Brenda Remmes, shared her book about her mother-in-law. Titled Emma, it was both a tribute and a history written about a strong young woman who was left raising three children after the death of her husband. Concerned that Emma’s grandchildren wouldn’t know anything about their resilient, hard-working, gutsy (her son Bill’s word) matriarch, Brenda wrote about both Emma’s and her husband’s lives and families and then moved seamlessly into another part of Emma’s life, the one including her progeny. Emma was the center, the heart, of the book.

One day I woke up knowing the focus, the pivot around which everything swirled, would be my parents—where they came from, where they went to school, and how they fit into their families. Both were the oldest children of their families although my father wasn’t the firstborn. He was born nearly two years after the death of an older brother, Nelson, whose life was taken at eighteen months by scarlet fever. My mother was the oldest of three daughters. There were ten years between her birth and that of her sister Jonnie, and birth order theories would see that gap as quite significant. It’s like starting a new family. She had attributes of both an only child and the oldest child—responsible, dependable, and mature.

The lightbulb of an idea grew brighter. I wanted to include what their childhoods, teen years, and adult lives were like; the decisions they made, including work, education, and child raising; what the world was like throughout their lives, from the Great Depression to the Clinton Era; their attributes, personalities, and advice. And I wanted to do it using the power of story without ignoring the “begats.” I solicited narratives from my siblings, and their stories are the icing on the cake (forgive the cliche), the sweet details that complete the work–at least the first edition.

John and Margie was my working title until I recalled a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a fugitive and a vagabond, a sojourner seeking signs. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die.” By the time I began revising “Family Changes,” a chapter describing graduations, moves, illnesses, and a death, I changed the title to Our Lighted Seasons: John and Margie.

 If you’re thinking of writing a family history or any other kind of book, just do it. Nothing can happen until you stop procrastinating.

Posted in ancestry, Annie Dillard, books, family history, Uncategorized, writing, writing projects | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey Honey

We’ve had several discussions about prefaces and introductions in our writing group. In the case of the family history, I chose to make the introduction part of the text and use it as the first chapter, “Setting the Stage.” For the preface, I told a story to indicate the reason for writing the history and illustrate the final nudge for putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.

Below is the story.

My father visited me in a dream on a cruise ship in Alaska.

Who am I? Where did I come from? Who are my people? Those questions haunted me for years, and writing a family history has provided some answers.

In September, 2015, my husband and I went to Alaska with two other couples, and some experiences there reinforced my longing to learn more about my roots, my ancestry. On at least two occasions while on excursions in AK, we heard presentations in which the speakers spoke of the importance of knowing your people.

The first presentation was by Carol Reid, a native Athabascan. By the time we arrived at Primrose Ridge, an expanse of alpine tundra in Denali National Park, we were getting a tad weary of getting on and off, on and off, the bus, but like good soldiers, we complied. No one was prepared for the treat in store for us. A petite gray-haired woman stood on a slight incline, poised to address us. With her long hair flowing behind her in the slight breeze, she shared the history and traditions of her people.

Until that afternoon, I hadn’t given much thought to the various Alaskan tribes and their languages and traditions. Carol opened my eyes, not only to her own culture and background but to my own as well. I looked at her face and saw the features of her ancestors. She reminded us of the importance of knowing your family as a means of better understanding yourself.

Carol cast a spell on all of us. Even the tough guys in the group were mesmerized by her words, gestures, and essence. After a moment’s hesitation, I walked over and asked if I could hug her. She smiled as if to say, “Of course,” and I took her up on her inviting expression. I told her that her words had touched my heart and asked if it would be okay to have a picture made with the three women in our party.

A few days later found us outside Ketchikan visiting the Saxman village. As a friend and I listened to the young man talk about his heritage as part of the Eagle clan, I was impressed with his pride and loyalty. “You have to understand your people and where you come from so that you can know who you are,” he said.

The morning after the Saxman village excursion, I awoke from a dream in which I was visited by my father who died in 1998. In the dream, there were tables and people in a large room, and I felt like we were in a school—perhaps the middle school where my daughter Elizabeth worked. I stood at one of the tables busily going through a large box with files in it. Noise and commotion surrounded me.

As I stood rummaging through the box, I felt a presence on my right. I glanced in that direction and was surprised to see my father standing there looking at me, neither smiling nor frowning—just looking. His expression was one of love and peace rather than concern or sorrow. He appeared to be in his mid-40’s and still had black, wavy hair.

“Hey Daddy,” I said, resting my hands on top of the box.

“Hey Honey,” he replied, calm and composed. My sister and I were always called Honey, never Ann or Jayne.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I came to see you,” he said as nonchalantly as if we’d parted the day before.

When I woke up, I lay there trying to recall each nuance, sight, feeling, and sound so that I could recollect them later—always. He didn’t approach me to give me a fatherly hug (that wasn’t his nature), and I didn’t stop what I was doing to give him a big ole squeeze. Neither of us cried or demonstrated strong emotion. We simply looked at each other, secure in the knowledge that we were connected. He was “my people.”

Posted in Alaska, ancestry, books, family histories, memoir, self publishing, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darling Daughter Lillie

The next several blog posts will relate to a family history, Our Lighted Seasons, that I self-published with CreateSpace on Amazon. The history is not for distribution or sale…just family eyes at this point. Because many have asked about the experience from start to finish, I’m sharing parts of the long but worthwhile journey.

Sometimes it’s one little thing, an overheard phrase or a grandchild’s freckles, that sets a project in motion. Sometimes it’s several things going on in different people’s lives that suddenly converge and make people say, “Hey, let’s do this! Let’s put together a family history.”

My sister Ann told me about an insurance policy relating to her husband Allen’s mother’s death in 1999. Several queries about Allen’s aunts and uncles, specifically their birth and death dates, were problematic. Neither Allen nor his siblings knew when their aunts and uncles had died. As a consequence of this paucity of information, Ann and her husband decided it would be a good idea to begin gathering information about our family so that our children would know who was who.

My awakening interest in family history probably began the moment I stood in Racepath Cemetery outside of Ellenboro, NC and saw the names of my great grandparents, Avery Sidney and Minnie Laney Padgett, etched on a small tombstone. Their “darling daughter” Lillie lay there, and after learning of her short five-year life, I became increasingly interested in my/our heritage.

Stunned, I stood staring at Lillie’s gravesite for several seconds before calling my husband over. “Look, I think these people are my great grandparents,” pointing to the tombstones beside Lillie’s, “and this is their little girl.”

“You don’t know if they’re your grandparents or not?”

“I know it’s them. Those are their names…but no one ever mentioned a daughter.”

He shook his head and sauntered off to explore other names and dates, and after a few minutes, so did I. But I couldn’t shake the thought of “darling Lillie,” a five-year-old child whose life had been cut short, probably by disease. Smallpox? Scarlet fever? Would I ever know?

And what about my great grandmother and grandfather? It was three years after Lillie’s death before they had another child. As a mother and grandmother, I felt a renewed kinship and empathy with Minnie Laney Padgett. Was she a spiritual person whose faith gave her strength and solace? Did she have friends in whom she could confide? Sensing that “work is therapy,” did she throw herself into what must have been laborious work in that day and time? I was sympathetic towards my great grandfather, too, but for reasons I can’t explain, my heart ached for Minnie.

Leaving Sidney, Minnie, and Lillie for a few minutes, I carefully walked between graves, discovering other family names, and found myself pondering the connections between all of them…and me. Who was Jehu? A cousin? 

Sweltering heat from the hot July sun told us it was time to leave. We made our way back to Lillie’s tombstone for one last look and headed for the car and its air-conditioned comfort. Within seconds, I phoned Aunt Polly, and pounded her with questions. Since she would have been Lillie’s niece, I knew she’d have the answers I sought. But no. Polly knew there had been “a child,” but gender, age, name, and length of life were unknown.

I hung up, knowing that it was high time to do a little exploring. “A little child shall lead them.” Isaiah 11:6. In this case it was Lillie, a great aunt whose existence had been unknown to me until that hot summer afternoon.

Posted in ancestry, family histories, memoir, self publishing, story telling, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Going Nuts 4

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Cousins, Siblings, and Grandparents

I’ve missed blogging. For months, I’ve been consumed with writing, revising, editing, re-revising, formatting, and uploading a family history. About twelve hours ago I uploaded the final version to Amazon’s CreateSpace. At least, I hope it’s the final version. There have been several.

To keep the documents and uploads straight, I began naming the versions something besides the book title, Our Lighted Seasons. Names included Getting Closer, Feeling Optimistic, This Is It, Going Nuts, and Monday Beach. Each time, there was some little something not quite right that sent me back to the drawing board. Most of the time it was a formatting issue, but other times it was a simple typo or incorrect name. Whatever. It’s done now.

In case I forget to mention it later, the staff at CreateSpace is phenomenal. Regardless of the time a writer calls, someone is there to take the call and calmly and expertly walk and talk the person through a problem. They never snicker or sneer, not even when reading titles like “Going Nuts 4.” They work from settings all over the world and are available 24/7.

Later, I’ll share a little about the writing process, how an aunt I never met planted a seed and literally took over my life until I put fingers to keyboard and pretty much kept them there—except for the two weeks around Christmas when my Mac developed a virus and had to spend some time with the computer doc. The young technical specialist, evidently concerned about my near histrionics, took my hand and told me gently that it wasn’t what happens in life that matters but rather how we react to it. “You’ll get through this just fine. Believe me.”

I didn’t tell him I had taught psychology for more years than he’d been walking the earth but that sometimes application is harder than knowledge.

Before writing the history, there was a moderate amount of field work, too—visiting cemeteries, asking questions, reading books and articles, and even visiting some old stomping grounds of ancestors. Gathering information was so enjoyable that I figuratively help up a sign in my mind that said STOP. That was easier said than done.

Even after months of organizing and writing the draft (second or third or fourth), I still received information from others, some of it too good to postpone until the second edition. I didn’t know that one of my great grandfathers had served in the state legislature! Nor was I aware that some information about my forebears came from a document titled “Protestant Immigrants.” And then there was that little detail about a great grandmother shooting chickens from her front porch for lunch.

But once the history was organized into sections and chapters, adding additional stories, pictures, and dates was a matter of squeezing them in…and I do mean squeezing. After placing photos and formatting sections, it’s difficult to add even one word without a page going catawampus. One minute there’s a pretty page with a family photograph positioned in the top left-hand corner, and the next moment the picture has gone AWOL, and half the page is blank. The undo symbol and I became buddies.

So now I’m waiting as patiently as possible. That’s not easy for me. I learned that one of my grandmothers wasn’t that patient either. When she wanted something done, she wanted it done yesterday! DNA at work? It’s possible. After all, she contributed one-fourth of who I am.

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Finish It

I’ve been stealing moments here and there to work on a family history, a project that I embraced wholeheartedly about a year and a half ago. Hmmm. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I embraced the idea of putting such a document together, complete with correct birth, marriage, and death dates and interesting stories about my ancestors.

But then the going got rough. Life interfered, and I veered off the path a bit. As I neared the end of what I considered the major part of the narrative, chapters chronicling my parents’ lives, I was seized with the certainty that my siblings needed to get involved. I could handle the past, but I needed their assistance in sharing their memories of parents and grandparents and of their own post-college goings-on.

That’s going well. Almost too well. We keep thinking of things we want to add about our parents, stories that hint of their personalities, character, and devotion. I’m loving the recollections of bygone days that my siblings are contributing. My brother Mike wrote of one day when Daddy accompanied him to his third grade classroom—and spent the entire day. Although Mike claims not to know the reason for Daddy’s visit, we both suspect it had to do with my brother’s behavior.

As I pondered this story, I recalled a day when I was summoned to the principal’s office. As the door closed behind me, I was surprised to see my father sitting there with the principal and my Spanish teacher. The teacher had reported me for cheating on a test the rest of the class had taken the day before. She had “seen” me cheating, but how could that be? I didn’t even take the test! It gets worse.

Knowing I had been absent because of tonsillitis, Senora Keaton had given me permission to take the test a day or two later.  “Just sit in the lab while everyone else takes the test,” she had said. But she forgot. When asked to go through the test papers, naturally there wasn’t one with Juana’s name on it. Throughout the “interview,” Daddy sat quietly observing and listening, ready to defend me if necessary but willing to allow some sort of discipline if I were guilty.

And Ann. I must add a story of my sister’s. When we were talking about my grandparents’ house on Haile Street, she told me the real truth and nothing but the truth about an incident that happened there around sixty years ago. I remember that she “fell” off the front porch and hit her head on the concrete. Blood was everywhere. Daddy took her to the ER a few blocks away, and Ann got a couple of stitches in her noggin.

When she and I discussed the incident, she said there was more to the story than that. Daddy had noticed her jumping off the porch and sensing the danger for such a young child, told her not to do it again. But surprisingly (to me), Ann did it anyway. She misjudged the edge of the concrete porch and BAM, her sweet little head slammed against the edge. She remembers being scared and comforted at the same time—scared because of all the blood and comforted because Daddy swooped her up in his arms and took her to the hospital.

Yesterday Ann told me she had thought of a couple of sweet stories about Mama. “Send them to me,” I said. “I’ll find a way to insert them.” Mike is going through photographs of ancestors. Will I add them? Yes, at least some of them.

So……I’m in the proofing, editing, and revising stage of the history, and at some point soon—very soon—we’ll have to stop adding memories and photographs. Tonight I’m rereading certain sections and asking if they’re good enough…or even necessary.

One if Neil Gaiman’s rules for writing comes to mind. “Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.”

Posted in books, family histories, memoir, nonfiction, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing life | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dribbles, Drabbles, and Flashes

 

I’ve wanted to write flash fiction since the first time I heard it mentioned. Problems were that (1) I’m not really a fiction writer and (2) no one could tell me exactly what flash fiction was. It was double trouble for me. And yet, there was this allure, this attraction to the genre that I couldn’t resist.

I asked around. And read blogs and articles about it. Some people said it like a short short story, always shorter than 750 words. Others said 500 words was the magic number. How, I wondered, could I work in plot, dialogue, character development, scene description, and the other elements I can’t remember into 500 words?

Still, the thought of writing a flash fiction piece dangled before me like the proverbial carrot before the donkey.

At the South Carolina Writers’ Association’s Big Dream Conference Writing Conference a couple of weekends ago, I was enlightened and encouraged—enlightened because I learned what flash fiction is and is not and encouraged because I think I can do it. Like the little train, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.

Luke Whisnant (first person on the left), author of  Down in the Flood and Watching TV with the Red Chinese, gave an excellent overview of flash fiction, including examples from literature. He began by saying there were exceptions to everything he says. I liked that about him right away. I mean, really, is there anything that’s absolutely absolute? I know people who debate the Oxford comma, whether internal dialogue should be italicized or placed in quotation marks, and whether exclamation marks should be banned entirely.

According to my notes copied fast and furiously from Professor Whisnant’s powerpoint and oral presentations, it’s a misconception to think a flash fiction piece is just a very short story. A short story is a character based narrative about a unique event, resulting in change. It has a plot, characters, a recognizable setting, and an arc. That can be daunting to think about. All that and an arc too? And believable dialogue?

Flashes (great word) are too short to have character development or plot. There’s not always a well-developed setting. Nor is there a change or epiphany in the character, at least not always. Naturally, there are many exceptions. I’m sitting up straight and thinking maybe.

 So what is flash fiction? What are its elements?

  • A flash story has a theme-controlling idea or concept, a unifying idea.
  • There might be an emphasis on form or language, thus making some flashes more like poems than short stories.
  • A piece of flash fiction is like an “art object made out of longing, and the language is arranged in paragraphs, not lines.”
  • There’s not a difference between prose poetry and flash.
  • Using artistic language is fine in this genre. Simile, metaphor, patterns (triplets), alliteration, and other effects of elegant variation are examples.

There’s more, but I’ll save that for another post. Right now I want to see if I can write a drabble (exactly 100 words) or a dribble (50 word story) without a plot or an arc.

Posted in books, flash fiction, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing conferences, writing fiction, writing tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You’ve Got the Magic

I should be working on my classes. I used to tell my children (still do), “We work and then we play.” But then, sometimes I remember Jack and Jill and fall back on another favorite platitude: “All work and all play make Jayne a dull girl.”

All that to say I’m taking a break from reading assignments about gender differences in communication to share a few notes from this weekend’s Big Dream Conference. Held in Pawleys Island, SC, the three-day event was so informative and inspirational that my head is still abuzz with the things I want to write, revise, and experiment with.

At The Petigru Review launch party Friday night, the keynote speaker, Peter Steinberg, set the tone for the next two days. Although I didn’t intend to take notes, I soon found myself fumbling through my conference bag for a pen and notebook. Every word he spoke was enlightening for this novice, but I’m going to mention only three points this morning. And yes, novice is the correct word to describe how I felt after exposure to so many different poets, writers, agents, and editors this weekend.

  1. Every page needs to be as good as the page before and after it. That might not resound with you right away, but think about it. How many times have you heard someone say something like, “It was slow going in the beginning, but then it picked up.”? (not sure about the correct punctuation there and am too preoccupied to investigate it)  A story, poem, article, story, or book should pull the reader in right away and keep her there. Incidentally, Peter wasn’t the only presenter who mentioned this sterling advice during the conference.
  2. Write, rewrite, and then rewrite some more. Admittedly, my personal acquaintanceship with writers is limited, but all of them stress this point. One friend says she’s a slow writer. Translation: “I realize the importance of every word and turn of phrase, and getting my story into the minds and hearts of readers is paramount.” A couple of speakers recommended putting the work away for a few days, weeks, or even months between revisions, sage advice that I’ve heard many times.
  3. Be a voracious reader. Put another way, be a voracious reader even while you’re working on a project. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. It’s that simple,” wrote Stephen King. I’ve always known this at some level, but until attending conferences I didn’t realize that it wasn’t enough to simply read. I had to study too. Sentence construction and variation, scene description, and language usage are all there to observe and absorb.

Do I feel daunted by all I learned this weekend, not only by the agents and editors but also by the 100+ attendees who have different voices and stories? Not really. Encouraged, yes. King also advises writers and would-be writers that “the magic is in you.”

It’s time to take a break from working and writing. It’s time to read, and I think I’ll start with a recent issue of “Poets and Writers,” a publication recommended by a couple of people on a panel yesterday. Then again, I’m looking at a stack of books I recently purchased at a Friends of the Library sale, and one in particular is calling my name.

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