Let It Go

One of my uncles had a vineyard and made his own wine. Who knew?

I don’t know the size of his vineyard or whether the wine was for sale to the public or strictly for private consumption. I do know that nieces and nephews weren’t allowed to tromp through the vineyard or to sample the grapes. My aunt told me this and other interesting factoids one afternoon this week. Curious, I asked her why he wouldn’t let them taste the grapes.

“I never asked. We just did as we were told and left them alone,” she said, and while I sat pondering the unquestioning obedience of children during that era, my aunt mentioned that he didn’t have any children. After about five seconds, she continued, “he lived down the road from Grandmother and Granddaddy, and his wife lived in town in a big two-story house.” 

“What? Wait. He was married?” I asked. 

“Uh-huh, and after he retired from the shipyard, he came back to Lancaster and just wanted to live out in the country away from noise and people. Hammers and horns and whistles got to him, I guess.”

My aunt is a virtual font of information about my mother’s side of the family. I wish I had asked her more questions when my siblings and I were putting together the family history. It’s not too late, of course. Well, it is and it isn’t. I’ve revised the book so many times that whatever people share with me now is going in a second edition—not only because it’s impossible to include every detail about one’s ancestors, but also because the current situation is constantly changing. 

Not all family history includes the current generation, but ours does. Babies are born; children graduate from high school or college (these days they even graduate from kindergarten); people marry, move, divorce, remarry, change jobs, retire. Our focus is on our parents, but we included information about two generations of our parents’ forbears and two generations of their posterity. Recently, I went back in to include the addition of a baby and realized that at least two of the younger set (my parents’ grandchildren) had changed jobs since the history was first published two years ago. 

Now I’m wondering if I should add the vineyard tidbit. But if I do that, then I’ll need to insert something a cousin told me about our grandmother. Sue and I were talking about riding with our grandparents to Forest City, NC when we were children. All I remember is sitting in the back seat feeling excited about going to see Aunt Doc and my grandmother’s other sister, Elmanae. Sue recollects our grandmother singing a hymn (can’t recall the name of it right now). Apparently, she really belted it out. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. My grandmother singing? Sue is probably thirteen years younger than I and had different experiences and perceptions. 

“Did Granddaddy sing, too?” I asked.

“Heavens no,” Sue replied with a grin.

Writing is a process. Whether it’s a sentence, a line of poetry, a short story, an article, or a book, writers are forever (that’s the word I feel right now) adding, revising, tweaking, and editing in order to make the work better, richer, or more interesting and informative.

But I’ve put the Our Lighted Seasons: John and Margie to rest. I’m taking Elsa’s advice to “let it go, let it go, let it go” and am simply collecting a file of new information and updates for the relative who’s willing to put together a second edition. Takers, anyone?

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Smoke on the Mountain

One of the many fun things my friend and I did on a recent trip to the Hendersonville and Flat Rock areas was see Smoke on the Mountain at the Flat Rock Playhouse. Let me amend that sentence  to “see and hear Smoke on the Mountain” because the musical was truly a rich sensory experience from the moment the preacher walked out on stage to the closing number when the cast regaled us with “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” 

The singing, signing (by June), and plot were all riveting. And yes, that’s a strong word…but a well-deserved one. The antics and actions of the cast kept me engaged the entire time (nearly two hours), and if I ever felt myself sort of relaxing into the performance, WHAM, something happened to make me sit up straight…and usually laugh. And sometimes clap or shake my head with incredulity. What just happened? I asked myself when the teenagers were whisked off the stage for a dressing down by the preacher and the “prodigal son” uncle went out the back door uttering a profanity. And all the scriptural citations were amazing…and sometimes they contradicted another one. Imagine that.

But here’s what I liked the best—the stories. The musical is about a family, the Sanders, who perform at a Baptist church in the mountains one Saturday night in 1938. At some time during the performance, each person gets to take center stage and tell a story or two. 

  • We learn that one of the twins, Dennis, doesn’t really want to be a minister after all. That might be his mother’s aspiration for him, though. In fact, she wrote his mini-sermon for the event, a fact he tosses out to the congregation. 
  • His twin sister, Denise, escaped all the way to Charlotte on a bus and tried out for a part in Gone with the Wind
  • June, the youngest sister who doesn’t get to sing, fired off two or three tales in rapid succession. 
  • Uncle Stanley shared a memory of a big, burly, gruff man who worked with him on the chain gang. Apparently, the prodigal served time in the penitentiary before returning to the bosom of his family. And that big burly man Stanley spoke of? Everyone knew to keep their distance from him…except for a sweet little girl who walked right over and got on his lap. She reached her small arms around his neck and gave him a hug. He cried at her tender gesture and confessed that he hadn’t been hugged since he was twelve years old. 

Other cast members share their stories, too. I’ve already given away too much of the plot. But not really. I’d see and hear it again in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, the company left Flat Rock for the next destination, so even if I see it again, it won’t be in that magical location in the North Carolina Mountains.

Their stories are our stories, stories all humans can relate to. Who hasn’t wanted to have a little adventure away from home or been moved by the touch of a child? Who hasn’t chafed under the dominance of a parent, fallen on hard times, or wanted to push the blue button that makes things happen (like June)? 

What I’m saying is that the music was phenomenal—both the voices of the cast and the sounds of the instruments. Beginning with Reverend Oglethorpe who walks on stage and plunks out a few notes of “Rock of Ages,” each performer was likable; we’ve all known friends or family like each of them. But again, what really cinched the deal for me were the stories. 

See Smoke on the Mountain if you get the chance. In the meantime, tell your stories. Chances are good that someone needs to hear them.

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Webs and Writing Groups

Sometimes the right words from the right person spoken in the right tone at the right time can make a whale of a difference in attitude, confidence, and motivation. 

In a phone conversation last week, an old friend said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you something for a while, and I keep forgetting.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” I asked, blithely walking along a tree-lined trail.

I paused to take some photographs of gossamer webs coating some fall leaves and heard her say, “Your writing has really improved.”

“What? Really? You mean that?”

“Of course, I mean it. You know I always speak the truth.”

“Oh my gosh. Thank you. That means a lot coming from you,” I said, staring off through the woods like I’d been struck by lightning. A former professor, this friend has done a lot more writing than I—and a lot more grading of it, too.

“I’ve been thinking of doing more than keeping a journal, but I’m not sure I want to join a group, not yet anyway. Seems like it’s worked for you,” she said.

“I ain’t lying. It was scary at first,” I admitted, ‘but I knew I’d never get any better if no one ever looked at my work and added their two cents’ worth.”

Here’s what I told her: 

I can’t say this enough: if you’re not part of a writing group, find one. Mine has helped me immeasurably. Even now I can hear someone asking, “Is immeasurably really the word you want to use?” But you know, even if someone asks me about a word, that doesn’t bother me, largely because I know they want me to succeed. And vice versa. Besides, because of my group’s hints, suggestions, and downright firm recommendations, I have learned things to do and things to avoid. For starters, I use more action verbs and try to avoid passive voice. 

The next time we talk, I’ll tell her that it’s important to have a good fit for her personality, genre, writing style, and purpose. In the meantime, I’m telling you.

Personality: There may be people who are abrasive and rude and people who want you to read their work but who give group members’ work a lick and a promise. And then, there might be someone who’s ultra-sensitive when someone points out the overuse of a word or a dangling participle. 

Genre: While not everyone likes cozy mysteries, memoirs, or poetry, most of the time you can work things out. Turnabout’s fair play, and if you want others to slog through the third or fourth revision of a memoir chapter, then you need to make an effort to return the favor and read their poetry. So far, we haven’t had a member in our group to submit child pornography or graphic violence, and if that happens, we’ll deal with it then. 

Writing style: Breezy, smooth, ponderous, dense, or what? Can you work with different styles, realizing that style and voice are related and that you too might have a few, er, issues?

Purpose: Some writers simply want to write for writing’s sake while others are bent on publication.

That was five days ago. Because of my friend’s generous words, I revised, edited, and tweaked a story and sent it to a magazine last night. She’s still thinking about joining a group, and later this month, we’re meeting to share tales, tips, and tablet notes (trying for a little alliteration).

What about you? Is there someone you could give a little nudge to? Has there been someone who bolstered your confidence? Is there something in your files that you could dust off and polish?

Posted in critique groups, editing, generative writing groups, memoir, stories, Uncategorized, writing groups, writing prompts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mattie and Ethan

Since our screened-in back porch has been changed into a sunroom, I can’t stay out of it. Before dawn, on and off throughout the day, and even at dusk (like now), I find myself coming out here to read, write, do schoolwork, watch the neighbor’s cat, look at the trees (pine, cedar, magnolia, river oak, and so forth). I can hear the cicadas and birds. One day three deer dashed between our property line and the neighbor’s. 

It’s a perfect setting. It lets me enjoy nature’s beauty without her fluctuating temperatures or windblown allergens.

That said, yesterday, I spent most of the day out here reading (rereading) Ethan Frome. “Why?” you may wonder. That’s the question my friend asked me with a quizzical look this afternoon. It’s hard to articulate why except to say that sometimes a book can affect a person so much that she can recollect not just the plot but also the emotions, environment, and hopelessness of the characters even after fifty years. Bear in mind that this is not a book I often think of unless someone mentions it specifically. And yet, Sunday an event took place that immediately brought Mattie Silver to mind. 

It happened at church—or rather on the way in to church. Head down and eyes glued to the iPhone screen, I didn’t see the high curb and ran right into it, tripping and beginning to fall on the concrete sidewalk. This can’t be happening, I thought, and tried to stop the process. It semi-worked, meaning that I didn’t end up immobile on the sidewalk. I was able to get in a crouching position that lessened the impact when I eventually “went down,” scraping palms, knees, and chin. My chin got the worst of the fall and began to bleed profusely. Fortunately, I was wearing a multicolored duster that camouflaged the blood. Embarrassed, weak, and a little dizzy, I walked into the building, down the hall, and into the restroom to do a little doctoring up. After a few dabs with a wet paper towel, I walked into the chapel where my daughter-in-law applied a Band-Aid.

All was well for a few minutes. Then my jaw began to ache. Next my neck felt stiff. That’s when the panic set in. A vision of Mattie Silver (Matt to Ethan) appeared in my mind’s eye. One moment in her life changed her into an invalid forever. Forever. What if I could no longer move my neck? What if my jawbone was not only bruised but broken? And what if my teeth fell out? Would Urgent Care be open when church was over?

I’m not an alarmist. I am, however, becoming increasingly aware of how one quick moment in a person’s life can change him or her evermore. I’m also increasingly aware of how literature, especially by the pen of someone like Edith Wharton, can affect someone’s thinking and feeling for years. As I told my friend today, I can’t imagine being able to write like Mrs. Wharton. Not to worry, she said. Only one in a million can do that. We were just chatting; there was nothing scientific about our numbers. 

What I’m trying to say is that literature counts. Words are powerful. Stories affect us and come unbidden into our minds even after decades. I’ll never be able to write like Edith Wharton, but does that matter? We all have stories to share that can help others to gain insight, feel inspiration, or get up and moving again.

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Faulkner’s Nancy

I joined a writing group several years ago and quickly saw that I was outnumbered. Everyone except me wrote poetry or fiction; some people wrote both. I read, enjoyed, and critiqued their submissions, and they read and critiqued mine. Hard to say whether they enjoyed them or not. I occasionally said things like, “I wish I could write fiction, but I just can’t.” Sometimes I’d switch it up a little and say, “If I had imaginations like you guys, I could write fiction, but I’m just not creative enough.” 

Their unanimous reply: yes, you can. With their encouragement and tutelage, I’m experimenting a little and have been fortunate enough to get some stories published. Buoyed by publication and hope, I want to walk down the fiction path a little further. I’m working on some ideas the group gave me to improve a story a couple of weeks ago: (1) embed the facts into the narrative instead of having them stuck there in textbook form. (2) give the protagonist a voice—or better yet, a backbone. She’s too subservient. 

Remembering the adage about good readers being good writers, I read (in some cases, reread) several short stories to see how the authors introduced the story, developed the plot, and described the characters (their appearance and personalities). Every story I read dealt with social injustice or some other universal theme without spelling it out. Everything was embedded. I can do this, I thought.

But then I read Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” and wondered Who do you think you’re kidding? You can’t do this. The man was a master. He wrote novels, screenplays, short stories, essays, and poetry. He also said, “Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t try to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” So I’m not comparing myself to someone like him or any other famous writer. I’m just trying to do better than myself.

Some say all human emotions can be narrowed down to varieties of sad, glad, mad, and scared. Naturally, this concept is more complex than it sounds on the surface. Ever thought of the degrees of sadness? Some people are sad because they that they don’t get to eat pizza, while others are so depressed that they feel it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Here’s a quote from a clinically depressed woman: “I felt like I was walking waist deep in mud every day.” It’s not my intention to go down that road. I just want to mention that Faulkner’s words evoked each of those emotions and their nuances except for glad in “That Evening Sun.” There’s nothing to be glad, happy, joyful, or even positive about in that story.

We feel the terror (scared) Nancy feels as she knows Jesus (her husband) is lying in wait to kill her; annoyance at Caddy’s mother who’s perturbed (anger) that her husband is actually going to leave her all alone to walk Nancy home; angry with Mr. Stovall who kicked Nancy in the mouth with his heel just because she asked him when he was going to pay her; and heavy sadness when she spat out blood and teeth. As mentioned above, there was nothing to be glad about. The poor soul tried to hang herself, and after the jailer revives her, he beats her. As a friend of mine would say, “Dayum.”

I’m not giving up or saying, “I can’t.” Although I won’t be able to rise to Faulkner’s level in embedding social injustice in this harsh, sad story, I can take his advice and try to be better than myself…better than yesterday. I don’t have to rise to Faulkner’s level…or to that of my contemporaries.

P. S. I’m sad and mad and scared as I think of the social injustice that exists today. Faulkner’s story deals with racial inequality; mine deals with gender differences. My protagonist has choices; Nancy doesn’t. Read the story; you won’t be sorry.

Posted in critique groups, editing, fiction, nonfiction, readng, short stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Studebaker or Chevrolet?

Is there a friend of mine, Facebook or otherwise, who doesn’t know I’ve been working on a family history for nearly two years? Each time I’m “done,” someone finds an error, has a different memory of events, or wants to add a story.

Errors:

A true-blue friend and former English teacher volunteered (really) to give it a read-through and found a few dozen pesky things. Why did you write 1960’s with an apostrophe? There’s no possession going on. She was right, of course, but the only respond I could offer at the time was, “I’ve seen it that way.” She agreed that was a common error and could understand my reasoning, but….I corrected the years. I also took her advice and changed meagre to meager, especially since after reading Benjamin Dreyer’s An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. If you live in America, he says, use the American spelling, not the British one.

After correcting the errors and adding a few photographs, I discovered some grievous errors on my part: incorrect birthdates for three of my grandchildren. What kind of history book uses incorrect dates for something so important? And what kind of history is all fact and no story?

Additions:

Since I was working to make the history as accurate and interesting as possible, I decided to add a story about my paternal grandfather and Aunt Polly, his only daughter. Apparently, Polly was learning to skate, and fearful that she might hurt herself, Granddaddy went to the skating rink with her, following behind her with a pillow to cushion any falls. Yesterday, one of my daughters told me she loved that story because it revealed something about their relationship and about Granddaddy’s concern for his little girl.

A brother asked about genealogy. Hmmm. I went two generations before my parents and two afterwards. Maybe the second edition will add some more begats IF someone else is willing to add them.

Memory Differences: At last, I uploaded the absolute final manuscript, confident that all was well. Or at least it was as good as it was going to be until someone else stepped up and volunteered to help with a second edition. I distributed the updated version, and although everything seemed fine, my sister said, “You know, it wasn’t a black and aqua Studebaker we traveled in to Oklahoma. It was a beige Chevrolet Biscayne.”

I could hardly swallow  “Are you sure?” I asked her.

“Yes, we had a Studebaker at some point, but that’s not the one we went to Fort Sill in.”

I asked one of my brothers. He agreed with her. Grrr.

Oh, and an aunt insists that her aunt, one of my great-aunts, lived in town, not in a small house down the road from my great-grandparents.

“But I wrote down what you told me,” I said, more than a little miffed.

“Why would I have told you something that wasn’t true? she asked.

“How would I have thought of something like that on my own?” I whined.

So here we are, months after the most recent version, and I’m trying to decide whether to get the car and the location of Aunt Marge’s house right or leave them alone, leaning on the truth that memory is part reconstruction. We did have a Chevy Biscayne, but what year was that?

Of this I am certain. Family history is important, and stories go a long way in making ancestors come alive. Advice anyone?

Posted in ancestry, Benjamin Dreyer, books, editing, families, family history, nonficion, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing projects | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Some Stories Need to be Told

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Some stories need to be told. That’s what I learned in the writing group last week. No, that’s not quite true. I already knew the importance of telling stories, particularly those that might shed light on a subject, situation, behavior, decision, person—no reason to list all the possibilities because you already know them.

The group had critiqued a short story that I’ve been playing with for a couple of years. No exaggeration. I couldn’t finish it, but I couldn’t let it go either. When a member of the group asked if and what I planned to submit, I told her yes, maybe, we’ll see, I don’t know, no, we’ll see, and if I have time.Both of us have been busy with other endeavors lately and haven’t been writing as much as we were at one time, so we were encouraging each other to write something, even if it was a revision of something we’d submitted before.

I told my friend, “I was thinking of sharing the events of the moment when ___________.”

  1. I knew the abuse had to stop.
  2. I decided to join a gang.
  3. I knew I’d never do drugs.
  4. I learned the true meaning of feminism.

It’s (4) above. She knew immediately what I was referring to. “The night the lightbulb came on while you folded laundry and stacked it neatly into a blue basket?”

“Yeah, that one. Can’t believe you remember it.”

Without hesitation, she said, “How could I forget? Yes, yes, write it. It’s a defining moment in your life.”

“But,” I said, “there are always other people to consider.”

“Good Lord, it’s your life, your story, and you own everything that’s happened to you. And if you don’t’ write it, I’m stealing it. With a few changes, it could be mine.”

So I revised the story, embellishing it with a few extra details and taking out some of the uncomfortable parts. You can’t fool the writers in my group. Too sharp not to recognize a candy-coated fictional account, they said the writing was good…but not honest. “Go deeper,” someone said, and everyone else nodded in agreement.

I turned to a member who had submitted a heart-wrenching piece of nonfiction and asked about the people in her account. How would they react to her manuscript if they read it? “I’ve thought about it long and hard. Some stories need to be told.”

I’m remembering the discussion tonight and thinking of the many stories that have helped me stay on course, perceive a situation more clearly, or take a chance. Here’s one from a young student who told a class in a casual, flat tone that she’d often come home from school to find her mother’s friends sprawled out on the couch or floor in a drug-induced state.

We had been having a discussion on categories of drugs and their effects, all textbookish and sterile. But then that…that comment hushed everyone as all considered the scene she described. After a few seconds that seemed like several minutes, she said, “Oh, they never bothered me or nothing. I just knew not to ask friends over.”

That was twenty years ago. I don’t know where that young woman is today. She could be a politician, missionary, mother of ten, social worker, dermatologist, or dancer. But I’m pretty sure that everyone present in that classroom thought twice or three times before trying drugs. I’m personally haunted by her story.

Later today, I hope to tweak (4) above. I know there are people who need to read it.

 

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An Hour in Azio’s

In the mood for a little adventure, one of my daughters and I cruised up to Shallotte, NC for a few hours Monday. As usual, I came away remembering how much we all need a little variety, especially when there’s a pot of gold at the end. We visited a great bookstore with lots of ambience and hundreds of used books. CDs, and records. We browsed for an hour or so before deciding on our selections (3 for $6), and we both came away with some wonderful books, fiction and nonfiction.

Having never read anything by Primo Levi, I picked up Survival in Auschwitz (originally published as If This Is a Man in Italian) and have been reading it ever since. It’s powerful. Heartbreaking and disturbing, Levi’s remembrances and reflections have made me angry and sorrowful, angry at man’s inhumanity to man and sorrowful that cruelty is so widespread.

For the record, I started the novel Tuesday and am still not finished. The reason is simple. The horror is too much to understand, much less to process and absorb except in pieces. I took it to be beach to read yesterday, hoping that the sun, seagulls, and squealing, happy children would take away some of the darkness. My plan failed. I’ve been a sheltered WASP my entire life, fortunate enough to grow up safe from bullying, persecution, and hatred. While there were a few Jews in my sleepy little Southern town, I didn’t personally know them. They seemed shrouded in mystery and came to mind mainly when I passed the small synagogue

It’s not my purpose to describe genocide, Jewish or Rwandan or any other group, and outline its varied history. I just want to encourage you to read Levi’s remarkable account of suffering, endurance, and hope. He relates the facts of day-to-day living and his impressions and reflections about his surroundings, including people, weather, and the Lager. Instead of finding a passage about cold, sickness, hunger, beatings, or sleeping conditions, I’m sharing one in which Levi descries an image that encapsulates evil: “If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would chose the image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.”

There’s no self-pity in Levi’s account, just the facts told from such a “real” place that all but the most cold-hearted among us could go away unmoved.

On a brighter note (I think Levi would approve of that), I also purchased a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet for my daughter. I already have a copy or two and wanted her to experience the beauty and truth of the poetry.  I read part of the passage “On Children” aloud. It was that kind of store.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s
longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they
belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not
your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

With a sly smile, she said, “You got that right.” I stopped reading and added The Prophet to my growing stack of books. It’s a wonderful book. Both of the above are. Visit a bookstore or your local library to check them out for yourself.

 

 

 

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A Refusal to Praise?

Like Solomon said, there’s a season for everything, and the last couple of months have been a season of reading—but not much writing. Seems like my muse mojo is MIA. That’s okay, though, because I’m learning and thinking and reflecting on so many things. On the Fourth, I began thumbing through Dr. Scott Peck’s Further Along The Road Less Traveled and was reminded of many truths. They resounded with me twenty-five years ago, and now Peck’s words are even more powerful.

Somewhere along the line, I took some counseling courses and remember the advice of several professors. When listening to a patient, client, friend, child, or anyone else, keep in mind that not everyone is articulate enough to tell you how he or she really feels. Or maybe the person feels shame or fear (of ridicule or rejection). That makes perfect sense. I mean, it was so obvious that I wondered why the professors kept telling us that. Common sense, right? But then you know what “they” say about common sense: it’s not so common. 

Here’s what I was advised/instructed to do. When a person is struggling to share feelings or memories or thoughts, look at him or her and imagine the individual saying, “Please hear what I’m not saying.” To me, that was profound, and I’ve tried to practice it in my family, in the classroom, with my friends…with everyone who wanted to “just talk.” 

Last night, I stumbled across something Dr. Peck wrote that was an eye opener. Following is a paraphrase from page 184:  What the patient says is not as important as what he doesn’t say. If he talks freely about the present and the future but never about the past, you can bet your bottom dollar that he has some problem, something that’s unintegrated from his past. If he talks freely about the past and the future but not the present, the problem is most likely to be the present—often a problem with vulnerability and the “here and now.” Or if he talks about the past and the present but doesn’t talk about the future, you can deduce that there’s a problem with the future—a problem with hope or faith. 

Bingo! Those few sentences clarified some things I’ve felt to be true, and they did so with more punch than, “Please hear what I’m not saying.” Peck’s insight put a lot of conversations into perspective for me as I try to figure out the why, how, when, and what of troubled people’s words and actions. Some of these folks seem depressed, and it’s not enough to peppily say, “Look at the fluffy clouds and blue, blue sky. Listen to the noisy (in a good way) cicadas and the songbirds. Smell the roses, for heaven’s sake.” You’re wasting your breath with such a person who wants the cicadas to go back to where they came from.

Dr. Peck shares a quote from Rumi, a twelfth century Muslim mystic, who, in his opinion, was “the smartest person who ever lived, never to Jesus.” I love the quote. “Your depression is connected to your insolence and refusal to praise.” Don’t you love it, too? Peck believes Rumi is referring to insolence as narcissism “or that kind of perverted pride which underlies depression.” Whoa. I think these men are onto something—truth. 

There’s more, so much more, to this fabulous book, but it’s time for a little fun, a day trip with one of my daughters. We’ll be noticing clouds and birds and trees, and talking about the past, present and future. 

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A Workshop with Clarity and Style

Last Saturday, June 22, I had the good fortune of attending a three-hour craft workshop hosted by the South Carolina Writers’ Association and am still pondering all the information I learned. Davis Enloe, SCWA board member, shared material on the importance of openings, and I left Greenville vowing to write a short story when I got home.

No story—not yet. I’ve been considering various possibilities though, and it’s going to happen. Soon. I keep thinking of the opening to one of my latest favorite books, In the Beginning by Chaim Potok: “Beginnings are always hard.” They are, but after attending the SCWA workshop last week, I have a better idea of how to make them work.

In the meantime, I’ve been going over my copious notes and the several handouts Davis gave the attendees. I’ve also been doing a little independent research for famous opening lines. Good openings draw the reader in and arouse his interest, yes. But they often do more than that. As Davis said, they can set up tension; impart vital information to the reader, create curiosity in the reader’s mind; establish tone, sense of place, and setting; introduce the main character; and point toward a germ of conflict and dramatic tensions. 

Here are two of Davis’s examples—and a couple of my favorites.

  • Most readers will recognize “Call me Ishmael” from Melville’s Moby Dick
  • Listening to Davis read the above brought the beginning of My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok to mind: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.” That sentence reeled me in and kept held me captive. 
  • Davis read, “You better not tell nobody but God” from Alice Walker’s The Color PurpleUh-oh,I thought, something bad is going on. 
  • During the workshop, I recalled reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a novel that begins, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Right away the reader knows these two people are important characters.

To illustrate his instruction on writing openers, Davis provided dozens of examples from literature, including “Mr. Voice” by Jess Walter. “Mother was a stunner,” the first four words from “Mr. Voice,” generated a lot of discussion. After dissecting every sentence of the 136-word paragraph, Davis invited the dozens of attendees to write and share openings to potential stories. I wrote a little something, but it was frail (pathetic really), and I didn’t share. Others did, and all were encouraged by workshop participants and Davis. 

In addition to imparting an astounding amount (truly) of information and facilitating several lively discussions, Davis shared some of Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing” and added the eleventh: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite.” He provided “The Rules” by Lee K. Abbott, went over “Freytag’s Pyramid” about story structure, discussed ten questions related to story shape (Whose story is it? What’s at stake? Why should we care?), distributed copies of “Writing in the Cold,” and gave everyone a copy of Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. 

And that’s not all. As we began thumbing through our books, Davis handed out a four-page quiz based on Dreyer’s book, further proof of his solid preparation for the workshop. I’ve completed the quiz, and all I can say is that I earned a satisfactory score–proof that I need a refresher course in a few areas.

It was a long drive from Camden to Greenville, but the excellent workshop made every mile to and from worthwhile. Kudos to Davis Enloe and the South Carolina Writers’ Association for providing the experience. 

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