Write Each Day

 

Thirty-eight days ago I heard a young woman read from her latest book, a memoir entitled Land of Enchantment. Impressed by her work and her honest portrayal of what she referred to as “obsessive love,” I was glad I had signed up for Leigh Stein’s presentation the next morning. In a word: Marvelous. Any doubts I had were erased the moment she distributed a handout with several quotes by Annie Dillard.

For two hours, Ms. Stein held her audience rapt as she talked about the craft and encouraged everyone to think and write and think and write some more. She asked, “What are you obsessed with?” and then asked the writers to write something that might change their lives.

There is no shortage of subjects. As Annie Dillard said, “A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”

Here are a few of Leigh Stein’s recommendations.

  • Write down your wish list, everything you’d like to see in a movie or read on the page.
  • You might down characters you’ve imagined, cool plot twists, or great lines of dialogue.
  • You might write down themes that you care about.
  • Don’t reject any ideas. No judging or censoring yourself with “That’s a stupid idea.”
  • Experiment with your story/essay/book. Ask “what if?” What if some other woman or child were writing it? Someone of a different age or nationality?

My mind was buzzing with possibilities.

Ms. Stein continued the presentation with an overview of Educated, Wild, Boy Erased, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and asked what we would name our memoirs if we had to use just one word. The responses were varied and interesting. She reminded us that the most important memories of our lives are seared into memory.

Toward the end of her presentation, Ms. Stein shared some information about goal setting, and while there was nothing new there, the reminder lit a fire, and I thought YESAs soon as I get home, I’m going to set serious. To encourage the conference attendees (writers) in the room to set and accomplish writing goals, she distributed notecards to all present and asked us to jot down our email addresses and some goals we wanted to accomplish within the following month.

Since we didn’t have to use our names, it was an nonthreatening activity. Why not do it? As she collected the cards, Leigh (Ms. Stein is beginning to sound too formal after experiencing the session), told us we’d get a message from her by the end of November. With the words, “Our greatest responsibility as writers is to let future generations understand what it means to be alive right now,” in my mind, I resolved to follow through with my goals on the card.

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Thirty-seven days have passed since I turned in my notecard with the words in the photo above. Have I achieved the goals?  Not really. No. I polished and shined a story and sent it to two publications. And I’ve written a couple of blogs. Oh, and I’ve done several short Facebook posts.

My writing group meets Thursday morning, and I’m determined to get something ready for them to critique. Depending on what the group says, maybe I’ll have a submission ready this week. What about you? What are your writing goals?

 

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Tell Me A Story

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A couple of years ago, our writing group held a book signing and Q & A session at the local library. Although I jotted down some notes afterwards, I don’t think I posted anything, so tonight I’ve posting a version of that account. This chronicle of events, though somewhat ordinary, is proof that everyone has a story that needs to be told.

“Everybody has a story. Or so I’ve been told. I agree with Pat Conroy who said the four most beautiful words in the English language are, “Tell me a story.” Tonight’s drop-in at the Kershaw County Library verified Conroy’s assertion and my belief.

“I arrived at the library a few minutes before the drop-in was to begin and took in a couple of dozen bottles of water, part of my contribution for tonight’s event. I could hear Douglas Wyatt, chapter president, talking so I knew things were already underway. Good, I thought. I can sneak out undetected to get the rest of the water, the fruit tray, and the bookmarks I had created as mementoes.

“Everything was going reasonably well until I dropped eight bottles of water, some of which rolled into the parking lot and under the car.  Drat.Now what am I supposed to do?

I didn’t have time to get into a full-blown pity party because within five seconds, I heard,“Can I help you carry something?” I looked up to see one of the kindest faces I’d ever seen.

“I hate to ask you to help me. I ‘m sure that’s not what you came to the library.”

“She didn’t reply, just took the water bottles and waited to make sure I could balance the fruit tray and cookie tin containing the bookmarks.

“You’re an angel to come to my rescue like this. Aren’t those bottles heavy?”

“Not at all. When my brother died, I just sort of stepped up and started helping my mother do all kinds of things. My sisters were already out of the house, and it was just me and Mama.”

“I asked her what happened to her brother, and we talked about that a few minutes. Although the cause of death was technically an accident, he lingered in a coma for several months, thus preparing the family for his ultimate “transition.” 

Not wanting to interrupt the Q & A session that had begun, we put the goodies on a table and slipped outside to continue our conversation. My good Samaritan’s father had passed away a few months before her brother was injured in the accident, and losing both males of the family in such a short period of time helped strengthen the strong interdependent bond between mother and daughter.

“Oh yes, we’re close. But my father and I were close too. He’s the one who taught me the importance of family…and of being kind to other people. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was somebody looking down on another person ‘cause they thought they were better.”

“Sounds like a wonderful role model for you and your siblings.”

“Oh, he was. He was,” she added with a sweet smile.

“Someone beckoned me in, and I invited (gently pressured) my new acquaintance into the room. She stayed the whole time, and before leaving, Mary (not her real name) said she was going to start keeping a journal. She drank a bottle of that water she’d brought in, said she’d been inspired by the stories she’d heard, ate a fruitcake cookie, and selected a colorful bookmark.

“That might have seemed like an ordinary event in an ordinary day. It was and it wasn’t. Mary and I think it was serendipitous. I needed help with water bottles, and she needed a nudge to write her story/stories.

That was two years ago, and I’m curious about Mary and the other attendees who vowed to keep journals, begin personal histories, or polish off a short story hidden away in a closet. I wonder if anyone followed through.

And I’m wondering about you. What’s your story?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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That Ain’t Right, Bo

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‘Tis the season.

I’ve been ordering Christmas gifts for my grandchildren today while children at America’s borders were being assaulted with tear gas. One grandson wants a Harry Potter Illuminating Rod. No problem.

I’m planning tasty treats for my family to sample this weekend while children in Yemen are starving. Children are starving all over the world, but in Yemen the numbers defy belief: 85,000 since March of 2015.

Before leaving Myrtle Beach yesterday, I told my youngest granddaughter that I couldn’t leave without a hug, and as I reached down to put my arms around her, she said, “And a kiss.” Today I’m thinking of all the children separated from their parents who would love a hug from someone who loves them.

I held a hymnal with my son yesterday and sang, “Because I Have Been Given Much,” a favorite of mine, and afterwards I walked right out and did nothing for anyone. Nothing outside of my own narrow sphere, that is. Today the words are haunting me.

Because I have been given much, I too much give.
Because of thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live.

You might say, “Yemen is a long way away from here, and those people are sooooooo different from us.” Yes on both counts. And yet in church yesterday I was reminded that everyone is our neighbor, near and far, even globally. And that we’re commanded to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And yet, we seem to be getter meaner and less loving each day.

And those people at the border. Yes, they’re attempting to come in illegally. That shows how truly desperate they are to have a better life, the same thing our forebears wanted when they came to America. I’m rusty about the legal vs. illegal part, but I do know what they (our ancestors) did to the Native Americans. I once heard Susan Sarandon say that America was built on the near decimation of the American Indian and on the backs of slaves. She’s bolder than I.

I’ll never get the image of the scared screaming barefoot child in diapers at the Mexican border out of my consciousness. But I can write. I can say, “That ain’t right, Bo” a phrase one of my husband’s cronies used to say. That ain’t right. Some might take offense and say these people are paying for the sins of their fathers. Please. Don’t. Go. There.

And those children who’ve died in Yemen are the ones under five years old. Better and more knowledgeable thinkers than I say the United States’ support for the Saudi-led war has triggered the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I can’t force our leaders to enter peace talks or to withdraw support for the war. But I can send money to a relief fund. So can you.

Listen, I taught psychology for forty years, and I know about defense mechanisms that make us feel better about ourselves. And then there are those pesky attitudes that play into our thinking—illogical fallacies, mental heuristics, and biases. I’m as guilty as the next person of not always seeing things clearly, of justifying my own thinking.

But none of that matters when it comes down to this. Like it or not, we’re all children of the same Creator, and there’s no way to ignore or rationalize the horrors of world and national events.

 

 

 

 

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Wash Days and Moving Days

Two years ago, our local writing group published its second anthology, What I Wish I Could Tell You. Having published the first one two years prior, we knew what lay in store for us. Work and patience and stress. And sleep deprivation. Let’s don’t forget that. Undaunted, we began writing.

For months, we wrote, read, critiqued, and edited poems, creative nonfiction, memoir slices, recipes, and lyrics. It was a learning experience for all of us, not only about the craft but also about each other and our backgrounds, fears, flaws, and hopes. Some people struggled with rewriting a piece when group members found it too loose and wandering or too terse and simplified. Others were more agreeable to making modifications

We persevered. Even when not creating a work together, the group goes by a  cardinal recommendation: “If two or more people make the same suggestion, you need to seriously consider making the proposed change.” When working on the anthology, there was no “if,” especially if the editor recommended a modification. If this person said, “You need to punch down the vocabulary in this dialogue,” you did it. If this person said, “You’ve used the word fruit three times in this paragraph, find another word. Or better yet, be specific.” Were there apples, oranges, bananas, mangoes, pineapples, blueberries, and strawberries in the white fruit bowl?

We soon saw a theme developing. Memories involving friends and family were there, some amusing and others more serious. Tributes and farewells to people influential to the writers were included. So were memories of receiving a grim diagnosis, a mother/daughter struggle, a teen’s efforts to find his way in a new school, and a child’s fear of Grannie moving in to “raise me up right.” There were washdays, moving days, church days, beach days, and Christmas days. Babies were born, and people passed away.

While the pieces were diverse, most involved change. Sometimes the change came about because of the passage of time itself. People grew up and old. Other times, the change was deliberate, like emigrating to America from Germany, Switzerland, and Ireland. Eventually life worked out reasonably well for everyone.

Lately, I’ve thought more earnestly about the theme behind the anthology and went back to read the preface. “What I Wish I Could Tell You shares its title with a poem in the collection, because after considering many titles, our common theme seemed to echo the sense of longing expressed in those words. Our aim is to use our voices and our stories to say what—and who—we remember, what has touched us, grieved us or given us joy.”

If you can find a way, remind us, Mother,
all living things blossom and wither,
all things die and return. Tell us again
of nature’s order and economy.
Promise nothing is ever wasted;
nothing, ever lost.

  • What would you tell your parents if you could?
  • What do you wish they had told you?
  • What do you wish you could tell your children/grandchildren?
  • What do you wish you could say to a friend, a relative, a work acquaintance?
  • What about your younger self? What do you wish you could say to him or her?
  • If your younger self could talk to you, what do you think he or she would say?

My first husband, when learning of some folly performed by a younger person, often said, “He’s young. He’ll learn.” Recently, when discussing some condescending  behavior of an acquaintance, a friend said, “She’s young. Let’s don’t forget that.” Because of teaching college students for four decades (ouch),  I’ve often thought the same thing and have wished I had more frequently said, “This too shall pass,” or  “You can do anything for a little while.”

     It’s your turn to do some pondering. What do you wish you could tell someone, living or dead? What would you advise your younger self? What do you wish someone could or would tell you?

 

 

Posted in anthologies, books, Camden Writers, critique groups, generative writing groups, nonficion, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing groups, writing projects | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Be True Blue

A few days ago, I shared my impressions of two books I’ve recently read, Educated by Tara Westover and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. Both books are marvelous; both are about strength, determination, and becoming.

Educated is a memoir, and Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of advice columns–sort sort of. Strayed’s letters are more like what our writing group calls “pieces,” thoughtful and unique ones.  Tonight I’m focusing on the letters to and from Sugar. Regardless of the topic, Strayed doesn’t candy coat her responses or pull any punches. And yet…and yet, no one who reads them could dispute her genuine concern and compassion for her advice seekers.

Cheryl Strayed is a writer, not a therapist, and says she’s “totally unqualified for this gig.” Don’t believe it. Strayed knows the power of story, and in most of her messages, she includes a story about herself or someone she knows. And the writing is soooo good! In one column, she quotes Italian writer Carlo Levi who said, “The future has an ancient heart,” and while I was pondering what that meant, Strayed wrote, “…that who we become is born of what we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.”

Every page is filled with sound advice written in a no-nonsense manner that forces the reader to sit up and take notice. There’s humor. But mostly there’s support and insight. Of all the chapters, the most heartrending is “The Obliterated Place.” Like many (most) of the columns, it can (and should be) read again and again. The most encouraging is “The Other End of the Pool,” a must-read for parents struggling to help their children launch.

Both books inspired and enlightened me. Educated reminded me of the reality of a transitional person, someone who breaks the cycle of negative behavior and/or harmful practices that get passed from generation to generation. One person who says, “No more,” and walks away from a background of abuse, drugs, and poverty can change the future of an entire family. Education and encouragement can help, and so can a strong sense of self and the determination to keep walking toward the light. 

Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things reminded me of the prevalence of human suffering and the part we can play in easing one another’s burdens. “Nobody will protect you from your suffering,” Strayed says. “Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue.”

 

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Don’t Give Up

I’ve done more reading than writing lately. Part of it is because I love reading and learning, and part of it is because my muse mojo has gone into hiding.

I’ve read bits and pieces of several interesting and fascinating books, and the two I’ve devoured most recently are Educated by Tara Westover and tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed. Both are nonfiction, and both are honest, powerful, and engaging. That’s where the similarity ends. Westover’s book is a memoir; Strayed’s is a compilation of advice columns by Sugar.

A writer friend recommended Educated to our writing group a few weeks ago, but when she mentioned that the author was Mormon, my guard went up. Remembering my religious affiliation, she said that perhaps Westover’s family was part of a fundamentalist group and then moved on to share a few details of the book.

The writer and her siblings worked for their father in a scrapyard, and she never saw a doctor or attended school. While homeschooling is popular today, this was decades ago, and their mother wasn’t as structured or diligent as parents are today. And Tara Westover had never been vaccinated until she needed a passport to travel to England. She had no birth certificate either. Both were needed so that she could attend Cambridge. Yes, Cambridge.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Strong-willed, Tara overcame daunting obstacles that would deter most people, me included. Accepted to BYU at age 17, she didn’t even understand what a “text” was; nor had she heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement. When she saw films in her history class portraying scenes of civil unrest (understatement) in the 1960’s, she became confused. Didn’t Lincoln free the slaves 100 years earlier? 

Westover studied and became enlightened, not just about social injustice but also about art, music, religion, philosophy, literature, trigonometry, psychology, history, and all the other courses required for a basic undergraduate degree. She was introduced to topics such as hegemonic masculinity, positive and negative liberty, and the subjection of women. Westover began to construct her own truth, something that would cause problems with her family.

Encouraged and helped by many individuals, Westover earned an MPhil and a PhD from Cambridge. She was also a visiting fellow at Harvard.

Westover’s education came at a cost. At the end of the memoir, she is estranged from her parents and three of her siblings, not because of her education per se but because of her unwillingness to lose custody of her own mind.What is a person to do, I asked, when their obligations to their family conflict with other obligations—to friends, to society, to themselves?”

Educated is not about Mormonism, junkyards, or homeschooling. It’s about resilience and determination. It’s about a young woman overcoming tremendous odds by learning that the most powerful determinant of who we become is inside us.

Though totally different, tiny beautiful things is a marvelous book, too. Based on an advice column titled “Dear Sugar,” it’s filled with letters to Sugar asking for advice on love, heartache, disappointment, and suffering. From cancer to adultery and death to Christmas, Sugar responds with tough, shrewd compassion. She doesn’t candy coat her responses or pull any punches. And yet…and yet, no one who reads her replies could dispute her genuine concern and compassion for her advice seekers. She calls them “sweet pea” and signs her letters, “Yours, Sugar.”

More on Sugar and tiny beautiful things tomorrow. Until then, take her advice and remember that “every last one of us can do better than give up.”

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An October Sunday

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Last weekend I attended the annual conference of the South Carolina Writers’ Association, and I’m still processing all the information I learned. This afternoon, I’m thinking of something Therese Fowler, keynote speaker and author of A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, taught during an afternoon session on point of view.

I got confused. Or I thought I was confused, but a friend reassured me that I wasn’t as ignorant as I thought when she said, “You already know this. You just don’t know that you know.”

“Oh” I said. “How do you know that I know?”

“Because I’ve read your work.”

In her session, Fowler suggested using a photograph as a prompt to spark a memory. Since she was presenting information on effectively using point of view, she said to look at the picture and, using first person present, ask ourselves these questions:

I’m standing, sitting, kneeling, crouching swimming, hiking, etc.
I’m wearing
I’m with
She’s looking at me (or something like that)
I feel
I wonder

After jotting the ends of the above sentences, Fowler instructed, then go to first person past, what she referred to as the vantage point, and respond to the same prompts. The  past you is going to narrate the scene so we feel like we’re (whoever the reader is) there through the sensory details. The narrator you has the wisdom gained from that experience. That person is on the other side looking back.

Heavy. But not as heavy as I  thought it would be. As luck would have it, earlier that week, two photographs had fallen from a book, one of them taken in October 1989. I know that because of my mother’s beautiful handwriting on the back.  Below are my preliminary responses to the open-ended statements.

First Person Present

I’m standing on the front porch of 511 Chesnut, happy to have had dinner (probably a Sunday) with parents, siblings, and everyone’s children. It’s October, and omg look at those huge brown leaves on the sidewalk.

I’m wearing jeans and a black turtleneck. My hair is in a French braid, something I’ve recently learned to do.

I’m with my parents, my siblings, our spouses, and our children.

She’s looking at me (or something like that). Seems like many are looking at something else and paying no heed to the camera. Lisa, Ann, Elizabeth, and Matthew are def preoccupied. Mama is looking straight ahead, happy to have her family around her.

I feel happy, at peace. I’m surrounded by the people I love and am well aware of my good fortune. I also feel a little anxious about getting home before dark.

I wonder what I have to do to get ready for tomorrow…not just for me and my classes but for the children. Do they have clean clothes? Do they have unfinished homework?

First Person Past

I was standing on the front steps of my parents’ home, a house that would later become mine.

I thought that everything would continue just the way it was (when I thought about it at all).

I wanted to hit the road for home because I knew what Mondays were like for all of us.

I was wearing black, my favorite color in those days. Still a good one. I hadn’t begun coloring my hair but started it a few years after this photo was snapped (by whom?). Because of the girls, I had begun to think of it as something fun and different instead of the negative connotations of aging.

I was with my family, including my youngest brother David and his family, and I suspect their being in SC was the reason for an October get-together.

I didn’t know that October would become the most beautiful and the saddest month of the year. Already experiencing effects of COPD, Daddy would be gone in nine Octobers and Mama in eleven.

I also didn’t know (or even dream) that twenty-three more people would be in the photo if taken today. That’s absolutely amazing to consider. Mama and Daddy knew none of those people except for Rich, and only Mama knew him since Daddy died in 1998, and Carrie and Rich met and married in 1999.

Your turn. Take out a photograph and try the exercise. To make the experience even richer, you might try getting different people in a photograph to respond to the same statements. Getting different perspectives might be quite illuminating.

 

 

 

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Are Names Important?

Being part of a writing group has increased my interest in the importance of names and how they fit a character–or not. Irma or Jezebel? Caleb or Timothy?

When our son Paul was about six months old, his sister Elizabeth asked me a simple question that I’ve never been able to answer. Watching her baby brother as he gazed at us and attempted his best to communicate with sweet, inarticulate coos, she asked “Mama, why do people have names that look like their faces?”

I can’t remember what I told her. I mean, really, what is the answer? Some parents name their children after movie stars, famous athletes, and characters in books. Others stick with family names while still others resort to biblical names, perhaps hoping the child will have some attributes of Peter, James, or John. My paternal grandfather’s first name was Abram, and I’ve often wondered why his mother chose that name instead of Abraham, the name God later gave him, the name that means “father of many nations.” To my knowledge, no one before or since (in the family) bears the name Abram. So why?

Back to Elizabeth’s question, although I still don’t have a  definitive answer, I know that people and their names often fit. Not always, but often. It could be because they grow into their monikers after hearing stories of ancestors from parents or teasing from others about the uniqueness of names like Arcadia and Rowan or the ordinariness of Jane or John. Do people become plain Janes and honest Abes?

In a prior post, I mentioned another story I read in Racing Home, an anthology by award-winning North Carolina writers. After reading “Namesake,” a delightful story by Anne C. Barnhill, I’ve pondered the significance of one’s moniker. Edwina, the protagonist in the story, finds herself considering “the sounds in a name, the power you call up when you declare a thing.” Yes, I thought. That’s it exactly.

Comparing herself to others, “An Edwina couldn’t be as dramatic as that. An Edwina would be a spinster and all that word implies. Nothing could grow on an Edwina, except thoughts, barbed jealousies of all the Clarissas and Juliannas that swirled across the ballroom floor while Edwina stands over the punch bowl and feigns fascination with sherbet.”

Edwina, actually Edwina Jane, likes her name and decides she must refuse a marriage proposal from Jack. How could she marry a man who called her Edie? “Any man who could sway me the way he had, who could think of me as ‘Edie’—such a man was dangerous.”

Poor Jack. For a time, Edwina had found him suitable company. In fact, upon first learning his name, “my heart pumped quickly. It was a fast name, one that promised advent true, maybe even danger. One bet and it was over—a single syllable you could spit out in anger or gasp in passion.”  But Jack’s last name was Applewhite, “a name as common as chicken feed.” Edwina’s was Carruthers.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the time and attention and thought that goes into deciding on a character’s name. Merilee or Merdedith? Dorothy or Deidre? Brett or Brian? Does it really matter? Yes. At twelve, I began spelling my name with a “y” to combat the Plain Jane connotation. Jane became Jayne, and surprisingly neither of my parents objected although I had been named after two great grandmothers.

What’s in a name? Do they define us? Do we grow into them?

 

 

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Nothing Lasts

Lucky me. Because of a project I’ve been working on, I was forced to read several short stories in some literary journals. Okay, that’s not completely accurate. I looked at the journals to become more familiar with various style sets, fonts, and well, layouts in general. Before I realized it, I was reading the stories, thus prolonging my “education” and immensely adding to my enjoyment. Within fifteen minutes, plots and settings overtook margins and headings.

Time prohibits a discussion of every story I read, so after great deliberation, I’m spotlighting  wee bits of two. Both came from a North Carolina award winning anthology, Racing Home. Confession: while reading these stories, I realized that I might as well give up. I will never be able to write fiction like these fabulous writers. Still, I can admire the way they use words to conjure up emotions, tell universal truths, develop plots, and describe settings.

In one story, Getting What You Wish For by Kathryn Etters Lovatt, I found myself smackdab in the middle of an emergency waiting room with three people waiting to see Shelton—husband, brother-in-law, and uncle. Having been there, done that recently, I was amazed at how the writer was able to incorporate the sounds and images of such an experience. The three “sat like stones under the evening news, talking in spurts….They listened as the Coke machine on the far wall swallowed coins, listed to cups dropping, sometimes not dropping, the spray of drink in the cup or down the drain, sprinkles of ice.” Yes,I thought. That’s exactly how it is!

As they wait in the “black coffee hours of real night,” the three reminisce and tell stories, all wondering why no one has come to talk to them about the patient. Hours later, the doctor delivers some grim news, and the two sisters and teenaged Benny visit the patient who’s in a room on the fourth floor, the floor where there’s no waiting room. “Fourth floor was the nut ward, everybody in town knew that.”

Priscilla, sister-in-law to the patient, and her son leave the hospital, walking toward the car in a beautifully described scene…moon, trees, pole lights, dogwoods trying to flower…

Here’s my favorite part, the part the whole story has been leading up to, the words I’ve always known and have recently been spouting off to anyone who will listen. Benny is waiting for his mother to tell him a story and has asked for the bad news first.

“His mother leaned against the car, looking beyond the great beyond, the night written all over her face.”

“Nothing lasts,” she told him, her voice brimming with apology.

“Nothing lasts?” He stalled, committing the image of her at that moment, pale and groggy, full of secrets she would never tell, to memory. “Okay,” he said “So is that your good news, too—nothing lasts?”

Everything changes—the good and the bad and the blah. Nothing lasts. If life is good, savor it. Enjoy the red velvet cake, dance with your sweetheart(s), go ahead and cry with happiness at the sound of a flute, memorize faces and features of those you love, turn your face to the gentle breeze. If life is bad and sad, it won’t be ever thus. Sooner or later, storms pass; it’s nature’s way.

I’m decent at nonfiction and a novice, a kindergartner at conveying messages like nothing lasts in fiction. Seriously, I’m a two on a scale of ten…but I’m willing to learn. And I’m thankful to have such good models to follow. Tomorrow or Wednesday, I’ll write a little about the other writer/story referenced in the beginning.

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Penelope’s Ghost

 

I’ve never been much of a fiction writer. The truth: I’ve never been a fiction writer at all.

But then something happened after I became part of a writing group. Everyone else wrote short stories, novels, poems, and music. They all had such vivid imaginations and could create characters, settings, and dialogues in their minds while driving a car or listening to a sermon. I wasn’t envious, just in awe. I wanted to be like them.

I’m learning.

Recently I’ve come to know a woman who has a ghost living in her house. She’s not “real,” at least not in the physical sense. She (Penelope) is a fictitious character created by a member of my writing group. Since the first time I was introduced to Penelope, she’s developed a likeable, realistic persona. Or should I say, my writer friend has developed it for her.

At one time, Penelope was a successful retiree who had been spooked by a ghost living upstairs in a home she’d just purchased. Since then, the location of the haunted house has changed, and I’ve met several of Penelope’s family members…and I don’t just mean that I’ve learned their names. I’ve learned about some of their quirks, looks, and history. I’ve also learned about their relationships and the often tenuous ties that bind.

Many of my writer friend’s family members have ghosts living in their houses, too—including her. It’s inevitable, she insists, when people live in old homes. Most of the invisible inhabitants are friendly, that is to say they mind their own business and don’t create havoc or scare humans. They do make noise though, mostly by moving things around. And sometimes they might create a little mischief by overturning paint cans or scaring away unwanted guests.

In critiquing the writer’s work, members asked a lot of questions and then offered suggestions about how to make her good story even better. How long had Penelope been living there? Why had the ghost just recently begun to act in such a contrary way? Was the ghost female or male? What did the ghost want? Was there some unresolved business that needed to be taken care of before it left?

Here’s something I learned early on upon joining the group. Even in fiction, facts are important. Get them straight/right. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The United States has an individualistic culture; Japan favors collectivism. Juneau, not Anchorage, is the capital of Alaska. This ghost talked, but group members agreed that was unusual. They might talk, though not in a conversational way. And they never eat. Why would they?

What? They were talking about Penelope as if she and her ghost were real. Are there ghosts? Some say a deceased person’s energy goes into environment, but so far no ghost hunting detecting devices have detected any “bodily energy” that survives after death.

When I doubted the reality of spirits or presences, my writer friend said, “Don’t tell that to my mother. This ghost lived upstairs in her house.”

“Her house? I thought this was Penelope’s house.”

Seven pairs of eyes looked at me, all communicating something vital: Penelope’s ghost and house were fictions based on facts. The writer’s mother’s ghost provided the seed for Penelope’s character and dilemma

“Ooooo, I see.” And after a moment, “How do you guys do that? How do you create people and who seem real?”

They all spoke up and offered a little something for me to mull over. Observe life. Watch others and see how they move and dress and how they interact with each other. Pick up story ideas from the newspaper—or from Facebook. In addition to reading more fiction, actually study it to discover how the author uses words to set scenes, describe people, or evoke emotions. “Got it,” I said, still amazed at their creative gifts yet feeling a little less ignorant.

This afternoon I’m thinking maybe scientists could prove the existence of ghosts, ghouls, and spirits if they had more sophisticated ghost-busting methods.

 

 

 

 

 

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