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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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The Polka Dot Pumpkin

Yesterday was a fine day, an excellent day. We set up our table at the Habitat for Humanity Fall Festival and Craft Show and began hauling books and decorative items from the car. As far as I could tell, I (representing Camden Writers) was the only vendor without a tent. Who knew? Not I. No worries, though. My first customers said they had two tents and indicated I could use one next time.

Next time? Will there be a next time?

In some ways it would have been easier to leave the group’s books at our various homes, packed up in boxes, perhaps stored under a bed. But we had worked long and hard crafting (I had to get crafting in the blog somewhere after being asked what a book had to do with a craft) our pieces, and a few of us decided it was time to be bolder about sharing our stories. As luck would have it, I was the only person available to attend the event.

I was nervous, but things went well. Here’s why: I listened to story after story, a couple that verified the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I asked questions and learned that there are many people out there who are slogging away on family memoirs and children’s books. I say “slogging” because I think that’s how many writers feel.

One of my props was an orange bowl of chocolate candy, and towards the middle of the day, two boys who appeared to be around ten or eleven appeared and asked about the books. I told them I wasn’t sure they were the kinds of books they’d be interested in, and when one of them asked what they were about, I said, “Stories, just stories people wanted to share.”

“I can tell you a story,” he said, eagerly tearing the wrapper from a Twix bar.

Delighted, I encouraged him. “Wait, let me get my pen and notebook before you start talking.” As he talked, his friend seemed spellbound as he listened to every word. The first draft of Matthias’ story is below. Maybe someday I’ll see him again and help with a second draft and maybe a third and fourth until he gets it just right. In the meantime, here’s what I hurriedly scribbled as Matthias talked.

“Once upon a time there was a tiny pumpkin, tinier than all the tiny pumpkins in the world. All of the pumpkins made fun of him. They laughed. They dumped him in water. He was different from all the other pumpkins. He was fragile. He was a white pumpkin that had orange spots.

“One day Halloween appeared. Halloween asked him if he could drive his deer sleigh. The pumpkin told Halloween, “You don’t want me. I’m just a screw-up.” Halloween looked at him and said, ‘No matter how big or small, you can always help.’”

“So the tiny pumpkin climbed onto the sleigh and gave the kids baskets, treats, and costumes. He gave them 3 Musketeers, Hershey bars, and all the other kinds of chocolate candy. All of the other pumpkins looked at him and knew that after that day the polka dot pumpkin would never be the same.

“The next day he went to see the other pumpkins, and they had a surprise for him. It was a birthday party. He was eleven years old. The pumpkins knew they would always take care of him and look after each other. No other pumpkin, big or small, was ever alone again.” Matthias Fox

Will there be a next time at a craft show, book festival, or community event? Definitely. Otherwise, I might miss hearing some cool stories and meeting some interesting people.

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Conferences, Critiques, and Contests

My path to winning 1st place in the Carrie McCray Nonfiction Contest began the year I first attended the South Carolina Writers Association Conference at the Myrtle Beach Hilton. I was a bit overwhelmed with all the activity, the number and variety of classes available, and the presence of agents and editors. In a fever to learn all I could about the craft of writing, I scribbled copious notes in every fascinating session.

During one of the breaks, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman standing beside a long table laden with cookies and beverages. Turns out he was the chapter leader of a writing group in Camden, my hometown. I didn’t even know there was such a group, much less that it was associated with SCWA (SCWW at the time). We exchanged email addresses, and Douglas promised to send some information about the organization and the Camden chapter the following week.

By Monday afternoon, I had all the information I needed to make a decision. I joined SCWA that day and attended a chapter meeting two weeks later. Nervous, I didn’t really know what to expect. Right away, someone asked what kind of writing I did, and when I said, “Mostly nonfiction,” the five people present just gave me a look that said, “Ooooo.”

In response to a question about what I had written lately, I happily said I’d just had an article published in Guideposts about a conflict with a co-worker. The title, “Is It I, Lord?” had already received some snarky remarks on Facebook. Shouldn’t the pronoun be me and not I, inquiring minds wanted to know.

“Let’s look it up,” someone said, and a Google search was on.

What? I thought. Are these people actually doubting the editors of Guideposts? Or worse, are they doubting me? Is this what it’s like to be a member of a critique group?

 The decision to stick with this group of writers is one of the best I’ve ever made. From them, I’ve learned to go sparingly with adverbs, to show, don’t tell, and that “fudging” with creative nonfiction is okay occasionally. They’ve taught me to develop characters, describe scenes, and write dialogue.

Our group is an active one. One day, we realized that many of our pieces had a common theme, and we decided to create and publish an anthology. And then we did it again. Some of us have had pieces published in The Petigru Review, SCWA’s literary journal, and other sources, a couple of us self-published books, and one member is writing her third novel. Some have won literary awards, an accomplishment that awes me.

One night a fellow writer handed me the critique of my story and suggested that I submit it to the Carrie McCray Nonfiction Contest. Others chimed in to ditto her encouragement, and I thought Why not? There was nothing to lose and possibly something grand to gain. It was a good story, after all, and one I knew people could identify with. I made the changes recommended by trusted members of my group and pushed “Submit.”

Three months later, I received an email from the editors at Petigru that began with “Congratulations.” I gulped and looked away from the computer at the yellow lantana near the driveway, buying some time. I took a deep breath and continued reading the email informing me about the award, the upcoming conference, and the need to keep the information private for the time being.

Stunned. Thrilled. This was the story of the birth of my grandson who had been blue, unbreathing, and limp at birth. The grandson with whom I communicated spirit-to-spirit as I coaxed him into opening his eyes and staring straight into mine. This infant, Seth Michael, crossed the threshold and “pinked up” before my eyes, a miracle I had shared with the judges and editors of Petigru.

Writing Seth’s story was a labor of love, an arduous one that involved work, not only in getting the story down but also in editing and revising based on suggestions from my friends in the Camden chapter. Seeing “Come On Sweet Boy” in print in The Petigru Review was worth every painstaking, time-consuming correction.

At last year’s conference, I had the opportunity to read some of “Come On, Sweet Boy” to the attendees. It was emotional, not because of nervousness but because of the subject, that mysterious crossing over to the land of the living. I took a deep breath and read the story as a tribute to my daughter, the young woman who gave life to this sweet boy.

I’ve heard that the people with the best stories are the ones who know how to tell them. What’s your story? Are you willing to tell it? Are you willing to work on the writing of it to make it the truest story you can? Do you have some writer friends who can suggest and recommend edits?

Like me, you could write a prize-winning story with hard work and a little help from your friends.

It’s not too late to join us at the South Carolina Writers’ Association Big Dream Conference at Pawleys Island, SC October 27-29. Check out the website for details. http://www.myscwa.org

 

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Louie and Alma

 

Books, whether fiction or nonfiction, can offer hope, provide inspiration, and even transform lives. Recently, someone told me what she did whenever she began feeling discouraged: “I think of Louie, the man in Unbroken.”

“You too?” I asked, delighted at the further confirmation of the power of reading to help and heal.

Our conversation sent me on a search to find, revise, and repost a long ago blog.

Years ago, I heard a great definition of mental health. It wasn’t scientific or packed with a lot of hifalutin words. It was more like an example, a visual of a person climbing a mountain.

Imagine yourself as that person and think of the ascent as your progression through life. You’re mentally healthy. Up, up, up, you go, and then BAM, something happens. Your heart is broken. Despair swirls all around you. You decide to sit down and have a good cry, a pity party of one.

But sooner or later, a mentally healthy person is going to get up, brush off her shoulders, and say something like, “That was awful, but I’d be crazy to let it continue to get me down. I am so moving on!”

Someone who isn’t as mentally healthy is more likely to lie down and really wallow in it. “Poor me,” she says. “No one has ever had it as bad as I do. No one has ever hurt like this.”

This long ago visual of mental health has resurfaced in my mind because of two books, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things. Unbroken, a story of survival, perseverance, strength, and resilience, tells the amazing life story of Louis Zamperini, a man who went from juvenile delinquent to Olympic track star to Japanese POW in World War II.

“Regardless of what befell Louie, he remained unbroken. The same is true for Alma Whitaker, the protagonist in The Signature of All Things. Though wealthy and intelligent, Alma was unattractive and ungainly. Her father even said so. The man of her dreams married another, and years later when she met someone else, their marriage was brief and tortuous (for Alma). After realizing some cold hard facts, Alma banished Ambrose Pike to Tahiti in anger and deep hurt.

“At one point in the novel, Alma is being held under the water, struggling for her life. Alma thought, ‘Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest.’

“Alma gained strength and pushed through to the surface of the water.

“I’m not as tough as Louie or Alma, but their stories have impressed and inspired me so much that I’ve been sharing their lessons with anyone who will listen. Here’s my takeaway from these two books:

  • Life is tough sometimes. People leave your life; sometimes they die. You must remain unbroken.
  • You might lose your job, the love of your life, your home. You must remain unbroken.
  • You will experience rejection, loss, loneliness, disappointment, and good old despair. You must remain unbroken.
  • Regardless of what befalls you, get up, brush yourself off, and start climbing again. Stay unbroken.

“These two people, one fictional and one real, have strengthened and inspired me. Who are some characters in movies or books who have influenced you?”

Posted in books, inspiration, Liz Gilbert, nonfiction, readng, stories, Uncategorized, writers | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments