Developing Characters and Plots

Today, I attended a Zoom event sponsored by the South Carolina Writers Association, and I’m still pondering how slow I am to realize some things. But wait. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. The presentation, How to Write A Love Poem, was led by Ray McManus and Amber Wheeler Bacon, both teachers and writers who are amazingly knowledgeable about the craft. The conversation was stimulating and educational, and even though the slides were informative, I found myself taking additional notes. Why?

Because I’m a novice when it comes to writing fiction and poetry. I’ll likely never master poetry, but because of attending events such as today’s, going to conferences, reading books about writing, reading more fiction, and joining a writing group, I’ve come a long way from where I was a few years ago. I feel hopeful.

While I was listening and learning earlier this afternoon, I realized that not only did Amber and Ray know much more than I but also that most (maybe all) of the other Zoomers did too. They’ve been at it longer than I have, I reasoned, and then the lightbulb came on a little more brightly. They know more because they’ve studied, practiced, observed, edited, and worked on the craft longer and more earnestly than I.

I have excuses.

  • I was a teacher who always (almost always) tried to do the best job she could do to reach and encourage her students. To do this, I took courses, tried new things, observed what worked for others, and read my student evaluations for tips on improving. My subject area was (is) psychology, and although it was sometimes challenging timewise, I tried to keep up with changes in the field and in other areas that affected teaching (like online instruction, for example).
  • I was a busy mother trying to balance work and home, making everyone happy from the baby at home to the boss at work. It was more doable (or at least less stressful) before the girls became teenagers. I read and tried to follow principles that guaranteed the development of responsible, kind, brave children/adults. Their dad and I often look at them in awe and know we got lucky. They’re the best!
  • I was involved in church callings that required time and attention to matters I initially knew little about. Let’s just say I’m glad they never asked me to conduct music or play the piano.
  • I ran a few marathons and half-marathons, both of which required more than a modicum of training. One day when I was jogging in preparation for a marathon, it began snowing. I ran the three blocks home, rang the doorbell, and asked my son to get me a different coat, one with a more protective head covering. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “Mom, it’s snowing out there.” But no, I was dead serious. I knew if you want to improve (and sometimes if you just want to perform), you have to work hard.

End of excuses

Since one of my courses was Human Relations, and there were few suitable textbooks in that area, Prentice-Hall offered me a contract to write one. I did so. That was hard…but not as hard as writing fiction. Facts are facts, but plot, character development, and dialogue are part of a different world, a genre I’d never studied. Reading fiction is easier than writing it, at least until you begin listening, learning, observing, and communicating with people who know what they’re doing.

So that’s where I am today—trying to learn. It’s not going to be easy peasy, but it’ll be worth it.

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Looking Back…and Ahead

I was once asked if my nickname had been Pollyanna as a child. It didn’t bother me. Isn’t it better to see the bright side of situations? And if there is no bright side, then isn’t it permissible to reframe things so they won’t seem so harsh, horrific, or horrendous? If that doesn’t work, it might be helpful to realize that nothing lasts forever and that you’ll just have to endure it (whatever it might be) until the end. The end could be the end of the Corona virus, the end of a semester, the end of a sickness…….lots of uncomfortable or stressful situations come under this heading.

Oh, I just thought of another strategy, one I often employ, thinking and even saying aloud: “It could be worse.” Because it could. Quick example. Since I’d been out of town for a few days, the cupboards were a little bare, not of essentials but of some of the yummy edibles we like. I didn’t have more than five minutes to think about our scarcity, though. That’s when a picture of a starving child slid onto my Newsfeed with the headline: “Starving Children Don’t Cry.” A glutton for punishment, I gulped and read the article, not so that I’d feel better but because I wanted to understand, to know, to learn.  

I know more now, but I still don’t understand. Why is it that some precious souls are born into extremely dark and dire situations that never seem to improve while others come to Earth with such excessive wealth (not necessarily material) that they can afford to whine about what kind of pizza they want or which pair of shoes (out of say, ten) they should wear to school.

I recall a situation in which teachers purchased some clothing as a Christmas gift for a student who wore an unvarying set of clothing every single day. Do I need to mention that the child was bullied and teased? When the holiday ended and school began anew, the child appeared wearing her old clothes, a little worse for wear, tattered and faded. A little investigating revealed that the mom had sold her child’s clothes for drug money. How can something like this happen when Santa is so darned generous to other kids even when they’ve been naughty?

One recent morning at church, I heard a wise man say a few things about the glass being half empty as opposed to half full, and I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since. Actually. he was talking about popcorn bowls, but the concept is the same. The question is whether you look at life as basically good or basically bad. Are you grateful or ungrateful? Are you happy or miserable? Pleasant or bitter? Hopeful or despairing?

As the holiday season ended and a new year began, I couldn’t help reflecting a bit over 2020’s fall holidays compared to 2019’s. Both years, I saw Thanksgiving decorations in Hobby Lobby as early as August, and those orange and gold leaves, plump pumpkins, and colorful cornucopias put a little pep in my step. In 2019, my children and grandchildren gathered with us at Litchfield Beach from Wednesday to Saturday to celebrate the fourth Thursday in November, but in 2020 we were miles apart, connected electronically for a late afternoon Facetime visit.

Christmas. We gathered with children and grandchildren on a couple of occasions. Risky, yes. But we reasoned that since these were the people we engaged with on a somewhat regular basis, we’d be fine. And I wore a mask most of the time. That’s all I have to say about this.

I didn’t gather with friends, but I’m happily content knowing they were with kith and kin and am happy for the social media peeks into their lives. Absent were the get-togethers and lunches with friends. I’ve learned that no year represents my whole life. I have memories of fabulous gatherings in the past and hopeful thoughts of experiencing them again.

In the meantime, I enjoyed a lot of little things that I might have taken scant notice of earlier. Like the small cedar tree someone decorated on the Sweetgum Trail between Scott Park and Woodward Park. I added a string of garland and two bright shiny balls, and the day before Christmas I noticed that someone had dressed it up with a bright red garland…good thing since the first one was becoming a little dull because of rain and sun.

And before I forget, we had the awesome experience of seeing the Bethlehem Star over the ocean. It was a free experience that cost a few minutes of our time to don jackets, walk out on the pier, and look toward the heavens. Although people were separated from one another, I’m counting it as communal and spiritual.

Next year, I hope others who walk the Sweetrum Trail will add a little something to make it a communal tree lighting our path and bringing cheer along the path. In fact, I hope we’ll all do something each day to add light, beauty, and/or hope into others’ lives.

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Helping or Judging?

Have you ever come across the Chinese proverb about the palest ink being better than the best memory? The moment I heard it, I knew it was true, and I’ve have been jotting down observations, overheard conversations, and highlights from presentations ever since.

Flipping through some notes from a recent LDS Conference, I came across a story about a conversation between two doctors concerning the treatment of a patient who had been hospitalized several times. Told by Dale G. Renlund in his talk titled “Do Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with God,” the story was about a conversation he overheard between two doctors at Johns Hopkins. The physician assigned to the case complained about having to spend so many hours caring for a patient whose problems were self-inflicted by continued alcohol consumption. She was told, “You became a physician to care for people and work to heal people, not to judge them.” (paraphrase).

In his talk, Elder Renlund reminded his listeners that people who love mercy are not judgmental and that they “treat everyone with love and understanding, regardless of race, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and tribal, clan, or national differences.”

But that was nearly a month ago. It wasn’t until this week that a takeaway/application to my own life popped into my mind. “You became a teacher to teach people—and to understand and help them, not to judge them.”

It’s rare that I receive “self-revelation,” and even when and if I do, I’m probably more likely to see it as plain old insight. In any case, I think if you’re more of a judge than a helper, you might consider a different profession. I’m not saying teachers don’t have to make some judgment calls; what I’m saying is that students deserve a fair shake regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, or any other category. I can honestly say I’ve learned more about mercy, humility, and tolerance from my profession than from other areas of my life. My students removed my blinders.

What you share in class forces you to study, to ferret out the truth, and to ponder it before presenting it, always keeping the audience in mind…you try to understand them as a whole, students trying to complete a degree requirement and often dreading your class, and later as individuals with unique backgrounds and perspectives. They’re people.

A few examples spring to mind.

  • A mannerly, quiet student who walked back to building 200 from 1000 after class and said he had something he wanted me to read about the greatest man who ever lived. “Who? Christ?” I asked. ‘No, Mohammed,” he replied. That was the first time I’d met a Muslim (as far I as I know).
  • A smart young woman who also happened to be a single mom struggling to pay bills. Her boyfriend, with whom she was smitten, moved out, leaving her to take care of their two children. It broke my heart slap in two when she said, “Me and Hank, we’re not together no more.” A relative moved in to help with the little ones and brought her live-in boyfriend along. Unfortunately, the boyfriend was mean to the children. You don’t know nuttin about struggling, Jayne.
  • A handsome young black man who always looked sullen and somewhat resentful. Then one morning, everything changed when I handed him a test (this was before we did everything paperless) and remarked that he didn’t look very happy that day. He looked at me with the saddest eyes ever and said, “Oh, Mizz Bowers, my little puppy’s sick. She’s sick, and I’m so worried about her that I can’t think of anything else.” Genuinely shocked at this revelation and the awareness that I’d misjudged him, I said I was sorry.

This afternoon, I’m taking Renlund’s words a step further because they apply to me, to you, to everyone—not just to doctors and teachers but to all humans. If you hear me saying “judgy” (not a real word) things, call me out on it.

P.S. I’ve come a long way and am striving to be more woke. Yesterday I saw two people with blue hair and thought “cool” instead of “crazy.” In fact, I’m kind of tempted to….

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A Matter of Perspective

Some people squawked about it. Isn’t that always the way? No matter how good the program is, there are always some folks who complain and whine about having to attend. Once there, sometimes they pipe down when they realize the value of the message(s), and other times they continue to sigh (loudly) in boredom, roll their eyes, and in general act as if they’ve been asked to attend a conference on the value of planting blueberries in China.

On this particular morning about forty years ago, the faculty and staff had been assembled to listen to a couple of presentations on cultural diversity. Many were looking forward to it. After all, it was a topic we needed and wanted (most of us) to know more about. The times they were a-changin’, and while my friends and I welcomed the changes, we soon learned that others resented and in some cases, feared them.

After an initial meet and greet period, the first speaker began her presentation. Right away, there was a negative reaction from a few in the audience—mostly men. What, after all, could she, a woman, say about cultural diversity that they didn’t already know? A lot. Seriously, as a person who managed to keep up with sociological trends, I’d somehow missed the hard and true facts of gender wage inequalities. At that time, I knew that females made about 70 percent of what males in similar roles and occupations made, but I didn’t know how deeply that affected my salary then and in the future. If things didn’t improve, my retirement would be minuscule compared to my male colleagues. Maybe not minuscule but substantially less.

While I was pondering my possible bleak retirement years and my current situation of working the second shift (the one women worked in their homes after eight hours on the job), I began feeling a tad resentful. How could this be happening right before my eyes, the eyes that had read and studied data about gender inequities for years. Did I not think the stats applied to me?

Another person joined the primary presenter and introduced another factor, that of race. Being raised in the South, I had seen this factor played out time and time again. In my hometown, for instance, in the 50s black Americans were allowed to work for one of the city’s biggest employers as long as they (1) worked in separate areas and (2) performed lower level tasks (whatever that might mean to you). After a number of years and the passing of Civil Rights legislation, the situation improved.

Back to the day of the cultural diversity training. One of the men who had made his discontent and annoyance known throughout the morning became so obnoxious that one of the presenters asked him if he would like to add something. You bet he did. A paraphrase I’ve never forgotten: “I just don’t understand what all the hullabaloo is about. I mean, I never wake up in the morning thinking I’m a white man.”

You could have heard a pin drop. After a few seconds, a colleague said quietly, “You’ve never had to.”

I don’t recall how that specific exchange ended, but I do know a lot of hearts and minds were changed that day. My colleague who’d been so feisty and irritated didn’t know how it felt to wake up black, female, Asian, disabled, or anything other than what he was–a white man in America.

That was about forty years ago, and although people are more “woke” today, many have a hard time imagining another’s perspective. Recently, a friend of about sixty announced in an upbeat voice that he could see the world from the viewpoint of a white sixty-something year-old. “I know what you mean,” I said. And I do. I see the world through the lens of an older white woman who’s still sometimes caught off guard by the changes around her…and this is despite studying and pondering societal change throughout decades of living and observing.

Still, I try. I earnestly try to look at behavior, choices, and beliefs of others from their perspective, not mine. It’s challenging, yes. But is there any other way?

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Peanut Butter or Almond Butter?

One of my hardest decisions yesterday was whether to have crunchy peanut butter or crunchy almond butter on my Honeycrisp apple slices. I opted for the peanut butter and plopped down in a comfy chair in our sunroom to read a book I’d ordered from Amazon, Humans by Brandon Stanton.

At first, I skimmed through the pages looking at the photographs. It’s amazing how a skilled photographer can capture not only the image itself, but also something of the subject’s mood, essence, and personality. The woman on page 119 is crying as she relates her story to Stanton, and one gets the feeling that there are always unshed tears behind her smiles. Her mother hated her. Except for spirits and fairies and Mother Mary, she’s lived a lonely existence.

The best thing that ever happened to me was having parents who loved me.

Speaking of mothers, the child on page 87 visits his mom in prison every fifteen days. No one else wants him…not even his grandmother. His siblings have little to do with him, and his uncle beats him up. Although he sleeps on the street, the week before Stanton took his picture, a man bought him clothes and food and said he could sleep at his house.

A friend often says little children just want someone to hold their hands and tuck them in at night. They need food and hugs and shelter too.

On page 338, there’s the image of a man whose story revolves around his favorite child, the one he “loved most.” When he was a youngster, the favorite would sometimes put some of his toys in the dad’s briefcase, and as he got older, the child would call and check on his father and sometimes take him to lunch. But there was trouble brewing in Paradise, and the father learned that his son was stealing from him in order to pay off loan sharks. Now elderly, the father has only his pension to live on and hides from his beloved son, mainly because he knows if he saw his son, he would help him again.

I think of my children and grandchildren every hour of every day, but no one has stolen from me or broken my heart. I just wish they’d call more often.

The strong woman looking at the photographer (and the reader) from pages 282 – 291 is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Of the twelve people in her family, she is the only survivor. When the soldiers came to the house of a Tutsi widow where she was staying with her mother and sisters, she jumped out of the window and hid in a tree, listening to their screams until she fainted. She had already seen her father killed, and they “finished him off with machetes.”

I use mosquito spray when they’re buzzing around. The woman in the story reports that malaria was an ever-present danger for those who hid in the swamps and estimates that fifty percent of the people who hid there were eaten by crocodiles

Humans has some uplifting stories too. And yet, for some reason the images and stories that demonstrate struggle are the ones that touched my mind and spirit. It’s not all apples and peanut butter out there, and the contrast between my challenges and those of many of the people in the book are stark. I can’t save the world, but I can share kind words, money, food, and hugs.

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Change or Die

Based on the prompting of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance and the gratitude journal that accompanies it, I began a journal of my own about twenty  years ago. Like Sarah (my friend June and I came to think of her as a friend with whom we were on a first name basis), I simply listed a minimum of five things for which I was grateful each day.

Did I ever run out of things to put on my list? Never. Even sad, uneventful, or frustrating days provided something to be grateful for. As Sarah said, “Even lousy days possess hidden wonder.” A couple of decades later in the midst of an ongoing worldwide pandemic, I focus on that thought more than ever.

But here’s the problem. The entries were so darned boring…and kind of skimpy. Don’t get me wrong. They provide a nice chronicle of goings-on in my life, and it’s exciting to look back and read that I hosted a bridal shower on Saturday, April 22nd  and that Elizabeth and I spent much of Friday, December 30th in Provo.

BUT there needed to be more detail. What year was it? Who was at the shower? What did we eat? What kinds of gifts did Heather receive? What did she wear? And the Provo trip. I can easily recall tons of details, but I didn’t any of them down. Our posterity might want to read about the excursion someday. Would they find it interesting that we were awed by Temple Square and that it began snowing as we enjoyed Sonic Blasts somewhere between Salt Lake City and Provo?

As years went by, my journal entries got a little less neat as I got away from lists and ventured into occasional paragraphs…and even pages. Those are the entries that are fun to read. Following is a detailed entry that I came across while preparing for a recent class on journal writing. It’s much meatier than “Went to mall.”  I’m not correcting grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure, so don’t judge.

“Something interesting happened as we were standing in the mall watching the children. A petite woman about 60 with long gray hair and a pretty face and nice eyes (the hubs described them as sparkly) approached us and seemed taken with Ethan. He smiled at her, and then she and I started talking. She told me she had been a substitute teacher until her husband retired and wouldn’t let her work anymore.

“The word “let” was my first clue that there might problems in paradise. He’s apparently something of a grouch who sees her as a caregiver period, and he’s not really even sick—yet. I spouted off a number of platitudes from behavioral psychology including, “What you allow will continue” and some self-actualization truths like, “You deserve the best that life and love have to offer.”

“She spied him walking by (with a glare in our direction), and we hugged before she hustled to catch up with him. I’m wondering how things are with her today. She said that despite everything, she wants to stay married. Doesn’t want to get into the dating game.

“Jane Doe was her name. The hubs said he’d seen us hugging and thought I must have known her from my earlier life, the one in Myrtle Beach. But no, we were strangers, and sometimes it’s just easier to form an instant connection with some people than with others.”

Update. That encounter took place when my grandson was a toddler. He’s eight now, and quite frankly, if I hadn’t added any details, the memory would have floated off into oblivion. And without details, there would be no bones for a story…or a lesson in self-preservation around bullies.

Postscript. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that this scene is the first one I spotted when flipping through that old journal today. I know some folks who need to be reminded of their self-worth. Do you?

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Cholla or Magnolia?

About fifteen years ago, we had dinner guests whom I’d never seen before and will likely never see again. I remember them by something they discussed, a topic I’d never considered that much—the trees in the Palmetto State: their variety, greenness, and abundance.  

The guests were from California, here in South Carolina to pick up their son who had completed a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were excited to be taking him home and wanted to see some of the sights he had seen and meet some of the people he’d known. I don’t remember where the young man had served besides Camden and Charleston, but Charleston was a place his parents had read about, and the history, the Battery, the Citadel, the carriage tours—all of it captivated their interest and helped them decide to make the trip to South Carolina to collect their missionary rather than have him board a plane for home.

Before arriving at our home, they’d spent the day in Charleston, and rather than stay on I-26, they opted to ride some secondary roads that would allow a closer look at the real South Carolina. The foursome exited the interstate somewhere near Santee and discovered a charming little town called Elloree and eventually ended up in Sumter. All was well. But somewhere on Hwy 521 between Sumter and Camden, they (especially the mother)  began to feel a bit overwhelmed by the curving, tree-lined roads that seemed to go on and on.

“It seemed like we’d been riding forever, and we were still fifteen miles away from Camden,” the mother told me. Trying to understand her astonishment, I said, “Uh-huh” and nodded in encouragement. I wanted to hear more.

“Where we’re from,“ she continued, “you can drive a straight line from point A to point B even though it might be miles and miles away. I’m talking fifty miles or more,” she said with more than a hint of perplexity and perhaps a little irritation, too. 

“And there aren’t many trees to block the view either,” she said. 

At the time, I thought it was kind of amusing. After all, I traveled that stretch of road nearly every day and knew exactly how to gauge the distance. I could feel the landscape and its beautiful trees, fields, hills, and curves.

When we visited Utah, Arizona, and South Dakota years later, I remembered the missionary’s mom and understood what she meant. If I’d grown up around Cholla cactus and Ponderosa pines, my psyche and sense of place would have been different—not better or worse, just different. Instead, I grew up around oak and elm trees—magnolia too, and dogwood. Green lushness, magnolia blossoms, profusions of pink azaleas, and the delicate blooms of dogwoods and crepe myrtles were my companions during the spring and summer. Red, orange, and golden leaves led the way from fall to winter. Interwoven with the seasons, native trees formed my life’s background and setting, something I’ve just come to know and appreciate. 

Recently a friend introduced me to the work of Terry Tempest Williams, a writer, activist, environmentalist, and teacher from Utah. One of the reviewers for Refuge, the book I’m currently reading, said Williams shows how human emotional life can become intertwined with a particular landscape. So true, I thought. I’m beginning to recognize that more each day.

What about you? How has your environment affected you and formed the background for your life? Or has it?

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Twenty-three Books?

When I went to work at Central Carolina in 2002, I overheard a short conversation I’ve never forgotten. It was during that welcome back/orientation/registration period when faculty were freer to talk and exchange ideas.

“So what’d you do this summer?” one co-worker asked another.

“I read twenty-three books, give or take,” she said.

I turned around to get a good look at the speaker, knowing she was someone I wanted to get to know. Since that day nearly eighteen years ago, I’ve tried to meet that quota. It hasn’t happened—probably never will. BUT I’ve read more books this summer than anytime in my life, and I give COVID19, my reader friend, and Stephen King the credit. Interestingly, every book is somehow linked to the others.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King

A neighbor introduced me to the work of Chaim Potok a year ago, and The Chosen, the first of his novels I read, led me to more of his work and to other Jewish literature, including nonfiction. This afternoon I dipped into Good Book by David Plotz, a book described as being an “irreverent, enthralling journey through the world’s most important work of literature.” Earlier this summer, I read a novel based on a Jewish family who survived the Holocaust, We Were the Lucky Ones. Confession: I busted out with strong emotion during a passage toward the end. It’s rare for me to get choked up while reading

Last month, someone recommended Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longing, and I promptly ordered it for my Kindle. Amazing writing. We all know who Jesus is and how He died, but that doesn’t take away from the story and its thrall. In the novel, He marries Ana, a young woman who must flee to Egypt with her aunt, and the reader knows that Christ’s mission has begun. While in Alexandria, Ana’s life is, um, sheltered and precarious at the same time. Curious and clever, she is quite the scholar, unusual and dangerous in her world. She has a voice and uses it to write her ideas and longings.

I’m well aware that there’s no mention of Christ being married in the Bible. But my purpose isn’t to argue about that. No one can win that discussion.

The book’s nature is informative and fascinating. It’s a story, several actually, that totally immerses the reader in the time and place of its occurrence. I’d never considered how hard Jesus’s family’s life must have been; how the Passover scene sounded, looked, and smelled; how dusty the road to Calvary was; and the dis-ease caused by occupation of the Romans. I knew these things, but Kidd’s thorough research and narrative style helped me feel present in the life and times of Jesus.

Reading Longings led me to The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, another of Monk’s works, this one nonfiction. Much of it was beyond my current scope of knowledge and understanding, but I could feel everything she wrote. Patriarchy is alive and well in all religions that I’m familiar with, and yet it’s something I’ve never questioned. Kidd’s words forced me to examine my beliefs and ideas, not only in religion but also in other elements of society.

When my daughters were in elementary school, one of them had a male teacher, the only one in the school. Why? A sociology text hinted that teachers were like mommies away from home, there to clean noses and dry tears, something that women were coded to do. More males began to appear in elementary schools, and more females began popping up in places from which they had previously been excluded, like government, medicine, and law.

Last week, I was introduced to the work of Terry Tempest Williams, a writer, activist, naturalist, and environmentalist from Utah whose writing touched my soul. I just finished When Women Were Birds and am working on Refuge. Both books are about finding one’s voice and the myriad connections between the natural world and its people. She was raised in the Latter-Day Saint culture, something that makes her writing even more interesting, profound, and personal.

Some seeds have been planted in all that reading, y’all. Remembering my friend’s twenty-three books and King’s advice pushed me to do more reading during the summer of Corona, an action that will hopefully motivate my muse mojo.

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Stuck on a Story

“Maybe it’s. time for you to write some poetry,” my writer friend said.

“Yeah, right,” I said, knowing full well that I have a snowball’s chance in you know where of writing a decent poem. She went on to say that a lot of the stuff (see how good I am at thinking of just the right word) I’ve written in the past is already like poetry—just needs a little doctoring up.

I appreciate her words of encouragement, and maybe one day I’ll give poetry a shot, but right now I just want to write a decent short story. I know how to do it. That’s not the problem. I can talk about conflict and resolution with the best of ‘em and can easily spot the structure in other people’s work. I can even write decent beginnings and endings. With the help of my critique group, I’ve learned a whale of a lot about decent dialogue, the importance of setting a scene, how to develop characters, and dozens of other elements of fiction that I didn’t know about six or seven years ago.

Why is that? I’ve wondered about that lack of knowledge many times over the years, and the only answers I’ve come up with are that (1) I read more nonfiction than fiction and that (2) I don’t have a vivid imagination. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good novel and can get lost in a well-crafted short story. But honestly, I’ve never studied fiction writing as a form until recently and have spent my entire professional life reading and writing nonfiction. And while I’m being honest, I’ll go ahead and announce that my grandchildren have written short stories that demonstrate more creativity and promise than anything I’ve written so far. Maybe they’ll give me some tips.

Back to structure. I’ve been working on an awakening that I experienced in a Nashville bar and grill a few years ago. My husband had one resolute goal: hearing some live music performed in Music City on a Saturday night. I won’t go into the story right now. I’ve written and rewritten it so many times that it’s lost its energy. Stale and flat. A man in my critique group made a sole comment: “It’s not juicy enough.” And you know what? He’s right. I swallowed my pride and looked through the middle of the story, the part where some action should be taking place, and yet all that’s happening is people talking…and they’re talking in a forced, artificial way. Boring.

In discussing the issue with a writer par excellence yesterday, she suggested that I put it away for a while. I’ve been doing that off and on for three years. After assuring me that she had dozens and dozens of such stories, I felt better. That’s when she suggested poetry. But I’ve got some other ideas cooking.

Enforced isolation has given me more time to read and reflect, not just on what I read but also on the world and its people, situations, and history. I see more clearly how being raised in the American South in the 1950s as a white girl influenced my worldview. Rocket science, right? Seriously, I’ve been so busy getting and spending all my adult life that I haven’t had the contemplative time to process the imprint of society on all of us.

Next up, gender issues. Or social injustice, intersectionality, kindness, or the importance of being a decent human being.

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Addy’s Granddaughter

Good readers make good writers. At least that’s what I keep telling myself when I fail to work on a story or submit something I’ve already written. In my critique group, sometimes we talk about workshopping a piece to death, and I’ve been guilty of doing that, too. A few weeks ago, a fellow writer told me the writing in one of my stories that takes place is Nashville was “fine,” but that I needed to make it more juicy.

“Juicy?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. Just juicier. It’s hard to explain.”

Actually, I think I know what he meant and have been trying to spice the story up with stronger nouns and verbs and more vivid descriptions. But for today, I just want to share a review of a book I just finished, We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter. It was well-written, jam-packed with historical information, and filled with well-developed characters who really lived–some still do.

But enough preliminaries. Here’s the review I placed on Amazon.

“Each time I read a book about the Holocaust, Jewish history, or a Jewish novel, I think, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read,” and for a week or so, it is. And then another one finds its way into my heart and mind. We Were the Lucky Ones did just that, and I think it’s going to stay with me for a long, long time.

“A family saga about two parents, Sol and Nechuma Kruc, and their children and grandchildren during WWI, the novel begins in Poland and takes the reader to many parts of the world, including Morocco and Brazil, and the forests, gulags, and ghettos, and mountains within. The couple’s five children are separated from their parents and each other for much of the novel, and there is suffering, anguish, hardship, fear, perseverance every day for each one of them. Through their experiences, the reader gets an up close and personal view of the horrors of the era as seen through the perspective of various family members.

“One of the five Kruc children, Addy, has a granddaughter, Georgia Hunter, who upon learning of the amazing history of her family and their experiences, embarks on years of extensive research to reveal this work of historical fiction based on true events. I knew this novel was going to be powerful when I read Hunter’s epigraph at the beginning: “By the end of the Holocaust, 90 percent of Poland’s three million Jews were annihilated; of the more than thirty thousand Jews who lived in Radom, fewer than three hundred.”

“Although I’ve read Night, The Hiding Place, Survival in Auschwitz, Anne Frank, Mila 18, The Hiding Place, and several Chaim Potok novels, this book really got to me and raised my consciousness to a higher level. I think it was because of the people, real people and their families, many of whom still live today.”

If it’s true that good readers make good writers, Georgia Hunter’s historical fiction surely added to my knowledge of how to improve my writing. Somehow she managed to write her family’s survival of the Holocaust and show the importance of perseverance, courage, hope, and a strong will to live.

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