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.

Posted in book reviews, books, families, family history, nonfiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Aim for Paradise

Since this is a blog devoted to reading and writing and since I’ve done more of the former than the latter lately, I’m sharing a little about a book that I found engaging, informative, and aware (or more aware). By Jordan Peterson, it’s titled 12 Rules for Life.

I thought this was a book about living a better life. So why was the author writing about lobsters in the first chapter? Because lobsters are similar to humans in how serotonin affects their confidence and behavior…and because Jordan Peterson is a brilliant writer who knows how to effectively use research in interesting and sometimes amusing ways to get his points across.

It turns out that the lowly lobster had become a sort of unofficial symbol on tee-shirts and other memorabilia owned by Peterson fans. Stand up straight and face the bullies; it’ll improve your confidence and embolden your behavior. Plus, you’ll be in a better mood, not bitter or sullen. Read all about it in Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

The 12 rules are basic and familiar to almost everyone, “almost everyone“ because some people either don’t know the rules or they don’t see the importance of following them. For example, bird of a feather flock together and people are known by the company they keep fit neatly under Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you. Peterson shares some history from his formative years and offers much food for thought about how relationships affect us for better or worse. When a person spends too much time around the wrong sorts of people, they become diminished, and “much of what they could have been has been dissipated.”

Rule 5 should resound with parents who truly desire a satisfying life for their child. As a mother, grandmother, aunt, and teacher, the sterling advice in this chapter can’t be dismissed. Toward the end of the chapter Peterson offers five disciplinary principles beginning with “limit the rules” and ending with “act as proxies for the real world.” He reiterates what I’ve learned from experience and observation: “It is the primary duty to make their children socially acceptable.”

Peterson added a coda to the end of his book, and I enjoyed that as much as the rules themselves. “What Shall I Do with My Newfound Pen of Light?” he asks and then proceeds to share some soul-stirring questions and answers. I’ll mention only one. “What shall I do with my life? Aim for Paradise and concentrate on today.” Profound and stirring, yet simple.

All of Peterson’s rules are solid, and not only does he develop them with an engaging writing style and documented evidence, he also sprinkles the book with information about  the Old Testament and New Testament Gods, Cain and Abel, Jung and Freud, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn, Adam and Eve, and a host of other interesting and credible persons.

Sometimes the reading is slow going because of the wealth of information and the thought-provoking style of the book. It’s worth it, though. Take the time.

Posted in book reviews, books, inspiration, nonficion, personal growth, psychology, reading, religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Attitude Adjustment

Ever had something come along at just the right time, something that made you wake up and see truth? A moment when you felt woke? One day last week two incidents occurred within such a short period of time that I knew it couldn’t be coincidental.

One of my dozens of favorite new books is The Pocket Muse: ideas and inspirations for writing by Monica Wood. Its layout and plethora of ideas are original and inspirational. After reading “A Note from the Department of Attitude Adjustment” (at end of post after wingdings), I sent it to members of my writing group in case anyone, including me, needed a prompt to get his or her mojo going. The next morning a perfect opportunity presented itself, an ungrateful person who got an attitude adjustment.

I was sitting in our sunroom, a renovated screened-in porch complete with windows that allow awesome views of nature at her best—morning, noon, and dusk. I’ve been known to stop my goings-on, usually reading or writing, in mid-sentence to watch low-flying birds circle the yard, a neighborhood cat stealthily stalk and pounce a tiny bird, or squirrels scamper up, down, and across tree limbs. 

On this particular morning, I was reading Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy when my husband appeared in the doorway, a small bundle of clothing tucked under his arm, to let me know he was going to his daughter’s house to take a shower before meeting friends for a weekly breakfast. Lucky us, we have family nearby with plenty of water for bathing, drinking, cleaning, teeth brushing, hand washing, and all the other uses I pretty much always take for granted.

It was so unfair! How was I supposed to shampoo my hair with no water? How long before the City of Camden repaired the water main? Sulking, I returned to Lamott’s book and soon came upon a passage in which she described a tribe of people in Senegal whose water supply was dwindling daily. Not only were their wells dry; so were those of nearby villages. Team members from Project Hunger arrived to assess the situation and offer assistance. Expecting to come across sullen, complaining, angry people languishing near death, they were surprised to see a group of happy, “joyous,” optimistic people dressed in colorful tribal attire. Scarily thin, yes. Despairing, no.

The women of the village had seen a vision—all of them, many times—and they had a plan. The problem was that the men were dead set against it. In the shared vision, the women saw a lake beneath the ground, and they wanted to dig until they hit water. The project team convinced the mullahs to allow the digging, and for over a year, the women dug with small utensils and their hands, and one day, the vision became reality. The lake was there. Throughout the digging, the men watched from a distance as they worked, often drumming in the background.


Your turn. Try using the above prompt from The Pocket Muse to write about a time you experienced an attitude adjustment.

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A Master Story Teller

I read a couple of Ron Rash’s stories in Burning Bright this morning, and like always when I read the work of a master storyteller, I stand amazed at the craftmanship and intensity of the story. “Back of Beyond” is especially strong. From the way Rash uses the weather and setting to set the tone to how he uses the interplay of characters to convey relationships and consequences is amazing. Absolutely amazing. 

I’ll get back to several elements that make “Back of Beyond” so memorable in another post. This afternoon I’m focusing on one little, yet huge, variable in relationships that Rash conveys better in fiction than most writers can do in nonfiction. As a semi-retired psychology instructor, I’m familiar with the concept of “enabling” and could write a definition and provide several examples. Yet I KNOW that all would fall short of what Rash does in the culminating scenes of the story. 

Ray and Martha, probably middle aged, are shivering under quilts in a trailer without heat while their son Danny, a meth addict, and his current girlfriend are dozing beneath a quilt in his parents’ home. The parents are scared to go home because of reasons you’ll have to read about in the story. Suffice it to say that they’ve pretty much turned their home over to Danny, and they’ve moved into his trailer. Parsons, the brother of the middle-aged man shivering in the trailer, takes matters into his own hands, and at some point, Ray and Martha are able to return to their home. The son and his lady friend are no longer there. No one died. At least not in the story.

But here’s the thing. His mother says several things that let the reader know how much she loves her son—and that her love has enabled him to continue his current lifestyle. I’m not holding Ray, the father, unaccountable. It’s just that in the story, it’s Martha who says, “It ain’t his fault.” And then, “It ain’t Danny’s fault.” And after Parsons brings them food and reinstates them in their home with a promise to have the electricity cut on the next day, Martha says “You had no right.” 

So what is the fine line between loving and enabling? Why can’t some parents see that difference? Why can’t some parents/friends/loved ones see that enabling is crippling to everyone involved?

I can’t answer those questions. All I know is that one day I’d like to write a story as believable and well-done as “Back of Beyond.” Truthfully, I’d be happy to write one half as well-done.

Posted in book reviews, fiction, readng, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly

So much to think about, so little time to write…at least in any coherent fashion. Yet if I continue to wait until my muse mojo is visiting, well, let’s just say it might not happen. So while the newfound knowledge and the excitement I felt while learning it is still with me, I’m sharing a few things you too might find helpful.

At a recent SCWA (South Carolina Writers’ Association) writing retreat, I learned so many things that it makes me wonder about the multitudinous* things I’m still completely ignorant about. It’d be amusing if I weren’t so sad. For instance, one speaker mentioned in a casual way that a good method for getting into a flashback was to use “had” in a sentence moving into the memory and then just going for it. “It had been a sweltering day at the lake. We walked down to the water’s edge and saw….Maria gasped.” 

I listened politely but didn’t write it down. I had already picked up that helpful hint at another conference, and hearing it again was a reminder of how grateful and enlightened I’d felt when learning it. “Ah, I had thought. So that’s how you do it.” 

But here’s something I learned from a session entitled “Repetition and Evolution” that was truly eye-opening. Your characters can’t keep doing the same things over and over again without something happening. The same event(s) can’t keep occurring without some sort of resolution, even if it’s a dire one. Even if loss, heartache, illness, or even death result, something’s gotta give. 

The two presenters used several books and short stories to illustrate this concept, but the one I could most identify with was a children’s book titled There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. She swallowed several other items too, and the reader begins to think that something’s got to happen. She can’t go on swallowing things and continue to live. After the cat gets gulped down, I began to realize (like all readers probably do), that things are looking bad for this old lady. I mean, who can swallow a horse and live? Something has to happen and it does.

I recently discussed the repetition/evolution structure with a friend who’s writing a tension filled novel about spousal abuse. With careful planning and help from friends along the escape route, the abused spouse has fled the scene. She feels it’s her only choice, and from the picture the writer has painted, full of tension and downright fear, the protagonist is right. She needs to get out of Dodge posthaste. 

But here’s the burning question: what’s going to happen? How is this novel going to evolve? The abused woman can’t run forever. Is her husband going to die? Is he going to find her and do a little more pummeling? Or will he kill her? Or perhaps he’ll have an accident and go over a cliff on the search to find her? Maybe his car will explode from a bomb that ignites when he pushes the Start button. The possibilities are many, and I know this writer is aware of it and is in the process of creating the perfect evolvement right this minute.

Something else I’ve learned recently helped me to reconcile feelings of anger with understanding when I read an essay titled “A House in Collapse: Empathy in the Face of Unforgivable Acts.” But that’s a story for another day. Right now I need to ponder how to put repetition and evolution in a story I’m playing with.

*I know my critique group would disapprove of this word, but honestly, it’s the best one I could think of for this situation.

Posted in books, critique groups, stories, Uncategorized, workshops, writing, writing conferences, writing fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reading and Writing

I’m a fledging writer. Well, maybe I’m a couple of baby steps beyond that, but every single day of my life I read something that just about knocks my socks off. See? I can hardly write without using a cliché. What I’m trying to say is that there are hundreds of thousands of writers who can tell stories or write nonfiction far better than I. And poetry? Sheesh. Let’s don’t even go there. I admire people who can write poems, but at this moment, it seems like an impossibility to me.

That said, I well understand that reading is a companion to writing. Whether one is reading the ingredients in Cheerios, a comic book, one of the classics, literary journals, or the New York Times, he or she is learning—not just about the world and its people, places, and things, but also about word usage, sentence structure, and description. But here’s a confession: until I joined a critique group, I never once considered studying how things were put together.

Now I look more seriously at the story behind the story, the theme that the author might not come right how and tell you but is there…always there. I look at how she or he begins a story or chapter or book and how the writer ends it. Does the end of the chapter leave the reader longing to turn the page to see what happens? Does the beginning give a sense of time and place? Is the protagonist introduced?

Oops. I’ve veered off course. My primary purpose of this post is to once again share my admiration for an author I “met” a few months ago, Chaim Potok. A Jewish writer, he introduced me to the world of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who lived during the 1930s and 40s, and my interest was captured right away. I watched the Shtisel series and didn’t even notice they were speaking Yiddish! 

I stumbled upon The Chosen a few months ago and became interested in Jewish history, beliefs, and lifestyle. “Read The Promise next,” a friend said. “You’ll meet Danny and Reuven as adults.” But I ignored her and read In the Beginning, primarily because I found it at a Friends of the Library Sale. My Name is Asher Lev and I Am the Clay soon joined my queue of Potok’s books, all of which are extremely well-written and filled with fascinating information presented in novel form.

I finally read The Promise a few weeks ago. In it, Potok brings the reader into the lives of Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders as adults whom I first met as boys in The Chosen. The guidance of their fathers, one a teacher and the other a rabbi, influenced their life paths without actually determining them. The young men made their own choices. Weaving its way in, around, over, above, and through everything is the Jewish religion and the strong influence it has on every character in the novel—even those who are seeking change and attempting to move forward. 

Integral to the story are the connections between other individuals in their lives, including the Gordon families. Will Reuven receive smicha from Rav Kalman, a man who attacked Reuven’s father’s work? Will his father continue teaching in his current yeshiva? Will Michael recover from his catatonic state? What does the future hold for Danny and Rachel? Danny and Reuven and all other characters in the novel are part of a network of people who support, teach, and influence one another. So am I, I thought. Everyone is, even though all interconnections are not created equally. Relationships, just as they are in “real life,” are interdependent, and some are healthier and more helpful than others. 

I enjoy reading fiction and nonfiction, historical fiction and narrative nonfiction—all sorts of literature. Everything I’ve really appreciated, however, is something that’s made me think, something I’ve learned from, or something that has shone on a light on a social, cultural, or even personal situation. Sure, I enjoy reading for entertainment and amusement, but the primary criteria of whether I recommend a book is how well the author tells a story (or several) that illuminates life issues. The Promise does that—and more. 

Posted in book reviews, books, fiction, nonficion, reading, stories, Uncategorized, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Powerful Words at Goodwill

I enjoy going to old bookstores (new ones too) and thrift shops for book browsing. There’s no telling what treasures you’ll find there. Even if you don’t purchase a book, there are certain to be snippets of food for thought, passages that touch your heart, or facts that you didn’t know until that moment. Case in point: Winnie the Pooh was inspired by a real-life black bear purchased by a veterinary surgeon and captain in the Canadian Army. Who knew?

Friday as my friend and I surfed through the book selection in the back-left corner of a Goodwill in Fletcher, NC, she came across one of our favorites from the late 1970s, M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. She plucked it from the shelf, opened the book, and turned to me with an amused look, the kind that says, “Get ready. I’m gonna ask you something.” She was a teacher; I know that look.

“Do you remember the first sentence in here?” she asked, turning the book’s cover toward me.

“How could I forget? ‘Life is difficult.’ Those three words stung me, and I had to read more.”  Satisfied with my answer, she glanced back at the page.

“Doesn’t he go on to say that once a person accepts that life is difficult, then she can start solving problems?” I asked.

“Something like that,” she said, skimming the first couple of pages.

“I might buy it,” I said. “I know I have a copy somewhere at home, but I might run into somebody who needs to it, and I can’t part with mine.”

According to Dr. Peck, people moan more or less incessantly about how unfair life it and how their suffering and their problems are somehow deeper and more painful than others. Peck says he knows about this moaning because he’s done his share of it. He states that life is a series of problems and asks whether the reader wants to moan about them or solve them.

Rereading the first page of Peck’s seminal work reminded me of two things: (1) beginnings are important and (2) his book is filled with truth—and with some easy-to-understand ways of solving problems and alleviating pain and undue suffering. 

  • There are numerous examples of the importance of beginnings, but in the present situation, I’m referring to the beginning three words of The Road Less Traveled: Life is difficult. As mentioned earlier, they drew me in. As someone who wants to improve her writing, I’m learning the importance of beginnings in setting scenes, introducing characters, and capturing the attention of the reader.
  • Notice that I said easy to understand, not easy to practice. It’s difficult for people to give up their problems. Sometimes they don’t even recognize the fact that they themselves are responsible for bringing much of their suffering on themselves; it’s easier, after all, to blame it on someone or something else. And although I’m a little hesitant to say this, some people get a lot of mileage (sympathy and attention for starters) for their long-suffering. Woe is me and all that.

Mental health is a serious matter, and I’m not making light of it. I’m saying that there are proven ways to gain insight into one’s difficulties and work through them. Work is the operative word. “We cannot solve life’s problems except by solving them. This statement may seem idiotically tautological or self-evident, yet it is seemingly beyond the comprehension of much of the human race. This is because we must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it….I can solve a problem only when I say, “This is my problem, and it’s up to me to solve it.” (p.32)

A simplified version of Dr. Peck’s advice follows:

  • Nothing changes if nothing changes.
  • If not me, then who?
  • If not now, then when?

By the way, other pluses of reading The Road are several case studies (stories, y’all!), a powerful discussion about love, and many of the topics in the chapter “Grace,” including the miracles of the unconscious and of health. Sometimes I feel like words never die; they just jump from mind to mind. Dr. Peck’s powerful words influenced my thinking and teaching forty years ago…and still do.

I bought the copy last week. It’s yours if you want it.

Posted in book stores, books, nonfiction, personal growth, psychology, readng, Scott Peck, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Smoke on the Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Webs and Writing Groups

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

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

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

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

“What? Really? You mean that?”

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I told her: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mattie and Ethan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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