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.

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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.

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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.

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Smoke on the Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let It Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Granddaddy sing, too?” I asked.

“Heavens no,” Sue replied with a grin.

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

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

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

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.

Posted in books, fiction, inspiration, novels, readng, story telling, Uncategorized, words, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Faulkner’s Nancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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