Posted in Storytelling

The Story Gatherer and the Fairy Chairs

For a few weeks now I’ve been grappling with recent rejections. One day I’m strong and tough skinned and two days later, the disappointment at not having sold my novel creeps in and wraps its greasy little paws around my neck.

This morning as I sat in bed with my tea, I asked myself if I was depressed. No, not depressed. I didn’t want to hurt myself or anyone else. I wasn’t planning on staying in bed all day. Joy of life? Well, it was a little compromised, a “down, but not out” sort of thing.

I talk out loud to myself sometimes, a habit that amuses my husband but helps to bring me clarity.

Me: What do you want to do?

Me: Go into town and look for stories. I want to be a story gatherer today.

Me: Okay, take your camera.

So I did. I drove into Lithia Park and began to wander the artisan stands at the edge of the creek. I talked to a photographer who told me about his printing technique. His beautiful pictures were too perfect for my taste, but I appreciated that he’d captured the essence of the trees that shade this area like giant sentries.

I talked to a woman who makes brightly colored pillows and potholders. She told me about how her crafts are only part time and the rest of the time she works for her ex-husband in his construction business. She spoke in glowing terms of how they had found peace with each other.

People’s polite narratives are not that interesting. I long to see the heart of the matter, the source of meaning, fueled by angst and distress. It wasn’t until I got to the third booth, and met the woman who made fairy chairs, that I was ignited by a story.

I snapped a picture of the chairs.”

She pointed at my camera. “You should ask first,” she said with a thin edge of razor like sharpness.

“Sorry. Do you mind if I take a picture?”

She nodded.

“When did you start making fairy chairs?” I asked her.

“I had a life altering experience,” she said. “Something that changed me irrevocably.”

Story. There it is, asking to be felt, asking to connect.

“What happened?”

“Nine years ago,” she began, “my house burned down. I lost everything. I needed to do art so I could heal. I needed to make something from the ashes inside of myself.”

I was enthralled. The violation of expectation had turned this woman’s life on its head. Her heart and soul and been consumed by the flame of that fire. And she’d found her way back, down a path of mourning to the place where fairies dance. Suddenly I knew that I had to have a chair for my writing muse.

Carefully, while believing in magic, I chose the one made of abalone shell. I would put it on my desk, and now my writing muse would have a place to sit. I took a few more photographs and we said our goodbyes.

The essence of the story is this:  the fairy chair lady took brutal loss and morphed it into art, sharing the energy of healing with others. She understood the place of all consuming flame and the ashes left in the wake. Everyone has times when they must pick themselves up and keep moving forward, dust themselves off and find beauty in grief. We are never alone as much as we think we are.

And that, my friends, is the story I gathered in the morning light of a Saturday morning in Lithia Park.

Is there a story that is touching your own heart?  Please share.

2017-02-19 11.31.02

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Process, Preparation and Prose

iStock_000072638051_SmallI am not a writing coach. I am not a writing teacher. I can’t tell anyone how to write. So much for disclaimers. What I can do is share my process. Writers are always sharing their damn process. Most of us love to huddle over a cuppa and tell each other ad nauseam how the heck we do it. In my younger days, I used to talk about sex like this. Now I’m in my sixties. Nuf’ said.

If you are someone who writes by the seat of their pants, this essay is not for you. Stephen King, the grand Pooh-Bah of pantsing is holding court elsewhere and maybe he’ll let you buy him a beer and you can talk about us mere mortals who must prepare everything that we write in order to earn the name author.

You know that the name author comes from the word authority, right? When you write, you are an authority over what you write. You become the god that sees everything and everyone in the world you write. And why would you write about anything unless you took this position?

But it’s not as easy as sitting down and just letting the words rip, is it? Wish that it were so. Writing is hard work. It means getting a good idea (that’s not easy either) applying process and doing the preparation before you ever write a single word of prose.

Process: For me this is the Larry Brooks template. I sketch out that structure with first plot point (inciting incident), mid point (the protagonist becomes the warrior), second plot point (against all odds, the protagonist sprints toward resolve) and ending. Yep, I don’t write a word until I know the friggen’ ending. And it is on this framework that I hang my preparation. I’d like to believe that discovering your story gets easier, but I don’t think it does. I’ve sat in enough Larry Brooks classes, listening to broken manuscripts to know that knowing your story is what separates the women from the girls.

The Dreaded Synopsis: The first time I had to write a damn synopsis, I about pulled my hair out. I couldn’t do it in a half page. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of boiling 80,000 words down to 300 in order to tell you my story. Now, I write out a synopsis as a matter of fact. Do you know your story well enough to write a synopsis? If not, you need to begin again. An early synopsis will hit the first plot point, mid-point, second plot point and resolve. I don’t discover the story as I am writing along. I am aiming for the milestones along the way which my scenes must support.

Robert McKee tells the story of the great film, Casablanca. The script was about 100 pages. The treatment for the film was about 300 pages. What? That story was so well-known to its authors, scene by scene that once implemented, it became a classic that would never fade away. Novel writing, if we respect it, should be the same–careful, thoughtful preparation.

Preparation: I am in my office with door closed. I snarl at my dog if he looks at me like he has to go out. “You just went out. Go lie down.” Don’t dare knock. Don’t dare interrupt. My nose is pressed to a yellow legal pad. My hand is cramping. I am writing out everything I know about the character, who they appear to be and who they really are. This involves pages of questions. Some things I circle. Some things I cross out. I begin to see scenes and since I know what my plot points are, I know basically where I have to steer the car. At the end of a couple of hours I have filled pages and pages of questions and answers. This exercise will go on for weeks.

It’s all about the questions and “what ifs” at this point. Who are the people surrounding the character and how do they reveal the character? What do I know about my life experience that can inform this character? If the antagonist is involved in criminal behavior what non-fiction book do I need to look at to help me? (I like Sean Mactire’s Malicious Intent for such things.) And on and on it goes until I finally see how to construct the four sections of the book. Then I begin a scene list and from there a sketch of each scene, carefully placed so that the sequence of scenes slowly ramp up to the plot point climax.

Prose: Finally! It’s hard for me. I like to play with words. I love to construct sentences and paragraphs. I delight in whatever cleverness I can muster. But delight to soon, and you are screwed. Writers, especially rookies, like me, must remember that readers like your stuff not because of clever sentences, but because of good story. At the end of the day your good writing is just the prerequisite and your story is what matters.

Lost in a sea of yellow legal pads and questions that demand answers, I work on a new story for new novel. As much as a whine about it, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Process, preparation and then prose. That’s the work and I do it every day whether I want to or not, striving for excellence. Craft and the very best that you know you can do. Constant study. Read everything. Watch films. Always be looking at and for “story.” It’s not just the novel you are writing, it’s a friggen’ lifestyle. I labor under the belief that this is how I become better at my craft. “Do the work,” says Mckee, “and the results will follow.”

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Dancing With Your Dreams

iStock_000010690028XSmall

Second Chapters–I know them well. The invention and reinvention of your self, each time trying to get life a little more right than the last time. A longing goes with that, an undercurrent that flutters in the heart that one day all of the jagged pieces of your jigsaw puzzled life will somehow make sense, fit together and reveal the big picture. I cannot mark the day that the picture came into focus, or a specific time where I wondered what would happen to me if I just forgave myself? There was not a celebratory realization or enlightenment. No, the process was slow and tedious, painful and sweet. Then one morning as I sat on the couch with my tea, staring into the fire, I realized that I was living the life that I wanted to be living. And somehow the dense forest of sufferings and sorrows, the thickets of doubts that had tripped me up, parted to reveal a light that shone on hard-won satisfaction for the trails that I had traversed with some awkwardness and some grace . . . and I knew that this was my time to dance.

This is the story in all of us as we make our way through the beautiful, horrible, wonder-filled life, longing to dance with our dreams. Revisions aside, I’ve moved onto Chapter 3, the place in the dramatic arch where the heroine has morphed into the warrior and just goes after what she wants, critics be damned. This is how I feel about my writing. Strong. Focused. Determined, with enough juice left in these old bones to make it all happen, or die trying.

It’s daring to dance with a dream. Go ahead. Life is leading you in that direction anyway, so you might as well surrender to it. Every single little thing leads and builds to the great decision when you choose to stand on the mountain and know that you will seize the day.

Happy New Year to all my fellow dreamers, all of my fellow writers. God speed.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Those Crazy Making Tickets – A Short Tale

iStock_000022236717SmallApril Green was terribly disappointed to learn that life wasn’t always fair. She had done everything absolutely right—perfectly correct, in fact—and here she was standing in front of a judge who was sitting up high on his mahogany perch, peering down at her while she clutched her purse to her chest.

She was in court today because she had not paid a couple of parking tickets. Why such a big fuss? When the policeman pulled her over it was because she did not have current registration tags on her license plate. She had smiled and told him that they were in her glove box and she had just forgotten to put them on. Then she opened her glove box, and out spilled dozens of ignored or forgotten parking tickets onto the passenger side floor. April was surprised and laughed. “Why look at that,” she had said as her giggles became louder. The policeman did not share her sense of humor. It seems than in the sea of tickets were a few moving violations sandwiched in between the parking tickets, and that had led to her arrest. There were six moving violations to be exact, but April recalled few of them. Safe in the glove box of her car and out of sight, April never thought about the tickets until today.

As the judge admonished her for being irresponsible and reckless, April’s eyes wandered to the wall behind him.  On the Seal of the State emblem hanging behind the judge’s perch (was it hanging or was it glued, she wondered) she thought she saw a fly.  It was moving toward her and appeared to have a message for her. She could not hear what the judge said, but her eyes darted back to his when he told her she would have to pay the tickets. “Do you understand?” he was saying, “Do you understand?” April nodded her head politely though she could not help but smirk. It wasn’t an intentional smirk, just something she did when she was not quite sure of her self. “I do,” she said and then she stifled a laugh. She was standing in front of a judge, all by herself and saying, “I do.”

“Where’s the groom,” she grinned.

“What,” asked the judge, frowning. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” smiled April, “just where is the groom?”

Evidently the judge was not amused. “I do not want to see you back here, Ms. Green. “Do you understand?” And again April tried to swallow a laugh. She nodded her head, repeating the words “I do.” Quickly she looked at her feet while her shoulders shook ever so slightly. Why is it that when you try not to laugh it makes you laugh more, she wondered.

It wasn’t just that the ignored and un-paid tickets got her arrested; it was that the first ticket seemed so terribly wrong. She had only run into the shop for a moment to look at the small cat in the window and that had led to a conversation with the shop owner who told her about the cat and how it curled up in the window each day and greeted customers. April had spent an hour or so talking to the cat, while the shop owner kept asking her if she needed to get to work. Didn’t she have someplace she had to be, she asked April? “Isn’t that your car, dear “ the shop keeper had said, and April ran out of the store having not finished her conversation with the shop owner or  the cat–that was when she got the first parking ticket.

It  didn’t seem fair that her back was turned and she was admiring and cooing over the cat and truly understood what the cat was telling her. It wasn’t right. She ripped the parking ticket from the windshield wiper that held it in place and put it straight away into the glove box, slamming it as she did.

She couldn’t remember how  the other parking tickets, let alone the moving violations came about. It was just so hard to find parking places and it was so unfair that you had to pay for them when you were contributing to the community by shopping and establishing relationships with people and animals there. She had established a relationship with the woman who owned the cat in the window. She had established a relationship with the cat. Isn’t that what was important about community, she wondered. How could a judge accuse her of being reckless or irresponsible? She thought about telling him of the cat; thought that it might make a difference if he knew, but the judge seemed cranky, so she kept the story, her “reason” to herself.

April Green stopped at a little window inside the courthouse where they tallied up her tickets and her moving violations and she wrote a check. It was a large check. It was a check that she hoped would not hit the bank before she could ask her mother or her brother to please cover it. It was a check that she should really not have to write, she thought. Yes, life was unfair, and she signed the check sliding it across the counter to the clerk.

Driving back through the canyon she laughed to herself about standing in front of the judge and saying “I do.” Her shoulders began to shake, a little at first and then harder and suddenly she found herself pulled over by the side of the road and heaving great sobs. When the policeman stopped his car behind her with the red lights flashing, she cried even harder. She rolled down her window and handed him a tissue. She could not find her license and each time the policeman asked for license and registration, she handed him a tissue. She could not form the words to tell him why she was crying. In fact she wasn’t sure herself.

Today April Green lives in a small room of a large building, set back among a group of pine and birch. It’s quiet there. The state has taken away her driver’s license. She attends a beading class on Mondays and a weaving class on Thursdays. When she is not doing those things, she sits on a bench on a hill at the top of the garden where she can see the traffic going by and counts the cars wondering how many tickets, how many unclaimed stories, live in the glove box of each passing vehicle.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Settling In

20140613_073608_resizedI suppose that I thought of retirement in the traditional sense in the way that I always thought of the word, meaning that you stopped. Maybe that is true for golfers. They stop working and then play golf until they die. I don’t play golf. Thus far my retirement has been anything but a stopping or a golfing. It’s been more like a wild wind that whips and swirls and when it finally dies down, everything in its path has been forever changed.

The odyssey of sorting, purging and packing started in September when my husband “retired” from clinical practice. That resulted in an encore career in which he consults. Consult is a word that covers a myriad of sins…technical writing to product development. He is definitely not retired in the classical sense. He is working from home. Working from home is a lot less stressful than maintaining an office and it suits him.  I’ve been doing some part-time work too, but mostly it feels as though I have been moving for a year.

To enumerate the components of this big life change is too much. It’s like forcing one of your friends to listen to your itinerary when you are over committed. So let me just say this. All this retirement business has landed us in the great northwest, where hubby, dog and I have managed to unpack ourselves into a new life that day by day settles in.

I woke up this morning to a light rain and squirrels dancing on the deck. There is a writing desk in the corner of the living room that was placed thusly for daily writing practice, and as the moving boxes dwindle, it is accessible and beckoning. Nonetheless, I sit in bed with a cup of hot tea and my laptop, a favorite place to order the chaos in my brain.

Hubby is already upstairs in his office doing non-retirement things. I am now in a position to resume the writing practice left fallow during the past nine months of packing up offices and houses and unpacking and now finally the great promise of settling in. My head is swirling with thoughts of what I want to write about and I am already thinking ahead to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November. Until then, however, I am committed to getting into the daily habit of writing down my stories.

Blogging has been a great way to get me writing, because as soon as I hit the “publish” button I have put myself out there for better or for worse. It doesn’t matter if the stuff is good or if it’s crap, the important thing is I have committed words to the page, put forth ideas, thoughts and feelings and now it’s out there. I don’t “publish” everything I write on my blog, but the blog is certainly a catalyst for continued effort.

Meanwhile, back to the dancing squirrels. The squirrels in Colorado were brown. Here they are grey, either way; Jeter has only fierce growls and barks for the furry little creatures. I can rest assured that thanks to my dog, we will all remain safe from squirrels and I can engage in daily writing practice without fear of being bombarded by acorns.

 

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

That’s My Brag and I’m Sticken’ To It!

iStock_000010690028XSmallYou should not brag about the great sex you had last night. No bragging about how much money you make or whether or not you are the smartest person in the room. You don’t want to go through life looking like the child that got way too much praise during potty training!

On the other hand it is acceptable to brag about your grand-kids, your new living room couch or published works. I do not have any of  those things, but today I have bragging rights anyway because I completed the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing 5o thousand words in just 30 days.

For the past month while this poor blog lay fallow, visited mostly by spammers, who are now “following this blog,” I sat every single morning and wrote down approximately 1,666 words, creating a novel, my first…a couple of excerpts can be found in the November archives under the heading of “The Angel Twin.”

The long-format has been too daunting for me to consider in the past. How do you sustain a voice for 150 pages? And what is the story that you want to tell? I did not know the answer to either of those questions when I began on November 1, but I will tell you this–the way that you learn to write in long format is the same way that you learn to write in any format, you just get your yaya in the chair every day and write. And on the days that your story is flat and your imagination has left for Cleveland, you write anyway.

While I didn’t create the great American novel, I did create new muscle. I am proud that I took the challenge and made it to the finish line. As far as what I wanted to say–well, I made it up as I went along, just like I do my life. I started with a premise and went from there. Now I wonder what I might be able to do with an outline!

Thus ends the month’s saga of NaNoWriMo, a process that I recommend to any writer looking to stretch their talents and gain new strength and confidence.

I promised myself a day off before I revisit what I’ve written to see what is actually there. In the meantime,  I am dreaming about possibilities, all the while blessing my faithful little laptop and feeling pretty darn good about myself!

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

A Hallway Full of Doors

iStock_000023278171XSmallA shrill whistle from the teakettle pierces the morning fog. Boiling water into a cup, measured teaspoons of honey and Earl Grey, a jolt of caffeine providing passage into the day. A laptop and resolve to practice writing complete the ritual that plays out for its own sake, sunrise after sunrise. I have grown comfortable with the unrelenting boundaries that I construct around my life to give some semblance of making it work.

Aldous Huxley, “The Doors of Perception”—I read it when I was seventeen– stories of a consciousness expanded with a psychedelic –the possibilities of a higher self that spoke to the longing of a generation. Those ideal years seem far away now, an experience of becoming great that slipped through our fingers as our generation, like every generation is worn down by life. Still, passage through that doorway defined me. It stripped away something polite and exposed edges that were painful, but interesting. The desire to conform became disdainful and my life would forever be passionate and overly emotional. I am a pair of animated hands diving deeply into the rich red and black earth of creativity hoping for gold.

Riding in a car on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1969, I was always headed toward the beach. That was when I heard “Riders on the Storm,” a sing-song kind of chant that allowed the listener to get lost in a trance of the rock n’ roll experience. It wasn’t just about the music. It was about the attitude, the recklessness and abandon that gave the finger to conformity with its ache to explode the norms.

We were so young and so arrogant as not to see how our parents had sacrificed pieces of their bodies and their heart to fight in a World War that was the battle for the soul of man. It left fathers sitting alone in over stuffed chairs, relegated to corners of dark garages, lit only by the tip of a glowing cigarette; and housewives who knew better than to ask “what” or “why” and instead honored the space needed by warriors to lick wounds that constantly broke open. Conformity for them was the band-aide and my generation could not possibly understand. Our fathers passed through the doors of hell at Normandy and Iomega, a wretched memory now past, but constantly present, while The Doors blared from small radios in their children’s rooms and copies of Aldous Huxley were read late into the night, all a kind of Holden Caulfield story unfolding in millions of homes across America.

When my mother died, I began to struggle with a sense of relevance. Sixty is the threshold of old age. You can dress it up. Tighten your face with surgery, but eventually everything sags and puddles at your feet as life slips from your grasp and the music of your youth has no meaning for twenty-something’s who look at you with the same imperviousness with which you once viewed your elders. I eye the door cautiously, heartened by nieces and nephews who discover Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts and want to discuss them late into the night. The desire to get bigger in your heart and mind may be eternal, whereas the music of your youth is just a temporary soundtrack for the experience.

My mother sat at the doorway of death and waited, numbed by drugs that pulled her toward the entrance. The good daughter said the rosary and I just watched. You always knew that it would happen, but somehow you are never prepared. “Riders on the Storm.” Something sing-song to rock back and forth to. Close my eyes and understand that the doorways and the passages are what make it exciting. What’s on the other side? I don’t want anyone to say a rosary for me. It’s too conforming. Instead scatter my ashes on the beach and dance on them, pounding them into the sand, then pour a cup of Earl Grey over the whole mess and read from the last passages of Prufrock—“I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

It’s all just a long hallway of doors. I grow old, I grow old. . .a non-conforming wordsmith who writes her way into  each day with a cup of black tea and hopes to write her way out, telling as many stories as possible until the last breath when the last door slams shut.