Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Dust Jacket Blurb

Welcome fellow workshoppers from UTSA grad English Creative Writing Fiction class. Some answers to questions are at the end of this post. 


In The Creative Writer's Survival Guide, author John McNally says it is crucial to get your book's description down to about a hundred words that summarize while sparking interest. This is not useful only for the query letter, he says, but helps it get pitched later as agents, then editors, and publicists try to sell it to the next level.  This is the kind of copy you see on the inside of a dust jacket on the finished novel, only there one doesn't give away the ending. 

I have found it enlightening to try to do that as I am getting enough material together to finally know what my book wants to be.  Here is my 188 word dust jacket version:


A Thousand Wonders

1965—students protest, civil rights workers march, and feminists demonstrate for change. The music of the time reflects the nation’s mood with “[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” Change comes slowly, if at all, to some places. In Tennessee's Chickahatchie County, 8-year-old Betsy Hanson sees life transforming on a more personal level.

Betsy is a scrutinizer, noticing every detail. After tragedy sends her to live with Grandy and Memma, she brings her visual giftedness to the tiny community of Bourne—Grandy and Memma, Preacher, SweetPea, Mrs. Nonnie and her nurse Circe, and a congregation of others.

From her perch in a white oak tree Betsy sees Bourne, but can’t understand its people at all. Her guide is nine-year-old Lucy Belle, who has a hideaway in the Negro Baptist Church. Kelso the mule driver opens the church to Lucy Belle, bringing more than just sanctuary. The two little girls have each other—and Kelso—for three crucial years.

After travelling the world, Betsy is compelled to return to write the stories of Bourne. Only after 30 years can Betsy make sense of all she saw. And she saw plenty…


Since my book it not done, I'm happy to sell John McNally's:

Creative Writer's Survival Guide


Workshop issues that are not addressed above:  A Thousand Wonders

The various "chapters" come from different residents of Chickahatchie County.  The same person may be presented through first-person, third-person, or any other combination of POV and person.  The titles will reflect a good bit more than you might think.  Look for unreliable narrators.

What is up with the names?  Elizabeth is her real birth certificate name.  Memma calls her Lizbeth.  She calls herself Betsy.  People don't know which is right.  There is plot in the name thing.

What is up with the writer and her travels?  Elizabeth has been a lot of places.  She has grown in more than just the usual ways.  It's much easier for her to understand things now.  She wants to revisit Bourne with this perspective.  Elizabeth is interspersed in the novel.  It will, at the urging of you all, begin with Elizabeth in Bourne on the first day of her return.  Everything we need to know about what she did in the intervening years will come in flashback.  How much of Betsy we see in Elizabeth at any moment is interesting to me.  Wait til you see where Elizabeth lives while she writes.

In some places, people who work on farms are called farm hands. In rural Tennessee, the trope of synecdoche defines them as simply hands.  There is so much in that fact.  Mechanization had not taken great hold across the board in 1965, so there were still farms (of usually older owners) that relied on hands to do much of the work. 

Both girls daddy's are dead. They are both white. Kelso and Circe are black. There are inhabitants of both and mixed races. Color, cloaking, and undercurrents are motifs, as is the tree, with its various components. Poverty of person and character is a controlling theme.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

New Characters

These are some of my favorite characters yet.  I love Mrs. Nonnie and Circe.  I haven't got the whole thing, but they are so delicious I couldn't wait to introduce them. 

It's been a good morning of writing.  This is pretty fresh. I have only had one look at it.  Here goes...

Song of Circe

Circe was the translator mostly. Mrs. Nonnie had lost her voice to a stroke as a young woman—33. Her husband Clovis left her after that, so Mrs. Nonnie’s daddy had sent Circe over to her, Circe being trained as a nurse and all. People would have said that Circe was Mrs. Nonnie’s maid or housekeeper. Folks thought like that. What Mrs. Nonnie really thought? Who knew, since she only made sounds like whale squeals? Mrs. Nonnie could whistle, not a tune, but a couple of tones. She could make a sound like a high-pitched duck by sucking on her cheek. Her larynx and vocal cords were intact, but the stroke had left the muscles in her mouth slack and unresponsive. But Circe could understand most everything that would come up. Early on, they had worked with Circe saying words and Mrs. Nonnie repeating them until she had as much use as she was going to have out her lips and tongue. After 20 years, Circe understood Mrs. Nonnie’s new language as well as she knew English and French. Circe had a knack for language that had come in handy. Nursing was practical. It was something that didn’t shock white people to see black hands wiping noses and adjusting pillows, tending to their patients as their ancestors done for generations of owners, then employers.


Mr. Frankline put the documents in front of Mrs. Nonnie. He knew she would be able to make her mark and so would need to have several witnesses, none of whom were involved in the transaction to say that the squiggle was indeed put there by Mrs. Nonnie and not Mr. Frankline.

“Ma’am, I’ll be right back. I need to round up some witnesses for the signature.”

Mrs. Nonnie flapped her left hand and mumbled. Circe handed her the stack of documents, and Mrs. Nonnie fumbled with them.

Circe heard the manager hustling two customers into the room. A large farmer entered to stand by the wall. He squeezed his gray fedora, and held his elbows in close to the dress shirt he had probably put on just for the bank trip. Everything about him said farmer, despite the crispness of his shirt. His companion was sharply dressed, and he immediately lounged in the only chair available.

A woman called out to Mr. Frankline. He poked his head in the door. “You all hold on a minute. I got to attend to something out here.” He hissed words to the teller who had summoned him. His words faded.

Circe handed a handkerchief to Mrs. Nonnie, who had a perpetually drippy nose. Often a little pearl of clear fluid would hang on the tip. Circe kept handkerchiefs, Vicks cough drops, lip balm, and other sundries in a woven bag. Mrs. Nonnie couldn’t handle a purse.

Mrs. Nonnie swiped at her nose with her right hand, and the papers slipped a bit in her lap. Circe stopped them from falling and took the handkerchief from Mrs. Nonnie’s fluttering fingers.

Mr. Frankline arrived back in the room. “Well, now. We have our witnesses. Mrs. Nonnie, this is Frank Lisle and Mr. Larry Jones from down at Clarion’s Department Store.”

Mrs. Nonnie flapped her right hand in their direction and moaned a sound. Circe took the papers to keep them from falling.

The men nodded their greeting. Mr. Frankline continued, “Now, you men are here to witness this fine lady’s signature on some important documents. We have to take good care of Mrs. Nonnie. Why, her daddy was the finest farmer in this county.” Mr. Frankline posed and bustled about between his customer and the witnesses. “You boys heard of Mr. John Cuthbert, I’d imagine. No. Well, you wouldn’t, Larry. You haven’t been here so long. He was a fine man, and Mrs. Nonnie is one of our cherished citizens.” He returned to his chair behind the desk, smoothing his Brylcreemed hair.

Mrs. Nonnie chirped and clicked.

“Now, let’s get these papers signed, what say?” Mr. Frankline looked reached into his inner suit pocket, brought out a fine Mont Blanc fountain pen, and uncapped it as though he were about to sprinkle holy water from its rich interior.

Circe slipped the papers quickly back into Mrs. Nonnie’s lap and with one movement, pinched Mrs. Nonnie hard on the outside of her thigh.

Mrs. Nonnie erupted in a string of whines and snorts, slapping at the papers and Circe’s hand.

“What in the world? Why, Mrs. Nonnie…” Mr. Frankline hopped to his feet.

Circe bent down and looked deeply into Mrs. Nonnie’s face. Mrs. Nonnie flapped at Circe’s arm, hardly disturbing the fabric of Circe’s green sweater.

“Mrs. Nonnie, you mean the papers?” Circe asked. Circe turned to the banker. “She says something about these here papers and a rat or a rate or something.” Circe turned back to Mrs. Nonnie, who was wailing and singing away. “Mrs. Nonnie, where you mean? Here?” Circe pointed to the paper. “Here, you mean? This here number?” Circe pointed to the paper in the same spot.

Mrs. Nonnie stopped her moans and clicks and looked hard where Circe was pointing. She snatched the papers from her own lap with her best hand and swung them in an arc in front of the banker’s desk. She chirped and growled for a long time.

“Mr. Frankline, sir, Mrs. Nonnie, she say this here paper got a mistake on it in some kind of rate. I think she mean this here figure.” Circe drew in her shoulders and dropped her head a bit as she pointed to the rate of interest paid to the depositor.

Mr. Frankline jowls reddened in blotches. “Well, let me see. A mistake. Why, I don’t know.” He took the papers. Mrs. Nonnie squealed and clicked. The banker’s face caught the red glow from his fleshy neck and spread it up towards his hairline as though the shame of his being caught was shining for all in the room to see. He cleared his throat and tugged at his collar, which bit into the ample scarlet fat roll in a more pronounced way for the comparison to his white shirt.

“Mrs. Nonnie. I do see the error here. I am deeply ashamed that our clerk has made such a terrible mistake. I’ll see to him, I promise. Now, hmmm, uh. I will have to go out to get this fixed right quick. I get Sarah to bring ya’ll in some coffee.”

Mrs. Nonnie grunted and licked her mouth.

Circe reached into her bag for a Chapstick. “Mrs. Nonnie has had all her coffee for the day. She say she would like a cool glass of water though.”

Mrs. Nonnie snorted.

“Well, I will have that brought right in. Gentlemen, if you can wait?”

The two witnesses didn’t move. The farmer’s eyes were big and round, his head sweeping the room to record all that he was seeing.

Mr. Jones pursed his lips and lounged deeper into the chair. “I’m glad to stay to help out Mrs. Nonnie.”

Mrs. Nonnie stuck her tongue out as Circe applied the lip balm to her patient’s tissue-thin lips.

The rest of the visit passed unremarkably as Mr. Frankline expedited the typing of another paper with the larger interest rate. Sarah bustled about in a tight brown pencil skirt topped by a beige sweater set. The bend of her hips as she set the coffee tray on the desk for the witnesses caused the only momentary excitement as Mr. Jones—why thank you, Sarah, my name is Larry—sat up straighter and brushed his stubby fingers against the receptionist’s long white ones.

Mrs. Nonnie turned her head towards Circe at the sight of that and rolled her eyes. Circe turned to hide a grin, smoothing her short groomed black hair and scratching absently at her neck. Mrs. Nonnie snorted.

Later, after an apologetic Mr. Frankline had helped settle Mrs. Nonnie into her Plymouth Belvedere sedan, he firmly closed the door with both hands, still mumbling goodbyes. Circe got behind the wheel and watched the big banker wipe his neck with a handkerchief as he returned to the bank.

Mrs. Nonnie whistled, snorted, and whined.

Circe put the car into gear and backed out. “You would have seen it when you signed.”

Mrs. Nonnie snorted and flapped her bad left hand wildly toward Circe.

“Well, I was afraid he would cover it up with his big paws.”

Mrs. Nonnie sniffed and sang. She waited. Then she whined out her first clear word in two weeks, “Why?”

“You know very well why.” Circe cut her eyes momentarily at her patient as she glanced both ways at the stop sign on Walnut. “He couldn’t hear me if I spoke in any other way. His ears can’t process intelligent words from a woman, especially a Negro. Besides, I don’t want him to think you are non compos mentis.”

Mrs. Nonnie clicked, snorted, and puffed.

“Well, since I’m the only one who can understand you, you’ll always be in your right mind. At least, as long as I’m in mine.” Circe smiled.

Mrs. Nonnie leered a big drippy grin and nodded her head.

With one hand, Circe fished out the handkerchief from her bag. “Here, dribbling is not helping your case.”

Mrs. Nonnie whistled.


If I don't watch out, I will chuck those papers I have to write before the semester ends and have a ball with Mrs. Nonnie and Circe.  And I can't wait to write Sweetpea.  Oh, yeah.  She's gonna be fun.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Food Takes You Back

Our professor gave us a prompt from Brian Kiteley who currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver.  It's called Bacon in Egypt.  This is it: "Think of the experience of missing a food from home when you are traveling for a long while. What happens when you actually eat this food? This exercise is about food and about homesickness. Put that at the center of your fragment of a narrative. Travel is about leaving behind the world you know and experiencing, if only temporarily, the sense of exile, even though you know you will return. Travelers almost always return."  The idea is if you are in a country where pork is not allowed, all you can think about is bacon. 

I should sell Kitely's books to thank him: I Know Many Songs, but I Cannot Sing about Egypt, The 3 AM Ephiphany writing exercises, and The River Gods a story that is about place.

Here is my response tweaked to contribute to the stories I am writing.  Elizabeth is Betsy, all grown up.  She will go to her home place and write the stories of its people.

[Back to Chickahatchie County, Tennessee]

I decided that I’d get the bends if I fly. Return should be slower than that. I need to readjust to the atmosphere. So I’m driving up 35 through Texas, and it occurs to me why I live here rather than any other state. It’s just so big. I remember driving through six countries from the Lowlands of Belgium and the Netherlands to languid Italy in the same time it will take me to get out of Texas, even though from San Antonio, I have a head start. And the scenery was better then—Brussels, Luxembourg, Esch-sur-Alzette, Strasbourg, Endigen am Kaiserstuhl, Basel, The Alps, Lake Como, Verona, to Venice. In fair Verona. Now that’s a parallel best left for the later hours when I am closer to Chickahatchie County. And it takes a long time to get there from here. I’m not even in Austin yet.

The food was better on that European trip. Different. No, better. Brisket is good, but how can I get anything decent on the interstate? Truth be told, the rest stops on the A4 were no great thing either. But since I was in no hurry back then, I got off the highway often and ate at great little gasthauses and cafés along the way. Truth be told, I am in no hurry now and would really rather not be going at all. I feel compelled, not pulled, as if something is shoving me out of Texas and away from decent guacamole and carnitas, forget menudo. There won’t be any in Bourne.

Bourne. Bourne where I was born. I never even say that name in my head any more. Always call it Chickahatchie County, when I call it at all. Just being on the way is changing me. I don’t want to be that person, that girl up the tree. My giant white oak was the best rest stop I ever had. And the food. Grandy would put down plywood onto saw horses for tables under the tree for homecoming or picnic dinners—family reunions. Family. Reunions. Now there’s something better left for later, as well. The food, though. Pecan and chess pie for holidays. Homecoming meant pimento-cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, potato salad, and deviled eggs. Every time someone set down a platter or dish, the wood would sag a bit. I always worried for the food. Brunswick stew cooked up in a big iron cauldron over a wood fire under my tree. Grandy stroking and stirring and scraping with a boat paddle he used just for stew. People would come from all around on a Brunswick stew day, bringing Mason jars and appetites. Nobody ever went hungry at Grandy and Memma’s house. Bourne, back then, saw too many hungry people though.

Hands from the fields, mornings spent picking cotton, dragging heavy canvas bags strapped over their shoulders back to the trailer for weigh in, cast their eyes at the back porch door a ways off where they would sit at noon with a plate of dumplings or cornbread and field peas. Cheap farm food but plenty of it. I wonder now if that was the only meal of the day for some of them. No. Truth be told, I know it was. Poor Blacks wanted to work at our farm. Grandy was known as a good employer, not a cheat on weights, with a fair cook for a farm wife who wouldn’t begrudge a black hand another piece of cornbread, even if she only served up the fragrant fried chicken to her family. Nothing like grease to carry a smell.

I got my first whipping from Memma over fried chicken. Not one to think, I had carried my fried chicken leg out toward the end of the porch where Grandy sat with the hands. Having finished his lunch in gulps, Grandy sat discussing who would be needed for the next day’s picking and where and when. Memma had come out with a bowl of butter beans ready to ladle seconds or thirds to anyone. When she saw me, her three-year-old black church shoes, now work shoes scuffed and turned down at the sides, had skidded on the porch boards.

Hyeah, Jim. That was all she had said as she had handed the bowl to Grandy and snatched me up by my chicken-leg-grasping right arm.

I got a whipping with a wooden kitchen spoon, all the time Memma hissing sotto voce in my ear about how me waving that chicken leg around out there in front of those hands was just the living end. Didn’t I have any sense of decency? What in the world was I thinking? Every time I eat fried chicken now, I think of that. And I can’t even hold the leg of a chicken without thinking about hungry people and choking a little. A lot of what I learned with Grandy and Memma is overlaid with the smell of sausage frying or the taste of home-churned yellow butter on one of Grandy’s biscuits. I don’t really crave anything from that time except maybe Brunswick stew, which no one can ever make again. The knack for that died with Grandy. I don’t crave any food of Bourne.

No. That’s not true. The idea of a buttered biscuit has brought one thing to mind as I slide past the exits for Onion Creek and Slaughter Lane. Sweet sorghum molasses. Thick, acidy sweet. Rich fragrant ropes of it coming out of a jar slower than the summer between third and fourth grades. I would hold a knife like Grandy showed me, and when there was just a little too much sorghum on the plate of busted-open biscuits, I would cut the flow off like slicing meat. It was that thick. I never wanted it heated up in a saucepan like Memma did hers. I liked to see it melt in with the golden butter right on the china plate. You can’t get butter like that anymore. That died with Grandy’s cows. And I haven’t tasted sorghum molasses in 30 years, even though I’ve seen it at farm stands up in the Texas Hill Country. Sorghum molasses comes from one place for me. Chickahatchie County. It’s cooked up in a big cauldron like Grandy’s. And this is the most important thing about sorghum molasses. It has to be from the juice of sorghum cane ground on a mill by the slow steady paces of a Tennessee mule, walking in circles, going nowhere his own self, but coming up with something really special for his trouble.


Already, this exercise has been changed around, tweaked, and poured through a filter to fit into the longer story of Chickahatchie.  It's really starting to be a cohesive group of various parts for me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Parallel Universe: going outside reality to enhance it

This little bit of narrative is from an assignment in fiction workshop to create a parallel universe.  Think super heroes and Oz.  We were to tell how this parallel universe functions.  I decided, as I have been doing, to marry my short story work with my assignment.  I worked on what Betsy's tree knows.  How does the universe operate from the tree's perspective. 

What the White Oak Knows

A white oak draws water from the ground. I do that because ATP is soluble in water, and I need it for photophosphorylation. You need water too and also make ATP, which is how you draw energy from what you consume, although I’d bet my oldest root you don’t even know it. Plants have been doing it much longer. We invented it.

We draw other things up too. Bits of things long dead cling to water, riding up to my leaves and twigs. I have some of fourteen humans in me, and I can tell the difference in each one. The dark cold season has come and gone more than 400 times since I first drew up tiny pieces of what had been people. Humans change me in ways that the persimmon tree can’t imagine. He’s a shit-eater, that one, wrapping around that human stink hole and sucking it up through his long taproot.

I have human blood in me. For five seasons the ground was thick with it. Two men fell just here, trying to hide behind me. Metal balls spilled them open. Two of those same hot projectiles tore into me, metals leaching out into my cambium, coloring my heartwood. That was a bad time for living things.

I have her blood too. The little skinny one with the brown tufts on top of her head bled into me. On a hot day a hundred seasons after the five bad ones, she tore open her limb on mine, and her sap ran in a trickle down into the folds of my bark. She dripped more red onto the underside of a leaf, marking me until a storm. I grew new roots hoping to catch the rainy drops of blood and suck them up too. Often her tears fell just in the notch by the place where she sat on so many days and more nights than you might think. Once, she waited too late to climb down and wet me with her urine, the pungent salty rush soaking down into my tender layers. I knew her.

I contrived a splinter to work into the back of her knee. Long, cold seasons passed after she left, making it harder to convince myself that the splinter stayed burrowed down in her limb’s heartwood. But she is a part of me. When the other one with light tufts on her head finally came up the same way and sat where the first one sat, we both felt the loss. She too eventually stopped coming up, although I sometimes would feel her twigs brush me as she stepped from root to root around my trunk, making the sound of the two of them with her one mouth.

I had to cut off the flow of water to that limb. With a fork down low, it had been perfect for child root limbs to wrap themselves around while child top limbs grabbed for my own and pulled into me, her soft tender flesh without a bark, so easy to tear. I couldn’t bear another one in her spot. Rot took that entry limb, and it was burned on a fire close by, bits of smoke entering the respiration stomata on the white underside of my dark green many-lobed leaves and the leaves of my sister oak and the leaves of all the plants around, even the persimmon, who missed her more than I gave that shit-eater credit for.


What does he overhear, I wonder?   How does a tree get to know that the gooey stuff in a girl is called blood?  It still feels like sap to him.  Yes.  Trees have feelings.  This one does.  It puts the story on a different level for me.  For a long time, I have viewed the place of Chickahatchie County from the eyes of various little girls and a mule driver.  Now...a tree shows me so much more.  The tales are changing.  I'm getting excited. White Oak is stuck right there on that hilltop.  He can't escape to another place.  How will that work out for him?

A bit about my thinking and writing process.  I wanted the tree to sound wise and smart--for the reader to see him that way.  Old and knowing.  He knows how he gets energy...could rattle off the whole chemistry of the thing.  I wanted also to show how he is changed by humans.  They break his heartwood.  They really do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Betsy's Place

My writing on this collection coincides with a fiction workshop class this semester in grad school.  Dr. Catherine Kasper assigned us to write about place. One of my goals for this class is to work on description of place and narrative.  I find it too easy to fall into dialogue and miss the narrative of what is occuring around the speakers.

I took some things from various bits of story and pruned away the dialogue to just get Place.  I was limited to around 500 words.  My first draft was nearly 950. I pruned more. Here is my submission to her:


Betsy’s Place

A root from the white oak pokes its way out of the pale Tennessee dirt. The size of Grandy’s lower leg, the root emerges six inches from the massive trunk for a span of eight inches more, only to run back to ground for the remainder of its unknowable length. Other roots around the tree have revealed themselves, some of them overlapping. Are they the first shallow ones that nourished the infant acorn? Did the Chickasaw hunt here when the root first emerged?

Maybe it was later, when Great-grandfather Milton bought the land or took it. Did the tree, feeling unfamiliar rhythms, send down signals along with oxygen through the pulp to the roots? The air is changed, it might have sensed on the white underside of its dark green many-lobed leaves. This smoke has a tangible otherness as these pale beings cook their dinner. Did the roots return watery replies with questions for which a tree cannot have answers?

My childhood self had her own ideas. It’s a toad house, this root. I found the lumpy jumpies secreted in their own little root cave in the mornings before Memma stirred from her featherbed to toast cold biscuits that Grandy left for her. I used the roots as safe steps around pretend waters full of crocodiles, like the ones I saw on Tarzan. The steps of many children compacted the dirt around the toad house. Two of them were Lucy Belle and me.

After I turned eight, this was my whole world—two white oaks many times taller than Grandy, a low white house too plain to have thoughts of grand additions, and a vegetable garden with grape arbor out back. All the pieces of my world were set on top of the highest hill around. As I grew, losing the memories of other houses, Memma taught me to climb one of the white oaks, how to swing my feet up over a forked limb and to skin the cat to get down. I could see more of Chickahatchie County from the hideout in my oak. Our Bourne’s Grove Baptist Church, its concrete blocks stacked off center to keep them from falling down Grandy said, was just in front of my tree. Kelso’s wood frame First Baptist Church was just over the honeysuckle-covered rail fence from the grape arbor. Up high on my limb that made a seat, leaning against the perfect matching limb to make the seat a couch, my back would have been to Kelso’s church. I think that’s why it was so long before I found Lucy Belle and Sanctuary.

It was no time at all before I met Kelso. On my second day living with my grandparents, he drove jangling into our yard. I had watched him cross the two-lane highway from a little gravel road beside the store that wasn’t a store any more, even though signs— Wonder ~ It’s good bread—split two screen doors on the concrete porch. I couldn’t see the most important place, even from my tree. Behind the store that was not a store any more lived Kelso’s four mules, brown like fudge. Lucy Belle had a cat, and I never wanted a dog. I had part of those mules. And they had part of me.

I don't know what of that might end up in the story.  It does tell me something.  I know how Lucy Belle and Betsy meet.  The whole thing came together in my mind while I was writing about what she was seeing and not seeing.  I can't wait to write about that.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Bit About Writing Anway: Process and Progress

If you are going to be a writer, you have to write because you love to craft sentences.  You should be driven to do it.  Because strangers are likely not going to read what you write.  Even people who know you will likely not read what you write.  And it's not because what you write is just plain awful.  Necessarily.  It's hard for good stuff to get to people.  Even the wildly popular book The Help (now a major motion picture) was turned down 60 times by literary agents as unmarketable, even "tiring writing."

Your family will not read you.  You will stop asking.  People will tell you what you wrote was good and won't mean a word of it, or they will mean it but you will not believe them.  You will love the work and the product only to find you can't even bear to keep the file on your jump drive when you look at it later.  You may constantly open up one little poem from the drive that you feel things for that you haven't felt since you got your first pet or watched your child snuffle loudly in her sleep.  That poem will be your darling.  It will do things for you that haven't been done to you since you stopped making out in the back seat of Pontiacs.  Your little poem or novella will look like Dobby from Harry Potter more than it will look like Harry Potter to a literary agent. 

You must still write or you are no writer.  Moms across the world make children and raise them to adulthood with no credible expectation that those children will paint the Sistine Chapel or become president of the PTA.  Still, they raise their darlings and spend time on them and love them and do the work of momming because they are Mothers--capital M.

You, a Writer, must write words that are shuffled into coherent, clear sentences which may never be read among others of their kind that you will sweat over, turning them into poems and novellas.  If you are a writer, you do this or you are no writer.

And now, if you are good at predicting plot--and we become good at predicting plot from creating so many of our own--you will expect me to come back to the beginning of this tiny essay and tell you how Kathryn Stockett got The Help published anyway, thereby freeing it to become beloved by others in the way that she alone loved it through so many rejection letters.  I won't do it.  The link above tells that tale. 

I will tell you about rewrites.  This is the other task of the writer.  You must tear apart your darling and remake it, leaving it's tiny phonemes and syllables scattered across the breadth of your hard drive after decisively clicking "delete." You will leave those bits to be overwritten with other sentences that will be hard-born and well-crafted into more poems and novellas.  And so it goes on.  And likely the jump drive will fill with these, and the hard drive will fail before someone reads them.  But if you are like me, you are not a bit sad right now.  You love the writing.  You'd rather do that than anything else.  You'd rather write bad drafts than rest or make love some nights.  I am not going to be Kathryn Stockett or write a Harry Potter series.  My work is not that good or marketable.  Or it is, and I'd rather be writing short stories than cover letters. I will definitely be writing.  And some of the process will be here for the world to totally ignore.

Friday, August 26, 2011

I'm in fiction workshop and exploring place

Our professor asked us to send her a paragraph with five things we want to work on in our fiction writing during this online workshop.  Four of the five that I sent to her:

1. Capture the feel of place by describing the area where the action is occurring so that it informs the story and reveals the characters that inhabit it.

2. Make place a character.

3. Learn to more seamlessly explain things that may not be familiar to my reader.

4. Recognize what may be problem areas for the reader earlier in the writing process. I would like to pre-workshop my own work as I go along. I will be paying close attention to what confuses other participants in my drafts. 

After sending that, I received our first writing assignment which included, by coincidence, a prompt on Place. We are to write about our home place (real or imaginary), being vivid in description. 

I have been thinking how I am going to get a character in my collection of short stories back to Tennessee, where she will be writing the stories that are included.  So far, she has resided in my head.  I've only written down the stories she writes, not the elements of her story that tie them together.  Here is a part of the first draft I batted out to get me started thinking about my home place, which not-so-coincidently is Tennessee.

How She Gets Home...

The idea opened itself into a certainty on my way home from meeting Mischie for supper. The radio was playing a song—strange because it usually is tuned to news on NPR. But it was a Friday night, and there was music. At first the idea flittered around the dashboard and lit on the top of the steering wheel, teetering between no and yes as I steered the familiar way to Laurel Canyon Drive. It was because I finally understood that lyric from the song playing that night—“On Broadway.” The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere. How had I known that song all my life and just understood that line? What had I thought it said? As the words were seeping deep into my mind, I remembered walking into Times Square in the spring of 2005.

“It’s much smaller than when they drop the ball on TV on New Year’s Eve.” I even told that to the vendor selling me the cheap t-shirts. Six dollars apiece or three for $15 for “New York” written out in big letters over a skyline without twin towers. The black guy with the dreadlocks took my twenty, gave me change, and assured me it was a common opinion.

I’ve been so many places. Miles underground to float on an underground lake in the salt mines of Austria. I stepped from a train onto the siding at the Gare du Nord, which is still a train station, and stared at Renoirs in the Musee d’Orsay which used to be Gare d’Orsay, and is not now a station for anything other than art. So many train stations, but I walked the whole of Paris, except for a short boat ride on the Seine. Holland for Tulips. London for wax statues and stiff palace guards. The little mermaid seemed to float alone on the cold waters of the harbor in Copenhagen. Købnhavn…barely two syllables when the natives say it. A skilled European engineer had steered our train right onto a ferry from Puttgarden in Germany to Rødby, Denmark. The night crossing was confining, even off the train and on the deck, smelling of fuel oil and fishes. There was no Danake coin required by Charon on that trip, just Deutschmarks or Kroner for hot chocolate at the ferry’s imbiss.

By the time I rounded the corner that Friday after dinner with Mischie, words of the song fading into syllables—doo doo doo doo doo, yeah yeah, on Broaw-awd Way-ay—and got close enough to open my garage door with the push-button controller, I knew I was going home soon. Not to this house where I live with my husband of 29 years but to Tennessee and the past that I had buried deep underground in the pit mines of childhood, back to where I floated on an underground lake of my own creation, ever eight years old, stiff like a statue, liable to melt, past memories that smell of Aqua Velva and wood smoke. Guiding the car into the garage, I turned off the engine and the song. I heard again the jingle of mule harnesses. I always and ever do.

That's it.

It's the first draft, so none of it may remain by the time the collection is done.  It all stems from reality except for the London reference.  It's a way for me to start putting the writer into the stories in a concrete way.  She has resisted appearing up to now.  Wonder why?  Not really.  I can use this exercise to lead my brain into thinking about place for my assignment and the stories.  My fictional Tennessee setting--Chickahatchie County--needs to step into the stories in a big way.  I think they will all fall flat if the countryside doesn't walk and talk and take no prisoners.   This county is a big presence in my mind.  It's like the country sherriff in some movies--quiet but decisive.  Deadly even.  Understated to the casual glance, but with a handle on everything.  If I write it wrong it will be awful.

I hope it won't be awful.

Betsy and the mules are counting on me.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How a character is revealed to me: Send them shopping

My writing group of friends, "Write, Post, Eat, Bathe," is working on this prompt this week.  It comes from a technique that I use when I have a character in mind but can't quite grasp what he or she is about.  I find that writing reveals more writing.  I can't work everything out in my head and then put it down.  I have to write to write.  Literally, putting my fingers on the keyboards brings words out of my head, which bring with them more words.  Ideas form in the blank white spaces and at the end of lines.  The character tells me things through the writing. 

Here is an example of my exercise of writing to get the character.  The book of short stories I am writing includes a story about a mule driver.  I sent him shopping, as is my habit, to find out what he would tell me about himself.  As I sat down to type, I realized right away that this man would shop for precious little.  He would shop for something his mules needed or a thing that he used in his work.  So, he went to the leather goods shop.  He is in a very small town that is a row of shops facing a railroad, circa 1965.  

[The mule driver at Frank’s Leather Goods]

The mule driver stood to the side of the main aisle near where the transactions were made, holding a mule harness. Four people came and went. Not one of them spoke to the mule driver.

Dr. Mason brought his daughter Letitia into the store for a pair of soft slippers—pink—ordered in from Memphis. The mule keeper watched in the mirrored front window as the reflected girl twirled about in her new shoes.

“Ok, take those off now, dearest. Mother will skin us if you get dirt on those slippers before you get them home.”

Just as the doctor left, two farmers came in talking ninety-to-nothing about cotton pickers and hands and how they couldn’t get a day’s good work from twenty that they used to get from ten. They stopped to say nothing to the mule driver and precious little to the keeper except that which was necessary, their own discussion being the prime mover in the morning’s errands.

“Here for your boots, Eddie Lawrence?” The keeper held out his right hand, his left clutching the tops of a pair of well-worn but serviceable work boots sporting new heels and soles.

“Yep.” A tall farmer slapped his yellow ticket onto the counter on top of the sign that proclaimed: Claim ticket must be presented when picking up shoes. No exceptions.

The keeper tilted his head to the right and looked over a pair of half-glasses at the farmer. A fly buzzed in the ear of the second farmer, who swatted absently, looking from his companion to the keeper, who kept his right hand out, empty and demanding.

Presently, Eddie Lawrence picked up the yellow ticket and placed it into the keeper’s palm, and in so doing, the farmer covered the keeper’s smaller hand with his larger, rougher, tobacco-stained one. For just a moment, the keeper’s hand was obliterated by the farmer’s hand. Eddie Lawrence, his companion, and the keeper were attentive on each other’s eyes, Eddie Lawrence staring into the keeper’s blue ones, the keeper slowly blinking while raising his eyebrows such a tiny fraction of an inch.  The farmer-companion, who had been switching his gaze from one to the other of the men, missed the tiny detail of the transaction and the responsive lowering of the eyebrows of the farmer as his withdrew his hand from that of the keeper. Eddie Lawrence could feel the tips of the keeper’s fingers curl to take the yellow claim ticket. The keeper placed the boots on the counter and turned to the cash box.

“That’ll be two dollars to settle, after deposit.”

Eddie Lawrence pulled out his wallet and chose out two bills, dropping them onto the counter and sweeping his boots up. The conversation about field hands resumed as the two friends walked out. When the shop was empty of all but the mule driver and the keeper, the mule driver still waited. Not a muscle flinched.

The keeper grabbed a broom from the corner behind the counter and walked the main aisle. He swept at real and imaginary dust and grass particles that had hopped a ride in on the farmers’ boots and those of the workmen of the morning’s trade.

Still the mule driver stood, mute, immutable, like a chiseled statue brought in from the grassy area between the railroad siding and the place where ladies waited under cover of sun for the 10 o’clock run to the county seat. This particular statue had brought himself into the store on his own two feet. No town hands touched his bulk. His hands touched precious little save harness tack and mule flanks. He represented no one of renown and was son of no town father. No father at all anymore.

“Well, what you want?” The keeper had swept every inch of floor save those inches covered by old leather boots which were astonishingly free of any field dirt.

“Girth near clean broke just here. I needs a new one sewed up.” The mule driver relinquished the harness pieces, staying rooted to his spot on the tidy floor.

The keeper looked up at the face of the mule driver and down at the girth. “I reckon you ain’t got another spare?”

“Nah, sir. It’s the one of four matched.”

“And I reckon you cain’t plow up Aunt Annie May’s garden for her if you ain’t got this one. “

“Nah, sir.”

“No, three mules won’t pull.” The keeper swept passed the mule driver and pulled on sleeve covers. He checked his rolls of leather straps. “I reckon I got what you need. Fittings seem ok. I just punch this up pretty quick.”

The mule driver turned to look over at the keeper, seated at an old sewing machine, table covered with awls, sharp knives of all shapes, and shaved bits of leather.

The keeper turned to look at the black face of the mule driver. “You gonna stay while I work?”

“Nah,sir. I got another job o’ work to do down to the gin.”

“Well, then, you come on back about half past noon, thereabouts. I have this done.” The keeper turned to his table, selecting an awl and punch. “’Cain’t have Aunt Annie May late on putting out her tomato slips.”

“Nah, sir. I be back. What you take for the leather work?”

“You bring me my dinner from over to the café. They know what I want. It’s all on my account. Be here about half past noon with my dinner and this will run you about a dollar.”

“Thank you, sir.” The mule driver turned and walked down the center aisle toward the door. His particular walk was unlike that of any of the others who had trodden the aisle that day or any other. His legs seemed to brush the floor with his feet. Shoulders rolled and biceps rippled under his faded blue work shirt. There was no sound to the whole affair of his leaving save the click of the door hardware and the tingle of the door’s bell.

The keeper looking up from the leather watched him go. He strides real smooth for a man carrying what he does.

The mule driver was nice enough to bring along some other characters for the book. He also tells me what Betsy saw under the dashboard of her grandfather's Impala. Maybe someone else will tell me his name.  Note that I don't have all of the information that I need for this to be included in the story. I don't know for sure that the keeper of the store is "Frank" from Frank's Leather Goods.  He might be a son or somebody who bought the shop already named.  I have no idea what is up with Eddie Lawrence and the keeper.  But they tell me there is something.  I know that the mule driver carries burdens and has lost a child.  He is patient, not unliked, and he is definitely black.  The way he stood still and other people went about as if he didn't exist told me that. Ok, I already knew that.  But he is a real person for me now.  He has revealed himself. Sometimes, the shopping excursion makes the final cut, sometimes it just reveals character and is cut entirely. I can't wait to see what the mule driver does. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Gospel of Betsy, in the beginning

How the writing happened:

My first post is an early draft of a sketch about a girl who is coming to live with her grandparents. She popped into my head, like most characters do. I put them into situations to get to know them. A favorite way to get to know a character is to send them shopping. For Betsy, I knew I wanted her to be alone and unsure of herself and holding onto a special thing that was a kind of talisman. I used to love to poke around in my mother’s purse, so I used that. Then, I decided the purse would be more special if her mom was dead, so I killed her off. I am ruthless like that. The alone spot would be a car that carried her to a new home with her grandparents. My granddaddy (nothing like the granddaddy in the story) had an Impala a lot like this one— a 1961 Chevy Impala. It takes a lot of research on old cars if you want to get the details right. I spent ten times as long perusing pictures from car buff sites and old Chevy advertisements than writing this. I wasn't sure if it wanted to be a book or a story or just live on its unfinished own. Four years later, it is part of one of the short stories.

Here is the original beginning to The Gospel of Betsy:

The dashboard of the old Chevrolet Impala had gotten hot and hotter and then started to cool. It was red, a little cracked and it had dials and buttons and mysterious sticks coming out of the steering wheel. Five circles were across the middle of the wheel with crossed red and white flags in the center circle. A matching set of flags were stuck far to the right.

The first hour, Betsy had sat hunched down in the seat. All the windows were down and she laid her head against first the door, then the back of the seat, then the door again. She clutched an old leather purse and click, click, clicked the clasp at the top without opening it an inch. Her dry fingertips rubbed over the tight, rolled handle feeling the cracks that had come over a long time. She traced the circular rings that attached it to the body of the purse, her fingernail occasionally catching in the junction of the two ends.

By the middle of the second hour, she laid on the seat in a curled up position, her head on the pocketbook like a pillow. She could see the end of a yellow card of some kind peeking down from the bottom of the underside of the dash below the glove compartment. She spent half an hour wondering how it got there and what the rest of the writing was. She could only see F and a little bit of what must be a lower case r. Time spooled out while she guessed the rest. Fred's Barbershop, Freedonia Lumber, Fresh Eggs, Fruit Stand. Probably not fruit stand or fresh eggs. They don't hand out tickets or stubs, and the card looked like a stub.

By the third hour, Betsy had laid out face-down the full length of the seat, at least as much as her eight-year-old body could claim. The pocketbook was tucked up nearly under the seat in the driver's side of the floorboard. She explored the mystery of the wires under the steering wheel while absent-mindedly lifting the handle of the pocketbook and letting it drop back down with a soft thunk.

At the end of that time, it was late afternoon and Betsy had heard, in order, a screen door slam, pretty loud talking, lower talking, two quick slams of the screen door, some birds scolding, a very loud truck on the highway far off, a screen door that must be a back door because it was muffled, some chickens, some cows, some more chickens, another instance of back-door slamming, someone call her name. Other stuff happened during the time, but these were the things she took note of.

By the middle of the fourth hour, Betsy decided she had seen all she could see of the dashboard and crawled over the seat into the backseat, dragging the purse with her. It was much roomier in the back, but less interesting. There were handles on the door and that was pretty much it. Not even a butt in the three ashtrays. Betsy spent several minutes brushing her fingernail along the bristly edges of the rubber part of hole that had swallowed up the window. She looked down into the space, but couldn't see anything.

With a start, Betsy realized she had put the top of her head out of the car. She hadn't realized it at first, but a big black bug had crossed the ground under the car and caught her eye. Too late, she yanked her head back and grabbed the purse up tight under her crossed arms. Her fingers inched up to the clasp and opened it...just a crack. Betsy stuck her nose close into the cold metal of the purse top. Breathing deeply she smelled the following things: Juicy Fruit gum, ladies' face powder, Kleenex. She sat breathing these things for five minutes. When she had closed the clasp again, still clutching the pocketbook, her hands tangled into the handles like purse-snatchers watched her every move, Betsy lifted the silver handle on the door and pulled it up.

Sticking her head out of the door, Betsy twisted her feet out as well. Most of the bulk of her slim body remained inside. Betsy stared at her shoes for a minute. White tennis shoes, tied neatly, showing a bit of dust, but still very clean. Brown legs, colored by the sun of other days that would never be relived. Betsy slid her legs out to follow her feet, feeling the crunchiness of the red gravel through the thin soles of her shoes. Her red shorts had ridden up into the bend of her legs. She kept the purse in place with first one arm, then the other, as she pulled and smoothed the shorts into place. Angled shoulder blades sought to close around the purse as she made her way around the open door, pausing a second to bump the door closed with her behind. Betsy headed to the back of the house.

It had been four hours and 48 minutes since the white Chevy Impala had brought Betsy to this yard. It had been 7 hours and 23 minutes since she had kissed Aunt Carolyn goodbye and crawled into the front seat beside her grandfather. Four weeks and three days ago, she had come to stay with Aunt Carolyn. Four weeks and four days ago, her father had come home from work, taken down the oiled pistol from the box in the top of his closet, walked into the kitchen and pulled the trigger, killing Betsy's mother.

This is where the writing begins

I write a lot. I have probably written enough pages last year to fill several novels. Most of it you never see. Annotated bibliographies of Margery Kemp and Teaching Writing with the Non-fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, you could probably do without. But I write some things that I fancy other folks would like to see, only I don't usually show you that either.

I am very interested in how people write. When I read, I think about how the writer birthed the baby I am adoring. I love a good string of words--sentences that pull my eyes closer to the page, inviting a lingering exploration. I trace them as they switch back line after line, thinking about how a brain could pull bits of information together to create a totally new use of words, a metaphor newly hatched, deserving of accolades and eventual cliche status.

What with all that interest in how writers write, I thought it would be a good thing to make this a place of writing in process and progress. Whatever I am working on will be here at some point. I will post as I write. That could make it difficult, as I write several things at the same time. So, I am going to post links to the earlier versions or drafts in each post. You can look at one post and see everything that is related.

I am writing a book of short stories, a book about having Asperger's Syndrome, and, of course, the poetry. I have a novel for young adults about 2/3 done, but it doesn't want to be messed with at the moment. Dang teenagers. Right now, the short stories are clamoring for attention.