What will you do with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver

Friday, December 31, 2010

A Wonderful Summer: Turning a Fall into a Spring

Before Christmas I had a wonderful spirited conversation with a beautiful young woman. Her name is Summer Owens, author of Life After Birth: A Memoir of Survival and Success as a Teenage Mother.

When I read the Commercial Appeal newspaper article about her several weeks ago, I was impressed with her accomplishments, which are many. Most notably is her self-published memoir of her life - so far. I was determined to meet her and purchase her book.

On the cover of her book are two contrasting photos. One is a small, touching photo of Summer at age 15 holding her newborn son.  The other is Summer today, at age 30, with her 15 year old son.  He is the same age she was at his birth. The book begins with the gut-wrenching story of her fear and trembling as she gave birth, her mother at her side. Thank God for mothers. She continues with the story of growing up, feeling like an outsider, awkward, then at last coming into her own.  As I sat with Summer that day, I could see the light in her eyes, the inner hope that she exudes.  She held up her book and the pride illuminated the entire place.  Get her book. Read it.  She is an inspiration. And then volunteer to mentor teen girls.  I plan to use her book in WriteMemphis classes to show these girls a wonderful role model for all of us to follow. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Devils, Gatekeepers, Warriors & Heroes: Archetypes of the Night

The Twelve Archetypes
By Emma F. Connolly

Over at She Writes, Anjuelle Floyd started a discussion titled Why Do I Write & What Is My Process? This set me to thinking about what really does inspire me. Then I read the blog post at Novel Matters on Archetypes in Fiction and I was reminded of the characters, both familiar and unfamiliar, that come to me in my dreams. I do not work though all my dreams, but those I do write down and meditate on many times result in works of fiction, bits of dialogue, and settings for stories. Journeys to the inner world of dreams and the unconscious have changed my life. I believe the Great Creator sends us messages in the nighttime; stories filled with Heroes, Enemies, Shadow figures, Adventures and Ordeals are delivered to us as gifts. It is when we listen, explore, and converse with these characters and elements that the stories unfold.

Heroes and other archetypes are symbols of the soul in transformation, and of the journey each of us takes through life. And we all have a story.

I believe that dreams come to heal and to make us whole. What I have found is that I no longer see the people, places and events of my life existing only in black and white. I am aware of a vast gray area that harbors a depth of color that I never imagined. People appear with dimensions that I heretofore did not know existed within them. This work has given me a deeper awareness of the presence of an “inner knowing” within my own soul and how we are all linked to the universe. I am compelled to pass this on.

Two years ago I completed the Dream Leader Training at The Haden Institute in North Carolina. We explored our dreams through the use of numerous methods of looking at the symbols and images in our dreams. A few of these methods I continue to use include Group Projective Dreamwork, Active Imagination, Image Amplification, and 6 Magic Questions (using Gestalt methods). We shared our waking life experiences of synchronicity as well, learning to recognize our shadow, and manifestations of our masculine and feminine energies.

How do I work with my own dreams as a basis for creative writing? I use my knowledge of Jungian concepts to “carry the dream forward”.  One of these concepts, Active Imagination, is a method of consciously dialoguing with our unconscious – in dreamwork, this is working with a dream that involves simply having a conversation with the symbols or characters in a dream where the dreamer speaks for both sides of the conversation. I know, this sounds a little spooky, but believe me when I say I have had major insights with this type exercise. Interesting dialogue has emerged and I have included some of it in my fiction, developing it into short stories, poetry, artwork, and novels.

I believe that creative writing begins the journey of the terrain of one’s soul when we carry our dreams forward into the wonderful world of descriptive language and colorful character development, whether recorded onto the page or painted on a canvas.

Writing is one of the closest ways to get a detailed look at our dreams. Anyone can write creatively, and as Flannery O’Conner said, anyone who had a childhood can write fiction. Stories, poetry and songs come from the subconscious at a most divine level; they show the author’s inner thoughts and let the reader into the divine arena of a person’s dreams, a true expression of the soul. Writing is a continual dialogue between the irrational, creative, dream-logic part of the mind and the rational, critical, linear part – the opposites, the masculine and feminine energies. How do we balance the two? The solutions and answers lie deep within each one of us, often to be revealed through the symbols and archetypes in our dreams.

Fiction is full of archetypes. Added to that are threads of quirky behavior, wit, romance and trouble. And being from the south, I know about trouble. And interesting characters. There’s one on every bus, train, checkout line and street corner. Archetypes are leading families, having children, defending criminals, breaking into houses at night, toiling under the hood of a car, and preaching in pulpits. Writers need tragedy, comedy, crisis and peculiar characters and the South has an abundance of all of these, but we don’t have the franchise on them.

While I’m certain every area of the world has a plethora of archetypes, I am not steeped in other cultures as I am in my own.

But each of us has our share of Heroes, Tricksters, Gatekeepers and Mentors. And of course there are some Evil Ones. We cannot abandon our history, our stories, like we abandon old clothing, shedding it and thinking we can move forward and not be bound by the emotions, tensions, memories, passions and instincts that never leave us. In the dreamwork that I do, I teach that as a rule every person and every thing in your dream is a part of you. Deep within our unconscious, the above characters reside. I believe this is a major reason why southerners love to write. We have all these characters in our families. We know them.

About the writing process, E. M. Forster writes:
“In the creative state a man is taken out of himself. He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious, and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experiences and out of the mixture he makes a work of art.”   
   - The Novels of E.M. Forster, by Avtar Singh

This is what we do when we dream – or when we write from what Robert Olen Butler calls the dreamspace.   We dip down into our unconscious and pull up memories we had long forgotten, and symbols and images from the collective unconscious of the world. As a fiction writer, I use some of these elements in creating scenes, character development and plot.

One of my novel manuscripts is based on a dream I had about a Black man who tended elephants. There was a little girl of about 8 years old standing nearby.  Using Active Imagination, I carried that dream forward into a dialogue, then a story, when I realized they had much more to say.  This story developed into a 100,000-word novel with those two characters as the Hero and the Mentor. Another dream included a rickety old bridge, and two brothers, and evolved into a short story about a murder. As I begin writing my dreams, the stories unfold and I am compelled to speak for those who appear (or disappear), to tell their stories, to shout for them, "Tell them I was here".

Of the 45 or so short stories I have written, I would guess at least half began as a dream. Stories of comedy, tragedy, and stories of the hero's journey, which are the stories of our own lives. We each have our own hero's journey, and we each have a story to tell, with all the trials and trouble that life brings to our doors.


The best book on archetypes and story structure for me has been The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters, by Christopher Vogler. I have used it for years. The basic outline is below.

“The Hero’s Journey” Outline:
1.   THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
2.   THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change. 
3.   REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
4.   MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
5.   CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values. 
6.   TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
7.   APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
8.   THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life
9.  THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
10. THE ROAD BACK.  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
11. THE RESURRECTION.  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

The hero’s journey, once more:  The hero is introduced in his ORDINARY WORLD where he receives the CALL TO ADVENTURE.  He is RELUCTANT at first to CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD where he eventually encounters TESTS, ALLIES and ENEMIES.  He reaches the INNERMOST CAVE where he endures the SUPREME ORDEAL.  He SEIZES THE SWORD or the treasure and is pursued on the ROAD BACK to his world.  He is RESURRECTED and transformed by his experience.  He RETURNS to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or ELIXIR to benefit his world.


What is your own "Hero's Journey"? What was it like on the road back? And which of your own dreams have inspired you to write?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Conversation with the Creative Unconscious.

As an INFP, I love doing a variety of things, and can multi-task like a champion. To paraphrase from the description of this personality type, INFPs never seem to lose their sense of wonder. One might say we see life through rose-colored glasses. It's as though we live at the edge of a looking-glass world where mundane objects come to life, where flora and fauna take on near-human qualities.There are others like us out there - who become interested and adept at a variety of things and like a new puppy happily jump from one thing to another. We are also multi-talented.  And sometimes we have to stop and back up, and sleep.  The following is a dialogue, in a Dear Abby kind of way,  that I shamelessly stole from the SheWrites' blog Creative Catalyst and revised it to fit my own conversation with my creative unconscious:
Dear Creative Unconscious:
 It’s only the first week of the academic year, and I’m feeling swamped already! Is painting and gardening and mentoring and facilitating workshops and training volunteers in addition to pastoral counseling a dodge from my main work as a writer? Is it a secret wish for failure? Or a fear of success?- Swamped in Memphis

Dear SM:
 That depends on your motivation and how you manage time and energy. Does fear not being enough lead you toward distraction? More practically, are you over-committing yourself?
SM: I don’t want to say no when someone asks me to do something, but I certainly say it plenty. I want to help people.  Do you think this is the unconscious pursuit of something?
CU: Wholeness, as I see it. But there is only so much of you to go around. Your quest leads to fragmentation rather than wholeness.
SM: I want to feel that expressing myself as a writer is enough. I want to feel worthy without having to add another layer—say, becoming a hero for the downtrodden before I can be a worthy writer.
CU: It’s a bitch to be an artist in our linear world! Be careful not to internalize judgments from well-meaning volunteers, family and friends. Sure, it’s okay to be the writer you are without another layer. You don’t have to prove yourself to feel worthy. Layering springs from a creative impulse and is a quest for richness. Simpler is easier. But now all the richness, wholeness, and layering is a part of you and your writing. Do not renounce an iota of the richness yet continue to focus. Do what you can without going crazy.
SM: How can I know if I’m sidestepping commitment, or avoiding success? What if I am unconsciously afraid of success?
CU: Ask yourself if some fear leads toward your seeking distraction.
SM: If I were truly committed to my writing, wouldn’t I do something like go on a month-long writer's retreat and dive deep into myself?
CU: Not necessarily. You don’t have to prove yourself by undertaking extraordinary steps. Staying home and doing your work is enough. However, I love the self-guided writing retreat idea! You could even volunteer during your retreat! Does mentoring, your secondary interest, feed your primary writing interest? If so, you’re on a path that will serve your work.
SM: Oh, yes. For me, the smiles and words of the girls in writing workshops embody the rhythms and richness of language. I know that mentoring helps reduce my stress. It makes me feel alive and healthy (as does painting). Plus, it’s fun to be in community with women. Even when we speak different languages, writing unites us.
CU: It’s rejuvenating— your personal Fountain of Youth.
SM: Yes! But how can I tell when studying with a good writing mentor myself will help me, and when it’s more of me hiding from what I know?
CU: Take stock of what you know now. You are wise. Do you need to know more in order to go further? Claim your authority, and just do it. Perhaps later you’ll benefit from a mentor, or another class, or another workshop.
SM: My new resolution is to focus on my writing in the coming months Instead of spinning off in so many different directions.
CU: Focusing your prodigious talent and energies makes perfect sense. Go easy on yourself, and let your work flow.  Say “No” before you say yes. It’s easier to change your mind.

What are you thoughts on the fear of success?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Writing & Race: Black Men, Cubans and Gypsies are Living in My Head!

Two of my novels include a Black man as the protagonist. In a meeting a few weeks ago, I overheard the statement that Anglos cannot write about Black people because they don't have the experience and knowledge base.

I suppose the statement above would apply to my writing about Asians, Swedes or Native Americans or any other culture of which I am not a part.  I understand the point and agree that there are many compelling arguments for and against writing from the viewpoint of a cultural identity that is not one’s own.  On the other hand, when writing fiction, isn’t that what writers do as they get into the minds and lives of their characters? The statement became more and more absurd to me as I thought about the classics. But it called me to look at my own writing and why I write about the characters that are in my own stories. 

My desire here is not to haggle about whether or not I know enough about the cultures that I write about to include them in my novels and stories, but to look at the larger picture of the basic human condition with our imperfections, inadequacies, hopes, dreams and fears.  A writer must explore the questions of what is common to every family, every woman every man, every child.  What are our common bonds, and how do we strive to rise above adversity? What forms us at human beings, and what is our deepest yearning? I believe every human being comes into this world with unlimited potential, and then the world gets hold of us and leads us on our own hero's journey. I believe each of us has an innate desire to do good and to try our best. I do not believe these traits are restricted to only one culture.  I believe hope and determination are what we all hold onto, no matter what class or culture society wants to drop us into. And some in our culture are not so nice.

I think that blanket statements like the one I first mentioned only tend to marginalize us and polarize us from one another.  Because to jump right to the conjecture that the inability of one person or another to write about another race is the norm is to not only miss the larger picture of our cultural need to love one another by understanding one another, but also to dismiss the great novelists of the world.

I have lived in the South my entire life and can write from the perspective of a southerner. No, it’s not always about race. But to leave race out of in my fiction is to deny my own history. My experiences with others of differing cultural backgrounds is part of what compels me to write. My interactions with African-Americans has been life-long.  No, I can never in reality get inside the head of a Black man and know his thoughts. Oh, but I can in my writing. I have a couple of Black men living in my head who wanted their stories told. I also have gypsies, mechanics, and a couple of Cubans living in there that have been transferred to the page.  I believe I present their stories with honor and honesty. If they were real live people they may or may not think so, especially if they are characters who behave badly. Ah, then comes the time for redemption. Or not.

If writers only wrote from their own perspective, only a tri-racial person could have written Huckleberry Finn.  And what about gender? Some of the best novels I’ve read are written by men using female protagonists. Wally Lamb immediately comes to mind as a contemporary writer who uses female protagonists. And then there’re religious denominations, professions, and endless other plot twists and turns that writers use for their characters.  Of course, there is a ton of bad writing in the universe to back up the argument that a writer shouldn’t write about something they know nothing about. To fully develop our characters writers simply must do our research. Writers cannot write without doing our homework. In a sense, we must become the characters we write about, immerse ourselves in their worlds.

I don’t think the argument is a matter of writing from another perspective; it’s a matter of bad writing or good writing. Writers are chameleons who can be any thing and any body. That is one of the pleasures and joys of writing, to get into that dream state of becoming our characters, seeing the world through their eyes, and revealing that world to our readers, while the newspapers pile up at our doors, while the outside world lives in chaos, and while characters keep developing themselves in our writing, telling us their troubles, their yearnings, and where they want to go.

What is your experience in writing from other cultural perspectives?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Unknowing Agents of Inspiration

Susan Cushman's post,  Getting Saved, Sex and Writing over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, inspired me this morning. Susan writes of a teacher who put masking tape over her mouth to stop her from talking. Her words sparked memories of my own childhood. I am an extreme introvert, although not shy. My elementary school was Walthall School in Hattiesburg, MS. When I asked a question or made a statement as a child it was usually a well-thought out sentence so as not to embarrass myself. In 4th grade I have this vivid memory of having not heard the page number leaning over to ask a classmate what page we should be reading. When I leaned back into my own desk, here comes the teacher stomping towards me, yelling at me. I am terrified. She grabs my little desk with her big hands and shoves it back against the wall.  The impact jolts my tiny 9-year old body so much I can still feel my skin shudder.

I don’t think I uttered another word until I graduated. There have been other agents of energy (this is being kind) who tried to stop me from writing and talking in addition to that fourth grade teacher. In ninth grade, we had an assignment in English Class to write a persuasive letter to someone. I have no memory of whom I wrote my letter to or what I was trying to persuade them to do, but I have a strong memory of what my teacher said about my letter as she read it to the entire class. Shame invaded my life and still lives rent-free in my brain.

Growing up in the south, we have certain words that are part of our language, our vernacular. We use these words in our homes, in our businesses and in personal conversations.  I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I had used several of these words in my assigned letter. The teacher read my letter and snickers echoed off the walls as my classmates listened. She waved the letter in the air and shouted that one does not use such language. I was humiliated. I did not write another thing until I graduated. Except in my personal journals that I kept since elementary school.

As a young bride living in New Jersey in the early 70s I got a part-time job as a typist at a company called Myron Sugarman International.  They manufactured gaming machines for casinos.  I typed letters from the Dictaphone. The men who dictated those letters were all fast talkers. Too fast for me. Well, that was New Jersey, and those accents, you can imagine, were strange for a young girl from Mississippi. I tried to slow down the machine so I could understand what the men said, and I strained to listen. I did my best. The words I couldn’t understand I just made something up that fit what I discerned the letter was about.  Every letter came back with red marks. I tried to explain that I could not understand their accents. They laughed. They did not have an accent – it was me! People in the office asked me questions just to hear me talk.  I was so embarrassed I shut up and quit the job.

But I continued writing in my journals. I made up characters, settings, descriptions. Years later, in a fit of anger, my now ex-husband threw all my journals, around 30 or them, in the Ross Barnett Reservoir. I guess he thought I was writing about him. All those stories now sleep with the fishes.

Writing was mandatory in college classes of course, so I tip-toed around those words that one does not use and was awarded some scholarship dollars to Millsaps College in Jackson, MS based on my writing. I was finally set free.

Now I come to today, and I am like an addict who goes on a binge, wakes up 5 hours later and wonders where the time went. The newspaper is still in the yard, the dust has gathered on the coffee table, phone calls go unanswered, and my FaceBook status is non-existent.  That is how it is when I am writing. Time stands still.

My husband Robert comes home and knows I am writing and leaves me alone. He encourages me. He understands.

Who were/are, in spite of themselves, your unknowing agents of energy and inspiration to keep writing

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Power of Rejection, and Why I Keep Writing.

Robert and I take our three rescue dogs to the Shelby Farms Dog Park often. Every time they go, it is the best day of their lives. As if they have never scurried after rabbits, splashed in lakes, or played with other mammals similar to themselves. Every time we go, it's a whole new world.  The excitement builds from the moment they see me putting on my walking shoes. They hear the squeak of the chair, and that's it.  When Robert picks up a leash, they sit and fidget until he attaches leashes to their collars. They rush the door and around to the back of the Jeep, so anxious to go. We drive with all windows down, and three heads with lips and ears flapping are seen in our review mirrors. They are together in a wad, metaphors for ecstasy.

On arrival at the dog park they don't even wait for the hatchback to open, noses are at the ready. Down from the Jeep they bound, then off to the lake.  Only one dog, the Golden Retriever, is a swimmer. The other two are waders, but they want to be swimmers.  They waggle their bodies as if they are going in, then turn around and watch Buddy swim toward a tennis ball. He snatches it in his muzzle, and swims back, snorting out water with each breath. On shore he drops the ball and runs off in search of a dog trotting down the dirt path.  This, my friends, is doggie bliss. It seems there are no boundaries, and plenty of lakes, butterflies and small animals, humans who all love dogs, petting hands at the end of every arm.

After about two hours, this is all they can take of bliss.  They are panting and tired.  They know the Jeep and run back there and wait to get in and lie down.  This has been fun, and now it's time to go home and rest. Until next time.

This is how it is with me and writing.  I know, it's a stretch, but stay with me here. The anticipation, the build up to the process, the journey through the terrain of the story, the lovable characters (though many are odd), the appreciation of the opportunity, then okay, it's time to get back on the road.  Then rest.  Then I do it all over again, and it is always brand new. Writers are those who write.  And I am one.

Over the past ten years or so, I have completed 3 novels, 35 short stories, about a dozen essays, and I want to add "so far".  Some writers say writing is cheap therapy. Others say writing satisfies some inner urging, or that they believe they were one of Dickens' characters in a previous life, or they believe their story is so unique people will line up for it, or they have a need to be famous, or rich, or whatever the reason may be. I don't know about those latter reasons; however, the inner urging I do understand.  And of course the cheap therapy. But for me, that's not the only reason I write. Truth is, writing makes me feel good.  Simple as that. 

Writing helps my deep memory. Those childhood events and stories that were long forgotten are somehow resurrected when I fall into what Robert Olen Butler calls that "dream state". There is a zone of emotional connection that we tap into when we put words on paper and words fall together to describe a scene or a character that we are seeing in our heart and brain, and the words come effortlessly as if snowflakes drifting from the sky. The beauty of it is ethereal and we know it when we do it.  But only after the writing is done.  When writing is an effort - when we struggle to find just the write word or phrase or metaphor for a circumstance so we can compare and contrast what we want the reader to experience, when we find just the right sequence of words, then and especially then we sit back and we say where did that come from and we know.

Like those dogs running free, my mind runs free with words.

So what if I get a rejection now and then?  (And believe me, I've received plenty.) One rejection does not stop the flow of process or passion for the craft. Ellen Ann Fentress says, "You're just statistically closer to a "yes" now, Emma".  I believe her.  She would know.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Grandmothers are Everywhere. Find One.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says: "It's never too late to take up with a courageous, wild, calm, mostly sane grandmother. Or grandfather. They are everywhere. Just like the young are everywhere. Speak to each other, and you will likely not ever again be as strangers."

One of my co-workers lives two blocks from me. I think she is a few years older than I. And wise. And fun. I've walked past her house dozens of times while walking our dogs. This past week I learned that she will be moving several miles away to a condo. Walking the dogs the other night I saw her car in the driveway, her door ajar, so I stopped and knocked and was of course invited in. Dogs tied up outside, we had a wonderful talk. I said to her that I had never stopped by, even though I thought about it many times, but now that she is moving I felt compelled to stop. Even though I had never stopped before, I had felt comforted knowing she was there. Like a grandmother that I could call on if I needed her. (Even though she and I are close to the same age.) She is a wise one. She is funny, and loving, and well-read and a joy to be around.

I remember spending the night with my Cajun grandmother, Mammau, many times when I was a little girl. She read to me from books that were not necessarily for children, but nothing inappropriate, just historical or religious. She gave me my first diary and encouraged me to write every day. One of the regular things we did was listen to the radio at dusk. She sat in her rocker, and I snuggled up in her big feather bed. The radio was on her dresser tuned to a station interrupted by static now and then. Usually it was WWL out of New Orleans, an early version of talk radio run by the Jesuits at the time. The subject matter was varied, and the station was known for broadcasts of dixieland jazz concerts. Late at night, my grandmother and I listened to Southern Gospel programs, and some local preachers. Some were quite entertaining, causing us both to laugh. She had a little terrier named Snooky, and I would sometimes lure him to follow me home by taking a piece of bread and giving him tiny pieces along the way. Then Mammau called to ask my mom and dad if he had followed me home and I pretended like I was surprised and had no idea he had followed me. She knew.

Mammau taught me many things, but the best thing she taught me is how to be a grandmother. My nine year old granddaughter is here for the weekend. She has started a blog. I am very proud of her. She writes!

Who in your own life has been a grandmother to you, or who inspired you in your early efforts at writing?
[Note: on the photo above, I wish I could attribute it to the person who took this picture, but it was emailed to me by another blogger and that person had no idea where it came from. If anyone knows, I would like to give this photographer the credit he or she deserves, so please contact me.]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Name. It's all about the name.

My daughter is about to give birth to a girl in a few short weeks. They've chosen the name Lola Frances. A family name. I know they put a lot of thought into this choice.

I've been thinking a lot lately about names. Parents begin to think about names as soon as the fact is known that a baby is on the way. And then there are all those baby naming books - Amazon has almost 1500 titles of books on choosing your baby's name. A child's name is extremely important.

My Great Aunt Emma was a nurse during World War II. After the war she became head nurse at the VA hospital in Gulfport MS. In my childhood I spent a week with her during a few summers when she would take me to the seawall and watch the waves roll in, and we threw bread out for the seagulls to snatch up. All through elementary school, I was the only Emma. When anyone was singled out because of bad behavior, such as talking, and it was someone named Emma, it was certainly me. I wanted so to be a Kathy, or a Patty, or a Debbie. I felt I did not fit in and the only reason was that I had this old-fashioned name. Nothing against Aunt Emma, whom I was named after, but back in the 60s it just was not a common name. When I was in 7th grade, I was the only Emma still. My middle name was Maria, so I decided to be known as Maria. My report cards and school records were changed. The first time I brought home my report card for my parents to sign, my father was apalled. Who in the world is Maria? he asked. When I explained that I didn’t like the name Emma and had decided to henceforth go my the name Maria, he and I had a sit-down. He explained to me the importance of the name Emma - that it was an old family name, and I should be proud to carry this name. He told the the story of how he and my mother had decided on naming me after his Aunt Emma because of how brave and tenacious she was. Aunt Emma had died a few years before that, so his feelings for her were still tender. I decided to go back to being Emma. Now I am glad I did. It's the 2nd most common name for baby girls these days. What happened to the Debbies and the Kathys?

Over the past few years, I studied a bit about the act of naming. When the ancient civilizations “named” something, it became their own. In biblical terms, naming was extremely important because it gave a person dominion over that which was named. Most every religious denomination has a ritual around the naming of the child. In the Episcopal Church, we say at Baptism, "Name this child."

In my fiction writing, I struggle with the names of my characters, because a name can tell the reader a lot about the person they read about. Sometimes the name comes right to me as soon as I begin a story. Other times I have to use Joe or Sue until the character reveals himself or herself to me through the writing. Then Joe or Sue might become a unique character whose name I have never even seen or heard before. One of my protagonists is named Goodlord Fenney. I never heard of anyone by this name and have no idea where it came from. But it fits the person I have pictured in my mind's eye.

What is the origin of your own name?

Go back to your own birth. Think about how things were then. What does your name say about you? Or, try the opposite writing prompt: You are given a different name. Whose idea is this? What is the name’s origin? How will your life be different?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Edgy God.

So many of our great fiction writers have described God in ways that are quite moving. Frederick Buechner has done a fantastic job, as have many southern writers of fiction. I love Wendell Berry. Whenever I need a boost out of a rut, I read Berry's poetry, or scan one of his novels for passages that I have marked. The other day I was looking for a narrative section on what God is like. These words jar me from my complacency and begin my thought processes anew. I found it . . . by Wendell Berry: The speaker is Jayber Crow in Berry's wonderful novel of the same name:

"For a while again I couldn't pray. I didn't dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal himself in power. I wanted to tell him that it was time for his coming. If there was anything at all to what he had promised, why didn't he come in glory with angels and lay his hands on the hurt children and awaken the dead soldiers and restore the burned villages and the blasted and poisoned land? Why didn't he cow our arrogance?... But thinking such things was as dangerous as praying them. I knew who had thought such things before: "Let Christ the king of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Where in my own arrogance was I going to hide? Where did I get my knack for being a fool? If I could advise God, why didn't I just advise him (like our great preachers and politicians) to be on our side and give us victory? I had to turn around and wade out of the mire myself. Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn't it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment he had come down in power and glory? Why didn't he do it? Why hasn't he done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now? I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn't, he hasn't, because from the moment he did, he would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be his slaves. Even those who hated him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended. And so, I thought, he must forebear to reveal his power and glory by presenting himself as himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of his creatures. Those who wish to see him must see him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world."

That God is present in the "ordinary miracle of the existence of his creatures" gives me comfort. Where is God present for you?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

We all have those days.

My friend Susan Cushman posted that she has had a visit from her old friend "Acedia". I had to do a little research on the word Acedia. I was familiar with the word, but not its exact meaning. I though it might be some sort of skin rash. (My attempt at humor) But not so. Acedia ... "describes a state of listlessness or torpor [inactivity], of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one's duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to but distinct from depression. Acedia was originally noted as a problem among monks and other ascetics who maintained a solitary life." (Wikipedia).

Such an interesting state of being. I suppose we all have a visit from that state of being from time to time. And it's not always a bad thing. in the West, we tend to think that we need to constantly be on the move, we are human doings instead of human beings. But perhaps Acedia is God's way of slowing us down, of forcing us to meditate on the moment. This has given me some sermon material - this Sunday the Gospel is about the Kyphotic woman, and her healing. She had become a spiritual "pretzel". I'm thinking that's what aceticism can do to one - bend us in ways we don't think we can go, but we do. Susan had lots more to say on this matter. Check out her other blog posts above.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Gravy. Gotta Have the Gravy.

"Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids--all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through." - Garrison Keillor

I received another rejection of one of my short stories. It sat out there for the longest time as "under consideration" at Narrative Magazine, and I was hoping it would be at least a finalist; but no, got the rejection this morning in an email. The positive sign is that this story did outlast the last one, which was rejected much sooner. So, now to look the story over again, perhaps change the name and refine it a little and send out again. And again. And again.

In this quadrant of my life I have more resolve and tenacity than I had when I was younger. These days I take the "no's" as part of life, and not as a definition of who I am. That may sound rather fatalistic to some who had higher self-esteem than I had when I was a child, but when I was just a small child I did allow quick judgments to sink and and applied the defining words of others to who I thought I was. When I was in my teens and 20s it was easy for me to just give up on something when I received the first "no". Now I look for ways to get a "yes". And, if the "yes" does not come, that is okay too. I move on.

As part of moving on, I have been asked to write an essay on how dreams influence my writing for an online publication. This will come easily for me. This is like the gravy that Keillor talks about. Gravy, like a dream, soaks into our unconscious and appears in surprising ways.

Dreams have influenced writers throughout history and continue to influence writers, including Stephen King and Anne Rice and William Styron. Having completed about 35 short stories, I would guess that more than half of those were influenced by an event or a character that appeared in my dreams.

Where have interesting characters appeared in your own dreams, and have you written about them?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lessons from a Tennessee Volunteer

If I had the time, I would spend all day writing. But sometimes things get in the way and take so much energy that I am diverted for hours from what I love into what is necessary.

This morning I eliminated the volunteer that had taken over my life. I hated to do it at first, but as I ripped and tugged and hacked at this invasive varmint, I showed no mercy. I sweated profusely, powered by my anger, as I yanked it up by its roots and cast it out of my life. This pesky thing had taken over. It entwined its skinny fingers around my okra, gripped my wonderful and prolific grape tomato plants at their necks and nearly choked the life out of them. Six bell pepper plants never had a chance. Oh, they started off healthy, with large dark green leaves, but once the vine got aholt (acceptable in the south as a real word) of them, they were stifled into puny sprouts never to even produce their first flower.

Not to mention what this thing did to my cherished eggplants. But the eggplant bush was determined, growing above the vine to tower over it and bravely produce a few lovely aubergine fruits on its few spindly arms.

I was tolerant at first. Gleeful even, that this new little vine was so healthy. I watched the abundant gigantic yellow flowers bloom. Are you a squash? A melon? No indication of which variety of fruit to expect. I nurtured the little thing, propping it up on my garden fence to protect it from snails, every day guiding it along. Then, when the vine was maybe 75’ in length, wrapped around and around my garden fence, a small oblong yellow fruit appeared. First a lone little baby something, then another and another. In all, perhaps 5 of these fruits appeared. I let them grow, thinking for sure this is a spaghetti squash. The fruits grew large, perhaps 8-10” in length, and were fat, like a spaghetti squash. But different somehow. I left them alone to grow.

Every night the vine grew. The leaves were huge. Each morning there appeared tendrils grabbing onto grass, invading now my back yard. This is the healthiest plant I’ve ever seen, I marveled! Is this how Jack and the Beanstalk began?

One must discern the motives of volunteers early on, before they take over. I always think they have good intentions, they will be fruitful, and will contribute to the good of all. They pop up and say I’m here, and I welcome then. I expect them to be surprising, as I cannot always tell what type they are in the beginning, those things that sprout up where you did not ask them to grow. Where you did not plant them.

But always always I start off loving them, smiling at their new little faces, marveling at their capacity to grow several inches in a day, and waiting, with much anticipation, what the fruit of the vine will be. These volunteers are eternally the most energetic, charismatic plants in the garden, usually coming from some composted plant consumed perhaps years ago, or dropped by birds, and just waiting until the precise moment in time to burst forth its seed and devour everything in its way.

Don’t trust them. No matter how they try to seduce you, no matter how smart they say you are. They are a clever lot. But I implore you, cut them down in their infancy. Grab your hoe and chop unmercifully until you get them at the very roots of their lives. Pull them up, throw them in a heap, or, better yet, burn them to ashes!

Today, my tomato plants are free at last from the vine’s strangle hold. As are my peppers, my eggplant, my okra. And do they appreciate it? I cannot tell. It is 100 degrees outside and they wilt if I look at them. Parched. They enjoyed being in the shade of those big leaves, even if that vine stifled their growth. But they are trying to recover in their newfound freedom. They are blooming, leaning toward the sun as if they are happy to at last see the light. Free to grow into what they were created to be.

Free at last.

I just hope it’s not too late.
Sometimes I feel like this is how some of my characters take over my writing. I develop small characters with great potential, then someone else eases in my mind's eye, and suddenly it's all about them and the other characters get lost in the excitement. I have to then put forth loads of time and energy clearing out the fluff to get back to the original idea.

Have you had anything that took over your life, slowly, before you knew what happened? Please share your experience with me.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Poise and Personality?

I've been reading Gail Bruce's book Literacies, Lies & Silences: Girls Writing Lives in the Classroom, about her being a participating observer in her work of writing with adolescent girls. In her lengthy introduction she takes the time necessary to explore the history of why a shift occurs in the lives of most girls as they move from childhood to adolescence. A shift from being the 'subject' to becoming the 'object'. I find this fascinating on so many levels. More about this later.

On a recent flight I am sitting in an aisle seat on that beloved exit row next to an attractive young woman with long billowing black hair, dangly earrings, silver sandals, and those trendy "skinny jeans". I admire anyone who can wear those things with class - of course they show off one's body, however much or little of it there is. Here I am, a healthy middle-aged female, taking up much of that little airplane seat. And there she is, like a limber grasshopper, taking up about half her seat, legs folded up and she is writing thank you notes, one after the other. She is in the center seat. A mildly obese man occupies the window seat. He sleeps. I continue reading my book.

Miss skinny jeans reaches under the seat in front, stashes the stack of thank you cards, and retrieves a folder. I cannot help but notice there is a golden mark of some sort on the cover as she flips it open. She pulls out a stack of papers. On the letterhead I read, Mrs. America: We are Family. I slyly eavesdrop for a while as she ponders each question and fills in the answer. Then I have to ask: "Are you a contestant?"

She turns, flips her beautiful hair, and answers, "Yes. I am the state pageant winner and I will compete in the pageant in Tucson in a few weeks." Her earrings shimmy as she flashes perfect white teeth. Congratulations, I say, you have a good chance. She thanks me, with demure humility, then tells me she is writing notes to her sponsors and continues talking about all the opportunities the pageant has afforded her. She is a wonderful cheerleader and has what they look for in those pageants, plenty of poise and personality. And her hips are no wider than her head.

I think how synchronistic it is that she is seated next to me as I continue to read Bruce's book, and I have to compare and contrast Bruce's findings against the world of beauty pageants. My mind began to wander to Bruce's stories in her book, and how the world of adolescent girls is so fragile. And to the media, which is another fantasy world.

My intention here is not to bash pageants or the media, as pageants are useful to those who enter them and to those whose business it is to promote them and those are arguments I will not pursue. My intention is to explore the complex dynamics in the lives of young girls and not the world of poise and personality. However, contrasting this is attractive to me.

I once worked with a young woman who put herself through college and graduate school on scholarships from such pageants. She lauded them and encouraged younger women to make use of the opportunity. But I think everyone will admit that pageants are not for everyone. Some women have the qualifications for them and some don't. Most of us are called to different lives and to pursue different opportunities.

Which brings me back to Bruce's book, and her experiences of writing with girls, and her descriptions of the period in girls' lives when they begin to get 'lost'. Most of the girls in my creative writing classes seem to feel as if they dwell in an alternate universe, yet they yearn to feel normal whatever that may be. I remember the time in my own life when I felt 'lost' - when I watched the Miss America pageant on TV and heard over and over that this was the dream of every little girl, to hear Bert Parks sing There She Is. Every little girl's dream. I believed that. But it was never my dream. So how odd was I, I wondered then. What are the various fantasy worlds of adolescent girls, and how do these fit in with their reality? How do you think the world of pageants affects little girls?

I watch the Facebook posts of some of the girls in my writing classes and am embarrassed at their language, their abbreviated words, and realize it is an entirely new language. But at least they are writing! Even if some of those posts are full of misspelled words and anger. Mostly directed at their parents.

What a Character!

In her post, Memoir: Turning Yourself into a Character, author Nanci Panuccio says, “Memoir is character-based non-fiction. As obvious as this might sound, what’s often missing in an early draft of memoir is the narrator’s engagement with his or her own story. Observers by nature, writers sometimes tell their story as witness rather than participant.”

In my fiction writing, my characters are composites of real people as well as people that I imagine in my head. I can lay on anyone certain hand gestures, the way they may smoke a cigarette, or sip their coffee. The way someone speaks to another, how they inflect their voice, can tell the reader a lot about that character. The clothes they wear, internal thoughts. But how do we create ourselves as characters? Is it much the same process?

In thinking about this, I realize that my own self-perception is different than others' perception of me, and I am in a sense a 'witness' to my own life. How observant, how involved am I really in being conscious of the minute details of my own mannerisms, my own voice tone, my own way of walking? Perhaps I should ask others about their memories and interpretations of my hand gestures, my speaking voice, or what my movements might infer. How do you create yourself as a character, and how real can "you" be?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Letter to My 20-Something Self.

Interesting post from Cassie Boorn at http://cassieboorn.com/20-something-self-letters/. She is posting letters written by women to their 20-something selves. In giving this project some thought, I have to think hard to remember what I was doing when I was 20. What would I write to that "me"? What would you write? These are my first thoughts:

Dear Emma,

These are some thoughts I have been having about your life that I feel compelled to share with you. I can see that you are looking for affirmation that you are worthy, and lovable. I can see that you are very unsure of your own gifts and talents in this world. You are so young, yet you have depth uncommon to others your age. An ancient soul. This letter is to encourage you to dig down deep within yourself and tap into that inner wisdom. I know, you have your doubts. I can assure you that there is a richness there that you have never even begun to imagine. But perhaps women do not find that security within themselves until they are past 60. That is my truth, anyway. Now I know that it was always there, but prior to say, age 50 or so, I was only skipping the surface like a dragonfly. You do not need the affirmations of others to prove you exist. At your age, you have no idea of your potential. I have a warning for you that you will not heed. I know you are enamored with that boy. You are thinking just because he is outgoing and uninhibited that he can speak for you. You are thinking just because he is from a place you have never been that he knows how to live. You are thinking that since your own family is so dysfunctional, with your mother being an alcoholic, that this boy is a doorway to a life you think is normal. But consider this: are you looking at the same person the world sees? Are you looking for an escape to something, or from something? And take a real and honest look at your options. If you had accepted that scholarship to Millsaps, what would your life be like in ten years? If you accept that job offer at the R & D Center, how will your life change? You are wise, but you do not know that now. You will continue on this same path. And some day, you will wake up and see the world as a new place, and see your true self as a strong and courageous soul. Some day.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Welcome to the University of Emmaville!

I've always wanted my own school. The curriculum would include:
  • The Study of Dreams
  • The Art of Soul Work
  • Writing, Writing, & Writing
  • The Importance of Story
  • The Essentials of Nutrition (so everyone will stay healthy to do the rest of the classes)
And I'm certain other necessary classes would reveal themselves in time.

My husband and I are in northern Minnesota and while traveling to Lake Itasca, to the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi, we came across this abandoned town, Emmaville. A charming intersection, with an old school, a combination cafe/gas station, a car wash, and a few old houses. The town originated as a logging village in the 1800s, from what the locals tell. Revivals have been sporadic, with energetic and creative entrepreneurs trying to make a go of the store off and on over the years. But now the town is for sale. I am thinking it is the perfect setting for a story . . . a woman is running away from something . . . she decides to rent this old building and live here as inconspicuously as possible. Who is she? What has happened in her life? Hmmmm. . . .

Thoughts on the great memoir, Lit, by Mary Karr

I found the pages of Mary Karr's memoir wildly funny, some passages causing me to laugh out loud. But her truths are at the same time uncomfortably sad and somehow familiar. Will I ever be able to tell my own truths in such metaphoric accuracy?

Karr's memory of her father is bittersweet, even to me and I didn't even know him. Her descriptions of his strange sayings recall my own mother's voice repeating the same phrases over and over again: You look like a refugee. I'm just telling it like it is. She don't have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of. I guess if she said stick your head in the oven you'd do that too.

Each person has his or her own story. All the joys and heartaches - but most of the time we only want to world to know the joys, like a Christmas letter telling about junior's athletic prowess and sister's love of baton twirling and so on. But what are the real truths beneath what we shout to the world? Are we giving our truths to the world? And what are they?

Our Golden Shadow is composed of our good things that we deny or hide from the world. We are usually quick to admit our shortcomings, but slow to accept praise. We need to listen when someone tells us we have done something well. Enhance your own truths and talents. Develop your natural gifts, and find your joy. What is your passion? What do you love to do when the time seems to zip by, and 2, 4, or 6 hours later you look up and say to yourself where did the time go?

Mary Kitt re-discovered her golden shadow, and has presented it to the world. She is fearless.

Friday, July 2, 2010

River Town.

One evening this week my husband Robert and I rode down to the greenway on Mud Island and parked, got a good coffee from Lil Eclectic, and walked a bit. We do this often. The breezes were comfortable, blowing away the mosquitoes. Joggers, walkers, bikers of all ages and colors enjoyed the early evening, as starlings darted overhead and a tugboat blasted a long whistle as it set the course for its cargo toward New Orleans. The green of the expanse along the Mississippi, and the friendliness of the others along the walkway made for a pleasant evening. Several couples sat on blankets, faces aimed toward the lavender and coral sunset over Arkansas. This is one of the places we love about Memphis.

Every day in the local newspaper, and on the TV news, we hear about negative images, and many are serious enough to warrant a worried populace: death, violence, poverty, unemployment, economic uncertainly, and on and on. And I certainly share in the concern about personal and community grief and disasters. But at least we have a little bit of solace. Sometimes we need to look for it. And get out in it for a while. Fresh air. A walk along the river does wonders for the soul.