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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

More Writing Quotes

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.
- Isaac Asimov

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.
- Barbara Kingsolver

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.
- Anne Lamott

The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, brain surgery.
- Robert Cormier

Hoping and praying all my writer friends get some writing time in over the next few days!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Who Reads Those Footnotes?

Last night in my Creative Non-fiction class at the University of Memphis, there was a big discussion about footnotes in CNF narratives. The piece we were reading was about a student's conversation/interview with his grandfather. There were about 6 or 8 footnotes included, which mostly were the writer's notes to clarify something in the narrative, something that his grandfather said or did. The instructor asked if the class members read footnotes when they were reading other works, whether CNF or whatever. Most students said they skipped over them; footnotes were annoying. When footnotes appear in anything they may be necessary, but they are not welcome.

As I re-read this writer's footnotes about his grandfather's life, I realized that that's probably where the real story was - in those afterthoughts, in those minute explanations to make or clarify a certain event. Most suggested that the writer get rid of the footnotes and put them in the narrative flow, to include them as part of the building of the characters - both the writer and the grandfather.

What are your thoughts? Do footnotes interrupt the flow of the story? Should there be endnotes instead? Do you have creative methods to include research information within a narrative?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


This semester, I am taking a creative non-fiction workshop class at the University of Memphis. The instructor is Sonja Livingston, a talented and passionate writer (Ghostbread, and others). I submitted an essay on the Jung-oriented dreamwork that I do (see past posts on this blog) to my workshop this week. A couple of my classmates said they think Jung is outdated, and another said there is more modern neuroscience that I completely left out. That if I wanted to publish a book on dreams I should do more research for the book proposal.
            Truth is, I have no intention of publishing a book on dreams. There are thousands out there from professionals in the fields of psychology, anthropology, analysis, biochemistry, and, yes, neuroscience. And even chemical engineers. This essay was about how the type of dreamwork I do has changed the way I see life – changed the way I see others, changed my relationships. The essay was intended as an invitation to others to listen to dreams, the visitors in the night, and to share my own experience.
            To say that I needed to include modern neuroscience and brain research was, well, like I’m watching a waterfall, being enchanted by the rainbows in the spray, watching the way the water spills and splashes over the rocks, whispers past the ferns at water’s edge, eddys and pools as it enters the creek, then someone says there’s no way I could appreciate the scene unless I had a better understanding of current studies in hydrology, and a scientific appreciation of H20 and geology.
            Seems this way of looking at life is somewhat like viewing the world through a tube, and the viewer can only see what the tube is aimed at. There is a loss of the milieu, the broader sense of place that comes with appreciation of the small things that make up a scene.  Can one take in the colors, the fragrance, the sounds, if the eye is only zeroing in on one element of the scene?
            Depending on one’s personality type, there will always be differences in people and their views of life. That’s what makes us interesting – our personalities and quirks. To grow our soul, do we just accept that “that’s how I am”, or do we try to learn about another way of seeing? Just as the ones who say I needed more modern science in my essay, then perhaps I need to look at the world through their eyes for a few minutes. Perhaps I should ask myself, How can you clarify words so that you don’t sound like you're clinging to an old fashioned, out-of-date concept (even though there has been a resurgence of Jung’s concepts in modern psychology circles, and I've studied dreams for years and years, and completed a two-year dream leadership course of study a couple of years ago).
What does it take to see, really see, something? Does it take a complete understanding of everything that goes into the ‘thing’? Or can one merely appreciate on a simple level the beauty of a thing’s existence? My stance is to try to understand another's perspective. Others may take a more dismissive stance. How do we better appreciate each other's perspective? 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

House Just Gone

I drive by Georgia’s family’s house today. And it’s not there. Nothing. It has been bulldozed down, and the lot cleaned up, as if the house never existed, as if Georgia and her family never existed. I eased my window down and asked a neighbor, who was out picking up trash in her yard: What happened?

I don’t know, one day they’s there and the next day they’s gone. Then the house just gone. Don’t know where they gone to. Thank you very much. I drive on, thinking about the bizarreness of the entire sight.

About a year ago, Georgia, at the cajoling of her friends, joined a neighborhood writing group that I facilitated. She was fourteen years old. Too young, I thought. The other girls were fifteen and sixteen. When I found that Georgia was pregnant, I changed my mind. Does having sex make you mature enough to process your thoughts into words of fiction, or even truth? I asked. Of course, said the girls. I invited Georgia to stay.

Have you been to the doctor? I ask Georgia. No. Ain’t got no way. So I take her to the clinic at The Med. Georgia goes to the counter to check in. I stand quietly behind her overhearing the conversation. Georgia turns to make a phone call, then hangs up and looks at me with tears in her eyes. I need $40. They say they won’t take me without me paying $40.

Here. I’ll pay the $40. Do you take credit cards? So this is all she will have to pay, then she’s covered by Medicaid?

Yes. All is covered. Except the $40. So I wait, and wonder how many young pregnant women decide not to seek medical help because they don't have $40. No wonder that Memphis has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation.

Georgia emerges from the hallway, and she has seen the doctor who confirms the pregnancy and gives her the necessary prenatal exam and vitamins and tells her it’s a girl.

We’re happy it’s a girl, because Georgia knows what to do with a girl. She is the oldest of the four sisters in her family and has cared for the other three since she was ten or so, when the youngest, now five years old, was in diapers. I think that Georgia’s baby will have an Aunt who is only five years older than she is.

Over the months of her pregnancy Georgia continues coming to the group. We write poetry and she focuses continually on her baby and her dreams for her baby having a better life than she has. We write essays on our families and Georgia writes about her family and how angry her mother is, how bad her home life is, and how discouraged she is about ever having a better life.

But somehow underneath the sadness, there is a hope in Georgia, a Pollyannish attitude that tomorrow will be better than today. If only I marry my baby daddy I can live a life on Easy Street.

Georgia calls me every time for the doctor appointment. We go to the Health Center. Everything is going fine, baby is healthy, Georgia is healthy.

My phone rings at 10pm one night in January. Come quick, I’m in labor. Mama’s at work. Contractions are five minutes apart. I truck Georgia to The Med. Georgia seems to have no problem. No, the labor does not really hurt, she says. I wait, holding her hand, until her mother arrives. Georgia gives birth just after midnight. A Casearean Section, because the baby is big, around eight pounds, and because of Georgia’s young age. A healthy baby girl. Cute, with lots of black curly hair. At last I go home to sleep.

Two days later Georgia calls. Can you come get me and my baby Sara? Of course. I have a car seat. They give me one here at The Med. I be ready to go about 2pm this afternoon.

I carry baby Sara, as Georgia shuffles, somewhat in pain, to my car. She slides in the passenger seat with the help of a hospital assistant while I figure out how to buckle the car seat with tiny little Sara in the back. Done.

Four days later I get a call. Can you come get us? I have to take Sara to The Med to be certified for WIC and they said to come back today. Yes. I’ll be there in two hours.

We truck up to The Med. I let Georgia out (she’s still sore she says) and carry little Sara in the car seat inside and settle them both on a bench while I go and park a block away. They wait.

Georgia knows exactly where to go. I carry little six-day-old Sara in the car seat. Georgia has all her paperwork and answers the caseworker’s questions. She has a folder with everything inside. I am amazed that at fourteen she is very mature to have planned this through, and to have every document that the caseworker asks for. I retreat to the waiting room carrying the carseat with sleeping Sara.

I look into the infant’s face. Her forehead is wrinkled as if to ask what in the world are you doing here? She can’t focus yet, I tell myself. She does not know I’m some strange white woman. It’s the bright lights. I look around and I’m the only white person in the room, until a young tattooed couple come in, looking lost. But they’re in the right place. Her belly bulge gives her pregnancy away. They look maybe fifteen.

Unbuckling little Sara, I lift her out, her lightness surprising me. I cuddle her next to my neck and notice the smell of baby powder and sour milk and I smile, remembering. She squenches up her little body and yawns. I enjoy holding her.

Georgia comes out, papers in hand, holding a sack of sample formulas and such. Down we go to the first floor, where I settle them again on a bench while I retrieve my car.

I ask Georgia questions about the visit, if she needs anything. Any formula? Naw, I breastfeed. She don’t need no formula. My Auntee says give her sugar water some, so I do that. Does she sleep good? She sleeps about two hours at a time. Got to get her to sleep through the night though. Where does she sleep? In bed with me and my sister. Georgia, we’ve got to get you a crib. Sara needs to sleep in a crib. It’s dangerous for her to sleep in bed with you two girls. One of you could roll over on her, I say.

I got a crib. My grandma give me one. But I like for her to sleep with me.

Georgia, I’m telling you it’s too dangerous. Rollover deaths of infants is very common. Listen to me now. I hear you. I’ll put her in the crib starting tonight. My sister been complaining that she can’t sleep no ways, so I’ll put her in the crib tonight. Good, I say, relieved.

Next day, Can you come and take me to the health center? My baby needs a checkup. She’s six days old.

We repeat the scene of going to The Med, but this time we go to the Orange Mound Health Center. I go inside, take a book with me, and wait and read. Young girls and babies come and go. Many fathers are with their wives and babies. I smile. At last Georgia comes out, we’re done, and we go home to her house. I unbuckle the carseat and lift it out of my car while Georgia grabs the medicines and papers. She unlocks the high chainlink gate and we enter the tiny front yard.

At once, 2 pit bulls bound from under the house, growling and barking and heading right for me and little Sara. I lift the carseat as high as I can and scream for Georgia to call off the dogs. The dogs grab my pants leg, while Georgia picks up an old boiling pot and creams the dog over the head. Both dogs run crying back to their shelter under the house. I step up the rickety steps and Georgia unlocks the door. We go inside.

The living room is sparsely furnished. A green naugahyde couch and loveseat are shoved against one wall. Boxes are stacked against another wall. There is no lamp, the overhead light is on and seems bright and too intrusive in such an economy of dwelling. A coffee table with a broken leg sits in the middle of the room. I sit the carseat on the table and it begins to slide off, and I catch it.

Thank you. You’re welcome Georgia. Any time. Remember the crib. Okay. I will.

What about those dogs? There’s the pot, just pick it up and they’ll leave you alone. I ease down the steps and take giant steps toward the gate, whoosh it open and close it fast. The dogs are sleeping under the steps. That’s the way it was.

The next week Georgia calls. She wants to come to the writing group and asks if I can come get her, and I do. Georgia writes that day about what her dream is for her baby. To have a better life than I have. That my mother will start doing right and that my sisters will have a better life and that I will finish school and get a good job for me and my baby. That my baby daddy love his daughter. 

The next week I stop to pick her up, but on that day, she was gone. On that day, house just gone.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Resource List for DreamWork

As promised in Friday's post, here is my list of resources for DreamWork:

Resources for DreamWork and InnerWork
The books and tapes listed below are all resources in my personal library that I currently use, have used in the past, and recommend. This is by no means a complete or definitive list, and newer and better resources are out there or come on the market every day. Since I am a Jungian, most of these resources lean in that direction. I believe in the concept that only the dreamer can interpret his/her dreams, but I also believe in group projective dreamwork to help a dreamer gain insight. Resources are listed in no particular order. The workshops I recommend because I have attended them. The websites are intended as additional resources and may lead you to other links and resources.

Jungian Psychology Unplugged, by Daryl Sharp
The Man Who Wrestled with God, by John Sanford
Invisible Partners, by John Sanford
The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning, by James Hollis
On This Journey We Call Our Life, by James Hollis
Under Saturn’s Shadow, by James Hollis
Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places,, by James Hollis
Boundaries of the Soul, by June Singer
The Christian Archetype: A Jungian Commentary, by Edward F. Edinger
Man and His Symbols, by Carl Jung
Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung
The Portable Jung, translated texts of Carl Jung
Analytical Psychology: It’s Theory and Practice, by Carl G. Jung
Our Dreaming Mind, by Robert Van De Castle
Dream Work, by Jeremy Taylor
Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill, by Jeremy Taylor
Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity, by Joyce Rockwood Hudson
Owning Your Own Shadow, by Robert A. Johnson
He, She, and We, three separate titles by Robert A. Johnson
Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, by Robert A. Johnson
Femininity Lost and Regained, by Robert A. Johnson
Dream Theatres of the Soul, by Jean Raffa
A Dictionary of Dream Symbols, by Eric Ackroyd
Dream Language: Self-understanding Through Imagery and Color, by Robert Hoss
Dreams and Spiritual Growth: A Judeo-Christian Guide to Dreamwork, by Louis Savary, Patricia Berne, and Strephon Williams

Dream Leader Training Intensives (2-year program) The Haden Institute, Flat Rock NC
Summer Dream Conference, Kanuga NC

The Haden Institute (Summer Dream Conference; Dream Leader Training; Spiritual Director Training) 
Seedwork: Information on The Sacred Feminine, Dreamwork, workshops & to subscribe to The Rose. 

There are too many to post! Search for Dream Work or Dreams or Jungian Dream Work and you will get hundreds.

Seedwork site has downloadable talks by noted dreamwork scholars from The Haden Institute's past Summer Dream Conferences. 
Archetypal stories: Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ “Theatre of the Imagination” Vol. I & II and In the House of the Riddle Mother: Common archetypal motifs in women’s dreams.” Any of Estes CDs.

* Watch next week for Lesson # 2.

Do you have any resources on dream work to share?

Friday, September 14, 2012


Examples of dreams as sources of fiction, poetry, and image amplification. 
(This is the first post of a project I've been working on for several years. For the next few weeks and months I will be posting a series of these  "Lessons". )

Journeys to the inner world of dreams and the unconscious have changed my life. I believe that my dreams come for the purpose of healing me along this journey to wholeness we call our life. 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 God within my own soul. I am compelled to pass this on.

I am using my knowledge of Jungian concepts, depth psychology and dreamwork in a monthly dream group class. I apply my experience of these concepts in my pastoral care and counseling work in a church setting as well. In my work with parishioners who are newly divorced, widowed, terminally ill, or in other ways going through a crisis or personal trauma, I help them work with their dreams as they “carry the dream forward”. We explore together the messages brought to them in their dreams.  We journey together on an exciting adventure, and they are usually ready for the journey. Thus I began work on Lessons in Dreaming: A Field Guide as a reference for those in the dream group as well as those who ask for help in working a dream one-on-one.

My Field Guide to dreamwork began with working with my own dreams and taking certain elements, colors, or characters and developing them into short stories, poetry, artwork, and two novels. I believe that creative writing begins the journey of the terrains of one’s soul when we carry our dreams forward into the wonderful world of descriptive language and colorful character development, whether put down in written form 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 right-brain irrational, creative, dream-logic part of the mind and the left-brain rational, critical, linear part – 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 our dreams.

As I visit certain parishioners, we embark on the adventure as we carry the dream setting and characters forward into fictionalized accounts of what life might be like – or how a character might be transformed and brought to life through the written word as we look at them through the “soft-eyed” gaze of the soul. This work brings forth laughter, tears, and, I believe, may help prepare their soul to leave one quadrant of their life and move into the next. Or, in the case of the terminally ill, to help them prepare to leave this world for the next.

The use of clinical language would not be as pastoral as the language of the person, the dreamer. That is the language I use. Within this work many people are able to find hope, meaning, comfort and sometimes healing of past hurts or worries about the future. Always, it is the language of the past that pushes the characters and images forward, and that is where the insights occur as we work together to draw pictures, in words and colors, of the symbols and people that appear in our dreams. In order to protect the privacy and integrity of my work with my parishioners, I have used my own dreams here as examples of the work that I do.

These posts are condensed versions of the information booklet I developed and I share with others and is also an explanation of the work I do with them. My booklet includes graphics to help make the work fun, including a Model of the Psyche for the sake of demonstration.

In one-on-one dreamwork, and in dream groups as well, I occasionally read passages from works of fiction that were inspired by dreams, or review a list of stories, movies, and novels that include or were inspired by dreams. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and the HBO series Carnivale include wonderful examples of archetypes. Also works by Robert Louis Stevenson. I introduce works of poetry or fiction, inspired by dreams, such as Dreams, by Olive Schreiner, or one of the following:
Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
House of Spirits, by Isabel Allende
Peachtree Road, and King’s Oak, by Anne Rivers Siddons
Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King
Queen of the Damned, & others by Anne Rice
B is for Burglar, by Sue Grafton
I encourage dreamers to consider alternative realities: An elephant can fit through the eye of a needle, animals can talk, people can have two heads and circles can fit into boxes. This surrealism is a reflection of the early state of creation, and I coach them to consider that anything is possible as they work in the same manner as they “carry their dream forward” through creative writing.

Lesson # 1: Necessary Equipment for the Journey
Necessary items for this journey to the center of the soul are:
1. Field Notebook. A spiral notebook, journal, or loose-leaf paper will work. Lacking any of that, use the back of an envelope, or anything in sight. Record your dreams immediately upon waking, even it what you remember is merely a snippet or single image.
2. Pencil or Pen (preferably a pen with a light so you won’t wake your partner in the middle of the night).
3. Sketchbook. Any blank page book will work.
4. Colored Pencils.
5. Reference Books. Continuing education is necessary for any journey. ( I will include a reading list next time.)

How do you work YOUR dreams?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Walking Through Plastic Flowers

a garden of plastic flowers
While visiting a friend, I noted that there was nothing in her apartment that was hand made. No quilts, no artwork, no jewelry pieces, nothing. Perhaps there was something out of sight that was not made by a machine, but I did not detect anything. This person is a very kind and courteous person ... they just do not care for superfluous clutter, even if that means throwing away family heirlooms and photographs. "Too many things to dust," she remarked.

On one hand, I admire her resolve to simplify her life. One the other hand, the apartment lacked a certain warmth. I felt as if I was in a hospital room. What is it about us and our basic materialistic selves that we all view different things as being important, pretty, meaningful? 

Could be that my friend spends so much of her time volunteering and serving others that she has no time to devote to thinking about her nest. Could be she is very happy to have an austere nest, and is content without all the "stuff" most of us think we need. She has no real plants or flowers, only plastic ivy and silk begonias decorating her living room. No watering worries. No dying plants. 

While I was uncomfortable in what I saw as a sterile environment, she was very at home in her "clean" environment. We all see things differently. People are fascinating creatures. 

And there, my friends, is where story material comes in. Create a character in a make-believe world that is very different from your own. Get inside that character's mind. Become that character for an hour. Or fifteen minutes if you can stand it. Refrain from judgement and try viewing things from the perspective of this fictional person. As this character, what is important to you? What gives you peace? What causes stress and discomfort?

When we try to understand another's perspective, we begin to understand what tolerance means. We expect others to tolerate us and our beliefs and idiosyncratic views; why can't we tolerate theirs?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Basis of Everything - Wabi-sabi!

I took my first ever art lesson in 2007. We had just moved to Memphis and I was on a self-imposed 3-month sabbatical so I could get to know my new home. I had always wanted to learn to paint. So I go to Michael's and purchase a 36" x 36" stretched and gessoed canvas. Not 10" x 10", mind you, which would have been much less intimidating. I got the "big one".  My thoughts leaned toward, if I'm going to do this, I may as well do it big. I had no idea what to put on that canvas.

At my first art lesson with Kay Spruill, I took my brushes and paints, but no canvas. She said she wanted to spend the first lesson talking about paints and brushes, and how to begin with the right background, then talk about what I wanted in my first project.   She revealed to me the nature of my amateur choices in brushes and paints by showing me the good stuff. I fell in love with every color . . . cadmium red, ochre yellow, cerulean blue, and a dark substance which she said is the same element that is used in the production of blood pressure medicines. Interestingly, the color looks like dried blood. I was fascinated at how the addition of a drop or two of that dark substance to a yellow or white paint changes the emotion of it.

My first painting ever.
We talked about the use of black and white. From what I remember, titanium white is the strongest, most brilliant white available to artists in the entire history of art. In nature, all colors added together makes white, and black is the absence of all color. White refracted through a prism becomes a rainbow of color.  So I go back and look at my big canvas. Next lesson, I bring it in and say I want to paint chickens. We look through several of Kay's art books. I find pastoral scenes with cows and tractors but no chickens. I could see those chickens in my mind's eye, so I just started in, stabbing the brush onto the canvas. That was my first project. Two chickens, "The barnyard standoff."

The chickens came out okay. But the background is not the right color, and the trees not the right green. The shadows have no depth. I concentrated on my painting's flaws instead of the chickens, the "good stuff". Why do we do that?

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term that describes the beauty in decay, that values asymmetry and doesn't look for the symmetrical perfection most folks prize. By recognizing this beauty, wabi-sabi not only accepts but values impermanence, and flaws. Why can't we embrace the Wabi-sabis of life? Why do we want things to be so perfect? What is it in us that pushes us away from imperfection?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Going Home

What does it mean to go home? And where is home?

I pondered these questions as I watched the pallbearers load the dark wooden casket of my friend and parishioner, Betty Sue, a sweet Mississippi Delta lady, into the black hearse. She was born in Clarksdale, MS and had lived in Memphis for most of her life.  But she was always a Mississippi girl, and wanted to be buried back down south in a family plot in a very old cemetery in Jackson, MS.

Her husband, children and grandchildren followed behind their matriarch, stoic upper lips readying for the long ride down to Mississippi. The Polo Club had brought lunch and toddies. The family was large. Each having thoughts of their loved one, that she would be with them no more. Homilies of eternal life with Jesus and belief in the resurrection are of only a little comfort amidst such deep grief of a sudden death.

Family love sustains. I watched the son hold his daughter's hand, then grasp his weary-eyed father's elbow to guide him to the car for the ride to the cemetery. A grandson stood aside, wiping tears on his suitcoat, something his grandmother would have admonished him for doing. He spoke a few words prior to the homily, memories of his grandmother he will always hold dear.

Betty Sue was a member of a Bible class that met in members' homes for almost 20 years. The members of the class were long time friends. Several of the women began their careers fresh from college as airline stewardesses for Southern Airways. That was back when women were the only stewards on those flights, and men were the only passengers. Women lit the men's cigarettes, poured their drinks, and fetched their briefcases from the overhead bins. The women in the Bible class love each other deeply. I led the class for a couple of years, until my schedule became too full. I miss them.

I thought about these women, all getting older and fearful that each year there will be fewer of them.  And I thought about Betty Sue and how she is dancing with the angels knowing she is heading back to her beloved Mississippi, going home to rest eternal in the shifting soils of Jackson to a cemetery that holds Confederate generals, governors, judges and mayors. And of course Eudora Welty.

Which got me to thinking about my own burial some day.  My husband and I have talked about how much we love the Mississippi River, and the Natchez Trace and how much these landmarks have been a part of our lives. We've decided that when we die we want half our ashes sprinkled somewhere in a woodsy area along the Trace, and the other half dumped into the Mississippi River.  So at least our ashes will dissolve into the soils that we've frequented. Home. In a sense.

Then I think about the river and where those waters and our ashes might end up .... perhaps resting in the soils of Africa or China, or at the bottom of the Gulf. But we'll never know. We'll be like Betty Sue, with folks who loved us trailing behind us as we go home, where ever it might be.

What does "going home" mean to you?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

How Do We Protect Ourselves Against Hurt?

An anonymous Golden who looks a bit like Grace,
and a good view of the dog park.
Robert and I took our three rescue dogs to the dog park at Shelby Farms Park this afternoon. Seems half of Memphis decided to do the same. The day was clear, cold and beautiful. While this park is huge, about 100 acres or more, around fifty people and their dogs decided to congregate at one of the nice small ponds with a sand bar and large rocks and benches.

Robert went off on his bike and I kept our dogs on the sparsely populated side of that small pond. Now, our dogs love to fetch and swim in those ponds. There are several ponds out there, but I would have to go past the throng of people and dogs to get to those other ponds. Our dogs were eyeing the dogs on the other side and I knew they would love to run around the pond and go over there with the masses.  But I also know our dogs.  All three are loving and wonderful.  And just like people, they have their sensitive issues. Their past, especially for rescue dogs, never goes away.

Abbey, the 8-yr-old Irish Setter, was kept in a cage the first few years of her life. She loves freedom, but is suspicious of men. She insists on sleeping up on something, like in the leather recliner. She does not like sleeping on the floor on a nice dog bed.  Perhaps she was accustomed to the elevated nature of that cage, as bad as it was, and feels safer up high. Somewhere, perhaps in a cage in a barn far away, she was traumatized by thunder and lightning. When she hears a rumble or a flash, we watch her run to the bathroom and hide behind the sink. That's her place. She feel safe there, so we let her go. At the dog park, she loves children in particular because of their hands being lower to the ground and she can just walk beside a child and automatically be petted.  She's lives in a state of gratitude.

Grace, the 8-month-old ash-blonde Golden Retriever, is about the same size as Abbey and similar in temperament, but much more friendly and inquisitive and will follow anyone who is kind to her. Loud noises do not phase her. We've had her for about 3 months. When we first took her in as a foster she was sickly, scrawny and had patches of hair missing and bad skin. She's healthy now, but I'm sure she remembers those lean months of living in the woods with no regular meals. I'm certain she has nightmares about them. Her habits are aggravating, yet somehow endearing. She eats in her crate, while lying down. Protective of her food. She has never met a person she does not like.

Buddy is the third dog, and he's about 3 years old now. We took him in when he was a few weeks old. The runt of the litter. No one wanted him. The rescue group told us he was a Golden Retriever. Well, he may have some ancestor who was a Golden, but he's a mix of Yellow Lab, Shar Pei and Chow among others. His favorite thing to do in the world is to run and fetch. But no one touches his backside. This is a very sensitive issue with him.  Even when I give him a bath I am careful not to pull his tail or poke him anywhere "back there". Over the years, he's learned to run and play at the dog park and gets along well with people and other dogs.  But today, a man with two young brindle boxers walked by. One of his dogs ran up and sniffed at Buddy's backside. Buddy was not pleased and barked at the dog. The boxer snarled and there was a brief incident. It was over in a matter of seconds because I grabbed Buddy and put his leash on him and he was fine with me protecting him.  The owner of the two boxers was extremely agitated and yelled at me. "That kind of dog has no right to be here. He should not be allowed in the park!" he bellowed.  I said nothing because there was no use. He kept shouting as he walked on, his dogs trailing behind him. I had all 3 of our dogs in my hands at that time.  He scared them so badly that they were trying to hide behind me. His dogs were still loose and he was still screaming at me as he walked on toward the throng of people.  Some folks walked by. They were silent. I think he scared them too.

I wanted to tell him that Buddy's backside is a sensitive issue to him. That he must have been abused in early puppyhood.  That he's otherwise a well-socialized dog, and plays well with others. The man had no intention of having a conversation. Buddy did not attack his dog.  His dog bothered Buddy. Buddy was afraid. I immediately walked the dogs back to our Jeep, because there were three horses coming down that same path.  After their trauma I felt it best to not put them in the way of another potential trauma because they had never been around horses before. And I had been there over an hour and it was time to go. Usually we have to pick Buddy up and put him in back of the vehicle.  But not this time. As soon as I opened the hatchback door, he jumped in. Followed immediately by Abbey and Grace. They were sticking by their Buddy.

Most of our experiences at the dog park have been wonderful.  Today was the only incident that made for an unpleasant time there. For I believe the two boxers just wanted to play and they would have gone on down the path with no further incident.  I believe it was their owner who caused the incident.

What would you have done?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Planning For the Future While Living For Today

My husband and I plan to retire to New Orleans in a few years. His plan is to walk the streets, teach a little, visit the used and antiquarian book stores in the Quarter, and drink lots of coffee. My plan is to write, and teach cooking classes and writing classes in our home. And walk the streets and read and drink coffee every day. In between, we'll play with the grandchildren.

While thinking and planning for the future, and thinking about my blog, I have decided to include my cooking skills into my narrative posts and write about food from time to time. Got to ready myself to present those cooking classes. My mother was a wonderful cook, and always focused on making a dish look pretty. I hope I live up to her standards.

A good start is when I learned that there were more cheeses than hoop cheddar in the red rind. That was the kind my father always brought home. His habit was to eat this cheese on Sunday nights with sardines, onions and saltines. I joined him. I've loved "real" cheese ever since.

He was never one to take any kind of government assistance. My mother said he had too much pride. But one time (perhaps the mid-1950s) there was a huge truck in Hattiesburg and if you lived in a certain neighborhood (presumed to be low income) you could go there and receive a big block of cheese from the government. My father, being the cheese-lover that he was, could not resist this event. I had a vision of a big round, red-rind wheel of cheese. A hoop of cheese like I had seen many times in the small stores in that time. What he brought home was much different.

He brought home a paper wrapped stick of cheese about a foot long. On the wrapper were the words, "Slices and melts well." We saved it until Sunday night. He readied the sardines, onions and saltines, then meticulously unwrapped the prize and cut into the cheese. As I watched, I almost gagged. This was not "real" cheese he said. It was too soft. He called my mother. "Sugar, come look at this. Ever see any cheese like this?" We stared into the package, then he scooped out a taste. "Tastes a little bland.  Like there's not much cheese in it."  I was eighteen years old when I learned about Velveeta.  I've never liked it. It does melt well, but you can forget about slicing it.  Give me "real" cheese, but these days I've lost the taste for sardines.

What foods do you remember from your childhood?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Telling the Truth

Good writing is about telling the truth. - from Anne Lamott's classic book on writing, Bird by Bird.

Writing is not about achieving perfection.  Writing is about telling the truth. How do we write the truth about people and events in our lives when to do so may hurt the very people we care about? The truth, for me, is what I personally learned from those people and events.

When I write about certain events or people, I tend to think about the subjects first as fiction, and I begin with the most traumatic thing and quickly make bullet points of what happened to build up to transformation.  This makes for my story outline.  From there I move into setting the scene and building the characters. How would I describe the milieu, the scene? Where is the conflict, and how were the characters changed in some way? To write creative non-fiction, I've learned to use the qualities that make good fiction. There's good advice everywhere, even in some unconventional places. The following is from an introduction to Kurt Vonnegut's 2000 book of stories, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, where he gives 'rules' for writers.  Even though these 8 tips are directed toward fiction writers, they can apply to nonfiction as well. I keep these 'rules' (and others) close by so my conscious mind is aware of these types of issues as I write [comments in brackets are mine]:
  1. Use the time of a total stranger [your reader] in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. [Why should I care about this person?]
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things .... reveal character or advance the action [move the story forward].
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. [Time after time I hear editors tell writers, "in the middle is where the action starts .... make that your beginning!"]
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [To me, this is great advice, because a writer cannot write to please every reader, every taste, every family member.]
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on [what's at stake], where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [Richard Bausch says, "Be a docent in your own museum." Know your characters and your setting inside and out before you begin your story.]
I hear friends say many times that they have a memoir in progress, or a short story based on fact, and they cannot submit for publication until certain people are dead.  The point is, how were YOU transformed in the event? That's the real story. If you can write about that, then you've done your soul work, whether the project is ever published or not. What is your greatest writing advice?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

page, after page, after page .....

“Writing as a way of life, writing in a way that will save your life, has a very interesting dynamic to it. To be successful as a writer, you have to cultivate two oppositional sides of your personality: the secret-keeper you, and the public chatty bold you. They’re both in there, and they both deserve the honor of practice.”

Someone sent me this quote. If anyone knows where this came from, please let me know so I can give that person credit. I love it. Writing is indeed about writing about secrets, whether the ones you yourself keep or the ones your characters keep. I want my characters to keep their secrets to the very end, then surprise everyone. But they never do, they tell. They can't hold anything in.

After writing about building characters the other day someone sent me a five-page character development worksheet template. I was a little overwhelmed. After all, most of the time my characters develop themselves on the pages, then grow and tell me who they are page after page.  How can I tell all their secrets up front? But the sender is right. I need to know everything about my characters before I can send them on their missions, save them from peril, or allow them to fall in love.  I'm going to try using this template, where I must list a character's fears, longings, psychological problems, prescriptions they're taking, past surgeries and their abnormal perceptions, among a long list of other attributes.

This character development thing is a discipline. I abhor that word. I run away from discipline. Which brings me back to the above quote. Hollywood has made dozens of movies involving emotional and physical abuse in the name of a husband "disciplining" his wife (most of the time).  "The Burning Bed" was one of them. A terrifying movie. I try not to watch these type movies because these bring back too many memories of my ex-husband, who has no idea he was or is abusive.  In his words, he was trying to "break" me of my nature.  Now my nature is and always has been an introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving soul. He wanted me to be more like his mother, who was dedicated to her husband and cooking and keeping the house clean.  To this day, and I think she is in her 80s, I don't believe she has any interests outside her day to day home existence, and she lives in a one-dimensional world that she seems to have always loved. There's nothing wrong with that.

We are not at all alike. I love to write and paint and go and do and teach and preach and create and learn and I'm like a new puppy wanting to get my nose in everything. And I like to contemplate. Most times while I'm alone. Sometimes this precludes dusting the mantle, darning socks, or making certain the magazines are fanned out on the coffee table just like the one-dimensional photos in those magazines. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Last Year's Words, This Year's Brain

For last year's words belong to last year's language 
And next year's words await another voice. 
And to make an end is to make a beginning. 
                                - T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding 

I never want to write the truth.  It's too embarrassing. But this one I gotta tell. All writers know what it's like to be "in the Zone". You are writing along, words flowing from your heart like water. You are in that dreamstate that is so important to the creative energy to burst forth.

I love being in the Zone as I do my best writing there, in that special space between the worlds of reality and that other plain --  we know not where or what, but we know when we're there.

The other day I took some advice passed on by my writing friend Susan Cushman. Susan said she likes to edit her writing as she goes along. Seems another writing friend of Susan's has the same habit,  as do I. Slimy perfectionists, we are. So Susan says this other friend had taken to the practice of slipping a file folder over the computer screen to help take away the compulsive habit we share, that stops us in our tracks: watching every word that comes flowing from our fingers and backspacing or correcting bad grammar, awkward sentence structure, or misspelled words immediately so we can go on.

This sounded like a good idea to me.  Hide what I'm writing and let the blank screen push me into the Zone.  I had a story idea, inspired by a news story about a strange event. My brain would not let go of the idea until I developed it into a story. I couldn't sleep or get anything done until I worked on this project.

So I got a file folder, opened MS Word to a blank screen, then slipped the folder over my MacBook screen and began banging the keys. Except I wasn't getting in the Zone.  I was compelled to watch my hands, not the screen. Close your eyes, my brain says, so I do. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation or capitalizing anything, just write!

Within seconds I had the milieu constructed in my head, the description flowing out of my fingers. I squeezed my eyes shut as I saw my characters. My fingers flew, and I knew this story was one of my best, words coming out of me that I had never before used. Words like lugubrious and callipygous and hegemony. The dialogue was brilliant, advancing the story and revealing details about my characters in ways I never thought possible. This is it, I thought to myself, this is the true writing Zone and I've found a solution for myself that will work.

After about an hour of hard writing on that melodious and sensual plain of creativity that artists long to visit, I paused. My fingers were tingling. I had an ending to the story in mind, but I knew I needed to give my brain a rest, let the story rest, before revisiting this wonderful and fun project. Publication would be no problem, I was certain.

I slipped the file folder off the screen and clicked on Save before I lost this luminous story, and gave it a name as the dialogue box opened.  Saved. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, breathed deeply, then opened them to give the story a once over.  Expecting that I certainly would need to make corrections, my heart sank at what I saw.

Gibberish.  All gibberish.  In my small window of brilliance, I had had my fingers on the wrong keys the entire time.

Not one word in the story made any sense to me at all.  Now I'll have to begin all over re-constructing the story.  I know I can do it. Like T.S. Elliott says, To make an end is to make a beginning.

But next time I'm leaving off the damn file folder.