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

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.