Friday, April 30, 2010

It's Damn Near Impossible to Interview the Dead

When I attended a writers’ retreat last August at Ghost Ranch with about 80 other writers, I was surprised to learn how many were writing memoirs. I always thought of memoirs as something you wrote as you neared the end of your life (like we can even guess when that will happen!). A woman I met there just finished the first draft of her memoir. I never asked her age but she doesn’t look like she’s hit her 40s yet. Still, she’s committed to paper a history of her life.

I’m ashamed to say I used to think memoirs self-indulgent (what makes your life so interesting, huh?). I’ve done a complete 180 on this. Every life is interesting! More importantly, if you think you’re going to remember all the juicy, painful, intoxicating moments of your life when you are on your deathbed, you are wrong. It takes work to remember the past, analyze it, sort out what happened and how you felt about it, as well as its significance in your life today.

The first novel I started more than a year ago (23 Conversations Before My Funeral), I called a work of fiction when in fact I used many experiences from my own life, only I expanded on them and called the character Audrey. She had children; I do not. She’s dying of cancer at 48. I’m not ill, nor am I 48. The point is that there are compelling, heart-wrenching, lesson-filled experiences in my past that make for interesting reading (or at least I think so).

Both my parents are dead, and buried with them are the many fascinating stories of their lives I will never know about. My dad was in WWII but speaking of his time in the war was taboo in my home. I knew his experiences were painful enough to lead to alcoholism and a very angry life. His younger brother, now almost 90, served in the Navy in WWII as well. My brother, Paul, visits this uncle every Sunday to have lunch. Recently I asked Paul to ask my uncle about details of his time in the war as well as my dad’s. It struck me that my uncle is nearing the end of his life — and he is the last one alive who can pass down the stories of my father’s life. I almost had a panic attack that he would die before my brother could ask him the questions!

Through my brother’s visit with him, I learned so much, including that my dad served aboard the USS San Francisco in the Battle of Guadalcanal. His ship was being blasted from all sides. Daddy was on the gun crew, the guy who put the powder charges into the big gun. The last guy in the "bucket brigade" tossing powder charges to the gun saw an enemy plane diving for them and at the last minute tossed the 50-pound charge *at* my father who, unaware, was knocked off the platform. The rest of the gun crew was killed in that battle, Daddy the sole survivor.

You don’t have to be a memoir writer or published author to capture your family’s history, including your own. The significance of knowing where we come from can’t be underestimated. Don’t wait until it’s too late to ask those you love about their lives.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yes, Detective, She Was Wearing a Purple Wig

I spent a portion of the weekend revising chapters that my writing group critiqued last week. I was a little put off that one member of the group said a chapter was unpolished but a good first draft. What?! Well, she was right. It struck me that handing over pages for review is like submitting a police report. I provide the details as I see them but then the detective’s job is to ask more questions.

What color was the car? Was the car still running? Who else was in the store? What was she wearing? Could you tell us more about her surroundings? When X was standing in the hallway, where was Y?

The funny thing is that one member of my group is actually a police detective AND a damn fine writer. So her questions probe for details my mind has brushed past in order to get the story on paper. At times, I rush through the telling and need someone to slow me down and ask those questions that allow me to fully develop scenes and characters, to paint a picture that others can see as clearly as I do.

It also struck me that everyone – not just writers – can benefit from slowing down. When your spouse or significant other asks you to describe your day, do you rush through it perhaps missing those details that are most important to convey?

When you describe a movie, do you fall back on clich├ęs like “lots of action” or “too much gore” instead of describing how the purple-haired, 12-year-old Hit Girl bounded through the narrow hallway like an acrobat, climbing the walls at times as she stabbed one bad guy after the other, finally landing on top of the last guy’s shoulders and stabbing him through the top of the head.

I’m just saying that life is in the details.

Monday, April 5, 2010

When I'm Not Really the Author and I Realize I Can Fly

The last two weeks, I’ve enjoyed a period of prolific writing on the novel. I've leapt ahead from halfway to almost two-thirds complete. I’ve felt an urgency to write that I haven’t felt in more than a year. Actually, I’ve felt an urgency to tell the story. The hitch is that I don’t always know where the story is going.

I’ve taken to writing long hours in my recliner-that-is-made-to-not-look-like-a-recliner. Andy wanders in and out of the living room where I sit and write. He reads the paper or plays Sudoku or watches a bit of TV. I mumble aloud sometimes, partly to him and partly to myself.

Last Saturday afternoon, he asked why I was crying. I said, "Because Grandmother is dying of cancer and has to tell her best friend." Until I had written the scene, I had no idea that’s where the book was going. This development has serious implications for Cissy, the protagonist. Grandmother has been the only family member to stand by Cissy after she killed her father and was committed to a state psychiatric facility.

When he caught me crying, I was writing the scene where Grandmother would tell her black housekeeper, Natty, also in her 70s, about the cancer. This was one of those pure moments of inspiration, written from both within and outside myself, where I’m the author and yet I’m not the author. During these precious moments, I try not to think too hard about it lest I wake from a beautiful dream where I'm flying.

Here’s a snippet from that chapter.

Natty and I have been together longer than I had been married, but we didn’t always get along. She came from a family of women who took care of other people's households. Her mama had kept house for my in-laws since the dawn of time. When Beau and I married in 1922, Natty joined our household. I suspect she resented having to wait on someone her own age. My people weren’t from money, so I crossed boundaries Natty had been reared to never breach. I wanted her to like me and I wanted her to respect me as her employer. Reconciling those two desires took some time and more than a few shouting matches to stake out our respective territories.

After I had Caroline, we called a truce and territorial lines blurred. That baby mesmerized Natty, softening the hardest of her edges. She couldn’t bear to hear Caroline cry and would cry along with her. Some nights I’d find Natty, tears running down her cheeks, rocking a squalling Caroline and singing an old Negro hymn. More than a few mornings, I found them asleep in the nursery rocker, Caroline slumbering across Natty’s sizable bosom. After Caroline’s birth, I’d miscarried two other pregnancies and Natty mourned for weeks, heartbroken she’d been deprived of loving two other precious souls as she did Caroline.

“I love you, Natty,” I said and patted her forearm. “I don’t tell you often enough.”

“You’ve never said it, Mrs. Clayton. Is the heat getting to you again?” She winked.

“Natty, you can call me Janelle if you like.” I didn’t know why I made the offer. Lately, my words had declared independence and it proved impossible to stop them.

“I’ve called you Mrs. Clayton for too long to go changing to your first name,” she said and let out a deep, throaty laugh. “You needn’t worry. I know we’re friends.”

“I haven’t always been a good friend,” I admitted.

Natty let the comment sit between us, its truth too heavy to dispute or joke about.

“I know you have the sickness,” Natty said.

“I figured you did.”

She didn’t ask for details and I offered none.

“It’s getting to be lunch time,” she said slapping her thighs. “How about some cold fried chicken?”

“That’d be fine. And why don't you bring the rest of the blackberry pie as well.”

Friday, April 2, 2010

"Boo!" Said the Devil on Facebook

I’m lucky to be able to use the written word to ‘say’ things I wasn’t able to say at one time, to right wrongs, to heal old wounds, to raise consciousness. Writing has helped me process some of the most painful moments in my life. Sometimes I’ve written essays that are private, never to be published or shared. Sometimes I’ve fictionalized my experiences or used humor to soften the horrific.

I survived Catholic School, but just barely, so God, religion and nuns make their way into a lot of my writing. Some memories are 35 years old – deep, twisted scars that cannot be lasered away or tattooed over.

My friend, Emil, posted on Facebook some class photos from the Catholic school we both attended, although I was one year behind him. Late last night, as I was perusing the photos, I came face to face with some of the nuns who reside in my short stories and essays. I literally lost my breath as if the Devil himself appeared on my computer screen. My memories haven’t been so crystal clear because I remembered those nuns as black, amorphous blobs in habits, no facial features. The photos, though, sharpened the memories, giving them razor edges and form they haven’t had in a while. "Boo!" they said. "Remember me?"

“Stop looking at that stuff,” my husband chastised. “They’re long dead. They can’t hurt you anymore.” The thing is, they aren’t dead for me – and may never be.

Here’s a snippet of a short story:

The crack of a hardbound text book against the back of Eddie’s head stuns us into silence. Although we sit perfectly still, we fight to control our limbs that have been flooded with adrenaline.

I am ashamed to admit how grateful I am that Eddie is attracting Sister Olive’s attention.
I cannot look at Eddie as tears stream down his mud brown cheeks. He is the son of a migrant worker and only in school a part of the year. When he is asked to read aloud, he is unable to pronounce many of the words and his accent makes others unrecognizable.

At 10 years old, I am still too young to attach the label of abuse to what I witness almost every day. Fear is a classmate and together we learn to read, to multiply, to love Jesus.

Despite what I see and experience myself, I am happy to be in school each day because then I don’t have to be at home where I am more afraid.

Most nights I dream of the devil in vivid detail. During the day, she is real and teaches me to fear God and pray for my soul.

In first grade, Sister Mary holds up a clean glass of water and tells us that it is like our pure souls at birth. She walks over to the potted begonias on the window sill and digs out some peat and soil to mix with the water. “This is your souls today, children, because you are sinners,” she says. From that day on, I am grateful for every opportunity to pray for my soul and gladly sprinkle my bed with holy water each night as she instructs us to do -- insurance against a visit from the Devil.