Thursday, September 30, 2010

Living as a Writer

My mother was a cheerleader. Somehow, she's managed to leave out this fascinating tidbit in the telling of her life story.

My dad looked quite dapper in his basketball uniform. He was the cutest boy in his high school class, too.

My dad was one of seven members of the last class to graduate from the high school, which was then consolidated with a bigger school nearby. Dad's class picture hangs on the wall of honor in the town's community center.

I know these things because I visited Mom and Dad's hometown yesterday, gathering research for a story. I also visited a coal mining museum and the general store where my grandfather used to take us kids. A carefully invested dime returned a fortune in penny candy at the general store back then. It's a wonder the man who ran it didn't strangle one of us or my grandfather, considering how many times we changed our minds between paying two cents for a Sugar Daddy or giving up a whole nickel for a box of CrackerJacks. (In later years, he murdered his wife then killed himself. I'm pretty sure we weren't the ones who pushed him over the edge. He hadn't been forced to spend 10 minutes listening to us waver between candy cigarettes and Sugar Babies for years by the time of the unfortunate event.)

Yesterday was a wonderful day -- the kind of day when possibility shimmers in the air, swirled with memory and loss and love and hope. I saw family folks and being with them felt as right as if 30 days had passed rather than 30 years.

After all these years of making a living with and through words, I am not just writing but living as a writer. That shift brings me joys like yesterday. In the next week or two, it's going to bring me a trip to central Michigan, where an archivist has catalogued the extensive correspondence of a carnival showman. Talking to her on the phone yesterday, I made up my mind to pack Paula and hit the road. The stories are there waiting, and I'm a writer.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Not All Dogs Bark

In the Fearless Writing workshop, we created a list of words and used them in several exercises. It's challenging to work in 35 or so words into something that makes sense and tells a story in 15 minutes or so. In the first few exercises, all my dogs barked and all my shovels dug.

After listening to other folks read, I recognized the limitations of my thinking. If I'm brutally honest with myself, it is one of my great failings as a human being that all too often, I consider my first interpretation of something the only interpretation.

On a chalkboard in my writing space, I wrote "Not all dogs bark." Before I sit down to write each day, I pick a random word and make a list of ways to use it. Not all dogs are canines, and a "bark" isn't always a sound made by a dog. Truly, I am dogged about making my dog-eared lists of doggeral regarding hot-diggity-dogs and their doggone variations.

"Bark" can't make up its mind, either. Sometimes it's candy made with almonds; sometimes it's the action of speaking forcefully; sometimes it's the outer surface of a tree.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Writing Exercises

We did several writing exercises at the workshop. One of them involved a word list and a title that provided a scenario. I put the words from the list in bold here.

Ella Moon, 30, contemplates an ashtray in the laudromat at 5th & Palmer in Deep Gap, NC, 2010

"Oh my hell of God," Ella cursed. "Here I am, looking like 10 long miles of bad road, and Friday is adrift under the freakin' dryer. I don't have time for this kind of crap. I need to get some color on these roots before Buster gets home."

Maybe Friday wasn't all that important. After all, the pink was a bit faded and the lace was beginning to fray right where Ella's Rottweiler, Raucous, got hold of it. But Buster preferred that she wear a day on a day, and Ella preferred not to jump into an argument the very minute Buster got back from Arizona. She knew this was now a game of beat the clock. Buster should be rolling into town in less than an hour.

Ella stomped outside and grabbed a stick from under the birch trees on the boulevard. Good thing she'd decided to hit the Suds and Duds on Palmer, the only street in town with any trees left. Back in 2008, Deep Gap had surrendered nearly every living tree and bush to an early season hurricane. The storm transformed most of the Gap, once a verdant village, into an unsettled tract, waiting for Japanese developers to figure out what to keep and what to raze.

Optimistic as always, Ella came up with a scheme to retrieve the panties without getting down on the incredibly filthy floor. She pulled over two orange plastic chairs and draped herself over them, her luscious butt facing God and her poor, tired dogs pointing at the devil. If she squirmed at just the right angle and remembered to keep her wrists cocked, she could wedge the stick under the dryer and shovel out the panties.

Right about the time her first attempt came up empty, the lights flickered. Ella jumped, sure Quentin had come to shut up the place for the night. One glance at the clock reassured her, but with closing time less than 20 minutes off, she needed to get it on.

Truth to tell, Ella didn't mind a deadline. She did her best work under pressure. Extemporaneous was her color. She called upon the Bodhisattva, all the angels, and anyone else up there willing to help her keep her happy ass out of trouble. It was a short list.

Ella's next smooth swoosh with the stick turned up one Bubble Up bottle cap, two quarters and three dried up ground cherry husks. On the third swoosh, the stick got well and truly stuck. "Damn it all," she sighed.

Back and forth. Up and down. Ella pushed and pulled, see'd and sawed with the stick, trying to dislodge whatever had settled back there, in front of or on top of Friday. When the stick broke free, Ella pulled back, slow and careful.

Friday's lace emerged first, rosy and decadent in the fluorescent lights. Tangled in the lace and elastic was a flat aluminum ashtray marked, "Relax tonight. We'll do the cooking. Call Hutch."

God alone could discern how long the ashtray had been under there. Hutch himself had been dead and gone more than a decade. Buster owned the place now, and he hadn't ordered ashtrays since the lung cancer carried his dad home to Jesus.

Ella shook out the dust bunnies, stepped into the leg openings, and shimmied into Friday. She tucked the ashtray into her purse for Buster. He could use it for target practice. He always had wanted to shoot that old son of a bitch.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fascinating Rhythm

Energy pulses like an erratic heartbeat in a room filled with 15 creative folks. People who've spent a lifetime as performers struggle to be audience. People more comfortable in the aisle seat wilt at center stage.

The last five days have been exhilarating and exhausting. Much of what I learned was re-learning but necessary relearning. I don't yet know where to put some of the new stuff.

We did yoga every day: I did a handstand with the help and support of the fabulous young woman teaching the classes.

We walked to a sugaring operation and saw how maple syrup starts its journey to breakfast tables everywhere.

We wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

In four hours, a plane will carry me back to my own life, where tomato sandwiches are topped with bacon rather than smoked tempeh, where speaking one at a time is the norm, where women rarely fart in public. I'll be glad to be home and sorry not to be here.


Friday, September 03, 2010

Fear Less

I am trying to fear less. Today's session may or may not help in the long run. One of the other students is an attorney who worked with the Department of Justice as a Nazi hunter. He read aloud during an exercise and his language sang an aria. Mine hummed "Three Blind Mice."

I know. I know. Comparisons are odious.


More soon.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Wherever I May Be

Things did not start well. I woke three minutes before the alarm clock. My clothes were laid out and my things were packed. Mostly. But every little detail took just a minute or two longer than I planned. It was raining. Hard. My no-traffic-at-5:00am prediction turned out to be slightly too optimistic.

When I got close to the airport, I decided to park at the regular terminal rather than the super-cheap, off-airport parking. Just didn't have the time/energy/umbrella for the "economy lot." But then I got to the airport and discovered parking is $20 a day. $100 to leave my car for five days. Great.

The security check point held another surprise: a long line. The KC airport rarely has any line at all, let alone a long line. It got within two people of the security guard with his drug-detecting penlight when an ugly thought hit me: I couldn't remember turning off Paula's lights. After 18 years of cars that turned off their own lights, I haven't quite gotten comfortable with Paula's bronze-age lighting system. Nothing to do but leave the line and go back to the parking lot to check.

I had, of course, turned off the lights.

Another 20 minutes in line. (Sigh)

My little black dress is comfortable and easy to wear, but a barely-above-the-knees hemline is not the best choice for taking off your shoes and putting them back on in the security line. Bend over with your back toward the room and you're flashing the crowd. Bend over with your back to the conveyor belt and you're flashing the security guards. No good option.

Bonus! The little restaurant where I had lunch in Atlanta had crabcakes, my favorite. Unfortunately, they must have treated the crab with sulfites, to which I am allergic. You have not lived until you've distress in an airplane bathroom at 12,000 feet. Twice.

My rolling bag saves my back, but others may not love my inability to roll it in straight lines. On the bus to the rental car place, I thought I'd lost my wallet. I hadn't.

The little town where I booked a room is in New Hampshire, not Vermont as I thought. I spent an hour wandering the 91, lost. A kind young man in a McDonalds explained how to get back where I needed to be.

None of this dimmed my enthusiasm. Not even a little. Not even in the airplane bathroom, with the head flight attendant sitting 6 inches from the door.

I've had a fabulous day. The place I'm staying tonight is one of the most beautiful small inns I've ever seen. My under-$100-room has two vintage brick walls, plantation shutters, an incredibly comfy bed, and a stack of books with a note saying you're welcome to take one with you. The public spaces are beyond charming. Their restaurant has an outdoor patio overlooking a small waterfall. As darkness gathered, the staff lit 27 torches surrounding the edges of the patio. I savored every sip of two glasses of pinot grigio; every bite of a salad of artichokes, roasted red peppers, white beans, kalamata olives and spring greens; grilled salmon.

Tomorrow morning I'm having breakfast at one of the 10 best breakfast places in America, according to Travel & Leisure Magazine. (I happened to read the T&L article last week and realized I'd be within an hour of Quechee, VT. Too close to miss it, right? I think so, anyway.)

And my niece volunteered to go drive my car home from the airport. No parking fees at all!

Driving through the Green Mountains this afternoon, joy swirled in me like fall leaves in a strong wind. I love being slightly lost. I love finding new, unexpected places. I love waterfalls and torches and old brick walls. I love stepping into the unknown.