Jun 6, 2016 - Writer's Life    Comments Off on Mountains of Memory and a Gunny Sack

Mountains of Memory and a Gunny Sack

IMG_4906Our recollections of what happened when, and how, may seem dim as dusky shadows that sink below the vague outlines of our memories. That’s partly because we view those memories as mountains, as opposed to, say, a cat in a bag.

So, one night your sophomore year in college, your roommate found a kitten by the dumpster behind the dorm. Cute, completely black, he seemed like a little sinister, fun magic to keep in your room, totally against the rules. Then there was a dorm party and a couple of 6-packs in a large brown paper sack which the wiry-haired little monster got into while you were recovering from your hangovers in class. He fought so hard he managed to roll himself up into a giant brown spitball yowling and screaming until the RA let herself in because someone was being murdered. The RA found the cat, freed him, and the frightened little devil planted its teeth in the soft web between thumb and forefinger as she tried to capture “kitty-kitty” who shit, spit, and ran tracks around the walls of your room.

The devil’s in the details, and so is the art of the story, whether it’s fiction or fact. If you are working on a memoir, you spend a lot of time walking around your own mountains of memory with a gunny sack trying to snag a snipe. Which recollection to leave in and which to leave out? Which event tells the greatest story in its smallest detail?

I am telling you this because I am spending my time snipe hunting at the moment. Of the “one or two things I know for sure,” one of them is you cannot learn to be a writer. You can only read and practice. Read a LOT and practice everyday. There’s your formula. Like it or leave it. It’s the writing life. And you thought it would be easy.

Right now I’m doing a lot of both. It’s a lot like wandering, but as the maxim goes: All who wander are not lost. I have not yet reached the heights from which I can envision my text. I’m not sure what to leave in and what to leave out. For a small town kid who spent a long time lost as a cat in a paper bag–in a wad, so to speak–it still seems I’ve led a pretty darn interesting life. Furthermore, it’s a story I think worth telling for the hope it may bring kids, young adults and (gr)own-ups who find they are a lot like me.

I have an idea and detailed memories and a therapist at this point. It’s a start. All are vital, but I still get balled up and yowl and bawl with frustration. As I read essays on writing memoir, particularly Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and a great little book of individual essays by 6 writers on memory and writing called Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, I glimpse the snipe in the bushes once in awhile. (Karr’s book is new and Zinsser’s copyright is 1987. Thank you Jane Voorhees, sister artist and bookseller, for gifting me with these monumental books.)

All of Karr’s book is vital to the process. If you haven’t read Liar’s Club, do so and you’ll know why I say this. You will also know why she recommends a therapist on call, as her story requires a lot of teeth-clenching, nail-biting, heartbreaking honesty. You may say you want to write a memoir, but take my advice and write up a couple of your worst memories ever, the ones you tell nobody and have kept carefully closeted. Do it in detail, with gusto. Make yourself moan. Not that you will ever use these, but this may help you be prepared to bleed. If you aren’t willing to get gritty, forget about it.

Inventing the Truth has a lot to recommend it. Two of it’s essayists are Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison. “But Toni is a novelist!” purists will cry. Read the essay. There are reasons she’s in this book. Included is the following quote:

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory–what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’ ”

Water as metaphor for memory and dreams and the subconscious is certainly one of those Jungian things; a universal, metaphysical something-or-other. Just hours before I read that passage from Toni, I wrote in my journal: I feel my life like trying to hold water in my hand. It slips through my fingers and evaporates into thin air, as we all must one day. Small comfort. I want to believe in Wayne the ghost of the Jewel Box, and seeing the breath of the Walnut tree in winter, and watching the Busick valley spirit rise in the dawn with the light, then settle down to bed between the hills come night. It’s all water.

 

Apr 1, 2016 - How-To    Comments Off on April Fools, It’s 30 in 30!

April Fools, It’s 30 in 30!

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We are all April fools in one way or another. Even the Earth, solid as a mother, is wonky come April. She likes to play a trick or two. Rain and flowers one day, snow and ice the next. A deep frost will kill off those carrots just beginning to poke their tiny green from the ground, but we will plant again. She is only up to her old tricks, at least up here in the mountains.  April is not a month you can completely trust, anywhere.  Isn’t that something we love about  her, though? Out soaking up rays one day, using the rest of the firewood the next.

There are a couple of things you can count on come April: someone will play an April Fool’s joke on you when you least expect it because you forget it is April 1st. And there’s the certainty, if you’re a poet, that someone will challenge you to take the dare: Let’s do a 30 in 30.

Every year about March 15,  I start to worry the idea of 30 poems in 30 days like a dog with a slow bowl. It’s a niggling feeling, like you haven’t really gotten all the good you can get out of this exercise yet. On the other hand, like the 28 foot cliff I jumped from into a pool of deep green water when I was 25, I think maybe I should quit while I’m ahead. Once was enough.

I don’t think so, though. I remember all too well the feeling I had on April 30th when I realized it was fait accompli. YAHHH!! Add the fact that a few of those poems were really good, and they got better and easier as the days grew longer (12, 15, 21, 23, 28), and I knew I would succumb again to the lure of writing a poem a day for 30 days.

So here I am and there you are. I am making the commitment. This is the hard part. Whenever I think, “I’m just going to do it and not tell anybody,” I know I’m not serious. I won’t do it if I don’t hold myself accountable. And neither will you. So that’s the first poem you write. The one that holds you accountable. The one you may not show anybody, but also the one you told everybody you would write. The one that proclaims there will be 29 more. Yes, haikus are acceptable. Limericks, too.

I have decided I don’t have to post all mine this year, as I did in 2014. I might, but it’s not a requirement. I know for a fact they won’t all be good. Maybe not even most; hopefully some. Still I have written a lot of bad poems, so I’m not shy, especially if it gets someone else writing. I will post a few hints throughout the month to help you along, should you falter. You can’t fail. You’ll just have fewer poems come Mayday.

Click the link below to read my first effort. This will encourage you and show you for a fact that you have to write some bad, or so-so poems, in order to write a good one. Also, as you will see should you read the poem, I do this partly because I have always been a fool in April.

ABC’s for an April Fool by Mendy Knott

Mar 7, 2016 - Writer's Life    Comments Off on Prince of Tides

Prince of Tides

IMG_4565Author Pat Conroy died last week, a sentence which is almost more than I can bear to repeat. He was a Southerner’s writer, beginning to end. A true Carolinian (although he was born in Atlanta), he loved the mountains of North Carolina nearly as much as he loved his life among the islands of South Carolina, where he lived from the age of fifteen.

He was married 3 times, loved good food, drank too much, enjoyed sitting around telling stories and talking books. He wrote beautifully of place, time, and family. He was unafraid of the truth, risking ostracism from his people practically every time he published. His first wife’s family picketed signings for The Water is Wide, really one of the less revealing of his great books. Sound like a Southern writer to you? It does to me.

This is not a review of Conroy’s books. You can find those most anywhere online. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list. Instead, this post is meant to be an eulogy for the writer and the man himself. Consider it a kind of confession about how he reached in and touched my life at a time when I was picking up the pen seriously for the first time. Lucky for me, I read Prince of Tides first. When I finished, all I wanted was to be able to write a sentence like Pat Conroy. A single sentence, mind you, and I would be happy.

Now, I was a literature major in college. More, I was a bookseller for over 10 years. Plus, I’ve been a big reader all my life. I’ve read the writings of many, many excellent authors. Do not let my distinct preference for Southern writers fool you. I read a lot of Yankees, too. (smiling) But there is something about a writer who can speak with eloquence about your place and your people that simply resonates not only in your mind, but in your very bones. Pat Conroy was that kind of author.

He and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel kept me busy for the first couple of years I lived in Asheville; the years I began writing seriously. Although I wrote almost exclusively poetry at the time, their novels were written like prose poems–rife with sensual imagery, amazing characters, storytelling, and truth. These were attributes I wanted in my poetry. In the sense a poet can learn from great novelists, their language formed a basis for my own.

When Pat came to Asheville, he liked to hang out with Matt and Marsha Walpole, often among the shelves at Captain’s Book Shop. I heard him speak at a library event, I believe–you must know this was a long time ago–and he praised the teacher who had put Look Homeward Angel into his hands saying, “Here, read this, if you want to write.” He gave credit to that teacher and to Thomas Wolfe for teaching him to love the written word. Conroy’s teacher was in the auditorium, had come to hear him, and I remember Conroy called them up on stage and thanked them, thanked all teachers everywhere, for what they were trying to do for the students who sat in front of them every day.

I remember thinking, although he was gracious and funny, “Well, he’s not all that impressive to look at.” Then I thought about all the other Southern writers I had met, and reconsidered. He looked like most of them: overweight, gray and balding, and a bit harried. What he looked like was completely unimportant. He was as beautiful as his many works. Pat Conroy was exquisite, writing royalty, a prince among men.

Prince of Tides.

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Feb 24, 2016 - How-To    1 Comment

In Every Season and For All Time

IMG_4410SAD (seasonal affective disorder) infects a lot of people, especially sensitive people who make up the greater part of artists, poets, and writers. It is compounded by loss and personal tragedy, even by events occurring to our friends and loved ones.

I think SAD has been worsened by climate change, because a true “season” is hard to come by. One day it’s spring, the next, it’s dead of winter. Summer lasts through December, skipping fall altogether. It throws me off balance, along with much of the rest of the natural world.

The desire to throw up one’s hands and run away to Canada in the current political climate is as strong as the desire to spend long hours under the bright lights of a gym or snuggled beneath the blankets of a warm bed. Or perhaps like me, you can barely take your eyes off the embarrassing circus, as candidates outperform one another in order to become the next president. The knowledge that such buffoonery is being played out in front of the rest of the world is enough to give anyone cause for SADness.

Yet, this is the exact time and place and climate in which we must do our work. My writing cannot depend on the circumstances of weather, mood, or politics, no matter how dismaying. One very personal reason to keep writing at these times is that it may be the only thing that helps me feel better. No matter what I write, whether it gladdens or saddens me; brings me joy, comfort, or is a wake up call to face the deep secrets that are part of who I am, I know I will be changed by the pen moving across the page or my fingers tapping out these words on the keyboard.

As Leigh said, “There are days you are really glad you’re married while other days you stay married because you said you would.” That is the perfect definition of fidelity. Whether you are being faithful to that drawing a day, to those submissions every week, to the poetry you need to revise, or to a book you’re working on, this is what you do. You do it, despite everything.

That’s not to say there won’t be times when we must hit the pause button. Your parents need you. You’re sick. You’re sick and tired. So take a few days to work in the garden, go for long walks, or to be compassionate. Better yet, do something different, something that takes minutes instead of hours. You may be delighted with the results as you catch your conscious self off guard.

Every time I go to church with my folks, I manage to write a poem on the bulletin between the time the organist begins playing the prelude and the minute the first hymn is sung. True, I can’t always find the right page in the hymnal, but heck, a preacher’s kid knows the first verse anyway.

So here I am today, telling you I don’t feel like doing this, but I’ve left you hanging long enough. It’s my other “I do.” It’s my commitment to work. Like marriage, there’s no vacation (even when you’re away) and no retirement. It’s only over when it’s over. Get a ring or a rubber band. Marry yourself to it. I like ink because right there, on my wrist where I can’t miss it, is the reminder of my commitment to my art. I made it impossible to ignore, and I’m glad.

Write. This is what I do.

Jan 16, 2016 - Writer's Life    3 Comments

Pentaculum 2016 (Part 1): Artwork IS Work

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Welcome to Arrowmont’s Pentaculum 2016, located in, but not part of, Gatlinburg, TN.

In the ceramicists’ studio, feel the sensuality of artwork created in clay, cool and waiting for the kiln. Watch a potter’s wheel spin through muddy fingers until a graceful vase or plate emerges. Hear the tapping of strong, tapered fingers shaping metal with tiny tools, squeezing exactly where that link should be closed for the coveted earrings or the silver chain.

Wander past long tables and dip a finger in paint, as men’s large hands work beside women’s smaller ones. All hold brushes that drip red, blue, orange, green, and yellow as they hand paint signs, an art that, sadly, may soon go the way of letter writing. Inhale the liquid color, turpentine, and sealant until you’re high on art.

In 2-D, men and women work pencils like wands. Behind the lead, intricate drawings follow. Fabric artists turn needle and thread into delicate beauty, pictures that move gracefully with the cloth. These fanciful illusions are fantastic to a kid who nearly failed the only thing she ever sewed, a straight waist apron in home economics. (Actually, I got a C.)

Photo by Darla Biel

Photo by Darla Biel

Then there are the writers, my pod, often invisible behind closed doors. Their heads are bent over desks, minds stretching, hearts breaking over ideas they recreate in paragraphs or lines. They pick through their brains for the perfect image: a peeled apple becomes a full moon; dryer sheets can never soften the blow of bad news. Lights glow on faces concentrated on screens. Fingers pause over notebooks, waiting. Writers’ hands that work to shape words into essays, stories, or poems fairly fly when they are “deep in the work.”

This “carnality,” as Mary Karr calls sensory detail in The Art of Memoir, is palpable on campus. To see with vision, touch with creative power, hear the pounding of hammers and hearts, feel the shapes becoming whole, listen to the stories and poems as they rise like Lazarus from alphabet to life–this is why we are here. We are here to make magic, and for every artist that means to work, and work hard.

Ordinarily a “neatnik,” by the third day my writing room made up of desk, chair, bed, a chest and closet, is wrecked. Clothes drape the backs of chairs and hang from half-open drawers. There’s a bag of snacks and coffee in the far corner. A hot pot to boil water for said coffee occupies an opposite corner on the floor. Books, computer, pens, notebooks and iPhone are scattered across the desk which I use as a table top. Power cords tangle beside my bed like snakes mating.

A “bed buddy” or “husband” is propped at the head of my unmade bed. More pillows surround that. I balance one on my lap as my desk. I hail from a long and honorable tradition of bed-writers, which includes Capote, Proust, Wordsworth and Edith Wharton.

Many of these authors were hesitant to admit they wrote in bed, horizontally, for fear people would think they were “lazy.” Ah, here’s the rub—this accusation is a lie with which all artists must come to terms. “How come you don’t work?” “Why can’t you______? You don’t have anything else to do!” Don’t you believe it. Ask them to write a short story, throw a pot, paint a watercolor. See how long even bad art takes.

Suzi Banks, writer, reading her work.

For those unfamiliar with artwork, do not be fooled into thinking this is simply play. This is not the third grade. We were invited to this Pentaculum to work. We work our art, often through creative drought and financially hard times, because we desire to be the best we can be at what we do. We continue despite the obstacles and doubts of others because we are passionate about the work. 

So my friends, when you get home, hang out your (handmade) sign:

Do not disturb. Artist at work.

 

 

Dec 31, 2015 - Writer's Life    Comments Off on The Un-Rain Dance (cont..)

The Un-Rain Dance (cont..)


IMG_4312“How do you do a dance to make the rain stop?” I ask, not only for myself, but thinking of friends in AR, TX, and MO who are literally underwater right now. Leigh said, “Do it backwards.”  Immediately I had a thought about the un-rain dance as it applies to “un-stuffing.” Leigh kept talking, driving home a point which began as a joke, while I was already writing about the un-rain dance in my head.

She said, “Don’t laugh, but I was making one of my elderberry-honey health remedies for our friends the other day. You know, as a cold preventative. I was stirring that beautiful dark purple potion clockwise, with intention, with some protective thoughts, hoping that would help. It was pretty hypnotic, really. Well, I’d heard in biodynamics that one should balance the mixing by stirring herbal mixtures counter-clockwise, as well. So I reversed my spoon and as soon as I did, I felt this kind of energy shift and some unseen potency enter the mix. I know that sounds weird, but I did. This is all a little woo-woo, I know.”

I get it, though. You don’t want to cure the cold once your friend has it (although that’s helpful in some cases), which would be stirring the elderberry clockwise. You want to prevent the cold from ever catching hold so you move the spoon counter clockwise. In my creative and somewhat strange universe, it makes perfect sense. It’s like dancing backwards to stop the rain, doing the un-rain dance, which I think we might all try in an attempt to save several states, even countries. I’m starting to wonder if the rainbow might have been a promise God made a bit hastily.

Doing the un-rain dance paralleled my need for doing the un-stuffing dance. I mean, I got all this stuff living my life forward, so surely I could un-stuff it by simply looking at all of it, remembering how I came by it, and letting it go. The actual process of un-stuffing could even help with writing my memoir as pictures and keepsakes stirred memories from my past. Counter-clockwise. Deconstructing life in order to understand, then open up to new possibilities.

I have never liked the word “decluttering,” if it actually is a word. To me, it’s a cluttery word and implies you’ve messed your nest with all this stuff that had no meaning but were mere acquisitions bought for no good reason. People with kids know what I mean. I’m not talking your TV horders here. Leigh’s friend Cheri echoed a belief I have when she discovered that her young son’s closet, which she had cleaned a few months earlier, was once again packed with toys, books, games. New stuff. She moaned, “I swear, this stuff breeds.”

I spent a large portion of my life acquiring this stuff, and it all had meaning for me at one time. But the importance of things changes with the years–the energy shifts in other words–and a new empowering needs to occur. I can recapture the meaning this stuff once held for me by writing it if I want, and then dance it backwards out of my life again, leaving all that empty space for new ideas and creativity to fill. Some of this stuff I can even pay forward to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or the Habitat Store. Some will need to be burned or trashed. I know it sounds scary but it actually feels pretty good. I love to burn old papers, even journals in which I mostly bitched and moaned about life. Good riddance! Fire is cleansing!IMG_4307

In 2016, “I will do one thing today_____,” will always, first and foremost, be working on my memoir. But a close second will be my un-stuffing dance. You have to un-stuff the turkey in order to slice it and consume the stuffing, right? In order for it to be useful, our lives occasionally need de-constructing. Ask any lit major. This is how it breaks down. This is how we make sense of it all. Get rid of what is extraneous and see what is left. What is significant, what truly has meaning for you, will be the stripped down remains. This applies to how we spend our time as well as the stuff we have accumulated that stands in the way of the space we long to create.

So, even if I can spend four hours doing my one thing, the memoir, I still have a lot of hours left in a day (especially a winter’s day, should it arrive) to do my un-stuff dance. Even if I only do 30 minutes or an hour a day, space will begin to open up and I will breathe easier, move more freely. Interestingly, rainy days are actually perfect for both my number one (writing) and number two (un-stuffing) priorities! Lucky for me!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

 

(If you missed part one of this post, click here.) 

 

“I can recapture the meaning this stuff once held for me by writing it if I want, and then dance it backwards out of my life again, leaving all that empty space for new ideas and creativity to fill.”

Dec 28, 2015 - How-To    4 Comments

The Un-Rain Dance

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Leigh and I stand in the kitchen on a late December day discussing at year’s end our successes and (perceived) failures of 2015. How could we transform our lives to better reflect our goals in the new year? For instance, in 2016, I intend to write the memoir I’ve been talking about and writing around for years. It is my number one priority. Now, how do I get there from here?

Leigh loves a list. She lives for a well organized life and a “normal” day. Please don’t ask the obvious question. While I spent my childhood playing soldier, spy, doctor, cop, robber, and cowboy, Leigh was busily organizing her desk as she played “office.” Otherwise, she was designing hutches for her rabbits and guinea pigs or hooking up her own phone.

She separates her days into “chunks” into which certain activities fall. Her grocery lists follow the aisles of the store we shop most often. These things make her fast and highly efficient. I wander the aisles of grocery stores “shopping.” Honestly, I do get home with much of what’s needed, but it’s slow going and I always forget something.

I keep the notepad handy, “I will do one thing today ________.” Leigh has a pad, too. It says, “Notes from the voices in my head.” I think these two pads say a lot about us. She keeps her many voices (ideas) in order with lists and drawings and boxes and you know, geometry. I grab hold of that single bone that is my one thing to do today and carry it everywhere I go so that I won’t forget that this memoir is my priority. Not just today, but every day. I can carry only one #1 priority in my head at a time. I’m doggish that way. Some might say bull doggish.

Despite all our notes and lists, though, life stops for no one. No matter our priorities, we must learn to roll with the punches. I’m lucky to be a writer as it requires so little (physical) baggage when it comes time to get on that plane to Dallas and go see my elderly parents. I can carry it to Asheville in a notebook or a laptop and write before or after appointments. I can even pull off the Parkway at an overlook and get in a good 45 minutes sitting in my truck. I simply cannot be burdened with more than that if my art is to be as portable as it must be.

Where my life feels cluttered and chaotic, strangely enough, is at home. Leigh and I agree on this. The less you have, the less you have to deal with when it comes time to get down to the work about which you are passionate. What do we do with the accumulated STUFF of life? The woman who loved to play “office” (I’m sure she meant boss as opposed to say, secretary) as a child gets very excited as she outlines what she plans to do differently in 2016. The child who played cowboy stares morosely out the window at the rain, wondering how to drive all those cattle in an orderly fashion through the omnipresent mud.

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“How do you do a dance to make the rain stop?” I ask, not only for myself, but thinking of friends in AR and TX who are literally underwater right now. Leigh said, “Do it backwards.” “Ha!” I love her surprising quips that bring me to the surface laughing when I would drown in the doldrums. Immediately I had a thought about the un-rain dance as it applied to un-“stuffing.” But Leigh kept talking, driving home a point which began as a joke, while I was already writing a poem about the un-rain dance in my head.

(to be continued)

 

Dec 11, 2015 - Writer's Life    3 Comments

Family Matters Part II: Solitude

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Lately I’ve been working on my values. You think you know what they are, and you pretty much do, if you’re a thoughtful person in a chaotic world trying to live a decent life. But something happens when you start to write things down. I decided to follow the exercises in a book called things might go terribly, horribly wrong by Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene. It helps with anxiety. You can tell by the title.

I wrote down 10 values. At the last minute I added an 11th. Then I was to hone them by importance; 5,3,1. As it turned out, my afterthought value was the lynchpin, the one upon which all my other values depended. I scrawled it in at the bottom of the page: Solitude/Silence. A lot of people might not consider this a value. For me, solitude is crucial to what the Buddhists call “skillful living.” I just call it “acting right.”

After I found my #1 value, I was suppose to write a letter to a pretend child. Easy, since I have none. So I wrote the child who was part me and part the child in you, and part the child out there who has no one to say this to them.

Dear Stella(r),

When your parents tell you, “Go to your room and don’t come out!”, don’t think of it as punishment. Listen to the little voice inside you crying out in the craziness that is your mother and father arguing about the bills, a bullying brother, the tattletale lady next door.

Your ability to be alone is how you will deal with boys trying to feel you up, overcrowded schools, more bullies, apathetic teachers, and the need to make straight A’s. Finding someplace quiet is how you cope with the insanity of large families, piano lessons, homework, no dates, holidays, and lots and lots of church.

Stay in your room for 2 or 3 hours, even if they say you can come out now. Don’t talk on the phone to your dramatic friends. Stay off the internet. No TV or games. Play a little music, but not so loud that someone comes in to turn it down. Open a text book and make it look like your studying, just in case. Then dance. Practice the guitar. Sing. Look in the mirror and get used to yourself. You are Stella(r). Shine.

Get a pen and paper. Pretend you are writing to a prisoner on death row. Write your MaMaw, even if she died last spring (especially if she died). Tell them everything. Make this letter your talisman. Tear it up if anyone tries to read it. Write a story, a poem, a song. Read a book dramatically out loud to yourself. Be all the characters. Memorize your favorite lyrics. Draw. Stare out a window. Daydream. Night dream.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s weird to want to be alone. Take off quickly then. Go outside. Climb a tree and spy on everyone. Make a fort in a hedgerow or in the hollow circle formed around the trunk of the big magnolia.

At night, stay up reading beneath the covers. Then tiptoe out into your silent house. Taste your solitude in a stolen cookie and a swig of milk straight from the jug. Drink cold water from the faucet.

Listen closely to the ticking, creaking, unexplainable bumps that happen as your house settles. A car passes with the bass thumping; a siren howls on Main Street. Closer, there’s an owl calling “Who, who, who cooks for you?” Does the kitchen still smell like the red beans and rice you had for supper? Or ground coffee in the pot, ready for morning? Rain through a screen? Your wet dog or cat?

Slip out the door. Even in the city, look up. There are lights of every color and trees that have not been cut. Sit beneath one. Count your lucky stars. After all, you are Stella(r). Wrap your aloneness around your shoulders like a warm blanket or an Indian medicine robe. It’s magic. Cherish it.deer1

Learn to love the quiet of no one talking. Your own imagination has so much to say. Let solitude be your sanctuary. It will protect and sustain you. It could be your favorite food, your finest hour. Keep this note close until you have it memorized.

“Go to your room and don’t come out!”

This command, spoken in anger, could just prove to be your saving grace.

 

Nov 18, 2015 - How-To    1 Comment

Family Matters (Part I)

 

IMG_3779Recently I attended the Cross family reunion in Rosston, Arkansas, population 265, duly noted on the city limits sign. This is south central Arkansas and these are my momma’s people. There are branches on the Cross family tree with which I am barely familiar. But I feel my kinship to them, not only in the blood we share, the pure genetics, but luckily in a certain generosity of spirit and stubbornness they carry with the gentle manners of good Southerners who are decent folk. I am proud to be counted among them.

My family, past and present, are people who love the land more than money. The land we stood on all weekend has been in the Cross family for generations, and will remain so if cousin Jim has anything to do with it. My great grandpa raised his large family, including my PaPaw, in the house where we all gathered for the weekend. That house has survived the vagaries of the worst Arkansas weather. My PaPaw was born in 1900, and his mom and dad lived there before him, which means that old clapboard house has stood for at least a century and a quarter.

As tradition dictates, when the Crosses get together we eat a lot of food. There was enough for 100, even though half that many came. Cousin Jim alone bar-b-cued ribs, brisket, pork loin, hamburgers, and hot dogs. His wife, Eddie Jane, made 7 or 8 cakes by herself. We provided the rest. You get the picture. A Cross family reunion is no place for weight watchers. You might as well just put that diet down.

I’m writing this because the older I get the more family matters. Also because family matters can get in the way of good writing like nothing or nobody else. I thought I would think about these things on the page for a few posts and see what comes of it. The following poem arrived via the Rosston reunion. IMG_9928

 

The Stuff We’re Made Of   (for Patti and Jerri)

Three cousins dig under an Arkansas sun.
It’s early October.
We are on the land that birthed the Crosses.
This tough stuff we scrape with a long stick and sharp stone,
this hard red clay, used to tornados, drought, flash floods–
this is what our moms are made of.
And we are part of them. You can see it in the way we dig
this bottle with stick and stone in ground that will not give.
We will not quit until the treasure is uncovered.
We are part of one another.
Cousins. Family. Related through our mothers.
Here is where my great grandfather farmed and forged
and here, my PaPaw born.
Here is where my MaMaw had most of her ten children.
I feel her smiling in the sun that shines on us
while we dig at that old dirt;
in this same soil she made food grow,
fed her children, our mothers.

Three cousins, we dig in concert with each other,
a winning team of diggers,
though we may differ in politics or religion.
There may be little enough we actually agree on,
but that blood coursing through our veins
holds us together like the clay
we scrape and pound to get at one glass bottle.
On this we all agree: blood is thicker than water,
and it’s a good thing since there ain’t much water
‘round here right now.

Cousins, I am glad for your presence
and this strange and simple task we’ve set ourselves.
There is something so symbolic in it
that words fail even me. Truly,
I am grateful to you,
hard as it was for me to get here from where I began.
I can hear my panting breath, feel my pounding heart again,
remember everything we ever did
in Camden or in Minden.
I love you more than I ever have before.
Blessed as I am by your patience and persistence,
I feel MaMaw in us all.
.

 

Sep 14, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

Friends Who Write

Kingsolver & Patchett - photo by Michele M. Williams

What a delight, what a phenomena for so many writers who have never had such a privilege, although they may have attended dozens, even hundreds of author events! I’m talking about the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and the finale which for all the world felt like peering in the window at a fireside chat between two old friends, who just happened to be Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Patchett.

When asked to attend our relatively small literary festival in Burnsville, NC, Kingsolver, who is famous for refusing public readings, said that if she could bring her friend Ann Patchett along, then she would come. Well, hello? Sure, bring whatever famous author/great writer you would like Ms. Kingsolver. We will be happy to have her. As Patchett said onstage, “For you this is a literary happening, for us it’s a playdate.”

The stage was set for an evening none present is likely to forget. Two comfortable wingback chairs sat on a spread of beautiful carpet. The two writerly friends came out and sans script or book simply talked to one another about what they were doing right now, their home lives, when and where and how they went about writing. They talked about developing characters—did you need to love every character in a book, even if they were villains, or not? Ann said that perhaps this was why she had such a difficult time writing villains. She loved her characters too much.

The difference in their writing processes was fascinating. Both writers said they faced down fear every time they sat before the blank page. Kingsolver told us that at some point, she would rise from her desk, stare out the window, and say to herself, “It’s okay to write a bad book this time. Nobody ever has to see it. It’s just you and the screen and your ideas here in your study alone. You can delete the whole thing if you want to, any day or everyday.” The truth of these words would free her to begin writing. And how’s that working out for you, Barbara? Most likely you’ve read the results.

Ann, with her witty and incisive descriptions, said that beginning a novel for her was like walking around Fort Knox with an emery board, trying to break in. There was Fort Knox (her great idea) and here was the emery board (her pen, perhaps) and she would just circle and circle until she found the place where her tool would gain her the access she needed to begin. She decided to become part owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville, TN, because she says it grounds her in everyday life and has the added effect of inspiring her to write better books. (Is this even possible?)

The difference in their writing styles was fascinating and, strangely enough, something they had never talked about despite their shared history. It was fun to see two authors surprise one  another on stage. Kingsolver writes and writes and deletes and deletes in a style with which I am most familiar. Then there’s the editing process which she loves. Me, not so much. This makes her incredibly prolific and able to reap large novels in a single bound…edition.

On the other hand, Patchett writes like the old masters; one great sentence at a time. She does not revise by draft, but as in the olden days of typewriters, creates a completed page, sentence building on sentence, before moving on to the next page. This style makes for compressed and eloquent work, if you’re pretty much a genius, anyway. It would be more difficult for me, but I sure would love to give up the revision. To me, Patchett’s style indicates her vision is complete from the beginning and what she is doing as she writes is creating the reality, one word at a time. Wow!

I learned so much from them in that brief hour. I could have listened to them for days. Actually, it seemed like I had. Without a tape recorder, or even a camera, I gleaned as much as I could from the two of them and their often hilarious repartee back and forth from wingback to wingback; two friends simply discussing their writing. Beautiful.

*Note: Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible will be coming out as a movie before too long—she has been working on the screenplay. And Patchett is in the final pages of a new book. I can barely wait.

 

(Kingsolver & Patchett – photo by Michele M. Williams)

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