The other day I was reading The Last Story of Mina Lee. And that got me to thinking—so much so that I wasn’t remembering the first half of a sentence by the time I got to the last half. The book is about a daughter who hadn’t seen her mother in a year. There were complicated feelings there. When one is not sure as to the categorization of such feelings, the word “complicated” sums it up. And so, I was reading. She went to visit her mother and found her dead, face down on the floor.
There ends a visit and begins a process. Grieving, yes. But, also the process that anybody who has ever lost a close loved one knows is unpleasant to say the least. Sorting through belongings. Wondering what they meant. Are they clues? Rallying help to move furniture and put it—where? Someone else must live there now. That life is over and all the messy bits tidied up and thrown away, given away, taken in as gifts from the departed, sold. The mind churns and we grasp for things. Why? What are we trying to solve? Are we trying to solve something? Sometimes we are—especially when the last days of the departed were spent alone and the person left in a way that seems anything but natural or straightforward.
What of the departed reflects the person no longer living? What reflects us—those left behind? Perhaps that is why so many are drawn to reading and viewing mysteries fictional or true. The word "searching" sticks out in my mind like a clue. And so, I wonder what we search for when a life has ended. What are we clinging to as we see the decline of health and therefore the ticking of the clock of time?
I think the answer is: Stories.
It feels like a natural instinct to demand a beginning, a middle and an end. We as humans seem to desire the rising and falling of an arc. Things need to make sense to us. So, we crave happy endings or justice or something that seems close to an appropriate reflection of how a story began. Were the decisions a person made good or bad? What influenced the journey now that we see where it ends? What do we hope to gain by knowing any of it---by possessing a certain artifact or document—some sort of tangible clue?
We need to digest the story because we feel it will inform our own story—the one we are writing right now with our body and our mind, our emotions and our actions. Archeologists are diggings for stories. Scientists are hoping to influence stories or discover them or predict them. Historians immerse themselves in nothing but stories. Faith is built from the foundation up, one story at a time—passed on one person, one page, one witness at a time. Math and the codes of technology are stories being told using a different language.
As I read The Last Story of Mina Lee I felt within myself a sudden urge to ask my own mother to tell us about herself. We’ve heard so many stories from her but have never written them down or recorded them. The details were sometimes hazy. The people’s names forgotten.
I picture my children with a microphone or a camera asking her questions that start from the inside and grow outward in a circle. Who is she? Her family growing up? Her parents, grandparents, siblings? Reaching back as far as her memory might go---seeing those stories in the water as they float around us. We in the boat lunge and pull the sopping wet stories out and up and into the boat—save them from sinking to the bottom of the sea never to be seen, at least not seen through that same lens, from that same angle and perspective.
What will we do with these stories once we’ve collected them? I don’t know, but I can feel the universe pulling me towards the work of saving stories, relating, understanding, witnessing humanity—together.
Recently I decided to pick a new name for a character in my YA novel Lucy Bound in Lyrics. Readers were getting the two characters Sully and Simon confused. Instead of just picking a new name myself, I thought the readers might be the best ones to decide, so I put it to a vote for Beta Readers and my book club Beta Readers to weigh in because they know the characters already.
It ended up being so much fun, and it was interesting to hear what their thought process was. Names seem like a small detail, but there's so much behind a name and everybody's experiences flavor the impressions differently. So much fun! See the votes below:
- - - - - - - - - -
"My vote is for Jacob only bc I have a Noah and Mason at school right now and that's what I associate those names with. I honestly do like them all though. Can't wait to hear what you pick!"
"My vote is Mason. 😊"
"I like Mason
It's funny how names can root you into a specific time period (or can cause a visceral reaction in someone - I wouldn't like a character named Regina). Interestingly both of my kids share names (or nicknames) with other book club members' children. I am/we are either trendy or risk-adverse if that has any impact on how you view my vote."
"My vote is Mason"
I like Jacob first and best, it’s innocuous and slightly average. You could easily look over a kid named Jacob and not give him or his name a second thought. He’s a shade of grey until you look closer and see the nuances, greys can be cool or warm and usually consist of other colors.
I dislike Noah for no particular reason.
Thanks, this was a fun little brain break."
I like Simon but if you have to change it, I vote for Mason.
"Funny, the names didn't bother me in the book. Maybe at first I thought, now which one is this, but generally I think boys are all the same so Sully/Simon, whatever. Ha. If I had to pick I'd go with Mason. Still seems like a nerdy name like Simon. Jake is too cool and Noah is too biblical. Ha."
"I'd go with Mason because it sounds like Simon and so I can picture that name being the same character.
Spring in New England is like fishing--not that I fish all that often. But, I've done it before and I've watched Jaws. You cast the hook and hopefully something bites. Spring? You start to reel in. If it's a big strong spring you let the line out a bit. Let it run so you don't snap it. Then reel. Then run. Warm. Cold.
Finally, the fish.
Spring creates a conundrum for me. In or out. Dirt or paper. Where and with what should I work. Rain makes the decision easy. Sun makes it impossible. Some people go to the gym, but I go to the garden. I dig and pull roots and lug wheelbarrows and imagine color, snapping peas and figure out how to keep bunnies away.
Raised garden beds.
Chili pepper flakes.
Form is so fun. I think it's what draws me to the written word and to the garden. Interesting shapes and intriguing colors are the goal for both. It's art--all of it--in the end. If we could just admit that art is everywhere then we wouldn't be so hesitant to call ourselves artists: in the kitchen, the garden, the page, the clay--life.
You are an artist. Even if you can't admit it.
Embrace it. It's a good thing.
Now, go create!
Oops. It appears I've neglected this corner of my world for nearly a month. Seems like a good place to plunk a big ole turkey--with all the fixin's. Below is an email (letter) that I sent to my writer friend, Dom.
It's good to have a writer friend if you're a writer because they enjoy writing (and reading your writing--hopefully) and so every now and then you can write something you enjoy writing knowing they will enjoy reading. One of the best gifts a writer can receive is a kind reader. Truly.
Dom writes a daily blog (yes, DAILY!) and will often include emails and his responses within it:
You'd enjoy this food at-home adventure:
George and I had an idea back in November--Thanksgiving--that
we would get a big turkey later in the winter and have it long after Thanksgiving,
which is usually the only time we have turkey here.
We got a 20lb turkey for $14 and
it remained in the freezer until last week.
We thawed it and cooked it Sunday--stuffing, turnip and all the fixings.
It was so delicious to smell in the house--and
it was even more delicious because
we didn't have any appetizers like we do for Thanksgiving.
Just got to dig in.
It worked out that it was still freezing cold here, since
it would have been weird if it was too springy--but
I hope it's something we do again to jazz up a late winter.
It felt like our celebratory dinner that the pandemic is waning.
We even had St. Joseph zeppoles for dessert and
I made turkey soup out of it yesterday, along with
turkey sandwiches for lunch and the kids had them for dinner.
It's like a big whale washed up on the shore and
we're going to use up every bit of it!:)
Happy Birthday today Dom! Enjoy whatever food adventure you find yourself on:)
Blog meister responds: that's a great story!!!
totally love the anticipation,
the holiday atmosphere,
what a great home.
In life, especially in 2020 (oh, wait--we're not in 2020 anymore?:), it's important to take time out to sit and soak in a few pleasant moments when they surface. As a writer who is currently working on books for young people, it's natural to wonder if my projects will be enjoyed by the ages they're intended for.
Cue my in-house editorial team with a penchant for unabashed honesty. They had so often asked to read what I was writing when I was drafting and later revising my Young Adult novel: LUCY BOUND IN LYRICS, but the answer was always, "No, you're too young." So, I started writing a Middle Grade novel allowing me to say, "Yes, take a look."
The two projects are completely different, which makes it fun for me. The Young Adult novel has been a heart-wrenching, creative, learning journey and a chance for me to take broad strokes with my poetic paintbrush to address the challenges of an age-group I used to teach in the classroom and advise as a college admissions counselor. Alternately, the Middle Grade novel has been a fun and funny, wild, mysterious ride with characters I hadn't expected to meet but am glad they insisted on joining in. I can't wait to find out how it ends. Seriously! :)
So, two weeks or so ago I printed out my YA novel and spiral bound it for my very first Beta Reader: My oldest daughter. She is a voracious reader and being a teenager--I knew I wasn't going to get unearned praise. In fact, I wondered if I would get any. It felt so good to share something so dear to me with someone so dear to me.
I gave her a list of questions and a teen-friendly mini emoji survey after each chapter. Then, I waited for the verdict. And, she didn't disappoint. She really enjoyed the book, but pointed me toward some scenes that felt too long, some words that were used too often, a couple of outdated terms and even offered up a comp title: Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams. Her feedback was put right to work and as a result I made a rather substantial format change that was not only a compliment to the storyline but super fun for a writer who loves poetry. I finally got the feeling: It's ready! I wanted it to be ready so many times over the past two+ years, but this was the first time I felt pride for it in my bones.
Last week, I needed a boost in motivation to propel me through the resolutions needed in my MG novel: ELEANOR WITH THE WEEPING EYE. I printed out the 120+ pages in their rough draft form, punched three holes, tied yarn through each to bind it and handed it to my second oldest daughter to read and let me know if I was going in the right direction. Not only did she read it, but she read the first 55 pages out loud to my younger son who really enjoyed the story until my daughter's throat started hurting. She didn't want to stop reading it, though, so she finished the rest in silence, herself within hours. She loved it!
My books aren't published, but it still felt so good to see kids (especially my own kids!:) reading them--even if just bound together with plastic coil or pieces of yarn. It was the most instant gratification a writer can get.*
I'm going to soak it in and savor it for the gift that it is:)
* Disclaimer: Giving birth and raising your own in-house editorial team should in no way be thought of as "instant." There really is nothing instant about it and much thought should be given to the responsibility and expense involved when embarking on such an involved editorial plan. In-house editorial teams may cause exhaustion, stress, sleepless nights, depletion of food, less time for writing, clogged toilets and memory loss. :)
In the repetitive days of a pandemic, there aren't too many surprises, but yesterday I got one. Writing in my journal--as I do each day--I flipped through the journal and discovered that the second half of the journal was made up of blank pages.
I flipped through three more times in mild disbelief and a bit bewildered, "What do I do with blank, unlined pages? I'm not an artist--not a visual one. Or, at least, I don't consider myself a visual artist. But, the the thing about the unexpected is that it often presents an opportunity. It goes a little somethin' like this:
How exciting during such a boring time of year. I think I'll start today. (I wrote this yesterday.) Bad art at its worst, but that's how a beginner begins in art, in music, walking, swimming, public speaking, parenting, styling hair, painting nails, cooking and doing life.
We almost always start poorly and try again, work toward improvement, learn and hopefully we end better than we began.
If we end worse off--time to try something else:)
A few photos from this week's snow. Makes me want to read my favorite snowday book:
Snow by Uri Shulevitz
I've reached the point in my Middle Grade novel where I need to start to rein in the characters. They were given a bit of freedom to explore, but now I need to bring them to the wrap party and it needs to make sense. To tell you the truth--I've been dreading this a bit. I know where I want them to end up for the most part, but now I have to figure out how they will get there. I write by the seat of my pants and that adds an element of suspense--for ME.
This challenge presents itself to me like four necklaces that have been tangled up into what feels like an endless mound of knots. The tendency is to just chuck the whole thing in a drawer (or the trash) and leave it regardless of the lost value or the likelihood that it will never be dealt with if it is not dealt with now. Another inkling might be to break at least one chain to make it easier to untangle. Maybe just untangle one--my favorite one or perhaps the easiest one to untangle. After all, no reader knows how I wanted it to end in my imagination.
My characters can be tweaked as needed unbeknownst to anyone.
So few would look at a knotted clot of chains and be excited to patiently, slowly, mind-bendingly and methodically follow each strand to its first knot. Work to untie it. Then the next and the next until each is free from its metalic captivity--able to be useful again, to be admired for its own individual attributes instead of one tangled mass of metal.
A confession: I am the designated detanglee in my family. So, it's not neccessarily a task I loathe or have never done. It's a challenge. Something I know I need to sit, relax and work on. A puzzle.
And so, that's where I am in this project--untangling, identifying each individual strand. The part where I need to focus and figure out. Hopefully I am able to do it because I believe there are some really valuable jewels in the pile and I'd love to showcase their dazzling merit for readers. Admittedly, it feels so good when something is transformed--like a clump of metal--from trash to treasure.
There is a relief and a sense of accomplishment. There is the fulfillment of investing time in what could otherwise just remain a useless cluster of words and transform it into an intricate and powerful story that sparkles and demonstrates how materials found in nature can become art in the right hands. Here's hoping that my hands are the right ones.
The hardest part is that I won't know until I have put the hours of untangling in. I could be left with nothing more than aluminum out of a gumball machine or I could be left with a solid gold, gem encrusted family heirloom. The challenge is the not knowing, but needing to have faith and persevering anyway.
That's the mystery of any artform, right? Any mission or passion--any initiative. Persistance. Blind faith. So often it is endurance, not raw talent, that determines success and satisfaction. Skill without the will to try and try again won't get a person very far.
Tuck in and find that first knot.
Forgive (yourself) and forget (your efforts)--early and often.
Pick up Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and start going knot by knot.
I'll get there. So will you:)