Friday, May 23, 2008

Details, details

Life settles into a familiar rhythm so quickly, into a yin and yang, moving to and fro, working, sleeping, eating, handling chores and the unexpected spills and quicksilver moments that bring tears, smiles, sadness and laughter to every day. It takes so little to interrupt the rhythm and leave a void, a feeling of confused bemusement.

The raucous birds argued and gossiped, their cries and conversations carrying through the windows to spear directly into my dreams this morning, to rouse me from a discussion about writing, about a particular writer whose work is good but doesn't go far enough because there are no veins opened. Depression is a good subject, one guaranteed to prick the emotions and set trembling the emotional candle flame but only when the writer digs deep, opens a vein and engages his heart, and thus ours. Nothing written is any good unless it affects the emotions, engages the reader in such a way the experiences become familiar, echoes of personal experience, even if a faint echo. It's not that difficult to learn the mechanics of writing: punctuation, spelling, sentence construction, plot arc, characterization, movement, etc. That can be taught. There is no teacher for reaching the heart of a story, for playing the emotions. It's the different between a violinist or pianist with technical superiority and one who fudges and slurs their way through the difficult passages and still wrings tears or teases smiles from the listener.

I've read stories that were technically bad and yet the story held my interest because the writing had heart. The author made that most painful of sacrifices and opened a vein on the page. And there are movies when the actors say their lines well, imitate the emotions like a mime but fail to inhabit the character or the scene, becoming two-dimensional and flat. That is not to say that bombastic gesturing and emotional fireworks are necessary to draw the audience in; sometimes it is quite the opposite. A soft voice, minimal gestures and sometimes the way a person holds himself, his body language more eloquent than any deftly delivered line is all it takes to make the character, or the writing, come alive. That cannot be taught. It must be lived, learned and internalized.

I've always been a technically good writer, but until I let down my guard, broke through the thick glass wall between me and the audience and opened a vein, my writing was nothing special. It's the same for many well known writers. Technical superiority and experience in writing confers the belief that anything can be good, but it is a false sense of superiority and it's fairly easy to tell. Unfortunately, most of the publishing world is unaware that technical superiority is no substitute for writing with heart, writing that engages the senses with characters that live and breathe as though caught in an unguarded moment. Anyone can write and just about anyone can be published, especially these days when publishing can be a cheap operation, but the shining literary moments when characters inhabit all dimensions are few and far between. Those are the characters and writers that become classics, regardless of genre. Think about it for a moment. Go back through your memory files and list the characters that leap forward. Then reread their stories and I'll bet you find what it is that makes them special. That is what writing is about. That is what writing should be.

I guess what kicked off this literary reverie was a surprise in my mailbox yesterday. I received a check for another anthology containing one of my stories. The book will be available at the beginning of July: Cup of Comfort for Cat Lovers. I drove over to cash the check and ran into a friend who surprised me with a gift, a housewarming gift: four wine glasses in four pastel shades, the very ones I've been eyeing for months. Serendipity. A thoughtful gesture from a caring and intuitive friend.

A moment like that can't be planned nor can the reactions. It's a magical surprise in the familiar rhythm of every day life with heart. The feelings of surprise and delight and the happiness of giving a gift to a friend can be manufactured and retold on the page, but it's the emotions behind the details that set the tone for the characters and the story. It's always in the details.

Like the sound of children going to school in the morning while the birds scold and chatter in the trees as the sun rises over the horizon and fires the trees with gold and crimson, when they're gone they leave a void, a sense of dissonance in the daily rhythms that something is missing or just different. It takes a while to define the missing element, to probe the tiny space where it once fit so securely, before a new rhythm falls into place. It is those moments between one rhythm and another, the emotional blip on the screen, that makes life special and surprising, and it is the writer who notices that transcends the mechanics and gets to the heart of the story and the audience. It's all in the details.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Poison ivy and karma

It's a beautiful sunny day and children are arriving at the school across the street. They sound excited and they should be; this is the last day of school. Children's voices at play, the scrape and thunk of boys skateboarding in the parking lot outside, laughter and voices rising in contention, these are the sounds of my mornings and early afternoons here.

Yesterday, I sat outside on the deck with a book breathing in the smells of summer and basking in the sun and the sounds. Warmth on my arms and legs and a cool breeze filled with bird song was just what I needed after a double shift of typing operative reports while I waited for the postman. I didn't realize he had come and gone since the mailbox is down at the street and I was engrossed in my book of essays. I did happen to notice what looks like poison ivy surreptitiously extending a long stem out from the profusion of budding plants that have sent runners up the side of the window at the front of the house, purple buds that looked like clover but are beginning to look more like unfurling sea anemones waving in the breezy currents. I looked closer at the extended fingers of the buds and I think they are petals tightly curled and soon to burst forth when the rest of the stubby purple budlets grow. The plants could be clematis after all, but I don't think so. They don't look like the deep purple jackmanii that used to twine around the post below the lantern at my house in Columbus that opened to show the ringed gold at its heart. I'll know soon enough what they are and I can wait. I'm used to waiting.

It's cool and the sun is hidden behind a cloud, casting the view out the window in shadow and it's nearly time for me to get to work. I'll have another hour or so outside on the deck when I finish and the afternoon is barely begun but I realize I cannot sit out there on the deck much longer without a chair or lounger or some kind of comfortable cushion. It's beginning to dawn that I have a deck where I can sit and read or eat or just enjoy the rain, the cooling breezes and the warm, radiant gaze of the sun whenever I like. It's a whole new way of thinking, of feeling, of being and I'm not quite used to it, but I will get used to it just the way I get used to all the changes in my life -- like losing another member of my family.

Last year, Dad died at the beginning of spring and his brother's wife, Peggy, followed in the autumn. Uncle Don, Dad's brother, was devastated. He had been with Peggy longer than any other women he had married or lived with, and there were many of both. Uncle Don was put in ICU a few days ago with congestive heart failure. The doctors wanted to do another heart cath on him and were sending him to Cincinnati but changed their minds yesterday, releasing him from the hospital. The doctors said he has maybe three months. Mom said, "He's 83. He has had a good run," with that tone that says she's ready for him to leave her home. There's also her unspoken question, "Why is he still alive when my husband is dead?" I have no answers for her, except that it was time for Dad to leave. He always knew when to leave before the host and hostess announced loudly and pointedly, "It's getting late." Dad didn't need such overt signals or reminders. He was a very classy man. Uncle Don? Not so much. Uncle Don is as hardy as poison ivy and as tenacious as a weed and I do not doubt he will last longer than three months. Mom would not like to hear that, especially since he's staying with her and Carol.

Carol says she's running an old folks home and sometimes it seems that way with Mom carping at Uncle Don, raising her voice to near shrew and fish wife levels because he's deaf, while Uncle Don blithely continues making beautiful placemats and watching television. He occasionally tells Mom she's too loud. He's not afraid of her and he is not dependent on her good moods, not that Mom actually has many good moods, but Uncle Don is definitely cramping her style. Mom doesn't like being out of the limelight or even slightly to the left or right of center stage. So Mom mutters and walks out of Uncle Don's hearing range to carp and complain, reminding everyone that he doesn't understand the meaning of pain and he's not so bad off as he makes everyone think. Uncle Don does tend to whine a bit and make a little more of his aches and pains than Dad did, but my father was a stoic. Uncle Don is not. And he is not a martyr, unlike Mom who has martyrdom down to a fine art she has honed over decades of constant and consistent practice. Mom is a poor substitute for Peggy but I think Uncle Don is the Universe's way of visiting a little karma on Mom. There's no doubt in my mind the Universe has a sense of humor, like hiding poison ivy among the profusion of purple buds and greenery in the railroad tie planter at the front of the house next to the deck where it can reach out its sticky poisonous fronds and tap me on the leg to leave a trail of blistering fire on anyone but me.

Life is a wonderful mix of excitement and sadness but at least there is excitement to temper the sadness and sadness to remind me of the excitement I've known and will know again.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Pictures of home

The first load of groceries are bought and put away and I'm still a little shocked by the cost of it all, though I didn't get that much. Ah, well, everything costs more these days with the government putting more stock in growing corn for ethanol than in growing food for people to eat. Throw in the cost of importing food from other countries where farmers have been encouraged to grow specialty crops for export instead of crops to feed their people and that is indeed a dilemma.

This is also the first time I've had to decide between paper and plastic. I chose paper. I need to replenish my stock of canvas bags since mine have gone missing. I used those bags for nearly twenty years before it was the fashion to be green simply because it was easier to carry groceries home and fewer things I had to worry about throwing out in the trash. They were sturdy and capacious and I carried them everywhere I moved since I bought them. The canvas bags were also great for stuffing full of books and computer equipment and stowing in the trunk with each move, packing full of gifts and for filling with laundry to go to the laundromat, etc.

Here's a glimpse of some of the cottage.

A new article

I know few of you are ham radio operators, but you might find this article of interest.

That is all. Disperse.

Quick shot

Ants in the bathroom to be eradicated by cinnamon oil. Dry kitchen floor and new hose on washer that does not spew water all over the walls and floor. Most of laundry caught up and done. Dryer keeps popping breaker and shutting off electricity. Someone coming over to fix that problem. Probably just a faulty wire. Paid bills. Took out trash. Folded and put away dry clothes. Errands to run this morning. Updated address on ham radio license this morning because I forgot it before this morning. License now not in jeopardy. Still not getting forwarded mail which is being returned to sender with a notice that the forward is out of date; I only put it in on May 9th and it's already out of date, and yet they keep forwarding magazines. What is wrong with this picture? This makes check for recent reviews late so I had to call my boss at Author Link and make sure she had the new address, which I sent three weeks ago, and let her know my check may have been returned if the new girl in the office, the one that can't seem to get it together and get checks out in a timely fashion, did not change the address. Now off to shower, change into clean clothes and run errands before I have to be back here to work and make more money.

A word to the wise: Reading my journal is no guarantee you'll find out what you want to know. Maybe it's time you called.

That is all. Disperse.

Monday, May 19, 2008


I have clean clothes and I wish I had a clothesline. It's just one more thing that makes me wonder if I'm in the wrong time. It's no secret that I hate housework, but to be completely accurate I only hate certain aspects of housecleaning. I don't mind vacuuming or dusting and the smell of lemon Pledge makes me a little nostalgic. I love to cook but I hate doing the dishes, which isn't a problem now since all I have to do is load them in the dishwasher and turn it on. Wouldn't you know it? I have some pans and pots that are not dishwasher safe. I'll have to be more careful when I shop. I don't mind cleaning the bathroom but I'd rather not have to do it very often. And, for some reason, I like doing the laundry and hanging the clothes on a line and even ironing.

I'm having some problems with the new washer. It's electronic and I wish now I had opted for the kind that uses a dial you pull, turn and push instead. I went to bed with a problem on my mind that kept buzzing around my mind all night long, but I think I've figured it out. The hose needs to be connected to the cold water connection instead of the hot water connection and that's why it won't run when the rinse is set to cold. I'll fix it after I finish work this afternoon. As soon as I finish writing this, I'm going to take the sheets out of the washer and drape them over the railings on the deck. I hope it doesn't bother the neighbors too much, but I'm looking forward to the smell of sun and fresh air laced with lilac beneath me when I sleep.

I am a creature of my senses and my sense of smell is the keenest of my senses, although touch and taste run a close second, with hearing and sight tailgating. I revel in my sense of smell, especially when it becomes as much an intimate pleasure as it is a simple pleasure, and it's about to get a big dose of happiness in a couple of weeks when the farmer's market opens. That will be a feast for all my senses and I plan to spend part of every Saturday down there picking and choosing and indulging myself. I've decided to start canning and freezing the summer's bounty.

Preserving food is something else I enjoy as much as hanging fresh washed clothes in a line and I get a bonus: those activities are green, or so I've read. For me, it's not so much about being green (See, Kermit? Everyone wants to be green.) but about doing things that bring pleasure and save a few dollars. If I owned this place, you can be sure there'd be plans to convert to solar energy in the works and I'd have a clotheslines somewhere even if I had to dig up part of the parking lot to make it happen. Yes, it's physical labor but that's not a bad thing.

Memories of my grandmother pushing her clothespin bag along the line, a few clothespins in her mouth, while she hung out Grandpa's snowy white shirts and charcoal trousers, sheets, pillow cases, blankets and her dresses and unmentionables, remind me of the little ironing board that Grandpa found for me so I could iron play clothes for my brother and sister and myself. I'd help Gram take down the clothes, burying my nose in the fresh, sun-warmed towels and sheets and filling my heart and lungs with spring, summer and fall. The dryer was only for those days when it was too rainy or too cold to hang out the wash. Gram even let me help sometimes when she did the laundry in an old wringer washing machine, reminding me not to let my fingers get too near the heavy rollers that squeezed out the water when I fed in the pointed ends of cloth. I was very careful and never let the rollers get hold of me.

When the clothes were dry, Gram sprinkled the sheets, pillowcases and Grandpa's white shirts with water from a pop bottle that had a sprinkler stuffed in the mouth of the bottle and then rolled them up and laid them side by side in a big plastic bag. When she finished sprinkling the clothes, she pulled them out one by one, snapping them open with a flick of her wrists and ironed each one. The smell of sunshine and fresh air intensified in the heat as she worked quickly: collars, cuffs, sleeves and body of the shirt. She worked her way through the bag full of rolled up shirts and sheets and her dresses and aprons in no time, emptying the bag and filling the collapsible metal rack with crisp ironed shirts, dresses and aprons and piling the sheets on the table to be carried upstairs and laid in the linen cupboard.

Mom learned something from Gram about the sprinkling part but she seldom got around to the ironing part before mildew speckled the moist cloth in the bag. She picked out the few things that hadn't been invaded and ironed them but the faint scent of mildew hid among the folds when she ironed the clothes. The mildewed clothes went back into the washer. Mom was so glad wen permanent press clothes and polyester fabric came out because it meant she didn't have to sprinkle or iron the clothes any more. I was glad, too, since it meant no more mildew tickling my nose when I huddled under the covers or hugged my pillow in the night. Mom preferred a career to housework.

I prefer an income to starving or living on welfare and food stamps, and I certainly prefer someone else to clean the kitchen and do the dishes, but I could live very happily knowing I had laundry to do that would soon fly in errant breezes under a warm sun to capture the smell of spring warming to summer and cooling to the smoky scent of autumn.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Real writing

It's quiet this morning, except for the sound of the refrigerator which is pretty empty right now. I've been up for hours and have caught up all my email and the usual morning rounds, including fixing a typo in my last post mentioned by a fellow amateur radio operator and newsletter editor in Las Vegas who wrote that he didn't know I was a real writer. I had to smile at that, especially when he said he didn't mean to offend me. It's a comment I've heard a lot over the years and my definition of real writer has changed quite a bit as I grew as a writer and as a real writer.

To most people, a real writer is someone who has their name on a book as sole author and to others a real writer is someone who has published hundreds of articles, discounting any writer who has ghost written a book or article or contributed a chapter to a book or a story to an anthology. Many well known writers were not considered real writers because they wrote books for Young Adults (YA) or because they didn't write literary novels, and this is something I have addressed before, and probably will again.

To put it simply, a real writer writes. So why do so many writers feel the need to justify themselves with lists of their accomplishments (other than for a bibliography or to land a job) and credits over and over? Is it because they don't think they are real writers or are they just looking for yet another pat on the back as validation of what they should already know? Or is it the knowledge that if they don't constantly remind people of what they have done they will be forgotten and overlooked? In a way, it's like choosing from a menu at an Oriental restaurant: One from column A, one from column B and two from column C.

Harper Lee only had one book published, a book that continues to sell. She wrote another book that purportedly was no good, but that does not change the fact that she is a real writer. And I could continue listing writers, and poets, published posthumously that are real writers. Where the rubber hits the road, a real writer writes. That includes editors of newsletters who write and edit articles month after month and are never recognized for the job they do. It's all about the writing not about anyone else's perception of what a real writer is or isn't because someone will always find a way to exclude someone else to make themselves feel better and point to their own accomplishments as the only accomplishments worth noting, and that is all about jealousy and fear. The fear is that another writer is better than they are or more prolific.

Some writers are technically better than others but that doesn't make them better at everything. Every writer has something they do well and, if they're smart, the more they read and write the better they will become. In the end, it's not about who is a better writer or more prolific but about the writing itself. The writer's job is to tell a good story or present information in a clear and memorable way. The rest is details. Even good writers make mistakes and fail to tell a good story or leave the reader scratching his head wondering what happened, but they keep writing and reading because good writers know that in order to continue growing as a writer they must also read -- voraciously. Writing is not created in a vacuum, just as the knowledge a writer gains is not worth much if it isn't shared and built upon.

I am a writer, not because I have written X number of articles and stories or been published in X number of books, but because I write. Like I said, it's simple. A real writer writes.