November 4th, 2010
A good fire is stunning. I’ve been known to burn leaves just to see flames lick the sky. In my opinion, there’s nothing finer than sitting around a campfire on a crisp evening, hearing conversations and laughter of family and friends. Or inside, when windows are iced, fireplace roaring, wood snapping and crackling. It warms bones and hearts chilled by a sometimes cold world.
Words to me are like fire. Pick the right ones, and our stories flame and mesmerize. They can illuminate a black night, or crack out the sun on an overcast day. We don’t need fancy selections. Put too many snooty words in, and all we’ve got is one stuck-up story. But I still believe a story told with added flare warms us.
We could say, “ As I was driving, leaves blew from the trees.” Or we could say, “As I was driving, wind high, every tree seemed to shiver, their raggedy foliage blowing away, leaving them naked in fields.” Can you picture that? It was my visual today.
Not every sentence in a story needs to be that descriptive, but throw one in occasionally and it’s like tossing a handful of dry pine needles into a dead fire.
If we extend our vocabulary, choosing words that breathe, we can make a story live. And still grasp our hearts when, we, the reader, are long finished.
Once, I walked past a campsite at dusk and spotted a man, stretched back in his recliner. I loved the visual so much I used it in Jack Rabbit Moon. Here’s what I came up with. “Under a shady oak tree, a man sat in a green recliner. I thought he was the epitome of intelligence, bringing his chair like that. Without moving, he could have the moon for dinner and stars for dessert.”
That chair, and a man I didn’t know from Adam, will long live in my memory. In my opinion, he was one smart dude.
Words are everywhere. To write well, we only need to pick them up, over and over, and spin them into flame. Besides reading many fine books, by some outstanding authors, I sometimes study the Dictionary and Thesaurus. I’m not lame or boring, just a woman who has a thing for words. And a hot fire.
October 25th, 2010
When winter laughs at her icy secrets,
and blows her ragged skirt,
Rose, once adorned in red velvet,
whispers, “I was a queen.”
Winter howls and her branches droop.
But blackbird arrives, festive as ever,
his shiny black cloak,
smoldering up her cold limbs.
He sings of spring; aromatic orchards bursting into bloom,
and bees murmuring while sipping nectar.
He plays his flute like a gentleman.
“I know you, Rose,” he trills.
“You are lovely and delicate.
Ignore crackly old winter.”
Rose weeps at blackbirds melody,
there through sunlight and shadow,
in velvet and rags,
he adoring them equally.
As he plays for her, snow tiptoes down,
coloring him white.
October 15th, 2010
I’ve never met a garden I didn’t like, although some I’ve taken to more than others. Growing up, we always had a huge vegetable patch, which we had to toil in, so on hot, sweaty days I didn’t favor that kind.
There is another variety, though, I’ve never minded working; the flowery, delicate garden. Even better are those brazen sweeps of color erupting in lonely fields, nothing but Mother Nature cradling and kissing them. They are wild and raw and turn your head affairs. If your car windows are down, you can sometimes detect the smell of cherry licorice or cloves, the air thick with scent. They shock and awe us. Rattle us awake. Like a little kid they shout, “Look at me! I made this just for you.” And we are left gaping.
I’m never more alive when I discover a field bursting with Indian paintbrush, like millions of ragged orange tubes of lipstick smearing the landscape. Or purple Popsicle bluebonnets, tinged with vanilla on top. And a dirt floor of Queen Anne’s lace, winter white fancy skirts on long, scrawny legs, dancing real slow as far as the eye can see.
Recently, in Vermont, I happened upon these amazing trees, decorating old cemeteries, limbs screaming with creamy white and pink buds. They look like lilacs, but not quite. Maybe someone will recognize this lovely thing by the picture I took.
Today I discovered a wild patch of black-eyed Susan’s, mingled with cedar, along a busy roadside, putting on a lavish butter yellow show. Tall and regal, they exploded in the sun. These tickets were all free. Joy comes in all kinds of packages, but I prefer my gifts from a Garden in the Wild.
September 29th, 2010
Ruts in the writing life happen. We grasp our way through a story, do the research, and realize it’s not the one we’re supposed to tell. At least not yet. We bump along in that rut for awhile until a new path appears, scattered with red and orange leaves, shining glass-like in the sunshine. If we’re really lucky, we figure this out before page ten, which was the case with my recent novel. The only problem was, I didn’t have another start from scratch story.
Or so I thought.
It does a writer good to peer through a new window. Visit places we’ve never been. Meet people we’ve never met. If we can’t do that, we can always explore areas in our own neck of the woods that we’ve neglected. Anything to show us the mysterious, quirky and fresh side of life.
On a recent trip to Vermont, a place I’d never visited, a shiny new story snuck in. I was sitting on the steps of our cabin at sunset, wind bristling in trees, leaves like candy wrappers, colliding with each other, swirling, twirling, and dancing, air fragrant with roots and conifers. Straight ahead an abandoned dirt road, a rusted model T Ford off to one side. To my right a red barn, skirted next to an 1800’s colonial farmhouse. Just as I looked, a woman’s black silhouette appeared and paused in the window. I could feel something beginning. It slid through the wind and landed, smiling on my lap.
Sometimes a clear moment is all it takes: a sunny day flecked with the unusual, or dusk in Vermont. The writer in us is always drawn to what’s behind the mountain and down the lonely dirt road. We excavate stones from these places and arrange them in a circle. These stones represent life: the sensual, brutal, wonder, abandonment, love, honor, awe, failure, and death of our existence. We arrange stones we collect along the way into stories that help us make sense of our world. Sometimes we, as much as our readers, just need to be entertained. And there’s the rub-a good novel can and does do both.
I fancy this ancient Chinese proverb: A bird does not sing because it has an answer-it sings because it has a song.
Look through a new window dear writer and your song will find you.
August 16th, 2010
“Are you telling me those albums I sold for practically nothing at a garage sale several years back are now worth something? Dang, I knew I should have hung onto those.” This was a recent conversation I had with a dear friend.
Now I’m remembering everything I let go. Let’s see, I had the Doors. Remember the line from Break on Through? I found an island in your arms, a country in your eyes? Words stuffed like emotional crème puffs.
There was also Journey, and Pink Floyd, The Who, Stones, Eagles, Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin. Yes, I sold them all. I even threw in comedian Steve Martin’s album, Comedy is not Pretty. Someone pried that one out my hands. I shared the laughs. And the weird thing is, Steve still looks almost exactly the same as when I saw him on stage all those years ago…ha!
These days I’m feeling a little like classic Vinyl myself. Can anyone relate? The kids are growing up and out, yet another daughter recently spread her wings and flew on over to California, and one a couple of weeks before that to Missouri. For the first time in twenty-three years, quiet time has erupted in my world like a volcano.
I’ve had five full days to myself, and after initially feeling like crap on a cracker, I decided to soak the tiredness out of my feet after two decades of running. For the past few days, I’ve slept in, and when I wake swing around in my chair, drinking coffee and watching cardinals at the bird feeder. I’ve scrubbed floors and dusted and put the house in order and it hasn’t moved! One day I rented fantastic chick flicks and watched them in mid-afternoon, while eating extravagant Chinese takeout. In the evenings I’ve written and began to understand how one can get lost in silence, the delicious rhythm and rhyme of it. By day three, quiet slipped on me like a new dress.
Now I’m ready for noise again: family, friends, a little dirt, clutter, the messy business of life.
I miss my children like crazy, but knew full well they would grow up one day. I’m excited for their new adventures and excited for mine, too. I’m happy to still have a sweet, colorful bird in the nest for the time being.
Life is a continuous journey of change. We must learn to connect new dots, to reinvent ourselves.
Classics are superb at this!
July 19th, 2010
Many people collect things, from paintings, to baseball cards, right down to magnets.
I collect memories. Maybe you do too.
We don’t have to shell out much money for those, although some have cost more than others. The limit is the moon. I’ve been chasing down memories for years, and they are now sitting on porches,watching the sun rise. And I’m thrilled they are remembering, lest I forget.
I’ve laid my hands on black tie memories, champagne corks popping all over pages. There are also those that creak and wail under the weight of sorrow and loss. Life drags us down rutty dirt roads as well as slick glossy highways, and a diary travels them all. Capturing our feelings and writing them down; that’s why we write, to peel back layers of life and hold them up to the light.
Above is a picture of my latest diary, fancier than most, but Audrey Hepburn just spoke to me, so I couldn’t resist.
My first diary was started back in 1995, which puts me at fifteen years worth, and eighteen diaries, minus one year, 1999. That particular diary was lost six months after moving to Texas from Missouri. I’d put it on the back of my car to check the mail before heading to school to wait in the carpool line, where I sometimes made diary entries. Running behind, I jumped in the car, not remembering the diary until a mile or so down the road. We searched high and low, to no avail. Either it had fallen into a muddy ditch, or had landed in someone’s hot little hands. Girlfriends were calling every day to see if I’d found it yet, intrigued with the idea that a man might have discovered the diary and was reading about my life.
Ye gad! Every little “for my eyes only” entry waltzed in my memory, some taking a bow, some tripping in front of me, making me cringe. But after the initial shock died down, I had the plot for my novel, The Passion Diary. What would it feel like to have your uncensored thoughts read by a man you’d never met? What would happen if he fell in love with you by your words alone? Not that anyone would after reading mine, but heck, I decided to run with it anyway. How would that woman feel if this man wooed her, keeping her diary a secret, winning her trust and love, and then the secret was exposed by someone else who made it their business to know? The diary is the frame the story hangs on.
Even after losing one, I still keep diaries. My youngest daughter is the only one intrigued by them. For awhile, she bugged me to read entries, but of course I wouldn’t. She said, “You might as well let me read them now. When you’re gone, I’ll get my hands on them!” I told her we might need to have a ceremonial burning at my passing.
But maybe not.
One day, when I’m raisin-faced, and my eyes cloudy with years, I might take those diaries out and read every young memory, the lovely, ugly , and funny, those thoughts dashing in and out of time tunnels, reminding me how much I lived, loved, lost and gained. The far will be near again, the near, nearer.
And, ahem…if someone out there did happen to find my diary, all those years ago, please just stick it in my mailbox, no questions asked.
What about you, do you keep diaries?
June 8th, 2010
Before I begin, let me say I’ve missed you guys! Wait, I’ve missed y’all. That sounds right.
Now that summer is here, I hope you’re able to kick back,splash in a river, listen to some music, or just read a good book.
Speaking of books, I did manage to finish that second novel, The Passion Diary. Whoopa! See, I really was working. Finishing the book hadn’t really sunk in until yesterday, when I began constructing that query letter to send out to agents. It has to be wild, short and attractive. Sounds a bit like an old boyfriend, but all kidding aside, it’s daunting trying to sell yourself and your book in a couple of paragraphs. Lady luck-please wish me that.
And speaking of luck, my dear friend and Author, Jeff Yeager, dubbed The Ultimate Cheapskate by Matt Lauer on The Today Show, has created his own luck with hard work and a creative streak that sizzles. His second book, The Cheapskate Next Door debuts today. www.ultimatecheapskate.com
Yeah, he’s no southerner, but I’ll make an exception in his case and here’s why: I believe he could kick tail in a seed spitting contest, and flat do a jig if he wanted, and that’s good enough for me. I do hope you’ll check out Jeff’s lively work for yourself.
Now back to southerners. We know summer has set in here, due to brutally hot weather. When you walk outside before noon and feel as though you’ve been shoved into a sizzling sauna, you know you’ve landed in south Texas. On days I’m not fortunate enough to be in and around the water, I crank down the air-conditioner, pour some iced tea, and listen to Willie Nelson tunes. This original outlaw never fails to satisfy my musical hankering. To this Texan, his voice is velvety as melted chocolate. And I’ve always loved his braids. And chocolate.
Born and raised in Abbott Texas, Willie’s grandparents gave him mail order music lessons at age six. He wrote his first song at age seven and was playing in a local band at age nine. I finally got to see him in concert last year, and I danced around for days, so excited. He didn’t disappoint, his voice as pure and rawboned now as it ever was. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain is one favorite, along with Whiskey River and Always on my Mind.
I thought of Willie Nelson the other day when I watched my older girls drag in from Summer Fest. They had sat in blistering Texas sun to catch these bands: The Flaming Lips, Girl Talk and Kid Sister. At 11:00 p.m., they got back, worn but happy, saggy pants and sunburned faces, and bandanna’s wound around their sweaty heads.
Of course Willie wears a bandanna. Stay cool!
March 22nd, 2010
Testing, testing, can you guys hear me? I couldn’t think of a snappier way to present sound than a recent trip to southern Louisiana.
In New Orleans the decibel levels flew off charts, right along with history, dog ugly and gorgeous as any I’ve ever heard. Even so, I relished the whole Who Dat and Zydeco music and the waitress named Nicole but pronounced Ne-cole. Her inflection piped out like a shot of New York swirled with Louisiana Creole. I kept asking her questions, well, because I’m irritating that way, and because I adored her voice.
“Why y’all don’t vee zeet more?” she finally said, grinning.
Ne-cole, Ne-cole, Ne-cole. A charming sport if I ever met one.
The sounds of New Orleans were spicy crazy indeed. In the streets were drummers, harmonica players and clacky washboard renditions. People were chattering like squirrels, their shoes popping on sidewalks.
In Café Du Monde, we finally plopped down, legs worn and feet aching from traipsing every inch of the French Quarter and miles beyond. I figured I’d earned myself a beignet, snowed under with powdered sugar and washed down with a café-au lait. Spoons were clinking against glass coffee cups while sugar buzzy conversations exploded, and underneath that, the sigh of our pooped waitress, trying to keep up. A fat tip was in order, which made her smile.
So, two days later, I listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival in the car as we headed to St. Francisville, because it would have been a sin not to hear Born on a Bayou if one is going to hang out with gators and Cajuns. And because I’m a Creedence groupie.
Visiting here is like stepping on ancient, exotic soil. Did you know even history has sound? It wails and screams and laughs here in the wind, the birds and bayous.
Three times now I’ve come to this place, trying to grasp a tragic and mysterious chunk of history. Bits and pieces the land has absorbed and yet shouts through the live oak trees. But none makes sense, nor do I condone it. Meanwhile I fancy the people and appreciate the beauty of place. And I remember those without voices and try to honor them with my presence. My heartfelt interest.
The following poem is based on a cemetery we visited while staying on plantation grounds. It was only one visible record, but there are still many loud secrets. Listen for sound in silence.
They have gone silent and cold
yet I heard a woman’s voice
in a crows cackle
But that can’t be
sixteen souls long hushed
resting like whispers in black dirt beds
on loud property
they didn’t have time to praise
Days booming with tears and laughter have passed
no more spring afternoons, summer days
snappy fall breezes
blazed with red
They lie silent atop a hill now
ringed by a stone wall
gray and chipped
shaggy cedar to ward off sun
and pine silt carpet for decoration
I traced their names with fingertips
when the sun was blooming
and remembered those I never knew
Marguret, Thomas, Mary, Edward, Sarah, Percival
and the others
Then when night turned to coffee
we walked through crispy grass
sky flushed with hot stars
now fallen icy atop the hill.
Bonjour Mes Amis- Good day, my friends. Listen well.
March 1st, 2010
Last night the full moon appeared like a flamboyant floodlight. It seemed to echo, “Is anyone alive down there…down there…down there? It is I, floodlight moon.” It appeared close but was actually 238,857 miles away! Our eyes can play tricks on us.
Even so, they are rich visual collectors. Two blue, brown, hazel or green mini artists, taking in life portraits, freeze framing them into memory the way paint adheres to canvas. A scoop of bangs across a forehead, inky black like a raven’s wing, dead leaves twirling on bare sun drenched branches or snow swelled on the ground like thick, whirled whipped cream.
I remember seeing my newborn daughter’s eyes for the first time. Like soul windows, new, but ancient and full of penetrating light. When they lay each in my arms, of course in different years, their haunting eyes explored mine, speaking without sound. Why hello dear mama, they seemed to say. I’ve felt your heartbeat and heard your cries and laughter a thousand times. Here you are now. I see you. They knew me and I them. Any mother can tell you how poignant this is. It is something we never forget, this lavish visual communication without words. I promise not to mention babies anymore, but I do love them.
Eyes alone speak of innocence, pain, sadness, joy, confusion, wildness and sometimes evil, all without saying a word.
If we have been blessed with our vision intact, our brain does the work of preserving previous sights into memory. I can still see the metallic shimmer of dollar sunfish, greasing through an Arkansas River, sun catching the star-burst of yellow bellies. And creamy vanilla colored jack-in-the-pulpits, glazing up an Illinois spring forest we wandered through as children. And red-winged black bird eggs, pale blue-green and freckled, cuddled tight in marshy nests.
It’s exciting to use this visionary sense in our writing. Here’s an example from my WIP, The Passion Diary.
Driving through Millview, men with wilted faces sat outside Hunters Gas Mart. On splintered wooden benches some whispered and whittled while others stood, eclipsed by smoke clouds wafting from lit points of cigarettes. The locals referred to the spot as Limber Dick Corner. God help me, I didn’t want to grow old.
Turning down Main Street, earth rose behind ancient buildings, disguised in fresh paint. Brambly blackberry vines clamored up a long row of fence, berries dangling and not yet flushed purple. Trees, heavy with green foliage, clung to hillsides and I wondered what was blending and dashing through not visible to the naked eye.
This is pure visual description and why I wanted to use it as an example. I could go back and add smell-the soil, cigarette smoke, etc… I could also throw in taste-of the eventual ripened berries, but for these paragraphs I probably won’t.
Hopefully, if I’ve done my job well, sight alone tells you this is a small town with old secrets.
So, my writing buddies, please enjoy every visual treat this week. Remember, seeing is believing…sometimes.
February 24th, 2010
To me, being in a wild world with so many sights, sounds, odors, tastes and textures is a little like walking down dusty paths of a renaissance festival and being bombarded with the scent of apple dumplings and roasted turkey legs while my ears buzz with pan flutes and tambourines, all as I’m touching velvety lamb’s ears and then hard, exotic handcrafted jewelry. But there is more. Yes, taste, we must include that. How about fresh corn crepes smothered in cream and then chocolate doused strawberries for dessert?
Oh, enough, enough! I’m ready for a festival, how about you? Yeah, I know. It’s still too cold. Until then, I’ll attempt to warm up our rich creamy layers of writing. Each post will focus on a different sense and I might even bring in that rowdy SIXTH SENSE to round everything up. Okay lords and ladies, let’s begin with scent, shall we?
What is that smell?
What springs to mind here are Sunday suppers, pork loin dotted with rosemary, the scent of raisins and stuffing and spice exploding each time the oven door opens.
Aroma’s, rather delightful or not, invoke memories.
If you have a keen sniffer, you might also be able to detect a storm before it arrives. The earth is different then, soil sighing and humidity yelling. Did you know moisture heightens our sense of smell? It does. And were you aware women have a keener sense of smell? They do. As we age, our sense of smell weakens, though. Middle age is peek smelling season. I vote we all stay middle aged. Oh, wait, too late for me.
Did you ever notice that houses have layers of odors? I remember an old farmhouse we lived in, which smelled of plants, laundry detergent, and an undercurrent of all previous owners combined. It’s as though scent embeds itself into walls and floors.
In developing characters and their environments, we can see how smell could be a vivid way to make a story breathe. If we are writing about a house full of men, scents will be different. I’m telling you,I know these things. I have brothers. The masculinity, shall we say, does shout smoke, spice and sweat.
On the other side of the road, where mostly females reside, you’ll find the staggering scents of cinnamon, lavender oil, powder, perfume and candles. Of course there will be fruity odors mixed in and funky, too, depending on whether they keep a clean house and if they cook.
So, if we want our characters to live and remember that they have lived, scent is one worthy tool. It is exactly why, when I smell baby powder, I can be yanked back to a morning, fifteen years ago, baby on my lap. She has just finished her oatmeal and given me an open-mouthed kiss on the cheek, leaving a smear. There is sticky oatmeal in my hair, too, left from chubby fingers grabbing to draw me close. I can still hear her coo at the birds, so early my eyes are barely slit open, but yet I’m chattering to her and overwhelmed with tenderness. Yes, baby powder can snap me back that fast.
Our world is one big, smelly memory.
This week I’m taking my basket of scent and sprinkling it throughout my work. How about you? What particular scent fires up your memory?