When Life Gives You Prompts: The Address Book

My Christmas card list is alphabetical; it corresponds to my address book, an aging resource, much-amended, and long pre-dating an electronic ability to archive contacts. I start at the ‘A’ section, and I address an envelope to my friend MJ, whose married name is ‘Ackroyd.’ Her address has been the same for the last 35-plus years.

But MJ is in the minority. As I wrote out my cards this December, I marveled at the changes my address book demonstrated. For example: my former student, Jannie, has had six address changes since she’d graduated from college and got her first apartment, away from her parents’ home. After some bumps and unexpected jogs, she married her sweetheart, Cal. They bought their first home together after a year of apartment life.

They added a miracle baby to their family—a miracle because they were told they never would conceive. This year, their little family moved to a house closer to Cal’s work.

I think of all that those various moves represent. There was a heartbroken year when Cal decided that he needed to spread his wings and soar in a completely different direction. There was a new relationship for Jannie, and Cal’s startled realization that she might not be there when his soaring time was over.

There was Jannie’s struggle with anorexia, and her eventual (and on-going) triumph.

There was the reconciliation and the wedding. Three years later, there was little Grayson’s birth.

And every time Jannie moved, I carefully cut the new address label off the letter she’d sent me and pasted it over her last address. Now, in the “Jannie” space in my address book, there is a little lump. And in that little lump, there are stories. Although those stories have their sad components, Jannie’s story, overall, is one of triumph.

But the address book tells tragic stories, too. I have to cross names off this year: bold Kim, who outwitted cancer for seven years beyond the time her doctors estimated. Sweet Patty, whose cancer returned after a thirty-year wait, swift and vicious. Vivacious Rosemary, who could captivate a room with her funny stories—stories always told at her own expense, never at another’s.  Cancer has been especially cruel this year.

My address book tells stories of separation and re-connection. It chronicles moves and marriages, births and divorces, leaps in employment, exciting travels, and heart-wrenching losses.

An old friend who is a freelance writer said something once that stuck with me. “If you have ten people in a room,” she said, “you’ve got at least thirty stories to tell.” As I write out my Christmas cards, I wonder how many stories are represented by the names and changes in my address book.

There are stories of meetings; there are stories of escapades. There are stories of partings, of moves and postings, of reunions and returns. There are stories of welcome, as new friends and family, new babies and significant others, enter own our and others’ lives.

There are end tales, too.

When I’m stuck, when I’m in need of a prompt to stir my writing juices, maybe I could just pick up my address book. I could select a name deliberately. I could flip to a page at random. I could pick a name and pick a story to tell. It might be “How We Met.” It might be “After the Wedding.” It might be, “Patsy Moves to a Foreign Country.” It might even be, “Why I’ll Never Write to Curtis Again.”

I might tell the truth. I might weave a tale, inspired by the real-life events my address book suggests. Whatever the Muse whispers, I am pretty sure my address book has the abundance I need to crash my writer’s block.


Not everyone, I realize, still has an old school, pen-and-paper, address book. Many of us archive our contacts in a phone…but those archives, too, have their stories to tell.


Following this thread, I wound up writing a short story about a woman of a certain age who couldn’t avoid the task of sending holiday cards. Here’s the link to that post:

https://pamkirstblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/a-little-matter-of-christmas-cards/


What prompts has life presented to you? Please share your posts with us! Happy blogging, my friends.

#creativewriting

#monthly

 

You’re Gonna Love This Book: Writing a Book Review

A friend of mine gave me a book to read.

“You,” she said, “are going to love this book. It was funny! It was sad! And I loved all the characters.”

She told me the premise, and she outlined the plot. She couldn’t wait for me to read it so we could talk.

It seems to me a kind of sacred trust when someone places a book in my hands, so I cleared the decks, and then I read that book.

And I really, really did not like it.

I collected some things to say about that book–striking quotes and quirky things about the characters, and when I returned the book, we had a great conversation. And I realized that some of the things that happened in the book parallel things that are happening in my friend’s life.

It makes sense; I get it. That’s why the spoke spoke to her so strongly—and maybe why it passed me by completely.

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All of this made me think about how we can write about books.

There’s a place, I think, for the academic approach–for a discussion of plot, character, theme, and setting. And there’s the challenge of defining style, the way a wordsmith tosses words out on to the page, distinctively, a different sort of tossing than any other writer can attain. There’s the quest to identify symbols and meaning.

All of those are English teacher-y joys, book-geek occupations. Not everyone loves those discussions, and even if they do, the discussions don’t mean the person who reads them will also enjoy the book.

And it’s such a personal thing: we loved a book, it made a difference in our lives. We want our friends and dear ones to love it too.

So I’m thinking we need to write about the things in the book that connected….and write about the things going on in our lives that the book connects to.

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I retired in August. Not long after, a new friend from the blogosphere recommended a book by Dorothy Gillman, a mystery writer. The book was called A New Kind of Country, and it was Gillman’s memoir about moving to Nova Scotia when she was just about my age, and when her youngest son stepped out into adult independence. I dug up a copy of the book, which was written in 1978, and I read it.

It resonated because of the similarities between my stage of life right now and Gillman’s when she wrote it.

It fascinated because of the differences.

And it made me think there are some universal themes about this age and stage–nests that empty, parents who are aging, defining ourselves when the formal, official work life is over. Relationships and physical changes. How we decide what it is, in these latter years, what we call home.

So Gillman’s book enthralled me, and I started a quest to find other books by women of a certain age, and to see if the universal themes ring through their work.

Those books call to me because I speak the language, walk the same walk.

What books, right now, call to you?

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My son, a young adult with autism, loves the work of Stephen King. He enjoys the thrill of the horribly fantastic. He resonates, too, I think, with a recurring theme of ‘outsiderhood’ in King’s work.

My mother-in-law, widowed two years ago, devours romance novels. The love stories there fill a kind of void in her own life; she replaces her missing hero with a fictional one, and she is drawn in and delighted.

I would not enjoy most of Stephen King’s fiction (although I loved his nonfiction book, On Writing.) I don’t care too much for most romance novels. I do, though, love murder mysteries–me, the biggest pacifist you’ll ever meet. If I were to write about those mysteries, I’d need, I think, to explore why they speak to me so. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of seeing villainous skunks unmasked and brought to justice. Maybe there are other things in those stories that meld with the nerve endings in my mind.

Whatever it is, I could recommend Louise Penny or Anne Cleeves work to you, and you might like her work. Or, you might not.

They say you can’t step in the same river twice. Along those same lines, I don’t think two people ever read the same book.

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So in writing about books, I think we also have to write about ourselves. We need to talk about the characters, sure, and the reader needs to know at least a fundamental plot outline. It’s good to say when and where the book takes place, and what we like about the book.

But then we need to explore the why, I think–answer the question of why this book speaks to me right now. Unspool that, and share it, and the person who reads your review may say, “Oh, my gosh; that sounds just like me,” or, “I know someone going through exactly the same thing,” or, “I have no idea what that’s about and no desire to learn.”

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The reading of a book is a dynamic thing, a shared kind of creation. The writer organizes and puts down thoughts, brings his or her own gifts and knowledge, imagination or research, and presents that composite in a unique and certain way. The reader brings his or her own lived experiences, beliefs, and interests to the work. They sieve the writer’s words through a fine-grained filter as individual as a snowflake.

The experience of reading is different for every single person, and it’s even different for that person, every single time they read the same work.

And when we write about books, I think, our challenge is to define that difference. What does the work say to me, right here and right now? The writer’s words, my filter: what experience do we create together?

If we can capture that in our reviews, we can, maybe, show our readers one of the infinitesimal facets that can be polished by reading that particular work.

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What do you want to know when you read a review? What do you want to share when you write one?

Happy blogging, my friends.

Weather-Wise Writing

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.
                    —Marcel Proust

A bead of sweat trickles into my eye. I suddenly am keenly aware of my navy blue t-shirt, as hot against my back as if I’d just ironed it. I realize my ankle, stretched out to accommodate my sloping posture on the brick front steps (I am bent low to paint the roughened, rusty spots on the bottom of the metal front door), is turning roasty red. A neighbor walks by and waves his baseball hat. His gray hair is matted to his sweat-sheened forehead.

“Hot enough for you?” he asks, and walks on, not waiting for the obvious answer.

It is 11 a.m. on a late September Saturday in Ohio. Mark is out back, on the ladder, putting a second coat of ‘Serious Gray’ on the high-points of the garage. I am touching up trim out front. We had the house painted in late summer, but committed to doing the finishing touches ourselves.

Who knew that waiting until autumn began would meaning working outside on the hottest days of the year?

It is NOT, learned sources tell me, ‘Indian summer.’ Indian summer only occurs when bright, hot, sunny days come after the first chilling frost. We’ve had a mild, breezy summer; some lovely sleeping nights have had temps plunge into the forties. But nothing cold enough to put frost on the pumpkins.

No, it’s just hot and sunny and entirely summer-like.

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I am not complaining. I am aware that many people would love to have this kind of weather, right now, right where they are. There are horrendous storms and their aftermaths. There are forest fires. There are early blizzards and torrential rains, and there is mud sliding down hills, sluicing toward people’s homes. This day–90 degrees, bright sun, with just a little breeze to cool the flush–is a blessing, nothing less.

I think about my niece in Florida, who rode out the hurricane in her home, with her family,–about their lucky, lucky emergence with no harm to house or people. They had, then, over a week with no power, and the challenge of keeping cool—and keeping food–in the tropical heat of their near-Miami home.

I think of another niece in South Carolina, who experienced the storm surge a day after the hurricane hit Florida. Their streets were flooded; their schools were closed; their power was intermittent. People wrote to ask if she was worried about alligators coming up in all that surging water. No, she replied, the big worry is water-bound snakes.

Climate is what we expect, Mark Twain once wrote. Weather is what we get.

I am thinking we ought to think about writing about the weather, too.

***********

Oh, I don’t mean we need to get all meteorological, with barometric readings and wind directions, highs and lows, and weekly predictions. But as we reach out over the blogosphere, connecting with each other, we might want to mention what the weather is like out our way.

It could be hot, humid, and oppressing–the kind of weather that keeps one in the cool indoors, craving shade and iced water and perhaps an afternoon nap. It might be utterly pleasant–mild temps, soft breeze: weather to write outside in. There could be a storm raging, gale-force winds bending trees to sweep the pavement. Rains might pour. Snow might inch up toward the windows.

Whatever the weather, it affects our written voice, our energy, our mood. That’s worth mentioning.

And thinking about it anchors us, brings us those moments of awareness and mindfulness–the moments from which clarity blossoms. From my cramped front porch perch, I see the sun baking the leathery leaves in my neighbor’s front yard, and I try to put the image into words. Across the street, Oscar the dog lies panting in the shade of Anne’s maple tree. And acorns are arhythmically falling—thocka, thocka, thocka, all around me–hitting shingles and rolling down roofs, bouncing off the metallic hoods of cars. Sun: hot and high and baking. Sky: bright blue.

A moment ago, I had been so intent on my work I hadn’t noticed the weather. Now I am in it. I am HERE.

*************

And sharing it broadens us. “It could be worse,” my son will often say, quoting a favorite scene from Young Frankenstein. “It could be raining.” And somewhere–maybe YOUR where–it IS raining, softly in places and driving down in others. Winds are blowing, too. And in some places, my 90-degree ‘hot’ would be a welcome respite from aching, baking, heat.

I need to crawl out of my local perspective. I need to think about the air that people I care about are breathing, across the world, out on the coast, or a mere 200 miles away.

And maybe, to get the whole picture, we need to push away from the news sources that blare and bash, and write to each other. Is this weather, this storm, this weirdly hot autumn, is it different? Is it a new and frightening trend? What is going on in our world?

History, someone once said, is best understood one story at a time. And maybe present is best understood that way, too, and one way of sharing ‘present’ is to weave in a description of the air that floats around us. Every story, carefully told, broadens my horizon, makes me see a deeper, fuller picture. And each bit of knowledge, thus gained, helps me craft a plain for the future.

So I ask you, my friends, is it hot enough for you? And here in the blogosphere, we are not walking away. We are here to listen when you have time to answer.

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#skywatch, #suggestion

Who Are the People in YOUR Neighborhood?

Sesame Street asked us that question: Who are the people in your neighborhood, the people that you see each day? When inspiration dries up and the muse refuses to answer your desperate knocks, maybe you could answer that. Maybe you could write about the character-strands that weave together the everyday tapestry of your life.

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Who DO you see every day? Is it family, people who, related by blood or tied in some other way, share your home? Is it a person who lives next door, down the street, through the yards to the back?

Or is it someone that you work with, our work-lives, in 2017, creating that tapestry of friendship and proximity more than our home addresses?

Does academia fill your daily radar screen? Is there a shop you hit so often the clerk has become a friend?

Describing those who populate our lives can be a way of revealing, by extension, who we are and how we live.

**********

The special things about our everyday people show the way we operate in that everyday situation. If, every time you venture out into the brick patio  of your backyard, a neighbor slips over to say hello, that tells something about your neighborhood. Does the person come with glad tidings? Does he always share ominous news? Is she intent on nudging you to mow your lawn, move the old car, cut the stubbly bushes? Or–are they friendly people who enjoy your company and care about the way your day played out?

At work, does your boss pop in frantically every time HIS boss emails him a new charge? Or are you part of a team that works together in well-oiled fashion, everyone embracing the challenge, moving forward to get ‘er done? Do you have a customer or client who calls you darned near every day, someone you try so hard to serve with all your patience and compassion–and sometimes, during frantic, busy days, falling short of that goal? Whose footsteps coming down the hallway make you smile? Whose tread makes you wish your workplace had a secret exit?

Do you have a third place, someplace that is not home, and not work, but where you feel comfortable and visit often? Who else is there? Is there a thin man in the corner, intense and twitchy, pecking away at a battered laptop? Does the waiter, a young woman with dreads and fearsome tattoos, always smile broadly when she sees you come in? Does the manager make it a point to say hi?

Who ARE the people in your neighborhood–whether that neighborhood is the geographic area around your home, a place of work, a coffee shop, or a virtual environment you love to inhabit? Exploring the answers might just be your next great essay.

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Trying to follow my own advice, here’s my blog post for this week: https://pamkirstblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/just-another-neighborly-day-in-the-beauty-hood/

 

Happy blogging, my neighbors in the WordPress Neighborhood!

Pam

#creativewriting

#monthly

A Tasty Bit of Writing

There’s a scene I love in an old book I love, Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Hillary, the  humble, clumsy old priest, has returned, on a cold, gray day, to his cold, gray home. And there he finds a cold, gray dinner, left for him by his housekeeper, who has the night off.

Hilary’s spirits plummet even further when he sees the plate with its gray, sodden potatoes. There are greasy chunks of sausage, much the same color. The meat and potatoes are held together by thick, damp pie crust.  Hillary, whose arthritis aches in the cold, takes the unappealing meal into his study, where he lights a fire and waits to warm up and prays for the spirit to eat the food and be thankful for it.

And then Jim Maloney pounds at the door. Jim is the very man Hillary’s been out looking for–a gallant little Irishman whose talent extends from acting to engineering to being a dab hand with food. Hillary ushers Jim into his study, where the visitor takes in the situation at a glance. He asks the priest’s permission to take that plate into the kitchen. Hillary, of course, says yes.

And Jim searches cupboards and chops  and heats and improvises, and then he comes out with a meal transformed. He has minced and fried and made the ugly meal into a kind of farmer’s breakfast, an omelet deluxe, with a steaming mug of tea and buttered toast on the side. It smells wonderful, and Hillary’s pains are, now, not so bad. As he tucks into the appetizing dinner, Hillary feels that there IS hope, that things CAN change, and then he is able to help Jim, who is badly in need of spiritual mending.

Goudge could have just told us Hillary was discouraged, deeply and heartily discouraged, and that he suddenly began to recover his native optimism and joy. Instead she revealed the plunge into the depths and the breaking through into the light by writing about Hillary’s meal.


One of my favorite professors once told our British lit class that United States writers don’t write food very well. And writing food well was important, he maintained. A passage with food written well takes the reader there in ways that description of other sorts just can’t do.  I began, after that, to notice food in my reading.

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith shows us how Francie and Neeley Nolan’s mother makes dinner special at the end of the week:

Saturday supper was a red-letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot catsup. These meatballs had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

Such a humble meal to be so anticipated! Smith wraps a whole world of revelation into that little passage. She shows us that the Nolans are poor, and that the little pleasures are terribly important. She shows us that the mama is tough and resourceful. Taking the things on hand and morphing them into something special. Giving that Saturday night treat a funny, outlandish name to make the eating even more pleasing. Smith reveals that Francie and Neeley are loyal and grateful, hungry children thoroughly satisfied with their treat.

Madeleine L’Engle is a master at writing food. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mother simmers stews on the Bunsen burner and brings her family together around the old, scarred table, warmed by steaming portions, steeped in the smells of rich gravy and tender vegetables, safe in their homely kitchen–unaware of the dangers outside. When she ventures into those dangers–travels through time and space to rescue her father,–the enemy feeds Meg food that, while it offers a brief illusion of lovely smells and nutritious goodness, is as flat and tasteless as sand.

We know the falseness of Meg’s enemy through the food that he feeds her; we know the love of her family through the meals that they share.

In one of Anne Tyler’s books, she writes about a cautious widower who makes a pot of chili on Sunday, and measures and freezes six tupper-wared portions–dinners to last him through each night of the week. Think of what we know about that careful man from what his meticulous, repetitive meal planning.

(I think my professor, yea, those many years ago, may have been right…then. But since then, the United States has gone from being a nation that embraces Spam to being a nation that embraces flavor and freshness and diversity. That growth, I think, shows in the writing of modern US writers.)


Writing food can help us, as wordsmiths, to show our readers what we need them to see.

Think: the passing of a juicy peach between lovers.

Think: the gluttony of a lonely woman healing her hurts with Twinkies and Hohos.

Think: the unsated hungers of a lonely child denied enough food, and savory food, to eat.

Humble, everyday meals tell one story. Lavish banquets tell another. A breakfast shared by newlyweds lets us see an intimate, budding tale.

Traditional family foods tell a lot about the family that eats them. What a person eats by herself with no one to share the meal tells us a lot about that person.

And the food itself gives writers abundant opportunities to set the scene. The scents of food–oh, a good writer makes those scents lift off the page and tickle our nostrils. There are textures and tastes to explore and explain, and there’s the way the food looks on the plate. There’s the plate itself. There’s the place the food is eaten, and the company it’s eaten in–huddled together over the fire, digging potatoes out of hot coals with a stick, passing them back and forth and then eating them–who could resist?–steaming, tongue-burning, hot. Or sitting stiffly on uncomfortable chairs at a long banquet table where thin people, who complain of sporting an extra pound or two, place tiny spoonsful of food on their plates, then push it, listlessly, around with their forks.


Show, don’t tell, the wise ones warn us. And weaving food into our writing–letting the meal or the snack or the sip of wine open the curtain and reveal the truth–is one great way to do that.Can the food you write show your world to hungry readers?

Happy blogging, friends!

#monthly

#creativewriting

The Revel is in the Details

Write a descriptive essay about the place you do your school work, I would tell my students. They would sigh, and they would labor, and they would hand in papers.

Jared’s essay might look like this:

My desk is four feet long and two feet wide. It is made of wood with metal legs. On top of it is my laptop, and a cup full of pens and pencils. I have a chair that is padded and has wheels.

A vague and sterile picture forms in my mind. So I go back to the writer.

Where is your working space, I ask him. Is it in your room?

No! Jared says, shocked–as if I should know exactly where he works. It’s in a corner of the family room.

Wow, I say. That’s open. Is it noisy?

Oh YEAH, he says. My sister always has the TV on, and she’s talking on the phone at the same time. And my mother comes through and yells at her every fifteen minutes because she hasn’t done her homework.

Now I’m starting to see the edges of this space more clearly. Does it have a window? I ask.

NO, he says; it’s in a corner with no windows, and it’s dark. I only have one of those cheap little lamps from Dollar General, the short kind that shines on your hands and only takes a 40 watt bulb. I have to slide my books under there to read them.

Is it cramped? I ask, the picture getting more and more clear.

Oh my gosh, says Jared. I have to climb over my dad’s lounge chair, practically, to get into my chair. Which is on wheels, but it doesn’t matter, because once I’m in the chair I can’t really move. So usually, what I do is, I wait until everyone goes to bed, and that’s when I do my best work. At midnight, when my sister shuts up, finally, and the house is quiet.

NOW I get it; there’s a clear picture of Jared’s working space. (Poor Jared! I think.)

Write down, I tell him, those things you just told me about the corner and the noise and the cramped space and the light.

He shrugs, like I’m a little but wacky, but he does it. And he writes a clear, rich description. We ditch the details about the size and components of the desk, and what is left creates a vivid picture of a very particular space.


It’s not the number of details; it is the importance of them that we have to consider.


If I’m writing about what the kitchen’s like when I’m baking for Thanksgiving, I want to give an impression of the holiday bustle and feeling. I might talk about the flour drifting off the counter, the marble rolling pin (it was my mama’s) lolling next to the ceramic pie pan, which is waiting for the bottom shell to be rolled out and crimped. I’ll talk about smells–the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the rich roasting smell of pumpkin pie filling. The turkey’s thawing in my big roaster, and the Ohio State game is blaring from the family room. My husband slips in every twenty minutes or so–he is notorious for (yuck!) eating raw pie crust. The holiday baking kitchen is cluttered and warm and fragrant. I don’t have to mention the brand of my oven or the materials my counter-tops are made of to create that feeling in my reader’s mind.

If I’m writing to impress though–well, to start, I’d be writing about someone else’s kitchen. If I wanted to show a kitchen that was high end, I’d talk about marble counter-tops and stainless appliances and travertine tile. I’d mention that the stove-top had eight burners, that the wall-mounted ovens were double, that one could fit eight diners around the marble-topped island. I’d be creating a picture of an entirely different kitchen (and trust me, that IS entirely different from mine). And I’d be writing it with a completely different purpose in mind.

Writing descriptively means picking just the right details. It means closing our eyes and saying, When I think of graduation day, what do I hear? The roar of a crowd, the murmur of a mother, the pounding beat of “Pomp and Circumstance”? Whose face do I see? What do I feel–the scratch of the polyester, the heat of the sun baking the back of my neck?

Often just an image or a scent or a mention of the kind of framed art that hangs on the wall can evoke the picture we want to create. ‘Black leather swivel chair’ suggests one kind of office. ‘Cheap fake panelling’ gives us another office setting entirely.

We should revel in the details, but we don’t have to use too many. We just have to–and sometimes this is the hard part–use the ones that count.

Happy blogging, my friends!

#monthly
#creative writing