Category Archives: life

draft/other

indexThis summer, I’ll run a class at the Writers League of Texas’s Summer Writing Retreat, August. Here are some questions they asked me about the rough draft of a novel, my topic for the class.

-What is it about the rough draft that’s so difficult? It’s a longer process than a short story/poem/magazine piece. So you stay longer in not knowing. To know the story, you have to write it, messily, badly, imperfectly. Later you may perfect it, but to stay in the uncertainty a long time is trying for most. Including me.

-For you, what’s the most challenging part of the writing process? The most rewarding? The most challenging is the rough drafts, the only place I can begin to know characters and what they’re doing. My first rough draft is always so amazingly bad that it’s hard for me to see what I’ve accomplished, which is usually a plotting piece, what happens when or what should happen but isn’t there yet. Characters emerge (shakily, not fully formed) in the first draft, too. I love editing, when I have enough rough draft to shape, enough rough draft under me like a rock to hold me up as I really craft the story.

index-When is a novel “finished”? I’m tired of it and cannot do another thing to it. This is after several drafts and polishes. Just can’t. Put a fork in me, I’m done. But I also have a really good sense of story, the pace of it, the waves of it. So I know when I’ve got that wave up to the climax of the story and then the falling back to end.

-As a sneak peek into your upcoming class, what’s one invaluable tip for those working through a rough draft? Realize what a draft is and what you’re searching for in one.

-Are you currently “in the rough”? You better believe it, although I’m on a second draft. Bad enough to discourage me, but solid enough to give me wing space to fly into the story at times and “to know.” That’s when I know I have the story, a certain “knowing” of the characters. They no longer feel like cartoon strangers with balloon dialog above their mouths. They are real in some place in me that writes. I know the story will happen–not when it will happen to be finished–just that it will happen and be a story when I have the feeling of knowing the characters, which I am relieved to say has happened in this fifth book.

indexAnd more, writing life this week:

I saw a vivid image of the word “stricken” at a funeral this weekend. It was the pale face of a 14-year-old whose father had died. The expression on his face transfixed me, and I’ve thought about it on and off all week. Yesterday, the word “stricken” floated up, and I knew that’s what I’d seen……

Carpenter bees are in a tizzy at the garage, whose cedar lures them every year to drill nest holes. They hover a dozen at a time, like clumsy landing craft, near the holes. It takes them a long time to find their particular hole, a perfect circle on the outside. They drone. They’re large. This only happens for a few months, and I love it. It helps comfort me as I think about the stricken boy I saw.

full

IMG_0422I am seeped in history to the bone. Today I took myself on a walking tour of Maastricht using an old guide book someone had
IMG_0566recommended. I was just swept away by narrow alleys and bits of old wall and relics in churches.  Historian Dirk Jansen has shared all his theories and research about d’Artagnan. He’s taken me to city archives to look at old maps. We took a train to Paris and went to the war museum and looked at a special exhibit on the musketeers and talked with a French historian and curator IMG_0706he knows. Yesterday, I thought to have a quiet day and ended up seeing the American WWII soldiers’ cemetery maintained by the Dutch, then heard Bach’s Matthew’s Passion, then went to Dirk’s friend’s house and wonderful garden outside of town and ate her homemade soup.

My cup runneth over.

IMG_0422

april

cropballSitting in the backyard swing under the big, old camphor tree and words came:

A glass of wine—

fat carpenter bees —

wind swirling green-tipped trees—

April heaven in the garden bower…….

Normally I play to turn it into a haiki, but I was too April lazy. It had been awhile since I’d had an impulse of words. I need to leave more time for daydreaming.

Research news: I leave for The Netherlands soon. I meet with a historian in Maastricht to talk about Louis XIV and his war on the Dutch. And we’re going to Paris for the day on the bullet train to see the war museum and an exhibit on the musketeers. And I’ll meet a historian friend of his there who specializes in the musketeers.

Lucky me. One for all and all for one………cropball

sister

10003703_618027664950695_1664031771_o

I think I’ll plant daffodils around their headstone. I was in Arkansas this weekend at the small country cemetery where my mother and father’s ashes will one day be buried. Dad was born around here; a sister of mine lived down the road. Daffodils were blooming everywhere, covering yards in thick clusters, and that sister, now gone, was much on my mind. We all planted dozens of bulbs in her yard for her during her last autumn, a few months before she left us forever. Days before she was taken to the hospital—a place from which we all knew she would not return alive—I walked with my daughter to look at the green daffodil stalks in my sister’s yard. They represented love for her. In those months before her dying, we would have done anything for her, bought her anything she wanted, taken her anywhere she wanted to go. There were parts of her that were the best of us.

daffcrop

My daughter was in her 20s; my sister’s daughters were 11 and 5. I remember realizing that she would never do this simple thing I was doing—walking with a grown daughter. The pain around that was sharp like a honed blade and achy dull at the same time.

daffcrop

She didn’t live to see her daffodils or her daughters bloom. When I see those flowers in this place near where she had her home and family, she lives again in me; her final, bittersweet leaving is daffodil fragrant inside.  Mom and Dad will like having them nodding their yellow heads around their grave, I think. I think my sister will like it, too.

daffcrop

mystery

indexIt becomes a day I treasure. My grandchildren are at my house. The weather is wonderful, mild, caressing, sunny, so beautiful it makes me a little crazy. My grandson, 4, is focused on the above-ground fish tank my husband has build. My grandson claims to be cleaning out the tank (a horse trough), but he’s really using the aquariam net to attempt to catch fish. Luckily, they’re too fast. His skullduggery amuses me, but the day is so beautiful, I am so glad to be outside and with these humans in the making, that anything would amuse me.

His sister has a small plastic Minnie Mouse. His sister is 2. Her vocabulary is, like her, small: stop, eat, open, again, Minnie, for Minnie Mouse,  her idol. She loves the fish tank too. It’s suggested by her brother that she drop Minnie into the water, and he will rescue her with the net. Well, the tank is too deep, and he can’t do it. So I do. Wonderful. Hurray. How fun. Minnie is dropped again. Again, a rescue is attempted, and I am called in. I think I have her. But I don’t. This happens twice. Now I reach my arm in (the tank goes almost to my shoulder). No Minnie.

Where can Minnie be? The question of a fish eating her is raised (not by me). My granddaughter considers this, but to her credit doesn’t break under the burden of that possibility. We swirl, we net, my arm goes in again and again. Where can she be? we all ask over and over. I get a big flashlight and shine it in the tank. There are cement blocks stacked to hold plants, and they have holes. I search the holes as best I can. No Minnie.

waterlilyWhen it’s time to go home, my granddaughter is willing to leave without Minnie and without tears. I tell my grandchildren—my grandson has taken charge about the disappearance and is pretty official about it—that my husband will find her for certain. There is a conference, quite serious, quite long, at the car as everyone is strapped in. Assurances are made. I promise I will call on the phone when she’s found.

She has to be there. Yet the mystery of it all…..

waterlilyAll afternoon, I laugh to myself. (I find out later that my grandson tells his father in no uncertain terms that another Minnie will have to be bought if she isn’t located, and that my granddaughter invents a game in which she goes all over the house asking, Where’s Minnie?*)

*She was pushed far back in one of those bricks’ holes.

i keep saying good-bye

IMG_0277_2I’m straightening Mom’s room at the place which cares for her. She’s in year 10 of Alzheimer’s, healthy but unable to do a single thing for herself or communicate clearly. I’ve made her room pretty, but more and more I take things away and store them: the costume jewelry someone gave her to play with, the received cards she so loved to tear to pieces and then rearrange, clothes which are too difficult to put on her. If I bring a plant, she doesn’t notice it. I gaze at the things I’ve selected to comfort and define her. Without her zest and vitality, their definition is less and less clear. cameilla

merrychristmas

cropballChristmas is the time when we scurry home……actually or in memory.

And what is home? It’s where we come from, what we embrace or flee, what has shaped us. It can be safe, or it can be dysfunctional, but at Christmas, we’re drawn back. Why?

Is it yearning? Is it idealism? Is it instinctive, the way swallows return to Capistrano? Do we search for childhood innocence, for sweetness, for wonder? Do we find it?

I am growing to believe that what we find depends on what we’ve developed inside. It’s as deep as we are, as broad or as narrow, as hurt or as healed. Once upon a time, the tree with its bright, blinking lights was enough to soothe us. Promise was enough.

This season resurrects our lost child, and it seeks what was, but just as likely wasn’t. It seeks solace. It seeks affirmation. It seeks to be soothed. We want so to believe that promises do come true, that we are o.k., that we are worthy enough to receive love’s bright light.

May all your Christmases be white.

cropball

singing bird

Keep a green tree in your heart and a singing bird will come….Chinese proverb.

I’ve been nursing myself through Christmas for years, missing the breakup of my family, dealing with a fractured holiday where kids have to split in two to see all the parents, missing the young family I had, the young me so busy and so organized.  This year, I realized my work…..on defining what I and no one else but I….want for Christmas has paid off. The heartbreak seems to have been sealed off, like a leak in an old boat. The vessel may be creaky, but she can sail. I’m enjoying myself. Small things delight me:

Buying the three living green wreaths that unleash my decorating and never decorating them the same but just letting creativity flow…..

Noticing the beauty of the Christmas cactus blooms when they finally open; the closed blooms themselves are so satiny beautiful and then when they open….wow…

Letting myself be fully present at whatever small or large Christmas do I’m at, and it doesn’t matter if the only pair of wool slacks I have are too tight at the waist; I’ll diet in the New Year….

Punting around the kids’ schedules but having something Christmas Eve day with them….

Singing my heart out at the Unity Christmas Eve service, all by myself if need be…..

Going with Youngest Grandson (2) on admiring Christmas lights walks. “Light,” he says as he carefully navigates himself near the lighted object. “One finger,” he says, as he’s been taught, as he carefully touches a single light of each object. His masked, furtive delight that he’s talked me into allowing  him to walk down the sidewalk with me rather than placing him in the stroller could not be more obvious or more joyful to me. I get one more grandchild to do this with….

Buying reindeer antlers and a red nose for the car, laughing at how silly I must look because the cars I see with them on look silly….but happy, too….what if we all put such on our cars for this time of year…..wouldn’t that be a hoot?

So….a green tree did grow in my heart again around this season, and ten years ago I would never have believed it. I can’t be the younger woman with the world I once had, but I can enjoy the season again. Merry Christmas, ya’ll………

splendor

Flipping around, looking for something to wile away time, I came across Splendor in the Grass, about young love. I cried at the end, as I always do. Why? Because Deanie, the heroine, tries so hard to be a good girl. And when being a good girl loses her the boy she loves so deeply, then she tries to be sensual. But her being a good girl is important to him, too, because he loves her. She breaks into pieces and when she is back together again, he has moved on. And so has she, driving away from the ranch where she has just met his wife and seen the child that might have been hers. She isn’t pathetic. She is lovely inside and out and moving forward with her own life. But what might have been is there in the car with her and with the viewer.

It made me think again of becoming a woman and of sex and how a girl-woman goes forth to meet that part of her destiny. Before birth control, the complications were huge. But after birth control, I think it’s all still complicated. I know a girl-woman who is so in love with her someone, who loves her back. Will her being able to explore sexuality more safely guarantee happiness? It’s so complex, this journey into a sensual self. Society doesn’t make it simple; religion often makes it sinful; conventionality tries to make  it invisible and nondisturbing.

Maybe it shouldn’t be simple. I don’t know. I just know from my own experience that the journey can be so difficult. That journey is often what I explore in my novels.  These are the lines from Wordsword at the center of the story:

What through the radiance

which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

Through nothing can bring back the hour

of splendour in the grass, 

of glory in the flower,

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind……

What do you think?

return to

I have old faithfuls, books I return to, books I read the way a baby sucks a pacifier. One of my pacifiers is almost any regency by Georgette Heyer. I have paperbacks of hers so old that the pages have to be rubber-banded in a heap. I love her plucky heroines, the sometimes truly witty banter between characters, the very sweet romances. There is a lot of subtle humor in character interactions, which amuses me even more each time I read it. I also reread John le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl about once a year. I love the heroine he’s created in this book, the way he describes and builds character, and the truly gripping plot. He is a master of plotting and character. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird pretty often; the underlying tenderness of the story takes me, though I find the African American characters a bit stereotyped, but what do I know. Maybe for 1930s Southern America, they are not stereotyped at all. It’s just that they’re shaded all one tone, and the others aren’t. I love Winston Graham’s Poldark Saga, the first six books. He’s a fine, fine historical novelist, and Ross Poldark has my heart, as does Demelza. I adore Dr. Naomi Ramen‘s Kitchen Table Wisdom. Again, the scope of heart in her collections of stories about people gravely ill and those who serve them is huge. It’s a wise book, too, nuggets about leading a deeper life scattered like bread crumbs. I love Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, though having read it so many times, I now see plot flaws, but I just never mind them because I like the character of Dona and her story so much, and the marvelous dreamy quality of du Maurier’s prose. Anything I like ( I’m almost always reading), I now put up on my shelf in Goodreads. But the ones listed here are my tried and true go-back- tos for a needed mental rest. My husband doesn’t understand it, and I can’t explain it, except that they never fail to comfort me, I never fail to not like them, I never fail to be amused again or touched again…..and that’s special…….

It occurs to me that I learn a little more about writing each time I read these favorites; I learn on a level I’m not aware of…..

Do you reread? What? And why? Or why not?