to teach and not preach
put away the lesson plans
just tell a story
I was once an Australian aborigine.
I was lying on a couch with my arm outstretched to my side, being asked yes and no questions by a past-life regression therapist.
I was found by white missionaries, clinging to the breast of my dead mother, a victim of one of the worst droughts Australia had ever known, caused, no doubt, by the white man’s incessant clearing to make room for farms and roads and cities.
I was trying to keep my arm steady, but I could only do so when the answer was yes.
I was the last of my small tribe, the only one who didn’t die in the drought, the only one who could start the tribe again, even though I had been too young to learn any of our stories.
I was asked “Europe?” and my arm plummeted to my side, but when asked “Australia?” it held steady and firm — even though I didn’t want it to be Australia, I was pulling for France or China, don’t ask me why.
I was raised by the white missionaries to be a good native servant, but in the darkness of the nights other “native servants” whispered my true destiny in my ears.
I was asked if I was a female and my arm went down, nope I’m a boy.
I was told by other aborigines that I must marry as soon as I became a man and sow my seed into as many young women as possible, so my tribe could live again. But I was dead of “fever” in 1912, at the age of 15, too young to marry, too young even to fornicate, and anyway the missionaries had warned me about fornication and how it would rot my body and my soul.
I was stunned, and yes somewhat frightened, when I researched Aborigine history on the internet and found that there was indeed a huge drought in Australia in the late 1890s, and many aborigine tribes were wiped out, a fact I had not known before, since I knew nothing about Australian history.
I was the last of my tribe, and when I died, we were gone.
Recently I was interviewed on “Memoir Minute” (www.womensmemoirs.com) about how to writer kick-butt opening sentences and paragraphs, so your readers will be drawn into your stories. (You can listen to the interview here on my website www.primary-sources.com/PressKit.html.)
I shared my three rules of opening scenes, which are:
First rule: Provide sensory details as soon as possible, so the reader feels as though they are “there.” What does the character, or the setting, look like? Colors, shapes, designs? What sounds are there? Loud voices, whistles, screams, bells, whispers? What smells? Strong like gasoline, sweet like lilacs, dirty wet dog? What tactile sensations? Soft wind on your skin? The rough scrape of a poorly shaved chin?
Second rule: The first scene should either encapsulate or foreshadow the theme of the entire piece. For instance: in a book I ghostwrote about a man’s personal philosophy of life, the first scene is two elderly men arguing in a graveyard.
Third rule: Know who is reading what you are writing! Remember – your writing is really not about you. It’s about your readers. Have a conversation with your reader. Show them what they want to see, don’t tell them what you want them to know. Otherwise they’ll stop reading right after the first paragraph.
Peas and carrots! To this day, the thought of peas and carrots served together makes my gorge rise and my blood pressure soar. Peas and carrots were an early battleground in the long war between my mother’s taste and my own.
To my mother, raised poor during the Depression, being able to buy already canned vegetables was a mark of luxury. She could open a can, pour the contents into a pan and just heat it on the stove. What a miracle! No picking, washing, shelling, peeling, chopping, boiling, bottling or capping. No sweating in a hot kitchen on a summer afternoon. Just poof and abracadabra, your children are served a nourishing vegetable in a mere five minutes.
In 1959 no one cared about any sodium or preservatives packed into those cans. No one cared, either, how awful they tasted. At least my mother didn’t seem to care, because no matter how much my brother and I complained, canned vegetables appeared on the dinner table every night. Canned green beans that tasted like soft tin, canned creamed corn that tasted like gritty mush, canned beets that stained your teeth, canned spinach with a dark metallic taste and the texture of slug slime, and my least favorite of all, the dreaded canned peas and carrots medley.
The mushy, pillowy peas were bad enough, but the carrots – no words can describe their awful texture and worse taste. Even their shape was nauseating – tiny uniform cubes that could never have come from a real carrot.
I hid peas and carrots underneath my mashed potatoes; I swept them surreptitiously into my napkin; I fed them to the dog (which never worked because as soon as they hit his mouth he spit them out on the floor – he was no dummy); I transferred them to my brother’s plate and threatened him with evil looks that promised torture if he complained; and finally, when she just would not stop serving those cubes and pillows of hell, I graduated to outright rebellion. I simply refused to eat them, no matter what. I made a principle out of canned peas and carrots, a principle I defended with 10 year old fervor.
I even wrote a story about a girl who died rather than betray her right to her own individual taste. It was an affecting story, heavy on funeral details. The poor child lay nestled in a small pink coffin, surrounded by pink rosebuds. Beside the coffin sat her mother, weeping over her dead child, so sorry now that she had ruined her daughter’s short life by making her eat canned peas and carrots.
It’s dangerous to talk to a writer. All my friends and family now know this. You never can tell when something you say off-the-cuff, some insignificant little remark, might set off a creative spark in the writer’s mind, and woof! off they go into Creator-Land, and you’ll find your throwaway sentence suddenly transformed into something wild and wooly and utterly different than you intended.
If you’re a writer, be on guard for those glittery images that zip past you and run off down the road, never to return, if you’re not listening. Some of your best writing topics might be lurking in the meandering blabber of your neighbor, your Aunt Matilda, or the snarky office gossip-monger.
My favorite example of this phenomenon is a short story I wrote over 15 years ago. It’s called Miss Maud and the Three Bears and is the tale of an irascible old lady who hated people but loved bears, so much that she lived a secret life as a bear. (There’s a lot more to the story, but I don’t want to spoil it for you, in case you want to read it.)
I’m not that interested in bears, or in crabby old ladies either. I certainly never thought about writing a story about them. But one day I went on a first date with a rather tedious young man whose favorite subject was himself. In the midst of his ramblings, most of which I was not listening to, he mentioned that on a fishing trip he had seen two bears swimming, or rather being swept along by the current, in the middle rapids of the Skykomish River, high in the Cascade Mountains. One of the bears was holding a wiggling salmon in its paws as it rode the water downstream. As it passed him standing on the bank, the salmon made a last frantic leap for freedom but was caught by the bear’s enormous claw. It looked to him as if the bear were waving.
There was something about that image of those bears that captured me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For weeks I dreamed about bears swimming in mountain rivers, salmon thrashing between their paws. Finally, with just that one image to guide me, I wrote my short story, which, although there is a scene with bears swimming in the river, is not actually about that at all. Go figure. After I wrote the story, the dreams stopped, and there was no second date with the boring guy, so he never knew how he had inspired me. But to this day, Miss Maud and the Three Bears is one of my favorite stories, and when I read it, I see those swimming bears, river water sparkling on their fur as they are swept by me.
Writers tend to be introverts, happy to be hunkered down in front of our computers, communing with our keyboards. Writing is a solitary activity. We like it that way.
Nearly all writers want to be published authors. We want other people to read our beautiful words. Otherwise why write them?
But once we do achieve that hoped-for nirvana, publication, an upsetting thing happens. Our books will just sit there on a bookstore’s shelf (until they are returned) if we don’t talk about them. Talk about them out loud. To other people.
We have to learn how to market, sell, and promote. OMG. Not what we thought we were getting into. Not what we’re good at.
What’s a way around this problem? Well, we can get other people to talk about our books for us. Preferably people in the media, who can get even more people to listen to them.
But that means we have to talk to the media. And we don’t know how to do that either. Now what?
I recently read a deceptively short and simple booklet on this very subject, called “Media Tips for Authors: How to Get Free Publicity for Your Book” by Whitney M. Keyes. Have you ever noticed that all the truly useful tools are usually the short and simple ones?
Keyes’ book is such a useful tool, managing to take a complex subject and break it down into a few easy steps. Then it shows you how to walk those steps, giving practical exercises and real-life examples of how authors can easily use the media to help them promote their books.
When I teach writing, the first rule I give my students is this: “Your writing is not about you. It’s about them.” By them, I mean their readers. Most new writers are so in love with their ideas or their beautiful style that they don’t think about what their readers want and need. Lo and behold, this is the same advice that Keyes’ gives about working with the media. Most new authors are so pumped up about their great book they don’t even think about how the media may view it. But Keyes reminds us: don’t tell the media what is important to you – focus on what is important to them. And then she tells us what that is.
This sweet little gem of a book costs $10 only ($7.95 for the PDF e-version) and is available at www.WhitneyKeyes.com. If you’re an author wanting to sell your book, I recommend you hop over there and buy one.
Imbolc is an old European festival celebrated February 2nd. In Catholic tradition this date is known as Candlemas, and is sacred to Saint Brigid. In popular culture it has come down to us as Groundhog’s Day.
This holiday marks the first stirring of the seeds, deep within the womb of earth. Nature is beginning to wake up. The days are visibly longer. There is a sense of freshness in the air, and a feeling of possibility. Imbolc is the traditional time to set new intentions and begin new projects for the coming year.
Here’s an activity to do at Imbolc, to help you seed your intentions. In my family we call it Intentional Beans.
You will need a small pot, some dirt, a packet of seeds (I recommend Scarlet Runner Beans, as they are easy to grow), marker pens or paint, glue, some beads or feathers or ribbons, and a little slip of paper. Decorate your pot however you want, using paint, beads, feathers, ribbons, or whatever you want. Simple or elaborate, make it beautifully yours. On a little slip of paper write your intention — such as good health, or get an exciting job, or move to a new house, or find the love of my life — or any of a zillion others. Roll the little paper into a ball about the size of a seed. In the pot put your dirt, your intention “seed” and some seeds. Put the pot where it will get natural light, and water it.
Watch your intentions grow. When warm enough, plant your beans outside. Every time you look at your plant, you will be reminded of what you intend to make manifest in your life.