In honor of Tax Day, I am taking a blog break today. My brain is mush after dealing with bureaucracy and numbers and money. But I’ll be back on Wednesday, to share the next installment of Grandma’s Masks.
Sometimes I amaze myself. I’ll be writing along, struggling for the right words that convey beauty and power, or simply clear communication, when suddenly a phrase or a sentence will appear under my fingers and I’ll think – Wow! I wrote that! This is one of the best feelings in writing.
Here are some of my favorite phrases and sentences from my book Eating Mythos Soup. Because the first draft of this book was written fast, almost stream-of-consciousness fast, there were quite a few of these aha! sentences. Even though I wrote this book about 15 years ago, when I re-read these sentences I still go, Wow! I wrote that!
And now that I remember that I can, I’ll go write some more.
Publishing is changing, books are changing, reading itself is changing – and it’s all changing so fast that authors can feel that they can’t keep up. Well, yeah, but changes in book publishing and the way readers access reading material is nothing new – stone tablets gave way to inky scrolls which gave way to printing presses, and at every stop along the way Luddites cried.
Back in the Victorian Era, which wasn’t really that long ago, one of the new publishing tactics was publishing novels in serial form in magazines and newspapers. Charles Dickens is perhaps best known for using this form, starting with The Pickwick Papers in 1836, but Dickens was not alone – in 1893 Mark Twain first published Puddnhead Wilson as a serial in The Century Magazine, and Joseph Conrad and George Eliot published some of their works in serial form as well.
So what, you may ask. Here’s what. Today we authors have a perfect venue for serializing our new works – blogs. Here I am, already posting regular riffs about my writing life, so it seems a no-brainer to also post my Work-In-Progress, in the hope that people will read it, like it, and come back for more of the same. And when the serial is finished, I hope that people will want to buy the book in one piece!
Another benefit of serialization, other than the marketing aspect, is that it keeps the writer writing, spurred on by appreciation, helped by critiques, and motivated by the simple pressure to deliver on her own promise to finish the book.
I’ve already been serializing on this blog for some time with my feature Haiku Friday, and my every-other-Monday feature Ghostwriting for a Dog (which will eventually be collected into a “real” book). I intend to continue these features, and starting this month I am adding a new feature. On Wednesdays I’ll be serializing my new fiction work, tentatively titled Grandma’s Masks. It’s a tentative title because it is a work-in-progress and may change as I continue to work on it. (And if this goes well, I will also serialize my book published in 2000 and soon to be an e-book, Eating Mythos Soup: poemstories for Laura.)
Grandma’s Masks is a collection of short stories in the folk-tale genre, set inside a larger story of two young women, cousins named Emma and Lucy, who attempt to understand their beloved grandmother through the masks and stories she left behind after her death.
Each Wednesday I’ll share from 300 to 800 words of Grandma’s Masks here on this blog. I hope you follow along. Don’t worry if you miss a segment – you can always catch up by clicking the tab “Serial Fiction” above.
Wednesday is only 2 days away … are you excited? I am.
My parents left a treasure trove of letters, especially those they wrote during the Second World War. Many of these were written to, and saved by, their mothers. Hooray for my grandmothers – without them it would be a lot harder to write my parents’ story. Here is an example, a letter written by my mother Lois to her mother, giving a wonderfully detailed description of Lois’ first days of Boot Camp after she enlisted in the Marines in 1943. She was 21 years old, and never been out of Washington state, and had spent most of her young life in a tiny mountain town high in the Cascade mountains. Her Boot Camp was Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, which she reached by troop train, riding with a couple hundred other young women. The trip from Seattle to North Carolina took a week. Here is her first letter to her mother and father after she arrived:
August 6, 1943
Dearest Mums and Dad,
This has been the first time I have been able to sit down and write a line and now I believe I have only five minutes so I’ll have to finish this the few minutes I have tonite. I haven’t been able to send you a telegram – boy as soon as we got off the train we were piled into a bus then hurried off to this camp. As soon as we got off the bus we lined up and marched a long way to be classified into our barracks and company and platoons. After this we were marched to our barracks, then allowed to go out and claim our bags. Then immediately we marched to chow with a great many other girls. After chow we marched back to the barracks then the nerve-racking job of unpacking and we were so tired and hot and dirty, we were sure a sorry-looking bunch. Lights out at ten o’clock and it took me some time to get to sleep.
I’m telling you just can’t realize how horrible the heat is down here. I haven’t had any makeup on since I got here – it’s practically impossible to keep any on. The heat is very damp heat and all day long you are perspiring and finally after evening chow, you’re wringing wet – not maybe, either.
Boy you really have to snap to attention or it’s just too bad. Tomorrow is the beginning of demerit system which is really tough. We have a very nice and young Company Commander. Our platoon leader is okay too. There are twenty-nine of us in our platoon, we are in a room filled with eighty-eight girls. Every night between 7:30 and 8:30 quiet hour is observed for study, etc. The command is “knock off” during that time which means absolutely no chatter.
I’ll give you the full account of our day today. At five thirty, “hit the deck” is the command, and I mean you hit it. You dash around making your bed just so – no wrinkles, square corners, etc. Your duffel bag in the right place which you use for your laundry bag. Everything neat and in order. You dash to the “head” which is the bathroom and get washed – or either you scrub your deck around your trunk, also sweep it – dust everything that is yours. By quarter to seven you fall in then march to chow, falling in line and wait along with hundreds of others. After chow we march to our classes, ours being Customs & Courtesies of the Marines, fifty-minute periods, take notes, then march back to barracks, have ten minutes to ourselves then we march (each distance generally takes in about six or seven blocks one way) to a building for our uniforms, which sure was terrific. First we got our bag and red scarf, 4 pairs of lisle hose and our winter hat. Then go to get three seersucker uniforms, two winter uniforms, and your trenchcoat. When they say “on the double” you tear off your clothes, put on a size 14, it’s too big around the waist, it hangs below the calf of your legs – it gives you the appearance of elongated calf. They say “okay.” You go to a fitting room which is filled with boys as well as girls fitting the girls – you’re stripped to your underskirt, they said I had only one winter skirt to be shortened – are they kidding – anyway you’ve got to do as they say, so there is no use giving your opinion. Anyway after you have piled up all this stuff you have to carry it in your arms in marching order about a quarter of a mile back to the barracks. And the trenchcoat is about 100 pounds of wool and is enough alone, anyway by the time you arrive you’re dripping, tired and hopeless. About fifteen minutes later you march to class on The Care of Uniforms, and then march to chow. After chow we march to barracks for about fifteen minutes rest, then to a class on Marine & Navy Organization, then a class in Hygiene, then a march back to the barracks for a 25 minute rest, then march to a class in Marine History, then march to chow.
We have to wear little bright green hats that have turned down brims in front and turned up brims in back – just the kind that don’t look good on me.
It’s twenty minutes to ten so I have to hurry. I just dashed down & took a shower. Please ‘scuse the scribble but I’m sitting on the chair beside my bunk with my feet propped up.
Well Mums this is what I want right away please: name tags, hangers, some stop-red lipstick and some cookies or something if you have time. I still have some things to do before lights out. So goodnite folks and I’m sure thinking of you. It is rather tough right now but we’ll get used to the schedule. I don’t mind it too much really. Tomorrow I’m having 3 shots and blood tests.
Oceans of love,
As I’ve mentioned before, I am currently writing a memoir of my parents. There is so much to say, and not all of it will fit into the memoir. Like my father’s garden; I’m not sure where it will go, or even if it will end up in the book at all.
I’ve written about my father’s garden before, in my morning pages journal that I’ve kept for nearly thirty years, in various blog posts, and even in one of my books. In other words, I write about my father’s garden a lot.
That’s because there’s a lot to say about it. I’m not sure I’ll ever come to the end of my writing about it. Because somewhere in those many words lurks the spirit of my father, the one he showed when he was in his garden, and the one his garden reflected back to him and anyone else lucky enough to enter this sacred space. In that garden was the man he was at his very core, the spirit where his human faults and failings had no reality and the only reality is love and a vibrant joy of life.
Even though the words will never be enough, I feel I have to try, whether it ends up in the final book or not. So here is another piece I wrote about his garden, this one about his King Apple Tree. Much of this was written some years ago, but that is alright; because gardens can go on forever, as can memories. As long as you write them down.
King of the Garden
In my father’s garden is an old apple tree. It bears King apples, the kind they don’t sell in grocery stores because they have a short shelf life. But in their eating prime King apples are the King of Fruits, truly. They are crisp and when you bite into them the sweet tart juice spurts against your teeth and shoots down your throat, spraying its essential appleness over your tongue and uvula, and you will shiver with delight.
Last year the King apple tree had only seven apples on it, owing to the severe pruning my brother had given it the preceding year in a vain attempt to be helpful. Everyone was disappointed, for the October King apple picking is a beloved tradition in the family. All my father’s children and grandchildren, all ten of us, claim an apple on the tree from the time it is just out of its bud stage, and we watch with proprietary interest as it develops little by little through the long summer months.
Last year when there were only seven apples we “children” reluctantly gave up our King apple inheritance so the seven grandchildren could have the apples instead. How unselfish, how virtuous, we are! We learned it from our parents.
My father was angry at the tree and talked sternly to it – he informed the tree that it was not acceptable to produce only seven apples, and if it didn’t do better in the coming year, he would have to cut it down. Only producers are allowed in his garden, he told the tree.
The rest of the family howled against this infamous threat, although few of us really believed he would carry it out. Still, some of us may have sneaked out to the King apple tree in the evenings and talked to it in calmer, more conciliatory tones. We asked it, with all due respect, if it would please produce more next year, assuring it that we would not let Dad chop it down.
I don’t know which conversations produced the desired effects, but this year the King apple tree hung low to the ground with heavy dense apple flesh. There were even enough to fatten the marauding birds who loved to poke their sharp beaks into the smooth sides of the apples and suck the sweet juice down their tiny throats.
Last week we picked the apples. Everyone got some, and at this very moment there is an uneaten King apple in my refrigerator, a treat I am saving for tomorrow’s lunch.
I write for my family, about my family’s history – both long-ago history (genealogy stories!) and recent history (I was a hippie – and still am, really) and the stories in-between (WW2 & Depression-era stories). Someday these essays might be made into a book. I’d love to know if you think these family stories are of interest to others, so here is one, about one of my childhood adventures – with a pig. Please comment! The Sad Saga of Betsy the Pig
It will soon be Winter Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, so perhaps this would be a good time to share a winter story from my soon-to-be released ebook, Eating Mythos Soup: poemstories for Laura. Let me know what you think.
I am old and the wintertime cold has seeped into my bones. I am the deserted child of an ancient wrinkled gardener.
My father moves slowly because he is older than the dirt he loves so well. He is tall and thin with black cracked skin, and his arms, ropy veined and polished like ebony, stick out of his too-small coat. He is burdened with a hoe and a rake and a shovel, and all the tools he needs to keep his garden alive.
His coat, olive green with patched pockets, flaps around his ankles, and he wears mismatched tennis shoes with no laces. Under his coat he wears a faded orange flannel shirt, and torn loose jeans. His eyes seem to be lost in the million crinkles on his face, but sometimes, as on a dark cloudy night when the wind blows, they like stars twinkle briefly between the shifting clouds.
My father is the wintertime gardener and it is his job to cover the seeds and blanket the bushes and roots with mulch. He ties berries on the bare tree branches for the foolish birds who forgot to migrate. He is cold and lonely, moving like a shadow between the leafless branches of the garden.
But his dreams, ah his dreams are warm and moist. When he breathes his dreams upon the ground, extravagant and beautiful fungi appear. They thrust suddenly out of the cold rotting compost and their convoluted lobes flame in vivid scarlet and orange and blue.
He dreams of me. I am one of the fungi, a small delicate one with feathery blue veins on my pointy cap and buttery yellow splotches on my slender stalk. My father is sorry he left me so long ago, but still he knows I will be able to forgive him from the depths of my own winter.
The sun hangs over the thick black hills and the smoke from distant bonfires drifts lazily across the leaden sky. The trees in the garden are silent; their tongues are buried under their fallen leaves.
My father the gardener takes off his tennis shoes, and places his long narrow feet carefully on the cold packed ground. His feet look like short planks of dark rotted wood. He wriggles his toes into the hard earth, digging with his horny toenails that are almost as dark as his skin.
He sings a mumbling song and dances a thin spiky dance upon the earth. Soon his mumble grows into a gospel song, but instead of Jesus, he shouts my name. He wakes his rake and his hoe high in the air, stretching his arms out to their longest length, and he thrusts them, up down, in rhythm to his song. His dance sways and shakes and his hard pounding old feet high-step their way around the garden, and the winter flowers bloom.
Eating Mythos Soup: poemstories for Laura will be available as an ebook early next year. Stay tuned.
Way back in 2000, my first book Eating Mythos Soup: poemstories for Laura was published, BEB (before ebooks). I am happy to announce that Eating Mythos Soup will be given new life in ebook form early next year. Very exciting!
From the back cover of Eating Mythos Soup: “There is a being named Laura, to whom people tell their stories. Laura is a being in another dimension, a shape-shifter, an angel or a guide; her role is to eat the stories people give her. Here are fifty-two poemstories for Laura, stories sizzling with imagery and metaphor and alive with the joy of language. They come from all sorts of people – a gardener, an accountant, a purple witch, an angry parrot, a clown in a bear suit. They are full of hope, fear, love, sex, dung, joy, and guilt. Reading them is about as close as we’ll ever come to understanding who or what Laura is.”
To whet your appetite, here are the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1.
Laura says, “There, there,” to comfort you, and you are comforted. The thick balm of Laura slides over your heart, a salve made of honey and nettles. You are at peace.
Laura has mink-dark hair, deep black, deep brown. She spreads it like a mantle over your shoulders to warm you, as you tell your tale.
Laura likes to drink Greek wine, raw with a nip in it, but sweet as honey as it hits the back of her throat. The wine highlights the doubts and confusions of the stories Laura hears, yours and others. Oh, how Laura does love the absurd. Laura’s laugh is rich and fruity, thick like the honeyed wine she drinks. It bubbles like slow boiling porridge and splatters on the sky.
This post appeared on my blog way back in 2006 – I’ve been writing this blog for SIX years! So hopefully you will forgive me for reposting a few this month, especially since I think these posts bear re-reading. This post is called “Nursing Winston Churchill” and it’s a brag about one of my ancestors. We all have them – maybe you have some semi-famous ancestors too?
Nursing Winston Churchill
I want to write about my Great-Great-Aunt Julia, who according to family legend and a somewhat vague reference in a letter she wrote to her mother, nursed Winston Churchill through pneumonia when he was a young man. This must mean that Great-Great-Aunt Julia is one of the saviors of the modern world, for if Winston Churchill had poor nursing he might have died, and then “blood, sweat and tears” might never have been said. Along with a few other things he accomplished.
I would write about Great-Great-Aunt Julia’s steady eyes and stern mouth, and how she pulled her hair into a chignon every morning and kept the part in the middle a perfect straight line. Did Great-Great-Aunt Julia ever mess up her hair, pretending she had a lover whose greatest delight was running his hands through her curls and make her sigh with pleasure? Did Great-Great-Aunt Julia give up the hot-blooded promises of her youth in exchange for the sterile power of a London hospital and the commanding title of Sister?
No one knows much about Great-Great-Aunt Julia now; everyone who ever knew her is dead, and so is she. All I have is a studio portrait of a straight-backed woman in a nurse’s uniform, and that one surviving letter dropping the name of Winston Churchill.
Maybe that’s enough.
I work with many memoir writers (and am one myself) and I know that we have things to say that may help other aspiring memoirists. Every month I feature excerpts from my interviews with those who have written and published a memoir, and here’s the next one.
This month my interview is with Hadiyah Carlyle, author of Torch in the Dark: One Woman’s Journey published this year. You can buy this book online at Hadiyah’s website, www.torchinthedark.com or Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com.
Torch in the Dark: One Woman’s Journey tells the story of how Hadiyah Joan Carlyle, as a single mother, pioneered as one of the first women since World War II to enter the trades as a union welder. Beginning in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood in New Jersey, the story moves through San Francisco’s colorful Haight-Ashbury in the sixties to arrive at last at Fairhaven Shipyard in Bellingham, Washington. For Hadiyah, welding became both a path to self-reliance and economic survival, and a metaphor for healing from early childhood trauma.
Q: Why was it important for you to write your memoir? (ie, leave a legacy to your descendants; educate, enlighten, or inspire others in similar situations; heal your emotional wounds; entertain; make money; etc.)
Hadiyah: It started out that I just wanted to tell my story. It ended up being a healing for me and for my family.
Q: Does your memoir cover your entire life up to the present day, or a particular portion of your life? If a portion, why that portion?
Hadiyah: My memoir covers twelve years of my life from 1964 to 1978. These are the years that had a great impact on my life and also a great impact on the country and world.
Q: What was the most challenging part of your memoir to write? Why?
Hadiyah: The most challenging problem was the structure. There was a crucial and emotionally charged childhood rape scene, which was buried in my unconscious mind at the point where the story begins. It was difficult to decide how and where to put it in the story.
Q: What part of writing your memoir came easiest to you? Why?
Hadiyah: I wrote my memoir in writing groups using writing practice designed by Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. I just wrote. One part wasn’t easier than another.
Q: How long did it take you to write your memoir? Did you write every day?
Hadiyah: It took more than ten years. I wrote regularly but not every day.
Q: What is your favorite memoir, other than your own? Why?
Hadiyah: I read many, many memoirs. Most of them touched me in some way. One of the outstanding ones was The Color of Water by James McBride. I like the structure, alternating his mother’s story with his. I was touched by his mother’s story.
Q: Which element do you think is most important in a memoir – setting of time and place; underlying theme or focus; storytelling plot; characterization? Why?
Hadiyah: For me, the underlying theme is the most important in a memoir. That’s what pulls it together.
Q: What years does your memoir encompass? Do you relate the happenings in your own life to historical events of the same period? How did the events of “big history” impact your life?
Hadiyah: The story takes place in the 1960s and ’70′s. Yes, I was in Haight Ashbury. Yes, I was a hippie. The world was changing and I was a part of it. I truly believe that it is because I came of age in the ’60s that I am alive today and have had a meaningful life. I defied the system, which would not have been possible the ’50s.
Q: How did/do you make use of sensory details (smell, touch, sight, sound, taste) in describing the people, places and events in your memoir?
Hadiyah: I developed a lot of my ability to use detail in descriptions in classes with Priscilla Long. Her teachings are available in her book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.
Q: How did you handle sensitive subjects with the other “characters” in your memoir? Did you preserve their anonymity? Disguise them in any way?
Hadiyah: I thought about this, conferred with my son, and decided to keep the real names of most of the people. A couple of names of “minor characters” were changed to prevent any possible issue.
Q: What publishing options did you consider for your memoir, and what were their pros and cons? How did you eventually publish your memoir?
Hadiyah: I sent out queries, many, many of them to publishers whose names I got through writing magazines and the internet. The responses I received convinced me that very few existing publishers are open to work from unknown authors, and I didn’t want to spend more time looking. I decided to self-publish through Book Publishers Network, which enabled me to use their imprint and distribution channels. Book Publishers Network is a Northwest publishing house, and I wanted to be able to promote the book here in the Northwest.
Q: How did/do you promote your memoir?
Hadiyah: I had a very successful launch at Elliott Bay Books, a well-established Seattle bookstore. Many of the people who came were from groups I belong to—the Jewish community, yoga, writing and hiking groups. I’ve had several other readings since then and plan to do more. I have a radio interview coming up and will be on a memoir panel at the upcoming Northwest BookFest. I also plan to promote the book to women’s studies programs and women’s trade organizations.
Q: What do you wish you knew before you wrote your memoir, that you know now? What advice would you give someone who wants to write the story of their life?
Hadiyah: Publishing now is a minefield. It has changed and changes all the time. There are so many new options—ebooks, print-on-demand, social media, online marketing. It’s important to know the audience you want to reach and make the choices that will help you reach them. I’ve been learning as I go. I could have saved some money if I had started out knowing everything I know now.