I’ve read about 40 books this year and will most likely add two or three more before stepping into 2013. Looking over the My Books list at the Goodreads site--love this way of keeping track!-- I’ve picked out my top ten favorites. In addition to enjoying the entertainment aspect of a variety of genres, I am always inspired by stellar writing and storytelling. I am grateful to so many authors for sharing the bright light of their talent.
In no particular order:
1. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
2. The Garden of Happy Endings, by Barbara O’Neal
3. The Land of Decoration, by Grace McCleen
4. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
5. Miss Perigrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,
by Ransom Riggs
6. Peaches for Father Francis, by Joanne Harris
7. The Underside of Joy, by Seré Prince Halverson
8. Changes, by Jim Butcher
9. Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian, by Eoin Colfer
10. Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story,
by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
What’s on your list?
Happy holidays…and best wishes for a wonderful and productive 2013.
Miss Louise Zumbrunnen was a resident at a retirement home where I worked years ago. Although she was in her mid-nineties and lived in the health center, her mind was still sharp. There was a sweetness and a brightness about her that touched me, and we had a nice friendship.
She remained curious and interested in the world around her.
“There is so much to learn,” she said one day. That statement made quite an impression on me. What a fantastic attitude—to continue to be engaged with life even as hers was in the home stretch.
Louise had been craft-oriented when she was younger and had done a lot of quilling. This was the ancient art of shaping and coiling narrow strips of paper to create a design. Her room was decorated with many fine examples of her talent. One day she gifted me with a lovely wooden spoon that she had quilled. I still have it and keep it with my Christmas decorations. I always think of her when I take it out, and remember her lively declaration.
“There is so much to learn.”
What a beautiful legacy one can leave with carefully chosen words.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I love focusing on the many blessings in my life, and sharing good food with family. That said, my most memorable Thanksgiving did not take place in a home or around a table.
My senior year in college, I had a fall semester internship at the Juvenile Evaluation Center outside of Asheville, NC. This was essentially a prison for youth who had been arrested for stealing, assault, or worse. Many of the kids were from the inner-cities of North Carolina. My particular internship was with the camping program. This was for youth who had demonstrated good behavior and a willingness to learn better habits and skills.
The program was challenging: extensive hiking and backpacking, as well as rock climbing and horseback riding. Most of the boys and girls were out of their element in nature—in this case, the remote areas of the Blue Ridge mountains—so this was a great chance for personal growth. If they completed the program successfully, they could go home.
I went out on the trail every other week for two and a half days, and aside from enjoying the beautiful mountains, it was a time of personal growth for me, as well. (I have a great story about my first rock climbing experience, but that will be a post for another day!) My shift landed on Thanksgiving that year, which bummed me out—I would have preferred going home with a good friend and sharing the day with her family. As it turned out, my experience was serendipitous.
We were hiking several miles to our campsite, and stopped for lunch beside the trail. The regular counselors and the kids had food of some kind provided, but I always brought my own supplies. As I sat on a rock and had a can of cold vienna sausages and some bread and cheese, I began to reflect. I was sitting amid stunning scenery; I was fortunate to have family and friends who loved me; I was getting a college education; I had a warm place to sleep at night; and good food every day. So many blessings!
This was in sharp contrast, I’m sure, to many of the kids in the program. Did they grow up having warm beds at night? An intact family? Nourishing food? Spiritual support? My guess is: probably not.
These realizations shifted my perspective. I didn’t miss the turkey and trimmings at all. I gave silent thanks and thought, “This is the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had.”
And you know what? It’s still true.
Thank you for stopping by. Have a wonderful holiday!
Picture this. You are twenty-one years old, in England, on a charter bus with members of your college choir. The bus is parked on a dock, waiting to board the ferry to transport you to France. Everyone’s luggage has been stowed in a large wire “cage” that is sitting about thirty feet from the bus. You notice your own piece of luggage—a blue backpack—is on top. Something looks wrong. You lean closer to the bus window, and realize with alarm that the flap at the top has come untied and the contents are in danger of spilling out.
You dash off the bus, over to the cage and leap onto it—relieved there are spaces for hand and footholds. You start climbing. (By the way, you’re 5’1” and the cage is about 8 feet high.) As you’re reaching for your backpack, a dock worker yells “Get down!” Being twenty-one and a little insecure, you climb down.
The dock worker turns away. Being twenty-one, panicked, and plucky (by gum) when the situation demands it, you climb back up. You hear cheering from the bus! You drag your backpack closer and fumble with the ties. Your heart is pounding; your hands shaking.
A moment later, back-up arrives in the form of two choir buddies, Liz and Emmanuel, who scale the cage like heroes. They pull the flap tight and tie an impressive knot. As you climb back down, laughing, more cheers erupt from the bus. You did it! The dock worker just scowls and mutters, “We would have fixed it.”
Need practice writing tension? Pick a dramatic scene from your life, write it down, and relive the emotions of it. I hadn’t thought about this experience in years, and now after writing it down, my heart is beating faster.
When we consciously inform our writing with our life experiences, we add richness, depth, and emotional honesty. What story wouldn’t benefit from that?
If you are a writer who enjoys analyzing character and story development in movies, do yourself a favor and rent “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” This film has it all: a compelling story, interesting characters, an exotic setting, humor, and heart.
The story revolves around a group of retirees from Britain who travel to India to live in a retirement hotel. The hotel turns out to be a rustic (albeit charming) work-in-progress. Nothing like the elegant pictures on the hotel’s website. The way each character adapts to this situation—and to each other—is an excellent study of human nature.
Each person has his/her own motives and agenda for coming to India. For instance, one woman is there for a hip operation. She struggles with her own racial prejudices and fear of the unknown. Another woman, who has never taken risks, has come there to be fully engaged with life. One of the men is haunted by ghosts of his past, from when he lived in India as a boy. The manager of the hotel is an idealistic young man who believes that “everything will work out in the end…and if it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s not the end!”
The unique setting is key: crowded and colorful markets, ancient traditions, unusual food, interesting people, beautiful architecture…all brought to life with gorgeous cinematography. The way in which each character relates to their environment adds a dynamic layer to the story.
A stellar cast (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, among others) and a terrific script made this one of my favorite films of 2012. Need creative inspiration? Immerse yourself in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” You’ll be glad you did.
I recently experienced vertigo for the first time. What a bizarre thing to feel the earth tip under my feet, or my body spinning out of control. I spent several hours in a fetal position with my eyes clamped shut—when the barest movement of my head would result in dizziness. Even when I felt better, I told my husband, “The boat is docked, but I can tell it’s still on the water.”
Isn’t this what we do to our protagonist? Just when her life seems to be perking along, we disrupt her sense of equilibrium. And when she recovers from one episode, we gleefully send her into a fetal position again. It's in those dark, topsy-turvy moments when she has her deepest realizations.
You’d think I’d be more sympathetic now, wouldn’t you? More compassionate and empathetic? Heck no. If anything, I’m more determined to bring on the waves and hide the motion-sickness meds.
As for my own experience, I remember the wise words of Garrison Keillor: “Bad things don’t happen to writers. It’s all material.”
Is there anything more beautiful than a vessel of brimming water, where one more drop would break the surface tension? When my husband and I were married 24 years ago, we received a lovely ceramic dish. It was oversized, with deep sides and a black glaze shot through with streaks of color. It hung on our dining room wall for years until I decided to repurpose it into a water feature on our deck.
It was a perfect marriage of art and water.
I love how it reflects the sky and sunlight; how the surface comes to life during a rainstorm or a light breeze; and the sense of peace it exudes. Even the occasional yellow jacket or wasp that pauses to drink seem part of the ambiance.
Of course, there is frequent maintenance required to keep it in top form: filling it with fresh water due to evaporation and (ahem) dog slobbers; scrubbing out any algae that forms on the bottom. If I neglect it for more than a couple days, it goes from exquisite to ick.
I’m reminded of the phrase “filling the well,” which, in the writing world means taking time to nourish one’s soul, which in turn nourishes creativity. This could be anything, from taking a trip to reading a favorite book to learning a new skill. It is especially important when faced with creative stagnation.
For me, reading books with stellar writing, cooking for friends, gardening, hiking, and catching up on home projects fills my well. When I’ve taken time to do this—to really nurture myself and my creativity, I find myself brimming; reflecting the sky again. And when a new idea drops in and breaks the surface tension, I happily overflow.
This is a little spin on my “Characters I Have Known” series. Settings can be inspiration for a story, a character—or simply mined for atmospheric or physical detail.
I have always liked caves. There is something mysterious about them, particularly the ones that are filled with stalactites and other formations. I revel in the primal atmosphere, the quiet drip-drip of water…and the thrill in knowing that the flip of a switch would plunge us into absolute darkness.
When I was a teenager, I went caving once with adult friends who were experienced spelunkers. We drove up into the Ozark mountains of northern Arkansas to a place called Bat Cave. After my friends donned helmets with carbide lights (too big for my head, so I carried a flashlight) we passed through a small entrance into a large cavern of rock and dirt. At the back of the room was a twenty or thirty-foot drop-off into another room.
We rappelled down to this lower level of rocky and uneven ground, and set about exploring. I discovered a cave cricket near a tiny stream, which my friends said was a first for them in this cave. Later, as we were making our way down a narrow passage, we came across scores of bats clinging upside-down to the wall. These were small bats—three or four inches tall. Seeing these tiny creatures in their home environment was thrilling. We watched them for a while, being careful not to disturb them.
When we returned to the surface, I noticed two things: First, I’d lost all sense of time. What felt like three hours in the cave was actually eight. Second, as we emerged from the cave I was struck by how sweet and fragrant the summer air smelled. How thick. Breathing the clean, pure air of the cave for that amount of time had wiped my “scent slate” clean. Realizing how perfumed the air was with wildflowers and other native plants was a revelation. All these years later, the olfactory memory of this is still vivid.
Being absorbed in writing can be like my cave experience: exploring a world of my own creation; the thrill of discovery; the surprising passage of time. And when I emerge—blinking at the clock in amazement—I feel like a writer-spelunker who has just spent a few hours in the cave of creativity.
I love the sky of high summer: the mountains of cumulus clouds that drift overhead like sleepy giants; the washed-out blue of the sky. It begs me to sit in the shade and read, and I succumb on many afternoons. I’m accompanied by birdsong, long flower borders, and breezes that cause my wind chimes to punctuate the air with mellow notes. Ahh…heaven.
It’s been unusually hot and dry this year. I practice tough love with my perennials—they’ve managed to limp along with minimal watering and afternoon shade. I figure if they don’t die, they’ll be stronger in the long run.
Perhaps this is good training for writing characters. Let’s say my garden phlox is the protagonist. Normally a robust and outrageous bloomer—a show-off in flashy purple or pink—she’s the princess of the garden. Enter the heat and Dastardly Drought. Conditions deteriorate. Miss Phlox is thirsty, she’s discouraged, she’s praying for her Rain-hero. Will he arrive in time to save her?
She loses weight and luster, her lower leaves turn brown. For the first time in her life, she feels ugly. At her darkest hour (about 2 pm in mid July,) she decides to buck up and be a survivor. So what if her blooms are small, her foliage limp, her knees bare? She’s gonna survive to bloom outrageously another year. Take that, old Drought! And by the time Rain-hero rides in on a west wind, he’s greeted with a saucy wink and a “What kept ya, big boy?”
Sigh. I love a happy ending.
“Let it be seen that your hands are clean.”
“Germs linger—clean your fingers!”
“Don’t let your germs roam—use the foam!”
These pithy little rhymes were wall decorations in the hall outside my mother’s hospital room. The signs were handmade with construction paper, and each one featured an evil-looking germ (a multi-colored blob with crazy eyes and pointy teeth) to drive the point home. I found them amusing and effective…the power of a good rhyme. Remember those cautionary tales from Mother Goose?
“Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.”
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
Do you see a theme here? Of course, there were the moral rhymes, too:
“Ding, dong, bell!
Pussy’s in the well!
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Green.
Who pulled her out?
Little Johnny Stout.”
The artwork in my old Mother Goose book has a painting of two boys: J. Stout (the hero) has big blue eyes, freckles, and an earnest expression. J. Green (the bad boy) has squinty eyes, is rather grimy, and has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. And here’s the best part: He has a big red X drawn over him. (Now, kids, which boy do you want to be like?)
“Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home! Your house is on fire, your children all gone…”
Yikes. Don’t play with matches! Did anyone else find that one a tad disturbing? And how about this rather misogynistic one:
“Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-Eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her
Put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.”
Rhymes are easy to remember by their catchy sing-songy-ness. They tend to stick in our minds and cell-memories. I’d venture to say that most of us had our childhood influenced in some way by nursery rhymes. And as adults, if a rhyme helps us remember to wash our hands—especially in a hospital where a loved-one is at the mercy of germs—that’s a good thing.
“Germs are mean—keep your hands clean.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bar of lavender soap calling my name.
Two weeks ago a major storm hit Chicagoland, damaging trees and power lines. In hindsight, we should have been in the basement instead of watching the mature trees in our backyard bend and strain in (we later learned) 80- and 90 mph gusts. We only lost a couple small branches, but neighbors had entire limbs fall on their roofs; trees snapped in half or uprooted. Our home was without power for nearly four days—during a time of 100 degree temps and high humidity.
We went into survival mode—buying ice for coolers; finding flashlights and our battery-powered camping fans (we kept two aimed at our dog during the day); and matches to light the gas stove. I remember thinking, this is like an inciting incident in a novel where the protagonist’s life is tossed into disarray.
Enter the heroes: neighbors helping neighbors clean up the debris; my son and his friends driving around helping folks clear their driveways; and the round-the-clock efforts of professional electricians, tree service workers, and many others. Businesses—like our local laundromat—stayed open on July 4th instead of taking a holiday.
The whole experience was full of meaning: winds of change; clearing/cleansing; goodwill toward others; living creatively in unusual circumstances. After the storm ended, there was a solitary gingko leaf plastered to the glass of our French doors that leads to our deck. It must have blown over from our neighbor’s front yard. It clung there the rest of the day, like a survivor. My husband apparently regarded it the same as I did—when he hosed debris off the house and deck, he was careful to leave the gingko leaf in place.
It felt like an important symbol, so I (later) looked it up. According to Eastern tradition, the ginkgo tree is considered to be a symbol of longevity and hope. A single leaf represents happiness. Beyond that, the tree has a natural resistance to disease, insects, and fire. I knew it. A survivor!
How fitting to have this symbol grace our door in the aftermath. It would seem that this storm was not only devastating, it also left us a gift of hope.
When I read books that inspire me, it’s as if the author’s inner light is illuminating the text from behind—casting shadows. These shadows can range in quality and intensity. Some are soft around the edges. Other shadows are sharp enough to make me bleed with emotion. Still others wrap around me with the quiet grayness of an overcast day. Sometimes I blend with the shadows and become grey-blue, or charcoal-black.
Frances Mayes’s memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, soothes me with rosemary-infused shadow.
Barbara Kingsolver’s essays about the environment or human rights issues emit hard shadow with knife-sharp edges.
Anne Lamont’s essays about her spiritual journey touch me with long shadows from a low, intense sun.
Barbara O’Neal’s women’s fiction is a mix of dappled shadow and flickers of brightness.
Jim Butcher’s wizard Harry Dresden books have inky shadows that slither around me, making my heart race.
As writers, we illuminate our words with the deepest part of ourselves. I find that an exciting prospect. How will our words cast forth and touch our readers? What emotion or inspiration will be drawn out as a result? I believe it boils down to being true to one’s self; one’s strengths; and one’s depth of experience.
Dare to shine—to blaze-out and cast your shadows on the world.
Julie Johnson was a fellow student at Warren Wilson College in the mountains of North Carolina. She was tall, lanky, and had long blond hair that she wore in braids. I found her fascinating. Like many of the students there, she was down-to-earth and loved nature. In fact, she could have been a spokeswoman for Mother Nature—or Going Green, long before that term was coined. She was so passionate about the environment that she tended to espouse her views freely, which would sometimes rub folks the wrong way.
My roommate—who worked as a janitor— came back to the dorm one evening complaining that Julie had suggested (to the head of janitorial services) that trash bags be emptied, washed out and reused. These were industrial bags…at a college. (Eek.) The janitorial staff mutinied.
Julie and I crossed paths once while hiking in the woods near campus. She showed me what a sassafras tree looked like; how the leaves were in a group of three: oval, mitten-shaped, and three-lobed. How, if you broke a stem and smelled it, it smelled like root beer. As we chatted, I noticed two things: she was thinner than usual, and had dark circles under her eyes. Not long after that, she became ill and had to drop out of college. Word eventually reached us that she had been diagnosed with leukemia and was undergoing chemotherapy.
It was heartbreaking.
I saw her for the last time a year later when she came for a short visit. She wore a white head scarf, and seemed frail and other-worldly delicate. She died a few months later. Her dorm-mates raised money and bought a beautiful redbud tree that was planted in a prominent location. A fitting tribute to a young woman who had devoted her short life to raising awareness of the environment.
My memories of Julie are three-dimensional: student, friend, and activist.
(Oval, mitten-shaped, and three-lobed. Like Sassafras.)
My love of books and stories began at a young age. We had many books at hand—from Mother Goose to the classics, and everything in-between. My mother kept many of the children's books as she changed locations over the years—for use with her elementary students and, I suspect, for enjoyment by (future) grandchildren. Even with down-sizing in the past couple years as she released various possessions to her daughters, there were still a number of leftovers—many tattered and falling apart.
I recently helped my mother move to a retirement apartment—a charming space, but with little room for extras. As I stared at the soon-to-be-orphaned books at her old apartment, I thought, I’m a writer. A reader! I have to rescue them…and…and…I may have grandchildren someday. Who cares if I don’t have shelf space for them right now? I grabbed a box and started filling it. Here are a few titles:
1. THE TALL BOOK OF MOTHER GOOSE, with pictures by Feodor Rojankovsky (1942.) Held together with tape on the spine. Gorgeous illustrations that I remember well.
2. WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG, by A. A. Milne (249th printing, 1958.) A sweet book of poetry with delightful drawings. Its pink cloth cover is worn and frayed. It is dedicated to his son (I’ve added punctuation): To CHRISTOPHER ROBIN MILNE—or as he prefers to call himself, BILLY MOON—this book which owes so much to him, is now humbly offered.
3. LITTLE BLACK SAMBO, by Helen Bannerman. (This copy is a reissue, but the original story was written in 1921.)
I adored this story with its clever hero, and loved how the tigers turned into butter at the end.
4. LITTLE WOMEN; LITTLE MEN; and JO'S BOYS, by Louisa May Alcott. (Circa mid-1800’s)
I loved these classics as a pre-teen. There was no original publication date listed in these newer editions, but in Jo’s Boys, the author has included a note:
Having been written at long intervals during the past seven years, this story is more faulty than any of its very imperfect predecessors; but the desire to atone for an unavoidable disappointment, and to please my patient little friends, has urged me to let it go without further delay… L.M. Alcott, Concord, July 4, 1886.
5. BLACK BEAUTY, by Anna Sewell. (Paperback edition, 1968.)
I was obsessed by horses as a young girl, so this book was a great favorite.
6. LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
(14th printing, 1975.) We have a recent copy of this book, but I couldn’t leave this faded old friend behind. I loved all the books in this series, and lost myself in Laura’s adventures.
Reclaiming these precious books has sparked a sense of self-discovery: my gifts as a writer were nourished from a young age by a rich diet of words and stories. I have my parents to thank for that. Like us, these books have aged: broken spines, bent pages, fraying edges…well-worn; well-loved. Just like us.
Oh! Thank you, God, for a lovely day.
And what was the other I had to say?
I said, “Bless Daddy,” so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember. God bless Me.
Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.
(Excerpt of A. A. Milne’s poem, Vespers, from When We Were Very Young)
I say "I'd love to."
My son says, "I'm down with that."
I say, "Cool."
My daughter says, "Sweet."
Ah, language. It is the writer's metaphorical life-force that propels us as we navigate the page. We search, explore, and find surprises that can take us in many directions. And, we often need look no farther than our immediate family.
My elderly mother tends to speak in "code." If she says, "I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning, it could mean "I was still sleepy," OR "I was dizzy and my heart was racing."
Last Christmas, she asked my daughter to add a little water to a vase of flowers "when you have time." My daughter cheerily agreed, and went back to reading her book. Ten minutes later, Mom whispers to me, "She doesn't get to things right away, does she?" I whispered back, "She doesn't know your code, Mom." She laughed.
My husband teases me about things I say--in pure innocence!--that are unintentionally funny. For instance, last month I bought a cut of pork butt to make pulled-pork sandwiches. I cooked it in
the crockpot and saved the broth for soup. The night I served the soup, my husband asked what kind it was, to which I replied, "Vegetable. I made it with drippings from a pork butt."
My husband said, "Sounds good."
My teenage son got very still, and with a pained expression said, "Drippings from a pork butt?"
Oops! I realized I was speaking in cook's code.
(For the record, the soup was a hit.)
Switching to writer's code... The beauty of language is ours for the taking. I, for one, am down with that.
This is a little spin on my “Characters I Have Known” series. Settings can be inspiration for a story, a character—or simply mined for atmospheric or physical detail.
I grew up next door to a college chapel. This beautiful gothic-style building had a soaring roof, antique stained-glass windows, angels carved into wooden beams, and long wooden pews. Assemblies, concerts, graduations, and other special events were held there.
It was also the ultimate spot on campus to play hide-and-go-seek with other “campus kids.” I remember resting once in a small back stairway that led down to the basement--my heart pounding painfully from the exertion of running. What fun! The basement was a damp-smelling jumble of classrooms and offices, and I remember the sound of my bare feet smacking the concrete as I darted from place to place.
My family would occasionally attend concerts there. One of the most notable being the popular singing group that would cause pessimists to run for the hills: Up With People. (Sing it with me now: "Up, up with people/You meet ‘em wherever you go...")
Let it be known that I’ve been an unrepentant optimist ever since.
Not all of my experiences were as sunshiny. I’d taken piano lessons at the college all through grade school and junior high, and guess where they had the end-of-the year recitals? Trust me, there is nothing more humiliating than slaughtering “Hungarian Rhapsody” (Liszt) on a grand piano in a big, echoey space…with witnesses. That one did it for me: after I slunk back to the second pew, I decided I was Done. With. Piano. (I took up guitar soon thereafter.)
There are poignant memories, as well…
On the side closest to our house, there was a set of steps leading to a heavy wooden side-door. I helped my father up those steps to attend the 1979 Commencement Ceremonies. His health had been failing for a couple years (long-term effects of childhood polio,) and I carried his portable oxygen tank. Years later, someone reminded me that then-governor Bill Clinton had been the commencement speaker. Really? I only remember sitting next to my 54-year-old father, listening to his labored breath and worrying about him. I was nineteen.
Less than two weeks later, I sat at his Memorial Service in that chapel—listening to the college jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” (requested by my father prior to his death—he had a spectacular sense of humor), and the “Hallelujah Chorus” played on the amazing pipe organ. Those loud, fantastic notes vibrated the chapel in celebration of a great man.
In 2009, I stood in the chapel with my mother and sisters for another kind of ceremony. We looked out over faces of our families, as well as guests we hadn’t seen in many years—friends, relatives, former and current college staff—all there to honor the memory of my father, The Rev. Dr. Charles E. Angell. We presented the college with a bronze plaque to hang outside “Angell Hall” —a multipurpose room in the newly renovated basement.
The late-June sunlight illuminated the deep blue of the stain glass windows over the balcony. I was nervous, but in a different way from my junior-high self. This was nervousness born of excitement and love.
As part of the ceremony, my sisters and I sang a song I wrote in my father’s memory entitled “Then I Could Count the Stars.” The last line of the chorus: If I could count my every blessing, then I could count the stars.
What a beautiful experience in a place that has touched my life at so many points. It is a setting rich with details that are locked into my memory--waiting to cast inspiration on my page. Like my father, this chapel has left me with a legacy of stories, of emotion; of love.
On a two-leg flight recently, I decided to make note of what other passengers near me were reading. On the first leg, my row mate was reading CATCHING FIRE, book two of The Hunger Games trilogy. Good choice! (I later cringed when she folded the page to mark her place.) The couple across the aisle weren’t reading anything.
More readers were on the second flight: My row mate was reading LONE SURVIVOR, a military memoir. The man across the aisle was engrossed in STRATEGY FORMULATION AND IMPLEMENTATION, a book about business models. His female row mate was reading MOCKINGJAY, book three in the Hunger Games trilogy. Good choice!
Lastly, the man catty-cornered to me was reading a magazine article entitled, “Perils of Panflation.” (Me either. I looked it up just now: it refers to global up-sizing and super-sizing things like clothing and food.)
To summarize, we have:
Two Young Adult novels by the same author
One business book
One magazine dealing with global economy
In my strictly unscientific analysis, the women apparently preferred losing themselves in a good novel. In this case, a dark, troubling—and extraordinary—make-believe world. The men apparently preferred reading about true acts of heroism and bravery during war; viewpoints on the world economy; and developing and maintaining a successful business. (Details from a sometimes dark, troubling—and extraordinary—real world.)
What are the larger implications? No idea. But it was fun being a stealthy observer—a literary Harriet-the-Spy, if you will—surreptitiously gleaning titles and writing them down in my handy little notebook. Once my mission was accomplished, I settled in with my copy of Writer’s Digest.
Hmm… I wonder what that says about me?
I’m pleased to introduce my first guest, singer/songwriter Greg Trafidlo. Greg hails from Virginia, which makes the fact that I met him at a Chicago-land dog park pretty amazing. We chatted as our dogs played, and soon realized were both songwriters. We kept in touch and subsequently did some co-writing, which resulted in “Carved in Stone” (see My Musical Side.)
Greg has a long list of performance and publishing credits. His song “Crossing Over Into the Valley,” co-written with Barbara Martin, was recently recorded by Charlie Sizemore for his Heartache Looking for a Home CD. He frequently backs up folksinger Tom Paxton, and has been a fixture at The Swannanoa Gathering for many years.
Greg is particularly skilled in the arena of humorous lyrics. When he emailed me his parody of the children’s book GOODNIGHT MOON, by Margaret Wise Brown, I knew I had to post it here. He kindly allowed me to parley it into an interview. Enjoy…
by Greg Trafidlo
(With Apologies to Margaret Wise Brown, Author of GOODNIGHT MOON)
In the practice room
There is a microphone
And a red guitar
That I play in bars
Books about my music heroes
A computer full of ones and zeros
Reject-letters, paper reams
Legal pads and broken dreams
Next-door neighbors yelling, “Hush!”
(They don’t like my music much)
Goodnight Fender Telecaster
And amp so loud it cracks the plaster
Chords augmented and diminished
Verses that I never…… finished
Goodnight lyrics, goodnight chair
Good night tunes lost in the air
Goodnight posters on the wall
Pleasant dreams, goodnight to all
We’ll meet again at day break when,
With luck, the muse returns again
CAK: Welcome, Greg. Your parody is brilliant--how did it come about?
The director of the Roanoke Regional Writer’s Conference—which is held at Hollins University—sent out a call for entries for parodies of GOODNIGHT MOON, by Margaret Wise Brown. She graduated from Hollins in ’32, and they were having a year-long celebration of her work.
CAK: So…did you win?!
Being selected to present it was really the award. There were some good ones! These were all pro writers—mostly novelists and short story writers from the Roanoke Regional Writer’s Conference. They want me to teach a songwriting class at the conference at Hollins in January. I guess that’s really my prize.
CAK: I love your attitude. Do you have any advice for writers in general…particularly those of us who are seeking publication?
All the good things that have happened in my career have occurred because I’ve tried to put myself “out there.” Meaning, going to Nashville and other music cities; performing; entering contests (I won the USA Songwriting Competition in the Novelty category.) And, I’ve performed with some of the biggest names in the business just because the timing was right—including Tom Paxton, Janis Ian, and Peter Yarrow.
You can either sit at home and hope for a career, or you can put yourself in a place where good things can happen. Find out what you’re best at. I’ve been very fortunate—by doing these things, I find out where I fit in the food chain. Most of the radio airplay I get are for my funny songs. That’s what gets me heard. And I love writing that kind of material. When I was asked to contribute to the GOODNIGHT MOON parody contest, it was the kind of challenge that I love to have.
CAK: Great advice. I’m inspired by your perseverance and positive outlook. What’s up next?
I have some gigs with Tom Paxton coming up; and I’m contemplating my next project…possibly a compilation of my funny stuff. On a side note, our co-write “Carved in Stone” will be performed on Memorial Day at The Vietnam Wall Memorial (in DC) by my friend and co-writer, Barbara Martin.
CAK: That’s wonderful news, on all accounts. Thank you, Greg, and best wishes in your writing/songwriting efforts.
SPECIAL GIVEAWAY: Greg’s latest CD, “Carved in Song,” will be given to a random commenter. The contest will be open until Sunday, April 29, and the lucky winner will be announced in my next blog post. (I’m biased, of course, but trust me when I say it’s a fine CD!)
There are characters all around us. You know the type: folks that are unique and stand out…or make an impression on us for one reason or another. Pure gold for a writer! This will be a series that I’ll revisit every few weeks.
Ethel P— was the self-proclaimed hostess of the small liberal arts college where I grew up. She was retired and lived in a trailer on the edge of a small field that abutted the Science Building. Lively and eccentric (at least to us kids), she dashed around campus in stylish dresses and high heels; grey hair piled high in a bun. Full of purpose, her manner was brusque and no-nonsense, tempered with a sharp sense of humor.
No doubt she accomplished a lot in one day.
Apparently she had studied ballet at some point in her long life, because my sister and I were invited over for a ballet lesson. I loved to dance, and visions of graceful leaps and twirls floated through my imagination. Perhaps this would be the beginning of a new hobby, eventually leading to a pretty outfit and toe shoes. I could hardly wait!
At the appointed hour, we met Mrs. P in front of her trailer in the shade of a large oak. She was wearing a black leotard and ballet slippers, but no tights—due, I suppose, to the summer heat—which under most circumstances would be fine. However, the grey body hair protruding out from the edges of her leotard was a bit much for a pre-teen. My excitement was eclipsed by embarrassment for an old lady who was leading us in deer-like leaps through the parched, brown grass.
That was the extent of my ballet career.
Mrs. P was one of those “real-life” characters who continues to live in my memory in a file marked “Fond.” And who knows? She just might take a “deer-leap” into one of my stories someday.
Last week, my family and I spent a few days in Galena, Illinois. This beauty-of-a-historic-town had it’s boom during the 1800’s when lead ore was in demand, and at one time it’s population exceeded that of Chicago. Now, instead of bustling with riverboat commerce, it bustles with tourists. Attractions include quaint shops, exemplary restaurants, President Grant’s home, hilly streets with beautiful old mansions, and the sleepy Galena River where one can walk atop the levy for a nice view of the river and town.
Back to the exemplary restaurants…
We splurged one night and ate at Fried Green Tomatoes, a highly-rated establishment that features—you guessed it—fried green tomatoes. (Delicious, by the way, even if the tomato was mostly a vehicle for melted cheese and a marinara sauce. Mmm…) The setting was lovely, with exposed brick walls, dark wood, and elegant light fixtures that were dimmed for appropriate ambiance.
The attentive waitstaff brought us warm parmesan-encrusted Italian bread and a big bowl of salad for sharing. Our entrees were exceptional. Here are the exact descriptions from the menu:
Chicken Marsala—a breaded chicken breast sautéed with marsala wine sauce with mushrooms, potatoes and roasted onions. (Me)
Tortalloni—spinach and roasted garlic stuffed pasta, tossed with asparagus, zucchini and tomatoes in a citrus cream sauce. (Husband)
Gnocchi Primavera—potato gnocchi sautéed with sweet peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and sugar snap peas in sesame oil. (Nineteen year-old vegetarian daughter)
Meat Lasagna—hand rolled with fresh cheese and sausage with our house red sauce. (Seventeen year-old carnivorous son)
Our conversation ran along these lines:
“You have got to try this.”
“This is so good.”
Too stuffed for dessert, we walked one block over to the above-mentioned levy where we enjoyed the mild temps and a black sky painted with stars. Tree frogs serenaded us as we strolled along, wrapped in the peacefulness of the quiet town. There was sweetness in simply being in each other’s company and enjoying the moment.
Beautiful details; beautiful blessings.
My writing routine has been jiggled around the past couple weeks…by glorious weather, of all things. Chicago, land of weather extremes, has been Chicago, land of consistently warm days and mild nights. Things are blooming in March that shouldn’t be. Fifty percent more skin is feeling the sun and breezes. Neighbors are (gasp) mowing their lawns.
I’ve been dragged away from my computer by flower borders pleading “Rake me! Rake me now!” By my dog, Luci—queen of tragically expressive looks that imply wouldn’t now be the perfect time for a walk?” (There’s a chance I’m projecting…); and by my gardening instincts that are springing to life about five weeks early. Not that I’m complaining, but I usually count on March to be chilly and dampish so I can continue to hole up in my cozy office.
On the plus side, I’m noticing details I’ve never noticed before: The magnolia-like tulip trees that are plentiful here smell sweet and wonderful. And the flowering pear trees that are are in every third yard, absolutely stink!
I’m guessing that in previous years, the cold temps held the “scent molecules” at bay. This year, said molecules are riding the warm air currents with reckless abandon. Luci must be confused by our intermittent walking speed as we either linger in areas of heady perfume—or speed past the white-blossomed beacons of manky-ness.
At any rate, I’ve decided to take the philosophical approach: Next time the siren song of perfect weather pries my fingertips off the keyboard, I’ll grab a dog leash or gardening gloves and head outdoors…all in the name of writer-enrichment.*
*See? Writers can rationalize anything.
Have you noticed how emotional association with a “place” can strengthen memories of it? Like the college cafeteria where I dropped my tray: The sound of dishes and utensils hitting the hard floor, followed by snickers and scattered applause from my friends… My memory skates right back on the feeling of embarrassment.
Years later, in early September of 1997, my family was on vacation in the Pacific Northwest. We spent two days at Crater Lake in Oregon—a crystal-clear lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano. The afternoon we arrived, we drove around the perimeter and stopped at various overlooks. I was in awe of the astounding beauty of the place, and amazed that we could see the other side, seven miles away.
We lingered at the overlook for Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone in the west end of the lake. It rises several hundred feet above the surface. Amidst this incredible beauty, and the happiness of being on a trip with my family, I felt sad; my heart heavy. I wasn’t alone in my grief—the world had been reeling from the death of an English princess for two days. I wasn’t a fanatical royal watcher by any means, but this compelling woman had been a part of my life since 1981.
I’d been traveling in England a few weeks prior to The Wedding. Every shop window displayed pictures and mementos of the royal couple, and my friends and I were caught up in the excitement. The day of the wedding, I turned on the television before dawn and watched her walk down the aisle in her fairytale gown. She’d been part of our culture ever since. “Always around” in television and print.
And now she was gone.
As I leaned against the guard rail and reflected on the demise of Diana, I formed an emotional connection to Wizard Island. To this day, that connection carries me right back: I see the rugged, conical-shaped island reflected in the glass-like water; the evergreens growing straight and tall; the expansive blue sky; my husband and kids nearby… It is an emotional swirl of grief, beauty and location.
There’s a purity of emotion when it is connected to “place.” As writers, we tap into this well of emotional truth—enriching our work with memories that are three dimensional, and details that are often as clear as the water in Crater Lake. Feelings of love, sorrow, joy, anger, embarrassment, happiness, accomplishment… Hop on and see where they take you. You just might find the detail you need.
We all write under the influence of something, be it emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual. These are factors that affect our output in one way or another.
Today, I’m writing under the influence of bluegrass music. My husband and I heard a Chicago band Saturday evening called Sunny Side Up. The members were talented musicians who delighted the audience with musical prowess on mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, and fiddle. Good singing and a humorous stage presence completed the mix for a terrific show.
I’ve noticed a pattern. Every time I experience great live music—whatever the form—it bolsters me creatively. My imagination neurons seems to fire faster. Why? I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps I’m inspired by the high standards, or maybe it’s a result of the happy joy I feel while listening. Perhaps those notes and melodies are absorbed into my psychic bloodstream. Whatever it is, I do know this: when we steep ourselves in creative excellence, we are influenced by it.
Stellar writing is another example. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes is my favorite summer read. I submerge myself in her beautiful sentences and barely come up for air. Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow, Doc) is another author who wows me with her talent. And there are many more writers whose skillful handling of language impresses and feeds me…a gift beyond measure.
Of course, there are other influences that affect our writing: amount of sleep, responsibilities of daily life, inner and outer harmony, self-discipline or the lack thereof… the list goes on. It’s how we respond; how we internalize/process/overcome these things that makes us—and our writing—unique.
Today, I have rhythmic echoes of Bill Monroe in my fingertips—the residue of great music mixed with my imagination. Creative excellence…my favorite kind of influence!
What’s influencing your writing today?
I often find myself viewing random details with the eyes of a writer. For instance, I don’t just see half-melted snow on a sidewalk, I see melted shoe-shapes in the snow on the sidewalk. And the light shining in my bathroom window? Nothing so mundane. I see light reflected in tiny droplets on the glass, like miniature suns. Or, that strange winter’s night when the street was a black ribbon that disappeared into the fog…
Does this ever happen to you?
I blame it on Sol Stein. In his excellent book, Stein On Writing, he admonishes us to write in a writerly fashion. In his chapter “The Writer’s Job…,” he writes:
“Despite our alleged reverence for fact, the truth is that our adrenaline rises most in response to effective expression. When a writer or speaker understands the electricity of fresh simile and metaphor, his choice of words empowers our feelings, his language compels our attention, acceptance, and action. When Shakespeare speaks, when Lincoln orates, we are moved not by information but by the excellence of their diction. Alone in a living room, our book lit by a chair-side lamp, we are enraptured by what is said because of the author’s choice of words and their order on the page.”
In other words, be creative and original. At the end of his book, he has “Ten Commandments for Writers.” My favorite is #7: “Thy language shall be precise, clear, and bear the wings of angels, for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers.”
Now that’s a directive.
I’ve found that being writerly encompasses not just writing, but the way in which I interpret the world around me. Details are processed through the filter of creative language, and from there to words on the page.
Be alert, be aware, be writerly… and listen for the whisper of angel’s wings.
(Thank you, Mr. Stein.)
There are characters all around us. You know the type: folks that are unique and stand out…or make an impression on us for one reason or another. Pure gold for a writer! This will be first in a series that I’ll revisit every few weeks.
Gertrude Temple was an elderly woman who lived in Hunt, Arkansas--a town in the Ozark foothills consisting of a church, a few homes, and not much else. I’d heard about “Miss Gertie” from my father--a college professor and ordained minister who would “supply pastor” occasionally at the Hunt Presbyterian church. One Sunday, he invited me to accompany him there. We were greeted by Miss Gertie, who was a thin, elderly woman with white hair. Sweet and welcoming, it was her job to unlock the church each Sunday. And afterward, she always invited the minister to her home for lunch. She’d been doing this for years.
After church, she led us to her tiny two-room home that had paint peeling off the clapboard exterior. Dad and I sat at her kitchen table--about half the space in the room--as she served us a delicious lunch of roast beef, green beans, and mashed potatoes. Miss Gertie didn’t eat with us, but hovered in the background making sure we had everything we needed. This was due to the fact that she had no teeth. The most she’d do was gnaw on a dinner roll.
I only went that one time, but I’ve never forgotten this woman who gave such loving service to others. I later heard that a group of teachers and students from the college swooped in one Sunday morning while she was at church…and scraped and repainted the outside of her house. When she returned later with the visiting minister, she had the surprise of her life: a freshly painted house and a bunch of cheering people. What a gift for everyone involved! Over forty years later, I still get teary thinking about it.
Miss Gertie was a character who lives on in my memory. And in this case…my heart.
Who is a character you have known?
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a concert by a dear friend, Russell Stern, pianist extraordinaire. His program was entitled “Songs of Love,” and he played pieces by notables such as Chopin, Puccini, Rachmaninoff and Gershwin, as well as his own compositions. Several of his pieces were accompanied by other amazing talents, such as Mark Agnor, violinist, and Laura Hamm, flautist, among others. The concert was in one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen—Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in Glenview, IL.
One of Russell’s compositions was called “Heartsong,” and included flute and violin. He explained how it was inspired by images of a man and woman falling in love and marrying. The three parts represented the man, woman, and the presence of God. It made both aural and visual sense—the melody was beyond lovely, with the three instrumentalists playing together and in counterpoint.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between this piece and the elements of a story:
Setting. A beautiful church with wonderful acoustics, where notes floated up past golden walls to kiss the curved, blue ceiling.
Characters. Three instrumentalists interacting in a meaningful way, eliciting emotion from the audience.
Plot. In the form of intricate melody—a framework for the thrilling nuances of love. It had a beginning, dramatic middle, and satisfying denouement.
This composition opened my heart in the same way an incredible love story does—where at the end I’m breathless; caught up in those final reverberating notes as they dissolve into light and air.
Then I breathe again, and cheer.
Have you noticed how something ordinary can reach out and grab you when you least expect it? Some might call it a waking dream, others might call it a sign.
I was sitting in an airport Starbucks last year during a layover. I looked at the cardboard “sleeve” on my tall soy chai (no foam) latte and read: Stories are Gifts. Share.
Not only was it a lovely directive, it was an affirmation for writers and storytellers everywhere. Being in the middle of manuscript revisions made it especially applicable—a little tap on my shoulder from the universe saying, “You are doing something worthwhile. Keep it up.”
The other customers probably interpreted my big smile as “she’s really enjoying that beverage!” Wanting to share the love, I collected a couple more sleeves during my trip and gave them to my writing pals at our next meeting. Mine is still pinned to the bulletin board in my office: for inspiration and a nice memory.
There’s synchronicity involved, don’t you think? Here’s a place that is a magnet for writers and readers who enjoy a dreamy beverage and either reading, writing, or chatting with friends. It’s all about connecting and sharing and enjoying life. I call that (raising my biodegradable cup) a very good sign, indeed.
Writers use the power of paradigm to great effect. An unexpected twist, a shift in how a character is perceived, a unique world view that leaps out of left field… The possibilities are endless.
I was once at a seminar where the presenter played a recording of what sounded like a New Age-y choir. There were many voices—men and women toning and harmonizing in a way that was interesting and lovely. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. And then the presenter said, “What you just heard was a recording of grasshoppers…slowed down 10,000 times.”
Grasshoppers, folks. Talk about a paradigm shift! I experienced the connectedness and intelligence of life around me in a new and unexpected way. It was life-changing. When I now encounter a field of grasshoppers, I know that beneath the cacophony and seemingly randomness of sound, there is order.
This is the gift writers give readers: the pleasure of paradigm shifts and surprising perspectives that make a story even more enjoyable and compelling. And it all starts with funneling creativity and imagination into words on a page.
Now isn’t that just plain fun?