July 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
It Takes Two: Gift and Craft
As a writer, one of the most difficult situations to witness is another young writer who deliberately murders his talent by refusing to do what is necessary to develop craft. It is a form of suicide, for no matter how beautiful the words, the turn of expression, no matter how gut-wrenching the emotion of the work, without craft, the message weakens and dies before it becomes what it is meant to be.
I have a young writer friend like that. He is very talented, one of the more gifted I have had the pleasure of reading. He loves to read. He loves to write. But he does not like the discipline of craft. He and I have circled this particular issue for years now.
Tonight, he demands to know how I can declare his writing beautiful, how I can say I am moved by it if he does not indeed know craft. In my mind, it is simple. I used this analogy: The first few times you had sex with someone was filled with fire and passion, with freedom and newness, and probably satisfying for you, but I wonder about the partner. As you grew older and learned the pleasure in delay, in focused touch, learned about your lover’s body, developed the knowledge to satisfy both yourself and your lover, the sex grew better, right????
We may have beautiful, sexy bodies, pretty words, a great kiss, an available bed, but we only become true lovers when we learn how to use the beauty, the enticement, the fire, the passion to achieve satisfaction for both people. And I believe that is true of loving and of writing.
I may have powerful, emotional subjects to write about. I may have breathtaking words, phrases, images to use. But, just as with sex, when in the middle of foreplay or the act itself, if I linger too long on one part of the body, or if I don’t vary the tension and intensity of my touch, or the rhythm gets skewed too slow or too fast or just plain monotonous….or perhaps I even stop to answer the phone or go to the bathroom, well, then, I can pretty much forget getting my partner to a satisfying ending. He/She will be back at start and most likely at stall. “We have to start all over again.” His/Her attention will not be so easy to regain. He/She will be waiting for me to get lazy or self-focused and disappoint–AGAIN. My lover will not be satisfied.
If the writer weaves and wroughts a wondrous world and the reader is lost in the sensation and feel of that world and then BAM! the writer interrupts to tell the reader what to think, or feel, or the lover says to his love, “Hold everything, I have to go to the bathroom!” well, damn. The moment is lost. So is the lover. And so is the reader.
February 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
Finally! I thought my characters would grow up and die before I finished the stories in my latest YA novel! Last period placed tonight…tomorrow it’s revision time and then the search for a new agent. Anyone with any suggestions, please speak up!
Tonight, I wallow in a self-congratulatory state…don’t mean that to sound pompous or anything…it’s just a really, really wonderful feeling to finally finish a project when you’ve worked on it so looooonnnngggg. Yay, I did it. Despite the doubts and postponements, the mountains and valleys, I finished another book. I am delighted with the accomplishment.
People often ask what I do. When I say I am a writer, the usual comment is “Oh, I want to write a book one day.” I’ve learned to smile and nod and change the subject. The truth is, not many people really want to actually do the work of writing. No, what they want is to “have written.” They want the opportunity to wallow in a self-congratulatory state, (like me, tonight 🙂 ) and know that they have DONE it. But the actual writing? Naw, not many people will stick it out. It’s tough work. Lonely work. Sometimes frustrating, maddening, crazy work. But if you’re truly a writer, you always go back to it. You can’t get enough of it.
And so I will allow myself a “wallow” tonight because I know that tomorrow I’ll be back at it and on to something new, castigating myself through another journey up that mountain and down (hopefully) into that vale. That’s the way it works.
And I love it.
December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
My Mother’s Hands
My mother’s hands smelled of Chlorox and Palmolive detergent. I remember them fitting the seams of a dress on my young body. They pulled and tucked and pinned, hand-pressing the material into proper folds and drapes. They brushed lightly across my shoulders, straightening the cloth, tugging gently, and they tickled the backs of my knees as she knelt to mark a hem.
They stroked bold brushes of bright colored paints across living room and bedroom walls, unthawed frozen new born puppies cupping them gently, caressing them back to life in the warmth of a space heater. My mother’s hands washed small babies, laundry, and growing boys, patted backs and swiped snotty noses.
They dug, planted, and clipped borders of pink and purple thrift, shelled pecans, beans and peas, husked corn. They mixed and kneaded and baked, decorated birthday cakes, wrapped gifts and trimmed Christmas trees.
They tended old and dying bodies. They arranged flowers for the graveside, set out platters of food, greeted friends and family with a gentle pat. They wiped our tears and folded in prayer at the close of each day.
Now, they’re spotted and wrinkled, gnarled and worn. But the comforting scent of clean and of care remains. They lay folded across her body, nestled in white satin, a worn Bible clasped in one, in the other, a single rose.
Today my Mother’s hands are still.
December 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Excerpt from Reflections of a Porch Sitter
The most extraordinary events are occurring in my life these days. Wonderful, meaningful, R-E-A-L things. Things that , on the surface, seemingly insignificant to the B-I-G picture, yet underneath, on second consideration, are monumental in scope, value, and truth.
Take today for example. A friend is in the process of moving her older children into an apartment of their own. The apartment is in an old house– towering ceilings, fireplaces in every room, and, of course, that Southern favorite, a wrap-around porch, overlooking a picturesque park.
The move is a typical one, encompassing the whole range of emotions that weave through relationships between parent and child, between old and new, between hellos and goodbyes. It encompasses also the many doubts brought about by the prospect of change.
My friend and I have discussed the move often. We have explored the significance of it– how it will affect the family, the adjustments that will be demanded, the costs-both financial and emotional, the need for it, and finally, the ultimate value of it.
We talked of the joy, the pain, the anticipation, the regrets that this move would call forth. We spoke of the importance of homes as they relate and contribute to family survival. We had many questions but no answers.
But then today, as we sat talking on the porch, the answer literally fell from the sky. A soft chirping interrupted our conversation, and as we looked around to find the source of the noise, a small brown head and two bright eyes peered curiously down upon us from the porch eave above our heads. It was a small baby squirrel, apparently fallen from his nest from one of the oak trees surrounding the house. Unfortunately, he had landed on the roof and had not yet found a way to get down. My friend and I smiled up at the creature, and typical mothers that we are, warned him that roofs were dangerous places. He really should climb down.
Our conversation about plans for the house and yard drew our attention away from the squirrel for several minutes, and we did not notice his skittering slide over the eave. A sickening S-P-L-A-T jerked our attention again in his direction, and we watched in shocked silence as spasms of pain caused its small body to shake and quiver on the hard cement walk where he had fallen.
We thought surely he was dead — so tiny, so hard a fall– but as we slid a shovel underneath the little fellow intending to bury him, he struggled weakly to move away. First, up on one foot, then another. But the effort was too great. He slumped, motionless again. My husband managed to get him moved to the side of the house, where he could die in peace. My friend and I returned to the porch.
“Poor little thing,” we commented, but nothing more.
I felt heartsick, helpless, and angry. Why did things like that have to happen? I saw no purpose, no valid reason. I felt a familiar heaviness bearing down on my heart. This was NOT the way I had planned on feeling this beautiful spring day.
Several minutes passed. I assumed Phil was burying the squirrel, but then he called to us to come around to the side of the house, and there among the grass and leaves was the tiny creature, wobbling unsteadily, but alive.
As we watched, his steps grew stronger, his tail twitched nervously, and he began to move directly towards us. He made soft chirping sounds as he explored our shoes. Such a tiny baby, probably not even a month old.
We watched, fascinated, as he fearlessly explored us, alternately smelling and chirping, walking steadier with each passing moment. He showed no fear in spite of the terror he had experienced, in spite of our towering presence, and our strange smells. He merely reached out to us in TRUST.
Spying what appeared to be two squirrel nests high in the tree in the back yard, we began walking slowly toward them, thinking that perhaps the mother squirrel would spy her baby on the ground. The little fellow followed determinedly right behind. Wherever we were going, he was going too.
Two of the younger children joined us in the backyard. The baby squirrel sniffed and chirped at them just as he had done to us. They seemed as much in awe of this small creature as we were.
We tried to coax him toward the tree, but efforts to get him to climb were futile. We were afraid to actually touch him. Not that the fear was unwarranted, but what a powerful contrast to the show of trust he offered us.
In the end, we had to leave him there among the leaves beneath the tree. We left him alone and helpless, hoping that perhaps when we left, the mother squirrel would find him.
My thoughts have continuously drifted back to that little squirrel all night. It is late now, and I wonder if his mother did find him, if she was able to rescue him. I am left with that vision of bright eyes staring into mine and of that fluffy, twitching tail.
In spite of this lingering sadness, the most extraordinary thing is my sense of awe at having been in the presence of such complete trust. I can tell my friend now that it is not necessary to have all the answers– we just have to have TRUST
December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
Published in Cows: A Rumination by Carl Hileman. Ennis Press
©The Breath of Cows
It’s storming outside. One of those mid-afternoon, summer storms. Thunder grumbling, lightning flashing. The rain spits and spats on the windowsill, running in little streams over its edge and down the side of my study wall. I can’t resist opening windows when it rains.
The sounds and smells of these storms so often take me back to childhood. I can still smell the slightly musty odor of my grandmother’s house and the earthy scent of the yard, a smell I call green—freshly mowed grass and spring onions. The rain brought out other smells too, those from the chicken yard and the garden where my grandfather spread aged cow manure. All had to do with the growing things that were so much a part of our country life.
My grandmother, Nannie, would call me inside from the storms, and we’d curl up together on the bed by the open window. I can still feel those soft, almost-damp sheets and the cool breeze that brushed across my legs until I pulled up the light cotton spread, ever at the foot of the bed, to warm myself.
Most often during those storms, Nannie read to me, and other times we’d lie quietly, listening, breathing in time with each other while the thunder rumbled and the lightning flashed.
“The angels are moving God’s furniture around, and the devil’s cracking his whip,” she’d explain.
The sounds, the smells, her soft, gentle voice, all calmed, soothed, and chased away anything that might frighten me back then.
Today’s storm reminds me of Martha, as well. She was our milk cow, and she grew terribly nervous during such storms. Invariably, she interrupted our quiet time on the bed by galumphing as fast as she could to the bedroom window, stretching the rope that tethered her to the oak in the side yard until Nanny and I were certain it would snap. But it never did. There was just enough stretch to allow her to reach the window and rub her wet nose against the screen, pushing against it so hard there was a permanent sag in the center. Her brown eyes rolled around and back into her head with each rumble and crack from above. From side to side, she’d rock her body against the wood siding of the house where she had long-since worn away the paint.
When the noises settled some, and the rain slowed, Martha remained at the window, blowing soft puffs of warm air through the screen, watching us with her wide, soft eyes, her ears alert for the soft murmuring of Nannie’s voice.
“She’s a right smart cow,” Nannie always commented, and I would nod, believing that Martha, like me, got lost in the wonder of the far away places in those stories my grandmother taught me to love.
With the storm spent, and the story done, Nannie would rise to finish the thousand chores that filled her every day, while Martha plodded back to her place under the tree, content to nibble at what grew beneath. And I slept dreamlessly, perfectly at peace there on that bed cradled in the lingering warmth on one side by my grandmother’s soft body and on the other by Martha’s sweet breath.
I loved those storms then, and I love them now. Regardless of the years come and gone, in spite of the losses and fears of the present, for a few precious moments, the storm and an open window bring them back—Nannie beside me; Martha at the screen. I am home again. Safe. Secure. Cradled in love.