Write What Comes

In AWA workshops facilitators are trained to encourage participants to write what comes. Sometimes I’ll notice a writer cringe or look startled after contemplating the prompt. That’s my queue to gently remind them that, “What you write today is what you’re supposed to write.”
A few weeks ago, I had to swallow my own medicine. It was bitter, and I had to fight like hell to keep it down.
The prompt was: Begin with a twinkle in someone’s eye.
I imagined I’d see a kind, elderly old man, or a cherub like child smiling and ready to tell his or her story of love, happiness and butterflies. Nope. What came surprised and frightened me. In our 25 minute writing period, I had to fight with this man who would not go away. So, I took my own advice and gave in.


He hated when she looked at him that way; dark grey eyes twinkling with the beginnings of tears. Tears that would puddle in the corner of her eyes, and then slide down the sides of her face. She never sobbed or wailed or whimpered. She was the calmest crier he had ever known. After he finished, after his last blow, he would step back, dazed with anger and rage, mad more at himself, and unable to remember what had set him off. This time.

She, his wife, would look up at him and not utter a word. He would later swear to himself that sometimes she looked like she was begging him for more. But he knew that couldn’t be true. So he would keep staring, his chest heaving up and down, his fists clinched. He never knew what else to do.

His mother; now that was a woman who knew how to put up a fight. When his pop came at her, usually after a night of drinking and god-knows-what, his mom would pick up the nearest frying pan, broom stick, shoe, or whatever she could get her hands on and defend herself.
“Get away from me you sonofabitch!”
Pop usually got it as bad as Ma, both of them waking up the next day with bruises, scratches and sore throats from all the yelling they done.

Love is a fight and you do hurt the ones you love. He learned that early. He needed to teach his wife that same lesson.
****

This is a first draft and, if you asked me today, I would tell you it’s the last draft too. I have no desire to come back to this story, this monster. But, I suspect, he will appear in another story, or as I continue work on my second novel. Since I confronted him this time, I think I’ll be better prepared to deal with him—or someone like him—next time.

Sucking Lemons; A short story, Part 1

        A letter from my granddaughter Allison came today. She updated me on her roommate situation, her classes at the university, her new part-time job at the coffee shop, and how the rain and overcast days were starting to get to her. She asked about my bingo games, how things were progressing on my Soaps, and asked if the nicotine patch was working. She signed the letter with love and wrote, “Tell Mom I said hi.” She must think I’m crazy. I lit another cigarette and hid the letter in the bottom dresser drawer along with the others.

When Allison was growing up, not a week went by that her mother didn’t remind me of how I had failed her. But over 30 years of parenting, and 18 years of grandparenting have taught me a couple of things. First, never get into an argument that starts with, “You were a lousy mother,” because there is nothing that can be said to change the mind. Second, some kids you just cannot please, no matter what, so the best thing to do is just get on with your own life and hope for the best.

            The trouble with my daughter, Elizabeth, is that she’s been so busy trying to not be like me, that she hasn’t taken any time or trouble to be herself. Whenever I dare to mention that she should go out or get a date or something, she acts like I’m asking her to abandon her daughter on the church steps. She then tells me how she doesn’t have time for “that stuff,” because working and looking after Allison takes all her time. After that it’s her speech about sacrifices and how that goes hand in hand with good parenting.

Did I do the bake sales, PTA meetings or Girl Scouts? No. Not my thing. But I did go through a morning sickness that would have made the Devil beg for mercy. And then those damn stretch marks, followed by a heartburn that kept me up all night. I don’t think I got three straight hours of sleep the whole pregnancy. Some days were so bad I thought I was going to die. And if that weren’t enough, my husband had gone off to fight the Vietnamese way on the other side of the world, and my dad was too busy telling me “I told you so” to be of any help. It was just me alone and getting fatter and sicker every day. And then that officer from the Army came one morning while I was forcing dry toast down my throat. Elizabeth popped out that same day, about six hours later. According to the calendar, she was five weeks early and of course the doctors said it was the stress of finding out about Elton that brought it on. But I wasn’t stressed. I was pissed thinking about how I was going to raise a baby all by myself. Did I sacrifice? You bet your ass I did. I had to move in with my cranky dad, give up all my social activities, and spend the best years of my life breastfeeding, changing diapers, and cleaning up vomit. Dad was about as much help as a bump on a log. He’d bounce his granddaughter on his knee once in a while, but I couldn’t even leave her with him for a bathroom break without him accusing me of dumping her on him. In my opinion, those first five years constitute the biggest sacrifice any mother should have to make for their child. After my dad died and I got the house and a nice little inheritance, I declared my sacrificing days over. And that’s when the problems with my daughter started.

            Now that she’s older and a mom herself, I can see how Elizabeth confused this idea of sacrificing with suffering and misery. So I had a little fun now and then. So I dated, had my gentlemen friends over. They weren’t all bad. One or two of them had some real potential. And this was the ’70s—everybody smoked and had an occasional cocktail back then. We never did any of that illegal stuff; that’s where I drew the line, but anything up to that point was all right, and seeing that this is a free country, and that I was a grown woman with the natural wants and tendencies of any other woman, I had a pretty good time. But every visitor would take one look at my daughter and ask what was wrong with her. Not wrong like she was retarded or something—wrong like she looked like she had been sucking on lemons all day.

Elizabeth was a child who absolutely refused to have a good time. Her dad was the same way, a real stick-in-the-mud.

            She moved out of my house when she was 20 years old, right after she got married. She had graduated with good grades but not good enough to get a free ride at the university, so she stuck it out at the community college for two years and ended up with a piece of paper that landed her a decent job at the local bank. And then she met Dirk. She had reluctantly tagged along with me to the Bingo hall one night, and after about three rounds she got bored and went outside. He was there too, taking a break from his job at the bookstore across the street. The first time I saw them together I knew she was hooked. Just like her daddy had hooked me, so I figured all I could do was just sit back and let the little romance unfold. A few hours before their wedding, I asked Liz what she loved most about Dirk. She answered, all dreamy like, “He doesn’t mind shopping with me. He enjoys it.” The bridesmaids sighed like that was the most romantic thing they had ever heard. I had a different reaction.

            Maybe that’s where I messed up. I knew something was fishy about that guy, but I didn’t say a word. I kept telling myself I knew how she’d react, so I kept quiet and stayed quiet through it all—the courtship, the wedding, everything. But then she came to me one August in tears, telling me how he just confessed to her.

            “He told me that he’s really a gay man,” she cried. When I didn’t answer, she turned on me. “Did you know? Could you tell?”

            I told her no, which was not completely true. Besides, Allison was almost two by then, so what was the point? As far as I was concerned it was a lot more tolerable to have a man run off with another man than with another woman. I’ve had that happen to me more than once, and it sucks. I told her, “Look, at least now you know. He could have kept this secret for years, and you would have just suffered through it, not knowing.”

            “What do you mean suffer? Dirk and I were happy. I was happy.”

            Now she was the one lying. “Oh, please, Liz. The sex couldn’t have been that great with him not being into women and all.”

            She lost it then and screamed at me about how sex wasn’t everything (which confirmed my first thought) and how she and Dirk respected and loved each other on what she called a “deeper level.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I assumed it was a fancy way of saying that something was definitely lacking in the bedroom department.

            “Look,” I told her, “just get a quick divorce and move on. You’ll get the better end of the stick, I guarantee you that. There’s not a judge in Atlanta who won’t sympathize with you.”

            I felt real sorry for my daughter then. She had dreams just like most girls her age, and when they fell apart—when she realized that she wasn’t going to get the white picket fence with all the trimmings—she was at a loss. Luckily, she still had her job at the bank, and she poured most of her energy into that. I got to watch Allison a bit more too, which was nice.

A few years later Liz decided that the public schools weren’t good enough for her daughter, so she made up her mind to send Allison to St. Cornelius, the local Catholic school. But in order to do that she needed my help, and one Sunday afternoon they came over. Allison was decked out in one of those cute, little Navy-type dresses. She had on black patent leather shoes with white frilly socks, and her hat was white with a big navy-blue ribbon hanging down her back. Liz stood there, holding on to her daughter’s hand, and asked me if they could move back home. She said that was the only way she could afford the tuition at St. Cornelius.

            “What’s wrong with the schools you went to?” I asked her. “You turned out all right, didn’t you?”

            “Allison’s too smart for those schools, Mother. I want her to be challenged.”

            I couldn’t help laughing. “Challenged? She’s four years old. What kinda challenging does she need?”

 “She’s almost five but I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Mother. Today’s women need to know how to do more than mix highballs before dinner.”

            “What about Dirk? Is he not paying enough?” I knew he was paying the court-ordered amount but asked anyway.

“This is not about him, and it’s completely my decision anyway.” Allison had been trying to wrench her hand away from her mother to get to me, and Elizabeth finally let her go. I suspect it was a calculated move on her part, including the cute outfit and all. What grandmother could resist? I picked Al up and let her play with the beads on my necklace. They moved in with me three weeks later.

* * *

True Grit and Cat Throwing

A few days after Christmas, the 1969 version of True Grit was on TV. I watched it with my mom. About five minutes into  the move, right before Mattie’s pa goes off with the shifty Tom Chaney, Mattie’s mother looks at her daughter and says, “You can still throw a cat through the south wall.” She was trying to illustrate the sorry state of Chaney’s living quarters, and also hoping to get her daughter to feel a little sympathy for poor old Chaney, which turns out to be a bad judgment call on the mother’s part.

Right after the mom spoke,  I turned to my mom and said, “I bet they cut that line from the movie. Can you imagine the backlash if that line was still in? The Cohen Brothers would be attacked by the SPCA every other Cat Lovers  MeetUp group from Los Angeles to New York.”

Well, not that I am even sure the Cohen Brothers would actually care, but that first part of the story was cut out all together. Mattie gets the audience up to date with a thirty, and cat-throwing-free, retell of the beginning of the story. The  movie opens with Mattie and her servant viewing father in his casket. 

One of the first lessons we get as fiction writers is to “write freely” and to not censor ourselves. But what if we create a character who says, quite naturally, “You could throw a cat through the south wall”? What if our character can’t help but refer to that strange man in her building as “retarded”?  What about all those teenage characters who still use “gay” as a negative?  

I know that my fingers have halted over the keyboard whenever I sense a character going into non PC territory. I stop. I ruminate. I worry.

But then I remember something Flannery O’Connor (my hero) said. After a book review editor accused her of “scandalizing the ‘little ones,’ Flannery, a devout Catholic, sought advice from her priest. After musing over it a bit, she comes to this conclusion:

When you write a novel, if you have  been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business . . .

 

I’m not Catholic, so I tend to substitute “Universe” for “God.” But the meaning is still the same. When we write honestly, we have no need to censor, to worry. Let the Universe handle it.

By writing honestly I mean writing without an agenda. A few years ago I read the fiction submissions for an online journal. I often came across stories that had the writer’s personal beliefs all over it: this writer hates men; this writer is a card-carrying member of the NRA; this writer thinks global warming is a myth; this writer is pro-choice. It comes out in the characters, which are typically presented as one-dimensional.  And the plots usually conclude with these characters either happily learning from their mistakes, or suffering because they failed to learn their lesson. 

Another lesson we learn in fiction writing is to make our characters “real.” Real people are never one-dimensional. Real people are contradictory, possessing both positive and negative qualities.

Understanding the complete picture by fleshing out your characters and discovering their past, helps to create a ‘whole view of things.’ “The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.” (O’Connor) 

Here’s how to get a whole view of things:

  • Follow your characters around all day and take notes about what they do and how they do it.
  • Interview your character’s family members,  their coworkers and neighbors.
  • Make a list of their vital statistics: birthdate, address, income level, education, etc.
  • Fill out a job application for you character, or an E-Harmony or Match. Com profile. (Don’t actually do this–make a real page for a fictional person – they frown on that.) 

Whenever I go through this list with students, I usually hear a few groans. Yes, it is a lot of work  but if you care about the people you are writing about, it should be enjoyable, not a chore. And please don’t expect to use everything you discover in your final draft. The key is to make the reader believe that you, the writer, know more about this person than you are revealing on the page.

 So, getting back to the woman in the building and her strange neighbor, she may call him “retarded,” but she also volunteers at the homeless shelter three times a week, and spends the other four days delivering library books to the homebound. Or she was raised in a family where the term was used with endearment: “Come here you cute little re-tard!”

Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn because he has “true grit.” She wants someone who will hunt down her father’s killer with a fearless vengeance. As writers, we need to have the same sort of fearlessness when we explore our characters. What we discover will surprise, shock and delight us, and our readers too.

 Quotes from, Flannery O’Connor; Spiritual  Writings. Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books, 2003.

Let’s Write!

So we meet at last . . .
RWwrites is the blog for Rose Writers Workshop. I began these creative writing workshops in 2008 and have been going strong ever since. Recently, I became an official Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) Affiliate which means I follow the AWA method in all my workshops– a wonderful and successful method that builds creative and confident artists.
Way back in the 1980s, a wonderful writer and poet named Pat Schneider began working with women from low-income and underserved populations. She designed her workshops to be nonhierachical, safe and supportive. Under Mrs. Schneider’s gentle guidance, writers learned how to unearth and honor their true voices. She named it the Amherst Writers & Artists and has been working with and training others to use the method in their own communities.
What a wonderful gift, and I have seen it work myself in the many workshops I have led.

This blog is dedicated to the many writers who have honored me with their presence in my workshops. It is also for writers and artist everywhere who can enjoy a good story, and maybe looking for new and diverse writing prompts.

Thanks for stopping by and check back soon!

Desiree