How To

How do you get over this? How do you go through the motions of being a responsible adult? Pay the bills, clean the kitchen … carry on as if you didn’t just create a living breathing multi-faceted heart racing story rich with blood and bones and human foibles. How do you step away from the page?

How do you stay with the page and fight off the creeping sensation that you are the only fan of this story? All that will ever be, because it won’t see the light of day. You’ll fail somehow. Fall on your face when an agent rejects it. Maybe never send it to an agent or a writerly reading friend, or anywhere at all.

The story full of fear and hope and shame and memory will sit in a doc file until doc files are obsolete, and you never really accomplished anything other than spending hours, weeks, a year of your life wanting. In between the day job days and the chores and hitting that submit button for yet another of all the online payments in your life, maybe what you really did was waste daylight and ink.

In between sporadic bouts of self-care and wish lists, and allergy attacks, you have handmade characters so real all there is to do is reach out and touch, say good morning. Good night. Sweet dreams until tomorrow. Everything will be okay, eventually. Tell me how to keep them alive.

Tell me how to get to the end. Not THE END. That’s just around the corner. But the end of the process, the culmination of imagination, inspiration, hard work. What’s next? What comes after the end?

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Reading Everything: Butler, Bradbury, Didion

The air has been sweet, breezy, and clear, the mornings cool and the afternoons bright but not the hot wet blanket that can happen this time of year in this part of the country. We’re in June’s sweet spot right now, a pleasurable time that can’t really be predicted from year to year but it is to be savored while it lasts. Even so, I haven’t taken the opportunity to sit on the porch in the evening and read at length. Last time I tried it was too easy to get distracted by the big puppy tasting the clover blossoms.

Those are for the bees, I told her in a scolding tone. She just looked up at me with a blank expression and spat out a little flower then went right on to the next. She clips the little white cap off with her teeth, rolls it around in her mouth for a minute then makes an audible paah as she spits it back to the ground.  I get the impression she’s annoyed that the little white caps keep coming back, the way she pounces in the center of one of the patches of clover each trip outside. Clip, roll, paah.

Oh well, the bees, what few I’ve seen, seem to prefer the wild strawberries this year anyway. Most of the neighbors would be appalled by so much clover on their lawn. I like the cheerfulness of the blossoms. Wishful thinking or not, I take those cheerful blossoms as a sign of a gentle summer. The sweet spot of June may just be ending today and I never got to read outside. But I did read. In the car at lunch time under a shade tree, in my favorite chair at home. The chair that I sometimes wake in after midnight with the last words of a story still playing through my head. Sometimes I read standing at the kitchen counter when I should be doing dishes. 

This week I finished Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler, three short stories in Ray Bradbury’s I Sing The Body Electric, and several pieces in We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, by Joan Didion. All of these are physical books, two of which were borrowed from the library. The Didion collection is a book I’ve lugged from house to house for a number of years and only recently opened. God Almighty that woman can write her ass off. The landscapes she paints all around the varied pieces in this collection are breathtaking and wondrous.

Bradbury successfully mimics such an array of voices in his short story collection that I couldn’t really decipher what his intentions were. The first is so Hemingway it can only be about Hemingway, the second—if it came along a few years later—would have been thought a direct rip off of Monty Python’s style of satire. But it predates the heck out of MP.  Brilliant mimics those first two stories. The third is that voice of his alone that I went head over heels about several years ago—that matter-of-factly presented but still chilling warning against technological progress and the reliance upon it. Hubris and the future won’t mix well, he says in The Veldt, in Fahrenheit 451, and in Tomorrow’s Child.

Clay’s Ark was a great deal more brutal that my first two reads from Butler’s body of work. A different kind of brutal than Kindred. It’s violent, horrifying, and of course, Butler made it delicious. Much as I love Bradbury some of his stories make me squint and catch myself saying eh … come on Ray. Butler’s never do that. I just accept every word as truth.

Last night we sat beneath one of those skies that’s often featured in werewolf movies, eerily wispy white clouds, black sky, and big moon. Today the air is murky and promising storms. The clover has stopped spreading and doesn’t look so cheerful anymore but gardenias are blooming by the front entry. They smell dreamy.

 

Reading Octavia Butler

Like many good things, I came to Octavia Butler’s writing late in life. Two weeks ago as a matter of fact. Two glorious weeks ago. Of course, I had heard about her work, heard her mentioned by feminist writers and scifi aficionados. Taking so long to seek out her books can only be attributed to my shocking talent for making lists then losing them for months or years. Thank goodness I finally rediscovered the list that included her name among must reads!

I chose to begin with Mind of My Mind because the premise is so much like (on the surface) a story I’ve had on the back burner since 2009. In this unassuming little novella lives the tale of an immortal who’s spent centuries developing a “breeding program” from which he hopes to gain a powerful telepathic descendant. I read the book jacket and thought, okay, okay. Let’s see how she did this.

What she did left me speechless for days. I read it cover to cover in 2 1/2 days—finishing only took me that long because the pages were yellowed and the font tended to get tinier and blurrier the longer I read. I will be requesting that the library get a newer copy for the sake of their readers’ eyes. Poor original print choices aside, wow. Wow.

Most admirably, the ins and outs of Butler’s premise doesn’t need a definitive explanation. Her presentation of character, of spoken and internal dialogue is so effortless that no question of plausibility can arise. I didn’t crave a detailed origin story for Doro, in fact, giving the whys and wherefores of his abilities would have ruined the story. What the author did was create a situation, a group of characters that made me want to know what was going to happen next. Even that question of what could possibly happen next was subtle but still powerful enough to drive me on. 

Just today I learned that Mind of My Mind is a sequel. I did not need the prequel in order to understand this story. Isn’t that beautiful?

Her language is so straight forward that blurbs and reviews go on and on about simplicity. We’re so accustomed to scifi being packed with technological, ideological, sciencing science that straight forward readable language has been deemed simple. Scifi expectations aside, I’ve read enough of everything and written enough of my own stuff to know that this kind of effortlessness on the page is rare because it’s just damn near impossible to produce. The work she must have put into developing her style!

It’s easy to forget, or to not even think about, the effort an author puts into bringing their work to the world. Years of it. Practice and frustration and self-tutoring and try try again. Octavia Butler worked. And oh my giddy aunt did it pay off!

Book two for me was Kindred. (Finished in four hours.)  And again, wow. Besides the straight forwardness of language and effortless style of writing that leaves no need for questions of how or why any of this could possibly happen, the author manages to give insight into one of humankind’s own monsters.

In this story Butler depicts perfectly the mysterious dichotomies of love and hate, crippling fear and assumed power, cunning and obvious insanity that allows one group of humans to hold another captive. The slave owning, killing, torturing, loving ancestor of Kindred’s protagonist epitomizes the men who took for the sake of taking and made up all sorts of self-righteous bullshit reasons to keep on doing it.

Notice I use the word allows above. I choose that because it still happens. Men like Rufus existed long before the slave trade came to America and they exist today. The crimes they commit just change window dressings from time to time. This story is powerful on so many levels it may take me years to pinpoint each. It may take me that long just to be able to adequately describe the fierceness of the protagonist, Dana.

Besides that gorgeous straight forward language that manages to build perfectly formed, utterly plausible characters and unquestionable situations, Butler brings us fierce women capable of dealing with shit the world throws at them. In an interview back in 2000, Butler said the black feminist characters in her stories “behave as if they have no limitations”. I love that. I love that she puts together fictional situations where the real dangers of our world exist but the women in the stories react as they should, not as they could.

Fast Forward: Octavia Butler Interview, 2000

There There, by Tommy Orange

So many reviews call this book shattering, I would call it just the opposite. This story picks up the broken shards of lost stories and puts together a contemporary explanation of what happens when the past is forgotten just enough to haunt. With multiple characters speaking across the city of Oakland, Tommy Orange weaves together old beautiful language and street slang by equal measure with an innate talent honed by years of practice with great teachers.  He aptly constructs images of people most of us wouldn’t have guessed could survive at all with such pain and unnamed rage, out there somewhere, existing unsure of where they came from or why.

These are people struggling through the question of authenticity, struggling through the question of why they suffer that question and all the side-effects of suffering—addiction, violence, inexplicable fears, the shadows of memory out of nowhere. These are people that Mr. Orange presents to us not as characters but neighbors, co-workers, those people we’ve passed on the street and wondered why they just can’t straighten out their own damn lives for God’s sake. They are burdens straining the edges of society, mucking up the ground regular people walk on without a clue. Without a clue because the regular people don’t know the origin stories either. History either tossed the pages into a fire or convinced us all none of it mattered anyway, convinced us that we’re the regular people.

In one section of the story a group of Native Americans active in the community get together to discuss the astonishing suicide rates of young Native Americans. Groups like this have worked for years to stop the growing trend, to enact support programs and community outreach. But one man stands up to give a devastating, soul-piercing speech—he equates society, this group included, to someone who’s set a house on fire then told the young people it’s not okay to jump, to save themselves from the fire. As poignant as the analogy is, no solution is offered up. Maybe because the solution is obvious but no one knows how to stop setting the house on fire. Maybe that’s what humans do … build pretty houses just to destroy them in the end. Maybe we don’t realize there’s no real reason to be so fucking destructive.

Maybe if we took a minute to think here and there throughout the present as it crawls toward the future, we’d come up with intelligent actionable thought that leads to the right conclusion—stripping any one culture of its origin stories strips humanity of its of humanity. This sort of crime perpetuates crime, and ensures the kind of tragedies that take place at the end of There There to keep on keeping on. Not knowing where they come from convinces people their future doesn’t matter. Who can survive thinking their future doesn’t matter?

There’s a lot more to Mr. Orange’s novel than this. He shares the pain, the defense mechanisms, the unfocused rage and self-doubt of twelve people living in a specific time and place. The pain and the defense mechanisms and the rage, the city that rebuilds its identity in spite of its bland urbanity erasing identity, works together to tell a very complex story that left me heartbroken and irrevocably in love, ashamed and optimistic, lost and eager to find myself.

I can’t say if the author intended for his story of this very specific set of peoples’ struggles to be universal, but I certainly hope he appreciates that it can be. And I doubt, even as a student and writer, that he cares much about a middle-aged student and writer’s own struggle with identity, with culture and lack thereof. Maybe it’s all just too personal of a tale for me to internalize his truths and lies and fears and beautiful language. Maybe I make just another Caucasian-influenced faux pas in my decision to love this story and use it as a lesson for the future.

My grandfather was told to check white in the race box a long time ago, and though he never explicitly stated an explanation or his mother’s reaction to doing just that, I can surmise from his behavior as an old man that living without the old stories and without his mother’s people haunted him. Hurt him. Despite the negative results in his own life, he wouldn’t share what he knew of his ancestors with me, not really. He danced the perimeter of his garden and sang the memories of Cherokee songs, told stories in the language I couldn’t decipher.  He passed on memories I can’t quite remember, and gave me a hunger for something I may never be able to search out.

There are days and nights that I know a crime was committed, a robbery of stories that I should know and be able to repeat, to glean lessons from. Maybe. But who committed the crime? Those Army officers at a World War II recruitment office back in the 1940s who willingly cowed a shy young man, or the shy young man that somewhere deep down knew better? Or his mother, a Cherokee woman whose name isn’t on any of the roles, who left no documented evidence that she ever existed at all? My grandfather did leave me with hints of his own story inadvertently, by leaving me with advice on the night of his death. He told me that looking toward the future was important. And he told me to never walk into a room unless I could walk in like I belonged there. He told me to never allow anyone to treat me as less than.

All that tells me a lot about his life, and leaves me heartbroken. Irrevocably in love.

Thank you for writing There There, Mr. Orange.

 

 

The Dim Light of Understanding

Waking up by 6 a.m., tending to the dogs, making certain the bills get paid and I brush my teeth regularly would be responsibilities even if I didn’t have a day job. The following is a repeat of a pep talk I have given myself before. Maybe you need it, too.

I long to work for myself, from home. Many times during a single day I fantasize about possessing the funds to stay in the house and write.  Many times during a single week I suffer bouts of bitterness as I drive through traffic toward the lowly day job. And only once or twice in a single year will the dim light of understanding settle on me: I need this right now.

I need the structure of it, the added responsibility, the accountability, the socialization. I need to be needed as a problem solver, a friendly face, a voice of reason. Imagine that. And yes, I need group health insurance, a tiny tiny 401(K), and a dental plan. I need to continue learning, absorbing productive structure, creating inter-office administrative organization that is efficient and pleasing to the eye. All of this will prepare me for the future in which there is no boss to answer to other than myself.

Daily reminders to be grateful for what I have need to be a thing today, tomorrow, and ten years from now regardless of whether my paycheck comes from the corporate beehive or a publishing house.

Get up, Kathy. Write in the early hours, feed your dogs and let them run in the backyard while you shower and prepare for that drive in rush hour. Go be a grateful person.

Rain Rain Rain

Last year I e-published two poetry collections and a short story. My goal was to follow up with ad promotions and social media blitzes in hopes that reviews would roll in but life kind of got in the way. Without promoting the ebooks,  25 copies sold and Kindle Unlimited users got another 125, which pleased me. Still no reviews, though.

I’m one of those weirdos who believes just about any criticism can be constructive (especially when given by other writers), so the lack of reviews have been disappointing.  Now that I’m working up a list of agents to send my novel to in hopes of traditionally publishing, my mind is clouded with lack of feedback and my sporadic social media presence. (Apparently a writer is supposed to have stuff like that in their bio.)

So, now I’m going to start what I should have done a year ago: Whoever out there is a Kindle Unlimited user and hasn’t read and reviewed my titles yet, I’ll be glad to return the favor. Hit me up with the links to your stuff poets and novelists! All it does is rain here and I’ve got a comfy chair to sit in while perusing books 🙂 All of my titles available for Kindle

Summit

Four writing projects—that’s all I’ve ever finished. Self-imposed major projects with self-imposed deadlines for the sake of the right to call myself A WRITER.  The fourth being my first attempt at a novel. I finished.

In all honesty, I finished the major points of the story necessary to build the novel I had in mind. There are still line edits, plot polishing, and lord only knows what else to be done to actually make it THE NOVEL (it’s away with first readers right now). But the point in all this is to say, I finished what I set out to do. I am done with a lowercase d in a satisfactory amount of time. Not by the first self-imposed deadline, but within a time frame that I can live with.

If it sounds like I’m giving myself a lot of leeway here, it’s because I am. This is my eleventh draft of a story whose main character whispered her name to me 9 1/2 years ago. My first earnest attempt to turn a three-segment short story into a book started four years ago almost to this day. But frustrations pushed it back in a drawer. If I were to list those frustrations in a single post, I’d sound like a crazy person. So, I’ll spare us all that for now.

The image of that mountain with all the blue mist and mystery was taken by Stuart Bennett and shared on Unsplash. I nabbed it about two years ago and put it in a collection of images to stare at when thinking about the novel I was going to write … someday. If I ever figured out a title, and if I figured out what the main character really wanted, and if I was ever able to articulate what the story is about.

 … a story of grief, friendship, horror, love, home, and badassery, all told in Holly’s southern voice.

That’s a sentence I came up with yesterday. YESTERDAY. In an attempt to make a one-line pitch if ever asked what my story is about. People have asked—when I make mention that I’m writing a NOVEL, hey what’s it about—then I go on and embarrass myself by talking and waving my hands until those unfortunate people’s eyes glaze over.

In my collection of images I have one of an old mountain cabin that looks like it emerged from the land covered in age and ivy rather than being man made. There is also a big white Jeep Rubicon with fog lights and a wench and a lift kit. There is a man with broody brows, and the photograph of a Memphis office building with a mile-long view of the river.

There are maps of narrowing roads stretching across the state of Tennessee, of mountain passes in Afghanistan, and enough gun searches on Google to put me  on the ATF’s watch list. Not to mention a copper tipped brass cased forty-caliber S&W bullet in  my makeup bag—I’ve been carrying that around for a year now. Tangibles are important.

Writing a novel that contains people you adore is difficult. Like, spine crushingly heart wrenching, cold sweating difficult. And guess what I’ve discovered?

That’s not even the hard part.

 

Haiku & Other News

There are azaleas bursting to life in the front yard, and an unwanted pond in the back. In the meantime, while my head has been full of finishing THE NOVEL, Daniel Paul Marshall has shared some of my poems over at The Zen Space.

Thank you, Daniel. I adore the photographs featured on the Showcase and can’t wait to devour read all the other poems featured!

One Of Those Days

Today is one of those days full of enough sun to fool you into thinking winter has given up its labor. So desperate for mornings free of gray cold rains spent warming the car and trying to untangle another cardigan from dog hair, you squint into those golden stripes of warmless sun and decide not to mind the wind threatening to chase it off.

You decide to ignore the fact that the patches of green burrowing out of dormant lawns are weeds, not real grass. You decide to sidestep shadows clinging to corners in spite of all that bright light at their edges. You’d freeze to death in those narrow swaths of darkness, promise.

Hopes surge strong as another day of almost is promised on the heels of the first. Color is suddenly craved with a strength equal to that of your winter coffee cravings. Once your cardigan, the only one akin to a pastel left over from a clearance sale two years ago, is free of stray blond canine locks, optimism gets the better of you. It’s decided: sandals are the only suitable choice of footwear.

This means, of course, you have to tend to frightful seen-nothing-but-fuzzy-socks-for-months-feet. This task will spend a high percentage of your faux spring energy boost. More coffee won’t hurt anything. Sip a mug full of sweetened caffeine while soaking those poor feet, you’ll be fine.

Lavender toes, almost-lavender cardigan, strappy black sandals, a pasty lick of ankle and neck showing, you go out the door looking forward already to a lunch break drive under yellow skies. Delicious, frothy yellow-gold skies. Not a drop of warm in all that froth.

Memory Fades

There is a fifth season. Autumn has its golden light and breezes that sift away bright leaves. Winter has its dreary skies, slick roads and frozen windshields. Spring births greenery and multicolored blooms, brand new allergies. Then there is Summer’s damp blanket heat and late concerts of insects wanting more.

Weather forecasters don’t mention the fifth season much, because it is an anomole that can bring itself forth betwixt any of the big four. In the past Mudhole Days have swallowed up entire Tennessee Springs and Summers. Confused Autumn and Winter so badly one year the harvest moon showed up in a three hour long hard freeze and mosquitos swarmed on Christmas Day.

The Mudhole Days have no celebrations, only the solemn rituals of floor mopping and staring at bad hair. Some parents warn their children that this is a time of dreadful suffering, so eat your vegetables or else.

The old folks say that back before the internet happened, one fifth season lasted an entire year. But the weather channel claims not to have any record of such a thing.