Tag Archives: writing

So Says The Widow

So–I found this in one of my many “Ongoing Projects” files that I’ve been going through, trying to clean house. I like it–a lot. So I’m sharing. Last time I shared fiction on my blog, a reader got very upset because she thought it was something from my life, a regular blogpost. So be aware that This. Is. Fiction.

This is the day he died. Ten years ago today. Right over there in his old chair. One minute alive, watching something stupid on the TV, drinking a beer, stuffing his face with peanuts, the next a goner, sure as I saw one. His face come over all purple like and he gave one grunt. “Urrff.” Like a dog mid dream what gives but half a bark. I knew from the sound that something weren’t right.

Called them kids but none were home. Out and about, doing whatever. Christmas shopping and such. Or so they said. So I sat here with his old dead body and watched him turn cold and wax-like.

Person takes a while to go, you know. Life kinda moves away from the body. Or maybe the body stays still and the person moves away. It’s an odd thing, I’ll tell you that.

Course I didn’t just stand there and watch it happen. Took a seat, for the show you might say. I’d waited a long time for that man to die. Once upon a time, I thought I’d enjoy the sight. But he waited too long to do it, I suppose. I got no pleasure, but then I got no pain neither.

Come morning I called again. Dickie came, along with Miss Priss, that old thing he married. They was fit to be tied that I’d sat all night with a corpse. “Why didn’t you call 9-1-1?” Miss Priss wanted to know. Couldn’t rightly tell her. But then, I wouldn’t have even if I could. None of her business, I’d say.

Cops came in a squad car, squealing up to the house like it weren’t a dead body they’d been called to see. Then that fat old lardbucket, Waylon Reardan, what got himself elected coroner, and a couple of helpers from Jury’s Funeral Home to do the work, since old Waylon wasn’t capable of moving a dead chicken, let alone the heft of a man the size of Lloyd.

Took the lot of them almost to pry him outta his chair. He’d stiffened up so they couldn’t get him straightened out nohow. Kinda fitting, I thought. He’d lived in that chair so damn long, ended up shaped like the damn thing. Ended up, they had to sort of lift him up, two on each side, like he was some football hero just won the game.

Lloyd’s chair, Got it for hisself the Christmas before he passed. One hundred fifty dollars, cost new. At the Fresno auction. Took hisself down there and bid on it without a word. Brought it home tied down in the back of his pickup. Come into the house with it, squared it up in front of the TV and sat down in it like he weren’t fixing to move for love nor money. Course he weren’t fixing to. What he figured was he’d get me to do all the moving for him.

He’d sit there watching that old black and white TV, and on one of them collapsible metal TV table, he’d collected his ashtray, his beer and that damn bowl of nuts. He’d stare at that TV and yell out to me “Hey, Myrtie, bring me another one of them brewskis.”

Didn’t matter where I was in the house, doing whatever more important, if I didn’t answer him right away, he’d be a bellowing again, “Myrtie? You hear me?”

“I hear you. The dead hear you,” I’d tell him. I’d hand him the beer, and damned if he’d take it without even a look my way.

“S’that all you’re gonna do from now on? Watch that damned thing? You know them rays are poisonous. They shine right out from that there pitcher tube and beam right into your body. Frizzle your organs, they will. I read it. Turn your guts into dried rope.

“Course what do you care since your liver’s already pickled. Lloyd? Lloyd, you listening to me?”

“Oh huh, “ he’d grunt.

“No you ain’t,” I be starting to yell, getting mad-like by now. “I hate it, Lloyd. I hate it when you treat me like I’m some dead wall.”

He’d hear the yell and know he better perk up some. “I hear you, Mama. You said the TV will turn my guts into fried rope and my liver’s pickled.”

“Dried rope.”

“Dried, fried. What’s the difference?”

“No difference. No difference at all. Dried, fried, whatever, dead is dead.”

And, of course, in the end I was right. Dead is dead and it didn’t rightly matter what killed him. Waylon claimed it were a stroke. Who cares. He was dead.

Free Money for Writers

The McDowell Colony

…sort of.

As part of my research for other things writing related, I came across the website, Funds for Writers, which offers, neatly alphabetized, a list of grants writers can apply for along with deadlines and other relevant informaton.

I don’t know about you, but I have long harbored a fantasy of being awarded a fellowship at the McDowell Colony or the like. There’s something about the idea of all of my needs being satisfied in the service of my writing that seems magical to me. As in, I would magically write the purest of prose, with no tendency to procrastinate.

Here’s me as a fellow at a said writer’s conference:

I wake up to the sound of bird song. Is it the fucking jays twittering outside my window or is it the sweet sparrows warbling away?

Ne’er mind–my eyes open and I stretch and yawn and think of the exciting day ahead. All mine, to write, to create, to fantasize whole worlds—to go back to that fucking draft I left in the middle last night because it was turgid and going nowhere, nowhere, nowhere.

I climb out of my nest of comforters and open the front door of my cottage. There, just at the stoop, is a steaming pot of coffee and a wicker basket of freshly baked rolls. Will there be the ones I truly cherish–the baking soda, brown sugar, pecan knots–or will someone else have gotten the only rolls that are talismanic for my daily productivity? I root through the basket, find one twisted pecan knot and feel relieved that the omens for my day seem on my side.

And thus my day at the writer’s colony continues apace, as filled with the dark and the light, the yin and the yang, the blithe reduction to utter absurdity as any a day at home.

For those of you who want the real story, however, I offer this blogpost, All About Writers Colonies. The author, Nova Ren Suma, has surveyed a number of her fellow writers who have actually spent time at some of the most prominent colonies. They offer their experience–and their advice.

My fantasy about being awarded a fellowship at a writer’s colony will always remain hovering, somewhere just beyond my ability to actually sit down and apply. If you are more proactive than I, check out the list of grants from Funds for Writers.

And let me know how it goes. Really. Feed my fantasy with your own experience!

Return to Blogging, Take 2

Here’s my problem: I want to start blogging again. And one would think, what better place to do it than here, in this corner of my website labelled “Blog”.

Except–the kind of blogging I want to start again has little to do with writing or editing or process or revision. Except, of course, when it does. Which is when that thing in front of me, the whatever must be expressed that day, just happens to concern the written word.

Am I making any sense?

Do I really care?

What I miss about blogging, about the kind of blogging we used to do before we got concerned about stats and monetization (have I said all this before? because it feels very familiar…)–. Sometimes we wrote about what we ate for lunch, and sometimes we wrote about the state of our union (if we had one) that day. When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘I’, of course. Sometimes we/I ranted and sometimes we/I moaned.

All of those posts existed at some point in the MidLifeBloggers archive. However, the MidLifeBloggers archive no longer exists. Therefore, my pearls, those gems of my mind for the years ’05-’15 are lost forever.

Do I care?

Not really. And that’s something I want to blog about, why I don’t care–or, to be specific, what it is I don’t care about.

Oh, wait! I just went back a mere six months and lookie what I found:  http://janegassner.com/2017/08/the-good-old-days/ . This is what I said before that feels very familiar–to quote myself back at the beginning of this post.  So read that, and add it to this–and then we’ll see if I’m any better at fulfilling my urge this time.

Writing Prompt & Free Offer: The Things I Carry

Have you ever read Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried? It tells the story of a platoon of soldiers in the Viet Nam war through the things that they carried in the knapsacks. I used to assign it when I taught Comp & Lit at Lehigh. For one, I wanted my overindulged students to get their minds around something other than their latest hookup. Even more, though, I love the idea that we tell our own stories by the things that we feel we need to have with us every day.

  • Empty your purse, backpack, briefcase, or shopping bag and look at what you’ve taken out. Now choose the things that for whatever reason are always with you.
  • Describe them.
  • How are they related? How are they not? What does it say about you that these things are necessary to you?

This is an exercise in three things:

  1. Your powers of description.
  2. Your ability to analyze, to move from the concrete to the abstract, to see the patterns (or lack of same) in things that seem unrelated.
  3. Your willingness to come to a conclusion about what the things you carry say–or don’t say–about you.

 

Bonus offer: Want to know what it’s like to get an Intensive Critique from me? I’ll give a free Mini Intensive Critique to the first five people who send me their drafts. Just save and copy your draft to the Comment section on the form below.

Writing & the Freedom to Fail

A client once said to me,

“Writing this story feels like I’ve set out on the ocean with a lot of heart and grit and a general sense of direction, but I don’t want to spend months rowing hard to get to France only to learn that I’ve landed in Texas.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond.

  • Was she feeling insecure about her writing overall and needing me to reassure her that if she had planned for France, and worked hard to get there, she would definitely see the Eiffel Tower?
  • Or was she expressing some subconscious uneasiness that she was actually on the wrong plotting track?

There was no right or wrong answer here. The first speaks to the general anxiety writers all feel from time to time. We’re sitting alone creating worlds out of thin air; how could we not feel insecure from time to time?

The second speaks to a more complicated issue: where does our writing come from? Whose ideas are these, if not mine? So why do they sometimes turn on me and take me to a place I never thought of–or wanted–to go?

When that happens to me, I’ve learned to listen to my silent self and, at least for a while, give it rein to move at will. Eventually, I either write myself out of that place–or I find that it actually is where I wanted to go. It means, of course, that I have to allow myself the hardest freedom of all–the freedom to fail.

Grammar! Punctuation! Spelling!

How do you feel about grammar & punctuation? Is it the writer’s responsibility, or can it be off-shored to a paid editor?

That’s the going debate on a private Facebook writer’s group I belong to. The responses, which seem to be running fifty-fifty, are passionate in both directions.

All that grammar stuff stifles the creative urge

versus

Words and the correct use of them are an essential part of the writer’s toolbox.

I say both of those are true, and what we’re really talking about is…

The crying need for a First Draft.

  • First Drafts, which I affectionately refer to as the Vomit Drafts, are where you just pour it all out without a thought for whether it makes sense or is legible.
  • The First Draft is the draft that only you, the writer, see; therefore, you can spill your guts with impunity.
  • In First Drafts, you can leave blanks to fill in later when you can’t come up with the words you’re looking for now.
  • You can write notes to yourself in your First Draft remind you of something you want to describe but aren’t quite ready to.
  • To treat the First Draft as a Final Draft in which you focus on correcting grammar, punctuation and spelling is to deny yourself…

The essence of the First Draft,

which is the freedom of discover.

 

Is What I’m Writing Too Long or Too Short?

That’s a question I’ve gotten in one form or another over the years I’ve been working with writers. I’ve come to realize that it’s just one aspect of the obsession we can create around our writing. Let me not worry about whether this thing I’m working on is any good, makes sense, says what I intend; let me instead worry whether there are the right number of words in it.

The quick answer is this: if you’ve been given a word count–write a five page essay….a short story of no more than twenty pages–then follow this formula.   Industry standard for publishing and academia is: one inch margins all around; double-spaced; 10-12 point font. If you do the math, you’ll see that 5pp=1,250 words and 20 pp=5,000 words.

The more convoluted answer is:

A piece of writing, whatever the genre, should be long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.

That doesn’t seem complicated until you realize that the devil is in the details–and the object of that preposition: long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.

This is the tricky part, the place where most writers go off the rails. You must always keep in some part of your mind that you’re not talking to yourself. There’s a reader out there, several or many of them, and they’re not you. They don’t have access to the workings of your mind–your history, both real and emotional; your political leanings; what’s important to you as you live your life; and what’s not. Your audience only knows what you’re telling them. That means you need to make sure you know what specifics you’ll need to tell them to so that they “get” whatever it is you’re saying.

We’ve all been in situations where a story is being told, but it doesn’t hang together. Some information is missing. Some detail, some nuance–there’s a gap somewhere and it drives us crazy because we know that we’d get it, if only that detail wasn’t missing.The other side of that is where the narrator keeps going on forever. He tells you every little detail he remembers, the color of the pants he was wearing and where he bought them. He explain things that seem totally off the point to you.  It drives you crazy because you wish he’d shut up already and stop confusing you with this avalanche of details.

How do you, the writer, avoid making your reader crazy? First, you need to know what you want to say. Is it a concept you’re explaining or a point you’re making? Is it a scene you’re describing or a story you’re narrating? You  need to know enough about whatever it is to determine what your audience needs to know in order to get the point. Does that seem like a mystery to you? Easier said than done? It’s what Roger Angell meant when he talked about the relationship between writing and thinking.

For the second part of the object of the preposition, the no extraneous material part, beware that this is a trap the best of writers fall into. We love the sound of our voice; we confuse clarity with repetition. There are a variety of ways we can get in trouble going on and on and on. For this, the only answer is a firm editing hand when you’re on your second or third draft to make sure that you’re not committing one of the The Sins of Overwriting. I’ll write about them in my next post.

 

When Do I Get To Call Myself A Writer?

Okay, so the little Q&A is obviously somewhat tongue in cheek. But–this is an issue that I hear a lot from writers I work with. Hell, it’s an issue that I dealt with way back when I started my career. I definitely felt that calling myself a writer was a privilege earned. But what was the privilege that earned it? Hence, the four points of the Q&A above. As I recall, however, the whole issue for me was resolved when I applied for a new passport and had to fill in the blank marked “Occupation.” Since my days pretty much consisted of writing, I guess I felt the truth trumped whether or not I had earned the privilege.

The fact that this is an issue for others has something to do with the ambivalent view the outside world has of writers. We do something most people can’t imagine doing. Yet, anyone who is capable of holding pencil or tapping a keyboard can do it. It doesn’t require any education, even if the MFA Writing Programs would have you think so. We tell secrets; we make our version of the story stick; and oh, it doesn’t pay very much, if at all.

In fact, of all the things that make people disparage writers, it’s the money thing. As I wrote the other day in What Real Writers Know, we are a culture that values product over process. The worth of a particular product is determined by how much money it has made. For those not part of our world, the financial end of the writer’s life–who pays us, why they pay us, how much they pay us–is very murky.  And for many, if they can’t put a dollar value to an activity, then it has no value. 

The other day on a Facebook writers group that I belong to, this was part of a long conversation: how do you deal with family and friends who question your being a writer? There were a lot of opinions that ran the range from “Fuck anyone who questions you” to “Do your writing in secret.” Both responses seem extreme to me. The middle ground–have confidence in yourself without needing external approval–strikes me as therapeutically correct, but, damn, hard for a person with a normal amount of self-esteem to do.

Valuing yourself and valuing your writing, no matter what–is it really so hard to do? What do you think?

 

Morning Pages: How do they work for you?

In a comment last week, I responded to Laura of Wordgrrls suggestion about doing Morning Pages with one of my quip-like responses: “I had done MPs for ages (okay, not really, but it’s so cutely alliterative) and was quite successful then. At least doing the Morning Pages; I’m not sure what the rest of my productivity was.”

Every morning, I would sit outside in my garden, with my coffee and cigarettes, and write my three pages in longhand. I amassed a notebook full, and much of it was devoted to a story I had been chewing over for a while based on my version of the life of my mother-in-law. We’re talking Grapes of Wrath with a feminist twist.  I still have that notebook. I still think the story is worth telling. I don’t do Morning Pages anymore.

For one, I no longer have that peaceful brick-walled garden, and I no longer smoke. For those of you who have never smoked, you can’t imagine how those of us who were smokers found our writing process intwined with cigarettes.

So that time and place in my life is over, and with it seems to have gone the urge to do daily Morning Pages. Now I do free-writing of the Morning Pages-type when I’m trying to  dig down as far as I can go into my thoughts and feelings. I just write and write whatever without judgement until…

I’m not sure what follows the until: I get tired…hungry…bored. Or maybe until I’ve gone as far as I can with the topic. Then, whether my three pages are done or not, I start wanting to shape the thing I’m writing and make it presentable for publication.

The unconscious writer leaves home and the editor takes over. I’d like to think the editor is a consequence of forty years of shaping words professionally. That’s part of it; the other part, I think, is that the editor is more concerned with the turn of a phrase or an interesting story line than the utter truth of the moment. 

I have all sorts of responses to myself here. The part of writing that is fun for me has to do with putting the words together that speak the thoughts intended. However, the me who has a grad degree in psych says, “hmmmm, what were you actually working on when the editor takes over? Is it something that you’re uncomfortable getting into?” That’s the me that understands there is a psychodynamic of writing, and I best be aware of it if I want to do more than just go along to get along.

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