Silence in the face of Life…

My recently published novel is dedicated to my sister, who passed sixteen years ago today. In a sense, it’s a tale of love in search of itself, a particular conversation we fell into all the days of our shared life. Sixteen years ago this day my spiritual heart stopped beating, when all talk between us ceased. The light of my world then dimmed to darkest gray. Even before the terrors that followed just a month later on September the eleventh, I had grown numb to  living world. Words began to fail me. I had nothing to say because I could feel nothing.

Those days were difficult to write about. I found it difficult to write and live at the same moment. Either I could observe the whirlwind around me and comment on events with ironic wit or weighty prose, delivering profound utterances of life and love. Or, I could be in the moment, allowing sadness and pain to wash through the confusion and chaos, spinning itself into threads of memory that inform the heart.

I used to believe that writers could perform through the pain, that nothing served a good poem or fiction better than pain of loss. How simple I was. There’s writing and there’s writing. Writing essays about technology and business can be a distraction from life as it often was for me. An exercise in mental gymnastics, pulling and stretching abstract concepts into new forms, establishing principles in the manner of the Greeks. Looking for meaning in meanings.

Not all pain can be overcome with words and now in dire moments of living—in the loss of sister, mother, father—I am paralyzed, unable to call words to my bidding. And so the experiences of my last moments with Char were enshrouded in the darkest caves of my heart, unable to catch the light.

The story lies in truths buried in the heart, rising up through memory and currency to this day into this book. I wonder what other stories lie within waiting to be born.

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Writing Family: A favorite uncle

Family stories grow out of what we remember about the characters and relationships of our families, or from stories passed down from earlier generations.

When we write about our families, we are writing about characters who have loomed large in our lives, or people who have had an impact on who we are today. We rely on wisps of remembrances, emotional charges, and mental images of places, people and events.

We want to record our memories of people before they are lost to the ages. But how do we write about them? Even if we have no mementos or pictures, we still have our memories to draw from. How do we pull these scraps of memories together into a cohesive picture?  I mined the depths of my own childhood for images  to create the following portrait of a favorite uncle.

My Uncle Henry was a giant man, well over six feet tall, weighing two-hundred and forty pounds, and solid as granite. He walked with a pronounced limp and would hoist himself into the kitchen chair to park for the evening with his cigarettes and coffee. A stroke had left him with the sagging face of Bell’s palsy. He cleaned restaurants and bars at night, built coffins during the day, and played cards on the weekend. Despite his gruff ways and almost thuggish looks, Henry had a strong sense of good manners, proper language with the ladies, as well as a heart of gold.

There are several types of “stories” which can help us capture elusive details. Vignettes are like smoky old pictures which capture the lights and shadows to give a glimpse of who the person was behind our family member. Character sketches give a flavor of how the person lived in her time, what her values were, or how others viewed her. Incidents show what the person did at a particular time or how he executed the duties of his profession, or how she dispatched a particular episode in her life. Anecdotes are small cameo stories that involve a situation and usually other people.

Whether these forms are memoir or biography or fiction they can be equally effective. The first two genres are from actual people and occurrences, whereas the third genre is imaginative writing altogether. Regardless of how you record these stories, the important thing is just to write them down!

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Your Writing Voice-Uniquely You

Your unique voice comes from the well of memory, a lifetime of feelings and experiences accumulated over a lifetime. Gems of experience forged deep in the subconscious, are small cocoons of thought wrapped in sensory data and bound by emotion, unknown and unremembered. Then a chance encounter out of the blue—a face in the park, the scent of rosemary,  a carnelian shade of red—evokes a past event, half remembered that compels you. Your mind is full of these gems.

The day you fell into the neighbor’s pool at three feet, too short to keep your head above water. You can’t find a hand hold. Your body drifts down to the deepest end. You are drawn toward the company in the blue grotto calling for you to come. You want to but are now aware of the dark shadow overhead, the large hand grasping your slight shoulder, and swooping you onto the cold concrete deck.

At sixteen, you try to write about a moment of fear. But when you call up the memory you find there is no fear in the moment of the seven-year-old. Old remembrances of fear have become curiosity. The bottom of the pool offers comfort. You are curious about those people. Do you know them? You see the grotto as a blue gate into something else. You try to move toward the center of joy. But a dark shadow falls over the pool, and a hand swoops in grabbing your swimsuit. Screaming and shouting on the deck means big trouble will be added to the litany of wrongs you have committed against your family. Through the telescope of time, details are now cast on memory shaping it with evidence of outcomes, with broken rules and probable misfortunes.

In another decade the memory is evoked again in the incongruous setting of a hotel restaurant in Southern California, which is decorated in the manner of a Tuscan villa. I am eating a bowl of pasta and white beans in a natty business suit. Across the lobby, a crowd of well-heeled personas from the art world, perhaps artists and critics and buyers, donned in the colorful patterns of African frocks and suits, topped with fanciful headdresses. They are milling around large paintings of African landscapes and fanciful humans and animals filling fantasy landscapes.

One colorful landscape of greens and yellows falls against a bright blue sky, that blue, the color of the grotto at the bottom of my dream pool. And I am transported to that pool many years before, the water warm and much too deep. The hunger of a seven-year-old for the love and company of those souls in the blue grotto at the bottom of the pool. The bright African colors of awatery crowd calling me toward heaven beyond the deepest blue.

Everything you recall from the past is re-imprinted with new experiences and emotions as memories respond to your expanding view of the world. Because your exact experiences and emotions differ from everyone else’s. The collage formed by memory, education, experience, genetic threads, and much more, are different from those of every once else. You are unique. You draw upon this in everything you write. And this alone defines your unique voice.

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Writing Workshop Fun

Recently I had the privilege of leading a writing workshop for a language arts class in  middle school. Being a night owl of sorts, I was not looking forward to the 7:30 am duty call. But the laughter, chatter and scurrying footsteps filled the silence like a cheerful Mozart sonata. A little nervous, I offered the first writing exercise, wondering how it would be received by the attentive and respectful students. Using their own favorite topics, each created a list of ten words which would form the core of the workshop. The list expanded into ideas from which they could build a poem, write a story, and form a personal essay. The group was congenial and ready to play with their words in many ways.  It was a great day.

You can try your hand at a writing on Saturday November 5 on Whidbey Island at Madrona Writers Workshop.

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Why I Like Writing Workshops

I believe in the power of words and in building my own power with just the right word. I work to find the right word for each idea I want to communicate. This is very important in a poem, It is also important in writing stories, essays and letters, any vehicle you use to communicate to others.

Private writing (not meant for others), such as my journal, is just for me. I am allowed to write anything I want, to explore possibilities, to ask myself hard questions of who I am and who I want to be. Private writing is not for others’ eyes. When I am done exploring my own truths and have made some decisions I want to share, then I write a personal essay, a memoir snapshot, a poem or a story. These are the writings that I share with others.

Not everyone wants to share with others and that is okay. We are all valuable players in this thing called life. We pursue our own dreams. We define our own goals. We get to say what is right for us and what is not. As young people we are under the jurisdiction of others who may not agree that we own our own truths. We must respect authority, and adapt our behaviors in order to move beyond the restrictions of ineexperience. Adaption is often tough. This line between who we are and who they want us to be establishes a base level of conflict in our lives. It will always be there. Luckily, conflict and its close cousin, contradiction, are the stuff of great writing.

Expand your world.

Expand your world.

We can question our lives through thought, reflection, meditation and playing out roles with others. Working through conflict offers the best return on our investment for creating these private writings. Boldly we select those words to grasp our feelings, and explore alternating realities in flights of fancy. From the imagination, poems burst with thunder, stories unwind to justice or to greater love, and essays swirl around misty topics until our truth unfolds to the light. Truth, then, is the great promise of all this writing.

Today we write in order to peck at the edges of our own truths.

Buckle up, now!  Take the ride of your lifetime!

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Returning…

3yrsago mom

I’ve had a little break from novel-wrestling, but it’s been three years. Time to get back to the mill. I’ve expanded my interests to writing essays, playing French horn in the local orchestra, and other random stuff. Hope to intrigue you…or interest you, at least.

Novel writing is my main gig.

For the latest on my adventures in publishing, see A Cautionary Tale in my blog, The Emerging Novelist.

Work hard and play often.

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Dottie’s Attic

My mom, Dot Mudd, died on August 27 in Santa Clara, California, at the age of 89. A month before, she had retired from her day job manaGing a 24 unit apartment complex in Sunnyvale. With the departure from that job, she lost her home of 30 years, a 2 bedroom townhouse that was filled to the brim with memories and “stuff” she collected to support her varied hobbies.  My husband and I rented a trailer to haul as much of her life as we could back to our home on Whidbey Island.

The journey through Mom’s life has proven to be a treasure trove, not only of our family’s memories, but of many people whose lives she had graced over the years. As I sift through things known and unknown to me, stories emerge of a beautiful soul who lived by herself, but never alone, of one who guided others to discover their inner joys, and one who rarely compromised with life. She lived on her own terms till the end.

One of Mom’s favorite activites was innovative cooking and many times we would explore the culinary dens of the San Francisco and the Peninsula to find new offerings. One favorite was, the French bistro, St. Tropez on Clement Street which served up a delicious green delicacy, a soup made with spinach and pears. My own composition of the recipe is found below. Probably not the same but a close copy and such a good way to eat those greens.

Spinach and Pear Soup

2 cups chicken broth
10 oz. fresh spinach
4-5 ripe pears
1/4 to 1/2 tsp nutmeg
salt to taste
OPTIONAL: 1/2 c. light cream

SAUTE spinach in 1/2 chicken broth till wilted thoroughly. Pulverize spinach and broth to consistency of soup.|
SAUTE pears in rest of stock until fruit is pulpy (skins will begin to tear). Discard core and seeds, then pulverize in food blender until the consistency of apple sauce. I leave the skins on the pears for fiber; they will pulverize easily as well.
BLEND the spinach and pear mixtures with salt and nutmeg in a soup pot and cook on low for 20 minutes to amalgamate flavors.

OPTIONAL ELEGANCE: Add 1/2 c. light cream and heat just before serving

Bon apetit!

 

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Traveling in Hunting Season


Greetings from Huntington!

Traveling through the American South these two weeks reminds me of our last trip to these parts four years ago. Then, during the 2008 election, feelings ran high for either side as we visited our family and friends through Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Everyone had a strong opinion, yet there was little evidence of the landslide that would end the election season.

Four years later, we find our family and friends in a different mood. Few are polarizing their personal views from Virginia to Florida, some are even turned off to the politicking altogether. The strongest partisanship comes from the televised conventions and the opinionated “journalists” tossing objectivity to the wind and roiling with red and blue hate conjured up by paid ads and party insiders.

I trust PBS to keep things as even as possible, because even where personal bias might appear it is immediately countered with personal bias on the opposite team.

Still it would be nice if we all just got along and pulled the country forward like a well trained team of oxen.

That’s as political as I get.

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Observe and Write


At nineteen I acquired my first full time job at the local dog pound. My  day jobs ran the gamut from fielding complaints of little old ladies about dog packages ruining their lawns to, in my last full time work, fielding complaints of engineers and supervisors about my policy team ruining their lives. In the “busy-ness” of life I gave little thought to the teachers and mentors who had fostered my early bent toward creativity.

As a full fledged writer I developed a new appreciation for the subtle suggestions and wise words floating in my head, words that had been planted decades before. Norman Siringer comes to mind. He was my first Creative Writing teacher. I was thirteen.  The sole assignment for his summer school class was to keep a journal, to observe  our daily lives and comment on them. He then said magical words (at least to me) from Socrates: the unexamined life is not worth living.

The words rolled over and over in my mind all week, all month, all summer long. They rolled on through the years too. I had never considered that I could look at my life. I was too busy living it.  But now I was being asked to stop, to observe, to write it down. And I did not stop at the end of the summer or fade out when the school year commenced. I am still writing that journal today.

My journal has carried me through thick and thin. It has been an unpaid therapist, a steady advisor, a sounding board, a standard and truth bearer about what it means to be me. I observe, I analyze and I write. I question not so much out of curiosity but out of the necessity to be true to myself.

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On Writing


In her book, The Writer’s Workout, writing coach Christina Katz directs her readers to write until “not writing makes you anxious.” I know what she means. Two years ago—well past the date I was to be done with post-graduate school—I found myself in the throngs of a major melt-down, terrible-twos style.  No, I hadn’t been taking lessons from my four-year-old granddaughter. I had simply and clearly suggested to myself that I give it all up. Even my patient and easy going husband had to duck for cover when the ghost of Jimmy-the-Fish, my late father, seemingly rose from the grave to take possession of my will.

Give up my dream? Never! Abandon the motivation which has driven me through my roller coaster life? Leave off the career for which others had been sacrificed? Walk away from the dream I’ve held since nursery school at San Mateo City Park when I first saw a teacher turn a piece of chalk into a word that she picked from a book? In the turbulent rush of memory I saw all the energy in my will whirling away to nothing and like Macbeth, could only whimper that all my “yesterdays have lighted fools” to a dusty death.

In that moment, I realized that I must write, that I am compelled to write by some hidden engine revving my DNA to tell the story. I knew I would finish this book—whether or not I received a Masters in Fine Arts, whether or not any publishers were interested in it, and whether or not anyone else wanted to read it. The book I finished in January is a story of hope and loss, and the enduring power of love.

I hadn’t set out to write such a serious novel. In the nineties, trying to escape from the brain-deadening detail of IBM manuals and endless computing specifications from vendors and software engineers, not to mention corporate politics, I immersed myself into mystery novels, that black and white world of simple problems and easier answers. After reading hundreds of novels, and tiring of writing white papers and strategies for the information age,  I tried my hand at the flighty fun of cozies, where characters danced across the pages through campy capers.

After four years and a half-dozen classes, that first novel was returned with a generous note from an agent that said cryptically “story-telling issues.” For sure, in my campy cozy I had developed archetypes of Dostoyevskyan proportions in what was really a Nancy Drew plot. Everyone, even the janitor, had a distinct character, was steeped in peculiarities heavy with history and motivation.

The stories deep inside me had been leaking out— all the ones I did not want to write about. That is, the trials and tribulations of an Irish-Italian-American girl growing up in a suburb of San Francisco after World War II. Who cared about the ‘burbs or about a kid negotiating around irreconcilable parents? Stories of immigrant grandparents were common and more interesting than mine, whose darkly held secret of fifty years was never revealed, even when my grandfather burnt all the photos and papers after Grandma died. The stories of other pioneer families were older and more important than my Irish family, who settled in San Francisco in the 1860’s. And my grandmother’s story was too painful, too personal as she wasted away in a ratty hotel in the tenderloin, drinking to drown the memories she couldn’t bear.  Even the peculiar story of her father, a man who survived the 1906 earthquake without mishap, but died three months later, from a bet in a barroom that involved a heavy keg of beer.

These are the stories and people that spill over into my storytelling. Every character is distinct. Everyone has a history and is driven by deeply held beliefs, even when I can’t see them. So when I approach a character, a whole history spills out along with a destiny—of character, of progeny, of community. The past that forges and shapes a character also rises up to drive her through the story. Untended, that past will catapult the character into a future carved out for her by others unless she seizes the moment and changes her life.

Change is the critical spark, the transformation that takes an ordinary person and makes a hero. I write to discover those forces of transformation.

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