Hurricane

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Hurricane Florence is bearing down on North Carolina. If you’re reading this you’re likely in the path of it, or at least of a part of it. We all know the drill – get food and water, gas up the car, tighten down the hatches, get ice. It sounds easy when listed like that, but it’s not. There are lines at the grocery stores and the shelves are empty, lines at the gas pump and people cutting in front of you, or bags over the pump handles, the freezer is void of bags of ice, your mind is constantly scanning for what else needs to be done.

Is the patio umbrella down? Should it be brought in? Do we need to take down the porch swing? Is there something I’ve forgotten? Something I’ve forgotten? Something I’ve forgotten? The echo goes on until it’s over. The question can never really be answered.

Twenty-two years ago Hurricane Fran hit NC and came inland. I lived in a cheap apartment in Chapel Hill in an area that was prone to flooding. My neighbors in one apartment moved out in a rush that very night, taking everything they had with them and not cleaning the apartment and digging up the irises they’d planted and taking the bulbs. I made sure I had plenty of food and cat food and candles. I put the legs of my furniture in plastic cups and hoped that if my apartment flooded it wouldn’t rise above the rims.

The hurricane came at night. Neither I nor my cat could sleep. I stood at a window (which was pretty stupid) and watched the trees whip around against the streetlights. Then the electricity went out and everything outside was dark and all I could hear was the wind. Around 2:00 a.m. there was a knock on my door. It was my neighbor Dawn. Water was coming into her apartment. We decided to vacate and see if we could stay in another friend’s place, up the hill from us. But first Dawn needed to move her car. Water was creeping into the lower parking lot. I called my friend and got the wrong number and woke someone up. I put my cat on the refrigerator and told her she could jump up there if need be (as if she needed my permission) and we walked up the hill with our flashlights to Tift’s place. Tift wasn’t home. We walked back and knocked on the second story apartment of another friend, and he said we could stay there through the night. Unbeknownst to Dawn and me there were fallen live wires all over the place during this walk. The wind had died down but it was still raining. We were lucky. It was pure dumb luck. The best kind. Sometimes I think the only kind.

The next day we returned to our apartments to assess the damage. Only a little water in Dawn’s. None in mine. My cat was fine and happy to be let out. The sky was clear. The air smelled like pine from so many snapped trees. The ground was covered in green needles and green leaves.

My first novel was published two weeks later. In the days preceding this event I was living without electricity. One day a neighbor came by to tell me there was a truck with free ice at University Mall. I got in my car and managed to snag a five-pound bag. I made rice and beans for a group of neighbors and gave candles to others. I got fired from a cleaning job because I’d mouthed off when my client complained about Duke Power taking three days to get their electricity back on. I’d said, “It’s an infrastructure. There are crews from other states up here helping us out. Maybe you haven’t noticed but there was a hurricane.”

There’s no moral to this story unless you want to read it as a cautionary tale not to mouth off to a client. But the real point is this – be patient with people. We’re all stressed out. Be patient with yourself too. After going out into the world of commerce, with varying degrees of success and failure, to get ice and gas and another cooler and butane canisters for the little one burner stove I bought after Fran, I forgot to put water in a pot in which I was steaming vegetables last night. I burned the pot. I berated myself for doing this. I don’t usually make such mistakes. “That was stupid,” I said to my husband.

“Yes,” he answered, “but you did a whole lot of smart stuff earlier.”

That was nice.

In the store where I bought the extra cooler, I thanked the clerk and said, “I’ll see you on the other side,” right when he said the same exact thing to me. We smiled and laughed.

Be safe. Be wise. Be patient. I’ll see you on the other side.

Holding Onto a Young Heart

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I am at an age where I look back on my younger self with great tenderness. I wonder what happened so early in my childhood that my confidence-slate was completely wiped cleaned. There are of course institutions and people to blame: parents, adults, church, school, advertising, TV, other children, teachers, etc. etc. etc. We’ve all suffered something.

What happened to my confidence was no one person’s fault. It was a system, a tsunami of cultural messaging that I couldn’t untangle from, that wrapped its tendrils around my feet with every step I took, that pulled me backwards, or down, or away from expressing my own heart. I knew my heart, but I could not speak it without experiencing ridicule, or arguments, or someone denying its truth. As a result, I became an extremely silent child, a child afraid of being wrong, a child afraid she was wrong. A child who felt stupid, and bored, and who retreated into herself more and more as time went on.

I loved the woods. In the woods no one asked me to point out Taiwan on a world map, and no one asked me to recite multiplication tables, and no one asked me to give my life to Jesus. In the woods I could trust something. I could trust the woods. I could trust myself.

I used to fantasize about living in a cave – a furnished cave with a bed, and rugs, and a cat, and books. But what would I eat? I wondered. Cereal would be good, I thought. I could sneak back home and steal boxes of cereal. But I’d need milk. How would I keep the milk from spoiling? In the end, it was the lack of refrigeration, not the lack of a good cave, that kept me stayed put.

I stayed with my family and I stayed in school and I became a teenager with the usual teenage concerns. One day a boy said to me, “You don’t talk much, do you?”

“I guess not,” I answered, taking in what I perceived as criticism.

“It kind of pisses me off,” the boy said.

So it was criticism.

I talk now. I’m 64 years old and I’m a novelist and I can carry on a conversation with a stranger and I have a public life. Some days I wake up a little panicked over this. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I knew that books were written by writers, but I noticed that I didn’t know anything about the writers themselves. If I ever saw a picture of a writer it was on the book jacket. Becoming a writer seemed perfect for me. I could present a book, but not be seen. Well, things changed, and here I am, a writer with a public life. It’s not bad though. It’s helped me gain some confidence, but I sure didn’t start out with it.

So these days, I look back on that child, the child I was, the child with her confidence-slate wiped clean and I look at who I am now, and I see that tender skinny child with the long, gangly legs and the soft hair on my young arms, the arms that I never raised in school when a teacher asked a question, and with which I hugged myself down in the woods. I see that young girl trying to please everyone by not existing, and not speaking her heart, and I feel sympathy for her and I also feel a smidge of pride, because I know that while she did not speak her heart, she did hold onto it.

 

Writing a Letter to a Character

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I wrote a letter to my character today. I told her that I thought we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. It was my fault – all my fault – or the fault of social media. But I’d made the choice to be on, and overuse social media. And as a result, I was fractured. My inability to focus, to nurture, was no way to treat a young work just trying to take hold. As a result, our travels together have been rocky and strange.

My inattentiveness did not strangle her, which tells me she is a strong character. But I cannot say she wholly trusts me. Or maybe all those fissures at the beginning of the work are fissures carried through, the way a crack in porcelain will spread until the whole white surface is a web of thin grey lines. This is not what I want for my work, and not what I want for my character or for me. I wrote a letter saying all this, and apologizing. It was a sort of “I’ve been a bad boyfriend” letter. Will you please place trust in me? Will you please help me be a better writer of your story?

I kind of despised myself as I wrote that letter. I’ve been with this kind of man, and I’ve let this kind of man beg his way back into my graces only to be dashed by the same sort of bad behavior he apologized for in the first place. Why should my character trust me? Why should she open up to me? What have I done to prove I deserve it?

Well, to make my case: I’ve stuck with it, even through my own inabilities and frustrations. I’ve written 306 pages. I’ve shown up every morning and written – well, most mornings.

So, is she speaking to me? Or am I blocking her with my own ideas or doubts? What if I keep writing and the end never comes in sight? What if I declare an ending, even though I know it’s not right? What if I wrote a letter to myself reminding of all the beautiful things in this novel, the rich fictional world I’ve created? What if my invitation for her to tell her story in this world is already being answered? What if I can’t hear it? What if I hear it but doubt its sincerity? What if? What if? What if?

Some novels come on full force. Some characters grab you and say, “Listen up,” and you have no choice. Some characters are quieter than others. I have a quiet one here. I should understand that, since I’m quiet myself. I have a woman’s story, and because of our society women’s stories are complex and sometimes mysterious. I should understand that too, since I’m a woman.

I think what I will do now is write another letter. And this time I will let her write me back.

 

Information Overload

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Every day each human being on earth processes or filters immeasurable amounts of information. Some of this information comes from the media: our televisions, newspapers, radios, internet, podcasts, etc. etc. etc. Some comes from books. And some comes from the natural world. What do you pay attention to? What do you ignore? And what do you count as information?

I count all media as a form of information. I think there is a difference between information and knowledge, and I think there is also a difference between knowledge and wisdom.

I include under the category of media all TV shows and advertising. In fact these might be the most insidious forms of information because we absorb them and as we absorb they inform us of how life is supposed to be lived. As a child I didn’t question these things. Life was white and middle-class. Mothers enjoyed housework. Fathers enjoyed coming home to find dinner on the table. Children went to their parents for advice. There was no problem that could not be solved in thirty minutes. We all worshiped the same god. I absorbed all this from TV and advertising, because it was all that I saw. The world of television seemed more real than my own world, but I found something different in the woods behind our house.

This was where I went to escape and to be alone and to read and build forts. As a child I didn’t understand how fortunate I was to have a safe natural area right in my backyard. I didn’t know that many people did not have such a refuge.

In the woods I absorbed different sorts of information. I absorbed smells and observed crayfish and bugs and frogs. I invented games and people and made up stories which I acted out. I met my writer self down in the woods. I met my intuition. I learned to listen to a quieter sort of information than what the media delivered. Or what I heard in school. In the woods things made more sense than in the world of television or people. I’m grateful that I had access to that safe space, grateful for the filter the natural world gave me to sort through the offerings of the human world. The human world was chaotic to me.

That information gained in the woods is still there. That intuition. That ability to find patterns. I’ve lived my life ignoring a great deal of the information that comes from the sources that scream at me the loudest. I believe it is the path of a writer to listen and to sort and to not be led like a sheep by the many voices. I believe it is the path of a writer to be careful regarding the intake. Taking care with intake is the first step to taking care of what we can offer. Offer your best. Best in, best out. It’s as simple as that.

Proof of Seriousness?

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For years I wrote while holding down some sort of job that had nothing to do with writing. The jobs were not glamorous. House cleaning, bartending, carpentry, costumer, clerk in a grocery store, cocktail waitress. Have I mentioned house cleaning? I held that job off and on for fifteen years.

While working these jobs, I occasionally carved out time and finances to attend a writer’s conference. I always got something out of the conferences. I always picked up some new clue to the craft of writing, or some new way of looking at what I did. I made friends and enjoyed being around other writers. But attending conferences can be an expensive proposition. It takes time away from earning an income, and it takes money to attend. I wasn’t able to do it often.

Recently I was alarmed when I heard some advice being dispensed to young writers to attend lots of conferences and list these when submitting a piece for publication. The purpose of this was to prove to an agent or publisher that one is serious about writing.

Attending conferences is a wonderful thing to do, but frankly it proves nothing except that you have somehow found the time and resources to attend a conference. To gauge a list of conferences as proof of seriousness about writing is simply to value writers with money over writers without money. I’m not sure agents or a publishers actually use that gauge. Somehow I doubt it. I imagine agents and publishers gauge a writer’s proof of seriousness by their writing, and their willingness to work.

But perhaps I’m wrong.

Agents and publishers are bombarded every day with manuscripts from writers of every ilk. There are some who could be searching for a simple way to winnow the pile. Perhaps there are one or two (or more) who find a list of conferences attached to a manuscript as reason to read on, and a manuscript lacking such a list as a reason to not read on.

If so, this is a sad thing for literature. Work done outside of the publishing world and the academic world can only enrich a piece of writing.

Listing one’s crappy jobs (in my own list I left out milker on a dairy farm, assistant drum maker, and telephone surveyer) is probably no way to endear yourself to a publisher or agent. Yet, I value my crappy jobs as experiences that have helped me a great deal with my writing, with getting a scene right, or stepping into the mind and body of a character. I know what it is to stand on my feet eight hours a day. I know how small-minded some bosses can be. I know what it’s like to get kicked by a cow and smacked with its shit-encrusted tail. I can write about these things. The back aches, the frustrations, the quickness developed when that mean cow is in your stall. These things are not trivial. They’re important to fiction.

And they’re important to the world too. I stand by my belief that people who do blue-collar work are no less intelligent than people who don’t. This also helps with writing fiction. A basic respect for all people means a basic respect for all characters.

Writing benefits from engagement with the world. Travel is good, and like the writer’s conferences, it’s highly recommended as a way to expand one’s mind. But work can also expand one’s mind. Besides it being a way to pay our bills, it can also be a way to reach out to the world that surrounds us. And reaching out to the world that surrounds us, the non-writing world, is proof of seriousness. In my book, so to speak.

The Art of Listening

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If you are a writer, you must listen. You must listen to your instincts. You must listen to the world. You must listen to the things that lack conventional voice. You must listen to the trees, the river, the deer, the rocks, the fungus, the rust, the sunrise and the moon. You must listen to your characters, to the sound of vowels, to the rhythm of language as well as its meaning. You must disengage, every day, from the noise and commerce and traffic and politics of the world. You must not let anyone tell you how to do it. You must not let anyone tell you what’s important. You must not let anyone tell you that you must do A, B, or C.

What fed your soul as a child?

Find it.

What did you do before the serpent of social media?

Find it.

Where were your secret places before you became an adult?

Find them.

What calmed your heart?

Find it.

What quieted your mind?

Find it.

What circumvented the chatter?

Find it.

What is the last thing you picked up off the ground and put into your pocket?