The Kitchen Table

The theme this week for the group, Upbeat Authors is ‘Places you’ve found inspiration for stories’. As you can imagine it’s a theme that is seductive in it’s range. I thought of places I’ve lived, places I’ve hiked and places I’ve worked -all have sparked ideas but the one place that has been a constant place back to my earliest memories has been the kitchen table. It has always been a meeting place in my family. I remember sitting at or under the table listening to my mother and female relatives. It seems men were in the living room or out in the yard.

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But in the kitchen, at the table, sat the matriarchs and the sisters, cousins and daughters. Best friends and even the Avon lady gathered at the kitchen table -there were plates of cookies or a coffee cake and ruling all was the fountain of elixir –the MrCoffee machine fueling the words. All news, gossip, raves, rants and sorrows were shared over coffee at the kitchen table.

Memories spilled from the circle of women. Mom and Gram with my sisters and me shared the latest letters from aunts in Ohio and D.C. After school girlfriends and homework littered the table while dreams and crushes were shared. My family was definitely populated with more women than men and yet, this oddly gave the men more power. They ruled from their place at the head of the table but it was only for quickly eaten meals. Suppers were times when we listened to tales of bravado and masculine work dramas, while my mother sat silent eating her supper of dry toast and black coffee. We never questioned her diet, it was why she was thin and pretty. Suppers were times of extremes and their memories provide tension and black moments in my writing.

But the rest of the time, the kitchen tables of my life had more healthy, happy times. Scrabble games with Gram and Mom enveloped me and my sisters in fits of giggles. I learned some words and combinations sounded funny, their music was joyful. Even at the end of my Grandmother’s life a gift of a can of baked beans from Harris Teeter sent her into peals of laughter. Her last name was Harris and the Harris Teeter brand caused her to lose it, the contagious laughter leaving us gasping for air and wiping away tears. I think this love of the sound of words made me fall in love with poetry.

Listening to stories and memories around the kitchen table. It was the throne of matriarchy in my family. So much of my life was filtered through the gatherings at the table. So many old stories became the spark of a story that made me wonder ‘what if?’ The kitchen table in my life became the opening line for so much of my life and what I write. Certainly every poem ever published bore circular fee cup stains from the kitchen table. #UpbeatAuthors

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Family secrets

Secrets and lies. Every family has them. Events are omitted purposefully from the family history, questionable relatives are white-washed, stories are half-told or not at all.

This makes for great reading. We want to know why and who and how. We cheer the plucky heroine as she unravels the mysteries of the past to explain the present.

I’ve been playing with writing our family history. I say playing because, like the tablecloth I’ve been cross-stitching for 50 years or more, I pick it up and put it down again, leaving it for months at a time. I could tell the story with no trouble. It’s what I put in and what I leave out that makes me give up and go to something else.

There are amusing anecdotes that come easily. But how do I write the sometimes horrendous events that also make our family who we are? Does posterity really want to know? Do they need to know? Or should some secrets stay buried until they are pushed so deep that no one remembers?

It’s easier when you are writing about fictitious characters. They can be as angelic or evil as our imaginations can paint them. Their stories hurt no one except other fictitious characters. And as the author of their imaginary lives, we can heal them with our words.

But in real life, the truth can hurt. It changes how we feel about not just our forebears, but about ourselves. If they are not who we thought they were, then we are not who we thought we were.

So I write a few pages and then come to a stopping point when I realize I don’t really want to include some things. I wrestle with the necessity for telling the whole truth or not telling the story at all. I hope some day I will be brave enough to include the ugly as well as the noble.

It’s much easier to write fiction.

 

 

And the winner is…

Nature is trying to kill me.

I don’t mean tornadoes or erupting volcanoes or  tsunamis, or any other horrific events. My demise will be slow and tortuous. My enemies are chiggers, hornets, fire ants, wasps, and poison ivy.

Not that they are lethal in themselves. Except maybe fire ants. I hate fire ants and can see no Earthly good in their existence except to provide snacks for guinea hens. I have spent the summer putting poison on their nests, only to see another pop up, or after a good rain, as many as 20 new nests. It gets discouraging, but I can’t give up because they would gleefully sting me to death if they had the chance. I know it and they know it. So the battle for survival continues. Image result for poison ivy

There is a hornet’s nest in a bush in front of  the house. I accidentally discovered it when trimming the bushes. A swarm of hornets flew out and chased me across the yard. They did sting my left hand, which swelled up to the point I had difficulty pulling my glove off. I’ve avoided that bush ever since. I’m afraid to spray the nest because I think they will rush to defend it and this time it won’t be just my hand that gets stung.

After my first bout with poison ivy I learned to recognize the plant by counting. “Leaflets three, let it be; leaflets five, let it thrive.” But it is more difficult to recognize the vines, which also can give you a bad case of itchy, oozing sores.  I’m just sayin’ there are several types of viney plants in the part of my yard that used to be a jungle of privet, honeysuckle, poison ivy, cat brier, and the English ivy my husband planted not knowing that while ornamental up North, it is an invasive species not unlike kudzu in the South. I can’t tell the difference when  I’m uprooting vines. So I pull them all and pray.

I know when I’ve been careless when I feel my skin begin to burn. Then the blisters come, but I must be getting immune because they don’t last as long as they used to. So score a mini-victory for me.

It’s a constant battle, but I have a feeling that in the long run, nature will win. She is more tenacious and has more weapons at her command, and they will no doubt still be stinging and biting long after I am gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviews…and how to write them

I just finished writing reviews for two books I recently read. I don’t bother writing reviews for best-sellers or established authors, but I do for friends and acquaintances if I’ve read and enjoyed their stories. I hope they help.

I know writers, myself among them, who have asked, begged, and bribed friends and relations to write a review. Some say they will and never do. Some do, God love them. And some say, “I don’t know how.”

My response is, “Just write one sentence: I liked the book. Or hated it. Whatever.”

I know it’s hard if the only thing you’ve written lately without relying on emoticons is a thank-you to Grandma on a pretty note-card because she doesn’t have a computer and still uses a land-line phone. I concentrate on what it is about the book that makes me keep reading. What do you enjoy most in a book? It might be the plot, or it might be the characters. Maybe it’s the quirky humor. There has to be something noteworthy about the book or you wouldn’t have read it in the first place. So start with, “I enjoyed this book because…” and fill in the blanks.

Do people read reviews? I do. I realize not everyone is going to  like every book written, but I try to find a middle ground between gushing praise (written by the author’s mother, perhaps?) and crushing criticism (which may well have been penned by an envious fellow writer). I read a few five- and four-star reviews and then one or two one-stars before making up my mind to purchase the book.

Okay, in a stab at honesty, to download the free or 99-cent book.

Do reviews help the author? I think they do help people make up their minds to click the “Buy” button, but no one is going to read them unless they’re at least curious enough about the book that they’ve visited the site, be it Amazon or another distributor, the publisher, or the author’s web page. How do they find out about the book in the first place? Ah, that’s a subject for another blog. And when I find out the answer, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, if you’ve complimented a writer you know and she asks, boldly or hesitantly, that you repeat your kind words in a review, please do it. It isn’t all that difficult, honest. Just say what you said aloud to them.

And if you don’t know the writer personally, but liked their work enough to recommend it to a friend, you might do the same. Writers love it if you buy their book, but they love it even more when you tell them–and the world– how much you enjoyed it.

 

 

An island never cries

I didn’t expect the response I received after posting last week, both here and on Facebook. My goal was to say that we can turn our emotions, even such raw ones as grief, to  make our writing more authentic.

I didn’t intend to imply that my grief was somehow more deep or valid than anyone else’s. The truth is, at some point we are all going to hit that wall head-on and stagger into a new and confusing reality. And it hurts. There is no “more than” or “less than.” It just hurts.

We will lose those we love. There is no way to sugar coat this fact or turn it  into a euphemism. We will eventually lose our parents. We will lose siblings. Of the three of us, my brother, the youngest, was the first to go. My sister and I couldn’t understand it. We still can’t.

We will lose dear friends and people we admire but don’t know in spite of feeling a close connection to them.

Each loss is another blow, another chipping away at a heart already wounded.

How can you avoid this pain? It isn’t easy, but you can close yourself off. You can be like the subject of Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “I Am a Rock” and tell yourself a rock feels no pain … and an island never cries.Related image

You can distance yourself and avoid intimacy. You can turn your heart to stone.

But is it worth it in the end?

Wouldn’t you rather have had your parents, your spouse, your friend, in spite of the loss? Isn’t the memory of their love dearer than an island’s isolation?

Life hurts, my friends. If it doesn’t, you aren’t living.

But life also holds great joy and grace.

Hold on to that instead of your grief. Grief will diminish (although it never goes away), but joy and grace only increase if you let them.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

 

 

How am I doing?

I have been a widow now for a year and a half. I’m not sure if this means I should be “used to it” by now or if I should be still actively grieving. There aren’t any rules to follow, so I’m not sure what is normal. People say I’m “handling it well” so I guess I’m doing all right.

I’m reading On Second Thought by Kristin Higgins. One of the characters, Kate, is suddenly widowed when her husband of less than a year trips and hits his head. Her reactions are funny and poignant, and I see myself in her, even to the morbid humor when she thinks at least now she has more closet space. I never went to the store and realized I’d forgotten to put on shoes, but I did do some very strange things that first year. I look back now and wonder what I was thinking.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking. I was on auto-pilot.

I still make  decisions and wonder if Jim would approve. (Or I make a decision knowing full well he wouldn’t approve, such as painting the living room walls, with a sense of defiance and yes, a little guilt.)  Or I accomplish something and exult aloud, “Look there! See what I did?” as if he would suddenly appear and give me that approving grin.

But, I did manage to finish two novels, one published in May and one looking for a home. People handle their grief in different ways  and mine was to lose myself in someone else’s world and someone else’s problems. Neither are not about being a widow. I’m not sure I could write about that, but then…

I already did. Long before Jim died, I wrote a story about a woman who is struggling after the death of her husband. I re-read it now and realize I didn’t know a thing. I’m going to re-write it and hope the story will reveal some true things that I have learned the hard way.

So we go on and the people we loved and lost are still a part of our lives. I pretend sometimes Jim is just in another room, or outside working and will come in and ask if I want to go get lunch.

I know it’s pretense, but that’s what I do. It helps get me through the day.

Maybe, just maybe, it will help me get through the next novel.

 

 

Start ’em early

One of the goals of our local writers’ club is to promote literacy.  I guess we’ve said this so loud and so often, it wasn’t a surprise when someone actually took us up on it.

A summer camp for kids needed someone to lead a class on story writing. Guess who they called?

So Kaye and I set out last Monday morning for the camp, which was held indoors. Given the 90+ temperatures we’ve had lately, I considered ‘camping’ in an air-conditioned room a perk.

How did it go? We had a blast. We had two groups of kids, the first from 4-8 years old and the second from 8 to about 14. Talk about enthusiasm! Once they grasped the idea of creating a story from scratch, the kids were falling over themselves to contribute their ideas.

They  knew the basics of story writing: Beginning, middle, end. They knew there had to be a problem and a solution. They knew a story was better when it contained details to set the scene. So our job was made easier because we just had to build on what they already had learned. We tried to steer them away from retelling Hansel and Gretel or The Parent Trap and get them to thinking on their own.

The first group’s story was imaginative even if it didn’t make a lot of sense. It didn’t have to follow a perfect story arc, it just had to entertain. And that it did.

The second group of older kids had a rocky start as the tweens and teens argued about the plot and where it was going. I had some doubts, but I needn’t have worried. They settled down and began backing up each other’s ideas, cooperating beautifully. Their story was heartfelt and had a satisfying conclusion.

I took my notes home and wrote down the stories they envisioned. I’ll print them out, a copy for each camper and a few extra, and take them back to camp next week.

I think the kids had a good time. I know Kaye and I did.

Who knew giving back could be so much fun?

 

 

 

 

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