Tag Archives: writing

I Don’t Know Why I Remember: Part 2

If you’ve been reading my last few posts, you’ll know that I’ve been working through writing exercises from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story.  Go back to Part 1 for a more thorough explanation of the exercise.  In keeping with my attempt to not procrastinate, I wrote about two memories.  Ms. LaPlante suggests several.

I don’t know why I remember my grandmother Irene’s house so well, almost more than my childhood home.  Grandma lived in rusty red fourplex of government subsidized housing in Poteet.   The porch was concrete, grey and slick, and the screen door spring was tight, so tight that it squeaked upon opening and shut with a huge BANG, followed by two more bounces.  Most of the time Grandma kept the screen door open, but she was sure to keep the hook-and-eye latched.  She liked hearing the comings and goings of her neighbor, an older woman like herself that she didn’t care for that much.  “That old woman, across the way, she knows er’erbody’s business.” The front door opened straight into a small living room that had one couch, still covered in plastic “to protect it,” a braided polyester rug with small navy and orange stitching, a radio (“turn it up, that’s Freddy Fender!”), a black and white t.v., and a bookshelf with school pictures of every grandchild in every stage of development.  On the wall, she had a picture of herself when she was in her late twenties or early thirties.  Aside from her nose, I would have hardly recognized her.  She was young, with a fashionable 40’s hairstyle.  Though black and white, I could tell she was wearing red lipstick on her thin lips.  She smiled with her lips closed, to conceal her teeth, or lack thereof.

Whenever I spent the night, I would awaken to a wedge of light from my favorite room, the kitchen.  Grandma woke up when it was still dark.  I’d lie in bed listening the sounds of the morning.  The click of the gas stove, the drip of the coffeemaker, the fridge opening and shut.  The stove was a burnt brown enamel and a cast iron skillet always sat ready on the back burner.  The fridge had a small, manual defrost freezer.  I would often open the freezer and eat the ice crystals that formed along the sides.   A set of ceramic fruit decorated the wall, and bowl of plastic fruit and eggs sat on the gold-flecked formica kitchen table.  She’d sit me down at that table and serve me eggs fried in bacon grease and sometimes Special K with reconstituted milk. The milk smelled like vitamins.  The washer also sat in the kitchen, and there was a screen back door to the clothesline just a few steps away.  I’d often play in the rich dirt in the garden right outside that door.  I remember one time thinking the black dirt looked just like Folger’s crystals, so I got a spoon from the kitchen drawer, squatted down in the dirt, and eagerly scooped a full spoonful in my mouth.  It was just as hearty and earthy and delicious as I imagined it to be.  I was confused when she ripped the spoon away and rammed a garden hose in my mouth, yelling at me to spit it all out.

Her bedroom smelled like the Dove soap that spilled from the bathroom attached.  Her shower was dark with blue tile and had a corner seat built into it.  I would sit on it just because there was a seat in the shower.  I didn’t have a seat in my shower at home.  There was no door between the bathroom and the bedroom, but Grandma had hung a curtain up in the doorway.  The bedroom was really only big enough to hold the bed, one small chest of drawers, and an old, foot-powered black sewing machine with a big wheel.  She would let me sit at the machine and pump it with my foot, pretending to sew. Grandma kept her necklaces on a miniature Greek statue whose arms were missing.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that the arms hadn’t broken off.  The bedroom’s window was really a sliding glass door that opened onto a back porch that was only a few steps away from the kitchen door.  All the ways out of the house made it seem a lot larger than it really was.  Grandma told me that an old man named Mr. Ed would sometimes come and sit on her back porch at night and sing “Goodnight Irene.” When Grandma died years later, we included that song in her funeral program.

I Don’t Know Why I Remember: Part 1

As I mentioned in my last post, I am working through Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story. The first exercise she has you do is to finish the sentence ‘I don’t know why I remember…”  You are not supposed to pick obvious events, like births and deaths, but truly let your right brain take over a seemingly insignificant event.  Again, don’t plan, just write.  And if you’re like me, limit yourself to 10-15 minutes to prevent procrastination.

If you decide to do this exercise yourself, feel free to share in the comments section.

I don’t know why I remember the little girl from one aisle over on a bus trip from Houston to Alpine.  I was traveling on a Greyhound line, going to summer camp in the Davis Mountains.  The bus had shiny velvet-like seats that were bouncy and made my stomach feel upside down over big bumps.  I noticed the girl when she had her head in her mother’s lap.  She sat up and looked across the aisle at me.  She was about my age, six or seven, yet she wore bright red lipstick.  Her black hair was short and curly, with a headband tucked in it and she had black, round eyes with long, curling eyelashes.  She was wearing a black dress with large red roses imprinted on it; cheap, thin material dressed up by a small edging of lace and tiny red buttons.   Her socks were white with cuffed ruffles – polyester socks, the kind that get sucked down into your shoes and make you irritable – and her black patent leather shoes were too big. She would flop one shoe off and catch it on the same foot.

Somehow in the nine hour bus ride, we ended up sitting next to each other.  I asked her where she was going.  She said she and her mom were moving to California.  I asked her where she had been living.  Florida.  That’s a long trip, I said.  Yeah, she said, mom said it will take 3 days.  I pictured their entire belongings packed up under the bus.  I wondered how the bus could hold so much, then I realized they couldn’t possibly have had much more than I did.  I had a huge trunk full of clothes for just two weeks.   Why was she wearing dressy clothes for such a dreadfully long trip? Would she change or wear the same thing for 3 days?  I hated polyester socks.  Maybe they were her only clothes, I wondered.

She had a hard time sitting still when she talked.  She twisted in her seat.  Her mom would occasionally look over at us, but mostly she slept.  She, too, had black hair, but hers was dull, frizzy and full.  She wore it long and unrestrained.  Her eyes were black and on her lips was the same red lipstick.  She looked tired and there were circles under her eyes.  I remember thinking that I was glad that she was not my mother.

My mother had packed me a bag for the bus.  I had juice and books, a few toys and snacks. I pulled out a coloring books and crayons, which I shared with the girl.  She also ate a package of peanut butter crackers.  I can’t remember if she told me she was a gypsy, but I distinctly remember thinking, as I stepped off of the bus, that gypsies were real.

Writing Exercise: The Barn

I have been reading Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story; A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. I don’t usually love to read books on writing. I’d much rather just read good literature and creative non-fiction writers. But I LOVE this book.  Love it. Every sentence a gem. I’ve been working my way slowly through it, which means I am actually stopping to do the exercises. I usually just blow through books like these because I just want to get it over with. Reading about writing has always felt like taking vitamins to me. I know I should take them, but I’m not really sure they are making me healthier.

In the chapter “Details, Details” she dives into “imagery that works on two levels.” Here is an excerpt that, frankly, scared me.

     Imagery is your way in to material.  It’s your way of reaching down into your subconscious and finding out what you really think about a person, place, thing, event. By describing it honestly and completely, and not leaving out anything, no matter how seemingly incongruous, you are finally writing.

Finally writing. Ouch. Have I been doing this?  Have I ever done this?  What have I been doing?

She includes an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I felt compelled to try it. I’ll start with my quick piece, then afterwards I’ll explain the directions.  I only allowed myself about 10-15 minutes to do this.  Not because the directions said to, but because I will never do these exercises if I think they will take too much time.  I also did not edit afterwards, as much as I wanted to, especially as I drifted off to sleep later.

The Barn

The barn stood out alone on a hill.  Its wood was weathered, grey, brittle, riddled with holes along the bottom from termites.  Each plank looked in danger of crumbling by even a child’s weak kick.  The doors hung loosely and uneven, and wailed a high pitch groan each time the wind nudged one side open.  The door sighed as it swung back into its disjointed, but familiar, position.

Inside was a mixture of sweet hay, mouse feces, sweaty leather, and dander from no less than a hundred animals who had sheltered here since the last nail was placed.  In a corner stall, a bright blue baseball hat still hung tossed on a high hook.  SIMONE BLUE DEVI reflected the light each time the door swung open from a gust.  The LS was missing, having been picked off by nervous fingers years prior.

A rippled, shining stallion snorted in another stall.  An old metal highway sign was propped up behind him, and every now and then a loud DING would sound out as the horse kicked at the wall.  The sign was riddled with dents.  The stallion, in his impatient stamping, seemed to rebel against the stillness and age of the barn, his strength and life defying the walls to come down. DING, DING…DING.

Ok, here were the directions:  Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, the war, death, or the man.

I don’t know if I really stepped beyond what John Gardner ungenerously calls “the hack mind,” the mind that instantly leaps to sentimental images of death.  I like Alice LaPlante’s kinder assessment that falling upon the standard images of death is due to the “inexperienced” mind.  I figure if you are needing a book like hers, it’s okay to be inexperienced.

If you try this yourself, it would be fun to post your piece in the comments section.  I’d love to read them.

Here’s what I’ve been working on…

I spent time Monday with Stacey Roussel, organic farmer/owner of All We Need Farms in Needville, Texas.  I am a part of her CSA program, short for Community Supported Agriculture.  A little different from a co-op, a CSA is, as Stacey calls it, “a relationship between people and their food.”  We pay Stacey in advance of the harvest, taking the risks inherent with farming with her, and in turn receive food that we know is local, seasonal, and most importantly, honest.  I will be writing a few different articles from Monday’s interview, but below is a blog entry I wrote for Stacey’s website:

For my 40th birthday this year, I made the pledge to begin writing in earnest, and this time for money.   I had written earnestly all my life, but had written for pay only once.  I had always thought that I would raise babies, and then I would start my writing career.   I couldn’t imagine drumming up the strength to write late at night, knowing that I’d be awakened again in a few hours by a crying baby.  My “baby” had just turned three, so my excuses were over.

One of the first people I thought to write about was Stacey.  If you are reading this blog, you already love her, and probably love good food, too, so you can see the attraction.  Stacey graciously agreed to have me follow her around the farm from sun-up to noon, followed up by more detailed questioning.  She told me to dress ready for labor…hat, sunscreen, gloves, closed-toe shoes…this was going to be a real, dig-in, get your hands dirty kind of interview.  Frankly, I was nervous.  I’m the sort of air-conditioned, soft, urban housewife that sweats only at the sideline of soccer games.  Could I hack five hours in the heat?  I didn’t know, but I knew the experience would be worth risking possible embarrassment.

Clumsily dressed for the part in my husband’s oversized fishing shirt (Stacey always wears long-sleeves, so it must be cooler, right?), explorer hat cinched on, work gloves ready, I followed, and I watched, and I asked questions.  The hazy, cool, morning flirted with rain, but the clouds drifted away into a typical bright July Texas day.  It was hot, and I followed Stacey some more, planting a few seeds here, weeding a little bit there, and, um, accidentally pulling out two lovely celery plants in the process.  (Sorry Stacey!)  I mostly watched and took notes, but did enough work to witness the abundance of life teeming on the farm.  Yes, she does have chickens and goats, not to mention the growing plants, but I am talking about the tiny life that is only discovered by turning over soil.  Little bugs darting here and there, crawling for cover, smaller creatures so tiny you can’t see but you can smell…a rich, earthy smell only created when the ground is nurtured enough to be kept in a beautiful balance.  I was learning firsthand the difficult, but satisfying work that is needed to grow the nutritionally dense, taste-bud pleasing clean food that led me to Stacey in the first place.  By the end of the morning, I was gratefully in awe of her diligence and commitment to organic farming.  I hadn’t passed out from heat stroke either, but I was ready for rest under the shade tree.

Stacey handed me a cool coconut water drink and assured me that as her farm had grown, so had her body’s endurance.  As her story unfolded, I heard a tale of conviction; small steps counterpointed by big leaps, mistakes, and overcoming fear in order to move forward with turning a dream into reality. 

Far from my idea of an experienced farm girl turned farmer, I instead heard of a believing husband encouraging a disillusioned accountant, together buying a farm with a four-year-old and newborn in tow, reading and learning on-the-job.  A story of clearing four-plus acres with a weed whacker, losing chickens to a predator, hand planting squash seeds with a baby in a car seat nestled in the grass beside her.  The more I listened, the more I realized that Stacey was helping to weed the fear in my own heart.  I am in the middle of transitioning from writing to calling myself a writer, putting my words out there for people to judge and see my mistakes.  Ahead of me are long hours of (air-conditioned) work, research, queries, and rejections.   I was reminded that Stacey’s current physical strength wasn’t forged overnight, but was built one day at a time, over years. 

Fear of Texas heat might have kept me from getting my hands dirty, but it is only by getting dirty, be it from soil or ink, that we ever really accomplish anything.  I had to get my hands dirty that day by pulling farm weeds, weeds that represented far more for me than garden nuisances, weeds with names like fear and procrastination.  The image of Stacey bending over her garden, entertaining her young daughter with the watering hose, inspired me to write this blog entry in the day hours, in between stories, bike rides, and laundry, not waiting until later.   I giggle now, at the thought of Stacey waiting to farm by moonlight, after her girls were asleep.  You can’t see many weeds then.