Monday, February 21, 2011

The Writing Weekend

My friend, Maureen and I arrived Friday afternoon at Choke Canyon State Park, Live Oak County, South Texas, between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, poised and ready to begin our "Writing Weekend."

After we arrived we discovered we were surrounded by "birders." This area is along a major migratory path for birds and also is the northern end of the normal range of several birds from Mexico and Central America.  Our neighboring campers had feeders with different types of seed to attract specific birds. One had orange halves hung from a tree which, when we walked by, had successfully lured several green jays. Very quickly we saw red wing black birds, cardinals, the ever-present grackle, Audubon's Oriole, yellow-fronted woodpeckers, Caracara (Mexican Eagle) and several species of hawks.

Green Jay
Yellow-fronted Woodpecker

I don't know how we could have picked a more perfect weekend, even if we had tried. When we scheduled it, back around Christmas time, our only thoughts were to find a place that wasn't too far away so we wouldn't have a long drive, was scenic or by the water and to go on a weekend late in February, thinking it would be less crowded then. Weeks after we made the reservation, we discovered it was President's Day weekend, so there went our hopes for seclusion; the RV spots were completely filled. But the sites were so large and nice, we still felt our privacy. We never felt like we were "cheek to jowl." The weather was perfect: cool in the evenings, but not so cold that we couldn't sit outside and enjoy the full moon and stars and warm enough during the day that we could wear shorts and give our white, white legs a jump start on summer.

Since the purpose of the weekend was for us to get away from interruptions, sit somewhere inspirational and write, we finally tore ourselves away from the birds and got serious about our task. As I have been telling you, I have several stories running around in my head, trying to emerge as a novel. I finally decided on one of these stories to move forward with and proceeded to do so. I wrote an overview of the whole story and defined the major characters. One of the books about character development I have read suggests that you write a "biography" of each of your major characters, telling his/her story from childhood until the present time. Even if I don't include all the details in my book, which I won't, the biography makes the character real in my head so that I can better understand what he/she would say or do in situations. I managed to write detailed biographies of two main characters and feel very satisfied with the result. I even made myself cry at one point; I think this whole process is going to be very cathartic for me. 

By Saturday evening we both felt we had accomplished a lot and decided we would take a break from writing and just relax and enjoy ourselves. I love Maureen. She and I have been friends since we were twenty-four; we are fifty-three now. Our birthdays are only a few months apart and we celebrate milestones together. I was in the delivery room with her when her son was born and she was with me, driving our car to West Texas, to claim the body of our son who was killed. We went to Iceland on an unforgettable adventure for our fiftieth birthday and are planning something special for sixty-five. My wonderful husband understands this and knows that I am a package deal -- when he got me, he got Maureen.

She makes me laugh. I laugh more with Maureen than anyone I know. We tell each other it is because we have the same sense of humor so we think everything we say is hilarious. It is probably true that no one else would get our jokes, but that's OK. We get them and have laughed about the same things for years. All it takes is a word or two to set us off. We added a few to the repertoire Saturday night: red ho, Scrabble rules and more karoke. Don't ask, they are location jokes, you had to be there and it was wonderful.

I haven't decided how much of the book I'm going to share with you yet. You may get some previews, but maybe not. I might make you wait until it's done. But I will let you know how it's going and, knowing me, I won't be able to keep anything secret, so you will most likely get to meet my characters. Maureen and I are already planning another writing getaway but until then, I will be here, plugging away. Thank you for continuing to stop by.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Girl, Part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about my seven year old niece and the joy she brings to my life. I also posted a side-by-side comparison of photos of her and her mother, to show their remarkable resemblance. 

After that post my sister, grandmother of my girl, sent me a photo that recalled one taken in about 1973. When I got the new photo, I had to go find the old one so I could share both with you. The old photo was of my girl's mother at age three or so. She was in a boat with her parents and wearing a life jacket and straw hat. There was a string hanging from the hat that kept bugging her, so finally she reached up to pull the string and her mother snapped this photo. 

The new photo is of my girl, in a startling similar pose:

I know. Deja vu all over again. Maybe you'll understand why my brain suffers too much from time warp. At least that's my excuse.

On another note, my friend Maureen and I are taking her motor home to a nearby state park this weekend where we will park beside the lake, take walks and do nothing but write. She has been working on a historical novel for a while and you know my writing story, so we decided to have a little retreat where there were no plans for anything but writing. I'm hoping to get a few blog posts done as well as continue work on a short story I've started. I'll tell you all about it when we get back.

A Humbling Experience

Last Sunday afternoon my book club met for a special session. One of us had gotten her hands on a copy of the Trivial Pursuit Book Lover's Edition and we decided, being the literary mavens we are, this would be a fun game for us to play.

We broke into two teams of four each so that we could collaborate on the answers. The categories are: Authors, Classics, Nonfiction, Children's Books, Book Club (mostly contemporary fiction) and Book Bag (miscellaneous, could be anything.) We were all worried about the nonfiction category, but thought the rest of them, given our wide experience, would be challenging, but doable. 

WRONG. This game was really hard. When they say trivial, they mean trivial. And we didn't get any help from the clever wording of the questions which often makes a guess a lot easier. After we played for about half an hour with neither team winning a colored wedge, we decided to change the rules so that any correct answer, no matter which square you were on, earned a wedge. This boosted our spirits a little. Our team knew a question about Vanity Fair. We knew Don Quixote's love was Dulcinea and Tom Sawyer's Becky Thatcher. Our kindergarten teacher knew Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? was the sequel to Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I lucked out on the nonfiction question about a historian by naming Stephen Ambrose, the only historian I could remember, and got it right. After two hours, our team finally won with an easy question about Robert Louis Stevenson and Treasure Island

In the end, we had fun, but the most frustrating part was realizing that our recall is fading. We knew Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbit and something else about a small, mid-western town, but couldn't get the name Mainstreet out of the cobwebs. That kind of thing happened over and over, making me feel old. I used to be a Trivial Pursuit champion and now, I fear, those days are over.

The good thing is that we learned a lot and made a list of books we want to read. Alice Randall has written a parody of Gone With the Wind from the slaves' point of view called The Wind Done Gone. We also came to the conclusion that, while we all read a lot, we tend to stick to our favorite genres; maybe we should open our horizons a little more. 

Some of the things we learned I found very inspiring. Did you know Iris Johanson wrote three historical romances in one year? If she did that, surely I can manage one or two blog posts a week, don't you think? So I'll be here again soon, writing my novel. Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I recently received the neatest little book. It is called Q&A a Day and is designed to be a five-year journal. Each day of the year has a page with a question at the top and a space for you to briefly answer that same question on the same day each year for five years. The goals is to look back after five years to see how your answer differed, or stayed the same, over time.

One of last week's questions was, "What do you want to forget?" I haven't answered it yet, because I'm still ruminating about my answer. At first pass I would say something like, "I want to forget all the mistakes I've made in my life," or "I want to forget every time I was hurt or in pain." But on a second, deeper pass, I know those are not the answers.

We all understand the wisdom of learning from the mistakes we've made, so we know we have to remember our mistakes in order to keep from repeating them. That includes mistakes I made, knowing at the time I made them, that it was a mistake. Those times taught me about my needs and weaknesses and just how far I am willing to go to satisfy them. As painful as they are to relive, I know I can't forget those either. 

Then there is the question of forgetting the times I have been hurt. Long ago I decided that forgiveness was the way to go, not out of some noble or religious reason, but out of pure selfishness. Carrying a grudge consumes a lot of energy that could be directed somewhere else, toward something that would actually improve my life. Maintaining that hurt, feeding it and keeping it alive also gives way too much control of my life to someone else. So I have chosen to forgive and get on with it. Does that mean I forget? No, not generally.

If I was hurt unintentionally by someone, I can forget that. I know my big mouth has gotten me into trouble many times and I would appreciate those I've hurt forgetting those cases as much as possible. But what about when someone said or did something cruel, knowing full well at the time the damage it caused? I realize that they were fighting their own demons and that is what forged their behavior. I can forgive that; but forget? I think wisdom would dictate cautiousness and an arms-length future relationship. After all, someone who needs to inflict pain on others may never truly heal.

So now we are back to the original question, "What do I want to forget?" and I now have the answer.  Algebra. I want to forget algebra. I know it had its purpose when I was in school. I needed to pass tests and get a high math score on the SAT. Later, when I went to graduate school, I needed it for the GRE and to do data analysis. But now? Nope.

I am married to a numbers genius. I am serious. The man can do quadratic equations in his head. It's enough to make me hate him sometimes because I was one of those people who never intuitively understood algebra. I loved geometry and trigonometry because I could hang the concepts on pictures -- circles, triangles, etc. -- so it made sense to me. But algebra never did. I just memorized formulas and methods using brute force. Being an overachiever, I always made A's, but I never really understood it. So now, at 53 years old, I don't need to remember it anymore. I can always ask my husband or, if for some reason he isn't around and I have an urgent need to solve an equation with two variables, I can pay someone to do it for me. I want to forget algebra.

Forgetting algebra would free up space in my brain to remember things I don't want to forget, but I guess that's a completely different subject.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I have a dear friend whose year ninety-one old father recently died. He and her mother had been married over sixty years when she died two years ago. Since then he pretty much lost his will to live and slowly let go of life. My friend is handling his death well because, after watching him deteriorate, the end was somewhat of a relief. But still she is grieving; not so much for the loss of her father, but for the end of her life "at home."

She and her sisters are selling their parents' home in Pennsylvania, where they moved when my friend was ten. I spoke with her this morning and she told me that, as much as she wants to come home to Texas, she cannot bring herself to make the actual travel arrangements to return. The problem is that when she leaves, she will be leaving the house for the last time, never to return. "I didn't think it would be so hard leaving this old, empty house for the last time after fifty-three years of it being home." She is sleeping in the old home each night rather than going to one of her sisters' houses. "It's as if Mom, Dad and I are alone in the house and I am absorbing memories. I relive events with every item I pack in every box."

My friend is a strong woman and will be able to take those memories and weave them into something beautiful for her children and grandchildren. As difficult as it may be, I believe she is experiencing a wonderful opportunity that not all of us get to have. Too often when our parents die, the "old home" has already been sold or other arrangements have been made for a quick transition. We don't get to say "goodbye" to the house and firmly plant its memories in our minds. But even absent that experience, those childhood home memories can be exceptionally strong.

Sometimes when my head is full and my thoughts will not turn off so I can sleep, I push them all away by staging a walk-through of my childhood home. I go through the house, room by room, recalling every detail that I can: the pattern of the kitchen flooring, the fabric on the furniture, the paintings and pictures on the walls. Much of our house was wall-papered, so I try to recall not only prints, but stains and tears on the well-worn coverings. I go through all the rooms downstairs and then venture up, stepping on each stair, knowing which ones creaked. My bedroom was there, just at the top of the stairs on the right and I see it decorated in my "hippy phase" when I was in the ninth grade -- beaded curtains, fuzzy "hang ten" foot-shaped rugs in hot pink and purple. Further down the hall I see my sisters' rooms and the bathroom we shared. I see the linen cabinet that we had to make sure was always closed because our little brother had a peep hole in the back, accessed from the closet in the adjoining room. It never worked just to plug the hole, he always found a way to open it again. This exercise works surprisingly well and soon I am asleep, usually before I make it all the way through the house.

Several years ago my oldest sister and I went on a fall foliage tour in Door County, Wisconsin. Door county is a beautiful penninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan whose rocky coastline and scenery is very much like New England. In a gallery one day, I came across the works of a watercolor artist named Charles L. Peterson. He had a series of paintings named "Memories." They featured colorful scenes of old homes, churches, schools, train stations, etc. with translucent images of the people who once lived and worked in them. It is as if they are ghosts of the past, bidding us to remember. Here is a scan of one of his works, entitled "Family Reunion." I hope you can see the "ghosts" of the children playing in the yard and the adults sitting on the porch or going in and out of the house.

"Family Reunion" by Charles L. Peterson, copyright 1997

So this is how I see my friend, taking in all those familiar and compelling images that are whispering to her. Listen and remember and, when you are ready, come back home. We miss you.