No one writes a first draft as bad as mine. They couldn’t possibly! Because of this, I avoid classes, conference sessions, critique groups, or anything else where I’m required to write from a prompt. Before I learned my lesson, I found myself in a few of these prompt-writing situations. Even when I could decipher what I’d written after scribbling, marking out, circling, underlining, drawing arrows from one part of the composition to another, it sounded like chicken you-know-what.
I discovered something interesting in one writing class (a community night-class). A third of the students were, or had been, in a university creative writing degree program. They wrote beautifully. The rest of us wrote clumsily, and had every bad writing habit known to man or woman. But none of the students who wrote beautifully had a story. Notice that I didn’t say: The didn’t have a good story. They didn’t have a story period!!!! Several of us who didn’t write so terrifically had great stories. Mine (The Lady) eventually won a prize.
I will never be a Shakespeare or a Jane Austen, but I’ve worked at the craft and have learned and improved through classes, books, critique groups, reading. I’ve had to do as much un-writing as I have writing. At first, I tried to sound “writerly.” My critique groups kept knocking me down for that. And talk about wordy? I’m the queen of wordiness! The craft of writing is something that can be learned, but if someone doesn’t have a story to tell, then why bother? So, I no longer fret about having the absolute worst first draft in the world. If I have a good story, then I can fix all those things that are wrong with my terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad first draft.
What a surprise to see that a neighbor from my Perkasie, PA days has published a book! Frank and Leila Clymer lived next door for twenty-nine years, and if I had to rate them on a scale from one to ten for their “good neighborliness” I’d give them a twelve or more. Among other things, it was impossible for me to get through a half-week’s meals without running next door to borrow something. Also, I believe my son considered their house part of ours. He was under strict orders not to leave our property without informing me. He was quite good about that except that no matter how many times I told him our neighbors’ house wasn’t part of our property, he’d still go over to talk to Leila without telling me. When my husband died, Leila took him out to buy shoes when I was too busy taking care of all those things that have to be seen to. I handed her my credit card which I hadn’t signed. The shoe salesman forced her to sign it, and so for years I had to forge my own signature on sales slips when I used the card.
I haven’t read Frank’s book, but from the review I see that it is narrated from the view of a young boy growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch community. He describes life in a small town during the era just before and after the second World War, including his family’s involvement in the war and its impact on the community. I’m sure the book must have some interesting observations, and I wish him much luck.
This past week I got a letter saying that the city of Philadelphia will be pleased to forgive my debt relating to an old parking ticket which I received while I was living in Qatar. When I first received notice of the ticket eighteen year ago, I furnished the traffic department official documents offering proof that I was living outside the country when I received the alleged ticket. They didn’t buy. They continued to harass; I continued to protest. I re-sent the original documents and added others: a letter from my director, copies of passport pages recording my entry into Qatar, my work visa, all of them proof that I couldn’t possibly have been in Philadelphia on said day. Still, they persisted.
I gave up. Let them come and get me, I thought. Crazy thing is, according to the letter I received last week, I now owe for two parking tickets, both issued when I was living outside the country and no longer had my car. Yes, TWO! They don’t document what car I was supposed to be driving. I suppose it must have been a phantom car.
But you can’t fight the city of Philadelphia. Obviously! So, I’m going to take my sneaky self back to Pennsylvania, scope out the traffic department, and find out who’s in charge. That person — lock, stock, and barrel, and all the way down to his underwear— is going to appear in my next novel as the villain! Watch out, whoever you are; you’re about to become as villainous as Darth Vader and as unlovable as Uriah Heep.
I was in San Francisco recently and visited City Lights Bookstore, the first all paperback bookstore in the country, founded by the poet, Ferlinghetti. The bookstore is mentioned in one of my favorite scenes in The Lady. My young heroine, Quincy Bruce, is in English class, and on this particular day, the students have to announce which American writer they will be doing a research paper on. Quincy’s nemesis, Mary Watson, reveals she’ll do hers on Ferlinghetti. No one else in the class, including Quincy, knows who Ferlinghetti is. Quincy, afraid she’ll be outdone by Mary, offers up a quick prayer that the schoolroom floor open up and swallow Miss Know-it-all. Quincy’s prayer does get answered, although not by the floor opening up and swallowing Mary Watson. I won’t give you the details here in case you read the book later, but it was a fun chapter to write.
City Lights Bookstore iss one of those wonderful old bookstores that sells nothing but books. I felt my literary IQ notch up a few numbers just by breathing in the air as I stood amid the overloaded bookshelves.
When I was in the fifth grade, Little League came to town. I hated it!
In the Deep South, we played baseball or softball (depending on what kind of ball we had access to) year-round. Our village didn’t have a baseball field or even a park, so we played in fields or backyards, or wherever we found space. We grabbed what we could to serve as bases —pot lids, stones, sticks, someone’s jacket. Sometimes the balls we used were questionable. But we played and had fun.
There was no adult supervision. No one directing us, telling us how it should be, or who should be the pitcher, or what we did wrong. I’m not sure we even knew the rules. But we improvised. We figured out how to deal with uneven team numbers, how to settle disputes, how to improve our playing field.
And then the day of doom! Little League!
Even though I was the second-best player in the neighborhood, I wasn’t allowed to play because I was a girl. Condemned to watch from the sidelines, we girls mourned. Joining us on the sidelines were the boys who weren’t so good at the game. The adult supervisors only wanted the best players. Little League was a devastating blow to our neighborhood fun, so when I saw an article in The Lexington Herald-Leader (Feb 28) entitled “Kids once learned negotiating skills in sandlots,” I rejoiced. John Rosemond expressed everything I felt and then went on to review a new book, The Self-Driven Child by neuropsychologist William Stixrud. Stixrud claims that child and teen anxiety and depression are largely due to parental over involvement and micromanagement in everything from children’s social lives to their homework. I haven’t read his book, but I suspect he’d agree with what I have to say about Little League.
I discovered a marvelous old-fashioned bookstore on the Alameda in San Jose, California, The Recycle Book Shop. There were none of the canned displays prominent in chain bookstores, nor the well-layed-out, equi-height shelves. No Starbucks in one corner. No stuffed animals or gewgaws for sale. Just books! Stacks of them. On the floor, on tops of shelves, on counters. People sat around on the floor dipping into the merchandise, trying out this book, or that book. It smelled like a book store, too. Dusty jackets. Old paper. Long forgotten titles jumped out at me from the spines, along with authors’ names that I hadn’t thought of in years. There were newer titles, too, but I had the distinct feeling that every book in the store had merit. I wound up with Book Two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and I’m already well into it.
I just discovered a writer/artist whose whimsical illustrations I love. J Schlenker, a late blooming author, lives with her husband out in the splendid center of nowhere in the Kentucky foothills of Appalachia where the only thing to disturb her writing is croaking frogs and the occasional sounds of hay being cut in the fields. Her first novel, Jessica Lost Her Wobble, published in December 2015, was selected as a finalist in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and was awarded five stars from Readers’ Favorite. One of her short stories, “The Missing Butler,” received honorable mention in the first round of the NYC Competition.
Before she became a writer, her first passion was art in which she got her degree. In addition to illustrating her own books, she designs covers for other writers. Check her out at https://www.jschlenker.com.
I have too many books! No, that isn’t what I really mean. What I mean is that I have too many books for my bookcases. What I need are three-story shelves like these in Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in The Netherlands. Dutch architecture firms SatijnPlus Architecten and Merkx + Girod transformed a decrepit 13th-century church into a spectacular bookstore in the center of Maastricht. The bookstore offers incredible views of the restored sanctuary, while the choir area is now home to a café. Imagine having coffee and a croissant in that café while reading a good book!
Maybe it’s a good thing that bookstore is in The Netherlands instead of in Lexington, KY. I’m sure I’d spend too much time there if it were nearby.
I have just finished reading Fredrik Backman’s Bear Town, and it is (in my opinion) his best. Bear Town is a tiny town nestled deep in a Norwegian forest. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. The hopes and dreams of the town rests on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. A victory would not only boost the chances of the town having a hockey academy built there, but would also send Kevin, their star player, on to a future with the NHL. A victory would also mean everything to Amat, a scrawny fifteen-year-old treated like an outcast everywhere but on the ice. And it would justify the choice that Peter, the team’s general manager, and his wife, Kira, made to return to his hometown to raise their children. There are, in fact, a dozen characters who will be affected by the outcome of the game. Backman does a terrific job of presenting a whole cast of characters as individuals both flawed and heroic.
The semi-final is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and the town in turmoil. While the plot centers around hockey (any sport would have done), the story is really about moral failure and group think.
When an unlikely hero steps forward, he saves more than one person from self-destruction.
I was struck by the number of characters Backman could portray with such excellence, as well as the way he was able to juggle their appearances and interactions. I highly recommend this book, and this is from someone who knows next to nothing about sports! Certainly not hockey.
There are several items I’d love to have to improve my writing life.
First, a carton of pens. I never seem to have enough. They keep disappearing. I prefer fine points.
A large dose of neuro-transmitters to help my word recall which seems to be slowing down lately.
A robotic dust sucker for my house. Vacuuming is such a waste of time when there are so many stories to write, yet the piles of dust bunnies have become quite distracting.
Do you happen to have any magic pills for helping techno-idiots with technology? I’m pretty good at WORD, but not at some of the other computer-related things I need to know.
A new pair of pajamas to write in.
Books for the school in Thailand I visited a few years ago. I don’t know the name of the school, but it was in the long-neck tribe area. Their entire library consisted of a couple dozen books stuck in a plastic carton.
Chocolate covered cherries.
Santa, I’ve been fairly good this year, so I hope you will consider my list. Thank you in advance.