My husband asked me to help him build a storage shed and I agreed to the task. How hard could it be, right? Except that I am not a carpenter, and I was committing time away from my writing. Well, that’s not true either. I’m never very far from my writing. I’m always thinking about my writing in my head, even when I’m physically occupied with other tasks. So, although I was out hammering nails, my thoughts kept straying to how building this shed related to the YA mystery I am working on for my Genres II class.
The good solid twang you hear when you hit the nail head on reminds me of the feeling I get when I find an element the story is missing and added it in, knowing I’ve nailed it, (pun intended). But more often, I don’t get that direct hit, the story elements shooting off pell-mell into the forest, like the nails that I miss, or curling up like the nails that hit knots and won’t be driven forward, and I have to keep going at it from different angles until I am able to drive it home.
The story is sort of along the tradition of the Nancy Drew mysteries, with two young girls, growing up in the 1940’s as the protagonists. The story is three-quarters of the way finished, but I keep second guessing myself on what it is lacking. As I begin to pound nails into a new wall, I notice that I am starting on one side, with the intent to work my way to the other, yet I begin halfway up from the bottom corner. I wonder why I chose to start where I did, and it occurs to me just how many different places there are to begin on this wall, just as there is in my story. There is no hard and fast rule that a story has to start at the beginning, just as there’s no law that says you must start nailing a wall from the top right hand corner. With the wall, where I begin won’t really make a lot of difference in the end, but with my story it might. I toy with the idea of changing the point where I begin the story until I’m abruptly brought back to the here and now by the throbbing in my thumb after I missed the nail and hit it with the hammer. All these thought about writing are very distracting, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
I’m afraid of heights. It’s a fear I’ve been dealing with for the past thirty years. I believe the official term is acrophobia, from the Greek words that combine “summit”, “edge” or “peak” and the word meaning “fear”. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines it as an “abnormal dread of being in a high place”, although I’m not sure I would define it as abnormal. I like to think of it as a healthy fear of potentially dangerous situations. That being said, I am a firm believer in meeting my fears head on and overcoming them. I have forced myself to face this one on many occasions, yet it still keeps rearing its ugly head to challenge me.
When I agreed to help with this project, I knew that at some point I would be required to climb a ladder to help with the roof, but we weren’t to that point yet, so his request that I climb up and slid across the ladder he had positioned across the top, extending from one side of the building to the other to nail in a small board caught me by surprise. I had gone for four solid hours and was tired when I started out this morning, and I couldn’t muster the energy to fight off my fear. Instead something inside my brain just mentally snapped.
“Oh, no. Oh, no,no,no,” I said even as I picked up my hammer and nails and began to climb the ladder with tears streaming down my face.
“What? Just climb up there and pound in a couple of nails. What’s so hard about that?” my husband asked, absorbed in whatever he was working on and not really paying attention to my reaction.
“I’m going,” I said.
There must have been something in my voice that made him look up and take notice. “Are you crying?” he asked. “Really?” He was puzzled by my reaction because I usually just buckle down and do what needs doing in situations like this, without making a big deal of it.
I swung my legs over the vertical ladder and slid my butt across it. “No, I’m fine,” I said, hammering in two nails as quickly as I could. When I turned to slide back the way I had come, my body didn’t move. I was temporarily frozen. I’d had this happen before when I climbed out under a large cement bridge that spanned the Colorado River to get pictures of my party of rafters, so I knew eventually my body would respond to my minds commands to move, once I got control of my fear, but knowing that made the experience no less terrifying for the moment.
“Wait, I’ll get a picture of you up there,” my husband offered.
“No!” I said.
“It’s okay,” he replied. “You look good up there. Just stop crying a minute and look up at the camera.”
Having my picture taken was the last thing I wanted at that moment, but as I was stuck for the moment, there was nothing to do about it. So, I wiped the tears from my face and resolved myself to the fact that I would have a photo to capture the moment. My eyes remained glued to the top of the front wall however, because every time I tried to look down at him with the camera, I felt my fear rise once more.
“Oh, you decided to come down,” he said, as I finally emerged from the opening that would be the door. He had gone about his business, allowing me time to gather my courage and get myself down from above. “I thought maybe you were going to make a nest up there.”
Now, with my feet firmly planted on the ground, his statement made me realize what a great opportunity I had missed because of my dumb fear and it made me angry. There I was, sitting with a bird’s eye view of the forest around me and I hadn’t taken advantage of it. I’d been too scared to even notice.
That’s when I realized that I’ve been doing the same thing with my memoir. Writing the story of my son’s death and my own grief is a difficult task. There are many issues that the memories stir that I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with. I’ve been putting off doing the research for several sections for this very reason, because I didn’t want to rehash the pain that interviewing the people who knew my son would inevitably produce. My instructor at Western State, Barb Chepaitis, has emphasized that eventually I must face these memories in order to portray the story honestly, and I suddenly realized how right she is. By putting off the necessary interviews because I fear the pain they will bring, I’m depriving myself of the full picture, just as I deprived myself of that high altitude view that would have allowed me to see the world a little differently. Eventually, I’m going to have to do them to present an honest portrayal of the story I need to tell, and by putting it off, I risk losing track of the key players. It’s already been four years since my son died. His friends have all gone on with their lives. They aren’t just hanging around waiting to be interviewed by me.
That night, I got on the computer and sent messages to several of the people who knew Mike, asking for their assistance. Already, I’m going to have to track down some that I no longer know how to contact. Once I have this part of the research done, I still won’t have a finished book, any more than pounding in those two nails produced a finished shed, but it will bring me one step closer to having all the material I will need to do the job.
Yesterday, I attended the final workshop in the Writing Your Life: Crafting Creative Non-Fiction and Memoir from Life Experience workshop in Salida, Colorado. Presented by New York writer, Alex Van Ark, this workshop was really a great experience. I chose to attend this workshop for two reasons: the main one being that I have started a memoir about the life of my son, Michael, and the bond that he and I shared; and the workshop was free, so it fit into my budget quite well. Although I was unable to attend the first of the three Sunday afternoon workshop sessions, the two that I did attend taught me a lot about my own writing. Now I sit here, chewing on an English muffin, reflecting on what I really got from this workshop:
Through a series of writing exercises, Alex showed us all how to write more factually, by writing with only nouns and verbs, thus eliminating all opinions. This is more difficult than it sounds, believe me. Using this method though, you can create a picture that is much more clear and concise, (and it also seemed to cut down on run-on sentences, but maybe that was just me). It is amazing how much we tend to interject our own impressions and biases into our writing, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, the exercises showed us how those same impressions can be portrayed through the action in the scene being described, so that readers can reach their own conclusions. While you can say that a character was not a good mother, but it is much more effective to show the ways in which she was not good. For example,
“More often than not, she would promise her boys that she would
be there for Christmas and then never show up, making up
some excuse, maybe car trouble or some fictional emergency
that didn’t really make sense, but would be believable enough for
two young boys who needed to have faith in their mother. She
would promise to send the presents, then, claim that she had to
move, and the presents were in storage, so she couldn’t get to
them, or claim that they must be lost in the mail. Sometimes
they would arrive in March, or May, with price tags still
attached, but sometimes they would never come at all. One
of her favorite tricks was to ask, “Didn’t you receive the card
that I sent?”, knowing full well they hadn’t. There never was a
card. She would claim that there was money in it and their
father must have stolen it, when they said that they had not
gotten it, with tears in their eyes.”
When you read this piece of writing, you can easily imagine how disappointed her children must have been, over and over, and most people reading this would come to the conclusion on their own that this woman was not a good mother. Moreover, this is much more powerful than simply stating that she was not a good mother. Readers may or may not believe it just because you say it, but they believe it after reading the passage about how she disappointed her children, because they came to the conclusion themselves and her actions leave no question as to the matter.
We also talked about how not to get sued when writing memoir and including real people and places. You can change the names, or use titles in place of names, or have the real life people sign clearance forms, giving permission for you to write about them, or you can turn the whole thing into creative fiction. Even with clearance forms, people can come back on you if they don’t like the way that their character is portrayed. In my case, many of the people involved, especially those associated with his death, would probably not be very open to giving clearance anyway, so I will have to come up with another solution.
The other thing that I learned was how to use archetypes to create my characters. Combining different types of characters creates diversity and adds conflict to the story. One exercise had us pick an archetype and write a description, using behavioral examples, of course, the reading our descriptions to see if the other workshop participants could identify the archetype. Another writing exercise involved having two archetypes interact. I think that by placing characters into an archetypal mold, it allows the character to be more rounded, while remaining focused. I found both exercises to be very interesting and helpful, as character portrayal can be a very difficult thing for me.
The last session, yesterday, was a Cowboy Story Hour, where each of us did a reading of some of our work. I chose three pieces, two of which were poetry. I had been fortunate enough to attend a Poetry Performance Reading with Rosemary Wahtola-Trommer, of Telluride, (The Word Woman), whose reading was vibrant and filled with energy. I couldn’t hope to do a reading even close to that quality, but I tried to keep her in my mind and emulate her, as I stood before the other workshop participants and did my first reading ever. I tried to read slowly and pause in all the right places to give the proper inflection of my words. I probably should have selected different pieces, as the ones I chose were maybe too personal, and I can’t even read them to myself, without choking back tears. My fellow workshoppers were very gracious though and gave me a nice round of applause, even though they may not have understood the last lines through my tears. It was scary to walk up there to read my work, but I think I did okay, and I definitely lived through it. I know because I couldn’t have heard all the other readings if I were not alive following my own. The talent of all those in the room was just amazing, with readings that carried us all over the world, to places that I had never been before, but never the less, made me feel as if I were really there. That was the best part: all of the great writers that I met there.
The facilitator, Alex Van Ark, was just a wonderful guy, who had the ability to draw on your hidden talent with his exercises, which aside from their learning value, were also quite fun. He was easy to talk to and he never asked us to do anything that he did not do himself. He did a writing of his own for each exercise, and then read what he had come up with, right along with the participants. He is a very talented writer, as are many who attended. All in all, it was a wonderful experience that I very much enjoyed. I am looking forward to Alex’s promised return next year and plan to attend his workshop again. It will be interesting to see how my memoir has developed over the year.