Why I Write

It’s about Power.

As a writer of fiction, I can create a city, a village, a country, a world. I can fill it with characters that I love or love to hate. I can imbue them with a certain amount of free will and, if I don’t like how they use it, I have the power of the eraser or delete key. The characters I create may be human or they may be animals, even mechanical beings, or a combination of these.  I can ride down a country road feeling the fluid strength of the steed beneath me, enjoying the bucolic scene of field and meadow, knowing that around the next bend there is a plot twist that will change my story, transform the world. I can change the weather from stormy to sunny and back again. In short, I am god.  I can wander through forests of words and chop down the one I want to take to a sentence I’m constructing. I can plunge into oceans of emotions to catch the one that will give my character motivation to propel the story forward.

Similarly, when I write memoir or creative non-fiction, I take an event from the headlines or from memory and, while sticking to the reality of it, invent or reimagine dialogue I did not hear or do not remember. I give the incident a spin to emphasize the part I think is important or transformative. It is my story told my way. This kind of writing does require research to authenticate it. I enjoy research because it opens the discovery of things I did not know and enriches knowledge that I then mine for other stories.  I prefer fiction and poetry because I am not bounded by facts, annoying facts that constrict my imagination.

Writing is an inexpensive form of entertainment and also therapy. The cost of a pencil and paper can set me up for hours and hours of diversion. I disappear into a world I create. Sometimes it is hard for me to resurface, to attend to my daily tasks and the real-life characters, human and animal, who live with me. I am glassy-eyed and slightly incoherent for a time when I leave my writing desk depending on how long I have been immersed in writing. My dear husband can attest to the state of suspended animation that surrounds me. I gave up the idea of writing the great American novel by the time I was thirty. I write for myself because I love to play god.

Elvis

There is only one. My husband and I went to see the movie, Elvis, with Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker. Let me just say, Austin may be a good actor, but he is no Elvis. The 1979 movie with Kurt Russell as The King was a more convincing portrait. This new movie, however, was heavy on the portrayal of Parker and his relationship with Elvis. Tom Hanks disappeared into the role of the Colonel. He was amazing. How sweet Tom H. could embody the sleaze that was Parker makes it clear he is an incredible actor. This is not meant to be a movie critique. Many of my friends saw the show and have differing opinions. I think it is doing well at the box office but I would not recommend it. The music, of course, carries the show.

I was twelve when Elvis entered my life. He had been around for a while by then, but it was his music played on KJR in Seattle that got my attention. I think the fervent plea Don’t Be Cruel was my introduction. With the urgency only a teen can understand, I talked my mom into taking me to the record store. In those days there were stores dedicated to vinyl records, where you could spend hours listening to your favorite songs at individual turntables with headphones. It was a Saturday pastime for me and my friends. I bought a 45 of Don’t Be Cruel with Hound Dog on the B side.  Don’t Be Cruel was played until there were no more grooves, Hound Dog not so much. With my babysitting money, I bought each album as they came out from 1957 to 1963. Elvis was the guest of honor at all sleepovers with my friends – swooning, giggling, weeping, whispered secrets, popcorn, hot dogs, layered jello dessert, and coke, the order of the night. The walls in my bedroom were papered floor to ceiling and wall to wall around windows and closets with Elvis pictures taken from fan magazines. That is impressive in my memory because my mother was a stickler for clean and orderly. Nothing in her house was less than perfect – except my room. I teased her that she lived in a Doris Day movie – sheets and underwear ironed; closets, cupboards, and drawers in color coordinated tidy stacks and rows. The fact that she accommodated my obsession with Elvis adorning every nook and cranny of my room for six years is, as I look back, a testament to love or maybe just giving up to a headstrong teen. When I married and left home, the room was quickly reclaimed.

In 1963, as a newly engaged woman, I believed it was time to put those teenage things away and become the adult my new status decreed, even though I was still 18. I had my own real-life love (even better looking than Elvis in my eyes) so dream lovers were no longer significant. I gave all my LP’s and 45’s to my sixteen-year-old neighbor who was as ga-ga about Elvis as I had been.

Now fifty-eight years later I am an Elvis fan-atic once again after being reintroduced to his music.  I listen to his channel on SiriusXM Radio, on Amazon Music, and Alexa. I rediscovered songs I forgot. His voice is unmistakable and moves me whether I’m listening to heartfelt gospel, crooned love ballads, or feverish rock and roll tunes. They send me back in time, but in another way, I enjoy a new perspective after living and loving for so many years. Thank you, Elvis. Your legacy is very much appreciated.

This is one of the stories in my life, a short version. It is important to recognize all the stories that make up a life and honor them. Sharing tales, fiction, and non-fiction, is how humans connect. We discover that we have more in common and our differences become less important. As we show in our book, Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets, a writers’ group can help a writer develop those stories for themselves and their families. Take some time today to write a memory.

Gratitude

This prose poem was written during the excesses of Tucson’s summer heat but the sentiment can be applied to any of God’s seasons. Today, preparing for Thanksgiving this week, I remain grateful and aware of the treasures of nature and the love of family and friends. Wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving and the gift of gratitude.

Unfolding from sleep I turn toward the open window.

A desert breeze puffs gentle kisses across my eyes and lips.

Sage and desert broom play luscious harmony for my nose.

With feline grace dawn arches blue-gray-pink over the mountaintop

Bringing another day.

Thank you for the new beginning.

I walk the park path in the cool dawn air.

Desert heat will rise soon.

A voyeur, I listen to the gossip of palo verde leaves

Am I the topic of their soft whispers?

The park is alive with rumors of the coming day.

Thank you for nature’s secrets.

Rabbit romps across the path,

Coyote slinks among the shadows, 

Bobcat shelters under the creosote bush,

Quails strut in formation,

Hawk soars in lazy circles seeking breakfast.

Thank you for the companions of morning

Clear skies gather hazy bits of cloud

Building monuments to the midsummer heat.

Monsoons hiss, rumble, boom, crack and clap.

Summer torrents cool, coaxing fragrance from the earth’s bounty.

A kaleidoscope of color frolics among the wrinkles of Pusch Ridge.

Thank you for the intricate interplay of nature’s ensemble.

A Day of Sighs

The sigh as I walked outside to feed the doves, cactus wrens, cardinals, and sparrows that gather in the morning and looked up at the mountains haloed by the rising sun. How beautiful, how peaceful, how enduring.

The sigh when I checked my email, waiting for news of a friend in the hospital with a serious medical condition and found nothing yet.

The sigh when I fixed breakfast and realized I am out of spinach for the morning smoothy. I knew it yesterday but forgot to go to the store.

The sigh when I got ingredients out to make a cake for the tea I’m having this afternoon with friends, still thinking of the one who is in the hospital, hoping he is doing better.

The sigh when I sat down to write this blog. A task I eagerly tackle every Monday morning but there is a shadow over it as I await news.

I know the day will unwind hour by hour and all the trivia of daily life will be tended to. There is another sigh. At this time in my life, I am getting used to having friends and loved ones in medical crises but it doesn’t get any easier, wishing I could DO something, and knowing there is nothing I can do. Prayer is my go-to. Prayer as I walk. Prayer as I cook. It is the refuge, the strength beneath the sighs. All will work out in God’s time.

Weekends

I recently had a discussion with our eldest daughter about time, specifically weekends.  My husband and I have been retired for fourteen years and filled the first six years with the care of our grandson, born shortly after we retired. We were his caregivers on the weekdays from when he was one until he started school while our daughter worked a full-time job. It was the biggest privilege of our lives. A time I wouldn’t trade for anything. It kept us active and engaged watching this little human begin his exploration of life. So much better than when we had our own children and had all the responsibilities of parenthood along with making a living. We had time to enjoy each stage of his development, each triumph from first steps to first lost tooth, in a completely present way. No distractions. He is now a teen with all that entails and an interesting, lovable person. I could brag endlessly but that is for another time, another post. Now we are Sunday grandparents because he is busy with his school, sports, and social life. We all have brunch together and catch up on his activities and viewpoints. I learn something new from him each week.

Back to the discussion of time. I told our daughter we were having friends over for dinner on Monday. “Monday?” she asked. “Why a weekday?” The question took me by surprise. Monday for us is no different than Saturday. We’re retired, as are most of our friends. Our social schedule doesn’t have anything to do with days of the week. It reminded me of Maggie Smith’s question as Violet, the dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey. “Weekend? What is a weekend?” She is one of my favorite television characters and now I identify with her.

Days are weighted in value by our activity, no longer regulated by an employment schedule. When we were employed, weekdays had a significant importance and weekends were assessed very differently as precious free time. As a retiree, however, the distinction goes away quickly. Each day has its own importance depending on the plans we make. Our social schedule, balanced with workout time (nearly a full-time job for us) and other interests creates a varied shape to weeks and months. A trip to Home Depot or the grocery store can be done anytime, not scrunched into a few hours on weekends. A road trip to Tubac, Bisbee, Patagonia Lake or Mt. Lemmon is a fun outing taken whenever we choose and usually when employed people are at work.  So, like the Countess, I no longer recognize the concept of weekend. My life is a weekend.

A few other salient quotes by the Countess:

At my age one much ration one’s excitement.

Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class.

Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.

Principles are like prayers, noble of course, but awkward at a party.

A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.

Never complain, never explain

If reason fails, try force.

There can be too much truth in any relationship.

Hope is a tease designed to prevent us from reality.

You are a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.

Meaning well is not enough.

Writers Need Wingmen

Writing is a solitary endeavor. When one conjures the image of a writer it is often of a lonely soul sequestered in a garret pounding away on a computer or scribbling with a pencil to transcribe the dispatches from their imagination. In truth, writers need wingmen. 

I recently reread Stephen King’s On Writing. He describes the first draft as being written behind closed doors; no one allowed as the muses impart their magic. Then in successive drafts, the door is open, inviting input as he edits. This is where a writers’ group becomes essential. Even though I am not a professional with professional editors, I do want to improve my skills. That makes writing more fun. I take classes to learn how to create scenes, characters, and dialogue. I enjoy employing the tools of the craft to make better prose and poetry. My writers’ group is invaluable as a means of testing those skills. They are my wingmen. They support me and protect me from the threats of dangling participles, passive voice, misdirected sentences, and weak prose. I get positive feedback from Jackie and Sally when they read my story. Positive feedback doesn’t mean making only affirmative comments. On the contrary, it means they look for the divots in the course. Does the story hold together? Are the characters believable? Does the narrative draw the reader in? As a solitary writer, I know what I want to say but sometimes it gets stuck in my head and doesn’t make it to the page. They spot places where something is missing in the narrative or a character. Their critique lets me know if a sentence doesn’t make sense or a scene doesn’t carry the story forward. They help me clarify my intent. That support makes me a better writer, a better communicator.

It is a pleasure to share my writing with a group of trusted friends and have them share their stories with me. Thank you Jackie and Sally. We learn from each other. In Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets we three coauthors describe our journey as a group, learning to be better writers while expanding our friendship. We encourage writers to create small groups and discover the support within that close dynamic.

Ghost Story

Here we are in October, rolling toward the holidays with the anticipation of ghouls, ghosts and goblins that visit on October 31, All Hallows Eve. Many cultures celebrate November 1st called by different names All Saints Day, All Souls Day and Dia de Los Muertos, a day to honor those who passed before. The practice goes back centuries in Christian culture and ancient civilizations such as the Aztecs. A day of prayer and remembrance after a night of hijinks and revelry.

Well, I have a real ghost story. There have been times in my life when the unexplained/unexplainable occurred. Are they mind tricks? Is it wishful thinking? Or are there spirits reaching from the other side? I’ve journaled about these times and told friends about them. Now I will share one such experience with you.

It happened over fifty-five years ago and is as vibrant in memory as if it happened fifteen minutes ago. My father passed away unexpectantly. He had serious heart issues, but I did not think he was on the brink of death. Dad and I were very close. He got me. He was the loving bridge, firmly anchored on my side, across a chasm of mother-daughter expectations.  Dad was an invaluable ally to a headstrong teen.

Married at eighteen, by twenty-two I was in my own home with a husband and two young children (a baby of one month and a toddler eighteen months). Our little family lived out in the “sticks”, the only place we could afford a house. My parents and brother lived a few miles away in another town, so we saw them about once a week.  Dad loved being with his grandbabies.

Mom called to give me the news that Daddy had passed. Devastated, inconsolable, I descended into a robotic state doing only what was needed. Grief held my heart in a spikey vice grip, severed from my body.

Several nights later, I was driving home on a dark, rain-slick road after going to the grocery store miles away for a few necessities. My husband was home with the babies. It was mid-February in the Pacific Northwest, cold, dank, and dreary. I was enveloped in a blackness not only of the night but of spirit. The empty country road bordered by an ominous phalanx of fir trees was unlit, no traffic ahead or behind me, only the thin beam from my headlights to guide me. I wept, thinking about my father, cheeks drenched in tears, the deepest sorrow I had ever known. In a haze, I pictured accelerating off a curve in the road into the woods, slamming against a tree to stop the pain. No thought of my husband, children, mother, or brother – just the unbearable ache of wanting to be with my father.

“Honey, you have many, many miles to go before you are done.” My father was next to me in the car telling me to go on. I glanced at the passenger seat, nothing, no one; yet his voice was as clear as crystal and so was his message. My sobs stopped instantly. The death grip on my heart released. My attention focused on the road. I felt wrapped in a warm embrace. He was with me. His voice is still distinct, those words still in my ear when I recall that night. I know my father saved my life. We will meet again.

Blogging and Journaling

I started this post with the title Blogging versus Journaling but they are not in competition being totally different mindsets. When we started this blog website a couple of months ago, I thought it would be a journal of sorts – talking about writing, talking about being a writers’ group in the same way as I do my daily journal. I journal, however, for an audience of One, Me. My thoughts come rapidly and randomly. I capture a sentence about the weather, then one of my cats gets my attention or the main activity of my day enters the page or the thought of a friend’s dilemma. Some days I’m delving into a conundrum that needs to be sorted in my life. Some days I write about clouds. My journal entries flit from idea to idea. I know I am the only one who will look at that page. I am talking to myself. Looking back on journal pages I find that I can tell what kind of day it is or will be by the thoughts that crowd my head. I try to do morning pages but that doesn’t always work so they happen when they happen. Journaling is a kind of mind clearing exercise often done outside and always handwritten.  It helps me put perspective on myself in the context of my universe.

When I sit down to write a blog it is for an audience of others. I quickly realized that the mind that writes my journal is not the mind that writes a blog. In a blog, I organize my thoughts to communicate a cogent theme.  I am writing to connect with other people. I am opening my head and inviting others to have a peek. I’m writing story. Blogging is done on the computer, edited with delete and backspace keys available.

Our writers’ group has, over the years, evolved into a kind of group journaling, sorting the meaning of life through writing. We often write from prompts. Those prompts lead us into a memory or story that illuminates pieces of our lives. I find it fascinating that given the same parameters, we three come up with totally different narratives or poetry.  I write fiction and all fiction relates to reality on some level. No matter how whimsical I get there is a kernel of my life in a character or situation. I am blessed with a very pleasant life so when I write into a dark place, I conjure experiences I’ve heard or read, then stir them into stories based on my understanding of life, my beliefs. I do enjoy writing childhood experiences and family memoir occasionally. Everyone writes what they know. Jackie writes mostly memoir. Her stories come from deep places of personal experience. She found it very hard to write fiction when we first took creative writing classes together. She learned to do it and now comes up with characters and imaginary situations more easily. They are always infused with her Midwest roots. Sally is adept at writing both fiction and memoir.  Her characters contain bits of herself. Knowing her so well now, I can spot the hint of her petticoat under the dress of her prose. She also writes from strong Midwest roots that formed her view of life. Sally and I like to write poetry, condensing a thought or experience into the fewest possible words with the most significance. That is the beauty of a long-lasting writers’ group. We riff on personal experiences to make stories we share. We explore and expand our ways of communicating in the safety of the group. Blogging is a step away from that safety, just as publishing our book, Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets is a public invitation into the ups and downs of our years together. It is a journey of discovery.

Red and Moxie

We live in a wild place. Our property backs to two hundred-plus acres of the Vistoso Nature Preserve, one of the many wildlife sanctuaries in Oro Valley. A variety of species of wildlife make their home in the Preserve from mule deer to javelina, coyotes, and bobcats. A mountain lion is sighted occasionally, and a black bear was reported in Big Wash preserve in our town. We are interlopers that they tolerate. Our town is bounded by the Catalina Mountains to the east and the Tortolita Mountains to the north. Animals retreat to the mountains during the hottest months of the year just as many people do. Come late summer, they return to the valley just like people do. It is common to take a walk in the neighborhood accompanied at a respectful distance by a family of javelina or a lone coyote. Bobcats pop in and out of yards, using fences as elements of their parcourse. Lizards and geckos are more prevalent than flies. I’ve not heard or read of a person being attacked by any of these animals in our town but people with small pets, cats, and dogs, have to be vigilant. Great Horned Owls and hawks have been known to carry off the little pets and a hungry coyote may attack a dog even if it is on a leash. We have a plethora of quail, rabbits, and lizards so you don’t see emaciated coyotes around here.

Ken and I have our cups of tea and coffee every morning on the back patio. Tea for me, coffee for him. Our open-air aviary attracts hundreds of birds daily. We enjoy the morning antics of tiny hummingbirds, small wrens, sparrows, and finches with the larger doves, mourning and white-wing. The variety of birds changes with the seasons. Dozens of Gamble Quail live in the underbrush at the edge of the Preserve all year around. They come as families to eat their share of the bird food we put out each morning. They squeak like a baby’s toy to call each other. In spring, they bring their offspring, eggs on legs, Ken calls them. The little ones can’t fly so they scurry around the ground, coming through the rail fence into the yard to chase each other until mama quail calls them back. They follow their mama in neat lines with papa as the shepherd bringing up the rear. There is always the renegade who goes his own way and makes papa double back to round him up.

Moxie

The winged visitor I enjoy most is the mockingbird. I named her Moxie. She was a steady visitor for a few years, sitting in a tree near our patio. Her conversation is amusing. Che-che-che, he-be, he-be, chirp, whistle, chitter-chitter, needer-needer, trill, click, twitter. She performs long soliloquies. We missed her for two years. I think she quarantined during covid, but she is back now. We noticed her delightful chatter a couple of weeks ago. She can scold like the cactus wren, clack like a roadrunner, and caw like a crow. When homes were being built near us a few years ago she would rat-a-tat-tat like the nail gun. She doesn’t join the feasting throng but sits in a tree above the crowd. Mockingbirds prefer insects and fruit to the seeds we provide. By 9:00 in the morning she goes on her way. I’m not sure about the lifespan of a mockingbird, so there may have been many over time, but I choose to believe it is Moxie again and again. I am very grateful she returned this year to entertain us.

Red

Another friend who joined us this year is Redtail Hawk. He sits high in the tallest tree. Mostly he is on the lookout for breakfast. When he soars in to take his watchful place all the birds, especially the doves, take off in a thunderclap of wings. He sends his squeaky greetings down to us as he sits preening. Gradually the birds reappear to continue eating. We discovered he is only interested in the doves. I think the smaller birds are too much trouble for the sustenance they provide. If a dove gets careless and returns too soon, Mr. Hawk is on it like white on rice. Doves are not quite bright and slow to boot, very easy prey for Red. He sometimes perches on one of the cinderblock fence posts with his catch and consumes it slowly. Soft grey feathers float into the breeze as he strips it down to the meaty parts. Not bothered by humans nearby, he concentrates on his meal. Then he too leaves the backyard for other daytime adventures and we are left with the twitters of the smaller birds. They are quiet during the afternoons, naptime, but start up again at dusk for a short time until dark. Resident bats come out at dusk. They are very quiet as they snap up flying insects. They are reclusive during the day. We are ever aware of the natural world in this place we call home.

Roots

force of nature

There is an age-old metaphor – a tree as life. It is so because it works well. I was struck last week by images of devastation made by hurricane Ian as it churned across Florida. Images of destruction, man-made structures strewn across the ground as the palm trees waved goodbye to the storm, their fronds high in the air above. How do they survive? What makes the slender palm tree accept nature’s temper tantrum with equanimity while the solidly built structures below are reduced to rubble? I’m sure there are scientific explanations. I am not a scientist, nor do I especially enjoy scientific explanations. I prefer metaphor to explain the mysteries of life.

The palm tree is in its native habitat. It belongs. It is rooted. Yes, there will be casualties but for the most part the palm withstands storms. Just as people when they are rooted will be able to withstand the vagaries that life offers. A person’s roots are not in the soil or even place based. A person’s roots are in family, in the childhood that nourishes and solidifies his or her character.

Everyone is born with their own set of talents. How those abilities are nourished, how that character is encouraged comes at the beginning of life, the roots. How is the child treated? What does the child learn about being human? Babies are not blank slates. They come with a host of built-in sensors, instruments. Those instruments are fine-tuned to each person’s unique orchestration. They pick up cues from their environment about how to act and react. They interpret the cues according to their sensibilities. That is why two, three, or even eleven children of the same parents will interact with the world entirely differently.

If given stability, a child’s roots will go deep, grow strong. The stability is not of place, it is heart and soul based. A child rooted in emotional security, can move from place to place, in circumstances good or ill, and still be able to grow. They will bend with life’s challenges but stay rooted in their humanity. There are so many stories of people raised in difficult conditions who overcame obstacles to flourish and succeed because they acquired, in the beginning, a core strength that anchored, rooted, them.

It’s not all la-ti-da – an easy equation. Humans are by nature inquisitive. As they mature, they usually experiment with alternatives. That is the basis of human migration. Many seek to define themselves by pulling away from the familiar. Everyone has their own path to trod. There are studies that indicate character is fully formed by age eight. An established character prevails even through the storms of life. Of course, there are always the lost ones. Just as you see uprooted palm trees here and there, some people, even if rooted well, can develop addictions, disease, or psychosis, a myriad of things that dislodge their roots. They may find ways to endure but the disturbance will be manifested in their interactions with life forevermore. It is the responsibility of adults to provide children with stable roots for their best chance to withstand life’s tempests.