Category Archives: Random thoughts

THE ROLE OF MEMORY IN STORYTELLING

melissa with poppy - Version 2My youngest son just turned seven. Watching him play with his birthday Lego, it dawned on me that he has reached my memory lifetime, that is, the age from which I have distinct memories. It was also the age I vividly remember writing my first story.

It was about a little girl who wished for a pair of red shoes. She pestered her mother until her wish came true. Against all her mother’s warnings, she wore the red shoes to go exploring. One shoe got stuck in a muddy puddle and was lost. Slowly, the shoe disintegrated, becoming part of the soil, where it nurtured a lush patch of grass . Along came a cow that ate the grass, and was subsequently killed and her hide turned into a pair of red leather shoes. Strange story for a seven-year-old, but with a satisfyingly circular pattern, and, most importantly, based in fact. Yes, I was the naughty child who’d lost her red shoe.

A baby learns that if you smile at your parent just so, you elicit an instant response, or if you pull the cat’s whiskers, chance are you’ll get scratched. From birth, we build a narrative to make sense of the world around us, based on our interpretation of previous experience.

For a writer, consciously tapping into this memory bank is essential. Storytelling, at its heart, is a thing of memory. When I create a story, I delve into a scrap bag and pull out fragments of places I’ve been, weather I’ve experienced, and characters I’ve met. I stitch together a plot and blend it with sense memories to make it come alive—perhaps the salt and dead fish-laced air of a harbor, the heat shimmering off a city sidewalk, ripe with the scents of hotdogs and car fumes and drains, or the solo chorus of a lark rising high above a peat bog.

When my first grade son writes a story his default mode is a graphic novel: elaborately drawn settings and multiple characters with cryptic little speech bubbles. When prodded he will tell me the complicated and action packed plot. These stories are nothing like the ones I wrote at his age, mostly involving princesses and furry animals, but firmly based in recalled events.Milo Pic 1

I know that all children, given the right encouragement, will express themselves through art. As soon as my older children could hold a crayon, they spent many hours drawing—dragons, knights, princesses, superheroes. As a toddler, my seven-year-old who is more than a decade younger than his brother and sister, seemed reluctant to pick up art supplies. I didn’t push him. Then, at the age of four, the drawings started to trickle in from preschool—small, lavishly detailed scenes that required much explanation from him before I could grasp what they were about.

Observing him draw at home, I noticed an interesting thing. His drawings were “live action.” He was animating his fantasy world on the page. No wonder it had taken him a while to conceptualize how to do this. He is a 21st century storyteller.Milo Pic speak 1

Today, in our screen-centric era, kids move easily between the real world and game worlds, often, at least partially of their own making. These worlds can be so enticing that kids (and adults) feel as though you are present in that fantasy world.

I can’t help wondering what kind of storytellers this makes them? Many of their “memories” are constructed from these fantasy experiences, blended with reality. No doubt the next generation will write extraordinary works of fiction. They will create worlds that we would be hard pushed to conceive of. Storytellers of the mid 21st century will break old molds.

And yet, I believe that nothing can replace the scent of wood smoke on the air that instantly transports me to the moment of arrival at my grandmother’s house. Or the feel of slick pebbles underfoot and ice-cold water stinging my knees as I wade into a lake. Or the shame of facing my mother wearing one red shoe, and one muddy sock.muddy red shoe

TOP TEN THINGS I’VE LEARED ABOUT BLOGGING

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Blogging is not for sissies. It takes time, focus, and hard work if you want to put out blogs that won’t make you cringe down the road. But the rewards are big. As the Write Eejit comes to the end of its first year, I thought it a good time to look back at what it’s taught me so far.

  1. Nobody just pops out a post worth its salt. Even the folks that seem to effortlessly come up with witty and informative things to say on a daily basis have more than likely been mulling them over for a while.   WHITE DEER
  2. It’s an excellent way to get a load off my chest. Feeling aggravated or ecstatic about something? Why not post a mini rant. So what if I’ll forever be known as that miserable woman who hates her cat. I HATE MY CAT
  3. Blogging has a way of bringing things into focus. Coming up with topics not only allows me to live in the moment, but also reflect on past events in a new light. GOLDEN MOMENTS
  4. I get to experiment without having to commit to a specific idea or format. PAGAN MOON
  5. I’ve rediscovered things about my past that had dropped off my radar. HIPPIE ADVENTURE
  6. On good days when I post without a hitch, blogging makes me feel like 21st century Warrior Woman. On bad days when I can’t figure out why my password has reset itself, I’m an FTD (frustrated tech dummy). OLD WRITERS NEW MEDIA
  7. Blogging forces me to set goals and shoot for a deadline, and is a constant reminder to adhere to good writing habits—check spelling and punctuation before hitting “Post”. COTTER PIN
  8. Blogging helps me take that breath and reevaluate where I am, both in life, and as a writer. MUD SEASON
  9. There are many talented and inspiring fellow bloggers out there. HIGH JINKS IN THE HAREM
  10. And when those “Likes” and comments pop up, boy is it instant gratification for someone who spends a lot of time tapping away in no-woman’s land. BLIND SQUIRREL PARENTING

How to painlessly get your kids ready for school (and college) in half an hour a day.

My husband and I had just brought our first newborn home from the hospital. Honestly, I couldn’t believe they’d let us walk out of the place with her—didn’t they know we were completely clueless? The first diaper change was a fiasco that reduced us to helpless laughter. We were woefully unprepared. The fact that our daughter had DSC_0095showed up a couple of weeks early didn’t help. In those first few days, we walked around in a zombie-like state. One afternoon, while I was napping with the baby, my husband slipped out for a breather. When I woke up, he was back with the first gift he would ever give her—a collection of children’s books that he had loved as a child.

That very day, he propped her warm, saggy little body into the crook of his arm and read her The Lorax. And so began our favorite childhood routine. We read morning, afternoon, and night. Basically, anytime there was a bed involved, and frequently when there wasn’t. In the beginning it was all about indulging our own memories of books. But soon we discovered wonderful new classics of children’s literature. And it didn’t take long before the Ikea bookshelf in her shoebox-sized room was overflowing. When her brother arrived eighteen months later, our days revolved around the park, the bookstore, and the library. He even took his first steps, staggering, giggling, through the stacks in the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Shortly after that, our book collection—children’s and adult’s—forced us to beat a retreat from city life. Our drafty old Saltbox was soon insulated with a solid six inches of books.IMG_0083

Toward the end of our second summer living in the county, an event loomed that left me full of dread. Our daughter was off to kindergarten, and the prospect of upsetting our leisurely morning routine—lounging in bed, gasping at the grossness of a Roald Dahl story, or laughing aloud at Shel Silverstein poems—was dismal. I knew that trying to get a cranky, uncooperative kid dressed, fed, and ready for the 8:15 bus was going to put us all in a major snot. Add to that, my determination not to give up our precious morning reading session. Like all good drill sergeants, I came up with a plan. Surprisingly, it worked so well, it became our new morning routine.

The night before I would pull out the next day’s gear (thankfully my kids were never fussy about what they wore). Then, half an hour before I knew the kids needed to be dressed and shoveling food into their faces, I woke them up. This sometimes involved picking them up, semi-conscious, and depositing them in our bed, along with an armful of clothing, various must-have soft toys, and a stack of books. As they snuggled back under the covers, I began to read to them. After about five minutes of a rollicking picture book, guaranteed to capture their attention, they’d be wide-awake. I’d read the next installment of whatever chapter book we happened to be reading—Little House in the Big Woods, The BFG, Harry Potter. Just when I reached a particularly juicy part, I’d pause and say, “Time to get dressed.” Rather than eliciting groans of despair, the kids knew, that was the signal to quietly drag on their clothes, while I finished the last few tantalizing paragraphs. Violá! I had a fully awake, fully dressed, happy crew, ready to face the day with their heads already bulging with stories, and their imaginations firing on all cylinders. An added bonus to all this was that my kids learned to read relatively painlessly, acquired a vocabulary that stopped adults in their tracks, and best of all, a love of books.

I would be fretting about what to do with the Alexandria-sized stacks of children’s book we’ve accumulated over the years when my daughter heads off to college this fall. But lucky for me, my six-year old has allowed us to indulge our morning reading routine just a little bit longer.

Three cheers for children’s books! IMG_0593

Old Writers, New Media

IMG_4587So, there I am, a write eejit, feeling overwhelmed by the level of New Media I haven’t mastered, when a thought occurs to me: How would writers in the past have handled today’s plethora of media technology. Would they have passed the proverbial buck and remained scratching away with their goose quills, or clacking away at their typewriters? Or would they have embraced it wholeheartedly? Given that many of the most enduring writers were ahead of their time, it stands to reason that they would have been hanging ten on the New Media wave. I posed the question to my wonderful, tech savvy, and well-read teen, and we riffed mightily. Here are the conclusions we came to.

Samuel Beckett, who rose to the challenge of reducing his later work to its most simple form, would be Lord of the Tweet: All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Worstword Ho, 1983) His retweet stats would be legendary. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8mBogVritg

Oscar Wilde, master of the sassy one-liner,  would have millions of followers on Twitter, and probably go mano-a-mano with Beckett in a twitter war: minimalism versus flamboyant provocatism: There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

Who can deny Shakespeare the title of King of the Sound Bite: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. (Twelfth Night)

Charles Dickens, a whizz-kid when it came to growing his audience, cornered the market on the serialized format, starting with The Pickwick Papers in 1836. “It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.” “But suppose there are two mobs?” suggested Mr. Snodgrass. “Shout with the largest,” replied Mr. Pickwick. He’d write epic, multi-chapter fan fiction. And Thomas Hardy would write epic Charles Dickens fan fiction.

Wordsworth would go apeshit over Instagram.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
IMG_4577 That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils…
(“The Daffodils”, 1807)

Jane Austen, Fairy Godmother of the RomCom, would give Julian Fellowes a run for his money, optioning the movie rights to all her bestsellers. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. (Letter to Mr. Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, 1815)

Mark Twain would have several Kickstarter projects running at once.

Mary Shelley would be tickled pink by the possibilities of CGI when bringing her ‘Modern Prometheus’ to life for the big screen, and insist on 3D. She and Ridley Scott would have long conversations about prosthetics. Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred. (Frankenstein, 1818)

Louisa May Alcott would be very active on Pinterest.

The Bronte sisters, well-known cat lovers, would, no doubt, find it impossible not to post cute kitty videos on YouTube.

Virginia Woolfe would make cryptic and overly personal Facebook updates. We have been to Rodmell, and as usual I come home depressed – for no reason. Merely moods. Have other people as many as I have? That I shall never now. And sometimes I suppose that even if I came to the end of my incessant search into what people are and feel I should know nothing still. (Diary entry, 1925)

Edgar Alan Poe, the big Emo, would post morose poetry, and black-and-white giffs of Bergman movies to his Tumblr account.                                                                                                                    But see, amid the mimic route                                                                                                                        A crawling shape intrude!                                                                                                                                A blood-red thing that writhes from out                                                                                                    The scenic solitude!                                                                                                                                          It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs                                                                                               The mimes become its food,                                                                                                                       And seraphs sob at vermin fangs                                                                                                                   In human gore imbued. (“The Conqueror Worm,” 1843)

James Joyce would embrace the challenge of writing a novel on his cell phone, and cause a minor scandal when his sexting with Nora accidentally goes public.

No doubt, these old dogs could teach us some new tricks.

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Hot date with your psyche

icefishingYou’re a write eejit when you haven’t checked in with your psyche since Iceland last went volcanic.

Sad thing is, you never know how much you need to do it, until you do it. Duh!

So, it’s my late winter get-in-touch-with-my-inner being time. I have a hot date with my psyche. I’m taking it away for the weekend up to the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We’ll sit, wrapped in a blanket, bemusedly gazing at small clots of ice fishermen, breathing in the 15˙ air through coffee breath and last night’s beer-furred tongues.

Of course, whom I’m actually getting in touch with is highly subjective. Aristotle would sit me down and point out that my quiet weekend was actually quite a crowded affair with all three of my souls or psyches present—my (party) animal, my morning-after vegetal, and my rational (oh my god, you mean I have to clean this shit up!). If you ask Jung, I could be communing with my psyche—the totality of all my psychic processes—and on a whole other level with my soul—or partial personality. Yeah, I was afraid of that! But Freud would argue that I’m partying with my Id and my Super Ego, and my Ego is sitting in a corner acting as chaperone.

But whatever. I’ll be there, enjoying the peace and quiet, and it’ll hit me that there’s nothing better than sitting and listening to good music and thinking about parallel universes and something and nothing. My brain’s been strapped to a conveyor belt for months and now, finally, I’m taking it for a walk in the woods. It’s like a puppy leaping down each leaf-strewn path, sniffing at tree stumps, eating deer poop, squatting to mark its territory.

And then something—or nothing—will strike me as being peculiarly funny and before I can edit myself, a laugh bubbles out of me. I feel the stress that has been building in the knots at the back of my neck making me look like a latter day Quasimodo, leaving my body.

Of course me and my psyche would be firmly and bitterly divorced by now if I hadn’t figured out that in my everyday world I have to snatch those moments of freewheeling introspection wherever I can: Sitting in an early-morning rumpled bed, sipping tea and doing the daily purge in my notebook, or after lunch, curled up on the doorstep like a cat, soaking up the faintest kiss of March sun, or later, in the evening, between the simmering rice and steaming vegetables, sitting in the iridescent green armchair in my study, watching the day’s light leech out of the sky and the first planet beginning to glow.

Those are my stolen moments of sanity, when my inner psyche and my outer goddess hang out with a glass of nectar of the vine and make daisy chains out of something—or nothing.

Cotter Pin

1bike2 Old Bicycle

You’re a write eejit when your cotter pin takes a hike.

One summer I was waiting tables in Montauk, Long Island. I bought a cheap bicycle to get from my flop pad to the beach to the restaurant. It worked, barely. Some sage person advised me that the reason items of machinery (the names of which I am not privy to) clicked around and around when I pushed down on one of the pedals, getting me nowhere fast, was because my cotter pin was missing. Well, today, the cotter pin that keeps my brain from banging around in my skull failed to report for duty. You know that feeling when your gears are spinning but not engaging?

I faffed—don’t you just love that word—around for the day. I poked at my latest query letter. Godricks jockstrap, they’re hard to write! Why are there fifteen ways of saying anything?

The clichéd: When Miranda loses her boyfriend to sexpot Lavinia, it can only mean one thing—she must discover her inner diva and fight back.

The colloquial: Miranda goes apeshit and swears she’ll get her pound when Lavinia, the local ho, jacks her two-timing piece of sh*@ fella . . .

The businesslike: Miranda’s boyfriend cheats on her with the popular girl in town. Miranda takes up pole dancing and swears revenge.

Okay, lame examples, but you get my point. Not a task to be undertaken when your cotter pin is slipping.