Category Archives: writing

How do your memories influence your fiction writing?

“Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story,” said Danish author Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa). 

8_Wells-LiteratureEmpathyMany of my friends are writers. Most of them I know very well. Well enough that when I read some of their work I occasionally recognize autobiographical events, people or places, but these “true” events and such have been fictionalized and told as if they have happened in the lives of the story’s characters. Every author writes from his or her personal experiences, and I believe the more you know about an author the better you can understand that author’s perspective and ideas and what they may be trying to get across to the reader.

In my experience, I’ve never written a story or novel from a preconceived outline or plot diagram. Things change too rapidly, and life may give me another idea that will work better, and the story writes itself like a runaway train. Cities and towns have souls and memories and stories just waiting to be mined.

I am guilty of stealing other’s life experiences as well, and giving them to my characters, changing them up a little.  A red-headed male friend once told me about being chased by a rooster every time he stepped foot in his grandparents’ yard. Seems the rooster was after his red hair, and his grandma shouted to that rooster, “Don’t you spur my baby you peckerwood”. That ended up being in the history of my protagonist in a manuscript – the red-headed boy was too easily remembered.

Humor is everywhere. My daughter’s boyfriend was learning to tie a necktie, and the stress he put himself through developed into a short story. He asked me if I knew how to tie a Windsor knot and I said to look up ties in the Encyclopedia (this was  in the olden days before Google) and he returned, downtrodden, and told me, “it said ‘see railroad'”.

My husband and I walked around Jackson Square in New Orleans late one evening. Fortune tellers and tarot card readers sat around at tables draped with fabric, candles burning, as they lured customers to their tables for readings. Suddenly a young man rounded the corner and had a python wrapped around his body. We walked a little faster around the Square, the man and python following us for a long while. This experience gave me a short story series.

Sadness and sorrow, as well as shock, are always singed in our memories. In my childhood I remember a little friend drowned in her father’s minnow trough. She was about 5 or 6 years old, as was I. My parents went to the wake and took me with them. I had no idea what had occurred until we arrived at the ramshackle house on the outskirts of Hattiesburg MS and saw people peering into a long wooden box on the dining room table. Children climbed on chairs to have a look. I did not want to miss out on whatever they saw in there so I mounted a chair and looked in and was stunned to see my friend, her little body perfectly still in a pretty pink dress, her lips blue, sleeping in that box. That scene will never leave me. I’ve included the scene in one of my novels.

There are so many scenes from my childhood that I’ve used in numerous places in fiction, hiding them in different places than they occured, most times, or they hide themselves, or take a turn you did not expect. When you are going in one direction and think you know where the characters are headed, they just may surprise you and hop on a freight train!

What are some of the events tattooed in your soul? (I promise I won’t steal it, although I may change it up a bit so you won’t recognize it!)

The Lane Cotton Mill

Cotton fabrics from my closed storefront shop are now stored in a former mill that manufactured cotton fabric in the 1800s on Tchoupitoulas Street. The mill first opened in 1852 and operated until 1950 – today it has been reconfigured (adaptive re-use) into storage units. The history of Lane Cotton Mill is fascinating to me. But what I really found most interesting is this photograph of Lane Mill workers taken in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

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Lewis Hines, “Group of workers in Lane Cotton Mill, New Orleans,” The Historic New Orleans Collection

What’s the first thing you notice? The boy speaking to his buddy behind him. “Stop poking me.” Or the one directly behind him with that lock of hair and impish grin? The one beside him, on the right, standing proud, hat in hand? Every person had/has a story.

What I also notice is the worn-out knees of those pants, the youth who were expected to help support the family at 10-12 years of age. Child labor was a necessary thing at that time. Perhaps those are sisters, brothers, in the background.

Our house on Laurel Street here in New Orleans is located about three blocks from this mill complex. Built originally as a “double shotgun” with two apartments, each side of the house had a living room, middle bedroom and a kitchen in the back, with no indoor plumbing (more history about shotgun houses here). I don’t know if our house was built originally by manufacturers for their workers or not – probably not – but it was converted years ago into a “single” with three small bedrooms and 2 baths.

The evidence of streetcar rails can be found in certain spots along Laurel St, so the location was convenient for workers to travel to and from their jobs. Or walk to Lane Cotton Mills.

In my imagination, people were packed into these little houses. Living rooms doubled as bedrooms. High ceilings (ours is 11-12′) and numerous windows allowed for air flow and the closeness of these houses allowed for little privacy. Noise travels. Young women probably worked until they married and had children, usually very young. Here’s a pic of some of those young women, with their tin lunch buckets.lane+cotton+mill

I now work out of that same cotton mill, only now I’m set up in the wide hall and I cut fabric for my online shop while imagining those voices and noises from the past as those loud machines processed cotton from upriver and made it into cloth. During the Civil War the mill was commandeered by Union forces to stop the manufacture of Confederate uniforms, to destroy morale. This photo shows those oil-stained floors (where I set up to cut fabric) and some of the machinery that wove cotton cloth, now replaced with metal storage units.

img_4538Are those boys and girls longing to have their stories told? I think they are.
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The photographs here are from the archives of Store-All, the current owners of these fabulous brick buildings.

 

lanemill letterhead

Letterhead from Lane Cotton Mills. The large building at the left of this photo is currently occupied by Rouse’s supermarket. The remainder of the complex has been adapted for storage. Cotton fabrics and all that we materialistic people hold onto.

P.S.: Just listened to archived interview of Charles Neville prior to his death. He grew up on Valence St., with no electricity and an outdoor toilet – when they moved to the Calliope Projects he said that was a ‘step up’. He said his mom, Amelia Landry Neville, had worked at Lane Cotton Mills where my fabrics are currently at home – right at the end of Valence St! This is the only person whose name I’ve heard who has worked there – I wonder if she is in the photo above. Charles Neville passed away on Thursday, April 26, 2018 at 79 years old. Click here for an archived interview: https://www.wwno.org/post/music-inside-out-remembering-charles-neville

A New Year Begins

Like many women of a certain age, I’ve had a few past lives. When we lived in Memphis I organized a non-profit literacy program focusing on creative writing. It was called WriteMemphis. We had 27 volunteers working with inner-city teen girls in several Memphis locations. These young writers created awesome poetry and prose about their lives in Memphis – from the strong women in their lives to gunshots through the front door to becoming teen mothers. When I left Memphis in 2014 I gave the program to Literacy Mid-South, which was a natural fit for the life-changing work they do.

Fast forward to where I am today. New Orleans. New business. New home. New life.

I miss writing. I really do. Even though I love the work I do every day in our shop I miss the creative energy of word to page. I have resolved to make more time for writing in 2017. And in celebration of that promise to myself, I want to share exciting news! One of my essays is included in a new anthology (slated for March publication) edited by my friend Susan Cushman,  A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be.

A Second Blooming includes work by fabulous writers – Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Beth Ann Fennelly, and my friends Ellen Prewitt, Susan Marquez and Nancy-Kay Wessman – twenty-one in all! I am in awe of these fabulous women and I am honored to be among them. Readings and signings are scheduled in Memphis TN,  Jackson MS and soon in my home city of New Orleans.  I’m so excited I’ll let the world know when that will be! Here’s the catalog page from Mercer Press:asb-mup-catalog-page

Writers are inspirational … we support & encourage each other!

Thanks to my friend Ellen Prewitt for inviting me to join in Luann Castle’s Writer Site conversation on the creative process. Yes, we’re breaking more rules here .  .  . while I am a writer, I also create many other things as part of what gives my life meaning. These days, what I’m creating is my own shop: Uptown Needle & Craftworks (please “Like” my FB page), so I wanted to share with you a little about the process.

First, I want to share a little (well, a lot, actually) about how I got to this day.

I have not posted on my blog in a while. I stepped off one train and jumped on another in my life vocation. After many years as Episcopal clergy, squeezing in time for writer, sewist and artistic pursuits, I awoke one morning and felt a call to begin a new life dedicated to creativity. I turned 65 one month ago. Having breakfast one morning in a well-known New Orleans bakery while visiting family, I asked my companions to take a walk around the Magazine Street neighborhood. Right next door to the bakery was a yellow house with a very small sign: For lease; commercial. I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a photo of the phone number on the sign. My inner critic immediately chattered away. It’s probably too pricey for you. You have no business doing this at your age.

I argued back. If not now, when? If I wait five years I may not have the same energy and passions I do now. I’m energetic and committed to making a life change. I signed a two year lease and quit my job on the same day. Some say I’ve retired. I say I’ve re-fired.

For every creative I know, that inner critic is always on the job. No matter if we write, paint or sculpt – that tiny tyrant wants to be in charge. As I’ve grown older, that voice has become smaller and smaller. Today it is a mere leaf falling out of place. I completed my first novel when I was 15 years old. I’ve completed 4 more since then. Not one was accepted for publication. Not that I haven’t tried – one was very close to being a finalist in Amazon’s Great American Novel Contest. And it could be published already if I had the time, energy and funds to do about two year’s of edits. All are sitting in boxes until I have the time to edit each one – I will do this, later. And I still write. The stories are there, but my interests reflect my personality type. I’m an INFP on the Myers Briggs personality inventory chart. One description of this personality type reads, “you’re like a new puppy, always into something new.” That’s me. I write, edit, write some more. Sometimes I work on one of my novel manuscripts; sometimes I write a short story. Because there’s always a story. And sometimes I sew, paint or make something new.

I ride the train, “The City of New Orleans”, back and forth from my home to my new business site. In observing the people on the train I can see stories everywhere. But at this time in my life, my career change is my story. It takes courage, confidence and a little bit of moxie to outwit the critic and keep your heart, fingers and brain in sync with your passion – your true self’s deepest desire. When we overcome negative energy, the world wants to hear what we have to say. And real life makes for the greatest stories. Especially when our words come from that deep place called our true self.

When I think of all this as it applies to writing, I first have a picture in my head. Ex.: I found two chairs. Functional, but not perfect. Ordinary. Then I give them a little bit of attention, add some emotion, some color, some gorgeous fabric – voila! Entirely new chairs. Life is like that. Pay attention. Create something new. Gather your courage. You’ll amaze yourself. But back to the initial questions I’m supposed to answer:

  1. What am I working on at the moment? At the moment I’m grieving over having to leave my writing critique group after years of sharing with them in numerous phenomenal successes as well as a few dismal failures – they are all excellent writers and I will miss them. I am leaving Memphis to open my own creative arts studio in New Orleans – which will include creative writing classes. I will continue to work on short stories, as everyone knows New Orleans is full of them, from the woman walking down the street, body painted entirely in silver, to the little boy tapping his heart out for spare change of tourists in the French Quarter. Who are they, and what is inside them that drives them to live their dreams in this city?
  2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?  My work does not fall into a genre, other than the broad category of Southern writing and creativity based on my own life experiences. Working in several forms, whether in clay or textiles, I find that I always include words in my work. Like every writer, I’m in love with words and the myriads of possible usage and meanings.
  3. Why do I create what I do? According to my mother (she died several years ago), my soul has compelled me to create since birth. When a small child I made up stories with my paper dolls (this really tells my age). I created family dramas and named my Betsy McCall paper dolls different names (these paper dolls were printed each month in McCall’s magazine). Southern families are chock full of characters, and Southern writers can easily overlap fictional characters with people they have known, or people in their families – although we certainly do not have the franchise on this process.
  4. How does my writing/creative process work? All depends on what I am creating – sometimes a story or character takes up residence in my head when I’m at a traffic light or in a coffee shop. However, in order to write, to focus on a character and a story, I must have a quiet place and a non-anxious state of being. To fall into that “dream state” as Robert Olen Butler calls it, so that I become my character and exist in the milieu that I write about.

What do you need in order to create?

More Writing Quotes

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.
– Isaac Asimov
Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
– Barbara Kingsolver

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.
– Anne Lamott
The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, brain surgery.
– Robert Cormier

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Hoping and praying all my writer friends get some writing time in over the next few days!

Telling the Truth

Good writing is about telling the truth. – from Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing, Bird by Bird.

Writing is not about achieving perfection.  Writing is about telling the truth. How do we write the truth about people and events in our lives when to do so may hurt the very people we care about? The truth, for me, is what I personally learned from those people and events.

When I write about certain events or people, I tend to think about the subjects first as fiction, and I begin with the most traumatic thing and quickly make bullet points of what happened to build up to transformation.  This makes for my story outline.  From there I move into setting the scene and building the characters. How would I describe the milieu, the scene? Where is the conflict, and how were the characters changed in some way? To write creative non-fiction, I’ve learned to use the qualities that make good fiction. There’s good advice everywhere, even in some unconventional places. The following is from an introduction to Kurt Vonnegut’s 2000 book of stories, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, where he gives ‘rules’ for writers.  Even though these 8 tips are directed toward fiction writers, they can apply to nonfiction as well. I keep these ‘rules’ (and others) close by so my conscious mind is aware of these types of issues as I write [comments in brackets are mine]:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger [your reader] in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. [Why should I care about this person?]
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things …. reveal character or advance the action [move the story forward].
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. [Time after time I hear editors tell writers, “in the middle is where the action starts …. make that your beginning!”]
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [To me, this is great advice, because a writer cannot write to please every reader, every taste, every family member.]
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on [what’s at stake], where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [Richard Bausch says, “Be a docent in your own museum.” Know your characters and your setting inside and out before you begin your story.]
I hear friends say many times that they have a memoir in progress, or a short story based on fact, and they cannot submit for publication until certain people are dead.  The point is, how were YOU transformed in the event? That’s the real story. If you can write about that, then you’ve done your soul work, whether the project is ever published or not. What is your greatest writing advice?

page, after page, after page …..

“Writing as a way of life, writing in a way that will save your life, has a very interesting dynamic to it. To be successful as a writer, you have to cultivate two oppositional sides of your personality: the secret-keeper you, and the public chatty bold you. They’re both in there, and they both deserve the honor of practice.”

Someone sent me this quote. If anyone knows where this came from, please let me know so I can give that person credit. I love it. Writing is indeed about writing about secrets, whether the ones you yourself keep or the ones your characters keep. I want my characters to keep their secrets to the very end, then surprise everyone. But they never do, they tell. They can’t hold anything in.

After writing about building characters the other day someone sent me a five-page character development worksheet template. I was a little overwhelmed. After all, most of the time my characters develop themselves on the pages, then grow and tell me who they are page after page.  How can I tell all their secrets up front? But the sender is right. I need to know everything about my characters before I can send them on their missions, save them from peril, or allow them to fall in love.  I’m going to try using this template, where I must list a character’s fears, longings, psychological problems, prescriptions they’re taking, past surgeries and their abnormal perceptions, among a long list of other attributes.

This character development thing is a discipline. I abhor that word. I run away from discipline. Which brings me back to the above quote. Hollywood has made dozens of movies involving emotional and physical abuse in the name of a husband “disciplining” his wife (most of the time).  “The Burning Bed” was one of them. A terrifying movie. I try not to watch these type movies because these bring back too many memories of my ex-husband, who has no idea he was or is abusive.  In his words, he was trying to “break” me of my nature.  Now my nature is and always has been an introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving soul. He wanted me to be more like his mother, who was dedicated to her husband and cooking and keeping the house clean.  To this day, and I think she is in her 80s, I don’t believe she has any interests outside her day to day home existence, and she lives in a one-dimensional world that she seems to have always loved. There’s nothing wrong with that.

We are not at all alike. I love to write and paint and go and do and teach and preach and create and learn and I’m like a new puppy wanting to get my nose in everything. And I like to contemplate. Most times while I’m alone. Sometimes this precludes dusting the mantle, darning socks, or making certain the magazines are fanned out on the coffee table just like the one-dimensional photos in those magazines.