As I write, I remember. It is 5:45 p.m. Two years ago at this exact moment, my father passed away.
In the front bedroom where he had slept for 56 years, we stood around him — my mother, my sister, my son, and I. That morning, the hospice nurse was unable to get a blood pressure reading. She’d told me we were very close to the end, that she would be surprised if he made it through the day. Then she called the doctor, informed him of Dad’s vitals, and reminded him that Dad was a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate). Just let it happen, the doctor said.
Dad was in the final stage of dementia. End-stage dementia causes a person to lose the ability to swallow; therefore, he could not eat or drink. It was Day 13 without food or water. He can’t die today, I kept saying. Not March 31. It was the first anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo, who created a furor of national proportions after her feeding tube was removed and she died of malnutrition and dehydration. Like Dad was doing.
Late afternoon my sister pulled Dad’s old tape player out of the closet and snapped in a gospel tape. The song “Rise Again” came on. … I’ll rise again. There’s no power on earth can tie me down. Yes, I’ll rise again. Death can’t keep me in the ground.
He took a breath … silence … then another … silence … a soft breath … then no more. He swallowed. He’s gone, isn’t he, my mother said. My son put his ear to Dad’s chest – a faint heartbeat, then no more. What time is it, my mother said. It’s 5:45, my son and I said.
I looked up at the ceiling. Bye, Dad, I said.
The funeral home backed a black hearse up to the front door and removed my father’s body, as my sister and I stood in the front yard, arms around each other, on grass Dad had mowed all our lives in front of the only home we’d ever known, and watched our father go west down Deering.
Bye, Dad, I said.
Though it seems it can’t be right.
All of my tomorrows
Will hold your memories tight.”
I’ll tell you one thing for sure — Darnell Arnoult can lead a good workshop!
The Council for the Written Word had its sixth annual spring fiction workshop this morning. Darnell led our first spring workshop in 2003, and in the intervening five years, she has published a book of poetry and a great American Southern novel, Sufficient Grace, and among other honors and achievements, she was the 2007 Tennessee Writers Alliance’s Writer of the Year.
The colorful cover of Darnell’s hardback novel featured a birdhouse. Susie was in charge of decorations and food and had her husband build two birdhouses to decorate with, and we used one for a door prize and gave one to Darnell. Susie employed one of the book’s themes — food and baking — to prompt her decorating ideas, as she scattered old needlework doilies and cloths and aprons about the room, and served several kinds of pound cake (and of course, the obligatory Krispy Kremes!). There was food in every scene of the book — Darnell said she gained twenty pounds writing it. Susie, Currie, Colleen, Angela, and I were in charge of putting together the event. We’ve been doing these for so long that we can almost read each other’s minds and know where to divide the responsibilities based on the talents of each. (Like when we blew a fuse in the classroom due to three coffee pots going at full speed, Currie was naturally the one to find the fuse box and fix it!)
Darnell not only puts energy in her own writing, but she fills her presentation with it. And speaking of energy … a novel, she says, should open with a confident voice, a specific event, and an early hook — something that will make the reader want to move forward.
If you have an impulse for a novel, Darnell continues, it will only get you fifty pages. After that, the impulse loses its gas, and at that point, novel writing is hard because you have to start pulling things out of the air. So from experience and observation, you pull in specifics with which you can bring in colorful and memorable details (and you get these from looking through the little notebook you are supposed to keep in your purse or pocket to record all the interesting and unusual details that happen during your days). Once you’ve written a scene, you go through the manuscript with a red pen and circle every meaningful specific, every image you can see vividly in your mind. Then you hold the page out and squint at it. When you see big holes with no red, look for a meaningful specific to add.
This afternoon, I called my mother and told her I had a workshop this morning. She said, “Well, I bought pork chops when you were down here last week and you wouldn’t eat them!”
I’m thinking that should go in the little notebook in my purse.
Wednesday at Barnes & Noble Writers’ Night, Todd Bottorff of Turner Publishing in Nashville spoke on writing and getting published. His company is one of the top 101 independent publishers in the U. S. and puts out 70 titles a year. Todd encouraged aspiring writers to define their personal objectives at the beginning of a writing project. He said that the actual writing of a book is easier than the outlining and structuring that goes on beforehand. When you outline, you are working from your head. When you write, you are working from your heart.
Turner Publishing has three imprints and publishes southern novels, calendars and local history, and nonfiction. When asked if he published creative nonfiction, Todd said quickly and emphatically, “No.”
Lee Gutkind’s words rang in my ears — the first remarks out of his mouth on September 29, 2007 in Oxford, Mississippi, in a one-day workshop. “Creative nonfiction is the fastest growing genre in the publishing industry. It’s the fastest growing genre in creative writing academic settings. Creative nonfiction is exploding all over the world — EXCEPT IN THE SOUTH.”
I wonder if the name of the genre throws people off. I mean, after all, who could refuse Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? The name “creative nonfiction” seems to contradict itself. It sounds like the writer is creating fiction in nonfiction, mixing fable and fact … so why not just call it fiction?
Definition: Creative nonfiction is a TRUE narrative that employs the tools of good fiction writing — well-developed characters, vivid setting, plot line, dialogue, strong storytelling voice, etc. — to relate an honest and artful and TRUE story.
Gutkind says, “The word ‘creative’ refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”
The Williamson County Council for the Written Word is pleased to bring Lee Gutkind to Tennessee to teach “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction” to scads of Southern writers. We’ve already seen a lot of interest and excitement and even have a few signed up. (If you’re interested, get your name in the pot now! Seating will be limited, and we’re expecting a sell-out crowd months in advance.)
Robbie Bryan, CRM at Barnes & Noble Cool Springs, was excited to report he’s seen the cover and early proofs of Kristin Tubb‘s new middle-grade novel, Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different. Kristin was in my critique group before her two children were born and her life got crazy with babies and book deadlines, and we worked on the first several chapters of the book in progress — a work of historical fiction set in Cades Cove in eastern Tennessee. I can’t wait to read the ending! I’m not above reading a middle-grade novel.
John at An Embarrassment of Riches posted an entry on March 24 titled “Navigating Family and Shared Memories.” It’s good reading for creative nonfiction writers engaged in peeling back the years and layers of their lives, going deep, and writing about experiences that shaped them. “Are we going to remember every event exactly as others may remember it?” he asks. “Our perception is everything, and the way we perceive and remember is the way we acquire truth.”
“Unfortunately, our minds do not etch every moment into stone for us. We forget things,” John continues. “We change colors, sights, sounds. We may add elements that weren’t there. We may blend one or two memories together, remembering them as one. I ask, is that wrong? In my opinion it’s not. I think you have to have an honest relationship with your readers. For me, it’s about admitting that I don’t have everything down perfectly, which I’m happy to do.”
For me, those early memories are snapshots — not real photographs taped to the pages of an album or dumped in a dilapidated cardboard box — but images in my mind, or frozen frames, of happenings in my early years that had an impact on my life. They seem to be in black-and-white, not color. I remember what I perceived — what I saw, touched, smelled, heard, how I felt. I may remember what Mama said about them years later. The details might have been recorded in a small, shiny, square photograph. All combined, I’m left with an impression — a strong effect produced on my feelings and intellect.
Now I’m making a story of that impression. It’s a personal story, but it must also be a public story, relevant to others. In relating my story, I am bound to the truth. Truth is achieved through describing the impression a person, place, or event left on me, thinking about how that fits in with other impressions and historical facts of the Time and Place, including specific details I remember … and through research, sticking in a few intimate details, legitimate and real.
For example, in my childhood story about venturing to “The Big Woods,” a circular patch of jungle in the middle of a cottonpatch south of town, I describe the vines that hang from trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back, I describe marshy puddles with colors of florescent purple and yellow. Fellow writer Sarah Einstein said, “I want to know what kind of trees were there. I’m thinking there might be bald cypress, and I want to know that.” It struck me, because I am usually careful with those kinds of details, but my memory is only of tall, thick, gnarled trunks rising straight up to the light. I don’t remember leaves at all! I have no clue what kinds of trees were in this thicket and wouldn’t have been able to identify them at the age of ten anyway. Dinty W. Moore says that through research of what trees were native to the area and were most prominent in the early days when the Mississippi Delta was settled, I can legitimately provide those details for the reader. These kinds of details give depth and create a better picture for the reader, letting the reader hang on to something specific and be more involved in the scene.
As John says, I should be honest and careful with my readers, letting them know that this ladder to Truth came through careful reconstruction and while it may not be exact, it fits with my memory, as well as with the reality of Time and Place.
John explains it further. “I’m trying to capture my impressions of childhood. The impressions my memories left on me. As much as I’m a writer, I’m an archaeologist, sifting through the dirt of my past. I’m reconstructing the people, places, and things that stood up around me at varying points throughout my childhood. Just as an archaeologist must get by reassembling the past with cracked bones, pulverized bones, or no bones at all, I must do the best to construct my past from the memories I have.”
I drove from home in Mississippi to home in Tennessee this morning via Interstate 40 — with all the trucks going 85. I made the mistake of wearing sandals, and my feet froze the entire 6-hour drive. (I would never dream of turning on the heater!) The weather was deceiving — blustery, but bright and sunny … so bright the dog had to wear her sunglasses.
On the way out of Cleveland, I stopped, as I always do, at the cemetery to say good-bye to Dad. It’s always locked when I leave town; the gates don’t open until 7, but this morning, about fifteen minutes early, all the gates were opened wide. I was playing the tape of church songs we’d put on for Dad during the last few minutes of his life; it has some good Easter songs on it. Dad’s Easter Lily was still fresh and upright in spite of the wind.
This was a working trip to help my mother get her yard and house ready for spring. I weeded, planted, and mulched flowerbeds, front and back yards. I took down, washed, dried, and re-hung curtains in three rooms, and broke two curtain rods in the process. I scrubbed The Outback, a screened porch-like structure in the backyard, using Clorox and mildew remover and soap suds, and washed the furniture in there, as well. Every muscle I have is sore, but everything has a ring of newness that matches the season.
My mother’s North Carolina Jasmine is full and fills the yard with its scent.
The neighbor to the rear asked Mom if he could have the gourds in her backyard. He said he noticed they were not being used. Dad collected and hung them for purple martins, but in the two years since his death, they’ve been idle. I got a shot of them hanging, fresh and new-looking, in the neighbor’s yard.
The sun rose at the end of Deering Street, reminding me that this was the place where I saw some of my first sunrises, the place of my beginnings and firsts. I saw a lot of those old familiar things when I was home — the light pole in front of Alyce’s house next door, where we kids played after dark; the radio tower south of town with its blinking red light; the storage room with Dad’s caps and jacket and tools; all the streets parallel to Deering and the side streets that I still remember so well. I drove by Jones Bayou to make sure I was remembering if it really and truly ran under downtown — and it does. It disappears under Court Street and appears again two blocks north on the other side of Highway 8. I also drove by the old downtown hotel to count how many stories it has — five. I needed that bit of information for an essay in my memoir.
It’s always good to go back, and it’s always good to come home. And put on socks and warm up my feet. And rest.
Chocolate bunnies, real bunnies, jelly beans, bonnets, robins, squirrels, and cool green grass. Did anybody mention grilling out?
HAPPY EASTER, ALL!
“You plant tomatoes on Good Friday,” Dad always said. And for the 84 years of his life, he did just that. In his little plot of a garden in the backyard, he’d plant several varieties, stake them as they grew, and harvest them, eat them, give them away. So today, Mom and I will carry on that tradition. We went to Wal-mart (The China Store) yesterday and bought a six-pack of Better Boys. Today, I’ll plant them by the weigela next to the back fence.
It was a long trip to my hometown of Cleveland [Mississippi Delta] yesterday. I left at 7 in the morning and arrived home at 2 in the afternoon. I chose to take the Natchez Trace from Highway 96 west of Franklin and head south to Tupelo, then to Houston, Mississippi and then west on Highway 8 to the Delta. There were two detours on the Trace, plus 20 or more maintenance trucks with flashing yellow lights that poked along at 30 mph. The speed on the scenic roadway is, ahem, 50. Someone told me you could go 57 and get away with it, though. It was just better than all the big trucks on I-40 going 85.
The further south I got, the more green I saw. Trees were taking shape and bursting in white blooms. There were redbuds and daffodils all along the way. Purples and yellows and whites — good Easter colors. It was uplifting to see that gray-brown Delta loam, the fields all cleared and ready for planting.
My mother’s North Carolina jasmine looks as it does in high summer — just beautiful along her fences, and without summer’s bees. Her mock orange is blooming. Her yard is already full of color.
In addition to tomatoes, Mom and I bought other bedding plants, such as dwarf white azaleas, salvia, marigolds, phlox, a Knock Out rose bush, and a new perennial that puts forth yellow flowers. I dug up daylillies from the backyard and planted them next to the house under the front living room window. Today I will plant all the perennials in that same bed and mulch it, and maybe by next year, that bed will sustain itself.
This is the same flowerbed beside the little front stoop that I have written about in my memoir. That porch seemed so big way back when I was a little girl. Now I see how small it really is — as small as life itself.
We bought an Easter Lilly for Dad’s grave, along with a spray of purple flowers. Saturday, we’ll place them in the cemetery. March 31 is the second anniversary of his death.
I was one of those girls who read The Diary of Anne Frank every year in junior high and early high school. When I was 18 and went to Amsterdam, I made a point to go visit the Anne Frank Huis, a four-story canal house, even though it wasn’t on my tour schedule. I’ll never forget the narrow, steep stairway behind a book shelf and the hiding place where Anne Frank’s family and other Jews hid, and the tall steeple of a church visible from a window. Anne went into hiding in July of 1942, shortly after her 13th birthday. After 25 months she and her family were discovered and sent to a concentration camp, and she died a few weeks before her camp was liberated.
The idea of a hiding place and heroism — people brave enough to rescue and hide and save others from almost certain death in concentration camps because to them it is the right thing to do — impressed me.
“Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard and Anne Frank’s Diary have many things in common: The Netherlands, World War Two, the Nazis, the Holocaust, and the wish to survive. Yet, where Anne was forced to passively hide and depended on righteous people to survive, young Rachel Sarai [the author] was actively involved as a ‘baby-courier’ in the work of the Underground Resistance. Equally important, she was responsible for guarding the hiding place in her parents’ house, which sheltered many people in peril during the last years of war. Jewish, but very blond and thus inconspicuous, Rachel Sarai was nearly five when she began to distribute messages, and — during nightly curfew hours — smuggle people across the moors to a safe address. She learned to lie, steal and murder, and face up to the Germans, especially the Gestapo. She was seven when the British and Canadians liberated the country.” [Deborah Rey’s Web site]
The book is layered with another story, as well — the author’s private war in her own home. Deborah’s writing is honest, and she tells it raw, as it really was.
Deborah was born in Amsterdam and lived in the same neighborhood as Anne Frank, she knew the Frank family, her half brother was in the same class at school as Anne. My path crossed Deborah’s through poet L. Ward Abel, and I read her manuscript when it was just a stack of papers. Now it’s a hardback book that I can hold in my hands and open and breathe in that characteristic new-book smell.
The book will officially be released in April, in time for Deborah’s 70th birthday. My best to Deborah on both milestones!
(And of course, there’s a secret hiding place in the Great American Southern novel I am/was working on before I put it aside to embark on a creative nonfiction project.)
I waited two and a half weeks after the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference to pull from my briefcase the file of essays critiqued by members of Dinty W. Moore‘s Manuscript Workshop class. That was by design. I’ve already gone over all my notes and let the techniques put forth mellow in my mind. I’ve written three new short essays, and I’ve started one long essay employing what I’ve learned, or trying to. So now it’s time to look back at the old. Now the fun begins. It is FUN to review what other writers have to say about my work.
I submitted three essays to workshop members to be critiqued prior to the class. This morning, I began reviewing the first one, a piece titled “Mississippi Delta” because it’s one of my favorites.
One practice I love to do and am always greatly benefited by is to take my cleanly printed essay and mark EVERYBODY’s comments on it in a different COLOR — red, blue, green, brown, orange — good and bad [constructive] comments — you get the picture. I keep a pack of 24 Crayola Colored Pencils at hand for the task. I go through one critique at a time and mark up my copy.
Then I sit back and look at it, and soak it all in. If there’s a phrase or paragraph with lots of different colors, I know the line or passage is either very strong or very much in need of change or clarification. Either way I gain confidence that the end result will be the best I can make it.
Right off the bat, I notice I did one thing that three others didn’t like. I started with the word “it.” I know “it” is a weak word, but I still sort of like that beginning for “Mississippi Delta.”
I’ve long used this method of colorful editing in my own critique group and am ceaselessly amazed at what it shows and tells me. It’s a great visual of the strength and solidity of a work.
Spring is taking shape. My yard is coming back to life — daffodils are blooming, tulips are up, irises are tall and sturdy. The forsythias — all eight — will go yellow any moment now.
I discovered one little yellow bloom on the bush beside the pond. I’m watching and waiting, wanting to witness that moment when the nodes open to the light. Wanting to make that exciting discovery of lots of yellow flowers lining a curved strand, like a row of luminaries along a path.
Writing a memoir is about discovery, too. As Dinty W. Moore said in his Manuscript Workshop at the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference, “Write toward discovery … the initial idea is to capture the experience, but eventually, allegiance moves to ‘what am I making of this so that all the other people out there will benefit?'”
While the story is about ME, it’s really not about me. It’s about the reader. A good story offers insight a reader can use in her own life. It must mean something to the reader; it has got to be something the reader identifies with; it should strike an emotional chord with the reader. I’m writing about things that are still vivid in my memory. If I still remember them, it’s likely because they hold a universal truth that readers will recognize from their own lives. I must dig to discover that truth or make sure the reader is able to.
To be successful at making discoveries in my own life, I must THINK — and sometimes it’s hard to really take the time to just think about my stories and what they mean. Maybe it will be easier to do when it’s warm enough and I can sit outside on the patio. Then, with new life sprouting and the energy of growth humming all around me, I will feel alive and wise and creative and productive. It is vital that I plunge deeply and process what impact an experience or event or person had on me and why.
Sometimes, to make an experience matter, I need to tell more than I’m comfortable telling. Dinty said to be 30% more honest than you possibly can. To put everything in the early drafts — it will make you daring. It will also most likely provide something a reader can grip onto and get into and wrap around herself.
Writing my memoir is simply telling one story at a time and making discoveries along the way … just like each yellow flower opens up on my forsythia until the whole bush is full.