“Let’s play like we’re dead,” I say to my little sister. “Like somebody broke into the house and murdered us.”
We both open our eyes wide and our mouths wide and suck in air, all at the same time, to demonstrate that this is a good idea. She is game.
“We’ll give Mama and Dad a real bad scare.”
Our mother has gone to get our dad from work. It is six o’clock and dark outside, and she has left us alone for the fifteen minutes it takes her to drive downtown to the shop on North Street, pick up our father, then drive back up Court Street and First Avenue to Deering. They have to make do with one car because that’s all we have — one car and one car salesman. Bennie.
Every four years Bennie drives a new Ford to the barbershop and sidles up to our dad and tells him it’s about time for him to trade the old clunker in on a new one. The old one is a 1956 flesh-and-white Ford Fairlane that we have named Elizabeth. Bennie hands our dad the keys to a brand spanking new one — a 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 that is green with long sleek fins. I think it is a good thing our family has Bennie to keep us updated. I am ten and old enough to care that we drive a new car so everybody will think we are rich.
Mama drives Dad to work every morning about six-thirty and then drives seventeen miles to Drew where she teaches first grade. In the evening when she goes back to get him, my sister and I find things to get into that we would never think of doing while she is home. Most of the time it involves trying to make fudge that we end up getting fussed at about and eating out of the pan with a spoon. Now, though, we are upping the ante and will create a crime scene.
I take the bottle of catsup out of the refrigerator.
“Hold out your arms.”
“Just do it.” I shake out thick red goop on her forearm and spread it around and pat a little on her cheeks and forehead. She is stunned and silent. “It looks like blood. You know, like we have been murdered.” I do the same to myself. “Let’s pretend somebody broke in the back bedroom window and beat us up, maybe with an ax.”
“And Mama and Dad will be sad because their little girls are dead.”
“Yeah, they’ll be sorry they ever left us alone.”
We lie down on the floor in the living room in a death position, careful not to get the catsup, uh, blood, on the rug. We twist our legs and arms into awful positions so it will look like we have struggled and suffered. We close our eyes and open our mouths and wait for Mama and Dad to drive up in the carport.
“Whassat noise?” my sister asks.
My eyes open wide. “What noise?”
“I heard something. In the back bedroom.”
“What’d it sound like?”
“Somebody opening the window? And coming in?”
The living room is dark and she keeps telling me she is scared and I’m thinking our plan could be coming true. “Let’s get outta this house before we get killed!”
We tiptoe out the kitchen door, through the carport, and hide in the front of the house behind a big bush. The front lawn is gently lighted by the streetlight in the Richardson’s yard. We squat and tell each other to shh.
The new Ford’s headlights approach slowly, Mama and Dad pull into the gravel driveway, and we slink out of the bush. With catsup all over us showing up like reddish-brown streaks in the dim light. Like Indian war paint. We stand there and look vulnerable.
“What are y’all doing outside?” Mama shuts the car door.
“We’re scared,” we say. “Somebody was breaking in and they were going to get us.”
“Nobody was breaking in and if they did, they wouldn’t take you, and if they did, they’d bring you back,” she says.
“It’s cold out here and y’all don’t even have coats on. You’re going to get sick. Get in the house,” our dad says.
We all walk into the light of the kitchen together. Mama is getting her supper out of the oven and putting forks and knives on the table and fixing Dad a glass of tea. She doesn’t even look at us. He is washing his hands in the kitchen sink which nobody is supposed to do and doesn’t look at us either. We are covered in blood.
“Hey. Can y’all not see that we are hurt and bloody?” I do a sideways ta-da! hop in their line of vision, and my sister copies it. “For all you know, somebody did break into the house and attacked us and tried to kill us. Just look at us, just look at the blood.” I spread my arms. My sister spreads her arms, too, and says yeah.
“Mm hm,” our mama says, spooning a pile of mashed potatoes on my sister’s plate and mashing a hole on top with the back of the spoon so she can pour gravy in it.
“Y’all shouldn’t be wasting the catsup like that,” our dad says.
Back in the 1950’s my mother took me to Fireman’s Park between First and Third Avenues, four blocks from my house. Back then, we always walked. The park was two city blocks long — lots of grass, a few brand new trees, and Mississippi-Delta-scorching-hot. There were sets of big metal swings, a line of tall slides, and a merry-go-round that seemed to always have a muddy moat around it. There was also a big round wading pool, with water about four inches deep to maybe six or eight inches in the middle. There were fountains on each side that would shoot out six feet toward the middle of the pool. It was always filled with little children, joyful noise, and big beach balls.
I went to Cleveland to visit my mother this week and we drove by the park. To my delight, the wading pool [pictured above] is still being used. The other park features have been changed and new ones added and the trees are tall with shade, but there’s still a lot of sun baking down on the old park where I splashed in the wading pool as a toddler, tried to do a loop over the top pole of the swingset, and made lanyards and drank red Kool-Aid at summer morning camp.
Then I took my dog to Bear Pen, a newer park on the western edge of town, where there are tennis courts, ball fields, a walking trail, and a lake filled with ducks. Dad used to walk two miles here every day after his heart attack in the mid-80’s. One day he got cramps in his legs and couldn’t go on, and two women stopped and rubbed his legs and prayed out loud for him, and he was okay. One day I tried to walk with him and couldn’t keep up with his vigor after five new bypasses. My mother took my dad to the park to feed the ducks after he got dementia and wasn’t allowed to drive anymore.
The dog barked at the brown water lapping against the shore in ripples. The ducks hurried away from her, but she was more interested in the moving water than the white and wood ducks quacking and swimming off. She got close to the water and touched it with her nose. She was leashed and pulled me around the lake at the water’s edge, watching the ripples move in and out and flatten. Like time.
So, you’re writing a memoir. Or you’re doing some travel writing. Or, like me, you are trying to write a compelling true story, perhaps about the man next door who murdered his wife, then faked a marriage to the woman across the street and murdered her, too. You are writing CREATIVE NONFICTION, the most widely published genre in the publishing industry today.
If you need a few pointers on writing REAL LIFE, RESEARCH, AND REFLECTION, there’s a workshop for you in historic Franklin, Tennessee. Lee Gutkind, the Godfather behind the genre of Creative Nonfiction will teach “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction” Saturday, September 13, 8:15 – 4:00, in an intensive one-day workshop, sponsored by the Council for the Written Word.
It doesn’t matter how far you live from Middle Tennessee. We’ve got one person coming from Morgantown, West Virginia (Hi, Julie!) and another from Overland Park, Kansas, and others from points in between. Besides, Franklin is a nice literary place to visit. It’s the home of Carnton Mansion, the setting of Robert Hicks’ best-selling novel The Widow of the South. It’s also the home of Robert Hicks. Actually, Franklin [Williamson County] is the home of about 400 documented published authors — people who have lived in Williamson County for at least one year and published a book. So there’s a lot of good mojo here!
More information HERE.
It’s not often that I have a friend on the David Letterman Show.
Well, maybe it’s more like ne-ver.
But Colin Linden is a friend by default because his wife Janice is a friend. I’ve been to his house, eaten his barbecue, had his wine, and I’ve also been to his gigs at Third and Linsley and the Blackberry Jam Music Festival. I’ve got his CD’s, too, and all these things make me a bona fide friend. Colin and Janice are dear to my heart because although they are from Canada and I am from the Mississippi Delta, they know much, much more — like everything! — about Mississippi Delta Blues than I do.
My favorite CD is Southern Jumbo. Of course. My CD might have had little grooves on it at one time like the old vinyl records, and if that is so, I’ve worn them flat.
So Thursday night Colin performed “Shores of White Sands” with Emmylou Harris on Letterman. Their featured new album is All I Intended To Be. After they played, Dave Letterman walked up to them, looked at Colin, and asked him how he was. Colin said, “Good.”
The whole time Emmylou sang and the band played, I was trying to take a picture of my TV with Colin on it standing to the left of Emmylou, and my batteries were dead, and the camera would not click one single picture. (The only other time that happened was at my very first ever booksigning at Barnes & Noble.)
Colin is a roots music producer and songwriter and solo artist and has won Junos. He plays with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, who made it to George Bush’s IPod. He also helped with the music on Oh Brother Where Art Thou and played the first song. He was in the movie Irreconcilable Differences with George Clooney; he played the singing priest.
Music is his life, and you can tell it when you watch him play. Check out his website.
The keynote speaker for the 2008 Tennessee Writers Alliance conference last weekend was Estelle Condra. Not only did she give a dramatic and inspirational talk, she did something I’ve not seen anyone else do at a conference. She brought a big box of used books to pass forward. They were old, she didn’t need them any more, so she invited everyone to go through the box and get what they wanted. I couldn’t pass it up and picked out Writing from Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing. In a quick read-through I found a statement I thought helpful in deciding where to begin a memoir. “A good method is to establish what the climax of the story is, and then begin just a little before the climax.” It’s about the defining moments of life.
I go to kindergarten at Hill Demonstration School on the college campus five blocks from my house. It’s an old tall and wide building that faces Court Street and is supposed to be a good school because it is where up and coming teachers are taught how to teach. The other boys and girls are in my Sunday School class or they live nearby, and I’m invited to their birthday parties and to play at their houses where there are carports and yards full of toys.
Then when it is time for me to go to first grade, Mama gets a new teaching job in Skene, six miles south of town, so I will be going with her instead of starting elementary school with the friends I’ve already made. Skene has a country store, a Baptist church, a post office, a schoolhouse, and cotton farmers that plant the fields and take their crop to the gin. There are rich planters’ kids and poor white trash who live along the bogue in shacks with wood stoves and no running water. I walk into my first grade classroom and sit at a little round table with Jacqueline and Mary Sue, who wear pretty dresses with sashes and have Shirley Temple curls down their backs. I do not like being the new girl. I ask Jacqueline and Mary Sue if they want to look at my Lady and the Tramp book, and they say no, they do not. But we become best friends anyway. At recess we play jump rope on the sidewalk or jacks on the steps to the boiler room. We take tap dancing and Expression class and play Red Rover and Simon Says.
“Let’s ‘tend we are keeping house,” I say after the mower has cut high grass on the playground.
We make a square outline a few inches high with the grass cuttings, then we outline each room. We have wild onions and clover for our food, one of us gets to be the child, and we make the boys go to work to earn a living.
Jacqueline’s mother is a teacher like mine, but Mary Sue’s mother stays at home all day, so I am invited to her house for playtime and spend-the-nights a lot. Her daddy plants cotton and she has a big house and yard. We go in the side door at the back where there is a tiny room with a small table and chairs by a window for all her games, stacked in towers on shelves, and paper and crayons for her art work. We sit at the table and design clothes for Lennon Sisters paper dolls. Across from the table are three stairs that are used like shelves with stuff stacked on them and then a closed door. On the other side of that door are the rest of the steps to an attic, which is huge and filled with old toys, like baby dolls, a hobby horse, a trike, and also old end tables and knick knacks no longer used.
In fourth grade I have to start all over. Mama gets a new teaching job seventeen miles away, and again, I go with her. The Drew school is two stories and old, located in a neighborhood of old white houses with front porches and tall shade trees and cracked sidewalks. The classroom is big and my feet echo on the hardwood as I walk in, alone, everybody else already seated, looking at me, as I walk to the fourth desk in the fourth row from the right. There’s a cloakroom across the hall, and each student has a cubbyhole to store his stuff. I have never heard of these things before.
The kids are friendly, but they already have close pals to be with at recess. I am the new girl, a teacher’s daughter, so they think I must be smart. They look at me like they don’t know what to do with me. I can hover with this little clique or eat ice cream bars with that one. I can join in the recess games and fads. I take my hula hoop to school like the other girls do, and my autograph dog so I can collect signatures of classmates. But I live too far away to have spend-the-nights or arranged play dates. It’s long distance, so there’s no chatting on the telephone. I am solely a classroom presence, and I slide into that groove where I will stay.
I go inside my own self. I am content watching the others play. I am happy listening to their conversations, the in-things they talk about, the words they choose. I am like the fringe on a rug, and the others are acting out life in the middle of it. My imagination is my best friend. I pretend, I make up stories, I play-like. I live in a world that I create for myself. My mind is never idle. There are always thoughts skittering through it. I can see images of me on a horse, but it’s really a bike, as a majorette in a parade, but it’s really my Ben Franklin Five and Dime baton on my sidewalk, having the starring role and a solo in the school play, but I’m really only a gypsy and Beverly gets to be the princess.
At home I have plenty of time to sit alone behind a hydrangea bush or on the dirt floor of a dark clubhouse or in the walk-in closet of my bedroom and order my thoughts. I think about what it’s like to live in a rich planter’s house with a big attic full of old toys and dolls I’ve outgrown and boxes of ladies’ fine gowns to play dress-up in — a house that has a living room with lots of breakable things, a living room, dark and silent, that we don’t ever go in. I think about what it’s like to live in a shanty on the other side of the tracks in what folks call Colored Town. I am drawn to the latter because it requires more planning for how to get the basic necessities of life, because people are packed in close together so there must always be something to do and someone to do it with, because it takes more of a mind to make a life. Because a person has substance when he has to work and fight for what he needs, rather than if he is handed it on a silver platter.
After filling up Friday and Saturday, the third annual Tennessee Writers Alliance writers’ conference held on the Battle Ground Academy campus in Franklin is now one for the history books. I headed up the Marketplace where authors attending the conference could sell their books. All I did was sit and stand. I have never been so tired in my life.
It was great to work with people like Cindy Phiffer, Randy Mackin, Louise Colln, Debbie Whitaker, Currie Alexander Powers, Barbara Hearn, and Amy Lyles Wilson. Highlights of the weekend included visiting with Richard Modlin, Marian Lewis, Connie Foster, and Kelly Weathers. (Hi, Kelly! You said you’d be reading!)
TWA’s 2008 Literary Legend award went to Shelby Foote, and the 2008 Writer of the Year award went to Tony Earley, who received it with a gracious acknowledgment that he needed this honor because he was stuck in his attempt on his next book and he needed to feel good about himself and his writing.
I only attended one session, that of Kathryn Knight and Tamara Baxter on first lines of books and how to change the wording to make them more effective. I heard good comments about the others, though, led by Bill Brown, Jimmy Carl Harris, Gloria Ballard, Tracy Crudup, Yvonne Perry, Tracy Barrett, Jerry Parks, and Lantz Powell.
Friday night’s reception at Landmark Booksellers in downtown Franklin was cozy and intimate, as always, with good wine, good hors d’oeuvres, and good conversation.
An interesting attendee was David Young, “Ben Franklin,” second from right, who was driving from Florida to Philadelphia, learned of the conference in Franklin, and dropped in for Saturday’s sessions. He’s a determined poet who was terminated by Mercedes Benz for writing poetry.
After the reception I ran by another store to catch five minutes of author Rick Bragg’s booksigning. It was standing room only; the aisles were packed. Too tired, I listened to one story about his daddy and the tall man next to me took a picture because I couldn’t even see Rick, and I stumbled out of the store to my car and home to eat a salad my husband had picked up at Maniac’s. I didn’t buy a book. I didn’t get it signed.
I came out of the conference with a few helpful pointers and reminders. Write what you love. Fall in love with your characters, so your reader will fall in love with them, too. And lastly, a quote given by one of our panelists: “Write the damn book.”
Sarah found a handy and helpful book titled Thinking About Memoir and suggested we do writing prompts from it. I was more than ready. I’ve been stuck this week, sitting here in front of an empty screen. All of a sudden, I could remember nothing from my childhood. That’s no good when you’re writing a memoir. Sarah sent a few prompts after Sherry said, “Imagine yourself tossing a life preserver out into the big rolling ocean. We’re out there somewhere.”
Write two pages in which someone keeps her temper in check.
My rings are missing. I take them off during eighth grade P. E. and leave them on the steps in the gym. When I go back for them, they are not there. My friend Jilly helps me look. We have no luck.
One is a birthstone ring my dad gave me for Christmas. It has two twisted stones, blue sapphire for September, in a gold setting. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever had. The other is a “diamond” solitaire in a silver setting. It’s not really a diamond but it looks like one and makes me feel rich. I bought it at Ben Franklin’s Five and Dime for a dollar.
I am sick over the loss. I am sicker over the whole incident because I think I know who took them. I think the P. E. teacher has taken them and probably thrown them in the trash can. Why? Because she hates me.
Her name is Miss Ashley. She is young, just out of college, and beautiful. Dark olive skin. Big green eyes. Thick lips like Sophia Loren. Tall, with wide hips. She’s new to our school, and she tells us we have to take a shower after P. E. class. We have to remove our shorts and shirts and store them in a locker in the gym dressing room. We have to remove our bras and panties and get in a shower with no curtain, four or five girls at a time. This means all thirty girls in the class will see each other naked. We are not happy about this, to the point of serious grumbling and complaining. I am traumatized.
I tell my mother I do not want to do it. I cry, I worry, I dread going to class. She understands and because she is a teacher, she goes to the superintendent and asks for permission for me to skip the shower. I even have to go and explain to him why I don’t want to soap up and rinse off. I am deeply ashamed but decide it is worth it if it gets me out of baring myself in front of the class. The superintendent has mercy on me.
The teacher does not like this one bit. When I get my report card, there’s an F on it for P. E. It is not a small F either; it is a large red F. And under the Remarks section, it says DOES NOT COOPERATE IN CLASS. I am quiet, I obey all the rules, I play all the games, I wash my uniform every weekend. My only sin is not wanting to get undressed in front of the other girls. I don’t even do this in front of my sister at home.
Not only does Miss Ashley fail me, but she gives Jilly a C. Jilly is on the basketball team and is in good with the teacher. She’s an athlete and competent in gym class. Miss Ashley tells Jilly that if she keeps hanging out with me, she will get an F on her next six-weeks report.
“She’s going to punish every girl who is friends with you,” Jilly tells me.
“It’s not fair,” I say. Tears come quick, my jaws burn, my chin hardens like the shell of a turtle. My first impulse is to tell my mama what she is doing to me. And the superintendent needs to know how one of his teachers is acting toward a student. But I sense this would only make things worse, and I zip my lips.
“What’re we gonna do?” Jilly says. “She’s the teacher. She can do this. She will do this. She hates you. She said your mama didn’t have to go to the superintendent.”
“Tell her I can’t help what my mama does.”
“She said you didn’t have to make such a fuss. You could take a shower like the rest of the girls.”
Jilly takes a shower. She doesn’t care if people see her. She is big, and I am not. I have heard them talk about the girls who are not big, and I don’t want to be on that list. I’m thinking an F is worth it to stay off that list.
” What if I fail P. E. for the year?”
“I’ll talk to her. I’ll tell her you’re really mad at your mother for doing that, that you never wanted to be different, that you just want to fit in with all the other girls, and you are really, really upset.”
I am facing a real dilemma now, and it isn’t losing my rings. “Okay, tell her whatever you need to to make her leave me alone and not be mad at me any more or take away all my friends.”
The teacher never looks at me again, never smiles at me, never talks to me, but Jilly makes a B on her next report card. Then the next, she’s back to her regular A. I get a C. It is enough.