Lucky Rock

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I found this small, preternaturally smooth rock at Back Beach in Bernard, Maine several years ago. I imagine it as a dolphin or a person meditating, arms tucked, serene. The rock is self-contained. It has everything it needs. Its inward smile implies a secret. This insular stone was once part of something bigger than itself and may be again. It is the lucky rock I always hoped to find. And did.

It’s the inspiration for my main character, Grace Ann Ringer.

Sometimes you can only tell a story backwards. I’ve been twisted up tighter than a morning glory in the sun.

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Man-of-the-earth vine (morning-glory family) at Longleaf near Pensacola, Florida, May 2004.

But like this flower, I have a buzzing bee at my center that agitates until I reengage.

Could Any Writer Refuse This Offer?

Note: This is fiction/fantasy based on a writer’s prompt. Mention of the 20 year old granddaughter (whom I love more than life) was not an actual incident that happened that fictional morning, but only a stream-of-conscious thought about how much I would miss loving “distractions” such as visits or text messages or calls from her if I were on an ivory tower retreat for a year to write . . .

The security alarm was still set when I got out of bed. I disarmed it when I went to make coffee before walking into my study. Clearly, no one had been in the house. It must be from Buck! Our 30th anniversary is coming in a few weeks. We’ve talked about planning a small trip somewhere. Maybe this was related.

I reached eagerly for the envelope. It was sealed with wax in such a deep red color it was almost black. That took me aback. I opened my desk drawer and slit the envelope carefully with an old pewter letter opener given to me by my first mother-in-law. As I slid the thick card out, my nose twitched. What is that smell? Not perfume, exactly. Incense? Sweet, with a base note of . . . something. Decay, like the basement in an old building? How weird.

I looked at the card. Here is what it said:

Your desire to complete your novel and write essays has come to the attention of a benefactor who wishes to sponsor you for one year dedicated to writing. You may write whatever you like during this time. The benefactor will not only provide financial support during this time, but also meal and laundry service, plus distraction management.

This is the opportunity of a lifetime for a writer, as you surely recognize. One year under these conditions virtually guarantees you will achieve your goals. Thus, the small caveat that by accepting this generous offer you agree at the end of the term of one year, to never, ever write a single word again in your entire lifetime no matter how long you may live should not trouble you. Please make sure to read the fine print from the benefactor’s legal department before you accept so you will have full understanding of the consequences should you breach the agreement.

Please R.S.V.P. soonest. This is a once in a lifetime invitation.

Sincerely yours,
The Benefactor’s Factotum

Damn. I mean day-umm. I put the card down and jogged to the kitchen for coffee. I stood for a few minutes to watch out the window as a doe and her spotted fawn grazed under the big live oak near a tall magnolia tree, grabbed up one of my notebooks and wrote a couple of sentences about the fawn’s ballerina elegance and the doe’s tenderness.

Stunned by the bizarre note, I almost didn’t hear my cell phone ring. It was my twenty-year-old step-granddaughter, calling to share a cartoon from the New Yorker with me before she went to class at our local university (it was the cartoon where the robots become self-aware and all they want to do is write novels). We had a good laugh, hung up, and I scribbled a paragraph about our conversation in my morning writing journal.

By this time, I’d had a chance to think about how the “life interruptus” problem I sometimes bitch about is what informs and enlivens my efforts to write. The meaning derived through daily interaction with my darling husband, nature, family, and even my old chocolate lab, Maggie (whose memory still takes up  a lot of space in my heart and head), is the soul-stuff that made me passionate to write in the first place.

My heart rate back to its usual medium-slow, steady beat, fresh cup of coffee in hand, I returned to my study to respond to the note. I wrote on the bottom.

“Please thank the benefactor for this invitation, but I must refuse. The price is too high.”

No sooner had I put down the card than it popped into a small flame, and in seconds nothing was left but a teaspoon of ashes.

I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera,  spiral notebook and pen, and headed out for a walk in the woods, content in the knowledge that I would be writing every day for the rest of my life.

My Usual Writing Space

The three-inch-long smooth, dolphin-shaped basalt stone I picked up on Back Beach in Bernard, Maine a few years ago sits as a paperweight on the open page of a pocket-size Moleskine 2014 hard cover diary in Antwerp blue that was a gift from a friend. Just to the right is the screen of my big old HP desktop computer. While I boot up, my eyes go to a strip of paper with a typewritten quote taped to the top of the screen’s plastic border: “To write well, you must be able to hold your finger in the fire.” Dylan Landis (author of “Normal People Don’t Live Like This.”)

I taste the memory of yesterday’s hibachi coals in the scalding black Komodo Dragon coffee, but smell hints of spiced Chai from the dregs of a mug still sitting on my desk from yesterday afternoon. A stack of old New Yorker and Poet and Writer magazines supports a messy pile of the first 112 pages of my novel in progress. The last sentence so far, “Claire tied a piece of surgical rubber around her upper arm, and picked up the syringe,” stares me in the face. An M. Hohner Blues Harp sits in its case beside the stack of magazines and papers.

I inherited the desk from my husband, who brought it home when he retired 17 years ago. It’s a big hunk of ugly: L-shaped, with skinny tubular aluminum-looking legs, sliding black panels over maple drawers, and a surface big as a door that we covered with matte black laminate. Books are scattered around to the left of the omputer: “The Language of Fiction: a writer’s stylebook” by Brian Shawver, “3 a.m. Epiphany” by Brian Kiteley, Jeff Vandermeer’s   “Wonderbook”; “The Art of Time in Memoir” by Sven Birkerts, Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”  Scraps of half-written paper everywhere. Stacks of old notebooks on the steel blue carpet.

Birds fly by the window in a downward trajectory toward the nearly empty, raccoon-raided feeder below. Shadows on the tree trunks outside my second story window slip down and puddle on the ground, melting away in the bright sun. I hear the drone of small planes, the icemaker dropping cubes, water running through pipes that tells me Buck is up, and the dull, rhythmic popping sounds of a pistol-shooting neighbor half a mile away.

I Tell Myself Stories

The online class I’m taking through Creative Nonfiction calls on participants to write a minimum 300 word piece each day (Monday – Friday) and a 1,000-word piece that can be separate and new or culled and compiled from the week’s work.  It’s a 10-week course: 2 down, 8 to go. Worth it, in case you’re interested.  Excellent instructor and the finest group of writer-classmates I’ve run into yet in an online course.  Lots of feedback and discussion. It’s called “Bootcamp for Writers.” Here’s a piece I submitted today. The prompt was: “Why I Write.”

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. ”

~ Joan Didion, The White Album

I know everything about my own narrative until I know nothing. I can answer all the questions anyone might ask until I can’t answer any of them.

Before seven this morning, I could tell you with certainty, verve and passion, why I write. By ten, I don’t have a clue.  By Noon, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.

It was the photographs that did it. And the old letters. The newspaper stories didn’t help, either. By one o’clock I was a teary mess, and it took two hours of walking alone in the woods with the sun on my back and a northeast wind in my face to regain some semblance of equilibrium and perspective.

I was mostly looking at pictures of dead people. Oh, they were alive and seemingly immortal when the camera caught the moment. The baby, James Clyde Pelfrey, wore a lacy white christening dress and shoes that looked like brown combat boots. He was born in 1908 and died in a house fire on Pensacola Beach in 1974. His wife, Anne, my husband’s aunt, survived. Their new candy apple red Cadillac melted in the garage. The only intact papers that weren’t burned up were a Western Union Telegram notifying Anne and Clyde of Buck’s birth on December 11, 1937 and a stunning love letter sent from Clyde to Anne while he was serving overseas during World War II.

The last photos of me with my mother, from 1989, catch me off-guard. I look like I am posing with my arm around a total stranger, smiling an insincere smile as though everything is fine and dandy. Mother, who hated to be touched even before Alzheimer’s, draws away, her pinched face showing she wants to get away from this pushy person.

Almost done. And almost undone. The last photo is an arty black and white of my three step-children when they were toddlers.  Two boys and a girl. I didn’t meet them until they were 18, 21 and 22, more than 32 years ago. The middle child’s white blond hair, bright eyes, and smile full of a little boy’s mischief, takes my breath. Who could ever have put a finger on this angel and said: Darryl will die of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 45 and his death will nearly kill his dad?

Some of the photos don’t cut me. They are several generations removed. My husband’s people. Ones I never met. I interleave their stiff dressed-up black and white photos with acid-free tissue paper, put the lid on the box and stagger down the stairs, feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck.

Maybe I write out of fear, out of a belief that a fit brain that can juggle, retrieve and play with words cannot succumb to a nightmare organic brain disease that destroys memory and personality. Maybe I write so I can go back to last week or last year or ten years ago and recognize the writer as myself — the same “me” I see in the mirror every day. Maybe I write to add my voice to the infinite line of pilgrims scrawling on the cave wall “We were here.”

Maybe I tell myself stories in order to live.

January 3, 2014

28 degrees and clear.

I awoke and slipped out of bed, mouth achy and stiff with the canker sore on the inner skin of my mouth up against my lower teeth, right in front, and the threat of another one blooming on the tip of my tongue. Saw lots of tiny striped birds, a male cardinal, and a large fluffed-out white dove on the ground by the feeder. That’s when I remembered dreaming about huge fluffy blackbirds that wanted to show Buck and me to their babies as though we were strange and benign as cows.

 

Ten Forty-Five on a Piney Woods New Year’s Eve

THE GOOD OLD BOYS deep in these panhandle Florida pine woods couldn’t wait until 11:59 to kick up a fuss.  It’s only 9:15 when I hear the first muffled whumps and booms of roman candles, aerial repeaters and shells, and firecrackers.  When I step outside I feel a frisson of electricity in the air and hear the crackle of sparklers. The cloudy night sky erupts into a poor-man’s kaleidoscope.

Buck is writing at his desk in a bright circle. I’m already in bed, leaning against a stack of pillows, listening to a Spotify playlist for a random search of the word “Talisman,” and typing on the extension of my fingers also known as a Surface Pro 2, my all-time favorite gadget tool.

Ah, here he comes now with our treat for the evening, a bag of Dove dark chocolates.

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Earlier this evening we lightly steamed a pound of blue crab claws (the little, cocktail size) and nearly two pounds of sweet and tender Pensacola Bay shrimp. Buck stirred up his special dipping sauce, a mix of horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup and a smidgen of mayonnaise. I doused a small plate of sliced Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and house-roasted meaty red peppers with olive oil, ground pepper and oregano. We took our feast to the room we call the Snow Porch (the naming of that room is a story for another time), along with a bowl of Naked Pita chips and our drinks, and fell to.

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Tonight is merely an arbitrary convention to delineate one measure of time from the next, but I welcome it as a conscious pause button, a mindful thumb on the scale.

I washed our bed linens today, the Oxford stripe blue sheets and the warm gold duvet cover.  The serene blue and burnished gold please me.

I’ve moved past the Talisman music and have gone to a favorite created playlist for my characters, Grace and Jess. They still have a lot of mountains to climb, a lot of growing to do.

Eons ago when I worked as Director of Communications for the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, we began each year with what we called a “Program of Work.” I have a loose program of work of my own to start the year off with a bang that includes a challenging ten-week online course hosted by Creative Nonfiction, called Boot Camp for Writers.  It begins next week. Mid-month brings a six-week online course, Advanced Fiction. I’m fired up and ready to go.

So am I blogging again?  The title is The Do-It-Yourself Writer, subhead Elizabeth Westmark’s Scribble Space.  Maybe the sub-subhead should be Making It Up As I Go Along.

Hope you chase down or get covered up by clouds of bliss this year.

Talisman: my word for 2014

Sometime toward the end of 2012, I had one of my frequent attacks of DCRH (duck, cover, run, hide) and deleted my Goodreads account and, along with it, the record I had kept there of books read during 2012 and earlier years. Ever heard the expression, “I shot myself in the foot?” So I signed up for Goodreads again, vowing as God is my witness never to pull that trick again. I like the lists, and Goodreads is a simple way to keep them.

You can see my list of books read or listened to in 2013 in the Goodreads “Read” Shelf on the sidebar of this blog. It’s vaguely disappointing to me, despite the presence of several stand-outs. Of the 45 listed, 23 were fiction 22 non. Of the non-fiction, 8 were writing craft, and the others were a mix of memoir, literary nonfiction, social commentary and investing strategy (see DCRH above). Several (fiction and non) were read because I wanted to see how certain subjects were handled, or because I knew the author or their family. The books themselves arrived by hardcover, softcover, mass market paperback, Kindle, and Audible. The two James Lee Burke books were great for late night listening. Whether it’s because of Burke’s over-the-top (or under the bottom)  descriptions, or because of Will Patton’s silky voice, I can’t say.

I read most of those books because I thought I needed to learn something technical about writing. Did I learn anything? A little, but not enough for the sacrifice of time. And it was a dodge to avoid confronting actual writing.

Did I love any of the books I read in 2013? Yes. I enjoyed many of them, but only loved one: Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Yesterday afternoon I began to think about what (and who) I want to read in 2014. Some names: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer, Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt,  authors Jonathan Franzen, Edwidge Danticat, Thomas Pynchon, and I’ve already begun Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Great writing. Fabulous books that move me, disturb me, make me laugh. Books outside my comfort zone. No craft books. Lots of poetry osmosed via the written word, audio and video. I enjoy Billy Collins’ animations, but there are so many wonderful poets to explore. I plan art gallery visits for (I’m embarrassed to say) the first time in my life. In other words, this year will be a 24/7 all I can absorb word and image buffet, a glorious tapestry, a mysterious tour of the intersection of souls and imagination.

The University of West Florida is only about ten miles from our home. As an alumnus, I have a free parking decal (actually a pretty big whoop) and can fill my canvas satchel with ten books at a time. The library even has a Starbucks in it.

I can’t wait to get started. I’m eager begin my treasure hunt. Actually, I’ve already begun. There will be moonbeams and nuggets to put in my pocket all along the way.  Maybe even a talisman. What are you looking forward to reading in 2014? And are you a little weird, like me, and have a theme word for the new year? 🙂

Mira Desai’s Stories at *82 review

Star 82 review

Our friend, author and translator Mira Desi, has two wonderful stories in Vol. 1.3 of  *82 review,  an art and literary magazine founded by Alisa Golden, adjunct professor in the Printmaking Program at California College of the Arts.  The first is Colors in the Sky, in which a newly divorced woman refocuses on her passion for photography. In the second, The Minstrel’s Song,  an older man faces a difficult decision about moving to India.

Congratulations, Mira. (My favorite line of all in these stories is your laser-edge description of “The Yes Ministers.”)