Thursday, June 25, 2009

Before We Get Started by Bret Lott

I found Bret Lott's discussion of "a, and, the" a bit too long and tiresome. He could have made the point in fewer words.

His views and cautions about the ironies of publication seemed realistic and sincere. Rejection can be such a formidable thing to overcome. Many of us never make it. Certainly he has received both rejection and acceptance in great measure.

I appreciated and listed the books he suggested that had been important to his development as a writer. The first one I want to read, he keeps on his desk, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver.

Since he states, as did the other authors we read, that reading and writing are important activities to schedule each day, I am committed to this life discipline.

I was surprised that he was an RC Cola employee when he went back to night school. I was more surprised to learn that he stumbled into writing. It appears that he has struggled for the excellence and recognition that he has found in his writing career.

His ideas on writing creative nonfiction gave me some guidelines to try: to write the story word by word, to allow the story to happen, to allow the characters to be themselves, and to drop the characters who do nothing.


Dear Amy,

I have changed the way I write. I know I have. Before, I was shallow and wide in my writing. I hopped from one vignette to another. Of course, I have always seen myself as something of an O. Henry. That was before this class. For several days, I did not like the idea of narrow and deep.

Reading the mini-memoirs of In Brief helped me see the importance of this concept. The examples Bret Lott included from the writings of other authors was also particularly helpful to me in this journey. I never imagined that I had so much improvement to make. This is one more style of writing to add to my toolbox to borrow a term from Steven King.

This course represents a first for me. I have never read 4 books in 2 weeks. Hip, hip, hooray for me!

It was helpful to me to have you say that I needed to break down the wall and find my own voice. You were right. I am on the way to doing that. I also may very well finish this class before the last minute of the last day. So many changes in so little time: Isn't change what this program is all about?

Thank you for offering to always be there for us in our writing journey. I will surely need that. Next month I will move to a mountain house with a special nook. There I believe that I will be successful at writing, painting, and potting, three of my favorite things in the world. The best to you.

Teri Gainey Bastian

Daily Log Thursday, June 25, 2009

Delores introduced us to the Six-Word Memoir. She gave us several topics on which to write them. Afterwards, she distributed two typed pages of Personal History Questions from Real Simple magazine November 2005 and tips for getting to know people better through conversation. Both are great resources. Of course, she's a librarian!

Each person on the Bret Lott book review team asked the class a question. This was my best-ever book discussion.

Our mini-lesson centered on voice. Amy gave us suggestions for improving voice:

  • go to a cafe and listen to the way people speak
  • talk to the person you are writing about and listen for their speech patterns
  • circulate and listen at a cocktail party (She didn't say this, but it sounds good.)

Lilless provided memoir food for snacks: Fig Newtons, ginger snaps, applesauce, orange slices, and gruit cocktail (grab a cherry!), all mentally stimulating.

After response groups, we wrote and blogged to prepare our final piece and meta-text.

Please Think of Me

Think again when you see me.
That’s not all you need to see.
I am more than what covers me –
Blue eyes, blonde hair,
The clothes I wear.
My brain, my soul, my heart, my actions
Are here to see.
But you must look further, and
Think again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What a Difference a Pie Can Make

That strawberry pie changed my life. I had dated Jedi Evans, Prince Charming himself, since June. He drove a cobalt blue Corvette and lived in “The Big House” on Park Circle. Chestnut hair, huge brown eyes, and muscles galore, he was a catch. “Jedi” was short for Heber Jedidiah Evans, Jr. Jedidiah meant beloved of the Lord. I was pretty crazy about him, too. So was every other girl in North Charleston and some in surrounding towns too.

The Fourth of July was just ahead on the calendar. Jedi had invited me to spend the day with his mother and four sisters at their Folly Beach house overlooking the ocean. Mother decided I should take something good to eat. Something different, something associated with the Fourth of July. Not banana pudding. Not chicken bog. Not fried chicken. We racked our brains. No good ideas came. We needed help.

One night Jedi took me to Shoney’s Big Boy to have dessert together. It was a hard decision between the hot fudge brownie and the strawberry pie. My mouth craved the dreamy chocolate over chewy brownie. I was ready to say, “I’ll have the chocolate fudge brownie,” when Jedi jerked me back to reality with, “My absolute favorite dessert is strawberry pie with whipped cream topping.” My mind was made up. I would make a strawberry pie in my lap as we rode across the marsh in the cobalt blue Corvette on the Fourth of July. He said a rather crazy thing as we enjoyed the pie together. How would you like to come here and share strawberry pie with me for a long time?” I only wanted to find the recipe in time for the Fourth of July.

Making up my mind about the pie was easier than finding a recipe. Mother and I searched every recipe book at our house and every neighbor’s house on our street and the next. She wanted the recipe bad. Could it be that her daughter might really have a chance with Jedi Evans, the dreamboat of every girl in North Charleston? Where was that recipe? Again, we needed help. Tilly Dunston over on Braddock Avenue came up with the award-winning solution. We would use a cherry pie recipe and substitute strawberries. The three of us made a test pie. That was it, the same sweet, yet tart, fruity taste as the Big Boy special. Homemade whipped cream on top. It was sure to be a hit.

My next task was to find a sexy bathing suit and a stylish shorts set. Again, Mother wanted to be a part of the project. We tried Anne’s, the Navy Exchange, and Bobbie Brooks. No luck. Finally we went to the Bandbox at Pinehaven Shopping Center. We definitely were desperate. Their prices had always precluded my shopping there. Truthfully, I sewed practically all my clothes. Jedi and I came from different worlds. This holiday was becoming quite an adventure, maybe the beginning of a new lifestyle.

Our dates were regular now, almost every night. He kept saying screwy things like, “Do you think there is any chance for us?” Good heavens, how was a girl supposed to answer that? All that came to me was, “I’m not sure.” He went on, “Well, Linda Koester asked me that once and I said, ‘I don’t know about you Linda, but lots of people say there’s no hope for me.’” I was glad to laugh and change the subject. What kind of nutty conversation was that?

Predictably, the Fourth of July arrived. I sat with the strawberry pie on my lime green shorts set. Lime green was my best color. Second best was teal, the color of my sexy two-piece bathing suit. His mother and sisters raved about the strawberry pie. Somewhat of a catastrophe happened on the roof top deck when I turned over my favorite tanning lotion, baby oil laced with iodine. The deck was covered by a white tarp. Now it had reddish brown stripes radiating from my beach towel. His mother casually offered, “Oh don’t give it another thought. We were planning to paint the tarp later this summer.” In her voice was the ring of my own mother’s voice. Strange. On the way home Jedi said, “Your pie was quite a hit. I hope you will make it again and again for me.” Hadn’t he said something like that before? “Oh sure, I’ll be glad to.”

Before I closed the front door, he shoved a small box in my hand. “Just sell it or give it away or something if you don’t want it. I have asked you and asked you to marry me, and you just don’t get it." I opened the box, stared in disbelief, and looked up to see a cobalt flash leave the driveway in the twilight. In the box was a fiery diamond, bigger than anything I had ever seen. What was I going to do now?

Jedi graduated from The Citadel in August. On September 6, 1969, I met him at the altar of the Summerall Chapel. Surely, I was Cinderella. My prince had come, the one who loved strawberry pie.

Our Living Room

I had not bought the glue. I had not fixed the accident. Over a month ago, shuffling the sheet music, I heard the glass break. My mother’s green swan crashed on the hardwood floor of our living room. The swan was no regular swan. It was a final gift to my mother, a treasure from her own mother, now claimed by cancer.
This living room had always been a cold, empty place for me, except at Christmas. It adjoined the kitchen, and wafts of nutmeg and cinnamon floated in. The spotlight on our silver tree changed it from blue to green to yellow to red. We all loved that tree. The living room had transformed to a place of anticipation. What sat inside all those packages? This was the year my sisters and I did not use our Christmas money to buy each other gifts. Instead, we bought all sorts of gifts for our parents, true gifts of sacrifice. The destruction of the swan was the destruction of that memory. No more happy memory of this room for me, replaced by the sound of crashing glass. Dread joined the cold of my empty heart.
The room was sparsely decorated, now sparse less one thing. Mother did not notice the missing swan for a day, then a week, a month. My secret was safe. My anxiety eased. Still each day I faced my guilt at practice time. The broken swan lay in the bottom of my closet, broken, wrapped in a towel. I was careful not to look down each morning and afternoon. No one would ever know. If I didn’t see, it hadn’t happened. Anyhow, I would soon glue it. Glass glue, that’s all I needed.
The living room piano bench was a place of humiliation for me. My sister Lynn’s long fingers and analytic mind surpassed me shortly after we began our lessons. I never caught up with her. She was the math person. She understood how those half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes, with their sickening little dots and lines. She was so perfect - I could not memorize the music. My fingers would not stretch an octave. Now my mind would not stretch either. My mind shrunk to the level of my deed.
Practicing my scales, I glanced up to see my dad standing in the doorway, the neck of my mother’s green glass swan in one hand, the base in the other, and the question in his face.
“You hid this in your closet?”
“I was going to glue it back together,” I cried.
“But, you didn’t,” an accusing face replaced the questioning one.
“No sir, I didn’t.” I hung my head.
The viridian shards mocked me. I had been found out. My secret sin of omission was revealed. I had disliked the room before. Now I hated it.
“You will be the one to explain to your mother.”
Then he left. I was alone in the living room with my fear and dread, the severest form of punishment: the consequence of admitting to my lie. I closed my eyes to the empty space where the swan had been. What would Mother say? What would she do? Would I need to tell her in this cold-hearted living room, the place where the swan had died? My grandmother’s gift was gone, too shattered to ever be whole, never to swim on the piano again.
Mother came home from work. I met her at the car and asked her to come to the piano with me to the living room. “Are you going to play a song for me?” “No ma’am.” I pointed to the empty space on the piano. “I broke your swan about a month ago and did not tell you.” Her eyes moved to the empty spot, and her body turned away. Her footsteps headed to her room, and I heard the door close. My mother had rarely talked about her past. I knew nothing about the swan, what it had meant to Grandmother Ellen, how Mother had acquired it, how long it had been in the family. Their life was meager. As a child, my mother had often been hungry. Her mother sometimes went as far away as Ohio to work, a victim of a blackball at the local bleachery. She was a widow with four children and two parents to support. I knew I would hear Mother cry if I listened at the door. She never mentioned the swan again. I did not either. She had to face her grief and longing a second time. I had to live with my deed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

I found the author's life interesting initially, but soon tired of it. The analogy of the toolbox was helpful to me. Another helpful set of advice was his use of contradictions: write what you know, or don't; use good grammar, or not; use good vocabulary, or not. He argued both sides of each piece of advice successfully. To me, a true artist is the person who breaks "the rules" successfully.

His advice of leaving out adverbs and adjectives, using strong nouns and verbs, limiting word use, and using active vs. passive voice have strengthened my writing.

I hope to improve my habits to become a better writer as he suggests - read more, set up a schedule, write daily, have high expectations of self, create a good place to write, lead and healthy and balanced life.

I want to read more of the books from his list at the end of the book. Also, more of the authors he mentions throughout the book.