Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The care and feeding of characters

Me, being intense.  Also, what's up with the different-sized eyes?   
One incredibly important thing I've learned as a writer is that, by creating non-cliche characters, one has a chance to react to a real-life, personal crisis in non-cliche ways.  Let me explain.  I am a sensitive flower with a very tough-woman exterior.  I have what my mother calls, "The Look", which means I evidently possess the ability to intimidate people with my laser-beam eyes.  Mainly, I'm not aware of this.  I operate behind the face, which means I'm backstage to whatever is going on in front.  Sometimes, peoples' responses to me surprise me, and the cables and pulleys that operate my heart get tangled.  So, my reactions are reactionary.  Defensive.  Hurt.  What we used to call 'ouch-ouch' in Diversity Training.  I don't think I'm alone in this, either.  Everyone has cringeworthy moments they remember in their darkest moments of self-doubt.   

Okay, so get to what you're talking about, Morgan.

When I first began Rubinrotes herz eisblaue see, (Red Ruby....), I created a mean, nasty Daddy figure and took him to my writing group.  WARNING: DIGRESSION: One place to put sensitivity aside is in a trustworthy writing group.  It's important to take charge of your own writing and your own intent in a non-emotional fashion, and to understand whassup, before you present your piece.  Know when a piece isn't ready for the light of day and protect that baby until you've provided it with a lunchbox and knapsack and can wave goodbye to it without weeping.  Go in honestly wanting to know what folks think, and never expect it to come back to you without at least one skinned knee.   
Anyway, the Daddy figure in the book was pronounced 'cliche'.  Ouch.  But not a horrible ouch, just kind of a wince and a shrug of the shoulder to remove the demon riding on my shoulder.  What did I do with their information?  I took every response that Daddy had to a situation - cranky at the least; threatening and emotionally damaging at the most - and I turned it around.  Example:  Cliche Response:  "If you don't stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about."  Non-cliche Response:  A nonverbal hug.  Another example:  "If you say anything like that again, I'm gonna smack you."  Non-cliche Response:  "I'm ashamed of you and I'm walking out now.  I hope I don't hear you say anything like that, again." 

Mind you, I did not change who he was, a working-man with a minimum of education, a love of drink, and an easily confused emotional psyche.  New Age drumming circles weren't invented when the character was created, but I did humanize him, tried to take where he had come from and invest that in his personality and in his love for his family.  And I did that for all of the characters, particularly the ones I didn't like.  It made us all work harder, and it made for a much richer experience for me as a writer.  I wasn't bored when anyone walked into a room.  I was always entertained at what took place.

That said, when I write a first draft, I will often 'cliche' the characters to get the writing down.  And then I will change it all - the reactions, what happened as a result of them, how the narrator reacts to what is being said and done, and so on.  But it is important to me to get it all down.  I'm messing with a lot of ideas and a basic plot at this point, and I need to start somewhere.  The shades and hues of the personalities concerned take shape as I go along, as does everything else.

So, how did learning how to do this on paper change my life?  Concrete example:  I used to work as an assistant in a fire station.  One of my duties was answering phones.  One day, I picked up the phone with my professional and pleasant greeting, and a well-seasoned, gruff male voice asked for the Fire Chief.  "He isn't in," I said.  "Would you like his voice mail?"  His response was a sing-songy, impatient imitation of my voice, "No, I would not like his voice mail...".  (It really was icky, and potentially disastrous for both of us.  I could have hung up, he could have been angry)  I paused.  And then I did the unexpected - subconsciously.  I laughed and I laughed.  And he laughed, too  What a feckin' relief!  It has affected many conversations, turned emotions around, made me less fearful of a response, less sensitive.  Primarily, it has affected my relationship with Bob in a number of ways, least of which is that we are together, and I'm glad of it.  My cliche responses to his overtures may have nipped what has become the most important relationship to me in the bud.  But that's another story.  One that I'm going to try to get published.                     

Me, smiling.  Still, what's with the eyes?  Well, at least I can change the reaction.

Friday, August 20, 2010

May there be treats in heaven, Michael Collins

Michael Collins (Mikey).  Photo by Sarah Thompson
We found out that our great friend, Michael Collins, passed on earlier this week due to burst ulcers and the resulting complications.  He fought hard, but in the end he left this life behind; not before knowing he was loved and will be missed terribly.  Michael Collins (or Mikey) as he was fondly called, had a life most people would envy.  He lived in salt-bound Maine in the summer, and trod the sweet sands of Key West in Florida for the winter.  The folks in his life loved him very much.  He returned that love with slobbering kisses and enthusiastic thwacks of his tail.  He loved treats, anyone who threw him sticks in the water, his many friends and fans in both Florida and Maine, and his owners.

Michael was a yellow Labrador Retriever.  Pale and handsome, he was a well-built guy with a sweet, dignified personality.  We first met him when he was three years old, just past puppy hood and heading into adulthood.  His was a steady nature, curious but not obnoxious, intelligent but not condescending, goofy, but never foolish.  Rua, my little dog, LOVED him.  We met Mikey and his owner, Sarah Thompson, on East End Beach in Portland, Maine almost seven years ago, when Rua was about nine months old.  It was instant adoration on her part; she chased him up and down the beach, jumping up to nip at his tender soft ears in doggie rapture.  Mike grinned and took it all in his hail-well-fellow-met way.  He liked Rua; he didn't make an ass of himself over her.  For seven years, we anticipated Mikey's return around May, when Sarah and her husband, Paul, returned from Key West.  Rua always knew when Mikey had come back; we would be taking our customary walk along the Eastern Trail in Portland when, nose to ground, Rua would trace the beginnings of Mikey's long summer in Maine with her speckled nose.  Mikey and his owners left in November, which always signaled to Rua and me, the ones left behind, that winter's fits and starts were not far away. 

Portland is a big dog town - people love dogs and cater to them in many ways, with gourmet doggie stores, big dog parks where they can run, grooming specialists, doggie wash stores, and so on. I suppose it seems nuts to those who are not dog-crazy, but when you're fortunate enough to have a best friend that loves you no matter what, care and feeding of said buddy doesn't seem like too much to give back.  It is a normal thing for people to gather together in the parks or on the beach to watch their dogs play and discuss their pooches and life in general.  So far, in South Dakota, I haven't run across this group.  The dogs here work on farms.  They tend toward the working breeds; Aussies, Heelers, Border Collies, German Shepherds.  They ride into town in the backs of pick ups and wait there for their owners to finish their errands.  No butt sniffing for these dogs; they are all business.  It doesn't mean they are loved any less, mind you, it's just that they have jobs to do.  I've met a few people walking town dogs, but thus far, Rua hasn't been that interested, so we haven't connected.  But I do miss the company of my dog-people friends, and I can't talk for Rua, but I do know that she will be glad to see her friends in Maine.   

While we do love our dog people, I realize that it can an odd and, sometimes sadly, temporary society.  And while I have become good friends with many dog-owned people since I've had Rua, others have remained nameless, yet, I can tell you without fail the names of their dogs.  So while I don't know the names of Sophie's, Baxter's, Teddy's, and Rosie's owners, I do know the names of Tucker's, Trout's Tonka's, Gracie's, Dexter's, Noah's, and Oscar's people.  And Mikey's people, of course.  When dogs connect, their people do, too.  The sad thing about this little grouping of dogs and people is that when a dog dies, the person disappears, too.  I am fortunate in that I haven't had to face that, yet, but it must be an overwhelming sense of loss for the person, both because the dog is gone and because the society that was created because the dog existed is no longer relevant.  Sometimes, folks return with new dogs, and they are welcomed back, always.  When Sarah is ready, I hope that she will introduce a new puppy to the group.  Mikey would have liked that.     

Rua has had other loves, but Mikey was her first and unabashed love affair.  I don't want to sound all gooey and stupid, but something did happen here in South Dakota, 2100 miles away, on the day that Michael died.  Rua was lying in her space under the chair, sleeping, when all of a sudden she started, woke, looked at me, and whined.  And whined again.  It was unusual behavior, so I watched her for a while.  She put her head down on her paws and left it there, awake for a bit before she nodded off.  I don't know if she knows, but I do, and I will miss not having him there when we head back to Maine for a visit in October.   She will know, then, because she will look for him.  It will be strange to head for the beach and see a space where a whitish-yellow dog used to run, carefree, chasing sticks, acting for all the world as if that was all there was to life.  Who is to argue that it isn't.  Follow your bliss, Michael Collins.  Follow your bliss, and top it off with a treat on the house.    

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Where do ideas come from?

Beaver Bourget's Lobster Boat, The Odyssey, Quaker Point, Maine - photograph by MC Rogers

I mentioned my book Rubinrotes Herz, eisblaue see in my first post.  The English title is Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.  It hasn't been published in English (yet), but high hopes abound in that area.  Why has it been published in Germany and not here, in the U.S.A.?  Because publishing works that way, sometimes.  The short version is that my agency has international contacts, and one such contact saw the manuscript, took it to Europe, and a wonderful German publishing house, which specializes in books about the sea and seaside communities and environments picked it up.  I have been fortunate to work with the most wonderful professionals during this process.  At any rate, the book is out, and so is an audio tape, and I feel as if I've struck gold.  It's all dizzying and out-of-body and fabulous.  I love that something I made up, found a voice for, and wrote down has found its way into the world. 

But I wanted to talk about how things happen.  How things begin.  How something tiny can turn into a creative work that keeps on ticking until the story is told.  Did I sit down and conjure up a voice?  Did the voice come to me in a dream?  Did my eleven-year old narrator, Florine Gilham, come to me and say, "Write my story?"  Well, no, not really.  I didn't even know she existed until a dear friend, who was starring on stage in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine asked me to be her assistant. The show can be grueling for the actress, and I was there as prop, make-up, and general backstage calming-down buddy, kind of like the post horse that accompanies the thoroughbred to the starting gate.  Well, we all know what the thoroughbred does, but what happens to the post horse after her plod to the gate? 

In my case, I was reading a local newspaper, glancing at the letters to the editor.  One such letter was written by a woman who was distraught because someone had stolen a lawn ornament from the lawn of a friend.  In perfect Maine Coastal dialect, this friend described in great detail what the ornament had meant to her friend and to that friend's family.  The lawn ornament stolen in question was one of the seven dwarfs.  Sneezy, as a matter of fact.  Trying to explain here why this combination of elements struck me so hysterically that I dropped the newspaper and guffawed is useless.  But I got the idea to write about this family, not the woman who had written the letter.  I wanted to tell the story of this family's despair and grief regarding the unfortunate Sneezy's loss.  When I sat down to type, this woman's voice came into my head loud as thunder and twice as brash.  I immediately named her Florine.  And for over seventy-two pages, Florine unfolded her life story as an adult living with her family in a trailer by the side of the road.  The voice never wavered.  It was like sitting down to tea with a really good friend, every time I sat down to type.

Later, in a writing group, one of the members questioned Florine's relationship with one of her family members, which set me to writing the backstory, to be added to what was now obviously a novella.  The backstory became Rubinrotes herz, eisblaue see, or Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.

Florine's voice was so strong, so a part of my imagination, that I could pick up her story at any point and she would almost say, "Now, where were we?"  Or, other times, when I didn't feel like writing, I manifested her presence standing in front of me with an exasperated look on her face that signaled to me that she didn't have all day, for chrissake, get cracking.  So I did, and her story got told, and now it's being sold and happily, pretty well accepted.  In German, at least.

Voices like Florine's just don't come around that often.  And often, they are not the voices you wish would come around.  I wanted, for instance, to finish the soft-Irish-accented trilogy that I'd started years before.  It was romantic, everyone was pretty, and rock and roll was the theme.  In comparison, Florine's adult speaking voice (yes, I hear that most definitely) is a bit crowish and a little loud.  Her childhood voice is often pugnacious and stubborn.  But here's the important thing.  ANY voice is a gift.  Any voice that strong, that insistent, has something to say, and the writer should damn well listen to it.  Let her, or him, tell their story.  Let you, as the author, shape it, mold it, and mark it with a 'P'.  It could be a wonderful collaboration and partnership. 

I don't know if Sneezy the dwarf was ever returned to his place on the lawn.  I don't even know if the lawn was in front of a trailer.  What I do know is, I got a story out of it.  And that story continues to unfold.  It's a work in progress.  It's also magic, or pretty darn close to it.  Listen.  Who wants out of your imagination and on to the page?  You might be surprised.  Let it happen.       

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Biking Around Belle, Turtle Sundaes, and Mammatus Clouds

Mammatus Clouds Over Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  Photograph by Robert Clements
Biking around Belle Fourche reminds me of the freedom I drank in as as an eleven-year old tomboy with braids and cut-up knees, banging along on my one-speed blue bicycle.  I had no helmet, I rode anywhere by myself, and the uglification known as Spandex was but a stretch away in someone's imagination somewhere.  If anyone was to ask me what my favorite gift of all time was, I would have to say that bike.  My father wheeled it into the house as a complete surprise on my birthday and I can still recall my speechless state of wonder at its introduction into my life.

Now I ride a Schwinn crossover with about 24 speeds and I am, as I keep telling myself, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  (A side note:  Trying to make Betty in India, who was helping me with student loan changes, understand the spelling of Fourche versus the pronounciation [Foosh] was a trip in itself.  We worked it out, but it wasn't pretty.)  Anyway, Belle has several concrete connecting walking and biking paths known as the River Walk, so called because some of the paths parallel the Belle Fourche River.

Thursday night, I took the Schwinn out onto the streets.  Noticed the thunderheads hovering over the town and took note.  (Last blog - know your wind direction and act accordingly).  I took off anyway, on a thigh-calf pumping exercise that turned into sheer joy, ears stopped up with Randy Newman's Dixie Flyer sandwiched between Diesel's Sausalito Summer Nights and Patti Scialfa's Spanish Dancer.   I rode for about 45 minutes, and managed to avoid getting doused.  I parked the bike and checked with Bob re: the weather.  Coming our way or not?  Not sure.  I clipped a leash onto the dog's collar and stepped out, went down an alley, and watched the Christmas tree in Christmas Tree Park bend in half as a cold, possibly hail-laden wind plowed into the town.  Rua and I hurried back into the gallery, to find Bob gathering his photographic equipment with a gleam in his eye.

"Truck?  Storm?"  Yes.  Out we went, into the wind, with the dog and the camera equipment, and we drove to the top of a hill, and parked between radio towers and transformer stations, to watch the storm, which wasn't as bad as it could have been, at least where we were.  Somewhere Else was pounded, but not Right Here.   Again, that symphony of a sky, playing Night on Bald Mountain with lightning as cymbals crashing behind blackberry clouds, and occasionally snaking out to strike some unfortunate place at ground.  We sat and watched and wowed for a while, and Bob took some shots, then I suggested that perhaps ice cream might be a great addition.  The Dairy Queen was two blocks away - every place is two blocks away in Belle - and so we drove to the drive through and ordered turtle sundaes.

This always amuses us, because there is little else going on in tiny little Belle Fourche.  Tearing it up at the Dairy Queen keeps us off the streets.  Evidently, at least here in Belle, turtle sundaes come in a waffle-dish, and do not exist outside of those parameters.  (Turtle sundaes are vanilla ice cream with caramel and chocolate sauce, with pecans.)  We seem to confuse the drive-in clerk every time we order one.  "In a waffle dish?" the voice crackled.  "No, in a plastic dish", Bob said.  Pause.  "Chocolate or Hot Fudge?"  Bob looked to me as the key decision maker in our duo.  "Hot fudge," I said with a shrug.  Many of my decisions are made with a shrug.  Bob ordered hot fudge.  The sundaes were made, without the waffle dish - hopefully the corporate angst was minimal - and we drove away from the window and parked near the Dairy Queen.

Dangling directly over the truck were several groupings of Mammatus clouds.  Mammatus clouds, so called because they are shaped like breasts, are indicators that something wicked this way may be coming, probably in about a half hour or any second.  But we sat and ate our turtle sundaes and shot photos of these beauties and Bob commented on how he'd never seen them so well-developed and ponderous.  As time went on, they began to double up, looking more like Rocky Mountain oysters.  They paraded across the sky like a rowdy Mardi-Gras parade and headed for Hoover.  We finished our sundaes and drove home, pumped up with sugar and sauce and electricity, warmly alive in a Thursday night small-town summer night kind of way.

"What would have happened," Bob said later, "If we had ordered both chocolate and hot fudge?" 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Adventure Continues...

My world this morning has narrowed to sitting on a small hill beside a twenty-foot long, five-foot wide pond down in a draw, in the middle of a grove of tall sturdy cottonwoods.  I am watching my dog chase frogs and jump for giant, prairie-grass fed grasshoppers.  Rua is an eight-year old Cairn terrier that looks like a Schnauzer, thanks to a surprising haircut.  To be fair, the groomer I called told me that she had never done a Cairn terrier, but I was desperate and dropped her off, anyway.  She looks downright odd, but she's happy and cool.  She trots along the mucky bottom of the shallow water from one bank to the other.  Her bushy tail slaps from side to side whenever something moves close by.  She has forgotten that I exist.  Sitting in this shade, listening to cicadas and birds battle it out in the tree crowns above makes me happy.  Rua and I have found a small, quiet place away from the big-sky sun that South Dakota foists upon all of its critters, two- and four-legged, in August.  And July.  And maybe September.  I don't know yet, but I will find out.  No one's talking about it.  They do talk about the upcoming winter.  They say, "Wait until winter."  I say, "I'm from Maine.  I know what winter is."  They shake their heads.  "No, you don't," they say.

I moved to this small town in western South Dakota in June.  I've been here about two months.  I moved here for love, at a stage in my life when I had put most thoughts of that away in a bureau drawer along with several wrinkled perfumed scarves I've acquired through the years.  (The purple one I bought in Chinatown, San Francisco, sometime in the 90s; the sky-blue scarf with the stars was given to me by three beloved friends who believe in me; the fuchsia scarf came from another friend who has become a sister of the heart; a peony-stamped navy-blue and pink scarf arrived tucked around a paper-thin china cup in an exquisite basket.)  All of my scarves have a story, as do all things worth keeping.  I tucked true love amongst them, and then I pulled it out when someone unexpected wrapped himself around my heart.

I lived in Maine, and so did Bob, for eighteen years.  He lived within ten miles of me, and we frequented Portland, Maine on a daily basis, but in separate parts of the city.  When we met, two things happened.  I thought, uh oh.  And I heard music.  I loved where I lived.  But Bob, a native South Dakotan and an artist, was headed back to Belle Fourche, a small town that can boast that it is the geographic center of the nation, if the coordinates for Alaska and Hawaii are included.  Belle has a sort of dusty, cattle-trodden, rakish past (the Sundance Kid once robbed a bank here).  Bob's gallery is located in Belle, and I visited it twice before deciding to join him here. Once, last summer during early July, and then again in February, when the winter must have been napping because it wasn't horrible.  Before I visited, Bob warned me that some people find western South Dakota's space and sky overwhelming, flat, even uninteresting.  I am not one of those people.  The landscape curves and dips and rises into the Black Hills, and takes in the surrounding buttes, gulches, and canyons.  The sky fills whatever space is left to fill.

Oh, that symphony of a prairie sky!  If I stand in one spot and turn 360 degrees, each part of the overhead has something different to offer the eye.  Thunderheads rear their cupcake clouds over the Black Hills, even as a Western sunset fades out in a blaze of glory.  a gentle blue sky sets north, while puffy, name-your-creature cotton balls dot the azure expanse to the south.  I've also seen black and boiling storms roiling at me with serious intent.  Weather here is not to be taken lightly.  Know your wind direction, and move accordingly.

August here is the kind of hot that hits your face when you open the oven door on a pan of cookies.  That's why I'm particularly grateful to have discovered this shadowy place with its little splash of water.  Sitting here watching Rua, who used to have a tree-sheltered backyard to lounge in, reminds me of childhood summers, when I had nothing to do but drink in perfumed fodder for my imagination.  That imagination is a powerful thing, and when it's working full tilt, I'm as fully me as Rua is chasing amphibians and bugs. 

I'm so homesick for my East and for my friends and family that I ache for them.  But I didn't come here bumping along a rutted dirt road like an anxious mail-order bride.  I came because I wanted to come.  Also, airplanes and rental cars can be had, if need be.  Right now, life is good.  I have a novel out in Germany that has been received well.  The title is Rubinrotes herz eisblaue see - Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.  I'm in love with a fascinating man.  South Dakota is not a place I thought I would ever live, or even thought about that much, but I'm warming to its quirky weather and its good and Badlands.  As Bob says of us, "The adventure continues."