Stories begging to be told

Tell anyone you’re a writer and inevitably you hear these words—Oh do I have a story to tell! If only I knew how to get it all down. Maybe I could tell it to you and you could write it for me.

 “Writing isn’t particularly different from hibernation,” observes the polar bear/narrator in Yoko Tawada’s very inventive Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is writing at its most artful, even playful, a story offering up both literary and social commentary, something to especially savor during this month in which we celebrate reading women in translation ((#WITMonth). The smaller the world seems, in terms of how we connect, the larger it gets. Diversity, in all its expression of form, feels more urgent than ever.

Some say it takes courage to write. For me it’s more surrender, not so much sweet as the kind that comes from all that quiet time spent wrestling with words/thoughts/worlds. Not that courage doesn’t play its part, especially when it comes to telling a story that’s been kept quiet for too long. Unless it’s journal writing, for your eyes only, to write is to imagine you have a story people just might want to read.

First comes a kind of liberation—there! I did it—but once it’s out, the same vulnerability that may have kept you from putting down the story in the first place exposes you now to a world that can be as forgiving as it can be harsh. Did that inner critic we thought so demanding mislead us? Did that muse who lit the fire dissolve in her own ashes?

More than courage, it’s humility that’s on my mind. Madeleine L’Engle expressed it so perfectly in A Circle of Quiet:

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what.” It’s not about pitting ourselves against the greats, she goes on to say. It’s about a way of looking at the universe.

We are a storytelling species, which means we all have stories to tell. Some are transcendent, some banal. Some are driven by the artful play of words, others by the raw power of the story.

Look anywhere, listen—really listen—to what people say, and a story idea is bound to take shape. The other side of that equation is the story that finds the writer, the one she is simply meant to tell.

Woman at Point Zero. Nawal El Saadawi is a feminist force of nature in her native Egypt and her novel was sparked by an encounter (in her role as psychiatrist) with a female prisoner condemned to be executed for murdering a man. Firdaus, the prisoner, entrusts her story of abuse, female genital circumcision, enslavement, and prostitution to El Saadawi, who shapes it into a compelling narrative that touches on issues that ultimately touch us all. El Saadawi may be the conduit but Firdaus is the hero who turns on its head the question of victimization.

Monkey’s Wedding. The time is 1953, the place Southern Rhodesia, the tensions between native populations and the white ruling class growing. Rossandra White spent part of her childhood in Zimbabwe, which makes it impossible not to see her in Elizabeth McKenzie, as spirited a young heroine as it gets. Central to the narrative is Elizabeth’s relationship with Turu, the son of a man who works for her family. And like the best of novels that straddle the YA/adult fiction fence, Monkey’s Wedding lets the wisdom of innocence ring through a complicated political and cultural scenario.

Veronica’s Grave. The opening pages of Barbara Donsky’s very moving memoir take us right into the mind of a young girl who can’t make heads or tails of her mother’s ‘disappearance.’ One day mommy is there, the next day she’s gone, no explanation. People are at her home, crying, still no explanation. And no mommy. A baby brother will surface soon enough, but still no mommy. Like all children, she will find ways to express the confusion, the pain, the anger, and Donsky does an especially skillful job of letting the narrator’s voice change as she herself is transformed.

All of which takes me full circle down a long and winding yellow brick road, with its twists and turns and archetypes and metaphors. Who hasn’t had at least one you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment in his/her life? Who doesn’t need a little more courage, a little more heart, a little more wisdom sometimes, the secret of course being what that trio of beloved characters knows only too well: they’re nothing without each other. I don’t know if there’s no place like home in a world of displacement but I do know there’s no dearth of stories that begin or end there. Some need a little coaxing, others are simply begging to be told.

 

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Only the Lonely

Saturday night, 6 p.m. on the nose. Emma turns on the radio, her favorite show, her favorite station, always a Frank Sinatra number at the top of the playlist. She relishes the element of surprise, the musical finesse it takes to segue from torch songs to golden oldies that render her a teenager sunning on the beach. Nobody used sunblock back then. Sunburn let you know summer had arrived. Noxzema got you through the pain.

She sings along as she preps her dinner. Salmon (Wild Alaskan) to be broiled, broccoli (organic) simply steamed. Sips a little red wine to warm her heart. . . .

If the opening paragraphs are enough to entice you, here’s a link to the rest of this tongue-in-cheek story, featured on Akashic Books’ website.

Roy OrbisonRead it, enjoy (I hope), then come back and listen to the playlist it inspired  (or maybe, in that unconscious way a writer’s mind works, the playlist inspired the story), along with a video treat from a favorite CD, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1.

 

 

TravelingWilburys

 

 

 

Street Dress

A change of pace . . . an interlude . . . call this brief bit of fiction between regular blog posts what you will.   A writer/friend, Jayne Martin, got the party started by inviting bloggers to take a stab at  ‘hint fiction,’ a very very short piece that feels complete but hints at more. On her wonderful blog she shares a classic Hemingway example, along with links to other bloggers who are participating.  Enjoy them all, tell us what you think.  And if you like the form,  I can’t recommend The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis enough.  She’s a master.

 

Street Dress

The box arrived out of the blue, Priority Mail, a hint of lavender and mothballs settled in the salmon chiffon.

Her mother’s prom dress.

 

Happenstance

Aroma coffee and tea 6Early morning, barely awake and jet-lagged, a word pops into my head: Happenstance, a poetic mingling of chance and circumstance.  I do think there’s an order to the universe. I don’t think everything happens for a reason, but any unwelcome circumstance foisted on us, once we get past the anger or frustration or even denial, often gets us rethinking the trajectory of our lives. This is something Kate Atkinson touches on in Life after Life, a book I found less wonderful than I had hoped but one that left lingering thoughts.

My daughter, thousands of miles away, fractures her ankle. In pain and feeling helpless, wanting me to come out ASAP, we both know the lesson of learning to rely on friends who pitch in to take her to work, keep her company, help her get around. In her wisdom, she asks me to be with her during the transition from her cast to a boot.  So, three weeks following the fall that brought on her injury, I fly out. A long weekend of TLC (cooking, shopping, inviting friends over for brunch, watching movies) goes a long way.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  She resists, as I do, asking for help or favors, but isn’t it also true that those of us who are reluctant to do so are the least likely to take advantage of anyone’s generosity of spirit?

Once I knew I’d have one free day while my daughter was at work, I put out a call to five wonderful women, any and all of whom I hoped might be available to meet up with me.  We met for the first time last summer, after many months of delightful, warm, supportive interaction online. “A hug can tell you a lot about someone and a stranger walking by us as we greeted each other for the first time would have been forgiven for thinking we’d been separated at birth,” wrote Jayne Martin (a.k.a. ‘Hummingbird Jayne’) in her glorious, from-the-heart  round-up of our day together in Santa Barbara.

This year’s rendezvous brought the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Valley contingency (Becky, Jessica, and Jayne) and the Dana Point/Laguna Beach duo (Britton and Rossandra) to Studio City, a central location just a few minutes from my daughter’s office in Burbank.  Yes, a hug tells you a lot about a person,  but this time we have the added familiarity of all those words we’ve shared in the course of a year—our voices so varied and distinct. Anyone who missed Jayne’s hummingbird tattoo when she first wrote about it was treated to an up close and personal view.  Jessica brought us up to snuff on her work-in-progress,  a tantalizing tale that a piano teacher was meant to write (she also baked scones for each of us), Britton filled us in on the changed circumstances of her life, sparked when she found herself caught unawares by new love,  as deep and true as it gets, and  gave each of us signed copies of Greta Boris’s The Wine and Chocolate WorkoutBecky, with her newfound coaching passion, is an embodied reminder that we get as much inspiration from our children as we give and handed us artfully designed bookmarks (with head shots of each of us) “celebrating the gift of words and friendship.” And we all got to hold up glasses of tea and lemonade (no wine at Aroma Coffee and Tea Company) to Rossandra, in celebration of her forthcoming memoir.

After lunch, not ready to say good-bye, what else to do but take a walk, peek in stores? A little shopping is good for the spirit.  Given some of the stress underscoring my visit—spotting my daughter as she hopped up and down stairs, being that New Yorker negotiating the roads of L.A.— a play date with women who feel more like long-time friends each time we meet was indeed what the doctor ordered for me.  I was buoyed. And that it fell together so easily touched me. Like the best of times, it went quickly. Hugs from those heading to points north. I reaped the benefit of more time with those heading to points south.

Even to this day we find ourselves asking how the group got started and marveling at how it continues to evolve, writer/friends who gravitate toward a cozy nook on Facebook where we share posts we’ve written and any other tidbits of relevance to writers.  Facebook periodically asks me to give a description of the group. If I resist, it’s only because the ‘how’ (i.e., the serendipity that brings us together) matters more than the ‘why’ (which is a pretty much a given).  To find oneself in a circle of kindred spirits is a blessing. A kind of happenstance.

Speaking of which, what could be more perfect than arriving home to a package, Lisel Mueller’s poetry collection, Alive Together?   And how can I resist sharing a few lines from  a poem bound to be deemed a favorite, “Why We Tell Stories.”

Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

And none of us tells it
the same way twice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Father’s Voice

It’s a sunny Father’s Day and my husband (thousands of miles from his daughter) is busy making the hill next to our house beautiful. Planting. Weeding. Watering. I’m on the deck watching. In the background is the perfect CD for the moment, Keith Jarrett, Bye Bye Blackbird. The title song is one I can never listen to without seeing/hearing my father, onstage at a wedding or a bar mitzvah when the band took a break, a drink or two to loosen him (not that he needed it), microphone in hand.bird_blackbird_bto

In the way that real life becomes the stuff of fiction, I used his love of singing (and a young daughter’s reaction to it) as the premise of a story. What better way to celebrate the day than to post a link to My Father’s Voice.

And speaking of fiction, another story of mine recently placed third in the Women’s National Book Association 2013 Writing Contest.  What makes this all the more gratifying is that it was the first of what’s to become an annual contest.

Unlike the fictional father in the story, mine was a gambling man, and it’s taken me many years to recognize what I have of his, namely the gambling spirit of a writer.  At the same time, I hear my mother’s voice as well: you live long enough you see everything.