Good House Keeping

The Coffee stains on the table are my grandfathers. Each intersecting circle creates an Olympic design. The curtains were sown by my grandmother, yellow with little red flowers faded by a thousand sunrises to varying shades of light pink. The chip in the oak countertop is my mothers, the place where she sliced a thousand cuts of meat and missed the cutting board only twice. The scrapes on both side of the back door belong to the dozens of dogs who have graced our lives with wet noses, wet kisses and the click of claws on the hardwood door. The scrape on the floor belongs to my father, the place where he drug his chair along the old oak planks, bellying up to the table, newspaper in hand.

If I were to find my place in this old farm house, it would be in the attic where the pink and green wallpaper now hangs like fly paper from the narrowly peaked ceiling. The floor where my brass bed once stood is scored by my running leaps which always moved the bed an inch. Other children slept here, my mother in her time, her mother before that. The attic is a child’s place, a lofted wonderland whose view never alters with the years. Stepping across the old planks to the warped single pain window, I see a hundred acres of oak trees. These are the same trees that my great-great grandparents planted one hundred and fifty years ago.

Reaching out I take a swath of wall paper, tearing a neat strip to make a sample. Now that the house is mine, the workmen repair the shingled roof and paint the gingerbread siding to its original peach and cream. Someday soon, on summer holidays my own grandchildren will sleep in brass beds in this attic room, their eyes tracing the green and pink wallpaper of my mother’s childhood. In turn they will mark the house, damage the molding, and scratch their ever increasing height into the door jambs. Someday this will be their house, filled with their stories, memories, dents and dust, creating the best kind of housekeeping for a well lived, well loved home.

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Cultivating Silence

I love silence. It’s a rare and beautiful thing. Silence eludes me at times but is easily cultivated once I let go enough to let it wander free. I love drifting through my silenced house with nothing to do. It’s these empty spans of nothingness that feed my soul in a profound way. I put on silence like an old coat, one that holds me close with its friendly warmth. I like the way silence buffers away the complicated storm swept world as it soothes my mind into quiet order.

In those rare moments when silence is accompanied by nothing to do I invariably finger a book I have no intention of reading or better still I pet my cat and break silence into a raucous flow of vibrational joy. My cats purr is deep and throaty. It is a cultivated purr won from silence, the silence of never having known love. That was not a nice silence. My cat has the purr of a feral cat dumped high on a hill top farm. It is the purr of courage which sings, “I dared to trust and in trust found love.”

Sometimes in my silence I contemplate at my toes. I have brave toes. I like to think of all the places my toes have led me. To the crib where my baby boy slept, to the door of my mother’s house, to the airport where together, toes and I boarded a plane. Finally I like to think of the moment my toes stepped to the top of Wearyall Hill. In this place the silence listens, builds and grows into a sort of spiritual wonder I can scarce find words to express.

One of the sweetest silences I know is barn silence. That’s right…barn silence. I have known barns filled with the slow breaths of big horses and the silent swoop of swallow’s wings. I have cupped my hands to catch gold bright dust particles suspended for a moment in the gleaming perfection of sunset; my horses quietly chewing in their darkening stalls. Barn silence is the best silence because it is filled with contentment. It whispers, well done, everyone is stalled, blanketed, fed, happy and safe. You’ve done your job, your free to find your bed but linger a while because contentment like this only comes to rose sniffers, day dreamers and those who understand and love the richness that comes with the knowledge that all is right with the world.

Silence gives rise to contemplation, the birthplace of epic daydreams. Epic daydreams become manuscripts upon which I labor hour after hour day after day. I nestle down happy with the certainty of my well spun plot, the depth of my characters,  enjoying the peace of knowing that everything will end as I wish it. What if life could be as conveniently orchestrated?

In Silence I disconnect from the global mind, allowing myself to once again become unique to my surroundings. In this great disconnect, I go off-line into silence and am again the girl I was, quiet and shy, no longer forced to brave a world which feels too big.

In silence I hear my heartbeat. In silence I’m glad I’m alive. In silence I am able to set aside my humanity, drink in the sublime and let go of all the petty rages which injure only me. In silence I am home, I am free and I am at peace because silence asks for nothing. It simply gives me space to be.

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Literary Betrayal

There is no rule which states that a novel or short story should end happily. Many of the greatest literary works left their audience in despair with their closing sentence. Life is a story and often times that story is so rooted in pain that a happy ending is not an option.

I recently read a trilogy so steeped in tragedy that by the end of book three I felt emotionally gutted. I’ll let you guess the name of this trilogy. What troubled me most about this trilogy was not its despair based premise or continual sacrifice of innocence and decency but the shock and awe tactics used by the author in order to maintain the high octane pace the writer had naturally achieved in the first book. This blatant use of shock brought forth the question: “What does a writer owe her audience?”

We as readers depend on authors to see main characters through to their natural end. If a well-developed character should happen to die that death should be noted not disregarded as if it were only the death of inconsequential extra. The blatant brushing aside of a beloved characters life is cold and cruel because it destroys the readers faith and trust in the writer. A well-developed sympathetic character who is killed without the necessary pause for grief and reflection leaves the reader feeling injured and betrayed. At no point should shock value replace the need for plot and character development.

Perhaps it is our lack of attention span which has led so many popular writers to gut their audience and tear away the fabric of the plot in order to keep modern readers reading. Nevertheless, a compelling book should have strong well defined characters, a sweeping plot with many twists and turns as well as description and flow. Characters should not act, “out of character,” and plot should not be sacrificed in order to build a path from one disturbing scene to the next. We as writers owe it to our readers to take them on a journey. The journey may be harrowing, grief filled and agonizing but it is the duty of the writer not to victimize her reader with one shock after another just to keep them hooked. As your guide we writers may lead you to the edge of the chasms of emotion but we should never toss you over indiscriminately just to see you fall.

Characters that Live and Breathe

How do you write a Character that lives and breathes? Study, listen and feel. With these three directives you can create a character just as alive and glorious as any composed by the greats. As I’ve stated earlier, my characters come to me, usually at night darn them, as a feeling etched in shadow, a grief, a loss, a short-lived joy or the fear of lack. This I build into a life by listening to the feelings around them, by seeing their color as it were in order to create a shape, a body to house them in. That is part of the feeling, the listening is more to do with taking in every element of the world around you, other people’s stories, movies, books, histories and compiling a mental map of the worlds you want to explore be it Imperial Russia or the 50’s in L.A.; be in it and with it, travel if you can to get a sense of the place. Writing is often about putting your own experiences on paper seen through the eyes of someone else. So in a haphazard and erratic way I think I’ve covered the feeling and listening part, now for a more in-depth view of study.

Become a lover of words, not the words that get you from one side of the page to the other but the words that describe a tulip opening to the sun in five hundred words or more, don’t be a miser with words, squander them across the page, use twenty when you could have used five. You can edit them out later. I say this because we have lost so much of the art of writing in our modern brevity, you have the right to write and not be brief: expound, describe your imagery and bring vibrancy to your scenery. Listen to the classics read unabridged and dramatized as you move through your day. Study Jane Eyre not for the plot but for the phrase. The opening scene when she talks of cold walks, Chilblains and frost is enough to make my toes curl and the more I listen to it the more I fall in love with the magic of this style of writing. Decide who your writing is most similar to and study them. Study and perfect your style by reading, listening and write, every day, day in, day out. Words are alive so use them.

Where to Begin

One of the questions I’m often asked about writing is where do you begin? The truth is that I have no set method I just begin. Generally I toss my first six pages and then re-write the following six at least twenty times until they no longer resemble themselves in the least. I begin with a feeling which progresses to an emotion and then forms into a character with set feelings and perspectives. I learn from this imagined person what it is like to be them, to feel so deeply about certain issues and situations and before I know it they are telling me their story.

I recently wrote a book about a girl named Coco. She came to me as a slightly anorexic fashion student with long black hair, luminous honey brown eyes and the saddest expression you could imagine. She haunted me. I felt this deep sense of longing and loss when I thought about her and every night when I woke for my usual 3:20 a.m. mental download she was there, feeling lonely, cold and very much alone. The more I thought with her the more her story formed around her, soon an apartment came to light, then a housekeeper and then her entire life opened like a flower blooming before me. I felt my way to Coco as she felt her way to me and the result was the novel Magdalena’s Shadow which is with my editor at this moment. The point of all this rambling is that it doesn’t matter what you begin with, what matters is that you begin.

Listen to people, read about them, and talk to them. Your next door neighbor has a story that would knock your socks off and so does the crazy dog lady who walks your street each morning. Listen, be present, be compassionate towards every life you meet and let the stories come.