Sparked by Words

At first I was nothing more than ack. Holy mother of all things holy, it’s a baby, and he’s a – wait – oh boy – it’s a girl! ACK.

First mistake.

Because this is a story about how I came to write stories.

I wasn’t always a writer. This is an important distinction between me and others who write. Many authors claim they’ve always been a writer. Not me. First I was a nothing, a sea sponge sucking up salt and brine, sputtering to breathe. Rose to the top of the swells, opened my lungs for oxygen, and wailed. Like a starfish, I grew arms. Ears, actually, eyes, a tummy, a mouth, tongue, hands and feet. I learned to listen, to see, to hurt when hungry, to taste, to cry, to grasp and kick.

Eventually I learned I was not the whole world. Mother, father, bird mobile, shiny things, puppies, other people, cold or warm air, blankets, linoleum floor, grass. Thunderous noises (scared the hell out of me,) barely perceptible warning sirens (hurt my infant ears,) music, speech. Sensed anger and mystery. Understood neither though both gave me colic. Light that blinded, darkness that prevented sight. Rocking motion let me sleep.

Bitter, sweet, salty, sour – hardly anything prevented me from trying to eat stuff even if the sensation was distasteful. Rain dripping on my face, snow burning my fingers, ocean waves tumbling me into sand, rocks tripping my wobbly steps, grass cushioning my falls.

Not even aware of that momentous first step though I must have championed the skill. Not on camera. They actually had cameras back when I was born but not cell phones capturing every single moment and lots you wish they hadn’t. So, no photo of my very first land-on-my-punim step. I still walk, sometimes dance, hike, run, trip, fall, get up and walk again.

Listened for a year until I began to speak. Language, a world unto itself. Not even sure why I first spoke English. Could have chosen Chinese or Spanish, nearly useless on the East Coast of the US in the 1950s, but so convenient in today’s world. I would have been presciently prepared. Stupid baby girl.

Drew squiggles and shapes, then letters. Then words, sentences, paragraphs. Story.

First stories were not stories at all. Write what you know. This is me. This is mommy. This is daddy. Here is our house. Between identification of the landmarks of my world was a story about all those already intricate relationships, but I had no ability to organize them into a plot.

Around second grade my first real stories began to take shape. Fantastical, loosely organized, lacking internal logic, peopled with bizarre characters. All the primal experiences of me sensing me, and then the separation of me from the world led to stories.

The magic began. From nebulous impressions of how the world should be – nice, neat, sweet, kind – to how it really was – dirty, nasty, unfair, unpredictable – I wrote. My wand was a yellow number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, zipping along the lines of a blank sheet of paper. In the margins I drew illustrations – early graphic novels.

Once in a while a teacher read my stories aloud. If the rest of the class wasn’t awed by my skills, I was still thrilled at my minute in the limelight. My efforts earned A grades and I’m relieved that none have survived. Around fourth grade I started hearing the word writer and – ZAP! – I knew that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.

School got tough, my social life tougher, distractions and obligations led me along the typical adolescent/young adult trajectory. I schooled for a long time, in classrooms, over hill and dale, sequestered in my room. College diploma finally in hand (actually in a drawer somewhere), married with children, working a Chinese menu of jobs, the stories dwindled to ideas I had no time to write.

Until one day I began again and wrote for the next six months, producing what I was certain was a masterful children’s book. I sent it off to an agent and got back my first rejection notice. Should have known, I’d been warned, that the book wasn’t polished enough to clean the table, much less make it to print. The brief note convinced me I’d wasted everyone’s time and brought me to a full stop. What was I thinking? I could write a shopping list. I could not write a book.

So I put away the yellow pencil and set on a course as an art teacher. Nearly three decades of teaching kids, a career I’m proud of. Until the writing bug nudged me again. Now I had a really fancy pencil: a computer. In the past fifteen years, I’ve written four novels. Women’s commercial literature, if you have to know. I dislike the genre name but detest the more common title: chick lit. That’s a prickly discussion for another time.

I do love every aspect of writing except for one. I really hate the murky territory of trying to find an agent. So, I’m back at ACK now, Leave her alone, she’s writing a book, and trying to find my way to ZAP, Well, would you look at that – she really did write a book, and here it is.

No, not there yet, but still trying. This time, I won’t give up until the words The End are printed at the bottom of my published novel. Take that, Harry Potter – ZAP!

 

Photo of little girl at Camp Lejeune getting a magic wand from magician Jeff Jones, courtesy Pfc. Joshua Grant

 

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I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacqui Murray to talk about her newest book, Survival of the Fittest. It’s Book 1 in her Crossroads series, part of the Man versus Nature saga.

It’s fascinating to learn how a writer approaches the development of characters and plot. I’m also interested in what inspires a person to write as it reveals what perspective motivates their narrative of the world. She was gracious about answering my questions. You’re going to find Jacqui’s responses intriguing.

 

Me: I’ve always been captivated by wondering about early man and how this small, physically inferior creature became so highly adaptable and successful. Why did you write a book in such a tiny genre niche?

 

Jacqui: Survival of the Fittest is written in the sub-genre of historic fiction called prehistoric fiction, a time before recorded history. There aren’t a lot of readers in this genre but they are devoted! Because the only records are rocks, world building has proven difficult but Xhosa (the heroine) really didn’t give me a choice. She nagged me to tell her story from my first page twenty years ago to my final draft.

 

Me: I love that – a character who tells you to write down her story. So of course, you obeyed.

Me: I’ve believed in God since I was a very small child and had no sense of the history of my faith. The more I studied and learned, the more my ideas about God matured, but my devotion has never wavered. So I’m totally excited about Survival of the Fittest as I believe it hints at a spiritual side to man. Is that accurate? I’d love to know how you discovered this nascent aspect of spiritual belief.

 

Jacqui: Scientists have no idea when man’s spirituality started. Because 850,000 years ago (when Xhosa lived) is considered prehistory—before any sort of recorded history was possible —there’s no way to tell. Survival of the Fittest offers one speculative theory of how that could have happened.

 

Me: I guess we will never know for certain, but you’re a deep thinker and your ideas are as likely to be close to the truth as any. I’m intrigued by your historical possibilities.

Most scientists believe Homo erectus couldn’t talk. How did Xhosa and her People communicate?

 

Jacqui: These early humans were highly intelligent for their day and possessed rich communication skills but rarely verbal. Most paleoanthropologists believe that the ‘speaking’ part of their brain wasn’t evolved enough for speech but there’s another reason: Talking is noisy as well as unnatural in nature which attracts attention. For these early humans, who were far from the alpha in the food chain, being noticed wasn’t good.

 

Instead, they communicated with gestures, facial expressions, movements, and all the body language we-all still use but rarely recognize. They talked to each other about everything necessary, just nonverbally.

Me: You present so many facets about why the development of speech was delayed while other human skills became sophisticated. What you suggest makes total sense, especially the need for silence and stealth in a predatory world.

 

In her own words, here’s a teaser about Jacqui’s book: Five tribes. One leader. A treacherous journey across three continents in search of a new home.

 

Me: Wow! A powerful bunch of numerical markers highlighting an exciting story.

 

Plot details to enchant you about Survival of the Fittest: Chased by a ruthless and powerful enemy, Xhosa flees with her People, leaving behind a certain life in her African homeland to search for an unknown future. She leads her People on a grueling journey through unknown and dangerous lands but on an escape path laid out years before by her father as a final desperate means to survival. She is joined by other homeless tribes–from Indonesia, China, South Africa, East Africa, and the Levant—all similarly forced by timeless events to find new lives. As they struggle to overcome treachery, lies, danger, tragedy, hidden secrets, and Nature herself, Xhosa must face the reality that this enemy doesn’t want her People’s land. He wants to destroy her.

Me: I’m wildly cheering on Xhosa. I want her to overcome these perilous obstacles. I can’t wait to find out if she’s successful, and if so, how she achieves finding a safe homeland. This is the kind of story that keeps me up at night because I can’t bear to put it down. Xhosa begged Jacqui to writer her story. Jacqui wrote a book that demands to be read.

 

Book information, In a nutshell: 

Title and author: Survival of the Fittest

Series: Book 1 in the Crossroads series, part of the Man vs. Nature saga

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Cover by: Damonza 

Available at: Kindle US Kindle UK Kindle CA Kindle AU

 

It has been my pleasure to host Jacqui Murray and to discuss her newest novel. I wish her all success with this new book.

 

All images courtesy of Jacqui Murray

 

 

 

 

A Gesture of Butterflies

They’ve invaded – the butterflies

Drunk on thistles, the bounty of rain

Small as half a broken egg shell

The ordained compass of Painted Ladies

Flitting o’er fields, creeks, chaparral

Darting along air flight highways,

From the Mexico-California border

Migrating to the Pacific Northwest

Be still, they approach in silence

Their mission to journey north

For the sake of their future tribe

Flounced wings, orange and charcoal

Black-eyed scales of outside pennants

Guarding the route of tiny gypsies

If only they could guard those below

The ones on knee, in chants, in prayer

What crusted his heart with toxic hate

Who gave him the bullets and the gun

How turn holy words to curse and lie,

Why assault the gates of church, temple,

Synagogue, mosque, sacred ground

The fluttering echo of God on Earth

Ravaged by a beast who never paused

To see the holy gesture of butterflies

My heart goes out to the family and friends of those who were murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and the many places of worship where innocent people have been attacked by terrorists who will not recognize the spark of God within all human life.

In honor of the innocents who were killed, I will not remember the names of the terrorists nor their hateful twist of words.

 

Just a thought 69

 

Painted Lady butterfly photos courtesy of Pixabay and Wikipedia

 

 

I am not silent though you will not hear my words

My actions are as mundane as peeking through blinds

It is well into morning before I step out of the shower

But I was late to sleep last night and then could not rest

I lay down, my breath not deep enough for comfort

I paced again, exhausted but engorged with thoughts

 

My hours of darkness swaddled me as the sun lifted

Dirty plates pile on the countertop, waiting for soap

I should exercise but I eat, I should eat but I worry

The pages lie empty but the story beckons for attention

Its words thrum in my heart, hammering for speech

If I didn’t live in my books, I wouldn’t be breathing at all

 

Just a thought 68

 

 

Image of Eros sleeping, courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Everyday should be International Women’s Day, but if we need a day set aside to celebrate the achievements of women in order to let people everywhere know how wonderful we are, then I’m hopping on the bridge to help you cross from the side called Don’t Know Much to the other end marked This Is One Long List.

To acknowledge the many women all over the world who’ve contributed to the fields of:

animal (veterinary, daily care, groomers, companion and animal assistant training, aquarium, zoo, or rescue site employees)

architects (buildings, monuments, and bridges, city, suburban, commercial, landscape)

armed forces (all branches, every level, serving on U.S. soil or deployed abroad)

art (creating, exhibiting, curating in all fields of photography, painting, designing, drawing, sculpting, and ceramics)

banking (tellers, investment and accounting)

beauticians (hair cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures)

builders (carpenters, house builders, commercial builders, electricians, metal workers, repairmen, contractors, laborers, repairmen)

childcare (baby sitters, nannies, au pair)

cleaners and landscapers (housekeepers, gardeners, commercial maintenance workers)

culinary arts (chefs, cooks, waitresses, dish washers)

dance (choreography, those on their feet)

documentation and archival support (librarians, secretaries, clerks, researchers)

drivers (bus, taxi, limousine)

education (classroom teaching, administration, curriculum development, clerical support, assistants, substitute teachers, all fields and subjects, all levels from pre-school to university)

engineering (civil, industrial, mechanical, electrical, software)

entertainment (acting, directors, cameramen, off- or back stage support, stage, film, theater, video, commercials)

fire, police, sheriff, marshal, and security forces (first responders whose careers protect our lives)

industry (salesmen, retail and business of every kind on the ground, in the air, at sea, in space) environment (preserving and protecting animals, land, sea, and all natural resources)

historians (analysts, observers, researchers, diarists, writers, documentarians)

journalism (researchers, documenters, writers, editing, reporters in every media)

law (attorneys, judges, legal assistants, mediators, whether defense or prosecution, in courtrooms or not)

live performers (magicians, jugglers, comedians, stand-up comedians, revue, circus, chorus line)

mail service (delivery, post office)

medicine (medical care, surgeons, researchers, nurses, psychiatrists, dentists, opticians, ophthalmologists, clinical trial technicians, support and companion care, physical and occupational therapists)

music (playing, singing, directing, composing, writing in band, orchestra, symphony, or individual performer, whether touring or permanent location, professional or amateur

philosophy (thinkers, theorists, reflectors)

politics (policy crafters, elected officials at local, state, and federal levels)

religion (clergy, laymen, spiritual guides of all religions)

science (researchers, experimental and technical developmenters and innovators in all fields)

social activism (marchers, protestors, advocates, campaigners, speakers)

social work and mental health care (adoption, personal, marriage and family counseling, substance abuse, psychology, therapy)

sports (coaching, participation in professional, local, or individual teams, and personal health training and maintenance)

volunteering (every field  and task imaginable)

motherhood (everything – just everything)

 

If I left out the field closest to your heart, blame my lack of imagination and memory. I didn’t mean to forget or ignore you. And yes, plenty of men in these fields as well, and I thank you. But today we acknowledge women because not only do they do these jobs well, they had to fight like hungry sharks to get into many of these positions in the first place.

 

And now for the field closest to my heart:

Literature : poetry, memoir, and fiction of every genre and ilk.

A partial list of the authors –  geniuses, innovators, writers –  who have inspired me, along with one of their books that captivated me and made me want to write just like them.  If I left out your favorite author, please add in the comments section.

Enjoy celebrating women. No one would be here without us.

 

Alice Hoffman – The Marriage of Opposites

Alice Walker – The Color Purple

Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club

Anita Diamant – The Red Tent

Ann Patchett – Bel Canto

Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Lamott – Blue Shoe

Annie Proulx – The Shipping News

Audrey Niffenegger – The Time Traveler’s Wife

Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible

Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre

Chimamanda Ngochi Adechie – Americanah

Claire Messud – The Emperor’s Children

Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

Dara Horn – The World to Come

Denise Levertov – Selected Poems

Diane Setterfield – The Thirteenth Tale

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Edwidge Danticat – Breath, Eyes, Memory

Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Emily Dickenson – Complete Poems

Erica Jong – Fear of Flying

Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Isabel Allende – The House of the Spirits

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Jane Hirschfield – Given Sugar, Given Salt

Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear

Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking

Joanne Harris – Five Quarters of the Orange

Jodi Picoult – The Storyteller

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) – Out of Africa

Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins

Katherine Paterson – Bridge to Terabithia

Kathryn Stockett – The Help

Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate

Lilian Nattel – The River Midnight

Lisa See – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

Louise Erdrich – Love Medicine

Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle in Time

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Marge Piercy – He, She, and It

Chimamanda Ngochi Adechi

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – The Yearling

Mary Oliver – Devotions

Mary Renault – The Persian Boy

Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave

Maxine Hong Kingston – The Woman Warrior

Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Naomi Ragen – Sotah

Natalie Goldberg – Thunder and Lightning

Nicole Strauss – The History of Love

Paula McLain – Circling the Sun

Persia Woolley- Child of the Northern Spring

Rachel Kadish – The Weight of Ink

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers

Sandra Cisneros – The House on Mango Street

Sarah Dunant – In the Company of the Courtesan

Sue Monk Kidd – The Invention of Wings

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon

Ursula Hegi – Stones from the River

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Willa Cather – My Antonia

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

 

Painting: A Woman Writing a Letter by Johannes Vermeer

 

 

Silver Orbs

Tiptoeing between raindrops

Blessing every one of their

Silvery little orbs

Waiting for rain to pause

To rove among the wildflowers

Gathered on the hills in California

Golden, lavender, crimson buds

I will kneel before not to pick

But to embrace their lucence

Cradle the bowl of their petals

Manna between my palms

 

Capture now with camera lens

Tomorrow sketch in watercolors

Hoping that next winter

There will be raindrops to spare

Then dancing blossom heads

Of honey, plum, and scarlet hue

Roaming wild hills next spring

To stroll about their garden

We are all wanderers

Seeking earth, sun, clemency

The rain, the flowers, and I

 

Just a thought 67

 

Raindrop image courtesy Pixabay

California wildflower image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

This is not about the war between lovers of dogs or cats. It’s about Annika Perry, a talented writer who works like a cat.

A dog is all blubbery love smeared across your cheeks, a loyal paladin stationed stalwart by your side. Tongue lollygagging out of its jaw, tail flailing around like a pig in a muddy pit – you’re gonna be drowning in slobbery canine love in about five seconds. Or maybe a fangy foreign agent hired to attack: a German shepherd or English pit bull. Teeth bared and muzzle lowered –you better run. You always know where you stand with Rover.

But a cat – you can’t tell anything by looking at a cat. There it sits on the windowsill, licking its paw, indifferent to all things human – the tasty treats, the dangling mouse toy, the arms ready to cuddle it. Suddenly it pounces, its claws deep in your bicep leaving parallel bloody tracks or a snip of your skin flapping loosely as it samples your nose. And then sashays back to the windowsill to await its next victim. Go ahead, stick around, it could be you again, if you dare to get close enough. Silly you, thinking Puss loves ya.

I mention this because Annika Perry writes like a cat. There she sits at the window, chewing on the end of her pencil, watching the world go by. And if you are anywhere near her line of sight, she’s probably watching you. Observing you and all your little peccadilloes. Like the way you hold a letter that might seal your future, or how you sip wine while your mind is loitering elsewhere. How the March wind drives rain upwards, making an umbrella useless. How a bouquet of vibrant flowers devastates you with memories and also lights up your world. You didn’t know she was looking that closely, did you? That’s a cat for you – indifferent but all knowing.

At first glance, The Storyteller Speaks appears to be gentle family fare, tales written by a sweet faced, blue eyed lady who spends her time between Great Britain and Sweden, bearing candles and roses, taking photos, penning notes. It’s how she entices you to her book. I’ve read The Storyteller Speaks twice, the first time in order of presentation, the second in a meandering stroll through her poems and short stories.

If I attempt to review each of the twenty-one entries, I’ll over-report and do the book no justice. So I’m going to focus on a few tales that blew me away, as if driven by a sirocco out of the Sahara. This is important to remember, because like a cat, Perry sneaks up on you to lunge for your emotional jugular while you’re unaware she’s even in the room. She’s a keen observer of people, absorbing cultural details and body language.

Sofia! is about a little girl and her stuffed toy whose uncle takes her to visit the local zoo. It’s told through eyewitness accounts of zoo visitors and officials who answer Inspector Nunn’s questions.  Apparently the child, Sofia, has been kidnapped or gotten lost as the focus of each interrogation appears to be what has happened to the child. Perry escalates suspense as we wait to find out if Sofia is safe or remains lost or even perhaps is dead, our suspicion and concern for the little girl mounting with each witness. The final person interviewed is Marija, Sofia’s mother, to whom Nunn relates the awful conclusion of the story. A shred of flesh hangs from Perry’s claws.

At a Loose End is a sweet story, about the time of life when you want to make significant changes to accommodate a different economic reality and new opportunities. Some decisions need only a small alteration, an act not possible a few years earlier. But family wedges into the narrow spaces and – I won’t ruin the story for you. But I bet you’ll agree. It’s a rather sweet story, proving sometimes the cat just wants to sun herself on the sill.

Lasting Sanctuary is a shorter story but one that packs a twist worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. To encompass so much in a wisp of a tale, just a brief iteration of this cat’s nine lives, is brilliant.

My favorite story is The Whiteout Years, and I’ve read it four times. Out of the gate, it captivated me with passages as lyrical as this one when Carl is driving through a winter storm, remembering his wife, Karin:

A moment of total silence. With the windows down he sat and listened. He never failed to be awed by the silence, the odd rustle of snow falling gently to the ground from the laden fir trees. The odd animalistic sound deep in the forest, feral and prehistoric.

While this scene describes the landscape surrounding Carl, it also describes his isolation from the world. Lost in the snowdrift of his grief over his wife’s death, he is blinded by silence and whiteness and can’t move on with his life. The threat of Carl’s possible death looms throughout the story.

Annika Perry is a writer in tune with our deepest responses to the human condition, capturing the nuances of our psyche. Like an alert cat, she assesses carefully, knowing what to absorb for future use, how to convey realistic dialogue, which details will reveal more than the sum of their parts, and how to wind an unpredictable plot out of simple fare.

Unlike cats, Perry is respectful of people and all their foibles.

 

Image of cat courtesy of Pixabay