Sparked by Words

Archive for May, 2018

3-Day Quote Challenge #2

My dear friend, Sarah, brilliant innovator over at Art Expedition

tagged me to participate in the

3-Day Quote Challenge

Thank you, Sarah, for thinking me worthy of this honor and hoping I have inspiring quotes to share.

For my second entry in the Quote Challenge, I want to highlight two of my favorite lines from writers. This was much harder than it might seem because both the quotes I’ve chosen are meaningful to me, yet so are a thousand others. Narrowing down to two quotes I could expand upon within the context of my own trials at writing made me search, think, choose, and do it all over again for the whole week before making my final choices. It’s why I wanted to put off completing this task to once a week for three weeks in a row rather than the three days in a row the challenge requests.

To begin, I chose Julian Barnes’ line from The Sense of an Ending, which describes the job of an astute observer.

“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

I encourage you to read Barnes’ book because it’s an opus on how consciously we might live, especially if we realized before setting out in arrogant confidence that we know everything when we don’t get it whatsoever. Barnes manages to write in only 163 pages how much we squander of our life when seeing nothing important.

As an individual line, Barnes’ charges me to choose with discretion the parts of each story I write. Elimination is as essential as inclusion, and knowing which small gesture will illuminate a moment to carry the reader through is key. It’s also something I often miss on first draft. Second draft. Third. If I don’t get it by the fourth draft, I begin to suspect I can’t write, and this haunts me. I know I’m a decent writer, but a brilliant one? Not likely. I fumble.

In one exquisite line, Julian Barnes captured the golden moment of his story. I was touched so deeply by this line that it’s stayed with me since I read the book. It continues to imbue me with the effort to identify what is imperative – then to tell that story.

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. Her poetry kneels down and picks up clods of earth, not packed in a cup, but sifting through her fingers. She doesn’t write in curlicues meant to distract. Rather she searches for the visceral essence of life and pulls out the heart still beating. Then makes us look – smell – breathe – feel. We understand.

I’ve always believed poetry must be read aloud in order to internalize it. Oliver’s poetry crawls into my bones, waits quietly, whispers to me. She speaks in dulcet tones. From her poem, Evidence, this is what she says:

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Story should pry open our eyes and twist moments till, like a mobius strip, we trace the inevitable connection. If we want to read only the recorded facts, that’s a history or science book, not a work of poetry. Or fiction. The unimaginable drifts in, exposes sinews of flesh and flecks of silver, and reveals the thorns of truth through the shimmer in the water. What Oliver shows us is the wonder of life, life everywhere, innocently finding its flock and its children and its season. Not to be best or first or most, just to be.

We are taught in school to make an assessment, take note of all the details, write down names and dates, and be accurate in descriptions. But nowhere do we measure the movement of things once there, now absent but not wholly gone. I get caught up in the illusion of accuracy, minding my dates and maps, but they aren’t the important parts of story. Anyone can write technical notes.

It’s catching the remnant of energy that matters.

Julian Barnes and Mary Oliver suggest the kind of writing I want to effect. To share the memory more dimensional than history, the parcel of earth more life affirming than its problems. I want readers to grasp what I hold when my hand is empty, what I see when my eyes are closed.

In those tiny pulses of what is no longer there is something worth telling in a story.

 

 

Image courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

 

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Blowing Up the Market

J.K. Rowling blew up the book market. The Harry Potter series has been read by gazillions of people in a million languages all over the world and on Mars.

She knew her genre – fantasy – and she knew who she was writing for – middle grade readers. In other words, elaborate fairy tales for children. She worked damned hard and was incredibly lucky, lucky, lucky.*

*If you don’t believe Rowling was lucky, talk to Vincent Van Gogh who sold one painting in his life, lived in poverty, and suffered from mental illness as well as disdain from just about everyone. Today his paintings sell for millions, but he benefits not one bit.

Do not count on becoming the next J.K. Rowling. You’re a guaranteed failure if you do. Write the best book you can. Know your genre and your intended audience. Even if you self publish, you need to know those two aspects of your story or you have no chance of marketing.

And if you have no chance of marketing, you might just as well write on napkins in a coffee shop and give Mom the whole packet when you’re done. At least she’ll be able to sop up your tears.

Be as inventive as your imagination and skill will allow you when writing. When marketing, you must trek the potholed path because you can’t count on being J.K. Rowling. Even she couldn’t count on success. She queried twelve publishers before being accepted by Bloomsbury.

Work damn hard, write well, know your genre, identify your intended readers, query till your computer bleeds, and you might get incredibly lucky, become published, and sell a few dozen books.

Now you can autograph a real book for Mom.

Dear Mom,

Thanks for believing in me.

Love,

Your kid the writer.

 

Just a Thought 38

 

Painting Spirit of the Night, 1879, by John Atkinson Grimshaw, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

3-Day Quote Challenge, #1

My dear friend, Sarah, brilliant innovator over at Art Expedition

tagged me to participate in the

3-Day Quote Challenge

Thank you, Sarah, for thinking me worthy of this honor and trusting I have inspiring quotes to share.

So I will begin with a quote from my two-year-old granddaughter, Tessa, because nothing convinces me more that it’s worthwhile to get up each morning than the promise of talking with her, her brother, or her two cousins.

A bit of background about Tessa. First of all, Tessa isn’t her real name. Being so young and unable to comprehend privacy, I’ve changed her name and the names of all the children in this article. It’s OK to put myself out there but I don’t have the right to expose these little ones. Everything else, however, is true.

Tessa is learning to talk and she’s both friendly and willing to try out her new communication skills with everyone. Her usual introduction is to look you in the eye and say,

“I Tessa. I two.”

She holds up the index finger of one hand, then the pointer finger. But that dang little pointer finger drags her middle finger along for the ride, and three fingers now declare her age (incorrectly) so she uses her other hand to hold down the rebellious middle finger. Victorious, she shows two fingers to match her age.

Tessa teaches as much as she learns every day. How to welcome the audacity to try new things. How to step up and do what the big kids do, or at least what her big brother does. How to screech with glee over each little effort and every single event because why wait for something out of the ordinary when the whole world blooms extraordinary? Her shadow stretched to challenge giants, her hands poised to paint, her mouth eager to taste, Tessa embraces adventure.

I’ve lost the capacity to be as thunderstruck as Tessa, but I am a rebel through and through. I’m supposed to post a favorite quote once a day for three days in a row, and nominate three fellow bloggers each day. I’m going to post one quote, except today it will be six, once a week for three weeks. If you are so inclined, please join in this 3-Day Quote Challenge and invite yourself to participate. Figuratively I hold up that rebellious middle finger but it means something a bit different from adorable Tessa’s intent. Yeah, you’ve likely figured it out.

My next favorite quote is from her big brother, Callan, who is four. Callan’s vocabulary is enormous and he puts a lot of thought into his presence on Earth. On his third birthday, he reached milestone after milestone, becoming a big kid before everyone’s eyes. He petted a mouse at the pet store, ate all the frosting off his birthday cake but none of the cake, had a snowball fight, planted flowers in the garden, and pooped and peed in the big toilet for the first time. That’s as good as traveling to the moon and back when you’ve just turned three. He got very serious and said,

“I’m Callan right now. When I grow up, will I still be Callan?”

Yes, you will, Callan. Only older, more thoughtful, still bursting with the enthusiasm to take on the world, one adventure after another. Then he exclaimed,

“Marvelous…simply marvelous.”

With you in the world, Callan, the whole world is indeed marvelous. I’m trying to help keep the world safe for you, beautiful for you, healthy for you. Because you and all other children deserve a good and decent world to live in, that you may grow up and be who you choose to be – Lego builder, rocket man, artist, train conductor, scientist, thinker, leader, gardener.

My sparkling and articulate granddaughter Lila, who’s now ten, makes every stranger her friend, inviting them to share her joy at marching in the local Fourth of July parade with pom pom headbands she made for her entire Girl Scout troop, or to a giggle-filled sleep over in the bonus room. When she was four, after I ran out of pennies playing dreidle, she pushed half her pile to me. Winning wasn’t important, playing was, and always with her ingratiating smile.

She exhibited her comprehension skills when she was only six. It was the end of kindergarten and the whole summer lay before her like a horizon on the move. First, though, I wanted to inspect her school packet, a notebook with entries for each unit studied. Kids these days study topics I didn’t encounter until college, so when I saw the Mayflower she’d cut and pasted on blue paper, I felt comfortable asking her to tell me about it. Eagerly Lila said,

“It’s a picture of the Titanic that left China to go across the Pacific and land on bedrock because the king wouldn’t let them go to church.”

This child understands history and its implications on the current political situation. I wish I had her zestful ambassadorial skill. Thankfully, she isn’t allowed to Tweet. Yet.

My first grandchild is Adam, and at twelve he bears his responsibility as The Oldest with sensitivity and dignity.  He patiently mentors the younger children who adore him. For two years he served as his sister’s secret friend, leaving notes so she would still believe in fairies. Grace resides in this child’s soul. Someone you love having by your side, he comes home from the first day of school, from a Boy Scout meeting, or a day at the zoo, from working at a park clean up, from just about everything, and says,

“This was the best day ever.”

At the recent death of his great-grandmother, he was devastated when, after hearing the adults in our family share our memories of her, he realized he had never known her when she was healthy, before Alzheimer’s disease stole her mind. It shook him mightily to grasp that the great-grandmother he’d known was a very different person only ten years before he met her. But he loved her dearly.

Adam, you are appreciative and gracious every day of your life. You have wisdom beyond your years. I wish I had half your ability to wrap yourself in the joy of each occasion yet still be empathetic with the sorrows of the world.

I explained the meaning of a prayer when Adam was about eight and asked if he knew what the word “amen” meant. He answered,

“In political terms, ‘End of message.’”

My grandchildren remind me how wonderful it is to be alive. End of message.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photos from Pratt Family archives. No permission given to use these photos.

 

 

 

 

 

A New Eden

Words might inspire but

no value befalls without action, nor

nor do all the hovering words in

all the languages of the world

speak nearly as well as

digging the shovel into the ground

that seeds can be planted,

for inspiration lasts only as long as

one shower, water enhancing

the sensation imagined,

yet imagination lasts only as long as

one stands under the trickling drops,

wondering when to turn off the water,

exit the shower to recall the

thoughts made brilliant by heat,

echoes, and dampness,

then to tease out the single line

worthy of writing to begin

to plant story, that in time

the bounty can be harvested,

a table set for celebration, and

seeds poured left hand to right,

right hand to left, and back again,

water trickling down and down,

prodigal with promise of food, drink,

ideas to discuss, to plot, to invest,

and dreams to nurture,

vowing more words to rise

before the season of bounty ends,

then to consider from where

the seeds first had come,

who the first planter,

who the gardener, and who the one

who labored long to harvest,

and would seeds appear once more

or take flight forever,

or in a moment of serendipity

bequeath the legacy of

a passion for inventing,

a trove of readers,

a yield of love,

that you and I might one day

decide to grow our garden

and plant our seeds and pray

for rainfall, sunshine, fortune,

then welcome all to the feast

of words gathered from Eden,

hoping to leave the miraculous

breath of curiosity that might inspire

you and you and you and you

with words that tell a story

amen yes amen

 

Just a Thought 37

 

Wheat Field by Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

From Art Caves to Alzheimer’s

 

This is the story of how a book about World War II sealed the friendship between me and the woman who gave me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go?

It begins with The Caves of Perigord by Martin Walker. I read it because it describes some of the prehistoric cave art discovered in France, a topic this artist and art teacher has always found fascinating. The exquisite shard of ancient art is only a part of the story, as the novel reveals the dangerous work of the French Resistance during World War II. When I finished the book I gave it to my friend, Madeleine Nussen.

I was a novice Hebrew teacher, barely two weeks ahead of the kids in skills. Madeleine was experienced and fluent at the same temple school, and she graciously mentored me when I got stuck, which was about once a class. After she read the book, she told me something I hadn’t known.

The book tells in part how the Nazis forced French citizens to sit on the front and top of reinforcement and supply trains in order to deter the French Resistance from bombing them as the invaders subjugated France. Allowing the trains to pass meant a more likely victory for the Nazis, but sabotaging the trains meant certain death for those who rode the trains as hostages.

Madeleine quietly relayed her personal story when she returned the book. She was a Holocaust survivor, her father a fighter with the Resistance. At least once, teenage Madeleine sat on the actual train, exposed and vulnerable. Her father saw her and did not bomb the train.

I knew of course the historical foundation of the book. But that moment when she described her part as a hostage, the enemy trains stormed around us. The wind roared like a cyclone, the acrid steam burned my face. A story that would have made me screech in fury, she relayed with her trademark composed dignity.

A few years later the temple held a dinner my husband and I attended with my parents. My father had quietly told me a family secret I was forbidden to share. I kept the promise. My mother, always a gregarious showstopper, made instant friends with the four other guests at our table, which included Madeleine. My mom loved the limelight and the event gave her the chance to perform. Mom chattered as deftly as if holding court, the other guests enchanted by her. My father expressed irritation after a while, and mom quieted down.

Months later, I noticed Madeleine looking weary, an emotion she rarely conveyed. When I asked if everything was OK, she told me about her beloved husband, also a Holocaust survivor and a renowned cantor. Now he was living in a facility for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, losing more and more of his identity and sense of presence every day. Madeleine was devastated because his most recent decline meant he no longer knew who she was – nor who he was. The Nazis had not defeated him, but his illness had.

It must have been because of Madeleine’s dignity that I felt comfortable enough to tell her my secret, despite my promise. “My mom has Alzheimer’s.”

“I know,” Madeleine said.

In the hallowed quiet between us, I realized she had spotted my mom’s illness at the dinner party. What my father and I thought was hidden as long as we told no one, was easily detected by Madeleine with her long experience in dealing with her husband’s disease.

Over the next years, Madeleine was a willing listener to my concerns and worries. Sometimes she gave great advice. Sometimes she just listened and let me vent my frustration, confusion, and rage. Always, she was a friend who kept my confidence and my mother’s secret.

My dad died nine years ago, my mom’s disease still so well hidden that some family members didn’t detect it. At his death, it became obvious that mom could not live at home, and I made the heartbreaking decision to place her in a memory care residence.

I regret my action every day of my life because it forced my mother out of her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean into a locked facility. There was no other way to keep her safe, to have her needs met 24-7 by a compassionate, professional staff.

I was already writing novels long before my dad passed, but my stories had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s. It took all my strength to deal with my mom’s mutable and fractured condition. I often drove to the residence in tears, knowing the woman I headed to visit was losing parts of herself as if she were a pillow ripped open, feathers strewn to the heavens. I often drove home sobbing about how the disease attacked my mom and left her tattered. I was too close to the volatile situation to be able to write about it, so I never tried.

Madeleine passed away about three years ago. Her death was painful for her family and friends, her loss palpable as a burn on flesh.

About two years ago I realized I knew more than many other people who needed, sometimes desperately, to find a safe place for mom or dad or husband or wife to live. Their loved ones who suffered with Alzheimer’s. I consoled, gave advice, and listened to the newbies, all of them wondering if they had made the right and the best decision.

Eventually I thought of Madeleine’s courage. A survivor of the Holocaust who had started her life again in a new country, a loving daughter, wife, and mother, a talented musician, a gifted teacher, and a compassionate confidante, she modeled for me that not only could I tell this story, I could show that living with this disease is miserable but possible. That being an involved advocate for the one you love is more important than making the perfect choice because there is no perfect choice.

Madeleine never knew I wrote a story about Alzheimer’s, but without her friendship I might not have done so.

Madeleine Nussen, zt’l. May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing. Thank you for giving me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go? I miss you but I carry you in my heart.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited. Then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Prehistoric art, Bison, Altamira Cave in Spain, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

 

Tell Me a Story

Every work of fiction requires of the reader a suspension of disbelief somewhere along the trajectory of the story. Otherwise it would not be fiction.

Like the Golden Gate, fiction bridges one realm to another. In this case, imagination to story, reality to lies.

To be successful at constructing the lies, first know what truths you are wrecking. Research, study, learn, then depart. Daydream a while. Nightdream too.

Stand outside in the dark and look up at the stars. Know they are not there, and not aligned to form shapes and signs. That’s all a part of manmade interpretation, begun eons ago to make sense of the unknown. To imbue mercy over savagery. To offer future from despair.

Even without letters, even without language, the first humans saw story in the heavens and danced it around the fire at night, telling the clan. Animals, danger, flight, love, children, hunger, death. Auweh!

Write. Write some truth. Write some lies.

How well you entice your readers despite your lies marks how talented a writer you are. Readers must forgive your fiction.

Write well, and they will savor your work and you will be asked to return.

To write more lies. To make sense of the unknown. That’s the nature of fiction.

 

Just a thought 36

 

Image prehistoric Native American pictograph, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

Measuring Devices

Depending on perspective, I’m a total failure or a remarkable success.

I never completed my master’s program (studio art) but earned a bachelor’s degree (creative writing) and more than 60 units beyond. My marriage was often rocky and miserable (for both of us) but we just celebrated our 46th anniversary. Though I’m not a great artist, I worked three years in a commercial studio (sapped my soul) and was an outstanding art teacher for nearly three decades. We don’t travel often but have spent hours in the company of our four grandchildren who show us worlds we never imagined. Our bank account is small, our house needs repair, our cars are old, but everywhere I go, I meet friends.

Books and blogs that teach writing skills order us to sit our ass in the chair and write. To get the story done. They admonish that for many people the book never gets to The End. I’m not published (yet!) but have written three children’s books, three adult novels, and am working on the fourth. That’s a barge of queries, of failures and rejections, and of one serendipitous acceptance letter looming in my future, but six books completed. Finished. Done. The End.

Each sentence I write is the best I can scrape from my marrow but someone else has written a more lyrical line. Every character I imagine conveys a power the whole world recognizes as universal truth but another author has written a better story. My sons nod at my achievements but a stranger stands at the podium and autographs the front page of her published book.

The Pulitzer committee isn’t waiting for me. Not for me.

I’ve a long way to go but I know I’ll get there because I’ve already trudged up the rugged path called Effort and stood at the top of the wilderness called Merit. Up here the wind blows hard, trying to knock me over, to see the word Fail graffitied on the boulder under my feet.   I don’t look down where the view makes me dizzy. I gaze toward the horizon which has no end and squint to see the command Succeed puffed in clouds.

You measure me in years or miles or finish lines or trophies. I measure myself in chapters and plots and titles and revisions.

You don’t know my name. One day you may. One day you will.

I am Sharon Lynne Bonin-Pratt. I’ve written a book or two.

 

 

Image courtesy Pixabay