Sparked by Words

Archive for October, 2018

Sailor

A story isn’t a steel railroad track transporting the reader from Chapter One to The End, but an ocean with currents in constant movement below the surface. Readers sail on words that drift according to the force of the currents, not the lapping surface tension.

So do we writers adjust the sails of our ships to write the story of the essential journey lodged in the bowels of our hearts, the one hidden below the waves. The rudder thrusts through the sea of scenes, the keel maintains an upright status of the plot, the sun glints off the crests of conflicts, the words flow over and under the characters. Sometimes the boats capsize and sometimes they save us from the storm.

I am not a sailor but I’ve learned to command the ocean.

Still I know metaphors can only take you so far. There must be a story to the story or you drown in a sea of words.

 

 

Just a thought 54

 

Painting: Through Sea and Air, 1910, by Charles Napier Henry courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

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Make it Short, I Got a Plane to Catch

 

The contemporary reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with intriguing premise, significant character development, and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss into the maw of the paper shredder.

We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snob Hill Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just let dude take dudette to dinner.

Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.

One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a motivation, (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.

My most favorite first sentence is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the spirit of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.

One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery, and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety. I can hear Dickens sob.

(Of course we all know that Dickens made little attempt at brevity as he was paid by the word for his serialized stories that first appeared in a local newspaper. But that’s another story altogether.)

But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor,  knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with reading. Yet those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.

The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing your readers’ noggins. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more appealing. The concept may still endure in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”

Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there in the Internet. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”

We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our stories at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.

Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers best gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those remaining, then breaking the whole shebang into short reading bites. Suitable for reading between perusing emails and gobbling the free pretzel lunch. Try it – it can’t hurt.

 

Riding a Flying Carpet, 1880 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

 

The Minefield of Alzheimer’s

No one steps into the world of Alzheimer’s with aplomb and grace, knowing just what to do. We lurch into the minefield of a war without possibility of victory or truce, pleading for an advocate to help us avoid stepping on bombs. Then we find that only surrender is possible, only blood on the sleeve. Yet on the battlefield of this disease there is a way to dismantle the bombs.

 

We who are the family of those who suffer try to placate and offer solace, but we are also victims. There is no manual with step by step procedures. Yes, there is information, and you should avail yourself of all you can find. But it is likely to show a huge blank in just the area where you need advice, because the person we love is not a perfectly fitting cube in a bin.

 

If we are very, very lucky, one person steps up and says, “Let me help you find a safe way forward.” I had the comfort of that person’s presence, someone who showed me strategies for dealing with behaviors I didn’t understand and a parent I didn’t recognize, one who didn’t recognize me. Now I strive to be that person for others. I am no expert, not a professional in the field, but am good at directing. If you have questions, ask, please. I can show you the way.

 

You will still sob and raise your fists, you still won’t sleep at night. But you will bring joy to the person you love and sometimes you will both laugh. It will be those moments you live for.

The end is tragically assured but the journey is everything.

 

 

Just a thought 53

 

 

Image of aged woman courtesy Max Pixel

Image of aged man courtesy of Pixabay

 

A Little Break Here and There

We’re all just one small step from disaster.

Four years ago I attended Astronomy Night at my grandchildren’s elementary school. The outside lights were left off so the Orange County Astronomers who graciously set up their scopes in a field could count on enough darkness to view the constellated sky.

And see we did – our cratered moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, and constellations even I could name. Through telescopes big as sewer pipes (but clean and shiny) and hooked up to computers, we peered at the glitter of the night, wondering which of the stars still beamed and which had already burned out. What a thrill to see the Milky Way in such radiance.

I decided to return to the activity room where most of the kids had gone to make planet mobiles and glitter paintings of Saturn’s rings. Across the campus, the lit room directed where I wanted to go but not how to get there. So I trod in the dark and stepped onto the lunch quad. But the elevation of the quad was two inches lower than the sidewalk, a change I couldn’t see. I moved out, the expected tarmac wasn’t there, my body continued forward, my foot resisted. I heard a snap. A crack. I knew – I’d sprained my ankle.

Someone helped me hobble into the activity room, someone else got an ice pack. I sat in a chair as my leg swelled and hurt. The next day, Kaiser told me the good news – my ankle wasn’t sprained. It was broken, both bones in fact – tibia and fibula. A hairline fracture in one, a fingernail sized chip in the other, and the reason that my ankle now looked as big as a fish bowl, and I hurt.

The orthopedic physician offered me a choice: a cast (ugh!) or a clunky brace from toes to knees (OK) Three weeks of galumphing around with my brace and taking Advil on a regular schedule, then another six months or so of aches, and I was ready to go back to the gymnastics team. (Oh sure.) Note of comfort: a big brace with internal metal reinforcement gets you through a special airport security entrance and early boarding on the plane. (Yay!)

Two years later I walked out of the building where my mom lived. Late afternoon the parking lot was shady – until I stepped off a shallow curb and the sun, hiding behind a hill only milliseconds before, now played peek a boo and shined right in my eyes – as I was mid-step.

I will never forget pitching forward, knowing exactly how awkwardly my body leaned, knowing there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to catch my fall but the street. Which it finally did. I landed on my right elbow. I realized I could wait splayed on the ground in that long driveway, that someone would eventually come along and help. I could also tell I was going into shock, and I’d better help myself. It’s possible to lift yourself from supine to standing with only one good arm, the other one screaming in distress. I know because I did it, then struggled to stay upright to get to the door.

As soon as I entered I knew – I was in big trouble. I was soaked with sweat, trembling, near to fainting, and in pain, the kind that sends tsunami crests of agony surging through your body. I knew it wasn’t serious – not like a heart attack or a stroke. It wasn’t enough of an injury to let me go to the head of the emergency line at the hospital once I got there. But I scared everyone at the facility – I could tell by the anxiety on their faces that I looked like I’d been dragged off the pavement after an accident. Well, yes.

They called an ambulance – no, I couldn’t drive myself. Lucky for me (I’m such a lucky girl even if I am a klutz,) Kaiser has a first rate hospital only twenty minutes from where I was. The ambulance ride, however, took me over unpaved outback to get there, and every bump and jiggle, every damned bump and jiggle, reminded me that I hurt. Even though we drove on the newly paved freeway. Poor ambulance attendant kept apologizing. (BTW, is it a rule that paramedics must be adorably handsome?)

Once in emergency, my arm swelled to the size of a football. No, this part I’m not exaggerating. A slew of X-rays, me just about landing on the floor – good grief, how could I stand and hold my arm in so many positions when it was broken and the only position I could hold it in was OWIE? – proved what everyone suspected. I’d dislocated my elbow. It was supposed to hang by my side but it was poking out to Nevada in a million little pieces and one giant hump. A camel’s back on my arm.

My sweet nurse told me she didn’t believe anyone should suffer with pain no matter how much of a klutz she’d been. Along with a flu shot (how handy!) and enough pain meds to make me mumble word fluff, everything began to get woozy. Suddenly my little emergency bay was full of smiling folks who gathered around and grabbed me from every limb and held me down. They popped the elbow back into place. Sorta close, anyway. Remember the smiling faces? And the sweet nurse with her pain meds? I didn’t feel them pop it back so I smiled too. Loose-mouthed goofily, I’m sure.

They wrapped me in gauze from fingers to shoulder and sent me home with my son (my husband was out of town.) They gave me lots of narcotics, (took fewer than I should have) antibiotics, and pain meds. I struggled to bathe, wash my hair (went every three days to a salon) to do all the things we should do – but I mostly didn’t. For months I couldn’t sleep lying down, so my husband thrust two enormous sofa pillows under the bed and I slept half sitting up.

Exactly one week later, a hand surgeon (Dr. Lee is an amazing orthopedic surgeon) spent four hours, first slicing my arm open seven inches to reach the damage: humerus, radius, ulna, all of them crushed, some bits floating, as well as two torn ligaments, don’t know how many tendons, and a torn nerve. (Good grief!)  Dr. Lee put this Humpty egg back together –and popped in a three-inch-long stainless steel plate butting up to my elbow and a titanium plug to hold me altogether. Still there. You can see them poking under my skin. Dr. Lee told me I would regain about 90% of my arm use.

He didn’t know me.

I was diligent about the physical therapy, started two weeks after my surgery. Every single day for the next three months I did three rounds of specific exercises followed by ice packs and then warm wraps. One round took one and a half or two hours. Physical therapy is all I did – and watched The Golden Girls as I worked out. (Lost fourteen pounds – yay!)

After six weeks when Dr. Lee saw me again, he exclaimed about where my cast was  because I hadn’t brought it. I still couldn’t drive but I’d ditched the cast for a thick removable brace to support my arm. And then I showed him what a truly outstanding surgeon he is – I had about 97% use of my arm and only a dull ache. Today, I have 99% arm use.

It was more than a year before I could sleep without being cradled by five pillows or function without any pain. I’ve regained nearly all of my flexibility, can paint and type again. At neither slip off the curbs did I hit my head, suffer a back or neck injury, lose consciousness (came close, though) or knock out my teeth. I don’t have a chronic debilitating condition or a terminal illness. I don’t walk with a limp or write left handed anymore (had to do that for about eight weeks) even though I’m a righty.

I succumbed to the dark, then was blinded by the light. The moment of blackness that should have explained the mysteries of the universe, the instance of illumination that should have let me see everything in my path, caused two injuries. I have been just one small step from disaster but now I am fine – and very, very lucky.

Today I watch very carefully where I walk.

 

Detail of The Starry Night, 1889, by Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Words More or Less

First word a child learns:

 

Mama.

Then dada.

Then no. Why. So big.

How come. Go now.

Pick me up. You do it.

I do it.

Play with me.

I love you.

 

Not a bad vocabulary for learning how to get along in the world.

Maybe the grownups should speak less.

Listen more. Share the cookies.

Love better.

Too many words, too much taking.

What have we got to lose?

 

Everything.

We’ve got everything to lose.

Especially our children,

And their future.

 

 

Just a thought 52.

 

Painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885, by John Singer Sargent, courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

Plumeria

 

Our family moved from yellow-skied New Jersey in the late 1950s to a Honolulu suburb. My dad planted a small plumeria tree with white and yellow blossoms. It shaded a bathtub-sized pond in the front yard of our Aina Haina house. Five goldfish lived there, darting near the lava rock edges. One was a bug-eyed black molly, the other four were orange or orange with patches of black and white. Paradise isn’t where you find it. It’s where you make it.

If I opened the front door, the fish ignored me, even if I perched on the miniature waterfall to watch them swim. If I opened the sliding door immediately adjacent to the front door, the fish gathered at the surface in the center of the pond. They wriggled their tails and bubbled their enthusiasm. They’d learned to respond to the screech of the slider, and waited for me to feed them. The fish never tired of this trick and I never forgot how to play.

Many years after we moved to California, my parents built their dream house on a hill in the heartland of Orange County. Dad planted a small plumeria stalk in the yard with a view to the Pacific. A view to Hawaii, if you could see that far. I think he could.

Unlawful at the time to bring them to the mainland, he’d smuggled a foot long stalk in his jacket and flew it to California, beloved contraband for his garden. Twenty-five years later, it had grown as big as a school bus, a glorious sovereign of the yard. She graced us with thousands of coral pink blossoms, fragrance to make us drunk, and beauty to shame the roses.

My sons played in the shade of the tree and collected fallen blossoms.  They grew and the tree grew and our family grew and changed, as families do.

The house is long sold, my father long passed. One of my sweetest mementoes is the lei he strung for me of those pink plumeria blossoms, the only lei my dad ever gave me. I wore it for a week until the petals drooped on their string. Now it’s a dried bundle in a ceramic pitcher. If I touch the browned and brittle leaves, they break off in chips. Neither tape nor glue can repair my clumsiness. I’ve learned to look but not touch.

The new owners of the Orange County house cut down the pink plumeria tree. Fools. It couldn’t have possibly interfered with their view of Hawaii. You must have imagination to see that far.

Writing is as much fabrication as memory. This story is true. As for my other stories, you’ll have to guess. I never tire of keeping secrets.

 

Photograph of plumeria flowers courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

Buttercup

I work hard to corral the horses before they stampede.

Still, someone asks, “How did the buttercup escape?”

I turn to see a hoof crush a flower.

Yellow stains on my hands, I crumple and weep.

 

Just a thought 51

 

Photograph of buttercups courtesy Pixabay