Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘writer’s life’ Category

Born in a Treacherous Time

I’ve been looking forward to the publication of  Born in a Treacherous Time by Jacqui Murray. Not just because she’s a good friend but also because I’ve had the privilege of reading part of the book and was captivated by it.

It’s the story of Lucy, a Homo habilis woman who struggles to survive in prehistoric Africa when volcanoes erupted without warning, animals attacked from every region, and waking each morning was not guaranteed. She faces challenges that force her to use her physical prowess as well as her mental skills, sometimes trying to convince the members of her tribe that she has solutions that may protect them.

Murray employs interesting characters living in a challenging time who face obstacles from surviving the daunting environment to grasping moral dilemmas. Her description of this prehistoric era puts the reader into the period when Earth was dangerous and beautiful, the very nebula of human development, and a moment of precipitous change.

I had a chance to talk with Jacqui about her newest book, asking questions she was generous in answering. Following is the interview.

 

Thank you, Jacqui, for agreeing to take the time to discuss your newest book, Born in a Treacherous Time .What one characteristic would you say allowed Lucy to survive in a world populated with saber-toothed cats, violent volcanoes, and predatory species who liked to eat man?

 

Really, with our thin skin, dull teeth, and tiny claws (aka fingernails), Lucy had no right to survive against the thick-skinned mammoth or tearing claws of the great cats of that time. But we did. The biggest reason: Even then, Lucy was a problem solver. She faced crises and came up with solutions. Where most animals spent their time eating and sleeping, Lucy had time left over. This, she used to solve problems.

To me, that thoughtful approach to living, one no other animal exhibits, is why we came to rule the planet.

 

How do you differentiate Lucy (the book’s main character) from the folks who probably led to her species’ extinction?

 

Homo habilis (Lucy) was a brilliant creature, worthy of our respect and admiration, but probably too kind for the next iteration of man, Homo erectus. Lucy would rather flee than fight, didn’t kill even to eat, and didn’t create offensive weapons. As a result, her first line of defense was flight.

But, in this story, you see evolution at work. Lucy does what she must to survive, even if it ultimately means killing.

 

We know Lucy’s species, Homo habilis, died out about the time of this story (1.8 million years ago). Is this story dystopian—meaning Lucy loses in the end?

 

Homo erectus (Lucy’s arch enemy) was a violent species of man. Their skulls were significantly thicker than Homo habilis–a sign that they got beat about the head often and survived. He routinely kills to survive, thinks nothing about that strategy, but I leave it open whether Lucy’s species ‘evolved’ into this more robust species or was replaced by them. We just don’t know.

 

I have to mention how compelling the book cover is.

 

Thank you. The artist fulfilled my hopes.

 

This excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews:

Murray’s lean prose is steeped in the characters’ brutal worldview, which lends a delightful otherness to the narration …The book’s plot is similar in key ways to other works in the genre, particularly Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. However, Murray weaves a taut, compelling narrative, building her story on timeless human concerns of survival, acceptance, and fear of the unknown. Even if readers have a general sense of where the plot is going, they’ll still find the specific twists and revelations to be highly entertaining throughout.

A well-executed tale of early man.

 

I hope this article has excited you to read Jacqui Murray’s Born in a Treacherous Time.

 

Book information:

Title: Born in a Treacherous Time

Series: Book 1 in Man vs. Nature collection

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Cover by: Damonza 

Available at: Kindle US, Kindle UK, Kindle Canada

 

 

 

Advertisements

Go You or I

Ninety-nine point nine percent of all the people in the world are exactly the same. Exactly. We are more kin than stranger. We are more alike than different. We share more than we own. The infinitesimal difference between us is nothing much at all, and is often due more to luck than intent.

No, it isn’t because of all the wonderful things we’ve individually accomplished to make ourselves uniquely special. It isn’t because we’ve worked so diligently that we’ve earned our blessings. It’s just blind luck.

As blind as justice that lets most criminals escape and most victims suffer without relief and many innocent bear the weight of the true criminal. As blind as the man dragging his fingers along the wall that keeps him out before he realizes it’s a barrier to keep him from falling into a chasm. As blind as the baby in the womb who can’t see his mother’s face yet trusts that the salty sea will continue to nourish until he’s pulled into a dry embrace that feels aberrant . Until he is calmed by those arms, those breasts, those noises so unlike the lu-DUB lu-DUB he’d found his first salve, and falls asleep to his new comfort.

We all need and want, dream and aspire. You the limelight, her the career, him the acknowledgement, them the community, me the opportunity. Really, no more a difference than a wooden plaque or bronze statue.

And after the applause or the star on the chart, all we really want is to be loved.

Someone who gets us and gives to us, who wants to be near us in body and thought, to hear our voice the last sound at night, to say our name first thing in the morning , to share our vision and argue about what that might be. To hold our hand when we worry, cool our head when we fever, weep with us over our failures, and admonish us when we step out of line.

It’s because we are loved – because YOU are loved, that I want to say to you: The path has few markers we can see, the cheers never last until dawn, the shelf on which the trophy sits gets dusty faster than we can earn another. None of that matters as much as that you are here in the world. And that someone loves you.

When you fear the ache, when you despise the dark hole, when doubt makes you nauseous, when you believe that one more moment is unbearable, reach out. The despair is temporary. The flesh burn heals. The tumult in your soul calms. Call someone and talk. Call me and I’ll listen. Put out your hand, we’ll grab hold and not let go.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of all the people in the world are exactly the same.

Except one of those people loves you. Do not forget nor forsake the one who loves you. For if that momentary relief by rope or pill or bullet or knife removes the pain from your heart, it empties the pain into the one who loves you. And it stays forever in their marrow, as long as they live. Their tears never dry, they wonder always if they were the reason, they search every frontier trying to find the explanation. Trying to bring you back. Trying to remind you that they miss you and need you.

We are all saddened and shocked by the suicides last week of two remarkably talented and admired superstars. Heroes who brought us the world and brought the world to our door. As much as we, their fans and supporters, miss them and wonder what crucial need we didn’t fill on their behalf, it is the two young daughters left behind who will bear the weight of their absences.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of all the people in the world are exactly the same. But those young girls are unique and different. They were your point one percent. I wish you’d lingered over their pictures one millisecond longer because I bet you would have reconsidered your actions. I bet you would still be here. Please do not let your permanent solution be their permanent grief.

There but for fortune, may go you or I.

 

The title words Go You or I are borrowed from the song There But for Fortune written by Phil Ochs in 1964. He was a brilliant and sensitive man who suffered from mental instability and succumbed to his despair by committing suicide in 1976. Before that, Phil Ochs left a legacy of hundreds of songs about the many social and political issues that brought him to grief. His work has been sung by dozens of famous recording artists and is on the lips of the millions of us who remember him and hope he knows we still praise the man who helped make us aware of the rest of the world.

 

Weeping Nude, 1914, by Edvard Munch

 

 

 

3 Day Quote Challenge #3

 

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.

At university and afterward at supplemental lectures and classes, and from many writing books, I’ve worked at learning the craft of writing. I’ve participated in writing critique groups, helping other emerging writers as they hone their skills, and heard authors talk about their journeys to getting published. Each has taught me something worth deliberating over and remembering.

I’ve also been fortunate to be a “long distance” student to two women whose books have nurtured me with their passionate writing.

One of these teachers is Natalie Goldberg, who wrote Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft. From this book are these words:

 

Writing practice taught us how to contact ourselves. Now our job, our responsibility, is to contact what’s in front of us – the photo, the story, the place – and to hand that moment of contact, that merging of two presences, over to the reader.

 

Like many people, my love of writing showed up young, by my first years of elementary school. But I wasn’t a writer yet. I was a kid who could write a few sentences well, a couple of stories considered beyond my grade level. None of them made me a writer. Paying attention to the metronomic pulse around me, to the tiny movements of other people, and working at writing them in ways that reveal the concentric waves that eventually circle the Earth – that is what I do to become a writer. I practice and revise, like all of you. One day, one day you will be able to read my words in print, because I practiced and I learned.

Natalie Goldberg was one of my teachers.

 

Is there anyone who has not read the work of Maya Angelou? Is there anyone who has not been transformed? From pain and fear, from violence and ugliness, she found a voice and she gored everyone with her words. She woke us to rage and rocked us to sleep. You cannot do this to me, you cannot hurt me, I am someone who counts, this is my world as well as yours. That’s what I hear when I read her words.

 

Following is part of her poem A Brave and Startling Truth, written for the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations and read by Angelou at the ceremony in 1995. I cannot read this poem without hearing her sonorous and confident voice, she who was as a small child cowed into silence by a horrific act of violence. But now she has a voice:

 

It is possible and imperative that we discover

A brave and startling truth…

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

That is when, and only when

We come to it.

 

In only 46 words she identified the truth we must find. Love is what she means, a love free of hatred, the only thing that can save us from death, the only thing to bring us peace. It is meant for all of us to hear, for all of us to benefit from.

We humans search for love but the object of our desire may be unique to each of us. A career to give us focus, a calling to give us a sense of worth, a lover to give us solace, a child to give our life meaning, a cause to benefit others. It may be our life’s challenge to find such to love or it may be a challenge to recognize it was there all along. Revealing these quests in the stories we write tests our strengths as writers.

Maya Angelou was one of my teachers.

 

A few times in my life I’ve felt a glimmer of success. The ordinary spotlight moments in school:  the lead role in the school play, a relay race in seventh grade, a medal for an art project, a solo in a ballet, an A in math, an honor in English class, an award at a speech competition.  Later the glow stemmed from relationships build with friends and colleagues, advances at work, opportunities take a lead position on a project.

Even more, my heart still pounds when thinking about meeting the man I would marry, the birth of my sons, helping them grow up, applauding them for their momentous life achievements, standing by their sides at their weddings and waiting in the wings at the births of their children. And even the failures that still give me nightmares and make me angry: losing a job  unfairly, the end of a long friendship because we’d both changed too much, weeping over the deaths of too many people I love, rage over the injustice in the world.

You may wonder what all those events have to do with these two quotes. Everything is the answer. I’ve lived, and I’ve learned to convey those moments in my writing. I’m learning to merge two presences – the experiences I’ve lived and the words I write – into a story that reveals a truth.

From a masterful writing teacher and writer to a master writer and poet, these two quotes are bookends to consummate storytelling. One day, one day you will be able to read my words in print, because I practiced and I learned.

You two women have taught me well. I am learning, thank you, I am learning.

 

The Young Student, 1894, by Ozias Leduc, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Maya Angelou courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Natalie Goldberg courtesy Creative Commons

 

Muse

If you don’t stop agitating me, I’ll start writing a new book, and you will be in it, but you might not like the way I portray you.

If you console me and press a sharpened new pencil into my hand, you will be in the book even if you don’t recognize yourself. Still you will be there.

Know you must stand by my side and make me write. Your destiny and mine.

Such is the casualty once my trembling has stopped.

 

 

Just a thought 39

 

Photo of sculpture of two people in prayer by Cape Town, South Africa artist, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

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

 

 

 

 

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.