There is something about the weather this time of year that just makes my soul sing. The rains have subsided for a day or two and the sunshine has done wonders. My little tomato plants seem to grow greener right before my eyes in the beaming rays of the sun. Late spring delivers those hazy golden sunsets with a dreamlike quality and everything comes alive. It really is my favorite time of year.
I’ve been struggling for the last week with the dreary weather blues and a beautiful weekend was just what the doctor ordered. I worked hard this weekend. There was dirt under my fingernails and bug bites on my shin, my back ached and my muscles were sore but I felt better than I had in a long time, in my head.
I guess the lesson here is to move you. When you feel yourself sliding into that rut of lethargy at your desk, get up and get physical. I’ll be the first to admit that when the day is gray and I have a mood to match, my instinct is to hunker down and shut the door. Truth is, I always feel better if I get out of the chair and do something. Thank you sunshine for luring me back outside. A little dirt under the fingernails never hurt anyone.
A little over a week ago, my good friend Amy invited me and our photographer friend Lisa to join her on a road trip. She wanted us to travel with her along the path she drives to work every day. She wanted to digitally document the people and areas in need along her daily path to help people understand that we have an opportunity to make a difference right here in our own back yard. Amy took Lisa’s images, compiled them with a collection she already had, and put them to music resulting in a moving slide show. You can see it at: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/video/video.php?v=1376934218096&ref=mf.
Following our road trip, I was looking for a writing exercise to get me warmed up to blog and good old Fred White, author of The Daily Writer challenged me to write in haiku form. Anyone educated past third grade probably knows that haiku is a form of Japanese poetry consisting of three lines with a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5. I have no experience beyond high school in writing haiku and I’m no poet, but Fred said to do it so here goes. My haiku attempt based on Amy’s Humanity Road.
Yesterday was beautiful though the day started aimlessly and a little bit sad. Steve and Jessie showed up in the afternoon and we brought out Grandma’s green and white star quilt to sit on the sunlit grass in the front yard facing the road. Motorcycles and convertible cars cruised past as we played with the dogs, tossing them bits of cheese and sending them racing after an orange tennis ball. We ate ham and roasted asparagus and devilled eggs and had wine. The boys wrestled in the fresh-cut grass and did cartwheels just like when they were little. The fresh air, filled with bird song, made us drowsy in the sun. It was a perfect spring day.
Some of my favorite books include scenes where people are eating. The description of food adds such richness to the storytelling and often reveals something about the characters doing the eating. I love the food descriptions in John Grisham’s A Painted House. Not only does Grisham describe the prepared food itself in a way that makes cold biscuits sound delicious, but because his characters are poor cotton farmers he reveals the energy required just to put food on the table. He describes the whole family rising before dawn to tend to the farm animals, collecting eggs and feeding the livestock. He describes the women working in the garden behind the house and baking biscuits and pie and frying chicken all morning to have lunch ready for the crew working in the fields. In the first chapter, Grisham’s protagonist, a 7-year-old boy, is seen savoring a Tootsie Roll by taking a small bite and wrapping the rest of the penny candy in its wrapper for later. That attention to detail left me hungry after every chapter.
Stephen King uses food in a different way in his book Song of Susannah. The title character Susannah suffers from a fractured personality and her alter ego Mia is pregnant with demon spawn. King sets up scenes in which Mia, in control of Susannah’s mind and having midnight cravings, envisions banquet tables filled with aromatic roasted meat and pastries. In reality, Susannah is grabbing pond toads from out of the muck and crunching them live. In this way, King creates a world out of control and stirs the reader’s imagination with repulsion and sometimes even stimulates the gag reflex. He brilliantly uses these scenes to help the reader form an unfavorable opinion about Mia and sympathize with Susannah who is sometimes captive in her own body.
Lack of food is another technique writers use to emotionally connect the reader to characters. Anne Rice tends to tease her vampire characters by putting them smack in the middle of scenes where humans are enjoying Creole cuisine and French wine but the vampires are only tempted by the scent of the humans. Another example is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in which a 16-year old boy is stranded on a lifeboat at sea with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Not only does Pi have to solve the problem of his own starvation but he has to find a way to keep the belly of the tiger full so as not to become a meal himself. Martel captures the surrender required to survive 227 days at sea on a diet consisting mainly of raw fish.
Writers, if you find yourself stuck in a scene, why not go back and serve your characters a meal. It might reveal something new and take the scene in a whole new direction. Readers, go pick up a good book and really appreciate those food scenes. I’ve got to go make a snack.
When writers talk about material, it means the fabric of our lives, used to inspire and craft our stories. My husband, the construction worker, is referring to drywall and lumber and nails when he talks about material. For me the word material conjures images of gingham and ribbon and lace.
My mother and her mother before her were seamstresses during my childhood. My grandma on my dad’s side was a seamstress too. For them, a new bolt of fabric was the possibility of a new dress and scraps were saved as potential for a quilt in the fall.
There was a closet in our house devoted to sewing. Mom and Grandma worked at The Garment Factory and at the close of a season, the factory hosted a fabric sale. Mom kept her bargain finds neatly folded in a rainbow of colors stacked on shelves in the sewing closet.
When I was very young that closet held cotton material. One summer, Mom made me a maxi-length red and white gingham pinafore with a ruffle around the bottom to wear in The Little Miss Windsor pageant during the celebration of our country’s bi-centennial year (1976). I won the contest and at 7 years old was an absolute princess in that dress.
A few years later, polyester was the only fabric to be found in that closet. My grandma made my cousin and me matching, sea-foam green, polyester pant suits with silver and pearl snaps. I was not a fan of polyester, it was scratchy, and it was becoming un-cool to wear homemade clothing. I entered my teen years and found every excuse to avoid learning the craft. I was required to take one year of home economics in high school and declared myself a failure at sewing, vowing to never pick up needle and thread again.
As an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate my mother’s and grandmothers’ skill. I especially cherish the quilts made by loving hand from scraps of our history. Not only do the quilts contain discount cloth from factory sales but in them can be found scraps of Grandpa’s pajama bottoms, and that old flannel shirt.
I’m still a failure at sewing; probably from lack of trying. But, I write, and I hope through my stories I’m able to capture a little scrap of family history in the threads.
It figures. The night I hit the sheets so totally exhausted that I sleep like a log and can’t remember a single dream, Fred wants to talk about the creative inspiration of dreaming.
It’s all about symbolism. When we sleep, our brains try to solve our emotional issues using flashes of imagery. These images often inspire visual artists to produce pieces containing similarly condensed symbolism. Writers too can use these images to add symbolism to our writing.
I’ve had some crazy dreams and I actually wrote a piece of flash fiction in high school about one. Back then it wasn’t called flash fiction. I think we just called it a really short story. My mom found a draft of The Wall shortly before my 40th birthday and included it in my birthday card. I thought about posting it here straight from my 15-year-old brain (circa about 1982), but decided not to subject you to such terrible writing. However, the story actually has merit. It’s a tale of a person experiencing a recurring dream she just can’t seem to shake during the light of day and how that dream evolves into a surprising turn of events. It’s full of bad descriptions and lots of telling instead of showing but there’s a story there. It’s just another project to add to my list of stories to revisit.