What If You Do?

As my wonderfully supportive writing buddies are well aware, I’m working on what I hope is the final revision of a memoir about the avian and human loves of my life. But I’m not sure everybody knows why the book got written in the first place.

Sure, I had the raw material–years of living with four small, unpredictable South American parrots whose love and acceptance redeemed me through successive heartbreaks until I found my husband, Dennis. Raw material is never enough, however. I needed to overcome my resistance to starting a long work in the first place.

This is where Beverly Claire Jones came in, a writer/photographer friend who visited from New Mexico in 2006 and asked me a key question: Did I plan to write a book about the parrots? Her timing wasn’t random or accidental. A couple of months earlier, Peaches–the first of the birds in what I called The Gang of Four–had died of a virus, possibly cancer.

I told Beverly I’d been thinking about writing a memoir but hadn’t started. Why not? Because I was afraid I’d get bogged down or wouldn’t see it through, and then I’d have another incomplete book sitting in a box, like the fantasy novel I’d begun when I got divorced years before. I didn’t need to mortar one more brick into the edifice of my self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.

Actually, Beverly knew me well enough that I could give her the shorthand version: “What if I won’t finish it?”

She looked me right in the eye and said, “What if you do?”

“Oh,” I sputtered. “Well, uh . . . ”

I was busted. When we sat down to do writing exercises together, I wrote a scene for the book–the one where Maggie got stuck in a wall, and I had to take it apart to rescue him (yes, him). After that, I couldn’t stop.

Fast forward to the 2011 Pima Writers’ Workshop in Tucson, where an agent read my first chapter and asked me to send him the manuscript when it was done. What’s the connection? Having an agent ask for your work is a desirable outcome that you cannot get unless you have a manuscript.

Which means you have to start. And, heck, you might as well, ’cause what if you finish it? For one thing, even if you’re looking at a lot of revision work, finishing just the first draft means you’ve mortared a brick into the edifice of your self-confidence and feelings of adequacy. That that can carry you a good, long way.


She walked into the pedestrian tunnel that ran under a downtown Los Angeles freeway. New in the city and living at the Salvation Army Hotel for Women, she used the murky passageway to walk to her job near the library. There was always a tangy, sour smell to the place, but she’d never met anyone down there.

This day, she heard footsteps approaching from the other direction, somewhere beyond the bend in the tunnel. The steps were long, even, and made by hard shoes. Definitely a man.

She, too, wore hard shoes, and deliberately lengthened her stride, stomped onto the dingy concrete. Running back out of the tunnel was too risky, as frightened-sounding footsteps might entice an attack from the rear. He might catch her before she reached daylight and the visual range of the guard she’d befriended at a nearby warehouse. Better to face the danger head on.

The footsteps drew closer. She clomped deeper into the tunnel. Solid shoes landed heavily just around the blind curve.

And then there he was: tall, black. Carrying a briefcase, wearing a three-piece suit. His eyes widened. Tension drained out of his face as her own muscles relaxed. They both laughed, strode past each other, steps fading into the gloom.

She alwasy wondered if he ever used the tunnel again. She never did.

Moose Crossing

Dirt and gravel sprayed up behind my Chevy Blazer as I jammed on the brakes, locked the wheels, and skidded to a stop. I threw GW (Great White, as in shark, not hope) into reverse and gunned the engine, swerving to a stop in the middle of the road.

Then I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, having a hard time believing what I was seeing. The yellow, diamond-shaped warning sign contained a picture of a moose.

I knew what it meant: Be careful. Moose cross the road here. Hitting one of those big guys or gals (6-7 feet at the shoulder, 850-1580 pounds) could trash your car–and you–so watch out.

Now, this is a sign people might see a lot–if they lived in Canada, Alaska, some Northeast states in the U.S., and parts of the Northwest. It is not one I generally associate with the high-desert basin-and-range land of the Sulphur Springs Valley, Cochise County, Arizona, a dozen miles from the Mexican border.

Cow crossing signs? We’ve got plenty of them. Deer crossing signs? There should be more. Javelina crossing signs? We ought to have ’em. But moose?

I got out of the truck with my camera, but before I clicked the shutter, I looked around the grassland and the swath of mesquite greening up along a nearby wash to see if there were, in fact, any moose. My imagination was already shifting into high gear. Maybe someone retired here from Maine or Michigan or Montana and brought their favorite herbivores.

Unlikely but not impossible. There’s a wildlife preserve in Texas where hunters can bag African big game. If things can get that nutty, there could be moose in southeastern Arizona.

When I got home, I even ran an Internet search to see if there was fossil evidence of moose in the megafauna era of the last ice age. Apparently not here, though in the upper Midwest and East there was an impressively large Pleistocene stag-moose.

So what’s the moose sign about? It’s still a mystery to me, though I’m planning to take down the pertinent information, go to the County Assessor’s Office, find out who owns the land, and contact them, just to satisfy my curiosity. Maybe someone brought the sign back from a northern trip and just wanted to blow the minds of local ranchers and retirees. It sure worked on me.

Beyond the pleasure of telling this tale, is there a point? Surprisingly, yes. Mysteries are great things for writers to encounter. This one jolted me out of my ho-hum commute down Davis Road, which is one of the “freeways” my husband and I drive from our isolated home to the local towns Douglas and Bisbee.

It got my imagination revved up. And who knows, maybe there’s a story in the episode. If the truth turns out to be boring, perhaps I’ll write something much more interesting.

Phone Call

The phone rang. It was still early morning dark. She rolled over and the phone rang again and finally registered as something real, not the panicky climax to a bad dream. Her chest clutched, sure the nursing home was calling about the imminent demise of her father. But then she remembered that he had died six months ago.

So she rolled out of bed and lunged for the phone on her dresser. On the other end of the line a voice with an accent asked for her father.

“May I speak with Mr. Putnam?”

“He’s dead,” she said, surprised at how easily it came out. Her breathing slowed.

The voice went on, calmly. “May I speak with Mrs. Putnam?”

“No. She’s had strokes, can’t talk, and is in a nursing home.”

The soothing voice went on. “When will she be home?”

Her chest tightened again, this time with irritation. “Never. And she can’t talk anyway.”

“When would be a good time to call them?”

She gasped, then said, “When they reincarnate, and I don’t know when that will be.”

She slammed the phone down and stumbled back to bed. Quite cheerful now that for once in her life she’d had the right thing to say at the right time, she went right back into a deep, peaceful sleep.

You Have a Face for Radio, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about one of my two experiences on the microphone side of radio. Both were related to writing. One was a reading hosting half a dozen Cochise County poets. (For a sparsely populated Arizona county, we have a high density of talent.) The other occurred because I got involved with the Cochise Community Creative Writing Celebration, first as a participant, then as the organizer for a pair of open mic readings.

When I received the invitation to promote the Celebration, I had two worries. One was dead air time. Hostess Chris Dowling and Bisbee poet Dick Bakken–both experienced and comfortable with radio–kept things flowing at a constant and relaxed pace.

My other concern was that I wouldn’t be prepared for Chris’s questions and would stutter and scramble for answers on the air. I called her and got a pleasant surprise: She wanted me to write the questions!

This was a new type of writing assignment for me, and I loved it. It gave me some control in an unaccustomed situation, assured me that I was prepared, and allowed me to be at ease in the studio.

I would encourage even the shyest writer to participate in radio if the chance comes your way. It’s fun. Your audience is anonymous and invisible. And, as a poster at the station said, “You have a face for radio.”

Circular Musings of a Restricted-range Quadruped

Dang. Musta dozed off for a while. God, it’s hot, and dry. Could amble over to that water thing and have a drink or two. But I’d probably just get hottern I am so why bother. Could get under them trees off yonder but then I’d have to go twice as far to get back to the water thing so what’s the use. ‘sides I’d just get hot and want to go get some water anyway, and what’s the use goin’ there and then comin back right away to get some water. Nahh, I’ll just stay here for a while, but getting pretty thirsty. Wonder how long fore that two-legged thing comes out an dumps some food in the trough. That’s worth movin for. Then I could get a drink and mosey on down to the shade. That’ll work.

Umm. Musta dozed off. Nothin seems to be doin’ aside from that little round black thing scurryin along by my hoof. Could be doin something. But what? What’s there to do. Can’t get out of this fenced-in place. Aint nothing happening besides that glarin yellow thing up there slidin across the blue. Takes all day to go from one side to the other, an for what. Starts at dark an ends at dark. What’s that all about. Nothin changes. Seems like I should be makin something happen instead of standin around doin nothin. But what could I do. Maybe if I could think of somethin. Then I could–Whoa! What was that I just came up with? Thinkin! That’s it. Thinkin. That’s makin things up. Up in that place between your ears. Yeah. I could think somethin up and then go off an do it. Yowzir. That’s somethin. I just had a think. And what I thinked was about . . . what was it, about doin something instead of just standin around in this heat. Yeah, that was it. All this heat. A guy could doze off just standing around on his feet waitin for a two-leg to dump something in that trough there. . . .

Dang. Musta dozed off. . . .

Critique Technique, part 2

Before I get to the first real topic in this series, I need to give a shout-out to local writer/poet/editor Harvey Stambrough for a blog post that he put up yesterday, “A Dozen Ways to Make Your Critique Group Work.” Good stuff there. Well worth your time to follow the link and give it a look.

New members of a critique/writers’ group will say, “I don’t know how to do this [provide feedback].” The tendency, I suspect, is to think they have to replicate what they had to do in high school and/or college English classes: things like identify and explain the symbolism in a passage, say, or compare and contrast the use of metaphor with onomatopoeia.

Nope! Nope, nope, nope. That’s not what critique/writers’ group feedback is about. It’s about helping the author get better by identifying what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Let’s start with the easiest thing: how did the chapter/story/poem/article/whatever–let’s make that easier: the piece–how did the piece make you feel? Did it:

  • excite you
  • anger you
  • make you happy
  • make you sad
  • confuse you
  • fascinate you
  • annoy you
  • thrill you
  • make you giggle
  • make you swear
  • make you stay up all night thinking about it
  • make you throw it across the room
  • make you want to bang your head against the wall
  • bore you
  • something else entirely
  • all of the above
  • some of the above
  • none of the above?

Note that it could have done many of these things at once or sequentially. Even a four line poem can do this–and a really good one will.

Whatever it might have done, capture that emotion–write it down in your comments: “This piece made me feel X (and maybe Y and Z and A and…).” This requires a bit of self-awareness, a kind of second track running in your mind as you’re reading that’s taking note of your responses to the story. That can take some practice to develop, but doing so will pay big dividends because everything else in this series will also depend on that second train of thought running on that parallel track, taking notes, as it were.

So, once you’ve noticed those emotional responses to the piece, the next question to ask is, “Why did it make me feel that way?”

Ah, now the fun begins. Now you get to start really analyzing the work.

WAIT! Come back! This isn’t scary! Really it’s not. But to let your heart rate get back down to normal, we’ll save the topic for next time.


Revision as Experiment

This spring, I began the final (I hope) revision of my memoir about my years with parrots and the search for the human love of my life. Rather than approach the manuscript willy-nilly, I wrote out a plan, plus a few general ideas I wanted to keep in mind as I worked. I posted these on my computer screen as Stickies. This is one of the most useful programs I’ve encountered, and it’s free. (www.zhornsoftware.co.uk/stickies/)

My list included reading through the entire stack of critiques from two previous versions of the book, from two different writers’ groups. When you’re talking about this amount of paper, you have to measure it with a ruler. My stack was a foot high.

Right away, I ran into trouble, and not just because of the sheer volume of paper and suggestions. In both versions, two critiquers–men who read science fiction and action novels–suggested that I needed to remove my personal backstory from the first chapter and weave it into later sections. They agreed that Chapter 1 needed to focus on the beginning of my relationship with the parrot I’d just brought home and that the bits of personal history slowed down the action and might keep readers from getting hooked.

The biggest problem I had with their comments wasn’t technical; it was neurological. I had read and revised that first chapter so many times without making any essential changes that it had become grooved into my brain. I couldn’t see how to make the suggested changes. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to. The women in the group thought the backstory and pacing were fine, and I believed that the majority of my audience would be female.

OK, Stephen King says that if you receive contradictory suggestions from roughly equal numbers of trustworthy readers, you can call it a push and write it the way you want. I was inclined to do just that. But there was another element: My ego had gotten involved. The chapter had won first place for nonfiction at a writers’ conference. Didn’t that mean it was good enough? If an agent or an editor at a publishing house–someone with a check in his/her hand–thought the backstory should come out, I’d do the rewrite.

Two questions kept gnawing at the back of my brain and finally shook me out of my complacency:

  • What if the way the book was structured kept an agent or editor from getting to the point of asking for revisions in the first place?  They might reject it with a casual “not for us,” and I would never know why.
  • What did it mean to win that competition?  I wanted it to suggest that I had written the most memorable prose the contest judge had ever read. What it really said, though, was that of all the work submitted, she thought mine was the best; nothing more.

With these insights, my ego finally yielded, and I saw a way to approach the revision: Think of it as an experiment to which I did not have to commit. I wasn’t burning any bridges. I could always revert to the original version–especially if my agent or editor wanted to see another approach.

The point of an experiment is to find out something. What did I learn?

  • Not to get too attached to a particular version of a piece–or to notice when that’s happened.
  • Try different approaches without getting too serious about them. Play with a variety of ideas. You’re just going out to coffee with the revision, not making any until-death-do-us-part promises.
  • Don’t let the resistance build up. If I’d tried this experiment the first time someone had suggested it, I wouldn’t have made the mere thought of revision so difficult to consider for so long.

Here’s the laugher: Once I found the right way to look at it, the whole experimental revision, including transitions and storing the parts I had cut in their own file for use elsewhere, took about two hours. This brought to mind my mother telling eight-year-old me that if I had spent half as much time and energy cleaning up my room as I had complaining about it, I’d already be outside, playing hide-and-seek with the rest of the neighborhood kids.

Sudden Death

She died suddenly and in a way that hurt a lot of people — which most of us think probably pleased her. Or maybe not. Me, I thought she was looking forward to decades of abusing her daughter-in-law. The deceased had already made her displeasure over the girl known long before the wedding.

But the wedding went on anyway, and the woman didn’t really mess it up much. But the reception? Wow! Her heart failed and she keeled face first into the big, white cake. Kinda ruined the day, and every anniversary of that day since.

Some in town say she finally must be happy now.

Recipe for Marriage

It was Piney Woods Betha who told me the ingredients for a good marriage were heaps of soft words and a dash of cast iron skillet. And I don’t think that was for cooking.

I never saw her hit her husband, but I did see a few bruises up-side his head now and again. And always wondered how she could reach that high, ’cause he was a mighty big man.

But they seemed happy enough. Not like the Kelters who lived on the backside of the same hill. Mrs. Kelter always looked sorrowful when she showed up in town with bruises and black eyes. Mr. Kelter wasn’t a bad man — just mean when he was drunk. And he got drunk a lot.

Then one day Mrs. Kelter and her mother, who lived in town, both disappeared, and the story got out why.

Seems Mr. Kelter came home drunk one night, beat Mrs. Kelter, then passed out. He woke up to find himself naked and tied to the bed. His wife and mother-in-law came in and beat him with a stick and his own belt, and left him there, still naked and tied up. Guess it was several hours before a neighbor came by and heard the hollering.

Mr. Kelter, he talked to the sheriff, but I heard there was several days of laughin’  before a report was made callin’ for Mrs. Kelter’s arrest.

Me, if I ever get married, I think I’d prefer the skilllet.