I need an emoticon

The low point of my teaching career–one of the low points, anyway–occurred at a literary festival hosted by Texas Lutheran University.

I’d accompanied several of my high school students, who had submitted pieces of writing to TLU weeks before. The morning of the festival, we were assigned to small groups, each comprising about a dozen secondary students from several high schools in the area and a teacher or two. A TLU professor and an English major led discussions of student submissions.

Somehow, talk turned to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the essay in which Swift appears to suggest that the poor of Ireland might benefit from selling their infants as food for the rich. My seniors had read the essay a month or two before.

In the middle of the ensuing talk about tone, irony, distance between meaning and text, Pat, one of my brightest students, turned to me and said in a voice audible to all, “I thought he was serious about eating Irish babies.”

“It’s satire,” I hissed, sliding under the sofa.

That’s what I get, I thought, for not polling the class at the end of the lesson. I imagine more than one of my students, considering their penchant for distraction, graduated thinking Swift approved of cannibalism. I should post a clarification on FaceBook.

But that was years ago. If I were teaching now I wouldn’t fear exposing my students to literary fests. If I were teaching now, I’d simply tell students to take their pencils and lightly mark Swift’s Proposal with an emoticon: a little smiley face that signifies, “Didn’t mean it. Just being amusing.”

I’d have them put one on Huckleberry Finn, too. In fact, I’d buy a box of them for Huck. We’d go page by page, sticking a little yellow smiley beside every paragraph likely to upset the terminally literal.

While I was at it, I’d stick on on me, too. I need an emoticon.

In a piece I wrote for Whiskertips, another blog for which I’m responsible, I issued guidelines for grocery shopping. I got the idea from Pat Hoglund’s Have I Got a Story from You. Hoglund writes about her dislike of shopping for groceries. I took the topic a step further, offering a codified version of the rules according to me. Θ*

*Didn’t mean it. Just being amusing.

Or, in the cases of Swift and Twain, scathing.

I didn’t mean people shouldn’t choose fruits and vegetables with care. I didn’t mean, “Get out of my way or I’ll run over you with my cart.” Or your children. I didn’t mean anything I said.

Well, I meant some of it. Men really do move through the checkout line faster than women, especially women with children. And when people look straight at me while talking on cell phones, I do jump into their conversations. And I think people should line up behind older people and not complain when they take a long time to get out their money. As I said, we’re all going to get to that point, if we’re lucky.

But I wrote the piece as if I meant everything I said–literally. And therein lies the problem. I’m aware some of my readers might have taken me literally. It’s happened before. Like in my post asking why men always end up with the remote control. That was meant to be lighthearted, ironic, neither a serious question nor a criticism of the social order.

If I had an emoticon, I could prevent misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this program doesn’t give me that option. The symbol Θ, marked with the asterisk, above, is theta, the closest symbol to an emoticon I could find.

I refuse to insert Θs when I mean something else.

So, dear readers, please muddle along with me, taking on faith that I am a well-meaning person without a malicious bone in my body, a writer whose one compulsion lies in a satirical, hyperbolic, amusing, flippant, frivolous, blithe, playful, sprightly, fanciful, dry, wry, droll, aslant, farcical, irreverent,** ironic but entirely non-sarcastic take on life that will burst forth no matter how I try to keep a lid on it.

** Thesaurus.com is a fine resource.

Ella Minnow Pea Redux or, My keys won’ work

Wa do you do wen your keyboard malfunions?

Wen my spae bar sopped working, I aed online wi Dell e suppor.  e e old me I would reeie a new keyboard in e mail. I was supposed o insall i.

“Me?” I said. “Insall a keyboard?”

e e said i would be a snap. If I needed elp, e would walk me roug i.

I go e keyboard and looked up e insruions, wi said I ad o unsrew e bak. I jus knew I would be eleroued.

Bu I boug a se of srewdriers a RadioSak and flipped e lapop oer, remoed e baery, and aaked e srews.

e srews wouldn’ budge. I exanged a srewdrier for anoer srewdrier. I used all six. None of em worked.

I wen online again o a wi Dell. e e lisened, en old me o ry again.

I oug abou e definiion aribued o Einsein: Insaniy is doing e same ing oer and oer and expeing a differen resul.

“I wouldn’ urn,” I old e e.

He said e would send a e ou o e ouse o insall e keyboard for me. (I’m no dummy. Wen I boug e lapop, I boug a e o go wi i.)

Anyway, e nex day a e ame. He go ou is se of 3500 srewdriers, remoed e srews, ook off e old keyboard, and insalled e new one. He said I didn’ ave e rig size srewdrier. en e asked wa else I needed.

“I know you don’ ae an order for is, bu ould you wa me insall is exra memory a Dell e said I’m ompenen o insall myself?” He said e’d o i for me. I oug a was ery swee.

Anyway, i’s appened again, exep is ime i’s more an e spaebar. I’s e , , , and  keys.

I’e used anned air. So far all i’s done is make ings worse. Wen I began, only e  key was ou.

How an I wrie wiou a keyboard?

So tomorrow I’ll chat with my Dell tech and–

Well, mercy me. I took a half-hour break and now all the keys are working again. I wonder what that was all about.

Nevertheless, I shall report the anomaly. Call me an alarmist, but I don’t want this to happen a third time when I’m preparing a manuscript for submission. If the keyboard should be replaced, I want it replaced now.

But still–I’m torn. If I do need a new keyboard, I want a tech to make a house call. I don’t have the proper screwdriver, I don’t know the size screwdriver to buy, and I don’t want to tamper with something that is still under warranty.

On the other hand, I have to consider the worst-case scenario: He takes out his screwdriver, loosens the screws, turns the laptop over, removes the keyboard, and sees lurking there beneath the metal and plastic plate the reason for my current technical distress: rumbs.

e same, e earae, e disgrae a being found guily of su a soleism. e prospe is oo illing o spell ou.

Bu for the sake of ar, I sall submi myself o e proud man’s onumely. omorrow I sall a wi Dell.

Letting the miracle happen

I ended an earlier post with the sentence, “There’s a hole I have to write myself out of.”

Parse that and you’ll find it equal parts wish, bravado, pretense, and humbug.

I had no idea how to write myself out of that hole. I thought I’d have to scrap “A Day in the Life of a Rancher’s Wife” and replace it with “A Day in the Life of a One-Room Schoolteacher.” Or anything else I could both start and finish.

But I gave it a shot, opened the document, and began revising. For the Rancher’s Wife, that meant squeezing 700 words into under 500, just in case I came up with a conclusion.

And in the middle of all that deleting, adding, shuffling, it happened. I knew how to end the story.

By the time the epiphany occurred, it was after midnight. I tacked on a couple of sentences to hold the thought and the  next day continued reworking the piece. The result is a story I’m satisfied with. Almost. There’s still time for tweaking.

When I was teaching English in the late ’70s, the latest fashion was to teach the writing process: brainstorming, prewriting, writing, revising, editing, polishing, proofreading. Sometimes prewriting was put before brainstorming. Sometimes editing and polishing were rolled into one. It was neat and tidy and linear.

But there was no step to describe that epiphany.

If there’s frustration here–and there is–it’s that I can’t explain that missing step. I had given up. I wasn’t trying think of a solution. I was playing with words. And then I knew.

Maybe that’s the heart of the process: relax, play, stay in the now, allow ideas to come. Maybe the process isn’t a process at all.

I’ve read that creativity has something to do with the frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the temporal lobe, the limbic brain, alpha brain rhythms, gamma brain rhythms, warm showers, long walks, and happiness. When scientists have it all observed and assimilated and indexed, I’ll try to understand.

For the present, however, I like to think that extra step is Gertrude Stein’s miracle.

Not knowing. Knowing.

And the process is letting the miracle happen.

Wormwood, wormwood

I told a little fib in that last post.

I said that before the Texas Mountain Trail Writers retreat in early April, I have to write a 500-word story.

The truth is, I don’t have to. It’s optional.

Then why do I put myself through this torture?

I do it because retreat participants will get to read their stories around the fireplace. And then the stories will be collected and  included in the next issue of TMTW’s annual publication, Chaos West of the Pecos.

I refuse to be the fireplace  spoil-sport, and I’m sure as all get-out not going to miss an opportunity to see my words glued between the two covers of a publication.

And then there’s the other thing. It’s fun. It says so in the retreat literature: “This is fun, and optional.”

Despite having written myself into a hole I can’t crawl out of, writing “A Day in the Life of a Rancher’s Wife” is fun. It’s like creating a puzzle and solving it at the same time. I’m partial to puzzles.

But fun and writing seldom appear in the same sentence, at least sentences that come from writers. Red Smith said to write you have to “open a vein.” E. L. Doctorow said writing is “a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” Colette’s husband locked her in a room to make her write. He wouldn’t let her out until she’d produced something he could sell (under his name).

I don’t have it that bad. My husband doesn’t lock me in, I have most of my marbles or at least know which pile of paper they’re under, and I’m not anemic.

But because I’ve yowled around to family, friends, and acquaintances that writing is equal parts wormwood and woe, I have to stick to the story. Claiming the TMTW assigned a composition is a minor fudge, but it’s enough to convince them I’m suffering. They remember senior English.

Confession over, I’ll end this post and move on. There’s a hole I have to write myself out of.

Channeling me

In April, CP and I will attend the Texas Mountain Trail Writers’ Spring Retreat near Alpine. We’ll stay in a cabin, go to a reception and a cowboy breakfast, hear authors and historians, hike, take photographs, write haiku, breathe clean mountain air…

I can hardly wait.

The catch is that each of us has to write a 500-word story about the Old West.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a 500-word anything. I need 500 words just to get started.

I know, I know. Revise, revise, revise.

I decided to use an amusing anecdote my uncle told about my great-grandmother, who lived in West Texas when she was first married. It begins in first person, with the Ranch Wife talking about learning to make biscuits when she was six years old. Then I have her describe the heat and the absence of shade and the patch of grass she slaves over and the wind that turns soil into dirt. And how her husband promised to take her back to Central Texas to live. And bathing children on the porch.

I’ve read it aloud several times. It sounds pretty good. It bears no resemblance to anything Grandmama would have said, at least in that tone of voice. But that’s not a problem. This is fiction.

The problem is that by the time I’m ready to insert the story my uncle told, the Ranch Wife sounds so depressed I can’t figure out how to work it in. Nothing I can say is going to cheer that woman up.

And it’s already over 500 words. After cutting.

I know what’s wrong. I’m using Grandmama’s persona but I’m channeling myself. Heat. Dirt. Wood stoves. Hauling water. Bathing on the porch. Grandmama was a pioneer. I’m a hothouse plant.

So I have a choice. I can start over in a lighter vein. Or I can come up with an ending to match the Ranch Wife’s misery.

Or I can take the easy way out: scrap the Ranch Wife and go with an account of West Texas life as told by the Ranch Dog.