…considering what you have to work with

Crystal and Bill Waller. October, 1942

My mother told a story about the first time she hosted Thanksgiving dinner in her own home. She’d laid out the china and the crystal and the sterling and the silver gravy boat my grandmother insisted every married woman must have (even when the married woman was going to live near an oil field where the silver would immediately turn black.)

Finished with the table, she indulged in whimsy. She went outside and picked some purple wildflowers she thought particularly unattractive. (“Ugly” was her exact word.) She arranged them and placed them on the table.

When my grandmother arrived, Mother said, “What do you think of my centerpiece?”

My grandmother, missing the humor, replied, “Well, dear, I think you did as well as can be expected, considering what you had to work with.”

That line entered the Waller Book of Familiar Quotations. We used it for every achievement: making pies, mowing the lawn, climbing on top of the house to turn the TV antenna, explaining first semester grades from college: I did as well as can be expected, considering what I have to work with.

I wish my parents could read that story. I wish they could see other things I’ve written. They would laugh at Miss Pinksie Craigo whacking her cane against a chair, and Mr. Archie Parsons using his favorite (marginally) un-blasphemous expletive, and Aunt Lydia…Oh my, I can just imagine them reading about Aunt Lydia.

Some old ladies are worth more than an ode. Some, however, are marked 75% off–too good to resist.

My parents were generous. They gave me language and laughter. I think they would approve of the way I’m using them. They would be pleased to know I’m trying.

If I could ask, I believe they would also grant permission: We gave you words. Use them as you will. No secrets. No holding back.

With such a blessing, a writer doesn’t have to be ruthless or to rob anyone.

She just has to do as well as can be expected, considering what she has to work with.

What’s an old lady worth?

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one….If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. ~ William Faulkner

One of my instructors, citing William Faulkner’s statement that good writers are ruthless about their art, asked the class whether there were any subjects we could not write about.

William Faulkner
Image via Wikipedia

One of the students came up with an extensive, and very funny, list of things she couldn’t write about.

But for anyone aspiring to publish, it’s a serious question.

In her memoir, Limbo, A. Manette Ansay writes that to tell her story, she had to tell a story about her father as well. It was a memory so painful  that he disclosed it to her only when she was experiencing a deep personal crisis and he believed hearing it might lessen her pain. If he hadn’t given permission to tell his secret, she would not have written her memoir. Her father was more important than her art.

Against all the rules, I’ll digress to say that Limbo is a wonderful book, and everyone reading this post should run to wherever you go and borrow or buy one. I borrowed the book from my library, when I had one, and received no perks for stating this opinion. I say this in a spirit of full disclosure and a certain amount of pique that I have to say it at all. (Actually, since this isn’t a review, I probably don’t have to say it, but I’ve always wanted to use the word pique, and this way I have an excuse to do so.)

Back to the original topic. Because so much of my so-called inspiration comes from people I’ve known or heard about, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what I can’t write about. Is there anything in my life or that of my family that would be best left alone? Is there anything I cannot use as fodder? Anything really really good that, if I were lucky enough to get it into print, might be considered indiscreet? I can use my grandfather’s roll-your-own Bull Durhams and my Cousin Ruth’s statuesque leg, but is there anything that simply must not find its way into the bookstores?

General Robert E. Lee mounted on Traveller, hi...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m talking about family here.

Of course there are things I can’t write about.

In my case, family includes a whole raft of people I’m not related to, I hardly know, or I’ve merely heard about from other people. For example, my grandfather once knew a man who, as a boy, saw General Robert E. Lee sitting astride Traveler.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about a boy seeing Traveler (who both my grandfather and I knew was much more important than General Lee), but, for the purposes of my art, I consider that boy part of the family. It’s complicated.

Anyway, back to the question, What can’t I write about?

Like many other answers, it depends. Fiction allows–requires–the writer to stretch the facts to get to the truth. Characters aren’t people. Plot isn’t memoir. With that kind of leeway, the possibilities are endless.

And let’s face facts. I am neither a William Faulkner nor an A. Manette Ansay, and I’m in no danger of producing anything that will cause readers to confuse me with Keats. Or even with Janet Evanovich, more’s the pity.

Still, if I were forced to give a straight answer to the question, I would agree with Ms. Ansay.

Whenever I read Faulkner’s declaration, I think of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Keats took comfort from the urn. I take comfort from the poem. “When old age shall this generation waste,” those things of beauty will continue to delight. It’s difficult to put a price on that.

But then I think of all the old ladies I’ve known.

From what I’ve read about him, I believe even Keats would consider them worth more than an ode.

Is there anything you can’t write about?

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Another disclosure: Zemanta didn’t help me write this post, but it did provide the pictures and the link below, which accesses an audio archive of William Faulkner’s lectures and speeches. According to the accompanying article, the author was “quite the wit” and would “routinely slay audiences.” I’d planned to say I felt guilty for using Zemanta, but I’m so pleased at getting to hear Faulkner speak that I’m going to allow Z to assist me as often as it wishes.

Image of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten,  Library of CongressPrints and Photographs DivisionVan Vechten Collection, reproduction number {{{2}}}

Image of Gen. Robert E. Lee, September 1866, author unknown; [Public Domain]; file has been extracted from an original image in The New Student’s Reference Work:Image:LA2-NSRW-3-0037.jpg.

Image of Grecian Urn by John Keats (1795-1821) (http://www.flickr.com/photos/litmuse/64111434/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


It’s not an excuse. It’s a reason.

The last time William appeared here, he had sat on the keyboard and turned the working title into gobbledygook.

I suppose tonight’s activity is progress.

Yes, I know it’s progress. Because a year ago at this time, his hobby was lying across my lap and biting my fingers. Lunge-chomp-lunge-chomp. Tonight he’s helping.

But Just for the Hell of it Writers meets tomorrow morning, and my promise (to myself) to finish my critique chapter early and, for once, get to bed at a reasonable hour is vaporizing even as I type.

Especially since I took a half-hour out of the evening to prepare this post. That’s okay. It was necessary. I needed a break.

I also needed to memorialize this event so in a couple of years I can look back and say, Wasn’t that darling of him?

Because it’ll be a couple of years before I think so.

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Note: That isn’t dust. We have a super-duper fancy two-toned gray-and-black keyboard.

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Update: Two hours later: I heard growling and turned to find William and Ernest arguing over a cricket. Ernest grabbed it and shot up the stairs. I grabbed a paper towel and ran after him, hissing, “Spititoutspititoutspititout.” At the first landing, after some indecision, he let it go. The cricket is no more. David was asleep but probably isn’t now.

My cousin Ruth’s statuesque leg

Where do you get your ideas?

According to what I’ve read, writers often hear that question. Answers are as varied as writers themselves. Don and Audrey Wood said they get their ideas from an idea box. Dr. Seuss said he got his in Switzerland. Other writers aren’t so forthcoming as Dr. Seuss and the Woods. Possibly they don’t know.

I never want to be in that position.

When my book graces the shelves–face out–at Barnes & Nobles nationwide, and I sit on stage wearing a suit purchased at Neiman’s and my Stuart Weitzman pumps, and Oprah says, “Where do you get your ideas?” I want the answer on the tip of my tongue.

To prepare, I did some research. I examined the first page of the manuscript I’m working on and identified the following sources:

1. My Aunt A, who, when she was nine, told Aunt B, who was six, to touch the electric fence to see whether it was on. (It was.)

2. Five-year-old neighbor C, who collected wiggle-tails in a jar and took them home to watch them turn into mosquitoes.

3. Mrs. D and Miss E, who, when added together, equal Miss Pinksie Craigo.

4. My mother, whose two little sisters, one a redhead, got involved with an electric fence, and who knew someone named Miss Pinksie.

5. My first dog, Stinky, who dug his way out of the yard to chase cars so many times that my father put up an electric fence to keep him confined. (After one contact, Stinky gave up digging, and my father shut off the electricity.)

6. Stories about a family named MacCaskill, who were universally loved for their humor, spontaneity, and love of life.

7. My father, who chose to settle his family in his hometown, which afforded pecan trees, mosquitoes,  a beautiful river, and a passel of eccentric residents (most of them related to him), and who taught me to respect property lines.

For one page, only 216 words, not even an entire scene, that’s a lot of sources. In fact, one might think I just pulled some stories out of my head, threw in a few conjunctions, and started typing page two.

One wouldn’t be far from wrong.

When I go looking for ideas, I go no further than my own back yard, with side trips to San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. Hometown and family are all I need.

My grandfather believed stop signs caused wrecks. My Great-aunt Eula said Man would never set foot on the moon because it wasn’t in the Bible. Our family doctor agreed. He also worried that people using the new dial telephone system would get the O and the zero mixed up.

When I started writing fiction, I latched on to those folks right quick. I put them on the first page. Because I’d set down their remarks almost verbatim–I was born with a tape recorder in my head–I wondered briefly about the ethics of calling it fiction. But only briefly. The conjunctions, I rationalized, were mine.

On the second page, I introduced a younger character, based on my cousin Ruth.

Ruth is eight years older than I. She spent her twelfth and thirteenth summers with my family in that little country town. Ruth was tall, which I wanted to be, and a teenager, which I wanted to be, and she wore lots of petticoats and got to ride the horse wherever she wanted without supervision and listened to “Purple People Eater” on a transistor radio, which I wanted to do, and she was my hero. She also tried to boss me around.

I was little and cute and had a pony tail and I wanted to go everywhere she did, and usually my mother made her let me tag along. I was the bane of her existence.

We got along quite well.

One summer we shared a bedroom. (I’ll admit at the outset that the two summers are jumbled in my memory.) Two green army cots were set up as bunk beds against the wall. I wanted to sleep in the top bunk. So did Ruth. I set up a howl, so I won. My mother kept saying, “You’re going to be hot up there,” but I didn’t care.

Ruth tried to talk me out of it. Her argument went something like this: “Look. If you sleep in the bottom bunk, you can kick the underside of my mattress in the middle of the night.” I was young, but I wasn’t dumb. She might kick me, but there was no way my short leg would even touch the mattress, much less give it a shove. I slept in the top bunk and, as my mother had predicted, nearly burned up. As I’d predicted, Ruth kicked me.

Ruth, an artist, decorated the wall beside her bed with crayon drawings of horses. I’m sure she drew me some, too, but they didn’t look nearly so attractive as the ones lower down that got more light.

Ruth’s main interest then was the sorrel mare, Lady, who lived up the street at my great-aunt’s. Whenever she could catch Lady and get a saddle on her, they went riding together. Lady didn’t like Ruth nearly as much as Ruth liked Lady, so catching and saddling gave both of them plenty of exercise.

When she wasn’t out on Lady, she was lying on the bed reading Gone With the Wind. Day after day after day. It wasn’t easy to get her away from that book when I wanted to play. I deduced that thirteen-year-old girls were supposed to read Gone With the Wind, so when I was thirteen, I did.

Also in town that summer–whichever it was–was a boy Ruth’s age. The boy, Jack, lived in California and was officially visiting my aunt and uncle, who lived a mile north of town. He spent most of his time, however, staying in town with my grandfather, who served canned Pillsbury biscuits and sorghum molasses three times a day and was just generally more fun to be with than people who insisted you eat vegetables and asked where you were going and when you would be back.

There being only two short blocks between our house and my grandfather’s, Ruth and Jack were inevitably thrown together. They rode horseback and worked on getting an ancient automobile of my grandfather’s to run. Jack rode Jolie Blonde, the Palomino, down to our house after everyone had gone to bed and sat in the saddle talking to Ruth through the screen of her open bedroom window. At least he did it once. I was probably asleep, but I’m sure I saw him anyway. (That was probably the second year, when she had a bedroom to herself. Or it may be that my mother got tired of our wrangling and separated us.)

The highlight of the summer was the week we spent camping at Uncle Cal’s pecan bottom. To get there we made a loop about a mile in length and ended up on the opposite side of the river, just above town. We took army cots and mosquito netting and bathing suits and cardboard boxes of food, and my fox terrier, Pat Boone, and my grandfather, and my cute, little red-headed Aunt Betty from Houston. (My father’s youngest brother, and various other adults, used to ask, “How is that cute little red-headed aunt of yours?” That’s where I got the idea for those adjectives.) We also took Jack.

We ate breakfast, swam, ate lunch, swam, ate supper, swam. Mother sat on a towel on the gravel bar and periodically shouted, “Jack, let Ruth get her head out of the water so she can breathe.” My grandfather tried to teach Jack how to saucer his coffee, but Jack had to hold the saucer with both hands. If he’d removed one, he’d have scalded himself. He never quite passed the course.

One day when we were sitting around waiting for our food to digest before we went back into the water, Mr. John Maxwell’s Santa Gertrudis bull crossed the river and wandered up the hill into camp. Everybody ran and piled into the car, except for Pat Boone, who ran around putting himself in harm’s way. Mother whistled and called, “Here, Pat, come here, Pat.” Betty said, “I hope the bull’s name isn’t Pat.” I don’t know what happened after that. I was laughing too hard to pay attention. I think the bull scratched his neck on a tree stump and then went back home.

I’m throwing all this on the page as I remember it. Ruth swears we spent only one night on the river. She says after that, we spent the nights at home and went back to camp in the morning. I say we spent every night for a week, that my father went home in the mornings to shave before going to work and came back every evening, and that it was the happiest week of my life.

When something is the happiest week of your life, you can remember it any way you want to.

When you’re writing fiction, you can remember it any way you want to as well.

Ten years ago, I took those summers, Ruth and Jack, my grandfather and Pat Boone and Lady and the rest, and put them together into a narrative.

Some of it is fact. I put in a scene where Ruth takes her statuesque leg and kicks the underside of my mattress. I put in a scene where Jack sits outside Ruth’s window at night. I put in the Santa Gertrudis and all the swimming. I put in my grandfather’s Bull Durham and saucered coffee.

Some of it is fiction. I bumped up my age from four to eleven to give more opportunity for conflict. I also added scenes that didn’t happen anywhere except inside my head. And then I added one more thing.

And I shaped it all into a true story: Stop Signs.

Later I entered Stop Signs in a fiction contest. It won first place. I was, of course, pleased, in  part because who wouldn’t be, in part because the contest sponsor sent me a check, and in part because I had such fun writing it. In fact, it practically wrote itself.

But, confidentially, although I accepted the Certificate Suitable for Framing, and cashed the check, I can’t take full credit for the success of Stop Signs. I have to acknowledge the town and the people (and the animals) who comprise my Muse. Thanks to all of you.

And thanks to the person at the heart of the story.

Happy Birthday, Cousin Ruth.

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Names have been changed to protect me.

Move over, Cyd Charisse

I received a phone call last week from Lucia Zimmitti, an editor who spoke at the Texas Trail Writers Roundup this spring. In mid-July, I’d sent her the first five pages of my manuscript. She reported that she’d read them and that they’re ready for query. She said she believes agents who read them will ask to see more.

Music to my ears. I was reluctant to tell her how long I’ve worked and how many revisions it’s taken to get those five pages agent-ready. Lucia said not to worry about time, that some novels are ten years in the making. Actually, it’s the ten years part that worries me, but I know it’s going to take as long as it takes.

After discussing specifics, Lucia asked how much more I have.

A pile of pages. A stack of scenes. Words, words, words, but not in order.

I described where I am in the process and told her how I work. She said not to worry.

When I hung up the phone, I was tempted to dance around the apartment.  But I didn’t. My feeling of ecstasy wasn’t pure. It was an alloy, producing calm rather than chaos.

It’s good when people like what I’ve written. But having a professional say those pages show promise is more than good. It’s validating. It means the time, the effort, the embarrassing, sick-making drafts aren’t wasted.

It means that when people ask what I do, I can drop the self-mocking half-smile, the apologetic, “I’m working on a novel. But of course, EVerybody in Austin is working on a NOvel.” I can look them in the eye and say, “I write.” I can remove the quotation marks from “novel.”

I’m tempted here to insert the usual disclaimer: It’s only five pages. I haven’t completed the manuscript. The five present-perfect are future-imperfect–because, with all the twists and turns of drafting, they will have to be tweaked.

But I won’t apologize. Hearing Lucia’s assessment of the intro to Chapter One changed how I perceive both my writing and myself. I’m no longer a dilettante. I’m a writer. I have goals to meet, a manuscript to finish, and no room for excuses.

Figurative language isn’t my forte, but to clarify, I’ll give it a shot.

It’s like when I was ten years old and my Uncle Donald took me out to a pasture in his beat-up 1950 Chevy pickup and taught me to drive. I started out popping the clutch (“Let it out sloooow.“), grinding the gears (“Put in the CLUTCH!”), killing the engine (“Give it some GAS!”), turning the key, popping the clutch, jolting the passenger, bouncing across old furrows. But after a few lessons I got the hang of it and was driving along the turn row, changing gears without incident.

A couple of months later, my father put me behind the wheel of a ’56 Bel Air, which had fewer gears and no clutch at all, and let me drive home from the farm (“Don’t rush up to the stop sign, eeease up to it.”) In due time, I got my license and soon was cruising down the freeway, feeling like a driver.

After I’d invested time, energy, and angst wrestling with the clutch and grinding the gears, finally holding that license brought not only satisfaction but also a feeling of maturity.

The future won’t be a joyride. There will be (here comes the disclaimer) traffic jams and detours and wrong turns down one-way streets. And worse. Like the time I was on my way to the university and my car slid on a patch of once-in-a-decade Texas ice and landed in the ditch facing the wrong direction, right across from my father’s workplace. (“I told you to go slow.” “I DID. I was just doing 50.”)

When Lucia and I finished speaking, it was as if she’d handed me a license to write. I felt settled. Serene. Competent. Equipped for the task at hand.

Cyd Charisse, move over. I feel a dance coming on.

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Lucia Zimmitti is president and founder of Manuscript Rx.

P.S.  I did not try to perfect the first five pages before moving on. I obsess and compulse, but not to that extent.