All You-Know-What Will Break Loose

 

The next driver who honks at me while I’m waiting for a pedestrian to get across the street before I turn will find out I’m not so nice a person as I tell people I am.

I don’t mean I’m going make a rude gesture.

I mean that right there in the middle of the street, I’m going to put my car in Park and get out and drag that driver out of his car, and then all hell will break loose.

And I’ll repeat my performance for the policeman.

And then I’ll go to jail and get out and use the experience as background for my crime fiction. And non-crime fiction. And blog posts.

*

Image of feet is courtesy of PaintedFeet01, via Pixabay.com.

Killing Miss Q.

The Muse
Image via Wikipedia--Public domain

A friend recently made a comment that has stayed with me: “And on a good day our words can change those who read them.”

Some words I heard a week or so ago changed me. Or if they didn’t exactly change me, they changed my way of thinking about a particular situation.

A couple of weeks ago, I timed pitch and critique sessions at the Writers’ League of Texas Young Adult Writers Conference (not because I write for young adults, but because WLT needed timers and I needed to get out of the house and do something useful).

At Saturday’s luncheon, author Tim Wynne-Jones spoke on the topic of “Reading Yourself Seriously.”

Here’s a summary of what I heard.

Wynne-Jones says that when we write with intention, we write with genius. We may call it a muse, genie, goddess, inner writer, “or Brenda,” but whatever we call it, we work with a co-writer.

(Muse and goddess have always sounded pretentious to me; inner writer is too close to inner child, and she and I are too busy arguing to write; and I know only one Brenda, and she doesn’t write at all. So I’m calling my collaborator the genie.)

Anyway, the genie, Wynne-Jones says, knows much more than we do. And it leaves “text messages” in the story.

So when we hit a major obstacle and can’t find a way around it–we have no idea what happens next, or we’ve written ourselves into a corner and can’t get out–we need to consult the genie, to find out what message it has left in the words we’ve already written.

We need to recapture the “feeling of enchantment” we felt when we wrote the first page.

And we do this by reading ourselves seriously: going back over our manuscript, reading creatively, paying attention to the unconscious, discovering the “tool” that will lead to the resolution of the problem.

It means sifting through the pages to see what we really want to write about, “ooching the implications to the surface.”

Reading ourselves seriously means accepting our own genius. And our genius is the ability to accept clues, which is also “the reason we write in the first place.”

Now, when Wynne-Jones began to speak, I expected to be entertained and perhaps inspired. But I got something more.

For the past umpteen weeks, I’ve been stalled. I saw a potential problem with my plot, I didn’t know how to fix it, and heaven forfend I should try to just write through it and see what happened. Oh, no, I preferred to worry, fret, and whine.

Maybe this is the time to pull out whinge. I whinged.

Sad to say, this is the same problem I wrote about several months ago. At that time, my CP convinced me I could make the thing work. I was resolved to do so.

But somewhere along the line, my courage came unscrewed from the sticking post.

So there I sat, listening to Tim Wynne-Jones, and toward the end of the talk, it suddenly hit me. I turned to CP, another volunteer timer, and said, “I have to kill Miss Q.”

Miss Q. was the original victim. But she was just so cute, I decided to give her a slight overhaul and keep her around.

But the manuscript has been telling me she has to go.

I didn’t even have to read myself seriously. The manuscript had been shouting at me for weeks, but I’d been ignoring it.

I felt as if the genie were right there, sitting on my shoulder, saying, “Kill Miss Q.”

(Perhaps instead of calling it the genie, I should refer to it as the devil.)

There you have it: Wynne-Jones words, which were supposed to provide a little R&R in the middle of a busy day, acted as a catalyst.

Or like a slap upside the head. One I’d needed for quite a while.

I left the dining room feeling changed. A bit boggled, but peaceful. I possessed the tool to resolve my problem. It had been there all along.

*****

Image of the Muse by Guillaume Seignac [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

********************

Names have been changed to protect me.