June 2010


The juicy  title of this post carries double entendre. Last night I fired up my fingers and got back to work on the scene near Hubby’s first apartment. Obviously this is the time to tell how we met — including details of that first kiss. How far to go? That question was on my mind back then, as well as last night. I’d hoped to finish the scene, but (a) I was tired, way tired, bone tired, and (b) I became befuddled about how much of the summer to tell there and how much to scatter around other places.

For the combination of reasons, I opted to stop in the middle. I learned decades ago that when I hit a point of confusion, if I sleep on it, shower on it, or just do something else for awhile, soon enough it will come clear. Sure enough. This morning I see a couple of places to locate other fragments, and a fuzzy way of threading them together so readers don’t feel stressed by an unsolved puzzle or totally lost is taking dim shape through the fog.So in that sense, if not the other, the answer to “how far to go?” is “as far as you can see.”

Tired or not, I did have fun with the section I just wrote. I used more dialogue in both present and past, and got a little humor in too. Given the tone of the book so far, humor is way past due.

Right now I am keenly aware of the process of writing and the sheer joy of sitting on my sun porch early in the morning, computer-in-lap. A raucous jay warns off other birds, or perhaps calls to the chicks that recently left the nest. Its harsh sound is intrusive and distracting, like a thorn or itching mosquito bite. Our house nestles into the west side of a steeply rising hill, and the first rays of sunshine have yet to rise above it. I love this softly gray, moist time of day, especially when the temperature is perfect for comfortably sitting out here, as it is today. The deciduous hardwood forests in Pennsylvania are so different from the ponderosa pine clad mountains I grew up in, yet the same deep sense of connection prevails. Memories seem more real out here.

As I consider what I’ve already written, I realize I need to add more details, and I see where they are lacking. For example, I have not described myself at all, nor have I said anything about my husband other than the fact that he is with me on this trip. I can add some self-description in an early scene about wearing my new turquoise chunk necklace on a visit to Old Town in Albuquerque. I can describe my husband in the scene I’m still working on that’s set near the apartment where he lived the summer I met him.

No, I’m not spending all my time revising, not even rereading — these revelations occur at odd moments, like in the shower, or while I’m cooking. If I don’t do something about them soon after I think of it, like any story idea, they’ll be lost. As I see it, I have three choices: scroll to the place I’m thinking of and add the material, jot some notes in a separate file (or scrap of paper), or take no action and hope I remember again when I’m ready to edit the whole manuscript.

“Just get the story on paper. Don’t stop to revise as you write.” So say the Experts. My decades of experience at the sewing machine tell me otherwise. A sleeve is a sleeve is a sleeve. Pattern instructions put cuffs on sleeves way late in the game. But it’s entirely possible to sew the side seam of the sleeve and fully finish a cuff buefore you even cut out the rest of the shirt. Aside from having to sew the shoulder seams before inserting collars and sleeves, little is sacred about the order of construction for a shirt. And so it is with stories. I listen to my inner sense of order most of the time.

Now my jay bird has moved a few hundred feet deeper into the woods, and a chorus of gentler birds has returned. I’m going back to my manuscript.

Now it’s time to tell how I met my husband, one week after I graduated from high school. For decades I told people I met him exactly one week after I graduated, but recently I checked an online perpetual calendar and discovered that wasn’t quite true. I graduated on Monday and met him on Tuesday a week later. Today I went back to that calendar to verify the date of a party I threw shortly after that, and found a surprise.

The date, May 28, is red on the calendar, signifying a holiday. I blinked and looked again. I checked my diploma to verify the date. It appears that I graduated on Memorial Day, but in reality, aside from graduation it was business as usual that day. How could that be? I dimly recall a date change, so I checked Wikipedia. Sure enough, in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, moving Memorial Day from its traditional May30 date to the last Monday of May, thus ensuring a three-day weekend.

Is this level of detail useful for building tension or moving my story along? On the contrary. I think it would be a distraction. It’s a piece of fascinating trivia to admire and put back on the shelf. Online resources are fascinating and useful tools, but we have to know how to draw boundaries.

I did use the calendar to verify that our wedding was on the exact date of our first kiss. Isn’t that romantic?

We’ve driven past the apartment where we lived the first ten weeks of our married life, and I discovered that if I’d bothered to look down the road, we were only a couple of blocks from “Aunt” Opal and “Uncle” Ben. They hadn’t lived in that house more than a year or two before I left for college, and I hadn’t firmly fixed its location in my mind, so I never walked up the street to pay a visit. But the issue here is not where they lived, but how to handle their name.

I’ve already included both first and last names for the teacher who lived above us and my boss who lived across the street. I need to decide whether to continue using full names. I need to decide whether I can use full names for some people and stick to first names for others. I’m a little squeamish about using full names for some of the kids I went to school with. In fact, there are a few that I may fictionalize.

How am I going to handle this? I’m baffled.

But obviously it is not a problem until I have the story written, so rather than obsessing at this point, I shall forge ahead. The answer will come clear in good time. Maybe it will appear as a comment. One can always hope.

After a brief detour in real time here to paint a room and catch up on some local chores, I’ve moved past my old church and memories of Junior Rifle Club and we’re heading into the center of town. But first we make a lap around a couple of blocks to find the apartment where we began married life, living below one of my high school teachers who, nearly twenty years older than I, was also a newly wed — for the first time.

Thank goodness for Google Maps that make it so easy to check the route we took and get street names right. Somewhere I have a map from the 1950s that shows the town as it was back then, before any of the private housing was built. That will be a nice illustration to include. Sooner or later I’ll check with the Los Alamos Historical Society about the possibility of obtaining a few old pictures of places like the Community Center that would enhance the book. I have no idea what they might charge for a project like this.

I’ll need to go back later and insert a little more car conversation with my spouse as we’re driving around to add a bit more reflection. But I’m going to leave that as an additional layer for later. I don’t feel ready to tackle it yet. We did talk about things at the time, and whatever I come up with is going to be very close to the dialogue we had at the time.

Last time I actually wrote anything on my manuscript, I began describing the church building we were driving past and listing memories. I only got a few sentences into that section. It was late when I got to that point and I feel into a state of brain freeze. I’ve been back a couple of times and felt overwhelmed by the idea of resuming where I quit writing. Aside from anything else, I was sure I’d written about this before and didn’t want to spend another half hour restating what I’d already done, but I could not find that file. This hump loomed large.

While looking for something else a couple of days ago, I came across the file I needed. This morning I’d planned to do a simple cut-and- paste, then edit the result. But as I poured a cup of coffee, the root of the problem jumped out at me. This was boring. Big time boring. Even to me. How can I fix that? I  wondered.

I immediately knew the answer. Scene. I needed to write it as scene, with some dialogue and action. How many times have I shared my trepidation about writing my cerebral life as scene? In spite of this angst, I felt my energy level rise at the idea, so I set my mug down, pulled my ‘laptop onto my lapdesk and began tapping away. It flowed more smoothly than I expected. I got the whole scene drafted, and moved on through Junior Rifle Club, the next site along the drive.

How convenient that my life back then was so containerized with little overlap  among my various activities, clearing the way for isolated sight-specific memory.

The new material will need a lot of editing before it’s ready to share, to add more tension among other things, but at least it’s on the page now. On the page. I like that phrase. That page can be either digital or paper, and it’s “written down” in either form.

While writing about Rifle Club, I wondered how long the shooting range was. I tried standing at various distances from a wall, looking at an imagined image the size of a target and estimating from that. Fortunately I was able to find a description of the requirements for an official NRA shooting range. It was not the 30-40 feet I guesstimated — it was the full fifty feet I originally assumed. Perhaps nobody would notice if I’d gotten it wrong, but it isn’t that hard to dig around and get it right. I appreciate accuracy in the details, whether I’m reading or writing.

My other big challenge of the day was wording around the temptation to use distancing phrases like “I remember…” A quiet voice urged me to “Take responsibility for your story. Just say it, plainly and simply. Don’t try to hide.” Direct statement worked.

After talking with a few people about their experiences in high school specifically and childhood in general, I’m realizing more clearly than ever how few people led the sort of charmed lives my husband’s Uncle Walter did. He wrote a short account of his early life because, as he put it, “I had the boyhood everyone wishes he’d had!” I certainly didn’t have that sort of youth.

My daughter claims to know people who ran in the cheerleader crowd who stay firmly in touch with their school pals, proclaiming, “Those were the best years of my life!” After she told me this she laughed. “Doesn’t say much for the rest of their lives, does it!”

In recent years I’ve looked back on my girlhood years and realized that a very few painful episodes had colored an entire era. Memories of happy times and the satisfaction of solitary accomplishments have come to the fore. I’m realizing now that those years prepared me ideally for the life I find so rich and satisfying today. The clouds have lifted and I rejoice in discovering blessings that were hidden at the time.

I say this with a profound sense of relief and hope that I don’t sound arrogant. I think of this revelation as a gift. Suddenly I’m uncertain just what to do with this gift. I’ve been wavering about the tone to take in recording girlhood memories. I never wallowed in self-pity, but I had my share of blows to the psychic solar plexus. When I look back through the lens of current understanding, it’s tempting to gloss those times over and write them from my current point of view. After all, what is truth? Movement of bodies through space and sound waves hitting an eardrum? Or the meaning one assigns to those events?

How easy it would be to gloss it all over, to write girlhood as one long picnic. But hey! It wasn’t! I waited half a century  for liberation from those chains of angst and self-doubt. I’m realizing now that I would be doing nobody a service to pretend otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to come clean and admit, “Yes, that hurt.” Perhaps spreading the news that it doesn’t hurt anymore (due in no small part to the fact that I’ve written about it so long the last thread of the cocoon broke, enabling my inner butterfly to soar free) will help others make their own peace with the past.

Realizing this is a big step, probably as big as recognizing my Organizing Strategy.

The last puzzle piece I’m aware of is deciding how to handle the identities of tormentors. I don’t think anyone was ever deliberately mean. Most of my discomfort originated in my own understanding. So do I use real names or fictitious ones? I’m thinking that for the most part first names will suffice with a few alterations as to protect the privacy of others. That’s easy to change later, should my perspective evolve further.

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