Seasonal

I went out this morning to photograph the beauties you see here. The two pots of Gerbera daisies have survived two Mississippi winters now and are still going. About a month ago, they were so depleted and wilted in the heat and drought, I thought they were gone, for sure. But then my husband trimmed them back a little and kept watering (I had given up on them), and now look!

Gerbera daisies, October 2022 / Gerry Wilson

Mississippi winters, you say? What winters?

We do have them this far south, although we often have 80-degree temps on Thanksgiving and/or Christmas Day. Mostly, winter doesn’t arrive full blast until January and February, but when it does, it’s miserable: cold rain, biting wind, below-freezing temps, and sometimes—once in a great while—snow. Or ice. Or both.

We don’t handle snow or ice well in Jackson. An inch of snow, and everything grinds to a halt. A quarter-inch of ice causes havoc on the roads; half an inch cuts off power and brings down massive old oak trees and pines.

But when there’s just the right kind of snow, it’s magical. Several years ago, I woke early on a Sunday morning to a profound silence, and I thought: Could it be? There had been a slight chance of snow in the forecast the night before, not enough to raise my hopes. But the absolute hush, the stillness, made me get up and look out the window. There it was, six inches or so of pristine snow, enough to blanket and transform everything. A day later, it would mostly be gone, but I loved it while it stayed. I don’t think we’ve had a snowfall since, certainly not one to equal it: only a dusting, a slight sheen of ice, just enough to make me wish for more.

So I will wait for it. I’ll hope and watch like the child I once was.

Meanwhile, the daisies will die back this winter. This time, maybe they won’t survive. But come Spring, I’ll watch for the fragile green shoots to rise out of the cold soil, watch for them to come back in all their natural resilience. A reminder for me. For all of us.

Own the Emotion, Give It Away

Some years ago, I volunteered as a studio monitor during a regional ballet association festival. I watched nervously as the teacher pushed and corrected the young dancers, but I was happy to see how he also encouraged and praised. Toward the end of the session, he told the dancers something I’ve never forgotten: Technique isn’t enoughYou can be technically proficient, but without emotion, you’ll never be a true artist. He urged them to feel the music, to make their entire bodies expressions of emotion.

Credit: Samantha Hurley at Burst

I believe the same is true of writing. Artistry on the page isn’t only about skill or eloquence. We study and master craft; we may have a gift for language and storytelling; but if we can’t re-create emotion in ways that allow readers to feel, the prose will most likely be flat, no matter how well it’s written.

I learned a long time ago that my best work comes from an emotional place where I often would rather not be. So, when I become aware that a story isn’t working, I look hard for what I’m holding back.

There may be places we can never go in our fiction. I read once, though, that in one way or another, a fictional character will always be the writer.

One of the first stories I ever published gave me fits while I was writing it. The story dealt with betrayal, an experience I knew firsthand. Writing about that trauma was fraught with deep emotion, and yet I struggled to portray the feelings on the page in a way that didn’t feel stiff and superficial. A wise reader told me I was too close to the story; the protagonist was too much me. I needed to find a way to step back and give those emotions away. I was aware of the autobiographical elements, but I hadn’t realized how they were confining me. Instead of asking “What if…” I was locked into “This happened.” Once I changed the point of view, the story came pouring out. During the week it took to get the draft onto the page, I went upstairs every night after I stopped working, locked myself in the bathroom, and turned on the shower so my children couldn’t hear me crying.

Tapping painful experiences isn’t necessary for every story, and probing our personal stories isn’t right for every writer. There may be places we can never go in our fiction. I read once, though, that in one way or another, a fictional character will always be the writer, whether we intend it or not. It’s important that if we’re dealing with difficult feelings, we create distance. If we can manage that, if we can step back and at the same time go deep and open our hearts in the harsh light of the page, if we can mine our feelings that way, then the emotions that weigh us down can become genuine gifts of connection with our readers.

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This post appeared on Telling Her Stories at Story Circle Network on October 21, 2022.

Find Your Voice, Make It Sing

Many years ago, when I was teaching English and creative writing to high school students, I attended a creative workshop for teachers “up East” where we learned fresh approaches to teaching writing. More importantly for me, it turned out, was the encouragement to write a story of my own.

I remember sitting on a bench in the sun, writing in longhand about a secret my mother had told me, one that if she were living, I would never have attempted to write about, let alone share. I couldn’t get the words down fast enough, and I cried when I finished it. I didn’t know then that my stories would hardly ever feel “finished”; they always, always go through many drafts.

I wondered if people were taken with my Southern drawl or just surprised that a forty-something teacher from Mississippi could put together a decent narrative.

When we shared our stories in the workshop, I wasn’t nervous. I was learning that a trusted cohort, even one of strangers, can be a blessed space. When I read my short story at the gathering on the last night, I was stunned when everybody stood and applauded. I wondered if people were taken with my Southern drawl or just surprised that a forty-something teacher from Mississippi could put together a decent narrative. It was heady yet sobering stuff, and I began to wonder: could I really do this thing called writing?         

That remained a question for a long time. After I retired from teaching, I read everything I could get my hands on about craft. I participated in as many workshops, conferences, and residencies as money allowed. Over the years, I managed to get published here and there, but I’ll confess I had little ambition to do more. I don’t regret those years. I couldn’t have written those stories outside the context of my then-life. It took time, experience, and some heartbreak before my stories could come together in a collection that was published in 2015. And now? I have a novel coming out in 2024. That little miracle is still sinking in!       

So here we are, thinking about this writing life. You may look at my productivity or the lack of it and scratch your head: only a handful of published stories and two books to show for a lifetime of work. No MFA. No Big Five publisher. No agent. No big advance.

That’s okay. The thing is, my journey matters and so does yours.

Some of you may be starting to figure out this writing thing, or maybe you’ve already achieved more success quickly than I have in a lifetime. Maybe you juggle writing, jobs, and families. Maybe you struggle with disappointments and circumstances that hold you back. Maybe some of you are like me: the late bloomers, into your second or third act, the women who have worn many different hats in your lives, and you’ve come late to the writing party.

Remember: it’s never too late. Find your voice. Make it sing.

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“Find Your Voice, Make It Sing” appeared as “A Little History” September 23, 2022 on the Telling Her Stories Blog at Story Circle Network.