Beating the Bah Humbugs

It’s December 21, eighty degrees in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m finally getting into the Christmas spirit, even though the weather forecast is scary, almost nothing is wrapped, and I came very close to dropping the lovely chocolate pound cake I made this morning. It’s a bit lopsided but okay and will go into the freezer to wait for family to come the day after Christmas.

I’ve made old-fashioned cornbread dressing and stashed it in the freezer, too. For holidays I make my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes with few variations. The traditions are important to my sons, and I’m glad. It’s a way of remembering and honoring those we love who aren’t around any longer.

I’ve cut cedar, holly, and magnolia (even a stalk of a yucca plant) and plopped it into baskets to dress things up a bit, inside and out. My mother and dad did that–nothing artificial for them. In fact, many years ago, my dad used to cut magnolia and holly out of their yard, mist it with water, and pack it in big plastic bags and ship it–yes–ship it to me because I didn’t have any, and everybody should have live greenery for Christmas, right?

Remembering that makes me both happy and sad. Holidays are like that. Holidays can be the toughest or the best of times, and sometimes a little of both. Even in the best times, for me there’s always nostalgia, a little melancholy. So many Christmases gone. So many people gone, too.

But I have memories. And traditions.

A few days ago, I had a bad case of the bah humbugs. I faced last-minute shopping and cleaning and cooking and decorating I didn’t think I had the heart to do. But the traditions kept nagging at me like whispering voices. What about Christmas dinner? And a centerpiece for the table? Live greens, of course. And music. There must be music! I hummed Christmas songs while I ran errands and got the last-minute shopping done. I listened to Christmas music while I cooked.

I ran across that chocolate pound cake recipe last week when I was going through an old file. My grandmother had torn it out of a Progressive Farmer magazine dated August 1958. The folded page has deteriorated and her handwritten notes are barely legible. I remembered her making that cake and how good it was, but I can’t recall ever making it myself. So I decided to try it. A revived, revised tradition. I could almost hear my grandmother talking me through making the cake this morning. I imagined her shaking her head at my sloppy ways; I’m not the cook she was.

There’s still a lot to do, but it’s beginning to look and feel like Christmas, after all. And I’m grateful. Treasure it, the voices sing. Remember. Make new memories for the ones I love.

From our house to yours–Merry Christmas!

Tell me about one of your holiday traditions–one that’s been passed down through generations, or one that you and your family have created for yourselves.

Focused on Fiction: Five Storytelling Tips

Good storytelling tips here, most of which you’ll probably know about, but it never hurts to be reminded. I can attest to two strategies that work for me: writing about what I don’t know (writing is about discovery, right?) and reading the work aloud. Especially the latter–*hearing* the story helps me pick up on language problems, gaps, unrealistic dialogue . . . If I stumble over my own words, it’s time to take a closer look. Thanks, WordPress, for another great post.

The Daily Post

November — and with it, NaNoWriMo — might be drawing to a close, but fiction writers don’t stop telling stories just because another page is torn from the calendar. And whatever the season, slapping sentences into a compelling narrative is never easy.

We’ve all heard the common axioms recited to writers everywhere: “Write everyday!” “Show, don’t tell!” “Write about what you know!” Sometimes, though, it’s a good idea to try something different to get the creative juices flowing in new directions. Here are five writing tips that might sound counterintuitive at first, but could potentially help you cross a word-count threshold, smash through a writer’s block, or just come up with a new story idea.

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Close Encounter in the P.O.: Two Soldiers

I want to tell you a true story.

At the P. O.

This morning, I stood in line for a long time in our neighborhood post office. As usual, there was only one person working–a woman who, in spite of the line, seemed determined to keep her wits about her by not hurrying. So I did some people-watching. That’s what writers do, right?

A young African American man wearing camouflage stood just in front of me. He was clearly a soldier—muscular build, clean-cut, his head shaved—and when he turned, I saw his clear, beautiful dark eyes. In front of him, a couple of suspicious looking white guys waited. One wore a baseball cap over his dirty hair (he was sending a money order, it turned out, for $57 and some cents); and the other, with his unkempt beard and beady eyes, looking like a character out of Deliverance, struggled with a box so big he had to rest it now and then on the Priority Boxes kiosk next to us.

The line grew behind me, too. I couldn’t help noticing a scruffy, bearded, older white guy when he came in. He wore a prosthetic leg and a sour expression. In pain? I wondered. Deliverance guy turned and stared pointedly at the prosthetic leg (the older man was wearing shorts).

Finally, the line moved, and the soldier in front of me was next. He had been working on a package at the kiosk, and apparently, he’d stuffed something too large into the envelope. It bulged and gapped open at the ends. The postal clerk told him he’d have to tape it up. “I don’t have any tape,” she said, nodding toward the tape for sale.

“What about that tape right over there?” the soldier asked. He was right; there was tape, in clear view on the counter.

“I can only let you have tape if you’re sending it Priority,” the clerk said. The soldier nodded, and she handed him the roll. He taped up his package, paid, and turned to go.

Encounter

Soldier Cloth by lobster 20 Image courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
Soldier Cloth by lobster 20
Image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

As he walked out, the scruffy older man behind me said, “Soldier!” His tone sharp, commanding. I turned. Oh Lord, I thought, not a confrontation.

The young soldier turned, too, and looked at the man.

“Vietnam vet,” the older guy said, as though that was all the explanation needed. “You been in it over there?”

“Yes sir,” the soldier answered, his tone like a salute. “Twice now.”

The Vietnam vet reached across the space between them and offered the younger soldier his hand. “I want to thank you for what you do for all of us,” the old vet said. They shook hands, black man and white, two soldiers standing on common ground in our little post office. The moment was entirely theirs. Choked up, I looked away.

The young soldier went on his way, and by that time, I was at the window, tending to my mundane errand but knowing I had just witnessed something remarkable.

Some Donald Maass Wisdom

Earlier this morning, I had read Donald Maass’s column, “Seasons of the Self,” at Writer Unboxed. First, Maass reflects on his personal past, his present, his future. Then he turns the reflection to the art of writing fictional characters. Every protagonist, he says, must possess personal awareness–a clear sense of where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going. Here’s Maass:

How does your protagonist understand his or her own evolution? Powerful characters are real people. To become fully real we need to create their personal history.

He goes on to list ways to give protagonists the sense of self that renders them human. This is good stuff; I’d say go read it right now.

Witness

So what does the Maass article have to do with what I witnessed this morning? Just this: I was struck by the fact that each of the soldiers in the post office has his own story: a past self, a present, a future. Their stories crossed in that moment, unforgettable, I would think, for either of them, or for me. I just happened to be there; ten minutes earlier or later, a shorter wait, and I would have missed it. I could invent a story now about either of them, based on what I observed. I have all I need. Whether I will or not, I don’t know. For now, it’s enough to have been there.

A challenge for you!

First, read the Maass article. Then think about the protagonist in your current work-in-progress. How does his/her story interact with the stories of others? How does such a moment of encounter impact his/her self-knowledge? Write a “fresh” encounter your character has that reveals something about his or her sense of personal history.

Or, think about your personal story in this light: How has a moment of encounter changed you? Write about it!