What Kinds Of Stories Do You Tell?

Everyone has a story (or two) to tell. What’s yours? That is the question.
Last week, I talked to you about writing the kind of story you wanted to write, and not the kind you thought readers wanted to hear. In order to do this, it is vitally important to figure out what kinds of stories you enjoy putting down on paper.
I am unapologetic about my own inclination towards sentimentality. While this post is published on Monday, the 24th, I am writing it on Saturday, the 22nd. It’s been four months today since my beloved dog, Scooter, passed away suddenly. I miss you so much, buddy! If you were here right now, you’d be laying down on your dog-bed next to me as I write. I wish you were.
Since childhood, I have understood that life is a gift. Since I had to fight to keep this gift in my grasp as an infant, I can’t help but empathize with others, at any point in their lives–be they infants, elderly, or otherwise–who are engaged in the same battle. And I like to write about the battle, the aftermath of the battle for those who must stay behind, or about the life and loves, the journey, that preceded the battle.
I’m not a religious person (although I respect all religions, and a person’s right to follow any religious teaching they wish). I believe in God. That’s about it. But I firmly believe the people I’ve loved, who have passed away before my own time, are waiting for me, cheering me on from up there, helping me along my own path whenever they can, and they’re reading every short story I put together, every book I finish. So far, that would be one book, of which I am immensely proud. (I wouldn’t want them to read my drafts. No self-respecting writer wants anyone to read their drafts. If a story’s not done yet, it isn’t time to read it.)
I once had an editor say to me of a conversation in one of my stories, “It’s too Hallmark.”
I was immediately offended but said nothing to the editor. I kept it all internal. That conversation hadn’t been birthed from my imagination, as most of my dialogue is. No. That conversation had actually happened.
The only conclusions I can draw from this: Maybe the world needs a bit more Hallmark in it. And, if you believe in your story, tell it. Someone else somewhere is bound to understand your intent and fall in love with it, too.

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Baseball With My Best Friend!

Everyone needs a best friend. Think back on your own childhood a moment. Who was the one person you could turn to, outside of your parents, when you needed advice, and if they said you were right, you knew you were right? (By the same token, if they said you were wrong, you knew you’d been somehow mistaken.)
I met my best friend when we were both eight years old. Unlike the other kids, he didn’t bully me. He didn’t find joy in ridicule. He was interested in what cerebral palsy was, what it meant for me, how it made me different (not in the “He’s different!” sense, but what talents it might have unknowingly conferred upon me.) In fact, when need be, he stood up for me against the other kids, the bullies, because if he said I was cool, they weren’t going to argue the point. They would leave me alone… at least for a little while, until some time when he wasn’t looking and they could get away with tripping me in a hallway at school, or saying very slowly, “Are. You. Retarded. Or. Something?” Each word was a sentence, and they knew this got to me. They liked to watch my face redden.
“They don’t know how to deal with anyone who isn’t exactly like then,” Dad said. I kind of ignored this thought. Until the next day at school, when my best friend, Luke, said essentially the same thing.
“Well, how is that my fault?”
“It’s not. If it makes you feel any better, my parents really like you.”
It did. As a kid (believe it or not, and Luke has confirmed this) I was opinionated, outspoken, laughed loud, sometimes too loud (still do), I loved to write, and, as I’ve always been, I was then quite loyal. Luke’s parents didn’t mind any of these characteristics. They went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to making me comfortable around them and in their home. For example, Luke’s mom would cut my food when we were eating together, be it in their kitchen or at a fine-dining place. I suppose I could have done this myself, but it would have taken seventeen hours and an answered appeal for clemency from my palsy.
Something else Luke did for me, with which his parents both assisted greatly, was to show a guy with cerebral palsy, who would never play a minute of competitive sports, how to absolutely love sports. How to live and die with a team. How to put your whole heart into a franchise, or a season, or a single down, or a single pitch.
We were especially fond of baseball. It took me what felt like forever to learn the game. I would ask stupid question with answers so simple they should never have left my mouth, but each time I had a question Luke or his mom would patiently reply, and over time my knowledge of the game steadily increased (Sure, we’ve always been fans of the Seattle Mariners, and that’s tough, because there isn’t a strong tradition of winning that follows the club around. There is, however, a strong tradition of: “How will we blow it this year?” It must be like watching the Mets, but at least with the Mets their fans can say, “Remember those world series we won?”).
Today is something of a special day. Hence the subject of this post. I’m headed to a baseball game with Luke (our second this year, as we attended opening day; oh, to be 1 and 0 again instead of the Mariners’ current abysmal record, which is something like Not Many Wins–A Whole Lot More Losses.). Also attending the game, Luke’s girlfriend; I am meeting her for the first time ever, and I’m excited, because if Luke approves of her, she must be a pretty cool person. And my girlfriend, who learned at our last baseball game how to “score” a game and is definitely a cool person! I’ll report back and let you guys know if anything really awesome happens at the game today. As they say on TV news promos, “More at 11.”
For now, I hope you guys have a great weekend, and I’ll see you here again very soon.

Walking Through A Mall Was An Experience For Me

First of all, remember malls?

If you don’t, let me give you a quick tutorial, since this blog takes place in a mall. Not any specific mall, mind you, but a composite of many malls I’ve visited over many years that, in my mind, have all morphed and merged together into my memory of the place we all call “MALL”.

They were big in the ’80s, ’90s and, to a lesser extent also pretty ubiquitous in the early 2000s. An indoor complex (there are outdoor malls, I know, but that’s not how my memory chooses to see them) filled with stores like The Gap, Borders Books & Music (Oh, how the times change, Borders. I miss you so much. Barnes And Noble will never compare for book selection, and you can’t get lost on a website the way you could get lost in your expanse of awesome, but your music prices were crazy! Don’t charge me twenty bucks for a CD and call it a sale when I could get the same exact album for twelve bucks at Fred Meyer. While we’re on the subject, CDs, you were cool, unless you skipped on the one good song on an album, in which case you sucked and were pretty much useless, and made us wish for something called Itunes we didn’t even know was coming. I still buy you, CDs, but then I’m realizing how not hip I can be sometimes. Back to my list of stores.), Orange Julius, the food court, Sharper Image, Macy’s, Sears; my grandma, who loved movies, couldn’t go to the mall without a trip to Suncoast Video, and on and on I could go. Good times!

A trip with my mom and my siblings to the mall was a treat. If we cleaned our rooms, we might get to go to the mall today!” Mom said!” This was not an uncommon shout from my brother. That meant: everyone needs to pitch in and do their part. I see a new book in my future(!), maybe lunch at the in-mall Pizza Hut with the kids, while mom tries on running shoes or lets some guy squirt different perfume samples at her and calls it his job.

It also meant a long day for me, but I was always willing to suffer the consequences that too much walking brought upon my palsied body (that’s cerebral palsy, to be exact) if we got to get out of the house, away from my no-one-else-can-have-any-fun-today-or-ever-because-I-say-so-and-that’s-that step-dad. And I was even willing to let people I’d never met, and would never see again, toss me looks. You know the kind. They ran the gambit from confused to curious to repulsed. Or there was the quick head-swivel that happens when two people are together, walking the mall, or eating somewhere, and one of them gives that swivel, the one that says: I’m going to look over there, but I’m not gonna let him see that I’m looking because that would be… To this swivel, I can’t help but glare. It’s ingrained in me. Oh, crap, he saw me looking! Pretend we were talking about something else this whole time!

The fact is there’s nothing more embarrassing or personally hurtful to me in a quick second than getting the I-feel-sorry-for-him look. I’d much rather someone come up to me and ask, “Why do you walk like that?” or: “What does legally blind mean? What can you see?” than have them look and wonder to themselves. Trust me, I can tell by your tone (or the opening few lines in a comment) if yours is a serious inquiry or a chance to guffaw at my expense.

And trust me again when I say I love telling stories, so I don’t mind talking about my own with you. I have a feeling, after much personal research on this exact topic, that when we’re afraid of something or someone different from us, it’s often because we don’t know their life, their struggles, their triumphs. We can’t relate as yet. We can’t put a face, or a pen, to what someone else is going through and say, “That reminds me of…” We can’t relate.

In showing you how it used to feel for me to walk through a mall (sometimes it still feels that way, though the malls have gotten fewer and farther between; you just never know what the day will bring), I hope I’ve demonstrated to you, with a splash of humor thrown in, that we are more alike than different, that it is my pleasure to have you visit me here, and that, no matter who we are, we are all alike in two very important facets.

We are all human. We all know what it’s like to feel.

And to think I sat down to write this note to you guys, and I was gonna write a short story for you, and this whole thing just came tumbling out. (I really like the free-form nature of blogging.)
Come back and see me again soon!

Why Writing Is A Form Of Escape

Some people read books to escape. I have to assume this is why Fifty Shades Of Grey was published at all. Really? That’s your form of escape? Oh, well, to each their own, I suppose. Personally, I had a teacher named Mr. Grey in junior high, so that’s the first thing I think of when someone mentions that title. He looked like Waldo from the Where’s Waldo books. So much so that his resemblance was highlighted in the school’s yearbook.

If you read books to escape, dear reader, than we can also assume that at least some writers write them to escape. I’m in this group, and proud of it! Of course, the reason I write stories is so that my readers can enjoy them, but a not-bad side benefit is the trip I get to take into the mind and body of a new character. What can this character do that I can’t? What does he or she know that I don’t?

That being said, as I live and cope with specific physical and visual challenges, I will sometimes elect to tell the story of a character not unlike myself, as I feel such stories are severely under-told in the book world. Then the question becomes: Where does my resemblance to this character end and their own story and personality begin to shine through?

But what about poetry? Is poetry an escape hatch of its own? I love poetry. For me, a poem can distill a writer’s point down to its essence and communicate it better than a 350-page opus, in some cases.

I may not always be able to fashion a newspaper-column’s-worth of content on this blog (Let’s be honest; that’s just not going to happen all the time.) but I will try my best to offer you at least a thought for the day, and sometimes I’ll have a poem for you. What do you say? If I do that, will you come back and read it? I hope so!

Okay, well, with our new pact agreed to, let’s start today, shall we?

Today, I have two poems for you. This won’t be the way things usually go here. (See above.) Two poems equals a lot of work. But they’re two of my favorites, written following the respective passing(s) of both my grandmothers. If I was escaping anything in writing them, it was the current time at which they were composed. I wanted to travel back to a period less complicated, before my loved ones began leaving this mortal coil.

Maybe that’s part of the reason why I love time-travel stories so much. Who among us doesn’t long for some idealized past?

First a poem for my dad’s mom, who left us in 2009. (Admittedly, this poem’s title lacks creativity.)

Grandma’s Poem

                                               

It is only well after one’s tumultuous birth

When emerges the truth of life’s natural dearth.

At first the education is cursory,

Comes courtesy of the elderly neighbor down the street.

A sirens-whaling emergency.

He was the old man that—with plastered-on smiles–

My parents forced me to meet;

I shook his hand in the eight o’clock summer twilight,

A dusk replete with fireflies and lingering heat.

The old man’s traveled thousands of miles, I think.

But, when it strikes,

Few in my immediate circle weep at the loss.

He was someone the community treated

With a neighborly friendly-frost,

Cordial, yet removed.

A great-uncle goes next.

Closer to home, and

Dad reflects.

As we listen to the eulogy,

There’s a man in a casket,

Whose soul is somewhere else;

A reality check.

My grandmother watched Alzheimer’s take its unmerciful hold.

Saw her sister succumb, and death took her home.

When she asked me—

At the end of a motor-home sojourn—

“What was the toughest part of the trip?”

I should have given it more thought,

But I let the wrong answer slip.

She considered my response for a momentary spell,

Then taught me a lesson I learned well.

The toughest part for her,

She returned,

Looking oddly both serene and morose, and

Discounting my reply as juvenile;

I wouldn’t understand until time ran out for someone I cherished,

Their ultimate demise

A product of God’s larger scheme,

Was saying good-bye to her sister, Jean.

Even with previous forays into funerals,

I never thought death would take the unfazable.

The apocryphally irascible.

But six years ago,

Cancer burst a faith-hewn bubble, and

My spiritual journey began anew.

Aunt Thelma followed,

Joined Jean and Andy,

And her soul mate,

Uncle Lee.

Now here again we sit,

In pews reserved for worship,

Except when the populace of God’s kingdom has an arrival to hail.

This time it’s a mechanically-inclined woman who loved to sail.

She waits on E. dock

To return to His flock.

The party’s already in full swing

As she climbs aboard the Yacht.

Or maybe the parties will come later and

Her passing takes place under a more subdued atmosphere.

Papa’s happy because his mechanic and the love of his life are both finally here.

“It’s time to put the boat in the water, Shirl,” he’ll say.

“But the engine’s been acting up.

Can you take a look at it, ol’ girl?

Want some coffee?

I made ya a cup.”

She’ll tinker and fiddle and get the boat running.

And as they get out on the water the view exceeds stunning.

They sail for a light in which multitudes wait

To say their hellos,

Play cards, or Scrabble,

Or camp by a lake.

“We’ve missed you,” they say in a chorus so clear

The intonation can be heard in every earthbound tear.

All who miss Grandma, G.G., or Shirl

Know she’s a fairly self-sufficient old bird.

She’ll let you know she’s there;

There’s no doubt in my mind she’ll make herself heard.

If you listen long enough

In a room filled with quiet,

Turning your mind off to all worldly romps and riots,

She might say:

“I’m finally free of pain and a foggy mind.

Do not mistake this for a sad time.

It’s a day to celebrate,

And not with boxed wine.

Heck, get the good stuff.

My life is worthy of a toast

And a good hearty singing of ‘Auld Lang Zyne’.”

And now my mom’s mom, who followed in 2010.

Losing Your Voice

           

“Hi, sweetheart,” I can hear you say.

I am on a recovery mission.

Attempting to rescue that phrase.

Three syllables that assured

So much more.

“My door’s always open,” it meant.

“No matter where you go,

Who you meet,

Or what you do,

I’ll love you.”

Movies gone gray with the passing years

You heartily revered,

And I was taught how to love them, too.

When our fine, four-fendered friend

Began to fly,

I cheered.

Then there’s Charlie Kane.

Touched by long-ago pain,

A Rosebud of regret.

The simplicities that make up childhood,

The incidental moments spent laughing,

Are worth the pain

That must be withstood

When the “Hi, sweethearts” are gone

For good

And there can be no more idle chatting.

I’m beginning to forget

What it sounded like.

To have you there on the other end

Of the line.

Your chortles came easily,

Accompanied,

Oftentimes before stories

Had found their strides,

By an “ohoooo geeeeez.”

A treasured response.

Now hearing it once more,

Just once—

I’m not so greedy—

Is all I want.

instead I am faced with a Heavenly taunt

That mocks the thought of free will

Or choice.

We didn’t choose to say good-bye.

Yet I’m here today to admit

I’m losing your voice.

I do hope you’ll return here again and again, dear reader, and that in my words you can also see clearly my heart beating away. Being able to escape into writing whenever I want, being granted the chance to offer you a thoughtful morsel when it might strike me to do so, is one of the ways in which I feel most alive.

Tell The Story You Need To Tell, Not The One You Think Readers Want To Hear

Recently, I sat at this trusty computer and thought, I’d really like to write something new. Something that will grab people’s attention. I wanted it–whatever it was–to stop them in their tracks, make them think, make them feel. Preferably, it would do all three of these things at the same time.

As I began composing the new piece, though, I ran into trouble. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but something about this fledgling story was wrong, its words ringing hollow in my writer’s ear and looking jumbled, to my reader’s eyes.

Then, just as I was about to close out of my word processor in frustration, it hit me. The story itself–about a magical kingdom with a maniacal boy-king at its head–was a fine idea. It had potential. I knew authors who could carry it off with ease. It’s just that none of those authors were… me. It wasn’t the kind of story I tell, and because of that it all came off sounding false when I would read back what I had written.

So the question then became: I know there’s some good writing in this piece. How can I salvage it?

That answer dawned on me almost immediately.

You can still use almost all of this writing, said a voice. My inner-editor? But instead of telling the story about the magical kingdom with the maniacal boy-king, tell the story of the author who’s trying to tell the story of the magical kingdom with the maniacal boy-king. In doing that, you tell your story, one that is unique yet universal.

It would be a story within a story.

Just in case you’re wondering, no, that isn’t the basis for the next big story I’m working on. That boy-king has never existed in my head until just now. I don’t tell fantasy stories about dragons or wizards or spells, either. There’s nothing bad about them. Don’t misunderstand me. (I’m reading Harry Potter right now.) I simply choose to leave them to people whose writer’s voices feel comfortable in those environments. I, personally, like to tell stories about characters I feel have been under-served in literature. The man the world sees as disabled, for example, who’s always just seen himself as normal and wished others would follow suit. The story of the grandfather who taught his handicapped grandson to fight for anything he truly wanted in life.

“Nothing’s going to come easy to you, but if you fight for what you really want, not a soul on this Earth can deny you.”

Maybe I’d tell the story of a hard-luck baseball team who finally gets to call themselves champions. The boy who read time-travel stories every night with his father as a child, only to develop the first workable prototype for time-travel. A ghost story with a twist at its end that the reader never saw coming.

Nott hat these types of stories aren’t told, but I feel comfortable telling them myself, so why not offer my takes on them?

There is something to be said for knowing what people are reading these days, for knowing what they want to read before they do, for “writing to market”. But I find myself, more and more, advocating another path.

Tell the story you need to tell, not the one you think readers want to hear. You stand to write truer prose with much more heart behind your carefully chosen words that way.

The Greatest Man I Ever Knew!

Now that I’m on twitter and accepting the fact that putting myself out there is a must in this day and age, if I wish to attain my dream, I figured this was a perfect time to introduce those of you as yet unaware of him to my grandfather, Richard Kenbok.

I was born a month and a half premature, at four pounds, eleven ounces. The doctors gave me a fifty-fifty chance of surviving my first night.

“You were a fighter,” my dad has always said. I made it!

What did this mean? It meant I was ticketed for a whole heck of a lot of painful physical therapy, foot braces, and kids asking me dumb questions like, “Are you retarded or something?”

Short answer to that question: No. Long answer: If you ask me that, you’re being ignorant, and I don’t think I want to know you. That long answer got me a lot of funny looks, since most kids didn’t know what the word ignorant meant and had to go home and ask their parents. (Thanks, Dad!)

Life wasn’t easy in those first few years. (Is life ever easy?) It turned out I had cerebral palsy and terrible eyesight. But one of the pluses of my life: In my corner was a kind, loving, sarcastic, and downright wonderful man. We called him Papa. Papa Dick.

In my childhood, it was easy to let people wait on me, or do things for me. They wanted to, some might have felt obligated because of the poor hand I’d been dealt, and I wasn’t going to complain. The more they did for me, the less I had to do. Good deal.

It was Papa who told me I was looking at life all wrong.

“I don’t mind helping you,” he said. “I’ll never mind helping you, if you need help. But if you can do something, do it.”

“But I have palsy,” I whined. With everyone else, this reminder earned me favor, a sad look, a hug. (Sad looks became not so great to see, as I aged. People often give me sad or mournful looks instead of coming up to get to know me, and it makes me fume inside.)

But with Papa it got me nothing but a scoff. “Your grandmother has arthritis,” he said. “Hell, she has trouble opening doors. Can you open doors?”

“Yes.” I felt triumphant.

“Then I don’t want to hear any more about what you can’t do.”

“Okay, pop.”

I kept this conversation in the back of my mind always. And when I needed a good talking-to, when I was subscribing too heavily to the “victim frame of mind”, pop was there to put me back in line.

In third grade, my teacher told my dad, “Derek will be published someday.” Whereas math and numbers and, later, geometric shapes, felt almost impossible to grasp, words came easily to me and flowed from my computer keyboard like… hot apple cider at Christmas. (Yeah, let’s go with that. That’s some good stuff.) Papa was one of my biggest fans and my “first reader”. All writers have “first reader(s)”.

He wasn’t a writer himself. No, but he loved to read, and whenever he came over to watch my brother and me, which felt like about once a month while my dad was out of town for work, he’d ask, “Any new stories this time, D?” There were always new stories for him.

He would read them eagerly, and he would always give his honest opinion of the work. He didn’t pull any punches. You need to fix this or You need to work some more on developing that character. I know what you’re going for, because I know you, but it’s not on the page yet. Only once or twice in all his reading did I get: It’s good. I wouldn’t change anything. That felt like winning a prestigious literary award.

As I grew older, my writing grew in sophistication (I hope). By the time his dreaded lung cancer returned for its second time (he’d beaten it once before, losing a lung to the fight), I had a collection of poems ready to share with him. It was called Prose From A Grandson To A Senior Fellow, the title inspired by a suggestion from my dad. I was going to self-publish it, I decided, so that pop might have a chance to read the book. He did, and he loved it. The two of us grace its cover, the photo from the early ’90s when I was young, and he was on the younger side of old. (He’d give me hell for saying that, but I’m right, and he’d know I’m right, so then he’d laugh.)

We all have challenges in life. The key to overcoming them, besides believing in yourself and striving for dreams, is having someone like Papa in your corner. Someone who sees the special-ness within you even when you can’t, because there will be times when you can’t.

I only wish Pop could have read my current manuscript. I think he would have been proud. I like to think he has read it, wherever he is, and he is proud.

New To Twitter, After This Weekend This Writer Feels Inspired!

What a weekend!

It was one of those low-key weekends at the end of which you feel like not much happened exactly, and yet your whole life just changed for the better in a small but wonderful way. I spent it with my kind, funny, pretty-dang-awesome girlfriend. Together, we reworked my query letter, got her connected to a fantasy football league (she drafted before me this year), took in a Seahawks preseason game from the comfort of my “Seahawks Man-Cave” (or so says a banner on my wall)  and watched three dogs–two German Shepherds and our visitor-in-residence, a golden doodle named Finn. (Everyone here just loves him!) We picked blackberries and put them in shortcake and on waffles. We read Harry Potter (she’s finished the series; I’m working on it; almost through book 5).

She’s reading–and read this weekend–a book called The Lost Prince by an author named Selden Edwards, after reading his first novel, The Little Book, on my recommendation. If you like historical fiction, you should give it a look! And I sent off my rehab-ed query (it’s much better!) and joined twitter, that last action something that had been suggested to me multiple times but which I had been resisting because I just didn’t know what to expect. (Change is scary for everyone, but when you’re a writer, and that change can make it at all easier for you to get your words read, sometimes you just gotta take the plunge and hope.)

Taking the plunge and hoping, feeling newly inspired, with a new football season– fantasy and otherwise–near on the horizon, I say life is looking good!

An Important Lesson Reading Harper Lee Can Teach Writers

Harper Lee’s one and only completed novel (the draft of said novel that became a book later doesn’t count, in this case, though it is fascinating) shows us that she was an author on a mission. She knew what she wanted to say from the first paragraph, who she wanted to say it to, and  the very specific, southern way in which she wanted to frame it all.

If only all of us authors could have the luxuries she did; an editor who knows where we’ve gone awry and isn’t afraid to tell us so, an agent who sees brilliance in ordinary words that, if worked over, will become extraordinary, a publisher patient enough to let us hone our work down to its truest, a reading public receptive and ready and curious and reverential. I’d settle for those first three, though.

At least once a week, I find my favorite passages from Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and read them aloud to myself. Who can forget, for example, “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”  I have always been an auditory learner, and while I like to hold a book in my hands for the tactile experience of it, hearing the words of a great author and how they flow helps the writer within me puzzle over and through the writing challenges I am presented with.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that, as much as Mockingbird is, in Oprah’s words, “our national novel”, it is not a perfect work. No one has ever composed a perfect work. All authors, published or not, look at their previous prose and can find something with which to take issue. What makes Mockingbird sing is its heart, and the way it connects to our own. When I write, I try with all I have to write words that touch you smack in the middle of your chest. If I can do that, I’ve succeeded, and I should be proud.

If you can do that, you should be proud, too.