I just finished mapping out the last fifty pages of the new Katrina novel, Jazzy. I don’t begin writing with an outline; I begin with a character and a situation. As I write, I jot down a bare-bones outline of what I think is coming next. Often this turns out to be untrue. Sometimes I go back and outline what I’ve written, to see what I’ve written. Here, at the end, the outline takes on a more detailed imagining. In these last fifty pages of Jazzy, elements of what I initially thought would happen remain, but they’re all slightly different. The one hard fact of the ending remains the same: if this is to be a Katrina novel, death must enter the story.
I HATE writing death. I like for death to be the emotional triggering event–in the past. Read my novels and short stories and you will see death over and over again. I attribute this to my daddy dying when I was three years old, suddenly, tragically, graphically. Haunted by that, I’ve explored the death of mothers, several cousins, a sister, strangers, an uncle, a grandfather, boyfriend, wife, the near-death of a nephew, and the death of too many fathers to count.
Only once or twice have I written the death of a character who lived and breathed when I began the story. In one novel, I was so averse to having a young cousin die, I had him run off and become a Jesus freak instead.
All of which means the character in Jazzy, of whom I am extremely fond, must not die in vain. The hard part, of course, will be when I return to the beginning of the story for the editing process. Now I will know the character is going to die. Everything I write about him will be tinged with poignancy. It will be hard going. Death always is.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
My other blog is talking about love. And fleas. And love.
“In my ongoing efforts to rid my life of fleas, I’ve learned way more than I want to know about them. Their life cycle, their truly horrifying body anatomy. Every article I’ve read is accompanied by the gruesome photo of a bare back, the splotchy red flea bites (I know what a flea bit looks like, thank you very much.) I’ve researched, tried, and debunked more flea-removal remedies than I have anti-aging creams (Spoiler Alert: neither work.)”
Remember: You Cain’t Do Nothing with Love
For reasons I can’t explain, I am following a blog on how to speak Italian,The Art of Translation. It’s interesting—I like getting notice of the posts. Today, the topic was “Honey, Sweetheart, & Co.” Or, Italian nicknames for the beloved. I was looking forward to the topic. My husband and I call each other (TMI alert) “mon petit chou-chou,” French for my little cabbage. We do this because when I was studying French I thought this was the weirdest term of endearment I’d ever heard. My little peach, yes. My little cabbage?
So I’m reading the list of words Italian lovers use as terms of endearment:
Stella: little star
Passerotto: little sparrow
Or as a Facebook friend said last time I posted about my relationship with fleas: fleeeeeeaaaaaasssss!!!
The exact moment I read this startling news, my husband was sweeping the apartment floors. I’d already vacuumed the rugs, put every pillow we owned in a sack, and removed the oil paintings from the wall. I’d learned how to use the attachments on the vacuum cleaner (I am not a gadget gal) so I could vacuum the upholstered chairs with a little brush thingy and vacuum between the cushions and along the baseboards with a little nozzle thingy. I’d cursed as I tried to remove the canister from the vacuum (see above re: gadgets). I’d called the Salvation Army to come pick up my old sofa, and I’d ordered a new one.
All of this in hopes the professional coming to spray the apartment would actually get rid of fleas.
And the Italians use fleas as a term of endearment.
How could a flea be a beloved thing?
In my ongoing efforts to rid my life of fleas, I’ve learned way more than I want to know about them. Their life cycle, their truly horrifying body anatomy. Every article I’ve read is accompanied by the gruesome photo of a bare back, the splotchy red flea bites (I know what a flea bit looks like, thank you very much.) I’ve researched, tried, and debunked more flea-removal remedies than I have anti-aging creams (Spoiler Alert: neither work.)
On a happier note, I have come to understand one of life’s truly unfair mysteries. To wit, why fleas turn me into an obsessed, itching maniac while my husband sits sanguine on the sofa. Turns out, it’s not because he’s trying to send me screaming over the edge but because some people (that would be me) are allergic to flea saliva and itch like the Devil and others (that would be him) are not.
Not just itch. Burn. Like someone dipped a Q-tip in acid and dabbed it on my skin. First one dab, then another, then another. I become 100% focused. I can talk about nothing other than my growing angst. I can’t think straight. I wander from room to room, forgetting why I’m on the move. Oh, yeah—maybe a hopping flea can’t hit a moving target.
How could the Italians use fleas in any way remotely connected to love?
Then I remember the “Time Before Fleas.” Before my husband and I had fleas in our lives, before he would sit on the flea-infested sofa unperturbed while I writhed, contorting my body in a vain effort to reach that one illusive bite. Back before the discrepancy between flea sensitivity came to define our relationship.
I remembered the symptoms of love.
A burning desire. An obsession. An inability to talk about anything thing else. A brain fog accompanied by an unrelenting awareness of the body. A symbiotic oneness of gigantic, unhealthy proportions.
Love. Fleas. Hmmmm. Those Italians may know what they’re talking about.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
I opened the hand-addressed notecard. The graceful penmanship thanked me for my short story. I flipped the envelope and read the address: the writer was my neighbor. She had read “Just Now” in Memphis Magazine when the story won its annual fiction contest. I tucked the note away with other notes I’ve received over the years, those I want to keep. Of all the times my work has been published in literary journals, this note from my neighbor is the only time I remember someone in the wide world reading my fiction and responding.
Something different is happening now.
This summer, I am releasing my short story collection in audio, an initial four stories then one per week thereafter. I’m still at the beginning of this experiment; I’m only on story number 6. Yet, the difference in how I’m experiencing this publication experience is phenomenal.
I have people emailing me, Facebook messaging me, smiling at me when I run into them in the store. They are going out of their way to tell me how much they enjoy what they are hearing. They comment on the characters by name; they tell me the scenes that vibrated for them.
Why did I publish in literary journals? Because I was told to do so. Build your resume, they said, secure publications to include in your query letter—show agents you’ve got some chops. Better yet, maybe an agent will read your work and call offering representation. As a former lawyer, I saw the sense in this. Plus, to a certain extent, it worked. I have a “resume.” I made great contacts with editors, judges, etc. My work appeared in incredibly beautiful journals, themselves works of art. And, oh, my goodness, did I enjoy getting my work accepted by someone who had the background and position to call my work good.
“Ordinary readers” reading (well, listening) to my fiction takes things in an altogether different direction. The listeners are impacting the stories. For when I think of the stories now, I picture my friend sitting on the couch in the rain, listening to my words. Or another waking up, listening to my voice. Or laughing out loud at something I wrote. Or zipping down the interstate, repeating with gusto my quirky character’s mantra.
The readers are doing something I’ve read about concerning art, the artist, and those experiencing art, something about the triangle of relationship; the role the listener/viewer/reader plays in completing the work. I think this is why the reaction to my fiction feels so different from the feedback I’ve received over the years on my nonfiction book and essays. The listeners are making real something that otherwise is not.
This is brand new to me. Not to mention tons of fun, which was why I set out on this audio experiment in the first place: it sounded like fun. So far, so good.
Remember: You Cain’t Do Nothing with Love
My character in Jazzy, the new novel I’m working on, will love Venice, Louisiana. Venice will be a place Jazzy drove to with her daddy, one of her many “memory containers” destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. She will be devastated to learn the Katrina surge so inundated Venice to make the land indistinguishable from the Gulf of Mexico. The memories from my trip this week that I will give to her to create this love are:
* We stop the car so I can take a photo of the minuscule elevation between water and the road. I open the door and step from the car. All I hear is the wind rustling the tall water grasses. Gradually, the sound of machinery underneath makes itself known. My ear adjusts and listens instead for the wind in the rushes. My character’s dad will tell her, “Listen.” They’ll stand stock still so they can hear the wind rustling the saw grass, watch the egrets dipping into the marsh, wait for a dragon-fly to land on the tip of a lily, its wings beating.
* Hunting a place to eat, we travel the dirt road past huge oil buildings surrounded by chain link fencing hung with red-lettered “Keep Out” signs. Taking a right, we drive through several parking lots and come upon a grill. As I walk the short distance to the wooden house sitting high on stilts, I catch a glimpse of the water. Relief washes over me. Oh, Ellen, you can get a beer and a po-boy and sit on the deck and watch the sun sparkle on the blue water. The grill is closed, but I will give my character the longing I felt when I rounded the corner to the grill.
* When I look at the water edging into the road and soak in the lack of a clear line between land and river and Gulf, I see physically what I believe theologically. The line between here and there is wavering, indistinct, easily penetrated. Some say I have an overactive imagination; I say the division we proclaim is itself a figment of our imagination. To this end, I will have my character ride in her Daddy’s car from asphalt to gravel to dirt to the standing water that signals the road is about to give out altogether, then park and walk until all they can see is water where they’ll stand in awe, amazed the water lapping at their ankles is the same water spreading out and becoming the Gulf of Mexico.
My character will love Venice, Louisiana.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
A couple of days ago, I called Venice, Louisiana the end of the earth. It’s not. It’s the end of the world.
At the time, I did not know Venice’s official nickname was “The End of the World.” Now, having gone and returned, the REM song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” keeps looping through my brain.
We went to the last community on the Mississippi River you can reach by automobile because of a Eudora Welty short story I read before I turned twenty years old. Thus focused, I did not know we were also traveling to the proximate area of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. In more ways than linguistically, when I said we were driving to the end of the earth, I underestimated what we were doing.
The drive to Venice begins on an ordinary highway into Belle Chasse and Jefferson Parish. You emerge from the Belle Chasse tunnel and feel you’re underway. The levee appears rather suddenly on the left side of the road, the green hump clearly defined by the boats that rise above it, traveling the river. The Chevron Oak Pointe Plant is precursor of the oil dominance to come. It stinks.
Most of the business signs point to the oil rig support system: welders, pipe shops, culverts. Most of the trees are planted in rows, not just the citrus groves but the pecans, crepe myrtles, even the clumps of banana plants. Occasionally, small above-ground cemeteries slide between the houses. Just past the Phillips 66 Refinery, the marsh spreads to the right, a flat alluvial plain.
After Port Sulphur the levee curves so close you feel as if you could reach out and touch it. The levee appears on the right side as well, and you begin that narrowing that indicates you’re traveling a spit of land. Top the bridge and you can see the water, dotted everywhere by tall cranes.
Patches of Tara-look-alike houses spring up for no reason discernible to outsiders. The rest of the homes are trailers. The mobile homes are permanent residences with curving brick front steps, screened back porches, and brick porticos added thereto. The bars advertise Lingerie Night. Every vehicle on the road-except ours-is a truck.
Gradually the road dips so that it rises no more than inches from the shoreline. The asphalt gives way to dirt. Large elephant ears mound along the shoulder, alternating with water grass, scrub bushes, and flowering hydrangea. When the road ends we take a left, circle around, and take a right. I’m still not sure if we made it to the end or not.
Maybe one day I’ll go back. Knowing what to expect, I’ll be a better observer. Less blinded by how industrial it all is, how ubiquitous the refineries and oil companies are. Aware of the present-day reality, maybe I can do a better job of seeing the beauty there to be seen.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
With my new novel, Jazzy, I’m writing about the destruction of New Orleans following Katrina. Yesterday, I traveled to Plaquemines Parish where Katrina made landfall. Now I’m writing about the destruction of Venice, the last point in Louisiana reachable by road before the Mississippi River pours into the Gulf. The community, “protected” by ring levees, was inundated by Katrina’s surge. Like a filled bathtub, the water couldn’t recede. Everything was underwater. My protagonist, a nine-year old girl who recently lost her father and is now losing every place that contains memories of her dad, is having a hard time with this. So am I.
Right now, at this very moment, we are five stories into a fourteen story experiment. Tomorrow, we will release a new story— “Drunk at the Foodland Again”—and we will be six stories in.
Many of you are listening to these stories as they are released. Some of you have subscribed at YouTube. Some subscribed to the podcast feed at caintdonothingwithlove.wordpress.com, and you receive an email each time a new podcast is released. Some are listening on iTunes. Some click through on the Facebook links and listen when I post information about a story or the charity the story is paired with.
Thus—so far—the experiment is working. i.e., Y’all are listening. Some are even donating to the charities.
Come September, we will have unrolled all fourteen stories. We will then offer the collection in toto (that means altogether, not in Dorothy’s basket in Oz) on Podiobooks.com and other audio sites. That will began a whole new experiment: literary short stories written and read by the (essentially unknown) author.
Thanks for being part of my literary laboratory. If you haven’t already, you might want to jump in the beaker. See what love has concocted.
“The trouble started earlier that summer, about a month after my mom died from cancer and left me living alone, my dad long dead. Friday night, I was at the ‘80s dance party held down on Lamar for the Memphis Museum’s Young Adult outreach program. The D.J.’s were playing the music and strobing the lights when . . .”
Listen to the story here:
Tomorrow, we are driving to the ends of the earth. We’re traveling this path because, before us, Eudora Welty’s characters left New Orleans and drove to the ends of the earth: Venice, Louisiana in “No Place for You, My Love.” Earlier in my life, after I absorbed all books I could read about King Arthur, I tromped through England visiting sites of the legend: Camelot, Tintagel, Glastonbury Tor, the field where Mordred killed Arthur. Someday, I will go to St. Petersburg because of Helen Dunmore’s novel, The Siege. A book about deprivation, starvation, and war so endeared me to St. Petersburg I want to travel halfway around the world to see it for myself.
Maybe I am too easily drawn to mystery. Maybe imagination embeds itself too deeply in my psyche, seeming all too real. I don’t know. But, tomorrow, first thing in the morning, we are driving to the ends of the earth.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
When I ordered fries with my pulled pork sandwich, the waitress said, “It comes with slaw.”
“On the sandwich,” I corrected her.
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s what I want,” I clarified. “Slaw on the sandwich, fries on the side.”
I woke up this morning talking about eggs. My husband made boiled eggs for breakfast and when I went into the kitchen, there was the egg, unpeeled, rolling on my plate. Made me reminisce. Mostly disagreeable memories, I’m sorry to report: as a child, I was not an egg fan. So we had a little egg talk on-line (boiled, fried, scrambled) and even veered into advice re: milk toast as a hangover remedy.
Then I release the 5th story in the Cain’t Do Nothing with Love collection, and what’s in the first paragraph? Eggs.
I didn’t remember that.
It truly is an egg kind of day.
“Providence and I were dancing. We called it playing Baby Dog—she tucks her head underneath my chin, holds onto my chest with her paw—when we waltzed into the kitchen and there was the Devil. Baby Dog did not stir: she isn’t a sentinel, she’s a Yorkie. Mr. D. was offering fried eggs, sunny side up, but I wasn’t biting. I couldn’t make him leave because I’d foolishly invited him across my threshold, but I did not have to eat his runny eggs.”
Listen to the rest of the story here:
“Baby Dog, Peewee Ned, and the Devil’s Naked Butt”
I am on muscle relaxers.
Never would I have thought such a sentence would come out of my mouth. It reminds me of my first—and hopefully last—divorce trial when I found myself on the witness stand giving dog testimony. I thought, my God, Ellen, here you are under oath, giving dog testimony—“I was the one who bathed them, I fed them”—desperate to get custody of my three little Yorkies.
The muscle relaxers have come into my life because I’m “down in my back.” I will probably tell folks it’s from raucous sex. Well, probably not. The time my now-husband and I really did break our bed, it was the most embarrassing thing. Calling all around town, trying to find someone who could fix the metal hinge on the bed frame. “We broke our bed,” I’d say, and snicker, snicker, I’d get in return. The less-specific, “Our bed broke,” didn’t improve things much. Still: snicker, snicker.
So I’ll probably have to tell the truth about the muscle relaxers: the loss of youth. Which, quite frankly, isn’t enough of an excuse to get me to take medicine. I’m one of those people who does not take medicine well—it makes me nervous to put foreign substances in my body. I shared this feeling with my doctor, who I also told of my association of “muscle relaxers” with “addiction.” He told me that wasn’t going to happen, not on his watch. Turns out, this internist was a certified addiction specialist.
“You may be an addict,” he said, his gaze piercing. “I don’t know you that well. But it won’t happen on my watch—I’ve got my eye on you.”
Actually, I really liked him. Because he told me how crappy menopause was. No soft music and babbling brooks for this man. I appreciated that. I’m not sure being down in my back had a thing to do with my going through menopause, but he was a new doctor who needed to build a practice and I was a paying patient, so he was listening to whatever I had to say. I also liked that about him. He assured me I hadn’t ruined my kidneys from taking herbal supplements for my menopausal migraines, but I probably had given myself an upset stomach. From the magnesium. “Magnesium,” he said, “like Milk of Magnesia.”
Well, who would’ve thought?
Trusting in this man, I filled the prescription for muscle relaxers. The pharmacist, thank God, told me not to take the muscle relaxers until I got home. He didn’t want me to drive until I knew what effect their sedative nature would have on me. I was glad he mentioned this since that was the very reason I’d bought the Mt. Dew in my hand—to wash down the muscle relaxers.
Do the muscle relaxers help? I don’t know. Tonight is my wedding anniversary—my eighth anniversary with this, my hopefully last, husband—and I’m not going to be on muscle relaxers for my anniversary dinner. Tomorrow will be a new day.
Tomorrow will, in fact, be the beginning of my ninth year in this marriage, in which the husband of my second-half-of life tells me how well I’m managing my health problems. The husband who sleeps with me in a broken bed lying flat on the floor because we decided we kind of liked it that way. The man who does not fight in court with me over my Yorkies but lowers his long self onto the den carpet—all six foot three of him—and hand feeds the tiny dogs their doggy biscuits, making munching noises if necessary to get them interested in their delicious doggy treats.
The dogs eat enough of those biscuits, they’re gonna get addicted.
Not to worry.
I’m a certified dog biscuit addiction specialist.
I’ve got my eye on them.
Why I Like Workers Interfaith Network:
They host the best damn picnic in Memphis
Rebekah Jordan Gienapp sat in our living room and asked us what we thought about future campaigns
They want folks to make a living wage
They don’t want employers to steal employee’s wages
They fight on, regardless of whether the state legislature intends to run in and stomp all over their work
Listen to the story here:
“At my feet, the winter grass was yellow and bent. Some, like Maureen, might call its color dead, but it reminded me of the cow’s salt lick after it had been in the fields for a while, sides curved by the flat, black tongues of cows. I studied my hands holding the poster board, hatch-marked with thin scratches, impatient when I wouldn’t wait to find my chambray gloves in all the clutter in the feed room and tore at the brambles bare-handed . . . There were some things about myself could stand changing.”
“Ain’t No Commies ‘Round Here”
“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Susan Sontag, courtesy of A-Word-A-Day
“Revision must honor the creative impulse that led to the words that strived—neck stretched—to achieve something the intellect—sitting in the bleachers, watching the race—can only glimpse.” Ellen Morris Prewitt
Listen to “Ain’t No Commies ‘Round here:
“I don’t want to hear any more talk about heaven. Or Jesus,” my mom says.
Still, I think it was a sign. Jesus talking like a surfer dude, except saying “skate” instead of “rock.” The real thing. So I decided to become a rollerblader for Jesus.
My mom says, “Yeah, and before that, you wanted to retire the national debt.”
“Rollerblader for Jesus” first appeared in print in Gulf Coast Literary Journal. Listen to the story here:
Yesterday I joined the Podiobooks Mentoring Community. The Community is a Google+ site created by Podiobooks.com, a site offering free serialized audio books. Last year, when I was struck by this wild idea to record my short stories and make them available on-line for free, I found podibooks.com.
I hung around their community for days, reading all the posts. I learned how long each segment should be (20-30 minutes); what not to put in your intro (boring stuff); and, most importantly, the production had to be done at a professional level—yes, you can record in your closet; no, you can’t have uneven sound levels that gyrate all over the place.
My decision to not have a paper book; not have an e-book; but do audio on-line isn’t the norm. But doing something differently doesn’t mean you have to “go it alone.” I’m grateful for the professionals who helped me put together my podcasts, and I’m grateful to podiobooks.com for telling me I needed the professionals.
If you’re gonna ask folks to listen to your work, your writing needs to be clear and easy to understand. The ear is not as flexible as the eye, which can re-scan a sentence almost without your knowing it. The ear, if confused, just sends signals to the brain causing it to shout, “Wait, wait, wait!”
Originally, I had 18 stories I wanted to include in the Cain’t Do Nothing with Love collection. Four didn’t make the cut. One story had appeared in a great literary journal, but the structure was too complicated to be read aloud. Two stories, I realized by trying to record them, weren’t actually finished. One simply didn’t fit the tone of the collection.
So my suggestion is to give the ear action it can follow. Clearly identify which character is speaking. Don’t let the description get clotted. Make sure your plot can carry the reader through to the end.
Ears all over the world will thank you.
I am not patriotic. I don’t like red, white and blue. I mean, I don’t like the colors. I’m not particularly a flag person, either. The only time I reacted to the flag was shortly after 9/11. The color guard marched in at a University of Memphis game, and everyone stood up like they meant it. Even then, the wave that washed over me was more a response to the honoring of the choice these young people made to serve their country before it was popular.
Still, it bothers me when I can’t find a window into something so universally held as 4th of July patriotism.
On our way to Overton Park, Tom driving, me sitting in the backseat of the convertible, the wind blowing the dog’s hair, I thought, this is my definition of happiness. Traveling North Parkway to walk through an old forest situated slap in the middle of Memphis, the forest still in existence only because a group of Memphis women protested the ramming on an interstate right through its gullet. I lean back against the bucket seat. The arbor of trees throws off dappled light. We’ll soon be deep inside the shaded paths of the forest. The dog turns to me, her eyes bright. I hold onto my ball cap so it won’t escape.
“The pursuit of happiness,” the founders said. This is the freedom they gave to me. The freedom to decide for myself what constitutes happiness. It might be smoothing down my dog’s fly away hair. It might the dappled light on my upturned face. It might be the scent of smoke permeating the picnic area. It doesn’t matter: it’s mine to decide. I could be the only person in the country who defines as 4th of July happiness the quick hug Tom gives the dog as he lifts her from the car. What this country gives me is the right to pursue that happiness.
On the way home, we pass the Coast Guard station. The station sits across the harbor from our house. When our bedroom windows are open, we hear the Coast Guard playing reveille. This endears them to me. I’m aware of the 4th of July sentiment that asks me to focus on our freedoms being made possible by our every-ready military. I prefer to focus on you. I want to thank you for your belief that my happiness does not have to be yours. That, in this country, no one will ever tell my husband our religious society prohibits him from shaving his head for the summer or tell me I can’t practice law in our culture because that’s a “man’s job” or ban you from lacing on your tennis shoes and protecting your park just because you love it. Thank you for my freedom. Thank you for my 4th of July happiness.