No white folks in this story. That fact just occurred to me, so I re-read the manuscript to make sure. Nope. None.
The story received a Pushcart nomination from the literary journal in which it first appeared. I’m white. Who knows what color the editor of the journal was who nominated the story.
Two of my stories have received Pushcart nominations, this and another one. The other won received a Special Mention from Pushcart. That story involved an issue of race. This one doesn’t. Just no white folks in it.
Interesting, is all I’m saying.
I hate to admit failure. So what I do is re-define reality.
No, I didn’t fail to place as highly in the contest as I’d hoped. What I did was to learn a major truth about my revision process.
I am trying to shift my novel-writing from voice-driven, told story to scene-based, plotted story. I say “shift” but it’s more like those old draw-bridges that don’t open upwards but swing to the side— a screeching, rusty, grating to the ear process.
The revision I’m searching for entails, first of all, cutting. If I stop there, however, I’m left with a story leached of everything that was interesting. I must return to the manuscript and strategically add that which is me. The fun, the pun, the spot-on description, the endearing parts. The Bone Trench failed to do well in the contest because—so proud of my new-found shears—I stopped at the cutting stage. What I submitted was, in fact, the bones. That’s okay. Now I get to have fun. I get to add the soul back into the book.
First appeared in print in Eureka Literary Magazine. The story received a Pushcart Nomination, Best of the Small Presses. To contribute to Caritas Village, a charity devoted to creatively joining together people from many diverse backgrounds, please follow the link here or visit caritasvillage.org
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That’s the way it always starts: “You know what would be fun?”
In December of last year, I had my first tutorial with Preston about podcasting. Since then I’ve recorded the stories; he engineered them. I selected a photo; he created a logo. I set up this blog; he taught me how to add audio to it. Another friend, Gary, created the PR packet; I sent it out and set up a “bookless book signing.” At the local bookstore, I read excerpts and led a tutorial on how to access the stories; my friends listened and made it an SRO event. The stories got ink; all the CDs sold. Preston and I launched the stories here, on YouTube, and on iTunes. People listened, they laughed, they congratulated; I bowed in gratitude.
After a brief interruption, we are now half-way through the roll-out of the fourteen stories. Once we are done, we will add the stories to Podiobooks and other sites. At that point, the stories will go out into the wider world, past my friends, beyond my relatives, further than readers of this blog or followers on FaceBook.
I always believe in pausing. Acknowledging. Celebrating. Now, as we are about to enter a Phase 2 of this “Hey, I know what would be fun!” journey, let’s pause and acknowledge: it has been fun. Cheers to happiness.
When I look back on my daddy’s passing from this earth, I see the deeply funny moments – like when my sister suggested we offer Daddy the comfort of his beloved Episcopal liturgy. It was a brilliant idea: we would recite the words he’d heard every Sunday of his life since approximately 1971. How soothing to hear the well-known phrases, how reassuring!
Problem was, in a family that’s been Episcopalian since God created the heavens and the earth, we could only find Mother’s prayer book from 1954. The service was unintelligible. Not your dated but well-known 1928 prayer book Rite 1. The words made no sense to me; I had no idea what some of them even meant. “Read the 23rd Psalm,” the sitter suggested, so I flipped to the psalter at the back of the prayer book. Again, not a jot of familiarity.
As I scanned the convoluted, almost foreign sentences wondering how I, the woman who wrote a book on prayer, found myself at this spot, music played. “Oh, Bayard would love this,” Mother had said, and set the tunes turning. As the music plinked, I gave a half-hearted stab at reciting some of the prayers aloud, before muttering, “How could Daddy recognize any of this crap?” In my mind’s eye I saw how others would do this: the adult children who ushered their parents into the next life, bathing them in love, candle light, familiar scents, and softly playing Mozart. But there we were, my daddy at death’s door, and I was reading incomprehensible liturgical gibberish to the strains of 1950s be-bop.
This, I thought as I flipped through the pages for something, anything familiar, is my family.
When I re-tell this story, everyone in my family laughs.
This is my family too. The ones who guffawed while the rest of the movie theatre sat silent through the suicide scene from “Crimes of the Heart.” The story was written by a Mississippian, Beth Henley. My mother attributed our “getting it” to the Mississippi heritage we share with the playwright. Maybe. Or maybe my family simply has a strange sense of humor. We are the ones who laugh at death.
Otherwise, all I’d have to look back on when I remember my daddy passing from this earth would be sorrow, grief, and tears.
If you find that offensive, if you believe death is only appropriately treated with dignity, quiet, and respect, you’d best be signing off. I’m about to tell the story of how my sister thought I’d conveyed to her the news of Daddy’s passing via text.
We are in a re-beginning. The roll-out of stories, interrupted by my daddy’s death and the grief that followed, is re-starting. To get back in the groove, we’re re-turning to the last aired story, “A Trip to the Lawyer.” It’s one of the shortest, 8 or so minutes. That’s a good thing when you’re re-warming muscles. Hope you enjoy it.
“A Trip to the Lawyer”
First appeared in print in RedHot ChickLit Review.
To contribute to Common Ground, a program of the YWCA devoted to conversations on race & communities in action, please follow the link here or visit commongroundmemphis.org
I gave the words a last once-over, focusing on the new scenes designed to make the novel vibrate. Scrolling, I called it finished and exported the Apple Pages document to a Word document. Hitting “Send,” I sailed Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor and the Chickens to the editor.
The editor, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, is eager to get started. Ready, she says, to “focus on Lucinda,” referring to the central character. This is our second go-round of edits, the editor and me. The first edit, she instructed me to “do this.” And I did it, revising a paragraph, tweaking a scene. We are now in a place so radically different it might as well be the far side of the moon.
This round of edits was launched by a “road-map” email from an interested agent. I took the email and broke it down into bullet points. The agent wanted a better outline, deeper character development, more urgent plot, tightening of the prose. When I read the list, a friend’s comment on rhubarb pie rose into my brain: You put enough sugar on anything, it’ll taste good, but why start with a rhubarb? Which is to say, with so much work to be done, why try to repair this novel? Why not start over with something more basically, functionally sound?
The bottom line: I am forging ahead because the agent saw enough in the story to generate the road-map email. A professional, she believed the novel worth revising. Plus, she was interested. To throw the novel back in the vast, deep ocean of potential rejection when I have received the elusive nibble of personal, dedicated interest—well, that takes more faith than I possess.
So I took the novel in hand. I turned a jaundiced eye on it. I outlined plot and emotional arcs. I revised into a more traditional structure; I abandoned a tone I had once found integral. I expanded characters; I added back story; I looped around and used what was already lurking in the story, unexploited. For better or worse, there are no more loose ends in the novel, no more vignettes designed purely for fun. Everything does service to the plot. I have, against all proscriptions I’ve ever read, written a novel that parallels my short stories: you think you’re reading color or detail or comedy. But it’s more.
Now I’m hoping my upcoming experience with the editor—who intends to lead me back through much of what I’ve described above—will educate me. I’ll learn the hardscape of writing a novel. I’ll be smarter about what I’m doing.
Right now, the editor is in Seattle or Portland, reading. Me, I’m on Train 58 bound for Mississippi. Rain trickles down the window. In the passing swamp, bent knees gather around cypress trees like young ‘uns at a mother’s skirt. I wait for word on how I did.