His brother’s hands, before and after

imagesOne of the rewards of the writing life is teaching writing. I taught composition for some years at a US military base in Naples, Italy. I remember a young soldier who had grown up poor in the Caribbean. He struggled with standard English, with school in general, and walked into my English composition course with probably as much sickening dread as I would have brought to Marines basic training. His name was Henry.

We were to teach the standard essay format with standard assignments (this is the military, remember). Next up was a “before and after” essay. I suggested picking a very concrete topic, and focusing narrow to make a larger point, although the larger p0int wasn’t required.

Henry’s essay was about the difference in his brother’s hands before and after the drug addiction that took his life, from a loving description of the smooth, killed, caring, clean hands of the “before,” to the cracked, stained hands and ragged, split nails of “after,” to the yellow pallor of those hands when Henry identified his brother’s wasted body. The essay took my breath away.

I wanted Henry to read it to the class. For him, this must have felt like being ordered to the front line of battle, but I was the teacher and he was a soldier, so he obeyed. I remember a tall, muscular man with cafe’ au lait skin that grew ruddy with embarrassment as he made his way to my desk and faced the ranks of uniforms.

He read the essay and finished with something like: “And that was the difference between my brother’s hands before and after drugs.” There were about twenty in the class, mostly men. Nobody moved after the last line. Then somebody clapped; then they all clapped. The ice broken, a few shouted; one whistled.

Henry turned to me, tears in his eyes. “They got it,” he said. “They understood what I was saying.” I said they certainly did.

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Posted in Writing

12 Reasons You Need a Writing Group

  1. You just don’t feel like writing today/aren’t inspired/lost faith. . . . The group meets on Wednesday. They expect some work from you and don’t really care about your drama. Besides, they’ve been there and pushed through and expect you to do the same.
  2. You have just written the most spectacular, beautiful, evocative prose since cuneiform. Doesn’t have a lot to add to your work in process but you can’t bear to cut it . . . The whole group in unison tells you to get over yourself and cut it.
  3. You have painstakingly researched factoid X and you are absolutely going to wedge it into your story, even if it doesn’t quite fit because you find it so fascinating. . . . Someone will point out the not-fitting part and suggest you save the factoid for cocktail party. Maybe somebody will listen.
  4. You are so immersed in your period/setting/topic that you assume that all educated readers know XYZ so you don’t have to give the slightest bit of context. . . . Your group will beg (or insist) to differ.
  5. You slack up for a bit and produce some writing that’s “good enough.” . . . Your group will say it’s not.
  6. You decide that writing is too hard. You are giving up and taking up something that’s easier. Like climbing Everest barefoot. . . . . Your group will tell you to keep writing.
  7. You are so invested in your character, you feel his/her pain/pleasure so keenly that you are just sure that intensity is on the page. . . . Your group will tell you “Nope, not yet.”
  8. You are so invested in your character that when it comes time for that character to suffer, you just can’t bear it. You also can’t bear to feel the pain yourself. . . . Your group will tell you to bear it. Go deeper.
  9. Your friends and family love you and all, but they don’t really want to hear any more about your writing troubles, or your plot, or your characters. . . . Your group wants to hear about all this. All they ask is that you listen when it’s their turn.
  10. Your character is edging so close to yourself that you lose perspective . . . Your group will point this out. Probably bluntly, but in they end you’ll (the writer you) will be grateful.
  11. You are totally stuck. Written yourself into a corner. Can’t make a plot point work. . . . Maybe someone will have an idea.
  12. You have taken this piece as far as it will go . . . Someone will raise an issue, ask a question, and after your initial shock, a door will appear in what seemed a wall, and you will find a way to go deeper, to do better. You will astonish yourself.

There are more reasons. These are just the first that came to me. My group would tell me there are more.

Can you suggest more?

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Creating My Red Summer

imagesThe first plot piece of my novel in progress (current title: Out of the Red Summer) was set when I was in grade school.

I was maybe 10 when my parents took me to see All the Way Home, the play based on James Agee’s achingly lyrical A Death in the Family. (I’ve blogged elsewhere on my thwarted fatal intentions for that evening.)

Sometime in my teens I read A Death in the Family, which opens with “Summer of 1915,” a mesmerizingly beautiful essay built on the simple ritual of men in shirtsleeves watering their lawns. Years later, in 2000, when my husband and I were contemplating moving from Italy to the unknown of Knoxville, TN, “Summer in 1915” made that move seem possible.

Soon, after moving here, we saw the Knoxville-based Carpetbag Theater’s searing spoken word performance of “Red Summer,” a re-creation of the Knoxville Race Riot of August, 1919. Not fiction but fact: Four years after Agee’s idyllic, fictional summer, Maurice Mays, a handsome bi-racial man (see above), was blatantly framed for killing a white woman. The next day, National Guard and hundreds of drunken, heavily armed white men were backed by National Guard machine guns as they opened fire on black Knoxville. Hours later, streets ran with blood. Bodies were dumped in the Tennessee River; black families fled the city never to return. In the coming months, all charges were dropped against the white rioters. Mays was executed, an almost certainly innocent man.

Agee’s idyll of summer evenings in a white suburb, and bloody streets in an August rampage: two sides of a deeply divided Southern city. Suppose there was a cross-over figure? I began to construct a fictional white woman who would weep for Maurice Mays, not because they were lovers (although he had many) but for a deeper cause.

As a historical novelist, I look for links, ideally collisional links between characters and their times. Characters who will be lurched to new circumstances, driven out of their boundaries, their self-images shaken.

So, having finished my third historical novel, Under the Same Blue Sky, and having done three set far from home, I came back to these collisions in the city where I now live: the men in shirt sleeves, and the men in rampage. I envisioned three women, different in class and color, who would be profoundly changed and tightly entwined by the Summer of 1919, and who would struggle to find a restoring peace for themselves and for Knoxville. They will be the three voices of my novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in New novel

How did s/he get that way?

imagesLast week, I led a workshop on memoir writing at a local senior center. Amazing stories came out, funny, sad, and precious. Here’s a variant of an exercise we did that I think would be useful for writers, and just people living in families with people who are not exactly, precisely like ourselves.

HOW DID S/HE GET THAT WAY?

Think of family member (living or dead) with a strong characteristic, positive or negative: generous or stingy; faithful or faithless; hard-working or lazy; honest or sneaky, etc.  People say: “Well, X has always been that way.” Answer the following questions, inventing what you don’t know.

  1. Name:
  1. Characteristic:
  1. As an example of the characteristic , , ,
  1. Impact of that characteristic on the family and/or the person’s life:
  1. Name or invent an incident or a time in the character’s life which may have shaped or created that characteristic.
  1. S/he was __________ years old and felt . . .
  1. S/he so wanted . . . .
  1. At that time, the best course was to . . .
  1. Later, the characteristic really helped, like when . . .
  1. But sometimes, there were/are problems, like . . . .
  1. Something changed when . . .

 

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Listeners in Airports

airportRecently, a bit of snow in Philadelphia so overwhelmed American Airlines, that we got home 24 hours later than planned. [Insert here the litany of gate changes, delays, cancellations, rescheduling, cancellation, disappearing ticket agents, endless holds on phone, airport shut down, etc.]. While graciously hosted by my favorite sister and niece for an extra night, the experience leads me to suggest a new airport feature: volunteer listeners.

A church near home has volunteer listeners who offer active, compassionate listening services for members of the congregation. You can specify if you want A) basic listening; B) feedback; or C) advice.

So if Philadelphia International (PHL) had such a service, I sure could have used it. I’d pick options B&C, and ask for the listener with the FWL badge, for Fiction Writer Listener.

Me: Blah, blah, blah on the flight problems.
FWL: Oh, you poor thing. You don’t deserve this. A 24-hour delay when you had such a nice non-stop at a convenient time!
Me: Yes, and I  just bought overpriced lemonade from an airport kiosk which was much too sweet.
FWL: No way! Let me taste it. . . . You’re so right! When life gives you lemonade, it ought to be refreshingly tart, especially after such an ordeal.
Me: Absolutely. And there’s more.
FWL: Tell me.
Me: Well, I’m having trouble with my chapter 5. I need to add XYZ elements, but that would make the chapter too long.
FWL: Don’t you just hate that?
Me: I do. And there’s a tricky character transition as well.
FWL: Oh no! First the lemonade, and now this! How can a person go on?
Me: Not to mention the need to externalize some interior dialogue.
FWL: Flight cancellations AND the showing/telling dialectic. I’m surprised you’re still standing.
Me: Me too. So what do you suggest?
FWL: Well, if I may interject: your gate has just been secretly changed to gate E2 and here we are at E145. Since your flight is also way over-booked and you risk being bumped, my suggestion is to run.
Me: I will, but what about Chapter 5?
FWL: Definitely you should not accept any characters from other writers.
Me: I won’t.
FWL: For your security, keep a close watch on your personal plot points and word count at all times.
Me: OK, but . .
FWL: And, in the interest of emotional integrity, if you feel something, write something.
Me: I’ll try. There’s also a foreshadowing issue, you know.
FWL: I regret any inconvenience but you really need to go. Hurry, and have a nice flight. , , , Next traveler, please.

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“Tell me how you lost.”

imagesI’m taking Silvia to gymnastics. She scrambles into her car seat and demands a story.
“About what?” I have in mind the continuing saga of the Tudor family: warring cousins, blood, crowns, The Tower. Far away fantasy.
But she wants something else. “Tell me about how you lost somebody!”
“I lost my father.”
“No, not lost by being dead. I mean, you loved somebody, but they didn’t love you enough and left you and you lost.” Silvia is a kind and loving child, but also wild for stores. She rubs her hands with glee. “That would be interesting. Tell me how you lost.”
So here we are at the threshold of literature: “Tell me how you lost.” I tell her my story, my first broken heart. She is satisfied. “Now you can talk about the Tudors.”

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Posted in Writing

Dialect and the hamster/grandfather issue

imagesMy novel in progress is set here in Appalachia a century ago, when dialect was strong. Which raises a constant writer’s dilemma: verisimilitude and historical accuracy versus out-of-area comprehension. One doesn’t want to replicate my grandfather/hamster confusion.

I grew up in the Northeast and had never lived in the South when I moved to Knoxville, TN and got work teaching college. The class was in developmental reading and my task, among others, was to develop study, academic discipline, and time management skills. So in the first week, when a young woman stayed after to say she couldn’t do the assignment because her “pepaw” was sick and they were really close, I was ready.

Now, locally, “pepaw” or “papaw” is grandfather, but I didn’t know that. I heard “paw” and thought, well, some pet with little, wee paws. Like a hamster, maybe. I’d had one; we were sort of close, but I did my homework anyway. This girl needs to buck up. It didn’t help that I’d just moved from Italy, where the state pays university tuition with the message: “We admitted you, but we don’t have to keep you, and we sure don’t have to make nice.”

Then there was Memaw,* also troubled.  A little hamster family with cutsie-pie names? So the conversation lurched along, me getting annoyed by the litany of woe, worried that if word got out that a sick hamster gets you out of homework, the semester was doomed. She thinking I’m an ice queen, or worse.

An aunt was coming in . . . diabetes, and I’m still thinking: Rodents recognize aunts? They get diabetes? Maybe it was at “intensive care” and “my dad’s really broken up” that I considered an alternate construct: “Ashley, your pepaw—”

“He’s on my dad’s side.”

Scrambling a bit: “Your . . . grandfather’s still in the hospital?”

“Yes.” Things went better from there. Pepaw improved; Ashley passed; I learned something.

Writer’s moral: Provide context to avoid confusion.

  • Memaw is grandmother, but I’m sure you figured that.
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