Fiction: My Nemesis

Today I’m submitting my first fiction piece to the writing group.  The great thing: I won’t be at the next meeting, so I won’t have to read it out loud.  The bad thing:  me and “fiction” are a lot like me and 5” heels; two things that should never be together, but still I gave it a shot.

How I know it’s bad?  I sent it off to friends with heavy disclaimers like “I do NOT write fiction.  This is a first attempt!” (Well, not a first attempt, but the only one I’ve shared with people who weren’t going to grade it with press-on gold stars and smiley faces.)  The non-writers came up with immediate feedback which boiled down to “good first try”.  The one that lived with me said “good, but some awkward sentences” (my hallmark) and the real writers, well let’s just say I know, because I am familiar with good writing and am very aware of what I wrote, that they’re thinking of polite ways to not crush my soul.  See, I KNEW this creative writing thing was a TERRIBLE idea.  Stick to non-fiction, my brain said, but nooooo had to go all fictiony. *sigh*

I knew I should have stuck with my hackneyed An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge idea.  I had researched all sorts of information on deserts, the various stages of dehydration, Juan Diego and the Virgen de Guadalupe (not that any of that was part of the story, but let’s just say that the desert is dangerous and people risk a lot on a dream).  Instead, I went with young adult fantasy fluff (at least there were no vampires or even dragons, thankfully).  The downside (well, aside from the fact that I don’t write fiction) was trying to cram a story into a slim two pages.  Since I had dialog, I decided 3 ½ was acceptable.  Still, there wasn’t a lot of space to develop the story and then wrap it up, which all add up to a lot of excuses for the fact that I cannot write fiction.  Did I mention the analogy about the 5” heels?

Brightside:  I still don’t have to read it.  WOO HOO!

It’s a Boy!

This month’s writing prompts came in the form of three photos posted on Flickr.  One was a rather vibrant photo of newly hatched robins – their necks outstretched, their eyes completely closed – truly gorgeous.  The next showed a Goth trailer sitting unhitched in front of a view of the beach – a scruffy looking dog faced the camera, while a thin guy ran in the foreground.  The final choice was a photo that reminded me of a local place called Hamilton Pool and a very particular day when I was around 15 years old.  Here’s my submission (it’s “mostly” true):

It’s a Boy!

When your parents proudly announce, “you’re going to be a big sister!” You tend to envision some bald, squawking, attention-hogging critter invading your space and leaving a long, disgusting drool trail in their wake.  At best, you picture them as the perfect little mini-me’s – whose bright future includes becoming your willing minion to boss around the house until they either grow a brain or grow to a larger size.  I should mention here that I’m an only child.  Sort of.

When I heard the news, I was 14 and my chubby cheeked baby brother turned out to be a 12-year-old skateboard punk who sported a faux hawk and a curled upper lip.  He came as part of the “Beth, we’re getting married!” package.  The only real perks were that he lived two states away and would only be around during the summers or the occasional holiday.

My first memory of spending time together was Christmas after we had finished moving into a new house.  We sat in the new living room opening presents when the neighbors came by bearing baked goodies as a welcome to neighborhood.  As the neighbors introduced themselves, my step-brother quickly snatched some horrible red, white and blue boots with tassels that my grandmother had knitted and waved them around shouting, “look at what Beth got!”  As a good teenage girl, I was completely mortified and shrieked at the injustice of having to suffer a brother.  I’m sure there was stomping (I’m quite the accomplished little stomper when motivated).

It took awhile for the neighbors to overcome the shell shock of our new family.

My step-brother and I were a study in opposites.  Where I desperately wanted to fit-in, he did everything he could to stand-out.  He would flood the house with Suicidal Tendencies, Agent Orange or Butthole Surfers and I would hole up in my room listening to the likes of Prince, The Police or Duran Duran.  He liked skate boarding and flailing around in mosh pits, while I liked orchestra and talking on the phone for hours.  It was shlock horror flicks like CHUD versus trashy Sci-Fi like Krull.  Stage make-up complete with fake blood, oozing wounds and prop knives versus Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazney and the Apple IIe.  I am Johnny!! Hello, please don’t notice me, I’m Beth.

Invariably, summer rolled around, Johnny came back into town and we had to suffer one of our first little family outings – a trip to Hamilton Pool.  Blankets, towels, coolers and sunscreen were piled into the family car – a 280ZX.  I don’t know if you’ve ever sat in a 280ZX, but I’m here to tell you the backseat is not meant for real people, much less real teens who have nothing better to do than to snap and snarl incessantly for 45 minutes.  Being confined in a small space over a prolonged period while sitting next to some unwelcome toad tends to make one grumpy.  The Texas heat didn’t help either.  By the time Dad parked, we had successfully made everyone miserable.  Mission accomplished.

We walked down the path to the pool, found our little spot and surveyed the swim hole tucked away in the small limestone cavern. Water spilled down from above forming a perfect little waterfall.  People flew into the water from a rope swing.  Swimmers called out to one another as they splashed around.  People were laughing and our “happy” family ate our lunch in tense silence.  Ignoring the 30 minute rule, we all slipped into the water and went our separate ways.  My stepmother swam to a little overhang near the waterfall where the water slowly dripped off the ledge.  Johnny headed towards the rope swing and I became Esther Williams – a Million Dollar Mermaid.  I swam. I flipped. My legs rose out of the water and I kicked them in the air slowly. I was in perfect sync with myself.

As the hours passed, the cool of the water and the full and generous sounds echoing throughout this almost secret place began wearing away at our silent anger.

At some point, I sat on the shore alone with my brother and we talked – really talked – the first of many conversations we would have when we were alone.  An unspoken truce was made – one that stated that in the presence of parents all bets were off, but in the cool quiet of a pool or a living room or any place that was  “just you and me”, we were allies and sometimes maybe even siblings.

 

Authorette’s note:

My family and older friends are probably having a moment, since they were either part of the story or have heard a different version it. For their sake (so I don’t have to hear about it later), I’ll fill in the missing bits.  Once at Hamilton Pool we all went our separate ways as I mentioned.  There was a woman who was there with several friend and her turn on the rope swing came right before Johnny’s.  Out she went over the pool.  There’s a moment on any rope swing when you’re supposed to release, when the rope has reached the point where it won’t go out any further.  She didn’t let go.  As she came back, her friends started screaming.  She froze and came crashing back hard into the dirt and limestone wall.  The force caused her to let go and her body crumpled and tumbled into the water.  Johnny, somewhat oblivious to the drama, reached for the rope and everyone started screaming.  The woman’s friends got to her, turned her over and floated her body using a partially deflated float.  She was conscious, but couldn’t move.  It seemed to take a while before EMS arrived (someone doubtlessly had to leave the park and call since cell phones were largely unheard of then).  Once at the scene they got a brace around her neck, moved her body onto a back board and slowly lifted her out of the water.

The shock of the events greatly overshadowed any petty need to continue squabbling; the uncertainty of her story occupied the car ride home.

Around this time, the unspoken truce I mentioned was formed.  We rarely fought when left completely alone and we did have some decent bonding moments.  In fact, he’s probably the only person I’m willing to watch a horror movie with – his love of special effects and his ability to laugh at tense scenes as he picked them apart eased all fears that worm people with human faces were ever going to become a problem at our house.

Summer’s Bucket List

I have decided that this summer is about new experiences – getting out more, trying new things, learning something new.  So far, I give myself a bit fat “C” – I’m not exactly failing in my goals, but I’m not passing with flying colors, either.

The first thing on my summer “bucket list” (thank you, Rob Reiner – now everyone is on this bandwagon) was to try out a writing group, which I did this past Saturday.  The group was fantastic.  Every single person who was there is a gifted writer and every one of them is extremely positive and  supportive of each other’s endeavors.  It wasn’t surprising, since this particular group was recommended by my friend Susan who not only is an amazing individual and meeting facilitator, but she also tends to surround herself with highly remarkable folks.

I knew before I showed-up that there was a high chance I might melt-down and while my friend Anna and my husband Jay gave me repeated pep-talks about “self-fulfilling prophecies” the week prior,  I knew I had to be prepared for the worst.  See, when I joke about trying to remember my name or title when introducing myself to a group, it’s actually my number one fear.  So, in preparation for the meeting, I read and re-read my story aloud to try and make sure the words were second nature.  I tried to remove any word “bumps” that could cause my tongue to stumble.  I wanted to try to get as close as I could to that feeling I had in orchestra –being in a concert playing and discovering near the end of the piece that I hadn’t really looked at the notes.

It’s a good thing I practiced, because when I was asked if I had prepared anything I tried to become invisible while cursing at the paper in front of me for waving at everyone. “OH MY GOD, would you stop waving?!?!!”   Funny thing about the laws of nature, it turns out that in a room full of people who are looking directly at you, you actually can’t become invisible.  It doesn’t matter how good you are at disappearing in a crowd, once those people have locked-on, you’re in trouble.

All the synapses in my brain fired at once sending varying signals in all the wrong directions.  In my mind I wrapped my arms around my body and began to rock slowly in place while trying to remember “these are nice people, doesn’t that banana bread smells great, they’re really supportive, they haven’t eaten one of their own that you’ve actually seen, you laughed, remember how you laughed a minute ago? What if you cry? You better not cry. Oh GOD, wouldn’t that be horrific if you cried? You’re not going to cry, are you? You’ll have to read.  Crap, they’re still looking expectantly. Start reading, fool.”

It turns out the synapses weren’t actually firing off in random directions; they had a purpose, they were telling my body “hey, want to see something hysterical?  Let’s dump a ton of adrenaline in her system while she’s trying to read.  This will totally blow her mind. Ready, set, GO!”  And that’s when I started shaking uncontrollably.  I haven’t shaken that badly since 8th grade when I delivered a report to my English class.  Heck, I can dance in front of people, I can play in front of people and I thought that after going over my story repeatedly, I could read in front of people – especially in natural lighting (no spotlights were used) at a cozy kitchen table laden with all sorts of yummy food and a cute dog napping on the floor.  While reading, I kept repeating “calm down, Beth – breathe”, but it didn’t work and all I could think was, “wow, this is really LONG”.  When all was said and done, everyone was extremely kind and gave positive feedback on my story, which helped let the adrenaline die off and reabsorb.  Although, it still wasn’t completely out of my system as I tried to jot down a few notes.  I’m positive I could fool a writing expert with this particular sample; it bears little resemblance to my actual handwriting.

I’ve been invited back, which I’m greatly looking forward to and I think as I get to know them my anxiety level will completely dissipate.

The plan for next month is to join the Writer’s League of Texas.  Rachel, one of the talented writers in this group, helped me reframe how I think of the Writer’s League.  (See, I don’t think I belong there and that it’s rather presumptuous of me to even ask to be counted among their numbers.  I’m not a writer.  I’m a blogger whose readership is limited to a handful of friends and family.)  She basically said, “think of it as supporting a local charity organization.”  Brilliant! Now, that I can do; I can easily get behind supporting a non-profit – that feels ok – unlike that other thing.

Next on the list is sewing, which will start in a couple of weeks.  I should manage ok since there won’t be much expectation that I speak and hopefully, my years of being Dad’s sewing assistant will come in handy.

As for improv, the class I hope will help me overcome my anxiety issues (see, it’s hard being a burgeoning extrovert when you’re trapped inside someone so painfully shy), well that’s on hold indefinitely.  I was going to attend the free class today, which is something I want to do, but I really don’t want a repeat of last week’s freak out.  There’s only a finite amount of humiliation I’m willing to take in a short period of time.  This means, there won’t be any funny follow-ups on this activity for awhile.

Cooking may be in there at some point, but we’ll see. 

Where I initially started out on this list with an enthusiasm I haven’t seen in myself since I was fairly young, “I’m gonna be a WRITER! A DANCER! A SEAMSTRESS! AN ACTRESS! A CHEF!” – I find myself needing a second wind to become re-motivated.  Thus, I give myself a C.  We’ll see how I rate at the end of the summer.

Writing Group

Well, today is Writing Group day and after much foot dragging, I have my story. I got a little tripped up on the writing prompts, where were:

1. Your most memorable experience involving something inherently Mexican (a vacation, a meal, a game, a souvenier, a friend). (honoring Cinco de Mayo)

2. If you had the opportunity to have a last conversation with someone who died, who would that person* be, and what would you say? (in honor of Memorial Day)

* feel free to substitute an animal or house plant or tree (Dutch Elm, American Chestnut, Christmas tree)

I toyed with the idea of writing about performing in a mariachi – about being tugged on a flatbed trailer through East Austin while trying to remain upright while playing Los Caballeros or singing Solamente Una Vez without tumbling into the road and smahing my viola. I could have spoken to my imperfect grito, which would make your ears bleed or how I love El Cascabel as sung by the beautiful Terri Hernandez or even how I secretly dig mariachi music, but then all the bolitos would scurry for their Top 40 stations and I’d find myself an outcast among my friends.

I finally decided on doing the Memorial Day tribute, but I’ve overdone the “Mom” theme, so I tried to think of a way to make it about the missing Roanoke colonists – my idea was “what is something that is not known, but could be known if you knew the right person to ask”. I didn’t get very far with that. I kept going back to the fact that I’m actually pissed off at Mom for not haunting me. (Look, you have your very special issues and I have mine.) Fine, I really don’t believe in ghosts, but that’s not a good reason for her not to take a moment out of her eternity to make a small appearance. When you grow up hearing “your great-grandmother visited your grandmother” or “your aunt heard from your grandmother” you end up with a lot of expectations from your dead. And I’m sure on a deeper level, it lightly touches on some of my Mom issues.

Anyway, here’s my submission – maybe it’s a little too rushed – too forced – too something, but my brain actually locked up when it came to the prompts. My only hope is I don’t embarrass myself today.

Connections

I don’t believe in ghosts. But with that said, the last time I saw a ghost, I was five and likely high on tales from daycare or hallucinating after being tricked into eating my Mother’s signature dish, Dr. Pepper marinated Spam.

Now there are plenty of ghost stories on my mother’s side of the family. There was the time my grandmother, Grandbuddi, was sitting at her kitchen table and turned to see her own mother staring back at her from the hallway. After Grandbuddi passed away, my aunt was going through a particularly rough time in her life, weeping on her bed and felt Grandbuddi kneel beside and pat her back comforting her with the words, “it’ll be ok, darling”. That same aunt woke abruptly one morning startled after having a dream where her younger sister, my Aunt Jen, passed away. A few minutes later the phone rang and my uncle delivered the unexpected and terrible news.

My mother never personally ran into any ghostly form of Grandbuddi, or anyone else to my knowledge; however, she did lose complete control of one side of her body while driving home from work. At that exact same moment, Grandbuddi had a stroke.

My mother would often say we had a connection and would use the ghost stories to reinforce this belief – that everyone in our family was connected – that there was some inexplicable bond tying us all together. To further prove this, Mom would point to the times we’d buy each other the same present. The best example was the year I bought Mom a ceramic clown that played “Send in the Clowns” a gift she had also purchased for me that same Christmas. At times I would call her house and she’d cheerfully declare, “I knew it was you! I was trying to send you a mental message to call me.” Or we’d play the game of “think of something and let me see if I can guess,” which usually had mixed results.

When Mom passed away she didn’t come to me in a vision, the muscles in my chest didn’t tighten up and I didn’t have any prophetic dreams. We were actually right in the middle of a conversation and for half a second before I ran down a hall desperately calling for the nurses, I thought she was teasing me. Since they weren’t expecting this, I wasn’t expecting it and I stood in the hallway waiting for them to bring me back in the room so she and I could laugh about how scary everything had been. Again, as I stood in the hallway waiting, I didn’t feel a breeze or see a shadow flit by; I was alone.

I’ve since had many dreams where my mother and I talk– usually about movies or musicals or why there’s a singing animal randomly strolling around. I talk to her picture. I talk to her at her grave and I’m keenly aware of how alone I am in those moments. She doesn’t send me butterflies or twittering birds. I don’t see her out of the corner of my eye shimmering above her grave. It’s just me and my thoughts.

When I even entertain the thought of one last conversation, it goes something like this:
How are things? Good good. Un-life treating you well? There’s a new show out now called “Glee”, lots of musical numbers. I think you might like it. Oh, and one more thing… you couldn’t be bothered with a little haunting? So busy these days you can’t get around to appearing in the hall? No little pats on the back for your only daughter? No no, I totally understand, you and Aunt Jen have some shopping to do, because really material items are so important where you are. No really, I get it. You only have all of eternity to work on your relationship with Grandbuddi. I’m just saying Grandbuddi managed to find the time. No, this isn’t a competition. I was just thinking you could pop by for a second or two, say hello and then be back on your way to hunting down Bob Fosse. Seriously though, could it hurt you to say hello to your daughter once in awhile? I wouldn’t think so.

After all this time, I figure you owe me more than a whiff of your perfume or blowing a balloon around on your birthday. That’s simply not going to cut it after being absent all these years without so much as a, “fine, how do you boo?” That’s right, I’m not going to be placated by a little visit in a dream anymore. I want solid information. I need you to do a little investigating before you pop back down. I want to know what became of the original Roanoke colony. I’m really curious about that and I’ve also got some friends who want to know the real story behind Stonehenge. I don’t know, Mom just find some druid from that time period. Maybe they could point you in the right direction. Mother, if I knew who to ask, don’t you think I’d tell you. It’s not like there was a prehistoric gravestone labeled “Bob the Druid: Architect of That Pile of Stones Over There”. Don’t forget, you’re my mom and you’re the one that put this notion in my head to begin with, so it’s not my fault I’m now fussy about the whole “not visiting” thing. I think as a bonus you should also find out about Jack the Ripper. Who was that guy? My money is on Queen Victoria’s nephew. Oh, you know something different? And don’t tell me that this is like your secret handshake when you belonged to the Rainbow Girls – no “Club Members Only” info. You’ve missed three of my birthdays and who knows how many potential haunting days and we never did get to see Flags of Our Father, so this is the very least you can do. No, I don’t care about Amelia Earhart.

Well, I love you, too and send my love to Buddi and Aunt Jen. No, you don’t have to talk to Dad’s family. Mom, I thought you were supposed to be a little nicer once you were there. Don’t forget, Old Hollywood will still be there – you can break away once in awhile – Judy can wait.

But remember that day, Mom? You can still faintly hear the song if you close your eyes.

Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air

You said we were connected. Where are you?

The Second Page

So, I’m obviously stuck – uninspired – what have you and the journal is now hiding under a couple of books I got for Christmas. You know, the one I can’t write in because of my First Page anxiety?

Jay had this brainstorm, though. He said I could actually skip the first page and start on a different page. WHOA! You can just skip a page? Come back to it later? It’s like starting dinner with dessert.

Hrmm… maybe that will be the inspiration I need? Jot something on this second page and then see what happens? Surely, it can’t be that easy.

My Writing Process

I’m not sure what process everyone else goes through when they write; I tend to wait for inspiration, compose it in my head and then try to make it to the computer before it all disappears. That’s worked pretty well, except the last few times I felt inspired, it was 3am and I also happened to be using it as a tool to fall back asleep. Writing muses + sleeping muses are a bad combo if you want to put something up on a blog. When I got up that morning, really only hours later, I couldn’t remember what I’d been thinking about. In fact, we’re now a month away and I still haven’t a clue. My hope was that it would just “come to me”.

My other speed bump is I tend to rely on things to happen and all the things that have happened lately, I actually can’t write about. Dooce has taught all of us that “work” is a taboo, which leaves me with relatives/friends and I’d just end up teasing them to the point I’d get left off wills and not invited to family events or I’d say something that made everyone uncomfortable to the point they’d look around awkwardly and eventually close the page. Err, of course you guys I’m not saying I actually have anything like that to say – this is so hypothetical – like if I “had” something to say about my family… you get it, right? We’re still on for Easter?

I bought a journal, since I actually lost mine – a place where I could try to work out my ideas and possibly shape them into some sort of blog entry, but there’s just this one problem. The first page. It’s THE FIRST. Pressure says I should write something great or memorable on that first page, just in case someone picks it up, because it’s, y’know, THE FIRST and what if what I write is incredibly inane. Hell, I know it’s going to be inane – some drivel that I try to make worthy of a first page, when it should really be maybe the last page or tucked away somewhere in the middle. Really, the pressure is just too much. I think I’ll ignore the fact that it’s sitting next to me. Teach it a lesson for giving me such a complex.

So, that’s where I am with blogging at the moment. Those are a few of my demons dancing about.