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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Motta Bread and Carottles




One of the valuable services writers perform is to preserve things. I'd guess at least a third of my writing students were in class because they wanted to preserve the history of their family or their church or a particular person or story.

Sometimes, what we save isn't very important in the scheme of things but nevertheless, it is worth keeping. I was reminded of that today. One of my Facebook friends told us about eating grilled peanut butter and sugar sandwiches. Most of us didn't think much of that recommendation but she said she learned to eat them from her grandfather. The family was poor and peanut butter and sugar sandwiches were cheap to make.

That reminded me of my Grammie and aunts and uncles. They ate bread with cottage cheese that they dipped in coffee. They called it Motta Bread. My God, I hadn't thought of Motta Bread in years. I don't believe it was a tradition that was carried on after the older generation passed on.

All this brought to mind Grammie's words. She practically had her own language. I think most of the words were originally German or Yiddish. It always tickled me that so many of them had to do with giving things a lick and a promise. For instance, if you swept out the kitchen but did a half-assed job, you swintzled it. Or if you ironed a blouse but didn't take many pains, you roshpeled it. A favorite faded old robe was a drunzel and a comfortable old pair of shoes were dopas.

That whole family called itself The Carottles and I think that was kind of a pidgen German version of hillbillies.

If Grammie left something, like beans cooking on the back of the stove, she let it brutzle, which was not a boil but slightly harder than a simmer.

If one of the men came home tipsy, she said the were pusufa. That was a generous term. You could be falling down but you were never drunk in Grammie's eyes but always pusufa.

I can remember crawling up in her lap. She'd pat her chest and say, "lay copesha (head)" It was the safest feeling in the world although normally she wasn't an very user-friendly grandmother. None of us kids would have dared go in her room without being invited.

They are just words, silly little words. I doubt if anyone in my family thinks of them anymore, like they don't eat Motta Bread. I'm still glad they are written down though. They are part of my family history even if no one knows them but me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Four Goals

                                                            

My editor at King Features always told me - "think about what you want to achieve with each column.

There are four main reasons, columnists write columns.

1) You want to persuade. You probably have delusions of grandeur if you think this is going to happen very often. You may actually give someone insight to a new way of thinking but if you want to change someone's political or moral philosophy, it's most like not going to happen. It's fun to debate these issues but it is rare that people can be induced to change long-held beliefs.

Perhaps you only want to persuade them to action - to vote, to adopt a pet, to support a charity. You might have more success here if they already have a positive leaning toward your suggestion.

2) You want to tell a story, hopefully, one readers haven't heard before. When I wrote about two boys who died in the Civil War, based on their letters home that had been loaned to me, I was thrilled with how those columns turned out. Those two boys had been completely forgotten in the intervening years. I was able to bring them back to life. I fell in love with them and so did my readers.

3) You simply want to provide what you believe is interesting information. After a 'possom began coming to my house, I did research on them and discovered they weren't the ugly vermin so many people think they are. They are actually rather fascinating creatures and I hoped more people would see them that way after I wrote my column. My 'possom, Cletus, still comes to visit quite often.

4) And this is probably your highest mission - you want to touch someone. When you can make a reader laugh or bring a tear to their eye, you've accomplished your goal. Sometimes, you make them cuss as they write a furious letter to you in response to what you wrote. Perhaps you bring back nostalgic memories that make them smile.

Sometimes you can accomplish two or three of your column-writing goals in one column and that is a great feeling.

When I sold real estate, my happiest moments as a writer were when I showed a house and saw one of my columns hanging on the refrigerator door. Making the effort to cut out a column and tape it to the door went beyond just enjoying them. I felt as if I had earned a trophy every time I saw one.





Thursday, May 03, 2018

Memoirs: The Most Valuable Writing You Can Do.

                                                                                         

                                             







Were you at Woodstock? Were you a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan? Have you worked as a nurse in a trauma unit? Did you march for gay rights? Did you adopt a child? Are you a farmer?


A friend on Facebook told me today that he was bored. He has led an extremely interesting life so I tried to talk him into writing a book....not even for publication necessarily but to get the facts of his life down both for something interesting to do himself and to tell his tale to others.

In fact, I wish everyone would write a book, maybe not an actual book but a memoir of some kind detailing their memories. We think of autobiographies as being about famous people. We know a lot about the lives of our movers and shakers through history – kings and queens and presidents. But I think our lives, the lives of the ordinary people of their day, are even more fascinating.

I’ve been reading on the Wabash County Historical site about a family named Anderson who came first from Culpepper, Virginia and moved to Ohio from there. They traveled on horseback on the rough trails that passed for roads in that era, carrying their child with them. It was such a difficult trip that when they were within two miles of their destination, one of their horses died from exhaustion.

Their son then migrated to Grant County, Indiana. He arrived with a horse, saddle, bridle and thirty dollars to begin his new life. In 1847, he married and four weeks later, his log cabin was complete. He and his bride started housekeeping with a skillet, a tea kettle, one chair and a bed. The nearest town, which is now Somerset in Wabash County, had exactly two buildings at the time – a tavern and a blacksmith shop.

The Andersons prospered and eventually built a large house and raised fourteen children in it.

We know these fascinating tidbits, like what the Anderson’s took up housekeeping with, because someone bothered to write them down. Reading them now, we try to think what it would have been like to live surrounded by wilderness with only a few distant neighbors and under the roughest conditions? Who do you suppose got the one chair?  

You might say, the Andersons lived the American Dream. They started with almost nothing but they worked hard and became solid and well-to-do citizens. Do you think it is possible to do that today?  It was free land that allowed so many pioneers to succeed but we don’t have that stake now. Would many of endure that much hardship for the opportunity?  

I have a book myself, written by my mother’s cousin. It is a story of the family’s history homesteading a ranch in Arizona. She had it published and bound, making a copy for each family member. It is one of my most prized possessions.

Think how you would feel if you found papers, be they letters or a journal or a book, written to and/or by your great-grandmother or grandfather, describing the town (perhaps the one where you still live but 200 or more years ago). How did they farm then and how did they cook? What were they taught in school? Did great-grandpa fight in the Civil War? What made them happy and what did they worry about. What did they do for entertainment?

If you would be thrilled to find such a treasure, then your grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be equally as thrilled to find a trove like that from you. We take our lives for granted because they seem common but they really aren’t.....not to the generations that come after us.

I told my friend to make an outline of the natural divisions of his life – childhood, school, relationships, work, fun. Then just begin filling in the details. I told him to write down whatever he can remember. It doesn’t have to be professional, it just has to be real.

You could do the same.  Posterity will love you for it.   


Saturday, April 14, 2018

To Curse Or Not To Curse

                                                

Should you use profanity in your writing? You have to decide whether your readers would find cursing offensive or not. On the other hand, realism is always one of the goals of writing. One reason, old movies and books now sound stilted is because it is highly unlikely that American soldiers would have seen lines of Indians coming over the hill toward them and said, "Gee Whiz, Charlie, we're in big trouble."

No, they'd have more likely yelled, "Fuck, we're in deep shit!"

Same with soldiers and sailors being attacked by the enemy. Not for no reason did the phrases "cuss like a sailor" or "curse like a trooper" come into being.

When I was a teenager, we cussed in front of each other but never in front of grown ups (although they weren't nearly so delicate around us). Then our guys started coming home from Vietnam and that was pretty much the end of our sensitivity regarding profane words. My husband was a Vietnam combat veteran and he and his friends cursed prolifically and emphatically. Fuck became an all-purpose words which was used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb or simply to add emphasis. There was hardly a sentence that didn't include it. Cocksucker could be a harsh negative or an affectionate title for a friend.

I was always tolerant of cursing. My father was a machinist who often used colorful language although he had a point beyond which he would not go in front of women. The "ef" word, for instance. When Jim and I got together, it was no holds barred.

Even newspapers, like the New York Times, which used to ban "dirty" words have now loosened up and use the actual words people say in a quote. Donald Trump himself is notoriously foul-mouthed. The Times evidently believes we have gotten beyond being shocked by blasphemy.

So I have no qualms about people cursing in my writing if I think it would be realistic for them to do so. I use a lot of "bad' words myself so it comes easy for me to allow my characters to do the same.

Maybe you are careful about your own language. If so, maybe you'd be better off to excise profanity from your writing. There is a kind of rhythm to cursing that will sound non-authentic if you're not familiar with it.

You have to decide for yourself where you stand. I already have. If people don't like it, "screw'em".




Saturday, March 31, 2018

Walk for our Lives

Writing doesn't have to be lengthy to pack a powerful punch.  Sometimes, a few words are all that are needed to have an impact. A dozen words can be a shot to the heart.


 



Five words can deliver a clear, concise, no-holds-barred message.  They can serve as a warning to those who ignore them.


   




Five words and a picture can cut deeper than a five-page essay. They can contain a world of mockery or contempt or disgust for their opponents.


















.

Two words can contain an entire political philosophy.

                               







And sometimes silence can reach even farther than words.   

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Secret Story






(First published as a Logansport Pharos-Tribune column)







Several years ago, I was invited to direct a work shop at the International Women’s Writing Guild annual conference on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. I had never done anything like this before. I’d never even attended a workshop much less developed and directed one. I’d never stayed on a college campus, slept in a dorm or been to upstate New York. I’d never been thrown together with 1,200 women.
 
I barely remember anything about the conference itself. I don’t recall what other workshops I attended or what I taught in my own. If I learned valuable writing lessons, they have been processed subconsciously.


But I do remember all those women and how intimidated I was at first. They congregated into groups with common interests. There were several New York poets, all elegantly dressed and accessorized. They considered themselves the Artists, existing on a slightly higher plane than the rest of us. 


There were the Earth Mothers in sandals and long skirts. Generally, they came from little self-sufficiency farms where they raised goats and organic food. You could usually find them in the yoga classes or making mandalas. (Mandala is a Sanskrit word roughly translated as “circle” – a mandala is a cosmic diagram, if you will).


There were the hard-core Feminists, many of whom had become lesbians voluntarily as a way of making a political statement. They tolerated no dissent from the party line.
Then there were the rest of us. I considered us the Regular people. We had no agenda beyond learning how to write or how to sell what we wrote. 


Some wanted to do just one particular thing. One wanted to write her church’s history, another wanted to produce a cookbook featuring her southern granny’s recipes. One, with an autistic son, wanted to write about coping with that condition.
St. Patrick’s Day always makes me remember one woman in particular. This St. Patrick’s Day was no different.


Her maiden name (I’ve changed the names because it’s not my story) was Hummel or Schneider, anyway, a very Germanic-sounding name. Her family, she told us, had been of proudly German origin for generations, on both sides. 


But her mother had a peculiarity in that her favorite holiday was St. Patrick’s Day. Every year, she made green-iced cupcakes decorated with four-leaf clovers on top. She made a big bowl of green punch. She filled the house with green balloons and hung green crepe paper garlands above the door sills. The centerpiece on the table was a cut-out of a leprechaun. She put Irish music on the record player. And she always took the kids to the St. Patrick’s Day parade.


If the rest of the oh-so-German family thought this over-the-top celebration was odd, they never said so but just enjoyed the green cupcakes and punch.


Many years later, the mother was very old and ill in the hospital. The doctors said she wouldn’t live much longer. She called my friend, her daughter, to her side and said, “I have a secret to tell you.”


Her daughter leaned in close because her mother’s voice was weak and trembling by then. 
“I was adopted. I’ve known about it from the time I was very young. I was rummaging around in a trunk in the attic and found my birth certificate. I never said a word about it because I was afraid if I asked questions, it would hurt Mama and Papa’s feelings. They never wanted me to know they weren’t my real parents. I never wanted them to know I knew because I considered them my real parents in every wonderful way it is possible to be a parent.”


Her daughter was astonished, hearing her mother’s confession.

“My birth mother’s name was Kathleen McCarty. She was 17 years old when I was born. That’s all I know. It’s all I ever tried to know although I wondered about her often. I’ve always given her the benefit of the doubt for doing what she must have thought was best for me. Since I couldn’t recognize my little Irish mother in any outward way, I always gave her a special celebration on Patrick’s Day.”


My friend wanted to ask questions but it was too late. Her mother was too weak. She’d said all she had to say. She died a short time later.


So, that’s why she was at the conference, to learn to tell her mother’s story. I don’t know whether she accomplished her goal or not but if she didn’t, I’m sure hearing it is something none of us who were in the cafeteria the day she told it has ever forgotten. I bet I wasn’t the only one to think of her on St. Patrick’s Day.


I’ve discovered since then that there really are no “just Regular” people – every one of us has a special story inside us – if we are willing to tell it and if someone is there to listen.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Romania? Really?

                                                 

As writers, we all have our own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to style. We can improve on the areas where we falter, of course. I've gained many techniques from reading other writers I admire, such as how they handle transitions but over all, we are what we are and it's best to just go with it.

For instance, I could never develop a plot no matter how I studied how other writers did it. My books have no plots. They just ramble. That's the way it is.

When I was young and poor, my friend worked at Hooks Drugstore. When Harlequin paperbacks exceeded their shelf life, the store threw them away or gave them to employees. My friend read them, then brought them to me. Oh, God, I read so many Harlequin romances. They were so formulaic, it was like reading the same story over and over except in one, the hero was a pirate and in one he was a rancher.

When I got a little older, I thought I should write for Harlequin. It would be easy. They sent you guidelines that practically laid out what had to happen in every chapter. Just follow the formula. Except I couldn't do it. My romances always took a turn for the twisted. Not Harlequin material.

You have to be organized to write a nice, concise plot but I'm not organized. I never know what if going to happen next. I just start out and let it happen. I think I have a fair talent for characterization but that's not on me, it's on the characters themselves. They come to me full-blown.

For example, one of the protagonists in one of me books was born and raised in Romania before coming to New York as a teenager.

"Are you kidding?" I asked him. "Why Romania? I know nothing about Romania and could care less."

"Nope," he insisted, "it has to be Romania."

So I had to do a ton of research to to be able to write realistically about Romania. It turned out to be quite interesting but I'd never have chosen that country if it had been up to me.

So, my advice is to read a lot and yes, pay attention to how authors write about people, places and things but don't model yourself on anyone else.  Whatever your voice is, that's the important one to focus on.