Thursday, October 10, 2013

WordSpinning by Kathleen: "After Long Silence"

WordSpinning by Kathleen: "After Long Silence"

"After Long Silence"

Yes, it is right, my dear poet, to speak after long silence, but for me, Mr. Yeats, it won’t be about the supreme theme of Art and Song, there being far too much of that in my Great September 2013 Novel Revision that I’ve just this moment at 10:10 a.m. on October 9, declared done—ah, how cool it is outside.

Done. Done. Done. The number of times I’ve declared this novel over and done don’t bear counting. I nearly abandoned it after the first two hundred pages. The sweet siren of short stories moved in and inhabited me during my first fiction workshop with Mary Clyde and Robin Lippincott, both masters of the short story. Mary Clyde, my mentor that summer, must have thought I was coming unhinged with the number of new stories I was sending her each month—all under a pseudonym: V. Hasseltine Taylor. LOL Sounds like a romance that should have Fabio on the cover. Au contraire. I was looking around at the realities of life as I knew it—growing up in a mill town, rehabbing a hand surgery in a roomful of other recovering patients, vacationing with four other couples we had known since our first Savannah days when the kids were young—everything, all of it was gritty grist for my short story mill.

The next semester when I studied with Brad Watson, he was less cheerful about my eternal output. He wanted to see some revision rather than more new stuff. “Stop trying to sound like Eudora Welty,” he wrote, regarding my new “Envenomation” which was over the top with snakes. Written by Kathleen Thompson. Well, Brad Watson was the age of my son...just saying. I doubt he would ever have figured out the business of a pseudonym. I wrote him back that neither Eudora Welty nor his beloved state of Mississippi had the corner on names like Lovie and Radio, or cottonmouths.

Writing short stories had run its course by my fifth and final workshop, so I picked up the old Lost (working title) manuscript and submitted twenty pages. And did I say the idea was conceived the summer of 1991? My son was home from college teaching Savannah kids how to play tennis. I told him I would kill for a plot. Easy for him and he was eager to help out. He wrote on a yellow legal pad. Very little remains of the plot on that page, but how many embryos resemble the resulting adult? The seed was sown. 1991. Think of it. Twenty-two years.

My son has named me Queen of Revision. I do enjoy making things better and better. But it’s so much easier with a poem or essay whose length is more proportional to my narrow pea brain. (My higher math.) I’ve actually looked around for a clear wall and thought of imitating Faulkner (truly I like most things Mississippi including good ole boy Brad and his short story dogs) but the only open wall spaces are ceilings so I’d have to pull a Michelangelo if I outlined the novel as Faulkner did. I settled for a new set of big index cards as my organization tools.

And, all this is just my first baby step. Just call me Queenie. And now the harder parts: finding an agent who can help find an editor who will, no doubt, insist on more revision. Right now I need to plant a few violas and snapdragons. First things first.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Fruits of An Age

September 9, 2013 7:50 a.m. A week ago today I started this blog post, my final day (in my grand scheme of things) to have my agent query package for my novel ready to send out.

But, tell me, with such an important writing deadline pending, why is it that my whole household goes berserk? Why am I out of my usual spot at the kitchen sink washing dishes, planning another meal, preparing another meal...? What else is new? My writing plans often take a back seat to life.

I set this goal in the spring after Spalding’s homecoming. I could learn a lesson here; listen to the Bard.  Spring doth not a summer make, nor can  spring predict all summer activities. Family reunions, visits from family members, my son and his family going to the Alabama-VA Tech game in Atlanta, etc.?  I did know we had committed to keeping Will, our four-year-old grandson, for most of the games, but who knew the first game was on Labor Day weekend? Will they soon be starting football on the Fourth? Life--and football season, happens.

I woke up last Monday with two 5-gallon buckets of beautiful pears, a basketful of magnificent peaches, and about two quarts of muscadines in my kitchen. Let me remind you that I cannot stand to waste anything. It’s in my genes. My mother and sisters were recycling and re-purposing before the words were coined. Truly I’d much rather write about pears and muscadines than preserve them, or blog about how my sweet nephew climbed on a tall ladder to pick the pears because he knows I want the large ones and he knows I do not want them shaken from the tree to end up with bruises. Thank you, James. Or about his brother who ate with me recently and I complained about how tasteless the peaches were this year with all the rain. He told me then he lived near an orchard and was going to bring me some good peaches. Thank you, Claudy.

And then there was the Great Muscadine Pickin’ in our back yard last Sunday after church. Will (remember, he’s four) wanted first to take those pears to “Grandmudder’s house to feed the cows.” We did that last year in Anniston when the two old pear trees were loaded with pears. His excitement was unequaled in any child I’ve seen since his daddy was a child. Although I told him the pears had to be peeled for pear preserves, he couldn’t hear that. He didn’t even know the word preserves, so I decided to teach him a new word: muscadine. He didn’t forget his goal: “Go feed the cows at Grandmudder’s.” Even after a nap those were the first words from his mouth. Muscadines, I kept repeating. We have to go pick some muscadines for jelly this afternoon. I knew they were ripe and that he could pick some of the low-hanging ones and some of the higher ones with a step stool from the kitchen.

“Okay,” he conceded, “we’ll pick the Muscadines, and then we’ll go to Grandmudder’s to feed the pears to the cows.”

I thought my perseverance and tenacity and downright “stubborn as a mule-ness” equaled anything I’d ever seen, but he has me outdone in spades. Fortunately he got so sidetracked with picking the Muscadines that the afternoon passed very quickly. By the time he had watered my wilting Old Maids in the pot by the garage, and watered my neighbor’s plants at her garage while they were away, he was happy to go inside and take a bath before his dad arrived to pick him up.

Any fruit in my kitchen is like a magnet; I’d rather write about it than work all the kinks out of a plot in this everlasting and infernal novel I’m revising. I’d rather slice the peaches, pour sugar over them, let it melt, freeze them, or just go ahead and bake the peach cobbler. Worry the dough, worry the dough... And washing pears, peeling pears, and slicing pears is not a bad thing to do: you can do it and be just about brain dead. Cover them with sugar and let them sit overnight for that amount of sugar to melt before cooking pear preserves with the thinnest lemon slices. Wash and squish and cook the muscadines for their juice. They have the strongest pull—their tart tickles my nose.

The ending to this blog I wrote last Monday:

We’ll see if Will is higher on the cussed determination ruler than I am. We’ll see whether I can abandon the kitchen, abandon this blog, and move right into Libby’s plight in the novel with so much tragedy going on in her life. I don’t like tragedy. I don’t like to write about tragedy. I want to stir a pot of bubbling pears. I want to watch the big bubbles grow small, pack the golden sugary pears into fruit jars, seal them, give them a boiling bath for ten minutes, and listen for each separate click, the final step in preservation that assures the fruit will last until Will turns five next summer.

The revision of the ending:

I know where Will got his determination—or some of it. I didn’t abandon the kitchen or my desk. I determined that the hours between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. are totally mine. No one calls. No meals are required. No laundry. No meetings. Perfect time. I could be at my desk during my most fruitful hours. Any of the other hours of the day could be spent preserving fruit. I have canned 20 pints of pear preserves and cooked one gallon of grape juice for jelly. (James later brought me a bucket of Concord grapes.) I’ve started the jelly: nine pints, a good start. Four were from Will’s muscadines and their juice to which I added some grape juice. This weekend we had both Will and his big sister, Victoria. We picked muscadines again. Guess what’s simmering on the stove as I write? And I'm about to post this blog. Fait accompli!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Why do I Blog? Or Tweet?

Why We Tweet.

That title on the cover of an old Atlantic (October 2012) was enough to make me read the article. Frank Rose based his conclusions on a report published by a couple of neuroscience researchers at Harvard who suggested that humans may get a neurochemical reward from sharing information, and a significantly bigger reward from disclosing their own thoughts and feelings more than reporting someone else’s.


Sometimes the why’s of my whole puzzling existence can be explained in one sentence from an old magazine. Why did my four-year-old Will have a melt-down/come-apart (alternately referred to according to one’s age) on Sunday at a birthday celebration here for my older sister? Let’s start with the fact that he’d already been to one birthday party and arrived at his usual naptime, sugared up. Given that, and the fact that the older folks at our party had not seen him or each other in a while, there was a lot of talking to be done all around.

I heard this loud wail from Will. He had pulled out the wooden blocks and was surrounded by various groupings of stacked blocks. When I inquired what was wrong, he wailed again, by now in the arms of his grandfather: “Nobody listens to me!” More crying and wailing. The entire party was alerted and gathering. His dad advised in a stern voice, “Will, 99% of the population has felt that same way at some point in their lives.” I pleaded, “Will, come and tell your gran what’s wrong. “No,” he said, emphatically. “I want Papa.” So it was not just anyone he wanted to listen, but very specifically his grandfather who, by the way, never says no to him.

Why have I decided to write a memoir? I’ve written enough unpublished work to completely wallpaper a few large homes, maybe even a small town. After first writing a ton of poems and personal essays, after three published poetry books, a first novel that hadn’t fit anyone’s list, a collection of short stories with only a few published, and upon completion of the MFA, I returned to the second novel started in the 90s, and its 200 completed pages. Simultaneously, I began writing a few stories, since shorter pieces are much easier for me. I had read Olive Kitteridge. I would write a linked series in the manner of Elizabeth Strout. So, I charged back to the short stories with renewed vigor. My character was already named in two Christmas stories that had been published. Clyde. One of those stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Still after writing a couple more stories now and then, I decided I must get back to that second novel and finish it. I’m not one to leave things unfinished.

When I finally stamped the novel done, again, for maybe the 998th time, I started a round of queries. While some NY editors found parts of it they really liked, my agent was unable to sell it. I grew sick of the sight of its sheer bulk; I chunked it behind the doors of a bookcase already bulging with aging manuscripts until...

... along came WELD and its founding editor, Glenny Brock, a fellow alum from Spalding University. WELD would publish a hard copy weekly newspaper with an online edition all the time. Truly ambitious. I submitted an essay for the first issue on the potential demise of cursive writing and Glenny used it as the whole inside back page. That started a marathon of writing essays/blogs that were published by WELD, and I was right back where I was in the pre-fiction days when I was interviewing folks, writing essays, and pairing the essays with poetry. Happy as a mudlark!

How I jumped from that to writing a memoir is not totally clear. Reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory may have contributed to this latest folly. I knew that I wanted to take a workshop in Creative Nonfiction, so I signed on for Paris with Spalding, 2012. Still wary of my reason, my submission to workshop included a piece in which I ruminated about whether or not I really wanted to write a memoir. During that time in Paris, the decision was clinched. Nicholas, my oldest grandson, and I stood in the Musee D’orsay and could see Sacre Coeur on its distant hill through the hands of a wall-sized clock. Looking through time. This metaphor I couldn’t shake. I would write the memoir looking back through time in small chunks of writing. In essays—the form I was so happily producing regularly.

A year later, this memoir is still on going.  Last spring at Spalding’s homecoming, I found myself sidetracked and pulled back into the novel after being asked about my writing by a new (and very kind) faculty member who suggested a literary agency that I might try for the novel. Hope welled up and pooled in my throat, and I could hardly express my gratitude to D.M. for his interest.

Why has the need to get the novel out there returned? Well, for one thing, I have a renewed passion for the novel as I’ve discovered new things about my protagonist Libby during this revision. Not long ago in reading the introduction to a collection of poetry of  Yeats, it occurred to me that Libby is part Irish—a thing I’d all but overlooked—so she blames everything on the moon. 

Truth to tell, both my novels have dealt with loss and women and their need to be heard within a friendship. The first novel had to do with the friendship of two sisters and the death of their mother. The second has a lifelong friendship threatened by a deathbed confession regarding an illegal abortion. This “neurochemical reward” we humans get from sharing information must truly be greater for the female gender. My girlfriends along the way have been so important to me that Libby, is an amalgam of all my best girlfriends. She and her lifelong friend, Clara, have begun to reveal their truest nature in this 999th revision.

Rose makes a good point. All of us—writers and their literary creations, Will, et moi—would be heard. In the Atlantic article he offers, “by telling stories effectively, we gain status, obtain social feedback, and strengthen our bonds with other people.” And aren’t all writers happy to hear this?

Rose continues, “And on the flip side of all this nattering—or tweeting—by our fellow humans ensures that we don’t have to discover everything on our own. We have no end of people telling us what’s what. Hence the real paradox of sharing: what feels good for me probably ends up benefitting us all.”

That’s what I’m counting on. It feels really good to get this written down. 

And, by the way, my MFA graduation lecture was “Death as a Fictive Technique.” I may write a similar lecture based on this blog. The epilogue of my novel indicates that Libby had been telling her stories through journals, and now that I’ve just revised the prologue, it heralds, as it should, that journal keeping.

My next lecture?  “Tweeting as a Fictive Technique: What Feels Good for Me.” What do you think?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Birthdays, Snakes, and Bleeding Hearts

Tuesday July 16, 6:08 a.m.

As if three score and ten were not enough, along comes another. I’m not too good with math, but even I can figure out the cap on how many are potentially left to go. Ah, but they are as inevitable as the Bleeding Hearts just outside my office window, just starting to blossom out, and as certain as the hummingbirds that will soon follow to thrust their long bills into the tiny red folds, sipping nectar, wings aflutter.


This one will be one of the most unusual I’ve ever had. In about an hour I’ll leave to drive to Tuscaloosa to visit my oldest sister, Ann, 88, in the hospital. Now just by my saying 88 you will presume she has difficulty walking around (and she has slowed) and that someone is usually pretty close by in case she needs help. Not if she can help it! Yesterday she decided she would go out to her flower garden and loosen up the soil with a hoe and then push some of the dirt around the base of the hostas she started from one rooted from my house in Prattville in the 80s. I’ve seen her do it a hundred times, so I can see the scene. This part was new: she felt the bite before she saw the head of the Copperhead dart back after his strike.

We only have two other poisonous snakes in Alabama—the rattlesnake and the cottonmouth, if you don’t count the more southern coral snake. Frankly, I’ve never seen a coral snake and I’m not certain I could remember the jingle in time if I did. Red on black, friend of Jack; red on yellow, kill a fellow.

Ellie Bryant inspired the first line of my snaky story “Envenomation” in the Lectorium at Spalding with her comment: “I’m an e-mail slut.” So my first line of this story became “My daddy handles snakes, and my mama is an e-mail slut.” But, you know, now that I’ve remembered this incident, my story begins in humor and ends in tragedy. I remember Lovie and the demise of her Radio. I don’t like the ending of that story this morning. Lovie fares somewhat better because she still has Silas—named after Silas House, the good preacher from the snake-handling church. Still...

My brother-in-law, a doctor, and my consultant on snakebites for the story, assured me last night that a copperhead bite is less dangerous than a rattlesnake bite. He also said that the antivenin has improved some and is not so apt to trigger an allergic reaction now that they use sheep instead of horses—oh, but not to get into that process. It was good, he said, that they were observing her overnight at the hospital.

As unlikely as this snakebite strike was the gift I found on my kitchen counter this morning, a typed sheet of paper. You read that correctly, typed as in typed on the Smith Corona typewriter, borrowed from this same brother-in-law whose dad gave it him to use in college. This typewriter has been sitting at the end of my kitchen table for a week as my grandson Nicholas has typed on thick paper for an art installation.  This is his “creative summer” following his freshman year at Syracuse University in architecture. He hopes to have a complete art show before his return to Syracuse in late August. That familiar sound of striking keys against paper has lulled us to sleep nightly. It calls up my eleventh grade typing class at Montgomery High, and a more recent memory, Jessica pounding out stories on “Murder She Wrote” when our children were young.

My birthday poem.

I read it three times through before crying. Nicholas has been the inspiration for many of my poems, and is the subject of the title poem of my full-length collection. The realization hit home that in poems it is okay to just lay bare our hearts. It is the only place we can do that without seeing our words grow fuzzy and too precious.

He has given me a sweeping overview of the installation-in-progress. It is filled with all the darkness teenagers experience in relationships in a divorce situation, situations that even the adults involved can’t fully understand. He has typed nearly a hundred pages of words this week spilled from the gut and recorded in his notebook over the past year. He is still toying with an arrangement of these words. Always eager to help with ideas, I’ve pointed out to him the light and dark in Bruegel’s print that hangs in my powder room, “The Fight between Carnival and Lent.”

This newest poem, a glorious song beaming from my refrigerator, may be the start of balance for arranging his installation, adding that warm, sunny side of healing.

Message in a Blog

  About twenty Birmingham language arts teachers endured my holding forth yesterday in my current gig as a Road Scholar ...