Category Archives: Stories

Tell All the truth, but Tell it Slant

Write what you know, ever heard that advice before? It helps to locate and ignite an author’s passion. Ona Russell, the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch, February speaker, found a scrapbook of articles about her great-grandfather, a celebrated judge in Toledo, Ohio. Intrigued, Russell’s research unearthed family secrets and inconsistencies. Her own mother’s birth date was incorrect, the judge struggled with mental disorders, and a mysterious lady, Sarah Kaufman, legal assistant to the judge, appeared in many photos. Russell fell in love with these uncelebrated personalities from the past. Eventually, Sarah Kaufman became a sleuthing protagonist in Russell’s own historical mystery novels, a trilogy set in the 1920’s.

Part of her storytelling is true, based on the articles. Some of the storytelling is fact, based on research, but Russell worked hard to highlight the “slant,” the re-invented tensions and conflicts. Russell explained that excitement is created in the margins of the truth, in the details, in the spots where the story pauses and shifts gears. Generating a narrative from this blend of truth, fiction and fact is a tricky balance for writers, whether the works are memoir, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction because all the world-building elements have to be credible to the reader. For Russell, this credibility is key. She said the way to engage the reader is by establishing credibility with an authentic setting, with historical details, with nuances and a pace that is true to the era. This means eliminating everything that does not move the story forward, research, back story, even a favorite character. A writer should look for things to emphasize, create complexity, and sacrifice anything that is not relevant to the story.

This except is from the Fresh Ink March 2016 issue. The title “Tell all the truth..” is from a poem by Emily Dickenson.

How to Write when Life Bites, Like a Shark

Amber Victoria was a guest speaker at the California Writers Club in September. She introduced her topic about illustrating and publishing her children’s book, Twins European Adventure, by enumerating all the small towns she called home. This was followed by a lengthy resume of everything she loved about her education, interests, hobbies and life. Just as worried if, and when, she was ever going to talk about books, she veered into the oddest transition. She talked about her childhood fear of sharks, a fear so debilitating that she trained in competitive swimming to gain confidence.

And then it clicked. A swim race was like writing, she explained. How you talk to yourself is what gets you across the finish line. “Don’t negate yourself,” she warned, “or you will never finish.” Writing means you’re an independent entrepreneur and since it’s about learning, every step takes you towards an obstacle. You will find a way around it. Don’t be afraid of launching yourself in too many new directions, it may feel as if you are stalling, but, in reality, you are developing something new.

Victoria took a breath, and shared another obstacle, a very personal one. She is dyslexic. I was intrigued, dyslexia would be a significant obstacle when writing a book! It explained something else too. While coordinating the presentation schedule I noticed that the quality of her texts and email was uneven. At first I assumed she was a typical Millennial, perusing ebusiness on the fly. I even wondered if English were a second language. I did not catch a single error in her PowerPoint because her personal narrative was so compelling, but an English teacher spotted several distracting mistakes.

“Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.”

Victoria shared a motivational quote from the Dalai Lama, “Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” Grammar issues would not be a surprise to her, and if a comment about grammatical imperfections were passed along, it would not have discouraged her. Belief and mindset was key to Victoria’s concept of success. She reminded the audience that bestselling authors received bad reviews. She mentioned a fellow writer who ranted about recommendations he disliked. She cautioned the audience, “You have to make sure you don’t absorb advice in a way that makes you the kind of negative person you hate.” Keep writing, she urged. Write what feels closest to your heart. Ask yourself, what is the outcome? What does my audience need to hear? What are the “what ifs”? Where are the morals and emotional growth issues? What are you teaching? And to whom?

She finished by giving specific examples of how her past influenced her present work, adding technical tips about the market for children’s literature. Her talk picked up speed and held together with verve and impact.

An audience member described Amber Victoria as an angel. “I embrace how she keeps inspired in her life, what an accomplished soul! What a blessing to have her on the planet and hear her speak about her love and putting it on pages.” Proving, once again, that when a storyteller effectively communicates his or her vulnerable moments, they leave their audience with the most memorable impressions.

My Two Names by G. Murray Thomas (All About My Name Poetry Series)

A poem, and a life story.

My Two Names by G. Murray Thomas (All About My Name Poetry Series).

Why write in the first place?

“Why write in the first place?” Paula Priamos, a professor at University California, San Bernardino, questioned her students, all intermediate level writers. The responses spun around the notion of self-expression, the importance of free expression without judgment and how writing is a calming, enjoyable way to articulate ideas. For a few people it was also tied to compulsive need, or to practical goal like developing a skill that they were “half-way good at”, or the opportunity of a portable job. Paula discovered that self-expression it is essential to all writers.

writing gives people a sense of empowerment because it gives voice to something that would not otherwise be heard.

In her keynote address at “Another Bloomin’ Writers Conference” in early May, Priamos argued that writing gives people a sense of empowerment because it gives voice to something that would not otherwise be heard. This was true for Priamos. Her memoir “The Shyster’s Daughter” exposed family secrets. Writing was not an easy process, sometimes she felt she ‘ripped out her heart and left it pulsing on paper.’ Her memoir was a very personal tribute to the “no-name” women who endure traumatic experiences. When the book was published and people (including family members) thanked her for sharing, Paula realized that her writing had given a voice to the weak.

When a published writer gives a presentation they invariably disclose an underlying theme, the “why” for their writing. I anticipate this moment like the makeover reveal at the end of a reality show. Readers connect to universal truths, to the greater worldview that writers expose as stories. Writers like Priamos have honed their voice, exposed their hearts, and are passionate about their truths. Successful writers capitalize on this sense of empowerment. Empowerment gives writers personality and fuels their works. It is something to build a social platform around because it attracts fans.

Writing prompt: Flood

When I think of floods, I think of the desert.  It’s an odd juxtaposition, water flooding the desert. I’ve experienced floods here in California, along the San Bernardino mountains, but the most startling floods were in the Middle East, when I lived in Iran in the seventies.

On our holiday breaks my family would leave Teheran to explore ancient Persian landmarks and ruins, caravanning with other expatriate families. Road trip! The desert landscape of Iran looks like the stretch from Palm Springs to Phoenix, or the road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It’s rough and stony terrain with a slow variation in rock color and the height of the hills–not sand dunes with palm trees. On our way to Herat, Afghanistan, we saw a single cloud dumping rain over a distant hill. The earth surrounding us was scorched into a flat, salty glisten, and the ribbon of road blended into mirages of lake water, simmering in the distance. To our surprise, a mile up the road there was a real flood over the road. Run-off from the distant hill had pooled to the flatter land below it, miles away from the original deluge.

One spring trip, in the Alborz mountains, spring waters had destroyed house made from mud bricks, washing out the road too. The villagers stood, leaning on their shovels, looking grim. Our western Dads, all engineers working in the oil and gas industry, went to help but they soon returned, frustrated and angry. Instead of digging channels to divert the waters away, the Iranian men responded “insha’Allah.” It was God’s will. There was no way to change or struggle against God. The better way was submission and acceptance.

When I read Biblical stories, all set in the stark yet unpredictable desert, and populated by small, tenacious family tribes, I remember that scene. Our Western minds want action, justice and solutions. If we are hard-working and true we can re-direct the floodwaters. We have a harder time with the notion of surrender, accepting that sometimes, like a flash flood in the desert, things really are in God’s hands, or to be more secular, outside of our control.

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This blog was written for www.yorocko.com as part of the Claremont Presbyterian Church Jesse Tree Advent Project. It posted there on December 3rd, 2014.

The Tale of the Advent Blog

My Pastor recently approached me, as a writer, wondering if I could set-up an Advent blog for the church. I struggle with my own blog and the California Writers Club website, so I declined. However, pastors are sterling negotiators and we settled on using the Youth Minister’s blog. I was then tasked to write, or find local talent, for a weeks worth of daily prompts.

Lord have mercy, the word is out! Church spies have infiltrated my blog, my Facebook account and are plotting new ways to reach out to the world. At the Thanksgiving potluck, members of the congregation commented with admiration, “I didn’t know you were a writer!” I had mixed feelings. I’ve been focused on writing for five years, I lead a weekly prompt writing workshop, but I felt caught—hiding my light under a bushel…

It takes a time to develop a voice as a writer, and longer for a writer promote and accept the label “writer.” Writers are a modest bunch, unwilling to shout out that they are scribblers, poets, bloggers, novelists or screenwriters. They write, but are not writers. What kind of equation is that?

The way out of this conundrum is to push forward, keeping writing, and to build a platform, an Internet presence. I tried the platform building formula out on myself. I sent out submissions to contests, submitted articles, maintained my blog, and showed-up at writing workshops and meetings. I stopped all other meetings or volunteer jobs unless they had to do with writing.

Over the past year, I’ve built up confidence and results. People, like my Pastor, introduce me as a writer. I have stuff published; I have a network of writers. I was able to find people, secular and church members, to try their hand at the Church Advent blog. It was not easy because the minute I mentioned “church,” the thrill of being a guest blogger disappeared. Seasoned writers looked sucker-punched, thinking they would not measure up. I was a little shocked that spirituality elicited such negative feelings. However, if they did write, their works were full of rich imagery, a testament to old symbols and ingrained stories.

If you show-up to your life in the guise of a writer, you’ll collect wisdom. You will sort through distractions, balance out challenges and find that unusual opportunities crop-up, creating a cycle of curious lessons, results, opportunities, and a writer’s lifestyle.

Elizabeth Swann vs Elizabeth Tudor

Funny how people watch the same movie, and walk away impressed about different things. I never much valued the role of Elizabeth Swann in the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean. Ms. Swann had spunk, fabulous costumes, and her sweet young face did not distract from the yarn spinning of a pirate’s tale. To me, the movie series was a Hollywood romp.  I never thought seriously about the role of Elizabeth Swann until I read the blog by D. Hart St. Martin:

A Swann for the Dawn and the Sundown.

Hart recently finished writing the last book in her latest Young Adult trilogy and the protagonist, Lisen, has to rally troops to battle. Hart was quick to note that Elizabeth Swann made an impassioned, heroic speech in the movie because female protagonists in traditional male roles are re-occurring themes in her works. When I think of  speeches from females, I think of Elizabeth, Elizabeth Tudor, delivering her Tilbury speech in 1588. Aware that she was a female leader and unable to lead her troops into battle herself, she urges her troops to defend England against the Spanish Armada. She declares,

 “I know I have the body of but a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of   a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of   Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm: to which rather than any dishonor     shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one oeliz armadaf your virtues in the field.”

 

 

 

 

 

Whew, what a long sentence. But I’m not gonna lie, just re-typing the words makes me want to reach for my sword…

 

Debra Eve and other later-blooming writers

Debra Eve, always wanted to write but started her career as a technical engineer, training lawyers in technology. She tired of the corporate milieu and returned to school to become an archeologist only to discover that she didn’t have deep enough pockets to finance any digs. Disappointed, she attended writing workshops, martial arts classes, and traveled. She was learning, exploring, taking mental notes, but not writing. One day, when she was fifty, she asked herself when she’d get around to it. There was never a good time. She’d have to make the decision to write.

So she did. Not knowing where to start, she researched any other writers that got off to a late start. Contrary to the myth of gifted “born” writers, many successful authors “got around” to writing well after the age of forty. Eve wrote mini biographies about these well-known writers and posted their stories on her blog, laterbloomer.com. She had created one of the first repositories that listed “re-invented” writers. In 2012, she published these biographies as an anthology and it is still a high-ranking seller on Amazon.

What do these late blooming writers have in common? They are people with too many disparate interests. Often, they are unusually industrious and responsible people, working and slaving away even if they feel stuck in unsatisfying careers until there is a change in their jobs, routine or personal life. They take this opportunity to reflect and release themselves from their duties to explore new directions. Like writing.

Hmmm, I wonder what percentage of bloggers are later bloomers?

This article was compiled from a presentation Debra Eve gave at the California Writers Club – Inland Empire Branch in October 2014.

A Snapshot

The last thing Sabria saw before they slipped the hood over her head was the corner of the room. It was oddly reassuring, although like most people she would have preferred to die in her sleep, in a bed surrounded by family and candles, oblivious to the time of day. Her unnatural misfortune was to know the hour and manner of her death.

When she watched her small shoes step onto the stool, she knew that today was not the first time she’d placed foot on death’s platform. Heads, hands and feet were images she often used to capture fleeting instances of humanity—an evocative technique when she recorded large and terrible events of destruction and injustice with her clicking camera.

Of course she was praying. She prayed for the courage to stand as still as a statue. Her mouth was dry, filled with fear and a wordless scream of anger lodged tight inside her throat. Her life was about to be extinguished as meaninglessly as a person swats a bug on the floor. The deprivation of a farewell enraged her. Tomorrow the world would wake up to the babble of Western media, sipping their favorite beverage of indifference but how would her family know what happened to her?

Her father was American. She had hoped this would make her case a political controversy or a bargaining chip for a hostage swap. Most of all, Sabria wished she could apologize to the two others who travelled with her to the refugee camps. They had been arrested with her too. If only.

There it was, that accusing voice reminding her that it was her fault. If only she could locate the triggering event that placed her on this stool. She’d erase it, like deleting a picture on her camera. Or was her death scheduled with ancient, inevitable predestination?

If she were still a teenager, she’d blame everything on her parents. Her father was a missionary; her tiny mother a Lebanese schoolteacher. Strife was an inheritance from Beirut, her birthplace. Or maybe fate was sown when her parents moved to Iran. Overhearing the political debates of adults, discovering the overlay of local and foreign perspectives had set the tempo for her adult life.

Perhaps destiny crystallized one particular day when she was seven, sitting on her bed memorizing the corner of her room. It was her rehearsal for a forever goodbye because she understood they’d be leaving Tehran. The earth rumbled with the grinding roll of tanks patrolling the evening curfew but the afternoon had been safe to shop for flat bread with her mother. She’d noticed the statue of the general-king in the middle of the roundabout, aloft on his pedestal, ropes hanging over his arms and waist.

The Persian baker, with his rheumy eyes, was apologetic. “Insha’Allah.” Perhaps he was the trickster who sent her out to explore the boundaries of God’s will.

Her husband would fault her obsession with her camera, adamant that her hobby sparked her foolish wandering. But photography never felt dangerous, it was curiosity through a camera lens. The clicking noise of the shutter was a detached viewpoint that recorded political upheaval and newsworthy events. Admittedly, she thrived on adrenaline intermingled with déjà-vu every time she reported on social unrest, but the dusty chaos of Middle Eastern countries felt like home, blinding her to realities like a jinn in a desert storm.

Maybe she had sealed her own fate. Last week, she’d spotted a web in the corner of her cell. She inspected it for an inspirational little spider, one that weaved hope for a better tomorrow. She considered baptismal names. Bruce the Bold, after the Scottish knight who hid in his caves before fighting the English, or Charlotte the Wise, the spider who distracted Wilbur from his porcine fate, or Penelope the Faithful, weaving and unraveling as she waited, anxious for her true love to free her. But the web was empty; no motivational speeches would be spun there.

Disappointed, she swiped the web with her hand. It now hung in a series of destroyed little hammocks from the ceiling. But she’d memorized that ugly corner because she wanted to re-direct fate and invoke a departure date like a divine incantation. Maybe her wish had been granted, with cosmic irony.

Months of solitary confinement pressed with dense suffocation inside her skull. She felt like a spider herself, scrutinizing the past and present with intolerable patience from the corner of the world. She was an old soul; she’d seen it all before. Click. Iraq, Tunisia, Pakistan and Egypt, click-click. She fed the world her digitized images of city squares filled with dark-haired mobs and chanting fists. Her pictures of falling statues in the middle of large plazas were front-page news. Classic. Iconic.

She felt grieving love for her husband, a British geologist. They’d sit on their balcony, cooled by a breeze flowing through carved wooden screens while she’d book the itinerary for her next free-lance assignment, places where toppling statues was still in vogue. She had not memorized any corners in their house. She planned to return.

If only she had not gone to the refugee camps. If only she’d missed her plane. If only.

It was a rush of thoughts, images and feelings—ballooning threads in a re-remembered moment. This was her release, execution in a dank room with a little stool, two guards, and a twist of blue plastic rope. Paperwork had been explained and a guard politely asked for her signature. It was a ridiculous request, but she signed without fuss.

She exhaled and memories collapsed around her. The last statue. From the corner of the room, her spider-guide was present, documenting the process like a photojournalist, waiting, patient, for long minutes until her warm heart ceased its struggle.

Click.

———-

This story was inspired by the writing prompt “deja-vu” and won second place in the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters, 2014 Golden Quill Writing Contest.

How a Writing Prompt Turns into a Story

Anja Niedringhaus, a German AP photojournalist, was shot to death while covering the elections in Afghanistan, on April 4th, 2014. Also injured in the attack was Kathy Gannon, a 60 year old Canadian reporter based in Islamabad. They were in the back seat of a car, waiting for the rain to stop before taking pictures of ballots being prepared for voting the following day.

I heard the announcement on my nightly BBC worldwide radio broadcast, then again on NPR. Not many international stories make the American news but two experienced female reporters, gunned down in public, received a fair bit of attention. Later, on Facebook, a Pakistani friend who lives down the street  posted that she knew the surviving journalist–six degrees of separation. I wondered about women who take dangerous assignments when most people (like me) stay safe at home.

I understand one motivator that powers such daring, compassionate hearts. It’s a lifestyle. As a “third culture kid,” raised overseas, in Iran, Indonesia, and France by a British mother and a Canadian father, I lived in cultures that were not my own, and was immersed in religions and languages that were not shared by my parents either. In vibrant expatriate communities, new people and continuous travel is the norm, and exploring differences is always interesting, always compelling.

When the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters announced their contest theme of “déjà-vu,” I used it as a writing prompt in one of my writing workshops. Writing prompts stir up all kinds of thoughts and images. This one brought up memories of Iran, saying good-bye to the corners of my bedroom while tanks rumbled outside. It evoked images of Iraq and the “Arab Spring” sweeping the Middle East. I’d seen revolutions before. And I remembered my sorrow over the fate of those journalists, who recorded injustice and truths, and were shot for their troubles, while the world is indifferent to their efforts.

I polished the déjà-vu prompt into a perfect story. Well, I thought I did. I listened, astonished, as my writing group argued over it’s meaning. “It’s a stream of consciousness,” one person said. Huh? I had not realized that it was, and I didn’t like that approach. “Are there magical elements?” “No, it’s an out of body experience.” “Well, I think the protagonist is going crazy.” They even debated the ending, which I thought was clever, and obvious. My first pass was a jumble of ideas. I re-wrote the piece several times until everyone understood what I was trying to say, the way I wanted it to be understood. It was an unpleasant process, like bludgeoning my ego into submission. Eventually, the prompt transformed into a story, and I hoped that the judges would have a broad interpretation of “deja-vu.” As luck would have it, enough of them did, and it won second prize.

I love the magic of writing prompts. Prompts generate ideas for stories by locating, and defining, whispers of thought. Fun, but the next steps are hard. It take ruthless editing and tough love to incorporate the comments from my writer’s workgroup, but it makes me tap into the heart of my story.