A Novel Approach to Marketing

My father-in-law, before he was even my father-in-law, shared a love of letter writing with me and when I replied to the long, newsy communications he wrote to his son with equally long, newsy responses I remember he told me, “You ought to write a book.” I hadn’t got serious about my writing then but when I did, I heard dialogue more easily than narrative, so I found myself writing plays.

A couple of decades later, when my father-in-law had long since passed, I wanted to write a series of one-act plays that were connected by theme and yet could stand independently of one another. The trouble was, I had no idea how to do this. While I was musing this, I suddenly heard a story in my head set in the little pottery shop where we sell my husband’s work. The story centered around a lovelight, one of the cut out candle lanterns that is part of my husband’s regular repertoire.
Lovelight
When I finished writing this story, I heard another one, about a teapot. Well, I thought, these might make good marketing tools if nothing else. I wrote a third one and realized I now knew how to write those one-act plays, so I put the pottery shop stories on one side and penned The Soul Plays.

But I also shared the stories with friends, who came back to me saying that yes, they liked them, but what they really liked was the relationship between the couple. How did they work that out? Why don’t you turn the stories into a book, they said. Oh and, by the way, can I buy a lovelight/teapot like the one you describe in the story?

The point being that they worked; people read about the pottery and wanted to buy it. I still had my father-in-law’s statement to me knocking around in my brain and I’d always wanted to write about my husband’s wood-firing, so I took these few pottery shop stories and used them as a starting place for my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons. The title is a struggle for some people, because they think it’s a book just about pottery but, dichotomously, when they do read it they tell me they really like all the information about the pottery woven through the story. Oh and, by the way, can they buy a mug like the ones described in the story?

So when my friend, Ellen, said that she struggled to raise money for her non-profit organization, Courthouse Dogs Foundation, I immediately thought about writing her a book to sell. Not a novel, but a children’s picture book, in verse, that would depict the work of these specially trained facility dogs who assist witnesses, particularly children, testify in legal proceedings. That way I could work again with Maya Keegan, the young artist who did the illustrations for my first children’s book, The Lost Hour, (she readily agreed to volunteer her time towards the Courthouse Dogs’ project) and Jon-Paul Verfaillie, our multi-talented graphic designer, who also agreed to donate his time for this book.

Our collaboration resulted in A Dog in the Big Courthouse.
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We released this book on September 29th 2017, at Courthouse Dogs Foundation’s 5th annual conference in Seattle. I really enjoy doing events with my various pieces of writing, since they feed the actress in me, but this particular event had a very special feel to it, as if the room were filled with love. I think that came from the facility dogs in attendance, one of whom, Barb, sat on stage with us while we presented the book.

Barb on stage with us

The love also came from all the people in the big conference room at the Bellevue Hyatt Hotel, who not only wanted to support us, but wanted to learn about these special dogs. That was the extra gift I received as the writer in this project, as if I’d been slipped a Doggone Good Dog Biskit by one of the participants; not only did A Dog in the Big Courthouse raise a sizable amount of money for Courthouse Dogs Foundation that evening but it also raised awareness of these dogs and their work. It was heartwarming to listen to the questions from the audience about breeding and training these dogs and I think I really saw the broader possibilities of this kind of writing when professionals, including one judge, had me sign copies of the book while telling me that they planned to put them in their offices, so adults and children coming in could learn about these dogs.

A Dog in the Big Courthouse is available here and all proceeds from your purchase of the book go directly to Courthouse Dogs Foundation. Under the book cover in the link, you will see a “continue shopping” button, which this will take you directly to Courthouse Dogs’ website, if you’re interested, so that you can read more about this non-profit organization.

Thank you to everyone who came on September 29th, to give A Dog in the Big Courthouse such a positive launch. And for those of you who are looking to promote your work or business or non-profit in a more creative format than a bulk e-mail or social media event, then in the words of my late father-in-law, “You ought to write a book.”

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It Takes a Knowledge Part II

When our children were little, a neighbor gave us a round, blue, hard plastic, watering trough for them to splash around in over the summer. The trough was about eight feet in diameter and maybe two and a half feet high and the only thing my husband didn’t like about it was that we would empty the water out of it to no avail. It held a considerable amount of water and since we didn’t use any additives, it needed emptying quite regularly. We would take the plug out of the valve on the side and the water would gush out onto the grass at the side of our house and then run down the driveway till it soaked in wherever it soaked in. Our water is free, coming as it does from the creek that crosses our land, but still; my husband felt that it should go to a nobler use than just watering the lawn and the driveway.

So the second summer we used this watering trough, he decided to set it up at the top of our garden instead of at the side of our house. That way, when it needed to be emptied, the run off could irrigate the plants growing there. But in order for this to be effective, little ditches needed to be dug between the raised beds, to direct the water coming out of the pool, so that all the vegetables got a taste of the wet stuff. My husband enlisted our five-year old son’s help with this project and I remember looking out the window and seeing them both bent over, assiduously making tidy grooves in the dirt with the points of their trowels. It seemed like they were out there for hours, never complaining, sometimes conferring on where the ditches should meet up and then, eventually, releasing the water and watching with pleasure as it ran in both directions the width of the garden and continued on down the rows, like marbles in a marble maze. And I remember we had the biggest squash that season, not only in the garden but growing over the fence so everyone walking by could see the magnificent orange and deep, dark green gourds that sprang from the swimming pool water.
Gardening
Gardening 2

What impressed me most, however, about this homemade irrigation project was our son’s willingness to work on it. And it impressed me because I was never that kid. I remember hating to garden, although I can’t really remember why. But whatever the reason, it led me to tell my husband, early on in our relationship, not to expect me to help in the garden. He didn’t, and I remained steadfast in my lack of inclination until….he fed me some of the things he’d grown. Fresh lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, beans… it was heaven on a plate, and lured me into wanting to protect the early stages of the produce from strangulation by weeds. Thus I relented and found myself bent over rows, allowing my fingers to get fully immersed in leafy greens and dirt.

Apparently I had to make that connection between gardening and eating in order to be part of the process. I grew up in the city in England and only remember my parents gardening for the first few years of my life so maybe that connection got lost in the time spent without a garden. My children, on the other hand, grew up picking fresh vegetables out of the garden every summer and if the way they browsed on the tomatoes (even the unripe ones) was anything to go by, they made that connection early and strong.

Fortunately there are now ways to make sure that all children can make that connection, even if they don’t have a garden at home. Farm-to-table programs are sprouting up in schools all over the country, and then there are some beautiful books on gardening that both children and adults can enjoy. One of my favorites is The Children’s Garden; Growing Food in the City by Carole Lexa Schaefer, a story about a community garden in Seattle that was originally published in 1994. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Children’s Garden is being reissued (Little Bigfoot) with beautiful new illustrations by Pierr Morgan. Those of you who enjoyed reading my blog post It Takes a Knowledge, will really love savoring every page of The Children’s Garden with your favorite young person (people). Here’s a taste; a short description of the book from Secret Garden Books in Seattle, where the book will launch on May 2nd at 7pm, and two of the special illustrations by Pierr Morgan.
RootToes-pierrmorgan-2017

Down the road from Woodlawn Avenue, on a street called Sunnyside, there’s a garden patch grown by children who live in the neighborhood. A sign on the garden’s gate says: Children’s Garden, WELCOME That means: Come in, please. Listen, see, smell, touch–even taste.
“In rich prose and lush illustrations, this charming picture book shows children as urban farmers, exploring the sights, smells, sensations, and tastes of growing their own food in a community garden. The story invites young readers to enjoy summer’s bounty and the hands-on experience of tending and harvesting it, while the colorful illustrations depict a multicultural community of children learning about and enjoying a sustainable, local food system.”
SeedPackets-pierrmorgan-2017

The View from the Sauna Porch

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees recently, specifically all the trees in the little mountain dell where I’m lucky enough to live. And when I say all the trees, I mean I can’t look out of any window in my house without seeing a tree or two. Or three. Or more. Douglas fir trees, cedars, maples, alders, hemlocks, silver firs, cherry, apple, two types of walnut, a Japanese white pine, a few sequoias – these are just some of the species that grow on our five acres. And as I’ve watched them grow, I’ve found myself reflecting on them as a metaphor for life.

I was extremely skittish when I first met my husband, and had no intention of setting roots. But one of the things he offered me was stability. My mind shied away from that offer, encouraging me to keep running from my past, something I made central to my first novel, but apparently my heart found it appealing. So I stayed. And discovered that setting roots actually suited me. Helped me grow. Thrive.

So of course, every time I look out my kitchen window, and see these majestic life forms manifesting the power of stability, I can’t help but want to put them in my writing. But at the same time, I feel like the natural world around me touches me on so many sensory levels, I’m not sure I can squeeze all that into just a few sentences. I love trying, because it makes me feel like I’m out in the woods, with the trees, but I hesitate to share because what if I’m not getting it right? I was discussing this dilemma with my friend, Lisa, in Seattle last weekend. She looked at me, with her big, beautiful eyes, and said, “Oh but please keep trying. Because some of us don’t live with trees around us, and the closest we can come is to read about them.”

It was a wonderful, gentle reminder that the reason I write is not just for me, but for those who might read what I write. And it encouraged me to want to share a couple of short pieces inspired by the trees around me. For Lisa, or for anyone who doesn’t get to live in the woods.

The first is a short passage from my new novel, describing the view from our sauna porch after a big rain.

“The storm was over and Joe and Lucy sat wrapped in towels, on the porch of the sauna, zoning on the moisture-laden trees in front of them. It was cold, and steam from their bodies wafted up past the flickering lights of the candle lanterns hanging from the log beam above their heads. The dogs sat on either side of them, their noses occasionally bumping the air above them in the interminable quest for passing scents. Lucy was lost in the drip, drip, dripping of accumulated rainwater coming from a thick patch of spongy moss on the trunk of a burly maple tree, while Joe was focused on the sporadic splashes from saturated lichen on a leaning length of vine maple. It wasn’t that they were seeing what they were staring at in the candlelit dusk of the evening, so much as hearing it. And in their post sauna, meditative states, it sounded like a rainforest rhapsody, with the creek to their right creating a constant bass, and the pop of firewood burning in the sauna stove adding occasional percussion.”

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Moss on the big burly maple tree

sauna-porch-1

A leaning length of vine maple

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The creek

The second piece is a short poem.

Co-Dependency
Nicola Pearson

Her arms twine tight around you
Like the blackb’ries on my tree
‘Sinuating, thorny vines
That latch tenaciously

I want to snip and yank and tear
To rid you of her brambles
Knowing you will flourish more
When thus you’re unentangled

But when I freed the silver fir
From that which stole its luster
It drooped and paled and fought for life
With all that it could muster

And so I learned relationships
Like berries on my tree
Are not always ‘bout strength and love
But co-dependency


I shared this with my writers’ group and some of them wanted to know what happened to the tree? I’ve only recently gone back to playing with poetry so I can’t profess to know if this is finished or not, but it was an interesting question. I knew the tree had survived, because I see it everyday in my front yard. But until this question I hadn’t really considered that while it’s not as tall as the two other silver firs planted at the same time, it is nevertheless lush, darkly verdant and very healthy-looking. It’s thriving.

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A trio of silver fir trees

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The littlest tree

My Brain Has More GB Than Your Cloud.

Just recently I read a very troubling blog post about how Apple had stolen the writer’s music collection. The veracity of the writer’s statements are apparently under review but nevertheless, much of what he said, struck a chord with me. Particular coming on the heels, as it did, of my own conversation with a sales associate at one on the Apple stores, in which I divulged that I don’t want to back my iPhone up to the Cloud. “Why not?” she asked, and gave me that look. You know, the one that says you just dropped a bad smell in the room. Or killed their favorite cat. It’s the same look I’ve received any number of times from sales associates in various stores when I present them with cash to make a purchase and they ask if they can have my phone number or my zip code – and I say no. It’s the look that says there’s something wrong with me because I don’t trust people I don’t know (or in the case of the Cloud, an intangible cyber construct) that wants my personal information. Since the sales associate at Apple seemed to be about the same age as me, I tried being honest with her about my distrust of the Cloud, by using my age as my defense. I’ve lived long enough to see what cyberspace can do to people, their finances, their children, their lives, and long enough to remember a time when people didn’t trust others with their personal information, sometimes simply because they didn’t want the barrage of unsolicited phone calls that would undoubtedly come if they did give out their number.

My argument held no weight with the sales associate who looked at me and said, “You wanna talk about age? Look at me.” I thought to myself, then why doesn’t that make you sensitive to what I’m saying? Why can’t you tailor your responses to me as an individual, rather than just another one of the masses who must fall in line with the latest way of doing things? Why, when there are actually other ways to back up electronics, including flash drives, CDs and, oh yes, our brains. Again, I’m old enough to remember a time when I had all the important phone numbers at my finger tips because they were stored in my head. I like the convenience of having contacts stored in my phone, don’t get me wrong, but I do think it’s disabled our ability to do the remembering for ourselves. And we have allowed it to do so on the unstated promise that if something goes wrong, the techno-gurus will help us out. So why is it that the default response seems to be, “Er, no.” Or, if I’m to be honest, and excuse me, my more genteel readers, for the language – “Fuck, no!”

I’m not that old but I have past the golden anniversary of my birth and I find the older I get, the more I like things the way I like them. Or, to use a more hip-term, I have my comfort zone. So while I like my electronics for the things they can do for me, once I get them set up for usage, I don’t like them to change that much. So one of the things that bugs me is the constant need to upgrade my computer and phone and software. Apart from anything else, my writing time at my computer is limited and already I find myself jealous of it because it gets interrupted all too frequently. So when I sit down to write, the last thing I want to spend my time doing is upgrading software – particularly when it turns out to be something I don’t even use in my system. In the TED radio hour The Source of Creativity, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about an American poet she admires called Ruth Stone. She says this poet would be working the fields in Virginia when she was a young woman and would hear a poem thundering towards her, like a massive earthquake, and Ms. Stone knew that the only thing she could do was run. Run like crazy for her desk, to write this poem down once it got to her otherwise she knew it would keep moving through, until it found another poet to take its inspiration. Imagine what would have happened to Ruth Stone’s poetry if she ran like the wind to write it down only to discover she had updates that were CRITICAL to take care of before she could write. It’s like being in the throes of passion and having a kid walk into the room saying, “Mummy, I wet the bed.” You don’t have to deal with it now but, boy, it sure killed the mood. And to have it kill the mood only to find out that’s not enough – you need to back it up to the Cloud too and risk hackers seeing it before you’re ready to share – well, that just makes me bristle.

“Oh, our Cloud has never been hacked,” the sales associate boasted and I’m sure that’s true. But I’m equally sure that other big companies (remember Target? and Sony?) as well as government agencies (remember the IRS?) thought they couldn’t be hacked – until they were. What I want to tell my young friends, some of whom encourage me to just do it – use the Cloud, take the latest upgrade, download the latest software, sign up for every possible social media and then use it as an app – I want to say that my little frisson of distrust that I carry around – that comes from somewhere. That comes from my brain having enough storage capacity to remember that this has happened and can happen again. Because my brain, as small as it may be compared to some other people’s brains, my brain I’m pretty sure has way more gigabytes than any company’s Cloud. And unlike our electronics, when my brain freezes, all it usually takes is the act of sitting down a comfy chair to reboot it. No trip to The Genius Bar required.
Brain 3
Plus, here’s an interesting dichotomy. We’re made to feel like we must keep up with technology and we must give up readily our personal information and yet, if you try calling one of these hardware or software companies – even e-mailing them – for help, you’re going to find you have to sift through an overwhelming number of FAQs or scripted responses that actually have nothing to do with your problem because, you know why? They don’t want you bugging them! And that happens no matter what your age or what operating system you’ve upgraded to or how many passwords you have judiciously memorized to make sure your life information is protected. In fact, I think I’d respect these big techno-companies more if their products came with a warning label. Something along these lines: TRUSTING TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES TO BEAT HUMAN ERROR MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE. That way, those who give up everything to be in step with the latest advances won’t be surprised when they drop their phone off the side of a mountain and say, yes, they backed up to the Cloud, but no, they can’t remember their password because they stored it in that phone since their memory has been compromised by never having to use it, only to hear the unflattering reply, “Oh. Sucks to be you today.”

But okay, I get that these big companies have had way too many people yelling at them for not being able to restore their contacts or photos after they drop their phones in the toilet that they’ve come up with what they think are idiot-safe ways to protect that information. But then I tell myself, if they’re capable of that, why aren’t they capable of designing items that take into account the comfort zone of the biggest sector of the population – the baby boomers? And why can’t they train their staff to talk to said baby boomers like there might actually be some validity to the way they see the universe? Because – and herein lie’s the rub – we may be old and crusty in our ways, but even the lowly like me, tends to have more disposable income than our younger, techno-hipster counterparts.

Something to think about.
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A Walk in the Woods

Pumping up the hill in the State Park this morning, my dog, Molly Moon, gamboling easily, happily, ahead of me, I think about a monologue I wrote some time ago – I was an Illegal Alien – and how I haven’t recited it in a while. It’s quiet in the park, morning moist and aromatic with the gentle scents of the abundant foliage. I’m not someone who likes to listen to music as I walk but rather hear the sounds of nature as I run dialogue or envision plot twists in my head for things I’m working on. Or sometimes, I choose to do a monologue for an imaginary audience. Today that audience is in New York, in a small space, maybe a reading room at the Dramatists’ Guild.

“For a short while, after I first came to this country,” I start, seeing the straight up and down of the bark on the tall cedar trees that stand sentinel, on both sides of the grassy path I’m climbing. It’s amazing how different the bark is on a cedar tree from a Douglas fir, both of which are prolific in the Pacific Northwest. Firs trees have chunky, swirly, pitted bark, like a walnut shell, that will put you out of your house with the heat it can create in a fire, whereas cedars have long strips of paper thin bark, reminiscent of tobacco in cigars.

Somehow my mind captures this information without me really thinking it because I’m well into my recitation by now and enjoying the response of the imaginary audience. “Not that I intended to break the law,” I tell them and I can see them vacillating, wondering whether they should believe me or not. Peter Brook says all you need is am empty space to create theatre but I think all I need is an imaginary audience in my head. Of course, maybe my head is an empty space…

I watch Molly stop to sniff a frond of a sword fern and my eye is drawn to a series of tiny magenta blossoms strung like Christmas lights on a Salmonberry vine. I push on getting to the part in my monologue where I describe being offered a job making fundraising calls in the development department of Metropolitan Opera, and I hear the audience chuckle as I say, “I think she thought my British accent would be just the ticket for talking people out of their hard-earned cash.” Ahead of me, sunlight filters through the trees and I wish, as always, that I had a way to describe the many shades of green I see in these woods. Somebody told me once that Norwegians have many different words for snow and I think we should have an equal number of words for green. Maybe, if I were like Shakespeare, I would invent these words and people would sit behind the actors on the stages of my plays because they want to “hear” the play rather than see it.

But I’m not like Shakespeare. I don’t invent language, I just enjoy it. I wrote this monologue for an artistic director who was at the end of her life and wanted her last hoorah to be an evening with playwrights she had nurtured in her career. She overheard me once telling the story of my student days in NYC, and she said, “You outta write that down.” So for her last hoorah, I wrote I was an Illegal Alien, and shared it first that evening. Now I find myself slipping parts of it into my new novel and feeling ahead of the game that I already have this sticky note of material.

I reach the top of the hill and turn left, starting down the trail that runs alongside the creek. Coincidentally my monologue also makes a turn, away from illegal work activities and onto what it took to become legal. “Did you know, for example, that in order to become a permanent resident I had to swear that I was not a sexual deviant?” The audience laughs out loud, and I add the line, “Who gets to decide what that means?” although I think it might be too much. They get it. To my left I see a dogwood tree in full bloom, its wide, white petals laid flat around its yellow stamen. To my right the creek water clatters uninhibitedly downstream but it’s a sound that blends rather than distracts because it belongs in this environment.

We’re in the final stretch of our walk now and I’m at the place where my husband looks at the Immigration Officer and says, “What if she’s lying?” Audiences love that line and the one in my head is no exception.
“I look at him dumbfounded. Doesn’t he know these people don’t appreciate jokes?!” I complain. But it’s the character’s blatant honesty that they love. Don’t hide your past, is my husband’s mantra; that way people can’t hurt you with it later. I enjoyed writing this piece because it demonstrates that even someone who looks like me can have been an illegal at one time.

Molly skitters into the brush after something – maybe a squirrel – and I pause my monologue to click in my cheek and bring her back. She emerges, tail high in the air, front shoulders kicked back, as if to say, “Perimeter’s secure now, Ma’am.” Ma’am like ham, not like farm. Hey, if I can have my internal dialogue, she can have hers.

We ride home in the car next to each other, our lungs flush with new oxygen.
“What do you think about when you’re on your walk,” my husband asks me as I take off my sneakers.
“Well today I performed a monologue for an audience in New York,” I tell him.
He laughs and says, “You’re such a little girl!”
I think about that for a moment. A little girl, or a consummate performer? I shrug; who cares? I’ll take it.

The author as a little girl

The author as a little girl

The Serendipity of it All.

My late father-in-law wrote beautiful, rambling letters to us on yellow legal paper about twice a week when he was alive. He would get up at 4:00 am, come down to the kitchen in his Upstate NY home, make himself a cup of coffee, light a cigarette and sit down to share the family news with whichever of his children was in line for the daily epistle. Having four children, each with a spouse and most with children of their own, he had plenty of colds and exam results, weather, hockey/football/softball and work news to fill a couple of pages in forward sloping cursive that was both elegant and easy to read. And in one of these letters, he dropped a gift in my lap. He wrote that our ten-year old niece, Jessica, had asked, “What happens to the hour we lose to Daylight-Savings time?” I was already writing creatively by then and that question inspired a children’s story – The Lost Hour – in which Six O’Clock gets booted from a grandfather clock and travels east, to find other employment. After jobs in music, mathematics and one as a price sticker on a vegetable stand, he finds he’s traveled full circle, back to the grandfather clock, where he becomes the hour gained at the other end of Daylight-Savings time.

I sent the story out to small presses after I shared it with my niece and my own children and received lovely letters, often with handwritten notes on them, encouraging me to send it to bigger presses, where it would surely be welcomed. It wasn’t. And I didn’t have the time or the inclination to keep trying. So I slipped The Lost Hour in a drawer and went back to raising children, running a business, seeing my plays in production and writing more stories.

But apparently not before I shared a copy of the story with my friend, Deborah, a gifted, elementary school teacher, recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Award and three times included in the Who’s Who of American Teachers. Deborah was teaching 3rd grade at the time and I gave her the story to share with her class, something that I completely forgot about until she reminded me a couple of days ago. We were discussing the upcoming launch of the published version of The Lost Hour when she told me about reading it to her classes every spring, as the clocks went forward. Then she told me that she used the story as a jumping off place for the children to write their own creative versions of what happened to Six O’Clock, and she heard tales of him riding on a magic carpet, floating on clouds, backpacking across America, and sailing on cruise ships around the globe.

I was tickled that my little story had inspired such creativity but more than that; I felt the kind of goose bumps you get when something makes sense and you have no logical explanation for why it makes sense. Like the serendipity of ideas coming together that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her wonderful new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. You see, when I got The Lost Hour out of my drawer and decided to publish it, I knew I needed an illustrator and the universe brought me ten-year old Maya Keegan. I loved Maya’s artwork as soon as her grandpa shared it with me and, fortunately, she loved The Lost Hour. But I knew she was predestined to illustrate The Lost Hour when one of the first drawings she took on was that of Elizabeth, in England, who puts Six O’Clock in her mathematics notebook. When I looked at the finished drawing I was struck by how much Elizabeth looked like my niece, Jessica; but Maya had never met Jessica. Never even seen a picture of Jessica. Yet somehow she sealed the connection to the person who inspired this story by drawing her.

UK Elizabeth

Elizabeth in England

Jessica

Jessica

When Deborah told me about all the children writing new adventures for Six O’Clock I realized that while he was in my drawer, they kept him traveling around the globe until he found the perfect person to illustrate him. Like a man once told me, when I was sitting across a kitchen table from him, marveling at how I had become a wife and mother six thousand miles from where I grew up, when it was the last thing I had planned to do with my life.
“He was a good guide, wasn’t he?” the man said, pointing to the baby in my arms.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He led you to his father.”

All those student storytellers must have led Six O’Clock to his illustrator because otherwise why would I have been so lucky to have found Maya and ended up with a book as beautiful as The Lost Hour.

It’s magic. Big magic. And I’ll take it.

P.S. For those who follow my blog, please note that later this month it’s getting a make-over, and a new title – Musings from the Mountain. So when you get an e-mail saying musingsfromthemountain has a new post, it’s just me.

The Dark Subject

One of the greatest challenges I have in my writing is drawing characters that are likable and yet can turn on a penny and become brutes. Some readers want to be able to see the danger, foreshadowed in the personalities of these characters, because they just don’t want to believe that nice guys can do such harm. But if you have ever spent any time around someone prone to domestic violence, you know that it’s not visible from the outside and it does come out of nowhere.

I never had any intention of using my childhood in my writing but then one day, I was driving along the freeway, listening to Steve Scher interview a battered woman on National Public Radio, and for some reason I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this was what I had grown up with, and it wasn’t as if I’d never spoken of it. So why this agitation? This uneasy twisting deep in my core, like a trapped animal pacing inside a cage.

I was so upset I wanted to pull off the freeway and find a pay phone to call into the show, but I knew that if I called in, I would have to say something more than just, “Stop it! You’re upsetting me!!” I would have to ask a question. And I didn’t have a question to ask, so I kept on driving. It wasn’t until I reached my destination, after the show was over, and got out of my car that it came to me. “You keep giving out a 1-800 number for women that find themselves in this situation,” I wanted to say, “but what about a number for the children that have to grow up watching it? Don’t you know what it does to our brains to watch someone we love very much hurting someone else that we love very much?”

Of course I would never have asked that question if I had thought of it in time because it would only have elicited pity – and I didn’t want pity. I wanted answers. Instead, I went home and penned a play, From Me, To You, which had my teenage self as a character. The play was not intended to be about the darker aspects of my childhood, and it wasn’t. It was a love story, set in the 70s, between two teenagers writing letters across the Atlantic. Once I knew that the girl was in England, writing letters in a bedroom filled with pop music, I knew she had to be me. And if it was me, I had to be true to what was happening in the background at my house.

Even though the violence was peripheral to my story, when the play opened, my heart beat hard in my chest with the fear that audience members would point fingers at me afterwards and say, “No wonder you’re so messed up.” But they didn’t. They bopped their heads to the music, laughed and sighed and listened and watched, and afterwards, they came up to me, smiling, and told me how it reminded them of their own teenage years. Then they came back with their children and watched it again. And I felt a little door close on the pain in one part of my brain.

When I heard on the radio that the father of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School killer had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him, prohibiting him from buying the gun used in that shooting, I knew immediately that the killer had grown up seeing that an acceptable response to anger was violence. And while many probably heard that news report and thought about lax gun control laws, I thought about domestic violence. Because I know that as a result of growing up with domestic violence, the real trigger the Marysville-Pilchuck killer was holding, was in his brain. And it’s a trigger that can go off at any time, for no apparent reason. I know this because I had that trigger in my brain too. I believe – although I haven’t asked too many others who grew up in a household like mine – but I truly believe, you cannot spend your formative years around that kind of behavior and not get the trigger in your brain. Fortunately I also had a powerful override button that I think I earned through education and distance. And the day I stumbled into forgiving my father – through a comedy I wrote, in which he was the main character – was the day that trigger went away. Pouf! Like a mental magic trick. Which makes me a huge advocate of forgiveness, as you can imagine.

The thing is that trigger gets sewn into the brains of ordinary, likable people. People that grow up to be successful, charming, kind in many ways. They don’t have to be substance abusers, they don’t have to be of a particular skin tone; they are admired community members and, yes, the popular kid at school. When I was a child I used to wish people could see what my father was really like behind the white goatee and pot belly but all they saw was someone who looked like Father Christmas and had the cheery disposition to match. So when I read the lines, “We fail to spot shooter after shooter because they look so much like us and they are like us. They are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members,” in Mark Manson’s article, How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings, I couldn’t help but connect it with my private take on the Marysville-Pilchuck killer. And it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t keep it private any longer.

Not that my being open will necessarily help us “spot” the shooters, as Manson puts it, but it might shine a light on one part of the equation that we still don’t tend to discuss – domestic violence. It’s a dark subject, I get that. I can still remember how, as a young adult, I would try to tell certain people about the things I’d seen as a child, and I’d watch them close down. Now, after all these years, I get that too. I didn’t like seeing it – what in the world made me think people would want to hear about it? Fortunately I had my writing where I could use it as a “theme” as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing. A theme that I took from personal experience and turned around and over on the page, trying to explain why, even though my dad’s actions had embedded a trigger in my head, I was grateful to him for all the good things he did for me. And I loved him. And each time people told me that they couldn’t quite picture a man like the one in Lesson 5 of my novel, doing what he did in Lesson 10, I went back and reworked it. I knew he could do it, because I’d seen it happen – but I had to find a way to make it believable to others. Because there’s a chance that if they can believe it in fiction, they will be able to believe it more readily in reality.

Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets that domestic violence became a theme in some of my writing because it is The Dark Subject; but a bigger part of me knows I had to write about it because I survived it. And it’s the survival part that makes it a story. My reward for sticking with it was watching audience after audience sit, with their eyes fixed on the stage, through a scene of more ‘real’ (less ‘Hollywood’) domestic violence in my play, Carried by the Current. When that happened, I knew I had found a way to tell it. And when people came up to me afterwards and pointed at the stage behind me, asking, “How did you know…?” I knew I had found a way to share.

Writing letters helped me escape what was happening in my house as a teenager, and stepping on stage to act, as a 17-year old, saved my life. Those, and where they led me, together with love – the one thing I was sure I never wanted to let into my life because of what was hiding in my brain – those were my 1-800 number. I think about how little is spent on teaching our children creative endeavors in the public schools and I wonder how some of them are ever going to find their 1-800 number.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; for everyone who now fears sending our children to school, it’s time we started talking about The Dark Subject.

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