Sunday, March 17, 2013

True Stories

My Sacramento writing group is a shape shifting organization. The latest configuration is led by my stalwart inspiration and fairy tale goddess friend Tricia. Our newest member is Rucha, gorgeous and talented West Twin of blogging fame. Both of these women can write and I’m not kidding. We meet a couple times a month at Tricia’s house where we drink tea and eat some wonderful thing Tricia made and talk about our work.  

(Pause #1 at this moment for a prayer of thanks for the friend who knows your tea type and makes it for you without asking.)

Today the first chapter of my latest book was on the block. Rucha and Tricia had swift criticism about the scene where a woman of an unclear age gets a man of unclear danger out of an unclear shower at an unclear homeless shelter.

The rest of the chapter flows, they said. It’s just the beginning that’s out of context, ambiguous and confusing. 

(Pause #2 to bow down to the friendship of intelligent women.)

The scene that I wrote where the very young woman is the only one in the homeless shelter with the courage to get the schizophrenic man out of the shower happened.  I was the volunteer. The sick man was the resident. Everyone was afraid of him but me.

The scene fails where it is written from memory and picks back up when pure fiction takes over. This is not the first time a critical reader has noted implausibility in a story that I have based on a true adventure of my own. 

In case I didn’t get the message this morning, later this afternoon the outstanding and ravishing Cynthia Reeser, editor of the literary magazine Prick of the Spindle, had a copyedit note for me on a story of mine that she has accepted for publication. 

The story features a seventeen-year-old college student and drug addict stranded at a bus station.  “She’s in college?” the comment reads.  “Need to adjust timeline.”

I really was a seventeen-year-old college student vagabond stranded at midnight at a bus station in a miserable part of a city far from home. My response to the edit: That character is nineteen now.  Timeline adjusted.

(Pause #3 for an interpretive dance of joy that Cynthia Reeser is paying attention to my work.)

When I write from true adventure I forget to think about my readers. The point of fiction is to tell a story not to write a letter to myself.

Remember the time when the homeless fellow reached for you in the steam? Remember when you were seventeen and riding the roads for love? 

Now I revise my novel with my readers in mind. I sand down every sentence, paying extra attention to the parts gleaned from life. It is in the true parts when I stray from truth. In revisions I take extra care to tell the beautiful lie that uncovers the thing I mean to say and tells the truth in a way only an untrue story can.
Tricia loves me this I know because the Tazo tells me so.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Stop Talking

"You're so interesting," my students said to me today.

"I'm not," I said. "Not compared to the person sitting next to you."

"You are," they said.  "You are the most interesting person in the school."

Only in the moment when perhaps I'll tell a story rather than opt for barreling through the curriculum objective I planned for the day am I interesting to my students.  I might tell the story of the time I got in a car wreck the night of my junior prom.  Or the time I stayed up all night with a tow truck driver I'd just met until we jumped a junkyard fence and stole an alternator for my car so I could get going again. Anything would be better than building a thesis statement telling how motif reveals theme in order to support a ten-page paper.  I mean yawn.

Most of the time when I decide to lecture, my students pretend to listen because they are well-mannered young adults.  Old children. But when I can I shut the hell up.  Let them do the talking, little bird.

One Sunday at Mass my youngest daughter disliked the priest.  A babbling type he was.  After too long of listening to his slightly insulting jibber jabber, Margaret took my hand and opened it.  She wrote STOP TALKING into my palm with her finger Helen Keller style.  She closed my hand and the priest stopped talking.  Just like that.  Maybe wherever he is the man still finds himself at a loss for words.  That would be awesome.  Let someone else stand up and do the talking for once. Maybe a little girl for once.

What is your story, I ask my students.  Write it down first.  Then open your mouth and talk. Shut me up entirely.  Make me obsolete. Your turn is now. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Like Water

I don’t recognize myself in photos anymore.  My hair is gray and white.  My eyebrows need coloring in and my face needs makeup and even with these attentions my face washes out in a pale oval that could be pretty or could be ugly.

People never recognize me when we meet again after time has passed between us. Their eyes go muddy when I say hello. I’m always fatter or skinnier or have different hair or different style.  I’m a shape shifter.  If I ever had to go on the lam, no one would ever find me.

Today the parent of a student sent a photo of me that she took while I announced names for the junior ring ceremony.  My shirt is starched. I wear a peach blazer made of Irish linen.  My heels are high, my lipstick dark, but none of it matters as I am the color of a water glass. 

The older I get the more amorphous I become. A while ago a colleague of mine had a conversation with two of our students about our school's Black Student Union, of which I am the moderator. It's interesting that the moderator of our BSU is white, my colleague noted.

“Oh no that’s Mrs. Wanket,” the students said.  “She’s black.”

That’s happened to me before, especially with young people. I’ve also been Mexican.  Filipino.  White. It depends on who is looking at me.  Maybe I’m the color of a mirror.

My age switches around as well. Once a young woman with eyes for my husband asked if he and my daughter were brother and sister. She thought I was my husband’s mother. Last year a student said that I have a young soul. But just yesterday someone else asked if I would pretend to be his sick grandmother to get him out of rugby practice.

People always think I’ve gained weight.  People always think I’ve lost it.  Then they blink and look again.  No.  I’ve definitely gained it. But those wrists.  Maybe I should eat some pie.

It’s difficult to take a flattering picture of me. I look good only from certain angles.  I used to be best from the left, but these days it’s more the right. Take a photo and flattering or not, I’ll look different in a week anyway.

Maybe I’m wasted as a high school teacher.  Maybe I should try my hand at investigations. Stakeouts would be a cinch. Blending in with the surroundings would be no problem.

 Shape shifting is great for my writing. Two of my best novels are in the voices of teenage boys.  Disappearing is a powerful tool towards understanding another person's point of view.

In teaching I think about the water of the Tao that lies low and does not assert itself but seeks instead the lowest place. Lying low I can serve student learning needs to the individual boy and girl without asserting my own notions into a student's experience of the material. Students can then write their own thesis statements, fill journals with their own original creative ideas and when they are ready, tell the truest truth they can find within and through that story set themselves free.

Meanwhile I am on a quest for stronger lipstick.