Near 500 words: The Birth of a Storyteller

Sikha sat on the roof of her father’s house. From here, she saw the whole neighborhood. She saw the roof of the house of her friend, Aditi. She saw her brother’s house and the houses of people she had known since she was a baby.

It was here she told herself stories. Stories she was beginning to write down. She had even sold one of the stories to a city magazine. It was a story about a Westerner with a hat. When she first wrote it down, it made her laugh. The more she wrote the more she laughed.

She told the story to her family and Aditi. They laughed too. They told her she should submit it to a magazine. At first, she said no. She knew they would hate the story but her family and friends kept insisting.

“It’s your way out,” her father reassured her. Her father was the one she trusted the most.

So she typed it up on her grandfather’s old Remington typewriter, put it in an envelope and sent it out into the world. Then she forgot it.

Two months later, she received an answer from the magazine. They were going to publish it. And there was two rupees’ payment with a letter written in neat English script that said, “Send more please.”

That evening, like usual, she went up to the roof. She began to think she was going to create another story. She thought and she thought and nothing. For the first time, she did not find a new story in her.

The only story that came to her was the story of the man with the hat. Only a new episode with him came to her. Night after night she threw it away like trash. Instead of flying off, the story kept returning. This was not good. Finally, she became curious and gave in to the story.

The man with the hat went to the bank. His name was Marvin. He went to the bank building and inside. The sign said, “No hats allowed. Please take your hat off your head.”

Marvin critiqued the sign. Didn’t the bank management know they had too many words?

The guard walked up to Marvin. “Take your hat off.”

“Say please,” Marvin said.

The bank guard blew his whistle. It was a loud whistle. Three other guards appeared. Now there were four men in uniform standing before him, demanding he remove his hat.

Marvin was a reasonable man. Since it didn’t seem reasonable to him, he did not remove it. It kept his bald head warm.

One of the guards knocked Marvin’s hat off his head. He should not have done that. A bright light shined from Marvin’s head. The guard backed away, holding his eyes.

“Put that thing back on,” a second guard shouted. “Put that thing back on.”

Marvin reached down for his hat. As he did, the light hit another guard’s eyes.

A third guard grabbed the hat. Keeping his eyes closed, he placed the hat on Marvin’s head. The light was gone.

The two guards, who could see, turned Marvin around and sent him back into the street.

“Now what?” Sikha on the roof asked herself. She laughed and said, “Isn’t that always the way of stories.” She looked up at the stars and whispered, “Okay, Marvin, I will return tomorrow night. Then you can finish this story.” She went to the stairs and looked one last time. “Or not.”

Why I do lyrics

Some people quilt. Some crochet. Some play cards. Some play music. Some build things. Some solve puzzles. Some take up gardening. My stepfather rebuilt grandfather clocks. Or if you’re my former neighbor, you wash your car and spiff it up. Me, I write lyrics.

I’m talking hobbies, of course. We don’t do it for the cash although occasionally someone is able to turn their hobby into a profit-making venture. No, we do it for the pleasure of it. We know it will never pay for itself but we do it just the same.

Now where I came by this desire to write lyrics I will never know. There is no songwriter in my family that I know of. Yet I’ve been writing lyrics and poetry all my life. At least as far back as to the time I was nine when I wrote my first poem, “Chewing Green Corn”. Even now I look back on that three-stanzaed sucker and wonder what made me do it.

It was a long time gone before I could create anything that I would call a decent lyric. One that was worth showing anybody and calling it mine. Mostly it was about love or the longing for love, the rhyming of moon and June. Liking Rod McKuen in those days did not make me better at the craft of creating a good lyric. In fact, I found myself picking up many of his bad habits.

Then, sometime in the seventies, I began to write lyrics about things other than love. My God, hearing “Feelings” for the five millionth time would cure anybody of that habit. Somewhere along the way I learned I could write humorous lyrics as well as the other stuff.

Once I get that opening line it’s just a matter of gardening. I start planting roses and pretty soon I have tulips. Then I’m in there doing some weeding and out goes the inessentials. Along the way occasionally I get lucky and come up with a line I really like. Like the one from “Shoes Done Me In”, “Separate closets and shoes get lost.”

Now you know why I am partial to certain musicians like Mark Knopfler, Ellis Paul, Gene Clark, Bob Dylan, Dan Fogleberg, Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Cole Porter and Bernie Taupin. There’s nothing like a good lyric to get my attention. When I hear one, I am surprised and in awe of the talent that created it. I always feel like I’ve learned something new. It may be a phrase or a way of saying something that I had never heard before or a feeling that was imparted through those words.

As I say, it’s just a hobby. No reward but the sheer magic and pleasure of birthing something that never existed before. Guess I’ll keep doing it. Who knows. I might win the lottery and hire Ellis Paul to write some music for one of my little ditties. You never know.

Do you have some kind of hobby?

I am at my best …

When things get really bad, I go to the writing place. Neil Gaiman.

When I sit in a chair and face a blank canvas and make up words on that blank slate before me. I am at my best when I rewrite those words and create a better draft than the one before. I am at my best when I add and subtract words from that scribbling I recently put on the page. I am at my best when I squeeze everything I can out of those words and get juice. Writing, I love every part of it.

The beach appears empty. It is high tide and the waves rush toward the shore. The sun is about to set. A fiery orange colors the sky the way Van Gogh must have colored his canvas. With strokes of genius. Suddenly a head bobs up from the water, then two arms reach toward the white sand that is the beach.

Questions arise in my mind. Who is this person and why alone in the water? Why is the beach empty of people? This is where the questions start begging me for a narrative to answer them. Story is born.

Could it be that the one I see is an alien criminal, escaped from some distant waterworld of a prison and the galactic cops are trailing her? There I can almost see one of the police behind her. No, that’s a mermaid, or maybe a merman. I am relieved but, at this distance, I can’t really tell who it is behind her.

Could be that man in the water some five minutes ago dove for pearls. The water grabbed him up and tossed him miles toward this African beach. Soon the night overcomes the world with its darkness and the surfer drags himself up onto the shore. He lays naked on the warm sand, his swimming trunks pulled off him by the tide going back out to sea.

There are dozens, hundreds of possibilities. These are only two. Maybe I can combine them and see what story appears on the horizon. But looking out onto that man on the beach, I know his name is Charley and he fell off a cruise ship. Knowing this, I now know what he wants, what he desires more than anything in the world. To get back to his wife and home. So what is stopping him? Nothing but the jungle and the ocean. And maybe Tarzan of the Apes who doesn’t like other human beings treading into his territory. You see, Tarzan is a very territorial guy and this part of the jungle is off limits for everybody except Jane, Boy, Cheetah, and himself. Seems like Tarzan may very well be my antagonist.

Now where do I go from here? Not sure. It’s going to take some brooding and figuring out the kind of guy this Charlie fellow is. As I study old Charlie and write several scenes, each taking him in a new direction, I realize that Charlie doesn’t really want to get back to his wife and civilization. You see, I start getting some back story. Charlie and wife Allie were having a fight on the cruise ship. “I want a divorce,” he screamed at her. “The hell you do,” she screams back at him. She hits him. She hits him hard across the face. He falls backward and over the side of the cruise ship, the Norwegian Viking. The last words she hears from him as he hits the water is, “Oh, shit.”

Now I can hear it. Uncle Bardie, where’s the planning in that? What structure do you have? None at this point. But this is my first draft and a very rough one at that. In my second one, there will be decisions to be made. Do I begin on the beach or on the cruise ship will have to be answered.

Next comes the digging. I don’t know what this Charlie really wants. I make a list of important events in his past. I pick one that I think is the most important, I count to ten and start writing. I am writing for insight not to include the scene in the story. If I don’t know this stuff about my character, my reader won’t know it. In this and other scenes I write I am coming to know my character well enough to tell his story, He is like a stranger I just met. By the time the story ends I will know him better than my closest friend or partner. Once I know him well, I know what he wants and I can then tell whether he will turn left or right on that beach or go straight into the jungle. I know whether he has the resources to survive the jungle. I have some clue at what resolution the story will have. That resolution may change along the way and probably will, but at least I have a direction. And I can see the first turning point in my plot. It is a goal to head for.

One of six. These key scenes include: plot point one that turns the plot on its head and twists it in a new direction, a midpoint where the story changes again and sends the character flat on his ass, a second plot point that throws my story into a completely new direction, a catharsis where Charlie has a knock-down-drag-out with Tarzan. I find out that Charlie beats the crap out of the Ape Man himself and ends up in a tree house with Jane, Cheetah, and the Boy. Course I always knew Tarzan was an extraterrestrial cop. I just didn’t have proof. That’s my first draft.

Didn’t know I would end up in a tree house at the beginning but so it goes. Now comes the elbow grease and the spick and span. It’s time to do the polishing, get out the structure chart and make sure all the holes are filled in. Begin to discover which scenes need more work, which scenes need cutting, which scenes need creating.

In my process, I haven’t completely abandoned structure at the beginning. But I leave a lot of room open for discovery. As I work through the second and third drafts, I know where I should be in the story. But, for me, it’s like knowing that I am in Chicago on my way to Seattle. I just need to decide how long I will be in Chi-town and what sights I will see there. As I visit those places, I get a sense of whether I am headed in the right direction to get to the sight I want to see. In each scene, I decide what the characters want in that scene, what is opposing them and whether they will get it. If they do, it becomes a “yes” but. if not, it is a “no however”.

Soon I am into my fourth draft and I am polishing up all those verbs, kicking the adverbs out on their asses and deciding if that noun needs a buddy adjective. When it is all nice and neat in its Sunday best, out it goes into the world. Hopefully some publisher will like. But …

And now it is on to my next tale. For I am at my best when I sit my butt down in the chair and face the blank sheet and put words on paper.

When are you at your best?

The Itch I Just have to Scratch

To all of you who are doing the Nanowrimo challenge.

It’s a mystery to me how the miracle of a story, a humor piece or a poem was performed. I am always amazed that I was allowed to participate in the labor for it is such a labor of love. It is worth all the sweat and the blood, the tears and the frustration that it took to breath it to life. So here goes. Here’s my process of invention, of creating something out of nothing.

1. The itch. It often begins with a picture or an idea or a dream or some scene or a phrase or a word that strikes me over the head. For instance, I was sitting in a restaurant several years ago and I observed a grandfather bouncing his granddaughter on his knee. I tucked this scene away in my subconscious. Then I saw a series on World War 1. It talked about how the men who had lost part of their faces in that war battle were called gargoyles. Tucked this away too. At a workshop a couple of years later, the prompt was to write about a scar or a wound. Immediately the old man and his granddaughter came to mind. I asked myself, “What if he had lost some of his face?” Bing! the idea began itching and it itched like crazy until I had completed a short story called “Rose and the Gargoyle”. In the case of poetry, the itch is often an opening line such as “Welcome to our town”. All this starts me asking the question, “What if?”

2. Start writing a scene or the next line of the poem and write it quickly. In my poem “Open your eyes”, I open with “Open your eyes, wipe the night away./Open your eyes. It is morning.” Those words came to me sitting on my back porch meditating. I immediately knew that I wanted to share the joy of morning as I was experiencing that joy and that moment. Mostly I am answering questions very quickly. Questions like: What is he doing in that car? What happens if she yells at him and he doesn’t yell back? Why is she taller than he is? Why would she wear a new pair of dress shoes on the beach?

3. Character and setting. Once I have a scene that may or may not be an opening scene or an opening line to a poem, I have a sense of who may very well be the main character and what they really want. I have a pretty good sense of what the point of view may be. I let the story make that decision. And from that scene, I usually have a pretty good sense of the setting.

4. Where am I going? In the case of a poem, it may begin like “‘Be good to Sylvia. Always,’/Mrs. Plath said to son-in-law Ted”. This poem was inspired by the movie “Sylvia” about Sylvia Plath and is a direct quote from the mother in the movie. As soon as I had written those words, I knew where the poem would end up. It would end with Sylvia Plath’s death. The thing is that I wanted to use the journey of the poem to show that Ted Hughes was not to be blamed for his wife’s death. After reading years of criticism that blamed him in such a way that he was judged for his character, not his poetry, I wanted to defend Ted Hughes and how he must have suffered from the loss of his wife. In “Janos of the Mountain”, I was not sure where the story was going after the opening scene. I was almost at the end when I discovered that the protagonist was a teacher. I only knew this two paragraphs from the end when Janos says to the protagonist, “‘It is that our children will not ride the bulls on top of the mountain. How our bulls must miss the mountain.’ Then he said with a hint of a threat in his voice, ‘You must remember this when you teach our children.'”

5. Getting to the end. Now that I have a destination, do I know how I will get there or where it’s at? Hell, no. I do not. I only wish I did. And no amount of plotting will help me. I am like Hansel and Gretel slogging through the forest. I know there is a gingerbread house out there somewhere. I just don’t know where it’s at or how soon I will get there or what kind of winding road I am going to have to take. And I don’t always know what’s waiting for me there. I just keep asking what happens next, and what happens after that next. My story “Caffeine Blues” begins with a waitress sticking her head into her boss’ office, offering him a massage. He refuses. As I go along, I learn that he is not interested in a new relationship. He hasn’t gotten over being dumped by his fiancée. He sits in his office, doing paperwork and making a success of his restaurant. Until….well, let’s just say that something happens that completely changes his life.

6. Once I am there, I am there. As Buckaroo Bonzai says, “Wherever you are, there you are.” Once I have arrived at the end and I have done very little editing, it is time to go back and start anew. This time I know where I am going. So I can put together an outline and do bios of all the characters and the settings. I can analyze the scenes to see if they are up to the job of doing what they are supposed to be doing. If it’s a poem, do the lines work? Do they have the sounds I want? Is a line necessary? Many a time I’ve reread a prized line and go, “Oh, shit. That doesn’t work. Why, oh why doesn’t it work? I love that line. Well, if it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.”

7. Patience. Now that I know what I know about the story, now that I have made friends with the characters, it’s time to settle back and take a pause. Give the story some time to stew.

8. Stir the pot. The story has stewed in my brain for a while, could be days, could be months. And now I am back at it. I print out the completed story and start retyping it or rewriting it in a notebook. No copying and pasting. That would be cheating my creative process. Only this way can I discover things that may have been left out. Or things that were put in and don’t work. In the story “Rose and the Gargoyle”, this was how I learned that it needed a paragraph, and only a paragraph, about what his war had been like.

9. One last scrubbing. I have worked my way through the story several times. Added a this or a that and subtracted a character or two that just didn’t fit or replaced the saloon for the stable, ’cause the scene needed the smell of manure. I’ve added commas and I’ve subtracted those same damned commas. When I start doing that, I know the piece is finished. I’ve polished it till it shines as best as I could get it to shine. It’s dressed in its Sunday best and ready for the world.

10. The itch has been scratched until it itches no more. I’ve done my part and made the work the best it can be. I have put my work out for acceptance or rejection. I have no control over whether it will be or not, so I don’t worry. If it is accepted, I rejoice. If not, then I’ll be sad. All I know is that I have done my job the best I can. I have absolutely no control over the fate of the story. That is in other hands. I accept that and move on to the next thing. I rejoice that I am a writer. That is the best thing there is.

11. Suddenly there’s another itch, and I’m off again. God help me if the itching stops. Sometimes I wonder if that is why writers take to drink. The itching has stopped—for the moment. And they don’t trust that it will come back. It scares the hell out of them. The thing is, it always does come back. I’d stake my life on it.