Fiction: Drawing From Memory

William sat beneath a cottonwood in the searing heat trying to ignore the hordes of flies and eye gnats commuting from breeze to hot breeze. Kenyon gave him the well-kept sable brushes and the vivid oil tubes left by their fallen leader. William flipped through Ignatius’ leather bound sketchbook with sinking heart. Crow warriors, Sioux women and children stood stiffly on the pages with orderly lists of Indian sayings and Bible references written out in a regular, precise script. William considered keeping the book to emulate it, but it was impossible to be so perfect. He tossed the book aside.

The hum of light female conversation from the little yards on officers’ row and the gruffer voices of men on police and stable duty floated over the parade ground. The buzz of the telegraph wires sang William a lullaby. There was nothing as regular and homey as a western army post.

A small dog, well-fed and friendly, trotted up to share the shade. William scratched it behind the ears before sketching the quaint maternal scenes in the yards. He hadn’t put pencil to paper in a long while and was rusty, but this world on paper was his. The characters kept a safe and idealized distance.

Two dirty children raced up, wanting pictures. William complied and sent them off as Mrs. Markham strode toward him in her heavy-footed way.

“Bill, sorry to trouble you. I’ve got some oranges—all the way from California.” She handed him the fruit.

“Thank you, Mrs. Markham.” William waited for the real reason she stood over him.

“Bill, I know you’re busy.”

William laughed, peeling his orange. “I look busy?”

Mrs. Markham glanced back toward her quarters. “Would you mind doing a nice sketch of the children? Lydia–is awful weak—she’s day to day and the captain’s pet. We’d like a nice picture—just in case.” Her eyes held the worry so like his mother’s years ago when his sister Eliza was sick. “We’ve tried having them sit for a camera, but you know how antsy young ones get and your drawings—the ones Thankful showed the captain really pleased him.”

William got to his feet—realizing that he should have done that already “Mrs. Markham, I’m out of practice—but I’ll do my best. Anything to help you.” He gathered the supplies and followed Mrs. Markham into the house. Thankful pretended not to see him and soon disappeared. The children were gathered, cleaned up and sent out back where Mrs. Markham had cultivated a sparse desert garden along the side fence.

None of the children cooperated but for the weak one so William set to work on her. Lydia folded her petite hands and smiled. Her eyes were framed in circles of dark sickness, but her voice was like music. William had no trouble exchanging the reality of a sick little girl before a wilted garden into a composition of vitality and splendor. The girl recited nursery rhymes while William sang to her in his father’s awful voice the salty songs passed among military families:

It’s all for me grog, me jolly jolly grog

It’s all gone for beer and tobacco

Well I spent all me tin on the lassies drinking gin

And across the western ocean I must wander.

The music for supper came from outside the adjutant’s office.

Mrs. Markham, in a thick sweat from the stove in desert heat, rushed out back then. “Oh dear, Bill, I forgot all about you! Supper for those missionaries and the rest of you kept me in a great flurry.”

William looked as though he had just wakened from a trance. “I didn’t notice the time, ma’am.” He handed her his work with a wary smile. “I’m afraid that I’m not much interest to children. I couldn’t make any of them stay, except for Lydia here.”

Mrs. Markham looked over William’s work for a minute and cried. “Bill, the captain—he’ll be astonished. It’s lovely.”

“I’m sorry I have no time to do the others.”

“Never mind. This is more than enough. Thank you.”

“It was nothing, ma’am.”

“Oh, you don’t know!” Mrs. Markham gave him a warm embrace. “I will pray for you, Billy. You’re good deep down.”

“I guess,” William replied. His new shirt itched at the collar.

Mrs. Markham placed the drawing on a high shelf in the kitchen and pushed William into the parlor where Miss Peckham read and Thankful mended socks.

“Girls, our first guest is here. See to it that Bill is given something to drink.”

Neither of the girls were in a hurry to offer William anything. William pulled the flask from his bag and took a long gulp—a deserved one.

As William lowered the flask from his lips the missionaries entered the front vestibule with Captain Markham and Lieutenant Fahy in happy conversation.

“Ah, there you are, Mr. Weldon,” said Kenyon.

William put away the liquor.

Mrs. Markham passed around drinks. William asked for water, but felt put upon and angry. They talked about the San Carlos Agency and the Indians and Geronimo, but William didn’t care a fig. He considered different ways of slipping out to get drink.

It was then the thought came to William–the alcohol was in charge. It was a fleeting, yet terrifying realization he wanted to escape—by getting drunk. Absorbed in his thoughts, the sound of his name brought William back.

“Captain, dear, I must show you what our Mr. Weldon has done.”

The captain looked as though he expected something less than admirable but waited patiently for his wife to return with the sketch. He glanced at William and then at the drawing. “But . . . you never saw her when she was well, son. How did you capture Lydia as she used to be?”

“I imagined her, sir, and it was easy since Lydia’s such a good little pixie,” William explained. All eyes moved from the drawing to him. “May I have a drink?” he asked Mrs. Markham, but saw Kenyon and Thankful. “Of more water, I mean, ma’am.”

Captain Markham put his arm over William’s shoulder, with an emotional sigh. “You Weldons sure have a way of surprising folks.”

“What do you mean, sir?” William asked.

“I never knew Lieutenant Weldon, William’s father, well,” the captain said to the others. “Met him only once, in fact. A good soldier from what I was told, but a secret saint according to a friend of mine who is no longer with us. Seems Lieutenant Weldon gave my friend all his savings so my friend could live out his final days in California in comfort with his family—all had consumption. The poor sergeant and his family were sent small sums of money till they died.”

This was the family that gave Eliza the disease. William remembered and his heart grew hard. His father was a fool. “I guess that was a waste of money in the end,” he said.

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Cinderella

It has been two years since we brought our foster daughter her Cinderella costume at the mental health hospital.

She was trapped in the facility where she spent four months being “snowed” (a term insiders use as code for the state of over-medicated kids). Children in foster care have seemingly endless access to facilities, group homes, hospitals and drugs.

M was thrilled by the costume that trailed glitter every time you touched it, but on Halloween when we came to visit her we found her face painted as if in some sick joke. The meds gave M’s pretty face deep, dark circles. The staff exaggerated those circles with paint making her a zombie Cinderella. M was too disturbed to care. Only days before she’d been told her mother had given up her rights and would never see her again and her sisters were going to be adopted.

As a zombie, M spotted my daughter and me from across the sparsely decorated visitors’ wing. She cursed us, called us bitches and told us she never wanted to see us again. When we left we were almost relieved. Maybe she really meant it. Maybe this experiment in foster care was over. M called that night (after processing her anger in the padded room). She apologized and begged for us to return the next day.

So much has changed since those early days when an invisible force kept nudging us to stay connected. So many layers have been peeled back, and, with each layer, new and sometimes ugly revelations and behaviors emerge. Kids who’ve been abused to her extent often take their anger out on the mother figures in their new homes.  Many women report having suicidal thoughts after adopting extremely abused children (not there yet).

Survival for kids who have been hurt before the age of two, before real words to name their abuse, suffer from fears that make no sense—even to them. An Irish fishermen sweater may have the texture of a blanket in a child’s crib. How does a toddler understand the time her mother fractured her tiny sister’s skull and broke her clavicle  before throwing her into your crib? Stress and neglect damage the brain.

This year has been tough. Loving a low-functioning kid with bizarre survival skills is loving a dog who keeps biting you. Yeah, they’re cute but you have to wonder if you’re a little crazy too. Luckily this kid is only verbally abusive—and it’s more a constant need to control me. It’s like being locked in a bubble with a crazy person. She wants help yet she’ll fight for three hours (if you let her) insisting 3+3=7. We have to keep an alarm on her door now because she threatened committing suicide with kitchen knives. Once we got to the hospital (because as foster parents we must bring kids in for evaluation after suicidal talk), M ordered some food, flipped on the TV and admitted she was just angry at me for not letting her date (tests say she’s functioning at between 3 and 7 years old mentally).

While there’s a whole host of more important issues to deal with, the one that drives my husband and I crazy is her Cinderella dress from two years ago. The experts say to pick your battles, so we let her dress in the torn, too small dress over her play clothes after school. She gathers a bunch of toys, rocks and pieces of string into a bag, hops on her bike and parks it a ¼ of a mile down the road where it curves around a neighboring cow farm. She practices cheering imaginary teams with her tiara tilted on her head. On ninety degree days she wears the princess outfit, 7 scarves and a Shrek-like furry vest someone gave her at the group home. M thinks it’s fashionable.

Last week our son’s friend drove to the house. “I almost hit some crazy person in a crown blowing bubbles in the middle of the road!”

“Yeah, that’s my sister,” our son replied.

We’ve considered throwing away this costume so many times but it’s so important to her we haven’t had the heart. We’ve considered keeping her on a tighter rein but she’s finally not afraid to be out in nature on her bicycle. We’ve considered cutting our losses.

This weekend she came to apologize to me yet again for picking a fight. She knows she seriously may not be able to stay with us if she can’t begin to follow our safety rules (children of neglect believe they actually do know best about most things).

M stood before me in the open fields waving her arms with emotion. “Yeah, I do take everything out on you! I’m afraid to go to school tomorrow because the dog ate my paper (true) and here’s why I wear the princess costume. You really wanna know?”

“Okay, I guess so,” I replied, waiting for a lame excuse and not really wanting a discussion about fashion.

“So when I wear it, it’s the only time,” she began, her brown eyes welling with tears. “It’s the only time–when I wear the tiara and the dress—that I don’t feel like who I am for real: the ugliest person alive.”

 

***Photograph Library of Congress

Fiction: Tolerance

“The Apache people will never take to Christianity with all of its ridiculous rules and regulations,” Miss Peckham said.

“And you’re an expert, then?” Thankful asked.

“I’ve seen enough to know that God can’t possibly take notice of us. No god would allow such false hope and suffering,” Miss Peckham replied.

“I agree whole-heartedly, Miss Peckham,” Fahy said. “Good luck to you, Bill.”

“Mr. Fahy, you can’t believe God wills suffering. People choose for themselves,” Thankful said in surprise at Fahy’s cynicism. “I think what you’re doing is noble, William.”

“Of course you would, Thankful,” Fahy remarked.

“You think Indians choose suffering, Thankful? That’s more heartless than I would have given you credit for,” Miss Peckham said.

“No, people make decisions and seek no counsel in God—that’s where we all lose our way.”

“And when have you ever lost your way, Miss Thankful? You always have a perfect map and plenty of funds,” Miss Peckham pointed out.

“I’ve been lucky in many ways, it’s true. When I was young, I had a dream that I witnessed Jesus carry his cross. He turned to me and asked what I would do.”

“Thankful, enough of this talk—don’t embarrass yourself,” Fahy said.

“I think she’s interesting,” William said.

Fahy cocked his head with a haughty laugh. “Since when does anyone put stock in what you think?”

“That was uncalled for, Mr. Fahy.  I’m ashamed of you!” Thankful cried. “Ever since Miss Peckham has come you’ve turned into a complete cynic and a stranger to me!”

“Thankful, I can’t have changed in three days,” Fahy groaned. “I don’t know why you’re being so sensitive.”

“Why did you have to go ride with HER?” Thankful cried.

“You said it was all right!” Fahy replied.

“Well, I didn’t mean it of course!” Thankful sobbed. “And all of this horrible talk about religion and keeping babies from being born is disgusting and beneath you, lieutenant!”

Miss Peckham patted Thankful’s shoulder and spoke in the syrupy way she had.  “Oh, Thankful dear, don’t you worry about God. Everyone, including the Indians have a right to be spiritual in their own way.”

“Worshipping trees and such is not like worshipping God,” Fahy laughed. “I’ve had more fun watching Indians whooping and hollering to their gods than I ever had attending mass. Everyone has a right to do what they like.”

“What about truth?” William inserted timidly.

Thankful had tucked herself under Fahy’s arm but turned to William with curious eyes.

“Christianity has its merits as a civilizing force. That cannot be denied,” Miss Peckham said, “but let’s all be mature—the basic notion of Christ rising from the dead is ridiculous and impossible to prove.”

“So . . . what you’re saying, Miss Peckham, is that an educated person would never believe in the supernatural or miracles or. . .” William’s head hurt, but his heart quickened, too.

“Bill, there are no miracles. Science will one day prove it,” Fahy said.

“I don’t know much, but maybe it’ll be Christ, who comes to prove things,” William responded.

Miss Peckham chuckled. “I bet the Messiah snuck off to France and had a good laugh.”

William scratched his head, but no thoughts came.

Mr. Kenyon had been listening from a distance and entered the fray. “If our Lord had played such a contemptible trick on the apostles then we’re doomed and should throw in the fiddle.”

“Well, his people could have faked the whole thing,” Miss Peckham pointed out.

“You’re welcome to your theories,” Kenyon said, “but the apostles went from timid, cowering fishermen and misfits before the Resurrection to courageous founders of the Church who were willing, one by one to be martyred for their beliefs.”

“That’s a high price to pay for a lark,” William remarked.

“Your livelihood depends on making us believe that,” Miss Peckham scoffed, “but I’d rather worship a tree. At least I can cut it down to make firewood.”

“It’s not just about you!” Thankful cried.

Kenyon laughed. “What an opinionated bunch of friends you have, Mr. Weldon.”

“They’re not my friends, sir,” William said, saving them the trouble.

Thankful took his hand. “Willy, be careful and write your parents. They worry an awful lot.”

“Miss Crenshaw, stop being such a mother hen,” Fahy said, joking to hide his annoyance. He kissed Thankful on the forehead.

Kenyon turned to see William’s reaction, but there was none. “Mr. Weldon, Captain Markham has kindly lent us two soldiers as escort. Do you know Lieutenants Joyce and Fahy?”

“Sir, I am Lieutenant Fahy.”

“Oh, good. Very nice to meet you. Now William will have a peer.”

Fahy sneered at William.

“Do we really need escorts?” William asked. “I’m very good with a gun, sir.”

“My friends want soldiers, William,” Kenyon said.

“Yes, preaching the love of Christ will take a show of force,” Miss Peckham scoffed.

***the Peacemaker by John George Brown

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Fiction: Is Life a Curse?

Following in the footsteps of a murdered artist, William is thrilled … and a little scared.

“Um, what happened to the other fellow—the last artist?” William asked.

“He was killed,” the missionary said his eyes welling with tears.

“Oh damn. I’m sorry,” William said. Maybe things would get dangerous. A sickening thrill ran up his spine. He had nothing to lose.

“None of us could bear to replace him for a long time, but none of us are Michelangelo either.”

“Neither am I!” William didn’t want to get their hopes up.

“You’ll be fine. It’s just . . . well, Ignatius . . . he was unbelievable. It was an incredible loss for us and really put my faith to the test. It’s easy to be bitter at times.”

“Yes, life can be a curse,” William said.

“Life is NEVER a curse! Ignatius is in a better place after all.”

William rolled his eyes.

“What?” Kenyon asked.

“It’s kind of childish to believe that, don’t you think? My sister died, and she’s just gone. That’s what I believe now,” William replied.

“Now?”

“No, I mean that’s the way it is,” William said.

“You know, some folks think they feel their loved ones after death.”

“Yeah, I had that as a kid, but it was just me wishing.” William missed Eliza as much as he always had. “If I ever have children, I want a girl.”

“That’s sad.”

“Yes, it’s more than sad,” William replied. “We never talked about her much—my father did a little—the only thing he did right! I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I have to go now. You know where to find me if you still want me. Thanks again and good night and all.”

William raced across the street to The Buckskin and ordered a proper drink. Was he out of his mind? No, he would not go with a bunch of hypocritical, pompous missionaries.

So what if he was comfortable here in this squalor? He ignored the fact that if he didn’t come up with cash soon he’d be thrown from his room. After a few hours, blind drunk and cut off, William stumbled back to his home. His belongings were piled out front. “Shit,” he cursed as he tripped on something and made for the door to find it bolted shut. He pounded and shouted oaths, but no one listened.

And so morning came with William curled on the landing.

“William Weldon, wake up!”

He sat up pale and bleary-eyed, forgetting where he was. “Oh. Mr. Kenyon.”

William had nothing to say. Right now he didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything, but he made his way down to the little pile of his things.

Kenyon found William’s Bible.

“Oh, that,” William said as he stood up, stretched and scratched his matted hair.  “It was my Uncle Simon’s—he’s gone now. Killed by Indians. You want it? I never look at it.”

“I would never take a family heirloom,” Kenyon said, handing it over. “Someday you may want to pass it down to your daughter. Was your uncle religious?”

“Land sakes, no! He was great!”

The missionary laughed. “William, tell me, do you often sleep under the stars?”

“No, never. I’ve been evicted from my lovely little home.”

“It’s perfect timing then. We need to have you sobered up before you meet the others. Come and eat,” Kenyon said.

“Others?” William looked past the missionary. “You eat a lot, don’t you? I’m not hungry.”

The missionary helped William gather his things, sifting through his new artist’s vermin-infested belongings in disgust. William struggled to stand straight.

“Mr. Kenyon, I guess I really don’t need any of this. Probably it won’t impress your friends to see that you’ve brought a vagabond.”

Kenyon looked relieved. “So you don’t want any of it?”

William pulled a threadbare shirt his mother had made from the pile. “Just this. I should bring at least a change of shirts.” He shoved it into his dirty haversack.

Kenyon cleared his throat.

“I have a few errands, Mr. Weldon.”

“Call me Bill if you want to,” William said with a quick glance before lighting a half smoked cigar.

Kenyon smiled at William’s tentative attempt at familiarity. “Anyway, you’re welcome to use my room to clean up. I’m staying at the brothel house over there.”

William laughed.

“I know, I know!” Kenyon said waving the laughter off. “During the day it’s so quiet and as respectable looking as any other place here. I got confused. Obviously I understood my error when night rolled round. There was a terrible scene with a poor girl disfigured by the pox and a drunkard,” Kenyon said.

“What happened?” William fished through his jacket, feeling for Thankful’s watch in his pocket.

“Nothing much in the end, thank God. I may not be young anymore, but I can stand against a drunk fairly well. I guess I’m hero of the whorehouse now—the perfect time to move on.” Kenyon said.

The missionary handed William the key and some money.

“What’s this for?”

“Consider it an advance, William—maybe you’d consider buying new clothes.” Kenyon tipped his hat and walked off to Matilda’s.

William turned toward the whorehouse not wanting to see Ginny. He cleared his throat and spit before slipping into the hotel and tiptoeing up the creaking stairs, almost turning left on the landing toward Ginny’s room by force of habit.

The key slid into the hole, but the door was jammed. William tried to jiggle it free quietly, but in the morning stillness his noises magnified. He heard Ginny’s door open, and groaned to himself. In the dim light, with her blonde hair hanging over her violet wrapper, Ginny almost looked pretty as she came to him. William felt broken-hearted. Why couldn’t he love her?

Ginny embraced him, running her fingers through his hair before whispering in his ear. “Billy, I’m terrible sorry about all I said.” She pushed him aside and opened Kenyon’s door. “Why are you going in this room?” she asked.

“Mr. Kenyon is a missionary and . . .”

Ginny laughed. “Oh yes, and I’m a nurse.”

“No, really he is and I’ve been hired on to work for him,” William said.

“By Alice?” Ginny asked. All work in this house came through Alice.

“No,” William replied. “No, I’m washing up, and then I’ll go meet his associates.”

“Associates? Where? Down the hall?” she laughed. “Billy, you still don’t know the way of the world yet, do you?”

William scratched his rib with a sigh. “Maybe you’re right. A missionary staying here? I guess I wanted to believe . . .”

Ginny pulled him into the room and kissed him. “Poor Billy, come sit beside me.”

“No, he’ll be back soon.”

She ran her hand over his unshaven face. “Let me take care of you. You need more than a good washing, but a shave and a haircut too.”

“No, Ginny, I don’t deserve your help.”

She went over to Kenyon’s small bag and found a pair of scissors. She turned back to him, her wrapper loose and her one arm still in its sling. As she snipped the long, gold locks, William grabbed her around the waist. Ginny was so soft and familiar, and he was afraid of everything else.

Ginny clipped away months of unclean living. Her robe slipped off, and she straddled him. “See how much I love you?”

William wasn’t sure how any of this was love. After a big night of drinks he always longed for sex, but remembered Ginny’s words about his performance and made no moves on her. He pulled the money from his pocket. “You can have it, Ginny. I owe you.”

Ginny tucked the money into her corset. Just then there was a knock at the door.

“William Weldon, it’s me,” called Kenyon.

When William didn’t respond, Kenyon opened the door to find Ginny moving off William. She greeted Kenyon casually. “Mr. Kenyon, I wanted to thank you again fer getting me out of a pickle the other night.”

“By having intercourse with this young man? I don’t see the connection,” Kenyon responded. “William, I wouldn’t have expected you to take advantage of my generosity.”

“How do I know that you aren’t taking advantage of me?” William asked, his shoulders covered with tufts of hair.

The missionary asked Ginny to leave but with amused eyes. Kenyon picked up a few books and his writing implements, tucking them into a suitcase before latching it shut. He looked William over. “Land sakes, what did you let that girl do to you?” He laughed, shaking his head. “Clean up all that hair before some story gets out that I perform strange rituals.”

“Do you?” William asked.

“Mr. Weldon, in what way could I possibly take advantage of you? As you said yourself, you have nothing.” Kenyon laughed again.

William’s face went red. “It’s just that Ginny—well—she guessed that you were up to no good—after all—this is a brothel.”

“I explained that. I never said I was particularly observant,” Kenyon said. He checked his watch. “The others should be here this morning. I’m going to wait for them outside the church.” He grabbed his bags and walked out.

William continued to pick his hair off the ratty blankets on the bed.

“Mr. Weldon, are you coming or not?”

William jumped up, tripping on the leg of the bed. “Oh, I didn’t think you’d still want me to . . .”

“When I’ve had enough of you, I’ll let you know,” Kenyon joked, but saw that the bone-thin William didn’t like it. “Let’s get you some clothes, son.”

William went white. “I-I lost the money.”

“In forty-five minutes? How?”

William scratched his sunburned, dry scalp and loose hair fell like a spring shower. He looked at his shoes. “Sir, I’m afraid I lied. I gave the money to Ginny.”

“You couldn’t control yourself long enough to forgo fornication for clothes?” Kenyon asked.

“No, it’s not that. I owed her—she’s been my friend and good to me—mostly.”

Kenyon rolled his eyes. “So you saved nothing for yourself.”

William shook his head and chanced a glance at Kenyon.

“William Weldon, you’d make a fine missionary then.” He joked but grew more serious. “Son, I don’t ever abide by liars or thieves. It’s troubling that your first impulse was to lie.”

“I’m not a liar.”

“I don’t believe that you want to be, William, and this is only a friendly, but serious, warning. If I find you in a lie, I will cut you loose right quick. Out in dangerous territory all of us must be able to rely upon each other in word and deed.”

William wanted adventure and could not stay in town any longer, but didn’t for a second believe the missionary could be relied on. He tried to hide his unbelief, but Kenyon saw it and made another mental note. He wondered if William might be tougher than the Indians to win over.

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Do You Hear Voices?

Is your world real or imagined?

The other day a distant relation sent me a thick packet with a copy of the history of our family reunions dating all the way back to the late 19th century and a ten page history, written in neat hand, of one branch of my family tree going back to the early 1600’s.

How thrilling it was to finally see a picture of my great-great grandfather Lucien as an old man and to read about the exploits of family members who escaped being scalped by Indians during the Revolutionary War and others who sadly died during the Civil War. My great-great-great-great grandmother was such a fine spinner that wealthy women paid top dollar for her work. Some family members drank too much, others were heroes and still others were exploited as children.

I knew a few of the stories through my mother but most of the history was new—yet as I read it I felt like I knew it all already. There was a satisfaction in reading it but not that sense of surprise I would have expected. My aunt told us of an unsettling dream she had about meeting many past generations in heaven. I remember my father and uncle teasing her about it, scoffing at the notion of heaven and not really wanting to discuss death since that branch tended to die young and they were all in that age window of being taken. My aunt died a few days later.

This sense of knowing the past through dead relatives, of knowing them though never having met them, is so similar to knowing the characters I write about. I’ve never been able to change a thing about a character once they appear in my mind. I’m only able to unearth deeper truths about them. It’s as if they’ve been there all along waiting for their stories to be told, not mine. When the story starts to go in a direction that isn’t true, the characters push back and demand I dig more.

Sometimes I worry that this or that thing may be too much for a reader or my characters to bear, but the characters won’t rest until I put them through the wringer. But am I putting them through the wringer or just transcribing their history? Do they live in another dimension? Will I meet them some day in heaven?

It’s odd to have this knowing and the desire to know more. Occasionally there is also a sense of being pat on the back, as if a character is whispering in my ear. Yes, that’s exactly as it was for me. Those are the best moments. And so strange. After I finish publishing this series about the Crenshaw and Weldon families I may fictionalize my family tree, but I find the line between fiction and reality blurring. I feel Buck Crenshaw and my great grandfather begging me to get things right, but what for?

Readers and writers: How real are your characters to you? How real is your past to you?

 

The Real (Fake) Lives of Authors

I’m a big fan of those feature stories that circulate on writer blogs and The Huffington Post about what famous authors wore. Or the ones about where they lived. Or the ones about the superstitions they had. All the while, as I gaze at the artfully photographed author posing as if in mid-thought, I’m aware of a small jealousy.  I know these things are fabricated for mass consumption. I really know it, and yet I still feel, because they had a better desk or cooler shoes, they had a leg up on the ladder of success.

The ones I remember most are the photos of great-looking authors who later went on to commit suicide. I don’t know about you, but I’m drawn to  studying the demise of celebrity authors–so tragic, so mesmerizing.

I think the real problem is photography. It captures just a moment–a perfect moment. The unreal moment when an author becomes famous. Even for the biggest writers the moments are only small things that happen for a few hours now and again.

It’s why reading about what authors do when not writing is so interesting. Are they really human? Are they witty all the time? Are they jerks to family? I know the answers but still need reassurance.

This weekend THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD about a dysfunctional family in the post-Civil War era received this review:

“*****I started this book without bothering to check the length. Had I done that, I may have changed my mind. So many of those books are full of pages that say nothing – or the same thing.

This is not one of those books. This is a piece of art – a story that flows from one page to the next, one year to the next, with absolute beauty. It was painful at times, full of raw emotion, but so beautifully, wonderfully written.

Well done!”

I was elated and grateful, of course.

But then we had to shoot one of our goats.

Yes, my favorite milking doe Kate who loved peanuts and affection has spent the last year barely hanging on. The vet hinted last year that she should be culled as a weak link in our herd, but I adored her and spent the winter injecting her with all sorts of remedies that didn’t work. In the thick of blizzards I was in the dark barn running my fingers over Kate’s rib cage looking for some fat to stick a needle in twice day.

When spring came on we thought we saw some hope, but then there was none. We researched the most painless, least stress inducing way to put her down: gun to the back of the head while she ate. I milked her one last time (we needed the milk for other goat kids) and brushed her–she liked that–and then I brought her into the big fenced in area to graze until my husband came home from work.

I did what everyone does in the movies–I took that one long look back at her and she at me. A little while later I heard the gunshot and that was it.

The next day my husband and I got into a two day fight about hummus–the stuff you put on crackers. When we spoke to each other again it was about the fact that one of our registered bucks turned out not to be a purebred Nubian. We had foolishly assumed he was and paid a purebred price a few years back but he was just an American Nubian (a step down in breeding circles). A customer of ours knew the breeder and pointed out our mistake  after I had advertised and sold a few babies as purebreds! I had to call everyone to apologize and offer to take back the babies or keep them for the $50 deposits they had given me. Luckily everyone was fine with getting great animals for a great price, but still I was mortified.

One of the babies was born with entroption (when eyelids turn under). I spoke with the vet and she assured me it was an easy fix and I could come by the next day and she’d walk me through the procedure. Instead I sat on her porch with a knocked-out baby goat on my lap as the vet with a tiny scalpel sliced off skin. The eyelid was HUGE like the vet had never seen. BTW, both of us humans were in a weird mix of farm clothes and pajamas since we thought we would only be injecting the lid with a tiny bit of penicillin.

I could also go on about our Golden Retriever whose face blew up after having eaten a bee this week, but the goat stories and last week’s post on the trials and tribulations of adoption are enough.

It’s raining again today. I’m beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as weather manipulation. Photos of famous authors (and not so famous ones) are manipulated. The perfect turtleneck sweater, the relaxed sitting on the porch look, the deep in thought at typewriter pose . . . all fabricated, idealized versions of lives. Lives where writing is the obsession maybe but lives with a lot of mess. My life is no messier than others–it’s actually quite good despite goat shootings and bee stings.

I think for today I’ll luxuriate in a good review, knowing that for a brief few moments I took someone’s mind to another place.

MORE FUN LINKS:

WHAT WRITERS WEAR

WHAT WRITERS WEAR WHEN THEY WRITE AT HOME

THE CLOTHES BEHIND THE BOOKS

How to Write Believable Female Protagonists (and why we have such a hard time liking them)

Can we be honest? About 1/2 of the reading public has just moved on at the phrase “female protagonist.”  Since “women continue to read circles around men, especially in fiction and literature: 64 percent of ladies read at least one book in 2012 (and 56 percent read at least one literary book), compared to only 45 percent of men (only 37 percent read at least one literary book) why do we shy away from reading about women  when most of us fiction readers are WOMEN? SEE STUDY

We tend to see men as doing and women as feeling, yet in the study sited above even when names were switched and men  were  feeling and women  doing, readers felt they related to whomever was named Jack, not Jill.

As a novelist who writes about men and women who do AND feel I wonder why even I feel more ambivalent about female protagonists in my writing. Despite the study above my gut says there’s 5 things going on here as illustrated through my characters:

WEAKNESS: Katherine Weldon  and her husband both carry with them burdens of childhood trauma, yet John Weldon’s weakness (morphine addiction) takes center stage. Katherine is blamed for somehow standing out and being subjected to a violent sexual encounter. I don’t believe we live in a rape culture, but I do believe that rape is so horrifying to most moral beings that until very recently people would rather read about a trip on a raft down a river (as a small aside: statistically, more men than women are raped each year–mostly in prison).  In our modern age we don’t like butting up against a biological truth that, in general, women are weaker physically and at times more emotional. Sue me, but the ladies in SEX IN THE CITY and GIRLS are someone’s fantasy.  If you want to write about women realistically you have to accept the fact that it’s probably going to get pretty messy.

LOVE DRIVE: Keep in mind that I blog what I ponder, fully aware that I don’t have all the answers here. Mostly just more questions: Why do women want to be men?

Thankful Crenshaw does not have a man’s sex drive. She has a love drive. She is driven by an overactive desire for deep love. I know women like this (I may be a woman like this). A woman like this is not flippant about sexual encounters. I knew one young woman who was flippant until her boyfriend deserted her at the abortion clinic.

Real women can compete with men on many levels, but unlike men, they have a harder time compartmentalizing. A sex drive fits easily into a box. A love drive spills all over the place.

Women carrying heavy machine guns, kick boxing in tight spandex and yukking it up at the bar later (wearing lipstick) just don’t sit well with me. Men doing the same thing minus the spandex and lipstick entertain me greatly.

JEALOUSY: Men seem to use jealousy to drive themselves forward. Women tend …to … destroy each other. Thankful is beautiful. She’s used her beauty as power and sadly misused it as well. Miss Peckham arrives with her modern ideas and her contempt for women like Thankful and feathers fly. It’s not a pretty picture. This is not men cock-fighting. This is women and pecking orders. This is blood and guts in a way we don’t want to see it.  I wonder also if we as  women readers don’t really want to see a  successful woman to make us feel bad about ourselves. We want men with machine guns again or women pretending to be men.

IRRATIONAL FEARS: This does not mean women shouldn’t have their hands anywhere near the nuclear bomb button. What it means is that women unleash deep irrational fears in both men and women. The ability of women to have children is kind of weird. Even cavemen were awed. Awe is scary. Women access emotions and splatter them about when least expected. Men scatter. Other women sometimes scatter, too.

Men do a better job hiding the messy stuff behind action. Or maybe those compartments they have come in real handy. Be prepared as a writer to be shocked by your female characters. Wow, suddenly Katherine uses food as an outlet for freedom? Who would have guessed it.

RELATIONSHIP VS ACTION: A female character who isn’t concerned with relationships over action seems really alien to me. As a wife, mother, sister and friend I find it hard to imagine not sacrificing the limelight to another. In real life most women I know struggle at times with this. When writing about Lucy McCullough I walked a fine line. Somehow she managed to not only be strong and quietly heroic, but also generous and self-sacrificing. It’s probably why I have a love/hate relationship with her.

SO WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do we love men more or are we afraid of women?

WHY DO WOMEN READ MORE NOVELS?

THE HARRY POTTER EFFECT

29 AWESOME BOOKS WITH FEMALE PROTAGONISTS

THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES

 

Top 5 Reasons Not to Write a Fiction Series (or get married)

IMG_4177Ah, the first heady, rose-tinted days of marrying yourself to . . . a series. Commitment-phobic writers have already run to greener fields and there you are left with a few scribbled notes, a racing heart and a hazy idea that all will be well in . . . ten years.

Maybe you race through writing and can get more out of life and characters in ten minutes on your lunch break than the rest of us do in years. Maybe flings are your thing or serial monogamy, but for me long-term commitment is crucial, scary,  time consuming, but how I’m hard-wired to write.

Today I’ll confess the pitfalls of my seemingly happy marriage to The House on Tenafly Road Series which started as an idea for a novella fling about destroying Native American culture but quickly turned into a 19th century love story between a morphine-addicted soldier and a fragile girl-next-door type which then morphed into a lifetime commitment to the Crenshaw and Weldon families.

Many writers struggle with what to do after happily-ever-after stories. I live in the less than blissful world often hidden behind wedding rings, cute kids and a nice house.  The Weldons and Crenshaws have a ton of skeletons, passions and flaws. Basically they keep me getting up each morning.

So here are my reasons for not doing what I live to do:

IMG_4078Loyalty: the act of binding yourself (intellectually or emotionally) to a course of action.

This is where the trouble begins. You think you want the fling, but you can’t get your mind off the what ifs. What if this character gets married? What if this character hides their addiction? What if Buck Crenshaw was secretly abused by his mother as a child? What do survivors look like? How does Thankful Crenshaw let her own beauty bewitch and punish her?

It’s dreadfully like adopting a kid with reactive attachment disorder who has decided she loves living with you. You can’t send her back, can you?

There are times when the horrifying thought pops into your head: What if only I love Buck and Thankful Crenshaw? When marrying don’t we sometimes wonder if other people think our mate handsome? We want immediate reassurances that don’t often come.

I have one 80-year-old lady at church who begs for the next installments of my series and has written that Buck Crenshaw is her favorite dysfunctional character despite the scene where he watched his brother brutalize a prostitute and did nothing about it.  I cherish this woman and hope she doesn’t die anytime soon (although she says she’s ready for heaven).

Loss: the amount by which the cost of a business exceeds its revenue  OR: the experience of losing a loved one.

Both. You must make peace with both, and the sooner the better. The cost as a writer is in lost time with family, years and years of silence before your book is in print, cynical or condescending questions about your “career” as a writer (isn’t she really just a stay-at -home mother? Bet she didn’t even go to college). I did–and why do I care what the insurance salesman thinks, anyway?

And then there’s the COLOSSAL loss. The unexpected twist in the series that leads to the death of one of your favorite characters to write about. As in life, those you spend the most time with leave the biggest holes in your heart when they are called home (I like to believe I will meet them on the other side some day).

typewriterEvery time you go over your books for editing you must experience the grief yet again. Each time is sadder because the person seems that much further away from you. Every fiber of you misses them for weeks and it clouds your real-life encounters even on sunny spring days. Where’s the grief counselor on such days?

Length(y): diffuse, long, prolix, tedious, verbose, wordy

I ain’t gonna read a book that heavy, some say. The series writer must listen to his own muse. People who don’t like long books or marriages aren’t your problem–unless you’re a first time novelist looking to be traditionally published. I have a few kind notes from editors and agents who warned me of the danger in writing long books. I tried to please them at my own expense but discovered I preferred to write the books I wanted to read instead and have never looked back (and yes, I still thoroughly enjoy reading my own books :)).

Long shot: A venture that offers a great reward if successful but has very little chance of success.

Seriously. Life is a long shot. There are so many things that can go wrong every day. Focusing on this will make you crazy. I have experience here. Trust me. My family is slightly off-put when I tell them I pray that I may live until I finish writing my series. Sometimes I wonder about that advice thrown around that says something like: “You won’t be thinking about _________ on your deathbed.

I bet I will be thinking about my series as the lights go out (unless I’ve finished writing the series and then I’ll be thinking about how I could have marketed the series better).

Admittedly I am at peace with the family members I love in “real” life so if I died tomorrow I’d have no regrets about them.

Love:

1. A strong feeling of affection and concern toward another person, as that arising from kinship or close friendship.
2. A strong feeling of affection and concern for another person accompanied by sexual attraction.
The danger here is that real life pales so greatly before the world you’ve created and spent years in. You’ve watched that willow tree planted in your prequel fill out and reach maturity. You’ve saved a visually impaired baby from Indians, married her off and then . . . you have to scrub the floor because you forgot to feed the dog and she has an upset empty stomach.
That addict in your first book is so much more attractive than the one in your living room. The shadows of imagination cast real darkness on less than stellar mates.
If you’ve managed to stick with the series for years and have wiped the tears from many a character’s eye after a good cry you must one day reckon with leaving this family behind, closing the series, possibly finding a new family when you thought this family was forever.
There is nothing pleasant about finishing writing a series when you’ve grown up with your characters. When you’ve found life and love and laughter with them. Nothing good about it at all.
SEE THE SERIES HERE: ADRIENNEMORRIS.COM
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Top 5 Reasons to Write a Series

 

desk 2Three minutes into sobbing over the ending of my first very long book, a new curiosity arrived about one minor character who pushed William Weldon from a hayloft in childhood. Now as I edit the final chapters of what has become a four book series (THE HOUSE on TENAFLY ROAD being a prequel to the series) I want to celebrate the joys of writing (and reading) multiple books about your characters.

I set out to write one small novella ten years ago, but life took hold of my muse and carried me along through at least 2,200 pages (and more lost to editing) of a series I never imagined when first dipping my foot in the pond.

I offer no hard and fast rules because my natural tendency is to resist such man-made limitations and trends. When I began it was to entertain myself. Quite early on I realized that the books I adored were often quite different from the ones I admired. Adoration has kept me going all of these years later.

LOVE: When a writer falls in love with a character the love is forever. The sad and lost John Weldon swept me through a thousand pages of addiction and the underlying terror of being found truly worthless. As a loving creator I set Weldon up with everything he needed to see his value, but being lost comes with a blindness to certain realities. I believed at the close of the book that my final gift to him was a glimmer of hope in a marriage he’d worked so hard to destroy, but my muse gave him a good and troubled son with a love interest in Thankful Crenshaw. I had to know what would become of them!

LAYERS: A series allows for unmasking the layers of a character or a whole town of characters. A chance remark on page two of a book sprouts a whole series of future events. In WEARY of RUNNING, the first in THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES, a young girl stands up for Buck Crenshaw. Born with troubled eyes she hears the truth in Buck’s voice though no one else does. This small act of kindness hints at Lucy’s sudden emergence as the series heroine she will grow into in the last two novels. Life isn’t chocolate and vanilla. Some readers prefer easy answers, but in a series the writer can play with nuance, growth and regression. When Thankful Crenshaw makes her first bad decision with Lieutenant Fahy the reader knows it won’t be her last. There is a risk here for series writers. Will the reader follow lost characters for long? Will they love them enough to stand by and watch (and cringe) at the way these people seek love and redemption? The risk is well worth it if the author is being true to her muse. Critics be damned.

LAUGHTER: Gallows humor is my cup of tea. It’s not for everyone. “Only kidding” is a family mantra when so often outsiders look askance at the way we joke. The House on Tenafly Road can be a tough read for some. Can one really make addiction funny? Sometimes it is. As the characters grew and I grew to love them more I allowed for more fun and faster pacing. The House on Tenafly Road stands alone as historical fiction while The Tenafly Road Series is more an American period drama. We laugh best with people we know really well–and cry all the more bitterly when these people hurt themselves. William, Buck and Thankful carry a whole lot of hurt, but they make me laugh (especially when I forget what I’ve written and come back to something as if for the first time).

LOSS: Loss and love. The stuff of life. There is something so edifying when you kill off a character. Let me explain. To have a well-loved character die with a Victorian sense of dignity feels like doing what’s right by your kin. The author is the ultimate funeral planner, the writer of letters found tucked in the cubicle of a roll-top desk in the study. The laurel wreaths are hung and mirrors covered to prevent lost spirits. Oh, the many ways to explore grief as time passes! What does it say about Buck or William? How does it change Thankful?

LIFE: A day in the life of a character is sometimes all an author needs to make a novel. I’m not that author. I devour whole lives. I want the beginning, middle and end. I want a prologue and an epilogue. I want growth and maturity, death and rebirth. In writing a series, especially an epic family saga, I’ve lived so many lives in the last ten years. When the series is over (though ideas float around about a new direction in writing) I will be satisfied that I’ve lived life well. Before writing a series I couldn’t honestly say that.

 

And now a note for the READER of my books: Realize that life is a slow burn with sudden temporary gusts to enliven the fire. Yes, THE HOUSE on TENAFLY ROAD is a bit heavy and long, but (in my opinion) worth the buildup. And yes, there are terribly many mistakes made by Buck and friends in THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES but if we take the blinders off we see so much of ourselves in the house fires and dampened reversals. I do believe that endings can be happy and well worth the wait. In the meantime there’s love, loss and laughter. I hope you enjoy the layers and the lives of the (fictional?) people I adore.

And now for the WRITER a quote by Thomas Merton to hearten you on your journey:

“Many poets never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet they are intended to be by God. They never become the person or artist who is called for by all of the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet. They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”

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