On Writing: Delicate Flowers on a Slender Stalk

Slender stalk

I don’t usually talk to Buck about the specifics of the manuscript I’ve been working on for what feels like forever. For two reasons: I haven’t wanted to interrupt the flow of his own thoughts at a time when he was hurtling through legal pads and stacking them up like steps to the sky; and because I fear his crusty old newspaper editor’s red pen and his inclination to fix things. I’m as self-protective as a teenage girl wearing eye shadow for the first time facing her mother under fluorescent lights at the breakfast table.  I don’t have that thick skin it’s said a writer must develop. I fret about fixing something until it breaks. The parts are delicate. The whole must be resilient. He is editing a complete first draft. I am perhaps 40% done, and I write with fear and trembling.

Something happened last night. Buck and I sat in our usual spots, talking through supper. We’re thinking about a short road trip, and we talked about that. My mind was on the new writing I had done yesterday, and it just slipped out of my mouth, the scene between the old man, Tom Harper, and the young woman, Grace Ringer. There were no plot suggestions from Buck. There were tears. His and mine. Maybe for the first time I understood what I am really writing about and why I have been dragging it around like a burden. I won’t say anymore about our conversation. It’s too tender — delicate flowers on a slender stalk.

I’ve tried to keep my plot and characters at emotional arm’s length, protecting my vulnerable hot lava core with a chilly titanium sleeve. If there was no “there” there, the whole thing would have long since shriveled from my casual treatment and dilettante pen. When Tom spoke through me last night and made my husband cry, that was it. There’s something powerful going on here, and I just have to lay the words down as fast or as slow as they come, weave a swaying bridge over the chasm, cling to the ropes for dear life, and cross to the other side.

The Trouble With Trouble

1-The trouble with trouble.

Grace Futch Grider sent me this cocktail napkin. It’s vintage Grace. I ran across it this morning. when I was fetching a writing “vision board” back out of the closet that I had begun some months ago. The last time Buck and I saw Grace was in a hospital bed. She was aggravated because pancreatitis had gotten in the way of her immediate desire to put her nearly eighty-year-old self and a bunch of her fun-lovin’ friends on a train to Las Vegas. Gracie was a tough, self-made business woman. She founded Pensacola Beach Realty at a time when women running a business show here were an oddity. She served on a bank board with Buck. She was a passionate, if not especially skilled, golfer. She was a hell of a woman, a hot mess, and two tons of fearless fun. It’s been eight years, and we miss her like crazy.

The best I can do, Gracie, is enjoy the memories and name a pretty darn good book character after you. You’d like my Grace. She’s giving as good as she gets and more. Sound like anybody you know?

Child of Small Waters Redux

SALLY HARPER HAS DECIDED SHE WANTS A BIGGER ROLE in Eye of the Storm. She was going to be a bit player, the grandmother of Jess Harper (Grace Ann Ringer’s main squeeze — that sounds tacky but I don’t know what to call him). Anyway, Sally and her husband, Tom, live out in the north end of the county in a pine forest not unlike Longleaf. Just about every morning at dawn, Sally takes a thermos of coffee down to a little spring-fed stream where she has created her own private shrine to her deceased daughter, Kathryn Powell Harper. It’s a small round concrete table and bench, hidden from view. Here, and on her daily walks in the woods, is where Sally reflects on life, the family, passage of time, and many other things. She is a woman with something to say. I am listening.

Last night, from my nine years of printed blog archives, I made copies of the narratives of my own walks in our woods, as reminder and resource for Sally’s ruminations. I discovered a piece called “Child of Small Waters” posted back in March of 2004. Dave Bonta may remember it — it was originally posted on the Ecotone wiki when they were still up and running. (I note UNC at Willmington publishes what looks to be a fine print journal called Ecotone: Reimagining Place, but there doesn’t appear to be a connection with the original wiki.) Seems like an appropriate homily for this crystal clear Sunday morning in the pine woods. Hope you enjoy the flashback.

Great Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine
Great Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine

I am a child of small waters.

The magnificence of oceans and seas unnerves me. I love to walk the sugar white sands of Pensacola Beach. Small, translucent crabs tickle my feet as they scuttle into their holes when I bend to examine tiny pastel coquina shells. But if the goal is swimming, give me a cement pond, please, where I can see through the chlorinated water all the way to the bottom, where the edges are no farther than I can gracelessly dog-paddle in any direction

Sunset over the "cement pond" at Longleaf Preserve.
Sunset over the “cement pond” at Longleaf Preserve.

The last time I swam in the warm Gulf of Mexico was a few months before Buck and I married, more than twenty years ago. It was a Sunday afternoon. We frolicked like porpoises. Buck swam away from me in a fast line underwater, playing, showing off like a boy. Unfortunately, his trajectory took him straight into the middle of a small group of women treading water, where he surfaced, a sinner in a school of nuns! The good sisters were having a day retreat on the beach. Some were in the water and others were rowed up in a line of folding chairs on the shore, wimples on their heads, their noses an impenetrable blob of thick white sunblock. They looked like big, placid sea gulls.

I am a true child of ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs. As a young girl,  I spent many early mornings and late afternoons dreaming into the dusk while I sat on a dock on Lake Valrico. That pretty little lake was in a rural area of central Florida, near Tampa, where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. Barefoot, a skinny kid in shorts, I loved sitting on that old dock, conversing silently with my mirrored reflection, dark fish shapes darting just under the waters’ murky surface. The tree-lined shore on the far side seemed a world away. In fact, it wasn’t very far at all. My first piano teacher, Mrs. Medard, lived there in a big white house nestled among those trees.

Mrs. Medard scared me a little. She was formal, stern, and seemed quite old to my nine year old self. She had a method designed to teach me how to hold my hands in proper alignment with the keyboard. It involved putting a quarter in the middle of the flat surface of the backs of both of my hands, and then instructing me to play an exercise. Inevitably, I would get rattled and jerk my hands to the side, and the coins would roll off, lost inside my teacher’s grand piano. Thinking about it now, the logistics don’t seem to work. I can’t figure out how quarters could roll off my little child hands and somehow fall into the bowels of Mrs. Medard’s piano. . . but it’s my memory, and I’m sticking with it. I fear I must have bothered Mrs. Medard, too. She died of a heart attack shortly after my lesson one Saturday afternoon.

Lake Valrico received my tears, both flash floods and the slow, constant drip from my eyes into the eyes of my reflection, in those dreadful weeks and months after my father died. I was twelve. Small waters have always been there to comfort me.

Beth with Amanda Blackvelvet's pups at pond on William's Ditch Road (where we lived from 1986-1996)
Beth with Amanda Blackvelvet’s pups at pond on William’s Ditch Road (where we lived from 1986-1996)

My thoughts are not grand, not oceanic. They meander like a brook, crossing fields, woods and swampy areas. Sometimes they submerge beneath the earth’s surface, and become subterranean, cold.

Longleaf has a series of natural springs. They bubble up into a sandy stream bed. The water flows with the tilt of the land, through a mixed pine and hardwood forest, trickling deep into a swamp where it is almost dark even in the middle of the day. Treetops form a high canopy, and only a little light filters through in spots. It is one of my favorite places to wander. The stream is close to two feet wide in most places, with musical rills created where logs have fallen and formed makeshift miniature waterfalls. Gorgeous ferns drape along the banks, together with unusual plants like Neverwet (also known as Golden Club or Orantium). The occasional wild lily shows bright yellow, even in the gloom. The damp earth is heavy, black and fragrant. Animal tracks abound. Wrenching “dry cork in a bottle” woodpecker sounds split the silence, and the beating of a large owl’s wings may be heard.

Streambed at Longleaf.
Streambed at Longleaf.

It is a place of mysteries; of answers and questions.

I don’t think I could ever get my mind around oceans and seas. But ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs have a human scale that suits me. I can poke along our stream bed, exploring, and watch minnows as they dart from sunlight to shadow at my approach.

Give me a pocket full of pecan halves, a tangerine and a native plant reference guide. I’ll be home in time for supper.

A limpid pool, Zion National Park, Utah
A limpid pool, Zion National Park, Utah



I’m sure Mother thought she was protecting us by prying into our pockets, our purses, our thrown away notes. Biggest problem was she had no perspective — not a normal one, anyway. She was bent herself, by the extreme religiosity and repression of her rural Mississippi upbringing and how everything had to be suppressed, hidden, and denied, or else combined with her own urges which magnified and twisted our teenage dreams and yearnings into a fun house image of themselves — a false mirror.

In Eye of the Storm, secrets are a theme. The person who preys and pries is Rory Mathis. He believes information and family secrets will get him what he wants, which is to be the last person standing with his hands on the family business, the land, and all the money. He has no intention of sharing it with his niece, Grace, or anybody else.

Welcome to My “Homey Diary”

It’s a quirky, wonderful world when my second husband’s late first wife’s sister and her husband will be our house guests for three days next week, culminating in a big family hoe-down on Saturday night with in-laws, ex-laws and kids of all ages, and we’re all happy as cinch bugs about it. Can’t wait, in fact.

Buck and Granddaughter Andie 1-3-2013
Buck and Granddaughter Andie

And it’s a wonderful world when a 19 year old granddaughter comes for lunch during an infrequent day off from both university and work and stays all afternoon, the three of us decamped from lunch in the bar (Diet Ginger Ale, mind you), to the foyer, where we wind up talking so long we variously drop into a nearby chair, lounge on a step, or sit cross-legged on the floor (me). It was a “just because” time. Just because there’s so much to talk about, so much life — past, present, and future — and because there’s so much connection and love.

I stumbled onto your site from Richard Gilbert’s Narrative. At first I thought, oh boy, here comes another homey diary, an adult, country version of show-and-tell.

I replied to the visitor who left this comment sometime last year that his first instinct about my blog was right: it is at heart a “homey diary, an adult, country version of show-and-tell.” He had been relieved to find a reasonably well-crafted turn of phrase somewhere in that particular post, something he found free of low-brow sentimentalism.

I’m smiling about that this morning as I empty the dishwasher, spray cleaner to sit for a while in the oven, contemplate going upstairs to begin preparing a guest room for our visitors who will arrive on Thursday, jot notes about the menu for next Saturday night’s family supper, and look up hours for the University of West Florida library so I can run out there, take an elevator to the third floor (fiction), and fill up my canvas bag with some of the books on the mental list I carry around in my head.

I’m smiling about that as my sleepy husband comes into the study for a warm morning neck nuzzle, and we mosey (the only word for it) to the kitchen, arms entwined, to share a bit of breakfast. He is weary with effort, but purring with a lovely growly intensity as he moves to his writing space, where he is into the final scene of the first draft of his book. I try not to disturb him when “the fever” as I call it is on him; when the blue pen is spilling ink like a cut femoral artery; when he turns pale and his hair is on fire.

And I’m loving the sweet air in this space where some of the most authentic humans on the planet come to say their piece and share their world in all its exhilaration, loss, playfulness, discovery, ennui, courage, inventiveness, fear, poetry, falling down and getting up again, adventure, art of the written word, love, creativity, passion, lazy bones, knowledge, and wonder. People like Wally, Elizabeth, Richard, Dick, Jeanne (Gullible), Kathleen, Deanna, Denny, Verna, Patsy, Gale, Jane, Flo, Stephanie, Loretta, Susan, Charlotte, David, Kate, Mira, Meg, Dave, Rick, and others.

The only ones of you I know “in person” are Wally and Flo, because they’re my brother and sister, and Patsy, Gale, and Jane are local friends. But if any of us saw each other in an airport or hiking in a forest, we would meet, talk, probably hug, and we might say, “I’d know you anywhere.” And I would say the same. There would be no daylight between the person we know on the page and the person before us, because each of us is genuine, honest (sometimes painfully so), and congruent. (Not to mention complex — oh hell, yes. That’s a major part of the delight of our interactions.)

In the closing months of 2012, I went through a periodic time of “discernment.” That’s one of those words my fellow Episcopalians may smile over. “Period of discernment” is a phrase sometimes used to give folks cover when they are asked to do something they don’t want to do, or are going a different way, as in, “I’m not ready to commit right now. I’m in a period of discernment.”  I felt overexposed on the ‘net. Always using my real name, for heaven’s sake.

And so, I pulled back: deleted my Facebook account along with the timeline — the whole shebang. Deleted and erased profiles from any and all online writer groups whose door I had ever darkened — legit places, but more vanity than value. Began to think more intentionally about the “live” relationships in my life, their care and nurturing. I deleted my Goodreads account and instantly regretted that move. It’s reinstated now, but my earlier book lists (that I would like to be able to peruse again) are dead, killed by my own impulsive hand.

The books I’m reading about the internet and hive mind stuff, have more to do with authenticity and how to separate the wheat from the chaff than whether being electronically connected is positive or negative. In my own life, the connectivity and reach is not only positive, it’s joyful and an incredible tool, a huge amendment to my quality of life.

I’ve returned to Facebook, but only as a sharing with family and a very few close friends; only people I know in “RL” (Real Life). We share photos, cartoons, music, books, videos and other cool stuff, kudos when someone gets a promotion, or graduates from school, or when the family soccer keeper star, Ariel, gets written up in the local paper for saving the day for her team. Like that. Warm fuzzies. Keeps us all in the loop.

In my end of the year thinking about thinking, I found a few nuggets to keep: I finally learned to love Google Reader, and follow your blogs and other feeds of interest to me there, such as Open Culture and Smithsonian Magazine’s Food and Think blog. I also finally learned how to fully utilize EverNote, and now it’s my favorite place to put all my stuff and be able to go back and retrieve it seamlessly.

So here we are. We use our own names, we’re authentic, we work hard, love without stinting, play hard, learn like crazy, and never get old even when we do.

Buck would be the first to say, “Okay, then, let’s get after it.”

Some of the Westmark clan on Christmas Eve, 2013. (Buck is behind the camera.)

Dragon Update

Okay, so my keyboard gets a little sticky, who really cares? Bailey’s Farmer’s Market is next door to Sacred Heart Rehab Center where I am spending an hour twice a week to get my shoulder ready for next year’s baseball season (ha). I could eat this breakfast every day for the rest of my life. It’s nonfat Fage Greek Yogurt (soft and almost fluffy), Bare Naked Vanilla Almond Granola, walnuts, and cinnamon topped with berries and peaches.

Back when I agreed to type and edit Buck’s manuscript for him, I didn’t know he planned on writing Gone with the Wind reduxYesterday morning at physical therapy when I mumbled something about typing 10,000 words on Sunday, Don the PT guru said, “I thought you were using Dragon.” Duh. Well, I had planned to, but it just seemed like too much sugar for a dime, and I was continuing to do it the same old manual way.

Yesterday, though, when Buck cheerfully delivered two more full legal pads to my desk, just as I had come to the awful realization that one of my own characters has to die, I rapped my knuckles on my hard head, and decided to give it another try.

Here’s the answer:  I talked through an entire legal pad in about one-fourth the time it would have taken me to type. Was it perfect? No, but close. Really close. It only took a few minutes to go back through and clean it up.  I was so excited I called Buck in to see the magic for himself. He was astonished. After listening to me reading his words and watching them appear on the screen with paragraphs in perfect order, he finally said. “Maybe I could learn how to do that.”

Oh, he fell into my clever trap big-time. I smiled sweetly and said, “And for your second book, my love, you will.”

I know you’re probably thinking, “Why doesn’t Buck type his own damn manuscript?”  Simple, practical answer to that one. Buck can perform many feats of derring do and has, all his life, including being a marksman and athlete. But he was born with a congenital amputation of most of the left hand which makes rapid typing a challenge. As a working journalist years ago, he could hunt and peck with the best of them on an old Royal typewriter, but just as he does all sorts of things for me every day, as in any great partnership, this is one good turn I can do for him.