Saturday, May 26, 2007

Grammy's Pickle Dish

My mother-in-law has a crocheted bedspread on display in one of her guest bedrooms. It has a story we enjoy telling. A few years ago she was digging through the cedar chest in that room for something she wanted to show me. I don’t think she ever found what it was she was looking for, because she was distracted by something else. In the bottom, wrapped in tissue paper, was a thread crochet project her mother had started about fifty years ago. She died from breast cancer before she was able to finish it. Along with the crochet project was the original spool of crochet thread, still in pristine condition. My mother-in-law is a super talented quilted and knitter, but she admitted crocheting was not her forte. She gave me the crochet project and thread saying I should finish it, maybe for my daughter’s bedroom.

I considered myself a novice crocheter then. After much protesting, I accepted the project. Never one to turn down a challenge, I set immediately to work. I took one of the hexagon motifs, and through trial and error, I figured out the pattern. But I didn’t know what the intended project was supposed to look like in the end. Was it supposed to be a bedspread? A table cloth? I did some research and found that popcorn patterns were popular in the 1950s for both table cloths and bedspreads. But I still didn’t know how the pieces were to be sewn together. I wrote experts, but no one had a pattern that came close. On and off for months, I crocheted the pieces and hoped eventually I’d find the answer. The writing process can work the same way.

I’ve always said that my grand-mother-in-law’s spirit must have been guiding me. I can’t think of any reason I managed to finish the project. I did run into problems that held up its completion. First, I ran out of the original thread. For weeks I tried to find a match. I even had some special ordered, but it wasn’t close. Discouraged, I almost abandoned the project. My sister-in-law said she thought it would be neat to mix the old thread with new, even though the colors weren’t an exact match. Eventually, she did convince me to finish it. I pieced the sections together, framing the old thread with the new. Fittingly, when you held up the bedspread, all the pieces formed a kaleidoscope pattern. I finished it with a lacy border that I made up as I went along, and to this day, I haven’t been able to duplicate. Instead of giving the bedspread to my daughter, I returned it to its rightful owner. I gave it to my mother-in-law as a belated fiftieth wedding anniversary gift.

Think about your family heirlooms, pieces of furniture, or even that dreaded yellow pickle dish that seems to make an appearance at every family reunion. Who owned it originally? How was it obtained? To whom was it passed down? Everything has a story.

Try clustering (or freewriting) for fifteen minutes. Write “heirloom” in the nucleus. Before starting, take a deep breath. Close your eyes and think about the dishes, kitchen utensils, furniture, tapestries, jewelry, or clothes that have significance either to you or to someone in your family. It doesn’t necessarily have to have material value, nor does it have to be very old. It doesn’t even have to be beautiful. When you feel ready, start clustering.

If you write fiction, create heirlooms for your characters. The back story of the heirlooms can reveal more about your character and her motivations. In my novel, Living in the City, Grammy’s pickle dish keeps reappearing. In the beginning of the novel, Cari (the protagonist) tries to throw it out as she is weeding out all the junk before she packs up to move. Her mother has given it more sentimental value than Cari has, so she digs it out of the trash. Later, when Cari doesn’t put out the chipped yellow dish during Christmas dinner, her mother questions its whereabouts. I didn’t intentionally start out that way. The pickle dish kept wanting to make an appearance.

When you create heirlooms for your characters, use items from your own life or make it up. For ideas, ask family members for the story behind an object. Watch an episode of “Antiques Road Show.” Browse E-Bay. Or use pure imagination.

For more writing exercises, please visit my sister site: CS Writing Workshop

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Announcement: CS is Back Online!

Years ago, I had this little site, Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop. Well, life got in the way, and I couldn't devote any time to maintaining the site. I almost abandoned the little writing group I had, but some faithful members urged me to keep it going. It's a small group, and I like it that way.

But I kept getting emails asking me where the site went. Some people actually found it useful. I was flattered and touched. I mean, the site actually mattered to some people. So...last night I dusted off the old articles and writing exercises and uploaded them to a new site. Nothing fancy. Eventually I'll be adding more exercises as I find time to write more.

What is cacoethes scribendi, you ask? Loosely translated it means "the disease of writing." Check out the site: CS Writing Workshop and let me know what you think. I hope you find the exercises useful.

Many, many thanks to those who encouraged me and stuck by me all these years! Mwah!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Soundtrack of Your Life

How many times have you listened to the radio, and you heard a song that hurled you back to a particular event? Note the body sensations—belly flops, increased heart rate, feelings of euphoria or sadness. Whenever I hear “Beds are Burning” by Midnight Oil, I think of the time my sister, some friends, and I danced in a parking lot. It was late at night on a weekend; it was snowing, and we were walking around our small town. We made snow angels and tossed powdery snowballs. Then we broke into song and danced where we were, in the middle of a parking lot. No, we weren’t drunk. And we didn’t get arrested. I doubt that anyone saw us.

Whenever I hear that song, I’m reminded of my almost care-free teenage years. I get the urge to dance, and I want to become that teenager in that moment.

Think of the songs that connect you to events in your life. If you could create a soundtrack of your life, what songs would you include? Begin with the first song you remember hearing. Jot down the song titles as fast as you can. Don’t worry about putting them in order. You can order them later if you want. One by one, cluster or freewrite about each song. Write every detail you can remember. Pay attention to physical sensations. Include sensory details such as lighting and smells. What was the weather? Who was present? Was there any conversation? What things were not said? Write about the actions. Push past any resistance and go deep.

As always...have fun with it! And please tell me about your own memories.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and mothers-to-be!

I grew up without a biological mother. She left me and my two sisters when I was ten years old, and after that, didn’t have much contact with her. For years I hoped that she would turn into my idealized notion of what a mother should be, and she’d come home, bake cookies and shower me with love and kisses. But that was not to be. I went through the stages of grief, and I wondered what horrible things I had done to make a mother leave behind her daughter. For years I felt worthless.

But I feel lucky. Though I didn’t have a mother, I was surrounded by loving, mother figures. Mrs. W, the next-door neighbor who taught me how to pray. The ladies at church who took turns taking me to the mother-daughter dinners. The lady down the street who invited me in for lemonade every Thursday afternoon. My friend Lisa’s mother who cried with me through breakups with my boyfriends and also my triumphs such as being accepted to college. Later, when I became an adult, I moved away from home and lost contact with those women. They may not remember me now, but I remember them, and I’m thankful that I was able to know a mother’s love, even though they were not my real mothers. When I eventually had my own children, there was no question about whether or not I was capable of loving them. Maybe it’s what those surrogate mothers taught me, or maybe it’s because a mother’s love naturally bubbles up and overflows.

In other ways I am lucky. As a writer, I could create the ideal (or almost ideal mother as in my novel, Living in the City) mother. Or I channeled my hurts by writing unsent letters to the mother who abandoned me. Without writing, I would not have gotten through the pain.

Try these exercises:
*Freewrite about your idealized image of a mother.
*Freewrite, using this prompt: “These are the facts about my mother…”
*Freewrite about a moment that caused your relationship with your mother to change, for better or for worse.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Happy Birthday

This past week I celebrated my birthday. Thank you for being here and celebrating it with me.

Birthday celebrations have existed since ancient times, some time after the first calendars were created. The pagans believed that people were susceptible to evil spirits when one approached a change in his life. To ward off evil spirits, family members and friends brought well wishes. If someone brought a gift, it was considered especially lucky.

Initially, only so-called important people such as royalty and the wealthy had birthday celebrations. Some historians believe this is how the wearing of birthday crowns originated. Eventually children were included in birthday celebrations. The first ones documented were in Germany and were called Kinderfeste.

In almost every corner of the world, birthday traditions exist in one form or another. In Vietnam, they do not acknowledge the specific day they were born. Instead, everyone celebrated their birthdays on New Year’s Day (Tet). On the morning of Tet, parents gave their children a red envelope containing li xi, or “lucky money.” In Brazil and Italy the birthday child gets his ear pulled for every year of their life. The Irish have a variation called “birthday bumps,” where the child is turned upside down and bumped on the ground for good luck. Thankfully, the tradition morphed into the less painful (depending on who’s giving them) “birthday spanks.”

Cakes of various forms exist in almost every culture. In Germany candles atop a birthday cake were lit at sunrise and burned for an entire day. At sunset, everyone gathered to sing a “happy birthday” song. Then the celebrant blew out all the candles and made a wish. If all the candles were extinguished in one breath, the wish would come true. Incidentally, the American version of “Happy Birthday” was written by a pair of sisters in 1883.

When I was a little girl, my mother made a fuss over birthday parties. She invited the kids from the neighborhood, some with whom I rarely played. We wore foil hats and blew on noisemakers. We played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. My mother always baked a cake from scratch. There’s a picture of me holding up one of the last cakes she made. My name was squiggled in blue frosting. “Happy Birthday” slanted across the top of the cake and the last few letters squeezed together to fit. The birthday parties stopped when she left us. Our birthdays were hardly acknowledged afterward. Every year my father did buy a cake from a local bakery, but we rarely sat together to eat it. I wrote an essay about another memorable birthday, called "Surprise Party," which was published in A Cup of Comfort for Friends.

Those are my birthday memories. Now it’s your turn. Freewrite about the birthday celebrations you remember. Begin with the earliest one. Did you celebrate birthdays at all? With parties? Who was invited? Who came to them? What games did you play? Describe the cake, the food, any special gifts. Write about the birthday celebrations you attended. Note the location, people, the conversations, how everyone dressed. For a variation of this exercise, create the ultimate birthday bash. If there were no limitations, who or what would be at your party? Where would it be? As you write, throw yourself into the celebration. You deserve it.