Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Telling Tales

It’s all make-believe, telling a story, writing a novel. Do I think that Patricia Cornwell had to be a murderer to write murder mysteries? Well, she does know her way around a morgue like Kay Scarpetta does, the main character of her long line of novels, so that helps her story writing. One of Jonothan Kellerman’s major character is a psychiatrist, and Kellerman has knowledge in that field. But, then there is James Patterson does he know what it’s like to be a teenager who has wings sprouting from her back? Doubtful. Yet he wrote another very popular series of novels based on just that. Hence, they have the background to give credence to their stories, but popular writers can suspend reality and write the fantasical They know of which they write, but they can create other worlds, realms and situations.

“Write what you know“, I have always heard. So what do I know? Even in my almost half-century of breathing, I don’t think I really know much about anything in particular. Not any more than the next person, if I were to give myself some credit. What I do know is I want to write. I also know how to day-dream. Hell, I sleep to dream. I can have one vivid imagination at times. Is that enough backing to write a book?

Should I take a writing class? I may, but I fear it will deter me more that enlighten me. Maybe I’d discover how the sausage is made, really made, and it would grind up my fragile little dreams into piles of hot-steaming pulp. Besides, I’d like to think that the process of writing is more organic than having to learn that process in a classroom setting. I don’t want to find out that there a formula to successful writing.

I have written before, in high school English. I wrote a short story about a man who was fixated on the tale of Abraham Lincoln’s foreshadowing of his own death, and how at the end of the short story, that fixation save the man’s life. I was proud of the story. My English teacher found my dialoge “trite”. What the hell did he expect from a sixteen year old girl? I did end up receiving a “B”, but all I could take to heart was the unflattering comment.

Is writing one of those things that, “either you can or you can’t”, like playing the oboe, or shooting a round a golf? With golf, not everyone can pick up a nine iron and swing it at a ball, executing a natural arcing motion, but most people can at least swing at the ball in somewhat of an swinging action, even if they end up topping the ball. I have picked up a nine iron, attempted to swing at the ball in the so-called natural arc, and proceeded to slam the club head straight into the ground, as if I was driving a railroad spike home.

I fear writing would come just as un-naturally for me. Forget choosing a sand wedge, forget having to take a Mulligan, I’ll just take all my broken shafts and go home.

It’s easy to write “what I know” if what I know are the thoughts in my own head. In a way it’s safer to just write about my thoughts, since who is going to dispute my them? They aren’t implausible story lines with unbelievable characters executing impossible acts, speaking inarticulate dialogue. I don’t have to justify thoughts. They are mine, damn it, but they do not make for good reading material, only blog fodder.

“Once upon a time…” Telling a story was so easy long, long ago. But, isn’t that how the process starts?

“Once upon a tine there was…”

A friend of mine wrote about writing in his blog. He told how he had asked his mother if some day he could become an author. In one of the most profound answers I have ever heard, she said, “It’s merely a choice one made.”

“Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to tell tales.”

**This is a repost from a post a from a few days ago. Write when fully awake to avoid mistakes, such as attributing the novels to the wrong author**

Embracing the Palindrome

A weekend away probably wasn’t the best time to break an addiction. Yet, there I was, attempting to kick my dependence to Xanax, a crutch I had leaned on heavily now for over ten years. I had been addicted to not feeling, safe in the knowledge of knowing that squashing any feeling of fear was just a blue pill away, my bitter calm. My VIP pass into sleep at night.

I was special. I didn’t need to suffer a stomach full of butterflies or a fretful night, forever on the edge of sleep. I should have never had to rationalize myself out of irrational fear. But as I had distanced myself away from those feelings, those experiences, I had distanced myself away from humanity in some way.

We are not brought together by our strengths, but by our weaknesses.

Twenty-four hours in and without, I was finding myself feeling as if I had consumed a full pot of coffee over breakfast. Jittery, foot bobbing, knee-jerking. I was trying to turn the feeling into some kind of high, a rush. The "fight or flee" response was taking me for a roller-coaster ride, over and over.

I waited for the inevitable derailment, the tidal wave of panic, the sudden urge to rush to the nearest emergency room where I would beg and plead to be hooked up to an EKG machine, positive I was suffering a heart attack. Feeling that I was about to die, I would be witness to the whole scene.

Not that I was afraid of death. I just didn’t want to be around when it happened.

Short of breath, drenched in sweat, feeling as if the world was swallowing me alive, I would rush to the almost empty bottle. This is the game I would play as I was nearing the bottom of the well. How far could I stretch out my prescription before I would end up sitting pitifully in the doctor’s office, feeling like Oliver Twist, asking for “more soup, please”, fearful of being denied. This was just yet another round.

I’ve talked myself into this, could I talk my way out? Or would I succumb to the crutch leaning in the corner, borrowing another Dickensonian image.

What was I really addicted to? I was addicted to quick relief. But, aren’t we all, I wondered as my husband shook two acetaminophen into his hand to ease his pestering headache? Just make it go away…pain, discomfort, all the stings and arrows of life, as so commonly mis-quoted. I paced with indecision. Just go take a pill, will you? I needed to drive into town soon. Would I take the bottle with me, just in case, or would I pull up my big girl britches and leave my blanket at home? I so dreadfully needed to take a nap, since sleep had not graced me last night, my first night without help in ten years. I know what would happen, as it had happened before--I would be wrenched from my mid-day dream, if indeed I had gotten that far, taken by a wave of panic so strong, it would cause me to rush to the bathroom mirror to see if I looked alive, if I still looked like myself. I would be drowning in the undertow like I had so many times before.

This highly addictive substance, it took away my panic attacks, but it had also stole away aspects of my short-term memory. Time tends to pass by without notice, and before I would know it, it would be the fifteenth of the month and my water bill would be over-due. Had I taken out the garbage to the curb, or had I only thought I did?

In a cruel twist, this tic-tac sized panacea would also remind me by its absence as to why I have kept it in my life for so long. The panic that I would experience could be far worse than the panic that caused me to hook up with this nasty palindrome in the first place. I knew this from past experiences in attempting to walk without the crutch. I could slowly wean myself of this substance, but as in the words of King Baby, “I want it, and I want it NOW!” I wanted relief from the drug as quickly as I wanted relief from the panic. Couldn’t there be a drug I could take when suffering from Xanax?

After the three day mark, I will have most likely dove head first into admitting defeat. Right now, the referee is pounding on the mat next to my head. Ring the bell, declare the winner. I know it’s not me. It never is.

But in twenty minutes, I won’t give a damn.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The book which haunts me

Back in the early seventies, I read a book that would change my life. It wasn't a self-help book, or a deep theological thesis. This book was meant to be distributed to schools and libraries, to be read to and by children. I don't think it was for sale in book stores. At that time there were actual book stores, owned by people with first and last names, neither of them being Amazon or Waldenbook. The shops were dedicated to selling one thing...books. Not having money to buy books because I was ten years old and I was buying bags of toy soldiers and balsa wood airplanes from the Ben Franklin at the time, I found myself at the town's old library in search of a different way to occupy myself.

The library was brick with a terra cotta roof. Two lions stood in a petrified watch on either side of the concrete steps. If they weren't really there due to a faulty memory caused by the passage of time, then they should have been. Inside was full of wood and dust and the smell of old paper with a hint of mildew. The sun would shine an amber glow through the high windows. The floors creaked, the chairs squeaked, but soon the almost reverent silence took over. I walked towards the children's section with its tiny chairs and small, round tables. I almost tip-toed across the aged floor as if there was a spell hovering over the space, and I did not want it to break.

As I ran my finger along the spines of the books stacked on the shelves, the varying thicknesses and heights of the books reminding me of a city skyline, I came across one that was a little thicker, a little more squat than the rest of the thinner books. It looked like the size of one of the books that lined the shelves of the adult section of the library. I never did like the fact that I was only allowed in the children's section. I so wanted to be able to check out a book from the other side of the library, with the long oak tables and high backed wooden chairs. I knew there had to be many secrets hiding in the shelves I could never reach. Excited, thinking that a book had been mis-cataloged, I pulled the it from between two slim, colorful books that held more pictures than words. Being young and still under the belief that books were to be judged by their covers, I turned the book over in my small hands. The book's plain grey cover showed a line drawing of a cat, curled up in a tight ball, napping.

"It's about a cat", I surmised, so it must be a good book, since I liked cats. There was no title printed on the cover, so this made the book that much more intriguing. Curiously, I turned over the book again to look at the spine where I knew the title would be.

If indeed the book was about a cat, that cat was dead because I noticed the word "ghost" in the title. Not being sure if I wanted to read a story about a cute little napping cat that was deceased, I started to place the book back on the shelf, taking one last glance at the title embossed on the spine.

"The Ghost of Opalina...well, 'Opalina' is a pretty name for a cat, alive or dead", I thought, and once more I pulled the book from the shelf. There wasn't a dust cover for the book. Knowing that the books my parents had at home had dust covers, and the dust covers had a paragraph or two outlining the story, I had to go on faith that a story about a cat named Opalina would be something I just may find interesting, even though she was a dead cat.

Then I saw the second half of the title. The full title of the book was The Ghost of Opalina or "Nine Lives". Always wishing that cats really did have nine lives, I decided that I truly did want to read this book written by someone named Peggy Bacon.

Carrying the book to the librarian's desk...not only was there book shops back then, there was also The Librarian, the one I thought actually lived in the library, just like I thought teachers lived at the school and nuns lived in the church basement...I approached the large desk with my book, wearing a somewhat smug look on my face because the book I was checking out didn't have a colorful cartoon cover like the other childrens books. On tip-toe, I reached up and gently sat the book down on her desk. She would certainly be impressed by my choice of reading material, how wonderful that a ten year old child would pick such a work of fiction. I wondered if she imagined me curled up on my bed, or some corner of my house, sun streaming picturesquely through the window, dust motes floating though the air like stars, the light illuminating my angelic face as the sun bounced off the page.

The echoing sound of the date stamp hitting the inside cover snapped me out of my quiescent scene. Looking up at the stern, crinkled face of the library-dwelling woman, she peered down upon me, nonplussed. She slammed the cover closed and handed me the book. I will never forget what she said to me.

"Back in two weeks."

I shuffled home, disappointed that the librarian was not as impressed with me as I was with myself. My book was held tightly to my chest, for one must never drop a book, my teacher had told me one day. She explained it would hurt the book, and at my young age, I tended to humanize inanimate objects frequently. It wasn't a long walk to my house, but it seemed so that day. I couldn't wait to find just the right place in the house where the sun would stream through the window, illuminating the pages and my face.

I finally reached my bedroom, closed the door behind me, curled up on my bed and opened the book to the first page to my first "novel". Being that the day turned cloudy, instead of warm sunlight shining on the pages, I settled for grey somber light, diffusing everywhere but the pages. Despite life not following my script, I read the book in less than a week, I was so transfixed and bewitched by the story. Maybe the librarian would at least be impressed by prompt return of the book, if not by my choice of reading material.

Almost forty years later I find myself scanning rummage sales and flea markets for this book, the book that forever marked me as one who becomes lost reading. I have read many books since then most regularly, except for a short stint in high school where "required reading" was foisted upon me. To me, nothing ruined the idea of reading more than having a teacher instructing the class that no college would accept a child who didn't read Moby Dick.

This book I read so many years ago is special. It is a touchstone...a very expensive touchstone, I have discovered after much searching. Alas, my beloved Opalina is the subject of a rare book. Perhaps someday I will be in an antique store, glancing at a bookshelf, and there the book will be, nestled between a copy of Valley of the Dolls and a service manual for a '72 Chevy Impala. Above the bookshelf will be a sign reading, "All books, five dollars". If so, maybe someday I will find myself sitting in a sunbeam, like Opalina sat in a moonbeam. Opalina recalled her nine lives in the light of the full moon, shining through the bedroom window. In the sunlight through my bedroom window, I will be recalling my childhood.

I could check the book out at the library where the librarians are young, and they no longer stamp books, they electronically scan them. I could very easily do just that, but memories shouldn't have to be borrowed and returned two weeks later.