Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What story are you being asked to tell? (04/15/08)



Featured writer: Susan Bono



Contributors this month:
Betty Rodgers
Bonnie L. Petty
Christine Falcone
David Johnson
Don Edgers
Gregory Gerard
Jo Lauer
Marylu Downing
Susan Bono


More Than Words Can Tell

by Susan Bono

I wish I could tell you some of the stories my 78-year-old mother tells me. But I'd have to use her words, which spool from her mouth like a piece of yarn pulled loose from a sweater. These words are often sweet and hugely funny, but they rarely lodge in my memory, maybe because stories depend on context, and for Mom, the context keeps changing. Sometimes I am her daughter, sometimes a kindly stranger; sometimes the bathroom door is the size of a postage stamp; a dark tile is a hole in the floor. She keeps talking, pulling on that kinked thread, as if by doing so she can follow it back to the woman she used to be.

When taking apart a piece of knitting, your attention fixes on the edge that is unraveling. You become fascinated by the blur of movement and changing shape at the place where form collapses. That line of tucks and loops bears no resemblance to the garment worn on a hundred winter afternoons. Soon it's just a stringy tangle pooling in your lap.

These days, my mother's voice is soft and wooly. It wraps itself around the control panel in my brain so I can't see which knob to turn to help me figure out what I really need to know. Looking up at me from a gurney while we wait for the ER doctor to give us a report on her fall, she tries to tell me what happened in the three hours before I could get to the hospital. "My head hurt," she says, "so I asked the nurse for a pickle."

She laughs, so we both know this isn't what she meant to say. "Did you mean ‘pillow'?" I ask, and she beams at my perspicacity. In this moment, her story makes perfect sense. Then she says, "Just because I can't walk, doesn't mean I can't shake." And I am plunged into mystery.

Nothing in my experience has prepared me for this, except maybe those long-ago days of colic, fevers and teething when I'd done everything I could think of to make my babies comfortable and still they cried and cried. I know from those times the only real mistake is succumbing to despair or anger. This knowledge lets me ignore my mother's repeated requests to go to the bathroom, because the nurse who helped me get her dressed, into a wheelchair, out into the cold spring wind and into my car has taken the wheelchair back into the hospital. No one is stepping in with a better suggestion. Certainly not my ailing father, who is home asleep in his chair with the phone on his lap, or my husband who told me it was crazy to drop everything and drive 100 miles when tomorrow or next week the real emergency might arrive.

After 45 minutes in rush hour traffic, I get her to a toilet, where she pees a thimbleful. Then I stand by as the staff puts her into bed in a room dim with twilight. When I tell her I have to get going, she teases, "Next time I might just weight you down with horseshoes so you can't leave."

"We have to stop talking now, Ma," I tell her. "Close your eyes. Get some rest." I sit on the edge of her bed, waiting until her eyes stop twitching beneath their lids. She sleeps. I concentrate on the small dark space between her parted lips where the stories come out, knowing nothing can prepare me for the time the words stop.

This is only part of of the story Susan Bono is not telling in Petaluma, CA.


What story are you being asked to tell?

  by Betty Rodgers

Master pianist Van Cliburn was recently interviewed by Jeffrey Brown during "The News Hour" on PBS. He said that after more than 70 years immersed in classical music, he still feels the same thrill when hearing or performing works of the great composers. He went on to say, "...it is always there. It will be there after you and I and everyone we know today are dead; that music will still be alive."

This same principal also applies to the stories of our ancestors. For as long as I can remember, my mother has persevered in keeping alive the history (the music) of our forebears. There were the brave ones who came across on the Mayflower, the preacher in Littleton, New Hampshire, the great aunt who was an impresario in Miami, Florida. There was the professor at Bowdoin College. And although she died when I was only two, I can tell you how my grandmother carried on with her 7 and 9-year-old daughters after the tragic death of her splendid husband.

In Mother's steamer trunk can be found dominoes carved from soup bones by our ancestor imprisoned at Libby Prison during the Civil War. In a metal box are letters and poems (the musical score) written in the elegant penmanship of a former time. The ink is fading now, the paper fragile, but scanned and digitalized, the words will live forever. Just as with classical music, these are the enduring stories of real people, and we can know them still.

And what about me? When I am gone, how will anyone in the future know or even care who I was? That is, care enough to carry my story (music) forward so I can live forever, too? Some time ago I concluded that if anyone were to know me, it would be through my words. That is when I began to write seriously.

Which brings me to the story I am being asked to tell. Truth or fiction? I started with Mother looking over my shoulder, so to speak, and couldn't bring myself to write anything that would upset her, or put a fictitious twist to a real event. Thankfully I was freed from that restriction when author Pam Laird presented me with an official "California Liar's License" in a workshop we attended together.

So now I write creatively, and yes, my life informs my work. I make up a lot of things, yet there is truth that resides within fiction. And hopefully if I keep writing long enough, like playing a symphony again and again, the story I'm being asked to tell will emerge. No, I'm not Mozart, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven, but I have lived, and this is my one chance, so I'd better get busy.

Betty Rodgers lives her symphony and listens to classical music in Boise, Idaho. Her 88-year-old mother is the keeper of the family lore.

What story are you being asked to tell?

  by Bonnie L. Petty

My muse laughs when I read her the question. Her black shroud rustles like a deep-throated whisper as she points her finger at me—the signal for me to start writing.

I keep her dressed in black, to remind her that she is the evil one—and that I am the one in charge here. I know, I know—muses are supposed to be our fairy-godmother-type guides, right? Not evil. Well, you don't know my muse. She doesn't let up on me for one second. Push, push, push.

She laughs at me—a lot. Today, she laughs because she knows there is no asking going on in this writing room. Demanding is much closer to the truth. And she is a demanding bitch, even though I still insist that I am in charge. I am…really.

But which story am I to tell? I have many stories—all so different…

Muse flings story ideas at me like cards she has drawn from a stacked deck.

Here's one: On my mother's 72nd birthday, I showed up at her door with a dozen roses, as a surprise. It had been four years since my last trip from my home in sunny California to the flatlands of Michigan, where I grew up. She had no idea I was coming. She didn't even recognize me. Barely opening the door enough to get the vase of flowers through, she shut the door on me. When I said, "Mom, don't you recognize your own daughter?" she almost dropped the flowers.

It's become one of those family stories that everyone likes to laugh about. My friend in California thought it was really weird that my mom didn't know me. I mean, there are good reasons for her not recognizing me. "Yeah, but didn't it bother you…even a little bit?" she asked. "Of course not," I say. It had been a long time; I had cut my hair. No big deal. Just a funny family story.

And there's my novel: It's a historical novel set in 1880s Chicago, based on the real-life wife of one of the Haymarket Square martyrs. It fictionalizes how she survives without a husband in that pre-social services era.

Without money or a job, what would a woman with two kids do if her husband is suddenly jailed as an anarchist? Her family is in England, and she has made few friends, but she keeps in close touch with her mother through letters. I think it's a compelling story and a great vehicle to show this woman as she struggles to survive, coming into her own. It's just a story, of course—completely different from the other story.

"Of course," says the shrouded one in the corner of the room. And with a flick of her wrist, she sends the whole deck of cards spewing in an arc that pours down over me. Every card is printed with the same words: How I came to be ME.

She has a wicked laugh.


Bonnie plays double-handed solitaire with her muse in Santa Rosa, CA. Besides working part time for a local newspaper, she also freelances as a writer, an editor, a proofreader, and a tutor for writing and test-taking skills. Her website: www.BLPCommunications.com



Whose Story Are You Being Asked to Tell?

  by Christine Falcone

I'm not sure yet whose story it is, but I get the feeling that it's something that'll get under the skin, like the ink of a tattoo. It's something that, I hope, will leave the reader permanently changed, maybe a little more compassionate, a little wiser, a little more open to people like Scotty Watts' father, someone into whose life we don't normally get a glimpse. Is The Intersection (which I'm now calling Rage) the story of Nick Iokamedes, his progression from grief to fury to forgiveness? Or Maud Chambers' story of her deepening wisdom and discovery of her own strength and courage as a survivor of domestic abuse? Or is it Scotty Watts' story of his victimization by a sadistic father and how he channels that pain into a terrible act of violence, thus perpetuating the cycle? Maybe it's Scotty's mother's story, Nina, who I'm just now getting better acquainted with. Maybe its all of our stories. Perhaps there's a little bit of all of us in each of these characters. It's the world we live in, and like it or not, it's a violent society.

Christine Falcone is trying to figure out whose story she's telling in Novato, California.

Tell me again

  by David Johnson

Trophic Control of Saltmarsh Invertebrates. That's the title of my dissertation; a story that I've been asked to tell by my graduate committee to document what I've been doing for the past five years. Intrigued? Sure, it's not as sexy as The Proper Technique for Manual Extraction of Porcupine Semen, but everyone's heard that old saw. This damn story has gobbled up my time like a starved dog, with lunging bites and swallowing without tasting. I'd like to tell this story to everyone, but not everyone wants to hear it. In fact, if two people outside of my committee read all 135 pages of this story with interest, I'll be impressed.
I try to tell my 11-year-old brother Cody stories from my dissertation, which is my story, but he doesn't want to hear about how the effect of removing top predators can cascade down the food chain to lower levels. He wants to see if he can get the bottom-feeding catfish to eat the grasshopper if he tosses it in the water when the smallmouth bass is looking the other way. He does this because experiencing a story is always more fun than hearing one. After a while of catching grasshoppers and sharing the excitement of finding a giant among grasshoppers (2 inches!!), it's no longer science to me but it is now fun. Cody, in his own way, is telling me his story about life as a kid and I love that story. I, in turn, tell him stories of when I was a kid and a catfish pulled my fishing pole into the water. Of how I chased it into the water but couldn't catch the rod-fish combo. I tell him how I caught the pole-stealing catfish still attached to my pole a week later. And I tell him again because he asks me to. He likes that story.
We are all asked to tell different stories by different people: a never-satisfied graduate committee, an irascible editor, a had-too-much-too-drink-and-I'm-bored date or a little brother who wants to hear the same stories over and over. Sometimes we are asked to tell stories that we don't want to, but I think that it doesn't matter what story you're being asked to tell so long as someone is still asking.

David is still trying to tell his story in Baton Rouge, LA, but he just noticed a grasshopper on the window so the story might have to wait.
David’s website: http://impeccablepeccadillo.wordpress.com/


Getting to Tell

  by Don Edgers

I get out of life what I put into it.

Don Edgers tells his story in Port Orchard, WA. His latest book is published by Arcadia Publishing, Fox Island.
His Web site is www.anislandintime.com


Pressured to Tell

  by Gregory Gerard

Jerry Springer screams at me to share my sexual experiences -- just the ones that have resulted in conflict, or danger, or shame.

Born-agains solicit the testimony of how I was saved -- specific details of when, and where, and how much I cried.

Management encourages me to promote our company's stand-out services wherever I go -- at dinner parties, over golf, in the grocery line.

I resist them all, choosing instead to face my computer screen in darkness, telling the stuff that's real to me:

my mom's tumor pain,
my partner's pneumonia hack,
my less-secret yearnings.

Gregory Gerard keeps the pressure at bay in Rochester, N.Y. To visit his real stuff, visit www.JupitersShadow.com

Just Doing My Job

  by Jo Lauer

I am at the whim of the muses. I write stories out of the universal consciousness as the characters call to me. For my most recent novel, I was shown a picture of a small boy standing in front of a mirror, drizzling strands of Christmas tinsel over his head to make him a beautiful woman. He needed me to help him through a sex change. Before that, the word reincarnation wrapped itself around my brain and wouldn't let go until I finished a book about an unrequited lesbian love affair in 1700s, England. In a short story, a woman with multiple personalities needed a hand it getting out of an abusive relationship, and begged me to write her an escape route. In a collection of short stories, the theme of returning home kept emerging. It amazed me how many versions of returning home there actually are. There seems no rhyme or reason—I just show up when I'm called.

Jo Lauer, a therapist in Santa Rosa, California, dances with the muses late at night.

What Story Are You Being Asked to Tell?

  by Marylu Downing

I live in a small town loosely connected by hard winters and years of interacting in the post office, store, bar, restaurants, and the school. I want people to know this life--the intimacy of small community. I want to describe the particular characters who make up the daily life. The famous and creative tucked into the hills. The founders of hippie communes and the Italian immigrants. The kids who've committed suicide and how everyone is caught up in the grief. This is the story that draws me in right now.

I want the reader to smell the minestrone soup in the air, the wood smoke from the brick oven restaurant. To hear the sirens sounding out the volunteer firefighters--our emergency medical team. I feel a certain urgency to capture it before it disappears. It seems an anthropological throw back like Ishi, the last of his tribe, who finally stumbled out of the trees.

It's that spot in the universe where people know each others names and stories, where the homeless are given work to do around town, and where the redwoods tower above the hills and the clearing where the town was built in 1876. A spot of beauty and hidden talents and secrets that are hard to keep.

Marylu Downing writes and paints in her home near Occidental, California. You can contact her through her website:www.studioml.com




More Than Words Can Tell

  by Susan Bono

I wish I could tell you some of the stories my 78-year-old mother tells me. But I'd have to use her words, which spool from her mouth like a piece of yarn pulled loose from a sweater. These words are often sweet and hugely funny, but they rarely lodge in my memory, maybe because stories depend on context, and for Mom, the context keeps changing. Sometimes I am her daughter, sometimes a kindly stranger; sometimes the bathroom door is the size of a postage stamp; a dark tile is a hole in the floor. She keeps talking, pulling on that kinked thread, as if by doing so she can follow it back to the woman she used to be.

When taking apart a piece of knitting, your attention fixes on the edge that is unraveling. You become fascinated by the blur of movement and changing shape at the place where form collapses. That line of tucks and loops bears no resemblance to the garment worn on a hundred winter afternoons. Soon it's just a stringy tangle pooling in your lap.

These days, my mother's voice is soft and wooly. It wraps itself around the control panel in my brain so I can't see which knob to turn to help me figure out what I really need to know. Looking up at me from a gurney while we wait for the ER doctor to give us a report on her fall, she tries to tell me what happened in the three hours before I could get to the hospital. "My head hurt," she says, "so I asked the nurse for a pickle."

She laughs, so we both know this isn't what she meant to say. "Did you mean ‘pillow'?" I ask, and she beams at my perspicacity. In this moment, her story makes perfect sense. Then she says, "Just because I can't walk, doesn't mean I can't shake." And I am plunged into mystery.

Nothing in my experience has prepared me for this, except maybe those long-ago days of colic, fevers and teething when I'd done everything I could think of to make my babies comfortable and still they cried and cried. I know from those times the only real mistake is succumbing to despair or anger. This knowledge lets me ignore my mother's repeated requests to go to the bathroom, because the nurse who helped me get her dressed, into a wheelchair, out into the cold spring wind and into my car has taken the wheelchair back into the hospital. No one is stepping in with a better suggestion. Certainly not my ailing father, who is home asleep in his chair with the phone on his lap, or my husband who told me it was crazy to drop everything and drive 100 miles when tomorrow or next week the real emergency might arrive.

After 45 minutes in rush hour traffic, I get her to a toilet, where she pees a thimbleful. Then I stand by as the staff puts her into bed in a room dim with twilight. When I tell her I have to get going, she teases, "Next time I might just weight you down with horseshoes so you can't leave."

"We have to stop talking now, Ma," I tell her. "Close your eyes. Get some rest." I sit on the edge of her bed, waiting until her eyes stop twitching beneath their lids. She sleeps. I concentrate on the small dark space between her parted lips where the stories come out, knowing nothing can prepare me for the time the words stop.

This is only part of of the story Susan Bono is not telling in Petaluma, CA.


Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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