Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What are your stories made of? (05/15/09)



Featured writer: David S. Johnson



Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Rodgers
Charlene Bunas
Claudia Larson
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
G. M. Monks
Marlene Cullen
Susan Bono
Trudy Martin


Overturned

by David S. Johnson

He sits on an overturned bucket. There are patio chairs, but he doesn't sit there. He is smoking a cigarette and stroking the thick tussock of whiskers on his chin. Occasionally he yells at the dog to stop chasing the chickens - a strong voice from a whisper of a man. He sips Busch beer. Sometimes he walks into the cow pasture and stands looking out. He makes noises in his throat as though he figured something out. He knows more than he lets on.

This man is a truck driver, a welder, an army man, and a rapier wit. He was and is very funny. I admired this man when I was still short enough to hang from his thin, flexed forearm. He is a salt-of-the-earth man whose poverty deepened when he married a woman with seven kids. He convinced his body that supper was enough for him so the kids could have enough to eat. He still eats only once a day and I still admire that level of selflessness. Busch beer is his liquid buffer against hunger.

This is a man I call Papa and though ‘papa' typically means ‘father,' I know him as a grandfather. He is my first step-dad's step-dad. It would be simple to say that my first step-dad was my dad and his step-dad was my granddad but I use these titles to distance myself. I refused to talk to this man, this man I call Papa, for 16 years. I was angry because I felt alone. I was angry because I couldn't understand why this generous man would not help protect me against the hurtful neglect of my step-dad, his step-son.

A few years ago a ton of steel from a dumptruck loading door swung down when hydraulic lines lost their pressure and knocked a 120-lb man out. The door did not take his life but it did take some of his short-term memory. A loss that turns quickly into anger when he finds himself alone and standing in the middle of a cow pasture but isn't sure why. I think if I lost some of my long-term memory, I would have less anger.

After 16 years we talk again. It's after the memorial service of his step-son, my step-dad. We sit on overturned buckets and sip Busch beer. We talk of hogs, the government, the idiots down the road, and of fish never caught. We never talk of anger or resentment. I am trying to understand this man and our relationship. He is part of my story and like most of my stories it is made of hard choices, fragments of memories, chickens, a want of simplicity and of answers, and overturned buckets. I still admire this man but there are conversations we need to have, parts of the story aren't there. Often my stories are riddled with missing parts - gaps to be filled, conversations to be had. But just as often, like this day on overturned buckets, there are no conversations, no gaps being filled. There is simply the occasional noise in a throat.

David Samuel Johnson has more and more gaps and less and less conversations these days.

Sugar and Spice?

  by Arlene L. Mandell

Little girls, as you may recall from the nursery rhyme, are made of "sugar and spice and everything nice," while little boys are made of "snips and snails and puppy dog tails." Phooey on all that!

My "nicest" stories usually have a dollop of snake venom, revealing some dreadful bit of humanity in action. For example, in my forever-in-the-works book, My Life on Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir, Vinny, a juvenile delinquent-in-training, sets fire to a kitten in a vacant lot and laughs as it burns to death. And I bash the boy next door on the head with my little broom when he overturns my doll carriage. Then I end the episode sweetly with "and he never disturbed my dolls again."

Arlene L. Mandell is forever exploring, from the gritty streets of Brooklyn to the verdant hills east of Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, with its with rattlesnakes, coyotes and the occasional mountain lion.

True or False

  by Betty Rodgers

Today I discovered a chipped diamond in my wedding ring. How can this be? Diamonds are the hardest natural substance known and would never chip out of an enclosed setting. The ring itself would be demolished before that could happen, and since it rarely leaves my hand, I certainly would have been aware of the impact.

My ring was made by a friend in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Matt was a jeweler at the old country inn that I helped manage. His father had been a diamond dealer, and Matt went on to create art with diamonds. People came from far and near to have him fashion their one-of-a-kind jewelry. I gave him a sketch of what we wanted, and he created something much more beautiful than we had conceived. Surely he hadn't duped us with fake diamonds those many years ago.

But then there was another jeweler after we moved away to California. The prongs holding the diamonds were wearing away, and he suggested re-setting the diamonds down into the ring to minimize the danger of losing them in the future. Doing so would also alleviate the problem of towels and clothing catching on the prongs. So we took his advice. Could he have replaced the diamonds with fakes? But he too had a stellar reputation, and wouldn't he have mentioned if these were not real diamonds? Wouldn't he?

Which brings me to what I hope my stories are made of, and what I enjoy about my favorite authors. Like diamonds, our poems, short stories and essays are made of the high refractive index of our own experiences and feelings and imagination, strengths and flaws. The crystallization process of the events of our lives and how we respond to them. The transparency of truth. Without it, readers and listeners would be skeptical and question the authenticity of our writing.

This coming week I will find a jeweler in Boise, and learn the truth about the gems in my ring. In the meantime, I will be lost in doubt and suspicion. I hope I learn that even diamonds have flaws.

Betty Rodgers watches daily for a much-anticipated covey of baby quail to appear in her back yard. Their parents ate her favorite delphinium to a nubbin and much of the new lettuce in her vegetable garden, the greens quite necessary for gestation.


Writing by Recipe

  by Charlene Bunas

Ingredients for my stories are: snaps and snails and puppy-dog tails, sugar and spice and everything nice; characters, juxtapositioned to personal challenges forever seek solutions.

I write about the journey more than the conclusion. The stories I share are my own, complete with exaggeration here and some stretching of facts, there. Only my hairdresser knows for sure. But if my hairdresser were to tell the truth, she would say, "Charlene continues to research recipe for delicious, savory stories."

That beautician is correct. I do seek the path to pow-ful writing. I climb out of the box….but not so far as to forget paper and pens. I read. And I write. I am highly influenced by the writer I read; my products are laced with humor when I read Peg Bracken, Irma Bombeck, Elizabeth Gilbert. My creativity temperature rises as I plow through anything by Natalie Goldberg. Reading Make A Scene by Jordan Rosenfield, I take my story "one scene at a time." When I read David McCoullough or Michael Crichton, I look forward to getting back to "my kind of recipe": sugar, spice, and sage advice.


Yesterday Charlene Bunas harvested a big bundle of rhubarb from her Santa Rosa garden. She made a delicious rhubarb raspberry pie.

Fizzies, Tang and Instant Breakfast

  by Claudia Larson

Remember Fizzies? They were the tabs of flavor added to water, fizzing their way from wafer to flavor. I loved the root beer Fizzies: ahh, a hot summer day in the kitchen, popping a brown Fizzie into a glass of water.

KoolAid was fun as well: watching the sandy stuff pour from the packet, turning a pitcher of water red. I can still taste the tang of cherry KoolAid.

Another favorite drink was Instant Breakfast, chocolate powder dumped into milk five minutes before the school bus came into our yard for the hour trip to high school in Crosby, fifteen miles north. My sister Beth usually waited until two minutes before bus time to fix her fast food drink, not caring that Maurice Sigvaldsen, the accordion-playing bus driver would have to wait for her, always the last one out the door.

Apparently Tang orange juice, having no relation to real oranges, was invented for astronauts. You have to wonder how malnourished those guys were after an outer space flight if Tang was at the top of their food chain. Tang, like KoolAid, was especially tartly delicious if you ate it by dipping a wet finger into the powder and sucking it onto a sour-titillated tongue.

Such could not be said of powdered milk, that creepy chunky bunch of granules that turned water a bluey-white. At age twelve my tongue turned its back on milk when Dad stopped milking cows and Mom in her ever-frugal ways began giving us seven kids Carnation Powdered Skim Milk to drink instead of farm fresh stuff. There's only one way to describe the taste: Ickda and Blecckkh.

Other liquids I've loved: orange pop, a rare treat. Grape pop, another rare treat.

Other liquids I've detested: can't think of one. Oh. Vodka. I'll tell you why another time.

Claudia Larson's stories are made of things like these.

Overturned

  by David S. Johnson

He sits on an overturned bucket. There are patio chairs, but he doesn't sit there. He is smoking a cigarette and stroking the thick tussock of whiskers on his chin. Occasionally he yells at the dog to stop chasing the chickens - a strong voice from a whisper of a man. He sips Busch beer. Sometimes he walks into the cow pasture and stands looking out. He makes noises in his throat as though he figured something out. He knows more than he lets on.

This man is a truck driver, a welder, an army man, and a rapier wit. He was and is very funny. I admired this man when I was still short enough to hang from his thin, flexed forearm. He is a salt-of-the-earth man whose poverty deepened when he married a woman with seven kids. He convinced his body that supper was enough for him so the kids could have enough to eat. He still eats only once a day and I still admire that level of selflessness. Busch beer is his liquid buffer against hunger.

This is a man I call Papa and though ‘papa' typically means ‘father,' I know him as a grandfather. He is my first step-dad's step-dad. It would be simple to say that my first step-dad was my dad and his step-dad was my granddad but I use these titles to distance myself. I refused to talk to this man, this man I call Papa, for 16 years. I was angry because I felt alone. I was angry because I couldn't understand why this generous man would not help protect me against the hurtful neglect of my step-dad, his step-son.

A few years ago a ton of steel from a dumptruck loading door swung down when hydraulic lines lost their pressure and knocked a 120-lb man out. The door did not take his life but it did take some of his short-term memory. A loss that turns quickly into anger when he finds himself alone and standing in the middle of a cow pasture but isn't sure why. I think if I lost some of my long-term memory, I would have less anger.

After 16 years we talk again. It's after the memorial service of his step-son, my step-dad. We sit on overturned buckets and sip Busch beer. We talk of hogs, the government, the idiots down the road, and of fish never caught. We never talk of anger or resentment. I am trying to understand this man and our relationship. He is part of my story and like most of my stories it is made of hard choices, fragments of memories, chickens, a want of simplicity and of answers, and overturned buckets. I still admire this man but there are conversations we need to have, parts of the story aren't there. Often my stories are riddled with missing parts - gaps to be filled, conversations to be had. But just as often, like this day on overturned buckets, there are no conversations, no gaps being filled. There is simply the occasional noise in a throat.

David Samuel Johnson has more and more gaps and less and less conversations these days.

Cargo Pants

  by Don Edgers

I grew up hearing the adage: (Little) "boys are made of snips & snails and puppy dog tails. — (Little) girls are made of sugar & spice and everything nice." As I accumulated more experience, the description proved to be mostly true (at least in my microcosm).

John Gray informed us that Men Are From Mars. Then Jim Fergus wrote 1,000 White Women: The journals of May Dodd, written from a feminine POV. I had always thought male authors wrote from a man's POV, and female authors from a feminine POV

I'm still amazed that a male can get into the mind of and think like a female.

I was well into my 60s, and living under the presumption that Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, when the publication of 1,000 White Women upset my system of beliefs. Rather than acquiesce to a new paradigm, I choose to stick to the conviction that stories by male writers normally reflect that males and females are different breeds of cats.

My stories are like a pair of male 6-pocket cargo pants containing:

History
Dialogue
Observations
Nostalgia
Oddballs
Humor

Don pulls the ingredients for his stories from his 6-pocket cargo pants in Port Orchard, WA. Eighty-six of his stories are contained in An Island In Time: Growing up in the 1940s, and An Island In Time II: Coming of age in the 1950s. More stories can be found on his website –www.anislandintime.com



What are your stories made of?

  by G. M. Monks

The following comprises the entirety of everything I have written:

Fact/fiction; love/hate/and in between; you/me/them/it; he/she; mad/sad/glad/scared; weird/normal; provocative/boring; poem/novel/flash fiction/short story/travel piece/satire; dreams/observations/thoughts; animal/vegetable/mineral; safe/risky; family/strangers;
really good/really bad/in between; water/booze/milk; crime/rules/lots of rules; lots/little; lies/truth/politics; heroes/scoundrels; coats/undies/hankies/dresses/suits/hats; rings/feathers/hatpins; wide open spaces/closets/the infinitely small; and more. Oh I forgot infinity.

G. M. Monks of Fairfield, CA, lives in a hard-core California suburb and works in a hard-core bureaucracy. No wonder she loves to escape into writing. Her poems have been published in Bathtub Gin and Todd Point Review.


Fluffy Stuff

  by Marlene Cullen

I want to say my stories are made of bone and gristle or mortar and bricks. I would like to think they're strong with solid foundations. But sometimes when I bite into them, I find fluff, like that spun confection sold at carnivals.

But if one of my stories sticks to you, like cotton candy, well then, that's a good thing!

Marlene tries not to write fluff and occasionally succeeds in Petaluma, CA.

Mouse by Mouse

  by Susan Bono

My stories are made out of my own confusion. They are built of fits and starts, hesitations, blunders, stalls, lulls, blurts. I imagine the minds of other writers as spacious rooms, properly appointed for the comfort of their muses, with comfy chairs, the warm light of well-placed lamps, lots of books, a fully stocked writing desk, windows open to the sea.

The inside of my head is more like a dirty kitchen—the stained counters cluttered with crusty dishes, empty cans, spilled coffee grounds, plastic bags and wrappers, the sink slick with sludge, a sticky table littered with dirty coffee cups, crumpled napkins and mail.

My thoughts don't laugh musically, lean back into the cushions and take another sip of tea. My thoughts scamper like mice from under the stove, zigzagging from crumb to crumb. Their quick darting movements at the edge of my vision continually startle me, triggering jolts of primal fright. And when they skitter toward me, allowing me a better view of them, I have to fight the urge to leap shrieking onto a chair.

Whatever writing I manage to do is an attempt to overcome my fear of these tiny, essentially harmless creatures long enough to make some intelligent guesses about them. It is also an effort to clean up and restore order—to make stories that will nourish my spirit with the unlikely contents of my larder. Lately, it feels like the mice are winning, but I know if I keep trying to make something out of nothing and tidying up, I will one day find my way to that room where my muses wait with their teacups, laughing.


Susan Bono is taking it one dirty cup at a time in Petaluma, CA.

WHAT ARE YOUR STORIES MADE OF?

  by Trudy Martin

I dip the pan into the river of my life, gathering the mix of water, gravel and silt, prospecting.

Flashes of gold and fool's gold glint as I swirl the pan in search of nuggets. Nuggets of memories to share with my children and their children, a story of change, life and death and all that is in between. They are the treasure that fills my gold poke with ideas; without them there would be no memoirs.

But a myriad of other things, invisible to the reader, determine the success or failure of how I present those nuggets: the time-consuming work and brain exercises of preparation.

I separate the gold from the fool's gold, decide what to write and how to to write it. (Which is more important in developing the story, the how or the why? the who or the what? Can the memoir stand alone? If not, how do I weave the threads to tie it to future or previous stories?)

I research and study photo albums, journals and letters, and check with relatives. The computer is a valuable source for dates of events and to refresh one's memory regarding slang, dress, music, even hair styles associated with the year involved.

I call it time-travel as I close my eyes, put myself into the time and place of the memoir, and become the age I was then. This helps me establish attitude and voice.

Honesty is my cardinal rule: tell the truth. After the passing of years it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction, but I must tell the truth as I remember it, even though others who remember it differently may dispute my version.

Time. I let the memoir rest a while between rewrites and edits while I consider its message and possible changes in style or point of view.

I incorporate emotions, the senses and imagination, which requires devising ways to convey feelings without becoming maudlin, or displaying braggadocio, self-pity or other unattractive traits. If I am successful in my time-travel, the five senses almost write themselves into the story. Like lightning or chili pepper, a dash of imagination adds spice, color and action.

That is what my stories are made of: memories and hard work. The work binds with the nuggets I have panned from the bottom of the rich river of my life, and smelts and molds them into a bit of personal history, my memoirs.


Trudy Martin
Calistoga, California
E-Mail Email Trudy

"From a childhood on a ranch in Montana, marriage to a career Navy man, and a life as a working mother, I have stored colorful and varied memories, but only started writing after my retirement. I have attended writing classes for several years at Napa Valley College."


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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