Sunday, December 19, 2010

Belated Christmas

We will be celebrating Christmas this year with two of our children and two of our grandchildren.


Our REAL Christmas will come in a few weeks when another grandchild arrives. Our son Jordan and his wife Heather have been chosen by a birth mother to be the parents of a little boy who will be born in late January. That's a unique Christmas gift, to say the least, an example of the most selfless kind of love. Christmas will never be the same. Is it any wonder we can't hear or sing lullabies and songs about Joseph this year without floods of tears.

They have named him Samuel, which means 'asked of God.' For more than nine years Jordan and Heather have prayed for a baby. This one is an answer to prayer. A string of happy miracles has brought him to our family. And there will be more miracles in the life of his birth mother as she reaches for new goals in seeking to renew her own life. We will never forget her, and we will always be grateful for her faith and trust.

Because of various scheduling circumstances we had two Thanksgivings this year, and now we are going to have two Christmases. No family could be more blessed!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How Shall We Celebrate Christmas?

Recently I read an article that suggested there are three ways to keep Christmas –
…at the Santa Claus level, with the decorations, trees, presents and food,
…at the Silent Night level, with the carols, Bible reading to review the story of Christ's birth, and traditions involving the symbols of Christmas,
…at the Adult Christ level with its lasting joy, lasting peace, and lasting hope.

It seems like the first two levels get the most attention, but they don't last and they go away quickly. However, the third level is one that requires spiritual maturity to become like Christ, with his forgiving touch and boundless love.

Here are some thoughts that help me keep my attention focused on the Christ in Christmas:

This Christmas, mend a quarrel, seek out the forgotten friend, dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Try to understand. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak love, and then speak it again. (Howard W. Hunter)

Gifts in God's Name
by Sigrid Undset

When we give each other
Christmas presents in His name,
Let us remember that He has given us
the sun and the moon and the stars,
the earth with its forests and mountains
and oceans –
and all that lives and moves upon them.

He has given us all green things
and everything that blossoms and bears
fruit –
and all that we quarrel about
and all that we have misused –

And to save us from our foolishness,
from our sins,
He came down to earth
and gave us Himself.

(author unknown)
If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things,
and again with things;
if we consider ourselves so unimportant
that we must fill every moment of our lives with action,
when will we have the time
to make the long, slow journey
across the desert as did the Magi?
Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds?
Or brood over the coming of the Child as did Mary?
For each one of us, there is a desert to travel,
a star to discover,
and a being within ourselves to bring to life.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Back By Popular Demand... Christmas Music: The Heaven and Hell of It

from December 2008, why Black Friday means nothing to me...

My husband and I were on a phone call recently that required us to wait on hold for about half of the total one-hour time it took to complete the transaction. While we were on hold, we were subjected to the torturous sounds of New Age ‘music,’ put there by some well-meaning person convinced we needed to be ‘entertained’ while we were waiting. Running barefoot on broken glass would have been infinitely more satisfying. I am convinced that New Age ‘music’ destroys brain cells and breaks down resistance to truth, logic and common sense, making people believe that there is no such thing as good or evil – it’s all a matter of preference. New Age sounds dissolve conscience and create a vacuum in its place. Suddenly everything is hunky-dory for listeners and they think all the problems of the world will go away if we all just sit around listening to and grooving on this foulest form of air pollution. New Age ‘music’ is the sorry consequence of bra burning, free love, and Woodstock.

That’s one way of saying I’m picky about music, especially now that it's Christmas time and there's more questionable music in the air. My eclectic musical tastes were formed in a home where we listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday mornings, and ended the day with the steel guitars, sweet harmonies and ukuleles on Hawaii Calls, as well as the authentic Western sounds of Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch.

Because music has such power, particularly in my own soul, my deeply personal celebration of Christmas very often centers on great music inspired by a heavenly source, and its effect on me is profound. Most especially, probably because I pay close attention to the precise meanings of words, my soul yearns to hear or sing appropriate lyrics from significant texts, paired with satisfying and rewarding melodies expressing the deepest meaning of Christmas. Let me worship through reverent, joyful music in the most sublime, eloquent way, as the Savior of the world deserves. In fact, singing in the church choir I sometimes find myself so moved that I can’t sing. My heart is touched by so many inspired works, the cherished carols and anthems, and authentic folk music that arises from simple, humble faith of ordinary people.

However, there is some Christmas music so patently offensive that I want to wipe out all memories of ever having heard or sung it. I want to slink, Grinch-like, into all the music stores, radio stations, private collections and sheet music publishers and obliterate some sounds I hear over public address systems in stores during the holidays. You don’t have a choice when you hear this drivel in a shopping mall. They mean well, but it doesn’t entertain; in fact, most of these songs don’t even mention the real meaning of Christmas. Indeed, they inspire my inner Scrooge, making me want to buy less so I can leave the premises as quickly as possible. That’s how I first heard the number one selection on my Top Twenty List of Christmas Songs I Never Want To Hear Again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the complete and generous list of losers with the heartfelt scorn and derision each so richly deserves:

20. It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas – …to which I want to respond, “Well, duh! What was your first clue – sundown on Halloween?” It sounds like the guy who says during a heat wave, “Hot enough for ya?” This is something clueless Goofy would have said to patient Mickey, who is far more tolerant of stupid remarks than I.

19. (tie) Winter Wonderland/Marshmallow World – Ain’t no time nowhere winter is a wonderland for me; I cannot celebrate the charm I do not find. Winter is a slip-on-the-ice, sprain-your-ankle, freeze-your-tushie-off, endlessly boring season broken only by the sweetness of celebrating a sacred holiday. Don’t let’s confuse the two.

18. I’ll be Home for Christmas – This is total schmaltz when you first hear it, mind-numbingly dull after that. So you’re not going to be there except in your dreams – boohoo. Put on your big kid panties and get over it.

17. Let it Snow – This is nothing but a seductive (you’ll excuse the expression) invitation to use bad weather as an excuse for someone to stay over at his sweetie’s house, a one-of-a-kind gift that can only be given once.

16. Have A Holly Jolly Christmas – Actually, this sounds like the worst kind of Christmas to have, completely shallow and unrelated to the real meaning of the holiday.

15. Jingle Bell Rock – Social events at holiday time are nice, but this lyric is unencumbered by logic or a description of an appropriate observance of a sacred event.

14. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – See #15 and #16.

13. Frosty the Snowman – Once you’ve heard this ludicrous winter legend, subsequent hearings are migraine-inducing torture.

12. The Christmas Song (you know… chestnuts roasting… yada, yada, yada) – Nothing is more offensive than clichés, and this one is loaded with them. In fact, Santa has loaded his sleigh with toys and goodies. Isn’t that what’s wrong with Christmas in the first place? We don’t need more things.

11. White Christmas – Here’s another tear-jerking string of clichés. What’s the big deal about snow? What about Christmas in Australia that takes place in the summer? Huh? Did you ever think of that? And it wasn’t snowing in Bethlehem. Since the shepherds were out with the sheep at night it had to be lambing season, and that happens in the spring. Unless it’s the Rocky Mountains, you don’t usually get snow in the spring.

10. Silver Bells – There’s not much wrong with this one if you like a boring melody and totally mindless lyrics. Can you say platitude?

9. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Really? You love spending too much money, eating too much rich food, going to parties you don’t want to go to with people you don’t really like? What’s wonderful about that? Statistics show Christmas inspires a high incidence of depression, too. Too much hype, too many unmet high expectations.

8. Twelve Days of Christmas – Repetition is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Again, we’re stuck on using things to express love, a pitiful substitute for the genuine article.

7. Deck the Halls – Nonsense lyrics are Exhibit A in the case against this song. I don’t drink, but I should think that drunk would be the best way to find meaning in it. Far more appealing, rewarding and cogent was the Mad Magazine version of this I read in my youth, which began, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla Wash and Kalamazoo…” It makes just as much sense.

6. (all songs referring to reindeer with or without red noses) – On the whole, these are completely idiotic, without redeeming value or even a modicum of charm. Lord of the Flies teaches kids to play nice together, too.

5. (all songs referring to Santa Claus) – He sees you when you’re sleeping? Really? He knows when you’re awake? Really? Isn’t that what God does, and didn’t He do it first? How can kids NOT get confused?

4. Jingle Bells – Here’s another mediocre winter tale with no connection to the holiday. Translation: people with the IQ of pinecones ride around in the snow apparently unwilling to take refuge from the weather and protect themselves against frostbite. Maybe it's really a song about survival of the fittest.

3. We Wish You a Merry Christmas – Nobody even knows what figgy pudding is anyway, and simply repeating the sentiment ad infinitum doesn’t make it more intelligible.

2. Feliz Navidad – If a guy sang this to me, I’d poison his eggnog. I do not want this derivative, dreary rubbish stuck in my head for the month of December.

1. Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time – No, we’re not. We’re paralyzed by the tedium of this inferior music and pointless lyric written by Paul McCartney in a fit of acute uninspired tastelessness. With the last chorus repeating ad nauseum, you think you’ve entered a new rung of Purgatory Dante must have created just for shoppers, as if another were necessary. If Christmas shopping doesn’t trigger insanity, you haven’t spent enough time in the Walmart listening to this on the PA system.

And while I’m on a roll, here’s a bonus: I never want to hear another roomful of third graders shouting I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas, or Up On the Housetop, or All I Want For Christmas is my Two Front Teeth. It’s only cute once.

It’s true of music no matter what time of year it is, but especially at Christmas you’ll have a deeper, richer spiritual experience when you’re more careful with what you choose to think and sing about during the holidays. When your spirit is fed with spiritually nourishing music, you grow closer to the reason for the season.

And by the way, Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 15, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe, Part Three

As an LDS writer, I sometimes ponder the 1888 statement by Elder Orson F. Whitney: We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose tops will touch the heaven, though its foundation may now be low on the earth.

Is this not a mandate? And yet I’m reminded of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Perhaps not fully appreciating the sacredness of their gifts or their potential to participate in celebrating the joy of redemption, some LDS writers are content to pluck blackberries. I am not. There’s probably a trashy novel in almost all of us; that’s the literary natural man we struggle with that constitutes an abuse of talent. Overcoming the temptation to write that kind of book is to acknowledge the heavenly source of our talent and accept the responsibility to use it respectfully. It’s impossible to separate the giver from the gift, and those who try to do so misunderstand the purpose of their gift. Clearly, expectations are high – to paraphrase the scripture, where much talent is given, much excellent output is expected. That gives us permission to become great.

There will never be another Milton or Shakespeare but their works are the paradigm of the finest literature at Elder Whitney’s time. Had Milton and Shakespeare known the Plan of Salvation their works might have been even more sublime. They were born at their times in their places for the same reason we were born in our time in our places – to fulfill a part of an eternal plan. Had he lived in the 20th Century, would Elder Whitney have mentioned Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner? Would he have referred to Nephi Anderson as the standard for LDS writers? Perhaps having "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own" means they will have a different definition than the world might give them. I believe Elder Whitney’s observation means our LDS potential Miltons and Shakespeares should shift the paradigm and establish their own rubrics, though it’s understood that high standards of language, usage and storytelling will always apply.

An author who sees his LDS roots through a noncommittal haze of sardonic cynicism is not spiritually equipped to write a great Mormon novel; he’s a cultural Mormon, what my father used to call a Latter-day Ain’t. Perhaps the question of developing great Mormon novelists depends on our desire to live the gospel. What could be riskier than the decision to be a true Christian every day, in every way? Perhaps my own ambition to share my stories, and my deep caring, i.e. OCD compulsion, about doing it well skews my accuracy in assessing the present LDS literary landscape. Acknowledging that one person’s sappy novel is another person’s revered guide for life, LDS writers still need to keep writing and being honest and meeting high standards of excellence so that the best manifestations of their talents will shine. We can’t be so busy trying to earn the world’s approval that we are embarrassed by who and what we are. No matter what we do, some people on the outside looking in will always dismiss us as naïve.

To limit ourselves to the safe cotton candy topics and to ignore or refuse to write in a realistic way about very real problems in our world implies that those problems either can’t be acknowledged or don’t exist. That’s a collusion of silence that helps no one. In this there is a crushing irony. Novels dealing with sticky topics for which there may be no answers in this life can help people experiencing those things to know how to handle them – think of that circle of support – and yet books dealing with those topics will be rejected by the three major LDS publishers, Deseret Book, Covenant Communications and Cedar Fort, Inc. Even kissing between married characters can’t be in a sexual context. Marriages and families are falling apart all around us but we can’t deal with that in literature because publishing such stories and selling them through Deseret Book stores would imply Church sanction, or - worse - might offend someone. I understand that a filter is necessary when it’s the Church’s bookstore, and of course, the practical issue of sales enters in. Still, I believe realism in fiction can be handled respectfully, without gratuitous detail, but writers of realistic fiction don’t have an alternative outlet to connect them with readers. Perhaps developing Miltons and Shakespeares of our own – superior LDS writers – depends on finding and meeting the demands of an audience of superior LDS readers.

This means that some LDS writers will never fit currently established writer molds. These are committed temple Mormons whose superior prose, eternal themes, fascinating plots and captivating characters will never land on a shelf in a Deseret Book store because the subject matter of the “latter times” they’ve chosen to write about isn’t what Elder Whitney imagined. Sometimes people have to go to some dark places to learn life’s hard lessons before they can rise up to spiritual heights to rejoice in the atonement. Writers don’t go there to praise the darkness; we visit temporarily to show the contrast and to celebrate the triumph over it; its portrayal is a necessary part of the story.

I didn’t grow up with vulgar language in my environment, nor did I marry into it, so reading it in books was a shock at first, but now it’s easier to ignore. I still look for books with minimal offensive words. Ironically, even J. Golden Kimball’s notorious damns and hells aren’t as naughty as they used to be. I understand that rough, coarse language is more the norm than the exception in our world, but I won’t write offensively realistic language; however, I do think some parents don’t know that’s how their children might talk to each other when adults aren’t around. But it isn’t always the swearing that offends. Some bright LDS teens who vetted my book told me that the scene of teenage girls at a slumber party discussing birth control was tame and didn’t sound the way girls really talk. This is an adult book, not YA, and it’s the ideas rather than the language of minor characters that might offend in this scene which is central to the subplot; it also includes some girls who are horrified at the careless attitude of others in the discussion – the point being that having opposition in all things means having choices.

Writers of realistic LDS fiction have a particularly difficult time locating potential publishers, and even if they do find a publisher, distribution of books with realistic subject matter is a monstrous impediment since the only LDS bookstore chain, Deseret Book, will not carry them. In fact, books published by the few small publishing houses willing to take on realistic topics are often skillfully written and edited, often receive high praise from critics and recognition for excellence. As an 18-year-old writer friend of mine observed, not everybody is into perpetual sweetness and light because that doesn’t reflect real life. LDS books with realistic subject matter will often not be reviewed by the major media, further widening the gap between authors and their potential readers. This kind of disconnect in the LDS market needs to be addressed. Perhaps, the way things are going in the publishing world, there’s an electronic solution to the problem for some genius to discover.

Years ago, someone who read an early short story of mine asked if I aimed to be the next Carol Lynn Pearson. As much as I admire that icon some saw as a leader in LDS literature at the time, I respect even more – and she would, too – the potential of each writer to make a unique contribution. My reply: “No, I thought I’d take a shot at being the first Pam Williams.” I know I’m a good writer; I've won contests, for whatever proof that may be. I pray my way through every phase of the writing process; that isn’t to say that I should be published because I’ve been inspired. It just means that I had some moments in the process that told me to keep going despite the rejections.

Serious readers who didn’t find past LDS fiction satisfying, and therefore don’t read what’s being offered now, still want to read something meaty that doesn’t have crude language in every other sentence. They should give current LDS fiction another chance. In passing my manuscripts around, many readers respond that they don’t normally like LDS fiction, but did enjoy my books, wondered why they aren’t published, and asked if I had any other manuscripts to read. However, because of the realistic nature of the stories I wrote, I’m having a hard time finding a publisher, and yet I know somewhere out there is an audience for my books, people who need additional insight and encouragement to keep trying, those who want to be taught out of a good book written by a source they can trust.

But where is the publisher who is the essential broker? And where is the bookstore that won’t pre-determine our LDS reading choices?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe, Part Two

Some critics think that having “all the answers” through revelation to modern prophets robs us of available conflict and prevents us from acknowledging anything ugly in the world. That’s an oversimplification, but if LDS authors are thus painted into a corner because of accepting certain doctrines, then the question is how an LDS insider/writer can get out of the corner and find in the Mormon milieu the conflict essential to page-turner fiction.

A critic who read my unpublished contemporary novels about marriage suggested I remove all the LDS references and sell them in the larger national Christian market. In pondering that advice in light of what I believe my purpose as a writer to be, I realized that my compulsion to write for the LDS audience is driven by my knowledge of being LDS and my desire to comment on issues I know my own people struggle with. I do not worship at the feet of the New York Times best seller list, or even the Norton Anthology of Literature. I think of the circle of priesthood holders participating in blessings or ordinations, or a prayer circle in the temple, and find in them a symbolic safety net of mutual support. That same kind of power is available in the stirring prose of well-conceived stories.

Some LDS writers and critics may disdain my view as too narrow, aiming too low when there’s that big wide national market out there, and if we can just conquer that, we persecuted Mormons can prove we’re just as good as anybody else. But that begs the question. Did we not arrive here with gifts and powers to be exercised for the benefit of each other? We who have the Mormon experience need to speak out on uniquely LDS topics; the secular world can’t do justice to our story. No one understands the expansion of the American West the way pioneer descendents do if they know their own family history. Readers will be moved by a great story, no matter who has written it, but they won’t stand for being manipulated, and LDS readers won’t stand for their doctrines or their history being distorted by someone who doesn’t know our world from the inside.

Conflict is the basis for story, and because contention is evil, Mormon Times columnist Jerry Johnston doesn’t think we will ever produce a writer who can write a nitty-gritty book; we’re too isolated from pure evil to wrestle with it the way secular literature does. However, choices aren’t always clearly between good and evil; the more difficult choices may be between two good things. With human beings, the natural man is the ever-present universal conflict. Some of us come from shakier starting points than others, and many forces try to pull writers away and make us lose focus, or keep us from finding our purpose, or lure us to abandon our personal and literary standards. Those daily challenges to live the gospel more fully ARE large issues, for ourselves and for our characters, and are just as valid as any lofty Shakespearean theme.

Is it possible to be a believing, striving Latter-day Saint and still be acquainted with the level of evil that truly explores the heights and depths of the human soul? As with non-LDS writers, most of us will probably never be tempted to commit murder or betray our country or engage in great evil, even though we may create characters who do. Considering the damage it could do to their spirits, most Latter-day Saint writers aren’t willing to test that side of the spectrum of experience simply to explore a writing topic. It requires meticulous personal attention to meet all the requirements of our Christianity as writers and as individuals. That matters. Like our readers, we aim for perfection while dealing with the realities of the world that intrude on our goal-oriented focus of trying to live up to high standards. We are blessed, but as Brigham Young said, many of us don’t live up to our privileges. Therein lies the essence of scintillating fiction.

In every issue of The Ensign we find examples of conflicts Latter-day Saints confront daily, hourly. To me, the never-ending struggle of good but flawed Latter-day Saints is compelling because it’s also my experience. As a reader, I personally have a hard time willingly suspending disbelief for a vampire story, but show me real but flawed Latter-day Saints trying to live the gospel and that’s where I find my touchstone. No matter what genre we choose to write in, we can connect the unique voices of LDS authors and “teach one another” from a number of platforms.

Story still connects with us, and though we live in the Age of Instant Everything, storytelling is usually an unhurried activity. As author Robert Coover said, “The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it… We need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us. Story is what penetrates.” Vicariously, through fiction they can relate to, readers can grapple with the daily challenges of outsmarting the natural man. And yet readers today are not like readers of even ten years ago. Editors now tell us tag lines except “said” and “asked” are passé, adverbs are literary suicide, and long descriptive paragraphs even brilliantly written will lose the average reader. In Dickens’ day, when there were no electronic devices to depend on for entertainment, people read to each other in the evening, enjoying the language, the adventure, and the descriptions of Little Dorrit or David Copperfield. Readers today are sometimes too impatient to meander through a story and savor the richness of its nuances or the subtleties of storytelling.

Perhaps our LDS paradigm can begin with the way LDS artist John Hafen said it: “The highest possible development of talent is a duty we owe our creator.” We have this talent because the Creator thought it was necessary at this time for us to use it for someone’s benefit, to create through literature a circle of support. Some LDS writers don’t care about the LDS market and others don’t care about the national market. Regardless of the pendulum swing, we’re heading toward different heights more open to that necessary new paradigm, not so confined by the conventions of the past. We each have permission to define that new paradigm for ourselves.

Monday: Part Three

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe

Jennie Hansen’s recent Meridian Magazine assessment of the state of LDS fiction shed positive light on what faithful Latter-day Saint writers are producing these days, but it didn’t go far enough. Likewise, Jerry Johnston’s Mormon Times column last year about LDS fiction, questioning whether there will ever be a great Mormon novel, was too dismissive. Improvements in this species of literature are evident with every crop of books released. In fact, LDS writers, and especially Mormon-oriented fiction, have grown in significant ways since 25 or 30 years ago when I gave up trying to find something meaty in it that fed my soul.

Recently I’ve tackled it again. My personal project for 2010 was an unscientific survey of chiefly adult-oriented LDS fiction and I learned that the high quality work coming out now is the majority of LDS output. I think it portends many great Mormon novels, which could be written by Latter-day Saints for the LDS audience, or by Latter-day Saints for a general audience. We aren’t there yet, but our writers are well equipped and we’re on our way. Readers who didn’t like it 25 years ago, or even ten years ago, are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t give it another chance.

I’ve often pondered with curiosity the scriptural edict to “teach one another out of the best books.” Church leaders attending the school of the prophets in Kirtland received that injunction, but like most scriptures, it has multiple applications. Teaching one another out of the “best books” implies, first, that good books are out there, and second, that we can be the authors of high quality material whether fiction or nonfiction, generating from whatever we have learned “by study and also by faith.” There’s power in teaching one another through fiction because our common belief system facilitates communication. We’ve all had the experience of sharing an incident from our lives and having a listener say, “Aha, I see what you mean.” That should be what we experience when we read LDS fiction; it’s one way writers can connect with readers on a personal level to bear one another’s burdens. If “write what you know” is the standard, the field is wide open for writers with knowledge of non-fiction topics, as well as those with astute observations about the daily effort of living the gospel and insights into the complexities of human nature.

“Teach one another” means it’s okay for LDS fiction to be instructive, as any literature can be. Nobody wants to be preached at but it’s a given that a novel has a theme, a personal take-away for the reader, and that take-away can be offered in an absorbing, entertaining, appealing way without crossing the line into tedious didacticism. Many years ago I heard about a ward roadshow depicting the story of Romeo and Juliet pretty effectively in twenty minutes, followed by a person coming out to address the audience: “This would never have happened if they had been married in the temple.” Now THAT’S didactic and quite oblivious of Shakespeare’s intended take-aways. Our up and coming LDS writers are too smart to fall into that trap. Wouldn’t we rather a good Latter-day Saint teach our children’s Sunday School class than someone off the street who doesn’t know the doctrine or have the Spirit? It’s the same principle with LDS fiction writers. Our purpose as writers shouldn’t be to preach; it should be to represent who we are, and how and why.

Some people don’t mind a steady diet of literary snack cakes, but eventually most readers want substance. Latter-day Saints are much more sophisticated now, on the whole more highly educated than the general population, and educated people want a commensurate literature. An old maxim that told us we should write to the eighth grade mentality is no longer true, unless we’re actually writing for eighth graders. As a writer, I believe in that educated audience and I respect their intelligence. When I couldn’t find meaty LDS-oriented literature 25 years ago, I decided to write the kinds of books I wanted to read, to give other readers rich vicarious experience through compelling stories. An influential college professor once said to me, “If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience.” This is probably the opposite of what editors would advise me now, but following that recommendation I have spent more time on perfecting my craft and less time on marketing the product.

Motivations differ, but our LDS worldview makes us who we are and puts us at a different starting place from other authors. We are a peculiar people intellectually because our cosmology of pre- and post-mortal existence is so non-traditional. We know the rules of Christianity through the Book of Mormon, and the guidelines for this dispensation through the handbook that is the Doctrine and Covenants. As with secular writers, it’s inevitable that who we are will underpin our writing, even though not all of our characters will believe as we do. Our LDS concept of the necessity for opposition in all things overarches our work, and the axiom that wickedness never was happiness undergirds it. Alma the Younger experienced a taste of hell before he repented and knew the sweetness of heaven, and it all happened in three days. That’s drama. All of this leads me to think that we should develop out of our uniqueness a new paradigm in literature that sets us apart.

Saturday - Part Two: Why Are We Here?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Avalanche of Choices

About this time of year the volume of catalogs coming in the mail each day increases and threatens to become overwhelming. Christmas is coming, after all, and every merchant wants his share of the pie that is my budget. While I appreciate offers of new products that could make my life simpler or more fun, the demands of making so many decisions can make you feel like you're trying to outrun a locomotive.

Not all catalogs are bad, just most of them. Living in rural Utah for more than 30 years, where the shopping opportunities and product choices are limited, I have made a habit of shopping from catalogs, but I quickly became very discriminating about the options I took. It was so much easier than going out in the weather and having to listen over PA systems to all that poorly performed Christmas music at holiday time. Even now that I live in metropolitan Utah, I continue to shop from catalogs because the shipping costs are less than gas for the car to drive to the mall, not find what I want, drive several other places and not find it there either, and then try to find an alternate item. I could google it and just drive to one place, but there's that crowd hassle to contend with, too.

Some of my catalog shopping experiences have been less than pleasing, but the vast majority have been positive. It's so nice to find all my Christmas shopping delivered at my front door. I've found some unique gifts that way which would otherwise have required a lot of serendipitous searching to locate. Now, for instance, my son has a tee shirt he wears proudly which has a name tag printed on it that says "HELLO my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed me father. Prepare to die." (The Princess Bride is one of our favorite movies.)

What makes catalog shopping even easier is that I can order everything from the catalog website, and maybe even find some other treasure while I'm at it in the specials for online customers. I know immediately if the item is backordered, out of stock, no longer available or doesn't come in the color I want. And there aren't any snippy sales clerks to contend with. Rarely have I received the wrong item or had to send anything back.

By the way, the items you order are not kept in a warehouse until the purchase is made. They are in the order fulfillment center. That's how much catalog shopping has changed since I was a little girl and spent hours choosing what I was going to ask Santa to bring me from the Montgomery Wards catalog. They had an actual warehouse and they weren't afraid to call it what it was.

However, catalogs breed like vermin. Buy something from one catalog and you're suddenly on the mailing list for their seventeen sister catalog companies. It's like being besieged by dozens of greedy children all yelling "Gimme!" We thought moving to a new place last year would get us off some mailing lists, but alas, they have found us anyway, and have redoubled their efforts. For example, we have started receiving unsolicited catalogs for pet products - you know, cute clothes for poodles and adorable designer doggie beds and monogramed water dishes. This is annoying on several levels because we don't have any pets and being allergic, don't intend to get any. It annoys me that marketers assume that people in our demographic, i.e. people our age, all have pets. I've heard about people who treat their pets better than they treat their kids, but I'm not one of them.

If we want to cut the nuisance factor, we will have to ask these people to take us off the mailing list we didn't want to be on in the first place, which, they will tell us, will take four to six weeks. Labels are printed that far in advance and like the next crop of American Idol losers, there's no way to stop them. Somebody at a computer could easily delete my name and address from the data bank today with one key stroke, but apparently that person doesn't show up for work regularly. I once began receiving unsolicited catalogs of skimpy lingerie and sex toys. I wrote letters to the company and asked them to remove my name from their mailing list. However, I kept getting catalogs I couldn't refuse because, of course, the Post Office is obligated to deliver to me whatever has my name on it. Apparently the company thought I was just kidding. After all, who wouldn't want to engage in a little S and M fantasy now and then. It practically took an Act of Congress before they got the message. I had to file an official complaint with the Post Office to put an end to it, and I had to do it twice to prove I was serious because the catalogs kept coming.

Some catalogs can cause an instant guilt trip. Especially at Christmas time, you get offers you don't get any other time of year. Just this week I received one that invited me to forego buying gifts for all my privileged family and friends and instead purchase an animal, or a herd, for a poor family in some destitute country. It's unfair to be burdened this way with a choice that could mean life or death to an unschooled boy in Africa. I can't deal with that kind of pressure, and I'm an extraordinarily generous person. If I give a goat to one child, they'll all want one, and I can't afford that.

Over the years I've become more discriminating, and each day when the mail comes, I dig through the avalanche and make three stacks: catalogs I have no interest in, catalogs that I'll read for amusement, and catalogs I might actually want to do business with. More and more the temptation is less and less, and it is a most liberating feeling on the day I can fling them all into the recycle bin.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

This Just In: Halloween Scrooge On the Loose

This week I've been amused by the anxious hand-wringing on the LDS blogs about how to celebrate Halloween when it comes on Sunday like it does this year. Duh! Aren't the concepts of the sabbath and Halloween rather oxymoronic? Why is this even a point of discussion? It's just so blindingly obvious - You. DON'T. Celebrate. Halloween. On. Sunday. In fact, we personally don't celebrate it any other day of the week either.

Halloween is a ripoff, emotional blackmail to force you to buy something they don't need for somebody you don't know. When the kids left home we opted out of Halloween. Instead, we usually made plans to be somewhere else on October 31, like the temple, where we actually found a lot of other people who were there for the same reason - to avoid answering the doorbell – while accomplishing something truly worthwhile.

Roger accepts the premise of the holiday and is easily guilted into things. When he was teaching, he even buckled to pressure for all the faculty to wear costumes for Halloween, but he took it as a challenge to make his costume something that didn't interfere with the purpose of school. One year he simple put a bandage on his forehead and went as Gerald Ford. He liked to think big. Once he pinned a tin foil "C" of his shirt pockets and went as the North American continent - from "C" to shining "C." Another time he wore a blue shirt and a shell necklace and went as the Pacific Ocean.

I, however, do not buy into the myth; I will not make a social contract I don't intend to keep. Sometimes when we'd leave town or go out to dinner and shopping on Halloween, he was overwhelmed by visions of heartbroken sobbing children pounding on our abandoned front door, alas, to no avail. So he'd wimp out and put a bowl of candy on the porch for the poor little starving ragamuffins to help themselves while we were gone, a pathetic surrender to social pressure. When they came around selling things for a school fund raiser, I was a little more sympathetic, but when they came begging at my doorstep on Halloween, I refused to get sucked in. Well, I could probably deal with a couple of little ones, but it's the big ones with pillow cases setting their sights on a big haul that really make me want to chase them off with my broom.

I know, I know - what about all those darling little witches and goblins and hobos and space men whose mothers put so much thought and effort into their costumes, and the dads who braved the cold to accompany them around the neighborhood. Well, I think by mutual consent we could agree not to go through this charade again and we probably wouldn't miss it. After all, we probably won't be celebrating Halloween in the Millennium, and they'll have to change their traditions then. Personally, I'm already over it.

If I could, I'd deal with Halloween the way my grandmother often did - she'd stick out her false teeth and waggle them at the unsuspecting little beggars. Very often the kids would bolt off the porch forgetting the candy part of the "trick or treat" proposition. Yeah, that was one of many reasons why I loved my grandmother.

All my life I've been puzzled over the idea that getting your pants scared off was a good thing. I have never been a fan of being terrorized. My heart rate is just fine as it is, thank you very much. Vampires bore me, werewolves disgust me and Freddy Kruger needs to be institutionalized. Scary movies are a waste of time. What's the point in scaring people, or wanting to be scared? What does it prove or accomplish? I once parted company with a young suitor whose goal was to take me on the Wild Mouse roller coaster at Lagoon because it would scare me so much I'd no doubt be inclined to turn to him for comfort, and he'd be willing to comfort me, and, well, you get the picture. Not a very original ploy, but every dork-faced guy is willing to try the obvious things first. I realized that if that was his idea of thrills, we had had nothing in common.

You want to get really scared this Halloween? Think about voting two days later. Think about raising kids. Think about paying the bills. Now I've done it - I've scared myself.

What does thrill me? Certain kinds of music that touch my spirit, written words that lift my soul, works of art that please my eyes, raspberries, a Northwest forest, Mt. Hood, chocolate, a Pacific sunset, the faces of my grandchildren, hugs from people I love, words of gratitude and appreciation, reaching a long-worked-for goal, composing a finely-tuned sentence. That's probably enough sweetness right there to compensate for all that candy on all those holidays from October to February.

But Halloween? A cheap, trifling substitute for the real thing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This Nearly Was Mine

To look at the trash file in my email inbox, you'd think I've missed out on a lot of great stuff by so mindlessly tossing away all that spam.

Why, if I were only smart enough to see the possibilities, I could have had successful careers in photography, medical billing, paralegal, nursing, accounting, criminal justice, graphic design or religious studies. Probably not all at once, but the way the economy's going, I could choose one from Column A and one from Column B and make a pretty decent living.

Daily I'm offered social networking options from eharmony, bigbeautifulwomen, singlesnet, Christian singles and speed dating. With the click of a button, I could join the Disney movie club, arrange for laser eye surgery, get a free trip to Las Vegas or a great deal on life insurance. No wonder my head's all awhirl.

Orchard Bank wants to be my financial advisor, somebody else is ready to arrange a loan, and the payment committee of some vast fund that gives money away is trying desperately to contact me. Prizes are still "pending" from several other incredibly generous sources overburdened with aggravating amounts of extra cash. Dell wants to send me a free laptop, and everybody from Pizza Hut to Walmart wants to give me valuable gift certificates if I'll simply participate in an online survey. That's all they're asking.

I could even get a free tarot or palm reading if I simply go to a certain website. Sheesh - what was I thinking when I trashed that offer?

Oh, by the way, I know a great place you can get such a deal on a forklift rental.

And that's only the highlights of this week.

Spam is a curious name for electronic junk mail. People my age remember Spam as a kind of food that can only be described as canned "meat product" which had some popularity when we were children. On the label the product ingredient list was always rather vague. I remember it as a food that had to be creatively doctored up with something else, like pineapple or barbecue sauce, to make it palatable. Even in the early days of our marriage, my husband liked Spam as an alternate sandwich meat. (His philosophy: if you can't put it between two slices of bread, it's not real food.) Spam fell out of favor for a while, during the economically robust Reagan years, but it's making a comeback again. Does this mean Spam sales can be a reliable economic indicator? Now there's a subject for a master's thesis for some enterprising economics student.

But I digress. Non-food Spam is also a form of harassment, the gnats and mosquitoes of our lives that infect our electronic conveniences. Apparently the marketing guys who dream up this stuff have never been bothered by annoying insects. Either that or they don't understand the implications of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." There's a special rung in Purgatory for spam marketers.

So many voices out there want my attention, and they're all dumping stuff in my inbox. And what will they do if I give them my attention? They'll be so grateful they'll continue their effort to engage in a long-term relationship with me no matter how many times I decline and put them in the "delete forever" box. A few times I've found something valuable inadvertently dumped into the spam file, but rarely. What we learn from this is that "delete forever" really means "change the access codes and try again next week." But I would worship at the feet of the person who could actually delete my email address from these mailing lists.

Still, the one spam message that stirs my curiosity simply says "Beyond the Rack" repeatedly, not giving me any clues in the subject line about the nature of the product, service or information being offered. Is this about getting a great deal on clothing? A sale on Medieval torture devices? You wouldn't think there's be much of a market for that. Or maybe it's about those metal devices you strap on your car to transport your skis. Maybe it refers to hunting, as in a rack of antlers, or a great cut of meat, like a rack of ribs. Might be about wall-mounted book shelves, or a place to display magazines. It couldn't be an invitation to something sado-masochistic. No, that's unthinkable.

I could find out easily enough if I just clicked on the link. Maybe...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Little Introspection, Perhaps Unfinished

As far as I can tell, this is the last poem I wrote, dated 2008. Since then I've been concentrating on novels and no idea for a poem has grabbed me by the lapels and demanded my attention. Chiaroscuro (kēˌärəˈsk(y)oŏrō) is a lovely Italian word that means "clear or bright and dark or obscure." It's a term used by artists to describe the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting; it's an effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something. But you probably already knew that. I suppose this poem is my co-opt of "through a glass darkly," Paul's phrase in Corinthians that has always fascinated me.


Like cataracts on ancient eyes,
like frost obscuring the windshield,
a transparent panel opaque with mineral salts
prevents my clear vision of the world.
Can I say to my soul
I don’t do windows?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Writer as Reader

Reading for fun is actually hard work when you're a writer. In fact, I find it very difficult sometimes to read what other people write without reaching for my red pen. If the errors are minor bumps in the road and can be easily forgiven, it's easier to stay in the role of reader. At other times it's harder to put the red pen away, kick back and pretend I don't know anything about dangling modifiers, confused pronoun reference, or periodic sentence structure.

However, sometimes those dangling modifiers, confused pronoun references and weak sentences cross the line into - frankly speaking - bad writing. Three books I read recently took me twice as long because I was editing in my head whole paragraphs that offended my sensibilities. It's very frustrating because when I stumble over a rough sentence, I go into teacher mode and look for three or four ways to suggest revising it.

Why do I read a book that isn't well written? Ultimately I have to decide whether I want to spend time reading for the story and the characters or being offended by Amelia Bedelia usage and badly written prose. In another way, a badly written book can be very instructive. When I see what the author was trying to do and didn't quite succeed at accomplishing, I learn how to avoid those same mistakes. Sometimes it's easy to overlook rough patches and sometimes it isn't. When I decide to read a book, I just open up the place in my brain where I keep my willing suspension of disbelief, shake it loose, and plunge full throttle into the story.

To my great delight, I have found a few well-written books lately, and reading them has been immensely satisfying in all the important artistic and technical aspects. I don't even think about my red pen. My taste runs to character- and idea-driven stories, but I'm not much for murder and mayhem. Occasionally I like fantasy but dystopian worlds are annoying rather than exciting or challenging to me. A few of my recently read memorably written books:

Counting the Cost by Liz Adair - A New Mexico cowboy who loves the land and adheres to a strict code of personal behavior falls in love with the beautiful but abused wife of one of the ranch management team.

To Have or To Hold by Josi Kilpack - What begins as an unconventional bargain between two people who each need what the other has to offer turns into a gripping story of honor and commitment.

Rift by Todd Robert Peterson - A story of stubborn men who take a personal grudge way too far, this takes place in Sanpete County, Utah, a place I'm somewhat familiar with, which adds to the enjoyment. One LDS reviewer said this is how LDS fiction ought to be written, so naturally I had to read it, being a purveyor of LDS fiction myself. I didn't like the way the book was marketed, however; it made it sound like it was going to be racy or daring somehow, but it was an endearing story that made me feel I should be sittin' and whittlin' and spittin' with the main characters out front of the barber shop.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows - This is, to use EnglishMajorSpeak, an epistolary novel, one written in the form of letters to and from the characters. It takes place on the Island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands (that's in the English Channel between England and France, and although closer to France belong to England) and reveals what happened when the Germans occupied it during World War II. It's funny and dramatic and has all the elements of a very satisfying novel.

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas - A "friends staying loyal to friends" story turns into a mystery, but you have to be tolerant of the 1930s social values a group of quilters in the Dust Bowl of Kansas. Sometimes it seems to wander a bit. All the women had their charming eccentricities, but I really got interested when the main character's husband appeared. He's a guy I could really like.

Don't You Marry the Mormon Boys by Janet Kay Jensen - An award-winning novel about two medical students at the University of Utah who fall in love - he committed to his LDS faith, she committed to returning to provide medical services to her polygamous community. They break up when they graduate and each has a job to go to, but things change and when their paths cross again, they realize they still are attracted to each other. Polygamy is incidental to the story, a vehicle for motivating the character to action, without being a central focus. Folk music is important in the story, which is where the title comes from.

I'm off to immerse myself in another book, hoping that this one won't require any rewriting as I go.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

How I Write, and Why

My writing process has evolved over the years, but when I first got some ideas that turned into novels, I had an experience I didn't expect. With every novel I've written (6 so far) each one starts with characters and a vague plot line, and then as I'm thinking about how the story will unfold, a scene flashes in my head - sometimes with dialogue, sometimes not - and I quickly write it down before I lose it. In each case, this scene has become the pivot point in the story, and then a more specific plot line begins to fall into place. I write this down and weave it together with a time line so I know the exact sequence of events. For this reason, I don't think in terms of chapters. I think in terms of events that happen in a character's life on a particular day. That helps me determine what led up to that moment in the story and what consequences will come after that moment. If I know what's going to happen in a scene, I write that scene, but if I need to think about it a while or do research to add authenticity and believability to the scene, I might put it off until I have the other scenes written that are still bouncing around in my brain. As a sort of 'place holder,' I write notes in the manuscript of what will need to happen in this yet-to-be-written scene so I can go back and fill it in later. Fortunately, I'm at a place in my life where I can write all day and all night if I need to get essential scenes on paper, and then ponder and brood over scenes that need more careful attention.

Sometimes some of my best ideas come when I'm in church. Insights and ideas in a talk or lesson relate to something my characters are experiencing, so I make notes and add those ideas later. I don't expect inspiration to plant something in my brain without effort on my part. I seek inspiration and expect it to poke and prod and move forward ideas that have already been generated. If no inspiration comes, I take that to mean the idea isn't worth following. This whole process is a fascinating exercise in the way the right brain (creativity) coordinates with the left brain (analytical). When I'm writing it's all right brain all the time, and when I'm revising, it's left brain.

Once a rough draft is on paper, I start combing through the tangles to smooth it out, making sure the sequence of events is accurate. My goal is polished brevity - saying the most in the fewest words. One of the things I comb out is sentences written in passive voice unless there's a particular plot- or character-driven reason for keeping it passive. I also comb through and revise all sentences that start with 'the.' That sounds quirky, but it makes the prose really sing with a brighter, tighter, more readable way of saying something.

Also, I'm the queen of tweak, and the longer the plot and characters "brew" in my brain, and the longer the manuscript remains in my possession unsold, the more subtleties and refinements I find that add richness to the story and the people.

While writing, I also listen to good music - without words - that stimulates my brain. I pray my way through every project. Above all, it's essential to have readers who will tell you the truth. In my previous writers group, everyone loved me and everything I wrote was wonderful, just wonderful, so I didn't get the feedback I really needed. Now I have several good critics who love me enough to tell me the truth.

A few years ago I interviewed with an editor who asked me why I write and who my audience is. I told him I can't NOT write, but apparently that wasn't good enough. I guess he expected me to say, "LDS women between the ages of 24 and 65 who have a college education and always get their Visiting Teaching done." I can't think in such marketing terms. My mindset comes from what a college professor once told me: "If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience." I write because it appeals to the crusader in me. I write because I see things being ignored or swept under the rug in our LDS subculture that we ought to be discussing openly among ourselves. If the emperor is naked, I notice and I tend to mention it, and that makes some people uncomfortable, but very often those are the problems we've been in denial about. I write because lives and marriages are falling apart and not very many writers are addressing those issues in fiction. A writer's responsibility is to shine a light, and sometimes that light illuminates dark corners. I write because characters come alive in my brain and won't go away until I've written their story. I write because I have a talent and not to use it would be disrespectful and disappointing to the Creator who gave it to me. Even if I never get published, this exercise enriches my spirit.

For probably 25 or 30 years I've avoided reading fiction by LDS writers because most of it didn't have substance or depth, which left me still hungry. I know other LDS women with that same complaint. So I decided to write for people like me, who are looking for soul-satisfying, sink-your-teeth-into stories that touch our common core values. For that reason, I haven't written fantasy or escape so far. In the last six months, however, since I've started reading more contemporary LDS writers, I'm finding quite a few that I like very much, and I'm recommending them to those friends who gave up on finding good LDS-written fiction. We've come a long way, baby, and that's good.

That's my writing process and my philosophy. All I can say to recommend it is that I have a manuscript pending with a publisher. Talking about this reminds me how very much I miss teaching writing!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Confessions of an Incorrigible Book Buyer

Hi. My name is Pam and I buy books.

I often describe myself as an old broken-down English major because I learned to love and appreciate literature at that impressionable time in my life, and although my tastes have changed over the years, it's a habit I can't break. There's something compelling about a story, but really, as someone said, the meaningful experience in all literature takes place in the white spaces between the words. Maybe that's where story and reader connect.

A defining moment came the day AFTER graduation. I'd been through the English majors reading list, passed the exam and had my diploma in hand. As I passed through the campus bookstore and looked down that long line of racks and racks of paperback novels, I nearly swooned. I could read! I was literate! More importantly, I wasn't tied to a list of books somebody else required me to read. At last I could choose for myself. It was in the days when an expensive paperback might cost as much as $3, and those were no-nos for me, but I remember taking eight books to the checkout and spending a whopping, unheard of, budget-busting $12. This is significant because I was blissfully unemployed at the time.

Nevertheless, I went home and began to devour my treasures with the degree of self-indulgence one can only know when one is bone-weary of doing what other people want and expect one to do. These were all the best sellers that I'd agonizingly ignored while I was finishing the reading list to pass the test and graduate, but now it was my turn – nay, my right – to get caught up with the world of popular fiction.

In the years since graduation, I have not been inclined to borrow books from the public library because it's too restrictive; it puts me again on somebody else's timetable. I want the freedom to put a book down for a few weeks and pick it up later when the mood strikes again, to glance at it occasionally and know that inside the covers is a treat waiting for me. I have a reader friend who sometimes has as many as five books going at once, fiction as well as non-fiction, and she keeps them nicely balanced in her mind.

No, I'm the kind of reader who must possess books. When we moved last year after 33 years in one place, we passed a lot of our books on to other people because we knew space would be limited in our new place. In fact, in our old home, the bathrooms were the only places that didn't have bookshelves. In our much smaller new place, our books nearly filled the three big new bookcases we bought, but I still buy books. I'll decide later which ones are keepers and pass the others on to friends who will appreciate them, where they'll have a good home and be loved.

Unfortunately, or fortunately if you're the author of books I buy, I have what I'd call story staying power. I like books that go on into sequels and trilogies. I'm even into one series that goes to a fourth book, and another series that's supposed to have seven eventually. It's like making new friends.

As for the classics, I like Dickens, the Brontes and Austen interpreted and illustrated for television – perhaps it's due to a shrinking attention span no longer compatible with that prose style – but the characters are always welcome in my imagination, and I don't feel compelled to possess these volumes in my own library. My favorite novel, which I cannot do without, is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I purchased a new copy recently because I'd worn out the original I'd had since college. No one writes more luscious prose.

In our new place, I've found a home in our local book club, reading some books I probably wouldn't have chosen for myself, and being pleasantly surprised. I'm just glad I don't have to analyze the plot and the characters and the subplots and the socio-political influences and write papers about them and worry if I've second-guessed the teacher sufficiently to get a good grade. I can simply enjoy them as new friends. On second thought, maybe I should have majored in something I didn't love so much. It was a lot of hoop-jumping to fit somebody else's view of what an English major should know.

But that's another thought for another time. For now... My name is Pam and I buy books.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Romance With Words

When I was in the ninth grade, Mrs. Breckenridge assigned us to write an essay every week. She evaluated our work, consulted with us, handed the papers back, and we would revise. It was where I learned the joy of writing the perfectly honed sentence. Occasionally, since then, I’ve written a few more, and the hope of achieving a well-written sentence keeps me going. When the mind is as blank as the page. I discovered that the real writing comes in the revision. In fact, the word “revision” means to look or see again, and in that process, re-thinking also takes place; careful writing demands careful thinking.

One of the joys of the language is the fun of spoonerisms (saying blushing crow instead of crushing blow), malapropisms (“We get along so well; we have a great repertoire…”) and other “in” jokes language lovers share. I love puns. Once my college roommates mounted on one of the odd ceiling angles in our attic apartment a bigger-than-life-size poster of a famous Russian ballet dancer. They were all waiting to see my reaction to this handsome bigger-than-life-size face with piercing eyes greeting me as I walked in the door. Their conversation stopped as I stood and frowned at it for a moment. With one hand on my hip, and in mock disgust, I said in frozen tones, “Well, you’ve got your Nureyev!”

My mother’s use of mind-numbing clichés is legendary in our family. She had them all in easy reach in every conversation, including a few she made up. She never swore, except to declare, “Son of a biscuit-eater!” When she sometimes stumbled over words, she described it as saying things 'bass-ackwards' or 'getting my tang all tungled up.' Whenever we drove anywhere, she narrated. If there had just been a heavy rain, she’d say, “Boy, they’ve sure had a gullywasher through here.” She knew the names of all the wildflowers, the history of the town we were passing through, told her previous experiences there, and named people she knew who lived there, or had lived there, or planned to live there. Because it was endlessly interesting, and always hilarious, we learned to forgive the clichés.

In our family we have developed a few twists and turns in the language, too, especially regarding names. It makes us unique, binds us together, and is one way our children tolerate their old broken-down English major parents. Our son Jordan has become Fjord, and in the spirit of 'right back atcha,' his sister Jennifer is Fjen. Our non-‘J’ daughter Elin has even become Fjelin. Jordan’s blog name is fjordypants. They have come up with dozens of names for me, probably because Pam is an easier name to play with; therefore, Dad – Roger – is always Dad. They tried once to refer to us affectionately as their pets – Rogerbil and Pamster – but only my nickname stuck. When I’m not Mom, I’ve also become Pamalamadingdong, Pamalino, Pammie-Wammie, or any number of variations on the theme. When Elin married, her intended asked me if I wanted him to call me Mom or Pam. I said either was fine, but Chickie Babe was probably not appropriate. Both our sons-in-law call me The Pamster.

In our conversations, and as we play games together, we fondly recall common experiences, stealing phrases from a movie or video that we can remake to suit our circumstances. With us, Star Wars, Singing in the Rain, The Great Race, The Farley Family Reunion or other favorite movies are part of the language smorgasbord we nibble from. Ultimately there is a right and wrong to grammar, although some of us have been known to reply, when asked a preference, “It don’t make no nevermind to me.” Strangers listening to us might think we’ve developed our own language, or just arrived from another planet.

When I teach creative writing, I always read from The Great Gatsby the description of the parties Gatsby throws. It’s as thrilling a passage of prose as a person can find in American literature. Fitzgerald describes the people and the scene without using the words spoiled, lavish, excessive, or prodigal, and yet the reader comes away thinking those words. That's fine writing. In the spirit of saying it that way, I once wrote an essay on the perils of being short without using the word ‘short.’ It reads pretty well.

I love the sounds of words as well as the meanings. On my blog I have a list of my favorite words, and although it’s incomplete, it still tells a great deal about me and my brain: wonky, imprimatur, absquatulate, crapulence, rendezvous, fracas, ephemeral, ethereal, cinnamon, carbuncle, polliwog, murmur, tarnation, chiaroscuro, credenza, glissando, ubermensch, summer afternoon. And I’m just getting started.

Some language-poor readers of one of my novels, reading a manuscript copy, didn't get the humor of the malapropisms used by one lovable character with a penchant for mangled language. She says, for instance, her daughters’ homes have leatherneck furniture and granola countertops, while her big old Victorian home has become a milestone around her neck. Her cruise ship passed through the Panama Corral, and she describes the food as laminated in honey and soy sauce. She got a nasty garfunkle on her foot and almost missed the dance. We should understand when she says to her niece, "I'm glad you found your glitch in life." I was surprised that some people reading a manuscript copy of the book have written corrections in the margins. I feel sorry for people who can’t or don’t have fun with language.

Words can thrill – “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” – or frighten – “We regret to inform you…” or send chills – “I am the light of the world.” To master the use of words is a great gift, but to appreciate words is an even greater gift. And I salute Mrs. Breckenridge for being the kind of teacher who could put me on the path to a language-rich world.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Plotting the Next Move

Having done it myself, I know the mechanics of plotting a novel, but when I read someone else's work I marvel again at the genius of different authors to make plots airtight, believable, and compelling.

Josi Kilpack has done it so well in her Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mystery series. In Lemon Tart, English Trifle and Devil's Food Cake, things happen fast, which is what keeps mystery readers involved. I've never been a great mystery fan, although I'm married to one, so this normally isn't my genre. However, these are published by Deseret Book so they're clean, and I appreciate that. It's one thing to go for gritty realism, but it's such a relief to read a good story without foul, offensive language.

Sadie is fastidious almost to a fault, and that's what makes her such a good detective, albeit amateur, able to know what to do when she finds herself in situations where the police may be absent or incompetent or resentful of her involvement. She doesn't really try to inject herself into police work, but somehow things happen to Sadie that keep her life from getting dull. Once involved, she knows when to dance around the truth and when to be unrelentingly honest.

Usually the surface is calm for Sadie, the 56-year-old widow just trying to keep up with her two college-age children and her charity work, but underneath is a layer of uncertainty and impending catastrophe that keeps a mystery reader going. There's a good balance of dramatic tension to move the story along and laugh-out-loud humor to give relief and keep the characters interesting. Although I haven't tried any of the recipes scattered throughout the text, some of the less caloric have practical appeal for my lifestyle. These dishes are an integral part of the story.

There's also an ongoing hint of romance, although that isn't as important as the food. Sadie knows some interesting men and isn't entirely opposed to having a close relationship again, but even after twenty years as a widow she hasn't forgotten her first love. Her ambivalence gets in the way at crucial moments.

Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people in these books, and that's the subtle brilliance of plotting an imaginative piece of fiction. I look forward to the next in the series, Key Lime Pie, which is due out in the fall. In the meantime, I'm going to pick up another Kilpack novel next time I'm in the bookstore.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sailing Away Again

Well, they talked us into it. We thought he was kidding when a brother-in-law, Gary, asked us if we were going on the Panama Canal cruise with the rest of the family. But he wasn't. Howard, the other brother-in-law, is really good at finding deals and doing all the business end of things for us, so he's booking it this week. They already have 50% occupancy. We're going to get veranda staterooms this time. Howard's parents are going, too, and he's notifying the rest of the family. Six of the seven Williams siblings and their spouses went on a one-week cruise a couple of years ago. For me it was BKRS (Before Knee Replacement Surgery) so I did okay on the ship but not so much on shore, especially in the heat. (HATED Jamaica!) Now I'm doing really well and will probably get along much better with various activities, so I'm looking forward to it. Isn't this what people are supposed to do when they're retired?

Here's the rundown:
Friday, April 29 - depart Miami FL
Saturday and Sunday - at sea
Monday, May 2 - docked at Cartagena, Colombia
Tuesday, May 3 - docked at Colon, Panama
Wednesday, May 4 - cruising through the Panama Canal
Thursday, May 5 - at sea
Friday, May 6 - dock at Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Saturday, May 7 - at sea
Sunday, May 8 - dock at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
Monday, May 9 - at sea
Tuesday, May 10 - dock at Acapulco, Mexico
Wednesday, May 11 - at sea
Thursday, May 12 - dock at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Friday, May 13 - at sea
Saturday, May 14 - arrive at San Diego CA

We'll need passports, and new luggage, and… Excuse me while I start making lists.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Moving On

Okay, folks, move along, nothing to see here.

Yep, the surgery came and went, annoying while it lasted. Waiting is the worst part when television is boring and you can't concentrate to read. All I could do was stare at my toes and contemplate the terrible pedicure I had. It was supposed to be at 3:30 Monday but I finally got into the OR about 5:30, out by 8 or so, and left the hospital at 3 Tuesday afternoon pain free. Still a little swelling in the throat and some hoarseness but nothing serious. Haven't tried to sing yet, although while in the hospital I had a dream about singing – remembered the alto line of The Lord is My Shepherd, but not the right sequence of verses.

Having been from my primary to a specialist to a surgeon in this little adventure, I have to say I'm very impressed with the quality of medical care I've found here. If I still lived in Sevier Valley, I would probably still not yet be diagnosed. My primary saw the bulge on my neck the first time I consulted with her. She sent me for tests, palpated, and recommended an endocrinologist. It took me two months to get in to see the specialist, but she did an ultrasound and needle biopsy to diagnose toxic multinodular goiter. Nodules sometimes develop in the thyroid and start sending out mixed signals. Mine were huge. So the endo sent me to a surgeon, and less than three weeks later I was in surgery. Today I go for a post-op checkup and expect to get onto thyroid hormone treatment soon. Then we do the dance of getting it balanced which takes a few weeks or months.

For my next feat of derring-do, I will conquer the known world.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Cut-Throat Business

Eighteen months ago I had two total knee replacement surgeries, and now, much too soon, I am facing another surgery, on June 7. A thyroidectomy has become necessary since the diagnosis of toxic multinodular goiter. My thyroid is toxic, apparently, because nodules of varying sizes (the largest being 15.8mm) have developed there, and they're each doing their own thing which is very confusing to the rest of the gland, so it just says "What's the use?" and stops trying. I am told, however, that it's a minor blip on the radar screen. This is now considered same-day surgery, so I won't be in the hospital very long, and I'll have a sore throat for a few days, but within a couple of weeks I should be back up to speed. That's good; I've got stuff to do and miles to go before I sleep. A needle biopsy revealed no malignancy, but that's to be expected in 95% of these cases. I kind of like singing in the church choir, and I hope I can still carry a tune and sing alto when this is over. If I've become basso profundo, however – looking on the bright side – I can sit next to Roger.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Help! The Retaters Have Overthrown King Helignat!

Those word verifications you have to interpret so you can comment on someone's blog have always fascinated me. I'm sure they are created by random selection, but to me they have great potential for writing science fiction.

Satire, as the Broadway saying goes, is what closes on Saturday night, but for seven years satire was alive and well and playing out weekly in the social commentary known as the television space fantasy, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If you ever watched it you'll know what I mean. Those plots were either comedies or high minded allegories or parables based on stirring universal truths like "hubris will be your undoing every time." The science jargon is deliciously baffling, something like computerese, educationese, or Tim Geitner explaining the economy to a Congressional committee, only more believable, more fascinating, and less confusing. A battle scene might be accompanied by talk about forward shields, impulse speed, warp drive, plasma fields, tractor beams, warp core overload, cloaking devices, ion particles, phaser banks, photon torpedoes, spatial anomalies, reconfiguring the power grid, and Klingon warbirds. It’s yummy, campy stuff. It was all great fun, made more so by the incomparable names chosen for the characters, planets and races. I love to watch the re-runs.

First you had to understand the myth, which is essential for science fiction. There’s this space station, see, Deep Space Nine, and it’s next to the wormhole, that shortcut across the galaxy that Einstein always suspected was there. If the wormhole fell into the hostile hands of Cardassia, Romulus, or the Dominion, there would be dire consequences for all the good guys. I think of it as the Panama Canal, and the Delta Quadrant on the other side as something like Hong Kong. Also near the station is the planet Bajor, recently liberated from the occupation of Cardassia, another nearby planet whose citizens, with their exoskeletal appearance, have an insufferable superiority complex. In fact, DS9 was once Bajoran, but is now in Federation hands. That’s the United Federation of Planets – home base: earth – and who else but Terrans, those once known in 50’s sci-fi movies as earthlings, could have the savvy to run the place and keep the peace.

Here's where the names come in: Jadzia Dax, Kira Nerise, Nog, Odo, Jem Hadar, Worf, Ferengi, Klingon, Garak, Ezri Dax, Quark, and that's just the first episode. Are you having fun yet? These names, I suppose, could be interchangeable with the word verifications. All you'd have to do is capitalize them.

"Yes, Captain. The Bricsmo have landed on the planet Spushan and found friendly inhabitants. The Fibitic will supply all the Flogen we need for the squif drive in the engine. If we can just keep the Plualp from discovering the mining operation we'll be able to keep the Munder from rebelling. Then we'll go on to Cattive next week and deliver the Ismakit prince back to his parents King Shecar and Queen Hytoe."

There you have it - the plot in one paragraph. It's very reminiscent of the Lewis Carroll poem, The Jabberwocky. The meaning of his made-up words is perfectly clear if you understand what part of speech the word represents. "Brillig," for instance is obviously an adjective, as in "frabjous," the description of a beautiful day. It's also clear what a vorpal sword is, and that the "beamish" boy who came "galumphing" back was successful.

I love playing with the language this way and admire anyone who can do it believably. Although I've never written science fiction and don't intend to, I see those word verifications as a great resource for someone who does.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Walking Around with Richard Paul Evans

Last night I finished reading The Walk, by Richard Paul Evans. I met him once when I introduced him as a speaker at a League of Utah Writers conference in Park City, and I've seen him interviewed on TV here and there. He appears to be a man with many layers and complexities that even he finds amusing, as if every day is filled with self-discovery.

Whatever else he may or may not be, he is a solid storyteller, and I'm amazed at how quickly he pulls the reader in and holds attention. He does that with several effective devices. He uses the character's journal entries to tease the next chapter, which he has done in previous books as well, and it hasn't become tiresome because it isn't pretentious. His chapters are usually short, and that makes his books easy to pick up and put down when life is busy, and yet when you pick it up again, you're immediately drawn back into that compelling world he has created. He devises solid plots, believable characters and uses a "telescope" writing style – that is, he can focus on minutia when it reflects the character's state of mind and then he can pull out and look at the big picture. It's something like getting into the "zone" where the left and right sides of the brain are working together to write and revise, and creativity is pouring out of the keyboard from your fingertips. His writing is seamless, apparently effortless, and that's what tells me that he worked hard to achieve that flow of ideas and action.

Most fascinating to me is that he uses first person POV to tell his stories, and that requires becoming the character mentally and emotionally during the writing process, sort of like an actor creating a role for stage or screen. I have never written in the first person, but I think I've had a similar experience when a character comes alive in my imagination, telling me his or her story. It's like taking dictation. They tell me their story and I write it down. When the story has been told, the characters go away. Recently I had the startling experience of coming to the end of a book and saying goodbye to the characters, but they wouldn't leave. It was as if they were saying, "We have a story to tell and we choose you to tell it, so get busy." So I listened to them and wrote another book.

Evans always has his characters dealing with thought-provoking moral and religious issues, meaning his books are character and idea driven. That's what I write, and reading another author's take is very satisfying. I'd recommend The Walk, and hope the other three volumes yet to come in the series will also catch me, pull me in, and make my stay worthwhile.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's Only a Paper Moon

A charming old popular song says "It's only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sky." That metaphor goes through my mind as I reflect on my experience at the LDStorymakers conference this past weekend. That's LDS story makers. I don't know why the cutesy way of writing it. Maybe that's what attracted some of the air kissing wannabes I saw there. Networking is one thing but I saw so much sucking up you'd have thought it was a lemon festival. Among about 450 people from Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona and Colorado, I knew three. I wanted to be a part of this group because I'm a writer, I'm LDS, I've been married 40 years, and so I write about being LDS and being married. That's what my writing teachers always taught me – write what you know. And I thought that's probably what motivated everybody else to be there.

However, I'm not a mainstream LDS writer, and perhaps that's why I felt alien. At meals and in conference lectures, people very often introduced themselves as writers of science fiction, mystery/suspense, fantasy, historical fiction, Young Adult (YA) fiction, or romance. I didn't hear another person introduce themselves as a writer of contemporary drama. In fact, I didn't even know that's what I wrote until I interviewed with an editor from an LDS publishing company who said that's what he'd call it. The best part about that is I have less competition and potential for a bigger place in my own genre.

All or most of these writers are aiming at commercial success on the national scene, not that there's anything wrong with that, but I have a different view of my purpose. I write LDS fiction for a general adult LDS audience because I have something to say to them. I particularly appreciated Anita Stansfield's discussion of her life as a writer, the sacrifices she's made, and coming from someone whose 47th book will soon be out, that was important. It was particularly pleasing to hear her refer to her talent as a gift. Obviously she has respect for it, and that respect has driven her career. I don't read everything she writes, but I was impressed with that attitude.

On the other hand, I heard nationally successful writers discuss only the need, or not, for an agent, and the circuitous twists on the road to success. No references to gifts or reverence for their talents. The contrast with Anita's attitude was stark. There was something a bit smug about them, something of the "nyah, nyah, I made it and you didn't" from a few of them. Presenters who give their spiel with a "Gol, how can you be so stupid as to not know this" tone were more than a little abrasive.

This whole idea of writing for a particular niche audience is new to me. When I was in college, one of my writing teachers said, "If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience." Consequently, I had no answer for an editor I interviewed with several years ago who asked me who my audience was. I didn't understand the question. I write for people who read LDS fiction, particularly adults. In fact, a male friend of mine who has read my contemporary fiction particularly enjoyed it because it wasn't like most of the books out there that are loosely referred to as "women's fiction." I hate that designation. Men who read what women read are more likely to understand the women around them.

That same editor asked me why I write, and my answer – "I can't NOT write" – apparently wasn't good enough. My books were rejected by his company. But I have never stopped thinking about the question because some day I hope to come up with a satisfactory answer. I write because, like Anita Stansfield, I have a gift and not to use it would be a sin, regardless of market trends. I write because I have a story to share with my LDS people. I write because I can't edit what I say once I've said it. (That's why I can write brilliant dialog.) I write because I love the language. I write because it's thrilling to make both sides of my brain work together.

And so I go back to my own basic motivation: When LDS lives and marriages are falling apart all around us in an environment where values are slowly corroding, why are we writing about vampires and the housewife from Orem who's secretly a CIA agent and saves the world while still getting her visiting teaching done? I'm just sayin'.

Ultimately, the irony of art is that it IS only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sky, but the story that takes place there tells vitals truths about life, exposes significant insights, and gives readers Aha! moments they might not get anywhere else. Artists create an artificial place populated with artificial people in order to reveal truth to real people in the real world. I love irony. That's good enough for me.

By the way, after reading the first five pages of my manuscript and and discussing it with me for ten minutes, the editor at Covenant asked me to submit the entire manuscript. That made up for everything else about the conference that didn't sit well with me. But now I'm chewing my fingernails for the next few weeks until I find out what the verdict is going to be. I hope they agree with me that this is a book whose time has come.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Another Oldie But Goodie (from 1996)

Tee Shirt Philosophy

It's amazing how our instant society can boil everything down to a few words or phrases easily proclaimed on our tee shirts. Attitudes – good, bad, indifferent – as expressed on shirts, can save a lot of conversation time when you meet new people. No one will misunderstand your self concept if you're wearing one that says 'All I ask is that you treat me no differently than you would the Queen,' OR 'There's nothing wrong with me that a little ice cream won't fix,' OR 'Plays well with others.' It would certainly make you stop and think if someone strolled toward you with a shirt reading 'The road to enlightenment is long and difficult… bring snacks and a magazine.'

You can immediately warn people of your life status by wearing such shirt inscriptions as 'I can handle any crisis – I have children,' OR 'I'm not having hot flashes, I'm having power surges,' OR 'First National Bank of Dad (sorry, closed).'

Middle aged or retired people, whose status may be changing, can come to terms with it by wearing the declaration 'If things get better with age, I'm approaching magnificent,' OR 'Looks too young to be retired.' Others might get right to the point with the hapless 'Over the hill? What Hill? Where? I didn't see any hill,' OR the defiant 'I'm not over the hill – I'm older than the dirt.'

Explanations about interests become immediately clear if a shirt says 'Built for comfort not for speed,' OR 'Can be bribed with cookies', OR 'So much chocolate, so little time.' You could never be confused about a person whose shirt says 'Beer is the reason I get up every afternoon.'

Even your marital status can be evident if your shirt says 'One good turn gets most of the blanket,' OR 'My wife says I never listen to her – at least that's what I think she said.'

Cat lovers can proudly declare 'You're nobody till you've been ignored by a cat,' OR in a more whimsical vein, sport a tee shirt with a cat dressed as Santa that says 'Buster patiently listened to what the mice wanted for Christmas and then he ate them.'

Sports fan(atic)s can make their propensities known with 'Sweat is nature's way of showing you that your muscles are crying,' OR 'Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta golf.' If they're completely honest, they might go for 'I fish, therefore I lie,' OR 'Hunters will do anything for a buck,' or my personal favorite, 'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you get rid of him for the weekend.'

Personality shirts might help you know who to avoid, or who to make friends with. You'd think twice about the person wearing a shirt that says, 'If all the world's a stage I want better lighting.' When his shirt says 'A legend in my own mind,' it doesn't leave you with any questions about his ego. 'I get plenty of exercise jumping to conclusions, pushing my luck and dodging deadlines,' OR 'I have not yet begun to procrastinate' say more about a person than a resume' ever could.

In my housewifely role, I am amused by these slogans: 'If the world were fair, VCRs would program themselves, chocolate wouldn't be fattening, and men would have babies'; and 'Does vacuuming count as aerobic exercise?' I can also relate to 'I am woman, I am invincible, I am tired.' When I try to balance my checkbook or plan a budget, I sometimes think, 'Please Lord, let me prove to you that winning the lottery won't $poil me,' OR 'Money isn't everything – usually it isn't even enough,' OR 'When all else fails, manipulate the data.'

Life is easy when lived by a tee shirt philosophy – no responsibilities, no consequences, and none of the dimensions that make life and people interesting. Fortunately, a tee shirt is a cartoon, not a portrait, and that gives us permission not to take them too seriously.

Friday, April 2, 2010


We visited Richfield recently for a day, the place where we lived for 33 years, and went to church with old friends. It was wonderful to renew acquaintances and to reflect on new friends who appreciate us for who we are. That reflection broadened and I thought about other things I love about my life.

• Being with extended family more often and being able to entertain them – It's so much fun to plan and give a dinner party! These are wonderful people we haven't been able to see very often in the last 33 years, and it's great to have them in our home.
• Having a pedicure - Since it's so hard to coordinate my bifocals with the bending of knees and the placement of a nail clipper, I'm grateful for people willing to clip my toenails. Of course, I love the leg massage that goes along with it.
• 12 other people in my family - That number will probably be growing, now that Jordan and Heather have decided to adopt, and I'm thrilled at the prospect of having a new baby to love.
• Getting into the creative zone - There's nothing to compare with the moment a new idea dawns. A thought attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson: "I hate to write, but I love to have written." I've found a marvelous critique group here who have helped me make real progress on writing projects.
• Living in Provo - I love our sweet new manageable home and especially love having people visit. We are in a quiet neighborhood ten minutes from everything and I look forward to being able to get out and walk as the weather improves. We've been to art shows, plays and concerts since we moved here, and movies. It's nice to be able to go out in public and not be shouted at by students who recognize us. At last we are anonymous.
• Flowers in the house - Since we've been here, and for a little while before we left Richfield, we started buying flowers more often, and it adds a dimension of civilization that I hadn't fully appreciated before. Something about having a bouquet of flowers on the table inspires me to keep the clutter cleared away.
• My wonderful husband - He took such good care of me last year when I was recovering from knee surgeries, and he's still in the habit. It's great to have the companionship, the stimulating conversations, the hearty laughs together. And the love.
• Feeling valued by people I respect.
• Seeing Mt. Timpanogos out the kitchen window every day.
• Hearing the train whistle in the distance.
• As spring emerges, discovering what's planted in the yard - Today some brave little daffodils along the back fence tried to hold their heads up as spring snow fell. Globe willows are greening up all over. And my spring allergies have arrived.
• Serendipity – discovering "omelette night" at the hospital cafeteria. We had a "girls night out" Tuesday and enjoyed the company as much as the food.
• Decorating our new home and exploring new styles, creating the comfort we want to live in.
• Tackling new projects and having time enough for everything.
• The prospect of filling our guest room with family and friends this summer – bring 'em on!
• The stimulation of reading and writing, the fun of sharing my experiences and talents with others.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it comes from a grateful heart, and it's a good place to begin. What do you love about your life?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring Fervor

Spring begins at sea level and moves upward about eleven miles a day, according to scientists who have studied the phenomenon. It is a transition time when the natural life cycle begins again, when I watch a bee exploring the throat of a daffodil and catch my breath in astonishment at how and why this happens, and who makes it happen. Spring brings a sense of freedom, a feeling of newness, an urge to be creative.

One morning in the spring I was sixteen years old, I sat in my room watching the mild sweet Oregon rain fall on the riot of irises outside my window, explored the Roget’s Thesaurus my parents had given me for my birthday that winter, and decided that I would be a writer. That decision has spared me from the ordinary and made the unconventional common.

My odyssey began in high school. Theater has been in my blood since the spring of my senior year when I auditioned for a part in The Diary of Anne Frank. Although I didn’t get the part, I was assigned to the costume crew, which took me backstage where, for the first time, I inhaled the instantly addictive and nearly palpable scent of creative energy, and I knew this had to be a part of my life.

As a college student, my best learning moments, some even life changing, came when I was involved in plays. I’ll never forget the only applause I ever received as an actress – in my acting class, playing Amanda in a scene from The Glass Menagerie. My interests remained back stage, however, as part of the decision-making that went into the preparation, and I left the acting to people who could memorize lines and control their stage fright.

In the spring of 1967 another rich memory was born. I was the assistant to the faculty member directing a premiere production of a play written by the campus poet in resident, my creative writing teacher from the English department. The author would come to rehearsals to watch the progress of his “offspring,” and consult with the director on production details. It was instructional to listen to these two intensely creative men. I became a sponge. Sometimes when they disagreed about some detail they would turn to me and say, “What do you think?” At first it seemed ludicrous that my opinion should count for anything; I was just happy to be there, absorbing the creative energy and facilitating the activities of all those other creative people involved in the production. Sometimes I had an opinion, and I was grateful for the chance to offer it. Ultimately the collaboration was thrilling.

This spring I’m reminded of fourteen years ago when one of my creations, a play, was brought to life on stage by a group of talented people who gave me the priceless gift of their time to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself. A poet once described birth as “Trailing clouds of glory do we come, from God who is our home.” But as I watched and participated in the development of talent by gifted people around me, I concluded that the clouds of glory we trail after us must be the talents we bring, probably a spiritual inheritance from Heavenly Parents. Somehow when talents are used and shared respectfully, with deference to the Giver of the Gift, there’s inevitably a feeling of renewed life, the return of spring.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Can We Wish It Here Faster?

It's still a few days away officially, but here are some haiku poems...


I tripped and fell in
the pond last night because the
stars were beguiling.

Shall I wrap this warm
breeze, or would you prefer to
wear it home in style?

Shadows float as trees
yawn and nod with the wind. It’s
tired out tonight.

The sad newness of
spring brings wistful smiles of hope,
the soul’s camouflage.

This warm night and that
full moon remind me that spring
is for stargazing.