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By D. Avery
This past weekend I took time away from my regular work to peddle my written wares under the local author’s tent at the Nantucket Book Fest. This was my first time attending, and I was glad for the opportunity and exposure. If you’re wondering, I didn’t get rich, but I was enriched by the words of some of the visiting authors.
At the opening celebration of the Book Fest, three authors took to the pulpit (literally, it was at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House) to speak of their motivations. The question posed was, “How can we write when everything’s wrong?”
Ben Fountain asked, “How can we not?” The author of Beautiful Country Burn Again, also said, “I try to understand everything I can,” and spoke of language and writing being a tool for that understanding. Regardless of genre, writers are “the scouts and spies of the human tribe.” Dave Cullen, who wrote Columbine and Parkland, and who “writes because he has to, he writes because he gets to,” reiterated the idea of writers as spies, and told of his vocation, his “being called” to be a “participant observer,” as opposed to objective reporting where a distance is maintained.
Perhaps it was the “human tribe” line that made me think of our tribe here at Buckaroo Nation, where we report back to one another every week after receiving our mission, the prompt. We take up a lens, a spyglass, at times a telescope, at times a kaleidoscope, but we scout out a story and bring it back to the communal fire for sharing. Sometimes we bring back entertainment and sometimes truths, often both.
How can we write, when everything’s wrong? How can we not? The human tribe is a tribe of storytellers. Madeline Miller, author of Circe, reminded us that stories are where there are tears for things and where mortality touches the heart. With her references to the Aeneid a reminder of both the antiquity and the universality of stories, of the constant presence of monsters and dangers and journeys, her closing remarks also brought it back to the fire. “Stories say, ‘I hear you.’ Readers hear, ‘I’m heard, I’m here.’”
This and more I have also heard at the campfire of Carrot Ranch. Writers must write; readers must read. At the Book Fest, the theme continued when Alex Marzano-Lesnevich spoke about their book, The Fact of a Body, a book intriguing to me not for its content, which is grim, but for how they were uncovering one story and discovered their own. The interviewer called the writing “unflinching” and “brave” for the places it goes. Alex admits it might have been easier to have not gone there. But how could they not? Alex suggested that writing is a moral obligation. Their book not only gave the victim of the crime a voice, readers were given a voice, too many readers who had remained silent. Because of Alex’s book, these people felt their story had been told, that they were heard.
As Alex says in the introduction of The Fact of a Body, the book is “my interpretation of the facts, my rendering, my attempt to piece together this story. As such, this is a book about what happened, yes, but it is also about what we do with what happened. It is about a murder, it is about my family, it is about other families whose lives were touched by the murder. But more than that, much more than that, it is about how we understand our lives, the past, and each other. To do this, we all make stories.” The human tribe shares stories.
Sometimes, even in just 99 words, we might, after scouting and spying on pasts and places, on histories, come back with a story that, through the telling and the reading, becomes something more than we knew ourselves. We share in our community; we take communion of story. We might come to understanding or bring understanding through writing, through story making. Our words might make someone else feel heard. And that’s good for the human tribe.
Book Fest was not what I thought it’d be. It was much better than what I thought it would be. Book Fest made me feel like a writer, but not through volume of sales under the tent. True story: A woman whom I had met only the night before when she bought a book, came back to tell me she had just read the first story in After Ever and it made her cry. The story was about her friend she told me, and she was very touched by that. Did I sell a ton of books? I sold enough.
D. Avery lives on an island off the coast of Massachusetts with a husband and a cat. She is a teacher of middle school mathematics. She enjoys kayaking, baking sourdough bread, and reading. She sometimes write. People sometimes read what she writes. ShiftnShake is a place for you to read some of D.’s writing, including her weekly Ranch Yarns.
By D. Avery
Their colors are those of Tibetan prayer flags, but these squares are not yet whispering in the wind. An unassuming plastic wrapped cube; they appear to be ordinary post-it notes. These are not ordinary post-it notes to be used for mundane purposes. This five-colored cube is composed of post-it notes destined for a special purpose. They will remain in their pristine packaging, neat and orderly until I’m ready to apply them to their designated task. For now I am inspired by their contained order while the story they will eventually help shape and organize swirls free-form in my head.
Ha! I happened to notice the word count (opening paragraph) — exactly 99 words. That’s seriously funny. And if there had been a prompt with “prayer” or “flag” or “post-it” those 99 words would suffice, no more, no less. 99 words come more easily since my early days at Carrot Ranch, but it is still very satisfying to meet the challenge of forging a 99-word story. To write even 99 words every week has been a worthy exercise, one I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. But lately, I am seeing how 99 words might, like another prompt, lead to more.
Yes, that second paragraph is also 99 words and is better for it. The constraint forced its construction to be more carefully considered, like with our flash fiction pieces. I enjoy crafting stories that are complete in just 99 words. Honing those skills is challenge enough. But recurring characters keep insisting I write their bigger story, even though I don’t know how. I’m not skilled or ambitious enough to write a big story. But then a funny thing happened after I published a collection of flash fiction and short stories. I found myself imagining how I might do it.
You will have guessed that the solution, like the previous paragraph, is 99 words. I might be able to use flash fiction as a tool to shape and sharpen a larger story. But there’s that word “might” again. Might. Its verb and noun definitions almost seem unrelated. As a verb, it is a form of “may” as in maybe, as in possibly. As a noun, might means strength, force, power. Maybe the noun and verb definitions are aligned. Maybe power comes from imagining possibilities and persevering to realize potential. Maybe 99-word flashes might be pieces of bigger stories.
If you are still reading you might rightly doubt me, might wonder if I could ever leave the comfort of 99 words; wonder if I could ever actually organize a big story. You wonder if I’ve forgotten those five colors of post-it notes. Nope; they are the color codes of characters and flashes. They are the pieces of a quilt, its pattern still emerging. The still unopened cube has been joined by a doodle pad where a scene gets hurriedly splashed onto its own page as it arrives unbidden. I might be getting ready for something I might do.
I will do it. I will write a big story. Because the mightiest outcome from writing weekly flash challenges has been in finding my creative courage, 99 words at a time, going wherever the prompts lead. These flashes and the encouragement of this community led to a book. It was through that experience that I finally got the idea of “raw” and finally accepted it in my own writing. It’s leading to more. I will write a bigger story because it is there. I will figure out how as I go along. Now it’s just a matter of time.
It’s all a leap of faith. But I will open that plastic wrapped cube, will start stringing my post-it prayer flags together. My characters and their stories will flash uncontained, will spread their wings to soar on the winds of possibility. In the meantime the hunting and gathering will continue, week to week, 99 words here, six sentences there, some flashes so raw it’s a health code violation, some satisfying and tasty. Risks will be taken, flaws will be evident, revisions will be made. I look forward to this self-imposed challenge; and then the next one after that.
D. Avery, Rough Writer spinner of Ranch Yarns, shares prose and poetry at ShiftnShake. She has published two books of poetry, Chicken Shift and For the Girls. Her third book, After Ever, little stories for grown children, is evidence of her shift to fiction writing. You might find her funny, except when she’s serious, but you can certainly find her at Twitter and Amazon.
According to Sean Prentiss:
D. Avery has written a stunning collection of flash fictions that take us from here in Vermont to places far afield and from children to the elderly. These short stories in After Ever, though, all share one common thread, and that is tight, beautiful prose about the human condition, about the moments of our lives that make us weep from sorrow and from love.
Raw Literature posts as an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99-word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at email@example.com.
I started off this series for Charli saying that I had already written about what memoir is and at the time I chose not to repeat it. However, in summing up for the last post in this series, I thought it is probably worth revisiting what a memoir is.
Firstly, memoir belongs in the creative nonfiction genre. These works are described as true stories that are well told. They generally utilise the fictional techniques of dialogue and high definition description of scenes. The truth is told in a way that is compelling for the reader.
Memoir is derived from the French term for memory. Memoirs also come from this word, but memoir and memoirs refer to two different things. The plural form is interchangeable with autobiography (the complete life story of a person in chronological order). Memoir, however, refers to a modern form of life writing that looks at only a part of one’s life and is told in the compelling way discussed in the previous chapter.
Although both autobiography and memoir are true, an autobiography tells facts that can be found by researching the life. The information should be verifiable. It is the history of a life. Memoir, on the other hand, is coming from within. It is the story of self and is how one person remembers a portion of their life. These memories are true to the author but are not necessarily verifiable by anyone else. When I write a memoir it is true to my memory but not perhaps to others. We all approach an event with a worldview that is our own, and the memory we will take from that event will be influenced by it, thus giving us different perceptions of the same event. This does not mean that anything can be made up. There have been a number of fraudulent memoirs written such as famously by James Frey and Norma Khouri. In these, the incidents in the book did not occur or were grossly exaggerated.
There has been an explosion of memoirs since Mary Karr and Frank McCourt each wrote their memoir, both of which are credited with being the start of the modern memoir boom. These paved the way for anybody to write their own story – we have misery, travel, dogs, celebrity, grief, illness memoirs and the list goes on and on and on. Memoir is often similarly seen in the nonfiction world to the way romance is seen in the fiction world. Why is this? Most likely because everyone has a story to tell and many who aren’t diligent in editing and writing publish. Sometimes people see it as narcissistic – to my mind, this is usually an unfair assumption. Those writing feel they have a story that may help others by the knowledge that they gleaned in their processing of what happened to them. This reflection is an integral part of memoir. Others write because they feel they have a good story to tell but again there will be a change in the person because of the event, and this reflection will be shown in the narrative. For those that want revenge or a cure for self, publishing a memoir is not the way to go.
How do you tell if it is fiction or memoir? The name of the author should be the same as the ‘I’ character in the narrative. Phillipe LeJeune coined the term “The Autobiographical Pact” whereby the author is the ‘I’ character and pledges to the reader that the narrative is a true story. The reader reciprocates by agreeing to believe the narrative is the truth. Reading memoir is different from reading fiction, and that abuse of trust hurts if the memoir writer does not tell the truth.
As for writing memoir – know your audience, know your theme and keep the focus narrow. Use dialogue and high definition descriptions of the scene, use small detail that only someone that was there could have known. Use your voice. Personally, I think there should be a combination of telling and showing so that the reader is left in no doubt as to how you changed as a result of the events being told. Always show unsavoury characters – let the reader be the one to decide that they are not too nice – don’t label or condemn. As a result, time may have to pass before writing. Time should be played within the narrative.
Before sending it out for publication – make sure that it has been copyedited and proofread. I hope in the writing you enjoy owning your story. Thanks Charli for giving me the opportunity over the last few months to talk memoir. There have been some good discussions, and although I have never wished to change anyone’s thoughts on memoir, I hope that it has given everyone some food for thought.
Times Past will continue monthly. Join in Times Past where this month we are looking at Horses and Childhood Dreams.
Truth is considered fundamental in writing memoir. The work of Smith and Watson show that memory is not an exact memory of the past event but the past combined with the present, differences in history and ideologies of the time so rather than memory being existential it is a construct and will vary at different times and places. Recent innovations in brain imaging have shown that autobiographical memory shares the same part of the brain as visual activity. It is possible that this explains why, when you visualise a scene vividly, even if it is not true, that this false memory will be added to autobiographical memory. As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?
For me, this is the most interesting part of memoir for I believe that memoir gives us our identity. Memoir, when used as a book genre, refers to a part of a life story that is well told truthfully from memory using techniques commonly used in fiction. I would argue, however, that we are all storytellers of our life story only most people don’t write them down. Instead, we tell anecdotes (a truthful story about a real incident or person). These, to my mind, are the equivalent of a memoir in aural form. They are stories, usually well told from memory about a portion of our life. These, I believe, give us our identity.
There are two facets to identity. There is our identity that can be researched by anybody. Our birthdate, our parents’ names and occupations, later our own occupations, marriages, divorces and even addresses can often be found if one has the desire to dig deeply enough. But does that give you your identity? For the authorities maybe but not for those that come in contact with us. It gives the what of your identity. The second facet is not researchable but rather it is our personality and character and these are found through our actions but predominantly through the stories we tell of ourselves and these give us the who of our identity.
Our parents give us our first pieces of identity. They give us not only our name but our first simple stories. “My daddy is a minister.” That little story had me labelled a goody two shoes, someone to be mindful of language around and friendships slow to make. My Dad also told funny stories which I know I would have repeated as in those very young days, I had no stories of my own to tell, and I most likely wanted to be like my daddy who I adored. I didn’t tell my mother’s stories as I wanted to be more like my father than my mother. I don’t know what the first story I told about myself was but if I assumed it was one I still tell — about being quarantined from school and filling in the time playing the leper from the bible, jumping out on unsuspecting passerbys and telling them they were going to catch the dreadful disease my mother had because I was a leper, I’m sure that for some my identity would have taken on one of a non-caring individual for some I regaled it to and for others I would have been labelled creative.
We are selective as to what stories we tell and those we keep close to our chest. Some we know that if we were to tell we would be seen in a bad light, and the who we are of our identity would take a battering. This part of our identity changes over time. As in reading a memoir the author’s journey is followed until it reaches a point where it is irrevocably changed because of something that happens. It is, as Charli discussed in her prompt preamble, the hero’s journey only we are the hero of the story, our own story. If our identity weren’t to change as a result of life events I think it would be a poor, shallow life we’ve led when we can’t learn and grow and change.
Do you still tell the same stories now that you told when you were 15? I know I have a period in my life that will forever be closed to public scrutiny. It was at the time and it is now. I didn’t tell it then and I don’t visit it now. We edit what we tell but even so the stories we do tell reek of our essence.
When writing memoir this can create a huge problem for the author when writing a second memoir. The readership of the first memoir may simply not like the identity which the author has become in the second book and a totally different market may be needed.
If you are not convinced that your stories gives you your identity that is fine. Consider however those people who have lost their stories. Those with brain injuries and those suffering dementia. Those without their stories become empty shells. They retain their name, their race and nationality but their identity fades until they are no longer the person that we once knew. When they no longer have their stories they no longer a made up person – a fictional self.
I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on memoir and identity and hoping you will join in Times Past where this month we are looking at bicycles.
Although memoir is a true story of a particular part of your life, it must still have structure if you intend for others to read it. Firstly you have to decide what is the story that you want to tell. For most memoir writers it will be the most exciting, heart-pounding, significant time of their lives. For some, this may be their childhood to their coming of age (known as a bildungsroman) whilst for others, it may be an illness, an experience that happens later in life or it could be the relationship you had with a particular animal or a business venture you had undertaken. In reality – it can be any theme you choose. These days there are even immersion memoirs where a person will undertake some task or live amongst, e.g. footballers, for months and then write a memoir on this experience. For most of us, we know our story, and we know what has had the most impact on us, and that is what we decide to write about. For me – it was when my husband and I, as newlyweds, went into partnership with the paramount chief of an exotic island in the Pacific in the running of a small resort and tour business.
Early in the writing process you also need to decide for whom you are writing. Is your audience only yourself, your family or are you planning to publish and sell your memoir to the public. When I started writing my memoir the plan was that it was being written for my family. I included detail that interested them as they knew the friend that helped us load a pile of timber into a container that was eventually to be the house we built on the remote island. As I ventured further into the story my focus changed and I decided that this was a story that had wider appeal than just my loved ones. However, this change meant that the chapters I had already written had to rewritten to remove information that no-one, other than my family and friends, would have much if any interest in knowing. If, however, you are writing for your family then lots of detail about the family will be of interest to that readership. Early in my blogging I came across a chap that had published his memoir. I purchased it on Amazon only to find that this was a story that had been written for the family and had little appeal to the wider audience. It may have been worthy of some blogging of the more interesting aspects but I don’t think it should never have been put up for sale to the public without a lot of editing. If you are writing just for yourself then you can be free with details of a personal nature that might be therapeutic for you to acknowledge but should never be let into the public domain.
Having decided on a theme and a focus the writing begins. How you do this is an individual choice. Some people free write their first draft, just putting down all thoughts on paper. In the second draft, they add the structure. Personally, I write in a structured way from the start, but in second drafts I may change my starting point. Lee Gutkind, the father of creative nonfiction, suggests that you should open with a scene as it is crucial to draw the reader into the narrative immediately. Scenes are active. They show instead of tell and have dialogue and high definition scenes. Scenes and reflections on the effect that this has had on the author’s life should be put into the structure of the book. Again, this can be done in numerous ways either intermingled or set apart from each other.
Once the first draft has been written it should be re-read looking for the themes, focus, scenes, and reflection. If part of the narrative has nothing to do with the theme, even if it is a great story, get rid of it. If it doesn’t suit the focus, edit so that it does. Rewrite to create scenes where necessary and add reflection where there is none.
I would also suggest, as has Stephen King, Lee Gutkind, and many others, that reading memoirs that are of a similar theme to your own is a helpful exercise. Doing so allows you to see what works and what doesn’t work regarding structure. Sometimes the ones you don’t enjoy teach you more than those that you think are fantastic. Analyse what works and what doesn’t work. Reading is also useful when it comes to selling your book to a publisher as they will want to know – where on the bookshelf would this sit? Be able to tell the publisher who your memoir will appeal to. Mine will appeal to those that like travel memoirs, true-life adventure, small business and those wanting to make a change in their life. Knowing the themes and the focus will tighten your writing. I’m looking forward to joining in the discussion on your views of themes and focus.
The prompt for this month’s Times Past is a little different to those normally given. This month I am asking you to reflect on the biggest change in your lifetime. This can be a social change or a technological one or even one of both. Please join in giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in can be seen at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments or by creating your own post and linking. Looking forward to your memories.
Raw Literature posts as an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it.
Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99-word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We welcome a university student to Raw Literature this week. He’s working on his master’s degree in creative writing and explains how he came to write the following short fiction and why.
The Best Days of Their Lives? by YoungLee Giles
Charlie was sat on the floor with his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. He took a long, slow, inhale but continued to shake like someone who’d just been pulled out of a frozen lake. The girl sat next to him was whispering the lord’s prayer, her words sounded distorted, as if they were coming from the mouth of Charlie Brown’s teacher.
Her prayer was silenced as more gunshots smashed into juvenile innocence trapped outside. Terrified screams ran down the hallway desperately trying to escape the indefensible. There would be no detention for running down the corridor ever again.
‘This morning I told my mum I hated her.’ Luke Noonum the hardest boy in the school covered his face with both hands but his vulnerability had nowhere to hide.
Charlie’s world churned eternal regret. His tears were sincere but too late.
‘The police will come soon.’ Mr Smart head of year ten wasn’t convincing, his words were pale and insignificant.
Charlie looked around the room, a faint glimmer of hope hidden amongst tearful sobs was rapidly fading.
Outside more gunshots violently consumed the void. Charlie could hear the loud thud of broken dreams hitting the floor. A long, spray of automatic gunfire was replaced by a deathly silence and the sound of footsteps approaching. The young girl sat next to Charlie grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight. Her nails dug into his skin. The door to the boiler room started to open and darkness replaced the light.
I wrote my short story in one take, immediately after reading yet another a horrific newspaper article about a school shooting. I started thinking about the children, what would go through their minds? As a child, death is an abstract concept, when a child knows death is imminent, how do they make sense of it?
When I read about a school shooting, it keeps me awake at night and really gets under my skin. I’m left with an array of uncomfortable questions which I can seldom answer. I believe it’s important that we continue to ask ourselves questions, and never become desensitized regardless of how often they happen.
I thought about the child shooter. It’s natural to automatically label him or her evil or someone with mental health issues. To try and neatly tie things ups by saying the killer had mental health issues is just plain lazy. If I were to develop this short story into something more, I’d like to explore the killer’s mind and his background. To humanise the killer would make the story even more chilling.
Many stories that I write are ones that find me, awake me and force me to pick over uncomfortable questions. I want to delve deeply into the subject matter and force the reader to ask themselves their own questions and to achieve an emotional response, to move, unsettle and at times upset. I’d rather tackle a strong, emotive subject like this rather than something straightforward that ends with a happy conclusion.
I’m currently studying for a master’s degree in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University in England. For this semesters script and novel module, I must come up with an idea for a short script. After writing this story, I developed it into a script for radio drama. In doing this, I was able to give each character a strong identity and some background information on the killer. I’m quite happy with the result and might submit it to the BBC.
Much of my work is of a dark, realistic nature. Some would say I’ve lived an unconventional life. I’ve lived much of it in a darknet type reality, and this has shaped my writing. I lived in Mozambique during the civil war and witnessed many horrific things. I was only 17 years old and my years in Africa had a profound effect on me.
After my African adventure, I bought a one-way ticket to the South of Spain and somehow ended up living with an old hippy (who was also a big hashish dealer) on the island of Ibiza. When I returned to England, I became a part of the acid house generation, dancing in fields and warehouses across the country. I became a drug dealer and fell into an illicit lifestyle and was lucky not to end up in prison. Several years later I moved to London and enrolled at Middlesex University. To support myself, as well as dealing drugs, I put on club nights for students and accidentally became a DJ. I became a fairly successful DJ playing around London and being flown around the world. I worked with fashion designers, putting music to their shows during London fashion week, I was the music director for a French play called Bintoe and produced music under the name Ok_Ma, putting out several releases on different record labels as well as making music for television. I always wrote, but mainly music-based material for music magazines. I worked for a few magazines and somehow became an editor of a small magazine called Ecentral which focused on the area of Shoreditch London, but it didn’t last long as the magazine folded due to financial troubles.
In between my DJing and other activities I wrote a 60-thousand-word novel but trashed it due to my insecurities.
As my DJing continued to take off so did my drug use, I had no idea that I was an addict. To me, an addict was someone on the street stealing to buy their drugs. I lived in a nice house, wore designer clothes and drove a flashy car, but I was no different from the scruffy man panhandling. Inside I was dying. Firstly cocaine then came heroin. After about fifteen years of daily use and trying to keep a respectable face on, my life came crashing down, I lost everything and ended up in rehab. I got clean, relapsed, got clean, relapsed.
Eventually, I ended up in a rehab for 8 months and was able to address many deep issues. Whilst there I wrote a novel about a person who ends up in strange rehab. A publisher read it and wanted to publish, but I’ve now realised it’s not ready so am using it for various university assignments where I can edit and improve.
When I came out of rehab, I enrolled to do a master’s degree in creative writing. After a few months at university, I relapsed once more and ended up in a detox unit which was housed in a mental health ward. In there I wrote every day as it was an extreme place but writing gold. I witnessed many bizarre, violent, scary and strange events and I wrote about every one of them. Luckily, I was able to keep up with my studies, and today I’m clean and working hard at my deadlines. I left school with no qualifications (I went to college to get them), so to be doing a master’s degree is unbelievable.
A chapter of my book is being published in May in a university book called Matter, a collection of creative works from the writer’s of Sheffield Hallam University.
Recently I’ve also found a memory stick containing the first novel I wrote and lots of writing that my father did before he died. He was in the special forces and worked around the world, some jobs were somewhat semi-legal. I’m currently looking at editing his journey from Seoul, Korea to London England in the 50’s as I think I can make it into an interesting story.
If I can stay well, I’m confident that my future can be an interesting one. You can read the first draft of my book here. Also on the link is an audio of my first chapter voice by English actor Terry Burns.
We’ve all heard the old cliché about how a character “speaks” to an author? It happened to me a few years ago. This young girl popped into my head with a story. She was good company, persistent, too. She went on for about a month until one day I sat down and began writing what would become her story.
Now, this girl, she happened to be a person of color. And if you check my bio, you’ll quickly see that I’m a run-of-the-mill white guy, closing in on middle age. We’re talking, wears-cut-off-shorts-and-black-socks-to-cut-the-lawn. SPF 50 on the nose, kind of guy. But none of that mattered when I set out to write this thing. I can honestly say it never once occurred to me that it might be odd, me writing from the first-person perspective of a twelve-year-old black girl.
Maybe it’s because I hate to plot. Outlines for me are like creativity killers. And speaking of killers, people write from the perspective of serial killers so why did it matter? Okay, where was I going with this? Oh yeah, it does matter.
So I wrote a story about this old curmudgeonly blues player and this young girl, Nita Simmons. Even in the roughest—or rawest—drafts, I was aware enough to avoid stereotypes. No Ebonics or broken English for Nita. In fact, being so tip-toe careful to avoid stereotypes, I went the other route, and Nita became this gifted, straight-A student. A case-cracking superhero.
Reading through those first drafts, it was clear. In not wanting Nita to be a stereotype, I’d done something just as bad, or worse: I’d made her perfect.
And where’s the fun in that?
I dove back in, peeling the layers to the real Nita. The Nita in my head was a normal girl with normal problems. She was self-conscious, stubborn, she doubted herself and fought with her mother. She was still a gifted writer but shaky at math. And being a budding teenager, she was a know-it-all at times, terrified by the world around her at others. And she was gullible. She fell for the stories the old man told her. And it was through the stories that a friendship formed. After all, friendship—not race, was the heart of my story.
And because I write in frantic sparks of inspiration, always in haste, like an idea might slip away if I don’t get it down, it took multiple drafts for the Nita on the page match the Nita in my head. I worked at this story for over a year. I combed over every word and submerged myself into this world I’d created. I bought a guitar and taught myself some old blues standards. I’m awful, but I can pluck some chords now.
I’m no Harper Lee, but Nita is my Scout. I root for her every step of the way. I listen to podcasts, study black history and devour middle-grade books. I’ve read my share of Life Magazines. I fell in love with my characters.
Here was the original query.
Putting yourself out there can be tricky. Whether you’re 12 or 72, headed to a new school for smart kids, or strumming up the courage to play the blues in front of a crowd. Such is the case for Nita Simmons and Earl Melvin, two friends too stubborn to quit on each other.
After a disastrous day at school, the last thing Nita wants to do is solve the puzzle that is her neighbor, Mr. Earl Melvin. People say he’s crazy, that he once tried to burn down the city library. But something in that sturdy voice of his grabs her, and after a second encounter her fear gives way to curiosity. From there the unlikeliest of friendships takes hold.
Mr. Melvin regales Nita with tales of protests and sit-ins. How he marched against segregated schools and lunch counters. His stories are magical and inspiring, his cooking unmatched, and his guitar playing is the truest thing she’s ever heard. Nita decides that old man did all those things, then she can deal with school. But when she stumbles upon a discovery—one that threatens to prove everyone right about Mr. Melvin all along—Nita’s left with a decision to make: leave the old man in the past or drag him into the future.
Not perfect, but it worked. I got some bites. I think I queried over fifty agents. I don’t recall the exact number, but I received somewhere in the neighborhood of ten full requests and five or six partials. Not bad, I’m told.
But in all my research, in all my writing and revising, I completely missed something else entirely. Something big. Something raw.
As the agents got back to me, some were short and sweet in their rejection, and others came with some editorial advice. A few I never got back. Then, I got all the feedback I needed.
Here is a sample of what she passed along (as she passed on the story).
First, the good:
Your story intrigues me and I think you do a good job with the middle grade voice here. I really like the interactions between the characters, Earnest and Nita specifically, as well as Mrs. Womack and Nita, and of course, Mr. Melvin and Nita. You develop these nicely.
To write such a story, an editor will prefer you belong to the ethnic race of the primary characters. This story speaks to so many significant moments and people of the African American experience so, ensuring this is accurate is essential. But even more important, because you utilize first person when writing this text, Nita specifically, an editor will question your validity to do so.
Two things. I’m not saying the writing was perfect. It wasn’t. And let me make it clear that I’m one hundred percent in favor and support the #ownvoices movement. It’s great, a crucial tool in getting diverse books in the hands of kids who need them. Publishers want books about people of color written by people of color. Because think about it. How authentic is it going to look to find this book, with a black cast of characters, only to see some blue sock wearing, lawn mowing white guy on the cover jacket? (I suppose I could ditch the socks).
Rejection sucks. It hurts. And yes, it is personal. After spending so much time with a story and its characters and every single time it gets requested you feel like you could just march up a staircase to the clouds. And each time it gets rejected it feels like being knocked back a few steps. But I always hit the ground running. Until that last one, that one stopped me cold.
It was like a funeral, knowing it was the end of the road. Sounds dramatic, sure, then again, I do write fiction. After that last rejection, there was a new voice in my head (my poor wife), a suggestion to change the characters. Simply make Nita white.
I guess that’s on the table. But to me, it’s absurd to whitewash my main character in the name of diversity. So I’ve retired the story. Because Nita is Nita. And I still have control over that.
I’ve written a few novels since this one. One has gotten some requests, while another is getting closer to querying. And I don’t regret writing Nita’s story. I can’t help who spoke to me (pause here to acknowledge blatant cliché usage), or what characters emerged in my head. They’re mine. And if I could do it over, yep, I’d write it again. After all, I write for me first. In fact, I have, but that’s for another post.
Rejection is tough just one time, it starts to wear on you after a while. But those hours I spent getting lost in Nita’s world? In Mr. Melvin’s world? In their relationship? I think it was worth it.
I started and finished a project. I submerged myself in race relations and its ugly background (even as I ignored its current climate) and came out a better writer and person for it. And hey, maybe most importantly, I can play the blues on guitar.
So it wasn’t all for nothing.
Television killed the conversation. That’s how I think of “family” dinners growing up. As an only child in rural northern California, my parents didn’t converse at dinner. Instead, my mother prepared the meal on tv trays, and we watch Laverne & Shirley, MASH, or Benny Hill — whatever the three networks televised between 6 and 7 pm.
Conversations happened elsewhere and involved other people. Often, late at night after a search-and-rescue call (my father was a volunteer) several deputies and other volunteers would converse around the kitchen table we never used for dinner. From my bedroom, I could hear the adults talk, and some of the harrowing stories they’d tell.
Coming from a story-telling culture, I grew up listening. Even now, I consider myself to be a story-catcher. However, I never really learned the art of conversation among non-story-tellers. I always enjoy meeting other story-tellers because we swap stories in a dynamic of your story/my story give and take. I’ve noticed that as more and more screens dominate our lives, we tell fewer stories and have less time for conversation.
When I met the Hub, I spent that first evening with him and his friends, listening to their stories. We laughed, and the camaraderie shared through stories enveloped us all that night. Often, I judge the quality of stories told as to whether or not I’m going to connect with this person. I liked his stories, a lot! Over 30 years, we’ve made our own stories.
And I think that’s what I miss, our narrative sharing, our personal conversations. The Hub suffers from a diminished focus. He tests in the one percentile, meaning 99 percent of his peers can out-focus him. One way he compensates is to tell remembered stories — it’s like living in the past.
Conversation is awkward because he can only follow so far. New stories get mixed up because he doesn’t get the details right. By the third detail of a story I’m trying to share with him, he’s gone elsewhere. Focus leaves, zooming in an out on unrelated information, and I feel unheard. I also feel like he has nothing to new to say. It’s a frustrating place to be, especially when his memory is actually sharp.
He remembers, but focuses on the past I want to get beyond. He can’t focus on the future, and planning causes anxiety because he can’t do it. It’s almost like being time travelers who can’t share the moment, always somewhere different on the timeline of life. And the Hub is migrating toward a different screen. He plays Solitaire because it helps reset his brain after an anxious episode.
Conversations seem to get sucked into the vortex of screens in modern times. Give me a good campfire, and people willing to sit around it and tell stories and dream of the future.
This post is in response to Irene Waters’ Time Past memoir prompt and reflection on generation and geo-location. Leave a reply or link to it on her current post at Conversation Time.
I said, “Colorful.” That’s the only reason I ordered a white cake with white frosting. I was thinking magenta roses, blazing copper sunsets, and turquoise cowboy boots. Instead, I got a polite pile of pale pink rosettes and a sprinkling of confetti along the edges. What it lacked in vibrancy, my birthday cake made up for in taste. It was superb.
And the guests were the colorful ones!
First shift brought a small group of veterans and their wives. We hit the champagne. Then moved the huge picnic table so it could be in the full sunshine. May 20th and it was a sunny but cool Copper Country Day. With the sun on our backs or in our faces, we relaxed while the Hub grilled brats.
Next came the dancers. The night before I had watched the performance, mesmerized by the storytelling of dance. Like literary art, dance transforms into performing art with an audience. Our words and movements are meant to be shared. After the Sunday matinee, several dancers arrived for cake.
Last, the Rock Sisters arrived. Three women, including Cranky, lived a dream with me — to pick rocks on the shores of Lake Superior as the sun set with a cup of champagne. We went down to the beach, combed through rocks and watched the sun melt like molten copper into the lake, igniting the sky in violet hues.
But after cake came the cookies.
Anne Goodwin writes about the situation in her post, “GDPR chaos and confusion.” I’ve been trying to find a definitive answer to what is compliant on my various platforms. It’s clear as chocolate cake batter, and yet, I understand it involves cookies. I’m updating messages for my primary e-newsletter, and I’ve added the annoying “cookie jar” widget as a footer.
Somehow, I thought my platforms would have my six; that they would be advising me that they have provided the necessary functions to be GPDR compliant. However, Facebook warns me every time I hop on the site to “be compliant.” I kind of feel like those of us on Facebook should be issuing the social media giant with leaky data that message!
When I tried to research what it meant in practical terms to control my cookies, I did a Cookiebot scan and found cookies that needed nibbling, or deleting or some kind of “manual classification and a purpose description.” Wait a minute. I don’t bake cookies, how am I to explain them? Isn’t that Word Press and shouldn’t they be supporting their paid customers? (Cue crickets.)
Cookiebot also gave me a mind-boggling list of action to take:
- Inform your visitors in plain language about the purpose of your cookies and trackers before setting other than strictly necessary cookies (ePR)
- Provide options for the visitor to change or withdraw a consent (GDPR/ePR)
- Have a mechanism in place to log and prove consents (GDPR)
Map and document data streams performed by third parties (GDPR)
- Configure your consent method to use explicit/active consent when processing sensitive personal data on your website (GDPR)Provide the identity and contact details of the data controller in your company (GDPR)
- Disclose that the visitor is entitled to access, correct, delete and limit processing of personal data (GDPR)
- Disclose that the visitor is entitled to receive personal data so that they can be used by another processor (GDPR)
- Disclose that the visitor has the right to lodge a complaint with a supervisory authority (GDPR)
Inform about the occurrence of automatic decisions, including profiling (GDPR)
So, in clear and concise language, I’m using Raw Literature’s column to conform or confirm my cookies in 99 words, no more, no less:
So Ya Know by Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo of Carrot Ranch
In the olden days, neighbors swapped cookies and stories. Carrot Ranch is safe space for writers to share stories, to create literary art, to read, learn, inspire, grow. Any cookies you swallow at the Ranch come from the Word Press Bakery. There’s cookies to test if your browser accepts cookies, cookies to change language preference, and I imagine (not being the baker), there’s cookies that act like a homing device after you nibble. Any data these cookies collect are not used at Carrot Ranch by Carrot Ranch because we make literary art accessible. We don’t sell or trade cookies.
It’s not the small businesses or interactive blogs that need to carry the burden of exposing cookies. It’s the tyrants who encoded them in the first place. Carrot Ranch has no desire to participate in data mining or other stupid capitalistic practices. Words for people, not for profit! Carrot Ranch collects stories and writers consent by submitting said stories. Emails are only collected for the purpose of communicating with the writers. All stories collected are published, and all copyrights stay with the original authors.
Clear? I hope so. I suspect this is not GDPR compliant, but I have done my best. Kind of like my white cake. I could be more colorful on the subject, but I want you to know that our substance here at the Ranch is superb. We aren’t doing anything nefarious with cookies.
That’s my Raw Lit take on the fine mess of cookies, and I’m going to go eat another piece of cake.
Raw Literature posts as an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99-word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at email@example.com.
If you don’t sell anything, go have a piece of cake. If you have to deal with cookies, here are some useful links if you monetize your blog in any way (sell books, services or ads):
Privacy and GDPR Compliance by MJ Mallon
GDPR Chaos & Confusion by Anne Goodwin
About mid last year, my Mother and I decided we should write the story of her growing up during the Second World War in the small town of Bungay in East Anglia, Britain.
I had listened to my Mother’s childhood stories for my whole life. I thought her tales of chamber pots and an outhouse, food, coal and clothing rationing, icicles inside the scullery windows, washing using a copper tub and a mangle and children being sewn into their vests called stays, were very interesting. The additional overlay of war conditions only added to the excitement as she spoke of buzz bombs that suddenly dropped out of the sky, wreaking devastation on the area below, American soldiers billeted in canvas tents on the common, and the family hiding in bomb shelters during air raids.
I thought my Mother’s story was interesting enough to warrant writing down and I also thought it would be a good way of preserving some of the histories of life in a small English village during WWII and allowing people, especially children, to gain knowledge of the hardships experienced by people living through a war. My rather optimistic reasoning was that if children were made aware of the horrors and hardships of war, they would be more inclined to ensure such a state of affairs never occurs again.
Mother and I embarked on this interesting journey of writing down her history. Initially, I wrote a series of essays based on her different life experiences. These essays were not in any particular order but were written more as she remembered and thought about different events and happenings in her early life. My Mother was only one year old when the war broke out in 1939 and six and a half years old when the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945. The idea was that we would write the basic information and order and edit it afterward. This process of writing essays took from May until November 2017. Once the basic writing was done, I put the various pieces together and ordered them in a way I thought was appropriate.
We went on holiday for four days after Christmas and my Mother, and I spent a couple of hours a day editing the manuscript and adding pieces of information. It was quite amazing to me how my Mother kept remembering new things as we went through the draft book. The manuscript grew by approximately 3,000 words during those few days. Writing with my Mother was not all plain sailing. She had very exacting ideas about how the story had to be written, and she didn’t want anything that wasn’t “entirely” true included. In other words, it had to be written exactly as it happened and no minor poetic license was to be applied.
At that point, we had a fairly good draft, and I turned my attention to creating the illustrations out of fondant. We had discussed illustrations, and we both thought that keeping to my usual style of fondant figures for the new book was a good idea. We also agreed on the inclusion of a few of our family recipes that were appropriate for the time period and style of the book.
By March 2018 the new book was in a sufficiently good form for me to send it to a few proof-readers/editors. I received good feedback from all three, but Charli gave me two great pieces of advice.
The first was to include dialogue in the manuscript. Strangely, I had included very little dialogue. I am used to writing non-fiction publications on investment in Africa which don’t need to include any “warmer” tones. My Mother had said she thought I needed to make it “warmer” but she wasn’t able to explain what she thought I should do so when Charli mentioned including dialogue I understood what she meant immediately.
The other great idea Charli gave me was to include a timeline of the events of WWII as they pertained to Britain and to overlay my Mother’s childhood over this timeline. This was a stroke of genius as far as I was concerned. I created a detailed timeline, and this led to my including all sorts of additional titbits of historical information. As the advice came from an editor, my Mother was then willing to accept a bit of poetic license so long as I didn’t stray too far from the facts. An editor, of course, must know far more about book writing than me. Letting an older sibling do something which she had done when she was older but which fitted nicely in at a certain point in the story became acceptable.
We are now nearly at the end of the re-write and editing which has actually resulted in me revising most of the original ordering of the book, and I am very happy with it. We are hoping to finalize the manuscript for a final proofing by the end of May.
It has been a wonderful journey of discovery with my Mother, and I have enjoyed it so much we are talking about writing another two books to cover the next two phases of her life. The gradual changes that took place in England after the war and her decision to come out to South Africa.
Robbie Cheadle was born in London in the United Kingdom. Her father died when she was three months old, and her mother immigrated to South Africa with her tiny baby girl. Robbie has lived in Johannesburg, George and Cape Town in South Africa and attended fourteen different schools. This gave her lots of opportunities to meet new people and learn lots of social skills as she was frequently “the new girl.”
Robbie is a qualified Chartered Accountant and specialises in corporate finance with a specific interest in listed entities and stock markets. Robbie has written a number of publications on listing equities and debt instruments in Africa and foreign direct investment into Africa.
Robbie is married to Terence Cheadle, and they have two lovely boys, Gregory and Michael. Michael (aged 11) is the co-author of the Sir Chocolate series of books and attends school in Johannesburg. Gregory (aged 14) is an avid reader and assists Robbie and Michael with filming and editing their YouTube videos and editing their books. Robbie is also the author of the new Silly Willy series the first of which, Silly Willy goes to Cape Town, will be available in early July 2017.
Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.