Everything But

I was as excited as the kids when we traded our Little Tikes dollhouse for an elegant wooden one–the kind grownups like to play with.  Out came the cherished Petite Princess furniture that survived my childhood.   We sculpted Fimo into tiny bagels and fruit.  The kids drew itsy bitsy pictures and notes for the refrigerator door. In England we bought a miniature toast rack, an umbrella stand and suit of armor to scale.  At Dolly’s Dollhouse we purchased a washer and dryer for the kitchen, bunk beds for the kids’ room, roll-top desk for the study, and a piano for the heckuvit.  At the Miniature Show we found a hamster cage, a menorah, a dolls’ dollhouse.  The bathroom was furnished with soap dish, rubber ducky, hair dryer, potty, toilet paper, even a plunger.  On the bathroom shelf tiny china were mugs printed with our names, in each one a toothbrush.

I’d peek inside, never knowing what I’d find.  Tiny picture books in the bathroom by the potty?  My daughter Bea told me Baby was toilet training.  A teddy bear, Monopoly game, playing cards, and tissue box on the coffee table in the parlor, and Little Sister reclining on the couch?  Bea said she was home sick from school that day.  The hamster missing from its cage, and the Little Family searching in the attic, under the bed, behind the stove?   Bea didn’t even need to explain.  Been there, done that.

One year, before leaving for the Miniature Show, the kids and I checked to see if we needed anything in particular.   I was amused to discover—and I pinky swear it’s true—we had everything but the kitchen sink!

Our dollhouse combined elements from my childhood and theirs; my Petite Princess trappings, their pet hamster, the messy toy box spilling onto the floor, Fimo cookies fresh out of the oven, still cooling on the cookie sheet.  But while we couldn’t afford a full-sized suit of armor, our Little Family could.  We had no room for a grandfather’s clock or a fainting couch, but they did.  From that odd mix of fantasy and reality, Bea created miniature vignettes.  The dollhouse wasn’t picture perfect, but it came alive with these messy, humorous, chaotic, often unglamorous glimpses of life.

I strive for that in my writing, borrowing from childhood memories, life experiences of my own and others, then mix it with fiction and fancy.  Whether it is a miniature or a literary world, I am the creator, but the details give it the spark of life.  Bea knows how to do it, and my mother did too, although she never wrote a word of fiction.

For instance, instead of telling us that Daddy loved her, my mother told us her kitchen sink story.  Our house was neither big nor fancy—three small bedrooms had to do for my folks and their seven kids.  But because Mom was tall, Daddy paid extra to have her kitchen sink built especially high, so she wouldn’t have to stoop to wash the dishes.  In spite of all their struggles, my mother never forgot that.   And now I never will.

When furnishing your fictional world, it is the quirks and surprises, the fun facts, the little twists and turns we draw from our experience that ring true, and catch our readers’ interest.  And, oh, yeah, don’t forget the kitchen sink.

Two Cents’ Worth

Before we had kids, Thom and I explored Ireland by train, by bus, and—please don’t tell my children—by thumb.  We were hitchhiking from Dingle to Tralee when a rusty green service van pulled over.  The woman offered a ride, so we tossed our packs in the back and climbed in.  It smelled a little fishy, but that’s probably because our driver was a fisherman’s wife.  We sat among coils of rope and scattered tools with a big black dog and two little blond boys, perhaps five and seven years old.  It was the little one who did the talking.

“My da’s bigger’n your da,” he said, in a proper brogue, like a feisty toy Irishman.

His mother explained, “Liam’s missing his da, who’s out on the water.”

We introduced ourselves, and Liam asked,  “D’ya have stars in America?”

“Like movie stars?” I asked.

“No, up in the sky.”  He pointed upward, just to be sure I understood.

“Liam just discovered the stars,” said his mother.  “It’s all he can talk about.”

“We have stars in America too,” I told him.  “They shine and twinkle, just like yours.  In fact, I think we see the same stars in America that you see in Ireland.”

“I have a cousin in America.  Her’s called Mary.  D’ya know her?”

“Where in America does she live?”

“Arizona,” said Liam’s mother, from the front seat.

“America is really big,” I told him.  “We live in Seattle, more than a thousand miles from Arizona.”

“Is that far?”

“Really far.”

“Well, if y’see Mary, ask if they have stars in Arizona.”

The boys were curious about America.  “Here’s a souvenir,” I said, and I gave each boy a shiny new penny.  “The man on this penny is Abraham Lincoln.  He died a long time ago, but he was our greatest president—sort of like a king.  He led America through our Civil War, and freed the slaves.”

It was twenty-five miles to Tralee, lots of time to share fun facts and answer Liam’s questions.  I felt like a proper ambassador, conveying not only goodwill, but an  insider’s view of America.

The next day I met Liam’s mother in the line for the ladies’ room at the Rose of Tralee Festival.  She said, “Liam loves his penny.  He shows it to everyone he meets, and says, ‘This here is the king of America.  He’s dead, and his daddy’s dead, too!’”

So much for the history lesson!  But it was also a lesson to me as a writer and a storyteller.  We each live in our own little world.  Before sending your story out into the big wide world, you might check to see if  you and your readers are on the same page.  Ask friends to read it and give  you feedback.  Set it aside for a little while and come back to it with fresh eyes.  Join a critique group or enter it in a literary contest; an honest evaluation is worth the entry fee.

Whatever  you choose to invest your two cents into, consider the exchange rate, and what might be lost in translation on the trip from one mind to another.  But with a little luck and a lot of practice, you and your readers will be looking at the same stars.

The ‘S’ Word

My daughter Bea came home from kindergarten and told me, “Michelle said a bad word at school today.”

“I bet that was a surprise,” I said.  “Which one?”

“The ‘S’ word.”

“Ohhhh.”  Subject matter we don’t want our kids learning in school.  “Do you know what it means?” I asked.

My five year old flashed me an I-wasn’t-born-yesterday look, and said, “It means stupid.”

Okay, here I heaved a mental sigh of relief, and exercised my Superpower Poker Face to keep from laughing aloud.  “Do the kids say any other bad words?”

Bea nodded and solemnly said, “The ‘H’ word.”

“Help me remember what that stands for.”

“Hate,” she told me.

I was a storyteller long before I had kids, and I understood the power of words.  That didn’t prevent me from indulging in some colorful language, mostly offstage.  But the moment my firstborn saw the light of day, I cleaned up my vocabulary.  The toads and snakes falling from my lips didn’t suddenly become rubies and pearls.  But just as a parent sees the world anew through her children’s eyes, I also began to hear the language through their innocent ears.  I became aware of words loaded with negativity that seeped into the consciousness like toxins into groundwater.  As with TV violence or antibiotics, it either takes more and more to shock you, or you develop immunity.

It was a shock the first time I heard my little innocents use the word ‘hate.’  I had to explain that some words aren’t naughty but are powerful, and should be saved for emergencies or they lose their power.  Hate was one of those words.  Stupid was another word used too often and too lightly.   Words have the power to harm or to heal, and good words cost no more than bad.  At our house, people were always encouraged to speak their minds, while using language constructively, not to hurt or humiliate.

As my kids grew older, I didn’t need to be as careful.  If I slipped, they assured me, “Mom, it’s nothing we haven’t heard at school.”  My twenty-one year old son Eli’s ‘S’ word is “Oh, snap!”  But there are times when only the ‘Shit’ word will do.  In writing, storytelling, and conversation, few words are verboten, so long as we are mindful of the language.  Before I use one of those words I ask myself, “Is it necessary?  Is it audience-appropriate?  Is it authentic?”

Once when we were teenagers, our mother was driving us home in a snowstorm on a deserted street at midnight.  She was followed several blocks to our house and then ticketed by a cop.  Her crime, which she denied to her dying day, was not coming to a complete stop at an intersection.  As the cop drove off, my soft-spoken, long-suffering mother muttered, “Bastard!” and stomped into the house. We kids sat in the car in shocked silence before my big sister Miriam finally said, “Guys, we really need to watch our language.  I think Mom might be picking it up.”

Authentic?   Oh, yes.  True to character?  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there, but I was and that’s how it happened.  Would I use it?  Sorry, Mom, but yeah.  I just did.

 

Photo courtesy of  Mr. Bruce Kittess of The Three Monkeys:  http://www.thethreemonkeys.com/

Remembering Fort Detroit

 

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At Isaac Newton School, my third grade Social Studies teacher walked out of The Far Side into our classroom.  Mrs. Glotzbecker was a plump middle-aged woman who squeezed into dresses suitable only for Doris Day in her prime.  She wore pointy rhinestone-studded glasses, and bleached blond hair in a French twist.  She’d taught all my big sisters, and whenever she called on me, it was by one of their names.

On the first day of class we opened our history books and read about Fort Detroit.  Our assignment was to draw a picture of it.  Every day we read aloud, then worked silently.  If Mrs. Glotzbecker caught you chewing gum, like Jerry Fink, she made you wear it on your nose.  If she caught you talking, like Jerry Fink, she made you sit in the wastebasket.  Repeat offenders felt the sting of Old Harry, the paddle on the wall.  Jerry became the stuff of legend after Mrs. Glotzbecker sat him in the cardboard wastebasket and it split into pieces.  He was elevated to folk hero when she broke Old Harry on his backside and he just grinned at his buddies, who cheered him on.

Every day in class I worked on my drawing.  Fort Detroit looked better and better.  I added a canoe on the riverbank, a fish in the water.  After a week or two, I couldn’t think of anything else to add, so I used crayons to color it, but details were lost beneath the wax.  I erased stuff and started over, but that left smudges and wore holes in the paper.  I suspected something was going terribly wrong.  I was sick of Fort Detroit, but kept working it like a hangnail.  Finally Mrs. Glotzbecker collected our notebooks for grading.  She got to mine, and called me to her desk.

“Where’s the rest of your work?” she said.

“You said to draw a picture of Fort Detroit,” I whispered.

“That was weeks ago.  Where are the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter?  And the next five chapters?”

I swear I never heard her tell us to answer any questions.  But, dangit!  I should have known.  I’d had a feeling, but was too shy to ask for help or even clarification.  I was confused, and when Mrs. Glotzbecker reached for Old Harry, I was mortified.

What I learned from Mrs. Glotzpecker that day, I’ve applied to my writing.  Follow the submission guidelines!  And your gut.  When in doubt, raise your hand, ask questions.  Cut the fat for a cleaner read or add a scene to flesh it out, but don’t polish the silver off the teapot, or edit until you’ve worn holes in your paper.

What I learned from Jerry Fink was even more important.  Be resilient.  Build up calluses—in all the right places.  Let no one, and certainly not your editor, intimidate you.  Find a support group to cheer you on—there are local, regional, and national organizations you can join.  Most importantly, remember that sometimes it’s okay to break the rules, but let no one break your spirit.

 

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

–Leonardo Da Vinci, Italian Renaissance Polymath (1452-1519)                                    

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

–Paul Valery, French Critic and Poet (1871-1945)

“Remember Fort Detroit!”

–Naomi Baltuck, Author, Storyteller, and Native Detroiter (1956- )