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- )

 

Using Your Outside Voice

Before publishing my very first blog post, I ran it past my teenaged daughter Bea.

She said, “Mom, you’re using your storyteller voice again.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Oh, you know…narrative, formal, soft and wise. You might think like that inside your head, but it’s not the way you talk.”

“How do I talk?”

“You’re funny.   And sassy.  Mom, your idea is good. Just say the same thing, only write like you’d say it. Write in the same voice you used to write Real Troopers.”

    Out of the mouth of babes. How many times were we told as children to use our Inside Voice, the demure, soft, polite, quiet voice that will offend and disturb no one?   I’ll tell you: LOTS.  Now my own child was urging me to use my Outside Voice, that of the goofball, smart ass, class clown. It’s the sometimes-too-loud voice that spills out of my mouth when I’m with my family and friends. As Bea observed, it’s the voice I used in my novel-in-progress, Real Troopers. Maybe I struck the right chord in Real Troopers because it’s about sassy funny Girl Scout leaders, written from the point of view of a middle-aged woman who is desperately trying to find her real voice.

That post is now much more a conversation than a story, and Bea was right—I like it so much better. Conclusion: I am happier when using my Outside Voice, in my backyard, in my living room, and in my writing. All I need to get going is to make my readers a virtual cup of coffee, and come to the table–or the computer–in my jammies for an early morning chat.

Hey, got a minute? Wanta cuppa? Cream or sugar?

Have you had to struggle to find your voice in your writing, or in your life?   Do you have any tricks you could share with us?

BTW: Adventures for the Faint of Heart is my daughter Bea’s writing blog.  I can almost hear her voice when I read it.  Here is the link if you want to look her up: http://adventuresforthefaintofheart.wordpress.com/

After All!


‘The Poet’ by Constance Baltuck

I am not exaggerating when I tell you my sister Constance is a famous Alaska artist.  After all, she has a show hanging in the Alaska State Museum at this very moment, with several of her paintings in its permanent collection.  She was also just invited to show at the prestigious Artforte Gallery in Pioneer Square in Seattle.  (BTW, my walls are decked with early Baltucks, and Con has promised me their value will skyrocket after she dies.)

She felt these opportunities had dropped into her lap out of the blue.  But how many paintbrushes did she wear out preparing for this ‘sudden’ success?  For thirty years she has steadily produced beautiful art, selling out show after show.  The key phrase here is “After all…”  Yes, after all the hard work and promotion and never never never giving up, she has ‘suddenly’ hit the big time.

On the other side of the brain, my sister Miriam, heretofore the uncontested White Sheep of the Family, is a scientist.  She has worked for NASA, and at the White House for the Clinton Administration, and as the first female director of one of NASA’S three Deep Space Tracking Stations on the planet.  Her contributions to science were recently recognized when they named a planet after her.  Okay, so it was only a minor planet, but even so, it’s official…and if you don’t believe me, just Google ‘Planet Baltuck’.   So another sister busted her butt for thirty years working very long hours in very high heels to succeed in a tough field dominated by men.  That’s what you have to do if you want a planet named after you.

And if you want a book that bears your name on its spine and houses a novel that would make your mother proud, you must never never never give up on your writing.  It is a long hard journey that requires grit, discipline, and a hefty supply of bum glue.  But one day you will find that ‘suddenly’ you are a published author.  In the meantime, don’t be too hard on yourself, and always remember that success is relative.  I remember my mother declaring proudly, “Seven children, and not one of them in jail!”

Do you ever get discouraged?  Can you tell us what you do to maintain your courage and determination?  

If you would like to see more of my sister’s paintings, check out her website at: http://www.constancebaltuck.com/

The Christmas Gang

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There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home. Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah. The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

©2017Naomi Baltuck

The Egg Chain

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My mother would sooner have gargled with toilet water than sit me down and explain the Facts of Life.  But I had four older sisters, and the Trickle Down Theory of Knowledge worked for me.  By age fifteen I thought I knew everything I needed to know, more or less, about the birds and the bees.   I was wrong.   One day a question popped into my head, and wouldn’t go away.   I went to my Grandpa Gus, who was a farmer, and asked him the question that was burning a hole in my brain.

“Grandpa, how can chickens lay an egg a day?   There just isn’t that much room.  Where does she keep all those eggs, and wouldn’t it be very uncomfortable?”

“Here’s how it works, Slivers,” he said.  (My Grandpa always called me ‘Slivers;’ I was a skinny little thing in those days.)  He reached for a pencil and sketched what he called “The Egg Chain,” a string of eggs like so many beads, graduating in size from tiny to AA large.  Only one is a full-sized egg; the others are smaller, but growing.  They are all connected and nurtured by a single egg sack.  Each day when the hen lays a mature egg, its little brothers and sisters move up one spot on the chain.  The next in line has one more day in the batter’s circle before stepping up to the plate.

My book ideas grow in the same way.   They say “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” but it works for me.  I have a mental vision of my own writer’s egg chain, with all my chicks in a row, a half a dozen books-in-progress.  The first on the egg chain is the story I am currently hatching, next comes the story I plan to tackle once that one is brought to market, and so on.

Ideas for future writing projects are added, upon conception, to the end of this writer’s egg chain.  They are not so well developed as the big one, but are nurtured daily, perhaps by a conversation, a chance meeting on the street, a news story, during quiet time in the garden, or through purposeful brainstorming.  Each one is a little nest egg, with its own file in my computer, in which I save all my pertaining notes on plot and character.

Every writer should have her own egg chain.  Why?  Because already having a work in progress is an excellent way to avoid Empty Nest Syndrome once you send off your manuscript.   If you have Writer’s Block, you can work on another project guilt-free, because you’re still working on The Chain Gang.  And you never have to worry about all your eggs being in one basket.   So let’s get cracking.

 

Do you throw all your eggs into one basket, or prefer to plan several projects ahead?  

Photo by Carlos Porto
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=345

Berry Picking, Blogging, and a Piece of the Pie

Do I have to?  I don’t want to put on my shoes, and it’s freakin’ cold outside, and now even doing last night’s dishes is starting to look good.  But if I don’t get my butt out into my garden every other day or so, especially now that it’s wet and cold, those ripe red raspberries will grow moldy and drop off the vine into the dirt.  And because I am the daughter of a Depression Baby who ate tuna salad that was green and fuzzy rather than let it go to waste, those fallen berries haunt me like fuzzy green ghostlets.  Waning daylight pokes at me like a sharp stick before I finally get my fanny out the door.

Once I get going, I always wonder what took me so long.   Sure, a spider might drop down in my face, but I try not to scream—it scares the neighbors–and toss the whole bowl of berries into the air like juicy fireworks—all those perfectly good berries hitting the dirt would send my poor mother spinning.

But I can’t hear the robins singing from my armchair, and I enjoy listening to the neighbors calling their kids in for supper.  And while my hands are busy, my thoughts carry me to unexpected places.  This evening I spent a little while with my Grandpa Gus, remembering how he would turn us loose in his garden to fill our bellies with sun-warmed berries.  For the grownup me, the icing on the Forced March Out to the Garden Cake was a colander brimming with raspberries, which turned out to be the filling for the pie.

In the garden I had a quiet moment to reflect upon the writing life.  If you’ve been a writer for more than fifteen minutes, you’ve already heard that if you want a piece of the pie, you need to establish a social media platform.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, other ones of which I’ve never heard so I can’t even spell them, and a blog.  Kristen Lamb, the social media expert for writers tells us to blog at least once a week, ARGH!  But three posts would be better.  TRIPLE ARRRGGGHHH!

I was born an old dog, and new tricks don’t come easy.  My long suffering husband had to drag me to the computer (what is that thing and why are you making me touch it?), tie me to a chair, and force me to learn how to use it.  This happened only about a hundred times before I was willing to trade in my quill for a Mac.  Now writing equals cut and paste, and I use my quill for dusting the keyboard.  Then came e-mail.  (Why bother with that when I can’t keep up with snail mail, and it probably won’t catch on anyway!? )  But you can’t hold back the tide with a teaspoon.  E-mail and the internet were keepers, too; without them I couldn’t run a business, network professionally, or find nearly so many fascinating ways to procrastinate.

I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with the raspberry harvest this year.  If I can do that, I reckon I can learn one more new trick, and keep up with the blogging.  So here I go.

Copyright 2011 Naomi Baltuck