Monday, December 22, 2014

Remember When

Okay folks, it’s time for a year-end final exam---a test of your October boldness, and your willingness to tread new ground and take new chances. In the course of my Tanner Chronicle stories I recount the relational journeys of the October friends I have imagined into being. (Like I said before, I tell “people stories.”)
But now I’m hoping that you will take a moment to consider your own personal travels, from “then”---the person you were before your relational connection happened, to “now”---the person you have become in the company of your life partner. 
If you can do that, I invite you to apply that same remembering to the journey the two of you have made together as a couple. Whether or not you are still together your story remains a tangible and very personal thing---a bit of your unique history. No one else could possibly retell your story with all the details that make it so real to you---the heady highs and deflating lows that come with being a couple and a family.
Today, however, no matter where you are in that relational journey of yours, I have a favor to ask of you. The New Year, a time honored season for remembering, is approaching. And that’s what I am asking of you---to spend a few minutes in New Year’s remembering. 
Truth in advertising. Some of you will need to suck it up---to grin and bear it. This Remembering link will take you to a You Tube version of a country song by Alan Jackson, a particular favorite of mine. Though I am one of those strange fellows who likes most all country music, this is the only one that Roma will let me play out loud in our house. So even if the sound of guitars and “twang” set your teeth on edge, I urge you to tough it out and listen to the end. 
I recommend that you set the video on “full screen” (the ‘four corner’ symbols in the lower right corner of the video). Then just close your eyes and listen to the words. Let it be a song about you and yours. Though each of our own histories are different, chances are you will find a the sense of remembering you have rarely heard in any kind of music.
Once you have ‘Remembered When,’ I invite you to leave your comments at the foot of the page. It’s a simple process. Just click on "Post a Comment” at the bottom of the page. Under “Select profile” scroll down to click on “Anonymous.” That allows you to respond without giving out any personal information. Click on “Enter your comment,” enter what you want to say, then click on “Publish.” It’s as easy as that. 

Also, if you are brave enough to “Forward” the email link to this country song, or "Share" the Facebook post, I hope you will do that. Perhaps you can help a friend ‘remember.’ With that I wish you a happy holiday season. You’ve earned a time of peace and reflection, so enjoy it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It’s about 'People' stories that include action, not 'Action' stories that happen to include people

By now, having turned seventy-eight, after telling my stories for nearly ten years, you might think I’ve learned a lot about storytelling. Perhaps so. But there is so much I don’t know. I still have a long way to go. A while back I was reminded once again of that.
Actually, though it had me squirming a bit I was glad, in an uneasy sort of way, to have her input. After all, she was supposed to know what she’s talking about. She works for an agency that represents writers, trying to sell their stories to publishers. She (I’ll call her Suzie) knows what her publishing clients want. And what they want---whether the story is a whodunit, a dark and sinister vampire saga, or a steamy romance---is fast-moving action, the kind that grabs the reader on page one and never lets up.
Pretty hard to argue with that, eh? And I didn’t, at least not until Suzie, who had been assigned to critique my Second Chances story for an contest, explained that the first chapter was a “painfully slow” start to the book. Should I have let that upset me, even a little bit? Probably not. Did it? Yeah it did, at least “a little bit”---maybe more. Actually, the first time I read her appraisal it felt like our conversation was over before it had begun. It was later that day, when I reread Suzie’s blunt critique, that I began to sense why she and I were not seeing eye to eye about something I take very personally. 
I began by asking myself where I’d gone so wrong. How had I missed the mark by so much? It took me a while to realize that, regardless of Suzie’s opinion, I was telling the story I wanted to tell the way I want to tell it. Granted, a better writer could tell it better, but this was my story. I had said what I wanted to say in my own way. 
You see, in the books Suzie represents (I’ll call them “action” stories) the characters are there to keep things moving at the desired pace---acting and reacting in ways that move the storyline along. That is their role in the scheme of things---to provide the action, piece together the clues, stand up to the bad guys, and take chances---all in the name of advancing the plot. At every turn the players are there to serve the story.
Small wonder that Suzie struggled with my unorthodox tale. The folks I write about are October seekers---seniors looking to overcome the challenges of October life. And just because they are rarely expected to save the world from nuclear disaster, don’t be misled. Their stories do include an abundance of age-appropriate action. They too will take chances, stand up to bad guys, and have their adventures.
But instead of serving some predetermined story line their actions, and my reason for telling the story, are always about the persons I have created and how they deal with their October challenges. The purpose of the story is to know those people better---to understand what they are dealing with and how they cope. Their adventures---in the form of conflict, disappointment, and wrong turns---are meant to illustrate their personal trials, rather than to simply keep the story moving ahead. As one of those “Octobers folks” that is the part that interests me.
By the time I had worked my way through that line of reasoning I realized that I had answered my own question. It wasn’t Suzie’s answer, but it worked for me. I was ready to admit that if the characters’ main role in a story is to keep the plot moving toward some intended action, then my October tales simply don’t pass muster. One of my friends, who usually reads mysteries---page turners she can’t put down---found Second Chances to be a relaxing read, a bit like reading about her senior neighbors.
So if the purpose of my stories is to meet individuals I can relate to and explore how they deal with the trials and traumas of a particular time of life---what I call the October Years---then I’m satisfied with my result. I try to cover both the “people” and the “action” parts of the story. But for me the emphasis will remain on the “people” elements.
A while back I offered a post titled He writes what? I ended that piece by admitting that I was “staking my claim in the tiniest slice of the writer’s market.” After all, I’m telling relational stories about October Years persons playing out what I call their “geriatric adolescence.” Often as not they have come to the game with two strikes against them, and a life-view that is scarcely imaginable to younger readers. Not exactly mainstream, eh?
Yet, though that is still my goal, I also sense something else at work. You see, Suzie was right about Second Chances. The story does begin slowly---though I might debate her “painfully” description. In any case, it starts that way because instead of teasing the reader with tantalizing hints of a crime, a conflict, or a romantic conquest, I use those first pages to introduce people and their situations---to set the scene I will be following for two books and seven hundred pages. Truth to tell, I was not ready to move on to their adventures until I (and the reader) knew more about them and what they were dealing with.
So here I am, an admitted amateur, still writing relational stories about old folks. They are indeed “people” oriented stories. I suppose that means the “tiniest sliver of the market” keeps getting smaller. If I wasn’t having so much fun doing what I do I might be tempted to try a different approach. But as long as those special October people keep taking me to places I rarely visit on my own I’ll keep doing what I do, and try to do it better.
In the meantime I once again invite you to take part in my very informal readership census---a matter of providing nothing more than your location. My last request produced responses from Ontario, Canada, Kentucky, and Tri-Cities, Washington. I'm hoping to expand the field.
The process is incredibly simple. Just click on “No comments” or “Comments” at the bottom of the page. Under “Select profile” scroll down to click on “Anonymous.” That allows you to respond without giving out any personal information. “Enter your comment” by simply filling in your city and state, and anything else you wish to add. Then click on “Publish.” It’s as easy as that. I would really like to see how far afield these scribbles of mine are read.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Home? Where it that?

It is not surprising that I can relate to Dan Padgett’s frustrating dilemma. After all, he and I have a lot in common. During the final years of his long career in municipal government Dan had nursed his dreams of a mobile, nomadic retirement---including a well-equipped motor home that would serve as the primary residence for him and Nell as they went off to see the world. 
As his retirement date drew near that seductive possibility was harder than ever to resist. In the end, however, his nagging wanderlust---the lure of “places-to-see” and “people-to-meet,” while visiting the remote corners of the US and beyond, had only complicated things. 
As the story I call Family Matters opens, Dan has concluded that his carefully constructed dream is a perfectly reasonable vision of what retirement ought to be.  The truth and the attraction of it was so self-evident---at least until he realizes that Nell has created her own, very different notion of their Golden Years. For decades she had followed her husband all over the state, from job to job. Every few years she had been forced to establish a new home in a new town. Finally, after half a dozen such moves they had returned to Tanner, where their odyssey had begun all those years before. To her way of thinking they were finally home. More to the point, she was determined never to move again.
So while Nell looks forward to the permanency of their Tanner retirement, Dan continues to dream his “on-the-road” dreams---of going off to see the world, unimpeded by the anchoring limitations of a permanent home. The logic of it is so clear to him. But in the face of her objections why would he continue to dream that dream? Why is he so eager to dismiss her desires for a very different future? What could he possibly be thinking? I believe I’ll ask him.

(Me) “Tell me Dan, why does it look like you’re walking all over your wife’s dream? I learned a long time ago that’s not really a good idea.”

(Dan) “Believe me, I don’t mean to be putting her down. I just keep hoping that she’ll finally come to her senses---to realize how great it would be to see all those places we’ve dreamed of seeing and do the things we’ve always wanted to do.”

(Me) “What makes you think that both of you have ‘always dreamed’ about seeing those places and doing those things? Could it be that you’re trying to turn your dream into her dream? If that’s so, what if she doesn’t claim your idea of retirement? What happens then?”

(Dan) “I suppose you could say that is what’s happened---at least up to now. She’s just so darn stubborn. I’m offering the perfect way for us to get out from under all the stupid stuff that comes with owning a home---the housekeeping, and yard work, and gardening. We could put all that behind us. We’d be free to go wherever we wanted to go, for as long as we wanted. Can’t you see how great that would be?”

(Me) “It doesn’t matter what I can see. This is about Nell. And I’m guessing that  what you’re describing doesn’t appeal to her? It’s not the way she wants to spend her retirement. Right?”

(Dan) “You can say that again. She says that she’s actually looking forward to the gardening, and all her silly clubs---all the stuff that keeps us here in Tanner. That’s what she wants. Can you believe it? The very things I want to get away from---the day to day chores and upkeep, the meetings that never seem to end---are exactly what she wants more of.”

(Me) “Why do you suppose that is?”

(Dan) “I don’t have a clue. I keep asking her to explain, but she can’t---at least not in a way that makes any sense to me. It’s like she’s living in some other world.”

(Me) “Would you mind if I took a guess---a slightly different take on what you might be dealing with? I may be wrong, but I’d like to hear what you think.”

(Dan) “Go ahead. God knows I’d like to find someone who can sort it out for me.”

(Me) “Well then, how about this? What if the two of you are bumping heads because you don’t agree on what each of you means when you talk about ‘home’? Maybe the word means something different to her than it does to you. Could that be the ‘other world’ you talk about? (As you might guess by now, I’m prone to playing the pseudo-wise guru.)

(Dan) “What the hell does that mean?”

(Me) “You tell me. If I backed you into a corner and forced you to define ‘home,’ how would you do that? What does it mean to you? How would you describe it?”

(Dan) (I won’t include all his false starts---the hemming and hawing that proceeded his final reply.) “It seems to me that when you get right down to it, home can be anyplace we want it to be---wherever Nell and I are together. It’s not about a certain piece of land or some special building. It’s a matter of being happy together wherever we are. That’s what makes full-time RVing so appealing to me. We could go anywhere we wanted, and still be home.”

(Me) “So, how about Nell? If I asked her to describe ‘home,’ would her answer be the same as yours? Would she agree with your ‘home can be anywhere you are together’ idea?”

(Dan) “Not a chance. Her idea of home is right here in Tanner. It’s the house we live in now, along with her friends, and gardens, and clubs, and church. For her it’s all about this particular place and everything that goes with it. Every time I try to explain that it doesn’t have to be like that, she throws all her Tanner stuff back in my face.”

(Me) “So the real hang up, what has you two at each other’s throats, is the notion of ‘home,’ and what that means to each of you. You simply don’t agree about that. Right?”

(Dan) “I suppose that’s it.” (He paused a moment, before asking his question.) “If that’s true, how the heck do we get past it? Can you see any way for us to do that?”

(Me) “Oh man, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure it’s wouldn’t be easy. It would be a complicated thing. I’ll bet I could write a whole book about that. In fact, I think I have.”

There you have it. The scene has been set and the Padgetts’ frustrating dilemma has been spelled out for everyone to see. What if it was you? How would you define “home?” Can you imagine how their Family Matters story will play out?