We all land on one side or the other of the ‘flight or fight’ issue. And anyone who knows me will likely say I’m a fighter. And anyone who knows my mom will tell you she’s a flighter. It’s been a long standing joke in the family, ‘Mom’s on walk about’ always meant she may be gone for a day or two, or a year. We, my three brothers and me, grew up knowing she may disappear at any point, so we took care of ourselves. I think I became that fighter because someone had to stay and take care of things.
When she was 80 years old I had to take her driving privileges (keys and car) away before she crashed THROUGH another Arby’s drive through window, or hurt herself or someone else. Mom has always been active and on the go, so ending that part of her life was difficult and sad, no more garage sales, no more Value Village and no more senior breakfast specials at Denny’s or their dueling rivalry, Shari’s Restaurant, and no more ‘flight’ capabilities. I wasn’t sure how she’d handle not being able to escape.
Soon it was evident that living on her own was no longer a healthy situation: despite her youthful face and attitude, mom has never liked vegetables or exercise and so was in poor health for a modern day 80 year old. We soon found a retirement home in her area. My brothers and I hoped that the retirement center would provide ample activities to keep her socially, mentally and physically active, like in high school. After all, she always said her happiest time in life was high school: of course, as her child that’s gratifying, ‘thanks mom’.
And though mom spoke of the other residents as if they were old people and she couldn’t figure out why she had to live with them, at first it seemed like it might work out. At least the socially active part kept her fully engaged. And by fully engaged I mean that she and her new cohorts in the ‘home’ became like any high school’s gaggle of mean girls. And in her early 1950s high school, my mom – a beauty queen, entertainer and one of the prettiest girls in school, sadly, was a leader of one of those toxic packs of mean girls. So mom finally returned to her youth, her happiest time; gossiping, mocking and making fun of some of the other (80 plus year old) girls. This regression was unexpected (though not surprising) and sorely disappointing – proof that even old leopards do not change their spots. Obviously, who we truly are is revealed in stressful situations, and apparently times of boredom.
I soon realized that much of their gossipy activity was due (not entirely) but largely to monotony. The home she was in did not manage a lively activities calendar, which I have since learned is critical to a retirement community. This means that there was very little outside stimulation or visiting entertainment, so mom and her cronies created their own. And left to their own diminishing devices meant mom FREQUENTLY asked me to come in and read from my novel or do a talk on travel to Europe with my ‘fancy gadgets’ – her words to describe my laptop and Power Point. She’s always been proud of me, so, I did do presentations, talks and even sat in on a few of their ‘happy hours’ with them.
Mom called their happy hours the ‘dark times’ due to the substandard music and or other entertainment during their oft-failed attempt at one scanty hour of happiness per week.
I always brought a good bottle of wine and we smuggled it in so we could have a decent glass of wine instead of the boxed mystery elixir they served. Mom often invited her closest friend to sit with us, a one-time (and lifelong) airline stewardess who still dressed the part; small silk neck scarves from Paris tied in a perfect knot at the side of her neck, trinket jewelry from Asia, and sweaters and vests made in Ireland, red lipstick and short bleached blonde hair. She was 90, never married, always a beauty who traveled the world and who somehow landed in this home with no one to visit her and restricted to traveling with her walker only as far as the front lobby. The only thing that truly bonded these two women was their fading beauty, their tendency to be mean girls and their STRONG desire to escape the place, the age, and the circumstances where they now found themselves – like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole – shocked and surprised at their surroundings, wondering, how did this happen?
I’m confident that if either of them could still drive we would have had a Thelma and Louise state of affairs.
Things were copasetic for about three years, and during those years my brother who lives in Portland handled a great deal of what it takes to manage her healthcare and weekly shopping trips, and I handled the rest from here in Seattle. It took years and a great deal of paperwork and financing, but we finally had her set up where she was safe, had a nice place to live, meals, meds, personal care aids, and lots of caretakers on duty 24-7.
Still, mom constantly complained about everything in the home, begging me to come down (from Seattle to Portland) to entertain her friends, and constantly tried to find ways to bust out of the place, the ‘big house’ she called it. One year, after we had argued on the phone about her moving out on her own; which would have meant no one to cook for her, check her insulin, give her the correct amount of her meds, and no alert button to press if she fell, I agreed to drive down and take her to a local Halloween party at a neighboring retirement home. When I arrived, she came down to the lobby of her building dressed as a prison inmate (black stipes, hat and a chain around her ankle). Ever the actress, and always one to make a theatrical point.
That day I realized she never has been and never NEVER will be happy, so I’d settle for keeping her safe. My mother makes most people feel helpless because she is never happy or satisfied. Trying to please someone who will never be pleased is exhausting, and helplessness is soul sucking, so I stopped trying to make her happy. But safe, safe I can live with.
Anyway, during the last two years her stewardess friend grew weaker and weaker, no longer able to even travel from her room down the long hallway to mom’s apartment. Then two of mom’s other friends died, which is not uncommon in a home for the elderly, but remember, in mom’s mind she was still an imprisoned teenager trying to find a way out.
But then the stewardess died. Mom went silent for several weeks. Barely any conversation at all, not even complaining, which had me worried. But I should have known better, after all, mom’s a runner.
All of a sudden, I got a call from my two brothers who live in a small town on the Oregon Coast. Mom had somehow convinced them she should live in their house and that she could take care of herself, it would be no big deal. She swore them to secrecy, and covertly made all the arrangements to break out of the big house. Those two unsuspecting (ever culpable) brothers had never been involved in all the doctors’ appointments, and overall healthcare mom required, like my other brother and I had been. So now they have their hands full and because they went along with her secrecy, I wish them well. I can’t help them, but I wish them well.
As I said, mom’s a runner. Not a fighter, but a flighter. The death of her comrade in mean girl affairs stunned mom’s teenage sensibilities to her core, disturbed her naïve sense of mortality. When her friend took her final journey from this world, mom absolutely could not comprehend what was happening – Alice lost in (what’s the opposite of Wonderland?) anyway, mom’s flight reaction has always told her to run. And run she has. But this time there’s no running from old age. You have to befriend aging, I always told her, eat your vegetables, take your walks, work out, laugh, enjoy life, don’t resent it, and treat others as you would like to be treated, and so on. And though this is not and never will be mom’s credo, it is mine, and for that I owe her a debt of gratitude for always showing me what not to do. She’s a great life guide.
As a writer I always observe others, trying to figure out why they do, say or act the way they do. It’s all material, right? I’ve formed most of my theories on life based on how to not be like my mom in most ways. Don’t get me wrong, she is loving to her children, and as far as I know has never killed anyone (I feel the strongest urge to type ‘yet’ right here, but I won’t.)
Anyway, additionally I learned three life lessons from mom’s retirement home experience; people do not change their spots as they age, and people who live in those homes can get bored, and that I can do something to help them – because when you help someone else it assuages your (eternal) sense of helplessness.
I can’t do anything for my mom who is already calling my other brother begging him to rescue her, but I can be a little comfort to others. I volunteer at local retirement homes to read to residents, talk about my book, or the history that went into the back story, or talk about being a cancer survivor, or my travels, or even gardening, whatever else I can do to alleviate their boredom for one afternoon.
When I did a presentation about my novel last week at a local retirement home there were three Korean War veterans in the audience, which is rare. One man patted my hand as I left and thanked me for writing about the Korean War. He had tears in his eyes. He said that while listening to me talk about my protagonist (a Korean War Hero) he felt like a young man again, a soldier, he recalled the beauty of the Korean countryside. He said that part of him had been asleep for a good long time, and said thank you for waking him up and reminding him of things long forgotten. He warmed my heart and confirmed for me that just visiting with people can make all the difference on the world.
There’s nothing I can do to change my mom’s experience with aging, but I can add a little happiness to the dark times others may be experiencing on their final journeys. That much I know for sure.
I haven’t blogged in awhile because in times of chaos (personal and political) I tend to withdraw and think. I also have needed time to reexamine my words, what I say, and most importantly what I write about. Everything matters now in ways it didn’t seem to before…so what can I say that will add to the conversation rather than detract???
The #METOO movement has brought up some painful memories, unresolved issues and pain that frankly, I thought I’d dealt with but haven’t. I will write about that in a later post, when I understand what about that matters now, and how to deal with past injustices, past wounds, now, and why adding my voice may (or may not) matter in this long overdue, sweeping and universal conversation.
Today I wanted to share this bit of wisdom from Lady Gaga (that’s right, lady Gaga), because right now it’s exactly how I feel, what I think and no one has (yet) said it better and with more clarity than she. PLEASE listen for the next 2 minutes and begin to think how you can make these changes in your life, and manifest a better world one relationship, one thought, and one action at a time. We need to unify in our collective humanity, and stop hurting one another in harmful social media conversations, in hurtful words over thanksgiving dinner, or in inappropriate sexual behavior in the home or workplace, and just start helping each other. Please watch HERE. or watch below.
If you’re looking for some great fiction writing classes here in the Seattle area, below are classes taught by Scott Driscoll, that I can highly recommend. Check them out.
- Advanced Fiction Writing: Story Structure
The fall class will be divided into three parts. In part one, we will look at how to bring drama into the real-life events that are the germ for many of the best stories (we’ll look at models from creative nonfiction and memoir). In part two, we will briefly look at non-linear or modular forms of storytelling (for those of you who want to experiment with plotless structure). In part three, (the bulk of the quarter), we will look at Franklin’s idea of the five-focus story structure and how to apply it in the service of organizing a novel. At the same time, we’ll consider Percy’s ideas for packing your stories and novels with more urgency and suspense, for trimming the bloat, and for pushing your characters to their limits while raising the stakes.
1) Writing For Story by Jon Franklin, a Plume Book, 9780452272958; 2) Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy, Graywolf Press, 9781555977597; 3) Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell, W.W. Norton, 0393320219; 4) Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr Scribner, 9781416573166; 5) Best American Short Stories 2016, Mariner Books, 9780544582897; 6) Oryx and Crake, a novel by Margaret Atwood, Anchor Books, 9780385721677; and 7) The Tsar of Love and Techno, a novel by Anthony Marra, Hogarth, 9780770436452. Suggested Reading: Norwegian By Night, a novel by Derek Miller 9780547934877.
Class meets: 10 Thursdays, Phinney Neighborhood Center # 3, 7-9:30 p.m., Sept. 28 through Dec. 7, a week off for Thanksgiving
2) Pop Fiction Writing: Foundations
UW Continuum, Fall 2017 Wednesday 6-9 PM, 9/27/17-10/25/17, five weeks
WRI FIC CP100 A; Reg #: 167105
Instructor: Scott Driscoll
Phone: 206 782 8587 or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Location: UW Campus, Savery 162
This course is designed to explore the craft of popular fiction writing. We will cover story arc both as a linear quest for an object of desire as well as in the guise of a hero’s circular journey out from the ordinary world, through the ordeal, and back on the return. We will discuss character arc and how to use archetypes to strengthen character identity. We will also look at how to dramatize high points in your characters’ journeys through scene. For examples, we will pull form a number of texts, but our primary examples will be taken from novels chosen for this purpose. In the final week, all participants will be expected to workshop a chapter or an excerpt.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Michael Wieseman Productions, 3rd Edition, 2007, Paperback: ISBN: 978-1-932907-36-0.
The Witness, by Nora Roberts, Berkeley Books, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-399-15912-1.
The Black Echo by Michael Connelly, Grand Central Publishing, 1991: ISBN: 978-1-4555-5061-6.
The texts are available at the University Bookstore.
3) FICTION WRITING: CRAFT
Class Meets: Wednesday evenings, on UW campus 6-9 PM 11/1/17-11/29/17, five weeks in November
UW Continuum WRI FIC CP101 A; Reg. # 167107
This course is designed to explore fiction writing as craft. We will cover points of technique, including: story arc (linear quest vs. round hero’s journey), how to introduce an inciting incident into the familiar world, point-of-view, character arc, and reversals. We will also introduce scene structure. In class, we will discuss readings, look at examples, and do occasional “sudden writings” to practice. You’ll be given an opportunity to bring in your own work for workshopping in the final week.
Writing Fiction: A guide to Narrative Craft, 9th ed., by Burroway, Janet and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Longman, 2011, Paperback: ISBN: 978-0-321-92316-5.
How Fiction Works, by Wood, James, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-374-17340-1.
The Best American Short Stories 2016, edited by Juno Diaz, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: ISBN: 9780544582897
The texts are available at the University Bookstore.
- Advanced Fiction Writing: Character
The winter class will focus on “character” and “scene.” We will begin by reducing character to an essential value mobilized by a “desire” to seek a “goal.” We will next examine how character evolves on the journey through the five-focused plot structure by looking at methods of character presentation in each of the five focuses. We will also consider the role of subtext based on the assumption that characters arrive in stories with a history of repressed desires and needs. We will compare the role of character, and the amount of subtext required in the form of ghosts and revenants in popular genres to that in literary fiction. We’ll spend time walking characters through dramatized scenes. Finally, we will talk about character “reversals” and how they might evolve differently in literary stories and in popular fiction genres and we’ll consider how to use scene to design story structure.
Runs: Thursday evenings 1/4/2018 through 3/8/2018, 7-9:30 PM, Phinney Neighborhood Center #3.
Story by Robert McKee, ISBN: 9780060391683; Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham, ISBN: 9780898799064; The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter, ISBN: 9781555974732; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose, ISBN: 9780060777050; The Art of Character by David Corbett, ISBN: 9780143121572; A novel or two (tba).
2) How to Build a Novel (and Write Smooth Prose)
Runs: Wednesday evenings, 6-9 PM, UW campus, 1/3/2018 – 3/7/2018, ten weeks
Course still in design. Texts will include: Writing For Story by Jon Franklin, Story by Robert McKee, Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy, and two novels (tba).
In The Last Outrageous Woman, my friend, author Jessica Stone skillfully spins a tale about a group of elder-women who decide they’re going to plot, scheme, and organize a breakout and then the most ‘outrageous’ journey of a lifetime. This delightful story asks a big life question when the character Mattie asks of her retirement home friends, “if you could do anything, anything at all, no matter how . . . you know . . . how unlikely. Just once. What would it be?” And when one friend answers “I’d ride a camel…” Well, readers are in for a journey.
First these elder-ladies must overcome their own fears, shortcomings and family/legal/financial obstacles before they break themselves free from their ‘jailers’ at Restful Palms Retirement Home.
As the story unfolds it navigates sentiments from happy to sad, then on to triumphant, and ultimately ends on an inspirational note. This is a great read for readers and book clubs in search of a heartwarming and life-affirming story. As I read I pictured my elderly mom and her senior girlfriends in their retirement home acting just like these women. They will love this book. Great job Jessica!
In addition to the Objects class I will be teaching at Edmond’s Community College this fall I will also facilitate the eight week course, Writer’s Craft Part II this year from September 21st through November 9th. I’m excited to teach this class as it encompasses everything from the Hero’s Journey to crafting that perfect first sentence. This eight week class is for all skill levels and all storytelling genres; memoir, fiction, non-fiction, short story, and screenplay. Bring your WIP (work in progress) or get inspired in class to start a new writing project. Lots of writing time, lots of critiquing, lots of creativity.
Class time structure (each week); Q & A and writing time based on individual student’s projects as seen through the lens of class material. For example, applying the Hero’s Journey or unique plot devices, developing voice, etc., to their story in progress, or the beginning of one, regardless of genre or skill level. If students want critique, there will be a workshopping schedule set for maximum 10 pages each. Weekly recommended resources and handouts.
Brief sample of class schedule:
9/21 Week One – Every Story Begins With a Journey
Identifying and finding your HERO’S JOURNEY
9/ 28 Week Two – Page One
FIRST LINES First sentences, of course, have different functions—to amuse, to frighten, to mystify—and the mechanics a writer uses to achieve this connection vary from genre to genre. We’ll do an exploration of great first lines and how knowing the hero’s journey empowers a writer to pen that first line of the journey to follow.
10/ 5 Week Three – Plot Devices (see previous post)
10/12 Week Four — Individual Writing & Open Mic Night
Focus on Student Writing – critiquing/workshopping exchange, and open mic night.
10/19 Week Five – The most dreaded word in writing, EDITING
10/26 Week Six – WHY OUTLINING MATTERS (regardless of genre)
The basics of genre; memoir, romance, mystery, thriller, horror, etc.. Also, short story, flash fiction, screenwriting…outlining matters. Outlining your novel (short story or memoir) or flying by the seat of your pants (called pantsers), and why it matters. 10 steps to follow in outlining.
11/2 Week Seven – Critique Night
11/9 Week Eight – WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED
Sign up HERE
|NEW! The Writer’s Craft Part II|
|Item: C522||Mindy Halleck|
|6:30 PM – 8:30 PM||Location: Snoqualmie Hall 205|
|Sessions: 8 Th||20000 68th Ave W Lynnwood, WA 98036|
|9/21/2017 – 11/9/2017||Fee: $175.00|