Meet Mindy (Halleck) Meyers
Sometimes we open a wound not to watch it bleed, but to allow it to heal.
I just returned from a writer’s retreat wherein I was asked why I don’t write about the story seeds of the novel I’m currently crafting. That question opened a wound I didn’t realize I had. Bear with me ….
First, I’ll start with why I will now write under a pen name, a Nom de plume, or literary double, however you coin the term, it’s my new/old name. I’ll be writing under my mother’s name, Meyers, for many reasons. But the one HUGE reason is to honor my grandfather Frank Meyers who wanted to be a published author but never was. And the other, to honor my Jewish roots, denied to us because in the 1930s grandpa (non-religious) moved my mom and her siblings from the south to the west coast and immediately put them in Catholic schools. He also allowed my Irish/Scottish grandma to take them to Baptist churches: determined that his children would not experience the discrimination he did. His own father was murdered in front of him in New York, simply for his name. Meyers. So, I staunchly take the moniker and move it forward, in a time when our country seems to want to move backward.
Why does this matter now? The holocaust should never be forgotten. I’ve just completed one novel with a holocaust survivor as a protagonist and am now working on my next novel which––though not a war or holocaust story––is populated with holocaust survivor stories. Clearly, the holocaust may not be my story to tell, but I had a ringside seat to its aftermath. And it is in that 1950s and 1960s aftermath where my story seeds took root.
Last week at that writer’s retreat, a New York agent questioned my name, and then asked if I was a non-Jewish author writing unauthentically about the Jewish experience. I explained that though I grew up in a Christian household, my biological father was Jewish, and my mother’s father (Grandpa Frank’s) mother and father were Jewish. She asked what their family name was. I told her, and she exclaimed, I can sell a Mindy Meyers writing stories about victims of the holocaust. It rhymes, and it suits the stories you’re telling. Besides you have genealogy.
At first, I recoiled at the idea of a marketing platform based on something I thought I wasn’t. And deeper yet, genealogy is a wound of mine. Being born under the shadow of scandal, the feeling of being ‘illegitimate’ has always bloodied the waters. So, that night, I returned to my hotel room and cried, deeply, irrationally, as if mourning the departed or resurrecting a scarred over wound.
Then, about 3:00 am I realized the reverse was true; Mindy Meyers is who I’ve been all along. It was the first name on my birth certificate, before dad rushed in and married mom to give me legitimacy.
Heck, even at the Oregonian Newspaper in the 1950s, where grandpa worked, I had a name tag that read, Mindy ‘Minnie Mouse’ Meyers––Minnie Mouse was my very official nickname. So, making a LONG story short, Minnie Mouse is reclaiming her identity. Mindy Meyers is now my Nom de plume.
That was the first step toward telling my long-held stories. I’ll be blogging about them in the coming months. For now, I’ll share that in the early 1960s, when I was nine years old, I worked with my dad at his shoe repair shop in northwest Portland. I stood on a milk cate at the 1940s cash register, took in money and gave change. I was the official greeter, purveyor of cookies and tea for ladies who waited for dad’s popular 5-minute-heels, and I held down the fort when dad took a smoke break.
Dad’s shoe repair was in a building long rumored to be haunted. To nine-year-old me, it was a place of magic and mystical beings. At that time PDX was very international, multi-cultural, and filled with politics and fear of strangers, Nazis hiding in the shadows. There were Hasidic Jews with long black side curls called Payos, thick black beards and black hats, such a contrast to my ex-Air Force dad with his short hair and clean shaved face. There were palm-reading Gypsies, and the infamous King of the Gypsies who walked about the city with two large men behind him (bodyguards). He’d bring dad a cigar and have a laugh while those men waited at the door, keeping anyone else from entering. And then, the very cranky Rabbi who liked arguing with Dad about politics. And SO many other colorful people.
Occasionally it was my job to deliver shoes to a few of the customers who lived across the street in the (then) Nortonia Hotel. One was a woman who I thought was very shy. I’d knock on the door, listen as she unlocked seven locks, then crack the door open to where I could see only her eye and half her face. “Who are you?” she asked every time. “Oskar’s daughter,” I’d hold up the brown paper bag. “I have your shoes.” She’d quickly shut the door. I’d wait. She’d return with a fresh baked raspberry Rugelach cookie. To this day my favorite. She’d hand me the cookie that smelled of sweet burnt sugar and warm raspberry––through the narrow passage of the barely opened door. And then she’d say, “Sit, child eats’ das cookie while I inspect das shoes.” I would slide down the wall, sit on the floor and eat my cookie. She never looked at the shoes. Instead, she smiled the saddest smile I’d ever seen, while she watched me eat. When I finished, she handed me a napkin, “Vwipe face. Now hurry child, go to your papa, tell him all is goot. Do not talks to das strangers. Go now, hurry.” I’d rush down the hall while behind me the sounds of a bolting door, clanking chains, and the locking of seven locks echoed against my fleeing footsteps.
There were five women, holocaust survivors who lived in those apartments. My dad explained to nine-year-old me, that someone had hurt them in the war, and now they were a little frightened of people, and that they were lonely, so to spend time with them. Be kind, he’d said. Listen to their stories. So, I did.
As a child I grew to believe that like dad’s building, these people were haunted.
Now that hotel is the lovely Mark Spencer Hotel where I stay when I’m in Portland. To me, it’s a sacred place. I feel these women there. And I am comforted by their presence. I always grab a Rugalach at a local bakery to take to my room where despite the beautiful furnishings, I sit on the floor leaning against a wall, eating and remembering. Who’s haunted now ….
In the coming stories, blog posts, and novels, I honor these people who imprinted so deeply on nine through seventeen-year-old me, that they have become my ghosts, the spirits who walk with me. I’m honored to create stories around the essence of who they were to this child now woman who aches with their sorrow, and yet smiles when remembering their unique humor. In bringing them out of the shadows, I’m giving them an identity, while at the same time, reclaiming mine. In honoring them, through my storytelling, I am healing an old wound, mine and theirs.
The FIVE Senses Bring Stories to Life
I can feel my writing student’s collective eye roll as I write this; “Show don’t’ tell, do a run through for passive writing. Mind your ‘ing and ly’ words. Where’s the smell, there are no smells in this scene.” And so on….
No matter what kind of story you are writing, memoir, short story, or novel, it’s vital to engage a reader’s senses. Precise and concrete details are essential to effective storytelling. The best way to achieve this is by appealing to the reader’s FIVE senses—smell, sight, sound, touch and taste—to FULLY illustrate a scene.
Trust me, if your character walks into a bar, takes the garbage out, goes fishing, is out nightclubbing or stumbles upon a dead body at sunrise, there is a provocative smell. That smell will bring the scene to life (or death) whichever….
A dead body at sunrise might have a sight that would be more seductive than a smell; it’s up to you the author to decide which of the senses best suits the suggestive nature of your scene. Use the strongest description sense for your specific scene. In one scene, smell might be the most evocative sense to go with, in another, sound, or sight, or touch.
I have a heightened sense of smell, so for me smells are powerful. I still recall my pinched face when I read author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk’s description of someone’s breath, “smelled like a burp after you’ve ate pork sausage for breakfast.” That still grosses me out. Palahniuk’s common use of words that summon olfactory responses is a perfect example of showing and not telling.
And if you’re story takes place prior to modern sewer systems you have all the many stenches of humanity—before regular bathing and with piss buckets on every corner—from which to draw. If your story is in New York or Beverly Hills, the smell of perfume can help a character sum up the financial worth of a woman—or a man—or lack thereof.
And who can forget, Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Smells can be story gateways; the smell of coffee may take them back to a fond memory, or the taste of ice cream may take them back to a nightmare.
Revealing your story through the senses helps the reader to not just read, but to experience your story on multiple levels. Can you recall a particular story for it’s use of the senses?
Take a pen and paper and (if you’re not on quarantine) go sit in a coffee shop or café (wear a mask) and write down the smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste of that environment. No story, just details. Do any details, like the above-mentioned smell of coffee, take you back to a memory. Write that memory. Keep that list of details for when you write scenes that may need to be brought to life.
For a complete list of words to use to describe smell, visit this site, https://www.writerswrite.co.za/75-words-that-describe-smells/
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Why Did Shakespeare Make Me Cry?
In storytelling, the term, universal truth can often stop a writer in their tracks. Simply put, that truth creates a common frame of reference for the story. Like classic myths, this “truth” also rises above culture and language. We recognize it instantly—it resonates deeply.
Shakespeare was a master at theme and universal truth. And he’s the best example of a writer who mastered those aspects of the writing craft and remains relevant to this day. Among his MANY stories, Romeo and Juliet is still popular because of its universal and relatable themes. I remember balling my eyes out in the 7th grade when my sister and I went to the Rose Theater 4 weekends in a row to watch Romeo and Juliet.
Tattooed on my sappy teen-age soul is the last scene; both Romeo and Juliet die because they both believe the other is dead. SOB, SOB, SOB, went the pre-teen girls. They died for love, unable to bear living in a world without each other. We cried through our popcorn, we cried through our Dilly Bars, and we cried so loud that on weekend 5, the theater owner finally tossed us to the curb. Then in the 1980s when we had VCRs, (link added in case you’re too young to know what that is.) Anyway, we got the video. Then we locked everyone out of the house, curled up with popcorn on the couch on a Saturday morning and again, we cried.
WHY does a story capture our hearts in such a way? Generally, it’s the universal theme and truth; love, longing, desire, loss….
The Universal Truth can be anything that grounds the story along familiar lines; lost love, a dying parent, a betraying spouse, man’s (or woman’s) best friend (Dogs), a funeral, a wedding, or a family holiday dinner, to name just a few.
In literary writing a universal truth is an emotion or experience that the reader can relate to, no matter their language, upbringing, race, or life experiences. For example, when Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Most readers with a family immediately understood and agreed, making it a universal truth that transcends culture, privilege, time and space.
Additionally, a key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is a “universal truth,” also called “a life lesson.”
Life Lesson Examples:
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
You can’t always get what you want. (but you might get what you need)
Face your fears. (overcoming)
What goes around comes around (Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it). To survive is to live
A universal message is a message that resounds beyond the story—a message that has meaning even when you strip away the book’s details.
For example, the main theme in Gone with the Wind is survival during a time when traditions, ways of life and thinking, love and understanding are gone with the wind, like in the South during the Civil War, or any story during or post war. To submit that tradition, way of life, love and understanding can all be GONE WITH THE WIND, is a universal statement that was based on, or an extension of the universal theme of survival.
Why has Gone with the Wind been popular for so long? There are a lot of reasons (good and bad), but the strongest of which is the universal themes of the story. Survival and courage in a time of crisis, never giving up in the face of impossible odds, and of course the refrain “Tomorrow is another day” make the story timeless. Anyone, regardless of age, gender, orientation, religion, time or space, can hang on to. Readers and movie goers relate to the characters on some level or another. Because of this, it’s tough to pigeonhole Gone with the Wind as era-specific; it could be any era, any place, any time. Having said that, it certainly is a creation of its time, but the larger more universal themes and truths make it a timeless story.
Right now, sitting here at my computer, everyone under quarantine, my dog is bored, my husband is watching the tv on LOUD, and I’ve gained four pounds that I will call the quarantine four (like the college fifteen) anyway, I’m kinda liking that mantra, Tomorrow is another day.
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Understanding Your Fictional Character’s Behavior
‘The collective fear on their parents faces that day, settled in Sylvia’s bones. The Nazis had tried to force her parents, God fearing Christians to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. Since they refused, they knew they were on the list of undesirables.’
I wrote that this week for one of the stories in my WIP, a collection of short stories. My fictional character’s life was changed the day her parents paid the ultimate price for their values.
As a writer, it’s vital that we understand the history of our characters, the choices they’ve made either willingly or unwillingly. We need to know what happened in their past because the past is, and always will be relevant to the present, and it will form the future. It informs the world we inhabit and it informs the choices we make. This goes for our fictional characters as well.
So when my character’s parents made that brave choice, they knew full well that not swearing an oath of loyalty to Hitler would likely be a death sentence, but they stood strong in their values. That choice altered the lives of the entire family not for that moment in time, but for generations, for all time. That decision in 1944 charted the course for my character’s behavior in 1976, giving a deep layered background for the story and every choice she makes.
Don’t get sidetracked by your character’s backstory (it’s easy to do), and certainly don’t do info dumps of narration, nobody likes that.
But DO pepper your stories with enough seasoning (backstory) to give it the full flavor that will deliver a satisfying read to your audience. And if in that read you can educate and illuminate the reader, all the better.
I have a clear objective with this particular story, and that is to show, not tell, that white supremacy attitudes (worldwide) lead to a ravenous hunger for power and ultimately, a thirst for blood. However, as with any writer who has a specific message or agenda, the best way to get that across is through story, not from a pulpit. Stories change hearts, hearts change minds. Pulpits just piss people off. Be a storyteller not a preacher (unless you’re actually a preacher, in that case, preach on.) Don’t beat people over the head with your message, tell them a story.
Can Writers Learn Lessons from Bad Storytelling?
“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘the centre cannot hold.’”
– Robert McKee
Can Writers Learn Lessons from Bad Storytelling?
In Fargo speak, YOU BETCHA!
Twenty years ago a magazine editor told me that she admired my writing style because I ‘creatively broke the rules’. Huh? Thankfully, they bought and published that article in a glossy (old school for you younglings) magazine and I got paid. Thing was, when she said ‘broke the rules’ I hadn’t a clue what she meant. That sent me on a LONG journey of learning the rules so I could break them knowingly and with intentional, instead of accidental style.
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” —Jack Kerouac
That being said, there are many writing ‘rules’, but there are none that need ALWAYS be obeyed. As a matter of fact, conforming to rules often stifles artistic endeavor and can destroy an otherwise good story. Freedom, however, comes with responsibility. Any writer can break the ‘rules’, as long as it passes the onerous test of an audience. And (to quote Shakespeare) therein lies the rub.
It’s important to remember some rules of good #storytelling. For example, characters are what they do. Goes to follow that if your character doesn’t DO anything, you’ve got a problem. Story events should ALWAYS influence the character’s behavior, conversely the character’s behavior should impact story events. Actions and reactions produce revelation and insight, culminating in a meaningful emotional experience for the audience. And so on…but you know all that, right?
Now, I love a good book and a good tv-binge because I study storytelling in all genres. My most recent tv-binge, after Stranger Things (which delivers on SO many levels) has been The Last Kingdom. In the Last Kingdom they stuck to some solid storytelling principles, and delivered a historically accurate and captivating drama. Oh, did I forget to mention the bevy of handsome hunky actors who actually have acting chops? Then there’s that….But, after season 4 Ended, and while anxiously awaiting season 3 of Stranger Things (July 2019), we needed to find another mutually acceptable (that’s a husband wife thing) tv-binge.
We settled (after much debate – another husband wife tv watching issue) on Frontier, starring the ever resting on his gorgeousness, JASON MOMOA, (AKA Auquaman) with ZOE BOYLE (Downton Abbey) and ALUN ARMSTRONG (KRULL, and too much British Fabulousness to list).
We started watching, hopeful that the perilous era of the 1770s in Canada’s fur trading wars would provide some great entertainment. It had a boundless premise; by the late 1700s, French, Scottish and American immigrants have destabilized the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control in the fur trade. The HB company provokes a bloody battle for control of power and wealth, led by (here’s our bad guy) Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) and opposed by the savage (good guy) Declan Harp (Jason Momoa) a rogue and fierce former HB employee. Since hubby and I like #historicalfiction drama that explores aspects of a real history, we decided this could be entertaining, and certainly Armstrong has the serious acting chops to tell the story, right?
SO, the first 4 episodes had some problems, there’s a lot going on there, but we thought, okay, we’ll hang in for the actors. One thing that bugged the heck out of me was the incongruous quotes at the beginning of each episode. RED FLAG! They were from people like Alan Greenspan and Ice T, who, though quotable, have NOTHING to do with the period or the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company, or the Indigenous tribes, or ANYTHING at all to do with the subject matter. It was like some teenager said, ‘Hey, this’ll be cool,’ without any regard for the audience. The quotes were SO incompatible they took me out of the story before it even started.
As a writer, that’s a serious golden rule, and the LAST thing you want to do to your readers and or viewers, NEVER take your audience out of the story.
Anyway, we hung in there UNTIL… in the middle of episode five we hit a wall. Despite the good actors, the potential for a fascinating period drama, our collective eye-rolling during episode 5 did us in. The writing, regarding female interaction with males, had to be done by a team of 13 year old sniggering boys. I could just hear them in the corner of their office/playground giggling and saying, ‘boobies’. In the scene where the lovely actress, #BreanneHill who plays barmaid, Mary endeavors to ‘seduce’ an officer, it was clear no female was involved in the writing of those scenes and others involving men and women interacting. It was sophomoric. We stopped watching.
It didn’t even rise to the level of being disgusting or repulsive or anything remotely like that – that would require skill –
no, it was just stupid, and insulting. And that’s another golden rule you shouldn’t break, NEVER insult the intelligence of your audience.
As Robert McKee says, a writer must have ‘respect, not disdain, for the audience’.
A good #story should make the audience feel emotions in reaction to the story as it unfolds. Every time #Frontier hinted at an emotional connection it then jumped (leaps and bounds) to another #storyline and didn’t return to the one I thought I was going to connect with. For example, the first episode we leave a young Irish girl, Clenna played by Lyla Porter-Follows, stranded by her lover and trapped in an English prison. By the time we return to her in Episode 5, I no longer cared about her or the potential love story. That needed to be set up better to have a pay-off.
Even good #writers can get caught up by a notion or an emotion that disengages them from their audience and results in a story that loses traction or takes an unexpected direction, so it’s vital to stay on alert when writing. The best works connect with the audience and sustain a connection throughout the story.
If a writer falls into the deception that their audience is stupid, incapable of understanding story nuances and that considering them is nothing but an inconvenience, they are as doomed as their story.
Frontier bombs on many fronts, but mostly in its #writing, it fails to do anything truly meaningful, it wants to be a mature gritty, violent #drama, and in some ways it is, but really it’s just a hodgepodge of activity with no heart at its core. A story needs an undeniable truth, and a heart at its center.
Netflix has some GREAT writers and GREAT programming, this just didn’t rise to that level. And though I really want to believe that Jason Mamoa can bring a little more to a story than his powerful presence, he should go get an Indie Film role and prove that he can rise above his screen stealing image and show us if he can ACT. Because when the writing is weak, the actor needs to be that much more skilled.
Anyway, a writer must know the rules to break them successfully. That’s the art, and that art requires skill. In the betrayal of them, an onus of great power is on you as an artist. It’s important to know the rules/guidelines of writing because your audience has expectations and if you let them down, you lose them. If you aren’t familiar with some of the rules out there in the blogosphere, a good place to start is with Stephen King’s top 20 rules of writing.
“Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.”– Robert McKee
THANK YOU for letting me rant about bad writing, and hopefully in this rant you can find a few nuggets. If you liked this, please share on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest or wherever you socially media. Thanks for reading. Cheers, Mindy