The Timeless Poetry of Song

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We all have a song that when we hear the first notes, we either jump to the dance floor, or (if there’s no dance floor available) our eyes close, our pulse calms or races. Or we turn up the radio and dance in the kitchen because we recognize it like a long-lost lover who still tickles our fancy and sings poetry to our soul. Or maybe that’s just me ….

For me, that song that makes time stand still was, is and always will be, Marvin Marvin’s What’s Going On. This was a song of my youth. His questions and yearnings were mine and (I believed then) belonged to our generation. Sadly, it is still a relevant requiem to a blind world.

Marvin Gaye wrote, fought for, and performed his now legendary song, What’s Going On, as a protest song. He was warned by Motown to not address social issues in his music. And every other music professional told him that he might ruin his career by doing such a song. Thankfully (for all of us) he persisted, because to Marvin it was personal.

1970 was a difficult, and emotional time for Marvin. His brother Frankie returned from Vietnam with teary-eyed tales of horror that moved Marvin to want to act. And in the spring, his much-loved duet collaborator Tammi Terrell died after struggling with a brain tumor.

While he was contemplating his loss and how to move forward, a song dropped into his lap that presented a conduit for all his sorrow and frustration.

Originally, the concept for What’s Going On came from Obie Benson, of the Four Tops, when he was in San Francisco in 1969. Marvin added the emotive lyrics, some ghetto spice, his sorrow, and pain born of his recent experiences and his concern for the war and the world, culminating in a poignant ode to his times.

Marvin continued to run into roadblocks trying to get his song to the airwaves, being turned down by all the singers and bands he knew because they didn’t want to take the risk with such a song. Finally, he had to sing it himself. Again, lucky us.

Marvin once said, “To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return. I had myself in that frame of mind. People were confused and needed reassurance. God was offering that reassurance through his music. I was privileged to be the instrument.”

I think of his words as poetry, and since it’s Marvin’s birthday month and poetry month, I offer them up. And please give his song a listen on You Tube.

What song tickles your spirit? Share it with me.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, yeah Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
Oh, what’s going on (What’s going on)
What’s going on (What’s going on)
What’s going on (What’s going on)
What’s going on (What’s going on)Right on, baby
Right on, baby
Right on Mother, mother
Everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Come on talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on (What’s going on)
Yeah, what’s going on (What’s going on)
Tell me what’s going on (What’s going on)
I’ll tell you, what’s going on (What’s going on) Right on, baby, right on
Right on, baby
Right on, baby, right on

Songwriters: Gaye Marvin P / Benson Renaldo Obie / Cleveland Alfred W

Ode to #Marvingaye

An Author Interview

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Today I was invited to participate in an event for The Friends of Edmonds Library, as an author interview. Below are the questions and answers.

What kinds of stories do you tell?

I like to tell stories that challenge the reader. For example, a short story I wrote, which won an international flash fiction contest. In the story I portrayed a devoted mother of a severely mentally challenged son. He was 20 years old, 6-feet tall, strong as an ox, but with the mind of a 4-year-old. It was the 1960s, so the unfortunate word for her beloved boy was ‘Retard’.  After receiving the news that she had cancer and only 6 months to live, she was left with what to do with her son. With her gone, what would happen to him? They had no other family, and no one could handle his outbursts. The state mental hospital would lock him in a room and toss out the key, or worse yet, brutalize him.  So, she was faced with this conundrum. The ending of the story––her decision born of hopelessness and love––shocked a lot of people. It leaves the reader to decide, was she right or wrong.

You can read this story for free on either my site at or the Writer’s Digest website. Then decide for yourself.  It’s been 5 years and I still get e-mails and tweets about this story.

My novel, Return to Sender (RTS) I explored a lot of things, among them was collusion. Collusion has fascinated me since a month-long writer’s residence I did two decades ago, in a small village in Ireland. There, collusion was king—the people in that close knit society covered for one another like a tribal clan protecting sacred stones. I love stories about small groups of people who’ve got each other’s backs no matter what.

In RTS, my colluders were the Rounders––people who lived year-round in Manzanita Oregon in the 1940s & 50s. These folks were very protective of one another, to the point of covering up a crime.  RTS also about a war hero turned reluctant priest, Theo, who is not particularly religious, and whose heart was not in the job, it was elsewhere. But when faced with a religious fanatic serial killer who twists his own bitter religion to serve his murderous intentions, Theo is forced make some decisions. This is where plot and character intersect; without the religious fanatic villain, Genghis Hansel, who one reviewer wrote, “made Hannibal Lector look like a chair boy” ––without him, there would be no personal stakes/crisis or conflict sturdy enough to carry the storyline.   The ensuing story pushes the boundaries of who Theo thinks he should be because of an obligation, and a resurrection of who he really is––he’s a warrior who wants to be reunited with the woman he loves, because beneath it all, RTS is a love story. Would you cover up a crime to protect someone you love? Return to Sender is in the library, or available on Amazon, or the Edmonds Bookshop.

My current WIP (work in progress) a novel, and a companion series of short stories are about resilient young women surviving in a 1970s man’s world. These are straight up character driven heroine’s journeys. Set in Portland OR, when PDX was known as the porn capital of the west coast (true story). I’m drawn to that city and that time because it was my home and my coming-of-age era: the music, the clothes, and attitudes about sex and drugs that permeated the post-Vietnam age. It was a time when many young women felt doomed to marriage, crying babies and no career. Or they were ‘turned out’ forced into prostitution, or simply forgotten, ‘the lost girls,’ I call them in my up-coming book––young women often trapped in violence. In these stories I explore some unique ways these women find help and survive, escape, and thrive after being entangled with brutal men. They reclaim their minds, bodies, and souls by saving themselves, no prince charming needed.   

Those are the kinds of stories I like to tell, stories about the resurrection of the human spirit.

Why do you tell those kinds of stories? Darker stories draw me in. I’m dark. I’m serious. Fluff has no appeal to me. You’ll never find me on the beach with chick-lit, or romance novels. They are wonderful for people who love them. Just not my thing. I prefer literary style of writing, character exploration and themes that are universal like redemption, survival, and grief. Themes that resonate with the human spirit. RTS was called an existential thriller, which made me so happy. And Kirkus reviews said it was “A thinking person’s novel.” If I got people to think, with my first flawed novel, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller.

Where/how do you get your inspiration? EVERYWHERE! Because I experience the world through writing, I find inspiration and therefore, write everywhere. I love our Seattle area coffee shops. But I most enjoy escaping to a boutique hotel in PDX where they take great care of me. I write in the mornings in my room, no interruptions, no dog, no husband. Great coffee. Then I do some yoga, and head out to revisit my past life in PDX. The differences from my 1950s-70s life to the 2020s, are remarkable. But the vestiges of history remain. I take pictures and notes, then end up at the Portland Art Museum. There I luxuriate in front of great art, lounging on benches, writing in my notebook. Lots of ideas brew when in the presence of art. I do this in Paris, Australia, Italy, Scotland, Hawaii––anywhere were there’s an art museum. I believe that written, spoken or painted art all bleed from the same vein, and I’m greatly inspired by all forms of expression.  Also, old cathedrals draw my creative soul, like Roslyn Chapel, where they allowed me to sit and work while touring DaVinci Code fans circled, gawked, and awed at the holy site. I also love to write in graveyards wherever I travel, I’m inspired by the feeling of old souls gathered in one place, dead or alive. Ireland was that kind of place. Sacred ground for writers. During a one-month writer’s residence there I spent a lot of time exploring graveyards, taking notes, drafting stories.   

Where do you write and how? Mostly in my home office at my desk on my computer, and I need silence, so no music or tv in the background. Otherwise, wherever I am will do, on my laptop, phone or pen and paper. While waiting for doctors’ appointments, or ferry boats, I may stop in the middle of a grocery store and text myself a long passage that suddenly leapt to mind, or when my husband and I are out for dinner, he’s used to it. Live music, especially opera, moves me. And church, thought I don’t go much anymore, a good preacher can certainly arouse my muse.  

How do you come up with your plot and characters? In a short interview, we don’t have enough time to fully explore that one. But the short answer is, I get an image of a character––a young girl walking down the street with torn fishnet stockings, carrying a paper bag of clothes, or a man sitting in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, shoulders hunched, hat in hand, sobbing.  Both those real-life images have been used in my stories. I ask myself, what is that character doing and why? Then, based on the why answer, if it tugs my imagination, I jot down a three paragraph, three act structure outline and start writing. Characters are added as needed but only as a reflection of, or in exploration of the primary character. The man in the boat is in RTS, the girl with the fishnet stockings is one the lost girls in my current WIP.

Thanks to Judith Works and for hosting, and for inviting me to be part of this Friends of The Edmonds Library event.

What Inspires a Story?

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I often am asked what #inspired my #awardwinning #shortstory on #Writersdigest? It’s complicated, but the short answer is it was a neighbor from my childhood. Her son was mentally disabled: sometimes when he tried to play with us, he accidentally hurt us; a broken arm, a bruised rib cage, a bloodied nose. He was 16 with the mind of a 4 year old and the strength of a line-backer. We were all under 10 years old. It was the early 1960s, people used the ugly word “retard” and mocked and teased him. But he wanted so desperately to be friends, so we played with him. He reminded me of #BooRadley #tokillamockingbird…I’ve never forgotten him. You can #read my tragic #story here on #WritersDigest where it won a #fiction contest.

Sometimes inspiration comes from the littlest, most insignificant things, like an image or a smell. I saw a man sitting in a boat on a lake once, he was slumped, holding his hat in his hands. I knew instinctively he was grieving. I felt it in my bones. It inspired a scene in my novel, Return to Sender, where the protagonist, Theo, sees the father of a young girl who was found murdered, sitting in a boat in the middle of the river. I wrote him exactly as I saw that man in the boat.

Return to Sender was initially inspired by a box of letters, love letters from during the Korean War that I found in my attic sixty years after the war.

I take notes on everything that tugs at my heart, my curiosity, or my sense of justice, or injustice. I save them and use them as story world material. There’s something new everyday, either from my daily beach walk or something I saw on tv. I never know where inspiration will be found, but I do know where to go when in search of, and for me that’s an art museum—where one of my greatest joys in life is to sit on a bench in the presence of great art, and write, whether it’s the Portland Art Museum, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or the Louvre’ in Paris, that’s as good as it gets when seeking inspiration.

Christmas Writing Prompts

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UGH! The emotions, stress and expectations surrounding Christmas, even a normal #Christmas, can be overwhelming. Add to that, Covid-19, and well, it’s a tough year for most.

We writers can use this time, those emotions and expectations as fodder for character building—our own, and our fictional characters—if we choose. So, I offer you this #writing exercise for our times.

Think about the characters in your #WIP (work in progress) and or a character you’re just dreaming up. AND remember that this exercise is only intended to deepen your characterization—get to know your character a little better—and not anything you will necessarily use in your WIP, unless you love it, of course.

There are no rules, only guidelines. So put your #writer’s thinkin’ cap on, here we go;

It’s a week before Christmas. We’re in the midst of a #pandemic. Many have lost their jobs, their spouses, or a loved one to covid. There are no office parties, no #holiday shopping extravaganzas, no church or school Christmas plays or fancy Nutcracker events. There’s no family get togethers, no hanging out at favorite restaurants, no seeing old friends, and absolutely no hugging, unless you’re wrapped in one of those clear plastic shower curtains, of course.

Guideline #1. Try to get those 5 senses (smell, taste, sound, touch, sight) in there.

Your character just woke early in the morning; to what sound or smell? Before their feet hit the floor (touch); what are they thinking, what are they feeling?   What’s the first thing they do; brush teeth or make coffee, (taste) shower, look outside or turn on the news? (sight) And are they thinking that Christmas alone, and isolated sucks? Or is it uplifting, undaunting, and they’re thinking maybe from now on this is the way to go?

Guideline #2. Describe their setting and how it has been altered by the lack of holiday fanfare. Guideline #3. Due to this change in their life, identify how that may lead to conflict in the family, marriage, job, whatever.

Guideline #4. What’s the point? What have they learned, and how has it transformed them? Did they learn they valued something that they hadn’t really thought of before?

Did they learn they were afraid of something, like being alone? Guideline #5. How will they behave differently after quarantine, and lonely (or not) holidays?

Some people promise themselves they’ll visit grandma more often, or go to the neighborhood coffeeshop and actually talk to people instead of sit alone in the corner. And many promise themselves they’ll return to church, yoga, meditation, hiking, or whatever devotional practice they had once upon a time.   How has your character transformed (in a small or big way) due to the pandemic?

At the very least, do they plan on doing more hugging? Use this time to write, to explore your emotions and those of your characters. And if you feel the need for help. please reach out.

Covidy #Christmas #Writing Prompts

How did I use Christmas in my novel, Return To Sender???

Pandemic Holiday Writing

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Hey #writers, if you’re like me this year, it’s a sucky Christmas. We’ve had two family members die during this #pandemic (not covid related) and are still not able to have funerals. Add to that, no getting together for the holidays. No hugs. No big dinners. No family nights with games and stockings. Nothing. It sucks. And for most of us it’s a tough holiday season this year for many other reasons as well.

We’re all feeling the loss of what should be, what used to be, and for some, what will never be again. But as writers we are blessed to have our craft to turn to in these times. The other day in my Zoom class, I asked my #writers to take 15 minutes and write (old school, pen and paper) the stages of their character’s hero’s journey. This little exercise helps me stay on track with #writing my #novel; see where there might be holes in my story, or steps I may have neglected all together.

Maybe during this difficult year, instead of focusing on our losses, we can concentrate our energies on our writing with a renewed effort, a plan for pandemic writing. So, how about giving yourself the gift of #writing; the 12 steps of the #herosjourney is no replacement for the 12 days of #Christmas, but it’s a start. Be kind to yourself, especially when times are tough. Here’s a little Hero’s Journey reminder. Keep writing. Cheers, Mindy Halleck