Friday, October 29, 2010

Lies, All Lies

I am pretty comfortable saying I’m a lousy liar. To say I never lie would be, well, a lie, but I think I do it so rarely as to be in the group that could honestly say, “I don’t lie.” I tried it out when I was younger and I sucked. Pitted against a younger brother who was a natural, I never had a chance to develop any level of skill in even the normal, every-day kid deceptions necessary for survival to adulthood.

The “I didn’t break it, eat it, lose it, put it in the dryer” excuses (lies) were never convincing enough for my stepmother, and I even began to take credit for things I really didn’t do because she didn’t believe me anyway.

So, no positive reinforcement for lying was ever received and I’ve gotten along just fine without it.

However, writing fiction and poetry – telling stories – is essentially lying. This came into stark relief the other day when a reviewer asked me if something I had written was true. Part of it is true, the tiny grain of an idea that begins the story (or in this case a poem), and I certainly want it to have enough impact as to feel true, but I don’t really want to throw myself under the bus either. So I told the truth, said some of it was true, and left it at that. Perhaps my real challenge is not truth versus lie, but knowing when to STOP TALKING.

Do you remember the TV commercial where the old woman has fallen and she uses her alert thingy to summon rescuers with “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”? My son uses that to make fun of me and mid-lecture will say “Help! I’m talking and I can’t shut up!” I know I should be parent-like and get mad at him, but I laugh every time because it’s so me.

I should not feel like I have a duty to explain my writing, or classify it as truth or lie – it is fiction and it is poetry. That is all. It’s my prerogative to use my life experiences in any way I see fit. But my life hasn’t happened to just me, and if I write about an interaction with someone, they may know it’s about them and maybe at some level I want them to know, but my intent is never to lay bare all of the truth. That would be memoir and frankly, my life hasn’t been that interesting. There is no one in my past or present that I aim to hurt - even the wicked step-monsters (except for calling them that – which pleases me to no end).

Maybe no one else thinks of it, but I’ve begun to wonder if people really get the difference between fiction and the truth. In my job it is imperative that I am truthful, and there is no question as to that benchmark. In real life and in writing, there is room to hedge. If you ask me a question, I will tell you the truth - to the point where you might want to carefully consider the question and if you really want the answer. If the question is never asked, I probably will not seek you out to tell you how I feel, or what I did, or what you didn’t know. This can’t be much different than how most people view the truth. For civility and to be considerate, we don’t go around saying exactly what we think all the time.

And yet, I am not angered or annoyed by this question about something I’ve written. I take it as a compliment that my writing seems real. I just have angst about responding, because I don’t want to lie. Communicating to someone cryptically through story or poetry has certainly been done. It’s just not something I do. If I really have something to say to you, I will track you down. This does not mean that there are not experiences that I now understand more fully (because I am older) and want to revisit in this artistic way. I think there is real value in evaluating life and not just living it. That someone reading my work can commiserate or see their own experiences through my analytic lens makes me happy.

If I choose to see the lies of storytelling as metaphorical truth, perhaps I won’t feel so compelled to defend or explain this kind of lying. It is the greater truth of a situation, not the particular truth, which teaches us. Becoming skilled at writing fiction demands skill at creating something that did not exist before – lying - but the intent is often (for me) to illuminate some truth. So I will lie. And that’s the truth.

Jo Taylor

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

You're an Excellent Driver

We were talking at work about compliments recently and I found it interesting that people remember some rather unusual things as their favorite compliment. As with any other human behavior, it is personal to each of us what means much or little, and often we don't know something will be meaningful in the moment.

I've had two compliments in my life that I remember. I'm sure I've had more than two, but these two were particularly meaningful. They aren't compliments of the ordinary sort, so I will explain.

I was working ambulance and we had a big grinder (wreck - 4 cars) out on Hwy 46 East which is where James Dean was killed.  We had three ambulances on scene and I was doing my job, nothing special. We ended up changing partners as my partner and another EMT were doing an extrication, so I drove one of the other rigs to the hospital. The best thing for a trauma patient is a lead foot, and I have one of those. At one point on the way in, the medic stuck his head into the cab from the back and said to me, "I forgot how nice it was to ride with you. Thanks."

He was busy and didn't have to say this, but I have remembered it because I loved being an excellent driver.

The other compliment I remember was when I was working as the charge in the ER. One of my nurses asked me if I thought I could run the department if the opportunity came up. I was about to answer her when one of the ER docs started laughing. We turned around to see what was funny and he said "Are you kidding? She could run a small country."

I loved that too.

So the things I've remembered have been comments on my ability, not my looks or my clothes or my possessions. The conversation at work made me think about how I compliment others and what I base it on. I hope and will aspire to tell them something meaningful to them, and to take the time to find out what that might be.

My son, at 13, is in that place where nothing anyone says makes a difference, and yet everything does. I'm trying to teach him to filter, but I don't know if what I'm saying makes him feel good, or if I'm scarring him for life. Writing about him in the blog is probably not a great idea in terms of a childhood unscathed, but it illustrates the point of making your words count in your everyday life.

Taking the opportunity to thank someone who said something meaningful is another good goal, and one I failed to realize the importance of until recently. So, thank you Dr. John, and thank you Wes. I've never forgotten your kindness.

Jo Taylor

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Random Things

I've had the most random memories pop into my head lately. The one I can probably share without too much personal embarrassment is my favorite ER Nurse phone call. Back in the 90's, you could call an ER and speak to a nurse and ask them questions. We never really answered the questions, but we let you try. Now there is a long and tedious message at the beginning of the call that tells you the ER staff will not give you advice over the phone, but occasionally, someone makes it through even that obstacle to ask their question. We still don't answer. We hedge, we sympathize, we do not give advice over the phone. Even to those who think the rules do not apply to them.

My favorite ER Nurse call ever was in 1999. A pleasant young woman called on a not too busy night.

Caller: "I have a question. If I drop acid, will it interfere with my Amoxicillin?"

Me: (Trying not to laugh) "If you're going to drop acid, why do you care if it interacts with your Amoxicillin?"

Caller: "Well, I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt my body."

Me: (Not really hiding the laughter at this point) "Um, most of our drug books only cover legal drugs, so you're on your own. Sorry."

Caller: "That's okay. Thank you very much."

I miss the ER sometimes. I especially miss many of my co-workers, a very few of the patients, but none of the hours. The ability to work 72 hours a week (yes, a WEEK) when I worked ambulance, then four 12-hour night shifts in a row when I was a nurse are looooong gone. To my complete amazement my body is not like that of a twenty year old.

But even if I was not encumbered physically by having the good fortune of discovering sleep and therefore not wanting to give that up again, I'm kind of done with working in the ER. That's a really good thing since I'm not anymore. I haven't been ER staff since 2001, and while being the House Supervisor for 6 years after that had me there a lot, it was different to be able to play for a while and then LEAVE.

IV's? Codes? Sure, no problem. Seizure day? Oh hey, I'm busy in ICU - sorry. Not that I did that to my nurses all the time, but the point is that I COULD. I didn't have any direct patient responsibility. I only had responsibility for a 100,000 square foot building and everyone in it. Much easier.

What does any of that past experience have to do with writing, and more specifically, writing character? For me, it is an un-mined field. I have the great fortune of having been witness to the range of human experience, mostly on the tragic side, but all those responses to critical situations become tools for writing well. I have been absolutely floored by grace in times of difficulty, both from the RN's and MD's and from family and friends of those in my care. You can't make this stuff up. I've also seen what horrible things humans do to each other.

This speaks to motivation and situation, but mostly it gives me a vast and rich memory for story to use as I write. But I rarely use it.

I've been asking myself why not lately. I think that's where some of the odd memories are coming from - because I'm looking in my past for ways to illustrate action, or motivation, or cause. I have tons of "material." At a recent writing workshop, when I said I was a nurse, the teacher responded with a smile and said my profession was the goldmine for writers. And yet I don't want to or don't feel comfortable using it yet. Maybe I'm not far enough removed to revisit THOSE memories again - the ones that left me sleepless for days on end.

The other challenge is finding the right tone with stories specifically about human suffering. Sometimes you can be caustic, sometimes funny or flippant, but mostly you have to be respectful (I think) of human nature. I can show it in all its grace or depravity, but there still has to be a reverent acknowledgement that I know of these stories because I got to be a nurse. Who else gets to experience a hundred lifetimes of experience through others? Not many, and I thank the ER for that - the patients, the nurses, the docs.

So, here's a short list of "Things I Learned in the ER," and I hope it shows some of the scope of the experience, and some of the challenge of writing about it.

1. The weirdest things fit in the weirdest places. Patient confidentiality prohibits any further detail. Use your imagination and you still won't be able to encompass the full scope of this delightful human pastime. The excuses and explanations are all the same however.
2. The ability to have olfactory premonition is very helpful (I would sometimes smell blood right before a trauma - independently verifiable by my former coworkers). Either I have some level of psychic gift, or I'm a vampire. 
3.    An artery can shoot blood all the way across a room.
4.    Playing practical jokes on the doctors makes the day go by faster.
5.    Surgeons don’t have the ER sense of humor.
6.    People really do not realize when their hearts stop. If they are otherwise healthy and awake, they are incredibly surprised when I hit them in the chest, or shock them, and they yell “Ow! Hey! What’d you do THAT for?” (Well sir, your heart wasn’t beating).
7. Pain medicines do not take away all the pain; they make you not care that your leg is broken.
8.    There really is a light in your eyes that goes out when you die. Watching it is humbling.
9. People will accept suffering with an amazing amount of dignity and grace if they feel it is for a reason. Any reason.
10.    If you tell a mother that her eighteen-year-old son is dead, you will remember her face and her name forever.
11. If you advocate for a mother to hold her seven-year-old child one more time, she will remember your face and your name forever.


Jo Taylor

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


We went to my son's Parent - Teacher conferences tonight, and no less than two of his instructors commented on his nice handwriting, his cursive to be exact.

I was a bit shocked that they mentioned it. It hadn't occurred to me that many kids his age (13) spend so much time on the computer, or texting on the phone, that they don't take time to practice their writing. Since I am of the age when computers didn't exist until I was in high school (and then were a bit of a novelty for the science-nerd-techie crowd), I learned to type in 10th grade and had my first computer at 20 something. So, that means all communication before then was - gasp!- hand written.

Oh the horror!

I actually like to write longhand. My cursive is of the flourishing, curly sort, which is a bit difficult to read, but it looks pretty good. And sometimes I still write with a pen.

Poetry especially is more suited for paper and ink, at least at first, because it doesn't come quickly. It must be painfully extracted if you want to know the truth.

Prose, on the other hand, comes out so fast that it is cumbersome to try to get it all down on paper, and the revision process looks like hell.

Jake (my son) has great handwriting, and he writes quite often. I've read a few studies lately that there is a neuronal connection between handwriting and creativity. It makes sense in a very common sense way. As an evolutionary tool, communicating by written language required development of symbols to get an idea across. That humans are hard wired from brain to hand seems reasonable.

In my office I have lots of examples of my fascination with words (the subject of previous posts), and as I look around the room, I notice that quite a few of them are handwriting examples: my grandmother's notes above her Vaccai vocal exercises, artist's signatures on paintings, my own script. I think many of us think that handwriting is a tedious chore, but I've always seen it as expression.

I won't be giving up my computer in this lifetime, but there are days, rainy days, when I sit on the bed, pen in hand, paper on lap, coffee nearby, and write.


Jo Taylor

Monday, October 18, 2010

Now for Road Clothes

Giving equal time to my other novel, this is an excerpt from Road Clothes.

This scene is in the middle of the book. Cassidy collects road clothes and because she does, she found a jacket in the roadway with an arm in it. She lives with her mother, Linda,who is a hoarder. This scene gives some background to the genesis of the problem. When Cassidy was sixteen, her father burned most of their possessions and then dropped dead a few weeks later.

Road Clothes

She'd always loved him very much, her dad, but those last few weeks, when he'd burned their things and yelled, and then left them for good, she'd put him in a remote place in her mind. Her mom didn't take it very well, she heard her sister and friends say. She kept waiting to see someone take death in a good way to have something to compare it to, but by the time the headstone came, shiny black granite with gold flakes that glittered in the sun, she decided it was just a figure of speech. There was no such thing.

She found her mother wandering around the house, picking up items and setting them down. She wondered how long Linda would stay in this foggy-eyed trance, looking to Jenna and Cassidy for answers to simple and every day questions. It took awhile to notice that he house had gotten cluttery and Jenna was the first to be offended. Linda didn't work and the girls were in school all day. Jenna was graduating from High School in June and threatened her mother that she would move out if Linda didn't get rid of the accumulating things.

Linda would buy things every day, saying they reminded her of him. She would stop at any garage sale or second hand store, bringing things home like a lamp that she thought Dad would have liked. Jenna and Cassidy exchanged glances and picked up as much as they could. It wasn't trash exactly, but the amount of stuff that Linda piled everywhere precluded them cleaning very well and Cassidy thought the house took on a faint, musty smell.

It made Jenna crazy, this uncontrolled collecting and she screamed at her mother to stop. Linda blinked and did not cry.

When Jenna graduated, her party was at a friend's house, and people stopped coming over. Not even the priest was invited to visit. Cassidy took sides and landed on her mother's mess, unable to fathom losing both her partents, but thinking a while without her sister wouldn't hurt.

With her husband gone, and perhaps a tendency to want stuff anyway, Linda's control was gone too. She assigned value to things way beyond their influence. A two inch teddy bear that came with some Valentine's candy would be kept in the living room. A button that caught her eye in the store would go in a jar on the counter to be used "someday" for "something." She wouldn't throw anything away. It might be useful someday. She might be useful someday.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lightning! And Thunder!

Oh my gosh, we had lightning and thunder today! I love lightning and I miss it so much. When I was little and we lived in Texas and Kansas, we could sit out on the back patios and watch the lightning like it was a movie show. Central California has lightning once every 3 or 4 years and we've had two "events" in the last month. Surely the end of the world is at hand.

Since I wrote about the novels yesterday, I thought I would give an example of the middle grade one, as it is not as complete as the other one. Well, that was clear. Let's start over.

Novel 1 - Margaret of Thibodeaux (middle grade or young adult) - not complete
Novel 2 - Road Clothes (literary fiction) - complete but not revised.

So Margaret was the original voice of this blog, mostly because I had fear about being myself on the Internet (now I don't have fear - you have to do hard work to get lots of people to read it). This is the very beginning and introduces Margaret and her father.

No need to comment, but rave reviews are always welcome. I am always so curious about what other writers are working on, so just thought I would share mine.

Margaret of Thibodeaux
Daddy stood on the porch slapping his hat against his leg. "Come on Margaret, we have to go," he called into the house.

Margaret stood in the middle of her room, dressed and ready, but trying desperately to think of a way to get out of going to Dina's house for supper. It occurred to her to run in place and she did so as quietly as she could, waiting until she knew a second yell would be coming soon, then hurried down the stairs, her heart beating faster and her cheeks filled with heat.

"I think I have pneumonia."

"You don't have pneumonia. Get in the car."

"Maybe I have leprosy."

"Margaret Louise, you do not have leprosy. Get in the car please." He said the last word as a threat against further delays from her, but she stood, feet together and unmoving on the walk, as if she would fall off a cliff is she continued toward the Dodge Dart parked against the curb. "What's the matter with you today?"

She met his eyes and felt a new flush across her cheeks. It was unnatural to disobey him, but the conviction she had over not going to Dina's house, and therefore giving her blessing to their friendship, was winning the pull inside her. She could not think of a reason for her obstinacy that sounded true, and he would want a reason.

"I don't want to go," she said finally, putting her head down and dragging her eyes away from the fierce reaction she imagined in his face.

"Why not?"

"I don't think Mama would like it."

A tension sprang between them and she peeked up to see if he was mad or shocked, and instead found him staring down at his hat, turning it gently in his hand and feeling the brim with his thumb.

"Get in the car," he said.

She thought it would be easy. She'd resist and he'd give in. But that didn't happen and now she would have to go where Mama warned in a cryptic message from the Ouija board, "Don't go."
"I can't, Daddy."

"Get in the car, get in the car, get in the car!"

"Mama said 'Don't go!'" she yelled back at him, not meaning to say, "Mama said," because how could she, if she was dead.

He'd gotten a grip on her upper arm, to lead her to the car like a young child, unaware of the reason behind his daughter's dread until the words hung heavy in the air. "What did you say? How would she have said to you 'Don't go'"?

"She talks to me sometimes. She doesn't like Dina."

He pursed his lips in disgust for long enough to convey the message. "Margaret, that's a bunch of horse shit," and the conversation was over.

Margaret got in the car, the heavy door creaking a complaint at being made to move and slamming shut just as noisily. She rested her head on the door, her face pressing against the window. The cool glass felt good and comforting against her recently defiant and now defeated cheek. She was being taken to Dina's house; she wasn't getting out of it. She hoped that Mama would understand, and knew that Daddy wouldn't.

Tomorrow, a Road Clothes excerpt. Thank you for reading. 

Jo Taylor

Making Progress

The characters for my two novels in progress have been left at home lately with nothing to do. This writer has been sidetracked with various small projects so I'm not really writing, I'm thinking about what I'm going to write, and somehow that isn't really the same thing. November is National Novel Writing Month, and I've decided to NOT participate this year. Not that I don't think it's useful, or fun, or a sadistic form of writer-torture, but I have two novels that I need to finish, and if I start one more, then I'll have three.

I do have a story though. I could do a little bit on it. 65,000 words isn't that many. Right?

I've discovered my writing block to be at the revision end of a completed work. My son is on my case because I intend to kill his favorite character in my Middle Grade novel. He doesn't get, nor does he care, that it will move the protagonist to a discovery she wouldn't have made if her best friend was there to keep her safe. He begs me, "Please don't kill Honey!" and I respond, "but I HAVE too." The grocery store was the last place this came up and I didn't edit myself until I saw the sideways glances and Jake's sudden realization that people were looking at us. End of exchange.

I am perfectly capable of making my own writing decisions and suffering the consequences if necessary. That usually is only a monetary drain on otherwise hopeful earning streams, but not as unexpected in our current economy. I'm years away from finding an agent, so perhaps the ability to get a well-written book out there will not be the leviathan task it now seems from this side of the fence.

I went to the Central Coast Writer's Conference at Cuesta College last month and had a few very helpful, very interesting classes. Dr. Clark from Cal Poly did a great poetry intensive that inspired a few of my latest works. Charlotte Cook was from a publishing house and read the first three pages of the brave souls who brought their blood and sweat and ink to her hand. For better, a "this is nice," to a worse, "don't do that," we all saw in quick succession that an agent or editor will give us about three minutes of their time. Rarely more, but at least a few.

It reminded me of me buying houses. I've bought so many that I see the outside presentation, walk through the flow of the rooms, get the gist of the timbre of the structure and make my decision. Some detail work is done later of course, but the decision to go onward can be made rather quickly. Charlotte does this with writing. I keep that in my head when I'm constructing the beginnings of things now.

My very most favorite presenter was Melissa Pritchard. She is a professor at Arizona State University and has written novels and short stories. I hadn't read her work before sitting in her class, but I instantly like her manner, her style, the way she spoke softly but so that all could hear, and really interacted with the class. Style. She has class and style. I love it. Some of the things she said in the workshop made intense divots in my illusion of having a great system for working full (and now also part) time and still being able to write. And her writing is . . . stellar. I truly love it. Her detail and story progression seems familiar, like something I've read before, but not boring. It's something I want to read over and over. My idea of literary fiction.

Not that I would have to do everything she did - you could say some of the things were quirky - but her point of shaking up the picnic blanket of your life so you could see what tumbled back to earth and where it landed - to see your own world differently - clicked into the space in my brain that had been patiently waiting for it all these years.

Now to make time to put those "out of the box" mental escapades to work for my girls Cassidy and Margaret. I had no concept of how very large a novel was when I started. Two sitting on my desk almost make me want to turn around and go get a nice hot cup of coffee and sit on the couch watching QVC. There is a system for revision - it is still overwhelming. So, I've let myself off the hook for a deadline.

I think I will have them both ready to shop out in December 2012 - just in time for the end of the world. That suits my pessimist side, but having a goal of two whole years to finish two whole novels makes the optimist sing.

Work will have to be wedged in there somewhere, along with the two men in my life, but they are pretty easy going and if there is food in the house, they don't venture far.

It will truly be a life accomplishment, a bucket list check, to complete and revise and refine and publish the novels. I really like the heroines and the stories. Hope readers will like them too.

Jo Taylor