Monday, March 9, 2009

When Story Finds a Way

Since I am a writer and storyteller, I’m going to slow down a bit here at Words to Go to talk about writing and how coming-of-age and feeling different from others plays into our stories. Tuesday through Friday, I’ll chat with other authors about this theme.

The Arkansas River promised me that one day I would float out of town and never look back. Rivers lie. The river runs through my hometown meandering around a golf course where John Daily got his start. Russellville is still dry. The college kids drive to the county line to buy rum and gin for the frat parties. Along the riverbanks is where teenagers drive even now to make out. The best make-out spot was up a hilltop drive called Twinkle Land. It overlooked the river. The sky by night and the dark hot-blooded river by night pumped through our teenage souls filling us with all kinds of yearnings.

Growing up near the river succored me with my first milky drop of ambition. The river wove through my town reminding me that there was a way out. But the way out is a two-way vortex that can tow you back home willing or not.

When my first book contract arrived on my doorstep in Baton Rouge, my father called to tell me my mother was dying of cancer.The news jolted a few neurons loose, pulling back the curtain on my childhood. Hearing that I was losing her was like twisting a magic lens to see my sister Judy and me sitting on our front porch saying what we would become; I could smell the sweat and the striving to rise out of the circumstances that paralyzed my mother and father and kept them wallowing in a life they claimed was killing them.

“Your sister is killing me,” my mother wailed.

“You’re killing me,” my father told my mother.

My father’s brothers and sisters were killing him; my mother’s spending would be our death. My mother redeemed soda pop bottles to buy fabric to sew clothes for my little sister and me, yet it was not enough according to my father; she was killing him. A brother I did not know had killed my mother. I killed my father when I left college and got married. When my husband quit his job at NASA to become a minister, Dad swore it would put him in the grave.

Finally, after all the years of predicting her own death, cancer was finally taking my mother. My father had to be jealous. My mother was finally getting her wish after years of threatening to die. But it broke my heart like the first time she predicted it.

When new writers sit in workshops gazing with that tortured look that I remember as the angst of the unpubbed writer, what they want is a magic bullet to publishing. But in a room of thirty or more emerging writers, the energy of their lust clouds their thinking and often they overlook the most important ingredient in finding their story, that of the striving that is going on inside of them in that instant.

If it were not for striving, I would not be a writer.

My mother and father strived to lie down and not live. But as they took breath, they took risks. Living is risky. Writing about it is even riskier. You tell a lie, and people think it’s true. You tell the truth, and people hate you.

The truth telling continues this week on Words to Go, but we predict you are going to love it. Stay tuned as authors Shellie Thomlinson, Kathy Patrick, Melody Carlson, and Karen Harrington share with me their stories—“Here Comes Trouble—How Our Stories Find a Way.”