TGIO — NaNoWriMo event in Minneapolis

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Last night I had the opportunity to meet some of the other souls in the Twin Cities who had participated in National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org), a party billed as “TGIO” — with “o” for “over.” The organizers encouraged us to bring an excerpt to read, and being a ham, I did so. This is it, from “The Important Things in Life”:

Unseen Guidance

By Paula Moyer

Do not worry … for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say. – Luke 11-12 (NIV)

 

Oklahoma City, 1962

On that December morning, Jim had worked for exactly four years as a bank examiner for the FDIC. He and his wife Martha had created routine, ritual, that made light of the Monday morning departure to another small town in Oklahoma, a town whose only bank had a scheduled audit. The examining team guarded their schedule, though – surprise was essential for proper audits.

The Wednesday night phone call home was part of the ritual. After a day at the bank-of-the-week and a quick dinner out with the other two guys on the examining team, Jim went back to his hotel room, put his finger in the “zero” hole, designated “0” for “Operator.” The operator would then place that expensive long-distance call, and Martha would answer with a giggle. The celebration, also part of the routine, began the following Friday evening, when his car pulled into the driveway. Good to be home, he would whisper to himself every time, when he saw the faces of his three children, peering out through the window, waiting for him like he was their hero. Martha always had a meatloaf waiting in the oven, her special recipe, wrapped in bacon.

How he longed for his days on the road to end, and how marvelous it was, this week, to have on his calendar an Oklahoma City bank. “I don’t have to be on the road!” he crowed and hugged Martha and the kids. While driving to the May Avenue Bank that Wednesday morning, he thought about how uneventful the first two days of the audit had been. The rest would be a breeze. Then a passing thought flitted through his head. He was thinking of a different chapter of his life – the 1940s, when he was a liaison pilot just barely out of his teens, flying over German artillery and radioing back the location of the enemy. It had been nearly 20 years since his last flight, and he wasn’t sorry.

Shortly after the bank opened, Jim stood in a teller’s window. He was just about to ask the teller where the key was so that he could count the money in the register. Then he heard it – a man’s voice, probably a baritone, if he sang, but not a deep one. As a trombonist, Jim always noticed the range of people’s voices.

“Ladies, and gentlemen,” the slightly melodic voice called out. “Could I have your attention? This bank is being robbed.” The man held a gun in his right hand. The handles of a grocery sack were draped over his wrist. As he walked from one teller window to another, he used his left forearm to sweep each register’s cash into the sack, while his right hand kept the gun pointed at the teller. If it wasn’t so frightening, it would look like quite the juggling act.

Then the robber strode up to the window where Jim was standing. Jim stared at the gun barrel, and then at the man. The gunman’s eyes stared back, wild eyes of fear with wide rings of white showing around the pale blue irises, barely visible around the oversized pupils. Sweat dripped out in beads from under the guy’s baseball cap and hung on the wisps of hair peeking out. Jim stood with his hands raised, shoulder level. He gave the man a completely opaque face, as if he were bluffing at cards.

“This window is a loan window,” Jim then said, careful to have no emotion in his voice. “There’s no money at this register.” The round, dilated eyes took Jim in. Then the man nodded and continued on to the remaining windows. In a front page report later that afternoon, the Oklahoma City Times stated that children played undisturbed in the lobby while the robbery continued.

Once the robber had been to all the windows, he turned around and faced the bank lobby.

“Thank you,” he said clearly.

Then he left.

In the few minutes between the robber’s departure and the arrival of the FBI, Jim asked the teller to open the register. Oh, my. He whistled. Wall-to-wall money. Hundreds, fifties, twenties. Well over $2,000.

For days afterward, Martha and the kids bugged Jim about what he had said to the robber. “Why did you say that?” Martha was totally baffled. “It makes no sense. After all, isn’t robbery one of the incidents the FDIC insures against?” Jim just couldn’t put it into words. He knew he wasn’t being altruistic, but what, indeed, was he thinking?

Then it all came together. The next weekend at the family Christmas party, the robbery was all the talk, especially since it hit so close to home. After Jim had regaled his brothers and sisters-in-law with the story, he saw that his 11-year-old niece Vicki was listening. She had fixed her light green eyes on him, and a question filled her face.

“Uncle Jim, why did you say that?” she said quietly. Jim knew Vicki well. She was six months older than his own daughter Paula. Vicki’s face was a familiar one at their dinner table. The girls were like sisters. Now he took her words in – the same words his wife and kids had asked him, but with Vicki, the spirit under the question was different. He saw that her eyes were patient – and yet hungry for the truth.

Now the words came.

“Vicki, this is how it was,” Jim began in his story-telling voice. He scratched his head, a full head of black hair, and traced his thinking. “This was the first time I had been in the teller windows at that bank. I didn’t know where the key was to unlock the drawer.”

“What difference would that make?” the girl pressed on.

“I couldn’t afford to try to open it and fail,” Jim’s reasoning became clear as he continued. “If I fumbled, he might think I was triggering an alarm. At that point, my main goal was just to keep him from shooting me.” As he told Vicki the story, Jim now understood his reasoning, the strategy that seemed to unfold under his awareness.

The question, then, was not just why, but how. How, indeed, had he come up with all of that, in a matter of seconds? How did he notice the gunman’s fear, keep his own hidden, and put together a believable lie so quickly? Even though he had put the words together that formed an explanation, it was hard to comprehend, even to himself. It was as incomprehensible as the way, years before, his guts had rumbled when he was in his two-seater in the air. The rumbling told him, even before he looked down, that the enemy was nearby.

 

 

 

And now for something completely different … NaNoWriMo

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This blog is (theoretically) focused on my book An Inheritance of Spirit, which I’m letting “go cold” until the winter when I work on revisions. The purpose of letting a text go cold is to be able to detach from it and have a fresh eye when one undertakes revisions.

I heard from another writer that another good way to gain detachment is to … write another book. The timing was perfect. For several years now, November has been declared “National Novel Writing Month”  and the host of the event is NaNoWriMo (www.nanowrimo.org). Registration is free (although donations are welcome). Participants take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words during the 30 days of November (averaging 1,667 each day).  It was a tool that worked well for me two years ago to get my first book along the road to completion, and so I decided to give it a whirl again.

As with An Inheritance of Spirit, the new book is a memoir (I just use NaNoWriMo as a tool to maintain my writing practice). I had been wanting to write about my grandmothers and great-grandmother as the keepers of beauty in the family with their needlework and their attention to the table. As I wrote, though, I found myself thinking also about the men in the family, and so I broadened the scope of the book, which now has the title The Important Things in Life.

I think this new book, which was written in such a short time with no feedback from anyone at all, is actually pretty terrible right now. But part of the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to by pass the “inner critic” (that nagging little voice that stays your stuff isn’t good) and just crank out words.

But, I did it. As of this morning, I generated 50,000+ words. I probably won’t begin to do revisions until next year. But it brought tremendous satisfaction and accomplishment to know that, at a very busy season at my “day job,” I was able to squeeze in 50,000 words.

 

“I thought you were an author!”

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While visiting my brother, sister-in-law and nearly grown children in Colorado Springs a few weeks ago, my sister-in-law Carmen Moyer invited me to speak to her second-grade students about my book, the writing life, and what it feels like to write. I read some short excerpts from the book and, in between sandwiched in a few questions from my wiggly but attentive audience.

First, what a gas and what an honor. One of the first times I’ve been introduced as an author. As part of the introduction, Carmen mentioned that “Ms. Moyer writes and works in a store.” To which one of the kids replied, almost in horror, “Work in a store? I thought you were an author!”

I still laugh when I think about it. Oh, what a lovely world must exist in that child’s mind, if authors don’t have to have day jobs! (Bernie Sanders, are you listening? Adequate funding of the arts would be part of your platform, I would hope!) And yet — every artist or writer I know has to have a day job. Sorry, kids.

The question I loved the most was from a girl in the back: “What does it feel like on the inside when you write?”

After thinking about it for a little bit, I answered: “It feels like my stomach is buzzing,” I said. “When something has to be said, my stomach buzzes.”

I’m sure that other writers have different sensations, but I also think that somehow it starts in the gut. The gut wakes us up to what needs to come out.

What is it like for you? What does it feel like on the inside when you are doing the thing you are called to do?

After speaking to Carmen’s class for about 20 minutes and watching them in their writing exercise, I ate lunch with Carmen and her fellow teachers in the lounge — that sanctuary that we always wondered about when we were kids. We never saw the teachers’ lounge — well, glimpses when the door opened and closed, but that was it.

And yet that question, “what does it feel like on the side?” asked me to open the door to my own inner place. And so it has been to write a book that has two crises as the drivers — a parent’s job loss and a failed marriage.

Now that the draft is done and I am letting things percolate until I start my revisions, I feel less exposed.Less worried about what people think about it all.

Now I’m just another author with a day job. Working in a store and writing, giving the buzz in the stomach an opportunity to tell its story.

After lunch, my brother Bill picked me up and I took a long nap. My sister-in-law admires my writing, and I so admire her ability to see the attention and learning amidst the wiggles.

On the receiving end of a beta-read

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Recently Geoff LePard posted on Carrot Ranch (www.carrotranch.com) the critical role of beta-readers. I had been a beta reader for his novel, My Father and Other Liars. (For the uninitiated, a beta-reader is a “test reader” for a book in some prepublication stage, reflecting to the writer what works, what doesn’t, etc.)

Geoff and I don’t know each other except as follow flash fiction writers on Charli Mills’s Carrot Ranch website. Charli, my “sister-mom” (mother-in-law to my son/mother to my daughter-in-law), suggested me as a beta-reader for Geoff. He was very gracious about receiving feedback. After my read of his novel, Geoff generously offered to be my beta-reader when the time came.

About five months after I finished beta-ing for Geoff, I was done with the first draft of my own book. A part of me wanted to procrastinate, to linger on every typo and every timing discrepancy. But I knew that I just needed to send the thing off. So I contacted Geoff, and he was ready to catch it.

I feel very grateful to have had someone so thorough and thoughtful with comments. A nice summary email of what he thought of the general landscape and what the book needed to push it to its next level, along with tracked-changes comments at the end of each section and the occasional correction of a typo, repetitive word choice, etc.

A beta-reader of a first draft needs to do exactly what Geoff did, to focus on the content and the arc of the story and how the chapters served that arc. I am very enriched by this experience.

Our great stateswoman Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying “Do one thing that scares you every day.” I certainly was scared when I hit the “send” button to deliver my manuscript to Geoff’s email. But I’m glad I did.

Geoff is obviously a guy, a Brit, a novelist. What a perfect match, what a perfectly contrasting point of view, for someone to beta-read this “chick-lit” memoir about coming of age in Oklahoma!

How a Book Goes from Idea to Word File

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First, woops. I meant to do a Monday morning blog and spaced it out after the initial entry.

OK — now that that’s out of the way — a bit about the process of getting a book out of one’s brain and into a Word file to begin with.

First, you have a family that tells stories. Your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles say “remember when?” at the dinner table while they’re lingering after dessert. Then you notice that you have a voice inside you telling stories about — you! Murmuring along inside you the whole time, even while you’re brushing your teeth: Then she brushed her teeth. Honestly — can’t she just shut up sometime?

And you start writing. Your father types up your first short story when you’re nine years old.

Then you have a life with the usual tension and trauma — you have to, or the story is like Cinderella without the stepsisters. You live your life and go about your business, take writing classes, get your MA in memoir, raise your kids, go through a business failure, get a day job. In the middle of this, your youngest son, a sophomore in college, says “Mom, write down the family stories. Do it as a gift, here and there, for the holidays.”

You forget about the request. You go through a surgery with complications that have a 20% mortality rate. You recover.

Then one day you’re sitting in the living room. Your computer is broken. You remember your son’s request. But the stories inside your brain, the ones that the writerly voice is murmuring about, aren’t the old family stories. They’re your own. The things that happened to you. The stories keep beating inside you. They won’t be stopped. The voice doesn’t know the computer is broken.

So you get out a legal pad and write at the top, in capital letters: UGLY STORIES. On the next line you write: TRUE STORIES.

Then you start writing about the crisis your family went through when you were 13 years old, the one where your parents very bravely acted like there was no crisis at all. You write: “There is a house in Oklahoma City.”

You work for three years on the book. You take workshops, classes, live your life, write a chapter here, a chapter there. You keep copying and pasting the chapters, You have a storyboard for insight and structure. You keep going. You write a big second section about your failed first marriage. You disregard your Inner Critic telling you that “this is just therapy.”

You finish the first draft. Shazam. Or — a very slow, three-year long s-h-a-a-a-z-a-a-a-m.

You buy reams of paper and more toner cartridge to print copies for a few friends and family. You plan for the future — line up a beta reader, plan to take a class on revisions after the holidays, envision writing a book proposal to pitch to publishers — after the revisions.

And that is how a book is born — or, at least, this book. But that first line? It got lost. The first line is now: “As if nothing had happened …”

Coming up for air after finishing the first draft

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Hello, world!

I am entering the world of blogging, and awkwardly so.

I finished the first draft of An Inheritance of Spirit last Saturday night (August 8). The moment reminded me of a song from a musical by Kander & Ebb, “A Quiet Thing”:

When it all comes true, just the way you planned,

It’s funny, but the bells don’t ring.

It’s a quiet thing.”

And so it was. I had already written the last chapter, and now I “was working out some bugs in the next-to-last chapter (or “penultimate,” if we want to depart from Anglo-Saxon words and get fancy). I was fiddling with one of the last paragraphs of a previous version of said chapter. Then I looked up. And realized.

I’m done.

I grabbed the hubby, who was having a beer on the next door neighbor’s porch. He came to me, baffled. “You can tell Dave, too,” he said.

“No, I want you to be the first.”

So he trundled over, confused.

“I finished my book.”

A kiss, congratulations, dinner out.

It was good enough.

A quiet thing, or as the end of the song goes, “Happiness comes in on tip-toe. Well, whaddya know? It’s a quiet thing. A very quiet thing.”