Searchlights & Signal Flares
Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange
Describe your literary roots. (02/15/14)
Contributors this month:
Unexpected Treasure by Susan Winters
The two primary sources of magic in my childhood were bedtime stories and my grandmother's button tin. My top bedtime request was "101 Dalmatians" (the full-length novel, not the Disney version) and between my mom and grandmother, they probably read it to me a million times. I was fascinated by the twilight barking, the canine news network which helped Pongo and Missus rescue their kidnapped puppies. The dogs in our neighborhood also barked at twilight while the fog rolled over the hills and I'd wonder what they discussed.
The round metal tin held buttons rescued from coats, shirts and slacks—mostly sturdy plastic, but a few jet and pearl buttons sparkled among their more mundane companions—collectively a treasure trove of possibilities. I would sift through the tin looking for new treasures. My Brownie sewing project was a hand-sewn bunny framed in awkward stitches, but he had the most beautiful faux marcasite eyes.
Crafts were set aside during high school while I studied the literary "greats" whose horrible truths told beautifully bore no resemblance to my quirky stories. I longed for summers when I could read fat paperbacks, fill notebooks with stories and cross-stitch whimsical Christmas ornaments. I loved watching elves and angels emerge from the blank canvas and characters emerge within the pages of my notebook.
I was fortunate to have Don Emblen as my Creative Writing professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, though as a bewildered freshman I did not appreciate it at the time. For this published poet and letterpress printer, writing was a craft and images were malleable as clay to be molded into poems or stories. Though his poems often reflected a gritty reality, they maintained a sense of wonder. By teaching me to view the world through a writer's eye, he provided me a button tin to fill for my own stories.
Susan Winters works, writes and dances salsa in Reno, Nevada. Her music reviews and articles have appeared in the Reno News and Review. Her latest novel, Ever After, is now available at Amazon. Her blog, createontheside.wordpress.com, celebrates balancing creative pursuits with a full-time job.
My Literary Roots by Alicia Schooler Hugg
Until the age of ten, I lived with my maternal grandparents, Alexander and Carrie Schooler, in the suburb of Los Angeles called Watts. Today, when one thinks of Watts, a picture of flames, violence and destruction come to mind, because in the mid-1960s, the Watts riots spearheaded a national civil rights movement. But the 1940s Watts that I knew was a community where neighbors of every hue watched out for and respected one another.
My grandfather, part of the Great Migration of black persons from the South, was such a person, and the one person who most contributed to my writing roots. One of the five founding bishops of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, he was a poet and songwriter. Evenings, after we listened to radio newscaster Gabriel Heatter's droll reports, or returned to "those thrilling days of yesteryear", with The Lone Ranger, Grandpa would read to us from one of his own published works of poems, or a favorite book.
But it was the books I returned to time and again. Many were full of notable black figures. Pulled from the bookshelf near his overstuffed armchair, the books took me into concert halls with the great singer Marian Anderson, onto tennis courts with world champion Althea Gibson, or into the laboratory of scientist Booker T. Washington. From these moments, with the fireplace crackling in the center of our living room wall, I cut my writing teeth.
Both of my grandparents stressed the importance of using proper English, and did not hesitate to correct my two sisters, brother and me when we failed to live up to their standards.
When we tired of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, or exhausted the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, my grandmother, a former school teacher, escorted us weekly to the 103rd Street library.
The library became a place of refuge and salvation, and remains so to this day. But the core event that affected my writing life was my decision to return to college in 1991 to complete an education long dreamed of. I enrolled in the University of San Francisco and met the mentor who truly helped take my writing to another level. Her name was Carol Gunther, and she was my very first USF instructor.
With her encouragement, I entered and won a state regional writing contest. My big break came when I was chosen, out of over 300 entrants, to become a weekly opinion editorial page columnist for the (Stockton) Record, a daily newspaper with a 60,0000 circulation covering seven counties, including the Mother Lode. This launched a nine-year stint and opened doors I could never have envisioned. These "doors" included a university teaching position, speaking engagements before civic groups like Lions clubs, invitations to special events, and varied freelancing opportunities.
Today I write because the drive is a part of who I am. It is an internal passion that I cannot shake. Along with their DNA, my grandparents instilled the elements of this passion. I know they would be proud of their "sassy" granddaughter's accomplishments, and of the fact that those endless speech corrections were not in vain.
In sum, like my grandfather, I am compelled to leave a legacy--some part of me for my offspring--one that will survive beyond this temporary vessel of bone and flesh and skin. This compulsion, I feel, is a common goal that all writers share.
Alicia Schooler-Hugg, is a former op ed columnist, freelance writer and educator whose writing has appeared in national print media. Her latest book is Granny Does Europe: A Love Story, Visit her website at aliciaschoolerhugg.com.
A Gift from my Grandfather by Deborah Davis
The summer when I was nine years old my family relocated from Ohio to Georgia. It was July. School wouldn't start for six more weeks. I had no friends in Atlanta yet, except for Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. They were good company, but I was ready to meet some new people.
We'd lived in our apartment about two weeks when a wonderful surprise arrived in the mail: the first volume of Readers' Digest 's "Best Loved Books For Young Readers," which contained four classics. It was a gift from my grandfather; he knew I'd be lonely for a while in a new place, and he knew how I loved to read above anything else. I opened it, with its slightly stiff binding, and inhaled the "new book" aroma. Included in this first volume were Treasure Island, David Copperfield, The Call of the Wild, and Madame Curie. Choosing which to read first was the best part. After much deliberation I decided on the Dickens and, that afternoon, began a lifetime of abiding friendships with the great characters of serious fiction and biography.
Every month, for fourteen months, a new installment arrived, containing four new books. Two summers later, when we'd twice moved cross-country again, I'd read Twain, Austen and Poe. I'd suffered with Jane Eyre at Lowood School. I'd lived on a western ranch with Ken and his horse in My Friend Flicka. I'd survived the Brooklyn slums of 1911 with Francie Nolan, and worked in Chinese rice paddies with Wang Lung in The Good Earth. While my family was traversing the eastern United States, I was on a world tour with the Great Books. Every month I looked forward to the arrival of the next book in the series and wondered where it would take me.
Grampa was tremendously pleased that I was a reader. He'd grown up poor and had to drop out of high school to help support his parents, unskilled German immigrants. The thing he was proudest of in his life, he always said, was sending his own three children through college. This gift of literature surely belongs on his list of accomplishments.
He died at sixty-four, when I was fifteen, and though I'd thanked him for the books I'm not sure he knew how much they meant to me. But great books live forever; my granddaughter, who is only two years old, will have those "Best Loved Books for Young Readers" soon enough. I hope they'll be her literary roots, as they were mine. Quite a legacy, and quite a gift, from her great-great-grandfather.
Deborah Davis lives in Richland, Michigan. A former equities trader, she concentrates on writing essays and short fiction. She is a member of the Richland Writers' Circle, where she enjoys the fellowship and encouragement of kindred spirits.
Writer Roots by Don Edgers
As far as I know there are no published writers in my father's lineage except for a "supposed "story written by his mother that was published in Readers Digest. I cannot find any such article, but it's a nice rumor.
My father's brother's wife published a recipe book, and my uncle wrote newspaper articles while living in prewar Japan (I think as a cover for being in the CIA).
Other than those mentioned above - rootless!
With that said, my daughter, who's a genealogist nut, had me send in my DNA to be tested in order to discover if I'm really from earth, and if so, where are my roots? Perhaps it will be discovered my early writing roots evolved from cave painters, or Egyptian tomb hieroglyphics writers. Maybe the historian, Josephus is in my lineage - But then, probably not.
Don’s roots are presently in Port Orchard, WA.
First Taste by Joan Leslie Taylor
In 1953, thanks to a personal tragedy, I began my writing life. I was eight and our family had just moved into the new house we'd watched materialize in a patch of woods. The house still echoed, wood floors settling, and was full of strange new sounds.
We'd only been there a few days when one morning I removed the black cover over my canary's cage, but Dickie didn't jump up. He was born crippled, so it was often a minute before he appeared on his perch. He was mine only because my grandmother couldn't sell a crippled bird. I loved my Dickie, who sang his heart out every day and especially when the vacuum roared.
I heard scurrying in the cage, but still Dickie failed to appear, so I climbed onto the piano bench to look into the cage. I screamed when I saw, not my canary, but a fat mouse sitting amidst a flurry of yellow feathers, all that remained of Dickie. My mother grabbed the cage, and ran outside where she crushed the intruder under a garbage can. I continued to scream and cry.
"Hush, you'll scare your sister."
I buried Dickie's scanty remains under the maple tree where lilies of the valley bloomed in the spring. Kneeling on the damp ground, I said my grief-stricken goodbyes.
Filled with more sadness than I'd ever felt and fearing Dickie might soon be forgotten, I wrote his story, complete with crayon drawings. Obsessed with details, I drew each feather on Dickie and each stripe of my polo shirt. I was dissatisfied with my illustrations, but as I wrote and rewrote, I watched thoughts in my head and a pain in my chest appear on the page. I had created something real with my words. My tears subsided and I was filled with excitement.
I rushed to the kitchen to read what I'd created to my mother who was cooking dinner and said only, "Very nice, dear."
At school, my classmates didn't believe a mouse could eat a canary and grow so fat he couldn't escape through the bars of the cage. Over the following weeks, I read the story to anyone who appeared at our house, until my mother said, "That's enough! No one wants to hear such a gruesome story. Write something happy." I put my story away, but I kept diaries full of feelings no one wanted to know. I'd tasted the heady power of words to express, transform, and transcend. No matter what others thought of me, writing Dickie's story had helped me plumb the depths of grief. That was enough. For a long time I showed no one anything I wrote.
Years later I wrote a book about death and dying. I was still inspired by the wondrous and awful truth of our existence on earth: we'll all die one day, and it might not be pretty, but that truth informed everything I wrote. I was still intoxicated with the power I'd discovered at eight.
After 25 years in the woods of west Sonoma County, CA, Joan Leslie Taylor is now living, writing and watching the shore birds in Alameda, CA.
Her email: email@example.com
My Literary Roots by Laura Diana Lopez
Although I don't remember it happening, I remember the story being told of how before I actually learned to read, I had memorized my Little Golden Book about the animals on the farm (soon followed by Goldilocks & The Three Bears).
Fast forward five years... in grade school, we had The Scholastic Book Club which sold paperbacks for 25 cents. I would check off dozens of books on the order form, and because it was "for my education," my mother gladly wrote the check.
In childhood summers I'd go to the local library and come home with as many books as I could stack in my arms. As soon as I'd torn through them, I'd be back for more. I knew then that someday I just had to have a library in my house, and then I dreamed of how perfect it would be to own a bookstore!
By the time I arrived in college with my boyfriend (later to be my husband) by my side, I already knew that as much as I adored him, that books were and always would be my first love.
Big box book stores may have dashed my independent bookstore dreams, but then again, they've all succumbed to online sales, where the books I write will be someday.
Across the pages of my life, I've had my own pen and paper, scratching thoughts through time, and my voracious appetite for the written word. Weaving stories in my mind, lifting my spirit and getting my gall. Whether or not I was ever on the moors with Heathcliff, I see it in my mind's eye, and in my literary reality, everything is possible.
I've never considered myself "well-read," but many a book has been well-loved by me. Like treasured friends, or my first love, whose roots run deep through my heart and soul.
Laura Diana Lopez’s education and experience in psychology, bodywork and energy work, give her a unique perspective into working with her clients in Body, Mind and Spirit. In her Integrative Wellness Coaching practice, she looks at all the facets of life as related to how they affect the whole person. She is passionate about raising conscious awareness as a model for moving through life. From this model, Laura is authoring her first full- length book, “The Transformative Practice of Choice.” To learn more, visit her website: LauraDianaLopez.com.
Seeds by Linda O'Connell
I don't remember having my own books or being read to as an impoverished preschooler. The seeds of my literary roots were planted as spoken words.
By the time I entered kindergarten and my peers were learning the alphabet and letter sounds, I was ahead of the game: I knew how to make effective sound effects. I was excited when Miss Mason assigned us to copy sentences off the chalk board: Today is Monday. It is windy.
I wanted to add more details. I had the urge to embellish: Whoosh! The gusty wind nearly blew me down the street, shook the leaves from the trees and twirled them whee!, like ballerinas before they landed at my feet. But I didn't know how to write those words, then.
My first grade primer was the most boring book I'd ever been exposed to. I mastered the words immediately and became irritated at the repetition: See Dick run. Run Jane, run. I yearned for delicious details about where Dick and Jane ran, and what Puff saw. I had the need to know.
My dad, a great story teller, was functionally illiterate, having gone only to third grade during the Great Depression. He spent most of his class time at the front of the room where he wore a pointed dunce cap. When he was sent out of the only room in the school house for clowning in class, he told me how he sought the students' attention. On cold days he ran his fingers over the window pane. On hot days when the door was left ajar, he poked his finger through the crack and wiggled it. When Dad told me these true stories, he imitated his classmates' giggles and, taught me about dialogue as he spat out the teacher's reprimands. My face stung with embarrassment for him, but his self-esteem was not crushed; it soared because he was the center of attention.
Although my late dad was unable to help me sound out words or read me a book, he painted word pictures that sparked my imagination and led to my eventual success as a writer. Because of his colorful descriptions, use of vivid verbs, sensory details, and pause for effect, Dad instilled the seeds of wonder and the need to write my own stories in me early on.
Throughout my formal school years, I excelled at composition writing. My writing has paid off in many ways since I began submitting my work fifteen years ago: I received publication and monetary compensation along with bylines and wide exposure. I won a complete wedding package, a scholarship and I was hired at a job. Each year, my writing efforts result in a trip to the beach. Sometimes I earn enough for gas money to get us there, and other times I can pay for the entire vacation. As my husband and I head out to the highway, I smile, look heavenward, and say, "Thank you, Dad, for planting the seed."
Linda O'Connell, a multi-published writer and preschool teacher from St. Louis, MO, instills the love of literacy in her students when she transcribes their dictated stories and posts them for all to see. Linda has been published in twenty-one Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Gloria Gaynor's anthology, We Will Survive, and she is developing an anthology, Not Your Mother's Book...On Family. Linda's blogs at Write From the Heart:www.lindaoconnell.blogspot.com
The Root Of It All by Marilyn Petty
If literary roots imply a lifetime devoted to reading the finest and best literature ever written, then my own roots run pretty shallow, more like a weed patch than a cultivated garden of superb prose. This is not to say that I haven't had my nose in books all my life, but I doubt that my youthful devotion to the likes of Uncle Wiggly or Nancy Drew would ever plant me in the rich loam of belles lettres.
Over the years I explored the libraries in every town we lived in, the book stores, the book sales. I still do. In my house is a full floor-to-ceiling book shelf in the living room, another in the bedroom, some of lesser size in the office room, and furniture for the express purpose of housing more books. I love them all, even the ones I have yet to read.
Recently, my friend, Rose, and I spent a pleasant afternoon working on our knitting projects. We talked about time and how there isn't enough of it. Yet, as Rose said, she has to knit every day. I said I wished I felt such compulsion about my own knitting. Ah, she said, but you have your books. And, you have to read every day, don't you?
She was right. Right down to the root of it all.
Marilyn Petty recently reread “Silas Marner”, a relic from high school studies. This time it was really good and is safely returned for keeping to one of her bookshelves.
E. B. White and Me by Patricia Holland
Every struggling new writer who has just earned a B.A. in English or creative writing needs a dose of the career advice E. B.White once gave me. He had very definite views on how to write--what to write about--and how to get it in print.
Andy really didn't like his first name, Elwyn. He used his nickname "Andy" while the byline on all of his stories, articles, essays, poems and books listed him as E. B.White.
Today, children may be the only readers who truly appreciate E.B. White for his excellent stories. E.B. White's children's books have lived on past his death in 1985. Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, are still very popular.
Some college students probably know that E. B. White had a strong grasp on the rules of grammar and usage, but's that all they know about him. In 1959, White took on a freelance project to revise William Strunk's classic grammar guide, The Elements of Style. From then on, the slim little book credited two authors: "Strunk and White." Andy revised it in 1972 and 1979.
In 1978, I had the privilege of reading and copy editing some of his changes for one of the revisions. That's when he steered me away from taking a graduate degree in English or journalism.
Students by the thousands applied to J-school after the articles by two rookie reporters at The Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, resulted in President Nixon's resignation in 1974. Andy claimed an overabundance of kids graduating as journalists would lead to a supply-and-demand problem with too many very average English majors, untried journalists and poor writers vying for too few jobs.
"Crack the mold," he said. "You already have a good job at the National Geographic Society. Keep it and keep writing about things that interest you. Don't depend on someone else to tell you how to write; that just comes with practice, not with more schooling."
A few days later, Andy inserted the following passage in the manuscript for the The Elements of Style. It's addressed to every writer (but I've always believed he wrote it for me):
"Many references have been made in this book to 'the reader,' who has been much in the news. It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader's plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader's wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living."
Freelance writer Patricia Holland of Paris, Kentucky, is currently working on her first novel. She went to work for the National Geographic Society when she was 17. “I needed $300 to buy a VW so I answered a blind want ad in the newspaper” she says. “I had planned to work for just one year then quit to go attend college full time, but I liked working for the Society too much to quit. I worked there for more than 25 years (and finished college too). I’ve always treasured the writing advice I got from well-known authors like Isaac Asimov, Maurice Sendak, and E.B. White, plus advice from the lesser known---but excellent---writers who worked for the Society."
Paradise Found by Sara Etgen-Baker
As a small child I'd climb onto my father's lap. "Daddy," I'd beg, "blow me some smoke rings and tell me a story." Like an actor on cue, he'd place a cigarette between his fingers and bring it to his mouth. Then like a magician, he'd flip open his lighter and bring the flame to the tip of the cigarette. When it was fully lit, he'd wave it like a fiery magic wand exclaiming, "Abracadabra!" Then he'd oblige me—blowing me smoke rings and telling me stories. My love for storytelling must've begun with these magical moments with my father.
But my love for words themselves began with my mother who read a page from the children's dictionary to me every night before I went to sleep.(Seriously!) Then at breakfast the following morning, she'd quiz me. "Tell me what a mammal is." "Can you give me an example of transportation?" I loved words because knowing more words meant that I could read.
And learning to read—-well, that was a rush. Every word I read lit the darkness, sparked my imagination, and led me out into an expanding world. Within those small, flat, square pieces of paper, I could slip into another character's skin; hear another's voice, and listen to another's soul.
But once I started to use words and write my own sentences—-well, that's when another universe opened up and my creativity began. I loved writing and weaving a tapestry with words. I fell in love with expressing the human condition.
Some years later, a teacher's unexpected whisper, "You've got writing talent," further ignited my writing desire. But I ignored that whisper and chose to teach literature rather than write it. I buried my desire and learned to hide my discontent. But I retired from teaching a few years ago and told my husband, "I need to resurrect my inner writer." He supported me in what was the best decision I've ever made—-outside of the day I agreed to marry him.
And in so doing, I re-discovered the paradise and bliss I'd lost so many years ago.
Sara Etgen-Baker writes memoirs and short stories. She hopes that when her Judgment Day dawns, Saint Peter will look in his Book of Life and say, “By all means, open up the Pearly Gates and let her in! She blessed others; she was a writer.” Until then, you may visit Sara at her blog:saraetgenbaker.blogspot.com.
How Firm a Foundation by Susan Bono
My roots reach deep into the soil of the Central Valley, where sprinklers green lawns on dry summer mornings and tule fog creeps on damp winter nights. In the long light of fall, my bike tires crunched through sycamore leaves as I rode the blacktopped streets to the Woodland Public Library, guarded by tall palms rustling with mourning doves and a librarian with a black eye patch. I used to wonder if she was a pirate.
In the children's library, a low-ceilinged room smelling of dusty paper and the damp I now associate with ghosts, I slowly became better acquainted with books. Nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss carried me like a wagon on the way to the county fair, bumping and jostling their rhythms deep into my bones. "One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. . ."The words to my first Dr. Seuss book still ring in my ears, and if I listen carefully to those long ago echoes, I can hear pride in my four-year-old voice for having mastered a work of literature!!
I also owe a debt to folksingers like The Kingston Trio and the Broadway soundtracks my parents played on their Heathkit hi-fi: South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly—those stories of triumph over circumstances, larger and louder than life. There were the songs we sang in the car ("I've Been Working on the Railroad!"), around the campfire ("Oh, Shenandoah!"), on the bus for school field trips ("Oh, you can't get to heaven on rollerskates!"), and in front of the TV with Mitch Miller ("Follow the bouncing ball!"). There were church hymns, the hum of the Lord's Prayer on the lips of our Methodist congregation, and grace murmured in German at my grandparents' house.
Later, there were songs on my transistor radio to sing along with, more sophisticated books to stick my nose into, and other places to live. My own writing grew as I grew and left the Valley, but those earlier, simpler loves are the ground upon which my literary life stands.
Susan Bono is feeling her roots in Petaluma, CA.
Searchlights Editor: Susan Bono
Columnists: C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders
Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow
Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.
Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.
Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.
Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at Writergal53@aol.com, or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.
Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net
Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.
Back to Searchlights & Signal Flares