Writing Life

“Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”
~Anne Lamott
“Getting Started”
Bird by Bird

“No matter how far I venture outside my own experience, I also know that I am who I am, and that my work will always reflect my character regardless of whether I want it to.”
~Ann Patchett
“The Getaway Car”
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

living
K. Ashby

Short Story: Three Chickens

As I explained in an earlier post, I like to use short fiction exercises to better acquaint myself with characters from a longer work. Sometimes I finish with a paragraph or two that puts a little flesh on an otherwise thin character; sometimes I gain a better sense of the character’s voice, and sometimes a short story takes shape. The latter happened a couple of years ago when I sat down to learn a bit more about a character in my first novel.

Tonda Neeley is a young single mother working as a secretary in an elementary school. She’s hardworking. She has a good relationship with her daughter. She’s also caustic, defensive, and particularly pugnacious with her direct supervisor. I knew that Tonda had suffered a few knocks growing up: her father died when she was very young; her mother struggled financially and without fiscal or emotional support from either her or her husband’s family; and, Tonda herself married young and chose her mate unwisely.

I knew the rough patches.  I also wanted to know what made her strong enough to be a good mom, move far from home and grind out a better life for her and her kid or I risked reducing her to a stereotype: the single mom with a tough background. So, when the phrase, “When Tonda Neeley left her husband, she took her daughter, two pockets crammed with loose change, and three frozen chickens” looped through my mind one day, I grabbed it and began to write. And very quickly, a story took shape. It was a story that showed me Tonda’s first courageous step away from sure destruction and toward life, away from abuse and neglect, toward the nurturing community of her childhood home and neighborhood.

When Tonda Neeley left her husband, she took her daughter, two pockets crammed with loose change and three frozen chickens. She had to walk, of course, and the chickens made the whole thing awkward.  Still, she figured that walking thirty-one blocks in the summer heat would start them thawing pretty quick, and when she and Lainey got to her mother’s house, they would roast them and invite the neighbors. Anyone who wanted could come and eat those chickens. They would all devour them, brown skins crisped in real butter, chopped herbs steamed against the pink flesh turned white in the oven. Every bite tender, running with juices, savory and comforting. This is what  filled her mind, pounding against the inner walls of her skull as she gripped her daughter’s thin hand and stepped off the cement front step of their home.

An hour or two of writing and rewriting produced a rough draft and cleared a nasty case of writer’s doldrums. Uncounted moments of editing here and there, in the quiet moments, resulted in a short story,  “Three Chickens”, published last month by Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.  (If you like, you can read the full story here.)

I always like my characters more after getting to know them better, even the awful ones. (And Tonda can be pretty awful.) Kind of like real people.

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A Children’s Story (Excerpt)

I’m currently writing a children’s story. It’s a great deal of fun, primarily because I’m writing with my children in mind, thinking about what will interest and entertain them.  They really are the perfect audience:  endlessly forgiving and easily amused.

In this story, I’m just getting to know a particular character.   I know she walks every morning and evening with two small, ugly dogs, carrying a walking stick hand-carved from the trunk of a redwood tree cut on her own property.  I  have no inkling as to her name.   I know that when she’s walking, she often speaks out loud, and with great passion, as if she’s conversing with nature and they are intimate friends.

Four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission. The excerpt that follows finds them fidgety and awkward, having just encountered her for the first time.


Behind them, birds fluttered in and out of the tall dried grasses, filling the evening air with their calls and cries. Mice, rats, and gophers scampered and rustled home through the underbrush. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds, and overall, the three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. The tiny old woman leaned heavily on her stick and pivoted to face the raucous field. She kept her left hand on the stick, raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her frail body, she cried out,

“Draw a peace over this teeming field–

wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

waiting on breathless wing for summoning.”

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm as if soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she was required to say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least,  she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her,  she was rescued by the little woman, who seemed to see no need for anyone else to speak.

“Well,” she said, with such force that all five of them fixed their eyes on her wrinkled face. She was not looking at them. She had turned around to face the low mountains that rimmed the far side of their property.  There the sun seemed to rest on the mountain tops, a hesitation that bathed the valley below them in soft, golden light. “The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think? It’s a wonder anyone bothers.” She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Joshua expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. She shrugged and smiled at them. “Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. The cathedrals, sculptures, paintings, magnificent compositions. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think?  When I see them or hear them, or when I’m outside on an exquisite evening like this, I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.”  She smiled at them again, her large eyes glinting in the fading light.

Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes! Yes, I know exactly what you mean! She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, oils, acrylics, a pencil–anything–and create.  Heck, she was tempted to drop to one knee in the dirt and start tracing her finger in the dry brown earth.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”


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Short Stories

I have written two short stories solely for the purpose of exploring individual characters from a longer work. There were two benefits to this exercise. First, I got a firmer grasp on each character’s motivations. Second, I was able to procrastinate on the longer work and still claim to be writing.  The following excerpt is the first couple of pages from one of these exploratory shorts.

She drove from the east, and the sunrise glowed from behind her, softening the dry, ragged contours of her destination. For a moment, it seemed that the town regained its youthful flush and swagger when bulging cattle cars lumbered from its tiny depot to Chicago slaughterhouses, and tankers, swollen with oil, slid in from the west.  Ivy ignored the illusion. She knew that the mid-day sun would burn it away and return her hometown to its weary habit.

Minutes later she parked in front of her mother’s home on a street of neat one-story houses that were pounded together at the end of World War II. Once as bright and eager as the newlyweds crossing their porches, these homes now squatted comfortably, their faces faded and worn from years of raising families.

A sidewalk, cracked and uneven, led to her mother’s front yard where a courageous bit of garden welcomed visitors.  It was a lush patch in the small town where much of the landscaping looked as if the owners had left for vacation and forgot to pay the neighbor’s kid to water the yard. There were roses, lavender,ornamental grasses, and tough succulents. There were heavy blossoms reaching for the sun on stately stems, and shy shade-lovers creeping out from below the taller growth, anything her mother could keep alive in this reluctant earth.

In the kitchen, Ivy’s mother was just straightening up from the oven, and her hands, engulfed by quilted mitts, grasped the sides of a formidable roasting pan. The oven released its heat in a breath laden with roasted garlic, vegetables, and rich meat, the familiar Sunday afternoon fragrance of her mother’s kitchen.

“Sugar,” her mother exhaled the endearment as she set the pan onto waiting trivets, “Sugar, can you pop the casserole in there? I don’t think I can bend down again after that.”

“Sure Mama.”

After easing the oven door shut, Ivy straightened and turned to see her mother holding out a length of pressed red and white gingham. Tiny roosters strutted across the small checks.

“Don’t want you to splash anything on that pretty dress.” She gave the apron an impatient shake and then pressed it into Ivy’s hand.  “Would  you rather have mine? I think it’s longer–might even cover your whole skirt.”

“No, Mama, this is fine.” She ducked her head through the neck strap and fumbled with the ties before her mother stepped forward, and putting her arms around Ivy’s waist, secured the apron.

“Welcome home, baby girl.”

“Thanks Mama.” Ivy kissed her on the temple, right where her mother’s thick, blonde-white hair met the soft skin of her face, now reddened from her time in the cramped kitchen. “I don’t even wear these at home,” she admitted.

“Well. I know I always made you wear them in this kitchen.” Her mother paused in front of the refrigerator and stared for a moment at the faded red OKLAHOMA! magnet that memorialized her lone venture from her home state. “Remember the blue and white one with the eyelet lace?” She pulled the refrigerator door open, freeing a wisp of cool air to swirl at their legs, and began handing fruit to Ivy.

“I loved that apron!”She laid the fruit on the counter. Pineapple, banana, strawberry, kiwi. “Didn’t it have a rainbow on it?”

“No, no, no, that was your fourth-grade apron. You know, you loved to wear the blue one and pretend that you were Dorothy.” Her mother pulled a white paper napkin from her own apron pocket, folded it in half, and pressed it to her forehead  and above her upper lip.  “You would wear that apron all day and carry Stripey around in my wicker yarn basket calling him ‘Toto’. You made it to the grocery store once in that get-up and almost to church another time before we noticed.”

“That poor cat,” Ivy laid the pineapple across the cutting board and removed the top and bottom with quick, heavy strokes. “No wonder all his hair fell out before he died. I tortured him and Stanford medicated him.” She rubbed her thumb over the pineapple’s prickly surface and smiled, “I wonder what Stanford’s patients would think if they knew he started out on cats?”

Her mother frowned at the bowl she was cleaning, “Your brother’s patients adore him. Finish that fruit and toss it with the lime juice. Family will be here soon.”

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