In the Time of Hitler


I fell in love in the time of Hitler. Turmoil escalated the terror of what we-those of us who lived on the coast of the long, skinny state – when German submarines scaled our borders. The waves no longer reflected silver-blue of the moon. They shook in fear of what lay below their waters.

Two different sirens would sound from a watch tower. One alerted my hometown in Florida that planes flew above, or word reached us that German submarines waited like a shark drawn to blood. The first siren let my parents and I know it was time for a blackout.


A picture from Google images of a World War II watch tower in Florida.

Town officials rang the second siren, a fire alarm, one night. Townspeople gathered to learn where flames burned and smoke smothered. No one had a cell phone to call and tell everyone the officials had pulled the wrong siren.

Planes flew overhead. I could not tell if they were American or German planes, but a sky – once full of stars – was devoured by metal. Officials ordered a blackout. My parents closed every curtain in our small house and off went the lights.

I could not be with my love. Even when the lights came on, my great passion did not exist at home. All my parents had to read was the Bible and the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.

Many days in the summer I walked down dust roads to the town librarian’s house. She looked like a disciplined English governess, who would dab my cheek with a cloth if I cried. The librarian introduced me to my great love the day I opened Life magazine. I sat on her floor as the rain tip-tapped on her roof. The reporter’s words gripped me. Letter after letter wrapped around my heart, and circulated through my mind.

This was it; the beginning of life. A part of me would be reborn in the nineteen eighties. Even in my second form, I would not read all the words I desired in a lifetime.

My maternal grandmother grew up with little in Florida. She told me she often felt like an outcast. While she wanted to discover the world beyond Florida through books, her mother never stepped out of the house without wearing a dress, stockings, and a hat. Her father knew nothing of words except the ones he spoke.

Mimi’s curiosity about the world is reborn through me. Her need to know attitude defines a different mindset, which many still do not understand. The only person in my life to reach through my layers and grip the heart of who I am is her. Mimi knows beneath my wedding band words are wrapped around my finger. They cannot be seen except by those who look close enough.

Sharing in Rejection

I read about rejection from other bloggers in the past week. I like to know what other writers and editors have to say. Rejection is a hard topic for many writers to face, but it is a challenge for authors, poets, or lyricists.

I have listened to other authors talk about how to face rejection through the years. At the tender age of fourteen, I wrote songs. I met a song plugger at RCA thanks to a Nashville songwriter I met at one of my talent workshops. Before I wrote fiction, I composed songs. I was no Taylor Swift, but the song plugger and the songwriter saw something in me.

The song plugger said, “Take every critique you are given. Remember it is not criticism. It is meant to help you grow as an artist.”

My grandmother is a great writer. She will not come out and share her work with too many people. Mimi has told me she fears critique. I’ve grown used to it throughout the years because I started young. Somehow I would use advice to transform the sharp edges of my work into polished beauty.

None of the stories about rejection touched me as much as the one I’ve reblogged. Story aside, I want to go out and buy his work. I accept him now as one of my many teachers. He had to overcome more than just rejection and revision.

FicFaq

A writer’s life is one of rejection. In 2002, on a whim and an afterthought, I started writing Where the Rain Falls. It was a tedious process, full of self-doubts much like the peace that was never final in Assam. I finished WTRF in 2006 and spent another year editing and rewriting. At the end of it, the book was shining like a beacon in the literary world. So I thought. How wrong I was.

I started querying. In batches of five or six I sent out queries and to only those agents accepting electronic submissions. Can you imagine the cost of couriering a letter to London or New York? And the normal post? I was better off throwing my query in a bottle into the Brahmaputra. The first agency I queried requested a partial, and a week later, the full manuscript. There were more requests for partials and…

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Power of a Word, Part II: Intimidation

I grew up with a slight stutter. Teachers pulled me out of my classes in elementary school. I felt like a special kid. I was a special kid in many ways. Doctors diagnosed me with this and that, but one of my main challenges was the fact I stuttered. I disliked reading aloud. Scratch that sentence. I hated it.

My paternal grandmother tried to help. She bought me Hooked on Phonics. When the package came in the mail, my parents and I opened to see the big box of cassette tapes and flash cards with all kinds of words and sounds. I popped the tapes into the player and tried to make the right sounds. I felt like a cow on display for children at a fair, and the children said, “Come on, moo, cow, moo.”

Mom would come up to my room to ensure I did my homework. No parent wanted his or her child to fall behind in school, but the fact was my elementary school advised my parents to hold me back for one year after first grade. I did not have the speech, vocabulary, or even coloring skills I needed. I did not know this fact about myself until high school.

Confidence for any achievement in life did not come until college. High school was a difficult and hard time in my life on many levels. Aside from having little knowledge about sex or drugs, or the understanding of how easily teenagers could take advantage of each other, I hated reading out loud in class. I never expressed this sentiment to my parents or anyone else. I tried to stick my nose in the book, and read to myself. I hoped the teacher would not call my name to read.

Snickers of classmates infuriated me. I stayed on the st– sound too long. The big joke of it all was the fact I dreamed of becoming an author. It did not matter to me how much of a loser others believed I was, I adored the written word more than any popular pair of shoes or the perfect mascara.

Other girls at school stored blush, foundation, mascara, and all the make-up necessities in a bag kept inside their book bags. I had ink on my hands from poems I doodled in class. When words were on the page, I felt free to move them around. They spoke to me in a secret language. I heard them in my head, and characters came to life. My imagination spun out of control like a kid in skates going down a hill in San Francisco.

A Performance


I joined my first writing group when I went to study abroad in 2007. Call it a support group. Anything you want, but it had been a long time since I’d read any of my work out loud. At each meeting, we sat in a circle on a couch that showed its age, in a wooden chair, or on the floor. Words and characters stood up off the pages when each writer read his or her work. They came to greet each of us as we listened with a writer’s anticipation and an editor’s ear.

The Creative Writing Society 2006-2007 at Kent scheduled an open mic night for writers. Nerves ran up and down my spine. I knew for certain I would slip on my words. I would not sit in a room with a few other writers. This time I was on a stage.

A rush fills me when I go down a ski slope. Waves of snow sail off to the side of my skis. When my ski hits a frozen spot, I know I’m going to lose my balance and fall.

But, when I stood on the stage I did not fall. For the first time in my life, I had a support group of people who were like me. They wanted to improve their work. They sought their voice. Characters lived in the ears and minds of other writers.

Why Read Out Loud

Words cannot sit on a couch and eat chips all day like a lazy person. Well, they could, but where would the story go? Stories are not formed by typing fingers or jotting pens alone. A story comes with a voice.

Editor M. Scott Douglass of Main Street Rag spoke to a small group in April 2011 near my home. He talked about a poet who was too shy to read at one of his scheduled readings. Douglass told the group how important it was for any writer or author to read their own work.

A writer’s voice has a power which resonates with readers. It transforms from a shy voice or one with a stutter to one of power and authority. It is your work. You have the right to own it.

*I had to repost this blog, but thank you to those who commented on my previous version.

Power of a Word, Part I

Watch your language,” my mom would say in one of my teen angst moments.

My sixteen-year-old self replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

I waited for her to turn her back, and I muttered a smart mouth comment. The words can hurt, one word is all it takes, or the watch your words lectures entered my ears a many times. They did not sink for a long time. I thought about the phrase watch your words.

It is hard to watch a word unless you’re reading something. The power 0f one word or a phrase expands beyond the realm of teenagers who think they know everything. The idea of it knocks on the door of a writer. It waits for you to answer the door, shake its hand, and invite it onto your page. A word, any word, waits for the writer to invite it. It takes half of a second for a special guest to appear on a computer screen.

The question a writer asks his or herself is: Do I have the right word? Does it benefit the scene? The character? The thought process goes on and on to the point the mind feels numb and wants to push everything away. The creativity drains itself like the fat from beef in the frying pan. It leads to a hard knuckle punch in the writer’s own head, which I wrote about in my last blog.

Words are everywhere. Road signs jump out at us. Words are in books, on iPads, and in HTML script. Fashion models, designers, and tech-wizards all want something from words. They want to know words’ secrets. Excellent written work is in style forever. That is the power a writer has: to take a word and mold it.

 I Cannot Think of a Good Description so I Turn to the –lys

In 2007, I took a class at the University of Kent at Canterbury called Reading and Writing Contemporary Fiction, taught by British author Scarlett Thomas. One day I went to my module—or class. Scarlett had a guest speaker. He placed a scene from a book on a projector screen. In editing the work, he pointed out how the writer had chosen to use many adverbs ending with

-ly.

My aunt used to bring me printing paper from her office. She tore off the sides—which if you worked or attended college in the early nineteen-nineties, you know what I mean—and stapled a booklet for me. I drew pictures of my stories. As soon as I learned how to write, I put words together like puzzles. Throughout my teen years and early college, I mostly wrote poetry. I came up with the idea for my novel, Sons of the Edisto, in June 2006. I started the research and composition. I had not realized that there was a certain science to writing fiction.

I learned more about show don’t tell listening to the guest speaker in Scarlett’s class.

Adverbs and adjectives alone are not enough to describe a character, his or her situation, or a scene. If anyone looks at alternate word for adjective, he or she will see accessory. In law, a person who drives a robber to the bank is an accessory to the crime. The person does not want police to catch him or her. If the robber is caught, he or she might give authorities the name of the accessory.

In other words, there is no hiding the –ly or a bad adjective
in front or after the noun. The noun will reveal it to readers and editors. A perfect example of an author, whose historical work I respect, is Judith Pella. I read her book Written in the Wind about three American sisters, all of whom are faced with the challenges of family and World War II. The book represents the first of four books. Pella does many things wonderful as an author, especially in her description of Russia. A repetition reoccurs like a sour note on a piano that does not fit the song. The listener hears it. The reader catches the adverbs. Passionately is a favorite word of Pella’s when she describes a kiss of any two romantic characters in the book.

Now I’m not an expert. Literary minds throughout the world have read more books than me, gone to Ivy leagues schools, and know the science of fiction and its market. I’m one of its pupils. In the years since my lessons with Scarlett Thomas, I understand more about the –ly dilemma. We, as writers and readers of the twenty-first century, live in a visual world. We must write with vision and heart.


When I Think of the Word(s)

In a general sense, many writers I’ve met with feel pressure the moment they start researching the best tips on writing a story, poem, or book. Pressure builds up, and a writer is at a loss for words. The pressure might boil down to the right word for a sentence. Joshilyn Jackson said at a conference I attended in 2010 that she wrote draft after draft of the Chapter One for gods in Alabama.

Jackson told the audience she thought her first drafts of chapters were not good. She molded one sentence out of simple words most all readers know, and created my favorite first sentence:

“There are Gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”

She pulls the reader in and demands attention with so little.

As a writer contemplates what words to place in a sentence, it should not be a game of Scrabble. I find the blank page always wins. I am guilty of over thinking. The moment my thoughts start to circle about what I’ve researched on how make a book great, I know I’m not going to accomplish much with any word I write.

The power of a first draft and its words is that it is not a manufactured item. You are not about to ship it overseas for someone else to build and then sell it back in the United States. It is all yours. Let words spill from the heart, mind, and gut. Or just talk to the gods in Alabama.


Color in the Fog

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

In the winter, I miss the fresh markets. The little market up the road from my home closes in December. It is rare to see snow cover the area where I live unless it is a cold winter like 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. A small part of me grieves for the empty, drab market. It is located on the corner, but looks more like a girl in a pale, thrift store dress waiting for the boy to ask her to dance. Crates shout for freshness and color; an escape from its damp, brown existence.

Winter also comes for the writer. A season chills the fingers. The brain and the keyboard disconnect. Work drives a person crazy, reading for a class piles up, or the baby bangs his book on the table and wants his parent to show him the pictures. At times a writer does not know why words freeze.

In Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he wrote about how tough it was to find time to write with two young children and a limited budget of time and money. He wrote while he waited for laundry to finish. Even if he did not think it was the springtime of his creativity, he composed something.

Not every writer is that way. Some writers need time away from the world where children are pulling on their arm; college friends are ready to go out to a bar; or the chatter of colleagues at the lunch table. Words become like cats behind the couch. The can be lovable pet comes out from behind the couch when all the noises are gone. Uproars of the mind also disrupt the possible kaleidoscope of colors we as writers might create with just a few presses on the keypad or jot of a pen. The pen stands up straight and does not move. It waits and waits for something to pop.

When a white wine sauce simmers just right, I like to add cherry tomatoes. I dislike tomatoes by themselves, but the sauce fills the round, red beauties with taste. They pop in the mouth. A flood of flavors invades the tongue. I believe an author searches for the same result in a sentence, a character, or word.

I’ve often heard others, myself included, blame writer’s block. I’m not sure what my feelings are about the subject, but I know insecure moments fight with creativity. Those times question our abilities or stories. Uncertainty drills itself into the mind like a head cold. Drums of a foreign nation beat against the walls of the forehead.

One of the keys to fighting the beast, I believe, is to stop trying to look through the fog.

Fog clouds a space. The writer wants to paint their work full of yellows and reds. It feels like those colors hold out on the writer. It is waiting for spring. The soil that grows plants and vegetables is still in place during winter. As writers, we have the option to dig into the soil, plant the seeds, go back to basics, and rediscover how to make a work significant. All the sudden, the bin at the fresh market is not a wasted space. It is the container to hold the creations of a writer’s mind.

Stephen King On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

http://www.stephenking.com/library/nonfiction/on_writing:_a_memoir_of_the_craft.html

Write on the Art

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

Advice is thrown at writers every day. It matters not if the writer is a professional with his or her own flair and grasp of grammar, or someone like me, who is at the starting line. Sometimes it feels like every breath I draw is the amount of advice I receive as a writer. The advice of which I write is not the critique of an individual work, but of how to better the person, the writer, into a product or art.

 Different kinds of advice come to the ears of writers. The trick is to decipher the meaning and if it is good advice. Some words about the writer or the style—whether from family or editors—feel like steel beams thrown at a cotton stomach. Behind those words either lays the truth to mold a better writer or, on a few occasions, someone who has bad intentions. Temptation to lock out the world puts its arm around the writer, and says, “Hey, you’re not that good. Go lie down on the couch.”

An even worse scenario is crying over the keyboard. That stubborn determination of I’ll show them grabs hold. It consumes the writer’s mind and makes a worse writer of a person. In the moment of sullen disbelief, the writer writes when he or she should not. Before the situation ends, the writer sends an e-mail, submission to a literary magazine, or response to an editor without proofreading. Sullen soaked words poison the screen of the receiver.

 In the summer of 2008, I graduated from the University of South Carolina. I wanted to become a journalist. I had big dreams of capturing the hot stories, and of making a name for myself in the newspaper business. Before I was offered my first job in May, I started work as a freelance sports writer for my hometown newspaper. I also wrote articles about the skids in the economy and the skyrocketing prices of chicken, pork and beef. Another news editor requested suggestions from the editor of that newspaper about the freelance writers he used. The editor wrote the freelance writers’ names and put a recommendation below each one. Under my name, the editor typed needs work, but serviceable.

I closed out of the e-mail in which all of the freelance writers’ addresses were copied. Tears came to my eyes followed by the thought of I’ll show him. Only later did I realize a truth lived behind the editor’s statement. I had written an article about the economy and how it affected local citizens in the town. I had left out questions with a man who could not work due to disability. My major was history. I knew how to write, but journalism skills were lacking. I did not want to admit it.

 I found it difficult to ask tough questions. My parents had raised me as a good South Carolina girl, to not ask about someone’s personal finances, and to not hurt others’ feelings. I’d always cared about what my family thought. I was scared, but I had to run over that past to become a journalist.

 Timid and fear are two sticks in the hands of a writer who needs paddles to maneuver his or her canoe across the lake to professionalism. The weakness only persists when the writer lets it. The warning comes through words of advice, whether soft or made of steel, to test the writer’s worth. It is not about a specific piece a person writes, but the general flair and presentation of the writer. Perhaps a writer’s greatest test is the ability to mold his or herself into art.