In Memory of My Mother

021 copyMy mother died  five years ago today, almost exactly a year after my brother. (This is the last photo of the two of them together.) To understand the sly humor rather than the pathos behind that sentence, I’ll have to tell you a bit about my mother. She spoke with perfect diction, in unstilted, unaccented English, and she loved words and word games, especially the kind of game where you take a word or phrase and find as many smaller words as possible. For example: in “almost exactly,” you can find most, call, cell, yell, exact, alas, and so on (Me? I hate that game, perhaps because I could never win when I played with her.).

It came as a shock to me when I realized as an adult that my mother was a first generation American who grew up speaking a language other than English. I always knew that, of course, but as a child you accept your mother for who she is without seeing her in the broader context of life. We often think of first generation Americans as people who have a rough time speaking English (or who speak rough English), but neither she nor any of her siblings had a hint of that other language in their voices.

She raised her family with a respect for language. No slang at our house. No “ain’t” or “we got no” or any other example of language slippage. My parents were strict, and we children seldom talked back,  but there was one thing we all argued about with Mother: “almost exactly.” She claimed “exactly” had no degrees. A thing was either exact or almost. The rest of us knew the truth: there is a world of difference between almost and exact. (My brother who is gone was the one who argued most vociferously with her, but of course, he argued vociferously with everyone. He was a bull of a boy and then a man, but never a bully, just strong and adamant about his beliefs.)

Though occasionally I use “almost exactly” in speech, I try not to use it in my writing. It’s one thing to use such a construction when talking and something else entirely to commit it to the permanency of writing, and I don’t want to meet her on a cloud in some afterlife and have her start in on that old argument with me again.

On the other hand, it might be nice.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Giving Thanks for Words

Every day I find something to be grateful for, even if it’s only that the sun is shining,  that I once had a great love, that I have open spaces to explore (both in my head and in the world). Even when all else seemed bleak these past thirty-one months since the death of my life mate/soul mate, even when I had no hope, there was always something to be grateful for (most often that he was no longer suffering), so I don’t need to set aside a special day of thanksgiving.

Still, during this season of giving thanks, there is something I am especially grateful for, something worth celebrating . . . words.

Words convey thoughts, ideas, hopes from one person to another. They connect us from continent to continent, enabling us to bond with like-minded people all around the world. I have exchanged words — and friendship — with people from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the Nederlands, India. And for this I am grateful.

Words allow us to read and to write, to find entertainment and enlightenment in worlds created out of nothing but letters strung together. Words allow a story, concocted in one mind, to come to full realization in another. For most of my life, these worlds of words have been my life, or at least a major part of it. Now that I too am a world-creator, I am grateful for the words with which I build my stories.

Words give comfort, especially when distance (either geographic or emotional) does not allow a touch of commiseration. I am especially grateful for all the words of encouragement you (the readers of this blog) have given me during my time of grief, words that touched me. I hope some of my words touched you.

Words mean hope. With words, there is always the hope that we will be able to come to an understanding of each other, and perhaps find peace. (Of course, people would have to shut up long enough to listen to each other’s words; one-way words cause conflict and confusion.)

Words mean community and continuity. Words, both spoken and written, presuppose that there is someone to listen, and that is community. Telling our his-stories and her-stories to each other creates both community and continuity. They tell us who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become.

If there were no one to hear our words, if we existed solely in ourselves, we’d still need words to communicate our feelings and ideas to ourselves. This ability to put our thoughts into words gives us the power to know ourselves and to understand greater truths.

So this week, whether you celebrate the U.S. Thanksgiving or not, stop for a moment to give thanks for words. They are we.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Giving Thanks for Words

Every day I find something to be grateful for, even if it’s only that the sun is shining, that the pain of loss is muted, that I once had a great love, that I have open spaces to explore (both in my head and in the world). Even when all else seemed bleak these past nineteen months, even when I had no hope, there was always something to be grateful for (most often that my mate was no longer suffering), so I don’t need to set aside a special day of thanksgiving.

Still, during this season of giving thanks, there is something I am especially grateful for, something worth celebrating . . . words.

Words convey thoughts, ideas, hopes from one person to another. They connect us from continent to continent, enabling us to bond with like-minded people all around the world. I have exchanged words — and friendship — with people from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the Nederlands, India. And for this I am grateful.

Words allow us to read and to write, to find entertainment and enlightenment in worlds created out of nothing but letters strung together. Words allow a story, concocted in one mind, to come to full realization in another. For most of my life, these worlds of words have been my life, or at least a major part of it. Now that I too am a world-creator, I am grateful for the words with which I build my stories.

Words give comfort, especially when distance (either geographic or emotional) does not allow a touch of commiseration. I am especially grateful for all the words of encouragement you (the readers of this blog) have given me during my time of grief, words that touched me. I hope some of my words touched you.

Words mean hope. With words, there is always the hope that we will be able to come to an understanding of each other, and perhaps find peace. (Of course, people would have to shut up long enough to listen to each other’s words; one-way words cause conflict and confusion.)

Words mean community and continuity. Words, both spoken and written, presuppose that there is someone to listen, and that is community. Telling our his-stories and her-stories to each other creates both community and continuity. They tell us who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become.

If there were no one to hear our words, if we existed solely in ourselves, we’d still need words to communicate our feelings and ideas to ourselves. This ability to put our thoughts into words gives us the power to know ourselves and to understand greater truths.

So this week, whether you celebrate the U.S. Thanksgiving or not, stop for a moment to give thanks for words. They are we.

Ranting And Writing

We are always told to show not tell, yet new writers often have a hard time understanding the difference. And apparently, so do professional writers.

I found this example of tell in a book by a bestselling author. She was enraged, and this was very visible. You and I certainly could never get away with such a ridiculous sentence. How was her rage visible? Did she turn red? Did flames shoot out of the top of her head? Describing how she looked when angry, though not ideal, is better than simply saying her anger was visible, but an accomplished writer shows the anger, shows what the character did.

Perhaps she was angry at her fiancé and so she slapped him. (As an aside, why is this still acceptable behavior for women? If men aren’t allowed to hit women, then women shouldn’t be allowed to hit men.) Or perhaps she tore off her engagement ring and tossed it in the river. Even better if she surreptitiously picked up a pebble, then palmed her engagement ring, and threw the pebble in the river. That way she could show many things besides her anger: she can show that she is smart, controlled, even manipulative. Maybe she isn’t even angry; could be she just wants the guy to think she was angry.

Any way you look at it, the sentence as it stands is weak. So is this one by the same author: He remained perfectly still, not moving a muscle. At least she showed him doing something, but remaining perfectly still and not moving a muscle mean the same thing. Redunancy, anyone?

While I’m on my rant here, I have something else I’ve been meaning to say. The preferred usage now is to use a instead of his or her when referring to a limb. For example: He put a hand in his pocket. The reasoning is that if you say he put his hand in his pocket, it presupposes that he has a single hand. But I always wonder: if he puts a hand in his pocket, whose hand is it? His? A disembodied hand he just happened to have lying around? Okay, I’m getting ridiculous here, but it shows the ambiguity of words.

Sometimes ambiguity is acceptable, but more often it’s the lazy way of writing. Makes me wonder why readers shell out hard-earned money when authors are so willing to repay them with sentences such as She was enraged, and this was very visible.

On Writing: Finding the Words

I always thought I would be an author. I loved reading, and I had an affinity for words. I would spend days perfecting a six line poem, finding the perfect word to say what I meant, finding the perfect layout so the visual aspect of the poem adding to the meaning. I also wrote short allegories (that masqueraded as children’s stories). But what I really wanted to do was to write a novel. So I quit my job, stocked up on paper on pens (this was pre-PC), and sat down to write the story of a love that transcended time and physical boundaries, told with sensitivity and great wisdom. To my dismay, I discovered I had an appalling writing style, little wisdom, and absolutely no talent.

Back then I thought that to be a writer, one let the words flow from mind to pen to paper, like a medium transmitting messages from the spirit world. (Puts a whole new meaning on the word medium used as a vehicle for ideas!) But few words came to me. And the ones that did come, conveyed little of the story I wanted to tell.

And then one day no words came. Gone out of my head. Kaput. I lived with that sadness until many years later when I decided that, talent or no talent, I would write. So I did. I put one word on the page and then another. To my surprise, I finished the novel, but it is so terrible that I do not include it when I count the number of books I have written. (It’s a novelized version of my life, written more as therapy than literature, with a single benefit — I no longer have any desire to put myself in any of my books.)

After that, I started to read books about writing, which depressed the heck out of me because I couldn’t understand half of what they said. Rising conflict? Show don’t tell? Beats? The information gradually seeped into my subconscious, and so I learned.

After starting my fifth novel (or sixth if one counts that first autobiographical one) I discovered the internet and so wasted my words on commenting and blogging and emails, which is why I declared October as MyNoWriMo (My Novel Writing Month.) Unlike NaNoWriMo in November, MyNoWriMo does not require me to write 50,000 words in the month. The words do not flow out of me; I have to pull them out one by one. What I do expect from MyNoWriMo is to get back into the habit of writing, to find again the joy in building a story word by word.

And it’s working. Last night, for the first time in months, I felt that excitement of being in the story. I only wrote about 500 words (typical for me) but they are good words. I can hardly wait for tonight!

I Do Not Have Writer’s Block

My hero is running from a volcano and has been running from the dang thing for at least three months. I can hear him panting from exhaustion, but I sit at the computer and spend my words writing articles, leaving comments, sending emails. I have no words left to get him out of his predicament.

In the end, that’s why I write. Not for the fulfullment, not because of a compusion, but because the words gang up on me, using all available brain space. The only way to free myself is to let the words out. But the words I’m letting out now have to do with the mechanics of writing, and so my poor hero runs. And runs.

I thought for sure by getting guest bloggers to do my work for me that the words would begin to weigh heavy on my mind, but I wasted those words on other websites. And I used to be such a thrifty sort. 

I did come up with another idea for getting me back on track with my WIP: start another blog, one just to let my hero run free. Maybe I’ll post my research, notes on character, anything that pertains to the WIP. It seems like such a great idea, but here I am, planning to waste more words while not writing my novel.

But it could work. Especially if I can put one of those widgets on the site that shows how much of the book I’ve finished. Could shame me out of my not writer’s block.

What Is Writing Like For You?

For me, writing is like the world’s longest crossword puzzle, one that takes a year to complete. I like playing with words, finding their rhythm, and getting them to behave the way I want. I like being able to take those words and create ideas, characters, and emotions. Amazing when you think about it, how we can juggle twenty-six symbols in different ways to create words, sentences, paragraphs, worlds. And what one person writes, another can read.

For you, writing is like . . .

A Writer’s Mythical Journey

The best books always have characters that go through a transformation during the course of the story, but most books today seem to have static characters. The authors tell us a lot about the characters and their myriad relationships but the characters do not really transform. Perhaps because the writer isn’t asking the right questions.

In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold wrote, “Ask your character these two questions: Who are you? Who do you want to be?

“Ask them of yourself as well.”

Perhaps the key to writing well is knowing who we are and what we want to be in relation to the book we are writing. Maybe the way to get inside it and to create a vivid and compelling world is to make the character’s transformation our own. And we do this by having a clear idea of what we want to say and choosing the right words to say it.

The realization that the words we write can change us as writers as well as affect our readers is making me rethink my own mythic journey as a writer. If words are so powerful that they can change readers and writers both, then they deserve my best. I don’t think I’ve achieved my best. At least, I hope I haven’t.

Writing is changing me in ways I could not even fathom several years ago, and I have a hunch I am at still at the beginning of my journey, so I have no idea how I will be transformed. I’m hoping I am a hero in my own journey, and that I will become a powerful writer. I now can see that writing will never get easier for me, because with each book I will pick something to challenge me, to help me get closer to that being that author I need to become. Published or unpublished.

It’s the journey that counts. The process of transformation.

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Words Yipping at My Heels

I just finished taking a look at two thrillers, both big, slick, well-touted works. Although they had interesting plots, there were so many point-of-view characters and so many incidents that the stories never seemed to go anywhere. I finally got tired of the words yip-yip-yipping at me and closed the books.

Ahh. Silence.

Three-hundred-page manuscripts used to be common, but the size of books grew along with the influence of corporate booksellers. Not only did large books make people think they were getting more for their money, they were well suited for mass displays. As with other merchandise, perception of worth apparently supersedes true value.

Big books are divided into short chapters and those chapters divided into smaller and smaller segments that make the book easy to put down and pick up at odd intervals for attention-challenged readers, but those small segments make it hard for a reader who wishes to identify with a character and be pulled into another reality.

Some books don’t lose anything by being big and thick. Although toward the end I did get a trifle tired of Stephen King’s Duma Key, he managed to keep my attention all the way through. No mean feat. But most big books today can do with some serious editing to better focus the plot and give some depth to the characters and stop that incessant yipping.

One of the more enjoyable books I read recently was a mere two hundred and sixty pages, but it didn’t seem like a short book. The character’s plight engaged my interest, and I didn’t keep flipping pages in an effort to finish the book quickly.

I used to feel guilty that my own books were only about three hundred pages long; obviously something is wrong with me if other writers can churn out words by the hundreds of thousands. But I want my words to signify something, to be worth the time it takes to dig them out of my psyche. And I want my characters to be more than mere types. I don’t know if I will ever become the writer I wish to be, but I know one thing: I won’t be creating overblown, yippy works; the words come too hard. Besides, I would rather readers complain that my books are too short than slam them shut to get a bit of silence.

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