Re-Writing Life

What do you do when your first novel receives great reviews, and people urge you to write more? That’s the real test. Last week I listened in on a live interview with Edwin Hill, author of Little Comfort and The Missing Ones. He mentioned how there is a delicious freedom with the first novel—no expectations, no deadline, nobody waiting anxiously for the arrival of the book. The second book presents the real challenge.

For subsequent works, you must write under pressure of expectations. Can I fulfill the requests of readers and maintain integrity with mywriting? Do I have more stories inside, worthy of being shared? How long will it take? And how long will the readers wait patiently for an attempt?

It was definitely a challenge to write a second novel. You’d think, now that I’d done it once, the second novel would be easier. But that was not so. It was hard, writing Sonata of Elsie Lenore.  I wanted to satisfy my readers. I needed another suspenseful tale, utilizing pianos and piano technicians as characters. I wanted to provide readers with another Izzy story.  After all, that was what several readers specifcally asked for.

But Izzy was all storied out. I tried mightily to write Elsie Lenore with Isabel Woods as the protagonist, but it just didn’t work. Maybe she could be the narrator then? That didn’t work either.

The seed of the Elsie story germinated 20 years ago, and was nourished by events since, but there was nothing quite as concrete as the events that wrote themselves in the Sundrop story. I had to introduce new characters, as well as keep the older ones, and it was HARD. It seemed that Elsie Lenore just didn’t want to sprout. Or she did, but the seedling was all twisted and wrong. The story didn’t flow. Even after I had a complete draft, and was re-working the three parts, it wasn’t coming together. I  finally realized it was because this was no longer Izzy’s story. I was trying to make it another Izzy adventure, but this story belonged to someone else. It belonged to Stefano.

And I re-wrote the entire book. Several times.

Elsie Lenore has been through so many re-writes and revisions, I have lost count, but there are 6 different outlines in my computer files. Six major revisions later, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was released–shortly before the world screeched to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that added a new layer of complication. Everything looks different through a coronavirus lens, but I hope the final product is one that readers will enjoy, as they follow Stefano Valdez from Izzy’s piano shop in Kansas to Cuba and back again. I hope they cheer him on as he grapples with major failures and shortcomings in his personal life.

It’s true that the biggest part of the writing job, is, in fact, revising and re-writing. Polish the prose. Edit for clarity and flow. Do it again and yet again. And when you realize that the story just isn’t working the way you envisioned, you have the prerogative and the privilege to start again. Indeed, more than a prerogative and a privilege, it may be more of an obligation to re-write.

This makes me think of our global situation today. Right now, our society, our culture, and our species own the same prerogative. The same obligation. The pause in life gifted to us by COVID-19 has allowed us to step back and take a look. Things just weren’t working out too well for most people–not to mention most of the living things on this planet. Were they? This is the perfect time to re-write our future. We may not receive such a chance again.

As we move from isolation cautiously back into the social realm, let’s tread carefully, step out in a different direction, and when the path forks, flip a coin and try something different. Only one thing is certain. We can’t go backwards. Forward is the only way to go.

Let’s re-write our future together.

Grandmother’s Stories

I remember being fascinated by the stories my grandmother told of her early days. Horses and wagons. Moving to Kansas in a covered wagon. The tornado which destroyed their farmhouse a few months before my dad was born. The floods they endured after record cloudbursts up-river.

What kind of stories will I be able to tell my grandchildren? Or my children theirs? What could happen if we don’t take immediate steps to change the direction we’re headed? These might become the good old days of fairy tales and adventure stories.

Just imagine. . .

The silver-haired woman smoothed locks of the squirming girl child in front of her. “Hold still, Cam, dear. Two minutes. I’ll get your braids done.”

“Aw, Gran,” the child protested. “I hate when you fix my hair. It hurts.”

“The longer we wait, the more it will hurt. Shush now and sit still.” She combed the locks with knobby fingers, veins of age rising on the backs of her hands. “If only I had a comb.” The woman sighed.

“What’s a comb, Gran?”

“It’s a tool to help work out the knots in a little girl’s hair.”

“You used to have a comb, didn’t you? Years ago, when you were little?”

“I had many things, Cam.”

“Tell me.”

“We had plenty of combs and brushes for our hair. And our teeth.”

“Teeth! You combed knots out of your teeth?”

Gran laughed. “Not exactly. We brushed our teeth to keep them healthy.”

“So they wouldn’t fall out of your mouth, right?”

“You remember, child. Yes. We had a lot of things you’d never believe.”

“Like what?”

“Like cars, to drive us wherever we wanted to go.”

“On wheels?”

“With rubber tires. And we had a whole house for every family. And plenty to eat, with appliances to fix our food.”

“What’s a ‘plance’?”

Gran laughed. “Appliance,” she pronounced the word carefully. “Appliances were tools for a house. There were refrigerators for cooling our food to keep it from spoiling, and stoves to cook our meals. We had tools that would chop our food, or mix it up so we could bake cakes and pies in our ovens.”

The old woman’s fingers worked quickly, easing tangles from the child’s hair. She traced a part down the middle of her granddaughter’s head and tossed half the tresses to the front, across Cam’s chest.

“Tell me about the water,” Cam said.

“Oh yes. There was water, running from faucets in the kitchens and bathrooms—water to wash our food—and the dishes we ate on. We had water to wash ourselves. Even our hair!”

“You washed hair?”

“My yes. There’s nothing that feels so fine as a soft and silky head of clean hair.”

“And you could wash every day?”

“Every single day. Twice if we wanted to.”

“What about the flushes?”

“Our fancy toilets? Every family had one or two in their houses—special thrones for a privy. And you could flick the handle on the tank and flush your products down with swirling water.”

“Like magic.”

“It seems so now, little Cam. It didn’t seem magical to me then. When you have so much that is right at your fingertips, you get lazy. And you take it all for granted.”

“Like it will always be there?”

“Exactly. Like it was always there and always will be. Then something happens that shakes you awake and you realize how lucky you have been.”

Gran finished the second braid, knotted the grimy ends and tied a bit of twine around it.

“Tell me the story again, Gran. Tell me about how you lost my grandpa.”

Gran removed a polished stick from her own silver hair and shook her locks until they cascaded around her shoulders. “What—has Philip given you a day off?”

Cam grinned. “He’s off somewhere with the scouts. Tell me the story again.”

“About Grandpa Stefano?”


“Ah. That story.” Gran combed her own hair, smoothed it into one long tress and twisted it to the top of her head. Holding it with one hand, she fished the polished stick from her worn skirt pocket and worked it through the twist until her hair was again secured neatly on top of her head. “I think you’ve heard this tale before. Where should I begin?”

“Where you always do.”

“Of course. It’s always best to begin at the beginning. Come with me, Cam. Let’s walk.”

Imagine the wasteland where Cam and her grandmother would walk. Then think of the huge wildfires we’ve seen each of the last two springs. Think of the erratic and unpredictable weather patterns. Think of the epidemic of earthquakes influenced by fracking procedures. We could be one, maybe two, generations from a life very different from what we now know. Our choices matter very  much.

Vote, while you still can. Vote for a candidate who respects the voices of the little guys. If we can’t change our leadership, our landscape and our future could look very bleak.


Once there was a Rooster

Dear Septanna,

Perhaps it was predictable that I should become an environmentalist, an earth-lover, a tree-hugger, defender of Nature from encroaching civilization. I was born in the month of May, the green month. PICT0635May’s stone is deep green emerald, the color which has always been my favorite. Green represents life, renewal, constancy, dependability. And hope. Green, the cool background color, frames splashes of vivid prairie blossoms during May. Just as the foliage of a wild rose bush catches and holds dew at night, green is a beautiful color, but in a quiet way.

PICT0085Like me. I’ve always been a quiet person. Public appearances never come easily to me. I am much more comfortable alone on my prairie, pen and notebook in hand, dogs panting happily at my feet after a run through the native pasture. The only sounds I hear besides their panting are wind whistling through bare branches on the trees surrounding our nearly-dry pond, and the screech of a hawk circling high above our heads.PICT0106

Gentle and kind-hearted, I wouldn’t hurt a flea.  Well, maybe a flea. But you get the idea. I am the calm greenness surrounding today’s flashy and assertive personalities.

So what happens when my prairie is in peril from the short-sighted choices of billions of people? What can I do to shake my fellow humans awake? You wouldn’t think there’d be much a timid, background sort of person could do. Those who have great wealth seem to possess the power on our planet today. They seem to be seduced by the prospects of even greater profits and will wield significant influence to exploit our finite planetary resources for short-term gain. At your expense, dear Septanna. But what can one shy grandmother do about it?

Just when I feel all is lost, I recall the rooster. And I find hope.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce there was this rooster.He was supposed to be a hen, an araucana hen, no less. He should have laid eggs with pastel green shells. Several years ago I bought three araucana pullets for the novelty of having green eggs. Two of those pullets turned out to be roosters. There was only one hen. Pullets are supposed to be female chicks so all three should have laid eggs.

Somebody made a mistake.  Twice.

As these two roosters grew, they began to crow. One turned aggressive. He terrorized his brother, his sister, and every other hen in our chicken house.

I exiled him to fend for himself outside the chicken yard. You may be wondering why I didn’t just make some chicken noodle soup. Well, that’s me—prisoner of my own soft heart, I was incapable of harming this fighting cock. I couldn’t kill this rooster. But I wouldn’t have stopped a coyote from hauling him off. He was exiled. He paced the chicken yard perimeter day after day, month after month, even (yes) year after year. He plotted in his wee bird brain how he might gain access to the hens again.

I’d scatter some grain for him every morning—couldn’t let him starve either. But I wasn’t going to let him terrorize my hens.

So he charged me. Imagine that! I was the person who let him live, the provider of his daily food. But he charged me. He seemed to wait until I turned my back and, with a rush of feet across the ground and a flurry of wings, he launched himself toward my legs, spurs outstretched.

I took to carrying a child’s plastic bat with me to do chores. If I thumped the bat on the ground as I approached, he seemed to get the message. He left me alone. Most of the time.

There were still instances when I heard the rush and thunder of his charge behind me. Then some interesting things happened inside me. My heart rate  jumped to double in about two seconds. I’d turn toward this fighting cock, raise that bat and swing with all my might. No thought process was involved, simply act and react, a mere instinct to fight my aggressor. On more than one occasion, the bat connected squarely with this rooster’s head. I knocked him silly. He’d stagger around and slump to the ground, quivering and jerking in spasms.

I felt instant remorse. “Oh my God, I’ve killed him!” I thought. As if that would be a bad thing. For me, though, kind-hearted timid little me, it was a bad thing. I dropped the bat and retreated to a safe distance. I watched until he struggled to his feet and dragged himself around the corner of the hen house.

Eventually this rooster met his fate, but not at my hands. However, because of his aggression, I learned that somewhere deep inside of me, I have the instincts and the adrenaline to fight when I feel threatened. I think that’s applicable to our world today, Septanna. My intuition tells me that many of the choices made by my fellow human beings pose a threat—not just to me, not just to my prairie, but to you as well. And there’s nothing more dangerous than an angry mother, be it a bear or a human being. Maybe it’s time to start carrying my bat again and fight for you in every way I can imagine.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Letters to Septanna

Contemporary American culture is notoriously short-sighted. We can’t see beyond the tips of our noses, or into the next hour, let alone the next century. Gratification must be instant–because after all, we deserve it.

PICT0634Yet there is a growing need to evaluate our lifestyle choices for the consequences forced onto unborn generations. Native Americans put it this way, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”   (From the Great Law of the Iroquois confederacy.)

Just how long would that be? It would vary from family to family, of course, but in my own, seven generations covers about 200 years. Could my great- ancestors-times-seven have imagined life in the twenty-first century? I doubt it. Nor can I visualize everyday life in the year 2213. But perhaps there will live a child two hundred years hence, the great-granddaughter of my yet non-existent great-grandchild. She’s the thread of an idea right now, but I’ll call her Septanna. “Sept” for seven and “Anna” for my progeny. What would I tell Septanna about life in my time?

This new category will include letters to the twenty-third century.