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  1. The One Thing Every Writer Needs to Know

    September 25, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    You want to be a published writer. So you write–words and sentences and paragraphs–and it makes sense, whatever it is you’re creating out of those piles. It sounds just right in your head. But here’s the thing:

    You don’t know how it sounds in your reader’s head.

    In your reader’s head, your story might sound like a funeral march.

    In yours, it’s Mardi Gras.

    Now, you can let it be Mardi Gras in your head, and shrug when you see those funeral marchers with their long faces.

    But you can’t help notice: there’s more than one soul marching. There’s at least a dozen, all in black. How could a dozen people think a party was a funeral?

    Well, maybe that’s how they read the invitation.

    Maybe it’s not their fault at all—it’s the writer’s.

    I had a creative writing teacher in college who read each student’s work out loud to the class, so no one knew who wrote it. That left the rest of us free to rip into it with claws and fangs and red-faced vigor, without knowing that the meat we were cutting into was someone’s pet dog.

    Well, one night I added my short story to the stack, a work so profoundly funny, I chuckled over each line as I wrote it. I couldn’t wait to hear the response. When the teacher picked up my manuscript and read the title, I settled back, ready for the guffaws.

    Then he read the first line of dialogue…in a tone meant for a Tolstoy novel.

    What the…? It’s supposed to be a comedy!

    On and on he read in that serious tone, and I grew more and more horrified. I knew how comedians felt when they bombed. I wanted to turn into goo, like in the cartoons, and slide down my chair and out the door.

    Instead I sat there, pretending to take notes, blinking away tears.

    I don’t remember the comments the other students made; the gist was, the entire universe—or at least the entire universe in that room—was in agreement. My story stunk.

    When the class ended, I waited for everyone to leave, then snatched the pages on my way out.

    It was the best lesson I’d ever learned.

    Last week, that lesson came back to haunt me.

    If you haven’t read my previous post, it’s called “What Would the Wives Do?” Hurry, read it. And then read the comments. Wait—I’ll save you the trouble. Suffice it to say, some of my readers had strong reactions to the piece. Reactions which, to me, were unexpected.

    I wasn’t saying I wanted to be one of the wives.

    Oh yeah? Well that’s how it read, bucko. You shoulda made it clear. Delete the post, quick, before anyone else reads it!

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the madness.

    Those are the kind of squirrelly thoughts we have when our writing is interpreted in a way we hadn’t intended. We’re surprised, defensive, maybe a bit ornery, and then we call ourselves idiots. We groan, knock back a few drinks, whine to our fellow writers at the bar, and then wake up the next day with a hell of a headache, ready to take a good look at whatever feedback we were so upset about.

    Last week, I did all of that.

    Except the drinking.

    And the whining.

    And the headache.

    I did a lot of groaning. And sinking my face into my hands.

    I couldn’t blame my readers for their comments; they were reacting to the material I had provided. And I asked them to!

    In fact, I agreed with them. Mostly.

    So I thought about lopping off the last third of the post, ending with, “And I cook, but I’m lousy at it,” a sort of acceptance of myself as is.

    I thought about inserting a line near the beginning about how those wives may have felt like trophies, but then again, some of them may have been happy in the life they chose, and who was I to judge?

    I thought about adding: “From where I sit, being supported by a wealthy guy that I’m crazy about looks pretty darn groovy—as long as it doesn’t involve losing my independence or self-respect.”

    Yeah, I could have edited the piece to hone my meaning.

    But I’m leaving it as a fine example of the lesson that it is. The comments were valid. And I’m grateful for each one.

    There’s one thing you need to know if you want to be a published writer: how does your work sound in your reader’s head? You need to know, even if it hurts to hear. And the only way to know, is to share. You’ve got to let eyes other than your own see it. You’ve got to roll onto your back and expose your soft belly, knowing that it might not be a nice rub you get.

    That’s how it is with writing.

    That’s how you develop that thick muscle, that protective shell around your tender, artistic soul. And that’s how you become a stronger writer.

    Now, about that funny short story I mentioned earlier?

    There were two mobsters in a diner arguing over a bottle of Catsup…


  2. What Would the Wives Do?

    September 18, 2016 by Diane

    Elegant composition retro style, vintage perfume bottle

    Merv Griffin was a talk-show host before the Jimmies, before Craig or Seth or Jon or Conan or Leno or Letterman. Merv was a star-struck man who asked his guests safe questions:

    “Do you like to cook?”

    Due to the magic of reruns, I slipped back in time to November 23, 1973, when he interviewed the glamorous wives of famous men like Robert Stack and Johnny Carson and Dean Martin and Aaron Spelling and Sammy Davis, Jr.

    “Oh, yes,” said one of the wives. “I’m a good cook.”

    “Do you go grocery shopping?” Merv’s voice was soft, eager.

    Spelling’s wife giggled. “Sometimes,” she said.

    Silly questions, predictable answers.

    Were any of the wives involved in important causes? Would Merv ask Michelle Obama if she cooked and shopped?

    Who cares?

    Well, evidently I do.

    For some unfathomable reason, I was riveted. Maybe it was the memories that tugged at me. My junior high school graduation, when I wore my hair curled, and piled high on my head. The days when I wore lace and white sandals and Lauren cologne.

    Two by two, they came out as Merv ran a commentary: “Mrs. Martin is wearing a designer gown by Oscar de la Renta…” She pivoted and posed, then took a seat. “And Mrs. Stack is wearing a knock-off, one the home sewer can create from a Vogue pattern for thirty-eight dollars.” Pivot, pose, sit.

    “Would you buy these outfits?” Merv asked each woman.

    The one in the knockoff said, “Well. No.” Gently.

    I was captivated by their grace and charm.

    There were a dozen women, sitting with their legs tucked to one side. They spoke in tones reserved for libraries or Presidential visits. Their nails shone, their hair tumbled to their shoulders in light waves, their teeth flashed Pepsodent smiles. But what struck me most about the wives was their femininity.

    No galumphing around in old jeans and scuffed running shoes.

    “Do you dress like this at home?” Merv asked.

    One of them said she wore slacks. Not pants. Slacks.

    Tasteful.

    “Do you remember your husband’s proposal?” Merv asked Dean Martin’s wife.

    “Which one? He kept forgetting that he’d already asked me four times.”

    ‘Atta girl.

    Dolly, the wife of Dick Martin from Laugh-In fame, admitted that her hair color came from a bottle. “Oh, yes,” she said, pointing to her red tresses cut in a stylish shag. “I’m getting old.”

    “How old are you?”

    “I’m 29!” she said.

    Merv almost choked.

    “My husband is 59!” she said, and covered her mouth, laughing. “But he looks great, doesn’t he? That’s because of me.”

    They claimed their successes.

    “The most important thing to my husband is work, after me!” Sammy’s wife said.

    They didn’t waste time with humility.

    Too soon, the program was over. And I was left with one burning question of my own:

    What would the wives do in my situation?

    If Mrs. Carson, before she became Mrs. Carson, lived in my playhouse, would she paint the coffee-colored walls a pristine adobe white? Would she take down the dance posters, the Chinese lantern on a hook in a corner collecting dust, the plastic files screwed to a plank, and hang something tasteful—a Van Gogh, perhaps? Would she buy pale pink roses every week and display them on the dresser in a cut-glass vase, next to a silver tray holding her perfume bottles? Most definitely she would eliminate the clutter of books. The desk would hold a sleek laptop and a table lamp. The sheets would be silk, the pillowcases edged in lace. The ironing board would be hauled to the garage and replaced by a comfortable chair to curl up in with a book. Valley of the Dolls, perhaps.

    The wives were all class and grace. I can develop those manners, that soft voice, that proud posture. I can spend hours giving myself facials and manicures, and soaking in fragrant bubble baths, followed by a dusting of talc or a spritz of perfume. I can save my pennies to buy only the finest in fashions, a few select pieces that I handle with care and hang on padded hangers. I can eat meals on good china, with heavy silverware, cutting my lean meat into bite-sized pieces, the fork tine-side down as I bring it delicately to my mouth. I can aspire to be like these paragons of femininity, asking myself in tough situations, “What would the wives do?”

    Instead, I yank on the old jeans, the Gap t-shirt, the running shoes. I pile books onto my dresser, papers on my desk, mail and notebooks and magazines in my hanging files. My sheets come out of the dryer wrinkled, and undone projects lie about on every available surface: a book cracked open at the spine, the Panasonic phone manual to read, the file of bills to pay.

    I do my own grocery shopping.

    And I cook, but I’m lousy at it.

    What would the wives do if their paycheck barely stretched through the month? Would they set their sights on a better paying job, or a husband? I can’t imagine they’d stay stuck. A woman wallowing in a rut wouldn’t attract the attention of the Carsons and Spellings and Martins.

    It’s a good bet the wives wouldn’t be in Target buying socks.

    Okay, maybe they were blessed with perfect genes, and a wealthy upbringing, and braces. Maybe they had a pampered existence their whole life.

    But I wonder, can making those small changes—fresh flowers, smooth sheets, expensive perfume, tailored outfits—affect the results in my life? I believe so. I believe, by surrounding oneself in class, in beauty, it affects the soul, it changes the posture, it rewires the brain, it prompts a brighter outlook. Treating oneself as worthy of finery, with dignity and respect, dictates what you’ll allow in your life.

    None of those wives settled. Not even for a knock-off.

    What do you think?


  3. Before the Bulldozers Came

    September 11, 2016 by Diane

    starting gate

    I remember playing the horses, the two of us, heading for the track in my used Mercury Sable on one of those dusty Autumn days. The parking lot crammed with cars, blue and white and silver and green and black and faded gold. We walked for miles, it seemed, to the ticket booth, and pushed through the stiles after paying our seven bucks. That left us with thirteen each, because we didn’t bring more temptation than a twenty spot.

    A twenty spot could pay for a lot of laughs. A lot of high jumping and air punching and long jaws and hollering up there in the stands. The two of us, a girl and her guy, perched on high, gazing down on the track. Nearby, a thin fellow hunched over his racing form. And the Mexicans, looking to add to their immigrant income, sweating those day jobs nobody wanted but sure as shootin’ didn’t want stolen out from under them.

    And the horses, paraded on a tether by their hot-walkers, young kids who ran from home, kids who dreamt about horses before running and this was the only way to get close. Maybe one or two of those kids dreamt about being a jockey but it was a no go, what with those long bones that sprouted when their voices plummeted.

    I remember that day, alright, the smell of manure and hay and dust and cigarettes. Drinking lemonade and bottled water, some sneaking in gin in a silver flask, the kind miners drank from. And there we were, mining for gold of a different hue.

    We placed our two dollar bets, to the irritation of the long-eared geezer behind the window. He’d slide our tickets across without batting an eye, without adding a wrinkle to the many that crisscrossed his face. We weren’t in it for the money. We were in it for the time of our lives.

    And we sure had a time of it, a whole afternoon at the track, pooling our last dollar bills to bet two on a long-shot to win. That was the highlight, seeing that little mare charge from the back of the pack on the clubhouse turn, shooting us to our feet, go, go, go! Those hooves tucked under her belly and then gouging the track, dust flying, the jockey working her tender flank, her sides heaving around those barrel ribs, the announcer’s voice rising, rising, us boxing the air with our fists and that little mare clipping past the lead horse, stretching long in both directions, one hoof landing over the finish line, winning by a nose.

    Our eyes bugged out, our lungs laughed air, we high-fived and danced a jig and pounded down the steps and pushed our way through the crowd and panted up to the barred window and forfeited our winning ticket, pushing it back to the man who slapped the cash on the counter and slid it over, not even lifting a corner of his mouth, his eyes as dull as old cigarette smoke.

    A twenty. A whole twenty in winnings. And it was worth it. A whole twenty to spend another day at the track. We pocketed it and slung our arms around each other and hooted our way back through the parking lot, richer than any millionaire.