Welcome to my crazy quilt (click to catch my Alabama sound).
In mountain tradition, my Southern grandmother created free-flowing art that warmed her family on winter nights. She pieced scraps of twill, denim, corduroy, children’s outgrown clothes, men’s shirttails, worn-out dresses, and cotton sacking into the “memory gems” of life. Like her, I toss aside perfection for small, unpredictably shaped patterns. This blog is my verbal crazy quilt. The color and richness, my garden of perfect moments.
Check out the categories on the sidebar: Characters, Creatives, Humor, In the Garden, Places, Poems, Southern Crazy Quilt, and On Writers & Writing. If you’re a writer, scroll down the sidebar for helpful publishing links. To read tidbits on southern lifestyle and culture, drop by the Random Storyteller Facebook Page.
Most kids read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town by ninth or tenth grade. It’s a rite of passage—two families’ travels of a lifetime, the spectrum of human existence—in one day. At 15 I found Our Town as dull as the thud of the morning newspaper hitting the front porch. However, decades later, it’s a rich read as I say good-bye to my friend Edwina Goodman. One of the characters poignantly asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” Yes, some do, and we are all better for it.
I met Edwina’s voice and washing machine before shaking her hand. Her daughter Meg hauled me and two laundry baskets home for the weekend in early September of our sophomore year. As we stuffed our college uniforms—faded T-shirts, overalls, jeans, second-hand Army pants, and surgical scrubs (permanently “borrowed” from my physician dad)—into the washing machine, a 100+ decibel soprano voice almost blew the roof off the house. Good thing that didn’t happen—the song explosion practically launched me headfirst into the ceiling. In the dizzying whirlwind of sound, I waited for light fixtures and glasses to shatter one after the other in surreal super-slow-mo. Meg didn’t flinch. Stupefied, I watched her nonchalantly toss day-of-the-week underwear into the wash.
“That’s some sound system,” I shouted. Every guy on campus who obsessively tinkered with amped-up speakers would have coveted this family stereo. Anybody cranking it up that loud for a party would have attracted a mob of students, surprised the neighbors, and perhaps summoned the police.
“Oh, that’s just my mother,” Meg yelled back. “She’s having her voice lesson.”
I opened and then shut my mouth. My cheerleader vocal wattage could not compete with the woman who passed the acid opera test in 1968: singing the aria “O Patria Mia” in a bravura performance of Aida with world-renowned tenor Richard Tucker at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson, Mississippi.
Until then, I thought my mother was one of the coolest moms around: she could sink hook shot after hook shot into the left-leaning basketball goal at the far end of the backyard badminton court. Until then, I never heard of a “high C” except for the egregiously spelled artificial fruit punch (Hi-C) that packed a sugar wallop.
Meg and I retired to the kitchen to quaff Diet Dr Peppers (“DDPs”). We didn’t waste breath competing with the musical blast from the living room. Operatically ignorant, I entertained visions of my college roommate’s mom. With such a powerful instrument, she had to be six feet tall, fiery, helmeted, and armored in chainmail.
The walls trembled, and I quivered until the voice lesson ended 40 minutes later. Then I met the woman who delighted and inspired me for 30+ years.
Edwina half-tripped, half-sashayed into the kitchen. She barely brushed five feet two inches. Her hair was raven, and her dark eyes snapped. With an olive complexion, Edwina seemed almost exotic. But her voice—low, gracious, and vowel soft—exuded Southern charm.
As soon as Meg mentioned my French major, Edwina shifted into rapid-fire conversation. We zinged back-and-forth, line by line, “Le Corbeau et Le Renard” (“The Crow and the Fox”) by 17th-century poet Jean de la Fontaine. And for the next three decades, lawyerly Meg feigned mild annoyance whenever we gushed a Gallic torrent.
Edwina danced through life, followed by a perpetual audience, including Bill, her husband and number-one fan. A gentleman lawyer, he matched Edwina’s ebullience with razor-sharp smarts and wit. He towered at least a foot taller. They balanced beautifully. Their family grew over 64 blissful years—three children, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
While in college, Edwina found her calling: she sang her first operatic role as Flora in the Jackson Opera Guild’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Traviata. After spending a heady summer under the tutelage of legendary vocal coach Estelle Liebling, followed by an invitation for further study, Edwina chose Bill over the Big Apple. They married, and she launched a quadruple-threat career as wife, mom, opera singer, and artist in Mississippi.
The product of a decidedly off-key family, I found Edwina’s biography rather intoxicating. What was it like to play the doomed Aida, Bohème Mimi, or Suor Angelica—only to roll out of bed a few hours later to drive a carpool? It was the pitch-perfect oscillation between art and life.
At age 58, Edwina underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatments. She recovered from cancer but experienced a devastating shock: she could no longer sing because the surgery had damaged her vocal chords.
Urged by nationally-acclaimed watercolorist, art teacher, and close friend John Gaddis, Edwina poured her passion into art—”singing on canvas,” as she phrased it: “When I realized that painting, like music, requires intuitive interpretation, careful study, unity, harmony, balance, even rhythm, and a great amount of discipline, I relaxed a bit about jumping head-on into an area that heretofore brought me pleasure through osmosis. As I moved into different phases with art, music was always present. Although not quite like Baudelaire with his poem ‘Correspondances‘ (‘Correspondences’)—in which he sees musical notes as color—I often automatically thought about music in my art.”
Edwina painted prolifically for the next 25 years, producing a dynamic body of work. At first, she fell in love with “that startling medium of watercolor that seems to paint a picture of itself with only a little help if the artist watches what it is trying to say.”
Her brilliant, oversize florals and still lifes became a sensation on the night of her first show. Initially, they were her bread and butter. However, Edwina’s love of intense color fueled a switch to acrylics. In addition to her trademark watercolors, she produced landscapes, figures, abstractions, and collages for hundreds of collectors nationwide. She exhibited at galleries, libraries, churches, and juried shows across the South, winning “best in show” on numerous occasions. More than a dozen one-woman shows featured her works.
This remarkable woman held several powerful positions in musical, art, and civic groups. Organizations showered her with honors. And she had a lot of fun on the side. As her daughters remembered, “Edwina’s competitive streak was evident on the tennis courts and at the bridge table. She loved her baby grand piano, which she played often for Bill while he read at home. She moved nimbly from classical music and hymns to cabaret tunes and jazz. For over 40 years, Edwina and a small group of close friends enjoyed testing recipes and cooking together.”
What struck me most was Edwina’s intensity about art in the moment and freedom from intent. “I paint because I love the doing of it,” she said. The finished piece is one thing. Getting there is another—the solitary taking of one’s raw humanity and pushing and moving and shaping and refining in rich, sensuous, intuitive strokes.
As I gaze out the window, the weeping willow’s branches stream, sweeping the ground with long, slender leaves—golden-green and umber-splotched. Autumn has yet to catch fire. The sky is deep and blue and cloudless. A high note—and pure joy in the morning.
On branches pronging
Season-end skin peels
From red-orange globes,
A soft shriveling
Under my fingers,
And cinnamon flesh,
Photo: Catherine Hamrick/The Coker Arboretum/The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
A good friend who happens to be an analytical chemist is halfway through Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian—and raves about the compelling story, meticulous detail, and accuracy. Without these fundamental elements of quality science fiction, he would have quit reading upon encountering a flaw. Now he’s pumped to catch the movie.
Here’s a one-sentence summary (in case you live on another planet and missed the cinema hoopla): an astronaut, stranded on Mars for more than four years, can survive only by relying on science and ingenuity. As Meghna Sachdev notes in Science magazine, “The story’s real heartthrob is, well, science. Between the technologies showcased on the Mars mission and its breathtaking Hermes spacecraft, the astronaut’s ingenious solutions for staying alive on a deserted planet, and the creativity of scientists back on Earth, the story reads like a love letter to science—and a surprisingly plausible one at that.”
Sachdev delivers an eye-opening interview with the brains behind this box-office phenomenon: Andy Weir, director Ridley Scott, and Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science and an adviser on the film. Science geeks are in fashion. Nitpicking realism (e.g., space suits, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, habitats, physics) renders movie magic, even plot points. (Caroline Framke, Vox‘s Culture columnist, nicely amplifies five scientific twists in The Martian.)
It’s refreshing to hear science is cool—for the moment—to the general public. I grew up in the decade of the intense space race. Eight years after President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans’ spirit of adventure, two US astronauts walked on the Moon. An estimated 600 million TV viewers—including every kid and parent in my small world—watched the lunar landing on July 20, 1969.
The Pew Research Center recently released the report “A Look at What the Public Knows and Does Not Know about Science,” which features an interactive quiz. It points out that the developments in science and technology raise issues for public debate (e.g., space exploration, climate change, genetically modified crops). Nonetheless, another 2015 Pew Research report says that 84 percent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science view US K–12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as “average” or “below average” when compared to that of other industrialized countries.
Science often becomes a political football. However, it is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Rather, it is an essential ingredient in our education and evolution as a society. It’s on us to dig into information so we can listen to a range of views from the perspectives of government, business, academia, and research. The media do not always present information following strict standards of science journalism. It’s on us to demand better. As Steven G. Mehta observed earlier this year in Business Insider, “But in fact, science is messy. It starts with a hypothesis, a theory about the way something works. One scientist finds evidence that seems to prove or disprove that idea. Others pile on, testing it, modifying it, and sometimes disproving it.”
My parents did not pursue careers as scientists, but their education was grounded in the sciences. Mom studied botany, and Dad focused on a pre-med curriculum. They were comfortable with the facts of science and their leap of faith in God. Yes, they graduated in the old-school period—1949. Nevertheless, I cannot fathom their acceptance of politicians who sidestep a science-related policy question by answering, “I’m not a scientist,” with the implication “therefore, I do not need to answer.”
In the late summer of 1969—under a starry, starry sky far from city lights—my dad and I lay on the floating dock just steps from our lake house. With our backs against the warm, graying boards, the rock of the current and the squeak of Styrofoam floats lulled as we gazed upward at our tiny patch of a nearly 14-billion-year-old universe.
“Not many miracles get bigger than that,” Dad said, sweeping his hand against the vast night. Then he fell silent to the water’s gentle lap.
Dinnerplate dahlias spinning against a deep-blue, cloud-grazed sky in Maine transported me to the notes of Paul Verlaine‘s dahlia (“Un Dahlia”). Like a cool courtesan, the flower rises full and jewel-like, yet lacking the earthy perfume and oil of humble jasmine. Verlaine broke with the formality and philosophical leanings of earlier 19th-century poets to express the natural musicality of the French language and the power of everyday images.
Translation is a funny thing. Out of curiosity, I flipped through Bergen Applegate’s Paul Verlaine: His Absinthe-Tinted Song, which appeared 20 years after the poet’s death in 1896. His translation of “A Dahlia” plods heavily. Verlaine’s movement toward modern word-music disappears.
Courtesan with hard breast and eye opaque and brown,
That slowly opens like the calm eyes of a steer,
Your thick stem shines like marble, newly cut and clear.
Flower plump and rich, yet odorless, all your renown,
Is in your tempting body, serene as summer skies,
That dully glows, displaying its rare harmonies.
Nor have you flesh like those fair ones who all day
Strew on the summer fields the rows of new mown hay,
Enthroning you, dumb idol, ‘midst the incense light.
Thus, the kingly Dahlia, clad in robes of splendor,
Rises without pride his head that has no odor
Disdainfully, among the taunting jasmines white.
Fast forward almost 100 years: Norman Shapiro’s translation (One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition, page 23) rings cleanly, as shown in the first verse:
Hard-bosomed courtesan, magnificent
Marble-glossed figure; eye opaque, of solid
Brown, opening like a bull’s, languid and stolid.
For the remaining copyright-protected verses, you’ll need to order the print version or peruse it online. Shapiro’s contemporary word choices and superior syntax create a satisfying read. Nonetheless, something lyrically gets lost in translation when you’re not reading the original aloud.
Courtisane au sein dur, à l’oeil opaque et brun
S’ouvrant avec lenteur comme celui d’un boeuf,
Ton grand torse reluit ainsi qu’un marbre neuf.
Fleur grasse et riche, autour de toi ne flotte aucun
Arôme, et la beauté sereine de ton corps
Déroule, mate, ses impeccables accords.
Tu ne sens même pas la chair, ce goût qu’au moins
Exhalent celles-là qui vont fanant les foins,
Et tu trônes, Idole insensible à l’encens.
—Ainsi le Dahlia, roi vêtu de splendeur,
Elève sans orgueil sa tête sans odeur,
Irritant au milieu des jasmins agaçants!
Orchard branches gnarled,
You plucked an apple,
And sliced into the flesh—
Pale seed-dimpled halves
Tartly chilled our mouths;
The quarter horses
Nuzzled yellow grass
And nibbled their fill
Of bruised ripening,
Lips velvet and damp.
* * * * *
Dabbling in poetry is a fun exercise for prose writers. Working with an economy of language and images is a fresh change in my routine. I find syllabic poetry liberating. The number of syllables—whether fixed or constrained—takes on primary importance whereas stresses become secondary. Marianne Moore, one of my favorite poets, was a master of syllabic poetry.
In an interview (Marianne Moore, The Art of Poetry No. 4, Paris Review), Donald Hall asked about “the rationale behind syllabic verse.” Moore answered in her beautifully straightforward manner, “It never occurred to me that what I wrote was something to define. I am governed by the pull of the sentence as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity. I like the end-stopped line and dislike the reversed order of words; like symmetry.”
Learn more about Marianne Moore at The Poetry Foundation.
Looking for an editor? Don’t hire the first one you meet. Shop around.
There is no one-size-fits-all editor. Hire a professional suited to your field/genre. When interviewing candidates, clearly communicate the required services. Editorial terms vary. However, a general breakdown follows.
Manuscript Review: Examines purpose, audience focus, content development, readability, style, tone, voice, need to rewrite, structure, cohesiveness, flow, and word choices. (In fiction, also examines hook, characterization, point of view, conflict, plot, setting, time frame, awkward passages, and detail.) A critique does not involve proofreading, copyediting, line editing, developmental editing, or rewriting. It is an overall review of the text so the writer can address major issues to shape the manuscript.
Developmental Editor: Addresses format, logic, structure, style, tone, voice, cohesiveness, clarity, flow, text to rewrite, information gaps, and unfocused copy.
Heavy Copyeditor: Performs basic copyediting. Addresses style, tone, voice, readability, logic, structure, cohesiveness, flow, consistency of content, elimination of ambiguity, triteness, wordiness, jargon, redundancy, appropriate word choices, context, and smooth transitions.
Basic Copyeditor: Addresses grammar, usage, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, mechanics, cross-references, and order.
Proofreader: Checks basic grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and mechanics. Cross-checks table of contents, tables, lists, and other matter.
Note: A manuscript review is a wise investment, especially if you’re a first-time author. It’s a reality check on how much work your text requires before you turn it over to an editor. Revise, revise, revise.
Question: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Question: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
—The Paris Review Interview, 1956
Credit: Tetra Pak
Social media is a beautiful thing. It leads to friends nationwide, indeed the world over. I first connected with Karen Albright Lin in a literary discussion group on LinkedIn and quickly discovered her gifts.
Karen is a triple-threat talent—author, editor, and pitch coach. Her presentations at writers conferences and on cruise ships (cool gig!) include editing from the top down and writing the nonfiction book proposal. She has ghostwritten novels and done work-for-hire writing for newspapers, magazines, and film directors. Learn more from Karen and her colleagues at Sisters of the Quill. Her editorial services address the development of fiction, nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, cookbooks, and screenplays.
Today Karen shares her thoughts on the importance of secondary characters. After absorbing her tips, take the reader challenge!
The circus is not as fun if players are missing. The juggler is out sick, the casting director forgot to hire the trapeze artist, or the clown car is empty. It can be the same with your novel or script. It might need an extra character or two. Even if you have a full complement of secondary characters, they may need to be made more robust or play a bigger role.
It’s usually not enough to simply add a character. That would be like adding one more dancer to a group of 26 background dancers. Make him or her count. Large casts of supporting characters demand deft handling, as exemplified by Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, who created rounded secondary characters.
In Harold and Maude, secondary characters make this magnificent movie about death and love into a perfect one. In an early scene, Harold’s blind date beats him at his own staging-suicide game by simulating hari-kari in his living room. It surprises us and mocks his mother’s matchmaking.
It hurts, but sometimes you need to excise one of your characters. On the one hand, meld two characters into one role. On the other hand, you may add one whose job is to create an additional obstacle. The fairytale “Cinderella” could unfold without one of the stepsisters; however, combined with the wicked stepmother, they become a seemingly insurmountable force. Three is often a magic number. If you have two people, consider collapsing them into one for a stronger character or adding another to make a happy triangle.
You could use a secondary character as an audience surrogate like Stingo in Sophie’s Choice. He observes and comments on Sophie’s life, current and past. John Wheelwright relates a current story as well as Owen’s story in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Add a character that is much older or much younger to offer another perspective. In The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock’s enthusiastic young son only has one essential scene, yet he adds a layer of sweetness that enhances a tender and profound story.
Ben Stiller’s future mother-in-law in Meet the Parents plays the quiet role of foil to her overbearing husband. Technically, she could disappear from the plot, but it’s nice to see someone rooting for poor Ben. Take the lead from this movie and throw in an animal to add zing. Perhaps give it a prominent role. Painting a cat’s tail—exposure of the subterfuge—sparks the climactic showdown between Ben Stiller and antagonist Robert De Niro.
A historical or imaginary character may come forward in time. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which we find Dorian Gray, The Hulk, Dr. Jekyll, and others, is an extreme case of this modus operandi. Many time-travel romances use the technique. Reversing that approach, The Magic Tree House series and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court take us back in time to meet secondary characters.
If you write fantasy, consider giving an aunt an unexpected magical power. Add an impersonator, a character in disguise, or characters who trade places. A mentor (e.g., the fairy godmother, Gandalf, Mr. Miyagi) comes in handy, as does a rival who is key to the resolution (e.g., Harry Potter’s Lupin Werewolf and Pettigrew Rat).
An ancillary character is not always a mentor, sidekick, or foil. She can be a plot plant. Mysteries often add villains who seem to have something to do with the crime but don’t. Red herrings are the stuff of great suspense—the more, the merrier.
Shakespeare, the master of sexual confusion, exploits love triangles, disguise, and trickery in Twelfth Night. Viola, disguised as the boy Cesario, falls for Orsino, who courts Oliva, who adores Cesario. Olivia mistakes Sebastian, Viola’s twin, for Cesario and declares her love. Household steward Malvolio, who has the hots for Olivia, disguises himself as a nobleman in crossed garters and yellow stockings to woo her. Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman, tricks Malvolio by forging a letter that declares her mistress’s love. As Malvolio’s station falls, hers rises when she hooks up with Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s kinsman, who revels in the hilarity of this bedlam. Feste, Olivia’s fool garbed as Sir Topas, plots a future as a nobleman and talks to Malvolio after he’s falsely pronounced mad and locked in a darkened room by Sir Toby and Maria.
For the rest of the story, head to the nearest Shakespeare festival.
Reader challenge! Who are your favorite secondary characters?
Happy birthday to French art critic, journalist, fiction writer, and poet Théophile Gautier (30 August 1811–23 October 1872), who was an early proponent of Romanticism. However, after publishing the poetry collection Albertus (1832) and Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), he embraced l’art pour l’art, or “art for art’s sake.”