The storyteller’s storyteller

What happened when I decided to read a book by my mother’s literary love

My mother was the source of all stories for me. She told me stories. She read me books. When she got bored of reading me my favorites, she’d add silly details, mix the story up, and get me to laugh hysterically.

I love stories because of her. Reading them and writing them.

At 83, my mother still hangs on, three years after she was first put on hospice and given ten days to live. In the last stages of vascular dementia, she is confined to a hospital bed in the family room. She sometimes smiles, but usually I barely see her eyes behind her eyelids. She speaks only a few words, which have all the right sounds and inflections, but make no sense.

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My mom back in her English teacher days.

I reach for her hand, because then she turns her head to me. I tell her about my students and what we’re reading. I am a high school English teacher now, like she used to be years ago. I want to share these things with her. I don’t know if she hears or understands anything I say.

This month I made it my mission to read a book by her favorite author, William Faulkner. Maybe it’s because I can’t know what’s in her head now. I want to understand what she thought about, what used to be important to her.

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William Faulkner

Years ago, with a look in her eyes of distant remembrance, she told me: Nobody writes like Faulkner.

This month I got my hands on a copy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.  A book that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, for its complexity and the way it breaks the rules. Not an easy read. Some sentences are just strings of adjectives. The narrative often switches abruptly to a part of the story mentioned earlier.

To understand everything, I had to read chapter summaries in Spark Notes. And look up the meanings of words I’d never heard before. Suppuration, anybody? (It means the fluid produced by an inflammation.)

I’m a quick reader, but it took me a week to forge my way through the muddy wilds of Absalom Absalom.

My mom is not a southerner like Faulkner, but she loved the way he told a story. Absalom is told in an unconventional way:  by multiple narrators, most of whom can’t be trusted. Like an impressionist painter, Faulkner paints layer upon layer, filling in the outlines of events again and again, making the picture deeper and sadder each time.

373755The book reads like a mystery, even though the first chapter tells the novel’s entire plot. Thomas Sutpen—a man who grew up poor in Virginia—comes back to the south from Haiti in the 1840s to build a mansion on a hundred acres of mud in Mississippi. He gets rid of his Haitian wife, along with his first son, when he finds out she is part African. He marries the daughter of a local merchant, to get some instant middle class respectability. It’s all part of The Design, the plan he set in motion when he left rural Virginia.

The man’s sins and his broken children come back to destroy his family. In the same way slavery and racism came back to destroy the pre-Civil War way of life and made the south an apartheid for the next century and a half. Absalom turns into a pretty depressing story for all involved (And I read it the week before Christmas!)

The mystery that drives the story is, we find out years later that there’s something hidden in Thomas Sutpen’s house. It’s evil, it’s scary. But what is it?

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Something’s hidden in the house Thomas Sutpen built. It’s scary as hell, but what is it?

Several years ago I was in a class with a writer who grew up in the south. I remember teasing him that he had an advantage over the rest of us. “You have all the eccentric relatives and complicated history.”

I’ll need to read more of him to judge, but I don’t think Faulkner’s work was good just because he had rich material on his home turf. He dug into why all human beings make the choices they do, how people living through the same events interpret them so differently.

And how a person’s actions inevitably ripple down the generations. Like a father passing racism down to his son. Or my mom giving me her love for stories and good writing.

Almost a week later, the poetic cadences of Faulkner’s writing are still echoing in my head. As a writer, I want to capture some of his style (though maybe not the long sentences).

Many images from the book stick with me, especially one in particular. Faulkner describes the women of the south as “ghosts” after the civil war. I picture southern belles and tough old matriarchs, wandering the dusty streets of Jefferson, Mississippi, in their faded ball gowns, powerless and poor ghosts, far from what they used to be.

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As I sit with my mom, whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly between open and closed, it’s hard not to think of her as one of those. ♥

Back from the UK (with pictures)

The jet lag has worn off, but two weeks ago I got back from a wonderful trip to England.

I walked through London in the footsteps of my favorite writers. I ate lunch at the pub in Oxford where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis met on Tuesdays. I got to see the hangouts and graves of the classic writers who gave me my love for the English language. The weather and the people could not have been more congenial.

London was busy and energetic, full of so many people under 30 that I felt pretty damn ancient. As Harry Potter fans, our first stop in the city had to be Platform 9-3/4 in King’s Cross Station. 

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Hedwig’s missing!

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We saw Westminster Abbey, on a tour led by a bossy, hilarious verger who rolled his eyes at the new, abstract David Hockey stained glass window. I got to see Poets Corner, and the grave of my literary crush, Samuel Johnson. As a Californian, the history awed me. The site has been a religious gathering place since 960 AD.

It was a relief to get away from US politics, but we did catch a brief glimpse of British Brexit drama, when streets were shut down for the Wooferendum, a protest in which dogs and their owners marched against the travel quarantine that their dogs will have to endure when they vacation in the EU after Brexit.

In Oxford we ate at The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Tolkein and friends) met. Our friend Ruth then took us over to the Bodleiean Library where we saw an exhibit of Tolkein’s drawings and heard recordings of him speaking the languages he invented for Middle Earth. 

Ruth drove us (very fast, on incredibly narrow, twisting country roads) up to the Cotswolds for a roadside picnic.

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Our picnic spot in the Cotswolds
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The punts at Magdalen College, Oxford. Imagining Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane heading out on the river.
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Lunch at the Inklings’ hangout!

After leaving our gracious hostess, we headed for Stratford-upon-Avon, a tourist town but in a good way. Shakespeare’s birthplace and the associated sites are well kept up and the tour guides are knowledgeable. The town had even more meaning for me since I’ve been teaching Shakespeare and watching the hilarious BBC show, “The Upstart Crow,” a comedic version of Shakespeare’s life as a struggling playwright.

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The Avon part of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown

We finished off our trip in Bath. I love this city! A beautiful abbey, the Roman Baths, the site where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and the Jane Austen Centre. We ate Sally Lunns, Bath Buns and many, many scones with clotted cream. I drank Samuel Johnson’s favorite tea.

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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

 

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The Roman Baths, built around 400 AD. Coincidentally the site on which Mary Shelley wrote one of my favorites, Frankenstein, 1400 years later.

I’m still feeling a pleasant buzz from the scenery, the history, and the friendliness and dry wit of the British people.

As I corral myself into my daily routine for NaNoWriMo, I’m dreaming of my next trip.

Growing a confident writer

Today I had my lesson plan preempted by an eleven year old with a story to tell. I let her tell it.

I teach Creative Writing to middle schoolers through a charter school. Last year, I had a group of high-achieving kids, studious and driven. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those students in particular ends up publishing a book before she turns eighteen. Her writing style and voice are finely tuned, and she knows the craft of telling a story. I had her sign up for the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. Her mom can’t stop her from writing. She’s twelve.

This semester, I have very different kids. These kids are in it for fun, and for the cookies I sometimes bring to class. They’re funny and snarky. Minor things like spelling aren’t a priority for them. And sometimes—well, they lose focus.

A few minutes before class, Jade asked me if she could draw on the white board. I let her do it, as we waited for the rest of the class to arrive. She began drawing a character, whom she named, and told me his back story and character attributes (clearly she had been listening to our previous lesson). As she drew, she described her setting in detail (she’d listened to that lesson, too), and added another character as a love interest, with a complication:  her parents disapproved of the match (Lesson on conflict–check).

When the rest of the class came in, I let her keep going. She was on a roll, telling the story with flair, as she moved all over the board, illustrating like crazy. Her two characters find a portal in a tree and travel to another dimension. After a series of adventures involving ogres and dungeons, the two characters manage to get back home, where they are welcomed by their parents and live happily ever after. Or as Jade scrawled on the board ominously when she finished: Or do they?

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The rest of the class chimed in with questions and suggestions, totally into it. The story ended up taking up half the class. When I finally got to my planned lesson on description and setting, I used Jade’s story for the examples. What seemed like a long diversion became a great teaching moment, something I never could have planned. And, in line with my class’s taste, it was a lot of fun.

One of the most important things you can have as a writer is ballsy confidence. A belief that yes, you do have a right to tell your story. And if you put your story out there, people will listen. How do you grow this in someone? On my own path as a writer, I’ve struggled with this.

Today a kid got time and space to tell a story. I didn’t just give her that, the whole class did.

I hope this gives her confidence to make more stories.

Remodeling the Hero’s Journey

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We’re finally finished with our kitchen remodel. This was a big one. We completely gutted the aging kitchen we had for seventeen years.

Thanks to a five-year-old who liked to swing on cabinet doors, we’d been displaying our mismatched dishes and pantry contents for the world to see for years now. And because of an odd kitchen layout, a sink with dirty dishes was the first thing anyone saw when coming through our front door.

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Before: Proud display of dirty dishes

I knew the remodel would be a chaotic inconvenience. Microwaved food on paper plates for at least six weeks. Strangers in our house every day, sledgehammering, dry walling, cranking classic rock and Mexican tunes on the radio and yelling at each other. There would be dust in all our rooms, because there is no place that stuff doesn’t reach. My noise-averse husband and son would burrow into their respective hollows, with their headphones on.

That’s exactly what it’s been like. Some mornings I’ve walked through the kitchen and reminisced about the semi-darkness of our old kitchen with its flickering 1970s fluorescent light. Was it really that bad?

I’m a writer and an English teacher, so I know a messy middle when I see one. In a story’s messy middle, the protagonist has left the land of the ordinary, often reluctantly, and entered into the crazy, hostile world of the extraordinary. Think of Bilbo Baggins leaving the peace of the shire, at the wizard Gandalf’s urging, to steal the dwarves’ treasure from the dragon.

Bilbo doesn’t think he’s suited for this adventure. Gandalf thinks otherwise, calling Bilbo “the Burglar.”

I like living in the shire. I like tidy, peaceful places that are quiet. I don’t like being in messy, in-between states where power and water are turned off and perfectly good dishwashers are accidentally carted off to the dump.

My toddler-sized brain looks at the daily chaos and thinks only, This will last forever.

But like so many transitions we deal with in life, this is not true. Things do resolve, and the reason we human beings love stories so much is, their beginnings, middles and ends are so comforting. We hold on to this cycle for hope. When we are old enough to have gone through enough messy middles, we know in some way, things will change. This too shall pass.

A remodel is not up there on the scale of life changes. It isn’t divorce, death of a parent or spouse, or the loss of a career. At least one of those things will come my way soon enough.

This remodel is a light practice run.

The kitchen is looking wonderful, thanks to the contractors who have worked till dusk over the past six weeks. After everyone’s packed up at night, I walk on the smooth, new tile floor and think, Is this really my kitchen?

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After:  All done!

Oh, yeah, that’s another thing. I didn’t even do the actual work myself. I’m thankful for that, because I’m not a fixer-upper person. The results would not be good.

Here’s to life’s transitions. And to the good that awaits on the other side.

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Home again, but better.

My 30-year literary crush

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Today I taught my senior English class a lesson on my literary crush.

I’ve been carrying a literary torch for this guy for about 30 years.

Years ago, in my sophomore year in college I signed up for a required English literature class. I wasn’t at all excited about 18th century literature, so I gritted my teeth and settled in for what I thought would be a very dull ten weeks.

I found out right away what a difference it makes when your professor is bursting with passion for his subject. Dr. Max Byrd loved the writers we studied so much, it seemed like he had just come back from chatting with them at the literary salon. He bubbled over with their ideas and talked about their work as extensions of the lives they’d led.

One writer he couldn’t stop talking about was Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Over the course of the class I fell in love with Samuel Johnson. I didn’t see this coming. Most of my exposure to English literature to that point had been Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the Brontes. Samuel Johnson hadn’t written any novels or any plays I’d seen, so he wasn’t on my radar.

Samuel Johnson became a real person to me. Dr. Byrd talked about Johnson’s laziness and his inability to live up to his own standards, which I related to very much. Johnson, with his foibles, physical impairments and grand ideas, became very human. I had never learned to read literature this way—through the lives of those who wrote it. It brought deep philosophical readings like Johnson’s Rasselas to life.

Dr. Byrd wanted us to be excited about what we were reading. He said something like this once in class: “I want you to feel so strongly about the ideas we’re discussing that you’re willing to get into fisticuffs over them.”  My boyfriend at the time, who was also in the class, thought that was hilarious and intriguing. I remember him going to office hours to ask Dr. Byrd what that meant.

A decade after Dr. Byrd’s class, my husband (not the aforementioned boyfriend) and I traveled to London for my work. I told my husband I needed to see Johnson’s house on Gough Street. It felt amazing to be able to see the home of my literary crush, the place where he’d spent ten years writing his dictionary of the English language.

But the biggest reward from Dr. Byrd’s class was today, when I was able to teach my students about Samuel Johnson myself.

I could not have foreseen thirty-odd years ago that I would be a teacher, but two years ago I began teaching high school English on a contract basis for a charter school. All that I learned as an English major and never thought I’d use is coming back to me. I’m finding that I am teaching literature through the lives of the writers as well. I tried my best, as Dr. Byrd did, to resurrect Samuel Johnson for my class, to let them see him as the unusual, gifted and flawed person he was. The wit, the thoughts and ideas that made Johnson great came pouring out of me in that weirdly effortless way that happens when you’re talking about something you love.

I love that teaching is like a chain: we teach what we’ve been taught, carry on the best that we’ve been given, and inspire others to do the same.

Thank you, Dr. Byrd. It felt amazing to pass on the gift today.