Celebrate the Unexpected in Your Writing by Susan Doherty Osteen
Serious writers and readers understand clichés weaken a story. I’m not just referring to hackneyed phrases. Predictable dialog, formulaic plot lines, and stock characters all recycle the expected and the overdone. The term creative writing [which is what we are supposed to be doing J]suggests something new and savvy. Readers expect this from their literature. However, it can be daunting to craft something fresh over and over again from the same 26 letters.
The best advice I have for people wanting to write creative stories is to examine real life. The teenager with a crush, the eccentric aunt, or the over-bearing mother… these tropes of literature often veer off script when they play out in the real world. It is when our expectations are disappointed that we find life interesting. It is these stranger-than fiction moments that make a series of events into a story.
In South Carolina, we are blessed with an abundance of people and places that are too amazing to be products of imagination. This is the drive behind Wild, Wonderful, 'n Wacky South Cackalacky, the latest book from Southern Sass Publishing. Sandy Richardson and I discovered a book’s-worth of amusing tales that surprise and delight. Instead of inventing stories, we sought out true events. If you are from South Carolina, or have spent any time in this great state, you might recognize characters in the book. However, the quirky and uniquely SC mannerisms, dialect, and actions of the people captured in these pages defy easy categorization. It is too simplistic to use the trite phrase “the book wrote itself.” (Such a lie is never true.) But the stories already existed, waiting patiently for two determined editors to collect them and bind them into an anthology.
While Wild, Wonderful, 'n Wacky South Cackalacky is not a book of fiction, the idea behind the book is valid for all types of creative writing. Next time you are sitting in a waiting room, stuck in a long line at the grocery store, or have a layover at the Atlanta airport, take a minute to evaluate the people around you. Try to write stories in your mind about the characters you see. Force them into the clichés you think you know, and sit back and watch. In real life, they will most likely do something out of the ordinary, beyond your cliché. That is when you have material for a scene or the basis for a rounded-out character. That is creative writing.
An honors graduate of journalism from TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, Susan Doherty Osteen, has worked for a variety of newspapers and non-profit organizations. In 2010 after more than a decade of collaborative research, she published Tracing a Legacy, a 950 page tomb chronicling her family’s ranching empire from County Donegal, Ireland, to the American Wild West. Her essay about her mother-in-law is published in His Mother. Susan lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children. She continues to write for regional publications and is working on a three-part novel, as well as attending graduate school at USC Columbia in the MFA program.
I do a lot of thinking in the shower. And not so long ago, the final rinse spraying over me, I thought, I can write this morning….or I can do something else. Anything else. After scrubbing the glass door, which was clean enough—clean enough for me anyway—I located a brush and perused the grout. That’s my story: a writer who resists writing. A writer who will do nearly anything to avoid writing. Too often, I choose the uninspiring chore over the blank page, click Facebook rather than the Word icon, elect mindlessness over mindfulness. Here’s my trouble: writing is not only a calling, it’s also a discipline. Like prayer or meditation, writing demands a particular kind of devotion and energy. For me, the process is rife with frustration and disappointment, and the work, done alone in an intuitive place that is not nearly so tangible (or as simple) as a basket of dirty laundry, requires leave-taking from to-do lists in order to enter a creative space. And, unfortunately, that illusive spot will not be summoned with a snap of the fingers. I am not much good at sitting and staring, but I do a lot of both in those hours I give over to the effort of placing one sentence after another. So, why? Why write at all? Because, sometimes, what rises from your labors comes close to what you had hoped to say, and, oddly enough, those kinds of pieces come through and not totally from us—we’ve only gotten out of the way. That is how I feel about my story in His Mother!Women write about their mothers-in-law with humor, frustration, and love. Marian Lovatt, my own mother-in-law, was a character long before I put her into words, but as I wrote about her, and now when I read my pretty true version of her in print, I remember that I’m not doing nothing when I sit and stare and wait on whatever a writer waits upon, I am listening.
Kathryn Etters Lovatt earned her M.A. in Creative Writing and English from Hollins University. She continued her studies at Hong Kong University, where she taught American Studies. A former winner of the Doris Betts Prize, she also won Press 53’s short story prize. A Virginia Center of the Arts Fellow, her work has most recently appeared in North Carolina Literary Review on line and moonShine Review as well as in the anthologies Serving Up Memory, What I Wish I could Tell You and His Mother, and Wild, Wonderful 'n Wacky, South Cackalacky. She received SC Arts Commission’s individual artist grant for prose in 2013. She lives and writes in Camden, SC.
On Writing Your Truth Two years ago, I published His Mother! Women Write about Their Mothers-in-law with Humor, Frustration, and Love. The work on that project spanned ten years. I knew from the start that many women I knew would not be able to participate. I was told as much by several. Why? They feared the backlash and talk that would result if they wrote a truthful piece. Those of us raised in the South are particularly susceptible to that kind of fear. Why? Because we are raised to hide ugliness and “unpleasantness” (as it is often phrased) in order to preserve the façade of perfection. We don’t want people talking about us or our family except in glowing and envious terms. We don’t “air our dirty laundry.” And in spite of what Julia Sugarbaker said, we do not parade our “crazy” on the front porch or in the living room. No, not at all. We call it “eccentricity” and admire it from a cool, but dutiful, distance. But in my research on the subject of mother-in-law relationships, I found overwhelmingly that the relationship was terribly misaligned. Despite the jokes and television series and hours of long private conversations with our best friends about the problems inherent in the relationships, the realiaty is that on the whole they were overwhelmingly positive. So, I persevered through the process of publication. That time span was a good thing for me. In my own situation, my story about my mother-in-law changed four times. Those revisions followed the path of her slow demise and the shifting of my relationship with her. My story went from outright anger and resentment, to one of honesty and acceptance, and finally, to one of forgiveness. And that was good for my soul, if not for the story itself. HOWEVER. And that’s a big HOWEVER. Since the publication of the book, I have had to field questions, mild scoldings, and down-right hurtful remarks about why I chose to reveal private, “for family only” experiences to be devoured by the public. I have always answered these with truth: “My husband suggested that whenever I’m confronted about this story, I should refer the questioners to him or to relay to the questioner exactly how my husband would answer, and that is: ‘She could have written far more and very much worse.’” I take comfort in the fact that my husband approved every single draft I wrote. In fact, he often asked me why I didn’t tell about when she did so and so or reveal how she handled this or that. My answer to him was always, “First, I think I’ve revealed the most important things. Besides, some of the other stuff, people would just say I lied. They wouldn’t believe it.” We always share a good laugh over that. Truth is stranger than fiction. Some people asked me if all of the story was, in fact, true. Had I not thrown in a bit of fictional writing to jazz things up a bit? To titillate? To sell more copies? The answer is an emphatic NO. Every word is true. Why would I make things up when the truth was already so “jazzed, titillating, and would sell like crazy?” I remember years ago when I first began writing to publish my work, every lecture, course, or book on writing warned of this situation—tell the truth, and people are going to eat you alive. A writer friend of mine, Ryan Crawford, just wrote a true story (“Earmouths,” published in Wild, Wonderful ‘n Wacky, South Cackalacky) and made this statement which I have printed and hung in my study: “You get really honest with folks, and they’ll turn on you every time.” True. Very, very true. I thought I’d grown tough enough to take the negative remarks that happen sometimes and are made by both critics and readers. And for the most part, I do well at shrugging them away. But today, I heard one that infuriated me. (And yes, I trust the source that informed me, implicitly. And yes, I know who made the comments.) This was the situation: “I heard Sandy’s story in His Mother is downright nasty.” “Uhhh….nasty? What do you mean ‘nasty’? It’s a story about her relationship with her mother-in-law.” “I know what it’s about. We’ve discussed it at my book club time and time again. It’s nasty. She shouldn’t have written it.” “Well, ummm…I’ve read the whole book. There’s nothing ‘nasty’ in any of the stories. In fact, most are really sweet. Have you read the book?” “No. But my book club has discussed her story over and over. It’s nasty. I don’t want to read it.” “It’s not nasty. It’s a true story, and it’s a story of her being sad that her mother-in-law was so mean and missed out on so much love because of it. It’s about Sandy finally being able to forgive her for all the hateful things she did. It’s not nasty at all. It’s true that it tells some pretty personal things that happened in terms of her mother-in-law’s actions toward others in the family, but it is certainly not nasty.” “Well, that’s what they say in my book club, and I’m not reading it.” My response to this: Have any members of this book club read it? I probably know most of the women in this club. If they have read it and feel this way, my first response is to snap: “How in the world did they miss the regret, the sorrow, the forgiveness so entwined in that story. Do they know how to read? Do they understand what they read? And how is it 'nasty'? But I won’t say any of that. I will simply state what my husband advised me to state, “I could have written far more and very much worse.” Those opinions sting, of course. But the thing that troubles me most is that people go about spreading these kinds of blatant opinions when they have not even read the story. And not just my story—other stories—good stories with worthwhile messages. What is that all about? Censorship? Jealousy? What is so ‘nasty’ about truth? About honesty? About being real? Where is the ‘nasty’ in any of those things? Now, had this person (or anyone in the book club) honestly read the book and my story and created an honest critique or review based on facts taken from the writings or facts from anywhere to contradict what I wrote, then that is another thing altogether. Further, why don’t they post that honest review on Amazon or somewhere and substantiate what they say and be “man or woman” enough to sign a name to it. (It might push sales higher! --you know that old titillating thing again.) Like I always told my children, “I can deal with the truth. But there’s no way to deal with a lie.” And this whole opinion is just that—a lie. This person claimed something about the story and hadn't even read the story. Readers may not like the story. They may not relish telling their own stories, but they should actually read it before voicing and spreading an opinion about it. Furthermore, comments like this are sort of like the political battles that rage on Facebook and Twitter and any number of on-line forums. There’s a lot of opinionating going on based on very little fact and research. The all-powerful “they” say something, and people repeat it as the gospel truth.” But spreading untruths and denigrating a book, a person, a place, a thing just because “they” say it, is simply stupid. It is a ‘nasty’ thing you do when you do it. Much like gossip, or political rantings. I am proud to say I am not “A Nasty Woman .” I do not write nasty things made from lies. But maybe I’ll write a second volume of this book…wonder what “they” would say if I told the “far more and the very much worse”? hmmmm….. Happy reading y’all. And if you are a writer: Happy, truthful writing. Be brave. Be fearless. But be advised that “they” are out there and will turn on you. Nevertheless, go for it! Write your truth.
“And one day, the girl with the books became the woman writing them.” Kristen Costello
I came across this quote on Pinterest yesterday and fell in love with it. I pinned it to my board I named “ME.” Because it is. ME. My nose stayed in books throughout my grade school, middle school, and high school years. Summer vacations: I packed books. Family trips in the car: I packed books. Study hall on my schedule: I packed books. I’m sure my parents must have worried over me. I was the quiet child, they said. "She reads a lot," they apologized. My teachers sent home notes that I daydreamed a lot. My friend's parents would say with a sort of sad smile, "I forgot she was even in the house." Classmates would come over to get help before writing papers for school because they all knew I had really read the book--the whole book! I'd start talking about the stories and hours later, their eyes glazed and fingers sore from taking notes, they'd leave with enough information to do the assignment. I often told them it would be easier if they'd just take notes in class and read the books themselves, but no...they had me for that. I loved retelling the stories. And they knew it. Of course, it wasn't all nerds-ville. I had plenty of friends. I did my share of partying and dating and all the other things teenagers do. I was even a cheerleader. But I never got too cool for books. NEVER. When I went on my honeymoon: I packed books: When I went to the hospital in labor with both my children: I packed books. When I went to my children's Little League games, dancing lessons, guitar lessons, tennis lessons, shopping trips with them and they didn’t want me to “help” them choose clothes: I packed books. I spent hours in a parked car waiting on one child or another, shivering in the cold, or sweating in the heat and humidity of South Carolina weather. But I always had a book to read. When I taught school and took my own lunch with me: I also packed books. Now, when I travel to visit friends or family: I pack books. When I drive on long trips: I pack books (in the form of DVD’s). I can remember only a few situations in my life when I didn’t have at least one book with me, usually more, Even now when I take my Kindle, I also pack a real book—just in case the Kindle dies, and there’s no power source, or worse, some maniac takes out the power grid! I love my Kindle. It can store lots and lots of books. But because I really do fear that downed-grid situation, I still buy real books, too. I have stacks of them to be read. And yes, I still buy more. I fear being in this world without my books. But, I digress…back to the quote. I saw it, pinned it, copied and pasted it. And I have thought about it for hours today. How blessed I am. All those books and now to be writing them and even publishing them. My dream. My passion. How fortunate I am to be able to sit at my desk for hours at a time and work really, really hard, but not for a moment consider it work. How absolutely blessed. And thankful. And humbled, I am.
Jeremiah 29:11 “for I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Summer blossomed in South Carolina with all its usual heat and humidity, and the outlook promises more to come next week in addition to thunderstorms and intermittent heavy rains for several days. But the good news is this gives me time to catch up on correspondence, do a stack of editing, finish reading two books I started last week, and maybe, just maybe, I'll get a little writing done as well. And then there is cleaning my study. (loud sigh) I clean my study twice a year: January and June. That means not just sorting through old files, stacks of newsletters, magazines, and jotted down notes and quotes I've long forgotten why I wrote down in the first place, but it also means going through the book shelves and sorting the keepers from the give-aways. Books breed in my study....truly they do. Two shelves hold books "to be read," yet every six months the shelves bow lower because I add more books than I read. (And that's not counting the kindle purchases.) I know why this happens. I confess I am a bibliophile and a hoarder of books. It's as if my subconscious says, "Hey, stock up on reading material because the zombies will invade and destroy all bookstores, and you'll have nothing to read!!!!!" So the end result is that I always end up with more to read than I have read. It's my life. I accept it. My husband has learned to live with it. But the most difficult part of all this cleaning out is deciding what to keep and what to donate. I fall in love with some books (I am not monogamous in that respect). I fall irrevocably in love forever and ever, and I have to have those on my shelf because to not have them would be to suffer untold grief over the loss of something that has become a real part of ME. And so the problem grows: too many books, too few shelves. The Friends of the Library and various school libraries are so happy to see me in January and June. They know I bring gifts--free and highly recommended. And I derive great joy and satisfaction passing on my beloved friends, but it is still hard, I tell you, to hand over that volume that suffered the cut in the decision of which one do I love most and "have to" keep. I know there are others out there with this same issue, and that brings me joy. Joy because as long as there are readers and hoarders, our work as writers will always be a necessity. We will always be needed, wanted, and loved by someone, somewhere. And in this whirlwind world we live in, it's comforting to know we will not become obsolete.
A few days ago, my writing critique group lost a dear friend. Dave Thompson was a fellow writer and one of the founding members of our group. We have been together some eight years now. Dave published his first book of stories early on—stories of his boyhood and friends. He presented those books as gifts to friends and family. Those stories highlighted his humble, honest style, strong images, and the heartfelt emotion Dave poured into everything and everyone. Over the years, he also wrote a novel and two books of poetry. His latest book, Poems for People Who Don’t Like Poetry released just a couple of months before his unexpected passing. As in most serious writing groups, the members share what is most precious, most important, most meaningful to them in their works. And although those revelations are not always intentional, a careful read reveals the true values and the core of a person’s spirit hidden inside the lines of stories, poems, or essays. And such is the case with Dave’s writings. He was smart, honest, kind, generous, and humble. But what lay at Dave’s core, what motivated his actions and his words, what directed the path he would take each and every day, was simply the prayer that he would do his best in the eyes of our Lord. This prayer is in every single work Dave wrote. In the writing process, there are several stages we, as authors, must endure. There is the origination of an idea. Developing the idea. Revising the idea. And finally, letting the idea go out into the world. Some writers navigate these stages quite quickly. And I say YAY for them. But Dave and I often teased each other that although we might zoom through the origination and development of a piece of writing, both of us tended to linger….no make that: both of us tended to take up a somewhat permanent residence in the stage of revision. We both lovingly lived in that place we called Revision Land…trying over and over and over again to get that writing just right. And with each thing we wrote, we needed each other and the other members of the group to move us along to letting it go by saying, “Hey! You’re done. It’s more than good. Time to let it go, and move on.” Without that clear directive, some of us might live in Revision Land forever--never feeling the work was quite good enough to let go. Dave worked hard at his craft. He wrote and revised and revised some more. And most of the writing he did this last year concerned life and his relationship to Christ. Dave’s writing also reflected that he lived his real life much the same way as he lived his writing life. His words reflected his desire to do more, be better, draw closer to and stronger in his faith. His poems reflected his unwavering beliefs, his doubts of his worthiness, his need for the Lord. And his poems especially reflected the longing to keep improving himself and his service to the Lord. Through my own grief, I have come to believe all this quite strongly. And while Dave nor the members of our group ever suspected his passing was so near, the Lord knew. He took the book of Dave’s life in His hands and closed it. I smile through tears as I imagine Dave kneeling, his head bowed, tears on his cheeks, a shy smile on his lips, and the Lord saying, “ Hey Dave! You’re done. It’s more than good. Time to let it go, and move on.” Our writing group will miss the sweet, gentle spirit that we knew as Dave Thompson. But we draw comfort from believing the Lord has called home this faithful servant—one in whom He is well pleased. Well done, sweet Dave. Well done.
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