Write what you know—it’s the advice freely handed out when you indicate a wish to write. It’s not followed by teachers giving creative writing assignments or even college professors who want a 10 page paper by Monday. While I think it’s helpful to start out with what you know, if everyone adhered to this advice, the number of fiction books would dwindle greatly—especially the fantasy, sci-fi- and paranormal genres. The murder mystery genre would fade and the books that remained might have you questioning whether you really wanted to stand close enough to have the author sign your book.
My writing today is all about being cold and stuck, two subjects that I know well as my last three weeks have been spent indoors, trapped by snow and black ice. The lack of movement and the relentless weather is also causing a stuckness in my emotional state. Not going anywhere, not doing anything, not even aware of what I would want to do if I weren’t stuck.
So I’m rolling what I know into what I write, hoping that I can write both my character and myself into, and then out of, Stuck. It’s working for Barry, the main character in my novel, Road of Polished Stones. Barry’s leads and his funds have run out; it’s almost Christmas; it’s raining and cold; and he is alone. Without a guiding clue, all the roads seem the same--they could be anywhere in the world and go anywhere for all the use they are to Barry. His mind is fixed on its singular quest to find his father and now that he has fruitlessly explored all the possibilities in this place, he is really and truly stuck.
Barry will have options—I will write a few for him and he will take one of them, because that’s what you can do when you write fiction. Barry won’t be stuck anymore; he will go on to have more adventures, meet other people, experience conflict and drama. As for myself, I’m not as facile with creating options and then acting on one of them, delivering myself out of Stuck and into the movement of the world. But, I keep writing and one of these days, I will write myself right out of Stuck.
Tomorrow is the first official day of Fall—my favorite season. I love the vivid change of colors, the change in the air from hot to cool, from sweaty to invigorating. I like change; like to mix it up. But, there’s change and then there is CHANGE. Change is usually easier when it’s your idea. CHANGE is hardly ever your idea—it’s the tumultuous stuff that throws your world into a tailspin, forces you to rethink who you are and puts all the things you thought were stable and predictable into a maelstrom.
Humans are changeable beings. Some of us fight change, fearing chaos. But change is who we are. Fighting it goes against our nature and becomes exhausting in time. We should be good at something that is so much a part of us, but when CHANGE comes, it’s like we’ve never experienced it before. I hold the view that ultimately, change/CHANGE is good, but when there is a lot of CHANGE all at once, it’s hard to keep that view in focus.
The hardest thing for me with CHANGE is knowing when to surrender resistance. I’m not built that way and neither are most people. First, you push back against CHANGE, stand your ground. Eventually, I realize that my resistance is making things worse and I formally surrender. I don’t give up—there’s a difference. Surrendering is a way of coping, a deliberate choice: I will allow this CHANGE; I surrender myself to it and allow it to work in my life. Then comes the hard part: standing still while it happens. Waiting for the pieces to stop falling and then looking around to see where you are. Only then, can you see a path; a way out of the chaos and into something…else.
And that’s when you really have to focus on seeing CHANGE as a vehicle for something good to come in. Because we can’t see it; we don’t know where the path leads. This something else is unknown and maybe, we think, we won’t like it. We liked the old way, the way that has vanished. But, when the path is gone, you can choose to stand still forever or move forward, trusting that a new path will appear. All of the main characters in my books share the desire to move forward despite not knowing where they will end up. Maybe I’m using my characters to teach myself the lessons I need to learn; maybe all writers do.
Megan Markle’s dad needs to stop talking to the media; Trump needs to stop tweeting and talking and some of the characters in my books need to talk less and do more. At least fictional characters can be controlled, mostly, and their monologues eliminated or reduced, but real-life narcissists are relentless.
If MM was a fictional character, her father’s whining to the media about being only a footnote in his daughter’s wedding and not having an address to write to or a phone he can call to reach her, would be a source of conflict quickly resolved by dispatching him in some dramatically tragic fashion. Either that or he’d become a more flamboyant character with an army of freaks at his beck and call who would threaten the galaxy and we’d have some real conflict on our hands.
If Trump was a fictional character…wait, he is a fictional character. I’m pretty sure he is because no real person could function with such small-minded vindictiveness and flagrant disregard for accuracy and truth or proudly display such stupidity in areas of diplomacy, geography, history, science, personal relationships and loyalty. No, I guess he must be real because truth is stranger than fiction and if anyone wrote a character this awful, critics and readers would rip them apart.
Back now to rewriting my fictional characters with less exposition and more demonstration.
Changing your name can indicate a change in life, in marital status or perhaps a statement about who you truly are. In my second novel, “Flight of the Red Dragonfly,” Mary-Kate Hosanna Watling/ Paulette Faulkner Chapman’s name changes reflect all of the above.
As Mary-Kate Watling, she is a credulous child who believes in angels and worships her preacher father; as Hosanna, she is a nine year-old faith healer working with the angels; as Paulette Faulkner she is determinedly self-reliant-- rejecting all belief in anyone or anything but herself as the architect of her life. And, as forty-two year old Polly Faulkner Chapman, facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, she wants to resolve the conflict between her evangelical childhood and the life she created as an adult.
If you changed your name every time your life pivoted in a new direction, how many names would you have?
Cambodia! The airport is small and feels like home. Our hotel is in a residential area near the Mae Kock River. The Shinta Mani Resort is a shock to us with its small colorful, flower-filled and lemon-grass scented lobby. The colors, except for accents and flowers, are black and white—black hallways and walls, black and white striped sun umbrellas, plant pots, lounge chairs, room décor. Sp much smaller than the huge Pan Pacific in Hanoi and the Saigon Prince, but we love it and the people who work there immediately.
As soon as the bags are in our room, we return to the lobby and ask for a tuk-tuk. And that is how we meet Mrs. Kim. She takes us to the Open Market in her motorbike-driven carriage. I do souvie shopping while she waits for us. After our purchases, Bob offers to up her $2 fee to $5 if she will spend a little time showing us around.
Kim takes us up and down the river where 50-foot canoes are being raced in preparation for the big Krathong Loy Water Festival held on the first full moon in November, only a few days away. She jumps on and off her motorbike to explain things, take pictures with our cameras and manuevers us safely through traffic. She drives us to a pagoda on the seedy side of town and then to the King's park and palace, stopping under a tree in the park to mime sleeping--pointing to the thousands of bats roosting up in the tree. She flies past the famous Raffles Hotel and stops at the corner where people are saying their daily prayers at a shrine. She is lively and fun and we make an appointment to see her the next day after Angor Wat. Every house, every business here has a spirit house.
Our guide at Angor Wat has an unpronounceable name. He spent 15 years in a refugee camp during Pol Pot's regime, which is why he knows English and also Japanese. He has strong nationalistic feelings, a flair for dramatic photography and a wonderful knowledge of his country's history. Angor Wat is huge and ornate, on a scale that boggles the mind. Our guide has a habit of commandeering my cell phone to take pictures of Bob and I in sepia tone, as if we were archeologists from the 1800s. He knows all the cool places to photograph and how to show things to the best advantage. He tells us Mrs. Kim is the only female tuktuk driver out of 6,000. He is slightly disapproving because he says she isn't married and she has children.
The next day we go to Ta Prohm. Our guide calls it Tomb Raider because it was featured in that movie. It is delightfully silent, creepy and wonderful. I love the way the trees have become part of it, winding through it, towering above it. Faces of gods peer out from between roots and I feel I could stay here forever.
Mrs. Kim is waiting for us after dinner and as darkness falls, she takes us to Pub Street, downtown,all the way out to the locals' night market which much different from the Night Market in town where the tourists go. There are carnival rides at this market and the goods are all Western-style clothing and local produce. Mrs. Kim tells us she used to be married, but one of her sons is deaf and her husband was mortified, so he left. She lived in Phenom Penh which has schools for the deaf, but she didn't like it. She is happy in Siem Reap and we are happy that we met her.
Our guide in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) says his Catholic family moved here from Northern Vietnam in 1954. His father was killed in 1973. We don’t ask how. After the war, the family didn’t move back. Living in a small communal village is good, he says because everyone helps each other, everyone shares what they have, but…there are always murmurs behind you.
Saigon is huge, with wide streets. Women wear shorts and T-shirts in addition to skirts. There’s more diversity of appearance and attitude than in Hanoi. Our guide says the young people in Ho Chi Minh City are heavily influenced by Korean celebrities and fashion while Hanoi is influenced more by China. Our hotel is on one of the long sides of a huge open rectangle with the Sai Gon River at one end of the rectangle and the Hotel de Ville at the other end.
There are no signaled intersections despite the thousands of scooters and cars and buses. We want to cross the street to get to the river, but the hordes of scooters are intimidating. A young Viet girl next to us steps out into the road and we follow her like hungry baby ducks. She puts her hands out to the side, as if she could hold the mass back. Miraculously, the horde does slow, it maneuvers around us as we walk quickly to the river. Our crossing guard disappears before we can thank her. Later, we watch as teenagers escort groups of tourists across the road, collecting a toll fee tip from the grateful survivors.
The Sai Gon River here is filled with ships and garbage. Not much to see on this side of the street so we prepare to cross back. We wait until we see an older Viet man preparing to cross and we scoot over behind him. He doesn’t acknowledge us exactly, but he does motion Bob to move back from the traffic. Then he launches out into the street, holding out his arms and motioning for motorists to slow. Another traffic miracle occurs. We dog our unknown guide’s heels. When we reach the curb in safety, he lopes away—perhaps it was a deed of merit for Buddha.
We drive to the Cu Chi Tunnel complex to visit the remains of some of the extensive tunnels used by villagers and North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Termite hills disguise air vents, the jungle looks sparser than I expect. All the debris left by US troops seems to have been turned into useful items—tires into sandals, bomb fragments into knives or tools. There is a display of traps used by the villagers, adapted for use against American soldiers. I can’t imagine how an American soldier of 18 or so would feel on patrol, knowing that traps and snipers could be anywhere, unable to tell friend from foe or trust what anyone in a village is saying to you and with everything seeming to want to kill you.
We hear a succession of gunshots—is there a reenactment of combat? No, this complex also boasts a modern swimming pool and a gun range right across from one of the gift shops. It’s a multi-use park.
Our guide takes us to the Post Office in Saigon later. We don’t know why we are going to a Post Office, but when we go inside the yellow stucco building, we are greeted by an enormous portrait of Uncle Ho at one end of the cavernous building. Wooden phone booths from a by-gone era line the walls with clocks giving the time for various parts of the world hanging above them. The booths no longer have phones in them; instead they are festooned with advertisements for electronics. Across from the Post Office is Notre Dame Catholic Church, currently being remodeled, and right next door to the Post Office is a McDonalds.
In Hanoi, I didn’t see billboards of Uncle Ho and except for the mausoleum and the park, I didn’t see much of Ho Chi Minh. But in Saigon, there are billboards, and pictures of Uncle Ho everywhere. Guess they need the reminder. The “Hanoi Hilton” is now a venue for showing the cruelty of the French government and for displays of the Hilton’s most distinguished prisoner-Senator John McCain. In Saigon we visit the very modern-looking Presidential palace with its clever concrete louvers before each long, narrow window—for protection. We see the war maps. It’s nice to get outside where there are plants and trees.
My Trumpatorium was successful. My mind and spirit are still mostly in Southeast Asia where I found the people, the land and most of the food to be congenial, beautiful and calming. Back at home, I was able to listen to Trump making uncalled for and childish remarks about “Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren when presenting the Navajo code talkers with medals for their service in WWII without wishing for a meteor to obliterate Our Fearless Tweeter.
Being in Southeast Asia a week ahead of the Teflon President’s arrival helped with my month-long Trumpatorium. In Hanoi there is an unrestricted flow of constantly moving life. In a city with few marked lanes and very few signaled intersections, gazillions of scooters flow purposefully, maneuvering around each other, turning in front of each other and yet not colliding. Older women in peaked bamboo hats wheel bicycles laden with products to sell through the flow of scooters. People make room for each other. Even the houses encourage flow—tall, very narrow, multi-storied houses, pastel-stuccoed and French provincial in design where families live together with grandparents on the bottom floor, the next generation on the second floor and the newest generation with their babies and strong legs on the top floor. They help each other, flow upstairs and down between floors and generations. Doors in buildings, like our hotel, don’t face each other across the corridor. Instead, according to tribal custom, they are angled away from each other to prevent arguing. Living together and yet making room for differences. So different from our country.
Unlike the cities in China, it’s quiet in Hanoi—quiet in the airport, quiet in the streets despite the scooters which dispense a constant drone of sound, quiet voices everywhere. If someone is talking loudly, they are probably Chinese tourists, not Viets or Thai. Most of the scooter riders wear cotton masks in colorful prints over their nose and mouth. Out of the Hanoi gloom comes a scooter bearing a woman shrouded in headdress, mask, long sleeved flowing top and long skirt—all in the same white cotton flowered print. Despite the flowers she looks like a ghost.
Tony, our guide, takes us to see Uncle Ho’s mausoleum, which is closed at this time of year, every year, for repair. The modern, spare lines of the mausoleum face ornate yellow stucco French-influenced buildings across the rectangle with some Zen-type gardens thrown in the mix. We go to the Presidential Palace park where another, ornate, yellow stucco building announces its use for government. But Uncle Ho didn’t like using the former French governor’s palace and the cement, almost windowless building he preferred, is behind the palace. The wooden stilt house built for Ho fronting the lake, has a clean, minimalist look too, but much more welcoming. Lots of windows. I like it very much, even though it’s connected by a tunnel to a bunker. I like what I’ve learned in the past month at home about Uncle Ho too. Idealistic, simple, focused.
On the flip side, we visit several pagodas and the University of Literature, first college in Vietnam. The altars are heaped with bananas and tobacco, soft drinks and packages of sweets. Buddha likes bananas, Tony tells us and most of the bananas grown in the area are for Buddha, not for eating. There are tiny birds imprisoned by the dozen in small cages for people trying to earn merit to purchase and set free in the temple area. The people who catch and imprison the birds are not doing a merit worthy thing so I would expect their karma to be awful as compared to the people who set the birds free.Seems counter productive to me. Definitely greed inspired, not Buddha-inspired.
I started yesterday morning laughing because Larry Flynt offered $10 million for information that would lead to the impeachment and removal of Donald J. Trump as POTUS. I'm not a Hustler fan and Flynt reminds me of Jabba the Hut, but it just made me laugh--with joy. This morning, I watched as the Moron in the White House was caught out in another lie which he tried to walk back with "I was told" as his excuse for having belittled former presidents. He's so mean-spirited and vindictive, using false blame as a way of deflecting any possible criticism, that Our Fearless Tweeter makes me ill.
So, in the interest of my own emotional well-being, and thereby the emotional well-being of my writing and, by extrapolation, the emotional well-being of the world, I'm taking a leave of absence from the media. For a month, I will not watch the news, read the news, or talk about the news. Important things will happen during the month, but my hypothesis is that I won't be adversely affected by my ignorance. My thought is that I will notice other things instead; give my energy to seeing what is real instead of what I am told is real. I told my two year-old grandson to steer clear of coloring books with lines, not to let them limit what he creates. Time to follow my own advice.
I miss having a positive outlook on life and I notice it in my writing. My third book is becoming too grim and when I try to lighten it up, I have nothing to pull from. If I'm not watching horrific fires in my backyard, the Moron in the White House, the pain of those suffering loss from the hurricanes, the anger of the women abused by Harvey Weinstein, maybe all that energy will go elsewhere. Maybe into the ether, maybe into growth.
I gave up my column today. Fifteen and a half years, never missing a deadline, writing about anything I wanted to write about, meeting people in the grocery store who recognize me from my column photo (I have no idea how), and who tell me they loved a certain column, that they always look for it and read it.
So, why would I stop writing it? Why give up an opportunity to write--an excuse to have to sit down and process the world? It's not because I've run out of material, although sometimes I've come pretty close. It's not because I'm bored. It's because, perhaps, it has run its course. I want to make room for something else. Or it could be just because the new editor is disorganized and doesn't believe in planning and I like to know how many columns I should submit and when. Seat of your pants vs make a plan. I use both in my writing--I plan to write, but I don't always know what I will be writing about. So, I get it when someone prefers to wing it, but I think when you produce a newspaper on a regular basis, there should be a pittance of planning involved; a smidgen of scheduling; a trifling oddment of organization. Whatever.