The Hydrangea’s Last Chapter

I’m not a gardener; however, I like having a few containers sitting around with basil, rosemary, lavender, and perhaps a few flowers. And, I like to save plants–the ones I find on a bargain table that, if not sold that day, are destined for the trash bin the following day.

Recently, I debated whether I should let a large hydrangea plant–that was clearly struggling and not putting forth any flowers–die a natural death, or take a drastic measure to save it. Assuming it was on it’s way out regardless, I whacked it down to about about 10 inches above ground. I fully expected it to perish. Instead, it burst forth with new leaves, has grown at least two feet in a short time, and even managed a few blooms.

That may not be a bad approach to take with a manuscript that has a weak, unsatisfactory last chapter. When I approach the last chapter of a manuscript I’m working on, I envision my characters as having met their challenges and emerging into a new phase of their lives. I want to convey that to the reader who, I hope, cares about what happens to the characters as much as I do. If I have portrayed my fictional men and women sufficiently, that should happen. And I should bring the book to a believable conclusion that leaves the reader–if not in agreement–at least with a sense of closure.

But that doesn’t come easily. Case in point: I just finished the latest novel by a well-known author. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and has had at least one of her books made into a film. She is at her best when writing about families and relationships. I really liked this last novel, and read with anticipation to see what the main character would finally decide.

The suspense increased as I turned to the last page. Was the main character going to make a life changing decision or not? Finally, in the last two sentences of the book, she appears to make a decision, but then what ? The reader’s left hanging, still with no idea if she will carry through or not.

I realize that short, abrupt endings have become a vogue in fiction, but there is a limit to how truncated one can manage without irritating the reader. This book was 292 pages. It would have benefited from 293.

Sometimes, we either write themselves into a corner, or simply don’t know how to fashion the ending we imagine. When we write, we usually have our characters firmly in mind and know what should happen in the last chapter. Knowing and doing, however, are not the same thing, and producing that perfect ending can be daunting. I’ve struggled with more than one last chapter, reworking endlessly and finally settling on a version, but never feeling fully confident or good about it.

Hence, the whacking. I think the solution may be the same one I applied to the hydrangea. Take a chance, discard the old, the tired, the not-good-enough. Write a new, fresh chapter. Consider–would a different outcome make a difference? Explore various scenarios apart from the one you’ve had in mind. Experiment. You’ll know when you’ve got the conclusion that works, and you’ll have given the reader something to hold onto. You may not ever want to write a sequel, but the ultimate compliment is when your readers ask if there is going to be one.

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Writer’s Quicksand

A musician friend, discussing a pop song, said it had “too many notes.” The melody was lost in an overzealous arrangement. Likewise, too many words–or digressions–mar an otherwise good story.

Not unlike many writers, I’m an avid reader: fiction, nonfiction, short stories, essays–all mediums that tell a story or reveal a truth. I am also tenacious, and reluctant to give up on a book simply because I don’t like the writing style.

Thus, a few days ago I began a book that, according to the hype, was a classic psychological thriller. All the requisite elements seemed to be in place: likable, sympathetic main character in jeopardy; interesting setting; intriguing plot; adequate tension. In other words, it should have been a real page turner. I tried to read at a normal pace, but kept finding myself sinking into a quicksand of words.

The author chose to burden a fairly straightforward narrative with endless stream-of-consciousness insertions–in paragraph after paragraph. This might have worked somewhat if the “thoughts” tied in with the plot, but they didn’t, nor did they indicate a fragile state of mind. They were simply a character quirk (thinking in clichés) that might be interesting in a nonfiction, psychological case study, but not in a novel.

As I read, I thought about why good writing can be derailed with superfluous detail.

How does it happen? Sometimes , in an effort to avoid the “cardboard” or “stock” character designation, we overemphasize a character’s traits or habits, mentioning them too often. Sometimes, because it’s generally important to provide descriptive details throughout the manuscript (not just at the beginning), we rely on that tried-and-true device–the elements. But, how many weather reports can the reader appreciate? Or, as I discovered after reading another novel recently, how many long, knit dresses can one author possibly include in a 346 page book? I found out–way too many!

Another pitfall is deviating from the plot, probably because writing fiction is the process of “making up” a world for our characters to inhabit, and giving them thoughts and actions to meet their challenges. It’s only natural that, In creating their world, we rely on what we know or imagine.

For example, if part of my plot involves my protagonist visiting someone living on a lonely ranch, I recall my uncle’s house, and how it looked when I was a child. I visualize the kitchen counter, the vintage dishes, the table covered with patterned oilcloth. So far, so good, but if I’m not careful I find myself writing about the fate of a horse my uncle gave me when I was  ten years old. The story has significance to me, and might even work as a short story, but having my character think about it is out of context only clutters my narrative.

I did finish the book because, in spite of the character’s rambling thoughts, the plot had merit. More importantly, it served as a valuable reminder to avoid miring the reader in pointless details and indulgent tangents. A lesson relearned.

Doing Instead of Viewing: Making Art to Inspire Writing

When writer’s take a break from writing, and why it’s okay to do so, was the content of my last blog. Not being in the mood to write was neither ominous nor permanent–it was simply a leave of absence from the keypad. In my case, it was also guilt free. At least for a while. Then, gradually, an inner voice began to nag, “Vacation is over. Go to work.”

Before I turned to writing, I was an art major and went on to paint realistic oils, mostly of people. I’d stopped when I began writing, with only an occasional try at watercolors or a sketch for a book cover. Then, at some point last year, I downloaded a few free apps to my iPad. Although a couple looked interesting, I didn’t take the time to explore them.

One morning, just before Christmas, I noticed I’d downloaded a sketching/note taking type of app, and I opened the sketching section. I began drawing figures, mostly with my index finger, although occasionally with a stylus. They were simple outlines, quickly done. On some, I’d swipe a swath of color or two, then move on. What surprised me was that I was drawing abstract figures, leaving off body parts, suggesting a shape rather than portraying my subjects in either accurate or minute detail. It was fun; it was free flowing; it was quick. It led me to a whimsical style I’d never contemplated when I was striving for accurate representations.

I knew sketching was entertaining, but what I hadn’t counted on was that it would become a strong motivator for my writing. After twenty or thirty minutes of creating sketches in which I’d let my finger–not my brain–dictate the lines, I had the urge to write, and felt excited over doing so. Within a day or two, a pattern was set: I’d sketch, then I’d write. The payoff? My long-neglected writing project is once again on track.

Will art motivate one to write? It’s been established that viewing a painting, sculpture, or other art form not only fires recognition, memory, and understanding, but also evokes an emotional response. The term ekphrasis (ekphrastic) describes the process of a spoken or written reaction to viewing a work of art: it’s a method frequently used for inspiration by writers and speakers.

But what about the doing as opposed to the viewing? When we create a visual art work, we are tapping into the same sources that are in play when we look at art. Perhaps the physical act of moving the hand to draw or color stimulates the brain to crave another creative outlet. That outlet can be your writing. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of seeing something you created, something tangible. Maybe it is just a reminder that your art, in any form, is important and deserving of your time.

If you use art to to inspire or motivate your writing, I’d love to hear from you.
What’s your art form?
Do you use a tablet, sketch pad, pencil, brush or sculpting tool?
How has it inspired or changed your writing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

When a Writer Stops Writing

What causes a writer to stop writing? Stop. Not quit. Quitting is different. Quitting is walking away with the intention of not going back. Quitting is a decision that something has served its purpose, is futile, is no longer viable or desirable. Quitting is giving up, giving away, giving yourself a better option.

Most writers never quit. Most writers can’t quit. There is always some element–a thought, observation, a scrap of dialogue–that suggests a character, a line of poetry, a sentence, or a paragraph. Writers are like musicians who hear music everywhere (the sound of water flowing over rocks; the beat tires make hitting the pavement on a particular stretch of road).

Writers often wake up with an idea for a poem, story, essay, or book before they’ve had their first cup of morning coffee. Sometimes, a remembered dream gives birth to an idea for a great narrative. Do they bound out of bed and develop their idea, write while the concept is fresh in their memory?

Some do, but not all, and not all the time.

Days, weeks, and months can go by without one word being written–by people who like to write. I don’t think it has much to do with that old catchall, “writer’s block.” I suspect many writers aren’t blocked; they just aren’t writing.

If we identify ourselves as writers, we are frequently asked, “What are you working on now?” Often, we murmur something like, “Oh, I’m in the editing stage.” “Too soon to go public.” “Just finishing my novel, (chapbook, essay collections, etc.).” Rarely do we tell the truth, “I have a lot of half-finished stuff on my computer, but I just haven’t felt like working on it.”

It’s difficult (often guilt inducing) to admit this when we are constantly admonished to climb out of a warm bed at 4 a.m. and write for several hours–before putting in a full day’s work at the job that really pays, or attending to personal or family needs.  We are told to stare at a blank computer page until an idea comes, even if it takes several hours. Why would we want to do that? And why assume we are blocked, heads as empty as a gourds? If there is no desire to write at a particular moment, staring at a computer screen or a blank piece of paper isn’t going to be an attitude changer. Neither is putting in a prescribed number of hours per day at the keyboard (regardless of output) going to make a difference.

Most writers I know, when they are motivated and excited about what they are working on, will spend every available moment writing, forgoing activities, pleasures, and frequently the necessary breaks–barely stopping for lunch or dinner. For them, it’s about being “in the zone,” not enforced writing practices.

I haven’t been writing much lately (this blog site attests to that neglect). No excuses. I just haven’t been in the mood. I’m thinking that isn’t a bad thing, because I’ve gained a new perspective on several projects, thought of some new twists on old projects, and will probably welcome time at the keyboard soon.

Some People Rescue Dogs

Some people rescue dogs: old, young, abused, abandoned, incorrigible, lost, or otherwise rejected. I admire those rescuers, both for their compassion and for their willingness to dedicate a significant amount of time and resources to restoring an animal’s security.

I’ve rescued a few cats over the years, including the current one, who has never, in her 13 years, been able to decide if she wants in or out. Mainly though, I rescue plants. There is less care involved and, if they totally fail to revive, I don’t have a guilty conscience over tossing them into the trash can.

Summer is the time of year I go into full rescue mode. Although the savings are significant, that’s not the real reason I gather scraggly, wilted plants from clearance tables–preventing them from being thrown out by the garden store or market vendor.

Perhaps I’m influenced by the advice my parents gave me, “Don’t discard anything that’s “still good.” However, I have a more compelling reason for hauling home half-dead plants every year. It’s the challenge. Can I revive this plant? Will it flourish? Surprisingly, nearly all of them do. They are tenacious; I love that about them.

My kitchen window sports a large pot full of blooms. An outdoor container has moss roses spreading their vivid color, and a geranium outside the kitchen door is doing it’s best to produce a flower cluster now and then.

And . . .

I also have a hard drive loaded with short stories, both partial and complete. Add to those the completed manuscript of a novel I’ve decided to revive, numerous essays, some creative-nonfiction pieces, and assorted poems. Some were rejected; some never submitted. A number of them are uneven, rough, or outdated. The question? Are they worth rescuing?

During an NPR interview with Nora Roberts in which Peter Sagal asked her if she ever experienced writer’s block. Did she ever run out of ideas? She told him, “Oh, no. There are 88 keys on the piano, but do you run out of music?” I couldn’t stop thinking about that answer, because why not rescue bits and pieces of our writing and give them a second chance in a different form.

If you are one of those incredibly talented–or just damn lucky–people who haven’t garnered a collection of rejection slips, I applaud (and definitely envy) you. But, if you have, like many writers I know, felt the despair of defeat a few times, then consider my rescue theory. Maybe that novel, story, essay, or poem isn’t dead; it doesn’t need to gather digital dust in your documents folder. Treat it like the dog, cat, or plant that’s been given another chance to thrive.

Your work may fit into a different genre than you thought it did. It may require tweaking to make it age appropriate, or interest a slightly different audience, but that usually doesn’t require an extensive rewrite. Maybe it just need to be condensed to fit current publishing guidelines, or expanded to enhance your overall theme.

Sometimes all it takes is a shift in chronology to appeal to the contemporary reader. A nod to the pervasiveness of social media might suffice. Changing the titles of the songs your characters listen to; upgrading the model of car they drive; modernizing their language, including slang, can make your work seem fresh and new.  Even recognizing current concerns–economics, politics, the environment–can revive a moribund manuscript.

The publishing market for genre changes as well. For a while, memoirs were in demand, then they were glut on the market. With the advent of reality shows, there is still a market for good memoirs that have a universal theme. A former adult novel may now be suitable for YA with few changes. Dystopian fiction, ignored by publishers in the past, may be highly relevant in 2017. I hope you root around in your file drawer, or on your computer, and find something wonderful you forgot you wrote.

Happy salvaging.

Finding Your Tribes

Using the terms tribe or tribal can be risky. To some, these words carry deep meaning, while to others they are simply convenient nomenclature.

On the serious side, tribe can indicate a deeply traditional group sharing a common culture, ethnicity, religion, economy, or circumstance. The term tribe or tribal in this case is not only serious, but often sacred.

In a more casual usage, it can refer to people who form a community (often scattered) because they share a common interest, experience, or goal. In this case, they are usually more ”kindred spirits” than actual “kin.” To say, ‘My tribe,” is a way of aligning oneself with a group: mountain climbers, knitters, survivors, artists, or maybe just the people you went to school with or that lived in your neighborhood.

I live in a border state–not completely southern, but not northern either. April seems to be the month everyone chooses to plan their yearly events, probably because Spring is usually lovely here. This April was no exception: book fairs, receptions, award dinners and cultural events all fell within a two week span. The book fair brought me into contact with my “writing tribe.” I enjoyed seeing old friends and meeting new authors I admired. It was fun; it was comfortable; it was great shop talk.

Near the end of April, I was invited to a potluck luncheon at the college where I’d formerly taught. I left teaching over a decade ago in order to spend time writing, traveling, renovating a dwelling. I almost didn’t go, thinking I’d not have much in common with the current group of profs and instructors. At the last minute, I made a dish and showed up. True to my expectations, I didn’t know most of the people teaching there now. Some of my former colleagues had retired; two had died; several were still teaching, but had skipped the luncheon. What I didn’t anticipate was the benefit of being in touch with people I hadn’t talked to for a dozen years.

The pleasure of connecting to several former colleagues and friends outweighed any awkwardness I’d initially felt. We hugged, we gossiped, we laughed, and of course, we ate. I’d still like to know who brought the great chicken wings, and where they purchased them.

I left the luncheon thinking, “That was great; I was with my tribe.” Tribe is not a term I use; I never even think to use it, but it was the phrase that kept running through my mind. I realized then that we can, and do, belong to more than one tribe, and that for someone interested in writing, it’s a valuable tool.

Although several of the people at the luncheon were writers–and in fact taught English–others taught science, mathematics, computer programming. Our shared teaching background, however, soon established a level of trust, and our casual conversation became more serious, touching on the real concerns, joys, and sorrows we’d all experienced.

Why is finding more than one “tribe” valuable to writers? One of the more obvious is that writing is a lonely endeavor, often isolating. We sit at our computers, tablets, or maybe an old IBM and write. It’s not like cooking with friends in the kitchen, cheering us on and refilling our wine glass while tasting our latest dish. Rather, it is a room or corner where we can concentrate–and agonize–alone.

Fiction writers need to create a variety of characters with depth, personality, believable motivation and authentic dialogue. If we are writing a story or novel set in the present day, we need to keep the technology and jargon current. I can’t think of a better way than to connect with a former group with which you shared an interest, even if it seems like a couple of lifetimes ago. The old maxim, “Nothing changes; everything changes,” couldn’t be more true.

While the warmth and shared memories may give you pleasure, your writer’s mind can also file away a lot of useful information and impressions. The next time you create a character, he or she may present as a more authentic personality; speak the current language of their environment, pursue new dreams, and face new challenges appropriate to the times.

Is There a Snowball’s Chance in Hell?

With apologies to my winter-sports loving family and friends, I am happy I haven’t had to deal with snow or snowballs this year–compared to the last two winters when snowstorms  presented multiple headaches.

I’m thinking about another kind of snowball, based on my attempt to shake off winter ennui. First, to give credit where it’s due, I used to occasionally hear a financial advisor on the radio who presented the “snowball” theory of freeing oneself from debt. Starting with paying off the  smallest debt, he then suggested progressing to the next largest, and on up the line. Providing a sense of accomplishment and slow, steady progress, his method was popular and, as far as I know, workable.

I discovered the same general idea works for kicking the procrastination that winter can induce; you know, the urge to wrap up in a warm throw, sip a mug of something hot, and read a great book. Of course, while I was doing this, I wasn’t writing or even (sorry) attending to this blog.

Then, I glanced at a literary newsletter and discovered a play contest. I’ve written nonfiction, novels, short stories and poems, but  I’ve only made one attempt at a play, and that was years ago. Still, if I could pull it off, I might have a chance to see it produced in a western state I love.

I closed my book and sat down at the computer. The first thing I discovered is that formatting a play correctly requires not only learning new rules, but maintaining consistency in their application. There are programs one can purchase to assist the process, but I was experimenting and not ready to invest. After an hour or two of research, I found what seemed to be an acceptable, standard format.

Finally I entered what, to me, was a foreign landscape. I wrote; I edited; I switched entire scenes; I cursed; I enlisted the help of a friend to spot trouble areas. It took a couple of weeks, but I managed to produce a three-act play.

Inspired, I wrote a 10-minute play and sent it to a theatre that was calling for short plays. I doubt if either play has the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted, but what I learned was worth the effort.

The first revelation: I have written dialogue; I have taught others how to write dialogue; I thought I knew what I was talking about.  However, when I had to picture actors on stage, not only speaking my lines, but performing appropriate movements to accompany those lines, I had an entirely new perspective on effective dialogue in general.

The second revelation: After putting the book and blanket away, and becoming involved in my writing again, I woke up each day wanting to do it again–and again. That first day’s sense of progress was a strong motivator.  Perhaps it’s a little like breaking a habit: if you can get through that first day, then the second day beckons, and it snowballs from there. Success builds on success and, regardless of what you write or how well it is received, you are writing, building your skills, and getting back into the zone.

How do you get your snowball rolling?

A Writer’s Blueberry Muffin Epiphany

I’ve always disliked blueberry muffins. I thought they had a saccharin, chemical taste. So, I avoided them or, if the cafe had no other variety, did without. The other day, however, after waiting out the winter’s first snow and ice storm in our area, we found ourselves out of basic grocery items, entertaining videos, and a couple of liquid essentials. As soon as our county road was drivable, we started our rounds. It was bitter cold, with a piercing wind; walking to from the car to the stores was miserable.

I complained that I couldn’t go another minute without something hot (preferably caffeine) to ward off the chill. I’d also missed lunch and was starving. We stopped at a local coffee shop, and I ordered cappuccino and a muffin. I thought the sign said “breakfast muffin.”  I bit into it and was dismayed. It was blueberry. Okay, I didn’t have my glasses on so it was my fault for mistaking breakfast with blueberry. But here’s the epiphany; it was delicious! Wonderful in fact. It was made with fresh blueberries; I didn’t know they would make such a difference. I’m clearly not a baker.

Two days later, I was still thinking of that muffin. It wasn’t large; it wasn’t overly sweet; it was, in fact, quite simple. I decided the person who supplied the coffee shop was a baker who bucked the trends, used a recipe from an earlier time, and produced a muffin that wasn’t oversized and loaded with sugar, fat, and a calorie count that pushed the 500 mark. I also determined I could duplicate it if I dug out an old cook book I’d inherited from my mother. And it worked: flour, an egg, baking powder, milk, and a minimum amount of oil and sugar. And, of course, an overflowing cup of fresh blueberries. I have been enjoying one with my afternoon coffee for the past four days.

I’d also been struggling with several writing projects, wanting to try all of them, but stymied at how to begin any of them. Then I had my second epiphany and developed a few rules I need to follow. I resolved to:

Recognize the beauty in simplicity. Avoid overloading content. Resist trying to make the work bigger, better than that of anyone else. Avoid competing with everything I’ve read–or read hype about. Refrain from including gratuitous material in an effort to “pump it up.” Tell my stories with a  minimum of flourish or tricks. Ignore the latest trends if they don’t apply to my material. In other words, stay true to the theme, execute the plot, and keep it fresh. Like chemically enhanced blueberries, artificially contrived fiction (and nonfiction) usually leaves a bad aftertaste.

I realize that, as writers, we are constantly hearing of the big advance, the big contract, the newcomer that’s taking the publishing world by storm, the million dollar sale. It’s normal to aspire to success in our work. Some writers are content with recognition and critical acclaim; others seek the fame and fortune accorded to the celebrity author. It all sounds appealing, but I am also aware that padding one’s work,  or serving the market instead of what the story demands, is not a formula that can hold up in the long run. Perhaps, like opening an old cookbook to find a simple treat, we might find the story, essay, or book idea–that we didn’t think was viable–surprising us.

The Writer’s Rabbit Hole

Like incoming missiles, the events of the last month have left many people disoriented and disquieted. And why not?  People of all persuasions have experienced the fallout of a bitter, divisive political climate, national upheaval, and  a dark view of America’s underbelly. And that’s the short list. Add to that the death of a beloved songwriter (“Hallelujah”) and an equally admired journalist and the distraction is intensified. In the midst of all this, writers are trying to focus, concentrate, and produce thoughtful, insightful prose or poetry. That’s a tall order.

I first learned that writing was an outlet for emotion, confusion, and uncertainty when I was ten years old and agonizing over a fight with a best friend. I stayed up all night, writing  a long (and probably ill-conceived) poem about a female martyr. I was no doubt the real martyr in this case, but writing my epic poem so captured my attention that I got over my hurt feeling and made a conciliatory gesture to my friend.

We write to understand the world around us; to delve into our own emotions; to come to terms with reality. We write to find the universal spark that unites us. It follows, then, that we should be writing now. I haven’t been, but I know what it will take to get back into the routine.

Mainly, it’s simple: resist the temptation to check the news, social media, or my email every hour in case “something important” has happened. After all, family and close friends have my phone number; they would call if they needed me. If a tornado is approaching, I’ll hear the siren. If I think I need a cute cat fix or a meme that makes me laugh, I can scroll my Facebook feed after I’ve added a few pages to my novella, or finished an essay that has been languishing too long.

I often think about Scott and Helen Nearing, who chose–and wrote about–what they called “living the good life.” They managed to be self-sufficient for around 60 years. What I most remember, though, is that they divided their day into increments: four hours for physical labor; four for intellectual pursuits; four for pleasure (usually music or reading). I assume the other twelve hours in the day involved sleeping, preparing and eating meals, everyday chores. I’m seldom that disciplined, but I’m impressed with how much they were able to accomplish.

A few years ago, while researching and developing a nonfiction book, I was able to keep to a similar schedule. I wrote for four hours (give or take) every morning. It worked for me, mainly for two reasons: I balanced my time, and I wrote early in the day before the real world diverted my attention away from my work. My creative capacity was much like a container that was full in the morning, slowly drained by noon, but refilled overnight. When I gave myself time between writing sessions to generate new ideas, I was eager to sit down at my desk. Then, after a generally productive morning, I was ready to face the rest of the day and any problems or pleasures it might bring.

Remembering that, it seems that if, like me, you’ve had trouble concentrating lately, the best plan may be to write before going down the media rabbit hole. If we can carve out time to write when our minds are more at peace, and less troubled by the tumultuous world in which we find ourselves, we can be more productive and–just maybe–do some good.

The Emotional Shock of Memory on a Sunday Morning

I didn’t see it coming: the shock; the rawness of loss; my father’s voice; the connection to a long-dead songwriter; my recall of lyrics from old country songs.

My father was much older than my mother; their cultural influences were a generation apart. My father died in 1985. He was many things in his life: rancher; explosives expert; orderly in a military hospital; Bureau of Reclamation employee; refinery security guard. He did whatever was necessary to pay the bills.

He was a self-taught, talented harmonica player. He could play a few songs on a piano, and he could sing–not great, but in key. He sang lustily or mournfully, depending on the song.

When I was a child, we would take road trips throughout Wyoming and South Dakota. To pass the miles–often on poorly maintained roads where we moved at a snail’s pace–he would sing to us. At home, in the evenings, he’d play his harmonica.

I remembered two songs he sang often, “Red River Valley,” and “Put My Little Shoes Away.” I was moved by the latter, probably because I was a child, and it was about a child’s death. Although those songs remind me of him, so do hundreds of others things.

This morning was typical: I was watching the Sunday Morning show, sipping coffee and chatting with the resident musician. When Charles Osgood announced his retirement and signed off, he sang a bit of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” As often happens, that led to a conversation which resulted in my dragging out my iPad. This time, I was looking up Woody Guthrie and the original lyrics to “Dusty Old Dust.”

In the midst of my research, I found a link to a singer and songwriter of the early 1930s–Carson Robison. From there,  I discovered an archive of some of the songs he performed (singing and playing harmonica).

That was when the emotional shock occurred. As I read down the list, and began to listen to the old recordings, I realized that I already knew the lyrics to many of the songs. Amazingly, from deep in buried memory, the words emerged. I felt a bit like people must when they get a knock on the head and, allegedly, wake up proficient in a language other than their native language. It wasn’t only the surprise of knowing the lyrics, but the feelings they engendered. I was in tears and couldn’t figure out why until I made the connection.

My father grew up during a time, and in an area of the West, where country music was popular, and old-time lyrics were appreciated and revived. He must have followed the music (radio or records) of Robison. He must have emulated the harmonica virtuoso of Robison and sung those lyrics to me. I’d only consciously remembered the “Red River” and” Little Shoes” ones, but the others were there, and they carried all the emotional impact of seeing my father again.

As writers, we often mine our memories to find inspiration–the muse that lives in our mind (As opposed to a Muse that reportedly hovered over the shoulders of poets in previous centuries–although I wouldn’t mind having one of those as well). Often these memories carry emotional force, but we are somewhat prepared, having consciously dredged up the memory to form or enliven our prose or poetry.

It is the memories that surface when we least expect them that shake us. And, maybe, those are the ones that deserve the most attention. Think what passion those memories triggered, and write while you are still feeling the joy or the sorrow, the pleasure or the sting.

Have you had a similar experience? Did it motivate you? Did you write about it?