Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas, dear friends...


Somehow, not only for Christmas,
But all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others,
Is the joy that comes back to you.
And the more you spend in blessing,
The poor and lonely and sad,
The more of your heart's possessing,
Returns to you glad.

~John Greenleaf Whittier~

Monday, December 17, 2007

In the Bedroom with George Hamilton

Several readers have commented on Number Five of my “Weird and Random Facts" post.

“Scandalous!” said Chris F. Holm. (Chris meant it in a good way, of course.) Others? Well, I'm not so sure. Several people asked if I had an affair with him, and one asked if I had even met him!

Well, it did happen (not an affair, of course, but the meeting). I can’t remember the year, but I think it was sometime in 1983.

Costa and I had just relocated to Michigan, when we got a call from his father, who was in the real estate business. “Come on over,” he said, “Thought you might like to see a commercial in the making. Right here at the house.”

I didn’t really want to go; I had a million things to do. I was busy getting our apartment in order, grocery shopping, and planning a practice drive to Dearborn, where I would begin my job within the walls of the intimidating Bingham Office Center the following Monday morning.

Nevertheless, early that afternoon we headed over to Bloomfield Hills.

We were shocked when we arrived at my in-laws' home. Cars were parked up and down the street, neighbors stood in clutches in their yards and in the middle of the street, all gazing at a helicopter which was setting down in their yard.

Since Costa was in such a hurry to get there, I hadn’t gone to the bathroom before I left home. So as soon as we got out of the car, I beat a path through the door and down the hall. That bathroom was occupied, so I hurried farther down the hall to my in-laws’ bedroom.

As soon as I entered the room I stopped. I was not alone. A tall, elegant man was standing at the dresser, knotting his tie.

He turned and smiled. “Well," he said, "Hello!”

The man was actor George Hamilton.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” I said, feeling the blood rush to my face, “I was just…just going to the bathroom.”

He laughed. “Go ahead; be my guest!”

“Ah, no, I’ll do it somewhere else.”

My face got even redder when I realized what I had just said, so I rushed to the living room and collapsed on the sofa.

“Oh, dear,” my mother-in-law said, “I should have warned you George was in there.”

After the commercial was made, my in-laws introduced us to George, and we had a very nice conversation. Although he was rather stiff—like a cardboard man, in fact, and so perfect that he didn’t look real—he was friendly and eloquent. I had a difficult time concentrating on what he was saying, though; my eyes were drawn to his perfect teeth, blindingly white against his dark tan.

By the time we were preparing to leave, I had regained my composure and was beginning to feel like my old self again: He probably thought I would want to take a picture of him, like any other star-struck fan. Well, I showed him!

My voice was calm as I smiled and shook his hand, “It was so nice to meet you, George.”

And then my father-in-law grabbed his camera. “George,” he said, “Come on over here!”

George, like a school boy summoned by the principal, complied.

“Let my son take a picture of you and my daughter-in-law before they leave!”

My face reddened again, but George rose to the occasion, “It'll be my pleasure,” he said, placing his hand on the small of my back, “We know each other well; after all, we have been in the bedroom together!”
We were still laughing when Costa snapped this picture.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All I Ever Wanted

Since I’ve begun blogging, readers often ask how I got into writing. Well, it has been a long road, with lots of stops along the way, but here it is.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t observing people—studying their facial expressions, their mannerisms, body language—and as soon I could hold a pencil in my hand, I was drawing pictures of faces. I was off and running after I learned to read and write. To heck with arithmetic, science, geography, and all those other subjects; I had all the tools I needed.

It wasn’t long before I was sketching the faces of people I knew and jotting down what they were saying: family, friends and neighbors, even the congregation of Mississippi Baptist Church. I was a quiet and solemn child; parishioners paid little attention to me, so it was easy to wander unnoticed among them, picking up slivers of conversation here and there.

This led to my creation of a church bulletin one summer, which I distributed among my brothers and sisters. The bulletin was not your regular church news; it contained the behind-the-scenes stuff. In the form of a comic book, the dialogue hung in bubbles above their heads: Two ladies stand face-to-face after services, cardboard fans poised in the air: “I don’t why you want to get rid of Naomi,” Miss Lizzie says, “She’s a good piano player.” “Your daughter has played it long enough,” says Miss Anna, “It’s Helen Jean’s turn!”What I wasn’t putting on paper, I was filing away in my subconscious mind. Unbeknownst to me, it was settling in, making itself at home. Marinating.

A wealth of new material awaited me when I entered Bardwell Grade School. By the time I was in the early grades, I was writing stories about my classmates’ antics, sometimes adding tidbits to make it more interesting. (Now, they call it creative nonfiction!)

One day in fifth grade, during geography class (which I hated), I was trying to block out Miss Avil Witty’s voice, droning on and on about the Amazon River. I didn’t care about the widest river in the world; what was happening in our neck of the woods was much more interesting to me. So I decided to write a story.

A few days later, as I was scribbling away, Miss Avil caught me. “I've got an idea,” she said, “What do y’all say we have Brenda read one of her stories in fifth period next Wednesday?”

Fifth period, each Wednesday, was fun time; Miss Avil told us about things that had happened way back in her childhood; she had students reading the works of well-known writers and poets, and others giving talks about trips they had taken to Kentucky Lake or Mammoth Cave.

I was petrified the first time I read one of my stories in front of the class, expecting everyone to poke fun at me, especially the boys. But they seemed to enjoy it. And wanted more.

Encouraged by Miss Avil and my classmates, I soon branched out, writing plays and convincing classmates to take parts. Most were comedy, and we ad-libbed a lot, but the “reviews” were great. Everyone, including Miss Avil, clapped and cheered after our performances. (I often think of Miss Avil, and what a progressive and fun-loving teacher she was!)

By the time I was in high school, writing was second nature to me. I loved literature and English, so sentence structure and punctuation came easily. I looked forward to writing book reports, churning them out in nothing flat.

“Good job,” Mrs. Mitchell said, “Think what you could do if you really tried.”

I stiffened, deeply offended, and then I continued doodling and gazing out the window: How did she know I wasn’t trying that hard?
After graduating from high school, I had dreams. Maybe I could go to UCLA, or another well-known college and study writing, maybe go to drama school. Or something like that.

But money was short—there were no grants or college loans back then—so I attended business college in Paducah, earning an associate degree in business, got married, and began my career in Chicago.

Although I still kept journals, sporadically recording bits of our life along the way, I omitted my thoughts, my dreams. Emotions. They were pushed back, buried. All that didn’t matter now; I was a married woman, and it was time for me to get on with the business of living. That’s what adults did.

After my daughter was born, I enjoyed my time with her, determined to be the best mother possible. I played with her, read to her, and worked to instill her with good values, self confidence. Most of my journal entries were about her growth and progress, the cute comments she made, schoolwork, book satchels, new Red Ball Jets.

I must have read thousands of books during those year at home (wish I’d kept a list!), and I took Suzanne with me to the library each week. She sat on a tiny stool, thumbing through Cat in the Hat, Heidi, and The Borrowers, while I was busy checking out all the books Miss Withers, the stern librarian, would allow. And each night, after Suzanne was tucked in bed, story read, prayers said, I settled in my wing chair and got down to my favorite pastime.

One night, after finishing another book that wasn’t really that good, a thought drifted through my mind: I could do that.

As always, although she lived 300 miles away, Mother seemed to know what I was thinking. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from her: I was just thinking, Brenda, you could be a writer. A lot of the letters you write home could be made into stories.

After that, her letters often contained newspaper and magazine clippings about writing and authors, notes scribbled in the margins: Her writing reminds me of yours; Bess Streator Aldrich (or some such author) received 120 rejections before she ever got a story published!

When Suzanne started to school, I went back to work. And a few years later, I bought a secondhand IBM Selectric typewriter and reams of bond paper. I converted our third bedroom into my office, bought a desk, stocking it with plenty of typewriter ribbons, notebooks, paperclips and post-it notes. I bought new maple bookcases, placing my collections of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor stories and Eliot and Frost poetry on the pristine shelves.

After everything was in place, I stood back, admiring it. For the rest of the evening.

The next few evenings were spent in much the same way, strolling around on the green shag carpet, admiring my office and congratulating myself on a job well done.

When I finally sat down at the desk, things weren’t exactly right. So I rearranged the contents of the desk drawers and the book shelves, and then I read a few pages of one book or another, leaning against my new bookcases. I typed up famous writers’ quotes and placed them near the typewriter. I positioned a dictionary and thesaurus between two glass-tiger bookends.

And then I sat down at my desk again.

I couldn’t seem to get started; I kept thinking about things that needed to be done. Right then. And after I got everything done—including cleaning out the refrigerator and scrubbing the cat’s food and water bowls—I sat gazing off into space.

Finally, I got up, walked out of the room, and politely closed the door.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I joined Suzanne and her father in the family room: This was great, doing what normal people do; forgetting about everything else and watching television: “You dingbat!” says Archie Bunker, “I bust my bootocks, working in that rotten world out there, and you give me meatloaf for dinner?”
After a few evenings, I returned to my office, where I sat paralyzed at my typewriter, dreading the task that lay ahead. Although words and ideas were floating around in my head, it was hard as hell to harness them and wrestle them into a decent story. Even thinking about it made me tired.

Finally, after many nights of leaving and going back, starting and stopping, agonizing, and revising, revising, revising, I finished my first short story.

I was disappointed. Something was missing. But I couldn’t figure out what. So I threw it into a drawer and rushed out of the room, vowing to forget about writing altogether.

I took up jogging, rising at the crack of dawn and running two miles each day; Suzanne and I joined a health club. (Not that Suzanne’s firm little 13-year-old body needed it; I just didn’t want to be away from her three nights a week. Since I had begun night classes at Illinois state, I was already away from her one night each week.)

All the time I was running and working out and studying, I was thinking about writing. And the ideas kept coming: What a great idea for a story! A wonderful sentence! That would be an excellent first line!
As time went by, I kept writing. I was unable not to.

Then, somewhere along the way, my writing took a “turn.” I was finding myself delving deeper and deeper, examining things more closely, getting in touch with emotions and feelings. And expressing them.

By the time Suzanne’s father and I divorced, I was pouring out my feelings on page after page of three-ring notebooks, agonizing, reflecting. And when Suzanne and I moved to Kentucky, and I began dating again, remarrying, divorcing, and dating again, I was recording all that. Which kept me pretty darn busy! Brutally honest and painful, it left me feeling raw, exposed. So I placed the notebooks high on a shelf in the closet, where they gathered dust for years.

I have since learned that's something one must be willing to do if they want their work to have real substance. Not necessarily trying to publish every detail of one’s own life, but learning how to burrow in on a subject and haul it out. Writing about something to which readers can relate. And believe.

I was soon studying what well-known authors were saying and doing: why they wrote, how they wrote, when they wrote, what made them tick. Most were driven to write, but they procrastinated, agonized, revised, revised, revised. And, almost without exception, they were seldom satisfied with anything they had written.

Just like me.
It took a long time, but I finally began writing in earnest. And when I did, the dam burst, spewing out characters like crazed fans at a rock concert, all clamoring to be heard. I was no longer procrastinating, agonizing, or dreading writing. I was beating a path to the typewriter every chance I got.

My characters are still clamoring, silenced only after their stories are told. And there is no end in sight; when I’m nearing completion of a story, more appear. I’m now working on two fiction pieces, Aunt Fanny’s Drawers and The Judge and Miss Mercy, and I have just finished Dummy's Field, a nonfiction piece. And, as always, I am still working on my novel.

Other than submitting a few short stories to literary magazines years ago, which were rejected (and rightly so!), I had stopped trying to publish anything. But when I began digging deeper and deeper, it did happen. I have had more than a dozen stories published or accepted for publication, both online and in print, and a literary agent has expressed interest in my novel when it is finished.

Although it's exciting to see my work among the pages of literary magazines, I would keep writing if I knew I would never be published again. Because writing is in my blood. And it has been there from the beginning.

Sometimes it takes almost a lifetime to fulfill your dreams; circumstances, people, and self-doubt often get in the way. But if you are driven to write, persist, and work like a coalminer digging those words out with a pick, your dreams will come true. Maybe not in the way you had hoped, but oftentimes in more rewarding ways.

Other than the early years at home with my daughter, the past few years of my life have been my most rewarding. I am free to do what I love and the time to do it. I may never sell my novel, but I will finish it. I may never sell another short story, but I will keep writing them. Why? Because I love my work, and there are many more stories to be told.

My most ardent supporters are my daughter and my husband; I love and appreciate them beyond words. And when someone I’ve never met devotes a full post to me and my writing? That is just icing on the cake. I have always felt that if someone is touched, or finds a bit of themselves in one of my stories, I will feel I have accomplished my goal with the written word.

Well, it appears I have done that. And that is all I ever wanted in the first place.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Random and Weird Facts

Suzanne, the best blogger around, has tagged me to share some random facts about myself. Here are the official rules:

Link to the tagger and post these rules on your blog. Share five facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird. Tag five people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Fact #1
I hate to shop. My husband or daughter have to practically drag me to the mall to buy clothes.

Fact #2
I kissed the Blarney Stone.

Fact #3
My favorite treat is melted milk chocolate chips, mixed with marshmallow crème and smooth peanut butter. (Only during the holidays, when baking; I am, after all, a responsible adult!)

Fact #4
I was redoing our living room. Color coordinated and beautifully decorated, it was coming together nicely. There was only one problem: Although I planned to buy him a new one, my husband refused to give up his sagging, dilapidated recliner. I tried to reason with him, to no avail; I got angry, to no avail. Yelling didn’t work, either. It did, however, give him an excuse to storm out of the house again and head off to join his buddies somewhere. He never returned until late.

On one such night, as I stood watching the tail lights of the Torino disappear, I turned to the monstrous recliner. I rared back and kicked it, and then I pushed it over, kicking it again and again. It lay cockeyed and undisturbed, so I flipped it upside down and proceeded to jump up and down on it. It was still intact; not even one gouge had appeared. I started in on the upholstery, struggling to rip it to shreds, but everything stayed securely attached. It just lay, like a wimpy Hulk Hogan, waiting for my next punch.

As I was heading to the garage to get the hammer, I gave up. On the recliner and the marriage.

Fact #5
In the early eighties, actor George Hamilton and I were in the bedroom together.

* * *

I'm tagging ChristaD and Patricia Wood. I think they'll both have some interesting random facts!
All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley