Summoning Your Muse

Over the years, I have come to realize that there are two kinds of writer’s block. The first kind can cripple writers and prevent them from ever writing again. The second kind is what I usually grapple with. It’s wanting to write, thinking I should be writing, feeling guilty because I’m not writing, and being unable to settle my mind enough to write. Eventually, though, I do end up writing something.

I believe both of these issues blossom from the same soil. The issue begins when we, as writers, believe we are actually doing the writing. We forget about the magnificent creative force that exists in the universe that is always creating nonstop without any assistance from us. We forget that our job is to tap into that creative force and begin to transcribe its ideas. It needs us. It has no other way to manifest its energy except through our creative efforts (and, of course, those of Mother Nature.)

Some call this force their muse. This is an ancient word dating back to the fourteenth century. It is thought of as a goddess or creative power that inspires artists. Mythology credits  Zeus and Mnemosyne for birthing nine daughters, each one presiding over a specific art form and providing creative power to the artisans therein. She becomes their muse.

Call it what you may, this creative force is available to everyone and needs only an opening in the mind to do its work. That opening, I believe, exists in the subconscious mind. My job is to open myself to the suggestions and ideas that exist in this subconscious, creative arena. The question then is how to accomplish this feat.

The ways in which this is done are as varied as the seven billion people that inhabit this planet. I walk or clean my house or futz around in my garden. Others may run or hike or daydream. It doesn’t matter how the creative energy is accessed. It only matters that one makes the effort to open oneself to its possibilities.

There is one exercise I would encourage everyone to try. Meditation is a powerful way to open the creative channel. When we meditate we let go of our ego, our preconceived ideas and thoughts and we simply stay quiet and receptive to the moment. I very seldom have inspired thoughts during meditation but what I do have is a few moments of rest from the monkey-mind chatter that goes on in my brain. That quiet time alone provides an opening for subconscious ideas to surface. If I follow meditation with journaling, the ideas begin to flow and I know the muse is with me. Then my only job is to listen with an open mind and transcribe.

I would suggest that every writer, and anyone who feels creatively blocked, give up the idea that you are the one doing the creative work and open your mind (and your heart) to the idea that you are a part of a universal creative force. Meditate on that and watch the magic begin.

Using Profanity in Writing

My Take on the Use of Profanity in Writing

I was raised in a very small conservative community. Swearing was looked down upon, especially if the profanity involved the use of the words “God” or “Jesus.” Although I left that small town fifty years ago, I still cringed at the thought of using cuss words when it came to writing My Darling Dorothy.

Dialogue, in order to be believable has to match the character. In My Darling Dorothy, Jack was a young man with a tenth grade education from a small country school. His vocabulary was quite limited because of his lack of education but also because of his environment. No one that he came into contact with on a daily basis had an expansive vocabulary. When armed only with a limited vocabulary and in need of expressing one’s emotions, profanity fills the bill quite nicely, and Jack used it, maybe not extensively, but frequently.

The other issue I faced was a desire to be true to the character upon which Jack was based; my father. While it was not acceptable to swear in my hometown, my father swore like a sailor. How could I write believable dialogue about this man and his friends without the use of profanity? The question arose as to whether I should whitewash my father’s personality or let it shine through in all its cussin’ glory.

When I imagined deleting all the profanity in the novel, I had a sudden flashback to my father’s funeral. It took place in a church in the little town where he and my mother lived for fifty years. I requested that “Tennessee Waltz” be played as part of the music at the funeral, but my request was denied. Secular music had no place in the church according to the young minister in charge of the service. I gave in without so much as a whimper. The service took place, whitewashed in my estimation and focused more on who my father was not as opposed to who he really was. I have always regretted that decision.

Now, fourteen years later, here I was, about to whitewash my father again.  This time, however, I refused. I made a commitment to remain true to his character, flaws and all. He may have been crass at times and he was certainly not an eloquent speaker, but he was my father; a man who worked sixteen hour days, six days a week, plus five hours on Sunday, to keep his family fed, clothed and housed. He came home exhausted and yet still found the energy to get down on the floor and play “horsey” with his children. There is honor in that, honor that demands respect.

There isn’t an inordinate amount of profanity in My Darling Dorothy, to be sure, and I would encourage all writers to think carefully about how profanity is used in their writing.  If every other word is the infamous “F—-”  word, perhaps it should be toned down. Perhaps, but it is entirely dependent upon the character and what the character would say and do in any given situation. What matters most is whether you are creating an authentic, believable character and if that includes the use of profanity, so be it.

Curiosity, Research, and Imagination

There is a pattern that took shape as I wrote “My Darling Dorothy.” Curiosity about the details mentioned in a letter led to research to learn more about those details. The research led to imagining how those details played out from both Jack’s and Dorothy’s perspectives. The actual words then flowed onto the page (more or less), depending upon how vivid a picture had been painted in my imagination. A perfect example of this process is illustrated in the following sequence of events.

As I mentioned in my post about VE day, the letters my father wrote to my mother began to change after May 7th, 1945. They were all about how soon he might be able to make it home. Here is what he wrote,

“Sweating this point system out is as bad as sweating out an artillery barrage, almost. Ha.I have 84 points. That isn’t enough to get me home very fast. Of course I’ll make it in time I guess, but god only knows how long a time that will be.  Honey, we should have a couple of kids. Then I’d have it made, even one would help.”

Points? Having kids? What in the world is he talking about? This kindled my curiosity and required some research which, as always, started with picking my husband’s brain. He is an historian. He told me there was a point system that was used to decide who got to come home first. Through further research I learned that the system was called the Advance Service Rating Score. After studying the system, I quickly understood the importance of having a child!  Here is a quote from Wikipedia that explains the point system:

“An enlisted man needed a score of 85pts to be considered for the demobilization. The            scores were determined as follows for each:[1]

  1.  Month in service = 1 pt
  2. Month in service overseas = 1 pt
  3. Combat award (including medal and battle stars) = 5 pts
  4. Dependent child under 18 = 12 pts

Time of service was calculated from September 16, 1940. [2] The four criteria were the only ones from which points were calculated. No points were issued for age, marriage or dependents over the age of 18. Battles and awards were also only accepted from a predetermined list.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Service_Rating_Score

This information prompted me to begin to calculate my father’s score. Once I calculated his score, I began imagining Dorothy’s thoughts and concerns about the system and how soon her husband would be able to come home. I also began to wonder how my father handled the stress of not knowing how soon he would make it back to Nebraska. Chapters 54 and 55 of “My Darling Dorothy” are the culmination of this process.

“Curiosity, research and imagination”; the perfect triumvirate for writing historical fiction.

The Bataan Death March

Today is Memorial Day and I choose to take a moment to remember those who fought in World War II. Of course, my father immediately comes to mind. He fought on the European front, that part of the war with which we are all familiar. But, have you ever heard of the Bataan Death March? It took place on the the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in April of 1942 after the Americans surrendered to the Japanese. It is those brave souls who endured that march that I would like to pause and remember today, in particular a young man named Lloyd Greever. The character Tommie in my novel “My Darling Dorothy,” is based on this young man. It was his letters that inspired me to write the novel. His letters were simple, full of grammatical errors and misspelled words, but they spoke of his hopes and dreams for a future with his “Darling Dorothy.” They exemplify the millions of letters sent home during that war and all wars.

I had never heard of the Bataan Death March until I began my research for the novel. I’m a little embarrassed about that. It seems wrong to forget or worse not even to have taken the time to know about the atrocities that war creates. Forgetting or not knowing is what, in my estimation, allows wars to occur over and over again. Perhaps if we all took a moment to learn and remember that war is hell and should be avoided at all costs, the world could evolve into a better place.

The attached photo is a picture of American soldiers as they surrendered to the Japanese at the beginning of the march. Thousands of Filipino soldiers and hundred of American soldiers died on the tortuous march before they reached their destination at Camp O’Donnell prison camp. The sixty mile march took place under the stifling heat of the tropical sun with little to no food or water. The POWs were severely abused to the point that the Allied Military Commission judged it to be a Japanese war crime. For more details go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bataan_Death_March.

I extend my deepest gratitude to all the young men, including my father, Wilmer Smith, and Lloyd Greever, who fought in World War II, and to all the young men and women who have fought in all the wars our country has deemed necessary. I also look forward to a time when gratitude is no longer needed, because war is a thing of the past.

AAA and the Planimeter

Drawing on one’s experience and mixing it with necessary research becomes fodder for creative writing. It’s part of what makes writing historical novels so appealing. In this series, entitled “Betcha Didn’t Know,” I will be explaining some of the unknown history (at least for me) that came to light during the writing of My Darling Dorothy. I hope you enjoy learning more about this era as much as I did.

Let’s start this exploration with AAA and the planimeter. The character, Dorothy, in My Darling Dorothy is based on my mother who worked for the AAA in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Growing up I assumed those initials stood for the American Automobile Association, but back then AAA had two meanings. In my mother’s case the initials stood for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Mom always referred to it as “the triple A.”

AAA was the administrative arm of the Agricultural Adjustment Act which was passed in 1933. It was a part of FDR’s New Deal and provided much needed relief to struggling farmers who were some of the hardest hit people during (and even before) the Great Depression.

The idea was to pay farmers to reduce their production of crops such as corn and wheat, and in some cases, to kill off their livestock. By reducing crop surpluses the value of crops would rise, thus improving the farmer’s condition. In order to pay the farmers correctly aerial photography was utilized to map the landscape. The photos were then used to calculate the area of a farmer’s property using a device called a planimeter. According to Wikipedia, “ A planimeter, also known as a platometer, is a measuring instrument used to determine the area of an arbitrary two-dimensional shape.” Using the planimeter allowed the AAA to more accurately measure a farmer’s fallow land and insure he was being correctly paid.

Dorothy and many of her friends worked for the AAA in Beaver City, Nebraska analyzing photos, calculating payments, typing checks and keeping records. The AAA paid well, at least for the times, and my mother made $2.50 per day. She spoke often about how much she enjoyed the job and how much fun it was to have her own money and to spend it on nice clothes. I was intrigued about the interaction among the young women in the office, especially during the war when it became increasingly difficult for some to remain faithful to their husbands. It only made sense that for some, fidelity was extremely difficult. The character Betty describes that sort of challenge.

I was also intrigued by the interaction that must have taken place between the young women and the farmers who may have come to the office to get their money in person. As many writers do, I drew upon my own experience, as a youngster, dealing with farmers in my father’s gas station. The character named Mr. Lundquist is a compilation of some of those encounters.

Mixing imagination with facts is a challenge for all writers, but when we get it right, it makes for interesting and compelling reading. I for one enjoy being entertained while, at the same time, learning new and interesting information about the past.

The Planimeter

planimeter 3

Thoughts about VE Day

 

Seventy-one years ago yesterday, the war in Europe ended. It seemed a perfect time to begin my blog regarding reflections on writing “My Darling Dorothy,” a novel which is set in the decades surrounding World War II.

My understanding of VE day has always been anchored in the incredible photo of a soldier kissing a nurse in Times Square, confetti flying everywhere, the streets packed with jubilant people; laughing, crying, and waving American flags.It seemed only logical to me that the American soldiers in Europe celebrated in a similar manner until I read a letter from my father to my mother dated May 12, 1945, five days after VE Day. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

“Hello Darling – How’s my honey making out these days? What did you do to celebrate VE day, or did you celebrate? We all thought we would, but really it didn’t seem much different than any other day here. All the difference is that the shooting is over. The day that I’ll be happy enough to do any celebrating will be when I hit the shores of the good old US.”

This changed the way I went about writing the chapter in “My Darling Dorothy” which dealt with this historic event. I had to think like a soldier. Why would I celebrate when I am still living in a tent, still eating rations, still sleeping on a cot or in a sleeping bag in a foreign country, far from home and the people I love? While it’s true that they no longer had to worry about shots being fired, the worry and anxiety didn’t disappear, it simply changed focus to, “How and when am I going home?” I learned an important lesson about writing a novel with an historical base, something I should have remembered from my thirty-seven year nursing career: never assume.

As I continued reading Smitty’s (my father’s) letters, I learned about where a soldier’s focus shifted. Everything revolved around the Advanced Service Rating score. This was a fascinating discovery for me, something I knew nothing about until I read the following excerpt from the same letter quoted above.

“Sweating this point system out is as bad as sweating out an artillery barrage, almost. (Ha) I have 84 points. That isn’t enough to get me home very fast. Of course I’ll make it in time, I guess, but god only knows how long a time that will be.”

Reading between the lines, it’s fairly easy to feel the angst that is masqueraded as humor in his comment about waiting. Imagine making it through the entire war, in Smitty’s case three years, and then having to wait for an undetermined amount of time to go home. As a writer, this creates a challenge; to get the reader to feel the anxiety and worry, just as Smitty did, waiting to find out when it would finally end for him.

I’ll write more about the Advance Service Rating in future blogs. Today, I am going to spend a couple of minutes in silence, recollecting that incredible day, and feeling grateful that Smitty made it home.