Finally, Some Good Writerly News!

Readers of my blog will recall I participated in this contest in 2014. I made it through all three rounds but was not a finalist. However, I received great feedback on the three stories I submitted. That made the experience more than worthwhile. The 2015 challenge is well underway, and I made it from Round 1 to Round 2. That was a great boost in a writing year, which, thus far, has been a challenge in and of itself. (I’ll write later about my critique group walk-out.)

I won’t go into detail about the challenge because I’ve described it before, but if you want a refresher, check out the website here. The Flash Fiction Challenge will be starting later in the year, and I encourage writers of all levels to try it out.

My assignment in Round 1 was to write an original story of no more than 2,500 words in the Historical Fiction genre, with the subject of “a walk in a forest,” and the character of a general. The assignment came in the midst of my epic bout with the flu, so I used several beta readers before I submitted it. Sure enough, one of them made suggestions which improved the story–and that story ended up in the top five of my heat. That placement moves me on to Round 2, and on March 12, I’ll learn my next assignment. This time the story will be no more than 2,000 words, and I’ll have three days to submit the story.

So, here’s my Round 1, Top Five story:

Orders

            Being the “GI’s General” was a blessing and a curse—a blessing in that his men followed him with an enthusiasm few combat commanders had seen; a curse in that he eschewed many of the perks of his rank to maintain that image. Truth be told, Omar Bradley felt just as disgruntled right now as any of his soldiers, given his recent dispute with Ike and the fact his fourth star wasn’t forthcoming. He took some solace that Georgie Patton wasn’t going to get his either. Still, the sting of having had his command placed under Sir Bernard Montgomery was as strong as it had been back in December when Ike broke the news.

“The Brits are our allies, Brad,” Ike had said. “We’ve got to give them this.”

He knew his outburst, so unusual for him, had taken Ike by surprise. “By God, Ike, Montgomery’s not accountable to the American people. I am. You do this, and I resign.”

“You’re forgetting something, Brad. The only person accountable to the American people is me, as Supreme Allied Commander. Now, Montgomery will have command of your 1st and 9th Armies, and we’re at war, Brad. You don’t get to resign.”

“My men won’t like taking orders from that popinjay.”

“Brad, are you trying to out-Patton Georgie? I know he detests Monty, but I thought you—”

“Ike, I won’t stand for it.”

Ike’s face had flushed, an expression any soldier would understand, and Bradley knew he’d gone too far. “Brad, those are my orders,” was all Ike had said.

That had been enough to silence him. Orders were orders.

His shoulders hunched in his great coat against the cold, Bradley plodded the length of the encampment to his tent, apart from the others. His aide trotted ahead of him and held the flap open for him. Inside was almost pitch dark, given the no-lights, no-fires order—his orders—but Major Benson flicked his lighter to life.

Two camp stools, a camp table, and two sleeping bags with extra blankets—just as it had been for the past several nights—made the tent feel crowded. Bradley shivered, rubbing his gloved hands together in a futile attempt to bring warmth to them. In the center of the tent between the two sleeping bags was a dead campfire, tinder and small logs ready to be lit. Benson flicked the lighter off, and Bradley stood in the tent, still hunched, still shivering.

“Major,” Bradley said.

“Sir?”

“Orders be damned. Light a fire to warm the sleeping bags.”

“With pleasure, sir.”

Again using his lighter to illuminate the interior of the tent, the Major opened the flap at the top to let the smoke escape, then knelt on the frozen ground to get the tinder burning. Bradley settled on his camp stool and draped one of the olive drab blankets over his head and shoulders.

Benson soon had a good fire going, the smoke spiraling toward the opening in the top of the tent. Bradley let the heat warm his face and felt almost comfortable. Benson also took a blanket and settled on his camp stool, holding the blanket over his head and shoulders. After a few moments, both men scooted their stools closer to the small fire, stretching out their blankets in an effort to channel the heat.

Just a few more nights of this, Bradley thought, and we’ll be on the move again. Just a few more nights.

###

            “You know, Sarge, this ain’t fair, us doing perimeter patrols like we’re ground-pounders,” said Corporal Jenks.

“Even tankers are ground-pounders to the flyboys, Jenks, so quit pissing and moaning. Orders are orders,” Sergeant Duncan replied, as the two men crept through the forest surrounding the encampment.

The Battle of the Bulge wasn’t that far behind them, and everyone was in wait-and-see status: waiting for the generals to figure out what would happen next and seeing nothing but the same scenery for days now.

The winter of 1944-1945 had been tough, the coldest some said in centuries, and it hadn’t eased. Though they hadn’t seen snowfall in a few weeks, the temperatures hadn’t risen much. Tonight, then, Duncan was grateful for the exercise of a foot patrol. It kept his blood moving, kept his toes from getting frost-bit. Better than shivering in his tank or, worse, in a tent with no fire, which a new general order had forbidden.

The crisp air, the crunch of the snow beneath his boots, the evergreen branches drooping under the weight of the snow all reminded him of home. With a rifle in his hands, this was more like hiking in the woods when he went jacklighting for deer with his brothers.

Except back home, a stray German wasn’t likely to jump up and start shooting at him.

And his brothers, older than he, were scattered in the Army from here to North Africa. All of them safe he assumed, though how he’d find out different, he didn’t know.

“How much longer you figure we’ll be here, Sarge?” Jenks asked.

Duncan brushed aside a low-hanging bough and murmured, “Jenks, be quiet. If there are Jerries out there, you might as well take ‘em by the goddamned hand and lead ‘em here.”

Jenks lowered his voice. “Shit, Sarge, we kicked their asses so hard, they’ll think twice about bothering us again.”

Duncan recognized Jenks’ bravura. Everyone in the 4th Armored Division had felt it after they’d broken the siege at Bastogne and freed the 101st Airborne. Duncan was a new sergeant, a “buck sergeant,” but a quick learner. Discretion and thinking things through, not glory, saved men’s lives and won skirmishes.

“Jenks, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. That’s an order.”

Duncan scanned his surroundings, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything other than a sea of GI tents. He gave a glance at the sky, again reminded of nights at home where the dark was deep and the stars were familiar beacons, interrupted by the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He let himself feel some wonder that halfway across the world from his home, he could find Orion the Hunter and the Dog Star.

Not for the first time, this country made him homesick. His tank had surged across many a farm field, achingly reminiscent of what he’d left behind to do his duty, and he’d sent silent apologies to the farmers whose fields he’d wrecked.

When Duncan lowered his eyes, he stopped, holding up a fist for Jenks to stop, too. Duncan went to one knee, M1 at his shoulder, eyes squinting in the dark. Through the trees and brush, he saw a faint orange glow against the snow.

“Son of a bitch,” he murmured.

“Is that a fire?” Jenks whispered.

“Yeah, it is, and I’m gonna bust whoever lit it down to buck private,” Duncan said.

Duncan strode toward the tent, Jenks almost jogging to keep up with him. As he neared the tent, he could see the silhouettes of two soldiers inside. Just outside the flap, Duncan paused and called out in his best sergeant’s bellow, “You, there, in the tent! Identify yourselves!”

One of the men stirred, and Duncan kept his rifle in a position to bring it up quickly. A head covered in a blanket poked through the opening.

“Stand down, soldier,” came the command.

“I’ll decide who stands down,” Duncan said. “My corporal and I are on patrol, and you have a fire in violation of standing orders. Put it out. Now!”

“Who are you, soldier?”

“Sergeant Duncan, 25th Mechanized Recon.”

A murmur came from inside the tent, and the man poking his head out looked back inside. He turned to Duncan again. “Step inside, Sergeant, and we’ll clear this up.”

“There’s nothing to clear up, soldier,” Duncan said. “The fire needs to be put out now.”

The man stepped back and held the tent flap open.

“Jenks, you stay here,” Duncan said, then ducked inside the tent.

The second man remained seated, only his eyes visible through a small opening in the blanket he clutched around him. “What’s the problem, Sergeant?” he asked.

“The problem, dogface, is that we have a general order for no lights, no fires, and what do I see before my eyes? Why, I believe it’s a fire, soldier, a fire you are not supposed to have.”

“Sergeant—” the other soldier said.

“Quiet,” Duncan ordered. “I’m talking to this soldier. Now, soldier, just why it is you think you have the right to a fire, when the rest of us are freezing our asses off? Or do you want the Jerries to see us and blow us all to hell?”

“Sergeant,” the other man said, “you need to stand down. Now.”

Duncan ignored that and continued to address the seated man. “You need to put this fire out now. No questions. No excuses. Put it out. Piss on it if you have to, but put it out. Now!”

“Sergeant! Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?” the other man asked.

“Two pieces of shit who are getting put on report for having a fire against orders.”

The seated man stood, letting his blanket slide to the ground. Duncan took in the three stars on the great coat and the helmet. He blinked and looked at the other soldier, whose helmet he could now see bore a gold oak leaf; then, he looked again at the man standing across the fire from him.

“Oh, shit,” Duncan muttered and drew himself to attention. “Sir, I—”

“Sergeant Duncan, was it?” said General Omar Bradley.

Duncan swallowed hard in a tight throat. “Yes, sir.”

Bradley looked him over, taking in his unit patches. “You’re one of Georgie’s boys,” he said.

“Yes, sir. My apologies, sir. I didn’t realize it was you, sir. Might I ask, sir, if we could just, maybe, pretend this didn’t happen. Sir.”

“No, sergeant, we can’t.”

Well, hell, Duncan thought, there goes my Army career. “I apologize again, sir.” He turned to the major. “And to you, too, sir.”

“Sergeant, at ease,” Bradley said, and Duncan barely shifted from his rigid stance. “Sergeant, we can’t leave this be because you’re absolutely right. I am in violation of those standing orders, and you are well within your rights to put me on report.”

“Sir?” said Duncan and the major at once.

“Tell me, sergeant, what would you have done if some other soldier had a fire against orders?” Bradley asked.

“Well, sir, I’d order him to put it out, take down his name and serial number, and report him to my lieutenant.”

“And give him a good chewing out?” Bradley asked, a smile twitching his mouth.

“Uh, yes, sir.”

“You did a good job of that, Sergeant. Best I’ve heard in a long time. You have a notepad and pencil on you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well, sergeant, take out that notepad and pencil.”

Before he realized it, Duncan had done just that.

“My name is Omar Nelson Bradley, U.S. Army, Commander, 1st Army. Rank, Lieutenant General. Sergeant, you should be writing this down.”

“Sir?”

“You need to write all that down to put me on report,” Bradley said. He repeated his information, adding his serial number, and Duncan wrote it down.

“Who’s your lieutenant?” Bradley asked when Duncan finished.

“Westmoreland, sir.”

“Very well. I’ll be checking with Lt. Westmoreland to make certain you put in that report. Am I clear, sergeant?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Major Benson, put the fire out. Sergeant, you’re dismissed.”

The cold air almost froze the sweat on Duncan’s body when he left the tent. Jenks stood there, eyes wide as baseballs.

“Jesus, Sarge, that was—”

“Yes.”

“And are you—”

“Yes.”

“Westmoreland’s going to shit a brick.”

And probably throw it at me, Duncan thought.

Before he walked away, he looked back over his shoulder. The fire in Gen. Omar Bradley’s tent was out.

###

            Even though he knew why Lt. Westmoreland had summoned him to his tent, Sgt. Duncan spent his time on the way there going over whatever he might say to keep the lieutenant from taking a stripe from him, but he wasn’t optimistic about the outcome.

Duncan stepped through the tent opening and came to attention. “Sgt. Duncan, reporting as ordered, sir,” he said.

Westmoreland didn’t look up from the papers on his camp table. “And yet again, Sgt. Duncan, your name shows up in my daily dispatches, and for the damnedest thing.” The glare Westmoreland fixed on him was as cold as the weather. “You put a lieutenant-general on report.”

“Well, sir, he ordered me to,” Duncan said.

“Oh, I know that. He sent me a personal note, explaining the whole thing. Once again, Sergeant Duncan, I don’t know whether to bust you or promote you,” Westmoreland said. “You’re damned lucky it was Bradley and not Blood and Guts himself.”

“Yes, sir. Uh, sir, do you want me to withdraw my report?” Duncan asked.

“No. Bradley told me I’d be a second looey again if I made you do that. The report stands, the only blemish on a command officer’s otherwise spotless military record. I thought you should know that. I’d like to read you something—a note Bradley sent to Patton, who passed it on to me.”

Westmoreland picked up a sheet of paper and began to read, “Sergeant Duncan is a fine example of a dedicated military man. His concept of duty and responsibility is something other soldiers should model. I consider you a lucky man, Georgie, to have him under your command. I did a stupid, bush-league thing, and Sgt. Duncan spared no words in reminding me of that. I am glad he was on guard duty to keep me from a mistake which could have cost lives.”

“General Patton added a personal note,” Westmoreland continued. He folded the sheet of paper in thirds and held it up. “Would you like to have this as a memento?”

“Uh, sure, sir. Yes, sir.”

Westmoreland nodded to him, and Duncan walked up to the desk and took the paper from his lieutenant.

“You’re dismissed, sergeant.”

“Yes, sir.”

Duncan tucked the paper inside his jacket, saluted, then about-faced and spared no time heading for the exit.

“Sergeant?”

Duncan stopped and turned around. “Sir?”

“Is it true you told Bradley to piss on his fire to put it out?”

Duncan cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”

Westmoreland burst into laughter and waved at Duncan to leave. As Duncan walked back toward his tank, a spring in his step and a grin on his face, he could still hear Westmoreland laughing.

© 2015 by Phyllis A. Duncan; reprint with permission only.

 

Unpublished – WTF? (Part Two)

To read part one click here.

You send a story out into the world, and it gets published. Most of the time you hear nothing more about it, except perhaps for friends who go read it. On February 1, in email I got my copy of the on-line magazine my story, “Dreamtime,” appeared in, and the link to see it on-line. Normally, I’d update my author website with the link to the story, but I was still on the recovery side of a bout of flu. A few days won’t matter, I thought; I’ll get around to it. Turns out I was prescient.

A day later, I received an email from the editor of the on-line magazine indicating there had been some negative comments about the story. Literary critique, I asked? No, some readers found it offensive. How so, I asked? I got a vague reply about offensiveness and an indication the magazine’s editorial staff were considering what to do about it. The editor provided me a link if I wanted to see the comments.

I considered it, but I also didn’t want to get into a social media rant over my writing. No, I responded, I really didn’t want to see the comments. If they were literary critiques about style or story structure, summarize them, and send them to me. No reply.

Trolls and Fake Reviewers

I follow the author Anne Rice on Facebook. She is the rare famous author who will engage with people who follow her. She is adamant about commenters on her posts remaining civil and that she will block anyone who is vindictive or rude. She has also taken on people on Amazon and Goodreads who call themselves reviewers but whose sole purpose seem to be to cut down writers they decide they don’t like.

I’d had one negative review of my collection of short stories, Spy Flash. The reviewer indicated that he or she thought it was a novel but was disappointed to discover it was “just a collection of short stories.” All the information on the book clearly indicates it’s a collection of short stories, so when it became obvious this person hadn’t bothered to read the book, I let it go and didn’t reply. That was mild compared to some things I’ve seen on Amazon and Goodreads–questioning the author’s intelligence, whether the author’s parents were married when the author was born, and worse. Anne Rice is determined to shut these trolls down by pressuring both Amazon and Goodreads to police reviews better.

I had given her issue only passing attention. It didn’t affect me, so why get riled up over people being rude on social media. Happens all the time. I’ve personally pushed the boundaries of rudeness, but I’ve never posted false accusations or personal attacks. (Well, some right-wingers might disagree, but if so, my work is done.) Now, I felt as if I understood what Anne Rice was talking about.

My Offense?

I would never have known I’d been unpublished unless a friend had gone to the on-line magazine’s website to read my story and couldn’t find it. So, I looked. Sure enough, it was gone–no indication in the table of contents, no explanation on the web site. It was as if my story had never existed.

I emailed the editor, who did respond promptly to say it was a “difficult decision” to unpublish the story, but that the number of people who were offended had grown, and the editorial staff felt it had no choice. I again asked for clarification about what was offensive in the story and received a reply indicating that when art deliberately offends it is sending a message; but when art inadvertently offends it shouldn’t be displayed. Again, I requested specifics and got something, but not enough.

Because my story involved a didgeridoo, which is a musical instrument native to aboriginal people of Australia, the assumption was that my narrator was an aboriginal. The Australian Arts Council, so I was informed, has protocols that only aboriginal people or non-aboriginals who have obtained permission from aboriginal people can write about aboriginal people. A caucasian Australian objected to the story on that basis.

Two other writer friends went to the on-line magazine’s Facebook page and looked at the comments there. Most were positive, and indeed people I didn’t know came to my defense in light of what turned out to be a single person’s criticism. I haven’t looked at the comments. I can’t. Though my author’s skin has thickened to constructive criticism, it would do me no good to read the kind of negative comments my friends indicated were there.

The Australia Arts Council Protocols

This organization, which only has effect in Australia, does indeed have a nearly 50-page booklet entitled, “Protocols for Working with Indigenous Artists.” It has a section on writing and does indicate that if you, as a non-aboriginal, are going to tell the story of the aboriginal people of Australia, you should work with aboriginal people to assure accuracy. You should also use aboriginal language to describe cultural aspects. So, by titling my story, “Dreamtime,” which is a western term for a complex aboriginal religious ritual, I was in violation of those protocols.

Except, of course, they don’t apply to me because the Australian Art Council, which is not a regulatory body, has no jurisdiction over my little plot of central Virginia.

I did, however, download and read cover-to-cover those protocols. I believe those protocols have a place in Australia, where the indigenous people’s’ history, culture, and art were in danger of eradication by non-indigenous people who disparaged them because of racial prejudice.

Precisely what my story was about.

So, I’m glad that Australia now seeks to protect the art and culture of its aboriginal people, but, again, those protocols have no license over anyone outside Australia. Now, I’m not saying non-Australians are free to disrespect the Australian indigenous people. If a non-Australian writer did that (or an Australian writer for that matter), I’d be the first to denounce them.

My story revealed the narrator’s feeling of being an outsider at work, of his (or her) face being the only dark one there, how his (or her) co-workers wouldn’t understand why he went walkabout, how he’d overheard them calling him (or her) a derogatory term used by non-indigenous Australians. My story intended to honor the indigenous people’s struggle to be accepted, but it wasn’t perceived that way by at least one person and a few followers of that person’s blog.

The Aftermath

For the most part of two days, I questioned my entire existence as a writer. I’ve fought injustice, discrimination, sexism, et.al., with my words and my actions. To be accused of “inadvertently” offending a whole race of people is shattering.

I did fight back. Though it was obvious the editorial staff of the magazine wouldn’t change its collective mind, I had to make a point. A novel I’ve written, which is at the rough draft stage, features a transgender character. I’m a straight female who identifies as such; however, I’m straight but not narrow, as the meme goes. I pointed out to the editor that based on her (or his) logic about my story, I shouldn’t be allowed to write about a transgender character. That and my point about “unpublishing’s” effect on creativity went unacknowledged.

However, I insisted the publication rights for the story be returned to me, and they were. I instructed the editor to keep the check (Yes, I was going to be paid for the story.) and to cancel my complimentary subscription to the magazine. Small protests, yes, but sometimes it’s the principle of the thing.

So, why not publish the story right here, so you can decide for yourselves? Since I have the publishing rights back, it’s my intent to submit it somewhere else, to a magazine whose editorial staff has a spine and stands up for its authors.

 

Unpublished–WTF? (Part One)

I haven’t blogged in a while. My apologies. There was the run-up to the holidays, the holidays, a six-week-plus bout of the flu, then a set-back in my writing career which had my finger hovering over the “delete all” option in my Writing folder on my hard drive. Then, I realized the only way to cope with that set-back was to write about it.

Once Upon a Time

Anyone who writes knows how hard it is to send stories out into the world of contests and literary magazine publication. Most of the time, those stories get rejected, some with a modicum of hope (“send us something more”); some with not so much as an acknowledgement of receipt. The rare time something gets accepted is such an ego boost, we can live off it alone for months. This is the validation every writer craves.

I recently had a two-fer: I wrote a story for a contest, and it not only won but earned an offer of publication. Double validation.

BTW, I’m not mentioning the name of the contest (to protect the innocent) nor the name of the magazine (so I don’t give the guilty any inadvertent publicity).

I said yes to the offer of publication, of course, because I’m not at the point in my writing career where I can casually turn such things down. If I’d known then what I know now… Except, well, I did my research. Not only did I discover this particular online magazine had a low acceptance rate, i.e., difficult to break into, according to Duotrope, but publication in it was a qualifier for membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America. The positives were adding up, and I was looking forward to my story being published early this year.

The Story

Sometimes when you’re writing a story, you get a feeling about it, that this is one which has a future, one which is special. I had that feeling as I wrote “Dreamtime,” a 500-word story for a flash fiction contest and based on a photo prompt. The photo itself was of the interior of a didgeridoo, a unique perspective, to say the least. I researched the history and manufacture of the didgeridoo, and at some point the unnamed narrator of my story began to speak to me. This is the first thing he said:

“In dreams on walkabout, my ancestors in the rock paintings come alive and descend to my camp.”

Yeah, I know. Pretty amazing. He continued, telling a story of playing a didgeridoo passed down over the generations, then getting the idea to look at the stars through the didgeridoo. He imagines another dreamwalker on another planet doing the same thing. When he returns to his day job at a radio telescope installation, he “listens” for that other’s song, and he also realizes he is the perpetual outsider there, being the only one of aboriginal descent. He understands as well, that one day, he’ll die and return to the earth. When our sun expires millions of years from now, his atoms will be scattered to the far ends of the universe to create another dreamwalker ancestor, who will be painted on rock. He finished his story this way:

“Then, in dreams on walkabout, I will descend and dance around a fire.”

I set it aside for a while, mindful of the contest’s deadline; then, I dusted it off and did some editing. This was a story which resonated strongly for me, but I researched to assure I got the history and the culture correct. (I have a degree in history; research is my be-all and end-all.) If something was slightly off, I realized that in writing fiction, I had a certain amount of dramatic license, especially for a piece which had both a fantasy and a sci-fi tone.

I was happy with it, happier than I’ve been with a lot of my short stories. As I said, I thought this story had a definite future. I submitted the story. I knew it was strong enough to be a finalist, and it was. What I didn’t expect was to win, but I did. The offer of publication was icing on the literary cake.

What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, everything.

To be continued in part two.

I Tackle the Pantoum!

I wanted to learn more about poetry from the eight-week seminar I’m taking at WriterHouse, and I certainly have moved beyond my college acumen at iambic pentameter. Last week it was the “persona poem” entering my lexicon. This week it’s the “pantoum.”

The text we’re using for this seminar is Ordinary Genius, by the poet Kim Addonizio. It’s full of reflections on creativity and exercises and prompts to stimulate the reader’s creativity. Much of what she offers in this book can be useful to prose writers as well. For example, Addonizio described one of her favorite exercises to enhance creativity: Wherever she is, she makes a conscious effort to observe and notice three specific things, which she writes down. They may not show up tangibly in a poem, but the concept each observation evokes will.

The reading for week five of the seminar contained many different exercises and prompts, including the “pantoum,” which is a fifteenth-century Malaysian verse form later adopted by Western writers. A pantoum consists of quatrains (four-line stanzas), and lines two and four of the first stanza become lines one and three of the next stanza, and so on until the final stanza, whose last line is the first line of the poem.

Confused? So was I, but Addonizio provided her poem, “Aquarium Eel,” as an example, as well as other pantoums by Charles Baudelaire, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, and Anne Waldman. I was intrigued enough to give the pantoum a try.

Another part of the reading included a chapter on “Race, Class, and Privilege,” with prompts to encourage us to either explore our ethnicity or reflect on our white privilege. Ever since Thomas Duncan was the first person to be diagnosed with ebola after coming to the United States, I’ve been fascinated by a man from Liberia who shares not only my last name but also the first name of an uncle. Rather naively, I wondered how the name Duncan came to Liberia; then, a forehead smack later, I realized I knew exactly how.

Slaves were often known by their masters’ surnames, and Duncans in Virginia in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries owned slaves. I’ll never know for certain, but from Mr. Duncan’s surname it’s likely some of those slaves freed from Duncan land migrated to the new country of Liberia. Unlike some others in my “clan,” I see that as enhancing the family name: Duncans helped to build America, and Duncans helped to build Liberia. And yes, I understand as well there is a possibility Mr. Duncan and I share DNA. I won’t excuse the reason for that; that would be specious. I do, however, embrace family no matter the color of the skin.

Mr. Duncan likely contracted ebola when he drove an ill woman to a hospital not long before he took a plane to Texas to be with his fiance. He could have refused to help a sick woman, probably someone he suspected had ebola, but he didn’t. In that moment, I knew he and I were family. I knew as well I would have to write about him someday.

So, bearing in mind this is a very, very rough draft of my pantoum, here’s what I wrote for my cousin, Thomas Eric Duncan:

Brown Warrior

I know what our name means.
I’ll always wonder if you knew.
After all, “brown warrior” fits you,
But the battle was already lost.

I’ll always wonder if you knew,
When you went to hospital,
The battle was already lost.
Hero became villain after death.

When you went to hospital,
Did you have the will to survive?
Hero became villain after death,
And how did our name get to Liberia?

Did you have the will to survive?
You helped the sick, who never asked
How did our name get to Liberia.
I know the distasteful answer.

You helped the sick, who never asked
If you were frightened of them.
I know the distasteful answer
Why in death you were feared.

If you were frightened of them,
Those who couldn’t save your life,
Why in death were you feared?
Were you Thomas or Mr. Duncan?

Those who tried to save your life
Didn’t think of you as just a name.
You were Thomas or Mr. Duncan.
I know what our name means.

~~~

As usual, I’d be interested in what real poets think, and suggestions for improvement are always welcome.

I Got the Persona!

In my last post, I wrote about having to write a “persona poem” for this week’s poetry class. My classmates received it very positively, as did the instructor. The poem is below; then, I’ll go over some of the comments I received.

Unrelenting

I am the thing you wish to ignore;
The monkey on your back,
The elephant in the room.

You think if you ignore me
I’ll give up trying,
I’ll mind my own business.

Your business is my business.
My nose will be in it;
My ears will be attuned.

You think denial will obscure me,
That if you turn your back
On me, I’ll go away.

Monster beneath the bed,
Boogeyman in the closet,
Ghost face in the mirror–

You think they are imagined.
I am real, ever so real,
And I am unrelenting.

~~~

Everyone agreed it was a persona poem, even if it was unclear who, or what, the “I” was. Some thought I should provide more clues (details) so the “I” could be identified; others liked the fact it was amorphous. They liked the strong voice and thought even though I used some cliches (monkey on the back, elephant in the room, monster under the bed, etc.) I had given them new meaning. As for that, I considered them tropes more than cliches, but that didn’t come across.

So, now the edit. What will I/should I change? Frankly, I don’t want to include details so the “I” becomes defined–because I don’t know who–or what–the “I” is. As I wrote this poem, I didn’t have anything concrete in mind; I wanted the persona to be undefined. I wanted the persona to be a little scary and ominous. One classmate referred to the persona as an “invisible bully.” Yeah, I rather like that. What I would change is the final stanza, based on a classmate’s comments about inserting a “they” after all those “yous” and “I’s.” The antecedents of “they” are the things mentioned in the penultimate stanza: monster, boogeyman, ghost-face. However, as grammatically correct as that line might be, it’s also passive voice. So, how about this change:

You think you have imagined that.
I am real, ever so real,
And I am unrelenting.

or

You think you have imagined us.
We are real, ever so real,
And we are unrelenting.

Hmm. I don’t know about either change. I’ll have to give it some more thought. What do you think? Comments? Suggestions?

Oh, and I learned a new poetry term–tercet, which is a stanza of three lines.

Poetry Class Update

I’ve had three sessions of the poetry class I signed up for at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. Time is flying, and I am having fun. I’ve received some great and helpful feedback on the two poems I’ve workshopped, enough to make me want to write more poetry.

The second poem was the one I wrote for #FullMoonSocial2014, and the suggested edits were spot on. However, Jeff Schwaner, who came up with the idea of #FullMoonSocial2014, had asked if he could include my poem, “Web of Fate,” in an anthology he was putting together of the poems written for that social media paean to the moon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the edited poem to him in time, so he went with the original. If you’re interested in seeing the anthology and reading the other poems, you can download a copy for free by clicking here.

“Web of Fate” was actually my fall-back poem. I wrote a sonnet (fourteen lines in three quatrains and a couplet, where every other line rhymes, as does the closing rhyming couplet. I have a friend who is terminal with kidney failure, and I intended it to honor her; but I think I bit off more than I could chew. I wanted to work on it some more (a lot more!) before I workshopped it, so “Web of Fate” stepped up as the designated hitter.

For this week’s class, we had to write a persona poem–terminology which sent me to the Google for a definition and some examples. A persona poem is defined as “a poem written from the point of view of the object or person being written about.”* Sounds easy, right? Frankly, I was stymied, but a line came to me during our weekly SWAG Writers’ write-in on Monday: “I am the thing you wish to ignore, and I am unrelenting.” I found that line intriguing, especially when I split the sentence and made “I am the thing you wish to ignore” the opening line and “And I am unrelenting” the last line.

We’ll see on Thursday if those and the sixteen lines in between actually do constitute a persona poem.

*Willow Hambrick – Educator, Literacy Coach, Writing Coordinator, Royal Spring Middle School

Get Ready for Some Poetry!

Last week I started an eight-week poetry class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. I’ve always wanted to write poetry, but perfectionist that I am I rarely set pen to paper to give it a try. When I saw the poetry course offered, I figured it would be a good impetus. The instructor, Aime Whittemore, didn’t cut us any slack; we got homework the first class: Using the first line of another poem, write your own poem. And not only did we have to write a poem, but it got work-shopped today. Oy! We had a list of first lines to choose from, and I selected “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks” from “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. His poem, written about World War I, is pretty stark, but I’d never read it until after I selected that line. However, the first line brought something else to mind.

Oh, and just be prepared. I’ll probably post my poems, good and bad, and your comments would be appreciated.

Family History
(Prompt: First Line of “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen)

by Phyllis “Maggie” Duncan

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Their burdens hunger and homelessness,
They fall dead by roadsides and in ditches,
Teeth and tongues the color of chewed grass:
Why I don’t smile at the wearing of the green.

My grandmother hoarded food and money;
A century later the memories were too fresh
With recollections of lost uncles and cousins,
Who left and no word ever came again,
Their empty place settings sacred at table.

Always spoken of in the present tense,
As if they would one day reappear,
Pockets full of coin and victuals to share,
To tell their stories of streets paved in gold
But never mention “No Irish Need Apply.”

To America, that was a choice.
To Australia, the price of passage
Was a loaf of bread taken in desperation
From a windowsill where it cooled
And reeked of survival.

Those memories ride in my blood,
Renew in my marrow.
My grandmother made no waves,
Asked no questions,
So she wouldn’t have to go back;

Fear of deportation stretched
Across decades to my mother,
Who dreaded applying for a passport.
In our house no talk of Auld Erin,
No parsnip or turnip eaten.

Bone and sinew bespeak my history,
And it’s undeniable in my skin
(Never tanned but freckled),
The shape of my cranium (round);
The color of my hair (red).

Barely a note sounds before my feet
Move to the music of bodhran and pipes.
I don’t set out bread and milk for the wee folk
Like the other Maggie, my grandmother,
But maybe I should.

#FullMoonSocial2014

A writer friend of mine, poet Jeff Schwaner, came up with the great idea of celebrating October’s full moon. We’ve had a bunch of super moons this year and an eclipse yesterday, and, besides, the moon has inspired a lot of poetry, good and bad, over the years. Why not come together and have a Full Moon Poetry Party?

Now, I’m not a poet–though I am taking an eight-week poetry class–but I decided to give it a try.

Web of Fate

I have stared at the Moon a thousand times
Or more.

In a line that goes back to the African woman,
Our mother,

I stand with everyone who has gone before and
Will come.

In my life the moon changed, bearing the footprints
Of men.

The names of all its deities are female, from Aega
To Zirna;

Yet, no woman’s feet have disturbed that smooth
Ancient dust.

And even now we still say we gaze upon the Man in
The moon.

How lonely he must be. Did he leave Gaia behind
On Earth

When Theia struck and buried its iron in Earth’s core
And hurtled

Molten rock into space to form what we look on now?
The Moon.

10 Influential Books – For Me, That Is

Every now and then a challenge pops up on Facebook, and, even though I normally don’t fall for them, some of them do intrigue me. Recently among my book-loving friends, it was the “10 Works of Literature that Inspired Me” challenge. I made it several days before anyone tagged me, and, then, I got tagged by two different people. I didn’t mind this challenge because it made me reflect on the literary works which have inspired me.

Now, I’ll add, just about every book I’ve ever read inspires me either as an everyday, mostly normal person or as a writer (sometimes both), and if I’d kept a running list of the ten most influential, it would have been a fluid one. So the list here is what came into my head today. Challenge me again in a few months, and some of the books might change.

And I noticed people who accepted the challenge listed the ten books but never explained why any of them made their list. That would have been interesting to me–especially in cases where there was duplication with my list or a book, which when I read it made me gag. So, for my list, I’ve included a brief statement about why/how the book influenced me.

Some of you will likely turn up your noses at some of my selections and declare, “This is not literature!” There is, gasp, science fiction on my list and, horrors, popular fiction, too. 

Oh, and since I was always the one who perversely broke every chain letter/e-mail/Facebook post I’ve ever received, I won’t be tagging anyone to post his or her “10 Most Influential…” list, other than to say: Anyone who reads this should do the same, but you have to explain how or why each book influenced you. Ready, set, dare ya!

10 Works of Literature That Inspired Me (in no particular order)

  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This was the first book, other than a comic book or storybooks, ever given me as a child, when I was around six, I believe. I still have it, though my PITA little brother managed to tear the front cover off this hardback. How did it influence me? It sparked my life-long love of books and reading, and writing too, since I did nothing but write stories about horses for years afterward.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. When I read this book in the 1980’s it validated my feminism, which I only acknowledged privately to people I could trust not to “out” me. It made me less afraid of the “f-word” (feminism; I’ve never been afraid of the other) and made me proud to be a feminist. The fact that it’s even more relevant now is a testament to Atwood’s genius. I want to be her when I grow up to be a writer.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This book made me a sucker for happy endings, in fiction and in life. Even in my own writing, which is sometimes dark and bleak, I consciously, or unconsciously, find a way to work a happy resolution in because this book showed me it can happen. On a personal level, I’m still waiting.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This book showed me what a happy family living with adversity looked like and that there were, indeed, happy families. That was quite the eye-opener to me given my combative and tumultuous immediate and extended families. Plus, there was the whole woman-writer thing going on there; I felt Jo and I were really the sisters.
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This book blew away all my preconceived notions of what a novel/novel-in-stories should be. It enthralled me and pissed me off and made me both question and challenge myself as a writer. To absorb this novel you have to shed your skin of mediocrity and just let it pummel you.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Though I thought his later works were just plain creepy and some of his earlier works bordered on fascism, this book was incredible–well-written and timely. This book made me–finally!–question the origins of my own religion and put me on the non-theist path, for which I am forever grateful. Do you grok me?
  • The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Another sci-fi icon on the list, this was the first, novel-length science fiction book I read. Before it, I picked up sci-fi from comic books, tv shows, and B-movies. I bought the battered paperback at a library sale for a nickel, and when I brought it home my mother swore the depiction of aliens on the cover would give me nightmares. She was wrong; it made me think.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Because it blew my freakin’ mind!
  • On Writing by Stephen King. I’m one of those writers who like Stephen King’s writing because I see past the grimness and gore and revel in how he turns a phrase. This was the best instructional book on writing (pun intended) I’ve ever read, and it made me give up -ly adverbs, with reluctance.
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Don’t bother to see the movie (though it was decent); read the book. Wells never met my parents, I’m reasonably certain, but she coincidentally explained their complex and enervating relationship in a way I could ultimately forgive them.

Of course, I’ve been thinking as I’ve written this, and I offer this addendum: anything by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou… Oh, hell, just ask me again in a few months, like I said, and the list will be different.

Tag–you’re it.

Obsession Much?

July just ended, and now it’s August. Did I get caught in a time warp and miss July altogether? I must have because it seems I opened my eyes the other day, and it was August. How did that happen? And how have I managed not to blog for a month or more?

Three words: Work in Progress, aka WIP.

This particular WIP is a four-book series entitled A Perfect Hatred. I’d left it alone for a year, then resolved to do a complete rewrite of all four books this year. All told, I’ve cut about 90,000 words from three books, and I’m working on the fourth now; it’s down 10,000 words.

A writer friend said why bother to cut; length doesn’t matter in an ebook. It may not, but unnecessary words weigh anything down. Most of what I’ve cut has been back-story, info dumps, and clever little paragraphs to show the reader just how much research I’ve done. I’ve cut swaths through what a character is thinking and let those thoughts emerge through dialogue and action. I hope.

In short, I’m trying to apply everything I’ve learned from three years of workshops and conferences, and it takes a lot of time. I’m back in my characters’ heads, and I don’t want to leave them. I dream about them. When I’m not writing them, I miss them. I find myself getting annoyed when other responsibilities intervene. I’m having chats with my characters when I’m in the car, the shower, at the grocery store. Trust me, if the chat happens in a public place, it needs to be entirely within your head; otherwise, people avoid you.

Why am I suddenly obsessed with this particular WIP? It’s somewhat time sensitive. It deals, fictionally, with an historical event whose twentieth anniversary occurs in April 2015. It would be timely to release an ebook a month starting in January, with the fourth book coming out on the anniversary itself. Of course, that pre-supposes I’m going to self-publish it, another thing I’ve obsessed over, written endless pro/con comparison lists about, and changed my mind countless times.

It’s my opus magnum. I started a first rough draft of it in 1997, researched and wrote in my spare time, discussed the topic to the point where my now-ex said, “Please stop,” and ended up with three books worth of “stuff” by 2000. I put it aside because it had no ending–at least the right ending. I’d tried several; none worked. Then, in June 2001, the ending happened.

In the meantime, I’d drafted other novels and many, many short stories. I got a new job, which involved a lot of my time, and this particular WIP got tucked away again. When I retired in 2009, it wasn’t the first thing I picked up to concentrate on, but when I did focus on it, I realized it should be four books, not three, an unusual number for a series. So, last year I edited the first book, put it aside because something wasn’t clicking, and I got caught up with other projects. It dawned on me late last year, the whole kit and caboodle needed a rewrite, as in start book one from page one in a blank Scrivener file.

I’m likely going to be diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome (again), my back is pretty much wrecked from sitting too much, and my house really needs cleaning. Oh, it’s not in hoarder territory at all, nothing a good vacuuming wouldn’t cure, but I don’t want to take time away from rewriting to do that. Lately, I don’t want to use my time for much of anything except writing. I went to a writers conference on Saturday–a good one where I got to be a gushing fan girl to Bruce Holsinger about his incredible novel, A Burnable Book–and resented the hell out of every minute there.

Obviously, this is something I need to get a handle on or I’m never going to leave the writing room in my house.

But, why is that so bad?