Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Developing Writing Skills Using Random Words

I regularly participate in an memoir writing class at TASCA in Whitehouse, Texas taught by Author Brinda Carey

In addition to discussing issues relating to memoir, such as legal issues of writing about the living and recently deceased, we also discuss writing techniques.

One method used is to have each person in the room write a word on a slip of paper and then the teacher gives them all to us and we write a story based on them. 

I can end up with all the words in one sentence.  Brevity, thy name can be Marsha. 

Recently I was asked to provide the following for publication regarding what the class does: 

Writing is an exercise in flexibility and creativity. We flex our mental muscles in many ways; one is taking a set of random words and writing a short story using each of them in ten to twenty minutes.

Here’s the word list: ------------------->
First attempt: A salamander skin umbrella with a tentacle fringe is a timeless accessory for the fashion conscious.
That took only a few minutes and everyone else was still writing, so I thought – that’s the advertisement!

The story: Samantha Skiddlesmore-Braithwait-Cooperstein pressed her nose against the window of the boutique. She was practically drooling. There, in full living color, was a salamander skin umbrella. It even had a tentacle fringe. Everyone who was anyone had one these days. It was considered a timeless accessory. Not that she could afford it on the salary a low-level clerical witch made. But someday. Someday she’d have one too. Just like the over-minister of magic. Lucky woman. 

Marsha Graham is a wandering career changer who currently lives in Tyler. She’s an author and member of the East Texas Writers Guild. You can find her at the memoir class at TASCA most Wednesdays. Come join us – we need more random words.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

We Didn't Mean to Fall in Love

New article published in The Next Chapter of the East Texas Writers Guild. It's a canine-human love story for all those dog lovers.

Is there a dog who has meant everything to you?  Is she just "the living end?"

Do you mean everything to your dog? <3

Friday, January 13, 2017

Gallaudet University Anthology on Science Fiction and Fantasy

Last November I submitted a short story to a proposed anthology for deaf and hard of hearing authors who write in the field of fantasy and science fiction.

I've been working on a series about Mira Hunter, Mage of Boston. She has a complex life living with one foot in the mundane world and the other in the world of magic. She's a wounded warrior, has a morbid sense of humor, and struggles in the way so many of us do, especially in understanding things outside of her realm of experience.

Ghostly Demands is a look into what it would be like to deal with things even a magic worker doesn't understand. Because a Mage is not a Medium.

Tonight I received notice that Gallaudet University accepted Mira's story, giving her a voice in the world. Wrapped up with a hellhound, a medium, and a haunting, this is a story to give us all pause about what's important beyond the veil and how we deal with our losses.

No name on the anthology yet. We're going into pre-production editing and as soon as I know something it will be up for everyone to see.

We're off to give Mage Mira and her friends a presence in the world of humans!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How Drunk Can You Get

The year was 1968. Janie, Sammy and I were enrolled in university. Our friend Micah was in a rigorous pre-med program and a member of a well-known Greek fraternity. He lived at the frat house. We lived in a shotgun house we rented for $60 a month from one of the professors at the U. We called our little gray abode the Gamma Delta Iota (God Damned Independents) sorority house. I was the introverted nerd. Sammy was the socialite. Janie was the glam gal wanna-be fashion designer.
I never understood why the hard-drinking, mostly jock frat gave Micah a bid. He was small, slender, not in the least athletic, a stereotypical “good boy” from rural Idaho, and academically inclined. Maybe they invited him because he could help them avoid flunking out. Whatever the reason, he was a square peg hammered into the round hole of a wild bunch.
It was the middle of the winter and colder than a “well digger’s knees,” as Dad used to say. We girls were sound asleep, having had no mischief to get into or high-stakes tests to cram for that would have kept us up all night. When, to paraphrase Clement Moore, there arose such a clatter we jumped from our beds to see what was the matter – at 2 a.m. Shortly after bar close.
On the other side of the door stood Micah. If you can call what he was doing standing. He was like an overcooked noodle, hanging off one of his gigantic Hawaiian football player frat brothers.  
Lambert, (you can tell I’m making these names up to protect the guilty, right?) dragged Micah into the kitchen, dumped him on one of the chairs at the table and said, “He’s ushering at church in the morning.” With that, Lambert simply left him there, as if we three girls with pillow creases on our faces were his collective mothers.
Micah was a boneless thing, slumped on the Formica table, part slug, part human. Blotto. Plastered. Stinko. I’m not sure any of those descriptions do service to the state Micah was in. He smelled like he’d fallen into a distillery vat and marinated. I’m not sure how he managed not to slither off the chair on the floor except that would have required movement.
We girls hatched a plan. Coffee. Eggs. Bacon. Toast. We didn’t think about the fact he might have drunk so much he’d stop breathing, like some frat boys did every year. At our age, we had limited problem solving skills on board. So, we were shooting for wide awake drunk, at the very least. We were out of bacon and eggs. Since I had a convertible, we decided to put him in it and I’d drive to the store with the top down. I'd wear ten layers of clothing, and see if the bitter cold would wake Micah up.
I went out, got the car started, and put the top down. Not necessarily an easy thing in icy weather, what with needing to snap down the covering and all. Then it took all of us to get him down the steps and into the car. Micah collapsed against the passenger's door, his head bobbling over the side, a line of drool dripping down. I figured it might be for the best, in case he heaved. The outside of a car is easier to clean off frozen puke than the inside, after all.
Damn it was cold! Frostbite was not in our vocabulary or I might have had second thoughts. Kids! What can I say? We do the best with what few brains we have at that stage in our lives. We’re probably lucky any of us made it into adulthood.
By the time we got to Quik-Stop Micah was moaning a little. No stomach contents spewed in or on the car. All good!
It took a little doing, but I got him out of the car and doing a drunken imitation of standing, with one of his arms draped over my shoulder. I was capable of bucking hay bales so I was strong for a woman my size. Once I got him situated, as well as anyone can position someone whose bones have turned to mush, we made our staggering way into the all-night market.
Not looking right or left I lurched back to the cold case where I juggled a dozen eggs and a couple packages of bacon without dropping them or Micah. I was growing concerned about getting urped on with his increasing groans and grunts of distress.
Stumbling our way to the front we got to the check-out counter. I looked up and, lo and behold, was a man with a blue bandana over his nose like an Old West bandit. The woman at the register was stuffing money into a bag. Which meant…I was about to have an even worse night.
Here I am with a grunting, groaning drunk slung over my shoulder, eggs and bacon in the crook of one arm, and a driver’s license and a ten-dollar bill in the front pocket of my jeans. I kept my mouth shut instead of saying “Howdy, cold out, isn’t it? I never thought of wearing a bandana to keep warm.”
He looked from me to Micah and back. Micah picked that moment to belch loudly and we all flinched, not knowing what was coming next. Did I drop the eggs and bacon or drop Micah? Both? Hands in the air? What? I stared speechlessly at the man, waiting for a clue as to what my next action was going to be.
The robber, a guy even shorter than Micah, shook his head and said, “You’ve got enough trouble, lady.” He was right. I had too much on my hands as it was.
Micah grunted loudly and started making retching noises. The man took off, probably afraid of getting puked on. The clerk slammed the till shut, reached under the counter, pulled out a purse and walked out into the night without so much as a coat.
“Hey, lady, I need to pay for this!” I said.
“I quit. This is the third time I’ve been held up. Leave the money on the counter. No one cares.”
So, I put some money on the counter and half walked, half dragged my gagging friend outside.
The pay phone on the front of the store was missing the receiver so I had no way to call the police. Not to mention I didn’t want to stand out in the cold and wait for them. And Micah was underage to drink, so I didn’t want to go there with the cops. We didn’t have a phone at home. Being a Pole I defaulted to the old proverb, not my circus, not my monkeys. If the woman who just quit didn't want to call her boss or call the police from a phone in the back, that was her business. I hoped she wouldn’t freeze to death before she got to where she was going.
Micah upchucked in the parking lot. Better than in the car, I say! There was no such thing as a car wash then—we’d have had to clean it by hand. I drove home with Micah making hiccupping sounds and rolling his head in the bitter cold. I remember having to turn the defroster on to keep the windshield from icing over. We got back to the house and he didn’t decorate the car with puke. A win for me! The lawn was not so fortunate.
By the time we got back Janie had a pot of perked coffee on the stove that was stout enough to stand a spoon up in. Even Sammy knew how to make buttered toast. They tended to Micah while I whipped up eggs and bacon.
In between us pouring coffee down him and shoving food into him he made offerings to the porcelain god. By the time dawn broke we had ourselves a wide-awake drunk on our hands. What he needed was time to sleep it off. What he did not have was time. Wrecked or not, he was expected to be the usher at church. No phone, remember? Couldn't call in sick.
Loaded Mr. Reeks-Of-Booze-And-Vomit into the car and took him to his frat house. This time the top was up, the heater was on, and the smell was ghastly. I beat on the door until one of his fellow lushes answered. I guess the house mother was asleep, or maybe off to church services herself. It wasn’t too long before they had him showered, shaved, dressed in his Sunday-go-to-meeting suit, and back at the car. Why didn’t they take him? Probably still sleeping it off. Why was I sitting outside in the car? Because I was a patsy. And Micah was my friend, he was a good guy, and this was totally unlike him.  
We arrived on time - a minor miracle. Pastor Wills was waiting. We made it up the stairs to the chapel on the second floor of the campus building. I motioned Pastor Wills over and said, “We tried to sober him up, but…” 
Micah passed out, face first, on the carpet as he was walking toward the front of the nave. I’d like to say it was graceful. It wasn’t. At least he didn’t break his nose or bleed all over. Wills said he’d look after him so I took off, longing to get some shut eye after an all-nighter with a plastered man.
What’s the moral of the story?
I hear people my age gripe about Millennials. Irresponsible. Drink too much. Use drugs. The next time grandpa starts harping, have him read about Micah. 
We were the tail end of the Flower Power generation. Even my candy apple red convertible had huge flower stickers on it. I knew people who came back from ‘Nam hooked on heroin. Lots of people smoked pot. Drinking was outrageous in those days. Millennials aren't so bad. Old fogies like to forget how crazy we were.
What about Micah, you might ask?
As far as we girls knew, that was Micah’s only descent into drunken madness. It was probably some frat ritual that went horribly wrong with a clean-cut kid from a sheltered home in a small town. As a pre-med student, he went back to doing his nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel routine. He continued to live in a frat house with goings on much like the 1978 film Animal House. Toga parties. Wild nights with sorority sisters. You name it, it happened there. He was not Mr. Personality so maybe all the frenetic gatherings made it easier for him to meet people. Who knows? We never dated him, we were simply his friends.
That frat almost had their campus charter revoked a few times over sex, drugs, wild parties, fights, disturbing the peace, and rock-and-roll. It is still there and still probably as raunchy as ever. I can only assume their house mother was deaf, dumb, blind, and paid off.

I transferred overseas on an exchange program and then to a different stateside university by the time Micah finished his studies. He and I kept in touch with Janie, which is how I learned he eventually became the only doctor in a tiny community in a poverty pocket. That’s the Micah we knew, the selfless one who somehow ended up living at Animal House, but grew up to be a pillar of the community and a deacon in his church. You did us proud, Micah.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cooking with Sammy

It was the late 1960’s and we were college roommates. First Sammy and Janie roomed together in a dorm. Then Janie and I became best friends and wanted to share a place. The following year the three of us got a shotgun house off campus. It cost $20 each a month for rent, not including gas to run the stove and the freestanding heater in the bedroom. There are many funny stories about a year in the life of three crazy college kids away at university.
Sammy was the one with the vast social life. Janie was the glam gal. I’ve always been bookish and introverted. I was the one with the cookbook.
Sammy liked to entertain. She could burn water. No one cared who the cook was unless some guy was shopping for Mrs. Right to cook and clean for him in the future. I don’t think anyone ever thought that about red-headed, freckled, wild-child, Sammy.
I remember there was a dinner she invited her folks to. They were driving up from Boise to Pocatello, Idaho and we’d feed them and they’d assure themselves we were not tearing up the town. The menu was fried chicken, homemade biscuits, and canned green beans since Mom had just sent me a case. It wasn’t unusual to find a case of canned food on our doorstep – it was Mom’s version of a CARE package.
Nowadays people would run out to KFC and get a bucket of chicken with sides. There was no such option in 1968. It was me getting the supplies ready: raw chicken I cut up myself, flour, salt, pepper, oil, butter, and milk. Everything for the dinner was made from scratch.
When I cooked, I wanted people out of the kitchen. This was not an easy task as our shotgun house had a bathroom and walk-in pantry at the back. The eat- in kitchen was home to the front door. Visitors had to walk into the kitchen, then turn left to get to the living room. The bedroom with our three army cots in it was on the other side of the living room. Someone was always running through the kitchen for something.
We had an ancient gas range and an antediluvian frying pan. It required copious amounts of oil to do its work or food would integrate itself into the metal.
The first sign my day was not going to go well was an eruption of smoke. I was still making up my dredging flour with salt and pepper while the frying pan was heating. Suddenly, we had what smelled like a three-alarm fire. Sammy had tossed two pieces of raw, flourless chicken onto the hot, oil-free, frying pan.
The chicken promptly adhered to the metal with the intention to stay. I had to pry them out, then cool the pan, scrub charred chicken bits off with steel wool, and start over. Sammy wisely vanished as the air around me turned blue. 
Janie was busy neatening our tiny home.
While the dredged chicken bubbled in a thin layer of hot oil I got to work on the scrumptious biscuits. There has never been a canned biscuit that could hold a candle to these beauties. Hand mixed, rolled, and cut, they were baked until they were golden – crisp on the outside, warm and moist on the inside. They’d break open like magic and melt in your mouth. Best biscuits ever. 
Being starving college students we used cheap home goods. The green beans were on the stove warming and a small plastic bowl stood ready to receive them. We had a variety of bright plastic bowls in various sizes used for serving. There was a larger plate for the chicken to go onto. I have no idea where we got it. Our dishes were probably from the Salvation Army because I don’t think any of them matched. Jam jars for glasses. Silverware mismatched, but we had enough for a serving spoon for the beans. You get the poor college kid routine in the late 1960’s. 
Janie set the Formica table and found chairs to seat Sammy and her parents. Janie and I would eat in the living room.
As soon as the biscuits were out of the oven and off the rack I wrapped them in a thin cotton towel in the red plastic bowl. This was the only bowl big enough for them. The green beans were in an orange bowl. I put both on the table. 
Just as I was ready to start heaping fried chicken on a platter Sammy's parents arrived. But where were the biscuits? I glanced over at the table and realized they were missing. I put them on the table, didn’t I? Right next to the beans. The beans were there.
I dashed into the pantry, which was too cold for keeping biscuits warm.  “Janie, where are the biscuits?” I called, thinking maybe she’d moved them into the living room for some reason. 
Sammy waltzed into the room and answered me. “I put them in the oven to keep them warm.” 
Thin plastic bowl. Oven. Noooooo! 
Jerking open the oven door I beheld a red plastic sculpture. It draped itself over the towel and the biscuits, running down into the openings in the towel. More red plastic was drooling down, dripping off the oven rack and gathering on the sizzling hot floor. Grabbing another towel, I pulled the melted mess out and tried to peel the plastic off the towel and my precious biscuits. Not happening.
If her parents had not been there I might have tried sticking Sammy in the oven for a little warming. Janie was sent on a secret mission to the local Quik-Stop for a can of biscuits. It gave me time to peel the plastic off the inside of the oven, swearing a quiet blue streak so Sammy’s mother couldn’t hear. After that I slid in the plate holding the chicken to keep it toasty and put the beans back in a pan on a burner.
In the end, it came together. We ate the sad, canned biscuits. Her parents didn’t care. It was food. For some reason, they attributed dinner to Sammy’s culinary skills, of which she had none. 
By the time everyone had eaten I was no longer ready to go all Baba Yaga on her. I did threaten to remove her fingers with a sharp knife if she got anywhere near my edibles in the kitchen in the future. I don’t think she believed me.