Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘stories’

Connect the Stories


Some writing “experts” once told me that the best way to write a novel is to first write short stories. They said, “If you can write a good short story, with a beginning, middle, and end, then a novel will easily follow. All you have to do is use the same characters in one short story after another and string them together.” Turns out that they were right, in most respects, but not always.

From my experience, it is extremely difficult to write a good short story, and more difficult to string a number of them together for a book. I’ve had some success with shorts, with some of mine appearing in Go World Travel, Listen, Los Angeles Journal, Japan Airlines/Wingspan, Omega, Enigma, and the Roswell Literary Review. As you can see from the following description of my collection of short stories, Saint Catherine’s Baby, which was released 7 years ago, I hadn’t yet figured out how to keep the same characters and storyline for a novel.

Saint-Catherines-BabyAn eclectic collection of short stories that include Ruthie and her obstinate elderly student from Germany (The English Lesson); Stephanie, who waits for the unorthodox return of her deceased father (Dressed In Black); Walter O’Brien, who discovers a young couple and their child in an abandoned monastery on the West Coast of Ireland (St. Catherine’s Baby); Shannon, on the run at a shoe store in Chicago (Sizing Up Shannon); Jacque, meeting Rosalita’s shocked parents in New Mexico (Framed); and Joshua Johnson, a school custodian whose mother may have interfered in his love life for the last time (The Sweetest Man).

It still rings true,  writing a good short story is a great beginning for a novelist, and also some of the most difficult writing to do. Character and scene development, crisis, insight, and/or conclusions, must all be created within a limited number of words. Some writers can also write great books, without ever having written a short, and vice-a-versa. To this rule, if you choose to call it that, does not apply to everyone.

Words of Seduction

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Catching sight of it across the room,
pushing desks and chairs aside, I circled the stacks slowly, edging closer to the object of my literary desire.

Acting as if I didn’t care, my sleeve brushed invitingly against its spine.
Not succumbing to the obvious temptation I turned,
casually trailing my fingertips across the leather bindings on the shelf below.

Dizzy with discovery I slipped and fell against the stacks.
To my delight, the prized edition I longed for fell before me,
opening to reveal its fullest form.
“Prose! Prose!” my heart pounded with renewed anticipation.

Rushing to its side I knelt possessively.
“Too soon. Too soon.” I whispered into its creamy wanton pages.
Resisting the urge to devour its succulent stories,
tenderly closing its velvet covered hardness,
I held it tightly to my trembling body.

Spying a private corner behind the ferns I made my way to darker recesses.
Drawing the magic to my lips, breathing infinite possibilities,
I slowly lifted the cover and caressed the fly page.
The table of contents undressed its willful intentions
as I fingered through the waiting pages of blissful madness.
Wetness willed its way down my aching body.
I swallowed hard as my mind prepared for an invasion of ecstasy.

Subtle framing grabbed my soft tender throat,
as the turbulent dialogue licked me speechless.
The plot thickened with fully developed characters.
Metaphor wrapped its meaning around my memory,
and the rhythm rocked me head to toe, moving in three-four time.
I tangoed with luscious adjectives as the verbs drummed a gyrating beat.

Is this the middle or the end?
Did I miss the story in the first line, is it coming now, or is it all a fake?
“Don’t lead me on.” I cried.
“Take me to the edge, take me now!”

The words smiled cunningly.
I laughed at my seduction,
and made plans to come again.

My Mother Was Murdered

Excerpt featuring Lee Mun Wah. From Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

lee-mun-wah“Your mother’s been murdered!” The woman who gave you birth is dead. Her life intentionally ended by another man. This was the cold reality Mr. Lee had to face in 1985. Feelings of fear, anger, rage and revenge soon replaced the numbed existence of shock. Instead of letting these intense, understandable reactions control his life, Mr. Lee searched for answers. He began to reach out, to confront and explore the ingrained, unconscious attitudes that lead to hate and violence, and discovered a way to shift the imbalances of power, heal the wounds and open our hearts.

As a seminar leader, speaker and filmmaker, Mr. Lee’s work has been highly visible, effective and utilized throughout the nation. His first film Stolen Ground, about racism towards Asian-Americans, won special merit at the San Francisco International Film Festival. His second video, of a weekend encounter group for men, The Color of Fear, won the 1995 National Education Media Award for best social studies documentary and has been used in thousands of organizations and businesses to deal with and discuss prejudice, bias and race. 

LEE MUN WAH:

I was born in Oakland, California at a time when people were living in mixed neighborhoods. I had a real glimpse of what a community could look like with all different ethnicities. My parents were very poor, though as a child I didn’t know that. Some of the distinct things I remember were that there were very few Asians in my classes and very few or almost no Asian-American or African-American teachers. When I noticed this consciously it became a real loss.

I was born into a very alive, dynamic family. I always thought that all Chinese families were like this. It wasn’t until later that I realized my father was a very unique man who really believed in going out in the world and creating what you wanted. He influenced me greatly in that way. My mother was very warm and personable; very intimate and in that way created my sense of family, of being close to people.

A lot of these life experiences prepared me, without my knowing, for the type of work I do now, when I talk about the country having a national relationship. It’s about how a family treats each other. I don’t think it’s just a sense of family, it’s also part of our Asian, Chinese culture . . . that we’re there for one other . . . that we respect and honor each others needs . . . the warmth, security and safety of a family . . . being up front and honest . . . trying to be a good person in the world and with those you meet. A number of people have that in there culture as well, but I don’t think many have made the connection of family into a larger community, in a global or workplace perspective and I think that is the missing link.

The American thing is often, “Me, me, me!” Business is first and task oriented and not loyal to workers. When business is down or they’re “restructuring” and they lay you off, they’re actually saying, “You are no longer needed, the company is more important.” It isn’t about taking care of the people who work for you but about having them compete with each other. I don’t run my family or workplace that way. And when I go out into the world that’s something I work for, to change that paradigm.

I don’t think you can legislate an end to racism. You have to have a change of heart. That’s why I talk about a relationship. It’s the only real connection we have. Often, we don’t act until there’s a crisis. What we need to realize is that the crisis is happening every single day and there’s always something you can do to address it.

We’ve never understood culture in this country. We think it’s the food, the costume or the holiday, but we don’t touch what it really means to us on a spiritual, emotional, ancestral way. When the American Indian tells us that it’s not enough to pass the sage around the room but to really understand where that comes from. To understand the relationships and the way we treat each other; that it’s really expressed in our movements, in what we don’t say, the way we hold each other, the way we wait for and acknowledge one other. We don’t take the time to really look, to really experience. Americans want everything fast . . tangible. The American Indian is right when they say, “You want my customs, my rituals and my land, but you don’t want me.” What we do is we use people and cultures. We use them when it’s convenient, for a service, for artifacts. Rarely do we take the time to understand how we relate to each other.

We don’t look into the realm of what we don’t know. I think that’s the part I’m talking about. When I do workshops I have people look around the room, listen to silence; listen to what’s not being said, to bodies that are talking all the time. We usually don’t listen to the nonverbal, to the energy in a room, to the impact of our ancestors that have brought us to this place. We are very present and future oriented but don’t pay enough homage or respect to the past. When are we open to learn from other cultures . . . to integrate values from other cultures? When companies say they’re multi-cultural or multi-racial I ask them to name one cultural factor they’ve integrated, that they see as practical, as useful, that they use every single day.

The turning point for me (after my mother was murdered) was when I wrote a play in which I acted out facing my Mom’s murderer. It also helped to look at the context from where it came. I tried to find and talk to the man who killed my mother, to no avail. On the day we finished The Color of Fear he was sentenced to life in prison. He’d killed four or five other women in addition to my Mom. Before that I had continued trying to contact his family. It turns out that some of his relatives lived in a home we’d been renting. It was really shocking. I talked to the woman who lived there and she said a cousin of hers had killed someone as well. When she went to his trial she had to leave because all she could see was “The little boy I’d grown up with”. She told me, “You may never know why he did it.”

Had my mother not been murdered, I’d never had made the film (The Color of Fear). I began to really see and sense that perhaps there was a meaning to this. It serves my healing and in many ways it’s healing for this country as well, because surely if I can go through this then others can open their hearts and have compassion as well. I’m not so sure hatred or guns or bars do any good . . . it only makes fear larger. Fear is not something you can protect yourself from, you have to walk through it.

More inspiring stories at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

I’m Supposed To Die First

“Stop the train! I want to get off!” Jean shouted. 

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

imagesJean’s son of forty-three years had died in a restaurant. He choked to death. He had survived a life of infinite struggle as he lived with Down’s Syndrome and the isolation, stigma and cultural alienation he and his family had experienced daily.

“He was such a good soul,” Jean continued, as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Of all the things to happen, why did it have to happen to him?”

Her son Daniel had become increasingly independent as he aged and was living in a group home in the Bay Area. He was working as a street cleaner during the day and enjoying a variety of social events with his living companions on his off-hours. Jean had visited him two days prior to his death, as she has done twice a week for the last fifteen years. She said she felt blessed, burdened and bonded with Daniel in a way only mothers of developmentally delayed children can know.

“Daniel was so in the moment,” she said. “His smile was infectious.” She looked down at her hands. “I know this may sound crazy, because people think folks like him aren’t as aware of others, as they are of themselves, but Daniel,” she grinned, “was always thinking about others. He could tell when someone was down. He’d give them a big bear hug and say, ‘There, there.’”

She cried bittersweet tears. “He always said, ‘I love love.’ and would wait for you to say it. He wouldn’t do anything else until you would say, ‘I love love too.’ back to him. He would just stand there waiting, no matter how long it took.”

Jean had taken care of Daniel single handedly for most of his life. Not long after Daniel was born, his father moved away saying he couldn’t live with an “abnormal” kid. In his home country, people made fun of kids like Daniel and would say they were cursed and had the evil eye. He blamed Jean and her background for the child’s difference, telling her that her family must have done something very bad in the past.

So Jean, at age twenty-four, took on the already difficult and exhausting life of single-parenthood, combined with the complication of a child that would stay a child for much of his life.

No matter how much she loved him, the reality was that caring for Daniel was overwhelming and all-consuming. She seldom had any time to herself and finding support and child-care as he aged became increasingly difficult. Yet, she loved him like a mother loves an only child. Her identity, reason for living and self-image of who she was became increasingly ingrained with her son’s life.

When she realized that his independence and happiness would be greatly enhanced if he learned to live on his own and separate from her, she was heartbroken.

Having him move to a group home for independent living, which was a forty-five minute drive away, felt like having your ten-year-old go away for a weekend sleep-over and never coming home. She was petrified, anxious and relieved when he actually moved. She said she grieved a thousand deaths day after day and rarely allowed herself to enjoy the “freedom” of her drastically changed less-encumbered life.

“It took me years to grieve the loss of him as a boy, acknowledge him as a man, and let go of my primary identify in the world as ‘Daniel’s Mom,’” Jean said, shifting her legs in the chair. “The last four years were wonderful. I had let go of so much, was doing things I’d always wanted to try, and trusting that he was safe and happy. Then,” she closed her eyes, as her held fell back, “then I get this call and he’s gone. Just like that . . . no warning . . . no good-byes . . . no more ‘I love love.’” She put her head in her hands and sobbed.

Later, after blowing her nose and wiping her eyes, she said, “Now I have to start all over again and I don’t want to. It isn’t supposed to be like this. I’m supposed to die first, not him.” Her eyes met mine. “I want to get off. I want to just disappear.”

She took a few moments of silence, then started telling me about her and Daniel — about all the funny, crazy, confusing, exciting, scary and unbelievable things he and they had done together. She told me about his temper, his sweetness and his frustrations with the world. She brought him to life again and again with her stories.

After another half-hour of hearing about Daniel, Jean placed her hand over her heart, closed her eyes and said, “He’s not gone. I can feel him right here. I can hear him telling me to ‘love love’.”

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

The First Treehugger

A tall tale from Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

The redwoods in Asia, being especially tall, were a favorite of Abbott Tova. She loved to climb as high as she could and observe life from above. She saw wildlife, people in the village, travelers on the road, and her sisters in the community below. Seeing that her excursions climbing the ancient ones were made in secret, she often witnessed events and scenes that others were not aware of.

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One day, she saw a herd of rampaging river otters approaching the village and was able to scamper down the tree and go warn people of their approach just in time. Many lives were saved. Some thought the Abbott must be clairvoyant for knowing of the approaching otters, not knowing of her climbing feats.

On another day, the Abbott watched a bandit attack a lone farmer on the road and steal his money. She knew who the bandit was and was later able to assist in his capture and testify at his trail, as to what he was wearing that day and at what time it had taken place.

There was the time Abbott Tova saw Sister Kiva sneaking off with Sister Bhakti to make love in the meadow. In that case there was no need to do anything, other than turn her attention elsewhere.

As was the case with Abbott Tova’s ability to remain still and blend in with her surroundings in the garden for hour upon hour, so it was in the trees where she often lost track of time and became so engrossed and selfless that she could feel the sap flowing through her veins and her limbs transferring the sun’s light into energy through her skin.

Without it being called so at the time, Abbott Tova was the first known tree hugger. Her actions gave rise to a long line of environmentalists and forest advocates, including, Pocahontas, Johnny Appleseed, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Chico Mendes, Wangari Maathai, and Julia “Butterfly” Hill. It also gave her a great advantage in “seeing” the future, making predictions, and others believing she was omnipotent, which she would never deny, nor confirm.

More vast and small stories at: Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Looking Good

imagesA beautiful excerpt from Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Mistress Tova loved to eat. She ate whatever was provided, unless it was meat or fish, as she chose to not partake of anything that had eyes or a mother.

One evening, during the rainy season, when travel was the most enjoyable, a family offered Mistress Tova and her drenched wandering sisters some stale moldy bread. The Abbott’s students refused to touch the food, afraid it would make them sick, but their mistress ate heartily.

“That is the most delicious meal I’ve had in weeks,” she told the family, who beamed with pleasure at having their meager offering accepted by the great mistress.

As soon as the family left, Mistress Tova went behind a tree and threw up the entire meal. When she returned and the sisters asked her why she’d eaten the putrid bread, she said, “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how you feel, as long as you look good.”

More good looking stories at: Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Trust Me

A shaky excerpt from Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

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Master Tova was traveling with Sister Sun and Sister Moon to visit one of the community centers. They came upon a narrow rope bridge which crossed a deep gorge and raging river below.

“I’ll wait here until you return,” Sister Sun said, shaking in her boots every time she looked towards the walkway.

“Nonsense,” Master Tova replied. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“I’ll stay with Sister Sun,” Sister Moon added, holding on to her companion for dear life.

“We must cross,” Master Tova replied. “They are waiting for us and Sister Star needs our assistance. You know she is very ill and may not have much time left.”

“We feel deeply for Sister Star,” Sister Sun trembled, “but it will do her no good if we parish before we see her.”

“This bridge has been here for centuries,” Master Tova explained.

“Exactly,” Sister Moon exclaimed.

“Thousands upon thousands have safely made their way upon its planks and rope handrails,” Master Tova reassured. Both sisters stood frozen, shaking their heads. “Look,” Master Tova said, as she walked onto the bridge and turned around. “See, it’s as strong as a rock.” She jumped up and down several times. The bridge bobbed and swayed side to side. Master Tova returned to her reluctant students and said, “You must trust in life or you will never get anywhere.”

The Master took hold of Sister Sun and Sister Moon’s hands and led them toward the structure. Just as Master Tova was about to step on the bridge, Sister Sun coughed. Her cough caused a loud crack. They watched in horror as the ropes snapped, the wooden planks broke, and the walkway plummeted into the gorge below with a deathly crash.

Sister Sun and Sister Moon’s eyes were as large as saucers, as they pulled Master Tova back from the edge and fell to the ground.

As they got up and dusted themselves off, Master Tova turned and spoke. “Like I said, it’s always good to consider alternatives, and cough before proceeding. We’ll have to walk upstream and wade across the shallow portion of the river. It will take longer, but we’ll get their safe and sound.”

Many honest and trusted stories at: Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

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