December 31, 2018No Comments

Inspiration Behind My First Novel Bloodlines

The bones of the Bloodlines story rattled around in my head for nearly a decade.

The main character, Zane Clearwater, was an intruder into my original story. He had a minor role as a love interest to another character. But as I wrote and rewrote the story and worked out the plot, Zane kept reasserting himself, standing up and waving his hands, even waking me up in the middle of the night and demanding that I pay attention to him. It didn't matter that I had a story outline established. It didn't matter that I had another heroine in mind. Zane was like a sinkhole in the middle of my story landscape, and finally, I just fell in.

I resisted Zane as the main character because he seemed so ordinary. He lived in a trailer park in a crappy Tulsa neighborhood. He had no money and no special skills or talents. He wasn't given to poetic insights about his life. His aspiration was to finish welding school. He had a drinking problem that he was trying to get under control. Many people might dismiss him as a loser, but I came to see him as heroic in his determination to make a better life for himself and his younger sister, Lettie.

I think humans are good by nature, but I also think each of us has a shadow within us. Call it the devil or evil or hate. I followed Zane into his dark places. I let him tell me his fears about his own violent tendencies, his desire for closeness with his long-lost father who may be a cold-blooded killer. I waited to see if his goodness would prevail when circumstances forced him into an awful choice.

What's surprising to me as I look back on the process of writing is how long it took me to find his story. I had wanted to write a funny novel, by the way. I really did. You can still see elements of my attempts at humor with the few scenes about the beauty pageant gown reality show. And other quirky elements, like how Zane worked at the zoo, were little oddball remnants of earlier drafts that still seemed right to me. But the story that Zane wanted to tell was a darker, more serious one. I've learned you can't fight with your fictional characters.

September 22, 2017No Comments

Possibility in a pot

Depending on the light and my mood, the potted cacti and succulents on my front porch resemble either the strange skyline of a science fiction city or the motley cast of characters in Star Wars’ Chalmun’s Cantina. A tangle of golden snake cactus, the opuntia’s sugar-dusted flat pancakes, and the meaty grey-green succulent leaves of kalanchoe all share the light and the warmth of the west-facing porch. They form a friendly welcoming committee to our visitors, even if most days, the only visitor is the postman.

I don’t pay much attention to my spiny community of survivors, relishing in their low-maintenance lifestyle and only occasionally remembering to splash them with water. Heavy winter rains did most of the work for this year anyhow.

As spring drew the sun higher and higher in the sky, the porch began to bake each afternoon in warm rays. As the soil warmed, the cacti and succulents began to grow in all directions. They grew tall, they grew wide. They began to flow over the rims of their terra cotta pots, and pips of new growth formed on nearly every cactus surface. Some pips dropped into the soil and seemed to immediately take root. The front porch burst full of joyous abundance and growth, and I grew excited. I felt like I had sprouted the greenest thumb. My cacti, some of which I had tended for five years or more, were finally thriving after years of stasis. Their green flesh swelled with stored water. The vigorous explosion felt life-affirming and miraculous.

The little mammillaria hardly kept up, allowing its cacti compadres become stars of the show. Two-and-a-half inches tall and shaped like a pincushion covered in fishhook spines, this laggard had not demonstrated the visible growth of its compatriots on the porch. Maybe it had grown a bit thicker, but I barely noticed a difference from its pre-winter form.

Until one afternoon, as I headed out of the house to run an errand, when that pincushion cactus stopped me in my tracks.

Almost overnight, the unremarkable and unchanging cactus did the unthinkable. It had burst into flower. A multitude of fuchsia flowers, each just a bit smaller than the fingernail on my pinky, had erupted from the diamond-patterned flesh in a nearly perfect ring encircling its top. The sheer surprise made me stop in my tracks, and the color and symmetry of the flowers made me fish my phone out of my purse to take a photo.

Cacti have always been the plant world’s strange cousin, able to survive great heat and drought that would kill most mammals, let alone plants. Cacti are peculiar to the Americas, with hundreds of different species growing in deserts from Canada to Patagonia. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some botanists theorize that the first cacti evolved from roses, basing their hypothesis on the cactus flowers that rival showy roses in shape and structure.

History aside, this little survivor on my porch had commanded my respect. While I thought it only bided its time, the cactus grew roots and conserved its energy for a display like I’d never seen before. Seeing those floral eruptions of hot pink made me think that anything could happen in nature.

I sat on the porch steps and counted the flowers while the sun warmed my face and shoulders. There were twenty-three. I counted the petals on one of the flowers. There were fourteen. Up close, I noticed a thin white line along the perimeter of the petals. From a distance, this white line the width of a straight pin vanished in the crazy hot pink pigment, but up close, it formed a pretty detail. I noticed dark brown buds forming above the flowers, and wondered if the bloom had only just begun. I felt alive with possibility, like a witness to God’s work at the cellular level.

Only four things are essential for plants to live: water, light, warmth and some minerals. It’s a modest list, even more so when you realize how little of each cacti need.

I thought about my own feet, planted in the fertile soil of graduate school and life and work and love. For two years, I’ve done little other than read, write, learn and write some more. Maybe I was due to blossom soon too. In that moment, I felt the potential of all the words I hadn’t yet written, of the people I hadn’t met, of the days, hopefully still numerous, left to live on this miracle-filled earth. An earth where one small cactus can spring into fuchsia extravagance one April afternoon without a moment’s notice.

December 8, 2011No Comments

Six Simple Words to Change a Life

Words are powerful. A friend and mentor of mine is a smart, strategic communications pro who was one of the first in his family to go to college. He grew up poor, with parents who didn't speak English well. When I asked him once about how he got from East LA to become an advisor to CEOs and Board Chairs of large organizations, he had a surprisingly simple answer. He traces his path back to a simple conversation from a Head Start mentor who met him when he was five years old. She gave him a Pechy folder and told him that this was the kind of folder he would have when he went to college. It was the first time someone ever said that to him--that he could go to college. It had an impact on his entire life. He did go on to college. He credits that Head Start mentor for giving him the confidence to do it.

Imagine that. Simply saying "I know you can do it" could change someone's day. Or their life.

There are certainly occasions when you should tell someone they cannot do something. Novice skiers should not attempt black diamond ski runs. College students don't need encouragement to drink too much and have sport sex. People with empty bank accounts should not invest in pyramid schemes.

But it seems like in most circumstances there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to do something, anything. Even if it seems silly, beyond reach or sure to fail. If all that is at stake is pride, then why not encourage someone to chase a dream? The likelihood of good outcomes is higher than that of bad outcomes.

On the flipside, there is little good that can come of statements like "you don't want to be one of those people who say they are trying to write a novel." Or "there's something wrong with women who want to be attorneys." Both of those statements were said directly to me, albeit in the 1980s and 90s. But even with more than two decades in between, they still sit like little poisonous mushrooms growing in a dark corner of my mind.

Negative statements are sticky. Let's give them a rest and try the positive approach. Tell someone who needs encouragement that you know they can do it. That you have faith in them. You could change someone's life.

 

 

December 5, 2010No Comments

Hallelujah flash mob video

Came across the video of a flash mob choir at a New York mall food court giving an impromptu performance of Handel's Hallelujah chorus. The singing is beautiful, the enjoyment on the faces of the listeners and the performers is sweet, and the debate on the comments among atheists and Christians alike in favor of the video is spirited. YouTube puts the viewer count at nearly 10 million.