I Want My Mother

WHAT’S PLAYING: Alicia KeysDoesn’t Mean Anything

A couple of months ago, my mom died. She passed away the day before Mother’s Day and two days after my birthday. I’m not sure what I feel at this point. Shock? Yes. Grief? Sure. Along with a heaping measure of guilt for not being a better daughter.

angel-crying

And then there’s this weird mix of exasperated amusement. My mom was what most people would call “a character.” She was blind, deaf, old-fashioned, and at times, a huge pain in the ass. She was the kind of person who would pick the day before Mother’s Day to shuffle off this mortal coil, if only to get back at me for forgetting her birthday for the last twenty years.

Some days, she drove me crazy. I’m talking claw-your-eyes-out-hair-on-fire-bat shit-crazy.

Other days, she was kind, loving, and fiercely protective. She handled life’s disappointments with humor, grace, and a kind of get-‘er-done-and-fuck-the-rest attitude that I’ve tried so hard to emulate in my own life. Most importantly, she was mine. My mother. And I would give everything I have in this life and the next, to have her back for just one more day.

madre-consuela

Grief hits me at unexpected times, like when I’m driving or in the shower. One minute, I’m fine. The next, the pain is so great that it’s all I can do to keep breathing.

 I don’t have the best track record when it comes to dealing with grief. When my twin brother died, I handled it by quitting my job, running away from home, shaving my head, and joining a cult. I wound up in Arizona a month later, married to a man I barely knew. My dad had it annulled while I went away for a few weeks to “rest” in a glorified booby hatch.

(Don’t worry. As of today’s post, I am still unmarried and not bald, so I guess that’s a good sign.)  

I know the last thing my mom would want is for me to spend the rest of my life mourning her. If she were here, she’d smack me upside the head and tell me to get on with it. So, that’s what I’m doing.

I love you, Mom.

Writing Lessons from Mom – Conflict

WHAT’S PLAYING: Pink! “Fucking Perfect

I have a terrible temper. My dad says I’m just like my mother—a 6-foot stick of dynamite with a 2-inch fuse.

 

Despite our shared anger management issues, you’d be hard pressed to lure my mother into an argument. To understand why, you have to go back a couple of hundred years…to the days of the traditional Choctaw duel.

This wasn’t your typical pistols-at-dawn affair. Choctaw duels were a bit more decisive.

The disputants would face one another across the village square, and then their assistants—usually a brother or close friend appointed for the occasion—would split their heads open with an ax. The dispute was resolved, and the community didn’t have to put up with incessant bickering.

My people are nothing if not practical.

Another incident of Choctaw dispute resolution involves the legendary chief, Pushmataha. Having been insulted by General Henry Knox, Chief Pushmataha bought a barrel of gunpowder and fitted it with a fuse. He sat on the barrel, lit a cigar, and invited the general to sit beside him. Knox declined and never insulted Pushmataha again. Nor did any other American general.

 

Despite this culturally inspired aversion to conflict, I often find myself embroiled in pointless arguments.

You see, I like to be right. Moreover, I like to prove that I’m right. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent trolling the internet or leafing through obscure reference books just to win an argument that any reasonable person would have already forgotten.

While this almost psychopathic need to prove myself has played holy hell with my personal life, it’s served me well in my writing.

As any writer will tell you, you can’t have a story without conflict, whether it’s inner, outer, preferably both. You have to have conflict in order to tell a decent story. It’s that simple.

What it isn’t, however, is easy. I’ve learned the hard way that handling conflict well in real life does not translate to being able to do the same in writing. Like my ancestors, I’d much rather write (or be involved) in a physical altercation, than explore my characters’ (or my own) feelings.

 

 

Still, dealing with emotions and the different faces of humanity is part of what it means to be a writer. So, while my relatives are solving disputes with the threat of skull bashing and explosions, I’ll save my more violent tendencies for the page.

But, if you see me stalking towards you with an axe in one hand and a reference book in the other….

Run.

Writing Lessons from Mom: Patience

WHAT’S PLAYING:  David Guetta feat. Nicki MinajTurn Me On

I prefer to do my grocery shopping at unusual hours, usually around 4AM. My reasons are simple: I hate waiting and I loathe crowds. But, due to a hectic work schedule and a great deal of procrastination, I was recently forced leave my cocoon in the middle of the afternoon in search of sustenance.

What I found instead was chaos.

I ended up in line behind a harassed looking young woman and what I assumed was her son. The kid couldn’t have been more than three or four but, boy howdy, did he have a set of lungs on him. The good news was that our checkout aisle had just opened, so we were the first two customers in line. The bad news was that it was one of the candy aisles.

The boy asked for a chocolate bar. The mother refused.

And then all hell broke loose.

Now, as sorry as I felt for the poor mother, I felt even sorrier for myself. She had obviously learned how to tune out screaming tantrums, but not having any children, I have yet to develop that superpower. I tried to back away and find another checkout station – and damn the short line – but then a woman with not one, but two carts, both overflowing with food, pulled in right behind me. There was no escape. It only took about ten minutes for the mother to pay for her groceries and cart her son away, but it felt like hours. I left the store that day, vowing never to return during daylight.

I never threw tantrums when I was a kid, especially not in public. As I’ve mentioned before, my mother is 6’4”…and she had no problem with corporal punishment. If I acted out in public, she’d not only smack me in the middle of the store, she’d spank me again when we got home.

It was double jeopardy, folks. And I was smart enough to know that candy wasn’t worth it.

Shopping with my mother taught me a lot about patience. I had to time my requests just right. Ask too soon, she’d get irritated. Wait too long and she would be too tired. The best time to ask for a treat was near the mid-point of the shopping trip, and then only if I had been extremely helpful and quiet. But sometimes, even the best behavior wouldn’t help. If she didn’t want to buy me anything that day, then she wouldn’t. That was it. Case closed.

Asking again would only get me into trouble.

But if I kept quiet, chances were I’d get the next thing I asked for as a reward.

I’m trying to apply the same principles to my writing. I’ve learned to accept refusals and move on to the next thing. Eventually, if I’m patient, diligent and persistent, I know I’ll get what I want, whether it’s a publishing contract or a candy bar.

I just have to wait until 4AM to pick them up.

In Distress — Getting into Your Characters’ Heads

WHAT’S PLAYING: Nicki Minaj and Rihanna “Fly”

Recently, I read an article about two adult siblings who sued their mother for “emotional distress” due to bad parenting.

You can read the full article here:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/adult-children-sue-mom-bad-parent/story?id=14407409

After reading their litany of complaints, my first reaction was “Are you f-ing kidding me?! What a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags!” When I was a kid, instead of a new toy, my mother would give me a stick and tell me to go play outside. On hot summer days, while other kids were enjoying sno-cones and freeze pops, I had to make do with frozen beef jerky.

After my initial burst of outrage, I tried looking at the situation from a writer’s point of view, unfiltered through the lens of my own experiences. In my ultra-pragmatic mother’s world, a parent’s only responsibility was to provide their children’s basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and love. (The last item became optional once the kid got past a certain age.) If I wanted something, I had to work for it. It was that simple. Then again, my mother was a blind seamstress raising three kids in one of the poorest states in the country.

The lawsuit siblings grew up in a very different environment, with unique perspectives. Maybe money was the primary way of expressing affection in their family. (Who needs hugs when you can get hundreds?) The point is that, without knowing what went on during their formative years, I was in no position to judge them. At least, not as a writer.

Many times, characters in my stories will act and speak in ways that I wouldn’t. Those are the times I have to become a method actor of sorts, sifting through false memories of parents, friends, childhoods and environments. I have to get inside each character’s head to see what makes them tick. Then, after I’ve assembled a complete dossier, I ask myself if it was really just the abuse that turned this person into a killer/sexual predator/complete asshole. Sometimes people just are who they are, childhood environment notwithstanding.

As a writer, I want to be able to write well about anything and anyone. Whether or not I choose to is beside the point. I want the choice. And so, I think, should you. So, go ahead. Dive deep into your characters’ psyches and see what kind of disturbing images you come up with. Maybe your next great idea will involve a serial killer or a sexual predator.

Or maybe even a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags.

Writing Lessons From Mom (Part 1) — Motivation

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Sting “Fields of Gold”
 
Director: “Ok, when I say ‘Action!’, I need you to walk over and punch Jim on the nose. Got it?”
Actor: “What’s my motivation?”
Director: (Blank look.) “To get to the other side of the room and punch Jim on the nose.”
 
When I was about ten, a fad swept through my neighborhood. Whenever one of the cool kids was asked to do something, he or she would look up, cock an eyebrow and ask: “What’s my motivation?” (Sort of a snarky way of saying “Why should I?”)
 
That summer, I decided that I was going to change my image from painfully shy bookworm to ultra cool loner. I swaggered around the neighborhood, dressed in black and draped in silver costume jewelry (and sweating like a whore in church because it was July in Missi-freaking-ssippi). I even learned how to raise one eyebrow that summer and thought that made me the very definition of cool. For one whole day, every time someone would ask  me to do something, I would call on my newly acquired skill, cock an eyebrow, and say, “What’s my motivation?” I even said it to my mother once.
 
Just once.
 
My mother subscribed to the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child philosophy and if there was one thing she could not stand, it was a disrespectful child. Needless to say that my “cool” makeover ended with a sore bottom and great wisdom: When your mother asks you to do something, your sole motivation is to avoid pissing her off.
 
As a writer, I’ve had to reverse my thinking. Every time a character says or does something, I have to constantly ask myself why. Why would Jim/John/Nancy walk through that door/poison his wife/mix plaid with stripes? Why would my hero or heroine put themselves in jeopardy in order to save someone else? Why is my villain working so hard to oppose my hero or heroine and vice versa? Without suitable motivation for their actions, characters just don’t work in fiction.
 
While it’s true that we all do things for no reason in real life, that just won’t fly in fiction. Whenever I run upon a character (no matter how cool or unique or well-drawn) who runs pell-mell through a story without rhyme or reason, I usually put the book down and won’t pick it up again. As writers, we have to ask a lot of our characters. So go ahead. Ask.
 
What’s your motivation?
 
But, whatever you do, don’t ask my mother.