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.

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Writing Lessons from Mom (Part 2) — Cause and Effect

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Florence + The Machine “Dog Days are Over”

My mother’s method of discipline was based on the “if/then” paradigm. For example: “If you don’t clean your room, then you don’t get to keep it.” or “If you give me any sass, then you won’t be able to sit down for a week.” (You get the picture.)

When I was twelve, I decided that I didn’t want to do the dishes anymore. To my surprise, after making sure that I understood the consequences of that decision, my mother agreed. No arguments, no threats, just a simple nod. The next morning, while my mother and siblings dug into a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, I made do with a plastic bowl full of corn flakes. That night, while my family dined on fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread, I choked down a cold bologna sandwich served on a paper plate. But the joke was on her. I had finally gotten a taste of freedom and I wasn’t about to give up my newly found independence so easily. (I lasted another two days.)

Despite my ill-fated attempts at rebellion, I found a strange sort of comfort in my mother’s rules. Everything was spelled out. There were no surprises. I knew the consequences of each action and made my decisions accordingly. To her credit, my mother never wavered. I couldn’t beg, barter or argue my way out of trouble. If I wanted to stay out past curfew, then I would be grounded for the next two weeks. If I didn’t clean my room when asked, then I would lose the privilege of having my space until I did.

I get the same comfortable feeling when I pick up a book and find that I am in the hands of a master storyteller who knows how to manage his or her plot. There is nothing more frustrating than getting deeply involved in a story only to have it fall apart near the end, or worse, wander off into completely new territory, leaving me lost, confused, and extremely irritated.

I guess I can understand why an author would deviate from his or her established plot. It used to happen to me all the time. I’d be putting the final touches on a story, when I’d suddenly get a brainstorm – a fantastic idea that would catapult my story into greatness. (Or so I thought.) I’d immediately plop down into my chair and start churning out new pages, completely forgetting about all that had gone on before. And what I’d end up with more often than not was a sloppy, episodic mess.

And then my teacher sent me a not so polite e-mail suggesting that maybe I investigate the causal chain in my stories. After looking up the term in the dictionary, I finally understood. If I wanted to be a decent writer, then I was going to have to take a page from my mother’s playbook and apply the “if/then” philosophy. That was how I discovered the magic of plot graphs. Now, whenever I come up with a new idea, I make sure that it fits in with the story arc and that it passes the stimulus and response test. Doing this allows me to write a solid, entertaining story that doesn’t come off like the transcript of a video game.

So, once again, my mother taught me a lesson about life and writing. Thankfully, this particular lesson came without the cold bologna sandwich.

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.