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All of us meet people in our lives who are unforgettable. Some are family members. Others may be friends, acquaintances, or just someone we see on the street and can't get out of our minds.  In my last post, I mentioned Paulann Peterson's poetry workshop. In addition to having us remember a place where we'd felt safe, she had us make a list of the flamboyant and truly unforgettable people we'd known.  My list held twelve names. Out of the twelve, I chose one. And then, just like with the safe place exercise, Paulann prompted us through the process of remembering. We made a list of everything we could recall about this one person. How she smelled. The sound of her voice. The way her body moved. The way she dressed. Her surroundings. What was happening in the room. The way she interacted with others. We kept adding to our lists. I didn't do anything with mine for a few days and then I came back to it and wrote a poem about a remarkable woman I love. But I also realized this technique could be helpful to fiction writers. We want to create extreme characters--not the ones who land in the center of the bell curve. Readers want heroes--characters who will do and say things others won't. Obsessed characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. 

In this exercise, I wrote about my aunt--a truly outrageous and wonderful woman. I'm not sure she'd approve of my memory, but she's too old to be reading blogs and I'll just have to trust my cousins to keep their mouths shut. 

In my favorite Easter memory of Lillian Nel 

I am ten years old and she, perhaps thirty,
Chanel Number Five and whiskey.
She leans against the basement pool table,
Strikes a sultry pose, like Lauren Bacall,
Cigarette balanced in her right hand.
Her long and autumn-leafed hair brushes
Against the collar of her yellow, shirtwaist,
Cinched in with a grass-colored belt,

Matching stiletto heels,
A purse the size of Portugal.

Lillian Nel inhales. Her cigarette
Glows ruby-colored gems,
Birthstone rings on every finger.
My brother's dazzling smile,
Humphrey Bogart eyes, lures her into his game.
As white smoke curls into the light,
Hovers above her, a vaporous halo,
She takes her cue, looks up at me through
Spider-leg lashes and shoots—the white ball
Clacks against a triangle

Bright as Easter eggs dyed last night
Because Jesus rose from the dead.

As balls dart out, sink into felted pockets
And disappear; my brother raises a toast to
Our favorite aunt, for whom no rules apply.
Behind the bar, Patsy Cline falls to pieces,

And my father, with his Hamm’s Beer sign flashing
Blue neon on his hair, pours his sister another.

Upstairs, my mother, who doesn’t approve of women
Who smoke, play pool, and drink whiskey sours,
Fries our aunt's favorite buttermilk-battered chicken

In a cast iron skillet. Though she longs for glamour,
Lillian Nel can’t escape the Appalachian past
Any more than my brother, his school photos
Still smiling above the knots in the pine paneling,
Will dodge a future where the god of heroin waits--

A gaping black pocket 
Where brightness disappears. 


sherry mullens
05/09/2013 6:43am

Wow, Susan. Your details of Lillian are so evocative and you make this scene whole by bringing in the present, past and future. What a great aunt!

05/10/2013 2:11pm

Wow is right! What a potent bunch of words you wove about your aunt. You are one talented gal. Thanks for letting us read that one!

Linda Wilkinson
05/11/2013 5:42am

As I read your stories from our past and poems that open a hole up in your heart I'm truly amazed at how that time stayed so frozen and memorialized to share with family and the world so many years later. I could see the whole scene play out instantly. You had me laughing and crying within just a few words

09/20/2015 8:57pm

The passion on your end to develop interesting characters is very infectious. I am also starting to write my first short story. There are days that I am brimming with ideas, but I have to admit, there are moments that I am loss for words. I believe that creating an outline on how you want to develop your story is one of the main ingredients in completing your writing. I also believe that each writer has his or her own style.

12/23/2015 12:31am

I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. I'll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I am quite certain I will learn plenty of new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

02/29/2016 6:25am

Thanks for sharing this searing, authentic “favorite Easter memory of early family life” with your readership who appreciates your ability to bring words on paper to life. Herein you’ve forced each reader to be reflective in their own way and this poem is truly a lot to reflect upon on a number of levels as Easter approaches. Great work and in the words of Cynthia Ozick it is evident: “What we remember from childhood we remember forever - permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.”

Lillian Nel sounds like a hoot, reminding me of this reflection from Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: “If you go near her or touch her with your finger, a spark will light up the room and either kill you on the spot or electrify you for your whole life with a magnetically attractive, plaintive craving and sorrow.”

04/10/2016 10:51pm

Hi, I check your blogs like every week. Your story-telling style is awesome, keep it up!


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