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Last week I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle where Bob Dugoni (A New York Times best-selling author) talked about the reasons we write. According to Bob, the first step in writing is to know who you are as a writer.  Knowing this will help you understand the stories you write and why you write them.  I'd never thought about this before. And in the process of thinking about it, I realized he was right-- my novel characters are born of me. They are not me, but they are always of me. 

I also know I write stories and poems about relationships. I am defined by my family of origin and the children I birthed and love.  Bob suggested we write down 5 things that define us. This is a good exercise for everyone--not only writers. It illuminates your life in so many ways--shows you who and why you are. I challenge you to try it. 


In my list, I included my mother's early death from breast cancer,  the way she sang gospel while she worked in her garden and how those songs influenced my love of language and poetry.  I listed the stories my father told me about his childhood during the great Depression, the death of his mother when he was six-years old, his alcoholic father and the way his siblings were separated--either adopted or farmed out to other family members. I included the bookmobile that stopped on our street and filled my young life with walls of stories. I listed the 1,000 square foot house I shared with my parents and four brothers. The extended family living on the same street and the way holidays were filled with drama and laughter.  

But, perhaps most significantly,  the first thing on my list was the grenade that blew up in my father's hand during his basic training at Ft. Jackson.  It's odd, in a way, because this event took place before I and three of my four brothers were born. Yet,  in many ways, that bomb exploded in our lives as well. We were all profoundly affected by it.  This smiling photograph of my dad was taken just three weeks before the grenade. In it, I see a beautiful boy, in love with my mother, optimistic for a bright future, and innocent of what awaits him.  

To illustrate how this event still haunts me, I'm going to share a poem written a few weeks ago.  I thought I'd said everything I needed to say about my dad and that grenade. I was wrong. Maybe we writers spend a lifetime trying to understand the one thing that most defines us.

WHOM SHALL WE BLAME?

On that July day in nineteen forty-four
you are eighteen, a country boy,
crawling through combat training at Ft. Jackson.
You see the piece of mud-caked metal
nuzzled beside a Hickory stump.
Too innocent to know there are things
we can reach for but shouldn’t,
you dig it out with your bare hands,
dust the treasure off on your khaki sleeve,
then toss it across the narrow field
of high grasses and bright yellow
dandelions to your best friend.

He turns it over, sniffs for a clue.
The smell takes him home….
Rich earth and shell-shaped blossoms
in his wife’s summer garden.
Baffled, he runs toward you,
pitches it back, an impromptu
baseball game between battle maneuvers.
When you reach up to catch it,
the pin dislodges and the grenade,
leftover from another war, explodes.
The boom reverberates for miles,
lifts your friend into a faultless sky,
a hero’s grave in Arlington.

Now, so many years later, I imagine
your hand, my father’s hand,
its long, blood-stained fingers,
buried with the pieced-together fragments
of your lost friend. That when his wife is led,
as memory will, into that yesterday, she
carries a bouquet of fresh gardenias,
steps inside the perfect rows
of white crosses and kneels in thick,
fragrant grass beside the miniature flag
on his grave. She bows her head,
prays for her husband,
and she prays for your hand.


 


Comments

07/24/2014 9:17am

Nice post. Couldn't agree more.

It is magic and perhaps demonic how our own lives recreate themselves in our writing--the beautiful moments, the ugly ones become shattered prisms of the people we are, be they characters' words or story or plot.

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Anne Stabile
07/24/2014 9:47am

Your writing always moves me, Susan. What a beautiful piece. I'm reminded of just how much the Depression and The War effected not only our parents, but the next generation. And I realize the stories my father told have had a huge influence on me as a writer. Thank you!

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Martha Miller
07/24/2014 11:31am

Wow! What a potent story AND poem. Ever thought about being a writer, kiddo?
I was lucky enough to be in the Dugoni workshop and have done a bit of soul searching myself -- and part of what I came up with is how fortunate I am to have chosen the writing life because of all the friends I've made along the way.
Lastly, I'm fascinated by how much your son David, looks like his Gramps.

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Bob Olds
07/24/2014 1:31pm

Five things that define us ... fascinating exercise in existential thought. I'll give it a try. I imagine it'll be harder than I expect if I strive for more than superficialities.
The poem is beautiful. You're an extremely gifted poet. Hope to see many more.

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Linda Wilkinson
07/24/2014 7:31pm

A simple act. So many lives changed. Pain hides than resurfaces to take another form. You world defines you my dear cousin. Both past and present. Your writings bend my heart ! Keep sharing.....

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Theresa Wisner
07/25/2014 6:53am

Susan, you bring me to tears again. Your deep introspection and willingness to share what you've learned will resound for the next generations.

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Jane Sutherland
07/29/2014 11:50am

What a touching story, Suzy. Each time I read one of your poems, I see deeper into you, learn more about the wonderful woman you are, and why your friends and family love and admire you so much. Thank you for sharing these stories with us.

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11/18/2015 9:47pm

Why do we write the story we write is an interesting and intriguing feature of the human mind and thinking process. The thought process is magnificent and interestingg for the prolong and long terms and conditions of the times. It is factual and radical.

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I realized he was right-- my novel characters are born of me. They are not me, but they are always of me.

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Barry
03/21/2016 8:54am

Thoughts on what gets written and the absurdity of war:

“We may seem to forget a person, a place, a state of being, a past life, but meanwhile what we are doing is selecting new actors, seeking the closest reproduction to the friend, the lover, the husband we are trying to forget, in order to re-enact the drama with understudies. And one day we open our eyes and there we are, repeating the same story. How could it be otherwise? The design comes from within us. It is internal. It is what the old mystics described as karma, repeated until the spiritual or emotional experience was understood, liquidated, achieved.” ― Anaïs Nin, Seduction of The Minotaur

“The battle was over. Our casualties were some thirteen thousand killed--thirteen thousand minds, memories, loves, sensations, worlds, universes--because the human mind is more a universe than the universe itself--and all for a few hundred yards of useless mud.” ― John Fowles, The Magus

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04/28/2016 2:02am

Your poem affect me so much, it's like I can also feel the pain that is lingering in your heart. I know that it will never be easy to forget the things that happened to your father but I wish eventually you will think more of the beauty of your father rather than the unfortunate things that happened to him. Nevertheless, I hope you will find yourself writing the happiness in your life. Have a strong heart and I'm looking forward to read more of your works.

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11/24/2016 1:56am

They say that in order for someone to earn big time money and make a living online writing they should go towards something they love to do or utilize the skills they already hold.

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01/23/2017 11:22am

Thanks a lot for the information that you have shared which is your personal experience about writing.

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