practical advice about active or passive writing voice

I know these posts seem egotistical in nature, as if through them I can crow about myself by alluding to “real writers,” I have known, but to me these posts are lessons in writing that any writer who aspires to write better might learn from. One of the hardest things for me has been learning how to write in the active voice, even having trouble what the difference was. Somehow I recognized good writing, but couldn’t begin to tell you how. I still have difficulty with that one. Maybe it’s the same with you.

I sidestep here a bit to that old picture storybook for children that belonged to my daughters when they were growing up. In it, Papa Pig was sent to the market by Mrs. Pig (who was awfully busy spring cleaning) ostensibly to select vegetables for the stew she would make for dinner, but of course we know it was a ploy to get him out of the house. As he picked and sorted among all the veggies, he wasn’t able to say why he wanted this or that thing and not another, even what would make a good stew. What he said instead in every case was, I may not know much about Rutabagas (or whatever), but I KNOW what I like. Put all of them together into a stew, and it would have to be good. But if we consciously want to write better, we need to know some things that go into good writing. I’m always open to learning.

* * * * *

September 4, 1999: It appears you sent this message to me by mistake. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the nice things you said about my writing. Later, -Jim

[This came from a query I’d written Professor Bob, with a cc to Mr. P, asking if it was possible to write in a 100% active voice. I still hadn’t learned what the differences were between “active” and “passive” voice in writing. I’d been using Word’s grammar checker and every piece I wrote seemed to be at least 30% passive according to the checker. I wanted to as near to 0% if possible.]

September 4, 1999: Really it wasn’t a mistake. I got a nice lecture back from Dr. Bob (he really hasn’t retired I think!) which pointed out some obvious things–like I shouldn’t trust the grammar editor on a Word software. Actually I was hoping you’d send me your thoughts on the subject too. I suspect [know] that you are a born storyteller and your writing just flows on its own. Maybe good writers ARE born, not taught. Even if it’s not so, I’ve noticed good writers make it seem so. Some of mine does [flow], but no publisher ever seemed to like it so I just gave up pretty much. But something in me won’t let me give up doing things for my own satisfaction. Do you have anything to add, and more important, do you have the time to indulge me? Alice

September 5, 1999:I’m sure Bro Bob gave you good advice about Word’s grammar checker. I would add only this caveat: Never use Word’s (or anyone else’s) grammar checker unless you have absolutely no need to. About 3/4 of the suggestions are wrong. If you don’t know which to ignore, you’re much better off on your own.

As to voice, the fact that you are unable to write your piece entirely in the active voice should tell you something. If just ain’t English as she is meant to be writ. Try this: Find a piece published in a respectable rag similar to the piece you are working on that strikes you as well written and parse it for voice. That’ll give you and idea. Take the average of a dozen of ’em, and that will give you a better idea. But there’s no rule you can follow.

I have a theory that Southerners tend to use more passive constructions because they are somehow more polite. Sorry I’ve been absolutely no help.

I have posted the new material to my web site. It’s called The Gabriel Chronicle and is an alternate version of Genesis as seen by a New Zion Bible scholar. You can find me at either of these locations:

[Sadly, Geocities at Yahoo is no longer available, which is really too bad because there was a wealth of good writing to be found there!]

September 7, 1999: Thanks so much for the advice on the active voice, etc. The advice from both you and Dr. Bob was helpful. The point you made about Southern heritage making it harder for a person to use a real active voice was right on! Iused to have trouble saying anything out loud in a very authoritative voice–I always hedge by prefacing my remarks with stuff like “It’s my understanding…” or “from what I’ve seen documented…” etc. I’m getting better now. There’s a lot to be said for getting older in that respect! Being a female brought up in the south packed a double whammy as far as getting listened to. And in my family, being the “baby”, nobody gave any credence to anything I had to say. Probably that’s why I always “wrote” (most in my head growing up) because then I could be more forceful, more sure, and nobody could say I didn’t know what I was talking about. In my stories I was God and I could do or say whatever I wanted. Are writers always trying to justify their existence, you think?

I sandwiched time Sunday night to read the Chronicles in one sitting. How appropriate for the Sabbath, don’t you think? As expected, I loved it. As for clever writing, I think my favorite was Chapter 3; the artful way the serpent seduced Eve was a classic. You said it all without really saying it.

[A telling discovery! That’s exactly what I’d been striving to do–not having to explain what I’ve written to my reader.  I’d realized by this time if you have to explain yourself or your story, you’re not crediting him/her with much intelligence, and need to work on showing without telling. Communicating well with words is no accident. I would begin to work on choosing them well.]

ellisville – continued with revisions and picture

This Sunday Snapshot memory takes up a previous post from around April 2007 that was marked “to be continued”. It was the beginning of what was perhaps to become a book about growing up in the country after the great depression. I don’t know where it will go from here, indeed it may never be finished, but I decided to revive it and continue it until it’s finished or dies a natural death–whichever happens first.

* * * * * *

When we moved there around 1947, the nearest town in either direction of Ellisville was Lake City to the north, and High Springs to the south. Turn east on the hardtop road by Mrs. Leola Witt’s house, just a good hop and skip southward on U.S. 41, and you’ll find yourself in Providence after a few miles through rolling farmland. That’s where my other grandma lived and eventually if you kept going, you’d wind up in Jacksonville.

But this story is about Ellisville. One very small (1 pump) gas station, where you could also purchase a few staple grocery items, was the heart of Ellisville then. It was called Branch’s General Store because that was the name of the man who owned it. He’d come from somewhere northward sometime before we had and set up housekeeping in the side of the store with his wife. He was tall and awkward looking with a scruffy face and glasses and a way of staring that frightened me, but his wife had nicely curled black hair and pleasant demeanor. They had no children.

The store was the gathering place. Men like my father would leave their farm chores whenever they could find good reason–maybe to “fetch a part” or gas for the tractor. You could also get nails and hardware displayed in barrel kegs, and while you were there it didn’t hurt to buy a nickel Coca Cola from the ice-cooled case (I remember it was a faded red color and you had to open and close it real fast to keep the cold in) and sit around a spell swapping yarns, discussing the price of hogs and cattle and such. Mrs. Branch had the first Chia statue I ever saw, a head that grew green hair after she faithfully watered it for a couple of weeks. Fascinating stuff for a 5-year-old like me.

Since I was too young to really know this and don’t really know how it came to be, I fathom that Margie Bailey was driving north of U.S. 41, fresh out of Bible School in Lakeland, when she noticed that there weren’t many churches located on that long stretch after leaving High Springs. Almost 26 miles with only a church or two scattered in between, and not one holy roller among them!

So one fine day when Daddy decided to go fetchin’ in the middle of the day, he saw a huge tent set up in the yard north of Branch’s store. Signs advertised a Revival Night, a date, and an invitation to come and join the fellowship. One night not long after, the family dresses up in Sunday best and goes off to the tent revival to see the woman preacher.

There was a guest preacher that night, a boy really, that absolutely charmed everybody, including the five-year-old that was me. Not only could that kid preach with the cadence and rhythm and the best of the best holy roller, he could sing and play the guitar too. I could not have imagined a child with that much influence on grownups. Children in my world were seen and not heard and the parents would be proud to tell you that. And I’d never heard real live entertainment much up to that point in my life.

Here we were treated to the best singing and guitar and piano playing one could imagine, some of it fast “boogie” foot stomping style. Sister Margie had a booming voice for coming from such a small woman. When she sang “Mansion Over The Hilltop” and “Something Got A Hold of Me, her voice filled the whole church, and you’d swear your grandma in the next county could have heard her. Everybody went home feeling good, and before long, every man, woman and child in Ellisville seemed to be in love with her.

She soon had enough money to refurbish the mechanic’s shed on the south end of the store property, and turn it into a tin-roofed church. That tin church was such a hit, drawing so many people that, another revival and a year or so  later, the congregation had outgrown it, so she built a modern, new concrete structure of 5000 or so square feet on a donated 5-acre-tract about a quarter-mile north up the road. It was set back a ways on a dirt road, but still within eyesight of the highway and the people kept a’coming and the church grew and grew. There seemed to be no stopping it.

And then one day, a young guest evangelist came to visit. Whether she’d known him from her bible school days, or–as she might have phrased it–God sent him to her, not long afterward Sister Margie Bailey became Sister Margie Patterson.

Her new husband looked, to me, like a 5’5″ Roy Rogers in a cream colored suit. They moved into the newly constructed parsonage adjacent to the church and for the next few years would form a gospel singing quartet that included my big brother who sang bass. They sang all around Florida at revivals and guest performances. They were famous–at least locally–through their 15-minute radio program from a local station in Lake City early on Sunday mornings.

What I remember best about the church is how terrified I was at the thought of having to “testify” in front the parishioners–which was a very popular thing to do–and how much I looked forward to going  into the prayer room in the back every Sunday night at the invitational after the evening service, especially if I saw Edna go back first. You could count on somebody being overtaken by the holy ghost. It was especially satisfying watching Edna writhing on the floor in lowly-lit room because she was so young (probably 18 at the time) and so pretty, and really filled her clothes out in all the right places. Sister Margie would stand prayer over each person kneeling in the prayer room and rebuke the devil and pray in tongues before moving on to the next person.

Sometimes my friend Helen went with me and it was she who taught me what to say when it was my turn with Sister Margie. Usually by the time I’d said three “yes jesuses” or “thank you jesuses” she would have moved on to the next person and I could shut up, open my eyes and just watch. Someone in the family I later shared my observations with pointed out to me once that if I didn’t watch out, one of those Sunday nights the holy ghost was going to get a hold of me and I would be the one writhing around and talking in tongues for the entertainment of the others in the room. That was a sobering thought indeed.

Other strongest memories concern singing. In the tin church days, I remember a time when Sister Margie asked the congregation to shout out their favorite songs to sing after the formal service was finished. I shouted out something like Page 139, and it was a wonder to me then as now that she chose it! Even then I was on the edge of becoming a true feminist.  The song, which I’d chosen strictly because its title was If Men Go To Hell Who Cares. (After I grew up and looked at it again, I saw it really wasn’t quite the statement I’d thought at the time.)  It would take many years more before I would have completed the process of becoming if not one, then someone with a strong leaning toward feminism.

The second song incident was a Sunday night in the new church, when both I and my other friends at church conspired as often as possible to get Sister Margie to have the congregation sing another favorite song of ours, Hold The Fort For I Am Coming, after the service. We only did it, however, when our friend Maryann came to church and for a very good reason. Maryann had a way of saying her O’s as if they were A’s. I’m sure if you put your mind to it, you’ll understand the charm the song held for us. As the dedicated members of the church sang, we only cared about listening for Maryann’s voice to get to the “hold the fort for I am coming” line. Then we’d nearly roll in our seats giggling. I can see now that we weren’t the sweet angelic children we were expected to be. And I’m sure many a congregationalist went home and prayed for us.

Though hidden away in the woods off an obscure country tarmac road, there WAS another church less than 3-miles away to the southeast. Phillipi Baptist. In fact, it was the church my father had more or less abandoned for Sister Margie. She came along during the time he had estranged himself from the Baptist church over a practical joke one of his brothers had pulled on the minister, and the minister had blamed him.

But progress slows for no one, not even Mr. Branch. Several years later, his tiny little general store would succumb to the larger, more modern general store that moved in down the road about 500 feet away, with 4 gas pumps out front to catch the tourist trade down U.S. 41/441. The entrepreneur of the family, my uncle’s store would eventually cause Mr. Branch to close up shop, pack up the missus–no hard feelings–and move away. It was the end or the beginning of an era, depending on how you chose to look at it. I don’t know what happened to the Branches.

to be continued

glimpses of a simple life in las vegas

Emails from Zion continued: In the previous posting, I have just made the acquaintance of Jim Peyton, a writer and retired professor in Kentucky, who authored a book I’d been hoping to acquire and, after contacting one of my former English professors at Ohio State–who in turn supplied me the title, I began my search for the book that ultimately led me directly to the author’s email box and to a several year online friendship, long before I knew about blogging, and at a time when I very much needed moral support for my writing efforts. Connecting to Mr. Peyton gave me the impetus to continue writing–even if only in the context of an email correspondence. He was a great writing coach.

August 22, 1999

The pleasure will, indeed, be mine (re the soon to be–I hope–posting)! I have a semi-tragic tale to relate regarding ZIONS CAUSE which I so proudly acquired just last Thursday through a rare books collection after about a 10 year search. I decided to take it with me to an appointment on Friday, which I expected to have a long wait for, and damned if I didn’t walk out without bringing it home! And to make matters worse, I didn’t have to wait at all, so I didn’t even get down to opening up the pages to read. So, if it doesn’t turn up at the shop next week, then I’ll go back to the same source and see if I can reorder it! (The most expensive copy they had, by the way, if you’re interested, was about $63!) On the positive side, this makes fodder for a short story, doesn’t it? Good luck on getting Gabriel’s Chronical on the net. Sounds really wonderful. In the meantime, I wish you good health and fruitful writing.

Alice

August 22, 1999

Hi Alice, sorry about your losing the book, but not to worry. I have a few copies that I picked up for next to nothing when the book went out of print. Please send me an address and I’ll drop one in the mail to you with my compliments. Sixty-three bucks seems like a helluva lot of money.

Later, -Jim

August 23, 1999

What a generous offer! Of course I would love having a copy from you–signed I hope? Good things really do happen to stupid, forgetful people, and then I’d have a wonderful story about its acquisition as well. But I hope you realize I wasn’t bucking for a free copy by relating my tale to you  . . . and I’ll be glad to reimburse you for whatever expenses you incur if you’ll just let me know.

And yes, people really do LIVE in Las Vegas. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of life here myself, actually. Besides the glitter and glitz of the gambling strip downtown, we have the Red Rock Canyon, about 20 miles from me, and the Spring Mountain Ranch a couple miles further where I volunteer as a Docent, giving historic tours for visitors. The present ranch house was built by Chet Lauck, the Lum of the Lum & Abner series, and was once owned by Vera Krupp of Krupp diamond fame (the one Richard Burton bought Liz). There are six natural springs on the place, along with some of the biggest trees in the valley. There are cows as well as wild burros and mustangs and other wild critters like sidewinders & other creepy crawlers, and the best assortment of birds I’ve ever seen in one place. Early one morning as I was walking the hills with the dog, I came across a tree completely filled with Gambel Quails–what a sight!–like partridges in a pear tree.

The Potosi Mountains offer a distant backdrop–that’s where Carole Lombard’s plane crashed all those years ago. And of course there’s all kinds of folklore and gossip, and politics here have always been most colorful. Our previous mayor [Jan Jones] was a former showgirl/car salesman, albeit an educated one (Stanford), and the current mayor [Oscar Goodman] of course was lawyer for various mafia members over the course of his long career. Perhaps you read the recent interview in the New Yorker. Oscar was a little upset about that one.

Seems SOME reporters, especially easterners, just don’t understand Las Vegas style humor! She really believed some of his jocular comments, and the article reflects this! Living here’s a hoot! But, I’ve found you can find something to love about all kinds of places, if you’re a mind to. To paraphrase the old song, “If I can’t be near the place I love (the south), then I’ll love the place I’m in.”

Please forgive me for rattling on! I don’t mean to take up your time, I’m just a prolific writer. I’ll look forward to receiving (again) your book! ‘Hope Gabriel’s  feeding you his story as prolifically as my emails get.

Alice

August 23, 1999

HOLD THE BOAT! I won’t go into the whole pitiful story, but the fact is ZIONS CAUSE just showed up! So now you won’t have to bother mailing me a copy after all. But I do appreciate–so much–such a kind offer from the author who doesn’t know me from the proverbial housecat. People are good. Life is good.

Alice

August 23, 1999

But I DO know you from the proverbial housecat. you’re a friend of Bro Bob’s!

-Jim

August 23, 1999

Touche´ !

Alice

thoughts on achieving depth in memory writing

I’ve read in several blogs how the writers hope to write in-depth posts on various topics  during 2010. While I think that’s an admirable goal, I’m not sure I would be able to achieve it here because I don’t feel accomplished enough in any subject to contribute anything worthier than what’s already out there. But I do believe I have a few ideas about writing family memories, ideas that transcend time. So, for what they’re worth–and I realize many may say that’s nothing–I’m experimenting today, and putting myself way out on a limb as well, by sharing some of my ideas here on Wintersong.

I remember when I was struggling to call myself a writer, I knew something was missing from the things I was producing.  I’d say things like “roundnth” is missing in this piece, and I don’t know how to fix it. I coined the world “roundnth” but a better word was already there only I couldn’t think of it at the time. Depth. There were lots of other words I needed to think about as well, like Focus. But again, another subject for another day. And before I forget, I just have to point out both for myself and anyone else who writes, those who write ARE writers. Published or not!

In the mid-90s I remember doing a writer’s short-course at a writer’s conference somewhere, I suspect probably in Tennessee. The recollection of the event itself is so dim. Yet the green-lined pages recently ripped from a notebook are real and what I read there still surprises me. It came from an exercise in “stream of consciousness” writing. If I remember correctly, writing hypnotically (subconsciously) helps to free you of the natural tendency to protect yourself from revealing YOU, which is a natural reaction in all of us. Turns out it might have been a turning point for me. You see, whether your aim is to write wonderful fiction or  creative non-fiction–dare I add blogging?–writing IS personal. Those in writer groups will know what I mean when I say that you get to know each other well when you write and read together.

I remember a woman from the creative non-fiction writing classes I facilitated when living in Las Vegas who was obviously capable of writing well-constructed essays, yet somehow they always fell a little flat. She would tell of some far past incident that had great dramatic potential, yet when she finished reading the listener would have no idea of how she felt about the event, or if and how it may have challenged her. She wrote the tale well enough, but she more or less left herself out of it. I tried to help her by highlighting areas and asking her to expound on the idea, how she felt when this or that happened, etc., but she had masterfully honed her method of keeping herself separate from her writing, and yes–protected. And technically “correct” or not, reading her pieces wasn’t that different from reading the minutes of a meeting.

It can be painful to express inner emotions such as love, fear, joy, sorrow and anger, or despair. But writers who are widely read reveal themselves through their writing. That’s the only way readers have to relate to people (characters) the writers write about. It’s the way they identify with their problems and root for them.

To illustrate the point, I’m going to fearlessly (more or less) reproduce here what was on that green-lined tablet from many years ago. Keep in mind the instructions provided for the exercise: connect with the paper! do not disconnect from the page at any point–don’t bother with punctuation or grammar. Keep pen point on the paper at all times and keep writing, even if what you’re producing is only a long and scattered line of connected scribbles. In order to make reading easier today I will add appropriate punctuation here.

I feel sleepy. I’m not really sleepy. It’s just I feel a little silly trying to connect with this paper.  The hum in the background (the refrigerator?) is nice. It feels like a clock ticking in my soul and my mind sees Grandma’s house, not the old one where Mama grew up but the one she lived as a widow. Where the rattlesnake crawled from under the house into her fireplace. Where the picture of her as a young woman was about or near the ceiling. Even as an adult I had to look high and stand close to the wall to see it. It looks like Aunt M_ _ to me and she’s not even kin except by her marriage to Uncle D_ _.

I remember the reunion there. We had tables set up in the yard and everyone brought food. I was grown and it was Easter Sunday and I had a new dress on. I thought it was so pretty when I bought it–light green flowered shirt waist with gathers, little buttons from collar to hem–and then I saw my cousin come in from church (she was a year older than me and acted hoity toity like her mama. When I saw her in her neat linen tight dress I felt so fat. And I was skinny. But I knew that dress I had on was awful and I never would wear it again.

The kids are running around the yard and I know I’ll be expected to have a kid too one day and I don’t feel like I’ll ever be grown up enough to have kids. I don’t want to get old the way my aunts and uncles who have kids seem to me.

The progression is obvious: from feeling silly (afraid to let myself go), to writing a scene on a very conscious level describing the setting my subconscious set me into (which really happened when I was around 30–eight-month-old in tow, visiting Florida after living in another state for several years), and finally into the revealing scene within a scene.

If I were writing this in a drama, I don’t believe anyone would keep reading for very long–not even with that evocative rattlesnake memory. It’s when I found myself  in the reunion scene that took place years before–that the piece begins to increase the odds of holding a reader. Why? Because, no matter how successful we become, most of us, regardless of background, can relate to similar feelings at some time in our lives. Readers not only identify with the character, they appreciate your honesty.

I decided to try this writing exercise as a five-minute experiment in the creative writing class mentioned before. Another class member who wrote in a similar way as the other writer, put herself so deeply into the exercise that she had no idea what she’d written until she read it out loud. Though I don’t remember what it said, it was so profound that she went home exhilarated with a whole new view of how she wanted to proceed in her writing.

I hope to add another thought or two about memory writing in future posts, and then I’ll stop lest I wrongfully project that I feel I’m anywhere near expert in writing. I’m still learning, but I’ve found a good way to reinforce things I’ve learned–or think I’ve learned–is to share them, and even discuss them if anyone would like to take up the challenge in comments.

One thing I know for certain about myself is that in memory writing  I have to let go my adult experiences and logic, and try to write as if I were still a child. Children haven’t learned to shade the truth or manipulate, and I believe that it will be  a good area to explore in future musings. Meanwhile, perhaps some of you would like to try the exercise yourselves. If you do, I hope you’ll let me know how it went.

a parent’s nightmare

I received the following message in a forwarded email in April 1993 when my daughters were both in college–one at OWU (Delaware, Ohio) and the other at Stanford (Palo Alto, California). The message was “I thought you might like to see what your other daughter has been up to lately.” My lips are sealed as to which one was guilty, but the perpetrators both know the scoop. email dated 4/1/93; subject: last night

Well, I don’t have much time to explain because I am in jail. Yes, you read correctly, I am in jail. They are allowing me one email message. Lucky for me, one message reaches like 7 people. Somebody please call my ‘rents for me . . .

Here’s the scoop. Last night after I went to this party and got Smashed off my ass, I got really hungry so I tried to walk to UDF for a milkshake. To make a very long story short, I couldn’t walk very well. I guess some guy helped me cross the street, but when I crashed at the corner, he didn’t help me any further. Needless to say, I was sprawling on the sidewalk yelling “chocolate malt . . . chocolate malt!” meanwhile wearing nothing but boots and a Sigma Chi flag.

Just my luck there’s a donut shop next to UDF, so all these cops came out and I’m rolling around like a damn bleached osteichthes. I am terribly ashamed, but I’ll admit it anyway–I got picked up for PROSTITUTION. Just call me “Vivian,” only it didn’t quite work out like “Pretty Woman” . . . more like “Drunk Girl.”

Anyway, this is my last email, and they told me to make it quick, so I’d better go. You should see the shit they gave me to wear–it just does not flatter. Especially with my boots. Well, I’ll see you guys when I dig myself out.

Postscript: So what would YOU think if you received a similar one from one of your own? At first I was very alarmed. I just couldn’t believe either of my really intelligent daughters–the babies that I had raised to be such ladies much like myself–could have gotten herself into such a mess. Then I read and re-read the subject line (last night) and date (April 1) trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong. Too slowly it finally dawned on me what it meant.

APRIL FOOL’S DAY !!!!  I’d been had–big time! I don’t know when I ever felt soooooooooooo relieved. And proud of the sense of humor obviously passed on. (Btw, you probably already know what “osteichthes” means but I had to look it up. It’s a bony fish.)

poems should not be mysteries

It’s always been a goal of mine to write a real, bonafide poem that would say in so few words feelings that run so deep. Something that would awe any who read it, would touch some spot deep inside them, perhaps what we call the soul.  Somehow I’ve never been able to do so.

Every attempt I’ve made that were fortunate enough to be reviewed by real poets resulted in more and more instruction and frustration.  Some were very helpful. Be more visual so the reader will see it as they read it. Some would muse aloud that while writers could be taught to write, poets were born. I remember some advising me to use more metaphors. While I was always grateful for their advice, something inside me rebelled and yelled back to ears that would never hear why must my words be shrouded in mystery? Why can’t I just say whatever it is I want to say?

I thought if I could just get the right advice and not give up, sometime–somewhere–I’d hit on the magic formula. In the meantime I continued to produce bad poetry that mostly never saw the light of day. Finally I gave up and turned to producing questionable short stories, non-fiction, that eventually won a very small degree of acknowledgment, mostly through writing conference awards and writing contests.

In the meantime I kept reading books of and on writing poetry. The simplest usually appealed to me most, those I didn’t have to ponder and wonder what the heck the poet was trying to say. I mean, what part of if I can help one fainting robin unto his nest again is the mystery? Sure the robin might be Dickinson‘s metaphor for people, but then again why couldn’t it be simply the fallen robin she had encountered walking one day. Nothing wrong with that.

I’ve always suspected that writers, like painters painting the scene they see either in the landscape or inside their heads, simply write what they feel like saying at that precise moment in time. Nothing more. No mystery.  It’s us, the scholars and academics among us, who insist on dissecting it and trying to find a deeper meaning. I do wonder sometimes if the writers, the painters, the poets behind all the words that make it into literature were amused at what their works became after all the analysis.

I was very gratified, therefore, as I recently refreshed my memory with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, to re-read her take on poetry specifically, but one that can extend to any kind of art. She writes “Poems are taught as though the poet has put a secret key in his words and it is the reader’s job to find it. Poems are not mystery novels.” She refutes the method of reading a poem and then stepping away from it to talk about it as we are generally taught in public schools. As an example, she points out a poem by 20th century poet William Carlos Williams.

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

She sums it up thusly:

  • “What did the poet mean by the ‘red wheelbarrow’? Did he mean a sunset? A chariot? And why was it ‘glazed with rain’? So many questions. He meant nothing so much as a wheelbarrow, and it was red because it was red and it had just rained. So much depends on it because poems are small moments of enlightenment–at that moment the wheelbarrow just as it was woke Williams up and was everything.”

Writing Down the Bones was first published in the mid-1980s. It’s just as appealing and appropriate as it was when it was first written. Thanks Ms. Goldberg. Maybe I don’t really have to be a wizard of mystery. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Ellisville

This Sunday Snapshot memory takes up a previous post from around April 2007 that was marked “to be continued”. It was the beginning of what was perhaps to become a book about growing up in the country after the great depression. I don’t know where it will go from here, indeed it may never be finished, but I decided to revive it and continue it until it’s finished or dies a natural death–whichever happens first.

* * * * * *

One very small (1 pump) gas station, where you could also purchase a few staple grocery items, was the heart of Ellisville in the late 1940s when we moved there around 1947. The nearest town in either direction was Lake City to the north, and High Springs, to the south. Turn east on the hardtop road by Mrs. Leola Witt’s house, just a good hop and skip southward on U.S. 41, and you’ll find yourself in Providence after a few miles through rolling farmland. It was called Branch’s General Store because that was the name of the man who owned it. He’d come from somewhere northward and set up housekeeping in the side of the store with his wife.

The store became a daily gathering place. Men like my father would leave their farm chores whenever they could find good reason–maybe to “fetch a part” or gas for the tractor. You could also get nails and hardware displayed in barrel kegs, and while you were there it didn’t hurt to buy a nickel Coca Cola from the ice-cooled case (I remember it was a faded red color and you had to open and close it real fast to keep the cold in) and sit around a spell swapping yarns, discussing the price of hogs and cattle and such. Mrs. Branch had the first Chia statue I ever saw, a head that grew green hair after she faithfully watered it for a couple of weeks. Fascinating stuff for a 5-year-old like me.

Since I was too young to really know this, I fathom that Margie Bailey was driving north of U.S. 41, fresh out of Bible School in Lakeland, when she noticed that there weren’t many churches located on that long stretch after leaving High Springs. Almost 26 miles with only a church or two scattered in between, and not one holy roller among them!

So one fine day when Daddy decided to go fetchin’ in the middle of the day, he saw a huge tent set up in the yard north of Branch’s store. Signs advertised a Revival Night, a date, and an invitation to come and join the fellowship. So one night long after, the family dresses up in Sunday best and goes off to the tent revial to see the woman preacher.

There was a guest preacher that night, a boy really, that absolutely charmed everybody, including the five-year-old that was me. Not only could that kid preach with the cadence and rhythm and the best of the best holy roller, he could sing and play the guitar too. I could not have imagined a child with that much influence on grownups. Children in my world were seen and not heard and the parents would be proud to tell you that. And I’d never heard real live entertainment much up to that point in my life.

Here we were treated to the best singing and guitar and piano playing one could imagine, some of it fast “boogie” foot stomping style. Sister Margie had a booming voice for such a small woman. When she sang “Mansion Over The Hilltop” and “Something Got A Hold of Me, her voice seemed separate from her diminutive size. Before long, every man, woman and child in Ellisville was in love with her–just as audiences would fall in love with Elmer Gantry nearly 20 years later in the 1960 movie based on a 1926 novel by Sinclair Lewis. Soon she had enough money to refurbish the mechanic’s shed on the south end of the store property, turning it into a tin-roofed church.

That tin church was such a hit, and after another revival and a year or two later, after the congregation outgrew it, she built a modern, concrete structure of 5000 or so square feet on a donated 5-acre-tract about a quarter-mile north up the road. It was set back a ways on a dirt road, but still within eyesight of the highway. The church grew and grew. There seemed to be no stopping it.

And then one day, a young guest evangelist came to visit. And not long after that Sister Margie Bailey became Sister Margie Patterson. Her new husband looked, to me, like a 5’5″ Roy Rogers in a cream colored suit.

They moved into the newly constructed parsonage adjacent to the church and for the next few years would form a gospel singing quartet that included my big brother who sang bass. They sang all around Florida at revivals and guest performances. They were famous–at least locally–through their 15-minute radio program from a local station in Lake City early on Sunday mornings.

What I remember best about the church is how terrified I was at the thought of having to “testify” in front the parishioners–which was a very popular thing to do–and how much I looked forward to going  into the prayer room in the back every Sunday at the invitational after the service, especially if I saw Edna go back first. You could count on somebody being overtaken by the holy ghost. It was especially satisfying watching Edna writhing on the floor in lowly-lit room because she was so young (probably 18 at the time) and so pretty, and really filled her clothes out in all the right places. Sister Margie would stand prayer over each person kneeling by the prayer benches, one at a time.

Sometimes my friend Helen went with me and it was she who taught me what to say when it was my turn with Sister Margie. Usually by the time I’d said three “yes jesuses she would have moved on to the next person and I could open my eyes and watch. Someone in the family I shared my observations with pointed out to me that if I didn’t watch out, one of those Sunday nights the holy ghost was going to get a hold of me and I would be the one writhing around and talking in tongues for the entertainment of the others in the room.

Though hidden away in the woods off an obscure country tarmac road, there WAS another church less than 3-miles away to the southeast. Phillipi Baptist. In fact, it was the church my father had more or less abandoned for Sister Margie. She came along during the time he had estranged himself from the Baptist church over a practical joke one of his brothers had pulled on the minister, and the minister had given him the blame.

Several years later, Branch’s tiny little general store would succumb to the larger, more modern general store that moved in down the road about 500 feet away, with 4 gas pumps out front to catch the tourist trade down State Highway 441. My uncles store would eventually cause Mr. Branch to close up shop, pack up the missus–no hard feelings–and move away. It was the end or the beginning of an era, depending on how you chose to look at it.

to be continued

Ellisville #2 – Bloomer