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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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memory

So, another favorite high school memory would be 3rd period art class…..

…..and it’s not just because I got to draw or paint for forty minutes, three days a week and for almost two hours one day a week.  [1]  And while I could just expound on that fact alone, there were far too many moments of sheer and utter delight that occurred in that class for me to consciously limit myself to just one.

There’s a reason for that.

It’s because I got to spend that time with three of the best friends a person could ask for.

We laughed and cracked jokes while we painted.  It was in this third period art class that I began writing a short story about a true life adventure, that really, actually, never happened (but should have).  That short story led to more wacky adventures and even a theme song (The Lion Sleeps Tonight), and with lyrics that were specific to us.  [2]   And during this class, there was an incident involving an oil painting left to dry that wound its way into one of those stories. [3]

Before I had even graduated high school, I had a general outline of what happened and how and who the supporting players were (because obviously, my friends and I were the leads).  Music from the Fifties played a huge part in determining mood and there was a sense of hilarity and whimsy throughout.  The stories covered our years from the seventh grade until senior year in high school, with side trips into summer school.

And that’s pretty much where I thought those stories ended.

So imagine my surprise when, fifteen years after graduation, I went through those stories and realized that they had more to tell as grown ups.  Having two different series involving the same characters at different points in their lives is an interesting experience.  Especially since I had laid the groundwork without realizing it in the earlier stories.  [4]

As I write this post, my thoughts are turning to those stories.  I wrote them because we had so much fun coming up with things to do that we never actually did (like stealing a mannequin from the local department store and chasing it all over town because we had put roller skates on it).  I continued writing them and working out the timelines, characters and incidents for the better part of my life, more so than any other writing project.

These stories are important to me in a way that my Novel Now Finished and my Ancient Greek Comedy are not.

When I write these stories, things have a strange way of coming true, if not in the actual how, then in the actual what.  On more than one occasion, I noticed that many similarities happened in the lives of the fictional us and the real us as we grew up.  An example would be that, five or six years after graduation, one of us ended up working in that very department store we’d plotted to steal the mannequin from.

Part of her job description?  Carry a mannequin from one store to the other for display purposes. [5]

These stories carry a certain weight and responsibility for me and they need to be written just right.  They were a gift from my friends and I want to do right by them – both the stories and my friends.  Thus was born The Hey! No Problem! Gang.

And it all happened in third period art class.

 

[1] Well, okay, that was pretty much in the top five of excellent reasons.

[2] With much apologies to the Tokens.

[3] It’s easier to tell in person, complete with re-enactments and dramatic music.

[4] I’m still trying to shape into a cohesive narrative.

[5] True story.

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So, one of my favorite high school memories……

……occurred during lunch, while I was waiting for my fifth period class to start.

The class was Spanish I and, if I recall correctly, I was either reviewing or finishing up some homework that was due that day.  Most likely the latter – I wasn’t exactly the most-on-top-of-it student.  I was a junior and more interested in writing my stories or doodling horses in the margins of my notebook than anything else.  [1]

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed my Spanish class and would write quotes of the day on the chalk board – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes not – with proper attribution.  I just…..wasn’t that much of a dedicated student.

Maybe ten minutes before the bell rang to end the lunch hour, a girl walked up to me.  I don’t remember her name, only that she was blonde, wore a long, black dress, that she was probably a sophomore and that we shared the same Spanish class.  What was I wearing?  Jeans, a T-shirt, sweater and sneakers.  [2]

It was with some curiosity that I watched the Girl in the Black Dress approach.  We weren’t friends, barely even friendly acquaintances, so I wondered what she wanted.

It didn’t take long for me to find out.

Suffice to say, I was subjected to a list of things that made me (in her eyes) undesirable – I was boring, no one liked me, I was ugly and on and on.  You know – the usual sort of thing one does to establish dominance in the pecking order of high school society.

I didn’t know exactly what to do, other than listen – it was kind of a shock to be disrupted from my classwork and be subjected to that.  Her parting shot was cruel, more than what she’d actually said up to that point.  I’m not going to write what it was, because that’s not really the point of this story.

After she’d left, I turned my notebook to clean page and began to list all the things that I was interested in.  I filled two pages and was still coming up with things.  I looked at those pages and thought, ‘If I’m interested in that many topics, then I’m interesting.’

Something to that effect, anyway.

I don’t remember if I cried.  I do remember being upset and discombobulated.  Writing that list helped to center and ground me.  When my teacher arrived to open up the classroom, I was fine.  I had already chosen a quote for the day, but due to that encounter, I decided to change it to a quote from Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). [3]

Sidebar – In that film, Young Sherlock is challenged by a classmate (Dudley) to find a missing trophy using his wits and deductive reasoning. As the bell chimes out the last few seconds of the deadline, Dudley makes an assumption that Young Sherlock ought to give up, since he had not found the trophy.

To which Young Sherlock replied, “Never assume anything”, marched over to a shelf, picked up a vase and, with the final chime ringing, drops it to the floor. The vase shatters and the missing trophy is revealed.

“Never assume anything” became that day’s quote for Spanish I.

Class had been going on for about twenty minutes – the teacher was lecturing in Spanish, some of my classmates were either responding to the teacher’s questions in Spanish, passing notes or dozing – when a voice loudly declared,

“Oh. My. God.”

The teacher stopped, bewildered.  The dozing classmates stirred.

The Girl in the Black Dress pointed at the blackboard and asked, “Can I erase that?”

Not quite sure of what was going on and only interested in continuing the lesson, the teacher just nodded.

The Girl in the Black Dress got up, erased the board and on the way back to her desk, shot me the dirtiest look that, to this day, has yet to be matched. [4]

I only smiled.

Message received.

So, why is this one of my favorite memories?  Because I handled a situation in my own way, that kept it between us and did not diminish either one of us.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty cool, no matter what age group.

 

[1] I scraped by enough to graduate.

[2] I hid a lot behind sweaters, T-shirts and jeans back then.

[3] Of course, it would be Sherlock.

[4] She didn’t approach me again.

Note – I don’t know what happened to her after high school.  But I hope that she did well for herself and that, whatever triggered her insecurities that led her to approach me that day, she was able to overcome them.

Evening Thoughts (3)

1. In the last couple of years, I’ve encountered three types of bullies. They all did the same thing – attacked certain aspects of my person that threatened their ideas about who they were and their place in the world. Needless to say, none of these people are in my life.

2. My physical reaction to being bullied, regardless of the kind of bullying, is the same – shortness of breath; panic attacks; weight gain or retention; wearing baggy clothes in order to hide or disappear; severe anxiety; loss of appetite; shrinking into myself; nervy.

3. Given my experience, you will almost never recognize when someone is being bullied. Bullying is not always about broken bones or bruises – a lot of it is gaslighting and manipulation.

4. In the last four months, I’ve lost 20 pounds. My diet did not change; my activity level did not change (walking a mile 3 or 4 times a week; cleaning horse pens). Only one thing changed – I was no longer being bullied and/or harassed.

5. I give far too many chances to too many who don’t deserve a first chance, but once I’m done, you’re out.

6. I am always happy.

7. If I seem anxious or stressed, ask and listen. Really listen, without your ego.

8. Do not fuck with a Pisces. Some fish have razor sharp teeth and they bite hard.

9. My favorite shark is the carcharodon carcharias.

10. My favorite summer movie is JAWS (1975).

11. My most unique skill is remembering conversations verbatim, which is hilarious, because there’s a good portion of my life that I don’t remember.

And now, a word from Henry David Thoreau…..

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”

Henry David Thoreau, author
July 12, 1817-May 6, 1862

So, I’m thinking about pirates…….

…….of the argh! and avast, me mateys! type that roamed the high seas on tall ships. I’m not exactly sure why, because historically speaking, they were not people to trifle with and often left a great swathe of blood behind. Perhaps it’s that sense of adventure that seems to accompany them, the call of the open sea, the wind ruffling through one’s hair as the sun beats down. Human survival against Nature’s unforgiving trials.

Whatever the case, I’m thinking about pirates. Both men and women chose to pursue that life going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Rather than focus on Hollywood’s sensationalized ideal of pirates, I’m thinking of several factors never fully explored. What drove them to piracy, to eschew convention and respectable society to embark on voyages that did not guarantee safety or security?

Whether it was Anne Bonny or Blackbeard or Ching Shih, they were not born pirates. Was it circumstance and personality that led them to their profession? Money, or lack thereof, that tore them away from their families? Was it survival or a choice freely made? Resentment of not being able to find their true calling due to rigid caste and/or societal rules?

I don’t suppose there’s any one solid answer for the pirates of the past, or those of contemporary times. I suspect that it may be a combination of many things that drive them to it.

Still, I’m thinking about pirates, the ones of yore, the type modeled from and idealized by the Hollywood Dream Factory. Their tall ships fascinate me. I wonder what they thought or dreamed about in the quiet moments on the ocean. Whether they had any regrets about or spared not a thought at all for those whose lives they altered forever.

I’m thinking about pirates. I’m thinking about two very different stories that have not seen the light of day in many years. I’m thinking about how pirates are actually incredibly symbolic metaphors for change, natural, man-made and maybe even supernatural.

I’m thinking about pirates.

So, I’m working on a scene……..

……….in one of my Current Works in Progress and I found myself cringing, blushing furiously, and muttering “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I just wrote that” several times under my breath. It was a scene of pure sensation, one that required me to get inside the character’s head, to immerse myself into her experiences. It was difficult, agonizing, frightening and I wanted to bolt, to avoid writing it.

This is not the first time this has happened to me – indeed, this fight-or-flight reaction occurs with almost consistent regularity. This is particularly the case when the scene in question either threatens to touch old wounds or inspire feelings that I’m not in a position to resolve. It’s neither bad nor good – it simply is. It’s my path as a writer.

What allowed me to finally get the scene down, on paper, was to treat it as an intellectual exercise. I had to distance myself from what was occurring with the character, her self-awareness and her own journey of discovery. By using that approach, I was able to get past my reservations (or discomfort, both work and both apply) and get the bare bones written.

When I go back and revise, polish and make this particular story shine with its own merit, I’ll have the framework ready for me to expand upon. I may still have reservations, discomfort and fear, but the fact that I’ve got something to work with will give me the courage to go further, to challenge myself even more and to fully embrace the sensations and feelings this story evokes.

Good stories, regardless of genre, make you feel everything – emotionally, physically, intellectually. To make that happen in your own work, you need to find the little tricks and tools that will facilitate it. There is no right or wrong way, just your way.

Which, of course, goes back to reading and continually pushing oneself to be a better writer, but that’s another blog for another day.

And now a word from Anne Lamott……..

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Anne Lamott
author, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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