Aside 19 Jun

I spent the past week traveling to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, wherethe Southeastern Writer’s Association had invitedme toattend as an instructor their annual writer’ conference held at Epworth by the Sea.

     The facilities, the grounds, the scenery all were inspiring. The staff at Epworth prepared some wonderful meals with a bountiful spread of selections that seemed to offer something for everyone to love.

     The conference is organized by a board of directors. The board replaced three members as partof a reguar routine of sifting the direction of the leadership, adding one young lady in her 20’s! This act impressed me, as usually organizations like this get caught up in a battle of control that stifles any chance for growth. That will not happen here. I left the conference with a satisfied and assured sense that this organization will continue to grow and prosper. and provide a valuable service to its members and fellow authors.

     But what impressed me most were the skills of the individual writers in attendance.–many with books already published. They seemed like dry sponges, soaking up every offered drop of wisdom offered by the instructors as they searched for the tip or writing practice that might mke a difference in their craft.

     It is this quality, I am sure, that accounts for so many books published within this talented group of writers.  

     The meals were served buffet style, Attendees sat with instructors and presenters sharing tales of family and ex-wives  and writing and hunts and trials and challenges–such as cancer or the loss of a loved one–that they all faced and conquered.

     On Monday night an open mic reading was held where everyone was given a four minute time slot to read from the best f their work. As I listened I was struck by the talent of the prose and the presentations of the authors. I was impressed with the voice of the readers and the yearnings expressed so clearly within those snippets.

     For thousands of dollars one can attend Breadloaf or Sewanee. but I fail o see how anyone could not benfit just as much, for a percentage of the cost,  by attending this conference.
 
     I encourage anyone who seeks to improve as a writer to join and support tis well-managed and run organization and make plans to attend their conference next year. You will love the majesty of the moss-draped live oaks, the quality of the food, the all-inclusive family atmosphere of the people who refuse to allow a first-time attendee to remain a stranger, and ore than anything, your writing skills will evolve and develop in a loving atmosphere of writers who simply want to become better writers.

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Aside 14 Oct

The Story Behind the Story: Job’s Comforter

This story was one I first wrote for the graduate creative writing workshop in Lake Charles, LA., at McNeese State University. The incredible Antonya Nelson was making an appearance and I was fortunate enough to have a manuscript conference with her about this story.

I learned more from that conference than I could ever reveal in a short blog entry.

Ms. Nelson asked me to tell her in one sentence what the story was about. I sat silent. She said that she had the same problem, that she didn’t know what the story was about. I knew I had a story I wanted to tell—in fact several stories with this series of events—but I had not really thought about what the heart of the piece would be.

I tried to listen carefully to her other comments, but I must admit my mind was racing ahead to that moment when I got home and could start revising. The greatest compliment I can pay to writers/teachers like Antonya Nelson, John Dufresne, Robert Olen butler, Michael Martone, Michael Knight, Neil Connelly, Cary Holladay and others is that ability to inspire you to want to get to that chair and start writing before you even leave their presence.

As a brother to a sister who eventually died of complications from acute paranoid schizophrenia, and the son of parents who constantly bore the brunt of the consequences of my sister’s illness, as a prosecuting and defense attorney who tackled the problems of mental illness from both sides of the legal equation, I had a ton of things I wanted to say, but I had forgotten to discern the true story that needed told.But I also remembered some advice from Neil Connelly who once told me I tried to do far too much with my short stories.

I sat down and began a series of revisions. I cut ruthlessly parts that I nearly cried over I wanted to leave them in so badly. But I had an idea of the story I wanted to tell, and I had to convince myself that I would someday have a broader platform that would allow me to do more on behalf of the mentally ill.

So I ruthlessly cut the parts that did not fit the story, and began to submit the story to literary journals.

Titles usually give lots of problems, but I knew from the beginning I wanted to call this “Job’s Comforter.” I returned to the Bible and reread the story of Job a dozen times or more. Each time I was amazed at the tribulations Job endured. He had no one to comfort him. In the story, I wanted to show the never ending love of a parent—love that could be tested and bent but never broken. That was where the heart of my story would rest. The story was about a parent’s love for their sick child.

As a writer, discovering THE story you want to tell opens other doors along the revision process. The writer can then decide whose eyes are best suited to tell the story. Although I wanted to show the horrors endured by a schizophrenic mind, I had to accept that for this story, I was telling of the trials endured by a parent. “Clovis Clementine,” a story I wrote just last year and years after I finished “Job’s Comforter,” gave me the chance to write from the point of view of a schizophrenic. All the other loose ends can be edited to fit into the story or eliminated if they refuse to blend in.

I use the submission process as part of the revision process. How do you know when a story is finished? It seems to me a story is never finished, even after it is published. I always find myself editing my stories. I believe this is good, as it shows an ever evolving sense of craft. I believe my greatest weakness as a writer is in word choice and sentence structures. These are areas every writer can always improve upon, and I am no exception. If I submit a story to a dozen journals and get back twelve blank rejections, I need a major revision. But if I get a hand-written note from the Georgia Review, or the Missouri Review, that praises the story, then I have new faith in the piece.

This story is not an easy story to read. It was not an easy story to write. I received several near misses and encouraging comments on rejection notes until the story was accepted by The Julie Mango International Online Journal of Creative Expression. I had never heard of them before, and I found their call for papers online.

This story was selected to be a part of God’s Naked Will due to the religious themes throughout. In his blurb of the book, John Dufresne states: “…the harrowing story ‘Job’s Comforter,’ alone is worth the price of the book.”

The ending proved to be a problem. How can you end a story like this? I knew I needed to end on an action or image that somehow summed up the story. I realized I had a gift from earlier in the story in the picture. To her mother, Sally would always be the beautiful, little girl with the long, blonde tresses in that picture. I also like the image of the Crockpot. As anyone who cooks with a Crockpot knows, even a slow-cooker can boil over if filled too full. I thought both were strong images to end the story.

Mental illness continues to be misunderstood. The disease carries a stigma much like AIDS did many years ago. Every time we have a mass shooting we learn the shooters almost invariably are connected to mental illness and were lost in a system not designed to care for their needs. Every time something like that happens, I pray a recognition of the need for better mental health care will be recognized, but our do-nothing congress-men want to pass some kind of law banning a thirty-shot clip or adding an extra day to the waiting period before one can buy a gun, and then they crow as if they have solved the problem But as I have studied and learned more about the illness, I have learned to thank God every day for my sanity and my health.

My sister was the bravest person I will ever know. She lived her life every day in a nightmare from which she never awoke. Even to her last day, she was selfless. I no longer pity her, and I think I understand now. While we all felt sorry for her, and many still do, I believe she is in Heaven, feeling sorry for us because we still have to face life as it goes on. To me she will always embody that picture on the refrigerator door of the little girl with the blonde tresses—my first best friend, my first sibling.

As long as I have a voice, I will speak on behalf of the mentally ill, and any others who lack a chance in a country of plenty that seems devoted to giving billions of dollars away to those who hate us while we neglect those with greater needs right here at home.

Aside

The Stories Behind the Stories: Clovis Clementine

26 Aug

The Stories Behind the Stories: “Clovis Clementine”

Jennifer Moore's conception of Clovis Clementine

Jennifer Moore’s conception of Clovis Clementine

Helllo all:

Writers are always asked “Where do you find material for your stories?” and “What ever inspired you to write this piece?” With the wild topics in “God’s Naked Will,” I have already received several such questions. I thought I would go through the table of contents and give the history of the inspiration for each story and how those stories came about. John Dufresne used to post on his blog “Today’s Short Story Waiting to be Written.” I guess I would call this “The Inspiration for Yesterday’s Drivel.”

These will appear as weekly entries on my blog going through the table of contents of God’s Naked Will in chronological order.

So that brings us to the first chapter of God’s Naked Will, the story  “Clovis Clementine,” and one of the wildest stories I have ever written.

The original inspiration for this story came from a newspaper article in the Atlanta Constitution that ran sometime after September and before December, 1997.  The article told of an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court of a denial of workmen’s compensation benefits. The claimant had been a groundskeeper of a cemetery near New Brunswick. The cemetery had been flooded by a hurricane–I can’t find the name of the hurricane, but it must have been sometime in 1995 or 1996 for this case to have worked its way to and through the GA appellate courts.

The hurricane had flooded the cemetery, saturating the grounds and causing the coffins to pop up and float off with the rising waters. The claimant had, as part of his job, been required to stuff the dead bodies back into the coffins and retrieve all of the lost bodies he could find for reburial. As a result of this traumatic experience, he became neurotic, having dreams and nightmares of bodies floating around him and rising from his floors, and even woke himself once as he shot holes in his chest of drawers trying to kill one of these zombies.

He had applied for workmen’s compensation benefits when he could no longer do his job, and of course, had been denied. The Ga Supreme Court also denied his claim, stating that the GA legislature had not provided for benefits to be paid for mental incapacity and urging the legislature to take immediate action if that was their intent.

Well, I had found me a story!

Along about that time I read a book that also provided a profound influence on the evolution of this story. The book was by Tom Wolf—The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. You gotta read the book. But Wolf created some fantastic images, and I became fascinated by the psychedelic world of LSD.

So I created a main character who was an acid-head and a Vietnam vet—yes, even I knew at the time it was clichéd but I used it to get started. I set him up working at the cemetery and dropping acid and having flashbacks. Then one night he walks outside after the hurricane and falls into an open grave and believes the rapture has happened. That was when the bodies all jumped up and started talking to him.

While I was living at Russellville Ar., from 1998 till 1999, I hired an MA student studying creative writing at AR.Tech to critique my stories. Although at the time I was far too narcissistic about my writing to realize it, he was an excellent coach, and I wish I could remember his name so I could thank him. He suggested the story was clichéd, and that I should “Drop the acid” (he laughed at his own joke) and concentrate on the real problems of mental illness.

I fired him shortly thereafter for being such a lousy judge of creative talent. My bad. This was 1998.

The story sat neglected in my archives until I started the MFA program at McNeese in 2002. I pulled it out, polished it up, and submitted it to workshop, once again to have my hopes dashed by the Portland Mutual Admiration Society (The PMAD”S, students all from Portland who believed they owned all of the creative talent in the classroom and everyone else sucked) and the Dead Poet’s Society (poets in the program who believed rhythm was all that was necessary—who needs story in the face of iambic pentameter) who believed the story a complete failure.

The story was once again set aside indefinitely.

I completed my MFA program, graduating in 2006 from the University of Memphis. Shortly thereafter, my younger sister died from complications created by her battle with schizophrenia. I also watched “A Beautiful Mind” with Russell Crowe and an episode of “Criminal Minds” where a schizophrenic criminal took hostages on a bus and the director included scenes that revealed the hostage-taker’s visions of the voices and people talking to him, telling him what to do. Of course, these people could not be seen by the hostages.

This got me thinking more about that old story I had titled “Acid Images.” I loved that story, but I had learned that the ones we love are usually the one’s we need to let die.

I had learned much about acute paranoid schizophrenia by then—dealing extensively with the illness as a result of the affliction of my sister, my duties as a prosecuting attorney responsible for civil commitments of the mentally ill in Arkansas, and a defense attorney with clients stricken with the illness. I had learned immediately there is no help, and little if any resources, available to the mentally ill and the families struggling to deal with mental illness. I had also learned that many of the Bible-thumpers in the Bible-Belt South attributed mental illness to demon possession.

Here I must acknowledge the influence of being raised in a Pentecostal church that firmly believed in demon possession. They taught and talked about demon possession incessantly—almost as much as they preached about the rapture—and they believed that you could be possessed by simply watching “The Exorcist” or attending a Kiss concert. To me, slasher movies are not scary, because I nothing that walks on two or four legs will ever frighten me. But The Exorcist was the scariest movie I had ever seen because I was taught all of my life that demon possession was real, and I would be possessed if I ever watched this movie.

I still have family members who claim watching that movie is what is wrong with me today.

I remembered the earlier critique where I was encouraged to “drop the acid” angle of the story. I started thinking I could revise the story and keep basically the same plot, only use mental illness instead of LSD. I could also drop the PTSD-Vietnam-Vet cliché. Few if any of our vets returned from Vietnam to turn into John Rambo. Although PTSD is a severe problem, after the death of my sister, my passion now was for those suffering from mental illness. The character was a flawed cliché that had to be dropped from the story. I just wasn’t sure how to replace him. I now had a potential revision.

Then within a week’s time, my mother and my younger brother both asked me about that old story of the cemetery caretaker. This was now 2011. They remembered that story after all of those years and wanted to know what I had done with it.

So someone else had been as smitten with the story as I was. Every once in a while you have those moments as a writer where you think, that just maybe, someone gets it.

A short time later I came across a call for submissions from Flying House. Flying House selected six writers and six artists and paired them together to create a new story and new artistic creation for the Flying House Anthology. At the time, this had nothing to do with the story, but eventually wound up completely changing the story.

I applied, as I apply for everything, thinking I had no chance of being selected, and was fortunate enough to be one of six writers chosen for the project. More importantly, I was matched with the brilliant Chicago photographer Jennifer Moore. Before I even talked with Jennifer, I went to her website and viewed her work. I was awe-struck. She had exhibits touring Europe and all across the United States. I was worried she would object to even being matched with me.

We finally caught up on a phone call and got to talking about our creative interests. Jennifer seemed to have a morbid, spiritual fascination with the macabre and grotesque, and I knew we would be like peas and carrots. We both agreed her pictures should reflect her own visions and interpretations of the themes of the story and not just illustrate the story.

While chatting with Jennifer, I thought of the old “Acid Images” story. I told her of the story and how I had considered completely revising the plot and approaching the issue from the point of view of an acute paranoid schizophrenic. I hoped to some day use the story to call attention to the plight of the mentally ill and to show just how much courage it took for them to live each day of their lives.

I have always believed my sister, Sheila, was one of the most courageous people I ever met.

Jennifer was fascinated with the idea and wanted to work on it, so our collaboration began.  I shifted the focus of the story to schizophrenia. I was also working on new stories for my collection and thought I might be able to use some religious themes within this.

This story could never have taken the shape it achieved without the incredible input from Jennifer Moore. She tirelessly read revision after revision, offering invaluable insight and advice that resulted in major revisions and minor tweaking and even individual word choices.

As the story took shape, I knew it needed a new title. I assigned a working title, “The Cloven Hoof,” but I wasn’t happy with that. I gave my character the name of “Clovis.” But I couldn’t decide on a last name. So I went on Facebook and asked for suggestions. A dear friend from high school, Jenifer Dodd Vanaman, suggested “Clementine.”

I had the name for my character, and the title of my story—“Clovis Clementine.”

I finished revisions of the story, and Jennifer Moore finished her photos for the story, and we all met at the Maes Art Gallery in Chicago, Illinois, in late August of 2012 for what proved to be one of the most exciting professional events of my life. My oldest son, Clinton Mitchell, attended the event with me. Having him as a part of such a fantastic professional event was priceless. My children have been made aware of my many failures-certain people in their lives have made sure to point these out—and I have made their task easy over the years. But for once, one of my children saw a side of their father no one else in my family had ever experienced.

Maes Art gallery, Chicago, 2012

Maes Art gallery, Chicago, 2012

When we write a story, we know our own vision and understanding of the story. When I finally observed the photographic essay Jennifer Moore had created for my story, I was speechless. My favorite was the one of the flies stuck to the paper, which s perfectly depicted the hysteria that is acute paranoid schizophrenia.  Her vision and interpretation of “Clovis Clementine” was simply amazing. Her photos for this story can be seen on her website by clicking here:

http://jmooreart.com/section/324722_Clovis_Flying_House_2012.html

When selecting and arranging the stories for the book “God’s Naked Will” I knew I needed a story at the beginning of the collection with a ‘WOW!” factor that would stir my readers to want to read more.

I knew there was only one choice for that position! “Clovis Clementine.”

Ms. Moore and I have continued to collaborate on other projects. We have a new manuscript titled “Original Sin” of stories and photos we are marketing in Europe. Jennifer continues to experience tremendous, well-deserved success for her visionary photographic work that now lines my living room wall.

And now you have the rest of the story, of an idea that evolved over fifteen years, from 1997 to 2012, of a story that became a collaboration and a testament—I hope—to the plight of the mentally ill