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Clio's Temple


Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

Posted on September 20, 2018 at 10:36 AM Comments comments ()
The title of this post comes, as many of you will recognize, from "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. I think it encapsulates something unsettling about the world I inhabit as a creative writer wannabe. I've previously posted about where I get my ideas from. What I've lately started thinking about is the dreamscapes that play a major role in my writing.

I will be 69 next week. As is the case with many others of the Baby Boom generation, many of our early perceptions were formed by television and movies. There have been cases in which these memories are so deeply embedded in my subconscious that they give birth to strange, sometimes discordant imagery which some have labeled "dreamscapes." Dreams and dreamscapes play a major role in my forthcoming novel Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis. The two protagonists (man, woman) both find themselves impelled by these visions to do things that wouldn't otherwise occur to them. These actions, in turn, drive the plot forward.

A dreamscape doesn't have to be so all-powerful. I sometimes think about writing about my early life. I grew up in a small town in the Deep South and there are things embedded in my mind that sometimes emerge in strange ways. Case in point: my maternal grandfather was a key figure in my early years. Some of the happiest memories I have are of sitting with him in his den watching television. He loved major league baseball and it was in front of the TV that I first pledged allegiance to the New York Yankees of the 1950s. He also loved "Gunsmoke," watching it faithfully in the fifteen years between its premiere and his death in 1970.

These memories re-emerged a few years ago one night. As my wife and I tossed and turned on our bed, sleeping the uneasy sleep of middle-aged couples, I suddenly found myself in the house where my family lived from 1955 to 1961. My wife (whom I didn't meet until 1978) and I were watching television when a knock came at the screen door on our front porch. I said, "Come in," and Granddaddy walked into the living room. "Granddaddy, this is my wife Ruth. Do you want to watch Gunsmoke with us?" The memory gets blurry after that, but I recall that he sat down and we watched the show together. Then he got up and walked back to his house (three doors down from us).

I keep hoping that someday, I'll get a creative idea that will enable me to turn this memory into an actual story. Do you have your own stories that combine reality and fantasy?

A Disordered Imagination, Part Two

Posted on May 12, 2017 at 6:36 AM Comments comments ()
When my aunt read Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, she asked me, "Where do you get the names of all these people?" In contrast to my story ideas, that answer is easy: Over a forty-year professional career, I met thousands of people, many from other countries. When I need to name a character, I can dip into my basket of memories and scramble the names to create new personas. If you make the proper disclaimers, you can get away with a lot in these arena. Read any of Pat Conroy's novels and you'll see the names of his friends show up (coincidentally) in the names of his characters.

This brings me to the topic of connections. After all, as writers, our craft includes forging connections that may exist only in our minds. Still, there are times when the circumstances of real life suggest connections that can be adapted for purposes of my writing.
My father flew a B-17 in World War II. Very late in his life, I drove him to a reunion of his wartime unit in the Washington area. En route, he told me tales about his comrades-in-arms, stories that lay unsuspected until advanced age loosened his memory. There were people I'd met many years earlier, but who, in his recollections, took on a very different shape from what I'd previously learned about them. I have a novel on the writing schedule, working title Wings of the Storm, based on Dad's experiences. When we cleaned out the files in my parents' house, I inherited boxes of material, some of which he'd kept since the 1940s. I'm positive there are connections in those boxes that will emerge when I start working my way through them.

Still, the recollections of the elderly need to be handled with caution. My uncle ran a contract mail delivery business for thirty years. One of his colleagues got so accustomed to hearing his stories of his early life that he asked my uncle for permission to put these into a book. The book that resulted, From Marianna to Moosburg: One B-17 Crewman's Story of War, Redemption, and Family Reunion contains some fascinating tidbits. This is particularly the case for information about my paternal grandfather, who died years before I was born. But there are a couple of factual errors, pretty inconsequential, but still bothersome, that restrain me from using the book as a source without some cross-checking. It's probably unfair to present the memories of the very old as an unvarnished source of truth. The possibility of inadvertently doing an injustice to real people demands caution in mining these memories.

How many connections are available for our use? We've all heard of "six degrees of separation," i.e., that moving through six levels of connections puts us in touch with a large portion of the human race. I used to tell my students, "If your family has been in this country for a hundred years, you're probably related to someone famous. If your family has been in this country for two hundred years, it's a lead pipe cinch." I gave one class an assignment to locate someone famous among their ancestors and the results were gratifying; two of my students could trace a clear path back to those who arrived aboard the Mayflower. Consider yourself. Think of five people you know, or knew, and for whom you have some knowledge of their lives. When you work outward from those five people, you will find that you have something like 5 connections, or between fifteen and sixteen thousand individuals. Obviously, you can't locate any information about all of them, or even a small fraction of them. But there are still plenty of starting points.

Just one example: the head usher (now deceased) at a church I attended was a midshipman about the U.S.S. Augusta in 1941. He was an aide to Admiral King, then commander of the Atlantic Fleet, later Chief of Naval Operations. In this role, he accompanied King to the Argentia Conference, where FDR and Churchill framed the Atlantic Charter. He personally met all the American Chiefs of Staff, as well as several members of the British high command. From just the contacts on this one occasion, he was connected to movers and shakers whose influence on the world stretches back many generations into the past. Had he lived to be 200, I could never have exhausted the flow of stories that ran through his connections.

Where do your connections lead you?

Presidential pivot

Posted on June 10, 2013 at 2:49 PM Comments comments ()
John F. Kennedy's Presidential reputation has ridden a roller-coaster in the half-century since his assassination. However, it seems there is always a patina of romance about the Camelot years that refuses to fade, no matter how many revelations about the backstory of JFK's administration come into the open.

As a scholar of American history, my personal take is that JFK was much more sizzle than steak for most of the brief years he was our leader. However, this month commemorates a pivot that, had gunshots in Dallas not interrupted it, might have done much to secure his reputation. Fifty years ago today, he signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The purpose of this law was to eliminate gender-based wage differentials. Of course, it's fallen far short of that goal. What is important is that, prior to that moment, there was no national goal about gender equity in pay scales. Recognizing that such a goal was needed is an accomplishment, albeit one of "let us begin" rather than "let us finish this job."

We can legitimately say that JFK's forty-eight hours on June 10 and 11, 1963 were among the most important in terms of Presidential boldness of the twentieth century. Also on this day fifty years ago, he made a commencement address at American University at which he declared to Premier Krushchev that the U.S. was ready to begin systematic negotiations toward corralling the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. This address led to negotiations which, two months later, culminated in the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, ratified shortly before his death. The Cuban Missile Crisis had scared both sides enough to induce them to step back from the nuclear brink.

The following day was the celebrated confrontation-that-wasn't at the "schoolhouse door" in Tuscaloosa. Governor Wallace, after fulfilling his vow to block integration of the University of Alabama, likewise stepped back from the brink. The Kennedy Administration had prepared for an Ole Miss-style face-off. When it proved not to be necessary, JFK had Theodore Sorensen and his speechwriting staff change a scheduled Presidential address. On the evening of June 11, he announced that he was sending up to Congress what would, a year later, emerge as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Justice demands that we remember that progress didn't come easily in those days. Only a few hours after JFK's civil rights address, Medgar Evers was shot from ambush in Jackson. Eventually - too many years later - his killer was brought to justice and sent to prison for the rest of his days. The cycle of political violence that numbered Jackson, Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Laurel, MD among its notable locales was to shake our country in a way that few comparable stretches of years have done. At times of great political strife (as we are now enjoying), it's worth remembering that there have been worse times in our lives.