May, 2010:

Poetry – Play Me

PLAY ME

Play me like your private instrument,

Finger my frets if I’m a guitar,

Moisten my reed with your tongue,

If I’m your clarinet,

Listen to my notes,

That start low and rise to a crescendo,

Play me, like a cello,

Draw your bow tongue across me,

Play me until the player

And the played are one.

Creating a Memoir

One of my favorite genres in the book world is the Memoir. We all experience the contrasts of heartbreak and joy. I find it comforting to read about someone who’s suffered and managed to rise above it to create a good life for themselves. Memoirs help us feel connected. We can feel hopeful—we aren’t alone in our pain and pain can be overcome.

I’ve had the privilege of editing, rewriting and even co-writing 15 memoirs, at last count. Each one was an emotional, meaningful journey for the author and for me. All the authors were amateurs. All felt they had an important story to tell. “Here I am, World, see how I survived,” they seemed to be saying. I feel my sympathetic/empathetic nature helped me nurture these authors in writing a book they were proud of.

In general, the authors had a general outline of their book in their heads or a rough draft of a book. It took a good partnering relationship with me, their editor, to coax out and create the full story. I felt it was like a cleansing for them.

I believe most of these books are currently available on Amazon. William McCloud recently alerted me that his book, Setbacks Create Comebacks, with a new cover, was for sale on Amazon. As Bill proclaims: “It matters not what happens to you; it only matters how you react to what happens to you.”

Bill’s mother Fannie, who was dark-skinned, gave birth to five children by four different fathers. When Bill was born, she told the nurse he was too white to be her child and to take him back! In a sense he was “taken back” because his tough, no-nonsense grandmother raised him and his other siblings. She could be mean: she believed in whipping, but she made him a proud survivor. Every time life knocked him down, Bill stood up and managed to laugh about his misadventures. Bill tells his story with lots of humor, and I still chuckle about many of the incidents, especially those concerning his inimitable grandmother.  In 1985 Bill won an Emmy for his work as a cameraman on The Benson Show, starring Robert Guillaume. It had been a long journey from a small Ohio town to Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry.

I had a wonderful experience co-writing Wendy Wong’s memoir, When the Phoenix Rises. To help me with the project, she sent me all sorts of photos, newspaper articles and other mementoes from her home in Honolulu. I had a privileged view of her life growing up in poverty in Hong Kong and her struggles to make something of herself. Although her family was a loving one, they didn’t think females really needed much of an education, and when she did get a college degree, they assumed she would teach and then marry. She surprised them all with her skills in the real estate business, a talent nurtured by a very affluent Hawaiian businessman/developer, who had been her lover and known as the Hawaiian Rockefeller. Wealth, success and marriage, however, don’t insure a carefree life. Wendy has weathered various financial depressions in Hong Kong and Hawaii, and she’s endured the heartbreak of a mentally challenged daughter. Her son graduated from Yale and is training to be a doctor.

A Survivor’s Closet by Debra Luptak and Andy Walks With Me by Ralph Heidler and his co-author wife, Twila Lopez, were both horrific memoirs of childhood abuse. It was amazing to me how these individuals survived their physical and emotional torment. Humans manage to live through some incredible challenges. My own heartbreaks seemed so minor in comparison.

Ralph’s father was a psychotic tyrant, who fancied himself a preacher when he was truly an avenging devil. During the frequent beatings he suffered from his father, Ralph would have an out-of-body experience. His consciousness traveled to a garden where “Andy” walked with him. His child’s mind had taken the old hymn “I Walk in the Garden Alone” with the line “and he walks with me and he talks with me” and changed it into his own interpretation. Hence, “Andy walks with me.” Andy (Jesus) gave him moments of peace and joy. When Ralph’s mother, a very passive woman, would appear to doctor his wounds, Ralph would awaken in his beaten and bloody body.

Although grown and married with children, this extreme childhood caused Ralph to one day disassociate from his past and disappear from his home in Pennsylvania. During the next 20 years, totally unaware of his former life, he married twice more. Ralph was living in Hawaii when his children found him, and he discovered the missing horror of his past.

Last time I heard from Ralph, a few years back, he had happily connected with his children, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Johnstown was using his book in a psychology class.

Debra Luptak’s strength of spirit and determination kept her alive despite the murderous attempts of her profoundly mentally ill mother, who claimed her daughter was part of the devil. Among other things, she was tied up, placed in a straitjacket, burned with cigarettes, hidden in a dark closet and fed sedatives, all before the age of five. There was no magic rescue or instant healing: A Survivor’s Closet tells the gruesome years-long tale of Debra’s survival. When she was an adult, it took years of therapy, hospitals, family and friends to come to peace and self-love. Happily married now and the mother of grown sons, Debra’s used her book and her talent as a speaker to help others deal with traumatic childhoods.

Going to the Feed Sharks

This blog will be “pinged.”

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Writing a Screenplay

I have probably seen thousands of movies in my life; it’s a passion of mine. And I’ve always liked historical stories. I must have learned something from all that watching and absorbing. Maybe it would be challenging, but I was up to writing a script, I thought.

Before I sat down to write my screenplay on Drake, I needed to do some historical research. And how the heck would I write a screenplay? I’d never seen a script before.

Relying on the book that had excited me to begin with, I was disappointed to discover that Michener’s sagas weren’t entirely accurate: all those huge tomes about Hawaii, the Middle East, Alaska, Texas, Colorado, etc. Since he didn’t call them histories, he felt free to fictionalize. It made for a simpler story since real life is never tidy, although reel life is! James Michener didn’t even work as hard as I had presumed: he had his own research team.

Michener’s story about Drake was so tidy he created a neat rivalry between Drake, the English privateer, and a Spanish official of some high rank (I no longer remember the details). In the 16th century, Spain was the ruler of the Old World and the New World: his story was some years before England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Michener story was entertaining and neatly handled even though this individual Spaniard didn’t exist (he was a conglomerate of many Spanish ship captains, officials, etc.). Drake made lots of Spanish enemies before he was through robbing their gold, jewels, and various battleships.

After I’d been lent a few sample screenplays, and a book about creating them, I was soon happily engaged in writing. All those instructions about NIGHT, DAY, FADE IN, FADE OUT and what sort of emotion was on whose face, not to mention setting the scene. Aiming for a standard page count (at least then) of 120 pages, I was confident and joyful.

Dudley and I had met more than a few people industriously working or aspiring to work in the entertainment industry. It was relatively easy to interest people in helping to create a potential movie, TV program, etc. In LA, many of us live on dreams of stardom and success, and there are always a few who do realize their dreams, even in spectacular fashion.

I can no longer remember if our associate Jan was involved with costumes, set dressing or what, but she had been in the industry for a few years and was making a living at it. She was an encouraging, enthusiastic kind of person as well as intelligent. Our project must have sounded feasible.

I could hardly wait for her to take a look at my creative efforts. I’d put a lot of work into my script and I was brimming with pride.

When we met after she’d read it, I eagerly awaited her verdict. I was sure I had a good beginning and I even liked my dialog.

“Where’s the conflict?” she asked me gently. “Every film has a conflict.”

“It’s got plenty of conflict,” I replied, defensively. “Drake’s always fighting this battle or that.”

“It’s a dramatic technique to keep the audience interested. The work has to focus on a primary conflict of some kind as it builds to a climax and the conflict is resolved, one way or another,” she told me gently. “You also don’t want to lose your viewer in all sorts of unnecessary details.”

My screenplay was just history with a few flourishes.  Maybe Michener was more right than I gave him credit for.

Back to the drawing board, I thought ruefully. It wasn’t so simple after all.

What I Did For Love

What I Did for Love

Sondheim’s famous line—what I did for love—came from the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line.” I enjoyed it on stage and in the film and liked each version. Before the writing virus was deeply embedded in me, I fancied myself a dancer and had a brief dream of being a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. With no real talent, I get a good laugh when I think about high kicks and taps on my shoes.

The sentiments, however, ring true for me. The line is not about love for another, but a passion for some pursuit, most especially something creative.  Creative people can be somewhat insane for their passions. Auguste Renoir was so enamored of putting brush to canvas he was doing it with extremely arthritic fingers in his 90s! What vibrant shapes he could conjure even at that age. Frank Lloyd Wright finished his career on a high note with the Guggenheim Museum in NYC; he was in his 90s. Think of various authors who’ve died before their latest novel is finished. Hemingway was working on a novel when he took that shotgun to his head. Bob Hope told jokes up to the end, and George Burns (never forsaking cigars and martinis) was playing God in the movies before he decided to let go.

The creative force is a powerful one when it grabs hold. It must be answered.

I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was a kid, as I’ve written about on this blog. As I grew older, I aspired to grander themes than newspaper articles or columns. I dabbled in poetry but it was nothing that would make me famous or supply a living wage, even though I loved my imagery.

An Aussie named Dudley Hood helped ignite the spark that began to lead me down another path. When we met in So California some years ago, he had an idea for an historical TV series about the Caribbean. The area has a fascinating history and lots of mystical elements from the mix of cultures.

When I picked up a Michener novel on the Caribbean, I was excited about the possibilities, especially when I read about Sir Francis Drake. I’d always loved history and he was just the sort of take-charge but compassionate hero I could admire. Besides, his costumed character was a constant at the yearly spring Renaissance Faire.

Since Dudley wanted to gather a few screenplays together about different areas in the Caribbean, that was the format I would choose. So what if I’d never written a screenplay before.? How difficult could it be?

Stay tuned…

Mystical Thinking

I believe the creative process is a mystical/magical one. Many times I wonder where the ideas come from, both for myself and other writers. Common advice for writers: Write about what you know. But you don’t always know what you know until you sit in front of a computer or a pad of paper. Or take a walk, go for a swim or perhaps even clean your home.

I’ve noticed that when I’m the process of editing books, I’m open to connections/coincidences/synchronicity, call it what you want. I was editing a book, the Religion of Money—a light-hearted history of economics by Frederick—and was reading over the story of the De Medici family of Florence, Italy. The book mentioned Giovanni De Medici, and not two seconds later my favorite classical music station was announcing the opera “Don Giovanni” was scheduled in L.A.

I could be watching TV in the background and be browsing through a magazine. I’ll read about a certain subject and have it verbalized in some manner on a TV show immediately after, or vice versa. My daughter and I are very close and keep in touch by phone and Email. I might be thinking about her and the phone rings. I know it’s her before I even check the number. From what I’ve heard, that’s quite ordinary for many of us.

My mother passed on 36 years ago. That morning I was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson (coincidentally an alum of William & Mary), and had just read about the death of Jefferson’s wife Martha, Sally Hemings older half-sister. I was absorbing that sad news when my dad called to say my mother had died during a kidney dialysis treatment.  I’ve always felt the reading helped me deal with her death just a little better. Jefferson, my mother and I are all Virginia natives.

Books dealing with metaphysical subjects are a definite attraction, and I’m lucky to have edited several of them. High Holy Adventure by R. Alan Fuller is a true story about his mystical experiences with shamans, spirits and mediums, especially in the Andes. Euphoria Zone by Alan Lee Breslow weaves innovative healing techniques into his spiritual adventure. Pat Sendejas wrote Letting Go to Create a Magical Life, which discusses life’s synchronicities and invisible messages. Working with all three authors was enlightening and exciting.

In the mid 80s I had a psychic reading with a woman named Terry, who was supposed to be quite knowledgeable in her field. I wanted to know if I was going to write a book. I figured it might be a story about my divorce, which had recently happened.  Terry said her spiritual “guides” had told her I would write something about voyages. She didn’t know what that meant, she told me; perhaps it had to do with my “voyage” through life.

I forgot about the reading until the late 90s when I was finishing up my novel. It was, indeed, about a voyage. My heroine, Melaynie, masquerading as a captain’s boy, was sailing with Drake to the Caribbean!

And then there’s Karen, my intuitively psychic friend with lots of talents. But that’s another story.

The “How-To” on Melaynie’s Masquerade

The cover of my historical fiction novel

Writing a book is a fascinating process, a great deal of it unconscious. While you’re in the act of creation, you’re thinking about the story, planning how you’re going to do it, making notes, maybe using index cards for the various scenes. In my case, since I wrote an historical fiction novel, I needed to do lots of research into the 16th century, which I loved. The Internet wasn’t the effective tool it is today and I used libraries for most of my research.

When I needed to describe a 16th century ship or the variety of clothing worn then, I headed for the children’s section of bookstores or libraries. Picture books were just the thing. I had to know how my heroine was going to accomplish her daring feat, how she would look, and what would her family home looked like. The various Time-Life historical series were also a great help; they always had lots of graphics. I’ve always been a history buff and had attended many a Renaissance Faire where I’d seen Queen Elizabeth and Sir Francis Drake in action, not to mention all the hired characters and faire-goers in costume.

It doesn’t take long before the story and its characters take control. You’re living with them in your head, so no wonder. Many authors verify that oddity. Behind-the-scenes, your subconscious and your own past mingles together in the ethers, at least that’s how I explain it. I did a lot of creating while I was swimming in a pool. Water was the best element to get my “flow” going, especially since I was devising a sea adventure.

I finished the book, after five years of creating, letting it lie dormant and then recreating. During one of my last readings/proofing of the book, I began to realize why many of my feelings had come forward, unconsciously, in the book. I had given my heroine a kindly, generous father and three brothers who spoiled her. She needed one brother’s help to fulfill her dream adventure of sailing with Francis Drake on one of his early voyages to the Caribbean.

My stepfather, the US Army officer who raised me, was a very thrifty taskmaster. He saved his charm for others, his strong sense of discipline for the  family. How clever and comforting for me to create an imaginary father I would have completely enjoyed!  What fun to be the heroine who succeeds in her adventure! Plus, interestingly enough, actual history made it easy to manipulate and blend real facts with my imagination.

I’ve always been an adventurer, but certainly not as daring as my heroine, Melaynie. Of course, she has many of my traits—how could she not! Her feminist ideas were mostly mine, but I wasn’t consciously creating them. All these factors snuck up on me! Or did they?

Welcome to my Weblog – Words on My Mind

Welcome to my weblog—the actual word for this endeavor, though it’s long been shortened to blog—Words on My Mind.

I began writing this blog about a week ago because I wanted to practice (planning and organizing—a Capricorn trait, perhaps?) before I exposed myself to the world.

As the world gets closer and more connected because of the Internet, it’s a fascinating proposition to reach out and touch someone, as that old ad said. I’ve been amazed at the proliferation of Email communication, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’ve always been a person who stayed in touch with friends and family. I valued a wide network of friends; when you grow up an Army brat and are uprooted every few years, it becomes more valuable to retain friends. You might hear from them again—even those you lost touch with.

Amazingly, because of the Internet, the group of kids who went to high school in Tripoli, Libya, back in the 50s has reconnected. We may look a bit different but that same old spirit is there.  It’s been a joy to share old and new stories about our lives. And speaking of Tripoli, it was front page news this week: a tragic airplane disaster killed 103 people as the plane landed at the international airport. A 10 year-old Dutch boy survived, an amazing miracle.

I discovered the delights of the Internet when I decided to write my historical fiction novel, Melaynie’s Masquerade. I self-published it and then created it as an E-book, way before Kindle and others created their magic devices to download books. Realizing my book would probably not become an instant hit without a major publisher, I looked for ways to make money. As a longtime editor for newspapers and magazines and a few books, I branched out and became an editor for 1st Books (now Author House). They do all their editing in-house right now, but my ad on their site brought me in plenty of clients to get me started as a book editor.

In the past decade I’ve edited over 80 books and enjoyed every one of them. They were in all genres: fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoirs, children’s books, poetry, spiritual, and business. I learned many things from each book and most of all loved the interaction with the authors. I now feel editing is more fun than solitary writing (I’m not counting blogging!). I must have teaching genes because I delight in watching a budding author learn from my examples and advice and go with it. With a laugh, I call myself a Forest Guide—someone who helps an author when he/she can’t see the forest for the trees!

In this blog I’d like to discuss the art of writing, various writers, the books I’ve edited, and the fascinating books and/or films I’ve read/seen. That’s a starter. As I learned writing my book, words have a tendency to take over. You may have a certain intent when you start out but it probably won’t turn out exactly as you imagined. That’s the magic of life and something I look for and cherish.

A Scribe’s History

My writing career has been an adventurous one: lots of fun, great experiences and for years very little money. As I tell my editing clients—you must create through love, not desire for money. Like most creative endeavors, writing is rewarding to the heart and soul but it takes time for compensation to reach your wallet, much less the bank. Sometimes it never does.

Reporting stories began with the Barracan, the Wheelus High School newspaper at Wheelus Air Force Base, adjacent to Tripoli, Libya. I was 14, it was the 50s and our high school had less than 100 students. Except for the views of palm trees, the nearby Mediterranean Sea, and Libyans in native costumes (women wore barracans—all-encompassing white wool garments that covered them head to toe, exposing only one eye and their feet), Wheelus was filled with typical American teenagers. Jeans, loafers, saddle shoes, and crinolines to poof out our circle skirts were typical attire. We had proms, one radio station that played rock ‘n roll (perhaps a bit later than American Bandstand—unless you were new to Wheelus, you probably didn’t even know the program existed), and a teenage club that had its own student band, Stardust.

I recall only one story I wrote—the Junior-Senior prom with Ebb Tide as the theme—held at the Tripoli Beach Club. Ginny Stewart had a coketail party first at her family’s nearby villa. The entertainment as I remember it: a fully dressed Libyan woman in a very modest wrap-around indoor garment (not the confining outdoor barracan) doing a belly dance to a rhythmic drum. She pushed some of the shawl-like elements of her dress down to accentuate her hips. The woman was most likely a servant of the Stewarts and could be less modest within the house. Perhaps she was a more liberated Muslim woman, who knows?

In college—William & Mary in Virginia—I wrote for the Flat Hat college paper. Lots of stories I no longer remember, but I was pleasantly surprised at one class reunion when a displayed scrapbook had three of my stories!

When my kids were in grammar school and didn’t need my full attention, I wrote my first column: Hillrise Highlights, which covered local events and turned into a political campaign to get a nearby highway bridge widened in Agoura, CA. I even participated in gathering signatures to get the County of Los Angeles or the State interested in funding the construction.

I graduated to covering news for the Acorn, a weekly newspaper for a rapidly growing suburb of LA, in the Conejo Valley, on the border of Ventura County. By the early 80s I was the editor, responsible for a little bit of everything—writing and editing, headlines, photos, attendance at chamber of commerce meetings and mixers. City incorporation attempts, wildfires, water quality, and commercial/residential growth were some of the pressing issues in those days. There were also the unusual stories: my trip in a hot air balloon in a fur coat and attending a nightclub show of sexy male strippers, an early Chippendales-type show.

In the 90s I got to mingle with a few celebrities on a couple of magazines I helped co-create, write and edit. One of them featured Bob Hope for our initial cover. Alas, Hope was recovering from prostate surgery and the closest I got to him for an interview was visiting his manager’s office in Burbank, a testament to Hope’s many movies with its giant blowups of movie stills going back to the 1930s.

Beverly Hills Country Club, a posh tennis club, decided they needed a magazine featuring their members. My boss was an enterprising Iranian who spoke English but was not fluent in writing English. For our first cover, I interviewed Barbara Eden in her home along Mulholland Drive. Delightful and personable, she wore a cropped top and low riding pants, showing off her still fabulous figure and revealing the belly button blocked out on “I Dream of Jeannie,” her famous TV series. Yes, the cover was “photo-shopped.”

Appropriately for a sports club magazine, I did stories on members, Rafer Johnson, the Olympics decathlon champion from the 60s, and 1940s tennis champion Jack Kramer, who had remained active in the sports world promoting tennis and then golf. My first tennis racket was a Jack Kramer and I told him so. Both of these athletes were gentlemen and easy to chat with.

The 90s included a few years of writing a weekly column, People and Places, and local play reviews for the Daily News, a major newspaper that still exists. I must have seen and reviewed about 200 plays, performed by a range of talent of all ages. I was a positive reviewer; it was essentially community theater and equity waiver. I recall a production of “Mr. Roberts,” starring Harry Belafonte’s son-in-law. Belafonte was there and I was thrilled to shake his hand as he told me he loved community theater. No, I did not hum any calypso songs!

One of my weekly columns focused on Jake Lloyd, a seven-year-old starring in his first movie, “Jingle All the Way” with Arnold Swarzenegger (before he became the Governator). Jake was charming; on the sound stage of 20th Century Fox, he led me up to a sort of catwalk on the upper levels of the living room set, where I could have an overview and see where the cameras and lights were positioned. They were filming the last scene of the movie that day. As filming is erratic, the last scene of filming would be the actual first scene of the movie. Jake went on to play Anakin Skywalker in a Star Wars movie, “The Phantom Menace.”

Hmmm…a Blog?

Starting a blog can be daunting, even though I’ve been writing all my life. When I was ten, I sat down in front of an old portable typewriter to write a story about a dog, a story I have forgotten. If memory serves, my family was on vacation in Jacksonville Beach, FL at the time. That’s my memory, at any rate, but I’ve recently learned through National Geographic magazine that you can’t completely trust your memory! You change it, someone else may add their two cents, etc. As is touted all the time, the only thing in life that’s constant is change…

My life has been one of many changes; perhaps that’s a reason I wanted to write: a way I could create some kind of base, a kind of security. I’ve kept a diary off and on since high school and have saved the notebooks. I’m even one of those people who compose a yearly Christmas letter to friends. I work on keeping it balanced: describing highlights as well as the lowlights from the past year. Currently, I write on my computer. Who will be interested in what I’ve said once I’ve gone on to non-physical pastures? What difference does it make? Probably none, but I’ve pleased myself. Conclusion: it’s the reason I’m now blogging. I want to share my thoughts with more people.

Born in Danville, VA, I was raised an Army brat—on my way at age four to Murnau, Germany. I learned to speak Deutsche—it’s easy when you’re young. My family moved many times: New Jersey after Germany, Ft. Leonard Wood, MO; Jacksonville Beach, FL while dad fought in Korea, the Bronx, Ft. Knox, KY; Tripoli, Libya; and Alexandria, VA. During my years in college at William and Mary, the family went briefly to Carlisle, PA before landing once again in Germany (Mannheim and Frankfurt). The wanderlust was still with me when I graduated, and I ended up working as a secretary at Heidelberg Officers Club in Germany. Marriage brought me to Los Angeles and I’ve been here ever since. At last count so far, I’ve lived in about 27 different homes in my life.

Los Angeles, which I love, is a microcosm of the world—we’ve got every culture here and we come in various colors. In my apartment building, I can visit with neighbors from Romania, Israel, Turkey, El Salvador, New York City, the Midwest and other US States.   Others have grown up here or have families that have come from: the Philippines, Armenia, China and various Latin American countries.

I believe we’re all connected as humans, no matter what the country, religion or political view. Writing is communication…connection…about everything. And to remember the wonderful connections, the uplifting or sad experiences, the oddities and synchronicities, I write about them. I like to share—so there!

As a writer and editor, there are books and authors to talk about (my creative efforts and those of my clients and friends). As an adventurer on this beautiful blue planet, there are experiences to share. And as a spiritual being having a human experience, there are those inexplicable connections to relate, the phenomena of life.

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