on folklore and ouija boards

fox fire with text Growing up as I did, witnessing people talking in tongues in church as a child, it’s no wonder I’ve been equally fascinated by all kinds of folklore and other ghoulish things. I remember family story swapping sitting around Grandpa‘s living room on Sundays after church. Those days if children were seen but not heard, the clever child could find a way to hover on the sidelines and be privy to some interesting grownup talk.

There was an oft touted tale of the coffin of a young woman being opened, for whatever earthly reason I no longer remember. She had been buried with her long hair arranged in the chignon style of the day, but when the coffin lid was raised, a gripping view was exposed–hair hanging disheveled around the face, ensnared by the very hair comb that had secured the bun. Some swore her fingernails were also longer AND broken, and the silky material lining the lid was hanging in tatters. What a ghastly scene! Other times Grandma recounted her tale about seeing eerie green lights deep in woods surrounding the house when she was a young girl. As I grew older, I learned that the green lights were called “foxfire,” defined as a rare phenomenon of eerie green lights glowing in the woods on starless nights. In 1823 scientists finally explained how fungal growth on decayed wood emitted these phosphorescent episodes, not spirits of people gone on to meet their maker. In time I imagine she knew that the mystery had been solved, but I’m still a little disappointed, I think. It’s actually a little bit fun to have a bit of a fright, followed quickly, of course by a reasonable explanation.

The last time I remember having a serious case of the heebie jeebies was during a slumber party my daughters had in the 1980s in Ohio one weekend, with 5 or 6 girls attending.  They were playing with the Ouija board in the basement, one of my more idiotic shopping mistakes, in retrospect. I heard lots of giggling, and occasional squeals. It was getting late by this time, Hubby was out of town on business, and as I struggled to stay alert upstairs, I hoped they would soon tire themselves into slumber. Rather, all of a sudden they burst through the door at the top of the stairs screeching. It seems a spirit or demon had suddenly “taken over the Ouija board’s planchette (the pointer gadget). He was furiously spelling out threatening, frightfyk things that were going to happen. I tried to tell them that inanimate objects and games couldn’t hurt them but they weren’t having it!

The story that then emerged–as best I can remember–was that the demon was once a teenage boy who died in an accident when he was young. Now he was very angry at pretty much everybody alive, especially giggling and adolescents and teenage girls! At that point I was quite amused at the humor of it, but still needed to calm them down a bit. I suggested  we freeze the hell and damnation out of him by throwing the whole board in the freezer to cool him down.Youthful impatience led to frequent openings and closings of the freezer door, and the girls couldn’t resist another quick trip to the basement (presumable spirits prefer dim basements). Moments later, they were back upstairs. He was still there. I was still comfortable in my assumption that one of the girls was conscientiously (or not) maneuvering the pointer, having a great time at all the reactions. No one would admit to it, though, so I decided to witness a session myself. I went downstairs to watch the pointer sail lightly from letter to letter, again spelling out an apt-sounding ancient name. Whichever girl was key to the ruse was goooooood, I decided. I was very impressed!

Whether imagination or not, doubt crept in. What if it wasn’t a hoax? Each girl insisted she was innocent! It was close to, or past by that time, midnight. Clearly this demon was NOT going away. No amount of begging girls to go away was working. We’d tried the freezer, now we tried nuking him in the microwave. That didn’t work either.

All the warnings about Ouija boards being the passageway of all things occult came flooding back. “Messages revealed by a Ouija should only be on God’s hands,” “a tool of Satan best left alone!” “Paranormal or supernatural beings are responsible for Ouija’s action, therefore you are colluding with Satan if you use them!” 

At last we decided the only thing left to do with that evil board was to take it and break it across my knee and throw it into the garbage or the fireplace, I don’t remember which, but the idea was good riddance to bad rubbish. Then everyone went to bed–I hope. They must have had quite a time the next day telling their parents about the evil spirit they’d conjured up with the Ouija board. I don’t remember how many were allowed at our house after that.

Many eminent people have succumbed to the lure of the supernatural: Although he didn’t use it himself, Poet William Butler Yeats‘s later poetry was inspired by the Ouija board and other facets of the occult; G. K. Chesterton used a Ouija board in his teenage years. Around 1893 writer G. K. Chesterton  went through crises of skepticism and depression, grew fascinated with the occult and experimented with the Ouija board. Remember Alice Cooper? Early press releases stated that Vincent Furnier‘s stage and band name was agreed on after a session with a Ouija board (his real name was Vincent Furnier) during which it was revealed he was the reincarnation of a 17th-century witch with that name.

In case I haven’t convinced you that a Ouija board is pure evil, or let’s just say yours in an inquiring mind, here’s an online Ouija http://www.brainjar.com/dhtml/ouija/ for free, so now you don’t even have to pay homage to its original maker, those rich Parker Brothers. Have fun! And now that I’ve finished this silly little story about things that go bump in the night, Hubby and I are off to New York for more earthly adventures I hope to share with you from there.

new words in my vocabulary

I’ve only thought every day the past two weeks that this will be the day I get around to blogging; well, you can see where that got me if you check the calendar in the sidebar. (Oops! Can it really be I haven’t been here at all in June?) I have no idea where the time went. Oh yes, I do: yard work planning and the hard work it involved (Sergio and his helper really worked up a sweat for sure!); finally choosing a color for the painters to paint the three outside entry doors (I’m pretty sure my previous final choice, that hot pink color?, could result in a pink slip of a different sort from our community council (Hubby’s a member), so yes, Meridith, Regatta Blue #6517–final choice–). Believe me, I know that everyone should be lucky to have such troubles, but it’s important to keep your sense of humor in these trying times.

Another and probably more accurate reason for long absences from blogging–reading. Books are like movies–none excite me for long periods of time, then all of a suddenly there’s a new one catching my eye all at one time–and the library wants all of them back by a certain time. But it’s easy to excuse that excuse because I tell myself I’m always learning something new when I’m reading so it isn’t wasting time.

A journalist in a Tennessee writing group I belonged to encouraged our group to write a list of our favorite words and practice playing with them. Use them in our own writing. This reading session I’ve added lots of new words to my vocabulary. Until then, words were just words to me, but I did manage to add a few favorites to my list: flotsam, for instance, but it’s pretty hard to surpass that one, and even harder to work flotsam into an ordinary conversation or blog, so I’ve neglected the list for many years. But I’ve come across quite a few new ones in my latest readathon.

For instance, glossolalia. Has a ring to it, no? I attended a Pentecostal church when I was a child and so enjoyed going to the prayer room Wednesday and Sunday evenings to see people I knew well, often two or three at once, rolling around on the floor doing it. In case you never came across it either, glossolalia comes from the Greek word “glossa” (meaning “tongue” or “language”) and it’s simply speaking in tongues. Linguists explain that the otherwise unintelligible prattling sounds are made up of syllables formed from consonants and vowels taken from the speaker’s native language. I’d known these people all my life–admittedly only around 10 years at the time–and I knew not one of them would ever in a million years have dreamed of drinking or dancing in public or “showing off” in any form–yet they could glossolate with abandon, and some of them repeatedly. (Okay, I made that word up because I can’t think of a verb that suits it, can you?) It’s the reason I wanted to see watch this curious phenomenon over and over. The preacher explained it as “the holy spirit taking over,” but I wasn’t convinced. Not once did I ever see anything resembling a spirit in the room. So I think that word, glossolalia, will stick with me awhile–even though technically I haven’t “learned” it because it would be very difficult for me to ever use it in a conversation, even as a noun, but I’ve managed to write with it. That journalist must have been right!

I planned to add a couple of other strange new words, but if I do the post will be far too long, so I’ll plan to sit down another day and tell you what I’ve learned about witchery and black magic and the new words those conjure up. They definitely deserve a post of their own. ‘Til next time then . . .

 

Intellectual Wallpaper: in defense of bookaholics

Hubby is always on the lookout for the perfect new television as replacement for the current one he expects will conk out within a year or so. We’ve already spent more than several-hundred on replacement parts in the nearly 10 years we’ve owned it, and you can now buy it new for around $400 (ten years ago it cost $4100). He would love in its place a 90-inch “intelligent design” which may or may not have been invented yet. One that will make it a center piece of the whole family room, for viewing, listening, and tapping into the Net for everything from movies to up-to-date stock prices (since we’ll certainly need to have sound investments to afford it.)

The problem I have with this new arrangement is that what to do with my book wall which has four shelves spanning over 12 feet? Some books I’ve read and collected over the years are next to impossible for me to part with. Over the 44 years we’ve been together I’ve collected quite a few as you can see. bookshelves

He says I should begin to get rid of them so he won’t have to worry about what to do with them if I kick the bucket first. I’ve tried over the years to defend my book habit by being mostly stubborn–after all it was better than tippling the proverbial bottle wasn’t it?–but I never had quite the words to defend myself until now. Then I found a quote in Facebook.

Of course anyone who truly loves books buys more of them than he or she can read in one fleeting lifetime. A good book resting unopened in its spot on a shelf, full of majestic potentiality, is the most comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper.

I’m sure I always knew it, intellectually anyway, but now I know it in my heart that I’m not the only one who feels that way. So I guess we’ll just have to find a way to arrange his giant TV screen, maybe a little more sensible size more in line with the size of the family room, somewhere in between the books. We’ll call the wall “intellectual wallpaper” connecting old and new technology.

learning more about “steering” the writing craft

In her book on writing, Steering The Craft, Ursula Le Guin says:

The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence. Beyond this basic, invisible job, the narrative sentence can do an infinite number of beautiful, surprising, powerful, audible, visible things. But the basic function of the narrative sentence is to keep the story going and keep the reader going with it.

If you aren’t interested in the craft of writing, then today’s post will definitely leave you disappointed. As for me, there’s no longer any pressure to publish after I decided I should only write for myself because I like doing it (most of the time). It’s become a fun but  sometimes challenging hobby and I’d like to think I’m in the driver’s seat and steering the best I can. I’ve just come from a meeting with my some of my writing friends who enjoy working together, though I must admit sometimes it feels more like an afternoon party since we have too much fun to call what we’re doing “work.” Once again I’m all revved up with new vigor to keep on trying sharpen my own writing skills.

The advantage of assigned writing exercises, which our group decided to do using Ms. Le Guin’s book, is that I’m constantly being challenged to try different writing techniques that I probably would never have tried on my own. I confess that for some of them, I groaned inwardly–at first. My thinking was that it would be too easy, or I’d already tried something like that. But each time I’d buckle down whether I thought I’d like it or not. Some of the work it produced turned out better than others. But I always learned something. Overall, I’m left feeling pretty psyched. Especially when/if I get a positive reaction from others in the group when I read. It’s also interesting to see the many different approaches there are within the group using with the same instructions.

Today’s exercise, in two parts, was coined the SHORT and LONG of it. It involved writing a paragraph or narrative of ~100-150 words in sentences limited to seven words–no sentence fragments–each with a subject and verb. Here’s a paragraph I constructed from a longer story I wrote long ago. To set it up, you should know the protagonist is J.J. McMahon, a 50-something grandmother who’s car-napped in her Honda (named Fenry) waiting at a traffic light. She’s just dropped her grandson off at nursery school and is sitting there contemplating how she really ought to have gone to the bathroom at the school, while there are valid reasons why she didn’t, and she’s praying she can make it in time to the bathroom in her office in.

I’m in the restroom at last! Relief is just a button and zipper away. Thank God for McDonald’s on Kingston Pike. But I am I shaking so. Not a single other person here today. I decide I’ll write on the mirror. Please help me! I’ve been kidnapped! My kidnapper’s that teenager with angel eyes. I poke around my purse for a lipstick. Nothing that marks is in my purse. I hear a voice through the door. “Are you all right, Mother?” It’s him! I can’t believe it. Disconcerted, my body stiffens and shifts. The toilet flushes. Damn those automatic flushers anyway! What nerve this kid has. Does he really have a gun? He’s invading the women’s room  after me! I hear him explaining. “She wasn’t feeling well. I was worried.” The woman behind him smiles. I know what she’s thinking. “What a wonderful son.” No, oh no, my mind screams. He’s NOT my son, he’s my kidnapper!” Too soon we’re back on Kingston Pike. I grip Fenry’s steering wheel tightly. I-40 is so close. “So where are we going,” I ask. “Do I keep driving?” “East,” he says. Take I-40, then north on 75.

In Part two, we were to presented a half-page to a page of narrative, up to ~350 words, all written in one sentence. I hoped this narrative serves sufficiently–as Flash Fiction perhaps–so as not to need no set-up for the reader to interpret or understand the plot.

They tricked her into going to the funeral so it’s no wonder the first thing she notices is the tiny rip in the netting draped over Meemaw’s face in the coffin and I am reminded how we always planned to go back fishing for minnows one day, and all of a sudden I feel my stomach pitch; my heart swells up like it will bust out of my body when the McFadden sisters who sing at all the funerals around here stand around the pulpit in their hats and high heels to sing sadly about gathering at the river where angels’ feet have trod, all while Reverend Martin’s weepy voice rises to a deafening pitch in order to be heard over the singing and the drone of the electric fan and the muffled sounds of sobbing, and I’m trying so hard not to cry myself that I’m not sure if I actually saw but I’m pretty sure I did see a soft fluttering of Meemaw’s pale eyelids and then her blinking like she has just spent a long night in somebody else’s bed and can’t at first recognize where she is, that I almost miss the miracle him–the preacher–and all the brethren have talked about so many times before at so many other funerals: verily I say unto you, the hour is coming…and now is…when he that heareth my word and believeth in Him that sent me…have everlasting life…and shall not come into condemnation…but is passed from death into life,” and just like that, and that quick, Meemaw rises, turns to look right at me and it’s like nobody else can see or hear her but me, but I hear as plain as day, “come on baby Junebug, while these people sit here crying and blubbering, let’s you and me go fishing for minnows, and in a flash she’s gone and quick as lightning I run and grab the white netting that separated her from me and then I follow her out of the side door of the dark church as quick as I can into the waiting sunshine.

For critiquing, and I’m inviting any reader to do so if so inclined, it is important–to me–that the short or long sentences fit the story being told. That’s the criteria of assignments like these. In spite of breaking all the rules of grammar, does it still work? Do the short sentences in Part one read naturally? Would it hold a reader’s attention? Is the language of the longer piece (Part two) clear enough so the reader doesn’t get lost or have to go back and start over for clarification.

If you like to write, either seriously or as a hobby like me, and you also author a blog, I hope you’ll let me know, or better yet, give me a link and I’ll try to come ’round to see what you’ve done.

springing back to wintersong musings

We had our final class Thursday, and now that our brains are all wrinkled with new knowledge on the economy, the latest in scientific research, and the uppity women in ancient Egypt who deigned to be “kings” instead of queens, we go forward to see what the rest of the season will bring before it all starts over again in the fall. Spring has finally sprung here in a “maybe, sorta, hopefully but “don’t bank the family fortune on it” kind of way. The local weatherman told us last week that we should go ahead and get our gardens going–which Hubby and I have been doing this week between classes.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and my birthday, and if you dropped by our house to chat, this is what you’d see as you climb to ring the doorbell. It’s my birthday present–also Mother’s Day, wedding anniversary, and Christmas and all other occasions this year according to Hubby. They don’t look like much right now unless you have a good imagination, but as summer approaches they should thicken and bloom abundantly.

my birthday presentI’ve never had much of a green thumb, but like Molly Brown from Hanni- bal Mis- souri said as she was going down on the Titanic, “I ain’t down yet.” What does all this have to do with Molly Brown? I have no earthly idea, the image just popped into my mind and I went with it. I just read a book (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by blogger Jenny Lawson), who seems to have hit the publishing jackpot writing in that style (it’s terrific by the way), so, my recent writing efforts have been an attempt to let myself go more in writing, give up some control and write whatever pops into mind. I did that here, and there she was–Molly Brown! Maybe her spirit was trying to merge with my “muse” and get me back into blogging mode.

Speaking of the supernatural, I have a couple of links for those of you who–like me–may be skeptical (controlled) but nonetheless interested in ghost stories. Who can resist a really good one?! Last week a new blogger friend posted a story on a not so camera-shy Rebel soldier from a major civil war battle, including images he captured on his camera. Stop by and take a look and tell us what you think. I don’t think Mr. Davids would pull our legs about this.Then–should your appetite for ghost stories remain unsatisfied–I refer you to 10 more ghost photographs and stories here. Finally, now that summer’s almost here and the livin’ (supposedly) easier, I hope to be back on a more regular basis to attend to Wintersong musing.

hook beginnings and learning what to leave out

Two more very important facets of writing skills were covered in Thursday’s writing class: “jump-starting imagination to capture the reader,” and that hook beginning I mentioned yesterday, and the importance of cutting the clutter. That is, getting rid of extraneous material that doesn’t contribute to the piece. If it doesn’t provide information relevant to the plot or help to establish the identify of your character, that extraneous material may end up as a boring read. Too often we new writers are too close to the material, dare I say in love with our words :!: that we can’t really see what’s not needed, much less cut them out. It takes a lot of practice and may be one of the hardest things to learn, especially if–like me–you’re very very fond of words. (See how many words I included that aren’t really needed?!) But with practice it gets easier, and in time you can really see what a difference it makes. That’s what it takes to becoming your own editor. I try always to read my work as if I didn’t know who wrote it.

I once read pages from a book draft by another writer who asked me to read it and comment. He hadn’t grasped that concept yet. His characters, a man and a woman in this case, seemed to be working up to a crime of some sort. I never figured out what the writer’s intent was, whether it was a who-dunnit, a comedy, or a romance because unfortunately I, the reader, had to spend precious minutes with them going from one place to another and another and another in the draft. I followed every step from where they first met, to the car and the drive to the man’s apartment, then I had to suffer through a scene in the bedroom where he showed either his, or his protagonist’s, superior skill at sexual seduction and I don’t know what all. All this and then we had to get in the car (again!) and drive to another location, a lake or boatdock or something, and do a lot of swimming, before they got into a boat of some kind–or was it an island?–I forget. Anyway, when they got there they drank some more wine, which was described in detail, and made love again. That’s about the point at which I gave up. Puleeze! I have my own life to live, I can’t spend it following characters in a book! I’ve never been good at lying, and since he’d asked me to read and comment, I had to tell him how I felt, which was “sorry, but this needs a lot of work!” I tried to tell him gently, because it was clear that he was already convinced he had finished a best-seller. He knew how to write, he just didn’t know how to transition or sequence. If the extraneous material were cut, his book would deflate into novella or short story size. Maybe even a short-short story, I don’t think he appreciated my free advice because he never showed up in our class again. I share that only because it’s something I experienced again and again in reading new writers’ drafts, and why I eventually refused to read them any longer.

I’ve spoken to several editors from various book publishing houses over the years, so that eventually I realized that even then slush piles were fast becoming a thing of the past. I’m not sure it’s even possible today to submit anywhere without an agent. Now that old slush pile may exist only on an agent’s desk instead of a publishing house editor’s. Even if your work actually lands into one somewhere, the size of that pile is so huge that it may take months (or longer) for your story to make it to the top of the pile. When it does, editors far better than I cannot possible read entire manuscripts unless something in the beginning paragraph peaks their interest. Sometimes they never make it through the first sentence, so that first one is really important.

Our second in-class writing exercise was a five minute session to develop three beginning lines with a hook to make an editor want to find out what happens next. This assignment was actually fun, since one of goals the writing prof hopes to reach is that her students learn to relax, have fun, and enjoy the art. With only five minutes to come up with those three hooks, we didn’t have a lot of time to think about it or worry, and I decided to do free association writing. That means writing whatever pops into mind. Here are my three:

  1. When one-eyed Willie burst forth from his mama’s mottled thighs, the doctor plopped him into the nurse’s waiting hands and ran screaming from the room.
  2. “Don’t you dare eat another one of them worms, William, you gotta save’em for Grampa‘s magic potion.”
  3. Mabel thought she would puke, Aunt Willie was stinking so bad.

Which, if any, would hook you as a reader and make you want to find out what happened next?

For day two, I consider my assignment done with somewhere around 700 words, and several ideas for continuing Ellisville (offline). I just hope I can locate the associated word files. It would be painful to have to begin again. Have a restful weekend. Hope it’s spring weather where you are.

 

honing the writing: figuring out what to write

Let’s not regard this as a real post; let’s regard it as homework, since that’s what it is. That way, anyone who reads it is helping with my homework.

Our new season of classes began yesterday, and my first one–chosen specifically to unlock my mental writing block–is called “honing your writing,” or something like that. Just to be clear, Osher classes usually don’t require homework, but some Greek smartass a long time ago said If you wish to be a writer, then write!” and that’s more or less what the writing prof said too. So all of us promised to try to write a few words EVERY DAY for the six-week duration of the class. So here I go, with the idea of combining the two blocked areas of my life–writing/blogging–to see if I can overcome both.

Yesterday’s class included an in-class exercise of finding our stories by Bubbling. I remembered doing it long ago, but with the prof  standing over us with a bullwhip (I jest a little) I began with the note page you see below. (That’s my handwriting–lousy, huh?) For years I’ve wanted to do a long piece on the place where I grew up. Some of the people there, my family too, were real characters to say the least. And my life growing up on a farm in the 40’s and 50’s was so different from the lives of my children and grandchildren, I want to leave it as a legacy. That way, should they lean too heavily to self-importance, it will remind them my humble beginnings. Maybe someday they’ll be happy to have it. So here’s my first bubble. From there I bubbled whatever came to mind. I found I didn’t run out of ideas, but I did run out of time. Does this bubble look like a best seller to you?

bubbleWhat makes a book a best seller anyway? I suspect it happens when a book begins to sell well enough that suddenly everybody wants to be in on whatever the latest cool read is and goes out to buy the same book, especially if it has lots of explicit sex (Think: Fifty Shades Of Grey and Lady Chatterley’s Lover of my day).  I’m sure I’ve acquired books in that guise myself. If you can’t produce the cool stuff yourself, then be one of the first to read it. I think that’s how it works. Then there are the others that don’t need explanation (Think: The Book Thief and To Kill A Mockingbird). Anyhow, I’ve come to a good place in my writerly life. I still want to learn to write the very best that I can even if I’m too old, too lazy, or not smart or talented enough, because the older I get the harder it gets to organize my ideas.

So where do I begin? Nothing in class was new, I admit, though it’s good to be reminded. I know the best place to begin is not necessarily at the beginning, but in the middle of something. I think of it as putting the reader right there in the scene as an unseen observer. But I did learn a new Latin phrase In medias res! In the middle! Our next in-class exercise was to write without editing–for five minutes–a scene that begins in the middle, and see where it would take us. Here’s mine.

Look at her! Eighteen years old and she had never been to the circus, never done much of anything to tell the truth. Now she had a boyfriend who called her “Princess,” so when Barnum & Bailey came to town she asked him if he would take her. Now here they were, sitting in the bleachers up high enough to see all three rings at one time. The ring in the middle was empty, but in the first one she watched a man dressed in fancy britches coaxing a tiger through a series of hoops. But it was the high-flying trapeze artists that were lining up to enter the mid ring that intrigued her the most.

In my mind as I wrote I was seeing the net stockings the tired-looking performer was wearing, especially the hole in the back, on the thigh, that I was pretty sure she didn’t know was there. Suddenly the circus I’d always thought of as so glamorous looked a whole lot different than it did in my dreams. Did this circus portend her future, her life as an adult?  But five minutes didn’t allow me time to include those images.

There! That’s enough for one day!  I’ve done slightly less than 700 words already. Tomorrow, or should I say “next time,” I’m not sure where the muse will take me. Perhaps I’ll write about a few of the other questions a writer faces, such as a beginning hook (to snare the reader from the get-go). Or maybe I’ll write about things that bug me in general, like grey-haired 0ld men with flat-top haircuts.

Meanwhile, if anyone reading this aspires to be a writer themselves, then I refer them back to the opening paragraph and that Greek guy’s words: If you wish to be a writer, then write! Feel free to use the prompts that I’ve shared from my class.  And then let me read it.