Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finding one's voice


 I’ll go once, feel the vibes, meet the people. Something to do.
 That’s how I came to join the Bandon Writers, a few years ago. 
 Half a dozen people sitting around big  tables in a modest low-set building that served as a church on weekends, between  a carpet depot and a liquor store. The place is at the edge of a town with stunning vistas of the Pacific. 
 Here, the golf links are world famous, but every thing else feels insignificant.  Forest land on one side, the Pacific on the other, Highway 101 curving around pastures, forest groves and small hamlets.  Rivers and creeks swell up during the wet season covering roads and highways. The rest of the world wishes it could breathe this air and soak in these vistas. 

Those who live here wish they could be somewhere else after eight months of incessant rain.

 Seven are regulars:  Gus, Josie, Amie, Gilda, Lee, Hammer and Marla, pen names, chosen as handy umbrellas for unexpected fallouts.  The irony is that no umbrella can stop the soaking Oregon rain.
Layla introduced herself as Shena.   I shouted back at her, confused and excited:
“Didn’t you call yourself Layla?”
 Shena was an accomplished public persona, not the person that came through the stories.   Haunted by an accident she did not cause,  Shenalayla’s heart of soft cream, fluffed up to tell a heart wrenching story,  moving her memory’s camera angle each time to a new place, to gain understanding and find peace.  A mother’s grief.  She and Gilda had the same compulsion to revisit their children’s actions.
Raw needs to scratch wounds.
 New people were always dropping in. 
Early on, an old movie star came on her annual visit, distilling her life  in that one sharing, a single postcard with gilded edges.
 I too could appear and reappear, weave my lines, and become somebody else.
            Hints of cities, shiny new cars, childhood bikes.  A young girl with pink bows. Youth with hope crayons.  
Icy roads, gale winds, ruts, shoulder- less curves, did not compare to the fear that kept me from sharing.  I chose the pen name Nausika, the brave princess who helped ocean-weary  Odysseus.  
 Like him, I needed a life vest to get back to my roots. 
 I had lost the way home, lost my voice. 

  When I was five, a couple of men had come to our house to buy a horse.  The men were haggling.  It was late; Tired and hungry, I blurted out, “You are listing faults with the horse so you don’t have to pay the full price.”  The men mumbled something, and left abruptly.  Later, they returned to buy the horse and specifically asked Dad to keep me out of that meeting. Dad told that story many times, teasing me about my ability to see right through an issue.  
He added, “I like how you told the truth.”
Later, an incident at school discouraged  my instincts. 
  A group of missionaries  had arrived to preach during Passion Week, encouraging us to offer something from our heart, flowers, candles, a poem, something to show our devotion to the Virgin Mary.
  “Go out and choose the signs of your love, bring your tokens to church, and you will be blessed.”
After school, four of us went to pick flowers in the city park across the street,   singing, anticipating the joy of bringing those flowers to church.   A few minutes into the task, we were yelled at, and marched right back to school.
The following day, the teacher and the director paraded us at a public assembly so everybody would understand the crime we had committed.  
My parents decided  I needed additional punishment, once for the crime, and twice for the embarrassment to the family.  How could my parents doubt my good intentions and allow me to get punished so shamefully?  Was I not telling the truth?   

Our  Monday group explored moral marshes of undiscovered depths.  I was traipsing in, longing to recapture a world that was more transparent.  I just wanted my voice to evolve and be distinguished from the  chorus.  The group may not like what they heard, but I needed to say it.  
I needed to examine the gains  and losses,  virtues and vices.

             Gus, eighty-something, having difficulty staying awake, sharing bits of this and that,  read in a strong voice, transporting us.  Before we could react, he would tell us the writer who had written the piece.  Sometimes he didn’t say a thing, and we could not tell.   
  He wrote stories about ordinary detectives who had worked long and hard, obsessed with horrible crimes.  
 I didn’t care for those stories.  
Evil scared me.
 Gus’s  wife waited for him in the parking lot, ready to drive him home.  I asked him once to let her come in and stay warm inside with the group. No, he said, she does not like people.  She is Scandinavian.  He went on and on, depicting a devoted, but very quirky woman who drove him everywhere  and just waited outside. 
A bit like my husband, another Norse  loving his solitude. 
Me, I must have people.  I guess we tend to balance each other, most of the times.
 What makes a man Gus’s age want to spend time writing about crimes?  Is it an antidote to a dull life sitting on the fence? There must be more.  If you were to judge me by what I write, well, you’d think me unhappy and serious. Plenty of ghosts have kept me awake, jabbering in different languages.  In the daytime, those ghosts are continents away. 
In the daytime, I speak the language of expedience.
 Getting older makes us fearful of our bodily functions getting away from us; fart, and you must retreat.  We’ve already given up on sweets, long walks and  favorite pasta.  What’s next?

 Lee was the published author in our group.  I sought his work in the libraries after Gilda gave me one of his books.   Evil characters were also  prominent in his books.
 The last book I read depicted a Nazi Doctor holed up with a Jewish woman in New York.  A proud man on top of his game, had just received the Nobel Peace prize for helping starving nations. During his acceptance speech he publicly admits  to be one of the world’s most wanted criminal.  Holing up in New York was his way to sort out his life and provide the explanations to the world.  His logic was flawless. Evil among us.
Midway through the story, I wanted to put the book down.  I shared with him that the protagonist was way too evil for my sensibilities.   That book got him hate mail, he confessed.
 I was not skilled.  Most of us were not.  But  Lee’s abilities to create characters and events on a world wide scale were so superior  that it was hard to find the courage to disagree with him.  He was a master.  I felt like hamburger next to Kobe beef.    Lee was not his real name either.

            Josie  wrote stories that were  both light and heavy, about conquering or being encumbered.  She was afraid of growing old.  Needs in plain view.  Youngest among the regulars, her shoulders and  hair told us what we suspected:  she was still enjoying regular sex. Lucky girl. Most of us couldn’t even think about what we were missing.  She reeked of hungers reserved for the young. Lust for all things sweet and forbidden.  Subjects of soap operas and Harlequin romances.

 When did we start hiding our needs?  Growing pains and aging pains are the same; they hit you when you are most vulnerable.  Only, when you are older you are given pills.  They must think we have more disposable income, or are needier, or more impatient.  Give us, oh Lord, our daily pill, like there is a tomorrow…

 Amie, an actor with a life on a couple of continents, read with various accents, gambling adventures  one day,  and romantic escapades another.  Her stories, like stage plays,  were gorged with  dialogue and stage directions, with characters  eager to be transported or too damaged to care.  She encouraged suggestions, fussed with details, dressed  her characters carefully.
 Amie’s real life could fill many story plots, each with new vocabulary she so eagerly collected. Amy was a collector.  A connoisseur of people and things.   Her stories courted regret, and the greedy need for recognition that had been earned but not yet  bestowed.
 Getting up from her usual seat across Hammer, she’d walk over to the bookshelves and look up words in the unabridged dictionary, challenging  the subtler meanings.  Her vocabulary was second only to Lee’s.  Her challenges were ours.

Water  permeated every aspect of life.   A walk on the beach brought us face to face with death.  Water could not be ignored.  The force of the waves and the force of running water were all around us.   No matter how heavy a log is when it falls and traps the water of the creek, eventually, those waters will rise and tumble over, demanding their natural destination. 
Each of us asked that of our writing. 
That if we could not move that log, than we needed to find a way to rectify the situation, and send those waters down to the ocean.  All things find their way to the end. 
The forces of the universe.

 Gilda, sitting next to Amie, understood the needs of those characters, women who were vocal about their needs, unashamed of wanting more.  But I did not understand; my generation felt a whole lot of guilt in wanting anything. 
We didn’t speak up about our needs.
 Gilda had invited me to join the group. She was writing about her daughter and grandchild.  I mentioned that I was interested in writing about mother-daughter relationships.  My need to write surged when I could not speak .   I know parents who walk on eggshells around their daughters.  They can’t quite put their finger on the problem, the rebelliousness and the rejection that they get from their daughters.  Something about girls’ need to be loved and cherished gets confused with other needs. 

Hearing  other writers  stumble  to find a good rhythm made us patient with our own  writing.   Attempting to help, though,  turned into something else.  We resembled  hungry pups,  selfishly fighting to get more. If people could not take criticism, then, they were not serious.  Those of us who stuck around and returned for more punches were beginning to feel immune.  Go ahead, we can take it, we sang to ourselves.

Once, this man who had been attending regularly came with his wife.  He was confident and eloquent.  His wife was protective.  That day, when she heard a negative remark, she just couldn’t take it anymore, she declared angrily.  She got up and told her husband to follow her.  Astounded, we remained numb. 
Her anger, raw and pointed:
 “If you guys know better, then where is your stuff?”
 There should have been an applause.  None followed.
  “We need both nurturing and criticism” I thought.
 We need the bitter-sweet honest truth, the tension that keeps us working harder.
I hated  sitting on the receiving end.  Wait, I wanted to shout back, wait, didn’t you like..? 

The poets in the group seemed to do better. 
I enjoyed every one of Marla’s poems, sharp and touching tributes to the human condition.  We could hear the English teacher in her comments, a person who respected precision, and valued the subtleties of language. Marla fussed about every comma and every article.  For her, poetry had only one chance to get it right.

Layla was semi- regular.   She had disappeared for a year before I met her.  I immediately liked her.  Something about trying to tell a difficult story.  Sometimes, she traded musings for a bit of inner peace, a small harbor for her pains.  We all understood that she needed to tear the bandages, expose her wounds.  The toughest part was that her life was precarious still, and whatever she touched spoke of fragility.  We understood fragility.  Fragility sits right under the eyelids,   waves waiting to hit the shore.
When I shared my first story I could hardly read it out loud, for tears were blocking my words.  There was a hole in my heart that needed mending.  And I was the only one who knew that.
Lee’s admonishment that it is not how the author feels, but how the reader feels that counts, is now burned in me.  What do I have to do to make my reader feel like I feel?  What are the words that speak directly to the heart?


  1. What a wonderful post. I love the description of the different members of your group. I wish I had a group like that here to join. What a great, challenging experience.

  2. Eva, look around, ask at coffee shops. People meet informally here and there, and someone must know someone.

  3. Writers are a special breed with worlds living inside them.

  4. Normal, yes! There are worlds we carry within us, pushing against the walls of our being, wanting to burst out.

    Somehow, we have to manage to live our daily lives in both worlds, don't we?