Listen to Your Characters


Outtakes 205

Listen to Your Characters

by Cait Collins

 

Some folks think I’m crazy when I tell them that I talk to my characters and they answer me. Truth is I’m quite sane. I get some of my best ideas just carrying on a conversation with a character in my story. It goes something like this.

“So, Chad, you’ve found a new girlfriend. What’s she like? Who are her people? What does she do? What’s her name?”

Chad responds. “Well, she’s cute. Not heart-stopping beautiful, but cute. And she’s funny. She tells the best jokes. Have you heard the one about…?” Okay, you’re not in the mood for jokes. She’s a teacher. High school English. Beth. Her name is Beth. My girl’s a great educator. Beth teaches some of the old stuff like conjugating verbs and diagramming sentences.

‘Her folks died in an auto accident and Beth raised her sister, Amy. The kid graduates in the spring and plans to study law at Harvard. I guess you want to know how Amy can go to Harvard when her guardian is a school teacher. Well, the folks were pretty well off. They set up trust funds for the girls, but Beth is as frugal as her Scots ancestors. Anyway, we’re planning a trip to the Highlands after Amy graduates.”

In a short conversation, I’ve learned the girl friend’s name, she has a good sense of humor, her ancestors are from Scotland, her occupation, and future plans. But I didn’t ask where everyone lived.

“I bet you don’t know how to find the Old North Church. The one of Paul Revere fame. One if by land; two if by sea. After her folks died, the girls moved here, to Denver. It’s got to be real strange to wake up with the mountains instead of the ocean.”

As you can see, my conversations with Chad garnered useful information. And it’s better than talking to myself.

 

GEMS


GEMS

by Sharon Stevens

Mary Elizabeth Gordon-Cummings died forty years ago this month. She had fallen down the basement steps of her crumbling home and laid there several days in a heap on the floor, no one hearing her cries before a neighbor came to check on her. Old age and pneumonia then tore her down and she succumbed, her features clawed and withered with severe arthritis. She spent her last days in a clinical environment in a local hospital where everyone saw her as ancient.

We called her Aunt Molly and knew her as neighbor in my years growing up. How many times I wished I had visited with her. What could she have taught me with her stories and her memories. What could she have shared with her artist’s eye and her love of all that surrounded her. We will never know. She carried everything to her grave. She was old, her joints knarled and ugly, pain marring every feature. Nothing is left. She is dead and buried. All is gone.

But wait. I have her picture from a photograph that once hung on the walls of the Randall County Courthouse. There is no notation of when it was taken or where or why. It doesn’t tell the story of when she was born, or her passions, or her pain, but her beauty and the sweet face of youth is captured within.

Phebe Warner had urged her to come to the plains of Texas to apply as an art teacher at Goodnight College. Molly and Charles Goodnight welcomed her with open arms and gave her a glimpse of the empire they had established as the J.A. Ranch. Coming from Dallas and encountering dirt streets of Amarillo and the limited comforts of home must have been an eye opener. But the first meal at their home she remembered how the lemonade looked in the glass pitcher, the tour of the gardens, the bee hives, and of course the ranch itself.

She met Charles Lennox Gordon-Cummings at the Goodnights, and they married and moved to land west of Canyon on the Tierra Blanco Creek. Later they built a magnificent home and raised three daughters out here on the Texas plains. Mr. Gordon-Cummings died in the 1940’s and Molly lived out her life alone except for her brother that lived with her until his death in a train accident. You can read the story of her life in “The Randall County Story” by Grace Warwick.  We became her neighbors in 1952 when my dad bought land and moved us out to the country in the hottest year in recorded history.

I was reminded of Aunt Molly at this year’s annual “Night At The Museum” at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum. I volunteered at the kit house in my role player costume. Armed with my picture of Molly in her youth, a glass picture filled with colored stones, and with my storytelling patchwork hat perched on my head I shared the story of Mary Elizabeth Gordon-Cummings and hoped I made her come alive.

I chose the bright gems in the pitcher because my mother had shared with me that Aunt Molly used to take broken pieces of glass and paint the images that flooded through from the sunlight. What rainbows she must have seen. What colors and prisms must have shown through. What beauty she must have witnessed among the shades of dirt and shadow.

And this brings me to this week’s blog on writing. On the season finale of “Castle” his daughter is agonizing over her valedictory speech after researching speeches by the famous such as Steve Jobs, and presidents, and historical figures and famous celebrities. Castle advises her (and I will never forget his words), “write whats true to you”.

In my writings I could pen about how Mary Elizabeth died a horrible death, abandoned, without neighbors to care whether she lived or died. I could write a horror story about how arthritis had turned her body into a mass of ugliness with her hands so gnarled she couldn’t even pick up a spoon to feed herself, much less a brush to paint. But I CHOOSE to write of her beauty, and imagine the sunrises and the sunsets she must have seen from the top floor of her great home. My heart CHOOSES to remember the smell of the lilacs that lined the walk, and the massive, shimmering cottonwoods that shaded her memories.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to read all kinds of stories from “Chicken Soup for the Soul” all the way to zombies, murder and mayhem. I have troubles with “Flowers in the Attic” but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate good writing. I don’t mind being led to an author I haven’t read before such as Harlan Coban and I absolutely fell in love with Stephen King’s, “Dorothy Claiborne”.  I will always treasure stories like “E.T.” and “The Goonies” (celebrating 25 years), “Toy Story” and any story that encompasses good versus evil. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is just one of my favorites with the connection to being filmed in Palo Duro Canyon on the Christian Ranch. And don’t get me started on the musical drama TEXAS. More importantly, I remember those who struggled and faced adversity, but found strength within because they were surrounded by friends. I treasure community and neighbors and family, those that touch our lives on the level of all that is good and honest. My passion is to share of heritage, legacy, the pioneer spirit, beauty, patriotism, and freedom. OH sweet freedom. I feel that there is always room for that

I will always treasure the spirit of Aunt Molly and the artistry she shared. And even though I read anything and everything in sight, I just want to write what is true to me, myself and I.  To me each word and every memory is a gem.

By the way this week celebrates the Queens Diamond Jubilee and since Charles Lennox-Gordon-Cummings was titled nobility from Scotland I am sure he would have received an invitation to the festivities. This week also marks the anniversary of D-Day during World War II and may we stop to remember not only June 6 but also each and every day past, present and future that we honor not only those in service, but those on the home front and the veterans and their families that share this common bond that ties us all to conflict and peace.

Last but not least…WTAMU is hosting the SUMMER STORYTELLING CONFERENCE on campus June 8-10, 2012 at the Sybil Harrington Fine Arts Complex. Friday and Saturday there will be concerts in the FAC Recital Hall at 7pm with a Sacred Story Concert Sunday from 9-10:30 a.m. at the Joseph Hill Chapel. Dr. Trudy Hanson has all the registration information and Eldrina Douma has been instrumental in sharing her stories. The guest speakers are from around the country and our own Jodi Thomas will be front and center speaking on creative storytelling.

And don’t forget the Frontiers in Writing Conference June 28 with the best guest speakers ever, Natalie Bright is the conference chair. And then also we celebrate the Writing Academy at WTAMU with Jodi Thomas and Tim Lewis. WHEW what a lineup!

Sharon Stevens