By Florence Fois
I would like to thank Laura Drake and those here at WITS for this gracious invitation to share my journey. I have spent many a happy hour reading the talented women who contribute to this blog and feel honored to be counted in their company.
Once upon a time, a little girl told her mother a fantastical tale of woebegone. Her arms flailed in the air and her breath hitched on every suspense-filled moment. As she rounded the kitchen table for the tenth time, her mother turned and said … “If you don’t stop talking and set the table, I’ll send you to your room without supper.”
That is where it all began.
In three, easy-to-read steps I will attempt to describe who I am, what I do and how I do it. Tag along for a while and see how this journey on the rocky road to me, might one day put my “fantastical tales” between the boards.
Around and around they run in the hamster’s wheel, stuffed into a trunk from the Belasco or the Majestic, viewed on TV, the depression musicals or old black and white melodrama.
Listen to them at lunch counters. Watch a husband and a wife, mid-seventy to eighty argue in a supermarket. “All right already, Ethel, get the damn brisket.”
From books, newspapers or magazines, a news flash or broadcast journals, early HBO Comedy shows, adult animation, early animation, the antics of Bugs Bunny or Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Bullwinkle or Natasha.
For years as I plodded back and forth on busses and subways to school or work, I would become lost in the movement and begin a story in my head. During this time, I created an imaginary character and gave her my own middle name.
Once, I spent three years, on the Sea Beach Express, doing a soap opera in which this character was the heroine. She ended up in a coma, got kidnapped by dastardly villains, was shipwrecked on a deserted island with a handsome sailor, made ravenous love to countless men, married four times and recovered from an endless chain of diseases and injuries.
I collect stories in my head, as a child collects wild flowers in an open field. Soon the child is joined by another or on the way back home, she meets a stranger.
Frequently faces are called forward by the sound of music playing in the back of a room, the song on the radio on the way to work, or the album covers collecting dust in my closet. They call to me each day as I walk along the streets, the back of a head, the scent of an after shave or perfume, the sound of someone laughing on the other side of a restaurant; each night shadows of images appear in a half dream.
Characters … We collect their images in photographs, save tattered cards or letters that remind us of one of them. We touch and stroke an old doll, a battered fire engine or the lovely vase they left behind. We dare not empty the suitcase in the attic, the box wrapped with worn twine in the basement, the bags stuffed in the back of a closet.
They are amalgams of all the people you have known, heard or saw somewhere. When the time is right, dig into the trunk, dust off the old costumes and have fun playing dress up.
The best part of being a neurotic is it is all in there. Like computer chips, the sounds and images never go away.
Setting is not only a place we know well. It is where we center the people in the stories we write, and is the second most important character in our stories.
My stories may be set in one of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn where I grew up. They may be located in the controversial neighborhood of Washington Heights in Northern Manhattan, where I raised my two children. They might take a detour to one of the other five boroughs, to the old world of Tottenville, Staten Island, the rolling hills of Riverdale in the Bronx, or the vast acreage of Flushing Meadows in Queens.
I love to explore the burbs of The City or travel up the Hudson River to the Mid-Hudson Valley town of Poughkeepsie where my mother’s family lived.
I vacationed on Fire Island, adore The Hamptons and spent several years roaming the beaches on the Jersey Shore. New Yorkers split their summers between these three fabulous locations and my stories do as well.
For more than a decade, I have been a transplanted, vine-ripened-Jersey-beef-steak-Brooklyn-bred-red-hot-tomato. I retired early and took no pension to write full-time. I settled into in the sandy earth of southern Florida, where the headline news each morning, noon and night is weather. With this, I have gained a new perspective on settings.
The blue turquoise waters of the Atlantic mixing with the Caribbean as you drive through the Florida Keys, the incredible journey along the Seven Mile Bridge, the amazing Gold Coast or the only river in the United States that runs from East to West, the Saint John’s River, contain my only story to-date about woman of vintage. Excuse please, no three-letter words permitted here.
Settings throughout our known and unknown worlds provide inspiration, beg exploration, and even with firsthand knowledge, require tons of research.
My insatiable curiosity has driven me to research Italy, the country of my father’s birth, my French family, based in Paris, with its etoile points moving out from the center of Paris along the River Seine, or other small towns surrounding The City of Lights, through the plush regions of Provence, to the beaches along the Riviera.
A setting can be as simple as one small house, an apartment building, a farm or ranch, or it can be on another planet.
Pick a place, anywhere in the universe, plant your character, select your supporting cast and …
How does the germ of an idea plant itself in the soft soil of our brain and spout a fruit tree, a beautiful garden or a tangle of weeds? We prune and care for our gardens with loving hands. The weeds we pull out by the root and send to the trash.
Planning a plot or sub-plot, at least for me, does not work well. My stories usually begin with the image and sound of a person. Some of them can germinate for a long time, and as in nature, not all seeds blossom at the same time … they blossom in their own time. As the seed of the story begins to take root, I am still clueless as to what it will bring forth.
I have heard writers tell of a vacation, a business trip, or the unexpected visit of a long, lost relative that spurred them to sit down and write a story. I recently had lunch with an aspiring writer who told me the fascinating story of a dream, which she has turned into a novel.
Inspiration is all around us. Like the air we breathe, it nourishes our spirits, and drives us towards the notepad or computer. With urgency and angst, like a heartbeat threatening to break through our chests, it grabs us by the collar and tosses us around like a leaf in the wind.
Often I begin with snappy one-liners, edited out in the fourth or fifth draft. They have done their job, and now I must do mine. The truth of nature is that in order for the blossom to grow the seed must be destroyed. So be it. I have the momentum and once I take hold of that one thought, I do not stop until … The End … the end of the beginning, to be more accurate.
In other stories, the process of finding the plot, creating sub-plots (or not) and finding my way into a story is not as simple. I begin to write what I thought I wanted to say only to find myself lost. Often I discard a story after as many as the NaNo requisite of 50K words. There is a lesson in there, but I am not the one who teaches, I am the one who learns.
Learn from those lousy first drafts. Do not be afraid to lose them, but NEVER actually delete. In that discarded (or in my case “saved”) file, you might find the germ of another idea.
Remember not to bang your head against the wall too many times, you could get hurt.
When my work did not make it from the brain to the blank page, it remained, often untended, and with no conscious effort on my part, continued to grow. I have a belief that our worst nightmares, fears, and insecurities are the product of those lousy weeds needing to go to the trash.
There is no sane explanation for how we begin to plot a story. Armed with inspiration from we know not where, we begin, never knowing where it will lead us.
A good lesson from this is don’t annoy strangers on elevators, never bump into old ladies with your shopping cart, and seek professional help if you see bats in your belfrey.
The rocky road to me …
I wonder what it would have been like to read a book on writing by Franz Kafka … no better than he … how about a book on writing advice by J. D. Salinger? Good grief. It would be the shortest book in the history of publishing. Kafka might be longer. He might tell you point of view is being the bug.
If you write long enough and you are lucky enough to find honest readers, you will eventually ferret out your personal demons, spelling flaws, and grammar glitches. It does not matter if you start with a character or a plot. It matters less if you are a plotter or a panstser. What matters is that you park your posterior somewhere and begin.
After I decided to pack my wares and take my show on the road, I rented a storage unit where I kept my most cherished collectables, my china, my mother’s china and many of my precious memories, and in one dusty old box, the stories I wrote a lifetime ago.
Four years ago, I opened that box. How delightful and how very strange it was to open the door to a long forgotten inner chamber.
I came to this time in my life in stages of learning, failing and final determination.
The first time I was that little girl, following her mother and amusing her friends with humorous stories. “Is that one of your stories, or did that actually happen?” Poor mom, she never knew.
My school friends knew and among the 812 in my all girl high school, I was voted the most likely to make you laugh. My work-mates knew, four of them rearranged their lunch schedules to sit in the break room and listen to my stories about boyfriends and Friday night dances in Brooklyn church basements.
Life does not follow a straight path.
The second time I was a frightened, a twenty-nine year old freshman in college. To my delight and my good fortune, the powers-that-be sent me packing to a great program (similar to the university without walls), the CUNY BA program, where I happily skipped those horrible pre-requisites, was published in several university and small press journals and encouraged to enter the Columbia School of Journalism or the MFA writing program at Columbia.
Not. The journals I kept during those years were voluminous and had titles. The first,Mad Mother From Brooklyn, was a disjointed, comic discourse about the life and good times with my babies in Brooklyn. Remember when I said NEVER actually delete anything? The Mad Mother became the germ of an idea I finally completed this July … You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio. It morphed into a stream-of-consciousness novella I plan to send to small press publishers.
The second journal, called Ramblings, two years ago this month, became the name of my blog.
The third time, I arrived older, perhaps wiser and with more behind than I care to sit on.
I stopped to rest along the side of that rocky road, opened the dusty box with my old stories, and reluctantly agreed to join a friend at the Parkland Library for my first experience with a writer’s group. More terrified than the young mother beginning college twelve years after her peers, I sat frozen in my seat and refused to read for three weeks.
In a recent post, I said I had done a four-year journey towards my virtual MFA. Taking longer than the average Jane Duh to accomplish this feat, I have written over one million words and rewritten more than a quarter of them.
Some of us sprout early blooms … the lilac and the azalea that brighten our springtime. Others like the rose, bloom throughout the summer with an array of colors to dazzle the imagination.
Then there are the cactus and the orchid, who take longer to produce fewer blooms. There are the small bushes that line the drive and the oak tree that provides shade for picnics. I am a baby of autumn and my leaves have turned orange and gold and crimson red for your pleasure, and I have finally arrived.
Each of us travels a different route to becoming who we need to be. Mine has taken longer.
With my heart held tightly in my southpaw, I finally know … this is my time.
fOIS In The City