Eat Your Pie and Listen

It’s Christmas and most people have some time off work, except we writers, who are always on the job—even more so at the holidays. But this is not as hard as it sounds if you follow my easy method. At your holiday gatherings with family and friends, load your plate with a few thousand calories, settle back in a comfy chair—and listen to Uncle Fred’s stories. It’s that simple.

Every family has an Uncle Fred, the gregarious guy with the Spanx-tight memory who loves to go on and on about the old days. Well, let him. And give yourself permission to shamelessly mine his stories for new material, let him dredge up the long-buried family embarrassments that will make your writing come to life.

The holidays make people nostalgic, and with enough rum-spiked eggnog you’ll finally get the truth behind the rumor that Aunt Ruth is really Uncle Charlie’s second wife and why we never ever mention wife number one. Continue reading “Eat Your Pie and Listen”

Calling All Monsters

As I walked a back alley of Ghost Town, Knott’s Berry Farm during Halloween Haunt, an ominous purple fog hung in the air, and with each step it swirled like a brew in a witch’s cauldron. Eerie green lamplights flickered devilishly, casting a sick pallor on my skin. From the corner of my eye, I saw something lurking, something in tattered clothes with a hideous half-missing face, like the victim of a flesh-eating bacteria.

Then it spotted me. Though handicapped by a dragging, lifeless foot, it moved fast, and quickly gained ground. In one huge lunge it split the curtain of fog, the only thing separating me from this abomination. I froze.

It dragged itself even closer and grabbed my arm. Then it spoke. “Pam, my mask is coming unglued.”

“Again?” I said, and reached into my Monster Repair Kit. With spirit gum I reattached the latex prosthetic and sent the foot-dragger back into the fog. When I heard a blood-curdling female scream, I knew my monster was hard at work.

As head of wardrobe for Halloween Haunt, monster repair was just part of my job; I was also in charge of the daily cleaning of 500 costumes. At 2 am, when the talent returned after an 8-hour shift, their clothes were wringing wet and reeking with sweat and bad cologne.

While prepping the first load of laundry, I reached into a monster’s pocket looking for the usual forgotten Chap Stick or Tic-Tacs, and pulled out something I’d never before found—a small folded piece of paper.

I opened it, and read, “Hi, I’m Julie. Call me,” followed by a phone number. I burst out laughing, not because I find young love amusing, but because this particular monster wore a putrid pea-green mask with skin the texture of large-curd cottage cheese. One of its eyes had escaped its socket and oozed down the cheek, where it collided with a torn and bloody lip. This girl clearly had no idea what the person beneath the mask looked like. And because he also wore a pair of fake fangs, I doubted the two had had much of a chance to talk. The monster could only show his interest with his eyes, or in this case—eye.

This had to be an anomaly, I thought, until I moved on to the extremely stinky costume of a monster that sported a gray rotting-corpse mask, complete with pupating fly larvae. I found a phone number in his pocket too. Sandi, a resourceful girl who’d dotted her “i” with a heart, had given her cell and work numbers.

Now, I’ve heard that love is blind, but apparently, it also has no sense of smell.

After cleaning the costumes I debated whether to toss the numbers, but in the end—love triumphed. Yet, even though Julie was attracted to the putrid cottage cheese face and Sandi was more your rotting-corpse type, because it was Halloween, I confess, I played a trick and reversed the mash notes. I doubt the girls ever noticed.

It’s Alive

Every Halloween, after I’ve handed out the last of the candy—okay, I save a few Kit-Kats for myself—I turn out the lights, curl up on my sofa and watch Young Frankenstein starring the sorely-missed Gene Wilder. The script, co-written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, is brilliant. I’ve seen it so many times I can recite the dialogue. I even know when to whinny like a frightened horse when someone says, “Frau Blücher.” I love the scene where Dr. Frankenstein reanimates the creature, who has mistakenly been given the brain of someone named Abbey Normal. While a huge storm rages, the white-coated doctor, with his mad scientist eyes and his wind-ravaged hair, looks up to the dark, menacing sky and shouts, “It’s alive!”

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing, but stay with me. I really do have a point. Continue reading “It’s Alive”

The Key Graveyard

In a fall cleaning frenzy, I tackled my kitchen junk drawer. I chucked expired coupons, dozens of plastic bread ties that I’d saved in case of a severe bread-tie shortage, and handfuls of dried out rubber bands that broke when stretched. Then I ran across a box of old keys.

Hmmm? I lined them up on the kitchen counter. There were nine car keys, which was odd, because in my life, I’d only owned four cars.

I found the spare key to my 1968 Ford Falcon. Three on the tree, pull-out choke on the dash. I bought it used for $200, drove it for three years, and sold it for $250. I couldn’t find the spare key for the new owner, so I’d had a copy made. It cost 35 cents. Today a new key is $200—the same price as this entire car.

I found the key to my first new car. A 1976 Toyota Corolla, which ironically, got keyed the first day I parked it at work. It was Rah! Rah! Bicentennial! Buy American year!

Here was the key to my old boyfriend’s house. We broke up two decades ago when I ‘d found another woman’s underwear tangled in the bed sheets. “Oh, those belong to my fiancée,” he’d said, having never mentioned a fiancée before. It made me wonder if saving this key qualified me as a masochist. Continue reading “The Key Graveyard”

The Art of Procrastination

Judy Tenuta once said, “My parents told me I’d never amount to anything because I procrastinated too much. I told them, ‘Just you wait.’”

Procrastination is a skill that takes decades to properly master. A childish amateur might miss a deadline and attempt the old cliché, “I tried to do it, but the dog ate my homework.” But it takes a really skilled writer to bring procrastination up to the level of a fine art form. As Roy Peter Clark says in his book, Writing Tools, “Never write today what you can put off until tomorrow.” With that mantra, I’m surprised he ever finished his book. Harold Ross of The New Yorker said, “Like many people, I started blogging out of an urgent need to procrastinate.”

The word procrastination is derived from the Latin cras—meaning “Tomorrow.” This tomorrow does not have the same hopeful, uplifting message Little Orphan Annie belts out with her show-stopping song. Many famous writers suffer from procrastination and have taken the word tomorrow to literally mean tomorrow. Mañana. The day after today. Or maybe the next.

Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame says, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” On missing a deadline, Dorothy Parker remarked, “Somebody was using the pencil.” Robert Benchley said, “Anyone can do any amount of work providing it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean not only confessed to being a procrastinator, at the recent Long Beach Literary Women Conference, she gave a few tips on how to do it at home. Her first tip was to organize your bookshelves by color, then to move on to your clothes closet. Her theory being, “I’m organizing, I’m accomplishing, so how can I be a procrastinator?”

Continue reading “The Art of Procrastination”

Literary Conference Wisdom

 At this year’s Literary Orange, I learned many tidbits to help inspire writers. Did you know that only 4% of people who start to write a book ever finish it? So if you have finished a book, congratulations, you are in rarefied territory.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the conference:

  • We write to make sense of the world.
  • We don’t know how strong we are until we need to be.
  • If you don’t work on your dream, someone else will hire you to work on their dream.
  • Stubborn writers make it.
  • If you write books about yourself, you have enough for one novel and three poems.
  • Nothing in fiction actually happens, but it’s all true—emotionally.
  • In a book you only have to give instructions to a kid once.
  • Everyone experiences a family differently. You and your siblings have the same parents, and yet you don’t.
  • Torture your characters without forsaking them.
  • Failure is the key to success.

I also learned to never give up. That seemed to be a running theme of the conference. Best-selling author Jonathan Evison, who was wearing a T-shirt that said: “Careful or You’ll Wind Up in My Book,” never did. He wrote eight books before being published, and continued writing despite a major setback– his agent quit to go to clown school. Mr. Evison was so desperate that he asked his agent if he could still represent him when he wasn’t studying pratfalls.

Keynote speaker Fannie Flagg had her own never-give-up story. She started by revealing that her real name is Patricia Neal, Patsy for short. (She had to change her name because the Screen Actor’s Guild doesn’t allow two actors to have the same name, and Patricia Neal was already taken.) Ms. Flagg then told this anecdote. Someone once said of her, “She writes those feel-good books.”

She smiled, but a friend told her, “I don’t think that’s a compliment.”

Continue reading “Literary Conference Wisdom”

Do You Know the Way to Cupertino?

 I just watched the National Spelling Bee and was mesmerized, no, the correct word is shamed, by the contest’s youngest-ever entrant, six-year-old Edith. She and her bouncy, blonde curls made it all the way to round three before being eliminated.

At our grade-school spelling bee I was always eliminated in the first round. I could never remember which letters were doubled or if it was supposed to be “intro” or “intra.” And to this day I still have to recite, “I before E except after C.” That’s why I rely so heavily on my computer’s Spell Checker to correct my spelling before my words go out into the world and embarrass me. Which, ironically, is one of those words I can’t spell. When I use Spell Check—that magical I-won’t-let-you-look-like-an-idiot feature, I only have to type in a close approximation of a troublesome word and a box comes up with alternate suggestions. And strangely, looking at the choices, I can tell which one is spelled right.

Spell Check became my best friend. But it also became my worst enemy when, one day, it said, “I’m tired of fixing your stupid-ass mistakes. Let’s have some fun.”

Continue reading “Do You Know the Way to Cupertino?”

How to Pick a Cat

Dogs are easy to pick. You walk into a shelter and all the dogs bark, which is canine for, “Pick me, pick me. Me, me, me.” Then the tails wag, which means, “I’m friendly. I can be your new best friend. Say, have you lost weight? Because you look like you’ve lost weight.” Next is the licking. And ladies, here is the short-skirt warning: Any exposed skin is fair game. So cover any lady parts you don’t want licked. Dog slobber says, “You are mine. Take me home.”

The final step in choosing a dog is to close your eyes and pick any one of them; you can’t go wrong. Now cats are a different animal. While you pick a dog, a cat picks you. You may think you have control of this process, but that’s what cats want you to think. Play along with their grand scheme.

Let’s examine three cats.

Continue reading “How to Pick a Cat”

Kitchen Rules

If you are what you eat, then I’m fast, cheap, and easy. But, I can live with that. What I can’t live with—yet have been forced to endure—is a messy kitchen. Every day I wonder how my sacred space ends up looking like a before photo on a hoarding show. Well, not quite that bad, but you get the idea. And the ironic part is that I’m a very neat person. Not up to the tidiness level of OCD—I don’t bleach grout with Clorox and Q-Tips—but I wipe counters, wash dishes, and scour sinks. So why is my kitchen always stained with a Rorschach test of drips, spills, and splashes?

Let me answer this question in one word: Husband.

My husband is a messy guy. He doesn’t mean to be; it just comes naturally, like snoring. I’ve lived with this for over thirty years—the messiness, not the snoring; that was cued with a C-Pap machine—yet still I insist on believing that I can retrain him when I know, deep down in my heart, that this bit of wisdom is true: Shoes don’t stretch and men don’t change. Continue reading “Kitchen Rules”

The Theory of Time

All time is relative, as demonstrated by one of its ruling principles, Tallman’s Theory of Relatives. It states that each day your relatives visit, actually lasts for 30 days. This explains why your crazy mother-in-law’s three-day stay feels like three months.

This abstract and somewhat fluid concept of time may confuse you; so let me clarify. Time exists on two parallel planes: real time and perceived time. This can be demonstrated when my alarm clock goes off at 7:00 am, and I close my eyes for five minutes. But when I open them again, it’s 8:45.

Perceived time is a paradox, as illustrated by this opposite example. At work when it’s 3:30, I close my eyes for five minutes, and when I open them again, it’s still 3:30. This sub-principle is known as The Microwave Misconception, derived from the doctrine that states: Microwave Minutes, or MM, are, in actuality, longer than Actual Minutes, or AM. So when expressing this mathematically, remember that MM is always less than AM.

For proof, I give you Tallman’s Theory of Toaster Waffles. I’ve viewed countless displays of this thesis, which states that, though it should take five minutes to toast a waffle, it will, in actuality, take one hour. Longer if you’re really hungry. Continue reading “The Theory of Time”