My mother was a great storyteller.
Many of her tales came from childhood days spent in the coastal Florida town of Fernandina Beach. For a number of years, her parents managed the Keystone Hotel in Center Street. They lived there too, and many of Mom's best stories came from that time.
Few intrigued me more than the one about the night blooming cereus.
Her Dad, Papa Louis, was a keen gardener and prided himself on nurturing some plants that were unusual for a coastal Florida town. One of these was his night blooming cereus, a rather exotic specimen (of the cactus family) that bloomed once a year, and only at night.
The plant sat in its ornate pot on a table in the hotel lobby. Months and months went by. Nothing happened. People marveled at this unusual character sitting there, seemingly inactive, but all the while plotting its stunning nocturnal, debut and demise, because the bloom would wilt and die by daybreak.
Needless to say, when the time was near, the whole town gathered in the lobby of the Keystone Hotel in Fernandina Beach to watch the beauty unfold in the gathering dark. One can only suppose they watched it by candlelight - and few photos of the one hit wonder exist, for obvious reasons - so I've included a rather dashing drawing of the one I think my grandfather cultivated and showed to the world on that glamorous night of wonder.
As a writer, the whole idea of this flower blossoming only once, at night, gave me plenty of fodder for stories and I wrote one which I thought was hauntingly beautiful and mysterious. I was so caught up in the magic of this small, perfect, blossom that I made a critical mistake: I indulged my delight in the bloom and its magic to such an extent that nothing really happened in my story: there was no turning point, no crisis, no conflict, no resolution.
An astute friend of mine listened as I moaned about the narrative going nowhere, and how I didn't know how to make this story about a priceless and rare plant more thrilling, and she sighed with boredom and said, "Have someone drop the bloody thing on the floor."
I was horrified and appalled by her suggestion - I could not 'kill my darling' as William Faulkner would have suggested, had he been listening.
But sometimes that's what we have to do, because the writing isn't all about us and what we want - it's about our readers. Our creation/words/ideas/characters may be precious to us, we love them and cannot bear to part with them .. but if they serve no purpose to the story or the reader, then they will have to go.
I never did write that ending into my story about the night blooming cereus. I simply couldn't bear to kill off this gorgeous thing I'd written about. It broke my heart.
Lesson One: kill your darlings. Sometimes you have to.
The inspiration of objects
Here is a photo of a rocking chair.
It has a nice cushion with birds, it sits in a bright room by a window, it looks like a comfortable place to hang out with a book.
Does this chair have a story?
You bet it does.
This chair belonged to my Grandfather, my Mom's Dad Papa Louis. He used to rock her in it when she was a little girl.
He rocked in it when he was living his final years with my parents. It's been in our family ever since.
My Mom rocked me in it when I was little. I remember so clearly the terrible earaches I used to get before my tonsils came out. Mom would rock me, late at night, when I couldn't sleep. I had a little corduroy bathrobe then; it was sky blue, with a pocket that had orange and red embroidered flowers on it.
Mom rocked my sister and my brother. Visitors have enjoyed the chair. It's been moved around a lot. It is a well traveled piece of furniture.
Objects can trigger us to remember, and remembering forms the basis of our life stories.
This rocking chair has history. It holds stories of pain, of joy, of relaxing with good books, meditating to the gentle rocking motion of a comfortable old chair ... it's been to many places; front porches in Florida, living rooms in Seattle, Washington and Auckland, New Zealand, and now it is in my place, by the window, still doing its rocking thing.
It's just a chair, made of wood, solid. It cannot speak.
I can, so I tell its stories.
I was 7 years old and my sister was 10 when my family immigrated to New Zealand from the USA. We arrived in Auckland on a P & O ocean liner called the SS Orcades which deposited us at the bottom of Auckland's Queen Street on a wintry, cold, August Sunday.
The first big thing my parents did was rent a car and drive all over New Zealand looking at places to settle. My sister and I spent long hours in the back of a Morris 1100 (which was, in the 1960s, a very new and popular imported motor vehicle) getting jostled about, mostly bored out of our brains, while Mum fed us honey sandwiches and warm Fanta or Coke (drinks were not often kept in fridges then - they were just on the shelf at the shop).
The combination of so much sugar and our boredom inspired my sister and I to come up with a story or a song, each day, which we then either sang or narrated to each other in our hotel room that night.
My sister was already tuned in to what made a good story.
"You need a good idea to make a great story," she said to me, "that means, you have something really horrible happen at the beginning so people want to read it, have a middle where there's plenty of action, and an end where lots of people die but some don't."
She had written up a list of genres which began with HORROR (her favourite), then went on to ANIMAL, WILD WEST, SUSPENSE, ending with LOVE. Each morning in the car we had to select a genre for our story that day. We always considered the last one too 'soppy' to write about.
Her strongest idea ever was the Giant Kiwi. Driving through the tall, dark forests of the South Island and the bush of the North inspired her to spin nightly tales of the giant kiwis, 20 feet tall, who lived in the dense and remote parts of the country where no one had ever been, and if you were mad enough to go there, you would be eaten, or seriously damaged, by the giant kiwis.
Every evening as we sat in our hotel room, she would tell me the latest horror about The Giant Kiwi. Needless to say, at the age of 7, highly impressionable, in a strange, new country with more trees than I had ever seen in my young life, venturing about in a small car with parents who really didn't know where they were going, and being fed honey sandwiches, day after day, I was beside myself with delicious terror at the thought of these vicious kiwi creatures roaming about in the darkness of the woods. We had, of course, seen photos of the small, innocent, flightless birds but for me, it wasn't hard to imagine these little kiwis transforming into massive scary things with long pecking beaks and ripping claws.
My sister got a lot of mileage out of the Giant Kiwis. She made it into a series which continued, night after night, with escalating horror and suspense until Mum told her to stop it because I couldn't get to sleep and if I did, I'd wake up screaming and rouse the whole family.
That's when we turned to the less frightening, but no less compelling, Western genre.
So the lesson here is: step one to a great story is a strong, interesting idea.
Sorry. The Giant Kiwi is already taken.
Having magical super powers
Do you remember a time when you thought you had magical super powers?
Maybe you felt this way when you were little - or perhaps these days, even as a grown up person, you wish you had them ..
I was in the company of a delightful young fellow the other day who was telling me how he could make my cat Betsy magically disappear from the couch and reappear out in the garden under the lemon tree.
"How do you make that happen?" I asked to which he replied with a flourish, "I BELIEVE!"
I remember when I was little I used to want to make my sister disappear and I also believed I had powers of levitation in which I could raise myself from the ground and hover. I also thought I had x-ray vision and other super powers as per Superman etc.
It's nice sometimes to write about our magical powers. You may have to return to childhood to those wondrous days of imagination when anything was possible and we didn't know the boundaries of 'not enough money' or 'too little time' or 'that's just downright ridiculous!' You may wish you had magical powers now ... to procure a Lotto win, to make the garden grow bounteously, to have more days of life ..
Whatever it may be, sit down and write for ten minutes without thinking too hard about it - take a leap back to childhood or into a flight of fancy, have some fun - then reward yourself with a nice cup of tea.