A Look Behind the Scenes: Writing “The Story’s Told”

I have struggled with how to write this chapter since the earliest moments of conceiving this novel overall.  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel “Pushing the River” overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.  I wanted to write one chapter, and one chapter only, that gave a glimpse and glimmer of her back story.

I have previously posted two excepts from this chapter; and it has taken me as long to complete this brief passage as it has to write much longer sections.  Here, then, is the first draft of the completed section.

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The story’s told that Billie Rae was the quiet one in the family, the youngest, and a good girl. She didn’t give her mama and pap any trouble whatsoever, while her older sister was raising hell with one boy after another, and her big brother was puffing cigarettes and chugging beers and playing rock and roll music in every dim lit, smoke choked, sticky floored, ear splitting feedback wailing, hole of a place that pretended to be some sort of a Big Deal in the way-too-far-away from the city sorts of joints that littered the flat Midwestern landscape like May fly carcasses around the middle of June.

Billie looked at them like any big-eyed, solemn youngster looks up to the sister that braided her hair and played schoolteacher and cleaned off her bloody knees and wiped her tears when their mama wasn’t around, and the big brother who’d pretend he didn’t know that she was tagging along behind him and act all mad when he caught her, and he’d put them wriggly worms on her fishing hook while she wrinkled up her nose, and would tease her and tease her that she was too scared to touch the fish except with one poked-out finger on its slimy scaly belly, and she would holler like she done been stabbed, and he would laugh and laugh but then give her a big squeeze.

So a course she looked up to them like they was the be all and end all. Why they pretty much raised her up, her pap mostly gone and keeping company elsewhere, her mama spending long days shut up in her room and shuffling around her own house like a ghost when she came out a’tall. Billie Rae was still too little to understand all the hollering and fist-pounding that happened now and again. Once in a while, she’d hear the clatter of something being thrown, or the terrible sound of a glass or plate breaking. She would pull the covers up around her ears and she would whisper into the darkness, “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this night be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”

She didn’t understand why all of a sudden, after a whole bout of hollering and stomping feet and loud wailing cries, her pap was saying that her big sister had to move away, had to go live with some aunt up Wisconsin way that Billie Rae had never even heard tell of. Billie stood around with her blue eyes wider than ever while her sister threw her suitcase onto the bed and pitched articles of clothing into it like each and every single one of them had done her unspeakable harm. Her sister took a pause now and again to wipe a steady stream of tears from her own face and from Billie’s as well; then with a hug so hard she thought it would crush her bones and a general slamming of doors, her big sister was gone.

She waited til the next time her mama came out of her room, and Billie asked her when her big sister would be back. Her mama said, “Don’t you never mention her name to me again, Billie Rae. Do you understand me?”

Still, Billie came home from school every day and stood at the window so she could be sure she’d be the first one to catch a glimpse when her big sister came home one day. She knowed from school where Wisconsin was, and that it wasn’t too far away at all, being as it was the state right next door to her own. She felt like her sister was close. Sometimes she felt like her sister was right there inside of her, and she swore she could feel her small, gentle hands running through her hair or hear her breathing in the empty bed next to her own. She would just wait.

Course not a one of us knows how our lives mighta turned out entirely different cept for one thing that turns us on our head.

It hadn’t been all that many days of Billie looking out the window for her big sister, and nights of her whispering her prayers in the bedroom she had all to herself. Her big brother did not come home one night. He weren’t in Wisconsin, neither. Billie knew he would never be coming home, or anywhere else, ever again.

The story’s told that Billie Rae was never quite the same after her brother Steve drove off the road that night. She never saw the old car setting upside down with one wheel completely off and another turned on its side. She never saw Steve, neither, and didn’t have any way of knowing how smashed up he was, or if he maybe went peaceful without so much as a scratch on him. Still, the sound of the car tires squealing, and the crash of metal flying apart, and most of all, the picture of her big brother with streams of blood trickling all down his face haunted Billie’s dreams for the entire rest of her days. Sometimes when she weren’t even sleeping.

Billie Rae was twelve years old, and in the junior high school then. Her big sister was 18 years old, and a married woman. Once in a while she took the bus down from Wisconsin and spend the afternoon. She looked like someone who was trying to look all growed up, and was putting a mighty big effort into it. She took Billie to a movie, or out for ice cream. She would brush Billie’s hair and fix it in all kinds of fancy new styles, and she’d make her close her eyes while she led her over to the mirror, then say, “Open your eyes! Why, just look at you, Billie Rae! I swear you are getting prettier every single minute.”

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Billie felt like her sister was making her play a game she didn’t have no understanding of. She would get all excited when she knew Carol was coming, but always ended up feeling confused and sad and like she had done something wrong. “When are you gonna come home?” Billie would say. “At least for a little longer?” At least.”

Carol would give a long sigh, partly like she was sad, but partly like she was mad, too. “I’m sorry, kiddo. You’re on your own here now. You’re just gonna have to do the best you can.”

Carol would sigh again, and look towards their mama’s bedroom door. “Tell her I said good-bye, OK?” Then she would get all soft and touch Billie ever so tender on her chin, or stroke at her hair a few more times. “You’re my beautiful baby sister, Billie Rae.” She barely made a sound as she went out the front door and closed it behind her.

Billie went over to the mirror, trying to figure if she was beautiful like Carol said. She turned her head this way and that, checking the fancy hairdo Carol had pinned up from all different angles. “How lovely you look today, my dear,” she said to her reflection, and burst into giggles. She ran to the bathroom and dug through a pile of things that had not been touched for many years, pawing and turning til she reached in and grabbed up an old tube of coral-colored lipstick that belonged to her mama. Filled up with boldness that come from her sister’s visit, Billie plucked the top off and peered at the waxy crayon of color deep inside. She held the tube up so close to her face while she slowly swiveled its bottom that her eyes crossed. Billie balanced hips on the edge of the bathroom sink so she could lean way in, her toes dangling in the air, and drew a precise outline of her mouth. Patting her lips together just like the movie stars she seen on TV shows, she batted her eyes at the reflection that looked back at her, and jumped down from the sink to stand back and admire her handiwork.

Billie pretended to take a couple of puffs from an imaginary cigarette, and in a fake English accent, said “Really, darling, that new hair…”

She stopped in her tracks. Right there in the middle of that sentence. “This is wrong, she thought. All wrong. I am all wrong.”

She stood there stock still, and a whisper of a word came out of her mouth: “no.”

Billie Rae unrolled a fistful of toilet paper and went to feverish work on her painted lips, wiping and scrubbing at them over and over. Not even thinking or caring about the walloping she might get later on, she tore the lid off her mama’s cold cream, thrust her fingers into the jar and slapped a heap of the goo all around her mouth, scouring at it with a fresh wad of toilet tissue. Looking back into the mirror, she let out a faint wail at what she saw.

Fetching a spanking clean wash cloth out of the hallway closet, Billie Rae covered her entire face with a think daub of cold cream. She swiped at her face, rinsed the cloth in the cool running water, swiped again, until all trace of the cream was gone and her skin shone dewy and pink, little droplets of water beaded up and scattered across her forehead and cheeks.

Maybe something’s wrong with the mirror, she thought. Maybe that’s what’s going on here.

She fetched another clean cloth from the closet, and the window cleaner from under the kitchen sink. She cleaned that silver glass with the tender care of anointing a newborn baby, pausing after each polishing to look at herself once again. Time passed. Evening fell. And still Billie Rae polished the glass.

“Steve,” Billie said. “Something’s wrong. My face doesn’t look right. What should I do, Stevie?”
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Artwork, top to bottom:

photo courtesy of Huffington Post, M C Escher, Salvador Dali

“The Story’s Told,” excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

The continuation of this chapter describes a character’s very first signs of significant mental illness.  In the novel overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor; but the looming presence of her illness is pervasive, as it is in the lives of all who have significant illnesses, and all those who surround them and love them.

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Billie felt like her sister was making her play a game she didn’t have no understanding of. She would get all excited when she knew Carol was coming, but always ended up feeling confused and sad and like she had done something wrong.

“When are you gonna come home?” Billie would say. “At least for a little longer?” At least.”

Carol would give a long sigh, partly like she was sad, but partly like she was mad, too. “I’m sorry, kiddo. You’re on your own here now. You’re just gonna have to do the best you can.”

Carol would sigh again, and look towards their mama’s bedroom door. “Tell her I said good-bye, OK?” Then she would get all soft and touch Billie ever so tender on her chin, or stroke at her hair a few more times. “You’re my beautiful baby sister, Billie Rae.” She barely made a sound as she went out the front door and closed it behind her.

Billie went over to the mirror, trying to figure if she was beautiful like Carol said. She turned her head this way and that, checking the fancy hairdo Carol had pinned up from all different angles. “How lovely you look today, my dear,” she said to her reflection, and burst into giggles. She ran to the bathroom and dug through a pile of things that had not been touched for many years, pawing and turning til she reached in and grabbed up an old tube of coral-colored lipstick that belonged to her mama. Filled up with boldness that come from her sister’s visit, Billie plucked the top off and peered at the waxy crayon of color deep inside. She held the tube up so close to her face while she slowly swiveled its bottom, that her eyes crossed. Billie balanced her hips on the edge of the bathroom sink so she could lean way in, her toes dangling in the air, and drew a precise outline of her mouth. Patting her lips together just like the movie stars she seen on TV shows, she batted her eyes at the reflection that looked back at her, and jumped down from the sink to stand back and admire her handiwork.Alia_fig3

Billie pretended to take a couple of puffs from an imaginary cigarette, and in a fake English accent, said “Really, darling, that new hair…”

She stopped in her tracks. Right there in the middle of that sentence. “This is wrong, she thought. All wrong. I am all wrong.”

She stood there stock still, and a whisper of a word came out of her mouth: “no.”

Billie Rae unrolled a fistful of toilet paper and went to feverish work on her painted lips, wiping and scrubbing at them over and over. Not even thinking or caring about the walloping she might be getting later on, she tore the lid off her mama’s cold cream, thrust her fingers into the jar and slapped a heap of the goo all around her mouth, scouring at it with a fresh wad of toilet tissue. Looking back into the mirror, she let out a faint wail at what she saw.

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Paintings, top to bottom: John Ward, Alia E. El-Bermani, Pablo Picasso

The Writing Process Blog Tour

 

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What am I working on?

I’d say that I’m not quite half way into my third novel, which tells the trials that unfold in extended family over the course of a few short months. It’s told from the perspective of the house itself, an idea I must credit to my friend Mary, who threw it out off-handedly over a glass of wine one night, and the idea stuck. The structure is modeled very loosely on Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” In this case the house takes on the role of narrator in much the same way as the Stage Manager does in the play – sometimes existing within the events and possessing deep feeling for them, and other times standing outside of the action and providing perspective, or bringing in back stories.

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How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Gosh, I guess I don’t really have any idea! My “genre” is literary fiction, I suppose, which falls way down on the list of what most people are writing these days. I have been told often that I am a “voice” writer, in that my writing centers on the distinct — and I hope strong and compelling — voice of the narrator. I do think I’m able to generate a narrative “drive” through the voice, which readers tell me compels the story forward. Plot becomes secondary to the voice, which can become a rather pesky, serious problem at times. Sometimes my narrator has a great deal to say about one thing or another, and loses sight of “story.”

Also, I started out writing poetry, and pursued this for many years initially (despite being Truly Bad). However, it remains a hallmark of my writing that I always endeavor to distill complex characters and situations into an absolute minimum number of words. I read every sentence over and over, and read each one aloud, for the first draft. I’ve been told this is highly irregular and ill-advised, but it’s what works for me.

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Why do I write what I do?

I think most writers would answer this the same way, wouldn’t they? Because I have to. Writing is truly a solitary, gruelingly difficult, soul-wrenching way to pass the time. The reason I do it is because either an idea, or a character, or both, consumes me in a way that I simply must let that character have his/her due. At its best, I feel as if I am “channeling” a character – s/he has possessed me and their story pours out through my fingers. Doesn’t actually make the process of writing itself any easier, but at this point it feels necessary. That feeling helps counterbalance all of the other times that I feel like “What the heck am I doing? Where did I ever get the idea that I have anything whatsoever to say?” But, ah, those writing moments when I feel like I have nailed it – when I have managed to say precisely what I wanted to say – there is no greater feeling of having done something real and good here on Earth.

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How does your writing process work?

Well, for one thing – slowly. It makes me miserable to hear about writers who crank out first drafts in a couple of months. It’s a laborious process to reach an economy of words!
I’ve experimented with plotting things out – in a weird past incarnation of myself I even had a box of index cards with character descriptions and scene ideas and plot developments. This method works for tons of writers, and god love them, I say. But it doesn’t work for me. I got very stuck on the ending of my second novel, and I swore I would not sit in front of a keyboard again with any thought of writing a novel-length work without having a fully-developed, carefully-constructed plot. But hey, the best laid plans and all that. I’m shooting from the hip once again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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I didn’t even know what a “blog tour”  was when writer (and indefatigable supporter of fellow authors) Michael Fedison asked if I would do this post, and thereby take part in the tour.  Thanks to Mike for inviting me to join the fun. And now, it’s time for me to pass the baton to next Monday’s bloggers ! It is my pleasure to introduce  authors Robert Villarreal,  anjanapdeep (whose blog is “The Mental Picture), and Sarah Potter (SarahPotterWrites).   Please watch for their posts on the 30th, and check out their work!

 

“They Died at Home,” part 3, from “Pushing the River” #MondayBlogs

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The blazing azalea bush was in full bloom, and my Lady was still being carried around inside when her mama and daddy bought their house. She knowed this from a photograph of the two of them standing in front of the azalea that spring, and another one of just her mama the very next spring holding a wild-haired infant of a few months when the bush broke out again.

And the boy was growing and kicking inside of my Lady while she and the Husband trudged around looking at place after place. They done their level best to look past the scraps of other people’s lives and to gaze ahead, trying to picture if the mortar and brick that stood around them could ever be a true home. It was early days for them, and the Husband could tell when his pregnant wife was working hard to recall the stoic spirit of her own mama, setting her chin against the desolation rising up behind her eyes. He reached for her hand, and he kissed it. “We’ll find it, baby. We will.”

She growed up thinking that this was the way the world was meant to be. You growed up and you found a worthy partner and you started a family and you made a home to raise them in. And you stayed. You weathered whatever came along, and you stayed. You kept right on staying until the moment of your very last breath on Earth, and you did it in the place where you’d lived.

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“They Died at Home,” part 2, from “Pushing the River” #MondayBlogs

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He shook at her toe a few more times, then went over and sat down upon his own side of the bed. It occurred to him that maybe if he got back under the covers and shut his eyes for a time, then opened them up again, it might all be different.

Instead he picked up the phone. “Bob,” he said. “Bob, I think Mary’s dead. I’m not sure, but I think that maybe she is,” which was an especially sad and strange thing to say considering that he was a doctor, and he knowed right down into his bones that she had breathed her last.

Five years later, he was a shadow of his former self, which ain’t saying much. He spent most of that five years setting in one chair, at a table in his dining room. From that chair, he sorted through his piles of mail, and leafed through his magazines, and sipped at his bowls of lukewarm broth, and watched whatever happened to be on the television. He drank a goodly amount, and he smoked so much that the walls of the house – which had been painted a cheery eggshell white under Mary’s watch – looked for all the world like the entire major league had been spitting tobacco juice at them for the five years since she passed. He ate nothing but canned soup. Chicken noodle, or cream of mushroom, and he drank his whiskey straight, in big tumbler glasses they had gotten as a wedding present with his initials etched in a diamond pattern. The callous on his thumb was substantial from running it across the letter “M,” over and over, the one initial they had in common.

His hands shook bad, his lungs and liver was both shot to hell, he could hardly feel the ground underneath his own feet cause he no longer had the sense of them being attached to his legs. But worst of all for him, his eyesight was near gone, so he couldn’t see to read his beloved newspaper no more. He drank his full pot of coffee and smoked a great many cigarettes each morning while squinting at it, holding it close to one eye first, and then the other; but the news running on the television was giving him all the information he got, really.

My lady was setting there at that table with him, reading him from the newspaper about how them 1,000 miners way off in Poland was barricaded in the a mine in the Silesian coal district, cause they was the last folks still resisting martial law over there. A couple of the boys had been killed, like usual with such goings on, and my Lady was just getting to the details when her daddy placed his cigarette carefully in the ashtray, got a real surprised look on his face, and slid right on off of his chair and onto the floor. He, too, had died at home.

 

photo of  John B. Monier by Barbara Monier

“They Died at Home,” excerpt from “Pushing the River”

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Her own mama and daddy died at home. Her mama simply did not wake up one morning with no warning whatsoever. She gone to bed the night before same as every night of her twenty years in her big bed in the house where she had spent the better part of her life trying to make the very best of a bad situation, that bad situation being marrying my Lady’s father. She tended the flowers in the beds, and washed the drapes once a year like clockwork, and made sure the little ones was dressed and fed and minding their manners. She joined the PTA and the church guild and the neighborhood ladies’ group that met once a month for a light luncheon and cards. She woke up every morning of her twenty years in the house with a determination to face the new day with capital g Grace and to push whatever suffering somebody else in her postion might have felt under the rugs and between the shades of the blinds and to the dark and far corners.

One day my Lady’s daddy came up the stairs from his morning habit of coffee drinking and newspaper reading and thought to hisself: “Why that’s funny. It sounds like the god damn alarm clock is buzzing.”

My Lady’s mama was laying in the bed still and peaceful as could be with the alarm clock screaming like a banshee. Her daddy came on over to the bed and shook at her big toe as it poked up from under the covers. He called her name into the daytime blackness of the room, the bright July sunlight held back cept for the littlest peek here and there. He went over and pushed the peg of the infernal alarm clock, and stood there with his index finger still pushing on it, cause he had the inkling that when he took his finger off of that peg, he would have to figure out what to do next. And he had the further inkling that this could lead to a chain of events that may alter the entire remainder of his natural life.

 

“Twenty Years,” an excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

 

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By the second week of December, my Lady felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a twenty-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.

Dan continued to spend long, lazy days in the kitchen, carrying on animated conversations with himself while he fussed over his bean concoctions. This charmed her immensely in September; by mid-December the noisy stream of words made her seriously question his sanity as well as provoking the hairs on the back of her neck to stand at full attention.

The ticket had been purchased – the ticket for the airplane that would whisk him away to tropical paradise for all of the brutal winter that lay ahead. January 4th. He would be gone, poof. Madeline teetered precariously on the brink of wondering how she could possibly tolerate three more weeks of his off-key humming, his utter failure to get her jokes, his flossing ritual. When he shuffled off to the bathroom each night to brush and floss, knowing the absurd amount of time that he would be gone set her own teeth on edge to such a degree she felt certain her back molars would shatter into bits.

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In the evenings, the two of them would sit together on the sofa. Sierra and the baby dozed together in the Boy’s old bed upstairs. Marie worked one of her two jobs, or ran hither and yon trying her best to manage her own and several others’ lives. Dan invariably began his kneading of Madeline’s thigh, or his massaging of each individual finger – a perpetual motion machine of continual buzzy movement. The sadistic mosquito who senses when you are just about to drift off, and whispers in your ear. “For crying out loud,” Madeline thought to herself. “No wonder this guy meditates. This is a man who hasn’t known one moment of stillness in his entire life.”

She set her jaw against his very existence, calculating how she would bear the number of minutes until she could suggest that they call it a day, go upstairs for the night. At least the flossing ritual would offer her peace. And then, the solace of a lonely sleep, with Dan’s inhumanly perfect profile on the pillow beside her.

Hopper Morning Sun

Art, top to bottom: Edward Hopper, Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper