Figuring Out What They’re Not Telling You

by Toni McGee Causey

If you’ve been querying or sending your work out and you’re getting positive responses but you’re not quite crossing that elusive sale line, it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes, it’s an issue of luck or timing, and there really isn’t a helluvalot you can do about that.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed this, and she pointed out that there were four elements to this business: work, luck, timing (marketplace), and talent.

You cannot control the last three, not as a writer. The amount of talent you have is what you have, but you can improve your craft through practice, you can hone that talent to a fine edge. You cannot control luck, and timing–how things will fall together in the marketplace–is anybody’s guess, but it certainly not something a writer can control.

What you can control, however, is the work. How much effort you make, how hard you reach to improve, how much risk you’re willing to take, how objective you’re willing to be about what you have, and haven’t, managed to get onto that page. That? Is all you can really control.

There are times as writers that we’ll get encouragement and nice comments without really knowing what is making them–those people who buy–say “no, not for me.” In the course of a discussion on Backspace (a while back), someone asked, “How do you know what to fix when they don’t tell you?” I had gone through a self-evaluation process before the first book sold. My analysis of my own writing below is certainly not a “fix-all” sort of thing; however, it may be a way of looking at your own work and stepping outside what you’ve been seeing up to that point to analyze it. On the off-chance that it might be of help, I’m re-posting my answer here:

A much larger part [of the analysis process] was sitting down and dissecting my own way of telling stories, pros and cons. Instead of listening to what readers were saying, I started to look at what they were not saying. The gist of what I was hearing was that they always loved my characters, loved the humor, loved the setting. Well, that kinda sounds like I had it covered, but something about the way I told the stories wasn’t working since they weren’t selling, and no one could tell me why.

Believe me, I asked. Especially of those producers with whom I had a personal relationship.

Instead of assuming that selling was all just subjective or luck, and in order to figure it out why that wasn’t happening, I started giving my writing to people and asked them to list the positive feedback they’d give me, and then I’d look at those things and say, “What’s missing? What am I not seeing on this list?” This is an odd sort of way of going about this, I know, but the critiques I was getting weren’t pointing out the “gestalt” — the overall problem.

(I started doing this sort of analysis with my screenwriting, and when it worked, I transferred what I’d learned to my fiction. The relative shortness of a script as compared to a manuscript may have given me an advantage because it was easier to see it as a “whole” when trying to break it down. )

With that in mind…

So… what was not being said?

The one thing that popped in my head that I noticed wasn’t said (or if it was, it was only occasional), was,

“I couldn’t put it down.”

That whole “couldn’t stop reading” aspect is critical, especially if you want to maintain an exec’s attention (in the screenwriting world) or an agent’s attention (either world).

Now here’s the kicker — people would say how much they loved the read, how immersed they were in the characters, so you’d think these were the same things, but they’re not. And it took me a little while to realize that.

Second thing that happened is pretty notorious in the screenwriting world– you get killed by encouragement. But when you try to get to the heart of why they’re not buying, they’ll use vague terms. They’re not doing this to be mean, but because they aren’t writers and they have no clue how to explain to you that there’s something not working. So they’ve come up with a sort of shorthand which sounds like they’re telling you something, when in fact, they’re basically saying, “I don’t know jack, I just know I can’t buy it and I can’t put my finger on why.” In the book world, this translates into “I can’t get the marketing team behind it.”

I’ll break down one example for you, and how I analyzed it.

One of the things I had heard was that they loved the scripts (the romantic comedies), but they were “soft.” What the hell is soft? It’s a romantic comedy. If it was ‘hard,’ it would be porn. How is ‘soft’ a definition for writing?

I’d ask my then-screenwriting-agent, who would be just as confused. We would try to get more specifics out of them but the execs didn’t think “soft” was a bad thing per se…and since they were in the middle of telling me all of the good stuff, it was easy to set that aside as a vague excuse.

Until one day, I finally realized what they weren’t saying.

They weren’t saying “I couldn’t put it down.”

I’d get stuff like, “I love reading your scripts, I will always give your agent a read overnight for your stuff,” and “Your characters and your worlds are so original, and I laughed all through it, so it’s funny!” Which is great! But no one was saying, “Ohmygod, I had to pee and I refused to get up to go to the bathroom because I had to see what happened next and now I have to buy a new leather chair, damn you.”

That is critical. You have to write in such a way as to get to feel a freakishly urgent sense of needing to finish the read, which is what translates into them being compelled to convince their bosses to spend the money.

A lot of other writers and people in the business were trying to guess what “soft” meant at the time (since this was a fairly common excuse floating around), and one opinion was that it was the opposite of edgy. Well, not everything can be edgy, so that wasn’t really working as a definition. Then one day I put the two things together and I realized what ‘soft’ meant: it meant that there wasn’t enough forward motion in the story to actively compel the reader to keep reading, regardless of all else.

‘Soft’ is the opposite of ‘crisp’ and ‘urgent.’

How did that apply to me?

This is where it got tricky. I went through my stories and on the surface, it seemed like I was already doing what needed to be done.

interesting characters………..check
clear goals………………………. check
obstacles………………………… check

So, hmmm. That looks like everything I need. What the hell is up with that? Then I looked more closely at story structure, which is when I realized: a lot of what is motivating the characters isn’t revealed until sometime later in the story. And some of these were pretty important reasons for being motivated, but they were buried deeper. And by trying hard to be mysterious, I just ended up with vague motivations.

But… but… (I can hear the outcries), in mysteries and thrillers, the real reasons aren’t usually revealed up front.

True.

But the reader still needs to have a reason, a motivation, for the action. They need to understand what that motivation is–whether or not you end up disproving it later.
The problem with writing so “indirectly” is that for the first part of the story, the reader has to take it on faith that you’re going to eventually supply them with the motivation and what’s at stake for the main character. I managed to dance fast enough to keep them interested, but I am certain that when they put my stuff down and had to go explain to their boss, they weren’t able to sum up the character very easily, or what the character wanted / needed or why. I definitely had reasons all along the story trajectory as to why the character was doing what they were doing, and the reader could deduce some of the motivations, but at the same time, I blocked the reader from getting too much information because I wanted to reveal more about them later. My assumption had been that this sort of structure made the story deeper, more thought provoking, creating a greater impact. That delay can work, but it also renders a lot of your story as appearing to be re-active instead of active: it doesn’t look so much like the character is forging forward as they are simply reacting to what’s happening, and that can make the story feel passive and less immediate.

I will give you a movie example that I think many of you have seen: The Usual Suspects. In it, [SPOILER ALERT, OLD MOVIE] Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) has been brought into the police station for questioning about his part in the gang who’ve ended up dead. Through flashback, Verbal tells the story, and we believe that his motivation is to get his ass out of a sling. He is just this sort of slow, innocent guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His motivation to stay out of jail is palpable and his fear of Keyser Soze, the real bad guy behind the slayings, drives the story.

Except, of course, at the end, there is the long reveal that he is Keyser Soze.

If the writer, MacQuarrie, had not given Verbal Kint a hard-driving reason for telling his story, the reveal wouldn’t have been as powerful.

Nor would it have been as compelling.

The story drives forward fast on the motivation of Verbal Kint to stay out of trouble with the police and with Soze. It is *really* being driven forward by the fact that Soze is completely manipulating the police detectives doing the questioning, and they just don’t realize it yet. He’s toying with them, showing off, and they’ll understand that later.

Complex characters can make for excellent writing, but you have to do one very simple thing to pull them off: give the reader at least a surface motivation as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they must have whatever it is they’re going after in the story. Even if you want to deepen that later or turn it in on itself and twist it to surprise your reader by making the character more complex, you still need to keep the reader invested in the story, and they have a hard time staying invested if they don’t know what’s at stake or why it’s critical to the character.

So the new list:

interesting characters…….check
clear goals…………………… check
motivation……………………..check
obstacles…………………….. check

Then I looked at the “obstacles” and analyzed my writing, and I realized that not only did I have to make those obstacles incrementally tougher, they had to matter so much and the character had to keep failing.

Terry Rossio, over on his Wordplayer (highly, highly recommended reading) used Indiana Jones as an example…

Indy [PRE INDY 4, OBVIOUSLY] is this great archaeologist / hero, able to go into difficult areas and retrieve these priceless artifacts, and when he’s going after the ARK, he keeps failing. When it looks like he’s about to succeed, there’s another twist and he’s not only failed, he’s in a bit of a worse situation than he was when he started. And now he’s got to brainstorm his way out of that.

Someone once said to me: character is shown by the choices we make when things aren’t going well.

A person may talk the talk of a pacifist, for example, but when confronted with a situation, realize that they would resort to violence to save someone they loved… so their character is not a pacifist after all (something they may have difficulty dealing with in the story.)

When you make sure that your stakes are escalating and that your character has to keep dealing with these problems, and the problems are getting worse, then you’ve got the chance to show what this person is really like — good and bad — which, along with the stakes, renders the story a ‘page turner.’

So I looked at my scripts and realized I wasn’t applying that sort of tension. (This can, honestly, apply to literary fiction as well. The stakes are more intimate, more personal, but they have to keep increasing and keep mattering to the character.)

Once I realized these things, I looked around for the kind of story that resonated with me, the kind of character I just could not put down. I looked for a way to tell this story without sacrificing voice or style, a way to immerse the reader immediately and have them hanging on, turning the page to see what happens next. When I started getting that “I couldn’t put it down” reaction consistently, I knew I had stepped onto a higher level playing field. (There are always higher levels, no matter where we are, where we’ve started.)

These things which applied to me may not apply to you. You have to really look at what is being said, make a list of the positives and the negatives, and then start looking at what’s missing. Most people are not Simon Cowell (American Idol) and aren’t going to tell you the brutal truth, even if they’re thinking it. They’re going to sugarcoat. But I think by looking at what is consistently not said, you may be able to dig up some useful truth.

If you’re getting the “I couldn’t put it down” sort of responses from just about everyone reading but it hasn’t crossed that elusive “sold” line, remember that a big part of what we do is sales, and not every buyer is looking for exactly what we have. That’s the frustrating part about the business, but it doesn’t mean you’re not on track with your writing (if you’re getting the great responses)… it’s just a matter of right person and right time.

Persistence is everything.

[I originally published this piece over on Murderati when I blogged there.]

Where Grace Lives

by Toni McGee Causey

[This piece was written during Hurricane Katrina. We had no electricity, but had a generator and, weirdly, DSL, but not a phone. I blogged–I have been online in one journal form or another since about 1998–and I wanted to try to capture the experience of going through a hurricane. My kids had been in elementary school when Hurricane Andrew came through and tore up the place, and I’d written nothing about it. I thought, and it’s hard to believe this was my point of view then, that Katrina would be mostly wind, a lot of downed trees, and maybe a few days without electricity, but I wanted to record it.

Little did I realize that I was going to have a blog that ended up getting picked up by several national news sources because I was one of the few blogs getting the truth out there before the national media figured out what was going on.

I post this today as both an urge to awareness–what’s going on in the Midwest with the flooding and in Northern California with the fires–but also as a thank you. I think, if you read the piece, you’ll see what a difference you made in our lives. Because you did.]

WHERE GRACE LIVES

I passed a man at a shelter the other day. He was tall and lanky and sunburned, dressed in cut-offs and a soaked blue t-shirt with a grubby baseball cap shoved on top of muddy curls. There was something about his lean, sinewy body that made me think of the shrimpers I’ve seen down in Cocodrie southwest of New Orleans–it’s a hard life and it makes for no-nonsense, self-sufficient men.

He was sitting in a metal folding chair, slumped forward, his elbows on his knees. The exhaustion in his shoulders made me ache. Between his feet was a medium sized box and he was staring down into it. The box held some basic necessities: toiletries, canned goods, a pair of socks, and a pair of underwear. I realized, then, that he was barefoot — the grime around his ankles marked him as having abandoned his shoes somewhere along the way. His large feet were probably too big for any of the donated shoes stacked up at a one of the nearby tables.

When I looked back at that box, I wondered what he must be thinking. My first guess, without seeing his face, was that these few items weren’t much to give a man after he’d lost everything. This box wasn’t much to hold onto for a man like that, a man who’d clearly worked hard for a living. Maybe he was angry at having lost his home, or frustrated that this was what he’d been reduced to. I had no words that would be of use, no words which could do any good, and I began to turn away when he suddenly looked up and caught my eye.

He had tears on his cheeks.

When I stood there, not sure what to say, he shrugged and said, “I can’t believe how generous people are. I can’t believe total strangers would go out of their way to help so much.”

I mumbled something about it being the least we could do, as neighbors, and I moved off into the crowd, feeling wholly inadequate and humbled in the face of such grace.

It would be one among many things I could not wrap my mind around.

On Tuesday morning, just a few days earlier, we’d been without electricity since Hurricane Katrina had blown through in the early hours of Monday. While there were many trees down in Baton Rouge, the damage wasn’t as horrific as it had been during hurricane Andrew, and we thought the worst was over.

It was only the beginning.

We managed to get our TV hooked to the generator and found one local station airing news and video from New Orleans. There was no way to know what images the national media were getting, but on Tuesday morning, I saw some of the first footage of one of the breaks in the levee system. Water was pouring into the Ninth Ward, and I felt all my senses hit hyper alert, felt my fingers tingle from the adrenaline, felt my lungs constrict.

New Orleans was filling up.

At first, it appeared that no one nationally realized what was happening. After plugging the computer into the generator as well and discovering I still had DSL, I caught bits and pieces on national websites saying things like “New Orleans dodged the bullet.”

There was a steady thrum of “no no no no no” in my head, an awful, gut-kick ache, a sense of the world gone topsy. With the water pouring in, the levees were going to keep deteriorating. The pressure from the flow of water was simply going to be too great. The pumps were already down in areas, and more were failing. Saying “New Orleans had dodged a bullet” was the clearest sign that the outside media didn’t grasp what was happening. It was a bit like telling a terminal cancer patient that they “only” had a broken arm (i.e., wind damage, some minor flooding); it doesn’t matter, the cancer’s going to kill them anyway before the arm can heal. New Orleans was already suffering from the worst kind of cancer – years of inadequate repairs to the levees (or no repairs at all), years of talking about a plan to evacuate, years of warnings that a plan was going to be needed, years of awareness that New Orleans was a bowl and if it filled up, it could be devastating. I remember being on the phone with a friend in L.A. as fresh images of the ever increasing deluge from the levees hit the local news. The chill I felt, I cannot explain. I remember saying, “Ohmygod, we’re going to lose New Orleans.”

And we did.

There are images which will crush me and haunt me forever. Moments seared into my heart. Entire neighborhoods underwater, many with just the topmost part of the roofs visible. People clinging to the peak of what had been their homes in desperation, some for days on end, with no water, no food, no help, and little hope. An elderly woman trying to talk her mentally handicapped son into climbing on board the basket being lowered by the Coast Guard Rescue Team, and him refusing unless she came, too. Only, there was no room but for one. He wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t leave him behind. There was the image of a mother trapped on a rooftop, handing over her small toddler to the Coast Guard, and the news helicopter showing her breaking down as the Coast Guard helicopter flew away; they’d only had room for one more, and she wanted her child saved. People stood on their roofs, waving to the helicopters, desperate to be rescued, only to see the helicopters leave since they were full. I remember the image of two men standing in shock on their own roof, watching a home near them burn, knowing the fire department could do nothing to stop it from spreading.

There are images and moments which scarred us all, embedded deep somewhere in our souls, a slash that will not heal. The sights and sounds of people abandoned, dying, here on our soil. There’s the crystal image for me of the late night DJ for a New Orleans radio station breaking down as he reported on air on a Baton Rouge TV station how he’d been up all night, broadcasting in New Orleans. He told of how his station still had a signal locally, though no one could explain it when so many others had been knocked off the air, and how he realized that the police didn’t have any communication system at all. People were calling in to him, a few cell phones still working. They were begging for help because they were trapped in their homes, trapped in their attics. When he realized neither they nor he had a way to call the police, he’d broadcast the addresses and hope the police heard him so the trapped people would get help.

The DJ told of one call: a young woman, who was holding her infant. She had a two-year-old with her, and her elderly grandmother. They had not evacuated because they had no car to enable them to leave and no place to stay. They were standing chest deep in water, in her attic, and no way to break through the roof, no way to alert police where they were. Her cell phone died before the DJ could get her address to broadcast her location. He never knew if they were rescued.

There were the talk-radio stories from the frustrated and grief-stricken men who’d responded to the call for boats, any boats, and they’d gone to the designated areas, fully prepared to take on the responsibility for any damage they received – they didn’t care, they just wanted to save lives. They weren’t allowed into the water for a full day due to a series of miscommunications between various government agencies. There were the harrowing stories of having to pass people up because their boats were already full, of the boat operators promising to go back, and then doing so, only for the person to have died or vanished. There were the voices in the dark, a night so deep where no light penetrated, where streetlights and businesses and every imaginable source was out and the voices cried from the rooftops, pleading for help.

There are the now-infamous images of the way people were abandoned at the Superdome and the Convention Center; people forced to go days without food, water, basic human needs. People sick and dying. No help in sight. No organization, no FEMA, no Red Cross in many places. There were the images of the looting and the crime. People reduced to the base animal instincts, some for survival, some to prey on others.

Nothing but dying and suffering in the Big Easy.

The world changed, then. Shelters went up in every available space: churches, synagogues, and in the River Center, an entertainment complex in downtown Baton Rouge. Other states took in many thousands, and yet, thousands more were here. Everything was different. Even places as old and forever as LSU.

When you drive up Nicholson onto the southern end of the LSU campus, rising to your right is the enormous stadium (under even more expansion), with its parking lot a construction lay-down yard. To the left, Alex Box Stadium, with all of the national championships proclaimed proudly on the exterior walls.

If you looked a little past the stadium on the right, you’d see the Pete Maravich Center, or P-MAC for short. It’s what many of us old LSU grads still refer to simply as the “Assembly” Center.

Its white dome and curved concrete ramps will always hold a special place in my heart — it’s where I officially became an LSU student, years ago. Back before there was computer registration, we all “walked through,” battling and jockeying in lines on the floor of the Center to claim a “punch card” for the class we wanted — a slender 3 x 7 card with “chads” punched out, indicating the class for which we’d just enrolled. We’d take the cards and climb to the second level and walk around the mezzanine’s corridor, stopping at the various tables set up for each task required and then finally, on to pay our fee bill.

It was exciting to be a part of that crowd. It was fresh, it was hope, it was a beginning into all potential. It was a promise of something bigger to come.

After the hurricane, we drove onto campus and parked in the Alex Box parking lot, took the crosswalk and headed back toward the P-Mac. There was the white dome gleaming in spite of being overshadowed by the behemoth stadium. There was the newly renovated Mike-the-Tiger cage, a luxurious enclosure complete with rocks to climb, a waterfall, a very large pool and plenty of space to run and play. Next came the concrete ramps which had long ago made me feel like I had been racing up up up toward a future.

Then there was the fence.

A fence.

There had never been a hurricane fence preventing access to the ramps. Or military standing outside said fence. So around the P-MAC we went, getting to the LSU campus side, making a sharp left turn to walk up the street. There was a large white poster-board sign on the guard’s gate in hastily written print which said, “Ambulances” and had an arrow.

The P-MAC was still on our left, and as I looked across the fence and beneath the mezzanine, there were tables set up. This time, though, it was not like before, when I registered there, when the tables were about hope and future and innocent dreams. These tables were about loss and devastation and pain. There were volunteers behind the tables and many evacuees in front, having just gotten in from New Orleans.

There was a table set up with laptops so the people could send a message. There were tables of clothes and shoes (which ran out just as soon as the volunteers could get some in), tables of water and food to eat right then, as well as canned goods and other supplies for the evacuees to take with them… for many of them hoped to bunk with family for the night, and that family probably didn’t even know they were coming.

As we continued around the P-MAC, I could tell we were reaching the serious part of this operation, where there were nurses and techs taking medical information, where higher priority (read: in grave danger) patients were taken in immediately to the triage center and where those in dire need but less life-threatening were interviewed by nurses and their stats recorded on brand new files. Nurses and doctors and all sorts of techs ebbed and flowed through this space. There were Guards with guns (wholly over-kill, but they were there). There were volunteers of all shape and sizes — from LSU and Southern students to firemen to police to little grey-haired church ladies.

We signed in at the non-medical volunteer station and went in to see what their needs were. We were there to volunteer our home to medical staff. We’d heard the staff were working twenty-hour shifts and some of them had no place nearby to just crash and relax.

When you walked inside the entrance, you walked down a slight slope until you reached the wide, round base of the P-MAC. Purple seating had been pushed up against the walls. The last time I stood at floor level like that, I was seventeen, and I remember I stood for a moment in awe of the swarm of people, the organized chaos, the feeling of a small city set to work on one task. It was, in many ways, the same. But this time, that small city was made of dozens of white temporary screens to give the patients some privacy, and many rows of I.V. bags.

There was a M*A*S*H unit in my campus. A field unit triage on the floor of our basketball arena. There were helicopters beating overhead bringing in evacuees from New Orleans, and a row of ambulances, sirens blaring, on their way to the P-MAC.

There was a M*A*S*H unit. In Louisiana.

In my university.

In the USA.

It simply didn’t seem possible, that there would be this necessity. That we had so many people wounded in a major catastrophe, that we lost an entire city, that we were still finding and rescuing people, six days later – so many people that our hospitals and clinics were swamped, and a major triage unit was not only critical, but it barely handled the vast quantity of people flowing in.

So many unbelievable things were suddenly true. Families couldn’t find loved ones. People without their medicines, without any identification, tried to remember what they needed so the nurses could help them. A mom cried with gratitude because she found someone’s cast-off clothes to fit her children. Others, tears streaming, were just grateful to have their own bar of soap, or a bottle of water.

In the USA.

It was at the LSU Triage where I met the man without the shoes, the shrimper who was grateful for a small box of goods. He was sitting beneath the mezzanine, just next to the ramps where I’d walked, up up up into the hope of a better future all those years ago. I turned away, knowing his future was going to be difficult and painful, and maybe so much worse.

Everything had changed.

We lost New Orleans, and many many homes surrounding it. How can we understand that?

The business of surviving, or more accurately, of trying to help a huge number of other people survive, took over for many of us who live here. We exchanged information about where there were needs, we gathered what we could, we brought it wherever we could. We met families all staying in one home, forty-five people in a thousand square foot house, sleeping in borrowed tents in the yard, wearing nothing but the clothes they’d escaped with. We heard so many stories of people who lost everything, who had no clue if there was going to be a New Orleans to go back to, if their job would still exist, if there would be a school for their children. In the midst of the pain, they would often get a faraway expression in their gaze, like they were looking off to some memory of New Orleans, and then they’d look at one another and say, “But we got out. We’re all okay. At least we’re alive.”

We lost New Orleans.

My family and I walked into places where there were so many trees and utilities down on the ground, you couldn’t tell a street from a yard. Sign posts were missing, homes were destroyed, one after another. We stepped over power-lines, and visited homes of friends’ families, looking for survivors.

The heartbreak kept me from sleeping, and I’m not entirely sure I ate anything remotely resembling a proper meal for days. It was grief, I know, so I did the only real thing I knew how to do: I wrote. I poured it into a blog, and many people would post notes about missing loved ones, and others were begging for any information at all about their neighborhoods. These notes chased me in my dreams, always just below the surface. The helplessness etched into every waking moment, acid into the pores, and rendered the grief unbelievably deep.

We lost New Orleans.

A few days into the disaster, many more boxes showed up here with supplies. More and more people wrote to ask what we needed. More and more people were as outraged and frustrated as we were here, and they wanted to help. I know many donated to charities, but these boxes — they kept showing up, filled to the brim with things people needed, with supplies damned near impossible to find in some of these areas. We got to bring them to the shelters and to the people who needed them, and the recipients treated me like a hero, but it was not me. It was you. It was every single one of you who sent a box or a prayer or letters of support.

I don’t know how to explain the affect these supplies had. There was the immediate help, of course. So many things were needed by so many people.

Baton Rouge doubled in size from evacuees, and for those who could get to the stores, they were crowded and often stripped of goods. I saw clerks stocking shelves only to have items plucked out of their hands before they could even set them down. I had to go to four or five stores sometimes to find things that were needed. And while it was helpful and useful and much required, all of these supplies, it was more than that.

It was the message that we’re not alone.

The rage I felt watching New Orleans drown is still palpable. I cannot understand the fact that we live in a country which can put men on the moon, which can help build an international space station, which can create phenomenal structures or explore the deepest oceans, but we could not get water to people trapped on an overpass for days. I cannot wrap my mind around why they were trapped in the first place, since there were trucks passing them by. FEMA trucks, which wouldn’t stop. I don’t understand that. I absolutely cannot fathom that these people were trapped because sheriff’s at the foot of that bridge prevented the people from crossing into their city of Gretna just because they didn’t want people from New Orleans in their city. And I can’t believe I live in a country which could show this on TV, for days in a row, and no one did anything about it.

New Orleans was dying. People were dying. It was just one scene of so many, and it made no sense. People died on that overpass, when help just drove right by them.

I cannot understand how media crews could show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome, and FEMA or our Federal Government not “know” the people were there. How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world, and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there? How can we handle going into war-torn areas and get aid to people there, but a few thugs prevented us from helping Americans? How?

How is it that more than two weeks later when we were still going to shelters bringing in supplies, I received reports from the outlying areas that FEMA still hadn’t shown up?

Still. Hadn’t. Shown. Up.

I don’t understand these things. I know I live in America.

Well, last time I checked, Louisiana was still in America.

New Orleans was still a major American city. Maybe something happened somewhere that someone forgot to mention to us, but yeah, pretty sure we’re still in America.

And the magnitude of the inept response (including local government) was staggering. It was like watching someone I love get gutted and lie there bleeding and knowing that help was standing a few feet away, talking about golf scores.
So when I say to you that you’ve made a difference, I don’t mean it lightly or in any sort of frivolous way. When it suddenly became clear that we were the ugly, unwanted step-child of the government, or worse, the beaten, neglected child of the local officials who were hastily trying to cover up their long-term abuse with loud excuses, you made us feel human again. So many of you — giving, calling, writing, trying. Feeling the outrage on our behalf. Knowing it belonged to you, because you were us, we were a part of this country, and you cared.

We lost New Orleans.

We needed you, and you were there, and the outpouring of that grace and hope helped to get us through the worst of the days when we were watching in horror as our own people died, as our friends and family were left, as people were treated worse than we’d ever ever treat an animal.

You made a difference. A big difference. And we thank you.

I Stand As Witness

by Toni McGee Causey

Sometimes, there are moments that redefine a life.

And sometimes those moments are when someone else is the star of the show, when you’re in the audience, third row, fourth seat from the left.

I stand as witness.

I stand as witness for a sixteen-year-old boy I never met. He changed our lives.

I understand he had an easy smile, dark mop of hair, about-to-grow-into his looks. That gangly stage of boyhood, steaming, bubbling, nearly ready to change the world.

I never saw it.

He was inclusive. Whether by nature or taught at home, it’s unclear, but he was the rare kind of kid who would look at someone new at school, and say, “Come on, join us.” He was, from what I heard, warm and friendly. Flawed, sure. Normal. He liked sports and computers and had a new girlfriend.

I never knew him.

There were rounds of meetings in L.A., producers who’d read my latest script. I was on top of the world, in one sense, this was my “show” and yet, I was wondering how to make this work, how to pull up my family and move them a couple of thousand miles away from their home. I remember the evening as clearly as yesterday: I was in a friend’s home–he’d had a party so I could see everyone at one time. He’d cooked three kinds of soup and I was astounded at how very good they all were, that he really ought to be a chef somewhere.

His bungalow was not far from Paramount’s entrance, and I saw the Hollywood sign on my way there and the night felt light and innocent and full of hope. Laughter erupted every few seconds at the gathering, people mingled, and I had just heard the voices of long-known friends come through the front door when my cell phone rang.

It was my son.

“Mom. Ryan was killed tonight.”

I stand as witness.

In the previous months, my son had gone from alone-at-a-new-school to having a circle of friends, and Ryan had been the ringleader. Our lives went from being unsure and wary and tense to being happy because of the actions of this kid. He changed everything.

I never heard him laugh. I had been traveling and had deadlines and teenage boys are not exactly wont to hang out with mom.

I’d heard about him, though. Nearly every day. He brought a light into our home with my son’s tales of their latest antics.
I stood in the line to greet his parents at the funeral. They managed to have a grace I could not have mustered, had a drunk driver killed my son.

All of the kids in his class would go on to graduate and some have families. My son now has a daughter. His life changed twice–once when he met Ryan, and again when he lost him.

Because of Ryan, he had made friends, some who will last a lifetime.

I realized that night I did not want to be 2000 miles away if there were ever another call. I did not want to uproot our lives, because there are some things that matter so much more than the latest round of meetings. There are some things we have to do, and some things we choose to do, and for me, while writing was the dream, I realized I already held the other: my family.

My life changed. I decided to pursue fiction and wrote something funny, because I needed something in the face of tragedy, and it’s comedy I turned to. I realized that if my life were cut short the next day, I’d have at least been working on something I loved, something I wanted to do, to please my own instincts instead of doing whatever misguided thing I thought I was “supposed” to do as a writer.

At sixteen, Ryan may not have had a chance to change the world, but he changed my part of it.

He was here. He mattered. He affected so many.

The power of one word, one welcoming gesture, can ripple out, affecting those around them for the rest of their lives. In fiction, the power of one act of cruelty or bravery can drive a story. Zoë’s post Thursday reminded me of this. I try to remember that the minor characters are witness to the events around them. Writing isn’t just about the protagonist and hero–we’re all protagonists and heroes in our own stories. Writing is capturing the ripple, from the point of impact.
At Ryan’s funeral, six years ago, I was sitting third row, fourth seat from the left.

But I stand as witness.

[I originally published this essay back in 2008 over on Murderati, when I blogged there.]

Write What You Know

by Toni McGee Causey

Write what you know.

That’s the big stick sometimes used on writers, especially new writers. The implication, of course, is that you’d better not start writing until you know stuff. I went for years thinking that one of these days, I was going to get to a point where I knew for sure that I knew stuff and horns were going to sound or maybe music would play or some crisp-suited pseudo-TV-host would pop up and let me know that I’d just won the ability to go forward and write. Then I came to the realization, of course, that other people were writing about murders (and one hopes not from first-hand experience) and writing about blowing up the world (again, hoping that’s not a part of their resumé) or assassinating the president (now there’s one to guarantee Google hits), and that’s when I understood that I didn’t have to know anything, and since I was an expert at that, it was quite freeing. Not having a clue? I’m so there.

Which is when I really examined that old piece of advice, the one that felt like it was keeping me from breaking through, and I realized, I already know what’s important. It’s one of those pieces of advice which can sound very limiting, until you turn it around a bit.

I know the sound of the crack of a watermelon rind as it splits open, juice dribbling down onto the table, and the sweet cold crunch of the first bite on a hot summer day.

I know the electrical shock of betrayal in the midst of utter silence as I see a boyfriend’s other woman.

I know the stunning incredulity of how one three-year-old can fill an entire bathroom with suds, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with just a little shampoo and a whirlpool attachment for a tub.

I know the chaos and terror of running red lights to get to a hospital in time.

I know the shushing, oppressive silence of standing in the back of a funeral home.

The thing I’ve been asked at writer’s workshops I’ve given lately is, “How can I write about anything exciting? I have a normal life, but I’ve been told not to write something so autobiographical for a first novel, that that’s the kiss of death. So what do I do?”

And my answer is simple: you know yourself. You know people. And you know how to research whatever it is you need to know.

I know the scent of an old, worn leather glove and the sting of a line drive ball hit across the pitcher’s mound.

I know the first strawberry of the season, picked from my paw paw’s farm, eaten right there as I sat in the dirt between rows.

I know the clink of fine white china as it’s set down on a glossy mahogany table.

I know the safety of my dad’s hug, the tears in my mom’s eyes, the laughter of my brother.

I know my husband’s smile, the sly one he doesn’t show to others.

“But how,” someone asked at the same workshop, “will I know I have a story? How will I know where to begin?”

Begin where the conflict starts. That’s where your story begins, and trust the reader to know that. This, I think was the hardest thing for me to internalize, was that I could trust that the reader knew that in the world of these characters, stuff had happened to them before this point. That there was backstory, that there were reasons for them being the way they were, and I had to break myself of wanting to put all of that in so that the reader understood them so that they would know this moment, this conflict was a big deal.

The conflict does need to be a big deal — to that character. But readers don’t have to know everything about the characters in the beginning to know that. They’re going to trust that you’re starting at the point where something in the character’s life has come to an abrupt, dramatic moment. Or maybe it’s a quiet, dramatic moment, but the point is, there is a moment. There is conflict. It may be internal, it may be external or some combination, but the story we care about as a reader is that struggle. They may not even overcome it, but if you connect us to their lives, to the little details that make them unique, we’re going to care if they try to win that conflict.

I know the feel of rain on my face, sluicing down my clothes, saturating through to the bone.

I know the joy in my sons’ eyes on Christmas morning.

I know the chaos of running out of time, everyone depending on me to get there, with the thing, whatever the thing was.

I know the rush of relief when I made it.

I know failing, the sitting-on-the-floor, stunned, too stunned to breathe, to form tears, to speak.

I know the rush of success, wanting to dance with the world.

What you know, already, is wanting something. You already know successes, and you know failures. I’m betting most of you know losing something that you never, ever wanted to lose, and the numbing pain that caused. That’s where your story starts: the character is going to lose something. And they care, deeply, that they not lose it.

So, write what you know.

Benediction

by Toni McGee Causey

“Can I help you, sir?” she asked from behind the counter.

He pushed his deposit slip forward with his check. The last check he’d be depositing. They’d let everyone go today. It was his fourth layoff. He kept being hired; the companies kept going under. He’d been making half what he used to, and he was out of answers.

He shoved his hands into his jeans, rolling his shoulders beneath his too-thin coat. Blizzard conditions expected. Near white-out warnings. Not that he cared. He wouldn’t be out in it.

Everything was done. This was the last of it.

He watched her hands as she slid the check along the counter, ran it and then the deposit slip through the machine. He didn’t normally bank at this branch, though it had been convenient today, at the end of his errands. She finished her work and fished off the receipt, tucking it into an envelope and asked, “Anything else I can do for you?” as she handed it over.

“Nothing,” he shrugged and headed for the door across the big marble floor of the lobby. This building had been built nearly a century ago, back when everyone knew their customers, knew their daily lives, the ins and outs of things, could call them by name. He was invisible here, now.

Later, they would see he’d been here, see the deposit. Wonder what he was thinking. And all he’d been able to think about was being invisible.

He was almost to the door when her hand was on his arm and her brown eyes smiled at him. She’d been calling his name and he hadn’t heard, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from yanking his arm from her and pushing on through the door. She was breathless for the short run, and expectant. It was one more minute, and one more minute didn’t really matter.

“I remember you,” she was saying. “Over on Stempley.” He must’ve given her a look as blank as he felt inside, and she smiled, and squeezed his arm a little. He hadn’t realized she hadn’t dropped her hand away. “The flat tire. Weather almost as bad as today. You saved my mom’s life.”

“You have the wrong man,” he said. Gruff, probably. Didn’t matter. He just wanted to get out of there.

She laughed. “No, no, I don’t mean there, on Stempley. You stopped and changed my tire. And then my battery was dead because I was stupid and left the headlights on that whole time I’d been waiting for the tow truck, so you had to jump off my car.”

Ah, yeah. He remembered. The collage girl. He’d thought she looked like a nearly drowned puppy when he’d seen her, shivering, trying to change the tire. The lug nuts had been put on by some idiot with an impact wrench and were too tight for her to loosen. The tow truck still hadn’t come by the time he’d finished.

“I lost your name,” she said. “I got home to my mom’s–that’s where I was going that night–and when I got there, she’d fallen. She’d had a heart attack, and if you hadn’t stopped, I’d have been an hour or more later. The paramedic said she wouldn’t have made it.” She stood on her tip toes and threw her arms around him. “Thank you. I have wanted to say thank you for so long. You have no idea how much you mean to me.”

He stood dumbly with her arms around him and everyone in the lobby stared, wondering what this was all about, and the warmth of her pressed against his coat. She wasn’t about to let go, this enthusiastic half-grown puppy, and he patted her on the head, and cleared his throat.

She eased back and looked up at him and beamed. “I’d like to buy you coffee. Next week sometime? I’ll be here, every day.”

He nodded. He wouldn’t be there, but it would be too much trouble to make up a reason. “Sure. Coffee. Next week.” Then he pushed on out the door.

I sat across from him at the little table, some twenty years later. I had only known him this way, old and creased, hair silvered to a sheen, blue eyes dancing. He smiled often and well, a warm event that pulled you in.

“I went home,” he said, finishing his story, his thumb running across the rim of his coffee cup, his eyes grown distant. “And thought. A lot of thinking. Poured the Jack down the drain. Unloaded the gun. Threw the bullets out in the ditch, so I wouldn’t change my mind. I could get another job. Another house. And I did.”

Be the gift, he was fond of saying, and I heard that echo when I stood a few years later at the back of the church. It was a packed place, many mourners, and I had to press through the crowd to work my way to the front to pay my respects to his wife. I could see the warm brown eyes he’d described, the brown hair gone gray. He’d gone back for coffee that next week, he’d told me. His daughter had his eyes.

I told her he’d read my writing when no one else had, and had smiled, and said, “You can do this.”

Be the gift.

The Tipping Point

by Toni McGee Causey

Eleventy quibillion years ago, when I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote terrible poems, which I think only got worse as I got older and the teenage years descended like locusts, leaving only WOE and ANGST. By college, I had brief bouts of sanity, whereupon I attempted architecture (ohmyGod, they do not tell you about the math), business (my first accounting teacher gave me the final exam in advance, with the answers, if I would swear to her I would never, ever, take another accounting class again), and then journalism (where I learned they had the picky little annoying habit of wanting reporters to not make crap up)(this was before Fox News).

And in spite of a fine history of liking to eat and wanting a roof over my head, I still wanted to be a writer. If you asked a question, you would get a story instead of an answer. If I could sidetrack into a couple of tangents? You might as well park a while, because the stories? They would not stop.

All the while, I wrote. Much of it was bad.

I ran into a former high-school teacher, who’d also been a librarian, who asked me the tough question: why wasn’t I submitting for publication? Have you ever run into one of your former teachers? THEY ARE SCARY. It’s like they can retroactively fail you or their eyes shoot truth serum rays or something, and I did not want to stand there in front of my two-year-old and explain I hadn’t submitted anything because I was a big honking chicken. So I took her advice and started writing and submitting to the local paper. (They were insane enough to buy the very first one. That’s like feeding a stray puppy. They did not realize this, I think, until I was around so much, they added me to the regular staff AND the food staff, and this was a fairly prominent paper. One of my relatives realized that I was being assigned to write about how people COOK things. He asked, “Isn’t that… fraud? You use the fire alarm as an oven timer.” I look back on this as the beginning of my fiction career.)

Over the years, and we are not discussing how many, maybe more than two but less than a hundred, I wrote more articles than I can remember or count for newspapers and magazines. I started querying and submitting (and getting sales) at national magazines, but my real love was fiction. I tried my hand at a novel, but it was a spiraling mess, and my husband could see how frustrated I was. (And EVERY husband out there just substituted the words “complete raving loon” for “frustrated.”) So, being a very wise man who liked to wake up breathing in the mornings, he encouraged me to go back to school for some writing classes.

For a while, I was lured to the dark side (screenwriting), and landed an agent, and did a lot of stuff that was almost-but-not-quite what I wanted to do, which was to sell something I made up. Hollywood, by the way, will kill you with encouragement, because when you meet the executives, you will be told you are the most brilliant writer they have read in forever and where the hell have you been all this time and they want to be in the “Toni Causey” business. Swear to God, they will say it and you will believe it because they are that good at sincere. Until you’re sitting in the Warner Brothers commissary waiting for the next meeting, furtively looking around to see the FRIENDS stars on their lunch break (yes, I am dating myself, hush), and the same executive walks by with his arm around someone else who is not you, telling them how utterly brilliant they were, the most brilliant person they’d ever read. That’s when you look down at the script in your hand that is an action thriller that everyone absolutely loves but could you make the man a woman and the woman a duck and wouldn’t it be great if the horse saved the day? and you think, “I’m crazy, but I’m not this crazy.” Some writers (our very own Alex and Rob) have the tenacity for that. Me? I kinda wanted to just kick people. (I never claimed to be mature.)

See, I had this idea. An idea for this funny, take-no-prisoners kind of southern woman, who loves deeply and means well, in spite of the chaos she causes, and I wanted to write that story and be true to that story. So I quit screenwriting. (I had had some offers if I’d move out there. I was not going to move the family.) I had a hard time convincing my former agent that yes, I was serious. I was quitting to write a novel. (I think she still thinks I am going to change my mind.) But I quit, and I started writing Bobbie Faye. I wrote a quick draft in script form, because I was used to that format, then a friend showed a friend, the lovely Rosemary Edghill, who said, “Send me some chapters.” And I did. She gave me some notes (smart, smart woman), and taught me how to write the kind of synopsis an agent needs (“I did not think you could make this worse,” she said of one draft of that synopsis, “but you did.” That’s because I am an overachiever. It took a lot of tries before I figured out that writing a marketing synopsis is a lot like writing a non-fiction article, and that I could do.) Next thing I know, I’d signed with an agent and Rosemary had pitched it to an editor, who made an offer, and St. Martin’s Press bought that book and the next two based on three sample chapters and a synopsis. Almost twenty years from the point where I saw my old high-school English teacher and she’d said, “Why aren’t you submitting for publication?”

(Thank you, Mrs. Ross.)**

There is a great big huge world of “no” out there. Sometimes, following the dream does not mean hoppity-skipping down the easy path. In fact, a lot of times, it means zig zagging past mortars and incoming and a lot of almosts-not-quites and despair and frustration what-the-hell-were-you-thinking? and ugh-this-sucks and occasionally wow-show-me-more. And in spite of how long it took, and how much hard work, I have been exceptionally lucky–there have been friends and mentors who’ve said, “keep going,” and who’ve said, “send that in.” They changed my life. They were the tipping point for me.

Dear God, The Stick Turned Blue

by Toni McGee Causey

Dear God, Universe, or Elves (I am covering all bases, I cannot afford to be picky here):

The stick turned blue. I’m 19. And a half. The stick turned blue. I think my brains just leaked out of my ears because THE STICK TURNED BLUE. It cannot turn blue. I only had sex once. Okay, maybe twice. That’s in base 200. Or something. (Shut up, I am an English major, we’re not expected to know higher math.)

Is this like… trial-sies? Practice run? Just to see how good my adrenal system works because let me reassure you right now, IT WORKS JUST FINE, though I think my neighbors might need a hearing aid after all the shrieking died down.

Signed,

Seriously, you’re kidding, right?
_______________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

This is pregnant? This can’t stand to move morning sickness bloated pasty can’t fit into anything anymore look like a whale and where thehell is my GLOWY feeling? What? Were you out of Deep Fried Crazy Hot for the highs this summer and thought you’d just go ahead and substitute Miserable Seventh Level Of Hades and thought I wouldn’t notice?

Signed,

So very not happy with you right now.
_____________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

It’s a boy. Two-and-a-half weeks overdue. GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT.

Signed,

Hate you and your shoes.
_________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

HE CAN STAY IN, I swear, I will shut up, forever, please do not make me have to OHMYGODTHATHURT. If I die and there is a heaven, I am bringing a LEAD BASKETBALL and you’d better not bend over.

Signed,

Never having sex again, ever.
_____________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Wow. I just… wow. He’s perfect. Unbelievably perfect. And just… wow. Who knew?

Signed,

Okay, you’re forgiven.
_____________________

Dear God, Universe, Or Elves:

Oh, damn. How am I supposed to know what to do? How am I not going to break him? I don’t know enough. Maybe when I’m forty. Or fifty. Maybe. I am so going to screw this up.

Signed,

What the hell were you thinking, trusting me?
_____________________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Um, I hate to mention this, but there is one SERIOUS flaw in your design here. WHERE IS THE OFF SWITCH? I’d like to be able to shower, five minutes. Five. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Signed,

So bringing my stinky self to your doorstep in about three seconds if you don’t FIX THIS.
______________________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

My husband came home and heard me arguing with our two-year-old and took me aside and said, “You’re the adult. You have to outsmart him.”

The sad thing is, I’M TRYING TO.

Signed,

Send brains. Quick.
___________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Okay, I get the whole “have sex, can get pregnant” thing, you can’t fool me. And okay, I’m not wholly surprised that I look like I ate an entire football stadium, but they just told me they expect this one to be over nine pounds. NINE. That’s like giving birth to a TWO MONTH OLD. WITH TEETH. Why not just go ahead and shoehorn in a COLLEGE GRADUATE while you’re at it. Maybe you’ve got a couple of missing OCEAN LINERS from the Bermuda triangle you don’t know what to do with; you can just SHOVE THEM IN MY UTERUS, I DON’T MIND.

Signed,

I hope your hair falls out.
_________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

That was really freaking EVIL of you, playing that “cutest kid on the planet” card, twice in a row. It gets easy after this, right?

Signed,

Delirious.
__________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Look, I know you’re really busy with all that famine and war and mythical alternate universe of Reaganomics and Wham!, but if you could just take a couple of seconds out of your busy schedule? Because my kids are infected with the HE’S TOUCHING ME HE’S LOOKING AT MY STUFF OH WOE!!!! disease. How much trouble will I be in if I duct tape them together?

Signed,

Duct Tape On Sale Now
_______________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

He’s never going to forgive me for wrapping him in multiple rolls of aluminum foil to turn him into the Tin Man for Halloween, is he? Or the eighteen blocks I made him walk (while re-wrapping him) because we were going to trick-or-treat and we were going to BY GOD HAVE FUN, DAMMIT. I’m still going to hear about this when he’s twenty-five, aren’t I?

Signed,

Seriously thought about tying the bathroom rug around him for “lion fur”–he doesn’t know how lucky he is.
___________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

They are sticking a needle in my four-year-old’s back. A needle. They are holding him down in the other room, and he is screaming. They made me leave, because he was lunging for me and he’s supposed to be absolutely still.

I just sat across from one of my childhood friends. She’s our pediatrician now, and one of the smartest people on the planet. We made mud pies together when we were five and six years old. We even managed to sell them (well, she did, she is that smart).

I never dreamed I would be sitting across from her one day and that she would have to say, “meningitis.” That the words “risks” and “death” and “possible brain damage” and “spinal tap” and “could paralyze him” would float, jumbled, over the space between us, that we’d ever talk about the fact that she had to stick a needle in my son’s back. A pediatric emergency.

She is sending me to the ER. I’m carrying him (passed out), while my oldest son is clutching his brother’s spinal fluids in some sort of glass flask, and I’m supposed to drive to the ER, because we do not have time for an ambulance.

She said to try not to stop for red lights. I CANNOT BREATHE right now, and there is no oxygen going to my brain and I CANNOT STOP FOR RED LIGHTS.

I don’t care what it takes, do it to me, not him. I will give you anything. I will give you everything. Just do not do this.

Signed,

begging.
____________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Four days later, and his brother and he are making a slide out of the hospital bed’s mattress.
It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Signed,

thank you.
(your hair grew back in nicely, by the way)
_________________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

The oldest is fifteen, and in this state, he can legally drive. HAVE YOU FREAKING LOST CONTROL OF THE UNIVERSE, OR WHAT? How in the world am I supposed to let him drive? I can barely keep from hurling myself in his path to keep him safe while he’s WALKING AROUND, BREATHING AIR, dammit. I have tried to remember that they are supposed to grow up to be independent, strong men. I have tried to remember to reinforce their decision-making skills. But this is just asking TOO DAMNED MUCH. It’s too soon.

Signed,

Where is the time machine?
___________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

ANY PHONE CALL THAT STARTS WITH “Mom, I’m okay, DON’T WORRY,” is NOT GOING TO BE GOOD, I don’t care HOW earnest you make them sound.

Signed,

Like I am that easily fooled. Ha.
_______________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

I sat on the floor in the hallway today where I could see into the door of each of their rooms. They are empty, now, of boy stuff. One is an exercise room, and one a guest bedroom.

I did not break them. I screwed up. A lot, sometimes. I got self absorbed and busy and short tempered. I lost confidence and lost my way, but I did not break them. I remember the smiles, the laughter, the tooth fairy, the Christmas mornings, the late night talks. There were baseball games, wrestling tournaments, graduations and hysterically funny meals. I remember tears and heartache and not knowing if just loving them more than breathing was going to be enough. I remember too many close calls where it seemed like it might not be. But they are funny and smart and good hearted men. They have (mostly) outgrown the HE’S TOUCHING ME HE’S LOOKING AT MY STUFF OH WOE!!!! disease, and so get along pretty amazingly well. They make me laugh and surprise me and are fascinating people. They are kind. They treat people well, and they not only love deeply, but they are loved deeply in return. They are both the kind of men who, if I just met them somewhere, I’d like them tremendously. They have started families. Wonderful women I’m so lucky to have in our family. A granddaughter (the most beautiful, happy baby in the world).

You did not tell me when you gave me that blue stick that you were giving me my heart. You did not tell me that you were giving me everything that mattered.

Dear God, the stick turned blue.

THANK YOU.

Signed,

toni, a mom.
_____________

(March 17th will be the 32nd anniversary of that first event.)

[I originally published this on Murderati when I blogged there.]

Sense of Place

by: Toni McGee Causey

I always knew we were close when we got to the silos on highway 190. Tall, white, built to house the predominate crop of rice, their domes gleaming in the sun, they were a sign that we were almost to my paternal grandparents’ home. I thought of the silos as the three soldiers, guarding a gateway to a different place in time. We would have been driving west two or so hours by that point to get to Kinder, Louisiana, (pronounced kender) — just northeast of Lake Charles — all the way from Baton Rouge, where my parents had moved so my dad could find a job.

My very first memory–I think I might have been two or three–is of me sitting in the middle of my grandparents’ living room on the hardwood floor in their small house, the attic fan rattling, dragging in muggy air from the hot spring day outside the screen door. Aunts, uncles, cousins were standing, leaning or seated in stiff ladderback chairs around the perimeter of the room. Most of the ladies wore cotten print dresses and flat shoes; the men had on slacks and short sleeve shirts, and cowboy boots, of course. A few of the men had their dress straw hats propped on their knees. My Paw Paw (for that’s the common term there, Maw Maw and Paw Paw) usually had the nicer chair next to the door. It would be years before I would realize that worn, green, stained-armed, sagging seat, broken-back chair wasn’t a throne.

Hazy cigarette smoke swirled above our heads, sucked into the attic fan and the evening light dappled through the open windows (always with screens to keep out the mosquitoes). Something played in the background, a crackly radio sawing out Cajun music, and the quiet room would ebb and flow with stories. Always the stories. Sometimes, the story tellers would be quiet, somber, sometimes picking up to a lively jaunt. Cajuns thrived on the telling, passing along reminiscences, which in turn, passed along heritage. Tales which gained in fame and embelishments with every incarnation. Cajuns loved good practical jokes, crazy lore, and it was more about the event of telling and hearing the story than the facts, anyway. It was, as my friend Kitty says, the ‘supped up version. And sometimes, in the telling, they would switch over to Cajun if they didn’t want the kids to understand, saddened, though, that they knew the kids wouldn’t understand. Most of us grandkids were far flung from our heritage already.

Like my dad, I was born there, in pure Cajun country. Unlike my dad, I would never know the language, not in its full, rich glory, neither French, nor a corruption of it, but an altered language, spoken still in old cafés with threadbare linoleum and formica countertops in small towns, dim and dusty and far from the interstate. My dad spoke only Cajun until he was in the first grade, when the teachers had been instructed to force all of the kids to speak only English, and stabbed a heritage in its soul without a single blade falling.

I remember spending time in Kinder, sometimes a week in the summer, and exploring the creek in the back, watching the crawfish build their mud huts, “fishing” for them with a piece of bacon tied to a string, running barefoot through grass and always getting stickers embedded in my toes, never wanting to put on shoes in spite of that because the loss of the feel of fresh, cool grass between my toes was a greater loss than the annoyance of the stickers. I remember watching the ceiling fans, listening to the rhythm of the attic fan, and always smelling the dark, loamy aroma of coffee brewed so strong, it practically sat up and had a conversation. I remember my Maw Maw hanging the white sheets on the clothesline that was strung from a post near her back door out toward the edge of the lawn near the creek, and the game we’d make of dodging around them, and the sweet, sunny smell we’d breathe in from them at night, as if they’d absorbed our happiness. I remember the spicy food, the rice with every meal, the constant ribbing and teasing and arguing. I remember the nights so quiet, I’d get up and walk around just to make sure I was still alive. I’d sit on the front porch, listening to the crickets and the croaking bullfrogs and the grunts of other animals not far away, sometimes still seeing fireflies dancing in the dark. I remember the biggest treat was hand-cranked ice-cream, which usually signalled our last night there, and I remember the voices in my dreams.

I haven’t kept the accent, though I fall back into it as soon as I’m around my cousins or friends back there. I haven’t kept as many of the customs, though we do have our own version of a fais do do (party) here every year, with everyone knowing what date and time and if they ever cross my threshold, they have a permanent invitation to return for the party. I haven’t kept as many memories as I wish I had, though I can still see my Paw Paw, strong as ever, approaching the porch and taking off his hat before he entered. My dad told me that since I was the oldest granddaughter and we lived with them at the time, my Paw Paw loved to come in from work and chat with me, only I’d cry as soon as he’d approach. It broke his heart, because apparently, I hung the moon, quite a feat for a two-year-old, but I was always an ovearchiever. And then one day, he took off his hat first (a straw cowboy hat), and I laughed and went straight to him. My dad said that he never had a memory of his father without a hat on prior to that, not once. I have no memories of him wearing one.

I’m usually amused by what people think of when they think of Cajuns, or horrified (may Adam Sandler die of a thousand paper cuts from the atrocity that was Water Boy, and no, I’m not even giving it the courtesy of linking to it… in fact, if you substituted any other ethnic background for that main character in that film, there would have a full-on battle cry of discrimination.)

I digress.

Cajuns are not just about the food and the accent, the fais do do, the playing hard. Yes, the food is important, because it was the social gathering. Yes, it’s spicey, and full of flavors, as befitting a people who had to flee a country and hide out in a land and learn to live off it, best they could, and use what they had to hand. No, we won’t eat everything, though many eat a few things I think are weird. Believe me, we’re pretty freaked out over you eating (drinking?) wheat grass and tofu (which I have yet to understand) or go purely vegan.

Cajuns are stuborn, ornery, argumentative, ornery, muleheaded, ornery, determined, bossy, ornery, and in case I didn’t mention it, ornery. They each are one hundred percent certain they are right, except when they’re not, and it’s your fault they weren’t anyway, so what are you arguing about? At the same time, we’ll work hard to go the extra mile, give whatever needs to be given. I grew up with people who thought it was normal to give whatever they could give and not count it as favors which needed to be repaid. It was just a matter of course that if they needed something in return, it would be done. Part of that came from being a people desperate for survival, clinging to their own cultures and traditions, knowing that to survive, they needed each other as well as their neighbors.

When we’d drive back home to Baton Rouge, the time travel reversed itself as fields fanning out to the side of the car gave way to small towns and industries and then the scary red extremely narrow Old Mississippi River bridge and finally into the suburbs of a city. There was a campaign here not so long ago, and the pithy slogan someone came up with to encourage city pride was, “We are B.R.” Each time I’d see that slogan, I’d feel a disconnect, and then I realized, one day, that no, I’m not. I live here, and it’s been my home most of my adult life and the few years I spent in Cajun country shouldn’t have had such a profound lasting imprint.

But it did.

My Louisiana is a place of swamps and rivers and lakes and eating crawfish out at the fishing camp and drifting in a bateau with my dad, fishing early in the morning for the big bream. My Louisiana is a place of flavors and seasonings, a place of coffee and heat, of mosquitoes at sunset and screen doors. It’s a place of hard work, intense play and loyalty beyond life. It’s a place of belly laughs and counting on your neighbor.

And I’m glad it’s mine.

[This piece was originally published by me when I blogged over on Murderati. I have many essays there, as do a lot of fine colleagues.]

Jackson Square and the Petite Theater at 5:30 a.m.

This was another very difficult-to-get shot; it was a rainy morning, and the Square was empty of even the tarot card tables and the various homeless who’ll sometimes sleep on the benches. The sky was staring to pink up and there was a big garbage truck just beyond the site of the buildings, on Chartres, about to come into view. Its headlights, though, illuminated the street for me as if they knew I needed the extra help, and I grabbed this shot. About two minutes later, someone who’d had too much to drink the night before (and was apparently still drinking), ambled into my camera’s view and no matter which way I pointed, they ambled over to be in the shot. By the time they stumbled back out of view, the garbage truck had made the corner and was heading up St. Peter, and the buildings were too dark to grab this kind of detail.

I love, too, how the Cabildo lights were on upstairs. That’s not usual, from what I’ve seen, for them to be on that early. There’s a yoga class that takes place up there where those lights are, about 7:30 every morning, and one day, I’m going to live close enough to that spot to walk there. (And everyone I know just cracked up laughing.) (It could happen.)

 

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LaTrobe Park in the French Quarter near the French Market

There’s a very pretty little micro-park right near the French Market that a lot of people miss. It’s a lovely place to have beignets and coffee and sit and people watch.

I edited this shot so that it was more painting-like. Sometimes I like to play with light and see what I can mix up in Photoshop. I used to paint (oils) as a kid through my teen years, and I’ve wanted to start back a number of times, but I have no place for the mess, and the smell permeates any place where you set up–not a great idea for where we live. I’m not even sure I could pick up a brush again after all these years and remotely like the process; I think I’ve gotten used to painting in photoshop and the speed that gives me something finished vs. the hours of painting. Instant (nearly) gratification.

 

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