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After four weeks of writing, last night I made the final revisions to my latest short story, Samuel’s Wife. This morning, I sat in my study drinking a cup of coffee, my dog at my feet, my family still asleep, and read the story one last time. When I finished, I held the thirteen sheets of typed, double-spaced paper in my hands and thought of how much time I put into each short story I write. When I say I wrote for four weeks on Samuel’s Wife, I don’t mean I wrote off and on, now and then, a few minutes here and a few minutes there. I wrote eight hours a day at least four days a week while laundry piled up, while dog hair accumulated on the red oriental rug and in the corners of the hardwood floors. While my family slept and went to school and spread straw in the garden and bought groceries and watched television, I was locked in my study creating conflict and struggle between two strong women. My medical appointments were postponed, invitations declined. Many nights, I’d still be researching life in southern Georgia during the 19th century until well after midnight. I studied the Trail of Tears and my own family history involving Indians. Interruptions from the outside world caused me considerable stress. For three days straight I had to drop my writing in order to complete end-of-year reports for a women’s club. If you are a writer reading this, you know how difficult it can be to abandon a manuscript and focus on other projects. When writing, I tend to become reclusive with an urgency to control the door that leads to me. But it is never possible to control events beyond my study. Life goes on and pulls me into it, like it or not.
Samuel’s Wife is written in first person present tense. Some say this is one of the most difficult and limited formats for writing, yet for certain stories I prefer the sense of immediacy that comes from first person present and the distinctive voice it demands from the narrator. The opening line of Samuel’s Wife is “Here comes Bess.” To be sure, I tried retelling the story in first person past and third person past, but the story fell flat.
When I wrote Sleeping on Paul’s Mattress there was no other point of view and tense that would work. It needed a strong voice and first person present pulled the narrator’s anger and hurt to the surface where it pulsed with life. Sleeping on Paul’s Mattress starts with, “From my crouching position under the house, I watch a hearse back into the yard and stop right short of the front porch. It’s late in the day, and the sun is bleeding red across the sky for as far as I can see. Four men with fleshy faces climb out of the hearse, straightening their ties, flipping imaginary hairs from their dark suits. They look like white sugar frosting on a shit-pile if you ask me. You can’t dress up poverty like ours. No, you can’t color our house anything but ugly no matter how many polished shoes walk up its decaying steps.”
I don’t always write in first person present tense. Most of my stories won’t accept that limited format, yet I’ve learned to be true to myself and buck off the rules of writing whenever I need something fresh and alive. By doing so, I often open myself up to criticism, but if I am afraid to plow new ground, then I have no business planting words.
Today, I placed Jimmy's marbles under my Christmas tree.
My maternal grandmother gave birth to a son in January 1934. She named him James; they called him Jimmy. As the Great Depression and the boll weevil ate through the pocketbooks of southern farmers, Jimmy's health declined. After a long, dry summer of dying crops and dying dreams, he took his final breath surrounded by family on a hot day in September 1936. My own mother was fours years old at the time. He was two.
As a child who loved to plunder among my grandmother's things, I'd often plead with her to take me to the silence of her bedroom and lift the lid to the old sea trunk, the coffin and crib of her memories. It was always a treat when she'd kneel before the trunk and pull out faded black and white photos from her past. She'd finger the edges of yellowed envelopes stuffed with handwritten letters and show me arrowheads, drawings, report cards, and other items of interest.
While we looked through the trunk, I'd listen for the sound of my grandfather's truck pulling down the long dirt driveway. When it came to the past, my grandfather, who spoke with anger baked on his lips, wanted no resurrections. At the first sound of his truck, my grandmother would slap the lid to the trunk shut and we'd rush from the bedroom. It wouldn't do for him to find us digging up graves.
One summer day, while my grandfather was gone, my grandmother knelt before the trunk and reached beneath the many layers of treasures, all the way to the bottom. With hands reflecting a lifetime of hard work, she fished out a small canvas bag approximately four inches long. She sighed deeply, closed her eyes, and held the bag to her chest. When she spoke, I could feel her heart pulsing on the syllables. "These were Jimmy's."...
He's a big guy who sports a smile true to his heart and shakes with belly laughter that erupts with little urging. In Brackish, a recently released book of poetry, that big man I call friend takes us to the gulf marsh where he digs, revealing entire stanzas buried alive, pulsing under mud and peat, thick and heavy with the past, and spreads the words before us like the day's catch of fish, not yet cleaned, hearts still beating. It is a feast for the soul. Revealing not one thing, but everything, his words drip of brackish water as he writes to and about the gulf ghosts that breathe down his back. Freshwater of the future meets saltwater of the past. His poems reek of home and fish; stagnant pools and marsh; a mill town coughing up sulfur; a father's cigarettes. Jeff Newberry has something to say that is worth saying, and he refuses to wash the marsh and mud from his poetry, dress it up, and spray it with fine cologne. It's a saltwater mouth in Brackish. Good Lord, I smell it.
Dr. Jeff Newberry is a native of the Florida Gulf Coast. His work has appeared in too many print and online journals to name. He teaches at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia. His students adore him.
Brackish is available from Amazon.
I used to write magazine articles for a financial planning firm based in one of the northern states. The CEO was a man who lived his life spiced with exclamation points. He started his days spitting out exclamation points and speaking in capital letters. He’d arrive at the office and say, “HOT DAMN! It’s colder than hell out there!” Later, he’d stop at my desk, open his mouth wide, and exclaim, “I love the way you changed this article! This is AMAZING!” Before the day was over, he’d throw a stack of papers on my desk. “See if you can work your magic on this one! Don’t worry! I don’t need it until tomorrow!” I’d immediately spot a sentence screaming at me from the papers: HAVE YOU DIVERSIFIED YOUR STOCKS!!!!
See what I mean? I always imagined his first cry at birth: “WAAAAA!”
My father was a period man. He never cursed or yelled or screamed even under stress. When he was upset, he’d simply take a drag on a cigarette, blow the smoke out into the night like a nicotine spirit, and say something like, “Umm.”
Yes, my father was a definitely a period man. When his father was dying of cancer, the two of us showed up at the hospital for a visit. We walked into an empty room, the bed made, and no sign of my grandfather. A nurse strolled in, saw us staring at the bed in confusion, and told us that my grandfather had been moved to the funeral home. It was one of the few times I saw my father lost and confused. He said under his breath, “Oh. Oh.” Any possible exclamation points were buried under his sorrow as he pushed from his heart a barely audible period. I imagine my father whimpered as an infant: “Huh. Huh. Huh.” At birth, he was nothing more than a period waiting to grow into a man and live a life filled with punctuation.
When I worked at Bradley University, a student often showed up at my desk wanting to talk. She was undeniably a question mark. She’d crash through the door and say, “I guess you’re having a busy day, huh, Miss Brenda?”
“Yes, it’s busy today.”
“Well I don’t guess you’ve got time to see why the change machine won’t work, do you?”
“Give me just a minute and I’ll take a look at it.”
“I don’t guess you’ve got a few dollars in change I can use until then, do you?”
I would dig through my desk and count out some quarters. She’d continue questioning me. “You know I waited until the last minute to study for my finals, don’t you?”
Everything that came out of that girl's pretty little mouth arrived attached to a question mark. One day, she'll be dressed in a wedding gown when she looks into her handsome groom's eyes and asks, "Will I?"
I knew a man in Washington who loved semicolons: "Brenda, some people will be wearing jeans, khakis, or even shorts tonight; others, those who like to dress up, will be wearing formal attire."
I never heard him speak in a fragmented sentence. Never in run-on sentences. He was a brave man who always chose the dreaded formal semicolon: "It snowed heavily all night; however, I was able to shovel enough snow to get the car out of the parking place."
And then, there is the ellipsis. . . .
It is sometimes difficult to hold a conversation with an ellipsis person: “I believe we’ve met before, Mrs. . . .”
“Yes. It was at the. . . .”
“Oh yes. You were . . . .”
My son has a friend who doesn’t believe in periods or commas under any circumstances: “Patrick I ran all the way over here cause you wouldn’t answer the phone and nobody’s answering my calls and I sent you a text but you didn’t answer it and then finally I got your mother on the phone and she said you were asleep but I knew you’d be awake by the time I got here and I wonder if you want to run up to Starbucks and get some coffee and maybe we can call some of our friends to go with us but only if you feel like it do you have any coke in the fridge I’m thirsty (huff, huff, huff) oh God all you've got is diet coke and you know I don't drink diet coke what are your thinking man (huff, huff, huff) and what the heck is that don't tell me it's Pepsi since when did you start drinking Pepsi don’t you know coca cola was invented right here in Georgia!”
If I had to describe myself in terms of punctuation and sentence flaws, I’d say I’m a comma and a comma splice and a run-on sentence and a sentence fragment. All those things.
This blog post emerged from my struggle over the punctuation of one sentence. I was writing a sentence in a short story and couldn’t decide if it needed an exclamation point.
I guess it does! Maybe it needs three or four!!!! Even better, in CAPS!!!!
Puget Sound 1990
I was taking the ferry to Bainbridge Island, Washington when someone spotted whales in the water. Some of us gathered at the rails to watch. Moments later, the prayerful sound of a violin filled the air. Standing opposite me, an elderly man had brought the instrument up to his face and was playing as though he had no audience. At first, the music came as soft as a snowflake as the whales showed off for us. Then the musician looked past the whales, across the cold water of Puget Sound, and the music swelled, ethereal and haunting. He closed his eyes and played, his body swaying, as he pulled salvation from the heavens and the ocean, from above and below. Tears trickled down his face, leathery and wrinkled, rusty and deep. He took a journey into his soul and allowed those of us on the ferry to travel with him and hear the cries of his violin. The experience was so magical it felt like a miracle.
By the time I reached Bainbridge Island, my fingers ached to write and record the beauty of the day as seen through my own eyes.