Conference and Conversation with Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Two of the intangibles I’ve gained since becoming a college student in my thirties are confidence and perspective; I’m not sure that would’ve happened had I continued with my original plan–get my degree in Health Information Technology and be done with it.

The semester I took a Creative Writing elective, I began to seek out more opportunities to enrich my college experience, which included participating in poetry readings, writing for the student newspaper, and work-studying in the English Department.  Attending events, such as plays, art shows, and Book Talks, broadened my experience even more.

The best Book Talk I’ve attended thus far was given by columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson (http://www.timesdaily.com/life/columnists/rheta_grimsley_johnson/rheta-grimsley-johnson-make-much-of-something-small/article_ab2398fa-af14-56c5-b20c-22eeeb51902b.html).

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

PENSACOLA, FL.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a lady one might mistake for a schoolteacher, with her pearl necklace and long dress, and pleasant voice with a Southern lilt. “You can make a living as a writer,” she told an audience at Pensacola State College.

As many lovers of words are wont to do, she quoted Robert Frost, who said that writers “write about the common things in an uncommon way.”

The column that propelled her career as a newspaper columnist was about her dad losing his job. This resonated because corporate America no longer valued loyalty, but was all about hiring younger and cheaper. “My dad was a company man,” she said, and it was like being “bitten by his own dog…this one piece took on a life of its own.” Her editor loved all the letters that came in, in response to the column.

Years ago, she was told by one of her editors not to write about children or dogs. “Don’t write like a girl….don’t write about emotional stuff,” Johnson said. “There was always a dog right there next to me, no matter what was going on in my life.”

Johnson lived in Pensacola as a young child. “I knew even at seven we were trading down,” she says, of when her family relocated from Pensacola to Montgomery, Alabama. She can still remember the first time she heard wind chimes—it was a “magical time”.

In 1989, Johnson wrote a biography of Charles Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. When Schulz complained about the popularity of “Doonesbury,” Johnson asked why he didn’t write a political cartoon. “I want to stick with the verities.” Like Johnson, Schulz sticks with “the human condition” which transcends time.

Being a seasoned writer, Johnson doled out some sage advice: She doesn’t like v-words, like “virtual” and “vis-à-vis”—“fancy pants little words you don’t really need.” “Very” is a common repeat offender and needs to be locked away, brevity is key.

According to Johnson, people have a nine-second attention span (while goldfish have 13), she works hard on her lead.

Like the old-school notion of the three R’s being reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, Johnson says good writing has three R’s:

The first one is rhythm. Reading it aloud is the “best way to self-edit…Good writing has rhythm, just like a song.”

“If you know how to write a short, declarative sentence, you will be sought out… Good nonfiction should read like fiction…good fiction should be as well researched as nonfiction.”

Keeping a journal to jot down things as they come to her is like “having money in the bank.” Having written four columns a week, she says, “Writers block is a luxury.”

The second R was restraint. “Just say what happened.”

The third R is routine. “Try to write in the same place…same time of day.”

Because newspaper circulation is on the decline, she said, “I’m going to completely outlive newspapers…I needed to reinvent myself a little bit.” Johnson has authored “Hank Hung the Moon:…and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts” and “The Dogs Buried over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years.”

“He sang me through a lot,” she says of Hank Williams, and dogs “teach us more than we teach them,” such as taking naps and hiding the best treats.

Johnson’s writing career hasn’t been one of a “front-porch thumb sucker,” but one of getting outside her head and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, 550 words at a time. “You meet the most interesting people at laundromats and bus stations.” Stories are everywhere. A good writer knows it when he or she hears (or sees) it.

Book Review: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

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The title of this book is misleading, for the daughter (at birth) is more of a catalyst than a main character. We never get into her head. Perhaps the author wasn’t comfortable with speaking from the point-of-view of someone with Down’s Syndrome, but it would’ve been a stronger book had she attempted to do so.

This is what I call literary fiction, being more character-based than plot-based; the plot happens in the beginning, and we see what happens to the characters from there. I love the idea of how one decision made in haste can bring about unintended consequences.

I suppose the author expects her readers to sympathize with David, but I could not sympathize with any person who would give their less-than-perfect child away, and deceive their spouse into believing that child had died. What’s more, a father who would commit his daughter to an institution, to spare his wife the pain, at the expense of causing pain to his daughter.

Opening a few windows into David’s childhood did nothing to endear this reader to him. His decision was selfish and unjustified.

He was a modern-day Solomon who performed a separation; the real mother took his daughter, and so we never find out, “What would Norah have done?” Not the Norah at the end of the book, but the Norah at the beginning.

Rather than Sophie’s choice, it was David’s choice.

Though I cannot condone Norah’s (David’s wife’s) actions later in the book, as a woman, I can sympathize with them. Alienation of affection combined with the withholding of something precious is a powerful combination that can lead people to do things they wouldn’t normally do.

I know the author was using David’s photography as a metaphor, but the metaphor never came together for me. It was interesting, nonetheless, and, being a healthcare student, I found David’s observations about things in the world resembling what is inside us illuminating. (We are made of the dust of the earth, so it would only make sense he would see the unseen parts of us in creation.)

Generally, I find myself more drawn to one character’s story than another, but I didn’t find the switch back and forth from David’s story to Caroline’s story jarring; both were equally interesting.

“The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” is the story of how a secret can grow between two people like a tree, until their arms can no longer reach around it.

The character of the pregnant girl, Rosemary, as well as Paul’s girlfriend, Michelle, added nothing, but I loved the character of Norah’s sister, Bree. I would’ve preferred her story to be fleshed out further, as well as the character of Al, but then he was a mysterious man without a past.

Like life, this book was full of unanswered questions and unfinished business—it left me feeling bereft, like I’d been walking through a blue-hued London fog for hundreds of kilometers, never seeing the sun. It was an interesting read more than it was a good one, but worth the time.

My Poetry Manifesto

So we’re making chapbooks for our final project in our poetry class, and I’m taking the easy (but more expensive) route–I’m doing mine on Shutterfly because I’m not that crafty yet.

Our professor wanted us include our manifesto on poetry, and so this is mine:

Manifesto

I grew up on Mother Goose and Eugene Field, in the voice of my father.

As I matured, I turned to longer works; it wasn’t till I had my firstborn that my love for such rhyme and whimsy was reawakened.

“I have fed you with milk, and not with meat” (1 Corinthians 3:2). My dad had fed me the milk, nourishing me so that I could hunt for my own meat. Many years would pass before I realized I had been brought up on one of the most influential books of poetry the world has ever known: The Holy Bible.

That book has illuminated my being with its powerful message: that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and are of inherent worth, for “ye are bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 7:23). That value is something no one can ever take away.

As I entered adolescence, I discovered Poe, Tennyson, and Frost–the classics–but it wasn’t until I took a college level poetry course that I began to appreciate adult, non-rhyming poetry.

And it was when I began to recite at and attend poetry readings that poetry became alive–something not just to be seen, but heard.

Poetry, for me, is a distilled form of literature, a purer form of language. It is life with the water taken out, and yet it flows like the blood of the one who wrote it.

Above all else, poetry has been, for me, the way to express all the things I could never say.

Dad

Me and my dad, circa 1982, who always read to me not from books, but from loose pages with illustrations, and who taught me to say “Three foul balls in a tub” instead of “three men in a tub” (on “Rub-a-dub-dub”)

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #389; Theme: Improvement

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Improvement (is an Inside Job):  In Acrostic

It starts with the self
Minimalism and mindfulness
Productivity over busyness
Recursive reading
Occupational happiness
Variety of experiences
Eat well, pray often, love the one you’re with
Making time, taking time
Endless intellectual curiosity
Not afraid to say no
Thank you, please, and I’m sorry

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/wednesday-poetry-prompts-389

A Time to Share: Reflections on one stop of my writing journey

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Being a guest blogger for https://getconnectdad.com/ has been a wonderful experience.  I was intrigued by the “52 Traits” we want to instill in our children; writing about them in poetic form has helped me explore such abstracts on a deeper level:  https://sarahleastories.com/get-connected-dad-my-contributions/

I’m a natural born storyteller, and I’ve found that my poems tend to be narratives with strategically-placed line breaks.  With the exception of children’s nursery rhymes, I find myself veering away from rhyme.  I like to say “metaphor is the new rhyme.”

I’ve finally become comfortable sharing my poetry in front of an audience.  My life motto has become “Aw, what the hell?”  I’ve always regretted the times I could’ve read and didn’t, but never the times I did, even if it didn’t go as well as I would’ve liked.

For example, one of my English professors told our class that my short story, “The Punch Drunk Potluck” (about what happens when a prospective member of the Church spikes the punch and brings pot brownies) was supposed to be humorous.  I was thinking, Oh, my god, don’t tell them that.  If they don’t laugh, I’ll be so embarrassed.

Even though “Punch” won first place in the college’s annual literary contest, they didn’t laugh.  That said, I was a bit uncomfortable (I’m sure I was breaking out in hives) during the reading (it was, after all, a super silly story), but I did it, and afterwards, a few people came up to me and told me how great it was.  (People may not always laugh, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t think it was funny; I don’t laugh at every joke I hear on “Cheers”).  One even asked for a copy.

The girl who asked for a copy used to be a member of the FLDS Church (her father had four wives), and so she understood all the nuances of my piece.  I’ve found that of all the different kinds of writing I do, I enjoy writing my humor pieces the most.  Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a funny gal (more just witty), I keep in mind that Lucille Ball was very serious in real life.

Out of the nine readers at the poetry reading at my college, I was the only one who read anything humorous  (“Hanging from the Family Tree”).  I like to say “a little subtlety and a little levity goes a long way.”  When offered the chance to read again, I read a serious poem (one I would describe as “hauntingly beautiful”), but everyone loved the first.  My inspiration for that one?  My family:  The gift that keeps on regifting.  (I was even asked to perform an encore the next day at the office.)

I’d worn my white snood; I decided that would be my schtick.  (When I used to color my hair red, I thought “The Lady in Red” had a nice ring to it; I would wear all red, down to my shoes.)  Since I had to stop coloring my hair when I was expecting (only to find I had gray hairs), I had to ditch that notion, at least during my child-bearing years.  (And have you ever tried finding red shoes?  Especially in a size 10?)

That night of the reading (taking a piece of advice one of the other students in my poetry class gave), I opened with a joke I’d overheard in the English department:

Q:  What does the Secret Service shout when they see a bullet coming towards the President?

A:  Donald!  Duck!

That icebreaker helped dispel almost all my self-consciousness.

My advice:  Don’t overthink it.  Just go for it.

 

 

#Micropoetry Monday: The Writer’s Life

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When Article met Listicle,
he was pumped full of bullets,
then given some numbers,
so he would end in the Top 10.

Sarah Lea Stories
found her doppelganger
in Sara Lee Storey,
who was about 9 floors
too tall.

She started as a period piece,
with its hard, round end,
but when she became an
apostrophe poem,
she became possessive.

He was a teller of tall stories,
she, short,
& together,
she learned how to climb those 60 stories
& trim them down.

Dot Com was a lonely man,
looking for a dash of this,
a slash of that,
but when he met a semicolon,
he met his match,
for she was a Dot Comma.

Book Review: The Laws of Subtraction

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To be fair, I didn’t finish this book (which is why it gets one star). I was only able to finish the Introduction (which was promising), and most of the first chapter. When Mr. May talked about design (and I’m not even a design major, much less an artist), I was engaged, but as soon as he started talking about cars, I could feel myself enter outer space.

I like to say that “Brevity is literary minimalism”; Mr. May broke his own rule by using the phrase “shrug our shoulders” (xii)–what else would one shrug?

I was actually looking for a book on minimalism (not the art, but the lifestyle), and this book just seemed to go on and on about other things. I must say, the title was clever, but the six simple rules he comes up with don’t make a lot of sense to me, such as “Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing”. (One could replace “doing nothing” with “doing something else”.) That said, I did like his “better with less” (xiii) adage (in conjuction with, but not opposed to, “more with less”). Another quote I liked was “The ability to use patterns to create meaningful relationships from seemingly unrelated elements is a uniquely human attribute and the hallmark of creativity” (12). This has to be one of Glenn Beck’s favorite quotes.

However, he lost me when he said, “If I could figure out how to get this particular portfolio of insight and inspiration into your head with an affordable form of magic that removes the written word entirely, I would” (xv). A writer wishing the abolition of the written word? I don’t think so. Not enough people read now.

I do believe that “what isn’t there” is as important as “what is there”. We always talk about the need for plenty of white space in writing or “reading between the lines”.

I tried to read a few of the contributors, but couldn’t get into those either. This book might’ve made a good series of heavily truncated blog posts, but that’s about it.