Writing through Familiarity Blindness

Oak leaves are falling and a few yellow sweet gum stars as well. But the temperature was in the low 90’s (32°C) over the weekend, and it seemed silly to hang my autumn wreath and put out pumpkins on the front porch. The Weather Channel tells me cooler air will arrive next week. I hope they make good on their promise.

I developed a fresh appreciation for the asphalt-melting heat here in Georgia when my family and I vacationed in Seattle a few years ago. It was August, but we shivered as we piled into the rental car and set the heat on High. We drove to Mt. Rainier and marveled at the patches of snow. Even in winter, it hardly ever snows in middle Georgia.

Turns out, other places are different.

They don’t serve grits in Maine. And I didn’t see a shred of Spanish Moss in Arizona. For all its glorious wildlife, alligators don’t live in Yellowstone. And when the thermometer reaches 45°F here in the South, and I shiver and complain because I’m freezing, I realize I don’t know what cold is.

I’ve written before about Writing What You Don’t Know. But writing what you know is not always easy.

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lovebugs, photo by Daniel McLendon

How do you describe a place that is so familiar, you take its idiosyncrasies for granted? Sometimes, I’m blind to the details which make my region unique. Peculiarities such as fried okra, syrupy-sweet tea, and lovebugs.

So here are a few tricks that help me write about my home. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

  1. Travel: Visit other places and note the differences.
  2. Take photographs: If you’re having difficulty seeing anything remarkable about your setting, a photo may help. It places distance between you and the real thing. Sometimes you’ll see things you hadn’t noticed before.
  3. Interview people who live outside your region: Ask them what is odd or unique to your home. What is amusing? Annoying? What do they like best? Least?
  4. Interview people who live inside your region: What do they love about their home? What do they like least? What makes them proud? Ashamed?
  5. People-watch: Go to a park or restaurant and eavesdrop (politely). What colloquialisms do you hear? What do the people look like? How do they dress? How do they interact? Here in the South, it’s polite to smile and say “hey” to strangers, but folks in the north eye me suspiciously when I do that.
  6. Research: Read about your town or region. Someone else’s outlook can help you view the familiar through different eyes. One of my favorite authors is Rick Bragg who writes about the South with humor, beauty, and true love.

Bragg’s time in New York gave him a fresh perspective, and my trip to Seattle did the same for me.

When our vacation ended that August, we left the cool, invigorating air of Washington and felt the full force of the Georgia summer upon our return. We landed in Atlanta in the middle of a heat wave, which is saying something. The temperature was over 90°F — at midnight. The sliding doors opened to the Hartsfield-Jackson parking deck, and I can still remember how we groaned when we stepped outside. It was as if we’d hit an almost-solid wall of heat and humidity.

But I’ll take the heat. Like your well-meaning Aunt Martha, who makes the best banana pudding in the world but also makes a habit of buttin’ into everybody’s business, you take the good with the bad. Love, for a person or a place, covers a multitude of sins.

Thanks for reading, y’all.

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Lost in Writing Fog?

 

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Pixabay

Panic at 3500 Feet

One bright morning, my husband and I flew in his little Maule MX-7 from our crooked, grass strip to his parent’s house sixty miles away. As we cruised toward the sun, a few cotton-ball clouds dotted the patchwork of fields below us, but the skies above were clear.

Ten minutes later, a solid white blanket cloaked the ground.

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Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

Fog is intimidating when you’re on the road, but it’s downright hair-raising from the air, especially for this white-knuckle flyer.

After vowing silently never to fly again, I pointed out the obvious to my husband. “We can’t land in this!”

“It’ll lift before we get there,” he said, his hands firmly on the control wheel.

We followed the straight line on the GPS screen until we reached the destination point — his father’s farm. We circled the area and searched for an opening in the clouds but found none.

Anxiety taunted me: What if the fog doesn’t lift for hours! The plane will run out of fuel!

We circled again. I prayed, HARD. After one more go-around, the summer sun burned a hole in the fleecy cover, and we were able to land.

Despite my doubts, my husband knew what he was doing. He had studied the forecast and knew the weather conditions – dew point, temperature, and wind – were improving.

How Are Your Writing Conditions?

Sometimes, even the most conscientious scribblers inadvertently create their own WRITING FOG — a hazy state of confusion and bewilderment. Momentum slows, and finishing — or starting – a project becomes a tricky prospect.

If this occurs while you’re working on a story, you can’t see where the plot is heading. Or maybe your theme becomes fuzzy.

You may encounter Writing Fog between projects: one work is complete, but your vision for the next is blurry. You become disoriented, panicky, uncertain of your goals. You’re afraid you’ve lost creative energy. You’re afraid of crashing.

What Causes Fogginess?

Lack of planning. When I was a homeschooling mom, I was a dedicated (compulsive) planner. I scheduled every thirty minutes of my day. If I didn’t, I couldn’t get the laundry done. Or the meals. Or anything.

But I reached a point where my ever-increasing To Do list was making me nervous. So, I swung to the opposite extreme and NEVER made a schedule. No plans, no calendars, no lists. This also had its problems, such as missed appointments, late bills, and a serious lack of focus.

Winging it with your writing will give you similar results. That’s not to say you must write a fifty-page outline before you draft your story. And it’s okay if you can’t envision exactly what your next project will be. But a little planning can prevent you from getting lost. Think of it as GPS for authors.

Over-thinking.

small questions pic
Pixabay

This condition is a symptom of the never-ending, futile quest for Perfection. It’s a trap. A labyrinth of circular thoughts which leads right back to Start, or worse, to No-man’s-land. When you over-think, you edit beyond the point of practicality. Is revising your work for the thirty-ninth time really going to make a significant difference? Or are you simply stalling? Finish the thing already. Excessive analyzing stems from not trusting yourself, which leads to another pitfall…

Too much advice. I love my writing podcasts, blogs, vlogs, courses, books, and #writingtips. But they can be too much of a good thing. All the brilliant but conflicting voices become a jumble of blah, blah, blah, until I don’t know what to believe. One expert says to create extensive character profiles; another says to allow characters to grow organically. Who’s right? In the end, you should go with your gut.

Over-dependence on others’ advice makes you passive. Passivity leads straight into the pea-soup of self-doubt and indecision.

If you’re in a muddle, and you can’t see the next story, the next scene, or the next sentence, consider whether one of these three conditions is to blame. Here’s hoping the mist will clear and bring your thoughts back into focus.

 

Life in a Dry Lakebed

The U.S. Deep South is known for heat, humidity, and the occasional hurricane. But two years ago, we were in the midst of a drought. If we weren’t exactly hoping for a hurricane, we would have welcomed a tropical storm.

It was early fall, and after weeks of little to no rain, the oak trees wilted. The leaves faded to a greenish-beige, like day-old avocado flesh.

The soil turned sandy in some places and hard as terra cotta in others. The pastures were parched, and what grass was left was brown and crunchy underfoot.

After several more weeks of dry weather, our lake receded. The water retreated from the maple trees lining the shore, revealing more and more of the lake floor. Bream, bass and mud turtles crammed into an ever-shrinking stagnant pool. The ground cracked into muddy puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit together.

dry lake bed

It was about this time that our twenty-odd Katahdin sheep broke through the fence, wandered into the yard, and ate my potted red geraniums — retaliation for confining them to their pasture.

Over the next few days, we got into a pattern: they would escape through the fence, my husband and I would lure them back with a bucket of sweet corn. Again and again.

Giving In

Eventually, they wore us down; we knew we were beat. They needed more vegetation than their small pasture could provide, so we closed our front gate and let them roam over the whole fifty acres. And though I resented the loss of my flowers and the pebble-size droppings sprinkled over the yard (walking was tricky), the sheep were quite happy with this arrangement.

They ranged far into the woods during the day, and at night, they’d camp in the front yard close to the house. We’d peer out our bedroom window and watch them, frozen in place, sleeping on their feet. Or more eerie still, the ghostly figures would drift across the lawn in the darkness, their emerald eyes glowing.

The Wasteland

As the drought persisted, I’d walk past the dying lake on my way to the mailbox and bemoan the water loss.

I missed the reflection of the trees and clouds on the mirrored surface. I missed the gray heron and the snowy egrets fishing in the shallows. The not-so-attractive Muscovy ducks and loons. They’d all left for deeper waters.

The lake bottom was an ugly wasteland that smelled of rot.

But sometimes the death of one thing gives life to another. And just when you’ve filled your empty cup with cynicism, a dry lakebed surprises you.

Hope Springs

At first, the dirt took on a mossy hue. Then vegetation sprouted from the mud which, over the next few days, grew tall and thick.

Glossy, lush grass. The flock feasted on it, spending long days in the lakebed, until their bellies grew big and round and they were satisfied.

sheep eating in dry lake bed

When winter came, the rains returned and replenished the lake. The drought ended, but so did our days as sheep farmers. After years of battling predators, especially coyotes, we were losing the war.

Quite unexpectedly but providentially, an elderly man in overalls knocked on our door one afternoon. He’d seen the sheep from the highway and wondered if we would sell them.

Yes, we said reluctantly.

This Baptist preacher said he knew a lot about raising sheep. I suspect he knew something about shepherding humans, too. In the end, no money changed hands. We gave them away.

He called not too long ago. “I didn’t want you to worry,” he said. “The sheep are thriving.”

As sad as I was to give them up, his call reassured me. They’re in a better place now. A safer place, with a good shepherd, lots of fresh grass and, hopefully, a lake of their own.

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