YOU CAN HAVE all the training in the world, and yet you begin each day of writing with a feeling of starting from scratch. Sound familiar? It does to me, approaching the desk each day as I do with a combined sense of wonder and fear. “Where’s this going to go?” I wonder on the best of days. On the worst of days, the voice asks, “How in the world are you going to get this thing started?” This question really thunders through when the issue is how to shape a book. D’Arcy Fallon is the writer to get us both going, and her straightforward approach is her gift to you to use forever. Read on to find out how and to win a copy of her perfect book.
How to Get Your Story Started
by D’Arcy Fallon
Long ago and far away—when newspapers were still fat and sassy—I had an editor who used to tell me as I headed out the door on assignment, “Make it sing!” Another said this as I feverishly paged through my mostly indecipherable notes: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, or make ’em horny.” Still another would bark at me as I worked against the clock: “So, what’s the lede? Tell it to me—right now.”
I wish I could say I did learn to master all those editors’ requests, able to form perfect, musical sentences, skilled at identifying the Big Idea right on the spot. Although I did learn to write quickly and vividly under deadline, there were times when I wrote longer feature stories or columns and I didn’t know precisely what the real story was until I had written a fast first draft. Often the lede, the most seductive part of the story, and its essence, was somewhere near the bottom, flashing its brilliant blue tail like a Siamese Fighting Fish in a bowlful of guppies. Spotting it swimming down there amidst the other words was a happy moment of discovery, practically a homecoming. Now I knew where I was going.
Though I left reporting in the late ’90s, much of what I learned through journalism is still useful today. It’s still all about the story, and quickly connecting with the reader. Is it interesting? Does it resonate? Who the hell cares? This is what matters to me. I read and write emotionally. As e. e. cummings wrote, “since feeling is first/ who pays any attention/to the syntax of things.” Well, I do (said the English teacher), but I also want the hit of strong, visceral writing. Shoot me up. I’ll take it in the vein. Here, let me make a fist. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me horny. Have your way with me. Do me. Move me. And it better mean something.
But what is that elusive something? For those of us writing without a script, without a daily “news” assignment, therein lies the terror and the joy. You sense there’s something potent down there, but it’s buried under fear and half-guesses. I tell my students who want to write memoir it helps to start with an image in their minds. What is it about that day at the zoo you can’t forget? Why do you keep remembering the rhesus monkey sitting in the corner scratching himself?
When I wrote So Late, So Soon, which was about living in a remote religious community in the early 70s, I knew there was a powerful story, but I just wasn’t sure what shape it would take. And honestly, I was overwhelmed. So I started with the most compelling image in my mind, which happened after I had left the California commune but while I still part of the larger religious community. I was living in a large Brooklyn brownstone with my then-husband, because we had been “called” to preach the gospel, to shine our lights as godly witnesses in a craven, sin-laden world. Except that I wasn’t godly, I didn’t feel called, and the last thing I wanted to do was witness to strangers. Every morning I rode the subway into Manhattan, where I worked as file clerk for $75 a week. Thinking back to that year, 1974, this is what I remember:
A young woman sits on the subway, carrying her lunch and her Bible on her lap. Face scrubbed of make-up, pale legs unshaven, she wears a pair of flats fished from the ministry’s Free Box. A small wooden cross dangles from her neck. Clackety-clackety sings the subway as it races through the black tunnels. Bodies jounce as the train picks up speed. A few passengers take in the cross, the Bible, the woman’s solemn face, and then quickly look away, afraid to make eye contact. The woman stares up at the advertisement panels: college degrees, Planned Parenthood, flights to Copenhagen, Shakespeare in the Park. None of these ads have anything to do with her life. She is spoken for. Sitting on the train, familiar despair washes over her. Jesus is coming. Hallelujah. She would give anything to return to the world.
So Late, So Soon, an excerpt
I lay in bed listening to the waves crashing on the beach, and the splat-splat-splat of rain spattering the on sidewalk outside. Clouds over the ocean. Wind in the twisted cypress. If I closed my eyes, I could hear mold growing. The ground was a humid sponge that never dried out but kept decomposing underfoot. The windowpanes by my bed sprouted hairline fractures of dark green. It was so moist, the linoleum sagged like mushy Rice Crispies. Even clean cotton sheets fresh from the dryer quickly assumed the sweet-sour fragrance of curdled milk. Nature was a magician; it caused wood to bend and glass to sweat.
Listening to the steady rain, I wondered if it was raining on my parents’ house in Lafayette too. I was in a tight cocoon, bound by worship and work. Time was ticking by, cycling through season after season. Years later, reading a four-line poem by Dr. Seuss, I felt a sharp pang of recognition, so perfectly did it capture the ranch’s state of missing time:
How did it get so late so soon?
How is it night before afternoon?
It’s December before June.
How did it get so late so soon?
It was easy to drift in a fugue of isolation; no newspapers or radios alerted me to the world outside. As isolated as I felt, I could’ve been living on an atoll in the Pacific. In 1973—my second summer at the ranch—the Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a tennis match billed “The Battle of the Sexes,” Kurt Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions, and “streaking” became a fad across U.S. campuses. While the space probe, Pioneer 10, was transmitting television pictures from within 81,000 miles of Jupiter, women in consciousness-raising groups were clambering up on tables with plastic speculums and mirrors, hoping to get a glimpse of their own inner space.
“I’m in the hollow of His hands,” I wrote my parents on Lighthouse Ranch stationary featuring a neat little garden and a large building overshadowed by a cross. And then quickly, God spread his fingers and I was allowed to scamper briefly back into the world—chauffeuring a trouble woman back to her home in the Bay Area. Helen had driven to the ranch, but she was in no shape to get herself home. Helen was in her early 20s and her heart seemed—there’s no other word for it—flayed. She’d recently given birth to a baby girl, Chloe, whom she’d given up for adoption. I don’t know why Helen had come to the ranch, but her kinetic presence in the sisters’ dorm made us edgy. I read once that sharks never sleep but having to keep swimming, moving the water through their gills or they’ll drown. Helen was like that, a trolling blur of restless limbs, with reddened eyes that never shut. How tired she must’ve been; how tired she made us all. What kept her swimming was Chloe. Helen was bereft, inconsolable, continually on the verge of tears. Talking non-stop one minute, nearly catatonic the next, she was losing it.
Her parents were wealthy intellectuals who lived in the Berkeley hills. I had the distinct feeling that they wouldn’t have approved of their daughter’s sojourn among us. In the Bible it says: “Whosoever will may come.” Helen had come and it was now clear she must leave. We couldn’t help her. We’d prayed over her, laid hands upon her, asked Jesus to list the spirit of oppression plaguing her. But Helen didn’t improve. Probably because I was single and unencumbered with children, knew how to drive, and was semi-reliable, I was recruited to drive Helen to her parents’ house in Berkeley.
Helen handed me the keys with a gloomy air.
“Ready?” I asked.
“OK, let’s go,” I said.
Helen stood by the door, looking across the sprawling lush garden, to the wooden cross on the bluff.
“Okay, here we go,” I prompted.
She nodded absently. We stood there a minute longer.
Nancy clip-clopped out to the car in her little wobbly shoes. The wind caught at the hem of her madras skirt, exposing her knobby knees. “Praise the Lord, Helen, we’ll be praying for you,” Nancy said, trying to hurry her along.
Helen kept looking away. A tear glistened in the corner of her eye. Nancy looked at me. I looked back, imploring her with my eyes. Somebody had to take charge.
“We’ll miss you, Helen,” Nancy said, brisk as a nurse. “Goodbye.” Nancy put Helen’s suitcase in the back of the car. Finally Helen got in and I drove out of the parking lot with a heavy heart.
Lurching down Highway 101 in Helen’s Volvo, I kept a sweaty grip on the wheel. I glanced over at my passenger. She sat slumped against the door, chin trembling, hands folded tightly in her lap. Towns rolled by: Fortuna, Rio Dell, Scotia, Pepperwood.
“Want to sing a song?” I said. “How ‘bout ‘The Joy of the Lord is My Strength?’” Helen shook her head. I didn’t blame her.
“Helen, what’s wrong?”
“I’m fine,” Helen said. Sniff, sniff. And then the skies opened up and the rains came. Helen wept and babbled rapid-fire about Chloe. Chloe! She wanted her baby girl back. Why couldn’t she get her back? She was a good mother, wasn’t she? Where was Chloe? Couldn’t she at least visit her baby?
“I don’t know,” I answered, feeling helpless. “I’m so sorry.”
Placing her hands on her flabby abdomen, Helen bent over and sobbed. “I should never”—gasp—“have let her out of my sight.” I tried to keep my mind on driving, but by the time we’d reached Garberville, less than 50 miles from the ranch, I was ready to turn back. Chauffeuring Helen was the job of someone with a hardier, less permeable personality. I was becoming as hopped up as she was, twitchy, hungry, homesick for a child I’d never known. My mind was echoing: Chloe! Mama! Baby! Gimme! It was as if I had internal Tourette’s. I chewed the inside of my cheeks, and tried to stay within the white lines. Think of those lines as stitches, I told myself. Stay within the boundaries. Neat and tidy, in and out. Sew yourself to Berkeley and keep the thread taut. As we reached the outskirts of Ukiah, Helen started hyperventilating.
“Stop the car!” she said, bracing herself against the dashboard. I hit the brakes and the Volvo shimmied.
“Are you sick or something?”
Or something. Helen put her hand on the door handle. She unrolled the window. “I need to get out for a minute.”
“Do you have to pee?”
Helen opened the door and got out.
“You know, Helen, we’re never going to get you home at the rate we’re going,” I said to her retreating back.
“I need some air,” she called. You and me both, I thought.
Helen stopped at a grove of redwoods. The Eel River tumbled by. I watched her clutch at a tree branch and shake a finger at it, as if lecturing to a naughty puppy. I was trying very hard not to be terrified of Helen. We had been thrown together in the most basic way, without artifice or pride or the buffer of small talk, just two people hanging on by our fingernails. There was really nothing I could do but except pray and that I did in the most direct way: Oh-shit-God-help, oh-shit-God-help, oh-shit-God-help. Row, row, row your boat. How-shit-God-help. This was my mantra, a four-word invocation I mindlessly repeated as I watched Helen talk to the trees. My faith was really shaky. Jesus seemed like a figment of my imagination. Helen was gathering steam for what seemed like a real melt down. The river rushed over the rocks, cold and frothy. Helen required so much vigilance! I thought angrily. I didn’t know if she was going to impale herself on the car’s radio antenna, fling herself into the Eel, or start singing Three Blind Mice. I was nineteen and childless. What did I know about post-partum depression? I watched her from the window, thinking: Why are you doing this to me, Helen? And then I stopped, convicted down to the soles of my feet. Helen. I’d been flogging her with her own name, a name that was not only familiar but cherished by God. I thought about that scripture which says The Lord knows us and had called us each by name. That scripture, so intimate, so personal, always gave me chills.
I got out of the car and walked over to Helen. Now she was sitting on a tree log, tossing pine needles into the river, one by one.
“What’s wrong, Helen?” I said, squatting beside her.
“I feel sad, that’s all,” she said, flinging in a handful. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess.”
“You’re not a mess, I promise you.”
A few minutes later we walked back to the car and drove on. When we reached Helen’s parents’ house that night, they plied her with anxious questions as they fed us tofu and stir-fried vegetables. Had she forgotten to take her medication? Where exactly had she been? Did she need to make an appointment with her psychiatrist? No one mentioned Chloe.
I spent the night at Helen’s parents’ house. The next day I met my mother in the Berkeley Rose Garden on Euclid Avenue. I had wanted to see her and I was dreading it. I wore a pair of knee high leather boots that Rita had given me. They were a little too big but the leather was nicely broken in. I chose a dress for the occasion, one of the few store-bought items I owned, a long-sleeved blue and red plaid mid-calf dress with strawberries on it. My mother and I sat in the stone amphitheatre, surrounded by terraced, climbing roses. I cannot recall the particulars of our conversation, except that it was strained. I cried. I told my mother Jesus loved her. What was her reply? I cannot recall her words, only her consternation over my tears.
Why are you crying?
I’m just so happy.
No, you’re not. What’s wrong?
Repent and be saved.
I was crying for more than my mother’s salvation. I was crying for the missed cues between us. I wept for Helen, mentally unhinged by grief, I wept for adopted Chloe, I wept for myself, a daughter who had left her mother’s house and been adopted by another family. I had been in retreat and now I was back. In memory, everything that day seems exaggerated: the garish plaid of my dress, the bigness of my boots, the cloying scent of the roses, and of course, my mother’s presence. My mother was the most important person in my life, realer than Jesus, more powerful than all the ministry’s elders combined. I’d thought that living with other people would dilute her mighty power but here we were, once again caught up in each other’s gravitational pull. Next to her, I felt large and ugly, unlovable and weird. Like Helen, I felt like a mess.
I took the Greyhound back to Eureka that evening. Still in my dress and lace-up boots, I sat in a seat by the window with my Bible in my lap. It was crowded on the bus, and people were restless in their seats. Somewhere around Healdsburg an older woman got on and sat in the seat next to me. She was short and had a bad perm that was growing out. She pulled out a ball of yarn and began knitting. I glanced over at her and then looked away, feeling clearly that God wanted me to witness to my seatmate. I didn’t want to. Several miles passed. I argued silently with God. Do I have to? Why can’t I just ride the bus like everybody else? What do you want me to say, anyway? Sighing, I snapped open my Bible. The page opened to Psalm 130:1, which said:
Out of the depths I cry to you,
O Lord, hear my voice.
I stared at the lines and meditated on them. God was telling me to praise Him at all times, even on a Greyhound.
As James’s mother had pointed out, I couldn’t even carry a tune in a bucket. I was tone-deaf and tune-challenged. But as dusk came on, I flicked on the overhead reading light, cleared my throat, and took a deep breath. I sang:
Oh God, hear my cry
Attend unto my prayer!
From the depths of the earth
I will cry unto thee
When my heart is overwhelmed.
Lead me to the rock
That is higher than I!
Jesus is the rock
That is higher than I!
I sang those verses as my stone-faced companion kept knitting. After a few minutes I stopped, flicked off my light and turned toward the window, burning with embarrassment. Neither of us said a word. When we stopped in Cloverdale for more passengers, she moved to another seat.
D’Arcy Fallon has been an award-winning journalist and columnist for nearly twenty years, working for such papers as the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Colorado Springs Gazette. Her stories typically have focused on the disenfranchised, the urban poor, and those most at risk in society. The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors named her one of the best newspaper columnists in the country. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University in Los Angeles. Ms. Fallon teaches English composition and creative nonfiction at Wittenberg University, and lives in Springfield, Ohio, with her husband and son. Her new book, So Late, So Soon, is available from Hawthorne Press.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Hollis. Congratulations, Hollis! I’ll be in touch to send your book.