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Joseph E Bird

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can you summarize your story in a single, compelling sentence?

I was at a conference last week and ran into a friend who knew I was a writer and he asked what I was working on.  I told him I was putting the final touches on my novel Heather Girl.

“What’s it about?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s about a middle-aged woman who is fighting Huntington’s disease and she just learned that her father has been paroled for the murder of her mother.”  As I was saying those words, I realized that it was not a very compelling summary of my novel.  Yes, that’s what it’s about, but why would anybody want to read such an obvious  bummer ?

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a real feel-good story.”

I failed my elevator speech.  I realized I needed a better way to summarize the story.  How about this?

As her family falls apart and her health begins to fail, Heather Roth searches for answers, but instead finds hope and compassion that give her life meaning.

Ok, so it’s still not going to fly off the shelves like a James Patterson novel, but at least it’s not so ridiculously bleak.

Then, if they want to know more, there’s the cover blurb:

Heather Roth has little to look forward to. Her two sons, who have occupied most of her adult life, have grown and left her alone in the house in which she grew up.  Her ex-husband, for whom she still has feelings despite his abusive nature, lives hundreds of miles away.  And she’s being treated for Huntington’s, a disease that ravaged her mother, and for which she knows there is no cure.

Then the news she wasn’t expecting. Her father is being paroled from prison in Texas where he has been serving a sentence for the murder of his wife, Heather’s mother.

She’ll do anything to keep him out of her life, but when she is forced to take him into her home, she learns that the lives of her family weren’t what they seemed to be.  A story of tragedy and heartbreak, Heather Girl, delivers a whisper of hope and an abundance of compassion, even in the darkest hours.

a birthday

sids birthday for web

“For through wisdom your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life.”


The photo is of A. S. “Sid” Morgan, maybe taken in 1973, maybe his 90th birthday.  I suppose I could try to count the candles.  If it was 1973, he would die less than a month later.

This is the kind of photograph that inspires stories, spurs the imagination of a writer.  But Sid lived the adventures.  He built boats and floated down the Mississippi on hunting expeditions back in the early 1900s.  In 1926, he opened a museum that over the years became legendary.

You’d never guess he lived that kind of life from the picture.  He looks tired.  The house he’s in, once a proud mansion on the bottom land near the Kanawha River, looks tired. I was in the house many times as a child and the memories are still strong.  Unusual memories.  The smell of the soft, slowly decaying wood of the front porch, patches of tin covering the holes.  The feel of the air in the house.  Cool, until you walked into the kitchen and the gas heaters overwhelmed with stuffy warmth and lingering fumes. And the quiet.  Sometimes the house was full of people, full of kids, but I remember the times where it was only Mom and Sid, our family visiting quietly, the stillness of it all unsettling.

It’s gone now.  The house demolished shortly after Sid’s death.  Across from where the house sat is the massive John Amos Power Plant.  No hint of what happened there years ago.

But the stories are still there, just waiting to be written.

pack your bags and leave right way

Come for the scenery, stay for the food.

simple desires

I want to have pride
like my mother has.

And not like the kind in the Bible
that turns you bad.

I want to have friends
that I can trust.

Who love me for the man I’ve become,
and not the man I was.


copyright Robert Crawford/Scott Avett/Timothy Avett, from the song The Perfect Space

Johnny B. Goode

We’re a little late,
but still there before
most everyone else.

They’re setting up,
these two guitar players,
these two singers.

One of their microphones
isn’t working,
so I run home and get one of mine.

.

Can you play Wipeout?
Standard question
back in the 60s.

And we played it.
At least a ragged version.
We were just kids.

Hey there Little Red Riding Hood
You sure are looking good
You’re everything that a big bad wolf could want.

.

I plug the mic in.
More people are here now.
They play some classic folk-rock

These two friends
are good by themselves,
even better together.

One of the boys joins in,
then a drummer
with a cajon.

.

There is a house
in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun

Same chords,
same progression
as Little Red Riding Hood.

We only knew a few songs.
Never got any good,
never played a coffee house.

.

The place is packed now.
I can’t even see the guys
for all the people.

Their sound is getting lost
in the conversations
and laughter.

They’re having a blast.
Their tip jar has a few bucks
and they’re still going strong.

.

Busted flat in Baton Rouge.
Waiting for a train,
and feeling near as faded as my jeans.

I can almost get it.
But not quite.
Not quite.

Salina, I’m as nowhere as I can be.
I play along as Scott and Seth
sing through the tinny speaker on my phone.

.

But these guys tonight are
playing real music,
in real time, and they’re really good.

The rhythms are right,
the chords are strong,
and the songs are great.

But it’s time to leave,
and as the glass door closes behind us,
we hear Johnny B. Goode tonight.

 

heather – final edit

I’ve finished editing my novel, Heather Girl.  I eliminated all of the adverbs, all of the cliches, all of the unrealistic dialogue, all of the exposition, all of the backstory narrative, the non-engaging beginning, all of the parts where the author intrudes on the story, all of the parts that don’t develop the character or move the story forward, all of the simply boring parts, and the inconclusive ending.  In its place is a new, happy ending.  Here is the novel in its entirety.


Heather Girl

Heather is sick and is mad at her father.   Her father has Alzheimer’s.  So nothing really gets resolved.

And then she found five dollars.

The End.


Thank you all for playing along.  Unfortunately, there are no parting gifts.

joe

a bird lights on the ground

we sit
the two of us
at a table outside
on this warm evening

there’s not much to be said
because we’ve spent our words
and must wait for others
to come forth
and they will
because they always do

so we listen
to the birds flitting
in the trees
and the cars driving by
and to the people around us
talking

and we hear words spoken
but not sentences
and not stories
their words are simply
sounds that soften
the edges of our silence

the nothingness
is peace itself
and it holds us still
and a bird lights on the ground
next to our feet
and cocks its head

at the next table
a young girl offers the bird a crumb
and the young man who is with her smiles
and though they talk
we hear nothing
but their easy voices

and we sit
the two of us
at a table outside
on this warm evening


copyright 2018, joseph e bird

missing

empty bench 2

He used to come by every couple of weeks.

My office has a back door to the alley, and every so often I’d hear the thump, thump, thump, and I knew it was Keith because no one else ever knocked on the door.  He lives in a high-rise in Dunbar, a couple of towns over.  He takes the bus to St. Albans, sometimes to Charleston.  You used to see him everywhere.  He’d show up at church on Sunday mornings, but never went inside to hear the sermon.  He’d stay out in the narthex with the ushers.  I sensed he never felt comfortable among the Sunday best.

When he’d show up during the week, I’d go to the back door when I heard his knock and we’d catch up for a couple of minutes.  He’d tell me about his daughter, who like him, battled addiction.  We’d talk about his counselor, Lisa, who seemed to be very good to him.  Helped him get through the everyday tasks of life, like keeping groceries in his apartment and making sure he had a good coat for the winter.

“What are you up to today?” I’d ask.

“I guess I’ll go back to Serenity Club,” was a common answer.  The Serenity Club, I gathered, was a safe place for those battling addiction to go and hang out.  Back near his high-rise.

I’d give him a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee and off he’d go.

Halfway down the alley he’d turn and yell, “Thank you, Joe.”  He was appreciative.

But he’s been missing.

I didn’t seem him through last winter.  Probably just staying in, I told myself.  Then spring became summer and I realized that I hadn’t heard his knock on the door for some time.  I began asking around.  Nobody had seen him.  He has relatives who go to our church but no one knew anything about him.

A few weeks ago I drove to Dunbar.  I knew where the Serenity Club was so I drove around the neighborhood looking for him.  Nothing.

This past Tuesday my wife and I were in Dunbar visiting an old neighbor in the nursing home.  We drove by the Serenity Club.  A man and a woman sat on a bench in the alley.  I parked the car and approached them.

“Is the Serenity Club around here?”  I asked, even though I was pretty sure of its location.

“You’re looking at it,” he answered as he thumbed to the building behind him.

“I’m looking for a friend who used to come here.  Keith.”  I told him his last name.

“Never heard of him.  What’s he look like?”

“In his 70s, I think.  Not too tall.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.  How long ago was he here?”

I didn’t really know.  I told him I thought he had been coming for years.  Keith is not the kind of guy you easily forget.

We drove to the high-rise.  A half dozen people sat outside under the entry canopy.  I asked the same question.  I got puzzled looks in response.  Nobody knew Keith.  As if he had never existed.

I got back in the car and circled the lot.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a man walking down the sidewalk beside the high-rise.

“There he is!”

I stopped.  My wife got out.

“Keith!  Where have you been?” she says.

He stops.  He looks confused.  “Who are you?”

I’m thinking this isn’t a good sign.

“It’s Joe and Gloria.”

“Oh.  Hey.  What are you doing here?”  Turns out it was just the sun in his eyes keeping him from recognizing us.

I tell him the story.  That we’ve been looking for him.  Been missing him.  Told him I stopped by the Serenity Club but nobody knew Keith.

“Nobody knows me as Keith.  They know me as Harry.”

“Harry?”

“Keith is my middle name.  I go by Harry.”

All these years, I’ve called him Keith.  Everyone I know who knows him calls him Keith.  He’s never corrected us.  Even his relatives call him Keith.  And then I realize that those who really know him, those who live with him, those with whom he spends his days, call him Harry.

So we spend a few minutes catching up.  He fell sometime in the last year and busted his knee cap.  He seems to be completely recovered but he doesn’t travel around like he used to.  Just stays around the high-rise and the Serenity Club.

His daughter died.  I didn’t ask how, just assumed she finally lost her battle.  Keith is still winning his.  Twenty-three years coming up in a week or so.  His anniversary date is also his birthday.

He’s had a hard life.  The roller coaster, as he says.  It’s worn on him.  You can see it in his eyes.  But if you look closer, you can see the warmth, too.  There’s a kindness about him.

He introduces us to some of his friends at the high-rise.  Friends from church, he calls us.  We all have a laugh about the Keith-Harry confusion.  It’s clear they like Harry.  He seems happy and content.

We give him a few dollars to celebrate his upcoming anniversary/birthday.  We promise to come back and see him.  As we leave, Keith gives us a wave.  But he’s Harry now, back among those who know him best.

the genius of Andrew Spradling

Harper Stowe.

Exhibit A in the case for the genius of Andrew Spradling.  The name of the female protagonist in his novel-in-progress.  She’s a detective.  Even now, you’re painting the picture of Harper Stowe.  That’s what a good name can do.  Genius.

Hilton Head.

Exhibit B.  The setting.  The vacation destination of choice for the moneyed crowd.  The beautiful people.  The extravagant homes.  The attitude of privilege.  Rich in possibilities.  Genius.

The Killer.

Yeah, it’s that kind of story.  Why else would you need Harper Stowe?  But Andy takes us inside the killer’s head with first-person vignettes that are chilling.  Exhibit C.  Genius.

The Obituary.

Obituaries used to be written by a professional at the newspaper.  Now they’re written by a family member.  Some are good, most are soon forgotten.  There is one such forgettable obituary in Andy’s story.  As I was reading it as part of the Shelton College Review, I was wondering why it was included in the novel.  It was written by the killer.  About his wife.  And in the obituary, dripping with the usual sentiment and over-stated tribute to the lost loved-one, are subtle glimpses into the the killer’s psyche.  I wonder if Harper Stowe will notice.  Yeah.  Cause she’s Harper Stowe.  Genius.

This is going to be a good one.  Probably be finished in time for next summer’s beach trip.  Just don’t take a copy to Hilton Head.

 

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