Grandma Morgan and the Wonder of Dialogue

My Grandma Jo (or, as I’m sure she would have preferred to be called, my Grandmother Morgan) was the kind of old-school Lady who took her appearance very seriously. Her outfits always matched, her shoes were classy, her waist was cinched, her lips were red, her eyebrows were drawn about half an inch higher than her actual eyebrow hair, and she went to the salon every Tuesday to have her hair done. I think every other week she had her roots done, and every single trip meant a very nice coif. She called applying her makeup “putting on her face” and I only ever saw her without it when she was very ill indeed.

Grandma Jo and I had quite a few debates about how girls should behave about their appearance. I was a wild thing as a kid, and I looked it. My hair was long, and always in a ponytail, because I was usually rambling through the woods or bent over a book. She was at least proud that the dance lessons she’d signed me up for at the age of three had given me impeccable posture, but otherwise I was a bit of a mess.

You might be getting the impression from this that my grandmother was stuffy and aloof, but you couldn’t be more wrong. She might have once told me that “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory”, but she was also the first person to sit on the floor and play with us grandkids. She cheered us on, sang, danced, and told us how special each and every one of us was. She was both indomitable about what she wanted, and the most cheerful damn person on the face of the planet. The only time I ever saw her get really upset was the occasion when I sprinkled baby powder all over the hardwood floors in the top floor of her house, and she wept as she said that the powder would never come out of the cracks.

Yes, I was a handful. But no, this woman who had a hand in bringing me up never raised her voice.

Grandma Jo also supported every single one of her grandkids. One of her favorite phrases that she delivered to my exasperated parents was, “Just keep loving them.” When we had trouble in math, “Just keep loving them.” When we were frighteningly bold, or oddly quiet, or too rambunctious, or later on when we were getting into more serious trouble, the solution was, “Just keep loving them.”

And truly, she did, but I was a bit tougher than some of the others. I had big thoughts that I seemed incapable of getting out without getting irritated that no one else seemed to grasp their import. I spent an inordinate amount of time scribbling in notebooks while the rest of the family watched football games. I read too much, and I just didn’t care if there were holes in my jeans, or if the kids at school didn’t like me that much. Grandma Morgan praised my academic skills and my dancer’s poise, but she sighed at my disinterest in my looks and rather pointedly took me shopping for clothes. She strongly encouraged belts, which I loathed.

I moved away after college, and we exchanged emails once a week. And then Grandma Morgan got sick. It was pulmonary fibrosis, and it was incurable, and it meant that the cells in her lungs were turning into scar tissue, which meant they were going to stop working. Cell by cell.

Soon after her diagnosis, I moved back to West Virginia. You can read my last essay for a broader view of that time, but to say I was a bit wound up almost all the time would be an understatement. And I never quite knew what to say to Grandma. I’m not so eloquent about my feelings in such situations, not without pen and paper, and even then –

We talked a lot about Madigan. Grandma loved the fact that she was so interested in being with people, even though I thought it was really only useful in large gatherings. Most kids melt down when surrounded by a crowd, but that’s when Madigan was at her best.

I was old enough to get the advice, “Just keep loving them.”

And meanwhile I was struggling to finish another draft of the novel I already viewed as a bit of a failure. It had taken way too long to write, and it wasn’t nearly original enough for me to be proud. And it was starting to feel like a slog.

Then one day I dropped into Grandma’s house. She was watching one of her favorite movies, a Hallmark Channel original. It was about some cute blond girl who had moved from the big city back to her home town and found love and belonging and an appreciation for where she’d grown up. I was groaning internally as soon as I walked in the door and heard the dialogue.

Then my grandma looked up at me while I was taking off my shoes, and said one of the most startling things I think she ever spoke to me.

“Megan, I was watching this movie last week, and I just couldn’t help thinking how amazing it is, that someone like you can sit down and think up all these things that people say to each other, and the things these people do. It’s all imaginary, and it’s all made by one person. And I just thought that was the most amazing thing. How do you do that? How do you think of all the things that people would say?”

As the characters onscreen delivered dialogue that sounded like nothing anyone would ever actually speak, I grinned. For real. And I have no idea what I answered. Something about observing the people around me, and then putting myself in the characters’ shoes. Even though the answer is something more like, “Grandma Morgan, I have no idea how the hell I do it. There are people inside my brain who talk to each other! It’s weird, but I swear I’m not crazy.”

My answer, whatever it was, pleased her, and she was proud. It’s the only question she ever asked me about my writing. And her astonishment that one of her grandkids could do something so complex as create dialogue between characters is one of the best moments I’ve had as a writer.

Grandma Morgan never read much more of my writing than a few college essays. I always sort of figured science-fiction wasn’t her jam, and besides, the thing wasn’t finished yet. I could be disappointed by that, especially when I’m finally about to publish it. But I know what her reaction would have been.

Pleased with the book, but even more thrilled that I actually do something with my hair, now.

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I Don’t Even Like the Beach

This is an essay about a rather pitiful time in my life, but I’m not writing it seeking pity. The point is the stories that we tell about these times – and let’s be honest, if a story doesn’t have pain, darkness, struggle, it’s no story at all – and how they shape us. Which ones do we decide define those difficult times?

***

It was a hell of a summer.

I’d been dropped back in West Virginia after my husband (now my ex) deployed, and I’d realized within a week how much I’d loved Washington State. How much of a community I’d grown there. How much of a stranger I’d become to all the people I’d grown up with. It was nobody’s fault. It just happens.

Once you leave home, you can’t really go back to it. You change, and sometimes it doesn’t.

My paternal grandmother, the matriarch of the Morgan family, the center of our familial universe, was sick in a way that was only going to get worse. And

And my daughter, this little one-year-old girl, needed love. Love from a mother who was burned out, who was fighting to keep her head above water. Love from a whole family that was hurting. It felt like this girl needed a whole roomful of people, all the time.

My sister promised, in the midst of all this, a trip to the beach. Her husband’s family had a vacation house that they’d visited before, where they walked up and down the sand, and ate seafood they pulled from the water themselves. It seemed like the perfect escape from a tiny townhouse, where I lived a solitary existence with a one-year-old who needed more than I could give. And if you know anything about me, you will know just how desperate I’d become, to be looking forward to a vacation that involved saltwater, waves, and no tide pools or sea stacks. I’m not much of a “long walks on the beach” kind of person.

For weeks, I looked at this trip as one bright spot in a long expanse of hopeless darkness. The day of the journey arrived. I was packing when my sister called me.

As soon as I answered the phone, I knew.

She was sorry. Really sorry. One of the cousins had invited a ton of friends to the vacation house the weekend before, and the friends had trashed the place. The owners didn’t mind if family went to the house – but anyone else was officially uninvited. And that meant me.

My dear, sweet sister couldn’t stop saying sorry. And of course I reassured her that it was fine. I didn’t like the beach, anyway. Madigan probably would have decided she hated sand on a level to rival Anakin Skywalker, and we would have spent the entire trip indoors.

A couple of hours later, my sister’s car pulled up in front of my townhouse, where I was moping around with Mads while she scribbled on the concrete with chalk. Molly jumped out of the car, practically vibrating with contained emotion. She handed me a bouquet of flowers, and gave me a huge hug – which is a big deal for my claustrophobic sister. I told her it was all okay, and I understood. I don’t remember much about what she said. But I remember those flowers.

That little gesture of love. It was a tiny glimpse of light in what seemed like a long dark tunnel of disappointment.

She pulled away. And I spent the weekend struggling to keep my head above water. The flowers were there, on my kitchen island. I didn’t smile when I saw them – but they were there.

***

In the end, is this a story about a dark time, untempered by anything warm or good? About hits that just keep on coming, where everything good crumbles and falls away?

In the end, is this story about a bouquet of flowers that my sister gave me because she loved me? Because she was sorry, and she had to do something, and that was all she could do? Is this a story about appreciating that display of our love and our familial bond, in the face of disappointment?

Is this a story about sifting through the burned out shell of a life, and crafting something new? Is that the summer that made me who I am? That summer, when I felt so alone, when I turned, when I reached out, expecting somewhere to find something soft and sweet that could give me strength, and finding only thorns that drained me more? Is that the summer where I grew up, from a girl who needed someone else to watch out for her, into a woman who relied on herself?

When things get hard – really hard – like, the kind of hard where I don’t know how I’m going to get through this day and into tomorrow – those are the days that I need stories the most. Stories that tell me what this all might mean. Stories that make sense of what is happening. Stories that help me feel heroic in spite of the fact that there’s nothing to feel heroic about.

Stories that tell me that, even if there’s no reason for why this is happening, there is, at least, an identity to be found, there in the middle of it all.

Writing What You Need

I was recently asked in an interview I did about the common advice to “write what you know”. It’s something I’ve heard a lot, in nonfiction and in fiction classes, something I’ve read often from other authors. There’s plenty of sense in the advice. How can you accurately portray what you haven’t experienced? How can you dare to walk in high-heeled shoes you’ve never worn, smell the  tang of gunpowder when you’ve never held firearm, see the crash of waves on a shore when you’ve never visited the beach, hear the hush of  a crowd right before the band starts to play when you’ve never been to a concert? It would be audacious to try to present on paper something we ourselves have never known.

And yet, to tread into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, we’re required to do exactly that. These are lands of myth, where swords are buzzing lasers, magic overpowers entire armies, AI walks among us. None of these things could have been imagined if writers hadn’t been willing to create and describe things that no person could have experienced. And that’s a good thing, because very often, by diving into imagined realms, we discover important things about reality.

To me, there’s a balance to be found. A place where we take what we know, and we throw it forward, into what we don’t, and as honestly as possible, we create something wholly new. Because writers must make something worth saying – whether that be a plot, a character, a thought, a world. That’s the point, or at least one of them, to say something about the world that hasn’t been said before – and that can be revealing a truth that’s always been there, but we haven’t always been able to see, or seeing something entirely new that we might become.

The stories I write are pretty speculative, and lean science fiction. I have a weakness for tech and spaceships and science and possibilities. And at the same time, I love to write characters who mean something to me. They might be loosely based on people I know and love (or loathe, as the case may be), but they’re also very much people I’ve never met. And the closer I get to publishing my first novel, and the more my life changes as I do, the more I realize that I wrote characters that I needed.

I wrote about things that were happening in my life as I created Altered Wake, but I also wrote about what might come next. I wrote about people who were trapped and seeking freedom. I wrote about people who knew a great deal about themselves, and had a plan for their futures, but who also didn’t know things that were critical to their identities, things that could radically change that projected future. In among the swords and monsters, the very unreal things that I don’t know, and the cars and jobs and military life, the very real things that I do know – were these characters who were finding themselves.

I needed to put that struggle on paper, although I don’t think I realized it at the time. I was just writing something that made sense to me. Something that felt honest and true, even in this world that I made that was so much like ours, and radically unlike ours.

And looking at the stories that have been told by the people around me, my fellow writers and creators, I can so often see that those projects which are the most meaningful and have the most import to the audience, are those in which the creator is pulling from the things that are happening in their own lives, and trying to figure out what it means. Trying to see what might happen next. Trying to find their way through to what’s important about it.

These attempts to parse out something honest and meaningful from often chaotic and confusing experience is (I think) part of our responsibility as storytellers, but it’s also something that arises naturally when we make something that combines what we know and what we don’t know.

When we take what we have, and try to see how it might become what we need.