Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Writing from the Attic: Therapy or Lunacy?

Katy's excellent post on Monday about things in the attic -- like her humming yellow jackets and naughty 'possum -- reminded me of an incident that happened last November when my husband was on one of his frequent missions trips. It's funny now, but it sure wasn't then. I wrote about it in my 11/15/10 NM post, A Week in the Life of . . . This is what I said in part:

Where is a man when you need one? Mine could be anywhere in the world, but I can pretty much guarantee if something's going to go wrong, it will go wrong when he's out of the country ... (This particular time he was in Cuba.) A week ago Sunday night I was in my bedroom watching TV and addressing Christmas cards when a racket shattered the relative quiet -- and it came from right above my head. Startled, I jumped up and tried to assess the what and the where as I speed dialed my daughter, because, as we all know, misery loves company. I had no idea what was going on, I just knew it was LOUD. It sounded like a whole family of something had moved into our attic space. With my daughter on the phone, I went outside, hoping against hope that whatever it was was on the roof, and not somewhere INSIDE my house. Alas, it was not to be. I declined my daughter's invitation to spend the night/week on her sofa, and listened in fear and trembling as this thing moved around upstairs above my head till after 3:00 a.m. At one point it sounded like it was dragging something across the floor up there. I kid you not.

I called Clark Exterminators first thing Monday morning. A young man -- who was my new favorite hero -- came within the hour, but alas yet again, he could open the access to the attic space, but he couldn't actually go in and do anything about what might be up there. It seems they have rules, and that, in my opinion, was the stupidest. What he could do was set a mega-mouse trap just inside the attic space, which he could reach while standing on the very top of my 6-foot ladder, without actually being in the space. Well fine. But let me tell you, A: this was no mouse, mega or otherwise! And B: out of 3,100 square feet of living space, the 16 x 20 inch opening in the ceiling that goes into the attic space happens to be right above the chair I sit in at my computer. So now not only was I afraid of whatever had moved in, I was terrified I'd hear a SNAP! while sitting here trying to write.

So this ... whatever it is ... had me on edge all week. I'd hear its nocturnal wanderings after the sun went down, and was jerked awake at 2:00 in the morning Wednesday, while it carried on above my head till after 4:00. Elizabeth Berg, bless her heart, kept me company.

Well, wouldn't you know there hasn't been a peep from the attic, lo, these many months? But in a few weeks Rick goes back to Cuba. I'm willing to bet something will go amiss.

There are things in my "other" attic that are nearly as difficult and troublesome to identify, and when it comes right down to it, who wants to?!? Like Katy said, the attic can be a wild place. But it truly is chock full of material for a writer willing to go there. It's probably true that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but I pull on the rope that lets down those hidden stairs, climb up, and root around in that dark and creepy place every time I get ready to start a new novel. I've been somewhat surprised at the themes that have emerged in my writing over the past number of years, all issuing from what I've stored up there in the attic. For example, each of my novels -- published and unpublished -- have dealt with extreme loss of one type or another. And most explore that most complex of all relationships: mothers and daughters. I have a very close relationship with my daughters, and I had a close relationship with my mom, but it was definitely difficult at times. I'm sorry to say the problem was mostly with me -- because of things I had a hard time letting go of. I've said more than once that Mom is the first person I want to see when I get to Heaven; I have some apologies to make. A lot of apologies, in fact. I don't mean to make this my confessional; I'm just keepin' it real.

I'm getting ready to start a new novel, rubbing my hands together and eager to begin. I love discovering new characters and delving into their stories. I'm looking right now at the faces I've compiled on my Character sheet for this new work, and I can tell just by looking at them that my themes will hold true. At least this time around, the loss will be less intense, and to that I say, "Whew!" But I reiterate the profound conclusion Katy came to in her post on Monday: "If we want to write stories that mean something to people with attics of their own, we have to climb to that shadowy place in our heads full of strange noises and wild animals. If you're a storyteller, you must go there."

What about you? How willing are you to climb through that trap door, and if you do, what themes emerge for you?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I love you keepin' it real. That's why I come here.

And it excites me you are on the brink of a new novel.

Back to the keepin' it real thought. I've been thinking about this later, how I squash some of my own issue dealings into my novels. It was hysterical the other day while I was enjoying some sunshine, I looked up to a canopy of trees and said out loud to God, "That was about me, wasn't it?" (referring to something specific in a recent novel I'd written). God and I had a good laugh at that one.
~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Excellent posts this week, Katy and Sharon.

It occurred to me that two of the last three novels I've written have each dealt with the death of a child. I have never lost a child. Sharon and Bonnie, I know both of you have, and I don't know how that feels. I am so, so sorry for your loss.

However, I perceive that now that my own children are adults, I no longer have the fear of their deaths-- as children. (Both of my children and my husband had several life-threatening events in the last 30 years, however. In a sense, I had to face the potentials there.)

But I do have grandchildren now. I have wondered if this unconscious desire to explore the deaths of children in my novels is my way of trying to face that potential in the lives of my grandchildren. If, perhaps, I am trying to face it in my novels so that I won't have to face it in life (as if I had that power, which I don't have.)

Sorry this rambled. But it all tumbled out of my attic when I read this post.

Nicole said...

The recurring theme in my novels so far has been the contrast between the world's view of love, romance, and sex as opposed to God's view of the same. Let's just say I know the damage that can be achieved when falling prey to the world's view.

Good post, Sharon.

Anonymous said...

This last March I held my husband's grandma's head when she died. She was 83. She'd been sick. It wasn't unexpected. But it still shook me. I talked a woman through her death...and I didn't even start to grieve until June or July.

A lot of my stories have been tinged by that shock. I wrote a story in June that hurt me physically, spiritually and emotionally. About a mother holding her adult daughter's head as she died. I didn't make the connection until I sat in my critique group and read the story aloud. I totally lost it there in Bob Evans. Grief hit me and I couldn't finish reading it.

And the real reason for the grief? I didn't know where my husband's grandma ended up. And I'd been the one to tell her it was "okay" to go.

All that to say that a lot of space in my attic is filled with the anxiety of uncertainty. And this is reflected in my recent writings.

And the writing has been healing. Thank God for that!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Oh Susie! I have now been beside two people as they crossed the veil. It is the audacity of life daring to stand so close to that division, the gobsmacking awe, privilege, responsibility of dancing on the line with a cloud of witnesses just out of my reach,who reach so surely and gently and compassionately toward the person ready to cross, and me too just exactly as I need them too but can't understand. The soul is eternally affected by their nearness.
One theme in my work is cross-cultural expectations. Two worlds collide have to create a third world out of the pieces.
And brothers. What is a brother and is he better to have than a lover? (Will he take better care of me? Understand me better?)

Deb said...

All this talk of writing from the attic got me to pondering the characters in the novel I'm writing. What kinds of things do they have stashed away, hidden from prying eyes, in the emotional attic of their souls?

For Vava (pronounced VAYva), it's the lie she told as a teenager, blaming the conception of her son on rape. (Her son, Lennon, grows up with his own sense of shame at having been the product of a violent act.)

For her mother, Arelia, it's the shame of having been paraded around in beauty pageants as a child, and having had to deal with her mother's bitterness when Arelia came down with polio and had to give up the pageants.

James, Arelia's ex, was born with a webbed foot, something he displays without provocation as a means to get attention. His private shame is not his deformed foot, but the fact that he missed out on serving in WWII because of a heart murmur. His brother never made it through that war, and James has always felt, illogically, that if he'd been able to do his patriotic duty, his brother would have lived.

I won't go on and on, but you get the picture. What an interesting exercise to consider our characters' emotional attics, and what the kinds of things they stash there can tell us about who they really are beneath their surface selves.

Anonymous said...

Yep, two very good attic posts. The other metaphor that deserves equal billing would be the basement...attics are 'up' and to some degree have traces of light throughout...basements are 'down' and wet and cramped (remember Mel and co in the movie Signs?) Yeah, cuh-ree-pee...

Sure, they're essentially the same, but there's something about the basement that's not the attic...and thank God neither are the parlor.

Anonymous said...

thebeautifuldue, I agree...basements are otherworldly. As a kid I would run up the stairs as quickly as I could. I was sure something was chasing me. Basements are icky.

Anonymous said...

Wendy: I love the conversation between you and God. I can sure relate.

Latayne, I understand completely. I always worried that I wouldn't live long enough to raise my children. I never foresaw the time when I might outlive one of them. But the older I get, the more I respect the fragility of life, and I share your concerns. We must commit those we love to Christ and His keeping. What else is there?

Nicole, I just think it's so interesting that themes emerge.

Susie, what an emotional experience -- on both counts. I agree, I think it can be healing.

Henrietta, I love your question about brothers. Very interesting.

Deb, your novel sounds interesting indeed.

thebeautifuldue, welcome back. We really appreciate your input. You make a very good point. Basements are much creepier than attics. Damp, dank, dark. I'm not crazy about attics, but I plain hate basements. They're the stuff of thrillers.

Bonnie Grove said...

I never had an attic growing up. I mean the kind you climbed the stairs to reach and stored grandma's corset in. This has been a source of childhood ripped-off-ness ever since I read the opening to A WRINKLE IN TIME and longed to be Meg wrapped in a patchwork quilt and staring at the storm clouds just outside my window.

Basements I know about. We had a storage room in our basement that my mother referred to as the "No-no room" for years longer than was appropriate. I seem to remember my high-school self telling my second year university sister that the jar of pickles she wanted were on a shelf in the No-no room (No-no room as in it's a no-no for little children to go in there unaccompanied by an adult).

Basements are different. You will never find a cherished box of Christmas ornaments wet with cat urine in an attic corner. Only in the basement. Your mother won't discover a package of cigarettes, so old they dissolve in her hand, under the stairs leading to the attic. The basement, that's where you left those smokes and forgot about them long enough that you're in no danger of having to fess up they were yours.

Attics are dusty and forsaken. Basements are dark and scurrying.

Kathleen Popa said...

I don't know. As I've said, there was plenty of scurrying going on in my attic - among other things.

I once had a basement bedroom. We painted it orange to brighten it up (this was circa 1969). It only worked a little, and not at all when the lights were off. Dark is dark.

As to recurring themes, Mine seems to be the separation of parents and children.

Here's a favorite quote that seems to fit here, from Robert Burdette Sweet:

"Write at least until you become blihering and exhausted and have no control over your pen. Then write more. The point is to permit what you repress to surface, to dream through words. Trust yourself. When reading over what you’ve written in this uninhibited manner, circle whatever images, ideas, names or events that repeat. And if you write long enough in a submerged state something will repeat. After all what Hawthorne did was write guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt. And Kafka did write father, punishment, father, father, father and Hemingway did growl cowardice, courage, cowardice, cowardice."

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Beatutifuldue, you mentioned the last movie I saw that freaked me out and kept me from even going in the garage late at night. I'm glad I don't have a basement! BTW that movie had some great fodder for spiritual discussion. Mel's character had serious junk in his own 'basement.' I think of the attic as having more nostalgic items that you might not mind passing along to relatives when you're gone, but the basement - well - as more for burying permanently.