Sharing Stories

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All of us humans are storytellers. Most people won’t write a novel, but everyone shares a story at some time. Perhaps it’s a family memory, or a tale of the glory days of high school, but we all tell stories at least sometimes.

Recently I attended a talk by some veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. The organizers of the event encouraged them to share what their Christmas was like during that battle. Each of them took turns talking about their experiences. As I listened, I was struck by two observations.

First, I was struck by their humility. All of them were humble about their role in one of the greatest battles in history. They didn’t brag about exploits or try to make themselves look brave. They all spoke far more about their comrades’ actions than their own.

Second, they spoke very little about the actual fighting itself and spent more time sharing tiny moments of humanity. When they did mention the fighting it was only to honor fallen friends or mention that it was terrible. Perhaps they would rather not think about the horrors of war, and who could blame them? Perhaps, too, they recognized that we could not truly grasp what it was like since we weren’t there.

All of them shared small moments of happiness and humor. For example, one man shared his experience of finding wine in an abandoned boxcar and drinking it out of his helmet. Another man told of the time he parachuted through a thatched roof of a country cottage and the lady of the house took after him with a broom.

The stories showed us that even in one of history’s darkest moments, humanity and laughter can be found. Maybe that’s one reason why we tell stories. They teach us that humanity can survive in war, laughter can be found in suffering and light can be found in darkness. When we face these things, these stories give us heart. These stories give us hope.

Those men are not novelists, they are not professionals, but in those stories we see the best and worst of humanity on display. From them we take heart and courage to face our own struggles with hope and dignity. Tell your story.

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The Ballad of Mercy Wong

Recently I read a book by Stacey Lee called Outrun the Moon. It is set during the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake and is a great story of friendship, love, and survival. Inspired by this  I decided to write a poem about the main character, Mercy Wong. This is not the first time Stacey’s writing has inspired me. While the last time I was going for a cowboy poem feel, this time I tried to capture a late Victorian sentiment. I guess you can judge whether I pulled it off or not. Either way you should read the book, it’s awesome. I make no such guarantee for the poem.

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The Ballad of Mercy Wong

一    One early spring morning death came to town

Shaking the city and knocking it down.

And hell followed after billowing fire

Turning the city into a pyre

The people looked up to the smoke-filled skies

And all over town you could hear their cries

For Mercy

二   Gold Mountain was gone sifted to dust

The hard work of so many turned into rust.

When the earth turns against you there’s no place to stand

All you can do is stretch out your hand

For Mercy

Mercy comes on sore, tired feet

Mercy will bring you something to eat

Mercy is found in unexpected places

Mercy comes with all kinds of faces

三    The earth came for Mercy but let her escape

Alas, her family did not share her fate.

so with tears in her eyes and a heart full of grief

She turned to her neighbors and provided relief

with Mercy

四    They had passed laws to keep out her kind

But when she handed them food didn’t nobody mind

The color of her skin or the shape of her eyes

They only knew that she’d answered their cries

For Mercy

Mercy comes on sore, tired feet

Mercy will bring you something to eat

Mercy is found in unexpected places

Mercy comes with all kinds of faces

Check out Stacey’s writing here.

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Country Roads

I always find it fascinating how music can instantly transport you to another place and time in your life. It’s like a time machine, a TARDIS you can dance to. The other day I was streaming some music when John Denver’s classic hit “Country Roads” came on. Immediately I was swept away to Chongqing.

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A scene from the Three Gorges, just downriver from Chongqing.

Many of you may be scratching your head because Chongqing is not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Country Roads.” In fact, you may be asking, What and where is a Chongqing? I’ll save you a trip to Google. Chongqing is a city in China’s Sichuan province that sits on the Yangtze river. It is about as far as you can get from West Virginia, yet it always comes to mind when I hear “Country Roads.”

As a younger man I spent a little over a year living in China. During that year I took a solo trip around the country to see the sites. One of these sites included the famous Three Gorges of the Yangtze River. I’ve blogged a bit about this before. The boat to sail down the river left from the city of Chongqing. I had almost a full day to kill before the boat left, but I didn’t wander too far from the docks. This was mainly because my limited Chinese vocabulary did not include the word docks, so if I got lost it would be a disaster.

In my aimless wandering I stumbled on a tea cafe. It was decorated like a forest. Even the plastic chairs and tables were made to look like tree stumps. Not in the mood for tea, I ordered a Coke and settled gently onto the flimsy plastic stump. The girl behind the counter took out the CD of Chinese pop music and replaced it with the CD of English standards that seemed to be in every karaoke machine in China. One of those standards was “Country Roads.”

As I sat there listening to John Denver singing, it struck me how far I was from the very country roads that I grew up on. This was not really a bout of homesickness, though, more like amazement and appreciation for the chance I had to roam so far and see so many new things. In the moment I recognized that this was an experience to be treasured. I guess that’s why it has stuck with me this long.

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My own country roads

Songs help us retrieve experiences we have stored away in our mind. Perhaps that’s why we’re always nostalgic for the music of our youth. The great thing about life, though, is there are always more experiences and there is always new music. Go out and make some new memories. Do something fun. Listen to some new music. You’ll thank yourself later.

Here’s a link to the song for those of you who’ve never heard it.

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Summer Travels

September is here already and it’s hard to believe that summer is over. Every year it goes by so fast, but the stores are full of pumpkins and candy corn, so I guess Fall is upon us. This summer I didn’t get much writing done, but I did do some traveling which is good for the creative juices.

In June I got the chance to return Pella, Iowa. Pella is a small town in Southeastern Iowa founded by people from the Netherlands. They still celebrate their Dutch heritage in the architecture, bakeries and a festival in May. The bakeries were definitely my favorite part as they offered an endless variety of pastries and cookies.

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Bakery full of delicious options

In late July and early August the family and  traveled up to New England. It was good to see the historic sites of Boston and the scenery in Maine was incredible.

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Old North Church, Boston

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Acadia National Park

We even made it to a tiny corner of Canada where the amazing tides of the Bay of Fundy brought in playful sea lions. The beautiful scenery was only surpassed by the beautiful temperatures. Highs in the seventies Fahrenheit were just what the doctor ordered after driving up from the steamy South.

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Oh Canada

Most of my books involve road trips or journeys and these summer trips tend to spark moments of inspiration for books yet to come. Happy Fall everyone.

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U.S.S. Constellation Baltimore

 

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Hallowed Ground

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A line of cannons at Manassas

On Memorial Day weekend, my family and I visited two Civil War battlefields. I am fascinated with history and going to a place where history happened always makes it come alive for me. You can almost feel the life, death, and valor around you. That is especially true in the two I visited, Manassas and Gettysburg.

Manassas was the site of two separate battles, both of which ended in a victory for the Confederate forces. During the first battle, early in the war, people actually came out to watch the battle from what they thought was a safe distance. Many of these watchers got caught up in the Union retreat. The second battle, like the war itself, was larger and bloodier.

The battlefield now consists a lot of grassy fields and pleasant walking trails. There are cannons, monuments, and a wonderfully rebuilt stone bridge.

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Gettysburg is the iconic battlefield of the Civil War. It was a turning point that changed the course of history. It is also home to perhaps the most famous speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address.

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The view from Little Round Top in Gettysburg.

Sometimes when you visit a really important place, it doesn’t live up to the hype. Gettysburg, however, exceeded my already high expectations. The National Park Service has worked hard to preserve the battlefield as it was in 1863. The place is massive and filled with memorials to the troops that served. As you drive through the park, you get a sense of what it was like to fight there so long ago. You can almost hear the cannon thundering and the shouts of the men. It is remarkable.

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Site of the “high water mark” of Pickett’s charge. Where Union forces turned back the advancing confederates and won the battle.

One thing that stands out when you visit these places is how peaceful they are. That is especially true of Manassas, which was less crowded. For a brief, terrible moment, they were home to hatred, death, and destruction, but now once again they are fields and flowers as they were before. Not exactly as before, though, because now they are hallowed ground where people fought and died. They carry a special significance for all who visit.

Happy Independence Day!

 

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Be A Hobbit

IMG_2741 I got my first copy of the Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve years old as a Christmas gift from an aunt. Although I read a lot as a child I didn’t read much fantasy. The covers intrigued me and so some time that spring I started in on The Hobbit. I was hooked immediately and I’ve been a fan ever since. As you can see those books have seen some use.

Like a lot of other fans I enjoyed Lord of the Rings movies. For the most part I think Peter Jackson and company did a good job adapting the books into film. Most of the things they changed made sense when switching to a new medium. I think those same instincts served him poorly for the Hobbit. They took a fun self-contained adventure and turned it into a poor copy of the Lord of the Rings.

That aside, I was watching the Return of the King a few weeks ago, and something struck me that I hadn’t thought about before. Hobbits succeed primarily because they don’t give up. Tolkien is beloved for his ability to show ordinary little creatures exhibiting unexpected bravery and intelligence. His hobbit characters do exhibit these traits, but perhaps their most important trait is persistence. Hobbits just refuse to quit.

Frodo is the most obvious example of this. He continues on his quest to destroy the ring in the face of obstacles and the fact that the ring itself is trying to destroy him. When Frodo falters  his friend Sam is there to help him carry on, at times literally. Middle Earth would fall without the persistence of hobbits.

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Bilbo exhibits this same characteristic. He refuses to give up in the riddle contest with Gollum, and he refuses to stop looking for the keyhole on Durin’s Day. He also refuses to give Thorin the Arkenstone. Once again the quest only succeeds because of a Hobbit’s persistence.

So be like a hobbit. Whatever your quest, whatever your endeavor do not give up. Keep going against all odds and never stop. Perhaps you’re not the biggest, or the fastest, or the strongest, but you can persevere. You can be a hobbit.

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Learning From Merle

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Merle Haggard passed away yesterday and I found myself feeling pretty melancholy. His music has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been around. I can remember my father singing his songs and I sang them to my own children when they were just babies. His status as a legendary singer and songwriter is undisputed and his music will influence other artists for generations. I will let other people write about that. What I want to talk about is what writers can learn from the Hag. Songwriters are storytellers and though their medium is different we can learn a good deal from them.

Characters

All writers aspire to create memorable characters and readers love them. Merle was great at creating characters in his songs that you connected with immediately. For example when he sings, “I raised a lot of cain in my younger days and my mama used to pray my crops would fail,” you know everything you need to know about the character and his mother. One simple phrase helps us invest in the character. It really shows how powerful it can be to provide a little information at the right time.

Empathy

A big part of creating great characters is empathy. If the reader can relate to the character he or she will connect to the story. Merle excelled at this. He usually wrote about people who were down on their luck, or in bad circumstances. Sometimes it was due to their own actions sometimes just bad fortune. Either way you never got the feeling that Merle looked down on these characters. In fact, you find yourself rooting for these people. When he sings, “I turned twenty one in prison doing life without parole,” you feel like you’re right there in prison with him. You feel the regret and sorrow of a man who knows he put himself in this situation. Even though you may have never been to prison you can relate to this character.

Authenticity

Authenticity earns the writer trust from his or her readers. If the reader trusts the writer, they will follow the story almost anywhere. It seems strange to speak of authenticity when talking of fiction, but even in fiction readers can tell if an author is faking it. Merle’s songs are authentic. He wrote out of his experiences. He did actually turn twenty one in prison after all. So when he sings about life it doesn’t feel forced. This authenticity gives him latitude to sing about all kinds of things. Whether he’s singing about getting drunk or the problems with America we listen because he’s being honest with us. Maybe you don’t agree with him or maybe you do, but you know he’s being honest and you appreciate it. Now I wouldn’t suggest going to prison to write about prison, but try to infuse your writing with  authentic experiences and reactions. This will provide the readers with a connection. If it feels real, they will appreciate it.

These are some of the many things we can learn from Merle Haggard. I struggled a long time with what song to share here, but eventually I decided on one that I sang to my children as I rocked them to sleep. What are your memories of Merle?

Click here for “Mama Tried.” 

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