There Are Places I Remember

KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD by Red Wassenich

Next week, here in Austin, I’ll be showing off the largest urban bat colony in the world, eating great Tex-Mex food south of the River, and listening to some live music somewhere in the city each night with my old friend and boss, Bill Presley. We worked together many moons ago at Charley’s Seafood Grill in Addison, Texas. Bill had a way of organizing our world back in the day by creating mix tapes and throwing a series of parties for each season. If I recall, Summer Party # 3 was the best. But who can say? There was a pool, a ton of beer, several excursions to the 7-11 for cigs, and for some unknown reason, copious amounts of high-fiving complete with hand injuries. The next day at work, Bill awarded me the mix-tape from the party, saying I deserved it, because I had had the most fun. I count this as my highest honor. I had performed the choreography to “Manhunt” from Flashdance, then made out on the front porch for a really long time with my good friend, David, home from college for a visit.  I guess I had to go on a manhunt to find the boy next door who actually came to the party with me and turned out to be not just my date, but my date-date. I was in my early twenties.

While Bill organizes by celebration, I organize by place. When I think of each house, apartment, and spare room I’ve ever lived in, I can tell you where I worked, who my roommates were, who my boyfriend was (or the guy I wished was my boyfriend if I was single), the major things that happened in my life and in the world, and even what I wondered and hoped. Since I had to move every six months to two years, depending on the roommate-money-landlord situation, when I recall the place, all the other details follow like ducklings.

During the Bill Presley days I lived in a three-bedroom brick house near the edge of Plano and Richardson with roomies, Melanie and Martin who both worked with Bill and me at Charley’s. We had THE party house. Melanie and I were waitresses; Martin was a bartender; Bill was our manager, friend, and experience instigator. He organized outings to Ranger games and water parks and movies and concerts. Bill got tickets from the owner of our restaurant to the ZZ Top Eliminator Tour Concert. We couldn’t make the show, because we both had to work that night, but those tickets got us in to the after-party. We hung out at the bar all night talking about our lives and loves and trying to convince the bartender to trade his ZZ Top shirt for entres at Charley’s.

A few years ago in an OCD-like energy burst, I decided to write down not only all the places I’ve lived, but all the times I’ve moved. Some of those times I moved back in to places I’d lived before, like Mom’s house, my sis, Kim’s, dining room, Dad’s living room a couple of times. My dear friend and talented performing songwriter, Dana Cooper, a road warrior musician if there ever was one, once told me I was the person most crossed off and rewritten in his address book, (in the olden days before cell phones). Out of all those fans, all those years. As I was trying to remember every time I moved, I lost count at fifty. But the images of the houses, apartments, and rooms-for-rent float into my mind’s eye, and I still see the roommates, bosses, and customers. I hear the concerts, smell the fajitas and margaritas, taste the cold beer and all-you-can-eat breakfast bars after a long night out, feel the sun and sand from Hamilton Pool, its waterfall crashing down cold and powerful on the top of my head on a hot Texas Hill Country day.

Now that I’ve lived in the same house for over seven years, I find it difficult to differentiate events, goals, and relationships, when they happened, how long they lasted. Entire years blob by. I started organizing a memoir around the places I’ve lived, not because they’re all over the world and fabulous. In fact, all the places I’ve lived are in or near Dallas or Austin. I just needed to get it straight in my head, try like hell to get a handle on memory and therefore, perhaps, life. It works. Writing memoir is an exercise in memory, which leads to discovering or creating meaning. One of the nicest places I ever lived was actually my childhood home, the little brick house with the magnolia tree in the front yard, near the Richardson High School baseball field. The discovered meaning:  I’m actually living the collective dream of my home town backwards. We were supposed to grow up, get an awesome lucrative career that made us rich, and buy a house three times bigger than the one we started out in.

I’ve never owned a house, but I’ve lived in some wonderful places. My homes come with persons attached to them:  landlords. For instance, I now have the greatest landlord in the world (thank you, Sandra!), who not only lets me rent this cute little house with a huge backyard for my four dogs in a great neighborhood, she once proclaimed, “You can live here forever as far as I’m concerned!” (The Greatest Gift ever given to this renter). I also had the second best landlord in the world, Sonny “I Think We Can Work That Out”  Rhodes. Not Sonny Rhodes, the “Disciple of Blues” from Smithville, but the music-loving Austinite, who is, however, friends with performing songwriter, Chip Taylor, who wrote “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”. If you live in Austin, you’re either in the band or you know it personally.

I lived in the top right unit of Sonny’s tiny four-plex in the North University neighborhood in Austin for the long stretch of four and a half years. Not having to turn around and move again after six months is always a plus. I’m creating a TV drama set in Austin and was looking for location ideas in the book, Keep Austin Weird:  a Guide to the Odd Side of Town by Red Wassenich. I turned a page, encountered a photo of Sonny’s four-plex and realized I do not need to do research to find interesting locations that say something about the characters and their situations; I’ve lived it. There it was, the tiny beige brick box, the stairs, railings, and shutters painted Longhorn orange, the facade accented by chairs, mirrors, macrame, and other possesions all painted bright Caribbean blue and spilling out of the downstairs apartment into the yard and parking spaces. In the photo it really did look weird (in a good way; that’s how we mean it here). When I lived there, it was burnt orange but didn’t have the ocean-blue embellishments outside. A small space in a wonderful neighborhood, it served as my crash pad after doing massage therapy, nannying for two families, hanging out at Kerrville Folk Festivals, going to house concerts, and hosting, along with family and friends, a House Concert Series of our own in whatever space we could find:  one backyard, one Methodist Church sanctuary, and one home on Shoal Creek Drive with great-sounding hardwood floors. We heard some fantastic performing songwriters at our concert series:  Ruthie Foster, johnsmith, John McVey, Dana Cooper, Pierce Pettis, Chris Rosser.

We were just about to book our favorite Austin musicians for the next series when we had to take a break for a while. That break ran long, and I’m still on it, having had nose to grindstone ever since.

With Bill coming to town and Summer party # 3 about to start (he’s informed me Summer Party #’s 1 and 2 have already come and gone) where should we go next week in Austin, “Live Music Capital of the World?” What’s your favorite bar, coffeehouse, or living room in Austin to listen to music? What are the places you remember?

Divining The Real Deal From Henry James

Portrait of Henry James, the novelist
Image via Wikipedia

“…the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations…” – Henry James

Before writing in the morning, sometimes I read a short story for inspiration. Today I chose Henry James’The Real Thing.” I’m rewriting a script today, not a short story, but short stories inspire me no matter what I’m writing. It works for me like divination, as someone who picks passages from the Bible or any inspiring written work, and reads them as if they’re messages from God or the muses.

In “The Real Thing,” an illustrator finds a married couple at his door looking for work as models. They have fallen from a higher class and operate not only as a team to find work, but to hide their state from their friends and even from themselves. We watch them through the eyes of the illustrator. They’re “the real thing” in that they really are the upper class people the illustrator is commissioned to render. Furthermore, “the real thing” refers ironically to the shifting nature of identity when human beings are forced to confront their nature and essence. The married couple cling to their past identity in the new situation. It seems to work, much as any big fish in a small pond. Maintaining their posture, literally and figuratively, gets them work. However, they have no sense they may need to adapt to the actual world they now inhabit, the world of art, in order to thrive or even survive. In this world, an immigrant servant who doesn’t speak the language emerges as the best model. Modeling is artistic in itself and requires an openness and malleability of expression. That talent can arise in anyone, thus dismantling the influence of the class system in the couple’s new world.

In a companion piece, “The Mirror of Consciousness,” included by Gioia & Gwynn in their book, The Art of the Short Story,  James writes about the need to tell the stories through a consciousness that feels what is happening. He says the story is weak if it merely recounts facts and is strong when those facts and events filter through the mind of someone who feels them fully. In “The Real Thing” the illustrator is deeply affected by the actions of the married couple over time. At first it helps his work and later hurts it. Through the lens of the illustrator’s struggles and his own feelings for all his models, I was moved by the plight of the fallen couple, rather than merely irritated by their obstinance and classism.

The takeaway for me today:  my main character serves well as the consciousness through which I show the plight of her struggling friends and neighbors, the web of characters around her. And, I meant to underscore her own troubles by doing this. But since the story is about her, I see that I need to make her more alive, more malleable, more feeling. I need to show her struggle more clearly in the beginning, so the changes near the end have more impact. She must feel the full extent of the situation I’ve put her in, or else my audience won’t. It won’t matter how many rewrites I do if I don’t do that.

How do you get inspiration? Who’s your favorite character in books or on screen?

Eudora Welty on Plot

Eudora Welty
Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

“When plot, whatever it does or however it goes, becomes the outward manifestation of the very germ of the story, then it is purest – then the narrative thread is least objectionable, then it is not in the way.” – Eudora Welty from “The Plot of the Short Story” (1949)

I’ve been working on a screenplay a long time, rewriting, rewriting and rewriting some more for months. Submitting to contests, bringing it to group for critique. Reading aloud with my sister. I’ve also been working on some memoir stories and short stories. Even these shorter stories were taking a long time. I’ve put in tons of hours with not much in the way of finished work to show for it. I decided I needed to write a story in one day just to feel better.

How do you go about writing a story in one day? I knew immediately I’d make it easy and write a one-page story (it’s actually four pages long, but trying for one page was a great way to start). How do you get an idea for a one page story? You watch the first image that goes across your mind. I won’t say here what it was, because it’s the end of my story, “Stigmata,” and I want you to read it. I took that image and realized it was about a character mentioned in one of the other stories I was working on. He was the father of the ex-girlfriend of the main character of my story called “Heat Wave.” Okay. I accepted that. Furthermore it was an image of this character as a child. Hmmm. This interested me. I went with it.

My image was the ending, so I began to wonder what would happen to this character for this ending to occur. And that is when I experienced the Eudora Welty quote above. I saw more images in my mind’s eye of the outworking of events that would lead to the ending I first envisioned. The image was the germ, the events leading to it, the plot.

I discovered the story contains elements of many things I care for deeply about relationships, culture, society, and the individual. I didn’t try to write about those things; I followed an impulse. It was satisfying and joyful. I’m going to work this way with the rest of the stories in my collection whenever I can. This method shows me through experience the meaning of another quote by Welty in the same piece:

“…form is connected with recognition; it is what makes us know, in a story, what we are looking at, what unique thing we are for a length of time intensely contemplating.”

What are you intensely contemplating? How do you get your ideas? What are you writing?