I have a handful of best friends. How about you? I think most of us feel close to a few people, not hoards.
Today I want to talk about two of my sister-friends, Myra and Marka. We call ourselves the Three Amigos. We’ve known each other for thirty years and joke that we have to stay friends because we know too much. We don’t want anyone telling our deepest, darkest secrets.
When I first met Myra, we went to lunch one day at a Mexican restaurant. A roach crawled up the wall beside us in the middle of her telling a story. Without breaking stride, she took off her shoe, killed the pest, and went on with her story. I knew she was my kind of woman.
Myra introduced me to Marka, who is ten years younger than the other two of us. Beautiful, stylish, Southern as all get-out, and smart as a whip, I fell in love with her, too, as soon as I met her.
We’re all married, so the husband stories have abounded, as you can well imagine. We love our families but treasure our time together. We meet informally for lunch throughout the year, but it’s tradition to meet before Christmas for a long lunch to exchange small gifts, and then wander through an antique store or two.
It’s this friendship I used as a model for my latest novel, Secrets of the Island. A romantic suspense story, the “Three Musketeers” band together to solve a family mystery. When they solve one, another crops up, so they keep going. It takes place during World War II, so wartime issues intertwine with their lives.
As I wrote, I would think of Myra’s effervescent take on life and Marka’s way of turning a phrase. My characters took on their personalities, with someone a lot like me in the middle orchestrating the solving of the mystery.
I think this is what we as writers do. We don’t disclose our friends’ secrets, but we automatically use who and what we know to write. As I wrote about the Three Musketeers, I fell in love with those characters. Do you as a writer fall in love with some of your characters? I hope so. That’s what will make your readers fall in love with them, too.
This writing also made me fall in love with the Three Amigos all over again. Here’s to sister-friends everywhere. May you stay friends forever, holding those secret stories locked away in your heart.
With the two new biographies just out about Rosemary Kennedy, I decided it’s time to share a story about my experience working for her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Yes, they were sisters in the Kennedy family, thus sisters to JFK, Robert, and Ted. It was 1974 when I volunteered to work at the Special Olympics, which was a new organization with a big event being held on my college campus, Central Michigan University.
Mrs. Shriver (I never dared call her Eunice) had founded the Special Olympics out of love for her sister Rosemary. As those of us who worked the three-day event on the track field all knew, Rosemary was what was then called retarded, today called mentally impaired. What we didn’t know at that time and what I learned in subsequent years was that Rosemary’s disability was due to her father having had her lobotomized. It’s a brutal tale for which you’ll have to read the biographies to get details.
But working with Mrs. Shriver was something else. I was a small-town girl in a small-town college with a small-time job. The first time I laid eyes on Mrs. Shriver it was obvious that the silk dress and pearls she wore were more valuable than everything I owned on earth all put together, including my junker of $75 Volkswagen Beetle car. I thought her regal, beautiful, aristocratic… a combination I’d seldom witnessed in my little world. But one thing was clear: her love of the children who were participating in the games. I barely deigned approach her, but the athletes could go to her dirty and sweaty, and hug the heck out of that silk dress and Mrs. Shriver never flinched. They all received her affection.
I fell in love with her. I thought her the most marvelous woman I’d ever met. Today I see her as one of the most influential and important women of the twentieth century for bringing mental impairment out of the closet – literally in too many cases – and bringing human beings with all types of abilities together in a spirit of hope and fun and love.
As luck would have it, my job was to meet celebrities as they arrived and escort them to Mrs. Shriver. It was such fun meeting people I’d seen in the news, including TV and movie stars, athletes, and even Miss America. Out of everyone I met, however, two stood out for their interactions with the kids. Sally Struthers, who was a huge star due to the hit TV show All in the Family, showed up each morning before the kids came. She was there when they arrived and stayed until she’d given every last one of them a hug in the evening. Then she’d go out dancing ’til the wee hours of the morning. I couldn’t even begin to keep up with her. She was great. And singer Mac Davis sat under a tree all day long and taught the kids how to play music with spoons. They loved that. I think we stole every spoon out of the cafeteria in order to handle all the kids who wanted to play. They would go run their meet, then scurry right back to Mac to play more spoons.
There were some celebrities who came just for the photo ops. Once that camera flash popped they were gone.
On the second day Mrs. Shriver’s two children arrived in a limousine. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a limo before that event, so the thought of riding in such a big car was totally foreign to me. When I suggested to Mrs. Shriver’s personal assistant that her children needed some outdoor clothes instead of the proper prep school things they were wearing, he seemed shocked, then considered it. He went to his boss and she looked my way suspiciously. But her assistant eventually came to me with $200 cash and told me to go buy them something more appropriate. I’ll never forget the feel of that cash in my hand. At that time in my life, that was like giving me $2000 in pure gold.
Of course, I didn’t occur to me that they didn’t expect me to take the kids. After all, I’d spent years babysitting others’ children and taking care of my younger siblings, so I was used to being responsible for little ones. And I needed them to try on the clothes. I grabbed Maria, who was about twelve, and her younger brother, who was maybe eight, and we hopped into my $75 Beetle convertible with the broken top and bright plastic flower stickers covering the rips in the seats, and off we went to K-Mart. They loved my car! They’d never seen anything like it. It was the same with K-Mart. They ran up and down the aisles in wonder. It only took a few minutes to get shorts, tee-shirts, and tennis shoes, which they wore with glee. We were back at the track within twenty minutes. When I handed Mrs. Shriver $175 in change she was shocked. She said she hadn’t seen the limo leave and it was then that it became clear to me I didn’t know how things were done in the upper crust.
More and more over the years I’ve come to appreciate how she bravely spoke out about a topic many were embarrassed to acknowledge – the need for services for people with disabilities. I’ve come to understand that she did it out of love for her sister who, according to the recent biographies, she did not know the whereabouts of for many years. When she learned about Rosemary’s fate and that she was sequestered in an institution for the disabled, she visited her beloved sister on a regular basis. It was then that she put her family’s money, privilege, and power to good use to help others with disabilities.
As I said, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was one of the greatest women of the 20th century. We can only hope to have more like her in the 21st.
Long ago I heard that title – a woman was describing herself as a wannabe writer who was really a wronger – and I loved it. After periodically seeing that phrase and mulling it over for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most writers are probably wrongers, too. I know I am. That’s what makes good stories.
I’ve done a lot wrong in my life. An early college career that had no meaning to me. Giving up on my own hopes and dreams in order to please others. Occasionally falling into the despair of depression. An unhealthy second marriage that resulted in devastation. Being next to homeless except for the generosity of my sister. Assuming someone somewhere would take care of things and it wouldn’t have to be me.
Wow. That’s all great stuff for writing. Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That’s what we as writers do. Rather than hiding our most embarrassing, dumb, and inexplicable life decisions, we open ourselves up and let them spill out all over the place. In the process, we figure out what was going on in our minds and what we can do to learn from it. We do this by putting bits of ourselves into each character we write. And by writing characters who are the people we aspire to be.
The reader, of course, never has to know. For example, a villainess in one of my stories, the bitch no one can stand, took a letter that had come in the mail for her friend and steamed it open to see if it was from a guy she herself had a crush on. When it turned out to be from the friend’s dad, she carefully glued it shut and put it back in her friend’s stack of mail. Now I’m not confessing that I ever did such a wretched thing; I’m just sayin’ I got the idea somewhere.
Writers get ideas everywhere. Every time something goes wrong in my life I catch myself saying, “Oh! That would be a good story.” Good stories, after all, are about overcoming life’s obstacles. They are about prevailing. They are about finding an inner strength you never knew was there. They are about discovery!
Although I couldn’t write about it until years later, some of my erratic behavior after the death of my first husband at age thirty-three is revealed in my novel Homecoming Queen. My thankfully short-lived, wacky second marriage can be found in soon-to-be-published Home Body. A trip my sister and I took when we were in our early twenties, where we camped from Michigan to California and back because we wanted to see the Pacific Ocean, is hilarious in Tough Rocks. Although we’d call home and lie through our teeth, telling our parents that everything was “fine,” in truth we ran into a hail storm that demolished the hood of our car; a flash flood that holed us up in Boulder, Nevada, for three days with nothing to do but watch the free movie of how the Hoover Dam was made; a dust devil that destroyed our tent; and melted tires when we drove through the Mohave Desert at noon on the hottest day in July. It’s that kind of adventure that makes for good writing, if you just let it roll rather than refusing to admit you were ever that stupid.
Writer Sylvia Plath said, “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
So if you’re a writer or want to be a writer, go ahead and have the guts to spill out your life stories. Take your wrongs and let them write.
Examples and comments are welcome.
Image found on ruffledblog.com