Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gunshot Wound, a true story as told to Janet Muirhead Hill

I heard this story many times from both my mother and my grandmother.
That is my Uncle Gene in the middle, and it's me he is holding.  Left to right: 
Sonja Elkins, Gayle Elkins, Gary Elkins, Gene Elkins, Janet Muirhead,  Evan Elkins, Duane Muirhead, Joan Muirhead.

The winter day was bitter cold. Grandpa, Clarence Claud Elkins, was at the homestead near Milner with all of his school age children except Hazel. She was in Steamboat Springs being doctored for a broken leg. Grandma, Maude Elkins, was with her.  The preschoolers, Marvin and Martha were there as well, while
she tended to her eldest daughter at her brother, Claude Luekens's home.

A few minutes out in the subzero wind to hitch the horses to the sleigh was enough to convince Grandpa that it was too cold for the little ones to venture out. But it was his turn to drive the neighborhood children to school. So he left Gene (who was 8 or 9) and 6-year-old Dorothy in the warm house while he took Carrol (age 10 or 11) and the neighbors who wanted to go to school. He gave the little ones strict order to stay indoors and out of trouble. He put Gene in charge of keeping Dorothy safe.

Gene felt quite grownup with the responsibility he'd been given. When Dorothy expressed fear (probably of lions and bears) Gene reassured her by getting the gun from his parents' bedroom. "I'll take care of you," he said. The creaking of the house in the wind produced more fear, and Gene told Dorothy it must be a mountain lion trying to get into the attic where it was warmer. She was terrified. There was a hole in the ceiling around the stove pipe, and it was through there that Gene said he would shoot the offending lion.

As he was climbing up to get a shot, the gun accidentally discharged, hitting Gene's knee. He fell to the floor in great pain, bleeding profusely. He told Dorothy to run to the neighbor across the field for help. She didn't want to leave the house, but was convinced that her brother would die if she didn't. She ran out without coat or hat.

Luckily for her, the neighbor was looking out her kitchen window and saw Dorothy coming. She sent her son to run and meet her with coat, hat, and mittens. Dorothy gasped out her story as best she could. The neighbor lady sent her son on horseback to go meet C.C. while she went to see about Gene, taking Dorothy with her. When Grandpa, on his way back from delivering children to school, heard the awful news, he ran the team the rest of the way home. The neighbor had staunched the bleeding and wrapped the wound. Grandpa wrapped Gene and Dorothy in warm coats and blankets, nestled them in the hay on the sleigh, and drove them to Steamboat.

There, in Uncle Claude's house, Gene was put in a bedroom to be treated by the same doctor who had set Hazel's leg and put her in traction. Uncle Claude, after getting them settled, said, "Don't tell Maude," thinking another trauma to her children would be more than she could take. She entered the room saying "Don't tell Maude what?" And someone blurted out, "Oh, Gene shot himself, but don't worry." And thus she received the news that they feared would be too much for her. However, they had underestimated Grandma's strength and courage which  she exhibited over and over again during her life.

The doctor dressed Gene's wound and told him to stay in bed and not move his leg. The doctor said Gene would always have a limp. When the doctor came to check on him days later, he was sitting on the side of the bed, swinging his leg back and forth. "What are you doing?" the doctor exclaimed in alarm.

"I'm working my knee," Gene told him. "I'm going to play football someday, so I've got to keep it from getting stiff." The doctor didn't argue, and indeed, Gene did not have a limp and he played football all through high school.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Yampa Crossing: an Elkins family story.

Dorothy Dale (Elkins) Muirhead was born on this day 100 years ago, November 14, 1914. She was the fourth child of C. C. Elkins and Maude (Luekens) Elkins.  This picture was taken not long after her father died in a military hospital in Hot Springs, SD. He was never in very good health after fighting in the Spanish-American war, where, according to family legend, he was shot with a poison arrow.

In honor of my mother and grandmother, who raised her family of six mostly on her own in hard times, I am going to retell some of the stories that they passed on to me.
The Elkins family: Back row—Hazel, Carrol, Gene
Front row—Marvin, Dorothy, Maude, Martha

First: Yampa Crossing: The first time my mother almost died, by Janet Muirhead Hill
(A much longer, more detailed account of this story was published twice in a weekly magazine, called Junior Guide.)

My mother, Dorothy was eight or nine months old when the family tried crossing the Yampa River to get to the new homestead near Milner, CO, where C. C., my grandfather, had just finished building a house. Maude, Gene, and baby Dorothy were riding on a horse-drawn wagon, loaded with household furniture and clothing and driven by Maude's father, my great-grandfather Luekens. He followed the other wagon driven by C. C. 

The river was deep with spring run off. The horses stumbled into a hole just below the ford. They went under momentarily and the wagon capsized, dumping all its contents and passengers into the swift water. Grandpa Luekens found his footing and was able to grab Gene and pull him to safety. He saw his daughter, Maude, come up and stand, but the baby she clutched in her arms was still under water. (Maude had hit her head on a rock on the bottom of he river and was "addled" or so it was explained to me.) 

Grandpa Luekens pulled baby Dorothy from her arms and got her above water in time to save her, but Maude thought it was the river that had taken her baby and dove back into the current, trying to save her. She couldn't swim. Her husband, my grandpa, saw it all from the far side of the river. He ran along the bank until he saw her come up for the third time, dove in and pulled her out. She wasn't breathing, but, laying her on her stomach, he pumped her back until the water was expelled from her lungs and she was able to draw a breath. Thankfully, they all survived to have many more adventures and some scary scrapes with death. 

Next time: Gunshot wound.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Authors and sensitivity to criticism

I've noticed that some, maybe many, authors suffer from Enissophobia, or fear of criticism. Every critical word about their writing, no matter how constructive or kindly given, feels to them as a knife in their side—a personal attack that cuts deeply—or as one author said, "like cutting off my thumb." 

What is it about us writers that makes us so vulnerable that we suffer extreme anxiety when we allow another person to read our written work? It is akin the fear a mother might feel in handing over her newborn infant to a stranger. An author's words were created and nurtured with fervor, extreme care, and attention to details and birthed with great emotion and that borders on both joy and pain. No wonder it hurts when someone points out a fault in this labor of love and devotion.  

Yet, an editor's job is to refine, shape, and polish another author's work. This involves cutting, correcting, and suggesting something different—without discouraging the authors and sending them into hiding. It's the author's job to consider every cut, correction, and suggestion; and to defend every word and construction, if he doesn't agree with the edits.  

As both an editor and an author, I see and empathize with both. As a writer I have felt the same trepidation when I put my work—myself—out there for another person to see and critique. I immediately begin to second guess myself, suddenly certain that my work is no good, and everyone will hate it. 

But the editor in me knows that the book must be tried in the fire of many editors and the dross burned away, not just once, but many times, by much critical appraisal. 

Because I know how that feels to an author, I attempt to be especially sensitive and open to the authors' viewpoints as they defend their "babies." 

This Enissophobia, or sensitivity to criticism, seemed to intensify for my dear sister, mentor, and talented author as she neared the end of her life. I'm sure I inadvertently hurt her feelings more than once with comments that I meant to be positive, but were heard as fault-finding. And that breaks my heart, for I wouldn't have purposely hurt her for the world.  

Now, as I edit and rewrite a book that we have co-authored, my part coming after her death, I can only correct her words by painstakingly considering her purpose and desires. My single desire for this book is that every word of it would meet her approval. 

Not only is that my wish for my sister, Joan's words, but for those of every author whose work I edit. The hard part is that Joan is no longer here to defend her work, so I must do it for her. 


Monday, February 10, 2014

Flash Fiction

Looking for a fun writing exercise? Here's one that will challenge the best of writers. Flash Fiction. Getting a complete story into as few words as possible. Publishers of flash fiction vary in their required word limits, but it can be anywhere from fifty to a thousand words. 

In the January, 2007 issue of The Writer, there is an article by Harvey Stanbrough, Sharpen Your Skills with Flash Fiction

He says, “Because of its brevity, flash fiction forces writers to see how unnecessary some words are, and their other writing always improves, too.” 

Although short, flash fiction must be a complete story with these elements:

a.    Setting: Will most likely be shown or implied through action, dialogue, or characterization.
b.    Character: Most flash fiction has only one or two, but may have three or four, with some of them only implied. “In flash fiction more so than in any other genre, you will often find implied characters.”  — Stanbrough
c.    Conflict: In flash fiction this is the most important element.
d.    Resolution: The natural and satisfactory outcome to the conflict.
e.    Implication: Give the reader just enough to get what the story is about. In so few words, you are forced to trust your readers to see what you’ve shown without having to tell it.

“When you only imply an emotion or an occurrence and let the reader infer it, he actually experiences it to some degree.” — Stanbrough 

Do you want to try it? See if you can write a complete story in 100 words or less, then add it  in the comments. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

On Writing True Fiction

For years, ever since the first writing workshop I conducted, I've called the kind of writing I do "True Fiction."

What does that mean exactly? It's the kind of fiction in which the character—or the muse via the characters—dictates the course of the story, as opposed to fiction in which the plot is carefully outlined according to formulaic rules. It's literary fiction vs. genre fiction. It's seat-of-the pants writing, character driven rather than plot driven. 

So why do I call it true. It's because I write to learn the truth—about a given issue, about life, and about myself and what I really believe, and about what is important.

Others have described this kind of writing in their own terms, and a host of writers employ it. The late Tony Hillerman once said in an interview that he does not outline his books. He tried it, but it never worked for him. His characters had their own ideas of how the story should go.

And that's how they are, in true fiction. Once you are in the heart and mind of your story's characters, they will tell you if you're not telling the truth about them—about what they would do, think, or feel. And that's what makes writing so much of an exciting adventure.

Ann Lamott said "You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up."

And it works like magic, as long as you, as Ann Lamott says, "don't pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don't. Stay open to them."

It's what Jon Gardner was talking about when he said, "Art is as original and important as it is precisely because it does not start out with a clear knowledge of what it means to say. Out of the artist's imagination, as out of nature's inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another."

"The writer," Gardner says, "asks himself at every step, 'Would she really say that?' or 'Would he really throw the shoe?'"

Wallace Stegner declared, "It is fiction as truth that I am concered with."

Oakley Hall claims that "Truth, not fact, is the business of fiction."

And as I write my stories from the characters' perspectives, I agree. It is the best way I know to learn and convey the truth of what it is really like to face the serious and difficult issues that challenge the human spirit.

In my workshops on "Writing True Fiction" I will show you that you, too, can write fiction from a character's perspective.

Have ideas—will travel