The online home of Jessica Morrell, because stories matter

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Written By: jessicap - Jan• 20•15

Just after my seventh Christmas our family moved into a bigger house. By then my youngest brother Colin had been born on Halloween and the eight of us had outgrown our modest three-bedroom. The move happened over the holiday break, amid the bitter cold, my father and uncles still young men hauling sagging, stained mattresses, boxes, and furniture into our new place. Bringing in the metal smell of snow and stamping their feet to warm them before they carried our dressers up the wide stairs. The house had belonged to my great uncle who had recently died in his fifties of a heart attack, just like my grandfather had. It was a farmhouse on three acres where he raised chickens by the hundreds and it had five bedrooms so I had my own room, a graceful open staircase, and a large front porch. Because of the former chickens our soil was black and crowded with thick worms and my mother’s flowers, including those cobalt blue Bachelor Buttons I still love, were waist high.

Our small town was an unchanging place except for the time when the JCPenneys store exploded and the fire and smoke could be seen for miles. I didn’t know it then, but eight people were killed in the explosion and two more died later from their injuries.  It was a place with endless summers and forever winters with long, silent months of snow. Summers were spent roaming and jackknifing into creeks and rivers; winters on toboggan hills and skating rinks. It was an outdoor life, but besides the pleasures of that vast sky and four seasons, stories saved me. And stories were a state of mind.

It started when I was four and I’d march the mile or so to the library with my older brother and we’d haul home stacks of books to devour. I was especially fond of the enchanting picture books by Swedish author Maj Lindman and the exploits of Snip, Snap and Snur and Flicka, Ricka and Dick. Can still recall the bright-colored covers.  Sometime around first grade I discovered The Box Car Box Car Children coverChildren about four siblings who are abruptly orphaned and hide in an old boxcar. Their sad circumstances were conjured and re-enacted again and again. We hid in the woods, with only our wits to survive, no adults to interfere.  An orphan life had such appeal in a house filled with rules and recriminations and not enough money.  Then came Little Women, a gift left under our tinseled Christmas tree,  and I was Jo March and started creating my own newspapers, trying to adjust in a world that didn’t appreciate bright, lively girls. My first favorite books have stayed with me, warmed me like a campfire.

Our big house held our Colliers encyclopedias, my father’s bookcase with his beloved books from childhood, the daily newspaper, and piles of library books. Nights were quiet when I was a girl, the television on for brief intervals, all of us gathered, the surrounding night deep and starlit and silent. Reading in bed before bedtime, not knowing what the weather would bring in the morning, how high the snow drifts would be.

snow heavyI was thinking about this a few months ago when I was in Wisconsin, staying in the far north with my elderly parents. Winter had arrived early and icicles hung heavy, snow frosted every branch and object, my childhood re-created. In the evenings amid that snow globe world I read Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By about a crime kingpin, then switched to short stories in the Best Mystery Stories of 2014 anthology and The New Yorker.  And the snow kept tumbling down and the silent, faraway stars kept watch as always.

My mother, always a fierce and outspoken woman, has congestive heart failure. She’s had heart disease for 40 years so has long ago outlived her father and uncle. She’s been hospitalized a lot in the past six months and again is in a nursing home undergoing physical therapy. She plans to return home, where my parents spend their days in their TV room with a wall of windows overlooking the frozen white lake. She naps during the day, totters when she walks, clutching onto furniture, but never using a walker as she’s been ordered to and doesn’t want to die. My father doesn’t want to let her go and after 65 years of marriage they’ve come to a place of fierce devotion.

Everyone breaks and I worry how her death will affect my father. He spends his days reading and taking care of his wife. We all send him books. At times the battering grief over losing my mother, never an easy person to love, hits me like a blow to the chest. And I’m feeling my own dull ache of aging.

Reading is a quiet thing, especially at night. But sometimes when reading, a scene or dialogue exchange or  plot twist seems to shatter the night’s silence. Sometimes  a single phrase or sentence will strike with poetic clarity. The solace of a good story cannot be overstated; and stories have the power to erase a broken yesterday, push away tomorrow’s worries; ease the soul’s cry or the heart’s firestorms, or wrenching worries about the future. Push away the image of my mother clinging to me like a child and sobbing while stroking my face when I left her in November. And, as author Mary Karr observed, reading is socially-acceptable disassociation.

Lately I’ve traveled far from home and back in time…through allthelight-209x300fiction. I’ve been all over Europe via All the Light We Cannot See a luminous, fable-like story about a motherless blind girl and a German orphan who grows up to track down members of the Resistance. The story bundles a cursed diamond, mollusks, the magic of radio, locks and miniatures and life under the Nazi Occupation. I lived that story. I traveled back decades with Stephen King’s Joyland, a spooky coming-of-age tale set in an amusement park with plenty of supernatural elements and carnies and carnie patois.  My book club read it because three of us had heard Stephen King’s interview with NPR host Terry Gross and were intrigued. The teaser line on the cover is: Beyond the light there’s only darkness.

Speaking of darkness, I read Chelsea Cain’s One Kick about a protagonist who was abducted as a girl by child pornographers. Set in Portland, it’s a world far from my imaginings with a glimpse into horrors as harsh as an electric chair. Because sometimes darkness is needed to chase away your own shadows. The stack of books next to my bed never seems to dwindle since we’re book buyers, book collectors. Garth Steins’ latest book A Sudden Light awaits me as does the coming storm of my mother’s death.  And I know this: beyond the darkness are stories to help us feel deeply, reshape our thoughts, and lead us safely home.

Quick Take: Consequences

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 17•15

gallows       All storytelling is about cause and effect. All major actions in a story should have consequences and the consequences should escalate as the story goes along. Conflict equals consequences. It’s a simple way of thinking about a storyline. The inciting incident and first plot point in Act One create the consequences in Act Two, which in turn creates the worsening consequences in Act Three.

When a story lacks appropriate and escalating consequences, the reader or viewer experience it as a plot hole or a nagging sense that something’s not right.  Good examples of escalating consequences can be found in the film The Drop originally based on Dennis Lehane’s short story  Animal Rescue. The film expands the story with added complications and backstory. The protagonist, Bob Saginowskia is a bartender in a place that stores the drops, or cash from illegal betting.Recipe for disaster, right?  Bob also rescues a battered pit bull puppy in Act One. This act entangles him with a troubled woman and her dangerous cohorts, most importantly her sociopath ex-boyfriend.

In the film version the writers have stirred in a robbery,  an investigation, the bar owners,Chechen mafia members unhappy about the robbery, and an unsolved murder. The consequences keep building until you’re wondering if any of the cast members are going to survive. Consequences heighten the stakes and create tension and suspense.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have faith

Reminder: Making it in Changing Times on January 31

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 15•15

Cathy-Lamb-092I feel renewed and excited about a spanking new year to cast my plans and dreams onto. How about you?  If you’re looking for advice on craft, blogging, and attracting an editor’s eye, this one-day conference is for you. It’s called Making it in Changing Times because the publishing landscape is ever changing and it’s hard to stay on top of it all.  We’ll even have a workshop on yoga for writers to help you keep your body going during those long stints at the computer.  The prolific, best-selling, and fun Cathy Lamb is the keynote speaker and will share her secrets about how she’s juggled her life while writing 9 (!) novels and six novellas.

The conference is at Tabor Space is southeast Portland and costs $99 which includes beverages, lunch, and a Continental breakfast.

A serious bargain.  You can find the complete schedule, speaker bios and details here.  2015: Focus, Clarity, Direction.

Meanwhile, keep dreaming, keep writing, have faith


For Motivational Mondays

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 12•15

watery imageThe root of creativity is in the murky waters of deep imagination. Making contact might involve sitting quietly and looking out the window as the light comes. It might be gardening or long walks in the woods.  – Roderick MacIver

Thought for the day: Let your subject find you

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 09•15

Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration. How do you think Capote came to “In Cold Blood”? It was just an ordinary day when he picked up the paper to read his horoscope, and there it was — fate. Whether it’s a harrowing account of a multiple homicide, a botched Everest expedition or a colorful family of singers trying to escape from Austria when the Nazis invade, you can’t force it. Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.” ~Colson Whitehead

 Truman Capote 2

Thought for the day:

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 08•15

“I feel that you take from your life experiences, but to make it fiction, you take it to a deeper level. You transform the mundane disappointments or the joys to make it true storytelling. You have to go much farther. You have to be a kind of spy and listen carefully.” ~ spy glassElizabeth Brundage

Advice to you writers from Kurt Vonnegut

Written By: jessicap - Jan• 06•15

kurt-vonnegutNovember 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

 This is from Letters of Note
Keep dreaming, keep writing, have heart


Quick Take: Write What Scares You

Written By: jessicap - Dec• 30•14

Writing what scares you doesn’t require that you write a depressing memoir, lonely tale, or gore-soaked, zombie-slasher free-for-all. It does mean you’ll be revealing the inky, complex emotions and potholed messes that shape a life. It means you’ll be thinking about human foibles and not-so pleasant qualities.No matter your genre,  fear should have you peering over your shoulder. Although it seems counterintuitive, if you’re not afraid, you’re not writing at your best. Writing is risk.   gate barred

Quick Take:

Written By: jessicap - Dec• 30•14

Everything your main characters do must have consequences. No, I’m not talking about tying their shoelaces or walking the dog. Well, unless they’re walking the pooch in a sketchy neighborhood, in the rain at 2 a.m., or as a hurricane is about to blast through…..A kiss needs to lead to something. A slap or lie or fumble must have significance. Now sometimes you need to give readers breathers in your stories–little tidbits of ordinary life or a slower pace. But if theishadow, tallr acts don’t have consequences, it’s likely they’re not needed in the story. 

Motivational Mondays: Oscar Wilde on happiness

Written By: jessicap - Dec• 29•14

Oscar Wilde“With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” ~ Oscar Wilde