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Archive for the ‘Drinking’ Category

What if I don’t have a talent for creative writing?

On the other hand – what if I do?

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It was September of 1988, and I had signed up for a creative writing class at The University of Houston.  The teacher was a well known published author and writing teacher from New York City who had agreed to guest lecture for a year.  It seemed like a great opportunity and I wanted to learn more about my craft, so I sat nervously in class with 30 other students.  Oh, did I mention that I was 38 years old at the time?  It felt a bit awkward that I was so much older than most of the students, but I was willing to accept that discomfort to get some depth perception on my writing ability.

In the first class the teacher described our writing process.  We would each turn in a 1,000 word piece every two weeks.  The teacher would select a few of our writings, then the class and teacher would review and critique our work.  Gulp!  I had been journalling extensively, had written some short works and won praise for them, but this was unveiling my talent at a whole new level.

The class was an hour and a half long. The teacher lectured for the first part of class, then read one of our works, and the class would spend 10 to 15 minutes reviewing it.  We reviewed 3 to 4 pieces per class, and the group was very generative in their comments – honest but gentle. The teacher was a bit more incisive – she got to the heart of the matter candidly and sometimes a bit harshly.

My first piece was not read aloud in class.  I worked hard on a second piece entitled “The Hunt,” about an experience I had as a 14 year old deer hunting with my Dad and his friends.  The story was about how frightened I was being with grown men who were combining poker, whiskey and guns in a very unsafe environment.  I really put myself out there, and didn’t know what response to expect.

When the teacher said aloud “The Hunt,” I felt my heart begin to race and my breathing grow rapid.  I didn’t know what to expect.  As she read the class was very quiet.  She finished, looked up and asked for comments.  The class raved!  “Insightful … brilliant … I could feel myself being there.”  I waited for the teacher’s opinion.  She went through the piece quoting passages and showing how brilliantly the story unfolded and was portrayed.  She said it was almost like the narrator was outside the experience, standing and looking on at the events.  At the end the young boy has almost a living nightmare, the men running down the road after a deer, one of them tripping and falling and shooting his father in the back. The teacher was effusive in her praise of this part.  One of her benchmarks about stories was: “Did it earn the ending?”  She was clear that this story really did earn the ending.

I had tensely been listening and taking notes all over my copy of the story.  I finally looked at my watch and realized that 45 minutes had elapsed.  I left class that day with a new appreciation for my writing gift – I had seen it in a way that none of my friends could make me believe.  A published author – a professional – had raved about my work.

I thought maybe it was a fluke until it happened a second time, on a piece I had written entitled “Fight Night,” about my Dad introducing me to boxing.  The teacher took about 40 minutes to go through that short piece, giving it an equal amount of praise as she did for my first work.

I’ve talked to a lot of writers over the years, and it seems many of us share an uneasiness about “someone might figure out that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”  It must be something that goes with the writing talent.  If the teacher had panned my writing, I suspect some part of me might have been secretly relieved at being able to give up this need to write.

What I discovered in creative writing class was the opposite.  I had a gift, and it was my job to steward that gift – to share it in appropriate ways.  In ways, that was a far scarier prospect than the possibility of having no talent. Yet over the years, facing that fear has been much more rewarding.

Originally published in Write By Night

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For many years, I would have told you that yes, there was drinking in my house while I was growing up, but I got out just fine, and it didn’t really affect me.  Then when I was in my early ‘30s, I started to see signs that such was not the case.

I worked for a time with a prison ministry, where we would go into Texas prison units and spend most of a weekend talking with the inmates.  Something odd happened – the inmates treated me with a certain respect and awareness that I couldn’t understand.  I realized later that they could tell I was intimately acquainted with violence.  I had that killer look.

My three sisters all married violent alcoholics.

Somehow I knew I carried a time bomb in me, but I couldn’t identify what it was.  I felt tightly wrapped, like I would explode if I ever let go.

One time I became suicidal.  I also carried around a darkness in my soul that I could not explain.

Finally it all broke through and I began attending meetings for people who had grown up around alcoholism. I started to get to the bottom of how much alcoholism had affected my life.  I was in so much pain I went to the first meeting on my birthday.  I began to remember incidents from my childhood – an escalating level of violence from my Dad.  I watched the movies “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket,” because something about them felt familiar.

By 1987, when the events in my book “Freedom’s Just Another Word” were taking place, my world was falling apart.  I had sabotaged my successful career for no reason I could explain. I had realized I was walking around with most of  the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – yet I had no traumatic event I could point to.  I had an incident where I was suicidal, and got closer than I ever had – an alarming wakeup call.

Then my Dad died.  He had been sober and in recovery for 20 years, but something still plagued him.  It was my belief he was still suffering because he was eating his anger.  He had his first heart attack when he was 44, open heart surgery at 47, a colostomy at 51, and died of a stroke at 59.  I knew if I didn’t get to the bottom of what plagued me, I was headed down the same road.

In an incredible and I believe spiritually guided sequence of events, I remembered the most violent incident with my Dad – which had happened on my birthday.  It involved guns, and violence, and imminent threats of death.  Suddenly the current events of my world began to fall into place and make sense.  Yet in a way, it was only the beginning – I knew what had happened, but now what to do about it?  Several weeks later, I had a dream.

Excerpt from Freedom’s Just Another Word:

I dreamed I was inside a house, and watching it for someone—I wasn’t sure who.  It was a long, low rambling house away from other houses, very isolated.  There was a pet tiger in the house.  The owner, an unidentified male, said the tiger wouldn’t bite, but the tiger became startled and started chewing my arm.  I would feel the size of his teeth, the strength of his jaw.  I was very scared.  The owner left, and put me in charge of the house, and of the tiger.

Suddenly, Rebecca was there, a woman I knew from ACA.  I felt like she was a stranger—like she didn’t know who I was any longer.  I invited her into the house, and she didn’t know her way around.  I showed her to the bathroom.  Suddenly I remembered that strangers startled the tiger.  Then the tiger was there and he was chewing on my arm, and I feared he wouldn’t stop until he ate me.  And then I knew—the tiger was my rage.

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The tiger dream disturbed me deeply, and I knew that I had a deep rage within me that would eventually destroy me.  I feared it so much that I buried it deeply and only rarely did it surface enough to confirm that it was there.  But I could tell.  It was the legacy of anger my Dad left me.  Threatening to devour all who entered—and me.  Uncontrollable.  I knew then that I was dangerous—to myself and others.

So there it was – the time bomb that had to be defused!  It was no longer about my Dad – it was about me; and it was something that was my responsibility to deal with.  Working through that anger and deep rage became my commitment over the next several years.  I got backed into a corner where my anger had to be dealt with (the topic of a future book, “The Tiger Unveiled”) and it became a life or death issue for me – there was still the specter of my Dad’s early death, and I knew it was still dangerously close for me.  I made a commitment and signed it in front of witnesses – an Anger Contract. In it I stated how I would and would not express my anger.  I committed to work on releasing that anger in safe ways, while restricting myself so that I would not hurt anyone while I was so angry.

I did so, and eventually bled off the anger, to the point where I could heal and be at peace with my Dad. I had come to realize that he had been blacked out drunk when the violence occurred, and he didn’t know any more than I did what had happened between us.  We were both harmed by the effects of the alcoholism.  It put a wall between us we never could understand in his lifetime. I wrote a short work called “A Conversation With Dad,” an imagined talk where we made peace with each other.  It worked!

Yet on the other side of the scale from the alcoholism and violence, it was a powerful symbolism for me to realize that the Dad who abused me when he was drinking was the same Dad who illuminated my path to healing and recovery by his example of perseverance in sobriety.

I feel very blessed!

 

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(Written September 20, 1988)

We were in a house trailer just outside the Lindreth trading post, in northwest New Mexico. There were six of us on the hunt that year: My Dad and I; Morris – Dad’s best friend, and his son Brad; Don – who owned the trailer and was to be our guide, and his son Chris.

I had watched my Dad leave to go hunting each fall since I could remember, had seen the freezer filled with venison after he returned. Hunting was the time when the men gathered together. Brad and I were 12, and this was our first time to go along, even though we weren’t to carry guns.

Now as I lay in the lower bunk late at night – Brad was in the upper, the noise level from the dining room was rising. Our bedroom door was open, and light filtered down the hall, hazy with smoke. I heard cards shuffling, chairs scraping, ice tinkling in glasses, the long monotone of the joke then the raucous laughter at the bawdy punch line.

I was wide awake, thrashing around, had a knot in my stomach and a strong sensation something was not right. I hadn’t known this partying was part of hunting and was not sure I wanted to be here. But I worshipped the tall man who was in there drinking and needed desperately to be a man in his eyes. He was my hero. I couldn’t talk about the tension and my misgivings – you just didn’t do that – but this felt strange.

On top of it all, earlier that day I had seen my first dead man. He was lying in the back of an ambulance outside the general store but the sheet didn’t cover his head; Chris and I stared in horrified curiosity, saw his vacant stare, the dark line of dried blood across his forehead and running down between his empty eyes. We stood gawking until a man came up and shooed us away. We lingered and heard talk that he had been coming back from hunting, driving too fast in his pickup. He topped a rise on the gravel roads and ran head on into another pickup. He was killed instantly.

I got out of bed, went out into the smoky pall of the dining room, and told Dad my stomach was upset. He looked at me with eyes slightly blurry, told me to go outside if I had to be sick, and went back to the cards. That felt odd. I wanted to say more, but couldn’t. I went out into the bitter cold night, a startling blackness. I voided my stomach of the steak and all the apple cider from dinner, but the tension remained.

I shivered. It didn’t make sense. Those men were in no condition to be safe and tomorrow they would all have loaded rifles. The whole thing felt insane. I wanted to go home. I went inside, down the hall; I glanced at Chris asleep in the top bunk; I wondered what he thought of all this. I got back in bed and finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.

9 A.M. I thought deer came out at dawn. Why were we sleeping so late? I got up and began dressing, pulling my blue jeans over my long johns, lacing the boots. I went to the front of the trailer. The men moved stiffly, slowly, gingerly. They looked like hell. I knew why. Last night seemed like a bad dream but the heavy smell of smoke said it wasn’t and there were the empty bottles and cards scattered on the breakfast table.

Grouchily the men downed gallons of coffee and made preparations, checking rifles and knives, speaking little; no one fixed any breakfast. I didn’t want to do what we were about to do – but I had no choice. God help us.

We loaded into the pickup, the three men in the cab with their rifles. Chris, Brad and I climbed into the bed of the truck and huddled against the cab, out of the biting wind. We were road hunting – driving along dirt roads through the hills, scanning the sagebrush and scattered woods. It was a grey, cloudy, bitter cold day, with a forecast of snow. Chris, who was 17, mature and worldly to Brad and me, began cursing the cold and the fathers in a low monotone. I was shocked by his language, but as I grew colder I mentally began to cheer him on. It felt like we had been in the back of the truck forever, I was freezing, didn’t they know how cold it was, didn’t they care?

From the front of the pickup there was laughter as the fathers scouted the hills, with the heater on high, safe and warm. I looked through the rear window and saw them passing a bottle. I turned back around and curled up in a ball, my stomach churned.

The stopped for a few minutes, got out, let us get in the cab to warm up. Then things happened so fast they blurred. Morris, who had the sharpest eyes, spotted two bucks up on a ridge, raised his rifle and fired. A hit, one buck staggered and limped into a draw. Don yelled that we couldn’t let the buck get across that fence down the road – it was Indian reservation, illegal to hunt there, and we had to head him off.

Dad started running down the road with Morris right behind him, guns held in front of them, chest high. Brad and I got out of the truck and stood uncertainly. I was terrified – be careful with the guns! Suddenly I had a vivid mental image of Morris tripping, falling, shooting my Dad in the back. It was a crystal clear picture; it felt real.

I stood frozen, shivering, nauseous. This was too much. I wanted to go home. Please, just let me go home.

The buck rose from the brush. Morris fired, the buck fell and everyone was yelling and talking excitedly.

I felt a sinking sensation as I began to realize that we’d have to do this whole thing over again next fall. It was ritual.

But that was then. These days I don’t go hunting at all.

I’ve seen enough killing.

 

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