Tea and chats with writers at Carriage Manor

Teatime with writers at the Carriage Manor Writers group.
Tea and chats with the writers group at Carriage Manor.
Peggy Hassinger, my dear friend who has shared with me many journeys.
Peggy Hassinger, my tea-drinking buddy  from many, many teatimes ago.

On March 22nd, I was invited by Peg Hassinger, a dear friend, to speak at the Carriage Manor Writers Group in Mesa, Arizona. The group pitched in with a surprise tea party to honor my visit and a surprise indeed it was! I was deeply touched (I cry easily these days if you must know!) with all the thought and planning that had gone into creating such a delightful event. There’s more about that in Marlys Jensens’s writeup below.

The Carriage Manor Writers Group meets every Friday. Many members are snowbirds so the group is more active in the cooler months. Members pick a special topic to write about every week and on the day of my visit the topic was (you guessed it) TEA of course! I was fascinated by the variety of genres and different viewpoints shared on the same subject. The format is open so we had a nice smattering of short stories, essays and poems and some very educative, funny and soul-stirring writing. When it came to my turn, I shared about my writing journey and Assam Tea. Here is  lovely recap of the event by Marlys Jenson, one of the writers in the  group. I am reprinting it with her permission. Thanks Marlys!

A SPECIAL MEETING

By Marlys Jensen – March 28, 2013

There are always surprises as we travel along life’s pathway, some more pleasant than others.  One such pleasing experience happened last Friday at the Writers Class.   Coming to class, all members were looking forward to the usual good time sharing their personally penned stories about “Tea”.  Also, the anticipation of being in the company of a soon to be published author was high on our bucket list.

At 10:00 a.m. class would be in session. When walking through the door the atmosphere was intoxicating. Looking around the room was like being in another time and place.  The tables were decorated eloquently.   Flowers and a silver tea service flanked the head table.  At each place, a setting ready for a party.   On a doily, a fine bone china plate, saucer, and tea-cup were placed ever so perfectly. Antique cloth napkins added a nice touch. The side tables displaying colorful tea pots looked beautiful.  Writer’s member and party giver, Gretchen, and party lover, Lucy, were responsible for the festive decorations.

Gretchen was in charge of the tea.   We got to choose a tea flavor and hot water was added to our cups, thus the brewing began. A wonderful aroma filled the air. Dainty treats were provided by our leader and tea lover, Peg. It was joyful time, with another one of our leaders, Mary Lynn, recovering from a broken pelvis, joining the group.

Yet another pleasant surprise was the entrance of a beautiful Indian Lady, who now resides in Arizona.  Peg introduced her as Shona Patel, a dear friend of hers.  They have enjoyed many tea parties together during their friendship. We were all captivated to hear the story of her life.  She had grown up on a Tea plantation in India.  Her father was appointed the first Indian manager of a tea farm, a fortunate event for the family.   She had a good life and learned much about the harvesting and processing of tea during her growing up years.

She loved writing and eventually was able to enroll in a writer’s class by a coveted professor at Scottsdale Community College. She learned much in his class about getting a manuscript ready for publishing.  She started the process. She hired an agent and was fortunate to be accepted by a publishing company.  Her book “Teatime for the Firefly” will be out in October, 2013.  It is a novel in which she was able to weave into the story many facts about tea and the plantations where it was processed. We are anticipating the book’s sale.

Shona is a lovely young lady, with many talents, and an outgoing personality.  It was a fantastic class.   I am sure all of the Writers feel the same as I….. A BIG thank-you is due to all who had a part in this most delightful time.    It exceeded all expectations!  Thanks again.

More about Marlys Jenson and the Carriage Manor Writers Group: My husband and I are retired and spend our winters in Carriage Manor Resort in Mesa, Arizona. It was there I was encouraged to join the Writers’ Group. I nervously started attending four years ago. The class has challenging topics and activities. It brought me to another level in writing. We have outstanding leaders. Here we learn to express ourselves through writing, reading, sharing, etc. When reading our stories during class time, we laugh and cry together; by this interaction we develop true friendships. I am looking forward to reading Shona Patel’s Book Tea Time for the Firefly”. Her excellent writing ability and vibrant personality will be reflected in the book, I am sure.

 

Beating writing into butter…

If you whip a bowl of heavy cream for a desert topping, you notice at first it begins to thicken, then it starts to peak nicely and finally it’s perfect. What happens if you continue to beat it? You are in big trouble because the cream will clump up and turn into butter! Not exactly what you had in mind, right? The trick is (as with most things in life) knowing when to stop. It goes for writing too. Obsessive writers can beat their writing till it is flat and lifeless. Knowing when to walk away takes courage and humility.

Here’s the thing about over-crafting. You never quite know at which point the writing changed texture and lost its freshness. It’s not the big changes but obsessive nitpicking that does it: a word here, too many  nips and tucks and before you know it the writing is clumpy and flat. Butter. When that happens to me, invariably somebody in my writers group will say, “What happened? The first version was so much better.” If I did not save the first version, it’s gone. It’s almost impossible to recapture the freshness turn the butter back to cream, so to say.

IN PORT OR NI PORG?

My bro-in-law tells us this story. He used to work in Merchant Navy in his younger days. Every time the ship docked in port and crew members went ashore they had to sign themselves out in a ledger. Next to their name they wrote the words “IN PORT” so others knew they had left the ship. Now, there was this Chinese cook. Let’s call him Wong. Wong spoke no English and knew just enough alphabets to sign the ledger. One day bro-in-law looks in the ledger and here is what he finds:

First day Wong writes:  IN PORT

Second day Wong writes: NI PORT

Third day Wong writes: NI PORG

From IN PORT to NI PORG!! 

This may be a stretch, but the point I am trying to make is this:  if you obsessively reshuffle words and piranha-nibble your writing, you can lose the sense of what you were writing about somewhere along the way. It happens in subtle stages. So instead of being safely IN PORT you could be floating in NI PORG!  Does this make even sense? Well, whatever.

And here’s my parting advice: never rewrite on an empty stomach and always drink plenty of tea.

Have you beaten your writing into butter? Instead of smooth sailing have you been marooned in NI PORG? Are these silly questions? You decide.

Cheers and have a good weekend!

Rough riding my first draft

Shona aged four

This is probably what I looked and felt like when I started writing three years ago. I was winging my first draft, super cocky, ready to dazzle the world. Nobody told me my glasses were too big. Nobody told me I had a bad haircut. I furiously jotted ideas in an expensive leather notebook. Brilliant lines flashed though my head while driving to the grocery stone. I took writerly walks like Stephen King: so writerly, I refused to even let my husband come along. Now, when I look back I see a small girl with big glasses driving a monster truck. I was hurtling down unpaved roads, veering dangerously close to the drop off. My story meandered willy-nilly and often went into some very foggy woods. But did I care care? Hell no! I was a writer!

What happened?

I wandered into Rob Halls’ writing class. I had heard about Rob’s class from another writer. It was difficult to get in. Students pre-registered even before the semester was over. I put my name down on the waiting list and got called one day before the class started. I was in! I found myself in a writing group of 12-16 writers. Mixed ages, no specific genre. There were no prerequisites for the class but all writers had to have a full-length novel in progress. We met once a week at the Community College and critiqued each other’s writing while Rob moderated in his wry, funny way, and made sure nobody got fatally wounded. I was the disruptive one. An unbroken mustang: no critiques had ever reined me in.

Rob Hall never cut with his sword, he always pointed. This was his first gentle critique:

“There is some really good writing in this chapter. You have a particular strength with similes that create, new relevant images for the reader. Clearly, you have the skills. That being said, I don’t know where we are going or what the story is about.”

My fellow writers all had the same complaint. My writing was like pretty leaves scattered on the ground. Nobody saw the magnificent tree in my head. There were no interconnecting branches, no main trunk.

Rob explained things simply but he was never patronizing. Here is another critique:

The things I remember most about this scene is her toe worrying the paint on the verandah and her father lacing his boots. Why is that? You forced me to see those things. In a screenplay those close-up images would be called “insets.” I call the scene truncated because you never finish it. The father stands up and gets his pipe and tin of tobacco. Does he ever pack the pipe with tobacco? Does he ask his daughter what she is going to do with the rest of her day? Do they go down to breakfast together? We don’t know. You have the talent to write well and create images that are fresh and artistic, but I am a bit lost as to what is going on or what to expect when I turn the page to the next chapter. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

Then he got tougher. This time it was a hug followed by a couple of smacks and a final hug.

Your writing is so lyrical and imagistic that I’m crazy for it: until to get to dialogue, and then it’s atrocious. It seems as if a beam came down from somewhere and stole your grammar, absconded with your Tab key (sometimes) struck you dumb about keeping commas and periods INSIDE double quotation marks, and then impishly snatched away some of your terminal punctuation when you went to get a cup of tea. Then, when we return to the narrative, your writing is again beautiful and lyrical. Are you being possessed? Jekyl and Hyde? The words in the dialogue are good. You simply need to get command of the structure. It’s actually the easiest thing to do in fiction. Make it a habit to write correct dialogue. I really like your writing and your characters. You have talent, girl. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

I have to admit, I was not entirely clueless about grammar: I was just too damn lazy. Plus I had a crappy attitude:  I believed punctuation was for librarians and school teachers and not talented writers like me (why hadn’t Rob Hall told me himself?) I did not want to be bothered with those pesky little things. When I refused to toe the line,  Rob Hall just let me have it.

“What is this stuff”. What is that period hanging outside the double quotation marks for? “It is supposed to be like this.” Always.

And what – is this thing? This hypen hanging out in the wind? I suspect you think that it is a dash–but this is a dash. A dash is two hypens with no spaces within a mile of themdo you see?

And again, what is this…three squeezed periods? An Ellipses is presented  . . .  like this in a manuscript. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

He always ended with.“Good luck and keep writing.” It was those five little words (plus the hugs and smacks) that kept me going.

This writing class forced me off the dirt track on to the highway. I began to understand road signs and steer my story towards a clear destination. I learned about plot, narrative arc and pacing. Oh, how I hated structure! All I wanted was to step on the gas and drive like Rambo over potholes.

I have been told I am a good story teller. I can make people laugh, cry, think and wonder. I never thought I would need anything else to be a good writer. But I had much to learn and Rob Hall’s class was only the beginning.

Shona Patel’s debut novel Teatime for the Firefly is a love story set in a tea plantation in Assam. You can read more about it HERE.  She is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.