Thursday, March 15, 2012

Favorites List: Things I Love About Life-Long Friends

This afternoon my daughter and I are headed to Charlotte, N.C. to visit two of my oldest and dearest friends. One of these women I have known since birth, and another since I was in kindergarten. Years ago our parents forged a bond of friendship (involving quite a lot of adult beverages, Motown, and beach/lake time) for which I am forever grateful.

I'd include photos here, of our parents and us, but that could be trouble. Instead, I'll share one of our favorite places:

The Lawdy Mercy, Garden City Beach, S.C.

All friendships are blessings--some of the greatest in this life. Whether old or new, friends bring color and relief and magic to our everyday spinning through space. But for today, here's to life-long friendships, and life-long friends!

10 Things I Love About Life-Long Friends:

1. They don't let you lie to them.

When you've been friends so long that you learned to potty-train together, you forfeit all subterfuge.

2. They really, truly think you're beautiful--and say so.

This one's important: No matter how fat or thin you grow, no matter how your belly and boobs change after childbirth, or how many wrinkles form at the corners of your eyes, these friends see you as you were 20 years ago, and as you are now. And they love you for it all.

This is especially important in the case of my particular friends, because I suffered the zit and braces-filled adolescent years with them. Years when my mouth and my nose were too big for my face. Years when I had bouffant bangs. The year of the perm.

3. They know how to mix your drink.

Heck, they know what you like to drink, how you like to drink it, when you like to drink it, and when you need a drink.

4. They share with you.

Their clothes, their shoes, their children, their vacation houses, their favorite new music, their secrets, their recipes. Life-long friends love you like family, and when they find or have something or someone else that they love, they want you to be part of it.

5. They're there for you, good times and bad.

This is a biggie. When you are, and have been, friends for life, you endure it all together: weddings, funerals, births, cancer, moves, job losses and gains, hearts merged and broken. Whether you're in the room or over the phone, or a thousand miles away from each other, you are there. And there's nothing more important than this.

6. They make you do things you don't want to do--but they do them with you.

Even if one of these (many) things involves a lot of wine, a sunset over the marsh, a band, a microphone, and maracas.

7. They put sunscreen on you.

This cannot be overstated. Lathering someone up with sunscreen is tedious, annoying and messy. You have to really love another person to commit to making sure they're not going to get fried in hot pink patches. I've estimated that these friends and I have been putting sunscreen on each other for about 20 years.

8. Their hearts break and swell with yours.

When you hurt or get hurt, life-long friends feel it too. This is different than being there in spirit or being there physically when something happens in your life.

The simple fact is, when you've been friends this long, you're part of each other's DNA. You feel for each other like family... really, in many ways, like something more than family, because you've chosen each other. And it doesn't matter if you don't talk on the phone every week, or if there are years when you see each other only once or twice. When they hurt, you hurt. And you're on your knees, in the dark, begging for their relief. When they rejoice, you rejoice. And you send your love out into the stratosphere like shouting into an emotional bull horn.

9. It doesn't matter how far apart you live, or how long it's been since you've last been together. When you get together, it's as if time has stood still, and you pick up right where you left off.

We have lived as close as half a mile and as far as 700+ miles apart. We've gone months and even years since being together. It just doesn't matter: our connection is rooted in the blood.

10. You are forever friends.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Historical Research: Or, an Excuse to Feed My Book Habit

I'm a collector. I collect quotes, photos, images, art, random thoughts. I've been doing this since I was a kid. Later, in college, I covered the walls of my freshman year dorm room with the stuff--mostly any statement I considered inspiring, made by writers and artists I was enamored with at the time. I seem to recall a lot of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Frank Capra on my walls. (My collage also included a purely academic photo spread from Vanity Fair of Texas newcomer Matthew McCoughnahey. It was called "Lone Star." He was wearing blue jeans, boots, and a cocky little grin. I think I still have it.)

These days, when I begin a novel, I always begin with images--physical or imagined. If an image or scene pops in my head, I get it down. If it's something I see in a magazine or book--I've even collected quotes from tea bags and Nike ads--I pin the image to a bulletin board I use expressly for this purpose.

Filmmakers do something like this, but they call it "storyboarding." Though my version isn't nearly as organized (and how I wish it were), it's a fun, visual way to make an idea present during my creative process.

Here's what I've got going for the novel I'm working on now:

It all started with the guy in the center: it's an anonymous photo I've had--and been captivated by--since 2008, when I was a writing resident at the Vermont Studio Center. A friend of mine, another writer, had it, and let me make a copy. The grainy, blown-up image has been itching at me since then. I can only assume from clues about the man's dress and hair style that it's from the 19th century. Who the man really was, I have no idea. But now he's a main character in my new novel.

Whenever I have a random thought about the novel--plot, setting, what have you--I jot it down on a piece of paper and pin it to the board. It's not organized, and it's not neat. In fact, I'm in the early stages, so this is about as good as my storyboard is going to look over the next year. It'll be covered in Post-It notes and other cut-outs and pictures in no time, and will eventually resemble something like a framed scrap heap.

I don't have a system. I'm not a plotter (however much I'd like to be). A novel, for me, grows organically. I have to get it down, then figure it out. Hopefully, I'm learning how to do this better... and hopefully, my MFA program will help. 

What I do love (like a cold Corona Light with lime on a hot Carolina beach) is the research process. Right now I'm dipping my toe in the cotton boom of the 1850s in coastal South Carolina. It's a fascinating, dark, strange and glittering world. And I'm just getting started. So far, my physical research looks like this:

That's basically a short stack of Internet articles and a book I just ordered about James Petigru, a venerable Charleston lawyer who was against secession and didn't care who knew it. (This was a very big deal in the antebellum South, and especially in Charleston, S.C.) When he died in 1863, he was memorialized--indeed, lauded--by Confederate and Union sympathizers alike. I've found him fascinating since I first learned about him in the 8th grade. (Yes, I'm that girl.) And I want to know what life was like at that time and in that place for people who felt the way he did.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. When I research, I bury myself. I've got three other books coming in the mail, and four on order via interlibrary loan. On advice from an historical novelist I respect, I'll soon be planning a researching road trip to S.C. to delve into the newspapers of the time. (What I'll do with my two year-old, I don't know. But I'm sure she'll sit quietly by my side while I spend hours looking at microfilm.)

This novel has been on the backburner for a while now, ever since pregnancy and new motherhood threw a wonderful, exhausting wrench into my writing life. But now it's back. I'm back. And I'm learning to fit my old way of doing things to my new life. It may take me a helluva lot longer, and I may have to purchase stock in a Costa Rican coffee farm to stay upright during the process, but I can do it.