The Tale of Mervyn and LeRoy or, What Price Story?

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posted by Kathy Waller

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I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering. ~ Robert Frost

I have never started a post yet whose end I knew. Or a story. Or a novel. Or an essay. Or . . . ~ Kathy Waller

 

I am a late bloomer. Unlike Stephen King, I did not start writing stories as soon as I learned to spell.

I wanted to, but I didn’t understand how writers work. I thought I had to know everything when I wrote the first word. Writers, I assumed, created  stories and books in their heads and then put them on paper. I didn’t know any writers, but I knew my mother, who made up stories to tell at nap time.

Moose (Alces alces) crossing a road, Alaska, USA

Moose (Alces alces) crossing a road, Alaska, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By John J. Mosesso, NBII [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The most memorable of her creations was the story of two little moose named Mervyn and LeRoy, who live in the Teton Mountains. One cool spring day they disobey their mothers by trekking down their mountain, hanging their clothes on a bush, and taking a dip in the lake. While they are swimming, a grizzly bear steals their clothes.

While hunting for their clothes, Mervyn and LeRoy become so cold that by the time their mothers find them hiding amongst the foliage, their teeth are chattering and they’ve turned blue all over. Their mothers take them home and put them to bed with hot bricks to warm their feet. But they both develop pea-neumonia and have to take bad-tasting medicine and stay in bed for weeks and weeks and weeks.

They are very sorry they disobeyed their mothers and promise they will never, ever do that again. And they never, ever do.

The first time I heard this story, it was obvious to me that my mother knew the end almost before she’d pinned down the “Once upon a time.” Mervyn and LeRoy reinforced my impression of writers as semi-magicians.

I retained the Writer-As-Steno-to-the-Muse idea for longer than I care to admit. Through two degrees in English and years of teaching, to be exact.

I knew that American novelist William Dean Howells said he began by creating characters, presenting them with a conflict, and letting them work out a solution. I knew the plot of Huckleberry Finn is flawed because Mark Twain allowed Jim and Huck to pass Cairo and travel farther and farther into slave territory and away from the possibility of Jim’s freedom. I accepted that both Howells and Twain exercised control over their material. I wrote page after page of literary criticism in which I analyzed novels and explained how the writers had constructed their works.

But I also knew that Helen Hunt Jackson said of her novel Ramona, “. . . one morning, . . . before I was wide awake, the whole plot flashed into my mind . . . in less than five minutes, as if someone spoke it.”*

I wrote two hundred pages explaining how Jackson carefully crafted the story of the lovely Native American woman. But subconsciously I believed that real writers, Howells and Twain included, began with that flash.

It was ten years before I considered I might be wrong and risked writing some fiction of my own. I set out with a first line–School is ruining my life.–and went from there. There was no flash. Five thousand words later, I wrote The End. A couple of months later, I wrote another first line–My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks.–and another five thousand words, and another The End. Again there was no flash. Both stories won regional fiction contests. I wrote a piece of flash fiction from a photograph prompt. No flash. It was published in the online magazine Mysterical-E.

Three years ago, during a timed writing in Karleen Koen‘s class at the Writers’ League of Texas Summer Writing Retreat,

I wrote another first line–The day I found Mama stirring ground glass into the lemon meringue pie, I took the bowl away from her and called a family conference.–and, again with no specific plan, continued writing. This time, though, Karleen called time. Last year, when my critique group, Austin Mystery Writers, decided to put together an anthology of short stories, I pulled out the fragment and finished it.

I was pleased. The members of my critique group were not. “It falls flat,” they said. “You promised the reader something but didn’t deliver.” They made suggestions. One of them was so obvious I wondered how I’d missed it. I made changes, killed darlings, added a couple of thousand words, and concluded in a way that satisfied my peers.

It’s been a long road from Writer-As-Steno-to-the-Muse to where I am now. What have I learned along the way? What do I know about writing that I didn’t know before?

Not much.

From experience, I’ve learned that a writer doesn’t necessarily know the whole story before writing it. I know that writing is thinking and discovering. I know that a good critique group is invaluable for pointing out what doesn’t work and helping brainstorm what will.  I know that once I begin, words will flow, and I will feel wonderful. I know that I have told people I love writing, when I really meant I love the flow.

I know that E. L. Doctorow said writing is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I know that’s fine for E. L. Doctorow and others of his ilk. But as I consider my next project, I still think I should already have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I know all I have is a first line, an empty head, an woozy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I don’t know how I’ll get from the first line to the end. I don’t know that I’ll get to the end.

I don’t know how creativity works. I do know it entails numerous games of Poppit and Bookworm and sometimes  lots of chocolate.

I know that lot of writers drink more than they should. I know I intend to stick with chocolate.

I know I’ve been working on this post all night, that it’s twice as long as it should be, and that I don’t have time to revise and improve it. I also don’t know how it will end.

But before it ends, I’ll tell you a mystery: One night last fall, I went to bed, turned out the light, closed my eyes, and had settled down for a good night’s sleep when a plot flashed into my mind–three points–beginning, middle, and end. It was perfect, so right that I wondered whether I had read it somewhere or seen it on Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone. But I hadn’t. It was mine, my own miracle, a whisper from the Muse, freely given, no reciprocation expected.

The next morning I began writing. What was originally conceived as flash fiction grew to over thirty pages. From start to finish, the process, including peer critiques, the services of an independent editor, revision, proofreading, time-outs, cat holding, and the occasional game of Poppit, took about four months. I added flesh, but the three-point skeleton I applied it to remained straight and strong.

It was a heady experience.

And it gives me hope that someday there’ll be a flash, and another plot will come, whole, as if someone spoke it.

The End

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*Evelyn I. Banning, Helen Hunt Jackson, (New York: Vanguard Press, 1973), p. 198. Not documented.

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Out of consideration for my readers, I have not included links to Poppit or Bookworm. They are addictive. No one needs that kind of trouble.

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Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is To Write Is to Write and Austin Mystery Writers.

Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68 and on Twitter @KathyWaller1.

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21 Responses to The Tale of Mervyn and LeRoy or, What Price Story?

  1. Kathy Waller says:

    Reblogged this on To write is to write is to write and commented:
    I’m blogging at Writing Wranglers and Warriors today. Please click over and read the full post.

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  2. I really enjoyed this post Kathy. I confess I’ve not studied the great writers as much as I shoud have but I read voraciously and I believe that has given me not only the courage but the knowledge to write on my own. I always wanted to write as a child and did some pieces that received good marks in my English classes. That writing morphed into writing songs and I continued to do that until about ten years ago, when I joined a good writing group. I took the plunge and started to write my first novel. I appreciate that you included the facts that a lot of writing instructors and authors say you SHOULD take, but I’ve never been much of a rule follower. To date I have not written anything that has the beginning, middle and end all in place before I start. I am an inspired writer. I sit down and let the words flow. I write hard and fast and don’t stop until I’m done. That being said, it took me three years to get my first book edited into my masterpiece. I don’t think I’ll ever change my style but I would certainly act if I got the “muse” like you did. Thank you for a wonderful post. I’ve reblogged this to my website.

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    • Kathy Waller says:

      I’m not a rule follower either. When I started my novel, I was told I had to outline every chapter before I began writing. That would have been heaven, but all I had was a character, a setting, and a first line. I have to write to find out what’s going to happen. Fortunately, I learned it’s okay to do it my way, since that’s the only way I’ll get anything on paper.

      I think it was Robert Frost who said that if the writer doesn’t discover something while he’s writing, the reader won’t discover anything either. So those of us who don’t have everything in place at the outset must be doing it right. As much as I want to control the material, I do love the Aha! moment when the material takes over and goes where it wants to.

      Like

  3. Doris says:

    Kathy,

    Loved it! If I say more I’ll take aways the feeling of sympatico I’m feeling now. Doris

    Also I’m at work and….

    Like

  4. This was interesting. I never heard the story of Mervyn and Leroy and think more children should hear it.

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    • Kathy Waller says:

      I’ve thought about trying to write Mervyn and LeRoy’s story as a picture book for children, but I don’t think I could capture the special something my mom gave it in one of our nap time sessions. It might be fun to try, though. Thanks much for your comment.

      Like

  5. Wranglers says:

    That is a nice story your Mom made up, you should write it out. I enjoyed the post. I like thinking I know the ending, but sometimes it changes. Thanks for the fun post. Cher’ley Love the pictures too. I think the glass in the pie is also interesting, one woman actually did that.

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  6. Kathy Waller says:

    My mom had a great sense of humor, and I benefited from it. I’m glad you liked the post. Who was the woman who put ground glass into the pie? Did it work?

    Like

    • Wranglers says:

      I watch a station called ID on TV and the commercial shows her grounding up glass, adding bleach, and rat poison to her husband’s food. These are true crime stories. Cher’ley

      Like

  7. sstamm625 says:

    Wonderful post, Kathy! I loved this–the story about Mervyn and LeRoy, the tidbits of your stories, the information about other writers, and the whole frame of what you know and don’t know about your own writing. I don’t know how my current WIP ends–and I’ve been reading people who say you have to know the end, that it should be the first thing you write, and everything else gets you there. So nice to have my less-than-fully-outlined process affirmed. We all do it differently, don’t we? And that’s what makes the writing ours. 🙂

    Like

    • Kathy Waller says:

      Thanks so much. I felt a lot better when I read an article by Tony Hillerman in which he said he couldn’t outline and that, in fact, characters often showed up in his manuscripts long before he knew who they were or why there were there. He said it took longer that way, but he still managed to finish and get his books published. So we’re in good company.

      Like

  8. Kathy, a truly inspirational post!! One part grabbed my heart, and I quote: “From experience, I’ve learned that a writer doesn’t necessarily know the whole story before writing it. I know that writing is thinking and discovering. I know that a good critique group is invaluable for pointing out what doesn’t work and helping brainstorm what will. I know that once I begin, words will flow, and I will feel wonderful. I know that I have told people I love writing, when I really meant I love the flow.” THIS SAYS IT ALL. Thank you thank you thank you. In my mind, writers need to know that when it comes right down to the point, We all think alike in this creative process. It’s inside us, and there’s nothing we can do about it, except love it and use it. Great post!

    Like

  9. Wranglers says:

    Enjoyed your post. I too, thought I needed the whole story in my mind before writing. However, I then had a character ride into a scene on an old mule, in a story that hadn’t planned him. He turned out to be the catalyst I needed to move my characters toward their destiny. I wondered if that was supposed to happen. And I love your statement too about loving the flow. I’m afraid I might get lost in it and lose my plot sometimes! Good post.

    Like

  10. katewyland says:

    Like you I need a beginning, middle and end. I usually start with an idea, then characters and a conflict, an ending, and finally 2-3 turning points that lead to the ending. The rest comes as I write. I’m sorta a combination of a plotter and panster. I love to see where my characters take me.

    Good post.

    Like

  11. Mike Staton says:

    Hey, Kathy, I really, really enjoyed how you took me along on your “writing” journey. When I settled in and become comfortable in my new Vegas surroundings, I joined a local writers’ group (they sponsor the Las Vegas Writers Convention) and sat in on my first critique session. It was a little frightening: someone reading a 10-minute section of a scene and then listening to people’s input and suggestions. Up until 2011, I participated in an online writers workshop and did written critiques, sometime spending an hour or two looking at another writer’s work and trying to offer helpful suggestions on what worked and what might need some revision. I have to admit … I can of like being able to think and analyze as I read through a scene and not give instant feedback as I saw happen at the writers’ group meeting.

    Like

  12. Nancy Jardine says:

    Great post, Kathy. I’ve never been part of a critique group, but the stripping down process is a frightening yet constructive one. I read many of the greats for decades, and did the same assessing as you seem to have done without the urge to know what writing by myself was like. I now know I’m a ‘pantser’ who doesn’t know how my stories are going to develop until they do, and I also know I’m not alone in that! We are different and diverse.

    Like

  13. erinfarwell says:

    Great post. I always wanted to write and dabbled a bit here and there but didn’t produce anything. Finally decided I would get a book published before I turned 50. I got it done with 1 month to spare. Now I’m 51 and have a short story under my belt as am working on the sequel to the novel. It took a while to get here but I’m glad I made it. Congrats on making it, too. Great post.

    Like

  14. Wonderful post, Stephanie! Very encouraging and enlightening!! Congrats on all you’ve accomplished and I am sure more great things are around the corner for you! I, too, tend to be “wordy” and now I have the challenge of taking my pet column to another newspaper but I can only write 300 words (maybe less) … how can a person encourage another pet owner in 300 words or less??! The publisher in essence said, “If you want to be in my paper, keep ’em short!” I want to be in his paper (and paid to boot!) so I guess I’ll have to learn to keep ’em short!!

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    • Oop, sorry Kathy! (I had just read Stephanie’s post too!). “Wonderful post, KATHY!” And, I forgot to mention: I LOVE THE MOOSE STORY! The Tetons are about a six-hour drive from me, and I would like to get there more often… alas, I don’t, but the area is BEAUTIFUL!!

      Like

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