There Are Many Kinds of Scars

Dogpatch writer Laurel Leigh’s essay explores how as a child she experienced the scars of her mother’s mastectomy and how those issues of image and identity carried into her adult life. Here’s an excerpt of “Scars” and our comments about this deeply honest piece of writing.

The author’s mother on her wedding day.

The wound in my chest was open and wide, and I could see the layers of my skin disappearing into the circular black hole. As a kid growing up in the country and later an acrobat, I’d had plenty of scrapes and bruises, but I’d never had a cut that deep. I was engrossed by how deep the hole was—about an inch.

The doc came back to the table and explained that the wound leakage had just been fluid, but it likely would re-occur if he used liquid anesthesia. If I was tough enough to look at it and not get grossed out, then, asked the doc, was I tough enough to let him stitch me up without anesthesia? The incision would heal more rapidly, if so, he told me. I said okay.

 

 

Hey Laurel,

In your essay you look back on your childhood and examine your feelings, both then and now, about your mother’s mastectomy scars and what they meant to your own physical and emotional development growing up. Over the course of this essay you, as the narrator, come to understand that there are many types of scars an individual can incur over the course of a life — physical scars, of course, but also mental and emotional ones as well.

In many ways this piece is about self-acceptance versus others accepting us, but beneath this it is really a rumination on intimacy and mortality. The narrator is given three privileged glimpses in the course of this work: at her mother’s mastectomy scars; at the hole in her own breast after surgery to remove a tumor; and, finally, a clear, unimpeded view of the sky as seen through a hole in the ceiling after the constant rain of western Washington state eats through the roof of her house. All three of these privileged glimpses lay bare a sense of intimacy with the world, as well as a marked vulnerability to that same outside world.

The scars that life leaves on all of us can lead us to want to hide them from others. It is only natural for people to want to hide or camouflage their scars, just as we all want to hide or camouflage the uglier parts of life. But the narrator, over the course of this piece, learns to embrace her scars, to see their beauty instead.

I like the symmetry, or poetic echoes, you achieve with the various ‘holes’ we glimpse in the essay — how the deep, scarred depression left behind after Mom’s mastectomy mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s own breast, which itself mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s ceiling. As she considers her own feelings about her mother’s mastectomy scars, the narrator reflects on the scars two previous surgeries have left on her own breasts. Continue reading

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Amnesty Goes to Mass

Dani culture, Catholic mass, and sex with a photojournalist in a seedy hotel all come together in this excerpt from Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. In the Dogpatch, we do what we do, which is talk about writing. We had a lot to say about this riveting chapter and can’t wait to read more. Here’s an excerpt to help you see why we’re riled up:

She was also witness to a burgeoning — well, maybe feminist movement wasn’t the right word for it; but with pacification, and a marked decrease in the need for protection from neighboring hostile tribes, the role of women in Dani society had greatly expanded. Of course women still did most of the work, farming and mending what little clothes they wore and watching after the children, as well as the pigs (which, along with sweet potatoes, were the staples of their diet). But the men’s lodges, the center of all important discussions of a political or economic or social nature, and formerly off-limits to all married women, were now a place where everyone in the village gathered to talk and eat and tend to everyday chores in the company of their family and friends. The division between the sexes was not as clearly demarcated as it had been in the past, and women were rushing in to fill the void left by the enforced cessation of (formerly incessant) tribal warfare. Social gatherings focused less on the planning of attacks and the mourning of the dead, and more on the communal tending of the fields and the improvement of the settlement. And Amnesty was a witness to all of it.

The Dani made her feel like one of them; every moment she was there she felt more alive than she had at any time before in her life. When she was there among the Dani, she didn’t have to try to live. Then one day, near the end of her first full year at the Dani settlement, a wave of concern swept through the small village. She had never seen anything like it in all her time there. Some of the men looked scared, and they were muttering names that were unfamiliar to Amnesty, as they grabbed spears and other weapons long disused and gathering dust as old war trophies in the men’s lodges. It appeared to her to be something right out of the literature, with the men of the village gathering to repel a surprise attack on a remote outpost.

Wow! That was my initial reaction to this chapter. I honestly had to read it a few times before I could stop being simply fascinated and try to look at it critically. Wes, I find it very fascinating that your initial question to the group was whether there was enough action content to sustain this chapter. I sometimes think you are completely unimpressed by your own ability to mesmerize the reader as well as your ability to weave unique and complex content into a character’s on-the-page experience. Somehow you make it completely reasonable that a character would go to church, call to mind her time spent in the highlands of New Guinea, and regale the reader with tales of the Dani people that somehow link to her own need for both action and atonement.

For someone just joining this discussion, I’ll say loosely what unfolds in this chapter. A character with the unlikely name of “Amnesty,” who is non-religious, goes to Catholic mass because it offers a place to think without the usual interruptions. That’s wildly ironic because the cacophony going on in her brain is deafening. Amnesty is a little Hamlet, in that she’s kind of stuck in her life and subsequently tortured. On a past anthropological visit to the wonderfully bizarre Dani villages, she pulled a Captain Kirk and got way too involved in the daily goings on of the isolated modern-primitive Dani. Her bosses kicked her to the curb, and now poor Amnesty spends more time planning her next move than actually making it. Of course, in church she can’t help but turn her anthropologist eye on the rituals of organized religion, and her opinions are not surprisingly damning. If we read what she thought in an academic paper, it would be fascinating. But putting the character in scene and having her dissect the religious ritual as it unfolds is beyond riveting. But then it gets better, because despite her brilliance, we see how stuck in place she is. She’s rooted in that pew and rooted in place in her life. We think it’s because of her screw-up on the field trip; but as the layers of her life are further implied, we realize her dilemma goes much deeper. Having read other chapters, I also know that her wacked-out upbringing further ups the stakes for poor Amnesty having any semblance of a peaceful inner life.

Much of the time reading, I forgot we were in church and felt completely transported to the Dani village. That is a strength of the writing, although I ultimately thought you could consider leaking out the Dani story en route while Amnesty observes the mass ritual and letting the climax of the village story (which, sorry readers, I’m not gonna tell ya until the book comes out) intertwine with that horrific (from Amnesty’s perspective and mine as well) moment when the chanting priest holds the wafer aloft and all of Amnesty’s missteps among the Dani and her interpretation of the mass collide. That wafer waving moment is important in this scene, and I think you could slow the writing down to highlight it even more. That’s really my main comment: that I’d love to see the church scene and the village scenes told more concurrently until we hit that ultra moment of tension and imagery in both.

As for the interpretation Amnesty herself needs to take away. I would like to know whether you agree with the reading that even while Amnesty doesn’t believe in the religion she observes, her time in church is nonetheless akin to religious action. I find it drastically ironic that your non-believing character nonetheless enacts a sort of religious interpretation of the mass service: a prayer, inward meditation, an account of her past sins, and, finally, seeking atonement. It’s completely masterful, and I’m dazzled by your skills.

Finally, about said photojournalist: That’s an awfully sexy career, and I’m all in favor of wild sex in a cheap hotel with a thrill-seeking photojournalist. But I think the hotel romp adds too much of an ending to this chapter and sends it in a different direction. Once mass is over, I really think the chapter should be too. Of course, don’t cut the sex scene. Pretty please. It’s wickedly great. But consider moving it to another chapter and possibly separated from the mass chapter. Let us all wait to find out the bedroom coda to the conclusion of Amnesty’s day in church.

The only other thing I have to say is please hurry up and finish writing this book so everyone can read the whole thing. It’s going to be a hit.

XO Laurel Leigh

Geez, Louise. Laurel got to say all the important stuff before I could jump in with my 2 cents. Your initial question, Wes, was “Is it OK if nothing HAPPENS in this chapter?” Hmmm, I say, hmmm. Well, the way I see it, it doesn’t matter whether something physically happens in this chapter, but something darn well better happen to launch Amnesty into the search for her brother. I mean, I enjoyed learning all these things about the Dani people, BUT I’m not reading a book written by Margaret Mead (although I have read her work and enjoyed it). I’m reading a book about murder and the messed-up lives being lived by “Love” children, with a little side helping of Margaret Mead. So, while it’s all well and good (don’t you hate clichés, but they’re so useful) for you to include this info about the Dani, I think some of it should either leak through in earlier chapters, with the final leak being the moment with the hatchet. That will then deepen our understanding of the moment where we see Amnesty conclude that she must take ACTION. Use this chapter as the launchpad for the search.

I want to understand the scene where she’s moved to kill but thwarted by cultural taboos. As it is, I knew something had terminated the interaction, but I wasn’t sure what. It’s a critical moment in the story, and I’m not there yet. I DO understand that her interference got her fired, but I don’t understand how her interference completely altered the events between the two warring factions. Give me more there.

As an aside, I think you need to weed out those authorial intrusions that distract, you know, the ones where you can’t help but pass judgment on the situation or add a little pointed but subtle commentary, thinking that reader won’t “get it” otherwise. Some may be in there to elicit chuckles. And some may be in there just because you find them entertaining (or maybe you’re too close to see them). Kill them!!

Oh, and get rid of that sexy scene in the humid hotel room. It distracts and sends us off in a different direction, as Laurel said. OK, I agree with Laurel: put it elsewhere. It’s entertaining. But when I’m in church, I want to be in church or with the Dani. When the church scene ends, we should be following Amnesty into the heart of darkness, so to speak.

Nuff said. Now finish this sucker! I want to read the whole thing!

Cheers! Jilanne

 

Photo of cathedral interior: Pixabay.

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Section 13

Hello from the Dogpatch! Since 2000, our group has been reading and commenting on each other’s work. Those of you in writing groups well know the rewards of watching your friends’ work flourish over time. A few years ago we started posting parts of our critiques on this blog and have appreciated everyone who joins our ongoing conversation about writing and revising. Many thanks for reading!

Today we bring you “Section 13,” a chapter from Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. In this chapter, the book’s protag, Amnesty, is searching for her missing brother, Tracy, a suspected felon. En route Amnesty visits the home of a childhood friend, Lynette, who’s still living in the 1980s and in alcoholic squalor. She unknowingly helps Amnesty begin to unravel the mystery surrounding her missing brother. Here’s a short excerpt with our comments following. We don’t post the entire piece since these are often submitted later, but you can read another excerpt and more discussion about Wes’s novel here. Feel free to jump into the fray! Your comments are always welcome and much appreciated!

 

[from “Section 13”]

The room was quite dark with the door closed. Amnesty stood squinting for a moment in the cave-like gloom, waiting for her eyes to adjust, making out shapes by the scant light the television provided. She could see now they were showing an old Disney movie.

‘Give me the secret, mancub. Clue me what to do,’ sang King Louie. ‘Give me the power of man’s red flower, so I can be like you.’

‘So how are your folks holding up?’ Lynette said.

‘My dad’s locked himself in his room and won’t come out.’

‘I wanna talk like you. Walk like you, too,’ Louis Prima, a.k.a. King Louie, sang. ‘You’ll see it’s true. Someone like me can learn to be like someone like you.’

Lynette walked over and turned down the sound on the television.

‘Jesus, what a mess,’ she said. ‘But what’re you gonna do?’

For one wild, disorienting moment Amnesty thought her friend was talking about the state of her own house, but then she realized Lynette was talking about Tracy.

‘Do? I want to help my brother, of course,’ Amnesty said. ‘I mean, he’s on the run. He must be frightened and feeling all alone. But I don’t even know where to start.’

‘Aiding a suspected felon can get you in a shitload of trouble, you know.’

‘You sound like you’re talking from experience.’ Her friend said nothing. Then Amnesty said, ‘Well, I’ll worry about that later. Right now all I want is to get my brother to turn himself in before he gets himself gunned down in the street like some kind of mad-dog criminal.’

‘Well, you’re not going to be able to help your brother right this minute,’ Lynette said. ‘So why don’t you sit down and take a load off?’ Continue reading

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The Maypole Effect

Image from watercolourflorals.blogspot.com

 

Now and then an awesome-o writer shares one of their projects with us, and this time it was the amazing Wendy Scheir, who introduced us to her stellar historical fiction. We invited Wendy to tell our readers about her experience working with an editing strategy dubbed the “Maypole Effect.” Here’s what she had to say:

 

Long story short, in 2012 I decided to write something fictional based on a real situation that took place during the winter of 1939-40, documented in materials I’d come across while working as an archivist on the records of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.

For two and a half years, I wrote five characters’ stories. They didn’t have a lot to do with one another, present-action-wise, but each occurred over that winter at the end of the Depression and on the cusp of World War II, and each circled around the same endeavor. I had a vague plan to weave them together, at some point. That would be easy. First, though, I needed to figure each character out independently of the others.

By mid-2015, it was time to weave. I broke each character’s story up into logical sections, interspersed them, and read it beginning to end. The result was a hot mess. The thing as a whole was utterly incomprehensible. There was no thing as a whole. The parts didn’t even add up to their sum. There was no book.

Thank goodness for computers. After a period of wallowing, I cut and pasted my fractured people back together again and placed the stories back to back. The interweaving disaster had exposed internal issues within each story, so I put the Big Structural Question out of mind and went back to work on those for awhile. But this wasn’t the book I’d envisioned. It wasn’t finished.

Trouble was, I had no idea what to do next.

My Squaw Valley pal Jilanne Hoffmann to the rescue! Jil led me to Laurel Leigh, a skilled editor who, Jil said, had a brilliant eye for Big Structural Questions. I dropped the manuscript onto Laurel’s e-doorstep and took a blessed break from writing.

November 2015. Just after Thanksgiving, Laurel came back with an idea. Actually she came with a ton, but I want to tell you about just one of them. She called it the Maypole. Continue reading

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Win a Major Award! (Maybe!)

That inimitable Writer Fellow is at it again!

We at the Dogpatch are huge fans of that Writer Fellow, Mike Allegra. Well, he has a writing contest in the works on his wildly popular blog, HEYLOOKAWRITERFELLOW! Polish up your pens and head on over to Writer Fellow’s blog to put in your two cents worth about this contest.

Source: Win a Major Award! (Maybe!)

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The Mission

terri-shoeless

Terri McAllister posing “shoeless” in 1987, many years before the collection was thought about.

Hello from the Dogpatch! Today we’re talking about “The Mission,” a story from Laurel Leigh’s ongoing Shoeless collection. In this story, two sisters both define and defy their daily struggles to survive when they head to San Francisco’s Mission District, hoping to get days-old Roma tomatoes at a grocery giveaway so they can cook a special 4th of July meal. This story was inspired by Laurel’s experience volunteering at a food bank. You can find the full story in Volume 12 of Clover, A Literary Rag. Feel free to jump into the fray! Your comments are always welcome and much appreciated!

clover-12

Clover, A Literary Rag, Volume 12

If you’re in Whatcom County, Washington, on February 12, Laurel Leigh will be reading from “The Mission” as part of the biannual Clover reading event at Village Books. You can submit to Clover here.

[from”The Mission”]

Thursday morning, Celeste put on her good dress, her one pair of heels, and did up her hair. It was her day off and an outing, even if it was just going back to the Mission District, where she worked most days anyway, but on Thursdays it was for the grocery giveaway that only some people knew about – although more had been showing up each week – and sometimes the actual grocery store (not today though, on account of Mrs. J). She and Cel had talked about whether there would be enough gas for both the giveaway and Mrs. J’s house and decided not to risk it. It was sixteen miles round trip to get to the market where the owner gave away the didn’t-sell foods each week before his trucks came to restock the shelves. Adding on Mrs. J’s would mean two more miles each way – it wasn’t so much the distance but all the time in city traffic that burned up gas – and knowing Mrs. J, she’d find another reason not to pay until next week.They had set out two cans of green beans and one cream corn to bring along and trade with old Miss Florence, who didn’t eat fruit, so they would most likely have extra apples or soft bananas, which could usually be counted on, but it was tomatoes they wanted today – Roma tomatoes. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and Celeste planned to make baked lasagna with ricotta cheese and Roma tomatoes layered over. It had been their grandmother’s specialty, every year on the Fourth and once for Celeste’s eighth birthday. Celeste had saved up the rest of the ingredients, including some McCormick’s Italian seasoning; all that was needed was the tomatoes. Canned could be used for the topping, but there was nothing like plum Roma tomatoes. Most would use a Roma for canning or a sauce, but Grandma had known the secret of bathing them in garlic and layering them over lasagna. Of course, it was a gamble that there would be any tomatoes today, even week-old Heirlooms, but Celeste couldn’t help but hope. The market sold Romas out the front door so they were always a possibility for giveaways. Only two were needed; if there were four, they could go in a salad. They planned to make the lasagna in the morning, then Celeste had two houses to clean but would be back by six,  in plenty of time to pack up the rest of the picnic and get down to the pier to watch the fireworks light up the bay.

 

Jilanne: The Writer's Shadow

Jilanne: The Writer’s Shadow

Sooooo, Laurel, dahling. This story is going to be a great addition to the Shoeless collection. It contains such quiet despair, despair that grips so many who struggle from paycheck to paycheck. I LOVE the quote: “Cel looked stricken, like she’d cry but didn’t want to spare the moisture…” Wow. These two women have nothing left. They can’t even waste their tears. The same with the imagery  of the juice from the tomatoes, bleeding through the fabric of Celeste’s skirt and onto the pavement. They are being bled dry. Watching these two women try to put together enough money to get across town for free food handouts, only to find their efforts thwarted at every turn, is so painful. Painful in a good way. Because it feels real. The scenes with the ice cream and the boyfriend who’s a GG bridge painter add so much to show their desperation. You have done your job well. For the opening paragraph, you may want to take a look at Alice Munro’s stellar work in the way she deals with brief flashback intrusions. She’s the master of giving the reader just enough background detail without losing our footing in the present. The vast majority of my comments are about location details. San Francisco’s size is contained to a few square miles, so I think you need to get a map from 1969 and decide exactly where these two women live and where they have to go to work and get food. Now, the SF of that time period was one dependent on buses since BART was just being constructed. So specific details such as bus schedules, daytime temps, etc. will finish out what is already a fine story. Oh, and I’m not sure that people would want their houses cleaned on the 4th of July. Wouldn’t they be busy having BBQs with lots of people hanging out? But that may just be me. Keep on keepin’ on! Well done!

 

mug shotWes sez:

‘The Mission’ is the story of two sisters struggling to make ends meet in 1960s San Francisco. Celeste, the older sister, wants to make lasagna for 4th of July, her grandmother’s recipe, but can only manage to assemble all the ingredients for the recipe by going to a weekly, charitable give-away at a grocery store on the other side of town in the Mission District.

I once heard it said that all it takes to make a good story is to chase your hero up a tree and throw rocks at her. You throw an awful lot of rocks at Celeste.

And while the stakes in the story might seem small — a few, fresh Roma tomatoes are all that Celeste desires — you do such an expert job raising the stakes, and the tension, that by the end this reader was so fully invested in whether these two sisters were ever going to manage to get their groceries home, I thought my head was going to explode.

You do a fine job laying out Celeste’s plans for getting to and from the market where they hold the food give-away. Her plans are sensible, no-nonsense, and highly detailed, which makes the world of the story feel lived-in and true. I can think of no higher compliment for a work of fiction.

But I would like to talk a little about the time and place in which you set your story. Near the end of the piece you tell us it’s 1969. I don’t need to tell you this was a time of incredible political instability and foment. None of this comes through in the story. Neither did I ever figure out, until you told me, that the two sisters in the story were African-American. Given that the piece is set in the Mission, I assumed they were Hispanic.

Two African-American sisters living in late-1960s San Francisco would have been awash in social instability and revolutionary sentiment. The two sisters seem a little too mature for that sort of thing, but it was everywhere in the air. I think they might drop at least a few asides about what it going on in the streets around them, since it would have been impossible to avoid.

As for your setting, San Francisco in July — I don’t think I need to quote you that apocryphal bit about how cold it is in S.F. in the summer, the one that’s usually attributed to Mark Twain. The heat of the day actually plays a small role in your story; you might need to rethink this.

And as a final note, having two sisters with names like Celeste and Celia seems almost cruel. The names sound much alike — not to mention their nicknames, Cel and C — that my head was all a-muddle by the end.

Otherwise, a terrific story. Simple and elegant and true. Good job!

 

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Rabble Rousers & Hooligans – Win a Doodle!!

Last year, the Dogpatch *forced* Mike Allegra to draw the cutest salamander, named Sully, for Laurel’s poetry gig. What can we squeeze outta him this year? Hmmm? Go ahead, enter the competition. You know you want to….Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 12.43.21 PM

Win A Doodle! Woo!

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