Story Excerpts

Memoir

Every time the negative force of Yin overwhelmed me, when I thought life wasn’t fair, the universe confounded me with a stroke of positive Yang. Then again, maybe the universe just liked messing with my head. When it came to our tribulations, San Francisco’s unique culture balanced the scales. The sheer extravagance of it could’ve held our fascination forever: the arts, fashion, architecture, sports, dining, and diverse ethnicity; plus the people—rich, trendy, exotic, bohemian, gay, and maverick; even the ubiquitous fog had become dear to our hearts.

Since my edification at the hands of Lu exceeded all other social events, I should’ve expected something odd lurking in her invitation to meet at the Sunset Recreation Center for an exercise class. At 7:00 pm, deep into winter, I sat in my car freezing my buns off, waiting for her to arrive. I didn’t know I’d soon be shaking those same frozen buns until they sizzled like hamburger patties on a grill.

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Running late, Lu pulled her turquoise sports car up to the curb behind me, blinking her lights in greeting. She gave me a quick hug, hooked her arm through mine, and steered me clickety-clack on her high heels toward the entrance, refusing to give even a hint of the forthcoming attraction. She signed a register in the foyer, and I followed her into the hall, stumbling at the sight of three half-naked, dark-skinned men in Polynesian grass skirts.

“The hula musicians.” Lu pushed me from behind to get my legs moving again. “The big one with the fat belly is the dance instructor—the kumu hula. The younger ones are his sons. There’s his wife—she’s also an instructor.”

A striking middle-aged woman, snapping a castanet-like instrument, yelled instructions to a large group of females ranging in age from five to fifty. Her swaying body reminded me of a ripe coconut about to drop from its tree. One son started strumming a guitar, and the other positioned himself behind a drum.

“Let’s get dressed.” Lu grabbed two skirts and lei garlands from a pile on the floor.

In the restroom we quickly stripped, threw t-shirts and leggings on, wrapped the skirts around our waists, hung the garlands around our necks and rushed back in the hall to be instructed in the hula auana. I looked around nervously, but no one in the bronze-bodied Latin crowd seemed put off by my fair skin and blonde hair.

The kumu hula got onto the stage and everyone hushed with expectation; you would’ve thought it was a religious ceremony. He delivered an authoritative rendition of the hula’s ancient spiritual tradition—rituals dedicated to the goddess Laka—and explained how the dance had evolved into a modern form of Hawaiian boogie. Devoid of religious significance, entertainment became its main purpose. The expressive moves were performed to the romantic sounds of steel guitars, kilu drums, ohe flutes, ukuleles, and gourds.

“Soh, now I teecha you how to wiggle for fun, huh! Remember, you yussa your whole body for dancing, even your eyes. Always, you keepa your knees bent.”

We all immediately bent our knees. He demonstrated sweeping arm-hand movements, out in front of the body, up to the sky, left and right. A variety of steps followed: one foot making a half circle forward and to the side without touching the floor; lifting one heel at a time and alternating—left up, right up, left down, right down; pivoting on the ball of one foot, the other foot taking tiny steps to turn the body around in a complete circle.

“Eezy, huh!”

Yeah, if you were born on an island.

Then followed the hip rotation, slowly, then somewhat faster, and faster still, working up to high revolutions that made my head spin too.

“Together now!” he shouted. “Arms! Feet! Hips!”

But that was where the garland hit the fan; thanks to my sorry coordination, my limbs just refused to work together in any kind of artistic pattern.

“I luv doin da hula,” someone to the left of me shrieked with delight. I wanted to shout back “Screw da hula! I’m gonna kill Lu,” but I needed every bit of air in my lungs to keep up with the jiggling crowd. Luckily, after an hour of vigorous hip shaking in the abusive hands of what’s-his-name, I trembled too badly to recall my mortal thoughts.

Later at dinner, rubbing our achy legs, Lu and I giggled at our Hawaiian experience. “There’s an American dream come true,” she said. “The dance instructor’s day job is construction work. In this country he can feed his family and live his fantasy.”

“I guess for some it really is the land of opportunity. Maybe things would’ve worked out better for me if I’d wanted to be a hula girl, huh,” I said, mimicking the kumu hula.

We both laughed, but Lu held my gaze and squeezed my hand in empathy.

 

Short story

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I’ve taken the liberty to include two responses to my 100-word story that was published in Readers Digest in 2015 as evidence of the effects our writing may have on readers — stressing the need to write thoughtfully, thus helping to make the world a more compassionate place.

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Non-fiction

MY APPROACH EXTENDS BEYOND THE CONCEPT OF CHARACTERIZATION

Some writers rely on personality-type theories to create fictional characters with typical tendencies. I believe in an organic growth of character instead of stereotyping speech and behavior patterns for the sake of validating a type. Besides, there’s more to shaping personal development in the course of a plot than just conveying predictable idiosyncrasies.

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Writers should rather contemplate the internal and external influences involved in communication, behavior, learning, and change—the unique sensory ways in which their characters perceive their realities; adapt to their physical, social, and cultural environments; express themselves and interact with others; respond to their challenges, failures, and successes; deal with internal or external conflict; imagine future possibilities and make decisions; learn new skills and improve their behavior; embrace new values and beliefs to think and feel differently about themselves or relate to the world.

Using a practical behavior change model, I help writers render realistic characters with eccentric quirks: first they test their own mind-body-spirit awareness in specific situations; then, based on that sensory evidence, they future-pace a character’s possible responses to similar situations. This is where it gets exciting—it’s like role-play, only different—writers see, hear, smell, taste and feel what’s possible for them and imagine how it could be for their characters. With that insight, they can let the story evolve naturally as opposed to being limited by the do’s and don’ts of personality theories.

If someone had to impose archetypal behavior on you, chances are it may stifle your natural growth—this holds true for story characters too.

As the introduction indicates, this book is not intended to be a classic writing guide that explores the typical literary elements of creative writing. Instead, it builds on that foundation to:

  • help writers increase their sensory awareness and observation skills so they can think more critically about themselves, others and the world—better mindfulness leads to greater creativity

  • provide insight into the dynamics of change so writers can use an alternative approach to shaping character transformation in relation to plot development—adding one more creative resource to the sum of their writing skills

As creative writers, we want to create quirky three-dimensional characters—men and women with unique pasts and uncertain futures, who exhibit complex emotions and conflicting motives.

I share life coaching principles and examples to help writers think through and convey the sensory details associated with the intrinsic communication and behavior patterns of their story characters throughout the book.

 

Fiction

The day before Gerald engaged with his first archeology project since the family’s move from Cape Town to Laingsburg—his Rubicon-crossing from being a salaried employee to an entrepreneur—he took Monika on a tour of the farm to parade his progress. It was their first drive in his new open-sided Land Cruiser, complete with seating for six guests and the requisite fire extinguisher and first aid kit for safety. A shower the day before had cleared the air of dust, and the evocative call of the elusive Rock Pipit confirmed the arrival of spring. Wildflowers oozing with sweet fragrances weaved chromatic bursts of colors across the veldand over the hills. His business plan was beginning to ripen into a big, juicy, sweet peach. The number of game now totaled thirty with several calves on their way, and the coming assignment should earn him enough to add some exotic species like golden wildebeest and copper springbuck.

Gerald glanced sideways at Monika, who wore a champagne-pink, designer tracksuit that accommodated her expanding waistline. Her shoulder-length blonde hair was blowing in the wind. He’d taken care to position her safety belts properly, one fitting between her swollen breasts and the other positioned under her belly; after all, she and the baby were his most precious assets. She had her hands clasped tightly together in her lap and seemed to stiffen every time he hit a bump in the dirt road. He made sure to keep the vehicle in a low gear.

Leaning in to engage his wife’s attention, Gerald started explaining the merits of ecotourism and the promising revenue of this fast-growing segment in the world’s largest industry. Monika had always favored intellectual discussions over inane chatter, so he wasn’t surprised to see her relaxing into her seat. Still, he was impressed when she praised his preference for offering small game viewing excursions versus big game hunting safaris. He brought up the possibility of eventually expanding into the more lucrative business of rare wildlife breeding. Her tone even morphed into wit and repartee as he showed off all the new dirt driveways that now linked the homestead with the lodge and the wildlife camps, as well as with other scenic areas of the farm; the trails that had been cleared for hikers wanting to explore the mountains, caves, and waterfalls; the rafts he’d acquired for thrill-seekers intent on riding the whitewater rapids of the Buffalo River. He indulgently patted her hand every time she oohed and aahed at the sight of a zebra or a giraffe, which seemed to be her favorites of the wildlife that showed up along the way.

Arriving at the guest lodge, Gerald pulled the Land Cruiser up in front of the cabins. The energetic rattle of brown-hooded kingfishers could be heard above the burble of the river. The damp, earthy smell of fallen leaves and broken twigs hung in the air, creating a false impression of an abundance of water. Gerald helped Monika out of the vehicle. He was about to guide her up the wooden staircase when Dabe appeared, awe expressed in the grin on his face.

Pointing to the vehicle, Dabe said, “Let me drive this fancy truck, please Gerry.”

“The hell you will,” said Gerald. “And it’s not a truck; it’s a 4X4 safari vehicle.”

To his dismay, Monika invited Dabe to get in. “Go on, let’s see what you’ll look like as the official guide and game-tracker of … oh dear, this place doesn’t even have a name yet.”

In one leap Dabe was sitting behind the steering wheel, looking like a child who’d been treated to a lollipop. He turned the steering wheel to the left and to the right while pretending to shift gears, all the time chuckling excitedly. When he finally calmed down, he looked at Monika and winked. “I think we should call this place ‘The Bushman Lodge.’”

Gerald stepped forward to offer his objection, but Monika flashed her palm at him.

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“I think you’re going in the right direction, if you’ll excuse the pun,” Monika said to Dabe, giggling. “What about an old tradition, like something depicted in rock paintings?”

Playing along, Dabe made sure to avoid eye contact with Gerald. “Well, there are shamans, and hunters … eland. What about trance dancing, like asking the spirits to send rain?”

Monika clapped her hands. “That’s it—‘The Rain Dance Lodge.’ Heaven knows, this place can do with a proper thunderstorm. Besides, Dikeledi would love the name.”

And so the decision was made, stirring a medley of emotions in Gerald: anger at Dabe’s impudence, irritation at Dikeledi’s influence even in her absence, delight at his wife’s animated participation, and a sudden nostalgia for something he couldn’t quite get a fix on. When Monika asked about the purpose of the whitewashed pump house some distance away, his stomach tightened, though her interest waned quickly at his explanation of the building’s practical function. The cellar beneath the trapdoor was best hidden from busybodies like her and Dabe, and Dikeledi too.

Afterwards, as Gerald showed off the interior of the cabins and the shared social areas, he felt his mood improve with each nod of approval from Monika. They drove back to the homestead in silence. Monika was clearly more content than at the outset of the tour. She even leaned over and thanked him with a kiss on his cheek, then rested her hand on his knee for the duration of the drive. Consequently, he took all that as a sign of better times to come.