Bob Gillen

the magic of storytelling

I Had the Cancer in the 1980s

I am in the middle of an online writing course offered by the University of Iowa. The course is a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from the International Writing Program (IWP) there. The course is titled: Hidden Meanings: Creative Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Facts.

This will be my second writing course with IWP. I find them to be very challenging, but the feedback from other course participants is excellent. Serious, thought-provoking, supportive.

Today I’m posting the writing assignment I submitted for lesson three: all about “the line between what we remember or know and what really happened.” I attempted to tell a story from two points of view. Comments are welcome.

THE WAITING ROOM

Megan steered right out of the hospital parking lot and edged into the flow of traffic.

“Where can I drop you?”

“The Starbucks down the street from my apartment.” Her brother Adam touched the laptop case on his lap. “I have a blog post to write.”

She nodded.

“Mom looked better today. Her color is coming back.”

“Yeah,” Adam said. “One of the RNs said they may let her out by Friday, if her kidney numbers continue to improve.”

The two drifted into silence for a few minutes.

At a red light, Megan turned to Adam. “I was thinking about those days when I was getting chemo treatments.”

“It’s been, what, seven years now?”

She nodded. 

A tear slid down her cheek. “You were there for every one of my treatments.”

He smiled. “You’re my kid sister.”

“Remember the day I got stuck talking to that foreign woman in the waiting room?”

“Foreign?”

 “I think she was from eastern Europe. She had an accent.”

“Hungary.”

“What?”

“She was from Hungary.”

“Okay…whatever. Remember the grocery bag full of bills and receipts she had on her lap?”

Adam nodded.

Megan said, “You buried yourself writing in your notebook. The woman turned and started talking to me.”

Adam laughed. “I remember it well.

“She kept fussing with the bag of papers. Said she had to get all her bills straightened out.”

“I remember.”

It was Megan’s turn to laugh. “I kept nodding and looking to the nurse to call me inside for my treatment. The woman would not stop talking to me. Rambled on about having her own business somewhere.”

“Hollywood.”

“Huh?”

“She owned a transmission shop in Hollywood. For years. Said that cast iron transmissions were stronger, but they had to reduce weight on the cars, so they began making them out of aluminum.”

“How do you remember this?”

He patted his laptop case. “It’s all here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“While she was talking to you, I was writing down what she was saying..”

“Why?”

“Writing research. I have used that story at least six times in all the writing courses I’ve taken.”

Megan eased around a bus on the street ahead of them.

“You mean, while I was talking to that lady, you were writing down our conversation?”

“Yes…but it wasn’t much of a conversation. She did all the talking.”

Megan laughed. “You’re unreal.”

He opened his case and pulled out an iPad. Opened to a file.

Budapest 1956
Credit: Calgary Herald

“Here it is. She was from Budapest. Left her country in 1956 when the uprising occurred. She didn’t say, but I’d guess she came across into Austria. Then immigrated here to the States.”

Megan shook her head.

“She had the transmission business for over 25 years. Said she never had any trouble with accounting till now, with all her medical bills. What she actually said was, ‘I know how to run a business. This, I can’t figure out.’”

“Seriously, I can’t believe you have all that in writing.”

“I’m a writer.”

“I thought you made it all up.”

“Most of it…but I listen, observe, take notes.”

“That woman seemed like a tough old bird.”

“She was sick.”

“Really?”

“Another quote: ‘I had the cancer in the 1980s. I beat it. The cancer is in my bones now. It has been for almost three years. I am 65 years old. Born in Hungary. Left when the revolution started. We escaped through the woods at night. Farmers helped us. There were tanks firing in the streets.’”

“I wonder if she’s deceased now.”

“Could be. It’s been a while. I imagine bone cancer can be pretty nasty.”

Megan smiled. “I only remember that she was a nuisance. I was sick and had no interest in listening to someone drone on.”

“She was up on her technology.”

“What do you mean?”

“She told you about her Internet usage. ‘I miss Hungary, but I would never go back. I Skype with my cousins there every day. They are old, and I am teaching them how to knit.’”

“That’s really cool.”

Megan pulled to the curb near the Starbucks. 

“Thanks for the ride, sis.”

“Any time, bro. Someday soon you’ll sell your writing. Then you can afford a car.”

Megan drove off. Said to herself, Afford a car…and finish paying off my medical bills.

OFF-ROAD Launch Day

I am thrilled to say my young adult/crossover novel is now available on Amazon Kindle. Off-Road is an adventure short read that will appeal to both enthusiastic and reluctant readers. Three teens set out to make a film about an off-road race in the searing heat of the Mojave desert. What started as a fun adventure turns into a road full of obstacles and threats.

Off-Road book cover image

I like to compare the story to the adventures of another group of teens in Virals, by Kathy Reichs. And perhaps Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet too. Young people trying to find their way, to survive, to discover where they fit in this world, to articulate their voices.

I hope you like it. Comments and reviews are welcome.off-road racing, short read, Mojave Desert

Every Noun Should Be a Verb

“I love a good verb. In fact, I think all nouns should be verbs.” So says bio-architect Neri Oxman. She leads a creative team in MIT’s Media Lab, where they research and develop structural building elements from natural materials.

Neri Oxman
Credit: Netflix.com

Of verbs, Oxman says, for example, the word Nature should be Naturing.  Mother Nature, as in Mothering Nature, who is crying out for our love.

Bio-architectural creation at MIT Labs in Cambridge, MA
A Creation of Neri Oxman’s Team at MIT’s Media Lab
Credit: Netflix.com

You can see a documentary on Neri Oxman’s work on Netflix, as part of the Abstract series. The series features documentaries on creative individuals influencing our world.

All nouns should be verbs. Life. Or Living. Health. Or healing, being well. Book. Or booking, reading, learning. An appropriate thought-point for a writer/creator. Keep it moving.

This is the kind of thing that inspires me to write. Take a concept – make every noun a verb – and make it move. Breathe life into it. Inject it with action. 

Brian Grazer
Credit: HauteLiving.com

I am reminded of Brian Grazer’s book, A Curious Mind. Grazer talks about some of the films he and his partner Ron Howard have made with their Imagine Entertainment company. The films seek to: develop character, discover flaws and strengths, overcome emotional injuries to become a full person, leverage limits into success.

Moving from static to dynamic. Moving beyond the millstones that hang on our necks. Moving. Moving. Moving. Nouns in motion.

We are all nouns working at being verbs.

A Pinpoint of Light

What I’m reading

Last week I read William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. A terrific read! I’m no book reviewer, and I’ll leave it to you to do a search for one. There are many, I’m sure. But here are a few of my thoughts. The story is set in the summer of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. In Minnesota, four young orphans – three boys and a little girl – run away from an oppressive institution and set out by canoe for St. Louis and what they hope will be a new home.

Along the way they face loads of obstacles, meet up with interesting characters, and find much of what they were looking for.

Book reviewers and critics have compared Krueger’s book to The Grapes of Wrath and Huckleberry Finn, true Americana stories. Here’s what I think. I don’t like comparing a book to another. They all stand alone, in my mind. Of course, similarities abound in the book world. And of course, writing coaches will encourage authors to find comparable books to align their own with, to help attract readers.

A number of years ago, when my wife and I were starting out on our writing careers, we flew from New York to Nashville to interview David Malloy. Malloy is an award-winning record producer. We spent time with him in his studio. He proudly introduced us to a young singer/songwriter, Anthony Crawford, whom he was helping get started in the world of country music. Malloy played tracks for us from the music they were working on. 

I commented that I liked his music. I said that his voice and style reminded me of another established country singer (whose name I have forgotten). Malloy came down hard on me. Don’t compare a singer to another singer, he said. It’s an insult. Each one stands (or falls) on their own.

Good advice, I think. Sure, it’s easy to compare, to find similarities. But for sure, let each artist stand on their own.

Krueger’s book, to close, offers a gleam of hope, a pinpoint of light, in what has become an increasingly dark world. A book well worth reading. A book destined to find its own place in American literature.

Where I’m At Today

The 9/11 Anniversary

I’m writing today on the 18thanniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I moved out of New York in 1987. If I had still been there in 2001, my building was only two blocks from the towers.  I cannot imagine the confusion, the terror among the people in downtown Manhattan on that tragic day. Viewing it on TV from Los Angeles that day was frightening enough. May this never happen again. Here or anywhere else in the world.

The Woolsey Fire

In less than two months it will be a year since my family and I had to evacuate our home because the Woolsey wildfire was dangerously close. We got through it safely. Our home was fine. But we had to remain evacuated for four nights before we were able to return. Again, an anniversary I wish I did not have to acknowledge.

What I’m Reading

I finished This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. A superb tale, well worth reading. Set in the summer of 1932, four young orphans escape from an oppressive institution and dodge their pursuers while having a series of adventures. The story offers hope in an otherwise bleak landscape. A message for today as well.

I am halfway through A Better Man by Louise Penny. One of my all-time favorite authors. She not only delivers a strong story with each book. Her writing style shines.

My New Book

I belong to a writing group on Facebook. The members have been helpful, supportive, encouraging. My book Off-Road is out to a few beta readers. I am currently working at building interest for the book among potential readers. It won’t be long now. Promise!

Using the Steadicam in Camera Work

In my new novel Off-Road teen Tessa Warren has a mentor in her filmmaking. Kelsey Graf was a friend and classmate of Tessa’s deceased brother Ryder. Together they made it through film school at NYU, and were about to start off on film careers when Ryder died in a tragic accident a few months after graduation.

Kelsey has promised to take Tessa under her wing in Ryder’s absence. Kelsey herself has been working in Los Angeles on several film shoots. Her primary function is PA (production assistant). She is also exploring learning to use the Steadicam rig in the hope of becoming a camera operator. Someone on set has been willing to mentor Kelsey. We’ll see down the road if she continues on this path.

The Steadicam rig can best be described as a camera stabilizer mount for motion picture cameras. The Steadicam was invented by Garrett Brown in 1975. The rig allows for an operator to maintain a smooth shot over all sorts of surfaces and terrain.

One of the most well-known Steadicam shots is a full five-minute continuous shot in the film Atonement, when the soldiers arrive at Dunkirk beach during an evacuation of Allied forces. The shot is a Steadicam operator’s dream. It requires physical strength, coordination, choreography, and much rehearsal.

I have been fortunate to interview two Steadicam operators in recent years for my filmmaking website. One was Will Demeritt. Here’s a link to the interview: https://www.thefilmmakerlifestyle.com/conversations-with-filmmakers/will-demerritt/

Steadicam operator Will Demeritt

A year later I interviewed Jessica Lopez. Here’s her link: https://www.thefilmmakerlifestyle.com/conversations-with-filmmakers/jessica-lopez/

Steadicam operator Jessica Lopez

The Red VW in “Off-Road”

Hey. How are you? It’s been another long gap in posting. Caregiving is falling into a routine now, and I’ve dealt with a minor health issue of my own. So…I’m back. My goal is to post weekly from here on out.

My new book, Off-Road, is ready for publication. I will be putting it up on Amazon Kindle next month. The story starts out with three teens – Tessa Warren, Eric Pyne, Lyndie Reed – the Film Crew. They’re filming an off-road race in the Mojave Desert. In September. Yup…blazing sun, heat, dirt, dust. And adventure. Lots of obstacles to them getting their film made. Some of them man-made.

Red VW desert racer from "Off-Road"
Red VW desert racer

A red VW beetle, modified for off-road racing, features in the race. It belongs to driver Jimmy Hassett, a friend of Eric Pyne’s father. Eric and Jimmy mount two GoPro action cameras on the VW to capture the race.

Interior of off-road VW racer

The VW racer features an interior reinforced with roll bars. A light bar across the roof – not needed in this particular race, which is a daytime event. Glass only in the front windshield. Spare tire mounted in the rear window shelf. Skid plates to protect the underbody.

My First Car

The red VW reminds me of my first car, a blue VW with a canvas sun roof. That was a fun car. I learned to drive stick on it. Along with one of my friends, I drove it from New York to Montreal on Christmas break one year. Parked it in Montreal the first night. It froze solid overnight. I had to have it towed and thawed out all day in a garage.

VW with canvas sunroof

My VW was a dream to maintain. Battery inside under the rear seat. I replaced a muffler. Put on new shocks. And me not a mechanic by any means. I still miss it.

Driving home from Montreal a few nights later, we drove south on the New York State Thruway. Lots of snow and slush. Huge trucks, most of them passing us. Cold. The heater barely worked. But the VW never quit.

I will alert you as soon as Off-Road is up on Amazon. And I would appreciate you sharing the info with others. Every mention helps. 

Thanks. See you next week.

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