Southern storyteller syndrome

Elmwood, May 2013

Here’s what I know about writing fiction: it’s harder than you might think.

Last summer when I hit a dry spell working on the memoir/essay/cookbook project I started, I decided maybe I’d take the hint offered by a writer friend and try my hand at fiction. What she’d actually said over lunch, journalist speaking to PR hack, was, “I bet there’s fiction in you.”  Yep, 25 years of coaching people to play journalist-dodgeball, to take questions at an angle instead of head-on, might be the very best training for a fiction writer, I suppose.

Part of my PR skill-sharpening came under the tutelage of a wine-drinking, gourmet-cooking Texan named Bill who was masterful at using stories for teaching. One day, early in our acquaintance, he started telling a tale about a boss he’d had, long ago, back in a small, dusty Southwestern town. A minute or so into it Bill’s wife, who also worked with us, rolled her eyes, looked at me and said, “You need to get used to this. He’s got terrible Southern storyteller syndrome; if you don’t stop him, he’ll go on forever.”

But I didn’t stop him, because I’ve always had a case of the same disease I just hadn’t learned how to put it to good use. Over the next several years of working together, Bill told more tales, and I listened. I drafted crappy speeches, and he helped shape them into more compelling narratives. It was one thing to build a PowerPoint about the technical details of stretching thin strands of glass across the state of Iowa, but quite another to tell the story of a doctor in Des Moines treating a grandmother on a farm miles and miles away thanks to telemedicine.

With Bill’s help, and that of a few others along the way, I became a professional storyteller of sorts. That’s how I got to know my journalist friend, the one who’d hinted, over food and wine while talking about what to do with my blog, that maybe I had fiction in me.

So back to last summer and the dry spell and the dip into full-fledged fabrication: I wrote a short story about a man, 30-ish, who lives alone with his mother in a small bungalow because his father was killed in a railroad crossing accident, and who spends his days building tiny toothpick models of famous buildings, trying to make the perfect geodesic dome. The man falls in love with the skittish young woman who moves in next door. It’s sweet and charming and funny and weird. Now, the reason you’re reading about the story and not actually reading the story is because it’s still, almost a year later, languishing in the stage Anne Lamott calls shitty first drafts (we’ll just call them SFDs, for short), which means absolutely no one is going to read it until I work it into a second, hopefully less shitty, draft.

Which might be never, because instead of working on the second draft of that one story, I started thinking about my mother’s family and how parts of their history are stranger than any fiction and certainly ripe for harvest. I plotted characters and timelines on index cards and drafted a story line – four generations of Southern women, blah, blah, blah. And I spent just enough time working on it to grow very weary of it and stopped.

You might think that the freedom to make up anything you damn well please would make it easy-peasy to invent characters and plot and drama. And some of it is, in fact, effortlessly easy. Stories spin around in my head all day long, whether I’m actually writing or not, and I can see scenes and imagine conversations and never, ever run out of ideas, especially when I have a fragment of a real person attached. But then there’s the whole putting it into words and sentences and paragraphs part, the part that requires sitting in a chair at the computer (or paper) and actually writing, which is just as hard whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or a speech or a press release, at least in my experience.

Then one day, with a nudge from another friend, I started writing about Jackie. Not actually about Jackie in the biographical sense but a story inspired by the few fragments of information I had about her.

It started as a short story, Veronica’s House of Crazy, about my made-up version of Jackie and a completely fictitious neighbor across the street. But that story didn’t even make it to full SFD status because it was predictable and shallow and didn’t really do anything to make the only person in the story who’d actually been a person in life seem genuine.

But a parallel tale started taking shape in my head while I was writing the first Jackie story, a tale that was similar but different, less dramatic but more real. Scenes play out in my mind all day long, not in sequence but like a patchwork quilt. And every time I sit down to work on it, I simply do not want to stop. I do not want to vacuum or tidy up or go shopping or paint my nails. I do not want to do anything but write this shitty first draft of a story, which is now 11,000 words and counting.

So there you have it, this week’s update on what I #amwriting.


BONUS! A dinner plan!!

dandelion greens

So, really, there’s no point re-hashing the past, all the “hey, here’s a weekly menu!” then “nope, not doing that anymore,” et cetera et cetera.

The weekly dinner plans are back, sort of, partly as a way of finishing What’s for Dinner, Dammit? You helped shape that workbook (one I hope you’ll get to see in real life in a few months), so you ought to get some benefit, methinks. Also there’s the fact that having a full week’s plan with specific ideas and recipes makes it easy for Bernard to cook dinner so I can shirk all of my home responsibilities and keep writing.

So here’s this week’s list. Follow along at Dinner Prompt on weekdays if you want specific recipe links and other ideas for getting from idea to table. Happy week.

Dinner Ideas | Week of May 25, 2015

Grilled Pork & Pineapple Kabobs | Brown Rice | Green Cabbage Slaw
Oven-Roasted Vegetables | Parsley Salad | Multi-grain Boule
Beef Satay | Jasmine Rice | Coconut Fruit Salad
Orecchiette with Swiss Chard | Marinated Cucumber Salad | Salted Caramel Gelato
Oven-baked Parmesan Chicken Tenders | Spicy Fries | Bibb Lettuce & Berry Salad


  1. Love this. I know it’s likely not what you’re aiming for, but this is, for lack of a better word… inspiring. Watching the great writer/bloggers I admire (looking at you, Dawn) sit down and just do it, dammit, is fertilizing that seed of an idea of a hope of a book that’s been languishing on my intellectual shelf for a few years.
    Thank you for being so humanly awesomely yourself and allowing the rest of us keystrokers a glimpse.
    (And as always, you do it with such charm and perfectly paced wordplay.)
    You go, girl.


  2. Bill sounds like almost every other Texan I grew up with, I’m so glad to know the “Southern Storyteller Syndrome” continues as an affliction. In the spirit of good southern story telling I recommend checking out the stories on this site:


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