On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Thursday, October 31, 2013

My Attic Room (In Honor of Louisa May Alcott)

  As a young girl I was very impressed with Jo, the heroine of Little Women.  I was especially intrigued by the description of the garret where she wrote.  An avid reader of Louisa May Alcott since probably the fourth grade, I had taken to scribbling poems and stories, which culminated with my piece de resistance in the fifth grade.
Louisa May Alcott
     I’d written for a class assignment a twelve-page, slightly over-heated story about six brothers and sisters having to spend Christmas with an aunt and uncle recently arrived from Norway.  Bereft because their parents had to go to the Southwest for reasons of the father’s health, the children ended up with an experience to remember.  My great-grandparents had immigrated from Norway, so I plumbed the memories of various relatives for anecdotes and pertinent holiday details to make my story seem more real.  At my teacher’s request, I read the paper aloud to my classmates amid mixed feelings of embarrassment and pride.
      Afterward, I believed, like Jo, I should have my own quiet, private place to write all those stories that would no doubt someday be published.  So I looked above for a solution–not for divine guidance but to our own attic. This space was a dark and cavernous room, particularly dark where the ceiling burrowed under the eaves.  It was, however, spotlessly clean and had decided possibilities.  I imagined Jo’s own attic was much like ours.  After all, we had an old house, too, built before World War I.
     To reach the attic, one ascended via a treacherously narrow stairway.  In the mind of a ten-year-old girl, that dark passage held uncertain perils--a corner landing that was pitch black, steep stairs, and no rails.  I don’t know what I expected–a criminal lurking in the shadows ready to pounce; a mouse scuttling across my path, though no self-respecting rodent would put up with my mother’s unrelenting attentions;  more probably, a slip of the foot and a painful crash down the stair well.
      A long cord hung from the top of the room to the foot of the stairs and when pulled would turn on the faint light above.  Nine times out of ten, the last person to exit the area would pull too hard and the string would fly back and catch on the steps above.  So I would have to climb with blind eyes, feeling my way on the curving, narrow treads.  Once I arrived at the top, it was not much better, illumination coming from two low windows a great distance from one another and a fifteen watt bulb in the center of the room.
      Nonetheless, because of zealous devotion to my craft, I tried to conquer my fears, seeing a large trunk that would make a fine writing table.  I hauled it to one end of the room near a window within easy reach of a homemade bookcase.  A small stool with a wobbly leg completed my arrangements; the young writer was poised for fame.
     But in arranging my papers, I noticed the trunk had a bumpy top that wouldn’t do at all.  My mother helped me cut out a piece of cardboard for a smooth writing surface but the glow had started to fade.  My work table had become non-authentic.  Would Jo have had a cardboard cutout?  And then the stool, unfortunately, was not suitable for long periods of sitting; it cramped my legs and strained my back to hunch on it.  I found I had to stand up and stretch a lot, albeit carefully, for though I was only five feet, two inches, the ceiling at that point was five feet high.
      What bothered me the most and kept me from writing as prolifically as I had expected was the strange muffled sounds I heard from time to time downstairs.  Bangs and thuds, thin human cries, and the faint ringing of bells (telephone? front door?) all necessitated my running to the edge of the stairs and yelling,”What was that?” or “Did someone call me?”
    I started quite a number of pieces of writing, but it was hard going when my pencil seemed to need sharpening after only a few sentences.  Also, the attic was as quiet as a tomb, and I couldn’t concentrate for lack of the usual distractions.  In fact, time seemed frozen..  How strange to spend long hours toiling over my writing only to be told by my mother when I went downstairs for a drink of water that a mere ten minutes had elapsed since my last visit.
    My writing was dull, unsatisfying; even my memoirs were lacking.  For inspiration I tried to write something based on a title stolen from one of Jo’s early stories, “The Repentance of Lady Clinton,” but I couldn’t decide what she was repenting about and gave it up as a bad job.
    As the summer days grew hotter and hotter, I discovered I could not think or write in the inferno our attic had become.  I moved to the more comfortable dining room table with unspoken relief, my mother diplomatically not saying a word.  The attic room was abandoned forever to old clothes and furniture, never again to be a haunt of the Muse.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Good Doctor: Niels Marius Hansen

            Everyone my age, give or take a few years, can recall experiences of bygone days unlike anything in our current culture.  I’ve written about some of these differences in my blog, but with the advent of ObamaCare, I was reminded of how things were in the mid-twentieth century regarding doctors and doctoring.
            Although “Doc” Hansen delivered me, and he no doubt saw me occasionally for checkups during my infancy, my first memory of him was when I was three or four.  I had come down with strep throat, so painful an experience that it has remained with me indelibly through the years.  I remember, miserable with fever, being held by my mother while she read to me, notably Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with its appealing cover and illustrations.
            I vividly remember visits from Doctor Hansen every evening on his way home from the office when he would sit beside me on the sofa.  It was there that my mother had placed me to await his ministrations and ultimately to paint my throat.  That was the best and only treatment during those pre-antibiotic days.  His matter-of-fact demeanor, coupled with a whiff of something slightly antiseptic, seemed reassuring to me, though I dreaded the gagging treatment.  He told me, without saying so, that I would soon be all right.  And this attitude remained his stock in trade.
            Doctor Hansen’s home and office were in a section of Des Moines called Snusville, an area settled primarily by Scandinavians and named for the term they gave snuff or tobacco.  (See my novel, Snusville, on Kindle or Nook.) Niels Marius Hansen was Danish-born, immigrating to America when he was nineteen years old.  After making a tough living as a farmhand while learning English, he entered Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, where he met his wife and became a committed Christian.  He went on to get his M.D. at Nebraska Medical School in Lincoln, and eventually ended up in Des Moines, where he practiced medicine until his retirement in 1962. 
            A few years after that when I was married and living in Tennessee, I had my last house call from a doctor, a never-again-to-be-repeated occasion.  Prior to that time, and certainly while I was growing up in Iowa, visits from a doctor were expected though rare.  More often, we visited Doc Hansen's office, which was a small brick structure, only a block from our first house and little more than that from our next one.  Because of this proximity it was natural my parents chose him for our family doctor.  Preventive medicine hadn’t been invented then, so it usually took quite dire circumstances to warrant a trip to the doctor or a house call.  I had chronic bronchitis as a child, which meant I got a cold stethoscope on my chest and cough medicine from him periodically.  As a teenager I remember sunbathing on a cloudy day in April and burned my face so badly my eyes nearly swelled shut.  When I saw Doc Hansen, he uttered a tsk, tsk, and shook his head, but he didn’t scold me.  Instead he said I had second-degree burns and gave me a soothing ointment.
            His style was always understated and to the point.  My brother Ken tells me that when he was in junior high, he was in a fight and cracked a bone in his thumb.  Doc Hansen taped it up with a splint and then showed Ken how to hold his fist the next time he fought so he wouldn’t hurt his thumb again.  He didn’t charge him a thing for the taping and the advice.
            I suppose the good doctor had a more leisurely schedule and less paperwork than the doctors of today, for Doctor Hansen had a number of interests, especially the Salvation Army where he regularly volunteered at the Rehabilitation Center.   He also had an eye for real estate investments.  The former interest was an expression of his devout interest in helping “the least of these,” while the latter was a practical need to supplement a modest income from doctoring.  As a matter of fact, my parents bought their second home from Doc Hansen.
            It was early one Sunday morning in that house when I was twelve years old that I was awakened by a terrible commotion.  Something had happened to my mother, late in her pregnancy, and both my father and brother were trying to help her.  I heard shouts to call the doctor, and that’s when I went under the covers.  I thought my mother had died.  But when the ambulance had taken her off, followed by my father in his car, my brother came in to tell me he’d been cleaning up the blood from a hemorrhage, and now we could only hope and pray our mother would be all right.
            An hour or so later, the phone rang, and my father said Doc had performed a caesarian section and it appeared Mother would survive as would a baby brother.  Occasionally, my mother’s sister would compare unfavorably our neighborhood doctor to those with more prestigious addresses—strangely, since she was married to a Dane—but we would all come to Doc's defense, remembering his swift and skillful work that terrible Sunday morning.
            I heard that after he retired and a widower, he moved to be nearer one of his two daughters in the Northwest, settling on Mercer Island for the remainder of his life.  He died at the age of one hundred, remembered fondly by those he served so well.