Friday, September 30, 2011

Horror Stories, Island Stories, and the teachers who gave me everything

I was in Portland this week for my reading at Powell's, the world's most extraordinary bookstore, followed by a dizzying shopping spree in which I purchased enough books to get me through the fall, or at least October. I've been on a ghost story kick lately, so I picked up a hefty load of M.R. James, Sarah Waters, and more. I'm in the mood for haunted houses and wicked children.

Before my visit to Powell's, I stopped by KATU-TV's AM Northwest to talk with Helen Raptis about the path to God, to love, and my book, "Yoga Witch with a B."

Here's the link to that interview.

Now I'm at home, in bed, nursing a wee cold (a month of travel was bound to catch up with me eventually) and prepping for my reading tonight at Island Books.

I grew up on Mercer Island, and have always considered Island Books to be the spiritual center of the island. That lovely little bookstore holds a very special place in my heart. It was my first bookstore. I remember buying picture books there, Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew mysteries. All of those young adult novels I devoured, especially the ones that featured sexually-active teenagers. Those were the best. I went through my Anne of Green Gables kick at Island books, and eventually Roger, the owner there, suggested my mother give me Ursula Hegi's collection of linked stories, Floating in My Mother's Palm, which was the first book of short stories I read, and the first time I became aware that certain books are considered literature.

When I started this blog, I wrote about the experience reading Floating in My Mother's Palm here. This time of year, when the bright, sunny days turn grey, always reminds me of that book.

Tonight's reading was featured in the Mercer Island Reporter (lovingly nicknamed the Distorter by Island residents from the time I was little!) You can read that interview right here.

Naturally, returning to the place where I grew up in order to read from my first book has got me revisiting the past. All morning I've been thinking about the teachers who got me here: Frank Perry, my fourth grade writing teacher who singled me out to read in front of the class a story I had written called-- well, "It." I can't recall if I consciously chose to rip Stephen King's title off, or if this was just a coincidence. But I remember relishing the title either way. I also remember Mr. Perry telling me I should keep writing, that I had a knack for it. He told us that the most important thing was to grab the reader with a strong opening sentence. I remember thinking: I can do that, and then writing an opening that went something like The hands tightened around her neck, and Sarah knew she was about to die. (I was very into horror when I was a child. I also wrote a lot of stories about cannibalistic witches.)

Carol Muth, that same year, was my teacher for all other subjects, and she made us kids memorize a poem a week (or was it a month? felt like every week) so that we could internalize the rhythms of good writing. Or maybe it was just so we would learn to love poetry. I don't know. But I can still recite the Jabberwock by heart, and I think of Mrs. Muth every time I read Emily Dickinson. In my mind, Mrs. Muth was Emily Dickinson. I know she was married and had children, but somehow I always think of her with a bun in her hair and a beautiful, tragic love story in her heart.

Then there were the teachers who came along later: Cece Caley, Ruthie Newman, Chip Wall, who introduced me to books and ideas, who challenged me to think for myself. My theater directors, who taught me how to craft a narrative: Peter Donaldson, Sue Clement. And through it all, my piano teacher, Lois Jacobsen, who taught me one of the most important requirements of art-making: discipline. (Not that I was a terrifically disciplined piano student. But when I sit down to improve a story, I know how to work paragraph by paragraph, just as she taught me to perfect a piece measure by measure.)

Art really doesn't pay, but I am rich with the gifts these teachers gave me. They'll all be with me tonight; they always are.


Marco said...

Carol Muth and Cece Caley are also teachers that I had that inspired me and I often think about what I learned from them both. We were fortunate to have such fantastic and caring teachers.

Ess & Jae V2.0 said...

I love this post. It's forced some nostalgia for me. Thank God for good teachers. I hope they realize how much they positively affected us when they were affecting us. Sort of a "do the work, you'll thank me later" - type of thing :) Happy Saturday.

Suzanne Morrison said...

Thanks so much-- I couldn't agree more! I come from a family of many teachers, and I know very well how much work it is. I'm so grateful for the teachers I had, especially because I'm pretty sure I wasn't always an easy student. ;)

Anonymous said...

It's funny, I was really into horror around that same age. I also wrote a lot of horror stories. Mostly for myself, but a few were for assignments. I think I brutally murdered every boy in my class at least twice.
I still can't believe that I didn't end up in the counselors office for that. Luckily they never found the binder where I kept all my 'work'. Heh.

Suzanne Morrison said...

Ha! That's awesome, Lea. Glad to hear I wasn't the only one.

Sue said...

I love Island Books, too. From the magazines at the front, the great little fiber section at the back, and the short-lived latte stand. Your mention of Peter and me makes me smile. I've been thinking about YTN and remembering your performances and many more.

Annie said...

Island Books! Yay! My favorite store! So glad you mentioned it. Seems they're holding on, but it hasn't been easy with the economy and ebook competition. I have to bring cash and leave my credit card at home or I'll leave with more books than my account can handle!

Suzanne Morrison said...

Annie, I relate! I get in that kind of trouble all the time . . .