Interview With S. Avis Gray and André Le Mont Wilson
WP: Avis, in your story "El Dorado Days" you talk about an incident that happened when you were young. At your age, you certainly have seen a lot happen? When did you decide to start writing it all down?
AG: I became interested in writing when I was in grammar school. The school had a publication that came out each spring. Students were encouraged to contribute an article every year.
When I was a Girl Scout we worked on earning different badges. One of the badges was the "Writer's Badge." One of the requirements was to keep a daily journal of things we saw every day that would make a good story.
After it became evident that I would not be able to finish college because of my physical disability, my mother suggested I try writing. She enrolled me in the Famous Writer's School in Westport, Connecticut. One could either take "Fiction" or "Non-fiction." I took "Non-Fiction."
Now, I enjoy writing about incidents in my lifetime that I recall.
WP: Avis, when did you attend college? What was it like for you to attend college at that time, having a physical disability? Talk a little about your experience.
AG: I attended Vallejo Junior College for three semesters – spring and fall of 1961 and spring of 1962. Because of my inability to write, I only took two subjects at a time. I had psychology, anthropology, general math, two different English classes, and Central and South American history. My professors were very helpful except one of my English professors.
Going to college was a stimulating experience and it taught me to stay focused. I paid attention to the professors and when I arrived home, I would type notes. While I was typing I would concentrate on my work. It was a real good mental discipline for me.
WP: I'm sure you know that nowadays, all colleges have offices for people with disabilities to assist them in getting accommodations for your classes. What kind of help did you get from your instructors at Vallejo Junior College? Did they provide you with someone to take notes or give you extra time on exams? What was it like to be in class with the other students?
AG: When the professors made a copy of information which was written on the blackboard for themselves, they made a copy for my files. They didn't provide anyone to take notes, so I would pay strict attention. Arriving home I typed my notes.
I took my exams at home under supervision. If we had an exam on Wednesday, for example, I would be given the exam in a sealed envelope to take home. When the person arrived to supervise the test, they opened the envelope and began. I typed the answers and returned it in a sealed envelope to the professor for correction.
Being in a class with other students was challenging. The biggest thrill came the day I got the highest score on my test, proving to myself and everyone else I could compete with able-bodied students.
WP: I read in a recent article about you that you have written three books. Can you tell us about those?
AG: The first book, Tales of Uncle Burt (2006), is the story of a gentleman who was a friend of the family. I called him Uncle Burt. In 1919, Uncle Burt built the small mountain town of Jacumba located half way between Holtville and San Diego, California. I spent four delightful summers up there. Each chapter in the book tells one of the things Uncle Burt did to keep the residents amused.
About Avis (2006) is the story of my life. In my opinion, I wrote it in a hurry and the story lacks details and descriptions. I actually feel that if I did it over, I could make it more readable and entertaining.
The First Woman President (2007) was written during the 2008 presidential campaign. Everyone thought I was talking about Hillary Clinton. Actually, I was talking about myself.
These books were published by Café Press but are not in stock at this time.
WP: Just out of curiosity, what does the "S." in your first name stand for and why don't you use that as your first name?
AG: When I was born in 1938, Shirley Temple was a well known movie star. People were naming their children after her. I think that is where I got the name. The doctor who delivered me named me Avis. I prefer to be called Avis.
WP: How did you come to be involved with the Cerebral Palsy Center in Oakland, generally, and in working with Andre Le Mont Wilson, in particular?
AG: The convalescent home where I lived for a number of years closed and I was placed in another place in Hayward. The new place recommended that I check out the Cerebral Palsy Center for the Bay Area located in Oakland. After checking it out, I started in January 2002.
Beginning in the Computer Learning Center, I began writing short stories about Uncle Burt. Joining the Small Business Development Center in 2006, I started my business on Amazon and wrote three books.
When Andre Wilson began to work with me in the Small Business Development Center, my business and my writing really started improving, especially my writing. I've enjoyed writing for years but I'm learning to make my stories more readable by adding details and descriptions.
WP: When you wrote the story "El Dorado Days" what were you trying to accomplish? In what specific ways did Andre help you?
AG: I was thinking about the fun the citizens of Yuma had during "El Dorado Days" when I was little. It was great fun to see how much I was able to remember by recalling the paddy wagon, the jail, and the behavior of the culprits who were in the "jail."
Andre asked me questions about the event, for example, where were you during the festival? What were you thinking? Describe your dad, mother, Marge, look, and act. Describe your Taylor Tot Stroller, the stairs that went from the lobby to the second floor, the lobby, lobby floor, etc. Who was in the paddy wagon? All these questions stimulated my memory. Then we would discuss where each paragraph should be placed to make the story more effective. Andre is an excellent teacher and has the patience of Job.
WP: Andre, what was your reaction when you first saw Avis' story? What were some of the suggestions that you made to her in the editing process and why?
ALW: When I first looked over her shoulder at her one-and-a-half-page story on the computer screen, I reached to her keyboard, and typed in big, bold capital letters after the final paragraph, "WHERE IS AVIS?"
In her first draft of "El Dorado Days," Avis does not appear. She was not merely a passive observer to the fundraising shenanigans of the Yuma citizens, she was an invisible observer. I asked, "Were you there?"
"How did you get to the sidewalk?"
She typed, "Taylor Tot Stroller."
"Who pushed you there?"
She typed, "My nurse, Marge Dean."
These four questions opened twenty-one thousand questions. I sensed a story buried in Avis and I asked questions to unearth it. I encouraged her to write her experiences, her feelings. I put her at the center of her story instead of at the periphery. The story of a seven year old girl with cerebral palsy in a baby stroller in a 1940s western town fascinated me more than the fundraiser.
Once, I almost threw Avis off course. I suggested that she buy a book on the history of her hometown of Yuma, Arizona, to provide details for her story. I read to her relevant passages on the Yuma State Penitentiary, but, to my horror, she typed word-for-word the history of the prison instead of incorporating details into her story. I have seen this habit with her other stories. In her zeal to provide readers with information, she typed, for example, the entire Wikipedia definition of cerebral palsy. In those stories, the action stopped the moment she goes into her encyclopedia mode. Reversing course as an editor, I tossed those paragraphs that did not contain the pronoun "I" and encouraged Avis to write her own experiences.
At this point, Avis churned out pages of stream of consciousness memories of the Elks Club fundraiser, but the disjointed paragraphs lacked a narrative shape. The answer to my second major question evaded me: "WHERE'S THE STORY?"
I often write poems or stories backwards. I write the last line, stanza, or paragraph first. I then jump to the beginning and write my way to a known destination. "El Dorado Days" differed in that we did not know where the story was going, but I sensed it was there. I paced behind Avis as she typed. I peeked over her shoulder to see if I spotted a story. I found nothing more than a loose collection of anecdotes and memories.
Avis wrote a paragraph about crying when her father withheld his love from her for the first time. In a sour mood because of his arrest, he withheld saying "Goodnight, Little Lady" when she went to bed. Once Avis recalled this scene of her crying inconsolably, a narrative structure suggested itself to organize her scattered memories into a story. Eureka!
Studying Anton Chekhov's short stories, I explained to Avis the concept of Chekhov's gun: if a gun hangs on the wall in the first act, it must go off in the third. We placed three guns in the opening scenes. Each gun performed a different role. The first gun I moved to the front of the story: "When I was seven I wanted to be arrested." This gun draws the reader into the story as they read to see if Avis will get arrested. The second gun is her mother's caution to her father, "Don't say I didn't warn you." The reader senses that he believes that he is immune from the El Dorado Days rule to wear western clothing, but he will be arrested. This gun goes off just past the middle of the story. I directed Avis to write a third gun: the night before the fundraiser when her father said, "Goodnight, Little Lady." A reader can easily overlook this scene because all parents say goodnight to their children, but this scene serves as a contrast to when her father withholds saying goodnight for the first time. Avis is so grieved that "I want to spend a night in jail where people love me."
This third gun gave rise to our stretching the Aristotelian unity of time: we compressed the action into 36 hours. Both dinners in the Gray's household and the father's goodnights or lack thereof contrast one another, while Avis's morning departures to attempt arrest remain the same.
Once a structure emerged, Avis wrote and I edited a fast-paced movie. She worked as an on the set screenwriter and consultant for her own movie. I thought like a film editor. I said, "The story needs a scene here of you going downstairs and crossing the lobby. Do you remember how you did it?" We treated "El Dorado Days" like a shooting script. Study the camera angle. It focuses on Avis or sees from her perspective mostly. The scenes move the action towards the climax.
I study Avis's face as I perform her story in front of live audiences at the Cerebral Palsy Center. I do not merely read her story, I act it out. I sat in a chair as if I sat in a baby stroller. I act out the voices, gestures, and expressions of a dozen characters. Avis sits in the place of honor in the front row facing me. She laughs with everyone else at the antics of the Elks club members, the Yuma citizens, her parents, and her nurse, but she gets real quiet as I approach the scene of her father refusing to say goodnight. I explode into crying like a seven year old girl. The audience laughs, but Avis's lips quiver. Her eyes well up. We had found El Dorado.
WP: Avis, Andre mentions that when you had finished the first version of "El Dorado Days" on the computer, at the end he typed "Where's the story?" Did you understand what he meant when he asked that? Looking back on what you wrote now, do you feel that you understand now why Andre told you that what you wrote was not a story? What do you think you learned in the process of making the changes to "El Dorado Days?"
AG: Yes, I understand I had a collection of anecdotes. I learned several things about writing. When you are writing a story you need to focus on a main theme and build around the theme. A good writer should keep the story moving. He paints pictures with words by using strong verbs, details, and descriptions of things.
WP: How do you feel when you sit in an audience and hear Andre read your story to others? Do you enjoy seeing the audience's reactions?
AG: I really enjoy watching Andre perform "El Dorado Days." He makes the story come alive and the reaction of the audience amuses and excites me. If Andre had taught me when I begun writing, my writing would be much better today.
WP: Andre, despite its seeming simplicity, the question that you posed to Avis asking where the story was is one that assumes a huge conceptual leap, so it was quite interesting to hear the specifics of how you led her in that direction. As you mention, Aristotle pointed out that a chronological series of events is not a story in itself. Knowing that many postmodern writers would merely leave Chekhov's gun hanging on the wall, how would you define a story?
ALW: My background as a student and performer of oral stories influenced my definition of a story. Nearing forty-nine and my parents' recent deaths haunting me, I knew that if I were to succeed as an oral storyteller, I need to progress before I die. I treated storytelling events like college lectures.
Once, at an Oakland nightclub, a standup comedian-storyteller halted her story. From the stage she called me "the nerdy guy in the front row taking notes." The audience laughed. She ripped into me, "I know this is Oakland, but what are you trying to do? Steal my sh*t? Put the notebook away. It makes me nervous."
One hundred pairs of eyes lasered me in the packed club as one hundred mouths guffawed. I closed and placed on a cocktail table my rapidly-running-out-of-pages notebook crammed with notes and quotes from hundreds of storytellers and poets I have seen perform at open mics this year. The comedian-storyteller resumed her story and the audience returned its focus to her. But when she finished and no one was looking, I grabbed and scribbled in my notebook, "nerdy guy in the front row taking notes."
"Hmm," I licked my lips and thought, "I might use this anecdote someday."
I studied the storytellers and their stories. I also studied the short story form. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story was the first book I purchased on my Kindle I received for Christmas last year while several months later Robert Paul Lamb's The Hemingway Short Story: A Study in Craft for Writers and Readers became the first paper book I checked out of a library in decades. When Avis typed the title "El Dorado Days" at the top of a blank computer screen in July of 2013, I had performed my first oral story, "Little Arsonists," which impressed amateur and professional storytellers who said I performed like a storyteller who has been telling stories for decades. I replied, "I study. You are my teachers and mentors. Even the bad storytellers teach me how not to tell a story." My previous attempts to edit Avis's stories failed because my skills as a storyteller were not up to the task. In "El Dorado Days," "the nerdy guy in the front row taking notes" put into practice knowledge gleaned from hundreds of storytellers and stories.
Story is structure. Evening after evening at storytelling events I watched as audiences favored those storytellers who developed a theme along a linear narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Without fail, the worst stories of the evening were those whose storytellers strung together anecdotes, memories, or jokes in a non-linear fashion that did not add up to anything. The Shout Storytelling online guidelines warn that the venue is not looking for "stand-up routines that are just a series of jokes or anecdotes." That did not stop novices and some pros from rambling past their five or ten minute time limit. I nicknamed these storytellers wingers, ranters, and ramblers. They wing it at storytelling, they emote feelings in an unfocused direction, and they ramble too long. Seasoned storytellers teach workshops to new storytellers on how to structure stories.
When I looked over Avis's shoulder and saw her writing bounce from anecdote to anecdote we worked together to restructure "El Dorado Days" to what would be recognizable as a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, a character arc, something at stake, a message or meaning. As a mental aid, I imagined her story as the Golden Gate Bridge. The first three lines set up whom, where, and when. These are the beginning of the bridge, the cables rising to the first tower, the Gray's family dinner before El Dorado Days commenced. The cables descending from the first tower are a series of events from the morning of El Dorado Days leading to the midpoint in the bridge, the father's arrest. Marge and Avis racing back to the Arizona Hotel to alert mother represents the cables rising to the second tower, the Gray's family dinner after the father's arrest. The cables descending from the second tower represent the denouement, the wrap up of the story. The bridge deck is the narrative and represents movement. The towers, the cables, the deck – the elements of a story – all have to support one another or the bridge will collapse. That was the first time I used a structure to structure a story.
I used another type of structure to solve a problem. I noticed oral storytellers running over their five minute time limit because they could not wrap up their stories in the time they were given. Even I ran overtime once and I am usually pretty good at timing myself during rehearsals, but when I perform, the laughter and response of the audience pushed me overtime. It seemed impossible to tell a five minute story. For help, I turned to a children's book I had not read in forty years, Aesop's Fables. These 3000 year old fables are stories in a nutshell which barely last longer than a page or two. I noticed a consistent pattern: stock characters, quick premise set up, a plot twist or change of fate, a moral, details kept to a minimum. I took a true story about my encounter with a homeless man, structured it like a traditional fable, and walked off the stage in four minutes and thirty-one seconds. Entranced by the fairy tale quality, people asked, "Did that really happen?" And I replied, "Yes. I used a fable to structure a true story."
The stories we tell about ourselves are no more real than Jack and the Bean Stalk. They are constructions, a version of reality that may or may not be reality. I have no qualms about being the hero or the villain in my own fairy tale, ghost story, or epic. When people tell personal stories they create their own myths. Our stories are Frankenstein monsters. We suture body parts from other stories – myths and memories, fairy and folktales, dreams and delusions, flights of fancy and fathomless fears. We plop a brain of a good idea (borrowed, of course) into the skull cavity, apply a lightning bolt to the corpse, and pray that the fingers twitch so we can shout, "Look. It's moving. It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!!!"
WP: Andre, I think it is fascinating that in an age when many of our written stories are written by people coming out of the literary academy and are so dependent upon the written appearance of the text that your stories emerge out of an oral tradition, much more like contemporary Native American or African writers. As you mentioned, the oral stories have the laughter and actions of the audience to feed off of and the audience has the facial gestures and voice nuances of the oral storyteller for communication. When you are translating a story that originates in a literal voice such as of Tyrone Cobb's, how do you translate those aspects of performance into a written story?
ALW: The March 2013 issue of Wordgathering published Part 1 of my two-part essay "Ghosts and Poets." In it, I described my edits and my process to translate an oral story of an illiterate African American with cerebral palsy, Tyrone Cobb. When he tells me his story, he gives me chills, but when I read my word-for-word transcript, the story flattens. Without the context of his voice, his expressions, his gestures, much of his story disappeared in a direct transcription. I translated to approximate the mood and the pace of his oral story by questioning Tyrone for details he omitted: "What was the weather like? What was the color of the leaves?" The result, a flash fiction story titled "The Bluebird," concludes Part I of my essay. While he performs in public the story he remembers and not the story I translated, I began to discern a difference between a written story and a spoken story.
Wednesday night at the Air Lounge in downtown Oakland's historic business district, I signed up for the Mouth Off poetry open mic to read excerpts of my just published Wordgathering "Ghosts and Poets" essay. But when I rehearsed it aloud, I discovered that the essay did not quite work as an oral story. How a reader experiences my words differed from how a listener experiences my words. Before the host could call my name, I rewrote and edited my essay so it would work as an oral story. For clarity, I replaced "logophiles" with "lover of words." I edited to please the ear and the eye by modulating my voice and by adding gestures to acknowledge the space of the underground nightclub and the audience seated before me. Even though I could not hear my words above the hip hop which pounded the speakers, I rehearsed my words aloud over and over again to acclimate myself to them. After the applause died down following my reading, the senior poet of the venue congratulated me for my writing and my performance. I improved upon the published essay by seeing myself as a performer, my essay as a performance, and my audience as my audience.
I have observed that not all story writers are storytellers. They apologize for the bad reading they are about to give. Their tongues trip over words unfamiliar to their ears. They drone in an unmodulated voice. They anchor themselves to printed words and will not change one. They glue their noses to their books or manuscripts. Their eyes avert acknowledging the audience until they finish reading. Conceived as a written, read-inside-your-head-story, their stories do not translate well as a read aloud story and definitely not as a performed story.
Oral storytelling shaped the creation of Avis Gray's story "El Dorado Days." Unable to speak above a rasped whisper, Avis was unable to read aloud her own writing. When I read her words aloud, the language transforms in a way not evident on the page. I may find that the dialogue clunks and does not resemble human speech. My hand may gesture to emphasize a point. My body may pantomime to dramatize another. I become attuned to how the language possessed my voice and my body when I spoke her words aloud, then we readjusted the "script."
Pushing further my technique of questioning Tyrone for details, I dramatized in front of Avis her characters, their voices, their expressions, their gestures. I served as her puppet. I asked, "Did your face do this? Is this how you walked down the stairs?" When I made her words flesh, made them live through my voice and body, that allowed Avis to recall details she had forgotten and left off the page. After she confirmed, we incorporated the details into the text. We provided readers with enough details to complete the performance in their imagination. We strove to recreate on the page a performance that survives the absence of my voice and body.
We saw writing as performance and the reader as the audience. We focused on the reader's experience with the words. After I read Constance Hale's Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, we employed verbs to put on a show. A well-chosen verb replaces a string of adverbs. We scoured online dictionaries to find active, picture verbs to replace passive, bland verbs. Avis selected the last verb for the story: "blabbed" replaced "interjected." We considered how the words performed in the reader's ear. We employed rhythm, rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration, repetition, and onomatopoeia. One of my favorite lines is "My stroller clickety-clacked every sidewalk crack as Marge pushed me back to the Arizona Hotel." Say that line aloud. We wanted the reader/audience to have fun with the language.
When we finished writing, I had read aloud the story so many times during the writing and editing process, the story eased a transition to my performed reading in front of an audience. When people praised the performed and the written story, I pushed Avis in her wheelchair to hear their comments. I smiled at her as if to say, "We put on a good show."
Writing is performance. I see myself as a performer. Storytelling, editing, writing are secondary, tertiary, quaternary roles. The reader's/audience's time is valuable. Treat it as such. Harness oral storytelling techniques to create a performance on the page. I am performing now as you read this.
WP: Avis, do you have any ideas about what your next writing project will be?
AG: I am already working on my next writing project. It is the story of an English professor when I attended Vallejo Junior College. In writing about Miss Anderson, I want to show people that not everyone is willing to go along with you. It is my hope that the story will be entertaining and informative. In writing the tale, I plan to use a lot of descriptive and detailed passages like Andre taught me.
WP: Andre, you have described how you have worked to bring the stories of Avis and Tyrone to life on the printed page. Have you written any fiction of your own?
ALW: With the exception of a bikini waxed elf fairy tale my mind regurgitated after a thirteen hour Albuquerque to Bakersfield drive, blue-ink-splattered on my notebook page at dawn in a feral-cat-infested Days Inn along I-5, and slam dunked into the maggot-crawled dumpster where bad stories putrefy, in 2013 I wrote a couple of creative nonfiction hat stories – true oral stories of five minute length – to be selected at random from a hat for performance before the invited storytellers feature longer stories. After Avis and I completed "El Dorado Days" – to date, the longest story I performed in public at twenty-five minutes –, I resolved to write my own stories and to write them longer so I could become a featured storyteller and a published storyteller. This whole process of working with Avis and Tyrone to bring their stories to life on the printed page and of describing how and why I did things made me conscious of the craft and the mechanics of writing. The objective focus I applied to their writing I now apply to my own. If I continue on this course, I will perform and publish my own stories in 2014.
WP: I want to thank both of you for taking your time to talk about your work. Is there anything else that you would like to add that you think we may not have covered?
ALW: I would like to thank the editors of Wordgathering, your readers, and you. On November 20, 2012, you invited me to write a 1,000 to 1,500 word essay to explain my work with Tyrone and the poet Monique Harris. Other than a couple of eulogies, I last wrote a story over twenty years ago. My late mother, poet and writer Jessie Lee Dawson-Wilson, begged me to resume writing. When she died in 2012, she left me a Poets & Writers gift subscription. Content to remain in the background, I helped writers to the foreground. Your invitation helped me to the foreground and resulted in the 6,635 word two-part essay, "Ghosts and Poets," which became my first work read in public in 2013. A year later, I tell my own stories.
Be creative to be inclusive. Is there a textbook on how to help a writer with a disability? I learned by teaching. I learned by writing. I learned by reading. I learned by applying what I know to individuals whom MFA programs will reject. I developed techniques as I progressed and adapted them on an individual basis. Sometimes I wonder and I know that there are more potential writers and storytellers with disabilities out there who will only reach their full potential when they have access to mentors, editors, readers, and other writers to support them. When the host at a poetry event asked what legacy I will leave behind, I answered, "I helped several writers with disabilities get published."
AG: I think we have covered everything. If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken both fiction and non-fiction. It would be fun to write a story that was part fiction and part non-fiction. I might try it.