HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE LAS VEGAS?

When someone who has never been here asks you about our community, what do you say? I tend to talk about the live music that bursts out seemingly at random, especially in the summer. One Friday night pre-covid, my husband and I walked by the Plaza Park and heard guitars, a keyboard, trumpet, and drums. We paused for a few minutes of dancing, and then walked down Bridge Street, where a small band played in the breezeway, part of an opening at Gallery 140. Across the street at Borracho’s, we heard another band playing. And when we walked across the bridge and another block up the hill to Burris Hall, a guitar player sang and played softly at another gallery opening.

Or maybe you talk about the architecture, and the fact that we have over 900 houses and other buildings on the National Historic Register. Amazing. And talk about the architecture naturally leads to discussion of the history of the area. And that might lead to mention of the Fiesta in early July, when vendors circle the park and flow down both sides of Bridge Street, while in the park itself, families sit and talk to friends they only see at Fiesta, when everyone comes in from the ranches and they catch up on everyone’s news, and they watch flamenco dancers perform and listen to live music for days.

And that’s another thing, we have so many local artists who show their work not only at the galleries, but at Borracho’s, Travelers, and The Skillet (owned and run by two artists who have MFAs in sculpture and painting – I think all of the art in there is their own.)

If you are talking to someone who has a motorcycle, they might have questions about the motorcycle rally in late July, when hundreds of bikers, many headed for Sturgis, stop for a couple of days in Las Vegas for bike-related events or just to see old friends.

That’s another wonderful thing about our town. People are genuinely friendly, and will stop and pass the time of day. I once talked to a man in a gallery who told me he was in a hurry, and just needed to turn in a form, then proceeded to spend another 45 minutes talking to me and to everyone else who came through the door. He looked far more relaxed when he left.

There is a dark side. Every community in every state confronts problems. Maybe that’s where your mind goes.

But whatever you say, or think, how about expressing yourself in the pages of Tapestry, the Las Vegas Literary Salon’s upcoming offering of writings from present and former residents of northeastern New Mexico. From one of the other small villages or towns or ranches in the area? That’s great. We want to hear about your home, too. Have a great story about what happened when someone crashed Christmas dinner? Tell it as a short story. And don’t worry, as long as you change the name, people never recognize themselves in fiction.

The Literary Salon is now accepting submissions of short stories, essays, and poetry for Tapestry. Check the guidelines on this website.

QUICK FIXES WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE

You have some time. Maybe you have some time at the same hour and in the same place every day. Most days, you write eagerly and productively. You make progress on your novel or your collection of short stories, or your non-fiction history of the Sangre de Christo mountains.

But then one day you have the time. You have the space. You have the enthusiasm. But you don’t have any idea what you want to put down on the page. Often, this has roots in self doubt. 

Nobody wants to read this. I suck at this. Who am I to try this?

The first thing to do is tell yourself it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because this is a first draft, and you aren’t going to show it to anyone. Now that that’s out of the way, remind yourself that the most important thing is to get the story down on paper before you lose it. That is, if you have a story. 

If you  have a story, and you don’t know where to go next, try free writing. Do this with a paper and pen and the determination not to cross out or read until you’re done with the exercise. Start with the last sentence you wrote in your story and write for 30 minutes without stopping. At some point you may need to write “Keep the hand moving” a couple of time before your mind kicks in. As the author and creative writing teacher Natalie Goldberg advises: “Follow your mind.” Don’t try to stay on track (what you think is the track) just write. Something good will come out of it. Maybe something small, maybe something important. It doesn’t matter.

And if you don’t  have a story, pick a color, or an object, and write about that, until something clicks in your mind and you are writing about a memory, or a dream, or a wish you had as a child, anything that resonates with you and continue with that until you have exhausted it. These seemingly random thoughts will have little nuggets of truth that you can work with.

Maybe you will get a poem, or the start of one. Maybe you will get a flawed character that you can build a seven novel series on.

One of my favorite exercises when I’m starting a new story or poem or scene for a play is to go to the thesaurus or the dictionary, open it at random with my eyes closed and put my finger on the page. I do this three times (three different pages). Jot down each word in turn, then look at each word. If you’re not sure of the meaning, look it up. Now use the meanings of those three words in your poem or short story WITHOUT EVER USING THE WORDS. Somehow, this gives your mind room to play and make some surprising connections that will enrich your work.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. This next one came from Alice Whitfield, my voiceover coach one day when she felt that the energy in the class was not as creative as she would like. Evidently we were all giving lackluster performances on our recordings. She told us all to close our eyes and picture a corner in our kitchen at home. We were to recall every single item in that corner, from floor to ceiling, to pick up any small objects, to note their color, and weight in our minds. We were to think of a scent from the kitchen, maybe gingerbread, or savory stuffing, or something else pungent that we enjoyed. When she told us to open our eyes, and take our turns recording for a second time, every single performance had improved. And I put it into my writing toolkit. 

When the current plague is over and we can return to activities like sitting with our notebooks and a cup of tea or coffee at Travelers or Charlies or El Sombrero, listen to the conversations around you. Not obviously, of course, try to look like you are writing something of your own, not recording snippets of conversation. I once heard a woman say to a man that stopped by her table, “Is your dad still in the graveyard?” Something like that can lead to any number of stories.

Is the dad a gravedigger? A landscaper? A vampire that walks by night?

Another trick you can use is to have some jars filled with folded scraps of paper. One jar could have jobs – mechanic, neurosurgeon, substitute teacher, detective, etc. Another could have places – small town, big city, mesas, mountains, Alaska fishing village, artist’s colony, desert, any place you can think of, especially if you have been there, or would like to research it. Then a jar with situations – kidnapping, star crossed lovers, changing places with someone, building a house on swampland. Pull two slips out of the first jar for your protagonist and antagonist. Then a slip of paper for the place. Then one for the situation. And suddenly you have characters in a situation in a place. And it’s a start.

Now use these tips, or your preferred starting point, and write something (poetry, essay, or fiction) for Tapestry, the Las Vegas Literary Salon’s upcoming collection. The deadline for submission is June 1, so start writing. Click on the TAPESTRY GUIDELINES tab in the menu to get the submission guidelines and read the Call for Submissions here.

Where Do Books Come From?

I read before I started school.

No one set out consciously to teach me, nor did I entertain a plan to learn. Among my earliest memories,  (at about three years old) is that every night, my mother would gather me up, damp and sleepy from my bath, cozy in flannel footie pajamas, and wrap me in a blanket. We would settle in the worn wooden rocker next to the black franklin stove (which sometimes overheated and the lid would pop up with a loud bang. I kept a wary eye on that stove.) And then she would say the magic words, “Let’s read a story,” and she would open the cover of a Little Golden Book, and begin. I remember The Little Engine That CouldThe Three Naughty KittensPeter Cottontail, and so many more filled with brightly colored pictures and big printed words. 

Sometimes my father read to me from the Bible, and I loved the rhythm of the words, the thunder of the Biblical names, and the image of the animals going to the ark, two by two.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have my own library card. My best friend and I would roller skate to the library and pick out books, then return to the shelter of her front porch to spend the day reading. But no one ever thought to tell me where books come from, as they taught me so many other things. I knew the Bible said God made the world, so it was a natural progression for me that God made books. I didn’t even think about it.

The Christmas I turned seven a neighbor gave me a copy of Black Beauty. I read it straight through and then read it again. Then I ran to find my mother, to tell her about this wonderful horse, to urge her to read the story for herself. To beg for a horse of my own.

Her primary interest being to distract me from the notion of horse ownership, my mother quickly suggested that I go to the library, and see if the author had written any other books. An author? A suspicion grew. A light dawned.

Perhaps books were not organic things like peaches on a tree, or little miracles shelved by angels while the librarian slept. 

“Where do the books at the library come from?” I asked.

“People write them,” came the answer.

People write them. What an amazing idea. A storybook held so much magic for me, transporting me away in time and space that my mother had a hard time calling me out of the book to eat dinner.

“Of course, people write books. Who did you think wrote them?”

God, of course.

From that simple revelation came an omnivorous appetite for the written word. If people wrote books, I could learn to write them, too. At some point thereafter I fell prey to ambition: I wanted to read every book ever written. By the time I was nine, the librarian told my mother I had read all of the books in the children’s section of the library, and she allowed me to check out some of the adult books. 

Between the ages of ten and eighteen, I read Alexander Dumas, Mark Twain, most of Dickens, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, popular novels, political novels, all the plays by George Bernard Shaw, Bradbury, Asimov, Kafka, Dos Passos, Woolfe, the Brontes, and more, including a translation of the logs of the voyages of Christopher Columbus – over 2000 pages of exposition and annotations.

From the age of eight onward, I also wrote, so that when I finished reading everything ever written, I would be ready to add my stories to the list. I wrote poetry, plays, letters, columns, news stories, essays, and novels.

In my early twenties, I nearly despaired when I realized books were being published constantly, and I could not possibly read everything published in a single year, let alone everything ever written. 

I was the opposite of Alexander the Great, who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. I could see nothing but new worlds, without any end. And I wanted to add to this river, this torrent, this avalanche of print? Yes. I wanted to add my own new worlds, even if no one ever read them.

And so I write.

Mary Rose Hennsler