WRITER IN AUGUST—DOLLARS IN DECEMBER By Orpha Thomas

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I can still see it. A small plastic poinsettia in faded red with three tiny lights and six dull green leaves. It was such a cheap piece of junk it screamed against making anything out of plastic, ever. Still, it was a symbol of Christmas, and all I had to work with, so I put it on the battered desk that was part of the shabby apartment, plugged it in, and with three lights burning brightly as hope, sat down to begin writing. The dreary brown walls and the Murphy bed and carpet worn through to the floor had to be wiped out of my vision. The hot breeze brought the stench of city poisons through the open window: exhaust smells, tar, hot concrete. Drifts of grilled sandwiches from nearby cafes, a whiff of stagnant coffee. What snow there was this time of year was high on the mountains, far away, and Oregon’s summer rains were still at sea. No bells ringing from sidewalk Santas or piped-in carols from the stores. August. Dog days. Hot, Oregon, old old hotel downtown.

And me broke, but having a story to tell, of a Christmas ten years before, and three orphaned kids, a family far from home with little money and no friends, and a hunger to make Christmas work anyway. A story that would sell if I could just get it written in time.

So I wrote the first true thing that came to mind for the title: “We Borrowed Three Orphans For Christmas”

Then I looked at the plastic poinsettia again, this time giving it a framework in my mind. A real poinsettia, purchased cheap because Christmas was three days away and the poinsettias were looking almost as tired as the clerks. That poinsettia was placed on an end table in a shabby living room, where three small boys looked at a thinly decorated tree with its long used but still bright lights shining on the few strings of tinsel. Colored paper cut and pasted into uneven circles, made into strings, and draped on the tree by the small hands of children whose eyes held visions of erector sets and sleds and board games. Snow falling softly outside the window, over a foot of it piled up by the day we brought home the poinsettia. A pin oak tree by the driveway, still holding its old leaves from summer, and bare stalks of rosebushes shuddering in the cold wind.

I felt the chill of the winter wind, heard the rustling of the pin oak leaves in winter, the crunch of the snow as we walked to the car, breathed in the spicy kitchen aromas of that holiday season.

I fought off the suffocating blasts of the hot wind, and settled in to my work. I was, after all, a writer. I could create winter and Christmas and loneliness any time I wished. I wrote it all down in three days on my old Royal typewriter, making one carbon copy. I rewrote it in two more days. Checked it one last time and mailed it to McFadden Publications. Two months later I had a check for a hundred dollars. I couldn’t help liking the plastic poinsettia a lot right then—the jab in my mind it took to create Christmas for the story I had to write in August to get it on an editor’s schedule at the right time.

You can do it, too! Today, write down the chlorine smell of the water from the pool or the cleanness of the swimming hole. Name all the flowers in bloom and their colors and smells, the birds in the air with their singing and calling, the feel of the summer earth on bare feet. (Is it warm, rough, sandy, covered with pine needles, or grass?)

Write the sounds of lawnmowers, the whiffs of gasoline, the shouting that goes with kids shooting each other with garden hoses, the songs around an evening campfire, the smell of the smoke and the feel of sleeping bags and confining closeness of sleeping in tents. The incredibly fresh taste of ripe watermelons and cantaloupe, the bright sharpness of lemonade and iced tea. Or write of city smells and sounds and shops, city buses or trains.

In other words, whatever season it is, wherever you are, write it down in your notebook to guide your writing six months from now. Or whenever it is. Editorial calendars vary in the length of time they require manuscripts in advance, but it is always down the road from where you are. When you sit at your desk in December, you will be glad you wrote of the firecrackers of the Fourth of July, and the heat, and you’ll remember the cat that stayed under the bed for three days from the firecrackers.

That’s what writers do. You ARE a writer, aren’t you? Get ready for Christmas stockings that jingle now–with coins from the stories you write in August!

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