These are the first lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a poem in nine books which was particularly beloved of Emily Dickinson. I’m just diving in to my copy, an 1884 printing of the 1859 text. This quote strikes me, a professional copywriter who is ever writing for others, as a lovely, selfish thought. That is what my fiction is–writing for me, for my better self.
We recently discovered (after a series of incredibly painful tests) that our six-year-old son is allergic to both of our pets, especially our cat. We’re trying a medication, we’ve banned both dog and cat from the second story where our bedrooms are, and I have been attempting to be more obsessive about vacuuming than feels natural. Lastly, I have been looking for a new home for our twelve-year-old cat.
Yesterday, we were thinking (hoping) we’d found it. Lydia went home with a newer acquaintance of mine who is sweet and loving and who was looking for a friend for her older cat.
Today, Lydia came home again.
Here’s the trouble with old cats–or at least my old cat: she is set in her ways, used to her own home and family, and not interested in making new friends, apparently.
Despite the fact that every attempt was made by her new potential family to introduce the cats the right way (separate rooms, etc.) Lydia was very open about her displeasure, hissing, growling, biting, escaping, fighting…you get the picture.
She is obviously a one-cat-household cat.
So now we know.
And now we have our Lydia back.
The trouble with old cats is that, much like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, all ways are their ways. They are tiny, furry tyrants. If cats were people, I doubt anyone would tolerate them long. But they’re cats. So they can behave as they wish, and we will still take them back.
The scales have tipped, the tumblers in the lock have fallen into place, the dominoes are all lined up and the finger is making contact with the very first one.
What am I talking about? My next novel.
Next novel? But you haven’t even published your first one. Yes, that’s true. But writers write. And this next one, which I hope will be my second to be published (eventually), has been brewing in my mind since the day after I typed “The End” at the bottom of my last manuscript. And on Thursday night, a key plot element was birthed in my mind like a baby star and I am just about ready to really start writing.
Since early March, I have been feeding my mind a steady diet of classic literature in preparation for writing this next novel, and a few weeks ago I finally picked up this beautiful book, a gift last Christmas…
I’m smitten anew and excited to say that Emily Dickinson’s life, spirit, and poetry will get a major nod in the novel. In fact, the backbone of the story is constructed of books and poems, the kind that stay with us throughout our lives and to which we return again and again. It is precisely the kind of story the English major in me can hardly believe she will be privileged to write–one that celebrates our vast body of literature in English, makes a case for the singular importance of the printed book, and traces how our identities are wrapped up in what we read at formative points in our lives.
I’m so excited to get started, I don’t know that I will be able to wait until NaNoWriMo, which I had been thinking of attempting for the third time. And if I cheat, I simply could not wear a t-shirt like this with any sense of integrity…
And this is kind of how I feel about that shirt…
My workshop at the Breathe Writers Conference was on rewriting and revision. I had so much I wanted to cover and not enough time to do it, thus I was force to truncate my closing remarks. I’m sharing them here in full.
Sometimes as we are revising, we run across something in our own writing that makes us uncomfortable. A bit of truth that slipped out when we weren’t watching. Maybe we let a character say something shockingly true. We read it later and are stunned that it came from within our minds and hearts. We think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that, shouldn’t let my character say it.”
In the novel I’ve been working on this year, the overarching theme is the really the sovereignty of God—that everything that happens, including the tragic and awful, happens within His will and is part of His plan for our lives for a reason. That theme is played out in the stories of three women. Two of these storylines focus heavily on race, one during the Civil War, another during the Civil Rights era. In writing about the way white people in this country have viewed and treated black people over the decades, in writing about prejudice and lynching and rioting, and in writing about interracial relationships and marriage, I have had plenty of opportunities to censor myself. There have been many times I’ve thought, “People think this way, people say things like this—but will readers think that’s me? Will they think I think that way?” No one wants to be seen as racist.
And on the other hand, there was a powerful pull to remain politically correct, to treat black characters as victims. Besides the fact that this is an incredibly demeaning label to put on an entire race, when you look at individual lives, not everyone in this world is a victim. (And victims often make the most uninteresting characters in fiction.) One of the climactic scenes is of the Detroit Riots of 1967. As a writer I could not escape from the fact that that scene included young black men destroying property, stealing, swearing, and even shooting at firemen who were trying to keep the neighborhood those same young men lived in from burning down. But a privileged white woman writing about poor, unemployed black men committing crimes? Is that allowed? Or can only African Americans comment on such an event? I was in high school and college during the 1990s, so I have to fight against near-constant “political correctness” indoctrination rearing its head, because all the PC movement ever did was bury issues under a veneer of civility where they continued to fester, ready to explode because they are never resolved.
In fact, in order say anything worth saying about the reality and experience of racism in the North, I had to avoid both extremes of piling on the white guilt and portraying black characters as victims. That’s been done to death. And in between those two extremes is where we find truth—and truth is never without tension. There’s a lot of fear in writing about explosive topics like race, war, the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of the union of husband and wife. And yet those explosive topics are important. And if we censor ourselves in the public square or the intellectual square, we allow others to set the trajectory of our culture.
In revision, sometimes the things that you feel most strongly that you should delete are the things you should keep. When you feel you should censor yourself because of what a reader (often a very specific one, like your mother or spouse or a friend) might think of you, that’s when you should stop, take a deep breath, and move on. Leave that bit in there. That’s what makes your writing interesting, original, individual, and worth keeping. Deep down, we know that the things that frighten us a little or surprise us—those are the things that actually are saying something. The moments we allow ourselves to really say what we mean—those are the things that really need to be said.
Betsy Lerner, in her excellent book The Forest for the Trees, said it this way:
“If you dream of having your work stay alive beyond your tenure on earth, if you hope to see it beside the unforgettable voices that are part of our literary diaspora, then you must be fearless in every aspect of your writing. . . . Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it. That they find it exquisite or revolting…‘Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like and cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.’ Throw off the shackles of approval. . . . if your book causes a commotion, even the negative kind, you will have made a platform for yourself, something very few writers ever attain. . . . You cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes through half measures.”
Yes, if you run across a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter that you realize just doesn’t do anything, chop it out of there! It’s dead weight! But if you feel the pull to remove something because it’s uncomfortable or you fear the criticism of others, and yet that part of your work does further your story and does give your reader deeper insight into a character—or into the human condition—be brave. Keep it. Leave it in. That’s the thing that readers will remember. That’s the thing that will make readers sit up straight and listen—because you are someone with something important to say.
Don’t edit out of fear. Don’t edit to protect yourself. Edit to make that shocking truth, that encapsulation of reality hit home even harder. Edit to make that meaning crystal clear.
Because things that need to be said are often those things we wish to hide–about ourselves, about others, about our glorious, messed-up world.
This weekend I spent a couple days in the company of other writers at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference. It was my third year attending, my second year leading a workshop, this time on taking our writing to the next level through rewriting and revision. We had a fantastic keynote speaker, Julie Cantrell, and I’m looking forward to reading her book, Into the Free. And we enjoyed inspiring words and a charge to write the truth and write at the highest level of excellence we can from Dr. Michael Wittmer, a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and a friend.
Besides those entertaining and encouraging presentations, I was able to attend workshops led by several talented writers, professors, and professionals, including
-Dave Beach, a psychologist who turns his expertise toward creating characters that are highly developed and nuanced by examining them through various psychological lenses. Check out his website, characterdoctor.com to try it out!
-Zachary Bartels and Ted Kluck, who took us through all the pluses and pitfalls of indie and traditional publishing, highlighting their own successes and failures in both arenas, and teaching us how to read between the lines while working with editors and big publishing houses. Check out their indie micropress, Gut Check Press.
-Dr. Michael Stevens and Dr. Matt Bonzo, who gave us insight into the life’s work of Wendell Berry, who spent fifty years writing about one small locality and made the people and the events in this little rural Kentucky town speak to readers on a universal level. I’m very interested to read their book after dipping into Wendell Berry ‘s work.
I was also privileged to spend time in the company of writers like Tracy Groot, Suzanne Burden, Alison Hodgson, Andy Rogers, Josh Mosey, and others. Breathe is an intimate, noncompetitive group–far more intimate than the huge ACFW Conference we went to in St. Louis this year–and I appreciate the camaraderie there.
The whole affair has me even more excited for the second annual Write on the Red Cedar Conference that my own writing group, Capital City Writers Association, is holding January 16-17 in East Lansing, Michigan. We’re ecstatic to welcome literary agent and author Donald Maass as our keynote, along with other writers, journalists, editors, and agents from around the country. If you’re a writer in the Midwest, this is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business for a very reasonable price.
You’ll be hearing more about that conference in the months to come. In the meantime, our very busy season at home is hopefully slowing down a little bit. Around here there are gardens to ready for the winter, desks to clean off and organize, quilts and crochet throws to make, rooms to clean…and a new novel brewing in my mind.
October is half over. I want to really live intentionally during the second half. How about you?
My husband‘s first traditionally published novel releases today! You probably already read some of the great reviews that have been coming in. We couldn’t be happier. If you like suspense/thrillers, like edge-of-your seat action, like getting blindsided by plot twists, and like your humor on the sarcastic side, this is your read!
Yesterday, Parker Saint’s only concern was his swiftly rising star power.
Today, he’s just trying to stay alive.
Parker Saint is living the dream. A cushy job at a thriving megachurch has him on the verge of becoming a bestselling author and broadcast celebrity—until life takes an abrupt turn that lands him on the wrong side of the law. To avoid a public scandal, he agrees to consult with the police on a series of brutal murders linked by strange religious symbols scrawled on each victim.
Parker tries to play the expert, but he is clearly in over his head. Drawn ever deeper into a web of intrigue involving a demanding detective, a trio of secretive Vatican operatives, and a centuries-old conspiracy to conceal a mysterious relic, he realizes for the first time that the battle between good and evil is all too real—and that the killer is coming back . . . this time for him.
The ferns in the open areas were browning and made an interesting color combination with large patches of fuzzy seafoam green lichens.
The woods through which the second half of the Wilderness Loop winds are alternately close and open. The open areas would be hot in sunny weather, but we had clouds and some breeze the whole way.
Here Alison takes a moment to enjoy the color in a rare ray of sunshine. I believe she is preparing mentally for the many more soggy spots we will encounter as we race the thunder on the way to Clark Lake campsite. (Little does she know at this point that her right foot is soon to be ankle-deep in cold, black swamp water.)Here is one of the very best “bridges” Tahquamenon has to offer in the backcountry.
Seriously, this was one of the most sound structures on the trail, and it looked like it had been decomposing for nigh on a decade. There was one real bridge. As we passed over it we realized we were also passing yet another beaver dam, this one far taller than the last.
So, campers, what have we learned from the above diagram? That’s right! The Department of Natural Resources can build a bridge…when it so chooses.
We passed by the wetland created by this second industrious beaver…
And we happily made use of this very handmade bench.
We filtered water from Clark Lake. It’s always a little unnerving to drink brown water, even if you know the microbes and nasty little beasties have been filtered from it. Here’s some of the leftover water in a clear glass at home so you can see the tannins leeched from the cedars, which gives the falls their distinctive color.
The week after this hiking trip, my mother came to watch the boy while Zach and I traveled to St. Louis for ACFW. She was nice enough to wash all of my clothes–not just the really nasty ones from the hike, but from all of the hampers and baskets and dividers in the house.
The packs are still in my sunroom, waiting to be returned to storage, where they will wait patiently…for next year.
And that’s freaking AWESOME.
“★★★★½! Bartels’ debut novel is a page-turner from the very beginning. His excellent use of foreshadowing and his glimpses into the past create a story that readers can’t put down. In the vein of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, Bartels weaves the supernatural into the natural in ways that are gripping and realistic, adding a shocking surprise that will leave readers stunned.”—RT Book Reviews
“Michigan minister Bartels (42 Months Dry) holds readers’ interest in this intrigue-filled thriller, despite its far-fetched premise. Saint’s character is particularly well developed. This book will be enjoyed by those who love a mystery combined with supernatural elements.”—Library Journal
“Playing Saint is everything I love in a novel: great characters, edge-of-the-seat plot, and great twists and turns. I’m ready for his next book already. Highly recommended!”—Colleen Coble, USA Today bestselling author
“A thought-provoking exploration into the power of faith and the reality of evil. Filled with memorable characters and tight writing, Playing Saint is an impressive debut from an author to watch.”—Steven James, bestselling author
“Zachary Bartels is not afraid of head-on collisions with complicated issues. I loved Playing Saint for the recognizable reality, and the humor, and the way I felt when I finished the book—entertained, satisfied, and looking for more.”—Tracy Groot, award-winning author
“Playing Saint is a reflection of its author—risky, fast-paced, sarcastic, clever, and ultimately hopeful. We need more novels, and more authors, like this!”—Ted Kluck, award-winning author
I am so proud of him and happy for him! And you should go pre-order it right now. No, seriously. Do it.
Remember way back when wetlands were just called swamps? Someone in the 1970s or 1980s apparently endeavored to put a more positive spin on these soggy topographical features. Wetland sounds so much more pleasant than swamp, after all.
Well, if you hike north from the Upper Falls at Tahquamenon along the Giant Pines Trail Loop and the Wilderness Trail Loop, you will find yourself in a landscape that tends strongly toward swamp. Remember the soggy areas Alison and I encountered on the trail between the Lower and Upper Falls? Multiply that by, oh, let’s say 500–or 50, I don’t know. But whatever the correct number, if you plan to hike this section prepare to get your feet wet. Also, unless the DNR or whoever gets out there with a chainsaw soon, prepare to duck under and crawl over many, many trees.
Despite some sludgy trail conditions, there were some nice surprises early on, like this enormous, 185-year-old white pine tree, which was approximately 120 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and has a circumference of nearly 16 feet.
Not far from this mammoth lifeform we found this fat little caterpillar, which I think will be a Luna Moth when it’s all grown up.
But not too far into our second hike of the first day, the surprises turned simultaneously more unpleasant and more impressive.
Alison and I first noticed a tree across our path that had obviously been cut down by a beaver–its distinctive teeth marks cluing us in. A moment later we realized that we were walking alongside a lake. And that the water level was a foot or so higher than the soggy ground upon which we were treading.
Yes, we were at the edge of a beaver’s carefully constructed dam.
And, as I said, we were alternately amazed and irritated. The amazement is obvious. Beavers are incredible creatures with incredible talents. The beaver here had created his own perfect environment. That first photo in this post was of the beautiful wetland home he had made possible by building this:
He built it not across a rushing river but along the outskirts of the slowly moving water of some sluggish swamp, and we were on the very edge of it. It’s an enchanting position to be in.
The irritation may not be so obvious from these photos. But this next one may give you a hint:
You see that slim tree with the blue painted blaze? That, my friend, is the indicator of the North Country Trail. And, as I’m sure you noticed, it’s been incorporated into this beaver’s swimming pool. In fact, the beaver had obliterated much of the trail. I don’t know if he just made this dam this summer or if it really has been a long time since anyone at Tahquamenon Falls State Park has bothered to groom their backcountry trails (I kind of suspect the latter, frankly). Either way, it was slow, wet going here. It was swamp here.
At one point we realized that the only semi-dry option to move forward was to walk along the top of the dam itself as we tried to get back on the trail. We stepped gingerly, grasping at branches the beaver had as yet left untouched, leaned away from the water, and prayed that he was a good builder who didn’t cut corners.
We did make it past the wetland eventually, but with very wet shoes and socks and more than a few near-misses. As evening approached and the gray skies above rumbled a warning of the storms we knew were supposed to come that night, we tried to make up time as we rushed toward the Wilderness Campsite. We got the tent up before dark, ate a late supper, and used the surprisingly unsmelly and amusingly exhibitionist toilet.
It made me think of this iconic moment from Scrubs:
We bedded down for some much needed sleep as the forest darkened swiftly around us and flashes of lightning occasionally lit up the tent. As we fell asleep that night, or else as we woke the next morning, it’s hard to recall, we heard the strangest bird call, like a cartoon siren that ended with a honk. Or like a loon on steroids. It sounded like it had to come from a very large bird. After listening to some calls, I think it is quite possible it was a sandhill crane. Go to about the 1:50 mark on this video and you’ll hear just about what I think we heard:
In the morning I remembered to get a photo of our campsite before we packed back up to face yet more trail challenges and more rain on the way to our next campsite.
We were surrounded by utter silence, complete solitude, and zillions of wild blueberries (the presence of which during our entire hike had me ultra aware of the possibility of encountering black bears fattening up for winter).
It was beautiful.