I Am Building a World for You

For the past several years in my creative writing life, I have been developing a parallel world. It is not a huge departure from reality. It’s not fantasy or sci-fi. It’s not a world that you would not recognize. In fact, you may find yourself very much at home there. It’s a mere side step, the sort of shift you make to get out of someone’s way when they are moving faster than you’d like to move. It’s stepping off the sidewalk and onto the grass where it’s more interesting anyway.

This world is located in my very own state. Its cities and lakes and rivers and other features are all born from reality before they go through a subtle metamorphosis in my mind. And when they come out of my fingers, they are new. Because the writer of fiction does not merely record. He interprets. What to our eye may be a leaf of a certain shade of green becomes something more in fiction. Raindrops become tears, shafts of light become memories, birds become souls, forests become prisons, parties become battles, and folds of blankets become entire histories laid out in cotton.

It’s useless to attempt to keep the writer’s mind centered on what is. It is so much more satisfying to build what isn’t…yet. I’m readying a new manuscript for submission to agents that I can envision as the first in a series of three. I’m already developing the stories for the second and third. And yesterday, while I was driving my son to karate, the germ of a new story wormed its way into my mind. A different setting, but the same world, and connections to a character or two in this possible series of three. An expansion of the world I have been building in my mind and on paper. Nods to earlier work are winks to the loyal reader, an inside joke just for her.

I’m drawn to literary worlds like this. Wendell Berry’s Port William, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Careers made largely by developing a parallel world and staying in it for decades, learning all of its secrets. Even the series we read as children carry shades of this — Madeline L’Engle’s stories of the Murry and O’Keefe families, L. M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, even the world of The Baby-Sitters Club. Places and characters we didn’t want to leave.

I’d like my own fiction to be like that — stories you want to stay inside.

So I am building a world, street by street, field by field, house by house, character by character, secret by secret. And I’m more hopeful than ever that I’ll be able to share it with you someday.

How Far We Haven’t Come

Remember how I was so pleased in my last post to be able to work on something new? Well my brain swiftly switched gears back to something old. Something incomplete. Something festering.

Back on December 10, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Adventures in Shameful American History that discussed a number of cultural and historical realities I was struggling with as I completed research for a novel I was writing called The Bone Garden. It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, before the unrest in Ferguson and the riots in Baltimore, before the massacre in Charleston.

In January and February of 2014, I wrote the first draft of a novel that turned out to be frighteningly timely. It traces the race relations within several generations of one white family, from auspicious beginnings as participants in the Underground Railroad, to a mixed bag of love and hate during the Civil Rights era, to a new reconciliation in the modern time. For the next year, I worked hard on that novel, revising it multiple times, editing it to a high gloss. But there was always a problem with the modern-day timeline. I fixed some of it, but it still never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t as good as it could be. Compared to the other two timelines, it seemed…too easy.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, I attended a prayer vigil at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan. The crowd was relatively small in number but great in spirit. There were mostly African American worshipers, but a fair number of white worshipers as well. The Spirit was moving and pain was released and anger was expressed and sorrow was felt. It was deeply emotional and raw.

Growing up in a white small town in the Lutheran church, I had never been part of a service quite like that before. I’m a Baptist since I married a Baptist pastor, but it’s not a “shoutin’ church,” if you know what I mean. It’s not a charismatic congregation. It’s pretty tame. But I have been privileged to join together with other churches in the city every year, usually during Holy Week, to worship together. Stiff white Methodists and shouting black Baptists and proper Presbyterians and calm Congregationalists, all worshiping together. These have been some of my most memorable times in the house of God.

Even so, this prayer vigil was qualitatively different. It was a lament.

I drove away from that service with a heart that was still heavy. Yes, I believed God would give comfort to the bereaved. But it still happened. There was still a terrible racist person who murdered nine people, including some in their seventies and eighties, for no reason other than his idiotic, misguided, backward, reprehensible beliefs. Beliefs that were taught. And are taught. All over the place. Still.

And I realized what bothered me about the modern-day storyline of The Bone Garden. It wasn’t true. Fiction — good fiction — tells the truth. And I wasn’t doing that. I wanted my modern day white characters to be better than their fictional predecessors. But they aren’t. Yes, some are more understanding and more accepting and more loving. But others are not. They cannot be. Because Dylann Roof exists. Thousands of Dylann Roofs exist, and more of them are being trained up every day. And I do a disservice to the truth to ignore that when writing this story.

So I’m back at it, working hard to make things real. No matter how difficult it is for us to stomach. We look back at our parents’ generation and think that we are better than them. We would never support segregation or turn the other way when peaceful marchers were set upon by dogs and attacked with fire hoses. We would never have let 100 years pass between the Emancipation Proclamation and Selma.

But is that the truth? Obviously not. That Confederate flag flying high in South Carolina? It’s not down yet.

The Beauty of “The End”

Almost four months ago to the day, I wrote this post about my rather unsatisfying writing vacation at Gun Lake, where I had hoped to finish a good first draft of my current WIP, but only succeeded in getting lots of words down on the page that I knew I’d have to fix later. I’ve been picking away at it on and off since then, adding layers and altering plot lines and deepening characters. And I am happy to be able to say that it is now ready for my first beta readers’ critiques. It feels so good to not only have it finished, but to be happy with it. I’m not truly done, of course. Once I get feedback from a few readers I’ll have plenty to edit. But the first big hurdle — writing the dang thing — has been cleared.

In reaching The End, there is a loosening of something that had been wound tight in my chest, a liberating sensation that I am now free to work on a new story, one that has been forming in my mind for weeks, like a flock of birds ahead of winter’s snows. After all, The End is really just the beginning of something new…

Me on the Radio

I finally got up the courage to listen to a radio show that I was on back in…oh, was it last year? Yes. Yes it was. I was sure I sounded like kind of an idiot, but as it turns out, I don’t. I shared this interview time with Alyssa Alexander, a Lansing area author and a fellow member of the Capital City Writers Association. Alyssa also does not sound like an idiot (so kudos to the both of us).

So if you want to hear more about me, what I do for a living as a publishing professional, and a bit about why I still read and prefer printed books to ebooks, please give it a listen.

 

The Only Stuff You Can Control

Today I was with my first grade son in line at Jo-Ann’s to buy elastic (part of a TMNT shell modification to hold smoke bombs, of course) when the older gentleman directly ahead of me turned around and asked me if he could speak to my son. I said, “Sure.” The man said, “Young man, do you want to hear a joke?” It went something like this:

“What did one snowman say to the other snowman?”

“What?”

“Do you smell carrots?”

It took a little explanation for my boy to quite get it. But then he thought it was funny. The man took his turn at the register, we took ours, and I’ll probably never see him again.

Why do I tell this story? Mostly because I’ve been thinking a lot about control this week. I have been really up and down creatively and professionally. Few would know it because I generally keep my struggles to myself (that’s the German Protestant side of the family coming out). I don’t broadcast my troubles to the world. Except for my husband and a few very close friends, no one would know the mental and emotional state I’m in is anything but balanced and generally positive. This isn’t because I’m putting on a front or trying to craft a life that seems perfect. It’s because 1.) everyone has enough troubles of their own (many light years worse than my own) and 2.) it’s no one’s business.

What does this have to do with snowmen smelling carrots? (It’s because their noses are carrots, by the way.)

There’s so little in life over which we exercise any real control. Most of the time, we can’t control who talks to us or what they might say. I was so taken aback that this man asked my permission to talk to my son, it shook me out of my standard way of interacting with strangers (which is basically to ignore them unless they engage me, and then, using lightning swift and probably premature judgment based on age, sex, dress, and whether or not I’m hangry, to determine if I will immediately be on the defensive or will give them the benefit of the doubt). This man gave me the option to shut him down before the conversation even started. Of course I didn’t (who would?) and of course after I said he could talk to my son, he might have said any number of inappropriate or terrible things. But he put the control in my hands.

I can’t make my house worth what it was worth when we bought it. I can’t give myself a promotion. I can’t make people take a chance on my writing. I can’t make an overly sensitive person chill out. I can’t raise the temperature outside above freezing (or even raise it one degree). I can’t stop my son from growing. I can’t make my dog’s back legs work better.

But there’s a lot I do have control over. I can keep my house clean and livable. I can do my best work each day. I can keep improving. I can disengage from people that baffle me and go buy a plane ticket to visit a childhood friend I miss terribly. I can put on another pair of socks. I can enjoy this moment in time. I can let my dog lick leftover syrup from the breakfast plates.

Writing this post won’t get me over what’s bothering me right now. I wish it would. Time, prayer, and likely the changing of the seasons in a month or so will help. But in the meantime, I’m trying to focus on what I can control and leave the rest up to Providence.