Posts Tagged ‘stories’

The Post – Good Friday…Last Book Chapter

March 21, 2008

It is Good Friday. A day for some reason, I have always loved. That, Lent, and Holy Thursday. Easter itself, I hate. It always seemed like such a noisy unnecessary thing after the sanctity of the soul’s connection to God on Thursday and Friday.

I loved growing up in Catholic school and going to Mass every morning. Six days a week while in grammar school, I was in Mass. Six days a week for 8 years, I listened to the stories of Jesus’s life. They were as real to me as my family, truly meaningful, and enjoyed as much as Nancy Drew. The readings that cycled every year, dictated by the seasons of the liturgical calendar were as much a part of my life and soul as the leaves changing color, skies staying steely gray, and the crisp cold that smelled of snow dictated by the changing seasons of New England.

Every year there was a constancy, a rhythm, something you could count on to return to. No matter what else happened in life – those were my touchstones. Raking leaves into piles you could jump into, short days and long nights, cold Halloweens with orange full moons in costumes bought at the discount store, my grandfather bringing pails of sand/salt mix home from the Town Garage, the rhythm of those happenings matched the Advent wreath candles and the church readings as we marched toward Christmas.

The anticipation of Christ’s birth matched the anxiety of waiting for Santa Claus. Midnight Mass in a candle-lit church, boughs of pine branches decorating the walls and door arches, being with all those old Slovak immigrants I knew so well, who built that church, even the way they filled the pews inside – old men on one side in the back, old women on the other side in the back, the younger families (unsegregated) in the rows in front of them – all those images and happenings was as much loved and needed by me, as going home to open presents. In looking back, I think actually, that those moments in the church surrounded by those people, those images, those sights, sounds, and smells, are what I remember more than going home and opening presents.

While the church images are crisp, the presents are kind of a fog. A few stand out: a Jon Gnagy art set, a microscope with dissecting kit, a map-making set, my Dick Tracy machine gun with Marine Corps helmet, canteen, and pistol, and in ironic contrast – soft warm new flannel pajamas, and a plastic carrying case with new pretty underwear each one labeled for a day of the week. Perhaps the ones that stand out in my memory are there because they connected with those parts of who I really am. …as to the days-of-the-week underwear…maybe that’s why I love planners???? 🙂 But the bottom line is that if I were told today that my memory was going and I could only retain certain memories and lose the rest, it is those memories of early weekday mornings in church, and holidays spent there, that I would choose.

So it is that same connection that continues to influence me throughout the rest of the year’s happenings and the rest of the year’s liturgical seasons. While I hate Easter – always HATED having to go buy a new dress and coat, then stand around like a china doll with an itchy crinolin slip, shiny shoes, straw hat and purse, and gloves (gloves – why wear something you always have to keep track of, in a season where it’s no longer cold enough to need them????), unable to run around with the boys in the backyard and have fun – I LOVED Lent, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday.

Lent itself was about focus, commitment, ritual and stories. You focused on something – the coming trauma Jesus would go through. You gave something up – allowance money, candy, gum, whatever, for something bigger than yourself. (Though in our house, you were allowed to indulge on Sundays) You did the ritual of the Stations of the Cross around the Church, every Friday and listened to the gospel readings. For both of those, it was about “story.” Each station was a painted picture on the wall that told a part of the story of the crucifixion. The gospel gave the whole story.

Holy Thursday nights were processions in church, long litanies recited in Latin by visiting priests, the smell of the hyacinths we carried as we marched, the sense of being together again in that place where everyone I knew was going to be, and…the stories. The story of the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Jesus being taken to the Sanhedrin and to Pilate, Peter denying he knew Jesus. I loved the stories. They were like old friends.

Good Friday was a time to hear the whole long, VERY long gospel, so long that halfway through, the priest would stop reading, turn and kneel silently for a minute or two, then stand and finish the rest. It was a day when my mom would make us turn off the radios and TV and keep things “quiet” so you could honor what that day meant. It was a time when the church was stripped bare to symbolically represent the loss of Jesus, and to contemplate what that meant. It was a day to think about a story’s march through rising problems, crisis, and climax, with the relief and resolution Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday would bring.

So here it is today, Good Friday again. I was standing in the bathroom this morning talking to my husband about what I was going to get done today. I said that originally I was going to go to the gym and swim but that I canned that idea. I wanted this last chapter revision of my book finished today, no matter what. I said that it just felt like it needed to be today. He made a joke about it being like our son’s birth- our son was two weeks late, wouldn’t leave even when I started eating Mexican food, had to be induced, and during the last stages of labor I literally remember telling him to “Get out!”

I said, no it wasn’t about labor, but something about the fact it was Good Friday. And I wasn’t sure why. Just felt for some reason, the “season” of my book, needed to match the liturgical season of the day. I said, “I don’t know why but it just feels like this book NEEDS to be finished today, like today is the right day. So the hell with the gym, I’m just going down in the garage (where I work) and finish this damned thing today. At the end of today, I just want to be able to say that this draft is finished.”

Now, I’ll still have “polishing and cutting work to do in the next draft but that will now be a whole different process, almost fun. This draft, like draft # one, was like giving birth, like creating and writing from scratch. Now, I can “play.” The agony of the creating and writing from scratch phase will “be finished.”

As soon as the word “finished” tumbled out of my mouth, the lines from the Gospel of John flashed in my brain:

“After this, Jesus knowing that all was now finished, said, to fulfill the scripture, ‘I thirst.’ A bowl of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to His mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, He said, ‘It is finished’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” (John 19:28-30)

So today is Good Friday, a day I have always loved, though I cannot tell you why, other than to say that always on Good Friday, something in my soul has felt complete. So today, I will honor the silent moments of the liturgical season, with the silence of completing my book. If it takes until midnight, I will finish today, so that the two stories shall meet in the single line: “It is finished.”

The Post – Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

February 20, 2008

As with most of my projects, my novel in progress, Under the Pier, started as a picture book. What a surprise, hmm? In fact, it started out as three of them – one animal, two human. Two were homework assignments for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL). One was a short story I wrote for myself. As picture books, all were rejected. Yes, I know. Another surprise.

The animal story was one of the homework assignments for ICL. It reflected my love for the sea – I flat out love the ocean, and really flat out love the rocky New England shores. It also reflected my love for all things ignored or overlooked. We used to go to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Forget sunbathing. I spent all my time with a face mask on, diving between waves to see what rolled around on the bottom. If I could have stayed down there forever I would have. Jacques Cousteau was my hero. I loved crawling all over the rocks at Newport, Rhode Island, sticking my face into blue mussel beds, poking into tide pools, and trailing periwinkles. I loved every creepy thing that slithered out from under a pile of seaweed or crawled out of the foamy surf.

Ironically, my animal picture book story started out set in North Carolina, not New England. We’d taken a day trip to Wrightsville Beach and ended up sitting under the pier because it was so crowded. I sat there looking up at the weathered rafters, watching seagulls roost. Then I noticed the pilings covered with snails, blue mussels, and algae. I knew there were all kinds of fish feeding in the surf around the pilings, and I could see dozens of jellyfish bobbing in the waves alongside them. I’d never realized how many things lived right around a pier.

Stuck in my picture book mindset I figured I could do a short nonfiction with the slant of who lives on and under the pier, maybe even give it a bloodthirsty twist – who eats who under the pier. After much struggle, and several rejections, it occurred to me that since my soul was in New England maybe the problem was location. So I changed it to a New England pier, though I kept it a picture book. Again, rejection letters piled in. Finally, busy with other things, I set it aside.

The two human stories – again, one was a homework assignment, the other something I wrote that drew on imagery of the blue-collar town I grew up in. Like I mentioned in my last post, stories reflect the questions in their writers’ hearts. My questions? I was one of those kids more likely to be in the shadows of a dark window at night watching the skunk nose through the garbage cans, than at a middle school dance. Even if you ignore the fact that I went to a Catholic school with nuns and I don’t think we had middle school dances, there were other places in town that did. No matter. I didn’t care, and even if I had gone, I’d have been overlooked. That’s who I was back then. So why bother?

I compensated by becoming very good in school. So good, I could stuff down my insecurity and look down my nose at all the popular girls and their snobby cliques. How many of them could tell a garnet from molybdenum? I could. Academics and books were my shield against the pain of being excluded. They were my place to shine.

The other half of it was, I truly LOVED all those books and studies. Frankly, I had a better time one summer climbing all over a rock quarry hunting minerals and gems than going shopping. Who else would, of their OWN CHOICE, with their own money, on summer vacation, go to the local tobacco and hobby store and buy a dissection kit and formaldehyde-preserved frogs, fish, and crayfish to cut up? And consider this fun? Of course, in this day and age, I don’t think you can get these things unless you’re an adult, a teacher, and you can order from a science supply house. And they don’t even use formaldehyde because I think it’s some kind of carcinogen. But, I survived. It was the mid-sixties, heck, you could also buy interesting chemistry sets. I had those too. And the prepared microscope slides to go with my microscope and my geology hammer and chisel.

I also loved playing baseball on the street behind our house with the neighborhood kids, loved climbing the fence into the cemetery with the boys, and doing anything that did not include makeup or dresses. The times I had been most bored were play dates at other girls’ houses when they wanted to play house, tea, dolls (now if they’d had that GI Joe doll maybe….) or hairdresser. That’s when I usually wished they’d had brothers. Brothers who had the neat aircraft carriers that launched planes, tow trucks with flashing lights, helicopters with winches, or those old metal yellow Tonka trucks. I spent hours with my friend across the street playing with those and digging in his dirt pile. We were trying to get to China. So. Is it any surprise I did not do well at dances? Still, nobody likes to be rejected. So I declared those girls enemy number 1, ignored them like they ignored me, and stuck to the things I loved

Given this background, I figured I could do a story with two girls, Max and Jamie, who were cousins. They were stuck with each other for the summer at their grandmother’s house in a blue-collar, coastal New England town. Of course one was the “neat character” – hated makeup and such. One was the snot – always putting her tomboy cousin down. Mix in a hefty dose of all of those animosities that creep up between two very different 12-14 year-old girls, add in a quiet, smart, 14-year-old boy to bring complications, and there was my picture book. Except it got rejected. Not to mention that what I just described is no more a picture book than a refrigerator is. And…not to mention that the story line is a bit simplistic, cliché, and maybe not totally honest?

Midlife brings humility in the form of gray hairs, wrinkles, and regrets. Life beats you up enough and somewhere along the line you start to realize, gee, maybe I’m not so right, and maybe they’re not so wrong. Odd ideas arise, such as maybe those snobby girls weren’t the only ones acting like a jerk? This was a scary thought. I always saw me as their victim. Though I didn’t like what I was feeling about how I’d acted, I investigated that line of reasoning a little deeper. I took a good look at who were those girls, really? Again, midlife does weird things to you. Suddenly I no longer saw demons, just girls as scared and vulnerable as I was. Where I used books or preserved frogs, they used clothes or makeup. They were girls with their own struggles, insecurities, and troubles. Maybe they were even, say it’s not so, living, breathing, 3-dimensional human beings with feelings?

I’d rationalized my behavior all those years by deciding they got what they deserved for looking down on me. Anais Nin said that we see life as we are, not as it is. In that moment all the defenses started crashing. When the dust settled, all I saw were a bunch of people, all very much alike, all just trying to get by. What I realized was that I could be that geeky uncool person just because that’s who I am and it’s what gives me joy in life and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I finally came to accept me. When you accept yourself, you are then free to accept everyone else. You no longer have to judge others to protect yourself. I could just enjoy being a geek and not wield it like a weapon against others. I could lay the weapon down because it wasn’t them vs. me anymore.

After I got over feeling like a jerk, it occurred to me I could add some entirely new layers and depth to that very superficial “picture book.” Also, about the same time, I finally started accepting 1) I don’t have a voice for picture books and 2) NONE of the stories I wanted to write were picture books. At the shortest, “maybe” chapter books, but frankly, I think most of what I wanted to write fit into middle-grade fiction. I finally accepted the fact that the child inside of me is about 11 or 12.

The final nail in the coffin of trying to stuff a novel into a picture book came in the mid-90s. I attended an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and one of the published authors critiqued that third “picture book” I’d written for myself. Her feedback said “Great chapter. Where’s the rest of the book? I want to know what happens to your character before and after this chapter.”

My thought was, there IS no before and after. I only wanted to write that one segment. And what did she mean, “chapter?” It was a book, not a chapter.

Faced with a bunch of rejected picture books that weren’t picture books, I finally surrendered to the truth – I HAD to become a novel writer.

UP NEXT – How do you take three picture books and make a novel?

The Post – Stage Three: Coming Into My Own – Evolution TO a Novel

February 19, 2008

Initially, I was going to call this entry “Evolution of the Novel” thinking I would dig right in to the logistics of writing Under the Pier. But I realized before I could do that, I had to finish the process Uri Shulevitz outlined for the “Evolution of the WRITER.” From that it was clear that this entry’s title needed to be “Evolution TO a novel,” the final leg of coming into my own.

I have always struggled with the fact that others seem to do rings around me. My husband works in a job where not just every day, but every hour, the priorities change, the deadlines change, who he has working for him changes. It’s constant jumping. He has a quick, fast mind. My sisters and friends manage full-time jobs, more than one job, kids, house, pets, and other responsibilities. I thought maybe it’s a writer thing – writers just move at a slower pace. Yet I observe other writers producing novels, while writing articles, while chatting on the writers’ email lists, updating their web sites, promoting their books and doing school visits. It’s like trying to walk with someone who is always faster than you. The best you can do is maybe match them for a little while, but eventually, you always fall behind. For years it bothered me, and the competitive person inside kept trying to keep up or catch up. And I absolutely ABHORRED admitting to anyone, that I couldn’t keep up with them.

The title of last Thursday’s entry for Thich Nhat Hanh’s online course read: “Let Go.” The entry said: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything . . . we cannot be free.” That was the answer I’d finally come to in the last year or so. Just, let it go. Even playing racquetball – I always fought to win when I was younger. Now I never win, but I have grown to love the process of just playing my best. Coming into your own is the moment you finally choose to be free. You let go of the competition and comparisons and just accept who you are.

I am a plodder. Plodders do not have fast brains. While others are rushing around, plodders just stare at them from the sidelines with their mouths open. Instead of snap conclusions, plodders pull things apart, stare at the parts, put them back together differently, then stare some more. Confronted with a pile of seemingly useless, unrelated bits of information, plodders push them around for hours or days or years, until finally a whole picture emerges. The one thing about plodders is that they never quit. They just keep plodding until they find the big picture and make sense of things. They feel the questions and keep going until they have an answer to the question, “What is it?”

It’s like when I did bacteriology. You start out with a confusing mass of all different kinds of bacterial colonies on an agar plate. You look it over until you spot the one that’s probably the culprit of the infection. You stare at the colony on the plate. What color is it? What’s its size, texture, smell? How does it look on different types of agar? What does it look like under the microscope? You run a battery of 20 or more biochemical tests. You end up with this heap of separate, seemingly unrelated bits of data, and the question – what is it? The answer comes from how all those pieces are assembled by a person too stubborn to quit. Assemble the bits like a mosaic and you have Staphylococcus aureus, or Escherichia Coli, or Enterobacter aerogenes, or my favorite, Campylobacter. 🙂

Maybe the thing that plodders and at least this writer have in common is the place inside where we carry both the tools to recognize the patterns, as well as the questions that need to be stared at.

I think stories come from the places within us that hold the unanswered questions. Those places hold the deepest hurts, the places of anger, confusion, sadness, the disappointments, the unsettled business, the tangles we never unknotted, the humiliations we’d like to forget, or the ugly things we don’t want to look at. And the happy moments. There’s the ultimate confusion in life: Why are some times happy and others abysmal? Plodders seek answers by picking through all the tangles, like a bag person picking through the garbage can. If the plodders also happen to be writers, they make their moments of picking through the trash, public. They write a story to document their quest for truth.

The story may not even resemble anything from the writer’s life. Last time I checked, no author has lived in futuristic space or slain any dragons. The story doesn’t have to be autobiography. What it must contain at its core are the questions that that writer carries in their heart. Writers then journey through what they write, to the ultimate whole picture, hopefully, the answer to their question. Some writers can express this journey to find their truth in a 4-line poem or succeed in capturing God in five words or less. Some write picture books. And some, like me, need the panoramic expanse of a longer, more meandering path. That means, novels.

It means plots and subplots, woven like twisted threads. It means primary characters, secondary characters, and maybe a few cardboard characters. It means diverse settings and tweaky, idiosyncratic details. I know this now, because I know me, now. I am exhausted and weary of trying to be what I am not. I am what I am, take it or leave it. Some will relate to my stories, some will hate them. No matter. I write, for me.

I’ve spent many, many years trying all different things on for size. I’ve tried to be what others are. Do what they did. I’m tired of that. I’m ready to be me. So I just, let go.

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

Cyril Connolly – 20th Century British literary critic.

UP NEXT: Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From