Where Stories Come from 2: I Heard It on the Radio

While driving my kids to school one hurried morning, the radio blaring as usual (this was before iPods and downloads, and unless I wanted to dig out a CD to pop in the player, the radio was my go-to for vehicular entertainment), a news report pulled me from half-attention to sharp interest.

“Local police report that a Meals-on-Wheels van was stolen from the corner of Ash and Walnut . . .”

meals on wheels

From the back seat, my daughter piped up, “What kind of person steals a Meals-on-Wheels van?”

What kind of person, indeed? As I delivered the kids to their respective drop-off points, hollered, “Love you; have a good day!” and headed back home, the story and question continued to clang in my head—seriously, who would steal a vehicle from a charity that ministered to elderly shut-ins? Wasn’t that just punching a ticket straight to hell? I began to list, in my mind, all the people who would definitely steal a Meals-on-Wheels truck: Hitler, obviously. Stalin. Mao. Karl Marx. Timothy McVeigh. The Clintons. That neighbor who kept abducting our trashcan and using it to burn trash

I pulled into the carport, my mind swirling as I continued with my list. Saddam Hussein. Jared from Subway. The Black-Eyed Peas, for writing and producing that song, “My Humps.”

camel humps
For the ear-worm, I apologize.

I entered the house, poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat down at my computer, my brain itching. A new question began to form—what did the person who stole the van do with the food in it? Suddenly I saw in my mind’s eye a well-to-do woman sitting cross-legged in the back of a van, leaning against one of the metal racks, surrounded by emptied aluminum-foiled containers, stuffing food into her mouth with her bare hands, her eyes vacant. A new question, now: Why was she so hungry? I began to write, following the woman from a safe distance and yet as close as my own heart, and when I was through, I sat back and read what I’d written. I’d like to say it was perfect, but it wasn’t. There were plot holes, some clichés, repetition that needed to be fixed, but the bare bones were standing on their own, and I knew how to affix the flesh. I spent the next week rewriting, re-polishing, revising, then emailed the story to my darling friend, Lori, to read. She sent back the best review I’ve received to date, a review so splendid, I saved it and referenced it in the blog I kept at the time, not knowing that she would soon be dead of the cancer that would kill her in a span of three months, from diagnosis to death, a short summer of pain that left me a decade (so far) of grief. In honor of my beloved friend, I changed the protagonist’s name to “Lori,” sent the story to several literary journals, was rejected several times, and then Fabula Argentea asked to publish it. If you’re interested, you can read it here.

I teach academic writing, but I have also, in the past, mentored students who are interested in the creative fiction realm. When those students ask me for advice on writing fiction, I provide the following obvious mandates:

Read a lot. Read for pleasure, yes, but also while paying attention to technique. Read different genres than you’re used to. Take note of what you like and don’t like and why. If you come to a phrase or sentence that is amazing, stop and read it aloud so you can savor the taste of good writing on your tongue. Take note, too, of vocabulary that you’re unfamiliar with—introduce yourself to the words. Discard some as unnecessary to your life, but keep more than you throw away. Learn the meaning of sesquipedalianism and use the word in conversation to impress your friends, but avoid the practice in your own writing. `

Pay attention. Be awake and aware of the world around you—it’s full of wonderful stories waiting to be hatched. Take notes of things you hear or see that causes your daily stride to pause. Write everything down, on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, your phone (my “notes” app on my phone is filled with bibs and bobs of observances). Keep a notepad next to your bed, and if you wake up from a dream that lingers, catch it in your net of words. Be willing to accept that not everything you jot down will become a story, but understand that every once in a while, something will, and that something may just be the inspiration you were hoping for.

When that story comes to you, start writing as soon as possible. Don’t wait until tomorrow because inspiration, like a sparkler on a July night, fades quickly. Once you start, get it down. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s “good”—it probably won’t be right out of the gate, but that’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your story shouldn’t be either. Allow for some clumsy junk that you will take out later, but when you write a phrase or sentence that sings to your soul, take a minute to read that aloud, too, and enjoy the thrill of that coveted moment. Revise. Revise some more. Take a nap, go for a walk, then revise again.

And get off the dang internet. When you overhear a curiosity, don’t google “person who stole Meals-on-Wheels truck” because I promise you, the real story won’t be near as fun.


Love in Cowboy Boots

I was sitting in my seventh-grade math class, bored and confused as usual (sorry, Mr. Wilson, but sums and I just never got along), when suddenly I felt a terrible itching on my scalp. I reached up to scratch and felt a bump, which immediately burst when I touched it. I pulled my fingers back and looked at them in horror—they were wet with some sort of clear liquid. I touched another spot on my scalp and experienced the same thing. I looked around at my classmates, panic beginning to fill my chest—was I dying of some exotic African disease? Would I have time to say good-bye to those I loved, or was I now melting, like the wicked witch of the East? (“What a world! What a world!”)

My friend looked over at me, and I watched her eyes widen. “You have red bumps all over your face,” she said. She raised her hand and caught our teacher’s attention. “Sir,” she said, interrupting an important part of the lesson whereby a person divides the bottom of a fraction to the top, “Becky is sick—she needs to go to the infirmary.”

Mr. Wilson stopped speaking, chalk in hand. He glanced over at me, frowned for a moment, then said, “Go.” As I gathered up my books, he said. “Leave that stuff—your classmate will take it to your dorm for you. Don’t touch anything on your way out.”

Now I was really alarmed—not only was I probably dying, I was so infectious I could kill the entire population of RVA (the boarding school I attended) with my bare, virus-ridden hands! I stumbled up the rocky path to the infirmary. I hated going up there; the building was at the top of a hill, isolated from the rest of the campus, and it seemed like miles, especially if you were sick or in pain. I lamented, as I itched and fretted, why the architects decided to build the infirmary so far away and up a hill. Sick people don’t LIKE to walk. I decided that maybe they did it to discourage “fakers”—a body had to be really sick to want to go all that way for help.

I staggered up to the door and was greeted by Mrs. S, the school’s nurse, a thin, pale woman who wore her black hair straight and parted down the middle like a perfectly straight knife scar. She took one look at me and pronounced, “Chicken-pox. It’s bed for you, Lewis. I’ll call down to your dorm and have someone bring your clothes.” She took my temperature, tucked me into bed, instructed me severely not to scratch, and left me to my own devices.

At first, I didn’t mind being in the infirmary. I was, strangely enough, the only patient there, so Mrs. S brought me cinnamon toast and hot cocoa whenever I asked for it. “Don’t scratch” was still the only directive I had to obey. I soon discovered the infirmary had the entire “Wizard of Oz” series in its limited library of donated books, and I gorged myself, reading until my eyes crossed. It didn’t take long, however, until I started getting plain old BORED. I was used to being with my friends 24-7, and the quiet of the infirmary started to get to me. It was creepy, all alone in that sterile white room. Having been a student at boarding school for two years now, I wasn’t used to being in a room by myself. Thursday passed, and then Friday. I started to feel very sorry for myself—my friends would be going up to Downing Hall that night to watch a movie, while I was just stuck in bed, counting the ceiling tiles. I sighed miserably. Suddenly, I heard a sharp rapping on the window. I rolled over and looked out through the anti-theft bars that adorned many of the houses in Kenya. I squealed with delight and pushed the window pane open, waving my hands wildly. Outside were my six best friends, grinning up at me.

“Hey, we thought you might be a little lonely,” one pal said. “We’re on our way up to Downing and thought we’d stop by and say hi.”

Before I could reply, Mrs. S rushed into my room. “What are you girls doing?” she called out to them. “Becky is quarantined—I don’t need a giant outbreak of chicken-pox. Now scram.”

“Miss you!” my friends cried as they left me, and I watched them until they disappeared down the path, their voices musical as they chattered away, then I settled back into bed glumly. Mrs. S shook her head at me. “Try and rest,” she said. “And DON’T SCRATCH.”

I laid my head on the pillow and closed my eyes. A vision of my mother and father suddenly filled the darkness behind my lids. “I want to go home,” I whispered to myself. A tear found its way past my eyelid and burned a trail down my cheek. I felt ridiculously child-like—I was way too old to be crying for my mommy and daddy—but there it was. Babyish or not, I wanted to go home. I knew sometimes parents came up to Rift and collected their kids when they were sick, but I also knew that mine wouldn’t—my home was six hours away on a pot-holed, Kenyan road, and mid-term break was only a week away. I would have to just gut it out until then, all alone. Feeling itchy, miserable, and not a little sorry for myself, I cried until I fell asleep.

Early the next morning, I woke to the echoing, clomping sounds of somebody walking down the long hallway. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “That sort of sounds like my dad’s boots,” I thought, wistfully. My father, who’d been from Arkansas before we’d relocated to Kenya in 1976, had worn cowboy boots for as long as I could remember. The leather boots were worn down on the outside of the heels because of the way he walked, and as result, the sound was distinct and familiar. I sighed and rolled over, resting my elbows on the windowsill next to my bed, looking out and thinking about my father. I noticed that the clomping sound was getting louder and louder. Suddenly the noise stopped outside my room. The door to my room opened, and my dad walked in, grinning through his beard. “Hi, sweetie,” he said, “You’re not feeling so hot, huh?”

I stared at him in disbelief for a moment, then propelled myself out of bed and into his arms. “You’re here!” I said.

He kissed the top of my itchy head. “Of course I’m here. I was up in Turkana when the school called and told your mom about you being sick. She told me as soon as I got home, and I got right back in the truck to come and get you.”

I was awestruck. Turkana, the bush country where my father had a church, was a twelve hour drive from our home. My school was six hours away in the other direction; that meant my dad had been driving for eighteen hours straight. (Wow. I guess I did learn some math.) I looked at his tired face and hugged him again tightly. “Thanks, Daddy,” I said, another tear working its way onto the slope of my cheek.

He hugged me back. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I couldn’t just leave my girl in here, sick and all alone, could I?”

It’s funny that chicken-pox would become one of my favorite memories, isn’t it?

Happy Father’s Day, Baba. I love you.

me dad sara menonite gh (2)
Me, on the left, my dad and his boots, center, and my sister, Sara, on the right. Mennonite Guest House, Nairobi, Kenya, circa 1980 something.

Faith, Art, and Staying Out of Pigeonholes

My daughter gave me her copy of Madeline L’Engle’s Walking On Water a few years ago. Knowing that I was deep in the process of writing my novel, she thought I’d enjoy L’Engle’s profound reflections on faith and art. I was grateful for the gift and excited to read it (A Wrinkle in Time has long held a solid place at the table of my favorite books as a child), but for some reason, I set it on the book-laden desk in my bedroom and forgot all about it.

lengle booktable

Fast-forward to the present: After the painstaking work of writing and even MORE painstaking work of querying my manuscript, I finally received an offer of publication for my book. (Side note for those waiting for that magic acceptance email: A Wrinkle in Time was rejected TWENTY-SIX TIMES before being accepted for publication! So never, ever give up!) At the same time, I finished reading my latest “devotional” (I usually have one spiritual, non-fiction reading going, along with at least two fictions) and was searching my book table for a new one. I spotted Walking on Water, opened it up, began to read the first chapter, and felt God settle next to me for a chat. This was the perfect book for the moment—since finishing my novel, I’d been struggling with my role as a writer who is a Christian but doesn’t write “Christian” books. What did that say about me? Was I not using the gifts God had given me in the “right” way? What choice did I have but to write the way I write? While I respect Jeannette Oake and her ilk and am grateful for the gift she shares so joyfully with her public, I can neither enjoy her books personally, nor can I write books like hers. They’re just not my style. My joy of future publication became mired in uncertainty–what if I disappointed those who believed in me and expected something I didn’t have to give—in truth, didn’t want to give?

L’Engle’s book is about a Christian writer who doesn’t write “Christian” fiction. Her novels’ themes are often threaded with spiritual truths and are grace-filled, but she freely and happily admits that she never, ever set out to be a Christian-fiction-writer, saying:

“But I am a writer. That’s enough of a definition. (I infinitely prefer to say that I’m a Christian than to mention any denomination, for such pigeonholing is fragmenting, in religion as in art.) So, I am a Christian. I am a writer . . . Because I am a struggling human being, trying to make sense of the meaningless of much of life in this century and daily searching  for revelatory truth in Scripture, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever want to write novels of pessimism or porno, no matter how realistic my work. But I don’t want to be shut in, labelled, the key turned, so that I am not able to grow and develop, as a Christian, as a writer. I want that freedom which is a large part of the Christian promise, and I don’t want any kind of label to diminish that freedom. It is sad and ironic to have to admit that it does.”

madeline (2)

She is what I want to be, what I want my work to reflect: A Christian who happens to write fiction. She is bold in her reminders that the Bible is full of things that a genre Christian-fiction-writer wouldn’t touch, like rape, incest, erotic poetry, and then reminds us that God is the author of imagination, and the job of a writer is to explore and share the life we’ve been given–every beautiful, messy, painful, horrible, wonderful bit of it. Our love for God and desire to please him in our work is what makes a Christian writer different. We shouldn’t flinch in writing about the ugly, but we shouldn’t stay there or glorify it, either. We look for the grace and the hope, as we should when experiencing troubles in real life.

Even more darling in the reading was the discovery that my daughter had annotated the book as she’d read it, filling it with notes cheering on science, smiley-face-“haha” giggles in the margins, and sweet notes of encouragement to me  (“Your book does this, too, Mom!” “Just like your character, George!”).


Balm of Gilead to my soul, given to me exactly when I needed it the most. As we say in Kenya, Mungu ni mwema.

Where Stories Come From 1: Pa

The idea for my soon-to-be-published novel germinated a long, long time ago during a visit to my maternal grandpa, who we called “Pa.” Since my Nanny’s death that July, I’d been trying to check in on him more. Every time I visited, my Pa would begin to reminisce about Nanny, about how much he loved and missed her, and he’d begin to cry– something I had never seen before. It was difficult to know what to say, especially since I was dealing with my own grief over losing her. It was unsettling to see her blue-gray easy chair sitting there in the living room, empty; I kept expecting her to wander in and say, in her throaty, husky voice, “Well, hello, there, Hon. How’s Becky doing?”

One day when I dropped by, I somehow got Pa started on telling me a story about a notorious local woman who he remembered seeing when he was younger—a former carnie who stomped around town wearing men’s clothing and swearing at the sheriff. He talked and talked, getting tickled as he relayed the story, delighting me with the tale so much that I went home and ordered a seven-page booklet from a local author about the woman’s life. That spark of interest and research would eventually become the basis for my upcoming novel. Looking back on it, the more important part of that day was that my Pa had not even mentioned my Nanny, let alone cried, the entire visit.

What a gift that afternoon was.

The next time I went to my Pa’s house, I immediately shared the booklet I had read with him. That started him telling me another story about the day he saw a rough, mean fellow shoot four men in cold blood on the porch of a bar as my Pa, a child then, stood around the corner and watched. I was again instantly entranced. My Pa had an amazing memory for details — he could recall names and dates and how each person he knew was connected (“kin”) to everyone else. He was a good storyteller, too — very linear in his recounting so everything made orderly sense. He talked for an hour and needed very little input from me, and I was sorry when I had to leave to pick my kids up from school. As I hugged my Pa goodbye, I shouted in his ear (he was a mite deaf), “I’ll be back soon — and I want some more stories.”

He grinned, that sweet-as-honey, big bear of a man who always dressed only in denim overalls, the same outfit we’d bury him in a year later, and shuffled his feet a little. “Waall, Beck,” he said, “I don’t know . . . but I do have some stories to tell, I guess.”

pa in overalls

He surely did. And I’m so grateful—as someone who’s chosen to become a story-teller herself, it’s quite a legacy he left me.