The Best Critique

100_3397My best friend, Lori, died ten years ago today, and I still miss her. Maybe not every day, like I did at first, but a lot. Especially when something excellent or awful is happening—I want to call her and mourn or call her and celebrate. Weddings, graduations, births (her grandsons are the cutest kids in the world and I HATE that they don’t get the awesome experience of having her as their grandma)—all are sweetness laced with sorrow. In those moments, I catch the eyes of those who loved her too and can almost see, like cartoon speech bubbles above all our heads, “I wish Lori were here . . .”

On her birthday this year, I was shelving at the library, and as I put a book away, I realized the title was Lonesome Dove. Memories of watching the television version of the book with Lori and her husband Chris flooded over me—I remembered Lori’s giggle at Robert Duvall’s line, “I’m down to one leg and fading fast.” I heard Chris drawling, “Lori, darlin” at her like Duvall did to the good-natured whore in the movie, and grief made me physically weak. I had to find a quiet corner to compose myself.

It never goes away, and I don’t want it to—those memories are worth the pain.

lonesome dove

When I was offered the publishing contract for my book, I told my husband the good news, and he rejoiced with me, hugging me in the kitchen and repeating, “That’s awesome, honey!” I then called my daughter and parents, squealed for awhile with them, and then started composing a “hurrah” message to my other BFFS—Jenna, Shannon, Trish, and my sister, Sara. As I scrolled through my contacts, I saw it: Lori’s name and number (I can’t seem to let myself delete it, though I know the number is no longer hers), and here it came—that dry-aspirin sorrow that curled around the edges of my tongue. More than anything in the world at that moment, I wanted to call my lovely friend, who was always my biggest writing cheerleader. I stepped outside, onto the porch, and cried familiar, angry tears.

I visited her grave that evening to tell her all about it; her site is on my regular walking route, and I stop by often to give her updates. I tell her how her kids and husband and parents are doing; I mutter about what is going on in my own life; I fuss about irritations or chuckle about something and wish I could hear the wind-chime tinkle of her gorgeous laugh. I kiss my palm and lay it on her tombstone and tell her, “I love you and miss you, pal. I’ll talk to  you soon,” before trudging on. Though I know she’s not there, that she’s in heaven having a great time, talking to her at her grave is a comfort to me.

When I wrote my story “Mitigation”I sent it, in its rough form, to Lori to read. I saved the Facebook conversation Lori and I had about it because it was just the best critique of anything I’d ever written; I had no idea that she would be gone six months later. It was precious for the words; it’s even more precious because it was the last critique I’d ever have from her.

Here’s part of our conversation:

    • January 14, 2010

9:06pm

Lori Kauffman

Becky,

GREAT story! What a compelling glimpse into how every woman feels at some point! I liked how you created the weight of all 24 years within just a few short paragraphs, and how when Linda STEALS the truck and gorges herself on the elderly’s food, I completely understood and sympathized with her insanity! I think we as women often identify ourselves too much through who we are to someone else. I know I have felt that sense of emptiness that comes from not being “seen” any longer. You summed up that feeling so well in Linda’s line …“I love him,” she said, “if only because he once knew me when I was someone else. If he doesn’t see me that way anymore, then I am afraid I am lost forever.” How Linda finds herself filling up this emptiness is just genius … Meals on Wheels for Christ’s sake is PERFECT, Becky!

I also liked you developed the theme of the emptiness of material possessions. These people had spent a lifetime accumulating things that only made them feel all the more empty inside because that’s all they had invested in. “And with that guttural noise, one more piece of the carefully arranged mosaic of their marriage fell away.” That line was so good I had to stop and read it several times over! In fact, that paragraph was so well-written I could almost taste it! I love short stories, Becky, and this story is EXCELLENT. It made me feel like a Peeping Tom stealing a glimpse through the curtain into Linda’s life!

Regarding your concern about the ending, I felt Linda’s response to Harold rang very true. In fact I found the ending quite hopeful. Linda is a woman who, after 24 years of being someone’s wife and accumulating the “stuff” of life, has realized that is ALL she has. It was empowering for her to write that check for her freedom, and through their exchange in his Corvette, I feel we further understand this sense of empowerment she is feeling. How she has no sense of concern for the aftershocks to their social standing but rather can’t wait to bake for those poor Meals on Wheels folks truly communicates the metamorphosis she’s undergone. I love how you describe her chuckling to herself in the jailhouse mirror!

So now I have to ask a question – I hope I don’t offend you if I should have known this – but where does the title come from —– Seventh Stage? Thank you so much for sharing! You are an incredibly talented writer, my friend!

Love,
Lori

PS: The Tea Room sounds great!

9:22pm

Becky Lewis Marietta

Oh, heavens! You are the one I will be sending all my stuff to from here on out–THANK YOU, my friend! Not only did you say nice things about the story (kindred spirit of mine), but you gave a real professional review–and you got all the nuances! You should review books–you’re really good at summing up the main points. I’m humbled and DELIGHTED that you liked it so much.

The title WAS a little cryptic (I have trouble writing titles sometimes because they are so important and I love other people’s clever titles,). I got it from the seven stages of grief–the seventh stage, which is the last one, is acceptance and hope.

Interesting note: I got the idea from listening to the news on the radio–someone actually did steal a Meals-On-Wheels, and I thought at the time, “What kind of person would steal a Meals-On-Wheels? What would MAKE a person steal a Meals-On-Wheels?” That was the germ that turned into the story.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading it and thank you, thank you, thank you for your kind words. Really, that’s why I write–that connection with someone else in the world who “gets” it. That’s it–you’re my official favorite reader!

So, how does Monday lunch at the Tea Room work for you?
Love ya,
Becky

9:38pm

Lori Kauffman

I love the “cryptic-ness” of the title … acceptance and hope … indeed, that is the icing on Linda’s cake! I graciously accept the “official favorite reader” title if it means you will share more with me!

The story is really great, Becky, and I think what makes it great is how it rings true to our humanity (we’ve all felt like Linda at one point or another), and how your writing style is so descriptive and poetic. It’s not just me that “gets” it, Becky — I think it’s the kind of story a LOT of people will feel a connection with.

Monday Lunch at the Tea Room sounds great! How about we meet there at 12?

9:42pm

Becky Lewis Marietta

Love, love, love to you!
Yep, 12:00 on Monday–it’s a date!

Lori Kauffman

9:44pm

Lori Kauffman

LOVE to you! Can’t wait ’till Monday!

After Lori died, I changed the main character’s name in the aforementioned story in honor of my friend who helped me believe in myself as a writer. When I wrote my novel, I gave one of my favorite characters Lori’s maiden name because though she is not here with me physically, her fingerprints are all over the place, in my writing and on my heart.

I love you and miss you, pal. I’ll talk to you soon.

lori becky (2)

 

Holding Pattern (Or, My Wah-Wah-Wah Post)

As are many of us struggling with the COVID blues (actually, for me it’s more like the mean reds), I’ve been in a holding pattern in most areas in my life. Yesterday, frustrated by yet another plan gone awry, I wailed at my husband, “2020 was supposed to be the year of Becky!” There were/are two big milestones for me this year—I turned 50, and my husband and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary soon. I was going to go on a grand zip line adventure for my 50th because one of my greatest childhood memories was riding the rickety (and, now that I think about it, pretty dangerous) zip line in the playground at Titchie Swot at RVA.

zipline trolley

I remember climbing up the planks nailed into the tree and stepping onto the wooden platform, my knees shaking a little, my hands sweaty. Titchie Swot zip line protocol demanded that the last person to have zipped would wait and hold the trolley wheel until the next person was ready to go. I accepted the handle, watched the other person disappear back down the tree, and turned to face the line. Gripping the handles on either side of the wheel that was balanced on the cable, I took a little hop up and jumped out. As I zoomed over the playground towards the big tree on the other side of the line, I whooped and hollered, giddy with the freedom of flight.

rva20039
Me during the oh-so exciting Titchie Field Day at RVA, circa 1981

Thirty-nine years later, I still remember the danger, the excitement, the exhilaration vividly. So when I started planning a daring do for my 50th, all I could think of was that zip line. I found a place that had several zip lines interconnected, a three-hour “tour” of the tree-tops, and booked two tickets for me and my husband, along with a nice bed-and-breakfast stay. Then COVID struck, the zip line shut down for a couple of months, and I ended up having a very nice, but not very exciting, supper with my family for my birthday.

 

wah wah

For our 30th anniversary, Casey and I were in the thick of planning a two-week trip to Croatia. (Yes, Croatia. It’s gorgeous. Don’t you judge me.) We’d planned the itinerary and were almost ready to finalize booking with our travel agent, and then COVID hit. So no trip overseas for us this year—maybe, if the city and state don’t shut down again, we can do what I planned for my 50th on our 30th. Or we may just have a nice supper.

debby downer

And then there’s the effect of COVID on my writing. After a bit of a dry spell, I finally had an idea for my next novel that excited me. I started researching and planning, even going so far as to learn how to tell fortunes with some gypsy cards from the 1940s. I muttered possible dialogues as I watered the garden or went for a walk around town. (If you’ve seen me doing that, friends in Siloam, relax. I’m only a little bit mad.) I wrote three beginnings, trying to figure out which way I’d like to go, and then the mandates from the university where I adjunct started appearing in my inbox, like so many goat-head burrs on my socks.

Exhortations to be ready to teach face-to-face while staying far, far away from my students poured over me and made my head and my heart hurt—one of my classes is a writing class for students who aren’t quite ready for English I. They generally need a LOT of interactive coaching (read: me looking over their shoulders and asking questions or making suggestions) and cheerleading, as I try to convince them that they are NOT terrible at English; they simply need to learn the tricks, and I’m just the old gal who can teach them. Standing in a duct-tape-on-the-carpet “box” at the front of class, a mask over my face as I try to teach, unable to show my smile of encouragement, is frankly a nightmare. So is making sure all the assignments in and out of class are online accessible—no longer can I, on the spur-of-the-moment, say, “Get out a piece of paper and let’s create some sentences.” No, I have to plan ahead and create a discussion board post for every interaction. Normally I spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to convince my students NOT to look at their laptops or phones in class and instead engage face to face, because research has shown empathy has gone down with the advent of screens and the technology that runs them. Now I’m supposed to instead encourage my students to stare at a screen all day, every day. So much for building empathy by looking at and responding to a human being’s expression. I’m telling you—the effects of social distancing and mask wearing are going to be catastrophic psychologically in the long run, especially for our young people. Humans aren’t meant to live this way.

In short, we’re doomed.

So, hello hours spent on Blackboard, goodbye, great new idea for a novel. It’s sitting on the shelf dimming as I work to create folders, links to assignments, narrations for PowerPoints. I do hope it will brighten when I pick it up again, but I’m afraid that like so many of my dreams this year, it’s already slipping away from me.

Getting a contract of publication for my current novel has been the only thing that’s been really splendid this year. My novel is now in the hands of my editor, who says it should be ready for me by the end of August. I am looking forward to seeing her suggestions and spending some time on the rewrites, but I gotta be honest—I’m a little afraid to hope. 2020 has taught me not to make plans.

Five more months until 2021. Until then, I’ll be circling the runway (or the drain) with the rest of the world.

34556-lie-down-try-not-to-wah-wah-a-lot

Walking Away from the COVID and Into the Wild West

elizabeth bennet walker

            Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, I have nothing, in short to recommend me but being an excellent walker. I can walk for miles and miles as long as I have a good book in my ears and it’s not too cold. (Heat I’m fine with, but cold? No thanks. When I get cold, it takes forever for me to warm back up, and it physically hurts me to be chilly. I’ve been known to cry angry tears when I’m freezing.)

Since the COVID madness, I’ve ramped things up, walking four miles a day on average, and the more stressed or mad I get, the longer my walks become. In fact, I rage-walked 6.83 miles one day last week because I was OVER IT ALL.7 miles

I’m not ill-informed, stupid, selfish, or stubborn; I just don’t believe in a piece of cloth’s ability to solve a natural pandemic, and based on all the flip-flopping and conflicting statements, I don’t believe the “experts” really do either. I do believe completely in Ronald Reagan’s quip that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” As someone who grew up in a foreign country that was sort-of free (there were elections, but the outcome was predetermined; you had to be very careful not to criticize the government; I lived through a failed military coup when I was 12 and remember the countless police checkpoints after the coup was put down), I was raised to believe in the Constitution of the United States and its purpose: to protect her citizens FROM the government by limiting its powers. This idea that we are now beholden TO the government instead hurts me deep in my soul.

But I digress; back to books and walking. My go-to audiobooks these days have weirdly been of the Wild West variety (not my typical). I listened to a book about Doc Holliday that I LOVED (called Doc, by Mary Doria Russell), which made me want to load up the car immediately and head to Dodge City and then on to Tombstone. (Hey! A new bucket list item!) A couple of days ago, I finished a book by Larry McMurtry (of the Lonesome Dove fame) called Zeke and Ned.

What an unexpected joy! The story was great, the characters fantastic, and the setting a pleasant surprise; because Zeke and Ned are part Cherokee, they live in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a town very familiar to me as that is where I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and started my college teaching career (at the former Cherokee Female Seminary, now known as Northeastern State University).nsu

An even more unexpected delight was the reference to Siloam Spring, Arkansas, the town just over the border where I teach, shop, and yes, walk. I’d never heard any book before mention Siloam Springs, and though it was only briefly discussed as a place where the men went to gamble, it was still very cool to imagine a writer of McMurtry’s status noticing the town enough to put it in the book.

I’m not sure why I’m so attracted to Wild West stories these days. Maybe it’s because I relate to and long for the fierce independence of the characters of old, be they sheriff, outlaw, prostitute, or farmer. I imagine the bemused expressions on the faces of these scarlet fever, smallpox, and dysentery survivors as they are told to stay home for an illness that has claimed less than .26% of the population. Then they’re informed that if they do go out, they must cover their faces “to protect others.” Their response would likely be to laugh uproariously before reminding the mask mandate-giver that only bank and train robbers cover their faces.

I am also drawn to the old-fashioned style of writing in westerns, regardless of the author. For example, in Zeke and Ned, a character is raped, but instead of every gory detail that television, movies, and many contemporary books in other genres love to provide, the terrible event is relayed simply by the observation that the woman “was outraged” and scoundrels “treated her rough.” My horror and sorrow for the character was not lessened by the lack of voyeuristic explanation.

I love all the “-some” words in westerns—“bothersome,” “troublesome,” “tiresome,” “worrisome,” “winsome”—and that usually the most swearsome words are “hell” (usually preceded by “aw”) and “damnation.” Other non-swear swears abound—“tarnation,” “I’ll be blasted” (or “hornswoggled”), “darn-tootin,” “by ginger,” and “jumped up Jehoshaphat.” I’ve always believed that excessive swearing shows a limited vocabulary and lack of creativity; saying, “Now git—you’re as ugly as homemade sin, and that mug of yourn is curdling my milk” is so much more interesting than “eff you.”

I appreciate, too, the manners and codes of honor in these books. Everyone knows his or her place and someone is always on hand to gently (or not-so-gently) remind those who forget. People in western novels talk, but they also listen, and if they disagree, they at least offer courtesy in the disagreement. Nobody is screeching to get his or her way—opinions are presented, and then that’s the end of it. Conversation is just that–a “talk between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged” (Merriam-Webster). It’s not a must-win-at-all-cost argument, which these days seems to be all conversation is anymore, at least on the internet.

Finally, though everything doesn’t always end “happily ever after,” justice is always served. The bad guy gets his comeuppance; you can bet he’s going to end up shot or hung for the outrages and rough treatments he indulged in. Order is restored. The brothel madam with the heart of gold marries a man who treats her right, and if the cowboy hero dies, it is with his boots on and his reputation grown as big as a Texas sky. The hero’s faithful horse and even more faithful dog remain alive and unscathed, either to ride the hero off into the sunset or to sit quietly by his grave, mourning his loss forever. When the last page is turned (or read, as in an audiobook), I can sigh with satisfaction and trudge back to the chaos of this world, my feet sore, the heel pads almost worn to bone, my heart hoping for a return to stability and justice and freedom.

calamity jane

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.

 

Editing Tool to Rock My World

Error patterns: All writers have them. Some struggle, with comma usage rules, sprinkling commas, in their prose, like farmers, throwing seeds, on, a, freshly, plowed, field. Others fear commas so they allow their sentences to pile up on one another like cars on crowded busy freeways in California at rush hour causing the reader to mentally crash before reaching the end of the sentence. (Phew.)

Still Others think that Every word should Be capitalized at Will, making the reader wonder what was so important about “every” and who “Will” is. And oh, the error pattern of the misspeller, who doesn’t understand using “you’re” when he means “your” can make some reading his mistake physically hurt in their soul

I teach academic writing in college, and much of my time is spent helping students identify and then fix their own personal error patterns in writing. I assure them that they are not alone, that almost everyone has a writing “bugaboo” he or she struggles with, and that the writing problem one person struggles with may not be the same as someone else’s. The key is to follow Alcoholics Anonymous’s first rule: Admit you have a problem. Once you get that out of the way, it’s simply a matter of learning what the problem is, how to fix it, and then being diligent in not making that mistake again. I have all kinds of tips and tricks to help my students with their various writing problems, and when they use these tricks, I watch their error patterns disappear. It’s gratifying to see.

Like my students, I have my own personal error pattern. My brain moves faster than my fingers, and as such, I have problem with forgetting put in words. (Oh, sorry–I meant that I have problem with forgetting to put in words.) I can read a document over and over and think I’ve fixed every missing word problem, then the minute I hit “submit,” my eyes clear and I see allll my mistakes and spend the rest of the day in shame and despair, feeling like a fraud.

To combat my error issue, I used to read every piece of writing aloud, following the words with my finger as I did. It was a tedious process, but it was mainly effective. I’d resigned myself to this tortured, slow way of revision, until recently I discovered a feature on Microsoft Word that rocked my editing world. I felt like Dorothy and her pals in The Wizard of Oz when they were told that their brains, heart, courage, and way home had been with them all along. Archetypes: The Wizard of Oz (Part Two) - Go Into The Story

My wonderful, commonplace tool is the “speak aloud” function in MS Word. I just had to realize it existed and enable it.

speak aloud

So allow me to say: I LOVE THIS FREAKING FEATURE! I revised my entire novel manuscript using the speak function, and though I’d revised it six times AND had friends adept in English read it over for me, I now caught several words I (and they) had missed. And not only did I notice my error-pattern-errors, listening to that flat robot voice read my book aloud allowed me to hear (and fix) some repetition, “flow,” and confusing structure issues. Even cooler: Sometimes while listening to the robot read my book to me, I’d forget I’d written the words and think, “Wow, that was a good phrase! Wow, that is an exciting scene! Wow, I really like that character!” Then I’d remember, grin, pat myself on the back, and say, “YOU wrote that good phrase, lovely character, and exciting scene, you author, you!”

(Words of affirmation are my “love language.” Sometimes I have to remember it’s okay to love myself.)

I Love Me | Official Johnny Bravo Merchandise | Be Awara

Maybe I’m the only person in the world who didn’t know about this excellent tool, but in case I’m not, I highly recommend it. For me, it works better to listen to my writing a paragraph at a time while I read along and pause to fix errors. This stops me from becoming overwhelmed or zoning out. When I revised my book this way, I’d listen to a few pages in a sitting several times a day, with a brain-break in between. This process took about two weeks (my book is currently around 93,000 words), and when I was done, I was really pleased with the results. Now I use the feature for everything—important emails, bios, comments on student writings, and yes, blog posts. I write everything in Word, hit the “speak aloud” button at the top of the page, listen and fix, CTRL-A, CTRL-C (if not a document), and save/send/submit.

Ain’t technology (sometimes) grand?

Napoleon Dynamite: Yes, I love technology

 

 

“Patience Is a Virtue, Virtue Is a Grace . . .

. . . Grace is a little girl who wouldn’t wash her face.” Well, scour that stubborn pate, Grace, because patience finally paid off! After three long years of research, writing, revising, submitting, shrugging bravely at rejection, submitting some more, revising some more, eating vats of comfort chocolate upon more rejection and refusing to give up, my book has finally found a publishing home! TouchPoint Press , a traditional, royalty-paying publisher has offered me a contract for publication and I accepted.

Let the wild rumpus begin!

I will be posting more on this site about my experiences in the publishing journey. So far, I’ve signed a contract, filled out some author data forms and had headshots taken for the website and book cover. (My goofball selfies make me look unserious, go figure. However, I resisted taking a stark black-and-white picture of me in a turtleneck, my hair scraped back severely in a bun, my chin resting ever so lightly on my hand, my index finger thoughtfully grazing my cheek.) I’ve also resigned myself to having to return to Facebook. Cue big dramatic sigh.

As we say in Kenya, Mungu ni mwema!

 

 

Clyde Kilby’s Eleven Resolutions: Timely and Timeless

Dr. Clyde S. Kilby, former professor of English at Wheaton College and renowned scholar on “the Inklings,” developed the following eleven resolutions for daily life. He shared those resolutions with his lucky students every year by copying them into his course syllabi. Rather than resolutions for the body (get fit, lose weight, eat better, sleep more), they are resolutions for the care and feeding of the soul. I decided to share Kilby’s resolutions today as a reminder to myself and my readers to take a deep breath, thank God for this season of spring, and try to make this day, this moment–the only one we’re really promised–count for something good.

  1. I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”
  1. At least once a day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet travelling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.
  1. Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death, when he said:  “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within.  There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing.”
  1. I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worth potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parenthesis in my existence, but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual maturity.
  1. I shall not turn my life into a thin straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.
  1. I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to.  Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.
  1. I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person.  I shall not then be concerned to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are.  I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic” existence.
  1. I shall turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably as C. S. Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.
  1. I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggest, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.
  1. If for nothing more than the sake of a change of view, I shall assume my ancestry to be from heaven rather than the caves.
  1. Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by an Architect who calls Himself Alpha and Omega.

(Clyde S. Kilby, 1902-1986)