It was 1986 and I was asked to read at our school’s chapel. The visiting reverend had the gospel handled; I as a senior could pick an appropriate reading to share with all my classmates. I chose the scene where Atticus shoots the rabid dog.
To me, this scene embodies everything that is wondrous about Harper Lee’s writing. A 1930s community is at a standstill from the terror of an infected dog that could end lives. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent…” (103) An aging father is asked to take up a gun, in front of his children, because he’s the “deadest shot in Maycomb County” (106).
Atticus protests; he’s not shot a gun in 30 years. The sheriff begs him. His children and Calpurnia stand frozen, breath bated. The scene unfolds with cinematic perfection, every moment a slow motion rendering of suspenseful action and dialogue. Atticus fells the dog in one shot.
And the dog’s name? Tim Johnson. You can’t walk a foot inside Mockingbird without running into rich character, that wry and understated humor alternating with poignant, gut-wrenching honesty.
Jem is astounded his dad is capable of such things. He’s been so embarrassed by his father’s age and infirmity–his inability to play football and the like. He and Scout can’t imagine why Atticus has never bragged about his shooting skill. It’s because, Miss Maudie says, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents” (107).
The 17 year-old standing before her peers and teachers that day chose this passage for many reasons, not the least of which was loving this book so much. But today I’d like to think it’s because this moment and many of the moments in Mockingbird are about doing the right thing, the humble thing, and the hard thing.
In our country, this book woke up a lot of white people unaware of or unwilling to face racial inequality. Though most still did nothing afterwards, for a moment they got a glimmer of understanding about injustice. It took the voice of a little girl from the Depression era to awaken a 1960s white-majority America to the fact that white privilege does indeed exist, that the drum major instinct–the superiority complex that Dr. King described so eloquently–is a virulent source of racial hatred.
It all comes down to whether your inner sphere is a raging brew of uncontested, ugly desires, or whether you are, as Miss Maudie says of Atticus, “civilized in your heart.” Jem is thrilled to discover this part of his father—the glorious, secret strength that craves no glory whatsoever.
“Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back, ‘Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!’” (107)
Harper Lee created a man whom most men and women never are and never will be. Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is a tenacious fighter for justice, saintly with his patience, and self-sacrificing at the risk of his own and his children’s safety. Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a fearful old man who rationalizes and intellectualizes his racism. My guess is the truth of any Atticus who ever lived is somewhere in between.
On this day of her death, I salute Nelle Harper Lee. She did something braver than I as a white girl would have done in 1960.
To Ms. Lee, whose magnum opus was one tiny part of a much larger Movement that had been hard fought so long already.
To Ms. Lee, who hating the limelight herself, stowed herself away like Boo Radley to appreciate the finer things of life beyond fame.
Your light is eternal, a steady flame fueling itself, seeking no air or wind from others. Rest in peace after a life well lived.
“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” (296)
Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia and New York. 1960.
Us writers, we have wa-a-a-a-a-y too much to say. Just like teachers, just like teens. All of whom I’ll find a way to mention in this post.
One time when I was teaching English, I took a group of 10th graders on a walk. We were reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, who risked his life in the wilderness of Alaska instead of embracing a mainstream lifestyle. We took a meditative walk on a trail through the woods in a local park and preserve. “15 minutes of quiet,” I told my class. “That’s all you have to do. Walk. Breathe. Think.”
“Jeremy!” I called as gently as I could. “Please, be quiet!”
“Okay, Ms. Fairchild.” And yet he kept talking.
“Jeremy!” I raised my voice. “I mean it!”
We had quiet for a brief respite. Then: more chatter.
“Jeremy!” I’d had it. “Why can’t you meditate for a minute? Close. Your. Mouth!!!”
“But Ms. Fairchild!” he called back. “I just have so much to say!”
He’s a musician now. I’m so glad I couldn’t shut him up.
I was that talkative kid, and am that kid still. Many people who become teachers are the highly verbal souls, storytellers enamored of narrative and lovers of wordplay. We love the stage, the drama, the moment when the right words fall into the right order.
Minerva Mae Christopoulos is that girl brimming with opinion, and synonym, and late-breaking tickers of news. She wants to be Christine Amanpour. She wants to expose corruption and be a journalist in a world where people are a bit fuzzy on what constitutes honest news. Her hashtag? #truthwillout.
Robin Follet found a way to bring her character to visual life in our collaboration, Minerda, and visualize the writerly kid who keeps jabbering when one no one wants to listen. Robin’s amazing illustrations do the talking, in a way my novel couldn’t. I tried a prologue. I tried weaving in back story, so people could empathize with Minerva and understand why she’s so angry at certain girls when she hits high school. The solution was a prequel in the form of a graphic novella–and it became a rewarding collaboration.
If you know my work, you know that bullying threads through all my books: How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought; in my forthcoming novel, How Minerva Mae Christopoulos Set the Record Straight; and in my short-story collection, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future. Wherever people indulge what Dr. King called “the drum major instinct,” dividing us up by race, religion, sexual orientation, and every other label, there’s a story to tell about the power plays. I want to explore how we can rise above the meanness.
Bullying is a case of “too much to say” in all the wrong ways. It’s viral now because the Internet lets us wag our tongues all day and night. Anonymously. And what’s the most fascinating thing to wag your tongue about? Conflict. Fear. Hate. We love drama. Our culture is obsessed with spectating pain. We’ve got Twitter wars, we’ve got trolls, and all kinds of new phrases for today’s ways of hating on one another.
As a person with so much to say, and as fallible as anyone else, I have to ask: How can I expose what’s happening? How can I help change the dialogue?
We handed our kids something with more computing power than our first rockets into space–the smartphone–and then we walked away, saying, Good luck out there, kids. Godspeed in the biggest and most unsupervised library/public park/cage fight you could ever imagine.
Art helps us stop and ask why. I write because I figure it’s a way to reach a kid who needs the hotline at the end of the book and get her asking for help. It’s a way to help the parent, teacher, or counselor ask a teen how his day was. This book is for any of us haunted by someone’s words, still rattling our bones and shaking our confidence in grown-up situations, reminding us to change the dialogue in our heads. Maybe because of art, we’re sometimes a little softer, gentler with each other, for having walked momentarily in memory or someone else’s shoes.
Art allows exposure. My books out the dark, ugly scrawl of what we text, post, and tweet, unable to see the face of the recipient but still so sure those words need to be said. All my stories are grounded in the technology of the time and show how we and our kids navigate the wilds of things such as Twitter, Tumblr, ask.fm, and Snapchat. Once you see it in black and white, not so ephemeral, it might hit you in the gut and wonder if you should pass this book along to a teen. That’s some ugly stuff Lyn just printed. Then check a teen’s phone and then you might just pass this along. Because my books celebrate the youth who question this, who want the verbal violence to stop, and who will actually take some kind of action to stop it.
A side note about Snapchat, known as the sexting app: it’s now known for “stories.” One blogger recently shared how and why Snapchat is popular with the under-25 set because of the ability to a) share a tale and b) live in the now, just like physical interaction. You send your series of snaps (stories), the in-the-moment life you’re leading. No filters, no edits, no lies. No comments, no likes.
Less scrutiny means less chance for bullying.
If the epidemic of verbal violence today were a viral or bacterial outbreak, we’d take immediate and forceful action. We’d find the sources of transmission and intervene. Quarantine, clean, remove what’s necessary. We’d wash our hands of the ubiquitous technology–i.e., turn it off, monitor better, say it’s time for a break now–and rest in the moment without comments. My generation wasn’t haunted by tormentors during the ABC Afterschool Specials, because we could turn off school when we got home. We didn’t have to pick up the phone or go outside. We silenced the exchange for a time. We got a break, but kids today do not.
Let’s fill the airwaves and the wifi with whatever is pure, good, right. And whenever we can, stop, disconnect from the drama, and tell the truth.
As Minerva might say, fist in the air: #truthwillout.
There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.
The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.
No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).
I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”
Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.
Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.
Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.
Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.
Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.
In this age of cell phones that are supposedly great technological advances over the land lines of the past, I am the Luddite who bemoans the fact that our connections aren’t always easier now. It seems as if two people on a cell can’t talk at once, so there’s a lot of talking over one another, and some awkwardness as we miss parts of each other’s sentences. There are dropped calls. There’s a heck of a lot of voicemail. Mobile means the phone’s got to go with you, always. A landline phone stays nicely rooted to one part of the house and can be left behind. Listening today can be harder.
My little rant against tech might be analogous to how a parent must feel about the connection with a teen. You try to tell your child to watch out for this, be sure to do that, appreciate what you’ve got. The child nods, “Uh-huh,” with a glazed look in her eye and goes her merry way. She assumes that some things just grow on trees. She thinks she’s a free agent and in charge of all her decisions. She takes parental care, and concern, and money, and love for granted.
My favorite history teacher, Dr. Jack Barnwell, shared some of this parental truth about disconnected kids on my friend Jennifer’s wonderful book blog, Bacon on the Bookshelf. His musings on whether his daughter’s listened to him over the years remind me of my dad’s experience with his daughters. I thought I knew everything at 18 and felt driven to inculcate my dad in all my wisdom once I came back from one year at college. I didn’t think to ask him many questions until later in life.
It’s as my friend Tracy said to me recently, “It wasn’t till my twenties that I realized my parents were human beings.” I knew exactly what she meant the moment she said it, after having raised a teen-ager (or having tried, shall we say). My parents having concerns or troubles? Having private, personal lives? Them feeling exhausted at night? Not really on my radar.
My dad has given and given to me with great generosity for all my forty-seven years. He gave me a peaceful, secure home.He’s put me first so I could have the best education. He’s offered me all kinds of travel experiences. My father has never ceased working hard and being there anytime I needed to talk. He’s always valued my views, my thoughts, my hopes and ambitions. It wasn’t till I got older than I learned how many people don’t get this gift in their lives.
Watching my husband try to guide his son away from assumption and presumption, which is some ways are the flaws of every child, toward awareness and gratitude, I am struck by the incredible grace and generosity of dads like these wonderful men. I don’t think I thanked my father much when I was growing up. I just assumed Daddy would always be there, and presumed he would provide for my needs whenever I asked, or even if I didn’t. I do believe I ordered whatever I liked when we were out at a restaurant, without a second thought as to cost. I shopped for prom dresses and rushed off to college not thinking how anyone would pay the bills.
Dads like mine and Jack and my husband don’t mind that we’re so oblivious in our constant requests and expectations. They love us that much. And that, I think, is pretty amazing.
Thank you, Daddy, for not asking for all you gave me in return. For giving and giving without any promise of return. For making your girls a priority, and loving us in this unconditional way. And thank you for not saying, “Now you’re getting it?” when I came telling you of all my new, late-found wisdom in the last year.
The least I can do for my father is remember how he’s given to me all these years. I can pass on the same unconditional giving to all who are young and assuming. It’s their job to grow up, and it’s my turn to try to be at least half the grown-up my father has been.
The giving is the message, and it will stick in our hearts in ways our words never will.
I might not trust in my mobile phone, but I can trust in this.
Good morning, blog followers! I’m joining a contest, The Writer’s Voice, sponsored by Love YA and Monica Bustamante Wagner, which offers a chance for authors to share their manuscripts with agents. Part of the process is to post your query and first 250 words on your blog.
Dear Agents of This Cool Contest,
I seek your representation for my YA novel, How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight. It’s a crossover story at 100,000 words for a range of ages, YA meets women’s commercial fiction.
9th grade hasn’t started too well for Minerva Mae Christopoulos, a gifted, weird, wise girl who’s survived some serious bullying thanks to her nebulous sexuality. All Minerva wants is to become the next Christine Amanpour and hang with her best friend, Diana. And though the first goal is looking likely—the school just approved Minerva to be the first freshman reporter—there’s no time to celebrate, because the girls who called Minerva “lez” all through middle school are after Di. They’re not just claiming her; they’re setting her up with a dangerous senior guy. Now Diana’s on the fast track to cleavage-baring camis and the “Hot or Not” tournament.
This can’t be. Minerva will have to muster every bit of journalistic genius to keep Di from becoming #thatslut—and figure out how not to lose a girl who feels like more than a friend.
I’m an indie author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, which was the 2011 first runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. I have a loyal following of readers; a strong website, Twitter, and Facebook presence; and experience with bookstore signings, a blog tour, and a book trailer. I’m also the winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and in my other life as an educator, have published three books (National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press).
I’ve included the first 250 words of the manuscript, and I would be happy to send you the complete novel. I appreciate your time and consideration.
Lyn Fairchild Hawks
How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight
It being the demise of August in Jamesborough, North Carolina, the afternoon heat spreads its suffocating evil upon all creatures such that no sane person should venture outdoors. If I glance out my diamond-pane window above my desk, I have to rub the fog from the glass to see our little neighbor girls across the street, sweating it out under a hoop in the humid air and hellish sun. The house rattles as the air conditioning kicks in, and my hot little attic room, what I call my third-floor garret, the place I nurture deep thoughts as once did great women like Austen and Brontë, finally fills with gusts of air.
I go stand near the vent, flapping my t-shirt. I’m still slick with sweat after my mission into the world—a visit to my future stomping grounds, Jamesborough High. ’Twas all for a noble cause—the sake of journalistic justice.
I can’t wait to tell Di.
A few miles away, Diana Lucy Woods, my best friend since seventh grade, finishes up practice after swimming like the mermaid she is. She keeps insane hours with an elite crew of club swimmers competing for Division I schools. In a few minutes she’ll be here for Ancient Movie Night because it is Friday—the best day of my week. Thanks to my film fanatic father and his massive DVD collection, we hook ourselves up with old-school celluloid so we can hang with gals like Lana, Tippi, and Ava till Di’s curfew.
“While I don’t believe in heaven, I do believe in energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. My mom’s molecules still vibrate in this present universe, dissipating into the soil as we speak; still swirling are also her breaths. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Erin Connelly Christopoulos was a force of nature; the universe doesn’t just forget someone like that.”
— Minerva, in How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight
Today, Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of all those who miss their mothers very much.
Minerva, the 13 year-old protagonist of my current novel, lost her mother at age 10. Through my writing, I’ve tried to imagine what this is like. Today, in my forties, I still get unconditional love and support from my wonderful mom. So not having the personal experience, I’ve witnessed the bravery of friends and tried to walk in their shoes, to try to begin to understand what this must be like.
I’m blessed to know several strong women who’ve lost their mothers and who navigate health, child-rearing, marriage, and work challenges without motherly advice. They press on without the counsel of someone who’s seen you at your best and worst, who can remind you that this moment you’re suffering doesn’t have to define everything past, present, or future.
When Minerva’s best friend chooses new friends and leaves her alone to navigate the first days of high school, Minerva turns to nature. She hikes up a trail behind her house, seeking the trees and plants her mother once loved. Minerva’s more of an indoor girl, but she knows if she’s going to find any peace, she needs to head outside. She’s on a mission to commune with nature’s energy where she believes her mother still resides.
Out of nowhere, Minerva hears guidance in the breeze. She hears the words of someone else’s voice, but she can’t interpret the message. It won’t be till she suffers some misadventures at the hands of her own hubris that she can interpret what her intuition (or is it her mother’s spirit) tried to tell her. Those words will suddenly make all kinds of sense.
I have a delightful friend who lost her mother very young and still embraces this world and all its crazy with resilience and joy. In fact, she jokes about her “Mom complex” and how it drives her to seek advice from certain grumpy old ladies, ones who makes it their mission to put people in their place. There’s something comforting about being told where to go and what to do by someone with lots of surety. Moms know, and they know best. Whether you lost her young or old, it fits you would seek her again and again, wherever you might find her, and that you’d be drawn to those teachers, coaches, colleagues, supervisors, and other female authorities who can set you straight on the rules of life. Thanks to my mom’s gracious and wise guidance, I know I gather around me those who remind me of her energy and presence, who give you that peace of being known in a particular way.
This same friend is like several others I know who are mothers of a different sort–the mentors, the aunts, the teachers, the friends, the principals, the supervisors, and the neighbors who help raise other people’s children.
I am also thinking today of those who grieve the mother who never was and yet who carry love and light to the world despite the lack.
By a certain age, we all become parents to this world, like it or not. We are all keepers of the village. I lift up those who share their best selves in the face of great loss and who still help mother this fragile place.
Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.
You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.
As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul. The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls. I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.
When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?
Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.
Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.
Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.
I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.
There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.
Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.
The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.
Now that’s a ring-tailed doozy.
This past October 11, my Grampa would have been 100 years old.
A jokester, singer, and actor, my grandfather had a way with words. My father remembers holiday dinners with my grandfather making speeches that would begin like this: “Now that we are all stuffed with sage, I would like to introduce the sage stuffed with turkey.” I would make Grampa repeat his famous expressions, “ring-tailed doozy” being my favorite. “Grampa, what’s a ring-tailed doozy?” I’d say. He’d give a deep, hearty laugh because he found my constant questions amusing. I don’t recall his exact answer, as it’s one of those idioms beyond exact definition, but I can imagine him saying, “A doozy, now that’s something. But one with a ring tail? Then you really have yourself a problem. Hoo boy!”
Grampa was a smart, generous, ethical man. He couldn’t stand bullies, so he had no trouble telling off those of his youth or the fearsome father-in-law. He ran a dairy seven days a week (open on Christmas Day, too); was a Kiwanis member for 29 years; and also was a Mason and a Shriner. A Dale Carnegie student and instructor, he preached the power of mind over matter. You make your life and no one else. He said that if you wanted to be a good conversationalist, all you have to do is let people talk about themselves.
He sang in a men’s choir through his late seventies. His deep baritone would have made a great radio voice. The story goes that he met my grandmother, Madelyn, in D.C. when they were both auditioning for a play.
“She’s for me,” said my grandfather’s friend, pointing at the very attractive maiden who happened to be a model.
“No, she’s for me!” Fred said, and made sure he got that gal. Handsome and witty, my grandfather no doubt nabbed her attention in an instant.
Soon after they were married, he left his D.C. job with the Department of Agriculture to return home and help my grandmother’s family at their dairy in the small town of Wheatridge, Colorado. It’s a choice that made sense in the 1930s, even though D.C. might have been a place where both he and my grandmother, also a government employee, might have found great careers and artistic success. His generation faced an economic meltdown, world wars, and social mores that could easily thwart those with artistic yearnings. It was a time to buckle down at a guaranteed job, do your duty by your family, and shove that safe money under a mattress. I wonder if Grampa would have taken to the stage or studio if he had come of age in the 1980s with all my options.
My sister got the singing voice and performance gene, and I got the way-with-words gene. We were encouraged from a young age to pursue our artistic dreams. Now we find the only things blocking us are time, laziness, and fear—though I suppose the right dose of luck wouldn’t hurt either. No matter what, I’ve always felt that my life has had options rather than directives. As Grampa once said, “Only the individual can change his life.”
After he visited us in 1982 while my parents were on a trip, I sent him some of my poetry. I was 13 and already full of writerly ambitions, and Grampa was so good at making up verses on the spot, I wanted to know his opinion of my work. The other day, when I was going through a shoebox of mementos, I discovered the letter he wrote me back.
If you can write poetry like you do at your age (and sober) imagine what you could do if you partook of a little bubbly (or grape). I am not suggesting that you start drinking but I love your free style in writing and your active imagination. It’s beautiful.
Not being an expert, I cannot criticize your writing but I do suggest as soon as possible that you get professional advice from a writing expert to steer you in the right direction and give you some of the finer points in context as well as style.
You probably have a better start now at your age with your innate, natural ability than many do in their twenties.
I sometimes wonder if Grampa had my same deep ambitions to make art. He certainly had enough talent in several arenas. We think now that he fought unspoken depression at the time he wrote me this letter, and even long before that, but you would never know when you read his words. He had weathered a number of setbacks by 1982—the loss of my grandmother, health issues, and investments gone bad. He didn’t have the energy of a man who once was president of the DC National City Players or who led the Denver Dairy Council. He didn’t speak of his struggles, like many men of his generation. He didn’t blame anyone but himself for events in his life. He kept cracking jokes. And he found a way to send encouraging words to a 13 year-old who dreamed of one day writing a book as good as Anne of Green Gables.
I wonder what Grampa would say now if I could show him my books, share my worries, and tell him about my dream to spread my stories.
I think I found the answer on a questionnaire my sister gave him for her high school genealogy project, in response to a query about difficult obstacles and how he faced them.
He wrote: “To thine own self be true. Believing will make it happen. Don’t give up.”
Grampa, I won’t.
Plus, if I did? Hoo boy! Now that’d be a heck of a ring-tailed doozy.
Do you believe in spirits? I do, and Wendy Redbird Dancing does. Someday soon Minerva Mae, my next gifted, weird, wise girl in progress, will realize that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her facts-only philosophy. I’m thrilled to have mystery author C. Hope Clark pay a visit to my blog to talk spirits and some of life’s mysteries.
Halloween was a candy holiday for me as a child. Few tricks made me jump. I never was one much for haunted houses or graveyard treks, either, except for the time I volunteered to be Frankenstein for the school’s fundraiser, and a scared boy almost broke my hand kicking me.
I don’t mean the macabre sort of being that scares people then hacks their heads off. I’m talking about the essence of humans who have died but not moved on. I choose to believe their presence can be true. It makes a sort of sense. That energy has to go somewhere; why not amongst us?
We all have our What If stories, where we aren’t sure if something we heard, saw or felt was a ghost. Most of us are too afraid to mention them for fear of being taunted, but in close circles of friends we trust, we bring them up.
For instance, the year after my grandmother died, she appeared to me in a dream, led me through the sky to a church on a hill, and pointed to a cross. The message I read was that she now knows that religion is real. I recall my mother turning pale when I described the experience.
Fast forward to my adulthood. I built my current home on the site of a small, hand-built house we had torn down. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Christmus, died in their eighties. He loved the place, having done most of the building. It faced the lake, and even when he couldn’t walk much, he rode a riding lawnmower to check out his garden and get the mail. He died there. She left a year later to an assisted living facility and died shortly thereafter. Before we tore down the house, I spent many days in it trying to envision how this family lived, wondering how I could respect their memories. I could sense them unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Picking through the personal items, I saved doilies, a Depression glass platter, a butterbean bowl, a velvet rocking chair, and several other mementos that seemed too precious to dispose of. That was nine years ago.
Almost every night now when I’m in my recliner, watching my token mystery show, I smell cigarette smoke between ten and eleven P.M. Some evenings it can make me cough. Keep in mind that nobody has ever smoked in my home. However, Mr. Christmus smoked. I often wonder if he’s making himself at home, and if he approves of his new digs. If he ever appeared, I don’t know what I’d do. Thus far, he honors my wishes of keeping things aromatic.
Some late night evenings, my dachshunds walk to the doorway and look into the next room, toward where we used to keep a dog bed that belonged to two other dogs that are passed on. Those two older dogs were precious to us, and I often wonder if they stroll around enjoying their old lives as my current puppies study those that occupied this home before them. My husband used to jest. It’s happened enough now that he no longer laughs.
Sometimes he smells the cigarette smoke, too.
I run all my experiences by a close friend of mine on Edisto Beach who is visited by spirits on auspicious days like birth and death days. She can name which relative appears on which day. Her jewelry gets moved, water comes on, lights flip off, the usual. Occasionally a waft of cologne blows across the air. A tissue flutters when there is no air. I used to chuckle at her stories. Today I grab a drink and listen.
I no longer discount the presence of spirits. While I have no proof they are there, I also have no proof they aren’t. To me, there’s something comforting about the idea we will be able to see people left behind once we pass on to the next life.
I’m a Southern author, and a couple of my books hint about haunts, or haints as they’re called in many places in the South. That’s what my grandfather called them. Ain’t with an H.
In my first mystery series, Tidewater Murder incorporated the Gullah culture that exists on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. They practice a voodoo of sorts, deeply entrenched in the actions of spirits. In addition to hexes and conjure bags, my protagonist also talks about the ghost of an old man who used to live in the house torn down near a lake. Imagine that.
In my second mystery series, Murder on Edisto takes place on gorgeous, secluded Edisto Island. A secondary character I created happens to look like my friend who happens to sage her home to rid it of bad spirits, and she takes time to entertain the good.
For future Edisto books, I’m researching the abundance of ghost stories in the region. The island owns a wealth of tales to include a love lost in a stormy sea, a bride murdered on her wedding day, and a child buried alive in a mausoleum. My spirit-loving character will have a chance to move front and center in those tales, and we’ll see just how much the spirits really love her. I can’t wait.
No, I’m not a fan of Halloween and all its silliness. Dracula, werewolves, zombies, they’re not real. But when it comes to spirits of people who’ve once been on this earth, people who had a story and seem to still want to relive it, I sit up and take notice. They receive a nod from me, and maybe a place in my next book. Hopefully that will give them something to take back to Spirit Central, on the days they aren’t kicking up their heels on Earth.
Hope Clark still smells cigarettes at night and gives her spirit his distance. She’s written the award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries and the newly-released Murder on Edisto, the first in The Edisto Island Mysteries. She lives on the banks of Lake Murray most of the time, with frequent trips to Edisto Beach. Learn more at www.chopeclark.com.
The other day, I rejoiced for several hours at someone else’s good news. It was fantastic and well deserved. A friend who has labored long and hard got his brass ring: a publishing deal. His humor, wit, and intelligence have finally been recognized by gatekeepers who know what can sell. I had some flashbacks to our shared misery over the last five years while we both strived after agents, publishing contracts, and our work to be known. Recently he told me he wasn’t sure he could survive another slew of rejections. Now with an advance in hand and a two-book deal, he can finally say he’s arrived.
As the joy has faded, I’ve felt twinges of wistfulness for the road I hopped off and what it might have offered me if in 2012 I’d said, “I’ll stay the course.” I wonder what it would be like to work with distributors that could get my book easily to brick-and-mortar stores. I’d love to give a publisher’s name to ensure a book signing. I’d love to have a marketing team set up interviews, conferences, and events.
I chose a different route. I decided after 14 months with an agent to blast myself into the self-pub universe. I’ve had nothing but fun and autonomy doing this, with a lot of blessings from good friends, family, and strangers who took the chance to invest in my work. I assemble a support team for all projects and make all the decisions. I’ve got a great website, good reviews, and a monthly newsletter. I have a beautiful book trailer. I’m blessed with the remainder of my “advance”—a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation—that allows me to plan to self-publish my next book.
My sales remain small and occasional because I rarely promote. With a fulltime job and a family, I only have time to write my next book. I have a 10-year plan, one that involves writing several more books, playing with prices to give my readers good deals, and hiringa publicist in order to increase my reach. All in good time, I keep telling myself when vaulting ambition threatens to flagellate me and when others’ good news makes me wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong road.
Over a decade ago, I went to a dear friend’s baby shower that happened the same week as another dear friend’s wedding. In a weak moment, I confessed to one of them, I feel you all have moved on. It felt very childish to admit at the time, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, a lot of change hits all at once, where you think everyone else is grown up while your own future stays blank and unscripted. There are moments where you not only can’t predict the future, you sometimes think there might not be one to get excited about. My friends’ news didn’t leave me wanting something different for them, just for me to join them in the same headlines.
The self-pub lifestyle is a lot like being single: in order to survive it, you gotta build your own tribe. Just as I left these celebrations and got back on Match.com and made plans with friends, today I have to hire editors, graphic designers, filmmakers, book formatters, and web designers so I can publish a book. In the same way I couldn’t magically expect a social life to appear, I can’t expect a book to be born on its own. I can’t feel sorry for myself if sales don’t happen; I need to regroup, strategize, and keep working.
I never would have predicted that three years after the wedding and the baby shower, I’d be married at 37 in a boots-and-jeans wedding with a pig-pickin’ to follow. I couldn’t imagine that my beloved friends would suffer sorrows I’ve never had to bear. During that week of celebration, I could have told you they had a better deal than me, with a case of grass-is-greener kind of sadness. I can tell you now, I was foolish to focus on what I didn’t have and believe others had their happiness set.
My friend’s good news meets me wiser today than I was in 2002, when I believed there was a timing and momentum in life that I must follow or else I was somehow less than. My friend’s great news assures me there is justice and reward for some who keep trying at the traditional route, and that good stuff does indeed make it into print. My friend’s amazing news gives me hope that legacy publishing might be a route for me to someday try again, that perhaps could get me the agent who is that awesome advocate, brilliant negotiator, and savvy adviser. This event in someone else’s life reminds me to stay my current course with persistence and integrity, check my gut when necessary, and never say never to self-pub or traditional success.
I trust in the rightness of what is right now. The joy I have for my friend mirrors the joy I feel when I open the file to my manuscript in process. Isn’t this fun, my whole body says. For in this moment, I get to write.