Sunday, March 26, 2017

Grieving, weakness, God, and my friend Rich

I've been realizing, as I recover from finishing my manuscript, just how many things I put on hold as I raced toward the finish line. (And then limped over it, having gotten a nasty chest cold in the last week of the work; between the book and my 3-year-old I managed to ration out just enough energy to finish.) One of those things, naturally, was cleaning the house. (You should've seen it.)

But I think another may have been grieving.

My dear friend Rich Foss died in January. I think it was January. It's been so surreal. It was expected, in a way; his health was bad at the best of times, and was getting worse. Then the blow came suddenly: he was newly diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder, when his immune system's continual fight against his chronic lung condition was all that was keeping him alive.

Rich was always a brave and honest man. He could barely walk; he'd had rheumatoid arthritis since he was seventeen, and by the time I met him his feet literally pointed in opposite directions. He spent the bulk of his time in a mechanized recliner, hooking himself up, with his wife Sarah's help, to three or four medical machines daily to stay alive. And I'd venture to say he spent the bulk of that time facing things head-on. (Not just his own things. All the things. But that's too long a story for today.) He had been talking openly about his own death for over a year, even when the rest of us felt that social impulse to tiptoe round it. He had known a long time that he wasn't going to live to a ripe old age. When the last diagnosis came, he accepted that it was the end. He went on hospice care.

But we did think he was going to live longer than two weeks.

When it happened, one level of my soul accepted it, in a stunned sort of way: this is happening, this is real. But for weeks afterward when I woke up, at the moment of coming back to consciousness, it would hit me with shock: Rich is dead. There was a part of me, down inside sleep, that still had no idea.

I used to visit Rich every Thursday evening, for years. We'd talk about this or that. But in the past two years we'd started to talk almost exclusively about the book I was writing. After the first few weeks of mostly talking about myself and my work I started to get uncomfortable: clearly I was monopolizing these conversations. I loved being able to talk about my writing--it's not easy to do so in a way people can even understand, when you're still in process, and Rich did--and Rich was always generous with his listening, but I needed to rein it in; even the most patient person would get tired of this week after week. I kept checking in with him about it, first in subtle ways, then asking him outright. Finally he managed to convince me: he was genuinely enjoying himself.

It felt like a miracle to me. That I could get what I so badly needed without having another person generously sacrifice their time for me; that I could get it while actually adding something good to someone else's day. Rich was a writer himself--if you can find a copy of his beautiful novel Jonas and Sally, I recommend it very heartily--and interested in Story, in the travails and dilemmas and emotions of human beings and how we resolve them, how we make the big choices, which is what fiction is about. As I went deeper into the book, themes developed in it that were very dear to his heart. He would tell me stories from his own life that re-echoed the themes, we would talk about what those things meant to us. Sometimes I would come to him with my latest thorny problem and he would give advice. Sometimes I would simply tell him the scene I wrote that day, and watch him react, and see that it was right. Sometimes what I was writing would lead into profound stories from memories he was sifting through and processing, knowing he was at the end of life. Sometimes he would cry.

(I think he would be all right with my telling you this. He was a very open person.)

Then came the time it became a miracle for him.

He used to be a leader, a writer, a mentor, a counselor. He was profoundly respected, it was clear at his funeral. But in his last few years he had no energy for the contributions he used to make; all his energy was spent in the sheer work of staying alive, managing his medical conditions--and that took work all right, a day-long routine of medical machines. One hour of conversation a day was pretty much what he had the energy for after that. And he needed more and more help--someone to come over & warm up his supper, for instance, which he could do but getting up and walking would wear him out. I did that often, I loved doing it, it meant a chance to talk with him, even if briefly. As things went more in that direction, I was stunned by how much that meant to him--that I wanted to.

It was getting harder and harder for him, being helped. He'd been helped all his life, of course, but he'd also been a leader. Now he talked about being an "outsider." Now most of the interactions in his day were someone coming over and doing him a favor. One that he wasn't able to return.

But with me he was. With me he had the energy (on a good day) to have at least a little bit of deeply meaningful conversation, because Story energized him; with me he was a mentor giving deeply valued advice and understanding, giving me something I needed very much. With me he was not just a receiver but also a giver, and he needed that. His soul needed that. We came to understand this end-of-life friendship as a deep gift of God to us both.

There was something about it that was very hard to understand, for me. It's this: God's power is made perfect in weakness. To receive, to be helped, isn't this a connection that has God in it? Simone Weil says "Compassion and gratitude come down from God, and when they are exchanged in a glance, God is present at the point where the eyes of those who give and the eyes of those who receive meet." I think that's beautiful. And true. I knew Rich agreed with me on this. And I knew Rich was deeply connected to God. But to see just how much it hurt him, this profoundly respected man, just wondering if he was a burden to the friends who stopped by to hook up his oxygen or microwave his pizza--I don't want to go into detail, honestly, I don't want to make you picture this, that might be a bridge too far in terms of openness--well, I couldn't parse it. What about the power of God?

What I learned from his feelings at the end of his life was this: oh Lord, Heather, it is so much harder than you think.

I have not been tested on this. But I will be. Except for those of us who die very, very suddenly, every single one of us will be. And that is the other thing I have learned: in the face of someone who is in that place of vulnerability, when you have to help and yet helping is painful, that is the one response that brings connection and relief: I will be in your place someday.

(It's ironic. It's one of the themes in my book. The Jewish characters and the pain of their vulnerability, the way the non-Jewish characters have a profound "I had no idea" shock when they finally come to understand--due to the threat their rescue efforts end up placing them under--what their friends have really been experiencing this whole time.)

Why? Why does weakness, plain material weakness, hurt us so much? Why does dependence on other people hurt us so much? Why are we ashamed of it? It's one of those places where all I've been taught about God seems so right and so good, and yet it is so hard for it to come to birth in our daily world. ( What Simone Weil said is beautiful, and I still believe it, but I love her all the more because, though the quote doesn't show it, if you read the whole essay you will see that she fully understands the pain involved, and the difficulty; what she is describing in the quote is literally a miracle.)

Why? I don't know. I don't know. There are only two things I know: It is much harder than I think. And I will face it someday.

Oh, and one more thing: I still believe. And Rich knows. Rich knows all of it now.

So here is the thing I can say at the end of this story, that I would not have dared to say at the beginning, because I fear so much to sound selfish about my friend's death. Ever since I finished the book I have been mourning what I used to think this time would hold. I was recording the book for Rich to listen to. I had just recorded Chapter 15 when he died. I went ahead and recorded Chapter 16, because I had other reasons for wanting a recording. It broke me up hard, to read it into the microphone, to feel no-one on the other end. I always believed he was going to read this book. I want him to read it, I want to put it in his hands. But they're gone.

And yes, I mourn the help he could have given me. There are very specific questions I want to ask him: should I change this? Is this over the top? And I don't dare tell people that part, out of context. But the help he gave me was the connection, the friendship, the gift, it was the help I gave him too. It was the help God gave us. It was the miracle.

In my head, he was going to live till spring came. We would talk. He would listen to the book and we would talk about it, talk about it. I would bring him the first spring flowers. And then I would be ready to let go. That was how it was going to be, in my head.

Oh Lord, Heather. It is so much harder than you think.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why most writers are wrong about "formula"

Like a lot of writers, I started out with an instinctive, or maybe learned, distrust of anything with the label "formula" on it. Anything with diagrams, anything that tries to define the Elements of Story with Capital Letters, no way. Which carries an implication that writing essentially can't be taught, because those things are teaching devices, that's all. But I think somewhere deep down they might have also seemed like... ooh, dare I say it?... kind of blue-collar teaching devices. Writing as building a house. (But building a house can be an art too. Depends on how you do it.) Hack work.

But I've done it anyway. I've exposed myself...

In writing A Flame in the Night over the past two years, I have heavily used three books that profess to teach you how to write: Story by Robert McKee, The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, and The Writer's Journey by Christoper Vogler. And they are full of Capital Letters.

Story teaches, among other things, that you must identify two opposing Values that your story turns on, such as Life/Death or Love/Hate, and then identify your story's Controlling Idea as a single sentence that states which value triumphs and why. Example: "Justice prevails because the protagonist is willing to die to preserve it."

The Writer's Journey lays the framework usually called the Hero's Journey out in twelve steps such as "The Call to Adventure," "The Ordeal," and "The Road Back."

The Story Grid literally teaches you to grid your entire novel scene by scene in a spreadsheet, identifying the Values each scene turns on and including a little + or - to show whether it ends positively or negatively, etc. The author also wants you to identify your genre's Obligatory Scenes, such as the "First Kiss" scene in a romance.

Formula writing. That's it right there, isn't it? Have I turned into a hack?

Well, I apologize for the clickbaity title, which I doubt will work on anyone anyway; I'm not truly sure whether "most" writers feel this way. I just know that I did, and that I've met so very many who do. They regard books like these almost the way parents regard drugs: experimentation is much too dangerous. We've seen others get sucked in. Only the virgin mind can receive inspiration unimpeded; keep yourself pure.

Inspiration isn't a load of hooey. You're not going to hear that from me. But inspiration is also not the first thing that comes to you when you sit down with your virgin mind and your virgin textfile and lift up your spirit to commune with the Muse. Inspiration is when your eyes fly open in the middle of the night and you grip the blanket and whisper "That's it" and all hope of sleep flies out the window--and it comes after weeks and weeks of searching, digging, yearning; often months. And if there is a single actual action that my study of these "simplistic" books has compelled me to, it's been this: Keep searching. Dig deeper. You're not there yet.

Here is how I put it to Chip MacGregor, the agent whose rejection and incisive feedback inspired me to re-dig the foundations of my novel: in the digging, I struck a spring. Inspiration is a gift. We cannot build it, there is no blueprint, it is a pure, clear gift from God. And sometimes it does come unasked-for, falling from the sky. But sometimes what comes is the feeling, this sort of dissatisfaction, this pull: it's got to be somewhere around here. And then you dig for ages. And yeah, it's a pretty blue-collar endeavor sometimes. You work and work and wear yourself out. At the same time you can't make it happen, as the farmer doesn't make the wheat, as the miner doesn't make the ore. (We take things for granted too much now. Think of the old days, when farmers looked to the sky to water their fields, when miners searched and searched for a new vein.) You work and pray and hope, and then one day it's given. The spring wells up from beneath the ground. You drink.

My Capital Letter Book authors never gave me a story. They can't do that. What they really do is describe what a story looks like, so that you know whether you have one or not. (And it's actually pretty easy to fool yourself. I remember a mistake I made in my first draft of How Huge the Night. Nina and Gustav's story, a minor point of view, offered more scope for "literary" writing than the main storyline, and I showed off my stuff in it, describing the events with my most textured and compelling prose--and having no clear idea of what was going on in the character's soul. I skimmed over the surface, without knowing I was doing it, because my sentences sounded good. At the time I needed a good editor to tell me something was wrong. Now I think I would know.) They don't tell you what your theme is, just caution you that it's a problem if you come to the end and still don't know it. Your theme comes to you as you write--they'll actually tell you that. And mine did. (Is telling your theme a spoiler? I must reflect on this!) And I puzzled and puzzled over what the shape of my climax had to be, I dug and dug. I added and added to the events, knowing I hadn't gone far enough yet, as far as my Story Teachers told me I had to go. (When it comes to the heart of the novel, the climax--the part of the story where meaning is born--all they can offer, appropriately, are negatives. It's not a true climax if the character doesn't make a genuine choice. It's not a true climax if there isn't irrevocable change.) And sometimes I woke in the wee hours of the night holding one more element of it tight in my fist like a pearl I'd fished up from the depths of sleep, but I knew I didn't have it all yet. And then one day I wrote out the theme as if in a letter to someone who didn't know, and I wrote out the climax I had so far, and then all at once I was writing out the events of the true climax, things I'd never thought of before, carried along with no sense of time passing at all, just a sense of riding this blinding-bright wave, and knowing absolutely. I have no idea where it all came from. But I knew I'd come home.

So if someone tells me those books are for hacks, I don't agree. I mean, almost everything human is a mixed bag: it is possible to take, especially, the outline of the Hero's Journey and build a simplistic story on them. (I should know: my 3-year-old wanted me to read him that book I was carrying around so much, and I turned the illustrations of each of the stages into a story about a boy going off to fight a dragon for the medicine his sick mother needed. But I skipped the stage where the true climax was because I couldn't figure out what it should be! I was also really tired.) But it's also possible to use them as a roadmap for the first stages of an incredible adventure.

And OK, I sort of lied back there about having no idea where it came from, because I happen to believe in God, and therefore I have beliefs about what it means when a good gift comes from nowhere. Unless the Lord builds the city, the builders labor in vain. And there may be ways of working that shut God out. I know that, in most of life, a need to be in control does that, and a rejection of mystery and smallness and dependence--of the human condition--does that. And I suppose that's what people see in these "formula" books, an attempt to capture the ineffable, define it, pin it on a card. And I get that, I understand wariness about that. But in the end this is what I'm saying: my experience tells me that's not the case. At least it doesn't have to be. I know I took this road, and I know where it got me. So when someone tells me, with That Look in her eye, that she doesn't read those books, I'll say "OK. But I do."

And if that makes me blue-collar, great. I always did like working with my hands.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Today I sent in my manuscript to the publisher. A Flame in the Night is complete--till revision time. I can't wait to hear what they think...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Refuge, forgery & resistance: the Barraud family and their daughter Gabrielle

Gabrielle "Gaby" Barraud turned 18 in 1940, the year her country fell to the Nazis. She lived in Le Chambon and as the place turned into the greatest haven for Jews in World War II Europe, her family plunged into the thick of the work, and so did she.

This story is taken from Hidden on the Mountain, whose writers interviewed Gabrielle at her home in Le Chambon.

Gaby's mother, Georgette Barraud, ran a boardinghouse for young people in Le Chambon, where many young Jewish refugees stayed. When they showed up, she made room for them, whether they could pay or not. If they were at too high risk to stay right there in the village, someone in the family would go out to the surrounding farms looking for someone willing to take them.

Her mother took in refugees. Her father worked in the Resistance, helping to organize the maquis (basically French for guerilla) fighters. Gaby herself forged documents.

Both her mother and father gave her forging assignments--her for Jewish young people, him for the Resistance. She used a tricky process involving a gelatin-covered strip of cloth that when heated over a candle could transfer an official seal from a real card to several false ones. She may have learned it from Oscar Rosowsky, the young Jewish refugee who did a large share of the enormous amount of forgery necessary in Le Chambon (and whom I'd like to write about if I can ever find enough info on him!) He lived in the Barrauds' boardinghouse for awhile, in any case, and used the same process. Gaby didn't know most of the people she made papers for, but would sometimes recognize them on the street from their photographs. A bit of an "aha" moment... but unlike the last young person I wrote about, it does seem she could keep a secret.

She could have been arrested for her work, of course, but she was rarely afraid. She did have one scare, riding to Le Chambon on the train with a suitcase full of forging materials. She walked into her train compartment to find the only other person in it was a German soldier. He took her suitcase... and politely put it up in the luggage rack for her.

It seems the whole family had a gift for keeping their cool. The boardinghouse was right in town and one day Gaby's mother looked out the window during lunch to see the Gestapo headed straight for them. She ordered the young people to stay put and keep eating because it was too late to hide without drawing suspicion. She let the Gestapo in and brazened it out. They left.

The family suffered a tragedy near the end of the war: the accidental--and fatal--shooting of their other daughter with a maquis pistol that had been left in a drawer in the boardinghouse. It was a Jewish teen boy who did it, a friend of hers, playing and assuming the gun was empty. The Barrauds forgave him and hid him till it was safe for him to leave.

Gaby had one other job for the refugees: woodland guide. In the last two years of the war many, many people left from Le Chambon for Switzerland, mostly by train up till a border town where they would be put in contact with a passeur. But some were so visibly Jewish that getting on a train would risk their lives, and these people were taken to the border on foot, in stages, staying at pastors' houses on the way. Gaby was sometimes the guide for the first stage, leading them all day through the woods, spending the night in a hayloft, then turning around and walking home the next day.

Gabrielle and her mother Georgette Barraud were later jointly given the title "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Pruning and editing

This week I took some hours off from writing to prune fruit trees. Normally I wouldn't do this, with the novel due in just over a week. But in just over a week it'll be too late to prune, with the temperatures rising.

I've done two peach trees and two overgrown cherry trees. There's two apple trees, one small cherry and a row of raspberries still to do.

I live in an intentional community, so they're not "my" trees. But I feel responsible for them. My friend Erin, who used to live here and taught me everything I know about gardening, also taught me how to prune them. I always remember her attitude about it: I thought of her as the Little Red Hen. She would come by and try to rope me into pruning, because she knew I was probably the only person in the community who would say yes. And then later in the year when the trees fruited, she would come by and rope me into picking with her and we'd each take home a share. I had a right, because I pruned.

And now she's gone, and I'm the only one still here who really knows how to prune fruit trees, so here I am...

I used to be very intimidated by pruning. It's not an exact science, and Erin was always hemming and hawing over what to take off, making me feel "if the expert isn't sure, how will I ever know??" Ever since she left I've done it... hesitantly. (Till last year when I learned from an online tutorial that the bulk of what you have to do for an apple tree is cut off everything that points straight up--finally something simple!) But this year I think I've actually hit my stride.

The fun thing is just how similar pruning is to editing.

There's the importance of looking at the big picture. Seeing the tree as a whole, feeling its balance. There's the need for confidence, even ruthlessness: yes, you have to make some fundamental changes sometimes, cut off some big limbs. (I've neglected those poor cherry trees in previous years, out of lack of confidence. Due to that I had to saw off four limbs as thick as various parts of my leg this year. Timberrrr!) It's actually very hard to kill a tree.* There's the different sizes of tools, which could be used a great symbols for the different stages of editing: the pruning saw for the developmental edit, the loppers for the mid-level work, trimming out unnecessary transitions and consolidating scenes and such, and the little clippers for tightening everything and cleaning it up. The work feels very similar: the mid-level stuff, for instance, always involves seeing if anything's redundant. Do these two scenes basically do the same thing? Cut one. Are these two branches parallel and close to each other? Cut one. The small-scale work is clean-up: go through and cut all the small twigs that point upwards. Go through and cut all the words you don't need.

And then there's the feeling when it comes together, this kind of gestalt. Or maybe it's just the feeling of seeing how it should be in your head and then seeing how you can make it that way.

And the contemplation of the job done, of course, your eyes on the whole thing clean and tight and right. I really look forward to that.


* If you've tried to kill a tree, you've probably noticed! If you've cut down a tree and don't want watershoots sprouting up around it, paint the cut stump immediately with herbicide. It's the only thing I condone using herbicide for, and it works. If you're pruning, avoid a common mistake, and have the confidence to say: that's right, I only want the tree to be this tall, and I will automatically cut off anything above that.