When I am really into a novel, I am seeing the world differently during that time –
not just for the hour a day when I get to read. I’m actually walking around
in a bit of a haze, spellbound by the book
and looking at everything through a different prism.
~ Colin Firth, actor
This little bird building her nest mesmerized me.
I read a hummingbird’s nest is the size of a walnut. That they’re so strong they’ll survive being whipped by the wind. And the tiny birds will cling tightly to their nest, protect eggs as a limb’s flung about in wide arcs. I wove that image into my novel. The same way I wove the Granny Woman in, though I don’t claim credit for her. She just showed up. I can’t even remember where I learned about these wise women healers who know herbs, are gifted with ‘the sight.’ I wove in my father, too. His frame, merchant marine days, his love of a yarn and how he opined. But that was invisible to me until I finished the book.
And I wove in something I’m hesitant to talk about, that I avoid mention except as occasional sidebar. The years of battering, the silence I carried. Because though it’s part of my experience, I’m so strongly identified with my redemptive story that it’s not the conversation I want to have. And I see people generally don’t understand the dynamic that exists within so many abusive relationships, nor the aftermath. That regardless of context and process, it’s not a fast track to redemption once one leaves. Mine took three years. And the journey before I left included several years of secretly tucking away $5 a week, looking to therapists for help and not finding it. Until one day I knew I was strong enough, set a date and stuck to it. For many months afterward unable to breathe at night, fear so heavy on my chest. All during this time without help from a soul I knew. Because one did not talk about such things back then. Not even with best friends. Not even when sporting a black eye.
So, in a way, it’s a foreign land uncomfortable for those who’ve never been there because it’s so counter-intuitive to what we know as healthy, as common sense about protecting ourselves from harm. Movies, images, stories are inadequate to fill in. + It was decades ago, is not the story I’m to tell. I weave that experience, my empathetic understanding into the work.
Many of us novelists write like the hummingbird builds her nest. We weave in pieces of experience, wonder-nesses (yes, it’s a word), stories and facts we’ve chased, researched, gathered, chosen. Tamp and settle them into shape and order with our hearts, souls, and minds. Wrap them with the strongest threads of our skills. Create a delicate weaving that when done is a story of perfect proportion, if we’re good enough. If we’re wordsmiths and poets at heart, we feel the beats by reading aloud. Adjust commas, line breaks, phrases. Consider the layers in meaning of words. But to write what we know – being human – we must listen, find the character’s heart, her culture’s heart. After all, what do I share with a ten year boy in the different world of 1952 rural Appalachia, whose only reference for everything rests in the woods and the words of his abusive stepfather? I listen. Then recognition’s sparked in authors and others who come from generations in the mountains.
An agent who rejected me a year ago writes, “I can’t get these people, this story out of my mind.” The reader enters the world, feels it like Colin Firth does. And it doesn’t stop with the page. I must listen to truly see people. For what can I really know of refugees fleeing war and devastation, people of color living under deep-seated racism in the USA, the maligned homeless deemed invisible, or even a right wing conservative. I must find a place in myself where we meet on a human level. Enter into the conversation with myself and/or the other. Experience that story. Said admitting I’m not Buddha, and I have convictions. But it’s a fascinating, beautiful journey. Even when not easy. One I share with you. At least that’s my hope.
What do say you? What journeys have you traveled with stories?
I’ve fallen in love with literature. I try to read for one or two hours every day. I only have one life to live. But in books I can live one thousand lives.
~ Young woman in Rasht, Iran (Humans of New York)
Another small journey to mindfulness. Getting to Wise.
A Writer’s Life.
A secret: Understanding doesn’t make things easier for me. It keeps my heart open.
A favorite: The perfection of that tiny nest. Like it’s made of porcelain.