In the summer of 2013 I set aside a month to immerse myself in the work of one writer and chose Willa Cather. It was a good choice. Note: this is a repeat of a post I wrote a little over a year ago, but since I’m now engaged in a similar reading experiment, I decided to re-visit and re-post my thoughts about this exceptional woman. If you’ve already read this and want to skip it this time, that’s okay – you’re excused – but I do hope you’ll come back.
Why was Ms. Cather a good choice? For me, reading is all about characters. The books that I love and go back to again and again are those with strong characters – people with whom I fall in love and cheer for, or sometimes hate and jeer at. Either way, these people real to me. After I close the book and turn off the light, I worry about them. When the book is finished and back on the shelf, I savor their triumphs and regret their disappointments. And when it comes to creating strong characters, nobody beats Cather – especially strong female characters.
My favorite examples of Cather’s strong women are portrayed in the books known as the Prairie Trilogy: Oh Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. If you want to understand the history of our country, read these three books. They tell the story of a country – growing, changing, and forging itself into a nation. The characters are not heroic in the usual sense of the word, but they, through the lives they led, the hardships they endured, the perseverance they displayed, are the foundation of this country. Their strengths and weakness are at the heart of who we, as Americans, are. In each of them, there’s a strong woman, a woman who’s not afraid to take charge of her own destiny.
Song of the Lark is a little different from the other two in that it looks at the less than admirable side of life in a tight, closed community. It’s the story of an artist, nurtured by the prairie she loves and, at the same time, constricted by the expectations of the community and stifled by small-town life. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Cather’s own experience went into this one.
To round out the month, I read a collection of novellas that included A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. They were all good stories, but I have to admit about half way through Death Comes for the Archbishop, I began to skim. It’s set in an earlier time than the others and was an inspiring story in many ways. The archbishop traveled all over the southwest, including some Native American sites that I’ve visited and found fascinating. I’m not sure why I lost interest. Maybe I was just maxed out on life on the great prairies – in other words, too much of a good thing.
All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in Willa Cather’s books. She was a wise woman, and a fine writer. A few of her observations that I thought worth jotting down:
“There are some things you learn best in calm and some in storm.”
“Where there is great love, there are always wishes.”
“It does not matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.”
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
No fancy language – just seemingly obvious statements, expressed in simple, declarative sentences. Yet I found them provocative. All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in the books of one author enough to do it again. This time around, I’ve picked Pearl Buck, another strong woman. More about her in a future posting.
There is more similarity between quilting and writing than one might think. Both involve a love of the components that go into the makeup of the finished product. I love words. I feel joy in the power they give me to translate ideas into stories to share with other lovers of words. I also love color. I’m fascinated by the way the mood of a color changes according to other colors near it. I enjoy playing with different shapes, curved or straight lines and the texture of fabric.
Choosing the fabric, the colors, and pattern of a quilt is very like choosing the attributes of a fictional character. Combining dark and light shades is like working out the details of a storyline. Writing is almost completely intellectual; quilting is very tactile. When I’m working on a quilt, I’m compulsive about it and resent anything that keeps me away from it. The same is true when I’m deeply involved in a writing project.
A book begins as a tangle of ideas with only the glint of a story shining through. A quilt begins as a mishmash of fabrics with colors and patterns that clash. Both the writer and the quilter begin by examining their components, testing different ways of combining them, seeking an arrangement that will blend the conflicting parts into a harmonious whole. Both as a writer and a quilter, I find this part of the process pure pleasure.
Ah, but the next part – no fun at all. About halfway through a book, I invariably hit a wall. I’m besieged by doubt. Can I turn this idea into a story that readers will actually enjoy? Will they understand what I’m trying to say? Is the idea big enough for a whole book? Are my characters distinctive and yet universal? Will readers believe in them? At the root of all these niggling doubts is the real question, the twofold biggie: Am I really a writer? Can I finish this book?
Somewhere in the process of making a quilt, I wonder why I ever thought these colors worked together. Is this pattern too complicated for my skills? Will I be able to get all of the angles right, the points nice and sharp, the corners square? Will my patience last long enough to see it through? Will I finish this quilt? One of the things that pulls me through the doubt is the anticipation of sharing my creation. A favorite of mine is the bugjar quilt I made for my grandson, Sean’s, fifth birthday. It seemed perfect for the little boy he was.
When I finish a book, I feel an enormous sense of pride, but following that initial high, there’s a letdown. The ideas that have consumed my thoughts (and sometimes my dreams) are ready to stand on their own. It’s time to let them go. I need to explore new ideas – write another book. The same is true when I finish a quilt. I am delighted to be finished with it, but before long, my fingers itch to be engaged. I need to begin anew, but … can I do it again?
Of course I can – at least in part because my two obsessions feed each other.
One last quilt: one that I made for David, the son I told you about in my last post.
My son, David, has always been an animal-lover. I know. Lots of people are. In fact, I’m convinced all the best people are, but David’s a bit goofy about it. I mean that in a good way. I’m incredibly proud of the man my son has become.
He has a whole houseful of pets and they all have distinct personalities. I won’t list them all here. Today, I just want to tell you about Badger, the Jack Russell Terrier. That’s him with David in the picture on the left. Rarely do you catch him in such a quiet moment. He’s usually a study in perpetual motion and is one crazy dog.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Badger, but sometimes he can be too much of a good thing. (I seem to remember thinking the same thing of David when he was little. You’d never guess from the photo what an intrepid little boy he was.)
I grew up surrounded by pets. (I’m pretty sure David inherited his pet-loving gene from my mother, who had a huge heart and was always ready to move over and make room for any creature in need of a little TLC.) Still, looking back over the years and the critters I’ve known, Badger wins the prize for the most individual. To say he is excitable is gross understatement. He can (and does) jump four feet straight up (at least) and can do it an uncountable number of times without stopping. He’s probably the most loving dog I’ve ever known (and that’s saying a lot). Every morning, as soon as he wakes up, he goes through the house and touches noses with all the other pets. Visitors to my son’s home are routinely greeted with a display of Badger’s athletic ability, followed by a series of sloppy kisses and, when you sit down, Badger is immediately on your lap, jumping for joy – a mixed blessing. I usually have bruises all over my legs after an afternoon of Badger’s lap-dancing. As I said, too much of a good thing.
Once, when I’d had more than enough doggy love, I asked David why he loved Badger so much – more, I could tell, than McGee, his majestic Black Lab, or any of his four cats. His answer: “Think about it, Mom. If you had a whole bunch of kids and one of them was a little weird and you knew other people didn’t like him much, wouldn’t you love that one the most?”
That answer stopped me cold. I knew he was right. Most of us love the weirdest kid the most. I try to remember about that when I’m writing. Characters need a bit of weirdness if they are to engage a reader’s heart. One of the better parts of human nature is our instinct to cheer for the underdog. We like to give our love where it’s most needed and, when we’re reading, we like to see our characters overcome their inner demons as well as the foe from without.
One thing I have to add: I would be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to Sue, David’s life partner, and a real sweetheart. As you can imagine, she puts up with a lot. I’ll even give her the ultimate compliment and say she reminds me of my mother.
One of the things I’ve grown to believe about writing is that stories are like children: they all develop at their own pace. As parents, we sometimes have to be patient and let our child grow according to his or her own timetable. As writers, we sometimes have to be patient and allow our story to reveal itself when it’s ready. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote the following post about a work in progress. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I’m still working on the same book – further along, but still a long way from completion. This story is taking its time revealing itself to me, but I choose to believe that its slow growth is a ripening process – both for the story and for me. At the moment, it’s the story that’s in control, not the teller.
There are few things more exciting – or unsettling – to a writer than admitting you’re not in control of your story. Most of us like to think we’re in control of our lives, but, deep down, we know that’s only partly true. In reality, our lives are subject to a million and one curves the universe can throw at us. As writers, though, we’re dealing with a universe of our own creation, so we should be in control. Right? You’d think so. But, as in other aspects of our lives, it’s not always the case. Sometimes a character or even the story itself throws us a curve.
I wrote LOVE AND NOT DESTROY as a stand-alone – or so I thought. It’s the story of Peace Morrow, a young woman who was abandoned as an infant and adopted by a strong, loving woman who gave her a nearly perfect childhood, but still, Peace can’t help wondering about her biological parents.
Thinking back over it, I remember that my original intent was that she would never discover who her biological parents were. The idea was that she would come to realize that it doesn’t matter whose blood flowed in her veins. She is what she makes herself. Somewhere along the line, I realized that it was unfair to the reader and to my protagonist to leave that part of the puzzle unresolved and, truth be told, I wanted to know myself. So, by the end of the book, Peace has learned that her father is dead and her mother is someone she doesn’t really even like. That’s a complete turnaround from my original intention. The story took over and told me what needed to happen. I thought I’d tied up enough loose ends that the story was finished.
But Peace’s situation haunted me. I had to know what happened next and, unless I wrote the story, I’d never know. So, there you have it – I’m writing another Peace Morrow book. I planned to write about Peace’s relationship with her adoptive and biological mothers, and, almost as important, the relationship between the two mothers. It seemed like an interesting premise for a book. I had what I thought was the perfect title: ALL THAT I AM. I felt confident that I could make an interesting book out of this situation. I wrote a couple of chapters, introducing new characters as necessary to flesh out the story and, since I write mysteries, I inserted a mystery element into the book … and, wham, the story took over. I realized the new characters’ lives were impacted in ways that could not be ignored. Peace and her two mothers are still there, but the focus has changed.
That’s where I am now. I’m being led down an unexpected path by characters who I thought I’d created, but who have assumed lives of their own. That’s what characters do; they demand that their story be told and even reveal to those of us who consider ourselves their creators what that story is. All we have to do is find the right words to do justice to the lives of these people.
Writing is an unpredictable endeavor – sometimes unsettling, always exciting.
I can’t speak for larks and katydids, but I hope for their sakes, it is true for them. And I think it must be. How else could a lark sing so beautifully? Or a katydid produce its own uniquely musical sound?
I know it’s true for human beings (some more than others). I’m convinced that our dreams make us more human (in the case of other species, perhaps more lark-like or more katydid-like). Who knows? I do know that my life has been shaped by my dreams. As a kid, most of the trouble I got into was because of something I did (or didn’t do) when my mind was busy living a daydream. I remember overhearing my father say to my mother in absolute frustration, “I think she wakes up in a different world every day.” I must have been about ten or eleven at the time and I was not offended, just amazed. I thought, “How does he know?” I realize now what I didn’t know then: that other people wake up in other worlds too. There’s a statue next to our library of a little boy lost in a book. And what is a book but a dream? Next to him, there is a stack of more books. More dreams waiting their turn.
Some even come true. I’m getting to live my favorite dream. I write books!
I think the universal need for dreams is the reason books are so essential. Writers share their dreams and confront their fears in the stories they tell; readers recognize their own dreams and fears and, in the process, we come closer to understanding an often insane world–even manage to exist sanely in it.
So – dream on.
Another perfect summer day. I love summer, love driving down the street and seeing flowers blooming in my neighbors’s yards, love having friends over for dinner on the back porch, love … oh, so many things. I think most people share my feeling about summer. It’s the season of freedom, freedom from the routine of school for the kids, freedom from the constricting clothing we have to wear in the winter. There’s no snow to shovel. On the other hand, there is grass to cut and summer is also the season of humidity and mosquitoes. Like every time of year, it’s a mixed bag of good and bad. All things considered, I’m grateful that I live in an area where we experience four distinct seasons.
Each time of year has its own seductive charm, from the spare elegance of a bare-limbed tree in winter to the extravagant bounty of a summer garden. Much as I love summer, spring and fall are my favorite seasons. They are less intense than the periods that precede and follow them, but to me, they are more interesting. Lacking extremes of heat and cold, the transition seasons are more gentle. They are also less predictable. Each day begins with a decision: T-shirt and shorts? A sweater and jeans? True, that’s a trivial decision, but if you don’t get it right, you’ll have an uncomfortable day. Even if you do get it right, there’s a good chance it’s just temporarily so. By mid-day, something as capricious and beyond your control as the weather may force you to regret your choice, maybe even change not just your clothing, but your plans.
Transitions in novels are like that too. These parts are more gentle. They are not the scenes of intense action, but those moments of introspection that follow or precede the action. They are less predictable, when readers wonder how characters will react to events beyond their control. They are the scenes in which the characters have an opportunity to change and grow. They have to make choices, some of which may be trivial in themselves, but they can produce unexpected results and lead to other, more difficult choices, which in turn, lead to … yes, more changes.
Transitions show the characters in their more reflective moments. It is here, in the periods of less intense action, that we get to know the characters, to understand why the choices they have to make are difficult for them. If they’re done well, we, as readers, agonize over the decisions with the characters and start to identify with them.
I think of these scenes as bridges – where the writer guides the story from beginning to middle to end and, if they’re good at it, they make it look easy – as natural and inevitable as the changing of the seasons.
As you may know, I sometimes post on Classic and Cozy . Since the contributors to that blog all, like me, once wrote for Avalon Books, it seems appropriate that I share my thoughts about the tenth anniversary of my first published novel there too.
I hope you’ll follow the link and check out what I have to say. Leave a comment and you might win a free book.
In case you don’t have time to go there, I’ll repeat here my conviction that readers are an important part of the creative process and how much I appreciate your support and encouragement over the years.