Thursday, March 10, 2016

Books, Barriers and Bonds

It reproached me silently as it has for almost two decades. I tried to read it when my father first gave it to me, saying, "Here's a book you should read. I think you'll like it." But I was always so busy, always trying to read several books at once, and not having much time to read anyway. It sat beside my bed or on the coffee table long enough that I lost the thread of the story, which spanned four hundred years. Tidying up one day I put it back on the shelf, and there it stayed.


My father never forgot and would mention it from time to time. "Did you ever read that book?" he would ask, and I would inwardly squirm, make excuses and intend to do so...soon. 

I knew that it would mean a lot to him if I read it--traveled the land within its pages--go where he had gone before: Chesapeake.

Recently I scanned my bookshelves, pulling off books for a writing exercise. The assignment was to look at first lines, as many as possible within a few hours, and then to type up ten or twenty favourites and consider what made them work. I included Chesapeake, curious to see what its first line was. It was a good one:
"For some time now they had been suspicious of him."

As I flipped through the first pages to find that line, there was his name in block letters on the flyleaf. 
The firm hand and distinctive style belonged to the father I knew before his final illness, when his writing became spidery and his hand frail. And I felt a pang of regret.

A few days later, curled up in my favourite recliner, I was reading the gospel of John. I love the mystery of it--the sense of God trying to get through to people, but nothing being understood by those he was trying to communicate with, everyone seeming to be at cross purposes, although we, like readers of all good stories, are able to see clearly from the outside looking in and want to shout at the characters, "Wake up! Can't you see?"
A memory surfaced then. It was many years ago, and I was looking forward to a trip to England to be with my parents for three weeks. I'd been reading the  book of John back then too, and I thought that anyone reading it must surely see what I could see--the revolutionary way Christ overturned "religion" and reached out to the world in love, relationship, and sacrifice. The book has twenty one chapters--perfect for three weeks. I asked my father if he would read a chapter a day with me. He said no. I can see now that he probably panicked, he being an atheist and me, maybe overwhelming.

Remembering that made me feel less guilty. We both missed opportunities to connect on something important to the other. I did have reasons for not getting to a book he loved but which is very long, and he had his own reasons for not wanting to read mine. We didn't overcome our barriers then, but now mine have gone. I have time to read all 864 pages and I am. Chesapeake is off the shelf.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Short Story Contest

The stocky brown haired man in the yellow rain slicker looked up from the front desk as if he'd been waiting just for me. With a twinkle in his eye and a broad smile that matched my own, he said, "Short story contest?" and motioned with his head towards a blue box with a slit in the top, and a sign taped to the front.

I heard a soft laugh behind me and saw that I was being followed by a petite blond woman waving a brown manila envelope similar to mine. She and the friend she was with both looked as though they were vibrating with as much excitement as me. Our eyes sparkled with it!  

Before I put my envelope into the slot I asked if the friend would mind taking a photo of me putting it in. She laughed--she had brought her own camera to capture the moment of significance. We posed together with envelopes poised over the slot and were spontaneously joined by another hopeful contestant, a tall man with glasses perched atop his salt and pepper hair.

As we walked away from the contest box I asked my new writer friends to tell me about their writing, and we spent a few minutes together savouring the moment and our shared passion before going our separate ways.

People trickled in steadily now, all headed for the contest box and the foyer hummed with voices. I thought to myself that the man in the yellow rain slicker would spend his whole day directing hopeful contestants until the deadline arrived at 5.00 p.m.

A month earlier at the end of January, a friend had texted me the details of the contest saying, "You should enter!" 

Being retired, I finally have the time to pursue my passions and I felt that it was now or never. But then I procrastinated. I cleaned my house, baked pies and began reading an excellent book from my bookshelf by Bill Roorbach: Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature. 

My rationale for starting writing by reading was that I was "preparing." The truth was that I was "avoiding," although I did learn a lot from the first three chapters, including the importance of the first line.Thank goodness for the friend who told me, "Don't waste time on that first killer line, Belinda, just get the story down and worry about that later!"

The last week before the contest deadline, which was on a Monday, I began writing in earnest. By Thursday I had 750 words written and 1,750 to go. I thought that I was well on my way.

I learned over the next three days that all the steps that I had learned about but had not practiced, are there for good reason. 

  • allow the writing to rest for several days
  • read and rewrite, rinse and repeat
  • have trusted friends read your work and give feedback
And furthermore, you need to allow time in order to implement the steps. I wished I had started sooner.

By Friday evening I sent the story to the few friends that I hoped would read it and give feedback. I woke up the next morning wishing I hadn't been so quick to do so as I realized in the cold light of day that the story had shortcomings and needed more work...lots more work. 

Over that weekend I worked hard, into the early hours of each morning, writing and rewriting, chopping and strengthening it. My friends faithfully gave feedback and advice. Right up until Monday morning, when I steamed open the envelope to make more changes to what I had thought was definitely the final version. 

Much paper and printer ink later, as I left the city after dropping off the story,  I thought that no matter what happened now, I was already a winner, because

  • I had actually done it, and 
  • I learned so much in the process. 

I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to actually win the contest, knowing that about two thousand other entrants would be doing exactly the same at that moment.

I thought about my six grandchildren, all of whom work hard on an area of talent that they are honing to a skill, whether it is hockey, dance, caring for animals in an animal sanctuary or other areas of gifting. 

One of them. our 18 year old granddaughter Tippy, is never without a sketch pad. She ceaselessly works at her craft, polishing it by practicing consistently. All of them inspire me. 

Which is why Tippy's heartfelt response to the story meant so much when she was at our house this past weekend. As her mom read it out loud, I watched her eyes widen with surprise in some places, and smiled as she laughed at others. But at the end  I noticed that her cheeks were glistening. 

"Darling, are you crying?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, her voice choked with emotion and the earnest expression in her eyes saying more than her words,"I am just so proud of you." 

She came towards me with a hug, and I--well I had just won the trophy of all trophies.