One Day, Baby, We’ll Be Old

Forgive the hiatus from the blog. I’d like to plead tropical vacation but that would not be true. Instead, with the push of the book over, I’ve been taking a bit of a break (cardinal blogging sin, I know) and I’ve been writing and shoveling snow and reading and shoveling snow.

And last night I went to the movies.

Oh, people. I went to the movies and my experience was everything art should be. It was extraordinary. I cried into my coat. I laughed. I was spellbound. I came home and didn’t quite know who I was. I was undone.

The film was a documentary: The Crash Reel. It told the story of Olympic hopeful snowboarder Kevin Pearce who suffered a catastrophic accident in the lead-up to the last Olympic games. Because Pearce had been both a potential Olympian and a young snowboarder, a lot of his training and goofing around was recorded on video. Possibly a documentary was already in the works when his world was shattered.

Now I really like the Olympics and snowboarding tricks come about as close to my dream of flying as anything I’ve ever seen, but even if neither of those has any appeal to you, this film should.

Only about three minutes into the start of the movie, the viewer sees Kevin’s crash–one that would have been fatal if he had not been wearing a helmet–and the rest of the movie goes back to previous footage to show how he got there, ahead to watch how he, his family and his team attempt to recover afterwards, outward to look more broadly at the sport, the sponsors and the spectators and the role we each play in this. To say the story is compelling and beautiful is an understatement.

At the end of the movie, the credits roll over footage shot several years before the accident, footage of a joyful nighttime snowboarding romp by Kevin and by his competitor and teammate, Shaun White, the Olympic star of the sport. The visuals are accompanied by a haunting acoustic song by Israeli songwriter Asaf Avidan, called One Day/The Reckoning Song. Have a look and listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OVLJWm0SKQ

The song repeats two lines over and over again: One day, baby, we’ll be old/Think of all the stories that we could have told.

As I stumbled out of the theatre at the end of this movie, I felt, as I said, undone, transformed by the beauty of what was told as a complex, mature, intelligent, challenging story with compelling and very real characters. The song echoed in my head as I drove home, stunned. And then the words began to sink in: one day we will indeed be old. I began to think of all the stories that I could have told. And then the stories I could tell.

What I love about the Olympics is the striving for glory. I know there are drugs. I know there is corruption. I know there are so many problems with them–and this movie pointed out more. But there is also the chance to come nearer to flying than anything else. The doing what you love, what you are made to do. I find it deeply inspiring.

And so too this movie. I take my hat off to film writer/director/producer Lucy Walker who has told a story that is worth telling and who didn’t just let this be a story she could have told, or one she could have sort of told.

Children watch Olympic athletes and think: maybe I could do that. I watched this movie and let it go deep within me and then, as a writer, dared to think: maybe I could do that.

One day, baby, we’ll be old.
Think of all the stories that we could have told.

Top 10 Books of 2013

One of my favourite writing gigs is reviewing books for the local newspaper. The reviewers are paid in books, which I think is more than fair, and we can choose among the titles sent to the paper. I sometimes use this opportunity to read books I wouldn’t normally buy or pick up at the library, to expand my reading repertoire.

It’s a good thing I did this year because I honestly had some disappointments among books I was looking forward to reading. I was the only non-16 year old girl to pick up the final book in the YA Divergent series–Allegiant–but it really failed to live up to the promise of the first book, which I very much enjoyed, and was worse than the second one. I did not enjoy the Giller-winning HellGoing by Lynn Coady, as much as I loved her most recent book The Antagonist and expected to like this one; for me, the characters were too contrived and the plots too loose. I heard much about the “new adult” book The Bone Season, whose very young author was touted as the next J.K. Rowling (which puts such expectations on her writing as to be patently unfair): I was stunned how excessively complex the worlds of the book were and how long it took to situate the reader in each of the various worlds. I had mixed feelings about Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda: I enjoyed it but it was bloody, constantly and literally bloody. It doesn’t so much fit in the category of a disappointment as that of a hard read; that’s not always a bad thing.

I also undertook an accidental reading project this year: the only time I really read mysteries (with a couple of exceptions) is when I am in times of transition. I read Dorothy Sayers in my ninth month of my first pregnancy, while on bedrest. This year, while in the midst of a whirlwind of renovating, moving and more renovating, I picked up a couple of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and then a few more. By the end of the summer, I decided I would read my way through the canon, all 82 of them. By late fall, I was carrying around a list of the remaining mysteries and stopping in at various secondhand shops. It was interesting to solve some of the mysteries early on while others were unclear until the very end. I would put one of Christie’s books on my list if it were a top 11: be sure to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Another change this year was the way in which I read some books. I received a Kobo e-reader for Christmas 2012 and read a number of books on Bobo, my Kobo. While I actually still prefer paper books the Kobo is particularly convenient when traveling and I tend to keep it in my purse so that as Oscar Wilde suggested “one should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

And now, with no further ado, my list:

10. How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny. Penny’s books seem to me to be getting better and better. A friend recently asked which was her first so he could start with it. My recommendation was that he start with Bury Your Dead, the book where the series really caught its stride. I enjoyed this book as it finally brought together a number of elements that have been hinted at throughout the series.

9. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. I read this book at the recommendation of a woman I met while we were looking at cookbooks. The title captivated me and the book was lovely. It’s a gentle read, reminiscent of Maeve Binchy, about people whose lives are entwined through a cooking class they take. Each chapter focuses on a different person and a different recipe. Bauermeister writes about food and its preparation like no one else I have read. It is luscious but never too sweet. A delicious lighter read.

8. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. In my review of this book about Everest climber George Mallory, I called it exquisite, and said: “if you are looking for a good book that tells a grand sweep of a suspenseful story while remembering the heartbreak and joys of domestic life, this is it.”

7. Conceit by Mary Novik. This Canadian author says she is engaged in “ongoing exploration of minor characters in the lives of great figures of literature.” Conceit follows the life of the daughter of John Donne. The writing in this book is a pleasure and Novik knows her stuff historically speaking too. I also read and enjoyed her newer book Muse, about Petrarch’s muse.

6. The Woman who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde. I love Fforde. He’s insane, of course, but his alternate BookWorld is a complete pleasure for anyone with an appreciation of literature and a writer with a zany, creative sense of humour. This book is more than a year old but I hadn’t realized it had come out. I enjoyed the fact that there was a touch of “physics” in this one too.

5. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Despite having an English degree that did not cure me of my love of reading, I had never read Chaucer. In one of my forays into secondhand bookshops this fall, I decided it was high time to read him. The great part about literature like this is that, like Shakespeare, the language at first keeps the modern reader at a bit of a remove so that when the code is broken and the reader begins to read the archaic language more easily, it is all the more shock to recognize the humanity shared then and now. Some of the stories the travelers tell en route to Canterbury are bawdy, some are hilarious, some are poignant and some are serious. This is a book that can be picked up and read almost as a series of short stories.

4. Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow. I had the pleasure of reading this YA novel in its earlier drafts as the author is a friend in my writers’ group. The quality of the writing, however, is such that although I knew the story and how it ended, I could not put the published version down. Dark but hopeful. I recommend this one highly.

3. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. I would not mind at all being Barbara Kingsolver when I grow up. I enjoy her fiction immensely, the way she weaves several stories and larger themes together. In this book, she looks at climate change and its surprising effects on one small valley and one woman in particular. The book is in no way preachy and in every way marvelous.

2. The Circle by Dave Eggers. Somehow I have never read Eggers before. I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. It is a cautionary tale about our increasingly connected world where our lives are lived more and more online. The book is almost a contemporary fable but again is not preachy. What stood out the most to me was the loss of small, quiet private moments for the protagonist.

1. Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tamnet. What does it say when my favourite book of the year is a non-fiction math book? But it was. Tamnet is a mathematical savant who has synesthesia. He possesses the unusual ability to think brilliantly and to be able to translate his ideas to the rest of the world. Not all of the book is about math, but it is a book that conveys a deep understanding of the world and a profound sense of wonder. I thought about it and talked about it for months after reading it.

After the Turkey

If you’re like me, you’re reemerging from the post-turkey haze into the world again. I’m sitting down this afternoon to Have Words With My New Manuscript about what’s going on.

I also thought I would share a few of my words with you, from a couple of places online:

http://christianfictiononlinemagazine.com/brilliant_writers.html

http://dorothyadamek.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/susan-fish-seeker-of-stars.html

Note that the second link has a contest attached to it, which is still going on.

I’d love to hear your feedback on either of these…and your recipes for leftovers.

Merry Christmas

A lot of the time, a writer sits in a room and stares at a page or a screen but sometimes she needs to get out and rejoin the rest of the world. That is in part what the holidays will be about for me, and I hope for you. Thanks for following along with the journey this fall. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Inspiration & A Contest

When one of my sons was really small, I asked him where he got his ideas from. “My mouth,” was his reply. It’s a common question for writers and sometimes I think, when I am asked, I should simply adopt my son’s answer.

It is an intriguing question, though, and the answers are no less interesting. After something big happens, people will often turn to the nearest writer and say, “You should write about that!” or “That would make a great book, wouldn’t it?”

But, the real story of inspiration is not dissimilar to human conception, really. The right seed has to hit the right place at the right time for a story to grow. At any other moment, perhaps it would be another seed or another story. I remember reading a novel called The Well of Lost Plots. Maybe there really is such a place out there — a resting place for all the stories that might have been told. I know that I’ve been stumped by stories that hit too close to home and those that felt too foreign for me to tell them.

Inspiration really is a delicate balancing act between familiarity and curiosity. I need to have something accessible about the main character in particular, some means of identifying with him or her, to be able to get inside his or her head. At the same time, the story can’t simply be my own– or frankly, I’d be bored in the telling of it. Often what captivates me in the course of writing a book is what I learn — both on an informational level and on an emotional level — but at the same time, I do think there is something about writing about what you know.

I think one of the reasons I don’t tend to write the stories that people say would make great books is that I feel like those stories are already clear: we see them as great tales because we can see the whole story at once, the villain, the hero, the crisis and the inevitable ending. I think those stories are good ones but they are, in a sense, already told.

To me, it’s actually better if a story offers a kind of alternate reality, a certain element of “What If…?” where we don’t know what will happen. We were once invited to drop everything and move to a remote community we were visiting. We said no, of course, but the idea stayed with me: what if we had said yes? who would say yes? what would happen if he did? I didn’t know and I wondered and wrote that story through three novels and nine years.

Sometimes there is an image or a sound or a smell that becomes indelible on the imagination. I might hear a snippet of news on the radio or learn a fascinating fact and, as Blake would say, “see the world in a grain of sand.”

There’s an element of fascination, with trying things on for size. Sometimes there’s therapy and preventative therapy: as my friend Erin says, “We write the stories we will need.” I wrote a book about a woman who was suddenly widowed, although I hope I will never need its lessons firsthand.

A good writer creates a world which, even if it is very similar to our own world, has its own rules and boundaries, joys and sorrows, characters and histories. The world has to work, first and foremost, for the writer who will live in it for months and years at a time. It has to be a place the writer is willing and interested in visiting, revisiting and even inhabiting. By the time I was through with writing about the fictionalized remote community, I realized that I loved the pretend version much more than the real one.

*

So, now for the contest. As we speak, copies of Seekers of Stars are wending their way toward my home for me to send out to contest winners. Many of the copies are already spoken for, but I would like to offer an opportunity for you to receive a copy. Here’s how you can win: Tell me in the comments below about your inspiration for your creativity. We will pick a winner at random on Tuesday December 17 and will send a copy of the book to that person. It’s as simple as that. (Please pass the word along to other people too. Thanks!)

Seeker of Stars – Study Questions

Not everyone who reads Seeker of Stars will be a person of faith, but for those who are or those who are interested in learning more about what the Bible has to say about ideas connected to the book, I’ve written six sessions of questions and material for discussion or reflection.

The studies are set up to deal with themes rather than specific chapters, and include as themes Dreams, Relationships, Providence, Vocation, Healing, and Christmas. They can be used by a small group Bible study, an adult Sunday School class, a personal reflection time or even a discussion group among people of various beliefs. The one requirement is that participants have read the entire book before the study series begins.

While the study could take place leading up to Christmas, it would also be meaningful after Christmas. You will notice there are no answers offered. The questions are designed to make people think and engage with God, rather than to get the right answer.

I’ve included the Christmas study questions below. If you’re interested in me sending you all six studies, please send me a message on my Facebook page, which is facebook.com/susanfishwrites and I’ll be happy to email them to you.

  

“An incredible story poured forth, which made ours sound commonplace. Angel visitations, virgin fullness, joy and sorrow, dreams and resolutions, promise, panic and pain – a child – squalor and shepherds, glory and – God.” Seeker of Stars

Bible: Matthew 2; Genesis 28:10-22; Genesis 32:22-32, Exodus 3:1-6

Discussion Questions

-     Read the biblical account of the magi and compare with Seeker of Stars:

-          Are there discrepancies?

-          How did the book enhance your view of the magi and the original Christmas story?

-          In what ways did you imagine the magi differently?

-          What do you imagine might happen next for Melchior? What are the effects of an unexpected, life-changing encounter with God? Look at Jacob’s encounters with God in Genesis 28:10-22 and 32:22-32, as well as Moses’ first encounter with God in Exodus 3:1-6. What role does fear play?

 

Group Activity: Ask participants: If, like Melchior, you were to tell your story – what would you say has been the “deepest desire of your heart”? What have been the painful places?  How have you encountered God in your desires and pain? Have participants partner up to share their “stories.” Invite them to share their stories with God and thank God for His presence in their lives.

 

Hope

You know how I said the other day that sometimes words and ideas can come out wrong? Well, I’m taking a risk here, and I hope it makes sense to you.

Nelson Mandela died last night and his death hit me harder than I thought it would. I’ve been thinking about him ever since. This morning, however, I realized that he had been almost exactly my age when he was imprisoned. For 27 years. I started to imagine what it would be like if I were to be suddenly removed from my family and friends, from my livelihood, from the causes I believed in. For 27 years. From age 45 to age 72. At a certain point, wouldn’t you think that your life and your work was behind you? Wouldn’t despair seep in? Mandela didn’t know that he would live to be 95, that he would have 23 years after prison, to live, to rule, to laugh, to love and to offer wisdom and hard-won hope. I walk through a cemetery each morning with my dog and here’s the thing: some people die at every single age. There are babies who died the day they were born and men and women who lived past 100. We don’t know.

And here’s where you might think I’m pushing an analogy or worse that I am equating very unequally weighted matters. Let me say from the outset that I am not weighing them equally. However, in my imagining this morning about Mandela and about being shut up for 27 years, I thought about writing and publication, about rejection. Science is almost always a young person’s game: most discoveries and revolutionary scientific theories come from young thinkers and scientists. Literature is not like that. Like my cemetery, there is a spectrum of ages at which writers publish. There are the precocious geniuses but there are also those whose first book is published well into what others might call retirement.

The challenge is to be able to hold onto hope. The challenge is to be realistic and yet not despairing. The challenge is to stay true to one’s calling and purpose, to tell the story, to keep telling the stories, whether the words are set free into the world or not.

You see, what I imagined was not so much that I was locked up for 27 years but that my words were. What if my words were locked up for the foreseeable future, for possibly the rest of my human existence? What if I knew that it looked like my words would not be published for the next 27 years? Would I keep writing? Would I lose faith?

As I said, I am not equating the struggle of someone fighting for the freedom of his people with a series of rejection letters from publishers. And yet. And yet. Someone said of Mandela, “We saw in him what we seek for ourselves.” And what I seek in myself is the ability to be true, regardless of consequence, to be faithful even when rejection comes, to keep on doing what I am called to do simply for the reason of the call within me. 

What awes us about Mandela now that his whole story is told is that he managed to hold onto his calling, to cast aside all the things that would have destroyed his hope. I am so glad for him that he had the last 23 years, but I suspect it was the crucible of the 27 years locked away that truly made him who he was. And likewise, I want to learn from the hard times and the rejections. I want to learn to keep telling the stories with hope that one day they will indeed be heard.

 

Watch Your Words

Image

It was either Flaubert or Oscar Wilde who said, “I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting a comma in and all afternoon taking it out.” I don’t ponder punctuation quite so ponderously but I do understand the importance of arranging words as you would flowers in a vase, so that each is shown to its best advantage and so that the effect of the whole thing is pleasing.

And yet, yesterday, my publisher sent me a series of graphics that were based on pulled out quotes from a piece of writing I did as an Advent giveaway (You can download it here if you like:  http://www.dccebooks.com/products/seeker-of-stars) and one of my reactions surprised me. First, I was tickled pink to see my words made fancy and pretty. And then, I thought, “I have to watch what I write because someone could make them into a pretty graphic.” Or read my words.

That is the craving of the writer: to simply be read. The rest is gravy (although being paid does actually allow a writer the time to keep writing). But people who identify themselves as writers face some of the same challenges that everyone does: how to take an idea or a picture inside their heads and arrange it into symbols on a page that come close to what they intended to say. Thus the mornings and afternoons with the pesky commas.

But sometimes either we are careless or ineffective in the arrangement of letters and words: I once caused a furor on a former blog with absolutely no intention of being inflammatory. I’ve had times when people’s reactions to my written and spoken words have effectively silenced me for a time. Of that experience, a friend mused, “I wonder if in the end, it is a necessary lesson for a writer to experience feeling ‘silenced’ so that you are reminded of the value you place on expression, and the gift this freedom really is.  It also perhaps provides an opportunity to ‘count the cost’ in advance when you do use your ‘voice’.”

It’s one thing to learn this lesson when readers are mad at you but it was unexpected to be reminded of it in the moment of having my words quoted and made pretty. It comes down to taking care of each word. I often tell new writers that every single word they write needs to justify its existence in the rewriting process. Writers can write whatever they like, but in the rewriting that happens before a story goes out into the world, that’s when a writer needs to carefully decide which ideas and words — and commas — must stay and which can and should go. It isn’t that a writer gets rid of anything that might make a reader angry, or that a writer forms words that will make excellent sound bytes or graphics, but that a writer means what she says and says what she means.

 

 

 

Give Thanks Like A Character

Last summer, I bought an apron. It’s pink and yellow and brown floral and it is a smock-like design. I bought it from an antique dealer in Ithaca, New York, who picked it up from an estate sale. I was wandering the antique store looking for something I could bring home that would be a symbol of the character I had been writing — a widow living in Ithaca who loved to cook. I wear the apron when I cook sometimes now and it feels almost like acting, a physical embodying of the character.

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. I live north of the 49th parallel so we celebrated six weeks ago when the leaves were brilliant on the trees and the harvest was just gathered in but I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong in me giving thanks more than once, even if I’m having salmon for supper instead of turkey. I was thinking about writing a post that detailed things I’m thankful for — a discipline I’d like to practice far more regularly — but then I started imagining a list of things my character from Seeker of Stars was thankful for.

And that’s when it started to get interesting.

Because my own list would include the apron and the salmon, the publication of my book — the things that make me glad. But if I think about what Melchior would be thankful for, he would actually include disability and losses, being slighted, accidental discoveries, opportunities lost and found.

Why is it easier for me to imagine my character being thankful for difficulties than being thankful for them in my own life — because surely it is. I can genuinely imagine that he would be thankful for things that would make me despair. Is that what makes him a wise man and me just me?

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it than that. Part of it is that when I think of his story, I know what happens. I know how the tragedies of his life fit into the whole picture.  Some of Melchior’s blessings, the things he can be grateful for, are things he’s taken for granted, things that have been right under his nose for years. Others, though, are more severe mercies — things that could never have happened without the pain and loss. We don’t know that in our own lives. A friend recently said of raising teens that if she knew how it was going to turn out, she might be able to relax more and worry less.

The Bible says to give thanks in all circumstances (I Thessalonians 5:18). I think of a psalm that potentially could make your eyes glaze over, Psalm 136. The reason I say this is that after every line, there is a refrain, the very same refrain: His love endures forever. It’s repeated 26 times. The psalm begins, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love endures forever.” So far, so good. And many of the verses list things like “to him alone who does great wonders, for his love endures forever.” But, you also see things like, “to him who led his people through the wilderness….who killed great kings….remembered us in our low estate…for his love endures forever.” Read between those lines and there are 40 years in the wilderness, oppression by great kings and times when people are truly down and out. The reason for being able to thank God is that in the very midst of these things, his love endures forever.

John Lennon once said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” The Bible offers a reason for that kind of hope, the kind that allows us to give thanks in all circumstances.

I put on my character’s apron and I see a bit more clearly through her eyes but I try on a character’s reasons for thanksgiving and I see much more clearly how to be thankful no matter what.

Preparing for the Season of Preparation

This Sunday marks the beginning of the liturgical year with the first Sunday of Advent. Not all Christians follow this calendar — some remember the birth and resurrection of Jesus on a regular basis and find the idea of such a calendar stifling, while Eastern Christians have been in Advent for a week or so already. Increasingly, however, many people are expressing a sense of meaningfulness in recognizing the traditional Christian calendar dates.

What I find challenging about Advent — much more than Lent — is that what it requires of us is very different from the other seasonal pulls that happen at the same time of the year. Advent invites us to be still, to wait, to long, to reflect, to be quiet in anticipation. At the same time, we’re making a list and checking it twice. We’re baking cookies, decorating trees, decking the halls, dashing through the snow to school concerts and office parties, traveling to see family and friends, stuffing turkeys, doublechecking those lists…aren’t you tired just thinking about it?

So what is a person to do? Does Advent only add more pressure — must slow down! must reflect! — to the to-do lists?

This has long been a real question for me, and I wrote an essay about it which is going to be available for free download starting this Sunday on dccebooks.com. It’s called The Christmas Clementine. I hope you will download it and let me know what you think. Let me know how Advent and CHRISTMAS! co-exist in your life in the month of December.