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.

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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.