The Faith of a Writer: My Process

By Michele Young-Stone

       My writing process is rewriting. I start with an image, usually of a character in my head. He or she has some problem: she was struck by lightning and no one believes her, her father isn’t there for her, her mother is a drunk, she feels abandoned (novel #1, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors); she was born with wings, they were considered a birth defect, her parents separate, she doesn’t understand her place in the world or the significance of the ghostly wings she wears (novel #2, Above Us Only Sky); when she’s seven, her mother’s twins are born prematurely and don’t survive, she loses her mother to sadness and mourning, she falls in love with a girl and struggles with her notions of right and wrong (novel #3, Lost in the Beehive). These are the bones, the beginnings. I don’t ever know what’s going to happen until I start writing. With Lost in the Beehive, I knew that I wanted to explore societal norms and conventions. I wanted to investigate the choices people make to either follow or break with convention. Gloria is attracted to the same gender, but this is not acceptable in 1960’s New Jersey. (Sadly, for some people, this isn’t acceptable today.) Is Gloria going to follow her heart, or is she going to try and live as society expects her to live?

    My process is very tactile. As I’m rewriting, I’ll often make collages or draw my characters. With Lost in the Beehive, I used old magazines from my research, copies of Life, Photoplay and Good Housekeeping, to make collages of the major scenes I was writing. Some of the scenes made it to the novel’s final draft, but most didn’t. They were a part of the process. The writer Valley Haggard recently reminded me in her book, The Halfway House for Writers, that nothing is wasted. Sometimes I get really frustrated and down on myself because I will have written thousands of pages that seem wasted, that will never make it into the final book, but as Valley writes, “Nothing has been wasted: none of your writing and none of your time. Even lost years and lost manuscripts were necessary to bring you where you are now.” I believe her. She’s right. I desperately need to be reminded of that fact. I’m never going to sit down and write an outline and follow it and voila, have a completed manuscript/novel. It’s never going to happen. My process is putting down layers and scraping those layers away (rewriting) to find what the story wants and needs to be.

Isabel

In every novel I’ve written, some character inevitably shows up on the page and starts bossing me around. I don’t know why he or she is there, but this is the really good stuff because this is the subconscious at work, and I have to have faith that this is happening for a reason. I often reference “the faith of a writer” because a writer has to have faith that what’s being created will at some point, with enough love and hard work, take a reasonable form that’s accessible and satisfying to readers. In Lost in the Beehive, Sheffield Schoeffler showed up. He became Gloria’s (the main character’s) best friend. The novel became a platonic love story between them, each character struggling to fit into a world that didn’t seem to want them. While I was writing, I made magnets and little paintings that read, “I love Gloria” and “I love Sheff.” I love them both.

Gloria and Sheff

In between writing The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors and Lost in the Beehive, I wrote Above Us Only Sky. I had a two-book contract with Simon and Schuster, and they decided that they wanted to publish the novel about the girl born with wings first, but the problem was that I hadn’t written that book, so I had to set Lost in the Beehive aside and get to work.

Four years later, when I returned to Lost in the Beehive, I realized that it was a book about Gloria’s life: about her childhood, her first love, about her friendship with Sheff, and about her adult life, but it wasn’t cohesive. To quote my agent, Michelle Brower, “It needs a narrative vehicle.” If you’re wondering what that is, I was wondering the same thing. It’s basically some force that compels the story forward, that makes it cause-and-effect, and not just this happened and then this happened and then this happened. Finding the narrative vehicle was far more difficult than you can imagine. I literally stuck all the characters on a train at one point. I was desperate. I had a book that wasn’t technically a book. I had characters I loved, I had events, but the structure just wasn’t quite right. As I considered structure, I realized that I had to cut Gloria’s first love interest from the book. She was part of Gloria’s backstory. The novel was more about Gloria’s relationship with Sheff and her family than it was about her first love—Isabel. Again, I had written hundreds of pages that would never be a part of the novel.

Right now, as I work on my fourth novel, I’ve already written as many drafts, and I’m still trying to figure out what the book is really about. I struggle not to beat myself up. I tell myself that if I keep writing, if I keep spending time in the world I’ve created, the truth of the book will rise to the surface. I’ve written and published three books already. Why should this one let me down?

 

Michele Young-Stone, author of Lost in the Beehive (Simon & Schuster), will be among five featured authors at the Women’s National Book Association-Charlotte’s annual Spring Meet the Authors Evening from 7-8:30 p.m.  on Monday, April 9,  at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road in Charlotte. The event is free and open to the public.

 

A Story of Two Fires

    By  Jim Minick

             The novel Fire Is Your Water started out as nonfiction. Two fires struck my family in this one small area of Pennsylvania where I grew up, and though I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to make a larger book about these, especially because one fire occurred before I was born. So it took me five years of wandering in the wilderness of words to understand fiction would allow me to combine these stories if I could figure out how.

Part of that “how” came by collapsing four generations of people into two generations, and thirty years of stories condensed to three months. The larger part of the “how,” though, was discovering the connecting thread, which eventually became this: what happens to a faith healer when she loses her ability to heal? That became the driving question.

Ada Franklin, the main character in Fire Is Your Water, is based on my great-grandmother, Ida Franklin Minick, who was a faith healer or powwow doctor in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. She could remove warts, stop blood, and take out fire, like Ada in the novel. And like Ada, she entered a burning barn with a relative, who was severely burned in the process. Afterward, my great-grandmother was not the one who healed my grandmother’s hands—another person did. So that got me thinking about why and what happens if faith is lost. I’m pretty sure that did not happen with Ida, but it opened a door for me.

My first memory is sitting on my great-grandmother’s lap, but then Ida died when I was four. So I wish I had known her better, and in a way, this novel helped me imagine a little of her life, like what it was like to work on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1950s, or to heal an epileptic, or even, to heal a bleeding cow by saying a chant through the phone. All of these are family stories I was able to weave into the novel to honor these people and this place.

I worked on this novel, off and on, for fifteen years. Attention got pulled to other projects, so in that time span, I wrote four other books, plus taught full-time. At some deeper level, I think I knew I wasn’t ready yet to write this book, so I had to learn my way in, through other genres, and then through extensive reading and studying of novels I admired, like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

One of the great risks I took with this book is with the character of Cicero, a raven who learns to read and talk. Most of Fire Is Your Water is in third-person point-of-view, but Cicero’s chapters are in first-bird’s POV, and as, one reviewer commented on the bird’s swearing, he is “foul-beaked.” Cicero and the idea of a talking bird came much later, maybe two-thirds of the way into the writing. I was taking a fiction workshop with Darnell Arnoult (an excellent teacher and writer), and I knew the other main character, a man named Will Burk, loved birds, so I kept playing with that idea, trying to figure out how to develop that passion of his. Then I remembered reading an essay about a person growing up with a talking crow as a pet, and that, along with encouragement to just experiment, let me walk through that door of magic realism to find Cicero there waiting to chew my ear off, literally.

And yes, many birds, especially “smarter” species like ravens and crows, can learn words. I collected several stories from fellow birders about such. One ornithology professor told of a raven tamed in grad school. The bird loved to say, “Nevermore,” and he loved to drink whiskey. When he got too tipsy, he’d just repeat, “Never, never, never….”

When Cicero heard this, he wanted to file an animal abuse report until he realized that it all happened decades ago.

I’ll end with one of Cicero’s favorite quotes, from Eubie Blake: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind—listen to the birds. And don’t hate nobody.”

Jim Minick is the author of five books, including Fire Is Your Water, a debut novel released this spring. His memoir, The Blueberry Years, won of the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. His honors include the Jean Ritchie Fellowship in Appalachian Writing, and the Fred Chappell Fellowship at University of North Carolina-Greensboro. His work has appeared in many publications including Poets & Writers, Oxford American, Shenandoah, Orion, San Francisco Chronicle, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Conversations with Wendell Berry, Appalachian Journal, and The Sun. Currently, he is Assistant Professor at Augusta University and Core Faculty in Converse College’s low-residency MFA program.

Jim and his new book will be featured at the Women’s National Book Association Charlotte’s 8th Annual “BIBLIOFEAST” Book & Author Dinner on Monday, Oct. 16. Tickets are available at http://wnba-charlotte.org/wnba/calendar/bibliofeast-tickets/ (credit card) or at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, 704-525-9239 (cash or check).

Saying Yes to Yourself

By Caitlin Hamilton Summie

We all have demands on our time that make it hard to fit in our creative writing: jobs, possibly parenthood, possibly caring for parents, school work, yard work, cleaning. The list goes on. Indeed, it can go on forever, pushing one’s writing down to the end of the list.

Being busy nowadays seems like a virtue. Being busy also makes you feel there is a good reason you are not writing—there are so many other To Dos that are so much more important.

But are they?

As I have grown older, I’ve learned the power of the word “no.” No, I am not available for that committee, though thanks so much for thinking of me. No, thank you, I can’t come for that event, but I sure appreciate the invitation.

And a perennially tough one for me: no, my house is not going to be perfectly clean. (If you ever visit, don’t look too closely!)

But saying no more often didn’t quite get me to finding my “yes” – to more writing time — like I thought it would.

This isn’t to say that I wasn’t writing. I was. On a lunch hour. Late at night. Weekends. I believed that pursuing my writing at all felt like I was saying “yes” to myself.

But I wasn’t, not really.

I discovered my “yes” only recently, as I scanned a long morning To Do list. I had myself and my writing at the very bottom of the list, when and if time allowed. And suddenly, I saw it: I was willing to carve out time to write and to send stories off, or edit one of my pieces, or this or that when everything else was done. But I didn’t ever prioritize my writing.

No, I felt myself say, staring at the list. I erased myself from the bottom and penciled myself in at the top.

Yes, I thought, I will do something for myself first today. It might be only from 8-8:15 a.m. But I am going to do it. Some days, I am going to prioritize my writing career.

And I am.

Caitlin Hamilton Summie and her new book, To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts, published by Fomite Press, will be featured at the Women’s National Book Association Charlotte’s 8th Annual “BIBLIOFEAST” Book & Author Dinner on Monday, Oct. 16. Caitlin lives in Knoxville, TN and is also a book industry marketing and publicity consultant. Tickets are available at http://wnba-charlotte.org/wnba/calendar/bibliofeast-tickets/ (credit card) or at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, 704-525-9239 (cash or check).