Home. The theme of Katie’s writing challenge. I failed to get a new story for March. I tried, but it didn’t happen. I could tell you the reasons, but you don’t really care. Instead, here is something I wrote few years ago that fits the theme. Next month, something new.
Yet again I’m at my desk, working, with music in the background. Again it’s Wilco. I’m learning a couple of their songs and I’m letting them sink in. I came across this live performance of Shot in the Arm. When I play it on my guitar it’s just me and it’s a simple song, though the song itself is infused with conflict and doubt. In this live version, you see Jeff Tweedy up front, singing and playing his simple chords. In the background a whole heckuva a lot is going on. The conflict can’t be avoided. Doubt is everywhere. It’s all in the music and it might be a chaotic mess if not for the simple story (Tweedy) holding it all together. It makes a simple song complex and engaging. Good art and good literature do the same thing.
So I’m sitting here at work listening to Wilco on YouTube, and I see in the upcoming videos, a video of Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) talking to George Saunders, whose book – A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – I’m currently reading. If you’re a writer or a musician, I think you’ll enjoy this. If you’re like me, you’ll have to listen in bits and pieces.
In The Darling, Chekhov tells the story of a woman who is somewhat of a serial lover, losing herself to whomever she loves. When we first meet Olenko, we admire her utter devotion to the man she loves. When he dies, she repeats the pattern with her new love. And when he dies, she repeats it again with her new love, and we begin to have questions about her. We begin to see the flaws in her character. And yet, her biggest sin is loving too much and too easily.
In his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders offers this about Olenka:
“I feel about Olenko the way I think God might. I know so much about her. Nothing has been hidden from me. It’s rare, in the real world, that I get to know someone so completely. I’ve known her in so many modes: a happy young newlywed and a lonely old lady; a rosy beloved darling and an overlooked, neglected piece of furniture, nearly a local joke; a nurturing wife and an overbearing false mother.
And look at that: the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment. Some essential mercy in me has been switched on. What God has going for Him that we don’t is infinite information. Maybe that’s why He’s able to, supposedly, love us so much.”
A publisher has expressed interest in my novel, Heather Girl. They like the story and the primary characters; however, they feel that I have too many sub-plots and secondary characters that take away from the main focus of the novel. There are a couple of sub-plots and secondary characters that I have no trouble eliminating. There are others that I’m hesitant to lose.
I’ve been reading a book recommended by Mr. Larry Ellis, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. In the book, Saunders examines short stories of Russian authors so that writers may learn and hone their craft. Saunders just told me something that is helpful in evaluating Heather Girl. It is this:
Imagine we’re bouncers, roaming through Club Story, asking each part [of the story], “Excuse me, but why do you need to be in here?” In a perfect story, every part has a good answer. (“Well, uh, in my subtle way, I am routing energy to the heart of the story.”)
Our evolving, rather hard-ass model of a story says that every part of it should be there for a reason. The merely incidental (“this really happened” or “this was pretty cool” or “this got into the story and I couldn’t quite take it out again”) won’t cut it. Every part of the story should be able to withstand this level of scrutiny…
The second paragraph confirms what I think needs to be cut.
The first paragraph makes me hesitate on other parts, those that I believe are routing energy to the heart of the story.
If you’re an author trying to get published, rejection is part of the process. I have no problem with that. As part of my day job as an architect, we submit our qualifications for projects and are rejected 90% of the time. It’s not that we’re not qualified; most of the time it just means we’re not a good fit for that particular project. It’s the same with writing. And though I’m accustomed to rejection in general, I’d like to see a little more success with my writing.
Authors seeking to be published by a traditional publisher generally seek agent representation first. Thus, agents are the first to offer rejection. Here’s a typical rejection letter (email) from an agent.
Dear Mr. Bird:
Thank you for your recent submission. We enjoyed reviewing your work. Unfortunately, at this time, we do not feel we have a good place for you on our client list. We wish you all the best success in the future.
Just a form letter. No real feedback. Nothing to tell you if your writing is truly bad or if it’s just a wrong fit for that particular agent. And this judgement is based typically on no more than the first 50 pages of your novel, and more often, the first 10 pages. I can also imagine than an agent can make the assessment after the first few paragraphs.
Here’s another I recieved.
Dear Mr. Bird,
Thank you very much for your query below. I liked the premise of this story, but I am sorry to say that I did not connect with the writing in the way I had hoped. For this reason, and with regret, I cannot offer you representation. However, I wish you every success and hope you will find the perfect home for this material.
Hey! Positive feedback. This was for Heather Girl and apparently she liked the premise of my story! So that tells my I’m not completely off base with the overall story idea. This is good. Great, actually. Now the bad news.
I did not connect with the writing.
In other words, my writing sucks.
This is what authors tend to do. One minute you’re receiving the Pulitzer, the next your pages are not worth lining the bottom of a bird cage. We’re an insecure bunch. Reality is somewhere in the middle.
After a few days of self-loathing, I decided to try to figure out why the agent might not have connected with my writing. Working under the assumption that she started at the beginning, that’s where I start. And one of the first rules of novel writing is to have a good opening hook. So I spent a few days trying to craft a hook. That was more or less a useless excercise.
Did the agent really not connect with my writing because I didn’t have a clever hook? I doubt it. It’s more than that.
What did I do?
I scrapped the first three chapters altogether. I’ve moved one of my favorite scenes to the beginning of the book. I think it’s more engaging and my hope is that readers will be caught up in the story right from the beginning and be completely unconcerned about the words I use to tell the story. It’s the story, after all, stupid. That stupid is for me.
Yes, it’s taken a lot of work to rearrange the pieces and I’ve lost some of my favorite passages in those first three chapters, but wasn’t it William Faulkner who advised authors to “kill your darlings”?
I’m almost ready to begin another round of agent submittals. We’ll see if any of this has helped.
As announcements go in a fourth grade class, that’s a big one. When your teacher says something like that, you first realize that she has a life outside of the classroom and that there are other people in her life besides you. And getting married? That’s a lot for a nine year-old to process.
It was a little school, Lakewood Elementary in St. Albans, West Virginia. Miss Yount was the teacher. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to her as Miss Yount, though Yount was her married name.) As tradition of the day dictated, the students would normally get their teacher a Christmas present. but being the wise young woman she was, Miss Yount asked the kids to come up with something “creative” instead of a traditional Christmas gift.
One of her students was Robert Taylor, the fourth child of seven in the Taylor clan. He was a serious student and took Miss Yount’s request to heart. Using a pattern his mother had, Robert fashioned a nativity scene using styrofoam balls and felt. Nine figures in all, including Mary and Joseph, angels, wise men, and shepherds. No phoning it in for young Robert Taylor. Even the face of the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms was detailed. An artistic masterpiece? No. But what is evident is the time and effort that he took to create this seasonal memento for a teacher he would not likely see again after he graduated fourth grade. There was obviously a fondness for her.
And so he graduated, and she married and moved away.
Robert grew up, graduated college and began working as a structural engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, despite the B in math he earned in fourth grade from Miss Yount. He married, had four kids of his own and now has four grandchildren. He retired from the Corps a couple of years ago, but even after retirement, he has been to Mosul, Iraq five times where he has assisted in the engineering of the stabilization of the Mosul Dam. Miss Yount would be proud.
And then a couple of weeks ago, a message appeared on Facebook.
“I’m in search of a Robert Taylor, Asian-American who attended fourth grade at Lakewood Elementary School in St. Albans, WV. His teacher was Ms. Dale Yount. I believe the year would be 1967, 1968, or 1969. His expected age would be 60-62.”
It was a friend of Miss Yount, helping her try to find Robert Taylor.
After she left St. Albans with her husband, Mrs. Yount, now Dr. Yount, traveled the world. She lived in Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, England, Singapore and several states in the U.S. In all they had moved 39 times. At each place they lived, every Christmas Dr. Yount displayed the nativity scene that Robert had so carefully crafted so many years ago.
And she never quit thinking about that little boy and wondering how his life had turned out.
You can guess the rest. Yes, they have connected via email but have yet to talk to face to face. Her current residence is near the home of Robert’s youngest son so it’s likely a meeting will happen soon. It will be heartwarming in so many ways, and it seems they share the same values and the same faith. Which is one of the reasons the nativity scene that Robert made is so special to her. It’s not just another Christmas ornament, it depicts what Christmas is all about. It speaks of the eternal bonds of love and grace.
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
This story is true, though some of the facts from 50 years ago are affected by fading memories. The author has taken the liberty to create a narrative that expresses the truth more or less as remembered by the participants.