Writing Idols

“It is indeed a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest; and the sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire. Our hour of triumph is what brings the void.”
William James.

It is not my habit to live in the present. I either linger on past moments of tenderness or future dreams of glory. Suffering brings the present–the present as gift and challenge. Living life as a cup in need of filling (by other people, by success, by healthy foods and by writing) is a sad fiction with tragic consequences.

So often I strive (in search of what?). I don’t believe creative pursuits are meaningless or bad yet when I make idols I miss things. I hunger after food that does not satisfy. I forget others. I avoid others. They interfere with my goals (my declared and undeclared wants disguised as needs).

I’d like to write a better post this week yet winter lingers here at Middlemay Farm with a host of sufferings and difficulties. I confess that January felt laden with disappointment, boredom and wasted time. February was no better until one day when I’d gotten up especially early to get stuff done before having to wash staph-infected goats with lime sulfur (yes, it smells of rotten eggs) I stumbled upon a verse from the Bible.

“The Lord is peace.” Judges 6:24

Four simple words. Words almost cliche. Yet they struck me as the opposite of how I’d been living my life. After years of striving, yoga, green smoothies, tantrums, therapy and complaint, I suddenly saw that I’d bought into the lie that I was a cup “needing” to be filled. God led me to write novels. Some may scoff at such a notion but there are just some things that jump out at you in life. The mission placed on me, embedded in my DNA, is to write fiction for those of us who are terribly flawed. Those of us who believe we’ve taken things too far and are irredeemable. I once was there.

But missions can get corrupted as easily as anything else. A review comes in. A reader finds a book’s characters too damned flawed. For a moment, maybe even a day, I wander the farm wondering: Is it true that some people are just not lovable?

On an intellectual level I believe God loves us–all of us, but I fall prey to feelings, and feelings lie. I let my characters go through quite a lot of hardship. They grow that way. I love them and the people I write for. Fictional characters live in the past and future.

In the NOW there are real people who suffer minor slights and major catastrophes all around us. I find them insufferably flawed. I say to my husband things like: if this one goat I love does not get better soon I want her taken out back and shot. Do I mean it? Sometimes. Maybe? Not really.

It’s very easy for me to blind myself to the suffering of others when I’m stomping my feet and needing my cup filled.

So what is this peace?

I used to think it was an easy thing for the Lord to have peace. If I had complete control wouldn’t I have peace?

Honestly I’d have to say no. It’s obvious that none of us are gods, but I make idols of people and things all the time. Idols bring no peace. Striving brings no peace.

I think the point of the four words is that while there are lesser things to love, to struggle with and to mourn over God remains present. As in the moments. Right now. As writers we create characters, serenely aware of our deep love for them (would our characters know that as we allow their suffering?). Unlike us God isn’t scripting for an exciting dystopian young adult novel. His story is sadly not as well known as it should be.

At the end of our suffering there is peace–something we are only awake to on rare occasions in this life. Those times in suffering when a nurse stays with you all night or when a dog jumps into your sick bed. Those moments temporarily fill our perceived empty cups. But here is where we look at it wrong. God’s peace is for the givers more than the takers. To look at a creative pursuit or mission as a love offering to others instead of a way to pant after good reviews and limelight is to change everything.

I’m no saint. I hate kids, animals and the world for brief moments every day when I’m looking to be filled.

But there’s something better.

PEACE.

 

FICTION: Words Said In Confidence

Christmas on Fifth Avenue by Alice Barber Stephens

Christmas on Fifth Avenue by Alice Barber Stephens

After learning that Fred has taken his girl, Buck Crenshaw advises his sister Thankful against marriage.

Buck and Thankful could hear their parents bickering below them in the parlor.

“I wish they would just divorce!” Thankful complained.

“Marriage is foolish,” Buck said, feeling even more hopeless. “I won’t consider it again.”

“You say that now, but one day . . .” Thankful began.

“It’s impossible,” Buck insisted, closing the subject. “And what about you, sis? Anyone in town who strikes your fancy?”

Thankful played with her curls and rolled her eyes. “No, no one who’s in town.”

“So someone who’s gone out of town then?” Buck laughed. “Someone I know?”

“Yes, but he hasn’t noticed me and he’s in the West.”

“Not William?”

“I know you don’t like him, but. . .” Thankful began.

“He’s a moron!” Buck moaned. “No, Willy won’t do.”

“William is not a moron. He knows about art and other things too– if only you got to know him you’d see. And he’s so kind to his parents—the way he helps his father—it’s so—chivalrous. And he helped me out of a puddle and took it so seriously,” Thankful said as if she might swoon.

“So you want someone who can splash around in puddles with his morphine-addicted father? Very high standards you have, sis. And how would Willy earn his keep? It’s so like him to become an artist of all things. Maybe Father could bankroll the bastard,” Buck said, getting to his feet.

“Stop it, Buck,” Thankful replied, holding out her hand for Buck to help her up. “Why are you so jealous?”

“I’m not. It’s only I don’t understand why women and even Father are so impressed with a morose, coddled little cripple.”

“I suppose we should all be impressed with a thin, violet-eyed cadet who gets in heaps of trouble,” Thankful teased. “Was it his fault that he fell from a horse? I might go and visit William sometime.”

Buck laughed. “Good luck getting permission for that. You’re such a dreamer.”

“Why shouldn’t I go?” Thankful asked, hands on hips. “You boys go wherever and all I do is watch babies. I wish Father and Mama would stop it. I don’t see how they still do it with all that fighting.”

“They’re idiots.”

Thankful laughed. “Land sakes, you have a kind word for everyone this Christmas.”

“Well, I like you, Thankful.”

“Thanks, Buckie, I’m honored.”

Buck took her by the chin. “You don’t want to go west. If a man wants you, let him come.”

“Maybe William has already met a nice girl.”

“In the West? I doubt it. But maybe he doesn’t want a nice girl.” Buck meant to insult William, but saw it hurt Thankful. “Stay home till I graduate and we’ll take a bully trip together.”

Thankful embraced Buck with her eyes on the door. She had her own plans.

 

***FOR MORE ALICE BARBER STEPHENS: AMERICAN GALLERY

Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw and his misadventures when you buy the book today!

“The second installment in The Tenafly Road Series definitely did not disappoint. With the introduction of new characters and the return of familiar ones, Weary of Running made for an exciting read. The protagonist, Thankful, is the real highlight of the novel. She consistently makes very poor decisions but in the end, you can understand why she has made every last one of them. The story ranges from love and romance to questions of faith and morality. It does all this without being preachy and explores many angles of different aspects of life. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.” Amazon Review

“Buck Crenshaw is my favorite dysfunctional lovable character.”

PART ONE HERE

PART TWO HERE

PART THREE HERE

PART FOUR HERE

PART FIVE HERE

PART SIX HERE

PART SEVEN HERE

PART EIGHT HERE

PART NINE HERE

PART TEN HERE

PART ELEVEN HERE

PART TWELVE HERE

PART THIRTEEN HERE

PART FOURTEEN HERE

PART FIFTEEN HERE

PART SIXTEEN HERE

PART SEVENTEEN HERE

PART EIGHTEEN HERE

PART NINETEEN HERE

PART TWENTY HERE

PART TWENTY ONE HERE

Novel Inspiration: Free Love

Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. Hosea 6:4

My daughter tells me a hook up is expected after three dates. A few years ago my son told me it was after three weeks and before that I’d heard three months.

Free love is more like free mating isn’t it? Like something that happens with my sheep. It’s mindless. It’s instinct (though sometimes I’ve seen my goat bucks treat their does with more tenderness than people do their hook ups).

In movies free love is the punchline of a joke or just something thrown in to titillate a constantly bored audience. Sex scenes are about as interesting to watch as watching rams mount their girls. I laugh when movies are advertised as “steamy.”

In the 19th century, experimental societies existed. Their aim: PERFECTION.

Perfection meant becoming so Christ-like, so filled with love, so above worldly desires that heaven would indeed break out on earth. We see this even now when people suggest that if only we all just loved each other and accepted each other mindlessly things would be so much better–or perfect.

But progress is a lie. We only invent new ways to fool ourselves.  19th century Perfectionist societies cherry-picked Biblical stories. John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community on a stormy, dark night of the soul happened upon the notion that since Jesus said there would be no marriages in heaven then there should be no marriages on earth–only breeding. This breeding program would produce superior spiritual conformation in the community’s offspring. What could possibly go wrong?

When breeding animals, one often needs new blood for  herd health. Cults and social movements need enthusiastic and broken recruits. Enter Buck Crenshaw in THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY.

Thankful warns her brother not to be taken in by India Van Westervelt who is a true believer headed for Middlemay Acres to follow the charismatic and eccentric Richard Rhinedale, but Buck thinks India the image of perfection.

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Novel Inspiration (3): The Scapegoat

INSPIRATION: Every addict needs a scapegoat.

Captain Simon McCullough’s motto: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die. This gets John Weldon’s goat. How unfair it is that Simon coasts through life suffering nary a scratch while drinking, womanizing and joking all the way?

Weldon fails to note the fatalism in Simon’s motto. He underestimates the friend he tries to hate.

There’s a type of 19th century military memoir tremendously fun to read. The accent is on the antics of  soldiers in downtime that almost trick one into believing war is quite a great time. I’ve always admired the way boys and men conduct friendship and briefly considered running away to be an intelligence officer in the Navy (to escape that first marriage and possibly  meet a naval officer–a weird twist of fate had me meet and marry a Navy man years later).

I often hear about those extroverts who skim the surface of life with little self-reflection. Simon McCullough only plays that role in his family. Never judge a book by its cover, they say.

“Have you read all these books, sir?” Weldon asked but regretted it.

Scott laughed tracing his fingers over the rim of his glass with a self-satisfied air. “These and more. A person is nothing without a mind for knowledge. I had high hopes for Simon and bought every book here for his education.” He sighed.

Simon took a drink, his expressionless face toward the fire.

“Well, when things turned sour, and we sent Simon off to military school…our Katherine kept reading for enjoyment sake, I suppose. She has a decent mind for a girl, but an education is wasted on women. And truth be told Simon was no scholar.”

Simon, with his light hair slicked back and his brawny shoulders pent up in fine summer linen, oozed a restlessness which annoyed his father and saddened Katherine who knew that Englewood was too small for him now. Simon poured another drink in the stifling silence. Katherine mourned over something lost in him. She went to a shelf and took out the scrapbook she had made since his first going away to West Point and then the war. She ran her fingers over the tintypes of Simon at war and the yellowing newsprint which had brought the battles home to her. The boy who used to bring her into his world had never come back as a man.            

Scott’s eyes fell upon Katherine with an air of sad disappointment.

Simon noticed and broke into story. “Father, you’d have been appalled at the antics of the soldiers away from home doing as they pleased. One officer even tended bar in a bawdy house in full uniform  . . . or so I hear.” Simon winked at Weldon. “And some of the girls were pretty . . . from a distance, anyway. Father, you know the Renner’s from English Neighborhood? Remember, Weldon, how we caught him out? It was a laugh. We were just walking through Murder Bay—for an evening stroll to round up the boys, Father, nothing more—and who do we come across after leaving a drinking establishment but Renner as tight as can be in an alley—how idiotic he looked with his trousers around his ankles and a Cyprian with her mouth around his . . .”     

 

Novel Inspirations: THE ADDICT

THE ENABLER

ENTER THE GOODREADS GIVEAWAY! (The winner gets the much prettier new cover)

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The House on Tenafly Road by Adrienne  Morris

The House on Tenafly Road

by Adrienne Morris

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