Rain pelted the roof of the Big Barn, a tin roof high up as a Cathedral. Place reminded me of one with the soaring hand hewn beams, knot holes of light, and space all the way up to the roof. We stored our hay on the wooden floor that I thought of as a threshing floor. On either side the barn went down to dirt and logs were laid over it. The southwest corner of the foundation was gapped large enough for children to crawl through.
It was late winter, snow was melting into ice. I’d taken to having my quiet times there. I took my Bible and my border collie and sat on the bales. There I prayed and read and sometimes cried my longing, “Oh Lord let me write a vision of glory.” I’d been reading The Chronicles of Narnia for a paper I was writing about C.S. Lewis. God I wanted to write like that.
My call to be a writer began there, in that barn, in that intense desire to create a world for my readers. But my life stacked against this call to write. My mother was a silencing woman, saying over and over, “You talk too much. People aren’t interested in all that detail.” Well, she wasn’t. But those words melted into my soul despite the fact she printed copies of my earliest poems and gave them to friends and relatives one Christmas. I turned to poetry writing because I could write in code and because typing long prose again and again was too much work.
During my first year at Wheaton, this call slammed into me through several classes that emphasized creativity from Dr. McClatchey’s explication of “The Windhover” to Mel Lorentzen’s recording that quoted Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet. I can still remember Dr. McClatchey’s enthusiasm as he described the windhover’s buckling his wings to fall to earth after his prey, how this was like Jesus sacrificing everything for us, how this was like the artist giving all for his creative vision. When I told Lorentzen about the call to be a poet, he said the gift was like loaves and two fishes, humble, something the Lord would break and multiply. Madeleine L’Engle’s visit and stories about how it took nine years to publish A Wrinkle in Time only confirmed my desire. But I was so cranked that I wrote ugly, clotted sentences that took a lot of work for my graduate poetry teachers to undo.
But even in grad school the forces of silencing were strong. Sure I needed to learn to write a sound English sentence that communicated, but my teachers wanted me to imitate their writing, instead of teaching me how to shape my own voice. I learned how to write irony and take a firm hold on my emotions so much so, that when my big break came, in 2001 when eight agents and four editors were interested in my work, editors wrote back saying that my characters came in like a radio signal just going out of range. Sometimes they were drawn clearly. Sometimes they were fuzzy. Several repeated, “Your characters aren’t clear, their emotions muted like static.”
When I arrived at my therapist’s office telling her that I was afraid to continue, that I’d told too much, she said, “You come from a silencing family.” She effectively exploded a block that made it hard to write anything, poetry, articles, stories. I wrote forty pages of journal fast that week. I saw it when I visited my home and heard my aunt say, “There are things you only tell God.” I nodded and said, “My therapist and I, we thought you’d say that.”
An agent who had been interested in my work suggested I work with an editor who had helped one of her clients with a similar problem. I hired the editor who undid the damage from graduate school. She said that strong emotion was a matter of taste, don’t be afraid of it in your writing. She held the rope while I imagined my dead parents and dead brother from their perspectives. I felt safe on that taut line to hear what their voices were telling me. Even though I wasn’t published then, that peace lead me to a peace that runs slow, steady and thick like a swollen river way down there, in my belly. While my reader will experience these imagined characters differently, I came away feeling how deeply they loved me, to the best of their ability.
The River Caught Sunlight took twenty years to find a publisher. It began as a collection of poetry called, The Grieving Dreams. Then it became She Looked at Stars, a book I wrote as interconnected short stories, that I opened up from the poems. I got close then, when W.W. Norton liked my query and asked for pages. Well, they liked my pages and asked for the whole thing, all without an agent.
The day my doctor told me he wanted to cut out a tumor in my colon, was the day their rejection arrived, a personal note saying, “I really enjoyed the characters and how you employed them with complexity without making them too weighty. I feel though that the work does not fit our editorial needs and I decline to make an offer.” To be so close and yet so far. I was so discouraged I wanted to die on the table. Instead I wrote an essay, “How I Made Peace with my Ass” and climbed Mt. Sneffels in Colorado.
I even signed with an agent who said the book gave her goosebumps when she first read it. She was 90% sure she could sell it. When I wanted her to send it to Riverhead because of Kathleen Norris–Norris’s audience might be the same as mine–she said, “You’re not a literary writer. They like literary. You write commercial fiction.” Oh. Perhaps all these years I’ve had trouble knocking myself against literary fiction when really I’m a commercial fiction writer. I had no idea.
I’ve come to understand in deep parts of myself that I write because I have to–that original call, those tears in the big barn, came again powerfully my freshman year in college and our creative writing teacher played a tape that quoted Rilke’s famous lines about asking yourself in the stillest, darkest hour of your night do you have to do this? Lately, I’ve rediscovered that if I don’t write, a fog widens in my mind so much so that I can’t put two thoughts together. And so I face the page and write.
But people who’d been following the book, Betsy Amster, and Nicole Argyres at St. Martins and Jonathan Lazear all said no. I learned that I could bless the rejection because I’d skidded into hard times and I felt ground underneath me, and knew it was good that publishing my book would not be my salvation.
I revised the book again, cutting back the other characters’ viewpoints, sent it out, and the noes returned. Then I went still, my heart finally worn down, except for Facebook, where I published prose poems. I became acclimated to an audience learning not to be afraid of them. There I found John L. Moore, a writer I’d admired in the early 90’s but lost touch with. One evening I offered to copy and paste his novel into one document and he connected me with Terry Whalen of Koehler Books.
The day we put up 1,200 bales of hay, the email came, Koehler Books accepted my novel. I could hardly believe it, in the sweat of bucking the hay onto a flatbed to take north to a buyer.
And so I survived not being published, when I wanted it so badly I’d sit by the phone waiting for my agent to call saying, “We’ve got an offer,” and I survived the “finally they said yes” with a good dose of indifference. (People have said you have to let a dream go, really let it go, before it can come true. I believe them. It’s what happened here, but when a dream is so far gone, it’s hard to generate enthusiasm, to get the basic tasks done. I’ve made my publisher wait for author bio sheets, author pics, emails. It took a good month to sign their contract because I wasn’t sure I wanted my life disrupted.
The day we put up hay Rachel Simon and I talked. She said thought it would be good for my confidence, for how I carried myself, for just about everything. She said that it might be good to ease out of teaching, as hard as it had gotten and turn towards the writing. Her mother had eased out of a difficult job and lived some happy years before her dementia settled. Rachel said those happy years made these years easier. Her voice sounded like God’s voice saying this is the way, this way, walk here. She was glad for me. So I signed. But to be honest, my friends are more enthusiastic than I am, though I’m very, very slowly beginning to catch the fire.
Slowly my work is finding an audience. I have recently been published in Ruminate, Eventing.com, Frank Schaeffer’s Patheos blog, Laura Munson’s Haven Blog and Brushstrokes and Balladeers. I’ve also been published in Sun Dog, The Thoroughbred Times, The Draft Horse Journal, Christianity Today, Moody, The Reformed Journal. My collection of poetry When the Plow Cuts was released in 1988. I have been teaching at Northern Illinois University for the last twenty years.