Or: Why I Kept on Keeping on Writing While He Was Away
Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.
On May 1st—May Day! May Day!—my young adult novel While He Was Away is due out from Sourcebooks Fire. The book has been a long time coming. I started working on it in 2007; it’s gone through many incarnations since that time. One thing has stayed the same, however, and that is my desire to share the story. Or, better put: my desire to understand the story, and what it has to share.
(More and more, from writing to writing, I find myself thinking: the stories are telling me.)
Just yesterday, when a long-time friend asked me to say more about While He Was Away, I began reflecting on what lay behind my original desire. Why this story? Why did I hold on to it for so long, through all the years, revisions, rejections? Why did I keep the faith?
(Or: why did the story keep the faith in me? How did the story keep the faith in me?)
Today, answers branch in all directions, pulling me hither and yon. The most pressing answer, the one that responds as an exclamation point to my recurring question mark is simply: You couldn’t not! (A double negative, I know.)
I couldn’t not write While He Was Away because through all these years, I have not stopped thinking about the Iraq War. I have not stopped thinking about the young men and women who have been deployed, not once, but multiple times. (Are you a man or a woman at 18, only four years older than my daughter is now? Studies show that the young who have served in foreign war are twice as likely to report chronic mental and physical pain as the never-deployed; one could make the case that suffering promotes maturity, I suppose). http://www.gallup.com/poll/142205/deployment-taking-greatest-toll-young-service-members.aspx And I have not been able to stop thinking about the people who love those who have been deployed, and wait for them to come home.
I grew up hearing war stories—my father served in WW II; my mother’s first husband died in WW II—and more often than not, the stories on which I was raised have seemed in direct conflict with the stories I have heard from Iraq. This is partially because my father cloaked his stories in humor. As he described it, World War II was a wonderful coming-of-age experience, a lark. (Never mind his bad dreams, his night terrors. Never mind his last years with Alzheimer’s, when those nightmares leaked into his days.) Would the young men and women serving today similarly describe their time in Iraq (and now in Afghanistan) as a coming-of-age? I found myself wondering as I wrote While He Was Away. And if not, how much does this have to do with a larger cultural shift? How has our country changed—the place today’s soldiers will return to, please God? My father was embraced as a hero. My fear is that our attention span for heroes has been reduced to Andy Warhol’s fifteen seconds of fame. If that.
I couldn’t reconcile the conflict between my parents’ war and mine, between my parents’ country and mine. Or I couldn’t begin to, until I wrote this book. To be frank, I still struggle with this reconciliation even now, with While He Was Away weeks away from having a life of its own.
But I’ve come a little closer to the kind of understanding that as a fiction writer, I hold so dear, in spite of, no, because of the fact that it took me so long to get to this point. It’s the kind of understanding that I think Flannery O’Conner is alluding to, when she writes:
“There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.”
“Stupidity.” Oh, Flannery. I love this. As fiction writers, are we all holy fools?
Which brings me to faith, and the relationship of faith to the contemplative life, and the relationship of writing to the contemplative life. I couldn’t not write While He Was Away because though I am so often of little faith, I found that in this act—the act of writing this book—I could look, contemplate, see what I hadn’t been able to see before—what I hadn’t been able to bear seeing. The story showed me, surprised me, kept faith in me.
If others seeing writing as an act of faith, or perhaps even as a contemplative act, I would love to hear your stories.
*This post originally appeared over at Redbud Writers Guild, of which I am a member.