essays

Thoughts About Writing a Novel

I’m one month away from publishing my next novel and it got me thinking about how I got here. Although I had written a novel and two-thirds of another back in the 80’s, their drafts sit gathering dust in a closet. I began writing in earnest when I retired at the end of 2011. And here I am, with two novels, two books of short stories, and soon a third novel.

I’m beginning to think that writing, like raising children, takes a village. Where would I be now without the help of people in the Northwest Independent Writers Association–Roslyn McFarland, Jennifer Willis, Jamie McCracken, Lee French, Pam Cowan, Jonathan Eaton, April Aasheim, Larry Powers, among others? Or friends at Goodreads, including Ginger Bensman, David Rose, Michael Gardner, and others? My monthly critique group, the Salem branch of Willamette Writers, and the weekly library group, Writers Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow are also a part of the community that supports me.

The gestation period of my new novel is just about nine months to the day. I’m giving birth again, this time on Halloween! Who woulda thought? And it began in the early days of last February with a simple incident: I went hunting for agates with my daughter’s family on the Oregon coast. That’s all I knew–I had no outline for a story, no idea where it was going to go, no plot. I just wrote about a man trying to find agates, all the while keeping a wary eye out for sneaker waves. Then I found out he was a widower and a college professor. Shortly after that, I discovered he knew the college professor who had committed murder in my short story “Eye of Newt.” Oh my goodness! I hadn’t seen that coming! But that’s how it grew. And I realized that the murderer had to get his comeuppance after escaping the clutches of Officer Whitehorse in the short story. After all, I couldn’t help but remember Alfred Hitchcock assuring his audience that crime doesn’t pay just after the troubled housewife who had murdered her husband with a frozen leg of lamb roasts it and serves it to the policemen investigating the case!

So there we are. I’m pleased with the way the novel came out, and I’m very happy with the cover. I hope it keeps you up reading way past your bedtime!

Here’s the link to pre-order it: Woman in the Waves.

From the Emmaus Road–Easter 2018

Every Easter season I take time to think about why I’m a Christian. I ask myself if I’d be a Christian had my parents not raised me in the church. And I think I would. The Christian myth speaks to my heart and my mind. Now before you object to my use of the word myth, let me explain. I use that term not in the sense of something untrue or something we tell only children about, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. I mean it as explanatory story—in fact, the story behind all stories. For me, it is the story that makes the most sense of the world as I experience it. It is true in the deepest way a story can be true.

I put in my time as an atheist—about twenty years, as I recall. When I left the Catholic seminary after eight years, I chucked it all—felt I had been duped by a patriarchal religion. I immersed myself in Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus. Later I studied Eastern thought, especially Zen Buddhism, which doesn’t require a god. I hummed along OK until my divorce. That broke me. I didn’t go back to “Christianity” (or Christianism, as Gore Vidal called it) with my tail between my legs. I met a woman who introduced me to the Lord, slowly and gently. That relationship made all the difference.

I know that some say God is a crutch—a belief people cling to because they need assurance of an afterlife. “How can you face death without belief?” they say. The answer is heroically. My best friend Frank remained an atheist till the end. He said he could never find enough convincing evidence to believe otherwise. His oncologist found his bravery so inspiring that he came to his memorial service to share it with others. I understand that Carl Sagan died the same way. So no, life without God is not hopeless or impossible. It can be lived courageously.

So what is so captivating about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Some say that stories of the death and resurrection of a great hero predate the Christian story by thousands of years. They claim that the Jesus story borrows from them. I see it the other way around. Those other stories prefigure the Jesus story, where they meet their final revelation, because the hero’s journey (or heroine’s journey, as the case may be) is hard-wired into us. Joseph Campbell was on to something. Why do stories like the original Star Wars, Gladiator, the first Matrix resonate so much with us? I think they’re in our DNA.

During Holy Week, I’m reminded what compelling drama the last days of Jesus’ life are. Betrayed by a dear disciple with a kiss, no less; abandoned by all the rest of his friends (only the women were brave enough to hang on to the end); tried by a kangaroo court; sentenced to a death so horrific that a new word had to be invented to describe that kind of pain (excruciating—from the cross).

And then the resurrection. No bombastic special effects as we might see in a movie. Quiet, thoughtful. Again it’s the women who find out first. One hugs him. The men are still hiding out. (“I never knew the guy,” as Peter had said.) What is Jesus’ first act as a risen savior? He asks his friends for a bite to eat. Later, he appears on the beach and cooks breakfast for them. And what does he ask us to do? Not an arm-long list of do’s and dont’s as a religion might. He tells us to love one another as he loves us. And remember him in the bread and the wine.

The simplest, most prosaic elements of life are imbued with cosmic significance. And the result? As C.S. Lewis said, “We are surprised by joy.”

Happy Easter to all my family and friends.

 

Christmas Letter 2017

Christmas 2017

Dear Family and Friends,

At the Funeral Mass of my father on October 2nd, I read some verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Most of my generation remembers these words, in a slightly different form, as the lyrics of the 60’s pop song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds:

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—

A time to give birth and a time to die…

A time to weep and a time to laugh…

A time to love and a time to hate;

A time for war and a time for peace.

The flag-draped casket, the Honor Guard at the cemetery, the rifle volley, the bugler playing Taps—these were a fitting tribute to conclude the 93-year-long adventure that was my father’s life. I confess that it’s been hard for me to imagine that the old man I knew was once the handsome, cocky 20-year-old posing with his flight crew by the B-24 Liberator they flew on bombing runs over Austria in World War II. Harder still to imagine what it must have been like to get shot down behind enemy lines and have to walk out in winter, ever watchful for German soldiers and sympathizers.

According to C.S. Lewis, we have all been dropped behind enemy lines. In Mere Christianity, he says, “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

To understand what he means by enemy-occupied territory, one only has to watch a single episode of the evening news on any network. Thirty minutes of horror, minus time for drug commercials—supposedly aimed at alleviating some of that terror—and the obligatory two-minute “good news” segment. One wonders if, like cigarettes, the nightly news needs a black box health warning from the Surgeon General.

But we are saboteurs—called by God to undermine this world’s notion that death has the final say, that fear trumps all. Disguised as a helpless baby and later as a poor journeyman and preacher, Jesus orders his troops to demonstrate love and kindness to all, inclusion to the marginalized, healing to the hurt, joy to those who mourn. Rejected by the church of his day, he preferred to dine with the disenfranchised, with paupers rather than princes. He says, “ I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Our Commander-in-Chief goes on to say, “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

So every good deed, no matter how small, becomes subversive. When you paid for that stranger’s coffee at Starbucks, gave a Subway sandwich to the man asking for food with a scrawled cardboard sign, relinquished your place in line to someone else in a greater hurry, spoke a word of kindness to the waitress or cashier obviously having a bad day, you pushed back the darkness ever so slightly. When you contributed money to relief efforts in Texas and California and Puerto Rico, you put a human face on suffering and scored a victory for the Resistance. Your smile, your hope, your peace are acts of defiance. They plant a virus in the world system.

Think of your small groups and fellowships and Bible Studies as gatherings of partisans, meeting to bandage wounds, to debrief victories and defeats, to strengthen each other for the battles yet to come.

We know our faith does not give us a free pass—sickness and death are common to all. But we know that in our pain and suffering we are held. Our God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, sharing our burdens, comforting our sorrows. He is not an abstract First Principle or a Higher Power, but a Man-God here in the trenches with us. He says simply, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.” When we do that, we get our marching orders from the King: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”

Of all the billions of people on this Pale Blue Dot, we have the most reason to be joyful this holiday season and throughout the year. We are Resurrection People, Children of the Light, followers of the one true King. We know how the story ends, and it ends far better than we could have possibly imagined.

So in the coming New Year, if you find yourself succumbing to the evening news, please call to mind Paul’s words:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jesus tells us to be at peace because He has overcome the world. This Christmas-tide, may His peace take roots deep within you. May His joy be your ever-present companion on your journey to the light.

Long live the Resistance!

Love,

Bill and Sharon

Winterizing

Yesterday I completed winterizing the outside of my house. All the patio furniture are now stacked and stowed away. The fountain pump for the small water feature has been silenced for another season. The hoses are drained and coiled like skinny pythons in the tool shed. Insulated covers like plastic breasts protect the faucets from the coming cold.

I wonder if I’m winterizing my soul as well. That lush extravagance of summer is gone, replaced by a spartan attitude more appropriate to frosts and soon-to-be leafless trees. I await the gray rains and the day-long twilights, the signal to turn within, to mine the mind and spirit for the treasures laid up last summer as provisions against December storms.

Winter is the time to meditate. To sit before a fireplace with a glass of port and a good book. To share a beer with a friend in a cozy tavern while the wind howls and the rain pours down. To take in a movie and chatter about it afterward on the car ride home .

It’s a good time to take stock of the year galloping to its close. Have I loved enough, if there is such a thing as “enough” when it comes to love? Have I convinced my wife of my affection for her in my words and my deeds? Have I been attentive to my children and grandchildren, celebrating their successes and comforting their hurts? Have I been appreciative of my days and nights, so I can say without hesitation that I have not squandered the time allotted to me?

People have myriad ways for marking the passage of time. For me, it’s winterizing. On this Election Day 2016, I hope we aren’t facing a Narnia-like winter that lasts for years.

I haven’t winterized sufficiently for that.