Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The beautiful wreckage

Today I finished a draft of EVIDENCE OF LIFE, the novel MIRA will publish in April of next year. You would think I would feel elated or relieved, something happy, but that isn’t ever how this process seems to work for me. I feel more like a motel on the side of the road, the one everybody forgot when the big highway got built, that has the “Vacancy” sign lit all the time. I feel like that announcement, “Elvis has left the building,” if you were to substitute “My brain” or “My sensibility” for Elvis. The focus for me when I edit is so intense. For days/weeks/even months on end, I try to hold in my mind the story’s timeline, the position/interaction of all the characters, the plot points, red herrings, pacing, character growth, emotional tenor … all these details in a single dish, arranged in a coherent pattern. Does each element proceed with grace to the next? Beads on a necklace, matched pearls, or as nearly perfect as I can get them. By this point I love these people; I know them like my own family. I want them to step, full-blown, off the pages for the readers as they do for me. I think the letdown I feel once I’m done, before the sense of accomplishment comes, (because it does, finally, every time!) is connected to my sense that I can believe to the center of my being I have done them and the story justice and I am, indeed, finished, and yet, I know it's a lie because if I were to look again, take a peek at the pages, I’d change something. I’d look in my Thesaurus for a better word. I’d rearrange a sentence, a paragraph, something. My difficulty is in letting go, pushing the manuscript out the door, off-loading it from my machine onto my lovely partners’ in crime, my agent’s and editor’s, machines. But I did it today. It’s done, so yay!

And then I went to the grocery store. The one in my neighborhood has beautiful fresh flowers for sale. I usually stay far away because fresh flowers are my weakness, but today I thought I could have something beautiful and so I treated myself to a bouquet of peonies. They were a favorite flower of my mother’s. She grew a row of them along our fence line in Des Moines. They were so beautiful and smelled divine and when I saw them today, I thought of her and I thought how thrilled I am to be an author for MIRA with a novel coming out next spring. And I wished she were here. I wished I could see her smile. She was a writer too and passed her love of the written word, her love of exacting self-expression, of finding just the right way for that, to me. In regard to books and life in general, she challenged me to read between the lines for meaning. She said if it was the truth, I would recognize it by the way it resonated. She taught me to stretch beyond my capacity to understand, to look deeper, and then she took time to talk about what I read and what I thought  with me as if it were valuable. I can see her at her desk clacking away on her Smith Corona. She wrote short stories, adult stories and children’s stories. She wrote poetry. She sent us outside, my sister and brother and me, to play on summer mornings and we’d hear the typewriter through the open windows. She mailed off her stuff and she got rejected, over and over. It broke her heart and made her sad. I remember that too.

And I remember the day I told her I wanted to write, that I didn’t want to study classical ballet anymore as she had wished/planned/paid for lessons we couldn’t really afford. I remember when I made my announcement, she wasn’t very happy and said, a tish sarcastically, how fine it would be if I were to be published before her. I never wrote another line after that, not for years and years, except for my journals. Not until after she died. I didn’t realize it then, that her response came from her unhappiness over never having fulfilled her own dreams. She wouldn’t say that to me now. She would be thrilled for me, I know. Why else would the florist shop in the grocery store in Texas have peonies so late in June? When they seldom have them even in spring and they usually cost an arm and two legs?! And I brought home not one, but two beautiful bunches for less than ten bucks! It was her gift to me, her bouquet of love and congratulations. She’s the one who taught me to look deeper than the surface, to read between the lines, that there’s the text and the subtext. I know she sees me, what I’ve accomplished; I just know it, that she’s with me. Thank you, Mommy! For the unique and beautiful wreckage of my childhood, its hidden layers, its unexpected gifts of wisdom. And for the gorgeous peonies!


  1. First of all, CONGRATS on finishing your draft! Second, thank you for sharing such a touching story.

    I can say without a doubt that your mother is definitely watching over you and is cheering you on. The flowers were the perfect sign that she's both happy and proud of everything you've accomplished. I hope you enjoy them and this moment!!!

  2. Congratulations on completing your revisions, Barbara! I understand exactly what you mean about feeling a vacancy after all that focused work.

    Love the peonies! I saw them at the store, too, and was sorely tempted. Ended up rescuing an orchid instead.

  3. Bobby, if you were never to write another word, your June 27th blog would suffice. It is heartfelt, truthful and brought tears to my eyes. Congratulations on your past successes and all those to come. You are a beautiful person and deserve all the accolades you will receive.

  4. Thank you, everyone, for reading and leaving such lovely comments! What a rewarding journey this is turning out to be. Jackie, I'm so glad we met all those many moons ago. Kerri, I hope that someday we do meet....

  5. This is beautiful, Barbara. I believe the peonies were a gift to you from your mom. And your writing is a gift to her. She taught you wonderful guiding principles. Congratulations on finishing your book. Can't wait to read it.

  6. Lovely. And yes, she would be VERY proud of her VERY talented daughter.

  7. Thank you so much Carol and Kathleen. So happy you stopped by and took the time to comment. Your thoughtful words just make my day!

  8. Love this post. And love your new website and book covers. What a full year you've had. An inspiration indeed. Am a friend of Leslie's. look forward to reading your books.

    1. Thank you. And you and your work are inspiring as well! We met through Leslie and I read the collection of essays/memoirs, Coping With Transition. Your Seven Scenes From Shared Space was wonderful as is your blog. Wit, wisdom and art all in one place....