Call to Write


Rain pelted the roof of the Big Barn, a tin roof high up as a cathedral. The barn 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 in the middle, that might have been a threshing floor. On either side, the barn went down to dirt and logs were laid over it.

It was late winter, snow was melting into ice. I’d spend my quiet times there. The rock on the Normanskill was so cold, it burned my butt in October when I’d fled there to cry over breaking up with Hank, the good boy, who I didn’t kiss much because the preachers thundered, “You know what that leads to.” Yeah I knew, and was not a little afraid of having a baby, so I pushed him back. It would be fifteen years before I gave a good man a chance and that man I married.

I could open the doors to barn and sit on hay that had once been its own furnace we checked by digging our arms down deep, feeling the glow. We’d swung open both doors–these smaller doors that opened onto the barn yard and our horses and the huge back doors, that towered nearly up to the roof, to let the winds blow through, cooling the hay.

I took my Bible and my border collie and sat on the bales, and felt like I was sitting on a throne and I talked with God. That day it rained, freezing, and I cried with all the intensity of a sixteen year old, my blood up and running, “Oh Lord let me write a vision of glory.” I’d been reading The Chronicles of Narnia and The Weight of Glory 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. I know it’s not a popular thing these days to admit to being called to write. Kathleen Norris writes, “Walter Brueggeman, in a book on the prophets entitled Hopeful Imagination, suggests that ‘a sense of call in our time is profoundly countercultural,’ and notes that ‘the ideology of our time is that we can live ‘an uncalled life,’ one not referred to any purpose beyond one’s self.’ I suspect that this idol of the autonomous, uncalled life has a shadow side that demands that we resist the notion that another might be different, might indeed experience a call.”

When I read these words in A Cloister Walk, they felt like the words of God come to comfort me after a rough year teaching first year English at Northern Illinois University where I’d caught it on the chin for being different, being other, not suave, cool, or cynical. My stories sprang out of my own life, not wonderfully masked, the way fiction springs out of a writer’s imagined worlds and people. I clung to autobiography like a rappeller clings to the rock instead of leaning back against the rope and walking down.

But for all this earnestness,  I haven’t had much to show for it, at least until now. Sure I got accepted into creative writing school in the mid-seventies before creative writing was a hot deal. I survived my three and half years at the boot camp of creativity programs, as Carolyn Forche called the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, and graduated with an MFA in poetry. Sure I worked as a publicist, wheeling and dealing in New York city for a small religious publisher, Crossway Books. I had some adventures promoting Frank Schaeffer and his parents. Newsweek, the New York TimesPublishers WeeklyChristianity Today, even the Today Show carried stories I’d engineered. Sure my education at poetry school made me an effective flak because I could talk writing with writers. Sure my MFA thesis eventually became published as When the Plow Cuts, a collection of poetry. And my creative nonfiction was regularly published in The Sentinel, a publication of Libertyville Saddleshop that used to reach 20,000 readers. Sun Dog published a short short. The Wittenberg Door published an essay about nearly losing my faith. Christianity Today published a few reviews.

My novel, 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 (barely got down before needing to use the million dollar outhouse.)

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. Perhaps I should try to write the very best commercial fiction I can and stop trying to be the kind of writer I’m not. The agent and I parted company because she didn’t sell the book and wouldn’t give me an accounting of her work. I remember Jonis Agee telling me that it was pretty normal for a writer’s first agent not to work out.

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.

Betsy Amster became interested in what I was doing and recommended an editor to help me clarify my characters. More than one rejection said the book read like a fading radio signal–some passages clear and poignant, others fuzzy and undecipherable. I hired the editor, Helga Schier. She held the ropes while I leaned into my imagination. I wrote and rewrote and listened to my characters.

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 nos returned. Then I went still, my heart finally worn down, except for Facebook, where I published prose poems. There I found an audience and learned not to be afraid of my people. 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.

Raking Hay

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 beginning to catch the fire.