Monday, August 9, 2010

A Story of God's Providence

I’ve published about 200 writing pieces over the years, including two academic books, ten or eleven church-related books, numerous articles, curriculum, essays, and reviews, plus a few poems. About two-thirds of all this is religious curriculum for church groups. The other night, I was unwinding a bit and looked at the computer files containing my only (and from a publishing standpoint, unsuccessful) foray into fiction. I hadn’t looked at this material for several years because I’d become discouraged by the whole project, but I was pleased that the writing was still something I’m proud of.

My project was a novel, called Adams Street Antiques. I started writing it just for my own interest. I had the major character, whom I named Becky Harmon. I modeled her on no one in particular, just so no one would think I was memorializing an old girlfriend or something like that.

Among my happiest growing-up memories are those of my parents’ antique store shopping. One of our favorite places was Kelly’s Antiques, on route 140 east of Greenville, Illinois. Alva Nance was the older man who ran the place, basically a farm but with three large buildings of antiques; Kelly himself (I’ve forgotten his last name) lived in the nearby house. The place has long since closed but I’ve good memories of many family purchases at that place. The opening scene of my story is, essentially, Kelly’s Antiques, with details changed (including its location, near Moweaqua, IL). There, I introduced Becky and her family, taking care to return to that scene much later as a plot device.

I made Becky the owner of an antiques store in a small downtown. So many small-town clothing stores around the country have closed and become “antique malls,” including those in my own hometown. Again, I based my fictional store on no particular place, although some of my studies of small town business architecture came in handy, and I made Becky’s shop more quirky and upscale than a typical antique mall, some of which are a little junky. I gave the store an inventory reflecting my own likes. I studied a guide to becoming an antiques dealer so I’d know some of the tricks of the trade.

Where should Becky live? Her town was a character in the story, although that sounds cliché. But it’s true. I created a community about the size of my own hometown. In 1960, when I was three, my folks drove 30 miles north to Pana, IL and then ten or fifteen miles east to Shelbyville, IL to buy a new gold Cadillac. We seldom if ever returned to Shelbyville, so that trip remained in my childish mind as something special. I decided to put a fictional town and county between Pana and Shelbyville. I renamed the actual highway, Illinois state route 16, as U.S. 38, a route that only existed in Nebraska and Colorado but which, if it had crossed Illinois, would’ve been in that location.

From there, the story developed pretty easily, with suitable plot twists, as a three-act, boy-meets-girl tale of two people wondering if the other is “the one.” My wife Beth and I became friends and dated in a very different way than the two major characters.

Fiction is not necessarily disguised autobiography. A lot of the things in my story were personal experiences completely retooled. I frequently drove I-64 through southern Indiana and liked the sight of Haubstadt, IN (and its steeples) in the distance, so I used that detail. I also drove he pleasant Illinois route 161 at different times in my life, so I named Becky's other highway Route 611. I delivered Meals on Wheels in my hometown to an elderly gentleman who lived above one of the local clothing stores, and that became the basis of an aspect of my story. My parents liked to visit Effingham, IL, the business district of which has a slightly curved street, and I used that detail, too.

Other aspects of the story were enjoyable to create. I used personality traits rather than actual persons in developing characters. I worked hard to present a believable, consistent story: I drew a map (for my own reference) of businesses in the fictional town and sketched a genealogy of different characters (again, to keep details straight). Since the story happened over the course of one summer, I used a calendar of the novel's never-stated year, 1992 (which could accommodate a living but elderly vet of World War I) so I could determine when events took place and the days between events. I also connected fictional historical milestones and locations to actual Illinois history. A friend helped me make more believable the dynamics of women’s friendships, and another friend helped me with the way New Yorkers think. Years ago, when I read Atlas Shrugged, I liked how a major character was introduced 2/3 of the way into the story, and I developed such a character (the New York native).

I’m no John Updike, or Ayn Rand for that matter! My novel was long at nearly 400 pages, especially since its momentum happened mostly through conversations, locations, and character development. My characters chatted more than those in a typical Tarantino film, but without the violence--without much violence at all, in fact. Looking through it, I realize some of the small subplots were contrived and some transitions were awkward.

I learned quickly that the novel’s genre--I called it a Christian romantic comedy--did not exist, at least at the time I passed the proposal and/or manuscript around to agents and publishers. One agent was confused that a person of my credentials would write such a story and assumed I was trying to escape the frustrations of adjunct college teaching. “Don’t pigeonhole me, you presumptuous #&%@*$,” I thought but did not say. But another agent kindly told me the market did not support such a genre but I might study books on the market if I wished to continue. What should I do? I appreciated the importance of market trends, and yet the story I created fit no niche.

The older I become, the more I appreciate the Taoist idea of wu wei, non-effort; the secret of life and success is to follow life’s “flow" and natural rhythms. In a more Christian way, I prefer to think that the Spirit guides our work and opens doors, without us always understanding the reasons. My story had flowed well as a writing project but not at all as a prospect for publication, and circumstances in my life--the biggest of which was my father’s death and thus my need to become my mom’s caregiver--derailed ideas for starting a small company of my own. Meanwhile, other writing opportunities were coming my way and were keeping me busy. So I followed opportunities and validation, assuming that those were the doors God was opening. But I did have a few copies of my novel printed, and I distributed and sold several in that form because I thought the story might as well be “out there” floating around, rather than sitting in my file cabinet.

Still, I look through the book today and enjoy visiting my made-up town and its people. I created believable characters for whom faith was important, but there was (hopefully) nothing cardboard or preachy about their faith. I was at a stage of my life when I was discouraged with people who seemed strident and self-assured about their religion, and I solved my discouragement by thinking about the struggles of real faith, but through fictional people.

More importantly, though, the major impetus to the story was Wendell Berry's writings on the importance of community and of preserving one's beloved place. These were concerns of mine (and my writings) before I read Berry, and then I became excited in the way he articulated the necessities of mutuality, community, ecology, and preservation of heritage. I think the writing process flowed so well was because of my interest in showing some aspects of community and human interdependence. It was a very pure and happy motive.

Of course I appreciated--and still do--the mysterious ways how God works in our lives: how God does more in our lives than we can imagine, regardless of how strong or weak our faith actually is, and no matter how angry at God and disheartened we may become. Thus, at the very end of my story, a major character thanks God for his surprising grace, without realizing other amazing things that God had also accomplished. My two epigraphs were key to the story:

I lift up my eyes to the hills--
from where will my help come?
My help comes form the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
(Ps. 121)

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking
I will hear.
(Isaiah 65)

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