On Reading

I don’t know what’s happened this year, but suddenly I’m reading again. I think it’s because I can. Does that sound strange? It’s not that I’ve just learned my alphabet or anything, or have progressed past See Spot run. Run, Spot, Run! rather that I’m not falling into bed exhausted at the end of every night and picking up a book and reading a page that makes no sense to me, even though I’d read the same page the night before, and possibly the night before that too.

And–here’s the cool thing–I’m reading whatever I feel like! Seriously! Amazing, isn’t it. Not what everybody on Facebook is recommending, not what’s #1 on the book shop bestseller list, just…what I feel like. And I’m not feeling guilty because I’m NOT reading things I’ve felt I “should” be. Huh? SHOULD be? Where did that even come from? I don’t know. But it’s been there. I walked past a bookshop the other day and had a quick browse through some novels on a table outside. There were some quality books, by names I recognised as top-notch authors. I picked up one or two of them and decided they looked boring. Just stuff about people doing regular things, and having regular lives. No magic, not to me.

Nobody saw me pick up those books, and nobody saw me put them down again, unread. Nobody at home is looking at the books I’m selecting from my To Be Read pile, and nobody is standing over my shoulder asking why I haven’t read theirs yet. My reading is mine. Boy it’s a good feeling. And, unsurprisingly really, my writing is sharpening too. The stories I want to tell are flowing more easily because I’m learning from writers who are doing the same thing as me. People say it all the time, write what you like to read. It’s true. It just took me a long while to get it going the other way round as well.

Is it just me? Have you ever felt judged by what you were reading were reading, even by yourself? 

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A funny thing happened on the way to a writer’s conference…

I’m at this writer’s conference, right? It’s called the ACFW, which stands for American Christian Fiction Writers. This year it’s in Indianapolis, and there are something like five hundred Christian writers, editors and literary agents all swanning around in a hotel together, with writing workshops, appointments to meet with people in the industry, dinners, networking opportunities, the works. It’s a big deal. I’m pretty tired.

I don’t want to talk about that though. There are enough people out there who write all about it and put up hundreds of photos. You can google them. I want to write about something that happened there.

I wrote this novel, right? I really like it. Some people who have read it really like it as well, which is a good thing, because really liking a book is kind of important if you want people to actually buy it. Part of the reason I came to Indianapolis is to check out some literary agents and see if they think people may want to buy my book as well. And part of me thought “nah”, because really, really and honestly, it’s not the kind of book that people who read Christian fiction would really want to buy. Not only that, it isn’t really the kind of book that people who read secular fiction really want to buy either. So I thought, “nah”. Yeah. nah. I’ve been wondering a fair bit lately whether I should ditch this novel and write something else. Write this one off as a “practice novel”. Write something that sells.

Yeah. Nah.

I tried not to think too much about it really. In a place that was already a little overwhelming it seemed the easiest option.

So this morning that was what I was trying not to think as I sat in my workshop. Give it up. Write something that sells. Do something useful.

The workshop was by a dude called James Scott Bell, who writes thrillers, and who writes how-to-write-novel type books, and one of the very first things he had us do was to write a letter to our novels. Yeah. That’s right.

We’re writers, right? We get this kind of thing.

We had to write to our novels, and we had to write what we loved about them. It wasn’t hard. Words come easily at times like that. This is what I wrote:

Dear novel,

I love you because you’re honest. You’re a real look at broken hearts and you don’t flinch at what you portray. I love the way you connect with readers, the way you jump out of the page at people and take their hand and lead them in. I love your voice. I love the way you’re not afraid to tackle the deep things, the things people keep hidden, the deep places of hurt and loss and rejection and humanity. I love your honesty, and I love you for your courage.

Forever,

Your author,

Megan.

 

I felt it. I felt the passion for the story that I’d forgotten, and I felt all the reasons I’d wanted to write it in the first place. I was there. And then suddenly, while I was “there”, Mr. James Scott Bell asked us to write another letter: a letter from our novels to us, starting with the line “I really wish you…” Here’s what I wrote.

Dear Megan,

I really wish you would finish me. Properly. Don’t leave me on the shelf or in the bottom drawer. Don’t forget about me and move on to something else. I wish you would remember the passion you had for me in the early days, when we were together every morning. Please keep going. Keep pushing, keep it up until I have a voice and a life and a place to breathe outside of your own little home. Send me Megan, send me.

Love,

your novel.

 

I didn’t know the answer was in me. I didn’t know the passion had been buried. I didn’t know the passion in me could be buried so deep that I would be tempted to put the story away and never finish it. I didn’t know I could forget why I cared. I’m very grateful to Mr. James Scott Bell. I didn’t finish the rest of the workshop. I had to leave soon after that to go to an appointment. I would have paid the cost of the conference for that alone, really.

I better go. I think I need to write.

Books, love, and loyalty

I’m reading this book, right?

No, I’m not going to tell you what it is, because then I’ll have to be all sympathetic and encouraging, and you might be tempted to go and read it yourself. Or you may have read it already and you might shoot me down in flames in the sincere believe that it’s actually the best and most beautiful book ever written and nothing can ever surpass it’s greatness. And…in my humble opinion it’s not that great. And THAT, my friend, is the interesting thing.

I’m reading this book, right? And it’s not that great. And that’s interesting primarily because I want to keep reading it. Have you ever experienced that? I don’t think it’s the same if you’re one of those people who’s got all the time in the world to read books, or one of those people who diligently reads to the end of everything simply because you don’t like things left uncompleted. I am NOT one of those people (although I wish I was sometimes). I’ve long held the belief that if a book isn’t that great, or doesn’t grab me, or doesn’t threaten to stop me from breathing unless I read it NOW, or gets bypassed by something faster and more immediate, then I’ll happily put it down. And life is busy. I have a shelf  (yes, I had to graduate to an actual SHELF) next to my bed with a large pile of books on it–   many  of them excellent, highly acclaimed, wonderfully crafted tomes–that for various reasons I haven’t finished. They’re there because I will get back to them eventually, when life is calmer and time is richer and thicker than it is now, and when there’s more than a two-minute window when I put my head on that pillow before I fall asleep.

But then there’s this book.

The thing is, the thing that baffles me most about my inability to put it down and read something better, is that nothing actually happens. Nothing’s happened so far that I care about. No great story-questions, any will-she-or-won’t-she, are hanging over my head. No life or death situations. I can walk away any time I want…if I want…if I could.

See? My trouble is that I can’t.

It’s not so much that I’ve fallen in love, it’s just that I’ve…well…I’ve got involved. It’s like the lady at the bus stop who always tells you stories about her grown up kids who you’ve never met and have no particular affiliation with, but because you catch the same bus every day, and because SHE catches the same bus every day, on the weekends you find yourself wondering how those grown-up kids are going, and whether they will decide to send their son to a school a little further away, or buy that second car.

Should I care? Can’t help it. Just do. I’m human.

It’s like friends, I think. I’ve written here before about how my cat simply moved in to our lives and expected us to love her, and we did. People do that too–the mythical lady at the bus stop, for instance. And now, apparently, books.

There are books on the shelf next to my bed that I may never finish, and that saddens me in one way. Although in another way I’m pleased. Unfinished books are the friends I keep nestled close to my heart even though I may not see them regularly; the friends I know will always be there, and I can always come back to, no matter how far I travel. I love them for who they are, for what they’ve meant to me in the past, and I love them simply because they’re mine.

I wil finish this book I’m reading, I know it. But I’ll always keep these characters close to my chest, whether or like it or not, because somewhere in this reading process I began to think of them as friends. And, to tell you the truth, just as long as I don’t start thinking of my friends as storybook characters then that’s quite all right by me.

If you DID know

Yesterday I decided it was time to finally sit down and write a book proposal. For the non-writers out there, a proposal is basically a document detailing who you are, what your book is about, why someone should publish it and what you’re going to do to help it get to readers once it’s published. I don’t know if it’s industry-standard, but it is in the Christian book market.

I’ve been avoiding it.

I wrote a book because a book was on my heart to write. I’ve always wanted to write books, for as long as I can remember. I like my book. I’m proud of it. People who read it come away and say nice things about it too, and they say “wow”, and they say “that’s really good”, and I say “thank you”. But then some other people overhear these things and they say “you wrote a book? What’s it about?” and I say “ummm…stuff?” and they say “what sort of stuff?” and I say “ummm…people and stuff?”

People and stuff. That’s really good, Megan. You should be a writer, with a gift of words like that. Yeah.

There’s another answer that I sometimes give when people ask me what I write about, and that is “I don’t know”. And this isn’t strictly true either, because you don’t write 81,000 words about something you don’t know what it is or whether anyone would ever want to read it. Well, okay. Some people do. I don’t.

I had this friend once who never ever let me say “I don’t know”. She’d always counter it with “And if you DID know, what would the answer be?” and suddenly I’d find myself giving her an answer, whether it was a thought, a guess, a revelation. I did know, I just didn’t want to talk about it.

Funnily enough, I found the proposal to be the same. As soon as I sat down with all the relevant if-you-want-to-write-a-fiction-proposal-you-need-to-ask-yourself-the-following-questions questions, a good coffee and an iPad suddenly I found I did know the answers after all. I wrote three pages of answers, and a hundred more questions.

It made me think: how many more areas of life are there “I don’t knows” that I simply haven’t taken the time to figure out the answers to. Sometimes it just takes someone to ask the right question.

Hello my friend. How are you today? Are there niggling questions in your life that you stop up with “I don’t knows”? Have you ever asked yourself the question “what if you DID know?”

When art meets life

Goodness and Mercy by Patti Hill

Goodness and Mercy by Patti Hill

I read this book about two weeks ago.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how she did it.

I’m only telling you this, of course, because I do think you should read this book, and the only reason I’m telling you now is because it’s FREE today and tomorrow for Kindle (and if you don’t have a Kindle then you can download the app for your smartphone/tablet/computer…and if you don’t have one of those then you’re probably Sonya. I’m sorry Son. I’ll buy you a copy), and because sometimes you read a book that impacts you so profoundly that you just don’t have any words for a little while, and the best you can do is store the memory of it somewhere in the front space of your brain so that you can process it when you do have the words, or maybe so you can grow into the memory of it.

Or something like that.

But I don’t know how she did it still, and that’s a little weird.

When I started reading this book I was cautious, suspicious even. I knew enough about the story from the blurb – teenager kidnaps kid brother and sister from orphanage and hightails them across the country to go seek refuge with estranged family – to already think that she’d get it wrong, even before I started reading it.

She didn’t.

I did.

What I didn’t expect was this: that this writer, that this woman I’d never met, that I know mainly from reading her blog posts, would somehow know not only what it felt like to be me, but know strange details of my life, things so oddly unimportant to me that I’d never talk about them. Yet because she wrote them they became important to me. Because she wrote them she made me think through things that had happened many, many years ago, and then she turned them around and ever so gently peeled back a layer and showed me the other side. You can’t talk about experiences like that, not really. Not in public, when it’s only been a few short weeks since the book finished. Not when the memory of the book is still so fresh, and when I still feel like I need to grow into it.

I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know how she wrote a book so busting with life and truth and colour that I stopped thinking of it as a book and started thinking of it as a window into my family. I wish she’d got it wrong. I wish she’d written an awful book, full of awful clichés and stupid saccharine endings, because then I’d smile nicely and hate it and never have to think about it again.

It’s never that easy though. Not when art meets life.

So I’m not going to tell you about this book today, or at least I’m not going to tell you anything more than that it’s FREE, and that it’s very, very good. All the rest you can find out for yourself. Click the link. It’ll take you straight there. But don’t say I didn’t warn you…

 

The Orphan: a short story

This is a little story – a real, fictional, short story – I wrote a few weeks back. Actually it kind of exploded out of me in a strange fit of…umm…literary diahorrea, if I could call it that (you may describe it as that after you read it, but that’s another story!). It’s been a long time since I’ve written any short fiction, and it could probably do with a good edit, but sometimes when these things come out like that the best thing you can do for a while is stare at them and leave them as they are. 

Here it is, anyway. Hope you enjoy it. 

The Orphan

by Megan Sayer (c) 2013

Millicent lived at the Orphanage on Archibald Street, and had lived there since the death of her parents when she was five years old. She loved the grand arches of the doorways and the tall oak doors. She loved the creak of the floors above her as she studied her books and looked at her sewing during the days, and she loved the swoosh sound of the great oak branches on the roof above her as she lay in bed every night. She slept in a room with five other orphans, on a narrow wooden bed with crisp white sheets that were changed every other day by Miss Nancy, the housekeeper; and given porridge in the mornings and sandwiches at noon and pot roast in the evening for supper, with boiled potatoes and vegetables. Millicent loved boiled potatoes and pot roast, and she loved knowing that on Sundays there would be apple strudel for dessert, and for birthdays and adoption days there would be cake. Millicent loved cake.

Millicent loved the Orphanage. She took pride in keeping the crisp white sheets straight on her narrow bed, and swept the dining hall conscientiously every Tuesday evening and Thursday morning, which were her turns. She loved Miss Nancy, and Miss Hattie the cook, and Mrs Cottlebottom, who sat in her office and presided over the doings of the Orphanage at large. Millicent remembered when Mrs Cottlebottom was just new, and Mrs Hanover before that. Millicent had been at the Orphanage longer than anybody, which is maybe why she loved it. The Orphanage was home.

Millicent dreamed though, and in the mornings while she straightened her crisp white sheets, and during the days while she did her bookwork and her sewing, and during the evenings while she bathed and dressed and after dinner on Tuesday evenings while she swept the floor of the dining hall, she dreamed that one day she too would be adopted. Everybody who wants to gets adopted, that’s what Millicent believed. That’s what she’d seen, too. Everybody who wants to gets adopted eventually.

Not everybody wants to though. Everybody knew that, everyone from Miss Cottlebottom right down to the very smallest children. They’d all watched the ones who didn’t want to go, watched as their eyes turn hard on the faces of would-be parents and the frowns come over them, watched as those ones came back after afternoon visits to the park and swore never to go again. They were the ones who’d leave on their own—or sometimes with a friend—and find a job and an apartment and start a new, orphanage-free life of their own. Not Millicent though. She knew in her deepest heart that one day, if she kept dreaming, that one day she’d be adopted.

It was a Thursday morning the day her dream came true. Mrs Cottlebottom sent one of the smaller girls to fetch her up to her office, telling her not to worry about finishing sweeping the dining hall, to come and to come now. Millicent did so. She dropped her broom right where she was standing, hitched up her apron and ran as fast as she was able on trembling legs. She knew before she got there what was about to happen. Being called to Mrs Cottlebottom’s office meant only one thing.

Millicent didn’t expect that her nerves would go out on her at the last minute. She’d never once, in all the times she’d dreamed this moment, imagined that the great dark-oak doors would look so foreboding, or make her feel so small, so unlovely. She knew then, in the seconds it took for her to smooth her hair down with her hand, why it was that some of them didn’t want to go.

Taking a deep breath and an even deeper swallow, Millicent pushed open the door. “You asked for me, Mrs Cottlebottom?”

“Millicent, my dear. Come in!” Mrs Cottlebottoms’s smile was wide and welcoming, as always, and Millicent stepped inside, letting the heavy door swing shut behind her. Mrs Cottlebottom sat behind her desk, as usual, and next to her sat the oldest woman Millicent had ever seen. She was as brown and wrinkled as a sultana, and as skinny as the empty grape stalk that grew it. Her hair was powder-white, and fluffed big like a cloud, although thin enough to see through it all the way to her brown and wrinkly scalp. Her mouth was wide and pink however, and showed a row of teeth so shiny and white they must have been polished with bleach, and above that smile were eyes that glowed like diamonds in the sunshine. Millicent liked her, but found herself too shy to meet her gaze.

“Come in, dear. Sit down.” Mrs Cottlebottom indicated the chair in front of the desk, and Millicent quietly obeyed.  Her mouth felt dry and she could feel her heart beating so loudly in her chest she wondered if the ladies opposite her could actually hear it. They didn’t seem to notice, and Mrs Cottlebottom’s bright voice continued its lullaby of words and information. Millicent studied the sunlight shining through the lace curtain.

“…of course Gertrude will always…” Millicent tuned out again, tuned in to the rhythm of her heart beating, wondered what vegetables there would be with dinner tonight.

“…And don’t forget, my dear, if you ever…” Millicent suddenly realised she would not be there for dinner that night, perhaps not any other night after this either. A fat tear formed in her eye, and she opened her eyes wide, as if to try to suck it back inside.

The old lady, Gertrude, was filling in papers with peculiar spidery handwriting, her gnarled hands gripping the pen in a way that looked completely unnatural to Millicent. This woman was to be her mother. After all her years of dreaming she was finally to be adopted.

A mother of her very own.

A home. A place to belong.

There would be cake for lunch today, maybe even a chocolate one. And today the adoption cake would be for her.

Millicent went to live at Gertrude’s house. It was neat and shiny as a new pin, with polished rails leading upstairs to two bedrooms, side by side, one for Gertrude and one for Millicent. Her new bed was not narrow with crisp white linen, but wide and soft, with a mattress that sank into the middle with a body on it, and hugged that body all the night. Millicent liked it, but she wasn’t sure how much she was allowed to.

She wasn’t sure how much she was allowed to like the new things for dinner, either. Sausages in casserole. Chicken pieces with breadcrumbs on them. Real ice cream, and no apple strudel on Saturdays. Gertrude told her that she didn’t need to sweep the kitchen floor on Tuesday evenings or Thursday mornings like before, but she did anyway. She didn’t know any other way.

Gertrude, in spite of her age—or perhaps because of it—was sprightly and adventuresome. She rose early in the morning and cleaned the already-clean kitchen and polished the already-polished bannisters, then she cooked some porridge for Millicent and herself and set about her day’s activities. She volunteered at a home for unwanted cats on Wednesdays and walked with her ladies’ group on Mondays and Fridays. On Tuesdays she shopped and on Thursdays she cooked. Every morning she asked Millicent to join her, to come with her on whatever activity she had planned for that day, and every day Millicent said no thank you. She preferred to stay home and do her bookwork and her sewing, just as she had always done.

The ache in Millicent grew though. She took herself to bed earlier and earlier each night so as not to have to sit with her mother in silence, companiable or otherwise. She could no longer enjoy the soft hug of the mattress, so she took it off the bed and slept on a blanket over the springs. She could not eat cake, so she feigned illness and left dinner untouched. Then one day she stayed in bed instead of coming downstairs for porridge, and decided she may never come back downstairs at all. Millicent understood finally that she had been in the Orphanage for too many years. Her dreaming for so long of life with a family had not prepared her at all for the reality that one may really show up. Dreams are neat, and neatly contained. Dreams have beginnings and endings. Real life, like family, is a messy affair.

 

Millicent was still in bed at lunch time, when Gertrude came back from her morning at the home for unwanted cats. Millicent heard the creak as the old woman climbed the stairs and turned over in bed, set her face to the wall. She didn’t look up as the old woman sat down gently beside her on the side of the bed, but as the tears began to shake themselves up and out of her gut she began to talk.

“I don’t know how to do it, Gertrude. I don’t know how to do family. I don’t know what the rules are any more. What if I’m doing it wrong?”

Gertrude stroked back Millicent’s white hair from her face, and wiped the tears from Millicent’s wrinkled cheek before taking her adopted daughter’s liver-spotted hand in her own. She’d been in the Orphanage the longest of all, Mrs Cottlebottom had told her. Since she was nearly five years old. Sixty-five years is a long time to live in one place.

“You’re doing just fine, darling,” Gertrude smiled her wide pink smile at Millicent and squeezed her hand in love. “There are no rules.”

No rules. Just love.

Millicent looked up, finally meeting her mother’s gaze. “I waited a long time for you. I always knew you’d come. I didn’t give up believing.”

Gertrude’s eyes shone again like diamonds.

“I came for you, my daughter. Just like you knew I would.  I came for you. All these years.”

No rules. Just love.

Millicent sat up in bed and allowed herself to be encircled in her mother’s embrace. Just love.

No rules.

Gertrude took Millicent’s hand and helped her up out of bed, and the two white-haired women together slid down the polished bannister and went into the kitchen for cake.

 

Two minutes thirty four: a fictional meditation on consuming time.

Image

Two minutes thirty four

 

 

Brittany Taylor

Melbourne, Australia

GMT + 10

Local time Tuesday 3:53pm

 

…except Mrs Fitzpatrick is always nicer to Penny than she is to me. It’s because Penny has perfect pigtails and is…does this pencil need sharpening? Legs crossed…uncrossed…

oh, it’s Tuesday…Mum said I could watch that new show after school if I get my homework finished on time, with that girl detective on it…that circle becomes a swirl becomes a flower with leaves that weave in through the margin…

When I’m eleven me and Penny are going to start our own detective agency, and then we’ll get so famous that Justin Bieber will come to us when his money gets stolen and the police can’t find it…legs crossed…

Except Justin will like me better than Penny because…

what is seven times nine, I can’t remember…colour in that flower …why will he like me better?

is that meant to be a six?…oh eleven is so ages away…wish I could just click my fingers and bam! It’s the future!…because then I’ll have much longer hair than her…

If Mum won’t let me be a detective I’ll be a ballerina…

 

Precious Mgabana

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

GMT + 3

Local time Tuesday 7:53am

 

…yelling because I can see his mouth move in big, slow streaks across his face but there is so much noise…get that boy off my peppers… chicken squawks in my ear hope it sells soon, some tasty fried chicken is good for market day…yes that is my eggfruit, grows in my garden, very good, I give good price…

            aaaiiiieee…these whitefolk they hold their noses and wrap their faces…come, taste my bungo fruit, it is good, yes?…

            …the mouths are moving again…Mzumbe’s boy has his bongo today…wears his American cap the wrong way on his head thinks he looks so important…

            Akili is smiling like her face is carved…what she hold?…where you get that money…aaaiii…they like the good chicken…my girl is clever at market…you go, go find Andwele…

            that girl…she dream of going to university in Johannesburg when she is old enough…like I used to dream when I was her age…I don’t tell her yet that every day is the same in Africa…there is no tomorrow but for next market day…

           

Elaine Paterson

London, England

GMT (0)

Local time Tuesday 4:53am

 

…why watches and me don’t go together. How many have I had in the last few years that stopped working…more hot water…where’s that new shampoo bottle?…

            Jim says he simply can’t drive me in so early…is that enough… lather…rinse…oh God did I call and arrange the taxi last night or did I decide to do it this morning…why did I buy that conditioner it always makes my hair fluffy and today of all days I just don’t have time…lather…comb…I didn’t. I made a cup of chamomile and went to bed…oh HECK…rinse…quick…

            if I miss that plane…water off…oh blast that sticking door slider, why hasn’t Jim fixed that yet…towel…quick…underpants…well I just can’t miss it, that’d be my job gone and then how would we live…hairdryer…lipstick on…shoes on…is that the taxi beeping…no…he doesn’t understand there are still bills to pay and we’ve still got that second mortgage…did I put those documents in my bag already?…

            it’s not like I can simply step into another job at my age, and after all I’ve invested in the company…Jim’s just going to have to miss his morning coffee…

            I mean it’s not as if I enjoy getting up before dawn really, just to go to a conference…but in this day and age we live…

 

Shirley Long

Boston, USA

GMT – 5

Local time Monday 11:53pm

 

…but really it was too late to talk…breathe in…out…

Stephanie said she’s coming in the morning…baby girl, all grown up…

my first grandchild… breathe in…She married a man…

a mathematician. Eric, that’s his name.

He kept talking about the hours we spend, counting down my years in days…breathe out…and minutes

so many. Too many to count any more, I don’t want to know…

Funny…for the young that bank of hours seems so much less precious. Minutes and whole days consumed like saltine crackers, eaten up without thinking…breathe in…

Lord…teach them to number their days wisely…breathe out…

I see it all so much more clearly now that it’s nearly gone. No pain now…no movement…breathe in…

All I have left is these two things, and soon – soon please Lord – time will be gone…breathe out…breathe in…and prayer…oh to see you face to face at last…will be no longer needed…