Holy Flamin’ Mandarins Batman! Ain’t That The Truth!

Sometimes, have you ever noticed, our personal truths are so odd, so out there, that we hold them tight in our hands in an odd mix of wonder and fear. Sometimes our truths are hard to talk about. Even though we know them to be true we know that they fall so far outside people’s expectation that we’re afraid we won’t be believed. So we don’t talk. We hold them tightly to our chests and gently hope them soon buried.

Here is a truth from my life, one that is so strange I found it exceedingly hard to believe: when we were in the Canadian Rockies last October we drove past a truck full of mandarins that had caught fire.

Yes. The truth. I know. Weird, isn;t it? For one thing, when has anybody ever seen a flaming mandarin truck, and for another thing, what on earth was a truck full of mandarins doing driving in the Canadian Rockies?

But it’s the truth.

I have the photos to prove it. Sure, they’re not the best–we were driving past this thing at 80 miles an hour–but still:Mandarins in the Canadian Rockies

We talked about this a lot amongst ourselves, but after a while we stopped. We didn’t share it, even though it was the truth, and no amount of wondering why such a strange occurrence could happen would answer our questions. Sometimes you need to learn to live with contradictions.

The other day my aunt and uncle came to visit. I hadn’t seen them for a long time, and we got to talking about our trip, and showing them photos of the things we did and the places we saw. And lo and behold, up on the computer came the photo of the smouldering mandarins, and we told our story and expressed our incredulity at this our odd and incomprehensible truth.

“Oh yes”, my auntie said, not at all perturbed by such a strange sight. “The oil in mandarin skins is highly flammable. My mum used to keep them and dry them and use them to light the fire.”

We stared, open-mouthed, at her for a minute. Our strange truth was believed, and, not only that, it had a reason. What we couldn’t comprehend was comprehensible to someone.

I’ve thought a lot about that mandarin truck again since that day, and allowed the truth to seep deep down into my story, allowed the strangeness to become normal. In that process I’ve been reminded of other truths I’ve held close to my chest, things that have been too personal and too odd for me to ever talk about, and how other people’s stories have helped me recognise the truth of my own, have validated them, justified them. I remember movies I’ve seen, books I’ve read, that express uncomfortable truths I thought were known only to me, and how those books, those movies, have made me feel less alone.

So this, my friends, is the story of my mandarin truck, and my reminder to you, and to myself, of why it’s always important to tell, to read, and to listen to, stories.

 

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The Story-tellers

When I was a little girl I went to a story-telling church. They did other things as well, like waved hankies at the hanky song, and played timbrels with all those lovely ribbons, and had bibles with stick-man pictures in them that a smiley man handed out at the door, and collected back up again at the door afterwards. There was a cross, and a table thing with a red velvet tablecloth on it, and probably some preaching as well, but I didn’t have much time for that kind of grown-up stuff. I’d stuff some coloured pencils in my little shoulder bag, and a notebook, so I could draw pictures during the boring bits.

One thing that bemused me about my church though, more so than the timbrels and the fact that the grown-ups had pictures in their bibles, was the Storytelling Bit. I didn’t know if all churches had a Storytelling Bit, but mine did. People stood up in their chairs, and occasionally the preacher would invite them to come up the front and stand near the red velvet table, and they’d say all this random stuff. I always listened to the stories. I liked stories.

Sometimes though…sometimes I swear those people had no idea how to tell a story. They’d get up there and they’d say all about their drinking, and how hard it was to stop, and then their kids stopped calling, and yada yada, and I’d get to thinking “this person has no clue what’s interesting and what’s not”, and then they’d finish with a “but Jesus saved me”, and we’d all have to clap and stuff, even if the story wasn’t very good. A lot of them weren’t. “I couldn’t find my keys, and then I moved my hat and there they were.” Where’s the tension in that? Where’s the drama? “My cat died, and then my aunt gave me another one.” Yeah okay, so I cared about that one. “I used to beat my wife and then this one day I met Brother Peter here and…” Oh boy. Ho hum. Don’t you people know anything about storytelling? Still, everybody clapped like it was the best thing they’d ever heard, and patted the storytellers on the back when they sat down.

I must have been about eight years old when I decided I’d had enough; decided that I could tell a story every bit as well as these people, and maybe I was old enough to put MY hand up in church too. I knew I could do it. I could add life! Drama! Adventure! Mystery! Fantasy! Imagination! And so I did. I knew these stories had to be in the first person (like, you had to say “I did…” not “she did…”, and I had this neat little tie-in about that dude in the bible who had a dream of a ladder with angels going up to Heaven, so it was a good church story even. I imagined it all up as I went, about me waking up in the night and going outside, maybe sleepwalking, and seeing that gate out the side of our house with angels doing loop-the-loops, and how then I realised I wasn’t walking, and that maybe I could do what the angels were doing too, and…

I didn’t get a big clap like I’d expected at the end, when I sat down, which surprised me. I was so proud. I thought maybe they hadn’t liked the ending, or that I hadn’t resolved it as well as I could have. The minister said thank you in a kind of tight voice, and asked if anybody else had anything they wanted to share. I kind of wondered if I’d goofed it, or missed the mark somewhere. I didn’t ever tell stories in church after that, I just clapped politely when I needed to, and went back to my colouring pencils and my drawing.

Tomorrow is Good Friday. That makes today, in the traditional church, Maundy Thursday, and the beginning of the Easter period. Or something like that. I’m sure I’ll be corrected. I love Easter. It reminds me of all the stories, the real stories, of my own life, of the stories I really could raise my hand in church for and say “…but Jesus saved me!”. It’s a time to reflect on what we do it for, the whole chocolate egg and four-day-weekend thing. The whole of Easter, the whole point of the Jesus thing really, is found in storytelling. Jesus told stories, and then, after his death and resurrection, his disciples told stories. That’s why I’m sitting here today, because of those stories.

Happy Easter, my friends. If you find yourself in church this weekend, listen out for the storytellers.

P.S. My friend Patti has been blogging her way through the weeks leading up to Easter by unpacking some of the stuff in the Bible. Her insights are fascinating, and she knows a lot of the historical/cultural details that I’ve not known before. Her blogs are worth a read. In one of her recent comments said this: “The disciples and the lives they led after the resurrection are the the best evidence that it did indeed happen. Before the resurrection, they were hiding away. Afterward, they were fearless, and eleven of them faced martyrdom. Would you do that for a man who came, filled you will hope and promises, and then just died. No! The disciples were changed when they saw their risen Lord.” I’d not thought of it like that before. These are stories that, unlike my little eight-year-old offering, make a difference.

 

 

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.