Some good books about grieving

Recently, I was able to read a pre-publication copy of a book about grieving by Amanda Held Opelt, and I’m happy to share my thoughts about it here. Especially since Amazon in its wisdom wouldn’t let me post my review because they’d noticed “unusual activity” on the book. (Ah, yes, a strong pre-marketing campaign by the publisher, God forbid. I’m almost glad to see this happens to traditional publishers as well as self-publishers.)

Anyway, as I noted in my longer Goodreads review,

This is an interesting exploration of grief and the rituals associated by … the surviving sister of Rachel Held Evans, the wonderful Christian writer who died tragically young when her case of the flu turned deadly. Opelt has also suffered miscarriages and worked in war and disaster zones around the world, so she’s also familiar with loss in other ways.

If you are a Christian (perhaps especially someone in a liturgical tradition), you may take great comfort in this candid discussion of grieving. If you’re not, you may still find it hopeful and moving, but the religious content may be a bit much for you.

…Each chapter devotes itself to a tradition, one that we carry on today or one that we have lost or that is specific to various cultures 0r times (examples include keening, covering the mirrors, telling the bees, etc.). Sometimes it’s a bit academic; other times it’s heart wrenching to read about Opelt’s actual experiences with actual losses. It’s probably not a book to read all at once, given the subject matter, but to work through over a period of time.

Reading it reminded me of some other books I’ve read on the topic. My favorite is A GRIEF OBSERVED, by C.S. Lewis. I have to admit a lot of Lewis’s popular theology books, like MERE CHRISTIANITY, don’t do much for me. They strike me as glib and smug and full of arguments by analogy.

But in A GRIEF OBSERVED, all that is torn away in favor of telling the painful truth about a devastating loss and what it does to Lewis’s relationship with God. You get to really watch the man wrestle with darkness, and you can’t help but be moved by it. (The movie SHADOWLANDS does a good job of representing this on the screen, though it’s more about the whole relationship.)

A very nontraditional book on the subject, one that claims it is fiction, although I have my doubts, is NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS, by Patricia Lockwood. As noted in my longer Goodreads review:

At first, with this book, I thought I was reading extremely disjointed but often funny, sometimes just glib takes on the internet, here called “the portal.”

…Eventually, however, a heartbreaking and heartwarming story of hope and loss and family and humanity emerged. Ultimately, I found it very moving. Recommended if you can cope with a nontraditionally-told story that is very much grounded in (and commenting on) our time.

Grief for people and also for a community or a way of life is the undercurrent in the beautifully written THE HIRED MAN by Aminatta Forna. It’s about a bleak topic, yet retains a stubborn hope. Also quoting from my Goodreads review:

A remarkable novel about war and its aftereffects, set in an inland part of Croatia that was once part of Yugoslavia and saw some shelling and some genocide. And yet life goes on, until an English family blunders onto the scene years later and unknowingly sparks memories neither the town nor our narrator (their handyman and neighbor), nor the guiltiest parties still present necessarily want to relive. There’s joy but also rising tension.

If by any chance you’re as much of a fan of Tim Farrington as I am, you might also want to check out his self-published novel SLOW WORK (affiliate link), about a man who carves grave stones. I think it is beautiful, if not terribly commercial.

Far more commercial is the recent novel, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES (affiliate link) by Shelby Van Pelt, a warm small town novel about enduring grief, recovering family, and redeeming old losses. Also, there’s an octopus, and it’s wonderful.

So, any recommendations from you? I’d love to hear them.

 

Things that won’t wait

I’m not going to get into perishables in the refrigerator or freezer or pantry, because we already know all too well about that. But these days I’m particularly aware of these other parts of life that just won’t wait forever:

Children.

They just keep growing! My grandchildren and niece and nephew in particular seem to be absolutely racing into adolescence and young adulthood. I wish they would slow down, but unfortunately I have it on great authority that it’s not how these things work.

Gardens.

You could still start tomato seeds right now in upstate New York, but you probably wouldn’t get much of a crop before frost arrives. Similarly, leaving plants in tiny nursery containers too long might mean they never flourish even after you plant them. (Sorry, basil.)  Also, if you let weeds set seed before you pull and/or mulch, you’ll be chasing weeds for months. (I will be chasing weeds for months.)

Painting.

At least up north, if you don’t get your house painting done in dry, temperate weather, you’re going to pay a price. Also, prep always takes more time than you think it should. Also, paint gets old. (If only buying paint equaled finishing a job! I’d be golden! Or, more likely, a nice off white!)

A 1350 angel from an altar piece who has folded arms and a skeptical or grumpy expression.expression.

How I imagine an actual angel might have watched our diocesan debate. (Angel by Niccolo di ser Sozzo Tegliacci, ca. 1350. Hyde Collection.)

Justice.

After participating in my (Episcopal) diocese’s annual convention this year, I became very aware of how dedicated some people seem to be to setting aside time for discussion and healing and conversation, maybe even forming committees or task forces, rather than simply removing some hateful and unenforceable canons targeting LGBTQIA persons. The laity was ready to move on, but our carefully curated clergy was not. I could say the fact we had a vote at all and that it was fairly close showed progress…but probably only because it’s not my marriage or my calling that was being strenuously and sometimes quite disingenuously opposed.

Books.

You have to put your butt in the chair and write them or they just don’t happen.

On the other hand, I do find that ideas will wait a bit and might even improve with a little subconscious marination. And sometimes writers need to recharge the creative batteries.

Readers.

It’s a truism in indie publishing that if you really want to make a living at this you need to publish four or more books a year. Some people publish ten or twelve or fifteen books a year (sometimes under various pen names). I am never going to be able to do that. But I’m also older now and don’t actually expect to make a living at this. So I’ll publish when I’m ready. (And I’m very thankful to those of you who are still hanging around for whatever comes next.)

Here’s wishing you the best of luck at not waiting too long to do whatever it is you want to accomplish this summer! Clearly I could use some of that myself.

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re reading this, you survived 2021!

And so did I, although it’s been a bit scary lately. There’s the omicron variant; there are tornadoes demolishing entire towns; there are people being shooed out of a Costco into blowing smoke and ashes. And I won’t even get into politics.

For me the last two months have also offered the banal middle-class horror of Lots of Stuff Breaking at Once. I unexpectedly require a new boiler, a more reliable car, minor (but expensive) dental work, and minor (but expensive) surgery for Penny the cat.

Penny irritated at the attention I’m giving a book.

It could be a lot worse. I have savings. I still have a house to put a new boiler into, unlike a lot of other folks. I still have my teeth AND my cat. And I haven’t lost anyone dear to Covid or anything else, knock wood.

It’s good that the new variant seems a little less brutal, at least to the vaccinated, since we’re all getting rather “whatever” about it. Last week I finally managed to get my hands on four home tests, but my stepdaughter agreed that using them was kind of pointless since they’d already had a bunch of exposures that week. We still went, because it was Christmas, and I hadn’t seen them in ages, and those kids were due for some pumpkin muffins. (The tests will come in handy before I fly to visit my folks this winter, assuming the plane actually takes off.)

If the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that I have too long taken for granted the ability to get together with people I enjoy. Like many of us, I want to do more of that in 2022.

Which brings us to RESOLUTIONS…

Yeah, no, let’s just call them GOALS

(Maybe they’re a little less likely to be quickly abandoned that way.)

Besides the getting together: 1) Take care of all the broken-down issues without much more agonizing, 2) Get back in the product management groove with the books, 3) Lift weights at least twice a week instead of maybe once every two or three weeks when I finally stop saying I’ll do it tomorrow, and 4) Work towards giving a full 10% of my income to charity on a monthly basis instead of trying to figure it out at the end of the year when (cough) I might suddenly be facing a whole host of unexpected expenses.

Yes, part of me is thinking but isn’t it a good thing you didn’t spend all that money already? Because you sure as heck need it now! But I don’t think it really works like that. Have two coats, give one away, that’s the ideal Jesus preached. And I still literally have at least three coats. (Four, if you count a really ratty one I ought to throw out.) If I’ve already spent that money, I’ll adjust as I go along. If life as an adjunct and a writer has taught me anything, it’s how to cut back on expenses.

Oh, and while the ten percent goal comes from the Biblical concept of tithing, it’s not all going to my church. I’ve been involved enough with that organization’s budget to know that while it requires my regular support, too, if I want to actually feed the poor, help heal the sick, build affordable housing, etc., I’d better support various charities that actually focus on that and do it well: Feeding America, Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, and more, including good local charities. And most of them would benefit from steady monthly donations instead of the usual end-of-year clumps.

So I commend them to your planning for 2022, too.

So that’s it. Maybe I’ll publish the next book, or maybe I’ll hold it until I have a sequel written. I’m planning to read FEWER books in 2022, because I got to 122 I liked enough to recommend on Goodreads this year and that’s ridiculous. (That’s either #123 up there in the photo with Penny or #1 for 2022.)

And tell me your goals for 2022 if you’d like. I’ve changed the moderation on posts so that those of you who’ve had comments approved before will get published without having to wait for me to notice your comment waiting.

P.S. If you’d like more of a catch-up on my writing, I was recently the subject of a lovely interview by Suanne Schafer. Folks are telling me it’s a good read, and I certainly enjoyed doing it.

From nun to novelist: An interview with Linda Anne Smith

Sandra Hutchison interviews the debut author of the indie-published TERRIFYING FREEDOM, a novel about a woman whose past as a nun is holding her back from new possibilities in her life. It’s a rewarding read for anyone fascinated by the anguish that can result when sincere faith collides with the inevitable human frailties of religious organizations.

A quick note — next month’s post will catch you up on my writing, rather than offering yet another author interview, much as I enjoy them. (Just in case you’re getting impatient!)

Linda, your author bio suggests that there are a fair number of commonalities between you and your heroine. Am I right about that, and if so, can you explain your decision to fictionalize this story rather than, say, write a memoir?

Yes, I do have extensive experience in religious life—30 years, in fact.

TERRIFYING FREEDOM, while drawing from this experience, is not autobiographical. However, the context of the story is based on fact, so the central part of the novel could be considered historical fiction.

So why not write a memoir? And pass up on the opportunity to spin a tale? From the start I wanted to write fiction. I felt impelled to give life to Rebecca, who, when the beliefs on which she founded her life begin to crumble, must navigate through the murky, rough waters of uncertainty.

I believe fiction gives me a broader range to explore and expand the characters and the reality in which they live. I am able to draw not only from my own experience but from what I’ve learned from others. For example, the central part of the novel is situated in Appalachia. Throughout my life I’ve been drawn to Appalachia: its people, its history and its beauty. The research I did for the novel deepened my own understanding of the Appalachian people. Initially Appalachia was a location for the story, but as the novel evolved it became a character. Fiction can open horizons. I love it.

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The novel interested me with its serious attitude towards economic justice and education. The heroine clearly takes teaching very seriously, and the quietly rebellious sisters do good work in Appalachia despite serious institutional barriers. Did you experience a similar path?

I work with at-risk and special needs children. Over the years I have seen how essential it is to provide early intervention for these children and their families. As a society we need to bolster our educational programs with lower class sizes and teacher aides; we need to provide vibrant and relevant after-school and preschool programs as well as outreach to parents. When we as a society demonize addiction, poverty, etc., rather than examine the roots and provide adequate support, we limit many people from living out their potential as persons and from engaging in an empathetic and productive manner in society.

While the purpose of TERRIFYING FREEDOM is to tell the story of Rebecca, I am thrilled when readers are made more aware of the issues that Rebecca and her community grapple with. I love reading novels where my perception of reality is challenged and I set off researching for more information and a deeper sensitivity of the issue or event discussed. Through his novels, Charles Dickens revealed the underbelly of English society that shocked and evoked change. I believe stories can be powerful conveyors of insight and empathy.

Your novel also features a slow-building romance with a sympathetic human resources manager. This is not one of your typical romantic hero’s jobs! What inspired that?

As the song goes, “Love is in the air, everywhere I look around!” I can also say that throughout my life I’ve been blessed by relationships that began as chance encounters: our lives just intersected at the right time and place. These persons believed in me and because of their honesty and compassion my life took turns that may not have happened otherwise. I’ll always be grateful to them.

Tell us how you came to write and publish TERRIFYING FREEDOM. Did anything about it surprise you? Do you have any advice for others?

As mentioned above, I felt a burning drive to write this story. Having said this, not everything was clear from the beginning and I had many moments of self-doubt. As I approached the end of Part One, I considered wrapping the novel up quickly. But after consideration, I decided to plunge into Part Two and am glad I did. In all, it took six years to write.

When it was completed, I embarked on the route of traditional publishing. But the more I trekked down this path, the more my eyes were opened. Several conglomerates control most of the publishing in the US and Canada. To get even the slightest consideration (not to mention an offer), one must first have an agent. So I hunted and send out queries to many agents who I thought might be interested in my genre. If an agent expressed interest, then I had to give a few months for that agent to read the manuscript and decide whether to take on the book or not. This process takes months and the manuscript hasn’t even begun to be seen by a publisher.

So while pursuing the traditional route, I began to research self-publishing through Ingram Spark and Createspace. I discovered that while I would have to put out for the editing, interior design and cover, I also would also have more control over the final product. And from what I’d read, even if a person is traditionally published, the author remains the primary marketer of their book (unless they are a celebrity).

At one point, a smaller publishing house expressed interest in TERRIFYING FREEDOM  and I sent off my manuscript to its reviewer. When I did not hear back after a number of months, I decided to self-publish with both Ingram Spark and Createspace. I was well into to this process when I heard that the reviewer had been quite ill and had since recovered. She liked the novel and gave me some great editing tips. By then, however, I decided to continue with self-publishing rather than wait any longer.

To authors-in-the-making, I would say concentrate above all on writing and completing your book. Be ready to edit, then edit, and edit some more. The best book I read on writing was ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT, by Stephen King. This book transcends genres as King offers examples from a wide range of authors. He is honest, practical and encouraging. I recommend this book to anyone who asks me about being an author.

I would happily second that recommendation!

Also, if you decide to self-publish, I would suggest investing in a professional editor and cover designer. Read current blogs on the self-publishing (this industry is constantly evolving) and move forward step by step. I would have been overwhelmed if I focused on the entire process. Lastly, be willing to promote your book. If someone expresses interest via social media, keep in touch with the person. I met you, Sandra, through a comment you made on a blog. Through our communication, you gave me a marketing tip and have now given me this wonderful opportunity to promote Terrifying Freedom.

My first novel, which features an errant priest and explores different approaches to faith, was at least partly inspired by thoughtful novels with religious themes by Tim Farrington, Gail Godwin, Anne Tyler, and John Irving, among others. Were you inspired to write yours by any particular works, fiction or nonfiction?

I love reading, both fiction and nonfiction, and I’m sure that various authors have influenced my writing without me being aware of it. I love Jane Austen for her insights into the society of her time and her keen perception of others. She has written enduring novels with the stuff of day-to-day living.

Books have opened me to worlds and experiences I had no idea existed. The books I love give me at least one character I deeply care about, increase my awareness of a particular a reality, give me another angle to view history, and/or break through stereotypes.

What’s next for you as an author?

I am currently writing a sequel that tells Andrew’s story (that sympathetic human resource manager!).

Linda Anne Smith lives near Calgary, Alberta, enjoying the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. For 30 years, she was a member of a community of religious sisters. She currently volunteers in an organization that is dedicated to assisting and advocating for traumatized and neglected children and their families and works in a school assisting children with special needs. Learn more about her and her work at terrifyingfreedom.com, or follow Linda on social media at Facebook or Twitter.

About TERRIFYING FREEDOM

In the Midwestern offices of Secure Star Insurance, Rebecca, efficient and distant, seeks only to survive another day. Sally, earnest and devout, views the workplace as a fertile mission field. Into the agency comes a new employee, Gladys, gregarious, unorthodox and twice divorced. When an intuitive HR manager arrives, veneers begin to crack.

Back track four years. Rebecca’s mysterious past is explored in a convent replete with younger members and garnering the support of an increasing number of bishops and conservative Catholics. When an older nun has a heart attack, Rebecca is abruptly sent to a backwater mission in Appalachia. Distanced from the enclave of the mother house and embedded in social realities of the missionary outpost, Rebecca is thrust into uncharted waters.

You can purchase TERRIFYING FREEDOM at…

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes and Noble

Canada—Chapters, Indigo/Kobo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing a long-dead missionary to life (despite myself)

Last year I was asked by a friend to write a short monologue for Jessie Fremont Traver Moore, a woman who’d spent most of her adult life as a missionary in Assam, India. It was for an original theater experience in the Sand Lake (NY) Town Cemetery called Amazing Graves. It featured monologues from a number of the cemetery’s dead residents to benefit the Sand Lake Town Library, where I used to be a trustee.

Since I had inveigled this friend into taking my spot on said board of trustees when I left town, I owed her. And of course I was happy to support the library.

Except…was she kidding? She wanted ME to write from the point of view of a Baptist missionary?

My Episcopal church family knows I’m a faithful parishioner but not a very pious one. I would rate myself a 1 out of 10 on ability to earnestly participate in spontaneous prayer. I’m mostly silent in group discussion of scripture. My evangelism consists of suggesting we have free bread and coffee and conversation on Saturday mornings and advocating in a more general way for justice and mercy.

As the product page on Amazon notes, it discusses faith, but those who require piety in such matters will not like it. Skeptics will probably be able to cope.

As the product page on Amazon notes, it discusses faith, but those who require piety in such matters will not like it. Skeptics will probably be able to cope.

If there are moments in my novels that suggest Christian belief might not be pointless or ridiculous — THE AWFUL MESS comes to mind — I try very hard not to bash anyone over the head with it.

Maybe this arises from an agnostic childhood. To this day my birth family finds my beliefs peculiar. And, even as a believer, I’m on the skeptical end of the spectrum. A lot of Christian rituals strike me as deeply cultural (and patriarchal and superstitious) ways of sharing the fundamental message of God’s love. I suspect I feel at home in the Episcopal tradition mostly because it’s so Anglican (yep, I’m an English major) and because the national church is decidedly liberal.

Even so, I don’t believe Episcopal practice is inherently superior to any other faith tradition that preaches love and forgiveness instead of hate and exclusion. Including non-Christian traditions.

I have attended Baptist services and Methodist services and Congregational services. I have also attended Christian and Missionary Alliance services, where missionary work truly is the focus of that congregation’s outreach. But whenever people talk about missionaries, I automatically wonder what the native people think of these White people coming in and trying to win their souls for Christ. Especially given some pretty brutal, imperialistic history connected to those efforts.

So I was leery of Jessie Fremont Traver Moore. But she surprised me.

She was named Fremont after an abolitionist candidate for President who lost. So in her family there wasn’t any of that blindness to the evils of slavery and of racism that we tend to associate with American Evangelicals today — not that this is necessarily fair.

And what a woman Traver Moore was! She left published journals behind, some of which her descendant in town loaned me, and another of which I found on Google, so I got to hear her official version of her life. I had to read between the lines for the unofficial version, of course, but there were hints of it there. (I never got the feeling Mrs. Moore suffered fools gladly.)

Here’s a woman who trained in seminary and crossed the globe multiple times by sea (the last time right as WWI broke out), going into regions where poverty and disease were rampant. In Nowgong, the village where she and her husband based their work, the Moores learned the native language, translated books to it, published them, and taught in it. The school they started there is still educating students today.

This is my favorite part of the script:

Diane Doring portraying Jessie Fremont Traver Moore as part of Amazing Graves, 30 Oct. 2016 in Sand Lake, New York.

Diane Doring portraying Jessie Fremont Traver Moore as part of Amazing Graves, 30 Oct. 2016 in Sand Lake, New York.

In Assam we not only brought many Assamese to Christ, we started a school that eventually was educating over 100 girls, Hindus and Muslims as well as Christians. We participated in the civic life of Nowgong, and I counted many lovely Hindu and Muslim ladies among my acquaintance, even those who did not feel compelled to accept Jesus despite my best efforts to share the Good News with them over tea in their homes. In my diaries – which, by the way, I published — I remarked how I nonetheless hoped I would see them in heaven.

Now, I would forgive you for thinking at this point that since I have clearly passed already I could tell you whether I have met with those lovely ladies in heaven, but I’m afraid I have not been authorized to reveal any information about what comes next.

 

“The fierce urgency of now” if you’re white

When I visit my friends in Maine, we are cut off from most of the Internet and from most television, and frankly that’s always one of the lovely — if disorienting — aspects of the trip. It was dismaying to return from that to news of two more killings in just two days of black men by white policemen, topped off by the killing of five white police officers in Dallas by one angry black veteran.

So what can those of us who aren’t black do about it?

As a novelist, I am always tempted to think that if I can just help someone put themselves in someone else’s shoes, they will develop empathy for that person and his problems. And in fact, my next novel does get into racial issues.

But because I have also taught argument and persuasion in racially mixed classrooms using contemporary topics, I also know firsthand that there are some young white people (men, usually) who absolutely refuse to imagine what it might feel like to be, say, a frustrated black man, or the family of a black man slain by cops over a minor offense.

I’ve watched them refuse to do this even as part of an exercise that might help them produce a more effective argument for their own side. In their view, the cop is always right, the black suspect always had it coming, and to entertain any other possibility is letting down the team.

So whites who are capable of noticing that there is such a thing as racial bias in the world really need to do more than just sympathize with its victims.

I was hoping for something explicit in my somewhat racially mixed church this week, since our presiding bishop had suggested as much. Our white priest gave his usual excellent sermon, though it was (also as usual) without a mention of recent events. But it was about the parable of the good Samaritan, and examining Jesus’s answer to that question by the lawyer — “Who is our neighbor?” felt appropriate.

Later, the priest did explicitly address recent events during the announcements, and instead of an offertory hymn, we heard a reading from Lamentations, an expression of grief in lieu of what he said would be our tendency toward self-righteousness at this time.

And, yes, it seemed fitting in many ways — defeated Jerusalem surely had something in common with those who feel they’ve been abandoned to poverty and violence and injustice, though the Jews had obviously experienced being the group in power in their own country at some point, and you can’t say that about black people in this country.

And then the reading ended on a note asking us to wait patiently for the Lord.

Sorry, Father Steve, but here’s where I get all self-righteous.

Because surely waiting patiently for the Lord is the oppressor’s game? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord is a perk of white privilege? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord assumes that everything will work out eventually if we just wait in love and hope and faith for goodness to win out?

As far as I can tell, unless people actually fight for something, goodness only wins out on an eternal scale. And, yes, eternity is the focus of church. But surely not the only focus of a church that says it’s concerned with justice and peace. Jesus didn’t wait patiently for the Lord. He went around saying and doing stuff, and he delegated his disciples to go around saying and doing stuff.

Waiting patiently for the Lord doesn’t do anything to address the injustice of the world we have now, the lives being lost now, the human potential being squandered now. And no progress on this planet has ever happened without people fighting pretty damned hard for it … and then continuing to fight for it when the usual suspects try to reverse it. (Just look at what has happened to economic inequality in this country in the last thirty years.)

The Rev. Martin Luther King rightly insisted on “the fierce urgency of now.” His classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in response to the clergy of Birmingham who expressed sympathy for the plight of African Americans in that violent city while deploring the protests he and others led there, made this especially clear:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. (Excerpted from the full text here.)

This is what the Black Lives Matter movement attempts to do, and obviously not just in the South. Even if you don’t agree with all the movement’s specific positions (I don’t), you can still support its goal of ending America’s largely unjust pattern of policing and sentencing black people.

We already know who doesn’t get it, or chooses not to get it. They’re the ones who say, “All lives matter!”

Courtesy of JP Porcaro's Facebook post

Courtesy of JP Porcaro’s Facebook post

The white people who most frustrated King did get it, but responded with grief and prayer and moments of silence and hugs and yeah, okay, all that is lovely — but not if it’s all we do. Not when it becomes a substitute for actually trying to take steps to solve the problem.

OnceACopIn a related note, I just finished a good book, ONCE A COP, by former New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Corey Pegues, that vividly details the appeal of selling drugs and belonging to gangs to young black boys in tough neighborhoods. He was one of those young drug dealers, who somewhat miraculously managed to escape into the military and then became a rising NYPD cop. From that vantage point of the insider, he illustrates how “broken windows” policing — when driven to extremes by politicians — can cause arrests to skyrocket, especially among young blacks.

In fact, he shows how simply being stopped without ID at hand can cause a young man who wasn’t doing anything wrong to be taken in and get entered into the system, something that may dog him the rest of his life.

And that’s just in New York, which doesn’t have a private prison system providing a profit motive for incarceration. Which doesn’t, presumably, see incarceration as an easy way to strip voting rights from a whole bloc of people almost as effectively as any Jim Crow laws did in the past. Which does hire some black members of the police force (though it would appear from the book that they mostly get promoted when racial scandals make it temporarily expedient to do so).

So what do we do, those of us who can see the score here, besides grieving?

Well, there’s this advice compiled by Sally Kohn.

You can also vote for the politicians and parties that recognize there is a problem with racism and poverty in this country and appear willing to do something about it rather than fanning racial fears and hatred. Not just at the national level, but at the local level.

And then you have to hold them to it.

And then you need to continue to support them when some of that change threatens to reduce some of the many advantages you and your children enjoy simply by virtue of being white and middle- or upper-class.

Even if it means volunteering and contributing and voting in less sexy midterm elections and local elections. If politicians who do the right thing think it will cause them to lose the next election, many of them are going to play it safe.

It also means, sometimes, compromising your ideological purity to avoid electoral and judicial disaster.

There are, sadly, a lot of people in this country who think this world is a zero-sum game, and the more benefits they can get for themselves at the expense of others, the better.

For the religious among us, however, there is supposed to be that pesky matter of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and not just those who live in our own zip code.

And religious or not, there is also such a thing as enlightened self-interest — the idea that prosperous people without serious grievances are less likely to pass along disease, or mug us to make a buck, or get angry enough to overturn our government. They are also way more likely to pay taxes and in other ways contribute towards the greater good, perhaps even cause our stock portfolio to rise in value. Maybe even take care of us in our old age.

So there’s that. If simple humanity or religious duty doesn’t appeal to you, maybe enlightened self-interest will.

Something’s got to do it. Because it needs to get done.

Called? To what?

Is writing a vocation or just something we like to do?

By Sandra Hutchison

Religious people are used to the concept of someone being “called” to vocation — priests and ministers are supposed to be answering a call, as are deacons, monks, nuns, and so on. The call, one hopes, comes from God.

I’ve often wondered how that feels. Personally, I have never heard a divine voice literally calling out, “Hey! Sandra! Yes, you! DO THIS THING.”

Maybe some folks have. Certainly it gets reported that way in scripture. But I am always highly suspicious of anyone who claims to have received specific, detailed messages from the Almighty. My first thought is “schizophrenia,” my second thought is “con man,” and my third — say, if it’s scripture being quoted by someone — is “okay, let’s hear it, but you can assume I may question its provenance or your interpretation of it.”

On the other hand, Rumi tells us to listen to “the voice that doesn’t use words.” And I have heard that voice.

Once, during my junior year of college, in England, I was spending the holidays with cousins in Scotland. Sometime after midnight I was walking back to a party in Edinburgh where my cousins were supposed to still be after I’d gone off to the young people’s celebration of Hogmanay — New Year’s Eve under the clock of the Tron (I kissed a bobby and drank from a passing bottle of whisky and felt authentically Scottish for a moment).

As I was walking along I suddenly felt a very hard tug from somewhere to stop walking and instead pound down the sidewalk as fast as I could. Which I did. I arrived breathlessly just as my cousins were pulling away from the curb, just in time to stop them and get a ride back to their home for the night.

I’m not sure this mattered — I could have walked the rest of the way to my cousins’ house if I had to. The streets were quite safe. But it felt as if it mattered a lot. It felt as if I had been saved from something.

Was that God? A “guardian angel”? Some funky extra-sensory perception? My subconscious calculating times and probabilities better than my conscious? I have no idea. But it was a voice without words, and that’s not the only time I’ve listened to something like that (though that was probably the time that felt most consequential).

Still, my religious faith didn’t arrive until a couple of years later, after quite a lot of reading and some meditation (outside of the Christian tradition) and some physics and some church. My conversion moment essentially consisted of me saying, in meditative prayer, “Give me a sign,” and promptly getting something I interpreted as one.

However, in hindsight, I don’t feel that sign was a genuine weird mystical event. I was, at that point, completely primed to have something, anything, give me permission to go where I had already decided I wanted to go. Anything in the room would have done. A cricket chirping, a nod of my own neck, a puff of wind from the window. I don’t even remember what it actually was anymore. Because that wasn’t really the point. I chose.

And yes, everyone who is called has to choose whether to answer. But I think you can easily choose things you haven’t really been called to, also, and then tell yourself you were called to them. You can easily confabulate a desire with a calling.

For example, I often feel a little tug during the Eucharistic prayer. I want to lift my hand and sanctify that bread and wine right along with the priest, which I’m obviously not authorized to do.  But I suspect that’s a BS thing on my part, because I’m also quite sure I don’t want to do the actual hard work of becoming and being a priest. It’s the religious equivalent of those people who come up to me at book signings to tell me that they have amazing stories to tell and they would be an amazing writer if only they had the time.

It could be worse. Imagine the pedophile priest who thinks, “I answered the call. I’ve sacrificed much to serve God and His people. Now God has provided for me. This child has been called by God to serve me.”

This is why I sometimes think a calling is better thought of as something more prosaic. Something as simple as somebody else in the church saying, “So, hey, our nominating committee thinks you should run for vestry.”

(Of course, when it gets this literal the whole idea of “being called” reminds me of a story my father likes to tell of a time he and his cousin were exploring the north of England and had been instructed by my great aunt to call Cousin Joan, who lived there. They had no desire to do this, so they stopped the car next to a field and yelled, “Cousin Joan!” Later, when Auntie Nan asked them if they had called Cousin Joan, they replied that they had, but she hadn’t answered.)

Authors often talk about being called to writing as if it is a vocation. I can remember sitting in the audience at a discussion with about eight writers at The Book House one afternoon when one of them said something along the lines of, “You write because you have to. If you don’t have to, you shouldn’t even do it.” And there was much nodding.

And yes, I agree that writing can feel like a vocation, in that you are giving up your time on earth to engage both conscious and unconscious parts of yourself in calling out a truth of some kind. It can feel like being touched with the spirit. It can feel like prophecy. But it can also be delusion, or ego, or hacking away, or a combination of all of the above.

Maybe I think this because I’ve written a lot of advertising. Enjoyed it, too. There’s plenty of creativity involved. Even a kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is not entirely unlike religious faith. By the time I’m done writing about that, say, inflation-protected variable annuity, I’ve usually also convinced myself that it’s A Most Excellent Product That Everyone Needs. But obviously I was really just hacking away at that to make a living. And the charges and fees are a killer.

I’ve also read plenty of published fiction that reads to me like someone just hacking away to make a living. (The later volumes of successful series are particularly prone to that, though thankfully not every author succumbs.)

But although we’d probably all prefer to read stuff that feels absolutely incandescent with the fire of truth, to the idea that no one should bother writing unless they are literally driven to do it, I say: Oh, come on.

Yes, it’s true that damaged, depressed people may feel compelled to write to try to fill an emotional hole that can’t be filled, or to establish a connection with some idealized other they can’t find in real life, or to process some traumatizing event in their lives. And yes, it’s true these folks are often brilliant and original, at least until they tragically destroy themselves. Extreme focus and need can do that.

The rest of us mostly write because we want to. Our productivity depends on our habits, the time we have available, and how preoccupied we may be by more fundamental needs like food and housing and child care.

Sometimes I think writers suggest that it’s a kind of calling or compulsion because they don’t want any more competition than they already have.

Sometimes I think they say it because they know the rewards are so long in coming and so uncertain that they feel they are doing you a real favor by scaring you off.

And sometimes I think writers believe that if it’s a sacred vocation that means it’s okay to not get a regular job, to continue working on our art despite the poor or non-existent compensation we are likely to receive. It’s okay to expect our spouses to support us. It’s okay to demand that quiet little writer’s nook where the kids won’t bother us, or escape to  that lovely writer’s retreat in the mountains. It’s okay to sign terrible contracts. It’s okay to passively await the reading public’s verdict instead of getting out there and flogging our stuff. It’s art! We’ve been called!

Adapted from an engraving by The Brothers Dalziel in "Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance" by Thomas Moore. In the public domain, courtesy of http://www.oldbookillustrations.com.

Adapted from an engraving by The Brothers Dalziel in “Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance” by Thomas Moore. In the public domain, courtesy of http://www.oldbookillustrations.com.

Suggesting that writing is a calling, a vocation, is also convenient for readers and publishers. It’s arguably an excuse for not paying writers and artists (and the people who work most closely with them) a living wage. Sure, a few writers are wildly successful and a few more make a living at it, especially in the more workaday genres. But the great bulk of writers must have other means of support. (If you’ve ever wondered why literary fiction is so white and so dominated by the wealthy classes, there’s your answer.)

Teaching can be like this, too. I know so many adjunct professors who feel called to teach. I’m one of them. I love teaching. But if the job won’t really support us, it’s kind of crazy to keep doing it. Pathological, even. I do it because I can afford to (which is not because of my writing income, believe me). And I’m not sure this is the most moral decision I’ve ever made. By accepting the lousy terms of adjunct work, I’m arguably enabling a shamefully exploitative system.

I think we often need to clarify our thinking about being called to a vocation, any vocation. Yes, we may feel called to it. Yes, it may be satisfying some deep hunger in us. It may feel like a religious experience. It may even be a religious experience. But although Jesus expected to die on the cross, he still expected his disciples to eat. If people weren’t willing to put them up or feed them, they were to shake their sandals free of that town’s dirt and move on to a place that would.

I think what I’m trying to say is that being called to a vocation is complicated at best. It’s full of potential pitfalls. It’s worth taking the time to carefully examine and re-examine our  motives. And if we ever see it as special permission to behave badly, then maybe it’s less a calling than a rationalization.

If you write, do you feel called to it? Do you see it as a vocation? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

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Our father? Our mother? Words matter

I was thinking about how much words matter this last weekend during my first vestry retreat. (Vestry, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the group of parishioners elected to attend to the business of the church.) We were given two lectures about prayer by an articulate Catholic fellow, Paul Delio. It was interesting and insightful and yet as the time passed I began to feel a bit oppressed.

I especially felt this way during his discussion of the Lord’s prayer and the beginning of it: “Our Father,” which Paul pointed out was originally “papa,” really — what a child calls  his daddy.

I was sitting there thinking that obviously Jesus was a product of his time, even if he kept pushing the boundaries of it. And the men who codified what became accepted as holy scripture were also men of their time. So of course it was father or papa or abba that made sense for that prayer at that time.

But it matters, this “father,” when it is always, always “father” and never, ever “mother.” Especially in my parish church, which makes no attempt at a more inclusive liturgy. All year long, for example, we give “Him” thanks and praise, instead of the gender-neutral “God” that is pretty customary in most Episcopal churches I’ve attended.

“I don’t think of God as masculine,” I told our group in the discussion that followed, when Paul assigned us to talk about ways we would revise the prayer for our own understanding (which, to be fair to Paul, is the opposite of oppressive). I told my group I considered the language patriarchal. Why couldn’t it be “Our Father/Mother?”

My priest didn’t have any issue with the idea of God not being masculine. That was, he told me, quite well-accepted doctrine. He did have issues with “Father/Mother,” which we didn’t get into. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he objected at least partly because it’s such an ungainly phrase, and in this case at least further from the original source.)

Still, though. Accepted doctrine? Then why IS it always “Father”?

Maybe it wouldn’t even occur to me to get disgruntled about all this if I hadn’t once had the joy of attending a church led by a gifted female priest who went right ahead and changed the prayers to correct for gender bias. The Rev. Lucinda Laird would alternate Her and Him, He and She, God the Father and God the Mother. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was also the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. The first time I heard it I was shocked. She could do that?

She could. (It no doubt helped that this was in the Diocese of Newark.) And I grew to love it. I loved that the girls in our church were growing up hearing that every Sunday as an ordinary expression of our worship. They didn’t need to feel that extra little distance between God and them that boys never heard. They saw a strong, confident, gifted woman leading a thriving congregation in thanks and praise.

I miss that. (Not that I don’t consider my current priest quite gifted, or my current congregation thriving.) And I’m not ready to get militant about it, and in any Episcopal church it’s really the responsibility of the priest and bishop in any case. (“Episcopal” literally means “governed by bishops.”)

But I offer it as a matter of thought, to consider how the language we hear in church might be excluding or distancing a good half (or more than half, in many cases) of the congregation hearing it.

And I feel I should point out that there are indeed more inclusive ‘official’ liturgies available through the Episcopal Church, including Enriching Our Worship, here. It’s a fascinating read for those who are interested in such things.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

I’m also aware that I sound more than a lot like slightly annoying lesbian Carla in “The Awful Mess,” giving the poor interim priest a hard time about patriarchal structures as they walk through her kid’s upcoming baptismal service.

But as my main character Mary notices, at least Carla is engaged.

And that’s what I’m aiming to be.

——–

Speaking of being engaged, thought I would let you know I’m fast closing in on the end of a first draft for “Bardwell’s Folly” — which is a good thing because I’m at nearly 100,000 words now and in my genre it’s usually not a good idea to get much longer than that! Next comes revising and then starting the fourth novel while I wait for word back from my beta readers. Huzzah!

 

A Lenten practice for writers?

The sermon at church this week has had me wondering what I could choose to give up or take on for Lent. Which further made me wonder about what would be especially applicable to me to do as a writer.
I don’t think I am unique among writers in experiencing my life as a constant tug of war between creative energy and laziness, ego and embarrassment, reverence and irreverence.
Given that, I am wondering what temporary practice would be most useful for my writer soul? (Especially if, as our priest suggested, Lenten sacrifices or practices are designed less for self-improvement than for self-knowledge?)
So, I tried to come up with some ideas.
Stuff I could give up…
  • Some of the excessive time I spend on social media and digital distractions in general. The Freedom App looks very intriguing for that.
  • Checking sales reports or author rank. Surely once a week should be sufficient. But tell that to my fingers. They sometimes click on the KDP Report when I’m not even trying to go there.
  • Checking for reviews. This is especially pointless this far between books.
  • TV news. I get two newspapers and the Internet. I certainly don’t need as much TV news as I habitually watch (local news plus two national broadcasts each night, plus the Daily Show from the night before).
  • Eating while working. This is how my plans for a full healthy meal so often degenerate into little bits of this and that. Maybe I could find a way to play National Public Radio while cooking and address these last two bullet items at once.
 Stuff I could take on…
  • Daily exercise. I’m actually already working on that (and my daily word counts along with many fine writers in the Women Fiction Writer’s Association), so maybe it wouldn’t count for Lent.
  • More disciplined reading of fiction and professional books. I am drowning in excellent books I have not read, or have started and not finished. Less TV or social media would allow more time for that.

    This is just the pile under my bedside table. Let's not even mention the Kindle.

    This is just the pile under my bedside table. Let’s not even mention the Kindle.

  • Meditation on a more regular basis. Maybe. I am skeptical. I honestly suspect I get the same benefits during long walks, gardening, photography, and sitting around with a cat on my lap.
  • Not putting off all my business accounting until the last minute. Yeah, let’s not even pretend I’m going to do that.
  • More visiting with actual live human beings in the same room as me. Eh. I might just focus on one neighbor who needs this and not worry about my overall sociability. I am an introvert, after all.
  • Prayer. Bwa ha ha ha. The weakest link in my spiritual life by far. I have almost zero faith in prayer. But maybe, since that is my reaction, I should give it a try. A short prayer ideal for writers sitting down to draft? Hmm.
What about you, writers or non-writers? Do you have Lenten plans?
— Sandra Hutchison

Adventures in Amazon keyword padding

by Sandra Hutchison

Note: The specific keyword examples mentioned in this post are out of date now, because Amazon has changed the way keywords are input (possibly to cope with just this kind of issue). However, you might find it amusing anyway — and I suspect I could have gotten into just the same trouble using the current form. (This is also a reminder, fellow Kindle authors, to check your backlist titles to see what’s going on with the keywords.)

Authors sometimes work very hard to get keywords into their product descriptions on Amazon, but there’s actually a better way to come up in Amazon searches. It’s a technique called keyword padding that I first learned about in this helpful post by David Penny.

But you’d better be careful how you do it. I learned this the hard way.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsMy first novel, “The Awful Mess,” was on sale for a time in August, with a BookBub promo in the UK, Canada, and India and some other support for US and international sales as well. When I found out about keyword padding I thought, “Hey, great! Maybe I can leverage my current rank to capture a few more readers!”

A more cautious soul might suggest that I should enjoy a strong rank for a while without fiddling around.

“The Awful Mess” is in two main fiction categories: contemporary women, and literary. My seven keywords at the time of the promotion were romance, American, general humor, dating and relationships, love story, suspense, divorce.

Divorce isn’t really a strong theme in the novel (unless you count the increasingly  problematic ex-husband), so I replaced that one with a padded keyword:

“progressive Christian novel about an Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town in New England during the time when openly gay Bishop Robinson was being elected.”

You can have up to 400 characters. What you can’t have is a comma. I could just list terms one after the other, but I’m a writer and English teacher and that felt like cheating, so I wrote it up as a (ridiculously long) keyword phrase instead.

I wanted to get “The Scarlet Letter” in without having to add it to my product description, where it would probably scare away everyone who remembered hating that book in high school. (Although a reviewer or two has noticed and mentioned the correction, that never makes it show up in Amazon searches on “The Scarlet Letter.”) EDIT: Turns out adding another title to your keyword is a violation of KDP policy. I’m not sure why this made it through. It may be because nobody would attach their book to “The Scarlet Letter” and expect to generate significant sales because of it. It’s not like putting in “Harry Potter.”

I wanted “Episcopal or Anglican” because the terms vary in the rest of the world, and the book should interest some folks who like to read fiction about Episcopal/Anglican priests (if they can stand the sex and irreverence — I’m no Jan Karon).

When I first published this book I actually used “Episcopal” as a keyword, but that’s a tiny, tiny market and thus not worth spending a whole keyword on — but here it’s just one of a whole bunch of little niches I can mention. Note also that although I have always had the words “Episcopal priest” in my product description, the book usually would not come up in searches on Amazon for that.

“Bishop Robinson” in that padded keyword phrase is a reference to the heated debate that was going on at the time and place this novel is set. Gene Robinson was the first openly-gay Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the United States — in New Hampshire. Gay rights are a sub-theme of the novel (the hero’s sister is a lesbian in a committed relationship, though her father the Evangelical doesn’t know it … yet).

And the result of this change? About 24 hours later in the UK my novel was immediately ranking in the top 100 for Christian women’s fiction and Gay & Lesbian fiction.

#9 in Christian in the UK

Unfortunately, this book is not what readers would expect in either category. AND these two markets are pretty much mutually exclusive.

In theory, this gave me added visibility. But it didn’t strike me as worth confusing and quite possibly offending my readers. My companions in the Christian women’s fiction category were largely Evangelical, and their readers might have little sympathy for my characters — sinners that they are — or, worse, the suggestion of liberal theology. Not to mention, my main character is an agnostic for 99.9 percent of the book and it’s debatable what exactly she is for the other 0.1 percent.

Meanwhile, someone looking for gay and lesbian fiction to likely to be pretty unexcited by what is predominantly (and pretty clearly described as) a heterosexual love story, though presumably the inclusive theology wouldn’t offend this audience.

Anyway, though it may be coincidental with a natural slide a month after my price promotion, sales that had been percolating along in the UK immediately slid a bit. But on the plus side, my book DID come up when I did a search on “The Scarlet Letter” and on “Episcopal priest fiction.”

I wanted to keep those, so I ran and changed my padded keyword again. I took out “progressive Christian” and “openly gay” and used something like this instead:

Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in small town New Hampshire in New England at time of election of Gene Robinson.

I decided to stick New Hampshire in there, too, since New England was working, and I used “Gene Robinson” because a search on that at Amazon had turned up a bunch of books that targeted Episcopalians … so why not? Of course, if I had thought the least bit carefully, I might have predicted that this change would result (about twenty-four hours later) in this:

geneticengineeringwtf

Yes, I was now writing science fiction about genetic engineering, thanks to Bishop “Gene” Robinson. And while Bishop Robinson may indeed have caused a revolution, it was not in human genetics.

Oops. Let’s try that again. Today, my seventh keyword reads:

“Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary version of “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town New Hampshire or small town New England at time of Bishop Robinson”

That could still use work (it’s clear I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote it). However, the categories are back to what they should be, and the book now come up in searches for “The Scarlet Letter” and “contemporary version of the Scarlet Letter.” It also comes up in searches for “Episcopal priest” and “Anglican priest.” (Faster if you add “adultery.”) It comes up in searches for “small town New England.” (Both novels do, actually.)

So, dear colleagues, I invite you to go for it. But please… be careful out there!

Update October 12: My sales at Amazon slid so abruptly after this post that I became paranoid they didn’t like me writing about keyword stuffing. But it’s probably just coincidental with me pulling back from some day-to-day marketing. So this technique is not a huge instant boon for sales, clearly, but it can help readers who are searching for something very specific find you. I would also think that if you write nonfiction, it might be absolutely invaluable.