Sunday, April 14, 2019

On Writing Fiction and the Nonexistent Magic Wand

I am slowly working on my work of fiction, which is not yet epic or compelling or any other of those words found on the backs of novels. Basically, I write a chapter every two weeks for our Fictitious Five meetings. I've changed the beginning about four times. I still don't know how the mystery will get solved.

I also don't know how the main character will grow as a person and resolve her personal issues. I've often pondered what exactly it is that makes some people change and grow while others stay in the same patterns and habits for years on end. I've often wished for a magic wand that I could wave to instantly turn manipulators into honest, healthy people, freeloaders into humble repentant helpers, and shy wallflowers into freespirited friends.

Even with twenty-four years of pastor's wifing, I still haven't discovered a magic wand, not even for myself. All change in my own heart and habits has come from painful consequences, terribly hard work, and the slow dawning of truth.

It would seem that a fiction writer has the magic wand at her fingertips, and she can make the characters do anything she wants.

Carol pulled the heavy envelope out of her church mail slot. What in the world? Cautiously she opened it and pulled out a copy of Created to be His Helpmeet. What? How had anyone caught on how badly things were going with her and Phil? And whose bright idea was this book that she had already read twice? The shame of it--first, people finding out about their rocky marriage and then to be given this last-ditch-effort book. She looked at the floor, fighting tears.
Frieda Yoder came bustling by, fresh from telling the teen girls their skirts were too short and the pastor that his sermons were too long. "Oh Carol! I hope you aren't offended, but I just heard from Wilma how you and Phil had a big argument at Taco Bell the other day when you locked the keys in the car and I had such a concern for you. I thought that book might help!"
Flushing crimson with the agony of it all, Carol looked around for a way to escape and caught Dorcas Smucker's eye.
Dorcas came over, pulling her magic wand out of her purse.  "What's going on?"
Carol explained. Frieda kept interrupting.
Dorcas glared at Frieda. "Are you kidding me? How about you quit trying to run everyone else's life and work on your own for a little while! And your own marriage, while you're at it. Funny how you never talk about that."
Then Dorcas turned to Carol. "And you need to figure out that this shame and secrecy stuff is crazy. How about you be honest about things but also realize you're completely normal and it's ok to ask for help!"

Dorcas flicked the magic wand between the two women. A strange blue light flickered on their surprised faces.
Frieda started crying. "I'm so sorry. I've been so cruel, and it's all to cover up the fact that I don't feel God really loves me, ever since I lied about Pauline when I was 19 so John would date me and not her! And now we're married and he's miserable!"
Carol was smiling. "What? You mean I'm all forgiven and there's no more condemnation? And it's ok if people find out Phil is a jerk? And it's not all my fault? And I don't have to do everything people tell me I should??"
Frieda and Carol hugged each other and made plans to get together for coffee while Dorcas telescoped the wand back together, dropped it into her purse, and marched out the door, into the pleasant rain.

But if people change instantly, with no struggle, then there's no real story! Apparently that was God's idea, right from the start, and all our storytelling reflects that truth.

In between fiction deadlines I'm working on a few talks, organizing a one-day first-ever Western Anabaptist Writing Conference in August, sending advice to fledgling writers and also working on a how-to book for them, and planning another collection of articles.

In addition to all the normal tasks of living.

So that's why progress is slow. I tell myself it's a throwaway novel, the same way you [ought to] make a throwaway muslin when you try out a complicated new dress pattern.

One thing that surprises me is how many things you have to verify when you write fiction. In all my years of writing for the newspaper, I'd verify dates and details and quotes with the family, or ask Paul if it was organic oats or barley that he was bagging that week.

But fiction is different. Even though I'm writing about a family in Oregon, I can't pull all the content from my own life.

So I had a character recall how she worked on her dad's farm in Wisconsin back in the 1970s, and she was disking a soybean field with a John Deere 4020. If I worked only from my own life, it would be Minnesota, a cornfield, and a Farmall M. But that's for a memoir, not a novel, because I'm pretty sure nobody else in the Midwest used a Farmall in the 1970s.

But did they disk soybean fields? And was a 4020 typical for a mid-sized Mennonite farm?

It gets complicated. But sometimes the information you need arrives in unexpected ways, almost like you waved a magic wand and there it was.

Another part of the plot is that the 16-year-old is planning to serve at the Gospel Echoes banquet. Now I recall from our own children's experiences that serving at that banquet is a very big deal, and who you serve with is even bigger. But it's been a long time since my kids were part of that and I don't remember much except for the time Kevin K. offered Matt $100 if he would ask Erin on a date. Erin went home before Matt worked up the courage, so the story ended right there.

So how was I going to work some concrete details into a story?

My friend Ila invited the women at church to join her on Friday evening to crochet hats for charity. That sounded like fun, so I went.

My crocheting skills are rusty so I used a plastic "knitting" hoop with pegs instead. I sat at a table with Aunt Susie and a few other grandmas, and also four teenagers--Ila's two daughters and the two Mishler girls. Suddenly I realized the girls were talking about...serving at the Gospel Echoes banquet! And all the drama involved!

I whipped out my notebook. What a bonanza I had just lucked into.

Of course I explained my curiosity, and they were happy to oblige. "It's all about who you serve with," they said. "That's where alllll the drama is." They then told stories and described people in such delicious detail that I went home with sufficient material for the next chapter.

What a delightful surprise that was.

So, for everyone who's been asking:
Yes, I'm writing fiction.
Little by little.
Only for practice, at this point.
With a growth mindset.
You are not in my story.
But you might be, at the end of this week, if you served at the banquet.