One of the main reasons I stepped so far outside my comfort zone to write “The Soul Hides in Shadows” was in the hope that I could wake a few more people up to the terrors they need to stand up against. People might have to be shown how terribly ugly things could get if we don’t wake up NOW and start taking some kind of action IMMEDIATELY. And if they still sit at home, don’t vote, don’t push back, then they are helping to kill off everything decent and healthy in the world and it would be their own children and grandchildren who would pay! Everything horrific and ugly their children fall victims to would be their own damned faults!
So, I just start a few “fictional” characters going, and then watch how they develop and reveal their own lives. Fully prepared to lose a few of them along the way, move scenes and chapters around, and head off to explore something they themselves find suddenly interesting.
Others can write however they will, but I personally don’t keep catalogs of notes detailing where so-and-so stood on some issue yesterday, because he might change his mind on that issue today. And because telling myself I already know what this guy is about might tend toward confining him in cubbyholes he might not want to stay in. There are many layers and twists through each of our lives and personalities, and if this cannot be said of those who live in books, then these book people have not come fully alive.
If I am not startled and thrilled every few chapters by a sudden blast of “Wow! I did NOT see THAT coming!”, then I don’t see how readers could continue to find these stories anywhere near as exciting and full of surprises as they have.
I thrill to going back from the beginning to rewrite everything because someone has just popped in who shakes everything loose. And when I reach the end of first draft, I’d only fool myself to pretend I know what the story is really about, or where it will most definitely be taking us.
Because the characters are just getting warmed up.
– Edward Fahey.
“There were times when his heart almost felt something.
“Something tiny and unassuming. Barely stirring. Times when his heart seemed almost to be knocking, if only very meekly, on those walls of numbness he had built up over the years.
“But mostly his life was this cubicle. His world and all hope had long ago gotten lost inside countless such cubicles. Eaten away by all this electrical buzzing and flickering, dissolved into the chemically sweetened air and this dull, aching drudgery. Drained by the stagnant, plodding lifelessness of life. By the tedious, skull-gritting monotony of days without purpose and nights with no dreams.
“Outside distant windows, far away at the other end of this vast cattle barn of an office, he heard that electronic bell again. Tolling on and on from a neighboring church. Calling sinners ever deeper into fear. Taunting them and driving their days forward through self-loathing. Through the crippling ugliness of their lives into the terror of what lies beyond.”
– Introduction of one of the characters in “The Soul Hides in Shadows.”
“[Hurricane] Andrew tore trees apart; drove their shrieking limbs past our walls. All around us, it shoved huge deciduous behemoths flat to the earth, or tore them out by the roots.
“I have never been able to say “No” to wonder. Wherever God stood naked, I wanted to crawl into the middle and gawk. Plus, I’d already lost everything I had built or wanted to live for when we’d left San Diego, and my marriage had become a long, aching death. I had nothing left. I had to touch God again at all costs….
“… I ripped open the door, then had to shove my full weight into closing it behind me. Slamming and bucking against harsh unseen walls, waging war for every step, I crushed both hands into the railing, fought my way downstairs, past a pool already choked with roofing and with life torn apart. I bucked and strained my way out onto the street, deeper into the dark, vile heart of a hurricane. Gnashing hard into the storm, I leaned into winds that pummeled and slammed me about like a machete.
“Inching and lunging across the intersection, where all but one streetlight had crashed to the pavement, I crushed my way through as that last light sparked and whipped overhead. Winds like that can drive a grain of rice through a concrete wall, so I wrenched a stop sign out of a tree and held it before me as a shield, slamming my way backward through an intersection of shattered glass and metal, out onto a golf course, where I screeched Hallelujahs no one could hear.
“In that open field, that raging, shrieking fury slammed and wrenched the sign into my chest. For the first time in a long time, “I thanked God and prayed for survival.
“I fought my way back home. The sign heaved at my face, sliced my hands open, and blasted away into the night.
“There was no one left there but me, God, and His mighty, undeniable power.”
– From “The Mourning After”, a novel by Edward Fahey:
I played like this many a long gray afternoon, thirsting for the world beyond windows. Neighbors shuffled by but didn’t wave back. Some guarded their children when they saw me, as though congenital defects and loneliness were contagious, even at a distance and through glass. Those were gentler years when folks went out of their ways to not notice, but I spent a lot of time yearning through the shades; I watched them pointing without pointing, shaking their heads, cupping their secrets into each other’s ears.
Hours stretched longer when I was a kid. I knew I might not make it through to adulthood, but hadn’t grasped the full implications of that. Something had gone horribly wrong at my birth, so my father would never have his little soldier, Mom would never have her home filled with tiny scampering joy, and we each clutched our guilt very privately.
I’d been walled in since birth. Over-protected to the point of emotional crippling. I’m just now discovering that along with home schooling me in math, history, and language skills, my mom slipped in lessons on the torturous enrichment of loving too much; lessons I’m sure she hadn’t intended….
… “Honey, your father could be home any minute,” Mom told me; startling me out of my distraction. “You can leave your animals where they are for now. Just clear off the ones near the table where your father will see them.”
After another pause, “Denis. – Honey. – Please?”
I got ready, but “Sergeant Carl” didn’t come home for a while. I washed up and changed to “fresh clothes for your father.” They were warm and smelled of ironing. I caressed them softly to my cheek as I turned back toward my mother, who was scurrying around at the other end of the hallway. Folding the ironing board up with a hoarse, friendly skraaack! Hiding baskets of folded clothes quickly in the closet. Smoothing the wrinkles out of her apron but then taking it off anyway, folding it neatly, and placing it in its drawer….
… Suddenly I felt as much as saw Mom snap to attention, slap on her best smile, and launch into a flurry of activity. Out in the driveway, Dad was belting out a robustly cadenced song about caissons rolling and field artillery. No longing for loved ones left behind; no reverence for the nation or its deity; just stampeding over the enemy with arrogant pride.
We heard the war song and knew where he’d been. We knew he’d come in smelling of cigarettes and beer. He marched to the vestibule, into the house, and slammed up against our alternate reality. I didn’t need to look up to watch his face and spirit sag, forced to once again acknowledge the son who would never be a hero. I knew he’d be staring at me as he greeted my Mom. Checking his disappointment at the door, stuffing his sense of loss into private pockets he thought we couldn’t poke into.
After a long moment of readjustment, of just standing there, putting World War II buddies back onto his own inner shelves, he stepped the rest of the way into our home and, as much as he could, into our lives. He turned away, eased his sample case down onto the floor of the closet so slowly that it didn’t make a sound. I heard the metallic scrape and clinkling as he dropped his coat onto a hanger. With his back to us both, he asked Mom, “How’s the boy?”
“Denis is fine,” Mom reminded him of my name. I knew she’d then offer me a wink and a smile. I tried to smile back, but my chin was too deeply buried in my neck. “We went to Africa today. We helped fight a war to free the slaves. Then our little man helped me make dinner.”
I really hadn’t. I’d only wanted to.
“That’s good, good,” Dad said. “I need to wash up.”
He stood there a moment after turning back around; a moment that felt long and heavy, like a gray rainy day. He was wearing his special salesman shoes. Orangeish brown wingtips. “Twenty-five-dollar Florsheims but worth every penny. A man’s gotta show he’s a man, that he’s got control of his world.” Looking down at them as we all stood unmoving, I could have spat out that long practiced defense, but it would only have left me feeling guilty and broken. I was holding him back.
There were dustings of peanut shell powder below his knees and two or three small spills or splashes, some crushed shell webbing in the cuffs Mom had ironed to perfect steak knife creases, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
Mom’s feet had changed from the stained tennis shoes that always reminded her she was “home with her favorite little fella,” to conservative, respectable pumps. Barely moving now, they shifted and rocked through their choppy, but timeworn, minimalist pas de none; like they wanted to run forward and pull back in the same instant.
Dad was home.
Caught up in moments like this, which lingered awkwardly, but passed all too quickly, I liked to imagine my father’s hand wavering, just above my head, almost ready to pat me.
But not quite.
After a time, I watched Mom’s knees buckle, felt her arm slipping around behind me, her hand hooking my far shoulder with a gentle Mom’s nudge, drawing me closer in to her. “Come on, Sweetie, get out of your father’s way. I’m sure he wants to go in and freshen up. He’s had a hard day.”
My father’s legs stood there, straight, strong and unyielding. He let out a sigh before he moved past us. I’m sure he never meant to make me feel small. He was a great man in his own way, a “pillar in our community,” The Levittown Times had called him. President of the local Kiwanis club, he led charity drives for other kids at Christmas. He was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, of The American Cancer Society, founder of this and that. He was away most nights doing good work. He spent so much time helping others that he was rarely home, so you had to give him points for altruism anyway. Everybody loved Sergeant Carl. I’m sure at moments like this he must have felt if I didn’t actually look up and see him sigh, I probably wouldn’t hear it either. He really didn’t want to hurt me.
At least I hope he gave things like that a little thought.
For the next twenty minutes or so I stood on the edge, between dining area and living room, watching Mom scurry back and forth between kitchen and table. My father lingered on his “throne.” Then I listened to him gargling away hours of waving mugs with his war buddies down at Clancy’s; counting on a stinging penitential rinse to make things right. Now was the time to put all that away, anchor into that courage, and do the right thing as head of the family.
Mom busied herself nestling steaming bowls and dishes into position as I stood around the corner of the fireplace, watching. After Dad had changed his shirt, he walked as proudly as he could back down the hall, to take his time-honored position at the head of the table. I climbed up onto my chair next, and then it was Mom’s turn in our little dinner ritual. Her job was to check my fingernails; a warm, friendly, but unnecessary rite since we both knew all the dirt was outside where I couldn’t get near it.
She placed my hands back beside my plate and nodded a smile toward my father, who’d been watching. Only then did he tell us, “Let’s say grace.” We folded our hands, closed our eyes, bowed our heads, and eavesdropped, as he spat the words out as though they left a sour taste in his mouth and he couldn’t wait to unload them. “Bless us Oh Lord in these thy gifts which of thy bounty we are about to receive through Christ our Lord Amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen.”
I waved my hands through the obligatory gestures, feeling there had to be more to God and spirit than that.
Belonging to discussion groups for fiction writers, one often comes across beginners asking each other how to come up with names for their characters. Should they just page through phonebooks? Should they ….?
– Seems to me it hardly matters what you call them early on. They often haven’t found and developed their depths and complexities throughout much of the first draft anyway. But once they have begun to discover and express themselves, some names will seem to express their specificities and complexities more than others would. Call them any name that comes to you as you are first developing the story. But after that it becomes a process of helping them to reveal their own names through whom and what they have become.
In “The Mourning After” I called the little boy Denis to show that the father may have been a war hero soldier, and demanded a man’s name for his child, but he also loved his wife, and yielded enough to let her spell it with one N (Thus letting it sound more sensitive, poetic, and maybe even a little Frenchified). – None of this was actually mentioned in the story, but a character’s name definitely has its effects on the moods of the tale, and on that character’s believability.
In “The Gardens of Ailana”, Marsha is first introduced as a bit of an insensitive lout and a truck driver. So I gave her a name that allowed other characters to nickname her Marsh, often a man’s name, thus referring to her manly qualities. But then, further into the story, people actually started to know her and like her, and at that point, Marsh became their nickname for someone they actually liked as a woman.
Artists must decide for themselves when their painting, or poem, or whatever is ready. My personal standards are that I will not release a novel until no word could be changed without losing some of its power and meaning within the story. Until each metaphor has layers; may refer backwards and forwards through several threads of the story; and is in no way cliched, boilerplate, or traditional (No blood red skies, or ideas hitting me like lightning, for example). And the book is also not ready if even a passing background character is left two-dimensional and under-developed. A part of each character’s richness then, would have led to them finding names that suit them.
One of my major challenges in writing theosophical novels for readers who don’t know they’re theosophists is that so many of our “spiritual” concepts fail to stand up to the rigors of most people’s lives. It is all well and good to have a select few esotericists, knowing some Sanskrit and New Agey kinds of phrases, paying a few bucks at our lecture halls so we can remind them that everything is Mayavic illusion. That in truth they themselves are God, and ultimately unassailable. I myself believe these things, and live accordingly.
Then they go home and buzz for a while on the poetic eloquence of such a philosophy until that starts to wear off and they need another hit at another uplifting metaphysical conference.
But what of the masses who aren’t in any way ready or willing to listen to, or build their lives around that? Do we just abandon them as unenlightened fools? Where is our compassion if we take that approach?
Obama makes health care affordable, sets limits in how much our insurance companies, credit cards, and health services can milk us for. Tells big industries to stop polluting our environs.
Our child has suffered horrible, debilitating illness for so very long, but now we can finally afford treatments, and medicines. We watch him getting better. Healing. Laughing. Playing.
Then along come the Republicans. They take our insurance away from us. Raise the costs of our medicines by multiples. Lower our incomes. Take meals away from poor school children. Tell heavy-handed polluters they can dump all the poisons they want to into our food, air, and water.
So then, what do I/we tell those parents? That there are no external enemies? There are no battles to fight; no evils to stand up to? Just be at peace with watching your child returning to his long and awful pain, to that crippling he was just beginning to climb out of? And what does that parent tell his kid? That this is all an illusion? “Just suck it up kid, and keep dying. You’ll get it together one of these lifetimes, and then all this will be behind you”?
Totalitarian dictators throw us out of our homes, drive us off of lands our families had farmed for generations. They buy up all water rights in the deserts as tribal families wither up and die by the thousands, and we should just ignore this? None of this is real?
I write from the knowing that there are different levels of reality, suffering, and coping; and that most people are doing their best to hang on with what they have. I try to offer them hope that there may be some Higher meaning, and deeper access to healing and growing beyond a lot this, but I do not essentially call them numbskulls; tell them this (and their dear child’s suffering) is all their fault for believing that any of this is reality.
For most of us suffering is very, very real. And so that is where I start my stories. I welcome other readers who already know some of these things, and maybe carry them in a little deeper; but I will not slam any doors on the hearts of these others.
As so often happens in my strange writing process, after weeks of distraction; of not thinking about the book at all; yesterday I started writing before the sun was up, or coffee was made. Whipped out a whole chapter of probably six or seven separate scenes in less than two hours. Now today, the whole story has slipped into a deeper level of knowing and connections than has (as far as I know, anyway) ever really been written about before. This is much as my experience was with Ailana, when I kept slipping into deeper and deeper gears. Bringing forth insights I myself had never learned or suspected.
One thing an early-on writer has to learn, is to be comfortable with and responsive to critique. When five people in a group tell you this chapter sucks; don’t snap back at them with, “Sure, but it gets better in another 6 or 7 chapters!”
Listen. – Thank them. – Consider.
They can look from a fresh perspective, and catch things that you might be too close to see.
But, you will also learn along the way that not everyone in a group of relative amateurs themselves, is going to catch everything, and there will be a few who seem to never understand much of anything.
Some will always want paragraphs chopped down to explosive missiles of passion, while others are more used to long composite paragraphs that I myself find impossible to wade through.
You may, once you have hit your full stride and power, feel comfortable telling a few of them, “Look. This isn’t a diner. I don’t take orders: ‘I’m gluten intolerant; he can’t do salt; she’s allergic to peanuts …’
“If what I offer is a salad bar, then No; I am not going to fry you up a cheesesteak!”