Of Fathers, Sons, and Seasons: Reading Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD

The first good snow of the season on our Crepe Myrtle

I was weeping before 8:30 am. Not because of the cold and old pipes and our living room soaked, stripped, and drying now–like a child pulled from a furtive dip in the lake. No, I was weeping over a book about fathers and sons and the seasons of life–and wouldn’t you think my avid reader-cynicism could have borne me up better than that? Nope, there I was weeping, listening to the end of the story, as I trained my eyes on the winding roads that take me from my sons’ school to home and back, again and again.

Not a chance I could have held it together in the face of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, narrated by Tim Jerome of Broadway fame. From the cursory Goodreads summary: Gilead presents an “intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.”

I will admit right here that it took me this long to read anything by the matriarch of the Midwestern religious novel, and I’ll tell you why. I thought it would be not just “churchy”–an attribute Robinson has said did not define her background–but preachy. After reading (and weeping), I’d define the novel as “teachy” maybe, but only in the best way–as the narrative is presented as a sort of last will and testament from an elderly father, the Reverend John Ames, to the seven-year-old son he won’t get to see grow up. In short, it’s a quiet wonder of a book.

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A note on perseverance in writing…and everything else

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This is not an inspirational blog.

By that, I mean you will find no images and taglines here that you could use to make into a poster for your conference room. No cute kittens of mine will ever tell you to “hang in there”–or anywhere. (That’s my kid, above; my arms hurt just looking at him.) If I were to make such a poster, it might say, “Bitch a lot, and hope for sympathy–or at least free coffee.”

Still, I am not totally, cynically immune to pep-talks, or at least subtle reminders that bitching gets us nowhere, usually not even heard. But perseverance can get us writers, bloggers, and do-ers of all kinds off the starting block (or whatever tired motivational metaphor you prefer).

Call it perseverance. Call it stick-to-itivness. Call it sisu, if you’re in with the Finns. Please just don’t call it grit. (Am I the only one sick of that word? People: meet thesaurus; thesaurus meet people.)

All that’s to say, sometimes one (me) has to stop bitching and start working, which for this story writer looks like: composing, revising, editing, more editing; and lastly, the dreaded submitting.

The tale of my most recent story submission goes like this. (Here’s hoping it’s mildly inspirational.)

It was a story that I had to tell. While I generally enjoy a football field-sized writerly distance from the characters I explore in my fiction, this one hit much closer to home. Call it cheap therapy, but my mom was battling breast cancer and I was a 12-hour Greyhound bus ride away and English major-angsty. What to do with all that anger at the plain meanness and stupidity of cancer for targeting the one person who “got” me?

I wrote about it. I framed my confusion into a story about going home to be with the fictional her at the end and about how a cancer death–the coagulating of so many errant cells–made the fictional me dream of growing another kind of ball of cells, which would turn into a kid (or kids, as it turned out) of my own.

Like much fiction, there was truth in this story (along with much artifice). And it felt good to get my truth on the page, and then into the ether, and maybe even under the nose of a literary journal editor–or 58 (yep, I just counted).

Fast-forward a dozen years or more, and a much-revised version of this story will see the light. I received the glorious email with “acceptance” in the subject line a week after logging three rejections of other stories.

Some stories come easily; some take just a couple revisions before I’ve deemed them to be editor-ready. Not this story of my mom and me and breasts and death as beautiful as birth.

My story of writerly perseverance, by the numbers: revision No. 15; story title No. 3; 1,200 additional words since first draft, written for English 666 (no joke); and 1 fewer mention of the show, Friends, and also 9-layer dip, since that first draft (phew).

You get the gist. The story grew with me, and I with it, but I didn’t let it go–just like my little guy up there on the rock wall. I could have, but I didn’t.

More to come on my story’s new home, journal information, and issue launch.

Want more writerly advice? I’ve got a category for that.

Want to follow me on FB? Twitter? Let’s persevere together in all the social fun…

 

 

 

 

Me, my selves, and Mel Brooks

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, and personalities, and have them relate to other characters living with him.

Mel Brooks

Amen, Mel. (Ahem, with the addition of “her skin,” “her ability,” and “with her,” thank you very much.)

Ever have one of those weeks (or months) when you feel like you’re juggling too many balls–but also too many names, identities, and personalities? And not only on the page.

I am a creative writer (“dang it,” she pounds fist on desk), but I am also a writer and editor for modest pay universities and etc. It is this latter personality that lately has taken precedence over the former (because the fruits of this personality can buy actual fruit, or veggies, or ice cream from the truck that smartly parks itself at our neighborhood pool.)

Fear not, one of two looming work deadlines met, I am seeing the light. (Sometime, I’m going to see how many myriad scads of mixed metaphors I can cram into a single post!) Back to my creative endeavors I WILL BE (soon-ish).

In the meantime, I enjoy my work that allows me to pick the brains of academics young and seasoned and learn things I’d never come to on my own, like the powers of biofilms, the miracles of flexible solar cells, what rotorcraft even is. Really, I remind myself, it’s all creative, right? Who knows, maybe this work will create burgeoning new identities in my fiction.

I talked in my last post about list-making, reining in those cows. (Another metaphor gone awry.) I’m trying to be better about writing it all down, so I see what I must do, and what I AM DOING. (Sleeping past 8am, now that the kids are out of school, for one. Big, big win!)

Creative right now:

Reading: A Gentleman in Moscow (read me gush about it on my FB page.); next up, Warlight

Listening to: Above Us Only Sky, audio novel by my uber-talented author friend from my MFA program days, Michele Young-Stone

Submitting: yesterday, a travel-ish short story of mine set in India to the literary travel mag, Nowhere; agent query submissions coming soon (see next line)

Editing: that last 40 pages of my historical novel manuscript–woo to the hoo!

How’s your creative list looking? What are you reading, writing, loving right now? Let me know here or at FB.