Can You Be Shaken Off?

We have covered patio behind our office building known as the Smoking Deck, so named because it is frequently inhabited by the tobacco addicts who work in our non-smoking building. It’s a simple structure; metal lap roofing on a framework of steel “C” channels, supported by posts at one end and the building on the other. Not fancy, but functional—and even non-smokers appreciate it as a staging area perfect for gathering one’s nerve before bolting across the parking lot to your car on rainy days.

About five years ago, we  acquired some new tenants on the Smoking Deck. A tribe of Barn Swallows moved in and set up housekeeping, having found the inside of those steel “C” channels to be a perfectly wonderful place to nest. We didn’t mind at first. Most of our folks, both smoking and non-smoking, found the little family a charming addition—until the day someone mentioned the possible health ramifications of all those bird droppings collecting on the concrete deck. After enough people complained to outweigh the bird-lover vote, we decided to encourage our little friends to nest elsewhere the following spring by removing their little mud nests after they had been vacated.

bird2The following spring, the nests reappeared one day, in exactly the same locations, occupied by egg-sitting mama birds and guarded by a team of highly protective attack swallows. Over the protests of the anti-bird-poop coalition, I allowed the nests to remain until their purpose had been fulfilled and they were once again vacant. On that round of bird-bomb prevention, we installed heavy-gauge 1/4″ wire mesh over the open channels to prevent the birds from entering their nesting zone. Problem solved—or so I thought.

A year later, the Barn Swallows returned in force. One of the several resulting nests is pictured on the left. In exactly the same spots where they were born, the returnees built new mud nests using the 1/4″ wire mesh for support the way a plasterer uses wire lath. Birds three, humans zero.

No matter what we do, we can’t get rid of these blasted birds. After years of trying, I’ve officially surrendered. Those threatened by bird by-products are using either denial or a different door during bird season, and after the Barn Swallows complete their task and move on, we break out the pressure washer and thoroughly sanitize the concrete deck. It needs a little tar-and-nicotine scrub once in a while, anyway.

Shake, Rattle and Write.

The Barn Swallows remind me of the story of Elisha and Elijah in the Old Testament book of Second Kings.  The Prophet Elijah is about to be taken up into heaven, and Elisha is determined to be his successor. Elijah tried to shake him off three times, but each time Elisha stubbornly refused to be shaken. Three different groups of prophets tried to tell Elisha to give up, but he paid them no attention.

Moments away from being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah asked Elisha if he had any last-minute requests. Elisha upped the stakes by asking for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, to which Elijah replied, “Kid, do you have any idea what you’re asking for? You’re going to need a mighty big vision to get that.” (My paraphrase.)

Elisha still wouldn’t be shaken off, in spite of his mentor’s repeated attempts, his peer’s discouragement, and a goal grown larger than his wildest dreams. When his vision test came, he passed—and because he wouldn’t be shaken off, he became what he new God intended him to be all along: Elijah’s successor.

How does this apply to us as novelists? If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road to publication, it’s that there are plenty of opportunities to be shaken off. Rejections. Critics. Discouragement. The interminable wait for what could be the world’s slowest moving industry at times.  We think we’ve had a breakthrough, take a giant step forward, then stand there for months unable to move a single inch further.  I used to think that selling my first novel would end the shaking. I’ve spoken with enough published novelists—even best-selling authors—to know better now. For most authors, the shaking never ends.

If that’s the case, why do we keep on writing?

We’re Barn Swallows. We’re Elishas. We’re Novelists. We write because we have to, because we need to get these stories out of our heads and onto the page. Try all ytou want, we won’t be shaken off. This isn’t just what we choose to do, it’s what we must do.

Published or unpublished, old pro or neophyte, here is a simple test you can take once and for all to determine if you’re a true novelist: Try to stop. Go ahead, I dare you. Take a month off. Try to live one full month of your life without seeing a situation and thinking, “Hey, I can use that in a story.” See if you can live for one month without hearing a unique name and envisioning a character with that name. See if you can go for a month without waking up at night with a storyline in your head. See if you can watch a movie or TV program without brainstorming story ideas, or commenting on a character’s development, or seeing flaws in the plot that make it implausible. See if you can go a whole month without writing one single word of fiction, whether in your head on on a page.

If you can really quit—if you can be shaken off—then by all means quit. You’re not a Novelist. If you can do something else, then do it with all your might.

If, however, you can’t quit no matter how hard you try, then welcome to the family. You’re a Novelist, a victim of the writing disease called Novelism. There’s only one known treatment: Write, Rewrite, Repeat.

For the record: I tried to quit, and I didn’t last a full day. How about you?

Writer Coaster

Life is like a roller coaster–you’ve got your ups, you’ve got your downs, and just when you think you’re on a straight, level stretch, an unexpected curve throws you around a little. We have moments of anticipation as we climb the hill, and moments of either exhilaration or terror on the way back down.

The past couple of weeks have been a fine example of that roller coaster in action. First came the unexpected exhilaration of learning that I’m a finalist in the ACFW Genesis Contest (a national competition for unpublished novelists). The excitement came with a deadline: I had 48 hours to review the comments of the first-round judges and polish my entry before resubmitting for final round judging. Deadlines like this one are always adrenaline-laden thrill rides for me, and I honestly had a blast polishing and fine-tuning my entry.

Then, came a balancing heartbreak. Wookie, my long-time writing partner, creative consultant and quadruped muse, died.

WookieWookie has been a part of my writing life for eleven years. Back when the words “blog” and “Google” were not yet invented and I was sending out a daily email and playing with web site ideas, she provided many moments of inspiration and insight, not to mention stress relief–there’s great relaxation found in the purring of a kitten. She spent hours sitting on the back of my high-backed office chair, providing her creative services. Even in her old age, though terribly weak and frail, she provided consulting and therapeutic services from one of her favorite places of late, curled up on my lap between my belly and laptop.

I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I even knew she was in her final days. What I didn’t know was how it would affect me when I stepped out of the bedroom and found her lifeless, furry form stretched out on the floor in the middle of the upstairs hall. Deep inside, I knew she was gone before I ever went looking for her, when I arose to answer nature’s call and she didn’t come into the bathroom and demand that the water dish be freshened. She hadn’t been snuggled on the bed with us either, though there had always been times when she preferred a bit of space and napped in the hallway. When my bladder awakened me, before I ever climbed out of the bed, I sensed it. When I found her in the hall, a wave of peaceful sadness hit me, but not one of surprise.

What did surprise me is how difficult it’s been to write in the five days since Wookie’s death. I’ve been incredibly busy with day-job projects, which provided a convenient excuse, but even in those moments when I’ve tried with all my might to make the words appear on the pages, what little has come forth has been nothing more than bilge. I’ve had so much that I’ve needed to write–thank you notes to Genesis judges, blog postings, the other 80,000 words of the novel I’m working on currently–and I’ve barely been able to write emails.

I sit here writing this, and I can almost see Wookie’s frail frame climbing up the chair, pushing with gentle authority until I move my left had out of the way and let her through to her destination. I recall the way she took over my lap at will, even in the trembling weakness of her final days, settling gingerly into her spot, struggling against her discomfort, determined to hide it from my notice. The way she purred when she found just the right spot, and looked up at me with as much adoration as a cat could stand to express. We understood each other, and even on the last evening of her life she inspired me as we shared what would be our last such moment of closeness.

Writers often find healing in their craft, and I’ve found healing in writing this little blog entry. I’m sure it’s grammatically imperfect and rife with the wickedness of excessive adverbs and passive voice, not likely to win any contests or impress any publishing power brokers. But as I write these words and contemplate my empty lap, the tears I so desperately needed to shed have come forth. While Wookie would certainly offer critique and editorial input, I believe that she would approve. I know that tomorrow, when I open my laptop to write, the words will come again, and Wookie will join the gallery of faithful felines who’ve taken up residence in my heart over the years and took a sliver of my heart with them when they left.

Wookie, however, took more than a sliver–she took a whole slice.

And Then There Were Three

An incredibly encouraging sign appeared in my kitchen this morning. It was something I haven’t seen in a while, a phenomenon that spoke to me loud and clear about God’s grace and His passion for “healing the broken hearted and bandaging their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

As I doctored my coffee, Wookie asked for–in her usual demanding tone–a taste of half-and-half.

Well so what? Your cat asked for cream. Big deal!

Yes, it was a big deal. Wookie hasn’t asked for a drop in nine days. I gave her a little one morning a few days ago, and she didn’t waste it (she’s never met a dairy product that she doesn’t like), but she was rather half-hearted, as though drinking her cream out of obligation rather than desire. This morning’s demanding tone warmed my heart the way the bell on an ice cream truck warms the heart of a child.

BlondieYou see, nine days ago, we lost a dear friend and family member. Blondie, one of Wookie’s feline cohabitants, was sick and went to the kitty doctor for help… and she didn’t come home. Reading what I’ve just written, it strikes me how we humans tend to soften the reality of death with quaint little phrases like “passed away” or “at rest” or the ever-spiritual “gone home to be with Jesus.” But this is one of the ways in which cats are smarter than humans: Wookie knew, the minute I walked in the door (if not before), that her sister Blondie was dead. So did Tingy and Marconi.

Just like the affected humans, each of our three remaining felines grieved in their own way. Tingy paced around the spare room, where Blondie was hiding out when I went to take her to the vet. Marconi, strong man that he is, withdrew to his office (under the bed) and mourned in solitude. Wookie lost her taste for cream. I came home and quietly put the empty cat carrier away, sat in my favorite recliner (where Blondie was fond of joining me for lap-time), and wept in temporary solitude. It wasn’t long before Wookie and Tingy joined me, Wookie in my lap and Tingy on my chest, nose-to-nose.

Blondie was a gentle soul. She was rescued as a kitten by Helping Hands for Little Paws, our favorite animal rescue organization. She was one of only two who survived from a diseased colony of feral cats. She was a beautiful and elegant feline, one that I couldn’t even begin to imagine in the wild, though her instincts were strong. Her personality was quiet; she would sit with us in the same room for hours and could come and go undetected. Every now and then she would crave a little lap time, and climb whatever obstacle stood in her way to have her place in my lap. And then, when she was finished, she was finished, and she moved on.

Blondie spoke infrequently, and of course only when it served her purpose. Most mornings, she would appear in the kitchen as I prepared our morning coffee, and request her morning portion of cream in a gentle and unassuming voice. Being who I am, the only reason she ever had to ask twice was her own impatience. But she was a generous and giving soul, as well. You see, there are times when we don’t give Wookie cream because she… well, let’s just say she seems to have her moments of lactose intolerance. If we set a bowl of cream out for Blondie and not for Wookie, Blondie would have just a taste and leave the rest for her elder sister. I’ve seen days when Blondie didn’t even sniff at the bowl–she just gave Wookie the high sign and walked away.

I miss Blondie tremendously. It took me these nine days to come to the place where I could write this. But when Wookie came to me this morning and asked for cream, I knew this would be the day. Just as Wookie is finding healing from her broken heart, I am finding healing for mine. And yes, writing critics, I used passive voice there on purpose–we are finding, not have found. Because healing isn’t an event, it’s a journey.

See ya later, friend.

It’s a sad day for me, a day of mixed emotions and inner conflict. Today, the remains of one of my dearest friends in the world, Christopher Kota, will be laid to rest here in central Arkansas. I miss my friend, and that in itself is enough reason for sadness. My inner conflict stems from the fact that, as my family, friends, and church are celebrating Christopher’s life, I will be somewhere between Cincinatti and Ashville, North Carolina, my bountiful frame crammed into a far too small airplane seat, and my grieving heart still in Little Rock. I’ll be on my way to the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. The trip has been planned for nearly a year now, and it’s where I need to be . . . but still, I wish I could be with those who will be celebrating Christopher Kota’s life. His is a life worth celebrating.

Christopher KotaI’ve known Christopher for around five years now. Ours has been a wonderfully indefinable relationship; we bonded almost immediately, and even when separated by great distance he’s been close to my heart since the day we met at Parkway Place Baptist Church.

Christopher loved a good debate, and at times, we were nearly polar opposites on the issue of the moment. But, we had the sort of rare and delightful brotherhood where we could disagree in love without harming our friendship. We saw the world through the filter of our own life experience, and the paths that our lives took prior to our meeting were much different. Yet there was always a sense of unity in our diversity. We shared a common passion—the “wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all our sin,” to quote the old hymn.

And now, my friend Christopher, the dearest and best friend I have, is gone. The hole in my heart is so great that it defies description, and if you know me, you understand how very significant it must be to render me speechless.

The mourning of my heart today is overwhelming. Tears come easily, but my tears are not shed for Christopher. They are shed for nine year old David, who has lost his grandfather, his male role model, and his best buddy all at the same time. They are shed for Margaret, who has lost her husband, and for Manju, Sekhar (aka Bobby), and Jen, who have lost a father. Any my tears today are, selfishly, for me, and for all the rest of us who have no choice but to go on living in this world without Christopher Kota.

But I will not weep for Christopher Kota. Today, as we are learning to cope without him, he is dancing and rejoicing before God’s throne, free from all of the limitations of his earthly body, celebrating the one who gave him life, who sustained that life for 66 years, and who brought him safely home to live eternally in the presence of his Lord. How could I begrudge him that wondrous joy?

Proverbs 10:7 says that “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing,” and Christopher’s memory will certainly be a blessing to me. Even from the grave, his passion for the things of God challenges me to grow deeper in my spiritual walk. I will warmly remember his smile and his hearty laugh. But the most precious memory will be the delight of his hugs and his greeting whenever we would see each other. He would wrap his big arms around me in a warm embrace and say, “Oh, my God!” to thank God for our friendship. I will live the rest of my life in anticipation of the day when I will once again feel Christopher’s loving embrace, and hear him speak those words over my shoulder, “Oh, my God.” But on that day, Christopher Kota will be looking over my shoulder and speaking his thanks directly toward God’s throne.

I will not say goodbye, Christopher—I’ll see you later.

 BTW, Christopher’s family has set up a website so that his family and friends both here in the US and in his native land of India can share their thoughts and remembrances. Check it out at http://www.christopherkota.com/ .