Even Apocalyptic Springs Are Precious To Us

It is March, and it is spring. Though it should not be. It is green when it should be white. It is wet when it should be ice. The world is awake and juicy and randy and alive, when it should be cold and chaste and dreaming.

This spring is all wrong. But oh! the green! And oh! the tender shoots! And oh! the swelling buds! And oh! Oh! Oh!

Spring does things to Minnesotans – secret things. We do not speak them out loud, but communicate them instead with impish eyes and tight lipped smiles and dark, deep silences. Spring has come early. And so it is early that we reveal our wintered skin. It is early that we run our fingers over seed catalogs and inhale the damp scent of peat moss and mushroom compost and lime. It is early that we sink our fingers into the cool dirt, rubbing the clay with our palms.

It is too, too early. And we are worried.

It is a strange feeling to be worried about spring and still be moved by spring. We are a cold-climate people. We understand the value of winter. We know what winter does. We know how to keep our families going with last year’s potatoes and squash and onions from the root cellar. We know how to make anything into a stew. We know the value of dried herbs and casked beer and braided strands of garlic stalks hung from the rafters. We know how to cheer ourselves with dried fish and hard cheese and honey straight from the pot. When spring comes early, our work is for naught. And when spring comes early, we worry about a killing heat and a merciless drought and next year’s harvest. 

We who live at the mercy of the weather are professional worriers.

Still, worried or not, there is something precious about spring.

The trees in my back yard are lousy with birds. A fat, bright cardinal is, even now, giving me the stink-eye. His beak is full of sticks and grass. He would like to build his nest on the ledge outside my desk window but he can’t – or won’t. I am, apparently cramping his style. How, really, can he put the moves on his ladyfriend when I’m sitting there, typing away like some kind of bird pervert. I’m an ornithological voyeur. 

Earlier today, I went running along Minnehaha Creek and around Lake Nokomis and the swampy lagoon on the other side of the bridge. (in shorts!) (without a jacket!) (a miracle!) I love that lagoon. The trail is lumpy and uneven and the mud is rank with life and animals abound. Today, it was almost like a children’s book. On my run I saw

  • One white egret, tiptoeing through the mud and
  • Two red winged black birds, bits of their house hanging from their mouths and
  • Three baby foxes, blinking their eyes and
  • Four loud mallards, fighting over a female and
  • Five small children, wrestling in the mud.

My window is open (in March!) and I am, even now, serenaded by birdsong. I will pray that next year we will be back to normal. I will pray for abundant rains and rational heat indexes and a summer free of crazy storms that destroy neighborhoods or forests or farms. I will pray that this strange spring is not a harbinger of certain doom. I will forget everything I know about global climate change and the irrevocable harm that my people have done to the planet.

And instead, I will treasure the spring. I will offer a toast to the courting birds who are, even now, opening their throats with songs of passion and sex and ardent love. I will raise my glass to them and sing their praises.

Because even if this is the early notes of the apocalypse, I’m glad the birds are getting lucky. Hell, maybe we all should do the same.

Right Writer, Wrong Book

Once, a long time ago, I wrote a book. A mystery novel called Little Girl Blue. I wrote that thing, and re-wrote it, and sliced it and diced it and took it apart and put it back together again. After much labor and effort and care, I wrote up a query letter and sent that baby into the world.

You will never read this book. Not ever. It’s not a bad book, not at all. I just read through it, and I’m still pretty proud of it. But it’s the wrong book. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Now, Little Girl Blue was not the first book that I started. There were other, sophomoric efforts that collapsed under their own weight, or shifted focus so wildly that they had the frenetic feel of seventeen novels crashing into one. These you will similarly never see. These I am not proud of. 

But LGB was different. It was the first book that I had written that was utterly and completely separate from me. It had legs and eyes and skin and hair. It had breath and hunger and thirst. It moved. And of course that’s interesting because it was the first time that I had drawn deeply from my own experience to create a fictional world. Prior to that, my main characters had been fifty year old women or aged ex-priests or drug dealers or Harley riders. My main characters were entirely not me. Indeed, fiction was my way of being not-me, of taking a break from my neurotic, complicated self. 

And, of course, I wrote a lot of crappy fiction. More stuff that you will not see.

In LGB, I wrote about a woman around my age, an ambivalent mother, wife, and teacher. And that ambivalence was crushing her. In writing this book I was trying to unpack an experience I had working at a school in Oregon that had, two years before I arrived, had Aryan Youth protests that got ugly. At this school, there were kids who were on lists, and I was told to memorize them. Kids who were known AY. Kids who were white supremicist sympathizers. Kids who were there when they should not have been. There were key words that I was to listen for and phrases that I was to report and behaviors that should be written up instantly.

At the time, I was twenty five, pregnant for the first time, married mid-way, and just barely getting by. I was in a time of transition, of saying goodbye to the life I thought I was living, and trying to embrace the life that I now had.  It took many years to be able to make sense of what happened that year – of what happened to me.

changed. And it wasn’t comfortable. The transition from single person to married person. Wonderful, sure, but uncomfortable. The transition from non-mother to mother. Uncomfortable. The realization that people can think and do terrible things - and that you’ll love them anyway. Uncomfortable. And the careful maneuvers in a closed society made crazy in its response to crazy things. Very, very, very uncomfortable.

So I explored this discomfort in the context and form of a mystery novel. I poured who I was then into the character of Abby Blue, and she, in turn, became entirely separate from me. And her story became her own story. And her book became real, true and alive.

I still really like it.

So I sent it out.

I wrote query letters and scattered them across the four winds.

I queried wildly, inappropriately, and with gusto, abandon and verve.

And I got a lot of rejections. And then I got a lot of requests to read the book. These were universally followed by another rejection. I got kind rejections and brusque rejections and impersonal rejections and form rejections that mask themselves as personalized but secretly are not. I read through my rejection notes like a medium reads tea leaves. 

I was addicted to my email. Obsessed. I would wake up three or four times a night to check if anything came. I was impossible to live with. 

Finally, an agent (I won’t give out her name, and honestly she likely doesn’t even remember her kindness to me. The best kind of kindness is that which is unaware of itself. The best kind of kindness spontaneously generates. This was the best kind of kindness) wrote me back. She was a known entity, both a mover and a shaker, and well regarded to be very good at what she does. She represented something called “up-market women’s fiction” which I still can’t entirely define (or even slightly define) but it seemed to me that Little Girl Blue qualified. I queried her. She wrote back and asked for the full manuscript. Two weeks later she wrote me back.

“I’ve read your manuscript three times,” she wrote, “and I really like it. But….”

(There’s always a “but”, I thought.)

“There’s a thought that keeps creeping in, and I can’t shake it. The more I read this book – and you really did a good job. The prose is tough and resilient, the characters intricately drawn, the pacing is heart-pounding. But with each page I find myself thinking, “Right writer; wrong book.” If this was your third or fourth book, I’d likely be able to find a home for it. But it’s not the book for you to come out of the gate with. Also, I feel that this isn’t the book you were meant  to write. Write me the right book. Then send it to me.”

I was telling somebody this story recently, and she said, “Oh, that must have been so hard to hear!” But the thing is, it wasn’t. I had been querying and requerying LGB  for months.  I had stopped writing. I had stopped reading. I stared at my computer, all dead-eyes and zombie skin. It was draining my soul away. The moment I read that, I felt a terrible weight lift from my body.

That letter set me free.

The next day I started The Mostly True Story of Jack. And that was the right book. 

My mother asks me from time to time if I’ll ever try again to get LGB published. Probably not, I tell her every time she asks. Because why waste time on the wrong book when the right one is spinning itself, even now on the scribbled notes on my desk, in the stories I tell my kids in the dark, in the quiet glow of my computer, in my wide, wild mind. I’ve learned how to find the right  book – for this writer at this moment.

And for you, dear readers, I hope for the same. I hope that you also encounter a kind person who will tell you if you’ve deviated from the path that you need to be on. The path that you are.  I hope that all of you, perhaps today, will be writing the right book. 

And I hope that I will get to read it.