You know how writers are…they create themselves as they create their work. Or perhaps they create their work in order to create themselves. ~ Orson Scott Card
Ten years ago I had an idea to write a book. The stories that swirled through my childhood about my great-grandmother, Grace, lifted into a single question, “Mom, what about Grandma Grace and Paul?”
She stopped and looked at me, the threads of time that bind past, present, and future tightened. “I don’t know,” she said, and smiled. “But, I’ve always wondered.”
I wrote a book to find out.
What I could not have known at the time was the journey that writing Meadowlark would take me on, how those threads of time would draw so close that the supposed distinctions between past, present, and future smudged together like pastels on a porous page, creating new colors with equal elements of each, until I’d lived in these blended spaces for so long they became my reality. I could not have known in that moment, that Grace’s life would ultimately save my own.
Meadowlark was the book that should never have been written. Too much happened in my life as I wrote. Too much upheaval, too much transition, too much pain. And yet, I couldn’t stop writing. Like Gretel following the bread crumbs, I stumbled through the forest of my life, focusing on that next bread crumb that Grace left for me so many years before.
Not long after I started writing Meadowlark, for the first time in any of their lives, Wyatt, Luke, Wynn, and I were apart every other week through shared custody. One friend describes the time separate from her kids, “like walking around missing a limb.” My own experience echoes the thoughts of Elizabeth Stone, when she wrote that to have a child was to “…forever have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It feels wholly unnatural to be apart from your children. Crippling, really. How does one function when your heart is beating elsewhere?
Well, initially one doesn’t, come to find out. I failed miserably at even minimal functioning when my kids and I were apart. The separation and thought of a future living like this felt unbearable. One night I called a wise, wise friend, Lynn, who’d lived this already, and said, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. There is no way in hell I can do this.”
“Yes, you can,” my wise, wise friend. “Use the time that you’re apart to create the best life possible for you all.”
In the terrifying and gut-lonely space created every other week when Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn left, I turned to Grace. When my mind and heart constricted into dark hardened kernels, Grace held each until they loosened through her story and expanded to allow air and light. I believed in Grace and her story, when I had lost all faith in my own. “Use the time that you’re apart to create the best life possible for you all,” sifted through the darkness. The night the kids left I crumbled, and the next morning I’d get up, hear Lynn’s words again, take Grace’s hand, and write—a concrete way to create a better life for us all.
Ten years of writing, editing, rejection after rejection from various publishing houses followed. I kept a now coffee-spattered, water-stained card with Winston Churchill’s quote above my desk, “Never, never, never give up.”
My literary agent and dear friend, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli, believed in Grace. “Dawn, the rejection letters all follow the same vein—’The writing is beautiful, the story is incredible, it is just not the market of our publishing house.’ It’s the prairie. They don’t seem to get the prairie.”
The prairie herself is a primary character of Meadowlark. Anyone who has lived within this landscape knows that it can be no other way. The prairie is a visceral experience who demands primacy through sheer force of personality. We continued to look for a publisher who understood her.
During this time, I wrote to my dear friend and award-winning author, Laurie Jameson, and asked if she might give the manuscript a glance and write a blurb that I could share with future publishers. Busy with her own writing, she graciously agreed. I bundled up the hard-copy manuscript and sent it off to Texas. That quick glance turned into Laurie dedicated herself to months of editing suggestions to lift Grace’s story. Laurie’s wise suggestions honed and shaped the story to its essence. It involved months of editing for me, usually sitting at the kitchen table with ear plugs and a scarf wrapped around my head, as now teenage Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn, my new husband, Noé, and our highly-exuberant German Shepherd, Clyde, moved around me. Editing again at this stage was as much fun as rolling naked through broken glass. I knew it my heart that it had to be done. I trusted Laurie and I trusted myself. And there were the glimpses of beauty in the process, when I found myself so caught up in the prairie that I would lift my eyes and be disoriented to find myself in the high-desert of Santa Fe.
I made Noé promise that if anything happened to me, if I was randomly hit by a bus, that he would somehow make sure this book one day saw the light of day. “What?!” he said. “Don’t even say that.” I meant it, and he promised.
I continued to look for publishers who might understand the prairie. I looked through the list of novels that had won the WILLA Award in my writing community Women Writing the West. Through this process, I found Pronghorn Press and submitted a query. Editor Annette Chaudet understands the prairie. Her own exquisite editing eye demanded two more rounds of intense editing and writing. These editing suggestions created scenes that I now cannot imagine the book without.
Yesterday I received a signed contract from Pronghorn Press and can now announce that Meadowlark will be published in June/July 2013. I sat holding the contract in my hand, staring at it, not saying anything. I didn’t trust myself. The book that should never have been written, rejected time and again by NYC publishing houses, will soon see the light of day. Noé and I raised our glasses to toast Meadowlark, Pronghorn Press, and life.
I love to read about writers’ histories with writing. I especially love those writers whose publishing career began in their 40’s, Madeleine L’Engle and Isabel Allende top the list. These stories gave me hope through the round after round of rejections. Madeleine L’Engle wrote of receiving a rejection on her 40th birthday, putting a towel over her typewriter, sure she should just give up, putting her head on the table to weep, only to realize that in her head she was writing a scene of a writer receiving a rejection. She threw the towel off and wrote, and didn’t stop writing for the next 50 years. Isabel Allende’s first novel The House of Spirits was published in her early 40s. It started as a letter to her grandfather who was dying and whom she could not visit, because she was living in exile outside of Chile. She wrote it in her closet, after her family went to sleep at night. I just celebrated my 45th birthday. In the fable of the tortoise and the hare of my writing life, I am in all ways the tortoise.
The first half of my life has been one of searching and surviving. As I enter the second half of my life, I fill with a sense of deep gratitude for the place where I now find myself, the elusive place I had given up hope to ever find. A place of family, stability, and home. A place of peace. A place where I can at last settle in deeply to love, live, and write. I feel at last there is traction under me, where for so long my wheels spun in the air.
One never knows what the future will bring. This is perhaps the one truth that life has taught me. So for now, I’ll just enjoy the moment. Yesterday evening after receiving the contract, Noé and I were each at work on our own projects. I had started this piece to share the news with you, and Noé was outside putting together some shelves for our garden tools. He said it was like someone tapped him gently on the shoulder, “Hey, what are you doing? This is a moment to celebrate!” The threads of time binding past, present, and future tightened again. I know that shoulder tap was Grace or Paul. Minutes later, Noé and I were dressed, and out the door. I dressed so quickly that after running gel through my hair, I realized it didn’t smell like it usually did. I looked at whatever tube I’d grabbed, and realized that I had just styled my hair with shaving gel.
The waiter at the restaurant asked what we were celebrating, and later surprised me with a gorgeous ice-cream dessert, complete with whipped cream, strawberries, and a candle to honor my book. We never know what life will bring. This moment that for so many years I thought might never come still feels somewhat unreal.
The sixteen-year-old bride who lived a century ago continues to take me by the hand. I’ll follow.
Thank you, Grace. For everything.
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