Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Writing, Teaching, Language, Landscape, Life


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Meadowlark – Publication Announcement

I Am Who They Were by Ashley Gilreath

I Am Who They Were by Ashley Gilreath

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

Grace and baby, circa 1911

Grace and baby, circa 1913

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.

Prairie

Prairie

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.

Writing with ear plugs and scarf.

Writing with ear plugs and scarf.

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.

A toast!

A toast!

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.

A surprise celebration.

A surprise celebration.

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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Meadowlark – The Veil Thins

Grace and baby, circa 1911

Grace and baby, circa 1911

And so continued the journey.

I wrote earlier how my novel Meadowlark began with a question that has lingered in our family for decades, a question that I wrote a book to answer. In the midst of writing Meadowlark, the story of my own life interrupted and, “The books about the prairie and notebooks remained shoved onto shelves and closed for the next number of years. Until one day, Grace whispered from the past to begin to write her story again. I had no idea that writing her story would save me.”

I dusted off the notebooks on the shelves and lifted the story threads once again.  What I didn’t realize at the time was how integral Grace would be in my navigation of the splintered constellation of my life . My new world completely foreign, I opened the notebooks and loosened the stiff pages pressed tightly together. The soft crackle of the pages releasing each other loosened something deep within me. Grace’s story became the bedrock island of my quicksand world. The more I delved into her life and experiences, the more the veil between our worlds thinned, until I learned to trust the unknown.

Ranch, Winter 2013

Ranch, Winter 2012

Wynn wearing the wedding dress of her great-great grandmother Grace.

Wynn wearing the wedding dress of her great-great grandmother Grace.

The thinning of this supposed separation continues. My family and I spent this Christmas with my parents on the ranch in South Dakota where Grace lived. One week before we arrived, a mysterious package arrived from our cousin, and Grace’s grandson, Kurt. Mom opened the package to find Grace’s wedding dress and riding jacket, in perfect condition. I describe Grace’s wedding dress in the novel as moss green. Our 13-year-old daughter, Wynn, tried on the dress and jacket. When she walked out, the air stilled.

We spent the next week in the house where Grace lived, on the land she walked and rode. Noé and I walked to the corrals and he stopped and looked around. “I feel Grace here,” he said.

I felt her everywhere—standing on the steps of the root cellar, looking out the window above the kitchen sink, and walking with long strides out to the corrals. I felt her most keenly in the moments I was deep in thought about something else and her presence appeared. Her bedroom is now our dining room. As we sat to eat Christmas dinner, I glanced at her shallow closet, now holding stacks of ceramic dishes and linens, I thought I saw the feint outline of dresses hanging from the pegs.

After we’d returned to Santa Fe, Mom called me, “Honey, there was a journal of Grandma Grace’s with the dress and jacket.”  A journal neither one of us had known existed. The first page of the journal reads, “Rapid City, January 2, 1907  My dear daughter, May your life be like footprints in the sand, Leave a mark, but not a stain. Your Mother.”

Grace's journal, pg 1

Grace’s journal, pg 1

Here are two pieces, written years ago, lifted directly from the Meadowlark manuscript:

“Tucked in the trunk, under her clothes and along with her books, was the journal bound in chocolate-brown leather that her mother had given her shortly before her death. Inside on the first page, in her exquisitely neat handwriting, her mother had written, “To Grace, A place to wrest to paper the many exciting and happy times you’re sure to have. I wish you a lifetime of love and joy. Your loving mother. July 30, 1910.”

“Grace looked at the floor. It was fitting. Wherever Mae went, she left her mark. No doubt about it. People know she’s been there. Me? I feel more like dust on the wind. I want to leave a mark that I have walked this earth, breathed this air, loved and cried here. I want to leave footprints.”

Author Julia Alvarez describes discovering historical facts she writes about in detail In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel based on the real lives of three sisters, Las Mariposas, who lived and died under dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez discovers these facts, which she writes about in minute detail, after the book had been published.

Paul Overacker

Paul Overacker

Meadowlark is work of fiction, founded on that lingering question I asked Mom as we folded laundry and Mom smiled, “I don’t know, but I’ve always wondered.”

Grace, Tom, and Paul, are main characters of the novel and based on my great-grandmother, great-grandfather, and the ranch foreman, became as much a part of my life as the living, breathing people surrounding me. They’ve never left the ranch. There are countless stories of their presence in the house and around the ranch headquarters. “I heard Paul walking in the bedroom above me again last night,” my dad called to tell me. “He had his boots on this time.” Isabel Allende writes of her relief after moving to a new house, to hear the spirit of her daughter, Paula, arranging the furniture above.

Grace and friends

Grace and friends

People joined Grace as I wrote. One day I lifted my head to see Mae Thingvold, doctor and girl homesteader from the East Coast, driving her buggy up over the horizon and chiming, “Grace! Grace, dear, fret not! I’m on my way!” Ike was not far behind and he never failed to make me laugh.  Then, Daisy Standing Horse slipped in silent as a shadow, and soon she and Grace were intent on their beading and sewing in front of the fire. As I came to know these women, their strength, resiliency, humor, and friendship guided me through the new terrain of my life.

When life felt too painful in my own turn of the century, I slid gratefully into Grace’s world. I raced bareback across the prairie, the wind on my face, the surge of the horses’s muscles beneath me, and  hooves pounding against the earth. I laughed with Mae and savored the way beads twinkled in the candlelight with Daisy. When the time came, I returned to my own world strengthened.

And, always the land. As I walked the prairie through the seasons, the rhythms of the plants, animals, wind, and weather seeped into me. The sun broke through the lead gray sky of winter and set the crystal beads of hoarfrost on the tree limbs sparkling in a million prisms. I marveled at this land’s ability to shift between darkness and light in a moment’s notice.

In writing Grace’s story, I gained faith in my own.

(Thank you to cousin Kurtis Gentry, for your generous spirit—for the treasures of Grace’s dress, jacket, journal, and photos of Grace & child and Paul. For thinning the veil.)

Open prairie, winter 2012.

Open prairie, winter 2012.

* * *

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Writing Meadowlark

The manuscript for “Meadowlark: A Novel.”

It all started with a question.

In 1911, my great-grandmother Grace came as an 16-year-old orphan bride to a sod hut on the prairie of western South Dakota where my family still ranches. My mom spent summers on the ranch as a child and I’d grown up hearing stories about Great-Grandma Grace, of her life, and of Paul. My own memories of Grandma Grace are of the feel of the paper-thin skin on her hands.

Grace, circa 1911 and the time of her marriage.

In Mom’s stories, her grandmother, Grace, came alive as a young woman – one who worked hard every day of her life, made sure my mom got the first weekly bath in the tin tub with one inch of water on Saturday nights, so all would be clean for church on Sunday. The line-up for water began with my mom, then Grandma Grace, then my Uncle Jim, and finally, once the water was cold and had seen three bodies already, Paul bathed.

There are not many stories of kindnesses that happened on the ranch in my mother’s childhood. Almost all center around Paul, the ranch foreman. In the summers of my mother’s youth on the ranch, it was the four of them: Mom, Jim, Grace, and Paul.

Again and again I heard the stories – of what happened on Grace’s wedding day after she climbed into the buckboard with her new husband, and of Paul galloping his horse over the rise and toward the ranch house shouting something nobody could hear and all ran outside as he raced toward the ranch to finally make out the words, “Skunks! Skunks!” and see his smile. Paul made Grandma Grace and my mom and uncle smile and laugh in a world that held precious little of either.

Abandoned shanty near the ranch.

One day years after first hearing these stories, Mom and I stood above the bed folding the mountain of clothes that came with my three young children, in the same ranch house where Grace and Paul had lived all those years. I had a sudden thought. “Mom, what about Grace and Paul?”

“I don’t know.” A slow smile spread across her face,”But, I’ve always wondered.”

I wrote a book to find out.

* * *

The stories I knew formed the cradle into which I started to place research and information gathered about the time and place of Grace’s life. I drove to every historical museum and bookstore I knew of and the piles of original journals, books written by pioneer women, stories and experiences of Lakota women, and cowboy journals grew on the shelves of my house, each filled with sticky notes and my own markings. Slowly, the stories I’d heard began to gain the context of history and place. I scribbled notes, stories, and observations about the landscape in notebooks. Through the seasons, the heat and storms of summer, cool bite of fall, the hoarfrost of winter, and capriciousness of spring on the plains, I walked the land and listened.

And then Grace’s story was interrupted by my own. My marriage ended and the intensity of the chapter of my own life took over. The books about the prairie and notebooks remained shoved onto shelves and closed for the next number of years. Until one day, Grace whispered from the past to begin to write her story again.

I had no idea that writing her story would save me.

Sunset light

Summer clouds.

* * *

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Early morning editing

I took this photo a few days ago as I was editing the manuscript for my novel, Meadowlark. What I remember is lifting my eyes and a moment of surprise not to see the prairie of western South Dakota out the window. This is what I saw. Early morning editing

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