On Truthful Stories

Our lives are seasoned with sayings and quotes that people have shared along the way, and they may have a greater influence than we realize. At a recent book club meeting to discuss my novel, The Truthful Story, I was asked where the title came from, and I explained how my grandmother always used to say those words in a very convincing, hushed tone as if you were the lucky one who gets to hear what comes next. She’d say to me “Now, the truthful story is…,” using that phrase to prepare me for a story or perspective that needed to be told, and in her case, a “truthful story” didn’t mean proven, scientific facts as seen by the naked eye, but rather something that far surpasses that human outcry for validation. The truthful story resonates deep within you in a way that needs no defense or explanation. It defies our struggle to apply common sense and celebrates natural instinct and insight. The truthful story exists for the pure purpose of escorting in something below the surface, and it’s different from other stories. As the character of 11-year-old Genevieve says in the novel, “You’ll recognize it because it has a special message inside of it, and if you listen close, you’ll find out what it really means. If you use its special powers, the words will jump out from the story and land inside of you and live there forever.”

Having said that, I’ve noticed that many writers and artists of all kinds are driven by their ‘truthful stories”. Sometimes we as observers or readers don’t know right away all that the painting or the sculpture or the film or the novel is showing us. But you know when it hits you as something powerful because you can’t shake it, and you keep coming back to it over and over, and each time you do, you take more and more from it. It really does live on inside of you forever. That’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” did for me. My now adult children remember me quoting often from Emerson, and I started doing that early, when they were too young to understand what it meant. Somehow, though, just by the way I delivered this message to them, they knew it was important. Tucking them into bed, I would place their hands on their hearts and say, “Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” I would feel their little hearts beating fast, and I would whisper in their ears a truthful story. Trust yourself, your mind, your heart, your feelings. That is what you are made of, and you are not like anyone else in the entire world. Have the courage to be the best you you can be. No one can do it better.

When I wrote The Truthful Story, I was reminded of the enormous impact that writers and artists have had on me, and the messages they have delivered to my heart—messages no one will ever be able to touch or see. And that is perfectly fine with me. In my book, after young Genevieve reads The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, she asks her father about a particular passage that has been underlined. It says, “Here is my secret. It is very simple; It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Genevieve’s father explains to her what he thinks it means,  “…and he said it was like how he loved me. ‘You can’t see love,’ he said, ‘but you can feel it, and you can’t live without it.’ ” And Genevieve knew exactly what he meant.

The Third Christmas

This is the third Christmas. My father’s birthday is on Christmas Eve, and this will be the third Christmas without him. When we lost him a couple of years ago, I wondered how I was going to feel on that perfect, magical Christmas Eve night— the one where my father had always felt a personal responsibility (given that it was his birthday and all) to escort in the best day of the year for our entire family.  All nine of his siblings, my three brothers and I, and all the children that would continue to spin off from that incredible nucleus benefited from his simple, generous joy. I wondered…would I ever be able to sing “O Holy Night” without crying? Would I be able to go to Midnight Mass without him standing next to me…a tall, big man squeezing my hand after Communion to remind me that he is filled to the brim with prayers and gratitude? Would I ever again be able to go to the dollar store and notice how many stocking gifts you can get for ten dollars…enough so that every child in my father’s big family could have a little something special from Santa? Could I ever drive past an “all you can eat” sign in little southern towns without wondering if he had discovered this big find? Could I ever again bear to hear the saved Christmas voicemail on my phone that said “…before I take my nap, Angel Baby, I just want to say that I sure do love you.” And what about setting up the little tabletop Christmas tree that I gave him in 1978? He would proudly put it on his desk every year and say that it was a miracle the lights still worked after all that time. Six months before my father died, he wrapped it up special— in a black trash bag tied with a red ribbon. He gave it to my son and told him that little tree had come at a time in his life when he most needed it and that it had made him very happy.  

Regardless of the type of loss we have experienced in our lifetime, during the holidays, I think we often find ourselves thinking about who’s not with us, and it can sometimes be a struggle to cope. Being able to pull joy out of loss is important, and we need to figure out how to do it. I look back to 2007 when my mother died, and I clearly see a daughter who struggled with that loss and even experienced a type of denial for quite awhile. I was afraid to feel what I needed to feel because I didn’t think I could bear the pain. I knew that my mother absolutely lived for Christmas, planning details and making gift lists all year long, the excitement starting to build in August and rippling through all of us, whether we were ready or not. Even on Christmas morning, when she came to stay at our house, it was never our children that got up first. It was always my mother… pacing in the hallway outside our bedroom doors at 5am and noisily shutting kitchen cabinets and setting heavy coffee cups on the counter. For some reason, it took me until the third Christmas after she died to really feel her almost childlike joy. When she was alive, I had observed that joy in her, but on the third Christmas, I knew I had it too. I knew because I could hardly sleep at all that Christmas Eve. I got up earlier than ever Christmas morning and put on all the lights and lit the fireplace and turned up the Christmas music. Then, I “accidentally” slammed a few kitchen cabinets.

Now it’s the third Christmas again. I don’t know what it is about the third Christmas, but it’s just my personal journey, I guess. Regardless, I know something special has happened to me again. Today, I put on Johnny Mathis singing “O Holy Night”, and I sang along, and except for falling short of a few high notes, I made it all the way through. Then, I played the voicemail from my father, and I sensed him standing right next to me, and I felt strong. Even though two Christmases have gone by, I have yet to pass on my father’s Christmas tree to my son. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just wanted to hang onto it a little longer and look at those old timey lights and think about how much I missed him. But, today felt different. I took the little Christmas tree out and plugged it in. For the first time in 39 years, the lights didn’t work anymore. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I got on eBay and found the exact same strand of 20 lights and the tiny red and yellow satin balls and plastic silver star. I ordered them right away, and as soon as they come in, I will have a little tree that’s all spruced up with a whole new kind of joy—one that I can now pass on to my son in hopes that he, too, will discover new ways to pull joy out of loss.

It’s Christmas, and for those experiencing some sort of loss—one from ten years ago or last year or even last month or yesterday—I don’t know when it is that you realize you have finally captured the joy you had with that person and can now put it in the right place with the right perspective. I don’t know how long it takes for you to own that joy all by yourself and then pass it on to someone else. But I do know it can happen, and it is the most peaceful place to be.  Recently, my son shared a special song with me called “Morning Light” by Josh Garrels. The chorus below serves as a reminder to all of us that even in dark times, you can find your light.

It's gonna be alright
Turn around and let back in the light
And joy will come
Like a bird in the morning sun
And all will be made well
Once again

 

Beautiful Distractions

After celebrating successful book launches in Greenville and Charleston, I breathed a satisfying sigh of relief and headed for my next stop—Beaufort and the Pat Conroy Literary Festival. I had it all planned out. After preparing for months for the book to come out, it was time for my reward—to get on Savannah Highway and drive away from all the distractions. Lately, everything to me was feeling like a distraction. There was always something pulling me away or diverting my attention from what I wanted to do most. I just wanted to sit somewhere quietly and feel inspired and write. I told my family I had a book signing in Beaufort, which was true, and I told them it was absolutely fine if they had other things on their busy schedules and couldn’t travel with me (really, it was fine). But, what I didn’t tell them was I simply needed to be by myself so that I could experience this new part of my journey without any distractions. I didn’t want to answer the phone or emails; I didn’t want to give any advice or share an opinion with anyone; I didn’t want to make any important decisions or look at the clock or the calendar. So, the plan was to step away from it all for a few glorious days, gather up some inspiration from Pat Conroy-land, and write.

From the minute I found out about the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, I knew I had to be there. It might not sound like Mecca to others—no wanderings though the romantic, winding streets and canals of Venice, no big cathedrals with ceiling masterpieces and Bach cantatas reaching out into the night air, no snowy climbs to the Alpine mountain peak to discover the meaning of life. My pilgrimage, my escape, my obsession was to get to the Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort and be with other writers and those celebrating his legacy. I adored Pat Conroy’s writing from the very beginning starting with The Boo and The Water is Wide and The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline, and I clung to the vivid late-night memories of Mike and I reading passages of his books aloud to each other. We were like that back then—lying in a pile of rumpled sheets with stacks of books around us that competed selfishly for our attention and not caring what time it was or what unrealistic expectation waited for us at daybreak.  We couldn’t be bothered with distractions. Mike and I had our individual favorite writers, but together we had Pat Conroy. We went willingly and knowingly into the places he took us, nodding our heads in recognition and somehow understanding the complicated, resolute pain and beauty and gratitude behind the words. The literary world, the Lowcountry, Mike and me… we all lost Pat Conroy last March, and it felt deeply personal. Still does. But I also understood his own words, which come from My Losing Season – a Memoir. “There is no teacher more discriminating or transforming than loss.” He was a great teacher and mentor to other writers, and even in our own losing season—the one where we lost Pat Conroy—we continue to learn from him and benefit from his bold insight and his abundant generosity. That was particularly evident to all of us attending the festival and visiting the new Pat Conroy Literary Center.

But something else also happened while I was there. I kept getting distracted. On the way to Beaufort, I stopped by my childhood home in the town of Hollywood. One country road led to another country road, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of Dora, the proud oak tree I loved as a child, the one by the river’s edge that my best friend and I would sit under while we sang songs, the one I would tell my secrets to, the one I ran to when my grandmother died, and the one who became a symbol of strength for me for years to come. When I touched her, I felt that same strength again.

I finally got to Beaufort, but when I did, I noticed it was interesting how the Spanish moss on the trees seemed thicker and hung lower here than it did in Charleston—so low that it touched the tops of the old tombstones in an historic cemetery downtown. So, I ended up walking through that cemetery and reading the names on the old, broken stones. “Tell me a story,” Pat might say to them, and then I said that famous quote of his out loud, and I felt a rush of their stories coming at me. That detour made me late to a festival panel discussion. The next day, I took my writing notebook to the waterfront park where I finally had that inspirational view I’d been looking for, but as I walked along the Beaufort River, a woman came up and asked if I was here for the festival. Sensing my search for inspiration was surely coming to a halt, I became immediately drawn to the vibrant spirit of this festival volunteer who had come from Atlanta to contribute her part in supporting the mission of the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Effortlessly, enthusiastically, she talked about Pat’s dedication to helping writers and his love of literature and how the Center would continue his work. She was a stranger and yet not a stranger at all.  And then, all of a sudden, after I met her, I felt like there were no strangers anywhere. I felt as if I knew them all, and at the book signings, we held other’s place in line, we sat at author luncheons together; we exchanged email addresses; we congratulated each other for writing a book, or being in the process of writing a book, or for just thinking about writing a book.

Before I left, I couldn’t help but get emotional. I saw the true depth of love on Cassandra King’s face when she spoke of Pat and when she stood on that porch of the Literary Center on opening night, looking out all of us standing under those twinkly white lights. At the closing, I looked into the eyes of Margaret Evans, and I saw the genuineness and kindness of a wonderful writer and editor, and I was grateful to her for extending it to me.  And then, on the last day, as I raced to get ready for the final author luncheon, I found Marguerite. I had learned she lived in Beaufort now, but with such busy schedules, the best we could do was meet quickly in the parking lot at Walgreens on my way to the event. That was good enough for us. After 47 years, I hugged my very first best friend, and it felt like yesterday, when we were sitting along the river’s edge under Dora singing Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” 

At the hotel, the last thing I packed was my empty notebook. While I was there, I never wrote a word. Thank you, Pat Conroy. Thank you for the beautiful distractions. 

Michael and Genevieve: Invisible Spaces

I had kind of a strange reaction when my first grandson was born. Understandably, there were a lot of emotions flooding me when I first saw him, but I didn’t expect fear and self-reflection would be in the mix. I remember thinking my background in early childhood education would surely give me the edge because I’d read what to do and understood important stuff like developmental milestones and how to communicate effectively with young children. I was really going to shine in the world of “grandmotherhood.” But the reality hit me hard—not when I looked into his eyes for the first time—but when he looked into mine. I don’t care what the child development experts say about what newborns can and can’t see. Michael looked straight into my eyes, and he saw who I really was the minute we met. What I know now is that he understood the invisible space. He was way ahead of me, and I could join him there or I could stay in my pre-defined world.

Soon after that, I started writing The Truthful Story. For me, the most powerful part of writing this book was being able to find and then settle comfortably into the invisible spaces. Of course, like all of us, I know that many kinds of gaps exist—between generations, between races, between people and nature, and even between life and death, but those obvious differences are not what I’m talking about. Writing this book allowed me to discover and live in neglected, beautiful spaces, to honor them, and to hear what I needed to hear. In the book, those spaces are not defined by what’s different between Genny and Nannie, who is no longer physically with her; it’s not about what is different between Dora, the oak tree and the child who sits into the pocket of her trunk; it isn’t what’s different between Daduh, the black housekeeper and the white family she cares for; it’s not what’s different between the silent Marylou in her wheelchair and those walking noisily around her. The differences are not what matter. The invisible space is defined by the ease of generosity that flows between those differences, that moment and that world where nothing matters except what you can give to each other that lifts each other up, that shines a light on what is right and true between you, and that defies all doubts and misunderstandings and expectations. The meaningfulness of that space cannot be diluted by judgment or science or demands for proof or someone else’s expectations. It is where you see, with great clarity, the gift the other has to give and genuinely respect and accept it. It is also where you will recognize what your gift is and how to give it.

Michael and I understand the invisible space we have, and we thrive there. When we first met after he was born and he looked at me, my fear was that I really couldn’t be the grandmother in the storybooks that I thought he needed. I realized I could stay in that fear by myself, or I could be brave and go into that invisible space Michael was inviting me into—the one so obvious, but also somewhat intimidating, between us. I remember the very second I decided to go there. As a newborn, with nothing in the way except a thin, blue-striped blanket, he was the purest example of genuineness. All he was asking of me was that I be the same. He didn’t need me to be someone else. He needed me to be true to myself, and I knew I could do that. I would write the book I had always dreamed of writing, and with Michael and Genevieve’s help, I was going to learn a lot about invisible spaces and the gifts inside of them.  

The Importance of Friday Night Storytelling

One Friday night in 1977 in a small, nearly empty apartment outside of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, my husband and I sat at a card table with two candles, a bottle of wine we couldn’t afford, and the strangely comforting hollowness of our voices bouncing off bare walls. Little did we know we were embarking on twenty-seven years of military life, moving from place to place, creating a new space for us in that world as a couple and a family. But Mike and I really didn’t think too hard about all that then. All we wanted to talk about was writing and the stories that were begging to get out of our heads. We knew after living in our English major bubbles in college, we couldn’t just go to some cabin in the mountains and become writers and expect to survive, but we also knew we couldn’t survive without being writers. So, we did what we needed to do. We began our own tradition of Friday night storytelling.

One simple memory would always kick off these nights and stir up all kinds of emotions and embellishments and eventually graduate to paper. Usually, mine landed in a spiral notebook I kept in a bag in my closet. I’d take it out and write so fast, I could barely read my handwriting later. During this one Friday night in 1977, I told Mike about the stairway bannister in my grandmother’s house. I described what it was like to stand there as a child, my small hand on the dark polished wood of this strong, sturdy bannister, as I went up from or down to a particular event in that old house. Eventually, those particular events themselves began to unfold into singular stories and take on a life of their own. The bannister, though, was a big trigger for those stories– what I call the memory point. The memory point is something you have to actually touch in your mind, and when you do, it unlocks many different stories. For me, as soon as I touched that bannister in my memory, multiple stories from my past spilled out, and I was able to experience feelings I had forgotten or never knew I had.

With each story I told, I felt a sense of relief, and the validation I received during storytelling sent me flying to my spiral notebook to write it down. And every time I wrote it down, I felt grounded and in charge. I summoned the courage to add other dimensions that weren’t necessarily there in the beginning. I could fill in voids and create the happy endings that might not exist. I could add people to do what I wanted them to do, to mean what I wanted them to mean. I was in total control, and the writing took off in different directions that I never saw coming. Starting with a memory point became an integral part of my writing process and was especially critical for The Truthful Story.

Over the years, our real life responsibilities mounted, and the nomadic lifestyle of a military family made it challenging to hang onto our dreams to become writers. So, we incorporated writing into our jobs and our everyday lives every chance we got. Even at our lowest point when we learned our little girl had a brain tumor and needed brain surgery, we memorized every paralyzing moment leading up to the verdict that she was going to be okay. Being who we were, we had no choice but to document the experience as only we could and to tell each other over and over again the story we’d been through. Today, when we tell that story, it always starts with us daring to touch the memory point— two identical gray vinyl chairs in the corner of a small waiting room in a New York City hospital— just as the sun was setting.

So, after 1977, every time the Army sent our family to a new place to live, we didn’t really mind that we’d never been there before and didn’t know what was ahead. We didn’t mind waiting for our dining room table and the other furniture to arrive or to hang our collection of pictures on the bare walls. Instead, we would just set up a card table, light our candles for Friday night dinner, and when we heard our own voices and the storytelling began, we knew we were home. And then we’d write it down.

 

It's Time

My debut novel launches this October—words I dreamed of saying one day. I’ve been practicing saying them out loud lately, and they sound pretty good. This blog is for those who think it’s too late in life to write their first novel, for those who think they don’t have enough time to write their first novel, and for those who think that the many demanding priorities swirling around them overshadow the biggest dream they’ve ever had.

I can tell you that as a military spouse and one who made a career of serving military families and children for over 30 years, as a mother and a grandmother, and as an independent film producer—it was only at the busiest, most challenging intersection of all of these that I realized it was finally time to write my first novel, and I was going to do it my way. I was determined to take charge of its direction and its message. Maybe it was the driving, family entrepreneurial spirit in me—the one my father and all three of my brothers had. Maybe it was the Southern resiliency and pride I saw in my mother and grandmother. Maybe it was a desperate need to confront loss and fear. Or maybe it was the "lights on," surprising discovery of my inspiration. Whatever it was, I knew it had to be now, and it turned out to be the most joyful (and sometimes painful) and freeing experience I have ever had.

I hope you’ll join me as I share perspectives on my journey as an independent author (and filmmaker) and experience the launch of my first novel. I will write about what I've learned regarding the practical, business aspects of the process; I will talk about finding your personal sources of creativity and the inspiration that's at your fingertips; and I will focus on the military spouses and others who want to write but struggle to do so in an unpredictable, transient environment. Most of all, this blog is for those who think this is not the time to achieve their dream—because it is.