To say that a writer’s life is full of surprises would be the hyperbole of my adult life. To say instead that writing consistently knocks me on my ass in the most wonderful and unpredictable ways and in doing so reminds me that, why yes, I think I do believe in some greater cosmic force in this life, might be a more appropriate statement.
Fifteen years ago, I took a trip toNew Orleanswith my dad to do some camp recruiting and also to enjoy that region of the country in all its pre-Katrina splendor. While we were there, we ate the most incredible foods, soaked in the rich culture, and spent a good deal of our time exploring our shared interest in photography, taking pictures that even now still decorate my walls with timeless intrigue and beauty. Dad and I loved travelling together whenever we had a chance, and I recall that particular trip being the most memorable because I was finally maturing enough, a junior in high school, to really participate in intelligent conversations with my dad on a peer-to-peer level.
On the airplane heading home from Louisiana while my dad read a book in the seat next to me, I pulled out my little spiral notebook I had packed with my homework and, as if by involuntary reflex or some divine guidance, began writing a story at the most furious pace, not stopping to think or decide what to write next; the words flowed in a frenzy from my fast-moving pen and when it was all done, I sat up and looked at the filled pages in disbelief, as if I hadn’t just written them myself that very moment. I had written a story—a rather good one if I do say so myself, relative at least to the kind of angsty, amateur schlop I tended to write at that nascent stage of my writerhood,—that seemed to come from nowhere. Unlike most of the other things I have written and continue to write, this story waltzed right into my head fully formed, and, before I could even anticipate how to write it, there it appeared on the page in front of me. The first line of that original draft read “Her name meant grace in a language she knew but never spoke.”
Over the years, I put that story into verse, took it out and put it back into prose, tried to lengthen it into a novel, and tried a variety of other tinkerings in my quest to “finish Grace.” Nothing really ever seemed quite right, and so I left it on my literary mental shelf to collect creative dust for the past seven or eight years.
And then two weeks ago as I was flying home to Milwaukee to spend the ten-year anniversary of my father’s death with my family, I was trying to work out some really pesky revisions by hand in my little notebook, waiting to reach the altitude where I could turn on my laptop. Leaning over that rickety tray table with pen to paper, “Grace” came back to me and wove herself into the scene I had been trying to fix for weeks. Of course some of the details and most of the storytelling had evolved into something more refined and appropriate to my novel, but the meat of the story was the same, and it fit perfectly. Grace had finally found her home.
Funny how ideas can live in a writer’s brain for so many years, lying dormant, or not, before finally emerging, transformed by time and thought, to breathe new life into an old project, or bring something time-honored to a new piece. I can’t say how or why it all works, and frankly I don’t want to know. Part of the power of this seemingly divine literary intervention is its mystery, and I’m not about to try fixing what sure aint broke. However it all works, I’ve decided that even though that original first line has long since dropped away, the title proved to be an aptly chosen one. And boy do I hope that the surprises will keep on coming.