The Advice Most Often Given to Writers: Write What You Know

The trouble with that advice is that a lot of thrillers, supernatural suspense novels and tales of horror would never be written if we followed it. I’ve written about killers, genetic experiments, financial empires, supernatural powers, espionage, the Middle East and other topics of which I have no personal experience. If I only wrote about what I know, the list would include idiots, self-absorbed and spineless jerks, nutcases, liars, and false friends.

Okay, so I could write political novels. As we all know, Washington is full of all of those type of characters.

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My friend and fellow author, Shelly Arkon, has lately been writing a  great deal about matters of faith on her blog. Shelly has spent the past few years studying both the Bible and the Torah and has learned a great deal. While bloggers are often warned about writing about matters of faith in a cheesy manner, Shelly’s posts are honest, from the heart and thought-provoking. I’ve done a lot of thinking myself. I’m a Christian, and I’ve experienced a great deal in my life that has confirmed my faith–but I still have more questions than answers. I’m by no means an expert, but still I want to write things that make people think and hopefully find a door opened to them that they haven’t seen before. So how to do it?

Fiction, mostly. In Chasing the Wind, I write about characters who also have more questions than answers: cynical FBI agents, an agnostic photojournalist, a Biblical archaeologist who has faith but challenges it, and an atheist who is called to be a prophet but still can’t believe what’s happening to him. I put them in situations where they get pushed to their limits and their faith (or lack of it) is tested. They witness miracles. They deal with loss and rise above it. And they face many of the same questions I’ve faced.

I always believed in God–but as the Bible says, even demons believe in God. They know He exists. Believing is not the same as putting one’s faith in God. I wasn’t able to do that completely for a long time. That door opened for me twenty-two years ago, on a dark night in which I felt more hopeless than I ever had. I went to bed that night, facing a situation for which there seemed to be no resolution. I prayed, more than I ever had before, and was still praying when I finally fell asleep. I was awakened the next morning by what first seemed to be just a ringing telephone, but in fact was God’s answer to my urgent prayers–the miracle I needed.

That miracle has led me to write my first work of nonfiction–a memoir that’s (finally) almost finished, Riding Out the Storm. It’s not easy to lay bare one’s soul for all to see, as my close friend William Kendall discovered with his most recent blog post. But sometimes, we need to write about the things that make us most vulnerable. Sometimes, as in William’s case, it’s a way to exorcise our personal demons in order to be free of them. It took tremendous courage for William to share the things he’d kept so private for so many years. For some, like Shelly, it’s a way to share our discoveries of faith…and to provide a warning of what’s ahead. For me, it’s hopefully a means to testify, to show others that anyone can–and will–change. And that it really is darkest just before dawn.

 

Excerpt from Sam’s Story: Saying Goodbye is Hard to Do

I don’t remember when it started, only that my legs and feet hurt–occasionally at first, then more frequently, then all the time. I could barely walk. Then, it was my wing. I was losing my feathers.

Sams Story

Then the tumor appeared. It wasn’t a big deal at first–at least I didn’t think so. Just a little bump, an ugly little bump. But it grew, and it grew fast.

“What is this thing?” I wondered aloud.

“It’s cancer,” Sam One said with a gravity in his voice that I found unsettling.

I swallowed hard. “Am I going to die?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I couldn’t take it all in. “How soon?” I wanted to know.

He hesitated.

“Come on–I need to know!” I pressured him.

“A few months,” he said finally.

“A few months? It’s not fair!” I cried.

“Hey…you got twenty-one years,” he reminded me. “That’s far more than most of us get.”

I realized how that must have sounded to him. “Sorry.”

“I would have liked more than nine years,” he confided. “I don’t know why I had to leave. Yes, I was jealous of Collin at first…but that would have passed. He’s a pretty terrific big bro.”

“Yeah, he is,” I agreed.

“You have family on the other side, too,” Sam One reminded me. “Some you haven’t met yet, like Scamp and Red.”

“Red?” I asked.

“She’s a chicken.”

“A chicken chicken?”

He looked at me. “There’s another kind?”

“Well…yeah.”

He shook his head. “This one was a little red hen who was a companion of Mom’s when she was a little girl,” he said. “You’ll like her.”

I was quiet for a little while. “Are you okay?” Sam One asked.

“I’m dying,” I said. “What do you think?”

*****

“So…we all go to Heaven?” I asked later.

“Of course,” Sam One answered. “We didn’t screw up the way humans did. We didn’t eat that apple–we didn’t even nibble on the core when Eve threw it down.”

“We?” I asked. “You were there?”

He gave me a light whack with his wing. “You know what I mean–we as in birds!”

“Ah…that we,” I said, nodding.

“We didn’t even nibble on the discarded core,” he said. “Some of us abide by the rules!”

“Unlike humans?”

“They’re supposed to be the smart ones, but really…when the Great Flood came, the humans didn’t take Noah seriously. The rest of us were all in line with our boarding passes.”

History Repeated Itself….

Dad needed to be needed. It was that simple.

He didn’t have any hobbies. He wasn’t into hunting or fishing, didn’t belong to a bowling team. He went to work every day and came straight home afterward. He didn’t go to a bar with the guys for a beer. If he wasn’t doing repairs around the house or yard work, after dinner he’d be watching TV.

The real problems began when he retired.

beerHe didn’t want to retire, but the housing market went soft in the seventies–Dad worked in construction. He designed and built houses. He made the decision to retire reluctantly. He didn’t handle it well. He started to drink. In spite of his own childhood, his resentment of his own father’s drinking and abuse, he would start drinking early in the day and drink until he fell asleep. When he woke, he was fine…until the next day, when the cycle repeated. He was like Jekyll and Hyde. Beer turned him into the monster.

He was never physically abusive, but the emotional abuse was bad enough. Mom threatened to leave him more than once, but I knew she never would. He knew it, too.

contractThe turning point came when I sold my first novel. He abruptly stopped drinking. No rehab, nothing. He just stopped. But he was like that. He could stop doing anything if he wanted to. He’d stopped smoking the same way. I think he wondered if we might abandon him once he no longer had that financial control he’d held over our heads.

That was when I started to change….

 

A Childhood Denied

Dad wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. For years, we’d had a relationship that was difficult at best, combative at its worst. Though we were in a good place when he died, there were still a lot of unresolved issues between us, many things that had been left unsaid. Questions to which I would never have answers.

Dad was, in an odd way, the reason I had succeeded as an author. He, unlike Mom, did not encourage me. He thought a career as a novelist was a long shot at best. He had advised me to get a job that offered some security. He didn’t realize that the “sure thing” didn’t exist. There are no sure things in this world. Every job has its own risks, and nothing lasts forever. He taught me that money was security. Money was power.

Dad 1914Dad loved Mom and me, though he didn’t have an easy time showing it. Whatever shortcomings he had as a father were the result of his lack of a role model to learn from. Unlike Mom, who had two good, loving parents, Dad’s father was a heavy drinker. His mother committed suicide when he was a baby, and his stepmother was abusive.  He didn’t have any warm, happy memories of his childhood, no recollections of Christmas or his birthday–until he had to get his birth certificate to apply for Social Security, he didn’t even know his correct birthdate. He’d always thought it was November 11th. It was actually November 14th.

Dad didn’t know the truth about his mother until he was fourteen. One day, he had remarked to one of his older brothers that their mother sure didn’t act like a mother. “She’s not our mother,” his brother told him. “Our mother’s dead.”

He ran away that same day. He slept in barns, sheds, anywhere he could find a place to lie down and escape the elements. He eventually ended up at his maternal grandmother’s home. When his father showed up to take him back, his grandmother stepped onto her front porch with a shotgun. She made it clear if he opened the gate, she’d shoot. She blamed him for her daughter’s death.

Dad's GrandmotherDad stayed with her until her death. He loved her dearly, and it was mutual. As she took care of him when he was young, he took care of her in her twilight years.

My father was sixteen at the start of the Great Depression. His troubled childhood, combined with the struggle to survive in that time, made him very controlling financially. But he would buy me just about anything I wanted–Mom liked to tell the story of the two of them Christmas shopping when I was five. They couldn’t decide which doll I’d like best, so they bought one of each.

“Your little girls are going to love these,” the woman at the checkout remarked.

“Girls?” Mom laughed. “We only have one.”

She said the woman was amazed. “All of this is for one child?”

I think that was the Christmas they discovered their little girl was a tomboy who loved horses and didn’t really care for dolls.

I was definitely a Daddy’s girl when I was young. He couldn’t leave the house, except to go to work, without me. It was when I grew up that problems arose. Mom said it was because we were so much alike that we always butted heads. While he’d indulged me as a child, as I grew older, I began to feel he was using money to control me…and I resented it. I got tired of hearing “Who paid for it?”

I decided that I would make so much money that the answer to that question would be ME. No one was going to control me. And that, I believe, was the beginning of my journey to my eventual downfall.