Collaborating with Ghosts

The seed of a story that takes place in a time that was, begins in our imagination, or does it?

My new novel began  somewhere in the midst of my imagination, a real life story from a family’s past — and the mystical things that can happen if we pay attention to what the ghosts are telling us.

I discovered historical fiction when I was eleven years old, lying on the living room floor reading the titles across my mother’s bookcase. Why I pulled out a novel called Raintree County, I really don’t know. It was a thousand-page book that began before and after the American Civil War. 

What drew me, I believe, was the scope and depth of a story beautifully told.

Now here I am, years and years later, listening to a time that was and writing the story  of the imaginary people who might have been there.

Here is my story of collaborating with ghosts, and writing a novel called With Every Goodbye We Learn.

What Happens When a Writer Listens to Her Character

Annie Dillard writes in The Writing Life that:

In writing, “The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.”

An apt metaphor, because not only does the writing dig a path to follow, it leaves behind clues that create deeper paths into the forest of characters, and which eventually come back to reveal deeper layers, sometimes even to the author who created the story. Thus the Boomerang Impact. Like being hit on the side of the head with an ‘aha”. Have you ever read a book, finished it thinking you knew exactly what the story told you, then picked it up years later and discovered more layers? This has happened to me as the author of Those We Left Behind.  

Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” finishes with these words:

But little by little
as you left their voices behind
the stars began to burn through
the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly recognized as your own.

As writers we need to step outside our skin as Colum McCann says: “the only way to expand our world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. 

Casey the protagonist, cannot inhabit an otherness because it’s much too frightening. Only in the safety of academe might she talk about deeper living.

Her journey throughout the story, like many of us,  is about finding her way in… into herself, that she may someday go back out and be in the world in a truthful way. 

A character in a book can speak on the page, and reveal the wisdom that is possible within all of us.

As I wrote her into life I called on old experiences of mine and shaped them in new ways and I let Casey lead the way. 

I knew some things about her: that she didn’t spend much time worrying about her wardrobe, that she had favourite students in her seminars… Rob, Anya. That she loved the solitude of her Irish cottage. 

Yet some of her deepest feelings about how it is to be in this world were revealed only  to her graduate students, and some of her  revelations have come back to me from readers speaking about what Casey brought to them. For example,when one her students expresses her thoughts about feeling safe in  Casey’s class, we read that:

Casey gave air and space to her words. She believed that spoken thoughts and responses needed time to establish their own significance, rather than being run over by too-hasty support or worse ill-considered questions.

Casey says: 

“We are often invisible and without sound in this world. Let’s listen to one another carefully and let’s see one another.”

She speaks out from the pages. I have discovered from listening to readers that she in some personal way speaks out to them in ways I might not have predicted.

When Casey awakens in her new bed in her Irish cottage where she has traveled to, to do some writing and sorting she writes into her journal:

“A sad note sits somewhere within, it sings of farewells of lives lived far away. I am aware from my skin to my heart how fragile and precious we all are. I need to experience the kind voice of another I want to be in the world visible and real”

Casey lit my imagination, she did so all through the story. Sometimes she surprised me, and sometimes irritated me, but I never lost sight of her. So it seems right that she is still speaking back to me.

Casey’s story is a layered one, because the truth of life is, it is layered and messy, and if I’m not writing about the messiness of it all – then I’m not doing what a writer-friend said to me once, “Just keep it honest.”

Here’s what Casey said about life, in the last paragraph  of her thesis as she told it to Andy Kingwood, the man who was her thesis advisor and her friend:

“There will come a time when you take back the moments, that were pure, those childlike moments. And you will know. You will know everything is a mystery and everything is connected-every event, every loss, every hope, every yearning and every joy. Nothing is superfluous. All is life. Bless it all.”

That’s my Casey.

Fierce Attention. The Gardener and the Author

The Gardener 

For some the word fierce is too…well… fierce.

Does it carry too much heat?

I can try fervent or impassioned. Maybe exquisite.

This morning, being in the world and in my garden, I was giving my exquisitely, fervent, fierce attention to a bounty of Shasta daisies. 

My thoughts, that had been collecting into doubtful shadows began to take on clearer colors. I walked through my garden intending to check for weeds and fading flowers, yet my attention was caught up in the greeting offered by the daisies. Recognitions of beauty and delicacy offered me a spacious moment of fierce attention, a place where I was fully present. 

Some days when I write, I experience an intensity that a gardener might as she walks among the scent of lilac bushes or the startling yellow of sunflowers. For me this morning, I paid heed to the white and yellow faces of the daisies. They woke me to this garden’s gentle beauty, and to my imagination.

Like waking to these blooms, ideas come to me in unexpected ways, stories reveal characters who take up residence and wait for my attention.

The Author

My father-in-law, whom I never met, was an Irish Home Child, 8 years old arriving at Montreal from Liverpool on a ship called Dominion. He became the unexpected seed of an idea as I imagined Martha McGrath, a 15 year-old who in my mind, arrived from Liverpool in 1913. If I hadn’t given attention to the story of my father-in-law, Martha McGrath might never have landed on the page. She inhabits my days now, the way Casey MacMillan did when I wrote the novel Those We Left Behind. 

The story unfolding in my new novel asks that I attend to the whirling unpredictability of a world about to enter World War One,  “The War to End All Wars.” 

Thus, as I paint the back story upon which my characters live their lives, I find myself transported back to a time, 1914 when events spun out of control. As can happen, paying attention to the history of the times, I experience what the world might have been like and what that world brought into the homes of a small Ontario, Canadian city where Martha finds herself in 1913.

Martha’s story needs my attention, my fierce attention as I begin to imagine how she speaks, how tall she might be, the quirks she brings to her story, and the quality of courage she reveals.  As I would do for a friend, I listen for the nuances of her life, and the substance of her inner life as well as the circumstances that color her place in time.

If you asked, as you might, what has the whimsicality of a Shasta daisy have to do with Martha McGrath and my chosen intent to write her story?

I’d answer: my need for fierce attention and fervent presence as an author and a gardener.

After the rain, I went back into the field of sunflowers.
It was cool, and I was anything but drowsy.
I walked slowly, and listened
to the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

Mary Oliver
from Sometimes.

“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

“Pay attention. Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
— Mary Oliver (from Sometimes in Red Bird)

One day, probably fifty years ago my mother told me the story of the day she left her farm home in the early 1920s, to go into nurse’s training. She was the oldest girl, expected to stay and take care of the farm, when her mother and father, my grandparents, no longer could. Something about the courage it must have taken to walk away from old expectations kindled stories of how that might have been. An old family tale has taken on new life for me. I imagined my mother setting out upon a new path in her life braving the displeasure of my grandmother, and a story emerged. Old memories have transformed into story and in my later life I have discovered the storyteller and the author within me.

An editor’s note in the May/June edition of Poets and Writers’ magazine sparked something in me, something unexpected. The editor wrote of memories he’d had of himself as a young boy on a farm in Wisconsin. I was moved by his recollection of those younger days, stories edged with details that were sensory driven from his past. Sights, sounds, texture.

Whatever touched me from his article inspired memories of my own past when I’d visited aunts, uncles and cousins in rural Ontario throughout my childhood. Yet there was something beyond the recognition of kindred experiences. A place within me carrying the seeds of my storied life, responded.

I remembered bits and pieces of tales told, of lives lived, as though I’d brought out old family albums and brushed away the dust from the covers.

I am uncovering stories I thought I’d left behind. Aging is opening a trove of accumulated life experiences, which grant me possibilities of being witness to my life. The writer who has taken up residence within, delights in memories of me the small child, no more than six years old, who’d lie in the grasses in the field just across the road from our house in town and give names to the clouds. Might it be that even then, the storyteller in me was garnering insights and images, feelings of elation and wonder — despair and sorrow.

Clearly the number of years I’ve lived has added colour and detail to stories that once seemed remote. Discovering and rediscovering the joy of writing has awakened narratives that once might have seemed old and a bit tattered.

Now the renewed energy of paying attention and uncovering the essence of old stories has given legs to the past and steadfast intention to the storyteller who is awakening within me.

What is your storyteller remembering?