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My first novel comes out in the fall. Written for a middle-grade audience, it’s a novel in verse that grew from the seed of a story about the German POWs who picked apples during World War II in what would become my grandfather’s orchard. 

The book, which takes place during one apple season — September until November of 1944 — will be released on September 12, 2023, nearly the same day that the story begins 79 years before. 

During the long months of querying publishers and collecting rejections, I held out hope for a fall book. I prayed that someone would be drawn to the story and understand it needed to be a fall release. 

I’m incredibly grateful that has happened, but now, I find myself occupying my spring months in a way quite like the way I’ve watched my dad and grandpa, apple farmers, spend their springs: hopeful, but nervous, powerless to do much more than wait out the tenuous weather. Weeks spent praying for just the right conditions in which the apple blossoms will bloom without being exposed to a late spring frost. These are tender months. 

Being in this in-between season has helped me to better understand a farmer’s reality: the helplessness of doing what you can with your hands, then standing by the window in the middle of a cold night, staring out into the darkness, and waiting, praying. It’s a season of hopefulness tinged with vulnerability, an awareness of how little is really in our control. 

In the spring, while keeping his eyes on the blossoms, my dad busies his hands by fixing equipment, mulching the tree limbs he pruned during the winter, trimming brush, and applying fertilizer. He does what he can. 

In these middle months, I also search for ways to distract myself from worrying: I might have a bit of final proofreading or an occasional question from the typesetter to answer. But mostly I feel distracted by figuring out what it means to “market” myself. I’m finding it difficult to keep my balance as my words get ready to enter the world, and I feel simultaneously terrified and excited to consider things like followers, likes, and reviews.

My publisher and I also have sent out advance reader copies and asked fellow authors and KidLit promoters if they might graciously consider reading, and then, if so moved, be willing to share a few words. The process of asking for endorsements has been humbling, but mostly encouraging. The writing community is, by and large, a kind, gentle, supportive bunch.

But I did receive one piece of critical feedback, and must admit it rocked me to my core. Within hours, I had managed to convince myself the entire book was a catastrophe and imagined spending September in hiding rather than promoting.

Frederick Buechner writes that “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I think I have too long idealized this idea of vocation, even as I have admired those words. Buechner’s quotation is one that at first glance appears idyllic, one we might see framed on a wall or posted online, the words set against a beautiful mountain backdrop.

In reality is that this place — where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet— is risky. It requires something of us; will make us feel exposed, vulnerable, and inadequate.  I know of no one who is in the business of attempting to address the world’s deep hunger who would say their work always feels easy or who never doubts whether it may even be possible. 

What Buechner’s  words are not quoted as much are those that build up to his  famous quotation on vocation. When, in Wishful Thinking, he says, “There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.” 

It was Good Friday when I read the difficult email that contained some critical feedback, and it wasn’t until I was in church Easter morning, three days later, that I finally felt some weight fall from my shoulders. Though I felt less no vulnerable and no less exposed, the melody of the music, the breaths that come more easily while singing, and the words of my pastor provided a space for my restless heart to settle. I also began to contemplate whether maybe I had begun to tie my work a little too closely to what others had to say about it. Maybe I had, as Beuchner warned, begun to become a bit too attentive to other kinds of  voices calling me, those voices of “Society, the Super-ego, or Self-Interest. 

That resurrection service was a reminder that my work can’t and won’t save me; that there is nothing more I need to do, prove, or succeed at in order to be loved. It was also a reminder that when we do the things we feel called to do, there is risk and heartache involved. 

And yet, that’s not a reason to stop. Because maybe, even if our sense of self needn’t be defined by our work, God still uses it to refine us. God still uses it to bring us some gladness,  and to feed others.

In several months, I’ll pick apples straight from the trees. As their sweetness fills my mouth, I’ll remember what they have survived to get there. I’ll remember those cold spring mornings, the transformation of the tender pink blossoms to the harvest of full fruit.  And I’ll remember that one’s vocation, whether it’s growing fruit, writing a novel, raising a child, or cleaning a kitchen — lies somewhere between need and gladness, somewhere between risk and being safely held in a story bigger than our own. 

Blossom photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
Orchard photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, releases in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at www.danavanderlugt.com and on Twitter @danavanderlugt.

8 Comments

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Such helpful words and images for the deep stirrings and fears that are difficult to identify, yet compel us nevertheless. This resonates with me, and I’m grateful you posted it.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    So good. New Paltz is surrounded by orchards, and it has a state college with a big education program. I hope your agent sends you here.

  • Nancy Boote says:

    Thank you for your encouraging, thoughtful words. I have wondered if I can survive the “writer’s world” of marketing myself and receiving words of criticism. Thank you for your honesty about the risks and the heartache involved. Now I just have to get to writing!!
    Blessings to you as your new book releases. Be blessed in the waiting as you anticipate delicious fruit ahead provided by the Master.

  • Jack says:

    Oh dearest Dana,
    How your voice sings—from the hymnal and the blues, ever such subtle variations heard in the heart.

    Your timing, sentence variations, and musical phrasings are seamlessly precise with the subject. Everything becomes content.

    Do not ever develop a thick skin or you will stop writing.

    One critic. That’s all it takes. I personally know your critic was wrong-headed, didn’t get it, needs empathy. However, it stings, always stings. Maybe that’s one reason Jesus lambasted the critics, the judgmental, the know-they’re-rights.

    However, ya know how when ya teach and there’s this one kid whose eyes roll or all but sleeps through class, who thinks it’s all stupid, and you get fixated on her/him. There are the other kids. And it’s as if they are ALL saying, “Hey! We’re here, too! We love this. And you. Uh, can we have your attention.

    And you are never marketing you. You are introducing Claire and Karl to those who DESERVE to meet them.

    After being at it for exactly 55 years, it still hurts, bad. But I know it will. And I know how to hurt, and why I go on.

  • Ruth says:

    Simply beautiful! Thank you!

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    This is exciting news, Dana! Proleptic Congrats on the book’s appearance! But yes, your feelings mirror that of many writers. I think it is Anne Lamott who said there are stages to writing a book. As you do it, you are sure this will be one of the best things the world will ever see. Then later you think that maybe it will be just OK. Then by the time you read the final galleys, you are convinced it is absolutely terrible and wish maybe it would never see the light of day! The truth is usually somewhere in between. When I published my first book, I sat back and waited for my world to change. And then . . . basically nothing happened! Life just went on. But I am also reminded of what no less than Frederick Buechner himself wrote back to me after I sent him a gushy fan letter in the 1990s: publishing books is like dropping the book into a deep well such that now and again, once in a while, you manage to hear an affirming splash from the depths. I hope you eventually get more than a few such splashes!

  • Sue Davis says:

    I’m looking forward to reading your book. I’m also a teacher. I grew up in upstate New York and have fond memories of picking apples and eating them right off the tree. Thank you.

  • Joel Slenk says:

    Congratulations! Enjoy this exciting chapter in ever changing arc of your career and life.

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