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For the last forty days, I’ve had the enormous privilege of talking with people about my new novel: I’ve given author talks at libraries and presentations to auditoriums full of middle school students, spent cold afternoons bundled up for meet and greets at orchards and been interviewed inside a beautiful wine garden. Though marketed to a young audience, I believe, and have been told by many readers, the story is one for all ages.
When talking with younger readers, my favorite part of any visit is the Q&A at the end of my presentation. These unscripted moments, when I am ready for anything, challenge me to think in fresh ways about my book and simply make me smile. While adults often apologize to me for the more candid questions that kids aren’t afraid to ask, I assure them I welcome their honesty, and as a former eighth grade teacher, there is little that could t could offend or suprise me. The questions are what stick with me as I look back:
- “If I listen to the audiobook, will the ending be the same?”
- “Are you rich now?”
- “If you could live inside any book, which one would it be?”
- “Were your hands and wrists in pain after you finished writing?”
- “What’s your favorite kind of apple?”
- “When are they bringing out the donuts and cider?”
But the question I’ve been ruminating on most since it was asked is, “What do you do when you get stuck?”
In that on-the-spot moment, I took a few extra seconds of think time, and then realized that what helped most when I got stuck in my story was to stop trying to think too big or do too much at once, but to find one small scene to write. I might have gone back to my research, searching for just one bright image that gave me the spark to move me and my characters along.
I told the students that when things felt too overwhelming, I had to think smaller, more granular. I had to force myself to stop trying to do anything too big or impressive, and just focus on one tiny moment, one tiny scene.
It’s, of course, advice and practice I’ve gleaned from other wise writers and artists. I’ve had Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life on my desk for more than two decades, evidenced by the yellowed pages and tattered front cover which I signed with my maiden name as an undergrad in my first creative writing classes at Hope College. Lamott talks about giving herself short assignments, about the one inch picture frame she keeps on her desk as a reminder that all she has to do is write down as much as can be seen through a one-inch frame.
I’m now reading similar advice in Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, my newest writing guide. Underlined most recently is Shapiro’s story of her friend who wrote a beautiful novel by convincing herself she was just going to write a short, bad book: “It released her from her fear of failure. It’s a beautiful strategy. Anyone can write a short, bad book, right?”
But perhaps the biggest reason that question continues to reverberate in my head during this month of jubilation and celebration, is that I do feel a little stuck. As I stand in front of people, take questions, and am asked for writing advice, I feel a bit like an imposter because I’ve been having a very hard time getting any writing done.
“What do you do when you get stuck?” was such a refreshing question because it’s the opposite of the question I have come to dread, the question I receive the most: “What are you writing next? What is your next book? What else are you working on?”
Always asked with earnestness and kindness, I know the “What’s next” question carries nothing but good intention. It’s asked by supportive readers and friends who are already excited to read my next novel, who believe I have more in me.
But right now, reeling from finishing one book, working a full-time job, trying to keep three teenage boys fed, it overwhelms me. It’s a reminder that I’m not hundreds of pages into my next project. A reminder that I did not not spend the summer working on new material, but worried too much as I anxiously prepped and prepared for this novel’s release.
And yet, I know the best thing I can do with honest questions is be honest right back. I can link those two questions —“What’s next?” and “What about when you’re stuck?” by remembering: start small.
My friend and poetry professor Jack Ridl recently introduced me to folk singer and artist Carrie Newcomer, and I was instantly swept away, not just by her voice and lyrics, but by the last photo she posted on Instagram: a “one inch photo” of a fall leaf. A common practice in her posting, earlier this summer, Carrie posted a collage of one-inch photos and wrote of her discouragement of the dire news of the week, the hatred and injustice that were overwhelming her. A portion of her caption read: “In times when so much does not make sense, I often ground myself in the things that do make sense. On a week of tough news, I head out to the garden or into the woods. I take close up photos of things that are growing and beautiful. A drop of dew on a lush green leaf makes sense.”
Going smaller or looking lower is the opposite of the other advice we are often given when we’re discouraged, which is to look up, gain a larger perspective, take a 30,000 foot-view. This advice can be helpful, if perhaps we’re scrolling on our phones instead of gazing at the fall colors passing us by or trying to steer a grocery cart toward a particular aisle inside an enormous, fluorescent-lit grocery store.
But often, when we’re paralyzed by fear or expectation or pressure or weariness or sadness, looking at the big picture is not that helpful.
Like Carrie Newcomer, when I’m feeling most anxious, most uncertain, most overwhelmed by the needs and the pain and terror of the world, I find God not in the huge expanse, but in the tiny. Wasn’t Jesus an advocate of beginning with the small children, the boy with just a few fish and loaves, a mustard seed? Didn’t he come to earth not as a powerful king but as a crying infant? (And no “Away in the Manger,” I don’t believe in a baby who never cried.)
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In a Q&A session that included a group of 10-year-old boys who had read my novel in a book club at their local library, one smart reader asked me to explain why all of the titles of poems told from the perspective of Karl, the young German prisoner of War, have both the English and German translation, except two German titles that have no English equivalent. Verschlimmbesserung is a word whose closest English definition is “an attempt to help that only makes things worse.” Herrenvolk’s closest translation is “master race.”
I explained to the young reader that I included these English-less titles because I wanted to show the way that language and communication can be difficult. I wanted the lack of common language on the page to be a literal and figurative reminder that words aren’t always easily exchanged between people, and that often, in our attempts to nail down certain emotions or feelings, we come up short.
I recently stumbled upon another German word without a simple English equivalent: Weltschmerz. Literally translated to “World pain,” Weltschmerz was first coined in 1827 by the German Romantic author Jean Paul in his novel, Selina. The word is an attempt to describe the apathy one can feel when comparing the actual state of the world with an ideal state.
We encounter Weltschmerz all the time, don’t we? We turn on the news. We witness injustice over and over. We see someone in the grocery store we’d rather avoid. We pray, “Your Kingdom come,” and grow aware of how far we are from making that happen.
And yet, when the world is full of pain, when apathy and overwhelm threatens, what is there to do? Maybe, again, to start small. To take care of our own little corner, repeat an extra prayer, be extra kind to the waitress, slow down long enough to notice the brilliance of the fall leaves at our feet. Again it’s Lamott who says, “What a paradox: that we connect with God, with divinity, in our flesh and blood and time and space. We connect with God in our humanity.”
I won’t sit down tomorrow and write another novel, but I can start with one small small scene. One small moment. A few poorly written words. Starting small just might be an antidote to Weltschmerz, a distraction from our preoccupation with fixing what we can’t fix, and a way back to faith and wonder.
P.S. If you want to join me for a lively Q&A, be on the lookout for a Reformed Journal book virtual club in the coming months. I’d love to discuss Enemies in the Orchard with you.