Miracle No. 2

The church organ provided the second miracle. Wednesday, I found the organist tuning up for a concert. Pipe Organ 2

We chatted. Something moved me: “If you were asked to use your music to drive the Holy Spirit into a man’s soul, what would you play?” He studied me, then directed me to the acoustic apex: Eight pews back, center of the nave. I stood, arms at my sides, looking up at the stained glass rose window above the altar. I held myself as if about to receive a painful blow. Blown Away Man cropped

The music started, big and powerful, a concert of sound with low bass notes that shook the walls. Within seconds, my body began to tremble uncontrollably. Tears burst out of me, streaming down my face. Sobs wracked my body.

When I collapsed into a pew, the organist shifted to a soothing melody. Slowly, the tears stopped. And something remained open.

Miracle No. 1

The first miracle came from a reading from St. Augustine. Two messages resonated. First, he said that if you want to impart something to someone, you need to know who they are and speak in a manner they will understand. The intended recipient must be willing to listen. You have to wait until they are willing.

Augustine then talked of John the Baptist. Before he baptized Jesus, many people thought John was the Messiah. “Nope,” he said, “Not me. But he’s coming, get ready.” John could have said yes and been believed, basking in the stolen glory. “He saw where his salvation lay,” Augustine said. “He understood that he was a lamp, and his greatest fear was that he might be blown out by the wind of pride.”

Just as Brother Stanislaw read that word “pride,” a sunbeam exploded through a stained glass window, spotlighting the church’s pale butter-colored walls like a rainbow.

Message received.

A WEEK OF SILENCE

The Benedictine monks of St. Leo, in central Florida, welcomed me with warmth and respectful silence.
St Leo Abbey
I read Augustine, Merton, and Thich Nhat Hahn. I re-read Alain de Botton’s “The Consolations of Philosophy.” David Brooks’ book, “The Road to Character,” shed light into how others had confronted deep tragedy and life-altering difficulties.

I sat in church with the brothers three times a day, listened to the psalms and the readings, parsed them for life lessons. The brothers’ dedication to each other impressed me. We ate together, talked. They asked questions, listened, and provided compassion and small bits of guidance. Powerful organ music shook me hard enough that I wept.

St Leo Brothers

My hand filled page after journal page of thoughts and feelings. My legs carried me around and around the campus of St. Leo. My eyes read and re-read passages that irritated me, confronted me, or shed wisdom.

Then came the miracles.

Letting Go

I credit a dozen Benedictine monks, a Catholic saint, a handful of ancient and modern philosophers, a Lutheran minister and two Buddhist teachers: They helped me let go.

Brick WallIn early November, 2015, two very important people in my life gave me a reality check that led to this conclusion: My efforts to bring about a reconciliation reflected a certain arrogance, hubris, pride. My insistence on penetrating the wall of silence these two erected was disrespectful. And, very likely, counter-productive.

I knew this a long time ago. Every expert source I consulted told me the same thing: Keep the door open, but there is nothing you can do. That wall can only be broken by them.

There had to be a way, I thought. It’s just that no one has thought of it yet.

Pride.

A reluctance to fully embrace the sorrow.

And to let go.

That’s why they no longer see birthday cards, random postcards or Christmas presents darkening their mailboxes.

Geraldine Brooks

One of my favorite authors visited Seattle yesterday. Geraldine Brooks has become so popular she nearly filled McCaw Hall with fans. She made us laugh: “When I was getting started, I felt lucky if I did a reading for five people and a dog.”

I’ve read her Pulitzer Prize winner, “March,” and “People of the Book.”March

I’m kindling her newest, “The Secret Chord,” a fictional treatment of King David. All highly recommended.

She seems like a wonderful woman as well as a great author. I’m particularly impressed with her depiction of women, their strengths and the threats that face them every day. She used the word “precarious” to describe the lives of women, perhaps a bit less precarious here in the United States than elsewhere, but fraught with life-threatening issues anywhere. I agree.

Murder On The Old Santa Fe Trail

A Western short story I wrote just for fun — Murder On The Old Santa Fe Trail — has been accepted by Planetary Stories/Pulp Spirit. OldSanteFeSaloonRead the story here.  And here’s an example of the illustrations that Planetary Stories/Pulp Spirit want to run with the story.  Many thanks to my friends in the Fort Mason Writing Group for their inspiration and encouragement.

Survival Is Insufficient

I launched my agent quest this morning.  Emails went out to nine agents pre-qualified for their history of selling debut novels and historical fiction.

Most people would look at my odds and argue that even trying is an irrational act.

I agree.

But I’d rather die trying.

Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon

I did the numbers: Those nine sold 129 debut novels over 10 years.  Maybe one a year made it big.  Perhaps two did well enough that the publisher bought a second novel.  The rest disappeared into the oblivion of fewer than 100 reviews on Amazon.

Each of these agents receives about 20 unsolicited submissions per day.  Adjusting for multiple submissions, that’s about 72,000 novels pitched to just nine agents over 10 years.

The QueryTracker website lists 1,400 agents.

Sheesh!

But what the hell, what’s my alternative?  I recall Joe Simpson’s predicament in the film Into the Void: Fallen into a crevasse, sudden death averted by a ledge, one leg broken, presumed dead.  He can’t climb out.  His fate? Die slowly.

But there is one option:  Lower himself deeper into the crevasse. Maybe there’s a way out.

If he stays where he is, hanging on in quiet desperation, he will definitely die.

But for me, as with Emily St. John Mandel’s Shakespeare troupe in Station Eleven: “Survival is insufficient.” I’ve already managed to survive one of the losses most likely to destroy a man:  The death of a child. I chose, as my mission, to draw from the depths of that chasm of grief something worth writing about. I also chose to make that writing as much fun as possible. Those choices led me into historical fiction with a focus on family conflict. I’ve never had so much fun in my life.

I may never write well enough or catch the attention of the right agent or win the support of the right publisher or strike the right chord for a large reading audience to become a “successful novelist.”

But if I don’t try, it will definitely not happen. I’d like to see it happen. I imagine it happening. So I’m going for it.

Test Reader Feedback: Taking the Risk Out of New Fiction

Making new fiction successful in the marketplace is probably the highest risk enterprise ever invented.  So I can’t help but try to mitigate that risk, and one way is to get feedback on my novel In the Mouth of the Wolf from a test panel of regular readers.  These are not writers or aspiring writers, just people who enjoy historical fiction.  Here are some highlights:

From Peni Schwartz:

I completed your book in just three days and enjoyed it very much.  It’s clear you have spent a good deal of time and effort to write a novel that both grabs the reader’s interest and touches their heart.

From Gail Longo:

Thank you for the gift of the opportunity to read your book. It caused me to reflect more on the broader picture of humans in daily struggles with personal relationships. It aroused my feelings of sadness over emotional eruptions that spur nations to justify war. War causes innocent people great suffering, loss of life and homeland.  It seems like it is universally condoned by the leaders of nations.  To me, war feels like the giant emotional tantrum of a child mind. It is that part of the mind that stops breathing so that the mind and heart are frozen and blind without ways to resolve the pain.

Amedeo was kind and heroic in teaching his neighbors to read, choosing books to awaken their appreciation of life as an adventure, and to encourage poetry blending emotions with history. I like the portrayal of his wife, her courage and strength of will.  I am glad that Amedeo held love in his heart for his brother, and that even though he was bewildered and grieving the loss of that relationship, he persevered in reaching out to his brother to confront him with questions that led them to fill in the gaps between the years. I find that the image of the two of them together at the end lingers in my mind.

From Emilio Marasco:

I enjoyed the book.  What I liked best was how you used history to account for the brothers’ actions toward each other.  You may run into the issue that most Americans don’t know Italy’s role in WWI or (and some couldn’t care less) what was happening in Europe between the world wars, e.g. how and why Fascism arose in Italy.

From Cecilia Strettoi:

E’ stato un vero piacere leggere il suo romanzo!  It was a real pleasure reading your novel!  I really needed a good book…and it was impossible to put down.  One of the things I liked best was the character of Maria and her message that it is not really important to establish a line between what and who is Italian and what and who is Austrian.  She is not political; she goes beyond  definitions and she cares about the peace and the serenity of her family and – ultimately — her city.  It is true that Trieste’s history is very peculiar and that its people had to endure a longer tragedy than the rest of Italy, and this emerges very clearly.  Grazie di aver scritto questo romanzo!  Thank you for writing this novel!

Mille grazie a tutti quanti!  Many thanks to all of you!

 

Rewrite complete

Thanks to excellent coaching from staff and agents at the San Francisco Write to Market Conference (backed up by my own independent research) I’ve rewritten and retitled the novel formerly known as Amedeo.  It’s now just half as long, at about 85,000 words, and has a new name:  In the Mouth of the Wolf.  I’m currently recruiting a half-dozen test readers.

Thank you, Robert!

A spec cover design by my Vashon Island friend Robert Leung, based on reading my first two chapters.  Looks like a thriller!  Guess I’d better MAKE it a thriller…