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GUESTS

#32: Gary Schmidt 2006

I Started Writing Because I Wanted to Murder My High School PE Teacher, January 2, 2019

Gary D. Schmidt, children’s and young adult author of The Wednesday Wars, Okay for Now, and Pay Attention, Carter Jones, acknowledges how so much of our meaningful and powerful pasts influence our writing. He raises the question of our ethical responsibility when deciding whether to share writing that is rooted from vengeful motives which may feel so sinfully sweet. Schmidt encourages writers to tread carefully in their pasts and recognize if our writing will help or hurt the world.


RESOURCES

  • Gary Schmidt
    • Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
    • First Boy
    • The Sin Eater
  • Bill Vande Kopple, The Catch
  • Tony Earley, Lost in Place
  • E.M. Forster, Room With A View
  • Zibby ONeal, The Language of Goldfish
  • TRANSCRIPT

Intro

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David Urban (host): [00:00:02] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build a spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.

“How do we use our own past in our writing, especially if we write for young adults?” Noted young adult writer (and Calvin College English professor) Gary Schmidt explores this question on today’s Rewrite Radio.

[theme music]

I’m David Urban, and I teach in the English department at Calvin College.

Gary Schmidt’s novels, though set as far back as 1730, often include moments and scenes from his own past and experience. So how does the writer for middle-grade and young-adult readers adapt his or her past to a narrative set in a different time period and to readers who are unfamiliar with both the author and the historical past? And what ethical implications do such uses carry, particularly when they involve issues of faith and meaning?

Gary D. Schmidt is the prolific author of books for children and young adults as well as grown-up readers. With a PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he is also a professor of English at Calvin College, where he currently co-chairs the department. He received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and a Newbery Honor for The Wednesday Wars, which was also nominated for a National Book Award. Of his many titles, some others include Anson’s Way, The Sin Eater, Straw into Gold, Trouble, Orbiting Jupiter, and Okay for Now. In 2017, he contributed to the Star Wars anthology From A Certain Point of View: Star Wars. His latest book is So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom. Gary lives on a 150-year-old farm in Alto, Michigan, where he splits wood, plants gardens, writes, and feeds the wild cats that drop by.

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From 2006, here’s Gary Schmidt with “I Started Writing Because I Wanted to Murder My High School PE Teacher.”

 

Session

[applause]

Gary Schmidt: [00:02:54] Thank you, and thank you for coming here this afternoon. It is both fair and proper, though, to begin actually with thanks to Henry, Henry Baron, without whom none of us would be sitting here today. Henry was the first one in Calvin College's English Department to introduce the study of, the engagement with what was then called young adult literature, that was Henry. I don’t think I would have written much of what I have written if Henry hadn't been here at Calvin College and if he hadn't brought me into that sphere.

And second, Henry was the one 16 years ago, who began this Festival of Faith & Writing. It was his idea, a daring idea at the time, and sixteen years have gone by and it is still a remarkable vision. That it has lasted so well in all these years shows something about the power of Henry's idea. So, many thanks to you, Henry, wherever you went. [applause]

In addition, it is proper to begin with at least some honesty, and so I should admit that my title for this talk and discussion, which I have been accosted about all morning, in fact, [laughter] is actually not my own. I know, sort of a disappointment, alas. Don Hettinga showed it to me a few months ago. He had put it rather facetiously into the conference program, but I liked it so much [laughs] that I couldn't bear to change it. And so here it is. And there is even some truth to it.

Certainly one of the pleasures, and you know this is true, one of the pleasures we get from our writing is vengeance. [laughter] And yes, I know that vengeance is the Lord's, and I know that writing for vengeance is probably unhealthy, and probably sinful, but like so much sin, it can be so pleasurable. [laughter] So I have left the title here because it does relate to what I'd like to think about with you this afternoon.

And that is this: How is it that we use our own past in our writing, especially those of us who write for young readers? Gym teachers actually did figure rather hugely in my childhood, mostly because they were, in general, physically huge. I never had a gym teacher—has anyone ever had a gym teacher—who was even remotely in shape. [laughter] You had—[laughs] My gym teachers were all large Italian men, [laughter] Centoni Quaseppi, Quatrini—Mr. Quatrini. I never had a gym teacher that was articulate. I hope there aren't many gym teachers here today. [laughter]

I never had a gym teacher that was kind and good and loyal and true and blue. [laughter] I never had a gym teacher who could laugh happily—they always sneered. [laughter] The only happy hours I spent in gym my whole life were those running the track, which I was pretty good at, and during which time my teachers were, of course, absent, because they could not run the quarter mile around the track. [laughter]

I was in general a quiet and meek child, eager to be more invisible than visible in classrooms, and I loathed and despised teachers, gym teachers who said things like, "Drop and give me 50 in 60 seconds," and, "Climb that rope in under eight seconds," which I could do, but it never really mattered, because there was always something a gym teacher could ask that you could not do. "Throw a flip off the parallel bars," I was once told. Throw a flip off the parallel bars? [laughter]

And it didn't matter if you had done everything else for the entire year to perfection. You were still, suddenly the uncoordinated dweeb, and whoever gave you the impression that you had any right to live on this planet? [laughter] So, first chance I got as a writer, I killed off a gym teacher. [laughter] It was wonderful. [laughter] It occurs in a book called The Sin Eater, and the coach, who was large and Italian and mean dies after a morning spent shoveling snow. He dies repentant, last-minute confession, for his humiliation of a Catholic kid in his class, who forgives him, as perhaps I could not.

The scene is based largely on my own gym teachers and is in fact true, sort of, in that a gym teacher did die in my class in my high school in just this way, though he was not one that I had had, which means probably he was a good guy, so I would never have had him. There was, at the time of his death, a weird sense among the students, and probably among the teachers as well, a weird sense of horror. This was still an age when death doesn't enter into high school experience.

And in addition, though it's hard to admit this to you all now here standing in front of all of you, there was an even weirder sense of comedy, in that the guy who should be in the very best shape, had succumbed, after shoveling a little bit of snow. And on Long Island, it is only a little bit of snow.

I remember the terrible sadness in the high school. I also remember what are probably pretty mean jokes. And it is this thin line between tragedy and comedy that drew me to that scene when I was writing my very first novel. Because after all, no story can be all vengeance. Some. But not all. And no scene is interesting or compelling if it doesn't point beyond itself to something much larger.

Now, if this starts to make you feel uncomfortable, you're getting a sense of what I'd like to think about with you all today: Is it ethically responsible to use material such as this, and to, in a sense, reap artistic benefits from the death of this gym teacher so long ago, whose name I must confess I don't even remember today, but who was probably loved and honored and admired by his family and his community and his church? Is it ethical to use that material?

When I use my own past as a writer, when you use your own pasts as writers, what are the ethical arenas in which you are engaging? William Faulkner, when asked when a writer could use his own relatives and friends in his own work, answered, "Sure, cut 'em up." [laughs] Great line. But my people are from New England, and somehow, "Cut 'em up," doesn't quite seem enough, [laughter] which may explain why Southerners write such great stories and New Englanders write such great essays. [laughter] We can't just "Cut 'em up" without some real qualms, so we write Walden and Southerners write A Good Man is Hard to Find. [laughter]

But, perhaps as a writer for children and for middle grade and high school readers, there is something in me that wants to be very careful about how I tread in my own past. I was truly, honestly amazed and shocked when I gave my first novel to my parents, which I though had almost nothing of my own past in it, except for the dead gym teacher, and they told me that they could see so much of my past in it. I couldn't believe it.

And it does matter to me that people I love and care about, they're gonna read this stuff. It matters to me that Aunt Helen and Aunt Clara are going to read Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and not be happy that Charles Darwin is rather prominent, because he fits so well in the narrative and because I enjoyed reading Darwin at the age of the protagonist, as I still do. It matters to me that my father will not be happy with the picture of suburban life that I lived outside of New York City in 1968 in a novel which will come out next spring and which I will try not to show him. [laughter]

And it matters to me that my most recent novel, First Boy, portrays a kind of rural life that I wish I had lived as a child, that I yearned for as a child, since it suggests, on some level, a criticism on my part, of my parents choices. These things matter. And we should as writers and we should as human beings, admit that up front, and no, by the way, real writer is going to get around it by saying, "Well, it's just a story, what's the big deal?" It is a story, and because it's a story, it's a big deal.

And yet, as a writer, I am called, truly called, I think, I hope, to be honest, and I cannot let my knowledge that events that I recount from my own past, I cannot let my knowledge that those may offend or enrage some people, prohibit me from using those events. If I do, then I allow the response of those folks to trump the honesty of my story, or even to censor it.

When I write using my past, I cannot, I cannot have my friends, my parents, old teachers, old neighbors, old pastors, standing beside me like a dire and gloomy Greek chorus, leaning in, oh my goodness, leaning in so as to catch the moment when they can, in unison and in harmony, denounce the pride and arrogance of the writer who uses and exploits them without even giving them a chance to fight back.

So, I'd like to advance some tentative principles about this conundrum today, and we'll see how we go. My goal is a small thing: to get us thinking as writers and readers about this business and to initiate more than conclude discussion. So I'll yammer on a bit, with your permission, and then we'll talk together.

First, I want to think about how writers use the past, and I'd like to suggest two basic ways that writers do use the past, and to illustrate these by reading a couple passages, one from First Boy and one from Lizzie Bright. First Boy is set in New Hampshire in the near future, perhaps the very near future. This is a short scene that brings together memories from funerals, and particularly what happens after funerals.

[00:15:26] Afterwards, folks from church came back to the farm. Reverend Hurd prayed a prayer with "thee"s and "thou"s in it, and then folks started to "partake"—which was Reverend Hurd's word for "eat." Mrs. Perley had made more sandwiches, salads, and raspberry tarts than all New Lincoln could partake of. But Mr. Searle tried his hardest to make her come up short.

Everyone told Cooper—who's the protagonist of this book—that Eli Jewett—his grandfather—had gone to his heavenly reward, that he was safe with Jesus, that he was with Edna again, that he was in a better place. But Cooper knew Jesus didn't need him, his grandmother would have waited, and his grandfather wouldn't find heaven so much better than the farm. What were Pearly Gates when he could open the Big Barn doors every morning and hear the warm, soft moos of cows waking up?

Not much, thought Cooper.

But he knew this: He would open those doors every day. He would hear the warm, soft moos. He would weed the carrots, and he would milk the cows, because this farm was all he had left. It felt like it was all he would ever have left.

There was quiet Methodist talk while the piles of Mrs. Perley's sandwiches and salads and raspberry tarts yielded to the partakers. And then the talk dwindled, and Cooper watched folks stretch out their collars and check their watches. John Hurd fussed because Dorcas Hurd took the last raspberry tart and he had wanted it and she had four already and he had only three and now it was too late because she had already licked it and wasn't it time for them to go yet? [laughter]

It was, and one by one, the congregation of New Lincoln Methodist shook Cooper's hand and left. Each time someone stood on the top step of the porch, it groaned loudly, as if the house was mourning. When Peter punched him on the shoulder, then gathered the flock of Hurds and herded them home, Cooper's world got very still.

Then there was only Mrs. Hurd cleaning up with Mrs. Perley, and Reverend Hurd and Mr. Searle considering whether they should help—and deciding against it.

Then they were done. The kitchen was clean. And there was nothing else to do but to make do.

[00:17:41] I expect my own experiences chime with some of yours. Thomas Howard has written that at the high and at the holy moments of our lives, we human beings, we play. And what play is weirder, particularly from a child's point of view, than the play after a funeral? And we all get together, cousins and uncles and aunts that we haven't seen; we eat sandwiches of unusual shapes and sizes; we have a good time; we laugh—we laugh! The memories of that passage are drawn from a constellation of moments, but especially from my grandmother's funeral when I heard all those lines, those weak lines meant to console, but which all sound so ridiculous in the end, as if we are all whistling in the dark and we are afraid to say that dead is dead.

Second passage from Lizzie Bright. This is a novel set in Maine, 1912, so you see—as Henry mentioned I am quite a young fellow, so you see right away that this is exactly not my own past, very young, Henry, really really young. I just had a birthday, so I'm affirming that. The situation here is that Turner Buckminster is a minister's son, he's come with his father to a new church in Fitzburg, Maine. He's been invited out by some local guys to go swimming, but in essence they're really posing a test for him: is be brave enough to jump from a ledge into the oncoming Atlantic waves? So this is that scene.

[00:19:21] "I suppose all Buckministers wear Sunday shirts every day of the week. You do know how to jump, right?"

"I know how to jump," said Turner.

"Wait for the wave to come in, so you don't splatter yourself all over those rocks. If you do, there won't be much of you left to wash out to sea." Then Willis moved out to the edge, waited for his wave, and, with a last smile at Turner, he leaped.

It was beautiful. He fell slowly, like a baseball, reaching the wave just as it covered the rocks, disappearing in white and green, and then rising out of the water as the wave drew past and threw itself against the cliff. The sun gilded the spray that fell around him.

Turner thought he might be sick. [laughter]

One by one, the boys jumped off the granite outcropping and fell perfectly into waves that had just covered the rocks. And one by one they rose out of the sea into a golden spray.

Until there was only Turner.

He left his clothes on the blueberry bushes and moved to the edge where his pale toes clenched the rock. The sea swelled rhythmically beneath him, and he leaned forward whenever a wave folded in and broke to a yellow froth. He looked down at his legs. He surprised to see that they were shivering, since he couldn't feel them at all. [laughter]

He flexed his knees. Below him, the boys, standing on the blue-black rocks waved at him to jump. "Now!" they yelled with each swell, and then groaned with disappointment when he didn't go. "Now!" More groaning.

Turner hated their guts. [laughter]

Somewhere there was a baseball diamond yellow with dust and green with summer grass. And there was a kid stepping up to the plate, swinging his bat low, the pine tar sticky on his palms. He was moving his back foot behind him and trying not to eye the gap down the right-field line big enough to run an eight-wheel locomotive through.

But Turner, Turner was standing forty feet above the writhing sea, waiting for a swell big enough to keep him from splattering on the rocks and hoping he wouldn't throw up before he went under.

"You coming or not?"

"Hey, Buckminister, you coming?"

Turner leaned over. He edged the tiniest bit closer to the tip of the rock and wondered how far away the Territories were. He hoped that they never smelled of sea salt, that they never heard the urgings of the ocean, that they were so lonely that being a stranger in them hardly mattered.

And then, then he saw the sea surge that was coming in.

Already the boys were scrambling up to a higher rock. "This is it, Buckminister. This is the biggest one you'll ever get."

Turner had no doubt that this was the biggest one he would ever get. The surge moved like a wallowing mountain range, roiling to a whiteness at its peaks. He saw the water begin to pull back from the rocks below him, saw the seaweed sucked out in long green tresses, saw the ocean yanked away from the dark, sharp mussel beds.

"You see it, Buckminister? You see it? That's the one!"

Of course he saw it. God and all creation saw it.

He flexed his knees again, unclenched and clenched his toes. It would take a second and a half, maybe two seconds, for him to hit the wave. Not hard to judge. Keep the knees bent so he wouldn't hit the bottom. Blow out the nose just when he hit so he wouldn't come up spurting. Be ready if it spun him over ... when it spun him over. No screaming. Oh Lord, please no screaming.

By now, the mountain range had drawn all the water along the entire coast of Maine up into itself, [laughter] and it was no longer wallowing. The top ridge began to fall over and disintegrate into churning confusion. Turner felt himself leaning, leaning more and more, his legs about to spring. Then the wave crossed where he knew he must jump and exploded into chaos, water avalanching in every direction, roaring at the sky, tormenting the rocks, and bursting into a spray that blotted out the sun.

And when that spray fell back in sheets to the following waves, it left Turner still standing on the top of the cliff, [laughter] knees still flexed, toes still clenched.

He was breathing about as hard as any human being can breathe.

[00:23:30] Now, despite the fact that this is set in 1912, this is pretty much from my own memory, pretty direct, though the details are changed a little bit. The ledge was actually in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the lump was about 40 foot, as it is here. The jump was down into a very tiny, about the size of a quarter, swimming hole. [laughter] The quarter was surrounded by rock and emptied out on one side into another waterfall which represented a 70-foot fall.

A miss to any side of this whole meant death, and there was no practicing. So the fear the Turner feels here, this is my fear, this is quite real. And the fact that I did jump says something about how powerful the adolescent male urge to prove one's self is, more powerful than intelligence, wisdom, or the fear of death itself. [laughter]

What I wanted was a moment in the narrative as I was writing it to establish Turner's relationship to the other guys in the town and to show him as apart, which is already of course suggested implicitly because he's the minister's son. So I went back into my own past to look at moments when such relationships were being formed in my life. And this one struck me as just right. I simply needed to adapt it to the main landscape and then I could put myself back into the memory, sit by the typewriter, and sweat. [laughter]

The first use of our past as writers, then, is to adapt moments from our past that work well in the narrative, to help us as writers to convincingly create an emotion, a situation, a response.

In First Boy I wanted to show Cooper's stress, his sadness, his confusion, all that mixed together with a need, the weird need to be a good host in his own house and the inappropriate and bizarre mix of those emotions. And I wanted to show the emptiness that death leaves behind when all the fuss and details of the funeral are finally over. Everything that been taking us up since the death has done and you have to start living again. So I turned to my own past to find them.

Memories can also help with the creation of detailed settings. I've used a set of waterfalls from Downstate New York in a novel situated in Maine, and another situated in Upstate New York.

It can help with the creation of character. Most of my own teacher figures and minister figures are composites of real teachers and ministers, which is fun to do.

And even it can help with the creation of diction, particularly if you're workin in idioms, as in "make-do" here and regional expressions.

I do not, as a writer, though, use these moments from my own past as major narrative moments. They are not the great plot moments. I never use memories to create plot or generate full characters, like take someone out of a place that I knew and simply plunk them down into the plot. When the writer heads in that direction, it seems to me, he or she is veering towards memoir, and my interest here is in fiction. My own sense is that when the writer uses moments and events from her past, that these should support the narrative, but they should not determine or create the narrative, lest they take over the plotline, which in fiction, strikes me as really indulgent.

[00:27:08] The second use of the past that I want to mention involves adaptation of a very different sort. I'll tell you the story first, and then I'll read you the passage to show how it came into the novel. [clears throat] My grandmother believed that Baptists, particularly Baptists of the Congregational stamp, were direct spiritual descendants of John the Baptist, and so she played that prophet's role whenever she was around us. It could be terrifying and it could be unpredictable, which I guess is what John the Baptist could probably have been.

One minute she could be playing stick ball with us out in the street, and she was wonderful. The next minutes, she would be in the backyard, berating us for our many sins. There could be many, of course, but the one she zeroed in on was opening your eyes during prayer, [laughter] which is something only a true reprobate would do. [laughter] "We should never, ever open our eyes during prayer," she told us, and whenever she was in the vicinity during any prayer in which I was involved, I knew that somehow she could tell if I had opened my eyes, and the reason I knew it was that God would tell her. [laughter]

One Thanksgiving, my grandmother was sitting across the table from me and my father was praying the long prayer, and I was hungry, and my father was still praying, and I was really hungry. And I suddenly heard from across the table a strange and long slurp. [laughter] It was repeated and repeated again. What can you do when you're a kid and you hear a long and strange slurp across the table from you? [laughter]

You obey the Mosaic impulse, you open your eyes and turn aside to see this strange thing, which I did. It was our dog [laughter] who had put her front paws on the table and was, with efficiency and glee, licking the skin of the Thanksgiving Day turkey. [laughter]

I wasn't quite sure what to do, but my grandmother saved the day. She looked down at the dog, pushed her to the floor, and then looked over at me. She put her had to her mouth and she whispered, "Shhhh," just like that. Later, while my father carved, both of us paid particular attention to the placement of the slices [laughter] on the platter that went around the table.

Now, here's how the memory played out in the novel. In this scene, Turner and Lizzie are in Mrs. Cobb's house. Turner, who is the protagonist, has been playing the organ for Mrs. Cobb. Mrs. Cobb has told them earlier that she has her last words ready. When it comes time for her to die, she is prepared. No one knows what they are. But they are to write them down, if it should so happen. And this is the scene when it so happens.

[00:30:12] “Mrs. Cobb, cranky Mrs. Cobb, leaned forward and laid her hands against Lizzie's cheeks and held them there, slightly trembling. "Oh my land," she said quietly, "I had too many words, but never the right ones for you. Oh, oh," she said suddenly, quickly, and lay back against the chair.

Turner stood, and Lizzie pulled the afghan up around Mrs. Cobb's knees. She looked at Turner, then at Lizzie. She took a deep and rattling breath. Her eyes opened, closed, opened again, pale and opaque.

"Get your father," said Lizzie. "Hurry."

"Turner," Mrs. Cobb said.

"We're here, Mrs. Cobb."

"Turner." Another deep and rattling breath."'Safely to the mountains lead me. Safely to my heavenly home. Safely to Your mansions guide me. Never, oh never, to walk alone.'" Then she leaned back and closed her eyes.

"Mrs. Cobb?"

Her eyes stayed shut.

"Mrs. Cobb?"

She breathed twice more, gave a little cough, breathed once again.

"Mrs. Cobb?"

"She's gone," said Lizzie.

"No, no, she's not. She's still breathing."

Lizzie looked at her. "She's not breathing”

Turner put his ear to her mouth. "Yes, she is. She's still breathing."

Lizzie put her ear to her mouth. "I guess so," she said.

Together they watched Mrs. Cobb head to the mountains, and Turner took Lizzie's hand in his without even knowing it. They held their breaths, waiting for Mrs. Cobb's last. They hardly dared blink.

"You need to write the words down," whispered Lizzie.

Turner took the paper from the organ. He dipped the pen and wrote quickly.

"You got them?"

"I got them."

"Let me read it." She took the paper. "It was walk alone, not be alone."

"It was be alone."

"It was walk alone."

[laughter]

"Can't you even get that right? It was walk alone," said Mrs. Cobb. [laughter] Her eyes were open and she was staring at them. "WALK alone." She sat up straight and let the horsehair gallop up beneath her. "It doesn't matter now anyway. I'll have to come up with a whole new set of last words. Something easier to catch, I guess." She glared at Turner.

"Mrs. Cobb, we thought you were..."

“I did, too, or I wouldn't have said my last words. And they were such nice last words."

"They were," said Lizzie.

"Oh hell," said Mrs. Cobb, "it's warm here. Go get me a ginger ale."

Turner and Lizzie went to the icebox to get a ginger ale. "I told you she wasn't dead," said Turner.

"Well, let's just get you a black bag and call you doctor."

"She was breathing."

"Yes, doctor."

Lizzie grabbed a ginger ale and pried the cap off, and together they went back into the parlor.

"She was breathing the whole time. You just couldn't tell," whispered Turner.

"Here, Mrs. Cobb," said Lizzie, and handed her the bottle.

Mrs. Cobb did not take it.

"Mrs. Cobb," said Lizzie again.

Mrs. Cobb did not open her eyes.

"I don't think she's breathing," said Turner. [laughter]

Lizzie glared at him, then turned back. "Mrs. Cobb?"

But there were no more words to speak.

Turner had never seen death before. He had been to funerals, but never to anyone's he knew more than by name. But there the bodies were closed up, and it was almost hard to believe that a person lay inside the box, covered with linen and flowers and candlesticks.

Here, though, was death with its dart, having spurted into the house as bold as you please and snapped its chilly fingers. Mrs. Cobb was no longer clenching the arms of her chair, she was no longer fussing at the organ music, she was no longer humming to the refrain. She was just no longer.

Lizzie took Mrs. Cobb's hands, laid them in her lap, and covered them with the afghan. She straightened her dress and brushed the hair off her forehead. Then she bent down and kissed her on the forehead.

"I'm not sure you're supposed to kiss a dead person," said Turner.

"You going to write down her last words?"

'"Oh hell, it's warm here. Get me a ginger ale'?"

[laughter]

"You going to write them down?"

"I'm not going to write down, 'Oh, hell, it's warm here. Get me a ginger ale.'"

“You going to lie about her last words?"

"Yes."

"You can't lie about somebody's last words."

[00:34:22] In fact, he does write them down. His father comes in. No one reads the last words because they're going to be announced at the funeral. [laughter] And so the words are in the Reverand Buckminster's pocket and they are going to be read at the appropriate moment. So here's the moment. [laughter] This is Reverend—Turner's father—Reverand Buckminster speaking.

[00:34:47] “Such has been the beauty of this saintlike life. Such has been the glory of her passing. And at the moment of death, there can be no greater testimony to the Christian life than the final words of the dearly departed.”

Turner was sweating enough to wilt even his starched shirt.

Reverend Buckminster unfolded the paper. It was upside down, and he turned it slowly over. Slight laughter from the congregation.

Turner sweated in places he didn't think he could sweat. [laughter]

Reverend Buckminster was silent [laughter] and still.

"Read it aloud, Reverend," said Mr. Stonecrop.

Reverend Buckminster cleared his throat. He cleared it again. "It's ... it's quite short," he said. [laughter]

Murmurs in the congregation. Turner felt sweat dripping into in his eyes.

Reverend Buckminster cleared his throat again. “‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want,’” he said.

"Oh," from the congregation, disappointed.

'"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.'"

"Well, who's going to bother remembering that?" Turner heard behind him.

"Let's turn to hymn number one hundred eighteen," announced Reverend Buckminster. He looked pointedly down at Turner. "Amazing Grace.” [applause]

[00:36:16] Now, you will notice that there is no Thanksgiving turkey here, and there is no dog licking it, and there's no grandmother playing John the Baptist. But I wanted this scene to go beyond the inherent humor and to suggest something that would contribute to the developing relationship of Turner and his father.

At the funeral, Turner comes to a new realization: his father has lied about Mrs. Cobb's last words. He's lied. And he's done it to be kind to the congregation and he's done it to be kind to Mrs. Cobb, but he's lied—at a funeral. And his father knows this, too: his father knows that his son, Turner, is aware that he has lied. They are the only two in the church who know it, which is why Reverend Buckminster quickly turns to the congregation to ask them to sing Amazing Grace.

But an entirely new relationship has been established. Turner, and perhaps his father as well, realizes that life is much more complex than he has ever imagined and that right and wrong are rarely simple and easy, and that our lives are made of the choices we make and, more importantly, the choices we act upon. It's a huge thing to learn as a child, and it's one of the things that sets our faces towards adulthood.

There's also a point of unity between Turner and his father, a unity different from a father-son relationship, and a unity that suggests a maturing relationship.

Back to the story of my grandmother that Thanksgiving. What was powerful for me that day was not the business of the doggie spit all over the turkey, although that was pretty powerful. It was this: my grandmother had opened her eyes during prayer. [laughter] She really and truly had. It was stunning. And why had she done it? She did it to preserve the peace and jollity of the day for her family. That was more important to her than the apparently unbreakable cosmic and Baptist law of closing your eyes during prayer. Perhaps, in her own mind, she had defied even God for the sake of her family at that moment.

It gave me a new understanding of her, and a new understanding of some of the complexities of life. When I last saw her, gnarled into an almost weightless knot, by the effects of Alzheimer and arthritis, half covered by a sheet in a metal bed. Her mind and her body already with Jesus, and her body ready to follow.

I remembered that story, I told it to my parents, who did not believe me. [laughter] Who still do not believe me [laughter] because my grandmother would never have opened her eyes during prayer. [laughter] Never. But I knew better.

So here's the second way we use our past, and this is especially important for those of us who write for children: we can remember what it was like when. We can remember what it was like to have been a child, or an early adolescent, or a teenager. We can remember when. What was it like when I first saw the ocean? What was it like when I was terrified in school? What was the first day of summer vacation like, do you remember? What was it like to live apart from your parents for the first time? What was it like when you first encountered death or unquenchable sadness or foolishness or unfairness or hilarity? What was it like when you first discovered romantic love? What was it like when you first saw someone with a capability and a skill that was remarkable? How did you learn, how did you learn that the world can be evil? How did you learn that the world can be good? What was it like and how did it happen that you learned deep and full things about God, when did it happen, what was it like?

Here again the novelist is not the memoirist. In using the past this way I am not recounting specific events, I am instead recalling the emotions and feelings, the startling realizations, the pain and joy of my past, the ways I learned the things I learned, to create a scene of authentic growth and development for my character. This demands some introspection and analysis on the writers' part, and this is never easy, it is never easy, especially if you are a German with New England blood. [laughter]

[00:41:23] But notice how it works. Your character is in a specific narrative situation. You want her to respond to the situation, perhaps to grow from it, to learn from it. What would it look like if that situation was played out off the page in the real world? Well, you turn to moments when you've learned and experienced and grown similarly. What was it like when you were there?

A corollary here on this one: as a writer, have no patience with those who say to you, "But that's not how it really happened," or, "That's not how it really was." Bill Vande Kopple, who will be reading here on Saturday afternoon, has written of his own family in the The Catch, stories about fishing. He has talked about his sons telling him that he has gotten it wrong, it didn't happen that way at all, they would never had said such a thing. 

So what do you do in the face of such complaints? First, you as a writer may, if you are a good person, respond kindly to those complaints, [laughter] if you wish, and you may note that the writer adapts the past to the needs of the story and you as a writer are simply adapting freely.

But, if you wish to rebuke the chutzpah of that complainant, you may note instead that the memories are, after all, all yours. This is how you recall it to be, and those memories are not subject to correction by alternate witnesses, [laughter] and they're not subject you correction by factual analysis. They are yours to use as you please, thank you.

In Lost in Place, great title, a memoir by Tony Earley, Early talks of his vivid memory of landing on the moon, he's a kid, how their Indiana backyard that night was bathed in the silvery light of a huge full moon, how he and his father set up the telescope, how they peered through it at that strange and glowing landscape, hoping to see the Apollo spacecraft. But when he wrote that scene for a book, a copy editor decided to check on his veracity, and she found, horribly, that on that summer night in Indiana, there was no full moon at all. [laughter] There was just the tiniest sliver of a moon that would have shone. His memory, she wrote to him, must be false. If it was me who received that letter, I would simply have written back, "It's my memory, it's how it was."

Now we've talked about using the past, but I began by suggesting ethical question about that use and I suggested a tension between recognizing that your writing will affect those who know you and may share your past and recognizing that you as a writer cannot allow those reactions to trump the honesty of your writing. And of course both those sides of this discussion are valid, and we as writers recognize the impulses and we recognize the strings between them.

Perhaps you will remember the scene from E.M. Forster's Room With A View in which Cecil Vyse reads aloud from Eleanor Lavish's new novel as Lucy Honeychurch, his new fiancé, sites with George Emerson, who loves Lucy, unbeknownst to Cecil Vyse. Cecil reads a scene depicting a passionate embrace and kiss in an Italian field, a scene that he does not know has actually occurred between Lucy, his fiancé, and George, the guy sitting next to her right by his feet, and had been witnessed by Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy's cousin and chaperone while she was in Italy who then told it to Eleanor Lavish who then wrote it in her novel. [laughter] I know, this sounds amazingly complicated, but if you've read the novel or seen the Merchant Ivory film, you followed it I hope.

For George, the scene initiates a renewal of hope for Lucy. For the reader, the situation is amazingly funny, because the effete Cecil does not realize that he is bespeaking true love and true passion between his fiancé and, oh, another man. But for Lucy, she sees the scene as representing betrayal. Charlotte has told Eleanor Lavish who has used the scene for her own advantage in her fiction, and when we read this scene, we do sense some justice in Lucy's outrage: her past has been used. The writer has exploited her, but it's still funny. [laughter] And we laugh.

It seems to me that as we struggle with using our memories and as we realize that others who share some of those memories may be impacted, we ought as writers to be asking questions like the following: First, what is my intent as a writer in using this material? If it is simply vengeance, then that ain't enough. If I write about this high school gym teacher only because he was a creep and now I can be a creep back, or if I write only to laugh at the irony of his death, that seems to me wrong and a violation. It also says something rather disturbing about me as a writer.

We've all read novels where we see something like this. I read recently that Laura Ingalls Wilder—Laura Ingalls Wilder—the sweet Laura Ingalls Wilder's treatment of the spoiled and obnoxious Nellie Olsen, who really gets it in the end, was meant as payback to those who had treated her poorly in similar situations as a child, and who would have recognized themselves in Nellie. Could it be true? If it is, she's a lesser writer than I had hoped. If I use this material from my past, I should intend it to serve the needs of the story, to have it contribute to the meanings that I'm investigating, to have it represent emotional truthfulness. It should never be mere payback or exploitation.

Another question: Will my use of this material bring real truth and beauty into the world? I don't mean this to be an airy, fairy Keatsy amusing there. I think it's an amusing question. In other words, can I tell a story from my past that will contribute to the construction of the novel, contribute to its meanings and the way those meanings are constructed? If so, then this seems to me to be a powerful inducement, to use those memories from the past. If the story doesn't do that, well, then that stuff, however intriguing it may be to me as author, needs to be cut as extraneous anyway.

[00:47:38] Another question: Will my use of this material bring real hurt into the world? This is, of course, the counter question to the preceding one. The easy answer to this is to try and balance these last two questions: Am I bringing more good into the world in using the story than hurt? If so, more good than hurt, doesn't that justify the use of the material?

But I admit to you that I have never once been convinced that posing questions this way is anything more than a parlor trick for philosophers. And so there are times for me when the possibility of hurting someone by telling a story from my past does indeed trump any good it might do in my story or out in the world. I know that others, other writers will say that this is wrong, that art, true art should rise above mean and petty annoyances and hurt, and you may all here agree with those voices. But we are who we are, and I tell you truly that if I had written a novel that would hurt Aunt Clara or Aunt Sunny or Pastor Hoover or my wife or children or others I love and honor from my past, it would go in the fire and I would later spread the ashes out in the front woods and I would not regret a thing.

I once heard Zibby ONeal speak about her new young adult novel The Language of Goldfish in which a young girl commits suicide. She told of a conference that she attended after the publication of that novel in which, after everyone had finished asking their questions, and the session was about to end, and she had packed up her notes, a woman stood up in the back. Zibby ONeal called on her. The woman said, "My daughter read your novel. A week later she committed suicide." And she sat back down.

What writer's blood does not curdle and run cold at such a story? Of course, Zibby ONeal is not responsible for that young girl's death. Suicide comes out of a constellation of causes. And here, clearly, is a mother desperately trying to affix some blame somewhere, blame outside of herself, blame, more importantly, outside of her daughter. And yet, I think if you are a writer, your blood runs cold. I think if I had heard those words that day, I would probably never have penned another sentence.

For writers are responsible for what they write. The high claims of art are real, and they do impact how we write and what we write. But the claims of charity are greater. And we do not see that greatest of virtues so often in our world that we should throw it away for anything, not even art. No matter how perfect the story is for the scene or how wonderful this detail is for that particular character, we tread in our own pasts carefully.

Those pasts are wonderful storehouses, rich beyond imagining in their plenty, full of imagery and feeling, full of details that will enliven a scene and give it a powerful sensory play, full of meanings that will impact and even drive your story. But we enter into those storehouses with important companions. They are justice, prudence, fortitude. They are temperance, faith, hope, and love. Those seven companions temper what we remove from those storehouses and they affect how we use what we remove. And those companions never, ever, let us simply cut them up.

Thank you, folks. [applause]

 

Credits

David: [00:50:59] Thanks abounding to Gary Schmidt for this and all his work for the Festival of Faith & Writing through the years.

Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.

You can find more information about the Center and its signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at ccfw.calvin.edu and festival.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes—and leave us a review to help others find this podcast. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more from the Festival archives.