From nun to novelist: An interview with Linda Anne Smith

Sandra Hutchison interviews the debut author of the indie-published TERRIFYING FREEDOM, a novel about a woman whose past as a nun is holding her back from new possibilities in her life. It’s a rewarding read for anyone fascinated by the anguish that can result when sincere faith collides with the inevitable human frailties of religious organizations.

A quick note — next month’s post will catch you up on my writing, rather than offering yet another author interview, much as I enjoy them. (Just in case you’re getting impatient!)

Linda, your author bio suggests that there are a fair number of commonalities between you and your heroine. Am I right about that, and if so, can you explain your decision to fictionalize this story rather than, say, write a memoir?

Yes, I do have extensive experience in religious life—30 years, in fact.

TERRIFYING FREEDOM, while drawing from this experience, is not autobiographical. However, the context of the story is based on fact, so the central part of the novel could be considered historical fiction.

So why not write a memoir? And pass up on the opportunity to spin a tale? From the start I wanted to write fiction. I felt impelled to give life to Rebecca, who, when the beliefs on which she founded her life begin to crumble, must navigate through the murky, rough waters of uncertainty.

I believe fiction gives me a broader range to explore and expand the characters and the reality in which they live. I am able to draw not only from my own experience but from what I’ve learned from others. For example, the central part of the novel is situated in Appalachia. Throughout my life I’ve been drawn to Appalachia: its people, its history and its beauty. The research I did for the novel deepened my own understanding of the Appalachian people. Initially Appalachia was a location for the story, but as the novel evolved it became a character. Fiction can open horizons. I love it.

'...fiction gives me a broader range to explore and expand the characters...' Click To Tweet

The novel interested me with its serious attitude towards economic justice and education. The heroine clearly takes teaching very seriously, and the quietly rebellious sisters do good work in Appalachia despite serious institutional barriers. Did you experience a similar path?

I work with at-risk and special needs children. Over the years I have seen how essential it is to provide early intervention for these children and their families. As a society we need to bolster our educational programs with lower class sizes and teacher aides; we need to provide vibrant and relevant after-school and preschool programs as well as outreach to parents. When we as a society demonize addiction, poverty, etc., rather than examine the roots and provide adequate support, we limit many people from living out their potential as persons and from engaging in an empathetic and productive manner in society.

While the purpose of TERRIFYING FREEDOM is to tell the story of Rebecca, I am thrilled when readers are made more aware of the issues that Rebecca and her community grapple with. I love reading novels where my perception of reality is challenged and I set off researching for more information and a deeper sensitivity of the issue or event discussed. Through his novels, Charles Dickens revealed the underbelly of English society that shocked and evoked change. I believe stories can be powerful conveyors of insight and empathy.

Your novel also features a slow-building romance with a sympathetic human resources manager. This is not one of your typical romantic hero’s jobs! What inspired that?

As the song goes, “Love is in the air, everywhere I look around!” I can also say that throughout my life I’ve been blessed by relationships that began as chance encounters: our lives just intersected at the right time and place. These persons believed in me and because of their honesty and compassion my life took turns that may not have happened otherwise. I’ll always be grateful to them.

Tell us how you came to write and publish TERRIFYING FREEDOM. Did anything about it surprise you? Do you have any advice for others?

As mentioned above, I felt a burning drive to write this story. Having said this, not everything was clear from the beginning and I had many moments of self-doubt. As I approached the end of Part One, I considered wrapping the novel up quickly. But after consideration, I decided to plunge into Part Two and am glad I did. In all, it took six years to write.

When it was completed, I embarked on the route of traditional publishing. But the more I trekked down this path, the more my eyes were opened. Several conglomerates control most of the publishing in the US and Canada. To get even the slightest consideration (not to mention an offer), one must first have an agent. So I hunted and send out queries to many agents who I thought might be interested in my genre. If an agent expressed interest, then I had to give a few months for that agent to read the manuscript and decide whether to take on the book or not. This process takes months and the manuscript hasn’t even begun to be seen by a publisher.

So while pursuing the traditional route, I began to research self-publishing through Ingram Spark and Createspace. I discovered that while I would have to put out for the editing, interior design and cover, I also would also have more control over the final product. And from what I’d read, even if a person is traditionally published, the author remains the primary marketer of their book (unless they are a celebrity).

At one point, a smaller publishing house expressed interest in TERRIFYING FREEDOM  and I sent off my manuscript to its reviewer. When I did not hear back after a number of months, I decided to self-publish with both Ingram Spark and Createspace. I was well into to this process when I heard that the reviewer had been quite ill and had since recovered. She liked the novel and gave me some great editing tips. By then, however, I decided to continue with self-publishing rather than wait any longer.

To authors-in-the-making, I would say concentrate above all on writing and completing your book. Be ready to edit, then edit, and edit some more. The best book I read on writing was ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT, by Stephen King. This book transcends genres as King offers examples from a wide range of authors. He is honest, practical and encouraging. I recommend this book to anyone who asks me about being an author.

I would happily second that recommendation!

Also, if you decide to self-publish, I would suggest investing in a professional editor and cover designer. Read current blogs on the self-publishing (this industry is constantly evolving) and move forward step by step. I would have been overwhelmed if I focused on the entire process. Lastly, be willing to promote your book. If someone expresses interest via social media, keep in touch with the person. I met you, Sandra, through a comment you made on a blog. Through our communication, you gave me a marketing tip and have now given me this wonderful opportunity to promote Terrifying Freedom.

My first novel, which features an errant priest and explores different approaches to faith, was at least partly inspired by thoughtful novels with religious themes by Tim Farrington, Gail Godwin, Anne Tyler, and John Irving, among others. Were you inspired to write yours by any particular works, fiction or nonfiction?

I love reading, both fiction and nonfiction, and I’m sure that various authors have influenced my writing without me being aware of it. I love Jane Austen for her insights into the society of her time and her keen perception of others. She has written enduring novels with the stuff of day-to-day living.

Books have opened me to worlds and experiences I had no idea existed. The books I love give me at least one character I deeply care about, increase my awareness of a particular a reality, give me another angle to view history, and/or break through stereotypes.

What’s next for you as an author?

I am currently writing a sequel that tells Andrew’s story (that sympathetic human resource manager!).

Linda Anne Smith lives near Calgary, Alberta, enjoying the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. For 30 years, she was a member of a community of religious sisters. She currently volunteers in an organization that is dedicated to assisting and advocating for traumatized and neglected children and their families and works in a school assisting children with special needs. Learn more about her and her work at terrifyingfreedom.com, or follow Linda on social media at Facebook or Twitter.

About TERRIFYING FREEDOM

In the Midwestern offices of Secure Star Insurance, Rebecca, efficient and distant, seeks only to survive another day. Sally, earnest and devout, views the workplace as a fertile mission field. Into the agency comes a new employee, Gladys, gregarious, unorthodox and twice divorced. When an intuitive HR manager arrives, veneers begin to crack.

Back track four years. Rebecca’s mysterious past is explored in a convent replete with younger members and garnering the support of an increasing number of bishops and conservative Catholics. When an older nun has a heart attack, Rebecca is abruptly sent to a backwater mission in Appalachia. Distanced from the enclave of the mother house and embedded in social realities of the missionary outpost, Rebecca is thrust into uncharted waters.

You can purchase TERRIFYING FREEDOM at…

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes and Noble

Canada—Chapters, Indigo/Kobo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing a long-dead missionary to life (despite myself)

Last year I was asked by a friend to write a short monologue for Jessie Fremont Traver Moore, a woman who’d spent most of her adult life as a missionary in Assam, India. It was for an original theater experience in the Sand Lake (NY) Town Cemetery called Amazing Graves. It featured monologues from a number of the cemetery’s dead residents to benefit the Sand Lake Town Library, where I used to be a trustee.

Since I had inveigled this friend into taking my spot on said board of trustees when I left town, I owed her. And of course I was happy to support the library.

Except…was she kidding? She wanted ME to write from the point of view of a Baptist missionary?

My Episcopal church family knows I’m a faithful parishioner but not a very pious one. I would rate myself a 1 out of 10 on ability to earnestly participate in spontaneous prayer. I’m mostly silent in group discussion of scripture. My evangelism consists of suggesting we have free bread and coffee and conversation on Saturday mornings and advocating in a more general way for justice and mercy.

As the product page on Amazon notes, it discusses faith, but those who require piety in such matters will not like it. Skeptics will probably be able to cope.

As the product page on Amazon notes, it discusses faith, but those who require piety in such matters will not like it. Skeptics will probably be able to cope.

If there are moments in my novels that suggest Christian belief might not be pointless or ridiculous — THE AWFUL MESS comes to mind — I try very hard not to bash anyone over the head with it.

Maybe this arises from an agnostic childhood. To this day my birth family finds my beliefs peculiar. And, even as a believer, I’m on the skeptical end of the spectrum. A lot of Christian rituals strike me as deeply cultural (and patriarchal and superstitious) ways of sharing the fundamental message of God’s love. I suspect I feel at home in the Episcopal tradition mostly because it’s so Anglican (yep, I’m an English major) and because the national church is decidedly liberal.

Even so, I don’t believe Episcopal practice is inherently superior to any other faith tradition that preaches love and forgiveness instead of hate and exclusion. Including non-Christian traditions.

I have attended Baptist services and Methodist services and Congregationalist services. I have also attended Christian and Missionary Alliance services, where missionary work truly is the focus of that congregation’s outreach. But whenever people talk about missionaries, I automatically wonder what the native people think of these white people coming in and trying to win their souls for Christ. Especially given some pretty brutal, imperialistic history connected to those efforts.

So I was leery of Jessie Fremont Traver Moore. But she surprised me.

She was named Fremont after an abolitionist candidate for President who lost. So in her family there wasn’t any of that blindness to the evils of slavery and of racism that we tend to associate with American Evangelicals today — not that this is necessarily fair.

And what a woman Traver Moore was! She left published journals behind, some of which her descendant in town loaned me, and another of which I found on Google, so I got to hear her official version of her life. I had to read between the lines for the unofficial version, of course, but there were hints of it there. (I never got the feeling Mrs. Moore suffered fools gladly.)

Here’s a woman who trained in seminary and crossed the globe multiple times by sea (the last time right as WWI broke out), going into regions where poverty and disease were rampant. In Nowgong, the village where she and her husband based their work, the Moores learned the native language, translated books to it, published them, and taught in it. The school they started there is still educating students today.

You can read the entire short monologue (which got a few edits from the descendant, Dee Erickson), but this is my favorite part:

Diane Doring portraying Jessie Fremont Traver Moore as part of Amazing Graves, 30 Oct. 2016 in Sand Lake, New York.

Diane Doring portraying Jessie Fremont Traver Moore as part of Amazing Graves, 30 Oct. 2016 in Sand Lake, New York.

In Assam we not only brought many Assamese to Christ, we started a school that eventually was educating over 100 girls, Hindus and Muslims as well as Christians. We participated in the civic life of Nowgong, and I counted many lovely Hindu and Muslim ladies among my acquaintance, even those who did not feel compelled to accept Jesus despite my best efforts to share the Good News with them over tea in their homes. In my diaries – which, by the way, I published — I remarked how I nonetheless hoped I would see them in heaven.

Now, I would forgive you for thinking at this point that since I have clearly passed already I could tell you whether I have met with those lovely ladies in heaven, but I’m afraid I have not been authorized to reveal any information about what comes next. We who are dead leave all that gazing into mirrors darkly to you.

You might be interested to read the other monologues, too. I’d start with the introduction and then follow the gravestone links for each. It was fascinating to see how the Rent Wars in particular foreshadowed some debates we’re still having today. (If you don’t think who you vote for ever matters, read this.)

A BARDWELL’S FOLLY update

cover of Bardwell's Folly by Sandra HutchisonThe Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of BARDWELL’S FOLLY is up on NetGalley for most of November, and reviewers are welcome to request a copy. I’m not actually the person who decides who gets these, but if you are a blogger or reviewer who might potentially give the book some play, you should be approved (if not, let me know!).

My pub date of November 29 sure is coming up fast. Too fast, really, since the end of the semester and Christmas are also racing into view. If you want me to reserve a signed author copy for you, please do let me know so I can get it to you before Christmas. And if you’d like to attend a reading or a launch party, let me know that, too, through any channel.

 

 

 

 

“The fierce urgency of now” if you’re white

When I visit my friends in Maine, we are cut off from most of the Internet and from most television, and frankly that’s always one of the lovely — if disorienting — aspects of the trip. It was dismaying to return from that to news of two more killings in just two days of black men by white policemen, topped off by the killing of five white police officers in Dallas by one angry black veteran.

So what can those of us who aren’t black do about it?

As a novelist, I am always tempted to think that if I can just help someone put themselves in someone else’s shoes, they will develop empathy for that person and his problems. And in fact, my next novel does get into racial issues.

But because I have also taught argument and persuasion in racially mixed classrooms using contemporary topics, I also know firsthand that there are some young white people (men, usually) who absolutely refuse to imagine what it might feel like to be, say, a frustrated black man, or the family of a black man slain by cops over a minor offense.

I’ve watched them refuse to do this even as part of an exercise that might help them produce a more effective argument for their own side. In their view, the cop is always right, the black suspect always had it coming, and to entertain any other possibility is letting down the team.

So whites who are capable of noticing that there is such a thing as racial bias in the world really need to do more than just sympathize with its victims.

I was hoping for something explicit in my somewhat racially mixed church this week, since our presiding bishop had suggested as much. Our white priest gave his usual excellent sermon, though it was (also as usual) without a mention of recent events. But it was about the parable of the good Samaritan, and examining Jesus’s answer to that question by the lawyer — “Who is our neighbor?” felt appropriate.

Later, the priest did explicitly address recent events during the announcements, and instead of an offertory hymn, we heard a reading from Lamentations, an expression of grief in lieu of what he said would be our tendency toward self-righteousness at this time.

And, yes, it seemed fitting in many ways — defeated Jerusalem surely had something in common with those who feel they’ve been abandoned to poverty and violence and injustice, though the Jews had obviously experienced being the group in power in their own country at some point, and you can’t say that about black people in this country.

And then the reading ended on a note asking us to wait patiently for the Lord.

Sorry, Father Steve, but here’s where I get all self-righteous.

Because surely waiting patiently for the Lord is the oppressor’s game? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord is a perk of white privilege? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord assumes that everything will work out eventually if we just wait in love and hope and faith for goodness to win out?

As far as I can tell, unless people actually fight for something, goodness only wins out on an eternal scale. And, yes, eternity is the focus of church. But surely not the only focus of a church that says it’s concerned with justice and peace. Jesus didn’t wait patiently for the Lord. He went around saying and doing stuff, and he delegated his disciples to go around saying and doing stuff.

Waiting patiently for the Lord doesn’t do anything to address the injustice of the world we have now, the lives being lost now, the human potential being squandered now. And no progress on this planet has ever happened without people fighting pretty damned hard for it … and then continuing to fight for it when the usual suspects try to reverse it. (Just look at what has happened to economic inequality in this country in the last thirty years.)

The Rev. Martin Luther King rightly insisted on “the fierce urgency of now.” His classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in response to the clergy of Birmingham who expressed sympathy for the plight of African Americans in that violent city while deploring the protests he and others led there, made this especially clear:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. (Excerpted from the full text here.)

This is what the Black Lives Matter movement attempts to do, and obviously not just in the South. Even if you don’t agree with all the movement’s specific positions (I don’t), you can still support its goal of ending America’s largely unjust pattern of policing and sentencing black people.

We already know who doesn’t get it, or chooses not to get it. They’re the ones who say, “All lives matter!”

Courtesy of JP Porcaro's Facebook post

Courtesy of JP Porcaro’s Facebook post

The white people who most frustrated King did get it, but responded with grief and prayer and moments of silence and hugs and yeah, okay, all that is lovely — but not if it’s all we do. Not when it becomes a substitute for actually trying to take steps to solve the problem.

OnceACopIn a related note, I just finished a good book, ONCE A COP, by former New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Corey Pegues, that vividly details the appeal of selling drugs and belonging to gangs to young black boys in tough neighborhoods. He was one of those young drug dealers, who somewhat miraculously managed to escape into the military and then became a rising NYPD cop. From that vantage point of the insider, he illustrates how “broken windows” policing — when driven to extremes by politicians — can cause arrests to skyrocket, especially among young blacks.

In fact, he shows how simply being stopped without ID at hand can cause a young man who wasn’t doing anything wrong to be taken in and get entered into the system, something that may dog him the rest of his life.

And that’s just in New York, which doesn’t have a private prison system providing a profit motive for incarceration. Which doesn’t, presumably, see incarceration as an easy way to strip voting rights from a whole bloc of people almost as effectively as any Jim Crow laws did in the past. Which does hire some black members of the police force (though it would appear from the book that they mostly get promoted when racial scandals make it temporarily expedient to do so).

So what do we do, those of us who can see the score here, besides grieving?

Well, there’s this advice compiled by Sally Kohn.

You can also vote for the politicians and parties that recognize there is a problem with racism and poverty in this country and appear willing to do something about it rather than fanning racial fears and hatred. Not just at the national level, but at the local level.

And then you have to hold them to it.

And then you need to continue to support them when some of that change threatens to reduce some of the many advantages you and your children enjoy simply by virtue of being white and middle- or upper-class.

Even if it means volunteering and contributing and voting in less sexy midterm elections and local elections. If politicians who do the right thing think it will cause them to lose the next election, many of them are going to play it safe.

It also means, sometimes, compromising your ideological purity to avoid electoral and judicial disaster.

There are, sadly, a lot of people in this country who think this world is a zero-sum game, and the more benefits they can get for themselves at the expense of others, the better.

For the religious among us, however, there is supposed to be that pesky matter of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and not just those who live in our own zip code.

And religious or not, there is also such a thing as enlightened self-interest — the idea that prosperous people without serious grievances are less likely to pass along disease, or mug us to make a buck, or get angry enough to overturn our government. They are also way more likely to pay taxes and in other ways contribute towards the greater good, perhaps even cause our stock portfolio to rise in value. Maybe even take care of us in our old age.

So there’s that. If simple humanity or religious duty doesn’t appeal to you, maybe enlightened self-interest will.

Something’s got to do it. Because it needs to get done.

Called? To what?

Is writing a vocation or just something we like to do?

By Sandra Hutchison

Religious people are used to the concept of someone being “called” to vocation — priests and ministers are supposed to be answering a call, as are deacons, monks, nuns, and so on. The call, one hopes, comes from God.

I’ve often wondered how that feels. Personally, I have never heard a divine voice literally calling out, “Hey! Sandra! Yes, you! DO THIS THING.”

Maybe some folks have. Certainly it gets reported that way in scripture. But I am always highly suspicious of anyone who claims to have received specific, detailed messages from the Almighty. My first thought is “schizophrenia,” my second thought is “con man,” and my third — say, if it’s scripture being quoted by someone — is “okay, let’s hear it, but you can assume I may question its provenance or your interpretation of it.”

On the other hand, Rumi tells us to listen to “the voice that doesn’t use words.” And I have heard that voice.

Once, during my junior year of college, in England, I was spending the holidays with cousins in Scotland. Sometime after midnight I was walking back to a party in Edinburgh where my cousins were supposed to still be after I’d gone off to the young people’s celebration of Hogmanay — New Year’s Eve under the clock of the Tron (I kissed a bobby and drank from a passing bottle of whisky and felt authentically Scottish for a moment).

As I was walking along I suddenly felt a very hard tug from somewhere to stop walking and instead pound down the sidewalk as fast as I could. Which I did. I arrived breathlessly just as my cousins were pulling away from the curb, just in time to stop them and get a ride back to their home for the night.

I’m not sure this mattered — I could have walked the rest of the way to my cousins’ house if I had to. The streets were quite safe. But it felt as if it mattered a lot. It felt as if I had been saved from something.

Was that God? A “guardian angel”? Some funky extra-sensory perception? My subconscious calculating times and probabilities better than my conscious? I have no idea. But it was a voice without words, and that’s not the only time I’ve listened to something like that (though that was probably the time that felt most consequential).

Still, my religious faith didn’t arrive until a couple of years later, after quite a lot of reading and some meditation (outside of the Christian tradition) and some physics and some church. My conversion moment essentially consisted of me saying, in meditative prayer, “Give me a sign,” and promptly getting something I interpreted as one.

However, in hindsight, I don’t feel that sign was a genuine weird mystical event. I was, at that point, completely primed to have something, anything, give me permission to go where I had already decided I wanted to go. Anything in the room would have done. A cricket chirping, a nod of my own neck, a puff of wind from the window. I don’t even remember what it actually was anymore. Because that wasn’t really the point. I chose.

And yes, everyone who is called has to choose whether to answer. But I think you can easily choose things you haven’t really been called to, also, and then tell yourself you were called to them. You can easily confabulate a desire with a calling.

For example, I often feel a little tug during the Eucharistic prayer. I want to lift my hand and sanctify that bread and wine right along with the priest, which I’m obviously not authorized to do.  But I suspect that’s a BS thing on my part, because I’m also quite sure I don’t want to do the actual hard work of becoming and being a priest. It’s the religious equivalent of those people who come up to me at book signings to tell me that they have amazing stories to tell and they would be an amazing writer if only they had the time.

It could be worse. Imagine the pedophile priest who thinks, “I answered the call. I’ve sacrificed much to serve God and His people. Now God has provided for me. This child has been called by God to serve me.”

This is why I sometimes think a calling is better thought of as something more prosaic. Something as simple as somebody else in the church saying, “So, hey, our nominating committee thinks you should run for vestry.”

(Of course, when it gets this literal the whole idea of “being called” reminds me of a story my father likes to tell of a time he and his cousin were exploring the north of England and had been instructed by my great aunt to call Cousin Joan, who lived there. They had no desire to do this, so they stopped the car next to a field and yelled, “Cousin Joan!” Later, when Auntie Nan asked them if they had called Cousin Joan, they replied that they had, but she hadn’t answered.)

Authors often talk about being called to writing as if it is a vocation. I can remember sitting in the audience at a discussion with about eight writers at The Book House one afternoon when one of them said something along the lines of, “You write because you have to. If you don’t have to, you shouldn’t even do it.” And there was much nodding.

And yes, I agree that writing can feel like a vocation, in that you are giving up your time on earth to engage both conscious and unconscious parts of yourself in calling out a truth of some kind. It can feel like being touched with the spirit. It can feel like prophecy. But it can also be delusion, or ego, or hacking away, or a combination of all of the above.

Maybe I think this because I’ve written a lot of advertising. Enjoyed it, too. There’s plenty of creativity involved. Even a kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is not entirely unlike religious faith. By the time I’m done writing about that, say, inflation-protected variable annuity, I’ve usually also convinced myself that it’s A Most Excellent Product That Everyone Needs. But obviously I was really just hacking away at that to make a living. And the charges and fees are a killer.

I’ve also read plenty of published fiction that reads to me like someone just hacking away to make a living. (The later volumes of successful series are particularly prone to that, though thankfully not every author succumbs.)

But although we’d probably all prefer to read stuff that feels absolutely incandescent with the fire of truth, to the idea that no one should bother writing unless they are literally driven to do it, I say: Oh, come on.

Yes, it’s true that damaged, depressed people may feel compelled to write to try to fill an emotional hole that can’t be filled, or to establish a connection with some idealized other they can’t find in real life, or to process some traumatizing event in their lives. And yes, it’s true these folks are often brilliant and original, at least until they tragically destroy themselves. Extreme focus and need can do that.

The rest of us mostly write because we want to. Our productivity depends on our habits, the time we have available, and how preoccupied we may be by more fundamental needs like food and housing and child care.

Sometimes I think writers suggest that it’s a kind of calling or compulsion because they don’t want any more competition than they already have.

Sometimes I think they say it because they know the rewards are so long in coming and so uncertain that they feel they are doing you a real favor by scaring you off.

And sometimes I think writers believe that if it’s a sacred vocation that means it’s okay to not get a regular job, to continue working on our art despite the poor or non-existent compensation we are likely to receive. It’s okay to expect our spouses to support us. It’s okay to demand that quiet little writer’s nook where the kids won’t bother us, or escape to  that lovely writer’s retreat in the mountains. It’s okay to sign terrible contracts. It’s okay to passively await the reading public’s verdict instead of getting out there and flogging our stuff. It’s art! We’ve been called!

Adapted from an engraving by The Brothers Dalziel in "Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance" by Thomas Moore. In the public domain, courtesy of http://www.oldbookillustrations.com.

Adapted from an engraving by The Brothers Dalziel in “Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance” by Thomas Moore. In the public domain, courtesy of http://www.oldbookillustrations.com.

Suggesting that writing is a calling, a vocation, is also convenient for readers and publishers. It’s arguably an excuse for not paying writers and artists (and the people who work most closely with them) a living wage. Sure, a few writers are wildly successful and a few more make a living at it, especially in the more workaday genres. But the great bulk of writers must have other means of support. (If you’ve ever wondered why literary fiction is so white and so dominated by the wealthy classes, there’s your answer.)

Teaching can be like this, too. I know so many adjunct professors who feel called to teach. I’m one of them. I love teaching. But if the job won’t really support us, it’s kind of crazy to keep doing it. Pathological, even. I do it because I can afford to (which is not because of my writing income, believe me). And I’m not sure this is the most moral decision I’ve ever made. By accepting the lousy terms of adjunct work, I’m arguably enabling a shamefully exploitative system.

I think we often need to clarify our thinking about being called to a vocation, any vocation. Yes, we may feel called to it. Yes, it may be satisfying some deep hunger in us. It may feel like a religious experience. It may even be a religious experience. But although Jesus expected to die on the cross, he still expected his disciples to eat. If people weren’t willing to put them up or feed them, they were to shake their sandals free of that town’s dirt and move on to a place that would.

I think what I’m trying to say is that being called to a vocation is complicated at best. It’s full of potential pitfalls. It’s worth taking the time to carefully examine and re-examine our  motives. And if we ever see it as special permission to behave badly, then maybe it’s less a calling than a rationalization.

If you write, do you feel called to it? Do you see it as a vocation? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

If you #write, do you feel called to it? Do you see it as a vocation? Click To Tweet

Our father? Our mother? Words matter

I was thinking about how much words matter this last weekend during my first vestry retreat. (Vestry, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the group of parishioners elected to attend to the business of the church.) We were given two lectures about prayer by an articulate Catholic fellow, Paul Delio. It was interesting and insightful and yet as the time passed I began to feel a bit oppressed.

I especially felt this way during his discussion of the Lord’s prayer and the beginning of it: “Our Father,” which Paul pointed out was originally “papa,” really — what a child calls  his daddy.

I was sitting there thinking that obviously Jesus was a product of his time, even if he kept pushing the boundaries of it. And the men who codified what became accepted as holy scripture were also men of their time. So of course it was father or papa or abba that made sense for that prayer at that time.

But it matters, this “father,” when it is always, always “father” and never, ever “mother.” Especially in my parish church, which makes no attempt at a more inclusive liturgy. All year long, for example, we give “Him” thanks and praise, instead of the gender-neutral “God” that is pretty customary in most Episcopal churches I’ve attended.

“I don’t think of God as masculine,” I told our group in the discussion that followed, when Paul assigned us to talk about ways we would revise the prayer for our own understanding (which, to be fair to Paul, is the opposite of oppressive). I told my group I considered the language patriarchal. Why couldn’t it be “Our Father/Mother?”

My priest didn’t have any issue with the idea of God not being masculine. That was, he told me, quite well-accepted doctrine. He did have issues with “Father/Mother,” which we didn’t get into. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he objected at least partly because it’s such an ungainly phrase, and in this case at least further from the original source.)

Still, though. Accepted doctrine? Then why IS it always “Father”?

Maybe it wouldn’t even occur to me to get disgruntled about all this if I hadn’t once had the joy of attending a church led by a gifted female priest who went right ahead and changed the prayers to correct for gender bias. The Rev. Lucinda Laird would alternate Her and Him, He and She, God the Father and God the Mother. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was also the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. The first time I heard it I was shocked. She could do that?

She could. (It no doubt helped that this was in the Diocese of Newark.) And I grew to love it. I loved that the girls in our church were growing up hearing that every Sunday as an ordinary expression of our worship. They didn’t need to feel that extra little distance between God and them that boys never heard. They saw a strong, confident, gifted woman leading a thriving congregation in thanks and praise.

I miss that. (Not that I don’t consider my current priest quite gifted, or my current congregation thriving.) And I’m not ready to get militant about it, and in any Episcopal church it’s really the responsibility of the priest and bishop in any case. (“Episcopal” literally means “governed by bishops.”)

But I offer it as a matter of thought, to consider how the language we hear in church might be excluding or distancing a good half (or more than half, in many cases) of the congregation hearing it.

And I feel I should point out that there are indeed more inclusive ‘official’ liturgies available through the Episcopal Church, including Enriching Our Worship, here. It’s a fascinating read for those who are interested in such things.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

I’m also aware that I sound more than a lot like slightly annoying lesbian Carla in “The Awful Mess,” giving the poor interim priest a hard time about patriarchal structures as they walk through her kid’s upcoming baptismal service.

But as my main character Mary notices, at least Carla is engaged.

And that’s what I’m aiming to be.

——–

Speaking of being engaged, thought I would let you know I’m fast closing in on the end of a first draft for “Bardwell’s Folly” — which is a good thing because I’m at nearly 100,000 words now and in my genre it’s usually not a good idea to get much longer than that! Next comes revising and then starting the fourth novel while I wait for word back from my beta readers. Huzzah!

 

A Lenten practice for writers?

The sermon at church this week has had me wondering what I could choose to give up or take on for Lent. Which further made me wonder about what would be especially applicable to me to do as a writer.
I don’t think I am unique among writers in experiencing my life as a constant tug of war between creative energy and laziness, ego and embarrassment, reverence and irreverence.
Given that, I am wondering what temporary practice would be most useful for my writer soul? (Especially if, as our priest suggested, Lenten sacrifices or practices are designed less for self-improvement than for self-knowledge?)
So, I tried to come up with some ideas.
Stuff I could give up…
  • Some of the excessive time I spend on social media and digital distractions in general. The Freedom App looks very intriguing for that.
  • Checking sales reports or author rank. Surely once a week should be sufficient. But tell that to my fingers. They sometimes click on the KDP Report when I’m not even trying to go there.
  • Checking for reviews. This is especially pointless this far between books.
  • TV news. I get two newspapers and the Internet. I certainly don’t need as much TV news as I habitually watch (local news plus two national broadcasts each night, plus the Daily Show from the night before).
  • Eating while working. This is how my plans for a full healthy meal so often degenerate into little bits of this and that. Maybe I could find a way to play National Public Radio while cooking and address these last two bullet items at once.
 Stuff I could take on…
  • Daily exercise. I’m actually already working on that (and my daily word counts along with many fine writers in the Women Fiction Writer’s Association), so maybe it wouldn’t count for Lent.
  • More disciplined reading of fiction and professional books. I am drowning in excellent books I have not read, or have started and not finished. Less TV or social media would allow more time for that.

    This is just the pile under my bedside table. Let's not even mention the Kindle.

    This is just the pile under my bedside table. Let’s not even mention the Kindle.

  • Meditation on a more regular basis. Maybe. I am skeptical. I honestly suspect I get the same benefits during long walks, gardening, photography, and sitting around with a cat on my lap.
  • Not putting off all my business accounting until the last minute. Yeah, let’s not even pretend I’m going to do that.
  • More visiting with actual live human beings in the same room as me. Eh. I might just focus on one neighbor who needs this and not worry about my overall sociability. I am an introvert, after all.
  • Prayer. Bwa ha ha ha. The weakest link in my spiritual life by far. I have almost zero faith in prayer. But maybe, since that is my reaction, I should give it a try. A short prayer ideal for writers sitting down to draft? Hmm.
What about you, writers or non-writers? Do you have Lenten plans?
— Sandra Hutchison

Adventures in Amazon keyword padding

by Sandra Hutchison

Note: The specific keyword examples mentioned in this post are out of date now, because Amazon has changed the way keywords are input (possibly to cope with just this kind of issue). However, you might find it amusing anyway — and I suspect I could have gotten into just the same trouble using the current form. (This is also a reminder, fellow Kindle authors, to check your backlist titles to see what’s going on with the keywords.)

Authors sometimes work very hard to get keywords into their product descriptions on Amazon, but there’s actually a better way to come up in Amazon searches. It’s a technique called keyword padding that I first learned about in this helpful post by David Penny.

But you’d better be careful how you do it. I learned this the hard way.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsMy first novel, “The Awful Mess,” was on sale for a time in August, with a BookBub promo in the UK, Canada, and India and some other support for US and international sales as well. When I found out about keyword padding I thought, “Hey, great! Maybe I can leverage my current rank to capture a few more readers!”

A more cautious soul might suggest that I should enjoy a strong rank for a while without fiddling around.

“The Awful Mess” is in two main fiction categories: contemporary women, and literary. My seven keywords at the time of the promotion were romance, American, general humor, dating and relationships, love story, suspense, divorce.

Divorce isn’t really a strong theme in the novel (unless you count the increasingly  problematic ex-husband), so I replaced that one with a padded keyword:

“progressive Christian novel about an Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town in New England during the time when openly gay Bishop Robinson was being elected.”

You can have up to 400 characters. What you can’t have is a comma. I could just list terms one after the other, but I’m a writer and English teacher and that felt like cheating, so I wrote it up as a (ridiculously long) keyword phrase instead.

I wanted to get “The Scarlet Letter” in without having to add it to my product description, where it would probably scare away everyone who remembered hating that book in high school. (Although a reviewer or two has noticed and mentioned the correction, that never makes it show up in Amazon searches on “The Scarlet Letter.”) EDIT: Turns out adding another title to your keyword is a violation of KDP policy. I’m not sure why this made it through. It may be because nobody would attach their book to “The Scarlet Letter” and expect to generate significant sales because of it. It’s not like putting in “Harry Potter.”

I wanted “Episcopal or Anglican” because the terms vary in the rest of the world, and the book should interest some folks who like to read fiction about Episcopal/Anglican priests (if they can stand the sex and irreverence — I’m no Jan Karon).

When I first published this book I actually used “Episcopal” as a keyword, but that’s a tiny, tiny market and thus not worth spending a whole keyword on — but here it’s just one of a whole bunch of little niches I can mention. Note also that although I have always had the words “Episcopal priest” in my product description, the book usually would not come up in searches on Amazon for that.

“Bishop Robinson” in that padded keyword phrase is a reference to the heated debate that was going on at the time and place this novel is set. Gene Robinson was the first openly-gay Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the United States — in New Hampshire. Gay rights are a sub-theme of the novel (the hero’s sister is a lesbian in a committed relationship, though her father the Evangelical doesn’t know it … yet).

And the result of this change? About 24 hours later in the UK my novel was immediately ranking in the top 100 for Christian women’s fiction and Gay & Lesbian fiction.

#9 in Christian in the UK

Unfortunately, this book is not what readers would expect in either category. AND these two markets are pretty much mutually exclusive.

In theory, this gave me added visibility. But it didn’t strike me as worth confusing and quite possibly offending my readers. My companions in the Christian women’s fiction category were largely Evangelical, and their readers might have little sympathy for my characters — sinners that they are — or, worse, the suggestion of liberal theology. Not to mention, my main character is an agnostic for 99.9 percent of the book and it’s debatable what exactly she is for the other 0.1 percent.

Meanwhile, someone looking for gay and lesbian fiction to likely to be pretty unexcited by what is predominantly (and pretty clearly described as) a heterosexual love story, though presumably the inclusive theology wouldn’t offend this audience.

Anyway, though it may be coincidental with a natural slide a month after my price promotion, sales that had been percolating along in the UK immediately slid a bit. But on the plus side, my book DID come up when I did a search on “The Scarlet Letter” and on “Episcopal priest fiction.”

I wanted to keep those, so I ran and changed my padded keyword again. I took out “progressive Christian” and “openly gay” and used something like this instead:

Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in small town New Hampshire in New England at time of election of Gene Robinson.

I decided to stick New Hampshire in there, too, since New England was working, and I used “Gene Robinson” because a search on that at Amazon had turned up a bunch of books that targeted Episcopalians … so why not? Of course, if I had thought the least bit carefully, I might have predicted that this change would result (about twenty-four hours later) in this:

geneticengineeringwtf

Yes, I was now writing science fiction about genetic engineering, thanks to Bishop “Gene” Robinson. And while Bishop Robinson may indeed have caused a revolution, it was not in human genetics.

Oops. Let’s try that again. Today, my seventh keyword reads:

“Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary version of “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town New Hampshire or small town New England at time of Bishop Robinson”

That could still use work (it’s clear I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote it). However, the categories are back to what they should be, and the book now come up in searches for “The Scarlet Letter” and “contemporary version of the Scarlet Letter.” It also comes up in searches for “Episcopal priest” and “Anglican priest.” (Faster if you add “adultery.”) It comes up in searches for “small town New England.” (Both novels do, actually.)

So, dear colleagues, I invite you to go for it. But please… be careful out there!

Update October 12: My sales at Amazon slid so abruptly after this post that I became paranoid they didn’t like me writing about keyword stuffing. But it’s probably just coincidental with me pulling back from some day-to-day marketing. So this technique is not a huge instant boon for sales, clearly, but it can help readers who are searching for something very specific find you. I would also think that if you write nonfiction, it might be absolutely invaluable.

The addictive joy of “shipping”

Although I write stand-alone novels, I have spent a great deal of my life enthralled by various ongoing fictional relationships, whether in books or on television. There’s something uniquely addictive about watching a relationship unfold over multiple installments, instead of in one big gulp.

Is this because it mimics real life, where two people meet and might have to dance around each other for quite some time before they realize they belong together? Or is it because there’s a sense, when you see characters over multiple installments, that you are actually getting to know them the way you get to know real people?

Of course, it’s a very one-sided relationship. They don’t have a clue about you. But that makes it incredibly easy. There they are in your life, at regular intervals, consistently entertaining you. Meanwhile, you can wear sweatpants and never worry about whether the house is clean or you have spinach in your teeth. Nor do you need to worry whether they have anger issues, designs on your checking account, sexually transmitted diseases, or a deep-seated desire to axe you in your sleep.

So fictional characters are safe, you think … at least until you notice you’ve turned into the reader/viewer equivalent of a crack whore.

The risk is much higher today, especially with streaming services that make entire series available on demand. If it weren’t for my absolute refusal to turn on the television before 6pm, I could lose entire days! As it is, I still sometimes lose entire evenings.

For years now I have actively avoided TV shows when I hear people talk about them as addictive. I avoided Lost. I avoided Bones and House and Breaking Bad.

When I was a kid a show would be on once a week. At most, once a day. There were only five channels on the television, but I found plenty to suck me in. I shipped for Fess Parker’s luscious Daniel Boone and his wife, and John and Victoria on High Chaparral. I also had a thing for Barnabas Collins and Victoria Winters.

Spock and Kirk in a nutshell - Imgur

From http://imgur.com/gallery/SI6h3U9

As a teenager, I went gaga for Spock. Not that he was particularly great for shipping, unless the friendship between Spock and Kirk counted. But I suppose it did for me, even though I never saw that crossing over into what shippers call slash (i.e. Kirk/Spock – K/S, for short.)

In high school, my friends and I went mad for Ross and Demelza. (Poldark is being remade now and I’m glad — Winston Graham’s fine saga deserves another round of popularity.) My friend Julie and I devoured the books and used to reenact favorite scenes with a tape recorder.

Another fictional series I got interested in after a television miniseries was Conrad Richter’s The Awakening Land trilogy The Trees, The Fields, and The Town. Sayward and Portius were wonderful, and I swallowed those three books like candy. It wasn’t TV, but possibly just great cover art that led me to another addictive trilogy, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter novels. And if I hadn’t been so fond of Aragorn and Arwen, I doubt I would have plowed through The Lord of the Rings as fast as I did. (This was decades before Viggo Mortensen made Aragorn way cuter than he is in the books.)

File:Arwen-aragorn.jpg

From http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/File:Arwen-aragorn.jpg

A religious friend recommended Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries as good writing with Christian themes back when I was first exploring Christianity. I don’t think he had any idea how compelling I would find Lord Peter Wimsey, especially his eventual relationship with Harriet Vane. Star Trek had launched me into reading science fiction and fantasy, and these books got me started reading mysteries – but only if they have strong romantic threads. I still consider the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet one of the most satisfying fictional relationships I’ve ever read. It could not have been as rewarding if it had all happened in one novel.

In the world of television around this time, I got addicted to silly Remington Steele and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. And when Star Trek: The Next Generation came along I shipped passionately for Picard and Crusher from the very first episode. That passion inspired a long correspondence with TNG’s producer, the lovely Jeri Taylor, which eventually allowed me to do amazing Trekkie things like tour the sets and eat in the Paramount commissary. I even sold an (uncredited) story idea to Star Trek: Voyager, where I dutifully shipped a little for Janeway and Chakotay before I finally lost interest. If I hadn’t been married, with a full-time job and a baby, I might have tried to parlay that initial sale into an actual television writing career, but I knew how all-consuming that that kind of work was, so I didn’t.

It's more accurate to say XF Fandom created the word "shipping" -- to distinguish shippers from "noromos" who didn't want all that anguished attraction. From  ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/550072541961425904/

Mulder and Scully may be the reason THE WORD “shipping” exists — to distinguish “shippers” from “noromos,” who didn’t want their stories bogged down by all that anguished attraction. From ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/550072541961425904/

My mother got me addicted to The X-Files and Mulder and Scully. I loved those two, but that show eventually annoyed me so profoundly that I also started writing and publishing fanfic for it – something made so much easier by the new Internet than it had been before.

Another fictional couple caught me in their grip about that time, because while I was writing The Awful Mess I was keeping my eyes open for fiction featuring Episcopal priests. The Rev. Clare Fergussen and Russ Van Alstyne of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries can still cause me to drop everything for the next installment.

My Star Trek genes re-activated yet again when I discovered Star Trek: Enterprise, which I’d missed when it was actually on the air because I had a kid to put to bed and no time to chase down its weird movements on the TV schedule. (Jeri had moved on by then.) It was uneven, like all the Treks, but I loved that crew and Trip Tucker and T’Pol in particular. Like the original series, it ended far too soon. I wanted more.

trip_discovers_fanfic_avatar2 And so I wrote more. A lot more. I have put Trip and T’Pol together in scene after scene after scene (and yeah, occasionally the other characters, too). I recently totaled my fanfic.net output: 522,274 words. That’s at least five or six novels right there.

bed_shirt_avatarOn one level, this was absurd. Star Trek is a very recognizable universe, so I can’t just tweak my stuff and try to sell it the way 50 Shades of Gray was sold. (That started out as Twilight fanfic.) I should have put all that energy into work I could actually make some money from someday, even though I’d had a lot of nibbles but no bites from an agent. But, honestly? Fanfic kept my writer’s ego alive through all those rejections.

It was also great training. I got the discipline of writing regularly, the tougher feedback that comes from sharp writing pals, a chance to experiment, and an opportunity to roll with reviews and reviewers that were mostly kind, but definitely not always so.

Rude but effective. From AngelCosta78: http://41.media.tumblr.com/8cb7350090904ccb2f5b57cc9d498e70/tumblr_mpy1wvenEI1rtrs3mo3_1280.jpg

Rude but effective. From AngelCosta78: http://41.media.tumblr.com/8cb7350090904ccb2f5b57cc9d498e70/tumblr_mpy1wvenEI1rtrs3mo3_1280.jpg

Today, I’m not really addicted to any TV couple. I used to religiously watch the stylish Castle (though I never bothered with repeats), but Kate Beckett went gaga over a wedding dress a year or two ago and I haven’t watched it since. Defiance is entertaining, but I’m willing to simply watch it unfold. House of Cards has addictive qualities, but who can ship those awful people?

Readers sometimes tell me they’d like to see more of Mary and Winslow from The Awful Mess. I have written a (recently much expanded) prequel I’m about to make available to members of my mailing list, but I kind of hate to do anything else to those two. (Didn’t they already suffer enough to get to their happy ending?) As for Molly and David in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, I think I left them where they needed to be left.

Right now I’m in the midst of turmoil with another couple in Bardwell’s Folly, but I don’t expect to stay with them for more than one novel, either. (If you want to read the first two chapters of that before anyone else does, do make sure you sign up for my mailing list.) And then I have a play to write, and then another stand-alone novel in mind.

But after that, or possibly even before that, I’m beginning to wonder whether coming up with a series of some kind might not be a good idea. It would give me a chance to play with a long relationship over multiple installments. And it might give me a writing income closer to the income of your typical low-level drug dealer, as opposed to your typical starving novelist.

Except… to stretch out a romance over multiple installments, there has to be an A plot that leaves the reader feeling some sense of satisfaction at the end of each episode (or book). Otherwise, they’re likely to feel cruelly tortured by egregious cliff hangers and unresolved sexual tension stretched out beyond all reason. (Cue X-Files theme music.)

Perhaps that is why so many great couples come from genre fiction — historical sagas, Westerns, vampire tales, mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Yes, people are falling in love, but their number one job is usually something more pressing, like finding murderers, saving the universe, or fighting off the bad guys. Just plain old romance over multiple volumes tends to devolve into soap opera. (Cue Downton Abbey.)

Do series even exist in women’s or literary fiction? I suppose Jan Karon’s Mitford novels do this — Father Tim and Cynthia take a long time to come together while the various problems of the people of Mitford get charmingly presented and resolved. (An agent once won my heart by telling me The Awful Mess was like the Mitford novels, “only better.” He still didn’t think he could sell it, though.) There are probably others, but I can’t think of any. Can you?

Who are your favorite ongoing fictional couples? Who’s your crack?

Coping with the pathologically entitled

A couple of years ago I was reading a cookbook I had borrowed from the library and there was an interesting seafood recipe that referenced a “corn meal bath” on another page. I went to that page … or, rather, I tried to. The page was gone – expertly razored out.

Browsing further, I discover at least 10 more pages missing.

This was not the first time. Other cookbooks I’d borrowed from the library had been pilfered in this way too – sometimes even new books still on 14-day loan. The pages had always been removed very neatly. This particular thief must read with an X-acto knife sitting nearby.

I still wonder – was it so inconceivable for this person to make some twenty-five cent photocopies? Copy down a recipe? Buy a copy of a book? Why must this person steal from the public library, rendering the book incomplete for anybody else?

How did this person come to feel so entitled?

I sometimes also run into this at the thrift shop/food pantry where I volunteer once a week.  We sell donated items in order to fund the food pantry, which exists to provide food for the hungry in our community.

Most of our items cost a dollar or two. It may be the best deal in the entire Northeast. Yet there are certain customers who find it offensive to pay even that little.

They have their own little systems for obtaining what they want for free. One likes to dump the clothes she wants in the dressing room or the elsewhere in the store, buy one small item, then come back through another door and grab the rest.

Some brush things into their pockets or bags, or stuff them under their coats. They open their bags on their way out and add more to them. They do this in front of their own kids, sometimes. Heck, their kids do it, too. Sometimes they come in pairs – larcenous friends like to shoplift together, apparently.

One woman stalks quietly around the shop, her pretty face deformed by a permanently suspicious expression. She always seems to think that what we ask for an item is too much, on the occasions when she buys something instead of stealing it. But of course she thinks we’re out to cheat her – she probably assumes the rest of the world is just like her.

I also can’t get over the guy who used to use our dumpster as his free trash service. He’d come in and buy something small – a book, a gadget. He’d spend maybe fifty cents. And just about every time he came, there was suddenly a bag of kitchen garbage in our dumpster. I caught him in the act once and stopped him and explained to him how much the dumpster costs us (hundreds of dollars a month). He was extremely contrite. But he went right back to doing it.

This was a guy who owned two houses and a brand-new truck. But he felt entitled to steal trash-dumping from an operation that exists solely to feed the hungry.

But there’s another area where things can get dicey.

Most of our clients are truly in need. Most are very grateful. They may be temporarily disabled, or working low-wage jobs, or between jobs, recently divorced, or suddenly supporting grandchildren or elderly parents. They won’t show up until they really need it. Some volunteer themselves. Some struggle to find stuff they can donate to us.

Others seem less deserving. Some are clearly alcoholics. (Of course, even alcoholics and their kids need to eat.)

But some of our clients simply seem to feel we owe them. Their families get suspiciously large. They try to tell us they have guests, so they need more food. They never miss a month. When they call, they don’t ask, “Is it okay if I get some food today?” They say, “I’d like to pick up my food today.”

Sometimes they watch greedily while we pack their groceries and ask for this rather than that, do we have any coffee, what about pet food, what about toiletries, what about ______? They call up and say their friend got a ham, why didn’t they? They never miss signing up for anything they can get, from Thanksgiving dinners to Christmas presents.

They don’t say “Thank you.”

gimme gimme gimme NOW.

From Cheezburger.com

The great temptation of volunteering in an organization like this is to begin to suspect everybody of scamming you. And if that happens, you become pinched yourself – grudging with the food, hostile to well-meaning people who donate stuff that just isn’t salable, curt with customers. You burn out. If the organization is lucky, you take time off, or quit. If it isn’t, you make everybody else miserable.

The organization I volunteer for is a local ecumenical Christian organization, and I do happen to be a Christian, though nobody has asked to see proof of that. Jesus certainly promoted charity. If you have two coats, he said, give one to the poor. (My closet wouldn’t bear examination, that much is certain — I pick up too many bargains at the thrift store.)

Christian though I may be (multiple coats aside), what keeps me going best when I am tempted to give in to cynicism is a little scene in a trilogy of novels by Thalassa Ali that she set in Victorian India (future Pakistan).

In one of these novels, when an especially observant child in a Sufi family asks the family matriarch why they must give alms when many beggars don’t truly deserve help, she tells the child that God may also give her something she doesn’t deserve.

Think about that: God may also give us something we don’t deserve.

I find that very useful and sobering to reflect upon whenever I start getting snarky about some of the less grateful or deserving recipients of charity.

After all, we all need charity of one kind or another, even if it’s just the charity of being loved despite our faults.

So I thought I’d share it. Maybe it’s a concept that will help you, too.

When I first published The Awful Mess I maintained a fundraising page for Feeding America (which helps support the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, from which we get a great deal of our pantry’s food, as well as logistical support). I did this partly because the heroine of my first novel The Awful Mess depended on her neighbors for her survival — and embarrassed me by doing more for the hungry of her town than I was doing. I still volunteer, but I give my donations differently now, so they can be matched. You can do that, too (or find a food pantry, if you need one), at Feeding America.

Sincere blasphemy

My book The Awful Mess: A Love Story is a contemporary twist on The Scarlet Letter that naturally features a priest who gets himself into a very bad spot.

Hawthorne didn’t inspire this book, and I didn’t set out to model mine after his. I think I was nearly done with the first draft when I suddenly realized I was echoing The Scarlet Letter in some major ways. I hadn’t read it since high school, though, so I promptly reread it — this time with much more appreciation than I’d had at 17.

My errant cleric is an Episcopal priest because this book was actually inspired by the sad  coincidence of knowing three separate married Episcopal priests who had cheated on their spouses in the course of their duties and thereby wrecked their careers.

(They had not cheated with me, I hasten to add!)

These were three men who were dynamic in the pulpit and beloved of their congregations. Why would they risk all that for an affair? But I also knew they were hardly alone in this.

That’s how I eventually arrived at Arthur, who wasn’t Arthur at all in the very first draft. I changed his name when I realized how much he had in common with Arthur Dimmesdale. (Roger’s name changed at that point, too.)

Anyway, why would a man do this? I decided that Arthur needed to be feeling trapped and stale to go so wrong, so I gave him a miserable marriage, as well as the problem of knowing a lot more provocative Biblical scholarship than the average congregation would ever want to hear. (Not that I’m entirely convinced he wouldn’t have cheated anyway, mind you.)

Then I needed someone for my errant priest to mess with. And that was another puzzle. What self-respecting woman would want to sleep with a married priest? And who would be stupid enough to get pregnant in the process?

My husband and I had dealt with infertility issues ourselves, so I had my answer to the second question. If you think you’re infertile, you never bother with birth control (except, ironically, during infertility treatments).

So I made Mary someone who had been cast off, and was just lonely and isolated enough to indulge in the immediate physical comfort of something she herself didn’t think was right. (I just couldn’t rename her Hester. NOBODY is named Hester.)

Anyway, for the priest, I figured Mary could represent a welcome break from having to be a spiritual leader all the time. But oddly enough, every time I tried to write Arthur seeking solace in Mary’s lack of religion (and/or her pants), he kept trying to save her soul anyway. And that’s because the man is still a sincere Christian, if a rather flagrant sinner. He’s a Christian, even though he clearly has wrestled with doubt, and doesn’t put much store in purity – or his own vows – and his theology is about as progressive as it can get and still be called Christian.

Religiously, I actually have a lot in common with Arthur. I don’t share his disregard for marital fidelity, but I do share his theology. I used to find his ideas – for example, about the virgin birth – absolutely appalling. I even left a church once because the priest was espousing them. But since then I’ve learned more, and changed my opinion about that and many other aspects of my belief.

I can still vividly remember what it was like to be so appalled, though. I can fully understand having that kind of belief, being viscerally attached to that kind of belief, while still being a perfectly intelligent person.(Atheists just don’t get how this is possible, in my experience.)

So I can value Bert’s Evangelical faith, for example. Most of all, though, I appreciate that even though he feels strongly that many things in the world are an abomination to God, he still finds it in his heart to love rather than to condemn when it really matters.

And sometimes that love is expressed in very practical ways: With food. With a coat. With shelter. With comfort to to the sick, or to those in prison.

With forgiveness.

It’s all there in the gospels, multiple times, attributed to Jesus. And that is a Jesus whose fan club I can happily remain a member of, even after I have come to doubt many aspects of the creed. Not because I expect to burn in hellfire if I don’t believe, but because I respect His teachings and want to follow them.

Anyway, as I expected, I’ve gotten some occasional grief from religious reviewers. I kept my book out of the Christian category to avoid the worst of it, but I didn’t feel I should be chased out of “religion and spirituality” completely, and so at the moment I’m drafting this, if you type in “women’s religion and spirituality” my book still shows up on the front page.

I expected some condemnation, but I’m actually impressed by the kindness shown by some people who clearly don’t share all the book’s beliefs.

(I’m also still new enough at this to be tickled to have any reviews, period.)

This blog post is, however, my rather long-winded attempt to refute the reviewer who says that the book feels insincere. She writes:

I liked the characters, and I thought the story interesting enough for 4 stars. However, I downgraded it to 3 because I felt it had a quasi-religious agenda that came across forced. The religious agenda was also somewhat blasphemous. If you have to force feed a position, it doesn’t resonate with truth. This book had undertones of man twisting God to be whatever man wants him to be so as not to have to change our behavior. It just felt insincere. Good plot though. And well paced writing.

She was generous enough to give me credit where she felt credit was due, so I can’t  complain. But I’d like her and anyone who thinks that way to know that my “religious agenda” is entirely sincere.

Because I firmly believe that if you are a Christian, or even just a human, then giving and accepting love should be more important to you than anything else.