Writing: A Love Story

I’ve been catching up on old episodes of the Nerdist podcast, and I listened to an episode from May with Michael Fitzpatrick from the band Fitz and the Tantrums. I bought their album More Than Just a Dream earlier this summer, and it’s so great that I’m a little sad that I didn’t discover them earlier.

Fitz was talking to host Chris Hardwick about his long career in music. The band Fitz and the Tantrums has only been around a few years, but Fitz himself is in his early 40s and has been in the music industry for so many years. He talked about what it was like to finally be recognized for his music and how hard he and his band have had to work. He also talked about finding his voice. He’s been a singer and played instruments and been trained in so many styles of music that he wondered what his authentic voice was. When he moves between genres of music, how does he know what’s really his own voice? It seems like he’s finally figured that out with this current band, but it’s also interesting to note that all of those different styles and influences actually formed the voice that he’d been looking for the whole time.

His comments also reminded me of Glenn Miller. In the biopic The Glenn Miller Story (which I watched many times as a kid), Glenn Miller (played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart) plays in a lot of bands that he eventually leaves because they don’t have the right “sound.” He walks out of a performance of “Moonlight Serenade” because he didn’t like the way the singer interpreted his music. When he finally finds the right musicians, he finds the right “sound,” and he makes the music he’s always dreamed of. But once more, it took all the experience of the “wrong” sound or the “wrong” voice to get him to the right one.

These past two days, I’ve met four classes full of students that I’ll be teaching this semester. Seventy-five students that I hope to steer towards being better writers and towards finding their own voices. I’m realizing that it might take a lot of “wrong” voices to get them there. How do I, as a writing instructor, dedicated to my craft and to the rules of my craft, encourage them, lead them without stifling their voices? How do I find a balance in correcting, teaching, encouraging? I’m going to have to teach them how to do the same thing that Fitz and Glenn Miller did: search for authenticity while learning from those who have gone before; take risks to learn about themselves while understanding they might crash and burn.

I’ve been thinking about my own writing process. Writing my thesis was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, one of my proudest accomplishments to this day. It didn’t happen overnight, though. It took a lot of reading, researching, learning, scratching out, starting over, across many years of scholarship, to get to that level of writing. I read articles and critiques in an effort to sound more scholarly. I imitated, but I also became what I studied. By learning from others’ writing, I figured out how to become my own writer. I figured out how to love the research and the analysis and the thinking. And, hopefully, I learned how to teach some of that to other people, too.

This is the joy and the burden of teaching writing. Writing is forever a search for authenticity, a search for identity, a search for meaning. Writing is difficult and time-consuming and back-breaking. Writing is frustrating and demanding. But writing is also empowering and coercive. Writing demands reflection and empathy, a knowledge of self and others and the universe, a quest for truth and life and answers. Voice and craft can exist side-by-side without contradiction. This is the lesson that I ultimately want my students to learn.

Beauty and Truth, part 3

One year ago today, I started this blog. Happy anniversary to me! This is my 83rd post, which averages to about one every 4.5 days. Not bad at all. 🙂

My very first post was a memoir I wrote about a year and a half ago–an exploration on beauty–or the lack thereof–in my life. Interestingly enough, that subject is something that still intrigues and perplexes me. A year later, it still weighs on my mind often.

A few weeks ago, I assigned my students the chapter on Beauty from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Before I visited Massachusetts a few months ago, my opinion of Emerson was very different. I respected him for his influence on American literature, but I didn’t really appreciate him for his own literary worthiness. That’s changed so much in just three months. I’ve read Nature in its entirety once and my favorite sections many times since. My copy of Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, bought at the Emerson House in Concord, MA, is battered and worn already. Purple highlighter marks a plethora of worthy passages. Emerson’s ideas are constantly running through my mind.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath.

The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. [ . . . ] Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.

When I assigned the chapter to my students, most of them balked at reading Emerson. He uses big words, they complained. Their eyes examined me skeptically as I raved over his genius. But when I gave them a writing assignment and had them give me a definition of Beauty, I received so many insightful definitions. And while they perhaps didn’t enjoy Emerson as I do now, their writing was proof that they were thinking about beauty outside of just my classroom. And they were incredible insightful.

After reading Emerson, many of them listed things in nature as being beautiful: sunsets, the ocean, rainy days. Others talked about beautiful people or love or gave a literal definition. But I also had each of them make a list of things they find beautiful, and as a good writing instructor, I made one in my journal as well, which I’ll  include here.

So what is Beauty? Have I decided? I think so. Beauty is Truth. Beauty is anything that makes me realize how powerful God is, how excellent his creation is, and how valuable my life is as a result. So here’s a very short list of beauty in my life:

1. Mornings on Camp Creek Road on my way to work, which the trees make a canopy over the road, and the Blue Ridge Mountains are enveloped in fog
2. Switchfoot’s Learning to Breathe; the Civil Twilight album; The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky. Plus, a whole lot more incredible music
3. Driving down a long stretch of road
4. Everything about autumn–the weather, the colors, the scents
5. Renewal and rebirth in spring
6. The ocean at night, stretching to the horizon to meet a sky full of stars
7. Being surrounded by my family at Radius
8. My bulletin board, filled with memories of adventures my best friends and I have had
9. The smell of coffee brewing
10. LOVE
11. Stacks of books
12. The color purple–not the book, which I haven’t read–just things that are purple 🙂
13. Edward Hopper paintings
14. Great works of literature
15. Long, colorful scarves
16. Christmas lights
17. Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s house in Flat Rock, NC
18. The Concord River flowing past the Old Manse and under the North Bridge in Massachusetts
19. Redbirds
20. Lighthouses

I could go on forever, but twenty is enough for now.

Happy Halloween!

Three Weeks In…

…and I’ve learned a good bit about teaching. Some days, I leave class invigorated, sure that I’m changing the world, teaching my students things they’ve never heard before, encouraging them to expand their minds. Other days, I walk out of class dejected, pondering the vacant looks on their faces, with eyes glazed over, as they struggle to stay awake.

Most days, however, I leave class grateful for this opportunity, encouraged by knowing that it’s a process, and my students and I have all semester together to explore the world of writing.

I have learned a few important things, though:

1. As much as I love grammar, even I can’t make subject/verb agreement exciting at 8:00 in the morning.

2. I cannot teach writing the exact same way to two distinctly different sets of students. I’ve done some activities in one class that I know the other class would not find interesting. I’ve asked questions and recieved vastly different responses from my two classes.

3. Bibles verses and Beatles lyrics are fantastic sources for teaching students parts of a sentence.

4. A penguin is not just an aquatic bird.

5. Just because a student has a British accent does not mean he’s actually British.

Teaching is great. Really. It’s challenging in ways I didn’t expect. It’s exhausting. It comes with a great deal of responsibility. And I’m more sure than ever that it’s what I want to do the rest of my life.

Playing with the Boys

This is the second assignment that I turned in for my fiction writing class. I met with my writing professor Friday afternoon to discuss this piece. She liked it–at least the characters. She gave me some very helpful suggestions on how to make it better and expand it. She also wants me to finish it…I started it in high school as a novel, and Leslie (my professor) thinks I should keep going. In fact, she wants me to work on an outline of where the story is going so we can discuss it next week. (I earned extra work from my professor–that’s a good sign, right?)

* * *

Petey Marshall crouched behind home plate, twisting her feet to grind her cleats further into the red clay. By this last inning of the baseball game, dirt streaked the denim shorts and yellow t-shirt that she wore. A fine layer of the same dust coated her arms and legs, and her face was already warm and pink from the morning sun. She reached her right hand up to pull her blond ponytail through the straps of the catcher’s mask, the only piece of equipment she donned besides her glove and cleats. She’d only conceded on wearing the mask because the boys wouldn’t let her play otherwise.

Petey fixed her gaze on the pitcher. Throwing her fingers into the dirt, she signaled for a curveball. Their team only needed one out, and Jake, the batter, who was playing with them for the first time, wasn’t yet familiar with Cody’s pitches. Yes, the curveball might work.

Cody nodded almost imperceptibly and scraped his foot along the rubber on the pitcher’s mound. Petey grinned, anticipating the third strike that would result in a win for her side. She positioned her glove behind the plate, Cody wound up and released the pitch, and Jake swung . . . and connected, sending the baseball flying toward right field.

Jake chucked the bat to the side and sprinted toward first base, while Petey leaped up and ripped off her mask.

“Evan, get the ball! What are you waiting for?” she bellowed toward her cousin, who had been playing a shallow right field. How many times had she warned him about that? He was now running toward the back wall after the baseball, and Jake was halfway to second base.

Petey watched as Justin, who had been poised to run on second base, darted past her and crossed home plate. If Jake scored, the game would be tied. Petey felt the competitive tension rise within her. “Come on, Evan!”

Evan finally caught up to the ball. He threw it to his brother Ethan, the second baseman, who twisted around to find Petey, positioned on the baseline halfway between third and home. Jake had just rounded third base, and then Petey had the ball in her glove. She wrapped her right hand securely around the ball and lunged toward Jake. Surprise flickered across his face as he pulled back, trying to return to third base. Petey launched herself at him, pushing the baseball into his back as they both fell into the dirt, landing just a few feet shy of third base.

“Out!” cried Ian, the third baseman.

Petey heard Ethan yell a triumphant “Yes!” as he ran toward them. Petey smiled serenely before finally dropping the baseball still clutched tightly in her hand. Ethan appeared in her view, stretching a hand down to Petey. She grasped his hand and scrambled up.

Petey turned and looked down at Jake, who was kneeling on the ground examining his left elbow, which was covered in dirt and blood. “Oh, dude, are you okay?” Petey asked.

Jake grinned wryly and stood up. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied, brushing dirt off the knees of his battered blue jeans. “But when we skidded to a stop, my elbow hit the ground first.”

“Justin, go grab my first aid kit, will you?” Petey demanded as she leaned closer to examine Jake’s scraped elbow. She tossed her glove to the ground, then stepped closer to Jake, placing her hands lightly on his left arm, examining the scrape.

“She has a first aid kit?” Jake asked.

Ethan shrugged. “You get used to it. She breaks us, then patches us up again. She’s sadistic that way.”

“Shut up, Ethan,” Petey muttered.

Justin jogged back to the group, the first aid kit already open. Accustomed to this procedure, Justin had several alcohol swabs in hand.

Petey wiped her hands on a towl from the first aid kit, and then tugged on a pair of rubber gloves. She then took the swabs from Justin and looked up at Jake. “Is this okay? It’s probably gonna hurt worse than when I collided with you.”

Jake held Petey’s gaze. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Petey began cleaning dirt out of the scrape. Jake winced, but didn’t pull away, and soon, his elbow was wrapped in gauze and tape.

“There you go.” Petey stepped back and replaced the unused supplies in the first aid kit. “Make sure you clean it out again when you get home, but it should be fine. Trust me. Happens all the time.”

“So what are you? Florence Nightingale during the week and Johnny Bench on the weekends?” Jake asked as the few remaining players turned back toward the dugout.

Petey swung the first aid kit from her fingertips as she walked into the dugout. “Not quite. I am in nursing school though.” After Petey plopped down onto the warped bench, she uncapped a bottle of water, poured it over a clean white towel, and gingerly wiped the dust off her sunburned face. The bench groaned and shifted as someone sat down beside her. Petey opened her eyes, expecting to find Ethan. Instead, Jake had joined her.

“I had a lot of fun today,” he remarked. “I’m glad Ethan invited me. Even if you did attack me.”

“Hey, I really wanted to win.”

“You’re such a good sport,” Jake teased.

“Of course I am.” Petey grinned. “Unless I lose. Then you’re just going down, Jake.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind for next time.”

Petey focused on the red dirt that she was rubbing off her forearm before speaking. “Does that mean you’ll be back to play next week?”

“Yeah, I think so.” He paused. “I mean, if that’s okay. It seems you’re sort of the team captain here, so maybe I should have asked you first,” he teased.

“Yeah, I am sort of the team captain, and I don’t mind if you come back.”

“Good. That settles it.” He clapped his hands against his knees before standing. “I guess I’ll be going then. And I’ll see you next week.”

“Okay. Bye, Jake. Oh . . . and it was nice to meet you.”

He turned back to gaze at her and smiled. “It was nice to meet you, as well. Even if you did injure me on our first day as friends.”

Petey blushed. “I am sorry about that. But I had to make a first impression somehow, right?”

“Right. Bye, Petey.”

“Bye,” she called as he walked out of the dugout.

Petey turned to pack her equipment back into her duffel bag and didn’t notice as Jake stopped to whisper to Evan, “So is there any chance that Petey is single?”

“Dude, seriously? Yes, she is.” He clapped a hand around Jake’s shoulder.

Jake chuckled and walked to the chain link fence around the dugout. “Hey, Petey?”

Petey turned around. “Yeah, Jake?”

“The Greenville Drive have a home game tonight. Any chance you can stand some more baseball today? Do you want to go with me?”

Petey walked to the fence and stared at Jake. The last time she’d been to a Drive game had been with her ex-boyfriend Mike. She pushed away the thought and glanced at Ethan, who was nodding his head, encouraging her. “Yeah, I think I could do that.”

“Perfect. The game starts at seven. Why don’t I pick you up around six?”

“Sure.” She quickly gave him direction to her house, and then bit her lip before hesitantly asking. “Jake, is this a date?”

He smiled, wrapped his fingers in the chain link fence and leaned closer to her. “Yes, it is. Is that okay?”

“Yeah. I just wanted to be sure.”

Jake stepped back from the fence. “I’ll see you tonight, Petey.”

“Okay,” she replied and watched him walk to his car. He just asked me out, she thought. I was not expecting that. He’s really cute, though. She smiled to herself and turned back to the dugout. Ethan and Evan were the only two guys left in the dugout.

Ethan wrapped his arm around Petey’s shoulder and pulled her close. “So, Petey, is that the first time you’ve injured someone and gotten a date out of it?”

Petey place her hands against his chest and shoved, and Ethan stumbled backward into the dugout bench, laughing. When she sat down beside him and leaned back against the fence, closing her eyes, Ethan continued. “Have a good time tonight, Petey. I’ve known Jake for awhile now. You’ll have fun.”

“Thanks, Ethan.” As he stood up, she opened her eyes and grabbed the edge of his t-shirt. “Hey, did you invite him here because you’re matchmaking?” She narrowed her eyes at him, knowing what he and his twin brother were capable of.

Ethan pulled away from her grasp. “Perhaps.” He picked up his bag from the floor and followed Evan out of the dugout and to their truck.

Petey watched her cousins drive away, then turned back to gaze across the baseball field. The tall grass in the outfield waved gently in the wind, and the sun shone brightly on the red infield. Her gaze moved over to third base, and she replayed the last few moments of the game in her mind.

I tagged him out, made his team lose, and injured him, and he stil asked me out, she thought. “He likes me,” she murmured quietly and gazed out over the field once more.

Meet Virginia

This is the third assignment I’ll be turning in for my fiction writing class. It’s my favorite so far and the longest. Enjoy!

* * *

The sun slipped beneath the horizon, and twilight arrived in the garden outside the one-story house where seven-year-old Nathan Clarke and his mother, Camille, lived. On this autumn evening in late October, a few remaining dying leaves clung to the tree branches, and fallen leaves coated the ground. A stiff wind blew suddenly, ruffling the blossoms of the carnations and mums. One dark red leaf swirled down, landing directly on the pointed tip of a garden gnome statue. The leaf balanced precariously for a moment before continuing its journey to the ground.

Suddenly, the sound of tiny feet walking through the leaves could be heard in the once-quiet garden. Occasionally, the rhythmic shuffling was broken by a crisp sound, as if the owner of those feet were taking particular care to step on a delightfully crunchy leaf. As yet another breeze stirred up the leaves, a whisper, carried with the wind, floated through the garden. “Awake, magical creatures of the night!” the voice quietly called out.

These words brought life into the garden. The gnomes, who kept silent watch during the daytime, suddenly awoke. Smoke curled up from Belvedere’s pipe as he sat atop a mushroom-shaped stool in a bed of foliage. A few feet down the garden path, another gnome, Jehosophat, bent his head to dig through the brown sack he held in his left hand. Each night, Jehosophat collected objects from the flower beds in the garden. His sack was full of buttons, coins, bits of fabric, and other treasures, mostly items that fell out of Nathan Clarke’s pockets when he was playing during the day.

A third gnome appeared from behind an oak tree, carrying a large black book. Here was Brimley, the one who had called the other gnomes to life, the first to awaken every night, the gnome who enjoyed stepping on crunch leaves. During the day, Brimley sat beside the wooden swing where Nathan Clarke loved to play. Each evening when the sky grew dark, however, these magical gnomes came to life and roamed around the garden, finding adventures and treasures, quoting poetry, and occasionally making mischief. The gnomes developed a routine each night that had never been discovered by Nathan Clarke and his mother.

On this particular evening, things began normally. After Brimley had spoken the words to awake his fellow gnomes, he skipped down the little stone path towards Belvedere, who had a hard time waking each night.

“Wake up, Belvie! Darkness has returned to our fair garden. Now hop off your toadstool, and let’s gather the others!” Brimley scurried along the path, reaching out a hand to assist Belvedere, whose short, little legs made it difficult to leap from the mushroom. Once Belvedere had hopped to the ground, the two gnomes hurried to Jehosophat, who was still plundering through his sack.

Brimley opened his mouth to speak again, but his words were halted when a window near the corner of the house slid open. Out rolled Bernard, a tiny gnome no taller than two inches. He rolled off the window sill into a pile of leaves, then leaped up and started running quickly towards the three larger gnomes.

“Jumpin’ Jehosophat!” he cried. “What have you got there?”

Jehosophat finally pulled his head out of the bag. His hand followed, clutching a gold arcade token. “Look at this coin I found after you left last night, Bernard!”

Jehosophat handed his little friend the token. Bernard grasped it, but it was too heavy and fell to the ground, pulling the tiny gnome down with it.

Jehosophat gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry, Bernard! Here, let me help you up.” The taller gnome lifted the token and Bernard from the ground. He perched Bernard on his shoulder and held up the token for the smaller gnome to investigate.

“Beautiful! Have you found anything else, Josie?” Bernard asked eagerly.

“Yes. Have a look at this!” Jehosophat reached into his bag once more, as Bernard held onto the larger gnome’s ear to keep from sliding off his shoulder. When Jehosophat pulled out his hand, he was clutching a small brown button, just like the ones the three larger gnomes wore on their clothing.

When Brimley spotted the button that Bernard was examining, he gasped. “Are any of you missing a button?”

All of the gnomes, including Bernard, who didn’t even wear buttons, looked down at their tunics. Then they looked back at Brimley.

“If none of you is missing a button, then where did it come from?” asked Belvedere.

Silence fell as the gnomes comtemplated this question. Finally, Brimley spoke the inevitable conclusion: “There must be another gnome!”

“Another one?” Belvedere lamented. “We don’t need anyone else!”

“Relax, Belvie,” Brimley soothed. “You were new once, remember? We must find him and welcome him!” Brimley, as the first gnome to arrive in Nathan Clarke’s garden, felt that it was his duty to greet each gnome that appeared in the garden. “Let the search begin!”

“Oh, goody!” Bernard began hopping up and down on Jehosophat’s shoulder. “This is the first time I’ve gotten to greet a new gnome!”

“That’s the spirit!” Brimley stated, pumping his small fist in the air. “We know he isn’t in the front garden, so let’s start on the side. This way, everyone!” Brimley pushed past Belvedere and marched resolutely down the path toward the side of the house. Belvedere and Jehosophat, with Bernard riding on his shoulder, followed.

Before Brimley had led the group of gnomes very far, however, he was horrified to hear a moan and the grating sound of wood moving against wood. He swiveled around, colliding with Belvedere, and fervently murmured, “What was that?”

Bernard and Jehosophat stopped their quiet conversation and listened intently, as well. Brimley scanned the garden and the small house before resting his gaze upon the window from which Bernard had emerged. Horrified, he watched as Nathan Clarke’s small hands slowly worked the window up. “Quickly! Stiffen!” Brimley ordered.

The gnomes aligned themselves next to the cement spacers on the garden path and mimicked their daytime postures. Brimley held his breathe as Nathan Clarke finally opened the window wide enough to stick his head through. The young boy rested his chin on the window sill and dangled his arms against the side of the house as he stared wistfully out into the garden. When he spotted the gnomes, he jerked his head upward, banging it against the window. “Ouch!”

“Nathan?” his mother’s voice inquired from within the house. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Mom!” Nathan pulled his head back inside. “I just hit my head on the window!” The boy paused, glancing back at the gnomes. “Can I go play outside?”

Through the window, Brimley could see that Camille Clarke had appeared in her son’s doorway. “Just for a few minutes, and you must stay in the garden,” she instructed. “And be sure to come back inside when I call you.”

“I will, Mom,” Nathan said as he dashed past his mother towards the front door of the house.

Brimley heard the hardwood floors creaking as Camille crossed the bedroom. Placing her hands on the window, she forced it closed without even glancing outside. Brimley shuddered. Their secret was safe from Camille, but Nathan Clarke was, at that moment, swinging open the front door of the house and stepping onto the front porch.

Brimley trembled, nearly losing his grip on the poetry book tucked beneath his left arm, and watched the boy bound down the front steps. Nathan Clarke slowed his steps as he approached the group, and when he reached them, he settled down onto one of the stones and curled his legs beneath him.

Brimley tried to maintain a vacant stare, but Nathan Clarke focused his penetrating, intelligent eyes on the gnome, and Brimley reluctantly turned his eyes to meet the boy’s gaze. Unsurprised, Nathan Clarke grinned and reached out to inspect Brimley’s book.

“What are you reading?” he asked quietly.

“It’s poetry, kid,” Belvedere responded before Brimley could speak. “You read poetry?”

Nathan Clarke slowly shook his head. “No. My mom does, though.” Closing the tiny book and handing it back to Brimley, he continued. “I didn’t know all of you were alive.”

“What do you mean, ‘all of you’?” Brimley asked hesitantly. “Did you know some of us were alive?”

“Of course. Bernard leaves the window open when he leaves. I’ve seen him come back when he things I’m asleep.”

Belvedere glared at the tiny gnome who huddled behind Jehosophat’s ear. “You should have been more careful,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry,” Bernard whimpered. “He’s just a kid! I didn’t think he’d notice!”

“No, no, it’s okay.” Nathan Clarke plucked Bernard off Jehosophat’s shoulder and held him up to his face to quietly reassure him. “I won’t tell anyone. Even my mom. I promise!”

“I believe him, friends,” Jehosophat continued. “Hey, maybe he can help us find . . . “

“Wait a second,” Belvedere interrupted gruffly. “How do we know he can be trusted?”

“You’re always so suspicious, Belvie. Bernard’s been sneaking out for months now! If Nathan Clarke were going to tell someone our secret, don’t you think he would have done so already?” Jehosophat gestured toward the boy, shaking his treasure bag in the process.

Nathan Clarke nodded emphatically, while Belvedere merely gave a “harrumph” and puffed his pipe.

“What is it you’re trying to find?” Nathan asked. “Maybe I can help.”

Bernard trotted over to where Jehosophat stood and tugged on the edge of the larger gnome’s tunic. “Show him the button, Josie.”

Jehosophat set his sack on the ground and held out his left fist, which still held the button. “We found this. It’s just like ours, but none of us have lost any. We think a new gnome has arrived in your garden. Do you know?”

“Of course,” Nathan Clarke responded. “I always help Mom pick out the gnomes. I helped name all of you, you know.” The boy gestured to the gnomes surrounding him. “We put the new gnome next to the little pool beside the house yesterday.”

Belvedere grunted. “Only been here one day, and he’s already lost a button?”

Brimley ignored Belvedere’s grumblings and turned to Nathan Clarke. “Can you show us?”

Brimley nodded emphatically, and the gnomes all quietly shuffled through the foliage beside the path where the boy walked. Their alert gazes scanned the house and garden for any sign of Camille Clarke, and all were prepared to dive into the bushes in case she appeared. The little company safely crossed the small, wooden bridge connecting the side garden to the one in front, and even Belvedere seemed to relax knowing they were no longer in direct view of the front porch.

Nathan Clarke marched over to the reflecting pool in the center of the side garden and knelt down beside it. “The gnome sat right here earlier today. I wonder where it is now?”

Brimley walked to the edge of the pond and peered down at his reflection and the leaves scattered across the surface of the water. “If I were a gnome in this part of the garden,” he speculated, “where would I go at night?” Brimley glanced around and spotted a cement bench nearby. He had taken one step in that direction when Camile’s voice rang through the garden.

“Nathan! Time to come in! Nathan!”

The boy gasped and jumped up. “I better go, guys. Good luck finding the new gnome!”

Brimley called out before Nathan had reached the bridge. “Nathan Clarke!”

The child turned. “Yes?”

“You mustn’t tell your mother, all right? Keep this a secret!”

He nodded solemnly. “I’ll keep it a secret. I promise. Can I come see you again tomorrow night?”

Brimley glanced at the others. Jehosophat and Bernard nodded emphatically, but Belvedere merely grunted and shrugged his concession. “Of course you can.”

Nathan Clarke grinned. “Good night, then!” He ran around the stone path back to the porch, and the gnomes were once again alone in the garden.

Brimley turned to the others. “Let’s go check that bench.” As Brimley led the way, he suddenly heard the faint sound of a flute playing. When he neared the bench, the music grew slightly louder, and Brimley spotted tiny feet clad in brown leather slipper sticking out from beneath it.

“I knew you’d find me eventually,” a mellifluous voice floated out.

The unexpectedly soft voice surprised Brimley, who came to a sudden stop a few feet away from the bench.

“You knew we were here?” he questioned.

“Of course. I saw you pillaging last night in the front garden.”

“We weren’t pillaging,” Jehosophat stated defensively. “Just searching for lost treasures.”

The gnome chuckled. “Whatever. I watched you from far away. I even saw you find my button and knew you would eventually figure out I was here.”

Brimley shook his head. “Okay, then. Will you at least come out, so we can introduce ourselves properly?”

The feet disappeared as the gnome pulled them back in before emerging from the bench on hands and knees. When the gnome stood, Brimley stared in shocked silence. The clothing and hat were the usual garb of a garden gnome, but instead of the traditional dark blues, reds, and greens, this gnome wore chocolate brown pants and a lavender tunic, which was missing one button. A light pink, pointed hat sat atop a mass of blonde curls, and the gnome’s blue eyes sparkled. Held tightly in the gnome’s right hand was a small, silver flute.

Brimley and Bernard could only gape at the new arrival. Jehosophat dropped his bad with a loud clunk, and the hand that clutched Belvedere’s pipe fell limply at his side.

“But you’re, you’re . . . ” Brimley stuttered.

She smirked. “Hi, boys. My name is Virginia.”

Revising and Reflecting.

I had my first meeting with my writing professor this afternoon. We discussed the story I turned in earlier this week (which you can read on my previous post). She gave me some very constructive criticism, which I mostly agree with, as many were changes that I realized need to be made. The hard part will be actually making those changes.

In the meeting (and afterward, as  I drove home), I contemplated some habits about myself that I’ve definitely noticed before but that bothered me anew today:

1. I’m a dork. Seriously. Don’t laugh. When I’m nervous, I talk too much and say stupid things. Dude,  I do that even when I’m not nervous. I need a better filter between my brain and my mouth. Harvin believes it’s because I’m so emotional and passionate. Is there a way to not be that? Should I attempt to be less than what I naturally am in an attempt to better myself?

2. I’m really, really hard on myself. (See above point.) I berated myself all the way home (a 40-minute drive) for comments I made during the meeting, and I’m sure they were not nearly as bad as I imagined them to be. This happens frequently. I can relive moments from months ago (that are probably long forgotten by the person with whom I was speaking) and literally wince at my own stupidity. I’m doing it now.

3. I state the obvious way too often. In stories, I tell without showing. I don’t trust my readers enough to come to conclusions. I use cliches with reckless abandon (see?). In conversation, I do it, too…not because I mean to be insulting. Instead, reiterating someone’s comment just makes sense to me, but I’ve realized recently that it is insulting. I need to do better.

I feel as though this post has quickly become Haley’s Self-Help Guide or perhaps a list of New Year’s resolutions. I’m not sure. But the first step is admitting this faults, right? Now, to be more conscious of what I’m saying and doing in an effort to fix these issues.

Perhaps I should cut all caffeine out of my life. While I’ve done well eliminating caffeinated coffee, I’m still addicted to the Coke Zero, and caffeine definitely makes me lose my inhibitions more. Perhaps I’ll buy a muzzle as well. Perhaps I’ll make an attempt to stop being so blasted dramatic, too. 🙂

I do know one thing. Fiction writing is difficult. I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge (in the long-term, at least). It’s hard work and a painful process that I don’t really enjoy. I don’t really have stories inside of me just dying to get out. I struggle to finish anything I start. I’ve severely stressed myself out this week in an effort to just get two assignments turned in. I’ve been disappointed in myself, and I hate that.

I’ll never be Marquez or Fitzgerald or even Rowling or Meyer. I don’t know if I should even continue writing fiction after this class is finished. I don’t know that I need to do any sort of writing beyond that which is necessary for self-reflection and gaining insight in my own life.

Perhaps my strength lies in analyzing literature instead of attempting to write it. We’ll see. I’m not giving up yet. Over the next 3 weeks, I’ll have 3 more meetings with my professor, as well as other classes in which we’ll discuss other aspects of writing. Perhaps I’m just frustrated, and I’ll be able to clear my head enough to do an excellent revision of which I can be proud.

Learning to Breathe

I’m taking an advanced tutorial fiction writing class during the month of January. We have to produce somewhere between 15 and 60 pages of fiction writing. It’s intimidating, and I’m overthinking it and stressing myself out about it. But I did manage to find something to turn in for my first assignment. I wrote it back in the spring, so I pulled it out, made a few revisions, extended the ending, and turned it in. We’ll see what my professor thinks on Friday. But for now, I’ve decided to include it on my blog, since I did start this blog promising myself I would write more.


Marion finally decided that Jeremy wasn’t showing up. He’d promised to be here before 7:00, and the clock on the microwave read 9:54. Three hours late . . . again. And not answering his cell phone.

She picked up her purse from the dining room table and dug around until she withdrew a set of car keys. As she stormed through the living room towards the front door, she called over her shoulder to her roommate, “I’m going for a drive. If he actually shows up, tell him whatever you want.” She slammed the door shut behind her before she could hear Carmen’s response. Carmen thought she should dump Jeremy. Marion was finally close to agreeing.

Marion pulled her car out of the driveway and turned north to head out of town. One of the advantages of living in a small town surrounded by farmland was that plenty of lonely highways stretched across the landscape. Marion often drove for miles without passing another car. Marion often drove for miles after Jeremy stood her up.

As the houses and street lights grew farther and farther apart, Marion turned the volume of the radio up. She was not in the mood for ridiculous pop music, so she reached up to the visor to pull out the CD in the first slot. Switchfoot’s Learning to Breathe. The one she always listened to when she drove at night. She turned the volume up as loud as she dared. Marion firmly believed that, one day, she would be able to drown out her thoughts. So far, it was a failed experiment.

Marion drove seemingly on auto-pilot as she let the music fill up the empty spaces and she contemplated how she was going to break up with Jeremy. A boyfriend who was perpetually late or absent was bad enough. When that same boyfriend forgot his plans to take her out to dinner on her twenty-fifth birthday, he was no longer worth her time.

When Marion reached a stop sign on the highway, she flipped on her blinker and turned left. Three miles down the road, she turned down a back road that led to an old Methodist church where her great-great-grandparents were buried. As she braked to turn onto the dirt road that would through the cemetery, the headlights of her car swept across old, crumbling gravestones. She pulled to a stop beside the little white church and turned the ignition off, leaving the headlights on. Without the music and the sound of the car’s engine, Marion was surrounded by an unearthly silence that sent shivers down her spine.

She sat still for several moments before finally switching the headlights off, too. Leaving the keys in the ignition, she stepped out of the car and walked around to the front. Lifting her right foot up to the bumper, she hoisted herself onto the hood of the car. Perched next to the hood ornament, she rested her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands and felt as dead and lifeless on the inside as the scene that stretched out before her.

One street light cast a surreal orange glow over the cemetery and the side of the church. Dim moonlight filtered through the overcast sky, casting an eerie glow over the tombstones that stretched out in straight lines across the grass. Some of the stones were tall and proud, others stout. Most were faded and crumbling, worn by time and the elements. Many were clustered with tombstones of other family members, and a few boasted flower arrangements at the base of the stone. Most, however, were unadorned, as few family members were left to tend the graves. Entire lineages were buried here.

Marion just barely remembered her grandparents, who themselves barely remembered the ancestors buried here. This place, tucked away from any well-traveled road, seemed to be the land that time forgot. Church services had not been held in the old white building for forty years. Only one or two elderly residents were buried in the cemetery each year. While the church was kept painted, and the grass cut regularly, very few visitors set foot on the property. Marion actually found herself there every few weeks, mostly on nights similar to tonight. But never had she encountered anyone else, even during the daytime.

As a child, she had visited with her grandparents, who had come to put flowers on the graves of their grandparents. The place had both fascinated and terrified her. She enjoyed climbing the steps to the front of the church to touch the old doors that kept history locked inside. As she grew a little older–and a little braver–she asked her grandfather to hoist her up to peer into the side windows. The dusty pews and pulpit seemed lonely and desolate, and Marion thought it sad that no one was allowed inside anymore. The cemetery itself scared her, too. She had always clutched her grandmother’s hand tightly as they walked through the rows of tombstones. She listened quietly as her grandmother told stories about the family members buried there. Marion loved the stories.

On this night, however, the stories seemed more haunting than historical. Marion very easily imagined that the ghosts would soon rise up and begin walking towards her. The thought alone was almost enough to send her flying back to the driver’s seat and heading back to civilization.

The thought of Jeremy kept her there, however. Marion had a decision to make, and she knew the relationship had to end. Jeremy was undependable. He was always late. He never appreciated anything she did, whether it was cooking dinner or buying him a spectacular gift for his birthday last month.

Marion and Jeremy had grown up together. They’d been best friends in elementary school, and they’d dated in high school until Jeremy left for college five hours away. When he’d come back to town a year and a half before, however, he was single again. Marion had been dating him ever since.

As she gazed across the darkened cemetery, Marion realized that her relationship had run its course. She was only dating Jeremy because he was all she’d ever known. During the years when they’d been apart, Marion had never had a serious relationship, and she’d always wished for Jeremy to return. When he did, she was sure they would get married. Now, she wondered if she even loved him at all. Marion knew that Jeremy was safe and comfortable. Like her nighttime visits to this church, he was routine.

As Marion finally admitted these thoughts to herself, the anger drained out of her, only to be replaced by a weariness that made her heart sink. Tears coursed down her cheeks, and she buried her face in her hands. At twenty-five, she was stuck in a complacent, average life, and in a few more generations, she would be as forgotten as those buried nearby. As resistant to change as she had always been, she knew that it was finally unavoidable.

Marion lifted her head as she heard a vehicle turn onto the dirt road. She recognized the familiar sound of the diesel engine, so when the truck pulled up beside her car and Jeremy stepped out, Marion was not surprised. Of course he would come here. Even if Carmen made up some elaborate story, Jeremy would have figured it out, since Marion always came here.

Jeremy silently walked over to the car and slid onto the hood. He didn’t touch her, didn’t try to make excuses. He knew.

Marion stared straight ahead, avoiding looking at him. Finally, she sighed, and with a new resolve, clearly stated, “I guess you know it’s over.”

His deep voice was quiet and sincere. “I know. I’m really sorry, Marion.”

Marion turned her head slightly to look at him. “I actually do believe that. But it’s not enough anymore, Jeremy. It I mattered more to you, you would remember me before it’s too late.”

Jeremy sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Marion reached out her hand to grasp his one last time. He tightly entwined his fingers with hers and squeezed before speaking again. “I loved you, you know.”

Marion caught his use of the past tense and recognized the truth of his statement. “I loved you, too.” Fresh tears slid down her cheeks.

Jeremy slid off the car hood and stood in front of her. Placing his hands around her face, he leaned in and gently kissed her. “Goodbye, Marion.”

Marion closed her eyes and leaned into him briefly before he pulled away. “Goodbye, Jeremy.” Marion sat still and listened as he pulled away, leaving her alone yet again. She marveled as she listened to the sound of her own breathing penetrating the silence around her. Jeremy was gone, but life would continue without him. Marion breathed in deeply one final time before jumping off the car and sliding behind the steering wheel. Before she turned back onto the dark road, her headlights beamed over the tombstones as Marion left the cemetery, driving back home.

I Am Still Running.

I jokingly tell my younger brother that, of the two of us, I am the perfect one–while he was the troublesome child, I was a model of decorum. We joke that if he’d been born first, my parents would have been so dismayed they never would have had a second child. Unlike many children, including my brother Berry, I actually liked to follow rules. When I started school, I enjoyed homework, so getting it finished before watching TV wasn’t a difficult choice. At bedtime, I might have asked for five more minutes, but if Mom and Dad said no, I wasn’t one to argue.

My brother was an entirely different matter. He infuriated teachers in elementary school when he never turned in homework and fell asleep in class, but when asked a question, he could amaze them with his intellect. And bedtime was a constant battle. Frequently, he’d sneak out his bedroom into the hallway and peer around the bookshelf where he had a perfect view of the TV. Often, my parents would find him curled up on the floor asleep when they finally went to bed.

My mother likes to tell an anecdote about the two of us. As an infant, if I were upset or tired, my parents needed only to put me into my crib. Being confined in that safe, enclosed space was enough to calm me down and put me to sleep. My brother, born three years later, was never satisfied with being enclosed. He was the child who climbed out of the crib and balanced on top of the bars. He was the one to take risks in order to escape.

Looking back at my life, I can see that this desire for safety, and the necessity of being in control, ruled my life. One day, when I was perhaps three or four years old, I was walking down the sidewalk back home from my best friend’s house next door. A strange man was walking across the street and moved to cross it. All I knew was that he was a stranger, and strangers were bad. As I walked up the driveway to my house, I could see my father through the latticed fence, but that fence separated me from him. And I knew that fence needed to separate me from the stranger.

I screamed. I ran. I struggled to get the gate open, and I felt the strange man walking closer to me. Finally, the latch released, and I was able to get inside, to safety. I still remember the immense feeling of relief as the gate slammed shut behind me. I remember running inside, running to safety. Just running.

My brother and I are both in our twenties now. Berry’s a firefighter. Not much has changed for him. Safety actually dominates his life and his profession, but he still must be that risk-taker he was as a child.

Not much has changed for me either, actually. I’m still bound by safety. I want guidelines. My life is frequently dominated by control. And often, I find that I’m still running. Searching for safety. Grasping for control.

* * *

August 2001

I imagine that a major goal of every sixteen-year-old girl is to discover something about herself. She may not state that explicity, but each day as a teenager seems to be marked by a quest to discover one’s identity. I was certainly no different.

August 2001 was a culmination of a year of soul-searching and decision-making. In September 2000, I had received an invitation to apply to the Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics, a two-year residential high school for gifted students. As an awkward, intelligent student in my very rural, small-town high school, I saw my chance to escape. I grasped an opportunity that I knew I could not let pass me by.

The day in February that I received my acceptance letter was the happiest day of my life, to that point. I took a week to decide, but I knew what my choice would be the moment I read the word “Congratulations” on that letter. I was getting out of my hick town. I was running . . . towards something better. Towards the future.

When August arrived, I was a basket case. Excitement. Nervousness. Extreme fear. All of it was there, battling it out inside my heart. Leaving home must be the right decision. The Governor’s School could offer me so much more than would ever be possible in my small town.

I lasted six days. Six days, marked by the most intense roller coaster of emotions I’ve ever experienced. Six days of working diligently to convince myself I’d made the right decision, followed by moments of terrible heartache at knowing that it had instead been the wrong decision.

So I ran again, back home, to the place that was familiar, even though, less than a week before, I had run away from that very same place. I was only six days older, chronologically. But my life had taken a dramatic turn down an entirely new path. I had been intelligent before, but now that intelligence was accompanied by something else: a fierce motivation to be better than my circumstances, a desire to prove to the world that good things can come from a dying town.

I was running again, albeit in a different direction. This time, instead of running away, as I had so often before, I was running towards the dream of finding a place where I truly belonged. It had not been in Hartsville, at the Governor’s School; it wasn’t in North, my dying little town. But I knew I would find that elusive location eventually; I just needed to work really hard to get myself to that point. And so I pushed myself, and I kept running.

* * *

December 2007

After dropping my friend Nicole off at North Greenville, I drove back home to my little house in Travelers Rest. As I drove down the darkened highway, admiring the Christmas lights that were starting to appear on various houses, I thought about the conversation we had just had.

I was twenty-two years old, a college graduate, and utterly dissatisfied with the state of my life. I disliked my job and dreamed of moving home, saving money, and starting graduate school, with the hopes that being back in school would make me feel as though my life were actually going somewhere. I was also angry, bitter, and single at a time when seemingly every girl I knew was getting married. God and I were not on speaking terms, although no one knew that. I had built a wall around my heart, and I struggled everyday to maintain some semblance of control.

Somehow, in the course of our lengthy conversation, Nicole had seen through a crack in that wall. She peered into my heart and honestly and lovingly rebuked me. “I’m going to pray for you to be broken, Haley.”

I nodded through the tears in my eyes. I let pieces of that wall crumble in front of me that night, and I knew she was right. I also knew it would be painful, and I wasn’t ready to take that step on my own. So I kept running for the moment, holding that facade in place, not knowing that just a few weeks later, something would happen to shake me to my very core. Brokenness was coming.

* * *

January 1, 2008

It seemed like a cruel joke. No one should start the new year off in ICU, strapped to machines and unable to move because of all the needles emerging from her arms. At 12:04 a.m., the nurse woke me up to give me yet another pill. She wished me happy new year, and I wondered where my friends were. How they were celebrating. If any of them knew that my life had changed completely and irrevocably.

Diabetes is the fastest-spreading disease in America, and I had just joined the ranks. But reality had not set in yet, and I was so relieved to just be feeling better (thanks to the shots of insulin and the continuous fluids being pumped into my severely dehydrated body).

Nearly twenty-four hours later, I had nearly made it through the first day of the new year, and my first full day as an official diabetic. I was moved out of ICU, and I spent a relatively uninterrupted night in a lonely hospital room. The relief had begun to fade, only to be replaced by a desolation I had never known.

The tears ran down the sides of my face to my pillow, as I wondered what would happen next. Could I be diabetic? I knew enough about the disease to know that everything had changed. Syringes and vials of insulin would be my constant companions. I would never be able to touch another Mountain Dew. And who knew what else? It seemed too much to handle.

I marveled at what I imagined to be God’s sick, twisted sense of humor. I knew that my lack of trust, my tight reign on control in my life, was a sin. I imagined that God was punishing me for this sin. I had suddenly, it seemed, been stricken with a disease that required absolute control over every aspect of my life. It seemed that God had given me exactly what I desired. In the midst of my tears, I laughed bitterly at the irony of it all.

My anger, fortunately, didn’t last long. It couldn’t. In the midst of all my pain and fear, I realized that I had very little strength. I also knew that I would soon be leaving my family, to return to Greenville, and I could not rely on their strength, either. God was all I had, and I realized I finally had to stop running.

* * *

It’s been a long journey, these eleven months. But it’s been so worth it. I’ve learned more about myself than would ever have been possible had I not been tested and stretched. I’ve also learned a great deal about God’s love and strength and how He provides for me. I’ve come a long way, and while I still fight to let go of control, and I still try to run on occasion, more and more, I find that I’m running towards something now.

“Give me a home inside Your open arms, the only place I ever will belong.”

-Jon Foreman, “I Am Still Running”