Monday, September 19, 2011

Attic Stories and Parlor Stories

You may have noticed: the things that get said on this blog continue to speak to you long after you've left the computer.

So it was that after reading Ariel's post last week, I went on a country drive with my husband, and found myself thinking of attics and parlors.

I live in a good place for a country drive, because I am surrounded by beautiful places, and the wilderness is never more than a five minute drive in any direction.

But once upon a time I lived in California's Silicon Valley, in a mature housing development surrounded by strip-malls, fast-food restaurants, and other mature housing developments.

So it seems strange that it was in this place that nature invaded the attic - repeatedly - but that's the truth.

We had a nest of yellow jackets - in the wall, but they got in through the vent in the attic. (I read the first page of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, and know exactly the static radio sound she describes, though it didn't make me think of honey.)

After the yellow jackets were gone, my husband lifted the trap door one night to investigate a strange noise, and found himself nose to nose with a raccoon.

But the varmint we referred to as "the neighbor upstairs" was a female possum who took up residence, and stayed for quite some time, because we feared to repair and lock the broken vent, lest we inadvertantly trap her inside. We didn't wish to deal with a frightened, cornered animal with sharp teeth, nor did we want to fetch a dead one out. So for the several months it took us to devise a clever plan, she stayed.

The ceiling was thin plywood. We knew she slept directly above our heads when we were in bed, because she snored, and we could hear her loud and clear. We also heard - everything - when she brought her boyfriends home...

All to establish that an attic can be a wild place. And the critters are just the beginning. It's us humans after all, who stuff them with boxes and boxes of things we don't want to see but can't throw away: old love letters from people we didn't marry, journals filled with melodramatic ramblings of our youth, photographs and momentos that remind us of things that cause us sorrow or shame.

Stuff writers refer to as material.

Which brings me to the parlor.

It's a different sort of place. We try to keep it tidy, and more than any other room, we decorate this one. We read the magazines, tour the model homes, compare fabrics and paint chips, and spend money and time to make it nice. Brocade and mirrors? Leather and paisley? We bring our company to the parlor, after all, so we take control of the story it tells, to reflect the life we want to believe we are living, the life we want others to see.

Some writers get their material here.

I'll bet you can see the mistake, but it's an easy one to make - especially for Christians. Other writers may project an image, but that image is for their benefit alone, and the one they wish us to see may even be enhanced by the darker, grittier material found in the attic.

We Christians are unique in that we consider the image of Christ we present, even more than our own. Who else in the world worries that something they say or do may knock another's doctrine askew, and lead to serious eternal consequences? Wow man, that's heavy.

And laudable.

But please, listen to me:

That prettied up, surface part of our mind is a terrible place from which to draw a story. People's parlors tend to look the same as other people's parlors (we all read the same magazines), and the stories that come from there all read the same.

If we want to write stories that mean something to people with attics of their own, we have to climb to that shadowy place in our heads full of strange noises and wild animals. If you're a storyteller, you must go there.

Ever notice how little faith you need in the parlor? David didn't write, "though I walk through the valley of gingham and stripes." It's the valley of the shadow of death that forces us to reach for God.

But we fear ourselves. We are human and fallible. Experience has taught us our viewpoints and even our doctrines will change as we study and pray and listen and grow over time, so how can we open our mouths about the things we will find up there? What if we say the wrong thing?

I'd like to submit that you can say the wrong thing in the parlor. It may be pretty, but it will still be wrong.

Even more, I'd like to submit that there is Someone in the attic besides the possum and her boyfriends. He is wise and good, and He can handle you. He filled His Bible with stories. At night He fills your head not with graphs and facts but with stories from the attic. He cherishes those photographs and love letters and journals, and He works all things together for good. Even - especially - inside of you.

You can trust him.



Megan Sayer said...

Wow. All I can say is that this is Keatsian, in that it is as beautiful as it is true. The imagery you've presented here will stay with me for a long time, for sure.

I remember once, many years ago, standing at the coffee counter after church when a friend asked me how I was. So I told her. She looked at me in silence for a minute then said "That's very...real." That's when I really discovered that the culture of Christendom as we know it values neatness over honesty, which is a sad, sad place to be. Especially when there are many, many people outside the church who, when they come into "the parlour" are too scared to sit down for fear of dirtying the place, and instead of welcoming them we allow them to leave.

Thanks again Katy for another truly beautiful post!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Meaty thoughts, Katy. I'm climbing up through the hatch now, armed with my broom and dustpan, hoping to find usable attic stuff.

Patti Hill said...

This is so timely. My attic and my "attic" are the focus of my attention these days. Beautifully and poignantly constructed, my dear. And Megan, I liked what you added about those on the outside who fear dirtying the parlor. Oh Lord, make us real and honest for your sake and for the sake of the lost.

Nicole said...

Indeed, though the parlor "dirt" seems clean, it's just as trashy as the attic dirt. Otherwise there'd be a heirarchy to "allowance" into God's kingdom.

Some readers of those "clean and pretty" stories often exude a self-righteousness that comes off to them as oh-so-clean and holy.

The truth can hurt. It is often ugly in that we are ALL sinners saved by grace. All the beauty comes through in the love of Jesus.

Marian said...

I thrive on attic stories. My blog and my book: "Blooming: This Pilgrim's Progress" are full of them. I'm finding it's one thing to record attic stories and quite another to to use attic material to weave a story.

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan: Keatsian? Oh, you sweet thing.

I'm sorry your friend found no better thing to say to your honesty. Yes, parlors can be intimidating places in their own way, and parlor people can frighten attic people just as much as the other way around. A problem to those of us concerned with the great commission.

Kathleen Popa said...

Nicole: You're right that the parlor people can seem self-righteous. I want to emphasize, though, that their intentions are often the finest. It's just that by parlor standards, wherein we must put the best face forward, we'd have to edit the Bible to reflect a Mary Magdalene without the seven demons, and a David without Bathsheba, and a Psalm 137 that ended way before the eighth verse.

Kathleen Popa said...

Marian: Many blessings on your weaving and Blooming.

Debbie and Patti: Mwah!

Anonymous said...

Megan, I've encountered that as well. I'm just so tired of living in fear that someone will find out that I'm weak and flawed and afraid (etc, etc). It's interesting how often I ask my characters to speak of my imperfections on my behalf.

I don't think that my readers have any idea that they're looking right inside all the pain and complexity of baggage that clutters my attic.

Bonnie Grove said...

Katy, this is glorious. I don't know how you manage to knock these articles out of the park every time. But I'm so glad you do. Loved the analogy.

My attic is cluttered, but I am still rummaging through the contents of just one box. Talking to the Dead, the novel I have just completed, and my planned next project all deal with this one box in my attic. Every time I think I've reached the bottom, I find more inside.

Some things are too big to be understood in one lifetime.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Katy, reading this made me wish it was easier to write attic stories. Those not afraid of heights and ladders still have to navigate the shadow-filled corners and cobwebs, the rotten floorboards and unmarked boxes. Not to mention the dust. Plenty of dust up there in the attic. I can think of a dozen phobias that could be triggered by one trip to that dark recess of storytelling.

Kathleen Popa said...

On Ariel's post, Deb left a comment that I think is relevant to our conversation. Here's what she said:

Without meaning to disrespect anyone who writes "Christian fiction," the reason I seldom read such books is because there is more often than not an air about them of, well, unreality.

I've lived a very hard and eventful life, as have many people I know. I've found that "regular" or "secular" fiction helps me so much in fumbling my way through this world and, oddly enough, often leads me into a closer walk with my Lord.

I need protagonists who bleed and weep, who plunge into sin and must bear the consequences. Yes, even the ones who might rage at God, and ask all the hard questions most of us don't want to think let alone verbalize.

I need fiction that depicts stumble-bums attempting to live their lives with some kind of dignity and awareness, whether they be saints or sinners who have yet to make that one eternal connection.

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie: I know about that type of box. They're a strange kind of addition to life. It doesn't quite feel right to thank God for such a box, although I do thank Him regularly that He's made me a writer, and given me the tools to unpack this box. And with that, I have the opportunity to help others unpack their boxes as well.
I used to think that after this book that box would be nicely unpacked, but, as you said here, it looks like pretty much everything will in some ways come from that box. I''m learning to make peace with that. Hey, if nothing else, it's certainly building brand!

Deb said...

Okay, I was just called an "attic person" for a comment left on another post--what a clever way to force me to read this newest post out of curiosity! (I'm relieved to discover that this term is not in reference to the lunatic relative locked up in the attic!)

Some writer once said (and I'm sure I'll recall his name days from now) that we should write about how the world IS, not how it should be. He's a Christian writer who manages to follow his own sage advice.

My major drawback in writing things as they are? I grew up in a home built on pretense. I learned to be furtive and dissemble at an early age. You just didn't talk about certain things, they weren't nice and God didn't like it. So I've this tension going between what I want to write, and feel I'm meant to write (and risk saying bad things!), or writing sappy stuff that won't help anyone and which no one will remember beyond The End.

Deb said...

I guess I'm not done with my comment just yet.

After leaving my other comment it occurred to me that this whole business of attic vs. parlor writing is why my writing is so stuck.

I hate parlors. I hate their fussy daintiness, and the matchy-matchy look of them. I've always loved rooting around in attics, and secondhand stores--and I'm a sucker for anything used I can get my hands on.

Does anyone know a feasible way to give myself permission to leave the parlor, and climb up into the attic where I, and my words, belong?

Anonymous said...

Deb, I don't know how feasible this is for you...but here's my go at it.

Just jump in. Write something harsh and raw and ugly. Don't worry. No one ever has to read it. Write about pain and addiction and redemption and restoration. I'll be honest. It's scary. It's exposing. But, it's subject to the delete button too. And don't let fear hold you back from letting it all out. Be fierce!

That's my small bit of advice.

Deb said...


I like your small bit of advice! It's exactly what I need to do.

I just hopped over to your blog, and now see that I'll have to go back when I can spend more time reading it. I liked what I read so far.

Bonnie Grove said...

Deb: Alice Monron is a Canadian writer (approaching the level of writer-god in literary circles) who grew up in the emotionally oppressive region of south east Ontario. She has taken these stifled roots and built a literary empire examining and explaining how it works (through story), how it holds us down, and how it runs from generation to generation. What she writes is the ugly side of presenting a perfect face. The stories of quiet desperation.

My point is, write what you know. But take what you know and examine it from every perspective. If you grew up in an environment that felt like holding your breath, then poke around and figure out why it was like that. Who benefited? Who perpetrated the unspoken mythology your family lived by? What fears drove the lifestyle? What were the unspoken rules of the house? Where did they come from? How did they effect you? Your siblings? Your other family members?

I'm not saying you should write about your family. I have no idea what you should write about. But by carefully (and likely painfully) examining the oppressive aspect you grew up in, you will benefit as a writer by training yourself to look beyond the facade into its workings.

Bonnie Grove said...

What a typeo!! The author's name is Alice Munro. So sorry!

Deb said...


I've read some Alice Monroe! I love how she writes. I admire her so much.

I know exactly why my family focused so much on image management, and how it affected everyone in the household. I've simply got the hurdle of giving myself permission to speak (in this case, write) truth. I'm getting there!

Dina Sleiman said...

I've been reading Sharon's Lying on Sunday. In it there is a discussion in literature class about what makes a classic. Eventually the class came to the realization that it was the truth in the book that people recognize and are drawn to. It occurred to me that we don't have nearly enough of this in Christian fiction. And when we do in a book like Redeeming Love, that's all anyone talks about for the next 20 years.

Kathleen Popa said...

What a great conversation this is turning out to be! Both Susie & Bonnie gave great advice. And Deb, I'm glad I lured you in. I'll bet you could write wonderfully about the atmosphere of pretense. The key to writing about the people close to you is to change things around. Give the same issues to people very different from the ones in your family. Consider turning the men into women, the dentists into beauticians. And trust the process. Over time, as you write, the characters will continue to change on their own till they look nothing like their sources.

Dina, I love that passage in Sharon's book! I think we fear that if we look at the difficult truths in our lives, we will get sucked in and stuck there in the darkness. I believe the opposite is true, that we will find our Lord there, and will be set free.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Deb is sure speaking our language. But who's listening?

Kathleen Popa said...

Not sure I said all I meant to in the last comment. The reason we fear writing the truth, I think, is that we think we will open the lid on a box of anger and venom, and never quite get it closed again. We'll end up ugly people, and no one will want to read our books anyway.

If we open the box, anger and venom may spew for a while, but that's why we have journals. We have to trust that there is only so much of it, and at the end there is quietness, understanding, forgiveness, and love. Those are the things we hope for in attic stories, but we want to come by them honestly. That's why they use the word "redemptive" to sell books. If you keep on writing, and if your work is offered up as prayer, you will get there.

The nice thing about truth is that it's the great antidote to overwritten, purple prose. Write bland parlor stories, and you almost have to punch up the drama to mask the boredom. Write the truth and you can say it straight. The emotion is already there.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

There are beautiful pictures of mermaids decorating the rafters of my attic. When I ask for comfort they also give me perspective and the solace of their honesty and commeraderie. (does anyone know how to spell this word? Spell check refuses to acknowledge it.) Thank you everybody!
I turned the parlour into a teaching studio with chalk boards and large felt hearts and walls full of books and shelves full of pictures drawn by my students. In such a cold climate one needs every inch of indoor living space. LIVING space.

Kathleen Popa said...

Henrietta, you brilliant woman! I love what you've done with your parlor! Do you have a picture of your mermaids someplace? Since Thebeautifuldue's comment a few posts ago, I'm all about mermaids.

Deb said...

As long as we're on the subject of attic writing, here's another thing I've wondered about. Just how far does one go with bad language in a book that is about redemption? It doesn't seem realistic to have an entire novel where no one swears, yet of course it shouldn't be overdone.

Is there ever any justification for using the F word? Not that I'm longing to but it would be interesting to get a few opinions on this topic.

Megan Sayer said...

Sharon: are you talking about readers? Publishers? I, for one, am listening : )

I am wondering though, is the majority readership of American Christians (if that makes sense) parlour people? Are they really scared of the attic?

Deb: my opinion is it's better to say something like "Joe swore and kicked the rubbish bin" rather than the more colourful "F***" Joe said as he kicked the rubbish bin.
However, having said that, there are times that it just works. Have you read Nick Hornby's book "About a Boy"? There'a a fantastic bit in that where the kid is telling his adult friend all about his mum's suicide attempt and how he found her unconscious, and all this shallow, image-obsessed guy can say in reply is "F***". And, as the child-narrator says, that was so much better than all the other grown-ups' attempts to understand and sympathise, in that one word he'd said it all, and gave the kid permission to feel all he wanted to.
So there you go. Sometimes it just works. I'm still sick of hearing it though.

Anonymous said...

Megan, I think that you've asked a very good question. Are American readers only interested in what is in that parlor? My answer. I don't know. I hope not. My friends are looking for novels that climb into the attic and show the grime...and show that it can be redeemed and righted. I pray that we're able to heal one another with that kind of writing.

And the cussing thing. Good golly. That's a great discussion. In my novel I have pimps, women/girls who were prostituted, etc. It didn't feel natural to have a pimp NOT use the F-bomb and call a girl a "b****". But I was able to work around it. I don't know that it will always work out that way. Oh, mercy. Such a great topic.