Friday, July 18, 2014

Looking for the Extraodinary

Until I read Elizabeth Berg's novels, I didn't even know I wanted to be a writer.

It was my turn to choose a book for book club. I hadn't been a member of the group for very long. The weight of choosing a book to suit varied tastes made my pits sticky. I wandered around Barnes & Noble for hours reading back copy and first paragraphs, beginning to believe the perfect book didn't exist.

And frankly, I was looking for more than the next book. I was looking for a new direction. We'd read about plague years and dream-seeping violence and horrendous violations. Don't get me wrong, I'm not squeamish when it comes to hard-hitting fiction, but a steady diet of the stuff had left me battered.

And so, the search labored on. My checklist included these requirements: rich language that wasn't syrupy or distracting, a story that valued the small things that tower large in our lives, a story about familiar things portrayed in surprising ways. That's all. Simple. A story that is neither contrived nor soul-crushing.

Why was this so hard?

And then [cue the rapturous music], I picked up Joy School by Elizabeth Berg. My prize! The story is ordinary and extraordinary. Human. Winsome. Transparent. The girl's mother wears Tabu perfume, for heaven's sake.

I read the book quickly and set it down, only to pick it back up again. I read random scenes. Underlined favorite passages. Carried the characters around in my head for days, maybe weeks. Is anyone gagging yet?

I'd read many wonderful books up to this point--classical, popular, and literary. This is the book that made me want to be a writer. But why?

I wanted to spend my days playing with words and writing stories that become friends to the reader. That's my goal, anyway.

BTW, I traveled a thousand miles to attend a writers conference where Ms. Berg was the keynote speaker. I sat in the front row at all her appearances. The poor lady was on the tail end of a long book tour. She looked ragged. Did that keep me from schmoozing my way into a conversation with her? No! Are you kidding? I have the picture to prove it.

Update: It's been awhile since Ms. Berg has hit the high bar she set for herself with the Katie stories (Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form, plus What We Keep), but I still credit her for showing me the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Who has done this for you?


Megan Sayer said...

I knew pretty much from the time I could read that I wanted to write books (and write books I did!) although it wasn't until high school that I had an aha! moment like yours. I read Les Miserables when I was fourteen, and was so very deeply captivated, so deeply moved for the entire six months it took me. I finished it with the thought solidifying in my mind: I wanted to write books that made people feel. The following year I read Lord Of The Flies, and I was equally gobsmacked, and knew then that I wanted to write books that illustrated deep truths of humanity. I tried very hard to do that - although even I was aware that fifteen-year-olds aren't known for having a good grasp on the deep truths of humanity. Still, a girl's gotta dream, and start somewhere...
It's probably a good thing that neither Victor Hugo or William Golding were available to do tours of regional Tasmanian high schools, because if they were I would have been pretty much just like you and Elizabeth Berg!

Megan Sayer said...

Oh, and speaking of stories that become friends with the reader, a couple of months ago something reminded me of a travel anecdote that someone had told me a few months previously. I racked my brains for a few days trying to work out who had told me, and where exactly it had happened to them...and eventually realised it was not, in fact, something that one of my friends had experienced - it was a scene from one of your Garden Gate books! :)

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Like Megan, I always knew I wanted to write. I just didn't know what that would end up being. I was fortunate enough to have a professor who took me to the Festival of Faith and Writing where I was exposed to some amazing writers...and some pretentious ones, too. But hearing them speak made me realize I might be able to write something.

When I picked up Lisa Samson's Embrace Me, I realized that the novel was my thing. That book inspired me greatly. I'll never forget the moment I finished the book and thought, "I'm going to do THIS!"

Josey Bozzo said...

"Redeeming Love" made me want to write stories centered on scripture. Also Liz Curtis Higgs' "Thorn in my Heart". The idea of taking scripture passages and weaving them into a fictional story intrigues me. And being able to touch people through a story based in scripture can have amazing effects.

But I recently discovered Erika Bauermeister. (sp?) Her book the "The School of Essential Ingredients" gave me a different appreciation for how to string words together to make people feel while they read. She has this one particular scene where the main character is giving a cooking lesson to a man and he is drifting back and forth between the lesson and his memories of his wife who died. The only way to describe it is sensual.
Her book "Joy for Beginners" made me cry.

I want to make people feel....cry...and see scripture in a different light.

Anonymous said...

I have always been an avid reader and loved the words and descriptions of characters that authors use. I dabbled in poetry and then realized I had a story that was within and have been writing seriously for the past three years. I didn't know that Elizabeth Berg had a series of books based on Katie. That is my heroine's name and it made me realize how wonderful it is to discover this author.

Patti Hill said...

Megan: What precocious teen you were! You read some of the world's most important work. Notice how clear the moral premise was in those stories. Stories like that don't just give the reader a rich experience. They bend hearts and change minds about societal norms. I also think about To Kill a Mockingbird, Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Jane Austen's stories. The stories that matter aren't afraid to have a strong moral premise at their core.

I happen to be sitting in a motel bed as I respond to your comments. I'm gathering new travel experiences to add to another book. You must be thinking of traveling Hwy 50 across Utah and Nevada I wrote about with Mibby and her sister. I know someone who left their wife behind, thinking she was sleeping in the backseat. So far, if I used the experiences from this trip I would write about road construction.

My son gets MARRIED tomorrow. Today, we're off to cut flowers at a flower farm for centerpieces. Yay!

Susie: Your professor definitely saw something special in you to take that kind of interest in you. You do have a gift. My English prof told me I should be a writer but offered no mentorship, so I changed my major to journalism. I knew journalist write! As for being a novelist, I had no idea at 18 how to get there. Also, I was too dumb at that age to be a writer. I thought I had life figured out. I did loan my audacity to Amy, my hero in The Queen of Sleepy Eye. It was mortifying to revisit that period of my life like that.

Josey: Yes!!! Making an emotional connection with the reader is key to writing a great story. It's not that we manipulate the reader but we are authentic about the world. We take our readers by the shoulders and gently direct them to see what we see. What they feel is up to them.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Patti: You're the one who introduced me to Elizabeth Berg, and I'm so grateful. What We Keep is one of my all-time favorites, and plays a recurring role in my next-to-be-released novel. I haven't read Joy School, but will put it on my kindle today. Mwah!