For the last year I have been obsessed with one word: lost.
One of the reasons is that I have been working on a book entitled Lost Witness. I didn’t choose to write this book; I did it because fans of The Witness Series wanted to know what happened to Billy. After Dark Witness, my intent was to let readers imagine the next chapter in my character’s life for themselves. The more they asked, the more I retreated from the responsibility of making those creative decisions. There were a hundred permutations of the relationships the readers wanted me to address, a thousand ways I could disappoint the people who had invested so much of their reading time in Josie Bates and friends. In short, the fear of disappointing them, myself, and, most of all, these characters we all love created a most fearful case of writers block—and then life stepped in to completely paralyze me.
First, my fabulous, incredible, 95 year-old mom moved to Missouri to be near more of my brothers and sisters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This was not something she wanted to do; it was something she needed to do. She now lives in a beautiful place where she is safe and secure, with at least three of her children seeing her everyday – something I couldn’t do no matter how much I wanted to. I am keenly aware that she felt a terrible loss when her house was sold and she left dear friends here in California. Her move left a hole in my heart, too. There was the sadness that comes with this kind of separation even though I knew the decision was for the best. While this was going on I lost seven friends. Some were closer than others, but all of their deaths were surprising. Six of them were my peers, and that knowledge alone brings a huge reality check with it.
Lost Witness became a symbol of twelve months of upheaval, of real life stopping my work dead in its tracks. Days, weeks, and months came and went and I thought I would never write again. I didn’t know how to answer readers who wrote asking about my progress so I stayed silent. I visited my mom; she visited me. I went to memorial services, and I shed a few tears, and I read books, but I didn’t work until one really good day. That day I talked to my mom and she was excited about a lecture she had heard, she had gone to dinner with a new friend, my sister had taken her on an adventure, and my brothers had stopped by for Margaritas.
I visited the widow of my dear friend, Richard, and we talked about his books and remembered what a wonderful man he had been. Part way through that day I had an epiphany about the book that was languishing on my computer. It was time to move forward, not move on.
I began to work on Lost Witness in earnest. I heard Josie, Archer, Hannah and Billy’s voices clearly in my head. There would be no bow ending, but that was okay. I don’t think the readers expect that either because life isn’t perfect. Life is hopeful and exciting. It is about resiliency, and courage, and memories of lives well lived, and about loving those who remain.
I am so thankful to the readers who made me realize that I had somehow done more than write books—I had created lives they cared about. They felt a loss when Josie’s voice suddenly went silent, when Billy hadn’t been accounted for, when Hannah was alone. It took a while for me to understand what they were telling me, but I finally got it. Loss is never the end, it’s simply the beginning of another part of life. It doesn’t matter if those lives we care about are real or imagined, we still want to know what happens next.
BWG member, Christopher D. Ochs is our From a Cabin in the Wood’s author. We’re sure you will enjoy his post “Jack of All Trades?”
Christopher D. Ochs’ foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland: The Five Artifacts, recommended by US Review of Books. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. His latest work is a collection of mirthful macabre short stories If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep.
His current literary projects include: short stories in Firebringer Press’ next entry in their Eternity anthology series, an e-book prequel novella for Pindlebryth of Lenland, a YA speculative fiction novel My Friend Jackson, and of course, the second novel of the Pindlebryth saga.
Chris has too many interests outside of writing for his own good. With previous careers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and software, and his incessant dabblings as a CGI animator, classical organist, voice talent on radio, DVD and anime conventions, it’s a wonder he can remember to pay the dog and feed his bills. Wait, what?
Jack of All Trades?
I recently reflected over all the jobs in my lifetime from which I have received a paycheck. To the best of my recollection, they were:
During one particularly unsuccessful discussion with an HR individual, she commented, “Wow, you really are unfocused!” However, I look at it differently. I can truthfully say that I have been blessed, in that every job (after I completed college) has been a profession that I chose to work, and loved doing. That is not to say that some positions had their share of difficulties. There have been occasional instances of professional backstabbing and other malfeasance, plentiful examples of managerial incompetence, and so on. The Peter Principle is alive and well, let me assure you! Despite these workaday frustrations, my work involved in one facet or another one or more intellectual discipline I loved: physics, math, music, computers, and language.
Late in my hopscotch of professions, I began to despair. I felt that I had become the proverbial “Jack of All Trades, and Master of None.” A friend and co-worker made an observation that helped me out of my doldrums immensely. He said, “Your first degree was in physics, right? That means you have the discipline to figure out how anything works.” I’ve found that holds true, but only to a point. It does not help much in my latest choice of vocations, namely writing. Mathematical maxims and the comfort of the immutable laws of physics are notoriously absent.
Somerset Maugham’s (in)famous maxim states, “There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” How true! To further my confusion, several writing authorities have posited, “Once you know the rules, you know when you may break them.” To borrow a metaphor from “Dungeons & Dragons,” I often feel like a Lawful Good paladin living in a Chaotic Neutral world.
However, I’ve discovered my professional wanderlust has still managed to come to my rescue. My wide experience of work has afforded me the chance to rub elbows with people from all walks of life: from blue collar to white collar, from ditch digger to Nobel prize winner, from unrepentant sinner to bishop. My choices have allowed me to make friends with citizens of all six populated continents.
As a writer, this “Jack-of-All-Trades” life path has afforded me a rich smorgasbord of characters, experiences and observation that I may draw on.
More often than not, we writers are a solitary bunch. I’m guilty as charged as well, as I am not as gregarious as everything above might imply. We huddle in our writing rooms, happy with our keyboard and coffee (or tea). It can become isolating, and that has its own dangers, when we spend too much time in our own head. We are often told to “write what you know,” but if you limit your experiences to your writing shed, it can limit one’s scope. And of course, if you can’t get out and about as much as you’d like, just read the memoirs of other people’s experiences.
So get out. Leap into that new job you’ve been dreaming about. The unemployment rate has never been better, after all. Try a new experience. Learn a new language or craft at your local high school adult program, learn a musical instrument, join a new group, be it a painting klatch or mountaineering club. Volunteer at a food bank or museum. Broaden your experience, and if you remain open and observant, I guarantee you’ll never run out of ideas to inspire your writing.
I hear it’s good for staving off Alzheimer’s as well…
My mother will be 93 years old on September 21. She travels with me, reads all my books and is my best friend. I wrote this blog some time ago, but I want to share it again because it deserve repeating that she is an amazing woman. I am so proud of my mom. Happy birthday, mom.
My parents made a pact to stand on every continent in the world. When my dad passed away, my mother went to the Antarctic for both of them. That’s when I figured there was a lot I didn’t know about mom.
When she returned with a bright orange jacket that she got ‘for free’ (don’t count the cost of the cruise) she had lots of stories to tell. Yet, when the excitement of the trip wore off, we both had the sense that we were still standing on a pitching deck with no way to get to calm seas. A big piece of the puzzle – my dad – was missing.
“Write your memoir,” I said.
“My life wasn’t interesting,” she answered.
But the idea must have taken hold. Not long after this conversation, she called. She was done with her memoir.
“Impressive,” I mused.
It took me months to write a novel and she finished hers in a week. Then I saw why. Her ‘manuscript’ was five pages long and she was eighty-five years old. There had to be more.
And so began a year of weekend sleep-overs as we poured over photographs for inspiration. She had twenty beautifully documented photo albums, a box with pictures when cameras were still a new fangled thing.
There was mom wearing waist-length braids and Mary Jane shoes standing in the Germany village she called home.
She was a teenager in the U.S. while war raged in Europe, catching up the grandmother she had lived with, cousins and friends.
There was my mom posing in a swimsuit she bought with the dollar she found on the street.
Mom in her twenty-five dollar bridal gown perched in the back of a hay wagon beside my father, a skinny, wide-eyed farm boy who would become a doctor.
Mom with one child. Two. Three. Five. Six of us all together. Dark haired and big eyed we were her clones dressed in beautiful, homemade clothes. I remember going to sleep to the sound of her sewing machine.
And there were words! I bribed my mother with promises of Taco Bell feasts if she gave me details. Funny, what came to her mind.
To keep body and soul together when my father was in med school, he was a professional mourner and bussed tables for a wealthy fraternity. My mom worked in a medical lab where the unchecked radiation caused her to lose her first baby. They ate lab rabbits that had given their all for pregnancy tests. They were in love and happy and didn’t know they were poor. But St. Louis was cold, she remembered, and they couldn’t afford winter coats. Still, she insisted, they weren’t poor. I listened and knew they were happy.
She typed, I edited; I typed, she talked. My youngest brother almost died when he was 10. She didn’t cry for a long while; not until she knew he would live. The captain of the ship that took her back to Germany was kind. She dreamed of becoming a missionary doctor. In 1954, she had two toddlers (me and my brother) and another baby on the way when she and dad drove to Fairbanks, Alaska where he would serve his residency at the pleasure of the U.S. Air Force. Her favorite outfit was a suit with a white collar. She loved her long hair rolled at her neck in the forties. In the fifties she made a black dress with rhinestone straps and her hair was bobbed. In the sixties, she made palazzo pants and sported a short bouffant. She looked like a movie star in her homemade clothes. I wanted to grow up to be as glamorous as she was. She still thought she wasn’t interesting.
Mom wrote the forward to her memoir herself. It began:
A great sense of loneliness fills the house as twilight approaches. In the silence, I can almost hear the voices of my grown children as they recall their childhood years, the laughter of grandchildren and the quiet conversations of friends who have gathered here in years past, echoing through the empty rooms.
You see, she really had no need of my help as a writer.
We had seven copies printed with a beautiful cover of a sunset. She called the book In The Twilight of My Life and would not be swayed to change it. Mom thought it perfect and not the least depressing. It was, she laughed, exactly right. It was the laugh that made it right. She gave my brothers and sisters a copy for Christmas. My older brother had tears in his eyes. Everyone exclaimed: “I never knew that”.
Now I have a book more treasured than any I have written. I learned a lot about my mom and I realized why I create fictional women of courage and conviction, strength and curiosity, intelligence and, most of all, spirit. It’s because, all this time, I’ve been writing about my mother.
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