Letting In Light

It has been said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material for a novel–or ten. (Flannery O’Connor has said that many a bestselling novel could have been prevented by a good teacher.) While I believe this to be true, I have to admit that it sounds easier than it is, at least in my case.

These past few months, in between revisions, edits, copyedits, and proofreads of Lula Bell…I’ve been working on a new novel. And that novel has required me to visit the darkest room in my mind, a room that I not only never visit, but that I keep locked, dead bolted, chained, and wrapped in neon-yellow caution tape. It is not a happy place. Yet, I have unlocked it and gone in almost every day for months, looking for a comfortable chair from which I might work (there isn’t one). Hanging in the haunted room hasn’t really bothered me. Yes, there are ghosts, but they’re mine, so I know them and we’re Okay.

I was beginning to think that I was an amazing anomaly: a writer who also happened to be the picture of perfect mental health. I was just weeks away from joining the circus, or moving to California, where I think there might be a few other mentally healthy writers–though none as mentally healthy as me–obviously. I was feeling pretty good about my miraculously strong, healthy little self.

And then, yesterday, I completed the last page of the first draft of this new novel and heaved a huge sigh of relief. I stood up in the dark room, said goodbye to all my ghosts, locked, dead-bolted, and chained the door on my way out, and put the caution tape back. Then, in the comfort of my bright, sunshiny office, I looked over the 230 pages I had written, and felt that I had earned a nap–great mental health requires rest periods–ask any kindergartner.

I went right to sleep, where some of my ghosts were waiting to watch home movies with me. I clutched their hands and held on desperately. We all sobbed. I was still sobbing when I woke up, and I couldn’t get hold of myself. I called my husband. He couldn’t understand a word I was saying, so he came home–to prevent a full-on nervous breakdown, even though I’m sure he worried that he might be too late. He held me and said all the right things, but the tears continued to flow.

I thought I might never stop crying. It was then that I realized I might not have been mentally healthy enough or strong enough to spend months working in the darkest room of my mind. It had been a bad idea. And now, I was paying for it. I felt very, very sorry for myself. I tried my usual fix: pizza. It didn’t work. So, I cried myself to sleep.

But this morning, I was not crying when I woke. So, I was able to get out of my own mind and look around a little. In doing so, I remembered why I had gone to the dark room in the first place: because the ghosts aren’t the only ones there; there are millions of real live kids living there, who can’t see beyond the darkness and the walls, and who have no reason to believe they’ll ever make it out of that room. I’d gone back to that room to open the door and let in a little light, because the light, the truth, reveals the way out.

And then, my daughter, to whom I’d handed off the first draft for reading, questions, comments and complaints, came to me. She said, “My friend, Blank, needs this book. Now. I mean, she really needs it. . . as much as she needs air and water.” And light, I thought.

It feels like redemption, like hope, like spring: the sun blazing through winter-gray clouds, skeletal trees sprouting bright new-growth-green, flowers bursting forth from the dirt, and every church marquis announcing, “He is Risen!”

So, even though I won’t be joining the circus or moving to California anytime soon, I am Okay. On the mental health scale reserved for writers, I might even be better than Okay–because I still have most of my hair and all of my teeth. (Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience during which the hair falls out and teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality, and it’s very shocking to the system.”)

Fiction writers of the world, God bless you. To everyone else, well. . . my advice is to steer clear of fiction writers the way you would steer clear of a large, homeless, hairless, toothless man crouched on the sidewalk, rocking and talking to himself–he’s probably a fiction writer.

Happy Spring! Happy Hope! Happy Redemption! Happy Easter to all!

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