Friday, October 07, 2011

The Turtle Warrior

I recently finished reading a book by Mary Relindes Ellis called “The Turtle Warrior.”  (Penguin Books, 2004). She is a good writer.  It is her first novel.  And it is marvelous.  It is the kind of book I pass to my friends in the hope that they will like it, too. It is about a little boy named Billy and his early youth, growing up on a farm in Wisconsin. Ellis is a warm and powerful writer.  As I follow her writing on young Billy, her words bring back memories of my growing up, of so many ordinary events that took place on hot summer days a long time ago.  They are like memories that were sleeping and that have awakened through her writing.  Memories of playing in the streets with my friends, of being called home by my mom for dinner.  She writes of scenes that are so similar to what I knew – warm afternoons sitting at my wooden desk in school, looking out the window wishing that the arrival of summer would come, and come fast.  I closed the book, trying to remember more, and felt warm by what I could remember.  Ms. Ellis’s words were working their magic, like slowly developing photographs arising through the solution of mind, heart, memory and the past. 
I asked myself how does she do that?  How does she create such real characters, who speak like people do in real life?  How can she weave a complicated but credible plot, a plot that maintains a voice, a continuity, a rich pattern for hundreds of pages?  I asked my sister Mary how a person can write so wondrously and Mary replied that she has often wondered the same about me.  So I guess we never see our own writing for what it is.  We have to learn to trust ourselves, to trust others, to work hard on what we write and then to let the words go into the world and take root and grow, grow in the hearts of others.
If you trust people, they will help you.  They may not be writers but they are readers.  They will refine your words, pull your vision into a place where it is clearer, sharper, more beautiful. 
Many years ago, I went to a writers conference at Simmons College in Boston.  It was really good.  We each wrote a story and had it critiqued by an expert in the craft of fiction.  My teacher was C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly.  One morning, he read aloud to the class a story written by a woman who was sitting near me.  I cannot remember the story but remember her writing about a vase that cost a nickel.  Someone picked up on that, raised her hand, and said that she highly doubted that a vase could be bought for a nickel.  A nerve was exposed in the heart of the writer and she got very upset, to the point of tears.  She could not hear what the other lady was saying and Curtis had to intervene and take the woman outside the room to calm her down.  All that, over a five-cent vase. 
She should have listened to the well meant advice – and grown a bit, moved on with the story she had written as well as the story of her own life.  The best stuff we can write about is always out there in the world, on the street, in houses and great cities.  These places offer all that they have and place them in our hearts.  If we want to write, the words come.  And there are times we need help.   I am sure that Mary Relindes Ellis looked for help and got it.  And so will you. 

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