When I moved to Kuwait I had a plan to stay home with my daughter and write while she napped. I supposed after a year or two I would have a book and be on my way to an enviable writing life. During those first years in Kuwait I did not write a book but I did learn to finish stories, at their expense, and to no reader’s pleasure. I spent forty pages on a jewelry store clerk and another forty pages on a young soldier. The clerk wept and the soldier died, but it took forever to move them to their ends. My son was born and the year after I continued to peck at fiction though the richer work was my journal.
And then, while both of my children were little, there was a stretch of bruising and blooming. There was a man I wanted, and he wasn’t my husband. I indulged the fantasy briefly, as I’d indulged any other fantasy since understanding the belly pull of sex, with guilt. But this time, with sorrow too, that I could not be content in the confines of my marriage, and anger that I could not just once and go have a fuck to have a fuck. So during this time I wrote stories about married women with young children who were attracted to men they were not married to. I wrote an essay about wanting an affair and not having an affair. When I showed my husband the essay he asked if it was fiction. I wish. Even my fiction wives could not betray their fiction husbands. None of us got to take a trip to Dubai or smash against a body in an elevator. We all just stayed married and true. And glad for it. As I journaled and drafted the thinnest veil of fiction over my own experiences, vulnerability gained traction. Even now I am uncertain at the literary integrity of those stories about wives wanting and not having, but I am certain that the practice of writing plainly the beautiful ugly complicated parts of being a person allowed me to grow compassion, extend grace to myself and others wrestling spirit and flesh.
An unexpected mercy during this time was reading George Saunders. Years earlier someone suggested I read him. Civilwarland In Bad Decline, this someone said, was awesome. I probably nodded, thought what a stupid title that was, and went back to reading Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler. But then I bought the book and read it on Kindle while powering through elliptical workouts each morning. And I read In Persuasion Nation and his then latest, The Tenth Of December. I overdosed on Saunders’s short fiction. Yet I still wanted to read more of the similar, fiction on a tilt, so at the suggestion of a writer and editor I read I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro. It was odd timing that I was then writing about searing lust in journal and essay, playing out scenarios in fiction, when here was another woman writer who’d published a collection of overlapping stories with characters who loved God, loved spouses, and still craved sin. I Want To Show You More gave an answer to how I might also write about my faith.
My fear was/ is I misrepresent the Christian faith because I don’t have the theological training to satisfy debate, but I live it with wrestle and doubt, peace and rest, and during my years in Kuwait I got comfortable talking simply about how faith works in my life. I am totally aware conversations about sin or repentance or grace sound ridiculous to a lot of people. I am also totally aware that a segment of my brothers and sisters are offended by confession of sin, confession of doubt, because sin and doubt seem a failure of faith in some way. But when I was in the middle of wanting to fuck a man I wasn’t married to I was so glad another woman wrote plainly about faith and lust, the flesh and spirit. I read Quatro and thought how I might follow her and Saunders. Why not write the gritty mess of loving Jesus as is. Why not trust readers to be along for the story, to accept unpolished faith.
Growing up I read a lot of Christian fiction. There was a series set in the northwoods of Wisconsin. The settlers logged, and the children carried lunch pails to their one room schoolhouse, and each book centered on a mystery that also revealed a spiritual truth to the protagonists, about pride or caring for the poor. I read This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti and sometimes the idea of invisible angels and evil at work around us flashes up and I look over my shoulder. I read Brock and Bodie Thoene whose historical fiction was well researched and characters round enough to suffer flaws too. I also read a lot of Janette Oke whose pioneer heroines always, always found love at an unexpected time/ in an unexpected place/ with an unexpected person. I didn’t read the popular Christy series by Robin Jones Gunn, who wrote books she wanted the girls of her church youth group to read, because Mom thought they were too old for me when I asked and I didn’t ask again, and by the time I was making my own book choices at the public library, I really didn’t care to read how a good Christian girl likes a good Christian boy who likes her back and is willing to stay pure until a blissful nondescript wedding night. At that point in my adolescence there were no good Christian boys who liked me and if I was going to read about a life that wasn’t mine, I preferred Kurt Vonnegut (why, why!).
I still read an occasional Christian fiction book. I remember reading a book about a church singles group that goes the beach for a weekend. A light read. Just fun. There is chaste flirting. There is a date or two. There is wondering about the will of God. But there is no masturbation in the tiny, shared bathroom while the roommates are fetching hamburger to grill, no gossip about which church lady would be a beast of a mother-in-law. No matter the crisis, no matter the longing or fear, Christian lit takes a didactic turn. So for years when I wrote anything complicated, in essay especially, I wound down to an ending that patted the reader’s hand, even if my own hands were fists. Finally I was in a workshop with a woman who encouraged me to be a little less tidy about the endings, and that’s reflective of my faith, really. If I write about my faith plainly, I can trust you will see how I work it out over the years. And if I commit to write about my faith plainly, I am free to include the wobbly bits too, without shame, because those add to my body of work and a fuller understanding of my faith.
Shortly after Saunders and Quatro, I found an anthologized story about a woman in the middle end of a stalled marriage, who is worried about how her son is doing at preschool. In that piece, the woman slowly lifts from the ground, a gentle defiance of gravity. All of that work turned over this idea that I too might write a wild story. I was writing about women whose script was essentially mine. But I was reading all these stories that asked me to accept slight (not-so slight) variations on reality. In the middle of this mix I took a fiction workshop, generated a lot of work that had nothing to do with straying wives, relieved to welcome new characters and situations. Writing fiction was just fun again. Work to make it work, but more fun than drawing too much from my own lost wants.
One afternoon I was at a stoplight listening to the BBC when an interview came on about someone doing something amazing in the middle of devastation. Are you a hero? I remember the question being direct, and the quick demur from the guest. I remember rolling my eyes. I remember thinking no one is allowed to call themselves a hero. They would be crucified in the comments. That blip of a thought started an improbable story.
From there, I set off on a number of reckless, wild drafts, most never written to completion, for the practice of writing fiction on a tilt, of placing stretched imagination on the page, to play with storytelling and style. I extended permission to my personal essay: forsake the tidy end, write the first thought (to later revise, or not) because there isn’t a safe way to write about anything personal, and trust the reader to at least momentarily accept the world I share: of motherhood, marriage, faith, want, hope.
But how to share with readers, and who are my readers? Last summer I googled book agents. A lot of agents aren’t interested in representing “religious” writing. I stalled there because I don’t know what to call my writing except narrative. I write about faith because it is. I write about marriage because it is. I set pieces in Kuwait because it is. I let my imagination run. I give chase. Now I am writing to compile a body of narrative work honest to my experience, questions and stories, pieces that speak of God, frailty, fear, peace, place. I write the body, I write the spirit. I write the fun, the pain, the whatever in between, because how else.
Eight of thirty-nine, a natural follow to seven of thirty-nine. 1610 words.