Thursday, May 15, 2014

Can I get a witness?

“There's no pain on earth that doesn't crave a benevolent witness."
From The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

            I'm near the end of the final edit of a book that has long been an albatross on my soul.  I didn't want to write it, but in the summer of 2002 Lisa, my friend and co-conspirator in all things literary, kept asking questions that nagged at my conscience.  Queries that kept me up at night wondering how in the world I would be able to write a book from the viewpoint of a woman whose life is entirely different from mine.  How could I capture her voice?  And did I even want to?
            At the genesis, Lisa asked me, "Well, I want to know why Annie is the way she is.  Why is she such a horrible mother?  Why does she make the choices she does?  How can you write a book so I can understand her better?"
            "Well, if I write it in first person, she'll have to be dead," I offhandedly scoffed.  "There's no way on heaven or earth that she'd ever take ownership of her actions if she were alive."
            "Hmm....now that would be interesting to read," Lisa brightened.
            "Oh man...," I grumbled.  "But how?  Should I have her wandering in some purgatory where she has to witness her own life and the way her behavior screwed up everyone in her path?"
            "You could."
            During the initial stages of writing I'd call Lisa and say, "Oh, I hate this woman.  She's narcissistic and bossy and sociopathic."
            "Keep writing," Lisa would say.
            For over six months the cycle repeated itself.  I'd write a handful of chapters, then read them to Lisa all the while bitterly criticizing Annie and her self-destructive choices.
            "Keep writing," Lisa echoed every single time.
            Near the end of the first draft I finally sang a different tune.  "I still don't like this woman at all," I said.  "But I'm beginning to understand her.  I have compassion for her...and in writing the book from the standpoint of her being a witness to her choices, I get to see what happened in the first book (Surfacing) through different eyes."
            "Keep writing," Lisa said, smiling.
            I finished what is now A Tapestry of Truth on June 4, 2007.  It was a Monday night and I had been writing all day, sprinting toward the finish line by pumping out over thirty pages before it was time to take a break and go to spinning class.  Even while on the bike, my mind was back in my office, winding its way through the last scene...imagining what it would feel like to finally finish a trilogy that had been over a decade in the making.
            Later that night, as I wrote the last line, I felt a surge of pressure rise up through my chest and I got on my feet, breathing as though I had just swum up from the deep end of a diving hopper.  Then I fell to my knees and burst into tears, thankful beyond words that I was able to finish what I had started.  That I was able to grit my way through a book that has proven to be the most personally difficult.  The most emotionally autobiographical.
            
            Soon after I moved to California and in the fall of 2008, moved back again.  It took three years, but I finally found a literary agent who was mesmerized by Tapestry and pitched it to dozens of publishing houses all over New York City.  Many thought my writing style showed promise, but didn't like the "otherworldly element."   They said they'd be willing to give it a re-read if I changed the premise.  Eager to do more than dip my toes into the world of publishing, I made the decision to gut the plot and write it from a different perspective, one that wouldn't ask Annie to witness her life, but to simply tell it from her very human viewpoint.
            While I didn't hate it, I didn't truly love it either. 
            And I'm certain that's why every publishing house since 2011 has passed on the manuscript.  It wasn't an authentic story because there was no accountability from the main character...not really.  The reader wasn't asked to be a benevolent witness to Annie's story because Annie Schreiber was not a believable witness herself.  
            In returning Tapestry to its original form (with many of the rewritten chapters preserved for good measure), I've been subtly surprised by the experience.  While Annie is certainly not my mother or any mother I know, I'm unsettled to discover that she embodies shadowy characteristics that I carry deep inside.  She wants the same things I sometimes do.  She feels conflicting emotions and acts on them in ways I haven't, but might have had I been born in a different time under different circumstances.
            I'm not Annie, but I've been a witness to her awakening, and in doing so have been awakened to my own mortality.  My own demons...and my own angels as well.  

            Through it all I've come to understand the value in having a witness to the unfolding of life's journey.  The importance of close friends, confidants, spouses, partners, or even children who can see the tangible nature of a soul's unfolding.  Last night I watched an HBO movie "Taking Chance" that tells the story of a Marine's choice to escort the body of a fallen soldier from Dover Military Base to his home in Wyoming. 
            Based on a true story, the movie honestly and somberly allowed me to witness the sacred and dignified way in which one man traveled alongside a comrade one last time.  Near the end of the journey, the Marine was lamenting to another soldier that he should have been in Iraq fighting instead of pushing papers in a cubicle.
            "You are his witness now," the soldier replied kindly, but firmly.  "Without a witness they just disappear."
            I respect what the man was trying to say, but I wonder if it is wholly true. 
            I've lived most of my life alone.  While my friends have witnessed a host of "Katie Stories," mini-miracles that invite them into a world they cannot see, for the most part, the most poignant moments in my evolution have been spent in solitude.  During some of most harrowing experiences, I can viscerally remember phoning one, two, three, sometimes ten friends to try and connect, to invite a witness into my life so that I wouldn't disappear, but no one answered the call.
            It was in those moments that I found a quiet place to sit and practice being a witness to my own life.  Years ago I learned a meditation technique in which I relax into the back of my head and imagine that I'm sitting in the back row of a playhouse.  The curtain opens and whatever is going on in my mind is played out on the stage.  I sit by myself and watch where my mind wants to be.  What I'm feeling.  What I'm cursing or judging or enjoying. 
            I don't try to stop the thoughts, but I don't get enmeshed with them either.  I just watch.  I practice being the benevolent witness to whatever is happening in the moment.
            And moment by moment, the feelings pass.  The thoughts drift away.  My heart opens and I can see more clearly the choices put before me.  The decisions I can make...or leave behind.
            
            A year or so ago, I was practicing and all of the sudden the curtain opened and there was nothing on stage but a wooden ladder and a reflection of me standing there, arms crossed and smiling.  "So now your mind's empty, Katie," I said to myself.  "What now?"
            From the back row center, I shrugged and returned the smile.  "Ida know...why don't you come back here and enjoy the view?"
            She/I did and in sitting next to me, I thought how curious to have no more stories to tell.  No more drama to spin.  No more issues to process.
            "Oh, just you wait," my reflection winked.  "I'm only human...there'll be more.  But knowing I can be both the actor and the witness...well, I'll be just fine."