Last week, I had the honor to be one of the featured authors at Authors and Appetizers, a fund-raiser for the Lawrence, Kansas, chapter of Altrusa International. The Lawrence Altrusans support several literacy projects in our area, including a program that gives a new book to every baby born at our local hospital.
I talked about my writing—both fiction and nonfiction—but I also talked about taking risks and overcoming fear to become the person you want to be. I thought I’d share an abridged version of my comments here, too.
I’ve been writing in some form or other as far back as I can remember. In second grade, my apparently cat-obsessed seven- or eight-year-old self wrote an impassioned defense of my kitten and hinted at the kind of fiction writer I would eventually become. I wrote, in part
I think the badist cat there is is a cat napper…So my cat is not bad at all. Oh mother my cat is not bad. A cat napper is the badist one of all. So they are. So they are.Oh yeah, crime fiction has always been my jam, and I was an early master of padding the word count, a skill that served me well in college.
But my professional writing career began in the nonfiction world of journalism.
These stories represent the very beginning of a theme that runs through almost all of my writing even today, in both fiction and nonfiction, and that is a love for this state, from the dry southwest corner where I grew up to the northeast region where I live now, and especially for the people who live here. One thing that summer taught me is every person has a story.
In 2011, after a lot of years of thinking about it but not doing it, I decided to try my hand at fiction. In January that year, instead of making resolutions I wouldn’t keep, I adopted “risk” as my “word of the year,” a guiding concept for stretching beyond my comfort zone. A couple of months later, the Guppy chapter of Sisters in Crime, an international organization that promotes women crime fiction writers, announced that submissions were open for its second anthology of short stories. As the deadline approached, I took a deep breath, hit send, and “Keeping Up Appearances” was one of 22 stories accepted for publication in Fish Nets: The Second Guppy Anthology.
This was huge for me. It was the first piece of fiction I finished. The first piece of fiction I submitted for other people to read. And the first piece of fiction accepted for publication.
And oh my gosh. This fiction thing was a piece of cake, right?
Well, it’s been seven years. In that time, I’ve finished writing a novel that has been nicely rejected by a bunch of agents, and I’ve submitted a dozen or so short stories to different publications, of which four have been published.
And I’ve kept writing, both fiction and nonfiction.
For the last 14 or 15 years, I’ve written regularly for Lawrence Magazine. Like my early Telegram days, Lawrence Mag gives me an opportunity to meet people in our community and tell their stories. The nonfiction work gives me insight into people and places in a way that sitting all day in an office does not. In one of my favorite Lawrence Mag stories, I profiled Thomas Burns, a commercial fisherman and self-taught naturalist who spent years studying the Kaw River and the big catfish that inhabit it. I read his first-person accounts of his life, interviewed his family and friends, and pieced together a picture of a man who loved the river, loved fishing, and, for much of his commercial fishing career, ran afoul of Kansas laws that banned some of his techniques. Evading the law became a game for him. His daughter told me he was a little bit ornery.
But later in his life, the same wildlife officials who tried to curb his illegal fishing turned to him for help when they wanted to understand more about his fishing methods and the river that has always played such a large role in our community.
This story of the complicated relationship between Burns and law enforcement fascinated me and provided a huge real-life lesson for my fiction writing: Good versus evil is a false dichotomy. The best, most interesting characters have layers—some good, some bad. Those shades of gray give a story depth.
You see that love for Kansas that runs through my writing most clearly in my nonfiction, in stories like my profile of Tom Burns. It’s less obvious in my fiction, but it’s there, woven into the fabric of the stories. The opening paragraphs of the novel I’m working on now, tentatively called In the Shadows, grew from many days spent hiking in and exploring Kansas state parks, and then twists those experiences into something dark and dangerous. The first couple paragraphs:
Detective Jameson Brunson examined the scene as he would an Old Master painting. In a dark palette of muted browns and grays, damp tree trunks crowded the site. Early morning light, weak and tentative, filtered through branches still barren of leaves, though the swollen buds at their tips hinted at the coming spring. The air, too, smelled of spring, that peculiar mix of dew and decay that, if odors were colors, would be a shadowy “almost green.”
One tree, a sycamore, stood out from the rest. Beneath its peeling bark and white trunk, the still form of the girl lay on her back, fully clothed, legs straight, hands folded on her chest. Her long blonde hair, tipped in red, fanned out from her head like a golden halo in a renaissance portrait of the Madonna. She looked peaceful, Snow White in the forest. Except Snow White lived happily ever after, and this girl would never laugh or love again.I ended my comments to Altrusa with the backstory behind my family’s trip to Australia in the summer of 2016: My mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2004. One afternoon at hospice, she told me that though she had little interest in travel herself, she regretted that she’d never sent my husband to Australia, a place he’d wanted to visit since he was little. She caught me off guard, so I stammered, “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he gets there. I promise.”
Now at the time, we had a five-year-old and two busy careers and oh yeah I’m terrified of flying. A trip to Australia seemed totally undoable. But the promise was always there in the back of my mind. Fast forward 12 years. We were getting ready to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, and Jake was about to graduate from high school. We told him we’d take him on a trip to celebrate and asked him where he’d like to go. The first word out of his mouth was “Australia.” He didn’t even hesitate.
The promise had come due.
We packed our bags, flew 17 hours to Brisbane, and set off on a three-week adventure Down Under. And it was the best risk-reward undertaking ever. From driving a Barbie car around Magnetic Island, where we saw a koala in the wild, to dinner at the Sydney Opera House to hiking eight miles to see aboriginal art on the sandstone cliffs in Carnarvon Gorge to feeding an orphaned baby kangaroo on a 120,000 acre cattle station in the outback, it was a fabulous trip. I’ve never been happier to keep a promise.
And that brings me back full circle, to the rewards of taking risks, to overcoming fear to live your best life. From submitting that first short story to getting on that plane, the most meaningful moments begin with one small step.