Be My Valentine

This essay first appeared in The Grapevine, Adam Barnett’s wonderful community newsletter that goes out twice a month to Wolfville, NS and the surrounding communities. (Thanks Adam!)Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day as well as the pub. date for the birth house, I thought I’d post it here as a writer’s Valentine – From: me To: you.
Thanks so much for reading!

Seven…a prime number, a lucky number, a magical number, and also the number of times I completed drafts of my first novel and proclaimed that it was ‘finished.’

Seven…the number of times per hour that I used to shout, “how much longer ‘til we get there?” to my mother from the backseat of our wood paneled 1970’s station wagon during family road trips. (It was a 16 hour and 4 minute drive from my hometown to my great uncle’s house in St. Petersburg, Florida.) With the patience of a saint, Mom would turn and say, “The fun is in the journey.” Another apple would be eaten, another round of I-spy-with-my-little-eye begun.

And so it was when I began to write my novel. Fifty, seventy-five, ninety-nine pages in and I began to wonder, “When will I get there? How long will this take?” Thank goodness for my mother’s kindness whispering in the back of my mind. The fun is in the journey.

The other day I read through my old journal entries, hoping to trace my journey in writing The Birth House.
January 22, 2004 – It’s such an odd life…needing to lock myself away for hours at a time so that I can create something that might touch another human being’s life. That’s what I want most – to have my words mean something. I’m working through this story, but at the same time I’m working through my own existence so I can eventually say, “This is part of who I am. What do you think? Have you felt these things too?” The hardest part of all is feeling that I must write, I must finish it, even though there’s no promise that it will ever go anyplace past my desk.

I once saw an interview with Timothy Findley where he was asked how the ideas for his novels were formed. He dramatically proclaimed, “First, I see the whole book in a flash!” I guess I could say that’s much how it was for me as well, but my ‘flash’ was there and gone, leaving just enough of a memory for me to chase after, a flitting foxfire of the imagination that pulled me along on the (often bramble covered) path towards the rest of the story. As the writing moved along, I came to think of my journey as a story-line. Much like the song-maps of sailors or the song-lines of aboriginal Australians, my story-line guided the way as I tried to make sense of it all…history, women’s stories, lost traditions, myth and my imagination.

My first vision of The Birth House came one night as I was falling into sleep. I sat up and went to the desk by my bed and began scribbling as fast as I could, trying to capture what I’d been thinking/dreaming of, feeling like the words might slip away and I’d never find them again. The next morning my husband asked me what had kept me up so late. I handed my notebook to him and said, “I don’t know what it is yet, but I think it’s the start of something.” Amazingly enough, through seven drafts and more than a few rounds of editorial revisions, the prologue to The Birth House has gone nearly unchanged since that first night.

About two weeks ago, a hard cover copy of my novel arrived at my house. I held it to my chest, I stroked the cover, inhaled its ‘new book’ smell, let the pages whirr past my thumb. I had anticipated that moment, thinking I’d feel I was finished with it, my journey complete. Instead, I realized that our songs, our lives, our stories, our art, our words are meant to go on, and whether we reach out to one person or to thousands, we are here to remind each other of who we are. The fun is in the journey.

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