The Author’s Confessional: An exploration of personal process

The Author’s Confessional: An exploration of personal process

As many of you may know, my “day job” is college history instructor. This was a later-in-life calling, something which grew from a terrible crisis my family endured in the mid-1980s. After the ground had firmed beneath my feet, I decided that the path which I had been on—advertising—was thin tea.

True, advertising did leverage my writing skill—something which some very wonderful high school and college teachers had nurtured and encouraged. However, my path to that was circuitous…always something that was happenstance rather than an effort made through conscious decision-making. I “ended up” working as an advertising manager at a company or an account executive/copywriter at an agency. The process seemed informed. I needed a job, a salary, to help support my growing family.

My argument made to my wife, who was constrained as to where she could work in her profession (television producer/programming executive), was that I can write anywhere.

But, I never did.

The central employment certainly involved writing…at its periphery: company newsletters, press releases, speeches, reports. Nothing which fed my soul, but rather did that which supplied what we all need…food, shelter, and the tiny bricks that slowly are molded into a life. Oh, I did take odd jobs…today we would label them side gigs…at small local newspapers writing news and features. But, outside of ads, brochures, and direct mail pieces, I never really attempted to do more with my writing. Yes, in 1985 I managed to get a book, Caving, published. However, t’was written in 1974 while I was still in college, well-before I had begun settling.

My next book did not come about until after the face of my life had been altered by an ineluctable tragedy. The One Pan Gourmet was published in 1995. It took twenty years for me face the gorgon and move from informative to creative, from non-fiction to fiction, writing.

The prospect of building worlds, creating universes within which the characters existed as flesh-and-blood was terrifying.

As a life-long reader, I understood that the best literature grew from somewhere deep inside of the author. The act of creation needed some ground upon which it could stand.

The idea that I would have to reach into places deep in my soul turned my bowels to water. Non-fiction was safe. Fiction was dangerous.

It took an act of courage on the part of another—my daughter who herself was transformed both physically and emotionally by the event—to break the logjam. She published a YA novel. That got me, as my friends from New York City would say off the schneid.

While I have no pretensions about being the fount of received wisdom, I have grown, over the past 33 years (this Memorial Day) into a person different from the one who existed in the 33 years prior to that one in 1986. Greater thinkers than I (Lewis, Okakura, to name two) have contemplated that skein we call life. In my own, perhaps feeble, but I hope understandable way, have tried to encapsulate my thoughts and place them in the mouths of my characters.

“Life, my dear boy, is composed of a thousand mundane moments and these may be equally disposed between joy and trouble. Each, though, like a small pebble resting in a river’s current, contributes to the grand arc of existence, bending it toward its ultimate end.”  Lydia Fitzwilliam, Dowager Countess of Matlock (8th)

As persons, as writers, we tend to look at single events in a conflict/resolution matrix. While many traumas do forcibly shape a person’s life…for instance, Mrs. Bennet’s miscarriage in 1801 created the Kitty Bennet (the follower, the one who coughs) we know from Miss Austen’s biography of the family…a thousand more gently guide the persons we crave to know better, longer. That is why I find something like the magisterial Randolph Churchill/Martin Gilbert Eight-Volume biography of Winston Churchill to be so satisfying.

And, that is what I tried to have Lydia Bennet Wickham Richter Fitzwilliam express on the fronts piece of my upcoming The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion.

However, the next few days will likely be the most difficult ones I have ever undergone as a writer. I will go to places where I have never wished to revisit. I will unearth grief that I, as do we all, would have wished to keep buried. I do not fear reader reactions. They will be what they will be.

I fear the pain that this truth will inflict upon me. Even though I know, like a child who knows what a hot stove can do, I am required to place my hands back upon the burners.

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This excerpt from “The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion” is © 2019 by Donald P. Jacobson. Any reproduction without the author’s consent is prohibited. Published in the United States of America.

Entr’acte

The Beach House at Deauville, July 2, 1943

T’was not pain. No, not pain, for the concept of pain implied that t’was an extraordinary circumstance: something outside the realm of normal existence. This agony, this chasm of despair into which she continued to tumble, day-after-day, week-after-week, was not exceptional, but rather the regular currency of her life. Awake or asleep, the lifeblood she poured into the vessel of her soul seeped out between seams rent asunder by ineffable loss.

Lydia Wickham was caught in a netherworld between cherished memories, perhaps delusions, and a reality that worried the edges of her very being like a flint etching tender skin long sheltered beneath a lady of leisure’s satin slippers.

Long days curled up on the library’s sofa, gazing at nothing but the great marquetry doors of the Wardrobe, merged into equally wakeful nights staring into the featureless plane of matte white that arced above her bower. Alone even when her sister or old Jacques would sit beside her in their own cloud of bereavement, Mrs. Wickham, followed her kindred spirit’s path. As Gaia moved in an elliptical orbit, so, too, did Lydia as she trekked from her chamber to the bookroom and back again. Neither pole exerted a dominant pull over her. She slid through her cosmos like a rogue asteroid, unseeing, uncaring, awaiting that inevitable moment when the universe would interpose a greater body that would shatter her into smithereens.

Whether she would re-coalesce into something recognizable remained a question of small concern to her.

A void of indescribable potency yawned in the core of her being. T’was beyond the actual event itself, the fact of which she had come to accept, if only to maintain a tenuous grip on sanity. There were so many ancillary losses arising from the original.

Her identity, expanded from its original with the splitting that began in the time of one Tyrant and ended during the reign of another, had been erased in an instant.

That which she had become was no longer and never again could be.

Then there was the instinctive camaraderie shared by all women of her situation…and the equally awful revulsion evidenced by those same females the moment they recognized that which had been. Rather, unsure of how to respond, they chose to glance up and away, literally anywhere but into her eyes. Conversations hushed. Head bobs and shoulder-points cautioned all that a dead woman walked through their midst.

She needed to reset her life but could not as nothing had yet been resolved. Scenarios played out behind her emerald green eyes. Yet, no clear explanation could ever be understood as she turned the problem over and over in metaphorical hands. No matter what variable Lydia changed, no matter which what if she applied like Herr Einstein twiddling with its building blocks, the Universe, the Old One, always brought her to the same terrifying finish line.

She would die: she would if only to bring surcease from the clawing ennui.

Except that she had not the energy nor, ultimately, the inclination, to destroy herself.

Even in her less-than-half-a-life reality, she comprehended that she was bound by the remarkable energies flowing above, around, and through her.

Her trail was far from over, her curse yet unrelieved, and she despised the Wardrobe that demanded her to be its Galahad.  

12 Responses to The Author’s Confessional: An exploration of personal process

  1. Wonderful excerpts, Don! You already know how much I admire your talent and your creativity! Thank you for sharing such an emotional confession. (I did not know you are a history college instructor, but make perfect sense, considering your excellent time travelling saga!
    I look forward to reading more from you.

    • LL…thank you so much for your ongoing friendship and encouragement. I look forward to your thoughts on the biography of the Dowager Countess Lydia.

  2. However long it took you to finally reach the point to write this saga, I can only say that I am grateful you did. Throughout this saga, you have left pieces of yourself that have shaped these characters. The pain is there in that excerpt and my heart breaks. Only you, and those close to you, can understand how difficult it is to unleash these demons that have been locked away never thinking they would one day be released again. Your family and friends will be there to catch and embrace you for your courage and commitment when your ‘Wardrobe’ takes you through its doors.

    • CC…t’is friends like you who will lift me up. I am finding a therapeutic value in the words being written this week. I could have avoided the whole thing, I guess, by putting it all to the side and taking my characters down a less challenging, less confrontational path, offering up something which would have gotten us to the point…but, in my own heart, being less truthful to my relationship with the work.

  3. So heartbreaking! I know a bit of where you are writing this from, Don, and I grieve with you. Thank you for sharing the depths so we can help relish the heights with you.

  4. Loved your excerpt. I’m a music teach and have done nothing but music all of my life so I don’t have the writing background that most writers have. As a singer, the words are everything and the challenge is to make them come alive through the music you have been given by the composer. Love all the connections. Best Wishes with your continued writing endeavors.

  5. Writing is just another outlet for my creativity. I was a dancer and a theatre geek for many years. Do not ask me to sing, though. As we say in the South, “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” Nor did I have the benefit of music lessons when I was young. I did LOTS of writing for my job, but I cannot say that grant writing sparked my interest. I am not certain how it ever attracted the attention of those on the receiving end of the proposals, but, it did: I was successful with my endeavors.

    • There are so many inputs that shape our writing. What is, I believe, essential is for each of us to write our own truths, to create work that resonates from those chords that stretch across our psyches.

  6. Wonderful excerpt. You know, I’d intended to go into advertising, because I wanted to be a writer and I felt that was a way to write and make money. The practical solution. I started with a dual major in psychology and art, and got stuck in the psychology (behavioral neurology) part for a while, before remembering that the goal had always been to be a writer 🙂

    • I never intended to do advertising. But, I needed a job when we moved from Illinois to California…and I ended up at Toyota Forklift writing the in-house newsletter with a glorified title of “Advertising Coordinator.” Two person department. Then they fired my boss. Me…the guy who got a D in Principals of Advertising taught by the fellow who made Schiltz the #2 Beer in the nation…from #1 promoted to Advertising Manager. From 77 to 14…nothing but advertising…and teaching. But 1986 really was that hinge point, the crux in my life. I am sad that it took 30 years for me to really stop being “responsible” and to go after writing with both hands.

      What is, as I express, most difficult is to write those words that are informed by your own life experience…especially when painful and tragic. There is no escaping the truth, though. Those demons shaped me…and I hope will shape Lydia.

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