Whatever your life's work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Who am I?
What is my purpose?
Do I have a destiny?
This is the mental territory I've been exploring for my book's plot this week. Since it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day today he dominates my thought as a role model of someone who pursued a purpose with determination and passion in spite of enormous resistance.
Why am I here?
This deep question is the key to what drives my protagonist Johanna's struggle. Because this novel is based on a true story -- Johanna eventually succeeding at gaining recognition of Vincent van Gogh as an enduring artist -- the reader knows at the outset that she will be successful.
However, what the reader won't know is how did she get to her answer to "Why am I here?" and what she felt along the way. So, I'm about 5,000 words into the the cause-and-effect trajectory of the story. Without giving away specific events that happen, here's an idea of some of the plot components:
The path to answering Who am I? takes...
Threatening the status quo
So Johanna will need to experience...
Being persistent despite setbacks
Curiosity taking her into danger
Encouragement (such as from her future husband, Theo)
Resistance when she challenges the traditional gender role for women
Facing a difficult moral dilemma
And she will feel...
Determination and despair
Excitement and naiveté
Love and unselfishness
Shame and humility
Longing and hope
Here's the funny thing. If done right, the real journey is not the protagonist's experience, but yours as you read it. Readers agree or disagree, argue or approve what a character is doing and in this way have their own experience with the book. Finding out "who am I?" is a universal theme; one we each grapple with in our own way. For authors, I've read that a common mistake is not sharing enough of what the protagonist is feeling so that the reader can identify with what's going on. So, I'm trying to identify what Johanna feels now in order to keep this top of mind.
Meanwhile, in the midst of doing this vicarious soul-searching with Johanna, I had a few emotion-stirring events in my own life this past week.
- Attended my last two retirement dinners.... feeling a big mix of cheerful and grateful and sad.
- Got a surprise "Facetime" announcement from our daughter that she's engaged to boyfriend Jay... feeling HAPPY and, funny, Cristina's news made me look forward even more to my son Eric's upcoming wedding to Angela. (2018 is turning into a big year!)
- Reveled in a home-cooked dinner of Juan's chicken marsala... feeling the LOVE from his perfect result and his intentional adding of extra mushrooms for me.
How I'm Writing the Book
Highlighter Exercise: Book editor Sheila Athens gave me an exercise with highlighters I finally tried this week. You might want to try it out of curiosity. Its purpose is to see how to strike the right balance of current action and back story without slowing down pace. One of my favorite books is Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings so I took it off the bookshelf to mark up. The goal is to identify each sentence: Yellow is inner monologue (what the character is thinking), pink is dialogue, orange is the current scene and blue is back story. Surprisingly, I found most pages had all four colors. I noticed that Kidd sometimes slips in even a single line of back story to give the reader context yet does not slow down the scene's action. Try it!
Books I'm Reading: I finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It is so useful as a model of how to tell the story of a famous individual through the eyes of someone close to him/her -- in this case, it's about Ernest Hemingway through the experience of his first wife, Hadley (for me, Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of sister-in-law Johanna). I also slowly read through The Wisdom of Sundays, a compilation of conversations Oprah Winfrey had with spiritual thinkers on her television program, Super Soul Sunday. It really provoked my thinking around this blog's theme on "Who am I?"
Finally, it's not a book, but I watched a Netflix documentary, "Joan Didion: The Center Can Not Hold," (thank you, Elyse!) that also made an impact. It was inspiring to see how Didion's literary work is an outcome of her life. From her candid reporting of deep personal grief to the chronicling of the unsettling shock of the '60s, Didion shaped "new journalism," or using essays to communicate facts through narrative storytelling. The 90-minute documentary was released just a few months ago and is spell-binding.
As I close, Martin Luther King Jr. has words of encouragement for discovering your unique purpose and finding out what you can do better than anyone else:
Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.