Thursday, May 1, 2014
I spent 33 years living in a place I didn’t love, and all I got for it was a book publishing contract.
In 1976, after two frustrating years in a rural Arizona town, two years in Iran, and two years on Guam, we were looking for a place to settle down. I preferred an urban setting; my husband just wanted a secure job. We both wanted to be reasonably close to one set of grandparents or the other so our children could get acquainted with them. We got an offer from a junior high (which later became a middle school) about two hours away from my husband’s parents in Provo, Utah. After visiting the town and struggling to find a suitable place to live, we landed temporarily in a house trailer smaller than the one we’d lived in before, vowing that we’d build a bigger house as soon as possible.
I remember that after we fasted and prayed about moving there, I got off my knees and said to my husband, “I wish we didn’t have to go there.” We set up housekeeping, put our older daughter in a preschool, made friends in the ward, struggled to learn how the town functioned, and dealt with the main drawback of being those peculiar outsiders who didn’t care about hunting and fishing. For the first three months we lived there, I often cried myself to sleep. One bright spot, however, was that a woman in the ward invited me to attend a meeting of a writers group she belonged to, associated with a statewide organization, the League of Utah Writers. I met some lovely people there who became lasting friends. I attended whenever my demanding family life would allow, and began some serious writing projects of my own.
When we found a small piece of property on the other end of town and started planning for a home, I anticipated putting down roots, both literally and figuratively. I intended to become a country gentlewoman—perfect my knowledge of gardening, plant fruit trees, make jam, have a root cellar, harvest bouquets of flowers from my own yard, and learn all the old-fashioned, self-sufficient country homemaking skills, which are very different from city homemaking skills. In the city you follow the case lot sales; in the country you pay attention to the length of the growing season, learn when to plant, how to water a garden, and where to get quantities of produce to preserve in bottles and freezer.
We moved into our house in February, 1977, and subscribed to seed catalogs. That spring I planted tomato seeds indoors. We put them on an old metal rack in the sunny kitchen window, a sliding glass door, and congratulated ourselves when the sprouts came out of the soil. And then I sneezed. And sneezed. And sneezed. I’d never had allergies before. We decided that next year we’d get tomato plants at the local nursery. Still, whenever I worked outdoors, I continued to sneeze.
After a couple of years of this, I realized that gardening wasn’t going to be a satisfying lifetime pursuit, and I knew I had to change my plan. Then I learned that some friends in the ward were part of a local community theater, and I was thrilled. Drama has been one of the serious loves of my life—like raspberries and hazelnuts—and to find an outlet for that in this rural place was a tender mercy indeed.
Fast forward a few years. Being involved in the ward, I made friends and found a few things in common with others. My life choices—serving a mission, graduating from college, being a writer—had painted me into an obscure corner in a community where all non-natives were suspicious. In fact, when we were looking for a place to live in 1976, we’d follow up on ads in the newspaper, finding that doors we knocked on were opened only slightly, and potential landlords asked why we were moving to town, who we were related to, and if we had temple recommends. As a stopgap measure until something came up, one person suggested we pitch a tent in the KOA campground. Nevertheless, over the years, I met a few very dear people whose friendship fed my spirit.
Directing plays for community theater brought some satisfaction, but it wasn’t enough. I’d taught the Gospel Doctrine class for nearly twelve years when I started writing plays, something I’d always wanted to do. Eventually, my three plays based on Book of Mormon stories were produced by the stake with great success. I also got a job with the school district writing school news stories for the local paper. I became involved with local arts organizations, started a couple that didn’t last long, and launched an annual art show that’s still going. I became the PR person for various other community groups that needed my writing skills. I taught creative writing for the college outreach programs mainly accommodating needs of teachers to further their education. I later became the writing tutor in my husband’s school where I taught one-on-one to coach children in good writing and thinking skills. In my home, I mentored a few brilliant high school students who were gifted writers. Later, after my children left home, I worked in the Manti Temple for three years.
During all this time, however, I often felt isolated, lonely, and depressed, even though I was involved in the community—it didn’t take long to discover that I couldn’t stay home and watch soap operas all the time. Writing had always been my escape, so I kept writing. I began entering League of Utah Writers contests, and eventually won some respectable prizes for my essays, poetry, and novels. When my husband retired and we moved to Provo, I had a body of work that included hundreds of newspaper articles, a couple of short stories, about fifty essays, a portfolio of poetry, four plays, files full of undeveloped ideas for future projects, and six novels in various stages of completion.
In Provo, I joined the American Night Writers Association (ANWA—a national organization of LDS women writers), and attended more writing conferences for networking and education. I became almost compulsive about honing my skills and perfecting my work. I found a writer who did line-and-content editing, and after evaluating five of my six novels, she encouraged me to submit them for publication. She knew people who knew people, and pretty soon, so did I. In the writer’s milieu, I felt accepted, nourished, and valued.
Another set of what seems like serendipitous circumstances brings me to today. My first novel will be released this month. I am the poster child for late bloomers. Looking back, I realize that if I hadn’t been in that circumstance of isolation, loneliness, and depression, my attention would probably have gone to more mundane pursuits, something less creatively fulfilling and more transitory. Only in looking back can I see the pattern. It is as Elder Bednar said in his April 2014 conference talk:
Each of us carries a load. Our individual load is comprised of demands and opportunities, obligations and privileges, afflictions and blessings, and options and constraints… Sometimes we mistakenly may believe that happiness is the absence of a load. But bearing a load is a necessary and essential part of the plan of happiness. Because our individual load needs to generate spiritual traction, we should be careful to not haul around in our lives so many nice but unnecessary things that we are distracted and diverted from the things that truly matter most.
Though I found dear friends there, I still don’t love that place I lived for 33 years. It is familiar, but I don’t pine away with nostalgia. That place didn’t necessarily love me, either, even though I tried to bloom where I was planted. But I do love the outcome of the struggle; I will soon discover if the price I paid was worth it.