Here's the thing you may not realize about writing a novel: it takes a long time. And I don't just mean it takes a lot of hours. For me, it's taking years. YEARS. Granted, I only really work on this novel that's filled my Google Drive during the summer months when my teaching demands are on hiatus, and even then, it's only when I squeeze time to focus on it around motherhood. But creating a full-length novel worthy of sending out for mountains of rejection and possibly, so slightly possibly, capable of landing an agent's attention takes major dedication and time.
But I'm starting to feel bad for Noelle, the main character of my manuscript, and after spending half a decade with just me, I want to see if the world finds her interesting. So below, you'll find an excerpt from the beginning of the novel. Noelle keeps a Death Diary, in which she writes entries to the inhabitants of whichever graves she decides to visit. I don't want to give too much more away, so that's as much context as I'll give for now. I would love any type of feedback from someone other than the voices in my head, so please feel free to leave your comments below.
Without further ado, meet Noelle, through one of her own diary entries:
Gracie Ann Brown
September 23, 1991 – June 8, 1998
San Pedro, TX
Death Diary Entry #74
Hello, Gracie. I know you don’t know me, but I hope you don’t mind if I sit here on your little carved bench and write awhile. Your graveyard is beautiful, by the way. Cemeteries are as different as the people buried in their soil, you know. I’ve been in some that had only ten stones, others thousands. Some have lighted walkways and signs about grass restrictions and others border playgrounds. My favorite ones are those that feel like autumn all year long, full of trees with heavy branches bowing, like their heads are constantly lowering in respect. There are no trees reaching for me or blanketing the grass here above your stone, though; just straight sky, undiluted light, warmth I wish could reach your face, your crossed little arms, your heart. I like it even though it’s different. I’ve become very used to different.
It’s why I chose you to write to this time. You jumped out at me, with your innocent little name and your tiny little life. Seven years old. That breaks my heart. Did you ever get to build a fort made of blankets? It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of seven. One week at that age, my mother and I were staying in one of those motels we often frequented in those first few years, one where you get a key with a large plastic diamond attached, the room number stamped on it in bright red ink that has just begun to rub away on the edges from where people jam it into their back pocket. The décor inside was typical: itchy polyester comforters, a picture that was probably torn out of a calendar framed and hanging on the wall outside of the cramped bathroom. I was in a bad mood, tired of cramming into the car, tired of living out of a ratty duffel bag, tired of the blisters on my feet from where my toes rubbed the tops of my shoes, the ones a size too small that cost my mother more than she'd really had.
I used to bug her about going home, used to whine and cry for my dad, until one day she slapped me hard across the face. She never slapped me, never touched me unless it was to wrap me in a bear hug or kiss my cheek so hard I could feel her lips pushing against my teeth. I'd been stunned, and expected her to apologize, but she just stared at me hard and through gritted teeth said, "You never ask about or for that man again. Understand?" And so I don’t.
Anyway, that night in that motel, like so many others before and since, my mother tried to make it special. And I guess she did, because I remember it. I'd gone into the bathroom to shower and wash away the sting behind my eyes and on my cheek, and when I came back out, I almost knocked over this massive structure. My mother had stripped the bed and flung the sheets over the TV, tucked corners into dresser drawers, tied ends to spindly wire hangers. When I pulled back a dangling sheet to see inside, there was a deep warm glow from the covered lamps, and the pillows were laid out like fluffy carpet. I saw the blanket we kept in our car, a favorite of mine, patched and fringing at the ends, curled around my mother's feet and turned back beside her, like it was waiting for me. My mother had smiled and patted beside her. "Hey, doodlebug. Thought we'd have a little camp-in tonight."
It was glorious and fairy-tale like, even if it was in a cheap generic motel that had one of those roadside signs constantly stuck on "Vacancy." Mama used the rest of her change to raid the soda machine, and we'd cuddled together in the fort, sipping lukewarm Pepsis and watching a Lifetime movie, one where a woman's husband seems so sweet and loving until he tries to kill her one day.
My mom wrapped me in one of her bear hugs in the middle of that movie, right after the scene where the woman ran away from her house, tears streaking her face, the husband silhouetted in the doorway with a gun. "Remember people aren't always what they seem, Noelle," she'd whispered into my hair.
Did you have parents that loved you, Gracie? I mean really loved you? Not just the, "Oh, well, she's my daughter so of course I love her because I'm supposed to and I have to;" no, not that kind of love. I mean that real, deep-gut, world-ending kind of devotion. Were you sick when you died? Or was it an accident? Was no one watching you? Did you choke, fall off of a bike, succumb to cancer? It's the not knowing part I hate most. They put these gravestones up, slap these dates on here, and sometimes people will put something about someone being a loving father, mother, daughter, friend, whatever. But it never says how a person died, what took them away from everyone else.
So I don't know what took you away from your family. And I don't know what took my dad away from me. Well, besides saying it was my mother. But there was that night of the blanket fort, when the light shifted beneath the threads and the television blinked in and out of an alternate reality and my mom whispered words that sank right through my skull.
I know we're going to leave Texas soon, probably head as far north as possible, now that Mom saved enough gas and convenience store money to get us through a week or so on the road. The endless dashes of my life, laid out on asphalt, one after the other as we pass them, on and on, year after year. You've got one little dash on this gravestone meant to stand for all the days you lived, but if that means you had one place where you belonged, well, I might say I'm jealous. I'd trade all of my road-dashed lines for your one single hyphen.
Those blanket memories are nice. But I'm gathering them so tight, looking for something to fall out, that they're becoming suffocating.
In November, the Perry County Council of the Arts honored me by awarding me the Educator of the Year Award for 2017. I felt incredibly humbled by this, and needed to be sure I gave credit where it was due in my acceptance speech:
You’re giving me an honor when really
it’s the students who deserve credit, and I know
that sounds cliche but cliches are just truths
we say so often we forget to feel them
until we are made to
and, you see, if it weren’t for
the young souls who made you feel,
who unstitched themselves in front of you,
who pulled out each bone until they could break into words,
if it wasn’t for these artists that turned clavicles into caesuras
and consonants into caverns, if they hadn’t sung me
a muse when I was merely a lucky journal page
open and ready to hear them, you wouldn’t
have my name sprawled across an award
because, you see, any teacher worth that title
knows there is no award; there is discovery.
there is patience and light and poetry
in every cell, in every soul, if you wait long enough
for it to find its way between pores and posturing,
around preconceived notions and self-fulfilling prophecies.
I am spun of stories students speak from
pencil tips and computer screens, and I am reminded of how
like books, our spines can crack from the weight of
everything we carry inside and I am so thankful
you recognize the art in how my students stay whole
despite the untethering of their bindings, how their
saving grace is our solace. you are honoring me when
all I’ve done is coax them to scream syllables from their skeletons
and tear pages from their tongues perhaps with tears but
never with apologies, when all I’ve done is expose that
behind the concrete blocks and plastic desks that
make up a classroom, beyond the survey data and
standardized test results, inside of those ID numbers
there are infinite beings begging to breathe.
and I laid literature in their lungs.
I tucked possibility around their teeth.
but they--they came alive and rattled their vocal chords raw
until you heard them roaring and thanked me for it
and all I can say in return is
there is no need to thank me for what already lived in them.
Yet another evening finds me crawling in bed at 9:30 pm with barely enough energy to scroll through Facebook and like your posts about life, let alone actually text or call you with any consistency. I've entered a point in time where adulthood feels like I'm running a marathon at a full sprint only to discover I'm falling farther behind each day. I've got laundry to the ceiling, baby bottles constantly filling the sink, grading piling up in my digital classrooms far enough to require the scroll button, and inches of dust threatening anyone's allergy reflex the second they walk through my door. My dog hasn't been walked in weeks and I don't even remember what exercise means outside of lifting my caffeinated beverage to my mouth while working through my lunch after getting two hours of sleep the night before. The only reason I'm able to compose this blog post is because I'm dashing it off in two minutes while waiting for the baby to fall asleep as I rock her (and I've spent weeks thinking of how I should write a post since I haven't in forever.) I'm constantly aware of how inadequate I've become at every aspect of my life that matters to me.
So, please, dear friend, forgive me, because I know I'm not holding up my end of the relationship. I'm also not cutting it as a writer, teacher, wife, or mother. I'm not paying attention to details and losing my temper and forgetting how to be myself every single day. I think of you so many times and never seem to have the few seconds I need to reach out during those minutes, only to see your posts or comments or Snaps and realize two days later I didn't respond anywhere other than inside my own head. Know I don't mean to be antisocial or isolate myself but that I have to use every spare second at work to catch up on work because home is a war zone of workload all its own. Know that I want to see a movie and drink wine with you but I also want to snuggle my last baby, the one I was blessed enough to have after a miscarriage, and I want to read with my six-year-old because I cherish watching her grow her own mind, so I have to choose. Know I won't always feel as conflicted or as distracted, and that the thought of taking a moment for myself won't always be one that simply increases my stress instead of relieving it.
Forgive me, dear friend, for putting other priorities ahead of you, when you should be one too. And love me enough to keep asking me to dinner despite me saying I can't because Sunday is the only day I have to clean. Have faith that someday, I'll remember what it's like to laugh with you, because Lord knows I need it, and that even when we haven't talked in ages, it's the hope we soon will getting me through.
We ask you to study literature but we never tell you why. You see, it's not just about preparing for college, or fulfilling arbitrary curriculum guidelines. It isn't really for passing a standardized test although by now you must feel like the only reason anyone reads is to score a proficient on a standard of measure. No, reading literature and analyzing it is so much more than just one more chore.. It's kindling a desire to see and be and grasp the secrets of the world, an exploration of what it means to be human, how our minds determine our place amongst the masses, how our humanity is formed and forged and tested. The very thing that sets us apart from other animals is our ability to think rationally and logically; we ponder our own existences in ways other creatures cannot. Literature, our miraculous expression and recording of ourselves, is our communal expression of this thing named life, a call and song to our fellow ponderers of life, to not just experience but question what it means, to cast our stories like silk threads so that they catch another, and a connection is made.
When you read and write not just because it’s worth points or because the teacher tells you to or guilts you into it—when you really read, see the way time means nothing to the ways of the human heart, when 400 years does not make you different, when you suddenly realize, I mean truly understand that all those thousands of decisions by thousands of people, whether related to you or not—all those moments added up to today, to here, to you. When you get that and you become an intricate part of this fabric—that is what you should strive for, should be fueled by. Not grade points. Not a chance to waste time, to scoff at what suddenly takes too much energy, to complete assignments as if they are nothing more than an obstacle instead of an opportunity. To live is to exude energy, to seek, to discover, to be curious. As John Keating states in one of my favorite movies of all time, Dead Poets Society, “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Find that, please. Remember this as we move through the year.
For this is what literature has to give.
Years ago, while reading a Jodi Picoult novel (one of my all-time favorite storytellers), I stumbled across a piece of information I've carried with me ever since. She told of a Native American belief that loved ones sent rain as a signal they'd crossed into the afterlife. I told my grandmother about this, because she and I had an affinity for Native American culture and beliefs. We had an affinity for each other, really. I'd speak of her in my classroom and call her my best friend and kindred spirit and meant it. We had one of those relationships that comes along rarely and only with luck and loyalty.
When she passed away on June 14, 2017, I lost part of myself. I think of everyone who suffers the loss of a great love and am unsure how anyone loses a husband, sibling, child, because I cannot look anywhere without pangs in my ribs because everywhere is her but her laugh, her tea, her soft arms hugging me and holding me tight are no longer. I won't sit and watch Maya Angelou specials with her and commiserate with her over politics. I can't vent to her about life or cry to her about students I've grown to love as my own children. I can't philosophize with her on the nature of existence or the meaning of life.
But the day of her funeral, as friends and family huddled under the graveside canopy and umbrellas, it rained. Torrentially, unapologetically, loudly. She soaked us. And when the prayer was done and we laid our roses upon her casket and walked back to our cars, the rain cleared, the sky opened, the sun beckoned us home.
I'd also heard once that angels send feathers as a means of communication. This was another item of spiritual mystique I discussed with Grandma. I'd walk in our local cemetery and ask the spirits to send me certain color feathers, and within a week or two I would normally receive them. My grandmother loved these tales, and I loved experiencing them, even if the whole time a small part of me remained skeptical and logically clung to the fact that where there are birds there will be feathers so perhaps it was all wishful thinking.
The day after Grandma died, I walked her house alone. I laid on her bed, on the living room floor, sat at her kitchen table, and I sobbed. I spoke aloud to her. I thanked her for being such a huge part of my life, for loving and supporting me, for making me who I am. I told her life seemed surreal without her a part of it. And I asked her to send me feathers, a large amount of them all at once, so I would know it was her. So there could be no doubt it was true, what they say of feathers, what I hope about the energy that is our spirits.
This morning, I awoke to feathers scattered across my porch, dozens of them. As if a bird had plucked every feather from its body and still somehow flown away, since no bird laid in sight. No feathers trailed through the yard or driveway to reveal a path of flight. Just feathers strewn in front of my door.
We do not lose people. Just the bodies they resided in for awhile. If you look, if you listen, if you believe, they are speaking. Love is a language needing no words. Just wings.
I believe you. I really do. I can already picture myself sobbing on the way home from dropping Maya off at her college dorm, sputtering about how just yesterday she still wanted me to lay beside her just a few extra minutes each night because she was scared of the dark. I know that when Layla walks out of our house carrying her last box of items to move to her own apartment I will have a void open the likes of which I can't fathom. So when you look at me in the grocery store with that wistful expression and say, "Oh, you're going to miss this one day, so you just soak this up while you can," I know that on some level you are right.
But, please. Let's stop pretending. Because I'm not going to miss ALL of this, and quite frankly, I'd love to be missing it for just one day right now. Because what you're conveniently forgetting in your selective romanticized memory of early motherhood is what mornings are like, or entire days of summer break. From the minute we are all awake (which is way too early), chances are I've yelled, screamed, threatened, cried, sighed, pointed, grunted, cussed, stomped, slung, pitched, ultimatumed, and declared "That's it! I've HAD IT!" all before you've had your morning cup of coffee. I have no personal space. Someone is literally touching me all day, whether it's this baby constantly wanting attached to my boob or my hip or the six-year-old flinging herself around and into me or the dog that won't stop following me and creepily staring at me. I spend every day feeling overwhelmed, behind in housework, friend conversations, developmental playtime, organizing, relationship building, school work, housework, bill paying, housework...and don't even get me started on people who tell me to just play with the kids because the dust will be there tomorrow. Someone's gotta clean eventually. And trust me, it ain't the six year old. Not without twenty minutes of reminding and patience-shredding selective hearing between every. Single. Item.
I spend enough time doubting myself and how I handle temper tantrums and pouting and cluster feeding and naptime. I already feel guilty every night for getting frustrated with a teething baby or losing my patience with a cooped-up hyper elementary-aged kid. I really don't need you presenting me with a reminder that I'm not appreciating what I have. Because I do appreciate it. So, so, so much. I curl into being a mother because it has so much intrinsic meaning and benefit.
But I also appreciate my sanity. So instead of platitudes about these being the golden days of motherhood, offer me something reassuring and real. Like, "It's completely normal to say you need to use the bathroom just so you can lock the door and have five minutes to yourself." (Even though the second I hit the toilet I hear "MOM! MOM! Where are you?!" And the dog is busting in to stare at me some more.) Or "My car smelled like milk vomit for seven years straight." Because we all know that when they're grown we will miss the sweet moments. But we all need to know we aren't terrible for fantasizing about driving off to lay in a chocolate bath and bask in complete glorious silence for just one full day.
So, please. Instead of telling me what I'll miss, tell me what I have to look forward to, hand me a chocolate bar, and let me be on my merry mother way.
Hey, new moms. I've got something to tell you. I know, you've had a lot of information thrown at you during one of the most miraculous and simultaneously traumatic experiences of your life. Because let's face it, whether you just pushed an entire human out of an area of your body best designed for peeing, or you found yourself strapped on an operating table with your intestines outside of you and in a silver bowl, your body has been through more physically than a Spartan warrior faced in training. And it's not over, because if you're one of the many women who choose breastfeeding, you're probably in your hospital bed next to tears, clutching pamphlets and sniffling after lactation consultant visits because it's overwhelming and nothing seems to be going like it's supposed to be. So I am compelled to tell you something:
It's not you. It's them. And here are nine reasons why:
*(carefully consumed immediately following one full feeding so as not to affect our milk, of course)
This morning, I brought a windchime from my grandmother's house to mine. After scrubbing it clean and re-tying the bottom piece on, I hung it on my porch. If I close my eyes when the wind blows, I almost feel like I'm swaying on her porch swing, our feet moving in tandem to keep our rocking steady.
This afternoon, I sat in the living room to nurse Layla, positioned in the rocking chair where I could look out the window and see the chime. And as I watched, a brilliant red cardinal landed on the railing beneath and looked up at it, turning its head and studying it before looking in my direction and flying away.
Perhaps I called her home. At least I like to think so.
As I'm typing this, my five-month-old is on the floor beside me, practicing rolling over all on her own. My six-year-old is running in and out of the front door as if there's some sort of medal to be won for letting out the cool air conditioned air. And my dog heard me mention a word beginning with a "w" and is staring at me until I acknowledge his presence. And I am scrounging five minutes to work on my author website and write a blog post so that if anyone actually cares to look or stumbles across this, they won't see the template prompting to add a little information about yourself, and therefore signifying that I am what I feel: an impostor.
My entire life, I've dreamed of being an author. I've devoured books from the moment I learned to read (and, according to my mother, long before I could read, when I memorized Bears on Wheels and "read" to her nightly at the age of four) and rarely have I read a good book without thinking, "I want to do this. I want my name on a cover on people's shelves."
But like most writers and artists, I have a dizzying balance of confidence and self-doubt. I know I'm a good writer. I doubt that anyone finds my work good enough to publish, let alone buy. For years, I've sat back and wished, unable and (more likely) unwilling to take steps and chances on turning the wish into a risk, which is the only way to take steps toward making it a dream come true.
So after having my second daughter and going on maternity leave from my job as a high school teacher, I vowed to myself that I would concentrate on turning my hobby into reality. And I stayed true to my word, submitting more work to more places, and being greeted with more success than I'd have expected. As part of these efforts, I took a risk I never thought I would: I published my first book, a collection of writing and blackout pieces (which can be found under the "Store" tab). And now, I'm willing to do something I never have: put myself out there to the world as what I've always wanted to be: an author.
I've created this website to not only be taken seriously by any potential agents or publishing companies, but by myself. I wanted to create an image for myself that expressed not just who I want to be, but who I've always been. And I'm finally ready to do that, because I've got two girls and I want to make them proud and also show them how life is meant to pursue passions. I want them to see you can be a mother, have a career, and still work on what you love. Being a woman means not sacrifice but shifting, learning how to manage all the shapes life takes while not losing sight of what you've wanted for yourself all along.
Dearest visitor, I sincerely hope that as I grow, you'll be there by my side, reading along with me. There's nothing more this Reeder would love than to be surrounded by readers.
Lynne Reeder is a mother, teacher, and lifelong reader. She's been penning poems and stories since she first learned to spell words. Her works appear in many online journals and other publications, and she received the title of Poet Laureate for hometown in 2016. She spends her time squeezing in writing drafts of her works around wrangling her two daughters and impulsive pitbull. She's been lucky enough to find love early, marrying her high school sweetheart Brandon, with whom she has been for over half of her life. She loves all kinds of tea, witnessing the moment a student discovers a new talent, and recognizing the infinite in the everyday. She hopes you enjoy her words as much as she thrives on creating them.