Have you ever thought that perhaps it’s the hard situations, not the golden opportunities, that reveal who we truly are and what our calling is? I recently learned first-hand about coping with hard situations through writing. Let me tell you the story of how a romance contest righted my upside-down world.
I write travel and nature-related non-fiction, and also romantic fiction, having a membership in Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada (RWAC). As a writer, I’ve been known to dither and procrastinate, particularly when writing fiction. That’s why, in late November 2017, when I learned that Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) Golden Heart contest for unpublished novels would open on December 1st, I was determined to enter it. The contest’s deadline was January 11th, which would force me to complete final revisions in my manuscript and write a novel synopsis, a task I’d never done before. Little did I know then that life was about to throw me a curve ball and push my plans out the window. It’s only in looking back now that I see how a romance contest righted my upside-down world and gave me insight into myself and my calling.
True to my word, I jumped right in with contest entry preparations. Starting on December 1st, I read aloud and edited A Look Across the Sand, my contemporary romance with inspirational elements and an outdoor twist, chapter by chapter. The first eighteen chapters flowed smoothly, but the nineteenth and parts of the remaining chapters, twenty through twenty-three, needed major overhauls. Those revisions, plus researching synopsis writing, took me right up to the end of December. Admittedly, I didn’t work straight through the Christmas holiday season; rather, I took time off to enjoy community events and visit with my sons and delightful baby granddaughter.
On New Year’s Day, I dived back into work. Entering the Golden Heart was my first writing goal for 2018 and I was determined to achieve that goal. I prepared the required fifty-page partial manuscript, ensuring that it ended with a cliffhanger. Then I started working on a five-page synopsis, which proved to be a daunting task. How was I to condense a story I’d told in eighty-four thousand words into the space of only five pages, double-spaced? Not only did I need to concisely describe main characters, goals, motivations, conflicts and plot high points, I had to do so in such a way as to captivate the contest judges and reveal my unique writing style.
Fortunately, I’d found some excellent resources online, notably Lecture 4 of Lisa Gardner’s series, “Conquering the Dreaded Synopsis: A Series of Ten Lectures.” This wonderful resource describes the set-up of the short synopsis and analyzes two well-crafted synopses, one for a suspense novel and one for a romance novel. The romance synopsis example became my model, and for the next few days, I sought to emulate it. I felt confident about being able to meet the contest deadline and even took a day off to participate in a Christmas Bird Count without feeling guilty about being away from my computer.
Then my world turned upside down. On Saturday evening, January 6th, after completing half of my synopsis in fine style, I got the telephone call that every child of an elderly, infirm parent dreads to receive yet knows is coming: my mother was dying. The next day, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write. I was a mass of nerves, wanting only to get on a plane and go to her.
On Monday, January 8th, I flew across the country to Alberta, where I’d grown up, and where Mom was living in a nursing home. I didn’t know how much time she had. Only God knew that. I’d packed my laptop in a carry-on bag, hoping that somehow, I might still be able to meet the Golden Heart deadline. My flight to Toronto, en route to Edmonton, was delayed for three hours because of stormy weather. I had to fill my time with something, so did spelling and formatting checks of my entry’s partial and full manuscripts, both of which I would have to submit. The airport was too loud for me to be able to focus on writing the rest of the synopsis.
I arrived in Edmonton a couple hours before midnight, and it was after midnight by the time I fell into bed at my sister’s home. (In case you’re wondering whether I wrote while flying, I never do; I feel too exposed.) I thought I would sleep deeply but instead was up before five o’clock, my body unable to adjust to the three-hour time change. So, I worked for three hours before spending the day at my mother’s side. Three of my sisters and two of my brothers were also with her. Mom could hardly speak or open her eyes. She wasn’t eating and barely sipped at drinks. She looked indescribably tired, which was understandable. She was a hundred years and seven months old. Her strong heart had beat through more than a century, leaving behind (I’m tweaking a phrase spoken by my brother) horse-and-buggy days and days of men landing on the moon.
That evening I worked for a couple of hours, and again the next day, was up at five o’clock and working. My stomach felt off, but I attributed that to stress, lack of sleep and travel. I took my laptop with me to the nursing home and, in between trading growing-up-on-the-farm stories with my siblings and talking to Mom (not knowing if she could hear me; she slept nearly all the time), I proofed my partial and full manuscripts and made notes for finishing the synopsis. Immersed in two stressful scenarios at the same time, I nonetheless remained hopeful that I would meet the Golden Heart deadline, which was the next day. That evening, I felt queasy and exhausted but put in two hours of focused work after supper and then visited Mom again, until eleven. I told myself that all I had to do was get up at five o’clock one more time and finish the synopsis.
It was not to be. That night, stomach flu, which had been hovering over me, struck with a vengeance. I rushed to the bathroom at two o’clock and four o’clock and vomited my guts out. At five o’clock, I was so nauseous, I couldn’t bear to look at my laptop screen. I spent most of the day in bed and yes, I missed the Golden Heart deadline and failed to achieve my first writing goal of 2018. Disappointment swamped me, but I realized that, in the grand scheme of things, missing a contest deadline is a small thing, insignificant when compared with losing a parent.
Still queasy and eating light and bland, I returned to the nursing home the following day and spent all of it with my mother. I simply sat beside her, talked to her and touched her and chatted with my brothers and sisters. Mom never opened her eyes and, as on previous days, needed doses of medication administered by caring staff to ease her pain. Before I left her that evening, I caressed her hair and said, “Goodnight, dear Mother,” over and over. I looked at her dark, sunken eyes and felt like I was saying goodbye instead of goodnight, yet I was too exhausted to stay any longer.
Mom died early the next morning, just before five o’clock. I was awake when the call came and instantly knew what the ring of the phone so early meant. Although I wasn’t with my mother at the time of her death, I was so glad and grateful that I’d been able to spend several days, and particularly the previous day, with her. Along with two of my sisters and a brother, I sat for hours with Mom’s body before she was taken to the funeral home. Again, I touched her hair and spoke lovingly to her, her skin still warm to my touch.
My brothers and sisters asked me to write and present the eulogy at Mom’s funeral, which I did. Writing those words of remembrance for my mother was the most difficult, emotional and honouring piece of writing I’ve ever done. My body felt tied into knots, and I understood how it’s sometimes painful to use the gifts that God has given us.
The day after the funeral, I returned home to Nova Scotia, exhausted physically and reeling emotionally. I told my husband that I was going to take the advice I’d given to one of my sisters: Take some time for yourself and do something you really like to do. What I really wanted was to have a week at home with no commitments, a week of being completely free to do only what I chose to do.
So I did, and it turned out that what I wanted to do was write. First, a blog post about hiking in New Brunswick last summer. Then, a post with a photo essay from a visit to Prince Edward Island. Next, I wrote a preface for my Aussie travel memoir-in-progress, Red Continent: A Year in Australia. Then I edited a hefty chunk of a memoir about nature and rural life in northern Nova Scotia, Seeker at Matheson Brook.
As you can see, I flitted from one project to another. That was okay because I’d given myself permission to do what I wanted, yet I felt like I was wandering through fog, with no clear path before me.
Last Wednesday, it came to my attention that Toronto Romance Writers (TRW), a chapter of RWA, was hosting its annual contest for unpublished novels, the Catherine, with a deadline of February 1st. Grieving for my mother and disheartened after missing the Golden Heart deadline, I had no desire to enter the Catherine but knew I had to. I had unfinished business to complete. This was a chance for me to redeem myself.
The Catherine contest differs from the Golden Heart in that the entire entry consists of a novel’s first twenty-five pages followed by a synopsis of two to five pages. That meant my synopsis would work, once I finished it, but I would have to tweak my manuscript in order to have a cliffhanger at the end of page twenty-five.
On Thursday morning, I finished the troublesome synopsis in three hours, exactly two weeks after the flu had prevented me from finishing it for the Golden Heart contest. On Friday, I tweaked the partial manuscript and synopsis. On Saturday, I proofed my work, paid my contest fee and emailed my entry to TRW. Done! Not only had I entered the Catherine, I had submitted my entry five days before the deadline.
A thrill of victory swept through me. A spark of joy. And a sense of closure. I felt that I had, with an amendment due to extenuating circumstances, achieved my first writing goal of 2018.
I want to share this story because, amazingly, my world is right-side up again, and my feet are solidly beneath me. I feel a deep sadness over the loss of my mother that will, I suspect, take a long time to fade. Even then, it will recur, I know. My father died almost forty years ago, and I still experience bouts of sadness over that loss. His death meant the end of a family era. My mother’s death means that another era has ended.
I don’t know what the future will hold. None of us does. However, one thing I can say for certain is that the past three weeks of emotional, physical and intellectual challenge have cemented my understanding of who I am. I am a writer. Coping with hard situations through writing spelled that out to me in block letters.
If I ever doubted it before (and I have), I no longer doubt that writing is my calling. It’s the hard situations, not the golden opportunities, that reveal who we truly are.