By William Campbell
The above photo is from the nearby graveyard of most of our family. The Martin gravestone is of the founder of the town Martinsburg. He is one of our ancestors.
Hi everyone. Last week I posted the first in a two part series on resilience. Though I said I’d follow-up this week, I’m going break the regularly scheduled programming for some news that ironically, is about my own resilience practice.
I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I am working on my own novel. It always feels weird (and pretentious) to say those words, but I have to do it break the pattern of my own self-critic who tells me that I have no hope at being a “real creative.”
Recently, I returned to Iowa to do some research for Un/Settled stories and background for the book. In that trip, my dad took me around to the grave stones of our descendants (literally – that’s not a metaphor). As we were driving down gravel roads to the different cemeteries, he kept pointing to “street” corners and saying, “That was where ‘so-and-so’ used to live.” “That used to be your fourth cousin’s farmstead.” “That was where your grandma grew up.” Yet everywhere he pointed was empty. Just patches of grass, or corn, or pasture. Though none of the people who lived there were alive anymore, I felt a sadness for the memories. These places where people were born, lived, and died had been completely erased from the land. The only thing that remained was the memories of an old man (sorry Dad…).
I realized that this was part of what I was experiencing with our farm. Returning every year, I see how much has been demolished or razed to make way for more corn or pastureland. Just like the empty street corners, it feels like my own childhood has been erased. Yet in my mind, I can see the barn where we played Tarzan, the hog shed we climbed to test the electricity of the telephone line (yes we did that!), and the pasture I would trawl for hidden treasure (I once found plastic jewelry that I swore was a magic amulet).
My father’s act of driving me down the gravel roads, though, was his form of oral history. Like so many cultures in history, he is passing down our stories when the physical evidence no longer remains.
The idea for my book came when I wondered about the limits of the imagination. How powerful is the imagination? What if there existed a place where what you imagine can come to life? What would that mean for the people who lived there? What kinds of creatures would come into existence? What kinds of rules would need to be in place to maintain such a place?
Though my book is about imagination, I believe this is a form of my own oral history. The only place the farm of my childhood will continue to exist is in my own imagination. Memory and wish-fulfillment will inevitably blend together, and that isn’t a bad thing. And the way I will be able to capture that story is through this novel.
As many can attest, I have been working on this book for years. Instead of perfecting the story, I fear that time has only warped my plot so that its no longer recognizable. Given more time, I’ll make anything more complex instead of simple, and my own complexity is choking my story. Keep it simple, stupid, is a phrase for a reason. Julia Cameron, creative coach and the author of The Artist’s Way says, talks about our “inner directive” and that writing was her marching order. Similarly, writing is my marching order, yet I have found too many excuses to put it aside.
In the midst of working full-time, being a student of learning and organizational change part-time, and writing stories and essays for Un/Settled, I have put aside the very project that was giving me life: my book. In anyone’s work on building and maintaining resilience, we must find those activities that not only bring us joy, but bring us a sense of fulfillment. Activities that make us feel whole. That is what writing fiction does for me – it makes me feel whole.
Maybe more than any of that, I have discovered characters who’s stories are begging to be told. I started with one main character, Nate, who was a relatively cardboard protagonist. There wasn’t much depth to him. But as I sketched out his little sister, I encountered this quirky, fearless, and complicated girl who begged to be at the center of the story. From there, I have discovered an array of creatures, each of whom is more interesting than the next. The drunken goose who is depressed because he failed the protect the farm in generations past. The pig who believed she ruled the farm (and perhaps she does). The closet creature who is a glob of toys, junk, and memories of children past. With each character, I discovered another story.
Though they aren’t real, just like the premise of the book, I want to bring them to life. To me, they have become real.
So this post is what Jim Collin’s calls a “catalytic mechanism.” Through his analysis of the what helps some people bridge the gap between goals and results, he observed “mechanisms” that forced the hands of people to push themselves past their boundaries or their apathy. An example in business is 3M’s rule of scientists spending 15% of their time on experimenting and inventing. An example in personal life is that of someone giving their resignation letter to a friend and telling them to submit it to their boss if they don’t apply to a certain number of jobs in the next three months. These mechanisms act as a form of accountability that pushes us to make the changes might need to but won’t on our own effort.
So I’m putting it off no longer. I’m choosing to not care about how good, terrible, prosaic, or boring my writing is. I’m embracing a learner’s mindset, and I’m putting my creativity out there for support and feedback so that I get better, get my vision out there, and become the writer I have always wanted to be. Here is my mechanism. I’m committing to posting the “drafty” pages of my novel for all to see. I’m going to post a new piece at least every two weeks. I’m going to ask for feedback from you the general reader (as well as a select few of trusted editors). This is me attempting to work out loud and bring my friends, family and community into the storytelling process. This is my oral history.