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In the fall of 1990, I had a vision – I wanted to write novels of hope. I had taken a 19th Century American literature course, and the teacher had said, “in 19th century American novels, you expected a happy outcome.  In 20th century novels, you typically expect a negative or unhappy outcome.”  I didn’t like that trend, and wanted to do something different.

The movie Dances With Wolves had just come out, and it really sparked something in me.  I realized that I wanted to explore a time in my Dad’s life I knew little about.

In 1967, when I was 17, we were living in Oklahoma City when my Dad’s drinking hit bottom. My aunt and uncle came and picked up my Mom, my 3 sisters and myself, taking us back to Fort Worth to live with my maternal grandmother. Dad disappeared for a while, then later returned to Fort Worth, somehow changed.  He sobered up and got into recovery, and reclaimed the world he had lost.  I never knew what had happened to him during the time he was gone, other than a vague comment my Mom made about him going and working on the wheat harvest, which he had done in high school.  I never thought I would see him again, and later wondered what his life had been like during the time while he was gone.

He died before it ever occurred to me to ask him about it.  I began working on how to tell that story, and after I wrote the first two chapters, I suddenly realized – if I explored this thread fully, I had – a novel of hope!  It was a tremendously empowering moment.

In the spring of 1991, I quit my job, went up to Oklahoma and worked on the wheat harvest, to try and imagine what my Dad’s life was like after we left, and what might have happened to him.  How I got there is a story of its own: Dances With Wolves Filmsite.

The book I wrote in 1993 was my best guess as to what happened.  It was entitled Nothing Left To Lose.  It was a novel,  written from a very loving and generative perspective.  But how did I get to that loving place in describing a man who had been violent toward me when I was a teenager?  I later realized that I needed to flesh out the back story.  I will do so in several books, beginning with my first published memoir, Freedom’s Just Another Word, about the time around his death and my healing process.  The reason I never published this novel will be the topic of the second book I will publish – Healing The Writer; writing that book freed my creativity!

I now plan to publish Nothing Left To Lose, the novel about my Dad written from a loving and healed perspective.

The novel begins like this:

Chapter 1
Eyes downcast, he trudged along, conscious of the uneven surface along the shoulder of the highway, stumbling occasionally on chunks of gravel or small pebbles. He looked up periodically at the cars speeding past, as if to keep his bearings. His face was lined and weary and his entire body ached. He was wearing a worn brown corduroy jacket, a wrinkled plaid flannel shirt, dark blue polyester pants, white socks and cordovan loafers.

It was about 5 pm and the sun had just set. Night was approaching rapidly and the chill of February in 1967 was harshened by a brisk wind which picked up in gusts as he walked. He tried to walk faster, his hands deep in his pockets, but had to step carefully so not to turn an ankle on the uneven surface beside the roadbed. His vision was limited by the flash of oncoming headlights.

He had been told there was a boarding house in town where he could get a room for the night, and he plodded on, the directions vaguely held in a corner of his consciousness.

“We’re sorry,” they’d said at the detox center, “but all we can do is provide you a place for 5 days. We just help people dry out. Then we have to give the bed to someone else.” They had directed him to the boarding house, wished him well, given him back his clothes and money, and sent him on his way.

His feet hurt, his whole body ached, he craved a drink but knew that he must make the most of this chance. There was another pain, too, an emotional void when he thought of all he had left behind, all he had lost. He wondered where they were now, but he knew he could do nothing for them. Yet he longed for their voices, for any source of warmth and comfort to relieve this coldness, and the blackness in his soul.
——————————–

Sitting and looking out the big picture window at the front of Miss White’s Boarding House, Peter Sanders watched the occasional car pass, and a few blocks away he could see the busier traffic on the main street. Busy, he thought, for our town. Cornell, Oklahoma wasn’t exactly New York, he chuckled to himself, but it was rush hour here, with cars heading home to supper.

At the corner of the main road where it intersected his street, he saw a figure hesitate, look at street signs, and uncertainly begin to walk toward him. Another drunk out of the center, he thought to himself, betting that the man was headed here. This was where they mostly came when they had nowhere else to go.

Peter got up, stepped to the door of the kitchen, cracked it open. “Miss Vera,” he called.

“Yes, Peter?” she replied.

“I think we got a visitor coming in.”

“Alright. Send him through to me.” Miss Vera stepped wearily into the living room. She had seen so many come through her doors that the novelty of it had long since worn off.

Peter sat in one of the overstuffed chairs in the living room, extending his feet toward the large space heater in the corner. Miss Vera went back into the kitchen. The man opened the door.

Ben Hays, my Dad, in 1971.

“Step in and warm up, stranger,” Peter called. He stepped quickly and gratefully over in front of the space heater, holding his hands out over it, shivering slightly. Peter studied him. He was about six feet tall, slender yet sturdy, with dark circles under the eyes, sunken cheeks. He had dark brown hair, cut short, rumpled and uncombed, and his clothes weren’t heavy enough for February. The clothes looked of good quality, but were tired from overuse. His hands looked soft. There were no calluses or marks, so he was probably not a laborer. His shoulders slumped wearily, hands twitched, and he had an almost nauseous look on his face. Peter imagined him to be a businessman gone to seed – gone down far and fast, too. Peter knew the look – he’d had it himself recently enough.

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On the first day of my creative writing class, the teacher opened the discussion by asking “What is a story?”  She suggested that we begin by defining the word.  Several people responded.  I took a minute to think about the meaning, and then raised my hand and said “A story is something that happens to someone.”  The teacher smiled broadly, nodded, and said “That’s it exactly – at the very basic level, the essence of a story is action.”

So what was the best way to tell a particular story, to describe that action?  Over the next several years I read a lot about point of view – mostly looking at first person and third person, and what were the advantages and limitations of each.  First person is confined to the thoughts of the narrator.  Third person can either be omniscient – using the thoughts of all of the characters, or limited – using the thoughts of one character’s mind. After I experimented with point of view, it became apparent that it depended on the story.

Years later I wrote about a time my Dad’s life when he disappeared for a year, worked the wheat harvest, had a spiritual experience in the process.  He returned a changed man.  After his death I realized I’d never asked him what happened.  I started with the part I knew, leading into what might have taken place later.  I decided to make it a novel, and chose the third person omniscient viewpoint.  I wrote in a more detached style, which allowed me the distance to step back and imagine the events objectively.  I could speak from the perspective of various characters as needed.

When the story was about me, “something that happens to someone” still held true.  Something had happened that I wanted to share, and decided to write about it in depth.  Not an original concept.  Many people have written a memoir for that very reason.  The first person viewpoint had an immediacy that helped me capture the emotions and experience of the moment.  I wrote about the events surrounding the time of my father’s death 17 years ago.

I knew what happened, and had journalled extensively about it at the time.  There was plenty of fodder to refresh my memory of the events.  As I wrote I fell into the mode of  “I did this, that happened, I felt this about it, I experienced, and then next I …”  I was in the middle of the events, with no psychic distance.  To tell that particular story, I needed to be that close.  Yet as I wrote, I could feel the events at a physical level.  My heart raced as I felt unsafe when that strange person entered the room.  I smelled the coffee I drank in a restaurant as I chronicled my feelings in a notebook. I felt the heat of Houston on a muggy afternoon in October; heard leaves blowing in the breeze that only stirred up the heat without relief.

Even more happened.  I had never written down everything that took place the week my Dad died.  I heard the jangle as the phone rang; heard my sister say “better come home, Dad is dying.”  I sat in a darkened airplane and wrote brief notes in a small notebook “it’s too soon, I’m not ready for this.”  I walked up to a hospital at night in Tulsa, wondering if it was just my imagination because of the lights, or was this huge building really pink?” (I saw it the next day, and sure enough – it was pink.)

I looked down at my father lying in a hospital bed with a tube down his throat, barely heard the nurse saying he was already functionally gone, and the machines were keeping him alive.  I returned to the room after the machines had been turned off, and his breathing had stopped.  I stroked my father’s forehead, something I never would have dared if he were alive.  I walked into to the “Grief Room” at the hospital, where no one was attending to the needs of my family, sitting and crying all alone.  I pushed down my feelings because someone had to make funeral arrangements, and the task fell on me.

Later in the week, I visited his office at the hospital, heard his boss describe how he had spent his last several years helping others.  I drove just outside Tulsa and walked across his 5 acre pecan orchard, then used his chain saw to cut down a couple of dead trees, a project he and I had shared.  I sat at the dinner table at my parent’s house and went through my parent’s financial papers to reassure my Mom.  I stepped out in front of a packed church to deliver his eulogy.

Of course it was cathartic to write down those experiences – isn’t that one of the biggest benefits of memoir?  I felt the events, experienced them in a deeper way than before, and could release some of the emotional charge they contained.

As the memoir continued I wrote about the events after my Dad died.  I met with a minister to discuss an reservoir of old anger I had discovered – anger at my Dad, anger at God.  I dreamed a man was chasing me with a gun.  I did an inner child exercise, and remembered a violent incident with my Dad when I was a teenager.  Then came some intense healing work.

I did an exercise to cut cords to the feelings I was carrying from generations of my family – an ancestral burden that had weighed me down greatly.  Many nights I released terror from the violent incident.  I relived the violent incident on a feeling level several times.   I wrote down ways I had changed, and burned the papers, to let go of who I used to be.  I dreamed that there was a tiger living in my house.  I knew it was my rage, and had to be dealt with.  I made a commitment to release that rage in safe ways.  There were a number of other healing experiences, and by the end of the memoir, it all led to a new sense of forgiveness for my father.  I wrote down my tremendous gratitude for the whole experience.

Then something happened which I hadn’t envisioned.  After I published the memoir, which I called Freedom’s Just Another Word, I had numerous people say they benefitted greatly from my experience, from reading about my journey and the steps I had taken to heal.  I was genuinely surprised.  I hadn’t seen that coming, but was delighted that it happened.  That was not the reason for the memoir – it just was something I needed to do.  For me it was an enormously healing process.   But if writing a memoir could yield additional rewards like that – helping other people heal and grow – then it was a huge success.

 Originally Published in Laura Schultz Now

Photo Credits:

“Good Question” e-magic @Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

leaves in the wind: jans canon @flickr.com.  Creative Commons.  Some rights reserved.

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I had a remarkable radio interview tonight with Kate Loving Shenk.  We explored my healing journey, and my upcoming book Healing The Writer.  Listen at the end, when Kate gives me a direction that had been sitting there in front of me, but I hadn’t seen it yet.  Helping other people with creative blocks, based on my experience. The picture is me at age 19 – and I’m reclaiming that creative soul!

Here’s a link to the radio show:

My Healing Journey

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“Freedom’s Just Another Word” is being featured on a new book site by Life As A Human.  I’d be honored if you’d stop by and make a positive comment! :)  Here’s the link:

Life As A Human Books

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“I’d Like To Read Your Manuscript.” A writer attends an Agents and Editors Conference and finds an agent who is very interested in reading his manuscript. Could it be the break he’s been hoping for?

Published in Life As A Human.

Photo Credit:

“Approve”  Striatic @ Flickr. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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“Confronting The Fear – A Writer Prepares to Publish.” A writer takes steps to publish a memoir he has written, knowing that moving forward with his book will help him release the fears he has harbored since childhood.

Published in Life As A Human.

Photo Credit:

“Sleep Deprivation” S.MASH @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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“The Landscape of the Writer”. A writer continues his New Mexico road trip, back to the landscape and sacred sites that inspire him — and he discovers the book he is writing has a powerful impact on friends at a 12-step meeting.

Published in Life As A Human.

Photo Credit:

“Shiprock HDR”  haglundc @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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