How many times did I read drafts of Saint Christopher on Pluto at the residencies of the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University? When I tally the number, I lose count. Maybe that’s why my recent publication makes people ask: When did you start writing that book? Typically, I shrug, smile, and hope my long pause means I won’t have to answer. If I say I planted seeds for the stories, way back during classes for my master’s degree, someone might get clever and do the math: about 6 pages a year. But that’s not how the process worked for me. Rather, my writing endeavor was akin to hiking the Appalachian Trail. Whereas thru-hikers do the entire 2,190 miles in 5 – 7 months, the section hikers break it down to manageable segments, some taking years, even decades to hike from Georgia to Maine. Let’s say I was a section writer for my novel-in-stories.
Indeed, my journey commenced in grad school. Pumped with notions of depicting the hope and humor inherent in life’s struggles, I sought expression with stories. I tried numerous approaches, but at fiction workshops, I encountered the oft-heard criticism: Is this piece about an idea rather than characters in a specific setting undergoing conflict with a chance to change? My takeaways spoke platitudes: Learn how to manipulate the tools of craft, so your stories will take the shape you envision.
With the dim sense a routine would keep me on that path, I continued to write, but different more manageable pieces. Some got published, even won prizes. Those moments of recognition served as stepping-stones to my plan. While I was familiar with linked stories, I had an interest in the concept of a novel-in-stories, partly the result of my English studies when I was told novels had a formidable, meaty quality unlike the brevity of stories. But, really, I had a practical bent. A story within a novel might find publication even if the rest of the book didn’t. And readers could reap benefits, too. They had the opportunity to digest one story and feel satisfied, but for a full-bodied experience, they could read the chapter-stories from beginning to end. Yet I didn’t consider how writing self-contained stories, aimed at contributing to the novel’s narrative arc, probably created more work than writing a collection or a novel. No matter. Sometimes hikers choose an exceptionally arduous trail to reach their destination.
So, what kept me going? The community of writers helped a lot. I emailed pieces to colleagues and a friend from my days in a Ph.D. fiction workshop. Each offered suggestions. After my readings at residencies, I received recommendations and encouragement from the Wilkes crew, my colleagues at the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing. I had phone calls with Mike Lennon, Taylor Polites, and riverside walks-n-talks with Bev Donofrio and Christine Gelineau. Despite such support, my energy faltered; no surprise, as I was parenting, teaching, drafting new projects, writing narratives for museums, and tackling other matters that tend to undermine the creative quest. My workshop friend urged me to find a writing group where I could get feedback and talk about my intentions. Adding one more thing to my schedule seemed crazy. But I joined a close-to-home group that included Maslow Family Graduate Program alum: Gale Martin, Rick Fellinger, Donna Talarico, and others. They got me back on-track, and several stories were published; then the group lost its meeting place, and we opted for a break.
Musing how my novel-in-stories hadn’t fully coalesced, I continued to rise before dawn and journal into the day. Somehow, my act of writing kept a little light burning within, much like a kind of faith, where belief fueled my efforts. Ultimately, I cared for my characters and couldn’t abandon them without completing their story. So, I joined a Central PA writing group with another assembly of Maslow Family Graduate Program alum: Justin Kassab, Nina Long, Krista Harner, Catherine Donges, and others. The group helped me reach the final summit.
Still, I wasn’t finished without finding a home for the book. Thankfully, my Wilkes University colleague, Sara Pritchard, whom I refer to as my literary midwife, asked to read the entire manuscript, something no one had ever seen other than in segments. Sara offered great suggestions, and even better, urged me to check out West Virginia University Press. As I apprehended their mission, I could hear my other Wilkes colleague, Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr, remind writers that it’s not just about getting published, you must find the right home. WVU-Press published a wide-range of books that spoke to place, especially the culture and voices of Appalachia. My characters, MK, Colleen and Big Blue inhabited the northern brow of Appalachia’s farm debris, mine ruins, and fracking waste. Was this the publisher I was meant to find? I closed my eyes, tapped my heels together three times, and sent off the manuscript.
When I finally received the WVU-Press acceptance, my brain flashed with metaphors of slow and steady. Perhaps my pace was just what St. Christopher on Pluto needed to achieve fruition.