Lynn Bonasia, from Summer Shift
There is no perfect time to write. You write when you’re sick. You write when you lose your job. You write when you’re going through a divorce. You write as your only child packs up and leaves for college. Because you have no choice. You have deadlines and obligations, and hopefully still, the passion to continue your work.
When I was working on my first novel, which was my graduate thesis at FIU, my family was going through a difficult time. My husband had lost his job and our future in Florida was uncertain. Would he find another job down here? Would we end up moving back North? I worried that the stress of all this would keep me from completing my book. It was then my thesis director, good friend and author, Lynne Barrett, made a suggestion that would change the way I looked at the process of writing. She simply said this: use it. Use the tension and uncertainty and work it into your writing. So simple, yet such sage advice. With renewed spring in my step, and the hope that I now had the fuel to create something even better than what I had begun, I heeded her suggestion, got through the draft and, within a year, had it published by a division of Simon & Schuster.
Fast forward to book number two, which I began writing while my first book was still in the pipeline at S&S, and, as it happens, my marriage was in its final throes. While this time I knew I would get through the book, I had no idea to what extent the book would get me through. At the time, I was reading a lot of eastern philosophy, allowing this new way of thinking to wash over me. It was a rebirth of sorts for me personally, but there were still so many things I didn’t understand, and concepts that I might rationally embrace but found difficult to incorporate into my daily life. Like Mary Hopkins, my main character in Summer Shift, my comfortable life had been upended. I had been thrown into a new set of circumstances for which I had no preparation.
I’m sure it was out of my own need for guidance that I ended up giving Mary a spiritual guide, a reclusive elderly neighbor named Carleton, an artist suffering from Parkinson’s disease, whose water view had been obscured by the construction of Mary’s own home, circumstances over which she felt enormous guilt. In the end, it was the grace with which he dealt with this and other life challenges––his handling of loss––that taught Mary how to cope with her own adversity.
You hear writers talk about how characters can come alive, and how, at times, they even speak of their own accord, without the author’s interference. This part of the writing process is probably most gratifying because we realize at these moments, that we have created people whole enough to speak for themselves. As if that isn’t magical enough, somewhere in the process of writing Summer Shift, something else happened. Carleton became not only Mary’s teacher, but my own, that is to say, I became a student of my own creation. Through Mary, I posed questions that this old man was able to answer in ways I, as supposed master puppeteer, didn’t even know I was capable of conjuring. Perhaps I had lived and read enough that some untapped wisdom presided. Maybe, to use a tired but apt example, like Dorothy in the wizard of Oz, it was a power that had been with me all along.
The writing process is a wonderful, witchy, complex phenomenon. It’s spontaneous and powerful and true. The most remarkable lesson I learned from the experience of writing Summer Shift in the midst of some of my life’s darkest days is that the human psyche is a remarkable thing, and that in this case, through writing fiction, I was allowed to create a dialogue with myself, a way of mining my own hidden wisdom, bringing it to the surface of my awareness. If we allow ourselves to be open to anything as we write, perhaps even opening ourselves up to the pain we feel in or own lives, we can glean some deeper understanding our world.
The following is a pre-release excerpt from Summer Shift (Touchstone Fireside, Simon & Schuster), due out in bookstores on June 1, 2010. Visit lynnkielebonasia.com.
“You saw the paintings,” he said. He picked up his own mug from the counter and blew across the surface.
“Of the bay. They’re lovely. It must have been beautiful to live here once,” Mary said.
Carleton took a long slurp of his tea. “I mean the ones on the floor.”
Mary’s face reddened. She contemplated denying her nosiness, then said, “I’m sorry. I was just curious––”
“Come,” he said.
Mary followed him out to the easel. He set his mug down on small side table covered with tubes of paint, then began unscrewing the knobs on the easel to release the canvas he’d been working on. He carefully set it down on the floor beside the others. Then he took the first painting, the one of Mary’s shower, and propped it up where the work in progress had been. He directed the beam from the lamp toward it.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“A really accomplished painting of a rather ugly outdoor shower.” She could fix that, at least. She could change out the rusty hinges and bleach away the mildew.
“Now, take away the label,” Carleton aid. “What do you see?”
“What do you mean, label?”
“The words. Just look. Better yet, look there.” Carleton pointed to the real shower stall outside the window. Mary had no idea how late it was––she’d lost all track of time––but the sun was already low and the shower was cast in shadow. “What do you see?”
Mary set her mug on the radiator. “I see a dark box made of wood with a door and a handle.”
“Let me tell you what I see,” Carleton said. “I see shapes of light and dark. I see texture in the wood, knots from where branches once reached out for sunlight, and the knots themselves, like eyes. I see life emerging from slats in the floor––”
“You mean weeds.” How embarrassing. The least she could do from now on was keep up the back of the house.
“I see the vibration of life.” He took a sip of his tea, closing his eyes.
Mary wondered if they were looking at the same thing. “But Carleton, that view,” she pointed to the painting over the couch. “the one you had when you painted those,” she pointed to two other seascapes on the wall, “was beautiful,” she said. “This,” she pointed to the shower outside, “is ugly. Not that you haven’t done a brilliant job rendering it. But by comparison––”
“What is ugly? For there to be beauty, there has to be ugliness. Why do we need to judge? Maybe it’s all part of the same thing, eh?” He winked at her over his mug.
Mary looked at him. She never thought like that. It made sense on some elusive level, like something that you know is floating out there on the horizon but there’s a good chance you’ll never lay your hands on it or even see it up close. “But some things are universally beautiful,” Mary protested. “The ocean, the beach, the sky. People come here from all over the world to experience such beauty, because it makes them feel happy or peaceful, or even a little closer to God.” Mary knew a thing or two about what motivated tourists, after all. “They don’t flock here to view the outdoor showers.”
She had him. At least she thought she did.
Carleton’s lips twisted into a smile. Intuitively, she braced for what he’d say next. “You would say a spider is ugly. But what is the beauty behind its creation? The same beauty you find in the sea or the beach or the sky.”
Evidently, Carleton was the Zen master of turning lemons into lemonade. Mary knew of locals who’d pitched fits when so much as a tree limb marred their view. Homeowners were constantly fighting with the town and dragging each other to court for the smallest infractions. And here she was supposed to believe Carleton didn’t harbor even the slightest resentment toward the ones who came and put walls in front of his windows? Mary didn’t buy it.
“So the day that wall went up, are you telling me you didn’t experience some sense of loss or regret?” Mary folded her arms. She wasn’t sure what was driving her questions anymore. Was she trying to get him to admit he was secretly heartbroken? Did she want to make him hate her?
“Of course I felt the loss,” he said.
Mary released her arms. “What did you do about it?”
Carleton looked out the window. “I sat with it.”
“You sat with it,” Mary repeated.
Carleton continued, “I sat with my discomfort for days, weeks, even months, and looked at it from all possible angles in all possible lights, much in the way I look at that shower.” He grinned.
Mary let out a sigh of frustration. “And where did that get you? I mean you probably could have fought the construction. Half the town would have turned out in your defense.”
Carleton set down his cup. “I was sad to lose the view. The same way I’m sad to lose control of my own body.” He held up his hand and in it’s back and forth tremor, Mary saw the irony of a wave goodbye.
“So how can you be okay with that?” Mary said. “How can you get past having precious things taken from you?”
Carleton raised one of his caterpillar-on-acid eyebrows. “You’re not talking about my view anymore,” he said.
Mary stood there with her mouth open. He was right.
“Trees resist brokenness by bending. Your aunt is yielding to what is happening to her. You need to let her do that. You’ll only make it harder for both of you if you fight it too.” Carleton walked to the kitchen and came back out with Mary’s flashlight. “It’s getting dark.”
“Yes,” Mary said. Her head was spinning but she felt some sense of relief as well, as though something had been lifted. Some weight or fog. “Thank you,” she said. She took the flashlight from him. “For everything.”
As he escorted her to the door, she noticed another painting, one she hadn’t seen before, of the coyote. “I saw him today in my driveway,” Mary said. “He’s beautiful.”
“And a little bit ugly too,” Carleton said. He winked. “Know what I mean?”
She smiled. “Good night.”
“Good night, Mary.”
Lynn Kiele Bonasia is the author of two novels set on Cape Cod. Summer Shift (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), about a woman who runs a New England clam bar, is scheduled for release on June 1, 2010. Her first novel, Some Assembly Required (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), came out in 2008. Prior to that, Lynn sold her soul as a freelance advertising copywriter.
Technically a “washashore,” Lynn moved to the Cape as a teen and graduated from Nauset Regional High School in North Eastham. She received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts, and years later went on to obtain an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University in North Miami. During her self-imposed exile from New England, Lynn developed an unhealthy obsession for old haunts, and began writing stories about Cape Cod and its colorful inhabitants. Now, with her only son off at college, Lynn has returned to Orleans with her dog, Kiele, to live, observe, obsess some more and write her heart out.