I had in my hands an excerpt from a novel-in-progress to read to a group of strangers. I'd never met any of these women, and only once the woman at whose home the book club met. Shirley Wyllys (second from left in photo above) and I connected last November, when I drove to her five-acre farm near Battle Creek, Michigan, to pick up my Thanksgiving turkey. Shirley raised chickens and turkeys, free range and organic, very happy and healthy birds ... right up until it was time to give up the clucky ghost and be served on my dinner table. She also sold organic eggs, and I could testify that the eggs were fresher, had brighter yolks, and tasted much better than those available at your traditional supermarket. Shirley was an early part of my enthused transition to an organic foods fan.
While giving me a tour of her chicken coop, we chatted each about our own lives and occupations. My interest in eating organic foods and meat harvested from traditional farms rather than factory farms had started from an article I had been writing at the time, and so Shirley quickly learned I was a writer. And so, the invitation. Soon after, Shirley asked if I might be interested in reading something of my work to her book club.
Something of my work? The work most on my mind, of course, was my novel. I had been writing it for a few months, rewriting it for years. Begin and toss. Begin again and toss again. Over and over again, until finally I settled on a version that felt right and wouldn't quit on me.
It felt right to me. But would it read right to the general reading public? How is a writer to know?
"Sure, I'd love to," I told Shirley, cheerily accepting her invitation and setting a date. This was my chance. I could give an excerpt from my half-baked manuscript a test run on this book club of women that I didn't know any better, that is, not at all, than the average person wandering into a bookstore. Wandering in, browsing the book shelves, pondering what good read to plunk on the counter by the cashier. On some happy day in the future, perhaps that book might be mine. I wanted to know if what I was writing would capture the imagination and whet the reading appetite of that future bookstore shopper.
Mind you, I am dead to the reader when I am writing. The reader does not exist to me anymore than I exist to that reader. Our connection is somewhere out there, out in space and time, in some foggy and misty swirl of the unknown future. While writing, I think only about the words, the art of the thing. I am lost in something I can only call a trance. My eyes go blind to what it is around me, my ears clamp shut and deaf, my heart beats the rhythm of another life than mine. I become my characters. My reality is elsewhere. I am lost.
With this opportunity to get found, I drive into Shirley's drive, her husband meets me at the garage door, and along with boisterously friendly dog Sadie, they walk me in. Shirley is cooking eggs. To grease me properly into the reading mood, the book club is meeting over breakfast, and as all five women gather, we sit around a table decorated with patterns of sunflowers--and we eat. We eat those bright yellow organic eggs from the happy red-brown hens outside. We eat pumpkin pancakes with real maple syrup. We eat fruit in a pink yogurt sauce, and life always tastes better with a crisp piece of bacon between your teeth. I was greased.
I sat in a central corner and the five women sat to either side. I cleared my throat and whipped out page one. I read: "Closed Doors Open. Chapter One." And they listened. I think they were listening. It was quiet. Not just quiet, but dead quiet. I think even the hens had stopped clucking outside. I let my eyes roam their faces to check occasionally for life, but, yup, all five pairs were on me. And I read. And it was quiet. And I read through the entire first chapter. And it was quiet.
I finished reading. It was very quiet.
I looked up. Five pairs of eyes were still on me. Quietly waiting, breathing, being.
Then one of the women sprang up from her place on the couch and said, "Oh, I think you should just bury that Jake in the basement. Just bury him. That's what I think."
They were all talking then. About the characters in the first chapter, about the narrator, about the house that was the setting, so much of a setting that it was, really, another character, too.
"Do you think she'll ever love again?"
"I know! With the house being renovated like that, maybe she'll fall for the contractor."
"Oh. Yeah. Hm."
"No. When the house is finished, she will live there alone, strong and independent, content in her own life."
I smiled, listening to the banter. Multiple endings were suggested. Did I have any in mind? I did not. I do not write from an outline, I explained. I write where the words lead me. I name the characters and I breathe life into their clay, and they take me where they decide. I have no idea how the book will end.
I do know, however, as I listen to the five women discuss the chapter, that I am on track. They identify. Each in her own way, one of them notes, with different aspects of the unfolding plot. The characters have come alive for them, too, and begun to matter.
With two fresh roasters and three dozen fresh eggs on the car seat beside me, I drive back home. I will keep writing. The next chapter, and the next, and all the ones after, if only to see how this story ends. If only to someday sit in a silent room, where people sit so still, so very still, listening with everything in them, that I know I have touched on a little tiny piece of magic: the connection made between writer and reader.