Revision in a Time of Quarantine

Nothing like rekindling your memories of your first great literary love just as a pandemic sweeps through the world.

To be honest, my daily life hasn’t change a whole lot even as everything is canceled and shut down. We already homeschool and we already prefer to stay home as much as we can. I’m used to shopping for a week or two at the time and feeding six people all day, every day. I’d also stocked up a bit because my mother told me to. DJ is working from home for a month, so that’s been a big change for him; but it turns out that my preferred lifestyle adapts pretty well to pandemic living.

While we continue with school and take long drives when the walls start closing in, I immersed myself yet again in that original Great Literary Work of mine.

An advantage of the revision of 2007 was that the story now had a plot. A disadvantage was that for some reason I decided to lower Ria’s age from 18 to 13, and I changed the tone of the story accordingly. It was not a happy choice. Re-reading it was, as my kids would say, massive cringe.

“Most of the time, she was just plain Ria. And this morning she was a very sulky Ria.”

“She didn’t intend to apologize to him, either, once she got her revenge.”

And to think she’d complained about being bored in her Castle. What a silly little princess she’d been!

Apparently in 2007 I was temporarily possessed by the spirit of an early 20th-century Sunday school teacher.

Earlier this month, I sat down to rewrite the terrible first chapters, and then send the rest to my sister. But once I got the first part in better shape, I couldn’t leave the rest of the tripe that Miss Flossie Jones of Millerville Baptist Church, circa 1902, communicated through me.

So for the past two weeks I’ve worked my way through the story, smoothing out the dialogue, creating better conflicts, and removing the saccharine moralization.

Since I returned Ria’s age to 18, I also reintroduced the romance that Flossie seemed very uncomfortable with. I suspect it was this aspect that made me decide to lower the age in the first place. I spent my teenage years in a real-life version of the Fellowship, so even at 30 I didn’t know quite how to handle romance in fiction.

The hardest part of the rewriting was Ria herself. She was a typical first-timer’s heroine. She had no real motivation, and she spent the whole story being propelled by other people’s decisions. She was also, as a writer friend of mine put it, “insufficiently hobbied.” What did Ria like to do in her spare time? The answer appeared to be “ride horses and complain about having nothing to do.” Ria’s sister, on the other hand, is always designing clever contraptions and figuring out how things work. She would have made a far better heroine. But this is The Ria Story, so I just had to try to work with what I had.

It was a lot of work… but so much fun. I stopped worrying about the unfixable worldbuilding problems and just let the story be what it is. Yesterday I finished it and emailed it to my sister. It’s not a great story, but I think I made it into a solidly “okay” story.

And now I’m at loose ends again.

Well, unless you count my actual serious novel. I’ve left Richmal and Co. cooling their heels in the third draft for nearly two months now. I’ve been stuck on a pretty thorny plot problem. Oh, hey, here’s a message from a reader who has a suggestion! BlessedAssurance.millertownbc points out that Richmal’s story features a lot more kissing than it does Bible reading, and she would be happy to take over the writing for a while.

Get thee behind me, Flossie.

The Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention

“Your an example of why women should stay silent.”

The putdown was posted by some brilliant wit on Twitter. I said it better, and more grammatically, in The Fellowship:

“I don’t think God wants me to stay silent if I see something out of line.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. God hasn’t appointed you to a position of authority. He doesn’t expect you to do anything except obey.”

In both scenarios — one real, one fictional — a young woman was questioning a pastor about his teachings. And in both settings — one real, one fictional — the challenger was shut down.

The Fellowship takes place in a small Southern cult, where the women must wear long dresses and can’t work outside the home. Not very many people have lived in that specific setting.

But I guarantee you’re familiar with the story as it unfolds.

My newsfeed has been full of the scandal of Paige Patterson, misogynist ex-president of Southwestern Theological Seminary. If you aren’t caught up, here’s the statement by the Board of Trustees of Southwestern as to why they fired Patterson. And well they should have. But what about all the years leading up to this? Surely someone thought he was going too far when he counseled wives to return to abusive husbands? Or any number of other questionable teachings?

On a related note, I’m not Catholic, so didn’t follow the fallout of their abuse coverup very closely. I never was part of Sovereign Grace Ministries, so that didn’t register on my radar much either. But I almost could have lifted my novel material from those scandals.

Meanwhile, the #metoo movement, highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexism, proved the downfall of several prominent men in the entertainment and political realm.

It’s all the same story as my little Southern Bible cult. No one could challenge these men. They silenced their accusers and protected their power.

Your details might not be the same as my fictional Bekah and her struggle to be a woman under an oppressive patriarchal system. But the structure is the same. Authority without accountability, used to protect the powerful.

This structure enables abuse, encourages misogyny or misandry, and its ultimate goal is to protect the institution over the victim. Every time.

The insult I quoted at the beginning was part of a long Twitter battle in which women tried to engage a pastor (again, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which is in serious need of repentance and reevaluation — and maybe a good disinfectant). You can read the synopsis here.

That particular aspersion was cast by a supporter of the pastor, but don’t worry, the good Brother gets in quite a few jabs himself. The sexism aside, it’s obvious that the pastor’s goal isn’t to empathize, or even engage opponents in a debate — but to silence the challenges to his power.

When I wrote The Fellowship, I was drawing from my own experience with Bill Gothard (Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute) and Doug Phillips (Vision Forum), and my husband’s experience with an older New England cult. I kept saying, “My little novel is for a niche audience. Not many people will ‘get’ it.”

Three years later, as the voice of the oppressed grows louder and people are less willing to tolerate injustice from those in “authority,” I now realize that my book joins many others in telling and retelling a familiar story. It’s the story of our time.

 

Sabbath Restlessness

I occasionally see a meme that thinks it’s solved my church problem for me. It informs me that if I stopped going to church because someone hurt me, then it’s obvious I was focused on people instead of Jesus. In short, if I find church a hard place to be, it’s my own fault.

Do I need to say that I hate that meme? No? Good.

It’s difficult for me to attend church. Even when I don’t fall prey to a panic attack, I find the whole process exhausting. When my choice is to go to a coffee shop and be refreshed, or go to church and be tired… well, the choice kind of makes itself, doesn’t it?

But I try. After all, we’re part of a healthy and safe church now. Nobody reminds me that I have to stay under authority. Nobody is twisting up Scriptures. Nobody watches my kids and judges my parenting. I know it’s a good place.

But it’s hard to feel that.

Recently I attended a service. I even took along colored pens and a journal with faux-reclaimed paper that my daughter got me for my birthday. I listen best when I can doodle, something I no longer apologize for.

Halfway through the sermon, I’d filled up two pages like this:

Untitled design

When I start journalling like that, it means I’m desperately trying to outrun panic. And I didn’t make it this time. I left long before church was done.

When I looked at the pages later, I was struck at how it captures the frenzy of my thoughts in church. Not only am I reliving and grieving past hurts, but I’m also evaluating every word of the sermon to make sure it’s “okay.” My radar, so long suppressed, is on high alert at all times.

No wonder I get tired.

My husband is very understanding, but a lot of people aren’t. A lot of people look at spiritual abuse survivors and criticize them for not getting involved in a church. Well, here you go — handy-dandy photographic evidence of what a service looks like to someone who has been hurt by people in the church. 

I don’t skip church on Sundays because I’m spiritually apathetic. I avoid it because I’m on spiritual hyperdrive. And I long for the day that a church sanctuary is as safe and restful a place for me as a shabby-chic hipster coffee shop.