A Little Collection

In a completely self-indulgent blog moment, I’m posting pictures that remind me of my novel.

Writers are always — yea, even obsessively — looking for and collecting characters, settings, and elements from their stories. That means we find pictures of houses, random items, and, ahem, actual people who don’t actually know that they are being collected.

Case in point, I’m a little sad that I missed the chance to get a picture of a young woman in a red jeep the other day. It was a perfect Bekah picture. Unfortunately, the light changed and I had to drive away. Stupid traffic laws.

Anyway, here are a few little things from my Fellowship collection. You do have to have read the novel to appreciate them. (Haven’t read it yet? Click the link to get your copy.)

This unsuspecting couple at a coffee shop became Bekah Richards and Ty Williams. They’re not dead ringers for those characters, but they capture the right spirit. I’m going to pretend that’s iced tea in those glasses, though. Bekah’s is unsweet, of course.

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Another time, at a festival in another town, I came across Rob Branner. (The actual man had a British accent that was just devastating. But I bet Rob’s Southern drawl isn’t too shabby either.)

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Graveyards are a hobby of mine. No, really; my husband and I even walked through one during our honeymoon. I wander through the headstones, noting distinctive names, and wondering about the people’s whose lives have already come and gone.

It was at this cemetery, four or five years ago, that I found the perfect name for my church founder.

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I (reluctantly joined the trend and) color. I particularly enjoy pictures that let me think about the people who live in my head. There’s a marshmallow-roasting scene in The Fellowship, in which Bekah says she likes her marshmallows “burned.” Rob replies that the proper term is “Flambe.” When she eats the black, crispy, gooey marshmallow, Rob remarks, “That’s revolting.”

That line is actually a kind of an inside joke between DJ and me. On one of our early dates, I took him to Dairy Queen, where we both got Blizzards. I spent more time talking than eating, until my Blizzard melted. DJ — who, by the way, still didn’t have my official answer that we were actually a couple so needed to play his cards just right — looked at the brownish sludge in my cup and said, “That’s revolting.”

And I fell hard for that confidence.

In honor of that scene, I gave Bekah (in the red coat) a burned marshmallow. But this isn’t the scene from the book, which takes place in the summer. This is later, after the novel has ended but the characters live on to have marshmallow roasts over a fire pit.

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When I was working on the picture, however, I pointed out the tray in the lower right corner. I thought it was cheese and crackers, but I couldn’t figure out what the cylinders were supposed to be. Sushi?

DJ said, “I think they’re marshmallows, since you’ve got the graham crackers and chocolate…”

And I started laughing. I’d colored the roasting sticks green because I thought they were celery:

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Graham crackers, chocolate, marshmallows, and celery… now that’s revolting.

Speaking of College

Allison from Presentmindedly just read The Fellowship and commented with the perspective of an “outsider.” I asked if I could turn her comment into a post.

For a little background, Allison and I grew up in the same hometown–attended the same church, in fact–but our paths didn’t cross too much. Public schooled while I was homeschooled, she was a few years ahead of me: always determined, ambitious, and very kind to the younger girls. Recently I was thrilled when she said she was reading the novel, and as usual I find her perspective very valuable.

Her words are in bold, and I’ve added my own observations in plain text. I’m not commenting to disagree, but to discuss two sides of the question. It’s a sort of call-and-response post, I guess.

Allison:
I understand how young people told that they can’t attend college and having that option for their future totally removed from them would want to explore the option of going to college, and how women might see a need for college so that they have a way to support their families should their husbands pass away (or leave).

Sara:
In the Fellowship, Bekah knows that college is not an option if she wants to remain in good standing with the church. This aspect of the Fellowship reflects my own experience with IBLP, which discouraged both young women and young men from seeking higher education. (But it was especially forbidden for women.) A lot of heavily-controlled religious systems push the line of thought that college introduces young people to worldly ideas, which shipwrecks their faith. When it comes to questions about their future, these groups insist that God will provide whatever training is necessary to make a living as an adult.

Most of us spend our 30s scrambling to catch up, or living with the insecurity that one twist of fate could leave us unable to support ourselves and our families (again, especially women).

And we think, if only we’d been allowed to go to college…

Allison:
In my experience and observation, though, college is not necessarily an avenue for job training or even job preparation. I write this as a summa cum laude graduate of the Honors College at University of Southern Mississippi, with a degree in Environmental Biology and a minor in Chemistry.

All those A’s, all that studying, all those classes and labs, and all it really prepared me for was–wait for it–more school. I had no desire to go to grad school and wanted to be a missionary at that point, anyway. At Awards Day at the end of my senior year, my father asked (with slight disappointment), “You’ve never wanted to go to med school, have you?” Nope, never had. Got accepted to grad school but declined it because I went to Romania to serve for a year.

Many people I know graduated with degrees that, while perhaps fulfilling on personal levels, didn’t necessarily prepare them for a job. I had a delightful professor who once quoted somebody else (no idea who now) in one of our classes… “College is the babysitter for tomorrow’s workforce.” I took offense at the time, but I kind of get it now.

Sara:
Although it doesn’t come through strongly in my novel, I’m very disenchanted with the college system. I love the idea of alternative training and seeking knowledge outside the approved channels of learning. But that’s a harder road to walk, and most of us weren’t actually given the choice. We were forced to walk it… often by men who were actually interested in keeping their empires going.

It’s also easier to have the degree and say, “I didn’t need it,” than feel trapped by a life where you can’t seem move ahead without that degree.

Allison:
College did give me opportunities to grow personally and spiritually and to grow up. To discover more about myself, to learn more about how to think critically and to engage in the world. But it wasn’t particularly fun, and although I met great people, I don’t have lifelong close friends from college (and I had counted on that). It was honestly often lonely and lots of hard, hard work. So it provided opportunities for personal challenge and development.

Sara:
This right here is part of what many of us feel we missed out on–some much more extremely than I did.

My parents didn’t forbid college; we sure didn’t have a lot of extra money and I wasn’t gung-ho to go. They believed that the program we were in was a viable alternative (It looked very good on paper, as the saying goes.) So we all bought into the idea that traditional college wasn’t worth considering.

So all that growing, figuring out who we are, what we believe, thinking critically, and engaging in the world — that’s part of the “college experience” that we feel we were denied.

The truth is, of course, that you don’t need college for any of that. But in our subculture, the reason that college was discouraged or even denied to us was to keep us from developing, exploring, and engaging. So that’s how we think of it: if I had been allowed to choose higher education, I might have been allowed to grow.

Allison:
But what college did not give me was what I expected going in–-training, credentials, and an open door to a career of helping protect God’s green earth in some way. God used college in my life, certainly; but I don’t think of my degree as something to fall back on. And I’m not alone in that.

I suppose I’m just bringing this up because I sensed several times that there was a thought in the story [of The Fellowship] of college giving women (and men, too) abilities to provide for and support their families that they couldn’t get without a degree.

Sara:
This was my personal insecurity shining through. I’m entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to bring in income. I consider myself very well-educated; but I don’t have the degree and work experience for a decent job. We do have life insurance (again, possible because of DJ’s money, not mine); but still, if something happened to DJ, I’d be trying to find a minimum-wage job to support myself and my four children.

My dad died when I was three, and my stepdad died when I was twenty. I have no illusions that God keeps men alive just to support their families. For those who have read the novel, this situation is spelled out pretty clearly in the story.

Allison:
Certainly some degrees are necessary for certain jobs–social work, teaching school, physical therapy. But most degrees don’t carry with them an accompanying certification.

Because I’ve been to college, I think “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But if I hadn’t been to college, I’d probably think, “I wonder what I missed.”

Sara:
I didn’t have enough room in the novel to explore college vs. alternative education. My point wasn’t that Everyone Should Go To College, but that the Fellowship limited and controlled the lives of its people by refusing to let them make their own way in life.

I posted Allison’s comment here as encouragement to those of us who have come out of a controlling system. College wouldn’t have eliminated our struggles, just given us a different set of problems. It’s tough living with the consequences of a choice we didn’t really get to make. But once we’re free from whatever “Fellowship” once controlled us, we really do have the freedom to make our own choices, learn from our own mistakes, and build our own lives.

Words of Art

“She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom.”

Several years ago, I finally got too tired of being good enough. I gave up. I told God, “If you’re so big, you can handle all this yourself. I’m done.” I did the spiritual equivalent of shrugging off my backpack, peeling off my restrictive clothes, crawling into bed, and pulling the covers up over my head.

And God said, “Good. You just rest. I’ll pick all this up. Do you need anything right now? I’ll check in on you.”

As I lay with that blanket over my head, I gradually realized that I could breathe again. It didn’t hurt as much to move. For the first time since I was a teenager, the fear of punishment and God’s wrath receded. The feeling was both exhilarating and painful, like when you flex your fingers after you put down a strap that’s been biting into your hand.

Sometime during that spiritual sabbath, I discovered  JA Photography & Design. Jenn creates and sells letter art, and I was especially caught by this piece:

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I teared up when my print arrived. My faith is a lot wobblier than it was years ago when I knew all the answers. Life is a lot messier. But this word represents the hope that keeps me going.

Deep spiritual moments aside, I just plain love Jenn’s eye for seeing shapes in everyday life and making sense out of them. Since my decorating style is basically, “Hang stuff up on my wall,” art-into-words is pretty much everything I need.

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Is my S upside down? It routinely gets knocked off the wall.

In a shameless plug for this art, let me also add that it’s inexpensive (about $4 per letter) and easy to customize.

Tired of pre-printed signs urging you to “Live, Laugh, Love”? (I am.) Get in touch with Jenn and create one that spells out your name, a personally-inspiring word, or “Live More, Die Less.” *

Or, you know, “grace” — a word I’ve got up on my wall to remind me of the incredible freedom that comes when you finally let God carry the weight.

*”The more you live, the less you die.” That’s a line in the song “Raise the Roof” by Carbon Leaf, the band whose music got me through the final shattering illusions when the “truths” of my teenage years were revealed for certain as a sham.

Are You a Failure? Y/N

The thing about cults and cult-like systems is that, for the most part, they’re really boring.

Most of the indoctrination takes place day by day, through sermons that carefully redefine Scripture, through lectures that reinforce the group’s beliefs, and through long, dull sessions of filling in blanks and regurgitating the right answers.

The question-and-answer exercises are very simplistic, and all designed to condition you to doubt yourself and feel like a failure. You learn to look to your leader for answers, and you’re afraid to leave the group because you know you’ll crash and burn on your own.

A friend from my own Fellowship* recently shared a snapshot of a worksheet we had to fill out as students in the early 90s. As 14 – 18 year olds, we were separated from our parents at weeks-long conferences, awakened early and kept up late, and bombarded all day with lectures and conditioned group responses. Somewhere in the middle of this exhausting, bewildering, and exhilarating experience, they dropped things like this in our laps:

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1. Do you get up early in the morning?

2. Do you get out of bed when you wake up?

3. Are you an “energy-giver” when you get up?

4. Do you decide the night before what to wear the next day?

5. Do you consistently honor a day of rest?

6. Do you make your bed as soon as you get up?

7. Do you have everything in its rightful place?

8. Do you keep your room neat?

9. Are you consistent in your daily Bible reading?

10. Do you have a regular prayer time?

11. Do you regularly memorize Scripture?

12. Do you always wash your hands before meals?

13. Do you practice proper etiquette?

14. Do you sit near the front during a meeting?

15. Do you stand up for your elders?

16. Do you take notes during messages?

17. Do you know how to detect the five types of fools?

18. Do your parents approve of all your friends?

19. Do you fulfill all the promises you make?

20. Do you put yourself to sleep with meditation on Scripture?

*

An outsider could glance over it and say, “Well, there are a lot of great ideas here. Except what does washing your hands have  to do with self-motivation? Just take what’s good and leave the rest.”

An insider knew much better than that.  “No” is not an acceptable answer to any of these questions. Notice that”Sometimes” isn’t even an option. We couldn’t take-and-leave. This wasn’t a mere list of ideas. This was a test, and we were set up to fail it.

Unless you’re educated in the culture that it comes from, you probably still miss how loaded some of these questions are. I could spend a dozen blog posts unpacking these questions.

For instance, “Do you get up early in the morning?” Early rising was a mark of Godliness; sleeping late was, therefore, sinful. The next question, “Do you get out of bed when you wake up?” reinforces the idea that staying in bed is a sign of slothfulness. And there was an entire booklet about the dangers of being slothful. So if you answered “no” to questions 1 & 2, you’re already spiritually defective.

Or how about #14? Sitting in the back of a meeting demonstrated apathy (a sin) or rebelliousness (a major sin).

In order to answer #17, you had to remember the extensivelesson on the Five Types of Fools; so that question actually covered an entirely separate session in itself.

Question #18 weighed about a ton. Your parents had the power of God’s disapproval in your life. If they didn’t like a friend of yours, no matter the reason, the only obedient course of action was to get rid of that friend. Also, “friend” here could stand for “friend of the opposite sex” — someone you liked despite the fact that God expected you to keep your emotions pure until He brought you the one you were to marry. It was a reminder that even your emotions were subject to God/your parents.

The entire list, by the way, is pretty easy to master if you happen to be someone exactly like the Venerated Leader who wrote it — a man who didn’t need much sleep, was an extrovert, found memorization easy, didn’t have any real friends, wore basically the same thing every day, and spent thirty years sexually harassing young women that he invited to work for him. Oh, wait, he forgot to add that item, didn’t he?

Twenty years later, when many of us saw the picture of this list, we felt that same oppression we’d lived under as teenagers. “No wonder,” we said. “No wonder I always felt like a failure. No wonder I worked myself into chronic fatigue. No wonder I broke down at age 20.” This list was just one of many others like it. This was how we knew to please God.

This was our spiritual life, one in which choosing your clothes the night before is just as important as keeping the Sabbath (one of the Ten Commandments). No room for mistakes or personality. Just keep your head down, obey, and pretend you aren’t the complete failure you know you are.

And for the record, I have no idea how washing your hands before every meal made it on this list. That’s stupid.

If you need me, I’ll be lying in bed in my comfortably cluttered room, with no memory of the five types of fools, and resting in the grace of God.

*Bill Gothard, IBLP/ATI

My Story

Anybody can tell that I had a rough church experience, considering that I wrote a novel about it.

But actually — it wasn’t.

I grew up in a pretty normal Southern Baptist church in south Mississippi. It was conservative, but not particularly strict, legalistic, or reactive.

(But, being good Baptists with an “invitation” at the end of every service, we could sing “Just As I Am” seventeen times in a row without breaking a sweat.)

When I was 14, my parents decided to homeschool my sister and me. As far as the homeschooling went, I liked it. It suited my self-paced, nonconformist personality much better than the public school system.

So: church was okay. Homeschooling was fine. Then where did I get this novel?

Well, in order to homeschool, we got into Bill Gothard’s ATI program (made recently famous by the Duggar family, but we were before their era.) ATI seemed like a good idea at the time. Most cults do.

Over the course of two or three years, my family adopted dramatically different rules about dress, music, food, and romance. Many of the changes were painful for me. With every new publication or seminar or meeting, I knew something else I enjoyed would turn out to be wrong somehow. The “standards” were set high and left nothing up to personal choice.

But I conformed. After all, my other option was God’s punishment.

And my experience with the Institute wasn’t all bad. (Why, no, there’s nothing unsettling about the fact that we considered ourselves as part of “The Institute.”) I made a lot of friends, got to travel some, and was generally treated well — if mostly overlooked — by the leadership. The good was tangled up with the bad to the point that I couldn’t always tell one from the other.

Then I got married, and all those “standards” about dress and romance and music didn’t really seem important anymore. I was glad to leave it all behind.

Well, mostly behind. During the early years of my marriage, I was drawn to stories of cult survivors. Not people who escaped the weird, terrifying cults run by Jim Jones or David Koresh. No, I used my slow dial-up internet connection to find stories of people who left the big, visible, “churchy” cults that looked almost normal on the outside. These people had no real abuse to report, but were emotionally and spiritually devastated. Over five or six years, I read hundreds of heartbroken stories. Some ended in redemption, but all too many didn’t.

Then Facebook dawned and I connected with other ex-Institute students. I recognized those same cult-survivor stories in my very own circle.

And some of them in my very own life.

Gradually I faced my tangled memories. I finally understood how much pain I was in, but had been taught to ignore.

And I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my fellow “Xers” suffered tangible abuse at home, at church, or from Institute leaders. Some survivors were cut off from their families and hadn’t seen their siblings for years. All of us had to deal with a warped view of God, self-hate, and utter confusion over what the truth really is.

For me, redemption came through my marriage to a gentle, faith-filled man; through family and friends who loved me through the tangle; and finally, through a God who broke past the fear and pain and showed me what grace really is.

So my personal story isn’t too horrifying. I’m just someone who got chewed up and spit out by the system, without anything to show for it afterward. Nothing except a tenacious grip on God and a burning desire to give a voice to those who are still too broken to speak.

The Writing Process: A Visual Guide

One of the most baffling responses I can get from a test reader is, “I didn’t really get this part.”

How could she not pick up on what I very clearly spelled out in that scene or story? I read it a thousand times myself. It’s all there! Right… there…? No?

The problem is that authors tend to fill in missing pieces without realizing it. Which great insight I pondered a lot over the past two days as I put together a surprisingly challenging puzzle.

The job of a writer is to write your ideas so that your readers see them the same way you do.

Allow me to illustrate.

Your Story Concept:

What you see:

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What they see:

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I put the puzzle together on an old plotboard, hence the “Act 2” part. And my 6-year-old was an enthusiastic helper (for about ten minutes).

You start piecing ideas together. The writing is bad, but you know not to let that stop you. Soon, a shape begins to emerge.

Initial draft

What you see:

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What they see:

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“I think it needs a little more,” they say.

You pour in hours of more thought and revision.

Second through fourth drafts

What you see:

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What they see:

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“I like it!” they say. “I didn’t quite get the middle part, though. I think you need to work on that.”

“Darn, does it show that much?”

(It does.)

You take back your story and get to work again. Eventually you heave a tired, satisfied sigh. It’s pretty much done.

You give it to your faithful readers again.

Final Draft:

What you see:

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What they see:

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“What do you mean it’s not finished?” you exclaim. “What more can I do?

“It’s way smoother. I love the details you added!” they assure you.

“But all those details were already in there!”

If they’re good friends, they insist that part of it still isn’t working, so you take it back and look more closely. Oh, now you see where you didn’t really spell out the setting or a character’s reaction. OH! There’s a BIG hole there! How did you not see that?

More hours. More thought. More writing. And eventually you give it back. You admit that this is what it is:

The Story:

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But no story is perfect. You’ve done such a beautiful job on the rest of it that your readers are willing to see it as:

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And you think, “Hey, that was totally worth it!”

Because writers are inspired, passionate, and slightly insane.

Ruthless Courtship

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Properly dressed and keeping a chaste distance between them, Ruth suggests that Boaz might want to marry her.
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They’re kissing. And they’re not even courting, much less engaged.

During my teenage years in a Fellowship-like system, I was given an assignment on “courtship.” No, I didn’t get to court anybody, although I was desperately interested in the idea. My assignment was to research a romantic couple in literature and explain how they did or didn’t follow the Biblical principles of courtship. Then, as a contrast, I was to highlight a Biblical couple who did follow the principles of authority-led courtship.

As a quick recap, the brand of courtship that my camp espoused went something like this, (not necessarily in these exact words):

  1. Approach — A single man (and his parents) chose a woman worthy to pursue, and the suitor asked her father for permission to court her.
  2. Evaluation — The father decided if this young man was right for his daughter.
  3. Approval — After an unspecified process and duration of evaluation, the father ideally would approve the young man as a suitor.
  4. Acceptance or Veto — The father then went to his daughter and told her who wanted to court her. This was the woman’s one moment of self-agency. She could accept or decline.
  5. Courtship  — If she accepted, she and the young man were unofficially bound in courtship. It wasn’t an engagement, but to break off a courtship was a very serious matter.
  6. Purity — To protect both parties, parents (usually, but not always, hers) set strict rules about conversations, physical interactions, how much time they could spend together, and whether they could ever be alone.
  7. Engagement — He asked her to marry him after his authorities agreed it was time. She could theoretically decline the engagement, but that would be highly scandalous.
  8. Marriage — Whew, finally get them safely married. Now they could have sex and God wouldn’t get mad.

With this courtship formula in mind, I chose Romeo and Juliet as my cautionary couple, and Ruth and Boaz as my shining example.

Whatever I thought I learned at the time, some lessons now stand out very clearly all these years later:

      1. If Romeo and Juliet had followed the principles of authority-guided romance, there would be no story. In fact, anytime characters always behave according to the rules — good or bad — the story is lifeless. Most morality tales are zombies, dead stories forced into terrible half-lives.
      2. Since courtship was “Biblical,” and since Ruth and Boaz are clearly a “good” couple in the Bible, it follows that their relationship is Biblical. I experienced a major disconnect when I tried to fit them into the formula. I mean, Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi’s advice to speak to Boaz about marriage; and her mother-in-law was her authority, so I guess Ruth was under authority. But Ruth basically threw herself at Boaz. At night. Where he was sleeping. It’s unclear exactly what went on between them on that threshing floor, but it’s pretty hot stuff compared to the painfully chaste courtship stories we were given to emulate.
      3. There was no male leadership. Boaz didn’t make the first move. The only “permission” he asked was when he had to let a nearer relative get the first chance to marry Ruth.
      4. If Ruth and Boaz had followed the “right” method of courtship, they wouldn’t have gotten married either.

Basically, this whole assignment shot itself in the foot. While Romeo and Juliet failed to follow the proper steps of courtship and DIED, I learned that the Bible didn’t, in fact, lay out a correct method of romance. This lesson opened the way for me to interpret courtship so liberally that when the time came that I actually did court a man, I exercised all kinds of self-agency in my decision-making. I entered marriage fairly well-prepared for life as an equal partner to my husband.

So while I wasn’t as bad as Juliet, I still completely failed at courtship. I’m pretty sure Ruth was proud of me.

Why, yes, I’m really pleased with my post title, thanks.