Remembering the past (with a touch of realism)

When I was in Brazil, I missed my past. Missed Virginia, the mountains, the faces and places I once knew and had left years before. I missed knowing and being known--and not have to introduce myself for the hundredth time in halting Portuguese ("Hi, my name's Jenny, and I'm an American.") Pause. ("You're name's... what? Jane?") Actually I had to clarify that I'm "North" American, so as not to be politically confused with the other "Americas" on the globe... but I digress.

Through all of this longing and missing, my "Sushi" series was born. I literally thought, as I faced a blank screen: "What do I miss?" And there it was: my raw longing for my past. Which turned into a book, and then a series of books, about my hometown and the somewhat idyllic (if not occasionally maddening) country life in rural Virginia.

I've always had a sort of fetish with my past. I used to save every single letter from friends, every drawing my cousins ever made, every handmade bracelet or "friendship pin" from the '80s or relic from trips to Mexico or Australia or Korea. Plane tickets and stickers and postcards. I even miss the '80s, for goodness sake--the neon-pink, big-haired, bangle-bracelet and jelly-shoe '80s. I think I may even have a silver slap bracelet somewhere--if it hasn't gotten tossed in one of my "missing" dusty boxes of things from my earlier years.

Like one of the older members of our generation, I often reminisce about the "good old days" --high school days, or elementary school days, or seemingly endless summers of my childhood. I savor, like Wordsworth, the "glory in the grass and splendor in the flower"--and all the deep and powerful sweeps of emotion that came with them. Everything was fresh, everything was new. My heart swelled so tight with emotions even then that I could hardly breathe. 

While there's nothing wrong with pack-ratting these memories, I've come to realize as an wiser woman that, most of the time, these nostalgic memories often sift into brighter colors that smooth over the aches of the past. 

The hard truth is this: my childhood wasn't that great. I didn't enjoy growing up--in rural Virginia or otherwise--and I didn't really appreciate my small, country hometown until much later. Until after I'd traveled and lived in foreign cities and learned the value of fresh green fields and empty skies. Elementary school was awkward and embarrassing--I was skinny and shy--and high school brought its own set of disappointments, challenges, humiliations, joys, and lows.

"Enjoy these days," one sweet older woman said to me as I sat in our high school Sunday school class. "They're the best days of your life."

I didn't say it aloud, but I hoped she was wrong. Really hoped she was wrong.

And thankfully, my life has proven that yes, for me, those weren't the best days of my life at all.

In fact, I'd be hard pressed to say exactly *which* have been the best years of my life. The truth is that all of life is difficult--and all of life is blessed. Even in our happiest moments we all bear secret pain, and in our worst of situations we have a thousand reasons to rejoice.

I liked many aspects of my childhood and my teen and college years, but they pale in comparison to my years of writing and international work of my 20s. And all of these fall somewhat short of the wild new joys of married life--even with all its crushing setbacks and hurts--and several years after that, motherhood. I'm in my 30s now, pregnant for the first time, and this, too, has been a roller coaster of crazy excitement, fears, and struggles. It is all terrifying, all wonderful.

If I focus too much on my love of the past, sifting through boxes of old memories and ignoring what I have now in the present, I have missed my calling.

In fact, the longer I live, the more I want to cry out, "There were never any 'good old days'!" They were all difficult. We all hurt, all suffered. During the '80s I went to sleep afraid of nuclear war, grieving over the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the seven lost astronauts, horrified by gruesome news stories we watched on our black-and-white TV. I fought with my sister, felt shunned by relatives or teachers. Friends came and went. I didn't fit in at school. My clothes were all wrong, my hair too long, my nose too big, and my body too skinny.

Nothing was right.

And nothing will, in totality, ever be right.

For we live here, on earth, where the best we can hope for is a thousand worlds away from the heaven we long for. We were made for eternity--for heaven--for life with Christ--and instead we find ourselves here in these jars of clay, these "tents" of flesh (as Paul called them). We wound and we are wounded, and we plead for grace from the Maker to run this exhausting race called life. 

So does that mean "Sushi" is based on a flawed premise, or a place that never really existed?

Perhaps. I've recalled the finer parts--my best memories and deepest loves--and left out many of the harsher details of life in rural Virginia. The golden moments were there, yes, but truth be told, they were often fewer and farther between than depicted in my books. I did not have a close-knit community like my "Sushi" friends. And that's okay, because that's what fiction is all about. It's an invention--a creation--and not meant to be taken literally.


And this is where the writing advice comes in: 

Be careful.

For if you overdo the gloss, and forget that not all was well in the past or setting of your choice, you do your characters--and your readers--a disservice. We need to be reminded--as human beings--that life is not a perfect spiral of "dreams come true"-- or else we despair when we look at our own lives, and wish for something that does not exist.

This rings especially true if you're writing historical fiction, because many times I've seen writing about the past that seems false, superficial, and "too good to be true." It's almost as if the authors have lifted modern stories and put them in a gilded, romanticized past, forgetting that in the 1800s, the average life expectancy was something like forty years old. Women routinely died in childbirth, and epidemics of smallpox and measles wiped out entire families. Starvation during the long winters in the West were a real fear, and pioneers spent every waking minute preparing for winter by canning, pickling, cutting hay, and slaughtering and smoking livestock. Women were usually married around age fifteen, often to someone they barely knew, and they didn't stand around kissing or making out in public places.

Was there joy? Snowfalls? Family celebrations? Love? Romance? Yes, yes, and yes. All of these. But their lives were hard--just as our lives are hard. Probably a hundred times more so.

So your duty, even as a fiction writer, is not to paint a dream world through your work. If your Wild West heroine (aged twenty or twenty-five) has a good bit of time on her hands and flits from place to place in perfect clothes, always socializing or meeting with handsome young single men or chatting with friends, this is--in most cases--simply not realistic. It doesn't mean you can't work with a twenty-five-year-old single heroine in that time period, but you must adjust accordingly and make the character fit the time frame. She would be, in a nutshell, unusual and somewhat shocking, perhaps even scandalous--looked down upon by most "proper" families. She would not be out socializing most of the time--she would be working from dawn to dusk as a teacher or hired laborer--unless you can find some other way to feed her.

I don't mean that you have to be overly negative with your presentation of the past, but you do need to (more or less) tell the truth. Readers don't like to be fibbed to, despite what our rose-colored views of the past whisper to us.

If you ask me, we need less "Hollywood" in fiction--and more characters with big noses and out-of-work slumps and problems with laziness or greed. We need fewer heroines with perfect hair and more heroines who put their feet in their mouth. We need fewer heroes who "get the girl" at the end and more heroes who decide to be heroic simply because it's the right thing to do--even if it costs them something.

One of the reasons I've chosen to make "ordinary people, extraordinary stories" my tagline is because we need to know that it's okay to be ordinary. To be flawed. To be normal. Because we all are.

Big '80s hair and all.

We need to look back at the formative moments of our life and savor them, enjoy them. Relish the good as we painfully describe the not-so-good. But then we need to move on.

For our lives are here, moving forward. Never stopping.

Mine is unfolding even as we speak--showering me with the surprise of a rounded belly and a laughing, curly-haired child. Crisp, dazzling stars in a black sky from horizon to horizon. The worried brow of my husband as we pore over our son's disturbing brain scans and whisper prayers into the night. Chilly evenings and green corn stalks and endless quiet over the prairie hills. 

And your life--on paper as well as in the flesh--is unfolding as well. Waiting for you to step in and display it for the Master's glory, as everything it could ever be.


  1. I love your insight in this post, Jenny! Thanks for your honesty. It's easy to romanticize the past at times and as a result we miss the beauty of the present. I remember traveling overseas and telling myself to "be all there", and I'm so glad I did.

    How are you feeling? Excited to hear your baby news!

  2. Melanie - thanks so very much for writing! I know, I have the same struggle of sometimes getting stuck in the past and not wanting to let go... it is hard to "be all there" as you said, but it is so good!

    Thanks so much for your comment and letting me know that someone out there understands! :) I'm feeling well - thank you for asking! - and getting bigger and bigger. Pregnancy is so incredibly exciting - I never knew it could be this much fun! I'm getting a little nervous as the big day draws closer, but if God is with us, life is always a blessing no matter what we face.

    God bless, Melanie!