As I grow older I find myself revising previous works. I think it has to do with a hope of leaving behind me writings solid enough to endure.
For example, the Dun Cow trilogy.
The Book of the Dun Cow was published in 1978. It was a good start since it won a number of excellent awards: The National Book Award, the New York Times best children’s book of the year. It was translated into a host of foreign languages and in paperback sold—and continues to sell—briskly. It has been taught to both the high school and the university level students.
The next book in the series is The Book of Sorrows. Recently I returned to this and have revised it again several times over. In order to indicate that the book has been changed radically, its title, too, has been changed to The Second Book of the Dun Cow: Lamentations.
And in the last three years I’ve written and revised the last book of the trilogy: The Third Book of the Dun Cow: Peace at the Last.
After Sorrows Madeleine L’Engel kept perusing me. “When,” she would say, “Are you going to write The Book of Joy?”
She didn’t live long enough to see her wish fulfilled. I realize now why I could not have produced such a book until now. I wasn’t old enough to understand her “Joy” and my sense of a “Last.”
It is this trilogy I hope can give me a legitimate place among worthy authors. Hence the repeated revisions—and one final revision yet to appear. The book online (2nd and 3rd Dun Cow) are not my last versions of the books! Neither one represents the works I want! It should be by Christmas that the best are up.
In these latter years publishing itself has also changed. Some of my newer works, therefore, I’ve begun to make available online as e-books, permitting a direct sale between the writer and his reader. I like the immediacy. I never write but that I think of those who will read the material in process. But when it is published between the covers of a book, the readers and their reactions are far from me—and I feel/felt that I was writing in isolation. E-books allow me to write in company with my readers. I’m not so much alone.
It is with you and for you, then, that I wrote a series of fable-like stories and collected them in a single book entitled The House of a Thousand Rooms: 8 Tales the Fable-man Tells. There is one problem with publishing online. Whereas a publishing house has copy-editors who catch misspellings, bad punctuation, and other mess-ups in a manuscript, there is no such person between me and the published work. So a book like A Thousand Rooms comes with too many errors making of an easy read a difficult one, for which I apologize.
How did I become a writer in the first place? And where did I learn the necessity to produce works of an honest morality?
From the age of four I began to make up stories and tell them to my brothers and sisters. In the third grade my elementary school received the gift of a hundred typewriters, with which I began to write my stories down.
In junior high I submitted a story to a school contest. I’d fictionalized some actual events in my family life, introducing a sad note. The story won first prize, which was that I got the chance to read it before a student assembly. Before that reading I had been little known. Immediately after it students knew me. They came up to me, not so much to say that the story was good. They didn’t say so because they believed that the story was true—and they were sorry for the things that had happened to me.
For the next hour I sat in a history class, not listening to the teacher. Rather, I was considering how powerful was my story—because the fiction had become real in their minds. Therefore, I had changed reality! I’d shifted it just a bit, but a bit was enough to make me something like the Creator. And the best part of my power was that no one knew what I had done! No one knew that it was me.
In my senior year of high school, a man named James Barbour offered a creative writing class. When he handed back our first efforts, walking down the aisles and plopping the manuscripts on our desks, he came to mine the last. As he returned to the front of the room he said, “Wangerin can write the eyes out of a turkey at fifty paces.” Imagine how that swelled my spirit! That phrase alone convinced me that I could write, could write well, and was on my way to becoming a bona fide writer!
As for the caution that I remember morality?
After Thanne and I married I would write from nine pm, after Thanne had fallen asleep, to midnight. In the mornings I’d ask her to read my stuff. Then came the day when she returned one of my stories with the judgment that it was a “bad” story.
I disagreed. I showed her all its fine points, its structure, its characters, the tightness of its plot.
“No,” she said. “It’s bad. It’s hurtful. It wants me—you want me—to take pleasure in wickedness and to hate goodness.” She was right. My whole intent had been to laugh at the horrors I visited upon my main character. I’ve never forgotten that. Not that everything I write should be sunny and uplifting, but that truth can’t abide an evil intent. In his drama, Medea, Euripides presents a woman who, out of vengeance, kills her children. The act may be horrible, yes, but Euripides plumbs the psychology which drives this mother to this murder. He does not delight in the evil for its own sake. It’s the same with Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, Tennessee William’s The Night of the Iguana, Shakespeare’s tragedies, and so forth.
Regarding e-books again. I’ve posted several of my books that had gone out of print: The Crying for a Vision, based on the legends and the culture of the Lakota Indians, and Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace, which derives from my experiences as a pastor in the inner city—and which has been taught in seminaries.
Finally, soon to be published in book form is a spiritual memoir, The Past is Forever.
There you have it, a brief overview of my writing life from the age of three to old age, and some observations along the way.
If you’d like me in subsequent blogs to write on writing, please let me know.