The Fruit of our Lives

As I write this, it is the last morning of summer.  My yearling kittens are crouched in the garden, watching a squirrel on the fence make his way through the face of a sunflower, methodically plucking out striped seeds with his tiny hands, cracking their shells, devouring the kernels.  There are piles of hulls, here and there, through the garden, where I have tied the flower heads to the fence or a branch or a gate. Light angles at a long angle, illuminating the withering squash, the tired corn.  As I drink my tea, I’m a little melancholy, knowing that this season is turning.  It is such a particular summer.

They all are.

One of the things that has come up in formatting my old books for publication in e-format is the recognition that they are fruits of the years in which they were born.  This might seem a simple, clean observation—well, of course they are, you might say.  In 1993, the peaches were good and there was a lot of rain, and there were certain political events that influenced my views and ideas.  Music always shapes my work, so the popular tunes of the time will add spice and flavor.

When I began going through these books, written from about 1990 through 2000 or so, I never planned to rewrite them in any meaningful way.  I have so much work flowing through me currently that spending time on finished, whole work seemed a bad use of hours.  It is important to me to update glaring tech issues that date the material in negative ways—changing Walkmans to Ipods, for example, and updating language to reflect the moment.

But I find that reading even to do that much is almost impossible, because they hold too much of me, of my life.  It is as if the fruit of those months or years of writing has been bottled and turned to wine that now carries the most powerful notes of that period in a way that I almost cannot bear.   In reading a category romance from 1992, I am transported to the young mother I was, when my boys were small, and I snatched moments to write from the busy whirl of meals and shopping and laundry and simply loving them.  I am pierced with the golden light, distilled to amber in the wine of the book, that gilded us all one summer while I planted a garden.  My grandmother and my mother and my sisters and I and all the various children took a picnic to a local park.  I thought I was fat. My hair was cut very short, to my ears.  And there is my youngest sister, looking slim and happy in her oversize glasses.  She longs to be married and isn’t yet.  There is my grandmother, down for the day, free before the illnesses that kept her tethered to my grandfather’s side nearly till her own death.

The book carries that day, but there is a mood of earnest optimism in it that I have now lost.  I cannot be so young as that young mother.  Things sometimes do not work out as I hoped.  Things, important things, are often lost as life unfolds, as we live each day.

I’ve often felt it would be difficult to be an actor whose life and face unfold on the screen.  How difficult to see your face, untouched by time, with eyes wreathed now in folds and creases! How challenging to be the ingénue who has now become old and wrinkled.

Reading my old books is like that, in a way, only more intimate.  Only I, and perhaps one or two others, will know the meaning of details that lace this book or that one, will understand why the writer I was at 28 or 36 happened to choose those themes, those emblems, those ideas.  It’s as if I am stepping into the body of my old self, into my old mind.  Not even journals, of which I have thousands of pages, come anywhere close to the record of time that are my books.   It’s startling and intense and more than I can bear, up close.

So they will go into the world as they are, edited the tiniest bit, but mostly left as they are, written by a woman who was me and is not, my younger sister self, my daughter, someone I want to protect from the things that lie ahead.  As they do for all of us.  I love that she is preserved with her smooth skin and floaty skirts in a drop of amber, for all time.

And I realize, too, that the life I now live, the ears of white and yellow corn that I have plucked so tenderly from this summer’s garden, the squirrel on the fence, the dog I am walking, the passions I am engaged in, will all be contained in the juice leaking between the sentences of the books I write now, to be transformed by time into the wine of the future.  One and another and another, like days, like time.

What have you noticed about work you wrote before now?  Do you see those echoes?  Is this intimacy a little frightening to think about? 

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch, via Flickr Creative Commons

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    I haven’t taken the time recently to look through things I wrote when my children were small, but today may be a good day for it, as it is my daughter’s birthday. You wrote:

    I love that she is preserved with her smooth skin and floaty skirts in a drop of amber, for all time.

    This not only made me shiver, but made me realize: Writers are not only the preserved, we’re the amber too. There’s something so powerful in that.

    Thanks for this post.

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  2. says

    I entirely love this. Thank you. Needed some inspiration, and you’ve passed so much of it on.

    Yes, I am not the same person as the one who wrote my first book. I remember her, and it’s just wonderful to visit. I am the girl who wrote her latest novel, and even now I’m moving on to new places.

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  3. Vaughn Roycroft says

    Honestly, Barbara, I got chills, several times. I clearly remember my life, the earnest optimism, of ’92. This sort of makes me glad I write historical fantasy. Even still, I know the juices leaking between the sentences of each of my works will produce wines of a very specific vintage.

    Thanks for starting me off today with a shiver of excitement for the written word.

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  4. says

    I am new to your pages and very grateful to have found you. Interesting that you wrote this today and my own blog entry was about a moment of light sitting at a table as a young mother. I wonder that you need to update your old work other than making sensible structural changes with the knowledge you have accumulated. Do you need to change the walkman to an ipod? Isn’t the metaphorical walkman part of what was where during that stories development. Or is this important to the selling of the work, something i obviously have never done and so should not be commenting on. But Thank you for writing and making me think. c

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  5. says

    I just wanted to give a brief thank you for sharing this. As a mother of a new teenager (just turned 13) I’m having a lot of these moments these days. It really is as though my younger self wasn’t me at all, but someone else who answered to my name.

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  6. says

    Glad to share, my friends. Sometimes you don’t know what will arrive. This was one of my timed writings, after puttering in the garden.

    Welcome, Cecilia. You’re right, of course, that the essence of the technology is the same. It just seemed kinder to readers to make it easy–that promise of trying to keep the window open to that other world.

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  7. says

    I adore your honesty, Barbara. These themes and emotions are familiar to me, in part because of feeling exposed in the writing, and because, like Kendra, I’ve a young woman in my home preparing to launch. She makes it impossible to forget time’s passage. It’s odd, wonderful, terrifying, and quite perfect all at once.

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  8. says

    It’s weird to read old manuscripts sometimes, especially those written when you were very young, and realize how much you or your opinions or the world have changed. But I am glad any edits you have made are minimal. The idea of changing a book significantly after publication weirds me out (unless it’s some academic book with X edition). Let the work stand; let it be a symbol of whatever time it was written, even if the author is not the same anymore.

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  9. Geri Krotow says

    Poignant as my current novel will be the one I wrote when my son went off to college. So many recollections of the little guy I spent so much time outside with, looking at bugs. What a powerful eossay, Barb. Thanks!

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  10. says

    Barbara,
    Intriguing post, brilliantly written. I’m sure authors are tempted to go back and revise their novels after publication, but your work really reflects where you are in your life and your perspectives at the time. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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  11. says

    Lovely piece. I look at my novels and I reember the tiny events from my real existence that fleshed them out. Even more curious when it’s a novel ghosted for someone else.

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  12. says

    This is such a wildly beautiful piece, not only for its honestly and truth, but the abundance of heartfelt wisdom has me reading, rereading, and rereading again. Truly love everything about this post.

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  13. says

    Loved this. I too have wondered about actors who see themselves years (decades) later on the screen — I never thought about it in terms of my own writing, though. Now I look forward to it, in a sort of curious way, so thank you.

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  14. says

    Thank you Barbara. So many have commented, but I need to repeat. Really a beautiful post which stirred my heart as it is so true, and your language so beautiful. I, too, have thought about actresses and how it would feel to see your younger self is living color.

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  15. says

    Many times, I’ve felt the same slow wonder, as I sing an old song from my earliest band– who wrote that? Me? Somehow, the answer is yes, and the wave of emotion that rides on the music carries me into a past mindset, past relationships. A hidden memoir.

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  16. says

    I have always had a special enjoyment reading books as I figure out (or try to) people, places and situations to which I have been privy. Rereading them is sometimes very much like seeing pictures from that time of our families. It’s not always easy. “Our babies” were born just 4 months apart and now look at the difference in their circumstances.

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