A Story Can Take Decades to Become a Novel

Shelah A Johnson

Shelah A Johnson

The recipient of 9 awards from The Society for Technical Communication, is also a published photographer and has produced and directed more than 40 lifestyle broadcast segments focused on eco and small space living.

How The Boloney Trail Trilogy Began

Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.
Oscar Wilde

Shelah A. Johnson

The maturation of self-publishing has brought both opportunity and unrealistic expectations for authors and readers alike. On the one hand, it provides a publishing portal for new and talented authors who would otherwise be wallpapering their walls with rejection letters from the few publishing houses that still exist. On the downside, we now wade through a plethora of poorly written material created by people who fell for online carpetbaggers selling the promises that anyone can write a book in 90-days.

Can you imagine the novelist, James Joyce, completing Ulysses in 90-days? Hardly. It took Joyce 12 years from start to finish. While Ulysses may be an extreme example, and to be sure, there are times when a 90-day bake time is all that is needed; non-technical non-fiction is a good example. However, fiction that deals with the many colorful and intricate layers of the human condition will inevitably need to find its writing pace if it is to get to the point  where writing becomes literature and where a movie becomes a film.

The Boloney Trail Trilogy began to unravel during warmups in my college creative writing class using nothing more than a leaky pen and a stained compassion book. The only thing worse than my handwriting, which I was fired for years later, was my spelling. When the instructor hit his stopwatch, I smeared so much ink onto the page that it looked like a tie-dyed t-shirt. The words kept popping into my head so fast that I skipped letters, sometimes even words. When the  stopwatch sounded, I looked down at my pages and wondered what the hell I had just written. I kept my eyes on these lined pages to avoid making eye contact with the instructor for fear that he might call on me to read my work aloud. Lucky for me the semester was almost half over, and I had never yet been called. This was fine by me. I knew that my contemporaries started college with a far better educational footing than I had, and I constantly questioned whether I had a right to be there. My family reinforced this insecurity.

My sister-in-law accused me of being uppity when I went to see the play Raisin in the Sun. I could only imagine what she was chatting about now that I had enrolled in college. But no one needed to imagine what my mother thought. As far as she was concerned, this was a continuation of the slippery slope I started on when, at the age of 17, I flat out refused to marry a congregation elder with a wonky eye and thirteen years my senior, a match our two mothers cooked up. College was never an option; it was brazenly frowned upon, fearing it would lead us astray. We would pick up bad habits, make friends outside the congregation, or learn about sex; when Armageddon arrived, I would not be spared; I would perish with the billions of worldly people. But I was going to take my chances. After all, Armageddon had not shown up in 1914, 1918, or 1975 as predicted in Watchtower – there was a chance it may never show up.

Not all writers are good spellers

But the material I used for my warmups came from a single source; it was my go-to, not because I thought it was a great story, but because this story was something I knew intimately; I could crank out pieces in 5, 8, or 10 minutes all day like a dripline. It was content-rich, adaptable, and could fit whatever topic the instructor throughout. But luck is like an hourglass; eventually, all the sand settles to the bottom. To my horror, one day I was called to read my warmup. I would often write about a tragic event with a humorous twist. But I mainly chose to write about odd or entertaining things. I found that most people do not internalize humor like a drama might, meaning there would be fewer probing questions requiring an explanation – my secret would be safe.

After my first read, the instructor increasingly called on me to read aloud until one day after class he called me aside and said, “You need to quit school and write this story.” I did not, of course. I assumed he was blowing smoke up my skirt. I reasoned that anyone with my horrible spelling and grammar could not possibly be as successful as he suggested. He knew what I was thinking and quickly told me about legendary authors who were notoriously bad spellers, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and Ernest Hemingway; among others. He said that the original draft of  F. Scott  Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby contained literally hundreds of spelling mistakes, some of which are still confounding editors.

The Boloney Trail signals that it is time to write

While I did not act on his suggestion, I did take his comments to heart and kept the piolet light on it until it felt natural for me to write it. Then after sitting on this story for decades, for an unknown reason, the story seemed to call out as though to say, “it’s time”. Sometimes stories need time to mellow. Other times, it is the writer who needs to simmer down. In my case, I needed to mature. As a young woman in my twenties, I did not have the experience to understand the complexity of the human condition, complicated family relationships, and how poverty is often an unreliable decision-maker. I see things much more clearly, without resentment, anger, or embarrassment that once held me a prisoner. Now, I can tell an uncensored and unapologetic story. And that feels right.

Note: Grammarly suggested that I rewrite Oscar Wilde’s quote. I should say not!

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Perpetual Gloom, A two rut-road along The Boloney Trail

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Perpetual Gloom, A two rut-road along The Boloney Trail
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