The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Life is chaos; fiction isn’t

I’ve been known to say to writing students in the Vermont College MFA program, Life is chaos; fiction isn’t.  Fiction is pattern and plan.  The pattern can’t be an obvious, clunky one, but stories live and breathe by cause-and-effect, action-and-reaction, repeating elements that echo and resonate deep in our minds and hearts.

But is life chaos?

Sometimes the patterns and loops and repeating elements are fascinating, aren’t they?  Sometimes they are unbelievable.  Sometimes somewhat eerie.

Over Labor Day weekend this year, I visited my daughter who is in a masters-probably-soon-to-be-PhD-program in Pittsburgh (which is where I spotted the lovely brick wall above).  By pure chance–as far as either of us knows–my daughter and her husband live in an apartment mere blocks from where my mom and dad lived as a young married couple.  Every day, my daughter and I wandered around her neighborhood and walked by the hospital where my older sister was born (right) and by the houses my mom and dad either lived in or saw on their every-day walks.

My dad was the fourth boy born into a family that scratched its existence out of the sagebrush hills of eastern Oregon.  He was, he said, the only one of the boys who refused to give up…who could stay by his mom’s side on the day, each year, when they had to kill, pluck, and can chickens dawn to dusk.  He was probably the one destined to take over the farm.  But he came back from World War II changed.  What he saw out in the world eventually led him to Ethiopia, part of an effort to bring schools and medicine to a country that had been devastated by the Italian occupation during the war.  One of the first steps was a Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh.  My daughter and I got hooked on trying to pin down exactly where the two Presbyterian seminaries were on the north side in those days (one of our educated guesses shown here).

How strange to look at bricks and spires and windows and even trees my parents looked at before I was born.  How curious to wonder at the interests and dreams and settings and traits that show up generation after generation.  What is it with synchronicity, that odd way certain events pop up together in ways unlikely to happen by chance?

On one of our Pittsburgh days, by pure chance…and an enticing coupon my daughter happened to save…we decided to visit the Frick house and art gallery.  It wasn’t until we were wandering around Henry Clay Frick’s upstairs bedroom that I realized, oh, this was the guy I put (very briefly) into my book Bicycle Madness to show what was happening with labor unions at the time at the turn of the century when Frances Willard decided she had to learn to ride a bicycle.

I love it when fictional characters and settings poke their heads around the corners of my world.  Lanie’s stories echoed day after day in Pittsburgh.  This summer, my daughter supervised teenagers in an urban gardening program, and her neighborhood is full of urban gardens (although her own back yard vegetables got munched up by the resident groundhog…all except the green peppers and basil which, apparently, do not tickle a groundhog’s palate).  I saw Lanie on every street and at the farmers’ market in the park.

As for the Lanie’s birds…well…don’t even get me started on the birds that were part of my Labor Day weekend Pittsburgh experience.  Those revelations have to wait until I have time for another post.  Right now, it’s time for me to think about my own slowly-finding-its-pattern fiction.  May story settings pop up for you, too, and take root and tickle the imagination so vividly that daydreams and the physical world will tangle together in ever-new, ever-old fascinating ways.  

3 thoughts on “Life is chaos; fiction isn’t”

  1. The one Bek would know the most about is the one where she had her Americorps assignment this summer. I’ll see if she can squeeze out a few minutes from her graduate studies to send you a bit of information. Other than that, it was just me soaking up all the sightings!

  2. Hi Jackie,

    Here are links to two of the projects I was involved with this summer. Both are in Braddock, PA, which is a borough of Pittsburgh.

    The Braddock Youth Project was the group I actually worked with, and we had three of our own urban gardens, but the Braddock Farm (planted and maintained by Grow Pittsburgh) hired our youth to do work there this summer, so I spent some time there too.

    All of the green spaces in Braddock are built on abandoned lots. Braddock, PA used to be one of the economic epicenters of Pittsburgh (first steel mill, first Carnegie library), but after the steel industry collapsed in the 70s, Braddock did too (it went from a borough of about 20,000 people to just under 3,000!). A lot of people in the Pittsburgh area just write Braddock off as a lost cause, but you can see from some of the cool projects that people are doing there that it’s bursting with potential.



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