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

Uncanny patterns

I often remind myself and my writing students that life is pretty random but fiction is about patterns.

One of the challenges is that writers have to use their clever brains–and their organic connections with their characters–to be careful that the patterns aren’t obvious and predictable and thus uninteresting.

This week, a young reader and gardener visited my house and admired my garden.  What he liked was that it didn’t have just the same old stuff…yellow corn.  Green beans.  No!  It had golden zucchini and purple peppers and black tomatoes.


It had oxalis tuberosa instead of potatoes.  (Can’t wait to see how those taste–they were eaten in ancient Peru and I once wrote a folktale set in ancient Peru.)

It had something called chocolate soldier.

It has amaranthus, which my visitors thought looked like a Dr. Seuss plant, with its strange ropy blossoms.  How eerie to find out that this is also called Love Lies Bleeding.

(My sweetie says he feels like he’s living in a plant zoo.)

It was my young visitor who also used the word “uncanny” to describe the strange-but-true stories that weave their ways into our lives.  I was talking with his mom about a family retreat I’ll be leading for Westminster Presbyterian Church that will focus on stories…and he’s right.  Sometimes life doesn’t seem random at all.  Sometimes it has really odd connections and patterns.

For example, long ago my daughter used to do an odd little dance around and around a rocky circle in our yard in Grand Forks, ND singing songs and telling stories to herself.  I asked friends to tell me what might grow in that rocky soil.  They said, “Moss rose.”  So I tried moss rose.

I tried and tried and tried moss rose.

No luck.

It didn’t take, though.  Even in the rich Red River Valley soil, it failed to Only Connect.

This summer, I asked one of my sisters if she knew what a strange visitor to my garden might be.  She said no.

It turned out to be a moss rose.

After all this time…a moss rose–that I once tried so hard to grow–came unannounced to my garden.  Isn’t that amazing?

My volunteer efforts to get books to kids in Ethiopia have shown me that the universe ripples around us in strange and fascinating ways.  I cling to trust that if I do my part, the uncanny connections that I’ve written about on this blog will continue to appear there, too.

Even a story that appears to have a terribly sad ending–like this birth mother who felt she had to give up her twins for adoption–can have surprising new twists…like an adopted daughter who appears 17 years later–with her adoptive mom–to make new connections.

In life…in fiction…characters suffer.  We pay hard and bitter prices sometimes to get what our deepest selves need.

And sometimes we get to write a different ending.




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