“A woman, in those days, did not count. So even after we were married, people continued to say that John lived alone in the wilderness…” – The Wife of John the Baptist
When I began my research for a novel about John the Baptist, I expected to find a wild man dressed in camel hair robes, eating locusts and honey in the desert. The enigmatic and mysterious man I found was quite different. The man I found was charismatic, passionate, popular and brave.
Although John spent part of his eventful life alone in the rough wilderness, he was often surrounded by thirty to seventy disciples, some of whom wanted him to lead them in an all out war against Rome. Roman-occupied Judea was a crossroads filled with colorful people from far-flung corners of the world and many traveled great distances just to hear John speak. The Judea of John the Baptist was the kind of rich, turbulent environment where innovative thought and cultural movements are often born.
“In the marketplaces there were Phoenician traders from the sea coast, jewelers from Jerusalem, fine pottery merchants from Greece, and even magicians from Egypt. The crowds moved through the market like a noisy, flowing, human mosaic and they created a rich, spawning ground, the cultural river that was Judea.” – The Wife of John the Baptist
John’s ideas were groundbreaking. But preaching a new way of thought to the downtrodden poor in Roman-occupied Judea was a treasonous act of rebellion and he was in constant danger for his life. It was a time of great cruelty and bloodshed where the Romans massacred groups of people they found along the Jordan, branding them cults and zealot revolutionaries. Through his courage, John the Baptist altered human history and changed our way of thinking forever.
“The real heartbeat of our community was John when he emerged alone from the wilderness, and stood on a rise by the banks of the Jordan. He faced Jerusalem and delivered a simple message. His powerful, sonorous voice carried through the dry air of the valley up to the very gates of the City of Salt. ‘Even war with Rome will not give us the freedom we seek. Purify your own souls by right action, and where the soul has gone the body will follow. All good souls are free.’” – The Wife of John the Baptist
The more I learned about John, the more intrigued I became. Because John the Baptist was a charismatic, passionate man, I became convinced that he must have had love in his life. So my research took a unique turn, I began to search for his wife.
I spent the next few months begging librarians in far away cities to loan me books that no one had checked out since the last century, and that arrived smelling of mildew and neglect. I spoke with history professors, experts on religion, rabbis and Christian ministers. What I found was that there was a strong likelihood that John was married, though there was no definitive proof either way.
One elderly theologian put it best, “John the Baptist was probably married. A thirty-year-old man of the rabbi class would have been expected to marry so that a wife could keep him out of trouble! The cultural expectation placed on him to marry would have been very great. Besides the practice of celibacy in the priesthood didn’t come about until long after John was dead.”
So I began sorting through the bare historical facts and limited details of John’s life and filling in the blanks with ‘the imagination of the possible’. In the end, the real reason I gave John the Baptist a wife was out of love and respect for the man he was. It was also out of the belief that he deserved a helpmate to stand with him through his short, dangerous and tumultuous life. From the standpoint of a fiction writer, his wife became a character to bear witness and tell his tragic tale. Who better to describe John than the wife who loved and understood him.
“The first time I saw John, I noticed that he was taller than most men, like a king with unruly black hair and a beard. He had the dark, sculpted body of a slave and a poor man’s gray robe, but he wasn’t at work in the marketplace. He was watching goods being unloaded for the market, just as we were. He was a stranger yet he spoke with people easily, as if he had met them before and was getting reacquainted. He had large hands, yet he never gestured when he spoke like other men did. What surprised us most was that he had the beautiful, dark eyes of a wild girl. He never noticed us, even though we stared at him for a long time. I knew I should not be looking at him, but he was very handsome so I covered my face with my veil and continued to stare. When he moved away from the crowds, he picked up a bundle and a staff, both common symbols of an itinerant philosopher, a follower of the Greek tradition. And on that first day I mistook him for a poor philosopher.”
The novel I intended to write turned out very differently. Instead The Wife of John the Baptist became an intimate portrayal of a marriage. The Wife of John the Baptist is a tribute to the timeless and unshakable love that triumphs when all else is lost.
A few years ago, a local teacher asked me if I would give her students a lesson on how to be more creative. Teaching creativity is something of a daunting task and all the how-to blogs and articles full of bullet points only give us a pinhole’s insight into what creativity is and how to achieve more of it. Even though I had no idea what the lesson was going to be, I decided to accept her challenge.
I showed up for class, which took place at picnic tables under a Banyan tree. I began by telling my borrowed students that we were going to experience ‘the fireworks of the mind’. Their faces lit up in excitement. It was clear that most of them knew exactly what I meant. Next I defined creativity as the juxtaposition of things that don’t usually belong together. I gave the students pairs of word such as, ‘tigers and tennis shoes’, ‘books and battering rams’, or ‘tulips and terrorists’. We created stories around all these pairs, adding more unusual images as we went along, ‘delightful politics’, ‘heavy flowers’, ‘underground sky’, and ‘dry water’. By the end of the lesson, they had written many wonderful stories. They even continued to make creative connections in their other classes for the rest of the day. I walked away happy with the lesson but I don’t think I taught those students how to be creative. All I did was give them a place and a means and most importantly, I gave them permission to be creative.
When I sat down to write this post, I tried to define creativity but the more I wrote, the harder it got to pin down. Creativity is more than ‘fireworks of the mind’. It’s more than making innovative connections between unrelated things. And as far as the how-to of being more creative, the possibilities that presented themselves to me were endless.
Maybe Creativity is Survival.
Is creativity what happens when an innovative caveman united a spark and a pile of twigs creating the first fire, the first warm winter and the first cooked dinner? Is it when a Medieval doctor paired a horrible disease with a dreaded poison and invented an unlikely cure? And faced with our own possible extinction, will our longing to survive bring about a wealth of creativity, a Renaissance-like race for survival?
Maybe Creativity is Human Nature.
Maybe the urge to create is as much human nature as the urge to eat, drink and sleep. After all, even our cells create new cells. It’s our sexual nature to create oneness out of two people. It’s our nature to create children. Is creativity so deeply embedded in our DNA that it defines us? Does the creative impulse find its way into every single human experience simply because we can’t help ourselves, simply because it’s who we are? Maybe this is the reason we are thirsty for explosions of innovation and the tantalizing sizzle of new ideas. And maybe this is why creativity is food for the brain, helping the mind to grow beyond itself.
Maybe Creativity is Adventure.
Is creativity another way to experience the path of the ancient explorer? Maybe we long to travel and experience the exotic in order to create something groundbreaking from the pairing of our old knowledge and new experience? Maybe creativity is the adventure of following the mysterious muse no matter where it takes us.
Maybe creativity is believing in the possibility of everything without judgment or criticism. If a culture that is new to you, asks you to believe in fairies living in bushes, ghosts cooking in the kitchen or the musical talent of plants in the garden, embrace it all. Fodor for the imagination is the creative gold we all seek.
We can find creativity in the melodic rhythm of a new language, the rawness of a ceremonial dance or the monotonous nothingness of a city train ride when the mind begins to soar. Creativity is in everything. It’s in nothing. Maybe creativity is just God.
Maybe Creativity is Insanity.
Is creativity the logic of lunatics, a logic that makes no sense except to the creative ear? Just in case it is, be grateful for the insane people in your life. You are especially lucky if they are in your own family because then you receive the full benefit of their zany stories and unique outlook. Be thankful if you have a community of unusual people around you because then creativity can be like light, bouncing ideas off of others like atoms at play.
Maybe Creativity is the Lack of a Box.
Someone once asked me the question, “What is your creative writing process?” I found this difficult to answer since I don’t think of myself as a writer. The way I see it, I’m a dusty sculptor shaping and chiseling away at a story, a mad painter splashing a colorful scene or larger than life character on the page, a serious pianist beating out the rhythm of the story using words as a keyboard, and a playful chef melding flavors, colors, textures and aromas together on the page. Creativity is a dramatic, messy, glorious business. Perhaps we come closest to understanding creativity when we realize it’s not, ‘thinking outside the box’. It’s the realization that there is no box.
Maybe creativity is all of these things I’ve listed or maybe I’ve missed the point entirely. Whatever creativity is, give yourself permission to find it, explore it, imagine it and get lost in it. Above all, give yourself permission to recreate the world.
Publisher’s Weekly Review for ‘The Wife of John the Baptist’, quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
It’s always a pleasure and a relief to receive a positive review, especially from a source such as The Publisher’s Weekly. Only a few more weeks to go before they announce the next round of finalists. Wish me luck!
This is not the John of the Gospels. Instead, he is sensual, sociable, humorous, easy-going, flirtatious, and sexually active. And, yes, he is married. And a father. This previously unexplored angle is deftly traced by the woman of the title, Hessa, daughter of a Greek trader in the Roman province of Judea, who is possessed of the unique ability of knowing the history of an object and the character of a person simply by touch. Fleeing her father’s wrath after their marriage, the two wander the desert, moving from one encampment of outsiders to the next. All the while, John vehemently rejects the title of prophet pressed on him by those drawn by his magnetism, yet gradually, despite all his protestations, he grows into his Biblical role and the fate that goes with it. The route of the narrative from man to martyr is richly told and well crafted, introducing Zealots, Essenes, other cults gathered along the River Jordan and, most chillingly, the cruel torments of the Roman occupation of Judea. And finally, in a refreshing surprise that demonstrates the manuscript is strong enough to stand on its own, Jesus only has a walk-on role.
I attended my first writer’s conference in 2001. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was excited to meet other writers and I assumed that we would have a lot in common. After all, we shared an obsession with writing and we were all trying to get published for the first time. One thing I was sure of was that I would find new friends with lots of shared interests.
That first morning, I put on a new dress and stuffed my manuscript in a shoulder bag which I quickly decided was far too heavy to carry around all day. I took it with me anyway and stood in line to purchase tickets for one-on-one consultations with agents and publishers. The tickets were expensive and the consultations were to last only ten minutes, but we shelled out the money anyway. As I surveyed the crowd, I was sure I would find kindred spirits here.
We entered the hotel ballroom that had been converted into a large waiting area and I was hit with a wall of desperation, the barely controlled energy of a thousand people frantically hoping to be discovered. Some prayed silently for a chance to be in print. One woman fingered a rosary. Others talked nervously to anyone who happened to be nearby. I took it all in, wondering how long I could tolerate this frenzied energy before I passed out.
To keep myself conscious, I asked people standing around me about their writing projects. One nervous man confided that he was writing about a love affair with goats.
“Do you think that’s too much?” he asked me.
I wracked my brain to think of something positive to say. “It all depends on the writing,” I said finally.
He was satisfied with that and left me to find someone else with a different opinion.
An elderly woman with a soft voice tapped my arm, “And what are you writing about, dear?” she asked me.
“My twelve years living in Tokyo.” I answered. “How about you?”
She looked at me with sudden disapproval. “I don’t like foreign books. I’m only interested in my family history. I can’t imagine wasting time on anything else. But I can’t talk about the details of my manuscript,” she whispered. “Someone might steal my ideas.”
“Well, I’m sure no one knows your family history as well as you do,” I said.
She nodded curtly and narrowed her eyes in suspicion before drifting away to speak to someone else.
I can’t remember the topic the next person was writing about, but I do remember thinking to myself that it was the last subject in the world I would ever write about.
That’s when I noticed that the woman in front of me had a small cockroach crawling in and out of her dreadlocks. I contemplated how to handle this situation without making a scene.
Finally I touched her on the shoulder and said, “There’s a little bug in your hair, let me remove it for you.” I brushed the cockroach onto the floor, certain that no one had seen it.
Suddenly the woman’s companion, a pale, nearly hysterical man began screaming, “That’s a cockroach. Oh my God. There was a cockroach in your hair!”
The woman shook out her dreadlocks and thanked me. “Well, now I feel right at home,” she joked.
I laughed and nodded. No one else laughed.
I wanted to talk to her further but it was time for her to enter the consultation room where bells sounded every ten minutes, reminding the writers inside that their consultations were over. She hurried inside, abandoning me beside her anxious companion who was suddenly embarrassed and refused to speak to me.
Later that day, I met a large, muscular man who resembled a drill sergeant. He was writing about his experiences as a recovering psychotic. By recovering, he meant that he still heard voices and saw visions but he managed to cope with them. I was leery at first, but soon discovered that he was the sanest person I had ever met. “I know exactly where my insanity lies,” he told me. “Not many people can say that.”
Next I met a gray-haired man who flirted with me and tried to steal the credit card out of my purse while pumping me for writing ideas. He laughed apologetically when I confronted him. “Writer’s conferences are the best places to steal ideas,” he told me, as if I should have figured that out already.
That’s when I took refuge with the poets. We sat in one corner of the lobby, segregating ourselves from the crowd of writers who were talking loudly on dozens of different topics. A few historical fiction writers sat down with us, basking in the calm of our relatively quiet group.
Since then I’ve managed to find several good friends who are writers and I’ve come to the realization that what writers share doesn’t have much to do with writing at all. What we have in common is the fact that we are all storytellers at heart. We all have an important story to tell. We have an intense desire to be heard. And each one of us has the right to our own unique, creative voice, no matter what topic we write about.
I take my hat off to all published and aspiring writers. We share a unique journey in which we create, inform, entertain and inspire. Like the storytellers of old who traveled from village to village delighting people with their words, we are an extremely valuable segment of society and just maybe, we have more in common than we think we do.
Soon after The Wife of John the Baptist was published, I decided to enter it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Competition. I wasn’t sure if I would win anything. After all, it seemed like a long-shot. Thousands of novels were entered and my novel was just one out of the many. It took the judges a long time to read through all the novels and I almost forgot about the contest entirely. Then one day, I received an email telling me that I had been selected as a semi-finalist. I was thrilled. Now my novel was one out of the few.
I’ll have to wait until July to find out if I won or not, but until then I’ll just be happy I made it this far. If you want to read the first few pages of the novel and submit a review, follow the link above and see my entry. I’ll look forward to hearing what you have to say.
I didn’t expect my life to change when I entered the sparsely-furnished, literature classroom at the Universidad de Veracruz in Xalapa, Mexico. The long-haired, political-activist professor who arrived late was a bit of a surprise, but that would pale in comparison to the stories and novels he was about to introduce us to.
We didn’t have any books. Instead the professor handed out faint, mimeographed pages containing the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of magical realism and literary journalism. We read them aloud while our professor became increasingly animated in his enthusiasm, pausing only to push the hair from his eyes. As the stories came alive, we realized that this level of learning could not be contained to a bare and dusty classroom. Some of us accompanied the professor to a series of cafes around town, drinking beer until we were tipsy, talking for hours and filling our hungry souls with the delicious adventures of shipwrecked sailors, old Caribbean soldiers, ethereal beauties and the ghosts who coexist with the living only because they are too stubborn to succumb to death.
The world of magical realism was an epiphany and I suddenly realized that life was not the black and white, cut and dried reality I had learned in hometown America. A whole new world opened up in which the supernatural, the spiritual and the physical all coexisted in an exotic mélange that changed my view of life forever.
This epiphany was to set me on a lifelong pursuit for adventure, travel and opportunities to experience different cultures; a continual thirst to see the world through different eyes and to write about it. For the first time I had been given license to be the person I really wanted to be. The magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez had given me the freedom to soar.
When I ran home after class and told the senora in the house where I lived about my discovery, she handed me a succulent plateful of carne de res, arroz and the bright red flower petals known as colorin. I told her how wonderful it was to read about a world that was turned upside down but that made so much sense at the same time. She looked at me with a dry expression, “Es normal,” she said. “That’s how we all see the world.”
Her comments made me smile. I borrowed an antique typewriter and with senora’s blessing, I started writing my first, full-length novel on her kitchen table. The family’s elderly, maiden aunt, Tia Pilar showed up even before I was finished with page one. “I will keep you company while you finish your task,” she explained. “We will be like sisters every afternoon.” True to her word, she showed up each day to sit nearby fingering her rosary, while my own fingers tapped on the typewriter keys. She only stopped coming when I had finished the last page.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez opened my young mind to the unlimited possibilities of imagination, creativity and diverse cultural experience. It was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received and in a very real way it changed the course of my adult life forever. So today, as I pay homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I dust off my tattered copies of his books, open One Hundred Years of Solitude and begin to read. Here once again is the band of ragged gypsies who arrived in the mythical, Caribbean town of Macondo, bringing with them the learned alchemist, Melquiades. In turn, Melquiades brought the first magnets that anyone had ever seen in Macondo.
The gypsy dragged the enormous magnets behind him through the streets of the town while “pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumbled down from their places,” and followed him down the street.
“‘Things have a life of their own,’ the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. ‘It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.’”
My friend Carlos grew up in Mexico City but now he lives on Maui. He works as a window washer. I see him at some of my jobs, brandishing his squeegee and an assortment of multicolored rags. We’re always glad to see each other as it gives us a chance to speak in Spanish which really means that we get to tell funny stories and jokes that just don’t sound the same in English.
But this time Carlos was more serious. “Why do you do this hard work all day long? You could teach Spanish. You learned Spanish in Vera Cruz where people tell risqué jokes and colorful stories all day long. You could teach Spanish a la Veracruzana. And if you teach all the bad words, you must charge much more money.”
I had to agree. “I used to teach school but I can make more money taking care of houses for people. That way I can keep my daughter in school.”
“Then you are an angel.”
“Either an angel or an idiot, I’m not sure which one,” I said.
Carlos shook his head. He was much too polite to use the word idiot, even in English.
“I’ve written four novels, too,” I said. “But none of them are published yet.”
Carlos continued washing the windows. “So how do you become successful? How do you become as famous as the writers we see in the bookstores?
I shrugged. “Some of those writers had to write five books before they got the first one published.”
“That’s it!” Carlos was polishing the window with a linen rag and he pointed the rag towards me as if he was going to polish me too. “You write the fifth book. You must go home and do it today!”
“I’m working on the fifth book.”
Carlos shook his head. “You must work harder. Go home and finish the fifth book. I feel certain that this is the answer.”
He stepped back to admire his windows which I had to admit shone like diamonds and then he turned to me, obviously pleased that he had managed to mend my shattered life as part of his days work.
“Go home and write,” he said.
“I guess it’s either that or teach dirty jokes in Spanish,” I said.
My gentle friend laughed as he packed up his rags to leave. “Some angel!” he joked.
As I watched him leave, I smiled for the first time all day. And just as he suggested, I went home to write the fifth book.
Sometimes people ask me where my ideas come from. That’s kind of like asking where my dreams come from. Usually when I’m writing, my dreams just spill out all over the page. But once in awhile I can pinpoint exactly where an idea comes from. The other day I came across something like that. It’s something I lifted right out of my childhood.
Part of my childhood was spent in a Colorado mining town that had seen better days. Abandoned buildings were everywhere, left over from the gold and silver rush days. In the summer time, I walked to the swimming pool every day with my friends. As we walked, we sang pop songs girl-group style. We were always in search of an adventure such as taking turns almost drowning in the river (accidentally, of course) or trespassing into abandoned buildings where the floor boards could give way any second and send us to our death. If we were feeling really brave we might see who could walk the farthest into an abandoned mine before running back outside to safety. I was definitely not the winner at this game. Dark, creepy mines full of hidden shafts and rotting timbers terrified me.
To get to the swimming pool, we took back alleys where there were even more abandoned buildings than on the main streets. One building in particular had been locked up tight. Whoever left the building didn’t want anyone to go in it ever again. But the boards, nails and locks that had been put on the building long before I was born were no match for the dry rot that summer. It caused the entire front of the building to fall right off and into the dusty yard.
From then on the building was open like a dolls house and my friends and I were fascinated. On the first floor was a stage with wine red velvet curtains and painted backdrops. There were tables with chairs stacked on top of them as if they had just cleaned the floors and were ready to open again the next day. Upstairs there were twenty tiny rooms, each one with a small iron bed frame and room for little else.
Of course we climbed inside and danced on the stage. We went up the dangerously rickety staircase too but each of the twenty rooms was locked up tight.
We loved the stage so we played there often. Then one day an elderly neighbor walked by. “This was The Cribs. It was called that because of all the tiny rooms,” she said. “Lots of young women worked here in the old days. They sang and danced every night for their customers. You could hear the music all over town.”
“What happened to them?” I asked.
She just shook her head. “I don’t know. A few of them stayed and married. I don’t know about the rest.”
I had forgotten about the Cribs until I started writing about it. Suddenly the Cribs came back to life and I created a whole town around it called Valentine, Nevada. The town lives and breathes on the page, and so does this almost forgotten event in my childhood, The Cribs, the abandoned whore house at the end of town.