Tuesday, August 10, 2010

One Book I May Never Write

Today I'm pleased to welcome author Susan Oleksiw. She's well-known for her mystery novels and reference works, but today she talks about another book topic that has been hovering in the background of her life for years. Will she write this book or not?

For the last few years I have been grappling with my identity—not the one that shows up at work and efficiently gets things done, or the one that goes out to lunch with friends and always finds something to laugh about, not even the one that has learned to admit to strangers that, yes, I’m a writer. No, this is the one that I don’t quite know what to do with.

During one of those late night conversations in college, a psychology major talked about the many kinds of personalities we each have, how we are different with different social sets—family, friends, professional groups. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but his words have come back to haunt me because now I’m grappling with a forgotten self that won’t stay forgotten. So, I’ve been doing what any writer would do about this problem—I’m planning to write a book.

The book I’ve been thinking about writing is in lieu, I think, of actually taking on or reviving a part of my old personality.

I was born on a dairy farm. We left when I was four, but I learned to milk a cow when I was three. The farm was a lifelong dream of my parents, and even though they gave it up after a number of years, it never stopped being part of our consciousness; my brothers and I grew up talking about “our” farm and my mother chimed in with memories of her extended family’s farm, where she spent many treasured summers. On “our farm,” my mother drove the tractor, my father herded cows and ran the dairy, and everyone weeded the vegetable garden. When it came time to retire, my parents did the expected—they bought a farm. And when they died, my one surviving brother and I inherited it. We sold the house, and I kept the land.

I’m not the only one grappling with a longing to run a farm. According to Farmland Information Center, there were 7,307 farms in Massachusetts in 1997; that declined to 6,075 in 2002, but rose to 7,691 in 2007. Apparently, I’m not the only one working out a lifetime fantasy.

Before I let anyone think owning a farm is as romantic as it sounds, let me clarify. This is really a hay field and forest, a mostly wild place with deer paths to follow, a beautiful pond to glimpse through the trees, a swamp that moose particularly like, and old stone walls marking the boundaries. This may sound idyllic but it actually requires a certain amount of work. The land is under both a conservation restriction (nothing to do there but watch the trees grow) and Chapter 61 (this is where the work comes in), a reference to the state law that is designed to encourage good forest management and sustainability.

I like these ideas but keeping up with the management plan requires some attention and effort. The boundaries need to be marked every few years with weather resistant paint (plan on sacrificing at least one pair of pants for this), the hay field managed and properly recorded on your taxes, trees harvested on a schedule, and, if you have included this in your state approved management plan as I have, walking trails laid out so I can look for birds instead of watching every step I take to avoid tripping over roots and rocks or falling into holes.

The tension between the person who writes and thinks for a living and the one who marks trails and boundaries, worries about beetles, fisher cats, and other infestations, hangs over me until I escape into again thinking about writing a book. This is where I can resolve my ambivalence about farming, lay to rest the memories of a child’s favorite cow, a dearly beloved aunt who always had time for a precocious and lonely child, and appreciate how this kind of beginning for me and other members of my family informed our later years.

This book is a great idea, a delicious, intriguing, and absorbing idea. I love playing with it, working out chapter headings, topics for research, information on relevant laws. It’s so much fun thinking about that I’m not sure I’ll ever write it. And perhaps that’s the point. The farm is not a fantasy—it’s very real (I pay the taxes on it)—the book is the fantasy. It allows me to think about what land has meant to my family over the years and what it means to me now, to examine legacies, and in one small way thank the fates and the ancestors for putting me on the path I travel now.

Susan Oleksiw writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva and the Anita Ray series, set in South India. The first in the series, UNDER THE EYE OF KALI, is available now from Five Star/Gale Cengage Learning. Find out more about Susan’s experiences in India at www.susanoleksiw.com


Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

I believe there is a "farm" in everyone's life. It may be tangible like Susan's or only a dream. But at some point your "farm" will present you with choices that must be made.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love the IDEA of farming, but I grew up in more of a rural area and know all the hard work involved in having one! I couldn't do it...and appreciate all the hardworking farmers who do!

And I think you're right...our aspirations can take a variety of different forms--and dreams keep us motivated and give us hope!

Patricia Stoltey said...

As someone who grew up on a farm in Illinois and understands what a great (even if hard) life it is, I'd love to read this book. I used my memories of the country side and the house where I grew up as part of the setting in my first mystery, and have set a historical novel in the same location. Maybe that's another way to pay tribute to our other selves. Intriguing post, Susan (great guest, Terry).


Jacqueline Seewald said...

I had relatives who owned a farm and loved visiting as a child. It was a real treat.
A great setting for an historical mystery!

Terry Stonecrop said...

Farms are at once romantic and difficult.

I'm a city girl but have known a number of people who grew up on farms, including my grandmother. So I know it's hard, hard work. But they make for great stories!

Enjoyed your post! Hope you have fun, even if you just play with it:)

Jemi Fraser said...

I always dreamed of living on a farm when I was young - of course I didn't dream about all the work - just the fun of looking after the horses :)

Terry Odell said...

Thanks all, for your comments. Susan will be checking in as she finds time during the day. My great-uncle had an egg ranch, and I remember helping feed the chickens and watching them candle eggs. I'm sure there's a scene waiting to happen somewhere in my memories.

Maryannwrites said...

Wonderful post that really resonated with me, as I always wanted to live on a farm. As a child I visited family farms and never wanted to leave. When I got older I dreamed of running away to Kentucky and working on a horse farm.

Now, I am living my childhood dream. No, not on a horse farm in Kentucky, but I have a little piece of land here in East Texas and some critters to take care of, including a horse.

There is something so soul-satisfying about being out in the countryside, greeting the dawn across the hay meadow, hearing the birds chirp and the soft whinny of a horse. Next best thing to heaven.

Anonymous said...

Ann Perrott

I did not grow up on a farm, but there were chickens coops and gardens next door, and it felt like a farm. Many memories are linked to the smells and sounds, and the people who I watched tend to their chores.
I used to imagine all kinds of scenarios in those neighbor's yards on a hot summer day. The people there loved their lives. It was wonderful.

Susan Oleksiw said...

These comments are wonderful. When I wrote the post, I worried that people would think it was a bit silly, but so many of you have voiced my feelings in different ways. Yes, there is something special about the farm experience--working in the early morning quiet with the mist rising off the fields, caring for animals, moving in time with seasons and land. Maybe I should reconsider my position and seriously consider writing this book. It remains fixed inside me, staying warm and ready, it seems.

Susan Oleksiw

jenny milchman said...

This is such a timely topic, but it seems like the farming life and the writing life--as you suggest--are nearly antithetical. Grubby hands on keyboards, distracting thoughts when the livestock need focus. Shall the twain meet?

Susan Oleksiw said...

That's a very vivid image, Jenny, and not one I had thought of--dirty fingers tapping away on the computer. I can just see myself working out in the vegetable garden and getting a great idea and then running inside to get it down before I forget it. I wonder how long my computer would last in that environment?

Susan Oleksiw

Carol Bistrong said...

I mourn the loss of farmland in MA. Not to live on one, but to drive or walk by and see the brillant green grass, some horses frolicking in the meadow and smell fresh hay.
Your memories and decisions to write about your heritage sound intriguing. Go for it.

usha said...

It is lovely to have a 'dream project' in your mind's background Susan.some thing that will keep you interested as you work on what you have at hand now.Not everybody have such an interest to fall back on.:).
But running a farm is a full time job would take up all your energy....is it possible to be an active writer and a farmer?Perhaps you would live on that land and write a lovely book on it some day.
All the best to you Susan.