Writing the children’s adventure story was easily as fun to write as one is to read. Children live for adventure, and love to cast themselves as the heroes in their own life adventures. However, I more or less stumbled into writing the book, XANTHEA. Chapters one, two and three were written as object lessons when I discovered at a parent teacher’s conference that my sons had next to nothing to say in their free-writing journals. Knowing my sons and their proclivity for finding adventure in the ordinary, in turning it into the extraordinary, I knew the underlying problem had to rest in their perspective.
So as I said, Chapter one actually began as an object lesson. When their chores were done, their noon meal finished, my older children were free to spend the afternoon at the Beach Ottumwa, a local recreational water park, or ride bikes near our home, or roam the neighborhood with their friends most summer afternoons. One of their favorite places to frequent was a stretch of sandy beach under the railroad bridge along the Des Moines River a couple of blocks from our house, a place they called X-land.
My sons all learned to swim as toddlers and two were on the YMCA swim team, so I didn’t have the debilitating fear of them being around water that my mother had always had for me and my sisters. Below the hydro dam in Ottumwa, the Des Moines River is frequently shallow enough to walk across during the summer months. Besides, the boys actually knew if I ever learned of them swimming in the river unsupervised, they would be grounded to our yard indefinitely, because several years earlier our next door neighbors had lost a teen-age son swimming in the river below the hydro. For the most part, they were respectful of the limits I’d set for them. They called the location X-land because of the X-Men series, and the woods behind it they called Sharewood.
So when I wrote Chapter one of XANTHEA, my goal was to demonstrate to my sons that their everyday adventures were in no way, ordinary, and that we write best what we know about first hand. I truly don’t know if my sons learned anything from the experience, but to genuinely emerge themselves into the fictional world of adventure they were having so much fun with. Me, on the other hand, I had discovered I was in love with my characters, intrigued by the hint of mystery I had inserted in the end of chapter one, and not ready to give any of it up.
Chapter two, though, was about a misadventure my sons and a bunch of their friends dreamed up, a scheme that got them in a lot of trouble. Still, it continued my theme of demonstrating that their lives were in no one ordinary, and when set on paper, their lives took on a sort of Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn quality that smacked of the height of adventure, even when, in this case, it was an unpleasant one they’d rather not be reminded of.
Even when I wrote chapter three, the idea of writing a book wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. It might have been a niggling little shadow in the back of it though, because chapter three easily flowed into chapter four, and I began looking for ideas to develop my hinted at plot into a full-blown story. I came across an idea that grabbed me in a front page story in the Ottumwa Courier about orphan trains through Iowa in the early 1900’s. From that point on, I knew where my plot was headed, how my characters would develop, what the climax of the plot would be and what the conclusion would be. I was hooked and the writing of it was not work, but a labor of love.
I’d already introduced the character of a homeless man in previous chapters. Now I had something both interesting and educational to tie into his story. While I wouldn’t have to confess the homeless man was based on a resident of Ottumwa, I guess I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t. His name was Ernie Raines, and I didn’t know his name until I read his obituary in the local newspaper, and by then XANTHEA was completely written.
I choose to tell you about Ernie Raines for several reasons, even though I’m reiterating here that XANTHEA is pure fiction. The idea of Ernie, in the role of a homeless man, even though I have absolutely no reason to assume Ernie was ever homeless a day in his life, for some crazy, unexplainable reason, captivated my young sons’ imaginations. They would come home with stories about Ernie, about him walking the length of Church Street in his tweed suit jacket, about him sleeping on a park bench there, covered in the morning sun with an unfolded newspaper, about him sipping his morning coffee out of a Styrofoam cup even though, by this time, it was cool enough for a jacket or coat.
They had probably been bringing stories home about this unknown homeless man for months when we were driving down Church Street one afternoon, and they began pointing, “Look, Mom, there he is, the homeless guy we keep telling you about.” Ernie did make a dashing impression. I could see why they were captivated. He was a senior citizen at the time, tall, well-built, a thick, silvered thatch of hair on his head, and of course, his by now infamous tweed suit jacket he always wore, rain or snow, wind or cold.
Regardless who Ernie Raines was, it was easy to cast his image into the role of my homeless stranger in my book. The stranger was now someone tangible I could sink my writer’s teeth into, and there was something mysteriously romantic about him.
Now, I mentioned that I didn’t know who Ernie was until I read his obituary. I was training for RAGBRAI at the time, and had just spent a Sunday morning riding my bicycle to Fairfield and so I was intrigued when I read an article in the Ottumwa Courier about a man who had ridden his bicycle to Fairfield, and who was coming back, when he was hit by a truck in a blinding rainstorm and died. Imagine my amazement when I saw his picture and learned that he was my homeless stranger in XANTHEA.
So I offer this disclaimer. I never knew Ernie Raines so anything that happened to my homeless character in XANTHEA, none of it had anything to do with Ernie Raines. Still, Ernie, in your memory, I want readers to know you inspired the character in my book, and I want my sons to remember that you did, so I want to recognize you as the individual who inspired the homeless man in XANTHEA, may you rest in peace.
It required some rewriting, some editing, some tying in of threads to previous chapters, to turn three unconnected stories into the first three chapters of a children’s book, but by then the manuscript flowed like a smoothly flowing stream. All things written are written on the shoulders of things that were written before them. All things well written are well written because they are based on things we really know, life experiences we have lived, felt, tasted, breathed, smelled, heard, seen.
Because X-land was already something being commercially exploited, I couldn’t use it for the name of the book. Xanthea wasn’t a word before I coined it for this book. I played around with the sounds of things beginning with X for a while before I stumbled across it, but as soon as I tried it out on my tongue for the first time, I knew it was supposed to be the title of the book.
I struggled with one thing in writing this book and that was taking myself out of the story-line so my young characters could be who this book was about. I found myself continuing to want to parent my young heroes, and in a good children’s story, parents are really background the young people are moving through and around to embrace their personal role in their life’s adventure.
I don’t know if their story is finished with the conclusion of XANTHEA or not. Because I loved the story, the writing of the story, if I get inspiration for a second book, I’ll embrace it, because the writing of it was a labor of love.
Why would an author release two books at the same time, especially two such different books? I can only tell you, because she could. XANTHEA and AUTUMN’S CHILD are as far removed from each other as Venus and Mars. XANTHEA is a work of historic fiction. AUTUMN’S CHILD is pure poetry, a work of art based on my life experiences, welded to my love of photography. Am I great at either? I’ll leave that to posterity to determine. However, I believe I was meant to be a poet.
One morning in September of 1969 in Middletown, Iowa, I woke up with two stanzas of poetry in my mind:
I am Autumn’s child,
Kissed by her chill lips
One brisk September morn’
To breathe and lust for life.
Autumn crept in this morn’
While I was still abed.
I breathed her fragrant scent,
And welcomed her with arms widespread.
For a short period of time, I thought I had read the words somewhere and memorized them. The only thing really wrong with that logic was that they were too explicitly personal to me, and too rooted in my head to belong to anybody else. That didn’t keep me from looking for them in other places for a long period of time. Finally I surrendered to the idea that they were mine, and embraced the idea that maybe God was trying to tell me something.
Just because you’ve written one thing you’re proud of, that doesn’t mean the art of writing poetry is a God given gift, and that poetry poured forth from my pencil or pen like a fount of earth-shaking profundity forever after that.
I had to go back to the roots of what I knew about poetry, and redundancy in poetry, rekindle my knowledge of poetic rules, and nurture my love of the written word until it emerged in new and significant meaning that was exclusively mine.
Poetry is the refreshing brevity of words that flirts with an epiphany – Jody Bresch.
My whole life, I had been long-winded, because I was designated the family correspondent when I was still a little girl because my mother was embarrassed by her poor spelling. Because she was, she was determined I would excel in this skill she saw as her own personal short-coming. She would set me down with paper and pencil and assign me to write a letter to my Great Aunt Ethel in La Plata, Mo, or my Aunt Mary in Tomah, Wisconsin. If I wrote one paragraph, she told me to write two more. If I wrote one page, she told me to write two more.
So most of my writing had been steered towards production and word count. However, poetry has nothing in common with either. I would more define it as saying it is a wealth of content in bare-bones basic words, and please add to that rhythm and rhyme. I guess that why it’s called an art form. It’s like rubbing your head, patting your tummy, and reciting a difficult tongue twister, all at the same time.
When I received an invitation to come to an Ottumwa Area Writer’s Club meeting by Pat King, I came. When Pat asked me to go to Writer’s Workshops with her, I went. When I was asked to join a Professional Writer’s Organization, I joined. When I went back to college, I took every creative writing class offered on the college schedule.
That included courses by LeAnn Lemberger. When I wrote poetry for LeAnn, she admitted poetry wasn’t her writing forte, but still she encouraged me by appreciating my efforts. When I audaciously told her I wanted to write a book for my third Creative Writing class at Indian Hills Community College, LeAnn was skeptical, but supportive. CHILD OF THE HEART was written for her class, and originally critiqued by LeAnn, who thought it was publishable if I found the right publishing company.
But I digress. We were talking about poetry. I really began experiencing success with my poetry when LYRICAL IOWA, a poetry collection published each year by the Iowa Poetry Association, published one of my poems.
Then I had some honorable mentions in the National Federation of State Poetry Societies Annual Contest. Then I had a poem accepted in THE GREEN LANTERN, a creative writing anthology put out by Truman University in Kirksville, MO. Finally, the Professional association of writers I had joined, American Pen Women, awarded several of my works first places in their annual state contest.
I finally felt somebody else saw some worth in my creative efforts, so I self-published a collection called POETRY PORTRAITS. Then I self-published a second chapbook of poetry, ‘SLICE OF LIFE’ POETRY, a collection of essay poems I’d written based on Albia resident, Holly Schipper’s poem, “In The End”. I went on to self-publish THE LEGEND OF MARS HILL, which won an award in an American Pen Women State Contest, and HOW LITTLE BEAR GOT HIS NAME, a children’s picture book that won a second place award in an American Pen Women State Contest.
So I was not new to the idea of self-publishing when Elaine L. Orr, a friend and fellow writer, who was a former aide to Representative Dave Loebsack, suggested to me that I use a venue she was having success with to self-publish my work. Her encouragement gave me the impetus to publish my work on Amazon.com. It hasn’t been pain free, and there have been stumbling blocks, but Elaine has coached me through them, as I’ve asked for help. I’d have never made it across the finish line with the first book without her.
The fact I chose to publish works of poetry with photos made what I was trying to do much more challenging and difficult, since the venue was really set up to publish novels, but so far, for the most part, I’ve been meeting with success. Elaine had published a collection of her father’s poetry, minus pictures, and so she basically understood from the start what I was trying to accomplish. I will say after the fact, if I had it all to do over again, I would have started with a written novel, and would have begun it on createspace.com before I tried to publish it to Kindle, but it’s doable, and that is the important thing.
Now, about AUTUMN’S CHILD, perhaps I should have called it BARE NAKE LADY, because a friend who first critiqued it for me said something to the effect that my poetry revealed a great deal about me as a person. I could be missing the mark here, but as I have read other poets who have left a living legacy, their works are a candid look into the heart and soul of who they are and what they believe in, so I’ve tried to write my poetry from that vantage point. But I chose the title of the poetry collection based on that first poem I wrote instead of my tongue-in-cheek title, preferring to give honor to that very basic beginning of when I decided maybe God wanted me to be a poet. I hope I got it right. My friend seems to think that I did.
Don Warren had this to say about my poetry collection after he read it: “Jody Bresch is a poet with passion for life. Her poems in AUTUMN’S CHILD are keen observations that make us recognize how special our own ordinary lives really are. She reveals the intricate depth and wonder that is all around us if but viewed with a poetic heart. We will be longing to reexamine our memories and each present moment to see the complexity and richness that we may be missing.