Saturday, November 14, 2009

To Write, First Forgive

“There are no accidents in life, only opportunities. I really believe that.”

Holly Payne, author and writing coach, was addressing budding writers at the Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, California, as part of the institution's November 2009 authors’ series.

Her latest book, Kingdom of Simplicity, was named a Bay Area Best Seller by the San Francisco Chronicle. Payne was recalling the origin of Kingdom, and how the events associated with it shaped her life.

She was 22. An avid hiker, she was exploring the trails in Colorado’s Crested Butte at 9000 ft. in the summer of 1994 when she saw two bikers in the dark. Out of concern, she held out her flashlight for them. Next thing she knew, a drunken driver had hit all three of them.

As she lay on the ground, not sure if she was dead or alive, she looked up at the mountains and an inexplicable thought came to her. “It was surreal. As the seconds stretched into eternity, I told myself, if I survive this, I will be a writer. I’m going to write.”

Payne had just graduated from college and dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. She had grown up in the sheltering Amish country of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and longed to see the world, to tell stories of people in faraway places.

But now, not only were most of her bones broken, her dream seemed shattered too. She had a choice. She could stay angry at the driver or she could work her way through what fate had dealt her.

She chose the latter. Or thought so. She began writing, finding it to be cathartic, “a little bit of science and a lot of craft.”

But had she let go of her anger? Six months after the accident, a letter reached her from the driver who had hit her, imploring for forgiveness. She would have none of it. She put the letter away in a pile of medical and insurance papers and forgot about it.

Twelve year later, in October of 2006, a horrified Payne read about a schoolhouse shooting in the Amish country of her childhood. A lone gunman had killed five girls execution-style before turning the gun on himself. She returned and discovered that the parents of the slain girls, and the larger Amish community, had already forgiven the killer. In fact, they had opened a fund for his family.

Suddenly, the idea of forgiveness became real for her. The Amish did not believe in holding onto events, however wrenching they might be. They found freedom in forgiveness. In private they were angry and sad but by consciously choosing to forgive the killer, they were able to move to the present and maintain the continuity of their community, their “beautifully complex culture.”

For Payne this was a revelation. She realized that by rejecting the drunken man’s plea for forgiveness, she was living in the past and was, in the scheme of things, perhaps more to blame than he was. Her exterior may have healed but inside, she was still limping.

In forgiveness, Payne discovered her kingdom of simplicity. “If you cannot forgive, you cannot love. And without love, how can you write?”
She wrote Kingdom as a response to the letter she refused to read twelve years earlier and dedicated the book to its writer. She was finally free.

In her travels in Europe, Asia and America, Payne has found that all of us have a unique story to tell. Her advice to aspiring writers is to have the courage and the confidence to become story-tellers. “Through stories, we get to know ourselves. If a hotshot editor or agent from New York tells you that your story has 'already been done,' tell him that it hasn’t been done like this.” Learn how to be vulnerable,” she said, “and as you involve yourself with the world, let go of what is holding you back and sit down to write.”

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