SUE MONK KIDD is the author of the novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, and the memoirs, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, When the Heart Waits, and Firstlight, a collection of early writings. The Secret Life of Bees has spent more than 125 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into an award-winning movie. The Mermaid Chair, a #1 New York Times bestseller, was adapted into a television movie. Each of her novels has been translated into more than 24 languages. The recipient of numerous literary awards, Sue lives in South Carolina with her husband.
(We wanted to share this wonderful letter that Sue Monk Kidd wrote in her January 2004 newsletter…)
Sue Monk Kidd
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I write now on a cold January evening twelve days into the new year. Though I’m definitely not what you’d call a “winter person” (I tend to hibernate in the manner of bears until Spring), I’ve always loved January for the irresistible mix of nostalgia and hope it stirs up, a paradoxical combination that sends me meandering backward into the past and soaring forward into the future. In fact, January is named for Janus, a Roman mythological figure with two faces, one which looks forward and one which looks backward. That’s how I always feel in January—a little two-faced.
THE BACKWARD FACE
Every January I have a ritual, the same one that I’m embarked upon right now: I curl up on the sofa with a mug of tea and read back through my journal of the year just passed. Lots of 2002 entries, I notice, have to do with The Secret Life of Bees. I read, for instance, about the grand publication party my friend Susan threw, the wild and wooly book tour, the excitement as the novel unexpectedly climbed onto best seller lists, and got picked for Good Morning America’s Read This! Book Club. My gosh, I think, who could have predicted all of that? I linger, though, over something I wrote in my journal not long after the novel came out:
“What if I hadn’t listened to the impulse that kept telling me to write fiction? I came so close to dismissing it out of fear I couldn’t do it. And what if I had listened to the ‘writing expert’ who told me he didn’t think my short story (‘The Secret Life of Bees’) should be turned into a novel? Well, actually I did listen to him for almost three years before giving into my own vision. I suppose the thing I’ve got to remember is to simply trust the wisdom of my own heart. To stalk this wisdom with passion, and when I find it, believe in it enough to follow it.”
The purpose of the “backward face” is to help us grasp the lessons in the past, and of all the lessons I learned in 2002 (Keep your sense of humor; be grateful; don’t take yourself too seriously; remember what’s important; play with your dog often) this is the most poignant: to listen to my heart. Every heart has its own unique intelligence, and to live disconnected from it fills our lives with a certain meagerness.
THE FORWARD FACE
The other part of my January ritual is to make the first entry into a new journal. I write 2003 on the first page, and let my mind sweep out into the year ahead. I think about the publication of the paperback of The Secret Life of Bees, coming soon—January 28 to be exact—and the book tour that will kick it off, that will have me traveling again to various parts of the country. (If you want to see where I’ll be and get the details, here’s the link: www.suemonkkidd.com/html/appearances.asp.
Mostly, I think about the new novel that I’ll spend the year ahead writing. The Mermaid Chair,
due at my publisher next fall. Set in South Carolina in 1988, it’s about a woman at mid life who falls in love with a monk, and the spiritual awakening this precipitates in her.
The idea for the story popped into my head unexpectedly one day several months after I finished writing The Secret Life of Bees.
I was talking to someone who mentioned off-handedly that during a visit to Cornwall, England, she visited a church which had a mermaid chair in it. I sat straight up. Something about this made my heart beat faster. “A mermaid chair?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It was an old chair with the image of a mermaid carved on the side. It’s been in the church for centuries, though the reason seems to be a mystery.” The image of the chair filled me with strange excitement, and I knew right then: I would write a novel titled The Mermaid Chair.
I became possessed by the image, as bits and pieces of story began to take shape around it. In my imagination the chair came to reside in a monastery on a tiny sea island off the coast of South Carolina. I was captivated, not only by the legend and lore of mermaids– those supernatural, sea-dwelling females that are both animal and human, dangerous and magical—but with the whole monastic world, as well. By things below and things above, by descents and ascents, by Eros and Spirit. The mermaid and the monk (are they after the same thing?) were two of the most unlikely consorts I could imagine, yet they became the core of the book.
I don’t know how a chance comment from someone about a chair in England, how such a slip of an image, could seize me like that, how it became the fodder for a novel. I don’t believe in muses in a literal way, but I do believe in the symbol, and in the process the symbol is attempting to describe. To find inspiration from a muse is to simply listen to the eloquent voice of life around us, to the steady stream of images that well up inside. It means going about our lives wide-eyed, open-hearted, given to wonder, curious, malleable, porous, attentive. It means being willing to be in-spired, which literally means to be breathed into. In a bygone time, ideas were thought of as little god-spirits floating about in the air. Maybe that’s what the novelist Margaret Atwood had in mind when she wrote:
Ask what is in the wind
Ask what is sacred.
Recently, while vacationing in New Mexico, I wandered into a gallery and came upon a painting of the Black Madonna by Sheila Keefe. I was so enchanted by it that I brought the Black Madonna home and installed her over my desk. I started referring to her as my muse. I would pause as I wrote, look up at her, and be reminded of the importance of listening to the source and trusting what comes. I’ve put a link here that will take you to her picture so you can see for yourself what a splendid symbol of the muse she is. How she sits in a crypt of darkness surrounded by luminous flecks—small spirits, ideas, hovering flickers of genius. How there’s a mysterious little container just below her feet, and inside of it, a woman in repose with an open, golden book on top of her, a woman (a writer?) planted like a seed at her feet, who seems to be soaking up the flurry of inspiration overhead.
The purpose of the “forward face” is to infect us with dreams, conjure hope, help us create pictures of where we need to go. Tonight, in the infancy of this year, I dream about The Mermaid Chair, believing I will get it written one page at a time through plain hard work, but not without pausing now and then and asking what’s in the wind.
As you begin the new year I wish you two faces: one to look back and find the lesson you most need to take with you, and one to look forward and dream of where you’re going and how you’ll get there.
Happy New Year,
Sue Monk Kidd
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