Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Beryl Singleton Bissell, Author of "Scent of God"

As a child, my favorite pastime was sitting under the Ping-Pong table, over which I'd draped a cloth tent, reading. When puberty hit, I sequestered myself in my room, preferring to read about others' lives rather than living my own. Entering a cloister when I was 18 put a real crimp in my reading activities. Our reading was limited to lives of the saints and books on prayer or asceticism. The monastery library, however, held an astounding collection of Stoddard's Lectures. I read the entire series, traveling round the world with Stoddard on early 20th century journeys. When I left the monastery I crashed the local library and seized every book the staff recommended.

I didn't realize that I also loved to write until I returned to college as a single parent and my English 101 professor told me I was a writer. It was around this time that I also overheard my teenage son tell a confidant that he thought he was damned. Why? He was a child of sin, he said. His mother had been a nun and his father a priest.

The story behind the love his father and I shared was complex and harrowing, passionate and tender. I needed to tell my son this story and the best way I knew to tell it was to write it. During a class in memoir writing taught by award-winning author Alison McGhee, I began recounting the story of the search for God that led me into a cloister at the age of 18 and of the events that bound his father and me together fifteen years later. As I wrote, I realized that hidden deep within me was the same doubt my son had expressed: was his father's death from cancer when my son was still a toddler, and the sufferings that followed, punishment for our having left religious life? And so, more than just a love story I'd intended to write for my children, my memoir became a spiritual journey through a landscape of guilt and doubt, love and transformation. The following year, a chapter I wrote in that class won The Loft/Jerome national creative nonfiction competition. This award included the opportunity to work for a month with acclaimed essayist Scott Russell Sanders. During the next three years I worked to flesh out this story which grew to a mighty 700 plus pages. It was so huge I was no longer sure what story I was telling. It needed cutting -- drastically. A Minnesota State Arts Board Grant in 2000 came to my rescue, giving me the funds to hire Brigitte Frase, author, book critic, and editor who wielded a great pair of mental scissors with a strong hand.

The following year, certain the manuscript was ready, I sent it off to an agent. She sent it back. I had a great story and the skill to write it, she said, but I hadn't told it yet. She went on to inform me that my memoir was personal but not intimate, and that I had touched on huge issues but had not dealt with them. She was right of course. I'd read too much not to know what separated great writing from less than memorable writing but by that time I was tired of writing and rewriting my story. I put the manuscript away and voraciously read the great memoirs: Russell Baker's Growing Up; Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain; West with the Night by Beryl Markham; Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments, and the like. Two years later I took another look at the manuscript, knew what I needed to do, and began the long and painful rewrite to reveal the truth hidden beneath the story's events.

In 2005 I sent it out again. This time the first agent to see it loved it and sold it within a week to Counterpoint NY, a highly respected literary publisher of edgy books who made this memoir, The Scent of God, their lead title for Spring 2006. The Scent of God was named a Book Sense Notable for April 2006, the month it was released, and later that year the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in a state that grows authors as prolifically as it raises crops, named me "Best of 2006 Minnesota Authors." In April 2007 The Scent of God was released in paperback by Counterpoint Press.

From book lover to published author, books sustained and nourished and taught me. Who knows where your love of books might take you. Like me, you might find yourself knocked-off-your-feet-surprised by what can happen.

Learn more about Beryl Singleton Bissell by visiting her website.


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Comments from our users:

Saturday March 29th 2008, 2:01 PM
Comment by: colin M.
I particularly liked the comment "personal but not intimate."
The very phrase I was looking for (but did not find) when asked to critique a memoir a few years ago.
Saturday March 29th 2008, 10:11 PM
Comment by: Karen June M.
While reading this wonderful article, I thought of an illustration that relates to this author’s journey…

In addition to writing, I teach private voice lessons. Voice instruction includes teaching the students to use their diaphragm to control the air stream, and then using rib cage expansion—which is integral to breathing—as the mainstay of support.

I then advise each student to relax the muscles surrounding the rib cage. They often look at me dumbfounded because they believe themselves to be relaxed. Nevertheless, after several prompts from me, they discover just how much tension exists. There are always surprised responses as they feel their abdomens, chests, and shoulders unlax.

I see this carry into all aspects of our lives. Often, we become so comfortable with tension that we genuinely do not realize what is being restricted or held back. Hence, true intimacy, freedom, and flow is very possibly just behind our ability to let go.
Monday March 31st 2008, 11:51 PM
Comment by: clare S.
I enjoyed Beryl Singleton Bissell's book so much and it is a great joy to read about the "back story." This wonderful memoir is a story that will remain with me always.

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