It was a late Minnesota autumn day. The kind where fallen leaves have surrendered their blazing crimson and orange and gold and are mere days, maybe minutes, away from disintegrating into dust.
The year was 2011 and, despite the quickly approaching harsh winter, my steps were full of spring as I entered the coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis to meet my very first beta reader and hear the verdict.
My feet may have been springing, but my stomach was lurching because this beta reader wasn’t my Mom or my co-worker or my neighbor next door. This beta reader was a published author of repute, someone whose work I admired. And this beta reader had agreed to read an early manuscript of CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE. I was a mass of nerves held together with optimism and hope.
I sat there, trying hard to contain my jiggling body parts to beneath the table. Legs bouncing, feet tapping, I listened.
“It’s well written. Great dialogue. Love your setting, your characters, your use of imagery.” The critique began. I relaxed. This was going well. “It’s just—“
Oh oh. I leaned forward. “Just what?”
“It’s just…I’m concerned your book might be too gay for Christians and too Christian for gays.”
That was not what I wanted to hear. Not even close.
I didn’t know what to think. This was an author I respected. Who was I to disagree? I was shaken to the core as I listened to my beta reader’s suggestions.
“You could make Spirit Lake Bible Camp a YMCA camp…perhaps you should downplay the religion or eliminate it all together… this would make a lovely romance book, you know.”
I thanked my beta reader and left the coffee shop with a lot to think about.
I lived in a hell of indecision for weeks. Eventually I stopped writing, a special kind of torment all its own, as I surrendered my emotional energy to a battle that raged between my sense of what my story was about and my lack of confidence that I could somehow know what was better for my book than a published author. I considered quitting.
That’s when I heard it. No, that’s when I felt it. Yes, that’s more accurate. “It’s simpler than all that,” Jonathan, my main character, urged me. “Just tell my story.”
It came rushing back to me—this sure knowledge of who Jonathan was: a kid. Just a kid. Sixteen-years-old and awakening to his sexuality in a world that would deny him the right to be real. I remembered what I owed him: the chance to have his voice heard. And I knew I had to embrace the very thing I’d been warned against writing: the tension that exists when spirituality and sexuality collide. That was my story, and I couldn’t shy away from any part of it.
But how to do it in a manner that would not be off-putting to future readers? Therein was the dilemma. Because while I didn’t agree with my beta reader’s advice, I also didn’t doubt the wisdom of the warning. It was possible to write a story that would alienate, and if I was going to avoid doing that I had to figure out how to write the Christians. It was that simple.
Or was it?
Every day of the year 2012 I opened a newspaper or turned on the television and heard another person of power use the Bible as justification for an amendment that would forever ban marriage equality from the Minnesota constitution, and I became increasingly frustrated. And angry. You bet I was angry.
“How am I supposed to depict you as loving people when this is what you do and say?” I shouted night after night at the television.
But that did little good so I volunteered with Minnesota United and made many phone calls to the constituents of my state. I had hundreds of heartfelt conversations with people, real people—not politicians looking for sound bites. And I realized that
the extremists in the news stories did not speak for the vast majority of Christians I knew and loved. Their venom-filled words were nothing like the soft-spoken concerns of people like my mother, who worried deeply about her grandson’s salvation.
Eventually I began to write again, and this time when I went back to Spirit Lake Bible Camp, I did so with the goal of telling Jonathan’s whole story while using my mother’s good heart as the template for the Christians in my book.
I didn’t forget the advice I got that day in the coffee shop as I worked on the revision of CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE. Rather, I used it as a reminder to write characters who embody the truths held so dear by the people I love on both sides of this conflict. And I wrote with the commitment to reveal my own truth: that words spoken in love can and often do inflict deep wounds.
Over the past few years I’ve witnessed a bevy of miracles: In November of 2012 Minnesota upheld the wording in the state constitution as it was, thus defeating the harmful amendment that would have forever banned marriage equality in our state. In May of 2013, in a breath-taking statement of affirmation, we voted to make same sex marriage legal in Minnesota! My faith in my fellow snow-bound neighbors was restored. To top it off, CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE was not only finished, it had been sold to Bold Strokes Books! On this, the eve of its release in a season teeming with new life and potential, I am profoundly thankful for the advice I got from my very first beta reader because it made me a better writer and ally. I now know that I am called to walk beside those who are fighting for equal rights every bit as much as I am called to write the truth of my story, whatever that truth may be.