Several years ago, when I was pitching Martin of Gfenn, I found an agent who looked and read great (based on his website). I really hoped this guy would WANT to represent my book. Most of the pitch letters I sent out were carefully crafted (that’s a word that doesn’t make my teeth itch in this context) but the people to whom I sent them were just addresses. This man was real and I thought “Wow, if he wants to read it, he’ll love it and we’ll have a deal.”
In my pitch I wrote that the story told about an ordinary person to whom extraordinary things happened. The protagonist is just a kid and the kid happens to get leprosy. Because of that he can’t fulfill his artistic promise and has to find meaning in his life anyway.
The agent wrote back that people don’t want to read about ordinary people. They want to read about extraordinary people, the rich and famous. I didn’t understand at that point in my my writing life that the job of an agent isn’t to find good books but to find books he’s pretty sure will sell.
All this led me to discover how much I admire the “ordinary” and don’t think there’s anything “ordinary” about it. The characters in my novels are mostly ordinary people. If a famous person appears at all, it’s out of necessity.
Sunday when I went to church (sounds normal enough but I haven’t done it since 1981) I walked in the little sanctuary of St. Stephen the Martyr here in Monte Vista. It was empty except for my friend, Elizabeth, who had organized my appearance in church and presentation to her study group afterward. Elizabeth is in her mid-70s, energetic and bright. She was sitting behind the organ practicing for the service, sitting in the golden light of the stained glass windows, completely and totally ordinary.
I don’t think there’s anything less ordinary than the lives lived by ordinary people. There’s a developmentally disabled man who rides his bike past my house. He knows my dogs — mostly he knows Dusty — and if Dusty barks as the man rides by, I hear the man say, “Be quiet, Dusty.” One windy day when my trash can was out, some cardboard had blown into my neighbor’s yard. This man stopped on his bike, got off, put the cardboard back and turned the trash can so the wind wouldn’t blow things out of it. Completely ordinary.
A man at the store gets his shopping cart. He sees me waiting my turn, hands me the cart he had just gotten and smiles. Ordinary.
My neighbor learns I’m having company and comes over with cookies and muffins for me and my guests. Ordinary.
I drop a blender jar on my foot and get a deep cut at the base of my big toe. I need stitches. I go out front and see my neighbor watering his lawn. “Bob, I need a ride to the hospital.” He turns off the water, opens his garage, gets out the car and comes over to get me. Ordinary.
I’m heading to school early in the morning. My next door neighbor sees me and comes running out, “Martha, come and see something beautiful!” I go into her house to see two little blond girls, 2 years old, twins, sitting in high chairs. They are the sisters of the two boys for whom my neighbor is a foster mother. Their parents are junkies living on the street. My neighbor ends up adopting all four kids. Ordinary.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard“)
My neighbors and I get into the car and head to a canyon and take a hike. We’re just three little ladies wandering around in this extraordinary cathedral of stone, a caldera. It’s a beautiful day, though a storm is coming later. We stop halfway and eat mandarin oranges. We don’t solve the world’s problems — we don’t even discuss them. For a while we are suspended above them. I am very happy because I can do this hike now. It’s not a major hike, nothing Reinhold Messner would even look at. Just an ordinary trail with normal ups and downs, but I’m doing it and for me it is not ordinary at all.
The trail I walk most often with the dogs near the river is just a sandy mile next to a slough. To the south is the sewage treatment plant. To the north they’re building a place where they will be making malt for beer. It’s on the edge of town, no wilderness (except for the wild animals who traverse it). There’s nothing special about it, it’s a completely ordinary place that looks like this: