Originally posted on this site on Christmas Eve, 2010.
Due to it being the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the history of the English language (verified), most people, regardless of their faith, are familiar with this piece, known now to history as “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”
Unsigned at the time of its publication in The Sun in 1897, it was of course written in response to a letter received from eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas. Though over time there has been some amount of scholarly doubt as to whether or not an eight year old actually penned the letter bearing her name (appearing as “Virginia O’Hanlon” in the paper), the woman to whom the letter has been attributed lived a life that was rather well documented. Her Wikipedia page, as well as other more legitimate sources cover her life in plentiful, if not meticulous detail. Virginia herself received fan mail for the rest of her life, to which she graciously responded. She indicated near the end of her life that the attention she received as a result of her famous letter had effected her life in a positive way.
Several movies, animated specials, and other works have been created that tell the story of Virginia and her letter. She has become a rather integral part of the Christmas zeitgeist. At least in the United States.
Coming in a distant second to Virginia in this story, in regards to eventual fame, scholarly investigation, dramatic presentation in various media, and inspiration to generations of Christmas lovers? One Francis Pharcellus Church. Who was he? Nobody special. Just the man who actually wrote the editorial itself.
I don’t want to go on and on about that. But I did think it worthy of mention that the author of the words which move so many of us that love Christmas, and the work of whom sparked the most popular editorial of all time seem almost to be an after thought.
“Oh yeah,” folklore personified seems to say. “He took care of that whole writing part of the Virginia story.”
Folks, nothing against Virginia, but in the end Mr. Church was the story. Mr. Church is the story.
Yet his section of the link I provided is basically just his picture. His Wikipedia entry merely mentions he wrote the piece, where he went to school, that he died childless and where his body is buried. It’s barely longer than the piece for which he is (not so) famous.
Now I am not beating up anybody over this. Virginia deserved some attention and admiration. However I do confess it has over the years annoyed me a bit that though it is Mr. Church’s work that instantly captured that hearts of millions, it continues to be Virginia’s story.
So, that being said, allow me, on this Christmas Eve of all days, to talk a little bit about what this work of Francis Pharcellus Church says about him, and about writing.
Set aside how famous it is. Really think about the piece. The prose is eloquent but concise. Touching on a multifaceted and deep spiritual truth in a manner that is accessible to an eight year old without boring an adult reader. It both confirms the truth about “Santa Claus”, without blowing the mystique of Santa Claus. It upholds the magical in a child’s Christmas experience without telling one single lie or half truth. On top of it all its magnificent diction makes it perfect for easy recitation or performance.
In other words, it is a brilliant piece of writing that accomplished its mission. And far, far more.
There is much we will never know about the circumstances of Mr. Church composing this editorial. We cannot know what exactly Mr. Church was thinking when he wrote the piece. We probably have no way of knowing if it was assigned to him as opposed to being a request he made to write it. And certainly his muse, like those of all us writers, will remain a mystery. Certainly more of a mystery than what Virginia went on to do with the rest of her life.
Still I think we can make a few assumptions safely. It is safe to say that this was more than a staff writer cutting his pay check. There is a superior quality of soul within the words. I find it hard to accept he didn’t believe each and every one of them as he wrote it.
Safe, also, is the assumption that Church had no idea of the impact he was about to have on an entire nation’s holiday experience over the next hundred-plus years and counting. Anybody who sits down to pen something with that as a goal needs to be locked up someplace.
He did know, as we know, one thing; he was a writer. It was his job to write, and to do so well. To live up to the standard’s expected of him by his employer and by himself. Pursuant to that, he sat down (as so many of us have before and since) with a goal, a resource, his experience, his talent, and his words. And he penned something. Something to which he could not (or would not) attach his name originally. And as a result of his gift for words, he changed not only Virginia’s life, but millions of others. Perhaps even Christmas itself to some degree. And all of that would be true whether or not the “Virginia” letter was really written by an eight year old.
This is why I write. This is why I seek out places and opportunities to make use of this talent I apparently have to assemble words in such a way as to effect, inspire, change, entertain, inform, provoke, and perhaps on occasion save other people. It is why I chose to be a starving freelancer for now. (Unless some perfect staff writing position should show up.) It is why I do my damnedest to write even though I know that nobody is reading. Why, despite a hiatus here and there I muster up within myself time after time that exhausting, that perplexing, that frustrating, that miraculous and inexplicable component within my spirit that accounts for me being a writer.
This stuff isn’t easy, folks. But it can be worth it, when you get it right. Even more worth it when the right people read at the right time what a writer composes. Just as they did for Francis Pharcellus Church. Just as they still do 113 years after he submitted it to the paper.
Was that ubiquitous yet beloved editorial a fluke? Did Church merely get lucky, and strike a cord or two, or a million? Maybe. But I think not. He was, as history tells us a “veteran” journalist, which means he had been writing large amounts of copy for at least quite a few years. That experience may have sharpened him and his words over time in just the right way to make his tapping into the consciousness of a whole culture more likely than it otherwise would have been. But that isn’t being lucky. That’s showing up. We get rewarded for showing up.
Thus far I have shown up to write far more often than I have been rewarded for same. And I get weary of it. Sometimes I even step away for weeks at a time. But the knowledge that showing up can lead to that one moment, article, sentence, speech or novel that changes everything eventually brings me back to the bottom of that hill, ready to push that bolder ever upward. I wonder if Francis Pharcellus Church ever felt that way.
As I mentioned, we know Church died having had no children. But did he? If children be extensions of ourselves and our love, while also taking on a life of their own as time goes on, I say perhaps the man did have at least one child. That child was an unsigned editorial in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. And look at how many children, of all ages, it has touched in the decades since.
All because there was once a writer who showed up.
Several writers in my so called “circle” have, in the last three or four years, met with financial success. For some it came fast, others it came after a while. Some of them, yes,had connections, from what I have since learned that I have no doubt helped their careers happen. Others, as far as I have ever heard, lacked such connections.
This particular small, anonymous group have in fact only two things in common beyond their current level of sometimes impressive success.
1) They were each, at some point in the not too distant past, in some level of my social circle.
2) I have heard nothing from them since their respective success.
Let;s get a few things out of the way, first and foremost, before your assumptions lead you in the wrong direction.
I’m aware they don’t owe me anything, and I don’t begrudge them their success most of the time. There is some professional jealousy in anyone with enough of an imagination and desire to share same when others succeed so close by, but on the whole, it’s folly to get too pissed off about someone “making it,” even if they did so with help not available to most of us.
That being said, it’s difficult to do backflips for the success of people that were cordial before success, and now are “too busy” to be so afterward.
We, those who have not achieved our artistic goals yet, or often counseled to “be happy for them!” And to not let their success change our view of them. Fair, on the surface. But if we are not to change our view of them, is it especially odd to expect the same? If the professional thing to do is to care about, inquire of, encourage those of our writer brethren whom we know personally during our long journeys, should it not continue once one (or more) of them attain that success?
I don’t want to suggest that no highly successful author has ever kept in touch with the so called “little people.” I’ve no doubt that it has happened. But let’s all be just a little bit frank here; a star’s interest in our personal projects is usually quite diminished, or vanished entirely as compared to the level they showed in us when they were still not where they wanted to be along with us.
All by way of saying; I accept the advice from this side of the tracks, usually. But should you, or I, attain success in our literary labors, let us remember to maintain our interests, our affections, our overall connections with those writers within our “circle.” We may not be able to maintain the same schedule, but let’s put some effort into encouragement and curiosity and advice for those who haven’t made it yet. Not every stranger who becomes a fan, and not someone you feel is stepping coattails, but colleages. True colleagues before and after your “number is called.”
Because in the end, success is no better reason to leave colleagues out in the cold than failure is.
My announced plan over the last few weeks was to offer all of my ebooks for free download for the reminder of the 2019 holiday season. That is still the plan.
Despite being an indie author for several years now, there are still aspects of the business and distribution angle that I am getting used to, and trying to master. Among such concepts is the timing of actions, particularly when it comes to Amazon. (Which just about always takes longer.)
I did think I would be able to have everything set and ready to go by today, (Black Friday.) Most of it in fact is so, and most of my ebooks can be found on most e-retailers for free right now.
Not 100% of them in all places as of yet, however. Amazon included, though I await that.
I have considered the advice of others who tell me to stick only with Amazon. But because of many of the restrictions in place there that I don’t have to deal with in other major outlets like Kobo or Nook, I hesitate to dive into the Amazon-only camp just yet, despite the advantages.
That day may come, but that day is not today. So while everything did not open up exactly as I envisioned on this Black Friday, things are well on their way to there.
I ask that you keep checking back here on my webpage, in the “My Books” page to see if what you want is free yet in your preferred format.
As time goes on, I will learn better timing, better distribution options, and so on. That’s always been a steeper learning curve for me. Yet as long as my actual writing is high quality, (and I work hard to make sure that it is), I’ll not be ashamed.
Thanks for your patience and understanding.
I don’t usually identify minority characters in my fiction. As of this writing, i recall only doing it twice in regards to race. Once in terms of neurodiversity, (which I share with the character.) Once I alluded to but did not directly explore a budding queer relationship in a subplot.
I have written female characters quite often, and even wrote a first-person novel from the point of view of same.
So far, however, most of my characters can probably be seen as belonging to any given minority that isn’t otherwise stated. That is because the plots and action of the majority of my fiction are not affected in demonstrable ways by minority status. In many cases, I truly feel my characters could be any given race the reader envisions without difficulty.
Don’t misunderstand me, however. This is not a denial of minority statuses and experiences. Rather it is an issue of context, both in fiction and in life.
If I am playing chess with someone, our respective races are essentially irrelevant to the situation.Yet if I’m exploring best public policy or taxation or law enforcement with that same person, our races are very much relevant to the situation.
Put another way, I am not “color blind,” and anyone who claims to truly not even notice or consider the race of someone else is in fact not being logical. Yet within my fiction, even the fiction that involves exciting plots and high stakes, the characters are for the most part involved in “chess.” That is to say, there is nothing about what most of them do that requires an identification of their race. The reader gets to envision that.
Matt bought a pack of gum and a Red Bull from the black clerk at the store. He held the door open for an Asian woman on his way out.
Who cares? The clerk may be black, or they may not be. But in such a scene, they are playing chess.
But let’s go further than just “playing chess.” Do I, or any white authors have the right to compose characters of color in their fiction?
The short answer is yes. I’m a firm believer that authors ought to be allowed to write whatever they wish to write.
Still, just because one is allowed, it doesn’t mean one should. So as a white author, for instance, I have a lot of research to do before I feel comfortable writing a character of minority status in a situation that depends on said status. And if that character is my protagonist and not just a secondary character? I have even more work to do.
I have the most work of all ahead of me as a responsible author if that minority character is the protagonist, to whose thought the reader is privy. Exceptional discretion should be exercised. So much so, that unless a story idea struck me to the center of my very essence, I doubt I would undertake diving to the appropriate depths of sociology, history, psychology, etc required to give a minority character the consideration they deserve.
I would be more apt to do so the farther away I am in history from such a perspective. An African gladiator in Ancient Rome for instance, is more likely to show up in my fiction after proper research than would an inner city African-American single mother living in modern Chicago. That experience is a current living experience of millions that I must accept I cannot fully understand without possibly years of investigation; I do possess latent white privilege to a degree, and I must accept the limitations I may have in bringing proper life to such a scenario on the page.
To avoid the appearance of whitewashing my fiction, I feel moving forward that I will more often make at least a passing mention of a character’s race more often. I consider this not out of guilt, but out of a desire to be broad in my appeal, so long as my characters are only playing chess.
Will I go beyond that level? That is difficult for me to say right now. Because unlike a chess board, not everything is simply black and white.
I look for patterns. Even when i don’t look for them with my conscious mind, my subconscious is at work piecing them together.
So is yours, by the way. It’s intrinsic in the human mind to detect patterns– sometimes even when they are not actually there. And if we don’t see one at all, we move to make one.
It’s deeply evolutionary, and probably on some level has kept us alive, out of the jaws of whatever prehistoric thing. But as useful as patterns were to our ancestors, and to us, even now, a detectable pattern, plan, or form is not always the most desirable outcome.
You may assume at this point that I’m speaking of the perennial pantsers vs. planners debate. In a sense I am, but indirectly. That old literary chestnut relates to how an author goes about composing a full-fledged story arc–a means to a finished product. A finished product with, yes, a pattern.
We go beyond the simple matter of pants or planning, however, when we talk about pure experimentation with our writing.
Experimenting with your words, your use of language, even the shapes your sentences make on the printed page is a significant exercise of the imagination. Throwing things out there, breaking all the rules, or making up our own. It’s exciting, but scary. It’s liberating but also nerve wracking. Practitioners of this are both the powerful and the prisoner.
Prisoner? How? Why to the patterns of course.
Again, the human mind is not random by nature, no matter how odd some of it’s creations may be. It will seek out a pattern. It will impose one where none exists. And once recognized, it will strive to add matching components that complete said pattern, real or imaginary. Such rules that spring lessen the positive impacts of writing without caution.
Put another way, we ironically, must work harder to be random, to color outside of the lines, than we do to fall into place in our creative work.
I’m working on some long form fiction now that can best be classified as experimental. I’ve told myself I must do only two specific (and for now secret) things with the work. Beyond those, it need not, should not make conventional sense. And yet, there I sit during any given writing session on this project looking for proper ways to construct an arc or assign motivation to a character. Not only am I pulling a Nanowrimo by blocking out the inner editor, I am trying to block out inner logic. Believe me, it’s easier to block the editor.
Still, it’s worth it for a chance to jump into the fiction-writing sandbox. I’ve no idea what future this long form experiment has. It may go public, it may stay hidden in my computer. It may or may not even get finished. (If one can truly finish such a project.) But if I keep reminding myself to not make too much sense, the benefits will appear.