Chiseling away to release the angel

The novel that now stands as Nearly Canaan is a much, much different book than its original draft.

The landscape itself is no longer a primary character, for one thing – a Garden of Eden for an Adam and Eve. It still provides a vivid background, all the same.

Changing the protagonist into a slightly older, career-driven woman and the suitor a younger man also greatly shifted the dynamic.

The narrative was still an epic, rambling investigation that eventually spanned across three volumes – Promise, Peel (as in Apple), and St. Helens in the Mix – but the momentum and message got lost along the way.

I needed to look at it the way Michelangelo looked at a big rock. And then start chisling to release the angel.

A clearer understanding of Jaya’s work in nonprofits – and of Schuwa himself – helped me cut the text by half or more, driving it along a stronger plot line.

Unlike rock, fortunately, it’s not just a matter of cut-cut-cut with no additions possible.

So the renamed Joshua – or Schuwa, as she fondly calls him – becomes equally central to the story. In fact, in the two middle sections, he’s now the principal figure.

As I’ve asked, in liberating him from his strict upbringing, has Jaya created a monster?

That alone adds more balance to the tale, countered by the rising pressures in her own stellar career.

Even though what was left was still a big book, I felt an additional touch was needed.

That’s when I returned to an earlier desire for a novel based on Wendy, Pastor Bob’s wife back in Prairie Depot. The distilled essence of that now became a fitting coda for the opus.

By the way, I still think Wendy’s an angel – of the living, breathing sort. No wonder she and Jaya so quickly bonded.

 

Would I do a different novel about yoga?

The original novel that’s been recast into Yoga Bootcamp kept the action to a single day – albeit while recalling past events leading up to those 24 hours. The revised version retains that structure.

At the time I drafted the story, I was largely in the dark about what happened to the real ashram after the year-and-a-half I resided there. Nearly all of the teachers or organizations bringing Asian spiritual traditions to America eventually suffered sexual or financial scandals, or so it seemed. While introducing that element would have led to a juicier book, I refrained from the temptation, in large part because I wanted to retain the euphoric innocence we experienced or aspired to.

A few of the former residents I tracked down while drafting that story shared my sense that something powerful and life-changing had happened with us, but much of our teacher and the teaching remained an enigma.

A visit to the site, in fact, confirmed a sense I’d been ostracized and that our teacher had died in the interim.

In the years since the book first appeared, I’ve reconnected with some of the more central figures from the period. We’ve had intense emails and telephone conversations, and not everything was as rosy as my recollections. I hadn’t been ostracized, but the elements of self-destruction were in place.

I could have taken the revised work more in the direction of tragedy – there would be a morbid fascination, I’d assume – but chose instead for a comedy. Bootcamp was a term we accepted gleefully.

Still, there were other big changes.

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What happened to the yogis and their dream?

We were wide-eyed and innocent as doves though not wise as serpents, as the Bible would add.

We had room for exploration, certainly, and for some of us that included yoga or Zen. Hitchhiking was part of the scene, too. I touch on those in several of my novels.

I realize that in posing the question as “yogis,” I’m focusing on a corner of the hippie experience. The dream I’m thinking of is a better world for everyone, and not just a few who wanted to drop out altogether.

I don’t see that among today’s youth, who have good reason to be more cautious about the future. Besides, they’re shackled by college debt, an outrageous amount compared to their income realities.

But it’s not all economic. I’d say much of the current malaise is spiritual.

Without that element of hope and universal love, how can we possibly overcome the forces that are dividing and oppressing us?

 

American yogis touring India

As young yogis living at the Poconos Ashram in Pennsylvania, Bhakta and Jay made a pilgrimage to India in December 1973. It was Bhakta’s first trip to the source of the religious tradition and Jay’s second. Unlike many young American and European aspirants who moved to India to study with a guru, they were teaching and practicing on a rundown farm not far from New York City. Their daily encounters in the household they shared resembled much of what I describe in my novel YOGA BOOTCAMP.

I remember our teacher, an American woman, telling of her first experience with a real elephant in India. I think she would have loved having one on our farm.

What makes ‘Nearly Canaan’ new and improved

My newly released Nearly Canaan is a thorough reworking of three earlier novels that were intended to be a series.

The publication of What’s Left and the revisions it prompted for four related books soon had me also reconsidering my Promise, Peel (as in apple), and St. Helens in the Mix novels. Sensing the possibility of restoring them to the original concept of a single big book, I made drastic cuts and still added colorful new material.

Here are ten ways the result is new and improved.

~*~

  1. The story is now primarily character-driven. It’s a richer brew. The landscapes now blend in as the backdrop.
  2. Jaya’s romantic partner gains more prominence and independence. His inner turmoil may leave her perplexed, but it’s an essential element in their developing relationship. He’s renamed, too, and refocused.
  3. He’s not the only ongoing conflict. Her professional ambitions in nonprofits management are more sharply detailed as she runs into organizational crises.
  4. She and Joshua become especially close to two other young couples. Everyone seems to look to her for answers, while she turns to an older couple for counsel.
  5. One exception is the pastor’s young wife in the opening section, who serves as a counterpoint to Jaya’s Hindu-based spirituality. The two develop a unique but clandestine budding best friendship. Wendy will return to bring the book to its conclusion.
  6. The new release compresses three books into one centered on Jaya’s influence once she leaves Manhattan. Can she really change lives for the better?
  7. The story is now connected to my novel Yoga Bootcamp, thanks to revisions that installed Jaya as a central figure there. The backstory provides a better understanding of what’s driving her as she settles into Prairie Depot and beyond.
  8. Jaya’s desire to find a suitable artistic means to express her mystical experiences is more clearly envisioned. She may be stressed, but her private discipline continues as best she can. She has to have somewhere to turn.
  9. The pivotal catastrophe moves to the middle of the book, rather than hanging at the end of what was the first volume. Can they survive and pick up the pieces and go on? That’s the stream that follows.
  10. Or, as I didn’t ask earlier, has Jaya unleashed a demon?

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Ultimately, the new series is all about Jaya

Cassia is not the only character who’s had me drastically revising my earlier fiction.

Jaya, the central figure in what now stands as Nearly Canaan, has more recently had me doing the same to six other published books.

First, before Cassia became part of my life in What’s Left and the earlier stories now told in my Freakin’ Free Spirits cycle, Jaya emerged in a set of revisions in what became the three novels Promise, Peel (as in apple), and St. Helens in the Mix.

Initially, her part wasn’t even female – and while transforming her wasn’t exactly literary gender reallocation surgery, it certainly changed the dynamic of the story, which became older woman/younger man, with the woman being the tall dark sophisticated stranger being pursued by a hot young guy.

In the early drafts, she wasn’t yet a yogi, either, but rather a Sufi.

The stories themselves were about encountering specific landscapes as much as the individuals themselves.

A few years after their publication, I decided to restore them to my original intent of one volume but realized drastic revision was necessary. First, they needed to be cut significantly to fit into what would still be a “fat” and hopefully juicy book. Second, I needed a clearer understanding of Jaya’s actual career as well as her companion’s character. And, third, a fuller comprehension of her lasting influence was required. That led to the new version, Nearly Canaan.

It still felt incomplete, though. Her earlier spiritual training needed to be told. While she had talked briefly about her ashram experiences, they didn’t align completely with my yoga novel. But they could.

I reopened the manuscript, changed one of the eight students to be Jaya, and then changed the gender of the guru throughout. That led to a slew of drastic alterations and additions, moving the novel from Ashram to Yoga Bootcamp.

That gave me two novels in a series, but a series needs a third or more, I felt.

But wait, there’s more.

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Standing in our brahmacharies

My novel YOGA BOOTCAMP describes the events of being initiated into brahmacharya and being given the two strips of cloth cut from the guru’s robe as our new underwear, supposedly to restrain our male sexual impulses. As a bit of real-life evidence, here we are at the Poconos Ashram in Pennsylvania in mid-1972. The girls found it highly amusing, especially since we were all living under celibacy.

At least I didn’t use the title of an old hymn here, “Blessed Be the Ties that Bind.”