Essays / Features / Fiction / Nonfiction

Looking for the Secret Door

by Elaine Neil Orr

Even now, almost five years after my mother’s death, I often feel she has slipped back across the mysterious threshold of life and death and into my kitchen where she advises me to be careful as I slice tomatoes.  “Watch your thumb.”  I can hear her say it.  She’s pert and sassy, younger and more full of herself than in those last years before her death.  I’m thrilled that she’s here because I was feeling a little down.

I emerge from these moments of visitation with a powerful sense of the accessibility of other realms—if only we can find the door.

For whether through dreams or meditation or memory, we are capable of time travel.

And this is why I write fiction.  Though such travel is not always easy, nor is it painless.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWriting my first novel, A Different Sun, required me to conjure the character of an enslaved African man living on a Georgia plantation in 1840.  I did a significant amount of reading beyond slave narratives in order to create a three dimensional character.  For example, I needed to know the geography of the region in Georgia I was writing about; might he have had a small patch of land for a garden; what did he grow?  And how much African culture might have survived in that area into the mid nineteenth century.  Since I wanted to know what he might recall of his homeland, I had to learn about the region of West Africa where he was born.  What did his compound look like?  What did he remember of his mother’s face?  How was he captured?  What was it like for him to be torn from everything he knew?  What did he still long for at age sixty, living in Georgia.  The work of creating this character required a deep dive.  Sometimes I curled up on the floor of my study, trying to imagine him.

And then one night, I woke, knowing he was sitting on the edge of my bed.  I was so terrified, I couldn’t scream for my husband who was in the next room.  I could feel the man’s weight, causing the mattress to sag on one side.  There was no doubt whose presence this was.  By the next day I understood his visitation.  He had come to me as surely as my mother comes.  But with a different message: Be careful how you use my story.  It’s not really yours. He has slipped through some keyhole to get to me. Beginning the next day, I returned to researching this life culled from history. I understood that his story was on loan to me. And I lent greater dignity to the character, changing his name from Uncle Effy to Uncle Eli.

By now you may be wondering how literally I interpret these experiences.  I would say they are present-day visions.  They are as real as anything else that happens to me even if they are the effects of dream and desire.  Dream and desire are the roots of creation.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgIn my present novel, Swimming Between Worlds, I decided to return to a house my family occupied for one year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  I put a man, Tacker Hart, in the house we had rented and a woman, Kate Monroe, in a house near-by.  Kate’s parents are dead though traces of both linger in the family home: her mother’s self-portrait, her father’s books.  But the place most drenched with Kate’s memories of her father is the back yard where he built a stone retaining wall and planted azaleas and hostas and dogwood trees.  Kate gravitates toward this garden, looking for clues to the past and the future.  I wrote a November scene in which she puts on her father’s old coat and goes out to rake leaves.  The scene was very close to me though I did not comprehend it at the time.  My own father, now dead, was a gardener.  I own his old weather coat and sometimes wear it to garden in cold weather.  The last time I saw him alive was a November day.  He was raking leaves while I set out pansies in my parents’ front yard.

Something happened as I wrote the scene.  I slipped through the gauzy membrane that divides experience and imagination.  I was Kate in that Winston-Salem backyard, a twenty-three year old orphan, seeking solace in the soil her father had tended.  When I came out the other side of writing, I knew a déjà vu so acute I had a sudden onset of vertigo.  I happened to be at a writing residency in Virginia where other writers and I were huddled in studios in an old barn.  I left mine to go fix a cup of tea, thinking I could nurse myself out of dizziness.  But the re-living of that November morning with my father—through the conjuring of my character—was so powerful, I had to lie down in the hallway to recompose myself.  It was as if part of me still lingered behind in that other realm.

Most writing days don’t include such powerful moments.  These occur once a year at most. That’s about all I can take, to tell you the truth.  But writing days are full of minor miracles, glimpses into other times and places, moments when I catch, out of the corner of my eye, the hem of a skirt, a falling feather, a profile behind a screen.  Or I give a character a name and when I go to check out books at the library, the man who helps me wears a name tag with the very name I just gave a character.

These are the slip-stream moments that tell me I’m close to the secret door, close to the secret garden.

This is why writers write, I think.  To pierce that membrane.  To enter the arena of creation in its most malleable state.  To be IN the art so deeply that it is a more profound reality than the one we inhabit on a daily basis, brushing our teeth and grading papers.  We become the work.

The door is always there.  It’s not even secret.  But it requires hard work: research, deep meditation (without social media and email and any other distraction), and a willingness to believe.  Do the work.  And believe.

Bloom Post End

Elaine Neil Orr is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she teaches literature. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. Author of A Different Sun, two scholarly books, and the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life, she has been a featured speaker and writer-in-residence at numerous universities and conferences and is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She grew up in Nigeria. Learn more at, on Facebook, and on Twitter @elaineneilorr.

photo credit: suzyhazelwood Leaf caught in a web outside my window via photopin (license)

3 thoughts on “Looking for the Secret Door

  1. Thank you, Elaine, for this essay that articulates so beautifully those magical moments when the lines between reality and our fictive imaginations blur. This happened to me on several rare but memorable occasions while writing Botticelli’s Muse. Yes, this is why we write or should I say why we are called to write. Thanks. Deborah (Dorah.Blume)

  2. Pingback: Life of a Writer – Spring Edition | Spalding MFA

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