Wednesday, July 14, 2010


My editor and I were struggling with the release date for "Oh Say Can You See?" We both knew I wasn't happy with the book yet, but the publisher and distributor wanted it to hit the shelves in August. I know when a manuscript is "right." I feel contentment. It excites me. I feel peace. I wasn't feeling any of those things yet.

So my editor and I talked about it, and I prayed for help to find the missing pieces I knew were missing from the manuscript. That's how important I felt the story was, and the answer came. But the struggle set me behind my deadline. Last week we all agreed to set the release date back, and I am overjoyed. Here's a glimpse at my literary quest.

I was putting in sixteen-hours days for a few weeks, with multiple historical accounts spread across my desk, the names and numbers of archivists at the Library of Congress and other libraries stacked on my computer, and so many piles of paper-clipped pages lying about that my desk looked like an archaeological dig. My husband had a hectic travel schedule during those two weeks, so except for a weekly retreat with my mother, and some hours spent helping my expectant daughter chase a toddler around, life was totally dedicated to digging for the facts that would solve one question:

What was the true source of the emotions that caused Francis Scott Key, a clergy-seeking, hymn-composing, attorney-poet, to write the stirring, sometimes angry, fist-shaking words to "The Star Spangled Banner?"

The answer was under my nose all along.

Many of us know about Key's kidnapped friend, Dr. William Beanes, whom Key was trying to free. Some know that Key had family in the targeted city of Baltimore the British were poised to destroy. Perhaps you've heard that Key and his companion, John Skinner, were detained by the British for eleven days, during which time they were tortured by the their captors' daily regurgitation of details for the attack and destruction of the city.

But a careful reading of the words to the song told me there was even more than that, and I knew it. But what?

You know the old saying, "You can't see the forest for the trees?" Elder Bednar shared a similar concept that brought the answer to key's motivation home to me:

In my office is a beautiful painting of a wheat field. The painting is a vast collection of individual brushstrokes—none of which in isolation is very interesting or impressive. In fact, if you stand close to the canvas, all you can see is a mass of seemingly unrelated and unattractive streaks of yellow and gold and brown paint. However, as you gradually move away from the canvas, all of the individual brushstrokes combine together and produce a magnificent landscape of a wheat field.

That was it! I was obsessing over the events from Beanes' kidnapping to the bombardment of Fort McHenry, but the truth behind Key's emotions that night went back further. Once I realized what was really behind them, the song's sometimes elusive wording took on an entirely different meaning!!

I should have known. He was a man, not a character. He was a father, a husband, a man of God, a soldier, a man of law, a patriot, a complex human being, as we all are. Which of us looks at an event as a singular experience? Do we not bring our past experiences to bear upon each scene? Doesn't personal history color the prism through which we view life? Of course it does . . . and it did for Key as well.

So now I think I've managed to understand more than the man's footsteps, but his heart as well. Now I think I can write his story well. I feel peaceful about things. I see the whole canvas.

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