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The city is quiet on this July 4th holiday; abandoned by people with other places to be. My city, now. Mine.
I have turned my seat toward the window, not the wall. This is what I see: Out the big window, the brassy silver of a hot day. The air is fuzzy; a haze of unresolved clouds to the south. Cars countable on one hand down the long length of Denver’s Lincoln Street.
Entry hall and desk to the right in the open plan space. Kitchen and dining in a counter clockwise sweep. Art everywhere, in every minute-hand tick of view. Kristina’s green painting. Beside it, a Van Gogh print with the same green; the artist’s rope-seat chair echoed in the antique chair below it. Through the door to the bedroom, an encaustic abstract in brown wax and black ink, like looking at the lath of a very old house. Paintings, small ones, faces, small angry cat, abstract; then left to a new monotype that explodes in the eye, black like Franz Kline and Motherwell, red-dotted like Adolph Gottlieb asking for attention in the space. Black chair, black coffee table, a march of street art on the slanting gallery wall behind.
Pressed to my side, little grey Amelia, full of insistent need, face on the laptop, paw resting the length of my thumb, a furry tracer of my movements on the keyboard, dozing in her crunchy purr.
Not in the writing, yet. But in the head where the writing happens; the place of molecular attention and itchy contentment. The full place. Notebook and tape recorder offering up small feasts. Quiet fluttering with thoughts, directionless, seeking a place to land. No one. No other place. Nothing missing. No regret. No need in the where I am.
These are the writer days. The best ones. A most peculiar zone of comfort that resists explanation—although I guess I’ve done exactly that.
Happy Fourth of July.
Long days in the office and the limited energy they leave in their wake. Too few hours left, claimed by too many things. Cooking dinner. Eating it. Feeding cats. Changing clothes. To exercise or not in those rare remaining minutes. Or to write.
This is what I want.
To spend time with me. And with my characters. To immerse in the mind of a man who knows that this will be, if all goes well, the last night of his life; the man observed by a woman who is trying desperately not to believe what she knows to be true. The reality of the things you can’t un-know.
What I want: I want to be in love. And I am.
It is a sacred trust, this partnership with the invisible. One gives all or gives nothing. To be full of the melancholy of it, to be a paper boat on its rough waters, to dive so deep that there is no other night, no other room, no other person; a writer owns a gift that is closest to being in love—which may be why so many of us exist without love’s outward manifestation.
The ecstatic lives here. All possibility does. And in that inconstant realization is the thing that conquers despair and defeat and the challenges of not-good-enough. Do we have our crippling doubts? Yes. Always will. But the grace of moments like these when the Unseen smiles at me, when I’m actually looking across the room at the person who was the physical print of the main character, when I know that in a few minutes I will run home and throw myself to the created world as if it were a lover waiting between smooth sheets…I’m holding up my end of the partnership. The things I sacrifice are not sacrifices at all: They are choices gladly set aside for a greater, grander choice.
This is the life I live because I choose it to be so. A silence that is far, far from empty; a self that is fully self, fully given. Isn’t that what love is?
Several unexpected and delightful offerings of praise over the past few days. Food for a famished writer. Especially right now.
I strive to deserve them. I am not sure that I do.
I’ve been feeding my life with writing and art. Not desperation food, not nearly. Joy food. But still the path to the clear writing has not blown clear.
I find myself still outside the story. Still too talky-talky. Still uncertain. Half a writer’s challenge, I think, is not merely solving a problem—it’s identifying it.
I recognize the symptom, but not necessarily the disease. I poke at the apparent issues, but the source keeps aching. For a writer who’s made such an all-consuming investment of time thinking about the damned thing, one would think—hope—that the answers would be clearer easier. They aren’t.
This is the baby-with-the-bathwater temptation. The rip-it-out-and-start-again paradigm. When the forward momentum of the work all-too-closely resembles a reason to live, this is a terrifying prospect. The temporary wiping of the mental slate, the cleansing walk in the woods—neither is possible.
Is this the right step for the plot? What is my character thinking? What was I thinking, writing this passage? Help me, somebody. Speak to me, universe.
These are the torture days. The pecked-to-death-by-a-duck days. Shopping won’t fix what’s ailin’ us. Buying more art won’t. Eating our feelings won’t.
What’s left, then?
Surrender, I think. Worrying the thing to death until the brain coughs up the answer as a pure act of survival. Giving the thing due diligence, yet letting it work itself out on its own.
And here’s the thing: Letting-be is the toughest ask of all.
Okay, the offending passage was a Facebook post, I’ll give you that. But the content had the writer grinding her teeth.
“…with their daddy’s” the poster wrote. This was a college-educated professional who posted. A person who should have known better. As should we all.
Carelessness is a bear trap, waiting to snap the ankle of the inattentive. Sometimes it’s a simple failure to go back and read what we’ve laid to the page. Sometimes it’s ignorance. I’m not sure which is worse.
Do I make those mistakes? Of course I do. Does it make me any more tolerant of them. Hell no. I’ve known way too many colleagues in the profession of communication who cannot spell, cannot write. Face it, this is like being a chef who cannot cook. I have known writers whose work has been redeemed only by the intervention of great editors and proofreaders. I’ve known overly-eager editors who’ve nitpicked work within an inch of its life, yet who, in their zeal, have missed major errors.
Insert the sound of teeth-grinding here.
These are the capital crimes of fiction….The main character describing him/herself by looking into a mirror. Exhaustive descriptions of a character’s appearance packed into a single paragraph. Adverb saturation. The habit of noting a character’s every move.
Here’s the truth of me: I am not a formalist. Far from it. I believe that unconventional uses of language bring color and tempo and challenge to the reader. I’ll admit that I, too, have self-indulgencies and errors. I make up words. I stray into cliché territory from time to time, thinking that a change-up of the trite phrase will redeem it. I over-use certain punctuation, calling it personal style. Could I do without these crutches? Probably. Do I want to? I refer you back to the above Hell no.
In my earlier days as a writer-Fascist, mine was the habit of reverse graffiti. I would carry a bottle of Wite-Out in my purse, mercilessly painting out errant apostrophes on public signs. Sometimes I asked the sign owner; most of the time I didn’t. I asked then the questions that I continue to ask today:
Is it too much to ask that we strive for a rudimentary command of our native language? If we cannot all be Shakespeare (and let’s face it, who among us can?), might we not, at least, make an effort to make right the written us that we share with the world?
Where we are today would be amusing. If it weren’t so damned sad.
My dad was a storyteller. Campfires were his pages, and he filled them with tales of pursuing grizzlies and threatening moose and marauding porcupines, all of them real. From my earliest years, he was, I realize, training me to use my eyes. And my heart. And my willingness to believe with a wide-open mind.
He was also teaching me something else.
This is a lightning-bolt moment for me, this realization. In what my father did without knowing it—at the campfire and away from it—was to teach me the dance of emotion, that frank manipulation of structure that is Plot.
The “wait for it” moment. The “no, that isn’t happening” gift which suddenly materializes. The “Santa is coming” suspense. The hiding. And finding. The revealing. These are the things that parents do. I always found them a little cruel.
Now I understand.
My father did these things to reassure himself of his place in the heads and hearts of those around him. My father was never confident of his impact on people; he looked for the approval that did not come to him in his growing-up. He brought that need (and the answering of it) to his parenthood, and he cloaked it in love.
My dad loved being a dad. He was better at it than he had any right to be, as the son of hard-living parents. He gave of himself—and instilled in us—the goodness of heart that he’d hoped to be recipient of in his own young life, yet which was never quite received. The need materialized in ways that became moments of suspense and tension and relief. And these were the things I translated, as a writer, into the mechanics of plot and character.
I am his carbon copy—genetically, emotionally, psychologically…and apparently, too, in a way I never understood until now.
The writer as Need. My dad, who was inclined to it, but never knew the reality of it. And his daughter. Who lives it. Every day.
Real world vs. Created one. The sticky press of human interaction vs. the cool, orderly chaos in my head. Physical-reality people vs. made-up ones. It’s a struggle to choose. Especially when the real world presses too hard.
I am an idealist. Which means that, very often, things fall apart. Friendships, inexplicably, come undone. Fairness does not triumph. Thorniness flourishes. Prejudices and wickednesses really do stride with long steps across the landscape. People simply refuse to understand.
Come here, Created World. Here people are flawed, just as in that parallel world where I constantly trip over myself. Here they are evil. And stubborn. And plotting. And dishonest. And loving. And seeking. And generous. But here, I own the real estate. Things are safe here. I may not like the direction of events—especially when a plot runs away with itself, and I’m forced to chase it, yelling “Wait, wait, it’s me, remember?”—but I have indomitable faith that all will turn out for the best in the end.
Yet. People. Hmmmmm.
I create my characters out of physical models. Not all of them, but often the principals, and especially the male lead…my version of teenage stalker- fandom, I guess.
I make a concerted study of these folks. I watch for nuances of speech; for physical mannerisms; for clues to psychology. I am fully aware that these views are outward manifestations only…iceberg-tops, with the greater part of the person hidden from view. But these observations give me a place for imagination to begin taking hold.
But here’s the thing… what happens when a character-model does something irredeemably stupid in real life? Like falling in love with someone half his/her age. Or trying to scale a lamppost in an orgy of drunk driving. Or turning out to be a kitty-molester. Or a Republican. Then my life gets more difficult.
Sorry, but in this case, as much as I hate it, that other life becomes all-about-me. If the revelation of kitty-molestation comes after the book is finished, not so bad. I can retreat to the eidolon, the Created Construct. If it happens mid-work, then I’m in a not-good place—like finding a half a worm halfway through your salad. And if it happens in real-real living life? The not-written world I’m obliged to wake up to every day? Yikes.
I don’t want to be grudge-holding. I don’t like the judgmental me (the other half of the person who, often unfortunately, can see multiple sides to everything.) But I am those things. sometimes. On paper, those qualities work. In life, not so well.
I read a report, once, about a woman who was wakened from a coma who asked to be returned to it. The world outside her head just didn’t manage to live up to her hopes; the inside world was much more beautiful. Damn me, but I know how that feels. The idealist runs rampant through the streets of my head. Somebody stop me. Before I think again.
And, once again, for your Friday viewing…The Spiritkeeper trailer…
As I face the end of the current book—as I look down the barrel of the last five or six chapters—I find myself looking with a kind of quizzical, unafraid awareness of what’s ahead…and what it will ask of me.
A complicated tangle of plot lay ahead…that will be neither tangled nor complicated if I handle it right. Five chapters, each loaded to the gills with drama and denouement; journeys to the inner realms of the heart and the ends of the universe (no kidding—not too ambitious, huh?)
I am entering tour de force country. The jeopardy here is tremendous. This is the downhill slope with lots of twists and turns. No guardrails, here—and no brakes. No place to turn things around if these chapters don’t work.
Every word has added meaning from here on in. Every mote of punctuation. Every rhythm, every stroke, every nuance. I will need to make sense of the impossible. I will need to make each thing that has been leading to this place undeniably compelling.
That I don’t yet know what the ending is? Not worried about it. That the finale for one of the characters suddenly has just thrown a monkeywrench into itself by doing something I never intended it to do. That will work itself out. That the next few places I will go will be among the most creatively challenging of my life. For now, I can deal. I live in the patience of the moment, in a place filled with possibility.
Can’t say that the feeling will last. It may not last the day. It may not have the conviction to fuel the drive to the end. But I will take the day. And make it mine.
A writer sees with writer-eyes. Eyes that make snapshots of everything. Sometimes those shots are full of joy; sometimes, full of tragedy.
I had both kinds of kept-images this weekend. Life and death in 48 hours.
On Saturday evening, an unfamiliar whistle called me out into the approaching dusk. A rising birdcall, over and over. I looked up to the side of my little Arkansas stone-clad ranch house. Something was clinging to the stone. Something that flew to the ground five feet from where I stood.
A baby owl.
The thing was adorable. Wonderful. A little greyish thing, streaked with brown, maybe eight inches tall. Still full of baby fuzz and just-fledged clumsiness. He sat on the ground for several minutes, seemingly uncertain about what to do next. Then he lifted on owl-silent wings and flew to my one remaining peach tree. Started calling again. Called all night. Called all the next night. An explanation of why I’ve seen the female out at unusual hours: baby-owl mouths to feed.
Yesterday morning, then, the downside of natural wonder.
The rancher across my little go-nowhere road has been haying the field. Doing it in sections, one swath, then another, one day then the next. A cattle pasture is left to grow tall when the cows are moved to another field. Perhaps that was the reason for the tragedy.
Two uncommon things, there. Both were telling. A massive flock of vultures. A gathering that only appears when something is newly-born. Or dead. The little bones, the tawny bits torn between the scavengers, the tiny rib cage suggested the sad thing that dinner was.
Beside the buzzards a doe, standing. Watching. Mourning. If I had ever doubted that an animal could mourn, I will doubt no longer. This strong brown doe looked stunned. Her mouth was open, an approximation of human grief. Her tail lay low, not its characteristic white flag. She didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. As a person might not.
A few times, as I watched, she would come back to herself. Charge the gathered birds. Challenge them. Try to run them off. As if she held on to the hopeless hope that she might save the little thing that was, even at a distance, so clearly beyond saving. Deer, like people, can find the acceptance of death impossible.
No way to know whether the fawn was lost to the hay mower or to the birds that wait for newborns; that have been known to kill fresh calves. But this…I couldn’t watch any longer. I couldn’t make the image go away.
That’s why this post is about nature, not writing. It’s a writerly tribute to a sadness and a joy. The things that happen in the turning of a day.