Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Goodbye, Harry

Death is not something one wants to write about, unless perhaps it is a story of escape. Still, it is part of what we think about as we live, even if we don’t admit it. It is no stretch to say that it is what living is all about: avoiding death, preparing for death, accepting death, even welcoming it when it seems inevitable or preferable.

Grief, on the other hand, is something else. Grief is for those who remain. It is a window through which we look at the past and the future: a time when the one lost was with us, and the time ahead when there is only memory.

This was one of those times, one of those weeks, when death and life seemed very much more in our thoughts as a family: one member giving up the fight (as painlessly as possible), and at almost the same time, another receiving a chemically-induced reprieve. Coming almost on the same day, these events have given us all more to think about than perhaps we would wish. But that is what life is about, too: confronting the elemental emotions that make us more human than we sometimes acknowledge. For we are only mere humans. We may overcome some of the fears our kind are born with: of the dark, of the unknowable and the unknown, of the light that blinds. Overcome them, but fear them still.

The changes that death brings are often subtle, shading the meaning of each day. We look back and remember something we should have done, or something we did that we wish we could undo. Our thoughts, while seemingly about another, are really focused on ourselves, on those who remain.

With all the words a writer may command, one is still un-prepared to say the things that matter, that will perhaps make going easier for the one leaving and the ones left behind. In the end, the only word we have is goodbye.

Goodbye, Harry.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thank You

We closed our annual tribute to Spring this afternoon, the second Sunday of a two-weekend festival. The celebration is for the running of the sugar water in the maple trees that constitute a large segment of our forest land here in the Virginia Highlands. Our county is one of the major producers of that golden sweetwater that finds its way even into Vermont maple syrup, and our sugar-house operators are justly proud of their product.

The two weekends attract thousands visitors from all over the country, and I mean "thousands!" Twenty- or forty-thousand many a year (this is the 54th) is not uncommon. For a county with just over two-thousand residents and only about 415 square miles of land within its borders, not to mention only one east-west highway and one north-south highway (almost all two-lane), you can imagine what a time we have. It’s wonderful. In four days every service organization, school project and merchant gets an injection of funds that is every bit as sweet as maple candy!

I write about this because like most everyone else here able to stand up, I spent part of the festival working for organizations I belong to. The second Saturday I worked at the firehouse where I have been a member for nearly 20 years. The job I usually get is to stand at the counter where the drinks are provided and keep the glasses of iced tea (sweet or unsweetened) filled and ready as the long line passes by from cashier to food counter and on the way to the desert table and the diningroom. It is a job I enjoy because I spend so much solitary time as a writer, safely protected by the door (it carries a sign that says: "Quiet! Novel in Progress") to my office, seeing no one, speaking to no one for hours at a time. Standing in one place and having hundreds of people come by, many of whom I know, but the vast majority being strangers or people I only know because they come every year, I get a chance to meet, to talk, to observe (careful what you say . . . I may put you in my next novel) and to listen. With a writer’s ear for dialogue and the ability to understand foreign accents (Noo Yawk, ‘Bama, Down East, among others), I occasionally catch a gem of an expression or an idea. A wonderful place to observe and refine characters.

What I also get (and this is true year-after-year), is a restoration of admiration for my fellow human beings. Picture if you will the long, sometimes unpleasant drive over three or five mountains to get here from the flatlands. Fractious children, complaining geezers, hungry (pancakes-maple-syrup-all-you-can-eat-and-then-there’s-lunch) teens, a line that extends down the long firehall and into the parking lot. Rain sometimes and even snow in years past (though this year we had four warm sunny days), and people by the hundreds shuffling through, eating, leaving. And they all said "Thank you." To me! As if I were responsible for it all. But they were just being polite, nice people, happy to have gotten the food they wanted, happy to be in a community where we are still welcoming to strangers. "Thank you," they say, and pass on by.

This isn’t about writing, of course, but about people. But for me at least, that is what writing is: finding the common thread that ties us together, that makes each of us a "someone." It’s what I like to write about.

Thank you.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Dangerous Conspiracy

I was re-reading an old favorite last week, and ran across a phrase that struck me as worth thinking about. The book was "Not So Wild a Dream," penned in 1946 by the late Eric Sevareid, one of Ed Murrow’s "boys," as they were known. The book, if you can find it, is worth reading both for Sevareid’s recounting of his early life, life as a foreign correspondent and reporter for CBS News during World War II, and for his use of language.
Severide talks about a "dangerous conspiracy of goodwill," which got me thinking about what that really meant. In today’s world there seems to be some lack of such a conspiracy, wouldn’t you say? And it’s not just the politicians. We see it on television, of course, in what passes for news reporting, and we read it on the internet in those "public" private spaces we circulate so freely. But the word that really made me stop and think about this is "dangerous." What could be dangerous about such a conspiracy, and for whom?

If we begin to care about each other, we might want to stop those who want us to hate each other. People who do not show goodwill do not applaud another’s success, only their failure. Those who promote that idea, the idea that only one value, one image is the only acceptable success or the only approved version of the world, leave no room for one of the most important values civilization can confer: growth.

The ability to grow, and thereby change, is a very human characteristic. It is essentially human because to change, to grow, requires that human ability to see beyond the moment, to see around an object or an idea, to explore the sides and top and bottom of a concept or belief. It’s not like looking at a stick and deciding how it can be used to open a clam or knock a cocoanut from a tree. That’s only three-dimensional thinking. We humans possess a kind of vision that is more than stereoscopic, combining the ability not only to see, but to project what we see on other screens, other minds, other selves.

One of the things that drives me as a writer is the hope that my words will somehow contribute to understanding of, and perhaps acceptance of, other people, other times and other ideas.

A "conspiracy of goodwill" might be, in Sevareid’s words, not so wild a dream. It is just that in the darkness of our own times we are more likely to have nightmares instead.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Writer's Doubt

Everyone knows what "writer’s block" means, even if they’ve never experienced it. At least they think they do. It is a condition that occurs when one is writing something and suddenly the words stop flowing. For some the flow is generally easy, for others it is never a "flow" so much as a trickle, but a block is a block. When the words stop coming, the writing stops. It always starts again, though maybe not easily or fluently, but the words are there, and eventually they begin to move from brain to fingertips again. Or mouth if you dictate. It is not a permanent condition.

There is another, similar condition (one which can lead to writer’s block), that I recognize as

"writer’s doubt." You are working along, watching the words build pictures and tell a story, and the process is moving smoothly enough; perhaps too smoothly. Your mind begins to let the story write itself, at least in this draft, and another part of the brain begins to wake up. You begin to ask questions.

The first is often "Where is this going?" Then: "Do I know what I want to say, do I have a complete storyline in mind, are the characters fully dimensioned?" All are legitimate questions, and ones a writer must always be able to answer. Usually, though, they are answered before the first word goes down. It is later, when the story is formed, when the characters have identified themselves to you, when there is a line the action and people will follow, that the writer can ask the most difficult of questions: "Should I be writing this story?" "Am I telling a story that is believable?" "Have I done enough to make the characters true and real?" "It’s a story that needs writing, but am I the one to do it?" "Will I be able to tell the story I want?" "Do I know enough about what I’m writing to be doing this?" Writer’s doubt.

There is a tendency I think, shared by most writers, to question one’s own ability to plot and create and make believable, a story that one needs to tell. Ego will only carry one so far, and then this other emotion awakens and comes oozing down into your consciousness. You stop writing, start agonizing. Writer’s doubt.

And then, like writer’s block, it goes away. The words start forming, the belief in what you are writing grows stronger, and you are back to work. It only remains to finish the draft so that you know you have a story to tell, and that you have told it. The thing you have to do now is start again from the beginning and make everything work.

It looks easy. But I doubt it.