Sunday, November 30, 2014

Telling Tales

I recently went to a book introduction for a novel written by a neighbor. His work hits the best seller lists from time-to-time, and his remarks the other day were sort of a master class in fiction writing. Actually in writing, period. He described his own process in researching and writing fiction, which, as far as I know, are common to all who ply this craft.

One thing stood out: “I’m a storyteller,” he said.

I instantly was reminded of the day I discovered that in myself. I was driving to meet with a group of other writers, struggling to learn the craft of fiction (as opposed, in my case, to writing fact). As I let the car follow the curves and slopes of the three mountains I had to cross, it came to me (as things do to writers) that in fact, what all of this was about was being a storyteller. I proffered those words to the group when we met, and elaborated on the theme.

Writing is a form used to tell stories, but we all begin by actually telling, speaking the stories we have within us. We begin as children, letting our imaginations roam the universe we inhabit (and perhaps some that do not exist . . .yet). We don’t always know the line between real and imaginary, and some of us never learn it. That is what writing fiction is all about.

We gather our audience, whether in person or through pages, and we tell our stories. We, all of us, love stories. Love to imagine things as we would like them to be, or are afraid they might be. When all the light was from the fires lit to warm us and cook our meat, we sat around the fire and told our dreams, our imaginings, our shaped fears and hopes. And always, some were better than others at shaping a story, at making it come alive. Poets, bards, tellers of tall tales all found their way into the circle around the fire. And some were singled out for fame, for the respect they earned at their craft.

Writing our stories simply expanded our audience size. No longer limited to a single performance, the written story could be shared over and over with one or many, could take on a form that was passed down through the ages even to today. Now a storyteller holds the respected title of “writer,” or “author,” and can be found on best-seller lists and in bookstores, libraries and on electronic media and other forms of sharing. It is still telling a story, beginning at a beginning and ending at “the end.” No matter what it is called, no matter what the author is called, all who write are, first and foremost, tellers of stories.

I am a storyteller, and this is my story, too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Sound of Democracy

Two weeks ago we held elections in this country. We held them and almost nobody came. There are lots of things we can put off or shift to others, but let me suggest that voting for those who will lead us into the future, even a two-year future, is not one of them. If you didn’t vote when you had the opportunity, why?

Did someone stand in the doorway with a weapon and threaten you? Were there no ballot boxes or voting machines where you were supposed to find them? How about people to watch and assure you a safe and secure place to cast your vote in private? None of those? Then what’s your excuse?

More than that, what do you expect when those who were elected (local, state, federal) propose and pass laws you don’t like? If you are among the millions who complain but don’t vote, I’d say you have nothing to complain about.

In 1776 the people who lived here fought for the right to name leaders, demand action, and take responsibility for the direction of our nation. When it is time to vote and you don’t, you are letting down the memory and spirit of those who came before; those who fought and died for what we are, who we are. The results of elections don’t always go the way I like, or the way you might like, but at least you have a say. If you don’t, then you are committing the crime of silence. I hope the next time the polls open you will be waiting at the door. Otherwise you will have to listen helplessly to the sound of democracy dying.

The sound of democracy dying is an oligarch laughing.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Savoring Life

I really prefer to write short stories or novellas, rather than the longer, more involving novel form. I know what I want to say, I like to keep the reader involved and contributing to the story, and I believe the shorter forms demand more reader participation. That seems to be a characteristic of everything I have done, or do. I want to do what I want or need to do, and then get on to the next thing.

Take eating, for instance. Where did I learn to eat? I hardly know sometimes what it is I’m eating. I was told that as a baby I was always hungry, and that seems not to have changed, except that instead of feeling hungry, I simply attack my food with such intensity that five minutes after I’ve eaten the last bite I have forgotten what I’ve had. I know that I appreciate what tastes good and what doesn’t, and I can genuinely praise the work that resulted in what was prepared, but to recall it later, is often beyond me.

I read the same way. When I sit down with a book or a magazine (we don’t get daily papers here), I want to finish the story and get on. If the lede is too long, if the story has too much information, I want to skip and get to the end, find the writer’s conclusion, agree or disagree and turn the page.

Writing is like that, too. I begin every story with the end in mind. I know what I want to say, what I want to tell, and the reward comes from discovering how to get from first word to last. And it doesn’t take long for me to want to get there. And of course, the story doesn’t always end up where I thought it would. Characters and their lives often takeover a story and make it their own, still ending up where I wanted to go, but not always. Sometimes the story comes alive in ways I hadn’t anticipated, going where I had not thought I was headed, becoming something more than what I had in mind. There is great pleasure in that, too.

There is great pleasure in all of these things: eating, reading, writing. I just don’t think I’m getting the full measure of satisfaction and pleasure out of any of them.

I don’t savor the moment, or the words, the writing or the food. I know when it tastes good or doesn’t, when a writer’s work excites me or stimulates me or frustrates or angers or bores me. I feel the pleasure a well written line or page or book can bring, but it is fleeting.

There is a big difference between liking and savoring. The difficulty is that after all these years, while I can recognize what’s lacking, I haven’t yet learned how to correct it; to enjoy the things I like.

I need to savor life.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Getting Away, or Getting Away With It

I don’t mind telling you that I’m just a bit tired. Last week we spent our days walking on the beach, sitting on the Healing Porch, eating wonderfully creative food that should be known among the gourmand elite. All-in-all, it was a tough week. Sunshine every day, temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, sun and sand and surf. It was truly grand.

Yesterday we had snow. Not much, and not bad, and today it blew away with warming temperatures and sunny skies, but still. And that means we are being warned, not warmed. The prediction is for a hard, cold winter. Well, yes. We do live on a mountainside, we do experience cold and snow and the charm of woodsmoke and hearty stews and toasty fireplaces. We have an old bed warmer, a long-handled copper pan that we can fill with hot coals from the fireplace and then circulate under the covers for a few minutes before climbing into bed of a cold winter’s night, but in reality, we seldom use the fireplace, we burn our wood outdoors in a special furnace that sits some 70 feet from the house itself, and we maintain a comfortable living space that serves us well.

The impact of returning home was somewhat lessened by the greeting we received from the dogs (who had spent the week at a country inn), and by the opportunity to see (and hold and kiss) the newest member of the family, born while we were away. He’s a grand looking little fellow, full of cuteness and huggableness (being a writer means you can make up words) and, of course, infinite promise. There is more warmth in that than in a year of sun and surf.

So now it’s back to work. I spent part of every day away, working on stories that I have not yet published. I’m thinking a collection (they are mostly short, novella-length or less) might be the next publishing venture, or a novel I have written three times and can’t find the version that truly satisfies me. I’ll tell you about it if I decide to rewrite it one more time, to get it right, and send it out into the world. But it takes time.

I don’t know about you, but I have always found vacations interrupt my working rhythm as much as they help me feel ready to take on whatever comes next. Finding the right balance is always a trick to be mastered (some never do), and for a writer it is perhaps just a bit harder than for others. The thing is, you see, when you write, you are putting yourself into a peculiar and uncomfortable position. You are proposing that complete strangers look at your innermost thoughts and deepest feelings and interpret for themselves who you are. You are asking people you don’t know and will never meet, to comment on your abilities, you skills, your art. Those are the things that make up the person the writer is, and by presenting oneself, even through a fictional story, you are literally (literarily) offering yourself up for a slicing and dicing that makes what the gourmet chef does to a carrot look like first grade finger painting.

Is it any wonder that a week of talking, laughing, listening and holding yourself in a static mode is something a writer approaches with mixed feelings?

As I write this I am also thinking about tomorrow, about election day. I will spend the day, starting about five AM, with two of my neighbors, running our local precinct. Of the 100 or so registered voters we serve, we hope all will turn out, but about 65% usually do. Still higher than many places. I hope you will take the time to go and, with thoughtful consideration, vote your conscience and beliefs. If we all do that, we can take a giant step toward protecting the life to which the founding fathers pledged their lives, their honor and their sacred fortunes.

Staying home should not be an option.