Monday, March 30, 2015


Everything has a story in it. The writer’s work is discovering the story and re-telling it to others. It probably started around a primitive hearth before a cave or a more crude shelter. As is the nature of people, some were better than others, some told stories in ways that were memorable and maybe even a bit more dramatic than the real event. The better the drama, the greater demand for the story to be repeated. So creative writing probably had its beginning in that form.

For most of us who write I suppose the same rules apply: we listen, we watch, we interpret and, if we are creating fiction, we make enough changes to disguise the original events. That lets us tell the story to a wider audience. What we are really doing, of course, is sharing our history and the way we live.

For me, for a long time, observing my own life, and the life of people I know, generated story after story. Sometimes the stories even got written and shared. Over time that process has slowed down, making me wonder if I had lost the ability to find the story in everyday life. Not to worry: it still happens. Just not as frequently. And as always, when a new story begins to tell itself in my mind, it may not turn out to be one I care about repeating.

Just the other night a chance meeting with a friend when we were shopping in another town, brought me to the door of another life to explore. I listened as my friend recounted something he had observed, people whom we both knew doing something we hadn’t known about. And then we parted and went our separate ways. As so often happens, the elements of the story came back to me as we were making the long drive home. Characters asserted themselves, lining up to introduce their own parts in the story. As I met them and the tale developed, aspects of their lives were revealed, and speculation on my part found them doing things that perhaps they did, but most likely were what the writer decided were part of a bigger or better or more exciting story. By the time I was back in the house and we were settling in our chairs to read for a few hours before bed, I had to reach for my chairside notebook and lay out the plot, the characters and the possible arc the story will cover.

I won’t share details of the story until I have written it and decided that it is worth sharing. It will be a story of suspense I think, and I believe I know who the main players are. I even know how the story will end (at least for now). This is the exciting part of writing, for me: seeing a storyline start, grow and become a tale to tell. Much of what happens next is hard work, often grinding hard, but it is what makes writing pull me and push me and keep on working. In a quiet way, a manner that suits me best, I create lives and stories about those lives, much of it remaining known only to me. Much of what I “discover” may not appear in the final story, but it contributes to the creation of a character or event the reader can believe. Discovering motive and action on the part of a created character is exciting. Seeing imagined events and responses, detailing the things that cause a character to act (or not), is the part of the creative process I find most exciting and rewarding. Writing the final story is often an anticlimax because by the time I type “The End,” I’ve known what it will be long enough to not be surprised. Oh, yes – the ending can be a surprise, even to the writer, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Sometimes the “back story” is more interesting than the tale itself.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Learning From Others

I once worked for a guy named Dixon whose mantra was “The right money, the right tools, the right people: two out of three and you can build a masterpiece.”

Over the years I worked for a lot of different people. I was fortunate to be hired early in life by men who were eager to share what they knew and had learned in building their own careers.

When I thought I wanted to be an architect I had an after-school job in a firm that designed and engineered everything from private homes to commercial buildings and schools. The architect who owned the business saw to it that I received on-the-job instruction by assigning me to various tasks with the associates who worked for him.

While I was in high school, then college (and no longer pursuing architecture), I worked in broadcasting and film. The owners of the companies I worked for shared years of experience that often gave me answers to problems I encountered in later years as a filmmaker.

When I graduated and was beginning to make my way in the world of film, I also pursued another field I loved (and still do): automobiles. For a while I had a part-time sales job with a small dealer in foreign cars. The manager was a man in his 60s who had been in the car business most of his life. Eddie, for some reason, decided he would share his knowledge with me, partially by telling me great stories of his days as a service station owner, a bootlegger, and during the late 30s, as regional service manager for one of the country’s most prestigious car makers. A lot of what I know about keeping old cars running came from his stories as we worked after-hours on one of my cars or the owner’s Lotus racer.

Eddie’s way of teaching was to assign me a task, such as setting the ignition points on a car. I would do the work, then call him to check it out. I still remember his “Got it right?” question before he checked my work. Then he’d bend over the engine and check it himself. “Do it again.” Then he’d walk away. I’d check the setting, and sure enough, there would be some adjustment left. If nothing else, I learned not to be afraid of setting things tight to the specs. In other words, not to back away from something difficult, but to confront it, challenge it, to always seek perfection. It is a lesson that I have tried to honor all my life.

One of the many filmmakers I worked for used a different approach. We would work together in the final editing stages of a film I had written, and long into the night we would grind away at the Moviola, Phil putting the art into the editing, I sitting beside him, ready to expand or contract the script as necessary. It was often two or three in the morning when he would stop the film, back it up, run it, back it up, then turn to me and say something like, “I need 14 seconds of words here.” I’d get up, go to my typewriter, and come back with the 14 seconds of words. I learned to see, to connect and to work fast, no time for thoughtful lingering over words, but creating the right combination to fit the scene, walking back to the editing room just as the boss finished a splice. He’s run it again, I’d read the 14 seconds of words, and we’d move on.

In my own time, I’ve tried to carry on what those men and others taught me: to pass on the knowledge, the experience, the excitement of what my work meant to me, so that other young men and women could benefit from what I had learned, could carry on the skills and knowledge I had mastered with the help of those masters of craft I was fortunate enough to know. And I learned to always surround myself with people who knew more than I did, and let them show it.

The right money, the right tools, the right people: two out of three will create a masterpiece.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sounds Like a Plan

I was nine years old when I decided I would be an architect. I would live on a farm. I would own a radio station.

As it turned out, I worked in several radio stations, I designed and built some houses, and I live on a farm. I actually studied architecture (briefly), before I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That was before I discovered writing, the work that compels me even today. At the same time, I have never lost interest in architecture, and in building things.

My most recent building is a woodshed next to the outdoor furnace that heats our rambling mountainside home on our farm. When we bought this property more than 25 years ago, it had three houses already on it, but none really suited us. Instead, we designed our new home ourselves, and our contractor worked from drawings I prepared, most of them finished a day or two before he was ready for the next phase (site preparation, foundation, framing, roofing and so on). Skills I had learned during summer jobs in an architectural firm are still relevant today, although most architects depend on computer aided design (CAD) programs. Now our daughter is preparing to move back to the farm, taking up one of the existing houses, and one granddaughter is preparing to move here in the summer and build a new house in one of our fields, so there will continue to be interesting construction plans and projects to follow.

As part of keeping up-to-date about structures and materials and design trends, I recently read a book that surveyed architecture over about the last thousand years. It was interesting, not because I had not been familiar with early exercises in designing buildings, but because I haven’t kept up with trends in modern building design. Reading the book has been somewhat akin to surveying trends in literature, particularly fiction. Fiction because it is where the writer’s mind is free to leap from real to beyond belief with little penalty. As new directions in fiction appear I often find myself longing for the period that spanned the first half of the Twentieth Century. The same with architecture.

The advent of CAD, and of new materials and the engineering that makes them work often leaves me wondering “Why?” Why design something that to me looks like things we did in the design lab that occupied three hours every day when I was still studying architecture. We experimented with materials, with form, with color, but precious little was thought of as practical either in approach or usefulness. They were exercises, and that’s all.

I’m showing my age, I know, and I’m at risk of being one of those “we didn’t do it that way in MY time” bores, but it is how I see forms and structures (books or buildings) that strive for the outer limits, for edginess in construction. All too often those forms wither on their own. The  energy and creativity and just plain giddy experimentation that go into those attempts could serve a much better purpose if the energy spent was aimed with more precision at providing usable space or telling a wonderful tale.

I do admire a creative use of space or materials, and derive great pleasure from words that fit
together as if hand-carved to be joined in just the right way; the only way those elements could go together and be perfect. I don’t want or expect every story to read like every other in terms of form or language. But sometimes, as a reader, I can be distracted to the point of losing my way. When the form the author has imposed is more challenging or interesting than the story itself, when the form the building takes makes it easy to lose your way, it is often easier to simply turn around and leave.

Book or building: both should have a discernible shape, with clear guide lines to get you from entrance to exit.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Old Writers, New Directions

For years I’ve been part of a small group of writers that meets (weather permitting) every Tuesday morning. We bring what we are working on, seek  comments, discuss problems, encourage each other. The group is small. Intimate, cozy, at home with ourselves and each other. And perhaps a bit tired.

We’ve recently had a new voice join us, younger by a generation at least. And I realize how old the rest of us have become. Old in our ways, perhaps in our thinking. Certainly in our enthusiasm.

We’ve been doing this for years now, this weekly meeting. We are comfortable but not careless; problems aren’t glossed over or minimized. Our purpose, our focus remains the same: to help each other write well and truly about whatever theme or subject we individually have chosen. It is a powerful and encouraging meeting. But we have become less intense about our work, I suspect.

Our new member has published before, though not in fiction. Her interests and skills are broad-based, and she is now exploring other genre. And her ideas flow and thrust themselves out into our world on an almost daily basis: “Have you written about this?” “Are you doing that?” “I’m trying a new idea.” All come tumbling out, driving us to consider new directions ourselves, getting us excited about some new ideas and challenges. And it is very exhausting!

Frankly, I’m finding it hard to keep up. Somewhat like starting a new exercise regimen, one must repeat the action over and over for a prolonged period before it becomes easy and, I might add, rewarding. I’m not really sure it’s age-related, though. As with anything one does repeatedly, over time it will lose its urgency, become routine. It is one cause of dreaded “writer’s block.”

Looking back over the years our group has been working together we have prompted, promoted and pushed each other to start, refine, finish and start again one writing project after another. I know my own books would not have been finished, probably not even started, had I not had the benefit of this corps of skilled, astute and motivated fellow strivers. Together we search for the right themes, the perfect form, the absolute right word in line after line, page upon page, of chapter and finished manuscript. But even that can benefit from new blood, new muscle, from exercise that stretches us creatively.

 Writing each day, whether a new chapter or just a line, or even a “note to self” about an ongoing or new project, is what we do.

New directions or ideas or techniques are exercises we must also do and repeat.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Can Spring Be Far Behind?

Up here on the ridge above Upper Fork Road the view can be incredibly beautiful, even if the weather is not. Today snow blankets the hay fields below the house, and the open spaces that climb up on the other side of the river to join Shenandoah Mountain. The sky is between bright and gray, with an occasional slip of blue and a dab of sunlight.

Closer to the house, half way up the ridge, it isn’t always so beautiful. The snow along the sides of the driveway is still more than a foot high and showing signs of traffic. And parts look (and feel) as if they will remain frozen and white well into Spring. It represents work unfinished as much as the view across the narrow valley presents a picture of the world peacefully sleeping. And I’m ready to wake up.

It’s been about two weeks since Buddy and Teddy and I have been able to hike the ridge behind the house, or even circle the fields below. Snow is still deep and that makes walking too dificult for comfort. Of course the dogs love it, roll in it, eat it. They even do that in the snow piled on either side of the cleared part of the walkway between house and driveway. That brings loose snow down on the part we’ve shoveled clear (several times), which takes a bit more of the beauty away from the winter scenery, but Teddy and Buddy and even little Louie love to eat the snow and roll in it and make a bit more work for us. It’s part of their charm, I guess.

All-in-all we have had some winter that reminds us of earlier times here. Still never as cold, never as long as years ago. There is no sign that the earth is turning its back on the global temperature rise. Winter no longer begins in September and brings snow in May. In fact winter lasts a month or six weeks now, with dips in temperature to remind us of what we are losing.

March will soon give way to April, I know. Snow will melt and help refill the aquifer that holds the water we drink, and that is so important to all of us. Days will be pleasantly warm, nights less frigid, wood will last longer in the shed beside the furnace. Quickly, then, the white will give way to brown and that in turn will become green. And we will relax a bit.

This has been a severe winter for us even by mountain standards. The northeast has seemingly tilted toward the arctic more than just away from the sun, but it’s been tolerable here. We haven’t met snow above the top of the door, nor been unable to dig out and plow out and even drive out to the bigger world. Soon, I know, our views will be foreshortened by leaves that obscure even the branches of the trees.

The only thing, you see, is that it’s hard to visualize the Spring when Winter holds us so tight in its cold, white glove.