Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Welcome to my world.
Springtime, I think of in terms of pastels, the baby scents of birth and gentle things. Summer is a blast furnace of high activity, sweat -- a crucible of ripening, labor in preparation for a winter's ice unkind. My favorite time is that space when summer kisses goodbye to sweaty, blooming romance and settles into a satisfaction of harvest-time.
Though I cannot point to a favorite kind of animal (each of them has their own merits and beauties), nor to a favorite color, even, I can still take a breath any day of the year and bring to mind those sweet August nights of cool mist. I can smell those precious, juicy late-season tomatoes and almost touch the odor of homegrown sweet basil, that spicy mint-family herb that blends so well into tomato dishes, or with buttered new potatoes. I can see the tall, vivid purple tops of ironweed, and the elegant silver-mauve heads of Joe Pye weed leaning heavy with brilliant, fluttering butterflies, themselves like gypsy petals of some exotic, mobile bloom, all of it scattered among goldenrod and wild sunflower or the fading heads of Jerusalem artichoke. A land of green, passing into phases of purples and golds, royal in its independence of spirit, blessed by people of surpassing stubbornness and resourceful ways. Though a king or queen might scorn these hills, so would the land scorn such a ruler. Yet in the easternmost provinces of the state, there is a dark-hearted king with no golden crown, who would gladly destroy it all without a backward glance.
The battle is heart-rending; the ancient connection of people for land, and for those who would – in the name of love and survival of family – agree to destroy the foundations of what has been termed an 'internal nation of lesser means'. Before the so-called 'Civil War', this land called Kentucky was a rich provider; that information has been quelled and warped, lost in the struggles of change. Where once sheep and geese grazed, where hogs fattened and cattle ranged loose with only ear-notches or brands to point out ownership, the carpetbaggers laid claim. They have never left. In the creation of a historical novel, one need not be special. Only a few things might be good to know:
Or perhaps broken down more clearly:
• Food production and preservation
• Farming for profit or trade
• Shelter forms and construction
• Animal production, including that of burden beasts
• Animal training (guard, burden/riding, etc.)
• Tool production, including raw resources such as metals or wood, ceramic, and more
• Leather production and working
• Sources of religions/faiths and their customs or conflicts
• Historic past of various peoples and their relationships
• Trade routes, methods and means
• Roads and transportation
• Production of misc. household needs
• Recreational habits and so on
• Common names and cultural drift information
• Landscape realities and requirements
• War repercussions, uniforms, etc.
• Lingual drift
• Song and legend
• Medicine/healing practices
That's only a part of it; there is of course a great deal more, including a working knowledge of a good many then-vital trades that either no longer exist, or exist now only in terms of artisans and tourism application. Blacksmiths still shoe horses, but will someone please tell me where to find a cooper who still makes wooden barrels for storage? Therefore, research (including some hands-on), and a huge amount of careful proofreading and editing is mandatory. It's not quite as easy as it seems.
In the last few months, I have had people who never tried to write anything try to convince me that this is nice, easy, sweat-free work. I have consistently and openly told them they're sadly ignorant of the facts. Some of them haven't liked this opinion. Oh well. The truth is the truth, I tell them. I suggest, "Go on, try it. If you can do it easier than I can, I'll gladly give you a public apology.” I seal it with a wide, toothy grin, and they subside for a while. Bless 'em.
A novel cannot be written in ten-minute increments. It is a heart-rending labor, and if the story one has to tell comes from the depths of understanding born of a lifetime spent in the center of it, it's infinitely worse.
Since starting this novel, which by the way I refuse to abandon as 'too hard' or 'too involved', I have had many long nights of no real sleep, lying in a sort of stasis, unable to move, while various characters lived out significant chunks of their lives in my head. I will, I swear, always insist that when this story is fully written (if it doesn't become some sort of life-long cancer of the dream-making portion of my brain) it was the voices in my head that made me do it. Not ten minutes at a time, either.
All of this and more, I am learning. No longer young, and saddled with lameness in a chronic, recurrent way, I cannot run. I am too old to want to hide, either, preferring to stand until I cannot, leaning into the storm winds, feeling hard stones beneath my feet to remind me of reality. If there be harness sores and scars, so be it.
In my scribble-book, a common spiral-bound student's notebook, there are notes for three new chapters not yet roughed in. I liken those to charcoal sketches on a blank canvas. I need to work on them before time blurs the lines and I have to start again. Some of the chapters are in a fair, but far from perfect state of editing. They will and do need more work. A few pieces, some designed to be interspersed among the ordinary chapters, will also need editing further, clarifications and expansions or trimming all routine. The finished product should be 80,000 words or more. The average writer produces about 500 to 1,500 words per session... if undisturbed. At 500 words per working day (not always possible), it would take around 160 sessions to complete it at the basic word-count number of 80,000.
In short, this means that the writer has to beg, borrow, steal, or browbeat those scant hours out of an ordinary life's day. Around spouses, aging parents, illness or death among family or friends, other work if it applies, pets, children and their personal needs and social lives, and so on. Ergo, something has to give. Usually, or so I'm told, a writer's social life goes first. Then the juggling begins. A real space to work in is hard to find: not area, really, but undisturbed space. Privacy to concentrate. Room to stare out the window, just breathe, and to let things happen.
Unfortunately, it's a social reaction of family and friends to assume that a person staring out a window is not busy. Perhaps they need entertained. Alternatively, have time to run an errand. Or want a bowl of ice cream, or ... oh yes, indeed, please turn up the television in one room, the stereo in another, and someone please try to yell over all the din and ask what the belabored writer wants for supper... "Are you crying?" Passing the tissues won't help. Locked doors don't help. Headsets and nature sounds don't help. Screaming won't help, from either side. Silence becomes precious and escape is mandatory.
From a state of desperation, I have more than once escaped into a mountainside cow pasture with my laptop, notes, research books -- and a pair of binoculars to use in checking on someone mowing the hillsides. From that vantage point, on (let's say) a cool mid-August day, I sit in our worn-out old Jeep Cherokee with its sand-laden, threadbare carpets, and write. It's pure peace by comparison to the usual flood of interruptions. Crickets singing in the shade, grasshoppers zinging around trying to escape the neighborhood birds, a distant old dog barking as if half bored to tears. There is the smelly stink of tomato vines and the contrasting sweet, salt-blessing odor of ripening tomatoes. A couple of horses amble by from time to time, going or coming from grazing to salt block, or to where a small spring gives them clean water in the shade of gnarled black willows. One of them snuffles my elbow curiously; I find comfort in patting her neck and swatting a couple of horse-flies companionably, stretching a bit, then going back to work with my stress levels much reduced by the encounter. I work with short breaks until after the sunlight gets too weak to see the first round of notes. Book after book I've peeled through, taking notes for more work to come, by the light of a tiny flashlight held determinedly in my teeth in order to free both hands up to work, even while the tractor’s being serviced in preparation for another day's mowing. The next day is much the same. In my memory, I suspect I'll always tag those days as being the key to my mind. Green mountainsides, all full of things I can relate to in some way. Here I was born, upon this land to live, and such shall I endeavor to fulfill, if I have half a century or so left in me. When these mountains are gone, when the hillsides are flattened and gone forever, trickling springs, wild things, and all, I intend to leave my spirit behind to remember them as they were, as they were created to be. Let them change only in the fullness of a time I do not have, even as I dream on, willing only the leaving of a few stories behind in some way.
No, I am not a 'writer' or 'novelist' or 'poet' yet; I may never truly be any of those. I can only borrow stories from the world I come from, and hope they live longer than I do, with richer lives much improved from those I have lived to see or learn of in my limited time. Just as every other dreamer before me who took up opening a window on a favorite season -- the brittle, glassy rage of muffled winter, the birth-cry of mud-rich spring, or the sultry green grace of summer, perhaps, unlike my own glorious autumn memories.
The memories I have are of sitting around a fire on my father's knee, spoiled and petted by his rough-cut friends, who invariably smelled like the Beagle hounds they listened to chasing rabbits in the cool night, often holding a handful of gorgeous colored leaves as I dozed off wrapped in his warm jacket and singular scent. Then of course half-waking up in the truck seat (it smelled like horses and molasses-laced chewing tobacco or cigarettes) as we jounced our way home from the meeting place.
This time of year is a reminder of a proud but blind great-grandmother who loved those strange tall flowers one rarely sees any more, with their purple and white blooms and tiny bean-like seedpods dangling down; she asked me to take her to them in the yard, so she could touch them one more time, and smell their faint scent. I led her carefully, with all the dignity of a child who doesn’t yet understand the concerns of elderly folk and broken bones, through all the obstacles from her room to the shade of the enormous maple tree in the yard, where the plants grew, planted in an old water-well casing. When she had done her visit, she thanked me gravely. This near-ritual was repeated for several years. The strings of braided onions in the barn, the ranked up jars of green beans, pickles, corn, and so on above a sand-box stuffed with carrots and even some pieces of horseradish root come to mind, as does the moldy-sweet odor of potatoes, the rich gold of news-bees hovering close, or that deep glow of wildwood honey. Long strings of shuck-beans and carefully stored jars of seeds had light and color all their own in the airy, dim recesses of a big, old house, its windows open to the cool of evening while supper sat on the table, in the act of being consumed, forks clicking busily.
I can still hear the whippoorwill's song echoing across the hollers, the soft call of an owl or perhaps the shivering-whinny of a screech owl so weird to the ear. In the hoof-falls of a horse, mule, or pony is a metronome counting off rhythms timeless beyond even my own knowing. Honeysuckle in spring is a balm to my winter-dried soul, and I wait for it every year as the season of cold passes. These things and more are still upon this land.
Ah, but the stories... the stories. Where would the seasons be, without the stories to carry them ever forward? Is this where the Native peoples of this land say, "Someone is calling. Are you listening?"
Could it be that it's worth the work and worry after all?