Waiting for my flight to Chicago, then on to Burlington. Travel gods and goddesses willing, tonight I will lay me down to sleep at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The wild and wonderful world of residency is just around the corner!
Writing is not an 8:00 to 5:00 job. It’s a way of being, and looking at the world, and the hours are pretty much 24/7, year round. It requires being a good observer, ever on the lookout for bits of life that have story potential: a scrap of overheard conversation, an interesting mannerism, a quirky detail, or sometimes an idea big and expansive enough to add a new level to a novel.
Recently I had one of those big and expansive ideas pop into my head. The only problem was that it came to me as I was leaning back in a dental chair, mouth wide open, getting my teeth cleaned. It didn’t seem like a good moment to pull out my notebook and jot the big and expansive idea down, like I usually do. The polisher was whirling like it was angry, and mint flecks were flying. So instead I used a little chant, which I sung in my mind to help me remember: “Existential sandwich. Existential sandwich. Existential sandwich.” And it worked. As soon as I got back in the car, I captured the idea in my notebook.
Then I went home and had a PB&J.
I read an article recently on aging. (Sorry, can’t cite it; don’t remember how it came across my radar.) According to research, there is objective age — exactly how long you’ve been alive on the planet (for me: 66+ years) — and there is subjective age — how old you feel. Last Saturday night I had the great fortune to go downhill skiing under the lights with my two daughters, and my son-in-law. Snow was slanting in, haloing everything in crystals, and coating the runs with silk. Flying down the slopes, my subjective age plummeted; I was at least a generation younger. Woo-hoo! Is there something you do that makes you feel like you’ve turned back the hands of time?
As writers, where we set out stories has a huge impact on the characters, and so on the narrative. Toss everyone onto an Antarctic ice sheet and see what happens. Or insert the same characters in the Sonoran Desert. The effects will vary, often wildly.
Ditto for the author. Instead of the soggy Northwest, I’ve been in Arizona for the past week: hiking in the canyons of the Santa Catalina Mountains, relishing delicious Mexican food, and writing. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems like my revision is more barebones, prickly in the right places, and at the same time shines.
I’ve just now elbowed myself the mental space to look back at 2017 — the highlights, low moments, the ebb and flow in between. One highlight was running the Timberline Half Marathon in June. Completing all 14.2 miles (it was a half marathon plus) of mountain trails was accomplishment enough. But when I crossed the finish line, an official rushed up to me and told me that I had come in first, and draped a medal around my neck.
First in my age category — 65-69 year-old men.
Okay, but still — yay!
First in my category of 65-69 year-old men which numbered . . . wait for it . . . two. Yep, two. I came in first out of two.
But that’s not the thing that, upon reflection, really stands out. The thing that stands out is that for a few fleeting moments I got all puffed up about being first. I fell into the cultural mindset that sees life as one big competition, with the results always tallied in a vertical hierarchy — I’m on top! This is huge! The rest of you are losers! — and then, just as quickly, I didn’t like that feeling.
It’s not that I’m against competition. I realize that it is part of life, and I enjoy a friendly game of cards, a sled race to the bottom of a snowy hill, watching college football. But I do think that our emphasis on being first above everything else flies in the face of reality. As a species we have proliferated — which, at least from an evolutionary perspective is viewed as “success” — because we have largely worked together to thrive. Cooperation had been our ally, and is the only tact that will help us solve the many problems in the world today. Now, looking back at the Timberline Half Marathon, the thing that sticks in my mind is not when I crossed the finish line. What matters is the camaraderie and sense of cooperation and support among the runners as we encouraged one another — “hang in there!” “keep going!” “you can do it!” — to all make it across. In my mind, that’s winning, and that is the best kind of “first.”
As storytellers, part of our job is to make it hard on our characters. “Put them up a tree, and then throw rocks at them,” the conventional wisdom goes. Of course in real life we do our best to avoid such predicaments. What we wish on our characters we don’t wish for ourselves. Still, life being what it is, the unanticipated happens, and suddenly there we are — clinging to a branch, with stones rifling by our heads.
Or, as is our case here in Oregon, the trees are on fire and smoke-choked air is the ammunition. To be clear, I’m luckier than lucky. Given the loss of forest and property to wildfires here in the Northwest, and from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and from way-too-many tragedies in way-too-many places around the globe, my frustrations are microscopic. The fact that I will not get to go backpacking in the high country of the Cascades this year because of the fires is the smallest of small potatoes. The fact that I have the time and wherewithal to even consider it is a sign of immense privilege. Still, at least it’s a reminder of what it feels like to be denied something I value. Hopefully I can use that reminder to help foster empathy for those who truly suffer, and to bring emotional truth to my writing the next time I’ve got a character up a tree.
As writers, we bust our guts to find the right word to precisely and powerfully express the feeling-idea-mood we want to convey, the one that gives a thumbs up to the question: “Is it true, yet?”
Too often, though, the choice goes hyperbolic: “Epic!” “Radical!” “Awesome!” are tossed around like confetti. An overdose of language and the feeling-idea-mood is drowned.
Then there are the events that merit hyperbole. Monday’s eclipse was a good example. It truly was epic (there won’t be another one in my town of Corvallis, Oregon for 600 years), radical (how often does it go dark at 10:15 AM?), and awesome (not only did it give me goosebumps, it nearly brought me to tears). When it comes to the right word, context matters.