The Scene of the Story

Inspiration isn’t sequential, predictable, or convenient. Oftentimes, when I’m writing a novel, an idea for a scene will strike, and I’ll get very excited about writing it. I’ll spend hours crafting it and honing it to capture the emotion of the moment, and then, I’ll realize that it doesn’t belong at that point in the novel, that it’s likely a scene for much later after I’ve written other scenes. This happens repeatedly until I end up with a jumble of scenes that all belong in other parts of the novel. It makes for a discombobulated mess.

As much as I would like to think writing a novel is a linear process, it’s not. It quickly goes off the rails if I try to organize it in such a fashion. I’ve attended writing classes and seminars where the instructors try to put the writing process into little boxes that you fill up and move along an assembly line. I have this spreadsheet template I was given at one very good writing program, but when I use it, I feel like my creativity is being stamped out like a campfire that is no longer needed.

I’m at my best when my ducks are swimming fancifully all over the lake. When they’re in a row, I feel stilted and uninspired, yet how can I put a bow on the resulting mess? Too much backstory, convoluted plot points, unlikable characters, and other problems nest in the nooks and crannies of a novel in utero. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on perspective, this is the result of an organic approach to writing. I like to let the characters evolve themselves and point me in the next direction. It feels more believable with this approach, but like real-life people, characters are full of contradictions, which either make a story intriguing or doom it to the proverbial draft desk drawer.

In my mind, the straight-laced, anal retentive side battles constantly with the laid-back, come-what-may side as I write a novel. I’m constantly re-reading what I’ve written where the straight-laced side corrects and tidies up as I read along. The laid-back side sighs “Whatever”, but when it comes time to create the next chapter, the laid-back side powers my fingers across the keyboard like a virtuoso piano player banging out a complicated Beethoven concerto.

The result is that I write by feel, which means I write what I’m inspired to write on any given morning. When I feel in the groove, I can knock out two thousand or more words in an hour or so in the morning. If I let myself get too hung up on the structure, I’ll stifle myself and spend more time reading and staring at a blank screen than writing. This approach has yet to prove effective. I have six completed novels, but none of them are at a point of publication. All of them sit in the virtual draft drawer, but I keep writing, scene by scene, and one of these days, it will all come together. Somehow.

The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 2

The cabin was originally built in 1908 by my paternal great-grandfather. It had been improved and expanded several times over the years, and at one point it had been the only cabin on Baker Lake. My great-grandfather had owned all of the land surrounding the lake, but he sold some of the land to fund other business ventures including the bank at which my grandfather and father had worked. My grandfather finished selling all of the remaining acreage save for the vast plot around the cabin on the west end of the enormous lake. The size of the family plot ensured that we’d never see another inhabitant around us, but most of the forest land that bordered our land had been donated to the National Forest Service decades ago by the estate of a wealthy landowner who had passed before he had had the chance to do much development. Some smaller landowners built a couple of cabins on the other side of the lake next to the winding, tar-and-gravel road that circumscribed the lake, but that was it. Our cabin was the perfect place to escape the world. Anything and nothing could happen and no one would ever know.

Electrical lines had been extended to the cabin in the early 1970s before I was born and before our father started bringing us here for our annual summer trips. Dad had probably done more to expand and improve the cabin than his father or grandfather had ever done. He added the second floor loft and another bedroom on the main floor. He had expanded the kitchen and made the living room much bigger with a grand fire place to match. He had also torn down the old porch and made it into a wrap-around structure that extended all the way out and over the lake for several feet. He had kept the rustic feel of the cabin while giving it a touch of the modern luxuries of the time.

As a kid, I loved the sound of the gravel popping beneath our tires when we turned off the road and snaked our way up the driveway toward the cabin. To this day, that sound reminds me of long summer days jumping off the dock into the cool lake water, as cliche a childhood memory as one could have. The cabin smelled old like a musty coat stored in an attic for years. The smell assaulted my nose on the first day at the cabin every year, but then, it faded as if the lake water we tracked from the dock to the kitchen and living room washed it away.

The sturdy cabin had survived decades in the withering environs of the Pacific Northwest. Snow piled up in the winter beating down its cedar shake roof. A constant light rain seeped into every crack and crevice of its walls during most of the year except for the glorious few months of the year when the sun warmed and dried its wooden walls. Even an occasional earthquake had rattled its foundation, but it withstood all of this, and every summer, when Dad yanked the wheel of the old Ford Bronco into that last bend of the driveway, I gleefully looked up at the expressive face of the cabin with the anticipation usually reserved for Christmas morning. The large windows above the porch gleamed at me, and the uneven porch roof line almost seemed like a smile. I used to think the cabin looked like a walrus smiling down at me from the last crook in the driveway. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the summer. I think Hank felt the same way because we’d both dart out of the car and rush to the cabin despite our parents’ pleas to help unload the car.

When we stayed here, we truly felt like a family even if that wasn’t the reality of our lives outside of Baker Lake. Mom and Dad acted like the ideal couple they portrayed back home in Portland, a mirage that belied the tension and mistrust that I never realized was there until much later. Hank, being older, had a much better sense of it, and given his impetuous nature, he often played them against one another.

Once, when I was eight or nine years old before Hank went totally off the rails, I remember being in the bedroom I shared with Hank, unable to sleep. I could hear Hank snoring, but all else was quiet. The windows were open because the unusually hot summer had overstayed its welcome, but a cool breeze rolled in off the lake buffeting the curtain sheers like some sort of Halloween ghost. The breeze felt good, especially since my bed stood right in its path, but my attention focused on the end of the dock where my parents sat next to each other in two of the Adirondack chairs. I could see their dark forms and hear the slight murmurs of their idle chat. I couldn’t clearly hear what they were saying, only one or two words traversed the space between us, but their voices were calm and steady. I watched as my dad leaned in and kissed my mom as the curtain shear batted the window. They held that kiss for the longest time. When he pulled away, my mom scooted closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. As much as I remember, they didn’t say another word in the swoon of the ambient light reflecting off the lake. I fell asleep with that comforting image of them in my head.

After Dad died, Mom did her best to keep the cabin up. She had mostly just updated the furnishings and appliances and decorated in a way that was clearly her style as far as I could tell. I hadn’t been to the cabin since Dad was alive, but Robbie had continued coming up here with Mom for many years afterward even while he was going to college on the East Coast. I couldn’t bear to come here without Dad, so I stayed away.

Eventually, Robbie stopped coming to the cabin too, and Mom made the trek on her own. She spent a lot of time up here before her health turned on her and she could no longer handle the drive. As far as I know, it had been four or five years since anyone had stepped foot in the cabin. The dust that covered everything told the same story.

Neither Hank nor Robbie had wanted the upstairs bedroom, so Hank took the one we had stayed in as kids and Robbie took his old bedroom. I was stuck in the bedroom that Mom and Dad had always taken when we stayed here. It felt weird being in that bedroom. I’d been in it plenty of times as a kid, but now as an adult, it felt like I was trespassing somehow.

Downstairs had grown quiet once Hank shut the door to his bedroom. He’d been loud and obnoxious after several beers, slurring his words and stumbling about as we had walked inside from the dock. I had said goodnight, but Hank just mumbled something incomprehensible and slammed the door. Robbie cut his eyes at me before he waved a wordless goodnight and clicked the door shut behind him after he flipped off the living room light. The tiny lamp in the loft failed to shine much light into the velvety darkness below. I stood there for a moment leaning on the loft railing looking at the blackened space my brothers had occupied. The ghosts of Hank and me trampled through the living room with muddy feet much to our mom’s protest. Robbie was so much younger than us that I hardly remembered him being here when we were kids.

After listening to Hank prattle on for much of the evening, I welcomed the silence. The long day and the tension had worn on me, and I felt tired, but when I turned out the lamp and lay back on the bed, my mind raced circles around me. The full moon brightened the room and gave the shadows a soft edge. I turned away from the windows, the sheers no match for the moon. I considered closing the curtains, but I wanted to wake up to the sunrise like I had on so many summer mornings as a kid. I turned over a few times before I sat up and stared into yawning space of the loft. I could hear the refrigerator humming below, but no other sound greeted my ears.

Finally, I got out of bed and walked over toward one of the big windows. I parted the sheer and glared out onto the dock below. The three Adirondack chairs sat near the water’s edge, dark shadows in the bright moonlight. They were empty of course, but for a moment, I thought I saw Mom and Dad sitting down there, fingers intertwined leaning into each other as they watched the ripples of the lake bat the moonlight. I blinked a few times and they were gone, but something heavy weighed on my chest.

I wondered what they would make of the three of us here at the cabin again. The last time we were all here at the same time, Robbie was still a little boy. Hank had only begun to cause trouble, and I still idolized my older brother in spite of the cracks that had formed in our relationship.

The memories rushed back to me again. Mom and Dad were young again. Robbie was an ambling toddler whom we had to keep away from the edge of the dock. Hank stood tall and lanky with the awkwardness of a teenager, and I was the fawning younger brother who wanted to do everything his older brother did. That time seemed simpler and happier despite the complications that were brewing, but maybe I just felt that way because that’s the way everyone views their youth. Things always seem simpler and easier when you’re young because adulthood is ugly and messy and burdened with the weight of experience.

A young Hank chased me to the edge of the dock below. I jumped in the air and hugged my legs to my chest before I cannonballed into the water. He slid to a stop at the edge of the dock laughing along with me as he teased me from up high. I swam further away from the dock taunting him between my huge gulps of air. Mom sensed we were getting out of hand and gave us a warning. Hank ignored her. He always did. He jumped into the water after me, and I swam frantically to the other side of the dock. I heaved myself up onto the dock and ran away just as Hank tried to grab my ankle from the water below. My laughter almost toppled me, but I made it to Dad’s side under the porch awning before Hank could pounce. Hank stopped a few feet from us and glared at me.

“Henry, will you tell them to stop horsing around before one of them gets hurt?” my Mom pleaded from the chair next to Dad’s.

Dad lifted his head up and looked at us from behind his mirrored sunglasses. I couldn’t tell, but he had been napping in the shade of the porch. “Ellen, boys will be boys. Let ‘em have fun.” His voice was groggy but firm. My mom sighed her displeasure and shot Hank and me a stern look. I made a beeline for the edge of the dock again and dove into the water. This time Hank came in right after me, but the game of pursuit abruptly ended when we saw a duck on the edge of the lake and decided to pursue it. Those summers were like that, joyous and meandering and seemingly never-ending.

Rules for the Road

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the state of my life. When I was younger, I had all of these idealistic visions of how my life would turn out. I had more goals than I would ever have the time or energy to achieve. To be honest, my approach was scattershot, a random spraying of colors across a blank canvas.

Over the years I’ve tried to rein in my restless enthusiasm. I’ve whittled down my goals to things that were truly important. I cast aside those that were obviously outside the realm of realistic possibility. That has helped some, but long-held habits die hard, and just when I think I’ve herded all of the cats into the pen, a few stragglers break away from the crowd and dart into another room.

A few years ago, I boiled down my life-long goals to four. These four things are the most important things to me. I even have these four goals typed onto a small strip of paper and taped to the bottom of my computer monitor in my home office. That way I am reminded of them every day, and I’m forced to reckon with them when I lose my focus. Despite my best efforts, it’s still not enough. I do things that don’t serve the purpose of those goals. I waste time. I get distracted. I lose momentum.

I think about this when I’m on my runs and when I have any other time to think uninterrupted.  I look for ways to mitigate my tendency toward entropy when it comes to my goals. I chastise myself for being unruly and undisciplined. I’m disappointed that I fail to stay focused.

Not all is lost. I just need some guardrails to keep me on the path toward my goals like those bumpers little kids use at the bowling alley to keep the ball in play so that they don’t get discouraged with the difficulty of bowling. Sometimes, adults needs bumpers, or in my case, I need rules of the road to keep me focused.

I will not waste time doing things I don’t want or need to do. This will be the hardest rule to follow. Life itself invites so many of these things into my daily routine. Some things I will have to do regardless because they are just a fact of life like laundry, commuting, or chasing a pointless rabbit at work, but everything else will meet critical scrutiny and be put into one of two buckets: (1) I want/need to do it or (2) Bullshit.

I will either be brutally honest or silent. I spend too much time thinking about how others will respond to me and catering my message to that end. I play out scenarios in my head that distract me for hours on end. The truth is I matter to very few people. I need to focus only on those people and let the others go about their merry lives. Rather than wasting time on crafting messages, I will instead be brutally honest or silent. Silence doesn’t mean acquiescence; it just means I don’t want to spend time defending my position. I tell my kids to pick their battles and only fight the ones that matter. I need to take my own advice.

I will turn myself off more often. This one sounds counter-intuitive, but constantly being on and focused on the task at hand wears me down. It dulls my senses, hampers my creativity. My work often bleeds into my weekends. Our household schedule frequently whips up a storm of activity like a cavalry stomping out of town in hot pursuit of the bad guy. My workweeks pulsate like a tender bruise after a fight. It all culminates in a boiling pot that threatens to spill over into the hiss of the fire. I need to step back more frequently, and when I’m on, I’ll be better for it.

I think I will type up these rules on a small strip of paper and put them on my computer monitor because I guarantee that I will need a reminder at least once a day that some things are worth it and some things are not. I need that clarity.

Millisecond

The lady in the pink shirt tried to kill me. Well, not really, but she was the last thing I saw when it happened, when my world upended to the screech of tires on worn pavement and the smell of burnt rubber. There, in the suspension of impossibly-slowed time, her pink shirt blotched my field of view like paint splattered onto a clean window. I don’t remember much beyond the abysmal and suffocating pink hue.

Earlier, pink was the furthest color from my mind. Blue, in fact, held my interest, as in a deep blue sky. Fall had arrived and, with it, the deepest, clearest blue sky I had seen in a while. The haze of an exasperated summer had lost its tenuous grip on the city and slowly waltzed out of town like a spurned lover. In its wake, a comforting breeze rifled through the still-green leaves of equidistant trees planted along the wide sidewalk. The starkly blue sky cut an outline around the tall trees and the block buildings that rose even higher. The city sighed in relief and basked in the relative chill of the changing season.

Red blasted my senses. A coppery taste filled my mouth, warm and unsavory. I coughed, but instead of a forceful exhale of unneeded air, I wheezed like a balloon with a tiny leak. A dark red covered my hands and my arms. The red lights flashed on the street beside me. A red bag rested next to me. A woman wailed in a red anguish.

White crept into my vision, blotting out the red like a rising tide slowly engulfing the sand on the beach. It receded and brightened, and I could hear the ocean even though I was nowhere near it. Then, as if someone had entered the dim room and flipped on a bright light, the white was all I could see like a flashlight aimed at my face. It felt warm and inviting, not unlike the blue sky I had seen earlier. My inner eye fluttered, shutting and closing like a squeaky swinging door until in came to a final rest. I wondered why the lady in the pink shirt had wanted to kill me as my thoughts fluttered into the slight breeze and the silence slowly engulfed me.

 

Act III Coming Soon (Too Soon)

In a few weeks, I’ll turn 48 years old. I’m rapidly closing in on the half-century mark. Let the records show that this is happening against my will and without my approval, but so it goes. Yes, I realize that age is just a number and that 50 is the new 40 and all that other bullshit that we tell ourselves to not feel shitty about the onslaught of time, but let’s be real; it sucks.

As a writer, I can’t help but view life in the form of a story, a very long, and often boring one, but a story nonetheless. The typical story has three acts, and since the life expectancy of the average male in this country is around 76 years old that puts each act at about 25 years, so in that perspective, I’m closing out Act II very soon. It’s a very sobering realization.

I’ve spent the last few months thinking about this and what it means. When I began Act II, if you will, I could only faintly hear the tick-tock of that eternal clock. Quite frankly, I just ignored the damn thing. I had more time than anything, so what did I care. The arc of the story in Act II is all about the long runway of possibilities, which seem infinite. Looking back, I realize I was more than a little careless. I wasted time on things that didn’t matter, engaged people who ultimately didn’t matter, and allowed myself to lose focus.

The problem is entropy. In general, everything migrates toward disorder, especially if you’re not paying attention. Life gets away from you because of the distraction created by the creeping disorder that surrounds you. The next thing you know a decade has zipped by and you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do, or things simply haven’t turned out the way you expected them to (and whether you like it or not, it’s your fault; blaming others is a fool’s errand). The image of trying to herd cats comes to mind. Some of my cats have long since wandered down the street. It’s more than a little disappointing.

But there’s nothing like an artificial milestone to raise the cackles of discontent. A slight shuffling suddenly becomes a full-on sprint. Half-shut eyes spring open in surprise. It gives a certain clarity that may have been lingering in the background waiting to be called into action. I’ve always done my best work on a tight deadline. I hate this about myself, but it’s true. Give me more time than I need and entropy rears its ugly head. Tell me I have only an hour to do a five-hour task and I can part the seas to find the path to redemption. Well, Act III is the ultimate deadline, and there’s no better time than now to re-focus, re-energize, and reassert myself in my own story.

I’m going to start by removing all distractions, those things that allow entropy to take hold. I’m going to double-down on my life goals that I haven’t achieved yet (one of those goals is getting a book published). While I can’t reclaim the time I’ve wasted, I will be more careful with the time I have. This story isn’t done yet.

 

Pine Mountain: Mimi Slater

Mimi Slater is one of the primary characters in a prospective novel called Pine Mountain. Here’s her character backstory.

Maria Robinson was the first of ten children born in 1950 to a poor family in the foothills of the Appalachians in a town called Pine Mountain. Her father was known for being a deacon in the local Baptist church, but to Maria he was a drunkard and an abuser, and that mattered more than any religious facade he built around his family. As her siblings proliferated, she found herself duty-bound to help her overwhelmed mother care for the new babies that arrived every other year without fail.

It was from the mouth of one of those babies that survived, her brother Bernard, the fourth and final brother, that she obtained the nickname Mimi. He had great difficulty saying her given name and settled on Mimi, which the whole family adopted until it eventually became the only name she knew. Everything in her life revolved around caring for her siblings because her mother needed the help and her father demanded it. Nothing was hers, not even her room, which she shared with four of her sisters.

Hers was a life of drudgery early on. Although she went to school once she was old enough, even that was not an escape from the family life that weighed on her. She often missed school to work at home, so much so that she fell behind and began to dread going to school and feeling so lost. At least at home, she knew what she had to do. She struggled to read and even basic math was a challenge for her. Her frustration was such that she didn’t resist when her father kept her at home for good after the eighth grade, which she was destined to repeat again anyway.

After she turned 15, she found her escape when she met John Slater, a man ten years her senior, who worked with her father at the local textile mill. Like Mimi, he had dropped out of school, but unlike her, he was not bound to a life at home. He courted her secretly and promised her a much better life than what she had. A few months into their courtship, she found herself pregnant. Her father, fearful of losing his most reliable worker among his brood, beat her senseless and forced her to marry John. He didn’t like John, but her pregnancy forced him to concede to their marriage to maintain the standing of the family name in the community.

Not long after they were married and moved into a house near her parents, Mimi lost the baby when complications emerged during the pregnancy. John blamed her for the loss of what he was sure was his first son. Further efforts to have children proved futile and Mimi realized that the passion she had briefly experienced in their courtship had faded and been replaced by a simmering contempt, but they stayed married because Mimi didn’t know what else she could do. Instead, she continued to help her mother with her siblings and take care of John when he returned home from work.

Eight years after that first pregnancy had ended, Mimi was pregnant again, and she had her first child, a son, whom John named Eric after his uncle whom had been like a father to him. In quick succession, she had a girl that John named Randi (he had wanted another son) and a boy named Mark whom John named after another favorite uncle of his.

Like her father, John was abusive. He didn’t strike her often, but a day didn’t go by without her feeling inadequate in his eyes in some way. She turned a blind eye to his alcoholism. She never had the courage to confront him or leave him. Instead, she sat stoically by his side until his death before his fifty-third birthday.

Her children should have been her salvation, an outlet to a better perspective on life, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. They outgrew her in ways she never imagined or completely understood. Her sons distanced themselves from her, and her daughter rebelled. Just as they were coming of age, John died, and all hell broke loose. Eric left for college and never returned. Randi became pregnant, but she didn’t know who the father was and instead moved in with another man who had lived down the street from them. Mark drifted away disappearing for long periods of time after he graduated high school before he finally moved out for good in his early twenties.

By her fiftieth birthday, Mimi found herself alone in the dilapidated old house she had lived in since she married John. Her parents were long-deceased and her numerous siblings had left town moving further into the Appalachians or, in some cases, into the cities and towns at the foothills of the venerable mountains. Her job at the local grocery store kept her afloat, but just barely.

Randi lived in Pine Mountain and would visit her often with her young daughter in tow. Although Mimi loved her granddaughter, the little girl was petulant and prone to manic temper tantrums that left Mimi shaking with anxiety. Mark would go weeks without calling or visiting her, but he lived in the city and had a busy life of his own. Eric had moved away for college and moved to New York City where he had a big job and a gorgeous wife and a young son, neither of whom had Mimi met. She hadn’t spoken to Eric in years, but to be truthful, she hadn’t made an effort to do so. He hadn’t left home under the best of circumstances. She had resigned herself to losing her oldest child forever until he knocked on her door one day.