The Beardly Writer

Some write from the heart. I write from the beard.

Month: December, 2013

Isolation: Chapter 7

The compass needle bounced as Richard waited for it to settle. Due North. There was something so satisfying about trekking north. He wanted badly to be able to say he was walking True North. That was the most satisfying north of all. But a compass points to magnetic north, which changes over time. It made him sad to know all the people following all the compasses all over the world since its invention were following slightly different versions of north. Negligible differences, of course. But wouldn’t it be grand, millions of people looking at millions of compasses and all heading toward the same square inch of land on top of their spinning world? The blue marble. The pale blue dot. And him, a pale beige speck on its surface. He wasn’t usually so philosophical, so sentimental. But he also wasn’t usually hiking through the vast Oregon wilderness. It can put things into perspective, given the chance.

I must get out more often. Richard was already making plans to get away regularly. After only one hour of wilderness hiking he was sold. And why not? Mankind, or at least modern humans, have been around for over 150,000 years, and their ancestors were walking upright in the trees as long as maybe 7 million years ago. And for the vast majority of that time they dwelt in the forests, the plains, the bush. This was man’s natural habitat. This is what our bodies were designed for, where our bodies were built to survive. No, not just survive, but thrive! And we did. We covered the globe. Richard’s pace slowed. What good has it done? He warned himself not to get into it. But really, what good has it done? Medicine, sanitation… These were good. These were noble, beneficial achievements. But look at the harm. He hadn’t ever bothered to look at the harm before. He kept a ration of white guilt next to a supply of western guilt on hand. Not too much, just enough to assuage any personal conviction. After all, what had he personally done? Images of starving children in Africa appear on the television? Apply a dab of western guilt salve to the burn. The topic of slavery in America is broached? A little tincture of white guilt does the trick. Suddenly nothing is actively required of him: he’s done his part by feeling sorry for it all. A person can’t be held accountable for the actions of another. Each man is responsible for his own actions. His pace stopped altogether. Let’s change the subject.

It was interesting how his mind wandered. At home, his walks through the neighborhood had always helped him focus. They brought clarity. But out here, in the thick of it, he felt his mind might wander off and be rid of him altogether. A ridiculous thought. He cleared his throat as if to clear his mind. Brady looked up at his master as he swung the pack off his back and stole a drink from his bottle. He grimaced at the taste but welcomed the refreshment. It was still warm, and helped against the cold air.

“How much further should we go?”

Brady stared at him with drooping eyes, then looked away the way dogs do when you try and hold their gaze. He always thought it made them look sheepish. The dog put his nose to the ground and sniffed, for lack of anything else to do. Richard scratched him behind the ears.

“Let’s keep going, yeah?”

He hoisted the pack onto his shoulders once more and continued through the trees. Like all animals, he and Brady followed the path of least resistance until they inevitably came across an animal trail. And a well traveled one at that. Even Richard’s untrained eye spotted it right away. Brady’s nose got to work immediately and eagerly sucked in all the scents available. Richard had to reach out and grab hold of Brady’s collar to stop him running off.

“Stay.”

Brady looked forlornly up and down the trail, desperate to do what he was bred to do. Richard removed the compass from his pocket and took note of the trail’s direction. Northwest the trail went downhill, while southeast it went up. Better to go uphill now while I’ve got the energy, then it’s downhill back to the cabin. The trail seemed straight enough for now. Time for a little of that adventure he promised himself. I’m on a real game trail. And where there’s game, there might be an opportunity to try his luck at hunting. Or rather shooting. He only wished he’d made time for target practice that morning. Oh well, there’ll be other chances.

The worries of the morning’s events weren’t forgotten, simply pushed aside. Richard could do that, was good at it. He could compartmentalize when he had to, when something was either too big or too confusing to deal with. He liked to imagine his life was a simple one, free of drama. He liked to imagine it because it wasn’t true, not completely. He didn’t go in search of adventure (his current predicament notwithstanding) and was about as far from an adrenaline junkie as there could be. But drama found him out sooner or later. Complications, he called them. Or displeasures. Never fights or arguments or catastrophes or deaths in the family. Unpleasantries. Richie? It’s Martha. I’m afraid (sob), I’m afraid there’s bad news (sniffle). Oh no. This is going to be unpleasant. It’s Judith. Richie she’s dead (uncontrollable sobbing). I see. How did she die? I told her to watch her weight. We all did. Richie you heartless bastard (voice disappears into the background). Rich? Rich it’s Charles, your brother. Jude died on the operating table. There were complications. The doctors, they couldn’t get her heart started again. Complications. I see. I, uh, suppose I should take the next flight over. The plane ticket is going to be murder. For mom’s sake. Thanks, Rich.

Richard’s breathing increased with the slope of the trail. He was getting his exercise now, working up an appetite, which reminded him he hadn’t eaten yet that day. It’s been an eventful one. No wonder he was already feeling winded. It looked to him that the trail was leveling off up ahead and hoped to find a good place to rest a few moments. As the slope grew more gradual, the trail opened up from the bramble into a small clearing, dominated by a large tree growing at the edge of a rocky precipice. He crept up to the edge and looked down. There wasn’t much of a view; it only went down about twenty-five feet. The ground below was free of vegetation and covered in fallen leaves. As good a spot as any for a picnic. Right then the ground beneath his feet gave way slightly and he heard a sound like rope breaking and dirt hitting the ground below. He fell backward but caught himself and scrambled away from the edge. It must be an overhang, soil held together by the roots of the tree. Staying well clear of the edge, he sat his pack down against the tree and himself down next to it. He reached into the pack and came out with a granola bar. Granola and dirty tea. Some picnic. He wasn’t really complaining, though. Despite the conditions, he was happy for the moment. The tree rose above him, its many limbs starting thick and low down the trunk and winding up and out over the ledge. He wondered what kind of tree it was. Most everything else around was an evergreen, but not this one. It looked old, and strong. The kind of tree he imagined children would want to climb and build tree houses in. He marveled at it while chewing the cereal bar. It only made him thirstier so he folded the wrapper over the remainder and stuffed it into the pack. He stole another swig from his bottle and stood up, ready to go on.

Against his better judgment and in favor of even more adventure, Richard abandoned the game trail. He had timed his route so far, and using time to determine distance and his compass to determine the angles, figured he could close the triangle by heading back to the cabin on a south-westerly route. He was slightly nervous at the dare, but trusted his wits, and besides, you never know till you try. The consequences of his being wrong were never allowed at the front of his mind. To entertain those thoughts would have been unpleasant. He drew a rough sketch of his journey in the dirt with a stick and found the exact (read: approximate) direction he needed to take to in order to reach the cabin. With somewhat less confidence than before but twice as much determination, Richard, with Brady it tow, got going.

And soon regretted his decision. Twenty minutes into their way back Richard caught sight of something that made it feel as if his stomach and testicles had swapped places. He hoped to god it wasn’t what he thought it was and worked up the courage to inspect it closer. A tree off to his left stood out from its neighbors. It was the same species, same relative age. But as Richard grew closer it became more and more apparent that this tree hated him. Why else would it do this to him? He looked at the other trees for reassurance, but they stared back blankly. An icicle grew inside his gut, grew up and out through his skin. The blood drained from his face. Isn’t this what he wanted? Isn’t it what he’d daydreamt? He tasted acid at the back of his throat. The tree mocked his fear. His eyes closed tightly. You can’t wish it away. Why are you so scared? Get a hold of yourself. Was he overreacting? He didn’t know. What he did know was it was probably a good idea to get out of there as quickly and quietly as possible. He judged he had at least an hour before he reached the cabin, forty-five minutes if he pushed himself. He drew several deep breaths and held the last one, flooding his brain with oxygen. After a moment of dizziness he felt sense returning. There’s nothing to worry about. There was plenty to worry about, but not much worth in doing so. Richard stepped back and looked again at the tree. Four scars tore down through the bark of the tree. Claw marks. Bear claws. He traced the length of the grooves with his fingers, which came away sticky with sap. These cuts are fresh. He couldn’t remember how large a bear’s territory was, or how many were supposed to live in these woods. He’d read that bears usually avoided humans. He repeated that over and over to himself as he turned off the rifle’s safety. They usually avoided people, except when they didn’t. Brady wasn’t happy either. The dog was running from tree to tree, sniffing out the bear. Richard hissed at him.

“Brady!”

The hound ignored him, absorbed by the heady aroma of apex predator.

“Brady!!”

The dog looked briefly back at his owner before scurrying off to the next tree. Richard knew he had to get Brady under control. Bloodhounds could forget everything around them while tracking a scent and Richard was not about to leave his dog alone in the woods with a bear around. He regretted leaving the leash behind, he wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Brady stopped yet again to sniff, but not at a tree. Richard tried to see what it was, but the dog was in the way. A magpie sang somewhere overhead and Richard looked around nervously. He tip-toed toward Brady and peered around him to see what captured his attention: his shoulders sagged. Bear scat. Brady skipped to another tree, following the bear’s scent. Richard ran for the dog without hesitation, leaping into the air and hooking his arms around it before it had a chance to run. Richard grunted as he hit the ground on his side, hurting his shoulder but not releasing his grip on the dog for a second.

“Sorry boy.”

He checked to make sure Brady was okay, then took hold of his collar and rose to his knees. Richard scratched the dog’s haunches and head, reassuring it after the tackle, and then stood up.

“Come on boy, go for a ride.”

Brady bucked up considerably and pawed at his master’s leg. Richard checked the compass and got his bearings, then looked at his watch: 12:17. Forty-five minutes to the cabin. He started jogging. To take his mind off the unpleasantness of not being on top of the food chain, he turned his thoughts again to his work. I’ve wasted enough of the day. I’ve wasted enough of this trip. I have to get down to business and write. I have six days. Six days to write eighty thousand words. To finish a novel in that time I have to write at least… thirteen thousand, three hundred and thirty-three point three repeating words a day. If I write twelve hours a day, that’s… one thousand, one hundred and eleven point one repeating words an hour…

Richard glanced at his watch again: 12:59. Three minutes earlier than he expected. He lifted his head and drank in the sight of the path in front of him, the driveway leading to the cabin. He reckoned he was only a hundred yards or so away. Almost there. Strange how a place he wanted so badly to leave just hours earlier could now seem such a sanctuary. He stepped onto the overgrown trail with no small sense of accomplishment, and even he had to admit that this time he felt justified in it. A short walk later he was unlocking the front door and welcoming himself and Brady home. No time to rest, though. He grabbed the water pot and filled it from the rain catch. I’ll get this one boiling then come out to clean the gutters. On his way in he ripped another handful of fresh pine needles from a tree. Good source of vitamin C.

Richard set the pot on the stove and stoked a fire to get the water boiling. He stepped out onto the porch and took a deep breath. When he exhaled he could see his breath. He was so distracted on his hike he hadn’t realized how cold it was outside. He shivered an icy breeze cut through his clothes to the sweat beneath. It was a hard push to get back so quickly, but he hadn’t noticed he’d sweat till now. He shivered again. Better get a fire going in the other stove as well. Richard stepped off the porch and brought in a load of firewood, dropping it in the front room. Fetching the matches and some kindling from the kitchen, he knelt down in front of the stove. He threw open the door and immediately jumped backwards in disgust and tumbled to the floor. Something was in the stove that shouldn’t be. He rose to his elbows and peered forward. A tuft of gray fur mottled with splotches of red sat motionless inside. Richard climbed to his feet and put a hand on the table to steady himself. The chair looked comforting so he sat down. He stared at his lap for a moment before realizing something else wasn’t right. He continued to stare at his lap, not wanting to admit it, but knew he eventually had to look. And when he did look, he wished he hadn’t. The blank piece of paper he had left in the typewriter that morning was no longer blank. Richard struggled to remember: had he typed something and forgotten? He was sure he hadn’t. But, there was type on the page. Just one word. One word that shouldn’t be there.

RABBIT

He stared long and still at the word. His brain didn’t know in which direction to go, so it decided to do nothing. It was a brain that needed to make sense of the world. It liked to solve puzzles, find solutions to problems and riddles. But it didn’t care for this riddle. It would rather it go away. It didn’t want to make the obvious connection. Unfortunately, Brady didn’t give it a choice. The noises Brady made behind Richard finally caused him to turn around and face what his brain didn’t want to see. From out of the stove, Brady pulled the bloody carcass of a rabbit, its eyes and heart cut out. Richard leapt up and bursts through the front door.

“Who’s there? Who are you? Show yourself!”

The forest responded with deafening silence. Inside the cabin, bones crunched and skin tore as Brady ate the rabbit.

Music Corner: Damien Jurado

Ladies & Gentlemen, my first “second post” in the same week. I’m thinking about making this a thing. Not regular, just occasionally throwing something up here that interests me. This week, it’s a video. Enjoy.

Story Machines

“Stories are machines inhabited by a god.” -Bonnie Friedman.

I believe I’ve mentioned Bonnie on this blog before. My only exposure to her work has been the book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, but it left quite an impression on me. In fact I really want to read it again, but even though my books are literally within arms reach, they are efficiently and securely packed in boxes, and I haven’t the heart or the energy to disturb them. One more of the many disadvantages I’m discovering of living in the midst of transition. But that isn’t the topic of today’s blog. It’s the quote up there. That’s what I want to talk about.

Stories are machines inhabited by a god. What does that even mean? Well, I’d love to quote further from Writing Past Dark, but as I’ve explained… no. And I don’t remember exactly what Bonnie meant when she wrote that, or if she explained it at all. Until I make a more permanent move and unpack those boxes, I won’t know. But what I can do in the meantime is make an inference. Or better yet, I can make something up altogether. That’s one of the beauties of the written word. It can mean one specific thing to the writer, and something entirely different to the reader. What the reader takes away from the work may be the polar opposite of what the writer intended to impart, and that may and indeed probably often does piss the writer off. But it’s fair play. A friend of mine recently shared with me a video about my favorite musician, Damien Jurado (click his name to watch the video). In it, Damien basically said that he may write the songs, but they don’t belong to him, they belong to the listener. The listener carries the music in his head and his heart, owning it. And call me sentimental (please don’t), but I think that’s both beautiful and true. The same may be said for all art that touches us. It has a creator, but is owned, at least in an emotional sense, by the viewer/listener/reader/consumer.

I don’t have to write about what I think Bonnie meant when she wrote the above quote. I can instead tell you what it means to me, and we’d both be right. The quote is simply an arrangement of fifteen letters to which each reader ascribes his or her own meaning. I cite and give Bonnie credit because the exact arrangement and repetition of those fifteen characters and the spaces that separate them are a unique product of her intellect. But that arrangement, and her intended meaning, are all she can claim ownership of, not the characters or spaces themselves. Nor can she, or any writer, deny any reader the right of personal interpretation. I can think of circumstances in which writers might wish they could do just that, but it’s just not possible so get over it.

So, what does it mean to me? What does it mean for me? By me?

To me (where the preposition “to” assigns the object “me” as the one who takes meaning) it means stories are alive. Obviously they aren’t alive in the literal or scientific sense. They don’t pump blood, they don’t eat cheeseburgers, they don’t cry at the end of American Tale (as all living humans should), they have no biology. The opposite of life isn’t death, it’s inanimate: something that never was life to begin with, or is so far removed from life by time and/or change that its nature is now wholly different. Metals are inanimate. Fossils, though once living animals, are now closer to rock than bone. There is no life in the inanimate. But can the same be said for stories? Stories, maybe more than most other forms of art, have a resilience that belies their simplicity, or maybe because of it. Painting has its canvases. Sculpture has its copper, marble, and clay, Photography and film have their pictures, movies, and cameras, Craft has its yarn, wood, glitter, and glue. Performance art has the human body. Music comes close. Music, like story, exists primarily in the imagination, and can be passed down through history without being written down first. Even so, the earliest known written story predates the earliest known written song by more than 500 years. But what about cave paintings, you say! The oldest known cave art dates back more than 40,ooo years, that’s more than 36,000 years before the oldest written literature! And I’d agree, that’s true. But why were the paintings created in the first place? I’d wager, to tell a story. Now, I’m no expert so you don’t have to take my word for it. But even though there is no consensus on when language began, I have to believe that people capable of this could at least communicate with each other on some rudimentary level. They had to want to communicate something with these paintings, to tell some kind of story, even if that story was, “hey you guys, look how awesome I am at cave painting.” My point is, story comes first. As ancient man sat around the fire, they told hunting and fishing stories. They told these stories both to boast and to teach. And stories exist today for the same reason. Not so we know where to avoid getting crushed by woolly mammoths, but so we know what to do if we ever find ourselves in the same situation as the protagonists. Again, these aren’t just my thoughts, I want to give credit where it’s due. Pick yourself up a copy of Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. But this gets us back to Bonnie’s quote, that stories are machines. Machines are tools created by people to perform a duty. Sometimes that duty is simply to entertain, other times it’s catharsis, or education. Machines also require energy to operate. Stories are fueled by our imagination, our desire to learn, to be surprised, to connect on an emotional level. We create stories, give them incredible power, and set them loose in the world where they have a chance to live forever. A good story is immortal, it will be told over and over and over. It may change along the way, but it changes with time as it needs to. That’s the god in the story, the human spirit we pump into it, achieving for ourselves some measure of immortality.

For me (where the preposition “for” gives purpose to the object “me”) it means my purpose is to create living, breathing machines. The story making and story telling tradition is vast and beautiful, and I aim to sidle on up to it and elbow my way in. My purpose, what gives me purpose, is stories. I love words, but when I begin to describe story or my respect and love for it, I get tongue-tied. I don’t know where to begin. I’ve researched it so much so long, my head swims with facts and figures, and I do story a complete injustice. Because to me, it’s not “stories” but “story.” It is an entity unto itself, a thing to be revered and studied and bewildered by. It’s importance to human culture can’t be overstated. It is in us and around us, shaped by us and shaping us. We are all story tellers, and all of our stories are being told.

By me (where the preposition “by” assigns the object “me” as the sire or creator of the [as yet unidentified] subject) it means that I let soul-powered machines free into the world to wreak whatever havoc or sow whatever good they will into the world. Stories are alive, it is my purpose to create them, and once they are shared, they live a life of their own. They are told, written, whispered, shouted, laughed, gossiped, cooed, and withheld. A story not told is a story in itself. A story told has new life breathed into it. They adapt, disguise, transform, and conquer. Stories topple empires, and give rise to legends. They make the hardest of men cry and the weakest of us feel strong. With any luck, the stories I write will someday inspire someone, somewhere to try something they were afraid they couldn’t do. Or maybe give someone that sliver of hope they needed to get through one more day. Or at least elicit a “not a bad book,” from someone.

I can’t recall why Bonnie wrote that sentence, but I can say what it means to me. Quite a lot, as it turns out. Where do your passions lie? What’s your purpose, and what are you doing about it?

Also, come back next week as I’ll be posting chapter 7 of Isolation!

Toothache

Not being able to write for a week is like having a toothache.

It hurts. Mostly in a slightly nagging sort of way, a dull-ish pain in your head that you wish would go away. You could fix it by going to the dentist, but, eh. So you just kind of live with it, swallow the occasional aspirin or ibuprofen, slather on some orajel and try to wait it out. When I can’t write, it feels the same. A throbbing pain that just won’t go away, and the longer I ignore it, the worse it gets. I could fix it by forcing myself to write, but, eh. So I scour Netflix for a tv show I haven’t already watched twice and try to temporarily numb the pain and shove the creative impulse back into the part of my brain where impulses come from. I don’t know what that part is called, I’m not a brain scientist. But I do have a toothache. I guess that’s where the simile came from.

I really want to write. But Thanksgiving broke my writing habit, and now I’m having great difficulty unbreaking it. It’s like when you know you should call a family member or a close friend, but it’s been a really long time and you feel guilty that it’s been so long since you talked, and so you wait even longer, and the guilt just grows so you keep putting off the call. It’s kind of like that. I want to write, but what if I can’t think of anything to say? What if we don’t have anything in common anymore except our past? Yeah, those were some good times we had, novel. It’s too bad you’ll forever remain unfinished because I’m a lazy bastard who can’t pick up the phone and call you anymore. Can it really end like this?

Of course not. It just takes that final push to sit down and do what I know I love doing. Writing isn’t easy, it certainly isn’t paying the bills. But it should be its own reward. At least until it starts paying the bills, then that will be a nice reward, too. But I write because it’s in me to do it. But if I don’t write, is it no longer in me? What has taken the place? Netflix. Work. Video Games. Books. A thousand other excuses and distraction. But beneath all of them, writing still sits. It just needs to stir, to awaken. It needs to. It has to. I’m a writer. What kind of writer can I be if I don’t write? Time to set aside distractions. Time to get down to the business of being a writer.

Wasting Your Time

I’m taking a reading break. Not a break from reading, but a break from writing in order to read. Not that I can’t do both. I totally can. I can also chew gum and walk, so stick that in your pipe and blow bubbles. But I felt my writing getting a little self-absorbed, as I may have mentioned recently. I don’t know, I’m too lazy to go back and read my own posts. But yeah, doing some reading. Trying to get out of the narrow vein I was stuck in. Breathe a little fresh air.

What am I reading? I’m not saying just yet. I decided, since I’m trying to be an indie author and all, I might should support some other self-published authors, so I bought a few ebooks on amazon from bloggers I’ve read. The reason I’m not saying is I don’t want to promote a book on here that I haven’t read and might not enjoy. I hope I enjoy them, since I spent money on them. And I like their blogs, so here’s hoping.

My book is coming along pretty well. The scope has grown. There are about 4 separate narratives, depending on how you look at it. I’m trying not to do too much at once. Classic noob mistake. Keep It Simple Stupid. Working on it, thanks. Also really itching to have another go at editing my last screenplay. Mostly because I want to sell it because I need the money. But also because I want validated as a writer. Keep those insecurities in check, mister.

So, I guess I’m saying I don’t have much to say just now. There’s a lot I could say, but most of it would just waste more of your time than I already have. And I need your love, not your resentment.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Thanksgiving is over. We’ve eaten our share of turkey, and leftover turkey sandwiches. Most have already gone back to work, the holiday a fading memory of stuffing ourselves with stuffing, sweet potatoes and turkey, and spending time with family we see only at thanksgiving while huddled around a television watching football. Because tradition. Because it’s nice, in its way. There’s no rest to be found in the holiday. It’s usually more stressful and busy than if we had just stayed at work. But we do it anyway, and we’ll do it next year, too.

I wasn’t able to get any writing done. This was my only trip this year to see the family, so I capitalized on that. My sister’s kids are growing up fast, it was good to spend time playing with them. Writing, while incredibly important to me, has its place, and that’s after family. So I’m updating the blog, because tradition, because it’s Monday and I said I would. But my heart’s not in it today. My heart is with my family, who I will rejoin as soon as I finish typing this post. Tomorrow morning I get in the car and head south, back to Tennessee, to slightly warmer weather and work and friends. But tonight, I spend one last night with those closest to me. Cheers.