Characters That Stay With Us

I have an odd assortment of good friends.  Most of whom are made of flesh and bone but a few are less solid, having been penned to life.  These paper friends visit me in dreams.  Wang Lung, a great-grandfather (at last count he had eighteen grandchildren) still visits tea shops and is able to walk over to his beloved fields. I often find him standing at the top of an emerald hill staring down at the place where he will come to lie below his uncle and his father and not far from his devoted wife, O-lan.  Having worked hard to claim for himself property and success he is still a man humbled by nature. There is so much I want to know, I say, but I dare not ask him. I wonder if he feels bad about the way he treated O-lan? I wonder if he still yearns for Lotus who was far prettier than his wife and slender as bamboo?  Does he, I wonder, still bend down to scoop up earth with his hands.   Does he appreciate each day on the good earth  with his sons and Pear Blossom who remain faithful and attentive?

I know Huck Finn is adventuring in another world but he likes to tell me about his grand adventures in the Wild West after he and Jim parted ways.  He tells me he crossed paths with Pawnee raiders and rescued more than one damsel in distress.  I have Huck to thank for introducing me to the evils of slavery, robbers and conmen and to floating down the Mississippi river on a raft.  Huck Finn is the reason I crave adventure.  He also gave me the courage to plan my own escape when I was seven.   I didn’t follow through with my childish threat to run away but I had a satchel packed and ready just in case my mother threatened to tan my hide again for something my sister did.

I once threatened to ‘tar and feather’ a bully in primary school, thanks to Huck.  She stopped bullying me after that.

Reverend Stephen Kumalo and I still weep for his son Absalom who was found guilty of murder and condemned to die in apartheid-era South Africa.  I wonder if he and James Jarvis have undertaken any new projects? James, who after his own son’s death was forced to face the racial issues that divided his country.  James who tried to make amends. I wonder if the good reverend’s village Ndotsheni has prospered or if the men are still leaving to find work in the big cities?  I think I know the answer to this question but to hear Kumalo speak of these things in person would be a precious gift.

Which book’s character/s continue to live with you? 

Stuck In The Middle

I am one of those crazy people who jots down ideas or images for stories and poems on the back of receipts, paper towels, journals, notebooks and calendars.  I also have Evernote and more than one short story (all works-in-progress) open on my laptop at all times even when I am away at work.   What all this means is that I am a hoarder of words and ideas and paper.

Anyway a strange thing happened earlier this week that made me realize I have a serious problem.  I don’t think it requires surgery but certainly a visit to the head doctor may be overdue.

I discovered I had saved a version of one of the short stories I have been working on for oh, let’s say four months on Dropbox.  I then discovered another version of it – under a different title – in Word Documents.   To give you an indication of just how brilliant I am – one of the versions is titled simply ‘Short Story’.  Another is ‘Girl Walks Into A Bar’.  Yes.  Really.

Genius.

All in all I have discovered three versions of what is essentially the same story with the same characters.   What bothers me is how I didn’t even realize I had been doing this? Seems like I would write a new paragraph and save it without really noticing where I was saving it to.

Has this happened to you?

The good news is I now have two versions that I really like and one that needs to be deleted as soon as I pluck up the courage to do so.   The bad news is that these two (delightfully different) versions have me firmly and very resolutely stuck in the middle.  The end is apparently still nowhere in sight.

THE MIDDLE

Image:  Dallas Clayton

The Bear On The Bridge – Short Story Part II

And here friends and followers is the conclusion… if you have not read Part I please click here.

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I finally caught up with old Baker scratching his back beside a creek.  It was quite something to watch him in broad daylight; so relaxed and at peace in his wilderness.  He was rubbing his back up against the rough bark of a tree; eyes closed, lips curled in satisfaction.  When finally he opened them, our eyes met and I thought I saw in them recognition.  Certainly it was not the first time Baker and I had locked eyes.  I had chased him from my orchards with gunfire and clamoring pans more than a dozen times over the years and always he would amble away with a casual sneer.  He saw me as the two legged apple keeper and I went from seeing him as a nuisance neighbour to a murderer.  I raised my .338 and aimed at that spot between his golden eyes.  He took that bullet with an amicable smile.

I thought of old Baker three months later when my wife and I bumped into Tom Yates having dinner at the only restaurant in town with the deceased’s Mrs Yates’ younger sister Alvira.  I thought of him again when we attended their wedding the following Fall and Alvira wore her older sister’s wedding dress ‘in tribute’  she had said to me but to my wife she had said something else altogether.  She had said her sister had been a ‘large woman’ and so the dress was wide enough to hide her baby bump.

Baker started visiting soon after the wedding.  I’d wake up to the sound of falling apples and munching and when I looked out my bedroom window and down into our small orchard he would be there reaching for those apples, the bullet hole clearly visible in the moonlight.

I started doubting myself.  I woke my wife up more than once and asked her to take a look when the munching roused me from my restless sleep in those predawn hours but the occasional bear she spotted she said, was nowhere near old Baker’s size.  Besides she didn’t believe in ghosts especially not in the ghosts of animals coming back to haunt their killers. She said she worried about me and that I should go see a head doctor. Instead I took to checking on Baker’s remains in the post office and was not comforted by the fact that he was still there.  After I had shot him, Tom had Baker mounted as a ‘man-killer’ and put on display at the post office.  Such a big bear the townspeople said would draw in crowds of visitors.  But very few crossed the bridge to come and stare at Baker.

Earlier this year Baker caught up with me on the bridge.  I had been standing there in the half-light of dusk with my hands in my pockets staring down at those two rivers running side by side, wanting to think of trout and pink salmon but instead thinking of Tom Yates and his second wife and their three sons when Baker made his presence known.  He was on all fours, panting and heaving on the town side of the bridge.  I think I laughed at him.  I remember bending down to pick up a small stone and throwing it at him.  I told him I was an old man now.  I told him to leave me alone.  But Baker just kept on staring at me with those golden eyes.  When I tired of waving my fist at him I got into my truck and drove through him and into the wide cedar that stood behind him.

The Bear On The Bridge – A Short Story Part I

A Halloween week treat friends and followers. I wanted to write a different kind of ghost story.  I suppose you are the Beta readers as I have not shown it to anyone else.  I hope you like it.

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I moved to this valley in my twenties to help build the bridge that spans the two rivers we  locals call ‘The Sisters’ but in truth they are nothing more than noisy rivals, eyeing each other, as they incise their way down to the coast.   Back then the belief was ‘build the bridge and the people will come’ but our young town failed to draw in the people despite the promise of potash and a possible mine.

Occasionally we are graced with the presence of scientists and the like who come to count grizzlies and steelhead trout.  We like to regale them with tales of close encounters with bears and man-eating cougars and moose as tall as houses; stories we tell our own children to keep them from wandering deep into the forest.    But mostly this beautiful valley is ours and the bridge is a quiet place.

When I am not home, on the farm with my wife (our only daughter has long since flown the coop and now lives with her accountant husband in Vancouver) I like to stop here on the bridge.

I like it here.  I like it far better than I ever liked living in the city where I grew up.  I like the smell of glaciers and tart berries.  I like the heady odour of rotting vegetation on the forest floors and the green smell of scraggly Douglas fir.  Nothing much ever happens in our town or in the surrounding farms but from time to time the local newspaper will remind us that tragedy strikes unexpectedly and that darkness has the potential to snuff out the light.  Darkness descended when Mrs Yates was taken while hanging out her laundry.  I was interviewed by not only by the local newspaper but later by a national newspaper for my side of the story.  This happened back in the eighties when her husband Tom and I were like bobcats.   Tom was adamant that old Baker had taken her.  Baker was what we like to call around these parts a ‘trouble bear’.  He got his name because of his fondness for eating pie crust from kitchens and fruit from our orchards.  When Tom asked for my help in tracking Baker down I had my doubts.  I couldn’t understand why Baker would take Mrs Yates.  It wasn’t, as they say in those crime stories my wife likes to read, his ‘modus operandi’.  Baker ate pies and apples throughout the valley.  He didn’t take nice ladies doing the laundry.

Sure enough I found tracks leading to and away from the Yates farmhouse but I wasn’t sure they were Baker’s and I told Tom Yates so. But Tom insisted. He said it was Baker because no other bear had Baker’s massive girth or thick auburn coat.  We lost the tracks at the point where The Sisters hold hands to form a formidable bond of gushing water before going their separate ways again two miles south and had to head back the way we came and then east towards the mountains.

There was blood, here and there, dark but tiny amounts spattered on the mushy ground, but not enough I imagined to indicate Baker was chewing on one of Mrs Yates’ limbs as he ambled along.   We finally stumbled upon Mrs Yates body about three days after her abduction lying beside a fallen spruce.  She was partially covered by moss and leaves.  It was like someone had tried to keep her warm and not necessarily hidden.   But it was that surprise- filled expression – those wide empty eyes – staring up at the forest canopy and the sunlight filtering through it that still haunts me.   Her throat had been slashed, possibly by a bear or a jagged knife but otherwise she was remarkably intact.  I wanted to comment on that, but Tom Yates was groaning beside her like a wounded animal so I pressed on and alone.

Mimicry And Appropriation In Art

I was in Grade 6 when I submitted a short story to my English teacher for marking that I was particularly proud of.  It was the story of a young orphan girl who went to live with her grieving aunt in a crumbling manor in the English countryside where she befriends the local wildlife before stumbling upon a key and a ‘secret garden’.  

I am sure you recognize this tale.  Frances Hodgson Burnett called it The Secret Garden and in her version the aunt is an uncle.  

Mr Roberts gave me a C for that story and rather than chastise me for wrongful appropriation he very kindly told me I could do better.

His reaction helped cement (for me at least) the belief that imitation is a form of flattery.  He also made me want to work harder at finding my own voice; my own point of view.

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I am, it seems spellbound by The Secret Garden.  I know that my first complete novel is populated with a set of over indulged and petulant characters and grounded in similar settings to Burnett’s masterpiece and almost every story I have written since reading that book draws heavily on tragedy and family secrets.  

Eleanor Catton, the Canadian born New Zealander who became the youngest writer ever to win the Booker Prize for The Luminaries says in an interview conducted by Globe Books that she strongly believes in imitation ‘I think it’s the first place you need to go to if you’re going to be able to understand how something works.  True mimicry is actually quite difficult.  One of the first books that I ripped off consciously was by Elizabeth Winthrop called The Castle in the Attic…’

Various scholarly essays suggest that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s drew inspiration for The Secret Garden from Wuthering Heights and quote strong similarities and connections between characters and settings.  

I think all books that move us leave a lasting impression – a psychic imprint – especially those we treasured as children and that appropriation in art is commonplace.  I can think of a handful of books with strong similarities to The Secret Garden for example. 

What do you think? 

Do you find yourself as a writer or artist unconsciously imitating a certain author/artist or appropriating a story? 

Give more of what you want this year

I have got a lot better at keeping my butt on the chair…so much so that I gained oh, fifteen pounds (maybe more) last year in my quest to keep my butt on the chair and my eyes on the screen/or page.   But keeping my butt on the chair didn’t equate to more writing or more reading.  In fact going over my journals (yes I keep more than one for each year) I did a lot more cutting and pasting and doodling and drawing than I did writing.  While this realisation does not exactly make me want to whoop with joy it did help me realize that I was actively creative in 2013. And that, for me, is a good thing. My intention is and has always been for every day of every year that I am breathing to do something creative and to be open to new ways of exploring my creativity.

How do you explore or nurture your creativity?  Do you stick to one craft or passion (like cooking or knitting or taking pictures) or do you dabble in several?

I promised to share with you my goals or intentions for this blog for 2014.

I would like this year to be the year I write more.  I plan to share not only my thoughts and points of view but also (more importantly) some of my stories.  I can tell you I break out into a cold sweat every time I think of sharing my fiction with others. I know I am not alone in this.  So I found this beautiful poster by benttuba.com to remind those of us who struggle with ‘putting ourselves and our work out there’ to be brave.  

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On a more personal note I hope to give more of what I want this year.  This I can assure you also calls for lashings of courage.  The sharing of our passion and time and resources calls for not only a radical shift in thinking but some serious time management!  The principle is simple:  The more you give out, the more you take in.  So if all you put out is anger, frustration, lack or limitation that is what you get back.  This year I hope my actions will reflect my thoughts on love, gratitude, abundance and creativity.  

What do you hope to give more of?

My Top 5 books of 2013

It’s that time of year when newspaper and magazine editors choose their ‘TOP TEN BOOKS OF THE YEAR’ so with that in mind I have turned to my own list of ‘BOOKS READ IN 2013’ for my own Top Books.. 

I was quite shocked to see that I have not read as much fiction as I usually do.  I read anything between 20-40 books of fiction a year but this year I found myself reading a whole lot more non-fiction.  My Work-In-Progress has demanded it.  So instead of offering up a Top 10 I submit instead my Top 5 for 2013.  I hope you will share yours with me.

Please note my Top 5 is not limited to books published this year.  

1.  Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor.  

A perceptive, relevant and hilarious novel about a married, middle-aged professor’s (Harry Salter) obsession with money, real-estate and status.  Absolutely brilliant.  For an excellent review read here.

2.  Secret of the Tides by Hannah Richell

This is the kind of book I love reading.  A beautifully crafted tale of a family torn apart by a dark secret.  

3.  Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

This is storytelling at its best.  Part fairy tale, part mystery.  For an excellent review read here.

4.  Dear Life by Alice Munro.

What can I say that hasn’t been said?  Besides 2013 will always be remembered as Alice Munro’s year. I am a huge fan and no list would be complete without her work in it.

5.  Hell Going by Lynn Coady

This story collection won the Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Nine piercing short stories about human foibles and obsessions.  

i love hearing from you!