Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Faith, Hope, Clarity and Sweetgrass

SweetgrassSome books earn my respect, even affection. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one. The subtitle tells a lot: “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” I am not a gardener nor a farmer, so anything that explains plant life feels fresh to me. Kimmerer is “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation . . .” so I was persuaded to trust her knowledge. What I was not prepared for was the stunning prose that kept me reading. Somewhere I’ve heard that writing well requires “faith, hope, and clarity.” She gives us all three in abundance.

In addition to her style and content, Kimmerer is a story teller. She takes on the role in a personal and personable way. Her first-person accounts of her work as mother and scientist, indigenous person and skilled teacher wooed me. I felt that I was standing in the rain with her, noticing the various sizes of rain drops as they fell from the leaves and mosses. I was with her and her daughters as they went out in the dark to escort salamanders across blacktop to keep them from becoming roadkill. I listened like a child to native stories of Skywoman and Windigo. Her voice is clear and sweet as maple sap, but never syrupy, never wheedling. Rather she shows the ways that natural science and writing and daily life are braided together like the wild sweetgrass she uses for ceremonies of thanksgiving.

Here, then, is a lesson on writing about the potentially esoteric skills and knowledge of a scientist and the emotional life of a single mother and the history of people dismissed and under appreciated despite their centuries old knowledge of the world. Read it and learn.

Architecture Matters

Slide1 You’ll notice on the back cover of Accidental Child that the story takes place, in large part, in a futuristic setting called Durlan Mall. Mall? Really, in the far future? People ask me where I got the idea for this and I remember distinctly where. I was sitting in the food court in the Maine Mall in Portland, sipping coffee and wondering how long that old mall would remain useful. And what if (a writer’s most urgent question) people lived in that huge covered area? Mainers like things to last and are both creative and conservative in architecture. Well, from that point on I was on a slow ride to finishing the novel, and part of the pleasure in that ride was building a world where it made sense to house a whole community in an old mall where the fierce climate kept them inside most of the time.

All novelists to some extent build a fictional world. Even the most realistic story needs limits and logic to the setting. In speculative fiction the logic is rigged up from pieces of the writer’s experience. Durlan Mall came from my musing about the Maine Mall and its potential for enduring beyond the foreseeable future. I looked at that future, and it looked bleak. It still does. Because here’s where art and life collide: we are all world builders and the world we are building at this moment is fragile and we will perhaps need creative shelters to hold us in a precarious world of inhospitable weather patterns, insufficient water and a severe curtailing of the high-tech life we have in 2015. So mine is a cautionary tale. Be careful or we may end up living where we never expected and it might not be as comfortable as what we have right now.

Is There Weather in This Book?

Mark Twain  said, “Nothing breaks up an author’s progress like having to stop every few pages to fuss-up the weather. Thus it is plain that persistent intrusions of weather are bad for both reader and author.” Dare I disagree with the famous curmudgeon? What about The Perfect Storm? Snoopy’s opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night”? There horrific Pacific weather in one of my favorite books, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken? Then there’s Jack London’s story, “To Build a Fire” which begins “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, . . .” and the weather becomes the antagonist. Brrrr!

An editor from Yankee Magazine once published a poem of mine called “Come Spring” (also the title of a wonderful historical novel about Maine by Ben Ames Williams). Said editor wrote that she had vowed never again to publish any more poems about spring. She’d had all the spring-things she could stand, but she changed her mind about the little poem I had sent. Why? Well, it was mine! No, she didn’t know me. Said poem overcame her revulsion for poems primavera because it cast a different light on the roses-in-bud-abursting theme.  I give it to you now:

Come Spring

Old urges send me walking out

in search of what I’ve lately missed ―

things not so much named as felt

beneath my feet ― and make me yearn

for oranges and going out to sea,

for whales and other pretty strangers.

 

What I find is the neighborhood marsh,

its hummocks of grass and perished moss,

a child’s lost ball, a tin culvert.

The culvert gives me advantage

over the water as I balance

on its slippery dome. Cattails smell

of a rotten winter, and a man’s glove

grips a dead branch. Maybe

he hung it for a secret sign.

It looks as lost as I want to be.

Black ducks wack-wack and clatter

through small water. When they fly

they flap like lawn ornaments.

 

From a swamp oak something new

calls. Its chuckling cry says I

know little about the earth as it

whirls our marsh to face the sun.

Yup, I broke the rules and broke the mold for springing poems. So when someone–even someone as smart as Mr. Twain–tells you not to do something in a piece of writing and you are determined, try it. But be sure you know the rule you’re breaking. Now, all my dear ones in New England, get the candles, matches, firewood and bottled water ready for the storm that seems to be bearing down on you this weekend. Forgive me for reminding you about spring, but hang on. It will come again. While you wait, write something new, really new. Send it to me. We have snow here in Colorado but it won’t last. Nothing lasts, certainly not bad weather in books or out.

Oh, Deer!

“By knowing when to let the trees grow as they wanted, the orchard owner still had a good crop.”

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao

Neurons–axons, synapses, dendrites–make a forest of the brain. Neuroscience suggests that the human brain goes through a pruning process to shape its individuality. Experience, chance, synchronicity and serendipity help grow our unique orchards. Writers shape their brains by their work. Having written we learn to write. Our branches lengthen, strengthen and make things out of the unseen energy of our world, like leaves making trees out of sunlight, soil and water.

Sitting in the early-morning sun, near the top of Black Mountain, I watch two deer feed down below, a doe and her young one, mule deer with radar ears, their camouflage nearly perfect, their silence a wonder. They move out of sight and within a few minutes I sense rather than hear them above me, behind me. They are cautious but not fearful. Keeping them in sight takes some effort. Only the flick of a tail or an ear lets me see their gray bodies among the slash and standing lodge-pole pines. The young one leaps a downed tree and makes eye contact.

Nothing calamitous or dramatic in our meeting, but somewhere in my neural forest is a twig that bears their image, and without forcing that fruit it will be there when I want it, soothing and silent. This too is writing.