Wisconsin’s Last Wilderness. That sounds about right for the likes of us.
I hope when we’re done here today, you’ll leave with a little better understanding of how one writer thinks and operates, not all writers, because there is no ONE RIGHT WAY, but at least how this one writer operates, and the sorts of mental gymnastics involved in creating what I think are essentially fairly straightforward stories about folks who perform important and dangerous work for all of us, and what their lives are like.
The challenge for writers is not so much what we put into our stories, but what we leave out.
Writers and artists tend to see differently than others. Virginia Woolf wrote: “An ordinary mind on an ordinary day amasses impressions haphazardly, inattentively, and keeps a latent but later accessible stock of…encounters from which rises a sense of self, which is then the product of its conditioning by this random accumulation.”
This scattered approach to observing and experiencing life is one reason people make lousy eyewitnesses. We all claim to look, but as it turns out, few of us actually see and probably none of us see fully all the time.
Now bear with me. I’m going to try to mess with my voice and this usually happens almost exclusively inside my head, but today I’ll try to bring in some audio for you to hear. It may slow me down. I do read everything I write to Lonnie to see how she reacts, but mostly this sort of voice thing goes on inside my head as I am formulating characters. Or to be more accurate. It goes on while characters are being born, a process which is largely divorced from any direction from my conscious brain. Birth is more a matter of their choice than my will.
Here we go.
THEY CALL ME DOUG. I WAS A COP FOR TWO WEEKS. NOW I RUN A ROCK SHOP FOR MY UNCLE ALPO. WE GOT ALL KINDS OF ROCKS, LIKE THAT BLACK GUY BUBBA AND HIS SHRIMP IN THAT MOVIE GOT HIMSELF KILLED OVER TO VIETNAM, IN THAT MOVIE ABOUT FORREST WHAT-S HIS FACE? I HAD ME TWO WIVES. FIRST ONE TOOK TO SEX LIKE A TROUT TO COLD WATER – ANY COLD WATER. SHE SLEPT WITH FOUR DIFFERENT MINISTERS AND AN ANGLICAN PRIEST. ACTUALLY THEY WEREN’T SLEEPING, EH? MY SECOND WIFE, ALL SHE DOES IS GO DRINKING WITH HER SISTER AT THE INDIAN CASINO, AND RUN UP A TAB I GOT TO PAY OFF EVERY MONTH. I DON’T DRINK NO MORE. LIFE HURTS. I GOT THIS SKIN CONDITION AND EVERY BUG THAT TOUCHES ME EXPLODES ON CONTACT, SUMMER MONTHS IT SOUNDS LIKE I’M POPPING CORN ON MY SKIN AND I ALWAYS SMELL LIKE BRIMSTONE. DON’T GET ME GOING ON MY FIRST WIFE.”
It’s me – Joe — I’m here, back again. If what I do confuses you today, think what it’s like to be inside my mind.
There is really was a Doug, he had two wives, and he ran a rock shop. I never met him. All the rest is the author-at-work, me, writing just for us, just for today. The author conjures a person – a character – and then listens and remembers and sometimes things begin to happen to that character and then the author listens more and remembers more, and maybe one day — if he’s lucky- he will postulate what if X happened to Doug? What if always acts as the catalyst or launch pad for this writer. The X could be an event that launches the tale, or it could be another person, but over time X begins to populate –like a growing new world and more characters begin to appear, and one day, months, or even years after Doug first came along, the writer may sit down with a pencil and begin to write. That writing can then take months or even years, depending on the writer and the story being told, because every book has its own birthing time, with no two ever the same.
The making of fiction is somewhat like an iceberg. That is, the part you see on your book-shelf is just a teensy fragment of the undertaking, which is why when an author’s spouse tells him or her to stop peering out the window and “do” something, he’s likely to say, “I’m working, I’m writing right now.” Which he is, and this is not intended to be a facetious statement. Spouses and significant others and children, all know this to be true, if somewhat inexplicable, and that Mom or Dad the writer staring out the window is qualitatively and quantitatively different than almost any other person doing the same thing.
Writers’ minds sometimes inhabit other worlds and this world simultaneously. I once told my daughter that something I had seen or heard would probably please Grady Service.
She said. “Earth to Dad: He’s not real, Da. He’s made up, not real.”
“To you,” I said.
Wait, Doug is bugging me again:
“I REALLY LIKED BEING A COP, BUT I AIN’T ONE NO MORE ON ACCOUNT I SHOT A DAMN WOLF AT MY DEER BAIT PILE. MY CHIEF’S WIFE WAS A WOLF AND TREE-HUGGER. THE CHIEF, HE JUST LAUGHED WHEN I PAID THE FINE. HE CALLED ME A DUMB-ASS AND THAT WOULDA BEEN THE END OF THAT. BUT HIS WIFE, SHE NEVER LET UP. CALLED ME MORALLY DEPRAVED. SHE WAS BEST FRIENDS WITH MY FIRST WIFE WHO WAS OUT BANGING SO-CALLED MEN OF THE CLOTH, AND I’M MORALLY DEPRAVED? MY FIRST WIFE WAS A BITCH FROM HELL. HER FRIENDS TOO. THE CHIEF’S OLD LADY WOULDN’T LET UP NONE AND FINALLY THE CHIEF, I THINK HE THOUGHT IT WOULD BE CHEAPER TO FIRE MY ASS THAN TO DIVORCE HIS OLD LADY, SO OUT I WENT, AND HERE I AM IN A MUSTY OLD ROCK SHOP. LIFE STINKS. MY SECOND WIFE GAMBLES AND DRINKS. SEE WHAT I MEAN ABOUT LIFE?”
I need to share with you that I really love to write. And yes, it’s hard, with long hours, and there’s never a guarantee that all that time and sweat I invest will become a full-fledged manuscript, much less be published. Even after 29 years in the book business, yesterday does not count, except to readers.
I know lots of people who think they want to write a book, but I suspect what they really mean is that they want to be known as someone who wrote a book, not that they want to actually do all the work it takes to produce one, which is a whole different animal.
Even Doug is in this large group.
“PEOPLE TELL ME I OUGHT WRITE A BOOK ON HOW TO MARRY THE WRONG WOMAN. HAH, THAT’S A JOKE! THEY’RE ALL THE WRONG WOMAN IF THEY MARRY ME. DOUG DEFINES WRONG WHEN IT COMES TO SPOUSES AND LET ME TELL YOU IF A WOMAN TELLS YOU SHE LOVES SEX WITH YOU, SHE MEANS SHE LOVES IT WITH ANYONE AND EVERYONE.GEEZ OH PETE.”
I should tell you that Doug is a big reader but it’s the writer’s job to show, not tell, so I’ll let him do it:
“I DON’T BUY NO BOOKS NO MORE. THEY COST TOO DAMN MUCH — AND JUST SO SOME YAHOO WRITER CAN LIVE A FAT-ASS EASY LIFE – LIKE MY FIRST WIFE LIVED OFFEN ME — JUST FOR SCRIBBLING DOWN SOME DAMN STORY HE PROB’LY HEARD FROM SOME JAMOKE LIKE ME WITH A REAL JOB? I DON’T THINK SO, EH. I USE THE PUBLIC LIBRARY. BUT BY-CARP THAT COSTS ME MONEY TOO, BUT IT AINT’ AS MUCH AS BUYING A BOOK, AND WHEN IT’S DONE WHAT DO I WANT WITH THE DAMN THING ANYWAY? BOOKS AND BOWLING SHOES JUST COLLECT DUST. BUT LIBRARY BOOKS, YOU CAN TAKE THEM BACK, NOW THAT I THINK ABOUT IT, MY FIRST WIFE WAS KIND OF A LENDING LIBRARY, A BOOK TO BE OPENED AND READ FAST OR SLOW BY ANYONE WITH THE SLIGHTEST INTEREST AND COOL COVER TO GET HER ATTENTION. SHE WAS A REAL BITCH AND SOMETHING ELSE I CAN’T SAY IN NO MIXED-UP COMPANY, I BELIEVE THE CONSTITUTION AND THE BILL OF LIGHTS OUGHT TO INCLUDE A THING THAT GIVES CAPITAL PUNISHMENTS FOR ADULTERY. MY FIRST WIFE SAID SHE’D SUPPORT CAPITAL PUNISHMENTS FOR LOUSY PERFORMANCE IN BED AND THAT PISSED ME OFF AND HURT MY FEELINGS. YEAH, I GOT FEELINGS. TRUTH IS, I ALWAYS ENJOYED MYSELF IN BED WITH HER. LIFE AINT’ FAIR.”
Doug and I grew up as a library kids. In my own military brat-hood we used to cycle from time to time between assignments, meaning the old man went ahead, and we often spent weeks or months at my grandparent’s home in my birthplace, on the banks of the Hudson River, about 20 miles north of Poughkeepsie and 40 miles south of Albany. The town of Kingston is directly across the river. We had a fine view of the Catskill Mountains, known locally as the Yiddish Alps.
By the time the village took its current name of Rhinecliff, it had already been a village for 150 years, formerly known as Kipsbergen, which was founded in 1686, nine decades before the revolution, which created our independent country. At 328 years old, Rhinecliff has not changed all that much and it is in my heart, my true birth home, the place that wherever I wander, I always relate back to.
There was a Boy’s Club in Rhineclifff, which met weekly at the Morton Memorial Library and Community House, one of those once-a-week-lets-make-crap-with-plywood, using coping saws with blades as thin as dog hair.
“MY WIFE WAS CRAFTY. SHE BELONGED TO BOWLING LEAGUES, KNITTING CIRCLES, QUILTING CLUBS, THE WOMAN’S CURLING CLUB, BEAD GROUPS, PAPER TROLL MAKERS ALL THAT CHEAP-ASS WORTHLESS CRAP, BUT SHE NEVER BROUGHT NOTHIN’ HOME, TOLE ME IT WAS LIKE CATCH-AND-RELEASE FISHING. ONLY THING SHE EVENTUALLY BROUGHT HOME WAS CLAP, WHICH SHE FIRST CLAIMED I GIVE TO HER. TALK ABOUT BURN! WHICH IS HOW SHE BECOME MY EX-WIFE.”
Now, this Heywood kid we were talking about before Doug butted in, he wasn’t much on woodworking, but he loved books. He would halfheartedly cut for a while, and then sneak upstairs to the stacks where Mrs. Maude Zegelbrier was the honcho. Mrs. Z described her job as the village’s book hander-outer, a job she held for 35 years. She let the Heywood kid skip woodworking and come sit Indian-legged between stacks where he was free to explore anything on a shelf, no restrictions, no rules, no warnings. It was a place where he could follow his young fancy, even if it meant staring at the breasts of south sea dancing women in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICS, which he did.
As an old man some say that Heywood fella still fondly remembers the slightly musty smell of leather bindings and dusty shelves, and old yellowing pages, some of which crumbled to the touch.
And the naughty pictures, of course.
I’m sure you noticed that I just switched the voice from first person to third person, where it’s suddenly not entirely clear who is telling the story of young Heywood. Probably because he’s the one talking at the moment and you’re thinking, Okay, this is about him when he was young.
But the fact is that you don’t have enough evidence yet to be certain and it is the author’s job to find a way to help you get tight with the narrator so you can follow the story, which I’m doing the opposite of right now to make the point.
Last month I was in Lake County for the 38th Annual Gathering of the Bullshido Fish Club. As usual I took back roads and was happy to see signs posted in many village and small towns calling for voters to check YES for their library milleages. The public library is the guts of any town and the internet cannot compete with its weight and authority.
I’m sure you have some questions about writers do, so I’m going to take a guess at your questions. If I miss something, ask when we get to Q&A, but after almost thirty years as an author, these are the questions people seem to ask, no matter where I am, their age, or their jobs, or their gender.
1) Do you write longhand, dictate, use a typewriter, or a computer? For fiction I longhand the first draft, then it goes to computer. For nonfiction I start and stay on the computer. In writing this today, it was all computer.
2) Do you use an outline, or invent as you go along? I have not done an outline since about the tenth grade, and probably could not do one, even if my life was on the line. Earlier I talked about the emergence of character before events we might call scenes or overall plot. At that point where a story seems to be in labor I may map out several waypoints in my head, but nothing solid and nothing binding. I want the story to unfold in your head as closely as I can make it, to duplicate how it unfolded in mine, or the lead character’s, whose head is the only one I’m going to let you get into. To sharpen suspense, the story takes place in a single mind and from that single focus, just as we live our own lives. There is no shift of internal viewpoints, just as in real life. Lots of characters will be talking and offering information and opinions, but as readers you see only into one head processing all this. Like we all live every day, within ourselves.
3) Are your characters drawn from real life, or are they composites? They are assembled in bits and pieces from all manner of sources, real and imagined. Some come out of nothing and nowhere and surprise even me.
4) You use a lot of weird names. Where do these names come from? I collect names the way your kids collected stamps. I liberate them from local phone books, from Olympic team rosters, obituaries, new stories, film trailers and so forth. And I use the names of some of my friends. And I also make some up. For example. Cecelia Lasurm.
5) Which character is you? None of them and all of them. Take a moment and think about it for a moment. I make them all up, so invariably there has to be a residue of me in each and all. The point is that no character is ever a shady fictional rendering of a real person.
6) How many days a week do you work? And how many hours? The answers are 8-10 hours a day, and seven days a week until the first draft is done.
7) Do you have a literary agent? I do indeed, in New York City. She is the president of her firm, which is an old and distinguished one, ,and which has represented major literary figures such as J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, William Faulkner, Ira Levin, and Langston Hughes to name some. I think I’m on the roster simply for comic relief. Actually my agent’s brother liked my stuff and he recommended me to her. That’s sometimes how life and business work. All jokes aside, it is good to know that the people who represent me are serious and have an indelible and honorary history in the business. There are lots of idiots and fly-by-nighters out there.
8) Do you sell your own books? Never. I write, the publisher markets, and stores sell.
9) Do you revise as you go along? Not really, I do only minor proofreading until the overall first draft is complete, which I push hard to get into the bank — usually 100,000 to 110,000 words. The Berkut and The Snowfly were more in the range of 150,000 words, but they were exceptions. It’s my view that I can only adjust a whole when I have a whole to work with. Not all writers agree or take this approach. Good editors– even in these days of holding down costs will tell their writers to write as long as they think the story needs; and then the editor will do the lion’s share of the work in helping to cut it down to a size that fits the budget. No editor actually cuts. The editor recommends cuts, but it’s up to the author to actually wield the scalpel, which makes it very much a cooperative venture. That’s the beauty of art: there is no magic formula, no silver bullet. If you approach works, it’s legit.
When I’m happy with the manuscript, I send it to my agent. She then sends it to my editor at my current publisher. If the house wants it, we work out a contract. If the publisher who has right of first refusal doesn’t want the manuscript, my agent would shop the ms to other houses. She keeps me informed, but mostly I don’t pay any attention because I’m already at work on the next thing. My agent handles all that technical business baloney, and eventually sends a final contract to me to sign and return to her, which I do. (Side-note: I’ve done my entire career on one-book contracts because I don’t want to be nudged by the publisher on what I do next). I have done two books in one calendar year on three different occasions. I don’t recommend it).Once there is a contract, the editor and I work together to refine and tighten the manuscript. It’s usually one full year from the time the manuscript is contracted by the publisher before it is in print and into stores. This is not a job for people who need instant gratification or who have thin skins.
A lot of self publishing these days grows out of people who cannot face rejection slips and so they elect to pay to publish their own stuff and often without any sort of editorial assistance. The result is a lot of not-so-good-stuff cluttering the market. A few of these self-publications are very good, but most would never make the cut with and agent, much less a publisher, which is why they’re published by the author. In traditional publishing the writer gets paid by the publisher, not vice versa.
To an author (this terms means you’have had at least one book published –which is said to be a step-up from the title of writer, that is, someone who is still seeking to be published) you need luck and you need to do the work, all of it, which can amount to many years or even decdes before you get where you want to get to.
Here’s a reality you may not have considered. By the time you get your hands on a book and start asking me questions, I’m usually several titles beyond you and have to my mind-buggy into reverse in order to answer your questions about the “new” book.
Another reality. New books are one thing, but I still get detailed, precise questions on books that came out in 1985 and I am expected to be able to recall all of the important parts of the almost 2 million words I now have in English. So far, they don’t hold me accountable for the seventeen other languages the books are in.
Just in the past year I got a note through my website from a man who had just read The Berkut, published in 1987 – 26 years previously– and he wanted me to know that on page x hundred and so and so I had cited a German T-something tank, which he believed did not come into production until two months after that date. Hundreds of pages, a hundred and fifty thousand words, and all he wants to share is a nit on a tank model? Seriously? How did he expect me to answer him? All I did was send a note saying thank you, and forwarded the note to my editor for our errata file on The Berkut.
I am still largely mystified by people who write to me. Especially those like one gent who told me “You don’t know anything about love and I’m not reading your books anymore.” Naturally he left no return address or name. Gutless. All you can do is shrug.
Let me insert here that my relationship to you the reader is the book in your hands, nothing more. The book should carry your feelings, not whether you think I’m a good guy or a bad guy. Who I am is irrelevant. All that matters is the finished product.
Ah, the writer’s life. But I digress.
(10) Have all the books you’re written been published? Nope.
11) Do you write on Sundays? Of course I do. Beer is sold on Sundays and football is played on Sundays. Why would I not write?
12) What do you read? Much more non-fiction than fiction, a couple of hundred titles a year. My tastes are eclectic in all ways and my recall terrible, which is why I keep a lot of notes about ideas I’ve had in the course of reading. I would add here that the number of professional authors who are not heavy readers can be counted on one hand. If you don’t read a lot, the chances of you becoming an author are close to zero, because reading is an important component in and of writing. Think of it this way: Readers read writing, but writers write reading.
13) How much money do you make? Three answers: First, none of your damn business; Second, enough to live comfortably on if one defines comfort rather narrowly, and third, far less than current not-yet-lifted minimum wages when all aspects of book writing are taken into count. It’s not even close to minimum wage. As an example of time involved, it took me five full working days to prepare for this gig. Five days is one hell of a lot when you are nearly 71 and don’t know how many productive brain days you have left.
Hey, Doug’s first wife just whispered to me that she wants s a word and I guess it’s only fair to hear her out.
“DOUG LACKS…HOW CAN I SAY THIS DIPLOMATICALLY, A CERTAIN JE NE SAIS QUOI? YOU KNOW, LIKE HIS IDEA OF THE DURATION OF LOVEMAKING WAS THE EQUVALENT OF FLIPPING A COIN TO DETERIMINE THE KICKOFF, AND SLAPPING THAT COIN ON THE BACK OF YOUR HAND. FLIP-CATCH-SLAP-SHOW, DONE. DO YOU WANT TO KICK OFF OF DEFEND AN END? I’M TALKING SUPERSONIC SPEEDS AND SUBSONIC IMPACTS. LIKE HE WAS TOO FAST FOR FAST AND OF THE HURRY-UP-AND-I’M-DONE MINDSET. THAT’S DOUG. BUT HE’S A REALLY FINE PROVIDER, I HAVE TO GRANT HIM THAT WHERE WORLDLY GOODS ARE CONCERNED, HE’S TERRRIFIC. BUT A WOMAN NEEDS MORE, AT LEAST THIS WOMAN NEEDS MORE, HEAR WHAT I’M SAYING?
I can see in some of your eyes now: what in the hell is he doing? The answer is that I am trying to demonstrate some technical aspects writers have to deal with in constructing stories, be they fiction or nonfiction. While stories may seem to materialize out of a quasi-dream state, it’s the writer’s challenge to use his or her craft with language to make sure the story he is telling grabs and holds you.
In addition to the previous questions, folks often ask me if they can learn creative writing in school and the answer is yes and no. What schools teach us are the tools of writing, vocabulary, syntax, grammar, structure, all that jazz. What schools cannot teach is imagination. Teachers can recognize, encourage, and help you exercise your imagination, but imagination is the fuel of fiction and can’t be installed like new software on a computer. Imagination is, like speed, something you are born with, or not and whatever life gives you, you can improve, but without imagination, writing will not happen.
Here’s another way to come at this writing and craft business: In the words of Todd Lockwood, a founder of the Brautigan Library in Vermont, “Ideas with vision will usually survive a less-than-perfect presentation. But the most elaborate presentation in the world will not substitute for vision.”
Like the old burger advertisement’s punchline: Where’s the meat?
A writer’s job — his or her challenge — is to make a story seem authentic to you as you read it. Call this an air of veracity. I think I must do all right in this regard as considerable number of people think I am a retired conservation officer. I’m not.
Author Mary McCarthy once wrote: “We do really expect a novel to be true, not only true to itself …but true to actual life.” The reader not only makes believe that he or she believes a novel, but believes it substantially, as being continuous with or contiguous to real life, which is to say made of the same stuff and it is the presence of fact in fiction, of dates, and times, and places, and names, and distances that provide a kind of reassurance, a guarantee of credibility.
I try to tell my stories using what critics call the close third-person narrator, which means a free and indirect style. Take this sentence: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” The use of the word “stupid” here begs the question: Whose word is this? It’s unlikely the author wants to call his character stupid merely for listening to some music in the auditorium. So what we have here is the author giving the word to the character without interrupting the flow of thought from the character’s mind. If the author chose to write conventional first person, he might have written something like, “It’s so stupid to be crying over this silly piece of Brahms, he thought.” But this last sentence is 12 words and the previous one is only 7, or 40 percent shorter, which makes the composition tighter and performs the alchemical trick of putting you directly into the character’s head. All this achieved by using that one word, “stupid.” This is an example of why writing is called an art and why you will hear authors and teachers talk about how every word is important.
The second example which ended with “he thought” is a stark reminder that the author is in the story, at least as an observer, so the first approach is better at removing a potential item that might distract your reader’s focus.
This is what I strive for with Grady Service and Lute Bapcat and of course, I fall way short of what I strive for in my hoped-for effect, which I suppose is a kind of inner voice of free thought, or stream of consciousness aimed at the moment in the story, the way things happen in your mind and mine every day, in fact are happening right now as we gawk at each other. The goal, of course is to make the characters as human and believable as possible.
Technically this approach is called free indirect style, a term probably only writers and students bother about (or should), but it is the secret to the alchemy of getting the reader into a character’s mind and emotions. The beauty of it is that as with the sentence with the “stupid tears,” you sense these are the character’s words, when in fact they are words the writer chose for the reasons we just talked about.
Does this sort of calculation go into all writing? No, of course not, but I think it goes into all readable and compelling fiction, otherwise people would not find the books interesting.
Another reason for using first person is this: The technique is aimed at veracity, or truth. Narrators, Grady Service and Lute Bapcat, are eye-witnesses testifying to you the reader that the things they are relating did indeed happen, even though you the reader know they did not happen, that the story is fabricated. This gap between what you the reader see and what you the reader know—is the concept you probably remember from your school days as the willing suspension of disbelief.
Passion for fact in a raw state is a peculiarity of the novelist. Most of the great novels contain blocks and lumps of fact – stubborn, obstinate, unmanageable lumps, and chunks, that provide the porridge of the tale, the things that stick to your ribs. Someone once wrote that probability judgments are higher for richer, more detailed scenarios, which may seem contrary to logic and common sense, because adding details make story-telling more persuasive yet less likely to come true. Habitual liars know this.
Hemingway boiled it down to, “A big lie is more plausible than truth.”
People, critics and media folk often talk about my use of the U.P., not just as a setting, but as an overarching force or even a character in the stories.
As an author, I seek first to grab hold of the collar of your attention, to give you the feel of something alive and moving ahead, like you’ve just been pulled onto an airplane or train. To do this I orient you with geographical descriptions, names of towns, mountains, roads, landmarks, counties, rivers, everything, the so-called social topography. I want you captured and on edge and curious, and of course, comfortable to the degree that you keep reading.
The difference between a novel and a movie is this: A movie may begin slowly and softly, but it has to end big in order to create word of mouth. A novel, however, has to grab hold immediately, but can end on a softer, quieter note. Why the difference? In a movie you’ve already paid for your ticket and found your way to your seat and are unlikely to get up and walk out. But with a book, and in the comfort of your own home, you may just well eaily set it aside and reach for something else to occupy your time. As we move from movie houses to streaming internet and Netflix and so forth some of this may change over time, but it still holds for the moment for novelists and screenwriters.
Description creates a comfort zone, a familiar site and place, but the Upper Peninsula itself is a character with force because it is physically isolated, semi-wild, and like all such places, sociologists tell us, a magnet for extremes in personalities.
As the late Bernard DeVoto once wrote, “A wilderness does no coddling. You succeed or you die, fast or slow. Mother Nature reserves the upper hand and the last word.”
Matter-of-fact-carnage and brutality are part of the fabric of wilderness life.
Here is an excerpt from a series of family memoirs about the settlers of Summit, Michigan (which is a suburb of Herman, MI) both of which are about 5 or 6 miles east of us as the crow flies over the steep hilly woods. The author writes: “My mother recalled a neighbor boy by the name of Uno Niemi who was hanging on a pole close to the railroad tracks and fell down. The train passed over his legs and the boot with his leg still stuffed inside it was dragged about a quarter mile when it finally fell off. Uno’s brother, Rudolph Niemi, who was running along the tracks, came upon the boot and threw it aside, not realizing the boot still had a foot in it. Uno never made it to the hospital.”
No fanfare, almost no emotion in the telling, the sort of attitude wilderness life breeds in those who choose to face it.
In modern bumper sticker lingo we might say, “Shit happens.”
Dialog is another way of creating tension, providing information and setting tone.
Here’s Doug’s second wife, whom we’ve not met. Doug is standing quietly beside her.
“I’M DOUG’S WIFE, THE CURRENT ONE? THEY CALL ME HOSTA AND I KNOW DOUG COMPLAINS ABOUT MY SIS AND ME GOING OVER TO THE CASINO, BUT I’M A NURSE, I GAMBLE WITH MY OWN MONEY AND SIS AND I GO OVER THERE ONCE A MONTH FOR A GOOD MEAL AND TO BLOW OFF SOME STEAM. ONLY ONCE DID DOUG HAVE TO PAY AND THAT’S BECAUSE SIS AND I FORGOT OUR CREDIT CARDS AND THE MANAGER WAS NICE ENOUGH TO SHOO THE BILL TO DOUG WHO PAID IT WITHOUT TALKING TO ME FIRST AND HAS BEEN COMPLAINING EVER SINCE. AIN’T THAT RIGHT HON?
Doug says:“I GUESS.”
Hosta goes on, “THAT MAN. MY HUSBAND LIKES TO PLAY THE CURMUDGEON, BUT HE SORT OF STRETCHES THE TRUTH AND I THINK HE LIKES TO PLAY THE VICTIM, HIS FIRST WIFE – I CALL HER HIS PRACTICE WIFE—HER NAME WAS BIBI AND SHE USED HIM BIG-TIME. UNLIKE SOME OTHER MEN, HE NEVER BEAT ON HER OR NOTHING LIKE THAT. DOUG’S GRUFF, BUT HE’D NEVER HURT NOBODY, WOULD YOU HON?”
Doug replies sheepishly:I MIGHTA THUNK ON IT A LONG WHILE, BUT NO… I GUESS NOT.”
Then Hosta tells us, “ME? I’D PROBABLY HAVE SHOT HER AFTER SHE BROUGHT HOME A SOCIAL DISEASE. THIS IS A SMALL TOWN, SO EVERYBODY KNEW, EH?”
Now we have actually met three characters, Doug, his first wife Bibi, and his current wife Hosta, (A name I took while looking out at a neighbor’s garden). And we have had dialog between Doug and Wife No. 2, Hosta.. I Haven’t actually taken you into any of the three heads so you can hear innermost voices, but I have suggested to you what those inner voices might be saying by what that character declares out loud. The truth is that if I took you into their heads you might find them think altogether differently than they are speaking, which is very human. We often hide what we think through a barrage of words or silence. As we move from character to character I can cause you as the reader to emote in certain ways and this in turn is used to create dramatic effect and tension in the story as it unfolds.
Enough play-time: I am often asked what the writer’s life is like and here I am going to describe the legendary critter as succinctly as possible.
My writer’s life includes reading extensively, thinking about characters and stories developing in my head. Almost all of the major creative work is done before I put a pen to paper.
I take phone calls, and email, and answer queries across my website and write in my JOE ROADS blog now and then, and file stuff and photos on FACEBOOK. I answer letters from strangers, and I personally answer every email I get over my website, or letter that come by snailmail.
I chat with friends who stop by, and I spend on month every year in trucks with DNR officers and have done this now for fourteen years, which means I’ve spent more than one year on patrol in trucks, which helps me to gather information to help me render the stories authentic. I sign books for retailers and talk at libraries. I paint and draw cartoons, and I write poems. I do not belong to many organizations because I am the antithesis of a joiner. I either want in the game or to do something else. That’s probably my personal failing.
Lonnie and I pick all manner of berries, go brook trout, salmon and smallmouth fishing, site exploring, take photographs, tend our pot garden, that is veggies in pots, not dope, and I do some creative woodwork. We also play SCRABBLE from time to time. We are both lousy at the game. I get phone calls and letter from fans. Many of the calls are from folks searching for the Mosquito Wilderness. Not one has yet found it et because they are all looking in the wrong place. I edit page proofs coming back from my editor, work with the copy editor and fact checker and publicity people. I write blurbs for other authors and seek blurb” from other authors. A work with colleagues and we cheerlead and help promote each other. What we don’t do is “hang out.” Writers tend to be solitary creatures.
The main occupation of most writers, I think and hope, is that of language-tightening, trying to get what we write tighter and tighter, so tight that little extraneous light can squeeze through it. I try to start my stories as close to the end as possible, and let dialog tell the story as much as possible. I provide a minimum of description of characters, preferring to let your mind create a picture of your own invention. This way, you are buying into and participating in telling the story you’re reading. This is why books made into movies often fail because the actor chosen for the role you like looks nothing like the one in your head. So it goes. They’re different animals, books and movies, and to answer the last question, yes, I’ve been approached for movie deals.
As for the quiz question we started this with, I think Hemingway in order to say,”The sun rose the next morning, would have written: “The sun rose the next morning.” My point is that writing can be mystical and lyrical and even beautiful, but unless the story warrants that treatment, and only you’re bent that way toward artsy language and poetic fiction and thought, it’s better to keep things simple, direct and straight ahead.
I write poetry in order to improve my metaphors and to tighten my use of language. Let me conclude I’ll conclude by reading a poem I wrote this this summer.
High in the greenery
The sentinel sits glowing,
Priceless ruby, lit by the golden hour.
He swoops to challenge any
Who dare taste his sugar water,
King of his territory, a small bright warlord,
And only once does he retreat
After crossing beaks with a female,
An emerald gal, their beaks click
Audibly, like rapiers the size of pencil leads,
Dramas on the smallest scale,
Little lives lived large by buzz bombs.
It goes like this, dawn to dusk,
Every day in this place
Where a writer in solitude
Has time to leisurely count,
Passing four thousand now,
Each tallied with vertical marks,
Every fifth with a crosshatch.
I note life on this bluebird day
When blueberries and razzies
Lay ripe and succulent in bright sun.
We are of this place now,
I can feel our roots grow
Down into the earth.
Where one day we will follow
My late mom Wilma Catherine Hegwood always said a good speech is like a meal, it should be filled with tast,y edible, well-cooked meat and veggies, and the ending should be as close to the opening as possible.
By the way, my mom’s maiden name was Hegwood. She had only to change one letter when she married my dad, a G to a Y. I couldn’t make that up
Thank you for being here today on such short notice. Questions?