Archive for the ‘Writing’ category

A Walk With Hank

October 12, 2018

I invited my friend Henry David Thoreau along for a walk the other day, a bit of a hike actually.  I wanted him to come home with me up north, to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia.  It’s a beautiful place, half-way between the two Princes of George and Rupert.

My two brothers and I, and our mother, lived there once upon a time, in a log cabin not far off the highway, surrounded by a forest and local farmers’ fields.

It was a sizable rural place with a couple of neighbours, where we boys took access to the wild for granted.

There were rolling grassed hills next to wheat fields, poplar, cottonwood and willow along the winding creek, and heavier coniferous forest on the upslope side of our property and down to the Bulkley River.

Henry David Thoreau likes to ramble

Hank likes to ramble through the woods for hours at a time so I invited him along to follow a stream down to its river.  Maybe chat with a neighbour kid going fishing down the creek, if we run across one.  See what else we find.

thoreau.jpg

We start at the Deep Creek Bridge on a gravelled sideroad and walk up our short driveway to the log cabin on a little plateau.  Then we cut across the yard in between the cabin and the big workshed thrown up by a logging contractor one winter.  Then down the slope to the creek’s old floodway and the big dark cottonwoods.  One will have fallen over, bridging the creek.

It was always easier to get down to the river on the other side of the creek, and it was prettier over there too, so that was usually the way we went.

We made our way along the rough bark of the cottonwood and over the creek.  Hank finally managed to throw out a few words.  Whenever we get together, I keep waiting for him to say something, the wiser and more profound the better.  This is hard on him I’ve finally realized.  He looks at me now and again inconclusively, and keeps his mouth shut for long periods of time.  This is something that I feel a little dismayed about.  He could probably cite a few annoying things about me, so I never bring it up.

An early morning walk

At long last he says non-committally,

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

This was good.  Early morning it certainly was, with a golden light and the palest blue sky.  Perhaps the beauty of the day could unleash statements beyond the obvious.  Eventually.

“Hank, come with me over here.  That’s the big pool where I used to fish along the creek below the cabin.  We can just see the roofline from here.

“I believed there was an enormous fish, at least one and probably more, in this deep, deep pool.  I would dream about this fish, so huge and wise, surging from the depths, refusing to take my hook.  It always cheered me enormously.”

Hank took a look at the pool and at me.  He said:  “All good things are wild and free.”

This is why I like to tramp around with Hank.  Eventually, he just can’t help himself.  Get him to open up just a little and before too long he will say something profound in an offhand kind of way.

I hoped he was going to warm up a bit now.  (I’m sure he finds my expectations tiresome.)

I say, “We can follow the creek along here.  There are many great little places, you know, as the creek winds downstream.   Each one unique.  Not just the look of the place.  But almost more, the feel.  And changing every year with maybe a different log and a different ripple, and a subtly different bank to form the channel.”

Launch yourself on every wave

Hank said thoughtfully:  “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

I was about to say something snarky about relevance, Hank, really…. but then I thought it over.  Maybe he’s on point.  Everything changes.  The only constant is this moment.

“Does Waldo agree with you entirely on that — although I know you overlap a great deal?”  I ask this due to other infrequent conversations with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hank nodded.  “Mostly.  He likes to fancy it up with high-falutin’ language.”

We pushed away ferns and dead broken hollow-stemmed plants to get to a really special place nestled in a wide curve of creek that amazingly looked exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.

The log was just so, mossy and aslant, and the creek ran over it between the ferns.  The largest part glinted fluid white — a tiny waterfall — while the noisy creek rolled and splashed past us over and through gravel, rocks and boulders.  Drops sprayed on our walking boots where we stood in the shadows.  We both breathed in, deeply.

We went on. But then Hank stopped and turned:

“By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man.  My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

Ah, a bit confessional today.  He is a loner, as I have been, but he is much more so.  I feel sad for him although he would reject that.

Hank smiled ruefully and continued to stroll onward over the grassed path in the narrow benched area around the creek below the hills.

On the gentle hills nearby we could see metre-high mounds of anthills, although some were reduced to their grass bases.  Those had the twigs and dark debris of their structure scattered.

“The bears like them,” I said.  “Must be a feast.”

We walked silently side by side for a time.  The grassed floodplain narrowed and we passed through several copses of poplars, their silver leaves shimmering.

Living a sort of border life

We came into a clearing, the rushing creek noisy at our side.  Up ahead we can see Harold, one of the neighbour kids from long ago, with a fishing rod.  Before we got to Harold to say hello, Hank paused our stroll again and said:

“For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.”

I musingly repeated, “Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow….”  Hank nodded and made a wry expression.  Not only is he introspective today but serious and unfixed in his mind.

By this time young Harold looked behind and marched over to us proudly, holding up a very respectably sized Dolly Varden trout.  I mocked astonishment at its size, and Harold and I both laughed.

There were grave congratulations for Harold from Hank too, and the boy beamed at us.  “I want to have this for lunch,” he said shaking the fish by the stick through its gills.  We waved at him and he ran off back towards civilization, upstream.

I wonder whatever happened to him….

“It’s not far now,” I said.

“What’s that?” Hank asked cheerily.  He really doesn’t care where we walk as long as we go.

“Half a mile or so,” I said.  “Where Deep Creek finds the Bulkley River.”

In the old days, with relatives visiting or new friends we wanted to show off to, in the summers we would take them down to the mouth of Deep Creek just as we went now.  Our mother usually acted as the master of ceremonies.  Might take some snacks, but typically we just meandered our way down and back. We would return to the cabin with an appetite.

The path downstream Hank and I followed now became a little tricky as it worked through brush and over deadfalls.

Finally Hank and I could see the wide turbulent river, the dark forest on the other side and the easy loop of sandbars through embedded fallen trees where Deep Creek met its joining.

Drown all our muskrats

Hank said, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”

I wasn’t completely clear what he meant, being unfamiliar with metaphorical muskrats, but it sounded hopeful.

“My mother is here,” I told Hank.  He raised an eyebrow.

“After she died, we brought her ashes to this place, my brothers, our wives.  We said a few words choked with emotion at this spot.  Then one of my brothers took the slick white cardboard container of her remains and released the ashes to the river in a swirl of white and gray powder.”

“You said your good-byes,” Hank said.

“Yes.”

“At death our friends and relations either draw nearer to us and are found out, or depart further from us and are forgotten,” Hank observed.

We watched for awhile where the creek’s clear waters merged into the murkier, swifter river.

“Time to go back.”  Hank nodded.

“Thank you for this,” he said.  “It reminds me of the woods around Concord.”

He said one thing when we walked back to the cabin I remember well.  He commented we shared a common experience when we shook hands just before he departed:

“My imagination, my love and reverence and admiration, my sense of miraculous, is not so excited by any event as by the remembrance of my youth.”

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Notes:  This imagined walk with Henry David Thoreau follows upon something similar I did in a post a few years ago now about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chant the Beauty of the Good.  I finally got around to doing the same thing with Thoreau….

It took a different path than I anticipated.  Thoreau was a serious man and quite distinct in temperament from Emerson, although they shared many of the same views.  They were the Transcendentalists.

A good way to learn about Thoreau and Emerson is by quotations.  The best source I’ve found for Thoreau online was at Henry David Thoreau Quotations Search.  This is part of  the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods site.

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On the Need to Make Music

August 21, 2018

Since I’m retired (whatever that means), I have more time to excavate long-ago crannies of my life.

I was reflecting on when one transitions from boy to teenager.  “One” being me, of course, as the overwhelmingly predominant source of my material.

This was in northern Canada (although the Bulkley Valley in north central British Columbia is not that far north really).

Young and impressionable, after listening to the inspiring music of the late 1960s from afar through a few records and more importantly, night-time rock radio, I longed to create the same emotions I felt.  I wanted to rock, to move people, to express truth.

I hungered to play music, to play guitar, to stir people.  There was nothing I wanted more, in the way of the young.  My failure to accomplish anything in that realm, through a combination of lack of musicality, of lack of instruction, and without proper equipment, had a rippling effect through my life that even at this remove I can glimpse. (I fear that it was mostly lack of musicality.)

I wonder if there isn’t something similar for every young person, an object or area of immense emotional sustenance if only it could be brought fully into one’s life.  In my case, I think it was rock music and guitar.  For some other young one, it might be racing motorcycles, or painting landscapes, or being a comedian.  I think there must be some such for every one, although it might only be foggily felt, or deemed too mundane to receive encouragement.  There are artesian wells of yearning in the young that the adult world often tries to cap.  Or the yearning is allowed to exhaust itself through indifference.

In some ways my failure at music helped make me remote, painful, standoffish, insecure, and melancholic. Although as a teenager, this probably was the normal state of affairs!

RamblersPhoto1I was the nerd who sat and listened, the only audience in the noon-time classroom, while the school sock-hop band – voice, guitar, drums and bass – practised Secret Agent Man and Wipeout for a dance.  I couldn’t play, but at least I could listen….

The poor old school band was surprised at receiving such attention at their practice times.  There was something obsessive about it, I admit.  I always clapped after they finished playing.  They were unsure how to acknowledge their audience of one.

It is true that passion does not necessarily signify talent.  I am a good example of that.  But now in the latter half of my sixties, I learn to once more play guitar and appreciate the modest musical abilities I do have.

I am lucky enough to have some rewarding recording experiences thanks to a music teacher and producer.  It means a lot to me, and makes me want to do more.

The fountain is bubbling in my heart again, like a boy.

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Note: Image is of the band, The Ramblers, from the site GarageHangover.

Revisiting Grand Funk Railroad

July 5, 2018

Many of the thronging hordes that frequent this blog may not have even been alive when the power trio Grand Funk Railroad were in their heyday.

I was around in the late 60s, early 70s when at least one of their songs became unfortunately very popular.  I say “unfortunately” because an almost meaningless song like “We’re An American Band” was constantly on the radio, when they had so many other great rock ‘n’ roll songs we should have heard more of.

However, I can forgive “American Band” every time I hear “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home.”  Take a moment now to listen to it…. Isn’t that epic?

I listen to it as if it is a mysterious fable wanting to tell me something. At the end I’m never sure what, but I’m still touched by the telling.

It did get considerable play in its day, despite being 10 minutes long, especially on FM radio at that time, which was almost as free spirited as the early internet.

The song became an unofficial anthem of Vietnam vets, who came to hold the song and its writer Mark Farner in high regard.  It resonated with their experiences wanting to come home from the war zone.

So, Mark Farner on guitar, Don Brewer on drums and Mel Schacher, bass, made up Grand Funk Railroad, which was formed in 1969.  (However, others participated in the future.)  Its original configuration was that of a power trio.

Power Trio!

(“Gramps! Gramps! Whatever is a ‘power trio?”

“Why, little one, for a short time it was a magical combination of musicians for playing rock music.  It was loud, energetic and expressive in a tempestuous time.”)

In those days, some people thought Grand Funk borrowed a lot of their sound from Led Zeppelin, a quartet.  But they were really in the mold of Cream, that famous power trio.

But listening to them as I have been recently, they seem more like a northern yankee version of the Allman Brothers Band, a much larger unit.

The Funk were good.  So together in their playing.  It’s amazing, as was the case with other good power trios, that they could raise such a mighty and melodic wall of sound.

Mark Farner’s lead guitar is often restrained but capable of wonderful passages.

The compilation I have is Classic Masters – Grand Funk Railroad. I will mention some of the songs in rough chronological order.

The history of the band can be divided into two rough periods, Terry Knight as producer, 1969-72, and the well-known Todd Rundgren for most of the time after that.

“American Band” and their other #1 hit “The Loco-Motion” (which I do like a lot better than “American Band”) came from the Rundgren period in the 70s.  He brought a more radio-savvy appreciation of the times and of what could be a possible hit.

“Time Machine,” their first single back in 1969 from the Terry Knight years, is blues-rock which chugs along so lovely.

“Heartbreaker” is from that early time too.  A blues wailer to start which turns into a power anthem, so controlled, then surprising in its rendition of majestically combined voices.

“Miss Mistreater” is the only GFR live recording released as a single.  A morose sarcastic ballad is sung with a sense of experience and understanding which transitions to a high-tempo freakout, then slows again.

Then “I’m Your Captain” arrived and impressed many, although there were some who considered it musical gobbledegook.

The band added a keyboardist, Craig Frost, and went off to Nashville to record songs like “Rock and Roll Soul.”  This is a pretty standard hollerer about rock ‘n’ roll, which you know will live forever, man!

I have to say that the band’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” outdoes the original.  They truly made it their own.

I won’t mention every song in the compilation at hand, but I did like the hard rocking “Shinin’ On” a lot from 1974 and the Rundgren period.  Great intro….

After Rundgren, a new producer Jimmy Ienner got involved in the mid-70s.  “Some Kind of Wonderful” — can I get a witness! — and “Bad Time” come from this time.  “Bad Time” is catchy and definitely gone beyond into pop music.

“Take Me” was released as a single in December, 1975.  Great guitar solo from Mark Farner.  He sounds a little like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits here.  And then there was no more of substance to hear from the band.

Listening now, I think Grand Funk Railroad are much better than what may be their general reputation in rock music.  It’s true at the time when they were producing music I didn’t think they were so great, yet every time I heard “I Am Your Captain/Closer to Home” I had to stop and listen.

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In the Trenches with the First Draft Revision

May 23, 2018

So I putter away at revising the first draft of the novel, not quite yet doing very much of the real work.  The real work of laboring to put words that make sense in the right places.  One after another, for a long time.

I have to write some new scenes, rewrite others.  I’ve got one subplot kind of figured out.  I’m hoping a more whimsical, trivial one will make itself apparent to me.  I’ve made a few editing changes here and there.

There’s no doubt that writing the first draft had to be an exploration, a struggle to make each event a cause of another so true that a story appears.

I’m starting to have the scary perception that some of what I’ve written is good.  Of course I have no real way to determine how much off the mark that is, but I feel a hint of excitement.

I wrote the first draft one paragraph after another without going back and inspecting what I had wrought and must inevitably adjust.  That was freeing.  I had my scene roadmap, adorned with missing pathways and “Here Be Dragons” that I steered by.  Eventually I passed over some parts of the plan, and added scenes and fresh (occasionally hackneyed without doubt) directions to others.  But most importantly, I didn’t try to rewrite anything, or even edit atrociously awkward sentences.  I was careful not to go back and read them.

Alan Watt’s book The 90-Day Novel really inspired me.  I didn’t follow the schedule of his book at all or even pay much attention to that tired 3-Act Novel act.  (Three Act Structure just means the story has a beginning, a middle and the end.  It doesn’t really amount to a method….)  But words like these were encouraging, perceptive and wise:

“Many of us are writing stories of freedom, but struggle to imagine what that might look like for our hero. …

“Being certain about any aspect of our story limits us.  Let’s trust that the story lives fully within us, and that something valid wants to be expressed.  There’s an experience far more empowering than certainty, and that is a faith in the fundamental truth of our story, a growing belief that it is not necessary to force anything, but rather to inquire into the nature of what we want to express.”

I’m surprised now as I read, that my first draft is often so succinct and descriptive. The characters actually stand out from the background.  You can hear who they are.  There is a story, an interesting one.

The tasks of this second draft I think will be to carefully remove the indistinct and to sharpen turns of the characters and to tighten the chains of causation between them.  Make the future world more interesting and strange, yet plausible.  Make the story better.  Don’t die by the time I get around to finishing it….

There is a workable, standing framework to carefully sculpt, without disturbing whatever delicate balance I might have accidentally managed to create.

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Boyhood in the North

May 17, 2018

In the late Sixties

the Vietnam War years

in our

log cabin in a

northern place

the tinny nighttime music from

AM radio

came in from

Portland or Seattle

during the midnight hours

Piles of snow outside

and the icy forest all around

cracking

We could hear the distant

shouts of war all the way

up there while

the music

arrived –

The Doors

Buffalo Springfield

Donovan

Who dares to forget

Jennifer Juniper

or, yes, Mellow Yellow

and the accompanying rumours

about baking

banana strings in the oven

So many Donovan songs

I forgot how much he was the soundtrack

of those years

Catch the Wind

Season of the Witch

Sunshine Superman

Wear Your Love Like Heaven

Baharajagal

Hurdy Gurdy Man

Universal Soldier

music shaping us while

kerosene light bounced

from snow crystals

at the window

 

Guitar Dreams

May 1, 2018

I wanted to play so much

as a green teenager

I needed to make music as stirring

As what we heard on

our battery radio

on cold winter nights

all over the Pacific Northwest

down to San Francisco

 

In a northern cabin

A guitar came into my hands

From my mother

Acoustic, hard to play

Poorly made

I puzzled to play something

vaguely rocking

While in the background

Donovan

sang

Hurdy Gurdy Man

 

Fight

To play the guitar

No instruction

Little talent

Just willfulness

It ended badly

With a whimper

 

Now in my latter

years I have returned

to the beautiful

instrument

Still not very good

But better

 

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Plodding Through the Sucking Swamp of First Draft Novel Revision

April 27, 2018

OK, it’s not quite as bad as that.  Almost just about, though, sometimes.

I’ve written a lengthy first draft, and since I’m pretty new to this whole cool, impressive novel thing, I’ve dithered about buckling down to revision.  (If you’re curious, it’s a science fiction revenge and redemption novel, with alien contact.)

I did take a number of months hiatus after finishing the first draft.  I found that easy to do.  (I did keep jotting down ideas and advice to myself, so showing some good instincts there, I hope.)

The problem is I have no idea of what good revision means, in an operational sort of way.  This is similar to my problem about writing a story.  I had no idea what a story really is.  I am still not entirely clear.

And my first response to the revision problem was, just as for story, to find and read as many books as possible on the subject.  You’d be surprised at how many there are, although I didn’t buy all of them.

I’ve read quite a few by now.  I can recommend a couple that will end up probably helping me:

Layer Your Novel, by C.S. Lakin, and Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley.

Although I’m definitely getting to grips with revision now, I still plan to read Blueprint Your Bestseller (uh-huh) by Stuart Horwitz which promises a way to “organize and revise any manuscript.”  We’ll see.

One of the big things dragging me down has been perhaps an over-sensitive appreciation of the problem of structure.  How do I see the structure in what I wrote?  How do I make the story big, better?  One starts to get bogged down in the theory.  But I have found some approaches that make sense in starting to get an overview.

Peering Through the Thickets

When I was thinking about starting the novel,  I wrote kind of a scene by scene treatment where I wanted to go, which inevitably in the doing went down unforeseen paths.

So my first step, after reading the whole thing once, was to complete a list of all my scenes, along with the necessary scene questions.  This was good advice from Cathy Yardley.

By going through all the scenes, I’ve read the draft a second time.  The second time around, it was as if I was reading it for the first time.  I found so much that I hadn’t caught at all.

For some background, I wrote the first draft without going back and editing anything.  Just get it down and worry about all the rest later.  Sometimes the sequences are disjointed and out of kilter because I was still discovering what the story was.

Most recently I’ve been working on a list of every character in the book, along with penetrating questions about the main ones.  But every character, even the most minor, has a visual, or if not, I make one up.

I worked on characters quite a lot before starting writing, but only after writing the first draft am I able to see possible connections and oppositions between the characters I didn’t before.

I’ve only now really started to get a sense of the characters.  They were thin specters in a haze previously.  This is not to say that they’re somehow completely clear and real in my mind – there’s still much fog wafting about.

Up until now, I’ve put off any line-by-line editing because of my structural concerns and worry about where to best add or delete new scenes (and/or sequels).

But even so today, for the very first time, I did some line editing of the first chapter.  That’s going to be fun, improving and making the words come alive.  (I would like to think.)

It really requires getting in the scene with characters, as if in some battle arena where you, incorporeal, closely observe the goings on without fear of a knife in the ribs.  One or two specific true-to-life descriptions in the scene can do so much, I’ve found, and being imaginatively in the scene with the characters facilitates that.

I’m sure I’ve got much, much more to learn about it.

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A note about a couple of useful tools in revision – for me anyway.

My favorite thesaurus, online or offline: Power Thesaurus.

This customizable random name generator is my favorite.  Still using it in revision, after forgetting to put in names of minor characters…. Behind the Name .