I suppose that it just feels so good when a story rolls off the fingertips, that I had to begin and complete another draft before I had completed my WW2 story (set in Brooklyn and in New Orleans), tentatively titled, River Traffic. R-T had required a lot of research, and normally, while I enjoy all the digging, for some reason, I found myself putting it away for a spell. Procrastination, or to be honest, an elusive ending found all kinds of reasons not to write. I jumped into the crazy world of book marketing to get more readers for my existing titles. Some of it worked, some didn’t. I had gotten to the point, after an almost full year of book marketing, tweaking tags, pushing information throughout the net, that I missed writing stories.
Around the time that I decided to return to word-smithing River Traffic, something unusual happened. It was just before Christmas. My sixteen year old grandson asked if I thought a particular gift was too far “over the top” to consider. It was something he really wanted, and just unusual enough that I had to bite. He wanted a broadsword. Not a dungeons and dragons fan that I knew about, he had accompanied me to see the Tolkien movies, but this came out of left field. Since most of the gifts I knew were coming his way were pretty serious things he needed for school and I was able to find a few swords online that weren’t too expensive, I bought one for him.
The real impact occurred when it arrived. As I drew it out of its sheath to inspect it before wrapping it up, a prickly, peculiar sensation began buzzing in my ears, running up and down my back. As the light played over the edges and fuller channel, an unexpected story began to suggest itself to me. I hadn’t worked on an ancient historical fantasy project for many years, but once the itch struck, I had to find out if it was going to be of any value. Two weeks later, I’d completed 85K words in a frenzy that felt almost drug-induced. I’d also enjoyed taking my core characters by sail from Northern Africa to Tarsus, then all the way around Crete, Greece and Italy to ancient Marseilles by way of Sardinia. The time period begins in 48BCE. The actual sword that rattled the muse went over as a memorable gift. He was very happy with it and later I saw it propped up next to his bed leaning on the headboard. So far, there haven’t been any injuries or news of persons missing in the vicinity, so I can exhale regarding its appropriateness.
But of course, despite the joys of a first draft that almost writes itself, what remains on the other side is the real work. I’ve envisioned this as a project that will take up at least three books; and now the first, which is in serious need of both line and developmental editing is up to 93K words. It’s going to need some rewrites. The first round comments from my trusted core of beta readers have come back pointing in several shared directions. So at least I have a general idea of what remains to be done. I’m no stranger to rewrites. My first book needed twelve of them!
So, the point of this post is to explain what I’ll be doing for the next six months if you don’t hear much from me. I’ve also settled on a tentative project name. A Gift of Steel. What else could it possibly be?
Oh, and yes, I broke down and bought one for myself, as you can see.
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By the way, a great blog post about procrastination and the doubts that plague writers, by author and editor Debi Alper can be found at: http://debialper.blogspot.com/2016/04/facing-down-fear.html
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Update — Rewrites one and two are complete and most of the Beta reports are in. I weighed whether a major twist should happen at the end of this book or the beginning of the next. After due consideration and digesting my readers’ comments, I elected to include the twist as a way of setting up the next. A pitch has been written and sent and now I have time to return to River Traffic, my WW2/Brooklyn/NOLA novel. I’m about two-thirds complete with that one, so I’ll roll up my sleeves and get to work!
This year we celebrate the Centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland that laid the foundation for the Republic. Our Nations share aspirations and bloodlines and an acute longing for satisfied lives. My father was born on the Nebraska prairie, near North Platte in July of 1916. In thinking of the lives of his forebears in a hard land and the lives of those brave sons and daughters of Eire, I’ve written the following words…
1916: Half a World Away
by Richard Sutton
Easter morning! Sunrise paints Dublin’s cobbled streets.
Half a world away, in a rude sod shack
a woman carries the swelling burden of her future
on the bleak Nebraska prairie.
She cries out, new life inside her stirring
sure as the heartbeat of a nation, birthing.
Crying too, half a world away, soon to rise once more
to see the old world with new eyes, shining.
Sharp winds scour the plains, rattle ragged eaves.
Yet sharper still, winds of destiny and justice, long-denied
sweep over Eire; weary voices resounding strong,
proclaim this day their very own.
But not yet for the Prairie Mother,
nor for all those other Irish sons and daughters,
still daring to hope, half a world away.
The blood and the heart they share, but not fate.
Time will come soon enough to loose
the Prairie Mother’s fragile burden.
But not yet soon enough to preserve all those
bright lit spirits whose heroic call rang true enough.
Easter morning, a shout to the future shakes
the very ground, now running red.
Smoke rises and stings eyes in a rude sod shack
and half a world away on Dublin’s cobbled streets.
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The sun’s been spending a lot of time shining in our windows and on our little section of woods, lately. Over the last week, I’ve noticed our haphazard plantings of flower bulbs is beginning to show color here and there, begun by the Snowdrops. They just never give up, those guys. We have a few branches of Forsythias blooming, the privets are budding tiny green leaves and all the Laurels are covered with swelling flower buds.
I’ve been letting the muse run wild with my hands on the keyboard. What began as a glimmer of a possible idea three weeks ago has passed the 70K word point. It feels as if there has been almost no conscious interruptions from the thinking part of my brain, so once the story is finally finished, I’ll get to see if any of it is of any interest to anyone else.
The idea was a tiny spark that began many years ago in school after a very progressive Western Civ teacher, Mr. William Morrissette (later, Mayor of Springfield, OR), took us a bit beyond the typical curriculum of the time to engage in a discussion of the value of ancient knowledge. The discussion ended with his description of the burning of the Library at Alexandria by the Coptic leadership in order to purge all apostasy from their midst. Of course, a lot was burned that didn’t include them at all as it had been a repository of all types of knowledge going back thousands of years. He stressed how our ideas of “history” (His Story, as in the victor, who lives to tell the tales he wants told) change with each new conqueror, each new civilization, right up to last week.
I read recently that several Greek historians of the Classic Period had come to the conclusion that one of the reasons it was so hard to trace ancient civilizations’ contributions is that as soon as they were conquered, the victors assumed the name of the vanquished and anything of lasting value they had discovered or perfected. “It’s mine, now.” That has been a large component of the human condition for longer than we can remember, but it does mess with timelines.
The seed of an idea that I received that day was a “what if” kind of idea. What if some of the most ancient, important knowledge was saved from before the fires swept Alexandria. What if it was preserved and researched, eventually left for future generations to discover once the understanding had re-developed? What would it contain? Would mankind ever regain the ability to recognize the value of those ideas?
Another, associated thought I’ve had since my school days is that the fossil record indicates that humans have been around for at least a half-million years, yet only the past four or five thousand have been all it took to develop our level of civilization. It seems as though hundreds of thousands of years of observing and learning and thinking simply never took place, or has been somehow deemed unimportant or irretrievable. I don’t think that’s true. I think we just haven’t looked in the right places yet, or just haven’t had enough motivation or the wherewithal to do the looking. But there are a few who do. Like our Snowdrops, they get out there come what may. They beat the bushes. Irrepressable. Undauntable. Fearless.
Each Spring, I’m also gratefully reminded that the cycles of life continue as they have for millions of years. Our view of the “changing world situation” is a very narrow one, really. Those things which have always been powerful and critical to our life upon the Earth still endure, no matter how ugly election year politics might get. I’m comforted by the thought that a long, long time before us, there were wise men and women who recognized those truths, and that no matter how long ago that might have been, the truths themselves, continue on and on. They may be considered magic, or science or even a form of faith, but our perceptions vary while they continue to operate. In the way a small green leaf bursts from a twig that two weeks before seemed dead. What should we call that?
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This is just so much better than Geometry. I mean, I have deep respect for the ancient Greek mathematicians and all, Archimedes and his cronies; but my deepest respect is for the genius who came up wit the idea of putting fruit and caramel and nuts into a flaky pastry shell then baking it until golden brown. Now excuse me, but I know there must be a pie somewhere in this house. I mean to find it.
When the sleep drugs wore off, four days post-launch, he was glad that they were already too far off to even see a small blue dot of light behind them. It hadn’t been an easy decision and he had no desire to return to it. He knew that the combined contributions of four separate households were needed to secure his berth and that meant he had a responsibility to those friends and family members. People he’d never see again. He’d waited until after the medical staff had administered the wake-up meds, then took a seat at a table in the lounge and unfolded his grandmother’s old-fashioned, hand-written letter.
…and remember, help your children and grandchildren remember that out, somewhere through the stars, there was once a beautiful, blue-green planet. A place of tall mountains and deep valleys, rushing rivers and broad seas. A place where living things swam or flew or climbed or walked through flowing or still water, across the skies, between the trees in deep forests or across wide grassy plains. A place where all living things were unique and very beautiful. It was our home. The place where the first child was born. Never forget that once we loved it dearly, then we began taking it for granted. We began to believe that we could devise anything we needed. Never forget.
He laid it down. It was too hard to continue reading, but he knew that he owed her memory at least this: never forget.
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We’re not alone. Most cultures when confronted with division, inertia, retribution and fear, tend to look for a savior. Human beings in many cases would much rather relax by the fire, knowing they will be protected by an heroic figure. Keeping that hero in a position to defend them and make as many of the difficult decisions for them requires the surrender of a great deal of liberty, but… the fireside is so nice, and having to listen to disagreement or formulate ideas is so annoying.
2016 re-establishes the cycle of the cult here in the US. We seem to be caught in another search for a hero to take care of everything for us. Especially to mete out retribution to those who are responsible for our anxiety and our inability to feel confident going forward. The parallels with the rise of Nazism in Post WW1 Germany have been made by more astute and adept writers than me, but I certainly have noticed the historic similarities with the rise of another Nationalist Hero. He told them exactly what they wanted to hear. He established himself as being an outsider, not another politician. Someone who would bring the needed changes, someone who would make (insert name of country here) great again. He was swept into office and power by millions of voters.
I get it. It’s not news to anyone, no matter their politics, that our Congressional system is failing. The primary occupation of those we elect to do our business has become getting re-elected. “Agreements” abound, whether they involve money or influence or money. A seat in either House has become a feeding trough that few, if any, can turn away from. But instead of re-engaging actively with our corrupt , damaged system many of us would rather find a hero to take care of us. The best example of this is how little real issues have entered into any of the debates or discussion. The election this time is a personality contest that the media, in their jaw-dropping avarice, have grabbed ahold and are using it to raise their ratings high overhead. Informing the actual voting public has been left behind as something that will sort itself out after the fact.
So it seems that an outsider who has ridden up atop a white stallion wearing a big white hat, orange pancake and a sign reading, “Outsider Billionaire/TV Star!” has managed to almost surely secure the GOP nomination for chief executive. Why? Because he has told us all in very clear terms that he is the ONLY man for the job. His platform has consisted almost exclusively of brash name-calling and innuendo. His credentials, beyond Reality TV, are non-existent. He has no qualifying skills in developing consensus, managing conflicts (beyond, “my way or the highway”), or solid financial knowledge (beyond how to contact a bankruptcy attorney at exactly the right time to bail). Yet he is clearly, the overwhelming choice of many for either King or Hero. He surely knows how to swing a broadsword.
The one candidate, from the opposing team who has steadfastly turned away from slinging insults and has concentrated upon speaking out clearly on the most important issues we face, has been steadily losing ground. The looming election is shaping up to be, finally, a battle of the heroic warriors still standing. A spectacle that should entertain while filling the media coffers as never before. I can only hope that a clear majority of Americans don’t want to be Nazis or serfs, and would still prefer to think for themselves. A Nation of Diversity has been extolled for many years as our highest aspiration, yet even that picture has been painted to narrowly define diversity as ethnic diversity. Appearance. Diversity of ideas and means to achieve goals have not really been part of the discussion. America has never agreed on everything, but we have previously found that reaching consensus and agreement on the most troubling issues, even if it takes a long, long time, is worth the effort. It’s my deepest hope that we haven’t forgotten how.
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What do you think?
It still surprises me every time I find myself responding to unseen forces and external stresses when it comes to putting words down in a useful order. I’ve been writing both for business communication (to deadline) and creatively (muse directed) for many years now, but those things which can deflect a perfectly good burst of creative juice can still switch it all off in a flash. More interesting to me is that I still don’t know them as I see them approach. Writing can be an almost mechanical occupation sometimes. A situation where the hardest thing to do is just to get your fingers to work the keyboard fast enough. This is not one of those times.
2015 had lots of promise; but Summer on, it fled to be replaced by all kinds of demons. Those who know me know what kinds of beasts they were. I always felt as if my writing at least provided me a shelter of sorts. A vacation away from my life’s naturally occurring dramas. But this year, it hasn’t been the case. When confronted by the kinds of fear and loss that most of us have faced or will face, my ability to line words up fled the county.
It seems to be the case that understanding something intellectually and thinking you have a real grip on it, emotionally, doesn’t really count for much at all. The old saw that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans… is no joke. God’s laughter rings in my ears every time I have attempted, since August, to work on my draft novel. What had been a wonderfully immersive research and storytelling experience has become a closed door. For now.
One bright spot, writing wise, came on the heels of my wife’s post-surgical happy prognosis and treatment. I received a request for a longish short story in a mythic-historical setting that I had some experience with. The draft emerged very quickly, but here I am, some two months later, still trying to coax the final version to reveal itself. Now that most of the normal holiday relaxation/distraction season is complete, and some of the unexpected family troubles after the loss of my wife’s mother are achieving the right perspective, I feel like I can exhale and resume a more productive focus. Oh, and spend lots of time turning my thoughts inward while stroking one of my cats. Oh, and respond to the emotional scars emerging in the absence of Holiday Preparations. Oh, and…
The point of this exercise isn’t to complain, trigger a sympathy fest or even to experience the self-medicating catharsis of putting it down in order. In the process of trying to pull the rewrites together on the short story, I was reminded of something important. At the center of my desire to make up stories, is a mystery. Any success I’ve had in my literary endeavors was not really as a result of my application of lessons, assembly of formulas, absorbing critical guidance or even luck. The source of writing success for me is hiding in plain sight deep inside.
I’m writing this to encourage all budding or even established writers wallowing in their own post-Holiday anti-climax, to simply embrace your mystery. Hang onto it and show it some love. Don’t try to figure it all out. Just be able to respond when it calls to you. Make sure your tools are sharp and ready, but don’t beat yourself up if you have a dry spell now and again. It will come on its own timetable, not yours. I’m learning to accept that fact. How about you?
This time of year has always been a time for reflection and rekindled memory. Once the leaves have fallen and the clean-up is over, we all settle in to enjoy our cozy fire, adopt the Season’s slower pace and let our memories return. When I became recently aware that Showtime was reviving David Lynch’s Twin Peaks in a new TV production, my thoughts slipped back to 1970-71.
I’d left college rudderless but found myself building a cabin in the Oregon woods near the town of Creswell. It was a communal enterprise involving a now-august group of uniquely talented individuals helping each other as we could. Some of us were younger. Young enough to be in awe of some of the older, more accomplished or more note-worthy members of the community.
We all got to know each other well, often through hard physical work clearing land and building structures from communal cook shacks and privies to homes for individual families. One such home was an architecturally ambitious multi-story undertaking that at the time I pitched in, was a looming assemblage of sticks and beams. Not just a little intimidating.
As initially intimidating as the structure he presided over, was the highly accomplished architect and oft-times actor I first saw clinging to a tall piling with his legs, while cutting a notch up towards the top for a roof beam with one hand. In that hand was a roaring chainsaw, while in the other was a pencil. The pencil hand and arm hung down along the pole, but did not hold on in any way. The laughing man clung to the pole while swinging the chainsaw as it spit out a stream of wood chips and sawdust. Held up only by his legs. When the saw bucked a bit, he roared right back at it. Over the several weeks as the home began to resemble a human habitation, I got to know this larger than life character. He was generous to a fault, sharing food, time and stories without end. We all pitched in, carrying lumber, logs, rocks, whatever worked towards the final vision he carried with him.
In one unlikely but highly memorable scenario, he taught us the Anglican anthem, Jerusalem, used later as the instrumental theme for the Chariots of Fire score. It was the first time I’d heard William Blake’s words sung. A knee-powered organ provided the accompaniment as our voices rang through the Douglas Firs. I like to think that our herd of goats enjoyed it.
The cultural life of the commune eventually centered around this home. Many of us were musicians, skilled at various levels, but we played together whenever we could and often found ourselves gathered under his roof to hear each others stories, poems and songs. A rough crew, to be sure, but still we shared in creating a new kind of living.
At one point, in 1972, I hitch-hiked to New York City from the commune for sightseeing, or to test myself, I suppose. I never returned to Creswell and left that life and those friends behind me as I tried to find a way to make it work in the Big Apple. Later, when David Lynch’s original Twin Peaks TV series grabbed my attention; who did I see gracing some of its darker moments, but my old friend, Al Strobel. The one handed, laughing man with the chainsaw.
I still think of him often, and have tried to emulate his “full speed ahead” attitude when confronting obstacles or a reinvention to accommodate my need to earn a living. If the damn saw bucks, I try to roar back at it until it settles down. Thanks, Al.