Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Whole Story

By Tim Wynne-Jones

 

 

There is over two feet of fresh snow outside, a veritable winter wonderland. Having effectively missed winter last year on the road in Europe, it’s good to have a really Canadian Christmas-card type holiday. When the snow was not quite so thick on the ground two weekends ago, my wife, Amanda, and a friend of hers walked deep into our property down the old logging road, across the wild meadow out to the far pasture along the old railroad bed, where there are ramshackle barns caving in a little more each year. In the freshly fallen snow Amanda noticed vehicle tracks leading into the bush and followed them to a sturdy tower, newly constructed.

On our land.

Her friend knew exactly what it was: a bow-hunter’s blind.

Every year during the deer cull, hunters ask if they may hunt on our acreage, and every year we say no. We made an exception for one gentleman down the road, for reasons I won’t go into here; a whole other story, as they say. But we had only meant that he could hunt for the one week of deer hunting in November, not build a tower, for goodness sake. If in fact, it was his doing. We felt as if we’d been duped. Taken advantage of. We were gearing up for full-fledged indignation.

Sunday morning, getting up our courage, we drove to the fellow’s house to beard the hunter in his lair, as it were. I hate confrontations of any kind, especially the kind where I feel out of my element: a city dude living in the country having to challenge a died-in-the-wool good old boy. A large good old boy. But we did it. And he was courteous and remorseful without making a big show of it. He admitted he should have told us. Said that bow hunting season finished up at the end of the December, that the tower came apart easily and he would get it out of there right away, if we liked. He was so nice about the whole business that we said it was all right to leave it until the thirty-first. And with handshakes, we said our goodbyes, glad that it had gone so smoothly.

Mostly I had been afraid that with any kind of aggressiveness on his part, any reluctance, I might have lost my composure and become righteously snippy, or worse, babbled incoherently, my voice quavering into its upper register, and come off looking like a real goof. It’s happened before. I do red-in-the-face resentment really badly. But it didn’t go down like that and we put the incident behind us. An interesting anecdote to tell our city friends.

Yesterday afternoon, the twenty-sixth, as we were preparing for our annual Boxing Day extended family dinner party, the hunter came around to wish us a happy holiday. As I mentioned, he’s a big man; filled the entrance hall. He was dressed in camo gear. He wanted to explain that with the snow now so deep he might have to leave the tower up until he could get a vehicle back in there, if that was all right with us. Noting his clothing, I said it was okay once he had assured me that he wouldn’t be using it for hunting any more. He shook his head, looked down.

“No, we’re finished,” he said, with a finality that I didn’t at the moment understand. We shook hands again but as he turned to go, I sensed that there was more he wanted to say. He looked thoughtful, stopped with his hand on the door handle. Then he turned and what he said was the last thing I would have expected.

“You see, my son has cancer.”

I made one of those sounds that isn’t quite a word; several syllables but no consonants to give it any shape. An inarticulate outpouring of surprise and sympathy. He nodded, held up his hand. He wasn’t looking for sympathy.

“He’s thirty-three, eh. And he’d just… he’d kinda hoped, just once, to actually bag a deer.”

“But no luck?”

He shook his head.

There was nothing to say that would have made much more sense than the shocked and shapeless utterance I’d produced before.

“Anyway, thanks for understanding,” he said. I muttered something about how horrible it must be for them, how sorry I was. He told me a little about the prognosis. We shook hands again and I wished him a good new year, though from what he’d told me, it wasn’t going to be.

How does a story like this end? It is a sad story at a time of the year when sadness is determinedly pushed aside, and yet I don’t want to push this aside. The part of me that wants a story to fold into meaning, somehow, spent a long time searching out the meaning of what we call Boxing Day in Canada. Apparently, it started as an old English tradition of putting a metal alms box outside the church on the day after Christmas for folks to make a special offering to the poor in the name of Saint Stephen. I looked up Saint Stephen, wondered if the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas might have a verse I could borrow from to bring my story around to some tidy conclusion. Nothing. Apart from the obvious pathos of the hunter’s story, there is something in it about always needing to know more, to push through stereotypes and displace an all too easy impression with another more vivid and more human perception, some moment of insight. I wanted the solace of that.

Later that evening, after our dinner guests had gone and we were cleaning up, someone saw deer at the compost in the garden happily enjoying a midnight snack of leftover sweet potato, cranberries, red cabbage. And watching them, I found myself thinking inevitably of that tower, empty now, on the other side of the dark woods and these two men, a father and son, who had silently been looking out over the bush. Silent, because they were hunters. Silent, because there was nothing to say.

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Get Going/Be Still

During these days of bustle and busyness, while cookies bake and friends gather, and as we as a nation mourn the terrible death of the Sandy Hook students and teachers and hug our kids, it can be difficult to find words to express all you may be feeling or to move forward with creative projects.  Here are two approaches:

1.  Get Going.  My friend, the wonderful poet Cynthia Grady, shared this link on how to write while dealing with all the joys and fears, the daily tasks and future needs, of life. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/the-art-of-being-still/  My favorite part is the gentle suggestion to discover something new each day.  I’ve taken to writing down my one daily discovery, and this growing list is a reminder of all the small, large, luminous, amazing, and goofy unknowns that still await.

2.  Be Still.  Give yourself a space and time unfilled with words or movement.  We writers tend to think of the blank page or computer screen as a negative, as something that requires filling rather than as something that already exists, a quiet, a presence.  Musicians learn to sculpt silence with a single note and dancers to change the open air with form and gesture, and I have been trying to learn to better appreciate the “living silence” that exists before and around a word.  What I have discovered:  often for me, it can feel much easier to be busy, more comfortable to crowd that silence too soon with thought and word.

So, below is a small gift of space and time.  Be there as long as you want, visit whenever you’d like, and then scroll down to a message.

 

 

 

Wishing you a bright holiday season and a beautiful start to the new year.

~Mary Quattlebaum

 

 

   

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Bit By Bit Putting It Together

“What’s the story?” my dad used to ask if I was having a hard time pulling together an article for his newspaper.

It’s a question I am still, always, asking.

Being a writer means sifting through memories, experiences and observations for the material that is charged, for the pieces that line up to tell the story. Usually it is the emotional component – humor, anger, fear, grief – that signals an event is story-worthy and has the juice that will hold a reader’s interest as you tell the story.

MINING FOR DRAMATIC TENSION

For instance, last week we discovered both of our kids had chosen the same date for their summer weddings. Unbeknownst to each other, plans were moving ahead for June 8 festivities in Palm Springs and Seattle. Throw in the fact that the six of us are getting together soon to celebrate John’s and my 40th anniversary, and the tension ratcheted up to find a solution.

This is the stuff of story. I put on my writer’s hat for the six-person phone discussion. A story-gathering perspective offers helpful objectivity. Like any good reporter, I tried to gather information. I also noted tones of voice and scraps of dialogue. I considered which words would best describe the weight in my chest – or was it my stomach? Churning? Tightening? And I imagined our way forward. Oh, I am lucky to be a writer. I could see myself dancing at two beautiful weddings.

Mostly it’s unplanned experiences like this that offer fodder for stories, but we could be more intentional. Peter Sagal on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me said he actively chooses life experiences for their anecdotal value. I think the guy we saw on Nature who gave over his every waking minute to raising a clutch of wild turkeys is this kind of storyteller. An amazing story resulted. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/full-episode/7378/.  Now he’s off to live a year with mule deer in Montana.

trapeze550I, too, have a commitment to going after a good story, but the voucher for trapeze lessons that my husband gave me last January for my last birthday still waits on the shelf.

We writers live in a continual process of noting and sifting, weighing and arranging, looking for the potent pieces that add up to the bigger thing. In a heartrending story about her mother, former student at Vermont College, Melissa Chandler, talked about this process. “If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life,” she wrote, “what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words?” http://thehairpin.com/user/9639/Melissa%20Chandler.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Building a story is more than finding the charged bits. It’s about assembling, too. I once mistakenly listened to an audio book on “shuffle.” I enjoy stories with skewed chronology, so it took awhile to figure out what was going on, but it turns out what piece of story rubs up against the next matters.

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After I strung the lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, I decided my result was a lot like the plotline of the middle grade novel I am revising. The lights are carefully placed at the top where I began, winding in and out of the branches, but they get sparser and loose toward the bottom, covering bigger and bigger expanses with a single strand. When an LED bulb went out, the rest of the string went dark. It is not a big reach to recognize I need to go back into my novel and add more lights, to twist the plot more carefully around all of the branches, all the way through.

I look forward to that – and to two weddings — in the new year. Happy holidays to you all!

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Where there’s a box…

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            …there’s probably a cat, at least that’s the way it is in Casa Appelt.

I confess: I’m a person who loves boxes.  I like paper boxes, carved boxes, tool boxes, wire boxes.  I like tiny porcelain boxes, large cardboard boxes, thin papier mache boxes, translucent plastic boxes.

I like boxes that have specific uses, like my grandmother’s hatbox, and the box that keeps my steak knives.  Ken has a tiny box for the tiny tools he uses to repair his eye glasses, the ones that always seem to have a loose lens.  There’s something so perfect about that tiny box.

Let’s be clear, I’m not wild about oddly-shaped boxes.  As much as I love cats, I’m not keen on those cat-shaped boxes where the cat’s head is also the lid of the box.  Ack!  Don’t give me one of those, I’m begging you!

Nope.  Me, I like a nice, square box, or at least one with ninety degree angles.

Of course, this is the time of year, when a box takes on added significance.  For the past week or so, I’ve spent more than a few minutes trying to puzzle out what size a box has to be to contain a particular gift.  I’ve now made two trips to Target to find just the right box.  There’s something so satisfying when I get it right.  In some ways, finding that perfect box makes the gift itself perfect.

I like that.

To me there’s something wonderful about the simple utility of a box.  A box makes me feel organized.  It makes me feel as though I’ve taken care of something, like I’ve put a thing away properly, like whatever is inside of the box is protected and safe.

I’d love to say that the more lovely the box, the more important the contents.  But that’s not true.  A good box is a good box is a good box.

And all of this makes me wonder why the box has gotten such short shrift.  Why say, “think outside the box,” when the space inside is so useful?    I do think we can “box ourselves in,” and I’m not recommending self-confinement.   But I also think that there is worth in the things that contain the stuff of our lives.  Look, why don’t you.

You might get lucky.  You might find a cat.

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Holidays, gifts, etc.

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

Susan Cooper, “The Shortest Day”

I was going to write about the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I own in its entirety. Long and fascinating story. It is possible, however, that not everyone is as interested in the 11th edition as I am. So I cogitated until I had a mini-brainstorm. It’s Hanukkah now (ridiculously early; what’s up with that? And next year Hanukkah is in November!) and will soon be Christmas (good old reliable Christmas, always on the 25th, in case you didn’t know). How about gifts for writers/book lovers? Which we all are.

I have combed the web for you,hoping to inspire further ideas. Here’s an idiosyncratic list but not a random one, in no particular order. I don’t claim unusual originality, so please chime in with your own ideas. There’s nothing techie here. Let’s take a break. And if, like me, you don’t celebrate much of anything, light some candles on the solstice.

  1.  I have often thought one of these bracelets made from old typewriter keys belongs on my wrist, but I don’t actually wear bracelets. Maybe you do. These are cool. Lots of sources.

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2. Moomins: of course you love Moomins. I read my first Moomin book at the age of 9, and I still have it. Moomin paraphernalia is a big deal, but I never knew about the cookie cutters before. http://www.cheapcookiecutters.com/products/moomin-cookie-cutters  or here if you prefer them in Swedish (looks Swedish. Finnish?): http://www.martinex.se/produkter.php?page=image-detail&album=1&image=748

Here if you want to add other Moomin objects to your collection: http://www.designshopuk.com/products/%20MOOMINS.htmlblogpostmoomin.jpb

3. Obvious but perfect: a gift certificate to your local Indie bookshop.

4. And two terrific books: The Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac, by the one and only Anita Silvey:

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And My Ideal Bookshelf, a new book that seems irresistible– though I haven’t actually held it in my hands.

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5. A good reading lamp.

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6. A book-related wall calendar. Here’s an excellent one: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/2013-tintin-wall-calendar-herge-moulinsart/1108513448

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7. Alice in Wonderland teapot, teacups, dishtowel (who can resist?): http://www.fishseddy.com/browse.cfm/2,110.html

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8. Book earrings and book socks (socks!!). http://www.stopfalling.com/Stacked-Book-Earrings-p-16279.html

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9. A VCFA totebag (I’ve never seen this. Have you? Found it online):

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10. Levenger page nibs for marking interesting things: http://www.levenger.com/Reading-17/Bookmarks—Bookweights-671/Page-Nibs-Core-6917.aspx

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11. Children’s literature in Britain map! (There’s a USA one—grownups–as well.)  http://www.theliterarygiftcompany.com/from-neverland-to-wonderland-a-map-of-childrens-literature-in-britain-11142-p.aspblogpostmap

12. A useful notebook. I admit to loving Moleskines.blogpostmoleskine

13. Multiple copies of books written by faculty, students, and alumni of VCFA.

14. A Maurice Sendak Wild Things poster from the Eric Carle Museum. www.ericcarlemuseum.org  Just because—

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15. A Peter Rabbit book tin to hold some of your favorite things. http://www.peterrabbitstore.co.uk/*/Storage-Tins/Peter-Rabbit-Book-Tin/103IL00XO000

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16. You knew this one was coming: a puppy. Not this puppy, because she is mine (and is now 4). But don’t get a puppy without serious thought, of course.

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17. Finally, if you’re like me and have too much stuff already, please consider a donation to your favorite environmental organization. We only have one planet.

I’d love to hear from you with your own suggestions.

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Letting Go

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About a month ago, I did something.

After working on my current WIP for a very long time, I decided to delete the whole thing. I took the entire Scrivener file, threw it in the trash can, and immediately clicked EMPTY TRASH! I wanted it off my computer. Gone.

This was not an easy thing to do, let me tell you!

The WIP wasn’t awful. It wasn’t. I had just gotten off to a not-quite-right start, but it took me a looong time to realize it. So I kept writing and writing, waiting for it all to magically “come together.” It didn’t. I was spinning, adding more and more, not really sure where anything was going or what it was all about anymore.

Sigh.

There’s something about working on a novel for a long time that makes it more difficult to let go. I held on and on, ignoring that inner knowledge that was telling me this wasn’t it. I guess I didn’t want all that time I spent on it to be for nothing.

But sometimes you have to let go.

Deleting that document allowed me to stop, to wipe the slate clean, and then start again. It gave me the chance to remember the original idea, which had gotten lost somewhere along the line. And I can’t tell you how happy I am that I made this decision!

So, if you’re in a similar position, writing something you’re not sure is going anywhere, try deleting the whole thing and starting again. It’s only words, right? Right??? And really, there’s nothing as inspiring as a fresh, clean document with a blinking cursor just waiting for you to start… again.

~Coe~

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by | December 3, 2012 · 8:37 am