Saturday, March 28, 2009

Through The Fog

By John Ramsey Miller

"View From My Studio"

I am sitting in my writing studio, a converted feed shed I renovated, and I was looking out the double-pane window at my long driveway through a thick fog, and listening to one of my dogs on the porch chewing a ham bone and gentle rain pattering on the roof. As I peered down my driveway, I saw a deer silently move from the tree line and stand on the gravel. She turned her head as though she could see me and stayed frozen for a few minutes, and the dogs (I have three) never knew she was there. She decided (maybe she smelled the dogs) to stamp her front feet, which got my dogs’ attention and they began running toward her, blasting her with a cacophony of uttered threats and promises. As they approach the three ribbons of electric wire that encloses three acres, they stopped. I watched her reaction, which was to stand and stare at the approaching animals. Somehow she knew they would or could not cross the wire to make good on their threats, and I knew she somehow intuited this. But how? After a few minutes, she walked into the trees, and they lost interest and returned to the porch. I wonder how many times this has happened when I was not watching, and I thought about all the times my dogs seemed to be at the fence barking to beat the band, and I had no idea what they saw or heard that had them there. Now, after watching this, I will assume it is the same doe once again playing with the dogs for her own amusement. I know animals do things for their own amusement. My Australian Shepherd does not chase balls I throw for my Labradoodle to retrieve, but he will chase the Labradoodle down and hold him by the scruff of his neck, or by his tail, to keep him from getting to the thrown ball. This has to be because it amuses the shepherd, and because he knows that his holding action frustrates his playmate.

We writers are observers and we record our observations and add our own spins to what we see and hear. At the moment I am concocting a story of some length. My novel begins with a man and his dog on a boat. In this tale, my protagonist is propelled unwillingly and unknowingly into a conspiracy involving very powerful men and women. In the opening chapters he is visited by four men in search of something my protagonist has that they want and something they have come to retrieve. They also plan to kill him, a man they have never met and to their misfortune underestimate. In the first few scenes a secretary of state is assassinated, and the connection to that event and the man are as unknown to the reader, as to the man. The visitors shoot the dog, and my dilemma was whether or not to let the dog die trying to protect someone he cares about. I thought about this for weeks as I went about my daily routine, and I finally decided the dog’s instincts, loyalty, and nobility had to be rewarded, so I let him live. It wasn’t because some readers freak when we kill animals, but because I liked the creature I created based on my experiences with my own animals. Like the animal who is mismatched by professional gunmen, so too is my protagonist, who is an older man with no knowledge of, or use for high tech understanding. That old man is me to some extent, but he has neither phone (cell or land-line) much less a computer. Retired from the military, and estranged from his family due to his life choices, he spends his days fishing the lakes near Therio, Louisiana, and minding his own business, surrounded by neighbors who do not know him, but admire him for his qualities. He is the man I wish I could be, and I write him knowing that I fall miles short of him. But he is a man of integrity who is called on to face enemies he is inferior to (skill wise), but superior to morally speaking. He is a man with violence in his history, with right on his side, and who doesn’t have a chance as far as the reader knows. I’m having a blast writing him, and his enemies, who come to respect him even though they want nothing but to kill him and retrieve something he has been given. I think it’s the best story I’ve ever stumbled into, but others may disagree.

The creative process is so difficult on so many levels, but nothing is more rewarding when the process bears fruit, or more frustrating when it fails. Each time I sit down at this black box to start a new story I don’t have any idea whether or not I will be able do it all over again. So far I’ve been lucky, and hopefully the quest will only end when I am no longer able to sit here and think and dream. We talk about marketing, and building an audience, so we can be successful by the ways that are measurable, but what this is really about is the battle between us and filling the blank page.

One of these days I will write the doe I saw, and of her playing with the dogs, her sworn enemies. I will know when I need her and she will serve to make a point, and advance the story I’m wrestling with. I will continue to write characters with traits I wish I possessed and putting them through paces I can only imagine while I’m sitting at this laptop or gathering eggs or playing with my wonderful and complicated grandchildren. I hope someday those grandchildren will read my books and see something of the best of me in the pages they turn, and feel the awe and excitement I feel for my characters. To me, that hope is far more important than the checks that come in the mail, what my editor or publisher thinks, or just about anything else my overtaxed mind can imagine through the fog.


"My Writing Studio"

10 comments:

  1. Where I am, I see you've been.
    Where you are, I hope to be.

    Worlds lie in the hearts of writers

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  2. I'm envious of your writing studio and general environment John, because it looks so peaceful. There's no doe in the forest here in our SoCal house by the sea, just two cats burning off morning energy, chasing each other around the house. Plus our dowager cat who, as always, ignores the other two while curled up by my laptop. There are two parrots across the street who will start yammering as soon as their owner puts them out in their cages on their porch, calling out to the morning joggers, "Hey, baby!". The wild parrots who roost in the palm trees will screech and fly from tree to tree and ignore the humans completely, as parrots should rightly do. The morning mist will roll in from the ocean and burn off by ten a.m., as it always does. And hopefully I'll have added 600 words to my new WIP thriller, which is dark and creepy and I'm loving it! Great post, and thank you for including the pictures of your workplace!

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  3. John~

    Very, very well put. I write because I want to write (even when I hate it) and not for fame and fortune. It's about the words and the characters and the thrill and disappoint of putting that story together.

    And my dream writing studio is a shack on the beach. My home office, decorated like a shack on the beach, will have to suffice. For now.....

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  4. Wow, I'm jealous. What a gorgeous space. I currently share office space in a "Writer's Grotto" with 8 other writers here in San Francisco. My particular space is a converted laundry room- a highly coveted one since it has a view of the back yard. No deer, sadly.

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  5. I do my writing where ever I and my laptop tend to be. Preferably in my comfy wingback recliner next to the fire place in my living room. Twice a week its on a hard metal chair at the swimming pool while my son practices or on the floor of the Tae Kwon Do Dojang surrounded by the sound of shouts and fleshy whacks as my other son kicks his way to his 2nd degree Black Belt. Sometimes its in my truck at lunch time if I don't go to the gym. Frequently its in my bed from 10-midnight as my wife breathes in soft slumber beside me.

    My days are surrounded by natural sites. Denali is framed in my office window, unless three hundred miles of clouds billow over it. The Chugach mountain range is in my truck window in the parking lot where I work. My house, even thought we are in the suburbs, is surrounded by trees and flanked by the same Chugach mountains to the east. I sometimes head to the beach to the west of Anchorage and watch the mountains beyond change colours as the tide rolls in, with the occasional pod of belugas cresting and sliding back beneath to their world.

    Anyway, I don't have a place to write, but the place I have is well enough.

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  6. You know, Miller, sometimes you say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.

    I don't live in the woods. I live in the heart of suburbia, in a community that is the essence of suburbia. It's everything that I've wanted my middle age to be, but it comes with all the hassles of a big city's bedroom community.

    My office windows offer views of more suburbia, but I keep the blinds mostly drawn because I distract easily. There's so much going on in my life right now--all of it good (*knocking wood*)--that every time I sit at my computer, I wonder how I'm ever going to get it all done. There's the film festival I'm running, there's the book and now the screenplay, and the social networking and the errands and the demands of the day job. Some things are on such tight deadlines that they have to be addressed first, some of them can wait until their deadlines tighten up to the point where I have no choice but to address them.

    All those things are about business; none of them are what I had in mind when I started writing for pay, but all of them must be tended to.

    This past week was filled with days when I thought I would never be able to get to the escape of my imagination. I long for that place I go when hours dissolve and words spill out on the page and I look at them and wonder to myself where the words actually came from. That is the wonder of fiction writing, and I think it's that magic feeling that makes us keep doing what we do.

    It's really not about agents and royalty statements. It really is about cataloging all the things that are important to us and then using them for the greater good in our writing. You reminded me of that in your post. I needed to hear it again. Thank you.

    I'll not be visiting the Internet again today. I have imaginary friends to play with.

    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  7. Looking at the pics I kept thinking, a la Frank Costanza, "Serenity now."

    Nice, but...growing up in L.A., living in NY, then back in L.A., I'm so totally city that, here in the 'burbs, I actually have one of those sound machines that plays ocean waves and the like, and I use the city sound (distant honking, echoing traffic) when I write certain scenes or read certain books. Crazy.

    @"I don’t have any idea whether or not I will be able do it all over again."

    Newbies often ask me, Does it get easier? I don't think it does, because our standards get higher (or should). That's the good and the scary put together, don't you think?

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  8. I do live what I consider a tranquil and an ideal lifestyle. I have lived in several cities, and thrived in them. I like the immediate stimulation and being close friends and with access to the arts and shops that sell what I need when I need it.

    I do sometimes miss the convenience of not having to travel fifteen minutes to buy groceries, or forty minutes to buy office supplies or a bottle of Scotch, but all in all it's worth it for the peace and quiet and being able to spend quality time with myself and writing where the only noise is a dog chewing on a bone, or the roosters crowing.

    I know people who can't imagine leaving the city traffic noise, and I get it. Some friends visit and tell me it's just TOO quiet. Oh, I didn't mention when they dynamite a stone wall at the quarry seven miles away it sets the dogs and chickens off.

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  9. That's funny you mention dynamite. I used to live in the road bush of Alaska. Since we were 40 miles from town a dynamite company found our area to be perfect for a manufacturing plant. I worked one season up there (until my wife begged me to quite...hey the money was good). One time we had an "accident" and a #10 coffee can full of of liquid dynamite went off. Wow. That'll disturb the peace. The whole community shook for about a 20 mile radius. Dogs wouldn't quite barking for hours and there wasn't a moose in sight for weeks.

    Between that and being on the flight path of Eielson AFB whose fighter pilots seemed to enjoy the occasional tree hugging super-sonic blast and whose helicopter pilots liked to go low and slow over our town...sometimes even out there peace was hard to find. Luckily military exercise times only came twice a year.

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  10. You've earned that spot in the wilderness and deserve the serenity. Somehow, sometimes we actually reach that point in life, where we are awed.

    Glad you have found it. (Tell Sus I have 7 "maters." lol)

    Cherri

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