The Death Scene

I’ve been at a couple of deathbeds over the years, visiting family, attempting to comfort or joining in small talk to provide an emotional and mental break. But I’d never been present at the moment of death. This changed on February 21, 2019. Early that evening my wife and I watched my mother take her last breath. We watched as she slipped away—her life, her color––gone within moments.

This week I found myself working on an early draft of the first death scene I’ve written since. This fictional scene is the death of a patriarch, his wife and children all gathered around the bed. The eldest child, a son, arrives last. Conversation, the last words, the last moment.

Yet again, difficult life experience proves valuable when writing fiction. 

Abandon Comparison

It is our nature to compare. It’s undeniably human. We compare everything. We compare restaurants, movies, cars, and jobs. We compare this weekend to last, this vacation to that one. All experience is deemed relative. Such comparison can be helpful. It allows us to make decisions, to rank, and in many contexts to improve. But in our personal lives it’s usually destructive. It can hold us back, cause us to miss opportunities, cause us to settle and sometimes give up. 

In creative work, this default of comparison is downright destructive. Every poem, painting, film, song, and sculpture is different. Each piece of work has a unique set of challenges and needs. Each lives a life of its own. The job of the artist is to simply facilitate that life.

As I work on my second manuscript, this tendency to compare is great. The drive to compare the experience, process, and outcome of The Confessions of Adam to my next manuscript feels as natural as walking. Perhaps even helpful, a guiding light. But it’s not. It’s a dead end. In order to allow this second project to develop on its own terms, to find and realize its latent potential, there can be no effort on my part to hold up the first book as a metric. The second project will excel differently and fail uniquely. It’s foolish to think that a comparison to my first book can somehow illuminate or anticipate these idiosyncrasies. Comparison is a species of procrastination. A very sneaky sort of distraction from the work that must be done. It’s a hunt for short-cuts, an effort to grasp stolen insights. Comparison must be given no space in the toolbox.

Writing in the Storm

Writing is very difficult for me right now. More difficult than normal. It’s hard to focus, to give writing the priority, the time, the energy. It feels impossible to push the uncertainty of the future out far enough to create room, build a scaffold, and hold it at bey.

You’re not my therapist and this isn’t a bad Facebook post, so I won’t go into all that’s happening. Suffice it to say that times are tough for me and those I hold dear and writing seems like the smallest, most insignificant preoccupation in the world.

But is it?

Maybe now is the best time to write, to create, to make. Perhaps now, when life seems to be sprouting only weeds and no grain, is the time to allow creative work its space. After all, writing is a constant. Circumstances change, difficulties rise and successes fall, the stew of hope, fear, want, and wish simmers and steams, yet writing has been at my elbow for half my life, and welcomes me back each day.

So, here’s not to better days. Instead, here’s to staying the course and learning along the way.

To What Might We Compare the Writing of a First Draft?

Verily, Verily, I say unto you, the writing of a first draft is like hacking a path through a previously undiscovered forest. One observes and responds to the rise and fall of the ground at his feet, while at the same time devising a plan for how the path might one day be converted into a super highway with restaurants lining the exits.

Again, the making of a first draft is like picking a splinter from one’s palm. The pain and frustration of the effort far outweigh the progress and it seems gaining leverage on the source of the concern inches further away with each attempt.

Or put another way, the making of a first draft is akin to a starving man who feeds himself, not by stealing bread, but by planting a field of wheat. His patience and focus must displace his hunger.

Once more, the making of a first draft may be compared to a man who, upon digging in a place that has captured his wonder, finds much rock and dirt. Yet upon breaking the clods and splitting the boulders he discovers traces of precious metal. At this he gains a vision for the smelting of goblets and platters––an entire table-setting gleaming—and as he digs he imagines those who might dine, their conversation, laughter, the ruffle of their collars and cuffs.

With This First Glimpse

Shooing a pair of goats and a hen out of the first stall, I bend and gather a pile of hay for her. She sinks into it like a sack of grain. She shivers, her forehead moist with sweat. I cover her with my cloak and give her a drink of water from a trough the innkeeper pointed out as we entered. She arches her back in pain and cries out, louder than she has yet. I am thankful for this simple shelter.

“It is time?”

She nods to me and though I’ve never done so I prepare to receive the Child. 

“Just bear down as Elizabeth told you to.” I repeat what I’ve heard, an attempt to be of some help.

And then I bend close. And I see––my Son, the cap of His skull, like black hair on eggshell. I cannot speak. With this first glimpse of Him my anxiety is swept away like sawdust. I reach out and feel the wet warmth of His neck and back as He slides into my hand and up my wrist. His cries echo through the timbers overhead.

Mood Work

In 1998, not long after my father died, I read 1984 by George Orwell. A great novel, far from great timing. When we read a dramatic story, watch a film, listen to music, our brain releases the same chemical responses as when we experience ‘real’ emotion. Our brains don’t process fictional stimuli differently. The recovery is certainly different, but in the moment we’re there, we’re all-in. Between my father’s death and the murk of 1984 I found myself in such a funk it took some months to find balance again. Of course having a son under six months old, no doubt added to the brew of emotions.

As a writer I have found the same potential pitfall. 

I don’t know if my current project is darker than The Confessions of Adam, but it has fewer highs and less humor. Writing drama or tragedy is not immediately different than reading it. Writers are the first readers of their work. We immerse ourselves in it––is there any other way?––in order to create it. For this reason we are the first to traverse (and re-traverse over and over) the emotional terrain of the narrative. Only later does the craft of making story begin to take hold. There is an early, necessary, and significant emotional investment on the part of the writer. And this is an investment on which we’d do well to keep tabs.

Refuge of Story

I have a dear friend who is beginning his battle with cancer. Much has changed. His weight has dropped, how he eats has been altered, his energy wanes, and his daily routine takes him to a different office building. That bit of language, “cancer patient,” a descriptor of so many others, even of his wife, is now his.

Yet much hasn’t changed. His faith, his confidence in The Maker’s plan. The regular coming close of friends and family. His thoughtful, considered approach to living life.

And a love of books, of story. This hasn’t changed.

We were recently together for an evening and, as is our habit, the conversation turned to “what are you reading?” The question, and the places it has lead us so many times before, took on new meaning. We didn’t talk about it, but we felt it. Books and our love of what they hold is no longer simply procured common ground. This conversation is now a place where the enemy cannot follow and won’t be named. It doesn’t get our attention here. He and I carved out this fortress long ago. This is ours, and we’re not giving it up. These few minutes are our refuge, our refuge of story.

So, P, what are you reading?

Working In Adam’s Shadow

There are several aspects of publishing the debut novel that I didn’t see coming. This is another of them. I imagine with time and distance such sensitivities may subside, but for now it seems any work I do, I do in the shadow of that one novel, that first novel.

I suppose it’s about expectations––mine and my readers’––the desire for continuity and patterns. It’s also about an imagined body of work and how the next project will fit with the first. 

This is the compare and contrast that we do with all we produce, whether it be this employer and the previous one, this year and last year, this house and our first. Each significant effort becomes a metric, an aesthetic data point, for those that come before and after. And with this we stare into an imagined future, how the next will look and what we can do to shape it. 

This is, creatively, a two-edged sword. Past work can motivate and push us to new innovation and higher effort; it can also hem us in and define our capabilities. We do best to see each project as different, as its own effort, independent of those that came before and after. The relationship between two projects may not be in form or function but in evolution, a recognition that to get to one we must have gone through the other, and we are creatively richer, more skilled for it.

Out and About with Adam

On Saturday evening I attended a literary event, a reading. The readers were three established and well-known local/regional authors. The event was held in a wonderful art space with all the amenities. About twelve people attended. It was an interactive and engaging couple of hours.

Earlier this year I attended a reading given by a former Indiana state poet laureate. There were four of us in attendance. The time with this poet was intimate, instructive, and inspiring.

These were both valuable literary events. 

We who went were grateful we did. 

I am in the throes of scheduling post-release reading events. I have a half-dozen on the calendar and ten more in the works. The first will be this coming Sunday, October 13th, at 3PM at the Danville Public Library, Danville, IN.

Promotion is underway, posters have been designed, printed, and hung. I am preparing opening remarks, the selection I’ll read, the format of the Q&A. Such events are a culmination of work and imagination. And they are all about connecting with readers, sharing our love of story and books, and inspiring our collective creative efforts. For those who attend this event or another I hold later this year, may they be grateful they did.

A Good Walk

I have a forty-five minute circuit I like to walk in Danville. The walk is a good workout. Little of the route is flat. Part of it is through Ellis Park. Part takes me under the awnings of the north side of the town square. Much of it is on quiet, sloping, residential streets lined with old homes and mature trees. 

But I’ve a favorite stretch. 

The outbound leg of the walk takes me on a narrow gravel drive through the Danville East Cemetery. I look forward to this stretch. It is a relief. It is there that all the litter swirling in my mind settles and its importance comes into focus. 

I become aware of time again. And of place.

I often think of my late parents. I read the names on the stones as I amble past. I look at dates. One stone is small and has only a name, no year. Sometimes I consider tombstone design and wonder if I could get one shaped like a book. Never do I think about emails, meetings, a talk I need to prep, my upcoming reading schedule. It’s not possible to fixate on such things with this much granite in view.

Everyone’s walk or commute or route to the grocery store should take them through or past a cemetery. I propose that there be reduced speed limits, like School Zones. 

Cemetery Zone 25MPH. Slow down. Take notice.