It’s 05:00 now. I’ve set the sprinklers (for damn near the first time in four years). I’m drinking coffee too wound-up to sleep another moment. This place is filled with memories of Callista and my marriage. The emptying rooms echo, which is good for singing and prayer but not for being alone and remembering the dead. By the time the sun sets, however, my tenure in this place of death will be done.
Most of my drum-circle will be here in about three hours to finish, nine people altogether. They will be stumbling over themselves looking for things to do. I won’t be able to keep them all busy, but I don’t think that’s the point anymore. They are here to provide me with a sense of encouraging strength and loving support as I move through the last motions of deconstructing this version of myself. Many of them feel the same urgency and can sense we are near the finish, that the chapter and book are nearly complete, that the chrysalis is about to open. They want this for themselves every bit as much as they want it for me, for in so many ways they have been here with me the whole time.
I can hardly express how much I appreciate them with a deep, heart-felt and genuine love that is so strong it makes my throat swell to write of it. Those who will be here today: Mom, Keli, Doyle, Aisha, Curtis, Ceilidh, John, Dave, and Mike—and those elsewhere but who send their spirits in a way every bit as strong and vital to my wellbeing as those here: Lexie, Renee, Randy, and Vicki; ALL have surrounded me, and their songs of outrage, sorrow, sympathy, guard, protection, encouragement and love humbles me and makes we weep thankful tears. Of all blessings, they are the greatest, most soul-deep and comforting, far, far outshining the shadows of things lost.
“All my relations!”
I stand at the center of the universe.
Nothing lasts long, only the mountains;
Nothing lasts long, only the sky.
Only the rocks and trees are forever;
Nothings lasts long, what is old must die.
I am ready to go.
The major move continues. Yesterday, we loaded up my brother-in-law’s truck with storage items and filled a rented 10′ x 15′ space with a lot of things I identify with and that defined who I’ve been. I have placed more precious things—swords, bagpipes, special collections—in storage with kind friends and relatives. I am going to go “live” in an 11′ x 11′ bedroom with about a third of my library crammed into seven bookcases lining the walls. I jokingly refer to it as “The Monk’s Cell” but think of it more as a “Hospital” or “Chrysalis” where I will convalesce and treat my divorce wounds.
As mentioned in the post before this one, I plan to participate in this year’s NaNo as both emotional comfort food and as a break-from-the-sadness activity. Directing my focus on such an engrossing mental exercise and meeting interesting people with a common passion will be both positive and healing. I look forward to finally drafting this particular manuscript, testing its “seaworthiness” and trim, deciding if it is the vessel with which to attempt circumnavigating the publication globe.
I am a bit nervous too. To put it bluntly, the NaNoWriMo is a young person’s game. Though older writers participate, and are encouraged to do so, it cannot be denied that the overwhelming demographic is between the ages of 13 and 30. As a high school teacher, I’m comfortable with that crowd; they are as familiar to me as 27 years of classes and parent-teacher conferences can make them, but I’m not here as a teacher. I’m a writer, and in particular, a writer seeking social contact with other writers, otherwise I would simply write my manuscript in private.
Rejection warps the perspective and patinas the world in wary, almost paranoid, colors. If I’m not careful, that warped perspective can paint the NaNo landscape as hostile, catering only to the future wherein the young majority, creeped out on stranger-danger, keep the old at a distance…particularly old men like me. I know this is spurious, nonetheless, I’ll need to keep a tight rein on my heart, constantly questioning the validity of my feelings, and reminding myself that I perceive the world though the lens of recent experience.
This is also true concerning my perception of time. It is very hard not to be resentful at how much of this commodity the younger set has. It truly is a resource more precious than diamonds. I am envious that they have the luxury to explore and develop their writing, growing in both confidence and skill with each experience. Had I gone beyond my adolescent and clumsy Conan pastiches, who knows where I might be today? True, there was no NaNo then, but there certainly wasn’t anyone telling me “No” either. Still, under rejection’s influence, I acutely feel those lost hours as I scan the NaNo forums for sincere people with whom I might exchange writerly cheer and encouragement.
I am sick and tired of praying for “…strength and wisdom…;” of repeating “shikata ga nai;” of quoting Neitzsche; of quietly surrendering my life to the “it is what it is” creed. I need to recognize that though there is validity in acknowledging present circumstances as reality, there is also a danger of establishing the habit of accepting the status quo as absolute. This is part of rejection’s false advertising. I must recognize that my reality, though challenged, is only one of many options. If I want to change the present, then I must go about the business of changing what I can, accepting what I cannot, and moving forward. To this end, I switched my NaNo avatar from “Nothing is forgotten” (because, as I’m coming to understand, some things just absolutely fucking need to be forgotten) to a portrait of myself, sitting at a desk that no longer inhabits a library that no longer exists, smoking my favorite long-stemmed pipe, in all my receding hair-line and white bearded mortal glory. I wish I had more time and more hair, less gray and less weight…but I don’t. This is me. It’s time to stop worrying “…about the air when that’s all there is to breathe.” It’s time to heal, find my center and, as my gravatar profile suggests, “…live gently, love well and learn as much as I can with the time I’ve been gifted.”
I’m presently writing prelim notes for my WIP. The working title is Arenn’s Sorrows. I’ve followed Holly’s curriculum to about halfway through Lesson 9: “How To Plan Your Project Without Killing Your Story.” If I’m lucky, I’ll get the rest of it done by October’s end. Regardless, I plan to start the rough draft on November 1st using NaNoWriMo as my gate.
I’m still struck by the timing of it all: that by the evening of the 29th the move will be done, that the lease is up at midnight on the 30th, and that I’ll say “goodbye” to Bridgewood and the Last Library forever. A day later we’ll celebrate Samhainn with a fire in the pit and on that night, as the cinders whirl upwards like fiery prayers, the world will change.
While my grieving will not nearly be finished, and I’ll forever wish with all my heart that circumstances were different, nonetheless, on November 1st, I will begin again and plan to celebrate with a 1,667+ word day!
A colleague of mine–to whom I will forever be grateful—had taken up the mantle of advisor and revived the high school backpacking and outdoor club. She organized the field-trip and I was invited to go along as part of the staff contingent. Though excited, I was apprehensive. It had been nearly twenty years since I’d last hiked in altitude, and I was no longer in the shape I was. I had gained 100 pounds, developed a “bad” knee and lost nearly all of my stamina. All week I brooded on whether or not I should bow out. Prom is next weekend, I thought; I could use this weekend to work on associated projects. I have tons of grading to do; I could get it done on Saturday. My mother was–and is–sick; she might need me for something. I had moved multiple times and couldn’t find my hiking gear (particularly my boots).
Friday after school, however, I ended up purchasing a few items and settled on using my day-hikers–don’t let that fool you; I hadn’t used them in true anger for years. I continued to wrestle with cancelling almost until my alarm rang at 03:00. As it was, I arrived a bit late, but just a bit before the last person boarded the bus. It was only when I’d settled into my seat, that I decided I was going.
When we stopped at the Yosemite vista-point and took our group photo, I truly comprehended the endeavor’s scope. Back in the day, it had been myself, one other advisor and never more than a dozen students on our pack trips. Small numbers were a guideline set down by CDF and we had followed it religiously. This, being a day-hike and not an over-nighter, was different and a massive affair. Nearly 45 students and a dozen staff were on this gig. Hat’s off to Ms. C. for ramrodding the event. I felt wanted to do everything I could to help make it a successful endeavor, as well as, personally make it to the end of the trail.
When we finally arrived at the Vernal Falls trail-head, my apprehension was full blown. As I pulled on my knee brace and broke out the trekking poles, I wished my wife was there to give me her much appreciated encouragement. As it was, I offered a quick prayer to Yeshua and put my game face on. One of my former students turned District After School Program employee, Carlos, must have seen something pretty grim there because as we hit the trail, he sidled up to me and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. P., I’ll help you with whatever you need. You need me to carry something, you let me know.”
I had to bit my lip not to joke, how ’bout carrying me?
I knew I was in trouble the moment we truly started moving. The pace, set by the healthy young men and women and adults who were in seriously better shape than I, was brutal. By the time we started to ascend, I was far behind the others, many of whom were glancing back at me with both speculative and worried looks. After a few more yards, I had to stop. I was sucking and blowing like a billows. I couldn’t get enough air. Panic washed over me and left me sweating and embarrassed. One of my companions, a very nice counselor from the junior high, stopped and waited for me to catch my breath. Our group was nearly out of sight.
“Don’t stay for me; I’m not sure, I can do this. In fact, my leg is hurting already and I’m short of breath; I’m going to go back to basecamp take a nap or just kick it for the rest of the day with Mrs. LW (a high school counselor who had volunteered to have lunch prepped when the kids finished their hike).”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Do you need help getting back?”
“Naw. I’m sure,” I said. “Go on; I can find my way. No worries.”
“Well, alright. See you later…”
He nodded farewell and headed on up the trail.
“Be sure to tell the others (staff), I’ve gone back,” I called after him. I then turned to find my way to the Swinging Bridge basecamp.
My spirit screamed and my heart wept. My emotions began to travel a well trodden path to around a familiar dark pool in my mind. Why had I let things go?! Why had I neglect my health?! Why hadn’t I gone more into the mountains more often?! Why didn’t I even mountain-bike any more?! Why, instead of carrying-on, had I let my pain dictate a psychologically unsound course. All these thoughts and more rose up from the depths of the pool like bubbles. With each step my heart grew heavier and my emotions spiraled further. I thought about how some of my students would return from the hike and ask “…what happened, Mr. P.?” or worse, politely say nothing but have that look of pity for an old man in their eyes. I’d have to tell my wife, I hadn’t made it. What would she say? I’d have to admit to what the district has been working so hard to make my believe: you’re too old for this–make way for the young.
I stopped dead in my tracks. Wait a bloody minute. First, I thought, you’re making stuff up in your head that hasn’t happened and most likely won’t…unless you want it too. This is the same stuff you warn the kids about all the time. Time to put the brakes on, bro! Second, you no longer have to worry about them worrying about you; they think you’ve headed back, so you’re free to hike at your own pace. At least make an attempt, I remonstrated myself, and if your knee truly screams “halt!” or you feel like you’re going to die gawping like a beached fish, you can turn back.
I reversed direction and started after the horde.
During the approach to the lower falls, I had to stop for a breather just about every 50 paces depending on the incline. My heart was hammering. I could see my chest bouncing. Unbidden, headlines flashed in my head: “High School Teacher Dies of Heart Failure On Yosemite Field-trip.” At least it’s a pretty location, I mentally responded. When I’d caught my breath and began again, it was with a “Hoka-hey” today-is-a-good-day-to-die mentality. At least it wouldn’t be in a bed hooked up to machines, I thought as I paced off another 50 steps and halted once again. That became my rhythm for the rest of the adventure: 50+ paces, pull off the trail, huff and puff, mumble a “Hoka-hey,” and maneuver back into trail traffic for another 50 paces.
Being it was Yosemite, one of the true wonders of the world and, more significantly, one open to the public, trail-traffic was horrendous. Because I was slow, I had to pull over a lot for faster moving tourists. It had been a long time, but I can honestly say, I have never seen worse trail-etiquette in my life. Groups of people were walking abreast taking up the whole trail; folks stopping dead in the middle of the trail to adjust a strap, check phones, dig into a backpack or adjust the volume on their backpack speakers (yes, that’s right, not headphones, bloody speakers!) without looking over their shoulders; children running pellmell down the trail dodging adults while their parents called half-heartedly after them to stop. Bad stuff. More than once I had to rein-in my teacher voice and the urge to start calling folk on it. I found myself fervently wishing I could speak the various languages I was hearing, so I could ask people to turn down their backpack speakers, get down off the railing, stop trying to feed the deer or “…make a hole!”
Lower Vernal Falls was a zoo as tourists on the bridge jockeyed for a shot of their compadres posing before the Upper Falls in the background. This was as far as many of them would go (thank the gods) as the trail forward to the upper falls was wetter, steeper and harder. I will say here and now, emphatically, and for the record that people are stupid…I state this as someone who knows fully well that their blog-post is essentially dedicated to his own stupidity. That being said…
Witness the folks out on the rocks above the lower falls, dipping their feet into the rushing torrent, not ten paces from a warning sign which quoted a grief stricken mother who lost her sons over the falls in 2012 as saying her children had been “…only wading…”
Witness the parent trying to entice the possibly diseased squirrel with bread for her children to pet.
Witness the fools trying to drink directly from the river instead of the giardia-free drinking fountain thoughtfully and purposefully supplied by the park service.
Witness the girl cutting trail over mist-slicked granite never thinking that if she happened to lose control and bump anyone on the way down, they’re in for a ten to 20′ fall on to solid rock.
Witness the parent cajoling his toddler to piss against a rock not 4′ from the river because the line was too long to the bathroom.
Regardless of my exhaustion, ever growing and insistent knee, and hammering heart, I knew I had to get the hell out of there before the stupid rubbed off on me. I was already doing something that could be categorized as such and didn’t want to lose my air of superiority or my determination to tackle the Endless-Stair which was the next part of my journey.
Like something out of the Lord of the Rings, the Upper Vernal Falls granite stair is a marvel of trail construction, but like Tolkien’s dwarven engineering, it is not for the faint of heart and mine was calling me all kinds of names as I approached. The stairs were slick with mist from the upper falls and for someone with a bad knee, each step was treacherous. Folk were crowded on its narrow confines, and it took but a few flights to decide I would not be taking the stairs back down. It was simply too dangerous in my present condition. The next time I stopped for a Pause-and-Pant, I called blessings down on our fearless leader’s bun-bedecked head for choosing an alternate route back down to the Valley.
It was a struggle to position my feet so my right leg did most of the lifting giving my left a chance to settle thus, sparing the knee. The brace was doing its job as well as it could, but there was only so much it could do. A further challenge involved timing my 50 pace spurts strategically, so I had a place to pull off and catch my breath–something not always possible. At such times, things got a bit freaky as whole families tried to pass each other and me at the same time. More than once I came away fully soaked along one side of my body as I tried to become one-with-the-wet-mountain and give them room. The stair seemed to go on forever. Up to this point, I had kept track of how many times I’d pulled over for a Pause and Pant (about 35), but there on the stairs, I lost count—I was too busy trying to survive. There better be a guru or Shangri-La or a cold beer or something up there!
When I finally reached the top, I was both elated and relieved. I half expected the groups to be gone, heading back toward the Valley, but they were still there though nearly ready to descend having rested for about a half-an-hour. They were just as surprised to see me as I was to be there. I admit to feeling a bit sheepish, especially with staff. I’d said I couldn’t do it, but here I was. I made a joke of it by weaving a silly story about raw determination, trail-relationships of convenience, yoga pants and nearly dying every eighth-of-a-mile–all of which wasn’t too far off the mark. I tried to remain the upbeat teacher Mr. P. is known to be, but truth be told, I was nearly toast. All too soon, our trail-master was gathering her chicks under her wing and preparing to head off. If it wasn’t for my firm belief I’d die on those stairs if I attempted to descend them, I might have stayed there for a short rest and taken them down afterward.
Carlos was both happy for my triumphant return from the dead but was now even more concerned considering my obvious state. He stuck with me as we moved out and after I insisted he go on ahead and stay with the group, he would only leave me if I accepted group B’s radio saying, “…if we need to check on you, we can.” At first this moved me, and there was a certain logic to it. It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that I was no longer a part of the working-staff. See, the walkie-talkies were meant for staff to use in case one of our charges was hurt and needed help. There were three of them: one with group A, one with group B and one at base camp, so they could all stay in touch with each other—Just In Case. They were not intended to keep tabs on an old man struggling to retain memories of healthier happier times. I wasn’t fulfilling my professional role anymore and had become a very unprofessional and unlooked for concern. Now they were worried about me. I was a liability and should a crisis arise and they needed this radio, they wouldn’t have it. Unfortunately, by the time I’d processed this, Carlos was long gone up the trail. I whistled loudly and called out his name, but unsurprisingly got no response. I began praying nothing untoward happened. As it was, a girl did roll her ankle from the group whose radio I had and they had to take the Valley Shuttle to finish the last part of the trip…but what if she’d broken her ankle? What if she’d fallen and been knocked unconscious? Could I live with that? Hell, no! Bottomline: I will never put myself in that kind of position again.
Well, what’s done, is done and it is, what it is. I shouldered my day-pack and began climbing more granite stairs, These were not as steep as those below, but they rose nonetheless and I was soon back to my pace-and-pant pattern…although I hoped there were a few more paces in there.
I had a wonderful view of distant Nevada Falls and the east side of Half-Dome. I talked to quite a few people, wondering at how young they all seemed ruefully half-remembering my immature reactions to those of age when I was younger and immortal. While I fully believe focus determines reality, I also believe that time waits for no one and if allowed to, will run its course without so much as a “by-your-leave.” So sad, that humans do not yet have more than one life time. They need two: one in which to make all the mistakes and another in which to try and employ the wisdom they learned from them.
The descent was murder. I’d quite forgotten the feeling of controlled chaos a down-sloping trail can afford. Soon reminders in the form of jammed toes, loose underfoot debris, and broken bones resurfaced. On one of my long ago solo excursions, I had broken an ankle on a descent after a rock rolled out from under the pressure of my foot. The nearly three mile hike-out on a broken foot had resulted in surgery and weeks of recovery. Both knees were now reliving that memory and warning me of missteps. I was much slower going down, and I soon suspected I was much more than a half-an-hour behind. A quick radio exchange confirmed that the first group was already down on the Valley floor.
I’m going to guesstimate it took some two hours to get down. With each hesitation, I felt a growing sense of urgency and guilt. I must admit though, on deserted stretches of trail higher up, in the illusion of privacy, I remembered things I’d nearly forgotten. I remembered summers when I spent more nights under the stars than under a roof. I remembered my daughters, all smiles and dirty faces, carrying backpacks as big as they were happy to be with dad…no others necessary. I remembered three six-point bucks leaping a morning stream, pine martins fussing on a pond’s edge, owls holding court, a black bear fishing, an eagle that looked at me, tarantulas dancing, “…the frontal lobe of a pica…” skull and a wolverine heading toward camp. I remembered my brothers and I chanting Wild Horse songs in heart-drum rhythm under a night sky so clear we were drowning in stars and immortality. I remember reading easily under a full moon. I remembered week-long solos into the Immigrant when I’d seen only a handful of kindred spirits who with a nod, or a smile, or an exchanged word acknowledged and blessed each other’s holy quest. It reminded me of so many other moments and times…times when the night embers spoke secrets for my ears and eyes alone…times when the high glide of a hawk was the harbinger of self-realization…times when the Milky Way was my blanket and the world was silent without the sound of cars or highways or phones…times when the business of the day comprised picking a peak, heading in a direction and napping under a tree…times before the self-imposed darkness, before I’d lied myself into believing I wasn’t worthy of such things and made myself grow old. Sweet memories and bone-deep wishes I had more of them to recall.
Too early and before I hit the turn at Lower Vernal Falls, the trail was once again crowded with flatlanders with no more clue about trail etiquette than I do about “snapchat.” With all the speeding up and slowing down, pulling off to pant and dodging another tourist group, I was so tired that it doesn’t surprise me I missed Shuttle Stop 16. I think I stuck too close to the river on the way out. That was fine, by golly, because I wanted to finish in style by walking the route the kids did along the Valley Loop Trail. By the time I hit Shuttle Stop 13, however, and got a good look at the detailed shuttle map and the distance I still had to go, I knew that there was little chance of making it by our 16:00 depart-time. Besides, I was physically exhausted, so at Shuttle Stop 13, I boarded the sardine packed bus and rode it all the way around to SS 8. As soon as I got off, I found an honest-to-goodness Park Ranger and she gave me directions to Swinging Bridge, our rendezvous.
“See that flowering dog-wood over there? Well, just beyond it is a trail that veers off to the right. Take that trail, stay on it, and you should be there in about 15 minutes.”
About ten minutes into that walk and from across a small meadow, I saw Mr. H. and Mrs. S. over by a set of busses. Whether they were looking to round up wandering teenagers or slow old men who take too long, I didn’t now or care, but they looked like they were looking for someone, so I headed in their direction. By the time I got there, however, they were gone. I checked out a couple of busses, but they weren’t ours. About that time Mrs. S. called me on the radio.
“Mr. P., have you made it to a shuttle yet? Mr. H. and I are at Shuttle Stop 8, but we haven’t seen you…”
Well, damn. If I’d just waited a few minutes when I got off the shuttle…
“Mr. P. here. Been on the Shuttle and off already. Thought I saw you two over by the busses, but it appears not.”
“No problem,” she replied. “Stay there and Mr. H. will come find you.”
I swear, it felt like the longest five minutes of the day until Mr. H. appeared out of the trees with a “Marco!” and a smile. We crossed the meadow over to Swinging Bridge and a waiting couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made by our Trail-Master’s own two mits. Mrs. LW and the some of the kids gave me a cheer which I embarrassingly acknowledged with a weak-wave. The final lost sheep accounted for, we soon headed out on another small hike, which my knee let me know was cruel and unusual punishment, to the bus and a three hour drive home.
On the way home, my wife texted that she was proud of me for having attempted and finished the route. I think she somehow sensed, as the best of women do, that there was more at stake than simply her man’s dignity. Considering the unexpected emotional and mental, as well as physical, route the adventure took, I’d say she was right. It wasn’t simply a journey of distance, elevation and endurance; it was one of time, memory and introspection. As for the upshot of it all? I honestly don’t know. I’m not a man of predictions. I try to navigate the Great River, but I know better than try and dictate, or even second guess, its course. Will I change my life-style enough to better accommodate a healthier performance next time? Will there even be a next time? Only time will tell. I will hazard the following, however.
I was at the end of a pace-and-pant cycle, about midway down the return leg of the descent from Upper Vernal Falls. In my near hyperventilation, I was vaguely aware of an approaching uphill band of about half a dozen folk but had yet to scan them. When I finally did, I was surprised to see what I can only term as a Matriarch in the lead, bent nearly double and leaning heavily on a set of trekking poles. She’s come a long way, I thought, and still has far to go before she reaches the top. Those following were obviously her family, chattering away seeming unconcerned for their relative’s slowness or fragility, but the closer they came, the more I noted their strategic positioning all around her. If she were to fall, these would be there to catch her. I say all around her, but that’s not true. No one was out in front. No one was blocking her way. To even the casual observer, that was sacred space. She somehow sensed me and with hardly a glance in my direction, she said in a surprisingly robust though age-inflected voice,
“I’m sorry I’m in your way; I’m as slow as a slug!” Oh, yes, I chuckled to myself, and I’m just the picture of a trail savvy spring chicken.
“No, no, no,” I responded. “You’re going as fast as you need to go, so don’t you worry about it. No problem at all. You take your time. I’m still trying to recover from my last print and that down hill!”
I watched as she carefully planted her poles and just as deliberately and firmly planted her feet in follow-up. She must be in her 80s, I marveled, and here she is climbing this same trail, its altitude and terrain notwithstanding. She and her entourage eventually passed with appreciative smiles and thankful nods.
Time waits for no one and the truth is, I’ll never regain the time I lost in the losing of myself (see “And some folks say, he’s up there still 1”). That’s just as gone as the moments it took to write and revise this sentence. At the very least, however, I sense I still have some choices, not as many and maybe not the same ones, but choices nonetheless.
I can chose to write my memories down as I have here displaying them as jewels fashioned during my life–lessons and insights, defeats and triumphs, a completed collection, mounted, finished and unique.
I can chose to lament my losses sacrificing time like some deluded penitent to a ravenous god of his own making–sad and regretful, frustrated and bitter, a burnt offering, perpetual, tragic and mindless.
I can chose to move, one step at a time, firmly planting one pole at a time, and experiencing what is still mine to do–careful and diligent, purposeful and determined, a wiser elder, aware, accepting and alive.
What will I choose? All, none, one, some other I have yet to understand? I wish I knew. I can say this, however, at least now I know I have them.
After being asleep for over a decade, I unexpectedly woke up in the mountains yesterday. It was like a sudden and unlooked for encounter with an estranged friend or like going for a familiar walk only to have the ground give way. Standing at the stone railing of Yosemite Valley’s photogenic vista-point, memories and emotions spooled as I my eyes reacquainted themselves with a place I had not seen in years but which I had once known and hiked often. I slowly become aware of myself, the dull throbbing in my knee, the effort to draw a satisfying breath, the leaden heaviness of my limbs, the telling gray of my beard, and the wide yawning void between then and now. Surrounded by youthful energy and exuberance, I was brought up short by just how far this [old] “…hawk…” was “…from the moon.” And I realized, I wasn’t simply looking at the Valley. I was gazing into a mirror and the estranged friend I found there was not someone else; it was me.
20 years ago, I fell in love with a remarkable woman. Up to that point in my life, I had never felt so deeply. I did everything I then could to insure that the relationship might last. Alas, despite mutual best efforts, the romance ended after nearly three years. Two decades later, I understand it was necessary, but at the time, it was very hard and I foolishly wanted to know why the relationship had ended. I was too naive to understand that asking such questions—questions which have no answers or wherein even the truth is unsatisfactory—is narcissistic, indulgent, and ultimately self-destructive. Such quests are not really about looking for truth so much as they are about looking for an answer that will satisfy an unreasonable belief that it exists, a belief that could that answer be found everything would somehow make sense and the unlivable made livable.
Of course I found nothing. The human creature, however, is amazing particularly in its ability to adapt and, if unable to adapt, to create unique coping mechanisms. Unable to find satisfactory answers, I went about subconsciously creating a self whom I could understand someone wanting to leave. Unaware I gradually ceased to pursue many mutually beloved interests because associated memories were too painful. Subsequent relationships suffered and failed unknowingly haunted by those memories. Many longterm projects and cherished ambitions were unconsciously abandoned.
I’m happy to say that over time I healed, became aware of and recovered from my coma-like foolishness, and while I still remember that long ago relationship and the woman I loved, I do so now with mature fondness. It’s no longer the unseen and internal ulcer I aggravated into being. This does not mean there aren’t scars or that all the damage I did to myself simply vanished. On the contrary, consequence-driven conditions still exist and here at the vista-point over looking Yosemite Valley, I was suddenly face-to-face with one.
“We” had been avid backpackers and hikers. Sometimes by ourselves. Sometimes with a group of likeminded people or my brothers and daughters. We’d been to locations in the Carson Iceberg and Immigrant Wildernesses, Big Sur, and areas in Arizona. It was, in her words, “…our thing…”. Between our adventures, I went out alone or with my brother braving longer treks. I counted a summer as good if I spent more time in a sleeping bag that in a bed. Each summer I went for one or two weeklong solo trips leaving a brother or my mother an envelope addressed with a date and a stern admonition not to open it unless I’d not returned by the date and time indicated. “Shining times” my brothers and I called them imagining ourselves spiritual successors to Fredrick Manfred’s Hugh Glass of Lord Grizzly or Vardis Fisher’s Jeremiah Johnson of Mountain Man or any other dozen over used and romanticized wilderness icons from Daniel Boone to Grizzly Adams.
After the breakup, however, slowly, gradually, and almost without notice, I became “too busy” to hike on weekends as other responsibilities called…or were created. Backpacking would have to wait, I reasoned, until vacation or better weather, so I stored my wilderness gear promising I’d return to it sometime next weekend, next month, next season, next year. Though I did rally once, bought a new mountain-bike and rode the hills in Calaveras and Santa Cruz, that too found its way into storage. Then time sort of stretched, warped and twisted and the “next” thing I knew, I was 100 lbs heavier, years older, and staring at myself from Yosemite’s vista-point.
As the fresh mountain air filled my laboring lungs and the revelation played it self out, my eyes blurred and welled. No threat to family or life, no financial hardship, no unfeeling or over-demanding employer, and ultimately no ill-fated relationship had separated me from this—I had done it. I had made the choice, and had it not been for coming to grips with this earlier, albeit in other areas, I think this blow might have been the worst due to its unanticipated nature. As it was, however, I was able to smile ruefully to myself, albeit sadly, stoically adding the responsibility to that which already existed in my heart, and rubbing more of the sleep from my eyes.
The vista point was becoming crowded. I knew the Valley would be much, much worse. It was already bad 20 years earlier; I could only imagine it now. Our trail-master wandered over and observed how once upon a time the Valley had been filled with fire-cleared meadows and older trees when its ecosystem was less impacted.
“No people on earth love their nature more—so much so that we love it to death,” I observed and wondered to myself if we were doing more harm and than good by adding our visit’s pressure to the Valley’s overburdened and now nearly artificial and mutated ecosystem. I was struck by the thought that few of these visitors would or could understand such a perspective. I’m sure they saw their visit as a natural expression of curiosity and admiration and if confronted by the negative nature of their innocuous visit would become indignant or ignore it all together.
Ignore it—like I had ignored the abuses I’d subjected to my own personal landscape? Awareness, I thought wryly, as I re-boarded the bus that would take us into the Valley, is the first step toward change. Well, now I knew; now I was awake, and here we were about to attempt to open the eyes of a whole bus-load of teenagers who had never seen the Valley’s wonders before. Maybe too, I could finish clearing the eyes of one particular old man as well.
Lately, I have had to process a personal revelation concerning a dear feature of my geek-centric life, something I had always believed was complimentary to, but which I now understand was in competition with, my creative writing.
I love role-playing games (RPG). Though Dungeons & Dragons was published ’74 when I was 13, I didn’t play my first session until a couple of years later. While I have trouble remembering the exact date of that first game, I vividly remember the character I played—half-elf Torian Asgard—and the non-player characters (NPC) who were my companions—Sadar the cleric and Bluehelm the magic user—and the place we explored—the digs of Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown: Quasqueton! These two great heroes had driven off a barbarian invasion but had disappeared during an expedition against said horde, leaving their stronghold, Quasqueton, just waiting to be explored and its treasures plundered.
I do not exaggerate when I say that first gaming experience was a nothing short of revelatory (thank you, Ken!). Having read Tolkien, Malory, Lewis and Howard during my pre-teen years, I yearned to have adventures like Frodo, Arthur, Lucy and Conan and from the first roll of the dice, I knew I’d found a way to scratch that itch. It truly felt like I’d discovered buried treasure.
It didn’t take too long for the storyteller in me to demand space at the game table. I quickly assumed the mantle of Game Master (GM) and began weaving my own scenarios for a group of players who would become my brothers-in-arms and life-long friends. Though I left D&D behind in favor of more intuitive game-engines, for the last 40 years I have continued to play, destroying the minions of evil and amassing a body of story, mythology and history to rival the most prolific of literary heroes.
Due to circumstances, however, and though the crew still gathers to talk geek as we have for decades, we can’t seem find time to regularly game any more. I’m not going into the politics of this situation, for they are a rough emotional sea of wild cinematic waves and whirling simulationist water-spouts. Suffice to say that a “perfect storm” brewed itself made of equal parts life, age and personality. I would rather do is relate a realization and discovery made about myself and my creative writing while in the midst of this gale.
Due to this gaming short-circuit, I found myself in a creative vacuum and as a result easily irritated, dissatisfied and, without overstatement, a bit bitter. Without regular gaming, I turned to my work-in-progress (WIP) to fill the void (which at present exists within the context of Holly’s HTTS class). It seemed natural. If you don’t have creamer, you reach for the milk. I mean, was I not creating imaginary worlds, cultures and religions as I develop my WIP? Did not heroes romp about discovering, fighting, loving, betraying, exploring, etc. in similar fashion to gaming? Were there not dark sorceries to overcome, conflicts to resolve, and villains to defeat? I thought to myself: a good bout of creative writing would be my surrogate game session while the ship groaned ominously and I waited for the storm to sort itself out. Good enough and off I went, bummed about the loss of regular bone-rolling but thankful I had a creative shelter in the storm. And indeed; while it wasn’t the same as gaming, it was medicine for my queasy stomach and balm to my wounded creative humor. So, for the last few months I created characters, spun dialogue, developed conflicts, wove plots, done necessary WIP world building and, all in all, had a rather productive time of it.
And that’s when it hit me…hit me, I say, like one of those looking-for-lost-glasses-oh-shit-they’re-on-my-face type realizations:
Without a game to creatively develop and GM, I had directed more time and energy into my WIP. Without a game to regularly express myself and play, the desire to role-play had been somewhat assuaged by writing.
To many this may seem a “Well, duh!” sort of moment. To me it was nearly as watershed as the advent of gaming itself. It made me lean back in my chair and blink. I had always known that prepping my game-world in anticipation of a GM session was a creative outlet, but up to this point I hadn’t fully realized how much I depended on it nor how much of my storytelling energy I devoted to it.
I have long lamented that juggling the two has been difficult. I see now that far from complementing each other, they have been in competition much in the same way books and films compete for audience. Each mode of storytelling: books, film, rpgs, may have entertainment as a common goal, but they use different methods to do so and deliver different story experiences as a result. I think this is the main reason why those who read are invariably disappointed when their favorite book is adapted to film. It is also the reason that while gaming and fiction writing share some commonalities and even inform each other, they both demand time as a resource and as a result find themselves in competition.
Though I would never exchange my years of gaming nor even now give it up—it is a very important social outlet and connection to my brothers, as well as, an enjoyable mode of storytelling—I now understand better the creativity-sink it can be and realize it is not a replacement for serious writing…no more than writing is a replacement for role-playing.
Well, what to do? I plan to adapt to this new reality and learn to walk its rolling deck. I’ll not exacerbate gaming’s present illusiveness by wasting what time I have waiting for a second advent. I will embrace the situation as a mixed blessing and make the most of it by romping in my WIP’s land of dark sorceries and bright heroes. I have learned a valuable lesson: time and energy are finite. When the storm finally passes, and it will, I will strive to keep the weather-gage and maintain a more satisfying balance.
Development on Work-In-Progress (WIP) prelims goes well. I have yet to finish HTTS Lesson 8 homework, but I have been making steady and satisfying progress toward that end. In the meantime, I have discovered how to use the iPhone/Mac app “Notes” to my advantage.
A quick bit of background first. I have ever been a PC man both with upright and laptop. A couple of years ago, I bought my wife an iPad. She was pleased but even more so after the family upgraded to smart iPhones and she discovered how the two devices could work in synch. When her PC crapped out, she purchased herself an iMac. Being a published and award-winning musician and singer-song writer, she was over the moon with the creative possibilities all three devices working in concert gave her. I watched from the sidelines with secret envy but couldn’t in good conscience let my perfectly fine PC laptop go; indeed, after the death of my last upright PC, it had been my stalwart companion for nearly ten years. Well, just as it began to show signs of age—it was having trouble communicating with our server and house wifi, and it had began to refuse to shut down even when so ordered—Santa-wife purchased me a MacBook Pro. Now it’s my turn to be over the moon as I explore the connection possibilities between it and my iPhone. BTW, while I still use my laptop from time to time, I see a day fast approaching when old-faithful must be completely retired.
While working on WIP preliminaries, I am strongly focused on clarifying the five elements of The Sentence: a Protagonist-with-a-need, an Antogonist-with-a-need; Setting, Conflict, and Twist, and developing light, but no less critical, aspects of each element. As I am doing this, however, my muse/subconscious/right-brain has been hard at work fielding my left-brain with random, and some not-so-random, ideas and story details. Not wanting to lose any of these important, though less than clear or plot-synched, offerings, but neither wanting to interrupt my writing flow, I found it wonderfully convenient to whip-out the iPhone, open Notes, push the dictation-button (microphone icon) and record away. Once the idea is recorded, either verbally or text-wise, I find I can return to the writing at hand unworried about forgetting an interesting idea or losing a scrap of hurried scribble. Sweet!
Further, as the app must pause in its recording to process dictation, it is training me to keep my thoughts brief and to the point, a skill I need to hone. And because the MacBook and iPhone are synched, my Notes are immediately available on my computer and ready for me to save, copy and paste, or edit as needed.
Not only has this been supremely helpful for catching random ideas while I’m actively working on my HTTS homework but also in situations when my laptop is unavailable, such as in the midst of teaching, a faculty meeting, or a game—though I use only the briefest of manual text-entries at those times.
The Notes are also an interesting record of organic story/idea evolution. I consider myself very lucky to have been blessed with both the abilities of an Outliner and a Pantster. As a result of 35 years experience as a Game Master (GM) and 26 as a teacher, I have no problems either developing detailed story outlines prior to writing or exploring the unexpected mid-story promptings of my right-brain. My first notes only vaguely relate to the latest as the plot changes and evolves. Complications appear or disappear, characters grow or diminish, conflicts escalate or dissipate, POVs re-orient direction and focus with each new right-brain note. I find the record fascinating and strangely reassuring, for I am led to believe that nothing is wasted and even the most seemingly unrelated idea can contribute to the whole in an unexpected and delightful way.
Presently I’ve recorded 66 notes and, with each dictation, a bit more literary focus is achieved. I can feel their weight offering me a firmer footing from which to eventually start composing the WIP directly.
Greetings, true-believer–whoever you might be (I can usually count on my brother to read my blog snot); I am not dead.
I continue to soldier on with HTTS. I’m almost to Lesson 8’s homework and am eager to begin writing the first draft of my official HTTS WIP proper. Sitreps for 5, 6, and 7 will have to wait for now, but rest assured (who am I talking to?), I did complete them. Huzzah!
Seven, however, threw me psychologically. I know these lessons are designed to be finished in a week, all things being equal, but that lesson was challenging, taking no less than five months…five months and eight days to be exact. The length of my response to the prep-work is what did it. I’m sure 38 pages of 10pt, single spaced reflection was not what Holly had in mind when she wrote the lesson, and which she obliquely warned against. It is, nonetheless, what happened to me. I’ll detail that rather cathartic experience and how I got through it later. In this missive, I’m going to give voice to one of my secret writing wishes: a writing-buddy…other than my writing totems and writing sound-track.
At my age writing buddies are hard to find. Work, home and personal responsibilities are not illusionary or excuses; they are hard reality, and social opportunities wherein I might meet such a person conflict with that reality. That being said, I must confess to having been to only one such social gathering: a Nano’ write-in at the Queen Bean in ’12. There were three other writers there. One left almost as soon as I arrived. That left the organizer/leader, and one other writer who, God bless him, talked most of the time. He didn’t know me, so directed most of his banter at the leader, a gentle and understanding soul, whom he seemed to know. Maybe he was nervous, but at every pause he would bring up a book he’d read or banter on about his WIP–not a 30-word sentence, mind you, but a blow by blow commentary. At the time, it irritated me a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to meet a couple of locals, but the event was billed as a “Write-in.”
In retrospect, I wonder if the poor guy wasn’t just looking for a buddy too. Maybe he needed to break the cocoon of silence and isolation we writers by virtue of our craft tend to work in. I mean seriously, I’m in my bedroom right now at my emergency writing desk, a common occurrence lately (why not in the awesome study-library down stairs I’ve written of before with its comfy chairs and 2,500+ volumes? That, sigh, is another story for another time), with my head-phones on; I might as well be in my own pocket universe.
Dear Santa, I’d like a writing-buddy who is about where I am at: working full-time, home responsibilities, maybe a serious hobby to two, and a dream to write, a love of storytelling but with very little (nothing) published. This person would encourage me when my out-put was meager and challenge me when I began to wimp-out. I could be able to trust them not to steal my ideas and they would help me develop them without demanding copy-right. We would delight in knowing the other understood terms such as: rough-draft, revision, re-write, alpha-reader, proof-reader meant and be able to judge work…or NOT…accordingly. No “If I were you…” or “I think you should…” or “From my perspective…” without solicitation. They would have their own problems and challenges and look to me for support and encouragement. Above all, we would both understand how hard this thing we love is to do and would gather strength from each other because of that understanding.
Sheesh! It sounds like I’m a teen again day-dreaming about the perfect spouse. Pathetic.
There’s a local writing group in Modesto that meets once a month. The first meeting comes with a no-strings-attached invite: no sharing of work or critiquing required, just a look to see if the fit it right. Nice. Later, however, attendees are expected to upload material for members to critique prior to meets. And rightly so, I say, but two thoughts hold me back.
First, from what I’ve read of their profiles only one or two of the 500+ members have published a novel. The vast majority are like me, un-published wannabes. As an unpublished wannabe, I can’t help but ask by what right of experience do I critique other writer’s work? I mean sure, I can tell when someone’s grammar and punctuation sucks or when they’ve made errors in POV, or tense, or voice, or misused some literary device (my students have been great for teaching me that), but as far as giving out sound advice concerning writing fiction, it’d be like the blind leading the blind. I mean really, WTF do I know save what I’ve heard on Writing Excuses and read in books?
Second, because I’m an academic writing teacher, have read extensively about writing, and am working through Holly’s class, I know only too well where my writing is at in terms of stage and condition. All I have to do is wait a week and re-read what I’ve written and I can clearly see and hear the problems: “Puuuutrescence!” So, why in the world would I offer substandard writing for critique that I already know to be rough, flawed and broken…especially when I can see and address those flaws myself? It would be one thing to offer a manuscript for critique that I’d done everything I knew how to do to improve saying, “I’ve done all I can, but I know it needs work. Please help me see what I can’t” or “It’s coming along, but I’m not feeling it in this part of the story. Can anyone help me?” but to offer my rough-drafts, revisions or even my re-writes for critique seems, frankly, presumptuous of other folks’ time and not a little rude.
It reminds me of my seniors who turn in Senior Portfolio Project assignments with hardly more than a cursory glance for mistakes knowing I’ll point them out, which they in turn correct and get full marks for from the Project Committee. I don’t mind if it’s a mistake they’ve truly missed, but what irritates the shit out of me is when they don’t proof for mistakes they could easily have found themselves if they’d taken the time to look. In essence they are too lazy to do a little proof-reading…just like a lot of wannabe writers who are in love with the romance of writing but not so much with the less fun realities of writing well.
Oh, hell no; I’ll not be “…that guy.”
I have a cadre of brothers who will most likely form the core of my beta-readers. They are intelligent, versed in my chosen genre and take well to instructions (as long as we’re not gaming; then, everyone’s a GM). What I wish for and want is a writing-brother-in-arms, who’s in the trench right beside me, as confused, hopeful and bemused as I am.
Ah, well, until I meet one, I still have this blog…and the knowledge of thousands of wannabe writers out there are wishing for the same thing and getting it done without. Oh, and I can’t forget my writing totems and mojo. Can you dig the salt-crystal lamp my awesome mom gave me for Christmas? True magic, man, true magic.
I’m sure there’s a neat metaphor in there for next time.
I have taken this lesson and done its critical exercises twice before, but in an effort to safeguard against familiarity and contempt, I took my time and made sure I paid even more attention to the details in a conscious effort to learn all it had to offer…or as much as I was capable of presently learning. The approach paid off in three solid Sentences, more on those later, but importantly it lead me to an important realization and discovery, one that was both alarming and liberating, frightening and affirming.
I have elsewhere related in the Quill how my introduction to fantasy and heroic literature was made as a result of daily reading sessions at home. Under my mother’s watchful eye and guidance, I was allowed to choose the reading material and on the fateful day of our first session, I pulled Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur off the shelf, albeit an abridged juvenile version but Malory in its diction nonetheless. Added to the already fermenting solution of First American stories I’d acquired from the students my father worked with, it is no exaggeration to say that things were never the same afterward.
Though Malory gets the nod for starting my love of epic fantasy literature, it was the Professor, however—J.R.R.Tolkien—who gets the prize for having the biggest impact. Having only had hints of such things in Malory, Tolkien revealed to me just what amazing things could be done with such legends and motifs.
As an aside, I have to admit Scripture’s literary influence on me. As related earlier, I didn’t begin regular church attendance until sometime around the age of nine, but even before that, my grandmother’s Bible stories are among some of my earliest literary memories. As my reading acumen grew, I gravitated toward Old Testament stories of exotic cultures and adventure: the flight from Egypt; the building of the tabernacle and the construction of its furniture in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; King David’s Three Worthies and their commander in I Samuel; the bloody and gruesome triumph of Jael over Sisera, the Canaanite general of King Jabin in the book of Judges. Later, after Tolkien, I remember copying a list of the monarchs of Israel and Judah because they reminded me of the kings in Le Morte and the appendixes in The Return of the King.
I was so struck by the fabricated mythology upon which the Professor built his deceptively simple and straight forward stories—the myths and histories, the languages and alphabets, the maps and drawings—I was inspired to attempt the same. In the early 70’s, despite nearly living at the local library a block away, I knew of no other author who had embroidered with such detail, though of course, this would rapidly change as the fantasy genre exploded, but that time had yet to come. As a result, I believed that to be a fantasy writer one had to create that same depth as Tolkien had in order to write convincingly. Thus I began a succession of note-books, essays, maps, myths, cultural descriptions, time-lines, and historic, scientific and literary exploration that has lasted to this day nearly 40 years later.
What I did not understand, however, was the true nature of Tolkien’s creativity, that is, why he created his mythology as he did. While young I erroneously thought it was to publish stories, but this proves inaccurate. Though a thorough explanation of his motives is far beyond the scope of this missive or the meager skills of its author, as I understand it, Tolkien wrote his mythology as a backdrop for his conlangs. Though long before he became a linguist, the Professor was writing his mythology, it naturally became his conlangs’ vehicle. While he told his children many stories, e.g. The Hobbit and Father Christmas, the greater elvish mythology, The Silmarillion, in all its iterations, was in the final analysis, a labor of personal interest. Albeit a fascination beyond a simple “hobby”, still it was done for its own sake as a source of self-edification and in conjunction with his delight in language. It was not, as I then thought, written with the purpose of publication.
Thus, as a youngster, I began world-building believing that when my world was finished, I would have the Tolkienian depth required upon which to build an amazing story. What no one could warn me of was how time consuming and addictive world-building could be or that it really had no end game. Each layer of development led to another, each refinement would demand further refinement, and so on and so on.
While I played with language in an effort to imitate the Professor, my forte seemed to be in culture; it’s anthropology and philosophy. I loved creating unique religions and traditions, beliefs and customs. As I grew older and my understanding broadened, I built these in careful layers of evolution so that the end results were based on natural progression and made sense. Many a college course in history and science were taken not only to fulfill GE requirements but with my world-building needs in mind. While I had a great time, and gained an appreciation of this world through the building of my own which I would never have enjoyed otherwise, it was a voraciously time and energy consuming activity. Though I wrote my world’s myths, folk-tales and pseudo-histories, I never seemed to have time to compose full tales of the brave and tragic heroes and god-like sorcerers that lurked in the far background of my mind. I always seemed to have one more history to write, one more detail that needed fleshing out before I could treat my heroes with confidence, but even as I tried to tie off the loose ends, more seemed to rupture and need tending. Consequently my tales receded further and further into the murky distance.
When I discovered table-top role-playing games, my desire to write something like the Professor had in The Lord of the Rings was nearly eclipsed by the type of obsessive world-building which reigns supreme in the hobby. I threw myself into the task with renewed abandon—no canned modules or published settings for me! It would be all original or nothing. I assuaged the accusatory voice inside my head by telling stories, after a fashion, through game-mastering and by assuring myself that all the world-building was for the story I would someday write. Though I cannot begin to describe the hours of enjoyment table-top role-playing afforded me, along with the other wonderful side explorations it inspired, in the end I cannot deny it was a drain on my creative energies that led me no closer to realizing my writing ambitions.
Early in the HTTS course, Holly expressed four key precepts: Safe never starts; Perfect never finishes; Victim never acts and Feel never thinks. Called “…thinking barriers…”, they describe four common afflictions that hamper many writers from fulfilling their literary aspirations.
I believe that as the lesson’s point concerning world-building on the publisher’s dime and only building when a story required it struck home. I came to realize that I was both trapped by my own world-building and ironically using it as “Safe never starts” and “Perfect never finishes” excuses.
I realize now that as long as I choose to refrain from writing my stories until the world-building is finished, until everything is “perfect”, I will never write them. I see that my desire for this perfection is also a way of keeping my ego safe, safe from the possibility of failure and from facing the fact that I will never be able to replicate Tolkien’s feat nor his success, that my ambition to build a world as complex and as deep is indeed beyond my abilities or my years…or what is required to write my stories.
It hard to admit this, but from Lesson 4’s perspective, I can see how my four decades of world-building have been a hindrance to my writing ambitions rather than an inspiration. While I am not prepared to call all my efforts in the area a waste, for many a good thing came of my world-building not the least being hours of creative enjoyment, I have to admit that as far as fiction is concerned, I have produced only a fraction in comparison. In retrospect, I believe my energies would have been better spent in reverse and primarily on writing fiction.
This “revelation” was not the complete surprise I may have made it sound. I believe the realization had been working its way up from the depths of my subconscious for a long time and the Lesson simply gave it that last push to bring it to the surface. Lately I have found the RPG I game master burdensome. My world had grown so vast, that I have trouble keeping up with it in all its detail. I gave become more and more dissatisfied with gaming as a means of storytelling, and that frustration has communicated itself to my players. In short I was no longer having a good time and neither were they.
It is interesting to note that later in life even Tolkien had begun to find his creation a burden as he struggled to finish the last and definitive version of The Silmarillion.
In the 1996 documentary J.R.R.T.: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien, his son Christopher spoke on how the pressure to “…write back…” an agreement between the LotR and The Silmarillion was becoming overwhelming in scope, particularly because even as he attempted to aligned the epic with his mythology and establish consistency, it inspired new stories and additions; indeed, the Professor had moved on from the major legends of the mythology—the sundering of the elves, Beren and Lúthien, Túrin Turambar—to entertain metaphysical questions concerning elvish immortality and what it meant to be an immortal incarnate and its implications on the mythology, a theme he wanted to explore in the final version of The Silmarillion. According to his son, however, “…the whole thing had…become too large, too complex…to impose so precise a metaphysical explanation on it; it was perhaps a task for a younger man. The flame began to die down and he hadn’t the energy left for such a huge transformation…” despite deeply wanting to “finish” the work. I sometimes feel that Bilbo’s lament over being too tired to finish compiling his memoirs in what would later become The Red Book of Westmarch, and that all he really wanted to do was write, “…poetry…” was a reflection of the Professor’s own feelings in this regard.
I approached my third go-round of The Sentence exercise with all this in mind, and as hard as it was, I forced myself not to consider my world setting by default as I cast about for story seeds from my SSM. I determined that if an idea came that involved my world as a backdrop that would be fine, but I would be wide open to any suggestion that came regardless of genre, setting or character type. The results were telling. Of the three ideas that I eventually wrangled into The Sentence, only one was set in my fantasy world. The other two, though paranormal in theme, were set in this world in modern times.
To say that I felt a sense of freedom as a result would be stretching things a bit, but it would not be wholly inaccurate. I did feel a release of pressure that I’d not realized I held within me, an anxiousness that somehow I wouldn’t be able to come up with any ideas sans my world. Developing two ideas independent of my fantasy world was both affirming and exciting especially since the idea which stands out as the one that might be a vehicle for the rest of the course is not the one set in my world.
This lesson helped me understand that ultimately what I must do is write and to do that, I cannot confine myself to the limits of my world-building. And while there is nothing wrong with writing a fantasy set in that world, to hinge my definition of what a writing career should look like based on a single setting is to willfully cripple myself as a writer. I will forever admire the Professor and his work and owe him a great debt, but if I am to be successful in own goals, I must keep my options as broad as I can and that may mean breaking the confines of both this world and my own.