Walking Back in Time

Yesterday I hiked through an old-growth redwood forest. The trail was difficult, mostly because of exposed tree roots and the 80% humidity, but the experience was . . . immense. When there were no other people around with their non-stop chatter, the silence was profound. In spots, a screeching bird or gurgling brook rang clear, and the sound of my footsteps always accompanied me but otherwise . . . silence. And when I stopped to listen, nothing seemed to exist except that soundless forest, not even me.

I felt as if I were walking back into time, and of course, I was — the forest is thousands of years old. At one point I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s story “The Butterfly Effect,” and I wondered if the world would be different when I emerged from the forest, but then, I’d be different too, so how would I know?

The oddest thing about my little adventure is I barely remember it. My aching body tells me I was there, but my memory of the experience is distant, as if it happened a long time ago. Maybe those four hours spent hiking in that primeval forest were so inconceivable that my brain couldn’t register it. Maybe I was so caught up in the immediacy of every awe-filled moment that I didn’t capture the feeling of the whole thing. Maybe I was subsumed into the forest — became, for all those hours, not me but a part of a greater whole.

Or maybe I really did walk back in time, and my adventure happened many years ago. In such an incredible and incredibly ancient place, anything is possible.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Opening a Vein

There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.  ~Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

I always thought the above was a silly, though poetic thought. If a story really does mean that much to a writer, why are so many books barely adequate? They tell a story, but have no depth, demand no blood in response, give no transfusion.

Even from a writer’s point of view, the idea seems rather overblown. Writing is more of an intellectual activity, at least it always has been for me. But not with this NaNoWriMo project, my grieving woman book. For the first time, I understand the sentiment. I feel as if I am opening a vein while writing the story. Or at least picking at scabs. I thought I was moving right along with my grief, handling it well, but yesterday while writing I hit too close to the truth.

I worried about doing this project, wondering if it was too soon to re-immerse myself into the world of grief, even if only through fictional characters, but I jumped in with both feet. And now here I am, crying again.

I have a hunch that the only way out of this writing dilemma is through, so I’ll continue to open my vein of grief. As Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

These are the final words of the scene that destroyed my equilibrium:

“Do you need some liquid morphine?” Amanda asked.

David looked up at her. “Is it time?”

“You can have the liquid whenever you want it.”

“I don’t want to go to Hollywood and be an actor.

An actor? Amanda tried to decipher his words. His mind seemed to take convoluted paths when the simpler words wouldn’t come. Then all at once she understood. “You won’t become a drug addict. I promise.” She left the second part of her thought unspoken. You won’t live long enough to become addicted.

Learning to Write by Reading

I learned to write by osmosis. I used to read more good books in a month than most people read in a lifetime, and the elements of storytelling seeped into my soul. I still have to work at writing, probably more so than writers who took classes or who are naturally talented, but I have an instinct of what works and what doesn’t. The problem comes when I try to put what is in my mind down on the page, which is why I later augmented the osmosis with reading books on how to write and edit.

A friend also learned to write by reading, but not by osmosis. She rips apart the books she adores, literally tears out the pages. Sometimes she types a passage from a book (like Cormac McCarthy’s landscape passages in All the Pretty Horses) then types over the passage with different settings, different entities within that setting, different verbs, different moods, but keeps the rhythm of the words. She learned well. Her stories have a lyricism that rivals the best of Ray Bradbury.

And no, I won’t tell you who she is. People give her flak for mutilating books. But, as she says, “A book that shows no evidence of ever having been touched is probably not very touchable to begin with.” I’m sure those authors whose books she rips apart to learn from would be thrilled to know how much she appreciates their work. I know I would be, but I doubt anyone will ever try to emulate my prose. It’s utilitarian at best (mostly because I edit out any metaphors and lyricism that end up on the page. Unlike my book-mutilating friend, I have no use for them.)

And what is so terrible about ripping a book apart to learn from it? Worse things happen to books. Like burning.

I helped out at a book sale once, and dozens of boxes of category romances were left over. The librarian asked if I had a woodburning stove. She said, “These books burn well, that I know.” I was shocked. Even crappy books I wouldn’t read if they were the only books left in the world are sacred to me. After the sale, I got to wondering what else could one do with books that have no resale value. Throw them out? At least if they are used for fuel, they would serve their purpose. Aren’t cheap romances all about getting people heated up?

(For the record, I have never, will never burn a book. I never even tortured one, though once I did throw a book against the wall because I hated the ending.)