A Mission From Trees

Have I mentioned yet how much I hate winter?

“Biff…we get it,” said the fox. “You’ve told us over and over…you hate winter more than Windows 8.”

“Whoa now, fox,” I said. “The only thing in the world that’s as hateable as that is Windows 8.”

So, I guess I’ve mentioned how much I hate winter. I mean, It’s cold, dark, slippery, wet, icy, odourless…you have to wear 50 pounds of clothing, none of which includes sandals…oh…and get this…my friend Gary Stairs just came in and added one more thing about winter…it’s colorless. How could I have forgotten that one? I’ve shot winter pictures that have provoked people to ask what process I used to convert them to black and white…and they didn’t believe me when I told them they were in color. At least, until I hit them over the head with my camera several times, yelling, “It’s color! It’s color!” I’m really sensitive about these things. And my camera is heavy.

So…winter. It’s here. And I’m still waiting for summer. But you can’t always get what you want…but by jeezus…I’m going to get what I need. I need to get outside with my camera. I love the candid people portraits, but I dearly love nature. And trees.

Trees.

“What about trees, Biff?” said the fox.

They’re beautiful. They never stop being beautiful. They’re beautiful all year round…when they’re in full leafage in summer, green and glowing in the sun. When they’re erupting color in the fall and when that matrix of buds coats the branches with spots of green in the spring. They’re…

“Hey, Biff, aren’t you forgetting something?” said the fox.

“You’re really messing with my train of thought here, fox.”

“Uh…winter? Trees in the winter?”

Anyone have a good recipe for fox stew?

OK…trees in the winter. I really hate to say this, but trees in the winter take my breath away. Especially with a white coating of snow. I love the contrast, the delineation, the emphasis on structure that you don’t get with full foliage. In the summer you get form, shape, texture and color. All of which is pretty damn cool, but not as mesmerizing as when you can you can see right into the physical essence of something that predates even me.

I just stood outside Reads, under a tree with light snow packed gorgeously on its branches, and closed my eyes, listening, feeling, smelling…opening myself to the tree. After a couple minutes the tree spoke to me in the form of a large patch of snow plopping onto my head. But hey, if bird shit is supposed to be lucky…

My head is wet, but I’m not going to wipe it off. It’s a sign. I’m going to treat it like a christening and a calling and write holy things about trees. But not with words.

With my camera. This is what I need…to get outside with my camera every chance I get this winter and pay homage to the trees.

I inadvertently started this morning…before I knew that I was on a mission from the trees…

winter-5 winter-6 winter-8 winter-9 winter-7

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Building a Path for Your Voice

trees

I’ve heard a lot about this thing called the writer’s voice…as though it’s some magical sound thingy that slides through the night and whispers breezes of joy into the ears of the reader…or rips through the fabric of the reader’s comfort zone and leaves a path of raised eyebrows and bumpy skin.

I’ve heard about this thing called the writer’s voice that readers and editors and critics wrap tightly around a pedestal and raise it into the sky with each successive publication of “THIS NEW VOICE!”

And therein lies the secret of becoming a successful writer: finding that distinctive voice that will distinguish you from the rest of the pack and vault you into riches and fame or critically correct obscurity. And your writing doesn’t even have to be good. It can be crap. But if it’s distinctive crap, it’ll sell…once the voice is out there, recognized, familiar and well-marketed.

But voice isn’t a style. Styles can be copied. It’s more like a personal resonance, a sense of the rhythm and flow of the way words would be used if they were read out load on a street corner, rise above the traffic and human bustle and still be heard. It’s the rhythm and flow of a human presence as distinctive as fingerprints and DNA…a rich flow of visual diction as well-composed as a great painting or photograph. It’s the rendering of thought through words so that it can’t be mistaken for any other voice.

The man who punctuates every sentence and thought with “fuck” is just as distinctive and memorable as a great orator. Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it no matter how much you’d like to…and you’ll always recognize it.

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “where do you find this thing called voice?”

“You don’t find it,” I said. “It finds you.”

“And just how might it find you?” said the fox, a little too arrogantly for my liking.

“Well,” I said, “one way is through mindless writing.”

“You’re joking, right?” said the fox.

“Let me explain…”

I teach a writing workshop call Writing Hurts Like Hell (and it does). In the first class I introduce my students to a this thing called mindless writing that I borrowed from Dorothea Brandt, who introduced it in her 1934 book On Becoming a Writer. It’s a little book, but it’s big on wisdom and great advice for anyone with aspirations of becoming a writer.

Here’s the gist of it: pick a word, a topic, a thought, a dream, a memory, a sentence, an object within view, a feeling, a concern, a theme, a conversation you overheard, a scent, a worry…anything that pops into your head.

Pick a length of time you intend to write. Start with five minutes. Being the cruel malicious bastard I am, I make my students start with fifteen minutes. Some of them run screaming from the class and drink too much for the rest of their lives. Now, start writing (preferably by hand with a pencil, pen or stick and sand…this has actually been proven to engage the mind more than a keyboard) about your chosen whatever.

Here’s the catch…you can’t stop writing until you’ve reached the time you set for yourself. If you stop to correct something, rewrite it or change it in any that will make it different from what you wrote…God will kill you. You have to keep writing even if you run out of things to say about your chosen whatever. You might have to change to another whatever or just repeat the last sentence you wrote until something new comes along. When this happens to my students, they write something like, “I hate this bastard, Biff. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him!” Surprisingly, this can occasionally lead to some genuinely insightful mindless writing.

But it’s worth the pain.

Mindless writing helps bring out the individual voice without judgement, editing or criticism. That voice that’s always inside you trying to get out, but pushed back inside with left brain thoughts like, “This is too flowery.” “This is too plain.” “This sucks.” We tend to write the way others expect us to write so we write for them, not for ourselves. We write in such a way as to gain the approval of those for whom we write, even if they’re imaginary spectres looking over our shoulders, and if we imagine they don’t approve of what we’re written, we scratch it out, delete it…deny it.

The last place you’ll find your own personal voice is in the approval of others. It just won’t happen.

Do this every morning. That’s the best time. It’ll give the right side of your head a boost that’ll charge your mundane day with creativity. But more importantly, the more you do it, the easier it will become. It will gain coherency, structure and uniqueness. Your voice will find you. It’s in there…you just have to give it a pathway out.

“So,” said the fox, “any other ways to find your voice?”

“Yep,” I said. “Get into arguments with yourself.”

“But…”

It’s a little like mindless writing except it has a definite structure: a dialogue. You write something down, complete with quotation marks and then disagree with what you said, complete with quotation marks. Then defend your statement. And go back and forth like this for a page or two or more if you’re really into it. You’d be surprised at how many times you’ll lose an argument with yourself.

The key to letting your voice find you with this way is to believe everything you say, on both sides of the argument. You’ll develop an objectivity that rises above criticism because your the one criticizing on both sides of the fence. You’ll rise above the na sayers because you will be them…along with the yea sayers. Think of it as a battle between your right brain and your left brain taking place in the stadium of your left brain.

Always good to hedge your bets.

Argue hard and furiously. And, unlike total all-out extreme mindless writing, you can stop and think about your arguments and counter arguments.

So how does your voice find you in this medley of dissention? Well, nothing brings out the inner self as convincingly as a good heated argument. Argue with yourself when you’re feeling kind of groovy. Argue with yourself when you’re angry at something. Argue with yourself when you have nothing else to do. Hell…have a drunken argument with yourself. Yell at yourself. Yell back. Sometimes, do some name-calling. You’d be surprised at what you may call yourself that might give pause for thought.

One little hint…keep it in writing. Don’t get into a shoving match or a fist fight. That’s called “hearing voices in the head.” That’s not what you want.

Keep this up and after a while, you’ll find one side winning more and more frequently. That’s your voice. You’ll know when you hear it because it will have found you.

This is one I don’t teach in my workshop because if I give away all my secrets, they won’t need me anymore and they’ll kill me. This is how Kung Fu masters die.

One last way to let your voice find you…blog. But write in a word processing program first…or pen, pencil, stick in sand. That way you’ll be writing for yourself. Then decide what you want to share and what you want to keep for yourself…and revise accordingly. Not giving a flying bat’s ass what anyone thinks about me…I never delete anything. I wrote it for myself…it’s my fucking voice and I argued and wrote mindlessly for millennia to get it, so put up or shut up.

Don’t mean to insult either of you, but that’s how I feel. You should feel the same way too.

(Next blog on voice…voice in photography…coming soon…or later.)

BTW, stopped making my daily decisions today. Reached where I wanted to be. Now to just go with the flow because I know where to swing the rudder.

Discovery

Every weekday morning for the last three years, I drive by a strip of woods that defines parallel symmetry, vertical symmetry and a nice sky. Every time I see those woods, I say to myself, “You have to take a picture of this.”

“And did you?” said the fox.

“I’m getting to that…if you don’t mind, fox,” I said.

Unfortunately, it’s on a stretch of road where it’s impossible to park…but has just enough room to set up a tripod and squeeze in a telephoto lens.

So, I’ve been doing this decision thing where I have to make an important decision each day and carry it out. It’s getting to be a royal pain in the ass and I think I’m going to stop doing it. Maybe that’ll be my decision for tomorrow, even thought it’s led to a few good things, like this morning, when I decided it was time to capture those woods. And today was a perfect day for it…mild with a mixture of sun and cloud and the air had a friendly mood. I had to park about a quarter mile away from my set-up spot, but since I didn’t go for a run that morning, the walk fit in nicely. Except the part where I opened my camera bag and saw that the lens I needed was still in the car. What the hell…did I mention it was a beautiful day with a big smile in the sky?

Now, this was the first time I’d seen this area up close. When I drive by it, I’m in the far lane and there’s a metal guard rail blocking most of the view. I’d always pictured nothing but wilderness, a place where bears and deer could congregate to talk about the human condition and maybe, like, figure us out because we sure as hell can’t.

Boy, was I wrong. There was a road down there. No bears. No deer. No solution to the human condition. I’d imagined something lofty reaching into the happy sky. But…a road? WTF? But, hey, it made for a nice leading line image. Like this one…

1

While I was taking this picture a passing car almost took my ass off. Yeah, that little room. I’d forgotten to put the photographer’s body into the equation. So, next picture I’m wrapped around my tripod so closely that we were one. This seemed to have an eerie effect on a woman in an SUV who was staring so intently at me wrapped around my tripod that she veered off the road a bit and was driving straight at me. Fortunately, she snapped out of it in time to veer away from me. So I got to keep my ass one more time. And I got this picture…

2

This is how I pictured it every time I drove by it. I looked around to see if anyone else was trying to separate me from my derriere but the road was clear and I got this image….

3

More of what I imagined. And I thought, got my images, time to head home and have a late breakfast. But then I saw this…

4

Got the camera out. Set the tripod up. Wrapped myself firmly around the tripod and got the image…about ten times before I got it right. Had three near-death experiences while I was shooting, but when you’re hot…you’re hot…and I was hot. I will say one thing though…trucks with those really really wide mirrors really suck. Especially when you can feel the wind coming off them a few inches from the back of your head.

And then, of course, I saw this…

5

Who in their right mind can resist a tree shot? A few minutes later, I saw this….

6

Surprisingly, nobody tried to remove my ass or the back of my head this time. This a really busy picture but I like the foreground. Somehow it reminds me of a farm I lived on just outside of Toronto when I was a kid. (That farm is now a big bronze building.)

A couple minutes later I came across something that made the whole trip out there ten times what I thought it would be. The lighting and contrast were perfect. I knew as soon as I saw it that it would be black and white. I took a properly exposed shot and an underexposed shot. The underexposed one described the feel of the place to a T. And this is what I ended up with…

7

I’m always amazed by this phenomena of getting so much more when you get off your ass and go for what you want. It’s kinda like…a discovery

Lesson learned: Always check out your equipment to make sure you have the lenses you need. And…you can replace your camera…but you can’t replace your ass. Keep it tucked into your tripod.

Finishing – Part 2: The Nickel

Trees

(Originally published in Projected Letters Literary Journal, 2004)

Shards of sunlight flickered off the car’s bumper as it disappeared over a rise in the road. Josh stared at the bright bursts of light and breathed deeply, winded from his run through the woods behind the shack where he lived. As though it had been hiding until the car left, the silence crept back from the woods, oozed from the wild grass and shrubbery pushing through cracks in the pavement where the two highways intersected.

Josh wondered who would be driving out this far from town so early in the morning. With the exception of a few hunters in the fall, burly old Ned Wilkins, the grocer from town, was the only person who ever drove out to the mill road when he dropped by twice a month. Gruff-spoken as he was, he was company–something Josh had little of since his father’s death–and Ned always brought a box of supplies: things like soap, cornmeal, salt, and Josh’s favorite, comic books. Josh could not read, but he enjoyed looking at the pictures of brightly costumed heroes and villains. The villains, he knew, were the ones who were zapped in the end because good always won out over evil. On Ned’s visits, Josh and Ned played checkers. Sometimes Ned let him win. But Ned had not dropped by in three weeks and Josh was running low on matches.

He walked across the weed-patched pavement of the station drive-in and stopped at the concrete stand where the gas pumps used to be. He glanced at the box and looked down the road. The dust had settled now, but a faint odor of exhaust fumes still lingered in the air. It was a rare smell these days, far from the days when Josh was young, when the mill was open and the mill workers streamed through the junction, stopping for gas from his father ‘s pumps. They were happy days, when his father, a big man with a round, red face, brought his sleepy-eyed customers in with a big smile and a good word and sent them off with a full tank and a friendly glow. Josh cleaned window shields while his father pumped gas. And no one ever made fun of Josh for not being too bright, mostly because everyone loved his father, Calvin Wright. They loved the boom of his laugh and the smile that never left his lips.

Then the mill closed. The woods had been stripped by budworms and fire. The stream of cars and trucks dwindled to a tickle and stopped altogether. But Calvin never lost his smile, even when he had to close down the pumps and travel to town for construction work or whatever else he could find. “Things will get better,” he used to say. “Things can only get better.”

One day, about two years after the mill closed, Josh’s father coughed up some blood. A month later, he was dead.

Ned had driven Josh to see his father in the hospital in town a few days before he died. Josh was scared at the sight of his father, withered and stark like a dead tree in a big hospital bed that had seemed as though it would swallow him up. Ned and Calvin exchanged a few words, almost whispering, and then Calvin asked if he could speak to Josh alone. His voice cracked, his breath coming in gasps. “You’ll be looking after yourself from now on, son, but Ned’s agreed to drop in from time to time. I wished it was different. You’re young yet, but strong.”

“You’re gonna be alright, Dad,” Josh said, but he knew from the hazy film over his father’s eyes that the life before him was nearly spent and ready to sink forever into the big hospital bed.

“Yes, I’ll be alright now, Josh, but I won’t be around to take care of you. I figure you can take care of yourself. You’re not smart the same way others are, but your heart is good. An’ what they got in schooling, you got in living your days in the woods, learning about living.” He broke into a violent fit of coughing and Josh’s blood froze. It didn’t seem that his father’s shriveled body could withstand the rack of the cough. Panicking, Josh cried: “I’ll get the doctor, Dad.”

“No, stay here. It’s gone now.” He wheezed a few times, his face gaunt but determined. Grabbing Josh’s arm with fleshless fingers, he said: “You might think my life is finished, but nothing’s ever finished, Josh, nothing.”

Even though his father’s hand was shrunken, Josh felt it tightening powerfully on his arm. “You got to start things with a mind to do ’em, but you can never finish. Like keeping with the box. It goes on. You try to finish up, but you never will. Never.”

Something deep and incomprehensible thrashed about in his father’s eyes. “Never.” The word was barely audible, the last thing Josh had heard his father say as he drifted into a deep sleep, his lips curling into a soft smile as though he had known something all along and found out he was right.

Fifteen years had passed since then and Josh had grown into a bulking and contented thirty-three-year-old man. Ned had offered to take him in and let him work in the store, but Josh had refused to leave the junction. The small shack, the woods and the quiet were his home. Fishing the streams, snaring rabbits and watching the clouds were his life.

And the box. The box tied it all together.

Gray and weather-beaten, the box perched on a post by the road. A tattered cardboard sign hung from the front like a piece of shredded skin with a few faded gray letters: D NAT ONS. It had been there since Josh could remember. He was never sure what it was for exactly, but he was vaguely aware that it had something to do with helping people, and that gave it an air of respectability in Josh’s eyes. He used to watch his father snap open the huge padlock with a skeleton key and remove coins and paper money, which he kept in a cotton bag under his bed. Once a week, a long black car pulled up at the station with silent, unsmiling men who took the money from the bag and drove away.

After the pumps closed, Josh’s father stopped going to the box each evening because there was never anything in it, and the black car had long since stopped coming. One day Calvin saw Josh eyeing the key on its hook by the door.

“Got eyes for that skel’ton key, Josh?” the trace of a smile lined his lips. Josh became flustered. He didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t the key that was important or all that interesting; it was the box. The key was part of the mysterious act of opening the box and helping others.

“Take the key, Josh, it’s yours.” Josh stared at his father. “And the box, too. They’re both yours.”

Ever since then, Josh had worn the key around his neck, tied to a ratty old shoelace. Each evening, like his father had done, he marched dutifully to the box, opened it ceremoniously, looked in and, finding nothing, locked the emptiness back inside.

Now, something moved inside Josh like the smell of gasoline fumes reaching deep into his memory. His hand moved to the key around his neck. His breathing slowed. He walked toward the box and began to hum. It was a low hum, a sound that rose, trailed off and rose again, and the pattern of the hum was the pattern of his life, and he seemed to flow more than walk to the box. Standing before it, he removed the key from his neck and placed it into the padlock, turning it slowly until the lock snapped open with a clunk. He removed the lock, lifted the lid and looked inside. Lying solemnly on the bottom was a shiny new nickel.

He stopped humming.

His first inclination was to drop the lid and leave the coin lying there like a riddle with no answer. He was not used to anything new touching his life. But the coin was there, real and demanding to be acknowledged. He picked it up gingerly and rolled it between his thumb and fingers, studying the relief picture of a beaver hunched on a log on one side and a picture of an expressionless woman on the other. He ignored the letters and numbers. The coin had a nice heft at the end of his fingertips. There was something enjoyable in the weight that seemed so big for an object so small. He was fascinated by the precise edges of the coin, the circularity that came back on itself so smoothly. The roundness pleased him. He closed the lid and locked the box.

Later, sitting on his stool by the wood stove, still gazing raptly at the nickel turning on his fingertips, Josh wondered what to do with it. The men in the black car had not been out to the junction in years, but Josh’s father had never kept any of the money in the box. Josh remembered a time when money was short and he suggested they use money from the box.

“Stealing’s not right,” Calvin said, his eyes icy. “‘Specially from folks that are needier than ourselves.”

“But it’s s’posed to help folks an’ we need help, Dad.” The reasoning seemed apparent to him.

“Then we’ll get our help elsewhere, son.” The ice in his eyes softened. “The money from the box belongs to others.”

Josh knew what he had to do. If the coin was not his to keep, and the box was his responsibility, then he must take the coin to the right people. But he had no idea who they were or where to find them.

An idea crossed his mind. Ned would know how to find them. All Josh had to do was go to town and find Ned. He hadn’t been to Ned’s store since his father’s funeral, but it hadn’t seemed like a long drive in Ned’s truck, and there were lots of streams and trees along the way. And maybe he could get some matches. And some comics.

It was still morning and he reasoned that if he started right away, he would be in town before dark. Humming again, he draped his jacket over one shoulder, left the shack unlocked, and started down the road toward town with big, purposeful steps.

***

The noon sun spilled invisible fire onto the weather-beaten pavement. Josh had been on the road for hours and his stride was beginning to totter. Walking to town no longer seemed like a good idea, especially without a jar of water. The streams and brooks he had seen as a child had dried up, leaving sun-scorched beds of rock and pebbles. He feet were sore and his head ached from the heat. Horseflies, attracted by the pungent odor of sweat, buzzed around him, zipping in to land stubbornly on his neck, his face and his clothing. He brushed them away, arms flopping back to his sides. And they came again. He no longer hummed, his throat too dry to sustain a note. Hot sweat drenched his clothing and stung his eyes, seeping acridly between his lips and into his mouth. He fantasized plunging into the wavering mirage on the road ahead until the mirage dissolved. Then he fantasized on the next one, and plodded on. The sky was cloudless; the air, windless. Nothing moved but the flies and Josh. He dared not look at the woods lining the road fifty feet from each shoulder. Though sparse and tinder-dry, they might tempt him with shelter from the sun and he would sink into a bed of crinkly leaves and stay there forever, shrouded in budworm webbing.

Josh’s thoughts traveled back to his childhood, back to a blustery winter night when the wind had pounded against the walls of the shack, making it tremble and creak. Inside, it was warm with heat from the wood stove reaching into every corner of the room, and Josh was comfortable and sleepy in his bed as he listened to his father and Ned talking quietly and playing checkers. He stared through the slots of the grill at the flames, and the smell of burning wood was sweetened as it mingled with the smoke from his father’s pipe.

Ned talked around his chewing tobacco: “Nope, Cal, I surely did not want to go over there and shoot up the Kaiser’s army. T’tell ya the truth, I was scared so that I pissed my pants the first time I heard shells boomin’ miles away, an’ we was headin’ for all that noise.”

“No shame in that, Ned,” his father said as he jumped two of Ned’s pieces and removed them from the board. “Fear’s a natural feeling. Keeps a man alive.”

“Right you are, Cal. But that’s not what bothered me so much at the time as wonderin’ what the hell I was doin’ headin’ for all that noise an’ not wantin’ any part of it. But we was all tired, worn down from a long march with full kit, an’ I kept walkin’ towards that boomin’, liftin’ one foot in front of th’ other an’ wonderin’ why.”

A gust of wind battered the far wall and the entire shack groaned.

“There was wounded men bein’ brung back all shot t’ hell,” he said with a distant look. “An’ I wondered if they had any idea why they was wounded, why they’d gone into that boomin’ to get themselves all shot up. An’ I thought about patr’ism an’ protectin’ folks back home, an’ lots of things, an ‘ before I knew it, we was smack in the middle of the boomin’, lookin’ over the tops of trenches at land that looked like it’d bin ripped an’ torn by some giant plow gone haywire.” Rolling the tobacco wad to the other side of his mouth, he added with finality. “Still don’t know what the hell I was doin’ there.”

Josh was beginning to wonder the same thing.

Now, he took the coin from his pants pocket and studied it closely. Turning it slowly between his thumb and two fingers, fascinated by the clean edges and the pleasurable heft. He flipped it a few inches into the air and caught it. He flipped it again, this time a few inches higher. Before long, he was flipping it several feet into the air and the heat and the flies were forgotten. He was humming again, his eyes transfixed by the flipping coin. He watched it tumbling through the air, throwing off sparkles of sunlight as it came spinning down into his palm. Soon, it was as though his mind were spinning with the coin, his being merged with the being of the coin, shooting up and tumbling down. Everything but the coin washed out of his vision, and then the coin disappeared in a flash of brilliant white. Nausea churned tightly in his stomach as he felt his body dropping, his mind still spinning and his ears filled with humming.

He was uncertain how long he’d been unconscious but, judging from the position of the sun, it was not long. He felt rubbery as he raised himself to his feet. He shook the dizziness from his head and stooped to pick up his jacket. As he did so, he saw the coin on the pavement a few feet away. Surprised and elated at the same time, he snatched it up, inspected it closely, apologetically, and put it back in his pocket.

Every exposed part of his body was bright red. He was getting hot and cold flashes, and his body tingled with the imminent danger of not finding water soon. He could not understand how he could have misjudged the distance to town by so much. Nothing was as he remembered it.

He draped his jacket over his head and continued walking.

***

The sun moved slowly across the sky and Josh was no longer walking a straight line. Several times his wobbly legs carried him onto the shoulder of the road and twice he had tripped and fallen down only to struggle back to his feet and continue walking. The road seemed endless; the town, unreachable. All that was real was the heat, his thirst and the steady shuffle of his boots across the burning pavement. Horseflies bit into unresponsive flesh. The temptation to drift in the scorched woods gnawed at his will, tied itself to his legs.

Then, on the road ahead, he saw the faint outline of a bridge. He quickened his pace and soon the faded green girders were distinct and promising against the blue sky.

He mustered his energy into a slow easy run and, even before he reached the bridge, he could smell the water, hear it crinkling through the woods. He arrived at the bridge breathless and stood by the steel railing, gazing jubilantly at the lively stream, silvery under the early evening sun. A path led from the edge of the railing down through bushes to the stream. He picked his way carefully down the steepest part of the path and then ran with a joyful bellow and belly-flopped fully dressed into the water. He splashed about wildly until his energy left him and then he just sank, neck deep, and savored the cool, life-restoring massage of water.

Half an hour later, propped on an elbow on a patch of grass, Josh finished his sixth raw frog leg. He licked his lips contentedly as a fly darted by collecting air. It was a pleasant spot with healthy trees and alder bushes. Uneven grass, dotted by large rocks left by years of spring high water, sloped gently down to a narrow, pebbly shoreline, and the air was sweet with the smell of water and plants. A crow cawed from the distance upstream. Josh cawed back to it.

A few beer cans littered the area, but these were heartening to Josh, a sign that he was close to town. That would come tomorrow though. Tonight, he would rest by the stream and tomorrow he would finish the trip into town to see Ned about the coin. Remembering the coin, he reached his hand into his pocket and clenched it around nothing.

Something thick and ugly curled inside his stomach.

His hands snapped to his other pockets, rummaging and throwing their small contents onto the ground. No coin. He scanned the ground around him. Nothing. The small shore area grew expansive with merciless glints and glitters from rocks and broken glass. The water sparkled mockingly under the lowering sun.

It would soon be dark.

The last time he could remember having the coin was on the road by the railing when he brushed his hand on his pocket and felt it there before he descended the path to the stream. He retraced his steps to the road and from the road back to the stream. Nothing.

He glanced at the sun. About twenty minutes of useful light. He put his boots back on and waded into the stream. Water ran swiftly around his pant legs, and Josh began to fear that the fast flow would wash the coin down to where the stream deepened. He crouched down close to the water, his gaze trying to penetrate glistening wavelets as his hands slid nimbly over rocks and pebbles. Long shadows of trees crept over the water towards him.  Mosquitoes attacked him hungrily. He moved faster, lost his footing on a slippery rock and toppled into the water with a shallow splash. Cold shudders racked his body, but he ignored them as he propped himself onto his knees and stared at the endless flow of water rushing into the imperfect distance.

It was dark when he fumbled, cold and drenched, back to the shoreline. Water squished in his boots, weighing down his steps. He slumped on a patch of grass and tugged his boots off, poured the water from them, and thumped them on the grass a few times. His frustration mounted and he pounded his boots onto the ground, and pounded them again.

“Darn!” he cried.

And then he saw it, outlined faintly by the dim glow of moon and starlight. The coin. Rolling out of his right boot.

He dropped both boots and reached forward slowly, cautiously. His right hand closed around it. Blood throbbed in his forehead as he raised his hand, opened it, and saw the coin lying in his palm, the small heft so familiar. He closed his fist around it and felt a cool spread of elation throughout his body.

After a few minutes, he checked his pocket again. There was a small hole near the bottom where the coin had fallen through, and then had fallen down his leg and into his boot.

“I’ll sew you when I get back home,” he said. He walked wearily back to the tree where his coat was hanging, draped the coat around his neck and, after making sure the coin was still tucked safely in his left pocket, he sat with his back to the tree and fell into exhausted sleep.

***

The morning sun was still laced with night chill when Josh, muscles and joints aching, lumbered back to the road. His face was red and grizzled and his damp clothes sent chills through his body as he moved. But Josh was humming. The nickel was secure in his pocket and he was twirling the key on its shoelace in slow circles. The movement pleased him, the roundness of it. From the bridge, he looked down at the stream, sparkling in the morning sunlight. It occurred to him that he should retrieve a few empty beer cans and fill them with water for the remainder of the trip. But looking down the road, he could make out the scattered buildings of town about two miles away. He bellowed happily, almost dancing on the pavement and, twirling the key, he was soon passing the first small bungalows, their graveled driveways spilling onto the road where metal mailboxes leaned at odd angles.

The road turned just ahead of him, and Ned’s store, with its two big windows and white, balustrade porch, sat on the outside of the turn. Josh ran awkwardly to the gravel parking lot that fronted the big white building. He bounded up the three sagging steps and opened the screen door.

Behind a long, wooden counter laden with jars and display cases, he saw a weasel-faced man with a balding head stocking wall shelves with tin cans. The man turned his head inquiringly towards Josh as he approached the counter. Josh asked for Ned.

“What d’you want with Ned?” the man asked, looking up at Josh suspiciously.

“I–uh–” Josh had no idea how to explain. The box, the coin, the stream, the road all crowded his mind at once. He thrust out his fist. The weasel-faced man jerked back. Josh opened his sun-reddened hand slowly and the nickel gleamed coolly on his palm. “From the box–” he said with a deep, dull voice. “–the men from the charity.”

The man behind the counter relaxed slightly, but still looked uneasy. Leaning forward to look at the coin, he asked: “Charity? What chari–” He leaned farther, looking at Josh thoughtfully. “Aren’t you Calvin Wright’s boy? The one livin’ by himself out to the old junction?”

Josh nodded, feeling easier at the mention of his father’s name.

“Well, I’ll be,” said the man, pulling at his chin with a thumb and forefinger. “You look like hell. You all right?”

Josh nodded again and said that he was thirsty. The weasel-faced man smiled and took a bottle of orange pop from the cooler at the end of the counter. With a single movement, he opened it and handed it to Josh. “On the house,” he said, and watched silently as Josh downed the pop with a long, noisy guzzle. Josh handed the empty bottle back, burped, and thanked him.

“I guess you were thirsty,” said the man, staring at the bottle. “Now, what ‘s this ’bout a charity?”

“The box to the junction. I brung a donation. Is Ned here?”

The man puckered his lips and parted them with a muted pop. “No. I’m afraid not. Ned passed away last week. Heart attack, while he was unpackin ‘ a box of pickles, an’ was dead the next day. I’m his nephew, Ernie.”

Josh’s mouth opened slowly as he realized why Ned had not been out to see him.

“An’ if you mean the old donation box to the junction,” Ernie went on, “well, that charity ain’t around no more, not since the mill closed down. Hell, that money was for laid-up workers from the mill. Ain’t no laid-up mill workers without no mill. Why don’t you just pocket that nickel.”

Josh looked dumbly at the coin, now a strange enigmatic thing without purpose, lying in his hand.

“Say, now, just hold on a second,” said Ernie, pulling hard at his chin. “Seems to me there was somethin’ here for you. Out back. A box. Just a second now.” He rushed off to a door at the end of the counter and reappeared a few seconds later carrying a large cardboard box, which he placed on the counter in front of Josh. He tore off a strip of paper that was taped to the top and read it: “Josh Wright. I believe this is for you.”

It was the same size as the boxes that Ned had brought on his visits. Josh lifted one of the flaps and saw the glossy cover of a comic book. Inside, there were four more comics, a box of book matches, a bag of flour, cornmeal–all the things that Ned used to bring for him–placed tightly, carefully, in the box.

“I was gonna drive this out to you this week,” said Ernie. “Had no chance so far, with just takin’ over the store, gettin’ settled into things. Hope you didn’t need any of that stuff too urgent.” He thought a moment, and added: “Ned an’ your daddy were pretty close friends.”

“They was,” said Josh, shifting his eyes down the counter. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at a clear plastic container with coins and a few bills in it. A small, black and white picture attached to the top showed two children who looked as though they were in pain.

“Oh, that’s a donation box for muscular dystrophy victims.”

“Donation?”

“Sure, like the one out to the junction, sort of.”

Josh looked at the coin still tucked in his left hand. He picked it up with his right hand and dropped it into the slot of the plastic box. The nickel landed with a clink and settled in its place among the other coins.

“Say, Josh,” said Ernie, “things are usually pretty slow ’round here this time of day, an’ I wouldn’t mind a break from the store. How ’bout if I drive you home. It’s a long walk to the junction an’ it looks to be another scorcher today.”

Josh accepted the offer, and Ernie, untying his smock, said: “Fine. Let’s head out there right now.” He hung the smock on a nail and took two bottles of orange pop from the cooler. “These’ll take some of the bite out of the heat on our way there. You want to grab onto your box of goodies?”

***

As they pulled away from the store in Ernie’s green van, Josh fingered the key that hung from his neck. He was grateful for the ride home as he listened to Ernie talking about the store. He wondered if Ernie played checkers. But most of all, he was glad that he would be home soon to open the weathered old box by the road and gaze into its splendid emptiness.

Finishing

Tree 2

There is nothing more orgasmic than writing a beautiful sentence…even if you’re the only one in the world who can appreciate its beauty. But then…then…there’s compiling all those beautiful sentences into a complete whole. In my case…like…Biff Does Vegas. But my kids might be reading this blog, so we’ll leave it at that.

OK…I like the trip there. I always have. I wrote something on my LinkedIn to the effect that sitting at the top of the mountain with a beautiful view is cool but, hell, the adventure’s over. So I’m not a big fan of finishing. I’m into the trip.

But then, things finish. If they don’t, the journey’s going nowhere. Such is the hell we have to live with in this universe that never seems to make sense.

Let me tell you a story.

“Please do,” said the fox.

Guess what, fox? It’s fuck off Thursday. So…please do.

I’ve written novels that took me up to three years to write. Hey, I work and do lots of other shit. My last novel, Reality Wars, took exactly three years.

But then, I’ve written short stories that took me longer. One of them, The Nickel, took ten years. And it’s like…twenty or thirty pages.

I was traveling out to Vancouver with a friend who’s car broke down on the busiest street in Winnipeg during rush hour traffic. The engine fell out. We sold what was left of the car to Trapper John’s Used Cars, Best Deal In Town, or something like that. Got $99.

Took a bus the rest of the way. Glad that happened though, because it inspired the best story I’ve ever written or ever will write. It was in Saskatchewan that the bus passed an intersection in the middle of nowhere. I mean, there was nothing but flatness for a thousand thousand miles in every direction. But there was this intersection where two roads crossed paths.

And there was a sign. It read: D NAT ONS. I mean, wtf, in the middle of nowhere? Donations for what? And there was a donation box below the sign. Did I mention wtf? That image suck to the inside of my mind like the worst booger from somebody else on the elevator that ever was that sticky.

I carried it out to Vancouver where things got so hot I had to leave and come back to New Brunswick where the woman I loved still lived. I carried it through about another day or two before I was hit by 50,000 volts of inspiration and started writing about it.

I wrote furiously…like…I burned the letters off my typewriter (remember those? those things that didn’t allow you to cut and paste, and if you burned the manuscript for a novel…without a carbon copy…well…goodbye novel). But I stopped just short of finishing. It was like the journey with no end in sight. No reason to continue. There was no ending. So, I put it away for a while. About three years. And brought it out again…and got another few pages. But no ending.

It wasn’t until several years later that I took my type-written manuscript to work with me that the juices started flowing again. And, boy, did they flow. I was a bartender in a the games room of a night club. (NOTE: want to learn about people…spend a few years working as a bartender. END OF NOTE.) It was quiet that night. Well, it was still early and the only customers I had at the bar were three members of the Princess Pats regiment. There was a military base close by.

I started to work…with pen…on the next page of the story. And the next page. I’d already passed the work up till then to the three guys at the bar and then passed each page to them as I finished it. I got three or four pages done that night…before things started to get busy and I had no time to write. Boy, were they pissed that they didn’t get to read the end of the story.

But I knew I was close to the end, close to finishing. I put the pages away and got people drunk for the rest of the night. Those pages stayed as they were for another few years, teetering on the edge of finishing. Until one day or night…I honestly don’t remember…I finished it. It was just one more page.

One more page. I waited years for that one more page. Waited that long to finish it. The story won an award in an Australian literary magazine site and was later re-published in the Projected Letters Literary Magazine (now defunct until the publishers get off their academic asses and do something useful). But the journey was over. I knew the ending. It was a beautiful view.

And this is why I drive everything I’ve written out of my mind and focus just on what I’m writing now.

The adventure.

I’ll put that story here tomorrow. It’s an adventure itself.

Tree 3

How to Write a Poem and Become a Poet

OK, so I’m not really a poet. I’m a prose writer…novels, short stories, non-fiction and blog ramblings like this one. But I’ve managed to trick more than one publisher into accepting a few poems I inadvertently wrote in moments of temporary madness. And that, of course, makes me an expert on how to write poems and be a poet, whether I know how or not. Because it’s all about tricking the publishers.

So listen up because I’m not going to repeat any of this to either of you.

“A little harsh tonight, Biff?” said the fox. “And maybe a little out of contact with reality? All they have to do is re-read it.”

“It’s always better the first time around. Don’t you have some hounds to avoid?”

Now, while the fox is looking around for hounds, I’ll tell you how to write a poem and become a poet.

First, you’ll need wine. Lots of wine. Preferably red wine. Poets always drink red wine. In my delusional college days when I thought I was a poet, I drank red wine while writing poetry and stopped only when I was too hammered to hammer out the words. Sure, this approach does put a lot emphasis on revision but isn’t that what writing is all about anyway? Poet Rule #1: A healthy liver is a sure sign of an under-achieving poet.

You need a quill pen and a bottle of ink. Sorry, but word processors don’t cut it for poetry. There’s no pain. You have to prick yourself with pen nibs, spill black ink on your best white sweater, scratch the crap out your mistakes and first thoughts so that you can barely read the manuscript the next day, when you’re sober enough to read what you wrote the night before. Think of the ink flowing onto the parchment (yes, parchment) as you…bleeding your life onto the paper. I tried this with red ink once, just once. It was almost impossible to distinguish between the red ink and the wine spills. You’re welcome.

You’ll have to sell your car and buy a horse. Poets have an image to keep up and they don’t ride anything they can’t wrap their legs around. It’s all that bumping and fresh air that stimulates the brain and the brawn and makes it possible for the poet to drink wine longer and therefore write poetry for longer periods. Which, of course, means more re-writing, but that’s what it’s all about.

If you have car keys in your pocket, you’re not a poet and therefore you cannot write poetry.

“Biff,” said the fox, “you used therefore twice in the same paragraph. Don’t you think that’s a little pretentious?”

“I think I hear horns in the distance. Can’t you hear them?”

So, if you have a car and you have one or more volumes of poetry published, then you’re much better then me at tricking publishers.”
You have to live in torment. If you’re happy, write self-help books. Poetry has no room for the un-suffering. If you’re happily married, do something to really piss off your partner. Do it every day and then wallow in self-pity when you arrive at an empty home and a note on the coffee table. Wallow with your quill. Cry and pull at your hair as you slurp wine and spill soul blood onto the parchment. If someone tells you it’s a beautiful day, doubt them. Wait for the storm. If it doesn’t come, go to the storm. There’s always a storm somewhere. Find it. Wallow in it. If there are no mud puddles, make one. Fall into in it and curse your luck for falling into the only mud puddle for miles around. Then…write. Write poetry. Fill page after page with your misery.

Find a biographer, someone who will put up with your whining and crying and think that it makes you the stuff of great literary history. Your biographer will be a constant source of ego, and you’ll need lots of ego if you’re going to be a successful poet. Poets are famous for their egos. Without the ego, people won’t read you. Don’t ever let your biographer catch you being humble. Treat your biographer with contempt or they’ll desert you and find someone with a real ego to treat them like shit.

Eat lots of cheese, the raunchiest cheese you can find. Obnoxious blue cheese is good for this. Carry some in your pocket and bring it out often when you’re in public. Chew it with your mouth open. This will attract attention and convince people that you’re a rebel, that you’re living in hell and only the strongest cheese will assuage your pain. And don’t forget to attack the cheese as though you haven’t eaten in weeks. Poets are all about the drama.

Die young. But not before your biographer. Now…you have to get this one right because you don’t get a second chance. Die tragically. Die with drama. Fall from a 300 foot cliff, be trampled by a herd of mad cows, go for long walks in thunder storms, ski in avalanche territory, be bitten by venomous snakes, catch a topical disease and drag it out for all it’s worth. Canes help in your last days, especially if it’s all that’s left behind when your body is swept out to sea in a tempest.

When you’re dead, come back and haunt the last place you lived in, preferably a hotel or bed and breakfast by a graveyard or moor. Don’t actually hurt anyone. Just give them the creeps enough so that they’ll recommend your haunting to their friends. Nobody likes a ghost who plays hardball.

Now, before the fox gives up trying to hear the horns, pick one of the pictures below and write something poetic. It doesn’t have to rhyme and it doesn’t have to make sense…it just has to show your pain. Like…stairs were my Waterloo. Grass pierced my soul. Go for it.

Stairs

Grass