Remembering Ellen Meloy

Ellen

It’s hard to believe I’m now five years older than my friend Ellen Meloy when she died, though she was ten years older than me when alive. And even harder to believe she’d be 73 now. That’s one thing about dying young: so you are forever. She was thin, and tall, and gangly, with haywire red hair and goofy front teeth which she exploited for her own humor. She was a caricature of herself, and always the butt of her own jokes–always the straight-faced wit.

Before I knew her well, I had to study her closely after she said something I found hilarious, as I, forever in awe, didn’t want to guffaw if she was serious. I usually found her staring off at clouds, eyebrows raised, innocent of any implication. After knowing her longer, I dispensed with checking, and just burst out laughing, knowing whether she showed it or not, she was too.

When she died at 58, I remember thinking it was her way of getting the last laugh; that she was out there, just ahead of us on the trail, unseen, around the next bend, just out of sight, laughing at how we hadn’t gotten the joke.

It’s our great fortune that the good folks at KUER’s RadioWest recently uncovered a collection of essays Ellen wrote and read for NPR between 1994 and 1998. They partnered with Torrey House Press to publish them; the book is called Seasons: Desert Sketches by Ellen Meloy and will be published in April 2019.  To buy it, click the Torrey House Press link above; to listen to Ellen read an essay, click here.

Here’s an article I wrote on Bluff, Utah and Ellen for the now defunct Wasatch Journal in 2009.

Copyright George H. H. Huey ~ Cloud Watcher Studio sign, Bluff, Utah

The Cosmic Nexus of Bluff, Utah

And the Woman Who Wrote It

Bluff, Utah. From a car hurling down Bluff’s main street, the two-lane SR191, a blink-of-an-eye tour reveals the San Juan River’s tamarisk-choked floodplain; Butler Wash’s wide, torrent-scoured arroyo; the pioneer-stopping Bluff Sandstone cliffs; and tumbleweed on course for Iowa. In town, dusty rutted sideroads struggle to maintain their Mormon-gird dignity while skirting mud wallows large enough to swallow a Hummer, and still provide access to an assembledge of dwellings perhaps best described as eclectic-historic chic. Bluff is funky and backwoods creative, or maybe desert-rat eccentric. In any words, Bluff is a sight to see.

Bluff is a pocket whirled into cliffs by dust devils, where unfurling winds dispense an indiscriminate accumulation. Empty wooden storefronts, the fading red of protracted sun exposure, and vintage trailer parks front the highway near a new timber-sided megahotel. Under ancient, breezy cottonwoods a beautiful, aged, handhewn-stone gas station stands abandoned and quite removed from the busiest place in town, the metalic quickmart that serves as grocery, gas station, and central communication network for Bluff and its multi-hundred square-mile, near roadless exburb.

Although Bluff is also home to a wonderful, if unconventional, restaurant or two; miscellaneous poets, sculptors, and painters; a bona fide coffee shop; some of the most beautiful sandstone-block Victorian homes in Utah, and the increasingly rare roadside stretch of junkyard sculpture, it’s the not the kind of place you’d expect to harbor a Pulitzer-prize finalist; a yearly arts festival drawing the likes of Terry Tempest Williams; or a fund encouraging desert literature, but there you have it.

About 250 people claim to live in Bluff these days. And although founded in 1880 by the Latter Day Saints’ famous Hole in the Rock Expedition (whose mission was to protect this remote quarter from invading gentiles with their cows and immoralities), it is now better known as the put-in for San Juan River trips. Latter Day Saints and river runners invaded the place in the last century—it was water that drew everyone here in the first place—making for an adventurous mix of caffeine-shunning rancher-Mormons; mocha-sipping, self-proclaimed misfits; holdover cowboys; Athabaskan-speaking Diné; missionary Episcopalians; erstwhile artistes and moon-eyed tourists all regarding each other suspiciously while doing the wash down to the Cottonwood Laundromat. Bluff’s slogan, “Whatever the Great Southwest is to you, you’ll find it ALL in BLUFF,” is alarmingly accurate. Bluff could be the accrued answers to a cosmic-scale free-association quiz.

You might be wondering why anyone would set roots here if they weren’t born to it, or for that matter, do anything but hit the accelerator on a drive-through, but, you see, that’s Bluff’s mesmeric charm. Amidst the seemingly endless miles of tawny, cliff-edged desert, Bluff serves as portal—not only to the desert’s ancient imagination, but to our own. A walk in any direction earns the San Juan River’s soothing waters, the Bluff Sandstone’s wind-carved hoodoos, and glimpses of prehistoric dwellings where rock art still radiates enigmatic messages. A daily seat under a lone pinon atop a sandstone ridge has been known to inspire more than one prize-winning book. In the world’s abundance of perfect, magazine-spread landscaping and arbitrated adventure travel, Bluff’s surrounding desert, with its unnumbered canyons, golden mesas, hidden springs, rescue-less dangers, and even its accidental distinctiveness is beginning to match roadside sculpture in rarity.

Ann Walka, a poet who splits her time between Flagstaff, Arizona and Bluff, says “There is a sense of endless space here, and the quiet spills from the canyons right into town. What people notice is so much more connected to the earth. Meeting on the road, people talk about last night’s moon or the neighbor’s hollyhocks. Bluff is a place where you have a sense of belonging and of privacy.”

Spectacular and idiosyncratic, Bluff’s sense of place is difficult to capture in words; luckily it was home to someone who wanted to spend a lifetime trying. If you want to experience Bluff’s enigmatic nature without the long drive, read Ellen Meloy. Perhaps best known as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book, The Anthropology of Turquoise; Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit, Ellen moved to Bluff with her river-ranger husband in 1995. It was Bluff’s paradoxes that drew her: access to the nearby faraway, the desert’s striped-clean calm and blistering passion, its endless adventure and small embraces, the close community of “exibitionist hermits.” And Ellen fit right in. Tall, slender, her mind-of-its-own red-blond hair awhirl on the slightest breeze, her sun-baked skin glowed the color of redrock. Following those long, brown legs up a steep canyon from the San Juan River was a trot for anyone altitudinally-challenged. But even at her strong pace Ellen noticed the faintest pink blush of Indian paintbrush in bloom; spied the perfectly cryptic, thumbnail-sized baby toad popping away from moving feet. She knew the exact shade of the sky that day, turquoise not azure; summer’s intense light burned “the color of a sparkler’s core.” Ellen’s observations were always specific—detailed, accurate vignettes of this particular desert—her books’ language matched her brain’s precision and called a distinct vision of Bluff and her home desert into being.

Ellen wrote, “The San Juan River flows by my home and is so familiar, it is more bloodstream than place. Everything about it is tangible—a slick ribbon of jade silk between sienna canyon walls hung solid against a cerulean sky, pale sandy beaches, banks thick with lacy green tamarisk fronds, in which perch tiny gold finches.”

Ellen’s precise language had the unexpected effect of sending the reader not only from armchair to a full-body river dunking, but from specific to universal. Ellen evoked a deeper understanding, an echoing memory of an unfathomable connection we share with all that is not human, the pull that calls us still to places like Bluff. It may not seem many people would be fascinated with the intricacies of this remote landscape’s esoteric workings, but Ellen’s enthrallment and love burned from the page. She was able to speak openly about her sensual intoxication with this place, and by so doing evoke in others similar reactions. In her book, Eating Stone; Imagination and Loss of the Wild, Ellen writes, “Behind a gravel bar, a dense grove of tamarisk has turned the color of ripe peaches. An ellipse of pale rose sand lines the inside of a river bend of such beauty, you could set yourself on fire with the rapture of that curve. In it lies a kind of music in stone that might cure all emptiness.”

Imagine a beauty that could cure all emptiness. An impossible vision? Many find such a place on a slow meander through this landscape’s austere profusion. Melding into Bluff’s lonely quarter on an inflatable raft’s summer-warmed pontoon, your only responsibility to watch clouds morph indigo sky. Flat water’s languid current swirls the raft in gentle arcs as you trail fingers in water the color of liquid rock. As you drift by, cliffs seem to unroll, echoing wavelet lappings and reflecting water’s glitter in shaded overhangs. Or mold your body to a slickrock curve, hide from shoulder-slumping heat in cold-rock relief, nap, sleep, and dream of the lion curled here last night. Feel his full-bellied paddings as, across the river, he watches you now.

But, remember too, Bluff and it’s encompassing landscape is not Eden; it is instead quite real. There can be hardship here. Ellen’s book, The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, details her realization that the stunning landscape of her own backyard is a deadly “geography of consequence.” Amid uranium tailings, missile ranges, and atomic test sites Ellen charts her “deep map of place,” contemplating a topography “where an act of creation can mean the complete absence of life.” This writer’s skill was complete, making us both desert esthete and activist.

Ellen’s sudden and unexpected death in 2004 caught her friends completely off guard. It was as if she slipped around some desert bend laughing, while our eyes were blinded by the sun. In the days following her death, many said, “o.k., Ellen, enough of the joke. You can come out now.” But Ellen, always a trickster coyote, didn’t respond. Ann Walka begins her lovely poem about Ellen with the line, “And for her next trick…” Somehow this death at home, centered on her personal map, suddenly and without fanfare, was very Ellen and very Bluff.

In Ellen’s remembrance and tribute to the place she and so many loved, friends and family created The Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Fund to encourage writing that combines an engaging individual voice, literary sensibility, imagination and intellectual rigor to create new perspectives and deeper meanings in desert literature. The Fund offers a yearly $2,000 award (now $5000) to an individual of similar passion and desire to go to their desert and write.

Although only in existence three years (since 2006), the Fund has provided much needed recognition for desert literacy, and sent two writers into the desert to scribe their own specifics of place. Rebecca Lawton of Sonoma County, California, the first Meloy Award winner, will continue our understanding of Utah’s many incarnations with her project Oil and Water. Lawton writes, “The Uintah Basin, home for millennia to people with wildly different views, still draws those of diverse descent and interests…Over time, everyone from ancient Puebloans to modern agriculturalists has lived on the Green River’s banks. Oil and Water will contrast attitudes toward this harsh but compelling place while bearing witness to demands each lifestyle places on the basin’s limited resources. The land will give testimony to those who inhabit it.”

The Award’s second winner hopes to capture an unwritten desert, replete with its own beauty and peril. Lily Mabura, currently of Columbia, Missouri, plans to travel to the Chalbi Desert and Lake Turkana in the North Eastern Province of Kenya, a region known locally as World’s End to write about the region’s nomadic ethnic groups and arid landscapes. Lily says, “It is difficult to travel to this region of Kenya due to extreme terrain and banditry or militia incursions from Ethiopia and Sudan. One must wait for armed convoys for escort…Like most Kenyans, I am petrified by the region, but there is the writer in me who really wants to see it and, gradually, my curiosity has eclipsed my fears, even though I suspect my real test is yet to come. I am hoping that my experience and the stories that emerge from it will enlighten others about this region, which deserves more attention in terms of humanitarian aid, education, security, environmental conservation and infrastructure.”

What these writers seek and what the Desert Writers Fund hopes to provide is what Ellen sought and found in Bluff’s abundance. Ellen wanted redrock and solitude, home and community. On her daily rounds she traversed river and canyon, garden and loving relationships, weaving everything into her own narrative of life and land, home and family. Ellen’s address and kin included slickrock and wandering bighorn, boiled lizards and the “brazen harlotry” of the desert in startling bloom. Ellen knew narrow slickrock canyons to be the halls of her own home, mule deer as neighbors, and the muddy San Juan as provider. She felt—and desperately wanted to communicate—the human use and abuse of nature was as dangerous as sawing off the limb on which we sit. If we soil the ground with atomic fallout, she said, decimate the bighorn’s last stronghold, dam the last rivers—we damn ourselves.

Perhaps Bluff’s significance, its message, is that regardless of our back-of-the-hand-on-forehead human tribulations and dreadfully significant problems, unexpected, funky, irresponsible, glorious possibility exists by the bucketload, and beauty—healing, transformative beauty—still lives in the world. Go, create some junkyard sculpture; go, lie in the desert and dream yourself awake.

In Ellen’s Words

One morning in a rough-hewn, single-room screenhouse, in a cottonwood grove but a few wingbeats beyond the San Juan River, I poured scalding water through a paper coffee filter into a mug that, unbeknownst to me, contained a lizard still dormant from the cool night. I boiled the lizard alive. As I removed the filter and leaned over the cup to take a sip, its body floated to the surface, ghostly and inflated in mahogany water, its belly the pale blue of heartbreak.

I sat on the front step of the screenhouse with sunrise burning crimson on the sandstone cliffs above the river and a boiled reptile in my cup. I knew then that matters of the mind had plunged to grave depths.

With these words Ellen began her second book, The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, a book about the “geography of consequence.” At the end of this opening prologue, Ellen describes most clearly what she was questing for in life and writing. After fishing the lizard from her coffee and unfolding a Colorado Plateau map, she carries lizard, map and notebook to a sandy bench, and writes:

Beside a thick stand of rabbitbrush I spread out the big map and anchored its corners with stones…” “First I marked my present location with a small, shapely O. Next I reduced the Colorado Plateau to a manageable two hundred square miles or so around the home O. Then I outlined this perimeter on the map with a ring of fine red sand trickled from my fingers. A circle has no corners. So, to make my Map of the Known Universe portable, I transcribed all that fell inside the circle into sections and roughed them out on pages in the notebook, like an atlas.

As the sun rose higher, the cliffs shed their crimson light and turned flat and brassy. Tenderly, blue belly down so it would not sunburn, I placed the lizard on the map. The small corpse rested on our land—literally on the very dirt where my husband and I were soon to build our house—on the O, at the center of the circle.

It was time to get to know the neighborhood.

This, without doubt, is my favorite passage from Ellen’s writing; it is unexpected, funny and at the same time poignant and a clear manifesto of Ellen’s life and purpose. Ellen wrote four books about getting to know Bluff and her Four Courners neighborhood.

While the multi-award winning Anthropology of Turquoise is a tour de force, another of my favorites, Eating Stone is, to me, the most Ellen-like. The book reminds me of sitting atop a sandstone outcropping low over the San Juan River with Ellen, hearing what she’s been up to and laughing in the sun’s warmth. About camping in the desert with friends while tracking bighorn, Ellen writes,

Sunrise in the redrock desert has the calm of water. Strange that it be thus in a parched expanse of rock and sand. Yet this is how it comes: a spill of liquid silence, sunlight the color of embers, every surface bathed in it. The heart aches to live to see the start of a day, every day, luminous in the unmoored distance.

How can there be such quiet among a most garrulous species grouped together in space and task—no voices yet? I believe that the quiet prevails because all of us are desert people. We are known gazers into the horizon at early hours. That pause between social discourse and the solitude of the senses feels acute today…Perhaps the quiet is accidental prayer, an attentive stillness that conflates perception with desire. Maybe it is sleepiness at the early hour or the fact that some among our group are quite bashful. The low sun torches the buttes and mesas around us. Each saltbush stands distinctly silver-green on the cayenne red pediment, casting its own violet shadow. The light is what we watch, what steals our voices.

 

 



End 2 End

Somewhat amazingly and out of the blue, or grey as the case may be today, I stumbled upon the blog I attempted to keep before blogging was a viable technology and while I attempted to ride a horse from one end of the island nation of England to the opposite end of Scotland. While neither worked very well I do recall that most folks complained they never got to read the blog. So, if you care to read it’s abbreviated life, you’ll find a link below.

I see that many of the posts I sent from my various outposts never made it to the blog; England in 2009/10 was still the land of paying to connect in crowded, London-only foggy-windowed literal chat rooms where one paid for a computer by the 1/2 hour, and where whenever I asked where there might be wireless hookups or cell phone connections, Brits and Scots alike stared snob-nosed at my obvious alien-ness! And this although Americans kept stopping to ask directions of this one approachable-looking, and obviously exceedingly rare, nice British lady (i.e., me)! My apologies to all those Yanks who, in my best British accent, I sent on Wild Goose Chases! 

 https://greersendtoend.blogspot.com/

Researcher Finds Way to Fight Cheatgrass, a Western Scourge

The New York Times
By Christopher Solomon
Oct. 5, 2015

Cheatgrass could vie for the title of the most successful invasive species in North America. The weed lives in every state, and is the dominant plant on more than 154,000 square miles of the West, by one estimate. When it turns green in the spring, “you can actually see it from space,” said Bethany Bradley, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who studies biogeography, the spatial distribution of species.

The sins of cheatgrass are many. Its tenacious seeds lodge in the eyes and gums of livestock (not to mention the ears of pets and the socks of hikers). Even a moderate infestation in a wheat field can reduce yields by up to half.

Its profusion is a big reason today’s Western fires burn more land, more frequently and with more ferocity than in the past, scientists say. Unlike well-spaced native bunchgrasses, cheatgrass — its scientific name is Bromus tectorum, or downy brome — crowds tightly together and then dies early each summer to form dense mats of tinder.

After fires, cheatgrass thrives even as native flora struggle to return.

After more than a half-century of largely failed efforts to thwart the Sherman’s march of cheatgrass, a researcher may have a powerful new weapon against it.

Ann Kennedy, a soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, has discovered naturally occurring soil bacteria that inhibit the growth of the weed’s deep root system, its competitive advantage, even as those bacteria leave native plants untouched.


Ann Kennedy, a soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service has discovered naturally occurring soil bacteria that are being tested as a way to kill cheatgrass while leaving native plants untouched.      Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Dr. Kennedy’s hunt for a cheatgrass killer has been nearly 30 years in the making. In 1986, she was investigating yellowed wheat in the Palouse country of eastern Washington State when she found some bacteria that appeared to inhibit the number of shoots that the wheat sent skyward, but not the wheat plant’s overall yield; the plant just made bigger kernels. Dr. Kennedy wondered if a bacterium could be used to frustrate weeds instead.

With help from undergraduates at Washington State University, where she is an adjunct professor, Dr. Kennedy tested 25,000 bacteria she took from nearby farm fields. Her goal was to find ones that satisfied a wish list of ideal attributes such as hindering cheatgrass while not affecting wheat. She likened the search to picky online dating.

The researcher finally settled on two strains of Pseudomonas fluorescens, a huge species of bacteria that is present throughout the natural world. Most of its strains perform beneficial functions in the environment.

In long-term field trials around the inland Pacific Northwest, including Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington State, Dr. Kennedy’s bacteria reduced the amount of cheatgrass in test plots by about half within three years of a single application.

“We get it down to near zero weeds within about five or six years,” Dr. Kennedy said, as other plants recover and grow more competitive. The bacteria also dispatch two other invasive plants, medusahead and jointed goatgrass. The latest findings will be published within the next year, she said.

July 15, 2015
These bacteria work differently than quick-killing herbicides, she said. Once a concentrated solution is sprayed on the land, successive generations of the organisms establish themselves in the soil, then colonize the roots of the cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass’s chief advantage is its roots: They can grow more than 30 inches deep. They grow later into the fall and earlier in the spring than those of native plants, monopolizing the soil’s water and nutrients. The bacteria produce a compound that inhibits normal root growth, however, removing this edge.

“It’s not a matter of if it works or not,” said Mike Gregg, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service who is familiar with Dr. Kennedy’s work. “The question is, can we take what she has done at a small scale and do it at 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 acres?”

The bacteria are living, and if not applied under the right conditions, they “can croak,” said Jerry Benson, the owner and manager of BFI Native Seeds in Moses Lake, Wash., a habitat restoration firm that is working on protocols for applying the bacteria.

One of Dr. Kennedy’s strains has already been approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency; a commercial product is expected to be released in the fall of 2016. Dr. Kennedy has even higher hopes for a second strain, now in the approval process.

Sept. 16, 2015
Interest is high because the need is urgent. Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell ordered a new strategy to address the wildfires — fueled by cheatgrass — that are torching huge parts of the West’s sagebrush landscapes. The resulting losses of habitat were a big reason the greater sage grouse was considered for the endangered species list. (The federal government declined to list the bird last month, citing new recovery plans by state and federal agencies.)

Dr. Kennedy acknowledges that her discovery isn’t a silver bullet. Though whipping up the bacteria “is like brewing beer,” she said, spraying 100 million acres of the West would be prohibitively expensive. What’s more, the cheatgrass could eventually return.

Instead, she and others envision tanker aircraft, like those that dump water on wildfires, treating miles of fire breaks with the bacteria, to clear them of the weed and slow the spread of fires.

Professor Bradley, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whose models show that cheatgrass could advance into northern Wyoming and eastern Montana because of climate change, said Dr. Kennedy’s bacteria also might help hold the line.

Asked if she worries that she might be replacing one problem with another by spreading these bacteria, Dr. Kennedy replied: “It’s in our soils. It’s just not in high enough numbers to do the job.” The bacteria naturally die after four years, she added.

Dr. Kennedy said that over the years she and colleagues selected for use only the strains that had entirely benign traits, screening them for their harmlessness on more than 250 grass plants in addition to insects, birds and rats.

She believes she has found solutions to other weed woes beneath our feet, too. “Really, there is a beauty to soil,” she said. “It’s just absolutely a wonder world of activity. You just have to go in search of it.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on October 5, 2015, on Page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Way to Cut a Weedy Bully Down to Size.

Ah, Noveling

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.


You may know that I [the Minneapolis writer, Kelly Barnhill] spent spring 2013 engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

  • Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that
  • Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head
  • Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do
  • Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope
  • Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler
  • Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself
  • Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I – for real – love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerous – capable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.


Kelly Barnhill won the Newbery Medal for her children’s book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and is getting much acclaim for her latest book for adults, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, a collection of dark, whimsical fantasies. Listen as she talks with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about it here.

girlKelly is an author, teacher and mom. She wrote THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, THE WITCH’S BOY, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and many, many short stories. She won the World Fantasy Award for her novella, THE UNLICENSED MAGICIAN, a Parents Choice Gold Award for IRON HEARTED VIOLET, the Charlotte Huck Honor for THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, and has been a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the Andre Norton award and the PEN/USA literary prize. She was also a McKnight Artist’s Fellowship recipient in Children’s Literature.

dreadful

Kelly lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her three brilliant children, architect husband, and emotionally unstable dog. She is a fast runner, a good hiker, and a terrible gardener. You can visit and chat at her blog: http://www.kellybarnhill.com

“Don’t Let This Be The Most Important Thing That Ever Happens to You”

I began this blog in May 2012 with the post, A Book Worth Swallowing Whole–The Joy of Cannibalism, after reading Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, by Nando Parrado and Vince Rause. I wrote in that post: if you were alive in 1972 you will remember the famous Andes crash of the plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team. Sixteen of the original 55 or so passengers and crew survived two-and-a-half months in frigid, impossible conditions by consuming those who didn’t. The story was made into a book and movie (Alive!); the rescue was a world-wide astonishment.

Nando Parrado, you might recall, was one of the two (then young) men who hiked out after surviving 72 days without, ah, shall we say, routine food or water. In doing so, they saved themselves and the other 14 from certain death.

ccf8768df8da7c3984e63dcadfa07a21--milagro-grace
Nando Parado 2009

At the time of my original post, I didn’t realize a documentary (2009) had been made about the incident, and having just watched it, I wanted to share it. You’ll need a strong stomach for only a couple scenes (it looks like chicken).

I think of Parado’s book often (it’s way better than the documentary–but the film is interesting) and wanted to share the one line that stayed with me this entire time. It’s what Nando’s father said to him when he returned (remember both his mother and one sister died in the crash along with many of his closest friends whom he had also eaten), and it is the title of this post. I think of that line whenever things float up from my past to haunt me, and I suggest you do the same when your ghosts visit you.

Here’s a link to Nando Parado’s Website

Here’s the trailer for I AM ALIVE: Surviving The Andes Plane Crash from The History Channel. You can watch the film on Amazon for $1.99.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/64179730″>I AM ALIVE Surviving The Andes Plane Crash – Trailer – parrado.com</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user17760103″>Parrado</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Deep Work

            The Thinker            (Spencer Sculpture)

I’m regularly inspired by Richard Gilbert’s Blog, and by Todd Henry, The Accidental Creative, both of which I’ve pushed on many of you, and if you haven’t visited either site yet, I’m pissed.

In my post Thinking and Feeling, Richard Gilbert’s comment about how most of us “seldom think about one thing for hours on end” made me think about Todd Henry’s podcast on Deep Work and how that ability may be the challenge of the future. I know I find it difficult, especially when I’d rather be outside.

And in my last post, Joe Fassler’s 150 Writing Mentors, there was this:

“Deep, sustained attention is a scarcer resource than it once was… bigger feats, bolder ideas unfold over the long haul—in the space where success feels uncertain, even unlikely. It’s work that will be complex and staggeringly difficult, and made up of many individually disappointing days. By focusing only on what satisfies in the moment, or by being too easily put off by drudgery and discouragement, the real work never has a chance to begin.”

Listen to Todd Henry’s podcast on Deep Work here!

 

Joe Fassler’s 150 Writing Mentors

What interviewing an author a week for several years has taught Joe Fassler about finishing his novel

By JOE FASSLER, The Atlantic, September 29, 2017

The summer of 2013, I found myself on the phone with Stephen King, listening as he described how he wrote the opening sentence of It: “That’s one that I worked over and over and over.”

Drawing on four decades of work, from Salem’s Lot to Needful Things to Doctor Sleep, the author recounted the arduous way his books usually begin—how he’ll spend weeks, months, sometimes years of nights lying in bed with a laptop, thinking, experimenting, fiddling with the words, until the language clicks. The right first paragraph, when he finally finds it, casts a kind of spell, what King called an “incantation,” that makes the finished story seem somehow inevitable.

As I listened, I thought of my novel, the one I was struggling to write. I was attempting to get beyond the first 50 pages—aiming to write 1,000 words every morning before heading off to work, and often just staring at the screen and feeling seasick instead. My cast of characters had shifted over time, and I’d tried telling the story from different points of view. But what King was saying rang incredibly true: Whenever I felt lost, my opening sentence, which I’d worked and reworked, always reminded me of what the book was meant to be.

I was talking to King because, in the fall of 2012, sensing that my post-MFA plan (finish my novel in a year, get it published, settle into the creative life) might need a little tweaking, I’d pitched a series called “By Heart” to The Atlantic. The formula was simple: Each week, I’d interview a well-known writer about a favorite passage from literature and edit their thoughts into a short essay. In part, I thought that the series would force me to publish regularly (and the extra income wouldn’t hurt). But mostly, I was looking to ask questions I wanted to answer badly for myself. What inspires you? I wanted to query my favorite writers. Where do your best ideas come from? And how do you possibly manage to turn those flashes of insight into something crystalline and whole?

Five years later, I’ve spoken with more than 150 authors for “By Heart” (and compiled Light the Dark, a collection based on the series). The conversations have frequently—by total chance, but with spooky accuracy—highlighted my own creative ups and downs. I’ve also learned that these solitary, patient creatures, whose books can take the better part of a decade to complete, tend to have something in common.

More than knockout sentences, more than their grasp of human character, more than anything that might broadly be termed “craft,” novelists are masters of one skill primarily. Their genius lies in an ability to suspend their skepticism over the long haul, to persist in the belief that—no matter how hard things get—the work is meaningful, and worthwhile, and will one day pan out.

* * *

As my interviews got underway, I discovered something surprising: The artistic process never seems to get easier, not even for the most successful, famous authors. They, too, wasted months of time chasing down material that ended up being no good. They, too, were sometimes wracked by self-doubt. They, too, also sometimes felt a sudden, sweeping urge, as bold as lust, to give the whole thing up. A few glowing reviews in the Times won’t change any of that.

“The job of writing is pretty uphill most of the time,” said Mark Haddon, whose best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time went on to become a critically acclaimed Broadway play, when we spoke:

It’s like climbing a mountain—you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough. … I wish I could enjoy the process more, but I think I’ve come to accept that for it to work, I have to be uncomfortable.

What makes the process so difficult? I think it’s the nagging feeling that the words aren’t enough, the painful recognition that your language still falls far short of the beauty and complexity you’d wanted to spill across the page.

The vast majority of writers I speak to seem to understand this: Writing usually means writing badly.

That’s true even for someone like Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, whose books have sold tens of millions of copies. For him, disappointment is baked into the experience of authorship, and even the finished product rarely measures up to the initial gleam of inspiration. “You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true,” he said:

And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.

That’s the killer: that gap between intention and output. You don’t have to be an artist to understand this. Most people wake up in the morning fully intending to be their ideal selves. To finally get themselves to the gym. To be a better student, a better parent, a better citizen, a better friend. That’s why it’s so painful to fail, as inevitably happens: It hurts to feel the distance growing between who you are and what you wish to be.

In the creative arts, there’s a name for the refusal to face that pain: writer’s block. Contrary to popular wisdom, being “blocked” is not about running out of things to say. Instead, it’s succumbing to the unrealistic expectation that your work must Be Great Now. It’s a decision to remain silent rather than speak and maybe stumble. It’s the determination to avoid failure, which is a great way to ensure that the humbling work of getting better will never begin.

But if you’re willing to lower your expectations, to temporarily mute your inner critic, then incremental progress is always possible. And that’s where novelists have struck on something. Above all else, writers are people who allow themselves the freedom to suck—unrepentantly, happily, even. They’ve learned through hard experience that out of failure comes something better. And that the only catastrophe, really, is the refusal to keep trying.

* * *

Some people pay therapists to listen to their troubles. But as I struggled with my own work, my calls with veteran authors were a constant reminder that my process isn’t crazy—it’s not even unique.

Richard Bausch described rewriting individual scenes dozens of times to get them right. John Rechy will go through so many drafts of a book he loses count. Amy Tan’s process is so painstaking that she likens it to painting a portrait a single pixel at a time, only to abandon 95 percent of all her research and draft work. “You know you’re going to write a bunch of garbage, most days,” Victor LaValle told me. “And that’s okay.” The vast majority of writers I speak to seem to understand this: Writing usually means writing badly.

Some novelists conquer their anxieties through ritual, using familiar fallbacks to comfort and distract. Andre Dubus III begins every writing session by reading poetry, listening to music, and typing out the previous day’s handwritten work. Ethan Canin works on a homemade standing desk, hooked up to an elliptical, so he can pedal while he works—the physical activity, he says, “takes the brakes off,” quieting his rational mind and allowing the subconscious to bubble up. David Mitchell sets the most boring website he can think of—the Apple homepage—to pop up on his browser, so he’s not tempted to scan the morning headlines instead of buckling down.

Literary art is produced through the dogged acceptance of short-term floundering.

However they accomplish it, the writers I talk to all find ways to block out the slow, wheedling voice of self-doubt—the shadow self that conspires against progress, for whom the work is always taking too long, is always asking too much.

Elizabeth Gilbert described her attempts to maintain a kind of “stubborn gladness,” a concept borrowed from Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense.” “You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years,” Gilbert said:

I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled. I don’t wrestle with the muse. I don’t argue. I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives. I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.

(A few years after we spoke, she tattooed the phrase on the inside of her wrist.)

eliz gilbert

Kathryn Harrison described the unorthodox method she uses to quell her inner critic, the voice that says, “Oh, those aren’t the words you want,” or “you shouldn’t be working on this part now,” or “why not use the present tense?”:

Writing a first draft, you can become paralyzed by these thoughts. So I literally tell the voices to quiet down. I praise them for their perspicacity, and I tell them how much I need them—that I will want them later. But I cannot listen to them right now, because I am confused by them. And I don’t sit there waiting for that perfect, beautiful sentence, because I know I’m going to sit there forever.

The willingness to be content with what is less than perfect: That’s the quality that appears repeatedly in my conversations, the defining trait that every writer seems to share. You might call that “stubborn gladness,” as Gilbert does. Haddon, in a beautiful, British coinage, calls it “bloody-mindedness.” You might even say it requires a “certain grain of stupidity,” as Flannery O’Connor once did. Whatever it is, literary art is produced through the dogged acceptance of short-term floundering. It’s the resolve to continue laboring in the service of a task with no clear beginning, no clear end.

* * *

For years, pundits have enjoyed proclaiming that the novel is dead, that the bell tolls for literature, even as independent bookstores hold their own in an otherwise grim retail market, and the sales of print books have started to rebound. The novel is doing just fine, thank you. What does seem to be imperiled, though, is the slower, novelistic mode of thinking, the willingness to delay gratification for a larger payout later.

Deep, sustained attention is a scarcer resource than it once was. Practitioners in every industry, but especially the arts, are expected to be canny self-promoters, hustling constantly to build their brand, even to the detriment of the actual work. There seems to be a widespread fear: Go quiet for too long, and you will be forgotten.

But for the novelist, I’ve learned, bigger feats, bolder ideas unfold over the long haul—in the space where success feels uncertain, even unlikely. It’s work that will be complex and staggeringly difficult, and made up of many individually disappointing days. By focusing only on what satisfies in the moment, or by being too easily put off by drudgery and discouragement, the real work never has a chance to begin.

I’m still working on my novel. It’s five years later. Yes, the going’s slow. And I wish I’d finished sooner. But smaller goals have kept me honest, the way the regular deadline of “By Heart” has given rhythm to my years, providing something public I can look back on and point toAnd in the meantime, I’ve built my life around the daily ritual of my morning writing. I skip parties and have blown off my friends’ events and shows. I’m haphazard at best on social media; my email goes unanswered. I’ve cut back hours at work so I can write, and so I make less money. I do everything I’m not supposed to do. And on days the writing itself seems flawed, unworthy—most days—I sometimes start to wonder if the sacrifices have been worth it.

Except. There are the mornings when I can feel something emerging, something I can’t be whole until I say. Those moments come and go, and the confusion and difficulty always return. But at least I’ve learned I’m not alone in this. That’s just how writing a novel, like any worthwhile task, is always going to feel: like a receding horizon, with brief glimpses of the shore.

I’ll keep at it stubbornly, and gladly, until the job is finished.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORlight

JOE FASSLER is the editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. He regularly interviews writers for The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” series. He also covers the politics and economics of the American food system as a senior editor for The New Food Economy.

 

For the original article, click here.

This is what it’s like to be struck by lightning

Lightening_Hero_William-LeGoulon-no-border
Hat and shirt worn by Jaime Santana and boots worn by Justin Gauger when they were struck by lightning   © William LeGoullon

If you’re hit by lightning, there’s a nine in ten chance you’ll survive. But what are the lasting effects of being exposed to hundreds of millions of volts?

Charlotte Huff investigates

Sometimes they’ll keep the clothing, the strips of shirt or trousers that weren’t cut away and discarded by the doctors and nurses. They’ll tell and retell their story at family gatherings and online, sharing pictures and news reports of survivals like their own or far bigger tragedies. The video of a tourist hit on a Brazilian beach or the Texan struck dead while out running. The 65 people killed during four stormy days in Bangladesh.

Only by piecing together the bystander reports, the singed clothing and the burnt skin can survivors start to construct their own picture of the possible trajectory of the electrical current, one that can approach 200 million volts and travel at one-third of the speed of light.

In this way, Jaime Santana’s family have stitched together some of what happened that Saturday afternoon in April 2016, through his injuries, burnt clothing and, most of all, his shredded broad-brimmed straw hat. “It looks like somebody threw a cannonball through it,” says Sydney Vail, a trauma surgeon in Phoenix, Arizona, who helped care for Jaime after he arrived by ambulance, his heart having been shocked several times along the way as paramedics struggled to stabilise its rhythm.

Jaime had been horse-riding with his brother-in-law and two others in the mountains behind his brother-in-law’s home outside Phoenix, a frequent weekend pastime. Dark clouds had formed, heading in their direction, so the group had started back.

They had nearly reached the house when it happened, says Alejandro Torres, Jaime’s brother-in-law. He paces out the area involved, the landscape dotted with small creosote bushes just behind his acre of property. In the distance, the desert mountains rise, rippled chocolate-brown peaks against the horizon.

The riders had witnessed quite a bit of lightning as they neared Alejandro’s house, enough that they had commented on the dramatic zigzags across the sky. But scarcely a drop of rain had fallen as they approached the horse corrals, just several hundred feet from the back of the property.

Alejandro doesn’t think he was knocked out for long. When he regained consciousness, he was lying face down on the ground, sore all over. His horse was gone.

The two other riders appeared shaken but unharmed. Alejandro went looking for Jaime, who he found on the other side of his fallen horse. Alejandro brushed against the horse’s legs as he walked passed. They felt hard, like metal, he says, punctuating his English with some Spanish.

He reached Jaime: “I see smoke coming up – that’s when I got scared.” Flames were coming off of Jaime’s chest. Three times Alejandro beat out the flames with his hands. Three times they reignited.

It wasn’t until later, after a neighbour had come running from a distant property to help and the paramedics had arrived, that they began to realise what had happened – Jaime had been struck by lightning.

Justin Gauger wishes his memory of when he was struck – while fishing for trout at a lake near Flagstaff, Arizona – wasn’t so vivid. If it weren’t, he wonders, perhaps the anxiety and lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder wouldn’t have trailed him for so long. Even now, some three years later, when a storm moves in, the flickering flashes of light approaching, he’s most comfortable sitting in his bathroom closet, monitoring its progress with an app on his phone.

An avid fisherman, Justin had initially been elated when the rain started that August afternoon. The storm had kicked up suddenly, as they often do during the summer monsoon season. Fish are more likely to bite when it’s raining, he told his wife, Rachel.

But as the rain picked up, becoming stronger and then turning into hail, his wife and daughter headed for the truck, followed later by his son. The pellets grew larger, approaching golf ball size, and really started to hurt as they pounded Justin’s head and body.

Giving up, he grabbed a nearby folding canvas chair – the charring on one corner is still visible today – and turned to head for the truck. Rachel was filming the storm from the front seat, planning to catch her husband streaking back as the hail intensified. She pulls up the video on her phone.

Initially all that’s visible on the screen is white, a blur of hail hitting the windshield. Then a flash flickers across the screen, the only one that Rachel saw that day, the one that she believes felled her husband.

A crashing boom. A jolting, excruciating pain. “My whole body was just stopped – I couldn’t move any more,” Justin recalls. “The pain was… I can’t explain the pain except to say if you’ve ever put your finger in a light socket as a kid, multiply that feeling by a gazillion throughout your entire body.

“And I saw a white light surrounding my body – it was like I was in a bubble. Everything was slow motion. I felt like I was in a bubble for ever.”

A couple huddling under a nearby tree ran to Justin’s assistance. They later told him that he was still clutching the chair. His body was smoking.

When Justin came to, he was looking up at people staring down, his ears ringing. Then he realised that he was paralysed from the waist down. “Once I figured out that I couldn’t move my legs, I started freaking out.”

 

Undershirt worn by Jaime Santana the day he was struck by lightning    © William LeGoullon

Describing that day, sitting on his sofa at home, Justin draws one hand across his back, tracing the path of his burns, which at one point covered roughly a third of his body. They began near his right shoulder and extended diagonally across his torso, he says, and then continued along the outside of each leg.

He leaves and returns holding his hiking boots, tipping them to show several burn marks on the interior. Those dark roundish spots line up with the singed areas on the socks he was wearing and with the coin-sized burns he had on both feet, which were deep enough that he could put the tip of his finger inside.

The singed markings also align with several needle-sized holes located just above the thick rubber soles of his size 13 boots. Justin’s best guess – based on reports from the nearby couple, along with the wound on his right shoulder – is that the lightning hit his upper body and then exited through his feet.

Although survivors frequently talk about entry and exit wounds, it’s difficult to figure out in retrospect precisely what path the lightning took, says Mary Ann Cooper, a retired Chicago emergency physician and long-time lightning researcher. The visible evidence of lightning’s wrath is more reflective, Cooper says, of the type of clothing a survivor had on, the coins they were carrying in their pockets and the jewellery they were wearing as the lightning flashed over them.

Lightning is responsible for more than 4,000 deaths worldwide annually – according to those documented in reports from 26 countries. (The true scope of lightning’s casualties in the more impoverished and lightning-prone areas of the world, such as central Africa, is still being calculated.) Cooper is one of a small global cadre of doctors, meteorologists, electrical engineers and others who are driven to better understand how lightning injures people, and ideally how to avoid it in the first place.

Of every ten people hit by lightning, nine will survive to tell the tale. But they could suffer a variety of short- and long-term effects. The list is lengthy and daunting: cardiac arrest, confusion, seizures, dizziness, muscle aches, deafness, headaches, memory deficits, distractibility, personality changes and chronic pain, among others.

Many survivors have a story that they want to share. In postings online and during annual gatherings of Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, they swap tales of their brush with nature’s brutal force. The group has convened in the mountains of the south-eastern US every spring since its first meeting was held by 13 survivors in the early 1990s. In those pre-internet days, it was far more difficult to meet other survivors coping with the headaches, memory troubles, insomnia and other effects of a lightning strike, says Steve Marshburn, the group’s founder, who has been living with symptoms since he was struck near a bank teller’s window in 1969.

For nearly 30 years, he and his wife have run the organisation – which now has nearly 2,000 members – from their North Carolina home. They nearly cancelled this year’s conference, as Marshburn, who is 72 years old, has been having some health issues. But the members wouldn’t allow it, he says, a bit proudly.

The changes in personality and mood that survivors experience, sometimes with severe bouts of depression as well, can strain families and marriages, sometimes to breaking point. Cooper likes to use the analogy that lightning rewires the brain in much the same way that an electrical shock can scramble a computer – the exterior appears unharmed, but the software within that controls its functioning is damaged.

Both Marshburn and Cooper credit the organisation’s very existence with saving lives, with it preventing at least 22 suicides according to Marshburn. It’s not unusual for him to field a call in the middle of the night and talk for hours with someone in dire straits. He is drained afterwards, unable to do much for the next few days.

Cooper, who has attended some of these gatherings, has learned to hang back as survivors and their loved ones describe their symptoms. “I still don’t understand all of them,” she says. “A lot of times I can’t understand what’s going on with these people. And I listen and I listen and I listen.”

Despite a deep vein of sympathy for survivors, some symptoms still strain Cooper’s credulity. Some people maintain that they can detect a storm brewing long before it appears on the horizon. That’s possible, Cooper says, given their heightened sensitivity to stormy signs in the wake of their trauma. She’s less open to other reports – those who say that their computer freezes when they enter a room, or that the batteries in their garage door opener or other devices drain more quickly.

Yet, even after decades of research, Cooper and other lightning experts readily admit that there are many unresolved questions, in a field where there’s little to no research funding to decipher the answers. It’s not clear, for example, why some people appear to suffer seizure-related symptoms after their lightning injury. Also, are lightning survivors more vulnerable to other health problems, such as heart conditions, later in life?

Some survivors report feeling like medical nomads, as they struggle to find a doctor with even a passing familiarity with lightning-related injuries. Justin, who could move his legs within five hours of being struck, finally sought out help and related testing last year at the Mayo Clinic for his cognitive frustrations.

Along with coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, Justin chafes at living with a brain that doesn’t function as fluidly as it once did. He doesn’t see how he could possibly return to the type of work he used to shoulder, leading a small team that presented legal cases and helped defend the county against property value disputes. Talking on the phone one day, sounding quite articulate, he tries to convey the struggles lurking just beneath. “My words in my head are jumbled. When I think about what I’m trying to say, it’s all jumbled up. So when it comes out, it may not sound all right.”

Underwear worn by Jaime Santana and socks worn by Justin Gauger when they were struck by lightning  © William LeGoullon

When someone is hit by lightning, it happens so fast that only a very tiny amount of electricity ricochets through the body. The vast majority travels around the outside in a ‘flashover’ effect, Cooper explains.

By way of comparison, coming into contact with high-voltage electricity, such as a downed wire, has the potential to cause more internal injuries, since the exposure can be more prolonged. A ‘long’ exposure might still be relatively brief ­– just a few seconds. But that’s sufficient time for the electricity to penetrate the skin’s surface, risking internal injuries, even to the point of cooking muscle and tissue to the extent that a hand or limb might need to be amputated.

So what causes external burns? Cooper explains that, as lightning flashes over the body, it might come into contact with sweat or raindrops on the skin’s surface. Liquid water increases in volume when it’s turned into steam, so even a small amount can create a ‘vapour explosion’. “It literally explodes the clothes off,” says Cooper. Sometimes the shoes too.

However, shoes are more likely to be torn or damaged on the inside, because that’s where the heat build-up and vapour explosion occurs. “That’s it,” Cooper responds when she’s told about the singed markings on Justin’s hiking boots.

As for clothing, steam will interact with it differently depending upon what it’s made of. A leather jacket can trap the steam inside, burning the survivor’s skin. Polyester can melt with just a few pieces left behind, primarily the stitching that once held together the seams of a shirt or a jacket that’s no longer there, says Cooper, who has seen a decent quantity of post-lightning relics through the years.

Along with the burn marks visible on Jaime Santana’s clothes, the cellphone he was carrying in his pocket melted, bonding to his pants. (His sister, Sara, now wishes that they had kept the phone but they tossed it, fearful that it carried some residual lightning current – a bit paranoid, she now realises.) While Jaime’s family believes that lightning shredded his hat, causing it to expand upward and outward, Cooper is more dubious when she sees a photograph. There’s no visible singeing, she notes. And the chunk of straw could have been lost during Jaime’s tumble from the horse.

Boot worn by Justin Gauger the day he was struck by lightning  © William LeGoullon

Cooper authored one of the first studies looking at lightning injuries, published nearly four decades ago, in which she reviewed 66 physician reports about seriously injured patients, including eight that she’d treated herself. Loss of consciousness was common. About one-third experienced at least some temporary paralysis in their arms or legs.

Those rates might be on the high side – Cooper points out that not all lightning patients are sufficiently injured that doctors write about their cases. But survivors do often describe temporary paralysis, like Justin suffered, or a loss of consciousness, although why it occurs is not clear.

More is understood about lightning’s ability to scramble the electrical impulses of the heart, thanks to experiments with Australian sheep. Lightning’s massive electrical current can temporarily stun the heart, says Chris Andrews, a physician and lightning researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. Thankfully, though, the heart possesses a natural pacemaker. Frequently, it can reset itself.

The problem is that lightning can also knock out the region of the brain that controls breathing. This doesn’t have a built-in reset, meaning a person’s oxygen supply can become dangerously depleted. The risk then is that the heart will succumb to a second and potentially deadly arrest, Andrews says. “If someone has lived to say, ‘Yes, I was stunned [by lightning],’ it’s probable that their respiration wasn’t completely wiped out, and re-established in time to keep the heart going.”

Andrews is well suited to conducting lightning studies, having trained both as an electrical engineer and as a physician. His research, looking at the impact of electrical current on sheep, is frequently credited with demonstrating how lightning’s flashover current can still inflict damage within the body. One reason sheep were chosen, Andrews says, is that they’re relatively close to humans in size. Another advantage is that the specific breed chosen, the barefaced Leicester, doesn’t grow much wool around its head, making it similar to a human’s.

During his studies, Andrews shocked anesthetised sheep with voltage levels roughly similar to a small lightning strike and photographed the electricity’s path. He showed that as lightning flashes over, the electrical current enters critical portals into the body: the eyes, the ears, the mouth. This helps explain why damage to the eyes and ears is frequently reported by survivors. They might develop cataracts. Or their hearing can be permanently damaged, even after the initial post-boom ringing stops.

Jeans worn by Jaime Santana the day he was struck by lightning  © William LeGoullon

Particularly worrisome is that, by penetrating the ears, lightning can rapidly reach the brain region that controls breathing, Andrews says. Upon entering the body, the electricity can hitch a ride elsewhere, through the blood or the fluid surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. Once it reaches the bloodstream, Andrews says, the passage to the heart is very quick.

In Arizona, Jaime Santana survived the immediate lightning strike. The family’s beloved horse Pelucha – from the Spanish for ‘stuffed animal’ – did not. One possibility, the trauma surgeon Sydney Vail and others speculate, is that the 1,500-pound steed absorbed a good portion of the lightning that nearly killed his 31-year-old rider.

Another reason Jaime survived is that, when he was struck, the neighbour who came running – someone who the family had never met before – immediately started CPR, and continued until the paramedics arrived. At one point, Alejandro says, one of the paramedics asked the other if they should stop, as Jaime wasn’t responding. The neighbour insisted that they continue.

That CPR occurred immediately is “the only reason he’s alive,” says Vail. The neighbour later told the family that he had performed CPR “hundreds and hundreds of times” in nearly two decades as a volunteer paramedic, says Jaime’s sister, Sara, her voice cracking as she talks. Before Jaime, no one had survived.

Lightning begins high up in the clouds, sometimes 15,000 to 25,000 feet above the earth’s surface. As it descends toward the ground, the electricity is searching, searching, searching for something to connect with. It steps, almost stair-like, in a rapid-fire series of roughly 50-metre increments. Once lightning is 50 metres or so from the ground, it searches again pendulum-style in a nearby radius for “the most convenient thing to hit the fastest,” says Ron Holle, a US meteorologist and long-time lightning researcher.

Prime candidates include isolated and pointed objects: trees, utility poles, buildings and occasionally people. The entire cloud-to-ground sequence happens blindingly fast.

The popular perception is that the chance of being struck by lightning is one in a million. There’s some truth here, based on US data, if one only looks at deaths and injuries in a single year. But Holle, who believes that statistic is misleading, set out to crunch some other numbers. If someone lives until 80, their lifetime vulnerability increases to 1 in 13,000. Then consider that every victim knows at least ten people well, such as the friends and family of Jaime and Justin. Thus, any individual’s lifetime probability of being personally affected by a lightning strike is even higher, a 1 in 1,300 chance.

Holle doesn’t even like the word ‘struck’, saying it implies that lightning strikes hit the body directly. In fact, direct strikes are surprisingly rare. Holle, Cooper and several other prominent lightning researchers recently pooled their expertise and calculated that they’re responsible for no more than 3 to 5 per cent of injuries. (Still, Vail, the trauma surgeon, surmises that Jaime was directly hit, given that he was riding in the desert with no trees or other tall objects nearby.)

Justin believes that he experienced what’s called a side flash or side splash, in which the lightning ‘splashes’ from something that has been struck – such as a tree or telephone pole – hopscotching to a nearby object or person. Considered the second most common lightning hazard, side splashes inflict 20 to 30 per cent of injuries and fatalities.

By far the most common cause of injury is ground current, in which the electricity courses along the earth’s surface, ensnaring within its circuitry a herd of cows or a group of people sleeping beneath a tent or a grass-thatched hut.

As a general rule, in high-income regions of the world men are more likely than women to be injured or killed by lightning; at least two-thirds of the time they’re the victims, and possibly higher depending upon the study. One possibility is the propensity for “men taking chances,” Holle quips, as well as work-related exposure. They are more likely to be on the younger side, in their 20s or 30s, and doing something outside, frequently on the water or nearby.

But what should you do if you find yourself stranded a long way from a building or car when a storm kicks up? Some guidance is available: avoid mountain peaks, tall trees or any body of water. Look for a ravine or a depression. Spread out your group, with at least 20 feet between each person, to reduce the risk of multiple injuries. Don’t lie down, which boosts your exposure to ground current. There’s even a recommended lightning position: crouched down, keeping the feet close together.

Still, don’t dare to ask Holle about any of these suggestions. There’s no such thing as a lightning-proof guarantee, he repeats more than once. “There are cases where every one of these [strategies] has led to death.” In his cubicle at the control centre of the US National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) in Tucson – operated by Vaisala, a Finland-based environmental observation company – Holle has accumulated stacks and stacks of folders filled with articles and other write-ups detailing a seemingly endless litany of lightning-related scenarios involving people or animals. Deaths and injuries that have occurred in tents, or during sports competitions, or to individuals huddled beneath a golf shelter or a picnic shelter or some other type of shelter.

That word whitewashes the reality, Holle says, as so-called “shelters” can become “death traps” during a lightning storm. They provide protection from getting wet – that’s it.

On a series of large screens lining two walls of a room at NLDN’s offices in Tucson, Holle can see where cloud-to-ground lightning is flashing in real time, picked up by strategically positioned sensors in the US and elsewhere. Satellite data has shown that certain regions of the world, generally those near the equator, are lightning-dense. Venezuela, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Pakistan all rank among the top ten lightning hotspots.

Initially, lightning safety campaigns promoted the 30/30 rule, which relied upon individuals counting off the seconds after lightning flashed. If thunder rumbled before they reached 30, lightning was close enough to pose a threat. But there’s been a move away from that advice for various reasons, Holle says. One is practical: it’s not always easy to figure out which rumble of thunder corresponds to which lightning flash.

Instead, for simplicity’s sake, everyone from schoolchildren to their grandparents these days is advised: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”

Better education isn’t the only reason why lightning deaths have steadily declined in the US, Australia and other high-income regions. Housing construction has improved. Jobs have moved indoors. In the US alone, annual fatalities have fallen from more than 450 in the early 1990s to fewer than 50 in recent years.

There’s always room for improvement, though. Arizona, for example, ranks high in the US when looking at lightning deaths per state population. Holle’s theory is that people stay outside longer in the desert as the rain isn’t necessarily heavy during storms. That’s why casualties can occur, even before the storm arrives, with people dallying their way to shelter while lightning stretches out in front of the dark clouds.

Still, people in high-income countries have it easy, compared to those in regions where people have no choice but to work outside in all conditions and lightning-safe buildings are scarce. In one analysis of agricultural-related lightning deaths outside of the US, Holle learned that more than half of them occurred in India, followed by Bangladesh and the Philippines. The victims were young (early 20s for the men, early 30s for the women) and were working in farms and paddy fields.

Cooper was hit full-force with the emotional impact of what lightning can do in Africa when she attended a 2011 lightning conference in Nepal. The presenters were arranged in alphabetical order by country, so Cooper, by then retired as an emergency physician but still doing lightning-related work, was sat between the presenters from Uganda and Zambia. Richard Tushemereirwe, the Ugandan representative, kept fussing with his slides while waiting to present.

“When he got up to give his presentation, he was almost in tears,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I found out from my research that we had 75 people die in Uganda during the last lightning season.’” And just that summer, he related, 18 students had died in a single lightning strike to a school in central Uganda.

In an email, Tushemereirwe described how the lightning protection that some schools do install can create a false sense of security. A rod may be installed on the roofline of one school building. But it’s not grounded. Even worse, local residents might believe that the single rod also protects nearby buildings, wrote Tushemereirwe, who serves as senior science adviser to Uganda’s president.

Nor does home provide a sanctuary when lightning laces the sky, as housing in rural regions of Africa is frequently constructed from mud and grass. Thus, the mantra ‘When thunder roars, go indoors’ is essentially useless, Cooper notes with considerable frustration. Families are at risk 24/7.

Lightning deaths go unreported or are missed entirely. It might appear, for instance, that a fire killed an entire family. But that assumption misses a key piece of the tragedy. Sometimes it’s lightning that sets the grass roof ablaze, temporarily paralysing the family members within, so they’re unable to escape the flames.

On a bus trip to a banquet after Tushemereirwe’s presentation, he and Cooper fell into talking. It was a discussion that led to a collaboration and, in 2014, the creation of a non-profit organisation now called the African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics Network, with Cooper its founding director. Zambia was the second country to join after Uganda. Leaders of several others have expressed interest, Cooper says.

The organisation is trying to develop a cellphone alert system so that fishermen and others in the Lake Victoria region can report severe weather heading their way. They are starting to educate school teachers about lightning safety and are setting up graduate study programmes.

Another priority is Ugandan schools, frequently the most substantial structures in a given community. The first lightning protection system was installed in a school in late 2016, as were two more earlier this year. Keeping the focus on protecting children, it’s been learned through other lightning safety efforts, gets adults’ attention, Cooper says. Adults the world over believe they are immune, she states flatly. “But if you tell them that their kids are going to get injured, they pay attention.”

Still, making headway has been an uphill climb, slowed by fundraising and installation logistics. Cooper sounded a bit weary and discouraged after her most recent trip to Uganda this spring. The country has thousands of vulnerable schools. She’s now searching for deeper pockets through foundation or governmental funding. “We’ve protected three of them. Oh my God, how will we ever be able to,” she says, her voice trailing off. “It’s so overwhelming, I just want to quit. I don’t see how we are ever going to be able to impact this.”

Shirt worn by Jaime Santana the day he was struck by lightning  © William LeGoullon

The rain that had threatened all afternoon didn’t start to fall until Sara and Alejandro were driving to Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix. Alejandro sat tense, holding on to his terrible knowledge. “All of this way, I was thinking, ‘He’s dead. How do I tell her?’”

When they arrived, Alejandro was stunned to learn that Jaime was in surgery. Surgery? There was still hope.

Jaime had arrived at the Phoenix trauma centre with an abnormal heart rhythm, bleeding in the brain, bruising to the lungs and damage to other organs, including his liver, according to Vail. Second- and third-degree burns covered nearly one-fifth of his body. Doctors put him into a chemically induced coma for nearly two weeks to allow his body to recover, a ventilator helping him breathe.

Jaime finally returned home after five months of treatment and rehabilitation, which is continuing. “The hardest part for me is that I can’t walk,” he says from the living room of his parents’ house. The doctors have described some of Jaime’s nerves as still “dormant”, says his sister, Sara, something that they hope time and rehabilitation will mend.

“We’re living through something that we never thought in a million years would happen,” says Lucia, Jaime’s mother, reflecting on the strike and Jaime’s miraculous survival, Sara translating. They’ve stopped asking why lightning caught him in its crosshairs that April afternoon. “We’re never going to be able to answer why,” Sara says. So now it’s time for Jaime to start thinking about “what’s next” with the new life he’s been given. The family is planning a party, with a mariachi band, to celebrate Jaime’s first year of life moving forward.

When Sara and Alejandro returned home from the hospital the day after the strike, Alejandro called to his wife from the backyard. On the railing of the round pen where they work the horses, adjacent to their corrals, a peacock was perched, his colourful feathers flowing behind.

Outside of a zoo they had never seen a peacock in Arizona before. They kept the peacock and later found it a mate. Now a family of peacocks fills one of the corral stalls. When Sara looked up what the striking bird symbolises, the answers scrolled back, catching her breath: renewal, resurrection, immortality.

This story, What its like to be struck by lightning, first appeared on Mosaic, The Science of Life, and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

 

Good Advice or A Summary of Where My Head Has Been for the Last Three Years

So you want to be a writer? Essential tips   for aspiring novelists

How to write a killer opening line. Why Google is not research. When to rip it up and start again. Whatever you do, just write!

Lessons from acclaimed novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann

find the original article in The Guardian

Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody, said Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet more than a century ago. There is only one way. Go into yourself.

Rilke, of course, was right – nobody but yourself can help. In the end it all comes down to the strike of the word on the page, not to mention the strike thereafter, and the strike after that. But Rilke was taken by the request from a young writer, and he corresponded with Franz Xaver Kappus in ten letters over the course of six years. Rilke’s was advice on matters of religion, love, feminism, sex, art, solitude and patience, but it was also keyed into the life of the poet and how these things might shape the words upon the page.

This most of all, he says. Ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?

Everybody who has ever felt the need to write knows the silent hour. I have come across many such people – and indeed many such hours – during my writing and teaching life. I’ve been teaching now for the best part of 20 years. That’s a lot of chalk and a lot of red pencil. I haven’t loved every minute of it, but I’ve loved most. There’s been a National Book award for one student. A Booker prize for another. Guggenheims. Pushcarts. Mentorships. Friendships. But let’s be honest, there has been burnout too. There’s been weeping and gnashing of teeth. There have been walkouts. Collapses. Regret.

All of these students, bar none, are looking, in Rilke’s words, “to say ecstasies that are unsayable.” The unsayable indeed. The job is theirs. The ability to trust in the difficult. The tenacity to understand that it takes time and patience to succeed.

There are no rules

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.                                                                                                         W Somerset Maugham

[The above, inserts the Blog Author, is my favorite quote of all time]. There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the same time. To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.

The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before. And then they unsay it, and they keep unsaying it, breaking their own rules over and over again. So be adventurous in breaking – or maybe even making – the rules.

Your first line

The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’                              Michael Ondaatje

A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again. The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.

But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realise, Ah, that’s where I should have begun.

So you go back and begin again.

Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake. This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky.

Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying.

At least not yet.

Don’t write what you know

The inexecutable is all I’m interested in.                                                   Nathan Englander

Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.
A writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created. Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer.

The only true way to expand your world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed. Get ready: they will label you sentimental. But the truth is that the cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their own limited nostalgia. They have no muscularity at all. Remember, the world is so much more than one story. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves.

In the end your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write towards what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of. We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me.

As Vonnegut says, we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

The terror of the white page

The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.                                                                                         Maggie Nelson

Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. The excuse that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to show up for work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t distract yourself in any way until you feel you have fought and tried. You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.

A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.

Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Increasing the font size. Shifting it around again and again. Sounding it out. Figuring the best way to leave it alone. Hanging in there as the clock ticks on. Not conceding victory to the negative. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth guard. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work.

Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words fewer than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.

Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.

Stare the blank page down.

Creating characters

Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.                             Gabriel García Márquez

Writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with. You don’t care (yet) about the facts of his/her life. Don’t overload us with too much information. Allow that to seep out later. We are attracted by a moment in time – a singular moment of flux or change or collapse – not by grand curricula vitae. So don’t generalise. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly).

We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our tired hearts awake. Make it traumatic, make it mournful, make it jubilant, it doesn’t matter – just allow your reader to care for the physical body that your words evoke, the person behind the language. Later on in the story we can settle down with them and get to know them in a wider sense.

Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with her for a while. Let her dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what she is, where she comes from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyse us.

Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.

Writing dialogue

The declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.                         Peter Carey

There are so many rules, or suggestions, when it comes to dialogue. Forget the ummm and forget the errrs: they don’t translate on the page. Try not to use dialogue to convey information, or at least a slab of obvious information. Interruptions are great. Try writing a conversation between three, four, five people. Let the dialogue work for itself. Use he said and she said, but avoid clumsy descriptions. Forget about the overblown gasping, exclaiming, insisting, bellowing.

Make your dialogue distinct from the surrounding description, not just in rhythm but in length too. It will break up the prose. Have it be a respite on the page, or have it tee up the words that are about to come. Make each character distinct. Give them verbal tics. And never forget that people talk away from what they really mean. Lies are very interesting when they emerge in speech. Make action occur within the conversation. Seldom begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through. No need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes.

Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realise that there is a reader at the end of the sentence. Don’t confuse them. Don’t knock them out of the story. A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. Don’t go Oirish on yourself. Don’t fall into stereotype. No arragh bejaysus and begob. No overdone southern twang. It’ll make y’all wanna holler. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Bhrrooklyn nasal noise.

Study the masters. Roddy Doyle. Louise Erdrich. Elmore Leonard. Marlon James. And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is.

Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.

Seeking structure

A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.                                                                               Jorge Luis Borges

Every work of fiction is organised somehow – and the best of them are more profoundly organised than they ever let on. Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture. Structure is, essentially, a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Or maybe it’s a tunnel, or a skyscraper, or a palace, or even a moving caravan, driven forward by your characters. In fact, structure can be any number of things: you just have to make sure that it doesn’t become an elaborate hole in the ground into which we bury ourselves, unable to claw out.

Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure. A proper structure mirrors the content of the story it wants to tell. It will contain its characters and propel them forward at the same time. And it will generally achieve this most fully when it does not draw too much attention to itself. Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time. Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.

Language and plot

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.                                                                                                          Stephen King

We teachers, we editors, we agents, we readers, often make a mistake by concentrating too much on plot: it is not the be-all and end-all in a piece of literature. Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.

So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen. Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear. In the world of film we need motivation leading to action, but in literature we need contradiction leading to action, yes, but also leading to inaction. Nothing better than a spectacular piece of inaction. Nothing more effective than your character momentarily paralysed by life.

The greatest novel ever written has very little apparent plot. A cuckold walks around Dublin for 24 hours. No shootouts, no cheap shots, no car crashes (though there is a biscuit tin launched through the air). Instead it is a vast compendium of human experience. Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that every story ever told has some sort of plot (especially Ulysses, which perhaps has more plot than any).

Punctuation

It’s not just a throwaway thing (Comma) When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.                                                          Raymond Chandler (in a letter to his editor)

It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.

Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)

Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.

But then again, a sentence can be over-examined. Good grammar can slow a sentence – or indeed a wheelbarrow – down. The perfect run-along of words can sound so stiff. Every now and then we have to disregard the serial comma, or leave our participles dangling, even in the rudest way.

Sometimes we make a mistake on purpose. Perhaps knowing the difference between a main clause and a dependent clause doesn’t matter so much so long as you can intuit the difference. On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings. And the question is: would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?

Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come. Word.

Research

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.                                                     Aldous Huxley

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.

Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass – the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen – once suggested, while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world.

Please remember that mishandling your research is also your potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much of the obvious. It is often a good thing to have space instead so that we can fill it out with imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself: how much research is enough? Don’t corrupt your texts with facts facts facts. Texture is much more important than fact.

Fail, Fail, Fail

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.                                                    Samuel Beckett

Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. It requires courage to fail and even more courage to know that you’re going to fail. Reach beyond yourself. The true daring is the ability to go to the postbox knowing that it will contain yet another rejection letter. Don’t rip it up. Don’t burn it. Use it as wallpaper instead. Preserve it and reread it every now and then. Know that in the years to come this rejection letter will be a piece of nostalgia. It will yellow and curl and you will remember what it once felt like to throw your words against what everyone presumed would be your silence. Failure is vivifying. You know you’re better than it. Failure gets you up in the morning. Failure gets your blood circling. Failure dilates your nostrils. Failure tells you to write a bigger story and a better one.

And in the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.

Throw it all away

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.                                                                  André Gide

Sometimes, young writer, you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.

Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. (One of the most liberating days of my writing life was when I threw 18 months of work away.) But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.

So you have to throw it away. (OK, let’s be honest here: you don’t actually throw the pages away. Box them up or back them up, just in case you might be making a mistake.)

It is terrifying of course. You close the file, you bury the pages. Now you’re pageless and your back is truly up against the wall. So you open up another file, sharpen the pencil, and settle down once again.

Your last line

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.                                                                        Ben Marcus

Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.

You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.

Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours any more. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.

 

Colum McCann is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he has been the recipient of many international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He is the co-founder of the non-profit global story exchange organisation, Narrative 4, and he teaches at the MFA program in Hunter College. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children.

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann is published by Random House. Order it from your favorite independent bookshop.