Sometimes I feel I’m writing across a desert – that vast stretch between the beginning and ending of a novel. The only way through is to take it one step at a time.
My Great-Grandmother had to do it literally. Immigrants on the California Trail would make one last water stop in their covered wagons before leaving the Humboldt Sink where the river fanned out and disappeared into the Nevada desert. Forty miles and several days of waterless, hot parched desert lay ahead and there was no choice but to roll through. Along the way animals died, prized possessions were jettisoned, despair set in. Rather like writing through the middle of a story, I’m finding.
It’s humbling to learn that a great story takes more than a great idea. Writers have to craft this passage well so the reader wants to stay with the story. But it’s also where authors can get stuck in boggy, soggy ground. Between the beginning and end, there are elements of plot and character development, back stories, turning points, cliff hangers, triumphs, setbacks, reversals, and ever-present conflict and tension. Add to this, layers of character arc, motivations, subplots, story theme, and . . . Whew! It’s why I immerse myself in writing classes, conferences, critique groups, and reading, reading, reading.
When will The Desk be finished? Well, I’d say I’m about two-thirds across the desert. Like Beulah the Ox who detected the faintest whiff of water and quickened her pace, I can feel the pieces coming together, but I’ve still many miles to go. And when I do finally tie it all together, I’ll still have a steep granite mountain range to traverse, called Revisions.
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)
I think some beginnings are only recognized in retrospect. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll be doing, the voice in my head told me. It’s not even on your radar. I’d been pondering my up-coming retirement and heard this not once, but many times – usually when meditation had cleared my mind of clutter.
When my sisters visited me in 2008, I read them a short fictional piece I’d written about inheriting the family desk. That was it – one page. I made a few revisions and put it away. Later I wrote another short story of an ancient woman obsessed with horrific visions of the future who died holding an acorn to her breast. In one of those “ah-hah!” leaps, I knew this would be the acorn/oak tree from which the desk would be made.
Family women who wrote on the desk started lining up, starting with my activist Great Grandmother who farmed California’s north central valley after the 1849 Gold Rush, and ending with a present time woman struggling with how to live on a degraded earth. I thought that was it until the “visitation” one night from the future – Amisha, my great-granddaughter.
The mystery held within the family desk currently encompasses three women and the future. I hope that’s it! With my ending already in place (see my December 7 post), I have only to cross the desert to bridge the beginning with the ending (my next post). As I look back, the beginning of “The Desk” did sneak in under my radar, but now it’s an integral part of my life. And yes, I am amazed!
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)
I’m often asked when my book will be finished – the novel I’ve been working on for four or five years now. “Who knows?” I shrug and sigh. It’s become a journey unto itself.
It’s not that I don’t want it to end, for I know the last scene. My friend Roger Rapp laid it out for me during a dinner conversation a few years ago. He said John Irving always writes the last paragraph first, then writes toward it as if it were a piece of music he could hear.
Roger, who understood the underlying theme of my story, looked me in the eye and told me what the last paragraph of “The Desk” would be. I remember the goose bumps. He was absolutely right on. Roger died suddenly the next month, but his gift of the ending will endure.
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)
Oh, how did I sleep in ’til 8:00 am, when mornings are my best time to write? I’m into my new retreat rhythm of coffee, breakfast (eggs from my chickens), meditation then writing. The autumn foliage scintillates in the breeze outside, making me wish I’d brought my watercolors!
I’m on a roll now. Present-day Christie’s chapters are fleshing out, fueled by my conversation with Diane about seeing her through the lens of The Enneagram. I’m already familiar with this ancient way of understanding human motivation and behavior, based on nine different personality patterns. In fact, after living with my main characters for awhile, I’ve figured out what personality type they most likely are. It’s become easier to write how each might express anger, stress, vulnerability, strength, and joy.
For example: Christie is a “9” – the Mediator. She wants her world to be peaceful and serene and not be bothered by the competing demands of the world’s problems on her attention and energy. She sees all viewpoints and can’t decide, so she goes numb. Inspired by Diane’s comments, Christie will now have a few more glasses of wine and declare she’ll deal with the world’s issues tomorrow. (Yes, Scarlet).
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020. “Christie” became the character “Harmony.”)
Oops. . . A text message beeps from my iphone. It’s my brother in law RV-ing out in the Nevada desert. They’re in Ely asking where the Immigrant Trail museum is I said they shouldn’t miss. I text back that it’s Elko, not Ely, and it’s the California Trail Interpretive Center. Good luck I think, as I sit back and mull over what just transpired – he in Nevada, me in Northern California. Being instantly accessible through technology definitely has its pluses. If my children were still teens, I’d really appreciate it. But I sense we’re slowly raising the bar of our expectations about immediate access to information and each other. Hey, after all, I’m on a retreat! (Guess I could have turned the dang thing off).
3pm. I continue writing until it’s time to pack up. I’ve got to make it to town for my cello lesson. When I close up Scrivener, I see my grand total for the two days is 3,273 words. Not quite half. I guess I’d expected that if I had unlimited time to myself with no interruptions, I could write to the sky. But there’s still interruptions even on a retreat. The difference is that here, I always went right back to writing. At home, I would have drifted off, distracted.
I’m most thankful for this time to move within my own rhythms. I also know I’ma lot further along in understanding some of the deeper currents in my story: How three family women, each living centuries apart, are bound together by an ancient woman’s wisdom for the earth’s future – a message held deep within the heartwood of The Desk.
It’s really easy to arrange your own personal – or couples – or group retreat. Diane and Teresa are warm and hospitable while honoring guest’s need for privacy and quiet. Scott and Mike are around to help if needed. Everyone’s a short walk away through the woods . Skyline’s 45 minutes from Nevada City/Grass Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California, and a 2 hour drive from the Sacramento airport. Call Diane at 530-288-0308 or email: email@example.com (www.ecocontemplative.org)
I reluctantly leave my cozy down comforter, knowing I have miles of words to write today. After yesterday’s drizzle, the sun is invigorating. First, a tall mug of black coffee and a bowl of hot oatmeal, then I open my laptop to where I left off in the Scrivener program.
Hummer and Rupalini pop up on the screen to greet me. They’re the old couple who escaped the growing dystopic world of the mid-2000’s and settled in the hills. He’s saving his last 2 bullets from his now empty stockpile; her mind long gone, she’s obsessed with finding out when the world turned.
After that chapter, I return to the present day narrator, wondering what will move her from feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about the state of the world and get her motivated into action.
Scott knocks at my door with a refilled jar of brown sugar and the most recent copy of Yes! Magazine from Diane. I’m drawn into conversation with him, and write down his blog, The Rambling Taoist. He came to Skyline Harvest for a short visit and stayed. Skyline attracts such interesting people!
I write all morning, take a break for lunch and a short nap, then continue into the afternoon. My word count is mounting, but not fast enough. I console myself that the time I spend thinking through larger aspects of this project doesn’t show up as word counts.
There’s a lot of good stuff in Yes! Magazine’s Summer 2013 issue. Here’s a few notes I took:
Will we turn against one another in a struggle for the last resources, or turn to one another in cooperation and community? (Sarah van Gelder)
How to create new cultural stories and what we consider sources of true happiness? (van Gelder)
Definition of Revelation (Latin) and Apocalypse (Greek) is “A lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden; coming to clarity.” (Robert Jensen)
It’s an illusion we can maintain an extractive economy indefinitely. Our planet is not just a mine and a landfill. For some, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning! (Jensen)
“Prefigurative Interventions” – Playful Protests, Pranks & Serious Works of Imagination.” Look it up! Beautiful Trouble, a Toolbox for Revolution at http://www.beautifultrouble.org
The afternoon sun beckons me out to pick some figs from the huge tree next to the Ranch House. I also explore the other buildings for future stays. Each one is cozy in a grandmotherly kind of way.
Next time I come to Skyline Harvest, I might stay at the Cabin with its multi-level outside deck. Or if I had a group, we’d take over The Ranch House. I probably won’t have time to spend writing in the screened Gazebo, but maybe next visit.
After dinner and another session with Diane, then an hour of cello practice, I’m revitalized to write again. The moths check in on me against the lighted window, wondering how I’m doing.
When I close the laptop at 11:30 pm, I’m at 2,159 words for the day, for a grand total of 2,525. Not as many as I’d hoped.
As I turned off Highway 49 onto Pendola Road, traveling to the Skyline Harvest Retreat Center, it was like traveling through time. I followed what was once a narrow dirt road that early Gold Rush settlers had carved from the hills, scanning the downslope for vestiges of old mines and water ditches while staying alert for on-coming cars around the many blind curves. Further along, the woods opened up into the pastoral Pendola Ranch – where hillsides were once covered with vineyards until Prohibition stepped in and hacked the copper stills to pieces.
Passing through the gate to Skyline Harvest
Bullards Bar Reservoir is to my left.
I settle into The Hermitage. It’s too perfect!
A corner table for eating and writing, a futon couch, meditation chair and kitchen fill up the main room. The single bed is in an alcove tucked behind a folding wooden screen, and a modern bathroom with shower is in a separate room. Two chairs wait on the deck for watching wildlife in the small clearing outside.
11 AM. Food, books, laptop, clothes all in place, I fix a bowl of soup and watch the rain drizzle outside. After a short nap and cup of coffee, it’s time to write. I’ve decided arbitrarily to set a goal of 7,500 words for these 48 hours. Let’s see – that comes to 156 words an hour. Can I write in my sleep?
I plunge ahead, not knowing where my story is going next. Though I know the general arc of my novel, The Desk, (Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020), I’ve learned to quiet my mind with meditation before starting, then have faith that the characters will surprise me. And they do. Like today, Hummer appeared. I’m mid-way through the future section – Year 2088 – my prospective great-granddaughter Amisha’s story of struggling to survive on a planet irreparably damaged by man’s impact. Hummer and his woman, Rapalini are one of the old folks who fled to the hills early on. What do they know?
3:30 PM. I’m startled by a knock on the door. It’s Diane Pendola who (along with Teresa Hahn) founded and is Director of Skyline Harvest. I’ve asked for some of her time to help me think things through – drawing on her experience with indigenous wisdom, Gestalt Therapy, theology, The Enneagram and her mentors, Ramon Panikar, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, to name a few.
I’m interested in the questions raised in my story – not so much the answers. Diane asks if mankind can move from an era that’s been shaped by man’s ability to circumvent the natural checks and balances of nature, into one that recognizes that we are part of a universal consciousness? If not, what kind of world will Amisha live in? That’s where my story goes.
We jump up two hours later – time has flown into the dinner hour. Diane departs, and I take a cool walk along the firebreak road to watch the golden sun set into the departing clouds.
A fox scurries past as I return to The Hermitage and prepare my dinner, heating with the wood stove instead of the gas range. My gourmet husband has sent me here with a chicken cacciatora, a beef stew, garden salad, and a bottle of red wine. He’s amazing and I’m so lucky!
After dinner, I check my word count. Yikes, only 366 words!! This is going to be a long evening! But then, that’s what I’m here for.
But my cello also calls me. I unzip its case intending to practice a few scales, but instead, I play for an hour – improvising in C minor harmonic – a moody, searching key. Crickets add a chirping accompaniment, though I’m too tired to see if there’s any correlation with my playing.
10 PM. Off to bed. Got lots of words to write tomorrow!
Walking alone in the woods, I’m hardly aware of the cacophony of chatter in my mind . . . Ah, a new wildflower . . . deer tracks . . . clouds building to the east. I’m also processing the day before, or day ahead, or re-visiting past emotions that disturbed or delighted me. I’m a bubble floating within myself, while all around me, the world swirls with its own awareness and stories.
I’ve been reading Becoming Animal by David Abram. He links the interior chatter of verbal thought with the advent of silent reading – a fairly recent acquisition in man’s development. A tight neurological coupling arose in the brain between the visual focus and inner speech, he posits.
Frankly, I’ve never thought about the ability to hear the words in my head as I read them on the page. It’s only natural, right? Yet Abram relates that before the twelfth century in Europe, the written word had to be spoken out loud to make sense of it. Greek and Latin writing had no spaces between words and little guiding punctuation. Semitic writing had no vowels and had to be sounded out loud to hear the meaning. Starting in the seventh century, monks put spaces between each word as they copied texts, making it easier to read the words without having to sound them out.
I’ve thought about this in the novel I’m working on, “The Desk.” Amisha has fled San Francisco in 2088 to find the family homestead and the desk that’s haunted generations of family women. She has gouged out the chip implanted at birth in her neck – the only communication device humans should have or need. Her mind no longer filled with HumanaCorp’s constant messaging, she wanders in silence. Without a cloud of inner dialogue obscuring her awareness, she is drawn into the animate and inanimate world surrounding her. She becomes a listener.
“Our intelligence struggles to think its way out of the mirrored labyrinth, but the actual exit is to be found only by turning aside now and then, from the churning of thought, dropping beneath the spell of inner speech to listen into the wordless silence.” (David Abram, Becoming Animal).
It wasn’t easy. I had to materialize at my Great-Grandmother Shirley’s bedside one night to convince her to extend her novel into the future. The Desk should be more than a family history, I told her. It’s a story of women’s power to work within the larger arc of past, present and future as advocates for the earth.
I’ve been feeding her bits and pieces of my world as she writes. Since she’s going to be introducing me at the Women’s Writing Salon April 27th, I thought I’d use her blog to tell you more about my world – some familiar, some the unchecked progress of bad ideas.
I enter the story as Dr. Amisha Hoplin, a 50 years old Pediatrician working at the University Medical Center in San Francisco. In poor health myself, I’ve just received devastating news for my patients. I’ve also been haunted by memories of the old family homestead and whispers of an old desk . . . .
By 2088, Corporations have become a third branch of the Federal Legislature with the same vote as the Senate and House. Nothing gets through the impenetrable Corporate Coalition. Water, power, food, are controlled by HumanaCorps, and now everything’s falling apart. Medical research has stopped altogether. Forget finding cures–just find something to market that patients will need. Like PharmFood, designed for the rampant increase of food intolerances brought on by genetic-tinkering.
No more electronic devices. Pebble-sized gel Chips, inserted behind the ear of every baby replace computers, i-phones, touch pads, GPS, televisions, etc. Their fine micro-rootlets form neural attachments with the brain. So much easier than carting around personal devises. HumanaCorps monitors your interests and whereabouts to instantly inform you of consumables you should want. In a nearly paperless world, search requests are fed to you through Insta.Info, while transmissions of personal creativity are discouraged.
San Francisco has been re-arranged as people frantically respond to the rising sea and changing weather. Here’s a excerpt from the novel.
As the Pedi-Cab entered Golden Gate Park at 19th Avenue though a thin perimeter of trees, a subdued silence and oily saltiness permeated the air. Submerged structures at the end of the avenues made it hazardous to sail or row close to the shoreline, so the city had cut down a swath of trees through the park so boats could access the new city center. The Golden Gate Channel. Hah! Two solar buoys marked the entrance. Amisha closed her eyes to avoid seeing the fallen trees, and drifted into a light sleep. When the pedi-cab cyclist pulled up to her faded pink stucco house on 25th Avenue, he paused for a trembler, then nudged her shoulder and helped her up the front steps.
If you’re around on Saturday, April 27th at 4 pm, come by Tome’s Bookstore in Grass Valley for the Women’s Writing Salon. Shirley will be reading along with Pat Miller, Sands Hall, Jan Fischler, Eleanor MacDonald and Jean Varda.
I was awestruck when I read this 1915 article about my Great Grandmother Emily Hoppin (the inspiration for Eliza in “The Desk”) after she was elected President of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs.
“Mrs. Hoppin is an optimist . . . even in the face of the greatest war of all ages (WWI), she still hopes that work for peace, which she feels must be largely woman’s work, will not – cannot – be in vain. She anticipates that the condition we pray for, the prevalence of an effective sentiment for universal peace, may come about suddenly and unexpectedly, likening it to the movement for the abolition of slavery, which seemed a far, Eutopian vision in the minds of its supporters. Practically all they dared hope for was the restriction and limiting of the traffic – and then, of a sudden, Emancipation! – more glorious than their fondest dreams! And so she prays it may be with the peace sentiment.” (The Overland Monthly, 1915 – “The New Executive in Feminine Clubdom”)
Though I also consider myself an optimist, I get easily discouraged by what feels like a tsunami of greed and self-interest. I lose hope. Think of today’s big issues: gun control, the Afghanistan war, reproductive choices, the right to marry, genetically-modified foods, etc. (obviously reflects my liberal perspective). Sure, I sign internet petitions, donate to causes, make an occasional call to elected representatives, but I recognize a little voice that says, “I’ll do what I can, but it’s probably hopeless – too much money and corporate interest backing it.”
And then I read my Great-Grandmother’s words and come face to face with the paucity of my vision. Remember Ken Keyes’ book, The Hundredth Monkey? He wrote: “When only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people. But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes-in to a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness reaches almost everyone!”
I return to Great Grandma’s vision that “universal peace may come about suddenly and unexpectedly, likening it to the movement for the abolition of slavery, which seemed a far, Eutopian vision in the minds of its supporters. . . then, of a sudden, Emancipation! – more glorious than their fondest dreams!”
I realize now my work is to join with others to hold a strong, clear image of the world I want. A world where guns are registered like cars, and users are tested for skills and safety. Where any committed couple can marry. Where the earth has a sustainable population because women can control conception. Where we learn to live with less energy … and so on. I encourage you to think about the images you hold – and how they can add to the tipping point.
There’s been a seismic shift in access to information since I first did serious research on my Great Grandmother, Emily Hoppin, almost 25 years ago. Back then (before Internet, mind you) I had to travel to Woodland to do on-site research in the Yolo County Archives – a small building in an industrial section of town. When I found a newspaper article I wanted to copy of my gold-rush era ancestor, the kindly woman held a column-wide copier over the paper, and reproduced the article in that filmy fax-type paper (print is faded and useless today)
I’ve also relied on my Great-Grandmother’s scrapbook (patented in 1873 by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain) that contains her pasted newspaper clippings of family deaths, her speeches, and the hot political contest for President of Federation of Women’s Clubs of California (which she won -1915). Someday, I’ll make it part of Woodland’s historical archives.
I’ve found Ancestry.com helpful for locating records of births, deaths and census reports. Interesting to see who else was living on the farm.
But recently Stephanie Korney, a friend and a founder of the Camptonville Historical Society, emailed me an article about my Great Grandmother from the 1915 Overland Journal. (Stephanie said after seeing my blog, she just couldn’t help digging around herself!) I thought I’d seen most things printed on my ancestors, but here was an article filled with delicious details about this woman. Wow! Made Facebook look pale!
In the last 25 years, the Internet has democratized access to information. Google Books, a service from Google Inc. scans the full text of books and old magazines, converts text using optical character recognition, and stores it in its digital database. There’s been a lot of controversy over copyright issues and fair use. That aside, I’m delighted to be able to search for Emily Hoppin, Yolo, California and find 30 sources of information on her. I’ll put some on my website, and some of it will be incorporated into The Desk as a backdrop for Eliza, the fictionalized woman inspired by my Great-Grandmother’s life work for California, Women’s Suffrage, Temperance, Water, Farming and hopes for Universal Peace.