I’m trying to write, but birds are squawking outside the window. Not just a few chirps. These guys are upset. OK. I press “save” on my computer and head outside to find six Steller’s Jays flapping about in a heated conversation. On the lawn is Obi, my sweet old Animal Save dog, his mouth slightly open with that evasive “I’m not going to show you” look.
Ignoring my demands to “drop it,” he heads downhill accompanied by an aerial Greek Chorus. He has his prize and isn’t going to relinquish it to me or the worrisome birds swooping overhead. I follow and corner him by his invisible fence, pry open his mouth and extract a bedraggled fledgling. Yes, it’s still alive.
Now the jays turn on me. Like the procession in Peter and the Wolf, I hold the bird high and head for home – dog leaping at my heels, ten birds now circling overhead.
With Obi locked in his dog yard, I set the soggy fledgling on the grass and watch from inside the house. I count twelve jays now. One lands next to little bird and gives him a poke, causing him to topple over, feet upright in the air. Another joins the poking. Parents, probably. I set the fledgling in a safer place and return to my computer.
After two hours of non-stop squawking, I realize the birds are now obsessed with my caged dog who is huddled tightly in a corner. They vent and dive. Obi’s eyes plead. I suggest he apologizes.
The Steller’s Jays continue their diatribe for four hours solid. They seem to have no scruples about raiding other bird’s nests and eating their eggs, but they watch each other’s back more than any bird I’ve seen.
What’s your style? It’s a hot day and you know the river is still winter cold. Do you dive in head first, or wade out slowly, letting your body accommodate to the creeping cold until it feels OK? I’m decidedly the last. Cautious, I guess. Let others test the waters. I’ll follow soon.
I’m now seven days into the free trial of Scrivener, the novel writing program I mentioned last post. Twenty-one more days to decide. I could have plunked down my money, bought it out right, but that’s not my style. I was afraid I’d feel overwhelmed learning a new program, so it seemed sensible to test it out first. But as I inch deeper into the program and learn a bit more each day, I find the water’s just fine! In fact, in one week I’ve organized my outline to the end of the book.
Sometimes I do jump. I admit I’d wanted to play the cello for twenty years, but it took me only one week after playing with a friend’s cello, to rent a cello and start my first lesson. The cold water was exhilarating! Sadly, after inspiring me for two and a half years, my teacher, David Eby, is moving to Portland. (Seems everyone’s moving there. Before that it was Seattle; before that San Francisco). I’m waiting to see where I go with my cello playing and whether I’ll dip or dive. ( I’m ready to dive!)
The truth I’m learning is that being cautious can be a waste of time. The longer you live, the less time you have to do it all. So I’ll stop writing here, purchase my Scrivener, and go full steam ahead into “The Desk!”
That is the question. A writing friend recently introduced me to Scrivener, a writing management tool that authors use to compose and manage their novel or large projects.
Writing a novel is more complex and messy than I’d imagined. My desk and computer files are bulging with historical research, character sketches, plot outlines, articles documenting today’s environmental red flags and projected dystopic scenarios (I love people who forward these to me!), photographs and art, downloads, inspirations, old and current drafts . . . you get the picture.
The thought of learning a new computer program, however, starts my chest tightening and forehead throbbing, until that familiar dread of it’s way too complicated for me takes over. Just ask my husband and son-in-law! They’ve helped me over the threshold into new electronic territories. I now even have a smart phone now and love it!
Am I ready to spend my days on another electronic learning curve? I’m undecided. Scrivener Tutorials promise amazing tools to navigate and integrate all the processes of writing. I’ll have everything under one roof, all my stuff at my fingertips. Quick, efficient. Will this help me move my novel faster to completion? I’m really ready. On the other hand, what I’m doing works well enough. Will I just be adding new levels of frustration to my writing?
Let me know if you have pros and cons to add. In the meantime, think I’ll just jump in and try their free 30-day trial. Stay tuned.
“In used book stores it truly is Ask and you shall receive. Even if you don’t ask, the old books know, not just the words within, but so many of the thoughts of those who have read before you.” (Robert Mumm)
Thanks to those who’ve sent me their own tales of being called by used books. I’m starting with stories by Mark Jokerst and Robert Mumm. Hope to hear more stories from the rest of you!
“My favorite book finding me story came from reading a Wendell Berry piece where he mentioned Sir Albert Howard as one of the sources of today’s organic gardening. Soon after, poking around at Bay Books in Concord, an old but crisp edition of “An Agricultural Testament” caught my eye. Thanks. It never dawned on me the book was reaching out for me; I thought I had found the book!” . . . Mark Jokerst
And from Robert Mumm . . .
“In a used book store in Maryland, a book was waiting for me. I didn’t know it, but it was and it took but a very short time for it to catch my attention. It wasn’t a bright new book in great condition; rather it seemed a bit tired and dowdy. It was a well-used old book and the only book I really looked at. My son and daughter-in-law had wanted to show me their favorite book store, and there was just time for a brief stop on our way to the airport for my return flight back to California.
I have been working to put together some family background for my kids and found there is really a lot I don’t know about my father and almost nothing about the family before that. My father came to this country from the district of Schleswig in Northern Germany on his own when he was fifteen, so in a way the chain back beyond was broken. He did tell many fascinating stories about his childhood, but there was just too much detail for me to understand then, because it was so beyond my own experience. Later on there never seemed to be time to go back over some of those old things, and they faded and became confused.
Pieter and Katie never knew their paternal Grandfather at all, so I wished to get inside and reconstruct the person he was so that they can know him a little. I soon realized that religion played a big part in his life, although when I knew him he had no religious affiliation at all. To understand him I needed information on that part of his childhood.
So I had begun to work on this facet of his life when I walked into that used book store and reached for the first book that caught my eye. This book was between others, so I couldn’t read its title, but when I pulled it out and saw what it was, I knew why I had come there. It was The History of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland, published in 1847 and written by J.H. Merle D’ Aubigne. I subsequently looked him up and found that he is a very well regarded source in religious history and fun to read because of the writing style of the time. This book has become a source that not only illuminated religion, but also many attitudes pertaining to the raising of children at that time.
I’ve also been able to learn something of the physical setting, for instance, the Elbe River where he played is about five miles across. Far different than the river I envisioned as a child, for all the river I knew was our little Middle Fork of the Yuba. Dad had an extensive knowledge of the rigging of sailing ships, those old Windjammers of an age when the bulk of cargo still moved under sail. He made a wonderful model ship for each of his sons, with all the stays and rigging of those great old Windjammers, and his love of tall ships has come to me as a sort of nostalgic undercurrent.
In my father’s telling of his early life there came to me a subliminal dread of the North Sea. From what I have researched so far, I now know why, for my father was close to it – very close. My grandfather was a Pilot Boat Captain and many times must have gone out to meet ships when he was not at all sure of coming back. Even today the transfer of a Pilot and Helmsman from pilot boat to an incoming ship in the turbulent mix of river flow and storm driven waves where the Elbe meets the North Sea is a hazardous undertaking.
In used book stores it truly is ask and you shall receive. Even if you don’t ask, the old books know, not just the words within but so many of the thoughts of those who have read before you.”
Do you believe there’s magic in used books? I’ve had incredible experiences calling books to me over the years. Today was yet another. I’ll share some of my favorite book magic stories. If you have some of your own, send them and I’ll post them!
I’d always regretted giving away the Navajo Language book that Dick and I studied on the Reservation in Arizona in the 1970’s. We thought our hospital replacements would benefit from having it, but I realized too late I’d given away an irreplaceable treasure of Navajo phrases and vocabulary. Fast forward five years to the basement of Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley. I was looking over a table of used children’s books when my eye was caught by a red book perched atop a stack of children’s picture books. As my hand reached for it, I knew what it was: Navajo Made Easier by Irvy Goossen.
Then there’s the book from my childhood I wanted to read to my daughters, but couldn’t remember the title – only that it was of a young girl who collected butterflies in the woods. I’d given up, when one day, while checking out books at the Grass Valley Children’s Library, an elderly woman set a stack of old books on the counter to donate. Impulsively, I reached around her and turned the bindings to see the titles, and there it was: Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Straton-Porter. I had to fight the librarian for it (she collected rare old books), but a donation to the library made it mine.
Some books have been nearly thrust into my hands. I’d just returned from my youngest sister’s memorial service in Canada and was headed toward a much-needed latte, when I made an unusual right turn and ended up in Tome’s Books and Sierra Roasters in Grass Valley. With mug in hand, I wandered the stacks until I found a chair in a dark corner. Mindlessly, I reached up and pulled out a paperback: Life on the Other Side by Sylvia Browne. It was as if my sister wanted me to know…..
So today I was again at Tomes (my favorite used book store). As I waited to see what books Eric would buy from me (for credit of course), my hand reached out for an orange workbook in the Reference Section. Book in a Month by Victoria Schmidt. Voila! Exactly what I needed to get my novel moving along. It’s one thing to have a story in your head and quite another to be organized enough to move through all the steps of crafting a compelling novel. I have thirty days to finish my first draft, starting February 1st. Be sure and ask me how it’s going!
“Is there a real desk?” I‘m often asked. After all, it’s one of the main characters in my novel.
The answer is yes, it sits by the window in my writing studio. And yes, it’s a family heirloom, but I don’t know how far back it goes. Like other family ancestors and future descendants, it’s an inspiration.
For your enjoyment, here’s an excerpt from The Desk, where it first appears in Christie’s life – the present time narrator whose nights have been haunted ever since inheriting the desk.
(Still a draft, so your comments are welcome!)
2010, Sierra Nevada Homestead
I shove the comforter onto my husband’s side and slide off the edge of the bed, angry and desperate in what is now my sixth sleepless night. Feeling my way down the dark hallway, I stop in the doorway of my studio. A sliver of moonlight hesitating behind the shadowed curtains catches my eye.
“What is it?” I ask the darkness.
In the corner is the dim form of a small oak desk huddled beneath the weathered windowsill. It seems frail, frightened even. I step closer.
“You’ve got something to do with this. I can feel it.”
As if summoned, I pull out my old needlepoint chair with the sagging center, and sit. I run my hands along the desktop. It’s a simple, straightforward little desk, hardly two by three feet on top. The three vertical slats down each side are spanned by a narrow shelf beneath, a foot above the ground. It was made without nails, held together by the clasped hands of tongue and grove construction.
My sister had recently offered this odd piece of family furniture to me, releasing it from years of exile in her basement.
“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation. There’d be some place for it in my already crowded home. It wasn’t a notable piece but I didn’t want it to leave the family. I rub the musty top in slow, circular motions while I think.
Beneath the desktop, I find a small drawer that slides out reluctantly. Someone had covered the bottom of the drawer with ugly blue and white grid contact paper – a relic of the ‘60’s. A small edge is pulled back. Along the front, the narrow tray for pens is stained with black and blue splotches. A small heart had been carved in the front corner of the desktop, and a circular watermark marred the back left corner where a hot drink had been carelessly placed. Two of the legs have small, teeth-like gashes at the base. Although the oak grain may once have been polished into a deep gloss, along the way, dust had settled into the small grooves, leaving a feeling of tired brittleness.
“Did I forget to welcome you home?” I exhale and look around, aware that I’m now conversing with a desk.
“This is my studio. I write here.” I point across the room to the computer table against the south window. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I describe the stacks of reference books, the watercolor sketches of ospreys, owls and lizards taped to the curtains, the photos of husband and grandchildren tucked around the printer, boxes of upright pens and watercolor pencils, and my thirty-year-old prayer plant.
“I’m working on an article about the up-slope migration of flora and fauna in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It’s due in two days and now the editor wants more facts to support climate change. I know he’s being pressured, but I’m about to tell him to shove it.”
“And. . . I hardly need another desk,” I continue, feeling irritated and wishing I hadn’t been so quick to take it. “But family’s family.” I think about the photograph of my mother as a young wife in the 1940’s, sitting at this very desk with the mouthpiece of a heavy black telephone to her ear. She never talked about the desk or who had it before her, even though she knew I was passionate about our family’s history.
I reach over to the bookcase that the desk is now squeezed against, and gently tap the frayed binding of my great-grandmother’s scrapbook stuffed with tattered, yellowed news clippings of her speeches. My hand brushes over the tops of faded leather editions of Emerson, Cooper, Longfellow, and Thoreau, all inherited from my grandmother’s library. A thin hand-printed book of great-grandfather’s letters home from the Gold Rush is lying face down on the shelf. I tuck it back into place with a smile.
“You should feel right at home. You’re surrounded by family.”
Four chimes reverberate from Grandfather clock in the hallway and I sigh. Another lost night.
“If you don’t mind,” I say, “I really need to get some sleep. I’ve mountains of work before Tuesday’s deadline.” I push the chair back against the desk. “Try listening to the ticking in the hallway,” I say, thinking of the wind-up alarm clock we used to put in our puppy’s bed. I give the desk a pat, then head back to curl up next my husband’s warm body.
“I mean it,” I whisper. “I desperately need some deep sleep.”
The next morning I awaken at nine, exhausted. I toss my favorite purple shawl around my shoulders and start my morning routine with toast and coffee. I’m usually perked up by the anticipation of freshly ground French roast, but this morning even the coffee seems lifeless. I plod my way upstairs to my studio and place the plate of buttered sourdough toast and mug of black coffee on the little desk by the window. I’m glad my husband has already left for work. On days like this I’ve learned it’s just better to stay away from people.
I’m there in time to watch the first rays of light cascade through the west facing window, illuminating a path across the top of the desk. It’s my favorite time of day and today especially, I need the reprieve before facing the work ahead. As if on cue, Buddy sniffs me out and with tail thumping, positions himself at my side to catch the last bite of toast – a routine we’ve developed over the years that is both annoying and tender.
The morning sun moves imperceptibly across the dull brown striations of oak grain as I start my morning meditation. But today I am distracted by the drifting light – the turning of the earth – the turning of time, I remind myself. I struggle to focus on my breath – in and out, in and out. The hallway clock accompanies me with a steady tick, tock, tick tock, its pendulum sweeping each second into the past. Last night’s voices hover at the edge, demanding my attention.
Then, from that still space that has eluded me all week, I sense a voice of remarkable clarity.
The sun pauses at the edge. Dust motes are suspended in mid-air.
“Don’t do this to me,” I say. “I don’t have time.” But my hands are already reaching under the drawer to slide it open. My fingers feel along the bottom and lift out a forest green leather notebook. I watch my palms press the blank pages open against the oak desktop, then lift the black filigree pen from its tray. Though my hand trembles, the voices are calm.
It’s five in the morning and this is my first entry. It’s also the dark of night, my best time for writing. Like slipping between the covers of dreamtime and daylight – a very thin space where the two relax into each other and birth words that neither could have done alone.
What will you find on these pages? You’re probably as curious as I am. If you know me personally, you may have come here as a friend to touch base, see what’s up. Or you may be someone who’s heard about my novel-in-progress, The Desk, or have read sections from it and return to feel its texture. I was approached recently by two casual acquaintances who asked when the book would be ready. They wanted to read more. Derelyn and Michelle, this blog’s for you!
I anticipate this blog will be my way of telling a fuller story. Originally, my novel was just that – a historical fantasy of what it might have been like to have lived my Great-Grandmother Emily Hoppin’s life. Though I never met her, she’s my family heroine – arriving in California soon after the 1849 Gold Rush, settling in the small farming town of Yolo near Sacramento. Emily was widely known as a woman of principal whose articulate words, both written and spoken, influenced the future of women and the land in turn-of-the-century California. I have her scrapbook filled with speeches and newspaper articles about her. I feel her in my blood.
In future blogs, I’ll describe how her personal life morphed into a fictional story, then morphed again into a fantasy that spans three generations of women, all interconnected by a secret held within the family desk. Present, past and future, if you will.
This blog is my three-dimensional tic-tac-toe game where I can play with time, history (real and imagined) and see the world as it could be.
If you’re interested in History, there will be sections on early California. Geneology? I’ll post what I have about the real lives my book is based on. California Landscape: I’ll have photos and descriptions of nature’s wonders and their changes over time. Concern for the Future: I’ll not only describe my own impressions, but will link to other projections of where the earth is headed based on our past and current practices. Collective Power of the Feminine: Here’s a place where I take heart that the growing bonds of feminine (not just women’s) energy will bring a powerful caring and protection for our earth. And last, Creative Writing. I’ll include sections of The Desk and write about how I pull all this together.
I’m looking forward to your feedback – tell me what works for you, suggest nooks and crannies to explore, share your own thinking and keep me moving forward!