Tinker, Tailor, Oyster Pirate, Writer

JackLondonCredo500_theartofmanliness

In a recent blog I wrote about my visit to author Jack London’s Napa, CA home, now a state park. I’ve been a JL fan since I was a kid, when I read White Fang in grade school as required reading. He quickly became one of my favorite storytellers with that book. I think it’s because he lived what he wrote, which made his stories all that much richer.

Sci-fi novels are experiencing a resurgence, along with romance novels. I can’t help but wonder: how much of these stories were lived by the authors? My guess? Few to none. We live in a world where fantasy is favored over real life, where digital relationships (texting, sexting, selfies, vlogging, etc.) and its inevitable voyeurism have replaced the human experience. The richness, depth, and complexity of our existence are slowly disappearing as machines distract us from our lives and connections.

Jack had been a sailor, a fish and game warden, an oyster pirate, a gold prospector, a war correspondent, a rancher, and a farmer (the first in America to utilize terraced farming that he learned of in Asia), just to name a few. He was a busy man, experiencing life in the deepest possible way – by living it, then writing about it. How many writers can claim that today? And does writing solely from imagination make one a good writer? Is it possible to become a superior storyteller without living any part of the story? I’ve blogged about how bad decisions make good stories (sometimes the best ones) so I guess I’m old school in the idea that at least some part of the story should come from personal experience.

Maybe that’s what happens as we shape the characters in our stories; we pepper in a bit of ourselves, friends, family members, coworkers. The unusual color of the protagonist’s eyes, the wry smile of your antagonist belonged to a previous lover, the righteous anger of a scorned relative showing up in a minor character. Your pool of character quirks and physical/mental traits can be endless. Dig from your life to build your stories; no one has experienced your life but you, so no one else enrich your readers the way you can.

Here’s a short list of some of the jobs/experiences I’ve had that flavor my writing:

  • Waitress/bartender (upscale restaurants, nightclubs, etc.) – met many interesting characters 
  • Private investigator – some good cases where I found antagonists 
  • Tennis player/state champion
  • Lecturer/public speaker
  • Behavioral/psychiatric technician
  • Doctor/clinician (including time on a cruise ship in the Caribbean)
  • Drug/alcohol counselor
  • Criminal justice system – lots of characters here!
  • Homelessness (personal experience that I did write about)
  • 4 cross country trips –  where I met some great & some odd personalities, and experienced multiple landscapes

Wanna write? Get your ass off the couch. Seek out adventures. Make some bad decisions. Then make a similar list. They’ll make your stories feel more real, even if they aren’t.

Scribbling

Clothesline Notes in Jack London's Country Cottage

Courtesy Jack London State Park, Google Images

Here in Northern California, we’ve been experiencing a spate of wildfires (15 statewide total) that have all but drained our firefighting resources. A local news station did a Special Report on the damage inflicted by these wildfires, including land, homes and lives lost. Terrible. As they looked back over the past seven years to show how fires have increased in frequency and size, they focused on the 2017 Tubbs fire, the most disastrous fire in California history. They talked about how it nearly decimated the Jack London State Park in Napa County. For those of you who grew up reading great classic authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, etc., Jack London was a prolific writer and adventurer who settled here in the Napa/Sonoma region in the early 1900s. In fact, it was much of his worldwide adventuring that lead to the writing of some of the best works of the 20th century, including my personal favorites, White Fang and The Call of the Wild. 

The newscasters shared details on how State rangers packed up his personal belongings in order to save them in case the fire reached his home and property (it came close, but thankfully missed), storing them all the way out here in Sacramento for safekeeping. Now returned to its former glory, his writing room still contains all of his writing instruments and materials, his desk, and other accouterments: the twine strung across a closed-in porch, with a multitude of little notes clothes-pinned to the line. Jack scribbled these notes on small square pieces of white paper whenever something came to him (which was daily, evidently). He pinned them to the line for later use in his books. And did you know that Jack London wrote ONE THOUSAND words EVERY DAY, BY LUNCHTIME

The closest I come is a notebook marked “Write What You Know” on the front and it’s where I scribble when I need to unload. It’s not a journal; it’s simply a place to jot down whatever is rumbling around in my mind at a certain moment in time instead of pinning them around my house and looking like a crazy person. It’s where I scribbled the first chapter of my novel (I mentioned this in an older post), a dark short story, and some senseless meanderings I tore out. But I have never come close to a thousand words a day and likely never will. I’m not that motivated, even in a good month.

Out there on the world wide web you’ll find a plethora of expert advice by professional writers telling you to write daily. That’s nice if you’re fortunate to be earning a living from your writing, but what if you aren’t? And does it really matter if you write daily? I think not. I think we each should adhere to whatever writing principles fits our lifestyles, since one size surely does not fit all. Jack, like many famous writers, wrote daily (what else was there to do in the middle of a jungle at night?); I think it’s because he had so many stories in him to share it was the only way he could get to the next book. Do we have any less stories? Perhaps, perhaps not. Some of us don’t travel or adventure as much as folks did back then, when it was easier and more affordable; you didn’t need a passport (until WWI), so moving between countries was much easier. And we’re busy working full-time jobs, part-time jobs, raising families, caring for parents, finishing a college education, etc. We have (modern) lives to live! Which brings me back to the point of the title – those lives give us fodder for our stories. So if you’re not scribbling daily, that’s okay; but it’s probably a good idea to at least have a place (notebook, clothesline, etc.) for you to scribble your ideas – the good, the bad, and the ugly, so at some point you, too, can turn them into a cohesive work. Like Jack.

Scribble on!

 

Subliminal Messages and The Call of the Word

Do you notice how your writing takes on a life of its own once a project is started? Do you wonder how you got started on it to begin with? I only recently realized that happened to me. After completing the grueling self-publishing process of my nutrition book (Agida/Agita No More), I thought about writing another  book on Chinese dietary therapy, detailing how foods can heal specific Western diseases. Then I summarily dismissed it. I was exhausted mentally and felt I did not have it left in me to start another painstaking journey down the nonfiction road. 

Everywhere I went, people asked me, “How do you treat disease X, Y, Z?” when I talked about/marketed my book. I wondered if perhaps it would make sense to write a companion book, to clarify how to eat to heal Western diseases from an Eastern perspective. Once again, I quickly dismissed the idea and bristled at the thought of going through that process again. Something nagged at me – it happens to a lot of writers, I will assume – and ideas formed in my mind about how I could actually write the book that so many seem to have hinted they needed.

As I write this blog entry, I’ve already completed chapters one and two of the new nutrition book and am now working on chapter three. So much for avoiding agida. But the call from so many turned out to be a subliminal message that I finally heard (okay, so I’m a little slow on the uptake). I have found this book a bit easier to write since I’m keeping the formatting style from the first book. That means all I have to do is plug in the information, as some of the information is repeated from the first book. I love the copy/paste function! 

It was a great release to finally get the myriad rambling ideas out of my head and onto paper (though more continue to take shape since I’ve made room up there). Subliminal or not, it has occurred to me that, simply put, writers must write. Regardless of the subject, we must give in to ‘the call of the word’. 

My advice: Pay attention to the hidden messages all around you. Let them be your muse, let them inspire you to answer your ‘call of the word.’