Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Writing On Writing, Part Five

An article in the March 1 edition of The American Prospect by Elizabeth Benedict got me to thinking about writers and writing. It also got me thinking about the foundation of where I come from as a writer and what forms my expression in words.

Fifth in a Series

(Part One)

(Part Two)

(Part Three)

(Part Four)

Writing fiction is just taking life and making it interesting.

In the summer of 1976 I got a job as a camp counselor in Colorado. It was part of my plan to get into teaching; what better way to get some experience with kids than spend a summer with them? It was also at a camp where twelve years before I had spent one of the happiest times of my life – four weeks in the mountains learning to ride horses and hike up mountains. My brother and I had ridden out to camp on a train, the Denver Zephyr, from Chicago, and I remember riding the bus up the winding road to the camp and being awestruck by the mountains. One particular peak stood out above the rest. It was still covered with snow in mid-June and I wondered how anyone could ever climb it. Four weeks later I stood on top of it with a group of fellow hikers, shivering in the wind and tossing snowballs on the glacier.

Now I was back there at the mature age of 23, ready to share my NOLS-learned wisdom with these eager young boys for the next eight weeks. I shared a cabin with another counselor named Bill, and while he was a few years younger than me, he had been a camper there for many years (I had only been to camp for two summers; summer school intervened) and he’d also been a counselor the year before, so I learned from him, too. He taught riding, and one Friday morning two weeks into the camp term he went off on a ride with some boys while I and another counselor took a group off on an overnight trip to a nearby campground. I used some of my outdoor cooking skills learned in the Uintahs to make dinner that night, and later we sat around the campfire, told ghost stories, and listened to the owls and the coyotes.

The next morning as we were making breakfast the camp’s assistant director drove out to our campground and told us that Bill had died the night before. He had a congenital heart defect and he had collapsed while playing dodge ball with the other campers after dinner. There was nothing anyone could do. He was dead before he hit the ground.

The campers were young and perhaps this news didn’t really sink in, but it hit me as if Bill was my brother. For the next couple of days I was in shock, and as the activities at camp resumed after a brief interval, I found myself wondering why Bill’s death hurt so much. I hardly knew him for more than a few weeks, and we didn’t really spend that much time together outside of our work at camp. So what was it? Perhaps it was the fact that I had never really known death close up – and that I had seen Bill alive and well one day and come home the next to find him gone. When I got back to the cabin that afternoon, all of his possessions had been packed up and moved out. It was as if he had never been there. Life went on, and no sign of him was left.

A few weeks later I took a day off and drove several hours through the mountains to visit my nephew who was attending another camp in southern Colorado. We spent a nice day together and I left in time to get back before dinner. As I was driving lots of thoughts ran through my mind, one of them being that as a master’s candidate in playwriting at the University of Minnesota, I had to write a play and have it produced in order to complete my degree requirements. I had never written a full-length play before, much less had it produced. I didn’t know any directors or theatres that would produce a new play, and I wasn’t even sure where to begin. But that all was far away in the future that July afternoon; I just had to come up with an idea for a play with a plot, characters, and an interesting story to put them in. Thoughts churned in my head – what kind of conflict could I tell? What kind of characters would be interesting? What was the message? Random thoughts kept popping in and out as I wound my way along the Front Range. I remembered hiking up a mountain with the kids the day before, running and getting under protection as a sudden thunderstorm crashed down on us, trying desperately to remember my rudimentary first-aid training if one of the kids should get hurt – we were so far from the trailhead that even a minor injury was serious. What if disaster had struck? What would we do? Bill came into my mind, followed by a flashback to my lonely day by the fishless lake on the survival in my NOLS class. How the wilderness did not care – we were no more than microbes to the mountains and the forest. What would happen if someone tried to fight back?

People talk about having moments of blinding inspiration, and at that moment I knew what they were talking about. I pulled my car off to the side of the road next to a large boulder, got out, and stared up at the cliffs along the steep red canyon walls. I had my story: lost and frightened boys on a wilderness course in the mountains, not trusting their leaders, easy prey to fear and self-doubt. Only one of them, Elliott, seemed to know all the answers, and he would betray them as well. It was all there. I could see the characters, I knew their names, I knew where they came from, and I knew what made them do what they did. And I even knew the title. I drove back to camp as fast as I could, arriving just as a thunderstorm was building over the mountains behind me, and hurriedly penciled the outline on a single piece of paper.

That night the thunderstorm broke heavily over the mountains and created a horrible flood in a canyon ten miles from where I was sleeping, taking out trees, homes, and killing many people who were suddenly trapped by the rising waters as a huge wall of water tore down the Big Thompson Canyon. It was in the national news the next day and the whole camp turned out to help with the rescue and rebuilding. Nature and the wilderness had proven its power once again.

When camp was over and I drove back to Minnesota, I saw the mountains disappear slowly in my mirror, fading in the late summer haze and finally disappearing as I reached the prairie. But the outline of the play was still with me, and by the first week of October I had written a first draft. Borrowing heavily from my little spiral notebook diary from my NOLS expedition, the loss of Bill, and the force of nature demonstrated in the Big Thompson canyon, I took six teenaged boys and four counselors out into the Colorado mountains and pitted them against themselves, each other, and the wilderness. A fellow grad student in directing read it, liked it, proposed it for production, and the following April The Hunter had its world premiere. I finished my degree and graduated in August. But I didn’t attend the ceremony; I was back out at camp in Colorado, hiking in the mountains.

Next time: teaching the teacher.