Sunday, December 21, 2014

Beacon of Light, 2014

Most likely you’ve near heard of the writer who I’ve selected as the Beacon of Light for 2014, but he has served as my inspiration this past year, illuminating the shoals of self-doubt and guiding me past the fears and uncertainties that often accompany the writing process.

The writer’s name is Chuck Entwistle, a friend of mine from our days as grad students in the MFA program at Vermont College, and he had to stop writing a few years ago, not because he had grown tired of writing but because he was losing his memory.

Now his memory is almost gone, and I watch with sadness on my monthly visits as he sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss of Alzheimer’s disease. No longer can he read a book or magazine. No longer can he string words into sentences. No longer can he tell the difference between a pencil and a paper straw. 

On my arrival, he usually lifts his hand in greeting and calls out my name. But on my last visit a few weeks ago, he didn’t call out my name. He lifted his hand—making the same gesture he always makes when he sees me—but my name was no longer part of his memory bank.  It was gone.

This past summer, Chuck’s dear wife, Jan, invited me over to their house to look through some of his books on writing before she donated them to the local library. She had removed them off the shelves in his office and placed them in tall piles on the living room floor and on the table near the middle of the room. 

I spent a little more than an hour thumbing through the books, searching for ones that might reveal the secret of writing or illuminate the process in a helpful way. And as I browsed through these books, I felt like I was sitting with Chuck again during one of our lunches. He could no longer talk about writing, but these books contained many of the insights into writing that he had gleaned from their pages and shared with me over the years. And it struck me that these books were Chuck’s legacy.

Year after year Chuck kept searching for the secret to writing, and he had invested in these books in order to learn more about the craft of writing so he could sustain his desire to keep writing in the face of rejection and silence. And while I felt sad, sitting in the living room, that Chuck and I could no longer talk about writing the way we used to talk about it, I felt inspired by his library of books and by the evidence that they showed of his dedication to the craft.

Of all the books on the table—there were easily more than one hundred—I found four that I thought might help me in my own writing. And Chuck’s wife was so generous. She insisted that I take the books home. 

Now they sit on my shelf, and I take them down every so often and browse through their pages in search of inspiration and insights about the writing process, kernels of truth that Chuck might have shared with me if his memory hadn’t failed him. 

I'm sharing brief excerpts with you from these books -- Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman (HarperCollins), A Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie (New World Library), How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein (St. Martin’s Griffin), and Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd (Random House) -- in the hope that Chuck's love of writing, and the truths that he found in these books, will inspire you in the year ahead, just as they inspire me:

When writing is going well it is not like pushing. It’s like falling. You fall the way you do in dreams. You fall and fall. There is that same disorientation and breathlessness and speed and tension. You fall past the ground floor, past the sub-basement, past the creatures that live in the center of the earth, big black lobsterlike figures working machines you glimpse as you fall toward blue sky. What joy! And yet, it’s scary. For all its vast pleasure, it’s scary because falling stops, words end, and it is always just you again at your desk in your room, judgment already beginning. –Bonnie Friedman 
Writing can be a lonely business. But gradually your characters, or the scenes and people from your past, begin to rise up around you, and you find yourself writing your way out of loneliness, writing your own company. And you’ll find yourself at dinner some evening telling your family or friends, “Well, Natalie really made a mess of things today” or “I can’t believe what John said about Kathryn’s dog.” And everyone will look at you mystified because Natalie and John and Kathryn—and the dog—reside only in your head; you’ve made them up. –Barbara Abercrombie 
If you’re determined to write, the question is when do you write? Obviously, when you can. I had a student once who did her writing standing up in the kitchen attending pots on the stove. Ideally, one ought to write in a place and at a time when the chances of being disturbed are minimal. Writing fiction is often like juggling ideas the way a juggler keeps balls in the air. An interruption can be hazardous to the health of the interrupter, or to a good sentence that escapes uncaptured.—Sol Stein 
It is a misleading truism that drama comes from conflict. Conflict in stories is generally understood as an external contest between good guys and bad guys. But to say that Hamlet depicts the conflict between a prince and usurper king is (obviously) to oversimplify that rich, mysterious drama, indeed to misunderstand it completely. The most important conflict often happens within a character, or within the narrator. The story begins with an inscrutable character and ends with a person the author and reader understand better than before, a series of events that yields, however quietly, a dramatic truth. One might call this kind of story a narrative of revelation. —Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
Chuck still smiles when I visit him. I'll give him a hug, as always, as if everything is normal, and we'll spend a few minutes sitting together. I have to shout because he’s hard of hearing and sometimes his hearing aids don't work or he's forgotten to put them in. And he’ll laugh at something that only he knows is funny, or he’ll grasp for words the way someone might try catching butterflies with a net and then smile and pretend we've just shared a good joke.

After I leave and return to my car, I open my journal and make some quick notes. They are meaningless notes, really. But I need to make them all the same, just to see my hand moving across the paper, just to feel words flowing, just to convince myself that my memory is still intact and that I can still write.

That's what my friend, Chuck, still does: he inspires me to write.

As the year ends and a new year begins, I hope that you may find your own inspiring Beacon of Light in the days ahead. 


Julie Larios said...

This is a beautiful tribute, Bruce - thanks for reminding us about where writing comes from. As Chuck's memories move beyond his grasp, yours intensify - it's quite an interesting and emotional process.
Julie Larios (former faculty member, VCFA Writing for Children program.)

Lynne Buchanan said...

Beautiful and so heartfelt. Through your loving tribute I too am inspired by Chuck. How fortunate you were to know and share thoughts and emotions about writing together and how fortunate I am to know you.

Bruce Black said...

Julie, your comment opened my eyes to what was happening on my visits with Chuck: his memories fade, while mine seem to grow stronger of our times together--especially the days at VCFA. Those were wonderful days! Sorry I didn't get a chance to study with you during your time at the college.

Bruce Black said...

Lynne, you are an artist whose work consistently inspires me to return to my canvas of paper and words, so I'm glad that I could share Chuck's story as a way of offering inspiration to you in return. Looking forward to seeing more of your work (and of you) in 2015!

Dianne Ochiltree said...

What a beautiful post about life and writing and how the two intersect. One of the most amazing things about our mentors is how they continue to do their work through us, and our work, because they've forever shaped the way we tell our stories. It's the natural result of the knowledge they shared and the examples they set. Our mentors will always inspire long as we live, getting up each day to put pens to paper.