It’s taken me a while, but I’m reading Louis Owens work again – his novels, his scholarship, his careful observations about character and story and place. Since his death in 2002, I haven’t been willing to return to his writings because they amplified the absence brought by his sudden death. But, as a I embark on the fourth revision of One Man Reservation, the understanding comes that now is the time to return to his teachings, and in doing so, I’ve come to know that his mentorship can continue. He can still guide me to the truth yet unfolding in the work, if I pay careful attention.
Reading this line from The Sharpest Sight, “On the far rise a group of black angus were bunched like brushstrokes,” I am struck by the beauty of this image, of the way the words dance in our minds to marry art, livelihood, and landscape in a single sentence. After I make the necessary structural changes as well as deepen character, I will read One Man out loud, asking my ear and my eye to strive for the same kind of clarity that breathed life into Louis’ work.
Another line has taken a hold of my imagination and lingers as I move through my days, “He has managed to keep himself free of the worst evil by thinking in the oldest ways he knows.” In the context of The Sharpest Sight, this line has profound meaning for all of the characters, and for me, I can move my writing nearer to its fullest power by thinking in the oldest ways I know how. This means bringing a keener sense of the landscape into One Man. Hawk call and twilight hush, creek whisper and tree murmur are all part of the sensory inputs that make of the fiber of who I am and how I understand the world – these oldest ways of knowing will, I believe, take a well-meaning juvenile draft into a narrative that offers insight, precision, significance, and song.
Reading Louis’ work, I am reminded of his teachings about writing: he believed in my work most when I rendered the landscape with care and attention, when I tried to untangle the threads of family, identity, loss, and love, moving toward coherence by balancing the delicate lines that shape our world. Each day, I read more of his writing, taking notes and tuning in, moving toward the ways he believed in me.
I’d like to encourage you to consider reading: Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life by Jordan Rosenfeld and Becca Lawton. Exercises in this book helped lay the groundwork for the fundamental shift I’ve made from seeing Louis’ death as only tragic and paralyzing. Instead, I can see the gifts of his presence in my life, and now, with a return to his insights, I can find guidance and maybe even a little grace.
Along with revising One-Man Reservation, I am keeping track of ideas for another novel; this one, I hope, will be a funny, engaging, and (dare I type it?) sparkling zinger about being an Obsessive-Compulsive Parent raising a child in an uncertain and dangerous world (I know, it already sounds hilarious). My daughter is nine, and she knows that one of the things I do with my time is write.
One night, I was reading over the latest version of One Man, and Hope said, “It sure is taking you a long time to write this book.” I nodded, pleased in a rather obnoxious way, that I had the opportunity to demonstrate how hard one must work in order to birth a creative idea. Discipline, patience, trial and error – these were all approaches I wanted to discuss with her. Instead, she went to her room and brought out a handful of books. “I think you need some inspiration,” she said, I continued to read my manuscript, sort of, while she brought load after load to the couch, saying each time, “These will really help you.”
As the pile reached a tipping point, I asked, “With which book of mine?” (She knows about the OCD book, knows that a character will be based on her. About a month ago, she informed me that her name in the book shall be Brooklyn. Pretty cool, I thought). She stood back and appraised the mound of texts and offered, “Both!”
I told her thanks and we all went on with our night. The books remained on the couch until the next afternoon while Dreux was preparing dinner, asked, “So, what’s up with all these?” I think he was hoping the books would make their way back to Hope’s shelves, allowing the living room to have a small window of order.
A thought came to me – pay attention; your daughter wants to participate in your world and she wants you to see her as a resource. So, I gathered the books and brought them into my bedroom, stacking them near the reading chair, vowing I’d go through them all and see what they had to teach me. (Dreux came and stood next to me. “You’re are an amazing parent.” His kind observation helped assuage the constant humming guilt I feel about not doing enough for her, with her. In my mind, good mothers bake, but I haven’t done this in at least six months. Not in Texas, not when the 100 degree heat makes you never want to turn on your oven. You’d think that I’d get a little smarter and choose another, reasomable worry for my definition of a good mother, but nope, the baking judgment sticks).
I put “inspiration pile” on my list of things to do, and it took me a few days to sit down and begin. First, I listed out all the titles (I’m eager to see what the Children’s Encyclopedia has to teach me) and started reading. When I got to the third book (and that’s as far as I have gotten – I’ll be with this project for at least a few weeks), I made some cursory notes about the picture book, Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen, pictures by Kadir Nelson (he’s worth your time). It’s the story of a young dancer who longs to dance in the spotlight, just once, but her height prevents her. I landed on the page where the protagonist, Sassy, lies in her bed, dreaming about finally getting to dance a solo. She’s a big-boned, big-footed ballerina who doesn’t have a physical match in the dance world she’s peripherally associated with. In the air of her bedroom, she imagines herself gliding above the world in various poses of balletic grace, and it is this vivid imagination, combined with the visceral ache for a chance, that led me to some insights about all of my characters in both books.
Had I considered deeply what each person wanted in the world? Had I imagined their own moments of repose, connecting to the one thing or activity that would make them feel like they were complete, three-dimensional, and fully rendered people?
I took copious notes, letting the ideas and explorations come, and I have talked these over with Hope. Maybe in sharing these with her, I am moving toward her, toward the girl she is, lying in bed, waiting for her mother to be done writing. Maybe instead of baking, we’re sharing another kind of creation, one where the ingredients come from her committed support and my learning to listen.