Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The smell of water

I was in the desert the first time I smelled water. We were camping in a little orange-cliffed bend of the Gila River, a thread of green in that red country of New Mexico, and bullfrogs and dragonflies danced above the rocky shallows.

In the Southwest you can smell dust and warm pine bark and hot stone, so when that liquid and unmistakable scent bloomed out at dusk, I realized I was smelling fresh water.

I thought of this on Sunday, when I was hosing water into a bucket to water some new plants. There's something magical about the sound of water plunging into water, whether at the top of a breaking wave or a the trickling ripples of a shallow creek. And as I stood there, musing, holding the hose, I smelled the water for the first time in what has felt like a very long winter.

Later that day, the temperature climbed into the eighties and we took a happy dog to the lakefront park to gallop around with his equally happy friends. I stood and breathed in the warm watery smell of the lake and the rain-heavy clouds gathering their skirts above the mountains.

It reminds me of sailing, that river-smell. Sunlight flashing on big water, the muddy marsh odor near shore, and the gusty fresh breath of wind as the boat leans, the sail catches, and away you go.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Indulge me

Indulgence: disciplined indulgence. That, I'm discovering, is what's necessary for a first draft.

Too much discipline and you're paralyzed: your arm a rigid arc of bone, fingers crooked, words frozen in your mind because they're not ... quite ... right. They're never quite right.

Too much indulgence and you close up the computer and go eat chips instead of writing. What, that's just me?

You have to find a way, and I struggle with this every day, to force yourself those indulgent explorations of the story, to go down paths that hadn't occurred to you when you started writing the scene or the paragraph or even the sentence.

See where things go. You're exploring. There will be time enough later for the merciless gimlet eye of revision.

So the early draft stinks? So does organic fertilizer. But it's great for when you need something to grow.

Did I just compare my exploratory draft to excrement? Yes I did. Sometimes you have to just roll with it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I wrote today

And yesterday. And the day before. When I look back on it -- a few pages of dense black scribble -- it seems like such a small thing. But anyone who has faced the dead nothingness of a blank page knows how hard that is.

The thing that finally kicked me into gear was the realization that I try too hard in rough drafts. That is: I start out writing with the finished goal in mind, and when my draft is NOT that finished version, I despair. Stupid! Like most mistakes, this is crystal clear when I stop and think about it.

In fact what we should compare those exploratory drafts to is not the finished masterpiece ... but the blank page.

When I look at it that way, these first fumbling pages are a huge step.

Something else that's surprised me: in just a few days of writing (but, I'll grant, years of thinking) I have started to care about these characters. I can see the street they're standing on; I can taste the air.

This was not the case when I started, but I pushed on anyway -- not out of any defiant belief that that spark would appear, but because I couldn't figure out what else to do.

When in doubt, sit your ass down and work.

And suddenly the characters are coming to life. It's almost as if I'm not creating them, but uncovering them. Discovering them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sunblock and black coffee

Sunday morning I was up at dawn, walking the dog and brewing coffee as cool night became deep blue morning, filled with birdsong and the promise of a warm spring day. Black coffee and oatmeal were followed by a liberal application of sunblock, with its heady and evocative smell.

Salt, honey and walnuts in the oatmeal, another swallow of black coffee, sunblock caking my arms and face ghostly white, more coffee, a few sips of electrolyte drink from my water bottle to make sure it tastes just right, and I loaded the car with a full stomach, blinking sleepily into the sunrise.

An hour later (and another cup of coffee, half a bagel, and a fistfull of pretzels) I parked at the foot of the mountains, tasted the air and squinted at the clouds, made some clothing decisions, and swung my leg over my bike and clipped in.

Clif bars and electrolytes had to sustain me for the next few hours, as cloud shadows chased me up and down mountain roads and past green-gushing, rock-filled rivers of snowmelt, through fields of late-winter dead grass and early-spring riots of blossoms, under speck-vultures circling in the bright sky, past herds of unmoving cattle, mile after rolling mile after rolling mile.

Afterwards, at home, I unloaded the bike off the car, carried in the empty coffee mug, and raised my dirty arm to my nose. Yep: still smelled like sunblock. I love it.