Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"Drink Your Teeeeeeeeeeee!"


Male rufous-sided towhee, white-eyed race.

So I am. Now that I've emptied the coffee pot.

I first heard the towhee's call in 2001, when Mary and I spent two weeks in Blue Hills Reservation in eastern Massachusetts. We were hiking the Skyline Trail, traversing the ridge, but we hadn't seen the bird itself. Up there the towhees are red-eyed; their white-eyed cousins hail from the south Atlantic coast and Florida. We saw this one and a female poking around our neighbor's yard as we headed home from the post office.

Today bird song comes in through our opened windows, which had previously been shut against the chill. Last night our county seat registered a low of 21 degrees F -- closer to Boston's highs this time of year, but nippy for central Florida.

I have been dealing mainly in words rather than pictures for the past couple of weeks. When not transcribing I've been drafting fiction or writing notes on the characters, plot points, motivations. My current task is to paint a word-picture of a group, composed of minor and largely unnamed characters, seen through the eyes of a woman who becomes more and more acclimated to a life far different from what she had known before. She is about to change further, thanks to a variable I hadn't seen coming until I had "seen" it, but which makes sense to me in retrospect....


Female rufous-sided towhee. The sexes look similar, except that the female is brown where the male is black.

Actually, the pictures that currently draw me come from the TV more than the camera. I had done without a TV for two years in the 1980s, but then broke down and bought one so that I could watch the Olympics. The Games have captivated me since 1968, when I was enthralled by the then-Soviet pair skater Irina Rodnina and her extraordinary power. For lyricism in skating the first person to wow me was Canadian men's skater Toller Cranston.

When the characters in my childhood fantasies were not saving the universe, they were letting off steam on the "dance ice" (years before ice dancing was introduced as a sport), not for programs lasting a few minutes but for entire symphonies. It took more than a decade before I could bring those qualities out in myself. As a child I had been locked painfully inside my body, feeling far too vulnerable to move in any way that might be construed as sensual. Inside my head was another story -- and once I freed those visions there was no turning back.

Only later did I learn this was called "creative visualization" -- what many athletes and others use to rehearse their routines, retain kinesthetic memory, build confidence.

I am a total sucker for the Olympics. For athletes coming back against the odds, for the struggles past physical and mental pain. Having experienced my "cycling year" in 1995 and my "running year" in 2001-2 -- about as far below "elite" as you can get but watershed times for me -- I now know the feel of that adrenalin high, the focus, the determination to come back from injury. Six weeks before I did the Boston-New York AIDS Ride I had suffered a pulled lumbar ligament that left me reeling in pain whenever I bent down. Immediately I began chiropractic and ultrasound therapy, rehabilitative exercises, and new ways to train:

"My sense of paralysis was followed by one of anger and determination," I wrote the day before the Ride. "If I couldn't bike I could walk. I could swim. I could cross-train. I told myself: if Carl Lewis can train with a hamstring injury, I can put up with pain and discomfort. People with AIDS are doing this ride, so my minor mishap was small potatoes. Another rider crashed the weekend before the Ride and needed to have emergency dental work done; for a day she couldn't lift her arms. But only for a day; then she was back on her bike and telling me she was fine, but I'd recognize her because she'd look like she was punched in the mouth."

The process of writing is vastly different, yet in some ways very similar. Both require continual practice and training. Some days I am "in the zone" -- when the words seem to flow from outside myself and I am merely a channel for the characters. Other days bring one frustration after another, when I feel as though I am deaf, dumb, and blind to the visions, merely pushing my characters around on the page. Nothing holds together. Often I've got to work through the crap, through prose that makes me groan, taking one metaphorical fall after another until what needs to snap in place finally does. Then the reward -- the sheer joy of that channeling, that communion -- is worth it.

Like the day, after continual false starts and copious note-taking, when I sat at my computer and a character began dictating a letter, a follow-up to the previous scene. And I watched his heart open, but I also saw how strong he was. I saw the items left on his kitchen table, felt the dryness of a cool desert night. Subsequent scenes gained clarity as I wrote, petals unfolding from a tightly-clenched bud. And the line of heart extended from him to his wife -- the woman who now travels with the group of unnamed characters, fully conscious of the physical dangers that surround them. Sharing the burden of risk.


Male (left) and female towhees, together.

I still have many knots to unravel, but for now I'll take what I can get. Keep writing, keep falling, keep getting up, keep wrestling with the notes. Keep massaging the translation from what I want to present into what I think reads well.

Keep drawing inspiration from the toughness I see on the television. The spontaneous judgment calls, the perseverance, the comebacks. For I am marketing the predecessor to this story as well as writing, with another pitch package out, keeping my fingers crossed as before but needing to emotionally detach until the time comes to do more. Then throw myself, once again, into the task at hand.

I am less ego-involved in my "take-home assignment" for tomorrow's free-writing group: a story combining the elements of a beach ball, a needle, and a lamp. I had dashed that off last night, 2,167 words, before turning in. Those are stretches, warmups -- just as important as the stuff that consumes me, but my equivalent of doodling. And one never knows what doodles can turn into somewhere down the road.

More tapes arrive next week, turning me into a different kind of channel as I transcribe. One more sedate, the visions those of other people. For me that truly constitutes a "working vacation."

2 Comments:

Blogger Brenda said...

I've read this post twice now, find it deeply moving, inspiring, sacred somehow. I can't comment, except to say, I'm here, reading you, loving you.

Good luck with the book that's out there... and with the one unfolding like petals from a tightly clenched bud.

Beautiful...

1:12 PM  
Anonymous colleen said...

I always felt magical while skating.

Seems that fiction writers and people with multiple personalities are only different by degrees.

11:08 PM  

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