Blueprints of the Afterlife

Now that grad school apps are over and I resume normal work and/or bodily functions, I’m trying to take stock of where I am, in terms of my writing. This past week alone I’ve started and abandoned two new stories, written a couple blog posts, and scribbled some new ideas for my novel, which has been stalled since August at about fifty thousand words and which, in all likelihood, I will need to start over (no regrets: so it goes).

One the one hand, I have this instinct toward stories that are weird and almost dreamlike in their logic. A story about bats falling dead out of the sky, piling up and bewildering a community. A story about a boy who falls in love with a girl who lives on the moon, who approaches his upside-down neighbors for help with correspondence. And of course, the one I have out for consideration at several lit journals right now, a story about an autistic man who finds a baby, who may or may not be real, in a storm drain. Other notions, images, and tropes that I’ve jotted down for possible later use include winged guinea pigs, mystical Midwestern electrical storms, and a story set in a heaven that is determined by each individual resident, the only universal feature of which is the clouds.

From these oddities I can probably fashion some good characters. To paraphrase Ron Carlson, the idea is the truck that delivers the story to the reader. The meaning—often complex, often embodied in the characters themselves—is the cargo that is being delivered. Okay: fine. But getting to those characters, finding a starting point for them and then fleshing them out in a three dimensional way that engages with the initial conceit well enough to move the story forward, and then shifting the burden of drayage to said character—that’s still tricky to me.

Moreover, the novel I’d been working on was stalled for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a failure on my part to engage with my characters as deeply as needed. “Plot is character,” someone famous said. True enough for that which we call literary fiction. But I also believe strongly in the archetypal villain: a force of evil, whether real, imagined, or metaphorical, that incites action and tests the moral character of the proganonists. (I say “moral character” and not “goodness” because I don’t want to be too facile; not that the good vs. evil formula is bad, per se. It just doesn’t allow for the complexity of character found in literary fiction.)

So, in taking an inventory of my recent writing, observing trends, and divining a fresh starting point for the new year, I’m looking for something—some theme, some trope, some guiding principle or idea—to ignite my work, which at this point in cold of January is just dank tinder. With this missing piece, I can revisit one of my many first or unfinished drafts, and perhaps even tackle again my novel, with renewed focus and understanding.

I had a mild “Aha!” moment the other night watching the recent documentary, Buck. For the uninitiated, Buck is about a cowboy, Buck Brannaman—a “horse whisperer,” (the horse whisperer, if you will)—who drives around the country giving clinics on horsemanship. His empathy for the horses—and more subtlely, for people—is breathtaking, and hints at a childhood of abuse. That he’s able to not only to overcome his abuse, but transform himself into an agent for positive change—something genuine, gentle, and spiritual in the manner of the West—is inspiring, and reason enough to watch. By standing still and calm next to an erratic colt, he seems to invoke a kind of cowboy voodoo. Even the language changes: instead of speaking of “breaking” a young horse, he refers instead to “starting” it. Merely by standing next to a horse and leading with a short tether, he’s able to impart cues to the horse: the horse follows obligingly, cooperative but not forced. Buck calls this the “feel,” something that doesn’t necessarily exist in the fingertips but in a gesture or a glance. The tether he holds is never taut. Bucks “feel” is the closest example I’ve seen in real life to Jedi manipulation of the Force. That this sensitivity comes from a place of deep pain is a more human phenomenon than anything I could possibly invent. It’s the cowboy way.

Which brings me back to the novel at hand, about a homeless man in Orange County, California who believes he is a cowboy. (Nice segue, right?) — the novel is plagued by being such an old conceit. It’s gone through so many visions, revisions, and re-envisionings, that vestiges of wrongheaded earlier notions haven’t worked their way out of the story, and drag the current incarnation down substantially. I first conceived of the story that would (will) eventually become Wayward Sister when I was backpacking-and-Eurrailing my way around Europe in 1998. I have a journal form Prague that contains a start of a story about a mythical knight who makes his way to Berkeley (or somewhere) to befriend a boy and fight evil. I had this grand idea that the knight would be chasing some nameless, faceless Evil. The boy would tag along as reluctant sidekick on his adventures. But in a move I’ll call the Reverse Joseph Campbell, instead of heeding the call to action the boy increasingly resists, falling back on his rigid, upper-middle class suburban worldview. At some critical point, the boy betrays the knight, and is revealed to be the actual villain.

Somehow, in spite of rejiggering the story over the course of fourteen years and several false starts (including the scripts for four chapters of a graphic novel), in spite of a new third character to make for more of a triangular dynamic, in spite of then changing that third character from a cliche stripper to an equally exotic but more nuanced rock musician, of  in spite of moving the story to Orange County, recasting the knight as a cowboy, and whipsawing between downbeat and comedic tones, I still couldn’t shake this calcified need to maintain the conceit. I was afraid the story would fall apart if I didn’t fight to discipline my characters and coax them into their assigned script. But some weird things happened: the homeless man started to evolve. I still don’t have him entirely figured out—maybe I never will—and the boy started to take a backseat to the rock musician, a rising star both in her world and in mine.

The story started morphing into a bit of a love triangle. The extroverted, jocular tone was undermined by these dour individuals who were all miserable in their own way. I know that “funny” needn’t be “jocular”, but really, the story was getting away from me, and not in a direction I wanted to chase. The reason being that I hadn’t asked myself some critical questions, to lay the groundwork and build the truck that the characters would later drive. Simply put, I hadn’t sufficiently examined the characters’ motivations.

The other night Angie asked me, “have you been following this serial killer in Orange County?”

“No—what serial killer?”

“He’s been going around killing homeless people.”

Needless to say, she had my attention. I don’t think she was thinking of my novel—she had only read the news and made the connection to the region where I did most of my growing up, and where my parents still live. But of course my mind went immediately to the ramifications for Wayward Sister.

Eureka! A serial killer of homeless people!—I mean, of course, it’s a horrific tragedy, and when I dwell on it for any length of time my stomach churns at the thought of someone preying on those who’ve already suffered so much—but I confess that I was instantly connecting the dots, fitting this new element into my story. Of course I’d have to research it better. But suddenly some basics were clicking into place. A killer of homeless people, a constant, unseen threat edging ever closer to our protagonist. Has the entire homeless community on edge. The boy—if there is a boy, at this point; if he’s even a boy?—might not believe the cowboy, or maybe the cowboy doesn’t tell him. But simply by spending time with him, the boy is threatened, too. Does the cowboy employ good judgment and send the boy home? Of course not: the boy indulges his fantasy, and besides, he’s learning from the cowboy. So the boy is threatened and the cowboy is threatened, and the threat is real and imminent, and exists a priori of any internal, psychological motivators.

Where does the girl come in—the rock star? Doesn’t matter, at this point. I’ll come back to her. I’ve thought about making her the narrator: she seems to be both integral to the story of the cowboy and the boy, but also apart from it, mostly by virtue of being adult and of relatively sound mind (not that she’s not fucked up in her own way). But the point is: I’ve found a device, an external MacGuffin that will do, for now, to help drive the plot of the story forward, so that the characters may unfold in response and catalyze the rest of the novel.

The cowboy himself is wrestling with his inner demons—these may include a history of childhood abuse, perhaps the death of one or more loved ones, perhaps an addiction, perhaps actual schizophrenia, perhaps the PTSD of an reformed ex-convict—and this manifests in the form of certain gifts. Not only does he imagine his world as the Old West, but he is an avatar of it. He embodies the cowboy way: like Buck, he has the gift of empathy. And like the Coyote (his name is Coyote Don, after all), he has a knack for getting into and out of trouble, for skirting the liminal realms wherever they may be found: as a former TV actor, as a homeless person on the outskirts of society, as a frequent sojourner to the canyonlands at the edge of an urbanized and commercialized Orange County. His mysticism stems from, and reflects, some deep-seated trauma that has caused him to become unhinged. But he interacts with the world in a way that is both charismatic and within the realm of “normal” communication, so anyone trying to engage with him directly suffers the same painful problem a family member or friend has in communicating with a loved one who has a psychological disorder (a disorder which I’ll also have to probe deeper).

So I’ve got my work sorta cut out for me. And while this is a lot to chew on, I’d still also like to develop some of those weird little stories over the next six months or so. My goal is to get some shit published finally this year. Not a bad New Year’s resolution, eh? (I’ve already lost 3-4-5 pounds since New Year’s Day.) For now, I’ll let this one sit for a bit. I still have a lot of reading to catch up on, including a new novel by J. D. Tuccille (High Desert Barbecue), and a new novel by writing teacher and leader-by-example Ryan Boudinot (Blueprints of the Afterlife), the latter of which is having its launch party tonight at Richard Hugo House in Seattle, if it (or I) doesn’t get snowed in. I expect Ryan’s book to do some amazing things. I heard him read an excerpt of it at the inaugural Icicle Creek Writers Retreat last spring, and I was instantly hooked.