Tag Archives: memoir

374. Outdoor Education

In case you missed 364. The Core Story, let me remind you that Spirit Deer, now posting in Serial, began as a novel for adults, and only reached it’s present incarnation years later.

I wrote the original of Spirit Deer in 1975. By the mid eighties, finances led me back to college to add a teaching credential to my resume, and I began teaching middle school. I started  teaching sixth grade and worked my way up to eighth, over twenty-seven years.

One feature of sixth grade in central California schools was outdoor education week, during which the students lived in dorms at a foothills facility and went out twice a day for half-day hikes with naturalists. Teachers accompanied their students.

I had spent my childhood out of doors, and had added rock climbing, camping, and canoeing to my skill-set while in college. I still learned a lot preparing for outdoor ed, since my critter knowledge was based on Oklahoma and Michigan. That’s common. Any time a teacher has to brush up on a new subject, he learns a lot more than he will be able to teach his students.

I learned — then taught — all the common native trees and shrubs, the mammals and birds, a few of the reptiles and amphibians, and the manner in which the local Native Americans, the Miwuks, lived with nature. I took my students through a couple of weeks of intensive study before the week in the foothills, so they would be able to better appreciate their experience.

Even after I moved up to teaching seventh grade, I continued to go with the students on their outdoor ed week. When it came time to rewrite Spirit Deer, stripped to its core story, I called on that experience to tighten up my descriptions, calling trees out by their actual names this time.

One of the things that Tim-the-adult in 1975 did not have was the survival shelter that young-Tim builds in the present version. During the late 80s and early 90s, one of the hikes our outdoor ed students took was called the survival hike. They were taken to a place in the far end of the property and shown how to take a long piece of down wood, jam it into the crotch of a bush or tree, then stack shorter pieces of down wood against it. Next, they thatched the result with twigs, leaves, dirt, and moss, carpeted the floor with duff, then crawled inside their self-built shelter.

They were not taught how to make a fire. In the dry foothills of California, making a fire to  keep warm is a good way to burn down the forest. It happens every year.

They don’t do the survival hike any more. I can’t blame them. They trained hundreds of kids each week in what was a useful survival skill, but that also meant that hundreds of kids each week were ripping up the local environment. The area where the shelters were made eventually came to look like a bombed out battlefield.

Fortunately for young-Tim, he was one of those who learned how to make a survival shelter. It saved his life in the rewritten Spirit Deer.

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There is another writer’s learning experience in this. When I was newly published, I met Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and started reading her St. Germain books. I was impressed, but also intimidated. Her descriptions of architecture, about which I knew little, and of the clothing worn by all classes of society, about which I couldn’t care less, made for a rich and dense reading experience. My own books were comparatively bare bones.

Then I read Path of the Eclipse, St. Germain book number four, which begins in China and ends in India, with an arduous journey through the lower Himalayas in between. About half way to India, I had an epiphany. In thousands of miles, Quinn had never called a tree by its name.

I had been holding myself to a false standard. She was writing the books that she wanted to write, and I was writing the books I wanted to write. Forget better or worse — they were supposed to look different.

366. Three comments on Spirit Deer

[1]  When I was a very young writer, I read everything in the library under Dewey Decimal 808. It’s called Rhetoric & collections of literature, but really, it’s where they stick all the how-to-write books. In one book of articles, there was a piece titled Multiply by Two. The author’s thesis was that it is always better when starting a book to have two people in front of the reader, to allow for conversation while setting the scene. That’s probably reasonable advice, but I disregarded it in Spirit Deer. Tim is completely alone by page six, and remains that way until the last page.

At the time I wrote Spirit Deer, it just seemed right for Tim to be alone. I had spent half my childhood alone, walking to round up cattle twice a day or on a tractor, endlessly circling innumerable fields. Nothing could seem more normal for Tim the adult, and that didn’t change when he became Tim the youngster. And it wasn’t just me. In the outdoor adventures I read as a child, boys were always out in the woods, and often alone.

I read those books in the fifties and I wrote Spirit Deer originally in the seventies. In 2017, I wonder if the cell phone generation has ever been alone, or ever will be again.

[2] Speaking of cell phones, the cell phone bit in Spirit Deer Post 2 was introduced because no modern kid would be without one. I didn’t want it in the story, so I used one sentence to both establish Tim as responsible and get rid of the damned thing. This scene also introduces a girl, who has no part in the story, but would be missed if absent in 2017. Her absence would have been taken for granted back in the seventies. Or the fifties. Or the thirties, or the nineteenth century. Actually, I see the automatic inclusion of females as progress, but I still wanted Tim to be alone in this story.

[3] Until Tim fires his rifle in Spirit Deer Post 3, he could always just go back to the campground and bike on the his grandfather’s place. There would have been no story. I wanted Tim to have some responsibility for getting himself into trouble. This book is about choices, so it would have been inappropriate for him to get dumped into the wilderness due to forces beyond his control.

This is very different from the original version of Spirit Deer where the hunt had been the legitimate act of an adult.

I also give Tim an out in Post 4 and he doesn’t take it. He could just walk away from his responsibility. But Tim is a moral being, as all my main characters tend to be. I like a stalwart hero. I don’t like the weaselly, vacillating type who finally talks himself into doing the right thing — in real life, or in the characters I write about.

365. You wanna write?

“You stupid-looking sons of bitches wanna write? Well, gwan home and write!”
Sinclair Lewis

This is the entire text of a lecture by Sinclair Lewis. It is quoted by John Masters, best selling author from the fifties and sixties, in his autobiography Pilgrim Son. Masters had just summed up his prospects as a beginning writer this way:

I could invest about two and a half years in making myself a self-supporting writer. I did not hesitate a moment in deciding it was a reasonable investment.

This was mid-1947. His evaluation was based on having severance pay after leaving the British Army in mid-career. Today’s equivalent would be a good day job.

In some ways, Masters is my touchstone for intelligent planning of a writing life. I read his autobiography early on, shortly after I had made a similar summing up, and had decided I could afford most of a year to see if I could write.

I’ve told my story before in the first three posts of this blog, and I repeated it a year later. I apologize to those few who were with me that early, but it needs telling yet again because it explains Spirit Deer, which is now appearing over in Serial. You will also hear more about Masters, both next week and later.

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I started my college career at Michigan State in Biology, and later switched to Anthropology. The draft put me into the Navy, and then I returned to the University of Chicago for a masters degree. I intended to continue with my Ph.D., but didn’t work out that way.

I had lost my chops. Learning how to study, learning how to learn (not the same thing), and learning how to play the game (definitely not the same thing) are a college student’s chops. After four years in the Navy, it took me some time to get my chops back, and by then the next year’s quota for Ph.D. candidates had been filled. My would-be career was in hiatus.

However, all was not lost. When my major professor read my Master’s thesis, he told me to reapply the following year and they would find a place for me.

I had an unexpected year off. What to do? I knew I could write, but didn’t know if I could sit down day after day and write hundreds of pages. This was my chance to find out. The day after Labor Day, September 2, 1975, I sat down in front of my typewriter to find out.

Writing a science fiction novel or a fantasy novel would have called for a lot of time spent in world building. That wouldn’t tell me what I needed to know. A historical novel would have called for even more research, and a detective novel would have called for crafting a complex puzzle. I wasn’t worried about any of those skills. I just wanted to know — could I write word after word after word, day after day, week after week? And would it be fun?

I needed a minimal research story, so I decided to send my protagonist on a deer hunt, where he would get lost. I would set it in autumn, in a part of the Sierras I could drive to in a day if I needed to be on the scene. I would roll in a storm, with low hanging clouds so he couldn’t find north and couldn’t send up smoke. I intended to let him get out on his own. Over the weeks I piled misery after misery on the poor guy’s head.

Within two weeks, I was hooked. I was having a ball. Getting lost in the woods and finding my own way out was infinitely exciting, since every night I could go to my comfortable bed while poor Tim Carson (he had a last name then) tried to sleep on the frozen ground.

I never reapplied to Chicago, but I did go on to write many other novels.

364. The Core Story

photo by David Mayer

For the last month, these posts have been coming later in the day, in hopes of finding new readership in other time zones. I haven’t been happy with the results, so today I am reverting to the old posting schedule.

Over in Serial today, I begin presenting the novel Spirit Deer. I had some hesitation about this.

As it stands, Spirit Deer is a juvenile, not a YA. It would be suitable for most of the kids I taught in middle school, but too young for teenagers. It would stand with Island of the Blue Dolphins, not with Twilight.

It didn’t start out that way. When I originally wrote it, as an experiment to see if I could I write a complete novel, Spirit Deer was a book for adults. Tim had a last name, a wife, a job, a backstory, and other adult considerations. When he got lost in the woods and had to find his own way out, it was a catalyst for changing his life.

It was only 45,000 words however. That was too short for a western or a science fiction novel, even in the seventies, and way too short for a regular novel. And while the lost-and-found part of the story was fine, the relationships part wasn’t ready for prime time. It didn’t deserve to be published, and it wasn’t.

I moved on and my second novel,  Jandrax, and it was published. Fair trade; Spirit Deer had done its job by teaching me to write. It could be put away with no regrets.

But it wouldn’t die. The problem was, once you strip away the wife and the job and the friend and the adult concerns, the core story of how to keep alive when nature is trying to kill you was still powerful.

After a lot of years, and several other novels, I went back to Spirit Deer and stripped it down to it’s essence. At that level, Spirit Deer could have been about any male above the age of thirteen, all the way up to senility. To be fair, a woman could have endured what Tim endured, but I don’t think a woman would want to read a book about it. At least not in the eighties and nineties when the core story was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Don’t give up on me.”

Spirit Deer became a juvenile because of its length. When the wife and friend and backstory went away, there were only about 25,000 words left.

Consider this:

Man against nature, other men, or himself, is a story.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus gunfights, is a western.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus thugs, is a thriller.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus spies, is James Bond.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sweet sex, is a romance.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus rough sex, is men’s action — a genre which has all but disappeared.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sex, catching a big fish, and death on the last page, is Hemingway.

I didn’t want to add any of those plusses, and I didn’t want to make Spirit Deer artificially longer, so it became a juvenile. It’s still a good story, it taught me a lot, and it provides a lot for us to talk about as writers.

That is, I assume you are or want to be a writer, or I would have lost you in the second paragraph.

Spirit Deer will be presented in forty posts over in Serial, and there will be posts over here on A Writing Life expanding on the story, on being a beginning writer, and on how many ways a writer can present a core story.

363. Masters: Coming to America

What sort of country would (the United States) have now if the Indians had had an Immigration Service when the Pilgrims set out in 1620?
John Masters

When I first read John Masters, something he said stuck with me. Before going to Westercon this year, I wanted to run down that quotation, and in doing so I found much more worth sharing. What he said about writing will appear here later, but today I want to give his insights on immigration, or, as he called it, his Seven Year’s War with the U. S. Immigration authorities.

For reasons detailed in his book, John Masters decided that, though he was an Englishman, there was no life for him in England, and that America should become his home. He applied for an immigrant visa, knowing that the British yearly quota of 65,000 was never filled. His reactions to the questions asked on the application form were humorous, but too long to place here. Apparently the questions were as inane then as they are now. (see 329. Green Card Blues and 361. Take This Test)

A week or so later, he was told that he would have to wait about four and a half years. He had been placed on the Indian quota. He went back to inquire and was told that American law only recognized the place of his birth, not his actual citizenship. Never mind that he was born in a British military hospital. Never mind that he was born of a British mother and a British father, stationed in the British army in a British controlled area. Never mind that a child born of an American parent (and it only takes one) anywhere in the world is an American citizen. Never mind that he was born in 1914, and India didn’t become a country until 1947. He was born in India, so he was on the India quota.

It was a good thing he hadn’t been born while his father was stationed in Greece. The Greek quota was eighty-one years. (Yes, that is not a misprint. 81 years.)

Masters decided to withdraw his application for an Immigrant visa, get a visitor’s visa, and work things out later. That was not allowed. Since he had applied for an immigrant visa, he was no longer eligible for a visitor’s visa. Too many others when facing impossible waits had made that same move, then disappeared once they were in America.

As you might guess, as a British Army officer with plenty of friends, he was eventually allowed a visitor’s visa, came to America, and managed to stay permanently, although with many additional bureaucratic battles.

Good thing he wasn’t actually Indian.

More to the point in 2017, good thing he wasn’t Mexican, or poor, or not a native English speaker.

Master’s comments on writing will come in later posts.

362. Masters of India

     Wasn’t it barely a week since I had thrilled to learn what was inscribed on the base of the Statue of LIberty:
          Give me you tired, your poor,
          Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .
     What generosity, I had thought, what a marvel of welcome!
                         John Masters

We’ll let that quotation hang there, and return to it later. This post, and several more, are connected to John Masters’ third installment of autobiography, Pilgrim Son.

I read the first installment of his autobiography, Bugles and a Tiger, during the 1970s. Normally a military biography would be the last thing to interest me. Furthermore, I was in the Navy against my will at the time, it that made it even more unlikely. However, Masters was a famous novelist specializing in India, so I read Bugles . . ., and I was impressed.

I had just finished four years studying South Asia and was about to return to another year of the same. My experience had shown me that there is wisdom (and stupidity) in writing on all sides of any issue. Wiser’s The Hindu Jajmani System (anthropologist), Nehru’s The Discovery of India (nationalist agitator, then national leader) and Masters’ various works (officer in the British Army in India) all showed accurate views from different perspectives.

I skipped Masters’ second autobiography, The Road Past Mandalay because I had no interest in sharing the horrors of WW II’s Burmese campaign, but Pilgrim Son was about the start of his life as a writer. I was beginning to write, so I ate it up.

That was nearly four decades ago. One particular story from that book stayed with me, and sent me back to seek it out again. I found that the whole book was a gem, far better than I remembered, and with more than one brief bit worth sharing.

For one thing, Masters had a lot to say about immigrants. That had not stuck in my memory because it was not an issue in the early eighties when I first read Pilgrim Son.

I have to set the stage by reminding American readers, whose world historical knowledge is typically shallow, that India is an ancient culture, but is new as a nation. Until mid-last century, it was controlled by Britain. In 1947, what was then India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and each part became a self-governing nation. Decades later, Pakistan also split, into Pakistan and Bangladesh. What had once been a more-or-less uniform culture divided into hundreds of petty kingdoms, was first unified under British rule, then split into three modern nations.

After several hundred years, members of the British Army and of the British governing class, many of whom had lived in India for generations, had to take ship for England. John Masters was one of those Englishmen who was born in India, had lived his life there, and now found himself an immigrant to his other homeland. He soon found that there was nothing for him in England, and became an immigrant to America, where he began his writing career. more tomorrow

359. Westercon Who?

I always think of Westercon as a big deal, but really, most people have never heard of it. Star Trek conventions, sure. Comicon, oh yes: especially since The Big Band Theory showed our four nerds in attendance.

Worldcon is the mother of all science fiction conventions, genealogically, although not in size. It began in 1939. Hugo Awards are handed out at Worldcon.

In 1948, local science fiction fans in the Los Angeles area decided to hold their own convention, because Worldcons were being held on the east coast, and coast to coast travel in 1948 was no small chore. The first Westercon drew 77 people — the first Worldcon had drawn 300.

You might say they have both grown since then. Conventions have also fragmented into specialty venues for fans of fantasy, comics, Star Trek, Star Wars, zombies, manga/anime and who knows how many others.

I love science fiction, but I’m not a fan. That means I read it a lot, read everything my favorite authors write, re-read frequently, and eventually became a writer myself. But since I’m not gregarious, and no one in my world shared my interest, I never talked to anyone about science fiction. Until this blog, that is.

Fans talk about their favorites, and also the %*#*@ jerks who are ruining the genre. They used to write fanzines, and now they produce webzines, websites, and pod casts. And they produce conventions, go to conventions, and volunteer at conventions.

I guess this website takes me half-way into fandom, since I have written quite a few appreciations of Heinlein, Clarke, Norton and others of my favorites. And now I’m volunteering as a presenter at Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona over the fourth of July weekend this year.

I’ve actually done this before (see How to Build a Culture), but it has been a while. I’m tentatively scheduled to be on five panels:

What made the golden age golden?
Fantasy world building
Alien autopsy: the biology of ET
Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope?
Fake it ’til you make it: a survivor’s guide for the introverted author

I’m not the kind of guy who can flop down behind a table with three or four people I’ve never met and pontificate. Not gregarious; as I said above. I will be preparing my thoughts on these topics over the next month, and as I do, I’ll be sharing them in the form of posts. That way you will be in on things, even it you don’t make it to Tempe. This will work well with Spirit Deer in Serial. That short, short novel is going to turn into a bit of a how-to through posts over on this side, and that will work well alternating with how-to posts made in preparation for Westercon.

This should be fun.