Monday, June 30, 2014

Week 16

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.


So I’ve begun work on the collection, the actual writing that is. It doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped researching by any means, but the research is now different. The part I began with is Muir, which means that I have to immerse myself in research about Muir.


Like a lot of writers, I began adulthood by getting a degree in literature. That’s not a bad idea, but doing that has its own set of problems. What you don’t realize as you’re going through it is that you’re getting a degree to be a reader, which is much different than being a writer. The two concepts don’t translate well.


One of the ideas that doesn’t come across well is research. For years, I tried to research my writing prompts in the same way that I researched my critical essays. I used literary journals and commentary on writers and events. These are all great, but they don’t give writers the kind of texture they need to write their work.


I still do that kind of database research, but it is one very small part of the other things that I do. After all, I need to get the texture of the characters and their worlds. So I’ve been rereading Muir’s work in an attempt to capture his personality. I’ve been watching documentaries and movies. I’ve been walking the Sierra Nevadas in his footsteps as much as I can, trying to smell what he smelled and feel what he felt.


The world has changed. Of course it has. Even the natural world. But if you get out on the trail into the backcountry where the mountains climb out of human consciousness, and you scramble up the face of a glacial boulder out where you aren’t supposed to go because of danger and isolation, if you get beyond human light and noise and just breathe, you can transport yourself back a hundred years. You get out there and look out over the hills and trees and dream about Muir, and you can almost hear his Scottish brogue.


That’s research too.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Week 15

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.


The large problem I’ve been facing, one of them, is how to make Mulholland likeable. After the movie Chinatown, it’s been hard to find people who will come out on his side. Of course, the character based on him commits incest against a minor. That bit was tough on Mulholland’s reputation.


Some of the other claims that were made in the movie: that the drought he worked with was faked and that he did dirty back door deals was true. Of course, it wasn’t all Mulholland. The movie boils down the evil of several men into one person.


But the chaos and evil of his life is the only thing we see. I still think that beneath the alcohol and ambition was a good person. His true desire was to help Los Angeles and to create a city in a desert. We know now that pumping all this water into this area is a bad idea, but from his perspective, what he was doing was noble. The alternative was to let crops fail and let people go hungry. At least, that’s what it was from his perspective.


So in my attempt to find the good in Mulholland, I’ve been talking to LA water people. The latest was Kathy Simmons up at the Vista Del Lago visitor’s center above Pyramid Lake. It’s interesting how passionate water people are. They should be. What they are doing is fascinating and grand work. They’re following in the tradition of the Roman aqueduct builders. The level of civil engineering is amazing. There are massive problems with transporting that much water around the desert, but they are serving the needs of those of us who complain but continue to live here.


Ms. Simmons was there with a thick file about Mulholland, much of the information gathered before the movie came out, and there is a good deal about what made him great. By some, he’s seen as a kind of giant figure from a romantic past, and I guess that’s kind of how I’ve always seen his early life too.


The disasters that plagued his later life are part of what make him a tragic figure, but there would be no tragedy if he did not start out as great. He was a hard-drinking, hard-working, self-educated man. His leisure time was filled with whiskey, classic literature, and self-taught calculus. That’s the man to start with.

Thank you Ms. Simmons!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Week 14

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

This week, I thought I’d write about my process, which I love. I generally spend all day writing. I don’t mean that every moment is filled with my typing, but that I spend about the three hours of the morning locked behind a computer. The rest of the day, I write intermittently in odd hours between work.

But it doesn’t start that way. It starts in the early morning with me being confused and frustrated. Every morning, I wake up with absolutely no idea of where I’m going. I turn to my wife and ask her what she thinks I should do, and she generally shrugs, and then we go for a ride.

I take a ride because I live in Los Angeles. For years, my daily round trip commute was 120 miles, which is not unusual for an Angelino. I’ve gotten used to getting on the road, turning off the radio, and working out creative problems. Most of us do that.

In the morning, Ann and I get in the car and drive and talk about what we’re working on and help each other through our doubts and confusions. It doesn’t take much of a drive either. I’ve gotten on Pacific Coast Highway, driven a block, and turned around because we figured out what we are going to do.

I think ritual is important when you’re a writer. I don’t like driving much, but I’ve gotten used to it. Back when I lived out in the desert because I was poor and gas was cheaper than rent, I made sure that I used all of that dead time to write poems. I did that for five years, telling myself that I needed to have a poem at least half-written mentally by the time I got to work. The rhythm of the freeway has gotten into me. It’s magic for my wife and me.

I have other rituals I suppose. They’re unconscious but probably just as important. They’ve burned neural pathways through my brain, but this is my favorite. Maybe it’s the time I get to talk to my wife. Maybe it’s the exploration. I don’t know what it is, but it always works.

So I’m curious. What are your writing rituals?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Week 13

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

I’m almost to the point in my research when I can start to write the poems, but I’ve spent the last week trying to find a way to make Mulholland likeable. He was an interesting and good-hearted man, at least at the beginning. The problem is that his fall was so great, that it’s hard to see anything but the fall.

I started the week reading the section in Cadillac Desert that describes his reaction to Yosemite. Essentially he said that the national parks should send out photographers to the park and have every inch photographed so everyone could enjoy it for the rest of history, then: "I would build a great dam and stop all the goddamn waste."

How can I create a sympathetic character out of someone who would say something like that? I think the most interesting thing he says there is that he’s worried about waste. He was worried that the water was running off and feeding animals and trees only. To him that was waste, which means that he was putting humanity as his primary concern.

I think part of the problem I’m having as well is relying too heavily on books. For a book to sell, it needs to be slanted and dramatic. I need to find a different slant, and I think this might have to do with museums that are pro-Mulholland. So this next week, I will research that. And then, the beginning of the poems!

I’m excited.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Week 12

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

Muir’s and Mulholland’s stories are going to be told from the point of view of Harrison, my character from my short story collection Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. Every morning, Ann and I go for a long walk or drive to talk about the creative work we’re going to do that day. Ann’s great. She’s a visual artist, but she can always open up ideas for me. I hope I do the same for her.

This week, we’ve been talking about the structure of Harrison’s story. (By the way, I posted the first two sonnets a few weeks ago if you’re interested in those).

Harrison’s back story is that his emotionally unstable son, Stanley, has attacked another boy for being disrespectful to a girl he’s in obsessed with. Stanley has been rejected by the girl and that has only increased his obsession dangerously.

Each of the stories are going to parallel the first part of the Bible: the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, and the Exodus.

In the Garden of Eden section, Harrison takes his son with him as he travels through the natural parts of California, trying to heal his son through nature. The problem is that the child is obsessed with the girl. The Garden of Eden story ends with exile. This section ends with Stanley hiking away into the forest in the middle of the night while Harrison is asleep so he can get within cell range and call the girl.

In the Great Flood section, Harrison finds Stanley camped by a stream bed the next day just as a rainstorm begins. He takes Stanley up to higher ground and has him watch as the stream fills with water that would have killed him. Stanley’s anger dissipates and changes into remorse. The Great Flood story ends with a promise. Here Stanley promises that he will never leave his father like that again.

In the Exodus section, Harrison and Stanley again go around California finally ending way back in the woods. Stanley’s obsession with his girl grows and he ditches his promise, but this time steals Harrison’s truck leaving Harrison stranded. Harrison has to make his exodus out of the woods searching for his son.

That’s the rough outline for the story. Now all I need to do is location scout. Each poem needs to wrap itself around a magic moment or place. They need to involve water in some way. So do you know any wet California locations? Let me know. They are few and far between!