Writing Hideout: Writing as a Mask

I hide in my writing. It is clear in my notes for The Young Chronicles series. I didn’t write about things that happened – seeing Beatlemania in Saskatoon, not even the guy who offered me a blow job – but instead about drivel that would embarrass an illiterate.

Reading through my notes from my Canadian Hitchhiking trip in 1983 is squirm-worthy.

Much of my writing is like that – everything from my bullshit poetry to my first attempt at prose – a lowlight reel proving I should have stopped long, long ago.

A thankfully brief extract from a story I wrote in 1984, Ulvand’s World. Even the titles…God.

I went on to write about prostitutes, 9/11 and outer space, everything but me.

Detail of a cover design from a story written in 1994

So why blog about it now, you ask? I’m getting to that. (I hope.)

The McPhedran Way – A Typical (Bad) Day in My Writing Process

6:30 am Play Fishdom and Words With Friends. No thoughts on writing.

8:30 am Play Fishdom. Read emails, watch YouTube videos and search for “inspiration” by porn surfing. A general malaise dominates thinking.

11:00 am Half think about writing but retreat from that, afraid to start.

12:30 pm Lunch. Watch random bits of film – anything from Battleship to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

2:00 pm Ride stationary bike and listen to intense music (Rage Against the Machine, Cheap Trick, Nine Inch Nails, etc.) in an attempt to get brain moving. Watch birds flying past, beds being changed in hotel rooms across the street and people working in adjoining business. Writing problems do not come to mind.

Entertaining things can occasionally be seen in Artezan Hotel.

3:00 pm Read more emails, watch more videos and porn. Snack.

4:30 pm Open the Anori document. Close it. Play Words with Friends and Fishdom.

8:00 pm Think about what I might do tomorrow

So it goes on a bad day. Which oddly enough can lead to a good day.

Writing Process: Lost Images

As of late, I have been scouring through old images (prints, negatives and slides) in search of material for my Young Chronicles series. However there is one picture I cannot find, that of a boy looking back through the gap between a bus seat and the wall. All I can find is this lesser shot of his hand.

Boy’s hand on bus trip from Edmonton, Alberta to Whitehorse, Yukon.

Not being able to find the image of the boy haunts me in an odd way. I don’t know how I could have lost it and look for it again and again. To no avail.

The feeling reminds me of a fruitless search as a boy at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. There had been a exhibition on the Amazon that I had loved, but it was a temporary thing and had vanished forever.

Searching for the lost Amazon exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

That didn’t stop me from endlessly searching the corridors and rooms, peaking behind the dioramas, looking for the secret passageway that would lead me back to that magical place. I am still looking for that.

U Turn Memory

I have a memory, if it can be called that, a moving image that bubbles up when I’m writing.

It is of a stretch of road called Marine Drive, connecting North and West Vancouver. It’s a thoroughfare, three lanes each way, thick with strip malls and autobody shops on each side.

Nothing happened there that I can remember. I just have to make a U turn. That’s the memory. I have to get back to something. Not a place, but a person, someone I left on the side of the road. And I am waiting to make that turn.

Not Marine Drive, not even close to it.

But I never make the turn because the light doesn’t change. I just wait and look at the orange and white sign for the autobody shop across the way.

“Anori” Extract: A Father’s Death

I’ll tell you what I did when he died. Do you want to hear that misery? I took sleeping pills. I drank, like my father. I shut everything off. And then I was in Grand Central, waiting for the train. I had a beer. I was at the stand at Track 106. There’s a stand there. It’s called Bar Car. I had a can of Budweiser, a 16-ounce can.

I took that 16-ounce can to that old marble counter against the wall, with the brass railing, working guys talking about their wives and installers, checking their phones, and all of these people walking past, old men racing to catch their trains, little trolleys wheeled around with broken wheels, the tabloids arriving in stacks, the shoeshine girl staring out.

I had another beer, another 16-ounce can. I stood and watched. There was this crazed guy with a perfectly trimmed beard and then these lost ladies from Japan, a woman floating by, her portfolio tucked at her breast. I was completely still, drinking my beer. That was it, the moment I knew he wasn’t there. That’s when I understood, or I should say pretended to understand that he wasn’t coming back.

Writing Process: Too Much Talking

The writing process can be hard, especially in what is left behind. I had to remove another scene from Anori. The dialogue was strong but it didn’t move the story. And so…expunged.

The set-up: Dee has just arrived in Greenland (where the space ships are being launched) and has dinner with Val, one of the pilots, who confesses a dark moment from her past.

“Yeah, this, I don’t know, trapped in a prison from cradle to…what?” Dee laughed. “What do you die in?”

“Death bed, I guess.”

“Grave! Cradle to grave. Trapped in this existence.”

“Try not to think about it and then move on.”

“Better than thinking about being raped.”

Dee waited.

“It was someone I had known for years. The whole thing, I mean, the whole thing was such a nightmare. We were friends. He was laid back, a decent guy. And then, I don’t know, he just turned into this asshole Mr. Hyde.”

“He was drunk?”

Val shook her head violently like she was trying to not be drunk. “Everybody drank. I had too much. But not pass-out drunk, nothing like that. Just hanging out, relaxed. And then he was on me. He had me pinned, with my arm behind my back.” She half acted it out. “He was going to break my arm. I could feel it. He pushed me backward and tore my dress. He fucked me like that on the floor. I kept trying to move my arm but I couldn’t. he pushed down on that side of me like he had practiced it or something. It lasted two minutes, if that.”

Dee gripped her chopsticks tightly.

“He actually called me with this bullshit confession later, fucking crying on the phone. I don’t know why I listened. He wanted to stay friends. He kept saying that.” Val ground a chopstick into the wasabi. “I left my dress under the table in the living room floor. I came home and threw it there. I didn’t touch it. It sat balled up there for weeks. I couldn’t look at it. I would veer to the other side of the room when I walked through, all of that.”

“You don’t talk to people about any of this?” Dee asked.

“Why bother?”

Writing Process: The Cat Inside

A spark is needed to start writing. And the trick is to allow that thing to turn into something substantial before getting at it. This can’t be forced or ignored. It’s like a cat. She pretends she doesn’t want to interact, but she does.

Popo watching

You just have to wait, even when she is sitting there. She needs to be coddled. Oh, no, not coddled! My mistake. That can’t be said, even thought. Appreciated. That’s the word. Appreciated.

Popo watching still

Play with her. Stroke her face and sides. She will go with that. And then it’s great fun and games, moving ahead like it was nothing at all. Why weren’t we always here? Simple as that? And then she is gone, quick as it started, and it’s a matter of waiting for another round

Virile

The thing is that you are here, simply and wildly so, what the beat guys said, that raw repetitive thing. You think you belong here and you do. You came to this place and were ready for it or not at all. On the edge of knowing. That is all there could possibly be. Almost there. Virile. All of that in you. One long impossible note.

And you think there should be more – because in all of that might be ahead and has been seen by you, by you!, the sheer cliffs, the little kids, everything tiny, remembering a mistake, lost, incredibly, delightfully so, and not in a memory, not a precise known thing, cherished, forgotten, that thing so exquisite as it must be known, there, waiting – and it isn’t.

And so there is that, the king of the universe in the hallway, flames coming out like they should, no understanding for the what or why of it, that nightmare you slip into and live in, there, acting like you are half sleep and probably are. And how did you get to that? Meandering, fine and easy. That is what you say and almost think at the end of it.

Tree-Planting is Everything

EXT. DAY.

Davis and Baz bag up in the pre-dawn light; the horizon is purple and green. They both ingest mushrooms and take a long drink of water before going up to plant the burned ground together. Clouds of ash rise up as they begin to work. A montage series offers close-ups of the shovel blades going into the ground, the trees gripped in their hands, boots tramping over the burned-out ground, interspersed with helicopter shots of them, tiny figures in the massive dominating landscape of mountains and valleys.

DAVIS (Not stopping): Feeling it?

BAZ: Feeling it.

DAVIS: It’s good.

Montage of close-ups continues, including extreme close-up of the bright blue tape tied off on a branch, beetles scampering along the edge of a burn-out twisted stump, an abandoned chainsaw blade twisted among the weeds, a woodpecker perched on a tree at the edge of the block, sweat dripping off the nose and chin of Davis, a mosquito landing and stinging Baz on the shoulder, ending with a hard slap. They stop, look at each other, drink water, move their trees from the back bag to the side, and continue planting.

DISSOLVE TO:

EXT. DAY.

Davis and Baz continue to plant. The sound of their heavy breathing, scuffing boots and cicadas are the only sounds. They reach the back edge of the block and a band of shade, planting the very edge of the road like experts, the trees rapidly dropped in. They pause in the shadows, each eating nuts and dried fruit, drinking in heavy gulps that spill down their necks.

DAVIS: I almost like this.

BAZ: Almost.

DAVIS: There’s something….

BAZ: Being an animal.

DAVIS: A burrowing creature, like a…badger.

BAZ: Digging.

DAVIS: Bringers of life.

BAZ: At 11 cents a tree.

They both laugh stupidly, looking at each other, and then go back to planting.

BAZ: I could never work at a desk.

DAVIS: Why would anyone do that? Insane.

BAZ: Look at my arm.

DAVIS (Looking at his dirty, ash-stained arm): I see it.

BAZ: Why is that part of me?

DAVIS: It’s crooked.

BAZ (Examining it): No, it isn’t.

DAVIS: I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing.

BAZ: It isn’t crooked.

DAVIS (Holding his arm out): Mine is too!

BAZ: You’re right. Your arm’s fucked up.

DAVIS: It isn’t fucked up.

BAZ (Taking a tree, rubbing the needles gently through his hand): My point is that this arm is mine. It’s a part of who I am supposed to be.

DAVIS: Extremities.

BAZ: My brain commands, the electric impulses obey.

DAVIS: You’re just in your head? The master commander.

BAZ: Not even that. It’s a tiny point in the back. Or just outside, floating in the darkness.

DAVIS: That’s you?

BAZ (Planting again): Yes.

DAVIS (Following him, planting too): What about your nose?

BAZ: I don’t have a problem with my nose.

BAZ (Throwing his shovel in hard): That makes sense to me.

DAVIS: Your nipples.

BAZ: Nipples. Yeah.

DAVIS: What the fuck are you doing with nipples?

BAZ: I like nipples.

DAVIS: Your nipples?

BAZ: Yes.

DAVIS: You find that erotic.

BAZ: And my throat.

DAVIS: I don’t like that word.

BAZ: Throat. Man, I love a chick’s throat.

DAVIS: You mean her neck.

BAZ: No. Throat. That’s erotic.

They plant in silence, the sound of their shovels pronounced against the stillness of the day.

DAVIS (Reciting Hamlet, II, II, 228-331):What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in… Something or other. I forget… in apprehension how like a god… and yet to me, this quintessence of dust.

There is a long pause, the shovels once again the only sound.

BAZ  (Reciting lines from Ginsberg’s Howl in a deep and booming voice):Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch in whom I dream angels!Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! Invincible mad houses! Granite cocks!

There is another long pause.

DAVIS (Unwrapping packets of trees): Granite cocks?

BAZ (Planting ahead, chanting):Invincible mad houses, granite cocks. Invincible mad houses, granite cocks!

Davis starts planting again and joins in the chant, done in chorus with their boot steps, the shovels in the ground, the tree dropped in. They suddenly hear another noise, almost the same grunting, but deeper and louder. They look up together and see a Grizzly Bear standing right in front of them, massive, only 30 feet away. The giant creature considers them, chewing on something methodically. Baz and Davis notice a bear cub on the other side of her. They waver and then, in unison, continue to plant, Baz makes a grunting noise that almost sounds like he is continuing the chant. They plant a number of trees in succession and look up again. The bear and cub have both vanished.

DAVIS: Jesus. We just had a fucking vision.

BAZ: Both of us? At the same time?

DAVIS: What did you see?

The Grizzly and cub come out from behind the slash, walking away, and crashing into the forest.

BAZ: I saw that.

Davis goes back to planting.

DAVIS (Looking back up): What?

BAZ: I think I just saw your cat. (Pause) Riding the cub’s back, guiding it by the ears.

DAVIS: What was that noise you were making?

BAZ: What noise?

DAVIS: You were grunting or something.

BAZ: I was asserting my presence.

DAVIS: You sounded like you were having a seizure.

BAZ: It’s what the mountain gorillas do.

DAVIS: When’s the last time you think this bear ran into a fucking mountain gorilla?

BAZ: That stuff’s universal.

DAVIS (Laughing to himself): Joint. (Pause) Universal joint, remember? The van?

They continue to plant toward the road.

DAVIS (Planting his last tree): Last one. How many you got?

BAZ (Looking in his bag): Same, man. The exact same.

Baz plants his last tree and they walk slowly, languidly down.

DAVIS: What are your numbers?

They walk for a few moments in silence.

BAZ: I don’t know.

DAVIS: Me either.

BAZ: Oh, shit. One more. (Pulling a tree out and planting it)

DAVIS: Baller.