Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Jump Start Part II

Highway 93 runs the length between Boulder and Morrison right at the base of the Rocky Mountains. When heading south, the foothills are on the right, they are small by comparison of their brothers and sisters to the west but impressive next to the expanse of plains that slope forever downward to the east. Highway 93 flows like a river separating two very different ecological providences. It flows through Golden, the one time Capitol of the State of Colorado, home to the Coors Brewing Company, and the Colorado School of Mines. Past Golden comes Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Hog Back that is a reminder of the sea shore that once ended right where the Rockies end today. Past Red Rocks is the town of Morrison. Once in Morrison it is a quick jaunt to Littleton. I have a feeling it was a far quicker jaunt in the spring of 1993 when it was still my commute to work. The drive, over all, was serene. 1993 was a time before the mass development and influx of people. There were often times few people, if any on the road with me. The long dive along the beautiful front range took me so far into my thoughts and my imagination the time was invaluable.
I don't remember the exact day, although I know it was in May. On that day in May of 1993 on that drive between Boulder and Littleton I conceived of a story of an exiled man who landed up in a mountainous desert alone awaiting death. The story evolved in my mind into plots, subplots, flying lizards, HIV victims and abandoned libraries. A few commutes later, I had such a believable story, I could see not only in my mind, but I saw it in the landscape outside the old car.
The day came when I couldn't stand just thinking about it anymore. It was time to write is all down. That day, and I remember the drive because of the rain, I felt a wonderful resolve. I knew all I had to do was get a notebook and a pen, hell, the thing was already written in my mind. I thought less about the story and more about the way I was going to write it. I started, in my mind, on page one and just ripped away.
Just as I arrived at work, I walked to the supermarket across the street. Now, this was 1993, this was before I learned to love the 100 leaf, (200 page) sewn binding composition notebook. It was 1993, and I was a young man.
In the supermarket I became overwhelmed with the vast variety of notebook options. Some were glued, wide ruled, spiral, and of course the sizes varied too both in dimension and quantity of sheets.
I lost all steam standing in the fluorescent lit school supply aisle. How could something so petty matter? The entire ordeal was so petty that I'm nearly embarrassed by it now. I was not going to be able to write my great story and standing in the supermarket as I was, I was reminded of my ineptitude.
I took one notebook down after another. I flipped though a few. Eventually, I chose a 6” x 8” spiral with eighty pages. (It still took me several days to get started).
Those old sayings have always seemed so stupid to me. Stupid sayings like “right as Rain,” or “we'll cross that bridge when we come to it,” or “you eat a whale one bite at a time,” or “start at the beginning.”
The beginning for me was one word on a small piece of paper. A larger page would have been so much more intimidating.
It's that intimidation or the feeling of being overwhelmed that trips up many young (or returning) writers. Yes, cross that bridge when you come to it. Burn the bridge when you come to it. Don't be afraid to start. You don't have to write an entire novel in one sitting. You don't have to write an entire short story in one sitting. You don't even have to write an entire haiku in one sitting. Just begin, get the motivation to do it, set aside the time, and the rest will follow.

During the first Jumpstart workshop, I like to give all my participants a little quiz called the “Why Read." The 20 questions stress only one thing: good writing requires good reading.
Question 19 takes us to Japan, 17th century, and a poet called Matsuo Basho. Basho in his 40th year decided to leave home and take a long walk. At this point in his life he was already a fairly well known poet. The haiku being the common form of Japanese poetry at the time was not enough for Basho. His form is called the haibun which simply stated is a short prose passage followed up with a haiku. There are a few elements common to Basho's prose in each of the haibun in Narrow Road to the Interior and other writings:
1)There is usually travel involved.
2)He names very specific places
3)There are references to people or Shinto figures
The haiku to end each haibun follows proper form in the 17 syllables and three line form. Basho takes his haiku to a different place altogether. Rather than something high, or elevated, or seasonal, or the praises of nature, Basho often times it is praising something as lowly as a cricket.

I don't believe the haiku is an easy form to use, not for fiction writers and maybe not for westerners. To labor over seventeen syllables is a very noble endeavor indeed. In the first session of Umbrella Factory Workshops (the Jumpstart) I believe it is important if not imperative for each participant to leave with something in ther hands, something they've accomplished. After the “Why Read” quiz, after a short discussion of Basho, we write haikus.
A quick lesson in the form leads to Carolyn Forche, and then to Jack Kerouac. The former does not use the form or haibun, at least not in the example I use. The latter, Jack Kerouac in Desolation Angels uses haibun, but in a slightly different way.
Then it's off to the next exercise: The haibun.
Now, we're gone from 17 syllables to a short prose passage. If that isn't breaking the complex task of beginning the process of writing into a smaller, easier to manage part, then I don't know what is. After an hour and a half each participant has a piece of work, their own work to show for their time. Granted, a haibun is not a novel length manuscript, it is only a start. We all must start somewhere, even if the size of paper we use is only for the first word.


Basho, Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior and other writings, Sam Hamil Trans. (Shambhala, 2000)
Forche, Carolyn. The Country Between Us (Harper & Row, 1981)
Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels (Riverhead, 1965)

The Jumpstart Continued:
Place, space and time (setting)

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