Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The watchers, the listeners, the readers and the thieves.

If you meet a writer you have to know they never stop writing. So, if they never stop writing, how do they live their lives?

Well... in strange, vicarious and very personal ways. Writers are many creatures, as they go through their process of writing. They become the watcher, the listener, and the alchemist that turns all that they have found, into a story - for their finished product is a magical combination of all they are, and all they have collected. 

The Storybook, Catrin Welz-Stein

The Watcher: 

Marc Chagall, Paris Through the Window

I wrote a fantasy book called The Watcher. And the thing I have learned in my many years of writing is that a writer is always watching. Looking. Seeing. And in their head they are often describing to themselves what they are gathering - interpreting it  -  and yes, already writing it - in their head. They can't help it. They are fated to do it.  

If I go to a funeral, or to a Music Festival of middle grade choirs as I did recently, I am watching everything.: colours, clothes, actions, reactions, voices, faces, ages ... everything and anything. If I am walking along a busy city street, I am always on full alert.  Glancing this way, peering intently that way, taking it all in.

If I am paddling my canoe all alone through a misty morning on the lake where I have my cabin, a potential character that I will meet one day is always with me. Will I use that character? I don't know. But there is always someone else with me. Someone who is living a life that I know little about, and I keep catching glimpses of him or her as I pass a dock and see lights in a cabin, or catch the first glimpse of a single-person sailboat tacking across the water. I want to know about them.

I am watching all the time: I watch the sky change colour, the mist rise and expose sharp edged lily pads; I watch the loon with her tiny fluffed up brown babies secreted onto the lower part of her body, hidden under the spread of one wing; I watch water rippling and lapping on the shore; I am mesmerized by a Great Gray Heron floating right past me at eye level, her great wings keeping her on a steady almost silent course. And all the time that I am watching, I am also writing.

The Listener:

John William Waterhouse, The Listener

I haven't written a book called The Listener yet. But I plan to. 

If a writer is at a dinner party with you, or sees you talking to your child on the street, or scolding them in a grocery store, or is in the same restaurant with you at a nearby table, they are listening to you. They are taking in your "dialogue" along with your body language and they are collecting it. Can they use you in a book? NO? Maybe? 

Move on to the next table. Are you the guy sitting at a table with his wife and another couple? Are they chatting while you talk loudly and importantly on your cell phone for a very long time? Yes. You. YOU are fodder. And so is your wife and the people sitting across from you. You are becoming a character. And if I use you in my book, I will turn the caricature you appear to be, into someone that is an individual, but I will use all the clues you give me - like your response to the others who ask you to turn off the phone - and you may even become a sympathetic character, or perhaps not. But I am listening. On the bus. In the doctor's office. In a grocery store. In a movie line-up. Always.

The Reader:

Francine Van Hove, The Reader

Writers are always reading. Or they should be! Novels, non-fiction, news, online, offline ... everything. But once a person decides to become a life long writer, the simple act of reading changes for them. 

It's not a bad thing. It's just part of who they are fated to become - a writer first and foremost. They often read as a reader first, at least I do, but they also read to see how others write. How did this writer manage to create an intense image with just a few perfectly placed words? How did another writer become so adept at dialogue?  Why do some writers forget to "see" or seem unable to "see". You can tell because their novel 
lacks imagery, a sense of place, a feeling that their world is as real as the one in which I, the reader, exist. Why is this other writer's dialogue so stuff and unnatural. How could this newspaper writer be so bad at grammar and get printed?

The writer as reader is really two people.

BUT, sometimes that rare book comes along where the writer/reader is suddenly submerged so deeply in a story, that for just a little while, they become one with the writer - they merge with that other listener, reader, and watcher - the author. That's when magic really happens, and that is the kind of writer we long to become. As writers, this is the writer we read and reread - because that storyteller teaches us about the things that we still need to know - and to remind us why we continue to be writers. 

The Thief:

Fernando Botero, A Thief

Writers will take your life, the things you do, the way you walk and talk and use all or part of you. Even close family or friends. Many of us have few scruples when it comes to taking what we need. We may disguise it well enough, so that you can't actually recognize yourself - and it isn't always negative - but we will steal parts of you without compunction. We will use family history, family stories, historical tales from a community, or great chunks of history. We will use the latest news, the hottest topics that are "trending" and use them, too. We call it research. 

My book "Winter Shadows" is set in 1857 in the Red River Settlement. Some characters are based on real people with enough changes to make them fictional. Many are based on people I found in my research via cemeteries, letters, diaries, historical records and by visiting historical sites. So while I am thieving, I am always the watcher, the listener, the reader and, I am also the the thief of time, places, people, settings and voices. 

The Dreamer:

William Orpen, The Window Seat

I did an entire blog called "May you always be a dreamer". Not the so-called dreamers who hope to become famous writers and kick ass with every award going. That's not the kind of dreamer I mean.

No, I'm  talking about the writer who somehow turns many fantasies and dreams from childhood to adulthood into great books - great stories. Just for the love of it. 

Many of the best writers were dreamers as kids. They were the ones walking along a moon kissed path to their house on a residential city street, imagining that their yard is a wide birthing dock for the red brick boathouse they live in. And how, in their fantasy, their boathouse will soon be free from the ties of the city streets and it will slide along the magically transformed watery streets, down to the river; out into the lake that leads to the ocean, (even if geographically it is impossible).

Because if you are a dreamer, anything is possible. Nothing is IMpossible. Dreamers are the ones  who sit in class and look out the window, chin cupped in their hand and wonder what it would be like to open the window and fly away into the huge clouds floating by. They are the ones who write stories that the teacher thinks are a bit weird, but "interesting".  They are the dreamers who become the watchers, the listeners, the readers and the thieves. 

The Gatherer: 

Georges Lacombe, Autumn Chestnut Gatherers

The writer as the gatherer often spends a lot of "writing time" in search of all the pieces of their story. They don't gather rosebuds while they may. No it is much more serious than that. A writer has to gather everything they need for their work and once it is all collected, by watching, listening, thieving, reading and researching in books and other places, they are left with a pile of things they must organize - including some very unruly characters, some strange sparkling illusive gems from life and places - and then somehow SHAZAM! the whole collection will merge into a cohesive original piece of work. Not forgetting that many times, as they write, the story morphs and changes on its own. Because a story worth its weight in gold is potent and can be volatile, like any raw material in science.

The Alchemist 

Remedios Varos, Creation of the birds.

The writer as alchemist makes something new out of simple ingredients and bits and pieces of the unknown through a process of transformation, creation and combination. Writers become the designer of new humans and other new worlds on paper. Perhaps one can compare it to the creation of a  kind of "parallel world". 

Even if a story is grounded deep in the our earth, or cloaked in universal human angst, or is a fantasy or a mystery, or a story about a girl who sees ghosts in the home she and her mother are renting; they all must go through the alchemist's hands and  - and with luck and a prayer, from there to burst into a world that never existed but yet exists as clearly as you and I exist. 

This is why writers who write all the time are passionate about their work. It is an obsession. It is magical. It is totally addictive.  It is being a consumer of life; a watcher, a listener, a reader, a thief, a dreamer, a gatherer and an magician.

And I am in it for the "life of it".