Why I write
“My soul, you wanted me to utter and write down all these words. I did not know that you guarded such secrets. I am astonished. You are an unbelievable riddle. But what to make of my astonishment? “
~ C.G. Jung
Lumbering redwood trees thrived along the wet-winter creek and at night the barred owls serenaded us with hoots and every morning a red-shouldered hawk landed on the tin roof above our bedroom and hopped and called for the countryside to waken.
In the mornings and the evenings the tips of the redwoods speared through the carpet of fog that settled in the valley below. We looked out the window to the east, over the tops of the trees towards the towns and the hills beyond.
We lived in a flat above a barn full of tractors and mowers and garden gear and outside the owners ripped out fifty-one acres of apple trees and set vines so the winery in the valley could crush the grapes for sparkling wine.
They planted irrigation and stanchions with wire strung from one end to the other so the vines could reach toward the heavens.
They fenced the vineyard to prohibit critters but at night the alleys between the rows filled with deer. In the glow from the outdoor lights on the corners of the barn, I often watched the deer leap the fences, tangle their antlers in the irrigation tubing or the wires employed to train the vines. And I cheered, silently, for the deer.
We moved to that place from the mountains of southern New Mexico. We’d deserted a laid back mountain community in the southwest for a dynamic and roaring left coast community on the cutting edge of culture and economics.
And that was tough for me. My kind were ranchers and loggers and other mountain folk who were fairly conservative and now we were immersed in a community of progressives.
It took a while.
And living in a vineyard wasn’t the bucolic paradise you’d think. It was tractors and laborers outside your windows and in the early hours of morning, 1 AM or thereabouts, the putt-putt of a tractor pulling a spray rig clouding the air with sulfur and other possibly noxious chemicals the truth of which the owners or workers were not ready to concede.
It was a different world for me. After Betty and I had been there about a year, we started to think about looking elsewhere but when Betty’s mom heard our dismay she said, “Well, Bettykay, you’ll just have to come back up to speed.”
Right then images of me running down the road like a skuzzy cur with his tail between his legs spurred me on getting “up to speed.”
And we did.
And one of the first changes in my life and my attitude? I wanted to write.
Betty and I went on a vacation in late 1992 and traveled eastern California and into Utah and then Arizona where I shot Gambel’s quail with my son and along the way Betty and I yarned about places we’d been: Yosemite and Bishop and Death Valley and Lost Wages and St. George and Nam and Maine and the Navajo reservation and Flagstaff and down south of Phoenix.
Sometimes we scoffed at events that spurred our memories and sometimes we laughed and often we stopped talking as we watched the big, high and dry passage of red sand, Ponderosa forest and humongous mountains and all those moments reinforced my need to write.
Because there was a need. Still is.
I wanted to make short stories, so we bought a computer and I began to scratch out tales based on memory and then I signed up to take a writing course with my first mentor, the novelist Jean Hegland, who thought as writers we needed to study all kinds of writing and even though I thought poems were for…well, what—Wimps? Liberals? What?—I followed directions.
I wrote a few poems and something about the process began to grind like the gravel that dove cram in their craws, and out of my mouth—my memory—came, alas, poems. At first it embarrassed me or maybe that’s not the right word, but I felt…gee, I think I felt exposed.
Early on my work focused on the Vietnam War and then it was the war and then trying to branch out, it was the war. It still is.
And I didn’t want to write about the war again and again and again. I didn’t want to bore people or disgust them with my images of death and destruction, my anger.
And now I ask myself, why not the war? I don’t think we are going to stop warring anytime soon and combat often exposes the very best and worst of humanity.
When warriors write their tales a lot of the gasoline to run the compositional engine comes from rage. When people try to kill you, it enrages you although I don’t think you notice it until years later when you try to deal with the leftovers of people shooting at you.
And to kill others, I think you need to be instilled with rage, something to make you go against everything you learned as a kid.
And rage like that sticks around, like bad kindergarten memories and the notions of the first girl you thought you loved.
And there’s guilt: survivor’s guilt, and guilt because you weren’t the warrior you wanted to be and maybe your actions resulted in someone else’s death or guilt because you were lucky enough to board a Continental Airlines 707 for home, leaving your mates behind to fight and die.
And shame, too, is another ghost that sneaks in like a night thief and all your on-guard-PTSD paranoia cannot keep it from elbowing into your work, your thoughts.
When I vow to kill someone… and this happens more often than one would think…the moments drag along a sense of shame and outside of war there are other things to be ashamed of: how I treated that girl or that woman or someone who was supposed to be my friend and those times I took something on the sly that wasn’t mine.
My normal thought patterns are zigzags and lightning that carom around my mind and like a bumble bee they land here and then there and then back to the other place they were before. Incomplete, often, and though vivid, sometimes not quite shoveled out enough for me to get at what it is I actually think. (Notice the mixed metaphors.)
But writing allows me to parse it and often I am surprised and that may be the best: where the hell did that come from or I didn’t know I thought that way or I didn’t remember that. Discovery is critical in creative writing.
It’s revelatory for me to go through the process and since I write mostly to see what I can find out about myself and my space on planet Earth, if I thrash about from time to time, that’s okay.
And often, I’m like a rabbit shivering beneath a bush with a golden eagle looking down on me. Then I wonder if that unease isn’t a moment that needs to be investigated, too. An opportunity to get at a slim truth, not necessarily facts, but something more subtle and alarming. An opportunity to uncover an emotional truth, maybe something about the thrill and agony of lust, the thrill and horror of savagery.
Not that I don’t write about other things besides killing and fear and all the emotional detritus associated with war. I compose other stuff, too, including redwood trees poking through the fog reminding me of fishing boat masts, and barred owls and red-shouldered hawks.