When we come to the Forth Bridge a few minutes later the view opens up, stretching across the impressive length of the railway bridge mirrored by the road bridge directly adjacent. Extending on both sides, the wide Forth River flows past colorful houses perched on the stony rivers edge where freighters and sail boats head for open sea. With this expansive view my pulse quickens in recognition of a secret crush for this land, a crush I’ve always had for this land, even before I knew it as I do now. Sometimes it’s hard to admit to this affection (and that it might be more than fleeting). Living in a foreign country does strange things to your emotions and sense of belonging. It can become easy to hate a place simply because it’s different than what you’re used to or it isn’t where you ultimately want to be. But, after all these years, I’ve come to accept the struggle and see ways that it has made me grow. Coming to terms with these transitions has brought about this odd recognition—although I don’t consider this place home, something of its essence has seeped into me. And there are moments, like crossing the railway bridge, where I can’t help but acknowledge the connection.
There is something akin to home on these train rides, although I can’t quite decide what it is that makes these journeys feel comfortably familiar. Maybe it’s the families with their attentive parents and young children who exclaim over views of the sea, an excitement I share quietly with a smile. Or maybe it’s the young couples, heads resting on each others shoulders, their quiet conversations and hands entwined reminding me of my husband who will be waiting for me at home.
Today, a young Spanish couple sits in front of me. They move from one side of the train to the next with a vibrant energy that is infectious. The young man keeps taking pictures of the young woman, the sea as a backdrop. It’s obvious they’ve never made this journey before. They look quickly forward, then back, but never focus on what is coming or what is left behind for too long because they are too caught up in what is directly outside their window. I feel their enthusiasm, as if I too am seeing it all for the first time. It’s the water that impresses them most and I agree. The power of the sudden opening view to sea is like a constant revealing secret, surprising and unexpected.
As the tracks leave the seaside and turn inland back to rolling countryside of stone stacked fences and sheep, I can’t help but see this journey as a kind of contradiction to resolutions. It’s New Years Eve after all—a time when we are suppose to be making promises while looking back and planning forward. But what about the here and now? The excited young couple reminds me that it isn’t always about where we have been or where we are going. Sometimes it’s the journeys that are in process. It’s the immediate emotions and experiences and moments of realization that tell us we are alive that are important. Sometimes it is where we are that is the most extraordinary journey of all.
“We listen to the truth, the memories, the bits made up. We gaze at each other. We eat warm buttered toast. We know that the sun will fall, that the children and the birds will be silent. We know that we will return to separate lives and separate deaths. We listen to the stories that for an impossible afternoon hold back the coming dark.”
David Almond, Counting Stars
Stories are extraordinary things. They rally our emotions, entertain and transport us, even teach us. But more significantly, stories offer an understanding of ourselves and others in a way that nothing else can.
Some of the best stories are not confined to paper. When I was a kid I remember listening to stories my parents and grandparents told about their experiences growing up. Their worlds, each unique in their own way, captivated me. Stories of inner city segregation, of blinding blizzards on the farm, of coal mining, poverty, and one room school houses—they weren’t my stories, but I recognized they were a part of me in some way. As I got older I came to value these stories, not just as an understanding of the past and where I came from, but as a deciphering of myself, what I value, and what I want my life to be.
We all have a need to share our world as we experience it. We all have a story to tell. You don’t have to look hard to realize stories are everywhere. From the simple retelling of the days events to a friend, to the latest movie or newspaper headline. Even in the silence of a person’s body language, a piece of sea glass washed on shore, or a graffiti stained wall there is a hidden story.
So what is this need for stories? Why are we so driven as human beings to share a part of ourselves? For writers I think the answer is simple. Stories are a craft—something we study, work at, and admire. In our own work we watch as our words, as inadequate as they might seem, grow and mature. We desire to understand and be understood. And we recognize this beautiful struggle in the stories of others. We identify, whether the story is real or imagined, the coming together of plot and character, the attempt to capture life’s likeness on the page. And if successful, we are held in magical wonder at the power of words.
Stories are living things, an ever present reminder of the extraordinary creation process. Whether they are based on truth or made up bits, they know no boundaries. Perhaps in their timelessness we recognize a part of our own brevity, and in those “impossible afternoons” when we listen, we discover not only a break from the “coming dark”, but also our own story, continuing on, being shaped, being told.
"The greatest mystery
is unsheathed reality itself."
For a number of reasons, people tend to avoid cemeteries. Often burial grounds are either associated with a feeling of loss and sadness or, for those with overactive imaginations, a general creepiness fueled by too many campfire stories and low budget Hollywood horror films. Cemeteries are not exactly a walk in the park, yet it’s undeniable they maintain an important role in our society by enriching our lives with an awareness of ones brevity and connecting us to those who have gone before.
Call me strange, but I love cemeteries. They remind me of a short story anthology you would find at a garage sale—a little weather beaten, a bit out of date, but full of quickly read tales waiting to be discovered. Only, these tales aren’t fiction, they really happened. These tales are full of people just like you and I, who experienced a gamut of life’s events, who knew what it was to laugh, to cry, to love, to dream... Perhaps that is what makes them even more powerful. Who doesn’t love a true story!
Just up the road from where my grandparents lived, there is an old cemetery and church that dates back to the 1840’s. My great grandparents are buried there, as well as a great aunt and uncle. When I was younger, I remember roaming the cemetery after Sunday service, fascinated by the old stones and inscriptions. Sometimes I’d pick wildflowers that grew on the fringes and secretly (so that my parent’s wouldn’t think me crazy) leave them on graves of strangers. I’d wonder who the people were and if they were among the many that once filled the small church. And looking for some sort of connection to these people who lived a century before, I’d always think about the seat I’d sat in that particular Sunday (since the seats were relics themselves) and wonder if this person or that person might have sat in the same seat during their lifetime.
Not too long ago, I had the chance to return to the Captina Cemetery and do a little exploring. I visited the graves of my relatives, then made my way down the hill to faintly remembered graves. There’s a large stone with the names of three children and their parents, all who died on the same day. Larger granite stones mark graves from the 50’s and 60’s and fractured stones that are no longer decipherable lie stacked on the edge where the woods reclaim the land. Halfway down the hill, I came across two stones dated 1834. I didn’t remember the stones from my childhood and was surprised by the well preserved inscriptions. The first stone said “In memory of Nancy, consort of Harrison Massie, who departed this life March 23rd 1834, Aged 23yrs, 2 months 19 days.” A similar stone sat beside Nancy’s stone. “In memory of Roxanne, daughter of Harrison and Nancy Massie, who departed this life Aug 23rd, 1834, Aged 5 months, 15 days.” It took me a second to do the math before I realized the mother had died after giving birth to Roxanne and the newborn, for whatever reason, died 5 months after her mother. Curious, I searched the area for the husband and father, Harrison Massie, but his stone wasn’t there.
It was starting to get dark and I reluctantly walked back up the hill to leave the cemetery. On the way home, I thought about the two stones and the one that was missing, finding it strange that sometimes all we will know about a person’s lifetime is the date of their birth and death. I was reminded of why, when I was younger, the old cemetery held such a drawing power for me. The simple stones of people like Nancy and Roxanne Massie were puzzling in that there was so much more I would like to know about them, but will never know. Likewise these strangers, with their eternal secrets, bring us closer to something beyond ourselves—a time and place we can only imagine.
As a writer, I value these experiences, the kind that draw me to people and places I know nothing of. I love the guesswork and the challenge it provides. There is something significant about stretching the mind and imagination to discover things that are known and unknown. Perhaps that is why I am passionate about travel and experiencing new cultures. As a Spanish proverb says, “Experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best.”
For a writer, it’s not only about keeping the mind active, it’s about telling the story. But we do strange things when we find an experience or idea we want to set to paper. We boil it down until we are sure there is nothing but the richest of contents left, but at the end of the process feel that there is still some ingredient missing. We add a little of this and a little of that. Still, it isn’t quite right. After time has cooled the strangely colored brew, we remember why we began writing the story in the first place. At this point you have to ask —do I venture into the unknown or do I stick with the facts? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing foolish about putting your imagination to work, but sometimes truth is the missing link, the element that is most inspiring.
Next time you happen across a cemetery, or a newspaper article, or an event in your day to day life that captivates you, discover the poetry in what is true. If you find you are stuck after too much imaginative additives, return to the place where you began—the truth behind the inscription. Perhaps in these mysteries, in the recognition that real life is often stranger than fiction, the greatest story lives.
"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
George Eliot, Middlemarch
One of the greatest gifts a writer can have is the ability to transform the ordinary into extraordinary. Have you ever read a story where the simplest action or object is described with such insight you become mesmerized by something you would normally overlook? This experience can change our perspective on life and the world around us, proving if we dig beneath the surface, there is often more than meets the eye. But as a writer, how do we chip away the ordinary to get at the diamond core?
George Eliot’s quote, though focused on sound, has a lot to offer about the process. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she says, we would hear the world around us in a way quite different from what we hear now. As writers, we are taught to observe and transcribe, but what if observation involved more? What if our senses were infused with “keen vision and feeling” that went beyond the ordinary?
We don’t posses super human abilities, but that shouldn’t hold us back. True, we can’t hear grass grow or a squirrel’s heartbeat, but we know things, lots of things. We know the word love is a weak explanation for what we really feel about someone close. We know the familiar, unique smell that tells us we are home. We know the feeling of a knot working in our throats when we are upset. And we have an imagination. Even if we have never been in love or been white water rafting or baked an apple pie, we can imagine what it would be like. No, we are not super human, but we are human. It’s not about the abilities we are lacking; it’s about how we choose to use the abilities we have.
Sometimes, this means thinking outside the box. If we were to write only what is true, we would all be liars (and we wouldn’t have hugely popular series such as The Chronicles of Narnia or Twilight). Every writer knows it is nearly impossible to replicate in words an experience or object exactly the way it exists in real life. Some writers find they are more comfortable writing about things that are anything but real. This only proves our imaginations are a powerful tool. We will always want to embellish the truth, make it poetic, and iron out the wrinkles of reality. So how do we use this tool to our advantage?
Consider Eliot’s quote once more. Before reading it, had you thought about the sound grass makes when it grows or what a squirrel’s heartbeat would sound like? I hadn’t. In fact, I’d never thought about grass making a sound because I’d never considered it being capable of such a thing. Aha! Now we are going beyond the ordinary!
Here’s another example. Let’s imagine an old barn sitting in a field. Instead of thinking about the ordinary aspects of the barn, lets pretend we have the keen sense of vision and feeling Eliot describes. Get your mining gear out. Go beneath the surface. Stop thinking about the barn in terms of color, dimension, and the materials holding it together. Consider instead the barn’s history, the events it has witnessed, and the stories it might tell. What does the barn see and hear? What would its voice sound like if it could speak? What does it feel? Think about what events might have influenced the overall mood of the place. Perhaps a tragic event took place in the barn. Say someone committed suicide. Or maybe something wonderful happened there, perhaps an engagement or a special birth (think about the Christmas story and how that changed our view of a manger).
By viewing ordinary objects in this way, it’s possible to get at the heart of what makes even the ordinary, extraordinary. Ultimately the descriptions we find often get at what we really think or feel about the things we are describing. Oddly enough, sometimes imagination can produce a truer picture than our five senses.
So next time you are struggling with description, don’t take the boring route. Use your imagination to dig beneath the surface. Think outside the box, ask questions, and go beyond the ordinary!
I passed her every evening on my way home from work. No matter the weather, she wore the same oversized khaki coat and blue winter hat, her hair pulled back into a careless bun, no makeup. If I had to guess I’d say she was probably in her mid 60’s.
We’d cross paths in the same place, same time, every evening. I didn’t know where she came from or where she was going. I knew nothing about her. Perhaps that is why she fascinated me.
When I changed jobs, I took a different route to work and didn’t see the woman anymore. A couple months passed and I forgot about her. Then, just the other day, I was on my way to town when I saw the khaki coat and winter hat. An odd sense of familiarity rose up in me as we passed. How strange, I thought to myself. I don’t even know this woman yet, dare I admit it, I miss passing her on my walks home. She was an unusual person, captivating, full of mystery. Since I knew nothing about her, I’d imagined the possibilities—she was an environmentalist and cat lover from Romania…a primary school teacher who loved to cook…a homeless widow who’d lost her job at a factory. A wealth of characters and plots had sprung up, all because of this stranger. One day I hope she makes it into one of my stories.
What I love most about creating characters is that despite their fictional existence, they hold a nearness to the living, breathing folk we fashion them after. Think of all the societies and clubs that have sprung up in honor of beloved book characters— people who do not exist. We identify with them, often seeing ourselves or others in their likeness. It seems that good writing, though it may be categorized as fiction, is in fact a sharing of truth—what we know to be real about life and living.
Perhaps in this way, we write not only to share our knowledge of life, but to know we are part of something bigger. One of my undergrad professors always encouraged her students to view writing as an ongoing dialog of the world. When we wrote, she challenged us to ask ourselves, “How am I contributing to what has already been said?”
Characters are a vital contribution to a successful story, as well as a pulpit from which the author can share a unique tête-à-tête with their reader. Characters inform, influence, and can even make a reader laugh or cry. And they do so because of their realness. Characters are the thing a reader connects with, and often what they remember long after the story is finished. Ultimately, it is not a characters function in the plot (what they do) that makes them truly memorable; it is who they are.
Creating characters is kind of like being a mad scientist. We gather bits and pieces of humanity and fashion them into this creature we hope will spring to life on the page. More often than not the experiment fails. But with a bit of ingenuity, we as writers are able to breath life into a character. And if we are lucky, in a remarkable exchange, our characters return the favor, creating a connected awareness not only of the story’s heartbeat, but also of our own.