Biographical notes (250 words max) on critical events in my life as a writer.
#1. The Infinitesimal Epic
More than fifty years ago, I worked in the wilderness of northwestern British Columbia, rebuilding aging railway bridges. I was employed first as a bridgeman, later as a heavy equipment operator. Eventually I’d have my own sleeping quarters, but for many years I dwelled in railway bunk cars with three to five other men. Privacy was minimal, a challenging environment for any writer. I'd read that William Faulkner could transcribe a chapter on the back of a postage stamp, so miniscule his script. As a way to write so that my inquisitive cabin mates could not read my foray, then subject it to mockery, I undertook to emulate Faulkner. I scribbled with the tiniest penmanship imaginable.
The work was virtually unreadable, but an unexpected benefit was won. In deploying the infinitesimal handwriting, my fledgling efforts nurtured an inner conviction. The methodology — not what I was writing but how — felt connected, reaching back to those who had gone before and ahead to what might yet be imagined. The tiny felt subversive, which in itself felt important, and the important was refashioned to feel mythic. Creating worlds through penning microscopic words emphasized the vastness of the large, and yet the large was perceived as intimate. The amazing part was that writing about the whole of the world began to feel possible, even imminent.
In going teeny, my handwriting felt different than the norm, outside the humdrum, covert and defiant, which helped me dare to be divergent and invite the epic in.
#2. Tuning In: The Leprechaun on the Bedpost
It’s inevitable that writers endure the Charlie Brown experience. Lucy spots a football, Charlie charges, Lucy yanks it away. Charlie winds up on his backside. Every novelist knows the feeling. Ms. Muse sits us at a desk, gung-ho, enthused, only to give us nothing to kick. I’m not speaking of writers’ block. I’m talking about being fired up only to be chagrined.
I learned early that I was not interested in “an idea.” I want to begin with my headspace as blank as possible. If I stick to an idea, I’m limiting myself to my precognition — in a sense, to the limits of my intelligence. I’ll have none of that. Give me a clear horizon; no mental clutter. Late one day, having struggled with Lucy’s vanishing football, I stumbled to my bed for a nap. I fell into a time when I was half-awake, aware of myself asleep; yet dreaming. A leprechaun appeared on my bedpost. We had a lovely chat. Awakening, I knew I had the beginnings of a novel — even though a leprechaun would not be in it. I had cleared my mental synapses to where they were infused with pure atmosphere, and into that distinctive mood a novel could form.
Incidentally, I know that that leprechaun did not exist. It’s not that I don’t believe in them, for what would that matter? The whole time, however, he was seated upon my bedpost. I don’t have a bedpost. So he could not have been there, right?
#3: Writing Near Death
A near death experience is intrinsically linked to my life as a writer. At sixteen, I was living in a work camp in northern Alberta. I’d been hired away from a job working twenty hours a day in the kitchen of an extra gang (railway construction) in the Northwest Territories to be the timekeeper on a gang near an outpost called Meander River. There, I worked twenty minutes a day, tops.
Bored silly, I scribbled.
As I had boundless spare time, Cat skinners taught me to run their machines while they took breaks. Great fun, until a supervisor arrived and had a bird.
Days later, a boss over the two-way radio ordered me to check the contents of a boxcar. I reported back: “Nine kegs of nails.” I was told to check my tally, which required a long hot walk. Same result. The order was repeated. After the third time, I was audibly muttering, not noticing a yard locomotive behind me. I turned. It was in my face. I was dead. A debate with myself ensued, which felt like minutes but lasted a millisecond. I agreed to try to save my life—hopeless—by grasping a brakeman’s bar. Whoosh! Suddenly, I was back among the living.
Quit that job. In a shack motel that night, under the northern lights, I committed my life to writing, signing that vow in a Gideon Bible. Having avoided death by a hair’s breadth, I knew what I had to do with my allotted time.