Before we had kids, Melissa and I drove down to Rochester to visit my parents and attend a Christmas concert at the local community college. I was the one behind the wheel. It was early evening - the sun had already set, there was snow in the fields, but not on the roads - and at one point two eyes appeared in front of us reflecting our headlights back in a greenish-yellow glow. It was a doe, standing right there on Hwy 52. I slammed on the brakes, spat out the word 'Deer!' and braced for impact. The poor thing didn't have a chance.
Time slowed down drastically. I remember so many vivid details; the deer bending at an impossible angle, its head veering toward me, mucus flying from its eyes, nose and mouth onto the windshield. It rolled off the hood, and then there were headlights in our rear-view mirror and I braced myself again, thinking we might be rear-ended. I remember sitting there for a moment in the SUV on the highway, realizing I'd better pull over, and then Melissa and I talking about what we were supposed to do. Where had the deer gone? Did we need to drag it off the road? Were we supposed to call somebody?
I got out of the truck, and couldn't find the doe at first, but then there it was, back a ways, having rolled off the highway's shoulder and down a shallow embankment.
It wasn't until I walked back around the front of the truck to leave, that I noticed the damage. We were lucky, I suppose, that the airbags hadn't deployed, because the front of the SUV was pushed in a good half-foot, the hood bent up in the middle, the radiator badly dented.
Later, I found this to be kind of strange - that I hadn't noticed the damage being done to the vehicle at the moment of impact. A lot of force had been in play to push in the frame that much, to cause that much damage, but all that I had focused on at the time was the deer in slo-motion, head lolling toward me, mucus exiting its eyes, nose and mouth, spraying onto the windshield.
Here is what I've taken from this; a good lesson for writing about perspective.
What parts of a scene should our writer's lens focus on? What parts should be slowed down and examined in detail? What parts should be glossed over, or perhaps revealed in hindsight? Perhaps revealed at a later critical time?
The damage to the truck was not as important as the way the deer died, or at least how its death affected me in the moment of impact. The damage to the truck was more of an afterthought - an annoyance, sure, but not the focus of that particular scene in my life. It was, instead, the slow motion death of a sentient creature and the vivid detail of the mucus springing from parts I did not expect it to spring from.
The truck remained functional. We continued on to my parents', to the community college's Christmas concert. Somehow, the music made me forget, momentarily, of that slo-mo impact, that moment of shock and disbelief and bewilderment and the too-easy acceptance.
"Hello. My name is Inigo Deertoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
I once saw the late Jon Hasslergive a talk (and if you haven't read Jon Hassler, I highly recommend him) and he talked about how important empathy is to the writer.
I feel empathy is probably the most important quality a writer can have. It's what gives writing its passion, its honesty - it's what bridges the gap between technically well-structured sentences and passages that lift the soul or break the heart, make readers cry or give them new insights into the human condition. Writing with empathy is the best way to deliver those universal truths of great fiction directly to the reader's conscience. Great fiction has the ability to change the reader in fundamental ways - you've read something that's altered you in some way, right? And one of the most effective ways to achieve this is to write with empathy.
I'm not saying, however, to write about someone like Idi Amin as if he's really a swell guy. Because he obviously wasn't. But Forest Whitaker did an amazing job of playing Amin with empathy in The Last King of Scotland. In that movie, we saw Amin's charismatic side and could perhaps understand how there were those who admired him, while at the same time you could see how he was a just a bit of an ego-maniacal despot. Does that make sense? If Whitaker played Amin as just an evil old bastard, the performance and movie would not have been nearly as effective.
Alden, Velma, Joan and Marilyn are making headway across the USA. They've delved into the heart of Colorado, and are making their way toward Utah. But they're not there, yet!
On the above page, our fearless scrapbooker writes, "Stopped over night at Buena Vista - 'The College Town' - because they have 3 separate mountains called Harvard, Yale and Princeton. These mountains are covered with snow."
Below that: "Dotsero Cutoff - 382 miles long is the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad's latest construction, connecting Dtsero, 17 miles each of Glenwood Springs, with Crested on the Moffat Road. Reduces distance 175 miles from Denver to Glenwood Springs, Salt Lake City & beyond."
On the page above, Scrapbooker Johnson has cut out pictures from a magazine or brochure of agriculture and scenery. Pictured are Mesa Lake, Fruita Canyon and Grand Junction State Junior College, plus grapes, cows and pigs. Delicious, delicious pigs...
Above is part of a Mesa Lakes Resort pamphlet pasted into the scrapbook. The resort is still there all these years later, though now called the Mesa Lake Lodge. Still offers cabins to weary travelers!
Looks like a nice place! Pictured are the smaller cabins.
The Johnsons have seen a lot in Colorado. Soon, they'll cross the border into Utah and visit Salt Lake City, which we'll get to in our next entry.
Until then, Alden, Velma, Joan and Marilyn wanted me to tell you that your postcard is in the mail!
Here, the Johnsons are still hanging around the Pike's Peak region of Colorado, taking in the spectacular views, the alpine air, the wildlife. It's the end of June, 1937, and I bet the air up there felt great!
The postcards below are titled Panorama of Pike's Peak and the Pike's Peak Region, Colorado and Summit House of the Pike's Peak Cog Road on Pike's Peak, Colorado. The Summit House is still there, with gift shop and restaurant. Only now, it's run by Aramark.
Our scapbooker writes, "At the very tip of Pike's Peak at an altitude of 14,109 feet stands the picturesque old Summit House, the terminus of Pike's Peak Road. Built of massive stone to withstand the fierce storms it has stood for many years to receive hundreds of thousands of visitors. Each spring it is dug out from the deep drifts. Each fall it is closed down to be buried in snow through the winter."
On the bottom half of that same page is a postcard titled Pike's Peak at Sunrise, near Colorado Springs, Colorado. The comic included says (girl) 'Oh, Daddy, there's the famous Cog-Railway car. I wish we had come up on it. You must be tired from that drive. (Dad) 'Not at all.' Again, I'm not sure of the name of the comic, so if you know, let me know!
On the next page is a receipt for the copy of the Pike's Peak Daily News that I mentioned in before. 25-cents. Perhaps the pages are a little out of order in the scrapbook, since they had been at Pike's Peak a few pages back, and are there again. Or maybe they were in the area a few days, and revisited.
The Johnson's have reached the Continental Divide. The cartoon below says, (girl) ' Oh, Dad, is it true that we're actually at the Continental Divide?' (Dad) 'Yes, Chubbins, we're at the roof of the continent. On one side, water flows to the Pacific Ocean, and on the other to the Atlantic.'
On the bottom half of that page, our notorious scrapbooker writes, "Tennessee Pass is the most important pass in the center of the state, with a road so well constructed that the Continental Divide can be surmounted in high gear. Thru the winter it is usually the only northern pass kept open for travel. The pass itself is but a few feet higher than the city of Leadville - most famous mining camp which lies about ten miles below it."
The postcard below is titled Looking East from the Summit of Tennessee Pass, Altitude 10,240 ft.
In the cartoon, Dad is telling his daughter,'Now Chubbins, we're almost two miles above sea-level. See that lightening? There's a thunderstorm in the valley. But up here on Flattop we look down on it while the sun shines.'
Though I'm sure the Johnson family were having a wonderful time, poor Chubbins' teenage years became riddled with low self-esteem and a poor body image.
Both of my parents were elementary school librarians during my childhood. Occasionally, they arranged for authors to visit their schools, some of whom I got to meet. Even if I didn't get the chance, my parents always brought home a signed book by them. I still have all of them! Some highlights: I assisted Sid Fleischman with a magic trick.
I saw Wilson Rawls give a fascinating talk. My dad escorted him around town and found out that he was quite bitter in regards to Disney's movie version of Where the Red Fern Grows, claiming he never received one lousy cent for it.
I met Paula Danziger and saw her typed and hand-edited manuscript for The Cat Ate My Gym-suit (which I had read in preparation for seeing her talk). I think that was the first time I saw an actual physical connection between an author and that magical finished product!
When my mom mentioned to Gary Paulson that I wanted to be a writer, he signed my book with his home address, inviting me to send him something I'd written (which to my regret, I never did - I was too afraid.)
My dad also likes to tell of one famous children's author - whom I won't name - who asked my dad if he could find him a blond for the night. My dad later went to the school's teacher's lounge and jokingly asked for volunteers.
For some of those authors - like Wilson Rawls - my parents got me excused from class to go see them. I've always been grateful for those experiences. They knew I wanted to be an author, and by bringing me to see those published authors, they showed me that they were basically just regular folks, and it helped take away a little bit of their mystique - showed me that it was certainly a possibility for me to follow that passion. I'll always be thankful for that.
Congratulations! You have a writer! Follow these simple instructions to get the most enjoyment out of this recent addition to your family.
Housing: Keep your writer warm and dry. Change its bedding often as writers tend to slough off dreams of fame the older they get.
Food: Make sure your writer has plenty to eat, as well as a daily multivitamin. If left to its own devices, it may try to consist on nothing but coffee and Pop Tarts. If your writer becomes jittery, assume it's doing this secretively and correct its behavior with a rolled-up newspaper or the promise of a writers' conference.
Exercise: Make sure to take your writer on daily walks. It may grumble about this, but assure your writer it's for the best. Bring along treats to entice it, and don't forget a few plastic bags to pick up any unnecessary adverbs it leaves behind.
Obedience: Make sure to use strong, firm commands with your writer. It may bristle if you use five words when only one will do. Again, if your writer remains obstinate after repeated commands, a rolled-up newspaper is appropriate. Make sure to give lots of praise when your writer receives an acceptance or takes a shower, as both are cause for celebration.
Follow this simple advice and your writer will provide years of companionship and detached bemusement.