Writers of fiction live multiple lives when they are working on a story – the reality of their own daily lives and the fictional lives of their characters. That dance in and out of fictional and real worlds can be a difficult balancing act, particularly if the writer is working on a novel. I seem to require large blocks of time to immerse myself into the world of the characters in the novel I’m writing, but it’s been difficult for me to find stretches of sustained time. I get up very early in the morning to write before going to my job, but I’ve found it easier to work on shorter pieces in these smaller bursts of writing time. My current goal is to figure out how to use these morning hours to finish my novel. I know it can be done; I just need to figure out how to manage it.
During fall vacations with my husband, which we’ve turned into creative retreats, I’ve made significant writing progress on my novel. A favorite October vacation spot is Babcock State Park in Clifftop, West Virginia, where there are thirteen secluded log cabins along Glade Creek. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, the cabins have electricity, fully equipped kitchens, and bathrooms – but no heat except for the huge fireplaces. In a different area of the park there are modern cabins with heaters and air-conditioning, but they are spaced closer together and we prefer the privacy and setting of the older cabins near the stream.
It takes planning and smart packing for those trips. The cabins are spaced apart from each other along the ravine on both sides of the creek, surrounded by woods and separated by walls of wild rhododendron among huge boulders. Paths and wooden stairs lead down to each cabin from parking areas at the top of the hill, so carrying in a week’s food and gear can be quite a task – particularly if that includes camera equipment, laptop computers, books and notebooks.
Our favorite cabin used to be cabin #13, until the steep steps down to it became a deterrent for my aging knees and Kevin tired of lugging all that stuff (okay, it was mostly my stuff) down to the cabin by himself. That, and the fact that a murder had occurred in that particular cabin
. I was appalled to learn that someone had committed such a violent act in what had once been a special spot for us – in such a serene and beautiful place. From that time forward a different cabin became our favorite, for its high ceiling and sleeping loft, not to mention it had only half the number of wooden steps down to it, nor had it been a crime scene.
Babcock was a good and productive spot for us creatively. Kevin would spend his days out photographing and I would spend my days at the cabin immersed in my writing. He’d leave before dawn and come back after dusk, when we’d have dinner in front of the fire and discuss the progress on our projects. The photograph of me at the top of this post is one Kevin took (unbeknownst to me at the time) through the cabin window as he was leaving in the darkness early one morning – I was sifting through research and settling down to write, still wearing my nightgown and drinking my breakfast coffee.
During one October visit it was particularly rainy, which didn’t bother me because I was cozy in front of the fire all day, fueled by hot coffee, typing away and exploring the fictional world of my main character who is having an emotional breakdown following the Loma Prieta earthquake – she has fled San Francisco for the New River Gorge area of West Virginia which was her childhood home. The rain was a bigger problem, however, for Kevin, who nonetheless trudged off in the pre-dawn hours every morning, hopeful that the weather and light would change for the better.
There’s a stepping off that happens in the writing process, a letting go that requires me to feel I’m in a safe place, particularly with this novel, given the fragile state of the main character who is in crisis as her world is literally crumbling around her those last weeks of October 1989 following the Loma Prieta quake. I need to be on solid territory when I enter her world. It’s not the kind of book I could write while sitting in a public space such as a coffee shop. But in the cabin, I could enter her world safely for an entire day without interruption and then transition back to the real world when the dimming daylight signaled it was time to wrap things up until the next morning. Then I’d turn on the radio and listen to NPR to ground myself with the day’s news while I cleaned up my writing space in the main room of the cabin, clearing the big wooden table I’d used as my writing desk so we could set it for dinner. Kevin would return and we’d cook our meal, open a bottle of wine, and talk about our day. It was invigorating to share our progress, to spur each other on in our creative pursuits.
Toward the end of that week, on yet another rainy day, Kevin came back to the cabin a little earlier than I’d expected. I was still writing and hadn’t transitioned out of that fictional world yet. He was acting very nervous as he set down his camera bag. I sensed that something was wrong and wondered if he’d been in an accident. He put the red tote bag he used for extra film and camera accessories on the table. Then he told me about the flying saucer he’d seen crash into the New River at Sandstone Falls. I didn’t know what to say as I tried to figure out whether he was joking or had gone off the deep end. He seemed serious. While thoughts raced through my head (such as, There probably isn’t a ranger at the headquarters building since it’s after 5:00 – how am I going to get help to take him to a hospital?
), he said, “You’re looking at me like you don’t believe me.”
Now, you need to know that Kevin is the steadiest and most resilient person I’ve ever known. He can also make me laugh like no one else and always knows how to lighten things up with his humor. But, he seemed dead serious about seeing a UFO. As I tried to assess the situation, I asked him to tell me more. So he did. He proceeded to tell me a tale filled with every bad sci-fi movie cliché there is, about how he was sitting in his truck at Sandstone Falls waiting out a rainstorm and hoping to get a shot of the falls when he saw the UFO crash. Somehow those clichés served to make the story even more frightening for me. It was pretty much the same story all those nut cases tell that used to make the headlines, and he was beginning to remind me a little bit of Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. More thoughts raced through my head. (Really? It’s true that there really are UFOs?)
Then he told me about the alien. (OK buddy boy, this just isn’t fair to come in here before I’ve transitioned out of writing mode and tell me about witnessing some UFO crash. Now there’s an alien to deal with, too?)
The alien had ejected from the crashing spacecraft, and while he was dying of injuries on the bank of the New River in the rain, he’d begged Kevin to save him by cutting out his brain so that his fellow aliens could retrieve it and rescue him. If they could take back his brain, they could restore him to life.
“Ummm, so what did you do?” I asked. He told me he’d cut out the brain, and that he’d promised to leave it on the porch of our cabin so that the dead alien’s friends could come get it that night. (Should I try to escape from the cabin and call the ranger from that phone booth in the parking lot up at the park headquarters? Unless . . . really? You mean there really are little green men from other galaxies? That’s not just made up? It’s for real?)
I was still trying to regain my equilibrium . . . but Kevin was making that difficult. My fight-or-flight adrenaline rush was not helping matters. I’d had a double dose of that adrenaline response, first to deal with a husband who’d lost his grip on the real world, and a second one to grapple with the aspect of aliens visiting our cabin around midnight to retrieve the brain of their dead little green friend.
Finally, I asked him where the brain was, and he told me he had it right there with him in his red tote bag, which he unzipped and reached into with hands shaking almost as much as my adrenaline-filled body. Then he pulled out a big green Osage orange. If I hadn’t been so relieved there may have been another Babcock cabin homicide. Those hunks of firewood make handy murder weapons to use in bludgeoning a spouse to death.
With the big Osage orange reveal, I was fully back in the real world. Mad, but wholly in reality. I had to forgive him – he’d been having such a lousy photography week. I’m sure he expected me to be amused and never dreamed I’d actually be frightened, even if we were in a remote cabin so close to Halloween. And I might have been entertained by his tale, had I not still been in the alternative universe of my own writing life. Until then, he had no idea what it was taking for me to truly enter into the dark world of my novel filled with earthquakes and disappearances and lost girls on the run.
We opened some wine. I made him pose for a picture holding his alien Osage orange brain. We turned on the radio and listened to NPR while we cooked dinner. We warmed ourselves by the fire after dinner and finished the wine. And that night before we went to bed, Kevin put the alien brain out on the porch, where it remained for the last few days of our vacation. And on each of those remaining mornings, I was just a tiny bit afraid that when I opened the cabin door I would discover it was missing.
Dory writing at dawn in cabin, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission
Kevin with Osage orange alien brain, copyright by Dory Adams
This post was originally published 10/25/2009 on Dory's blog In This Light