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Chasing Muse: Finding the “Wild, Silky Part of Ourselves”

Tricia Erikson-3high

Reaching the summit in the Saddleback Mountain Challenge. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

People pay good money to chairlift up a mountain in civilized fashion and then ski down for pleasure. I just paid to snowshoe straight up 2000 feet in single-digit temperatures to brave a gnarly descent. But, then, I’m not a mountaineer, I’m an island writer chasing a muse.

When I shuffled to the starting line of the Saddleback Mountain Challenge an hour earlier, racers appeared in a motley assemblage of equipment that reflected their strategy. Most wore Randonee skis adorned with “skins” that could be removed at the peak, allowing a rapid descent. A few people wore snowshoes with a snowboard strapped to their back; their descent would be swooping, graceful. One man wore two halves of a snowboard strapped to his feet, halves that would be reunited, presumably, once he achieved the peak. And then came the smartypants distance runner — one of two women in the pack and the only one outfitted with just snowshoes to wear, both up and down — that’s me. Halfway up the mountain, I reconsider the wisdom of entering this challenge; wind-driven ice cements to my hair and face, and bounces off my fingers, bare and hot from exertion. What was I thinking?

Tricia Erikson-4lo

Brown hair turned white in Arctic conditions. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

Reaching the peak, I pass a number of racers who stop to switch their fancy gear to downhill mode. One-two-three of them. I wonder: do they admire my strategy of using the same gear for the entire race? Nah.

I yank on my coat and gloves, pull up my face guard, and lumber onto the mountain’s shoulder. My left ear loses feeling to the flesh-freezing wind, no doubt casting me even more as the Bride of Yeti. Then I reach a point where the race route narrows to a two-foot wide shelf, little more than the ridge of a snowdrift. As if on cue, I stumble onto the precipice. A normal audience would gasp as my center of gravity plunges over and back from the edge, but the ski patrol sentry quips, “Nice catch.” That’s high praise up here.

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Running across the peak on snowshoes. Photo courtesy Saddleback Mountain.

Finally, I stand alone at the top of the designated downhill route, a narrow chute. It’s name: Muleskinner. I try not to take the name literally or conjure images of how it might apply to me. But, if this route were a highway, the sign would flash orange neon letters “Go back, 50-60% grade.”

Given the promised first-place prizes of season ski passes for the winning man and woman, the racers ahead of me are pushing hard; I just want to survive. Avoiding last place would be a bonus. Descent on snowshoes: my strategy faces a crisis. Facing this downhill reminds me of facing a blank page, or worse yet, a manuscript with extensive need of editing. I don’t want to do it. What am I afraid of? Falling? Getting lost in a snowbank? Those rank as givens today. I decide I’m most afraid of not finishing. I abandon all pretense of sanity and step over the edge, on purpose this time.

To my shock, the deep, fresh powder has been scoured away by wind, leaving porcelain-smooth white ice disguised as snow. My snowshoes respond by rocketing downhill, spinning me sideways. There is nothing to grab, nothing to stop me. Channeling my five year-old self, I sit down hard and push my snowshoes out in front of me. With buttocks serving as my snow-tubing device, I shoot straight down Muleskinner, stopping in an explosion of deep powder. Able to stand again, I run downhill until hitting another porcelain plate of ice. Repeat the sit and slide until powder impact. Stand and run. Midway down Muleskinner, a couple of the guys that I had passed on the peak, pass me–one of them with graceful swooshes, the other guy resembling a human snowball.

Tricia Erikson-1

Reaching the finish line. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

Why am I doing this? It wasn’t until after I crossed the finishing line (looking indeed like the Bride of Yeti), after I had driven back to Portland and reached home by ferry, that I read Mary Oliver. Only then did I find words for what I was doing on Saddleback Mountain–I was taking care of the “wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem [and, I would add, no writing] can exist.” Oliver describes this inner muse as a “mysterious, unmapped zone” that “comes before everything, even technique.” She warns that “It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime.”

This is what I fear more than Muleskinner. That silence within.

In “Wild Geese” Oliver writes, “You do not have to walk on your knees, For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Seriously? Does this mean I didn’t have to grind up and down that flesh-hungry mountain on snowshoes to find my “mysterious, unmapped zone”? Mary Oliver would probably say that I could discover beauty in the everyday world around me. But, no, on this day, I needed the mountain to shatter a deep silence, to shake the silence apart the way the wind knocks rime ice from evergreen needles and casts the shards into the howling spit of the storm.

 

Thank you to Eleanor Morse and my fellow writers in the Sudden Fiction group for sharing Mary Oliver with me at the moment I most needed it and to the staff of Saddleback Mountain for running a first-class ski area with the biggest heart I know.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Can we understand the past? Tip #5 of writing historical novels

sheets“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
― L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Barring the invention of a time machine, we can never truly inhabit the past, perhaps never truly understand it. Tip #5 of the 5 Tips for writing a historical novel considers: how can we presume to write about it? Do we seek to understand the past as a “foreign country,” understanding it for its own sake and on its own terms? Or, do we wish to view history through the lens of the present, as though it is still with us, still informing and informed by our present point of view?

I would say that both are true. On some level, we must accept and respect that the past is a foreign country. Unless we’re working in a fantasy genre, we can’t write tomatoes onto the table of an early Roman banquet, nor can James Cameron get away with a reference in the movie Titanic to a man-made reservoir that did not yet exist. The past really was different. People spoke differently, experienced life differently, and had different resources available to them.

On the other hand, repercussions from the past continue to shape our world. An author can find, with great care, analogy in the present that can inform writing about the past. In writing about soldiers’ experiences in World War One, Peaks Island author Nicole d’Entremont reflected upon the war veterans who attended her Sudden Fiction* classes in Albuquerque. A story shared by one veteran from the first Iraq war found itself come alive in a scene about WWI. Nicole explained:

I remember a vet from the 1990 Gulf  War who wrote a reflection drawn from a Sudden Fiction prompt. He remembered the dust, heat, and hot wind of the desert.  Then, one day back home in New Mexico, he saw his mother’s freshly washed sheets hanging on the line, flapping and drying in the sun, catching the breeze.  He buried his face in those sheets for their clean smell, their coolness and freshness– burying his face in all of it. Reflecting on his writing now, I remember thinking that his feeling was almost like a cleansing, some kind of baptism. I had my character, Elzear, (back from the WWI trenches in 1919 having survived the war) do this same thing in A Generation of Leaves.  I thank that student whose name I have forgotten for such a lasting image.

While language, technology, and national boundaries change from the past to the present, there are aspects of our humanity that endure across generations. As long as we respect that the past is a foreign country, we can still cross the border and find common ground.

If you would like to meet Nicole, then come to her book launch event for A Generation of Leaves this week, Tuesday, February 25th at 7 PM in the Doug MacVane Community Center on Peaks Island.

*Here, Sudden Fiction refers to workshops, facilitated by Nicole and others, that encourage writers to respond to a prompt by writing for one unbroken hour and then reading aloud to share with the group.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

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