Friday, February 28, 2014

What do Truman Capote and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race have in common?

On the eve of March every year thoughts of the Iditarod keep coming to mind. It always starts on the first Saturday of that month. Today being a thaw sort of day, I recalled the hasty retreat I beat out of the cabin where I wrote Last Great Race, and tore across the melting snow with all my stuff in a sled and five dogs pulling, hoping to beat breakup on the Susitna River. I had to cross it and if the river ice broke it meant about a 50-mile trek to the highway instead of seven.  In that sled was precious cargo – what I thought was the completed manuscript which I had slaved over for the previous three months in a 10 by 14 cabin high above the river.

The dogs and I managed to beat the ice by a couple of days and I pronounced to all who would listen that the  book was done, the first book about the Iditarod.  I gave it a few weeks to get it out of my mind and then settled in to see what I had done. I usually write through something all the way to the end before I go back and read it. That way I get my ideas down without stopping that flow to correct a spelling mistake and look up some random fact. I sat back and read through the manuscript and when I was finished it had reduced me almost to tears it was so bad. Even to an egotistical, idealistic, overconfident potential author, it was just simply bad. It put me into a depression until the following weekend when another adventure beckoned.

At the time I was staying with a friend and occasionally his girl friend joined us. None of us had much money, but we were taking care of a dog lot and there were a number of races in the area that offered small purses as prize money.  Several weekends we loaded up the dogs and went out to win drinking money. The dogs were pretty good and we won a few races. They were usually held near a bar and seldom did we head home with any of our winnings left. Such a vivid memory from that time was the three of us in the cab of a pickup rolling down the road to a sled dog race and singing loudly Donna Summer's "On the Radio."

Those jaunts tended to lift my spirits but that awful book lurked in the back of my mind. I knew I couldn't send it to a publisher in its present condition and I didn't have time to do a complete rewrite. Nor did I have a clear idea what was missing, what made it so bad.

That was when I recalled Truman Capote's writing advice. I had seen him on the Dick  Cavett Show some years earlier. Just for background, Cavett was the last intellectual night time talk show host. He could keep up with the amazing guests he entertained and could let them speak as well. This one night he was asking Capote about his writing process, and Capote said a couple of things that have stuck with me through the years. Cavett asked him why writers seemed so childish sometimes and Capote reminded him of childhood when you woke up every day and something new was going to happen. He went on to say as most people mature they lose that sense of wonder, but writers and creative people in general still have that. I have used that as an excuse for some of my adventures over the years.

But the statement Capote made that applies here was he thought in order to be a good writer you had to be gay. Now, that knocked me over and I recall having a very negative reaction to it. However, over time, I came to understand what he was saying and in that realized I could still write without changing my sexual preference. The way I interpreted what he said was that it takes the sensitivity of the feminine or gay personality to understand the world closely enough to write about it intimately. Right or wrong, I could live with that interpretation.

Then as I thought about it, I realized what was wrong with my book. All of the people in it  were stick figures, marionettes that I was manipulating clumsily through their own actions. Even though this was nonfiction, I had to apply fiction writing techniques. What I had to do was love those people, love them enough to understand and give them humanity, at the same time exposing my own love for them, that almost gay love that Capote talked about. I determined to take the three strongest chapters and rewrite until I had filled those stick figures into whole human beings.

I managed to get that done before I had to go back to the boats for the summer and with those chapters in hand I had something I could send to publishers. I would rewrite the rest of the book when someone bought it.

That happened eleven publishers later. When I set out to rewrite the rest of the book I discovered I had rewritten the three best chapters for a reason. The rest of them were even worse. I had to go back almost to the beginning realizing I only had a skeleton. I also had to interview several of the people again, this time not focusing on the race, but focusing on the person gently digging for those details of personality and reactions to experiences on the trail that would bring them to life on paper. With some I think I succeeded; with others, not so much, but I did get the tale rounded out with real people for the most part and not just stick figures.

The result, anyway, was good enough for the publisher and I was on my way to being a published author with no small influence from Truman Capote of all people.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Interesting quotations

My dear Mr. Frost: two roads never diverge in a yellow wood. Three roads meet there. — @Shakespeare on Twitter

"The mark of a great shiphandler is never getting into situations that require great shiphandling," Adm. Ernest King, USN

Me: Does the restaurant have cute waitresses?

My friend Gail: All waitresses are cute when you're hungry.

I'm not a writer, but sometimes I push around words to see what happens. – Scott Berry

“The rivers of Alaska are strewn with the bones of men who made but one mistake” - Fred McGarry, a Nushagak Trapper

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

We are all immortal until the one day we are not. – me again

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio announcer

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Sister hits moose on way to visit sister who hit moose.

Man loses his testicles after attempting to smoke weed through a SCUBA tank

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve