Snowy Woods

I can’t remember why we decided to do it. If a good reason ever existed, it died in the snowy Shenandoah Mountains that January night. Two young, stoner generation-Xers dreamed an adventure of camping in a winter blizzard. We were an adventurous, if smoke-addled, lot.

My hazy memory holds a scene of warm camaraderie, in a living room with heat and weed, a few days before. My friend Tom and I might have been playing chess. Tom and I share the same fall birthday, though he is a few years older than me. Back then he might have been in his late twenties. It was college times for me, or some vague idea of college times. Our only real responsibilities were making sure there was money each month for rent and that aforementioned weed.

I remember days being longer then, even when most often I didn’t wake until noon. Tom had a job managing a Pizza Hut, maybe he was somewhere else by then. We either lived in a house with four other guys, or recently had. If I was working at all, it was as a cook at some chain restaurant that served up shit like broccoli bites and fucking Monte Cristos, which were ham and cheese sandwiches dipped in batter and deep fried. The head line cook would call out “Heart Attack” when one came in. But beyond those jobs there was only hanging out and smoking weed.

One night the conversation turned to camping, even though it was January and the forecast called for a snowstorm.

“Snow camping,” Tom said, as not really a question, but more a non sequitur.

“Yeah, why not,” was my likely reply.

“We could go up to the Shenandoah and hike in, stay the weekend.”

Knowing me, it seems like I would have been hesitant. A plan of sorts, however, came together, and the next day we hit up REI for packets of freeze dried dinners and rentals of below-freezing rated sleeping bags. We had a shitty tent and some backpacks already. Tom also bought a collapsible shovel–good for digging out deep snow, he said–and that was the extent of our planning. I vaguely remember reading an article in Backpacker magazine on the subject the day before we left.

The day of, light snow fell in the DC area, and we headed out early. We planned to leave even earlier, but overslept. Well, I did anyway, Tom was probably waiting for me to get my shit together. It could have been eleven before we hit the road. We smoked a few bowls on the way, because we always smoked a few bowls on the way.

The Shenandoah had gotten over two feet of snow, with more coming. Crews had done a good job keeping the roads clear though, and we pulled into a ranger station around three in the afternoon.

Ranger stations are particularly strange when you’re high. For me it had a Yogi Bear cartoon aura to it. The ranger, in her tidy greenish suit and hat, was nice enough. Letter sized posters covered the walls. One about bear safety struck me, mainly for the hand drawn image of a brown bear standing on hind legs, it’s angry maw spread for munching. Another showed a bright, red title: Hypothermia.

“Great, you’ll just need to register,” the ranger said. “You’ll have to park in Lot C and hike the rest of the way to the trail head. Roads up there haven’t been cleared.”

“That’s fine,” Tom said and signed a form.

The ranger told us another group of kids had just left for the same place. We’d likely run across them.

“You all have snowshoes, right,” she asked.

Normal people would have stopped right there. We did not have snowshoes. I have never even seen a snowshoe up close, then or since. Tom and I eyed each other and looked down at our hiking boots.

“Are they required,” I asked.

The ranger raised her eyes and gave us the once over.

“You all realize the snow will likely get waist deep,” he asked, “You’ve been snow camping before, right?”

I nodded yes before Tom, because I am the bigger knucklehead. Maybe she believed or didn’t care. Either way, she slid Tom the finished paperwork.

“Make sure and update us when you leave. Don’t want to send out a search party for nothing,” she said in parting.

The drive up to Lot C got slippery, the tires of Tom’s sedan whining against the ice. Snow still fell and had even picked up since we first entered the station. When we pulled in the lot and circled around a ten foot high mound of pushed snow, the other group of kids were standing with their gear, taken from the back of a now empty, rusted Bronco. There were three guys and two girls.

I don’t think we spoke to them. They talked loudly and laughed as they slipped into their snowshoes and then backpacks. Tom and I took our time to let them go on ahead. By the time we hit the trail head, they were far in the distance, lost to shadows and heavy snow.

The snow came up over knees, often to our hips. This was even though we followed in the other group’s wake, their snowshoes having tamped down a depressed line. If you’ve never walked in waist deep snow, you wouldn’t know how each step strains at your thigh muscles. You wouldn’t know that your lungs start to burst and retain that feeling for the duration of your hike, or that your eyes take on the look of a lunatic. I saw it Tom’s eyes, and I’m sure he saw it in mine. We rushed through the first pangs of doubt straight into encompassing, though unspoken, regret.

We had a few hours of daylight left. Our plan had been to hike a few miles in, then setup a campsite and maybe go farther in on Saturday. All I could think about was how we were going to have to hike back out of this fuckness. There is an immediacy to life when you are trudging through these kinds of tasks, though the singular focus is often accompanied by gritty irritability.

“We should stop,” I said around five o’clock, “and get camp setup before it gets dark.”

We cordially split the chores of setting up camp and forging for firewood. I took the firewood part of it, thinking Tom was more keen to use the shovel he had bought. We picked a spot about twenty feet off the trail, or what we thought was the trail. We had been following it for two hours, it damn sure better be as obvious on the way back. Tom took to digging out a ten foot clearing, going three feet deep. By the time I had dragged a pile of kindling and five or six larger pieces over, he was done and had flopped the tent into the middle of that hole.

Our camp wasn’t half bad. We had some odd, fold-up chairs placed in front of the tent, and a tall fire sprung up after some initial struggle getting it smoking. The dark and cold snuck up on us though as we rested. The bleakness of it hit me when we poured hot water into our metal tins of packaged meals–chili I think–and by the time I took my first spoonful, the outer edges had already begun to freeze. I maybe got three hot bites before all of it was like that. Our after-dinner coffee, which I had looked forward to since stopping to make camp, suffered the same fate.

We sat in our hole, the wind whipping up at times. Brittle animal calls echoed across the white landscape. These animals were, I thought, of unknown size, and god knows what level of hunger.  There was some conversation between us, but not much. From our vantage point, by raising our heads slightly, the surrounding snow was at eye level. A ridge from the snow Tom had dug out, now smoothed down by the wind, lined the diameter of the hole. It had the feel of Eskimos, almost pleasant in a rhetorical sort of way.

We smoked a bowl.

When you are suffering, no thoughts are good ones. I tried to tell myself that this place was beautiful, that better men than me, maybe Thoreau, would think elegant words. But my body said, “Hey, you need to take a crap. Good luck with that, snow man.”

To his credit, Tom seemed to be enjoying himself more than I was. If I remember correctly I broached the subject of how shitty this was, and he seemed to not want to dwell on it. He was right, but I couldn’t let it go. This was the most miserable situation I had ever been in. (This is not actually true, but those are stories for another day.)

“I guess we should get some sleep,” he said after we finished one more bowl.

Before I relate the next part, I’ll remind you that I had read that Backpacker article the night before, and I swear to this day it recommended my next decision. The sleeping bags we had rented from REI were rated -10 degrees and seemed to be perfect for the occasion. As Tom climbed into his and tugged the zipper tight against the opening, I started taking off my clothes.

“What are you doing,” he asked.

“You’re supposed to sleep without clothes so the sleeping bag will warm up from your body heat,” I said.

Tom has a way of looking dubious that is quite obvious: eyes squinted down, lips curled. “I don’t think it works that way.”

“No, really,” I said. “Clothing blocks your body’s heat from creating an oven-like effect in these types of bags.”

I have a way of being confident, nearly belligerent, when I’m full of shit. I was also high. I stripped down to my underwear and slid into the sleeping bag. The underside was chill and so uncomfortable I had to shift every few minutes or the skin touching it became near frozen. Tom turned off the lantern. We both went silent, though for my part I went back to obsessing. Tom fell asleep after a while, leaving me alone to those creepy, night sounds and my own self-fed misery.

Sleep did come, in a way, though it was fitful and hardly deep. Much later in the night, though, I woke to the sound of grunting and the crunch of heavy footsteps. I thought of that bear on the ranger station poster. The sounds passed in terrifying slowness until all was (mostly) quiet again. But I was awake enough now to realize I was freezing to death. My body shook as if in a seizure. The ground underneath me felt like solid ice. My skin was cold to the touch.

“Tom, you awake,” I asked.

He didn’t stir. I nudged him, reaching out sharply twice, the cold on my bare arm like a burn.

“You awake,” I asked again.

His head, facing away from me, turned. “I guess, sort of. What’s up?”

“Let’s go,” I said.

He made no response. I realized it was a dickish request, but didn’t care. At that moment I was prepared to ask for the keys and hike back myself.

“I could probably make out alright staying, but I could easily leave too,” he said.

“Cool,” I said and started to get dressed.

It was two o’clock in the morning. While packing up we realized we only had one flashlight but did have that lantern. It was heavy and hard to hold, and since this was my idea, I got to carry it. We packed up in about thirty minutes. A brittle wind came steadily into our faces. Tom pulled a scarf up to just under his eyes. I had nothing to cover mine, only a wool cap pulled over my ears. I yanked it down as far as I could and still see. We trudged off with Tom in lead.

Nearly every step I took was off balance. I lurched through that snow, which was even deeper now, lantern clutched in hand, each step exaggerated, awkward and halting. like a coward that had been dared to walk through a nighttime cemetery. I had to constantly ask Tom to wait up, as he had bolted ahead toward the car, where we would find real shelter and heat. Twenty minutes in we walked through a spot that in my lantern light looked awash in animal footprints. There was a dark heap just off our trail line.

“Tom,” I yelled, “this looks like bear shit!”

Tom hiked back to me and looked down. “Yeah, maybe. It could be something that fell from a tree.”

He turned and kept moving, and I scrambled to keep up. The lantern light cast a dull glow into the trees, causing all sorts of eyes and mouths to appear. The wind drummed up just enough hint of moans to make me spin around and make sure nothing crept up behind me. I was convinced we were off course. Tom insisted that he had seen trail markers, and though the wind had covered our earlier footsteps, he saw an indented line in the snow. My feet were numb; the idea of frostbite occurred to me. I switched the lantern from one hand to the other, its weight a heavy strain on my upper arm. Step, teeter, balance, step again. Snow became packed down into my socks.

Around five am I saw Tom start to walk in regular steps. We had reached Lot C. I stumbled out of the snow after him. At the car, we dumped everything in the trunk not minding much how organized (or not organized) it was. Once inside, Tom revved the engine up and cranked the heat on high. The stereo blared: “For long you live and high you fly, but only if you ride the tide, and balanced on the biggest wave, you race towards an early grave.” If I ever meet Roger Waters, I’ll thank him for that perfect moment.

“Sorry,” I said.

“It’s fine,” Tom said, “it’s over now.”

The roads were snowy, but not dangerous if we took our time. We did not leave a note at the ranger station, and did not, in fact, think of it until days later. I’ve always wondered if they ever sent out a search party for us.

As we drove home though, none of that mattered to us. Outside the window, the woods looked beautiful again. Light snow fell. Another bowl was smoked. We had miles to go before we slept.

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Infinite Jest is No Joke…Query Letters are Though

I started Infinite Jest about a month ago (on audio book, as usual). I’m about halfway through and look forward, mostly, each morning and afternoon commute to hear a little more about addiction and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.

As a writer, each time I get into a new book, I digest it, ponder it, absorb it, study, deconstruct, and assimilate it. I’ve written before about the distraction this causes with Stephen King books. David Foster Wallace is another matter entirely. The detail of his writing is almost excruciating. Entire scenes go by where, despite the humor, anguish is my primary emotional response. This is because his writing is a work of extreme dedication and sustained passion; I will explain why that is a problem for me.

From a writer’s point of my view–my point of view–I can’t help but analyze how a book comes together. Leaving aside Wallace’s writing style, I’ve thought about the overall structure of the book, how he might describe it to an agent or publisher. How would Wallace go about writing a query letter for this? We all know the standard query letter three-paragraph pitch, allowing for varying degrees of nuance for personal flare. I can’t imagine a compelling query letter for Infinite Jest, at least not in terms of the standard query letter three-paragraph pitch, allowing for varying degrees of nuance for personal flare. (In actuality Wallace didn’t have to write a query letter for it, but that’s not the point.) Who cares? Well, I do.

Don’t get me wrong: the book is enlightening about writing as craft, which is fantastic. It also pushes me to ever higher heights of literary adventurism, which is not fantastic. I am not interesting in peddling some genre fiction (not that there’s anything wrong with that). That’s not my thing. I write experimental, literary thingamabobs, and have to dissuade myself from listing “horror, thriller, fantasy, realism, literary” as the genre(s) on my query letters. I totally get the business, know what people are looking for, know that an unknown writer bargains for less luck than a homeless man who finds a MegaMillions ticket on the street. But still, at the back of my mind, all the time when I write, I’m thinking, “Can I write a nifty query letter for this?”

Infinite Jest reminds me what a load of horse shit that question is. I’m not bitter about the business; I could certainly write whatever magnum opus I want and not worry about selling it. But that would be silly, and dishonest. Of course we write to publish. Of course we unknown writers tweet, bore friends, pay AdWords or Amazon, or simply blather to people on the train about our book(s). We also write query letters which is, I apologize, my point.

So this question sits around smoking a cigarette in the back alley of my brain, waiting for me to come out back to dump the trash. “Hey man,” it says, exhaling a plume of nicotine-tinted smoke into my former smoker face, “you’re wasting your time.” I punch it in the nose and go back inside to my knickknacks store to first dust off the long shelf of Japanese swords and then to rearrange the choir of comic book hero bobble heads. A few hobbit garden ornaments? Sure, I sell those. That big cock sculpture the Droogs use in A Clockwork Orange? Yep, got that too. A small, blue box that holds the most horrific thing in the world? I have that. The question sticks its head in the back door: “No one wants to buy that shit.”

Infinite Jest is a marvel.  It represents that freedom to Write, with a capital “W”. Go for it, it tells me. But I can’t. I could never sell it. Maybe I’m not good enough to write a query for something like that. So then it just represents the big, fat failure of my writing.

But we who write, many of us, feel that same passion that Wallace did, not just to creation, but to craft. How do we get there, after one major project after another, to the freedom to explore fully and get someone to grasp it for us, shout it the world? We spend months steeped in the wranglings of our characters, some supine louses who back stab their own mothers, and others who cradle orphan children against their ample bosoms. We want others to know them too.

I went off on a tangent. I have to get back to writing. My protagonist, Daron, is about to face off against a metal fetishist goon in the woods outside the Cauldron limits proper. There are three earless monks hiding in the shrubs, taking bets on who will bleed the most. There has been a disagreement about religion. I wish you could get to know them too.

Stephen King and the Ways to Get Distracted

I love Stephen King. And I hate getting into one of his novels.

You see, whenever I start one of King’s novels, I stop writing my own. I recently (finally) got to 11/22/63 and it was essential. I tried audio book for the first time, filling my commute time, and rushed to my car each day to keep going. If you’ve read/listened to the book, you’ll understand: like always with him, the story draws you in so you’re freakishly eager to turn the page (or, in my case, keep listening).

But for the month it took to finish the book (a 30-hour audio), I only wrote a few thousand words. My mind would race with ideas after each listen, but when it came to put down my own writing, the ideas became a jumble. Characters who had become old friends  were suddenly unfamiliar, cold; scenes I had outlined drifted into nebulous dream-states. It was writing as if in a nightmare: you wander a labyrinth-like house, searching for your writing room, and all you feel is terror and confusion.

The month following I wrote on a tear: 5,000 words a day, the sentences flowing with ease. I think back now and know that my psyche needed time to recover, to absorb. It is as if each book I read of his becomes a master class in how to write, a reminder of techniques I’ve culled from him.

No other writer does this to me. Maybe it’s because I started reading his novels when I was 8 years old and would hide under my covers at night with a flashlight. First Carrie, then The Shining, then The Stand. More followed as I got older.  As I began to write myself as a teenager, I modeled my writing (or have tried) after his brand of storytelling: page turning is key; deep establishment of character; heavy anxiety as the story arc progresses.

Maybe it is simply a way to get distracted. It’s not like I can switch off being engrossed in his story and then give mine its due focus. I don’t know about you, but when I am working on a book, I am nearly obsessed with it. My wife will ask me something, but I am in another zone thinking about how Sterling will escape the trap set for him, or why he even went back knowing it was a trap. What does Sophia really think about abandoning Anlon after she learns the truth? Of course my wife has no idea about any of this, and simply sees me staring off, and not answering her question. It most often irritates her. Sigh.

We all know, as writers, that distraction is all too easy. It does not take much. Hell, I am spending time writing this post rather than working on my new novel. But I am wondering if some of these distractions are somehow essential themselves. I think of the time after I finished 11/22/63, and my mind was a streaking meteor. For me, my obsession is so consuming when I work on a novel that a temporary escape is required. In King’s case, that escape is to visit the oracle and learn.

Now if only all my distractions were this fruitful. At least there is King and his Library of Alexandria, where I can rest, read, and nourish myself again and again.

T.M.

Writing as a Part-time Job

One of the worst things about being an unknown writer is the daytime job leaves little time for the writing. The paying job requires our attention. Our employers deserve our focus and commitment. Yet our minds drift to our hero, antihero, villain, or plot. We daydream about our themes — important! insightful! award winning! — as we write reports, sit in meetings, and commute.

But we dream of the freedom of putting 5,000 words a day down, of getting that first novel draft done in a month, maybe two, then having months to edit, revise, and restructure. There is the free time to chat with our agent, discuss promotion and events, and plan the timeline of our next release.

But that is not the life we have.  We write in little pockets of free time, hurriedly getting fresh ideas to paper, maybe crank out 500 words, or even a 1,000. Late at night, after the kids are in bed and our spouse asks when we’re coming, we craft a few agent queries. After many months we simply put our books on Kindle and send some tweets. Our book gets 5 purchases a month or, if we’re lucky, some strange, sudden audience buys 30 or more.

Why do we do it? I have struggled with that question much lately.

Is it for money? That would certainly be nice, but so would winning the lottery. When I sit to write, I never think about money. On my commute or during a run, the fantasies of a luxurious life glimmer. But that is superficial to my reasons for writing. It is not organic to it.

Is it for prestige? Being famous or, better yet, being recognized as having an important voice would be nice, for sure. Imagine you’re a new writer on the scene and you’ve won the Hugo Award (your fantasy epic inspired millions!). You stand to speak at the presentation ceremony, ready to give an eloquent speech about your art, how you came to your worldview, and that we all need to save the starving children of Africa. It is a moment. But it is also not why we write.

I think the answer for most of us is simple: we write so other human beings will read what we’ve written. Love it, hate it, admire it, despise it: we want to make another person feel. That is the only important thing.

My short, sort of haiku:

There is nothing beautiful
in poetry
except a face above paper.

We write because the idea that we can engage someone else through the simple act of telling a story is magnificent! Right? That’s why we elevate this hobby to part-time job status, to near obsession at times. We do not crave success necessarily; success is a byproduct of engaging with people.

I have less and less time in my life. For the most part the people around me either don’t know I write or don’t understand why I do it. Is my writing good? I don’t know. I try, then try again. I’ve self-published two books and keep writing more. Maybe I’ll get there one day: find that agent, work through a book deal, and at least know a few thousand people might read my book and have a reaction.

For now, it will remain my part-time job, like Walter White at the car wash.

T.M.