Monday, July 20, 2009

"WILLOW CREEK": How I Wrote the Story

So, the English teacher says, let’s look at “Willow Creek” the story, in terms of method and content.

Content: Very simple. Two pre-pubertal Indian boys go fishing along Willow Creek, which is a real stream that really runs through Browning, Montana. On any summer day you’re likely to find kids fishing and wading, though it’s too shallow for swimming. They come across the alcoholic, passed-out uncle. They walk on, see a horse and a heron, and return the way they came. They try to protect the uncle from sunburn by putting branches over him. One boy releases their bait.

This is reality based: things I have smelled, tasted, touched and so on. No fancy games. No abstractions.

Writing method: summoning up memories.

Incident: In one of the Blackfeet videos that float around here, Darren Kipp and his camera crew stop at the bridge over Willow Creek and hail some boys who are fishing. They’re out of hooks and Darren promises to bring some.

Incident: When I was living in Don Schmidt’s little mother-in-law house, there was a bunch of drunks who had been used to drinking in the yard when the house was empty. One of them passed out in the shade of the caraghana hedge. When the sun moved, I went out and made him move into the shade.

I started with the first incident, remembered the second one, and in the combination the story happened. I used to walk out along this creek all the time and drunks were always a worry since a person didn’t know what attitude they would take. I often scared up that heron. The horse was one that hung around next to the highway for a while when I was driving back and forth to teach a class at BCC. That was decades later.

The third incident I needed was a little fishing expedition I took with Bob Scriver on the same creek but farther towards the mountains, at Skunkcaps, where the beavers work in the water all the time. Bob’s method was “hook, stick and line” from his boyhood and he’s the one who subdued the bait this way.

The fourth concept came from the mustangs on Laurel Scriver’s former ranch which are supposed to “save” the local kids. We spent an afternoon with them a few years ago.

Point of view: I’m not Indian and everyone will have a hizzy fit if I pretend to be one, so this has to be omniscient or from inside the boys, though I suppose I could fool around with being “inside” the horse or heron. I’m an Indian sympathizer and have a long history with these people. I’ve heard grandfathers say what I put in the mouth of the boy and I consider it wisdom. But my real tie to the Indians is NOT political, NOT genetic, NOT romantic or grieving, NOT generic (I care much less for city Indians or Indians of other tribes), and NOT missionary but personal and locational. I care about THESE people in THIS place as I’ve known them for fifty years.

So this method is simple narrative about three specific people and two creatures in one specific place. It is the place that controls the story, which was the point of undertaking it. My goal is a set of stories, each written about specific people on the Blackfeet reservation, something like what I did with “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” though they were controlled by time rather than place.

Theme: It often happens that I don’t know what the theme might be until I get to the end and feel around for a “snapper.” It pops up from my subconscious. In this case I didn’t know until the boy says “things ought to go free, no matter how damaged they are.” Suddenly the uncle becomes clear: damaged but free. Or is he enslaved by alcoholism? Some people would actually imprison him to “cure” him. It’s not that the boys don’t care, obviously. They do what they can. So are the boys free? This is what makes the story worth thinking about. Are they free like the mustang (she liberates herself) or the heron (free as a bird)? They can wander up and down the creek at will, but are they captives of their circumstances, Indian kids on the rez? The reader, like the author, shouldn’t be thinking about it until they get to the snapper.

The “two boys” genre is an endlessly fascinating one. As a kid I began with “Two Little Savages,” went on to “Penrod and Sam,” and finally Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These are all rural stories, or at least small town, but for me they were always counterpoint to the tales of unhappy little girls who try to save adults. (“Anne of Green Gables,“Girl of the Limberlost,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”) I get the impression that modern kid or “YA” stories are far more grim and urban.

Anyway, it was esp. funny (both meanings) when one of the Association of the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) listserv members cooked up a plot to say I was only a front for two gay men who lived in a straw bale house near Choteau so they could indulge their penchant for hunting. I don’t know why he came up with that, but maybe I should write a story about THEM. There are still people on that listserv who are confused.

The next story my subconscious is cooking up is deliberately different. A young Blackfeet woman has come back to the rez after a high powered education in Portland that has made her either a nurse or a doctor -- haven’t decided yet. Her main patient will be an ancient Blackfeet woman who turns out to be her great-great-great-grandmother. I think I’ll tell the story through the eyes of a white male doctor who witnesses the young woman's readjustment to the rez with sympathy and exasperation.

The great-great-great-grandmother can be the snapper. Maybe we think she’s dead and her eyes snap open, glaring fiercely at her descendant.

This is fun. Why don’t you write a story?

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