A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Let the Force Be With Us: George Lucas and Ted Conover Make Real the Unreal

In 1964, in the dead of a bitter Russian winter after waiting with my family for hours in a long line at Moscow’s Red Square, I stood next to the body of Vladimir Lenin. The only thing that kept me from reaching out to touch the Soviet leader’s yellowish hand was the glass tomb in which his body (lifeless since 1924) was encased.  The corpse is now 146 years old, but thanks to the cosmetic efforts of Russian scientists, the leader doesn’t look “a day over 53.” Appearances are everything.

Meticulously crafted appearances (as president-elects, journalists and filmmakers also know), can transform reality into fiction, and fiction into reality.  

Two days ago, with my own imagination running wild (as I remembered Lenin's tomb), I stood beside a glass display case gazing at a photo of George Lucas and his creative team gathered around a desk cluttered with Storyboard sketches. Dozens of other action scenes and costume sketches hung on the wall behind them.

The display, part of the Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, includes more than 70 original costumes. In the article “George Lucas and the Origin Story Behind Star Wars,” the online magazine Biography quotes a young Lucas back in 1971 as saying, “The reason I'm making Star Wars is that I want to give young people some sort of faraway exotic environment for their imaginations to run around in.”

When creating the earliest concepts for Darth Vader, George Lucas told the artist that he "wanted Vadar to look like a ‘dark lord riding on the wind,’ with black flowing robes, a large helmet like that of a Japanese samurai warrior, and a silk mask covering his face."

Actor Samuel Jackson, when he saw his Jedi costume, told fans: "At last I had an idea of who I was, how to carry myself... I had a way of being."

Costumes, as the Star Wars exhibit reminds us, bring characters to life because they help the actors immerse themselves in the characters' inner lives.  

But before the costume comes the vision.  Had Lucas not immersed himself in the environment of his own imagination when he drafted the original script, his creative team would not have been able to manifest his vision on the big screen.   

George Lucas immersed his imagination in a fictitious world so that our imaginations might believe the reality of that world. Even beloved Carrie Fisher could not always separate her life from that of Princess Leia's. 

But for writers, immersion is not just about making real an imaginary world.  It is also about immersing ourselves in what is already real so that our imaginations might come to know that which is strange.  For journalist Ted Conover, immersion writing (as he tells us in the Introduction of his newest book Immersion: A Writers Guide to Going Deep) has the "huge potential for sowing empathy in the world. It's a way to introduce readers to strangers and to make them care, a way to shine a light into places that need it."

For Conover, this meant hopping a freight train in the St. Louis rail yards and riding the rails with America's hoboes, as he did for his book Rolling Nowhere. Or it meant journeying with illegal immigrants across the borders between Mexico and the United States for Coyote. Or most notably, it meant putting on the "costume" of a prison guard and for a year, day after day, immersing himself in the brutal world of New York's most notorious, maximum security prison facility. 

I once presented with Ted at an adventure writing symposium in Wyoming, and I remember Ted telling the audience (referring to his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing) that when he got home every night, he had to strip off his uniform and shower before even thinking of hugging his wife or children. Writing Newjack (winner, National Book Critics Circle Award) required deep entrenchment in an unsavory world. Wearing the uniform (the "costume" of his disguise) contributed to an immersion that went more than skin-deep. 

"But that doesn't mean these books are about us," Conover writes. "In immersion journalism, there is always a subject beyond the narrator herself, something the writer sets out to investigate. Immersion writers may draw on their own experience (often they contrive it as a form of research) but they focus on the larger world." 

Immersion:A Writer's Guide to Going Deep gives us an intimate look at how Conover has, for more than thirty years, imagined new ideas, gained access to the unknown, gone undercover, researched, written, and dealt with the aftermath of a journalist's often exotic life.  

Whether writers choose to make real imaginary worlds, or immerse ourselves into the center of what is already a real world, the New Year promises to offer itself up to our imaginations in unimaginable ways.  Let the Force be with us as we navigate these uncharted waters. 

NOTES:  Read “The Cost of Keeping Lenin Looking Like Lenin,” The Atlantic, April 2016.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

At the Heart of Jasper Spring

How do I tell you about Jim and his family without sharing their private, heartrendingly beautiful lives? How do I write about them without crossing that tender divide between what is my story, and what is theirs? 
I can tell you that these stories have been intertwined since before 1874, when Pam’s great-grandfather married my children’s great-great-grandparents. I can tell you that my children’s father Mark has more memories of Pam and Jim than I will ever have, even after forty years of friendship. I can tell you that everyone thinks Pam and I are sister's (which we're not), but that their Border collie Joey was a full brother to our gentle collie Duke, and that both dogs lie buried in graves overlooking mountain meadows much like the meadow in Jim’s novel Jasper Spring (read the synopsis here). 

Jim’s life, like Alice's and Tucker's (the main characters in Jasper Spring), has been steeped in contact with animals and natural resources. “I have trained Border collies, ridden horseback to gather cattle from immense national forests, planted oats, rescued newborn calves, have admired and fought with overwhelming herds of elk."

Jim will also tell you that from this experience grew a pattern, a purpose. It rises from the pages of Jasper Spring, giving intention to each word, each story line - from the miscarriages that nearly unravel the love between Alice and Tucker, to the neglected young boy who wanders into their valley, to the fire that threatens to consume everything, to the Border collie Tommie who gathers them all into his gentle fold.   

I've worked with Jim on this novel for more than five years, and in the same way that Tommie gathers together the characters in Jasper Spring, Pam, Jim, and their son Tyler, gathered my husband John and our Border Collie Trixie into their fold. We flock to the ranch for summer visits, Christmases, whenever we can. Our dog Trixie is as eager to romp with her "brothers" as John and I are to reconnect with our love for the Black Hills, and with a family we hold dear.

Jim, a visual artist as well as an author, loves looking at John's sketchbooks, and John enjoys admiring Jim's bronzes. It was only natural that a vision of John's pen-and-ink drawings illustrating the pages of Jasper Spring took root in Jim's mind. John began drawing sample sketches - elk in the forest, sheep in the meadow, the bicycle that young Ray rode from town to the ranch, the old Voss place, Alice at the kitchen table, Tucker's work gloves, the all-consuming forest fire. And of course, Tommie on the day he was picked from his rambunctious litter mates.

Alice, distraught, left Tucker alone in the barn. The choice up to him, he found himself drawn to a male with a narrow blaze and a small ring of white around its muzzle
"Tucker knelt in the hay and took off his hat. The black face looked back at him and its spine straightened like the pulling of a string: not the soft look of adoration or subservience: a strong face, glistening gaze. A primordial dark eye. He cradled the young thing in his hands and hurriedly left the shelter of the building." 

Tucker, like the puppy he cradled, had a primordial connection to the land - fundamental at its deepest level. This primordial connection to the land is at the core of Jasper Spring, just as it is at Jim's core, and Pam's. Perhaps all works of art are linked to the artist's primordial "dark eye," to the iris that lets in the light, or narrows the vision. 

Works of fiction like Jasper Spring expand our vision because, for a brief time, they narrow our focus. We push aside politics in favor of relationships. We shut out the nightly news so that we might invite the eternal optimism of a dog into our world. We live, however briefly, in the heart of a new life and when we close the covers, we find ourselves a little more compassionate

We might even find ourselves flipping open the real estate section of the paper to the "Land for Sale" ads. "I don't need a big place," we might whisper, "just a place where a dog and a boy can run free, a place with a spring that never goes dry, maybe a place like Jasper Spring."

Note: Read the opening pages of Jasper Spring. Available now in print or e-book.