Wednesday, January 7, 2009

rounding the horn, beating into the wind

Yesterday I once again thought I had finished revising a story. At least enough to have it workshopped with one of the writing critique groups I'm a part of. I still wasn't happy with the storm-at-sea scene. I had talked with two fishermen already - much of their information pattering right over the top of my oceanic ignorance like the skittering feet of storm petrels - but I did get a lot of help. One fellow also gave me the final key-word clues I needed to dig up a song on the internet that I had been looking for all the time I'd been working on the story. That song, about a selkie and her fisherman and his lug-sailed dory, had an multi-verse intermezzo involving the fisherman's battle with the wind - including a fair amount of dialog between the wind and the man. I mapped out the progress of what the wind did (changing quarters and suchwhat) and what the fisherman did, battling alternately with sail and oars, then redrew it all again because my fisherman was on the west coast of Ireland and Tommy Makem's was on the east coast.

But I still didn't feel good about it. I still felt marooned on the Island of Secondary Sources - or tertiary if I count that I have not personally been on a small sailboat in a storm. To my reading, the scene was neither tight not tense. I needed (gulp) to go back to my fishermen.

I was still wrestling with my awkward shyness about approaching people when I picked up Jack London's "The Pearls of Parlay" (now there's a guy working from primary sources) and read it over my morning tea. The introduction to the story praises London's grand achievement of writing about a typhoon from a boat inside it with accuracy and grandeur. I picked up a few more secondary-source bits (sigh) I can use for my story and one other thing: his story didn't make my pulse quicken either. In London's case maybe the problem is this: all the main characters typified everything great and wrong about humanity, with the wrong inextricably woven into the great. Absolutely inextricably. I was routing for the typhoon from the outset, and the typhoon didn't win. After the hurricane blows past the atoll, there are a handful of humans left: the very worst, most evil one (described as a perfectly conformed and perfectly self-assured specimen of a man), and some of the best ones of the bunch that went into the storm. But every last one of them was there in the path of the typhoon out of mankind's insatiable hunger to acquire (in this case, pearls), a hunger that could never, ever, be sated and that would not be turned aside by any danger (not the approaching hurricane that they had all been warned was coming and not by accounts given of how many men had died - from murder or from the screaming agony of the bends - to get those pearls). I could go on - there are as many sub-themes to be found as there are layers of hardened oyster spit in a pearl when you (gasp!) slice one open and look close - but you should read it yourself. "The Pearls of Parlay" could be seen as a symbolic literary snapshot of this very moment of human history in this world.

Oh, but to get back to what my own greedy need to acquire got from the story, which was, as I said above, a few more details I need to transport and adapt to the other side of the world, and the still monumental task of talking to Damon and Dean again (two people who aren't even strangers but that doesn't make it any easier), and a flotsam memory blown ashore from another book I read. That book was Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers by Dallas Murphy. (Read it! It's great and, aside from the fate of the Yaghan Indians, not entirely depressing.) I am feeling very much like the ship Murphy wrote of in one section of the book, a ship that spent a month or so trying to round the horn of Tierra del Feugo. The ship was big and powerful (and badly captained) and had spent so much of that month being pushed backwards as well as blown forwards that it made no progress or negative progress at the end of thirty days of work and terror and dead sailors.

Okay, so maybe I exaggerate my own plight. A little. But after one shipwreck and a lengthy careening and a great many fiddly repairs to the rigging and sails, I just want to get this story in the water ... and now, What is this? ... A hole in the keel below the waterline? Arrrgh!

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