Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sour Mash Mentor

Somewhere along the way, an individual who is committing to a lifetime as a story teller needs a mentor.  The individual may not be well enough along in the commitment stage, not yet.  But the individual's subconscious has a surprise or two, including one of favoring specific writers above other specific writers.

There is the about-to-become writer, paused before a shelf in a bookstore or library, wanting something to read, in fact burning for something to read, but not yet having a clue about the battles going on within.  

The subconscious already knows what the about-to-be has not yet been able to articulate.  The subconscious is nudging its host to a particular section, already keen on a new adventure or mystery or historical or imaginative use of science to dramatize moral quandaries.  

What chance does the host have?  You tried your best to assert your curiosity as a benchmark, even though you'd began to assemble bits and pieces of data having the equivalency of that statement you'd come to distrust, "making up your mind."

When persons in real time told you to make up your mind, adding "already" to the formula, you knew they expected choice, action, purpose from you.  So far as you were concerned, that was a delicious place to be, that place where choice shimmered like an eager humming bird. That was the most intense feeling you'd yet experienced.  You did not wish to be nudged and jostled beyond it.

From the principal at your favored elementary school, you learned of two yearly prizes for books of persons in your age group, The Caldecott and The Newberry.  From direct experience, you discovered that the Caldecott and Newberry winners each year that sounded least like something you'd enjoy would turn out to be the ones you favored and kept in your immediate memory for some time.  

Today, whenever your hand feels a bit stiff, you are reminded of the eponymous Johnny Tremaine, the apprentice to the silversmith, Paul Revere.  An accident with molten silver fused Johnny's thumb to his palm.  Pub date for Johnny Tremaine was 1943.

There were others:Although first published in 1903,The Land of Little Rain, a  lyrical narrative of the Hopi came to you in the third grade.  It still remains, to do what books should do, which is haunt the reader with memories of the actual story and daydreams in which the characters live on, beyond their pages of origin. Leo Politi's The Egg Tree, autographed by him, came your way when you were at the university, its drawings and text enough to bedazzle your English major seriousness.

By this time, the unconscious had done its work.  You were well on your way toward acquiring, via used book stores, a complete set of the mentor in spirit, Mark Twain, who was dead by April 21, 1910.

You got your actual mentor in your early twenties and from her an entire set of tools with which you could begin the work of forging your own literary skeleton, about which to wrap the skin of your visions and senses.  You were close even after she and her husband felt the need or had the notion to move to Tennessee, a place where neither had roots or experience, and become apple orchardists.  Her most successful writing came from that time.

You read the books and ran up incredible phone bills, talking across a continent, sometimes reading aloud passages you'd written that day.  "You must work at writing from your heart,"  she would say, smoker's voice a gentle rasp.  "You must learn to leave the thinking until everything that wants to come out is given the opportunity," her voice now tinged with sour mash whiskey.  Sometimes, when you asked her about the label, she merely laughed.  "Tennessee people don't take much to putting labels on things."

Too late to see her, you were in Tennessee to shepherd books through what was Kingsport Press, and to learn about the lack of labels while drinking a pellucid liquid from a Mason jar.  After your first sips, you began to understand some of the late night telephone conversations.

There is sour mash about now, if you wish it, or another sipping favorite, Korbell's brandy, any number of bottles of red and white wines, and the remains of a six pack of Sierra Nevada pale ale.  But your default beverage at these reflective times of night seems to be coffee, made in your Bialetti stove top espresso maker.  You look out into the garden or, during the warmer months, sit out in it, sipping coffee and listening for the voices of the night as they tell you how to work at writing from your heart.

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