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Part VIII, How Stories Influence Our Lives

By Remy Benoit

Consider, and write about, your and your characters reactions to the change of seasons. Do you "turtle," tuck in as winter approaches? Do you expand, flow with the first breath of spring? How much input does you environment have on how you live, and how you feel about your relationship to nature?

Although written many years ago, this young man's poem reflects centuries of school boy emotions about being captive in school as Spring arrives.

The school bell rang so long this morning,
And I hated so bad to go there.
For gee, I was really longing
to be playing out in the Spring air.
When it's spring you hate to be
in a school room 'till nearly night.
You just can't hardly wait 'till three
To get out and fly your kite.

Cameron Lee Seabaugh
1941 age 11

One of the problems of our highly urbanized world is that we have lost contact with nature, with our connection with nature. We live with artificial lighting, heat, and many technological comforts.

Attempt in your writing to capture the tactility of your experiences with natural elements. Consider, for instance, the Blizzard of '88 that took New York unawares. We are accustomed to weather warnings. These people did not have that gift when the blizzard struck with full force and buried the city in snow. Imagine yourself stranded, freezing, snow bound on an elevated train. What kinds of feelings, thoughts, physical reactions would you be experiencing? Would people cooperate to deal with the situation? Would they think only of themselves?

What words could you excavate to explain the white out of a blizzard to make the reader share their fears, their frustrations, as well as the incredible cold? What words might surface to relate the sensation of a beard freezing to the muffler wrapped around it? What terror would race through the heart of a street child with no home, no shelter?

During that storm, the winds on Long Beach Island, an 18 mile long barrier island, blew at 90+ miles an hour. What might you be feeling in that situation with the ocean in front of you and the bay behind you? What words, smilies, metaphors can you find to describe the power of such volume of water and storm? What could you find to say about man's determination to live on such a vulnerable island?

Would you call a person who builds a huge home on a barrier island foolish, arrogant, determined, unaware and out of touch with nature's strength, or something else? The island has very strict rules about protective sand dunes, and yet people take them down to enhance their views. They are fined when they do, and they have to have them put back up, but what makes one person think that the rules both of the island and nature do not apply to him? What kind of character could you build just from that brief sketch? Who have you met in your life that did, or does, something like that in his own area? Who can you think of from history with the same kind of attitude, and is it possible for you to work that into your writing to give the reader more description?

If writing is new to you, it sometimes helps to make lists of words that relate to particular seasons. Readers want to feel, to smell, to experience what you are relating, what your character is experiencing. Gentle, balmy would not make them appreciate the blast of winter cold; but biting, piercing, stinging would help to convey an attack of winter's chill.

Yet you must reach further than just physical description. What feelings are elicited by the first signs of spring in your heart? Do you bemoan the end of skiing weather, or look forward to turning the soil? Do you begin to think of long, pleasant evening walks with the dog, a lover? Are you a hot, humid weather person, or would New Orleans in the summer absolutely render you immobile rather than make you feel liquid and languid?

One of my fondest memories of childhood is the annual ritual surrounding the autumnal equinox. I lived on a narrow street of brick row houses with steep walled, postage stamp lawns; two sets of stairs reaching to the front door. The street was lined with maples that shed their red and golden leaves with great profusion. As the leaf drop ended, some unspoken message was carried in the steadily chilling breeze: Rake and burn the leaves.

I never saw or heard anyone discuss it, but a certain Saturday would come, and one by one all the cars, with their prickly seats and lack of air conditioning, would be removed from the street. I never quite figured out where they parked them all, but disappear they did. Long pronged, long handled rakes taller than me, appeared in everyone's hands, and the push and pull to the street commenced as the leaves bounced and flew over the curb side. Long rows of leaves were organized with those with a propensity to neatness and when all the lawns were clear of crispy curling now brown leaves, the matches were struck and the fire danced while the smoke swirled up through the barren maple branches. There would be quiet on the street, everyone lost in their own thoughts. I have often wondered what thoughts played through the minds of the adults each year. Were they thoughts of Thanksgiving and Christmas coming; of driving or riding buses and trolleys to work on icy roads, or loves and lives fulfilled or left aching with emptiness? Or were they thoughts and wishes that they were still young enough to run and jump and tumble in newly raked tidy piles of brown crispy leaves that ached to be disheveled by the sneakered feet and giggling throated squeals of those of us still smaller than the rakes?

Let's try with just some basic imagery here. What words, phrases, similies, metaphors, emotions, tactile sensations come to mind with these out of the ordinary situations in natural settings:

...the morning fog is deep, wet, dense as the amphibious landing craft hit the 6 beaches on the Normandy coast of France... wake in your bedroom on a Pacific Island in the predawn and you hear nothing; not bird song, not the waves washing the look out the window and the water is far, far, far back from the shore; that can only mean one thing - tsunami coming - what is the sound of that foreboding silence... wake in the woods, the fog is intense; thick enough to be sliced by a knife and served on thick cream colored diner plates usually reserved for hot, deep cheesed, veal parmigiana....what sounds do you hear; which was is north; where are those who are supposed to be in those empty sleeping bags next to you...

...your bunk in the hootch has six inches of monsoonal rain floating beneath it in a sea of mud in the middle of the night and you are tired beyond any tired you have ever known as the incoming begins and you are the lieutenant responsible for the does all this register on your skin?... are with your new love...the moon is full, the city streets well lit and crowded two days before Christmas as you two walk about enjoying all the decorations... what are the sounds of the city at night at the holidays... what sounds do you/can you hear that are tied to nature, or a combination of technology and nature, like the song of tires on a wet or iced street?

You may also try what I like to call "tactility exercises." With pen in writing hand, poised on the paper, close your eyes and with your other hand go slowly through a variety of fabrics, small objects, foodstuffs and write down your skin and visceral reactions to the feel of these objects.

Also, we all have our thing; something that makes our hair literally stand on end, our blood chill. Next time you encounter this, try to put particular attention on your reactions and make note of them. Note the intensity of the describers that come to mind and try to use them in pivotal scenes as they fit the experiences of your character.

Another line of thought to follow through with is what healing properties does nature have; how can you or your character find your way through a personal storm by connecting with nature? You might want to read the two articles here at the site: Getting Out of the Jungle, and Touching Creation to give you some seed ideas.

Take yourself, take character into nature and see what happens, as I did in the following scene from Peace, Nowwhere the Vietnam Veteran has taken the time to go and look for missing soul pieces:

"There were nights, Mellie, nights that I thought would go on long enough to shape a whole new creation. Nights when I sat on balconies and watched the stars, watched the moon rise and set and thought about all those people who lived in all those houses and castles I'd written about.

"I'd think about what they did, what they wore, what they ate, how they made love,: loved, hated, starved, fought, died, left children and grandchildren behind who actually knew them and who they where.

" People, Mellie, real people who ate cabbage, meat and sops from big black cauldrons, whose wine was rich or acrid depending on their lot. Young peasant men and women who tumbled in the hay, not just driven by a physical need, but by affection and the thrill of meeting so on warm hay, rich and alive with the scent of the earth, the scent of life. Life, Mellie, life lived on the most elemental level of actually putting hands into soil, actually growing food, pulling fish from the ocean, casting a line when the water quickened with the silver of the dawn coming up.

"I thought of paintings, paintings done over centuries, paintings done by countless hands, of women heavy with child, women who felt what I or any other man will never feel, the quickening of life within them.

"God, Mellie, oh God, I felt so far removed from anything that was real.

"One day I just left it all behind and drove out , far out in the country side at Provence,: drove for hours until I found a quiet glade where there was no one about and parked my rented Citroen on the side of the rode. I took out the crusty bread from the morning's bakery, took out the warm cheese and wine and walked for a while with them tucked under my arm until I found a place that felt, Mellie, felt just right.

"I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my sleeves, and opened my shirt just to lay down in the grass and do nothing, nothing, Mellie, but lay there until I could just begin to feel the pull of the earth under me, the heartbeat of the earth itself.

"Oh, I remember so clearly the warmth of that day's sun on my body, squeezing my eyes tight until I could see the little sparkles you see when you do that, and then just letting them relax. I felt the tiny feet of an ant make the huge journey across my hand. I just stayed there like that a long while, no clock time, just the time of bird song, and insects moving through the grass, laid there until I felt the need for food.

I opened the wine, Mellie, poured some into the ground as in some ancient rite and it felt right, it felt oh so right.

"I shared the bread and the cheese with the ants and other insects and then I walked with my feet bare on the ground feeling its rich texture, its ups and its downs, its warm and cool places, and I began to know that day, Mellie, that I was part of it and it was part of me and that if I would let it take me into its time and its movement, its seasons, days and nights, it would let me find real life and connection again.

"From that day on Mellie I began to truly see, to truly feel again with the joy of my discoveries I hadn't felt since childhood. My writing got better, my pictures got better, my life became a joy and I began to leave the ghosts behind, all the dates with no names, all the cities and towns that blended one into another.

"One day, I went back to that cafe and saw Paris, really saw the ancient city, felt its heartbeat, bathed in its scent and sound. And then I came back to the States, Mellie, left my apartment, taking with me those treasures my wife could not have been expected to treasure and I found a house, in a glade, with a stream and the sound of running water and, Mellie, I planted a garden and grew vegetables and got soil under my fingernails and life pumped up into me from that soil."

—Peace, Now


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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