Tag Archives: Yuba River

Why Back Stories Matter (part 2)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Part One of Why Back Stories Matter appeared on the 366Writing blog. In part two, we look at the specific reasons people love to hear the stories behind the story – and I share a few as well from my newest collection of essays and poetry, Backroad Melodies, which will be released on Summer Solstice, June 21.)

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

WHEN WRITING BOOKS, authors spend months or even years pulling together backstory. Novelists must know the ins and outs of their characters, and their characters’ lives, loves and tendencies, before committing the first sentence to paper (or screen). Non-fiction authors must track down all available background information on their human subjects or central topics in order to present their material. In both cases, extensive research precedes any writing. It’s quite normal for an author to pore through hundreds of source materials (books, articles, papers, videos, transcripts, etc.) before writing a manuscript.On top of that, fiction writers invariably pull nuggets of experience or perception from their own lives, and weave them into their characters, plots, or subtext.

The final books that reach bookshelves, online stores, and our admiring eyes compare favorably to icebergs: ten percent of the research and raw material makes it into print. Maybe ten percent of that is character, subject or topical backstory woven into the fabric of the narrative.

As for the other ninety percent? Many writers like to entomb their source and research material into cardboard file boxes or backup drives, never to see the light of day again. As for me? I want to know the backstories, and I want to share them. For instance, in my novel Voice Lessons, I wove nearly a hundred personal anecdotes into the characters, events, lyrics, concerts, plot and subtext – not to mention the prose that took flame from research that included more than two hundred books and articles, two hundred CDs and another hundred DVDs. Will you know which anecdotes are from my life? Not unless you know me, well. Or unless I tell you. Behind each anecdote is another story, the agglomeration of experiences that created it. We could go on forever.

Which is the point: to give readers the experiences that shaped the wonderful experience they just had in reading a book. That’s why fan clubs exist. That’s why we comb through materials in all shapes and forms to find interviews, histories, biographies and reminiscences that add context, shape and perspective to what we just read. When we learn these back or side stories, lights switch on in our heads. Recognition parts our consciousness like Moses finding his groove on the Red Sea. “A-ha!” moments of realization break into smiles across our faces, accompanied by a warm, tingling feeling inside. Suddenly, we know more about what makes the author tick, what prompted him or her to write that passage in that way, or to drop in that particularly amazing detail. We feel good because we know more. Acquired and perceived knowledge always feels good.

51kzcyubVNL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_51S4MUUXEQL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_  Two of the best novels I’ve read in recent years – which I happened to read back-to-back in Spring 2013 – were Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. These two men were among four panelists at a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books discussion entitled, “Fiction at a Sideways Glance.” Well, as this piece might indicate, I’m going to be the moth drawn to any writing forum that looks at the craft from a different angle. Both men were engaging and insightful, their shared experiences delighting the capacity crowd. It so happens, too, that Fobbit and Beautiful Ruins are two of the most talked about novels of 2013.

Each book offers a fiesta for backstory seekers: Fobbit draws from a journal Abrams kept while serving as a public affairs specialist in Iraq, thus offering both a comedic (sometimes hilarious) look at the war and a troubling, in-the-trenches perspective we saw or read about nightly during Vietnam – the tragedy and heartache that happens before medals are pinned on our great servicemen and women – but which was expunged from our awareness by the 21st century Pentagon. Dark comedy? Fobbit is one of the best. You won’t think the same about the war in Iraq, or war itself, after reading it. (We will have the pleasure of hearing from Abrams later this month in a Word Journeys Blog interview).

Beautiful Ruins is an exquisite story of a romantic spark between two people that stretches across fifty years of life, in all its ups and downs, set against three backdrops that the author painted with a combination of personal observation, experience and research: the early production Italian set of the epic Cleopatra (or, to be more specific, what went on between Liz and Dick); a tiny hamlet with Italy’s majestic Cinqueterre coast; and the playground of golden dreams and brass-knuckle realities known as Hollywood.

I am a glutton for good stories, and all great books are loaded with creation points that spider outward as far as you can follow. They are all truly silken threads.

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

BACK TO THE BACKROADS. The roads listed earlier anchor the overall backstory of Backroad Melodies. Many of the poems were written about or on them. Since I’ve opened a can of worms, and encouraged everyone to either seek out or share the stories behind the stories, here are a few from this collection:

• “A Day on the Rake”:  I took a day of silence during a long meditation retreat in Northern California (on MacNab Cypress Road), grabbed a rake, and spent an entire day working on a mile of paths that wound between hundreds of plant species and statues of deities representing all the world’s major religions. Truly energizing.

• “Birthing a New Day”: An experience from the inception of my relationship with Martha, at the base of Mount Palomar, in her backyard on Ushla Way, twenty miles from the nearest town. Years later, I can gladly report that very day feels like this poem.

• “Fossil Light”: Standing outside on a crystal clear midnight in February, temperature three degrees above zero, viewing the stars through the prism of their original conception. What we see twinkling today is the way they existed before modern civilization, before humanity … even before dinosaurs. Fossil light.

• “The Way Stones Tell Stories”: Sitting in the San Luis Rey riverbed during dry season, holding a stone, admiring its age and stoic presence. Every sentient being has its storytelling style; our job is to know how to listen, and what to listen for.

• “Morning Prayer”: Driving through Capitol Reef in Eastern Utah just as dawn erupted on the cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges of this monocline, known to geologists as the Waterpocket Fold. I feel Native American spirit and energy most profoundly in the Four Corners region … as on this morning.

• “Ghost Riding”: This could be subtitled, “the songs of trees on back roads.” When wires, lights and busy minds aren’t present, wind feels and sounds like ghosts while whispering through trees.

• “Tea Time”: Over a three-year period, I had the profound pleasure of walking next door occasionally and drinking tea with my friend and favorite poet, Gary Snyder. Few people are more conversant on so many different topics.

• “Four Pool Quartet”: On a hot, late September day in the Sierra Nevada foothills, one of my students asked if we could hold an outdoor class. You don’t have to ask me that question twice. We loaded up cars, and I took them to an out-of-the-way spot on the Yuba River, reachable only by driving a road you don’t want to think about in icy or snowy weather, then hiking down a trail steep enough to tax a bighorn sheep. We sat on giant flatrock, deposited when the Sierra Nevada range was formed five million years ago, and wrote and swam for two hours. (“Did you know this snow-fed, rock-strewn river has five or six different currents,” I told them, “only three of which you see above the surface?”) This poem was one of my two contributions for the day, written behind a back road, while sitting in a river pool.

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Guest Blog: My Journey As A Writer, by Dhyan Davis

Today begins a week that gives all teachers great cheer, yet produces a bittersweet feeling as well — Graduation Week. I’m delighted to know that summer break begins on Friday, but likewise, it’s time to say goodbye to students that have been as much a part of my life as I have been of theirs.

Blog guest author Dhyan Davis

One is Dhyan Davis, who graduates from Ananda College on Thursday. Early last year, I was brought onto the faculty to energize the writing program. In just over a year, we’ve turned it into a strong curriculum that can cover all genres with group and individual classes, and more than meets standards for freshmen through seniors. In one of those “timing + opportunity” moments, Dhyan was one of the first two students in the writing program — so he helped to build this curriculum by pushing me as much as I pushed him. In the meantime, his writing improved so much that it helped to create other changes in his life, the changes that merge with higher purpose and meaning. Watching this man transform has been a blessing of the highest order — and I’ve had an inner ringside seat as well, seeing everything evolve through his words.

Today, I’d like to pay tribute to Dhyan by posting his latest essay, “My Journey As a Writer,” on this blog. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I did. To me, it speaks of what happens when writing and life purpose meet on an open road.


My Journey As a Writer

By Dhyan Davis

In life, there are countless paths we can explore, all of which provide another piece of life’s puzzle to our consciousness. Some paths expand our awareness to previously unseen depths. Others, however, close our hearts to life’s boundless gifts. Regardless of which path we choose, life offers just the right ingredients for lessons to be learned. Growth is inevitable. Whether our natural spiritual evolution is painful or painless, it’s up to us to choose our life’s direction wisely.

One path that has made a significant impact on my life’s direction has been writing.  My heart has finally found a platform for genuine expression, where an uninterrupted flow can produce poetic prose. The written word has expanded my life’s perspective, allowing me to live more wholly in the present moment and to express my vision through essays, stories, and other forms of writing.

Ananda College offered me the tools necessary to mold and shape my ideas into golden nuggets of self-expression. Since my arrival, every writing class encouraged me to drive my focus inwardly, extracting my creative jewels so they may be shared with others.

My development as a writer has been long and arduous, whereas, I’ve always had a knack for verbal communication. Considering I’m naturally an extrovert, my understanding easily expands as I express my feelings verbally. If a particular conversation strikes my interest, I simply allow my intuitive feelings to guide my thoughts and speech. Bob, the creative writing director, insisted from the very beginning that my writing voice was no different than my speaking voice. He often said that my written words should be in sync with my verbal flow; I should hear myself on paper. To improve my writing, he said, I simply needed to transfer my speaking flow to writing. Both writing and speaking require sensitive attunement to the subtle messages of intuition. Writing, however, draws my attention more deeply to my core, simply because it requires reflection and personal exploration, which are both inward processes.

Interiorizing my mind benefits both yoga practice and, of course, writing. From the very first class offered in spring 2011, I’ve struggled immensely with developing my writing voice. I knew it was essential for genuine, accurate self-expression, though I often found my ideas scatter when I sat to write. Every assignment was not only stretching my analytical reason, but also my ability to articulate subtle, spiritual realizations to others. Gradually, my ability to hear my inner voice deepened while my potential to express myself sharpened.

The more I write, the more my thoughts become organized, making my written and spoken word more coherent and fluid. A prime example of this occurred just a couple weeks ago. A few students, some faculty members and I visited Ananda College’s future campus near Portland, Oregon. We hosted an open house for prospective students. Both faculty and students were asked to talk about their classes and experiences at the college. Though I didn’t prepare my speech beforehand, my intention was to speak from my heart and to relate my honest experience. When I was called to center stage, my heart raced and my palms moistened. What will I say? How will I say it? As soon as I looked into the audience, however, words flowed effortlessly as if I was reading from cue cards. My thoughts were crisp, clear, and lucid with insight, depth, and heartfelt honesty. When I finished and sat back down, I realized I spoke in the voice I’d labored to cultivate in writing. Writing proved in that moment to be the chisel to which my ideas are shaped into the perfect masterpiece. A clear mind is essential for coherence, whether expressed verbally or on paper.

Within the past year and a half, I’ve taken writing much more seriously; I have now seen its benefits. Since then, my entire vision has been pleasantly rearranged to view life more deeply. Every day, I gazed upon typically labeled mundane experiences with a renewed curiosity. How can this instance illustrate a spiritual truth? I would constantly stay alert throughout the day, seeking out new material for my writing assignments. Nothing was taken for granted; everything offered a message to be heard. Ideas for new, insightful papers flooded my consciousness, inspiring me to no end.

An example of this occurred when Bob took his class on a field trip to the Yuba River. As I turned tranquil from the river’s roar, I realized how symbolic this riverbed is to the path of yoga and spiritual liberation. The river (our subtle energies) continuously flows through many treacherous gullies (delusion), relentless seeking union with the ocean (God). Though only one example, there has been many instances where my observations of day-to-day life has sprouted into spiritually relevant material. Writing has taught me to keep a keen awareness so nothing is overlooked; everything is placed into a deeper context.

Life is filled with boundless wonders. Whenever my heart taps into the creative flow, some of life’s mysteries lose their veil. The more I ponder the depths of yoga, the more writing plays a critical role in organizing, integrating, and expressing my realizations. Writing demands that I dig deeper into my consciousness and excavate new insights. This, I’ve found, is the joy of writing. Since the writing process requires deep introspection, I find myself becoming calmer and more attuned to my heart’s song. Where there’s calmness, there’s also clarity of mind and purity of thought. These are all necessary not only for good writing, but for a healthy and fulfilling life.

I’ve always wondered what distinguishes a bona fide writer from a non-writer. Does a writer possess an inborn talent that only a few are blessed with? Maybe so, but I highly doubt that’s all there is to the story. Everyone has an inner voice that can inspire and uplift others. Creativity, insight, and lucid self-expression are inherent in everyone, but realized by few. Within the past year and a half, I went from being blind to having 20/20 vision. Before I started taking classes with Bob, my writing “tool bag” lacked concrete methods for professional grade writing. In those preliminary weeks, I thought my case was hopeless; that I would never be able to express my inner depth outwardly through writing. After time, however, the advice Bob continually offered kept pushing me towards refining my approach.

As a sculpture isn’t born overnight, the skill of writing requires patience, endurance, and a whole lot of energy. Some people simply aren’t interested in exerting the necessary time and energy for the laborious writing process. Editing, proof-reading, and re-writing require dedication and discipline, which most people generally lack in the overall sense. I deeply feel I have reached a point in my writing career where I’m ready to embrace these demands. This, to me, places me in professional magnetism simply because I’m willing to endure the hardship, embrace the expansions, and continually exert an ever-increasing amount of energy towards attaining literary greatness.

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