Dylan in Taos

Dylan is a senior Hunt Leadership Scholar and David and Carolyn Miller Scholar. A member of the University Honors Program, he is majoring in English with a specialization in creative writing in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. He was named a Richter Fellow and Unbridled Learner for summer 2012, when he will be working on his first novel at SMU-in-Taos.

A chapter ends

So here I am again, in the sky, at 35,000 feet.  I have the best spot on the plane, as it is both an aisle and window seat, which puts into perspective the size of this aircraft. If I could stand up straight, I would be able to put both arms out and touch either side of the airplane.

I left this morning, eating at Michael’s, a must if you visit Taos, and leaving by some dusty highway in a large red pickup truck driven by one of my closest friends, a future Marine, headed toward the Sante Fe Municipal Airport. She and I talked about how fast the month went by, and how things were slower, relaxed, older in this little town.

The talk turned to the future, of times after college, when we would have to be real people. This was scary, the worst being the lack of friends, how when you are a real adult, friends aren’t always there, just down the hall in the next dorm room. For the last three years, I have been living with friends, eating with friends, drinking (water) with friends, going to Rangers games with friends, talking story (what people call ‘chatting’ in Hawaii) with friends, and just BEing with friends. You come to love them, and cherish their company. They are your family. They are the ones you come to depend upon because Mom is 4000 miles away on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Then, just like the leaves on a tree in Autumn, everyone falls slowly away, floating listlessly this way and that, landing far from the leaves they had been with since spring. The season of college is over and Jennie, the Marine, may end up back in Taos, while Tyler, an old roommate, may end up in New York at Columbia Law. Some get bagged up with a few other leaves, ending up in the same city, reminiscing about the time you sent an email to the provost and got a school cancelled because of excessive snow. Some leaves fall into the neighbor’s yard, mixing with the leaves from other trees from all across the neighborhood, never to see them again. Some leaves are meant to get married, have children, be happy, and others find misery and disappointment. Some die young, struck down by cancer, and others star in movies, sing at Madison Square Garden, and act in plays on Broadway. Many have their hearts broken and some never do, which for the lucky few can be a curse. Some become lawyers, doctors, engineers, bankers, accountants, and science teachers. Many do great things and others break the law, spending life behind bars. Others save lives in Africa, reminding us that there are good people in the world. Some have plans, ideas, dreams, and they reach them, meeting wild expectations. Others fall short. Some dreams die.

This leaf is unsure. He looks down at the gathering pile. Yellow, red, orange, brown, and some green leaves litter the yard. He wonders where he will land, which way the wind will blow and if those leaves around him, the future lawyers and accountants, will fall with him. The last days of summer are slipping away. The air thickens with anticipation and fear.  This leaf looks down again, and his sees his feet sitting on top of his backpack, which is stowed beneath the seat in front of him. Below he sees fields, some yellow, some red, some orange, some brown, some green, some circles, some squares. He wonders if he will end up in the little town below, the one where the river runs through.

This leaf is unsure. He spent the past month in the mountains of New Mexico working on a novel, which when completed, will be the greatest accomplishment of his life. He hasn’t finished yet, but he will soon. He is headed to Oxford University in England to study Shakespeare and the Gothic Novel for six weeks. Autumn approaches.

Airplanes make me feel this way. There is something surreal about sitting in one place, in seat 4A, and going nowhere, unless the potty calls, and yet going somewhere, usually somewhere far away. It is like purgatory. I am in the “in-between”. I feel transitory yet stationary, vulnerable yet safe, here yet not. I think of leaves on airplanes and of falling (which is maybe why I do not enjoy flying).

With that, goodbye, Taos. I do not know if I will return, if my leaf will blow your way again. I do know that you got me started on something that will change my life.

“I wrote there,” I will tell my children. “I started my first novel there.”

“Where did you finish it?” They will ask.

“Somewhere else,” I will say. “The wind blew me away.”

I started my life in Hawaii, floated in to Dallas, and will finish somewhere far away. These sentiments have haunted my writing lately, because just like an airplane, college is a transitory thing. I am here, but only for a little bit. You are at your home, your childhood home, but only for a little bit, because home is not a place, home is a time, and home was yesterday.

Here is the opening chapter of my novel, My Father and the Goodbye Home

(more…)

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Blueprint of a novel

Today, I passed the 20,000-word milestone! It is a fantastic feeling to have written that much in so little time. I figured that I would give you an idea of how my writing process works, since it seems to be working well. I usually begin a short story with an idea, or a phrase, such as “He had killed before” or “Reaching 34G, Danny sighed loudly, realizing that 34F was a talker” (I came up with that on a plane … Don’t know if you can tell) Usually that sentence, that idea, sparks something and by the time I am done with the first paragraph, I have a story, fully told, in my head. The problem is, this approach doesn’t work nearly as well when you write a novel. It is easy to keep facts straight in your head when the final document is only a couple thousand words, and even if you forget, it isn’t that hard to go back and find what you are looking for. Novels are different animals, which require significant planning and foresight.

Some people write and revise and write and revise, creating many drafts of one story, chapter, etc. I see my fiction as a living, breathing creature, which changes over time. I am constantly revising my work as I write it. When new ideas spring into my mind, I either dismiss them or include them, and when those ideas contradict something I have already written, problems arise. For example, last Wednesday I thought it would be a fine idea to make one of the central characters the sister of an ancillary character. I thought it would allow me to introduce her earlier in the novel. However, by Friday I had changed my mind, which required a good twenty minutes of editing and revising to the novel’s many parts. An important part of my novel is the relationship between things and memories. After writing the first chapter, a chapter intended to charge objects with emotions, I realized that I needed to keep it all organized. I needed to know where an object was in relation to a character. For example, the trophy that your little league baseball team won wouldn’t be very important to your sister, but it is important to you. Below is a map of the objects that are central to my novel. They are organized into categories based on their location in the family’s house, and further connected by the information associated with each object. Click for the map for the first chapter of the novel: Map

The deeper into the story I get, the more complicated this map becomes.

In addition to maps, I am using a program called Scrivener, which helps me organize the novel into Parts, Chapters, and Scenes. Below is a screenshot of what the program looks like when I am using it. There will be 12 Chapters broken up into 3 Parts. Here is what it looks like so far:

This is the view fully “zoomed” out. You are looking at the novel’s basic outline.

And finally, as a little bonus, here is the cover of the novel… I know I am getting a little ahead of myself, but I couldn’t help it.

Look for my next post. I will be revealing a chapter of the novel!

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Fighting words

It’s like wrestling a bear, and the bear is winning. It’s like climbing up Mount Everest and having your shoes stolen by said bear (which is why you were wrestling him in the first place).  It’s like remembering, mid-wrestle, that you were supposed to be at the dentist an hour ago and now they are going to charge you that fee; the expensive one with the overly long name. It’s like being a poor college student wrestling a bear on the top of Mount Everest, realizing that you are about to get an overdraft fee on your credit card, and having no shoes because the bear stole them. That is what the last three days have been like. I started with a fire but that fire has cooled into smoking embers, which are not enough to warm my fingers into words. I thought that after two awful days of writing, a weekend spent rock-climbing and fly-fishing would cure my writer’s block. Alas, even the joys of my prize fish could not shake the languidness that had enveloped me.

I have only recently begun to tell people that I want to be a writer. It is a scary thing because that phrase (“I want to be a writer.”) has some weird stigma attached. It is cliché to want to be a writer. “Oh,” people think to themselves, “You want to be lazy. You want to live in a cardboard box for the rest of your life. You want to breeze your way through college and not do any work like those engineers, or accountants, or lawyers. You want to do drugs, don’t you? You will probably fail.” But to your face, they smile and say, “That’s nice.”

On our way to fly fishing, I was asked by an eager young freshman named Monica, who had spent the last forty-five minutes discussing the merits of an Accounting major with a senior named Bryan, what I wanted to do after I graduated. I said that I wanted to be a writer, but that probably wasn’t going to happen because I wasn’t very good. I told Monica that I was going to do all of the things I imagine other people think about when I say “writer.” Lazy, check. Cardboard box, check. I am worthless, check. Terrible writer, check. Our professor (this was a Wellness class trip) turned around and told me off. I told her I was joking. She said that the more I said those things, the more I would believe them, and you know what, she was right.

I have doubted myself lately and that is probably because when I get on the Facebook, I see pictures of people getting married and statuses about incredible internships. When I look at my friends, I see successful people, some of whom already have jobs lined up with a year left to go at SMU. I look at my parents and my professors, and I see people who are secure and settled. Then, I look at myself and I see someone struggling to write his first novel. I see failure. I see myself wrestling a bear, at 14,000 feet, over a pair of shoes. I feel like I am losing this fight. But, tomorrow will be better and so will the day after, and maybe I will get my shoes back. I have one month and I can’t afford to let another day go by.

My Trophy Fish

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Taos: Where time slows

This is Day Three of writing, and I am chugging away at a fantastic speed. My goal was to write 1,000 “good” words a day, and after two days, I am at 4,500, which is more than I could have hoped for. The narrative arc is beginning to take shape and it is exciting to see all of the pieces fall into place. One of the exciting things about writing is the moment when everything begins to fall into place; when you know exactly what needs to happen and when. So far, I have four chapters and am working on the fifth. I like to work through a story as linearly as possible, unlike others who like to write an ending first. When I write an ending first, I feel like I have boxed myself in, and the story has no room to grow and change. I know what I want to happen, but as my characters grow and change, so does the story. This tactic seems to be working and I am making significant progress every day.

The novel is (or will be) broken up into three different parts, with the first and last addressed to the father. The narrator will be speaking to his father. Below is a snippet from the opening chapter entitled “We Built this Home”…

 

You are an old withered man who walked through our old home and told this son how this stunning waterfront property has five bedrooms and three baths, with a guest room that looks out onto the murky sea. You didn’t see. The lanai by the guest bedroom is great for company, you said, and this house has character; it has history. This house has our history but history is forgotten and then misremembered. You never saw, would never see, and I know it. You are dead but this old withered man is still here in your place. There is a ghost inhabiting your floppy skin, waving your arms, and speaking unfamiliar words with a familiar voice. Sometimes your face contorts and I can faintly see the “you I knew” grappling for control of your familiar features. It was a face I had traced with my eyes many times before, but it was a face that had changed, different in the way only a child would question, like feeling the freshly shaven skin of where a mustache had once been and asking, why?

 

I have spent a grand total of five days in Taos and I do not know if I ever want to leave. Everything runs on a different pace here and it reminds me of the relaxed/unhurried attitude of my home. Home for me is Hawaii, which, if you have ever been, runs on a different clock. The numbers on a traditional analog clock usually have the suffix “ish” attached, which infuriates or excites many of our visitors. It is a pace that I have missed and I have fallen back into it with ease. This is not to say that time in Hawaii, or Taos, is lazy, but rather it is relaxed. Unhurried is really the best word. Deliberate, maybe?

For my writing, this kind of clock is the best kind of clock. While discipline, which I talked about in my last post, is necessary, the “ish-time” (as I like to call it) keeps me relaxed. I have no commitments, other than to myself and to my writing, which is liberating and invigorating. I have gone white-water rafting and mountain biking. I have done Pilates, which left my abdominals in a twisted knot, and enjoyed the company of some “OK” people. I have done all of this without having a commitment until June 28, when I hop on a plane back to Dallas AND I have written more than twice the word count I had planned on.

This place is awesome. It is different than any other place I have lived. Dallas and Kailua, Hawaii, are polar opposites, black and white. Dallas is hot and southern. Hawaii is not and far eastern (as I like to think). Now, imagine that somehow there was a color that was the opposite of both black and white and vice versa. Let’s say that this color would be called glurble. That color would be Taos. Dallas, Hawaii, and Taos are black, white, and glurble. Taos and Hawaii may run on the same time but the taste, smell, and attitude of the place and of people here is unique. No, I did not lick or sniff any local Taosites… It is a saying, people.

With that, I leave you. I am 877 words into my second day and we haven’t even hit lunch yet. It’s fanTAOStic. (I am sorry but I had to do that. It was an awful joke and I apologize. I will make up for it next blog.)

P.S. If you are looking for an interesting read, check this New Yorker article out.

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The view from 35,000 feet

As I write this, I am flying over the Pacific toward Dallas, and ultimately, in a few days time, I will arrive in Taos, N.M. With support from the Richter Fellowship and the Unbridled Learning Grant, I will spend the month of June at SMU-in-Taos writing my first novel.

From way up here (35,007 feet according to the monitor), I can see the beginnings of a sunrise. There is a yellow tinge developing on the horizon, like a banana that is beginning to ripen. This is cliché, but I feel like a green banana, waiting to ripen and become a delicious snack. I have written short stories, and have attempted to write longer works of fiction, which in my opinion petered out. AKA, it was terrible, like worse than PB and J without any of the ingredients, and only rocks to eat.

This time things are different. I am finally “writing what I know” and for the first time in my fledgling writing career, I know where I am going with my fiction and what I need to do in order to get there. Before I began working on this novel, I would begin a piece of fiction with an idea, or a line, that I especially liked, and from there I would begin to write, letting my words lead me where they would. I lacked direction. While this is not a terrible thing, and can be useful when writing short stories, when writing a novel, this process would have doomed me to failure.

I started this novel with the goal of writing about what I know, which would give my work a solid foundation to build on. So, I took a bunch of objects from my childhood (in the house I grew up in), which were paintings, furniture, toys, etc, and put them in a new house, with a new family. Then, everything made sense, and the story arc became instantly clear. I knew exactly what had to happen and when. I knew each character intimately. I know what I have to write and I am ridiculously and severely excited to start writing in Taos.

I see Taos as an opportunity to take the next step in my educational development. College is a place where young people transition from learners to doers, and I hope to make this experience the catalyst for my development as a writer. During a typical SMU semester, I take one creative writing class and four unrelated classes, each of which demands time and effort. My writing gets put on the back burner. You wouldn’t want to write a short story after chugging through an 8-page essay about variance of theme in Jane Austen’s Emma, would you? I thought not… It is difficult to devote myself to fiction writing when there are so many other things going on. It takes discipline and until now, I do not think I had it. I found myself writing only when I had to, when I had something due. In Taos, I will have no commitments, only a commitment to myself and to my writing.

The Richter Program and Unbridled Learning have given me an opportunity to take the next step in my development; to develop my discipline and to devote myself to something I hope to do for the rest of my life as a profession. Most college students get that opportunity, through internships with the accounting firms or through research assistantships with the geology department, examining ancient whalebones. I have yet to find an internship that asks me to write fiction for an entire summer, though if you know of such a place, please contact me immediately.

I am looking at this experience as an opportunity to develop a skill every successful writer has: discipline. Discipline, in writing terms, is the ability to sit down, every day, and write. This does not mean sitting down and saying you will write whilst furiously stalking your old high school classmates. No, this means sitting down and writing until you have reached your goal. For my purposes, I will be writing 1000 words a day. I say, “I will” for a reason. I WILL be writing 1000 words a day, no matter what. I will develop discipline so that when the fall semester comes around, I will be able to sit down and write, even when my writer’s block is trying to fit into my writer’s cylinder. I will make it fit.

This is not to say that I do not enjoy writing fiction. I do. I love it. It is my passion. However, it is not easy and it never will be. Writing is incredibly difficult, and many times, I find myself struggling to come up with the next word, much less the next sentence. I doubt everything that I write. I sometimes sit down and “it” happens, which is when I literally can’t type fast enough to put all of my thoughts into words. Then, when the flurry subsides, and I look at what I have written, I realize that it is a load of… well… garbage. Something that looks great to me on Tuesday could, on Thursday, be reread and judged to be the worst thing I have ever written. It is a struggle to write something and not doubt what you have written. I think the biggest reason for my doubt is the knowledge that someone else will be reading my work; that someone else will be judging the very thing I work hardest at. What if my mother doesn’t really like something I have written? What if I offend my roommate? What if no one likes what I am writing? I have heard from countless people that the sooner I detach myself from my work, the sooner my doubts will begin to subside. I put so much of myself into my work that sometimes I forget that when people constructively criticize, they aren’t criticizing me. All of the frustrations, doubts, and even fears of ultimate failure, are not enough to get me to stop. I enjoy it too much to do something else.

I am incredibly excited to begin my ripening process. (Do you see what I am doing by going back to my opening banana metaphor? Quality stuff here…) I am on the cusp of becoming the real deal, a real banana, if you will. I guess that after spending a month in the mountains, I will be able to call myself a “writer” and extend my pinky finger whilst I sip wine in Paris. With only one year left at SMU, I think now is a good time to begin the transition from learner to doer. I want to begin the ripening process. Unripe bananas are green, bland, odorless, and hard, so let me convert my starches into sugars and develop into a yellow, tasty, soft, and smelly writer. Hopefully when I finish up my novel this summer I won’t feel as Truman Capote did when he said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” I won’t be doing that. Promise.

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