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Girl with horse.

Girl with horse.
I was like this girl. Long ago. On an Arkansas Ozark mountain, far, far away.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How Writing is like Coon Hunting.

How Writing is like Coon Hunting.


Have you ever been coon hunting?

I grew to adulthood in the Ozark Mountains, in the NW corner of Arkansas. The country folk used to coon hunt in the woods up there and probably still do.

Coon hunting happens at night. During the day, they hole up somewhere, so there's no use hunting before the sun goes down.

The guys all met for the hunt in pickup trucks, the beds loaded with leashed dogs crowded against coolers full of ice and beer. Just good ol' boys out for some fun with guns. Greeting and heckling each other, they put beer on the tailgates as one of the most important preparations for the hunt.

"Hey Harry, nice to see you and your tomboy!" they greeted my dad. He waved. I said nothing, only hefted my rifle, knowing I could outshoot most of these men even when they were sober.

After they gulped a few alcoholic beverages, the guys unleashed their hounds. Gathering up our guns, we ambled after the mob of canines disappearing into the night-dark forest.

The men reminisced about good dogs that'd died, naming them with gruff reverence. Jake. Molly. Tri-Sally who'd gotten run over by a tractor, too tough to die, running almost as fast as her pups on her remaining three legs. Good dogs. Their memories lived on in their descendents running for us that night.

"Do you remember Old Blue?" asked a gray haired man, his worn shotgun an extension of his wiry arm. "He never let a coon get an even break." I was unsure if he was talking about hunting. The edge of meanness in his words made me uneasy. A couple of men beside him laughed like they did when whispering dirty jokes.

The hounds' chorus signaled they'd found a coon trail and gave chase with tones so pure they sounded like church bells pealing in God's woods. Their voices rang of life and death and the saving or escaping of it. We quickened our pace.

When the dogs treed the coon, their voices changed. Their barking became angry. We know you are up there, and our people will blast you into Heaven. Some of the hounds summoned their masters, Come-come. We have him.

Everyone hurried to where the dogs had the coon treed, guns clutched in their arms, flashlights and lanterns swinging, splashing light on the trees. Despite their lights, several men trip over roots and leaves anyway. Me, I was a twelve year old girl. I didn't have a flashlight to light my path and didn't need one. My .22 rifle cradled in my arms was all I needed. I ghosted over the ground like a deer.

We arrived at the oak where the dogs leapt and thrashed the trunk with their paws, tearing the bark. A Bluetick and a Redbone tried to climb like cats. The Bluetick made it up as high as I was tall, only to fall back to the ground amidst the milling pack.

Men and boys circled the tree with their flashlights; the beams lights riffled the branches, searched for the eerie green-reflected light of coon eyes above our heads, but no eyes were seen.

I waited on the outskirts of all the flailing lights and stomping boots. I didn't want any beer drinking idiots to step on me and knock me down in their hunting frenzy. I wondered, if they sighted the coon, would one person shoot it? Or would the poor coon end up with more holes than hair?

Even as a young girl I knew you needed a good, seasoned hound to guide the younger dogs. Coons are clever creatures who probably studied with foxes some time in their distant ancestry and taught those red guys their tricks.

Coons who have been hunted before know all kinds of tricks to use against dogs. One of their favorite tricks is to urinate or defecate on the tree they first climbed, and then jump from the wispy branches of one tree to another, until they come to a spot where the branches are too far away. They are forced to ground again, and this is where the dogs could pick up his scent. If there are seasoned old coon hounds on the hunt, wise to this trick, the ruse doesn't work for long. But because I was out with a bunch of red necks whose main intentions were drinking beer away from their wives and swapping stories, we didn't have one experienced tracker in the bunch. We had a pack of adolescent pups barking up the wrong tree and no wise old hounds to show them the correct way of doing things.

The men encouraged the hounds to cast about the tree and showed them how to work in circles. Bob grabbed his black and tan by her leather collar and dragged the gyp away from the decoy spot to areas several yards away, shoving her nose at the ground to show her where coon scent might be found. After several false starts, a dog found the trail where the prey had returned to the ground. Rallying the pack, she launched into the dark woods.

Now this is how writing is like coon hunting. A seasoned writer knows when she is barking up the wrong tree. Experienced writers start casting about in overlapping circles from where they got lost to where they might pick up the story trail again. But a less experienced writer--like me--gets confused. I leap at that tree--my chapter--and try to climb it, but I can't seem to keep going. I've completely fallen for that decoy shit.

Around and around, I circle the spot where I got lost, positive this is the writing path I'm supposed to continue. If only I could glimpse my story staring down at me with glowing eyes for just one moment…but the reality is, the story has moved on and I need to find where it came to ground. Sometimes I have to drag my writing self away from the decoy by the collar until I start questing for the new scent on more than mere instinct. Or my critique partners see I'm on a false trail and help to redirect me. Eventually I find the scent trail and take off again.

Beer doesn't help in hunting for coons. However, I do find a Mike's Hard Lemonade helpful while I ponder the best way to solve my writing problem. I'm drinking a Mike's black cherry right now. Yum!

Oh, and I never DID shoot a coon. Those guys were the best beer drinkers and the worst hunters I've ever seen.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writers are Ghouls!

Writers are ghouls. We pretty up our nasty habits with labels like “literary” or “commercial” fiction. We call using our life experiences “enhancing” our stories, but we are cannibals. We take our experiences, good, bad, or the confused in-between visceral things we can’t name, and craft with every piece of them like Native Americans use a slain buffalo. Hide, guts, meat, bone, teeth…nothing’s wasted.

I once gave CPR to a young man who committed suicide by throwing himself head first off the balcony of a restaurant in downtown Anchorage. The second story balcony from which he’d fallen didn’t seem to be high enough to kill anyone, but he’d thrown himself over the railing head-first.

I’ll use that experience in my writing someday. Make good use of the image of everyone standing around, not offering to help. I just stood there too, gawking at the young man who seemed dead, not redeemable for a come-back-to-life coupon, with the dark blood thick under his head within a few blinks.

A twenty-something woman in a white dress leaped from the crowd, got down on her knees on the asphalt parking lot next to the spreading blood and began resuscitation attempts. Breath, breath—compress, compress, compress…

Shame rolled over me. I had CPR training too, but I hadn’t even thought to help until she threw herself into battle. I found myself kneeling on the other side, not sure how I’d gotten there. “How can I help?”

“You breathe for him, and I’ll do the chest compressions,” she said.

I tilted his chin, pushed on his forehead, pressed my mouth over that youthful, clean-shaven skin. I blew, heard gurgles in his chest, tasted blood and cigarettes in my mouth. I thought of stopping, it’s a good excuse to stop. But The Samaritan in White kept compressing the young man’s chest. Not a man…a boy, really, he didn’t look old enough to buy beer.

Pulled in the wake of the Samaritan’s courage and determination, I continued to blow into the young man’s mouth when it was my turn. The world narrowed to only us and our hard labor to nurture whatever life might remain in the boy after he’d done his best to be dead.

I searched for a spark of life in that slack face every time I raised my head, and knew he was surely dead from the blood that spread like sand from an hourglass until red flowed under the knees of the little Samaritan In White.

My breath started to crackle in my lungs. My allergies were reacting to the cigarette residue on his lips. I coughed, blew, coughed.

“Trade me places,” I said. “I can’t keep breathing for him. He’s been smoking, and I’m terribly allergic.”

We traded. It was hard to keep the rhythm going smoothly. She was so much better at it than I was. “One, two, three…” The Samaritan helped me keep count of the compressions, it was easy to lose track when my own breathing lagged far behind.

The ambulance arrived, and we ignored it. We kept up the rhythm we’d worked out like two parts of a CPR machine, until two EMTs ran up to us, saying in stereo, “We’ll take it from here. You can stop now.”

Feeling dizzy, my lips burning and swelling, I stood on trembling legs. My husband took my arm, urged and supported me away from the center of my temporary world.

“Are you okay?” my husband asked.

“No,” I said, and leaned into his side. He slung a heavy arm around me and we watched the EMTs put a hand air pumping on the boy’s face. They loaded him up in the back of the ambulance so fast I was envious of their speed. I’d done my best, but I couldn’t match their professional skills. I chided myself, You and the Samaritan in White did the best you could. I stared over at my teammate, the better half of our CPR machine, but could only see her back. Her group of pretty friends, twenty-something boys and girls bent around her like groupies, charming and solicitous of her wellbeing. She led her group away across the parking lot without a word or a glance in my direction. My chest was too tight to call out and ask her name. Tell her mine. I’d disappeared, already forgotten, my usefulness ended.

Eric helped me get to the pickup where it was parked on the street, and I climbed inside with his assistance. My lungs were gummed up and I could barely breathe—snap, crackle, pop--like Rice Krispies. I scrambled around in my purse which I hadn’t taken into the restaurant with me, found my inhaler and took three hits like a junkie, breathing as deep as the band around my chest would allow. My lips were on fire, and when I rolled the window open, the chill autumn air couldn’t cool them.

Yeah, I’ll use that someday. I’ll be in anguish. I will taste the blood of a hero or an enemy in my mouth. I’ll have a partner who’ll leave me bereft. My lips will catch fire, and my chest will go tight again, as though it’s filling with lead a teaspoon at a time. That moment will be cannibalized in dripping red bits. Perhaps I’ll throw whole chunks and severed fingers curled like question marks into the pot to stew. What are those floaty things? Push them back in. Taste for flavor--not enough blood. Give it another stir with my big writing spoon. Let the stew simmer until done.