Occasional dispatches from the Maine wilderness-Confessions of a people thief

Occasional dispatches from the Maine wilderness-Confessions of a people thief

I freely confess to being a thief. I cheerfully steal bits of conversation, pieces of people’s life stories and striking facial features in the course of my day. Think clergy have cornered the market for confession? As a small town librarian I can hold my own in that arena quite nicely. I jokingly tell some patrons that I often wear my invisible rabbi hat, particularly during the winter holiday season.

It all goes back to being a curious kid. Growing up as one in rural Maine in the late 1950s and early 1960s, got me in plenty of trouble, but helped fuel an imagination and a thirst for knowledge that continues to this day and serves me well as a writer. It also honed my skills as an observer.

One of the places I loved best as a kid was my grandmother Clark’s house in West New Portland. My sister and I loved sleeping on her screened-in porch because we could listen to night sounds, watch the occasional car pass in the night and count fireflies as they danced over her extensive flower garden. Our late grandfather, Arthur Hight Clark, was a dentist, probably the last barter and circuit-riding dentist in Maine. During the depression, he traded dentures, fillings and extractions for pelts, bear meat and firewood. Gramps had offices in his house, as well as in Bingham, Rangeley and Kingfield, spending a day in each during the week. He was also an avid fly fisherman (something I inherited) and from the stories I heard from Grandmother Della and my father, he spent as much time chasing trout and salmon as he did dispening dental services.

One of my explorations through the house in West New Portland unearthed a sex manual written around 1910. Keep in mind that I was nine or ten at the time and up to that point had never had anything remotely like a ‘birds and bees’ conversation with either of my parents. Even so, I was in constant hysterics while perusing some of the language in that book. Imagine that beef was a prohibited word in the English language and you were reading a cookbook devoted to the subject. Now remember that scene from Mel Brooks’ film “High Anxiety” where the psychologist brings his daughters to the presentation on penis envy and everyone starts trying to discuss the topic without offending the girls and you get the idea. I wish I had the smarts back then to save the book, but then also I wish I hadn’t put all those baseball cards in the spokes of my bike to create cool sounds.

The storehouses of experiences and knowledge accumulated from curiosity-fueled questions and research were one of two compelling forces that turned me into a writer. The other was having a mother and sister who were established writers when I started. My initial foray was into the world of local newspapers. I started writing two columns (one on computer gaming, the other on entering and winning sweepstakes) for a local weekly out of Hallowell and remember getting my first column bumped by the great flood. Undaunted, I eventually expanded, writing my sweepstaking column for the Town Line out of South China and the Free Press in Rockland. Penning weekly columns taught me that writing can be just like having a relaxed conversation with a new friend. In fact the sweeping column garnered me several new friends who remain so to this day.

From columns, the jump to writing a book wasn’t as daunting as I expected. Writing’s easy, getting published, not so easy. It was in my first book that I began mining some of the accumulated gleanings from all those years of curiosity.

One day I was walking through the Maine Mall and there was a young woman ahead of me with terrific long hair. I started wondering if her face was as attractive as her hair. Alas, when she turned to look in a storefront, I discovered her face was a sad comparison to the beauty of her locks. It started me thinking about how often I saw people who were 180 degrees attractive. It as a short jump to wondering how many people were 360 degrees ugly, so lacking in visual appeal that you could tell this from the back. When it came time to create a description for Clymer, the talented metalsmith who was the one needed to reforge my protagonist’s sword, I pulled that description out and it became this: ”Berek and Kallista looked at each other wordlessly. Here was a man who was truly 360 degrees ugly. Tufts of coarse hair covered his arms and chest while a jagged whitish scar ran down his right cheek and pockmarks dotted the left. An ear was missing and his right eyelid drooped helplessly. Burn marks adorned both his arms and his chest.”

When I worked in mental health, one of the things I noticed multiple times was the amount of pain and sadness held in check behind the eyes of people I encountered, particularly adolescents who were far from crazy, but who came from incredibly dysfunctional families. Most had suffered abuse at the hands of those they should have been able to trust, but could not. They were usually fulfilling the role of family scapegoat. In my second book, I needed a young woman who would become one of two seemingly flawed companions necessary for Berek to return to the world that expelled him, I created Deanilu Archambault from a composite of teens I had worked with, her hallmarks being her need to self-mutilate to maintain control and the pain in her eyes. This is how they meet: “”Want a ride?” Delicate, but scarred arms appeared on each side of his chair. Berek turned slowly and found himself staring into violet eyes holding back a sea of sadness and pain equal to his own. He looked beyond them and discovered they belonged to a girl about his own age. She was slightly overweight with dirty blonde hair, crooked teeth and freckles. Berek started, looking closer. Her arms were covered with a network of scars deeper and far angrier than his. It hurt just to look at them.”

Whenever I teach a writing class or have a conversation with someone who wants to write, the most useful advice I can give is to become a good listener. Not only are listeners in short supply, but in the course of a week, you will have at least one person give you a great story idea or a terrific opening line for a book or story. I have two examples I’d like to share. When I took the job as librarian in Hartland six years ago, one of the opportunities that fell into my lap was the chance to write a weekly comumn about the library. That soon expanded to writing an occasional feature called Getting to Know Your Neighbors. One lady who was a regular reader of the paper I wrote for came in and said I should write a story about her late husband who was killed by wild turkey poop. Thank goodness for curiosity. My initial inclination was to file this under too bizarre to be real, but I got curious and did some research online. Sure enough there were several diseases caused by avian feces that were potentially fatal to people with compromised immune systems. I made arrangements to interview her and got a terrific story that not only alerted local citizens to the possible danger, but highlighted her late husband’s hobby of building miniature rigs that were pulled by model horses. The detail work on them was amazing (see photo). I did a followup story a couple years later when the family opened up the Russell Family Museum on the Hartland Road in St. Albans.

The second example occurred when my friend Massachusetts Jack was chairing an AA meeting many years ago. He was talking about growing up and how crazy his childhood was. He said, “I liked being alone. It was the only time I understood all the rules.” I knew that was the perfect opening for something and got his permission to use it. That became the opening line for a short story called “Tower Mountain” which appeared in a Level Best Books anthology.

While curiosity has gotten me in my share of scrapes over the past 64 years, the benefits have outweighed them a hundred times over. Every Tuesday morning, I start my work week knowing that by 1 PM on Saturday, I’ll have accumulated another nugget worth storing for future literary use.

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1 Response to Occasional dispatches from the Maine wilderness-Confessions of a people thief

  1. Great post, John. And for anyone who hasn’t noticed, John Clark now has his photo on our masthead. A well-deserved “promotion!”

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