Monday, April 25, 2005

Seeing Things

As I noted in a previous post, it helps if I can visualize the people and places where the novel takes place. In 2001 I went back to St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island for what would have been my thirty-year class reunion -- had I stayed there, that is. I walked through the halls of the dorms and the schoolrooms, bringing back the memories of my one year there, and locking in sense-memories. It wasn't hard to see Bobby walking the halls.

Part of the novel takes place at a summer camp where Bobby spends eight weeks every summer from the age of nine to seventeen. The camp is located in the mountains south of Santa Fe, overlooking the plains to the west and off to the horizon, only interrupted by the Sandia Mountains to the south near Albuquerque and the Jemez Mountains to the west and north, stretching up to Los Alamos. (In between Santa Fe and the horizon is a small peak called La Tetilla, and yes, it looks just like one. I've long agreed with Richard Bradford's idea in Red Sky at Morning to paint the top of it pink.) But there was one small thing that bothered me; I had never actually been in the mountains south of Santa Fe other than a short day hike up Sun Mountain back in 1978, and that's where the pictures in my mind of what Bobby could see from the camp. So part of the time while I was in Santa Fe last week was looking around to see if I had gotten it right.

I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, that it doesn't really matter whether or not there was a place with the views I described in the book that could be where Sun Mountain Ranch Camp for Boys was located. (By the way, for the last ten years the name of the camp was Sandia Ranch. Then I remembered as I drove up Interstate 25 that -- duh -- the Sandias overlook Albuquerque, not Santa Fe. Thank Dog for the "Find and Replace" feature in Word.) But I had this urge to find out, and after taking a breathtaking drive up to the overlook below the Santa Fe Ski Basin where I'd worked as a liftie in 1978, my uncle took me south of town down Old Santa Fe Trail, past Museum Hill, past the Carmelite convent, past the John Gaw Meem hacienda, and then,
[a]fter a half-hour of twisting and bumpy roads, over narrow culverts crossing dry arroyos, past stark rock outcroppings hiding the last vestiges of snow under their shadows, Bobby saw the telltale red shingled roofs of Sun Mountain Ranch poking through the ponderosa pines.
It wasn't exactly like that; the road I was describing was more like the road up to the ski basin, and the trees along the dusty road up into the mountains were piñons and junipers, not ponderosas, but the view from the top was exactly as I remembered it from back in 1978, and the sky was just as impossibly blue and clear. I could see Bobby there. I could hear the wind in the trees and smell the dust as he came down the trail from his cabin, past the lodge and to the overlook that formed the chapel. It was right.

In one of those little karmic coincidences that makes you believe there is more to life than just matter and energy, as I drove back to Albuquerque that afternoon the radio played Desperado by The Eagles. It is one of the anthems at Sun Mountain in the summer of 1979, and Bobby can't get through it without remembering those days at camp. Neither can I; it's right up there with Nether Lands.

I love how things like that work out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bobby Cramer in New Mexico

I'm in Santa Fe, New Mexico, tonight visiting relatives. On the drive up from Albuquerque I was reminded once again of the singular beauty of this desert and mountain landscape, and I thought I would share a snippet from Bobby Cramer when Bobby first goes to summer camp in the mountains of New Mexico. The year is 1971.
When he was nine he was enrolled at a summer camp in the mountains of New Mexico. His father told him he was going to have the time of his life. He would get to ride horses, camp out in the woods, and climb mountains. He would get to meet lots of other boys from all over the country. He told him this one spring day when Magda [his nanny] was off on one of her few trips back to Minnesota, and he told him in such a way that Bobby thought even his own father was afraid to tell Magda. He showed him pictures of the camp and told him stories about the fun he would have. When he left in June for the eight weeks away, Magda dutifully packed his trunk and rode with the Cramers to the airport to see him off. All she said was to be a good boy and watch out for bears.

It was an all-day journey. A flight to Chicago, then to Albuquerque, then on a chartered Greyhound bus proctored by counselors in bright red shirts that took them on the hour-long ride up the interstate to Santa Fe. Bobby stared out the window at the desert landscape; the reddish-brown earth dotted with piñon trees and the vast empty expanses spreading to the distant mountains was like nothing he’d ever seen before. Then the bus got off the interstate and began the slow climb into the mountains. After a half-hour of twisting and bumpy roads, over narrow bridges crossing dry arroyos, past stark rock outcroppings hiding the last vestiges of snow under their shadows, Bobby saw the telltale red shingled roofs of Sun Mountain Ranch poking through the ponderosa pines. Built during the Depression as a two hundred acre training facility for the Civilian Conservation Corps, it became Sun Mountain Ranch Camp For Boys in 1947 when Mac McCormack, a physical education teacher from Santa Fe, bought the property and opened a four-week camp session with ten boys, three counselors, and two horses. One of those counselors had been Holland Cramer. By 1971 the camp had grown to eight weeks for a hundred boys ranging in age from nine to eighteen. It offered riding, hiking, backpacking, and the usual camp activities such as archery and crafts. Mac still ran the place, but he was seventy-five and semi-retired. His son Frank handled most of the director duties, and a woman everyone knew simply as Jeanne handled the administration. Frank was a friendly yet distant man, more interested in the accounting aspects of the operation and the family’s real estate developments, and few campers knew him by sight. The driving spirit of Sun Mountain was Elli McCormack Sanchez, Mac’s daughter. She was in her early forties and had grown up at camp. She had gone off to college, dropped out, bummed around the West Coast doing all the things kids in the sixties did, until she was busted for drug possession at Los Angeles International Airport. She spent a year on probation and drug rehab and returned to Santa Fe with a new appreciation for her family and what camp could do for kids. She gave the weekly vespers service talks, a collection of cheerful, upbeat slogans that were meant to inspire confidence in one’s own abilities, and that your toughest competitor was yourself. Her husband, Gil Sanchez, was a lawyer in Santa Fe, and rarely set foot on camp property.

When the bus pulled up to the playground, Bobby got off and fell into a crowd of laughing and cheering boys and counselors. Mac McCormack came up to Bobby, shook his hand, and said he was glad to meet the son of one of his oldest friends.

At first Bobby didn’t know what to make of the place. The air was crisp and smelled of pine and dust. The rustic buildings were spare but comfortable, and the sky was so impossibly blue that Bobby thought it must be the more than mile-high altitude playing tricks on him. His cabin was called Arapahoe, bunking in with fourteen other boys who were very different than the solemn and well-mannered ones at school. Some were loud and boisterous, some had strange accents, but all of them were friendly, and the first afternoon they showed Bobby and some of the other new campers around, taking them to the barn with stalls of patient horses munching their hay, the archery range set against a hillside with bales of old hay propping up the targets, the ropes course across a dry creek bed, and the chapel area cut into the hillside below the massive log cabin lodge. The older boys in the other cabins further up the hill were bigger and stronger, yet they too welcomed him and treated him like a friend.

His cabin counselor was a college student from Denver named Tom. He was tall, lean, and quiet, and he ran the cabin with a calm and firm hand, never raising his voice. When things got too noisy or the jokes got a little too off-color, Tom would admonish them with a gentle “Hey, guys, that’s enough.” Bobby liked Tom from the minute he met him; he was the first grown-up that didn’t treat him like a child.

Bobby had never slept in any place other than his own room, and at first he wondered how he could sleep with all the other people around, but the first night, after all the traveling, all the new sights, the welcoming dinner and the first night campfire, he found himself nodding off as Mac McCormack led them in Taps. He snuggled in under the warm blanket in his bunk, murmured “goodnight” to Tom, and was asleep in seconds. The next morning Tom led the whole cabin set off for a day of learning how to hike a mountain trail.

For the next eight weeks, Bobby was happier than at any other time he could remember. He learned how to ride a horse, how to hike, and how to build a campfire in the woods. He learned it was okay to get dirty and sleep in his underwear, and he found he liked being around the other boys without having to worry about always minding his manners. He learned jokes that he knew he could never tell at school and even told a few of his own. He wrote letters home to his parents filled with stories of hikes and backpack trips, riding horses, getting caught in a summer snowstorm about the tree line, and spending a night in a mountain meadow listening to the coyotes bark.

Suddenly it was August. At the end of camp everyone joined in the final campfire as the awards were handed out. Bobby got a prize for most improved younger hiker. Then the lights were dimmed as the final award – the Golden Feather – was awarded.

The Golden Feather was the camp’s highest award for citizenship. Winners were chosen by a vote of the campers and staff. Tradition held that only boys who didn’t go out of their way to earn it but just tried their best at everything won the coveted prize, awarded on the last night of camp in a very solemn ceremony. The award was open to any boy, but in all the years it had never been given to someone who hadn’t been at camp for at least five summers. The name of the winner was burned into the Golden Feather plaque over the fireplace, and this year the winner was a boy named Dowd Sullivan. He was a muscular seventeen-year-old giant from Winnetka, Illinois, and he wept like a child when his name was called. Everyone stood and sang Taps and went back to their cabin, calling out their goodnights to everyone. The next day Bobby flew home and began counting the days until camp would start again next summer.

Sun Mountain became his refuge from the life under the watchful eye of Magda and the stifling procession of school and manners. It was the place where he learned about things other boys thought and talked about; things he could never talk about at home, including the mysteries of the male body. It was at camp that he learned about jerking off, and the summer he was twelve on a camp-out in the Pecos wilderness he shared a tent with a boy named Charley who was mature for his age. Charley had no qualms in giving a demonstration on the finer techniques of masturbation and encouraged Bobby to try it himself. Bobby was thrilled that Charley would share such secrets with him. This would never have happened at home; in fact, Bobby couldn’t fathom any of the boys he knew at school being willing to even talk about it, even though he knew they probably did. But Sun Mountain was a world apart, and he came to believe that the true friendship he had with the other boys and his counselors was the way of the world. Home and school was the artificial world; Sun Mountain and New Mexico was real life to him.
Cross-posted at The Practical Press.


Monday, April 18, 2005

Writing Under the Influence

(Writing from Albuquerque, New Mexico)

I am a susceptible writer. I read a novel or a play and I become aware the author's rhythm, speech patterns, and his style. Invariably it leeches into my own writing, and even if I am careful not to plagiarize, I can sense the influence of others. I try to minimize it, and no one -- yet -- has come to me and said, "Wow, you sure did a lousy imitation of ______," filling in the blank with the name of an author I'd recently read. My excuse is that I'm honoring their work, not plundering it.

And then there are authors that stay with me and become a part of me, their influence going so deep that unconsciously I channel them when write, even if it's on a topic or with characters they never imagined. One such author is the late Richard Bradford.

Red Sky at Morning was published in 1968. It is a coming-of-age novel set in the fictional town of Sagrado, New Mexico, during World War II. The adventures of Josh Arnold, a transplanted seventeen-year-old from Mobile, Alabama, and his friends are carefully crafted into a funny and touching story about life and learning in an exotic place. I remember reading the novel when I was about seventeen, and was captivated by the characters and dry, almost deadpan, narration. There was something about the combination that really touched me, and I never forgot the story. (It was well-received by the critics, and true to the fashion of the time, it was turned into a film starring Richard Thomas, Desi Arnaz, Jr., and Claire Bloom. They ruined it.)

In 1978 I moved out to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a year to be a ski bum. I was between grad schools and not ready to start Real Life, and besides, after reading Red Sky at Morning, I wanted to see the magic of the land and the sky that is so well described in the book. When I arrived I learned that the town of Sagrado was a thinly-disguised version of Santa Fe, and I reveled in discovering the places and atmosphere were as true to life as Mr. Bradford described them. I found a paperback copy of the book at a bookstore and re-read it between shifts running a chairlift at the Santa Fe Ski Basin. It was all there: the scent of the pines, the achingly clear skies, the deep rich color of the land, and the laid-back and mellow tempo of the people. I felt a sense of both deep admiration and envy for the author's simple style of bringing it so sharply into focus for a reader who, until then, could only read about it.

Life and circumtances took me away from Santa Fe after that winter, but in 1995 I moved back to New Mexico, partially drawn by the memories of the last time there and the reality of finding a good place to live and work. The first weekend I was back I drove to the hills over Santa Fe and looked west to the mountains in the distance to absorb the sun and the sky. I was already in the first pages of Bobby Cramer. I had already planned to put part of the story in the mountains, and putting it in New Mexico, gently paying homage to the influence of Richard Bradford and my own adventures in the mountains when I was not much older than Josh Arnold, was a natural choice.

I'm heading up to Santa Fe tomorrow. I'm taking Bobby with me. I don't think Mr. Bradford would mind.


Friday, April 15, 2005

Harmonic Convergence

As I noted in Writing on Writing, I use music a lot in my plays, either as part of the story or in my head as I write. It's ironic because the only musical instrument I play with any decency is the guitar, and it's enough to get me through some campfire sing-alongs. I can sing fairly well -- I was in the choir at St. George's (I can't listen to Vivaldi's Gloria any more without having a flashback, and not a good one), and I passed the mandatory vocal classes in my theatre studies. I have a piano in the living room; a 1929 Mason & Hamlin baby grand that belonged to my grandmother, and when it's tuned, I can thump out some tunes if they're in C and I can chord with my left hand. Anyway...

Can't Live Without You was the first play I wrote that did not have music in it other than a quick reference to Donny turning on the stereo as he wrote (much as I do). Then last week when I was doing the revisions, I had an idea that was sparked by another little element: the Three Little Words. The effect that had worked in the novel came into play here, and it led to the addition of nearly two pages of dialogue between Donny and Bobby, and in what can only be considered a harmonic convergence (pun intended), a song came to mind that fit in so well I was amazed that I thought of it. (Of course, like most things it had been right in front of me for a very long time; I just needed to see it.)

The three little words were, "Where's the Mustang?" The music? Well... you'll have to read the play to find out. (And no, it's not "Mustang Sally." Not even close.) All I can say is that it works perfectly, and if I ever direct a production of it (or work with the director), it will make perfect exit music.

I love how things like that work out.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Practical Press

Under the guidance of Kenneth Quinnell (T. Rex's Guide to Life), a new literary blog, The Practical Press, has been launched. It is "the place where bloggers come to be creative -- fiction, poetry, drama, screenplays, art, photos, literary reviews and discussion, we do it all." I'm proud to be a part of this new effort. I encourage you to link to it and stop by to see what we're writing about.

For my part, I'll be contributing some of my work on Bobby Cramer, some of my short plays and short stories, and perhaps some essays on writing along the lines of my Writing on Writing series that started here.

If you'd like to be a part of this new adventure, check out the submission guidelines, and drop us a line.

Cross-posted from Bark Bark Woof Woof.


Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Yesterday I ran off six copies of the revised Can't Live Without You, hole-punched them, and bound them in preparation for my trip to the William Inge Theatre Festival. It occurred to me that even though I'd added about three pages of dialogue, gotten rid of some outdated references (Hertz doesn't rent Ford Contours anymore), and done some other tweaking that I've been wanting to do since the last time I'd read it, I hadn't actually read the whole play since...well, since May 2002 when I finished the final first draft.

So I sat down and read it. And guess what... it works. There were no glaring errors or typos, the new sections fit in seamlessly, and the characters still sound like they did when I first met them almost four years ago. I even laughed at some of the lines that I'd forgotten I'd written. (Believe it or not, I have a tin ear when it comes to knowing what will get a laugh. Many times I've written a line that I think is on a par with Neil Simon and the audience sits there stone-faced, only to have them stop the show on a line that I didn't think was funny enough to get a titter.)

The best part is that this little exercise that I undertook in December 2001 to break a writer's block in the novel stands on its own -- you don't have to read Bobby Cramer to know what's going on in the play. (Good thing, too; it's still being written.) With any luck I'm going to find some people out there who are going to read it and like it enough to want to put on a staged reading of it or even consider producing it.


Sunday, April 10, 2005

Book It

T. Rex has an idea.
Inspired by Bobby Cramer, Mustang Bobby's blog about his novel in progress, and by my own unpublished writings, I came up with an idea.

Now, like most of you other bloggers, one of the reasons I blog is so that I have a regular writing gig. Like some of you, I'm sure, I got into writing by writing poetry fiction, not political stuff. And, like many of you, I have a resevoir of unpublished fiction and poetry that is just screaming at me for an audience.

So, here's what I propose. A group of us should get together and create our own online magazine for the purpose of publishing our fiction, poetry, drama and other literary works. Theoretically, we would push it in the direction of becoming a legitimate publication that amateur writers would submit stuff to and the like, maybe we'd even appear in literary market and things like that. We could also include articles and essays on literature, reviews, and stuff about getting published or the art of writing.
As you can probably imagine, I like the idea very much.

Cross-posted from Bark Bark Woof Woof.


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Travels With Bobby

Amy commented in the Bobby at 15 entry that she too needs visuals to write, and that got me thinking about the places where the novel takes place and how I keep them in my head.

Ironically, the two sections of the novel that are complete take place in fictional places. There is no Winchester Academy boarding school in North Andover, Massachusetts (I googled it just to be sure), and there is no Sandia Ranch boys' camp in the mountains south of Santa Fe. (There is a well-known boys' camp in that part of the state, but it's not where the story takes place.) There is no island in the Caribbean called St. Edmunds. Of course I'm substituting my own experiences with the real-life places and changing their locales and names not just to protect myself against any possible lawsuits; it allows me to visualize the events in the story without being bogged down with trivial details such as the description of the buildings at Winchester. If I want the library to be housed in the old headmaster's mansion, then so be it.

I wish I had a fair hand at drawing, but then I know whatever I sketch out can't hold a candle to what my imagination can come up with.

Playing Around

In preparation for my trip to the William Inge Theatre Festival in a couple of weeks, I went back and looked at my play Can't Live Without You. I wrote it very quickly -- about three weeks total writing time -- starting over Christmas break in 2001 and finishing it in March 2002 as a diversion from the writer's block I was having on Bobby Cramer. Other than a quick read-through by some students sitting around in a theatre class, I've never heard it out loud, and I'm hoping to change that at Inge; what better place to gather theatre people together and read through it?

Last night I went in and did some fine-tuning. I added a section that I've been thinking about for a long time, and worked on the end, which is always the toughest part of a play. All of the changes added about two pages to the manuscript, but I think it's an improvement. I'll find out soon, I hope; John Lloyd Young has promised to read it, and I'm going to hold him to it.

What's the play about? Thought you'd never ask. Donny Hollenbeck, a writer, lives in the Florida Keys with his girlfriend. He makes a comfortable income writing slick romance novels under the pen name of "Amanda Longington." Then one morning he is visited -- like Jacob Marley does to Scrooge -- by Bobby Cramer, the main character of the novel he abandoned when he got the job writing the romances. Donny has to choose between Bobby and Amanda.

Sometimes writing about what you're writing about helps break the block. In this case it did, and as an added bonus, I got what I think is a pretty good play out of it.