“If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind,” said novelist Alice Walker. I shut the journal where I’ve copied her words down and think, but what do you do with them, once they arrive? All those people in your head. Do they have a party?
In a festive mood, I went to hear Tom Paxton sing his songs recently at a bluegrass festival in Prescott. There under the tall leafy trees of the courthouse square, words he first recorded in 1965 wafted out to meet the smiling faces of the faithful folkies, the tourists from Phoenix and the locals walking their dogs. “Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you going to let me get sober…” It is a song in the voice of a content drinking man and it got stuck in my head. I’d go for a walk at dawn to meet the varieties of cool air against my arms and there is that tune, “Leave me alone, let me go home, I wanna go back and start over…” I’d go to the dump to drop off my recycling and the cascade of cardboard and glass would tumble in rhythm to “Ramblin’ around this dirty old town, Singin’ for nickels and dimes…” I have to hum it aloud or it will kind of hiss for hours which makes me think about singer-songwriters and wonder about the tunes that live in their heads for decades and decades; how many times does a performer sing a hit song in a lifetime? Paxton is 81 now; did he have any idea the words he put together almost a half century ago would come out of his mouth, what, a zillion times? “Teacher must teach, and the preacher must preach, miner must dig in the mine…” His character will ride the rods forever, I guess, hugging his bottle of wine.
And this song character made me think of characters in novels. I’ve heard writers describe their creations getting away from them, as if once created they take on a life of their own and the writer wakes up each day eager to witness what is next and record faithfully where these people in their heads travel. “…Once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does,” wrote William Faulkner about his process. I imagine the writer leaving the house with a leash to walk a character each day like a faithful dog. Hmm, and do those characters age? Did Flaubert, having created Madame Bovary, bump into her sometimes in a life after the novel? Maybe the writer spotted her again, now a little old lady, pushing a cart in a grocery store, leaning on it to help her balance. Oh wait, but Emma Bovary dies in that novel, right? Something about arsenic…
My summer’s project has been to look through my 220 journals and photograph the small people I find there, the quick sketches by my right hand when I felt restless in coffeehouses, airports and bars. The way a knife sheath on a cowboy’s belt bumps his elbow when he puts down a coffee cup at the cafe counter, there it is, captured with a dozen lines. Maybe all these years my little people have been visiting each other on my library shelves. At full moon midnights they have a potluck and sing songs, tell lies, flirt and woo. When I take them off the page to put in my camera, I look at them more closely and rearrange their lives.
Like this reader of a newspaper in a coffee shop. Maybe she’s reading a column called Letter from Home. Now she yawns. She wants to stretch those lanky legs and climb a mountain, I think. She looks around and guesses at who might have the day free to go rambling. No one looks likely so she puts those sunglasses down on her nose and goes solo up Wing Mountain where she has never walked before. She bushwhacks upslope, keeping an eye on where her truck is parked and, finding enough footing in the pine duff, she scrambles to the lip of the crater and finds a large grassy bowl with big trees in it. A fine quiet place. She eyes the possibility for walking the rim all the way around the top, but thinks better of it. It is fine to sit with a back against a tree and be still awhile, inhale the sky and squint at the distant blue of other mountains. Yes, that is what she is doing now that I’ve taken her out of August 2008. But what if I introduce her to July 2002 where she now owns, hmm, a red car or a red bicycle? The red car. She’s just driven it from Salt Lake City in an eight-hour spurt of enthusiasm to meet a friend downtown where the doors to the bars and cafes are open after a late afternoon wave of monsoon moisture. The streets are still dark with the rain, the trees hold droplets that sparkle and her friend has draped a wet parka over a chair. She smiles, puts her hand on that place on the back of a neck between collar and hairline, leans down and murmurs…
What? What, what? Quick, find another drawing with a clue to what happens next.
Oh no, she’s flashed forward into the future and now she’s gesturing at the scenery from the deck of a Cunard fjord cruise. How did she get from a steamy summer night in Flagstaff to polyester and a ball cap with a companion who wears polka dots? This is why I don’t write fiction. I fear being allied with unpredictable strangers for a lifetime: unexpected seat mates on a flight that goes on forever. Yikes. Put them back…leave me alone. Or back up. Back to July 2002. Dinner is good that night, salmon that flakes open with glistening appeal and is complemented by a New Zealand white wine that pleases. Her companion across the table describes what it is like to write the poem that never stops, what it is like to become the poem. Fascinating, she thinks, and then she spots me seated at the end of the bar with a gin and tonic drawing in a notebook. I look up and she says it aloud, “Didn’t you ever imagine I might leave the page to come join you?” And I am captured by my own imagination again, endlessly bemused by who arrives in my mind and forever listening to what song she sings this time.