Re-entry to civilization and my film debut

I remodeled the master bath in June and got to use the shower three times before leaving for the mountains.
I remodeled the master bath in June and got to use the shower three times before leaving for the mountains.

I was happiest to see the toilet. The shower was a close second.

I’ve been back in Austin nearly a week. It’s a strange sensation, going from mountain solitude to the fast river of a big city again. Traffic on I-35 felt like it was moving 100 mph for the first couple of days. The house smelled different. And suddenly it seemed like I had a hundred things I needed to do.

I’ve been in constant motion. Cleaning the house, finishing the final touches on the bathroom, re-stocking the fridge, knocking out some small house projects, and most important, re-connecting with my friends and with the city. I’ve met a half dozen friends and my aunt for lunch or dinner in less than a week, which is a lot of socializing for me. This weekend is the music festival, I’ll have five friends camped out for the long weekend. And I still have a long list of people I want to see. It’s been a lot of fun. Exhilarating. The novel will sit on the back burner until next week.

Yesterday, I drove to Victoria and shot a scene for a movie. Guillermo’s wife, June Griffin Garcia, is an actor and asked if I could play a magazine reporter in this indie film she’s in. Sure, why not. I shot a short video audition and emailed it to them, and they hired me (I suspected I was the only choice, but June tells me there were others, including TV anchor types). I only had to memorize about a dozen lines for two quick scenes (reporter interviewing a main character), and hey, I can play a reporter with my eyes closed, right?

The film is called The Sauce, and all I can say is that it’s a comedy about high finance. And most of it was shot in an empty office at the Austin American-Statesman, my recent ex-employer. Alas, my scene was shot 120 miles away in a semi-legendary Victoria barbecue joint called Mumphord’s. I drove down with the Kansas-based actress I would do the scene with, feeling very much an amateur after hearing her talk about beginning her singing/acting career at age 6.

My acting career, of course, was launched by American-Statesman reporter Andrea Ball’s straight-to-DVD production Destroy Roy, about a newspaper staff being roiled by budget cuts and Internet competition. I had two lines, I think. That was in 2008, and I have to say my acting career has been in a bit of a rut since then.

When we got to Mumphord’s, which was closed for the day, I hung out and chatted with the owner (a prince of a man named Ricky Mumphord) and watched the action until it was time for my scene. The crew was small, efficient, professional. They got the extras in place (eating barbecue in the background), then ran the first scene six or seven times, changing camera angles, changing the action, having to start over when a brisket-seeking customer barged in. I got my makeup done, changed into a reporterly button-down shirt, ran through my lines in my head again and again until they called for me.

Immediately, the director changed the order and had us do the second scene first. Which rattled me enough that I flubbed the pre-shoot practice. I had three little lines — 13 words total – and I couldn’t spit them out in the right order. My co-star was gracious enough not to roll her eyes, but I could feel the sweat beading up at my hair-sprayed hairline.

After the two whiffs, I took a deep breath, waited for the girl to snap that little clapper thing they use before each shot (“scene 92, take one”), then the director yelled “action” and we were off. Somehow I managed to get those 13 words in the right order this time, the director was satisfied, and we moved on to the first, longer scene. After the first try – in which I apparently sounded like that computer-generated weather service voice — the director basically said, “Don’t speak like a Vulcan. Use some inflection.” He said it in much nicer, gentler way, probably thinking that he didn’t want to rattle an amateur for an important scene.

This is actually the first scene in the movie, the director said. I had the first line in the first scene in the movie.

No pressure.

We shot it six or seven times. I blew my lines a few times, because I was focusing so hard on talking like an actual human being, and the director called it good and sent me home.

So if this fiction writing thing doesn’t work out…




Coming down from the mountain

Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.
Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.

I’m packing up the cabin, cleaning out the mini-fridge and writing a goodbye note for the bear (we had some good times this summer). Tomorrow morning I’m heading back to Austin, where I’ll keep working on the novel.

I’m excited to get home. I’m not at all sure what my life’s going to look like when I get there. Hopefully I can bottle this mountain simplicity and bring it with me.

I know I’m going to be a little giddy at first as I get reacquainted with the wonders of civilization: turning a knob and getting clean water from the tap, the porcelain brilliance of a toilet (don’t get me started, I could write poetry about flush toilets at this point), Internet at your fingertips, cell reception everywhere you go. And more importantly, I get to see my family and my friends.

I’m going to miss the mountains, and living in a world that feels very compact and slow. The days seemed to drip by like winter syrup; I could almost feel my senses waking up again. The smell of pines and spruce and the scrubby little plants that give off this musky, herbal scent when it rains. The shifting shadows on the mountains every evening as the sun sets. The sound of a raven overhead (a raspy whoosh-whoosh, like an old foot-pump loom) or a grasshopper snapping past your ear like stripped electrical wires touching. And at night, silences so deep that I could close my eyes and swear I was in the Michigan woods after a heavy snow.

Living in the cabin never fails to remind me how little I really need to be happy. Even the little slice of my worldly possessions I packed into the Kia for the summer was too much. I could have left half of it at home. Give me my music, books, a laptop to work on, a camera, a few clothes, some favorite DVDs, and I’m good.

I’m looking at the top shelf of the little kitchen cupboard I nailed together 10 years ago – my first cabin improvement project. It’s filled with antacids, Pepto-bismol, Nyquil, ibuprofen, allergy pills — all the stuff I needed in Austin to knock down various bodily bothers that seemed to be coming with increasing regularity. After the first week or so up here, I haven’t touched any of it.

I suppose the explanation is simple: less stress, more peace. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, I’m exactly where I want to be and I control the rhythm of each day.

A little voice keeps whispering, “But this isn’t the real world.” Which is true. It’s easy to lose your mountain zen when you’re stuck in Austin traffic on a 100-degree day and the A/C conks out. But then I remember: I quit my job. Right now it’s very real, and right now is all I care about.

When I go back to Austin, for the first time in 18 years I won’t be going to the newsroom five days a week. I’ll have to find a new rhythm, and it’s going to be a big adjustment. In some ways, it’s going to be like a new city, I think.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time here (big thanks again to Eric and his parents for making that happen).

I could probably squeeze another month or two before the snows come and the cabin is truly cut off from civilization, but the Austin City Limits festival is coming up soon. I go every year, and every year my house fills up with friends for the weekend. It’ll be like a homecoming party.

My plan is to stay and write in Austin through the holidays, then head to a new writing destination early next year. So if people are still interested in reading, I’ll keep writing…


The view from 12,000 feet

The Little Blanco Trail, where it gets a bit narrow and scary
The Little Blanco Trail, where it gets a bit narrow and scary

I wanted to do one last hike before I left Pagosa, and I wanted to challenge myself a little, so I picked the Little Blanco trail, not far from the cabin. It’s rated “difficult,” and they weren’t kidding. It’s one long climb, and in places, the combination of a narrow path, loose rock and gravel and steep drops made me wonder what the hell I was thinking. But once I got to the top, to a little mountaintop “lake” called Quartz Lake, the views took my breath away — what breath I had left after 5 miles of humping up a mountain.

I’ve fallen in love with my new camera, a Panasonic Lumix GF1, and decided to try some short videos so you can experience the hike a little more vividly. Hope you enjoy them.

quartz hike 1

quartz hike 2

quartz hike 3

quartz hike 4

The Piedra River trail

Hiking the San Juans

piedra river 3The nights are getting crisp and the first brushstrokes of yellow are dotting the mountains across from the cabin. I’m coming to the end of my time in Colorado. Some time next week I’ll pack up the Kia and head back to Austin, where I’ll start re-writing the novel.

When I finished the edits on the draft last week, I realized that I haven’t played much this summer. Haven’t gone to the hot springs, haven’t gone fishing or hiking (beyond daily walks near the cabin) or tubing on the river. Haven’t done much beyond reading, editing, blogging, and haunting local coffee shops and restaurants — the epic weekend in Fort Collins was the one exception. I’ve been to Pagosa Springs plenty of times over the years and I’ve done all that stuff, so I haven’t exactly felt like the kid practicing scales on the piano while his friends play ball in the sun. I’ve been doing what I came here to do and I’ve been happy doing it.

But after I turned over that last page and counted up the cuts – I chopped 59,000 words/202 pages, bringing the draft down to 88,000 words/340 pages — I felt like I deserved a little fun. So I packed up my new camera and went hiking.

Four Mile Falls
Four Mile Falls

I’ve got this map showing all the hiking trails around here, and I picked a couple that I haven’t explored before. The first one was Four Mile Falls (discovered by Spanish explorers who originally dubbed it “6.45 kilometer falls”). The map said the hike was “moderately” difficult, which means every so often you’ll hit a massive hill studded with loose rocks that will make you wish you’d brought your mule (mine’s in the shop, unfortunately). But in the stretches where you’re not staring at your feet to avoid breaking an ankle, the scenery is breathtaking. The trail winds through deep evergreen forest, broad meadows, blankets of grapevine turning red with autumn, and little mountain streams sliding over smooth stones. And through every break in the trees, there’s another stunning mountain view.

After all that serene beauty, the falls injects some dramatic beauty: a little stream jumping off a big cliff in a halo of spray. I climbed around the boulders at the base for a good hour, taking photos and getting drenched every time the wind shifted. There’s something elemental and soothing about water flowing over rock that makes you want to lay on the moss and take a nap (which explains white noise machines and all those “mountain waterfall” recordings). I was very tempted. I was also hungry after hiking four miles, so I headed back, chatting along the way with other folks on the trail, including half a dozen Kansans, a Great Dane lugging saddlebags (apparently the Kansans’ mule was in the shop too) and a couple of deerless bow hunters who cheerfully told me that another hunter had seen a mountain lion on that very trail earlier in the day.

Thanks for that little detail, guys. Mind if I walk back with you?

The next day my calves were barking at me, but the weather was so beautiful again that I picked an easier trail and went out again. The Piedra River trail is about 15 miles north of Pagosa and follows the river for miles and miles (one of the great things about the trails in Colorado is how they’ve placed beautiful rivers and creeks next to most of them). I hiked about three miles through some stunning rock canyons and formations – the photos do a better job than I can in words – with the trickling of the river as background music before I turned around.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.

(Final bear update (I hope): After the last bear encounter, I moved the hammock closer to the cabin, next to the walking path. Yesterday I was settled in with a book when one of the neighborhood bears came loping from behind me onto the path. He stopped about six feet from the hammock, took a step in my direction, then saw me tumbling out of the hammock and skittered away. I probably would have been more alarmed, except this one wasn’t much bigger than a cub. But I have pretty clear evidence now that bears are attracted by hammocks.)


How to gut a novel for its own good

Those of you who tuned in at the start of this blog will remember that I drove to Colorado in July lugging a lot of words. My draft was 147,720 words, to be precise. And I loved each and every one of them. How I toiled over that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38, until it sang to me in this perfect, tinkling dependent clause voice.

Still, I knew that many of them would have to be selectively culled from the herd in the interest of not making agents and publishers choke. Being a newbie to fiction, I wasn’t aware until recently that 147,000 words is a lot for a novel, unless you’re Tom Wolfe or you’re writing the Unabridged History of Western Civilization.

When I printed out the draft at the Pagosa Springs UPS store, it didn’t look mastodon-like. It was 312 pages. Hey, it’s not that bad, I thought. Then I realized that it was single-spaced, in 11-point type, with margins so skinny that the words filled nearly every inch of the page. Which left very little space to scribble my edits on the hard copy. My notes look like tiny hieroglyphics from an ancient scroll written with a hummingbird feather. Three hundred pages of that.

For days, I’ve been squinting at those notes and making all those changes in the computer file. I’ve also got pages and pages of other notes, re-written dialogue, and scraps of new material scattered among legal pads and computer files. All of those are going into the soup too.

I’m on page 274 of the hard copy – about 40 pages from the end. So far, I’ve cut more than 53,000 words from the draft. In other words, more than a third of it is getting flushed.

And it feels pretty good.

I think 10 years of working behind an editor’s desk at the newspaper (not to mention years of grading college journalism students’ work) has made me a little ruthless, even with my own stuff. I also think that letting the draft sit in a drawer for a year helped. I’m so removed from the writing that it’s like reading someone else’s work — someone else’s bloated, unfocused work. All of a sudden, that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38 seems so … dependent.

So I’m going all Zorro on it with the red pen and trying not to flinch too much in the process.

Between the slashing X’s, I can see little glimmers in there where the dialogue or a plot twist still gives me a little jolt of pleasure, sections that even my squinty-eyed inner editor can read and say, Okay, it’s not all crap.

I’m hoping to finish this phase (which we will call the Drastic Amputation Phase) in a few days. I’m guessing I’ll end up with less than 87,000 words when the carnage is over. That’s still a lot, but no longer in the holy-shit-that’s-long category.

At that point, the book’s going to resemble an office building hit by a good-sized tornado, with big sections sheared away and scattered by the wind. Enough of the supporting structure will be left to keep it standing, some of the furniture and decorations inside will be oddly untouched, and the characters will be shuffling around in a daze wondering what the hell just happened. (In that metaphor, I get to be both the architect and the tornado.)

Oh yeah, and I have no idea how it’s going to end anymore. I’ve messed around with the first 250 pages so much that my current ending makes absolutely no sense anymore. I guess I could have a good-sized tornado drop down from an angry sky and wipe everybody out (except for the unredeemable minor character whose sudden epiphany in the face of senseless destruction gives the story a sense of profound closure). I think an F3 would about do it. Would that be cheap?

I think I mentioned a while back that I’d probably be re-writing big sections of the novel. I was correct.

Which seems daunting. It is daunting. It’s a lot of work. I just need to take what’s still there, weave it together with some new stuff, make my characters deeper and more compelling, and turn this mess into something people might actually want to read.

In less than 100,000 words.

Solitude and the art of losing your mind


“All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness. The mind then gives form to the creative impulse or insight.” – Eckhart Tolle

I’ve been alone in this cabin in the San Juan Mountains for seven weeks now. Seems like an appropriate time to talk about solitude, loneliness and living without cable TV, a cell phone and Internet for days at a time. And about finding the “off” switch for my brain.

Just to be clear: I’m not cloistered, I still get my grid fix every few days when I drive into town. Some days I head into town just to hang out in a restaurant or coffee shop with other human beings, to get online and connect to my support system (I ended my Facebook abstinence in a hurry up here).

But I do have a lot of alone time. I’m not married, no kids, so being alone isn’t a big change. The big change is being alone without all the usual electronic binkies, and being hundreds of miles from my family and my friends. And I miss them. Family and friends the most. But the other stuff too. In the cabin, I can’t flop on the couch and channel surf, can’t watch college football this weekend (unless I park myself in a bar), can’t pick up the phone and text or call somebody when I get the urge, can’t fill the empty hours with email and web surfing and Facebook. Which was the idea. I’m here to work on my novel without distractions.

(A quick novel update: Sunday I finished my first read-through of the draft – the first really thorough edit, on a hard copy. Yesterday I started making those changes in the computer and cut 10,000 words/44 pages on the first day. It won’t be a 147,000-word beast when I’m done.)

It’s an interesting shift. A cell phone signal and wifi is now something I look forward to instead of something that’s just there, like oxygen and bad Austin traffic. When I come into town, I try to keep my grid time to about two or three hours so I can do my other errands and head back up the mountain. Some days I end up lingering for hours longer, not wanting to be cut off.

Being off the grid has also meant a lot of time alone with my thoughts – and a lot of time to feel very lonely if I let that seed sprout in my brain. Which it will if I’m not diligent. If it wasn’t for regular visits from the bear, I don’t know what I’d do. (A quick bear update: he/she jolted me awake the other night by using the cabin as a scratching post, and yesterday I startled him/her into a full run during a walk on the path. So I guess we’re even.)

my friends the Kolvoords
my friends the Kolvoords

Thank God for the Kolvoords. Larry and Terrie are the only people I know up here. Larry used to be a photographer at the American-Statesman before he and Terrie retired and bought a place in Pagosa. They’ve had me over for dinner. They’ve come up to the cabin for a visit. They’ve met me at coffee shops and restaurants. They’re good people.

I also have a big stack of DVDs I can play on the laptop. And I have my ipod, which is always on. Somehow it picks up NPR at 8,500 feet, one of only two stations I can catch (along with KWUF, less talk and more of the music you love). Since I don’t have a TV, it’s my only way to pipe in the outside world. But there’s still hours and hours of just me and my busy little brain, which will spout mostly useless thoughts all day long if I let it.

It’s my third radio station: KAOS (more talk, less of the music you love), a stream-of-consciousness station that likes to play in my head during every waking hour, featuring a heavy rotation of hits from yesterday (dredging up memories of the past), today (angst about my novel, my general life direction), and tomorrow (angst about my novel, my general life direction). Between the big hits, it likes to throw in a million little trivial thoughts that swirl around like caffeinated gnats.

Maybe you don’t have that kind of brain. If so, god bless you.

After a couple of previous extended stays in the cabin, I’ve learned that it’s best to lose my mind soon after arriving. Or rather, to turn it off when it’s not in use, like a radio. I just finished reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle for probably the third or fourth time. It’s an amazing book. As the title suggests, it’s about living in the present moment (rather than the past or future) and getting your chirpy little brain to STFU. Very simple concept, very hard to do in real life.

I read the book pretty much every time I’m up here because the cabin is a perfect controlled laboratory for that sort of thing (in other words, a mostly stress-free environment that’s nothing like real life). If I really concentrate and work at it, I can turn off the noise at will. It’s a peaceful, Zen-like experience, like leaving a noisy bar and walking onto a silent street.

And because if I don’t practice that particular skill, I’ll probably go a little crazy up here.