Welcome to Writing Walks. I’m your guide, Alex C. Telander. Today it is December 10th. It’s about 8:30 in the morning and I’m at the Armstrong Redwoods State Park.
Over the last few weeks we’ve had a number of days of heavy rainfall. So the ground is going to be all squishy, sounding a little different to the usual walking sounds I think today today. Today I’m going to be talking about writing about or writing through catastrophic events, hard events that affect your life, how you kind of work through it, how you process it and how you can use it in a way, as a writer. I live in Sonoma County and over the last three years we’ve had fires every October. Three years ago there was the Tubbs fire, which came through Santa Rosa, destroyed a good part of the surrounding town. I wasn’t personally affected cause I live further south, I was okay fortunately, but my father-in-law, they got real close to losing everything. It stopped like a block away from where they live. Then my coworker, part of the wall in the apartment complex where he lives got burned and they had to move out for a bit. And then we had to deal with the weeks after of smoke, the immense loss of property for all these people whose lives had changed. And it all happened overnight with these high winds. It was just so fast. We found out about it in the morning from my, sister-in-law. She lives on the East coast, asking if we were being evacuated or not. We didn’t even know what was going on. It was kinda like when 911 happened too, because it was all in the morning and I was still, we were still asleep at that point. Just finding out that the whole world has changed.
And two years ago it was the Camp Fire, near Paradise, California, that just wiped out the entire town. This was hours north of me. So again, I wasn’t affected specifically or personally. But again my wife’s uncle, he was literally about to move up there to his new house in a few weeks and moved a lot of stuff up there. And he lost everything that was up there. Again for the weeks after, because the wind’s blowing south, we had to deal with smoke. It was actually, uh, so bad. I found with my son, he was coughing a lot during that time and then getting really sick and not able to sleep through the night for going on for months, uh, not having a good night’s sleep and it was starting to affect his moods and everything. And after seeing a number of doctors, he eventually had his adenoids taken out and ear tubes put in and then was able to sleep a lot better through the night and not cough, but we’re pretty sure it was directly influenced by the smoke from the fires. And then this year, six weeks ago, just about, a little more than that. We had the Kincade fire a little north of us. Again, we were kind of ready for possible evacuation, but we were far out of the way, so it wasn’t that bad. We were pretty sure it wasn’t going to happen to us, but my father-in-law and his family again were evacuated. Just to be sure again, we had to deal with the smoke for the weeks afterwards.
I hadn’t realized, I think, how much it affected me, cause I hadn’t actually lost anything specific. I hadn’t lost my home or my place of work or things like that. Nothing had been burned down, but as soon as I could smell the smoke that first day, it was a definite trigger for me with all the emotions, feelings, and everything it was tied to. You tell yourself, Oh, you’re, you’re over it. You’re past it now, it’s okay. You’ve processed it. And you just hope it never happens again. And then all you need is that little bit of smoke to smell and it just brings it all back.
This particular fire I was actually even more affected because the town where I work and deliver mail, they got evacuated, the power got cut off. And so we had to work at a different facility for a few days. And then eventually when they got power back, we were delivering back in the town and it took a number of days to catch up. Also, thanks to a poorly thought out plan by PG&E we lost power. So I was actually without power for five days. And that’s one of those things that was really horrible at the time but at least now looking back on it, I can think about what I kind of learned from it. It was a harsh experience discovering that at night when the machines aren’t on, the lamps, fridge, all these things that you have on in your house all the time, how much heat they actually give. You don’t realize. So at night it got really cold and we didn’t have any other option other than adding more blankets. We couldn’t turn a heater on to make the room warmer. My kid missed a week of school again this year as he has the last couple of years, all because of these fires; it’s almost seeming like they should start just planning on losing a week in October due to fires from now on.
But what I take away from this as a writer are my feelings, are the experiences, what I see from everyone else. As well as what I felt, how we all processed it. Thinking of details. All my senses and how I was picking up on all these different things. I can remember the, actually the, one of the first few days with this year’s fire. And, uh, I was taking my kid to school. Because it was early in the morning it was dark. We could actually still see part of the fire on top of the hill and it was really far away, so it was no worry or anything like that. But because it was at night, it was like lit up like this bright torch, definitely started a lot of feelings in me of fear and things that I’d never really had before until we started getting these fires. So obviously when you have, when you experience a catastrophic event, a life-changing event, at the time you need to deal with it how you can, you need to get the help you need. You need to rest and recuperate and recover. And then once time’s gone by, as a writer, you can think how you can use the experience in your writing, by writing characters, stories that are possibly just the same story you experienced or they’re being experienced in different ways, more subtle ways because of what you went through.
There’s going to be a crossover episode in season five of Ostium with the show Starless, which was a short run show. It had a few episodes, but unfortunately with the creator, her life just took over and she was only able to spend so much time with it. But when I asked if she wanted to do a crossover episode she was happy to, but because it’s a world, kind of post-apocalyptic world where fires have ravaged everything and everything’s changed. She felt she couldn’t do it justice because she hadn’t really gone through all the experiences. But after suggesting the crossover episode, I felt it was an ideal crossover because I had experienced so much of this. And it definitely felt cathartic, poignant, and important to be able to put these feelings into Jake, these experiences, and have him talk about what he’d gone through in the crossover episode. And that’ll be happening. sometime later in the year after this episode is released, of Writing Walks.
Another moment in my life I wanted to talk about that was a strong one that I can never forget, was when I was about 12 or 13, I want to say, And we heard this dog that was crying out. We could tell it was in pain because you can always tell when animals are in pain. And when we went to check it, it was the neighbor’s dog. The dog had – just to let you know going to be a little bit graphic here – the dog had tried to jump over the gate and it was the kind of gate that had these spikes on top. And he basically caught himself on one of those spikes. Fortunately it hadn’t gone through anything too serious. It was through the back of his rear leg. But he was just stuck there hanging basically. But my dad and I, and some of the neighbors, all came together and helped. And we ended up lifting the dog up. Eventually a vet came too and was able to numb him up a bit and were able to lift him off of the, we actually knocked him out actually, as I recall, and then we were able to lift the dog off of the gate, get him all stitched up. And then a few weeks later he was back to normal. Apparently too the neighbor told us that he tried to do it again. But I think at that point they’d protected the gate better so it wasn’t going to happen.
But just going through that, I think especially as a teenager or younger person, I really remember it strongly. The feelings of the weight of the dog, feeling the fear in him, but also the understanding that he knew what we were doing, that we were helping him, but also the visceral nature of it: his hot flesh, the fur, the panting, the hot blood I had on my hands from him. It’s all stuff I took in at the time. And I thought I was going to write a quick story about it, that was just literally that same story, but I never really did anything with it. It didn’t come out the way I wanted it. And I think I was just being too literal about it, too close to what the actual event was. But it’s an experience that I’ve always kept with me. And so when I write other scenes that I want to be visceral, I’m able to pull from these experiences and use that in my writing.
This actually ties in nicely with the writing topic I wanted to talk about today. Wasn’t planned, just worked out well that way, which is the old adage of writing what you know. There’s a lot of pros and cons mixed up with this. Definitely think there are some pros. So the idea is that you can only write what you’ve actually experienced and gone through because otherwise you can’t do it properly. You can’t give it justice. So you shouldn’t try. But if that was true, and if all writers in the history of writing had done that, nothing good would have been written. A lot of us lead mundane lives. We don’t get to experience exciting, different things. And so if that’s all we’re writing about, stories wouldn’t be compelling and interesting, and there wouldn’t be any good literature in the world. So it’s not really true.
You should write what you don’t know. You should challenge yourself. You should push yourself. Write about a character you’ve never written before. Write about a character of the opposite sex, of a different gender, of a non-gender. Challenge yourself and push yourself. Because in that way, you’ll become better. Just like practicing anything else. The more you do it, the better you get at it. But if you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over, you won’t get better. You’ve got to do it in new ways, in different ways. That’s why they always recommend also reading as a writer and reading different things, because it opens your mind to different ways of writing and different approaches.
Now, the pros of it, as in the positives of writing what you know, comes from kind of what I talked about here today, where while I did not personally lose a house in the fire and go through all that, I got to experience a lot of things associated with it. Same thing with the dog story, where I was not the dog suffering, being stuck on that gate, obviously, but I got to experience it in different ways and go through the rescue. And it’s all part of experiences that we pull from and use in our writing, whether it is directly with the same experience, the same events happening, or through different ones. And that you can use the experiences of these past events to charge and embolden and strengthen this new experience that you haven’t done before, but you’re doing through your character. So if anyone ever tells you as a writer, that you should just write what you know, tell them to go to hell.
But it’s also a yes and no answer. You take what you know, but you also write new stuff and challenge yourself. And in that way, you’ll certainly become a better writer. You’ll become a better storyteller and a better person in learning from it. It also helps after doing that, if you have, or know some people, who have gone through either these exact experiences or similar ones, to let them read over it to see if it resonates on the right level. Not everyone has that opportunity, but if you do, it’s definitely recommended.
So now we’re going to talk about my recommendation for this week, and that is “Changeling” by Victor LaValle. I had it recommended to me, uh, kind of during the Halloween season. I was wanting some horror books from, uh, Jamieson Ridenhour of the Palimpsest Podcast. And it’s a story about a couple that gets together and gets married and then has a kid and reading it as a parent it was definitely very moving and emotional because the author had obviously gone through a similar thing with having kids. And I actually did contact the author afterwards just to see. And he had, he did have kids too, and was pulling a lot of from that, so it’s a lot of, uh, writing what you know, and writing from your experiences. And in that way, it hit me as a reader who was also a parent on a lot of levels. So the couple has a kid, but then weird things start to happen. It seems like someone’s either watching them while watching the kid and knows their every move and what’s going on. The couple grows distant as they’re getting less and less sleep. And it seems like something’s going wrong with the mother. Graphic warning here for the next events, if you want to skip ahead. Um, what ends up happening is the mother kills the child because she says it is not her baby. It is something else. And you think at this point that you’re on the father’s side, seeing it through his eyes, that she’s just gone mad and just killed the child. Your child. But then the story starts to open up. Becomes more complex and you find out there’s a whole history and mythology involved here that ties in really well with the town they’re in as well. And it becomes a much bigger encompassing book that you never thought it could have become when you started reading it at the beginning. Since then, I’ve actually read A number of Victor LaValle’s books. And I just enjoy everything he does. He reminds me of another favorite author of mine, Haruki Murakami, where the stories are always fascinating and you can never predict where it’s going to go. But what you do know is it’s going to be a crazy ride. And that’s definitely the case with Lavalle where this story, I thought it was going to go one way and it didn’t, and then went into a totally new place I didn’t expect to go. But because I had been grounded and started off with these familiar experiences and emotions, I was hooked on for the ride and was able to go to these places of the fantastical, because I’d been grounded already. And I’ve talked about this before in writing and storytelling of grounding readers in the familiar, and then taking them to the surreal and the seemingly impossible. Because if you just start out right away with confusing, unbelievable stuff, the reader easily becomes lost. And you, you just don’t get connected with the story.
So that’s my recommendation. It’s a dark horror fantasy book that is really worth the read, but it definitely has some very strong, moving scenes that you can see coming and then they actually do happen. And they’re just shocking, but there’s a reason behind everything. And by the end of the book, things work out and they work out well and correctly and satisfyingly, which is not always true for a lot of books. Definitely a lot horror books that kind of drop it on the ending but this one definitely delivers. So again, that’s “Changeling” by Victor LaValle. And if you enjoy that one, read all his other ones too. They’re great.
I think his other big book was, uh, it was like a novella, that did well called The Ballad of Black Tom. That was also a really fun read. All right. I think that about wraps it up for this episode. Thank you once again, for joining me here at Armstrong Redwoods, actually one thing I failed to mention earlier, I was going to, that, uh, when I’d thought about recording this episode, I was possibly going to try to go to one of the spots near where the Tubbs Fire from 2017 happened. Just as a place of resonance. Ooh, they’ve cut some branches down here. Wonder if this tree branch must’ve fallen, kind of blocking the way. Like around one of the houses or areas. Um, but that didn’t feel right. I was just going to be intruding and it doesn’t resonate right with the story I wanted to tell. So instead I came here to Armstrong Redwoods, which is a state park as opposed to a regional park. Hey, morning. And the reason I picked it is because it’s my favorite park I’ve ever been to. I’ve taken my kid here a number of times, I’ve been here with my family. And it’s just an awesome, amazing place where I get to walk around and stare at these giant trees. These majestic redwoods, just sitting here and growing and living for thousands of years while the rest of the world goes on around them. It’s my place of solitude and calm and inspiration. Whenever I want to take a break from everything, to just bask in the beauty of nature here, that’s why we’ve been doing it a lot with my kid too, get him to enjoy nature. And he certainly does.
Anyway, so thanks again for listening. Be sure to check out all the photos I’ll be posting along with this episode from Armstrong Redwoods. If you enjoyed the show and would like to support it, feel free to leave a review, tell your friends about it, tell your writing group, your writing buddies. And if you want to actually support us monetarily, I have a KoFi linked to my account or there is a Patreon which is developing and if it’s something that gets up and going pretty well, I’d be happy to do different writing things on there. And that’s again, tied into the, my account. So you can find it all on the description for this episode.
Thanks again for joining me and I’ll see you next month.