I use this space to reflect my thoughts on the life I am living in the imagined last third of my time on this earth. Last time I focused on the ensemble work at the Mercer Museum in May. This month I have turned my attention to individual, creative work at a keyboard.
Like many older story creators, I find myself going back to one that I wrote many years ago. In this case I can date the story because I was working on it when I met my wife, Nancy. The year was 1997. At that time I was imagining a school assembly program to teach children about the industrial revolution—perhaps a fool’s task to share with elementary age children—but we do not direct the muses in our lives.
The story is about a mouse that travels with machinery being transported from England to America to build the first modern blast furnace in America. This idea first came to me in 1970 when I worked in a rolling mill at U S Steel’s plant in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. As a worker I saw and often pondered how mice lived and prospered in that industrial environment.
Back to meeting Nancy in 1997: we had our first date in January of that year and I learned that she was going to England in March to do research on a book. I wanted to continue our relationship. I suggested that I could meet her in England. I had thought of going to England to visit the Ironbridge Mill Museum where some believe the industrial revolution had its beginning. So we met in Oxford and traveled to Ironbridge together to do more research and develop our own relationship.
The “mouse program” was created as a multi-media school program—off hand I cannot remember the title given to it–but I sold no more than a hand full of performance. Schools were not interested in the subject at that time.
Fast forward eighteen years to last winter when I was working on a memoir and happened to go back and read the mouse story. I liked it, but I did not have time to work on it because of the Mercer project. It was not until this month that I found the time to again immerse myself in the story.
The work has produced several reflections and estimations of its worth. Like most of my creative work, I fluctuate between liking the story and not liking it. I always think I can make it better. In this process I invited my good friend, Robin Moore, to read the story and give me his criticism. He suggested several ideas for my consideration; one was a comparison of my story to Richard Adams’, Watership Down. This led to my remembering that I read that book about the same time I was writing the mouse story. I decided to go back and revisit the Adams story. I discovered a very interesting fact about my writing in reading it. My story is more driven by action and dialog, and less concerned with detailed description of environment and character. Adams’ paragraphs are so long that I find myself skipping sections to move on to the action.
Why is this so? I think it is a kind of a chicken and egg thing. First, I have spent my life sharing spoken stories with children. I have found that stories that focus on historical detail and description lose the attention of four hundred, eight to ten year olds, sitting on the floor of an all-purpose room. Second, when I read Adams’ story, I get lost in the detail because of my dyslexia. Processing the written language is difficult for me; I cannot get through a long paragraph and remember at the end what I comprehended in the beginning. It is like maze for me. When I come to the end, I can’t find my way back to the beginning. So you can argue that my difficulty with reading led me to oral storytelling; and my writing style will always reflect my gift as an oral storyteller, not as a writer of story.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I guess that we live in a world where good writers are good readers. And good oral storytellers are often not good writers or readers; or at least they write differently. To support this idea: I have many friends who are good oral storytellers, but they do not write their stories in finished form on paper. They make an outline for the story and then depend on the imagination in process to create the story. I am not like them, I do write my stories on paper, though I have found through years of telling a story orally, it is changed by the process.
So how do I feel about my writing? I admit that I am not confident. I am sometimes defensive; and I could argue that this blog is a defense of my writing style. To give the reader a chance to understand my observations about writing, I will share a segment of the mouse story—it does not have a proper title to date.—and I welcome comments on this discussion about styles of writing.
The following three chapters are set on a sailing ship traveling from England to America in 1839. The ship is carrying industrial equipment from an old iron mill to a new one in America. The protagonist in our story –a female, mill mouse named Doodle—was chosen to travel with the equipment to the new mill by her father.
Endings: whether good or bad,
Provide energy for a new beginning.
Just remember to look for the light of a new day.
The mill mouse from Ironbridge was not only exhausted from the battle with the wharf rats, she was bleeding. Back home she knew a little river mud and pinchweed herb smeared over the wound would stop the bleeding and start the healing. As she crossed the deck toward the box, she noticed the boards were soft and gooey. The coal tar used to waterproof the ship’s deck had been made soft by the afternoon sun. Doodle stopped and smeared some of the coal tar over her wounds to slow the loss of blood; when she was safe in the box, the lone mill mouse fell into a deep sleep. And that night, the captain of the good ship Dandy gave the order; the next day they would set sail on the high tide to begin a journey of three to four weeks to America.
The Dandy was a three-masted, square-rigged barque. She was one-hundred and seventeen feet in length and twenty-eight feet between the beams. She could carry fifteen hundred barrel weights of cargo, twenty passengers and a crew of twenty-two. The three boxes from the Ironbridge mill were moved the next morning from the deck into the hold for the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The destination in America for this cargo of industrial goods was the port city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Along with a load of iron rails, the boxes were being shipped to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company.
The sounds of the box being lowered into the hold awakened Doodle. She was not accustomed to so many human voices in a confined area. They seemed to swarm the ship like bees around a hive. Doodle was able to relax a little after the box was stored safely in the hold of the ship. Then she became aware that the ship was moving and she heard a new sound that she preferred to the sound of humans; it was the sound of wind in the sails. In her old age, Doodle loved to tell stories about the sound of wind in the sails. It could be gentle and peaceful, but it could also be terrifying when a storm was blowing. Her stories of traveling across the ocean are recorded in a collection of tales called, “The Lore of the Sea”. For mill mice, these exotic stories stir a passion for travel and adventure. I want to share just a few of Doodle’s adventures on the Dandy with you.
The injuries from the battle with the wharf rats healed quickly, but Doodle’s need for food and water grew critical after the first three days at sea. Life in the mill had taught her to look for food that humans discarded. She also knew that humans sometimes put food out for mice as the workmen did for the mice that made the run. Doodle considered presenting herself, making a run past a member of the crew, but she decided against it until she better understood these humans who lived on a ship. Her second choice for a source of food was the pen where animals were kept on the ship. There were a few chickens and a pig on the main deck. She had noticed the smell of grain when she passed by them on that first night. They would also have water.
Doodle waited until the fourth night at sea. When the passengers had retired for the night and only a single crew member was standing watch on the forecastle deck, Doodle came out of her box and climbed the steps that led from the hold to the main deck. The moon was shining, the sea was calm; it was the perfect night to go exploring. Hugging the wall of the deckhouse, she made her way to the pens. The chickens were roosting on top of a wooden crate. Only the pig was awake; at least Doodle thought he was awake because of the sounds he was making. Actually he was snoring and Doodle had never heard an animal make such a sound.
The pen was easy to enter. Thinking the pig was awake, Doodle spoke a pleasant greeting, “It is a fine evening to be out and about.” She spoke in the dog dialect she knew from living with Boggs. Doodle figured that a pig was more likely to speak dog than the mill mouse dialect. The pig did not answer. Doodle tried again, “Hello, my name is Doodle.” But the pig still did not respond. Finally, she recognized that he was asleep like the chickens.
Since they were all asleep, Doodle decided to do some exploring without asking permission. She went over to the food bucket for the chickens. She poked about with her sensitive nose. It was field grain of some kind, passable to eat. Then her nose caught the scent of the larger food bucket for the pig. It gave off a delicious smell, likely the remains of a human meal from last evening—maybe meat gravy, some potatoes and some apple sauce—Doodle’s nose quivered as she imagined the delightful tastes.
The tantalizing smells drew Doodle to the bucket. A dribble of the slop had spilled over the edge of the bucket, Doodle stood on her hind legs to reach up and taste it. Hmmm, it tasted very good. She could not climb the slippery side of the wood bucket, but she saw that there was a wood crate nearby that she could climb. From the crate she could jump to the bucket.
Doodle’s hunger led her to miscalculate the difficulty of the task. She climbed to the top of the crate and jumped to the bucket, but she could not catch a hold and fell into the slop. The mix of gravy, water and potatoes was too thick for her to swim. Her head sank down under the surface. When she came back up, Doodle cried out, “help, help, help!” Suddenly, Doodle’s claws found something solid; and when she dug her claws in, it rose into the air. Doodle found herself straddling the snout of the pig.
Doodle’s cries of desperation had awakened the pig and he acted quickly to come to her rescue. Gently he set her down by the side of the slop bucket. Doodle was still gasping for air after her near disaster. Pig smiled and waited for her to catch her breath and gain some composure.
“Would you like me to lick you clean”, said Pig in the dialect of a barn mouse, “after all, it is my breakfast.”
“No, no thank you”, said Doodle as she responded to the humor with a bow, “After all, I fell into the bucket as I was testing your breakfast, I wanted to make sure it was seasoned to your taste.”
“Hoi, oi, oi, oink” laughed Pig, “Indeed, a taster mouse, just what every pig needs. Kind sir, would you sample the faire, perhaps a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper, hoi, oi, oi, oink!”
Doodle licked the slop off her coat with a sweeping gesture of her tongue and raised her head in the air, as if savoring the taste; then she turned to Pig and said with great dignity, “Seasoned perfectly to your taste, my lord.”
“Hoi, oi, oi, hoi, oi, oi, oink”, laughed Pig as he bowed in return, “then come let us both enjoy a pleasant repast.”
That night the chickens heard the voices and awakened to see the strange dinner partners. Even the ship’s watchman heard the sounds coming from the animal pens and wondered at their source—though he did not bother to identify them.
Fair sky, calm sea and good companionship,
Cannot last forever.
For the first week at sea the Dandy sailed under fair skies on its westward course to America. Seamen called this the uphill leg because of the prevailing wind that ran west to east and always lengthened the journey an extra week. Nevertheless the late summer wind was warm and welcoming. Doodle especially loved to be on deck when the seamen climbed into the rigging to change the sails; this action on the deck of the ship was like the action she witnessed when the rolling mill at Ironbridge was still running.
One day Doodle could not contain herself. She made a run from the box, past Pig’s pen and all the way to the ship’s bulwark and back again. A surprised sailor saw her and called out to his mate, “Hey, did you see that damn bilge rat takin’ his air?” For Doodle it was like the stories of Grandpa Darius making his run across the mill floor.
Doodle enjoyed her days sailing on the Dandy to America for nearly two weeks. She made frequent visits to the animal pens where she developed an acquaintance with the chickens, but it was Pig that became her good friend. She enjoyed his jolly, good nature and he enjoyed her stories of life in the Ironbridge mill. This lasted about two weeks, and then Pig’s personality started to change. He did not laugh anymore and he sat glumly starring at the sea.
Finally, Doodle confronted him: “What’s the matter? What can I do to make you laugh again?”
“There nothing you can do”, said Pig sadly, “nothing any of us can do.”
Doodle turned to one of the chickens, “Why is Pig so sad? Do you know?”
“Bac, bac, bac”, said one chicken. Doodle could barely understand the dialect. It was a common language with a very limited vocabulary. Doodle caught only a couple of words, something about a “bloody moon”.
It was several days before Doodle came to understand the chicken’s words. In the middle of the night she was sleeping in her box when a terrible, shrieking sound pierced the night air. Doodle felt the same fear she had entering the warehouse and seeing one of her mates hung by his neck. Like that time, Doodle knew she could not run from danger, she had to face it. Quietly she slipped out of her box and climbed up to the main deck. Hugging the wall of the deckhouse, Doodle moved toward the sound that now she recognized was coming from the animal pen; and she knew that it was Pig making the terrible cries.
The deck of the Dandy was bathed in the light of a full moon when Doodle came around the corner of the deckhouse. The terrible cries had stopped. As she crossed the deck near the pens, she understood why the chicken had talked of the “bloody moon”. There she saw Pig’s body hanging on a hook attached to the yard of the Dandy’s main-mast. Two sailors with bloody knives stood laughing as they prepared to butcher Pig for the humans to eat.
Later Doodle went to talk with the chickens. She asked, “Why did they kill Pig?”
“Bac, bac, baccc” said one of the chickens, “humans eat Pig, want to eat us all!”
Doodle’s relationship with the humans on the Dandy changed that day. She stopped making the run when they changed the sails. She stayed close to the box and only went on deck to eat the food put out for the chickens. And she was careful to not develop a close relationship with them for fear that one day they would be killed for food by the sailors. Fortunately for the chickens, Doodle was wrong about them being food for humans; they were on the Dandy because their eggs were enjoyed by the humans for a meal.
Toward the end of the third week at sea the Dandy entered the ocean currents that sweep up the North American coast. Now she was laboring against both winds and the ocean currents. The ship had to tack more often, and the sailors were continually on deck working the sails. The skies were a gray overcast with no sign of the sun, moon or stars. Clouds reached down to touch the top of the gray-green sea; and the two welded together until the Dandy seemed to cut her way through a solid wall of moisture.
Doodle spent more and more time alone in her box. She thought a lot about her family back in the Ironbridge Gorge. It was becoming clear that she would never return to family and friends. What would she find at the end of the Great Journey? Would she find mill mice like herself to make new family and friends? When she felt anxious about her future, Doodle found that she could go on to the deck and the sound of the wind in the sails calmed her. Sometimes when the wind was gentle, she would climb up into the rigging and touch the mainsail. It vibrated with the movement of the wind through the sails and she found it comforting.
A gentle wind in the sails, a mouse’s delight,
But what goes around does not always come around.
One night Doodle went up to the deck with the idea that she would climb the mainsail, but when she felt the wind, she stopped. She felt something different, something dangerous in this wind; Doodle turned and went back to her box below deck. She fell asleep that night, but was soon awakened by a sound like metal cutting metal in the Ironbridge mill; a powerful storm had overtaken the Dandy and wind was pounding the storm sails and masts of the ship.
The ocean waves grew to be great mountains of water with deep valleys between them. The Dandy slowly climbed each mountain of water, cut through the watery peak, and then skidded, helter-skelter, wind screaming through the rigging, down the other side of the mountainous wave. When the ship reached the bottom of the wave, the bow dug deep into the sea and water washed over the railing of the Dandy. A river of water rushed over the deck of the ship and found its way through the closed hatch. Doodle in her box was repeatedly drenched by salt water.
Terrified by the thought of drowning in water, Doodle decided to leave her box and try to reach the poop deck at the stern of the ship. She reasoned this was the only place the water could not reach. She waited until the water washed over the ship and it started to climb the next wave; then Doodle left her box and slipped through the closed hatch and on to the main deck of the Dandy.
The wood boards of the deck were slippery and a stream of water flowed over them. Doodle looked up to the masts where she saw only the storm sails were set to control the direction of the ship. It seemed to her that the wind and sea were doing battle to see which would have the prize. Would the Dandy be swallowed whole by the sea or carried away like a leaf on the wind?
Doodle started across the main deck toward the steps that led to the poop deck. The water and slippery boards slowed her progress. Focusing on keeping her balance, she did not see the wave break over the forecastle and cascade down like a waterfall on to the main deck. Six inches of water washed across the deck and swept Doodle off her feet. She hit the wall of the poop deck hard and rebounded in the wash. The deck of the Dandy tilted as the ship rose up to meet the next wave. The sea water changed directions and slopped down toward a trough that ran along the ship’s bulwark. There were openings or drains in the bulwark that allowed the water to flow back into the sea.
Caught in the backwash of water rebounding off the wall of the poop deck, Doodle felt herself being swept toward the drains, but she could not stop herself. She was carried into the trough where the water was even deeper. Unable to touch the bottom of the trough, being turned round and round, she was about to be swept off the deck of the ship when she looked up and saw a bridge overhead. Her mind flashed back to the iron bridge over the Severn River and the story of Grandpa Darius’ arrival at the mill. This bridge was not so impressive; it was just a support, a cleat that anchored the bulwark to the main deck, but there was a rope hanging down from it. As she was about to be swept under the bridge, Doodle reached out and caught hold of the rope. She heard a voice above the din of wind and rushing water; and she felt herself being lifted out the water.
The cleat that anchored the bulwark to the deck also had the ship’s boat lashed to it. When Doodle was pulled from the water she found herself safe from the storm under the hull of the ship’s boat. She could hear the water pelting the bottom of the upside down boat; and next to her sat a bilge rat, panting from his labor. The rat had used his long tail as a rope to pull Doodle from the water. Coughing and spitting to rid herself of the sea water she had swallowed, Doodle looked at her savior. He was no bigger than she. His coat was deep brown in color. His face was longer with a pronounced snout. But the thing about the bilge rat that Doodle always remembered when she told the story, was his eyes; even in this time of danger, they were laughing and happy.
“You saved me. I don’t know how to thank you!” said Doodle still struggling to catch her breath.
“Was pleasure”, said the bilge rat. His accent was strange to Doodle and hard to understand with wind and sea roaring in her ears.
“My name is Cynthia de Byron of the Fartolfling family, but my family calls me Doodle.”
“Call Vasiley, family Rascalnik,” said the bilge rat with a broad smile. “Come, go safer place”, he said as he looked up to the seat of the boat another two feet higher above the deck.
Through the night the storm raged and Doodle huddled with Vasiley under the hull of the ship’s boat. Sometime during the night they heard the sounds of humans working on the deck. Vasiley ventured out to see what was happening. The Dandy has sprung a leak in her hull and was taking on sea water. The captain had no choice; he gave the order to lighten the ship to raise the water line. Tons of iron rails were being tossed overboard. When Vasiley returned with the news, Doodle feared that her box would be lost along with her few possessions.
To be continued!
Recently Nancy and I were talking about writing styles and she suggested that I look at the writing of James Thurber. She gave me a book of his short stories and cartoons. I read several of his stories and thought about them. Then I read a bit of his biography and discovered that as a boy he was playing “William Tell” with his brother and was shot in the eye as they practiced the famous shot. He lost sight in that eye. I wonder how much that affected his ability to read and therefore his writing style?
So my first reflection on my writing is to have the will to create, and not to worry about my ability to do it. Discovering what you have to say and finding a way to express it; this is our mandate in life. I try not to think about how well or how poorly I do it; the process is more important than the product for me. Having said that, I immediately recognize that as a producer of storytelling performance, I judge how well or how poorly others do their creative work. And this leads me to a second reflection: my judgement of the creative work of others should be leavened by my own struggle to create stories.