David Baker was one of those very talented MFA candidates I have had the lucky opportunity to work with during my time at Columbia College Chicago. I can still remember bits of his stories from early on: a pair of brothers on a porch, the glow of one’s cigarette ember in the night; a rural landscape that was so green and vast in his creation, I sort of felt like I could step off the page and into it. So imagine my delight when after a number of years, the magic of Facebook put us in touch again after he moved from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. And over the years we’ve checked in now and then, mostly through short notes and public posts. I’ve kept an eye on his creative practice, enjoying greatly clips of his films on his website: http://301media.com/301/films/. And now I am happy to introduce him to you.
David: Where do I write? That’s a tough one. Almost as hard to answer as that other dirty question: “So, what have you written?”
I’m somewhat given to literary promiscuity. I once had an all-consuming passion to write a literary novel. It was a torrid affair lasting a decade during which I wrote two manuscripts that I was pleased with, though the hundreds of agents and editors I queried were less enthusiastic. Then I slipped around with some short stories, articles, a few poems and some screenplays, consummating the relationship with a few of these in published form.
I moved in with copywriting after discovering that there are very real and rewarding storytelling pleasures in marketing, chief among those being a regular paycheck.
My latest flame is a documentary called Vino Veritas (http://thewinemovie.com), and most of the writing I do there is in the form of grants. A few interview questions. Narration. Oh, and some video editing, which isn’t too different from its cousin, revising prose. But mostly it’s fundraising letters. Making movies is largely about begging money off your friends.
At home I write in the kitchen, on the couch, in bed and on the front and back porch. In Oregon it’s easy to find a free stump in the forest, a location in which seems to work especially well for me. I travel as often as I can, waking up a few hours before my family to perch somewhere with a view, spending half the time gazing and procrastinating and the balance scribbling in a journal.
That’s a practice I carry over from my time at Columbia College Chicago, where journals were required in the Fiction Writing Department. I was a bit puzzled at first. I didn’t make the connection between what felt at the time like a diary and the types of novels I hoped to write. I wondered why instructors insisted on page after page of handwritten introspection. “Type up your journal entries and turn them in.” I didn’t get it. I wanted to write fiction, not a memoir.
But now I understand. The journal is the glue that holds me together as a storyteller in this era of fractious media. Blogs are fine, but journals are something more elemental. The magic of a journal…the old fashioned kind where you scratch ink into the bleached, flattened pulp of slain trees…is that personal meditation on the practice of storytelling, and in my mind it’s the most essential form of writing one can do. Writing isn’t like riding a bike. You’ve got to work at it every day or the images fade and your voice loses its distinct timbre you’ve worked so hard to develop.
So I write on paper, in a notebook, jotting down what I had for dinner, other banalities, perhaps scenes, vignettes, outlines, illustrations…whatever informs the dozen or so different writing projects tumbling through my brain on any given day.
And the places I write the best are those that inspire me physically or move me emotionally. My kitchen is fine, but, for example, a fire lookout on Timber Butte in the Cascade Range is even better. It’s a small box of glass perched at the dead end of a logging road. I can’t sleep in there because it’s filled with light at five thirty a.m. as soon as the sun crests the horizon. So I get up, make coffee and write to the sound of my snoring wife and daughter.
As I skim back through the battered journals, all of the most meaningful entries have a location other than my home address. The place names themselves are poetry: Ochocos, Rainier, Walla Walla, Montepulciano, Black Hills, Chamonix, Absorokas. I know now why Hemingway decided to set his best story on the Big Two-Hearted River instead of the Fox, when everyone who’s fished Michigan’s Upper Peninsula knows the trout are bigger on the Fox.
It is in these geographically scattered journal entries I can find the bones of my most successful writing efforts. The outline for my screenplay The Eulogist—which earned me a few prizes, some decent option money and almost became a movie—was scribbled on a sagging mattress in a cheap hotel room in Paris after being awakened from a dream by the cacophonous waterfall of the shared bathroom next door.
Seven years after writing that journal entry, it became a script. A few years later I found myself at a restaurant in Santa Monica talking to a director and producer about who might play a lead character who would never have existed if someone hadn’t flushed a toilet in l’Hôtel Central a decade before. I’m still giddy by the absurdity of it all. It hasn’t become a film yet. It maybe never will. But that one journal entry took me on a ride that has been the high point of my little literary career. It may not seem like much, but after years of rejection letters, I’m pretty pleased with it.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with calling myself a writer. If you do that, someone invariably comes up to you and asks you what you have written. I don’t have a simple answer for that question.
But to answer that question correctly—what do you write?—I’d have to say that I write a journal. It’s mostly illegible script that rarely earns a second read by the author, let alone anyone else. But it’s what I do. I’m a writer. I wander around this great blue and green rock. I wake up early. I look at beautiful things. And I write a journal.
Here’s something I scribbled one morning after camping on the beach south of Waldport, Oregon. I’m not sure what, if anything, it will become. I’ve toyed around with making it into a short film. I also feel like there could be a novel in there somewhere. Or it may just live out the rest of its days a humble journal entry. I’m okay with that, too. After all, that’s my life’s work.
The Foster Child
She’s six years old and has three failed adoptions and suffered a number of smaller atrocities, but now she’s sprinting up the beach against the wind, clutching the pink leash of a borrowed Labrador, the wind swallowing the frantic shouts of her foster mother and the dog’s owner.
She strains cold air through her teeth, not quite a grin, and the blown sand that crusts her lashes and snakes over her receding footprints scours this hard child’s shell. Inside she’s all mush and hurt, but that shell, man, it’s something. You could break bottles on it.
She’s never before seen the sunset or the ocean, and this sudden confluence has her on a high. She trusts the dog and the reckless, headlong strides. The taste of the salt air, gulps of crab rot, kelp and bird shit.
She doesn’t understand her crimes, even less so the sentence, but the pounding of her feet, the tiny splash of each stride on the wet sand…this feels very real and solid to her. Her brown hair is a ribbon, a salt-sticky pennant streaming behind her. The dog’s tongue lolls and flaps, and there are three princesses and sequins stitched into her garage sale sweatshirt.
She doesn’t know that regular children aren’t in the habit of screaming themselves to sleep at night, and they will assert their rights with tooth and claw only at their peril. Punishment doesn’t really work on her. “Is that all you got,” she grins back over her shoulder.
She also doesn’t know that the Labrador, who gallops ahead of her, tugging on the leash, aware only of a gull in the distance and this strange little creature in tow who is indulging her penchant for headlong flight, has only this morning chewed the armrest off of the sofa and that she shits regularly on an heirloom throw rug, the oblivious creature persisting only through the owner’s sense of duty.
The girl glances back only briefly to see her latest mother and the dog’s owner both waving and cupping their hands to their mouths to shout into a wind that sucks the voice out of their words before they even cross their lips. Then the Labrador snaps the leash and puts her head down to gallop with redoubled stride, as if to say, “come on, kid, now’s our chance.”
The girl squeezes her eyes shut and trusts the leash and the yellow plug of fur and muscle at the other end, not heeding the voices she can no longer hear, not even sensing that the big people far behind her are, without even admitting it to themselves, both hoping that these two girls just keep on running.