If I knew the story

across nicola lake

After a long hot summer, the autumn rains have come. Everything is wet. The trees are turning, the ones that didn’t scorch and lose their leaves early because of the drought. For the past few days I’ve been head down in my new novel. There are things I know about it and things that surprise me. I don’t think I could write from an outline. If I knew the story, I don’t think I’d bother writing it. And this is certainly a tale I’m following, a thread into the labyrinth, a strand of kelp anchored to the dark ocean bottom.

I’ve come to the part about grief. I wasn’t exactly expecting it. The main character is haunted by an tragic event that happened more than 80 years earlier. The thing is, it’s something that really happened. Not in the life I know, not to anyone in my family, but it was in a way a catalyst that set some things in motion. A community began to dissolve. The main character, having only just discovered the community’s history, figures out that a recurring dream she has has something to do with the event. I’m writing, I’m spending time reading what I can (though there’s only a tiny archive of information about the event: two newspaper clippings my son helpfully found for me; an aside in an article written by a friend; and a few mentions in histories of the Sunshine Coast), and I’m sort of pondering how much restraint I should exercise in even using this event. I think it’s fair to say that only a handful of people alive know about it. It haunts me like it haunts my main character.

I remember driving to Alberta along the Crowsnest Highway as a child, stopping by the site of the Frank Slide, the site where some millions of tons of limestone slid down Turtle Mountain, burying a portion of the small mining town at the foot of it. Between 70 and 80 people were buried. My father loved a story and he would tell us that a baby girl was the only survivor of the slide and that she’d been found on a rock, miraculously unhurt. I know know that this is only partly true but for years I thought about that child, dreamed of her regularly, and yes, I can say I was haunted by the story. So I understand my character and following her search for information makes me glad to wake up each morning, even though her search causes her a kind of inchoate grief. She’s not sure where it will lead her. I’m not sure either. But we’ll find out, I guess.

Autumn is the season for this kind of work. The trees losing their beautiful leaves, the skeins of geese we saw over the fields east of Chilliwack, forming and reforming as they headed south, the lonely beach at Nicola Lake where we’ve had so many family swims, picnics, conversations under the lyrical pines. In October, I remember the two Octobers, one in 2009 and one in 2010, when I was anticipating the deaths of my parents. I remember how it felt to hear about my father’s final night as I stood in a phone booth on the Campo San Pantalon in Venice, watching the black water. And how it felt when a nurse called me in the middle of the night the next year to say my mother had died unexpectedly just then. (I’d been with her two days earlier.) So the days are wet, the trees will soon be bare, and it might be mist I’m looking at the world through just beyond my window or it might be the passing of ghosts. Or tears.

Walk with grief like a good friend.
Listen to what he says.
Sometimes the cold and dark of a cave
give the opening we most want. (Rumi)

Would you write a story if you knew the conclusion? I’m serious. Would you? I think it’s too late for me to do anything but what compels me to sit with documents, puzzling through old details of life and death, and find what it has to tell me. And this one, well, I’m along for the ride, as mysterious and sad as it might be. I do know there’s also joy, there’s also mystery, there’s the solace of handwork, old marine engines, curious birds, a small museum, and very good bread.

6 thoughts on “If I knew the story”

  1. So many mysteries hinted at here. We’ll have to be patient, to find out what you’re writing and what you discover. Hurry! Sorry. I know you can’t. But we want to know.

  2. This does seem like a perfect match for the world outside your window. Thinking about your question, I suppose I more often am searching for a conclusion (or moving towards one, anyway) when I write, but I can also think of a couple of instances in which I knew the beginning and ending and had to imagine the middle. Maybe it’s more about the searching than the direction it takes?

    1. That’s a very good way to put it. And I guess I’m committed to the search. Or at least I am with this particular work. There are actually two distinct strands and for ages I wondered how they might fit together but I think I’ve found the pattern, always so gratifying.

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