We have a guest speaker program at school, and last week I was asked to be the guest speaker and give a talk about writing.
I wasn’t sure what to talk about at first, but then I decided that I’d talk about the process of writing and publishing my book, which is what people always want to know about when they find out I’ve written a book (by the way – shameless self-promotion here – feel free to click over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase a copy). That led me to thinking about answering some of the questions that my students frequently ask about writing. Such things as: “Where do characters come from?” and “How do you make up your stories?”
I decided to talk mostly about making up stories and thought it would be useful (and hopefully entertaining) to read a short story I’d written and then use that as a frame of reference for discussing how a story develops.
The story I chose to read is called “Yawgoog.” I wrote it during the summer of 2000, and it was published in The Sound Of What?, a now vanished online literary journal/community. “Yawgoog” is about two boys who find a bunch of money out in the woods near a Boy Scout camp.
My short stories sometimes originate in real life, little moments that emerge from memory, scenes vividly recalled years later. I sometimes tell my students to try starting their stories with the everyday moments that they all know from firsthand experience and then build the story around those things. The story doesn’t have to be true; it just has to feel that way.
That’s how “Yawgoog” started. While watching an electrical strom come in one day a few summers back, I remembered another summer day, long ago, when I was in Boy Scouts. I was at summer camp, out on the pond in a canoe, or maybe a row boat, just drifting and fishing with a friend named John. An electrical storm suddenly appeared and we had to head in fast. We couldn’t make it to the docks so we put in at the nearest land, which was away from the camp and waited out the storm. It didn’t last long and when it moved out, we went back to the camp. End of story.
The scene was vivid in my mind: two guys on a canoe outrunning a storm. Generally, when I think of scenes like this I write the scene as it appeared or felt at the time, but then I usually people them with invented characters. So I wrote the scene and got to know the characters in the canoe. The storm cames up, they paddle to shore and while waiting out the storm, one of them notices an old trash bag. I was as surprised as they were when a whole bunch of money fell out of that bag, but I ran with it, asking myself what these guys would do. That wondering about what they would do with it ultimately became the point of the story. Enjoy.
The paddle cut easily through the water, and the canoe thrust forward a few feet, as silent as a shark. The sun was high, but the air already held the vague promise of coming fall. A gentle wind blew through the trees that surrounded the scout camp on the shore of the small pond. I set the paddle across the aluminum hull and stared out over the glassy surface of the water. Closer to the shore a small fleet of dinghies set sail as boys learned the art of running and tacking. Other than the sailboats, our canoe was the only other boat out. My friend Alexander, who was sitting in the front of the canoe, and I had lost interest in scouts years ago, but we went to camp and we fished and walked around the edges of the small pond while the younger and more eager boys attended to the business of earning merit badges.
Alexander cast his fishing line out from the front of the canoe. A quick plunk ended the sentence of the whirring reel as it played out the line. He wore his cap backwards, a memento of the Red Sox’s failed attempt at the 1986 World Series. My eyes traced endlessly over the sharp angles of that red ‘B’ wishing that I too might have gone to the game and sat in the luxury box at Fenway that his parents could so easily afford. Alexander came from an old money Boston family, but he still seemed like a regular guy. He just got to do things that made the rest of the guys jealous. It didn’t really matter, though, because two years later, sitting in a canoe, I couldn’t for the life of me remember who the Sox had played.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Who cares,” he said slowly.
I leaned back in the canoe so I could better study the sky. The sun was high, but past the meridian, so I guessed the time to be 3:30. I suppose I must have drifted while Alexander fished, because when I opened my eyes, the sky was darker. Not much, but enough. Alexander patiently sat in the front of the canoe, reeling his line in.
“You fell asleep,” Alexander said.
The wind picked up and blew harder over the surface of the water, and I noticed a line of thick clouds inching across the sky like a great curtain moving to cover the sun. Across the pond, where the boathouse hid in the trees, the sailboats were gone, and cardboard-gray sheets of rain descended on the treetops.
“We better get in,” I said.
Alexander squinted at the sky, as if noticing it for the first time and shrugged. “I haven’t caught anything yet.”
Thunder rolled in the far distance. I lifted the paddle and dipped it into the water. The wind quickened and blew ripples along the surface, which developed into thin ridges, before growing large enough to bob the canoe.
“I’m paddling us in,” I said.
Alexander looked at the sky again. “Fine.”
The rain front crossed out of the trees and began inching towards us. It quickly outflanked our tiny vessel and we found ourselves surrounded. The distant sky still seemed clear, whitish translucence seen through rain.
Alexander quickly reeled his line in and started paddling. Lightning tore through the clouds ahead and appeared to slam into the shore by the docks. The thunder came through us, rattling teeth and shaking our canoe.
“That way,” I yelled. “It’s closer!”
Paddling furiously, I steered us towards a small outcropping of land several hundred yards nearer us than the docks. We paddled like amateur athletes towards the shore, while thunder and lightning closed the distance like pros. The canoe’s hull ran aground with a painful scratching of rocks grinding under aluminum. We leapt out and dragged the canoe up from the shoreline. Alexander fell once and had to scramble away from the speeding land boat as I quite nearly pushed it right over him. A crack of thunder brought him to his feet and we ran headlong through the driving rain and into the dark mass of trees where we would no longer be the tallest features of the landscape. Beneath the roofs of the trees, the rain seemed to let up a bit and we sat in the mud, resigned to a drenching in the warm summer rain.
“Not one bite. What a waste,” Alexander said.
I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
We sat back against the trees and watched the lightning come and go, flickering across the patches of gray sky revealed by the swaying trees. Thunder rolled through the woods like an endless freight train on invisible tracks.
“We could just walk back,” I said.
“What about the canoe? Why not just wait this out.”
I nodded. The rain would have to let up. Besides, we couldn’t get any wetter.
“Do you believe that?” Alexander said. His voice was suddenly angry.
“Look.” He pointed to an old black trash bag lying a short way off in the woods. “I hate that!”
Alexander stood and walked to the bag. He couldn’t abide litter and never left trash out in the woods. Alexander felt the way about litter that most people feel about rotten food on the kitchen counter. He lifted the bag, but the bottom was torn and the bag’s contents spilled out over the sodden pine needles that covered the forest floor. I jumped to my feet and stared. Alexander took a startled step backwards.
Atop the old pine needles lay several packets of money, neatly bound. A few more landed on the ground like thunder claps in our lives. We stared and immediately fell to our knees, now oblivious to the rain. Each packet contained one hundred $100 bills. Our eyes met and I wondered just how well I knew Alexander and how well he knew me. For an instant, I couldn’t feel the rain or my sodden clothes or the water in my shoe; I could see only a world of endless possibility opening like the Red Sea in front of Moses. I knew Alexander was feeling the same thing, a strange awareness, so rare in the lives of teenage boys, of endless futures and paths branching off from just one tiny moment in time.
“I guess this makes up for no fish,” Alexander said.
“Why? We found it.”
“It isn’t ours.” I was scared, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly scared me.
“What if someone comes looking?”
“So we just leave it?” Alexander demanded.
I stared at the money strewn about on the wet ground and imagined going to every Red Sox game and Patriots game and Celtics game. The rain seemed to be letting up and more light filled the forest. It felt as if I was waking from a dream and as I did so all those futures, those possibilities, were closing off, one by one, like forbidden doors through a maze that would bring me through without stumbling up and down every dead end and false trail. The dream evaporated as sunlight filled the forest and shimmered on the raindrops that still clung to the trees and leaves.
“Someone else will take it,” Alexander said.
“Why not us?”
“I don’t know.”
When the rain finally stopped and the clouds rolled on, leaving only dank forest and wet sunshine, we walked back to the shore, slid the canoe back in the water and headed back out. We left the money in the bag and stared at the shore as it drifted farther away. Alexander caught three good fish before we paddled back into camp for the evening.
All night I chased after sleep, but never could I fully grasp hold and finally I got out of my cot and left the other sleeping boys in the tent. I crept out into the cool night carrying my flashlight and a packet of raisins. Stars sprawled across the cracks in the treetops and the air still felt heavy with storm. After two hours of hiking along the tangled shoreline, accompanied by the sounds of owls and wind, I finally reached the outcropping where Alexander and I ran the canoe aground. I searched and dug for two hours, until dawn began to take over the sky. I returned to the campsite, exhausted and muddy, and drifted off to sleep as the camp came alive with the excitement of another day.
I never found the trash bag.
Alexander and I didn’t talk about the money, and I never saw much of him after that summer. We lost touch as people do when they grow older and drift toward other interests. He stayed in New England, and I woke up one day to find I’d been in Texas for fifteen years. Looking back, I believe he took the money. I can’t fault him because I walked out there to take it for myself. He just beat me to it. Last week, I read a newspaper clipping sent to me by my mother that said he had disappeared while hiking a remote section of the Appalachian Trail up in Maine late in the season. The search was called off after several weeks. If he didn’t take it, I often wonder if there were times in his life if he wondered whether I might have taken it. Neither of us knowing that there could have been a third party involved. The original owner perhaps. I really don’t want to believe Alexander took it; I want to believe his experiences were just like mine.
Sometimes I wish I had gotten it. Or maybe some of it. When I make my car payment, or send the money off for my student loans, or when I watch the World Series. Once in a while, I imagine traveling around the world and seeing the Australian Outback and climbing Mt. Fuji and marveling at the sight of the Himalayas. But, I also feel relief that so many of those branches closed off on that distant rainy day. Perhaps I was actually twice lucky.
Mainly, though, I regret not taking it when I walk down these ugly streets on my way to work. Sandwiched between the high-rises and concrete, I see a man with open hand. Invariably my pockets are empty of cash and I shrug and wish I could return to that rainy day on the shores of Yawgoog Pond with all its open promise. I wonder if any good could have come from us taking that money. I wonder if we would have had the strength to resist our greed and do that good. I wonder.