Sunday, May 15, 2011

Starting Backwards, or random memories of the newest book

Six a.m. on an otherwise beautiful day in Anchorage. George is still sleeping. I wake up early, ready to work, but when I turn on the computer and open the file, I discover I've saved one of the chapters of this book--a book I've been working on for an embarrassingly long time--under the same file name as the entire 245 page manuscript.

After a moment of hyperventilation, I remember I had saved an earlier version at the end of the previous month. I’ve only lost a few weeks’ worth of work. I'll survive. 

We’re staying at Hickle House, which is part of Providence Hospital, a peaceful place nestled in the woods and crowned by mountains with decks outside and a fireplace within. It’s a place for healing, which is why we’re here.  George has had a season of medivacs,  emergency rooms and surgery. We need healing.

He sleeps in an easy chair at the end of the bed where I work, his breathing still labored. I go to work recreating one of the chapters of this book, one I had been especially happy with.

I still remember the structure of it—a rather nice balancing act of conversation and memory, strung along a narrow wire of action that seemed to work. I can recreate it. But writing is a process full of serendipity and as I set about, in the still darkened room, to rewrite something I thought was good, I find something better.
There’s a lesson in this, I imagine.

George wakes with a start. He’s had a nightmare. He was trying to save something—he didn’t know what it was but whatever it was, he was about to lose it.

I tell him about the file lost on the computer. He laughs and says, “Are we really that connected?”

I nod. Yep.

Working with him asleep beside me always stirs my memory, somehow, tapping into those subconscious stores that enable me to write stories that are both his stories and mine. Like this one, My Name is Not Easy. 

Perhaps it is just the way a writer’s mind works, but for me, everything is connected.

First there is the connection of being at Providence, Anchorage’s Catholic hospital, because George grew up in a parochial boarding school, the school that started this story.

And then there’s a connection in being at Hickle House because Hickle was the Governor of Alaska when the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act was born. The Interior Department had put a freeze on state lands until Alaska Native claims were settled and Hickle opposed it. Oil had been discovered in Pudhoe Bay and the state wanted it-all of it. 

And there’s also, suddenly, a connection with the TV, which George has just turned on: Mel Gibson, as Maverick saying, “It’s their fault for being on our land before we got here.”

All of these things fit into this book somehow, trust me.

Normally when we come to Anchorage for medical visits we go to the Alaska Native Medical Center, but not this time. This time I transferred George from ANMC to Providence. ANMC had tried and failed at the surgery and they wanted to try again. I refused to give them a second chance. He was drugged and didn’t know what was going on. He thought I was being difficult--and it was hard moving away from ANMC, a place, so full of friends and family and familiar faces. Harder still as the last nurse there treated him like a national treasure and the one before that—a gentle Indian from the lower 48—had braided his long gray hair with such loving reverence that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he would not react well to seeing his hair in braids.

Providence was scary at first. No Native faces. No wonderful Native artwork. A tiny sterile room. Then the nurse came in—a veteran Catholic nurse who knew George’s favorite nun from Copper Valley School, the nun who used to cook the rabbits he caught in the woods near Glenellen.

And now, here we are, recovering at Hickle House and eating chicken instead of rabbits. Hickle’s gone and the Catholics saved the day, this time, and I saved my book, so life is good.

George reaches over and pulls the curtain open.

“Hello Anchorage,” he says.

“Hello,” I answer, my voice falsetto. 

“You don’t look like Anchorage,” he says. “You look like Barrow.”

“In your dreams,” I tell him and we both laugh.