Landscape and story and emotion

So, about 18 years ago, lnhammer and I went for a walk together and decided to give this going out together thing a try. This was news to no one but us; the reaction of our college friends, when told, was roughly, “well, yeah, we knew that.”

We didn’t do it without hesitations. We were juniors, and we’d been best friends ever since the first week of freshman year, and we didn’t want anything, least of all becoming a couple, to mess with that.

We’ve known each other more than half our lives now, and we’re still best friends, and sometimes even now, when I think about how I’m sharing my life with my best friend, I’ll just start grinning, and wonder how on earth I managed to get this lucky.

My writer’s brain was thinking this week about that summer we started dating and about … landscape and emotion and story. The summer we started going out, we both still lived in St. Louis, and there was a drought there, the Mississippi River shrinking to a thin ribbon of water. The trees were dying, and their bark was peeling off in papery sheets. lnhammer and I spent a lot of time walking together that summer (because we liked walking; also because we didn’t have cars). I remember seeing the papery brown tree bark littering the sidewalk; remember it crunching, leaf-like, beneath my feet. I was worried about the water-starved trees a little, but mostly I was … fascinated, to see that layers of tree bark could fall away like that. I was slowly falling in love, and my inner landscape shaped my views of the outer one; most things would have been more fascinating than troubling, that summer.

When I joined my first writer’s group, the Alternate Historians–also in St. Louis, though by the lnhammer had headed to Tucson for grad school, and we were doing the long distance relationship thing, in spite of what everyone says, sometimes works out after all–the group members kept telling me that my stories needed “more emotion, more description.” For months I struggled with this; I knew they were right, but I had no idea how to bring what they were asking for into my stories.

Until one day, suddenly I got it: emotion and description were the same thing. In describing physical details, you convey emotion. A gray day can be soothing or depressing. An orc marching through Ithilien no doubt saw, not the memory of past days and the sad beauty of a neglected and overgrown garden, but an irritating mess of vines that obscured their view of the enemy and tangled at their steps. Description is all about character.

What those struggling trees meant to me was not what they would mean to someone else.

Which, really, I already knew. Because some months after that dry summer, a friend who also lived in St. Louis showed me a poem she’d written during that time. A friend of hers had died the previous spring, and her poem was framed in terms of bones and baked earth. It was a powerful poem, and in it I saw all the physical details of the dry, hot summer I remembered–but described with completely different words and completely different metaphors and completely different emotions. We were in the same place that summer; but we weren’t in the same place at all.

This fascinated me then. It fascinates me now.

One more thing: by the time I followed lnhammer to Tucson, some summers later, the Midwest drought was long over, and the Mississippi was in flood. Towns were in danger of being washed away; rivers flowed among the high branches of trees. I stood beneath the Gateway Arch, and watched the river lap at its steps.

Because I knew I was leaving; because St. Louis was about to stop being my place; because I was about to leave friends behind; because for all of that I very much wanted to leave; because I was heading to a new land that I loved; because that land was someplace where the rivers don’t even have water in them, more often than not–because of all those things, there was something both compelling and poignant about watching the river rise as I prepared to drive away.

But for those who stayed through that summer–willingly or unwillingly; and also for those who left like me, but for reasons of their own–the story they’d tell, the way they’d describe those rains and rising waters, would be a very different thing again.

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