In Story Craft, I compare the creative process to the tending of a compost heap. “I never know exactly what will come out of my mental/spiritual compost heap. The characters, dialog, and plot lines that end up in my stories bear some resemblance to the experiences I’ve had, yet they’ve been transformed in mysterious ways into something else.” [Erickson 2009:56]
Let’s stir the compose heap and see what we can find.
Anna Beth. In the second chapter of Story Craft, I mention that my mother was the first storyteller I ever knew, and my most important teacher. She told me stories about her kinfolks in West Texas—courageous pioneer women, ranchers, and cowboys—and flavored them with a gentle, earthy sense of humor.
She also read Bible stories aloud to me in the afternoons and gave me my first set of heroes: Moses, David, Samuel, Samson, Joshua, Paul, and Jesus. She instilled in me a sense of vocation - the idea that God had given me a talent and that I should protect it and use it wisely.
It took me two-thirds of a lifetime to comprehend the impact she had on me, because, so to speak, she didn’t sign her work. She didn’t feel it was necessary to leave her stamp on the saddle or to carve her name into the clay.
To change the metaphor, she was content to be oxygen—an absolutely essential, life-giving force that you will never notice unless you are looking for it.
Some mothers have this stunning level of confidence. It reminds me of Shakespeare, who never bothered to save his papers, accumulate an archive, erect a library, or even write an autobiography. Three hundred and ninety-five years after his death, we are still quoting his sonnets, attending his plays, discussing his characters, and speaking a language that has been shaped by his work, yet scholars still argue about who he was.
The mind reels at the notion that one human being could have such an impact. Some mothers do. Mine did. Years later, when I was getting hundreds of rejection slips from publishers, “what kept me going was nothing I had learned in a college classroom, but rather those two simple sentences spoken by my mother: ‘John, God has given you a talent. You must guard it and use it wisely.” [Erickson 2009:8]
Who but a mother could do that?
Frisky. One day in 1955, my friend Bob Wright and I were hiking across the vacant fields near our homes in Perryton and encountered a smallish brown, short-haired mutt of a dog. He had a ringworm on his neck, wore no collar, and followed me home. I asked Mother if I could keep him and she said yes. We called him Frisky.
Mother had never allowed any of her three children to keep pets inside the house, but she made an exception with Frisky. Maybe I nagged and begged, or maybe Frisky just won her heart. I think she also detected a melancholy side to my nature and her motherly instincts told her that I needed the companionship of a dog.
Frisky and I became inseparable friends. When I came home from school every afternoon, he was there in the yard, waiting for me. We played and hiked together. Sometimes, on long winter evenings when Mother was late getting supper on the table, Frisky and I shared spoonfuls of Dash dog food out in the back yard. (Mother would have been horrified, had she known, but it really wasn’t bad stuff). We shared a bedroom on the second floor of our old house on Amherst. On cold winter nights, when the Panhandle wind rattled the wood-framed windows, Frisky and I burrowed under the covers and kept each other warm.
When Frisky and I were alone, I talked to him, just as though he were a person, and I felt that he understood me and “talked” back with his eyes, ears, and tail. I had no way of knowing that this would show up decades later as “research” for a series of novels narrated by a dog, but I’m sure that it did. The Hank stories reflect the experience of an author who has spent a great deal of time watching dogs.
Over the years, I’ve had other dogs who became dear friends—Foxie, Poochie, Sophie, Texie, Tango, Dixie, Daisy, and others whose names have faded from memory—but Frisky was the one who shared my childhood.
[To Be Continued]