I have a couple of friends who walked one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. This is a network of trails that lead to a famous cathedral in Santiago, the Santiago de Compostela, which is a famous shrine to the apostle Saint James the Great. The city is near the coast in the upper left corner of Spain.
There are a number of starting points throughout Europe and even in England, but the most common are in Spain and Portugal. A very traditional route begins in France, near Spain’s border, and follows a route through the countryside across the top of Spain. It is about five hundred miles of walking, and this is the route that my friends took.
Thirty-one days later, they walked into the famous cathedral and watched the evening service performed in honor of those walkers who finished their treks. My friends later produced a forty-five minute DVD of their experience, so I was able to watch a shortened version of their journey.
Walking the Camino de Santiago has been done for centuries and millions of people have done varying parts of the trail network. Some two hundred thousand people typically walk parts of it every year, and the towns and villages along the way have developed hostels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and dormitories for overnight stays, as well as numerous places to eat along the different routes. Of course, there are also businesses that provide guided walks, assisted walks (vans and drivers), preplanned hotels and restaurants, and other aids for those who want the experience but cannot physically accomplish the whole experience.
The key word for describing the experience of walking the Camino is that it is a pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken for a reason or cause. Many people go on a pilgrimage in the name of other people; many walk in honor of a cause; many walk for inner peace, or the need for accomplishment, or because of religious fervor and/or rededication. Some, of course, walk it to have done it, or walk it as a vacation experience.
Going on a pilgrimage is nothing unique to Santiago or to Spain. There are recognized pilgrim’s trails throughout the world, and the reasons for walking any or all of a particular route varies with purpose, passion, dedication, interest, or for sightseeing. Going on the journey can be for any number of reasons.
There is an annual pilgrimage in New Mexico that occurs this Friday, the day designated as Good Friday, the Friday before Easter.
Hundreds of people, starting from several points throughout Northern New Mexico, walk to the Santuario de Chimayo, a historic Catholic church tucked away in the small village of Chimayo, which is twenty-some miles north of Santa Fe, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It is believed that the church is a location for special healing, and many walk the pilgrimage to receive special blessings related to health. Many others do it in memory of loved ones.
I have recently finished a (fiction) book that describes one man’s unexpected journey to see a friend before the friend dies. Written by a wonderful writer named Rachel Joyce, it is a rich and enthralling tale called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it.
We should all be so fortunate to go on a pilgrimage such as Harold’s.
When I was a youngster, I fell in love with White Fang and The Call of the Wild. This was a flashlight-under-the-covers-after-lights-were-supposed-to-be-off type of love. It wasn’t a love of literature, but one of high adventure, intense suffering, mislaid justice, and victory by sheer grit. It was the ice and the snow, and honor, dignity, resolve, and inner strength, all in a place that I had never imagined. And it had dogs.
Jack London brought me a world I repeatedly fell headlong into, and I read both books several times.
Later, it was the Hardy Boys mysteries. Even when I knew the clues and the solutions to the mysteries, I read the books again and again.
In high school and early college, it was Tolkein. Such words! Such imagery! The scale of the Dwarf halls of the Lonely Mountain and the size of Minas Tirith were mind-boggling. I read the trilogy at least once a year for several years.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Old Man and the Boy (Robert Ruark) The Green Hills of Africa (Hemingway), Lonesome Dove (McMurtry), Treasure Island (Stevenson, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth), A Separate Peace (John Knowles), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle), and others. I read these books multiple times and they never grew old.
There are also movies that I watch on a regular basis, or at least every time they’re on TV – To Kill a Mockingbird (Gregory Peck), You’ve Got Mail (Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan), One Dark Thirty (Jessica Chastain), Forest Gump (Tom Hanks), Alone in the Wilderness (Dick Proenneke), and others.
What is it that makes some stories, books, and movies so repeatedly enjoyable? Characters? Plot? Adventure, Mystery, Danger? Or is it the change in the characters, the sense of victory, the defeat of evil, or a change in the reader, perhaps? Perhaps they’re all echoes of the life I wish I had led.
I don’t know. I’m sure it’s a combination of things, including those classical story structures like the hero model and the character arc. Could it be poignancy? Could it just be the way that the words are put together?
Again, I don’t know.
I’m asking my blog readers: what is it about some stories, books, or movies that keep pulling you back in? Why are there favorite books versus books that are read once and then forgotten?
Feel free to respond; I’m interested in what people think.
I could say that, whatever it is, it’s what I strive to do in my books, but it wouldn’t be true. I’m working hard just to get my books read once.
On a personal note, this week included the death of the father of an intimate friend. It was not unexpected, but it was still a reminder of how fragile life is and how short a time we have each other. Be careful out there.
Sometimes, a story doesn’t work out.
Maybe I told it wrong or made the wrong choice for the overall structure. Maybe I chose the wrong character to tell the story, or had too many characters, or had scenes where I presented too much information and too little action.
It could be that I became too interested in the technical details and too little interested in the main character. Maybe I forgot about drama. Or, maybe there just wasn’t enough of a story to begin with: I thought there was, but there wasn’t.
I’m finishing the first draft of a novel. I’ve been working on it for some time, focused on getting the story down. It’s been a struggle in some ways, but I’ve enjoyed it. It was supposed to be a thriller but, truthfully, there’s not much that’s thrilling about it. I thought I could make it a suspense novel. Unfortunately, there’s no suspense in it. I wish it was a mystery, but it’s not.
Well, shoot. All I can really say is that the novel is really interesting.
I describe something that doesn’t exist, but you will think that it does. I involve you in a global problem that’s extremely important. I address an immediate crisis in American society. I then weave them together into a climax that has a clever resolution.
In other words, it’s boring.
You’re probably saying “Oh, don’t worry. It’s only the first draft and, now that you see the problems, you can rearrange things, add stuff here and there, and it will be okay.” You are probably also thinking that this is my punishment for starting a novel without a clear plan on how the story goes. “Now you know the value of outlining,” you will want to tell me, wagging your finger at my foolishness.
I am guilty.
I will work on a second draft and my second drafts are always much, much better than the firsts. There is hope. Setting it aside for a while, I may return to it with a new approach and rejuvenated hope for turning my work into something that people will passionately enjoy reading. It may take on the glow of a bestseller and I will be contrite, surprised that I had underappreciated its potential.
Or, it may be one for the bottom drawer.
That’s my euphemism for where I put manuscripts that will never again see the light of day. Everything that goes into the bottom drawer is thereafter referred to as “practice”.
I discussed this with a friend who is a very accomplished writer, as in more than one hundred published books and novels in fiction and nonfiction, all written to international acclaim. Even his blog is translated into different languages (I didn’t know people in Mongolia even read blogs.)
He also has a bottom drawer.
“If you are a writer,” he said, “then you face the reality that sometimes you will produce boring work. Or even bad work. Some real duds. It’s the nature of creativity.”
“But this story is really interesting,” I protested. “Surely there’s a place in the world for really interesting work.”
“In fiction, interesting means boring,” he said, looking at me over his glasses. “If they ever declare a new book genre named “Boring”, you can jump right in. However, it will be crowded. Every writer pays the price of mathematics. If you risk yourself to write great works, your risk will also produce duds. Finish it, learn from it, put it in the drawer, and start something else.”
Click the photos below to see an expanded view.
Click the photos below to see an expanded view.
I had a dream where I was walking on an island of trash.
Have you read or seen pictures of the huge accumulations of trash floating on the world’s oceans? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean between the west coast of the United States and the Pacific Rim where currents have brought together a hundred million tons of floating trash, mainly plastic. The trash typically comes from landfills that have been washed out by rain, floods, tsunamis, or typhoons, or ships throwing trash overboard, or oil rigs, or commercial fishing boats, or from countries dumping trash into rivers that then run into the ocean. The Pacific Patch has parts where trash floating from horizon to horizon is thick enough that you can’t see open water.
Unbelievably, the most concentrated areas of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are twice the size of Texas. No kidding. Go to YouTube and type in “ocean trash” and watch some of the remarkable videos. Imagine emptying your kitchen trashcan into your aquarium for a week. Lots of things don’t sink, so don’t imagine that happens. The situation is devastating to the ocean wildlife: besides getting trapped in plastic containers and discarded fishing nets, the birds and fish actually eat the tinier stuff. It affects fish and whales and birds and the tuna that ends up in your tuna salad. There are similar garbage patches in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, two in the Indian Ocean, and they just found a new strip of trash in the Caribbean a couple of weeks ago.
In my dream, someone had surrounded enough trash with a gargantuan net to create their own floating island. Not a small island either – they had built a runway on it to land small jets. There was some kind of industrial plant on the island, with big upright tanks, lots of pipes, metal walkways, and monitoring stations. It reminded me of the Phillips Petroleum refinery near the town where I grew up. There were several engineer-type people walking around with hardhats and clipboards, looking at various gauges and meters on large outside panels.
As I watched them, I was given a revelation: it was all fake. The engineers were actors, the control panels were dummy panels, and the whole industrial plant was just a prop. Nothing was as it seemed.
That’s when I woke up.
The dream was as vivid as any dream I’ve ever had. I felt the sponginess of the surface of the confined trash, I smelled the ocean air as well as the stink of the trash, I heard the engineers talking to each other, I even saw the marks on the papers in the clipboards. It was unreal and engrossing, and I was left with these thoughts: why was it all fake? what was being hidden? what was going on that needed such an elaborate façade to cover it up?
That was five years ago. I used Wikipedia to learn the fundamentals of ocean pollution, and then went to YouTube to actually believe it. I also began reading the articles on ocean pollution that appeared in online news. Ocean trash (as well as river trash, beach trash, harbor trash…) has received a lot of attention within the last two years, and it’s slowly being recognized as the global disaster that it actually is.
From that information, I used the vividness and the conflicts of my dream to develop new plots for novels. So far, I’ve written three stories centered around an ocean facility far from land that is cleaning up the trash: one is a thriller where a good guy barely escapes from a bad guy while on the facility, one where two guys battle terrorists intent on using the facility to cause an earthquake big enough to sink California, and the most current is a story about a really bad guy who uses the facility to dispose of not-so-dead bodies.
Nothing like having an unhinged imagination.
People ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Having dreams is one of them, but it’s typically just paying attention to life and identifying what makes it interesting. We are a fascinating species, in a fascinating place, doing weird, wonderful, and awful things, and it’s not surprising to find stories that are worth repeating, even if I do have to change the names to protect the innocent.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.