Comedian Bob Marley has a somewhat famous routine about camp in New England, specifically Maine. I won't link it here, but those of you who don't mind explicit language can easily find it on YouTube. "If you're not from New England, camp is a structure ... next to a body of water. It's not a lakehouse, it's not a cabin, and it sure as shit ain't a cottage, 'cuz we ain't Hansel and Gretel. It's a friggen camp. You don't go down to camp, over to camp, or through to camp, you go upta camp. ... Can we get a screen door at camp that doesn't sound like we shot someone every time it shuts?"
Bob then goes on to extoll the unique little aggravations that every New England camp seems to have - and while he's spot on about all of them, I'd like to share the better things about camp, having grown up at one on the occasional summer weekend.
When we went "upta camp", it was always by boat, since Camp JanJuKip was on a tiny island on Lake Winnepesaukee. It was named after my great-grandfather's three kids, Janice, Judy, and Kip, and I always thought it sounded appropriately like something out of Salute Your Shorts. Camp had no electricity, just a small generator that made an awful lot of noise, and was used primarily to keep the ancient refrigerator with the faded Trix bumper sticker on it running. My mother's hand and footprints were in the cement step onto the screen porch, which was high and wide enough that some genius had fixed a swing to the ceiling beams. Until I got too heavy for that swing, I spent a fair share of afternoons on it, pretending I could let go and fly up, up through the air and splash down into the lake like a kingfisher.
Camp was for cookouts, snacks, puzzles, and time-worn board games. It was for reading old and musty books long abandoned by others but brand-new to me. It was for coloring, drawing on yellowed sheets of construction paper, and singing at the top of my lungs on the bow of the boat as we hummed across the lake. (In my early teens, I discovered that despite the rushing wind drowning out the world around me, everyone had been able to hear me the entire time, to my great embarrassment.) At camp, we were cut off from the world. No phone, no TV, and usually no radio ... then, later, once it became a possibility, no internet.
My creativity always flourished at camp: I would spend long, lazy afternoons sunning myself on the boulders at the water's edge, listening to the waves from boats' wake lap the shore, and hear other worlds in their song. Socked away in my little corner of nature, cut off from the rest of the world, it was always easier to dream. Out of sight, out of mind.
When Camp NaNoWriMo began to roll around earlier this week, I started thinking more and more about Camp JanJuKip. It's changed a great deal since my younger days: repainted, fitted with a new deck and chimney, a better generator, and - yes, Bob - a screen door that doesn't slam like a gunshot. Wireless internet had made the world accessible from the boulders. The last time I went, I had to admit... it had lost a great deal of its magic. The rough edges had been sanded down, and much of its simplicity had fallen away. It no longer seemed like an old, well-loved treasure tucked away in the wilderness: somehow, camp had become just another house, though harder to get to. But I keep its spirit in my heart, and as I take a break from this blog for the month of April, I'd like to think that every time I sit down to write, I can hear the lake lapping near my feet, and hear the buzz of a hardy generator in the near distance, keeping the hot dogs and my soda cold.
I'll see you all in May,
One of my favorite stories when I was very small was “Stone Soup”: a tale where a community is coerced to make a delicious pot of soup by each adding their own ingredients. There are plenty of reasons why this is a great jumping-off point for analogies about writing, but today I think I’d like to talk about the ingredients which are currently simmering in my own imaginary cauldron.
Every story is inspired by an amazing assortment of things: people, places, memories, and other stories. One of my college professors, the amazing Ann Page Stecker, taught me a wonderful term for this: bricolage. (We would call it to each other from across hallways, imitating the old Ricola commercial: “Briiiiii-co-laaaaage!”) When familiar things are mixed together in their own soup, something new, complex, and wonderful emerges. If it’s done properly, some ingredients aren’t even evident at first taste: like zucchini snuck into brownies. The contents of a story soup don’t have to be consciously added, either: it’s the reason why so many authors say that voracious reading is one of the hallmarks of a great author. What we experience comes through in our writing voice: I learned quite early on that my writing tended to sound like whoever I’d been reading, without trying. Now I look to it as a tool: I read a bit of whoever inspires me whenever I’m writing.
For me, the most fun thing about the story soup cauldron is that books aren’t the only fuel. Every now and then, some other sort of media grabs my writer’s brain and won’t let it go. Bioshock Infinite has that hold on me now: a 2013 video game which takes the turn-of-the-century United States and introduces elements of alternate worlds and timelines. There’s a bit of steampunk worked into the world setting, and the gorgeous visuals and styling sucked me in right away … but what is firing my brain is the seamless telling of the plot and the revelation of its twists. (If you would like to play it for yourself and experience it, I strongly advise you not to read anything about the plot, because it’s very easily spoiled.) Every event, every line of dialogue and piece of scenery, quietly advises the player what will eventually happen. It’s done with such care and subtlety that the massive revelations in the last two hours of gameplay still come as a complete gut-punch, and it’s the sort of master storytelling that every author hopes they will be able to pull off. I’m in the middle of a second play-through so that I can deconstruct it with a writer’s eye and tuck its tools into my kit.
The other large ingredient simmering in my soup is Disney’s new remake of Beauty and the Beast. Those who personally know me understand that the original is one of my favorites, and Belle has a special place in my heart. I went into a viewing as a skeptic, not sure that I’d care for it at all. Some elements didn’t pass my personal litmus test, but they are minimal in comparison to the wallop the story now packs. Every single character has been filled out with new depth, and none of it feels stilted or forced: the Beast’s history fits him like a glove, the deeper current of Gaston’s ego is as natural as breathing, and the story of Belle’s mother is heartbreaking. The new movie shows how adding to a beloved story can enrich it and make it thicker, like flour or cornstarch in a broth. This technique came in a very timely manner, since I’m gearing up to flesh out the history of two Aviario characters in a pair of novellas.
Since Camp NaNoWriMo fires up in two short weeks, I’ve got to bring my camp stove with me, and I’ve got a few great ingredients to cook over the fire. Are any of you participating in Camp? Look me up under user name “chartharsis”: I’d love to chat with you! If you’re not a Camper, I’d still be curious to hear what you put in your own story soup. Leave me a comment below: hearing from my readers makes my day!
Have a great week, and I’ll see you back here next Wednesday!
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