Drilling Down Into Your Deep Writing Soil

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was with my high school church group, taking a week in the summer s-l225to do volunteer work for the Hopi. Our bus had stopped for the night and we brought our sleeping bags and duffels into the fellowship hall of a local church. We were told by our adult leaders to relax, read, play games, listen to the radio––but by all means stay inside the hall! Which of course my friend Randy and I interpreted as meaning: “Feel free to wander into town and find some trouble to get into.”

Ever ready to follow instructions as we understood them, Randy and I slipped out the side doors and started a nocturnal tour of the bustling Flagstaff metropolis, which seemed to have, as they used to say, rolled up the sidewalks.

So we walked and talked and came to a railroad crossing, moving therefrom into the soft red-and-yellow neon of a LIQUOR STORE sign. To a couple of seventeen-year-olds on a nighttime prowl, such illumination is catnip. Randy suggested we baptize our adventure with a bottle.

I agreed, as Randy Winter was my brother from another mother, my closest friend, with whom I laughed much and talked deeply. We would discuss with equal fervor the mystery of girls and the character of God (whose reputation, by the way, we were failing to uphold as we schemed how to lay our hands on some demon intoxicant).

Our first order of business was what manner of spirits to acquire. As an athlete who was not a member of the party circuit, I was not an imbiber of any sort. I did not like the taste of beer. I’d snuck a nip of gin once in my parents’ liquor cabinet and wondered why on earth anyone would want to drink gasoline.

So Randy suggested we try some wine. He’d heard that Boone’s Farm Apple Wine went down nicely, and the decision was made.

Then the next step: to lurk in the shadows of the parking lot until a car drove up, then casually approach the driver with a request that he be our procurer. This was nervous time, for who knew what kind of personality we would engage? What if it was an off-duty cop? Or some old Veteran of Foreign Wars who’d want to lecture us on the evils of drink?

A chance we would have to take. Which we did presently when a car drove in, and out stepped a man of about thirty, with long hair. Long hair! A good sign. A hippie perhaps, or at least a musician. In either case, cool. We emerged from our hiding spot and said, “Excuse me …”

The man stopped and read our faces in the soft, primrose light. “You want me to get you a bottle, don’t you?” he said.

We nodded. My face felt flush, as if the entire world were witnessing my iniquity.

The man laughed. “I used to do the same thing. What do you want?”

We gave the man a couple of fins, our pooled resources, and Randy said, “Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.”

It seemed to me the man hesitated, as if to give us one last chance to reconsider our fate. And then he went through the door.

Randy and I high-fived our success. And soon thereafter we had in our hands a brown paper bag and some change, passed to us with a “Good luck” sentiment from our partner in crime.

We left the scene of our misdemeanor, went back near the railroad tracks, and sat cross-legged on the ground.

Randy unscrewed the top. We were too unsophisticated to smell the cap.

Then he drank and passed the bottle to me. I took a tentative sip. Ah, I thought. Sprightly, with a conversational fruitiness and subdued notes of summer. (Actually, what I really thought was, This isn’t so bad.)

And so ‘neath the Arizona stars Randy Winter and I shared a bottle of what was generously classified as wine, and discovered something interesting about the human body, namely, that there is a lag time between the ingestion of alcoholic content and its effect on one’s physiology.

Which meant, at one point, it suddenly felt as if a switch was flipped in my brain. The disco ball lit up and went round and round, and I heard myself say something like, “Rammy, my headth pinning” before I teetered backward and ended up on the gravel, looking up at the stars as they raced around the heavens like sparkling emergency room nurses shouting, “Stat! Stat!”

Which is the last thing I remember about that night. In the morning I was in my sleeping bag on the church floor. At least I think it was my sleeping bag. My stomach felt like a balloon of toxic gasses. Two miniature railroad workers were on either side of my head, driving spikes into my temples with their sledgehammers.

The adult leaders were none too pleased with Randy and me. We knew we’d messed up, crossed the line, failed to represent our church. We were threatened with expulsion, which would mean a long and humiliating drive for our parents to come pick us up. We threw ourselves upon the mercy of the court and were granted a temporary stay. I began then to truly appreciate the power of forgiveness. Plus, I was ready to swear off booze for good.

Honest, hard work kept Randy and me on the straight and narrow for at least a week. There’s a victory in there somewhere.

I don’t know why I’m writing about this now, except that I was thinking about Randy the other day, as I do often. He died at the age of nineteen. Leukemia. When I think about him, and all the good times we had, this particular memory is the one that surfaces first.

Why is that? Maybe because it typified our friendship. We took risks together, got in trouble on occasion, but mostly laughed. A couple of times there were tears. There’s something deeply meaningful to me in all this, and if I explore it I sense it will tell me something about what I write and why. It may also be a story idea trying to get out.

Memories are the deep soil of strong fiction. We do well to work that land from time to time. Journal about it. Record it. Listen to it.

Early in his career Ray Bradbury started making lists of nouns, many of them based on childhood memories. Things like The Lake, The Night, The Crickets, The Ravine.

“These lists were the provocations,” he writes in Zen in the Art of Writing, “that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”

Open up your own trapdoor. You’ll get to really good stuff that way. You can use it outright as the basis for a piece of fiction, or tap it for characters, emotions, scenes. Nothing is wasted. All of life is material.

And it will teach you, too, if you’re open. For I don’t believe I’ve had a taste of Boone’s Farm wine since that night. Nothing against it, you understand, but I prefer a nice California cab. In fact, I think I’ll have a glass tonight––just one––and raise a toast to my best friend, Randy Winter.

Randy Winter

What about you? What friend from your youth do you remember, and why?

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20 thoughts on “Drilling Down Into Your Deep Writing Soil

  1. I loved this story, the way you tell it and the advice you draw from it. Thank you.

  2. My story is alcohol-related too, although I didn’t drink any. One weekend, when I was twelve, my parents went away. My best friend Carol was supposed to spend Saturday night sleeping at my house, since it would be my first overnight alone. At the time, there were still blue laws in Boston, bars closed at midnight on Saturday, except for a notorious after-hours club, which was open 24 hours a day, and frequented by many of our friends’ older siblings. The club was within walking distance, so Carol and I decided to check it out. We didn’t even need an ID to get in, because the cops were paid off to never raid it. The place was crowded. We bought ginger ales and spent hours socializing with people we knew, and some we didn’t knew, had a great time, and hopped a ride back to my house at 4am Sunday morning. I don’t know why we thought we’d get away with it, but by Sunday night, just about everyone in the neighborhood, including our parents, knew about our field trip. It was a long time before I was trusted to spend the night without adult supervision, again.

  3. My best friend was my cousin Jerry who lived next door. We hunted and fished together and played one-on-one basketball and baseball. One early summer night on a camping trip with three other boys, we decided to divert across the state line and go see the light of the headless switch man. Before we got the light, the local police stopped us. We got lectures on gun safety (this was 1969) and if one of us would call our parents, they would let us go. Jerry and I were the only ones with telephones, and his mother was a widow. “Daddy, I’m at the Crossett jail.” That story was my submission in senior English class in the fall.

    Great post. Thank you.

  4. Ah, yes, Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, a cheap, chilled staple from the 70s. Twisting off that metal cap launched many a night I’ll never remember …

  5. My current WIP is based on a memory, but in my case a memory that never happened apparently. So I decided to write a story about a character who remembers something happening but everyone says it couldn’t have.

  6. Her name was Leslie. We were in high school. She fell in love with a bottle of Boons Farm at a party one night, cradled it in her arms like a lover for what seemed like most of the night but I’m sure it was only a short time because she kept slugging on it. She wandered (read that, staggered her way through the crowd) over to me, wrapped her free arm around my shoulder, and, in a wine-kissed, breathy voice, asked if I wanted some. I said sure and reached for the bottle. She wriggled her finger in a oh-no-you-don’t way, then held the bottle to my lips long enough for a quick wet-your-whistle glug before returning it to her lover’s grip.
    I don’t know what happened to Leslie; too many years and different paths have crossed between us. She was a cool kid.

  7. Jim,

    Your story reminded me of a night in Flagstaff as a youth, not on a mission trip, but “camped out” overnight in a downtown mission. There was no temptation for my brother and I to escape and roam the city. Not only was my father was with us, but also the only door to the mission (the front door) was the busy public urinal for the homeless community. My brother and I literally had our eyes opened to the plight of the homeless that night.

    The stronger the emotions attached to the experience, the better we remember it.

    Thanks (I think) for the memories.

  8. Mine’s a cautionary tale.

    At school, we were all friends, our clique of seventh and eight graders. We played baseball and football together, went to the movies together, talked girls and sports, went to ballgames, the usual things Phoenix boys did.

    Then on to different high schools together. In the middle of my junior year, my Dad was transferred to a small town in Oklahoma. The best years of my youth were split between Phoenix and a small town in Oklahoma that easily fit between Indian School Road, and Central Ave. and Seventh Street in Phoenix.

    I was gone from my home town for four years. When I returned, I immediately began to look up old friends. Found them all. Except the guy I’ll call Guy. (Not a Guy of French-sounding, hard “G” Gee–Guy, the American guy.) Could not find him. Went to his home. Family was gone. No one seemed to know where, no where.

    Guy and I had once played a football game against each other together, his high school against my better high school. The Bobcats against the Clatter-Hooves. (All right, The Bobcats against the Mustangs.) We won, though he got off a tremendous punt for a high school kid.

    Flash forward. College had come and gone. Jobs, ahem, positions for me. Plans, both fulfilled and gone awry. Wife and children, the best family ever. Thoughts of guy fewer then less, neglected then forgotten.

    Enter the internet. (Pun there.) In the 1980s and 90s, you remember, the internet was more community and a communications medium. I remember that because some stuffy, weeping professor, akin in some ways I suppose, to Melinda Click, had a letter published in some computer magazine that advertised 286s and Commodore 64s, Windows 95, and also wrestled with whether we really needed more memory than eight bits. The non-profit prof pleaded with us to remember that the internet was a place of community and a communications medium. And please keep our filthy capitalism that paid our taxes and his salary, out of the community. (To me years later, his use of “community” sounded like some barricaded place where that woman and her son took Will Smith’s cure for those zombie-creatures in I Am Legend. Or the barricaded community of Pineview in Costner’s The Postman. )

    About the same time, some Phoenician–yay!–filed and won a lawsuit over whether or not we could commercially advertise on the internet. With an infusion of so much commercial cash so that research and development became profitable, the internet took off and flowered into the medium that we can now use to track our friends, much like Stalin used the KGB to track commissars who didn’t report that their wives made a few extra rubles a year selling eggs out of her back yard.

    So, now only months ago, I typed into a search bar, G-u-y, in such a way that it was last name first, first name, middle name last. (Got it wrong the first time, again. I kept getting it in wrong in ROTC. And they wanted to give me grenades and a mortar?)

    Anyway, I finished typing. And I wept. Guy, at the time a lawyer,sometime in the 80s, embezzled money from a client, sticking the funds straight into his personal bank account. (The tale was briefly spelled on in the bar association documents.)

    Sickened, I stopped. Everything. Searching for Guy became the last thing on my mind. I suppose I stopped because, though I believed I could find him, I cowered from the eventual meeting in which we would try to pretend I didn’t know what he did, and he would be distressed.

    It is still up in the air as to whether or not I will, if he’s still alive, look for him. Others of our old friends have stayed away from him. Maybe I should brave the embarrassment and moments of silence and try to see him.

    Or, maybe it’s best, perhaps, that I simply idealize, our boyhood friendship. To remember the hot summer afternoons in which we waited for the every-other-day Phoenix monsoon storm to roll in. To remember when we walked down to the Texaco for a bottle of pop out of the chilled-water pop box (that I now realize could have given us Legionnaire’s), and talked of the fine, fine girls we went to school with. Lana was the finest. Maybe I should simply leave it at the evening American Legion Baseball games we played together, when our parents took us to the Dairy Queen, win or lose, afterwards. Maybe one of the best memories I should take to the grave is that great punt, when the ball, spiralling like a rifle bullet, rose high into the air, and which we returned 60 yards, Mustangs going down in front of Bobcats like dominoes in front of a bulldozer. (Excuse the mixed metaphor.)

    Maybe I could remember that we used to mix our metaphors when we, laughing and excited, chattered of the power of Mickey Mantle, the Yankee’s infield, and the whip-like arm of Yogi Berra, when the Yankees reigned supreme and the National Football League wasn’t all that important. When we swam in the public pools or backyard pools of friends, out in the 110-plus degree weather and then went for tacos at Big G. Or, if we had 50 cents and one penny for tax, each, we could ride our bikes over to McDonald’s, the only one in the Phoenix metro area, and dine on two hamburgers, fries, and a Coke.

    Maybe that would be best.

    But Guy, bless his heart, will never be gone very far from my own heart and memory. Whatever I decide.

  9. I am so enjoying these amazing stories. Life is like that. You can take the smallest things and find something in them that is real and deep and lasting. Amazing.

  10. Love this. It’s a microcosm of what makes a story work. Based on the comments so far, some were drawn in because it resonated, taking them back in time to something from their own past. Some were drawn in because of the themes. Some to how this touches the heart. And some – this is me – by the twist ending, shocking, so sad, like a bucket of ice water thrown from the stage of an inspirational speaker (“do I have your attention NOW, kids?”).

    Well done, Jim.

  11. I can still remember the first time I saw Erin. Or, well, the first time we talked. I went to high school at one of Seattle’s most prestigious high schools, a Jesuit school that drew from parishes in and around Seattle, and prided itself on its high percentage of non Catholics attracted to its unique curriculum. It had formerly been an all boys school, and I was in only the second class that admitted girls. I was not a Catholic. I didn’t know anybody. And, it was clear to me, these students were, well…. a tad more straight laced than myself. About the second day I wound up in a conversation with Erin. She was tall, had curly brunette hair, hazel green eyes, and was wearing this really cute red and white striped knit dress. Within a few lines of conversation and innuendo we each knew that we had the two people who didn’t fit in. It was glorious. So many stories, many involving alcohol and other substances. In the first semester alone we ran into our art teacher at one of Seattle’s (still) best known taverns (and yes, we were both drinking beers, and we were only 14), we went to see the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same (her sister worked at the theatre), sat in the balcony and noticed that directly below us a man was, uh, enjoying himself, so naturally we had to drop concessions on him (did I mention we, and other theatre employees, were smoking weed in that balcony?), another time we were out downtown, wound up in a hotel, heard a rock band, and sneaked in, only to discover we had walked into a Christian conference with a Christian rock band, and, being chemically altered, nearly died of hysterical laughter. I could go on. We were best friends for life. She was like a sister to me. Even when she would piss me off, and we wouldn’t speak for a few years, the moment we started talking it was like we had never been apart. Unfortunately, as an adult she became a heroin addict (hence why she would piss me off). Several years ago she died of a heroin overdose. I think about her nearly every day. At the time of her death I wasn’t speaking to her because I knew she was actively using, but I didn’t expect her to end. I miss her dearly. I will never have another friend like that. We had so many experiences at such a formative time in our lives that can never be repeated. Erin used to talk about how we would still be besties as old ladies, and I’m sure we would have. I wish that could have been our future. We would have been formidable.

  12. I like to remember hanging out with Christy in the dirt field of our school in the evenings. It was always warm. It was Phoenix and we were in the 8th grade. We usually sat on the bleachers and talked. We didn’t drink. We smoked whatever we could buy from her neighbor for 50 cents.

  13. I loved your story and its intent. Marie was my friend in kindergarten, and remains my best friend to this day. I’m a lucky duck.
    Thank you for a lovely article. Frances

  14. I killed my best friend.

    When I was thirteen years old I worked at Brigham’s, and this boy, Michael, would come in daily to sit at my counter and flirt. He was a nice kid, with severe allergies, both food and seasonal, so he was always careful what he ate. Over the two years I worked at Brigham’s we became close friends. I even surprised him with an off-the-menu lunch that I made just for him. He gobbled it up, and a huge smile spread across his face like the cat who ate the family goldfish. Not only did I make his day, but he said he’d never forget the time and effort that went into that lunch; the time I took to make him happy. Yeah, he was a special kid.

    During those two years I often invited him to parties. Due to his condition he didn’t have many friends. We chatted on the phone; he was crushing on me big time. Though I loved all the compliments he threw my way, I thought of him more as a brother than anything else. We shared our hopes, our dreams, our plans for the future. We were quite close when it happened. My mother picked me up from Brigham’s; a somber expression crossed her face. I told her Michael didn’t come in that day. Tears pooled in her eyes, but she didn’t offer an explanation as to why.

    When we finally arrived home she sat me on the sofa and told me Michael died the night before. I had questions, so many questions. He was only a year older than me. How could he be dead? Mom’s tears shed faster as she told me he died from anaphylactic shock. I pleaded for clarification; I didn’t understand. My surprise lunch the day before included two things that Michael was highly allergic to. Whether he knew or not remains a mystery. Did he only eat it because he didn’t want to disappoint me? Or did he truly not know those foods were a no-no? I guess I’ll never know. Nonetheless, Michael has never left my heart.

  15. The crowd I ran with in junior high school was a little strange. We all were intrigued with death and the afterlife. One friend, Grey, loved to wander around the local graveyard. Sometimes, we would go together and look at headstones to find the year of birth and death. We would speculate on how they died, especially if they were young at the time. Well, one day, they whole gang was together, the two of us, Gary and Brent, Grey’s best friends, and Cathy, my best friend. Grey told us that there was this particular grave, if you drove up to it, your car would stall and the ghost of the lady would appear. Everyone scoffed at him, so he dared us to try it. Cathy was driving and we drove up to it, and guess what happened? Yep, the car stalled. Grey got out of the car and the rest of us were panicking. We didn’t see the ghost. We wondered what Grey would find. I was in the backseat when he came back to the car. His eyes went to the back of his head, and he fell into the backseat, limp, and I thought, dead. A few minutes later, he was laughing and said it was ok to leave now. We started up the car with no problem and drove off. It took me a few days to forgive him for that stunt. I got in contact with Cathy, Gary and Brent years later. I found out that Grey died in 2007 from lung cancer. He had never smoked a day in his life. It was a mystery. Much as Grey was. I will always remember him fondly though. I still love the mystery and life and death questions. Maybe that is why I became interested in writing. Thank you, Jim, for that reminder. It happened over 40 years ago.

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