Wild Words . . . Photos & Fine Art

Co-creating by heart with sandy cathcart through writers helps and art info, focusing on all things wild.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Talk About Wild (Part 2)

Remember Charlie, the Native American street person I talked about in my last post? I hadn’t prayed for or thought about him in a very long while until I saw the street person in the black cape. Thinking of Charlie, I started praying for him. It was a short mile between the time I started praying and the time I arrived at Pacific Bible College to teach my writing class.

Lynn Ludwick is my co-teacher. She started the class with a grammar lesson while I stood on the other side of the rolling blackboard getting ready for my presentation. Twenty minutes later, I stepped from behind the blackboard and was shocked to see a street person sitting in the midst of our twenty students on the other side of the room.

Lynn was still talking, so I quietly made my way to the street person’s side, expecting to ask him to leave.

Goodness! As I got closer, it looked an awful lot like Charlie . . . but not like the Charlie I used to know. This was a shell of the clean, good-looking Native American I last saw dancing in the middle of the highway at midnight. This Charlie was hunched over with skin toughened and blackened more from living in the elements than from genetics.

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are you Charlie?”

He looked up and smiled. What teeth he had left were nearly as black as his skin. “Yeah.”

As soon as he smiled and I heard his voice, I knew . . . it was Charlie. “I used to know you,” I said.

He looked a little closer and smiled even broader. “Yeah. I remember you.”

I gave him a hug and straightened. How could I ask him to leave when I had just prayed for him and now here he was? Stepping away I noticed his trademark black felt hat with an eagle feather sitting on the counter. He had taken the time and effort to come in as much of a gentleman as possible.

Every student in the room followed me with their eyes while I returned to the front of the room. “I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine,” I said.

Every eye raised in a question mark as they turned to Charlie. I knew they were thinking I had some mighty strange friends. Well, so be it. One student tried to hide a fit of giggles. Another scooted her chair closer to the wall and away from Charlie. Yet another took on a fit of coughing.

Ignoring them all, I turned to Dan. “Charlie is the one I told you about last week,” I said, hoping he would catch my hint without me saying more. He didn’t. Last week, Dan had shared his idea for a knockout story involving a street person, and I told him that I used to know one. Now, the street person was here! What better moment of research could present itself? Dan’s eyes were wide as he looked from me to Charlie. No way was he going to interview this street person.

I excuse Dan for that, because he’s just starting out as a writer and everything can be a bit overwhelming at the start, but he missed a fabulous opportunity to get into a street person’s head and learn firsthand about life lived beneath a bridge. What better way to learn a street person’s motives than to actually talk with them?

I suspect lots of opportunities present themselves to us that we miss because we’re either too busy in our own world or fear holds us back.

I read an article a while back about some pretty amazing things that writers did to get their stories. One woman posed as a man for nearly a year. She was so traumatized at the end of that year, that she signed up for counseling. Another took a menial job and forced herself to live on her meager income. Both authors paid a heavy price, but they knew their subjects firsthand.

I’m not saying all of us writers need to get that deep, but I am saying that we need to get deeper than what most of us do when it comes to understanding what motivates characters. Characters are fictional people. People are characters. I’ve met a lot of characters by taking advantage of some rare circumstances and making an effort to be friendly. Most people open up pretty well when they know someone cares about them.

So, here’s the challenge. What character will you find this week? They’re all around you. Pick one.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Talk about Wild! (Part I)

On my way to teach class at Pacific Bible College this week, I passed a street person who totally intrigued me. He was sitting on a stone bench, dressed in a long black cape that he held open around him as if making a small room for himself. I slowed my Explorer while traffic whipped by me.

The man’s head was bent, his long black hair stringing behind him. I wanted to stop and ask him what had bent his head like that—what weight had left him on the street.

My camera bag sat in the seat next to me. I could take a photo and paint that man and let the world know there’s danger out there . . . but not danger from the man . . . from whatever had placed him on the street in the first place.

I didn’t stop, because it would have given my husband, Cat, a heart attack. I used to stop. I used to talk with people like that. I still do, but only when someone is with me or I’m in a safer place than a storm-blackened night in the worst part of town.

It made me think of Charlie.

For twelve years, my friend, Julie, and I volunteered in the county jail. Neither of us had any kind of counseling degree, but both of us had a heart for people who were down and out. Mine came from having someone very close to me ending up suicidal in jail during the middle of the week. Policy kept me from being able to visit him until the weekend. I prayed my heart out and contacted the jail and pleaded, but they were relentless. Finally, I grabbed a police friend who had the clearance to visit the jail and give my loved one direction and hope.

Soon after, I applied for and received the same clearance.

During those years, Julie and I reached out to a lot of women and a few men, but Charlie is one neither of us will ever forget.

Julie found Charlie on the street, dying of an abscessed tooth. She hauled him to the hospital where they saved his life, but then he needed a place to heal following his hospital stay. Julie took him home. He cleaned up, got off booze, gave his life to God, and went to work at our church doing landscape. He was a handsome, intelligent, and charming Native American, looking as if he stepped out of the pages of the magazine, Cowboys and Indians.

After staying clean, inside and out, for a couple of years, he ended up back on the street.

I’ll never forget the night I saw him in the middle of the road, staggering aimlessly. I begged God to help him, to please release him from the terrible weight that threatened to obliterate him entirely.

I’ll tell you more of the story in a couple of days. It has a surprising end. At least, it was a surprise to me.

For now, I’d like to talk with you writers and artists on a personal level.

(1) Do you really “see” people? Not just the ones you know . . . but all kinds of people? Or do you dismiss the ones who look or dress differently from yourself?

(2) Do you have a heart for people? Do you care about what happened in their lives? What joys and sorrows brought them to their present circumstances?

Looking deeper, below the surface, whether through interview or imagination, will bring life to both your writing and your painting. Instead of cardboard characters or copies of photos, you’ll have characters that appeal to the deepest senses of your readers, and your paintings will draw emotion from your viewers.

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received as a writer and painter, is being able to view the world from a little less selfish perspective. I’m always asking the questions, “Why?” and “What if?”

Try it. See what new characters or subjects you’ll come up with this week.