All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
by Cathy Bell
I only met James last December. Not long ago in the scheme of a life, but long enough to develop the kind of friendship where you skip the small talk and delve into the heart. And James had a lot of heart. Everyone who had a class or conversation with him, knows what I know—he was a thoughtful, kind, conscientious, deep-thinking man (and a little quirky, too).
James dedicated most of his retired life to writing his book White Fire in a Dark Sky, a beautiful and haunting exploration of how seeing his first total solar eclipse changed his life. It’s a story of a young science teacher on a mission to understand the feeling of impending doom during the eclipse, and the rigid, methodological way in which he went about solving the metaphysical mystery. He eventually realizes that science isn’t the only way to go about solving the unknown and begins discovering, or maybe re-discovering, the spiritual side of life. In the end, he said, he finds himself. James spent his life chasing total solar eclipses across the world and wrote it all down. I only had the privilege of reading the first six or so chapters, but I had looked forward to reading it all and buying the book someday. I guess we won’t know, now, how the story ended.
Exchanging memoir excerpts in workshop propels writers into each other’s lives, hearts, and heads. Even so, James made it even easier to bond with him. At the conclusion of my first class with James, he wrote to all of us:
I felt an unusual degree of trust with all of you. Everyone not only showed up on the page, you showed up on the couch (or in Richard’s case, a chair.) I had put some radically personal material into the pieces I gave you to read. I had never spoken about many of the incidents in the chapters you read and was worried about the appropriateness. Fortunately, the class responded with sensitivity and encouragement. After reading your responses, I remembered that I had a file of old correspondence—and this will surprise no one—I had saved a dozen letters, going back over 30 years, actual real life artifacts. Without your encouragement, I wouldn’t have dug out those old letters.
James was excited, engaged, and appreciative. And his kind nature was ever-present. After he died, I re-read many of his emails and ran across a postscript that summed up his caring nature. I hadn’t been feeling well in workshop one night and a few days later he wrote:
PS. You looked kinda bedraggled and out of your usual spritely form the night of our last class. I wanted to fix you a cup of hot tea and read you a story. Hope you’re back on full stride now.
How can you not love someone who wants to make you tea and read you a story? And he was always trying to build up my confidence, not only in my writing, but in my critiques. I’ve always been a bit insecure that my suggestions or comments aren’t as deep and insightful as others in class, and James made it a point to tell me (more than once) that he loved my comments and always re-read them. He said they were perfect. He built me up as I’m sure he did for countless others.
James spent 40 hours a week or more on writing. He read every craft book he could get his hands on, studied other writers (mimicking their techniques), did writing exercises to mine his memories and experiences, wrote and rewrote his novel, and spent hours and hours critiquing his fellow writers’ work (in addition to comments, he’d make color-coded tables, include quotes or examples from other writers, and anything else he could think of to help a person be better). I had to remind myself often that James was retired, and I was not. Otherwise, I’d feel guilty that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.
Our last workshop together ended in May of this year. James was on a roll, trying to finish his memoir rewrite before December (his self-imposed deadline), and invited me over to exchange work. He met me outside of his townhome in the Cherry Creek neighborhood. As we walked to the front door, James pointed out the miniature rose he’d planted in a pot on the porch. I was impressed with his home: high ceilings, tasteful furniture and décor—not what I’d expect for a bachelor (although he did say having someone over was a good reason to clean). On the dining table, a wooden-block replica of Stonehenge was laid out, the “stones” all perfectly spaced and erect. He explained how a friend of his made the miniature to scale, so that he and James could do a talk on the sun and moon alignments. I just softly shook my head in awe of all of his passions and projects as he explained the details of the solstice alignment.
The world lit up when James spoke of his beloved astronomy and science. But as scientific as James was, he also loved the metaphysical mysteries of the world, and even though we didn’t discuss it at great length, I know it was one of the reasons we bonded. He knew I believed a lot of the things he believed and perhaps we knew we were in safe, non-judging hands with each other.
For our mini-workshop, James had a spread of good food for us, hummus, vegetables, cheese and crackers, but my favorite was the plate of strawberries (green tops cut off) with a neat pile of sugar in the middle to dip them in. What should have been an hour-and-a-half session easily turned into four hours of deep conversation. Talking with James was easy. In many ways he was a teacher to me, as well as a friend and fellow writer—and I liked the role of student, soaking up everything he told me. I absorbed his way of being because it was so different from my own. He knew about, and pondered everything! Religion, science, psychology, philosophy, music, writing, acting… There was no end to what he found fascinating and knowing him just made the world seem bigger.
The last time I saw James was in July—the day before he left for the Grand Lake Retreat. He had just gotten a “plus one” membership to the Botanic Gardens and wanted to meet there to discuss our Lit Fest lessons. Over lunch, on the outdoor patio, James, casually dressed in his red Hawaiian shirt with a missing button, walked me through an exercise he learned in a craft class. He pulled out the stones from his pockets that he’d written about during the exercise and explained what they were and the traits the stones had—centering, calming, and so on. He said he would put one of the stones on his desk while he wrote sometimes.
After we ate our sandwiches, we meandered through the bonsai garden and he told me about the newest book he was reading: From Where you Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. And later, as we sat on a bench looking out over the lily ponds, James told me the story of one of his elderly memoir students. She had been hidden away from the Nazis at a boarding school for several years during World War II. When her parents finally made it to the U.S., they sent for her. The teenaged girl was quarantined for days on Ellis Island and was only able to wave at her father through the fence on the first day. It would be days before they could actually embrace her father and mother. We spoke of how important it is to get those stories down on paper.
James and I would have sat there forever had the rain not started. First came the sprinkles. We moved to a bench under a tree. Then a crazy, strong wind came from nowhere, leaves and dust flying in all directions, and then, left just as quickly. I told James, “That was so weird! It was like a little tornado.”
“Actually, that was a microburst. It’s a column of descending air that blows out when it gets closer to the ground.” James explained the ins and outs of a microburst to me in detail. I thought, I bet he was a great teacher, and then I smiled because there was always a science lesson involved when hanging out with James. His excitement was contagious, though, and he made me want to know everything about the natural world and its mysteries. Soon the microburst led to more rain. We agreed to leave and hurried back to the main gate. Just as we were about to cross the street to the parking lot, the sky opened up and we were drenched. We decided to run for James’s car and then he would drive me to mine.
As I got into his car, James started throwing all the trash in the seat onto the floor. I was stunned. The Type-A guy I knew, with a clean house and color-coded excel spreadsheets, wouldn’t have a dusty, trash-filled car, but alas, he did. I laughed. It was perfect. A good reminder not to stereotype people. And besides, my car was always in an embarrassing state as well, so I could relate.
As the windshield wipers frantically tried keeping up with rain, James pulled in next to my car. We couldn’t stop talking. The windows fogged. I told him we had to go easy on ourselves about the writing. Even when we aren’t writing, we are absorbing, learning, seeing things anew. A metaphor Jason Heller used in a craft class came to mind and I shared it with James; everything we are reading, and seeing, and talking about is working in the subconscious. Things are composting, heating up, breaking down, becoming nutrients for other things. We are working on our craft even when we are sleeping, so we should relax a little and feel good that all the effort does pay off even if we aren’t aware of how it all happens. I think I just said all of that to relieve the pressure I put on myself for not living up to James’s productivity, i.e., I’m not reading enough books, making any spreadsheets, doing enough writing exercises. James seemed content with the amount of work he had ahead of himself and he was going to finish his book on time.
Even though he didn’t need my speech, he smiled and said I had a good point. We noticed the rain stopped when the wipers started squeaking against the glass. The sun came out. We hugged. And then we said good-bye.
After I heard that James had died, the first thought in my head (when I was able to have a thought in my head) was of his townhome sitting empty. His computer shut off, holding his story, the file cabinets full of notes and old letters, charts and timelines—a book called White Fire in a Dark Sky that would never see the store shelves where it was meant to be. But when I calmed down, I thought what a better way to spend your life than living out your passions every day until the end. No matter how sad we all feel, what comforts me is knowing that James is okay with how it all turned out. He’d say there was a reason for it—lessons to be learned, perhaps even a synchronicity in how it all happened. He’d laugh and say “It’s more beautiful over here than Botanic Gardens and I’m happy!” Maybe he’s picking the brains of every great writer that ever lived. Rubbing elbows with Hemingway, no doubt.
And later that night as I sat on the bench under my apple tree, reliving all the last moments I had with James, I didn’t know, sitting there in his car, talking about writing, that it would be the last time I saw him, or hugged him, or reveled in his great mind and heart. But then I thought, what a perfect last day to have with him: lily pads and flowers floating on the dark water, thousand year old bonsai plants, microbursts and pouring rain, foggy car windows and the dream of getting our stories out into the world. And I decided: it couldn’t have been more perfect.
To hear the recorded version of Jim Downing’s Draft Reading, click here.