“I decided to first go to the Sawtooths, to begin the hard goodbye at what was our starting place. The place where we’d become a couple.” Gary Ferguson, The Carry Home
Because Gary Ferguson is a master writer and craftsman, twenty-three books to his name; because his writing reaches heights toward which I aspire; because I learned new craft techniques in a writing workshop he taught on the Zumwalt Prairie last year; and because his newly released book is at the top of my reading pile, I am writing about The Carry Home.
That’s a long sentence. There was a time when it would have been vetoed based on length alone. Gary Ferguson breaks all the rules he and I were taught back in grammar school fifty years ago. He uses fragments. He starts sentences with conjunctions and prepositions. Some sentences are long, some absurdly short. Combined, these techniques set the pace for the story he unveils—that of losing his wife of twenty-five years in a canoeing accident on the Kopka River—and the experiences that follow as he carries her ashes to five significant wild places, a request she made a decade before—and, oddly, repeated days before—she died.
I love fragments. And dashes. I love rivers, boating and floating. I have not been in a twenty-five year marriage, or even a fifteen-year one, though the sum of my marriages nears the latter. In this lifetime, experiencing a good, lengthy marriage will come to me only through story (I’m predicting, though I suppose there’s still time). What I have in common with Gary, then, are fragments. And rivers.
So what is it exactly that draws me into this love story? This tragedy? How does a writer make such a tragic and wrong thing as the sudden, dramatic death of a loved one bearable for a reader? And then—incredibly—inspiring?
As with his grammatical structure and rule breaking, Gary’s sentences are surprising. They hold poetry and wisdom, and therefore my interest. But—and this is key—not every sentence is as rich as the last or the next, because, like fly-fishing, like doing groundwork in a round corral with my recently adopted mustang, writing is a dance of pressure and release.
Cast. Draw the reader in. Add intensity. Release.
The release is as crucial as the draw and the pressure. I know this from working with horses. I know it intuitively in my essays and stories. I don’t know how to do it with a book-length manuscript. I didn’t have a way to talk about it until working with Gary last summer.
The Carry Home is not just love story, or the story of loss and grief and recovery. Those are the pressure points. The action. The showing of showing and telling. All those years of this fundamental rule of creative writing, show don’t tell, which works fine in a short piece, Gary blasted apart for me in the narrow shade of a ranch house last summer, telling me, telling us that the summary is as important as the scene. Show and tell (like in grade school, remember?)—another rule broken.
The scene is the cast and the draw, the place where I step toward my horse’s girth to push him forward, my body and movement the pressure. When I shrink in posture and step back, releasing the pressure, the big mustang slows, stops, breathes deeply, relaxes. The reader needs a break in intensity, as well; the reader needs to breathe.
Too long, and the horse becomes distracted. The reader has a phone call to make. The cutthroat swims away. I step toward the flank, applying pressure; the mustang’s inside eye on me, he moves off again, as he is supposed to. Fly on the water, the trout strikes. The reader does not put the book down. She is fully in the rhythm of the dance.
Scene and summary. Show and tell. Move, and rest. Gary’s action is the accident in which his beloved wife drowns, the events leading up to it, his recovery from his broken leg, his journeys into the wilderness with Jane’s ashes, where he recovers from a broken heart. The resting places for the reader’s torn emotions are the summaries in which we learn of childhood thoughts, observations, and events, these told from the perspective of the adult. And we learn the history of this couple. While informative and engaging, this backstory is for the most part not wrenching. This is when I walk to the mustang’s shoulder, rub his withers, his neck. But comfort can also become pressure—how long does he have to stand there with me at his side, how long before the reader wants something else to happen? So, something else must happen.
Gary’s something else is part of his surprise. Subtly, craftily, he weaves the environment into the tale. Climate change happens slowly—we think it’s kids climbing trees or playing in the hedgerows of Indiana’s farming fields, and then it’s poisoned rivers and melting glaciers. And yet these scenarios are offered lightly—not lightheartedly but light-handedly—as they are not so much shown as told.
I step back from the horse; the mustang slows, stops. Sure that the deep brown well of his eye is on me, I take another step back. His head turns to follow me, then a shoulder, as he steps toward me, as I step back. I test the connection—Gary mentions his wife—and when I’m sure it’s there I step to the right, then left, and the mustang follows. This is the best part of the dance—he has hooked on. I have hooked on—I cannot put the book down.
Show and tell. Scene and summary. Pressure and release. Catch and release. It’s in the wrist, the body, the craft, the dance. I had the intuition; Gary offered the explanation: Give the reader a chance to breathe. He told me this in a workshop held in the prairie grasses of eastern Oregon last summer, and he shows me on every page, in every paragraph of The Carry Home. In every fragment of his fractured and healing heart.