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If you’re anything like me, your story sparks blow up while you’re trying to keep ahead of them.
Recently I began to write a short story for a contest I wished to enter. When I see local writing contests, I like to enter as a way of showing my support for the organization that is hosting them. The intention is never to place in the contest. I don’t have enough self-esteem to hope for that to happen. If it does, even better. But if it doesn’t–if I just happen to be one of the paying entrants whose money helps to support the continuation of the contest in the future–well, I’ve already won. I like that these writing opportunities exist.
I haven’t forgotten the thread of this post. It’s actually about the short story I penned for the writing contest. Or rather, it’s about what happened when I took on the spark of an idea that prompted that original short story. Perhaps it was the subject matter itself–the Camino de Santiago–but I doubt it. Because it happens a lot, no matter the subject matter. I begin to write one short story, and, like a horse in a race it begins to make its way to the finish line while I struggle to keep up with its frenetic pace. What happens next is typically what happens in a horse race. While the horse and I are tearing up the track, another more urgent horse comes barrelling up alongside us.
The second horse in this analogy, as you may have guessed, is another spark for a short story idea…which stemmed from the original. Do I get off the first horse and hop onto the second? Probably dangerous, right? It may kill my momentum and fizzle out the writing fire I’ve begun with the first story. If I try to jump to the second horse, I may fall and end up horseless.
Here’s where multi-tasking comes in to play. No…I don’t try to write both stories simultaneously. That’s like straddling both horses, and it’s almost always a catastrophe in my own personal experience. I DO jot down a few of the second story’s more pertinent sparky little details before I lose sight of them, though. I can do this while maintaining my pace with the first horse.
If you’ve ever been to the races, you’ll know there are very seldom (never) races which involve only TWO horses. Enter horse number three. If you’re feeling a bit of stress reading this and realizing that the Creative Spark Fairy is often a sadistic bastard, you’re not alone. I’ve known this for quite some time.
So there I was, writing my short story for the writing contest and knowing the deadline was RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER. I mean, at the stroke of midnight my time to submit it would be up. And a third horse came up alongside me. “Hi. Look at me. I’m another story!” I can’t hush these sparks. They demand attention. They insist that you juggle them. They want to be told. Our passions are monsters…they take hold of us in the best possible way. They make us better.
Maybe it’s a matter of being really good with a lasso? When I was 5ish I lassoed the family television and pulled it around the living room, so I happen to know that I am exceptional with a lasso. (Before you ask, yes I did get permission to do this prior to doing it. I’m not crazy. My parents, on the other hand, may very well have been. They should always pay attention when their most rambunctious child is asking them a question. Especially when he’s twirling a lasso over his cowboy hatted head while asking it. It’s like they never learned.) So, back to the horse analogy. I DID manage to stay on my first horse and race him to the finish line in time to complete and submit the original short story prior to the submission deadline. Yay, me! What I also managed to do was lasso the other two horses and get them to keep pace with me so that I could explore the sparks that created them in the first place.
After the first story was submitted, I hit the ground running with story number two. The thing about this particular subject matter was I can think of a hundred thousand stories that take place on the Camino. When I walked it, I met so many people from so many different countries. And I got snippets and tidbits of their stories while I walked. People open up on the Camino de Santiago. They whisper to fellow peregrinos some of their deepest most private thoughts. They share their lives.
So when I started that first story, about a woman walking the Camino in order to find a way back to who she was before she identified solely as a wife and a mother, more people came up to me from the deep well of creativity that the Camino inspires in me. I wrote about Helen and that second horse, Corinne came barrelling up and said, “Wait…I too have a story that you can tell.” And then a third horse, Richard, came up and pleaded, “No, tell my story.” And it just snowballed from there.
Images from Portomarin, Spain…a place along the Camino mentioned in the short story excerpt posted below…
Usually when this happens with a spark I do see a few projects through. But often I only use one of them. Often, it’s the original that goes out into the world. But it’s also at times the third or the fourth or the fifth story that I eventually end up using. I never consider the unused ones to be a waste of my time, though. Every spark becomes a horse race. And horse races are fun. I enjoy exploring all my options before I settle with the winning horse. And then there are the times that a subject matter possesses me so thoroughly that the topic comes up across the board in my writing life. I’ll write plays, novels, short stories and poetry from the same well. It’s the only way I know how to exhaust the well. Get all my horses to the finish line. Then and only then can I move on to the next spark that inflames my passion. This Camino race? It certainly has a lot of horses in it. I suspect this race will be off and on for the rest of my life. Its horses are strong and fierce and filled with spunk. It’s a horse race without a finish line. And I’m good with that. I have to be. I’m a peregrino.
An excerpt from my 2nd Camino short story…
Just a moment more in the shade to re-energize, Corinne thinks to herself. Just one moment more. That’s all I need. She runs her beads through her fingers. She no longer expects miracles, but, all the same, she is put at ease by the mere physicality of the ritual. The prayers and faith had abandoned Corinne days ago, but the impulse to wind her rosary through her fingers remains.
She sits still for a moment and contemplates everything she has left behind in Canada. She knows it will all still be there, awaiting her return. Like prey waiting to pounce, she thinks. She wipes her tears with the purple hiking scarf she has kept around her neck for most of her journey, and then she prepares to get back on her feet and continue the morning’s walk.
Just walk, just walk, Corinne thinks. The two words have become her everything during the most difficult moments of her journey. It has been therapeutic to repeat them over and over again whenever she begins to think of nothing but giving up. These words are her new prayer. Just walk. Just walk. How easy it would be to stop walking, take a bus or a cab to the nearest airport and escape back to Canada. How utterly easy.
Or maybe she could end her Camino in a cab, take it all the way to Santiago de Compostela. Like a thief and a cheat. Corinne has thought of this scenario many times, even in her sleep as her body tosses and turns restlessly on those horrid albergue beds. She has often awoken with escape in her heart.
Sometimes it’s the mere thought of giving up that drives Corinne’s forward momentum towards Santiago. And at other times she simply considers herself insane and wonders why she doesn’t throw in the towel. Since Ponferrada, it’s been the only thing she has wanted to do. Stop walking.
And yet, since Ponferrada she’s known she’s been so very close to her goal. Every day, closer. Just walk. Just walk.
Corinne stands. She puts her beads into the breast pocket of her windbreaker and harnesses her backpack onto her shoulders. As she tightens the strap across her belly, she waves to two fellow peregrinos who pass by the bistro table at which she has been sitting. The café is in a perfect location, just outside of town at the very apex of a steep and treacherous hill. Pilgrims are almost certain to stop here. And when they stop, there’s always café con leche to comfort them. Having finished hers long ago, Corinne has only been delaying the inevitable.
Another peregrino passes as she adjusts her backpack. “Buen Camino,” comes the oft-repeated refrain from the weary traveller who clearly shows exhaustion from his completion of the steep climb.
“Buen Camino,” she replies. At first she found this greeting a strange thing to say. It hadn’t come natural from her lips. But after so many days on the Camino—weeks—it now comes without thought. It’s her new ‘hello’. You see a fellow pilgrim, you say it come what may. Morning, noon, and night. Wherever you may be. “Buen Camino.” It sometimes serves as the entire conversation between two passing ships. It says very little, and it says everything all at once.
Corinne stretches her weary limbs, feeling the ache of exhaustion in all of them.
“Well, St. James, prepare to meet this old girl in a couple of days. Let’s continue this fight to stay on our feet, shall we?” As she whispers the challenge to herself, she pushes her chair in, scritching the pads along the cobbles as she does so.
Corinne enters the sunlight beyond her protective tree cover. As she does this, a shadow crosses over her. She looks down at the cobbles and notices a man’s bare feet walk past her sightline. She looks up just as the man turns his head in her direction.
“Buen Camino,” she says. The man’s face lights up, as though hers was the first voice he has heard all morning. He seems too refreshed to have just made the trip up the hill. There is no huffing and puffing coming from him as it came from the others. She returns the smile that had instantly blossomed on his face.
“Buen Camino,” he says.
As she picks her walking stick up from the table, the man motions with a flick of his head for her to join him. “Going this way, Madame?” he asks, pointing to the road before them. He speaks with a French accent. Everyone on the Camino has an accent of some kind.
“Aren’t we all?” Corrine says as she laughs a little and falls into stride with this new peregrino stranger. She wonders, not for the first time, at how easy it is to instantly begin conversations out here on The Way. No introductions are ever necessary. She feels as though she were somehow having one long—endless—conversation with a never-ending stream of strangers.
“All of us who have been lucky enough to be called, yes?” the man says. “We are so fortunate, no?” He turns and offers her a smile filled with bright white teeth and dimples. His face is a road-map of fine wrinkles that seem to spread away from the corners of his mouth. He has a kind face. She smiles back.
Corinne does not feel the same sentiment. Not now, anyway. Her feet scream defiance with every step and in the back of her mind she still plays out her alternate plans to finish the Camino in a car. She imagines herself falling into the backseat of a cab, even as she says, “Yes. We are certainly blessed to be here.”
The man stops walking and extends his hand to her. Corinne halts and takes the proffered hand in her own, shaking it. After letting go, she can still feel his remarkable heat warming her palm.
“Jesse,” he says. “From Toulouse. France.”
She immediately knows this stranger. Marta, whom she had walked with from somewhere around Burgos to almost all the way to León, had mentioned Jesse numerous times. She had, in fact, sang his praises as though he were a prophet. Corinne tingles from the closeness of the calming vibes coming off the man. It’s just as Marta had described it.
“Corrine. From Huntsville. I mean, Canada.”
It is as though his unheard voice had echoed in her head ever since Marta had told her about him. At the time, she had taken Marta for either a liar or fool or a dreamer, or all three. Corinne knows the heightened sense of wonder and awareness on the Camino turns every little story or experience into something more grandiose and wondrous than it actually is. But maybe this time Marta had been on the mark.
“Canada. It’s beautiful.”
“I like it,” she says. Now she couldn’t help but smile. They walk in silence for several minutes. Another lovely thing about the Camino, she thinks, strangers can be silent without it being awkward.
“My friend Marta mentioned you. She said you spent an evening together in Pamplona, that you had a feast with a large group of people. She said you held court. She spoke very highly of you.”
“Marta is too kind.”
Corinne catches the slight blush that raises in Jesse’s cheeks.
“It was a fun night. I remember it well. We were filled with the wine and philosophy that night. The moon, Corinne, it was so full. It made madness in the piazza that night. Excitement. Electricity, no? It may have brought with it the dance, even. Or perhaps the dance came with the red of the wine and not with the shine of the moon?”
She tries to estimate his age. Surely he can’t be younger than seventy. But she remembers that Marta had told her he had walked the Camino three times. That this was his fourth time in only two years.
“There have been many magical nights on The Way, Jesse. Nothing ever surprises me anymore.”
“It is almost done now, though, Corinne,” Jesse says as they continue on. She wonders at his bare feet and makes a mental note to ask him about his reasons for walking without shoes. She wants to know if there is a pair of shoes tucked inside his backpack, just in case. “Where from will you get your magic after Compostela?”
“That’s a very good question, Jesse,” Corinne says. “Today, I’ve been wondering if I even have enough magic to finish the walk.”
“No. Do not say this. We are so close, now. It would be a shame. Today—soon—we will hit Portomarin. You do not want to miss that bridge, that staircase. It is a place of beauty to walk into. Keep walking. I promise you a picnic at the top of the world today. Just outside Porto.”
“Believe me, that’s exactly what I’ve been telling myself non-stop. Just walk, just walk. It’s getting harder every day, even though I can almost see the finish line now. A picnic, though. This sounds promising.”
They fall back into silence, with nothing but the click, click, clack of their walking sticks and the muffled voices of strangers about them carrying on their own conversations. Corinne stretchs her shoulders as she walks, relieved that her pack has begun to feel a little lighter since her refresher back at the café. Perhaps her feet do not hurt as much. She appreciates the company of the new stranger, a distraction from the despair she has been sinking down into for the duration of the morning.
“Do you believe in The Way of St. James, madame?” Jesse says after the two walk in relative silence for a number of miles.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Corinne says, perplexed by the question.
“Wait. Don’t talk. Stop.”
She stops. Jesse puts a finger to his lips to silence her before she is able to ask why. The stillness from the absence of the clicking of their walking sticks almost deafens.
“We will walk around this corner and the bridge to Portomarin will come into view. And downhill we will go, Corinne. The vista, it will be like magic. Prepare to meet the wonder.”
She smiles at Jesse and wonders when he will allow them to resume walking. It seems a pause is necessary, though. She fears the build up will be too much, that she will feel let down when they finally continue on around the corner.
“We begin,” Jesse all but whispers, bringing a solemnity into the moment. “We’re off to see the wizard, no?”
Corinne smiles. She is more than familiar with the Wizard of Oz analogy repeatedly discussed along the Camino de Santiago. The yellow arrows taking the place of the yellow brick road. The apostle James taking the place of the wizard. If I only had the nerve, she thinks.
They click onward. When they make the corner and the bridge and the water and the town beyond come into view, Corinne gasps. The beauty is more than she had anticipated.
“It’s so…Jesse, it’s gorgeous.”
“Is it not beautiful?” Jesse says. “Come. It is downhill from here. And a bit of a zig and a zag. It’s further than it looks, though.”
“I believe in The Way of St. James,” Corinne says. She cannot help but feel lifted while taking in this new vista. So much beauty on the path. She has long suspected beauty to be the thing that has kept her walking when every bone and muscle in her body has begged her to stop.
“Ah, but you have missed my meaning in the question, Corinne.” Jesse says. “I can see with my eyes that you believe in beauty, yes? What I wanted to know is if you believe you are walking towards the apostle of Jesus. They say St. James is buried at the cathedral in Camino de Compostela. Are you walking for the apostle?”
Corinne still, after all of this time, does not know how to answer Jesse’s question. Instead of rambling through the confused and confusing state of her faith, she pulls the beads from her breast pocket and shakes them for emphasis.
Jesse smiles. Corinne shrugs and returns the rosary to her pocket. The two peregrinos continue down the steep incline toward Portomarin.
“So you are a believer?” Jesse says. Corinne can tell he will not allow the beads to stand as her answer to his question. “And The Way is a religious experience for you, madame?”
“Oh, Jesse,” Corinne says. “Marta told me about your talks that night. I should have known you would suss out the truth from me. Eventually.”
She laughs, and to his credit Jesse joins in on the laughter.
“I don’t know when or where I started to lose it,” Corinne says. “My faith, that is. And I can rub these beads as much as I want, it’s not bringing me any closer to the faith I let go of, Jesse.”
“Perhaps this is why you walk the Camino, no?”
“Maybe?” she says. “I’m willing to leave it open for now. I’m not sure I know the reason, but I don’t think it’s required. Granted, I thought it may have started to dawn on me by now. I’m winding down, right. Not much further to go. And not a single epiphany.”
“Perhaps you need to check in at Santiago and ask yourself, Finisterre? At the end of the world, you may find yourself. And with yourself revealed, faith restored. No?”
“You make it sound so simple, Jesse,” Corinne says. “Alas, I’m not sure that’s how it works.”
“Mmmm. Maybe, madame. Maybe. Maybe faith is easy and to deny it is difficult.”
They walk on in silence. The click click click of their sticks echoes in the near-tunnel in which they pass, made by the overlapping tree canopy that temporarily shelters them from the incredible view. Corinne indulges her sudden compulsion to touch the breast pocket that harbours her well-worn beads, and she feels comforted to know they are still with her.
“There are many reasons to walk the Camino,” Jesse says. They finally break free of the branches that had shielded them from the approaching vignette. The bridge is far closer than it had been the last time she had spotted it. “One need not have faith to walk The Way.”
“Oh, I know that, Jesse,” she says. “I met a man just this side of León who said the Camino was his weight loss plan.”
“He did not study the Camino beforehand, no?” Jesse says. They both laugh at this. “So much rich food and wine on the Camino. It is hard to say no.”
“He told me he came to a conclusion and that he wanted to re-brand it the Food and Wine Tour of Spain. It would throw off less people that way.”
“He has his point.”
“Buen Camino.” They have slowed down on the incline and now a couple passes them by, both greeting them as they pass.
“Buen Camino,” Jesse and Corinne say in unison.
“Portomarin,” the man says, raising a walking stick above his head. His partner looks back at Corinne and smiles.
“He is a little excited. We heard good things about the pizza here,” the woman says.
“Enjoy,” Corinne says as the couple motors past them. The woman waves and they are soon gone, lost to another zag in the road.
“I don’t think they know of the hill at the top of the world we must walk after we go through the town. Their pizza will be the rock that slows them down on that hill, Corinne. Come with me to the shops and we will pick out the best bits for a picnic after our climb.”
“Marta told me you have done the Camino before. I suppose you know all the secrets along the way by now?”
“A good many of them, my friend. I know the best place to picnic in all the journey. Perhaps in all the world.” He winks at Corinne. “Come with me. I will show you the way.”
“You haven’t steered me wrong yet.”
TO BE CONTINUED ANOTHER DAY…