2.29 The Walking Man

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my attendance at the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop. I didn’t plan it this way (honestly), but I recently finished writing the novel I brought to the workshop called The Walking Man. I was content with myself for about an hour. I started out working in film and television. Wrote screenplays for myself to produce, that way, I didn’t have to worry about explaining anything to another professional. Except actors, of course, but they seemed to have understood. The one consistent thing in my life has been writing, not in any formal way, but it was always just there. One day, I started writing something different than a screenplay – it was the start of a story. The next day, I wrote some more and so on. I kept writing and finished a novel called Dreams of Being a Kiwi. No one will ever read this book. It makes a great doorstop.

But I enjoyed the experience. Another idea for another book popped into my head. I figured I had learned a great deal from writing Kiwi and was ready to dive headfirst into another project. One about a man on an extended walk.

In the entries about my Humber experience, I spoke about my teacher at the workshop, Wayson Choy, author of The Jade Peony, Paper Shadows, All That Matters and Not Yet. It is difficult to speak about such experiences without lapsing into an earnest display of statements such as, “It changed my life!” I believe that sometimes, when the stars align, every once in a while, a teacher drops into your life at precisely the right time you need them. Wayson was not only encouraging of my writing and The Walking Man, but inspired me as an individual. He motivated me to not only become a better writer, but a more compassionate person.

Doug Sole has not left The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and Condominium Complex for ten years. He works as a member of the custodial staff at The Lighthouse and lives in the condo building. The centre is connected via a series of pedestrian tunnels and there is no need to traverse outside.

Before I went to the Humber workshop, I was halfway through The Walking Man. As I said, Wayson was encouraging of the writing, but felt it could be better. After the workshop, I went back to the beginning. Reworked, reshaped, reedited. After a few months, I continued to feel more and more confident about the book. But something was still not right.

Ten years ago, Doug suffered the tragedy of losing his wife during childbirth. He decided to give his daughter up for adoption. Shortly after, he moved into the vacant condo next door to his 87-year-old feisty mother Margaret. She has one arm, chain-smokes, uses her four-pronged cane as a WMD, enjoys her gin and tonics and loves professional wrestling.

The main character of the novel, Doug Sole, lived next door to his mother Margaret Caulfield. During the first few drafts, Margaret was in the book for a few pages. But they were fun pages. Through subsequent drafts, she continued to elbow her way on to more pages until I finally gave in. Her character in the book is tough and even though I was the writer, she managed to wrangle me. Margaret is very loosely based on an image of my grandmother. But beyond certain physical attributes, she has become her own fully realized character. Margaret was right. The initial story might have been about Doug, but in the end, I couldn’t tell his story without telling hers.

Then I met Margaret.

I was cleaning my clothes at a laundry mat. I talked on the phone using headphones, something I rarely do in public. The only other people in the laundry mat were an old couple. The old man came up to me and asked if I knew of a dry cleaning service in the neighbourhood. I shrugged. Went on talking into my headphones. Finished my phone call. The old woman was still in the laundry mat. She tapped me on the should, said, “Excuse me, I know it’s rude, but I was listening to the story you were telling. Have you ever thought of being a writer?” At a loss, I nodded my head. She continued, “That’s good.” And she walked away, out of the laundry mat and down the street, limping as she leaned on her cane.

The adopted parents of Doug’s daughter contact him. She has fallen ill and they ask for some blood work from him. This simple point of contact initiates a pilgrimage. Doug decides to walk to see his daughter, believing his steps will empower her.

Margaret expanded the scope of Doug’s story. But once he was on the road, Margaret was left back at The Lighthouse. I was on my own walk one day trying to figure all this out when an old woman in one of those old woman scooters zipped by. Instantly, I saw in my head Margaret joining Doug on his pilgrimage, the two of them walking and rolling down the highway.

Doug maneuvers through the city during a blackout. He is confronted with having to cross the lake when an abandoned canoe knocks its way along the docks. A parade is improvised down the main street of a small town. Doug falls in with a psychotic band of pre-Enlightenment reenactors, suffers a case of mistaken identity in a cult and eventually is visited by the ghost of his dead wife.

With Doug and Margaret on the road together, the story – and the writing – developed quickly. After a few months, another problem emerged, one that I cannot talk about here because it will spoil the story. Generally speaking, I had to move through some realizations about the characters, the story and my own life before I could make it to the end.

Margaret senses her son is in trouble. She tracks him down on the road, and together they continue on this journey. On the open road, they explore their pasts, share secrets and get to know each other more deeply than ever before. There is never a dull day with Margaret as a traveling companion and they make their way across highways, heading south to New York City – always south – and to the inevitable conclusion.

The Walking Man is essentially about storytelling. Sharing, experiencing, exploring. What I have discovered is that writing is an act of communication. An opportunity to reach across geography. Create images. Tap into my own beliefs and perhaps transform them into something accessible. Universal.

To some, the progress in technology, such as ereaders and iPads, has signaled the death of the novel. This death has been reported and announced many times. But the novel just won’t stay dead. I believe that this is an exciting time to be a writer. The opportunities to find a specific audience are numerous.

You may have noticed I have been posting stories about the crazy characters that work and live in The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and Condominium Complex. The Walking Man begins in The Lighthouse and most of these characters pop in for a limited amount of time. The Walking Man is Doug and Margaret’s story and I didn’t want to shift attention off them for too long. I found myself wondering about these other people and what their lives were like outside of the novel. The blog format allows me to expand the vision of the novel, focus on these other people and tell their stories. The Lighthouse Series is connected to The Walking Man, but also, exists outside of it. In a sense, the book is a hub and the concept is to continually grow spokes in a variety of directions and across different mediums.

This is one example of my approach to this new age of writing. A book can be infinite, continually explored and new details presented of the world that exists beyond the covers. I look forward to developing this universe exponentially and through a variety of means. And so, on to new projects and new books – they are in the works, my brain just cannot stay still. The novel might be written, but there is still a long way to go in terms of publication. Stay tuned for updates about The Walking Man and The Lighthouse universe.