Jack English at his cabin near Big Sur. 
Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times.

Jack English at his cabin near Big Sur. Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times.

My first memory of reading something by Tom Curwen is like one of those dreams where you wake up and you want to hold onto it, but it slips away and you’re left wondering if it ever happened.

In this dream, it’s 2004 and I’m reading the Outdoors section of the Los Angeles Times. (Readers, I am not an Outdoors section kind of person.) And the other weird thing about the dream is that the story  is about poetry. OK, it was poetry about the mountains of the West, so it qualified as outdoorsy. But still.

It wasn’t a full-fledged article, just an introduction to a new collection of poems by Gary Snyder. But it was enough for me: I’ve read just about everything Tom has written since.

He can take something as mundane as an accident in a freeway tunnel and make it lyrical. And when it’s not mundane? He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his stunning account of a  grizzly bear attack.

And somewhere in between, consider the story of Jack English, a mountain man who lived in the wild backwoods of Big Sur and is the subject of this week’s Annotation Tuesday!

This is an unusual annotation, because I happened to have edited it. I chose it for one of the first annotations of my tenure as Storyboard editor because it’s close to my heart on many levels — the writing, its theme of loss, the wonderful subject.

I talked with Tom about the reporting, writing and, yes, editing process.

The idea for this story came in a short video I saw on Vimeo about Jack English, an elderly man who had decided to live alone in a cabin in the backwoods of Big Sur after his beloved wife died. By the time you started reporting it, he no longer lived there full time, and at first we were crushed that the story had changed. Talk to me about how you saw new possibilities in Jack’s storyline.

It’s disappointing to come to a story late and all the more disheartening when it’s done so well. The video by Grace Jackson about Jack English is a wonderful portrait of Jack as a hermit and mountain man, lucidly recounting his time in the mountains, his love of Mary and his opinions about modern life.

Our story, as I quickly learned, was going to be different. Between Grace’s video and my first inquires, Jack’s health had slipped, and his son, Dennis, had decided the cabin wasn’t safe for a 94-year-old hobbled by age and gout. Yet it was a measure of Dennis’ love for his father that he did whatever he could to make sure Jack could spend weekends in the mountains that he loved.

While Grace told the story of a full-time recluse living in the coastal mountains of California, we found a story of a man whose health, energy and capabilities were diminished, even faltering. It led, in my mind, to a story that was all the more poignant for capturing a moment in a life closer to the edge of night, more intimate with loss, nostalgia and decline.

If Grace told the first chapter in this tale, I was glad to be able to capture the second chapter. Both accounts were leavened by Jack’s hospitality and the kindness of his family for letting us be a part of their life at such a delicate moment.

On some level, I wanted to learn how to survive the losses that he had experienced, to understand how he was able to live with these memories and continue to live.

Tell me about the reporting process. You took a helicopter into the wilderness and spent the weekend at his cabin. How did you approach interviewing him? His quotes were so wonderful – was he immediately easy to talk to?

I find that reporting of a story needs to be as thoughtful as the writing of the story itself, and from the beginning, I had decided to tell Jack’s story as a day-in-the-life. This would be the narrative arc that I would follow, allowing for a number of step-backs that would introduce readers to Jack’s childhood, his marriage and how he got here.

I needed therefore to spend as much time with Jack as possible from the moment of his arrival at the cabin to his departure. Because of Pine Valley’s remote location and because Jack could no longer hike there, a friend had been flying him into the valley for his weekend visits, and I was able to rendezvous with the helicopter after Jack had been let off, so there was little lag time between Jack’s arrival and my own.

My interviews with Jack were less interviews than conversations that we had in the course of his daily activities: fixing breakfast, puttering in his workshop, having dinner. There was a value to this because so much of Jack’s wisdom – his thoughts and opinions about modern life – had become cant, oft-repeated aphorism that at times weren’t quite as fresh and spontaneous as I had hoped for. An interview would have given him occasion to repeat these lines, and while I wanted these lines – they are truly wonderful and memorable – I also wanted something new.

At one point in the editing process, a co-worker asked: Why are we writing this story? Our hearts fell, because it seemed so universal – the loss of love, the embrace of a wilder life (which most of us only dream about), the resilience of a man no longer young, even the elemental place itself: Big Sur. Talk to me about what resonated with you about Jack’s story.

An 8x10 photograph of Mary English sits on the left side of the mantel above the fireplace in the cabin. Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

An 8x10 photograph of Mary English sits on the left side of the mantel above the fireplace in the cabin. Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

You answer your own question. Jack’s story hits on a number of universal themes: the loss of love, the embrace of the wild and the resilience that life requires of us all. But there is a more personal note here as well.

Over the years, I have found that my best stories attempt to answer an almost psychoanalytic need to address the larger, more philosophic questions about life. I was drawn to the story of a man who was attacked by a grizzly bear when I needed to understand how someone continues to live when all assumptions about a safe and predictable life are instantly rearranged. I was drawn to the story of a man dying in his home not long after my parents died, and I needed to learn more about that experience, asking the questions that I had not been able to ask.

The same is true of Jack. On some level, I wanted to learn how to survive the losses that he had experienced, to understand how he was able to live with these memories and continue to live.

Jack English sits  on the steps of his tool shed and work shop. Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Jack English sits on the steps of his tool shed and work shop. Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

And it resonated with readers too. It was one of the most-read stories on the site. What did some of them write to you about?

In the age of Twitter and Facebook likes, I received about 200 emails from readers. They responded to the story for all the reasons we are talking about. But there was more too. They valued the sensual details of the story. They found value in Jack’s lessons of impermanence, of living with less and of holding onto the essentials. And they responded to the poetry in the prose, which was especially gratifying.

We talked about doing a series of stories about love, and loss, and resilience. And the wildness that is still California. I’m sad that we didn’t. Do you think you still will?

There are those who say newspaper features such as Jack English’s story are becoming a rare commodity. The push for more video, the focus on news, the commitment to investigations have marginalized mid-length profiles, but I still believe that a good story will always find its audience. I hope to find more Jacks in California and believe I came close with the piece about artist Clayton Lewis and Point Reyes.

My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button

At 94, he must let go of his piece of paradise

By Thomas Curwen

Published in the Los Angeles Times on December 27, 2013

Frost glistens on the meadow grass. The sun has yet to crest Church Creek Divide, and on his last day in the cabin, Jack English isn’t about to break from routine. He swings his legs out of the bunk.

“Good morning,” he says quietly to Mary. Her ashes are in a small box on the narrow shelf at the head of the bed. This pivot from a simple good morning to his wife to the knowledge that she’s dead. So good. I remember when I heard him say this. That night we had scattered our sleeping bags around the floor of the cabin; Jack slept in a built-in bunk bed. He was up early that morning – no stopping him – and he greeted Mary before turning to us. His words had the feel of routine, something uttered each day without thought, and it was perfect. I wanted to shake our readers’ expectations, and there’s nothing like a box of cremains for that. Structurally, I like it because it quickly established the two main characters of the story and it placed Mary in the context of the present. She’s not just a memory, a backward glance, but someone here in the room with us.

She’s been gone 12 years.  He takes her wherever he goes, but in this far-away valley they shared and in this home they built, he feels closest to her.

He tries to pull on his boots. The swelling in his feet from the gout has gone down, but his fingers have a hard time keeping a grip. Old age-itis, he calls it, as if being 94 is a condition in and of itself. Talk to me about replicating Jack’s rhythms, both in the language and the slow unfurling of the top, like we’re become Jack, trying to start the day. I had the luxury of spending two days in Jack’s company, and this was important to me. I wanted to live beside him and allow the rhythms of his day before my own rhythm, to fall into his pacing and temperament. This is something I try to do with most of my stories. It takes time to settle in, get accustomed to what you’re hearing and watching, to find answers to the initial questions – and just start seeing. It allows me to be that fly on the wall, hopefully forgotten or overlooked. I’m also diligent in writing everything I can down. It’s important to me to use as much of Jack’s language – old age-it is – without quoting him to tell this story.

“Dennis, I’m getting old,” he calls out to his son. “Can you help me?”

Jack knows he has a reputation. It’s nothing he ever sought. But not too many old men would choose to live in a cabin five miles from any road — and that, a winding mountain track far removed from the nearest city, Carmel.

Visitors have called him the last of the mountain men, a local treasure, a friendly beacon in the middle of the forest. Originally, we let the story unfurl even more before getting to the details of his life. We figured people would be patient and start loving him. Do you regret speeding it up? The question of pacing is always difficult to answer. I think writers and editors always have to ask how much color – setting, action, description, etc – will the reader tolerate before bailing. When do we need to start providing context? Thankfully, in the narrative realm, we’re a million miles away from the nut graf, but we still need to explain why we’re here telling such an unusual story. The key, I believe, is to establish context with as light a touch as possible. Our words will always disrupt the narrative flow. Knowing that has helped me figure out how to be as minimal and non-intrusive as possible.

He lived here by himself for 10 years after Mary died. But since his heart attack last December, he’s not quite been the same, and whenever he talks about returning to the cabin to live, his family says no. It would be too dangerous: One fall and that could be it.

He tries to be content with day trips and this, his second long weekend of the year. He’s grateful to a friend who helicopters him in and to his son for making it possible. But it will never be the same.

Dennis climbs out of his sleeping bag and tugs on the boots. Jack stands, his droopy jeans cinched so tightly around his narrow waist that the belt seems to almost double on itself.

He’s a little wobbly, but then he gets his momentum, plying the wood stove with scraps of paper, pine cones and pieces of kindling that he split last year with a wedge and maul. He’ll need to cut more; the stack on the front porch is shrinking, but he wonders if he has the strength. He wonders when he’ll be back.

“My old brain isn’t coagulating as well as it used to,” he says.

Jack starts whipping up the sourdough pancake dough. He cracks two eggs in the iron skillet. They hiss and sputter in the oil. A pot of water is soon boiling on a Coleman burner.  I can smell this breakfast! And the woody smell of the interior of the cabin. Details. Details. Details. I love the sensual details of the most ordinary moments. It’s like a poem (remember William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things”), and I often find wonderful poetry in explanatory writing. In “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett takes one paragraph to describe Sam Spade rolling a cigarette, and it is stunning. Check it out: It’s in the opening of the second chapter. In one sentence, Spade is sifting the tobacco flakes in the paper, rolling the paper, licking the flap, pinching the ends and bringing it to his mouth. There is so much we can learn about character in their deliberations and movements, how they orchestrate the most routine activities of their lives.

“Well, you’ll have something real quick,” he says as he shuffles between the sink and the stove, attentive to the routine he’s followed for more than 30 years.

“You like progress,” he is fond of saying. “I like to go backward.” This quote is so telling. Did you always know it would be the kicker to the first section? Sitting in Jack’s company, I imagined, was a little sitting with Will Rogers. His expressions were so aphoristic and funny. This line captures everything about Jack in – what ? – eight words. It is also one of those lines that he often repeats, so I felt the need to signal to the reader that this wasn’t the only time I heard it over the weekend. So rather than a simple, “… he said,” I wanted to establish that Jack has a repertoire of phrases that he draws on from time to time. Of course, he was smart enough to know their value. They’re good and pithy, and he wasn’t averse to rolling them out time and again.

Raising this cabin, they used what they could from the land: stones dug from the creek for the foundation and chimney, fire-scarred pine for the walls, oak for the floor, sycamore for the cabinets. This was back in the 1970s. It took them almost five years to finish it.

He and Mary came out here whenever they could. It was their fairy-tale life in this valley sheltered by a broad succession of ridges and canyons stretching between Big Sur to the west and the Salinas Valley to the east.

After she died, Jack’s family didn’t try to talk him out of living here alone. They knew he needed to heal his memories and try and put the doctors, the hospital, the rounds of chemotherapy behind him.

So he set up here for more than a decade. He would return to Soquel — the town near Santa Cruz where he grew up and where he and Mary said goodbye — only when he needed and then for only a few days.

“I think he likes to be out here so much because this is where Mary’s spirit would be,” says Jacob, Jack’s 11-year-old grandson, who’s come along this weekend, along with an old family friend, Karin Cumming.

Jack was about the same age when he first saw Pine Valley. Ever since, he’s watched the changing seasons and seen himself and his family grow old, experiencing the fugitive nature of life more intimately than most poets. He’s watched; he’s pondered and never blinked. This is one of my favorite grafs. How long did it take to get it right? I think about the parallels between writing a piece like this and what musicians do when they lay down tracks in a recording studio. My first track is the rather messy first draft that comes from my notes, which have been typed out – an arduous but necessary process – from my notepads. Once I have this draft, I work through the piece, shaping and revising, adding and subtracting with each pass. I consult my notes, save each version, read and reread – often aloud – to learn what’s missing and to find some rhythm in the prose. This paragraph came to me somewhere between the fourth and fifth draft. It begins with a simple declarative sentence (that further establishes the relationship between Jack and his grandson, the past and present), then it unwinds into something a little more ruminative and poetic. And because that second sentence is long, ending with a subordinate clause, I wanted to break the momentum with a quick staccato: subject-verb, semicolon, subject-verb, verb. I like the melody.

“It gets pretty lonesome, but I make out all right,” he told a filmmaker who visited him last year to document his life in the valley.

Of course, living by himself presented a few setbacks. Once he fell trying to retrieve a chainsaw from the attic and lay for at least two days with a broken pelvis before friends — Karin was one — got him airlifted out. Later, a pine nearly 30 inches across took deadly aim on the cabin, smashing through the roof and barely missing him as he slept.

But he persevered, even hiking out last summer, three hours, 10 minutes.

At 94, Jack no longer has Mary, and he must face saying goodbye to his beloved valley.

When day hikers and backpackers stopped by the cabin on their way through the valley, he was happy to oblige them with something to eat, a story or two, and if they asked, his philosophy of life. He never claimed to be wise. He dropped out of school after eighth grade, but people seem to take his words to heart.

“Happiness is making other people happy. It’s a darn sight better than making them feel bad.”

“Life is a bunch of problems. It’s how well you accept them and how well you can live with them.”

“What is life?” — perhaps his favorite question lately — “It’s intangible. You can have the organs — the hair, the eyesight, the hearing, the appetite — but without life, there is nothing. You tell me what it is.”

Some say he saved them, or at least the cabin did, on wet wintry days when they set out unprepared, and if he wasn’t here and they had to break in, they’d leave a note and some money for the damage.

“Dear Mr. English,” wrote one couple in a letter. “We often feel like we don’t fit in the crazy, busy, upside-down world that madmen have created, and we get out into the trees as often as possible. We think that you have it figured out, living like you do, a sane and smart man.”

They assumed that he didn’t like people, but that was wrong. He just didn’t like swarms of them. What visitors didn’t seem to understand was that living alone made him more appreciative of their company. Did you intuit this, or was it more expressly stated? This was an intuitive leap, and I’m glad you mention it. This is perhaps the most tricky part of writing a story like this. The first two sentences were straight from Jack, but I felt that the paragraph needed an extra beat, just a little more of a nudge to complete the thought. Improvising is never a decision I take lightly; I prefer to rely on my notes, on what I’ve seen and been told. But there are moments when it’s important take the sentiment one step further, and I have to trust my judgement. That said: I will highlight such leaps for fact-checking once the story is written. More often than not, though, the conversation would turn to Mary, whom he had taken to calling Scrumptious.

“Did you ever see an old man cry?” he asks. “Well, that’s me. Life is just not the same. It’s a pretty lonely place if you don’t have someone.” As you know, this made me weep. Its placement, right after the playfulness/adorableness of scrumptious. I too like the juxtaposition. Scrumptious is such an unusual and wonderful pet name, so playful and alive that it immediately took me to its counterpoint, the loss he can’t escape. I’m not sure where this instinct comes from – point, counterpoint – but I try to incorporate it whenever possible into the narrative flow. I believe it keeps readers on their toes, and I like that. If they can anticipate where I’m going with a story, I’m probably going to lose them before they get to the jump.

Breakfast done, Jack heads outside. The sun has melted the frost. Quail call across the valley, and jays are scavenging among the pines.

The planter where Mary’s Dutch iris once bloomed needs tending, but her memorial plaque gleams.

In memory of Mary English

Her cabin, her garden, her valley

1922-2001

Love forever Jack

Mary Adeline Lincoln was a wisp of a girl in her late teens when he first met her. Five-foot-two, 105 pounds, a brunette with hazel eyes, she had an impish manner, and Jack was smitten the moment he saw her. He had just come back from three years in the Northwest, working the gold mines outside of Fairbanks and construction near Anchorage.

“Oh, boy,” he thought. “That’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.” Swoon. You’ve woven the history and the love story so skillfully into the story. This is all Jack – and I suppose it was the real epiphany in reporting this story. It was nothing that I expected in such detail. I’m generally suspicious of ghost stories, but I’m also drawn to them. They touch upon one of my abiding concerns and curiosities about life: What becomes of us? I think I have the answer, and it’s a little troubling. We are destined to be forgotten, maybe not in this generation, maybe not the next, but eventually we become that image in an old photograph, the face of a stranger, and all the energy that we brought into the world, both good and bad, dissipates. Yet love is such a powerful bridge between the present and the past, and Jack’s love for Mary kept her front and center throughout the reporting of this piece. That was a gift.

She had joined her mother on a visit to the English family ranch in Soquel’s Rodeo Gulch. The two families raised canaries and shared breeders. Jack asked his brother’s wife for advice on getting a date.

“Well,” she told him, “if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.”

He remembers stammering and stuttering as he invited her to the movies in Santa Cruz, and not long after, he proposed. He was 22 and she was 19 when they drove to Reno to get married.

She was the first one to hear that this land was for sale, back in 1975. They had come camping here and met some “young hippie people,” as Jack calls them, who had a copy of a classified ad calling for an auction to be held for the parcel.

They wanted to know where the old homestead was. Mary showed them the chimney, all that remained of a cabin that burned down in 1931, and Jack knew his life-long dream was about to be realized.

As a kid, he’d escape Soquel — and his bickering parents, 30 years between them, and chores made more urgent by the Depression — by hitchhiking down the Big Sur coast with just a backpack and his .22. When he was 17, he asked the owner of the property if she would sell, but she set the price too high for him.

Forty years later, he wasn’t going to let it slip away. He and Mary pooled their money with his brother and his wife and bid nearly $11,000 to win these 5 acres, surrounded on all sides by national forest. With water rights to a spring to the north, they knew they could build and create the perfect getaway.

They packed in on foot and by horse whatever they needed: cement, the redwood-framed sash windows, the toilet, a shower stall, hot-water heater. The wood stove was brought in by helicopter. Gasoline would fuel a generator; propane would heat the water.

They survived three fires, conflagrations that brought smoke jumpers into the valley. “We have currently set up a hose lay & pump system around the area and feel confident we can defend the structure,” one wrote during the Kirk Complex Fire in 1999. “Hope this note is found intact and you can continue to enjoy this beautiful place.”

Yes, it was their paradise. Jack put up his Charles Russell cowboy prints above the mantle. Mary started a garden. Their entertainments were simple: growing strawberries and corn, fishing and hunting, listening to the radio or, as Mary loved to do, cataloging in the cabin journal the spring bloom, when baby blue eyes, lupines, poppies, monkey flowers, columbines and delphiniums flooded the meadow. I think almost everyone imagines a life like this: more simple, with someone you love. Talk about how you tapped into that. In loss there is always idealization, and as much as Jack’s love for Mary exemplified this, I know I fell into that trap as well. Which is not such a bad thing. How did Wordsworth define poetry? Emotion recollected in tranquility. Under such terms it’s easy to romanticize the past and evoke images of a simpler time. This paragraph certainly covers that ground, doesn’t it? Of course, the reporting was helped by the journals that Jack and Mary kept of their weekends in Pine Valley. I couldn’t have done it without them.

They started that journal in 1985. Jack posted his first entry on April 11: “Lupine in bloom and the smell was very strong and heady. … Weather just beautiful. Wish I could live here.” What did you feel when you saw the journal and those entries spanning 30 years, both with and without her? I wanted to give readers a sense of what day-to-day life was like for Jack and Mary, and I wanted to capture it from their perspective. When I heard that they kept a journal, I knew that I had found my way, and as romantic as their writing was, I certainly didn’t see evidence to the contrary. I also want to add that for a story like this to be successful, I knew I needed to stay as close to Jack’s point-of-view as possible. I needed to see this world through his eyes and with his heart. His recollections were helpful, but his memories were often cursory and often to the point. The journal offered a more expansive, less clouded window onto the past.

Twenty years and one month later, he wrote: “One of Mary’s Dutch Iris bloomed today. It is just beautiful. If only she could see it. Maybe she can. She would love it. It looks like there will be possibly 3 doz more blooms. Yesterday was Dad’s birthday. He would be 141 years old. I love you Dad. I love you Mom. I love you Mary.”

Jack’s legs barely lift him up the steps of the workshop where he keeps a clutter of saws, hammers, electrical cords, grinders, clamps, drill bits and dyes. The helicopter arrives at 3:30, and he has no time to waste. This sense of time rushing in on him, both in his time at the cabin and in his life. It’s all a matter of pacing: I had to keep moving the day-in-the-life chronology forward, hour by hour, all the while taking these nostalgic step-backs. The chronology provides the action that drives the story and, I believe, keeps the reader engaged. Often all it takes is a sentence or two, and then I can begin the digression. But it’s always a matter of balancing the two and trying to anticipate the reader’s tolerance for stepping back and moving ahead.

Jack started making violin bows after retiring as a union carpenter almost 30 years ago. He holds one, made of snakewood, smoothly polished, a mottled chocolate brown. He needs to complete its frog, the mechanism that holds taut the ribbons of horse hair, and he’s looking for his special inlays, abalone, ebony, fossilized walrus ivory.

He took up the trade so he’d have something to share with Dennis, who from an early age was on his way to becoming an accomplished fiddle player.

Jack is proud of his boy, now in his early 50s. He brought light to a great heartache: When Jack was away during the war — three years as a Seabee in the Pacific, not knowing if he’d live or die — Mary had a miscarriage, and the doctors performed a hysterectomy. Sterilized her is how Jack came to see it. They adopted Dennis in 1962.

As the sun starts to slide into the west, Jack takes a break to warm himself on the steps of the workshop. Gazing into his yard, he sees three hikers and their dogs heading his way.

“Let’s go down and make a cup of tea,” Jack says.

Inside the cabin, he pulls out cups and a box of the Lipton’s. He lights the Coleman for water and offers a bag of stale Fig Newtons.

Amy Wells has been hiking into the valley for a little more than 10 years and knows the cabin well. She used to bring Jack banana bread when he lived here by himself.

“People want to believe that someone like Jack can live out here,” she says. If there’s one quote that sums up the story, this is it. Do you agree? Absolutely. The more I spoke to people about Jack and his life in Pine Valley, the more I got this sense that he – and his life – were symbolic of something more, an archetype of sorts. Not everyone can be a mountain man, not everyone will have the ability to build a cabin on private property in the heart of the national forest, but most everyone wants to believe that it is still possible and will champion the right to do so. Doesn’t this tap into the American wilderness ethic? We might recognize the need to live together, to work cooperatively, to live in cities and adhere to various social constraints, but don’t we all have in us some libertarian streak that leads us to admire Jack and what he stands for?

Jack leans against the kitchen counter and gazes out the south-facing window beyond the wisteria vine clinging to the railing. His expression is dreamy, as if for a moment past and present have merged and he can see all the friends and family who have made their way through the valley from that direction, the cabin their destination.

As the visit winds down, the hikers say goodbye.

“Hopefully we’ll see you out here again,” Amy says.

For lunch Jack reheats the baked beans from last night’s dinner, and Dennis plays “My Mother’s Waltz” on his violin. He wrote the song after Mary died — its long vibratos changing from the mournful minor keys to the majors — in an attempt to bring solace to their loss.

Sunlight filters through the orange and red willows, the tall pines and the distant alders with their heart-shaped leaves. The helicopter is an hour and half out, time to start closing up.

“I’m sad to be leaving,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed this visit.”

As the days grow shorter and winter approaches, Jack doesn’t know when he’ll return. But he knows that one day he’ll be back for good, when Dennis mixes his ashes with Mary’s and scatters them just south of the meadow where they once counted deer at twilight. I still get goosebumps when I read this ending. I know we had to work on that rhythm for a bit. I would read it aloud and something wouldn’t be quite right. You read your stories aloud for rhythm too, right?   Writers, I often think, are drawn to this work for the opportunity to work alone and autonomously on their stories. But the more I do this work, the more I’ve come to admire the collaborative process, the strange alchemy that allows a story like this to come together. This final paragraph had a fascinating evolution, especially as the story became so much of a tone-poem, requiring just the right final notes. The ending of my first draft was taken from my notebook (“Sunlight catches the grass and amid the yellow and gold are flashes of green. To the east, you can see the rocks above the cabin. When we return, Jack is out on the porch and starting to pull the shutters around the triptych of windows facing southeast. Shadows falling sharply on Mary’s memorial.”) In subsequent drafts, I realized that I had an opportunity to push the chronology into the future and find some resonance with the opening. (“He doesn’t know when he’ll return. It gets harder as the days grow shorter and winter approaches. But he knows that one day he’ll stay here for good when Dennis mixes his ashes with Mary’s and scatters them just south of the meadow, just beyond the grove of tall manzanita, in a glade of tall pines, amid the bear grass and sedges.”) In the final version, I was able to incorporate a detail that I always liked – counting deer – and allowed me to capture a memory while anticipating the future. Which is really what this story is all about: Can we ever reconcile the imminence of death with the beauty of a life? And I suppose we should let readers know what happened to Jack. When I learned that Jack English had died earlier this year, I send out a note on Twitter with a link to the story. Editors then asked me to write his obituary, which gave me an opportunity to briefly go back into my notes and reconsider the life he lived – and the weekend that I spent with him. It had been a little more than two years since the story had run, and suddenly I was reading emails from new readers who were once again drawn to his life. Almost all commented in admiration of his love for Mary and that powerful message.

 

 

 

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