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Copyright 2002 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper
October 27, 2002

In which TKH is oddly blessed when her pickup's brakes blow apart...


Ever had your breaks blow apart?  I have.  On a highway.  Quite exciting.  Luckily, it was daytime, and I was near my favorite nursery, so I swung in, called for help, and spent lots of money on plants while waiting.  (Retailers take note:  stranded motorists are fair game.  Stranded motorists who drive pickups with an empty bed are really fair game for a large haul.)  Of course, I blocked their parking lot and backed traffic up onto the highway while I was at it.  Here's a tidbit for local Oregonians:  the people at the Gardner's Choice, on Hwy 99 in Tigard -- they're not only professional, knowledgable, and helpful, but they're really, really nice.  Not a one of them was unkind about the situation.  Aside from attempting to push the truck out of the way (which couldn't be done, not with the brakes locked up), they simply accepted the situation and went on about their business.

So why, you might ask, did my brakes blow apart?  Because of a $35 pipe that had just been replaced three blocks earlier.  A tool left on the undercarriage spanged up and drove the entire brake assembly up into the catalytic converter.  With the assembly tangled in the converter, the cabling was stressed like bass strings tuned too tight.  There was a wham, a metal-on-metal blow inside the truck--like hearing a kettle drum inside a closet, and the rear brakes blew apart.  

Of course, as usual, this was a blessing in disguise.   While repairing the brakes, my mechanic noticed a seal that was giving out, and replaced it at the same time he fixed the brakes.  Had I left the next morning as scheduled for one of my two-week mountain writing trips, the seal would have given out up in the boondocks.  I'd have been about 35 miles from the nearest ranger road where I could expect to flag down some other idiot who was out exploring.

Photo Copyright 2001 Tara K. Harper
All rights reserved

One of my
favorite places
in the Cascades
to write for a

few weeks.
The fires burned
extensively around
here this summer.  
I'll be lucky to find
good writing spots
this winter

Then, a month later, the brakes failed completely, on the same highway, four blocks east of the spot where they had blown apart.  I missed the crowded bus stop, the line of left-turning cars, and the pedestrians on the sidewalk.  Even after I finally stopped--and grateful as I was for not harming anyone, I was not happy.  I actually started crying when I finally got to a phone to call Triple-A.  When I think of the possibilities, of what could have happened...  I'd been having nightmares of my brakes failing, of stomping down and being unable to slow the truck, of careening out of control.  

But, being a writer and a "chronic nightmare sufferer" (don't you just love labels?), I put it down to an overactive imagination.  I did notice that, when the nightmare actually came true, I didn't even think of those dreams.  Just the faces of all those people, eyes widening, trapped in that plexiglass coffin of a bus stop as I came barreling across the lanes:  a skinny white teenager with freckles or terrible acne; two squat, heavy, brown-skinned women clutching rope-handled bags; a mother and her little girl, two men to the side, a white-haired woman barely half on her feet...  And stomping and stomping on the brakes, and hitting the horn and wrenching the wheel.  The faces--oh, God, the people, and the horror, horror of it.  They'd be killed.  They'd be broken like twigs in a steel fist. And I --I, me, Tara K. Harper, could be responsible for harming or killing someone.  Every time I think of it, my chest tightens up inside as if my body is compressing and crushing itself in that same sense of horror.  The thing is, I keep the truck in excellent mechnical condition.  The outsides may be a bit dinged up (when you've been hit three times, something eventually shows), but the insides are well maintained, and the brakes had just been done and everything rechecked.  There was no way to know, my mechanic said, that they were ready to fail.  What comfort that, to a husband whose wife might have been smashed on the pavement?  To a child who might have lost her papa or a parent who gets that call from the hospital about their now-broken son?  I've never in my life been so grateful for a wide wheelbase and a pile of three-quarter gravel.

Believe it or not, but that second failing of the brakes was also a blessing in disguise.  I'd rescheduled my writing trip to the mountains, re-prepped everything, had the pile of marine batteries, laptop, work tent, etc. waiting in the garage.  I would leave the following morning.  When the brakes failed, it killed those plans as surely as if I'd fired a gun. You couldn't see it from the outside, but the vacuum unit in the master break cylinder would have failed within days if not that particular day.  If it hadn't failed in town, I'd have been driving a heavy load in the mountains when I lost the brakes (I carry firewood and water for two weeks, including washing clothes, hair, etc, as well as carrying my outdoor office).  Even if I had made it to a nice, isolated, perfect-for-writing spot in the Cascades, I wouldn't have been able to come back out of those steep, back-mountain roads without brakes.  And--here's the God's-really-watching-over-you part:  the mountain I'd planned to camp on caught fire two days later and burned for over two months. I'd have been trapped on a dry creek, hidden by the smoke, in an unknown location (I find a new place almost every time I go up) with no one knowing I was there even to warn so I could get out before the roads were blocked by flame.  The ranger roads I'd planned to take in and out--the only ones that give access to that area, were completely blocked within hours by debris and flame.  I do have a few regrets--it would have been an interesting writing trip, but I suppose I'm glad I missed it.

On a lighter note, I went canoing with my niece in some really great waves at dawn.  She loved it.  Gray slate water with white-capped waves, and the canoe riding the crests till the wind blasted hard enough that we actually began to risk swamping.  Had to go two miles into the wind to gain distance crossing back over before I could chance turning us around, and the turn itself was a bit of a heart-pounder, I tell you.  Then it was a fast track back alongside massive, torn snags, with the wind blasting our backsides.  I really love my niece -- she wanted to go out again!

Photo Copyright 2002 Tara K. Harper.
All rights reserved

Elk Creek, one
of my favorite
places to camp
in the Coast
Range.  It's
oddly dark--
always gives
the impreesion
of black soil,
black rock,
and even
moss, but it's
probably just
the rain.

In the meantime, over the past year, I've rescored hundreds of old, modal folk songs, circa 1400's to 1800's.  I'm addicted to the odd lyrics:  "My poor head is aching, my poor heart is breaking, my body's salivated, and I'm bound to die."  One of my favorites--"Cold Blows the Wind"--has a young man sitting for a year and a day on his lover's grave.  When the ghost comes out and demands to know why he won't leave her alone, he says he just wants one kiss. Her response is marvelously macabre:

        My breast, it is as cold as clay,
        My breath smells earthly strong;
        And if you kiss my cold clay lips,
        Your days they won't be long,
        Your days they won't be long,

You just don't get lyrics like those anymore.

Makes me look forward to Hallowe'en.  We're experimenting with flash pots and flash powders, and with water-mist-foggers this year.  I wanted something a bit magical, and both of us wanted to avoid the hassle of managing dry ice over the course of five or six hours.  So we have four kinds of flash powder to try out, and two misters that aerosolize water to create a thick, perpetual running fog that drapes the sides of the cauldrons like a carpet and flows away like smoke.  The dragon's head is ready, the sorceress's cavern (dozens of aged bottles for wolf bane, ash from a phoenix rising, sweat of centaur, etc.), crystal balls, candles, flaming braziers, you name it.  Every child should have the experience of at least one interesting house to visit on Hallowe'en.  

Last year--oh, that was a good year.  Last year, I ran over a bicyclist in the driveway--  Uh, after that discussion above about my brakes, perhaps I should qualify that sentence.  What I really did was position the truck so that it looked as if I'd just started turning into the driveway.  Then I borrowed an old, heavy-steel bicycle from my neighbor, and jammed the bicycle under the back tires.  The steel was heavy enough that it popped up at an angle, as if it really was being crushed.  Then I made a dummy and stuffed him partway under the front tires.  Put a professional-quality latex skeleton in the driver's seat (buckled up, of course), and lit the cab with hidden, orange LEDs.  I've never seen so many people hanging around a pickup before, and that doesn't even count what we did in the garage--the Fortune Teller and Death.  Nine kids wouldn't even come up to get their candy.  I do believe it was an unqualified success.

I'm thinking of convincing my husband to help me do macabre statues next year, but there may be some craft -logistics issues.  Clothing just doesn't look stiff enough, although it's possible that painting a set of clothing (which would be scratchy as all get-out to wear) would provide the right look and stiffeness of movement...

People often ask me why I like to go all out for Hallowe'en, why I do so many crafts when I can just sit around and write--as if that's somehow what I want to do with all 24 hours of a day.  Part of the answer is just that I like it.  However, part of the answer is also that, if you want to be a well-rounded writer, you should do a lot of things--activities, crafts, sports, travel, friendships, events.  Hallowe'en to me is an excuse to experiment, to stretch my ability to create something spiffy out of bare materials.  It also reminds me of how much time it takes to design and create, build, finish a piece.  It's perspective, a sense of realism, and an appreciation for what it would really take to do some of the things we writers so blithely insert in our stories.  

Writers can wave their hands and blow an awful lot of smoke when presenting a culture in their stories.  You have to remember that a craftsman requires time--years, decades, to become a master in his field.  And, with a few exceptions, once that person is a master, it takes him more than a single night to create something that is both finely wrought and intriguingly unique.  The full-length fitted gown, fully embroidered with perfect stitches--all done by hand, that's completed overnight?  The carved chest perfectly stained and sanded within a day?  The varnishes used in 100-degree heat?   Those things just don't happen, folks.  Try it yourself, and see.  Story timelines would be better served if more writers remembered such details--and also remembered that the details of failure and how problems are overcome are more interesting than simple success.  In the same vein, writers should remember that finishing a book doesn't make you a master of your field.  Writing is both an art and a craft.  Both require continual attention, or the words you put forth will stagnate before they ever breathe.

Photo Copyright 2002 Tara K. Harper  All rights reserved.

Our back yard, after
the trees began to
come down in the wind,
and we had to start
a-choppin'.  Luckily,
although they hit the
house when they fell.
they did miss my
writing room.

I find that it's often useful to read a body of someone else's work.  For example, I recently went back and started rereading my stack of Andre Norton's.  Gads, but that woman wrote a lot.  She also had an extremely tight style.  There's no padding in the sentences--the lines are clean, structurally varied, interesting to read.  When I compare Norton's style to most modern SF/Fantasy writers, I notice that we seem to have lost that variety of structure.  Specifically, we don't use phrases in such flexible ways.  This isn't an issue of passivity, but of variety.  When does someone's writing all sound alike?  When it is all alike, in story, issue, or style.  Makes me wonder what sort of writing ruts I've allowed myself to trudge in.

However, I'm in the end throes of the current book -- tentatively titled "Wolf in Night" -- so I can't see my own language except as I write it as the god-narrator voice of the story.  It's a blindness, but not necessarily a bad one--at least, not when the project's near-done.  At this stage, I have to live the story, see only the story, feel only the emotions of my people.  The style is invisible, some sort of osmotic tool that inserts itself automatically as I write.  Conscious style is a tool for the start of a story.  At the end, it should be so much a part of you, of the process, that it's the paint on the walls--there, but unseen for the pictures.

Copyright 2002 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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