Showcased Writer: Charles Finn
Interview By Valerie Horres
For the next few weeks this blog will feature interviews with several of the writers who have pieces published in Vol 6.1 of Silk Road. The first such author is Charles Finn, whose nonfiction story “A Secret Hideout of Leaves and Mud” can be found on page 114 of Vol. 6.1.
Finn’s vivid descriptions of a child traipsing through nature were what initially drew me to this story. The evocative language reminded me how as a little girl my own backyard was a place of magic, how the discovery of a small pebble or a daffodil budding earlier than the rest of the flowers could fill me with a magnitude of delight, the purity of which I have not felt in many years. Like many of the other pieces in this issue of Silk Road, “A Secret Hideout of Leaves and Mud” holds a nostalgic tone, one full of longing for the sensation of wonder that only children seem to possess. This story speaks to the fear of growing up and leaving something behind in childhood which can never be found again.
VH: What inspired you to write this story? For instance, was there any particular event that provoked you to write it, something that made you think back to this location and the sustenance it provided for you?
CF: I can almost always remember the exact moment that leads to a piece of writing. What I was reading or thinking about that spurred me to put down the first few words of an essay or poem. ‘A Secret Hideout’ is unique in that this isn’t the case. I remember the circumstances, but not the actual trigger that prompted my memory of the hideout I write about. It is also unique (for me) in that it grew out of a writing class. As a rule I don’t put much faith in such things – workshops, writing groups, even MFA programs – but in the summer of 2009 my good friend Dr. Neil Browne at OSU-Cascades in Bend, Oregon was teaching a two-week class on the personal essay and invited me to sit-in. I balked at first, seeing my aversion and skepticism, but I also knew deadlines could be helpful, and at the very least it seemed a good way to get another essay out.
On the first day of class we were asked to imagine a place, any place. Earlier we had been discussing Faulkner’s invented Yoknapatawpha County and perhaps for this reason my thoughts went back to my childhood home of Waterbury, Vermont. As I sifted through my memories, my attention became centered on the dead end street where I grew up. As images tumbled past I hurried to write them down until I was led to the very end of the street and the “hideout” that resided there; a place I hadn’t thought about in years.
VH: Did you have to imagine most of the details for this story, or were there vivid memories you could draw on from your childhood?
CF: I had no specific memories of times spent at the hideout. What I had were vague impressions, the feel of being there, and maybe this is why the essay has such an elegiac tone to it — I had to create language around sensations instead of events. Granted, I could recall the damp soil, rotting leaves and the shifting patterns of shade, things like that, but what my friend and I actually did was difficult to bring back. I know we “hung out” in the best and truest sense of the word, and that we conducted ourselves in classic little boy fashion: burning ants with magnifying glasses, whittling sticks, talking about everything and nothing. But all this was background for what? I kept asking myself.
VH: Do you think we lose something in the process of growing up that we can never get back?
CF: I think as we grow older and burden ourselves with responsibilities (real and imagined) we yearn for simpler more carefree times, times when our days were open-ended and less structured, when they unfolded of their own accord. I also think as we grow older we often lose touch with Nature, literally as well as figuratively. As I began to write I saw these ideas converge, and I realized that’s what the hideout represented for me; a carefree time when I was in direct contact with the natural world. As the essay began to take shape I also remembered being that little boy and how the first hints of self awareness began to surface, and what felt like a knowledge of a reality beyond the perceived. There was an epigraph to the essay (I don’t know where it went) “… for childhood is certainly greater than reality,” from the Poetics of Space, a fantastic little book of philosophy and the nature of houses by Gaston Bachelard. When I struck upon this, I knew I had all the elements I needed for the essay.
VH: Do you think that having this hideout, a place to imagine and create as a child, influenced the person you became as an adult? Did it have anything to do with you becoming a writer?
CF: The honest answer is no. My whole childhood, which was half feral, informed me more than anything else. I grew up in a different time. When being outside all day on my own or with friends – away from adults – was the norm. That’s what was important. Unstructured time, down time, time to be bored, to be curious, to poke around streams and fields shaped who I became. Richard Louv has written an important book on the matter, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. I grew up as (possibly) the last generation where we did or do not suffer from this. As to becoming a writer, that would have happened no matter where or how I grew up. It is the nature of my childhood, the opportunities it provide (such as the hideout) that influenced the type of writer I would become.
VH: Did you make any significant changes to your story as you were drafting it?
CF: Originally the essay had a different ending, an epilogue of sorts that was a specific memory, a ritual my best friend and I performed to become “blood brothers.” I remembered this scene only belatedly, and was surprised it hadn’t come to me right away. For space reasons it couldn’t be used and so for Silk Road I looped the essay back to the epigraph by Bachelard as well as the quote by Thoreau. I’ve always thought of memory as a kind of time travel. It is Thoreau’s stream he goes fishing in. Firmly ensconced in middle age, I now wonder how I got here. I wonder if I really was that little boy. It seems like another life and lifetime ago. Childhood, with its inherent and incumbent innocence is a holy land. One of the tragedies of life is how quickly we grow and have it taught out of us.
Charles Finn is the editor of High Desert Journal, a literary and fine arts journal out of Bend, Oregon, dedicated to further understanding the people, places and issues of the interior West. His writings have appeared in over 50 journals, anthologies, newspapers, and consumer magazines. He lives in Bend, Oregon, with his wife, Joyce Mphande, and their two cats, Pushkin and Lutsa.