How I write
To my readers: I’m writing this section with the thought that some of you are readers curious about how this book came about, perhaps as prospective authors of animal books .
It was a happy day in my life to see my novel, Smokey Bear: The Cub Who Left His Pawprints on History, finally published after 14 years of almost full-time writing. It was a lot of work, writing and re-writing, but it feels great as an author to see it in print (Amazon, B&N, et al.) and in all ebooks.
How the story began for me: My heart was touched when, as a teenager, I met this baby cub, newly arrived at the National Zoo. His eyes were sad, and he was mouthing his burnt paw. That summer I came close to publishing his story as a children’s book illustrated with photos from the Forest Service, but instead packed the 12-page story and photos.. They were almost lost while I spent a year in Java after my freshman year. I had stowed them in a steamer trunk in a dorm’s basement. Returning to college in 1955, I was relieved to find that in the summer flood in the Boston area, my work had survived. (There were no computers nor Cloud storage in those days.) Through the next decades as a psychologist, I remembered my mission to write Smokey’s story. At last, when I retired in 2000, I opened the trunk and began anew.
From the beginning, I thought of the book as a fictionalized historical biography. And, from the beginning, I wrote it mainly for adults, but also youngsters. I chose to write the novel from the bear’s point of view (but in the third person), in my respect for the wild animal’s intelligence and my empathy for his emotions. It was not easy to write this way. I had to imagine how he smelled his world, what sounds he made... But I was greatly helped by naturalists’ books with vivid descriptions of cubs and bears they knew well.
Most memoirs and novels about a wild animal or a pet feature the human and the human’s own viewpoint and feelings about the animal. I wanted this novel to be from Smokey’s own viewpoint: how this real black bear thought and felt as he made his way in the world: braving the perilous life of a tiny and curious cub high in the mountains of New Mexico, then suffering burns in a forest fire, being cared for by a kind vet, and delighting in play-fights with a cocker spaniel puppy in a family home . . . Then, aided by many photos of Smokey at the zoo, I imagined the challenges and hardships he likely experienced in captivity, which, as a storyteller, I also embellished with some possible adventures.
I really enjoyed the research about animals, especially reading naturalists' close-up experiences with wild cubs. When trying to imagine what inspired Ray, the cowboy-turned-game warden, to rescue the burned cub, what came to mind was the impact of historical events in his (and my) lifetime, specifically WWII and Hiroshima. And, my experience as a therapist helping people heal, naturally informed the book, such as in the scenes where the mother bear and her cub first react to trauma, then find a way to heal it. In my research, I had the great advantage of a historical biography of Smokey by William Lawter, drawn from hundreds of eyewitnesses to the cub’s early life. Then, to augment my early collection of photos, I researched the Forest Service archives and examined a large trove of photographs of Smokey taken throughout his years.
I followed the documented history about Smokey quite faithfully, especially in his rescue and recuperation from his burns living with a family, in order to maintain a ring of authenticity throughout the book. And I think it was a wise decision to specify, in the endnotes—What’s Fact and What’s Fiction. For instance, I specified what people and events in the bear’s life were real, and where I only imagined how this smart and rambunctious bear coped throughout his long life, enduring boredom in the zoo, and, finally, bonding with an enlightened zoo keeper.
To add some spice to the novel, I wove into the story some interesting events that I knew about that must have impinged on Smokey’s 26 years in captivity at the National Zoo: the arrival of two baby elephants, a gift from Nehru; a giant panda after Nixon’s visit to China; and the retirement of space-chimp, Ham.
Photos: When I read an historical biography, I always look first, and intently, at any photos in it. Thinking that readers, especially animal-lovers, might like to do so, too, I’m glad I could include in the book many great photos of the real bear, as well as a few photos of imagined animal- friends of his.
My early love of animals: It was a pleasure to write about what I cared about, what I knew up-close. So, why had Smokey appealed to me so strongly? It must have come from my love of animals. What comes to mind are memories as a young girl: watching my ducks, milking my clever goat Rosabel, creeping up near frogs to see them plop into our stream, and being so close to rabbits in our woods that I could see their noses twitch.
Therefore, it was no surprise to me, at certain junctures in writing the novel, to conjure up imagined animals. Their appearances were prompted by memorable animals I’d encountered in real life: a peacock who stood nearby to watch me do Tai Chi, then proudly flourished his feathers at the end; a big wild cat whose muscular body pressed against my chest; my fondly remembered rat Freddie who excelled in his performance in my behavioral psychology lab; a rescued beaver trustingly held in my arms; and, quite memorably, my pet monkey Achmad in my home in Java. Unexpected, he was given to me as a baby by my Sumatran friends, and became the basis for the zoo monkeys Trish and Trash in the novel. (I must say, now, as Jane Goodall advocates, that the trade in monkeys for food or pets is NOT right!) And there was Rowdy, the first horse I rode before working on a horse ranch in Colorado one summer.
Later on, Rachel Carson’s book, as well as hikes in Yosemite, renewed my desire to preserve the wilderness and its creatures. And that reminded me of Smokey Bear’s job—to prevent wildfires.
The process of writing turned out to be all-absorbing to me. When I sat down at my PC, as if in a vision, a scene would come to me, and I’d “slop it down” to keep the flow going. I often forgot to eat lunch. Wherever I went during the day, I kept a pad and pen with me to jot down words or ideas that came to me. Upon awaking in the morning, I found some of my most creative scenes. Perhaps that was partly due to having had Jungian analysis and working with dreams through many years—having formed an alliance with my unconscious, that is, cultivate a well- spring of creativity.
Why quotations? For decades I’d been writing down meaningful phrases that I found while reading, so I’d have an ample collection of quotations that might eventually begin my chapters. I wanted a meaningful and enjoyable novel, without any overt “preaching” or “teaching,” so quotations could do that in an eloquent way. I also hoped quotations would appeal to sophisticated readers and lend some intellectual gravitas to the book. Later, finding some chapters without quotes, I sought out quotations from different cultures, such as Chinese proverbs.
What made me persist for 14 years? Someone asked me lately what made me persist through 14 long years of writing: the first draft; dozens of revised manuscripts of about 194,000 words each; two years of a discouraging search for an agent; and, finally, the painful reduction of the manuscript by a fourth (40,000 words). To reduce it, I hunted for two adjectives modifying a noun and reduced them to one adjective, etc. I chopped whole scenes and chapters. (See the heading Scenes on this website.) I have a persistent and perfectionistic nature.
As a general answer to the question, I think I persisted because of the strong humanitarian culture of my family of origin with its Swedish sense of social consciousness: that Signells should make a difference in the world.
Upon finishing the book, I was glad to find research at the Forest Service that confirmed that Smokey’s life had, indeed, made a great difference.The millions of people who visited him each year at the zoo over the course of his long life had apparently been so moved to be careful about causing wildfires that it was estimated that Smokey had preserved a substantial amount of wilderness and wildlife.
Animal-lovers often find it sad to read animal books. The novels and memoirs are usually from a person’s point of view, and often end in the tragedy (for the person) of the animal’s death. I tried to change that. I wanted to elicit empathy for the actual animal in his reactions—his buoyancy or fear—in confronting challenges in life. Rather than tragic, I found that the story of Smokey Bear turned out to be bittersweet, but also, overall, heartwarming and inspiring.
The difficult aftermath: With the novel completed comes the hard part for an author, especially an independent (“indie”) author. An author is swamped with trying to get reviews or whatever so the "birth" of the book is heralded, not neglected among the thousands of books published each year. Fortunately, I’m an optimist by nature, with some hope of finding a wide audience. My nonfiction book, Wisdom of the Heart, did quite well. I was thrilled to see reviews and five translations into other languages. That buoys my hopes for some ripples of excitement, at least some press attention, reviews or interviews for my Smokey Bear novel.
My advice to prospective writers of a book, like some of you, is to submit for publication whatever you can, including early in life, no matter how small or local the publication. You will taste the great satisfaction of having your work in print and it’ll give you experience and confidence for later. I’d advise: Beware illusions about writing to make money. Although the general culture highlights the comparatively few authors who make money, and althou gh the books for writers concentrate on how to make money with writing, I think it’s generally best not to expect much that way. My rule of thumb has always been that writers make about 19 cents an hour! That is, if they make anything at all!) I’d say, write because you want to.
Aftermath: And, don’t dwell on it, but be forewarned about the enormous task after publication—whether indie or by a big publisher (where my Bantam Books nonfiction work was not without some of my own publicity efforts). As a case in point, it is only about two months now since publication of the Smokey book but, as I expected, this early phase of launching publicity presents a stressful burden. I want to wallow in the thrill of seeing the book in print and in ebook form, and catch up on leisure activities long denied, but am also exhausted from all the effort of the final tasks of completion, such as proofreading and myriad last-minute decisions.
Now, there’s too much to do! It’s as if ,huffing and puffing to catch my breath, I’ve only reached the base camp at Mt. Everest. Now I have to anticipate the long and steep climb ahead and assess the limitations on my energy. Luckily, I’m quite healthy at age 79, so I’ll trudge ahead.
It may not be fashionable nowadays to be so earnest, but I’m loyal to my writing passion—a source of deep satisfaction—and the desire to shoulder my family burden to lead a meaningful life. Not surprisingly, I realize now that also somehow became an underlying theme in my novel: that Smokey fulfill his legacy from Mother Medicine Bear—to lead a meaningful life—made possible with the help of his friends, human and animal.
Best wishes to you readers, writers and authors. I’d welcome your comments (See Contact heading.)