Ask a writer how they started such a resoundingly lonely and vulnerable journey. Chances are they’ll tell you of their first story and the moment they succumbed to the addiction of a rapt audience enthralled with a vision formed from imagination and well-chosen words. My recent trip to Albion, Idaho (population 200-ish) reminded me of the first time I was sucked into the thrill of entertaining other people with a tall tale.
Two friends joined me on this weekend retreat. We sought a change of scenery, a ‘few’ bottles of wine, and a quiet place to putter with our respective works-in-progress. I anticipated making a heck of a lot more progress with said WIP, but a looming divorce and worry over its fallout for loved ones dried up every molecule of creativity in my body.
We’d selected Albion as the site of our reunion; it met the criteria of a halfway point between the extremes of southern Idaho’s west and east. A healthy six hours of interstate, country roads, and municipal side streets separate us physically though we swap drafts and emails daily and, at times, hourly. Albion also had the happy and intriguing circumstance of being a community with a significant western history including gunslingers, wars between cattle barons and sheepherders, and the haunted campus of an abandoned college.
This architectural graveyard reminded me of the first story I told, at the experienced age of seven, to my sister and her friends. On a chilly Saturday in late October, decades ago, we clustered, on bikes and tricycles, in front of an uninhabited, ramshackle house across an empty lot and a back alley from our tiny elementary school.
My first attempt at fiction was a morality tale about a three-fingered doll that patrolled an empty house and attacked unsuspecting children. On that afternoon, already anticipating Halloween, I discovered the heady power of holding the undivided attention of five-, six-, and seven-year-olds. The burden of such a vivid imagination became equally clear the next day when angry parents called to complain about the nightmares sparked by my thrilling account of a near death experience at the hands of a battered dime store doll with three fingers and ten-inch claws.
Now, years later, I curled up on the 1970s circa couch of a semi-renovated bed and breakfast (and yes, we were sadly misled on the luxury of our ‘suite’ – another lesson learned on the limitations of internet advertising). We tapped on our laptops awaiting a tour of the haunted buildings comprising an abandoned teachers’ college located less than one hundred feet away.
In 1893, the Idaho legislature established two ‘Normal Schools’, sited in north Idaho and in central south Idaho, to prepare teachers for the growing state. Only one, Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, remains in operation, through an expanded mission and the passionate support of the community. Albion hosted the other until 1951.
The grounds stood empty for years. Oh, attempts were made to use the space – over time, a short-lived Christian college, then a site for family reunions, and even the occasional developer inquired, but the beautiful, ivy-covered brick and sand stone buildings deteriorated despite the best efforts of committed local historians and preservationists.
A few stories about late night laughter drifting from abandoned grounds, slamming doors in empty, breezeless corridors, and the click click steps of invisible co-eds hurrying along wooden floors, cued a savvy town.
Why not use the eerie scene and local legends to create a few jobs? And so, ‘the Haunted Mansions of Albion’ tour has become an October tradition in southern Idaho.
How could we resist? And, how could I not hope to spark an idea or two? Maybe that’s what I need . . . to go back to my horror story roots . . . whatever new story I create might not be as riveting as a bloodthirsty zombie doll chasing screaming kids through an abandoned house, but at least I’ll start writing again.
How about you? What was your first story? And what advice might you have for a writer who needs to rediscover her prose?