Monday, September 29, 2014

64 x 52 (Twice Upon a Time)

Yesterday's post, an attempt to get a story started, got me thinking, even while I was writing it and definitely afterward, about the beginning of The Pearl. I have not read that book since I used to teach in in to junior high school students in the '70s, but I read it at least half a dozen times then and it is one of those books that I feel like I can hold pretty well in my imagination even after all these years, and all of the other books I have read and forgotten. And there's a reason for that. It has to do with the way that it is written and the way that it engages the imagination. 

I thought I'd take a look at the very start of that story as a sort of self-teaching exercise, to see what the difference is between what Steinbeck—who actually knows what he is doing—chose to do at the start, as opposed to what I did. So here's mine, followed by Steinbeck's.


BS: Seamus was a small lad who lived with his Mum and Da and his little sister Sarah in a three-room cottage in a country village near the forest. Each morning he would be the first in his family to wake, and he would get up quietly as he could, slip on his clothes, tiptoe to the door, and step outside to greet the morning.


JS: Kino awakened in the near dark. The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east. The roosters had been crowing for some time, and the early pigs were already beginning their ceaseless turning of twigs and bits of wood to see whether anything to eat had been overlooked. Outside the brush house in the tuna clump, a covey of little birds chittered and flurried with their wings. 
Now obviously there are some similarities, which is probably why Steinbeck came to mind as I was writing. Both start out with a focus on a character waking in a house and attending to what is going on out of doors. But Steinbeck does a number of things that now, upon reflection, I can see would have vastly improved my own beginning if I had done them myself. First of all, I began with a classic mistake, one that I should have been aware of and have in fact often counseled my students to watch out for. I began with a generalized description of what Seamus would do each morning; Steinbeck begins with a very specific description of that Kino was doing on this particular morning. You may say, well, Kino isn't doing anything, actually. But he is. He's awake, and his eyes are registering the stars and the breaking light, and he's listening. Steinbeck is deliberate about enumerating the things that Kino hears as he lies there: the roosters crowing, the pigs rooting about, the birds in onomatopoetic action, chittering and flurrying. My language was flat and utilitarian, communicating information and not much else; Steinbeck's language is rich and sense-based, communicating information but also evoking a mood, paying attention to the quality of this particular moment as Kino experiences it, and thus indirectly characterizing Kino himself. At the end of my paragraph, we don't know much about the way Seamus's mind works, but at the end of Steinbeck's we know something about the way Kino's does: he listens well, he's attentive, he's patient. All I've got about the setting is that it's a house in a village; Steinbeck, in about the same number of words, has an inhabited world to life.

So if I were to take another shot at it, based on what I have observed in Steinbeck and still keeping within the self-imposed 64 word limit, it might look something like this:



Seamus woke to the sound of the milk truck passing the house. He raised his head and looked across the room to where his sister Sarah lay sleeping, only the tip of her head showing from under the covers. Seamus swung his feet carefully over the edge of the bed and stood. Grabbing his jacket, he tiptoed toward the door and let himself out.
I think that's better, and I have a much clearer sense of where I would go from there than I did on my first draft.

I can't resist finishing off by returning to the beginning of The Pearl, because the paragraph below has always been one of my favorite individual paragraphs in literature. Kino, like Seamus, has stepped outside the house, and is watching as the sun rises:



The dawn came quickly now, a wash, a glow, a lightness, and then an explosion of fire as the sun arose out of the Gulf. Kino looked down to cover his eyes from the glare. He could hear the pat of the corncakes in the house and the rich smell of them on the cooking plate. The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies, and little dusty quick ants. Kino watched with the detachment of God while a dusty ant frantically tried to escape the sand trap an ant lion had dug for him. A thin, timid dog came close and, at a soft word from Kino, curled up, arranged its tail neatly over its feet, and laid its chin delicately on the pile. It was a black dog with yellow-gold spots where its eyebrows should have been. It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.

There's just so much of a muchness here: the richness of the sensory details, the rhythms of the sentences (that first sentence in particular), the obliquely foreshadowing business of the sand trap and the ant lion, the appearance of the dog "with yellow-gold spots where its eyebrows should have been." That line just kills me. I mean, where would that be coming from? It feels right, it feels convincing, it feels authoritative, but it's not the kind of line that would occur to most of us to include, even if we knew the story we wanted to tell as well as Steinbeck knows his. But it helps to cement the scene in our minds and make this morning seem real. And then, at the very end, the jump to the generalizing summary statement, which in this case gets a ton of work done, especially when you are re-reading the book. "A morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings" is a description that rings all the more resonantly after you know how the events of the story have played out, and that there will never be a way back to that innocent perfection.




Sunday, September 28, 2014

64 x 51 (Once Upon a Time)



Seamus was a small lad who lived with his Mum and Da and his little sister Sarah in a three-room cottage in a country village near the forest. Each morning he would be the first in his family to wake, and he would get up quietly as he could, slip on his clothes, tiptoe to the door, and step outside to greet the morning.

Process Reflection: Let me say right here that this is what I don't do. I've written hundreds of essays, hundreds of poems, lots of blog posts, a great many book reviews, thousands of journal entries, and, to the best of my memory, in my entire life, maybe three stories. Storytelling does not come naturally to me. I am often moved to start writing, or to begin a drawing or collage, but I almost never have the impulse to sit down and write a story. So when I was sitting at my desk tonight thinking about what might make for a new departure in this 64-word series, the thought occurred to me that I might just start out with "Once upon a time…" and see what sort of story I might lead myself into. I got over the 64-word limit right off, so as I started compressing and trying to become more specific the intro phrase got dropped and the character who started off as "a small boy" became Seamus. The whole Irish overtone was not something I really planned, but I've been reading Tana French and James Kelman lately and so maybe there was some leakage there. So now I've got a character and a setting, and presumably, if I had any aptitude for this sort of thing, I would now be able to make something happen to Seamus which would be of interest to me and potentially to someone else.

There is a story I heard somewhere (I've tried to track it down but have never been able to do so) about a famous writer of novels who was asked how he was able to be so prolific. He said that he had a foolproof formula that he used every time. Once he finished one novel, he would open his phone directory, run his fingers down the list of names, a stop somewhere at random. He would choose that name, and walk about his study saying the name over and over out loud to himself, and trying to imagine the circumstances of that persons life: where they lived, who they lived with, what they did for a living, what they liked and disliked, and so on. Once he was able to imagine his way into that person's life, he would ask himself "What could happen that would change that person's life?" Once he knew that, he was on his way.

Faulkner's report on his own compositional method is not so different:
It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
So I've got Seamus up on his feet and moving, and if I were to continue, which I may wind up doing, I would wind up spending enough time trotting along behind him to get to know him, at which point I'd need to figure out what was going to happen to change his life.

One of the things that I like about James Kelman, especially in his short-story collection Greyhound for Breakfast, is that he is nothing like so programmatic about his stories. Often it's just a voice, or a moment, or a conversation that the story gets built around. Some of his stories have a traditional narrative arc, many do not. Here, for example, is "The Good Intention" in its entirety.

We had been skeptical from the very outset but the way he set about the tasks suited us perfectly. In fact, it was an eye-opener. He would stand there with the poised rifle, the weather-beaten countenance, the shiny little uniform; yet giving absolutely nothing away. His legs were bandy and it produced a swaggering stance, as though he had no time for us and deep down regarded us as amateurs. But we, of course, made no comment. The old age pensioner is a strange beast on occasion and we were well acquainted with this, perhaps too well acquainted. In the final analysis it was probably that at the root of the project's failure.
We're given enough information here to start drawing us in, but enough information is being withheld to generate questions: Who is "we"? Who is "he"? What are "the tasks"? What was the project? How does the business about the old-age pensioner fit in? On the one hand the story, short though it is, does feel whole. On the one hand, what's here feels like it could be either the first paragraph or the last paragraph of a longer story, which, since it is not being told, we will have to imagine for ourselves. Kelman is a lot like Lydia Davis in that it feels like each time he's off into a story he's flying by the seat of his pants, inventing a whole new way of proceeding. There is no formula, no pre-set assumptions about how to proceed. The challenge for their readers is that you have to come to each story prepared to re-invent yourself as a reader. That's something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But I think it's how we grow.











Saturday, September 27, 2014

64 x 50 (Score)


The local library has set up a used book store which opened this week. Today I went to check it out and came away with two big scores, a paperback entitled Nevelson Wood Sculptures and a copy of the large-format Promontory Press version of Portraits from North American Indian Life, a collection of photographs by Edward S. Curtis. Pleasant surprises, and basically dirt cheap.

Elaboration: Nevelson is a transcendent, one-of-a-kind artist and one of my inspirations for the wood sculptures I've been doing the last few weeks. And I've been interested in Curtis's work ever since I read Timothy Egan's Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, one of the best books I've read (and written about) this year. Curtis devoted essentially his entire adult life to documenting the lives of Native Americans even as their cultures were being more or less systematically eliminated. His photographs are striking and beautiful and of major historical and artistic importance.

While I was at the library book shop I also found poetry collections by Robert Hass and Wendell Berry. Later on, my grandson's team won their soccer game, my wife and I had a nice dinner out afterward, I'm finishing up on a wood collage that I think will come out well… overall, a pretty sweet day.



Friday, September 26, 2014

The Fruited Plain


The Fruited Plain


This is an assemblage that I put together today from wood scraps. I made and painted the shadow box yesterday, so today it was a matter of selecting the pieces to be included and figuring out how they would go together. The starting point was the brownish square piece at the top right. I knew I wanted to use that, and I knew I wanted some strong colors, so I cut the yellow piece to match the width of the brown piece and then trimmed the long piece with the cracking paint on it to a size that would make the whole thing a square.  There had originally been raised strip of wood in the center of the brown square, and I tried gluing that in, but I didn't like the effect and decided to inlay the blue-grey strip into the groove that was already there. The last addition to the surface was the horizontal white bar, which was actually a leftover piece from a cut I had done earlier, so I glued and clamped it on and it fit right in.

When the central square was done, it occurred to me that I could frame that square with some strips I had of 1/4" plywood that had already been painted a golden yellow color that went well with the other tones in the piece, so I cut the strips to fit, glued them, and clamped the whole thing up to dry. A couple of hours later I went back, took the clamps off, and then glued the whole thing into the shadow box and clamped that up.

While it was drying, I was thinking about a title. The overall amber tone got me thinking about amber waves of grain, but that felt a little too literal and potentially misleading, and so I took one and a half steps sideways and wound up with The Fruited Plain, an oblique tribute to American abundance, the harvest season, and the gesture of making something attractive out of what other people have thrown away.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

64 x 49 (Derivation)


Like wood, in which
a story can be read
in texture and grain
and finish, regardless
of its final shape or function,
so words carry with them
their closet histories, their subtle
over- and undertones:
reflection a bending back,
inspiration a held breath,
poetry a making,
juxtaposition placing one thing
next to another, all the way back
to iugum, the Latin word for yoke.


Process Reflection:

I've been thinking for several days about a poem by Robert Francis that presents a series of compound words stacked together like logs in a woodpile. It's been a favorite of mine for many years, not least of all because of its audacity. It's a poem that invites attention to the shapes of the words, as well as the unstated but fairly obvious denotative and connotative, as well as formal, connections between them. I was also thinking tonight of a conversation I had with my granddaughter about the derivations of some words she was studying for a spelling bee. And, of course, since I've gotten my workshop set up I've been thinking about wood. Yesterday I found an old gnarled root in the back of the recycled-wood pile and brought it home. All of these factors were in play as I began writing tonight's piece. Here is the Robert Francis poem:

Silent Poem
         
backroad leafmold stonewall chipmunk
underbrush grapevine woodchuck shadblow 
woodsmoke cowbarn honeysuckle woodpile
sawhorse bucksaw outhouse wellsweep 
backdoor flagstone bulkhead buttermilk
candlestick ragrug firedog brownbread 
hilltop outcrop cowbell buttercup
whetstone thunderstorm pitchfork steeplebush 
gristmill millstone cornmeal waterwheel
watercress buckwheat firefly jewelweed 
gravestone groundpine windbreak bedrock
weathercock snowfall starlight cockcrow


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To Hell in a Handbasket


Picked up another book by Tana French at the library today. I am on the list to get her new one, The Secret Place, when it becomes available. In the meantime, I'm reading Broken Harbor, an earlier book in the same series set in Dublin. Reading Tana French is one of those total-immersion experiences where it feels like you're deep-diving and only coming up often enough to grab some air (or maybe a bite to eat) before resubmerging. In this story, there are a lot of contrasts drawn between the Ireland that was and the Ireland of today. The contrasts have to do both the larger context—the economy, the worlds of business and politics—and the lived experience of the individual characters. As the story is getting rolling, the lead detective on the case, "Scorcher" Kennedy, reflects on the changes he has seen in the country since he was a child:

     I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never have crossed a kid's mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don't forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn't break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.
     Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it's spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can't have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us from being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone. (85)
The passage puts me in mind of a similar reflection in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. The speaker here is an officer of the law as well, Sheriff Bell

I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they'd been filled out and sent in from around the country anserin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape. Arson. Murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I'm gettin old. That it's one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that can't tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I've got. Forty years is not a long time neither. Maybe the next forty of it will bring some of em out from under the ether. If it aint too late. (195-6)
On a not completely unrelated note, on the way into the library today I saw a Fiat parked outside with a bumper sticker that read, "When did greed and selfishness become American values?"

I'm old enough and crotchety enough at this point to appreciate the rueful humor of all of these texts. On the other hand, I'm not sure that the world was ever as rosy as we like to tell ourselves it was in the past, and I'm not convinced that alertness and attention and compassion and thoughtfulness have entirely disappeared from the world we live in.