Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Here You Start

Here you start here with this, keep working on this here and ah, that's done now how about this right next to that, work this angle, feather across to the corner, maybe a little darker something different here, maybe a borderline, okay, and now another another shape another texture another kind of line over here, moving in, moving out, moving around, but patiently (breath and line following the music as you focus down), this one light so this one darker here, okay work around the corner, and then swoop out over to the left and now there's field which wants to become... what? something you haven't done yet, the only rule, perhaps switch pens yes that will do, extending expanding exploring, moment to moment a world emerging from under to the point of the pen on the plane of the paper absent-minded, just one thing and then the next and the next until it's time to move on.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Somewhere Different Now

Now I don't mind saying, I believe in the waiting
In the visions of grandeur, and the random encounter
I'm not on fire, not burned out,
Just somewhere different now

- Tylan Greenstein (of Girlyman)

I'll tell you what, for the last three months I've been listening to essentially nothing else but Girlyman. I haven't gotten slammed quite so hard by a musical group since Counting Crows came out with August and Everything After in 1993. I've got about twenty of their songs on my iPod, and I've got a Girlyman station on Pandora, and my ears have not been so delectated in ever so long.

I've been in a different space with my artwork, too. Aside from doing whole series of Saturday morning encaustic panels of the kind I wrote about recently, I've been doing a set of sort of meticulous line drawings, using pen and ink on textured watercolor paper. I've been thinking a lot about Paul Klee's remark that "the essence of drawing is the line exploring space," and trying to explore drawing with that in mind. One implication of such a conception is that pre-planning is sort of against the rules. You proceed by putting the point of the pen down onto the paper and then pushing it forward according to whatever internal imperative presents itself as you proceed. The overall composition will ultimately be determined as a series of decisions made in process. In this way of working, it's important NOT to know where you're going. What you wind up with is something, well, different. Here's an example of one I've just completed:

The thing to see here (click on the picture for a larger view) is how each part is connected to the other through visual design logic which was arrived at in process, as opposed to being determined in advance. I started on the left, about a quarter of the way in, worked back to the left edge, and then added one section at a time, moving from left to right. I had two ideas in mind: first, to keep inventing new ways for the pen to work; and second, not to fall back on things I had already done before, either in this drawing or the ones I had done leading up to it. It goes back to Klee's dictum: "The essence of drawing is the line exploring space." I had that notion specifically in mind as I worked on this. It's really an incrementalist approach rooted in an act of faith in "the random encounter." This is a method of working I've been drawn to, both in writing and art, for some time now. It's a process I am using right now in the development of this post, which began at a point, with a quoted lyric, and is building itself around several related ideas which that lyric (as in many other Girlyman songs) both embodies and suggests.

I happened to run across a slide show on the subject of writing the other day and was arrested by this slide:

I can understand why people would be drawn to this way of thinking and working. It has a long history of pedagogy behind it, and it appears on the surface to be only common sense. But from the point of view I've been espousing today, it looks, as a matter of practicality and productivity, entirely backwards. Who sits down to ask herself, "What do I want my writing to do? Today I think I'll protest an injustice. No, on second thought, I think I'll describe nature's beauty." I can't work that way. I wouldn't WANT to work that way. I don't know any working writers who work that way.

What I would rather do, what I find both more enjoyable and ultimately more satisfying, is to sit down and write, and in the process of writing figure out what it is that I want to say. It's precisely because I don't know where I'm going that I find my way to places I would not have expected to get to. (I had a talk with Darin, a friend and colleague who is a musician, the other day, and he was saying his process of composition is much the same. It doesn't begin with a grand unifying vision; it begins with him _playing_ on the guitar, and then, when he finds a lick he likes, writing it down.) I'm not saying that that's the ONLY way to travel. Certainly there are some situations in which it is perhaps efficient to knock out a piece of writing (or a work of art, or a song) for a utilitarian purpose according to a predetermined plan. But where's the fun in that? And why is it that the narrow, un-playful vision of writing so dominates the experience of students in school? It's no wonder kids arrive at a spot where they think they are no good at writing, and claim that they hate to do it.

Another new space: I'm hip-deep in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. I've completed The Game of Thrones and am midway through A Clash of Kings. I'm reading in great hourlong gulps. I haven't been this drunk on words in a very long time. Martin is being compared, with ample justification, to J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K Rowling, Patrick O'Brian. (I'd add Dorothy Dunnett to the list, but nobody I know has read her, sad to say.) He's a fantasy writer for adults. His story, set in the fictional world of Westeros, is multifaceted and many-layered and character-driven and deeply satisfying right down the syllables themselves. Even purely descriptive passages having to do with food or dress have a kind of saturated richness:

Of food there was plenty. The war had not touched the fabled bounty of Highgarden. While singers sang and tumblers tumbled, they began with pears poached in wine, and went on to tiny savory fish rolled in salt and cooked crisp, and capons stuffed with onions and mushrooms. There were great loaves of brown bread, mounds of turnips and sweetcorn and pease, immense hams and roast geese and trenchers dripping full of venison stewed with beer and barley. For the sweet, Lord Caswell’s servants brought down trays of pastries from his castle kitchens, cream swans and spun-sugar unicorns, lemon cakes in the shape of roses, spiced honey biscuits and blackberry tarts, apple crisps and wheels of buttery cheese.

As a writer Martin is good with people, he's good with settings, he's got a great ear for dialogue. He works his characters into situations where they tear into each other with words as efficiently as they do with axes and swords. Although there's plenty of that going on as well. Anyway, the guy clearly loves telling tales, and he's very good at it. I'm glad to have found my way to his work.

Those of you who have been paying attention will, if you are still with me (bless you) may be moved at this point, to object that this post has evolved, or devolved, despite itself, into something that reads, in retrospect, suspiciously like a thesis essay, complete with a controlling theme and three concrete examples. And all I can say is, well, yes, that's how it turned out, because that's what it wanted to become. But it didn't start out that way. It's a happy little surprise, abounding, as life so often does, in irony: starting out somewhere different, and winding up at home.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Let’s begin with a letter. E, for example.
None commoner. For effort. For excellent.
For eerie, for Eeyore, for entrepreneurship.
Empathy. Electricity. Ecstasy. Twisted sister
to M and W. Bookshelves. Business end
of a pitchfork. Signifier of the virtual ( in -mail
and -tail, -cash and -zine.) Grade you get
when you’ve given up. Number 5.
Third prime. “Ay” to the Romans; Epsilon
to the Greeks. Third note in the C scale,
otherwise known as “mi.” Sound of the scream
that sticks in your mouth in a dream.
All of the above. None of the above.

Process Reflection:

I’ve been doing a little stint as a guest presenter in a summer school American Literature class, and I gave the students an assignment over the weekend: come up with a short piece of writing, in the neighborhood of one hundred words, that represents an attempt to use words carefully in a way that interests you. I shared with them the first in the sequence of the 30 posts on this blog that began in January of 2008 when I wrote 100 words a day for 30 days. That got me thinking of trying it again. This is the result. I opened up the file and had no idea what I would write about, so I just started typing, “Let’s begin with a letter.” The rest sort of wrote itself, as I looked at the letter “E” and kept turning it over in my mind, looking for words. Most of the work was in placing and re-placing sequences of words, tightening the phrasing, and adjusting the line breaks as I went along. I owe something here to Charles Simic for his “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand.” Nothing too serious, just an entertainment.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Andre Dubus: Father and Son

I first encountered the writing of Andre Dubus in the early 1980s. I remember being at the Boston Globe Book Fair, which used to be held in the Hynes Convention center. I was walking from booth to booth and wound up at one point at the Godine display. There were a series Dubus paperbacks with cover designs that caught my eye. Each cover had a flat grey background, titles in hand-lettered red calligraphy, and a stark black-and-white photo on the front. Separate Flights had a picture of a white double door, partially ajar, with light pushing out from behind. Adultery and Other Choices had a picture of an unmade bed, just sheets and two pillows. Finding a Girl in America had a picture of the corner of a white mantel with a white urn casting a shadow on the white wall. I picked up each book, read a few passages at random, and was immediately hooked. I bought all three books and read them with amazement and delight. If there’s a better short-story writer in American fiction, I don’t know who it is. (In Canada, there’s Alice Munro, of course.)

Dubus is still one of my anchor points, one of the writers I return to. He used to do readings in the Boston area. I went to them often, and met him and spoke to him once, after a Saturday afternoon reading outdoors at a small suburban library in May of 1985. He was wearing jeans and boots and a vest, and looked as much like a biker as an author, a combination I found reassuring. I told him how much my wife and I enjoyed his writing, and he asked how long we had been married. When I told him 16 years, he called over to one of his friends to tell him, as if this were something that beggared belief. He signed my copy of Voices from the Moon — a 1985 New Year’s gift from my — “Best wishes and hopes for blessings on the children.” Dubus became for me a kind of model and a kind of hero, a man whose artful, intelligent, compassionate writing seemed to justify his statue as a Person of Value.

Some years later, I discovered that there was another Andre Dubus, the son of the man I had meet. I read and very much enjoyed both House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of the Last Days. I wondered how it was that father and son came to share the inclination and the talent to be storytellers. I was curious about what it must have been like to grow up with Andre Dubus as a father.

Now I know. Or at least, I have a report directly from the source. Andre Dubus III has recently come out with a memoir called Townie, and it is a sobering, sometimes shockingly honest story that both complicates and enriches the understanding and respect I have for both writers. It turns out that there is good reason for Dubus to have been surprised that my marriage had lasted so long. He left his first wife (and three children) when young Andre, the oldest, was eleven. (For sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the father as Dubus and his son as Andre from here on in.)

Andre spent his teenage years moving from one low-rent house to another in tough working-class neighborhoods, and because we was small and because he was The New Kid he was often the brunt of the kind of casual brutality and bullying that anyone in that situation was likely to be in for. His feelings of shame, for himself and for his inability to protect himself, and his sisters, and his mother, from what his father had left them to, become the predominant driving force behind the person he decided to make of himself. During his teenage years he began to submit himself to a punishing regimen of weightlifting and boxing lessons. As he grew in strength and skill, he began first of all to stick up for himself, and secondly to go actively looking for opportunities to put his new powers on display, ultimately turning himself into exactly the kind of person who had been making him miserable. (I’m grossly oversimplifying here and overgeneralizing here. His story as he tells it is much more nuanced and much more vivid than any brief summary can capture.)

As readers, we have the advantage of knowing from the start that this story is going to have a happier ending than that of many of the toughs that Andre ran with and fought with, many of whom wind up either in jail or prematurely dead. A large part of what is most interesting about this book has to do with how he makes the transition from being the kind of person whose primary means of self-expression is his fists, to being, like his father before him, a writer of surpassing gifts, and how this metamorphosis is reinforced and enhanced by his father’s re-entry into his life.

Townie is a memoir that reads like a novel. There’s of course a positive side to this, in that the book is a compelling read, not least because Andre is very good with both narrative and character delineation. He knows how to make a scene come alive, and he’s good with language:

IN THE SUMMER, Salisbury Beach was where you went if you had wheels, especially on Friday or Saturday night. It was a sandy strip of barrooms and open arcades, pool halls and dance clubs and carnival rides. There was a roller-coaster built entirely out of wood, bleached four-by-fours that one day would rot and they’d tear it down, but in the late seventies you could hear the rattle of the cars all night long, the cries of riders as they plummeted down one steep slope and got jerked up another. There was the bass thump of DJ music through the thin walls of the Frolics, the boxed roll and ping of steel balls in the pinball machine, the hard-cornered slap of plastic air hockey pucks, talk and yelling, little kids laughing or pleading, the creaking of gears beneath the huge lighted Ferris wheel. There were the revving motorcycle engines, their diesel-fed clacking of steel on steel. There was the electric whine of the Dodge ’Em cars, the buzz of neon lights, and the constant slap and hiss of waves breaking on the dark beach. You could smell motor exhaust and seashells and spun sugar. There was smoking beef and overheated Fry-O-Lator oil and fried dough and butter from a bottle. There was the tang of dried ketchup and mustard on the asphalt, cigarette smoke and bubble gum and suntan lotion and sweat.

But there’s a danger here, for both writer and reader, a danger which is always attendant upon the task of the writing of non-fiction, and that is that there’s always a lot more that actually happened than words will ever be able to re-create, and so there is always a process of selection going on, a kind of re-fashioning of experience in the service of story. As a teacher and a writer, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the very concept of “Creative Writing.” If Townie had been marketed as a novel, we’d think of it as fiction; but since it’s marketed as memoir, we’re encouraged to think of is as truth.

But I’ve come to believe, and this book reinforces that belief, that just as there can be a great deal of truth in a novel — everything from thinly-disguised autobiography to authentically imagined made-up stuff that conveys a reality that stands up to and at times surpasses the reality we know. (In fact, when I met Dubus at the library, by way of paying him a compliment, I told him was that many of his characters felt more real to me than some of the people I actually know.)

Conversely, there is necessarily a great deal of fictionalizing that goes on in autobiography. The process of fictionalization begins with selection: what I choose to leave out would have colored the story differently, and what I choose to put in is there for a reason: it illustrates something that I want people to understand, but that is filtered through whatever motives I may have for writing my story in the first place. To take just one example, there is a fairly graphic sexual initiation scene early in the book, but only the most oblique mention of Andre’s courtship with the woman who eventually became his wife. There are doubtless many good reasons for the omission, but it’s clear here and elsewhere that there is internal censorship at work, and that the story has been shaped, for better or worse, by a writer whose very gifts as a storyteller may be eliding the truth, consciously or unconsciously, even as he appears to be presenting it to us.

There’s also the fairly obvious point that writing itself is necessarily linear and sequential, one word following another, which is not the way we experience life at all. Any written version of “real” events is a re-construction in another medium. It’s a form of prestidigitation, using words to conjure up images in the mind. But the magic must needs be understood to be, to a greater or lesser degree, an illusion, a mirage, a dream. I don’t mean any of this as a criticism. Townie is a terrific book. I’m glad Andre wrote it, and I’m glad I read it. But it’s a constructed artifact, and inevitably raises as many questions as it answers.

As I said before, perhaps the major turn in the novel, and the one that had the greatest degree of interest for me personally, has to do with the point at which Andre begins to question his motivations for fighting, begins to understand that no matter how intense and satisfying it may feel while you are beating the crap out of somebody, it leaves a residue of of dissatisfaction and shame. After one fight which he gets into, ostensibly to avenge an insult, he goes home to his apartment and lies down on his bed and thinks through the sources of his anger:

But then my cheeks began to burn, this voice in my head: You did that for you. And I saw Cody Perkins back on the streets of the South End, how he walked with his chest out and his head up, how he was always looking for a fight. At eleven and twelve years old, I could only fear and admire him; how could anyone look for a fight? How could anyone want that? But lying there on my mattress in Texas nine years later, my knuckles swelling up, the alley clear and quiet because I had cleared it, I knew why he wanted to find those fights; they were his only chance to get out what was inside him. Like pus from a wound, it was how he expressed what had to be expressed. It gave him the chance to do something for him and him only, and my shame now came from someplace I hadn’t considered before, that maybe inside me there were other ways to get this pus out, other ways to express a wound.

Later, in what for me is truly one of the most magical passages in the book, he describes the first time he begins to consider the possibility of substituting physical self-discipline with another:

But in the kitchen I stopped at the door. I watched myself let go of the knob and turn and put a pan of water on the stove. I opened the flames under it all the way, then watched myself take an empty cup and drop a tea bag into it. I walked back to where I slept for the notebook and a pencil, and why did I set them on the small kitchen table? Why was I sitting there waiting for the water to boil for the tea when I should be running along an icy sidewalk in the night to train? I began to feel too warm in my layered sweats, but I didn’t move. I opened the notebook in front of me. The water began to bubble and I stood and poured it steaming into my cup, the tea bag jerking, then rising, and now I watched as I set the cup near the notebook and took my pencil and held it. What was I doing? And why? Why was I doing this? For a short time or a long time, I stared at the page. I saw how consistently level the blue lines were from left to right, a quarter of an inch high, maybe five-sixteenths. I kept staring at them. Then a curtain lifted and I began to see a factory somewhere where these notebooks were made, men and women running big machines, cutting and printing and binding, and I saw a man like Randy working some press, his outlaw mustache, sweat in the corners of his eyes, then I was in the woods, woods I called Maine, the place Liz was from, and now a young woman who looked very much like her was half drunk on warm beer and was losing her virginity on the hood of a Pontiac. Then I was her, feeling the metal hood under my skin, the jabs into me that hurt, then didn’t but did. The boy she’d given herself to finished quickly, and it was as if I were a mist in the trees watching them sitting now in the front seat. They smoked cigarettes and neither of them spoke. A soft rain began to fall and the boy started the engine and put his car in gear and drove down the rutted road away from what they’d just done together. Away from me. I put down my pencil. In front of me were just handwritten words, quite a few crossed out and replaced with others. I raised the cup of tea to my lips and blew on it, but it had cooled to the temperature of the room. Hadn’t it just been steaming? How long had I been sitting here? I blinked and looked around my tiny rented kitchen, saw things I’d never seen before: the stove leaning to the left, the handle of the fridge covered with dirty masking tape, the chipped paint of the window casing, a missing square of linoleum on the floor under the radiator. I stood and closed the notebook. I picked up the pencil and set it on top like some kind of marker, a reminder to me of something important I shouldn’t lose.

Eventually, he begins to realize that the discipline of writing brings with it other benefits he had not anticipated:

It was a Saturday afternoon, warm enough I didn’t need a jacket. I grabbed my workout clothes and left my apartment. The inside of my car smelled like sawdust and the leather of my carpentry apron on the backseat. For a few miles the day was too bright and real and I blinked at it from the dream I’d cast myself in with the two old ladies and the young man and all those blackberries. Then I was on the back roads heading west. Instead of playing the radio, hunting for that one good song, I drove along in silence. On both sides of the road were woods, but today, for the first time, I saw them as individual trees, each one different from the one beside it or in front of it or behind it. One was as bent with age and weight as an old man, another as thin and straight as a young girl, one pine, the other maple or elm or oak, and the sun seemed to shine on each sprouting leaf, on each needle, on the black telephone lines sweeping from pole to pole, on the veined creosote at their bases, on each pebble at the side of the road, each broken piece of asphalt, each diamond of broken glass from a smashed bottle or cracked mirror or discarded compact from a woman I would never meet. And I felt more like me than I ever had, as if the years I’d lived so far had formed layers of skin and muscle over myself that others saw as me when the real one had been underneath all along, and writing—even writing badly—had peeled away those layers, and I knew then that if I wanted to stay this awake and alive, if I wanted to stay me, I would have to keep writing.

There are a number of passages toward the end of the book where Andre writes eloquently about how writing begins to affect the way he thinks, acts, and lives. Here is one where he makes the terms of the metamorphosis explicit:

Jabs had become single words, a combination of punches had become sentences, and rounds had become paragraphs. When I was done, whether I had written well or not, something seemed to have left me, those same pent-up forces that would have gone into my fists and feet. But it was more than this; I was finding again and again in my daily writing that I had to become these other people, a practice that also seemed to put me more readily in another’s shoes even when I wasn’t writing. The way it had with Donny. Before this, a guy like him would have simply been an angry face I’d force myself to confront in the one way I’d learned how, my weight on my right foot, my hands in loose fists at my side. To see him as anything other than bad would have deterred me when I did not want to be deterred. But writing was teaching me to leave me behind. It required me to suffer with someone else, an act that made trying to hurt him impossible.

And once he has reconciled with his father, gotten married himself, and had children of his own, the metamorphosis is complete:

I was a father now. All day and all night of every week of every month of every year since becoming one, I’d felt surrounded by love, responsible to it, careful not to hurt it, and so grateful to get it. To punch another man in the face was to punch another father, was to punch some father’s son. As much as I admired the heart and the skills of the two fighters we were watching, for me it was like a recovering alcoholic sitting at a bar with a glass of soda water while his friends drink tequila shots. I wanted to tell Pop this. My crippled father, the new one, the one who looked at me and listened more fully now, he would hear all this if I told him. And maybe he wouldn’t feel blamed. Maybe the younger father in him, the one who had had so much work to get done and so little time in which to do it, maybe he would listen too.

June 19, 2011. Happy Fathers’ Day, y’all.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Elements: Yupo paper, wax paper with string (San Fran),
hand-printed hand-made paper (Origamido), tissue paper
(blue circle), Nepalese paper (orange circle), page torn
from a Japanese pulp fiction novel - depicting a taro card -
and a piece of wood broken off from the dresser in my studio.

Context: A moment of opportunity, the elements in front of me
on the desk or on the floor as I was cleaning after another
piece I just had been working on almost arranged themselves.
They were there, I was there. Suddenly, IT was there.

What’s in it for me?
I like the composition, the linkages, boxes
within boxes within boxes. I like the wood, the way it doesn’t
fit but does, the way it sits under and points out and sings
its fibrous song in harmony with all the rest of it. I like the colors.

The tarot card, Gabriel blowing his horn, the dead arising.
That story. The notion of story, stories within stories within stories:
bible story on a tarot card in a novel in an artifact from a Friday afternoon
in the life of a man telling his story, after a fashion. The picture demanding
judgement of its own, from which other judgements will necessarily be made.

Is it a work of art? If so, of what degree? Sufficient to justify time spent on it
that might have been spent more fruitfully? Is it enough? And if it isn’t, then
what? This is the way it goes: we start where we are, we spiral out, we soar,
we return, we settle, we sleep, and dream, images unfolding in our minds.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Encaustic Workshop

For the last several months I've been attending a workshop at George's studio where we've all been playing around with encaustic, which is in essence painting with wax. It's a challenging medium to work with, because it's more difficult to control than paint is, and it's also difficult to predict just exactly how fast the wax will dry as you apply it, how hard it will be when it dries, and what will happen when you go to fuse it with a torch or heat gun, which is one of the steps you have to go through when you are putting on the wax in layers. There are a million possibilities in terms of how you use the wax as well: dribbling it, scraping it, painting with it, glazing with it, embedding stuff into it (string, leaves, colored paper, wood chips, shells, etc.) It's also kind a mess to work with and to clean up. The fumes from the heated wax can be dangerous, so it's best to work outside, and the wax dries on the brushes and they're not much good for anything but wax once that happens. So we're grateful to George for letting us use his place and for setting things up for us. There are about ten or twelve people who have been coming in and out of the workshop depending on our schedules on any given Saturday. Since none of us really have worked with the medium before, it's mostly been an exploration. The technique I've derived the most satisfaction from is putting down a layer of wax, incising or inscribing into it, floating another color on top of the incisions, and then scraping the top layer flat, leaving the color in the lines. You'll see a lot of that below.

Right from the start we've had the idea of maybe finishing up with a show or exhibition of some kind, so we've been mostly working in a square format on panels that George has cut for us. Here's a selection of what I've done so far. They'll all look the same size here, but they range from about five inches square to about a foot square. So here's the current lineup:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Court and Spark

Court and Spark

“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader...”
- Frost

Today a student stopped by to ask about the paper
due for tomorrow’s class, our last. She wanted to know
what it was supposed to be about, and whether it
had to be in the form of a thesis essay.
“Why,” I asked, “would you even want to go there?
Why don’t you try doing something more interesting to write,
and therefore, in all likelihood, more likely to interest me
or whoever winds up reading it. You might for example,
try to explore on paper who you are, and where
you are, and what you think about all of that.”
“Something philosophical?,” she asked? “Well, yeah. It could be. Or,
maybe try your hand at poem or two, following whatever
arbitrary rules you might choose to set for yourself, like
maybe writing ten words per line for a certain number
of lines, and just see where that might lead you.
The idea would be to more or less trick yourself
into writing something that surprises you and gives you pleasure
during each hour, each minute you spend working on it.
That’s something I, for one, would be happy to read."

Process Reflection:

True story, or as true as I could make it within the limits I set for myself, which are those described in the latter part of the poem. The conversation with the student was of course, much looser and much longer, but this is pretty much what happened, boiled down to its essence. During the course of our meeting she mentioned some exercises she had done in a creative writing class that she might like to dust off and try again, and I was reminded of, and told her about, a sequence of 30 posts I did starting back in January of 2008, a hundred words a day for 30 days.

My original intention in this post was to write 100 words exactly, ten words per line for ten lines. But as I was approaching 100 words I saw I wasn’t going to be able to get the story told without going over the limit, so I just kept on going to the next friendly number, which turned out to be 200 words. I actually only got into the ballpark, number-wise, and then used the word count tool to check myself. It took me almost as long to make the adjustments word counts and adjust the line breaks as it did to do the draft. Tinkering until I got it right. (Next day note: Then when I read out out in class today, I found a couple more wrinkles, which I have just attempted to iron out.)

The teacherly point to be made here is that without challenging myself to write something, I would have written nothing at all. By giving myself a nice low hurdle, I was able to approach it at a slow jog and keep on running. Wrote something that worked, had fun. Game over.

(The title is whimsical: the name of an album from way back by Joni Mitchell, and an oblique reference to the student, to her question, and to my answer.)

Anyone looking for a more elaborated argument on the merits and demerits of the thesis essay is invited to read "Essaying the Essay," to which there is a link in the sidebar to the left, under "Elaborations."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

All writing is linear in that it consists of putting one word after another. All writers approach that basic imperative with a conscious or unconscious repertoire of moves that taken together make up a way of working, a style. Some writers strive for a kind of transparency. One might think of Chekhov or Alice Munro or even a writer of mainstream popular fiction like John Grisham. Reading their books, one is inclined to forget about the authorial presence altogether. In their self-effacement, they submerge themselves to the story they have to tell. They are like landscape painters whose technique is so precise that their paintings might be mistaken for photographs. Their goal is less interpretation than reportage; their style is literal and uninflected.

Other writers have evolved a way of working based on certain purposefully selected or self-imposed principles or inclinations. Writers like these—Hemingway, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, etc—are impossible to read without being more or less constantly aware of and alert to the presence of the author making his choices:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase.

These opening lines from McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses establish immediately a certain level of diction and a certain self-conscious attention to the architectural elements of syntax. This is not everyday language. It’s language of a particular tone and texture. The language is intentionally defamilarizing: it puts us on alert to the ruminating presence of the author in the background, and asks that we stay that way. The stories created in this manner are stylized in the way a painting by Gauguin or Picasso is stylized: true to the world as experienced, but also filtered and mirrored back to us through an interpretive consciousness.

Those are the extremes. But there are a lot of writers who split the difference between the plain style and the personal style in various interesting ways. One of the greatest pleasures in reading for me is when I find myself being drawn into a world by a writer whose control of the language is such that the details are at once subordinate to the narrative and yet somehow delightful in and of themselves. I’ve recently been finished reading Tia Obréht’s engaging and frequently astonishing novel The Tiger’s Wife. I won’t say much about the plot here; suffice it to say that it’s set in Yugoslavia, concerns in a general way the efforts of a young woman to discover the circumstance of her grandfather’s death, and manages, in a quite surprising and convincing way, to meld elements of realism and fantasy and mythology.

What I most enjoyed about the book, and what I want to try to explain here, is the paragraphs. The individual sentences in the book are not stylistically remarkable. What is remarkable is the way Obréht is able build momentum through the patient accumulation of details, any one of which could be literal, but all of which taken together contain the lyric power of song. Here, for example, is her description of the main character’s arrival at a village she has set out to find:

There was no way to get up the slope behind Barba Ivan and Nada's house, so I walked north toward the main square where the silent spire of the monastery rose out among the roofs. Early morning, and the restaurants and shops were still shuttered, grills cold, leaving room for the heavy smell of the sea. For about a third of a mile, there were only houses: whitewashed stone beach houses with iron railings and open windows, humming neon signs that read Pension in three or four languages. I passed the arcade, a firestorm of yellow and red and blue lights under an awning laden with pine needles. The Brejevina camping ground was a moonlit flat of dry grass, fenced off with chicken wire.

A greenish stone canal ran up past the campground, and this was the route I took. Green shutters, flower boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full of patching bricks or cement or manure; one or two houses had gutting stations for fish set up, and laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone's front yard. (84-5)

The first paragraph is straightforward enough. We’re being led through a landscape, and it’s just one thing after another, more or less what we might be seeing in the order we might be seeing it in if we were walking with her. But what delights me is the way she works into the scene, the way her imagination goes into overdrive and starts dropping in details which are both surprising and convincing: the tarped car, the chickens, wheelbarrows full of bricks, gutting stations for fish, pegged rows of socks, and there, at the end of the line, “soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly...” I gotta tell ya, I love that donkey. That donkey appears at just the right moment and cements the whole sequence in my mind. It makes me laugh out loud.

There are pages and pages of passages in the book that are delightful in just this way: they render with imaginative grace and precision scenes which are startlingly beautiful. One of the subplots in the book—in fact, the one that gives the book it’s title—has to do with a tiger who escapes from a zoo in the aftermath of a bombing attack on the city. Here is Obréht’s description of the tiger’s flight through the city that night:

People must nave seen him, but in the wake of bombardment he was anything but a tiger to them: a joke, an insanity, a religious hallucination. He drifted, enormous and silent, down the alleys of Old Town, past the smashed-in doors of coffeehouses and bakeries, past motorcars flung through shopwindows. He went down the tramway, up and over fallen trolleys in his path, beneath lines of electric cable that ran through the city and now hung broken and black as jungle creeper.

By the time he reached Knez Petrova, looters were already swarming the Boulevard. Men were walking by him, past him, alongside him, men with fur coats and bags of flour, with sacks of sugar and ceiling fixtures, with faucets, tables, chair legs, upholstery ripped from the walls of ancient Turkish houses that had fallen in the raid. He ignored them all.

Some hours before sunrise, the tiger found himself in the abandoned market at Kalinia, two blocks up from where my grandfather and my grandma would buy their first apartment fifteen years later. Here, the scent of death that clung to the wind drifting in from the north separated from the pools of rich stench that ran between the cobbles of the market square. He walked with his head down, savoring the spectrum of unrecognizable aromas—splattered tomatoes and spinach that stuck to the grooves in the road, broken eggs, bits offish, the clotted fat leavings on the sides of the butchers' stands, the thick smell smeared around the cheese counter. His thirst insane, the tiger lapped up pools from the leaky fountain where the flower women filled their buckets, and then put his nose into the face of a sleeping child who had been left, wrapped in blankets, under the pancake stand.

Finally, up through the sleepless neighborhoods of the lower city, with the sound of the second river in his ears, the tiger began to climb the trail into the king's forest. I like to think that he went along our old carriage trail. I like to imagine his big-cat paw prints in the gravel, his exhausted, square-shouldered walk along my childhood paths, years before I was even born—but in reality, the way through the undergrowth was faster, the moss easier on paws he had shredded on city rubble. The cooling feel of the trees bending down to him as he pushed up the hill, until at last he reached the top, the burning city far behind him. (94-5)

Again, what pleases me most about this passage is not so much the narrative line. As far as that goes, she could have just said, “The tiger fled to the hills.” It’s the movement of the tiger through the city, the horror of the bombardment conveyed through the tiger’s sensations, and the placement and accumulation of the details. The tiger “put his nose into the face of a sleeping child who had been left, wrapped in blankets, under the pancake stand.” Under the pancake stand!! Seriously, how cool, how artful, is that?

One last example: at one point the villagers, having become aware of the tiger’s presence among them, decide they are going to have to hunt it down, and in order to do so, they need a weapon. What follows is a history of how that particular weapon came to be available:

There was only one gun in the village, and, for many years, it had been kept in the family home of the blacksmith. It was an old Ottoman musket and it had a long, sharp muzzle, like a pike, and a silver-mantled barrel with a miniature Turkish cavalry carved riding forward over the saddle below the sight. A faded, woolly tassel hung from an embroidered cord over the musket butt, which was a deep, oily mahogany, and rough along the side, where the name of the Turk who had first carried it had been thoughtfully scraped off.

The musket had made its way to the village through a series of exchanges that differed almost every time someone told the story, and went back nearly two centuries. It had supposedly first seen battle at Lastica, before disappearing in the mule-pack of a defecting Janissary from the sultan's personal bodyguard, a soldier-turned-peddler who carried it with him for many decades while he roamed the mountains, selling silks and cook pots and exotic oils. The musket was eventually stolen from the Janissary peddler by a Magyar highwayman, and, later still, dragged out from under the Magyar's body by the mounted brigade that shot him down outside the house of his mistress, whose blouse, wet with the highwayman's blood, was still unbuttoned when she begged the brigadiers to leave her the gun as they took her lover's corpse away. The highwayman's mistress mounted the gun above the counter in her tavern. She dressed in mourning, and developed a habit of cleaning the gun as though it were in use. Many years later, an old woman of sixty, she gave it to the boy who carried milk up the stairs for her, so it would protect him when he rode against the bey's citadel in an ill-fated uprising that was swiftly crushed. The boy's head ended up on a pike on the citadel wall, and the gun ended up in the possession of the bey, who hung it in a minor trophy room of his winter palace, between the heads of two leopards with crooked eyes. It stayed there for almost sixty years, through the reigns of three beys, hanging opposite a stuffed lynx—and then, as time passed, a sultan's last battle outfit, the carriage of a Russian queen, a silver tea-set honoring one alliance or another, and eventually a state car belonging to a wealthy Turk who, shortly before his execution, had forfeited all his possessions to the citadel.

When the citadel fell, shortly after the turn of the century, the gun was taken away by a looter from Kovac, who carried it with him while he went from town to town, selling coffee. In the end, switching hands in some skirmish between peasants and Turkish militia, the musket went home with one of the survivors, a youth from the village, the grandfather of the blacksmith. That was 1901. Since then, the gun had hung on the wall above the blacksmith's hearth. It had been fired only once, in the direction of a sheep rapist, and never by the blacksmith himself. Now, my grandfather learned, the old gun would be used to kill the tiger. (118-9)

That passage is, to my mind, a kind of glorious self-indulgence on the part of the author. It’s not critical to the plot. It doesn’t move the story forward. What it does is put on display the virtuosity of a writer whose imagination is just so powerful and so flexible and so adept that it’s a pleasure just to watch it work. Reading Obréht brings some of the same pleasures to the reading brain that watching the Olympics brings to the televison-watching brain: the same mixture of respect and admiration and delight at the prospect of being present to a performance at a very high level of proficiency.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Desperate Characters

At the beginning of this semester I got talking with the students in my American Literature class about the notion of the Great American Novel. While we were talking I mentioned that Jonathan Franzen — whose most recent novel Freedom had been seriously put forward (and in other quarters seriously disdained) as a contemporary candidate for TGAN. That discussion led me to find and re-read Franzen’s iconic 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream,” in which he tried to respond to those critics who were of the opinion that the novel as a form is outdated and outmoded, socially irrelevant at best and an instrument of hegemonistic exploitation at worst.

What I had not remembered about that essay was the degree to which it focused on another novel, Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox, which Franzen praises at one point as “a perfectly realized book.”

So I tracked down a copy of Desperate Characters, and read through it in three or four great gulps (unlike Franzen’s tomes, which can double as doorstops, it’s only 156 pages). I’d have to agree with Franzen’s assessment: there’s scarcely a paragraph in the book that you might not choose to highlight for one reason or another, depending on what you were choosing to attend to.

The opening paragraphs of the book are, for example, a little mini-workshop in artful compression:

Mr. and Mrs. Otto Bentwood drew out their chairs simultaneously. As he sat down, Otto regarded the straw basket which held slices of French bread, an earthenware casserole filled with sautéed chicken livers, peeled and sliced tomatoes on an oval willowware platter Sophie had found in a Brooklyn Heights antique shop, and risotto Milanese in a green ceramic bowl. A strong light somewhat softened by the stained glass of a Tiffany shade, fell upon this repast. A few feet away from the dining room table, an oblong of white, the reflection from a fluorescent tube over a stainless-steel sink, lay upon the floor in front of the entrance to the kitchen. The old sliding doors that had once separated the two first-floor rooms had long since been removed, so that by turning slightly the Bentwoods could glance down the length of their living room where, at this hour, a standing lamp with a shade like half a white sphere was always lit, and they could, if they chose, view the old cedar planks of the floor, a bookcase which held, among other volumes, the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets, and the highly polished corner of a Victorian secretary.

Otto unfolded a large linen napkin with deliberation.

“The cat is back,” said Sophie. (3)

The procession of details in the opening paragraph quickly establish the texture and tonality of the domestic world that the Bentwoods have created for themselves. French bread, casserole, willowware, Tiffany shade, cedar flooring, the bookshelves, the Victorian secretary: the Bentwoods live in a certain sort of world defined by what they eat, what they buy, what they surround themselves with.

The next two sentences are like a good one-two combination in the ring. “Otto unfolded a large linen napkin with deliberation.” Think of all the overtones and undertones of that word, “deliberation.” It suggests equanimity, self-satisfaction, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, patience, centeredness. “The cat is back,” is jarring, and not just because of the starkness of the monosyllables and the harsh assonance in the context of all the baroque ornamentation that has gone before. It’s suggestive of that which is NOT contained in the Bentwood’s little bubble, that which is wild, feral, un-domestic and undomesticated. In very short order the cat, in response to Sophie Bentwood’s good-intentioned ministrations, has sunk its fangs into her hand, and that jarring experience becomes the first of a series of events over the next few days that call everything that the Bentwoods have come to believe about themselves into question.

Re-reading Desperate Characters, I was all the more aware of the grim satire behind the elements chosen for inclusion in the first paragraph. On first reading, you may sense, subliminally or intuitively, that something is up. On second reading, you see how virtually every word is charged with intention, and freighted, if not exactly with malice, perhaps with a kind of unyieldingness. Joan Acocella closes a recent essay review about Fox in the New Yorker by quoting Darryl Pinckney to the effect that Fox is “sometimes hard to the point of cold.” Acocella's article establishes that Fox's steely-eyed attentiveness was hard-earned. Desperate Characters is not a comforting read, but it certainly is a beautifully realized novel.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Life As We Knew It

I recently ran across a blog post that was asking why we ask students to read the stuff we do when they could be reading something they might actually like, like The Hunger Games or Life as We Knew It. The Hunger Games I knew about, but Life as We Knew It was a new one on me. So I wound up downloading a sample chapter to my Kindle, and on the strength of that chapter wound up buying the whole novel, which I then devoured in about two days.

Life as We Knew It is a YA novel which takes a fairly simple premise, almost silly premise, and then pushes it to the point where it becomes not just believable but intensely real and engrossing. It’s a novel that reads pretty much like what it purports to be, which is the journal of a high school sophomore. There isn’t much of interest going on stylistically. The language is everyday language, the sentences themselves are everyday sentences, the characters are not particularly remarkable in terms of their talents or capabilities. Even though I’m a compulsive annotator, I read the entire book without making note of a single passage that called attention to itself from a writerly perspective.

It’s a little surprising, then, that I found the book so satisfying, and that it has maintained such a strong presence in my head since I finished it. It succeeds because it builds so carefully, and renders with such patience, the experience of an ordinary girl in what turns out to be an extraordinary situation.

As the novel opens, Miranda, the main character, has just found out that her father’s second wife is pregnant. She’s excited because he’s asked her to be the godmother. She’s also looking forward to the upcoming swim meet and thinking about whether she might like to start skating again, after having taken some time off due to an injury, and she’s trying to reconnect with an old friend she’s drifted away from. And some of her friends are asking her what she thinks about the rumors that an asteroid is about to collide with the moon.

That collision, only dimly attended to in the weeks and days leading up to the event, is what sets off all that follows in the novel. The moon, knocked off its regular orbit, comes closer to the earth, setting off a sequence of effects: tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, ash in the jet stream, climate change, interruptions in the electronic grid, changes in the growing cycles of plants and the delivery systems for food, gasoline, pretty much everything. These changes occur gradually at first and become progressively more disturbing and have a progressively more disruptive effect on the lives of Miranda and the people around her. The book is largely about the escalating series of losses and threats and how Miranda and her family cope with them.

Life as We Knew It might be read as a sort of prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a darker, more stylistically ambitious novel which takes place after civilization as we knew it has collapsed. Susan Beth Pfeffer is offering a vivid depiction of how that collapse might begin. And because it begins with more or less where we are and demonstrates how fast it might all go up in smoke, it is all the more sobering.

I’ve written before about my leanings toward catastrophism. I’d suppose I’d describe myself as a short-term optimist and long-term pessimist. I pick up the papers every day and don’t see any good reason to suspect that any of what appears there is likely to get better any time soon. (Sample inventory from today’s paper: budget crisis forcing government service cutbacks, BP oil disaster effects a year later (along with increased support (!!) for continued offshore drilling), continued coverage of nuclear disaster in Japan, record number of tornadoes in the South this year, suicide bomber in Afghanistan kills three, al-Qaida resurgent in Yemen, rebels fleeing in Libya as Qaddafi forces unleash cluster bombs in neighborhoods, chemical companies charged with injecting hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals into wells from 2005-2009. And so on.) I’m at a loss as to what to say or do in the face of headlines like that. This is the world we live in. This is the world we have created. And this is only a taste, I fear, of what is to come.

The most affecting passage in Life as We Knew It comes toward the end of the book. Miranda's family has been trapped in a house with no electricity for more than a week by a savage blizzard. They’re rationing food out of cans, one meal a day, and melting snow to get water, and the older people in the family are cutting back on eating so that Miranda’s youngest brother will be able to eat a little more. And it’s dawning on her: this is as good as it’s going to get.

I still remember when Mom sprained her ankle the first time and we played poker and really enjoyed ourselves. If you’d told me three months before then that I’d have called that a good time, I would have laughed out loud.

I eat every single day. Two months from now, maybe even a month from now, I might eat only every other day.

We’re all still alive. We’re all healthy.

These are the good times.

An asteroid hitting the moon? That’s about the last thing we need to worry about. But everything else in Life as We Knew It is pretty much dead on.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Silent Sky

I was in San Francisco last week and wound up taking a walk one evening on Grant Street in Chinatown. I stepped into one of the stores and there was some music playing caught me by surprise: acoustic guitar, violin, and some kind of hand-struck drum in an arrangement that sounded like a lot of Western folk music, and a very soft, floating woman’s voice doing the vocals in what I assumed was Chinese. It was one of those odd moments where it felt like I had stumbled into the right spot at the right time to hear this music. I asked the woman behind the counter what was playing, and she handed me a CD entitled Silent Sky by a band called Haya.

I bought the CD and have been listening to it since I got home. Turns out the title track, the one I heard in the store, is up on YouTube:

Turns out the lead singer, Daiquing Tana, is not actually Chinese at all, but Mongolian. I’m not sure which language she’s signing in. The CD case includes a booklet with the lyrics translated somewhat precariously into Engish:

The sunrise and the moonset
In the flourish world
From the eternal
Your frame is melting in the setting sun
I sound a sad blessedness
Silent prayer for the soul of dedication to pacify
When everything returns to silence
I have no desire.

On the blowy grassland
There is my lover
Ah you wind blowing gently
and listening to his sadness songs
Ah you moon, could you lighten his way
Ah you fire, could you make him warm

The Mongolian thing got me wondering again about the purported connection between the Mongolians and the Huns. I have yet to come across a coherent explanation of the history, but from timelines like this seem to suggest that the modern-day Mongols and the Magyars had common ancestors in Siberia as far back as 500 B.C. and that much of the military and cultural history of China, Korea, Russia, India, the Middle East, and Central Europe has been influenced by the actions of Mongol and Hun warriors like Attila, Genghis Khan, and Kubla Khan.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Here I Am

I’ve just opened a new file in Google docs. A blank page confronts me. I’m stare at the screen. The cursor, a simple vertical black line, blinks at me, signaling a readiness, a willingness to begin. I stare at the screen. I’m thinking. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, I’ve got ideas up the wazoo, as my high-school classmates used to say, back in the day. The question is, which one? And why that one, and not one of the others?

I get up and go to the kitchen and retrieve my notebooks. (Well, four of them. The analog ones. On my computer there are notes in Word and Googledocs and Evernote and on my iPhone. And there are file cards and Post-its in little piles all over the place.) There are my two little pocket Moleskines, one for notes, one for sketches. There is my work notebook, where I take notes at meetings. And then there’s my personal journal, which I write in mostly on Saturday and Sunday mornings, right after I have done my morning exercises and right before I shower and eat. It’s my Saturday/Sunday journal because those are days when I have can usually count on having time to write that does not impinge upon other scheduled events, like making it to work on time. I do sometimes add stuff to the journal during the week, but usually it’s by pasting in something I’ve read or want to remember. This, for example:

Art is really an activity, and cannot be otherwise. There is no static art. Art is always an activity. And the fact that it ends up as a painting that somebody hangs on a wall is just a by-product of an activity. It’s not the activity itself. The real act, the real art, is the making of the art. And the real making of the art is a performance. Whether there’s people there watching you, or you’re doing it on your own, you’re moving around, you’re doing this thing and then that thing, you have an order to the way you work, there’s a body language at work in the way you stroke the canvas, there’s a sense of prioritizing of what big shapes and what little shapes, there’s always a sequence of some kind involved. Art is composition, and composition is always in time. It’s always a performance.

That passage is from a video interview on the web site of George Woollard. I've been attending workshops with George for a couple of years now. He likes to talk while he works, and I discovered early on that what he had to say about art is not only interesting in itself but often has all kinds of resonances with what I have myself been thinking (and telling my students) about writing all these many years. So after the first few sessions I began using a digital tape recorder to capture his remarks. Then I’d transfer the digital recording to my laptop, plug in my earphones, open the file, open a new Word document, and then painstakingly transcribe the audio: listen to a sentence or two, click pause, type what I heard, click go. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. (It generally takes me about three hours to transcribe a one-hour talk.)

There are a couple of benefits that arise from this process. One of course is that I get to hear the talk again, more or less in slow motion, and the act of transcribing the words brings them more deliberately into my brain. It’s nice to have the extra processing time. Even if I never re-read the transcripts, it’s still a good way for me to absorb what he was trying to get across. In fact, having the transcript available is not unlike having the painting to hang on the wall. It’s nice to have, but it’s not the activity itself. George’s point being, it’s the activity itself that is the art, and the art in its making is a performance. (As it is in writing. As it is even as I write this, doing this thing and then that thing, involving myself in a project of sequencing: let’s see, now where are we? And what comes next?)

Another spinoff benefit: my touch typing is way better than it was when I started. A third: I can take excerpts from the talks and fold them into other work, as I have done here, moving from one idea to the next.

I’ve been reading Stanley Fish. Chapter 6 of his most recent book, How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, has a chapter on “The Additive Style,” which begins like this:

Sentences like Milton’s and Pater’s are not bashful about foregrounding the process of their own construction. They flaunt their artfulness and invite readers to share in the verbal pyrotechnics they display. But suppose you wanted to achieve another effect, the effect of not planning, order, and control, but of spontaneity, haphazardness, and chance. Then you might avail yourself of another style, no less artful, but marked by the appearance of artlessness. The fountain of this style is the French Essayist Michel de Montaigne... who announces (in “A Consideration upon Cicero”), “I write naturally and without a plan; the first stroke of the pen just leads to a second.”... [and] “I do not portray [finished] being; I portray passing...from day to day, minute to minute... This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas.” (“Of Repentance”).

What Montaigne says here echoes another of George’s core mantras: that you don’t need to know where you’re going. You need to know where you are:

So what you want to do is you want to embrace the process of composing. Composing, fabricating, creating the image. That’s what your job is. So as you try to figure out what you’re doing, this is what you do. You’re just putting one foot in front of the other. You’re walking through the composition, so all you really have to do is just decide what the next step is. You don’t have to know what the end product is. All you need to know is, okay, well, here I am.

Process Reflection: Well, this post is fairly transparently, I hope, an exercise in trying to relate and to apply a concept from the world of art to the world of writing. Another idea that George talks a lot about is the idea of linkage: that whether you are doing representational art or abstract art you begin at one point and then build outward from there, linking one move to the next. I started where I was, over there, up top, and worked my way forward. And now, here I am, over here. I’ve been making the argument with students and colleagues for years: this is what writing is about: facing a blank page and working your way into something. There are times when I (or my students) approach the blank screen or the blank canvas with a pre-set idea. But I find that what I (they) write on those occasions rarely satisfies me in the way that working in a more explorational way does. I didn’t know when I started what I was going to write about. But as I worked into it, the connections fell into place. It’s a process. It’s a performance. “Art is composition, and composition is always in time.” And so is writing.

Random Query: Did anyone else notice the colon in the title of the Fish book, and if so, does it create a disturbing ripple in your internal universe the way it does in mine?

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: The proximate cause of me posting at all this evening was a post by Ken Ronkowitz on Weekends in Paradelle, one of a legion of really interesting blogs that Ken somehow manages to maintain, which basically embarrassed me in the nicest possible way into once again taking up the sword. Thanks, Ken.

Complaint Department: It looks like once again yet already Google docs has disabled the function that used to allow me to post directly from Google docs to my blog. So that means I have to copy, paste, and re-format everything to publish it. Color me unhappy about that. C'mon, guys. Please? Pretty please with sugar on top?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Just and the Unjust

Back in November Christine Thomas over at Literary Lotus published an interview with Scott Turow in which he came up with a list of the five best legal novels. I had read three of them: Billy Budd, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Snow Falling Cedars. I had not, however, read The Just and the Unjust, by James Gould Cozzens, about which Turow had this to say:

Cozzens was regarded as a major American novelist in the middle of the 20th century, and he has fallen by the wayside in terms of public esteem. But this is just a very, very good book about a small town lawyer. It’s ultra-realistic, which means that it is from that time when realist novelists believed that their job was to portray only the so-called middle range of experience, which other people might call boring. But it’s a really beautiful book. It’s a beautiful portrait of a time and a place. If anybody really ever wants to know what it was like to be a small town lawyer in the United States in the 1930s, people whose grandfathers or great-grandfathers were lawyers in a small town and want to know what their life was like, I would say read this book.

It turns out it’s not an easy book to get hold of. It’s not on the shelves at the local bookstores, and it’s not available on Kindle. I was able to get a pretty weatherbeaten copy from the UH library, and I found Turow’s assessment dead on. Although Cozzens may not have been an innovator or stylist along the lines of his contemporaries Faulkner and Hemingway, he is a capable and disciplined storyteller who knows his way around a sentence. His narrative style tends toward a kind of desciptive precision and deliberation that brings the world of the courtroom vividly to life and is very satisfying to read. Here, for example are the opening sentence of Chapter Two:

This was the hour when time stood still. The well of the court was sunk in tepid shadow. Above the slanting half circle of shadowed seats the courtroom windows were free from the sun now, but bright with light; and Abner, leaning back in his chair, could see the northeastern sky, a hazed hot blue behind the sunny treetops. The heavy quiet in the court was not broken so much as mildly stirred by Bunting's voice. Bunting's questions, even and dry, spoken slowly, rose in the silence and shadow, caromed off wall and ceiling, and the multiple echoes died. From the witness stand, Doctor Hill, the coroner, returned his answers with professional deliberation, the ripple of sound beginning again, widening out, echoing, dying.

On the bench Judge Vredenburgh moved his head, his double-chinned but strong and firm plethoric face turning in sharp advertence, his blue eyes glinting, from Bunting to the witness and occasionally to the jury. His right hand under the desk lamp before him could not be seen, but the light winked now and then on the metal end of a pencil as he wrote. Under the bench Joe Jackman, in the glow of his lamp, wrote too, and paused and wrote and paused, his expression bemused, his thoughts apparently far away. Next to Joe sat Nick Dowdy, gray head bowed, fat chin sunk on his chest, placidly asleep. Next to Nick, Mat Rhea, the clerk of Quarter Sessions, looked at his clasped hands, slowly and patiently twiddling his thumbs. Farther down the line, Gifford Hughes, the prothonotary, sat back, his mustache sadlydrooping, his eyes dreamily fixed in space. Beyond Gifford, Hermann Mapes, the clerk of the Orphans Court, bent forward, plainly busy with some of his office work. In their elevated chairs around the circle of the rail, the tipstaffs were drowsing. Now one, now another, now two or three at once nodded slowly. Then one or another woke, lifting his head with a light practiced jerk, affecting to have been awake all the time. Down by the lower doors the state police officers yawned.

I love the way the language moves in that passage, the attention to light and sound in the first paragraph, followed by the quick, deft, shorthand sketches of the local cast of characters in the second. Cozzens depicts them with empathy and deep understanding.

The main character in the book is Abner Coates, who is assistant to the District Attorney in a murder case. The novel follows in patient detail the course of the trial over three days. During those three days, Abner finds out that the DA is going to be moving on to another job and it looks like this will give Abner the chance to himself become the DA. The question is whether or not he wants it. He had thought he did, but then, for a variety of complicated reasons, he decides to turn it down, and in this passage, where we follow his thoughts as he tries to reconcile himself to his decision, seems to me to be a classic inventory of sorts, revealing a great deal of understanding about the life of a trial lawyer in particular, but also about the dilemma of really any person trying to find the balance between complex, challenging work and quality of life issues:

Walking up to where his car was parked behind the courthouse, Abner did what he could to adjust himself to such a great change of plan. It would certainly be a load off his mind. When you were in the district attorney's office they kept you on a sort of treadmill. Quarter Sessions were sure as death and taxes. You cleaned up the term's trial list, and as soon as you were through, indeed, before you were through, it began all over again. Night and day, people (and often old familiar ones) were busy with projects considered or unconsidered, which would suddenly collide with the law and become public. In advance you could count on case after case — always fifteen or twenty — of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. Boys were swiping things because they had no money; and some of them were going to be caught and held for burglary, larceny, and receiving stolen goods. There would be forcible entries here and felonious assaults there. Somebody would wantonly point a firearm; and somebody else would sell malt beverages on premises without license. Fornication had duly resulted in bastardy, and the Commonwealth was charged with seeing that the disgruntled father supported his little bastard. Heretofore respectable, an old man would feel indescribable urges to expose himself to women, and this was open lewdness. Forged instruments would be uttered, fraudulent conversions attempted; and, in passion or liquor, somebody might seek to kill a man or rape a woman.

And so the indictments piled up. The district attorney's office saw the prisoners, and talked to witnesses and listened to complaints. They arraigned the guilty pleas in Miscellaneous Court; and prepared the others for the grand jury. The county officers brought in to them the non-support and desertion cases; prisoners became eligible for parole, and the parole violators were picked up. Keeping step with it all (or sometimes a little behind) the papers to be signed and the forms to be filled kept accumulating — recognizances; petitions for appointment of counsel, for approval of bills of expense, for attachment, for condemnation and destruction of contraband, for support and to vacate support, for writs of habeas corpus ad prosequendum and ad testificandum; the criminal transcripts; the warrants; the waivers of jury trial — anyone ought to be glad to get rid of all that. Not to mention the endless hours in court while you asked formal tedious questions to foregone conclusions, while you waited for juries to make up their rambling minds, for his Honor to get through in chambers, for absent witnesses to be found and produced, for court to open and court to adjourn — "My God!" thought Abner. "What a way to spend your life!"

This is a book I really enjoyed reading, the kind of solid, patiently crafted book you can sink your teeth into.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Write or Die

A student came by yesterday for a conference and happened to tell me about a web site, Which is actually what I used to draft this post. It's a pretty simple concept. You set yourself a time limit and a goal of then a certain number of words. (I chose ten minutes to come up with 200 words.) The site provides you with a text box with a timer and word count at the bottom. If you don't keep typing, the screen goes from pink to red to darker red, and then a horn starts to blare, and eventually the program starts erasing the words you have already typed. It's basically a way of forcing yourself to write, leaning more heavily on sticks than carrots.

It's been almost two months since I've posted anything on Throughlines and I knew I needed some kind of a kick in the pants to get myself started again. So this is as good a start as any, I guess. I gave myself ten minutes to come up 200 words. Right now I've got four and a half minutes left 34 words to go, so unless I run off the rails and into a rock wall I'll probably make it. Then I can go ahead and post this and say to myself, there, it's done.

At least the first draft — of exactly 200 words until I started editing it — was done. Then I just copied what I wrote there into the Blogger window, proofread and tidied up.

Process Reflection:

Well, it served the purpose, and I can see it would be a cool tool in certain situations. There's something a little franticness-inducing about typing while keeping an eye on a timer. The experience reinforced for me how much stop and go, how much thinking and re-thinking I normally do while I'm writing. Often, it's actually a kind of meditation practice. This time, it didn't feel like that.