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.