Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fazed By The Moon

Last week, a white, shining moon appeared every night, and often in the afternoon as well. I've never seen a moon as purely white. It had an allure that drew me outside over and over again in the evenings, simply to look, to be with it, to try to memorize it. Its edges blurred; my eyes kept attempting to find a border, but finally had to adjust to a shimmering. My bed has a window by it that showed the moon through the black fall branches. I watched it move as if it were a movie--an Andy Warhol movie.

Meanwhile I was working up to rewriting a story I'd let sit for several months. Waiting for a key to how to move it forward. The story contains a moon--an enormous orange moon that heightens the sense of mystery in a fall night.

Usually when I read a story by a student, I can see the clues they have dropped for themselves as to what they really care about. Often the real story hasn't made it to the page yet--it has merely sent forward its scouts. It is easier to spot the clues of others than my own--it can take a long time to locate the central metaphor/its meaning. A big moon, yes, but why? What's the deep connection with story I wrote? How does it reflect something important to me?

The answer came when I was making the bed--oh, moon again, in the form of a bedspread. There it was--the shape of the story moving through its phases. This is pretty much how it happens; I try to make sense of what I've done, and then suddenly I find a logic, which isn't the same thing. The metaphor becomes dynamic, rather than puzzling.

I considered changing the moon to white, in gratitude for the additional pressure it provided, but that wasn't called for. It wants to be orange.

A moon appears orange when it is low in the sky and there are more the usual particles of atmospheric matter between it and the earth. In the fall, at Harvest time, a lot of matter is stirred up, and therefore this huge orange moon is called the Harvest Moon. Good to know, but not my metaphor.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fireworks Inside and Out

We still had time left in class--time to go a bit deeper into a question I've been wondering about for a few years, and have made a central consideration this semester: why is description often thin or even skipped? Why can it amount to stage direction and not much more?

The answers ranged from fear of sentimentality to laziness to preoccupation with other aspects of getting the story down. There was a sense that description is both daunting and negligible--that it can be a track laid in later when the main line is in place. If needed.

True, there is no necessary order of operations when making a piece of writing.  True, a bare bones story can exist without it.

What if one wants to describe, though, but is shy of taking on the authority to name how a thing is? Or can't find a way to talk about, say, a flower that feels fresh or interesting? 

It was about 7:30 by then; to my left, the picture windows across the outside wall of the room had blackened. I only saw the darkness peripherally. It was time for it to be dark; what of it?

I opened a book we are using this semester in both my classes, Mark Doty's The Art of Description. (It is the latest volume in Graywolf Press's The Art Of series on writing.) What a beautifully written, extraordinarily clear and smart book this is. It would have saved me a lot of years of trying to figure out how writing works if I'd had read it when I was younger, though I'm not sure I'd have grasped it as completely as I do now. Desert Island writing books, limited to two only: Mystery and Manners by Flannery O' Connor and The Art of Description by Mark Doty. Done.

The book is subtitled World Into Word; to myself, I call it that; it names the enterprise and opens the toolbox.  Three words, balanced and tuneful.

In the first essay Mark writes about seeing a fireworks display. I begin this quote partway into the story:
"A few children had to be comforted, a few shocked pets hurried away, but everyone else loved it, craning their heads back and taking in the gold and green and fuchsia sparks exploding over us in the form of starbursts or fantastic down-raining flowers."

How's that? Nice. Fireworksy. But wait:

"Here I sigh. That last sentence just doesn't come anywhere close to evoking the actual visual or auditory experience. Not to mention the smell of burnt powder and drifting smoke picking up a little salt and seaweed tang, mingled with the annoying cigarette of the man next to me.Or my awareness that the colors overhead were complicated by the peripheral sense that the intense light of the launching rockets has lit up the water a peculiar army-surplus green, while a cheerful little blue and yellow inflatable skiff to our right rocked on the wavelets beneath all that celestial action.
But what struck me most was this: as the bits of fire came arcing down, they streaked across the night at the same time that I became aware of the spider-smoke behind them, strange contrails and patterns left where the flares had been; these were already shifted and lengthened by the wind--so that beneath the descending display of lights, a kind of ghostly display moved at a right angle to the first, strangely, like a visible history of fire."

Beautiful. And now we're seeing deeper into the event--we're seeing what Mark noticed. The fireworks have become his experience, and he has parsed it carefully and offered it to the reader. It is singular, particular, sensual, supernatural, historical--a way into the strangeness of the real. Can we guess the state of mind of the person who wrote these lines? Yes, we can come up with some possibilities. Can we begin to construct a story based on this description? We could--we could. Description isn't only an enhancement; it can be a point of origin.

The key to deepening the practice lies in the opening phrase of the last sentence-- what struck me most. 

Me. Most.  These fireworks occurred to this particular mind in this way, with this moment being the most resonant. The event has become filtered through a particular sensibility (a highly refined one, in this case.) Meaning has been made.

We were exhilarated, so much so that we spontaneously began to laugh. Then--the room filled with light! We shrieked! I had no idea what was going on...had we materialized fireworks ourselves? The people facing out said there'd been a display of lightning bolts for the past twenty minutes or so. I missed it. But there were witnesses.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

That Voice

This is a day that has resonated with me and millions of other people for a very long time. John's birthday. I memorized all the Beatle birthdays: John, October 9, Paul, June 18, George, February 25, and Ringo, July 7. A way of holding them, caring for them. Love.

I never screamed over The Beatles. Sally Draper and I finally parted ways two weeks ago when Don told her he was taking her to see them and she screamed. Oh, she's not really serious about them, I thought. She doesn't really see.

All the boys I knew loved John. For me he was a late love, but present and permanent. It is hard to listen to his voice without feeling soul-flensed; he isn't a daily diet, and never background music. His voice, keen and rough both, became more and more unnerving as he aged and went deeper. He graduated from sly clever brilliance and a solid bullshit detector to true tenderness and wisdom. Who holds a feeling better in a note than John Lennon?

He named so many feelings, for so many people.

Still no screams, but he sure makes me cry. A lot more often than October 9.

Here he is, naming pain and doing a bit of screaming himself.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Yesterday, after an hour and a half with the physical therapist who stretched and worked on my foot with great valiance and aplomb, I decided to take the dogs for a walk. A gray day it was, one of my favorite weathers. How very happy they were to be up and out. We went up to the reservation where they can walk without leashes. They're very good about sticking with me--even Tuffy, my schipperke, a breed notorious for not being able to learn to walk off a leash without running away. Tuffy is my second schipperke--the other one, my beautiful Edie, was just as easy, and only separated from me twice, when she was old and confused. (I learned that a panicked dog is apt to stop still at the sound of your voice and wait for you to find her rather than coming as usual. Both times were in the snow--unhappy afternoons.)
Dogs love to do as you ask, as long as you ask for reasonable behaviors and communicate them clearly. Off the leash walking is easy once they are bonded. There's no rush to do it, either. It comes, and then it's reliable. I keep my dogs on leash for nine months just to be sure.

When Jesse, my mini dachsund, went to puppy class, she was roughed up by a black lab and has hated them ever since. Now every time she sees one she immediately looks around for Tuffy, who she counts on to protect her.  Tuffy spots the lab (only the black, the others are okay) and turns sideways to it and lifts his lip. The lab drops its head and slinks by. Lab puppies don't know better and are apt to bound up anyway. Then Tuffy growls fiercely--it's pretty scary. No matter that he's shorter. He's got love on his side, and riteous anger. He prevails.

Tuffy, his lip curled, tells off a perfectly sweet puppy.
Jesse walks so nearby at my heels I often stop and cry out for her, panicked that she has run off. But there she is, too close to see. Today I could barely make it around the block, but she stuck by me while Tuffy went ahead, clearing the way.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Beauty Is Truth

This week Irene McKinney, Poet Laureate of West Virginia, came to my classroom. She already read in our reading series Writers at Newark, so we knew her tough minded great poems and her straightforward manner--she gave a great reading. In class she gave us a lot of wisdom in a short period, two bits of which made everyone lean forward. One was to take a good look at the place you are from, your place, and see what's there for your work. She told us that for a long time she believed her place, rural West Virginia, wasn't a place at all, but nowhere special. It wasn't until she read the poet Gary Snyder that she understood that her deep relationship with her farm might actually be the subject of poetry. A lot of us could relate to that--our places seem too familiar to be interesting. Too specific and foreign to others. 

Yet we know to be true that familiarity and specificity ground us. We may not have experience of Jane Eyre's cold wet houses, or Willa Cather's empty deserts, but these writers lead us to understand how the human mind experiences such places. When an author offers the details that connect a person to a place, and shows the flux between them, he or she opens the place to meaning. Any place can be found to have a profound meaning when the relationship between it and its creatures is discerned.

Irene McKinney
Irene also suggested to us that we write about our shame--not the public embarrassments, but the private shames that only we know about. Doing this will ground us in honesty and possibility with our writing, and let us know what it feels like to be fearless witnesses of our own experiences. I loved her suggesting this; it's both leveling and revealing. You surely see who you think is looking over your shoulder when you're writing, as well as finding out what aspects of yourself you don't really care to think about. Maybe these are necessary to have at hand.

One thing I love about Irene's work is that she doesn't try to lift up the hard feelings in her poems. She simply follows them. Hard, hard to do. Hard not to want to be transformative.

Written down by George Keats
Thinking of all this prompted me to look up Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn. I turned to it thinking of the famous lines he quotes from Joshua Reynolds. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." I wanted to read them again, in context. Here are lines that come just a little before the quote:

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 

Oh, I just love that. Cold pastoral, those frozen figures on the urn, and, I feel, the cold beauty of direct perception, beauty discerned in relation to what we can't see as beautiful; aging, death. Paradoxically, when I read great poetry, I get this exalted sense that everything actually is beautiful. That is the truth.  Thanks, John Keats. Thanks, Irene McKinney.