Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let's Do This Instead

There must be other people who redo a syllabus after the first class. That is what I am doing today. The one I wrote last week didn't fit. 
What am I changing? Less reading, and more. Am using parts of the  Janet Burroway book this spring, and The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eaven Boland--Mark Strand is in our reading series this spring. Plus books by all our readers, including Toni Morrison who is coming in late April. The Bluest Eye, and A Mercy. 
A lot of reading. And, when I was with them last week I was intuitively certain we must also read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. So many techniques packed into that short novel. I would love to add Hadji Murad, what an exquisite a book that is. Too much? Too much. This time around.
Now to redivide everything, make some readings recommended, make room in the syllabus for spontaneity. The class can change the course of that river, make it a live mapping, guided by what needs to be discovered next.

Friday, January 21, 2011


It hardly feels like spring, yet a turn has occurred. The light is lasting longer. The dozens of birds and squirrels I feed every day seemed determined to endure for what they know is coming soon enough--the balm of warmth, which will bring an ability to find food and drink on their own, beyond the odd appearance of the seeds and peanut butter on the blue table whenever supplies run low. (They barely fly away when I appear; just up a few feet into the grey branches of the four Rose of Sharon in front of the chimneys; they believe they have trained me to come when they are hungry, just as the dogs believe they have trained the mailman to walk away from their barking.)

The leisurely pace of this transition from winter to spring is convincing. We creatures who live so utterly in our bodies need time to adjust to major shifts; we go into shock under circumstances of quick change. (Perhaps I am writing this tonight because it is the anniversary of my father's shocking, abrupt death, and I feel the weight in my arms of it, the impulse to push time back to before, to push the announcement back into my mother's mouth, to demand the universe to take it back!) We can't understand abrupt change. We need to get to know a new life before we have to live it. We need to become the new version of ourselves who can make the most of a shift in circumstance. Otherwise we are only our old selves adapting to a new circumstance--the body turning around and around.

Last night in class we looked at the turning points in two stories, the moment that had been led up to over a great number of pages. The situations were well described and interesting, and we knew something was going to happen, both from the experience of how stories develop and from the mounting tension within each piece. A transition was ahead! Yet when it arrived, it came and went so quickly that we were past it before we had a chance to notice or feel it. The transition in both instances occurred in the middle of a sentence, or at most, one paragraph. In both instances, the transition came about as a result of the character doing some thinking about his or her situation. Nothing happened to change his mind. He just changed it. This made the words on the page only writing--good as it was. We didn't feel, or believe, or weep. We only read on.

What was missing? Drama, and the pacing necessary to convince. In drama, transitions occur because external things happen, things of enough relevance and import that a character will stop his habitual way of thinking long enough to pay attention, and maybe, if he can stay in that place outside himself for long enough, he might be able to grasp a new reality. The something that happens needs to be shown in full, so the reader believes it big enough to break through the character's way of self. We know what it takes to get our attention. Not our shock; but our attention, the gathering of our whole selves around a single point.

Personality is intractable. As Dickens knew, as the Bible knew, it takes ghosts and angels to make people change, and even then, they may only end up as themselves with a new belief system--as when Saul the zealous persecutor became Paul zealous proselytizer. He was still zealous. One supernatural visit wasn't enough to undo that bent. Dickens was more thorough with Scrooge; three ghosts, each visit told in detail. The reader has time to imagine and reflect how he or she might have fared under such circumstances. Yes, three ghosts might actually change a person. I hope that would get through to me!

Was Scrooge just thinking? Perhaps. Yet to externalize it, to give his conscience chain rattling form, is to make it dramatic. His change is slowed down enough for us to accept it--to recognize in it our own hope that all cruel and antisocial people will become benevolent and friendly. Can change happen only in the mind, without an exterior dramatic event mirroring it? Yes and no. When change is interior, time becomes the exterior. Time must be taken to trace the passage of the mind through a transition. A train of thought, yes; and even better, a train of interior experience, with sensual markers. A fully lived interior event.

Most of what is called change in fiction is incremental. It is more of an expansion of vision than a Scrooge-like turnaround. A character sees things through a wider lens than before, and therefore knows a bit more, and therefore might make slightly different choices in the future. 

We live in bodies, as bodies. This is dramatic--we are always always in the universe. Think of that.

(I think of my father on the anniversary of his death. Too much happened to him.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Swimming to Infinity

I was having lunch with a friend and the question came up: what was the most important experience of our lives?
For me it was my first swim in the sea. Leaving uprightness, solidity, groundedness, clarity, for floating, fluidity, non-attachment, invisibility. Going from one conception of self to something so other I had to start over again in knowing who I was; and so was made aware, with a clap! of deeper recesses of interiority.
What a feeling for a small child--that inside there are more and more places to go. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I have been writing a book for many years now. It isn't the same book as it was when I began--not even a shadow of it. I have written hundreds of pages and thrown them out, or at best, put them in a drawer. (One of the top uses for drawers is to house unrealized books.) Yet it is unfinished. I have been resisting the book all along--not blocking it, but resisting it. There's a part of me that wouldn't settle for what I have thought of before now. It isn't that my conceptions have been wrong, or that the pages have been bad. It's simply that they haven't been the right ones. I have carried within an image of the book perched on a tree branch, with me standing underneath, reaching upward--not quite touching. 
It was a many layered resistance--as I resisted explanations for it as well. There was something I wasn't getting at, something I needed to find for the book, and there was no way to it but to keep working wherever I was at the moment. It's hard to be so utterly uncertain. But sometimes that's all there is.
Part of it has been my general unhappiness with the form. It isn't so much that I don't like conventional narrative--on the contrary, I don't think there's anything quite as hard to do as to tell a story from beginning to end with no digressions, and keep it interesting. It is a fantasy of experience in the same way symmetry is a fantasy of nature. Neither of these correspond to our real experiences, but we wish they would so badly that when they show up in art, we feel a tremendous relief. I recognize this and have no quarrels with it. A single linear narrative didn't feel right for the book, though, but my other ideas were just that--ideas. Inorganic. I wasn't resisting from my mind, but from my soul, or wherever forms are created within the self. I was searching for the right shape by resisting the attempts that didn't fit. Finding a shape is such an odd process, with only an intuition to go on.
Resistance is inherent in fiction. It goes by other names; tension, conflict, juxtaposition, and some of the more arcane rhetorical nomenclature, but it always has to do with separation--the push back or the hold back that creates a space that might be filled with something unforeseen. It is the flip side of inspiration, which also appears in many forms, and makes you feel at one with the gods, be you reader or writer. Some people believe in neither; I believe in both.
I see the shape now, for now. I am at peace, my guard is down. I am not reaching for a branch, but swimming in a warm Florida river, touching the river grass.
Thank you, Resistance. It's great the way you kick my ass.