Saturday, March 26, 2011

Of Inevitable Endings

I saw such a beautiful film last night, called Of Gods and Men. It did what I love in a story, binding a deeply understood character to an exactly matched situation.

In this case the character is a group of monks living in a monastery in Algeria. They are each drawn individually, yet they also function as a single character by nature of their bond of community. The coming war threatens to break them apart, as they disagree about whether or not to stay or to leave.
A good story! Simple and engaging. Should one face danger if he doesn't have to?
It depends. The conditional nature of the answer invites the dramatist to enter and explore how this one group of people made the decision they did.

The filmmaker, Xavier Beauvois, has a truly beautiful and penetrating vision, a moral vision. When an artist sees so clearly, he or she arrives at an ending that is inevitable.
I have been thinking all day about this--how surprising the inevitable is, compared to how dull the predictable. And how the two may be exactly the same on the surface--the same ending. The climax of this film wasn't a surprise in the sense of not being able to see it coming. It was foreseeable from way off. Yet it still upset me. I knew, but I didn't really know. The fullness of the end was made known to me in the gestures and feints of the film.

The inevitable surprises because it isn't a straight shot. A character takes an action or arrives at a decision not just according to the facts--neither in the world, nor in what he knows of himself. He acts or decides based as much on what he doesn't know as on what he does. He has to move forward, and the movement connects him with all of the unknown. He is walking into the dark. He is uneven--we all are. Smart in some ways, dense in others.

The author penetrates this jumble. Careful, sensitive discernment perceives inevitability rather than predictability. This thinking can take a very long time, as Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James have all noted in writing about their work. A character may seem real to an author because thinking about his creature--really thinking and asking--makes the author more real to himself. It is hard work, and demanding, because to make up a creature who is other than oneself you have to be able to see beyond yourself. Most of us have such conflicted feelings about ourselves that we are blocked from true insight.

If we can see, if we can create an other as complex as a living person, if we can portray a constellation and connect the stars, the energy of creation communicates to the reader--the character comes alive.

Inevitability is surprising, because it contains the whole mystery of a human being. Predictability is unmoving, because there are no distant notes being struck inside a soul as it struggles to decide.

The film was a portrayal of an artist in this process of a deep discernment of his subject. What happened in that monastery? Why did the monks do what they did? It was its own story, and also a metaphor for a mind torn different ways, even in full faith.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring Break, non-Ft. Lauderdale version

I lost my timelines; or more accurately, I misplaced them. They were here somewhere, in this small grey room. I knew I hadn't left them on a train or in a taxi. There would be no breathcatching writerly anecdote attendant to the loss. I had hidden them from myself.

This week I was alone, completely. My mind was my own. All the pages I have written for my book got portage from the drawers and shelves, down the stairs to the dining room table. Each stapled section or lone scribbled sheet had its moment, its own vetting, and then a fresh placement in a new folder.

This took time; breaks were necessary. So I walked. For the first time this week since last June, I was able to walk without pain. I hate even writing that down, because having lost my walking, one of the central habits of my life, I have become intensely sensitive to people who cannot walk, or do so with great difficulty. I believed I would be able to again; my physical therapist said it would happen; and it came true.

I took several walks, each one with trepidation. What if I foundered again? I had that locked in sensation of being on my own with a memory of pain that was mine and mine alone. The evil twin.

I walked up in Mills Reservation with my dogs, twice around each time. Three miles. A month ago I couldn't go around the block without severe pain.

Back to work. I hadn't only written beginnings. There were pages and pages of scenes and events. Each of the major characters had been given his or her due. I began to see shapes, I began to move the pieces around. I had written scenes starring one character that might better serve for another.

I frowned. Last summer I wrote over 100 useless pages that barely sounded like me.

I walked this week in Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, very favorite places. Had the ocean really been so kind as to wait for my return?

It was a hard hard week, too. The new spring break.

I don't know anyone who had a parent die when she was young who doesn't viscerally feel time passing. Today is the first day of the rest day of your life? Okay. But it might also be the last day of the life of someone you love and depend on. Lose a mother or a father and you lose the irreplacable. Neural pathways. Opportunities. Taking for granted isn't an option.

The wound isn't jagged or complicated. It is a simple lop. The simplicity seems so clear from the inside, but can appear confounding from the outside.

How does that figure in to what I'm talking about here?

Where the hell could I have put my timelines?

I needed them for the stitching, the closing of the gaps, the fractures in the book. I could make new ones, but they would be extrapolated, backwards work. Not the hopeful feelers, the daydreams.

What is the worst thing that can happen to a person? Is that an easy question to answer or not?

I look ahead now, not back. I look at the time I have, and it is conceivable. The illusion of eons left has been pricked. I can wrap my mind around what remains, and death, too. I want to spend the coming scant time with who I love most, doing what I like best. Writing, walking, gazing, knowing. End of story.

I actually have written a book. Who knew? It isn't finished by any means, but it is a creature napping on the dining room table. Next break I will give it a shake, wake it up to play.

When I am alone I go off the clock completely. I am blind to the telling of time and only pass through it with a sense of its strangeness, its dominance and its passivity, its twinship with my being. Time, c'est moi. I can't ignore it even when I do.

It was a good week, it was a terrible week.

I found the timelines tonight in the way things are usually found. I suddenly went across the room and laid my hands on them. They were buried. Had I done that, or was it the mischievous days?

There are entries for what each character is doing in each year, from 1930 on. Very little of it will be in the book. It is a dream of order, of congruence.

The book is on the table, and I can walk again. Yet there is another level of being that isn't movement, or words. I lived there this week, too. In the real. In waves.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bones and Shooting Stars

The structure. The structure. The structure. I have the story, the characters, the themes, the whole all, but how to put it together? What is the shape, where are the bones?
This is something hard to teach and hard to find for oneself. It's a reason even great writing teachers can't quite pin down what to do. You can take a story handed into a workshop and, in the case of how I approach it, make a few chiropractic adjustments, but that doesn't change the basic structure. That's something that comes up from a writer's depths--be they the depths of intellect or of feeling. Finding a structure is crucial. When an author always uses borrowed structures, a book often founders--not in the reading, but in the writing. The writer needs to feel held in place by her own skeleton.
One of my most sobering writing books is The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Writing. It really makes you laugh and cry to dip into this volume. The guy is scary smart, and very moving. Included in the book are prefaces to some of his novels and stories, which read like very sophisticated versions of "Hey, did you get how the house is supposed to look like a face?" He wants you to see what he did, and get how great it is. Sweet! The intros are deeply brilliant and illuminating, and they do add to the work, but they also make me laugh. For example, here are a couple of sentences to his introduction to What Maisie Knew.

Sketchily clustered even, these elements give out the vague pictorial glow which forms the first appeal of a living "subject" to the painter's consciousness; but the glimmer became intense as I proceeded to a further analysis. The further analysis is for that matter almost always the torch of rapture and victory, as the artist's firm hand grasps and plays it--I mean, naturally, {NATURALLY!} of the smothered rapture and the obscure victory, enjoyed and celebrated not in the street but before some innermost shrine; the odds being a hundred to one, in almost any connexion, that it doesn't arrive by any easy first process at the best residiuum of truth.

Okay! So it's not just me who finds this hard. That's a relief! I shouldn't settle for that first easy process--I knew it! Darn, back to the drawing board. I do want to find the best residiuum of truth--who doesn't? I'm tempted to copy out every word of this, because it's both wild and a great teaching tool, but because I can't type and for reasons of blog decency I'll skip down. Later in the essay James recalls his original idea for The Pupil. 

...I perfectly recall...every aspect of the original vision, which struck me as abounding in aspects.  It lives again for me, this vision, as it first alighted; though the prime inimitable flutter, the air as of an ineffable sign made by the immediate beat of the wings of the poised figure of fancy that has just settled, is one of the guarantees of value that can never be re-captured. The sign has been made to the seer only--it is his queer affair; of which any report to others, not as yet involved, has but the same effect of flatness as attends, amid a group fathered under the canopy of night, any stray allusion to a shooting star. The miracle, as miracle it seems, is all for the candid examiner.

This is why it's hard to teach. This vision of the whole, the structure, is queer and individual. Many people have the vision, but then there is the understanding of it, and its execution.  Not for the faint of heart, this writing stuff.

But oh, this Henry James is so so lovable! Having picked this book up again to refer to for this post, I am drawn in. He's so serious. Reading these introductions makes me think of the wonderful bit in one of Virginia Woolf's diaries where she says the problem with Lord Byron was that his wife didn't laugh at him enough, so he became Byronic. I laugh when I read this stuff, even though I am completely enthralled. What a little pumpkin pie, that Henry James.

The point being, the bones. Every work of fiction must have them, and so they must be searched for, excavated from below the themes. Or spotted as a shooting star. Whatever. I finally found the bones for my book, and pretty clever they are. Or so I thought until I mentioned it to someone who said the fatal 'have you read such and such?' That doesn't scare me like it used to. It's the marriage of structure and material that becomes an original piece. As long as its queer, it's going to be okay.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Flaubert exposes himself

I have spent the last hour writing a short piece on Madame Bovary. It has been a swift explosion of my thoughts over many years. I am posting this before I edit it for its commissioned purpose--to capture the raw work of morning. It may contain errors, forgive me. I touched the pages of the book as I wrote this. I wish I could write all day.

 I offer to you the great French novel Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. I have enjoyed it, studied it, taught it, learned from it. There are nights when I lie awake thinking of Flaubert trying to work out how to make these scenes. No one before had ever focused on description and dialogue as he did. He wanted the events in his book to have the sensation of reality, and to hide the hand of the author. If you read the letters he wrote while composing the book, a seven year full time project, you will empathize with the effort, the endless work, of trying to figure out how to put on paper what he imagined. Many of the techniques he used and the effects he created had never been made before.
Flaubert was an inventor, both of literary form and of himself. His friends were becoming famous and he wanted to join them, so he moved from Paris to his mother's house, where he'd both have no distractions and be taken care of, and he wrote his book. He took the subject from a conversation he'd overheard at a party--a provincial doctor's wife had killed herself. Writing about French country village life wasn't his dream; he hoped to write a classic that spoke to the classics of the ancient world; he considered Madame Bovary a practice book.
In the US there is a tremendous emphasis placed now on having the protagonist be a likable character. I cannot hear this request without thinking of President George Bush spoken of as a man with whom you'd like to drink a beer. We have lost our way with this notion of likeability; Flaubert didn't abide by it. Madame Bovary is never likable, though in moments she arouses empathy. Her portrayal is deeply knowing and honest. The likable person couldn't be so rash, so reckless in the name of desire, so destructive, so certain of her right to her own impulses. Does the truly likable person want so much to be someone and somewhere else? When I am told of the necessity of likeability, I hold her up to make the opposite point. Look at Emma. She isn't good, kind, friendly, pleasant, thoughtful, caring. There is nothing about her that would appeal to a town now and any more than she did to the Rouen of the 1850s. Yet there are moments when she shows the side of her character attracted to spirituality and beauty. They aren't particularly emphasized, and they do not win the day as they did for Lily Bart in The House of Mirth; Flaubert intended to write a Realist novel, not a dream. Yet she is moving in her struggle. These glimpses of the possibility for her to be more reflect the truth of most humans. We might be more, yet we rarely are.
Flaubert said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." I interpret that to mean that Emma Bovary is a proxy for him and his desires, including the drive to express himself in language. There is much here about the influence of novels; at one point Emma is forbidden by her husband and mother-in-law from reading them, as they are clearly contributing to her depression. Letters are written between the pairs of lovers with great self-awareness about the project of influence via words. There is an ambivalence toward writing throughout, its attraction and limitations. Madame Bovary is a reader and a writer of love letters, a writer of her life. The relation between her and Flaubert is knowing. Few of us have the nerve to examine ourselves with such an open eye, to expose our shallowness and sentimentality, our materialism and our passion for people who don't deserve it, our cruelty.
Yet it seems to me that every book does exactly this. We see another person, an author, through the scrim of his words. The choices are either false or true, craven or noble. Rarely are they completely honest. Flaubert wasn't particularly good, but he was shockingly honest. If you copy this book by hand, you will learn how to write a novel.