Monthly Archives: October 2008

Noted: Soren Kirkegaard

from “Immediate Stages of the Erotic” in Either/Or, Volume I

“That which you have loved with youthful enthusiasm and admired with youthful ardor, that which you have secretly and mysteriously preserved in the innermost recesses of your soul, that which you have hidden in the heart: that you always approach with a certain shyness, with mingled emotions, when you know that the purpose is to try to understand it.”

“As far as Mozart’s music is concerned, my soul knows no fear, my confidence is boundless. For one thing, I know that what I have hitherto understood is very little, so there will always be enough left behind, hiding in the shadows of the soul’s vaguer intimations; and for another, I am convinced that if ever Mozart became wholly comprehensible to me, he would then become fully incomprehensible to me.”

“The kingdom known to me, to whose utmost boundaries I intend to go in order to discover music, is language. If one wished to arrange the different media according to their appointed developmental process, one would have to place music and language next to one another, for which reason it has often been said that music is a language, which is something more than a genial remark.”

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Filed under aesthetics, NOTED, structure, syntax

Noted: David Jauss on flow

From “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” a chapter in Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction Writing—

“According to [Virginia] Tufte [in Grammar as Style], ‘The better the writer . . . the more he tends to vary his sentence length. And he does it as dramatically as possible.’ Since variation of sentence length results from varying sentence structure, ultimately it’s our syntax that determines whether our prose flows or not. As Stephen Dobyns tells us, syntax is like a landscape: If it’s too uniform . . . our prose will look more like Nebraska than Switzerland. A variety of sentence structure—and therefore of sentence length—will give our prose a more flowing, and appealing, landscape.”

“Thus, altering our syntax does more than help us write flowing prose; it allows us to get our thoughts off the normal track on which they run. Syntax is nothing if not the very structure of our thought, so if we change the way we think, we can sometimes change what we think. But don’t take my word for it; take Yeats’s. In the introduction to his collected plays, he wrote, ‘As I altered my syntax I changed my intellect.’ . . . Rather, I believe that as we alter our syntax, we discover our intellect—i.e., we find ways to say what we always knew but never knew we knew, our deepest beliefs and feelings.”

“What alters our consciousness, then, is not so much syntax but the effects—feelings—evoked by its sequence. . . . [I]t stands to reason that one purpose of syntactical variation is to convey rhythmically the emotion we wish to create in the reader. If we fail to create the appropriate rhythm, we will most likely also fail to convey fully the appropriate emotion—and that can have disastrous effects on the story as a whole.”

“As we progress in our craft, however, we begin to think about structure in larger and larger terms. We begin to vary not only the structure and length of sentences within paragraphs but the structure and length of paragraphs within scenes and the structure and length of scenes within chapters and so forth. And we try to make the flow of each of these parts rhythmically mimetic, or at least appropriate, to the story’s events and the characters’ states of mind. . . . The best writers . . . vary the syntax of their scenes, sections, chapters, and so forth much as a composer varies the structure and tempo of a symphony’s movements.”


Filed under craft, technique, emotion, flow, NOTED, structure, syntax

Noted: Marilynne Robinson

Interviewed for The Paris Review, Fall 2008, by Sarah Fay.

“I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of the story lies. I don’t see any reason for fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.”

“You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as ‘beauty.’ Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at that sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”

“Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.”


Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, narrative, NOTED, religion & spirituality, revision, structure, teaching, education, workshopping

Narrative nation

Literature is fragrant with the compost of human misery. With the never-ending story of our impossible burden. With our failure to reach our promise and with our effort to redeem. Journalism, catching history on the fly, is at its best when it holds our stated ideals (the Constitution, say) beside our practice. When it tugs at the sleeve. Truth be told, though, the press’s daily practical purpose is to supply information (anecdotes and images, actually) that help us gauge a leader’s worthiness. I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected.

Watching this historic moment, when a young man with the air of greatness about him may ascend to our presidency, the electorate’s hypocrisy detectors are finely tuned. To mix the metaphor with an old expression: We’re reading tea leaves. We compare emerging stories with our own explanations, our inner narratives.

To have seen John McCain—a patriot, a thoughtful and deeply read man, an admirable servant, his flawed temperament notwithstanding—sell his soul in an attempt to be elected has simply hurt. Here was a man, tortured himself in Vietnam, who took on the administration for torture—and then trashed his brave narrative in order to win his party’s nomination. He turned himself into an object lesson (you can lose your way at any age) and into a metaphor for today’s Republican Party: old, angry, corrupt, bereft of ideas. (With friends and beloved kin who consider my narrative as crazy as I find theirs inconceivable, it makes me think our inner stories—as seemingly central as they are—are indeed a mere constructed overlay and not the central core of our being.)

I do hope the GOP suffers exile and thus purges the extremist radicals who’ve taken over. We need two parties—argument and counter argument. We need fresh faces to put in office when whichever entrenched party grows corrupt, as it will. I’ve always loved the tragic grandeur of the story of how the Democratic Party was destroyed politically as a result of LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964 that cost it the white vote in the south. And in my inner narrative this is how, wandering in the wilderness, it became the moderate party. A similar fate is my prayer for the Republicans.

A fondness for redemption and rebirth through suffering may say more about my narrative than about politics or history. I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a boy, after all. But, as I say, we each have master narratives. I’ve realized my unconscious model for TV newsmen is Walter Cronkite, whom I watched with my conservative father, who seemed to approve of him. Thus I imprinted on Cronkite’s integrity-exuding manner: in my inner script newscasters should be fair to both sides and rise above either’s expediency. Mean and divisive FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a demagogic panderer, have driven me to PBS’s Jim Lehrer and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart for TV news. I might have thought the return of ideologically driven news on a mass scale would be a good thing—take your pick and feed your chosen narrative—but the blurring of news and opinion has stuck in my craw. Jowly old Cronkite is guarding certain gates.

It was a sad irony when a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post revealed last April that Barack Obama told a group in San Francisco—oh God!—that common folk are hard to reach because in their despair over lost jobs they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” This hasn’t seemed to gain traction as a proof of unworthiness, except with people who’d never vote for him anyway, but was an indigestible bit I’ve gummed ever since. It didn’t fit my narrative about him.

Thus Matt Bai performed a great service in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday when he made that anecdote a centerpiece of his inquiry into the candidate’s amazing appeal. (Bai confirms the apparent reality of Obama’s freakishly rare inner peace—the evidence of ultimate worthiness, perhaps, in our species: like Popeye or Yahweh, he is what he is). Bai quotes Obama:

“How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.”

I believe him.

But then I see Obama like Lincoln, a man produced by the nation to save it from itself. Lincoln, a tough pol, outwardly untroubled, got in office and tapped great depths and preserved our republic. Some rise to greatness and some fall. Some write a new story, and some don’t. Literature and life tell us so.


Filed under journalism, narrative, politics

A lesson in structure

The King James Bible’s stories and ancient words and lovely turns of phrase have influenced legions of writers. I’m charmed by its liberal use of sobering colons: like so. And by the nonsensical italics. And there’s Jesus: talk about someone who works on multiple levels. He’s always getting thronged and spied upon—What’s he gonna do now?—and he delights in flummoxing. He speaks in riddles to the dumbfounded masses, though perhaps his rhetorical strategy is to intrigue them and, by using symbolism from their lives, as in the parable of the sower, to drive his meaning deep. Just in case, he clues in his disciples (and us, privy to the inner narrative). He works on the sabbath and rebukes hypocrites, establishing his character: a dramatic temper bearing a message more spiritual than doctrinal.

But it wasn’t until recently, reading Mark’s gospel in the New Testament, that I saw how beautifully structured a Bible chapter can be. Verily, I speak of flashbacks.

Momentous events occur in Mark’s brief sixth chapter. Jesus performs two famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes; and he walks on water, strolling past a ship that’s struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee. Yet what stayed with me was the artful placement of a scene that transitions into another scene set in the recent past. The passage has emotional richness and drama, and it foreshadows Jesus’ fate.

The essay is structured like this. First, Jesus goes about preaching in the synagogues “and many hearing him were astonished”—offended—because he’s just a carpenter and they know his humble family. (It’s the recurring theme Who does he think he is?) Jesus responds to their unbelief with the “prophet without honor” line and leaves for the villages to teach and heal. Second, he gives his twelve disciples their marching orders, basically to tell people to repent but to expect rejection (which he tells them to handle angrily, I must say—but, again, we readers have knowledge the extras don’t). Third, setting up the flashback with a scene, King Herod gets word of the revival and says Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. Herod’s courtiers try to comfort him, saying He’s just a prophet; or It’s the devil. No, Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.”

Exposition explains Herod’s guilty conscience: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison” for his wife’s sake. His wife was first his brother’s wife, and John had told Herod not to marry her. John’s edict made her so mad she wanted him not just jailed but killed. In the flashback we see how she maneuvered Herod into separating John from his head. It involves a sexy damsel’s alluring dance and Herod’s folly in making a loose-tongued promise in front of his vengeful wife. At the end, we’ve got the resurrection theme; and we understand Herod’s character—a threat to this new holy man. The narrative timeline resumes with the apostles reporting back to Jesus on their mission work.

Next: miracles.

The ages have burned much fat from biblical narratives, and what’s left has poetic compression. But I was sore amazed at how deftly Mark 6 tucks in the resonant Herod scene and flashback. In this chapter, narrative, theme, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

(Incidentally, for my amusement this post is structured like the classic five-paragraph freshman theme: introduction and thesis; three developing support paragraphs; and a conclusion. I know, it has six paragraphs. Don’t be a fundamentalist: I could have stuck the second paragraph thesis statement into the introduction, but this is a blog.)


Filed under creative nonfiction, MY LIFE, narrative, religion & spirituality, structure, theme