Monthly Archives: December 2008

Noted: Annie Proulx

from an interview in The Missouri Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2

“The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and  climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers. I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.”

“The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.”

“For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning. . . . In working endings for stories and novels I try simply for a natural cessation of story. . . . I try to understand place and time through the events in one character’s life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.”

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Noted: Tony Earley

from an interview with Tony Earley conducted by Hattie Fletcher for Nidus

“I can’t write any piece, fiction or nonfiction, until I come up with a metaphor. I hate the idea of writing on only one level. Often just walking around through the world, I’ll see something and think, damn, that is a great metaphor—for what? And so I have a metaphor, but I have no thing to hook it to. And so, a piece usually results when I find I have both sides of the equation. I love metaphor. I like metaphor better than I like narrative. I’m a whole lot more interested in writing in between the lines than I am in what’s accomplished in the lines themselves. Exposition, you know, moving characters through space, getting a character to the airport on time so he can catch the plane —I hate that stuff. I would much rather do a metaphorical construction than character development. . . .

“I’ll have enough of a voice to get started, and often I discover the metaphors while I’m working. I think my subconscious is rapidly trying to connect things, and once I actively start writing then I discover the metaphors in the piece. Usually it’s where I say, this looks like that. And once I’ve had that realization, I can go back through and put in the textual stuff to link them. But often I won’t understand until I’m well into a piece that I have in fact constructed a metaphor, and then I’ll go, there it is!

“I love that moment. When I teach to my students, I call it the “thing” and the “other thing.” The “thing” is what the story is about, and the “other thing” is a parallel narrative, something that looks like the “thing” but isn’t. Like, in my story “Here We Are in Paradise,” there’s a pond that has snapping turtles in it, and the snapping turtles eat these painted ducks, and the people who own the pond, the wife is dying of cancer. So the turtles eating the ducks looks like cancer, but it isn’t. It’s “thing” and “other thing.” And I try to do that in fiction and in nonfiction both. Actually, I think that’s the classic American short fiction template.”

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People understand the constraints

Solstice musings on poetry & nonfiction & Mom’s Christmas letter.

When I read poems and when I (rarely) write them, I’m apt to think This is an essay! When poets gave up rhyme and meter, they exposed the fact that poetry and creative nonfiction can be one in the same, though poets are free to fictionalize. (Long ago I was taught the only definition of poetry is that the poet controls the length of his line.)

The similarity does not mean, of course, that poetry is passé; the relationship merely underscores an interesting harmony between the forms.addressfirebell-blog1 In much of the best creative nonfiction, every line is polished into poetry. And many contemporary poems could pass as segmented essays.

The poet Emma Bolden addresses this affinity in her blog post “A Certain Slant of Light” : “I’ve written several entries about the difference between poetry and prose, but my latest prose-writing experience has led me to believe that they are, perhaps, not so different after all. Though I do still miss my line breaks, I think that there are great similarities. An essay — or, at least, a lyric essay — seems to depend largely upon what’s left out, and upon what happens in the blanks — the leaps created by white space, the connections and juxtapositions blankness and absence can create.”

I wrote the little moment at the end of this post as a poem, but it could have been developed as a concise essay. Or more. A glance can produce ten pages, or a book, as we know. This poem is intended to be wistful, not sad—but regarding that: sad poems often seem sadder than sad essays. I think that’s because essays usually embody some narrative, and narrative is hopeful: “Obla dee, obla dah, life goes on,” the lads sang.

The background for this slight poem (and formalist to boot, with a modest rhyme scheme that plays off its content and supposed genre): my wife was trying to get me and the kids to help her write the annual Christmas letter, and we were harassing her with suggested verses disrespectful of the genre, the season, her recipients.

“I want to write a poem in the usual sense,” Kathy complained.
“Too many constraints,” I said.
“People understand the constraints,” our daughter said, rallying to her mother.

I thought the idea interesting of an optimistic woman trying to keep normal human difficulty out of her annual missive, a sunny Christmas-letter-poem that edges unwillingly into darker water . . .

 

A Poem in the Usual Sense

People understand the constraints:
the need for rhythm, vaguely the meter.
They still desire rhyme most of all—
give ’em that and no complaints.

We’re made to feel its wrongness, though,
the Philistine inside, the childish reader.
And I admit the postmodern order is tall:
Tell, with irony and restraint, life’s sorrow.

But Mama, animal despair beneath her,
strives for cheer, writing our Christmas letter,
and scratches her head as poignancy falls
unbidden, a solstice shadow, as it were.

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