Monthly Archives: May 2009

So long, Marshfield Road & Mister Toad

NorthernView
This summer Kathy and I have been enjoying our morning coffee out on the front porch. Mockingbirds, my favorite songbird from my southern boyhood, flit even this far north—they are the royalty of our hilltop—and we can watch them hunt insects in the gravel driveway and eat holly berries beside the porch, and then we can look at Marshfield Road that runs below our farm. The curving country lane is a story: What’s next? This stretch is haunted by my memory of seeing a big red-tailed hawk carry a writhing blacksnake across the sky, right above the dip the road takes just before it swings wide and disappears into trees.

We’ve been congratulating ourselves on the biodiversity we’ve fostered in living on this hill farm the past eleven years. When we got here, there were hardly any trees except a few out front for show (the house’s appearance from the road evidently being the point); red plastic shotgun shells littered the ground, and crushed Mountain Dew cans glinted down the driveway toward the barn. We’ve planted lots of trees and berrying shrubs, and birds seem to come over more from the forested hills that surround this high clearing.

But last week when I told our daughter we’d added a bigger sump pit to the basement, improving the place for new owners as we prepare to move up the road to Westerville—suburban, though our new residence backs up on Alum Creek—she said, “I bet the toad likes it.” I hadn’t thought about the toad that lives in the basement for years, hadn’t seen him in years. I realized I haven’t seen any toads here in years. Bullfrogs still thrum down at the pond and tree frogs cry from the trees before a rain, but the only amphibians I ever actually saw with regularity, toads, confident, domestic, and inscrutable in their unstoppable hunkered-down hop from garages and down sidewalks, have gone.

This week’s New Yorker (May 25, 2009) features an intriguing, if depressing, story by Elizabeth Kolbert on why frogs and toads are dying and disappearing worldwide, a phenomenon long recognized and studied, hypothesized as a byproduct of human pollution. Her inquiry among the scientists turns up the new theory that humans, in our travels, have spread an amphibian fungal disease that would have taken decades or centuries or millennia (or never) to get around on its own by wind and water and wildlife. Support for this hypothesis comes from humans being the likely link, she reports, in the recent wildfire-like spread of the “white nose” disease that’s decimating bats in America’s caves.

I don’t know whether our basement toad moved on, down the floor drain from whence he came, or bit the dust, another casualty of a great ongoing global extinction. But in the midst of savoring and missing this Appalachian hilltop, I miss him very much now too. Please tell me you still have toads.

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Attention NARRATIVE subscribers

I’ve changed email subscription services. New subscriptions will now go through FeedBlitz instead of feedblitz_logo_medFeedBurner. If you have an old subscription and your emails from this blog have been arriving in a font too small to read, you can unsubscribe and then resubscribe using the subscription link on the blog’s upper right corner.

If you subscribed using an RSS feed to your Google homepage or another web page, this update doesn’t change a thing.

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Edit, or else

from “Copyediting. Vital. Do It or Have It Done,” in Brevity’s Craft Essays, by Diana Hume George, author of The Lonely Other: A Woman Watching America and other books.

“In my capacity as a screener, I automatically reject any book or essay that does not honor the conventions. It doesn’t matter how good the content is. Editors won’t waste their time fixing matters that should have been attended to long before the writer sent it out as a professionally finished product. I use the analogy of carpentry. It’s as if an otherwise well-designed piece of woodwork had nails sticking out at odd angles.”

“Before any book of mine reaches an editor, it has been through at least half a Diana Georgedozen complete drafts. That’s a conservative estimate. When the manuscript is as error-free as I can get it, I have it copyedited by a fellow writer or by a professional. More errors always surface, to say nothing of previously unnoted clichés and repetitions of entire phrases from previous pages that have escaped my own revisions.”

“A final word about who copyedits your book or essay: don’t automatically trust an English professor or journalist or fellow writer. . . . English professors do not necessarily know squat about copyediting, beyond the level of correcting an essay or term paper. Whatever your choice, make sure you have reason to trust the person’s skills. Don’t trust anyone to be a foolproof proofreader until you see his or her skills in action. As for doing it all yourself, few writers ever get that good at it. Very few people can edit themselves successfully, because we literally cannot see our own mechanical errors or infelicities—and infelicities are as important as actual errors.”

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Filed under editing, NOTED, revision, workshopping

“Kathy” and Brevity’s blog

I have a guest post on Brevity’s blog discussing the narrative and structural choices I made in my essay “Kathy,” published recently by Brevity. I first analyzed the piece here, and so with the Brevity blog exegesis—not to mention this notice—I have now written more words about the essay than are in the essay itself.

I could go on. Which gives me the notion that writers might begin the practice of publishing essays that comment on their essays, books that explain brevitylogoxxand emend their books. Nonsense, you say. I say: look at the popularity of directors’ commentaries on DVDs. I wager that many readers would skip the book and read the “writer’s cut, with commentary.” It’s coming, and you read it here first.

The ostensibly blameless part of my motive for writing about my essay is the hope that it might help a few teachers teach “Kathy,” just as I was helped to teach Marcia Aldrich’s Winter 2008 Brevity essay “Not a Good Day for Planting Root Crops” by her explanation on Brevity’s blog.

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Filed under editing, essay-concise, essay-narrative, memoir, narrative, revision, structure, teaching, education

Narrative needs backstory

from David Denby’s review of State of Play in the April 27 New Yorker:

“State of Play,” which was directed by Kevin Macdonald, is both overstuffed and inconclusive. As is the fashion now, the filmmakers develop the narrative in tiny fragments. Something is hinted at—a relationship, a motive, an event in the past—then the movie rushes ahead and produces another fragment filled with hints, and then another. The filmmakers send dozens of clues into the air at once, but they feel no obligation to resolve what they tell us.”

“Recent movies like “Syriana,” “Quantum of Solace,” and “Duplicity” are scripted and edited as overly intricate puzzles, and I’ve heard many people complain that the struggle to understand the plot becomes the principal experience of watching such films.”

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Noted: Narrative without backstory

From Anthony Lane’s review of Star Trek in the May 18 New Yorker:

In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained.

Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?

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Against narrative

In the About section of this blog devoted to narrative, I used to fret that narrative seems to inhibit reflection, or at least is in tension with other ways of exploring meaning: I’d noticed in writing a memoir the pressure of the constant “and then” of the story. But a friend questioned what I meant and I couldn’t defend my tentative insight. So it was exciting to see a writer boldly go there—in fact he mounted a sustained attack on narrative—in an address at last week’s Ohio University Spring Literary Festival sponsored by the English department’s creative writers.

David Shields made clear he was also fretting, and speaking for himself, before confessing to an auditorium of writers that he’s sick of seeing the creaky techniques of narrative coming at him. Deeply read and the author of nine books, an English professor at the University of Washington, Shields gave an erudite talk that made me feel uneducated, timid, and very traditional. His books include an acclaimed novel, Dead Languages, and a bestselling new work of nonfiction, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead. He based his talk on his book forthcoming in 2010 from Knopf, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

For Shields, the nontraditional lyric and collage essay forms have David Shieldssupplanted the traditional novel as a means of knowing and investigating the world. “The motor of the novel is story; the motor of the essay is thought,” he said. “I’m not drawn to literature because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. Making up a story or characters feels, to me, like driving a car in a clown suit.”

He came to this epiphany in the mid-1990s while working on his fourth novel, which collapsed—he couldn’t commit himself to working out its plot and character—and in its wreckage emerged his first nonfiction book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. Shields wants to eliminate the “delusion and contrivance” of fictional characterization. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” he said. “I and like-minded writers and artists want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out.”

Some of his other assertions:

• “Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms. I write stuff one inch from life, but all the art is in that inch. Tell the Truth but tell it slant. Genre is a minimum-security prison. All great works found a genre or dissolve one.”

• “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Nonfiction is a framing device to foreground contemplation. Fiction is ‘Once upon a time.” Essay is ‘I have an idea.’ I don’t seek to narrate time but to investigate existence. Time must die.”

• “Serious plumbing of consciousness, not flashing of narrative legerdemain, helps us understand another human being. I have a strong reality gene. I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People will say, ‘It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Greenland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.’ That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.”

• “The play Hamlet is, more than anything else, the person Hamlet talking about a multitude of different topics. I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective—a lens, a distortion effect. He would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.”

• “The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems. One could say that fiction, indirectly, is a pursuit of knowledge, but the essay and the poem more urgently attempt to figure something out about the world.”

• “A conversational dynamic is built into the essay form: the writer argues with himself; the writer argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. First person is where you can be more interesting; you don’t have to have to be much but a stumbling fool. The wisdom here is more precious than in the sage overview, which in many writers makes me nearly puke. No more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”

• “When the mimetic function is replaced by manipulation of the original, we’ve arrived at collage. The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement . . . The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, ‘reality’-based art—unprocessed, uncut, underproduced—splinters and explodes.”

• “Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative. The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps. Absence of plot gives the reader the chance to think about something other than turning pages. In collage, we read for penetration of the material rather than elaboration of story. I like work that’s focused page by page, line by line, on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative.”

• “Collage implies brevity. You don’t need a story. The question is how long you don’t need a story. Omission is a form of creation. Cut to the chase. My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a book.  I remember in grad school telling my girlfriend that I wanted to forge a form that would house only epiphanies—such presumption—but now, twenty-five ears later, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into something approximating that. I want the overt meditation that yields (at least an attempt at) understanding, as opposed to a lengthy narrative that yields—what?—I suppose a sort of extended readerly interest in what happens next.”

It seems to me that a writer wants to tell a story and wonders if he can in the form he envisions. Next he doubts his chosen form, its conventions and constraints. Next he examines the cultural grab-bag from which he borrowed. Finally, to greater or lesser degree, he begins to consciously work out his own aesthetic.

Shields is out on the bleeding edge of artistic desire.

The mass of readers will always want narrative, but a growing minority will respond to innovative forms. To me, narrative does seem necessary for greatest emotional resonance. Truly the delivery system is gooey: narrative is as humble as our flesh. But stories affect us because when a writer shows us things happening we decode them in our very bones. Actions speak, in our own interpretations, as in life: the partial answers narratives contain are your own answers, however inarticulate. 

After graciously emailing me a copy of his talk, Shields and I corresponded briefly and I asked him about my narrative-is-necessary theory. He said he’s interested in stories but believes most narrative doesn’t serve a larger theme or contribute to emotional resonance. Ninety-nine percent of narrative, he told me, is “pure machinery.”

Alas, a postscript: It was clear at the conference that Shields’s sally upset some people—a prominent poet pointedly described his work from the podium as narrative—but later I learned how upset a widely published fiction writer was. And a professor who teaches doctoral writing students said they analyzed Shields’s tract and declared that it formed a . . . narrative of his discontent.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, essay-collage, essay-lyric, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative, poetry, theme

“Kathy” in Brevity

Distilled from an essay of more than twenty pages and part of another of that length, my essay “Kathy” appears in the May 2009 edition of Brevity, a journal of concise nonfiction. Essays for Brevity may not exceed 750 words and are compressed wonders, caught moments, life’s puzzles, shining nuggets fetched tumbling from a brook. I’m proud to have work in this company!

“Right before her high school senior photo, Kathy took her mother’s sewing contrast-flowerspondblogscissors and sawed off her long brown hair—it was hot on her neck in the fields. Mary, mortified, begged the photographer to do something, and he dabbed brown paint on the picture. The yearbook showed a girl wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses and an uneven pageboy that looked like Joan of Arc’s dented helmet. A layer of baby fat still softened her cheeks, but her composed smile—a young intellectual’s nod to the world—wasn’t warm enough to distract a viewer from the intense inquiry in her eyes.”

The last sentence in that passage is punctuated differently in my parent essay: “A layer of baby fat still softened her cheeks, but her composed smile, a young intellectual’s nod to the world, wasn’t warm enough to distract a viewer from the intense inquiry in her eyes.”

I now think  those parenthetical dashes in the Brevity version are too obtrusive, not as smooth as the commas. (Any votes? I’m  interested.) Punctuation affects tone: a friend now editing a piece for me just pointed out that I’d gone on a semicolon bender. She believes in using semicolons sparingly in creative nonfiction since they are more “talky” than vivid by nature. Incidentally, Scott Fitzgerald is a master of dashes and semicolons in The Great Gatsby. Consider their elegant use in this gorgeous passage from the end of the novel:

“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled to an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

My sentence that bugs me aside, I feel  “Kathy” just clicked in its brief version and affirms that good stories resist summary. “Kathy” is about a connection at their first, historic meeting between two people I love. Depth calling to depth. The Brevity vignette captures this encounter without unnecessary backstory or impossible explanation. There was something  both perfect and elusive about the incident and my reaction to it.

One friend who test-read the piece for me hated it; she said it had no theme and didn’t add up to anything. She’s a gifted editor, but in this case I knew she was wrong. The stories we can’t stop thinking about our whole lives, the ones most worth telling, remain mysteries.

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The art of listening

The Irish actor Gabriel Byrne was interviewed by Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air about his portrayal of a psychotherapist on the HBO series In Treatment. The show has captured fans because of the inherent drama of diverse characters being guided to insights by a gifted, if flawed, therapist who is a world-class listener, observer, and interviewer. You can listen to the interview about listening here.

“We hear sometimes but we don’t often really listen. Really truly profoundly listening is to be unaware of yourself at a deep level. Listening is one of the byrne2most profound compliments you can pay another person. To feel that you’re heard is deeply fulfilling in a human way.”

“I’m fascinated by the notion of somebody giving their full and very considered opinion to the narrative of my life. I think what a good psychotherapist does, I imagine, is that they help you to write the real narrative of your life and come to terms with it, because I think we have a tendency when we talk about our lives to kind of magnify certain things and give them an importance, idealize certain things, and be in denial about other things. And looking at the narrative of your life and how that influences who you are as an adult cannot help but be a good process.”

“It’s a very tough business to be in [acting], because so much of it is about rejection, just being in work, being out of work, being in competition. But the thing about it is I’ve learned not to define myself by what I do. And that is a very big lesson sometimes for young actors to absorb. You are not your job.”

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