More metaphors & Gail Caldwell

Still thinking about Gail Caldwell’s deft metaphors in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, I was struck by these remarkable lines by John Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath:

 Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on the mattress there—that dreadful pain—that’s you.

I sure didn’t remember that passage, and it makes me want to reread the novel, which also has—I do remember this—an amazing scene of several pages of a turtle trying to cross a highway. The lines above are the epigram of Tom Piazza’s passionate recent novel City of Refuge, about two New Orleans families blown out of their frames by hurricane Katrina, which caused the greatest human dislocation in America since the dust bowl. Piazza was influenced by Steinbeck, and in Piazza’s novel, right before the storm hits, one of his characters, the editor of an arts weekly, approves a review of Philip Roth’s latest book with this headline: “The Gripes of Roth.”

I laughed out loud.

And I came across a great interview with Gail Caldwell in Smith in which she said she writes in longhand:

I used to write on the computer for The Globe book review deadlines every week for many years. Whenever I had writer’s block as a young critic, I’d go sit on my kitchen floor with a pen and a legal pad–I could write myself out of it in 30 seconds. So I learned very quickly to use that as a trick to relax my brain. I wrote my first book in longhand and transcribed, and that’s what I did with this book, too.

I never delete in a Word doc, either. If I know I’ve made a mistake, I write WW for “wrong word” and keep going. You can’t delete when you’re in that state, because it might take you somewhere important. When I transcribe it, I understand what I was trying to do, and it often takes on a second form on transcription. It sounds laborious, but for me it is what it needs to be.

What she said about structuring her book also was interesting, and it confirmed my impression while reading that she was gradually paddling me toward a chronological unfolding. Isn’t it fascinating that even when we know, as readers, the basic story—her friend died—we want to receive the experience? The story is never really the events but our response to them, how they looked and felt, and this is why time-tested narrative endures. Caldwell:

 I sit down and without any thought–I’m not trying to write, I’m trying to herd my thoughts into one place. And then from there I make notes on my notes, and I start to see if I can make maps about the beginning of the relationship, and where we both come from, and specific points in it.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to do much to organize it once I got to Caroline being sick. The heartbreaking ease with which I was able to write the last half of the book–it was like writing a police report, because it was so heartbreakingly matter of fact: and then and then and then. There was a part of me that said, I know this is heartbreaking and devastating to me; it is presumptuous to think that it is going to be to a stranger until you make it that way.  . . . After the first draft, I did have to go back and work very hard to distill into the story it is now.

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5 Comments

Filed under emotion, memoir, metaphor, narrative, structure, working method

5 responses to “More metaphors & Gail Caldwell

  1. I have been using this process of handwriting and transcription as I write also. I see its benefits.

    Don’t you just love Caldwell’s voice–physical as well as literary? I haven’t read the book yet, but I know I will love it when I do. That glove-ball-mitt catch metaphor has caught me in the gut.

    Unrelated question, but maybe of interest to your other blogger-readers. What benefits do you find from using Feedblitz? Do you pay for it?

    • Hi Shirley,

      I started using Feeblitz because of some problem, which I no longer remember, with WordPress’s delivery. I think my early subscribers still get posts via WordPress. I do pay a few bucks each month for Feedblitz.

      Now, I think, the best way to follow blogs is by RSS feeds to an iGoogle page, at least that’s how I personally prefer to do it. I can review 40 bloggers in seconds. But I have noticed fewer obvious RSS symbols on blogs lately, and have subscribed via email to some because I had to.

  2. Most interesting, Richard, thanks. I really like the part about the “story is never the events but our response to them, how they looked and felt” –and what we make of them — though I don’t think that has to be stated directly necessarily — it’s there in the form and voice and what we write and how we say it all — the whole thing is what we make of it, I guess.

    I got Caldwell’s memoir to read. Looking forward to it!

    best, Paulette

  3. Ya, it’s about perception.
    Regards
    Rahul Gandhi
    http://pressbrief.blog.co.uk/