Category Archives: essay-collage

Adair Lara on collage, narration & scene

Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.—Adair Lara

Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara. 247 pages, Ten Speed Press.

Lara on collage:

The risk with collage is that while it looks temptingly simple—much as an abstract expressionist painting might to a student painter—it is not. An intuitive calibration of effects must supply the sense of unity that would otherwise be supplied by story. You must repeat images, colors, patters—something for the reader to recognize and track. And the less headlong narrative there is, the more engaging the voice must be, the more arresting the images.

Lara on narration vs. scene:

You’ll notice that I often refer to the “events” in your book when talking about the arc. These events can be dealt with on the page in one of two ways: in narration, or in scene. Some memoirs, such as Angela’s Ashes, are almost all scene; others, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, are almost all narration. More and more, however, modern memoirs use scenes to make a book lively and readable.

Lara on scene:

So your first step is to identify which events are important enough to go into a scene. In the last chapter, we saw that each emotion that’s acted on to move the story forward is a beat. Beats are changes, thus they are dramatized: All important changes must be dramatized in scene. If we see you doing something you would not have done before, we want to be there with you when that change occurs. If something happens one night to make you realize that you are not the freak you took yourself to be, show it. If you feed your once-scary father yogurt with a spoon in the hospital, and feel a new kind of love for him, show it. . . .

Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.

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Filed under essay-collage, narrative, scene

The Beatles were all about this

For Meg

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an A. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.—Art & Fear

I found Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland by way of a British blog, The Beatles Songwriting Academy, devoted to learning to write songs by studying the Liverpool lads. It’s not just a worshipful fan site: blogmaster Matt Blick rebukes them for lame songs (his “Hall of Shame” includes “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) and for some stinky rhymes that mar great songs. But Blick has a “Be-atltudes” page, too, in which he enumerates virtues, especially the prolificacy of Paul McCartney and John Lennon:

Between 1962 and 1970 Lennon & McCartney wrote close to 200 songs. Almost all were recorded and released. The majority were top 10 hits as singles or album tracks. Whereas most writers today would throw away a song that wasn’t good enough for their next album or didn’t fit stylistically, the boys always had a reason to finish that song. And because of their insane recording schedule they always had to come up with more songs.

Mates and rivals, who happened also to be gifted, Lennon and McCartney inspired and goaded each other to craft new work. What’s ranked as one of the greatest songs ever written, and their masterpiece, “A Day in the Life,” which concludes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, showcases their separate gifts being expressed together under the pressure to come up another tune. They melded utterly separate lyrical fragments each had written.

There are many examples of collage in their work—the result of prolificacy and saving stuff—including the lovely sixteen-minute medley starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and including “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Carry that Weight” that climaxes their last album recorded, Abbey Road. As McCarthy says on the mini-documentary that came with my iTunes download of the album:

 We had all these bits and things. We hit upon the idea of medleying them all, which gave the second side of Abbey Road like an operatic structure. Which was quite nice because it got rid of all these songs, in a good way.

McCartney, especially, was known for fiddling with random licks for years. And The Beatles’ recording engineers were taught never to spike any session discards, since they might be folded in somewhere later or used as codas. On “A Day in the Life,” Lennon’s elegiac opening was inspired by newspaper headlines about the death of a friend; then comes McCartney’s upbeat bridge, a boyish flashback he hadn’t been able to finish; and finally the resonant close, haunted by Lennon’s surrealistic imagery about filling the Albert Hall with holes (its genesis in another newspaper story, about a pothole problem).

• • • 

In the past few years, I’ve returned to The Beatles with such delight. Their music is so joyously playful and creative. But then, I imprinted on them almost fifty years ago, listening to Meet The Beatles, sitting crosslegged on my big sister’s carpeted bedroom floor in our beach town—she had a stereo—and staring at the album cover, such a riveting artifact. Holding it, I saw four composed faces floating free in the blackness—Oh, I see, they wore black turtlenecks. That’s how they did it!—and, embedded in the spinning vinyl on Meg’s turntable, such romance.

What else could an adolescent girl and her nine-year-old kid brother want for in Satellite Beach, Florida, in 1964?

And then, in the summer of 1970, we listened to “Here Comes the Sun” beside our swimming pool on her boyfriend D.K.’s portable record player. Wow, high tech.

Splashing in the blue water a block from the Atlantic Ocean, we had no idea what a long cold lonely winter was. Or where Abbey Road was. Or that the coolest band on the planet had split after cutting this album named for a London Street. Or if, just maybe, Paul was dead—he was barefoot in the crosswalk, a sign of death, so someone said, and his cigarette was pointing down. John was dressed like a priest, or an angel, or something, all in white anyway, and George Harrison brought up the rear looking like a gravedigger in his blue denim.

But we agreed with George, busy celebrating the solar life force—and romantic love, of course, that other life force, the lads’ great theme. There in the sun, in the lee of the big ficus tree—Meg and D.K. in a corner of the pool deck, as far from annoying me as they could get—everything, little darlin’, was alright.

(Happy Birthday, Meg.)

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Filed under essay-collage, essay-lyric, music, MY LIFE, NOTED, working method

Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.

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Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-classical, essay-collage, essay-concise, essay-expository, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, humor, immersion, journalism, memoir, research, REVIEW

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.0

The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold.” Any verbal account is a fashioning or shaping of events.

Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable.

The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and once writers and readers make their peace with this, there will be less argument over questions regarding the memoir’s relation to the “facts” and “truth.”

—David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

A year ago I aired David Shields’s original Port Huron Statement (apologies to The Dude) in my post “Against Narrative,” based on his speech, at a writer’s conference, that is the core of his cri de coeur, Reality Hunger. (Or maybe not a cry from the heart—Shields is an academic intellectual—but he’s incredibly passionate.) Now his book has the buzz and the mo. His broadside against tradition has its readers stimulated and annoyed, which surely was his aim. His preference for avant-garde forms reflects his sensibility but is an astute documenting of the continuing sea change wrought in postmodern life, especially by technology.

I found Reality Hunger highly entertaining but its particulars somewhat forgettable—what’s brilliant is the concept. What’s controversial is its theme: traditional storytelling’s meaning-making apparatus is passé. Mired in our manufactured and mediated and fractured environments, but equipped with recording devices, Shields says we hunger not for artificially cohesive narrative but for raw chunks of “reality.” (An interesting exception in the book’s nonlinear, though themed, format is his straightforward account of his own writing history.) His prescription is for art that’s contemplative, collaged, lyric, and documentary, for fiction in nonfiction, for any clever genre smashup.

David Shields, author provocateur.

As the Oklahoma side of my family would say, Shields is peeing up a rope regarding narrative: he might as well inveigh against human sexuality: narrative is intrinsic to Homo sapiens. Non-narrative presentation is not only an advanced technique, it’s for a discerning audience. I learned this when I tried to teach some mulish college juniors—alas, not even English majors—to read and write lyric and collage essays. They were hardened criminals, that group. But still. They would have responded to narrative, and did when I finally recast the class in midstream.

No, narrative’s not particularly intellectual, but it is satisfying because it conveys and shares subjective experience. As I’ve argued here, humans filter everything through the scrim of emotion—an essential part of our existential tool kit—so we’re curious about what another slob feels as he slogs through this valley of tears. Bringing us this news is what artists have always done.

On the journalistic front, many traditional gatekeepers have abandoned news narratives that tried to be fair and balanced. Media firms are under pressure from cable and web and talk radio (or simply swamped by those competing voices as they attempt reasonable readings of events and information). The result is a serve-yourself buffet of kooky theories (don’t vaccinate!) and a smorgasbord of ideology-driven screeds (i.e. FOX; see also demagogue Lou Dobbs, late of CNN) that have stoked the partisan political rage we suffer. I never thought I’d defend mainstream journalism’s “objective” format, but there you go. (See True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo.)

Interestingly, Shields is the son of journalists who wrote for crusading liberal magazines but who admired “real writers,” novelists. This unusually sophisticated intellectual household drove him toward the desire to be an artist. After serving as editor of his junior high and high school newspapers, he was fired from his college newspaper for making up stuff (a brave admission, though he’s wily enough to have invented the transgression as a land mine for the literal-minded). A manifesto seems to have been inevitable. And his Reality Hunger is fun, and in its way important.

I got annoyed only when Shields attacked Tobias Wolff’s bestselling narrative memoir This Boy’s Life for being “naively straightforward” and for challenging it as nonfiction (a position inconsistent with Shields’s own tract) because the boy narrator is a “pathological liar.” So Shields says, glibly misrepresenting. As it happens, This Boy’s Life is preceded by an elegant statement about how, when Wolff’s memory of events clashed with his family’s, he sometimes “corrected” his account to agree and sometimes not. Wolff’s note reads in part, “[T]his is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

Shields’s lapse in this case aside, in the year since first hearing him argue that memoir isn’t journalism but literature—hence subject to latitude regarding literal truth in order to achieve Truth—I’ve come to agree with him (and Wolff, who makes the same point, if you think about it, with far less sweat). I hasten to add that I’m not condoning what James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces, a dishonest memoir that he’d tried to sell as a novel. His publisher wanted a memoir for sales reasons. There’s plenty of blame to go around. And yet much of the criticism from journalists was self-righteous or smacked of hypocritically protecting the nonfiction franchise.

Anyway, hard at work on my own memoir in the intervening year, I’ve noticed how my memory actually works, how it melds events like dreams do. I’ve wondered how best to convey lived experience in order to honor the remembered, emotional truth of that experience. And I’ve read more acclaimed memoirs and, in re-reading the ones that really grabbed me, I’ve noticed how the writers have recreated experience. In the midst of this struggle I’ve also read more of what other writers have had to say.

The most interesting and subtle thinking I’ve found was published by the travel-story site WorldHum, a 7,500-word essay on the “inevitability of fictionalizing in some forms of nonfiction” by magazine journalist and book author Tom Bissell. In “Truth in Oxiana” Bissell points out that there’s a difference within nonfiction genres regarding writerly authority. Think of a newspaper’s bare-bones yet subjectively selected details in its report of a public meeting vs. a magazine essay set on a typical day (that’s actually a composite of many days) vs. a memoir recreating someone’s internal reality and external experiences.

“[W]e read a newspaper differently from a magazine, and we read a magazine differently from a book,” Bissell writes. “Our anticipation of the truth, and the many forms it takes, alters in regard to the conduit through which it reaches us.” But, for writers, he says, “the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in nonfiction writing is clear and obvious” even as the “rigors of factual accountability shift subtly but undeniably from nonfiction genre to nonfiction genre. . . .

“The writer of literary nonfiction earns a reader’s trust with his or her vision, generosity, and relentless self-questioning; the writer of ‘Property Sale Raises Questions Amid Ethics Inquiry’ operates with the understanding that his trust is pre-earned by the gothic lettering of the newspaper for which he writes. Both kinds of trust are important, certainly, but only one opens us to the enlarging possibilities of art.”

Bissell continues:

Let us be straight about this. There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect. Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but . . . I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising.

Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth. For instance, a newspaper writer tells us that two psychopaths murdered a family in Kansas. Is that the truth? Yes, but truth is many fathoms deep. Truman Capote, on the other hand, takes us into the lives of the murderers and the murdered, leaving readers flayed by the mysteries of human morality and existence. May I remind you that Capote’s In Cold Blood . . . was attacked for its numerous and, now, well-documented “mistakes”? . . .

It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. I would widen the lens even further to include much, but not all, of “literary journalism,” for literary journalism—the kind, at least, with aspirations toward art—relies not only on memoir but the protean fibers of experience as it is seen, heard, and felt. Experience can never be felt or described in the same way by two people. It is these human gaps that literature fills.

Next: More on Reality Hunger, and how memoirists imagine themselves and their readers into the past.

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Filed under emotion, essay-collage, essay-lyric, evolutionary psychology, experimental, honesty, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, subjectivity, theme

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

Review: ‘For the Time Being’

For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. Vintage Books. 204 pages.

In this audacious little book Annie Dillard ponders God, the holiness of newborns, and any individual’s insignificance in geologic time. Her prose is astringent, with wry appreciation for the brilliant and for the genuine among us; with a barely controlled horror at our dillard-for-the-timeanimal fates and our capacity for indifference and evil. She unfolds this meditation in discrete chunks; each of the book’s seven chapters is divided into segments, more or less these and in this order:

• Birth (especially horrific birth defects and the brief otherworldly calm of newborns);

• Sand (its formation and ubiquity);

• China (the ancient, buried humans and civilizations, and the 1920s work there of the French theologian-paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin);

• Clouds (randomly documented ones);

• Numbers (people, especially—so many and yet so compactible);

• Israel;

• Encounters (hers, with random people, in airports, deserts, the Sea of Galilee);

• Thinkers (wise men considered in turn, mostly rabbis);

• Evil (including the torture of thinkers and genocide);

• Now (the humdrum pathology of our time).

What’s impressive is to see these subjects come together. Sand, for instance: The earth’s rivers make it by breaking up rocks; the rivers spew it into the sea, which throws it back and makes beaches. The ocean creates no sand, just refines it. Neat—but? Well, who hasn’t wondered why ancient civilizations are so far down? Because of sand and loess: We are being patiently buried. The Earth steadily takes us back. The finest grit and carbon swirl everywhere and come to rest. Sand is further broken by windblast and water, moves, and settles. Every thirty years there’s a new inch of topsoil. 3,000 years is nothing.

“Why is there sand in deserts? Because windblown sand collects in every low place, and deserts are low, like beaches,” Dillard writes.

She wants us to ponder such accretion.

We are as ephemeral as clouds, individually, of course, but so are our generations in the reach of time and so too our civilizations pass away. How old is America, again? Apparently we can know some things intellectually but not emotionally. Dillard finds herself reading the news more faithfully as she ages, getting her daily fix of the delusion that we and our time are unique in human history.

She answers this notion:

No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or will consider it? Though perhaps we are the last generation—now there’s a comfort. Take the bomb threat away and what are we? Ordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our time is a routine twist of an improbable yarn.

We the living, meanwhile, continue to encounter each other: “Possibly when our brains fire their dying charges we will remember and see, to our dismay, not any best-loved face but instead some solitary figure, a stranger, whose image the mind retains.” Maybe, in her case, the punch-drunk ex-boxer who, working as a skycap, impersonated Elvis for her at an American airport’s curb. Or one of her other smoking buddies she shows huddled around the world’s museums, shops, and cultural hubs.

Her prose is distilled, the reside of rigor.  In the holy land she spies birds mate in the air and snails, for hours, in wet litter. A Palestinian boy pees his name in the sand behind a camel. She writes, “Under the camel a runnel moved over the dust like an adder.” In China she watches in the distance a man pulling a plow he’s harnessed to his body: “His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.”

Grounding her juxtapositions in the jaw-droppers we’re normally immune to—over eight million gene combinations occur in the creation of each of us; it takes a river one million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles; there are nine galaxies for each person alive on earth, and each galaxy contains one hundred billion suns—in stories and in our own cast-off insights from age twelve onward, Dillard earns her flights and even her despair. Reared a Pittsburgh Scotch-Irish Presbyterian girl, she converted to Catholicism, taking refuge in the yeasty anonymity of the corporeal mass, then absorbed the Jewish mysticism explored here and finally called herself a “Hasidic Christian.”

In this book she wonders: just what kind of God are we dealing with, anyway? The notion of an all-knowing deity that presides over our suffering causes good people “to quit God altogether at this point,” she says but adds, in an oblique rebuke, that evidently “they last looked into God in their childhoods.” It is each adult’s task, obviously, to define for himself the God he believes in (or doesn’t).  Dillard’s doesn’t have his eye on every sparrow:

Many times in Christian churches I have heard the pastor say to God, “All your actions show your wisdom and love.” Each time, I reach in vain for the courage to rise and shout, “That’s a lie!”—just to put things on a solid footing.

On her website, Dillard says of For the Time Being, in part: “It tells many short journalistic stories, and a few long ones: Hasidism, Teilhard de Chardin and fossil Homo erectus, the formation of sand, the critical importance of the individual in a world of almost 7 billion individuals, and the absurdity of the doctrines of divine omniscience, divine mercy, and divine omnipotence. I quit the Catholic Church and Christianity; I stay near Christianity and Hasidism.”

Onward we go, with a few seekers like Dillard thrown in. She notes the paradoxical view of people of every age that heroism and holiness are far in the past while their time alone is—nevertheless—uniquely historic and significant. Both are erroneous prideful notions, as spiritual thinkers have pointed out, and they’re elegantly dunked by Dillard:

In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.

But who is wise? Dillard: “Confucius wept. Confucius, when he understood that he would soon die, wept.” Maybe he just loved the world and hated to leave it. But her sentence implies something less. Common surprise, perhaps.

We’re just here, for the time being.  We’ve forgotten, Dillard notes, our ancient ancestors’ stone knives that can skin a bear or open an abdomen with more ease than any of today’s shiny instruments. But we’re playing with new gizmos. Our thin lightweight laptop computers are only getting better. And we don’t mourn people we can’t imagine, whether they died yesterday in India or 10,000 years ago beneath our feet.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-collage, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, structure