Thursday, February 25, 2016

Let’s Not Be So Certain

Sometimes a person will grab a glimpse of life which in its commonness and obviousness stuns us. And wouldn’t you know, it’s usually a poet, god bless them. Those creatures of vision that manage to catch an unexpected edge of life, suggesting we not be so certain about what we think we know. Marie Howe, in her poem, ‘What the Living Do’ written in tribute to her brother, Johnny, who died a few years prior of Aids, turns the drear of the ordinary into a moment of unanticipated infatuation:

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some
utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the
crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called.
This is the everyday we spoke of.

It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the
sunlight pours through the open living-room windows
because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the
street, the bag breaking, I’ve been thinking:
This is what the living do. And yesterday,
hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk,
spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush:
This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.
What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up.

We want the spring to come and the
winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and
more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of
myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a
cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face,
and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

It is all too easy to believe we know winter because we’ve seen it for years or that boredom is an appropriate response to day-in, day-out life, or that being in love is time limited or that dreams are for people under 50. We’re comfortable defending inertia’s downward drag, convinced of the impossibility of undoing habits and willing to defend stability over serendipity. Marie Howe would have us remember how it is that against the backdrop of the seeming ordinary the extraordinary can be most easily noticed. So who’s to say in a universe as relative as ours what we should disdain and what we should hallow. For in one short, illuminating moment, say when we wake to the harbingers of spring, robins, standing in fresh January snow, singing for all their worth, we could have our dull yet comfortable certainties shattered by the enchantment of the unfathomable.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Details Details Details

For writers and readers, the devil is not in the details, the world is. For far too long I have allowed myself to believe something I heard repeatedly but never questioned; that being, too many details in writing was the mark of an amateur. They just weren’t needed. They killed the story I was told. They were boring, just a fill factor. What a surprise I had when I read Chapter Three - Details, Details in Alice LaPlante’s classic: The Making of a Story.

An unexamined belief is a guarantee of limitation. The notions we accept without investigating are invariably those that trip us up and hold us back. I accepted that details were something that should be avoided, stick to the big picture I was told and then march your characters into that and hope the reader makes that often serpentine journey with you. But now I see how where you start each story is so significant. Do you start with the big picture – the noble truths, the campaign, the issue that drives the story and move to the specifics or do you begin with the specifics and then expand? If you do the latter, details are your major tools.

So do we write:
With the beginning of World War II, Jeffrey Tomes, who had always wanted to be a soldier, was secretly celebrating that his dream was about to come true.

Or do we write:
Jeffery was curled in a half circle on his bed completely absorbed in a comic book he’d found as part of someone’s weekly garbage set out in an alley he used as a short cut to school. When he spotted a comic book on the top, he dug feverishly through the box, rationalizing his lateness for school against the prospect of finding one of his favorites. Three-quarters of the way down, there it was. A Soldier of Fortune comic. What a find. Now on his bed, he licked the  index finger on his left hand and stuck it on the page corner insuring it turned without hesitation. For once the story started to roll out, Jeffrey wanted nothing to stop it.

From the details, emerge the story. From the details, emerge the characters. The details, like an old Biblical genealogy, beget images and images deftly rendered beget familiarity and familiarity is how a reader inserts himself into the developing story and brings with him a palette of emotions that assures reality. The writer’s role is to get that process started with every ounce of creativity he or she can engender.

But the message didn’t hit with its full punch until LaPlante offered a writing exercise from John Gardner’s, The Art of Fiction. Here is that writing exercise for you to experience first-hand what stands revealed when you are forced to use only detail to create an image which in its own way tells the story of a particular moment. Give it go. Here are the instructions:

Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war or death. Do not mention the man who does the seeing. The result should be a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn, but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down.

If you are a writer, this exercise is definitely worth your time and effort, for if your experience is anything like mine, you will feel like you have learned something that you could never quite put your finger on before - what it is that master novelists are doing in their writing that makes it so compelling.

If you would like to read my attempt at this exercise, click here.