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Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.
The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland
April 15, 2015
- Billy Collins, 1988
"With an apple I want to astonish Paris."
- Paul Cezanne
You thought it was just a pencil dot
art students made in the middle of the canvas
before they started painting the barn, cows, haystacks,
or just a point where railroad tracks fuse,
a spot engineers stare at from the cabs of trains
as they clack through the heat of prairies
heading out of the dimensional.
But here I am at the vanishing point,
looking back at everything as it zooms toward me,
barns, cows, tracks, haystacks, farmers, the works,
shrinking, then disappearing into this iota
as if pulled by a gravity that is horizontal.
I am a catcher behind the home plate of the world,
a scientist observing a little leak in reality.
I watch the history of architecture narrow down
to nothing, all straight lines rushing away from
themselves like men who have caught on fire.
Every monument since Phidias converges on this speck.
Imagine a period that could swallow all the sentences
in an encyclopedia.
I have reached the heaven of geometry
where every line in every theorem aspires to go.
Even the vanishing points in drawings vanish here.
And if you do not believe me, look at where
the tangents of your garage are aimed.
You have heard of the apple that astonished Paris?
This is the nostril of the ant that inhaled the universe.
A waitress at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Minneapolis told a table of writers that the only other group to consume as much alcohol as writers were the farmers. I'm not sure what that says about farmers, but I imagine it's close to what writers think: It's damn nice to get away from the tractor now and then. 14,000 writers - mostly introverted, shy, and cringe-worthy in their self-consciousness - can party pretty well at a rodeo with their own kind. That is, once the writers get over feeling too shy to approach a favorite author or new group of writers to join them for a beer after a panel...which may take a pre-beer, or two.
What do writers drink? Last count, the leading favorite at conventions was a tie between wine and beer, with cocktails a solid second, and all of that far, far
behind coffee. Tea is the beverage slacker. And of course, quiet and introverted is completely out the window if writers, readings, and alcohol are present in the same venue. Then you have what we writers like to call, "a literary happening.'
One of my new friends, a writer from New Mexico named Margaret Wrinkle, who wrote the powerful novel "Wash" (Grove Atlantic), offered some solid advice on a discussion panel on the topic of literary editing:
"The business of the writer is the story. The editor's is the reader."
I pinned this wisdom above my filing cabinet to remind myself as I work my way through a manuscript of copy edits that my work is telling the story
. Not thinking about its place in the market, or worrying about critical reviews, blurbs, jacket covers, or copies sold... The writer's business is telling the story. And telling it well.
In a nutshell, it is the writer's calling and responsibility to tell the story in her heart and soul with as much power and authenticity as possible. It is the editor's work to make the story comprehensible, approachable, and free of mistakes for the reader's benefit. At the AWP conference writers talked about writing, read each other's work, signed their work, purchased stacks of print books, and celebrated the successes of their peers and those who publish good writing. Nowhere was there a pitch, a sale, or a push. That may be why AWP is my favorite conference.
So why did I choose this poem, "Vanishing Point" by Billy Collins? First of all because it's an old one - from his first collection of poems "The Apple That Astonished Paris," University of Arkansa Press - that I was lucky enough to find and buy at the conference book fair. Secondly, this poem has a kind of wit and playfulness that bounces the power and creativity of language on its nose like a ball tossed about by a circus seal. It's also true.
What can't one do with language? Not much, when words are harnessed to the imagination.
And so I leave you with this thought: take whatever you are doing and do it with a sense of play. A dot becomes an apple. A laugh becomes a lifetime. It's all in perspective.
April 7, 2015
copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth
The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin
Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?
- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield
This image is of a 2013 art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The installation occupied (at that time) an entire room of its own. A room within a room, in which the art, "How to Build a Cathedral," fills the entirety of the subdued space.
The light is dim, the atmosphere quiet. The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, which is curtained on four sides by ceiling-to-floor black mesh curtains (filmy and weighty). Inside the mystery of the curtains, one may stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation on an interior border of plain gray pavers. The ceiling within the space is a mammoth "chandelier" of cow bones, suspended in uniform order from the ceiling, and lit from above. The white bones funnel downward to join a thin cord constructed of stacked Eucharist wafers, and downward still into a sculptural sea bed of shiny new pennies.
The space has the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals and the metaphoric elements with which we erect them: rock, bone and muscle, ritual, money, and death.
Sacrament, mystery, light.
The artist has constructed a place that, improbable as it would seem, is made profound from our intention
to honor the sacred. A space for contemplation constructed of the elemental world. What is sacred is born of the ordinary.
April 1, 2015
Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo, Norway
A mouthful of language to swallow:
stretches of beach, sweet clinches,
breaches in walls, pleached branches;
britches hauled over haunches;
hunched leeches, wrenched teachers.
What English can do: ransack
the warmth that chuckles beneath
fuzzed surfaces, sooth velvet
richness, plashy juices.
I beseech you, peach,
clench me into the sweetness
of your reaches.
A few years back I featured this poem, thinking about the ripeness of its imagery, the words and rhythms that play in sound and rhyme and alliteration. What a funny kind of tribute in poetry, to "break the rules" so to speak. To let loose with jubilant, mouthwatering WORDS.
This poem is a delight to read, to speak aloud, to chisel out slim tickles of visual context and meaning. Peaches, a humorous ode to the inside-out of adjectives. And then the poet's own elegant rebuttal. Choices of descriptions that are sensual, true, and robust. Do these words fail or surpass? Surely Davison amuses us with his riddle of the peach, asking "What is?" in syllables that roll around and off the tongue - of the peach, but not the peach. And then, finally, just the peach.
Aren't words grand? As worthy of love as the stories they tell?
I invite you to think about what speaks to you in rhyme or prose, in image or sound, maybe the majesty of nature, a raw and roughhewn power. Is there a particular landscape you cannot get enough of? A melody or instrumental that is a whole world to you when you listen? Give thought to your favorite pleasures and memories and why they remain important and significant to you. Many of them include the building blocks of language. Without words, the more subtle and puzzling elements of life might elude us. In word, music, and imagery, we play with the strange experience life is.
For me, more than the eloquent silences and harmonies of nature, the music lies in language. Stories are organic to life lived and imagined - made of peaches and fires and galaxies, horses pounding through dust over a distant plain. Somewhere, long ago, it was no longer enough to merely watch the prairie lightning, it must be painted on the rocks. Human experience has been described in song, stories of the people's exodus, added to the lore of the Great Hunt. Words...palaces of time.
Celebrate the landscapes you love. The music that lifts your heart. The friendships that gift ordinary life with love and loving. Open your favorite book and delve into starfish, stairways, deserts, balls of lava, poisoned cake, Cossacks and Caribbean nights, the myths of Rome, plots of Shakespeare, three geese crossing a midnight moon... Enjoy a mouthful of experience!
March 26, 2015
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.
This poem describes for me the difficulty and largesse of expressing any part of the beauty and strangeness of my recent sojourn throughout Umbria and Tuscany. My mind is full of imagery - the vermillion and azure of old paints, faded tapestries, and the many textures of stone. How do I describe the oblique translucence of light glancing off marble, the brick of Tuscany? Why the color Siena exists? North of the battered, worn and rounded, once rugged seven hills of Rome, are even more undulating hills. Steep cliffs; and rugged hollows of trees not yet leafed in March although limned in twining ivy. Glacial streams tumble down pebbled washes from the Apennine Mountains.
Everything about Italy is rich with human presence. From crumbling hilltop castle towers to fallow vineyards. The story of mankind plays out like paused chess games throughout hushed galleries. Etruscan graveyards, the battles of Goths and Romans, Hannibal at the Arno. Pagans and Christians, temples and duomos. The ghosts of a great empire cast a shadow across all that is Italy today.
The racket of the cities. Motorbikes and careening cars contrast with the utter quiet of the countryside. Deep in narrow alleys the unexpected pocket of sun. A fountain in a roundabout. A square of open air tavernas, noisy with soccer fans.
The light, anywhere in Italy. Clear, warm, piercing; yet capable of melodrama, mystery, an interior color.
The variegations of marble, sandstone, limestone, and clay. The way a thousand-year-old marble parquet floor possesses a dull patina, scuffed from the hundreds of thousands of shoe soles that have crossed its surface.
Appreciation of the ideal: in particular the human form. The frank sexuality of the nude. The extraordinary curated collections. The power of the clergy in which they reside.
The art of symbolic storytelling expressed by a scene in paint. Before the book, before the photograph, before the film, we absorbed myth and history through painters and weavers and carvers of stone.
The importance of wealth to the existence of art, and to the development of science. Of patronage and philanthropy. Art as a luxury. Advancements in science driven by upper-class curiosity. The artist as both genius and bridge builder.
That art mattered so much to citizens it was often walled up in homes to hide it from invading forces.
The cross-fertilization and seeding of cultures through conquest and assimilation.
The difference in the way an Italian tomato tastes. The indigenous virtue of a Brunello, and the goodness of Italian cuisine, without pretense or artifice.
The way Italians eat together. Conversation, sharing, laughter, and debate - lingering at the table long after the meal is done.
Old ruins left exposed to erosion (and human appreciation) in the shadow of modern office buildings. The ancient and the modern in unending dialogue.
The severity of religion, and the counter-rise of the cult of the merciful. The gains and losses in cultural advancement within the ebb and tide of religion's influence across nations.
The idea of an ancient architect - using a sharp, pointed instrument - calculating measurements and designs on a stone "map" for a planned Temple to Jupiter. The fact that stone map survived the millennia.
The way Italians feel English is a polite language, but one should fight in Italian. That having a Prime Minister convicted of running a prostitution ring and graft is terrible, but not so much so that one would organize and act to change it.
That one's primary school compatriots will still live in the same village as their grandparents when they themselves become grandparents.
Why the northerners disdain the southerners. Why southerners immigrate more than northerners and recreate new Italy's wherever they go.
That all Italians believe that if you are to do a thing well, then it should appear magnificent in accordance with its excellence. Mussolini struck at the heart of Italian pride and morality dismantling of the beauty of Italy. Fashion is as much in the tradition of Michelangelo as The Vatican is the symbol of modern Christian Rome.
Italians love color. And flavor, fur and jewels, and fast cars. They adore and protect small children, gather for family meals, and love the cinema.
I rest with this last observation: Italy is a broad palette of human desires and passion. A cultural and historical record. A human point in time of all time that expresses an unparalleled creative genius, the fierce imperial, and the omnipotence of the political church. The footsteps of western humanity cross the threshold of Rome.
You might try the thin-crust pizza.
March 4, 2015
It requires faith in the process. The imagination has its own coherence. Our first draft will lead us. There's always time for thinking and shaping and restructuring later, after we've allowed something previously hidden to emerge on the page.
Swan on Lake Luzern, Switzerland
- Dani Shapiro, "Still Writing"
FATHER'S OLD BLUE CARDIGAN
Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair
where I always sit, as it did
on the back of the kitchen chair where he always sat.
I put it on whenever I come in,
as he did, stamping
the snow from his boots.
I put it on and sit in the dark.
He would not have done this.
Coldness comes paring down from the monotone in the sky.
His laws were a secret.
But I remember the moment at which I knew
he was going mad inside his laws.
He was standing at the turn of the driveway when I arrived.
He had on the blue cardigan with the buttons done all the way up to the top.
Not only because it was a hot July afternoon
but the look on his face--
as a small child who has been dressed by some aunt early in the morning
for a long trip
on cold trains and windy platforms
will sit very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers
over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.
- Anne Carson, from "Men In The Off Hours"
I chose these two things to share on the blog today because one quote is about the process of bringing our thoughts to the page - of trusting in the machinery of reflection and distillation - and the other a poem reflecting on the loss of the familiar from our thoughts.
Carson's poem is a beautiful example of the kind of poetry I feel lies within all of us. A cherished memory - Carson's father wearing his familiar blue cardigan - becomes a poem mourning abandonment by memory. Carson's observations open inward as if they were nesting dolls: the poem's primary theme of beloved familiarity is nested within yet another, more subtle theme of human connection. The poem begins with a simple blue cardigan, but as Carson lifts the layers of complexity in the memory she has of her father and this sweater, she reveals that within the beloved comfort of the personal keepsake is the memory of her father losing his memory. And in the process, the ties to his daughter.
Writing depends, as Dani Shapiro observes, on the pliable plasticity of memory. The ways we move within time as it exists in our minds to weave a narrative, a history. What is a line of poetry or a sentence of story but the distillation of the many "then and nows" of awareness ? When we describe an experience, examine something we have learned, we engage in a focused effort to scrap away reaction to reveal insight. We have faith our mental archive, our memory, holds the thread intact of all that was and is. When the thread begins to fray, or inexplicably breaks, we exist removed from our own narratives, lost and startled by all we do not recognize. "Riding backwards," as Carson describes her father. The shadows of time flying past us in the opposite direction.
I invite you to think of a "blue cardigan" in your life... an object that represents an embedded relationship or relationship of memories important to you. Create a mental picture, a poem, or perhaps a paragraph of memories connected to that object. What you feel is more than a memory. It is you.
February 24, 2015
THE NEXT TIME
BY Mark Strand
Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle
Of light upon the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means
Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.
Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,
Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,
And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this
Is the way it was meant to happen, that if we only knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.
Thre is something deeply wise and thought provoking about this poem. The poet, Mark Stand, has taken the familiar idea of time and its passage and said something interesting about passage
itself. We know time is transition, a flow of moments here and gone, rinse and repeat. Yes, we think of time as dynamic. But do we think of it as an architecture
, a ghost? I am intrigued by the way Strand envisions time as the inexorable tumble of what was into what is. That "then and now" coexist ever so briefly before what was is no more. This is a poem of moments. A poem that says be now, let go.
The last line of this poem is particularly poignant -
...if we only knew
how long the ruins would last we would never complain.
Measured hours lean into the next and the next. The architecture of time is beautiful - a vaulted hall. A long, columned esplanade forever heading into the distance. Strand writes of the pull - we cannot stop nor begin time's flow. The culmination of expired tomorrows. In time we abandon our monuments, let go our losses, release our loves. The ring of our footsteps swallowed in silence.
A trace of perfume. How long the ruins last.
February 18, 2015
THE RETURN: ORIHUELA, 1965
for Miguel Hernandez
by Philip Levine
You come over a slight rise
in the narrow, winding road
and the white village broods
in the valley below. A breeze
silvers the cold leaves
of the olives, just as you saw
it in dreams. How many days
have you waited for this day?
Soon you must face a son grown
to manhood, a wife to old age,
the tiny sealed house of memory.
A lone crow drops into the sun,
the fields whisper their courage.
By chance does a poet become a bookmark in one's life. This small poem has a special place in my heart. Not only because "The Return: Orihuela, 1965" (THE SIMPLE TRUTH) describes hill country I know and love, but because the poet has framed a transfiguring moment - a tenuous tipping point in the human soul.
At some point in life we will each of us tilt between yearning and insufficient courage: afraid that what we remember, what we loved and left and dream to see again, must as the fates would have it, be gone. Revisiting what is memory, standing in the firmament of a dream, echoes the poignancy of that famous melancholy line, That is no country for old men,
from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium." In "Byzantium," Yeats's observer understands his time has passed.
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Levine however, stands in the shoes of a man on the brink of a return. A man stepping back toward his past; who comes "over a slight rise" awash in fear, hope embedded in memory.
Philip Levine has died. Prolific, thoughtful, humble, comfortable among the ordinary - the common man celebrated in his poetry - Levine (1928-2015), bookmarked an important cornerstone in my life's eclectic reading. One of those contemporary American poets whose work remained as honest and strong throughout his life as when I first encountered WHAT WORK IS, which was honored with the National Book Award in 1991, followed by THE SIMPLE TRUTH, honored with the Pulitzer in 1994. Levine was a poet without pretense. He offered insights that did not need to be made grander than the breadth of plain truth. He gave me a language of beauty, but not false.
Philip Levine's poems, to paraphrase Yeats, stand among "the singing-masters of my soul." Perhaps we do not know these influential voices until they are silenced. At the end of "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats reflects on the soul, It knows not what it is... Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
A lone crow drops into the sun.
February 10, 2015
- by K.P. Kavafis (C.P. Cavafy)
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.
Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.
In high school my son was asked to contribute a poem that was meaningful to him for a booklet complied by his AP English Literature class. ITHACA was his choice. I recently stumbled across the poem again, thinking how surprised I was that this complex and thoughtful poem was his selection. That at the age of not quite eighteen, he understood something about the nature of journeys and setting goals and the hidden significance of the unexpected. This, on the precipice of personal challenges over the next six years that would change his life, redefine him, and reorient his compass.
Do we not all "hope that the road is long" and full of adventure, full of knowledge? Are we able and willing to set down our fears and refuse to "carry them within" as we set out upon our journeys? I suspect many of us head out in pursuit of our grand desires mostly unaware the journey has no more to give than the beauty of the voyage. Ithaca, as the poet writes, will not make you rich.
I like to think my son had an intuition of the difficult and life-changing pathways ahead for him. That he understood the value of mountains climbed and challenges met, the gift in an unexpected view. Certainly he knew very young that nothing is a given. He picked a star and followed it on through the dark.
Somewhere along the road toward a goal, the journey becomes all. I think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge sailing from England to Malta in 1804 - his ambition to repair his health in a warmer clime, to regain his poetic focus and stoke the powers of creative fire. Coleridge's journey at sea did indeed deepen the keenness of his observations, and served as the catalyst for new poems and imagery. His love of the sea consecrated in his journal, "The Stars that start up, sparkle, dart flames and die away in the Snow of Foam by the vessel's side."
Nonetheless the poet sensed, even as he neared his destination, "Malta, dear Malta as far off as ever."
The island failed to fulfill Coleridge's dreams but the voyage was a poetic highlight of his life. As ITHACA reminds us, our lives are gems of boldness, pearls of adventure, "the summer mornings...when — with what pleasure, with what joy — you first put in to harbors new to your eyes." Ithaca is
the beautiful voyage - for without her we would never have taken the road.
I like to think my son, now in his mid twenties, gazes long and far down the road. Not measuring the miles but the viewpoints along the way. A poem that first spoke to a boy keeps the watch in a young man's heart.
February 4, 2015
It takes a certain maturity of mind to accept that nature works as steadily in rust as in rose petals.
Adam, Auguste Rodin, Cantor Art Museum Sculpture Garden
- Esther Warner Dendel
Three years ago I wrote about the "work value" of artistic versus public service ("A Content Heavy World," 9/14/2012). In this essay I mulled over what I felt was a troubling dissonance between the work value of individual creativity versus practical service to others. An online discussion then evolved which included a Washington physician and a professor in the humanities from the Chicago area. Let me begin by recapping some of our discussion before I pick up this thread in view of the importance of work itself:
"In light of our challenged world, can we value a work life committed to personal pursuits equal to one led in productive service to others? Can we meaningfully balance the social value of the artistic (inclusive of work in the humanities) with production, service, or quantitative science careers?"
Physician: Such an appropriate question for all of us. Especially those who yearn to have a meaningful life. You are asking exactly the question that my daughter, working in the arts and humanities, has had for ten years now. For those of you who are artists as well as pragmatically skilled, the contrast stares you directly in the face. For the rest of us, the choice may not be so stark, but the question still exists. How have you, Glenda, reconciled creative writing vs. your past government work with the U.S. State Department?
Me: I'm not sure I have. Although I like to think that value exists (however intrinsic or physically expressed) in all manner of human endeavor, and anything fundamentally positive, even indirectly channeled or expressed as a catalyst, is of benefit.
Professor in the Humanities: What a wise thinker (the two don't always correlate). This debate very much reflects the paradox of my chosen path. It is so hard to measure the impact of work in the humanities. I'm not sure it puts me at more ease but it is nonetheless interesting to compare my tension (in a productive sense) with another's. I think what matters most is that each individual finds fulfillment in the everyday of work life. I can only hope to work within something bigger than myself... and my tensions will begin to subside.
Me: Our shared perspective! For example, I think sensitivity to the question of "social versus personal" value was partly behind my decision to stand back as my daughter made her career choice, weighing her dual passions for art history and medicine. She concluded she would always express and appreciate the arts, while a day's work in medicine would provide a concrete sense of purpose. It was very personal for her, and very balanced as she combined degrees.
What do you think? Does everyday work
have life and value, independent of what or how work is done? I think it does. I also think because the arts and humanities are by some definition open-ended fields of research and interpretation - perpetually yielding to new territory, rendition, and discovery - the artist/scholar never feels something is concretely, genuinely accomplished but rather always part of a subjective, shifting evaluation. It is the burden of artists and some scholars to settle for a role as "a voice of translation." The light shines brightly on new thinking and understanding, yet is transitory: a perpetual "work in progress."
I like the professor's approach, valuing work in term's of the everyday of work life. Reminding us the universal, haunting sense of a bigger picture
might frame our choice of work - how we productively use our "voice" - and still incorporate all the subtle, nuanced efforts we make in life and love that nonetheless mysteriously impact the micro and macro human story.
To be capable of both the artistic and practical. To quest from science into art and back again, from one subject's track to its cross. I spent dinner in California recently with a friend of my late husband's, a gentleman who reminded me of the richness of work life balance and its inherent personal uniqueness and complexity. This friend is a chemical engineer, as well as entrepreneur, professor, and spiritualist: an intellect that traverses all boundaries. He has found a way to make his "inner creative" practical as well as personal. We all mirror complexity. Observing those in medicine, there is clearly art in the science of the body human, and machine in the art, scalpel as tool of discovery. Consider the journalist, who combines research with the precise and creative. Many fields combine the technically skilled and creatively inventive, work in everyday engineering, technical design, agriculture, teaching.
Perhaps the debate is not so much the value of one particular professional path or "field of dreams" over another, but instead, acknowledging the importance of the everyday work life, committing to "work within something bigger than myself."
January 28, 2015
Character gives us qualities, but it is in actions - what we do - that we are happy or the reverse... All human happiness and misery take the form of action.
- The Poetics, Aristotle
A series of essays I write on creative practice explore technique and muse and approaches that block or contribute to successful writing and personal productivity. Our frustrations as writers (or any artist in creative practice) arise in cycles, often anchored to the same problem, situation, or struggle we have wrestled with in the past. Recent reader email and blog comments have queried me about suggestions on better linking the inspiration for a story to planning the structure that will best translate the idea to the page.
A post first published February 19, 2014 is my jumping off point ("Habits of Creative Practice 3") to explore this idea further. What do I mean by technique and the tools we employ to build narrative?
Technique is...any selection, structure, or distortion, any form or rhythm imposed upon the world of action; by means of which, it should be added, our apprehension of the world of action is enriched or renewed. In this sense, everything is technique which is not the lump of experience itself, and one cannot say that a writer has no technique, for being a writer, he cannot. We can speak of good technique and bad technique, or adequate and inadequate, of technique which serves the novel's purpose, or disserves.
- Technique as Discovery, Mark Schorer
So we have our idea. We know the thing that we want to put down in print. We've thought long and hard on this idea that keeps us up at night. Now what? We need an architecture. Structure influences narrative style. What ways and means of storytelling best serve our idea? Does the topic belong in an essay? Narrative nonfiction? Short story or novel? We map out the twin foundations of our book: character and plot. Importantly, now is the time to set aside worry we lack the skills required for the task. We read, right? Constantly and widely? We've absorbed more than we know.
Not enough can be said for the developmental power for the writer of reading and observation. Reading well, and deeply, is the writer's avenue into understanding and developing technique, learning elements of craft that serve storytelling in unique ways. Reading the works of others is the best way to observe the subtle relationship between story and structure. What does the writer shade in, and what does he or she leave out for the reader to intuit? The best experience as a reader is one in which the writer has deliberately opened a door on speculation and contemplation. Created a dialogue with the reader that leaves a slice of mystery in our hands, an idea or truth to interpret that defines the tale in keeping with our own intellect or experience. Often the hardest aspect of good technique is refraining from overselling an idea because the anxious writer is anxious the reader not miss his or her point. If the technique is solid however, the foundation of the story will be sufficiently grounded. There will be no doubt in the reader's mind where the architecture of the story is leading. That said, it is the unexpected - the views opened to the reader from within the story, born from thoughtful construction of plot and character - that comprise our pleasure in good writing.
Observation and deep reading nourish our sense of character development, build our library of root behaviors and histories gathered from the world, including our own interior landscape. We find characters and establish their authenticity from what is reflected around us. Snippets of observed conversation spark a theme, bits of history polarize character interaction, human privacies and anonymous dramas nuance story tone and detail. A writer needs to both observe the world and study storytelling to build narratives readers will relate to, come to own in uniquely personal ways. We love a book because it resonates for us, not because it is a technical marvel, or an example of perfect history.
We fall in love with a story because it shares our secret perceptions or questions the world in a meaningful way. Writers define these truths by marrying observation and effective techniques of revelation and contradiction.
How then do we accomplish this, build our repertoire of story-building tools? One tip that works well for me begins with notebooks of observation, immersion in life around me. I leave the solitude of my study and drop in on life. Grocery aisles, vacation beaches, airports, bank lines. What are people wearing, reading, eating, arguing about? Connect with the landscape of humanity in all its richness and humor, its pathos and chaos. As I tune in to the dramas around me, the story I want to tell begins to form. The characters step on stage. Second tip: begin to read widely around the topic of your idea. Are there plays on this idea, previous classics, new authors, essays, paintings, music? By immersing myself in the selected theme or subject, I learn what I need to know, and see ways in which different narrative approaches might better filter the story. Perhaps I find I love the first person style for telling this story best. Or maybe it comes together as an ensemble of voices. Reading widely helps me understand the strengths in differing narrative styles and offers exposure to new ways of craft. Writers are continually re-inventing the medium in new and innovative ways. Borrowing from what works is a strong beginning.
At this very moment I am immersed in reading for my new novel and I've been out in the world gathering details and notes. I'm reading to find my way into that bell-tone of a first paragraph, laying down that first line. This dance between idea and framing is expressed by this lovely passage from John Fowles in his work "Notes on an Unfinished Novel"-
The novel I am writing at the moment [provisionally entitled THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN]...started four or five months ago with a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still half-asleep... Indeed, mythopoeic "stills" (they seem always to be static) float into my mind often. I ignore them, since that is the best way of finding whether their early hauntings are the door into a new world.
So I ignored the image; but it recurred. Imperceptibly it stopped coming. I began deliberately to recall it and to try to analyze it and hypothesize it. It was obviously mysterious. It was vaguely romantic. It also seemed, perhaps because of the latter quality, not to belong to us today. The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay - as I happen to live near one, so near I can see it from the bottom of my garden, it soon became a specific ancient quay. The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach to the Victorian age. An outcast. I didn't know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her.
How will you tell your story?