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Histories and Fictions

Valetta, Malta

Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematicians subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.
- Francis Bacon, Essays, "Of Studies"

Acts themselves alone are history... Tell me the act, O historian, and leave me to reason upon them as I please; away with your reasoning and your rubbish! All that is not action is not worth reading.
- William Blake

History, as an entirety, could only exist in the eyes of an observer outside it and outside the world. History, only exists, in the final analysis, for God.
- Albert Camus, "The Rebel"

I have been musing, of late, on the distinctions between fiction and history. Is history the retelling of a factual narrative, for the most part based on action and not speculation, or is it, as Francis Bacon declares, a particular reasoning applied to aspects of human life to accumulate an "history," and not simply a time-line?

The writer Jorge Luis Borges argued quite effectively in Other Inquisitions, that "Universal history is the history of a few metaphors." Which leads me to my question: Is there a worthy difference in how we understand ourselves through history, narratives of fiction, poetry, or creative retellings in nonfiction? Do all these various ways of telling bleed across lines?

Take as an example narrative nonfiction, sometimes called creative nonfiction. Defined loosely here as the embellishment, without factual distortion, of a skeleton of true information. Is this not what we think of as classical history? The past relayed to us by the ancients in essay, epic or ballad, religious texts, or theatre? Does memoir differ from biography beyond its intimate focus and use of filters less universal and more personal? Does an oversight differ from a lie? A misrepresentation from an omission? Or to look at the question sideways for a moment, if fiction lets us see our real selves through an artful staging of an invented series of events, how does that understanding differ from the internal drama of a reasoned essay, interview, or bulletin "from the front," if the basic premise of truth in telling is observed?

Truth in telling: That to the best of one's knowledge these events are what could be, might have been, surely were, once upon a time. The preamble to all narrative, "Once upon a time." My favorite histories of the world weave fact with interpretation, story with reflection, event with consequence. I do this same weaving of factual thread and colorful bits as do most writers. Day after day we build the imaginary, drag fact across speculation to spark the invention of stories. In this way we retell a mystery, or sketch our observations of a crumbling or evolving culture.

As a human, I sympathize with Blake - let us deem for ourselves the meaning of things. Yet Camus hits the nail squarely on the head: Who but some being who is not us will ever know the complete history of mankind and what meaning it may possess?

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Vanishing Point

- 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.

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Sacrament, Mystery, Light

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.
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Palaces of Time

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.

-Peter Davison

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!

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