From the Andes to the Amazon: What I did this summer (essay for school)

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IMG_3576 (1)Riding horseback high in the Páramo of Cotapaxi National Park, overlooking a valley crested on either side by volcanoes, I tried to mold myself to my horse’s back. At first, as my white horse labored uphill, I couldn’t find a rhythm with him, and every one of his steps threw me gently against the back of his saddle, worrying me about the pain I was causing him. The sky was steel gray and low, but the colors of the ponchos of my fellow riders were saturated red, and striped, cream and brown.
ConqueredAt the crest of the hill, at 14,000 feet, we stopped under a bare rock promontory. The wind blew hard and cold, rippling the silvery grass and billowing my ochre poncho around me as our guides served us hot, clear tea. It was tangy with a hint of cinnamon and naranjilla. After a few hours of riding, I fell into a peaceful rhythm with my horse. Below, us the thatched-roof hacienda blended with its surrounds, and far below that, the emerald squares of cultivated fields quilted the broad valley. It was hard to absorb. Up ahead, silvery threads of sunlight sifted through the clouds, and illuminated the black safety helmets of the riders so that they looked silver, like the helmets of the conquistadores five hundred years ago. Rather than conquering, though, we were conquered by otherworldly light and unbelievable beauty.

Only a few days later, gliding in dugout canoes along the Cuyabeno river at night, I rested my head against the back of the seat and delivered myself up to the starry sky, which for the first time, didn’t look like a sequined tent roof, but rather like the dimensional space it really was. I could feel the space between the planets and stars, flung far and near. I felt myself just a small being, plastered to the side of the planet, looking over the balcony of earth into infinity.

You have asked the students of SUNY Adirondack’s International Education course 204 (INT 204) to explain what we learned about the culture of Ecuador and how the experience changed us. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that teachers ask us to sum up and categorize things which are beyond words. We learn by telling a story, but we also know that the telling of the story changes the shape of what happened, rendering it lost, in a way. One way or another, the experience dissolves, the traces it leaves in us sometimes indecipherable.

Emotionally, on this trip, I went into a wordless place, where I took copious notes on everything I saw and heard, but could think of little to say to the other people on the trip. I listened to people talking on the bus and wondered what they were talking about.  I know, when I’m in this space, that big shifts are going on somewhere deep in my mind, but they rise in their own time, not on command. I came on this trip to feed my imagination since so much of my writing seems to stem from my year and a half in Chile when I was between the ages of eleven and thirteen.

I grew up traveling, embedded in cultures different from my own, so this was not an entirely new experience. But it has been nearly 30 years since I’ve left the country. I was excited to see the Andes again, because the mountains, volcanoes and rain forests of Chile had carved a space in me that nothing else could fill.

Before the trip, I had reviewed some of the Spanish I had lost over the last 30 years, and as we traveled around the country I found myself entering first that confused space where my English began to wither as my Spanish returned. Then, I’d alternate between moments of a sudden ability to speak in complete sentences and a complete inability to speak in either English or Spanish. Often, I’d search for the Spanish word for something, and it would appear in my mind as if by magic. Other times I had to ask.

At the end of the trip in Quito, I had an elemental conversation at the Indian Market with a woman from Loja, the southernmost province of Ecuador. I was buying a black and white designed plate that was different from everything else I’d seen and which reminded me vaguely of Acoma pottery, as well as a small wooden mask of a fox. I said in Spanish, “I’m crazy. I’ve been buying too many things.”

“But think of the good memories you’ll have when you look at them,” she said.

Otavalo Market

We Americans descend on the Otavalo market eager
to spend, hoping to capture
a piece of Ecuador
forever. We buy
prisms of color woven into fabric,
stories rolled into clay fingers,
night creatures carved into wood masks.
Here philosophy spirals onto gourds,
and the confetti of life is painted in petals
on bowls and spoons
in carnival colors.
We try to buy the stray smile
of the Otavaleña, or wisdom that has guided deft hands
along Intiñan, the pathway of the sun,
to reap corn under the volcanoes
for five thousand years,
only to find, when we open our suitcases back
home, that all we brought back
were things.

Pululahua

I felt guilty about my American display of materialism and of the hole I made in my family’s bank account as I went into a buying frenzy the first three days of the trip. That is something I’d do differently if I had to do it again, wait until the end of the trip to buy, and buy less. On the other hand, I felt good about paying these artisans, who had been doing their work for thousands and thousands of years, as we saw in The Museo Casa Del Abado in Quito that very first day. Clay and stone figures from the Valdivia, the Tolita, the Guangala, the Manteño, the Napo, and the Jama Caoque manifested intricate world views and rituals.

Diego Vidal, who I will forever think of as Diego “Indiana Jones” Vidal.

Diego, our gracious host who was constantly generous with his copious knowledge, pointed out an accordion figure carved by the Valdivia from stone 4000 years ago. A figure of a man was carved on either end. His head was a big square and his eyes were wide and large, like an owl. The ridges between front and back, Diego said, represented all the different dimensions we live in through time. The largeness of the head symbolized a big spirit. Visiting the markets felt a little like that.

These same people from thousands of years ago had accordioned themselves through the rise and fall of the Incas, the rise and fall of the Spanish, and no less than twenty different constitutions as the country of Ecuador birthed itself, and here they still are, dressed in their embroidered blouses, wrapped in skirts and tightly woven belts, telling their stories, weaving, painting, carving and making their art.

  Returning to grounds that were both literally and figuratively similar to Chile was stirring in a wordless way. I was delighted to see that little had changed. People still sold quail eggs on street corners from makeshift tin stands, and knit sweaters with their babies wound to their backs with scarves, and school children still wore navy uniforms. After eight days of wide-eyed wonder, I found myself growing emotionally sensitive as the some of the students formed cliques.

On an episode of her podcast show, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talked about how we have two selves, our social selves and our essential selves. I think because I’ve traveled so much, my social self has not been one I could rely on – because social behaviors are transient, temporary and sometimes random. Living at the edge of so many different cultures, landscapes and income brackets may have demanded that I live and operate from my essential self—the self that endures no matter what the surroundings, no matter what language you’re speaking, no matter where you are.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been waiting for the wordless thoughts to form into thoughts with words so I could answer the questions your assignment posed, Finally, I realized that was just going to have give you this kaleidoscope or collage of thought. I struggled just now with the spelling of kaleidoscope, because on the trip, I had ventured pretty far into Ecuadorian spelling…. the “k” sound is usually spelled with “que,” the “wa” sound is either spelled “gua” or “hua,” and a jaguar is pronounced yaguar, and the “I” sound is spelled “ai.” In big ways and small, the trip continues to reverberate.

One of of the many, many murals painted in every town and village.

What stood out for me the most tour of Ecuador was the country’s geographical and cultural diversity. About twice the size as New York State, it has 3 million less people than New York, yet, geographically, it has some of the most active volcanoes in the world, and at least five distinct ecosystems, according to Diego, the high altitude páramo, the higher nival (tundra), the dry forest, the rain forest and the Chokó (the cloud forest?). Reports on the diversity of the population vary, with the Moon guide to Ecuador reporting that 25% of the population is indigenous, and Diego told us as much as 40% of the population is indigenous.

The indigenous people themselves are comprised of numerous different cultures. In addition, it has had a diverse political history, with no less than 20 different constitutions. This diversity is what I loved the most about Ecuador, I think. People dressed in a variety of traditional attire was a common sight in every city and town, from the Otavalo with their embroidered blouses and wrap-around skirts, to the other Andean Indians with their derby hats and shawls. Even though I got the distinct sense that there is still a great deal of tension between the mestizos and the more traditional indigenous people living in the Andes and the Amazon (as when an Ecuadorian visitor to the Tapir Lodge on the Cuyobeno told me this was her first time on the Amazon, and that most Ecuadorians don’t vacation here), the diversity of Ecuador seemed woven into is fabric at every level, like it’s woven into me.

For that reason I’d be hard put to say which part of the trip was my favorite part. Certainly the fruits we were introduced to us at the Alpaca Wasi, were as much a part of the magic of the country as was everything else: the passion fruit with its orange breakable shell, filled with a white sack of jellied seeds, or the tree tomato and goose berries, or the sweet, floral, custardy cherimoya, and the marshmallow fruit or guava that came in a long wide bean pod like those that hang off coffee trees or catalpa trees.

Or maybe what stood out most was eating lemony termites, or chewing on the bitter quinine bark of the calla brillo tree with our hawk-nosed guide, “Condor,” during our knee deep slosh through the swampy inlands of the rainforest. Or maybe it was spotting the Saqui money in tree branches, or listening to the careful Spanish of the red painted Curaca/Shaman who translated for us into his mother’s Siona language and his father’s Cofan, which sounded almost Chinese or like a bushman dialect from Africa. Then again the visit to Italo Espina’s house to see his “diablo” sculpture with Trump and Hitler in its mouth was a favorite, or the Indigenous village where we listened to the musician and then went to the weaving workshop, or the Paylon Del Diablo waterfall, or the cable car up to Pichincha, or the basket cable car across the chasm… we did so much!

I know that today, as I walk my dog, the sun is shining and a mythical wind is blowing, similar to the one on the high sweeps of Cotapaxi, only warmer. The cottonwood tree is shedding its seeds, which fall like fairy snow summer snow down. Through it, Saratoga Springs high school students drift homeward on their last days of the school year. Even though it’s beautiful here, I can’t help but think that the way the mountains and volcanoes rise about everything in Ecuador, literally overpowering the identical cinderblock constructions that sprawled like termite nests in the crevices of their volcanic arms, the way the black water of the Amazon is so smooth on top and so opaque that you can’t see what it hides, the way the Ceibo tree spreads its arms over all, makes it harder to forget that earth rules us, and that we are part of a mystery deeper than we can ever understand.

I really can’t put the whole trip into one unified message. All I can say is this:

Rapture to Raptor

After the spit and frenzy of buying,
We mount the bus triumphant,
Our bags bulging with “compras.”
We step past the tiny Otavaleña woman who
barely reached my chest
in black skirt, red head scarf, and gold beads,

her face creased and chipped,
like an old clay figurine,
her lips collapsed inward over her toothless gums.
She smiles, her eyes slanted slits.
She tilts her head,
presses her palms together and opens them,
splaying her crooked joints

We roar out of town,
leaving behind the farmer who leads four goats
down the street,
selling fresh milk from their udders.

Excitedly, we showcase our purchases to each other,
Laughing, pointing, congratulating and exclaiming.

Later, atop the mountain
at Condor Park,
Reina, the gray raptor, soars overhead.
She splays her edge feathers to navigate the gray sky,
carving a circle out of rain-pricked wind.
Again, and again, the falconer throws her over the wall
into the abyss between Cotacachi and Imbaburra.

Again and again,
she spreads her wings and rises,
sweeping us,
aching necks and all,
into silence.

Why Bill Condon’s Beauty is a blockbuster beast

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Hollywood Glitter
In the 20s, 30s, and 40s, if I remember correctly, when the country was experiencing social and economic upheaval, Hollywood started putting out these cheesy, blockbuster, fantasy, feel-good movies along the lines of Zeigfield Follies. This period, not coincidentally, was also the birth of worldwide fascism. We seem to be here again, all of us drunk on disappointment and yearning for escape.

I don’t like to cut down the work of others, especially when it represents such an huge effort on the part of so many.  This movie gave a lot of good jobs to a lot of people, with a cast that looked to be at least 45% black.  I wanted to like it, but I didn’t.  Hated it in fact.  I wouldn’t have gone, except that my 16-year-old daughter invited me, and when your teenager asks to spend time with you, rule of thumb, drop everything and do it. I had to keep my scathing criticism to myself, because she loved it.

Let me start with the good stuff. Emma Watson did a great job, and who knew she could sing? The fact that she was able to take her role seriously and lend genuine character to this vapid role is a mark of true talent. Also, besides having a cast that 45% people of color at least (even though all the stars were white), there were a few bows to gayness.  Kudos.

Now for the bad. First of all, Disney/Hollywood needs to realize that there are more than six fairytales, and we really don’t need another Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Been there, done that five or six times.

Second, from the moment the old woman/witch appears in the first two minutes with thunderous music, a clap of lightning, and door thrown wide, I thought, “Where can they go from here?”

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good, escapist fantasy, and have high tolerance for Hollywood formula films that has some inventive subscript, like the humor in Guardians of the Galaxy. Then again, maybe I’ve finally seen one too many, and am one of the few that wants to shake Hollywood off its fanatical devotion to that formula to the exclusion of all else.

Even for Hollywood, though, this movie was overblown, hyper-stylized, and vapid. Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. The movie contains multitudes of sins in tastefulness. It was the Disney cartoon made flesh. They didn’t try for any new interpretation, nuance or depth.

The set was beautiful but so ornate that it was constantly calling attention to itself. Maybe it was just that the one-dimensional characters couldn’t stand up to the set design. That’s all the movie was, really, a vehicle for set design. To be fair, the only seats left in the theater were about three feet from the screen, so that might be why I was choking on the set.

However, it’s ironic that a movie whose message was to look beyond the surface, was all about surface.

Corporate-Threat-to-Liberty-300x214At one point the director appeared to be trying for depth by giving the beast a backstory (or maybe that was in the Disney original; I don’t care to waste time looking it up). The poor vicious prince was wounded by the death of his mother and twisted by an evil father. I wasn’t convinced. I doubt Trump was abused, for instance. I think he’s just insane and spoiled, but we can blame the Trump phenomenon for why this movie is so popular right now.

Also, they were trying for some depth when “Chip” the boy teacup asks his mother why they were all punished for the wicked prince’s callousness. She, played by Emma Thompson, explains because, “We all sat around and watched [the abuse] and did nothing.” But they were servants. Disney seems to forget that servants have no power, and could have done nothing. Oh well, it’s fantasy, right?

Still as John Gardner famously said in The Art of Fiction, and this isn’t an exact quote, the reason we believe that the bird is talking is that when it flies to the top of the house with a nut in its mouth and opens its mouth to speak, the nut obeys the laws of reality and rolls down the roof.

I just don’t understand why anyone would spend so much money on a project like this. Oh right. Money. It made a lot, and got rave reviews, even from the New York Times, which is testament to how bad American cultural tastes are right now, and how desperate we all are for pretty escapism as we navigate our way through this nightmarish political turning point of American history. I guess it gave a lot of jobs to artists….

Watch Moonlight instead.

Compliments Aren’t for Sissies

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Discouragement.jpgAfter a writing retreat with one of my two writing groups, I am reminded of the importance of starting any critique session with appreciation and compliments, but not just any kind of compliments. Saying things like, “I loved that” or “you rock,” aren’t particularly helpful.

In any kind of feedback group, there is a tendency to go right to the criticism and skip the appreciation. It’s just human nature. We feel the boat is sinking and we need to plug up the hole. Talking about the nice paint job on the way down doesn’t make any sense.

Part of  this problem lies in the fact that  we are always  in a rush. Another part of the problem is that there’s a prevalent feeling that we are all getting too soft, that teachers are pumping up their students’ self-esteem at the expense of high standards, and that  if your feelings get hurt, that’s your problem, not the problem of the person delivering the criticism or insult.

However, as I watched one of my writing colleagues begin her reading with a hopeful look of anticipation, and then watched her deflate into exhausted confusion as we criticized her, I thought we were doing her a real disservice. She looked like a swimmer far from land who is losing strength and sense of direction, and all we were doing was telling her how wrong her swimming stroke was.  She said, “I don’t know if I can trust my own perception, anymore. I thought I was on the right track.”

Here’s the thing. The reason it’s important to start a critique session with compliments is not to make the writer feel good.  It’s to show the writer that you have heard, seen, or understood where they were intending to go.  So much of writing is necessarily taking a stab in the dark (letting go of the conscious mind’s dictums and letting the unconscious mind well up and take over). It’s as important to have your audience reflect back to you where you were hitting your mark as it is for your audience to reflect back where you may have missed.

I’ve said elsewhere, but it bears repeating, the positive comments aren’t just saying, “I love this,” and “that’s good,” they should be descriptive. For example, “The image of the wolf at the end gave me to understand that you were intimating that your mother’s spirit may have been reborn as a wolf.” Likewise, the negative criticism can be given as a compliment, “The impact of that line isn’t reaching me like I want it to because I’m distracted by alliteration in the middle of it.”

Yes, it’s validation, but the purpose of validation isn’t just a feel-good pat on the back. The more important purpose is to create trust. Descriptive and specific positive feedback about what you think the writer is achieving helps the wwriting-togetherriter to learn where and when to trust herself, but just as importantly, it helps the writer to trust her fellow group members.  If the group members have understood where she is going, then their advice about where to go next is useful.  If it turns out that the group misunderstood where the writer was going, then the writer can think about how she needs to revise to better direct her readers.

Compliments aren’t for sissies; they are an essential orienteering device for any writing group. They create the compass points for that session which buoy’s the writer on her way.

 

 

 

Review of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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8611145362_aa831c2b9c_nI’m pleased to welcome a guest to my site, Holly Wright, as she reviews Hayao Miyazaki’ film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind:

One of the things I’ve liked most about the Hayao Miyazaki films I have seen is that characters that would typically be seen in black or white terms, are in shades of grey. In Nausicaa, one can see this element in Kushana, princess of Torumekia. Sure, she conquers a peaceful village and kills their beloved king, but she’s doing this because she believes this to be the only way. She knows that the giant warrior cannot be brought back to her homeland, not only because the creature is too large, but because they will use it for their own gain. She wants to destroy the toxic forests, and the monsters that inhabit it. For Kushana, she is saving the world and uniting the kingdoms for the good of humanity. I love Miyazaki’s ability to make what could be the antagonist into a real human. But of course, the real antagonist of the movie isn’t in one single person, just as it often isn’t in life. In this particular movie, the antagonist is in the establishment of beliefs centered around the toxic jungles and her creatures.

Kushana, in a sense, can be seen as the embodiment of these beliefs, but again, she is somewhat of a pawn rather than the most concerning opponent to the peace of their world. She’s humanity; even her body has been industrialized. She feels rejected by nature, and why wouldn’t she? She was literally scarred by its protectors, the insects, embedding in her a lifelong hatred for what had physically and emotionally maimed her. She wants so badly to believe in the ability and power of humanity to finally take their earth “back.” This desire leads her to place her conviction in the form of the giant warrior, able to destroy what is keeping humans from dominating. Unfortunately for Kushana, she misses what Nausicaä, the main character, has the wisdom to understand. Nature is not there to control. The people of the Valley of the Wind know that they must live beside the toxic jungles, that they must coexist with the terrors Kushana wishes to annihilate. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the polar opposite of Kushana.

Nausicaä easily communicates with the animal world, rides the winds, and even cultivates what was believed to be toxic plant life. She is unafraid of the toxic jungles, leisurely laying within the toxic spores at the very beginning of the movie. As a child, she befriends a baby Ohmu, a creature that horrifies most of the people of the world. She still considers herself a component of the natural environment, and this is proven with every daring feat she accomplishes within the movie.

Clearly the movie is a story that has been told many times, but is still unheard. Nature is terrifying, and destructive, but it is also the giver of life and a creator of beauty. (Mind you, this is not the type of beauty that this word is now often inclined to be used for. Nature’s beauty doesn’t have to be just aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, it can even be found in things even humans do, things like love or altruism.) The movie warns of what happens when we cut off our connection with nature and take up a fight against it. It warns of what happens when we take and don’t return. Either we like it or not, we are a part of nature, it is evident in our abilities for destruction and creation, but if we lean too far on the side of destruction, it will not take long for nature to correct us, and then maybe we will be seeing the red eyes of the Omhu.

Holly Wright is a returning adult student currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and hoping to be accepted into a PhD program at SUNY Albany. She initially wrote this for my SUNY Adirondack course in science fiction and fantasy, English 217.  In between school work she likes to write, read, watch TED talks, and spend time with her husband, daughter, two cats, and dog.

 

How the past retells itself

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Flying Balloons.jpgWith the Adirondack Balloon Festival around the corner, an excerpt from my magical realist novel, Fallon’s Truth, seems in order.  The protagonist, Fallon, cannot reconcile her magical past in Chile with her banal present in New York City. In a sing-song voice, the past keeps retelling itself in her head at inopportune moments.  In this flashback, Fallon is referred to as Sister, her older brother is Big and her younger brother is Little. Eustacia is Fallon’s mother and Walter is her father.

Things began to happen in Chile that could only happen in the land where the earth ends. One day, when Eustacia was supposed to be cooking a pot of beans and Big was supposed to be watering the lawn, they began talking about the Big Bang and black holes. As they talked, they salivated and gesticulated. They drifted away from their posts, down the tiny street on which they lived, and out onto La Avenida de Las Condes, with Sister worriedly following.

“Did you hear? Scientists picked up a hissing sound on their cosmic recorders. They thought it was pigeon droppings on their antennae at first. But do you know what it turned out to be?” Eustacia rhapsodized.

“Yes! I read the same article!” Big said. “In National Geographic.”

“It was the left over sound of the Big Bang!” they exclaimed in unison. Sister was puzzling over how they could possibly tell that this hiss came from the Big Bang, especially since it could so easily be mistaken for pigeon droppings, but Eustacia and Big were talking so ecstatically that they began to physically leave the ground.

Thinking quickly, Sister ran back into the house, rummaged through the utility drawer—such a mess—and grabbed a ball of hemp twine. By the time she caught up to them, they had drifted down the avenue, but were still hovering a foot from the ground, talking so fast that their breath was lifting them like hot air balloons.

She tied the string around their ankles, and just in time, too, because a surprise thermal swept them high into the air. The ball of twine spun so fast in the cage of her fingers that it burned her palms, but she hung on with all her might. Eustacia and Big were oblivious. Other children were out, flying their kites, and when they saw Sister with her magnificent kites, they flew theirs closer. Sister had reached the end of her proverbial rope and was leaning all her weight backward to keep Big and Eustacia from flying away when Little popped up behind to lend a hand.

“Look out!” he cried. He pulled his sweater sleeve down over his hand and wrapped the twine around his wrist, jerking it to the side. “The kids are going to cut the string.”

When Walter stepped off the bus that brought him home from work, this is how he found Sister and Little, flying Eustacia and Big high in the blue sky. They only became aware of his purple face when he reached over their heads, grabbed the twine, and began reeling Eustacia and Big Brother in, spluttering epithets.

Walter, dear,” Eustacia said as soon as her feet touched the ground, “we were having such a lively conversation.”

 “They could have been killed!” Walter raged, shaking his finger at Sister and Little. Sister began to cry in earnest now, and Little to blubber.

“It is all my fault,” Big said, stepping protectively in front of his younger siblings.

“What are you talking about?” Eustacia looked in puzzlement from Walter to the children and back again. “Why are you so angry?”

“I’m not angry!” Walter said, turning a deeper shade of purple.

“But you’re shouting.”

“I’m just trying to make myself heard!”

Well,” Eustacia said as she drew herself up very tall and cold. “I never. Big, children. Let’s go. Father is in a most disgraceful state. There can be no good reason for such bad behavior.” Lifting her chin, she walked off with the children trailing behind her.

Walter immediately became apologetic.

But when they got back to the house, the kitchen was on fire and the lawn was drowning.

A View of the Universe (from Schroon Lake)

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nebula

Pictures from the Hubble Telescope Archives

We stood on the shore of Schroon Lake after the sun had set. A fingernail moon and a single star hovered above Adirondack foothills. Up the bank, toward the house, a three piece band played Django Reinhart-like jazz, the kind of quick upbeat notes that make you dance in spite of yourself. I had come down to the shore in search of my husband and found him talking and walking with man with a cloud of white hair. I could barely see the man’s face in the dusk, only the faint glint of glasses.

It had been humid day, but as soon as the sun went down, a breeze began to blow off the lake, sweeping upland and inland, cooling our brows, stirring our hair, reminding us of the luxury of skin.

He told us he lived in the woods and loved being surrounded by the trees, but missed this kind of view, gesturing to the broad sheet of water and the mountains beyond.

Together we tried to name of the star above the moon. Venus? Mars? He said he had little telescope that he could see the moons of Jupiter with. “That’s how Galileo figured out we were circling the sun. He saw the moons circling the planet.” He smiled as he told us this, and we nodded, taking it in. The breeze blew.

My husband said he just couldn’t get his mind around the idea infinity. It hurt his brain.

I couldn’t imagine anything but infinity. If the universe stopped somewhere, there would have to be nothing after it. “How could that be?” I asked. In nature there is no such thing as nothing. My husband and the man nodded and smiled. We looked up at the sky. The moon sank closer to the hill. The breeze blew.

He lived in Malone, up near Canada, a small town struggling since its businesses had left America, a shoe business and something else. Like many small towns, it had accepted the building of three prisons. They provided a few jobs, but nothing else.

He was a painter and owned a gallery in the town. He wanted to do some work with the inmates, but the warden didn’t like the idea.

He told us about a man he’d known, who had once worked for Sunmount—an institution for the developmentally disabled in Tupper Lake, where a staffer was allegedly stabbed in the eye with a fork and three other staffers were recently found guilty of abusing residents.

Sometime in the 90s, there was an escape attempt, and the man was run over by the escape vehicle. He was awarded only a 20 thousand dollar settlement, though he had to stop working and was hobbled for the life.

He could have spent it on a chair lift or a new car. Maybe he should have used it to pay off a few bills. It might have been wise to invest for the future. Instead, he spent the entire settlement on a powerful telescope with a computer attached that would give him a view of the universe. Our new friend said, “He used to invite a bunch of us over all the time to look through it. We could see suns rotating in the nebulae.”

nebuI’d always wondered whether those pictures of prismatic nebulae swirling in stellar winds were real, yet this man had seen them with his own eye because a crippled man had helped him to.

Tourmaline sky resolved into black, and the light of long lost stars parted the darkness at a million points.

“He used to say the telescope was too big not to share.”

Standing on the shore of that shimmering lake, looking up at the sky, while the wind brushed us clean, we shared a moment of limitlessness.

Are Contemporary Novels Too Reflective? A Case for Visceral Writing

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Alice Hoffman.jpg

Alice Hoffman

I recently read  Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and what I’m loving best about it is the depiction of early Manhattan:

When the grid of Manhattan streets was created, in 1811, a grand project that would forever change the city, filling in the streams, ridding the map of meandering roads, Ninth Avenue cut through the center of Moore’s estate. The scholar was so appalled at the way the future had swooped in to claim the farm he so loved that he donated much of his land to the general Theological Seminary and St. Peter’s Church. He left open sixty lots of orchards, assuming this gift would ensure that Chelsea would never be completely overtaken by mortar and stone. But after Moore’s death the lots were sold, with most of the trees hurriedly chopped down. Only the churchyard and garden remained the same…(56)

As a writer, she has improved a great deal since she wrote Practical Magic where the magic felt cute but extraneous to the plot. In this novel, the magic is so integral to the plot that you wouldn’t really call it magic. But I’m finding the plot slow. Moore, mentioned in this fascinating except, isn’t a character in the book, though some might argue that Manhattan is. Certainly this development of
Manhattan feels as though it will be central to the plot eventually. But even though almost every line is beautifully written, reading the novel feels more like work than pleasure. In my opinion, she is doing more “telling” and reflecting than she needs to. She is relying on flash back rather than letting the present-day action carry in it the traces of the past that shaped it. But I’m not criticizing her. This novel is a triumph.

I simply want to raise a question. We demand that short stories be efficient, that they externalize the conflict wherever possible, but in many novels, this admonition is thrown to the winds. Why? Why shouldn’t novels be as taut as short stories? I’m finding many novels a bit of a grind to push through, but I have always blamed this on my slow reading habits, my physical restlessness, my intellectual laziness.

Yezierska_Lima_News_July3_1922.jpgYet I find writing in Anzia Yezeirska’s novel The Bread Givers refreshing. A Polish immigrant, she wrote this novel circa 1920, about a Jewish immigrant family. With the novel, she captures the Yiddish cadence and sentence structure. There is very little reflection, very little back-story. It’s all plot and dialogue. It reads quickly and pulls me convincingly into that world. And yet, Yezierska wasn’t considered a great writer until recently, and then by a discerning few.

Plot-driven novels have long been considered sub-literary. “How can you develop character without backstory and flashbacks?” asks my colleague. It’s a rhetorical question for her. “My favorite novelists, like Faulkner, are all reflection,” she adds. Yet, Yezierka succeeds in conveying depth of character all with present-day action. Hemmingway was renowned primary for his externalization of conflict.

I want to be clear that I’m not talking about pot-boilers. The reason these aren’t good isn’t because they are plot driven, it’s because the characterization is shallow and the word choices trite.

Homer_British_Museum.jpgMy mother says lack of reflection and explanation was something Plato hated about Homer. He criticized the Illiad and the Odyssey for being all action and no explanation or interpretation. I’m too lazy to read Plato and Homer to see if she is remembering correctly, but she should know: she’s a world literature scholar and is a walking encyclopedia.

This type of storytelling – where plot and action is ascendant — belongs to the oral tradition, she says. And perhaps that’s why I love it so much – why I became a storyteller/performer for 15 years. Storytelling showed me that a story can be beautiful in the very shape of its plot, so that it almost doesn’t matter what words are used to convey it. When the tinker turns out to be a prince, we feel the rightness and truthfulness of that idea. When Hansel and Gretel have to ride alone on the back of a duck to get home, we unconsciously know why.

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Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s Tracks does a beautiful job achieving beauty through plot. For this reason Tracks is my favorite novel of hers, yet it may be one of her only novels that didn’t win an award. It is a novel that is told by two competing storytellers who alternate. The writing is beautiful, but the beauty comes from the shape of the story, rather than from verbal gymnastics: ““Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself” (11). Though this is, in fact, a flashback, it is all about the “facts” – about what people said about this character. It’s all very direct and visceral.

I’m surprised to find myself on this end of things. I, who have always been accused of being overwrought, I who love words, and who my poet friends accuse of being a poet. And I’m certainly NOT writing a manifesto for what all novelists should be doing in the 21st century. I’m simply doing what Judith Johnson, my writing teacher from SUNY Albany told me all writers need to do, define their genre, carve out a place for themselves in the literary world and name it. I’m going to call it visceral writing.

 

Hook Them With Your Opening Line, but. . .What I Learned at the GrubStreet Shop Talk Happy Hour

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opening linesI was late to the GrubStreet Shop Talk Happy Hour, for which I had paid $75 to talk with an agent and editor. Dan Loedel, a lanky young man with a goatee and black-rimmed glasses, who works for Scribner, scooted over to the black window bench to make room for me. I introduced myself and tried my “pitch” on him: “After her mother spontaneously combusted on the Altiplano between Bolivia and Chile, Fallon struggles to make to grasp her identity and reality. Fifteen years later, her brother, who is bi-polar,” I could hear him sigh at this point, but I pressed on.

He sat back and wrinkled his nose. “Your pitch is too plotty. As an editor of literary fiction, I’m less interested in plot and more interested in language and style. What are your “comparables?” That’s shoptalk for authors you might compare yourself to.

I suggested magical realists like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell. That was strike two.

“People in the publishing industry don’t call Karen Russell’s or Aimee Bender’s writing magical realism.”

“What would you call it?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “I’d call it literary fiction that pushes the boundaries of reality.”

Okay, I admit it. I was discouraged. I was hoping people would say, “Wow, fascinating, send it to me” or “Sounds original, ground breaking, Pulitzer Prize winning.” After all, little grandiosity goes a long way towards getting a person to stick to a project for many years.

Part way through the happy hour we were supposed to mingle. Dan introduced me to an editor from William Morrow, and she agreed. She said, “spontaneous combustion” raised so many questions about whether I was I or joking, talking about reality or metaphor, that she couldn’t listen to the rest of the pitch. She thought I should simply say, “After the mysterious death of her mother . . .”

My friends all groaned when I told them this later.  They love that opening line.

But later, at the GrubStreet Manuscript Mart, where agents and editors read the first 20 pages of you manuscript and comment, Laura Biagi from the Jean V. Naggar Agency agreed that I should start with something less confusing, or go into more detail about the combustion,  or start in real time in the present with the main character and give us enough about her that we start to really care about her.  Here’s the former first paragraph:

          After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love. Fifteen years later, navigating her way across the crowded floor of the North Star Pub to serve drinks to tourists and Wall Street brokers, she was still struggling to disentangle herself from both events.

         Ovid had called her again yesterday.

I told her I was making a bow to the opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  She pointed out that the his novel then goes into that scene of the discovery of ice, whereas my first paragraph starts in the past, brings us too briefly to the pub and then goes the previous day.  Too much too fast.

I’ve been hanging out with poets too much, damn it, who like compressed language, and I’ve been writing a lot of short stories where things have to happen fast. But in a novel, apparently, we need to start a little slower.

Peter Blackstone from Grove also agreed that my first paragraph was front loading the novel too much.

So, I learned a valuable lesson. Start your novel with a hook but don’t give people whiplash.

Course, a friend of mine who works for GrubStreet would say, “You’ve also learned that the big publishers aren’t adventurous.” They say they want something different, but not that different. After all, it has to be something that 100,000 people would like. He had personally given up on them, claiming that the best work is coming out of small presses. I can attest to the small press and magazine exuberance and inventiveness at the AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) bookfair.

But if you want to quit your day job so that you can write more, you have to please the big publishers.

I’ve vowed to give it a shot. Then I’m going to the small presses.

 

 

 

Academic Language is Ugly

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Academic 2As I dove into research for my sabbatical last year, I was confronted by two conflicting responses: 1) God, this article is hard to understand. I’ve gotten rusty; and, 2) This article is syntactically tortured and needlessly obtuse.

Case in point: “The ethics and efficacy of explicitly teaching disciplinary discourse conventions to undergraduate students has been hotly debated.” (17 words from an author who shall remain nameless.)

What the author is really saying is, “In composition studies, people hotly debate whether it would be more effective and ethical to make clear to undergraduates how writing conventions vary in each discipline. (26 words)

My version takes more words, but the meaning is more quickly grasped.

While academic language sometimes covers more ground, more precisely, with fewer words, that doesn’t make it more efficient to read. In fact, it makes it much more time consuming.

It sounds elitist for very good reason: It is. It creates and maintains an academic in crowd and an academic out crowd.

This kind of language may be partly responsible for America’s anti-intellectual culture. Of course, the larger reason for American anti-intellectualism can probably be traced all the way back to Puritan distrust of any book other than the Bible, and then forward through the rampant capitalism and consumerism that sprang up in Puritanism’s stead.

But getting back to academics. To be fair, sometimes philosophers use complex terms to denote entire pages or books of thought explained elsewhere in the field, so they are not always writing in tortured sentences just to be torture us. They are actually taking short cuts – having a quick dialogue with experts.

I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should write for fourth graders. It’s okay to write for specific audiences. It’s okay to use big words and long sentences.

But if academics want a lot of people to read them, they might want to brush up on style and try to meet their readers halfway.

Meanwhile, we might want to challenge ourselves to read above our reading level once in a while. I find that if I keep at it – whether reading insurance policies, building codes or legal contracts —  my brain clicks into gear about halfway through the document, and I understand even if I don’t enjoy it.

Toenail-Tombstone: a Group Writing Prompt

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typewriter.jpgAs I’ve mentioned somewhere before, I balk at the typical kind of writing prompt, like “Write about a secret” or “Imagine you just won an award.”

I like prompts that give you the material to manipulate, preferably with some element of chance, so that it causes you to trip over a stool and fall into a new piece of writing.

Here’s one I developed after walking in late on a session at a conference long ago. I never quite found out what the directions were or point was, so I developed my own.

Writing consists of splitting the brain between conscious and unconscious choice, between free association and deliberation. This exercise builds on that, isolating the activities so you can hone them in the same  way you would build up to a back hand spring.

Sit in a circle. Begin by warming the group up with quick associations. One person should say a word, say, toenail or pomegranate. The next person says the first thing that comes to mind, no pausing, no thinking, no passing. Then the next person says a word, then the next and the next. Keep it moving. If you freeze, say ugh, aaak!, lemon, blah, anything. Laughter is good. Do this until the words are flowing easily and no one is getting stuck. It may take as long as ten minutes.

Now slow down. Instead of choosing the first thing that comes to your mind, pause after the spoken word and allow your mind to leap from one word to the next until you come up with a peculiar, contrasting, truly unusual association, an association that causes friction or wonder. The next word should never be something that bears any close or common connection like toaster – oven. But toaster – tornado would be acceptable, or tornado – omelet.

Say the word slowly, savoring its flavor and texture.  Maybe even say it a few times, pronouncing short vowels long or long vowels short, or pronouncing odd spelling the way it looks, like veg-et-able, vege-table. Everyone should write it down on their pad.

If someone’s association is lame, don’t correct them. However the group facilitator may at some point ask people to slow down, pause longer and search farther. It is essential that that you not choose the first word that comes to mind, but the fourth or fifth, always going for the delightfully surprising, mysterious or strange. Do this until you have about 100 or so words – a thick, paragraph-sized chunk. Then throw it on a floured board and knead — oh wait, where was I?

Now write something and use every word in the chunk you collected.

Feel free to share results in your comments below!