How the past retells itself

Standard

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)

Standard
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

Standard
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.

Erdrich.jpg

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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!

The Case of the Unsaved Document

Standard

spaceIt happens more often than you care to admit. You type a computer document, save it, revise it, and save it again, then exit, only to return and find none of the changes are saved, or, more distressingly, that you are unable to find the document at all. You might have indulged a Where-the-fuck-is my-document-I know-I saved-it moment, or considered medication for Alzheimer’s. But before you go postal on Microsoft or commit yourself to the hospital for the typographically challenged, consider this.

You may have fallen victim to the Parallel Universe Syndrome (PUS), a hypothesis, posited and currently undergoing study by Dr. K. L. Davidson professor of English and the absurd. Davidson contends that there is a little known command reached by random key punching, which clicks you into a parallel universe, where you did indeed follow correct document-saving protocol. However, the save button clicks you back to your own universe, where you promptly exit, none the wiser. Meanwhile, all your revisions are still in that parallel universe, unsaved, unwashed, and unshriven.

While this revelation doesn’t actually help you save changes to your documents, it at least preserves the possibility that you are not necessarily technologically inept, or teetering toward dementia, though Davidson has been accused of these things in both the personal and professional arena.

Davidson has been able to repeat experiment results for PUS, though never on purpose.

She is confident that once she discovers the configuration of the PUS command, she will be able to program the shift key to reconcile multiple realities with one click.

 

 

Metaphor Writing Prompt 2

Standard

Jonquils_and_English_Leaves (1)Here’s a prompt I got from Discovering the Writer Within: 40 Days to More Imaginative Writing by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane.  It won’t generate a poem or a whole piece like my synesthesia exercise, but it will produce a clever line or two for an essay. I don’t make a big distinction between similes and metaphors in this exercise, though I think they have different emotional impacts. (Metaphors, without the inter-mediation of the word “like” are more immediate, atmospheric and magical, hence better for stories of that nature. Similes are better for essays, but work fine in stories, too.)

Step 1: Put a line down the center of your page and fold in half.Then write down a random list of abstract concepts.  Then flip the page over and write down an equally random list of concrete things that you can see, taste, touch, hear or feel (try not write things that relate easily to the first list). Like so:

Abstract/General Concrete/Physical
Love

War

Peace

Prejudice

People

Nature

Cayenne Pepper

Marshmallow

Dirty sneaker

Swamp

Rust

Bitter cucumber tip

Step 2: Next, fill in the blanks of this sentence below  using one word from the abstract side and one word from the concrete side.

____(abstract noun)_________ is (like)____(concrete noun)__________.

When you do this, don’t pick things that match — pick something that seems oddly mismatched or is truly random.  This is important, because metaphors have more power when they take big leaps. If the leap is too small, there’s no snap. If the leap is too big, it’s called a conceit (which is a no-no for some — but I’m not a big nay-sayer).

Step 3: Now write a sentence that helps to explain.

For example:

  • Love is like cayenne pepper.  A little bit goes a long way.

Here’s one a student wrote years ago:

  • Love is like going to the moon.  It takes a long time to get there, but when you do, the earth looks very different.

Give it a try and have fun. Please feel free to reply with surprising outcomes.

 

Synesthesia, Metaphor and Oranges

Standard

Citrus

  1. In a recent interview with The Collagist, I spoke about how metaphor is the core magic of writing. For many, metaphoric thinking comes naturally, but more and more of my students have difficulty going there. Here’s a foolproof way to fall backwards into metaphor, and if you’re trying to overcome an addiction, it can be a good substitute high. 
  1. Acquire an orange or other fruit. Don’t do this from memory. Get the physical thing. Describe it physically using all five senses:

Look at it and describe it in extreme physical detail.

Touch it and describe.

Squeeze and chew it, listen and describe.

Smell it and describe.

Taste it and describe.

  1. Next write all the things you associate with this fruit: smell, color, taste, etc. This is a a very quick exercise where you do very little thinking and choosing, you just blurt. Don’t worry about whether it makes any sense. The definition of brainstorming is that no idea is wrong or stupid. Put it all down whether it makes sense or not, but keep coming back to the fruit and branch out from there.
  1. Answer the following questions to create metaphors. You are now being asked to free-associate like in question 2, but to go one step further…keep free-associating until you find a truly unusual correspondence between two things which on the surface are very different, but which in some essence are similar. In other words, brainstorm, but don’t always chose the first thing you come up with. Keep brainstorming until you find a certain resonance between the physical sense of the orange and the animal or thing you are comparing it to…when you find the right word, you will literally feel a sense of release or expansion in your body, an internal “ah” where the feeling and the words reverberate with each other and make each other seem bigger or more rich. If you don’t experience any of this, don’t worry, just be silly.

a) How does the smell move inside your nose?

b) If the smell was a kind of animal with a distinctive movement, what kind of animal would it be?

c) How does the taste move inside your mouth?

d) If the taste was a world event (a party, a war, a rally, a nap), what kind of event would it be?

e) What kind emotion is the color of this fruit?

f) If this fruit was a building, what kind of building would it be?

g) If you went inside this building, what would it be like?

h) If this fruit was a kind of weather, what kind weather would it be?

i) If the feeling or texture of this fruit was a certain habitat (beach, forest, desert, suburb, city), what kind of habitat would it be?

j) When you take the skin and bend it next to your ear, what does it sound like?

k) If this fruit were an instrument, what would it be and how would it sound if you played it?

l) If this orange was a form of locomotion, what would it be (a plane, a train, a flying dragon) and how would it feel to ride it?

See, who needs drugs? All the benefits and none of the side-effects.

  1. Now look at all this mad scribble, and pull out the best parts. Fashion some kind of statement about this in a paragraph or three, making sure that it is full of surprising images and physical descriptions and associations.

      5. Now see if you can fashion this into a poem. Start with the sensory information and       try to end with a leap or discovery. Here’s something I wrote from it: 

Strawberry

This strawberry is my daughter’s pursed red mouth

that my husband fell into the day she was born

and never recovered from.

This strawberry is a song in my mouth

full and soggy as a French horn

A cellar’s cool respite on a hot

summer’s day.

This strawberry is a furry heart, the ripped

valves of my sister’s,

The dark, blind love between my siblings that

never blooms

This bruisable flesh,

this gravity’s center,

this Tibetan temple with no doors

guards secrets

attained only by

silence