Monthly Archives: June 2012

TO BE OR TO HAVE BEEN, THAT IS THE QUESTION

Present_tense

Philip Pullman is beautiful when he’s angry! And two years ago, when journalists accused him of slamming the Booker Prize, he reared up on his eloquent high horse to correct the misconception. He was not, he made it clear, criticizing the list itself, he hadn’t even read the books on it. What he was dismayed by, what set his sensitive teeth on edge, was the fact that every book on the short list was written in the present tense. Here’s what he had to say about the increasing use of first-person, present tense in contemporary fiction: 

…if every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value. What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses. 

There’s a close parallel here with the increasing use of the hand-held camera in cinema. Just like the present tense, the hand-held camera is an expressive device whose expressive power is being drained away by making it the only way of shooting a film. And I dislike that too, you won’t be surprised to hear. I dislike it partly because it makes me feel sick, and partly because the camera never seems to be looking where I want to look, and partly because of the sheer monotony of texture that it brings, but mainly because of its falsehood. It seems to say: “We were there when these things happened. They were real. We didn’t have time to adjust the focus on that shot or swing round in time to see who said those words or keep the camera steady. It was all happening there right in front of us. It was all urgent and real.” 

Spurred by the gorgeous sound and persuasive rhetoric of Pullman’s ire, I took a look at my own “oeuvre.” It turns out I’ve written in future tense, present tense, and past; I’ve written in first person, second person, and third. But the only sustained first-person, present-tense narrative I’ve produced was set in the distant past! The Vanishing Point, a fictional account of the life of the Renaissance painter, Lavinia Fontana, flummoxed more than one critic because it described the past in the present tense. Not that I sat down and decided that was the right tool to bring a long-gone era closer to the reader, but it seems, in retrospect, that’s what my instinctual choice of present tense was about. And I have to add, it was a creative challenge to unfold something four hundred years old in the here and now! 

But I have not yet written a novel about contemporary characters in the present tense. Will I? Or is Pullman onto something with that camera analogy of his: while it would surely be easier to plow straight ahead with a handheld, the complexities of close-ups and distance shots, the thrill of adjusting focus to the past and even the future, of getting perspective by going omniscient – that, it seems to me, is what storytelling is all about. Is one of my literary (and pedagogical) idols right that choosing present tense would mean I was throwing up my authorial hands and insisting there is no story, that everything is actually unfolding as the reader turns the page? Might it, also, as Pullman suggests, be abdicating my responsibility as an artist—the responsibility to select, to tell as well as show, to expand and deepen, and yes, to edit? 

I don’t think so. I’ve read too many rich, compelling contemporary books in the present tense. And I believe the key is that most of them don’t insist on pushing this model to the point of the “claustrophobic” monotony to which Pullman objects. (Emma Donahue’s Room is an exception, and the claustrophobia there is an integral part of her character and his situation.) Of course, first-person, present-tense is wildly popular in our field, especially in YA novels. (Can you imagine The Hunger Games in the past tense?) And there’s no denying the charm of a first-person voice that grabs you and holds you for hundreds of pages. (Let me count the books from our own faculty and students that have achieved this wonder!)

So what’s the secret? How do these authors give their readers and themselves a break from the narrow confines of what Pullman hopes is a passing fad? When do they step out of the limitations of a single viewpoint and a straight-on-till-morning narrative? How do they allow their readers to know more, see further, than their characters? How do they use a hand-held camera when they need it, but switch to other techniques when their story, their truth, calls for it?

Food for thought. Good to chew on. And as always, where Pullman’s concerned, lots of room for loyal opposition! 

For those inclined, here’s his whole delicious rant: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/sep/18/philip-pullman-author-present-tense

 

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Getting Out Into It

Globe_west_2048

I want to put in a quick word today for the World (see photo above.)  You know the one –  it’s outside our heads (I know I spend way too much time in that dark cave) and outside our works-in-progress; it’s the one we tend to forget sometimes because we’re busy making up stories and poems about the world. I want to advocate getting out into it, even though it means putting aside our writing for part of each day. Let’s allow Memory and Meaning to take a much needed nap. Let’s stay in the moment, gathering up rain coats and wool caps (Pacific Northwest-style) or sunscreen and straw hats (Southwest-style?) and commiting ourselves to new sources of inspiration in the world of the senses. 

(“New sources of inspiration….” I hear a little voice saying. “Why even worry about whether it has a purpose. Why try to justify it??? Just do it.”)

I think that little voice is too cavalier. I like to have reasons. So here is a writer’s reason to get out into the great, wide, beautiful, wonderful world: Each time we do, we re-learn the Art of Noticing Things, aka Observation. We also re-learn how to bow down to Serendipity – “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.”

By getting out into it, you might notice for the first time in a long time how sunlight hits the leaves of a tree unevenly, letting some leaves shine and allowing others to remain in the shade:

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You might discover a blue woman falling apart on a wall:

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You might come upon a view that opens up wide…to an olive orchard…

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…or one that narrows down and invites you in:

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I went for a walk on Decatur Island once – in Washington’s Puget Sound – and discovered the carcass of a young fawn, half cleaned bones, half recognizable animal, at the high-tide mark. Not all discoveries are sweet, though all are worthwhile. And all of them make you hesitate, lean in, look more carefully. Let’s hear a cheer for hesitation!

Whidbey_island_beach

Beach walks are alive with serendipity. An agate, a jellyfish, a sand dollar. A dead fawn.

And now, for your reading pleasure, I offer the opening stanzas (it only has four) of William Brighty Rands’ poem Great Wide Beautiful Wonderful World

Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,
With the wonderful water round you curled,
And the wonderful grass upon your breast,
World, you are beautifully dressed.

The wonderful air is over me,
And the wonderful wind is shaking the tree –
It walks on the water, and whirls the mills,
And talks to itself on the tops of the hills.

You friendly Earth, how far do you go,
With the wheat-fields that nod and the rivers that flow,
With cities and gardens, and cliffs and isles,
And people upon you for thousands of miles?

I’m going to end the excerpt there, because I prefer Rands’ question to his conclusion. While writing is often our way of trying to find answers, getting out into the world helps us re-learn how to ask questions. Like this: Is there anything more beautiful than a raspberry?

Raspberry

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Undead Metaphors

In college, I took a total of one political science class, which was taught by a professor whose lectures were so polluted with jargon, it would have taken a hazmat team to swamp them out. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to him for introducing me to “Politics and the English Language,” in which George Orwell pleads for clarity of language and thought.

One of the points Orwell makes concerns metaphors. A newly-invented metaphor, he says, “assists thought by evoking a visual image.” A “dead metaphor” (Orwell uses “iron resolution” as an example) is fine, too, because it has in effect “reverted to being an ordinary word.” Where we get in trouble is with our undead metaphors, which go lurching across the pages of our stories and essays, sucking the lifeblood from our prose.

Well. Orwell actually calls them “dying metaphors,” but it’s the same thing. They have “lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” Examples, from Orwell: “stand shoulder to shoulder with,” “grist to the mill,” “no axe to grind,” “hotbed.”  I suspect that “hotbed” has expired somewhere over the half century or so since the essay was first published, but that’s up for debate.

The essay is a great, rollicking rant, including a “catalogue of swindles and perversions” that rob language of power, and a protest against “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” I leave you with my favorite part: Orwell’s translation of a passage of Ecclesiastes into “modern English”:

Ecclesiastes:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Orwell’s “translation”:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

–Susan Fletcher

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Negative Capability in Negative Space

Forest_for_the_trees

 

Can’t see the forest for the trees? I remember laughing at that saying as a child because, of course, a forest WAS the trees, right? Right. Or maybe not. We all have heard that the whole is made up of the sum of its parts, that it’s all the trees taken together that make the forest, or, in the case of a book or a story, all the chapters and scenes with their dialogue, description, and action that make up the whole. Some writers see the concept of the whole first and work toward finding the parts to make up the sum; others are masters of minutiae and start with the smallest components and work to find the whole.
    Most of my stories have begun in voice and in place–a voice, almost disembodied, speaking into a landscape. Eventually, this voice finds its body and the place develops details and the rest grows from there. While I write, I usually feel like a wanderer in a vast forest whose only touchstones are the trees and rocks and insects and ferns. I move from one to another, searching ahead as far as my eyes can see through the shadows and hoping for the occasional glimpse of blue sky above or the guiding presence of the pole star for direction. I remember asking a friend in Chicago where her stories began and she said that the first thing she sees is the structure. I was dumbfounded. Structure, for me, came later as a kind of pattern the pieces I’d found could fit into. I thought of my own writing as if I were making a crazy quilt, building the pattern out of the juxtaposition of the colors, the connections between the figures in the design, and the direction of the weave. I didn’t remember ever starting with a distinct pattern in mind and making the pieces fit. Mostly, I just felt lucky that there was a subconscious action at work and eventually the pattern would emerge–as if it had been there all along. As far as my writing life goes, I’ve had to become capable of living in uncertainty.
    Nowadays, I find myself absorbed in another aspect of the trees and the forest:  the negative space between things. I know now a forest isn’t as simple as the sum of its trees–or ferns or lichen or stones or fungi. It’s all these in relationship, existing in space and making open patterns between them.
    Ever since I studied art in college, I’ve seen the world through its negative spaces, but it’s a concept that has been slow to enter my writing mind. When I paint or draw, I try not to allow my preconceptions of what certain objects look like to interfere with how they appear at the angle and in the light that am observing them, and instead try to draw how they occupy the space around them. In other words, I don’t draw the antique clock on the wall, but the wall around it. From those lines and shadows in the background, the clock as it truly appears emerges. My vantage point, the light in the room, and my emotional state at the time all affect the way the clock might appear from one day to the next. If my point of view is directly in front of it, I see a very different clock from the clock I see at an oblique angle. But maybe more importantly, the background changes in the light, and with the different distances and angles from which I observe it. The space around the object changes with the changing conditions and with my own movement and state of mind.
    What does that have to do with the forest? Well, here in Vermont, my home is surrounded by trees. We live in a forest. I’m getting to know individual trees as separate from their other plant kin. I also see them in relationship as a part of a larger forest, but what I really notice most about the way I observe them is that I am acutely aware of the space between things, the way the branches bend and angle away from the trunk toward the light shining through the empty space between and how that space helps determine their rate and direction of growth. I notice the changing patterns of light and shadow on the forest floor and across the breeze-stirred leaves and needles. I see the sky, blue or white or gray twilit, through the grid of branches; birds move through the spaces, alight and disappear into them. Farther away through the negative spaces, the background peeks and unseen forces appear and move.
    One day last winter I sat at my breakfast table staring down toward the brook through black tree trunks, noticing the white snowy patches beyond, their shapes and sizes, the light and color of the white subtly changing as the sun rose higher in the sky. And something moved out there. Far across the brook three bulky shapes moved through the white space I was observing. Larger and even darker than the tree trunks, indistinct, but definitely there. I believe they were moose, but I cannot know for sure. As soon as they passed through the negative space, they were again swallowed up by the darkness of trees and forest. The scene appeared as before, except that I had changed and now the forest took on a life and a story it hadn’t had before for me.
    There, in that movement, was the story. Where the birds fly, the clouds move, the leaf falls, there is the true story of the forest. It’s the minutiae and the large elements that make up a story, but they have to be in relationship in space and in those interstices is where something happens. The space can be as large as the sky overhead in a forest glen or as small as the glimmer of sunshine on a leaf in the background seen through the spindly legs of an ant scurrying along the edge of a small piece of splintered bark, but it’s the glimpse into that negative space that makes all the pieces become whole. It’s the mystery and the unspoken, the shown rather than told that dwells there, metaphor and implication, dwelling in uncertainty, sometimes fleetingly, like the wind-strewn patterns of light and shadow on the forest floor.
    Negative space isn’t empty space, although at its most basic, as the white space in a poem or between paragraphs, it may appear to be empty when it is actually time and eye movement that exists there. Only in the space between can we hear the music of a poem or the voice of a story. It isn’t a vacuum where sound waves cannot transfer. This negative space is filled with possibility. It is where the story lives.

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Neil Young and Inspiration

I am always fascinated by what triggers a creative bout for any kind of artist, and this really caught my eye:

John Mutter at Shelf Awareness had an article today about Patti Smith’s interview with Neil Young at BEA. They talked about music, writing, and creativity.

“Smith asked about the inspiration for Young’s classic “Ohio,” and he told a story about being with David Crosby and two of the Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young crew at a peaceful cabin in the redwoods, smoking weed, when someone threw down on a table a copy of Time or Newsweek whose cover was the famous picture of a woman grieving over the body of one of the students killed at Kent State. ‘It’s an unbelievable picture,’ he said. ‘It still gives me the chills.” In reaction, ‘I picked up my guitar, and it took about a minute to write the song.'”   …

“If you want to write a song, go ask a guitar,” Young said. “Pick up someone else’s guitar and the next day a song will come.” He added that “music lives in guitars, sounds live in them,” and compared old guitars with old cars. “When you sit in an old car, you can feel all that happened in it right there. It’s why I like to go to junkyards.”

I just love the image that inside of a resonate guitar is a song just waiting to be formed.

We don’t have guitars, at least that’s not our principle work tool. We have pads of paper, and computers. We can take long walks or hot showers or sit in old junky cars. But while brilliant songwriters like Neil Young can pull off a song in about a minute, we have to stick with it a lot longer, inhabiting both the real world and the world we are imagining.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti just reminded me of a great way to stay in our imaginary worlds: the plain one dollar notebook. When she finishes writing for the day, Sue jots down what she is going to be writing the next day: what scene, what emotional reaction, what little gem she wants to make sure she doesn’t forget.

Here she is, presenting me with my very own notebook. And yeah, I know it’s a kinda dorky,  set-up shot. But besides the notebook, see a little bit of that serene, empty room around us? That’s Sue’s snuggery, a little building her husband constructed for her in the back yard where she goes to do her writing. Just big enough for a couch, a desk, and a book shelf. Even better than a junky car for sitting and getting inspiration.

Betsy

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