Author Archives: timwynnejones

Help Me, I Think I’m Falling

Joni

In another life I was a graphic designer and art director. I found this photograph by William Smith to use in a book about the Mariposa Folk Festival, entitled For What Time I Am in This World. It’s unmistakably Joni Mitchell with David Rea playing backup. She was twenty-four and only knew a handful of songs, which she had to play over and over. Mind you, all of them would become classics. It was 1967, the year before her first album.

The news that Joni is very ill and in hospital sapped some of the sunshine out of an otherwise lovely Easter Day. There is a thoughtful and rich tribute to her in the Guardian, written by Linda Grant. In so many ways it echoed my own thoughts about a lifetime of listening to Joni.

http://t.co/2QKCMdi7Ch

Grant’s moving piece sent me skittering back to a lecture I gave at Vermont College in 2013, entitled “The Memories We Make Each Day and Lose.” The line is taken from a Zadie Smith article in the New Yorker, called “Some Notes of Attunement: A Voyage Around Joni Mitchell.” Part of what Smith has to say concerns itself with music and learning to attune yourself to new sounds – allowing sensation to overcome you. It grows out of Smith’s transition from not being able to stand Joni Mitchell for her, “strangulated falsetto – a kind of Kafkaesque piping,” to the “uncontrollable tears,” she would later come to feel. “An emotional overcoming, disconcertingly distant from happiness, more like joy – if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty.” The essay is about allowing “… a sudden unexpected attunement. Or a returning from nothing, or from a negative into something soaring and positive and sublime.”

The moment of epiphany for Zadie Smith occurs en route by car from London to Wales for a wedding, when she and her husband stop at Tintern Abbey. Her husband, the poet, Nick Laird, wanted to visit this famous landmark because of the Wordsworth’s poem, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Smith talks about how Wordsworth had been there before and in returning considered his younger self and how he still loves the area but now he loves it with a mellowed maturity. The part that grabbed me, however, was Smith’s assertion that Wordsworth’s return to the abbey was a chance to meet an earlier version of himself; he went there to listen to, “the language of my former heart.”

Joni Mitchell is the keeper of many of my former hearts. She was there from my first year at university, listening intently to Song to a Seagull — I want to say “cover to cover” because it read like a book; she was there in Stratford the summer of Ladies of the Canyon. I had gone to see her with Raffi; we were a coffeehouse duo at the time. His father, the photographer Cavouk, had just done a portrait of Joni, which got us backstage, where I got to say hello and give her a kiss. She was there when I was courting and sparking Amanda Lewis, my wife of forty years; she was there singing Hejira over the shimmering and haunting fretless bass of Jaco Pastorius; and there, and there, and there, rerecording “Both Sides Now” at literally twice the age she had first recorded it, in a voice gone to gravel from smoking, and with the gravitas of someone who really had seen both sides now.

When she sang “Help me, I think I’m falling” you knew she had – fallen a long way and too deeply, which seemed the only way she was capable of doing anything. Falling and then coming back from wherever it was she fell, again and again to write lyrics of aching poignancy.

Apparently, she is recovering in hospital from her latest fall. One can only wish her comfort, and hope.

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Jubilation

By Tim Wynne-Jones

I have lately fixated on a band out of Austin called Balmorhea. There’s a sweet little video of their song “Jubi” that I found myself watching with a curious mixture of delight and shades of parental concern that surprised me and made me wonder.

A boy sits punching his finger at a tablet, playing some frenetic video game and then, after only a few seconds, his mother takes it away. There’s no fuss; it’s just gone. He turns, looks over the back of the couch and – Voila! – there’s an outside! Which is when the music starts.
Soon he is through the gate and heading into the great Out There, where he startles a deer, watches an eagle soar, stumbles upon a ruin, complete with the jawbone of a cow, an abandoned and desiccated wasp’s nest and a rope to swing on.
He runs with the cattle beasts, then veers off into the wood — deeper, ever deeper, further and further from home. He crosses a chasm on a suspension bridge and eventually finds the ultimate escape: an untethered boat.
He takes off from shore with only a paddle out onto the wide open reaches of a lake or quarry, on and on, to a stream and shallows and finally a sandy spit where Balmorhea are playing the song that has accompanied his adventure.
It’s dusk, now; there’s a fire. The boy skips around the fire — around the band — and then, as night gathers, he makes his way back – his journey speeded up until he is home, at last. He walks in on his family, sitting at the table. Dinner is waiting. One is tempted to add, “And it was still hot.”
It’s a lovely idyll. What you hope for a kid: the realization of all that there is beyond the screen door — what there is beyond those other screens that pervade contemporary life, stealing away the very notion of vistas and mystery and pathways that are not merely the virtual manifestations of optimal, randomized algorithms. A world of piney-tree pathways. The boy goes out into Life, having been expelled (or rescued, depending on how you look at it) from the simulation of life that pervades the halfway world in which we live so much of our day.
The kid in me smiled with glee; the parent in me was immediately on high alert. Where is this going? Will he find his way home? He has no life jacket. He has no cell. Shouldn’t somebody call someone? Are there strangers out there…
You know the routine. Gack!
The song itself is so lovely you cannot really expect that anything bad is going to happen. And I know, from my own free-wheeling childhood, just how resourceful you learn to be when no one is watching out for you, dogging your every footstep. God, how I would have rebelled at play-dates! And yet, society has scared so many of us into this electronic cul de sac, where we load our kids down with the jiggery-pokery of the screen-age. Where do the greater dangers lurk?
The irony of what I’m saying will not be lost on any reader of this blog. I too spend most of my days in the traces of my MacBook, with no kind mother to come and turn it off.
But just now – well, an hour ago – I got on my snowshoes and went out into the woods behind my home and, with some good, healthy trepidation, struck off the beaten trail, out into the bush. Then I worked at finding my way home through land with no paths but those of deer and coyote. The sun, already westering, cast good strong shadows and it wasn’t hard to remember to keep it on my right, knowing that at this time of year and around this time of day, it would set at the end of my road. There was no band to greet me out there – their fingers would have grown numb in the cold. But the memory of Balmorhea’s jaunty tune thrummed in my head. I don’t know where the title comes from. I can only think it must have something to do with jubilation.

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The Overheard Conversation

Writers love to eavesdrop. There’s no better grist for the mill than the conversation of strangers, not intended for your ears. On a craft level, eavesdropping is a wonderful exercise in learning to write authentic dialogue. The overheard do not explain what or whom they are talking about for the benefit of Nosey in the seat behind them, and yet Nosey gets the gist of it along with the frisson of stolen pleasure. That’s what you want from dialogue! The eavesdropper has to try to make sense of what’s being said and in so doing becomes a truly engaged listener. Aren’t those exactly the kind of readers we crave?
Eavesdropping, after all, is what literature is all about. The reader is the proverbial fly on the wall, vicariously delighted or horrified at what is taking place. And so it’s not surprising that the overheard conversation is a mainstay of literature, especially for young readers. How many dastardly plans have been heard through keyholes, in the pages of a book? It’s a popular conceit that can easily backfire and strain the reader’s suspension of critical doubt. There’s the gratuitous just-happened-by nature of it all. Unless of course it’s the coincidence that starts the book. (The only coincidence we can ever really get away with).
The young protagonist who is actively attempting to overhear something he’s not meant to hear is more believable but you have to be careful that what he hears really sounds like conversation and not simply a convenient platter of plot point. The worst example of this is the conversation ostensibly already in progress that still manages, somehow, to provide all the pertinent information the character needed to hear.
When we write from a limited viewpoint, either in first or second person, there is much that must happen off-stage. For that matter, even in a novel of Dickensian omniscience, not every scene that happens can be recorded. That would have to be renamed the excruciatingly boring omniscient point of view.

But here’s something to think about. I’ve just written a scene that will definitely not be in my new middle grade novel. Moth has just confessed something dreadful to his mother in the hope that she will come clean about her own big secret. He goes off to his room, disgruntled, fuming. Dad comes home and mom knows she has to tell him what just transpired and, in so doing, has to reveal to her husband at least some of her guilty secret. I understood this scene would have to happen the moment I’d finished the scene between Moth and his mother. But even if it occurred to Moth to try to overhear what his parents might need to talk about, there would be no way on earth mom would let that happen.
The thing is, this author had to know what went down between mom and dad; just how much mom would confess; how angry or understanding dad would be; how unsettled they both would be, when next Moth saw them. I gave Dad a beer and wrote the scene like dialogue in a play, since it would never appear in print.
Little did I know that in overhearing that mom-dad scene the whole story would shift, inescapably, in a way that I had not foreseen. I had no idea what Dad was up to. Neither had mom!

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Facing up to my Shame

 

 

By Tim Wynne-Jones

 

Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate advising us that we ought to be ashamed of reading young adult novels caused some seismic activity on the faculty listserv, earlier this month, and we were all, I suppose, happy to see a well-wrought rejoinder by Alyssa Rosenberg in The Washington Post. I’ve just read Graham’s piece again and it’s actually harmless, well written and quite interesting. Do none of us ever question our reading? More to the point, do we not all care a great deal about how reading impacts on our lives and especially on our writing lives? Upon rereading the article in Slate, I went on to read pages and pages of commentary. I was encouraged by the fact that most people disagreed with Graham, but not quite so encouraged by the disposition of some of the commentators. But that’s freedom of speech, for you. The Internet introduces you to a world of opinions some of which you’d be happy never to have heard.

Many reviewers made the point that YA is not a genre. Amen. And many people made the point that reading at all is already a very good thing. Amen to that, too.

My only point here today is about holding sway over the books I read. I seldom acknowledge the injunction that there is a book, let alone a type of book, that I have to read. And yet I can suddenly and with great fervor want a book someone mentions that, for whatever reason, strikes me as hugely pertinent right at that moment.

In a good year I might read sixty books. I have my own little Oscar Night every New Year’s, where I decide upon the top five or six titles. Last year I see in my notes that Robert Cormier’s Fade stood cheek by jowl with How It All Began by Penelope Lively and Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lahane. The latter two are adult books, but the Lahane is a mystery and therefore, I suppose, only worthy of Ms. Grahams scorn, despite the excellence of his prose, since the mystery genre also gets side-swiped in her obloquy (or lowblowquy I’m tempted to call it). But is the Lively book literature by Graham’s standards? It’s such a cracking good story; can it possibly be good for me? Because there is, I think, in Graham’s rant, a whiff of prescription if not proscription. In 2012 my top picks included Robert Harris’ The Fear Index, a thriller in a way, but also a quite brilliant retelling of Frankenstein, which, come to think of it is also a thriller. Does that make the adult grade? Here’s my point: I fear that what Graham is talking about is “literature” and I’m not all that interested in “literature,” as such. I like Shakespeare and John Le Carre, Jane Austen and Barbara Kingsolver. I also happen to love The Fault in Our Stars and Wolf Hall, not to mention The House at Pooh Corner. I like Story. I don’t find enough Story in, say, Don DeLillo or Michael Ondaatje, but that’s just me. The words get in the way, to my mind. There’s a lot of shimmering surface dance. Is that what Graham thinks we should be reading?

I can’t read everything nor do I feel the slightest compunction to keep abreast of the times, let alone every brilliant new release in the field in which I write. What I read matters too much to me to be either cajoled or bludgeoned into reading anything but what I need to read for my own weird reasons and well being.

To me, youth is a renewable resource. I read YA and children’s books – Heavens! Let’s not forget picture books – because, at best, they replenish the sense of wonder, the vibrancy of what it is to be new to the shocks and joys of becoming fully human. I believe books for young people are about getting a grip and books intended for adults are about letting go. I’m quiet prepared to let go, bit by bit, and take my place in the line-up tottering towards the end of this mortal moving walkway. I don’t read young adult books out of nostalgia – God forbid I should be a teenager again! – but out of a profound and ongoing need to keep getting a grip. Keep holding fast.

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The Crazy Boy

 

Image

By the time we actually saw the lion, I had given up hoping for it. Nairobi National Park is small by comparison to the other game parks in Kenya, but forty-five square miles is big enough that spotting a lion is not at all guaranteed. “It depends on your fortune,” said Wilberforce. I guess he meant luck. Like fishing, you have to get up early to see a lion. I get that. “You need to come when the lions are angry,” said Wilberforce. He must have forgotten that I had asked, days ago, if we could leave at 7:00 but that he’d insisted on 8:00, so that he could go to church.

In any case, we got to the park not twenty minutes after leaving the hotel, a Sunday morning miracle, I guess. You usually can’t get to the end of the block in twenty minutes in Nairobi. Twenty minutes. Think of it: a wilderness, lying along the flank of the just waking city of four million.

Anyway, about giving up on the lion. Like fishing, you have to remember that the real joy of the experience is not about catching the big one. It’s about the pleasurable anticipation of the catch, about being in the moment and more deeply aware of being alive. Right? It’s about being up early; it’s about bird music, the sweetness of the grass, the greenness of everything. Yes, okay. Sure. In hardly any time, we saw ostriches, giraffes, wildebeasts; it’s not as if the day wasn’t already far from ordinary. But there is always that hope, isn’t there: the big one: the king of this incredible kingdom.

Once I asked Wilberforce to stop just so that I could listen. That required also turning off the church service he had on the radio. (I wonder what Handel would have made of ululation? I bet he’d have loved it.)

It’s all right if we don’t see a lion, I told myself. I had made my peace with the day. We stopped at a picnic area. A picnic area, just on the edge of “Lion’s Valley.” Whose idea was this? Gary Larson came to mind: I pictured some enterprising lion learning his alphabet and scoring some paint and a brush.

We stopped at the Hippo bath site and I walked into the woods with an armed Wildlife officer and ten other hopeful souls. We looked where the hippos were supposed to be and where the crocodiles were supposed to be, but nobody was home. Probably at church, I thought, gloomily. There were two huge tortoises sitting on the muddy bank. They probably don’t bother with church, I thought; by the time they got there the service would be over.

The warden showed us lion prints in the mud and an imposing lion turd. Very impressive, but… you know…

Then we learned in the parking lot by the Hippo Bath that someone had seen a lion, just up the road a piece — that one, to the right. We headed off.

And there they were — not one, but two — deep in shadow, one Sphinx-like, the other lolling on the ground. If they had woken up angry a few hours earlier, they seemed fine now. Sated, I supposed, and having a nice sit down in the shade to digest.

It was about two kilometers further along that we saw the boy.

With the sun behind him, I assumed he was a ranger. He seemed to have a rifle. What else could he be in this place? But as we slowly passed him by we saw he was a lanky teenager with nothing in his eyes. What I had taken for a rifle was a jacket slung over one shoulder. He didn’t look at us as we passed.

Was he naïve? Was there a car just over the rise and he was walking ahead filled with teenage bravado? Was it a dare?

This is a game preserve. There are not only lions, but leopards and cheetahs as well. There are signs commanding you not to step out of your car, but really, who would need to be told? I wasn’t sure what to do. Wilberforce didn’t suggest we pick him up. Was that my call? I mean I was the paying customer; what was the protocol here?

A little further on we met up with another car. Wilberforce stopped and chatted with the driver. Apparently, the gate towards which we were heading was closed. We doubled back. I was so glad. The road was rutted and rocky but soon enough we caught up with the boy. The driver of the car who had informed us of the gate closure was talking to him, already. Good. We crept up behind them our windows wide open. We stopped and listened. They were speaking in Kiswahili, so I had no idea what the driver was saying, although I could guess. The boy replied, and Wilberforce made a low sound in his throat, somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “This boy, there is not much of him upstairs,” he said.

“He’s crazy?”

“Yes,” he said, but it sounded like “Yayse.”

Then he put the car in gear and we carefully rolled past the other car and headed back the way we had come. When I looked back, the other car was pulling away from the boy, as well. No! This can’t be right! But the thing was, the boy had pulled away from the car. Away from the road.

When we got to the place where we’d seen the two lions, they were gone.

“They have probably gone out for lunch,” said Wilberforce, in a voice filled with implication. “Yayse?”

“Yes,” I said and we drove on.

Wait. Isn’t this where all the stops are pulled out? Why didn’t my driver phone the front gate? Why didn’t I even think to tell him to phone the front gate? Why did we not hurry back to the Hippo Bath, where there were armed rangers? And why is it only now as I write this that these questions are even occurring to me. When we got to the gate I did alert the man on guard. He was astonished and asked where this had happened. We gave him as precise information as we could considering the roads are unmarked. He said he would get in touch with the rangers, immediately. He thanked me. Right.

The thing is — and it is disturbing to admit this — all I could think of at the time was how the whole weird, tense scenario seemed to me to be an urgent metaphor of what it is like to be a teenager.

 

 

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Serendipity and the Little Free Library

by Tim Wynne-JonesP1040435

It seems a paradox to me that in an age where one can, ostensibly, find any book one can think of – can even download it instantaneously onto an eReader — bookstores are going out of business daily, and libraries have to scrabble for funds and are increasingly regarded as information centers rather than book repositories. Oh, the logic is clear enough: who needs a bookstore or a library when neither of those institutions have all the books. But there is something so insubstantial about this virtual library; something a whole lot less sensual about “browsing” on Amazon as opposed to really browsing. So how wonderful it would be to stumble across a real library right on your own street, where there wasn’t one yesterday!

The Little Free Library movement is all about books that are really there and free for the borrowing. http://littlefreelibrary.org/

Here’s one I ran across on a recent visit to Toronto. Instead of all the books known to humankind this one featured about ten books, when I was there, and I have to think that in some ways, in this regard, less is more – more human, more materially satisfying in the sense of opening a little real door and taking out a real book to hold in your real hands. Yes!

The idea is not new. There are other websites dedicated to this proposal: see, for instance: http://imaginationforpeople.org/en/project/bookcrossing/

Also, The Guardian has their great autumnal book swap. Last year in London, I remember, finding seemingly orphaned books just sitting on train cars and other public places with a little card inside signed by the swapper and with the invitation to the swappee to hand the book along, when you’re done with it. Lovely.

This isn’t about having anything you want, it’s about serendipity.

Books and serendipity have always shared a happy relationship for me. There are any number of reading friends, reviewers and advertisements telling me about books they know I am going to love, but I’m far more inclined to want to read a book that falls in my path. There is this mysterious sense of the gods at work, or maybe just the literary gremlins. My favorite example of this was on a ferry crossing from mainland New Brunswick to Grand Manan Island, several years ago. I was on a school reading tour and of course had brought along books to read in the lonely nights spent in B& Bs or (sometimes) tatty motels. I was in the middle of one – a book I mean, not a tatty motel — when I spied out of the corner of my eye a book lying on a table in the ferry’s cafeteria. There was no one around. It was Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands. “A young man is found dead on the night train to London.” Say no more! I’m sold. Tey died young and didn’t write many books. I had, in fact, read all of her output except for The Singing Sands. I waited and watched, assuming a passenger would suddenly remember he or she had left the book there and come to retrieve it. It was an old Penguin paperback addition. It was calling to me! But not until everyone was disembarking, did I run back to claim it. I put aside what I was reading, that evening, and launched into my serendipitous find. There are all sorts of ways in which one’s reading habit can be sweetened, but perhaps none so sweet as the book that sits waiting for you to find it.

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The Hero as Potato: The Shape of Story

July 18, 2013

By Tim Wynne-Jones

Years ago I saw in an encyclopedic book on the art of creating mystery and suspense the visual representation of building drama in a thriller. It was a simple illustration of the top edge of a closed book with slips of paper, like so many bookmarks, standing at differing heights indicating the places where significant crises took place in the narrative. It made a pleasing little jagged hill. And although the heights to which each marker rose could only have been arbitrarily decided, it was plain enough to see that there were more markers, grouped closer together, as the story raced towards its climax. So when I decided to give a lecture on plot at Vermont College, in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program, back in January of this year, I thought it might be interesting to analyze one masterfully structured book to see if I could come up with some equally graphic representation of where the narrative arc took significant leaps and dives. I hoped to learn something about this pattern of actions that we call plot.
I used Ken Oppel’s novel, Half Brother, as my model. Ken typically writes a darn good adventure story and I wanted to see how he used his mastery of drama in a more straightforward novel, that is, apparently, his favorite. I mapped out moments of change in the profluence of the story along an x-axis representing the chapters, and a y-axis corresponding to the intensity of the drama. The idea was to determine, among other things, whether the plot points fell in moments of action and/or dialogue, that is to say scenes, as opposed to passages of summary.
Why? I mean, what was the point? Because no writer would ever be likely to map out a book in such a way, before the fact, as an aid to writing a novel, unless the aim was to create a pattern that could be reproduced again and again in formulaic fashion. Well, I did it because it was kind of fun, and instructive in the same way, I suppose, that opening up a cadaver and mucking about inside is instructive.
I was interested enough in this anatomical research to propose a generative plot workshop for the summer residency at VCFA, where each participant applied these means, as unscientific as they may be, to look at a novel they felt worthy of closer examination. Today is the last of the six workshops and it has resulted in some interesting debate. For instance, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, defies any kind of linear plotting; whereas Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, looks just like the range of mountain peaks you’d expect. Both books are wonderful in their own ways; that’s not the point. And perhaps the discrepancy in their structure puts pay to any presumed idea of the shape of a book. The student who took on Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, created a graph that looked like a heart attack, rising high about the axis and sinking far below as Ender battled his way through his strenuous regime of training, leading to his triumph over the enemy… and himself. The beauty of this latter diagram was to see that the action resolved not at some high point of dramatic tension but much nearer to the norm, as if Ender was a patient saved, or a young man finding balance.

The outcome of this interesting little workshop, I think, will not be in finding any definitive idea as to how plot works but rather in asking different kinds of questions about the concept. And in that regard, I decided to end the exploration for now looking at Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful piece, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which can be found in her collection of essays called Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1990. She posits, there, an idea that wisely and amusingly flies in the face of the action-packed, hero-oriented “arc” we inevitably characterize as the path of a narrative. She writes, with great wit, about the hero’s story, the proper shape of which is the path of the arrow or spear and talks about how conflict is at the heart of such stories. And she replies to this paradigm with a different one: the novel as sack. She says: “the novel is a medicine bundle holding things in a particular, powerful relationship to one another and to us (169).” When we talk about plot we talk about a pattern of actions. Le Guin also talks about a pattern of actions but not necessarily one that must scale the heroic peaks in the all too well known trajectory. She says of her sack theory: “The hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in the bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato (169).” It’s a funny, bracing challenge to our staid and steadfast and shaky – or in need of shaking up — idea about the shape of story.

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