Ah, Noveling

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.


You may know that I [the Minneapolis writer, Kelly Barnhill] spent spring 2013 engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

  • Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that
  • Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head
  • Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do
  • Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope
  • Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler
  • Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself
  • Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I – for real – love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerous – capable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.


Kelly Barnhill won the Newbery Medal for her children’s book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and is getting much acclaim for her latest book for adults, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, a collection of dark, whimsical fantasies. Listen as she talks with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about it here.

girlKelly is an author, teacher and mom. She wrote THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, THE WITCH’S BOY, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and many, many short stories. She won the World Fantasy Award for her novella, THE UNLICENSED MAGICIAN, a Parents Choice Gold Award for IRON HEARTED VIOLET, the Charlotte Huck Honor for THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, and has been a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the Andre Norton award and the PEN/USA literary prize. She was also a McKnight Artist’s Fellowship recipient in Children’s Literature.

dreadful

Kelly lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her three brilliant children, architect husband, and emotionally unstable dog. She is a fast runner, a good hiker, and a terrible gardener. You can visit and chat at her blog: http://www.kellybarnhill.com

Joe Fassler’s 150 Writing Mentors

What interviewing an author a week for several years has taught Joe Fassler about finishing his novel

By JOE FASSLER, The Atlantic, September 29, 2017

The summer of 2013, I found myself on the phone with Stephen King, listening as he described how he wrote the opening sentence of It: “That’s one that I worked over and over and over.”

Drawing on four decades of work, from Salem’s Lot to Needful Things to Doctor Sleep, the author recounted the arduous way his books usually begin—how he’ll spend weeks, months, sometimes years of nights lying in bed with a laptop, thinking, experimenting, fiddling with the words, until the language clicks. The right first paragraph, when he finally finds it, casts a kind of spell, what King called an “incantation,” that makes the finished story seem somehow inevitable.

As I listened, I thought of my novel, the one I was struggling to write. I was attempting to get beyond the first 50 pages—aiming to write 1,000 words every morning before heading off to work, and often just staring at the screen and feeling seasick instead. My cast of characters had shifted over time, and I’d tried telling the story from different points of view. But what King was saying rang incredibly true: Whenever I felt lost, my opening sentence, which I’d worked and reworked, always reminded me of what the book was meant to be.

I was talking to King because, in the fall of 2012, sensing that my post-MFA plan (finish my novel in a year, get it published, settle into the creative life) might need a little tweaking, I’d pitched a series called “By Heart” to The Atlantic. The formula was simple: Each week, I’d interview a well-known writer about a favorite passage from literature and edit their thoughts into a short essay. In part, I thought that the series would force me to publish regularly (and the extra income wouldn’t hurt). But mostly, I was looking to ask questions I wanted to answer badly for myself. What inspires you? I wanted to query my favorite writers. Where do your best ideas come from? And how do you possibly manage to turn those flashes of insight into something crystalline and whole?

Five years later, I’ve spoken with more than 150 authors for “By Heart” (and compiled Light the Dark, a collection based on the series). The conversations have frequently—by total chance, but with spooky accuracy—highlighted my own creative ups and downs. I’ve also learned that these solitary, patient creatures, whose books can take the better part of a decade to complete, tend to have something in common.

More than knockout sentences, more than their grasp of human character, more than anything that might broadly be termed “craft,” novelists are masters of one skill primarily. Their genius lies in an ability to suspend their skepticism over the long haul, to persist in the belief that—no matter how hard things get—the work is meaningful, and worthwhile, and will one day pan out.

* * *

As my interviews got underway, I discovered something surprising: The artistic process never seems to get easier, not even for the most successful, famous authors. They, too, wasted months of time chasing down material that ended up being no good. They, too, were sometimes wracked by self-doubt. They, too, also sometimes felt a sudden, sweeping urge, as bold as lust, to give the whole thing up. A few glowing reviews in the Times won’t change any of that.

“The job of writing is pretty uphill most of the time,” said Mark Haddon, whose best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time went on to become a critically acclaimed Broadway play, when we spoke:

It’s like climbing a mountain—you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough. … I wish I could enjoy the process more, but I think I’ve come to accept that for it to work, I have to be uncomfortable.

What makes the process so difficult? I think it’s the nagging feeling that the words aren’t enough, the painful recognition that your language still falls far short of the beauty and complexity you’d wanted to spill across the page.

The vast majority of writers I speak to seem to understand this: Writing usually means writing badly.

That’s true even for someone like Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, whose books have sold tens of millions of copies. For him, disappointment is baked into the experience of authorship, and even the finished product rarely measures up to the initial gleam of inspiration. “You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true,” he said:

And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.

That’s the killer: that gap between intention and output. You don’t have to be an artist to understand this. Most people wake up in the morning fully intending to be their ideal selves. To finally get themselves to the gym. To be a better student, a better parent, a better citizen, a better friend. That’s why it’s so painful to fail, as inevitably happens: It hurts to feel the distance growing between who you are and what you wish to be.

In the creative arts, there’s a name for the refusal to face that pain: writer’s block. Contrary to popular wisdom, being “blocked” is not about running out of things to say. Instead, it’s succumbing to the unrealistic expectation that your work must Be Great Now. It’s a decision to remain silent rather than speak and maybe stumble. It’s the determination to avoid failure, which is a great way to ensure that the humbling work of getting better will never begin.

But if you’re willing to lower your expectations, to temporarily mute your inner critic, then incremental progress is always possible. And that’s where novelists have struck on something. Above all else, writers are people who allow themselves the freedom to suck—unrepentantly, happily, even. They’ve learned through hard experience that out of failure comes something better. And that the only catastrophe, really, is the refusal to keep trying.

* * *

Some people pay therapists to listen to their troubles. But as I struggled with my own work, my calls with veteran authors were a constant reminder that my process isn’t crazy—it’s not even unique.

Richard Bausch described rewriting individual scenes dozens of times to get them right. John Rechy will go through so many drafts of a book he loses count. Amy Tan’s process is so painstaking that she likens it to painting a portrait a single pixel at a time, only to abandon 95 percent of all her research and draft work. “You know you’re going to write a bunch of garbage, most days,” Victor LaValle told me. “And that’s okay.” The vast majority of writers I speak to seem to understand this: Writing usually means writing badly.

Some novelists conquer their anxieties through ritual, using familiar fallbacks to comfort and distract. Andre Dubus III begins every writing session by reading poetry, listening to music, and typing out the previous day’s handwritten work. Ethan Canin works on a homemade standing desk, hooked up to an elliptical, so he can pedal while he works—the physical activity, he says, “takes the brakes off,” quieting his rational mind and allowing the subconscious to bubble up. David Mitchell sets the most boring website he can think of—the Apple homepage—to pop up on his browser, so he’s not tempted to scan the morning headlines instead of buckling down.

Literary art is produced through the dogged acceptance of short-term floundering.

However they accomplish it, the writers I talk to all find ways to block out the slow, wheedling voice of self-doubt—the shadow self that conspires against progress, for whom the work is always taking too long, is always asking too much.

Elizabeth Gilbert described her attempts to maintain a kind of “stubborn gladness,” a concept borrowed from Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense.” “You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years,” Gilbert said:

I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled. I don’t wrestle with the muse. I don’t argue. I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives. I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.

(A few years after we spoke, she tattooed the phrase on the inside of her wrist.)

eliz gilbert

Kathryn Harrison described the unorthodox method she uses to quell her inner critic, the voice that says, “Oh, those aren’t the words you want,” or “you shouldn’t be working on this part now,” or “why not use the present tense?”:

Writing a first draft, you can become paralyzed by these thoughts. So I literally tell the voices to quiet down. I praise them for their perspicacity, and I tell them how much I need them—that I will want them later. But I cannot listen to them right now, because I am confused by them. And I don’t sit there waiting for that perfect, beautiful sentence, because I know I’m going to sit there forever.

The willingness to be content with what is less than perfect: That’s the quality that appears repeatedly in my conversations, the defining trait that every writer seems to share. You might call that “stubborn gladness,” as Gilbert does. Haddon, in a beautiful, British coinage, calls it “bloody-mindedness.” You might even say it requires a “certain grain of stupidity,” as Flannery O’Connor once did. Whatever it is, literary art is produced through the dogged acceptance of short-term floundering. It’s the resolve to continue laboring in the service of a task with no clear beginning, no clear end.

* * *

For years, pundits have enjoyed proclaiming that the novel is dead, that the bell tolls for literature, even as independent bookstores hold their own in an otherwise grim retail market, and the sales of print books have started to rebound. The novel is doing just fine, thank you. What does seem to be imperiled, though, is the slower, novelistic mode of thinking, the willingness to delay gratification for a larger payout later.

Deep, sustained attention is a scarcer resource than it once was. Practitioners in every industry, but especially the arts, are expected to be canny self-promoters, hustling constantly to build their brand, even to the detriment of the actual work. There seems to be a widespread fear: Go quiet for too long, and you will be forgotten.

But for the novelist, I’ve learned, bigger feats, bolder ideas unfold over the long haul—in the space where success feels uncertain, even unlikely. It’s work that will be complex and staggeringly difficult, and made up of many individually disappointing days. By focusing only on what satisfies in the moment, or by being too easily put off by drudgery and discouragement, the real work never has a chance to begin.

I’m still working on my novel. It’s five years later. Yes, the going’s slow. And I wish I’d finished sooner. But smaller goals have kept me honest, the way the regular deadline of “By Heart” has given rhythm to my years, providing something public I can look back on and point toAnd in the meantime, I’ve built my life around the daily ritual of my morning writing. I skip parties and have blown off my friends’ events and shows. I’m haphazard at best on social media; my email goes unanswered. I’ve cut back hours at work so I can write, and so I make less money. I do everything I’m not supposed to do. And on days the writing itself seems flawed, unworthy—most days—I sometimes start to wonder if the sacrifices have been worth it.

Except. There are the mornings when I can feel something emerging, something I can’t be whole until I say. Those moments come and go, and the confusion and difficulty always return. But at least I’ve learned I’m not alone in this. That’s just how writing a novel, like any worthwhile task, is always going to feel: like a receding horizon, with brief glimpses of the shore.

I’ll keep at it stubbornly, and gladly, until the job is finished.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORlight

JOE FASSLER is the editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. He regularly interviews writers for The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” series. He also covers the politics and economics of the American food system as a senior editor for The New Food Economy.

 

For the original article, click here.

Good Advice or A Summary of Where My Head Has Been for the Last Three Years

So you want to be a writer? Essential tips   for aspiring novelists

How to write a killer opening line. Why Google is not research. When to rip it up and start again. Whatever you do, just write!

Lessons from acclaimed novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann

find the original article in The Guardian

Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody, said Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet more than a century ago. There is only one way. Go into yourself.

Rilke, of course, was right – nobody but yourself can help. In the end it all comes down to the strike of the word on the page, not to mention the strike thereafter, and the strike after that. But Rilke was taken by the request from a young writer, and he corresponded with Franz Xaver Kappus in ten letters over the course of six years. Rilke’s was advice on matters of religion, love, feminism, sex, art, solitude and patience, but it was also keyed into the life of the poet and how these things might shape the words upon the page.

This most of all, he says. Ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?

Everybody who has ever felt the need to write knows the silent hour. I have come across many such people – and indeed many such hours – during my writing and teaching life. I’ve been teaching now for the best part of 20 years. That’s a lot of chalk and a lot of red pencil. I haven’t loved every minute of it, but I’ve loved most. There’s been a National Book award for one student. A Booker prize for another. Guggenheims. Pushcarts. Mentorships. Friendships. But let’s be honest, there has been burnout too. There’s been weeping and gnashing of teeth. There have been walkouts. Collapses. Regret.

All of these students, bar none, are looking, in Rilke’s words, “to say ecstasies that are unsayable.” The unsayable indeed. The job is theirs. The ability to trust in the difficult. The tenacity to understand that it takes time and patience to succeed.

There are no rules

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.                                                                                                         W Somerset Maugham

[The above, inserts the Blog Author, is my favorite quote of all time]. There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the same time. To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.

The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before. And then they unsay it, and they keep unsaying it, breaking their own rules over and over again. So be adventurous in breaking – or maybe even making – the rules.

Your first line

The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’                              Michael Ondaatje

A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again. The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.

But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realise, Ah, that’s where I should have begun.

So you go back and begin again.

Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake. This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky.

Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying.

At least not yet.

Don’t write what you know

The inexecutable is all I’m interested in.                                                   Nathan Englander

Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.
A writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created. Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer.

The only true way to expand your world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed. Get ready: they will label you sentimental. But the truth is that the cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their own limited nostalgia. They have no muscularity at all. Remember, the world is so much more than one story. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves.

In the end your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write towards what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of. We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me.

As Vonnegut says, we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

The terror of the white page

The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.                                                                                         Maggie Nelson

Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. The excuse that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to show up for work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t distract yourself in any way until you feel you have fought and tried. You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.

A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.

Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Increasing the font size. Shifting it around again and again. Sounding it out. Figuring the best way to leave it alone. Hanging in there as the clock ticks on. Not conceding victory to the negative. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth guard. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work.

Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words fewer than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.

Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.

Stare the blank page down.

Creating characters

Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.                             Gabriel García Márquez

Writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with. You don’t care (yet) about the facts of his/her life. Don’t overload us with too much information. Allow that to seep out later. We are attracted by a moment in time – a singular moment of flux or change or collapse – not by grand curricula vitae. So don’t generalise. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly).

We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our tired hearts awake. Make it traumatic, make it mournful, make it jubilant, it doesn’t matter – just allow your reader to care for the physical body that your words evoke, the person behind the language. Later on in the story we can settle down with them and get to know them in a wider sense.

Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with her for a while. Let her dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what she is, where she comes from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyse us.

Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.

Writing dialogue

The declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.                         Peter Carey

There are so many rules, or suggestions, when it comes to dialogue. Forget the ummm and forget the errrs: they don’t translate on the page. Try not to use dialogue to convey information, or at least a slab of obvious information. Interruptions are great. Try writing a conversation between three, four, five people. Let the dialogue work for itself. Use he said and she said, but avoid clumsy descriptions. Forget about the overblown gasping, exclaiming, insisting, bellowing.

Make your dialogue distinct from the surrounding description, not just in rhythm but in length too. It will break up the prose. Have it be a respite on the page, or have it tee up the words that are about to come. Make each character distinct. Give them verbal tics. And never forget that people talk away from what they really mean. Lies are very interesting when they emerge in speech. Make action occur within the conversation. Seldom begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through. No need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes.

Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realise that there is a reader at the end of the sentence. Don’t confuse them. Don’t knock them out of the story. A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. Don’t go Oirish on yourself. Don’t fall into stereotype. No arragh bejaysus and begob. No overdone southern twang. It’ll make y’all wanna holler. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Bhrrooklyn nasal noise.

Study the masters. Roddy Doyle. Louise Erdrich. Elmore Leonard. Marlon James. And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is.

Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.

Seeking structure

A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.                                                                               Jorge Luis Borges

Every work of fiction is organised somehow – and the best of them are more profoundly organised than they ever let on. Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture. Structure is, essentially, a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Or maybe it’s a tunnel, or a skyscraper, or a palace, or even a moving caravan, driven forward by your characters. In fact, structure can be any number of things: you just have to make sure that it doesn’t become an elaborate hole in the ground into which we bury ourselves, unable to claw out.

Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure. A proper structure mirrors the content of the story it wants to tell. It will contain its characters and propel them forward at the same time. And it will generally achieve this most fully when it does not draw too much attention to itself. Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time. Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.

Language and plot

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.                                                                                                          Stephen King

We teachers, we editors, we agents, we readers, often make a mistake by concentrating too much on plot: it is not the be-all and end-all in a piece of literature. Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.

So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen. Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear. In the world of film we need motivation leading to action, but in literature we need contradiction leading to action, yes, but also leading to inaction. Nothing better than a spectacular piece of inaction. Nothing more effective than your character momentarily paralysed by life.

The greatest novel ever written has very little apparent plot. A cuckold walks around Dublin for 24 hours. No shootouts, no cheap shots, no car crashes (though there is a biscuit tin launched through the air). Instead it is a vast compendium of human experience. Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that every story ever told has some sort of plot (especially Ulysses, which perhaps has more plot than any).

Punctuation

It’s not just a throwaway thing (Comma) When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.                                                          Raymond Chandler (in a letter to his editor)

It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.

Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)

Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.

But then again, a sentence can be over-examined. Good grammar can slow a sentence – or indeed a wheelbarrow – down. The perfect run-along of words can sound so stiff. Every now and then we have to disregard the serial comma, or leave our participles dangling, even in the rudest way.

Sometimes we make a mistake on purpose. Perhaps knowing the difference between a main clause and a dependent clause doesn’t matter so much so long as you can intuit the difference. On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings. And the question is: would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?

Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come. Word.

Research

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.                                                     Aldous Huxley

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.

Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass – the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen – once suggested, while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world.

Please remember that mishandling your research is also your potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much of the obvious. It is often a good thing to have space instead so that we can fill it out with imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself: how much research is enough? Don’t corrupt your texts with facts facts facts. Texture is much more important than fact.

Fail, Fail, Fail

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.                                                    Samuel Beckett

Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. It requires courage to fail and even more courage to know that you’re going to fail. Reach beyond yourself. The true daring is the ability to go to the postbox knowing that it will contain yet another rejection letter. Don’t rip it up. Don’t burn it. Use it as wallpaper instead. Preserve it and reread it every now and then. Know that in the years to come this rejection letter will be a piece of nostalgia. It will yellow and curl and you will remember what it once felt like to throw your words against what everyone presumed would be your silence. Failure is vivifying. You know you’re better than it. Failure gets you up in the morning. Failure gets your blood circling. Failure dilates your nostrils. Failure tells you to write a bigger story and a better one.

And in the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.

Throw it all away

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.                                                                  André Gide

Sometimes, young writer, you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.

Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. (One of the most liberating days of my writing life was when I threw 18 months of work away.) But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.

So you have to throw it away. (OK, let’s be honest here: you don’t actually throw the pages away. Box them up or back them up, just in case you might be making a mistake.)

It is terrifying of course. You close the file, you bury the pages. Now you’re pageless and your back is truly up against the wall. So you open up another file, sharpen the pencil, and settle down once again.

Your last line

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.                                                                        Ben Marcus

Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.

You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.

Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours any more. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.

 

Colum McCann is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he has been the recipient of many international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He is the co-founder of the non-profit global story exchange organisation, Narrative 4, and he teaches at the MFA program in Hunter College. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children.

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann is published by Random House. Order it from your favorite independent bookshop.

Thinking and Feeling

Years ago I took a creativity class with other writers, photogs, artists, etc. The instructor said something I’ve never forgotten:

Creativity is in the doing. If we could produce art by just thinking it through, no one would have to do it; we could just sit back, imagine it, and be done! But in the doing of it–it changes. It becomes something else, something we couldn’t have known until we did it.

Richard Gilbert nails this truth in his blog Draft No. 4. I’ve reposted it below for your reading pleasure. Click here to go to Richard’s blog and his live links.

Messy Essays & Eternal Truths: The Work Under Writing’s Surface

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Richard Gilbert’s class whiteboard outlines Joyce Carol Oates’ essay A Widow’s Story.

Reposted from Richard Gilbert’s wonderful Blog, Draft No. 4

March 23, 2016 |
Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.    Benjamin Spock

1. Writing is Thinking

“Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling!” enthused one of my students near the end of Spring term. This was at Virginia Tech, where I have been teaching in the Lifelong Learning Institute this academic year.

I’ll call her Helen. At the start of class, Helen had seemed confident of her thinking ability—she’d spent a distinguished career reasoning and writing. But she’d seemed not so sure she could emote for readers. Or ask them for an emotional response, let alone provoke it. Helen’s comment took me back to 2005, when I started writing my memoir. I enjoyed building that narrative, but it was work. Writing is concentrated thought, I marveled. That’s why it’s hard. Most of us seldom think about one thing for hours on end. But there’s a huge compensation, I came to see.

“I think what makes writing addictive is that it doesn’t just capture thought, it creates thought,” I told my class one afternoon. “You write a sentence, make a claim. And then you write another. And then you look at those two sentences and write down what you didn’t know you knew. Because you didn’t. Writing doesn’t only capture thought, it creates it.”

Now I didn’t pause to credit the sources who helped me describe this quality. So here I will. Surely writing theorist Peter Elbow influenced my thinking (See my post “Writing’s ‘dangerous method.’ ”) But Donald M. Murray, who nails writing’s rewards in The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition), lent me the words:

Writing is not reported thought. Writing is more important than that. It is thinking itself. . . . And it is fun because I keep finding I know more than I expected, feel more than I expected, remember more, and have a stronger opinion than I expected. [See “Revise, then polish.”]

This is what I found, and I think what Helen experienced.

2. Writing is Feeling

Oates-Raymond-Smith-in-72
Oates & Raymond Smith in ’72 [1972@BernardGotfryd]
Maybe Helen was thinking of my statement: “Art is made from emotion, is about emotion, and asks for an emotional response.”

What does that mean? Was I going to ask her to emote all over the page? That wasn’t her style!

Well, on that score, everyone’s mileage varies. As a writing teacher once told me, “No one tells everything.” Indeed they don’t. As in life, we must prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. And our mask is influenced by temperament and mood and the nature of the piece.

Helen wrote about her early years, a young Yankee professional woman who found herself starting out in the Appalachian south. She encountered a gracious but sexist, patronizing, and clannish culture. What she discovered in writing a memoir essay in my class was what she hadn’t before consciously articulated: after decades of becoming localized, as a success, she sensed yet another layer of exclusion. A deeper boundary. She hadn’t glimpsed this wall before, and now was just starting to try to articulate its nature.

What “writing is feeling” meant to Helen, I think—and what maybe it does mean, after all—embodies such discovery. Not writing emotionally, as such. But seeing clearly how you felt and conveying it. How did you feel then? How do you feel now?

Don Murray again:

The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, development, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.

3. Writing is Craft

The shortest essay I ever wrote, maybe the shortest essay anyone has ever written, was Little Essay on Form. It went like this: ‘We build the corral as we reinvent the horse.’ Later, I added: ‘Craft is what nails the gate, helps formalize the space, and keeps the horse shit out of the picture.’ It leaves us with the necessary.
—Stephen Dunn in his Georgia Review essay, “Forms and Structures.”

After I showed my memoir class how James Baldwin punctuated his great essay “Notes of a Native Son,” Helen raised her hand.

“Do you think he did that on purpose?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’m certain of it. For one thing, he was a genius. For another, varying sentence rhythm is what professionals do.” I followed up by showing them how Ernest Hemingway did the same thing. (See my recent post “Sentence, substance & comma joy.”)

“Art announces itself in form,” I added. “That includes sentence and paragraph length; punctuation; the rhythm of sentences, paragraphs, passages, and the entire piece. All aspects of form must be considered and intentional.”

For all the attention we give it, of course, craft isn’t the most important part of writing—far from it. That would be who you are and your intent. (See “Between self and story.”) But craft is what we can talk about and work with. Craft not only signifies art, it’s what releases art.

Early in the term, I told my memoir class one afternoon how writers emphasize at the end: the last word in a sentence, the last sentence in a paragraph, the last paragraph in a passage, the last passage in an essay or chapter. I tried to show how creative writers use space breaks, not just as transitions from one time frame or location to another but also to spike emphasis—like hitting a gong. And to provide a resting places for readers. As I wrote in “That sweet white space,” “White space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events. This is what visual artists call negative space, the resonant blankness around the main image.”

Helen wasn’t so sure about space breaks. “They seem like cheating,” she said.

“I can remember feeling that way,” I said. “When I was a journalist, I was proud of my worded transitions. And editors wouldn’t let us use space breaks anyway—they took up too much room.”

But look at the breaks that demarcate Baldwin’s classical three-act structure in “Notes of a Native Son.” Consider how heavily Scott Sanders segmented his flowing, celebrated essay about his father’s alcoholism, “Under the Influence.”

And you know what? I got Helen to try space breaks! A teacher’s joy. Along with hearing her excited statement. Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling! What a great class. Helen’s doubt made me work harder. Helen’s doubt launched not a thousand ships but influenced several lesson plans. My students’ work in this class taught me, again, how words shaped by craft reveal someone’s soul. We may all walk around stuck in our own heads, but we go to literature to share another’s subjective experience and meaning.

Yet in art, every start is a beginning for the maker. As Jo Ann Beard told Michael Gardner in an interview for Mary:

Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.


Ellen Meloy once told me our word essay came from the Old French essai “to try,” which is, of course, totally appropriate. Perhaps all art is actually a verb: to essay.

And I just LOVE driving by, on my way upta and overta Bryce, Asay Creek. It’s onea them thar Utar words, ya know?

 

Annual Solstice Letter 2016: A Particular Phrenology

 

phrenology1
Diagram 1. My Particular Phrenology

If you have an exceptional memory, you may recall TWO years ago I wrote a post about my teenage heartthrob, John Fogarty. If not, click on the album cover below (with gratuitous photo of said heartthrob).

fogerty

In that post I mentioned I’d heard an NPR interview about Fogerty, who after fifty years playing guitar, still spends hours every morning practicing. I wrote, if anyone already knows how to play guitar, it’s John Fogerty! It set me wondering if there was anything I liked doing so much I’d spend hours doing it every day when I didn’t have to.

At first, I was disheartened, thinking I put off what I wanted to do until I’d caught up, had enough time, finished my to-do list, etc. But then I enumerated what I did every day and realized I actually did the thing(s) I wanted to be doing. I also realized there were two things I truly needed to do daily–like John Fogerty clearly needs to play guitar–and three others I wanted to do, and I could stop beating myself up about not doing whatever it was I thought I should have been doing.

I then asked “What are the thing(s) you want to/would do every day if you didn’t have to do the things you do?” And said: “Tell me yours and, in the next post, I’ll tell you mine.”

WELL. A bit o’ time has passed. I did, however, work on the answer, even though the responses from you were few. I realized that’s because many of you are: 1. OLD (i.e., you’ve already figured this out whereas although I too am old, I am still learning), 2. RETIRED (i.e., you have plenty of time to complete have-tos and want-tos whereas I was not whence I wrote the initial post), 3. TOO BUSY (i.e., either doing your have-tos like working or want-tos whatever they may be), 4. A FELLOW INTROVERT!

But I promised answers and thus here they are:

The TWO THINGS

I need to do everyday are (Ta Da): 1. THINKING and 2. BEING OUTDOORS

  1.  I spend a damn lot of time thinking (Diagrams 1 and 2). This is probably more than you want to know, but I spent a long time THINKING about it, so here it is. I Process. Contemplate. Order. Figure. Munch. Chew. Digest. Wait. Build connections, neurons. It’s part of being an introvert, or maybe introvertedness comes from having a brain that processes like this. I experience; then my brain sorts, filters, categorizes, replays, builds networks, cross references…well, you get the idea. It takes a long, goddamn time. It’s why I live alone. Input equals processing time. More input equals more processing time. Yes, I can be quick and sharp and witty, and I can also stare at you dumbly as my brain creaks and clacks and spins reels looking for the right file. “I know I’ve got that here somewhere…” In fact, I have a story about that…okay, right, I’ll keep that one for a future post. Remind me.

phrenology

Diagram 2. Mind Map  Click on Image to Enlarge
(Use at Your Own Risk; some things were omitted for your safety)

2. Being Outdoors. I dunno why this is soooo important. When I was little my mom used to say, like every other minute, “Go outside and play.” I think now it was her brain’s way of getting some processing time. I went. And when her brain reached overload and blew, I went (quickly) to escape. And after a while, outdoors became waaay more comforting a place than indoors. That’s my theory anyway. Also I think and science has confirmed, I seem to recall, that deep in our brain’s structure lurks what researchers think is a hard-wired memory of our African savanna origins. Anyway, that’s my excuse. I, like Mr. Fogerty, have NEEDS. And one is to be outside, everyday, for hours.

The THREE OTHER THINGS

I think, ahem, two of the three are really subsets of the TWO THINGS, because they are A. Writing (and reading) and B. Riding which could really be part of Thinking and Being Outdoors, but I may be OVERTHINKING this. Animals. Big Thing. I’ve never really gotten over the fact I’m not an animal–well, I know I am–but I mean a REAL animal. You know, cute little round ears, cute nose, TAIL. I suppose that’s why I spend so much time with them; they are certainly much easier than people–much easier to process. 

Speaking of which last, but by far not least, dear ones, is C. Friends. Gentle friends. I truly need my friends, in ways those who have family do not. My animals give me so much, but my friends…what can I say? Thank you.

And so my small gifts to you this solstice are my humble words, the links below for your enjoyment and play, and my many thanks for allowing me to be a small part of your world.

To make your own mind map, click here for a link to the SimpleMind+ app.

 

 

Becoming Writer and Written About

images2QTBWIIZFrom The Writer’s Almanac (Garrison Kellior) August 21, 2014: “It’s the birthday of novelist Robert Stone born in Brooklyn (1937). He was raised by his mother, who was schizophrenic, and when she was institutionalized, he spent several years in a Catholic orphanage. Sometimes he and his mother would drive across the country and end up in a Salvation Army somewhere, or a random hotel. He said: ‘My early life was very strange. I was a solitary; radio fashioned my imagination. Radio narrative always has to embody a full account of both action and scene. I began to do that myself. When I was seven or eight, I’d walk through Central Park like Sam Spade, describing aloud what I was doing, becoming both the actor and the writer setting him into the scene. That was where I developed an inner ear.”

Stone dropped out of high school to join the Navy, then moved back to New York City. He worked as a copy boy at the Daily News, and during his brief stint at NYU, he met Janice Burr, the woman he eventually married. They moved to New Orleans, and Stone found work as a census-taker. He walked every neighborhood of New Orleans, asking questions. He wrote: “The closer to street level you live, the more you have lessons thrust upon you.”

His time in New Orleans inspired his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967). It begins: “The day before, Rheinhardt had bought a pint of whiskey in Opelika and saved it all afternoon while the bus coursed down through red clay and pine hills to the Gulf. Then, after sundown, he had opened the bottle and shared it with the boy who sold bibles, the blond gangling country boy in the next seat. Most of the night, as the black cypress shot by outside, Rheinhardt had listened to the boy talk about money — commissions and good territories and profits — the boy had gone on for hours with an awed and innocent greed. Rheinhardt had sat silently, passing the bottle and listening.”

Stone served as a correspondent in Vietnam for a British magazine, which quickly folded, but he got enough material to return home and write the novel Dog Soldiers (1974). Dog Soldiers is the story of a burnt-out playwright named John Converse who leaves the fading counterculture of California to work as a correspondent in Vietnam and ends up smuggling heroin out of the country. Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award.

Stone’s other books include Children of Light (1986); Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (2007), a memoir; and Fun With Problems (2010), a book of short stories.

He said: ‘Writing is lonely. […] But most of the time you are in a room by yourself, you know. Writers spend more time in rooms, staying awake in quiet rooms, than they do hunting lions in Africa. So, it’s a bad life for a person because it’s so lonely and because it consists of such highs and lows, and there’s not always anywhere to take these emotional states. […] It’s a life that’s tough to sustain without falling prey to some kind of beguiling diversion that’s not good for you.’”

Don’t I know that? Don’t we all know that?

Though I don’t know Robert Stone’s work, I do know his life, and his mother: I am also a solitary; but instead of schizophrenia it was manic depression, and instead of radio it was books. When I was five my parents took me to visit my paternal grandfather and his wife in Florida. I recall so clearly, in my boredom, walking around the yard, the house, standing in the exotic palm-lined winter driveway. Squatting beside the 1950s car and seeing my reflection in the shiny hubcap, I remember telling myself a story, complete with, “and then he said…and then she said…” “describing aloud what I was doing, becoming both the…writer” and the written about “…setting myself in the scene.” I also remember doing this until I was 10 or so, walking around talking aloud, telling myself my story, until a neighborhood boy passed me on his bike and, turning circles around me, derided me, chiding, “WHO are you talking to?!” I was silenced.

Been writing, but not much here. Mostly because I hate struggling with blog technology and adhering to appointed rounds. And wherefore the time? But I intend to change that, again.

Want to finish my Rockfall Series, but getting to that is stopping me from posting anything else, so things will get posted, but in a random, sort of, rockfall pattern! Much to tell.

People Have Been Asking

imagesQ2KRKJRDWhenever I am forced, as I have been this last month, to sit at my desk, unrelentingly, working and reworking someone else’s written product, ad infinitum, to the exclusion of all other thought, like a convict chained to a ball, I become a tad, shall we say, snarly. A titch unfriendly. I go about my work and chores with my head downcast, teeth clenched, dreaming at night about being made human sacrifice by alien overlords. When finally, in that dream, I saw my friends running free across a heartless desert while I floated balloon-like overhead wearing a dress of barbed wire and white toile, I felt serenely happy they had been released and deeply sad I couldn’t be with them. JESUS H. ROOSEVELT CHRIST! I began reading Vietnam War novels again. I knew the Thai dish Evil Jungle Princess had been named for me personally. Last week I could have taken on the entire Vietnamese fucking army singlehandedly and won. Handsfuckingdown. Just give me the goddamned machine gun and take off the fucking safety if the thing even has one.

But today the sun is out and the project is off my desk and it has stopped raining and I can think again and speak without scowling and its warm enough to have on a short skirt and my hair is down and I am sweetness and light again. So yes, I am well. Going through revolutions of ridding myself of needless clutter, cleaning out a writing room, and preparing to shift gears.

Upcoming Posts
Rockfallville
A newly released state geologist report puts half my house in the “High Danger Zone,” meaning, I suppose, that I can spend half the night sleeping in peace and half lying awake contemplating my great investment’s current market value

• “Yes, Ma’am, the Trails are Safe, but I Can’t Guarantee the Geology”
As Trail Crew Foreman Dan Blackwell once said to a Grand Canyon hiker who stopped to inquire. After Rockville’s fatal rockfall and Washington’s fatal mudslide, one has to wonder what’s going on. The New York Times’ Timothy Egan wonders too.

• Winter Solstice 2013
A tribute to our friends Maureen Morris and Jeff Elsey killed in the Rockville rockfall

 

 

 

Eyes of the Wild

Eleanor O
Eleanor O’Hanlon–storyteller, writer, European

This image of Eleanor O’Hanlon in Dartmouth Castle Tearoom is my personal favorite; the photo speaks volumes to me. It was made in 2003 after a long walk along the English coast and through the castle on a mizzly day. This coffee lover will admit there is nothing quite like a pot of tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam shared over a fantastic ocean view on a rainy day.

But there is also the incredible Eleanor whom I met at Devon’s Schumacher College in a course called Animal Magic taught by the likes of Jane Goodall, Rupert Sheldrake, Francoise Wemelsfelder, and Colin Tudge. Although the course opened my eyes wider, late nights in the library with Eleanor were even more informative.

library
Schumacher’s Library

It was there three of us would meet long after everyone else was abed—Eleanor (an Irish nature writer and conservationist living in London), Ursula (a belly dancing Viennese psychiatrist), and me (an American park ranger)—along with whomever else could match our late-night habit —occasionally a Danish veterinarian, a Polish zookeeper, a Belgian dairy farmer. We retrieved the wine bottle from behind the woodpile; lit a fire in the immense, dressed-stone fireplace (parts of the building dated to the 1300s); wove human-sized nests of multitudinous cushions; and settled in for a wine-fueled chat. My favorite part was when Eleanor told Irish folktales.

And my favorite tales were of Ireland’s boy warrior, Cú Chulainn and his training with its greatest warrior Scáthach, because Scáthach was a woman, and Eleanor was, and is, a Storyteller. How I wish I had recorded those nights in front of the fire! Eleanor’s magical voice! If truth be told—and this is between you and me—I think Eleanor is Scáthach!

And now we get the next best thing—a book from Eleanor, and a fabulous one it is. In Eyes of the Wild Eleanor not only describes her encounters with whales and bears, wild horses and wolves, and the scientists and wardens who watch and watch over their dwindling numbers, but she goes further. I told you the story of Eleanor of Schumacher because during those moments I was not a 40-something, grieving, orphaned (I had lost, the year before, both parents to the Great Beyond and a boyfriend to what? indifference?), anyway, I was not a somewhat lost soul, I was a warrior learning to fight with a barbed spear on a fierce North Sea island—such were, and are, the power of Eleanor’s words. Eleanor takes us beyond an animal in an environment and beyond even ourselves to the one thing that binds us all. And she takes us there by telling stories of things that are, and things that are not. I cannot do her book justice. I have loaned two copies to friends, and the books have yet to come home. Hopefully, they are on their own warriors’ journeys.

An Excerpt:

eyesWhen the mother surfaces next she comes close enough for me to reach out and touch. I run my hands along the skin of her side, which feels indescribably smooth, as though the texture has been endlessly refined by the washing of the sea. Her flesh is firm and cool beneath my hands. Through the physical contact with her body a sense of the expansive dimensions of her being opens inside me like soundings from some vast interior sea. As the depth of the meeting grows, it becomes an opening through which something entirely new keeps pouring—a wordless sense of connection with a greater life.

Turning onto one side, the whale gazes up at me through the water; looking down into her dark eye, ringed with folds of skin, I meet the lucid and tranquil gaze of an ancestor, one of the ancient ones of the earth. I feel her taking me out, far out, of thought and linear time, beyond the limited concerns of my ordinary mind, into a profound sense of meeting with another being, whose consciousness is not separate from my own…

Eden, I think, is not simply a mythical place, or a metaphor for original innocence, or an outworn and divisive religious symbol. Eden is a state of being, and we are free to return every time we know ourselves again in deep communion with the rest of life.

Eleanor’s Blog

Eleanor’s Book

Eyes of the Wild is also on Facebook at Eyes of the Wild Journeys of Transformation with the Animal Powers

 

The Green Man is Us

green man
England’s Green Man

When I was a kid, my British mother insisted we take down the Christmas tree before New Year’s Eve saying, “its bad luck to have an old tree in the new year.” This year, in contravention of Medieval European superstition, I have left my lime-green tinsel-branched tree standing. Although I consider myself a neo-pagan, atheistic heathen, I do celebrate Christmas. I do so to honor the multi-millennia human instinct to worship sun, trees, and planetary motion. But this year, I too, bow to trees.

Christmas trees, historically, came from this same impulse. Although Christmas-tree history was long ago mislaid amid myriad dusty files, we know the ancients venerated trees. From Roman evergreen boughs hung during the winter solstice Saturnalia festival to the pine, spruce and fir branches draped above windows and doors worldwide to deter witches, ghosts, evil spirits, illness and the like, people have long sought reassurance in mid-winter’s conifer green.

But long before December ensnared our imaginations with pine scent, trees enchanted people. European ceremonies performed today from dim memory—May Pole dances, Jack O’ The Green ceremonies, English tree dressing, Green Man Festivals—speak to a long history of arboreal reverence and respect—respect, that is, for trees that escaped the ax. Because, for as long as we have esteemed trees, we have felled them.

Humans clear-cut prehistoric forests worldwide as soon as they figured out how—stone axes, bronze, iron, steel—our technologies ever more efficient. Woodlands retain only a tiny roothold on once vast territories, and the trend has always been downhill. Except. Except for three small periods in human history when forests, joy of joys, vigorously rebounded.

We know forests convalesced AD 200 to 600, 1300-1400, and 1500-1750 because ice cores record plummeting CO2 levels during these periods. Of the CO2-absorbers—oceans, trees, and intact soils—only regenerating woodlands account for this change. The next question is, of course, what revived these forests? The answer isn’t very pretty, but gives us hope.

Just before each restoration, massive pandemics—smallpox, bubonic plague,typhus, cholera—decimated human populations, in some cases by ninety percent. Dogs nosed along empty town lanes. Farms stood deserted. Within fifty years, agricultural lands reverted to the wild. Trees long cropped by pigs, horses, cows, and farmers sprung from the soil. Everywhere the forest returned.

Now you know just how much I love nature, but I find great comfort in William Ruddiman’s research. It means we have a chance; something I have doubted for a long time. After a pandemic, people: burned less carbon, cut fewer trees, and, in their own absence, accomplished immense forest rejuvenation. Let’s see: burn less carbon, cut no trees, and recreate forests. We can do that! And I’m not talking about miserly, Ebenezer Scrooge forests; I’m talking majestic, obese, enormous, heroic, gigantic, native forests!

So, to echo Michael Pollin’s omnivores advice (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”); I offer: “Plant trees. Anywhere you can. As soon as possible.” It’s time we worshipped trees again.

ghost forest

Artist Angela Palmer’s Trafalgar Square project, Ghost Forest: ten massive tree stumps from what remains of Ghana’s tropical rainforest. The exhibit sought to raise public awareness of connections between deforestation and climate change.
This image haunts me.
I couldn’t help but think how immense forests once stood not only in the Amazon, but where London now stands. Although I understand we must assist other countries with avenues to prevent deforestation, we too have obligations: to reforest our own denuded lands. The Ghost Forest is everywhere beneath our feet.

Winning Entry

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

I was thinking again this morning how odd a beast is art. An idea springs into one’s mind, rolls about in there like a sandstone block in a flash flood until sufficiently rounded, then has to be arm wrestled onto the page, honed and sanded and polished until the thing somewhat resembles a lumpy, almost distinguishable, marble. And for what?

I think, for the artist, there is a certain relief in that the nagging thing has been ectomized, and a definite let down in that it appears not quite in the way envisioned or hoped. Art is a concrete approximation of an ephemera, and not always a close one at that. And then there is the this-matters-to-me-I-hope-it-matters-to-you thing. I’ve blogged about this before. One sends something into the Universe, and the damn thing doesn’t bother to write home. Has this thing that struggled to be born made the slightest difference? Does it matter to anyone? Does it need to? Well, of course, it doesn’t, but one hopes…

Which brings me to the two latest Postcards from the Universe, one in the form of a winning contest entry (and a nice little check), and the second in the form of a real, live person who wants to use what I’ve written to talk to other people. I love it when that happens. Art lives.

Here is my winning entry in the Z-Arts! Writing Contest, Adult Non-fiction Category, and a nice note from a Zion National Park guide: “I’ve read through the winning entries and am so impressed with the quality of the writing. Thank you to Z-Arts for organizing this annually. I found one of the writings really poignant and would like to contact the author, Greer Chesher, to see if I can get permission to use his writing in one of my interpretive programs. Thank you so much!”

The contest theme was Canyon Voices. You can read all the winners at the Z-Arts! website.

Canyon Voices

Long ago, I lived in what were then the wilds of New Mexico. Only an hour from Santa Fe, the Pajarito (Little Bird) Plateau’s thick ponderosa forests concealed from the unsuspecting world not only the Los Alamos National Lab, but native tribes, their ancestral tufa-built homes, and living traditions. My best friend, a young native runner from nearby Jemez Pueblo, was the second-youngest son of a man old even then. One afternoon, sharing a bowl of posole and deer meat scalded with more red chili than my Michigan-bred mouth had ever encountered, my friend’s father told me how, if a hunter does things right, the deer will offer itself to the hunter. Puzzled, I took a much needed break from my tongue-blistering to look his way. He, looking at the floor, continued, “when the animal gives its life for the hunter, he should be there, breathe in the deer’s last breath, give thanks.” I looked from him to my friend, unsure if this message was meant for me or his son. “If you don’t honor this gift, it will be taken. The deer won’t come.” He rose then, headed out, but before leaving reached into a pottery bowl next to the door, pinched a bit of its powdery contents between weathered fingers, and nonchalantly tossed it into the corner fireplace. The pollen offering streaked golden through filtered light. I sat motionless, silent, eyes wide.

This memory returns unbidden as I sit beside southern Utah’s Virgin River watching pollen, the color of sunlight, puffed brightly by the wind. It is as if the trees, knowing we’ve forgotten how to honor the land, do our work for us, without asking. A perpetual offering. Overhead, Canada geese honk their way downriver, sounding like ungreased wheels or a swinging door’s rusted hinges. Yellow warblers call from riverside willow winding down like a spun dime. Unexploded cottonwood pods swell and cliffrose flowers unfurl beyond our hearing. Fish swim, owls glide, rodents burrow, microbes reproduce—so much of this canyon’s daily life goes on beyond our keenest perception. Yet where would we be without it? Our physical and other-than-physical lives depend on so much we cannot see, smell, or taste, on the canyon’s unheard voices.

But perhaps, in ways still beyond our understanding, we can feel them. Richard Nelson, in his book, The Island, wrote, “As time went by, I also realized that the particular place I’d chosen was less important than the fact that I’d chosen a place and focused my life around it. Although the island has taken on great significance for me, it’s not more inherently beautiful or meaningful than any other place on earth. What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentile or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which is bounty is received.”

Gibbs Smith said in his book, Blessed by Light, “the Colorado Plateau chooses its people.” Although not from here, these writers remind us of our place, of what we forget to hear; they toss the pollen.

U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass wrote, “Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and you got national parks. It took a century for this to happen, for artistic values to percolate down to where honoring the relations of people’s imagination to the land, or beauty, or to wild things, was issued in legislation.”

Four influential people speaking, writing, changed the world. But it took a century. We don’t have a century to protect what’s left. But we do have thousands, millions of people who can be influential, if we speak of what the land tells us. Barry Lopez wrote, our job “…is to undermine the complacency of how most people relate to the landscape.”

The canyon speaks for itself, but quietly and of paintbrush in bloom, the drip of springs, the shockwave of rockfall. It’s ours to speak in a language the canyon can’t, to beings who may not hear. The canyon cannot protect itself. Only we can do that. We are the canyon voices. Are you one of the chosen? Do deer offer themselves? If you are lucky and this place proffers itself to you, the question becomes, what will you do with this gift? Speak.

Many thanks to Niles Ritter, Luci Brantley, Charlotte Vaillancourt, Gigi Krause, and Chip Chapman for making the awards ceremony so lovely.