The Gifts of Grace Paley

Today, August 22nd, is the anniversary of the death of my beloved writing mentor, Grace Paley. The arrival of this sad date always reminds me of when I—quite unexpectedly—cooked a meal for Grace, just weeks before her death.

It was early July of 2007. At the time, I was living in Portugal, but I’d flown to the US—my first time back home in nearly a year—in order to attend the summer writing residency at Vermont College and teach a graduate workshop (The following five paragraphs are excerpted from the chapter “Sip by Sip,” in my book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, University of Chicago Press, 2009).

While [at the residency] an old friend, the poet Jean Valentine, told me she’d heard that Grace had taken a bad turn in a fight against cancer. Grace lived only thirty miles away, so Jean and I drove a rental car through Vermont’s lush green summer landscape to visit her, and after the last stretch of a narrow road cutting through a field or two and then a stand of thick overhanging trees, we came to her front yard, where she sat beside a table, waiting for us.

She looked like an older version of the Grace I’d always known, a topknot of now white hair crowning her head. After careful hugs of greeting, Jean and I joined Grace, her husband Bob and their stunning daily view: great lazy rolls of cloud that crossed a blue sky and cast shadows on the hills below. Though she could forget something just five minutes in passing, Grace still had her clear-eyed humor, sharp and gentle at the same time. She landed some tough ones on Bob, but he joked off the rough edges and she seemed to expect this, because it was all an improvised show of a crusty, loving couple.

We skimmed along on friendly chitchat, nothing approaching what I was too embarrassed to say, that Grace, by the example of her patient teaching, the clarity and heart of her writing, even a single sentence from one of her stories—“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life”—had given me a way to live my own life, given me a path I’d tried, however imperfectly, to follow.

Grace invited us to stay for dinner, and Jean and I exchanged alarmed glances—we hadn’t come to impose. But Bob led me to the family garden, where we gathered greens for whatever would become dinner. He and I carried it all to the kitchen while Jean kept company with Grace. Bob found a box of pasta, I chopped vegetables, then poked around in the refrigerator for ingredients that might work together with spaghetti sauce. Not much there, and a good proportion of that was too old to use—this was the kitchen of a family under siege. When Grace called Bob to the front yard, he turned to me and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take over.” Suddenly there I stood, alone in the kitchen, with two pans simmering. Somehow, step by tiny step I had been given this opportunity to offer my mentor a meal. The spaghetti sauce now seemed unworthy, so I searched the cabinets and scoured through the refrigerator once again, hoping for any spice or condiment that might help match the depth of my gratitude.

I steamed the greens and then shaped them into a kind of loaf, grilled some garlic bread, simmered the sauce until it poured thick over the steaming spaghetti, and I called everyone in to the table I’d just set. Bob scarfed down his portion with exaggerated praise—glad, I guessed, to eat a meal he hadn’t prepared himself, though more likely he was trying to encourage Grace, her appetite hijacked by cancer. When Jean joined in with compliments intended as gentle nudging, Grace managed a bite or two, and I wondered if she could taste what my meal was trying to say.

*

The photo that appears at the top of this post is from Grace’s last days, sitting on a chair in her study, beside her a fantastically cluttered pile of books. But the photo below is the way I remember her best, when I worked under Grace as an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, from 1970 to 1973.

Grace was a careful reader of her students’ work, but her most valuable comments came from her attention to what I guess I’d call the “soul” of any given short story. Of course she was interested in the words—she herself was a great stylist of the English language—but she was also attentive to what fueled those words. She encouraged us—quietly, not didactically—to discover the psychological, artistic and social energy behind a story, what she called “the story behind the story.” Guided by Grace, nurturing an awareness of the invisible muscle behind my writing has been a lifelong gift.

Grace, in spite of the depth and power of her writing, was also as plain spoken and humble as could be, the exact opposite of the literary chest thumping of Norman Mailer and his ilk. Her demeanor served as a powerful example to my young and callow and ambitious self. At the time, Grace was not yet famous—her second book of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, still balanced on the cusp of publication. I remember when I and a couple of other lucky students were sitting in her office (probably there for no good reason other than to bask in her presence) and she read us one of her masterpieces, “A Conversation with My Father.” She was revising the story in anticipation of publication, still unsure if it was really ready to go, and she asked us what we thought. As I remember, we had little to offer other than stunned and admiring silence, and I suppose that was as effective as any comment.

Grace Paley influenced not only my writing but my teaching. She had been one of the co-founders of Teachers and Writers Collaborative (something I didn’t know until recently!), a literary outreach organization for elementary and secondary school students, where I attempted my first teaching while a creative writing graduate student at City College in New York.

But Grace taught me another valuable lesson about teaching, one perhaps that she wouldn’t have realized at the time. She once predicted something about my writing and my future writing life, a simple comment that I have never forgotten and that I won’t share here. But her words, maybe spoken casually, kept me going during those always inevitable times when I struggled with my writing, when I felt lost and alone in what I was trying to express. Grace’s words became so important to me that I came to realize the power a mentor’s words can have on a student. As a teacher for over forty years, I have tried to ensure that my words would heal and not haunt a student whenever they might enter times of trouble in their writing life.

So thank you, Grace, wherever you might be, for all your gifts—gifts far greater than any ad hoc spaghetti dinner could ever have repaid.

***

More about Grace Paley:

“The Hidden Second Story”

“What a Writer Knows and Doesn’t Know”

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August 22nd, 2022 by admin

How to Piece Together a Book

There’s a moment in Autumn Rounds, a novel by the French-Canadian author Jacques Poulin, where the main character poses a question to his friend Jack, who is a writer,

“So you’ve started a story?”

“I haven’t started writing it, but it’s in my head. It’s just a little thing off in a corner somewhere, but it will grow, slowly. I have to give it time . . .”

Jack’s description of his writing process immediately rang true to me. My books, my stories, and my essays have all begun in an unpredictable fashion: a spark of surprise where before, there was simply nothing.

Most books aren’t written by beginning with page 1 and proceeding step-by-step to the inevitable last page. While books are read sequentially, the writing of them is far different. Often, a new work of fiction begins with a title (which may not end up being the book’s ultimate title), or a budding insight about a still-unknown character, or a conversation between two as-yet-unnamed characters that might eventually end up in an early, middle, or late chapter. I once began writing a short story, “The Deserted House” (from my story collection, The Art of the Knock), with a scene that I was sure was the beginning; it turned out to be the ending.

I have often described to my students this process of building a book as akin to the rising of islands out of the water, with each island of the emerging archipelago growing bigger until they begin to connect and create a larger landmass.

Another metaphor that can be used is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Who hasn’t developed their own strategies to finally fit the last piece in place? Start by finding all the pieces that look like mountains. Or look! These pieces could only be part of a Monarch butterfly. Sometimes, first collecting pieces into groups that share a color is a good strategy. And what about the edge pieces? Get the frame completed, and then work inward. So many possibilities.

And so we come to the Land of the Fuddles.

The Fuddles are people who are made of many small pieces, and they like to fall apart so other people can put them back together.

The Fuddles appear in the novel The Emerald City of Oz, which is the sixth book in the fourteen volume Oz series written by L. Frank Baum.

Most people don’t know that Baum wrote fourteen volumes of his Oz saga. They’re most familiar with the first book, thanks to the classic film version. A pity, since most of the other books, for sheer inventiveness and brio, live up to the standards of the original novel. They include many new characters, such as the Shaggy Man, the Sawhorse, Patchwork Girl, the Highly-Magnified Woggle-Bug, Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, and many others. I know these characters well, because when my daughter Hannah was six years old I read her all fourteen books for our bedtime story ritual; it took about a year to go through them all, and our attention never flagged.

One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is when Dorothy and her entourage (which includes two additional new characters, Kangaroo and Omby Amby), took a journey through the many regions of Oz and came upon the town of Fuddlecumjig in the Land of the Fuddles. Dorothy asked,

“Are the Fuddles nice people?”

“Oh, very nice,” answered the kangaroo; “that is, when they’re properly put together. But they get dreadfully scattered and mixed up, at times, and then you can’t do anything with them.”

“What do you mean by their getting scattered?” inquired Dorothy.

“Why, they’re made in a good many small pieces,” explained the kangaroo; “and whenever any stranger comes near them they have a habit of falling apart and scattering themselves around. That’s when they get so dreadfully mixed, and it’s a hard puzzle to put them together again.”

“Who usually puts them together?” asked Omby Amby.

“Any one who is able to match the pieces.”

As Kangaroo later observed, “It’s just a habit they have, to scatter themselves, and if they didn’t do it they wouldn’t be Fuddles.” Supposedly, the Fuddles consider this great fun.

When Dorothy and her companions approached the town, “instantly a wild clatter was heard from the houses and yards. Dorothy thought it sounded like a sudden hailstorm.” This turned out to be the sound of the Fuddles undoing themselves. Dorothy and her friends entered the first home, and they found

the floor strewn with pieces of the people who lived there. They looked much like fragments of wood neatly painted, and were of all sorts of curious and fantastic shapes, no two pieces being in any way alike.

They picked up some of these pieces and looked at them carefully. On one which Dorothy held was an eye, which looked at her pleasantly but with an interested expression, as if it wondered what she was going to do with it. Quite near by she discovered and picked up a nose, and by matching the two pieces together found that they were part of a face.

“If I could find the mouth,” she said, “this Fuddle might be able to talk, and tell us what to do next.”

“Then let us find it,” replied the Wizard, and so all got down on their hands and knees and began examining the scattered pieces.

“I’ve found it!” cried the Shaggy Man, and ran to Dorothy with an odd-shaped piece that had a mouth on it. But when they tried to fit it to the eye and nose they found the parts wouldn’t match together.

“That mouth belongs to some other person,” said Dorothy. “You see we need a curve here and a point there, to make it fit the face.”

“Well, it must be here some place,” declared the Wizard; “so if we search long enough we shall find it.”

Dorothy fitted an ear on next, and the ear had a little patch of red hair above it . . . She had also found the other eye and the ear by the time Omby Amby in a far corner discovered the mouth. When the face was thus completed, all the parts joined together with a nicety that was astonishing.

“Why, it’s like a picture puzzle!” exclaimed the little girl. “Let’s find the rest of him, and get him all together.”

“What’s the rest of him like?” asked the Wizard.

“Look for a white shirt and a white apron,” said the head which had been put together, speaking in a rather faint voice. “I’m the cook.”

The cook told Dorothy and her friends how to complete him, and, finally constructed, he then began to prepare a meal for his guests while the rest of his Fuddle companions were pieced together.

I believe that many, if not most, writers employ a similar procedure. We add our books together piece by scattered piece. We trust that they are secretly connected, that somehow they will eventually join the narrative’s arc together. Intuition is largely our guide here, as well as a certain dogged persistence. And then comes the time when a critical mass of addition is achieved (a point that is always different for every book), and, as in the Land of the Fuddles, a “mouth” is found: an insight that speaks with an echoing authority, which helps the writer better understand what they have been attempting.

This is the moment that a writer searches for, often unconsciously: a “mouth” of insight that will speak for more than itself. This is the point when a book switches from hopeful guesswork to far more intentional construction. Mysteries may certainly still abound, but a point of no return has been reached, and the writer increasingly believes that their book will eventually be born, its last piece finally fit into the waiting pattern.

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July 18th, 2022 by admin

What Can Humans Know?

What are the perimeters of human knowledge? Perhaps not as broad and far-ranging as we like to think. Henry David Thoreau once famously wrote, “Who placed us with eyes between a microscopic and a telescopic world?” More recently, Jennifer Ackerman, author of Birds by the Shore, has offered an elegant paraphrase: “Humans, it is said, lie midway between the sun and the atom.”

When we look at the sky on a clear night, we can only see the 5,000 closest stars, and only one of the billions of galaxies that populate the rest of the universe. Our eyes are also unable to see what is smallest, not even what can be found on a grain of sand. Jennifer Ackerman writes, “A single grain of sand can support hundreds of colonies of bacteria, each composed of hundreds of individuals . . . all residing in the craters, scarps and troughs of the grain.”

Here I hold a small handful of sand from a beach around the corner of my home in Rhode Island. There must be tens of thousands of sand grains in my palm, and perhaps four hundred million or more bacteria living on them, none of which I can see.

Humbling, to imagine one’s biologically induced limitations, especially since we humans often unconsciously consider ourselves to be masters of the (or at least our) universe.

But our limitations are not only a matter of scale. Whales, for instance, can see us far more intricately than we can see them.

As Philip Hoare writes in The Sea Inside, whales “live in an element in which noise travels five times faster than in air. Their brains are wired for sound; their auditory cortex is larger than our visual cortex. Such a capacity is essential for animals that hunt in lightless depths. Theirs is a very different experience of the world from ours, because their world is so different. For toothed whales blessed with pin-sharp sonar accuracy, everything is transparent; nothing is concealed. They live in another dimension, able to see into and through the solid, to discern structures inside. A whale or dolphin can see the interior of my body as accurately as I can see the exterior of hers; I must resemble one of the educational models we had in school, clear plastic figurines of a man and a woman with their organs indecently displayed. The world is naked to a cetacean.”

Unlike us, whales (and dolphins too) can see through irrelevant clothes and the thin membrane of our skin. What is ordinary daily experience for them would be a superpower for us. Speaking of dolphins, they can send out two thousand clicks of sonar in a single second, enabling them to, as Philip Hoare reports, “discern something the thickness of a fingernail from thirty feet away.” Yet dolphins are capable of far more than such a comprehensive look-see. Hoare elaborates: dolphins “are able to use their sonar to detect one another’s emotional states by the way their temperature falls or rises, like a human lie-detector test. As a result they cannot dissemble about the way they feel, as we do. They know if another dolphin is angry or excited.”

This last startling tidbit I find especially humbling.

Throughout my teaching career, I pointed out to aspiring fiction writers that humans are biologically wired for isolation, because we cannot know what even our most intimate companion is thinking. Because of this, the “facts” of someone else’s inner life–all the years of that person’s memories and secret thoughts and desires–are great guesses on our part, hunches that the little we are able to see reflects the much more that we can’t. What passes for understanding of another is closer to the invention of a fictional character than we’d like to admit. That profound isolation from others’ thoughts is why art in all its forms was invented—particularly fiction, where a writer takes on the task of imagining others. I have to admit, I always assumed that any human’s exile from others’ thoughts applied to all living creatures. And yet, I learn—so late in life—that dolphins (and, I imagine, whales too) can “see” others’ emotions and cannot hide their own.

Our awareness of the world’s mysterious life in all its facets is a narrow path. Of all our five senses, sight is supposed to be our strongest suit, and yet we are no match for birds, who, Philip Hoare writes, “are thought to possess photopigments in their eyes known as cryptochromes that detect the magnetic field chemically, seeing it as a pattern of colors or lights which enables them to navigate.”

So much for our vaunted powers of sight! As for other senses, such as taste, touch and smell, the (not so) lowly lobster puts us to shame. The bodies of lobsters, Jennifer Ackerman tells us, “are covered with odor-sensitive receptors that detect minute concentrations of pheromones, chemicals they use for nearly every activity from tracking prey to announcing sexual prowess. Thin hairs on the antennules have more than four hundred different kinds of receptor cell, each tuned to a specific chemical compound. Just as birds can distinguish myriad notes packed into a brief musical interval, lobsters can read a spectrum of chemicals in a teaspoon of seawater.”

A spectrum of chemicals we remain unaware of, however often we splash about in a pond, a lake, a bay. Wet, to us, is wet. How limited we are, what ordinary creatures with only modest physical talents. And yet, we possess imaginations that lift us above our limitations. We live in a world of books, music, art, dance, sculpture and architecture; what we create in myriad forms, the world we live in, is an elaborate carapace of inventiveness that we exude in much the same way a snail exudes its elaborate spiraled shell—as something we must do, an essential urge that is simply and always will be a part of us. And yet, how important it is to remember, in comparison with our fellow creatures in the world, how little we truly see, how little we ultimately know.

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December 4th, 2021 by admin

We Are All Children in the Art of Reading

I recently finished reading Prayer for the Living, a short story collection by the great Nigerian writer Ben Okri (author of the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road). My favorite story in this collection is “Don Ki-Otah and the Ambiguity of Reading.” In this story, the iconic character Don Quixote has somehow been transformed by Okri into a modern African seer who, among his other adventures, has battled Boko Haram terrorists.

The story takes place in a printer’s shop in Lagos, Nigeria, where the well-read Don Ki-Otah expounds on the books he’s read over a long life, and his varied tactics of reading:

“In the course of a fifty-year reading career . . . I have experimented with 322 modes of reading. I have read speedily like a bright young fool, crabbily like a teacher, querulously like a scholar, wistfully like a traveler, and punctiliously like a lawyer. I have read selectively like a politician, comparatively like a critic, contemptuously like a tyrant, glancingly like a journalist, competitively like an author, laboriously like an aristocrat. I have read critically like an archeologist, microscopically like a scientist, reverently like the blind, indirectly like a poet. Like a peasant I have read carefully, like a composer attentively, like a schoolboy hurriedly, like a shaman magically. I have read in every single possible way there is of reading. You can’t remember the number and variety of books I have read without a compendium of ways of reading.”

In this extraordinary passage, we see the act of reading as fluid, not set in stone. Yes, we read from left to right (though up and down, and right to left are the preferred modes of other cultures), and we turn one page to get to the next, but aside from those stage directions there’s a lot of variation in how to read.

There are also, in that paragraph quoted above, a lot of adverbs. Nineteen, to be exact.

Doesn’t Okri know William Zinsser, author of the influential On Writing Well, has declared that “most adverbs are unnecessary”? Or that William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, authors of Elements of Style, have written, “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” Or that Callum Sharp, at “The Writing Cooperative” website, goes so far as to say that adverbs are the “death of good fiction writing,” giving examples such as “She quickly ran up the hill”?

At their frequent worst, adverbs state the obvious, especially in dialogue tags (“How dare you!” he said angrily), or prevent a writer from finding a better verb. Sharp’s example could be improved in this way: “She dashed up the hill.”

However, “How dare you!” he said coyly, is an entirely different sentence. Now anger has been transformed into flirtation.

Adverbs express their secret muscles when they contradict (coyly) what the reader expects, or sharpens a reader’s understanding. To get back to Ben Okri, to read “selectively” as a politician tells us much about that politician, and about politicians in general: always reading for partisan advantage. Peasants read “carefully” because they are not used to reading, and so need to slow down, or they read carefully because, from experience, they expect to be cheated and are looking for the trap. And so on. The nineteen adverbs in Okri’s paragraph delight instead of annoy, because they open up our understanding of the varied intentionalities of reading. He wields each one like a knife.

It’s always helpful to remind ourselves that a literary rule serves as a guide, not as a law.

Let’s take that thought and extend it to the stagecraft of reading. Why always travel from the first page to the grand finale?

The best books, I would suggest, are not overly concerned with what happens next, but instead lean curious about why it happens—the drama behind the mystery of someone’s behavior. That’s the reason one can read Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice more than once and with subsequent added pleasure, because the “what happens next” action of a book’s exterior world is illuminated by the “why” of the characters’ interior states.

Okri’s Don Ki-Otah takes this more than a few steps further, when he says,

“I have read books backward and inside out. I began reading Ovid in the middle and then to the end and then from the beginning. I once read every other sentence of a book I knew well and then went back and read the sentences I missed out. We are all children in the art of reading. We assume there is only one way to read a book. But a book read in a new way becomes a new book.”

As readers, like Don Ki-Otah we can manipulate the texts of our favorite books if we wish, but there are some books that kindly do this for us, that undermine the A+B+C-ness of linear narrative development.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at first seems like a collection of five stories that each ends in the middle of its narrative, sometimes in mid-sentence, yet always moving forward in historical time until the sixth, placed in the middle of the book, which is a complete narrative. Then, the next chapter is the second half of the fifth story, followed by the second half of the fourth story, and so forth, the connections becoming clearer and clearer, until the book—now obviously a novel of cleverly designed chapters, not a collection of stories—completes itself with the second half of the very first chapter back at the novel’s chronological beginning, last seen some 400 pages ago.

Initially, Cloud Atlas asks a reader to take the novel’s structure on faith, asks for patience with the shifts of time, place, and even literary style, as it slowly forms an elegant, unified arch-like design:

A-B-C-D-E—F—E-D-C-B-A

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse plays with time as well, though through deft chronological leaps. The first of the three sections of the novel occurs on a single day of the Ramsay family’s summer gathering; the second (and shortest) section takes place over the passage of ten years in the Ramsay’s now deserted vacation house; and the third takes place at the end of those ten years: finally the promised outing to a nearby lighthouse, though the family is now diminished.

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World similarly plays with readers’ expectations of how a novel might proceed. Murakami’s novel alternates between chapters titled “Hard Boiled Wonderland,” and those titled “The End of the World.” At first a reader would be justified in thinking that this book is simply two different novels placed side by side, the point being some as yet undetermined contrast. Its design would look like this:

A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A, etc . . .

However, it’s not the contrasts but the slowly revealed similarities, the uncanny touch points that reveal the narrative is, in fact, a divided narrative that continually seeks to become whole.

Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch cuts right to the chase: it offers two Tables of Contents, first one that follows standard forward motion, Chapters 1 through 56, while a second invites “expendable” chapters to be interpolated into the text, adding extra force to the main character’s ambitions of creating a dissociative personality.

Finally, Georges Perec’s novel, Life: A User’s Manual, tells the stories of the people who live in a Paris apartment house, and its “Table of Contents” is actually the floor plan of that building. As you might imagine, the individual stories of the various apartments begin to intersect in unusual and surprising ways.

Sometimes I read three or more books at a time, alternating between them, and when I return to a book after reading a bit in a few others, I often find that my appreciation has been sharpened, that the world building of one book can cast shadow or light on the book I’ve returned to. Or sometimes I’ll pause in the reading of a novel, letting its current effect on me rest, and simply go about my other business for a day or two. Yet all the while I’ll think about that book I’ve temporarily left off, savoring its past chapters, absorbing them at my own pace, while its future pages await my inevitable return.

Because books, like literary rules, are guides but not laws about how to be read.

So I return to Ben Okri’s marvelous creation Don Ki-Otah, who says,

“Part of the trouble with our world is that the art of reading is almost dead. Reading is the secret of life. We read the world poorly, because we read poorly. Everything is reading. The world is the way you read it. As we read, so we are.”

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October 11th, 2021 by admin

Democracy? Sweet!

As migraines decrease, knotted muscles relax, restless nights shift into deep, relaxed sleep, and the voices of anxiety soften in our minds, the first month of the Biden administration cruises along—calm, adult, competent. Not that our country is fully out of danger. The pandemic still rages, though the delivery of vaccines is finally ramping up. The insurrectionists are only beginning to be rounded up, but prosecutions will inevitably follow. The disgraced former resident of the White House remains unrepentant, but a world of legal troubles awaits him, even if he escapes conviction for his second impeachment.

Much work of course remains undone, but social and racial inequity relief is being embedded into government programs, and the pandemic rescue bill is going big. So perhaps it’s time to stop holding our cautious breaths and celebrate a little.

A good way to begin would be to listen to Democracy! Suite, a new work composed by Wynton Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet. Written to provide “the healing insights of Jazz,” the eight songs of this suite exude optimism and joy. In many ways it’s a celebration, a testimony to the human spirit that—despite unacceptable losses and a torn national fabric—has survived one of our country’s hardest of hard years. I listen to this album every day, and sometimes all day long. It makes me want to sing, to dance, to shed invisible demons.

There’s a performance video available for many of the songs in this suite, each one well worth watching. The band plays before an enormous window overlooking Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the broad busy street of Central Park South in New York City. They begin the suite in the light of day, and by the end of the song cycle they’re performing in a rich dark night adorned with the city’s glitter. Here is the band, led by trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, playing “Be Present,” dedicated to the frontline workers in the pandemic.

The entire album is a magnificent gem, one of the best alternatives to Doom Scrolling that I can think of.

Another effective antidote to obsessive internet anxiety that I’ve recently discovered is Leonard and Hungry Paul, the debut novel of Rónán Hession, a musican and social worker based in Dublin. This novel achieves something I’ve never quite encountered before in fiction, a sense of calm without for one moment inciting boredom.

Perhaps this is because author Hession displays such a broad acceptance of all his main characters. But the novel mainly concentrates on the story of two seemingly ordinary people, two adult men who have not yet found a way to expand their lives. Leonard, who lives alone, is a ghost writer for children’s science books, and Hungry Paul is a part-time mail carrier who lives with his parents. They are best friends, and understanding of each other’s foibles. The novel begins with them spending an evening playing a board game:

As they both played board games regularly, and switched between them often, it was not unusual for games to start slowly whenever they changed to something new. It was perfectly normal to have a warm-up period, like the way a polyglot who has just arrived at the airport needs to hear the local language spoken around him before he can regain his own fluency in speaking it. Before long, the game settled into a steady rhythm of clacking dice and turn-taking, interspersed with uninhibited rallies of conversation between the two friends, both of whom were free thinkers with a broad range of interests.

Both characters, in their quiet ways, are careful observers of the world around them. Here, Leonard has come along on a shopping expedition to help Hungry Paul buy a suit (his first ever) for his sister’s impending wedding.

“What colour do you want?” asked Leonard.
“Not navy, as that’s too much like my post office uniform. Not black, because I’ll look like someone in a ska band. Not brown, because I’d look like a teacher. So, maybe gray, dark grey even?” Hungry Paul had given this some thought.
“What about the pinstripe one?” suggested Leonard.
“Nah, pinstripe is for a work suit, not a social occasion. Besides, that’s chalk stripe, which is different.”
“I’m impressed,” said Leonard, “I sort of expected you to be hopeless at this, to be honest. How do you know so much about all this?”
“I think my mother thought the same. There isn’t much to know. Men don’t have huge variety in suits and I like to pay attention to what goes on, so after a while you notice who wears what, even if you’re not interested in wearing a suit yourself. Let’s try that dark gray one.”

The novel is filled with quirky observations that reminded me of the celebrations of the often overlooked and ordinary in Nicholson Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. Hession’s novel has a further strength: a sustained, canny sweetness, because while Hession has the best interests of his characters in mind, the twists of the plot feel more than earned. By the last page the book felt less like a novel (though it is a wonderful, distinctive novel) and more like a friendship I had made.

Perfect for a post-Trumpocalypse world. It’s time to shake off the inner restraints of the past four years, which I grant will likely be a long process, and embrace some optimism. The first steps could be to read Leonard and Hungry Paul while listening to Democracy! Suite.

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February 11th, 2021 by admin

“That’s Why I Love Mankind”

As the New York Times has reported about the insurrection of January 6, the far-right Proud Boys, before they joined the fray, “stopped to kneel in the street and prayed in the name of Jesus.” And then, “they invoked the divine protection for what was to come.”

Christian symbols could be seen everywhere in the seditious mob because “the most extreme corners of support for Mr. Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America.”

Over the years, I’ve noted—initially with amusement, now with real alarm— that many of his supporters refer to him as their “God Emperor.”

And yet, “The people Trump despises most love him the most,” according to Howard Stern. Trump would not want them in his hotels or golf properties. “He’d be disgusted by them,” Stern said.

Stern’s words have been echoed by Olivia Troye, who was once a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She has revealed that, during one meeting, Trump said the pandemic had at least one benefit: now he had an excuse to physically distance himself from his followers: “I don’t have to shake hands with these disgusting people.”

No surprise, then, that last week while Trump gleefully watched on television the destruction being wreaked in the Capitol Building, the only downside, in his opinion, was that so many of his followers looked “low class.”

All of which reminds me of one of Randy Newman’s most cynical, excoriating compositions, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” It’s the final song (what could possibly follow it?) from his third album, 1972’s Sail Away.

Newman begins the song’s lament with his barrel-house piano slowed to a painful, piquant blues, as the Biblical figure of Seth asks God why humans must die, and receives this divine reply:

“Man means nothing, he means less to me
than the lowliest cactus flower
on the humblest yucca tree
he chases round this desert
cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
that’s why I love mankind.

“I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind.”

By the end of the song, as the world begins to spiral out of control from several crises, religious leaders band together on “satellite TV” to beg God for help. This section of the lyrics, written in the 1970s, seems uncannily prescient about today’s ills. They could easily refer to the unchecked Covid pandemic, the rising seas of global warming, the burning cities of protest and counter-protest in America this summer, and children being forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border, all glaring examples of Trump’s current incompetence, inaction, malevolence or failure:

The religious leaders plead:

“Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Are tumbling to the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”

And the Lord said

“I burn down your cities—how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say, How blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind”

Now when I listen to these last lines that Newman attributes to God, I see in my mind the image of Trump standing before the White House in that video he released in the middle of the attack on the Capitol, saying to those “low class” fervent supporters, “We love you, you’re very special.” How they must have basked in his false affection.

The blindness that God relentlessly, even gleefully celebrates in Newman’s song is clearly echoed today by Trump’s followers. No matter what Trump does, no matter what principles he shatters that they previously espoused, no matter what lies they willingly believe, no matter what contempt he shows for them, they blindly follow. Because, with all their grievances, real and imagined, with all their inner wounds, they really need him.

Even though their “God Emperor” won’t take care of us, and he won’t let us be.

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January 12th, 2021 by admin

In Praise of Darkness

Language matters, especially language we use without truly thinking about the implications, even the invisible hurt, of our word choices. This is far from an original observation, but these past months of our country’s election saga have reminded me of a particular misuse of the word “dark.”

After five days of vote counting, when Joe Biden was finally declared the winner of the 2020 election on November 7, many commentators across the media platforms of CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and elsewhere said or wrote that light had finally broken through the darkness of recent years.

This week Joe Biden gave a speech saying that the insurrection at the Capitol building was a “dark day for America.”

Yesterday, I received a mass email of thanks that Senator-Elect Raphael Warnock sent to his supporters, in which he (of all people!) said, “It’s dark in this country right now.”

I respectfully disagree. January 6, a day that will live in infamy, was not a dark day—instead, it was a blindingly white day, a day of white supremacist ignorance, arrogance, and violence.

However, the day before, January 5, was indeed a dark day: a day of nurturing darkness, when the off-the-charts voting of people of color in Georgia—spurred by the herculean organizational efforts of Stacey Abrams—proved the decisive factor in returning control of the Senate to the Democrats (as they had also been in delivering Georgia’s sixteen electoral votes to Joe Biden in November).

I think it is well past the time to stop using the word “dark” as a stand-in metaphor for all that is threatening, disturbing and evil.

For over thirty years, I used a short excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to illustrate to my Introduction to Fiction students how seemingly simple words are actually charged with meaning, if only you look closely enough:

“And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, but it ain’t. There’re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don’t stay still, it moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.”

I was reminded of this passage recently as I read Jennifer Ackerman’s Birds by the Shore, where she describes (in detail that is clearly the result of years of observant experience) her evening wanderings along a cove near her home in Delaware:

The darkness of the marsh is not the close darkness of woods, where blackness pours up from between the trees, but a thin, liquid, open, far-reaching darkness that descends onto the grass.

Other cultures have their own take on what “dark” connotes. In one of my favorite books, In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki discusses how darkness—shadows—came to be valued in Japanese architecture:

The fact that we do not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we all call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover the beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

My home office has three lights: a ceiling light; a lamp set on the corner of a small, glass-door book cabinet beside my desk; and a floor lamp, which has three settings, standing beside my reading chair. Throughout the day and evening, I turn the various lights on and off: sometimes for maximum brightness, but other times to create a particular mood of light and shadow. I often keep the lamp by my reading chair at the medium setting at night, with all other lights off: I enjoy the soft penumbra of light above me and the chair, while the rest of the room is cast in a comforting darkness. In writing this, I realize that in other rooms of the house, and without really thinking about it, I do much the same, guiding “shadows towards beauty’s ends.”

The complexities of darkness in the physical world, however, are nothing compared to those in one’s interior world:

and in the underworld of sleep
you can visit
all the shadows
of your different selves

–Miriam Sagan

Exhausted from the events of the day, we seek out the dark as we settle into bed and sleep. In that darkness our dream-life awakes, when deeper truths about who we are reveal themselves. Our imaginations exercise in the dark. And when day arrives we reap the benefits, if we choose to listen.

Every day we welcome the dark. The night gives us most of the parties we’ve ever been to, most of the concerts we’ve ever attended, and no movie or play can begin in a theater unless the lights are dimmed.

Using “dark” as a stand-in for anything negative perpetuates yet another insinuating connotation that people of color have to live with. It’s a linguistic monument waiting to be pulled down. Think of this past, tumultuous week. “Dark” people—people of color—were the driving force in helping perpetuate our democracy, while violent white people tried to stage a coup in the Capitol building. This contrast reminds me of a moment in Red Dust, a novel by the Cuban science-fiction writer Yoss. The narrator, a well-meaning, law-enforcement robot who tries his best to understand the ways of humans, watches his ally, Vasily, engage in a battle of forcefields with a dangerous criminal named Makrow:

It looked to me like Vasily’s field was navy blue, almost black, while Makrow’s was pinkish white—which for some reason I found almost shocking. Wasn’t the purest color supposed to be for the good guy? It’s hard to put any credit in archetypes after a surprise like that.

*

Poem by Miriam Sagan can be found here.

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January 9th, 2021 by admin

Disaster Overtook Them All

In those especially frightening early days of the Covid pandemic, my wife Alma and I had just begun a two-week quarantine in our Rhode Island home, following our last-minute, middle-of-the-night escape from Europe in mid-March. While the economy crashed, we sewed our own masks out of old t-shirts and made our own hand wipes, we scrubbed down any available surface and we fought the almost unconscious desire to touch our faces. Meanwhile, on TV, frontline health workers on the verge of collapse described their intolerably long days fighting to protect their patients from a disease that at the time no one really understood.

New England then was one large raging pandemic hotspot. Home became a kind of cave, the walls lined with worry for loved ones, for strangers. Our son and his wife and their two children hunkered down together in New Mexico, school cancelled. Though we urged our daughter to leave New York City, she, and her partner, decided to stay in the city they have long loved, no matter how much Covid had wounded it.

Once our quarantine ended, we rolled the dice on any outside activity, including what store hours might be the least dangerous for buying food. With too many unknowns out in the air, mostly we stayed put, lucky that we were economically able to, while others died because they had to risk their lives to continue their essential jobs. Nursing homes transformed into morgues, hospitals filled with the infected, our government’s incompetence morphed into greater incompetence, and the number of dead rose and rose. No one could predict where this disaster was heading. We still can’t, can we?

From time to time, all the terrifying unknowns got my legs working, and for hours I’d weave a tight circular stroll through our small backyard, but no matter how many miles I clocked, there was no escaping what our world had become.

Not even when I attempted a different escape, by reading travel books.

As spring settled in, I perched myself in the sun room, where I often like to read and to write in my notebook. Three of the room’s four walls are almost entirely windows—I looked out into our neighborhood’s portion of the world, but I couldn’t leave. I hoped that the perfect pandemic respite might be A Time of Gifts, the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated account of his nearly two-year hike across Europe from 1933 to 1935. Fermor’s then nineteen-year-old self began this grand adventure almost as a lark. Up until then, he had led a rather aimless life, getting kicked out of one school after another, not because he wasn’t a first-rate student (even at that young age he was something of a polymath), but because he was the sort of fellow who chaffed under rules and regulations. So, his almost offhanded inspiration to walk across Europe—from the Netherlands to Constantinople—made a kind of supreme sense: he would be on his own, could take any route he wished as he encountered the world in ways that left far behind the strictures of a classroom and the expectations of others.

He was so eager to leave his old life behind that he began the trek in December of 1933, the coldest possible month to begin such a journey. But Fermor was possessed of boundless pluck and charm and made friends everywhere, whether it be day laborers or famers or gypsies, or wealthy families who were willing to put him up for a week or so in exchange for his growing cache of travel stories, and his boundless curiosity about their lives.

After walking through the Netherlands, he crossed the border into a Germany already affected by Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor a mere year before. Hitler’s worst was far ahead, but already there were ominous inklings of that terrible future. His first day in Germany, Fermor came upon the unsettling transformation of the border town of Goch: “The town was hung with Socialist Nationalist flags and the window of an outfitter’s shop next door held a display of Party equipment: swastika arm-bands, daggers for the Hitler Youth, blouses for Hitler Maidens and brown shirts for grown-up S.S. men.”

Weeks later, having been offered a few days of hospitality by a middle-class German family, Fermor listened one evening to his hosts’ unsettled dinner conversation:

Hitler cropped up. The professor’s widow couldn’t bear him: such a mean face! And that voice! Both the others were against him too, and the whole Nazi movement: it was no solution to Germany’s problems; and wrong . . . the conversation slid into a trough of depression. (I divined that it was a theme of constant discussion and that they were all against it, but in different ways and for different reasons. It was a time when friendships and families were breaking up all over Germany.)

One night at a village inn, a Nazi sympathizer divined that Fermor was English and began an increasingly angry political rant until pulled away. In another town Fermor befriended a working-class drinking companion until he discovered the young man had decorated his rented room as “a shrine of Hitleriana.”

Finally Fermor crossed the border from Germany to Austria, but the night he arrived in Vienna he almost immediately encountered raging street battles. “‘It must be the Nazis again,’” a woman beside him announced. “‘They’re always shooting at people, throwing bombs, starting fires!’” Indeed, it proved to be the latest clash between anti-fascist labour unions and Austrian Nazi sympathizers.

Though Fermor had arrived penniless in the middle of this chaos, with his usual charming adaptability he raised money on the calmer streets by drawing strangers’ portraits for a modest fee.

At the end of A Time of Gifts, when Fermor crossed into Czechoslovakian territory and entered the Slavic cultural world, I felt a palpable sense of relief, glad to leave behind the disquieting influence of the Germanic countries. In 1934 Europe was just five years away from the onset of World War II, and it contained too many echoes of present-day America. For three years we’ve endured the imposition of a Muslim travel ban, White supremacist violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere, the caging of Central American immigrant children after separating them from their families, and an unparalleled governmental venality and disrespect for the rule of law nearly impossible to keep track of. Sometimes, the grim turn from the past to the future works in seeming slow motion.

If I was hoping for a little breather in Fermor’s second travel volume, Between the Woods and the Water—in which he continued his epic hike, through Hungary to the border of Bulgaria—I was quickly disappointed. Before I had read halfway through, the ruthless public murder of George Floyd set the US aflame with this latest injustice of a seemingly endless litany of injustices towards Black citizens and their bodies and souls. Once again, Fermor’s journey of almost ninety years ago had something to say about the turmoil of our country in this bedeviled year of 2020.

Although Fermor carried with him throughout his journey a set of notebooks, which he filled with the details of his adventures, he didn’t begin formally writing his travel trilogy until he reached his sixties. So the books’ narrative voice criss-crosses back and forth, from the immediacy of Fermor’s various encounters on the road so long ago, to the seasoned eye of a much older man who knows how the story ends:

Every part of Europe I had crossed so far was to be torn and shattered by the war; indeed, except for the last stage before the Turkish frontier, all the countries traversed by this journey were fought over a few years later by two mercilessly destructive powers; and when war broke out, all these friends vanished into sudden darkness. Afterwards the uprooting and destruction were on so tremendous a scale that it was sometimes years after the end of it all that the cloud became less dense and I could pick up a clue here and there and piece together what had happened in the interim. Nearly all of them had been dragged into the conflict in the teeth of their true feelings and disaster overtook them all.

Disaster could easily overtake our own country, even more than the crushing calamities we’ve already endured, as the current resident of the White House condones the violence of private militias attacking protestors, hosts rallies of unmasked crowds that then become virus super-spreader events, tries to hobble the United States Post Office in order to steal the coming election, and even refuses to say whether, if defeated, he will or will not accept the election’s result.

The future will soon be upon us, and not in slow motion. Voting, it seems, is our remaining, thin line of defense against disaster overtaking us all.

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September 26th, 2020 by admin

When the Future Becomes the Present

The photo looks like something you’d find in an old cardboard box, perhaps—the box hidden in a corner of an attic, or a closet, or a shelf in the shadows of a basement. The grainy yellowed photo captures twenty-two people—friends and relatives—gathered on a beach by the Adriatic Sea, the group caught for a second in the midst of eating and drinking, the children in high spirits. From the dress of the people in this grainy, yellowed photo, you might imagine this scene was captured around a hundred years ago, and you would be right. The date written in the right hand corner of this photo is July 25, 1914.

Three days later the young artist Béla Zombory-Moldován (he’s the fellow seated near the center of the photo, white-capped and suited, looking directly at the camera) decided to take a morning stroll along the shore, in order to walk off the after-effects of yet another summer party. He paused to take in “the mirror-flat water stretching to infinity. It was sleeping calmly now, though it was capable of such cruelty; even so, I loved it. I could never have enough of this beauty.” But soon after this moment a figure appears in the distance. Béla, watching him approach, has “no inkling that the course of my life would be decided in the next few minutes.”

What changed his life was the news that Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, effectively initiating World War I. In a month Béla, newly conscripted into the army, will barely survive one of the war’s first battles, a virtual massacre when Russian artillery cut down over 100,00 Austro-Hungarian soldiers in Galicia (now a portion of Poland).

Béla eventually wrote a memoir of those days, yet never finished it, and only many years later did his grandson discover the manuscript and translate it into English as The Burning of the World. In his introduction, Peter Zombory-Moldovan writes:

Béla’s birthplace, on April 20, 1885, was the small and ancient city of Munkács, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It lay in the east of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria and holy apostolic king of Hungary.

The Carpathians are still there. All the rest is gone.

I read Zombory-Moldovan’s memoir in 2015, in anticipation of a trip to Budapest. Those were days long before the botched response to the Coronavirus pandemic carved a hole out of our daily lives, before the deaths of 170,000 people (so far) in the U.S. alone, before we were caught in an economic collapse far worse than the Great Recession, and before the last-straw public murder of a black citizen, George Floyd, set off a nationwide protest against the structural racism of our society—a protest that insists there will be no going back to the way things were.

I think all of us now harbor a moment from this year when we realized, past the point of any denial, that the world had changed. Vassily Grossman, author of the novel Stalingrad, captures with uncommon and unsettling power a crucial moment in World War II, and the growing rift between the past and the future.

[A] clearly audible voice pronounced with awful certainty, “Comrades, Germany has attacked the Soviet Union. Everyone to the airstrip!”

Soon after this came a moment that lodged itself in Novikov’s memory with a particular sharpness and precision. As he hurried after the pilots dashing towards the airstrip, he stopped in the middle of the garden where only a few hours earlier he had gone for a stroll. There was a silence, during which it seemed that everything was unchanged: the earth, the grass, the benches, the wicker table under the trees, a card chessboard, dominoes still lying scattered about. In that silence, with a wall of foliage shielding him from the flames and smoke, Novikov felt a lacerating sense of historical change that was almost more than he could bear. It was a sense of hurtling movement, similar perhaps to what someone might experience if they could glimpse, if they could sense on their skin and with every cell of their being, the earth’s terrible hurtling through the infinity of the universe. This change was irrevocable, and although only a millimeter lay between Novikov’s present life and the shore of his previous life, there was no force that could cancel out this gap. The gap was growing, widening; it could already be measured in meters, in kilometers. The life and time that Novikov still sensed as his own were already being transformed into the past, into history, into something about which people would soon be saying, ‘Yes, that’s how people lived and thought before the war.’ And a nebulous future was swiftly becoming his present.

I think most people today reading Grossman’s words can hear, in the growth of that widening gap, our own recent experiences, that “only a millimeter” moment when it became clear the Covid-19 pandemic, once troubling news happening elsewhere, was now firmly lodged and expanding in our own lives.

In these smart phone camera-crazy days nearly all of us, I’m sure, has a “lost world” photo commemorating one of our last pre-Covid social events.

I have my own photo that rivals Zombory-Moldován’s. I snapped this photo in the Cervejaria Trindade, in Lisbon, on Friday, March 6 of this year, during the writing residency of the Vermont College International MFA in Creative Writing and Translation. There we all sat, students and faculty crowded together on a long table, and if you look closely, you can see further tables in another room, all packed. Behind us, a long line of people waited, and not so patiently, for a table to open up. No one wore a mask—in those days, who even had them? What pleasure we took in each other’s company, unaware of the abrupt changes later in the month, when we all returned home and could no longer trust even the simple air we breathed, which was possibly rife with virus droplets.

That March 6, back in the U.S., New York had only 44 confirmed cases. Five days later, on March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the spreading Covid-19 virus a “pandemic,” my wife Alma and I had left Lisbon and were preparing to give a joint reading in Brussels. Our “the world has changed” moment came when our daughter called us in the middle of the night, warning us of the immanent cancellation of flights from Europe to the U.S., leading us to a mad-cap rush to the Brussels airport in a 3 AM rainstorm.

When the course of an individual’s life is suddenly and decisively altered, how can one accept wholeheartedly any appearance of calm later in life, or shed the fear that behind the ordinary lurks chaos? People who have survived serious car crashes, debilitating illness, or the sudden loss of a loved one know the difficult path that follows, when perhaps never again is there any true relaxing.

What happens when millions share a sharp division from one world to another? Will we be able to give each other strength, or will we be held back by our collective wounds? The U.S. scorecard so far is less than promising. Even after something declared “normalcy” is eventually achieved, how will our individual and collective inner lives adapt, how will we birth ourselves into a future we can bear to live in?

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August 21st, 2020 by admin

Writing Is the Work of Discovery

Over the past year I’ve been reading, and rereading, a page or so at a time, one of the best books on the process of writing that I’ve ever encountered.

That book is Several short sentences about writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. I recommend this book to every writer, budding or established.

What Klinkenborg gets so right is his attention, at the granular level of composition, to the interaction between thinking and writing, and the acts of discovery that arise for any writer who thinks deeply about his or her developing words on the page.

But first, a writer needs to let go of a certain amount of baggage:

The central fact of your education is this:
You’ve been taught to believe that what you discover by thinking,
By examining your own thoughts and perceptions,
Is unimportant and unauthorized.
As a result, you fear thinking,
And you don’t believe your thoughts are interesting,
Because you haven’t learned to be interested in them.

There’s another possibility:
You may be interested in your thoughts,
But they don’t have much to do with anything you’ve
ever been asked to write.

. . . What we’re working on precedes genre.
For our purposes, genre is meaningless.
It’s a method of shelving books and awarding prizes.

As you can see from the above examples, Klinkenborg often divides his sentences into what look like lines of poetry. He does this, I think, to emphasize the structure of his sentences, and therefore his thinking. It also allows readers to pause at their own pace, as they take in his insights.

This tactic also makes it easier, I’ve found, to dip into the book at any point, and immediately find something of value, such as this nugget:

Anything you think you need to write—
Or be “inspired” to write or “get in the mood” to write—
Becomes a prohibition when it’s lacking.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
All you really need is your head, the one indispensible requirement.

This section especially spoke to me. It reminded me of one of the times when I struggled with my writing (just one of the times—at least this writer has grappled all my life with the task of shaping my words into a state of readability). In 1980, I lived in the small village of Kosangbé, in Ivory Coast, West Africa, where I had accompanied my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, on her first stint of research among the Beng people.

I, however, am not an anthropologist, I’m a writer. In the beginning of that year among the Beng, I was forced to adjust to certain living conditions in the village.

All Beng villages are structured this way: each family lives in a compound—four or-five small, mud-brick buildings that surround a central, open courtyard. Most of the living during the day takes place in this open courtyard.

Here’s a map of a Beng compound in the village of Asagbé, where Alma and I lived in 1993:

As you can see, this compound isn’t protected by a wall or fence or gate. There’s always ample space between the buildings of any Beng compound, so any person strolling from one end of a village to the other walks through various neighbors’ compounds—which is, essentially, akin to walking through a series of living rooms.

All of the above may explain why there is no word for privacy in the Beng language.

My initial reaction to the Beng’s very present social world, whenever I needed to write, was to remain in our two-room, mud-brick house and work at my desk. A Beng friend, Yacouba, quickly advised me not to do this, as it would raise great suspicions among our neighbors. Any person who tries to avoid others is distrusted, as they must be up to no good. The misuse of spiritual power—specifically, what would be called witchcraft by the West—is a great concern among the Beng people.

So, every morning, I hauled my small desk out of the house and into the compound, where everyone could see what I was doing.

This solution created its own problem.

Remember, the Beng have no word for privacy. There was no way to be invisible in the lively back-and-forth of the compound. Women pounded yams with large mortars and pestles, children ran about playing games or running errands, elders from other compounds dropped by to chat with anyone who might be interested, someone might arrive with juicy village gossip, and because the Beng are a ritually polite people, everyone arriving had to say Hello.

Saying hello is a complicated procedure in Beng culture. Alma and I spent much of our first months among the Beng simply learning how to say hello properly. Hello requires a call-and-response of several exchanges, and the wording changes depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon or night, or whether a man greets another man, or a woman greets a man, or . . . you get the idea. So many possible variations. The entire process takes at least a half-minute to go through, and I must have responded to a hundred or more greetings a day.

A lot of interruptions for a writer trying to breathe a little life into his inert prose.

I accepted my place in the compound and its conditions. After all, Alma and I were guests among the Beng. We tried our best to behave as a proper Beng person might.

But those interruptions. Sitting exposed in the compound, I could never snag more than a few minutes to myself. My typewriter sat before me as more of a metal lump than a machine I could tap at.

Yet during that year I managed to complete a few short stories, and numerous letters. So what happened?

Philip Graham writing in the village of Asagbé, 1985.

Eventually I learned to write in two-minute increments. Whenever a spare moment arrived, I offered myself to my imagination and dashed off a sentence or phrase in my notebook, or pounded out a sentence on the typewriter. All I needed, to paraphrase Klinkenborg, was my head—and the incentive to take advantage of every gift of quiet that came my way.

In so doing, I learned through trial and error what Klinkenborg advises so eloquently:

You have no idea what you’re going to say
Until you discover what you want to say
As you make the sentences that say it.
Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise.
Writing is the work of discovery.

That hard-won ability to jump from one to sixty MPH turned out to be a great blessing once I returned home to the U.S. Since then I’ve carried a notebook with me everywhere. I am always scribbling away in one, knowing that much of what I write down will not necessarily be used, but will at least lead me, eventually, to something that can be.

Or, to quote Verlyn Klinkenborg once again:

How do you begin to write?
. . . You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.

**

To learn how I eventually discovered a Beng solution to extend that two-minute window reserved for inspiration, you can read this excerpt from Parallel Worlds.

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January 5th, 2020 by admin