Recently one of my students mentioned in class that she felt she included too much detail in her stories, that she never knew how to focus on what to keep and what to leave out.

I responded that she did indeed know how to do this, and that she did so every minute of every day. Our field of vision is filled with innumerable detail, but we have learned to focus on what is most important before us: the person who is speaking, or a car driving past recklessly, a tree especially blazing with color, the sound of unexpected footsteps. Everything else fades into the background, if only momentarily. If we couldn’t continually improvise this ongoing dance of focusing and filtering, we wouldn’t be able to survive.

The Italian writer Alberto Moravia has written a wonderful short story, “All-Seeing,” about a man who loses this capacity to filter, and what this loss does to his life. It’s from a collection with the overly dramatic English title Command and I Will Obey You (much more exciting than the original Italian Una Cosa e una Cosa–which I guess might translate as something like, One Thing After Another).

In this story, a man declares that “I am worried by my growing and irresistible capacity for seeing several things at the same moment, that is, by my all-seeingness.”

He continues: “One day, as I was walking along a street, I distinctly heard a voice calling me: “Lucio!” I stopped. looked up, and and found myself staring at the façade, all green glass and brown metal, of a very modern building. Then as my glance traveled up over the glossy surface, I became suddenly aware that I was seeing, simultaneously, everything that was going on behind all the windows of the building. This plurality of vision had, as I immediately felt, a significance which was, to say the least, disconcerting: since I saw everything, I was unable, in fact, to isolate, to distinguish anything.”

Life goes from bad to worse for poor Lucio. His telephone out of order, he slips into the jewelry shop next door to make a call and he sees “one by one, all the minute objects that filled the showcases, each of them in its own little box of red morocco lined with white silk.” He sees the clock and the framed pictures on the wall, the Chinese vase on an ebony stand, an open safe, and the dead body of his neighbor, Alessio, who had been robbed minutes before. He sees all of this equally, and so misses the drama of his friend’s murder.

Later, at a picnic in the park with his wife, the sights and sounds of nature are of equal importance to him as a nearby car crash, and his lack of reaction appalls his wife, who thinks he’s become a monster. She then embarks on a love affair, and when once Lucio walks in on the lovers he sees everything in the room and yet sees nothing amiss. His lack of concern further enrages his wife, who divorces him. Then on he continues with his life, where all that he encounters seems “equally worthy of attention, equally important.”

Unlike Lucio, everyone else enjoys the unconscious talent of filtering out the trivial and concentrating on what most demands attention. When a writer works to become more conscious of this ability, then the dilemma of choosing significant detail for a story, or a significant memory for an essay, begins to lose some of its daunting mystery. Simply (simply!) adapt what you already know how to do in your daily life and apply it to the page.

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March 28th, 2010 by admin

That’s The Way Fire Is

When J.M.G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008, I’m sad to have to admit that I was one of those who wondered, “Who the hell is he?”

I read a good deal of international literature, and so I was surprised his name had never crossed my path. Well, my fault, my shame, not his! His novel Desert, which I’ve just finished reading, won the Grand Prix Paul Morand by the Académie Française in 1980 and was an international bestseller. Set mainly in the Sahara, it’s an extraordinary novel, one that is written in such a way as to evoke a different culture’s sense of time, of history, of a particular way of looking at the world. It’s a book that asks a reader, with gentle authority, to slow down and pay a different sort of attention.

One of my favorite moments is when the main character, a young girl named Lalla, watches an old man nurse a fire to life:

“Then he lights the fire with his tinderbox, being very careful to place the flame on the side where there is no wind. Naman is very good at building fires, and Lalla watches his every move closely, to learn. He knows how to find just the right place, neither too exposed, nor too sheltered, in the hollow of the dunes.

“The fire starts up and then goes out two or three times, but Naman doesn’t really seem to notice. Every time the flame dies, he roots around in the twigs with his hand, without being afraid of getting burned. That’s the way fire is; it likes people who aren’t afraid of it. So then the flame leaps up again, not very strong at first; you can barely see the tip of it glowing between the branches, then suddenly it blazes up around the whole base of the bonfire, throwing out a bright light and crackling abundantly.”

That’s the way fire is; it likes people who aren’t afraid of it.

This, I think, is the central moment in the novel. Lalla is watching to learn how to start a fire, but what she’s really learning is not to be afraid of its danger and, expanding this lesson, not to be afraid of danger in general. It’s a lesson learned that enables Lalla to survive the future twists and turns of her life.

That’s the way fire is; it likes people who aren’t afraid of it.

This sentence and in fact the entire passage can also be read as a fairly straightforward metaphoric description of the process of writing: the quiet struggle one goes through to bring the work alive, the patience required, but most of all the strength one needs to face a story’s secret dangers, its as yet unrealized revelations. Root around in what can’t be seen, suppress your fear of failure, then fan those invisible fires that, with a little luck, will further fuel your imagination.

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March 12th, 2010 by admin