Farewell Bernardo Sassetti

In the late fall of 2006, during the year I lived in Lisbon with my family, we took a short trip up to the town of Coimbra. While there, I came upon a small but overstuffed record store, the kind I remember from my childhood, and I immediately made a beeline to the Portuguese music section—I was always looking for new music of this country I loved. One of my best discoveries was Do Outro Lado, a CD of symphonic jazz by the saxophonist Carlos Martins. This is lush and soulful music that I still play obsessively. One of the guiding forces behind the music was Bernardo Sassetti, the Portuguese pianist, arranger, and composer, and I began to seek out his own music.

Sassetti had many CDs to his credit, solo and with a trio, musical scores for films, and among my favorites, his collaboration with fellow jazz pianist Mário Laginha, four hands of extraordinary jazz improvisation.

Every song is a highlight, though perhaps my favorite is Sassetti and Laginha’s version of the classic “Take the A Train.” It’s a slow, dreamy vamp, sexy and reflective at the same time, and filled, it seems to me, with the nostalgia the Portuguese call saudade.

Last week a dear friend from Lisbon, Fernanda Pratas, wrote to tell me that Bernardo Sassetti had died on May 10th, at the age of 41. Besides being an accomplished musician and composer, Sassetti was also a photographer of some note, and he died from a fall while shooting pictures on the edge of a cliff at Guincho, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He left behind a wife, the actress Beatriz Batarda, and two young daughters.

In 1980 I was living in a remote village in Ivory Coast when news came over our battery-run radio that John Lennon had been shot and killed. None of the villagers had heard of him, or the Beatles, and I remember how my wife Alma and I had felt so alone, with no one able to share or understand our sadness at this great musician’s tragic passing. I feel something of this despair today, since Bernardo Sassetti is virtually unknown in the U.S., though he is famous in Portugal and throughout Europe. What a loss Sassetti’s death is, though no one I know here realizes that. So I thought, as an homage, I would present some of his music.

Here Sassetti performs the theme he composed for the movie Alice. You can hear some of the delicacy and harmonic boldness of his playing, a direct line from Bill Evans, but touched with something else, I think, the saudade I mentioned earlier, a complicated emotion of loss and love and longing that has no English equivalent.

In this next video, Sassetti joins with the revered fado singer Carlos do Carmo, for the song “Cantigas de Maio,” composed by the great José Afonso. Here Sassetti’s piano seems to echo the twelve-string Portuguese guitar, the traditional accompaniment for fado singers. Portuguese jazz has its roots in fado (considered the blues of Portugal), and these two remarkable musicians give this influence a deeply felt modern update.

I hesitate to recommend this final video, it has evoked tears in me more than once. It’s a television interview with Mário Laginha the day after Sassetti’s death, and Laginha’s deep sadness is barely contained. I wondered why he would agree to speak publicly so soon after his dear friend and collaborator’s death, until Laginha sits at the piano and plays a song, one from the four handed improvisations CD I mentioned above. The song is “Despedida,”—Farewell—and Laginha plays his part, while Sassetti’s, of course, remains silent.

Click to view video:
Mário Laginha pays homage to Bernardo Sassetti

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May 26th, 2012 by admin

Possible Adventures

About two years ago I began to get in the habit every Monday of asking my undergraduate creative writing students if anyone had an adventure over the weekend, or done anything that might be considered unusual. I sometimes accompanied this with a little light teasing: “You guys are young, the perfect time to go out and have an adventure,” and so on. Often my students simply stared at me as if I were crazy.

I hoped my question might lead to students easing out of their comfort zone and perhaps finding new subject matter to write about. As every writer who has taught an undergraduate fiction workshop knows, there’s a certain inevitable amount of stories that will come your way about dying grandparents, or stories about breakups or hooking up in bars, an unwanted pregnancy or bad roommates. The students are searching for subject matter, and these are the old standbys. Or they try out genre fiction, modeling their narratives on fictional worlds they know intimately from television or the movies.

I’m not the sort of teacher who restricts what students can write for my class. I’ve come to believe that young writers need to write what matters to them, that working through their individual passions can lead them to a deeper understanding of why they want to write in the first place. I’ve also found that if I impose one “No” on subject matter in class, students tend to hear that No reverberate, and hear other No’s elsewhere and so cut off possible paths, possible risk taking in their writing. So, if I was good about not imposing a No, how could I, perhaps, also offer a Yes?

Sometimes a student would come to my office a little flustered, confessing that he or she had no clue what to write about, and I’d always say (guided by Flannery O’Conner’s wry observation that anyone who has survived his or her childhood has enough material for a lifetime), “Tell me about your family. What does your dad, your mom do, tell me about your aunts and uncles, your grandparents.” After a little skeptical silence, I’d start to hear some family tidbits, and when I’d hear something like, “And then my dad has an older sister, but we never talk to that side of the family,” I’d pounce: “Oh, why not?” And soon enough, the student realized he had three or four dramatic vignettes he could try to transform into fiction.

These were individual victories, but they didn’t affect the larger class. So last fall, I began sending out emails to students each Thursday alerting them to interesting nearby events taking place outside the usual bubble of the university that might offer them new topics from which they might create fictions: a stamp collectors show, a Civil War reenactment, a Japanese tea ceremony, an “owl prowl,” or a barrel horse racing competition.

Very few students took the bait. So this spring semester I decided to make going on an adventure (and writing up a two page report) a requirement for my two classes, a beginning and an advanced fiction workshop. At first, the idea of venturing outside the university comfort zone met some resistance, a sort of sullen and unspoken Why are you making us do this? And a certain fear, I think, a reluctance to venture into the unknown.

I kept sending out emails each Thursday with announcements I’d gleaned from the local newspaper. Weeks passed, and then one student, who grew up in suburban Chicago, went to a local agricultural fair, donned a shoulder length glove, and extended her arm into the surgically-sculpted open window of a cow’s stomach. Another attended a roller derby game, and wrote this:

“I wish I could feel the freedom these women possess, and have the ability to use my body in a way that may not be seen as ladylike, damning the consequences. A few bruises here and there would be worth it to feel truly alive, working together with a team, completely unknown and free from worry of what I look like. No one dare tell a roller derby girl she’s fat: that body is meant for use. Society has no hold on them; they are above the petty, competing glances at the thighs of another woman.”

At the beginning of class I’d read out loud some students’ short adventure essays, and this seemed to serve as inspiration. By the end of the semester, my students were enthusiastic adventure seekers, and many went out on two or more (extra credit!), to a small town’s barn auction, or a pet cemetery, a free Afro-Cuban jazz concert, or an Edible Book arts festival. One student, Trent Lorenz, went with his mother (Mom’s Weekend) to a vintage button show, and she is now directing him to some family history:

“My mom is making me look through my late great aunt’s old buttons. She kept a lot of them because it was in her Polish blood to waste not. I’m hoping there are some hidden gems in there, considering she was born in 1912. As of right now, I’m thinking of doing something with this adventure. Maybe something along the line of Robert Olen Butler’s “Wish You Were Here” postcard book, because I was told that buttons tell the story of our past one little piece at a time, and that their pictures depict historic events that should be appreciated as art but are often overlooked. I think I’ll need to collect more buttons for these stories, but I also think I have a good start.”

Another student attended the Hindu Holi festival of spring, where crowds throw colored powder at each other (the celebration on our campus included hundreds of pounds of color, a DJ, live music, water guns, and Indian food):

“They laughed with me, danced with me to the live band, chased me and let me chase them, all the while with paint flying about! For a brief moment of my eighteen-year-old life, I felt my youth coming back: the little child that is still not done playing tag and climbing trees. It feels so bittersweet to think of my inner-kid. I really, really miss the fun I got to have before things like responsibilities, opinions, judgments and hormones got in the way. Society put the lid on my inner child’s expressionism. It was so very nice to get to be a kid again. Quite frankly, it didn’t matter what thoughts or opinions you had of Holi so long as you were friendly and open to getting hugged by complete strangers trying to mask you in green. I absolutely loved every moment of it. It was worth earning the nickname “Colors” at work.”

Another student attended a game at the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament: “A surprising part of the game was the physicality of the play. The chair seemed to be in no way a hindrance for testosterone charged physicality between players. The fouls were flying and they looked painful too. Players would run their chairs into each other and at times even tip each other over because of the force of the hit. When this would happen the downed player always got up without the help of their teammates, opponents, or the ref. I thought this was the most incredible part of the game because of the amount of power it must take to flip one’s self (as well as a wheelchair) up off the ground using hands and arms.”

Finally, two students went together to a white Victorian House in town that dubs itself The School of Metaphysics, to attend a showing of a contemporary artist’s film about premonitions in dreams.

These two students turned out to be the entire audience, and while there they were served tea and cookies. One student summed up the adventure this way:

“Overall, there were two things that I really enjoyed about the experience. One was this new stimulus to consider dreams and just how they can be guided to make them productive. The other was much more unique and enjoyable. It was that feeling of peering into someone else’s life, namely Dr. Pam and her assistant. This was something they really believed in and devoted a good amount of time to. It is hard to explain, but I love that feeling of seeing a real life, not the kind you see in stories, not the kind you see in movies. The kind that on the surface would look absolutely unremarkable, but yet isn’t. It is genuine, unmarred by greed or a desire for anything but to help others by spreading what they see as a powerful tool to improve one’s life. This is such a break from the standard modern life that I have been a part of. There was a certain beauty to it, and I believe that this is what I appreciated most.”

Another benefit of these adventures was that my students arrived at a wider view of the surrounding community. Every week I posted four or five lively and unusual events taking place, the secret lesson being that the weird and wonderful can be found anywhere. A writer can take that lesson to the bank for the rest of his or her life.

Unfortunately, most of my students hesitated until the last month of the semester to experience an adventure, and so the benefit of new story ideas and possibilities wasn’t able to be attempted or realized in the class. For this coming fall semester I’m thinking of requiring students to have an adventure before mid-term, so that there will be more simmering time.

Often, writing instructors can grouse about the limited subject matter undergraduate students bring to the table in a writing workshop. But really, they’re just trying the best with what they think they have. At this late date in my teaching career, I think I may have managed to find a way to broaden my students’ outlook, to help them find mystery and surprise in unlikely corners and stories nearly everywhere.

Other posts of interest on the craft of writing:

The Way Narratives Go

What’s Structure Got to Do With It?

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May 14th, 2012 by admin

In Praise of Absence

I have long been an admirer of the landscape painters of the Chinese Sung Dynasty, who nearly a thousand years ago depicted the natural world as both dynamic and imbued with deep peace. The style of these contemplative, monumental canvases is perhaps best represented by Fan Kuan’s masterpiece, “Travellers Among Mountains and Streams.”

The stately rise of the mountain’s rounded forms dominates the silk canvas, but that thin white stream of a waterfall on the right soon focuses my attention as well, especially when I realize that the water’s descent is actually negative space, shaped by the dark ink on either side. Then, I’m pulled in by the sense of palpable distance the white swathes of mist create, an absence separating the foreground from the background. The scene seems so deeply inhabited by the artist’s gaze that I feel I’m somehow there too, in awe of this striking panorama. But where are those “travellers” mentioned in the title, anyway?

If you squint your eyes, you’ll make out a teeny line of dark shapes in the bottom right corner. Here’s a close-up (Click to enlarge. Really, click):

Even in this detail the travellers are overwhelmed by nearby trees on the minor promontory and those secondary cascades of the waterfall. From this perspective, it’s hard to tell where the pack animals end and the human beings begin. We are so small we’re nearly absent, this Sung Dynasty master shows us, and nature is so large.

Another Sung painter who has intrigued me is Ma Yuan, sometimes referred to as “one corner Ma,” because of a number of his paintings in which all the detail is kept to one corner or section, letting it be defined by the negative space of the rest of the canvas. In one of his classic works, “Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring,” a scholar contemplates the vast sky before him–marked only by a single bird–inviting us, perhaps, to also contemplate what can and cannot be seen.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 2-19-15    8.55.45 PM

Ma Yuan was an absolute master in shaping absence, defining what can be seen out of what cannot, as this detail from one of his paintings illustrates: a ridge or two, a few trees, a smattering of birds, and a vast space is elegantly and efficiently brought to life.

The extreme example above reminds me of the power of the space bar in writing—that empty space, sometimes punctuated by an asterisk or some other doodad, that separates sections of a short story, novel or essay. This empty space can connote the passage of time, or a change of narrative point of view, or a switch of locale, or sometimes a combination of all three. We can be reading, say, a narrative from a mother’s perspective taking place in the winter in New England, and then, with nothing more than the emptiness of a space bar, easily shift to the daughter’s point of view five years later, on a Florida beach. Take that, Ma Yuan!

But there are more ways to establish meaning, enhance a narrative’s drama, or deepen a character through absence. Often when we create, much is left behind in the revision and editing process, and yet what we have learned from what we have chosen not to display can assert itself, however subtly. Here’s a fine example described by the director Joel Cohen, from an interview in the book Moviemaker’s Master Class, by Laurent Tirard:

“The only time we do actual improvisation is during rehearsals, to bring certain things out, but that usually doesn’t affect the scene itself. What we’ll usually do is ask the actors to invent the parts of the scene that aren’t written, the five minutes that take place before and after the scene. We find that it helps them get into the scene better. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman liked to do that a lot on “The Big Lebowski.” And sometimes it was very funny. Actually, sometimes it was even better than what we wrote!”

Every scene we see in a movie, or read in a novel or memoir is surrounded by unexpressed scenes that take place prior to or just after the unfolding moment of drama before us and is shaped in some way by their offstage gravitational pull. Thinking about what leads up to the scene we are about to write can be especially helpful, as we can better imagine its dramatic trajectory.

The use of absence works for the development of characters as well. When Albert Brooks prepared for his role in the movie “Drive,” he wrote down an elaborate backstory for his creepy character. “I find it’s helpful just to know about things in your mind,” he said in an interview in The New York Times. “You can put it away. Because that’s what real people do. Real people walk into a room knowing where they’ve been the day before and what’s happening to them. It makes the present easier, if you know the past.” Behind the powerful intimidating gaze below is a world of the character’s past that Brooks has created inside himself, a past that viewers can’t see, though its effect can certainly be felt.

Even dialogue, that noisiest aspect of narrative, can benefit from absence. John Fowles, in his essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” described a moment when he couldn’t imagine what a character might next say in a scene in his then novel-in-progress, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. “I was struck this morning to find a good answer from Sarah at the climax of the scene. Characters sometimes reject all the possibilities one offers. They say in effect: I would never say or do a thing like that. But they don’t say what they would say; and one has to proceed negatively, by a very tedious coaxing kind of trial and error. After an hour over this one wretched sentence, I realized that she had in effect been telling me what to do: silence from her was better than any line she might have said.”

We writers, perhaps because the empty page can frighten or intimidate us, can make the mistake of concentrating too much on filling up the blank space, relying too heavily on the varied palette of our words to create fictional worlds or the memoryscape of a memoir. But intentional absence is powerful, the unspoken often loud, and what we cannot see may insist on our curious attention.

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March 17th, 2012 by admin

A Good Title Is Hard to Find

When the Kardashian sisters announced on their website that they were writing a novel, publisher William Morrow described the book as the story of “three gorgeous celebrity sisters, their complicated relationships with Hollywood, each other and the glamorous lives they lead in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.” I know, not much of a stretch. However, the sisters were apparently having trouble coming up with a good title, and so they decided to sponsor a contest for their novel-in-progress. On their website Kimmy Kardashian explained: “We thought it would be super fun if we asked our fans to name the book! We couldn’t decide on a title, and we know how creative you guys are.”

This contest was certainly a publicity stunt to generate interest in a ghost-written celebrity book event (eventually called Dollhouse) that was designed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Still, the Sisters K (now that might have been a good title) were on to something. Writing a book is hard, but sometimes coming up with the right title is harder.

Often, the words of the title are the last words a writer commits to in a short story, essay or a novel, and they can arrive only after some brain busting contemplation. Even the greatest writers have had to develop their titling instincts. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was originally All’s Well That Ends Well. And John Steinbeck’s original try for Of Mice and Men sounds as though he was ready to give it all up: Something That Happened. It’s hard to imagine anyone would be willing to crack the cover of a book with such a wan, decaffeinated title.

Other great books took quite a circuitous route before arriving at the moniker with which we’re all familiar. For example, The Great Gatsby had eight working titles, none of them very promising:

Incident at West Egg
Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
Trimalchio
Trimalchio in West Egg
On the Road to West Egg
Gold-hatted Gatsby
The High-bouncing Lover
Under the Red White and Blue

In retrospect, it’s easy to laugh at early title drafts because the final choice is so apt it’s hard to entertain any alternate. And yet, all authors have to finally arrive at that perfect title, and sometimes the ones we jettison along the way help get us there. Eric Puchner, writing in The Rumpus, says “when it comes to the writing process, sometimes a bad title can help you more than a good one . . . I’ve heard students tell me they come up with their titles first, before they have the slightest notion of a plot. I see nothing wrong with this, so long as they’re willing to give up their ‘creative title’ when it no longer serves the story.”

In other words, even an inadequate title can lead you into the mysterious territory of the as yet unwritten. Eventually, as an initial title’s power weakens, and grows dim, this is the sign to search for another, or to patiently wait for a new one to appear out of the ongoing writing. The title isn’t merely a billboard advertising your product, it is inextricably linked to the ongoing creation of your story or essay.

So why do titles seem to be the neglected stepchild of workshop discussions? Rarely is the efficacy of a title examined at length in writing workshops. In all my years of teaching, I can recall just a few really detailed discussions of the title of the work in question. Most often, the title isn’t mentioned at all. Yet titles often pull far more than their weight in a reader’s experience and understanding of a literary work, and in myriad ways they can give depth and, for prose writers, come the closest we ever get to writing poetry. An apt title can be an x-ray of your story’s hidden heart, expanding the possibilities of all that remains unsaid.

I think one reason why few people bring up this issue in workshop is that, since we’ve all been through the agonies of drawing out a title that refuses to be found, we understand how personal the process is. I wonder if other writers feel on some unconscious level that finding a title is a conversation best kept between a writer and her story or essay or novel. In some ways, it’s like the intimate process of naming a child. Naming a child might actually be easier, though every parent probably remembers poring for days, even weeks through one of those How To Name Your Child books. Though this may be one of the most important acts of titling you’ll ever do in your life, when all is said and done, as a last resort you can always name your unborn son after Uncle Bob. Try doing that with a novel: Bob. Not so catchy.

As with naming our children, we’re uncomfortable if a work of art goes too long without a title; something seems wrong, incomplete. I remember the horror I felt when friends of mine told me that, two weeks later, they still hadn’t named their infant daughter. To me, it seemed as if the child was still waiting to be born.

Similar to naming a child, with a title you’re naming a work of art that is at the same time a part of yourself, offering that hitherto unknown territory within you some definition, a sly definition that has built within it more than one interpretation, so that this title, this work of art, will find a place outside you.

The great Brazilian writer, Clarisse Lispector, had so much trouble coming up with the title of her last novel that she listed, on the frontispiece, the thirteen possibilities she had entertained while writing.

(Click to enlarge image)

Some of these are clearly working titles, ideas about the book she was writing, about a sickly and naïve working class shop girl in northern Brazil. In some, the author seems to be recording her despair about the writing process itself. And yet, in the end, she chose a title that captures the attention with its poetry, and yet explains nothing—for that, you have to read the book: The Hour of the Star. It’s typical of Lispector to share her frustration about the process of finding a title. In this novel in particular she comments on the proceedings, including a wonderful passage in which she tries for several pages to decide whether or not she should let one of the characters, who has been hit by a car, die or not. So in a sense, that title page is true to the book’s spirit, which is in many ways about authorial creation and indecision.

The website Better Book Titles offers the snarky literary equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking. At this website, people can post alternate, more “accurate” titles for famous books.

Instead of The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde, this novel is now Never Stab a Magic Painting

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca becomes So I Married a Definite Wife-Murderer

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: This Fate Could Have Been Avoided If She had a Sassy Gay Friend

Melville’s Billy Budd: Jesus Would Not Last Long in the Navy

Ian McEwen’s Atonement: Kids Say the Darndest Things

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: Butlers Can’t Share Their Feelings

Dicken’s A Christmas Carol: Rich People Deserve Second Chances

There’s a truth that can be learned from this very incomplete list. These alternate titles are actually terrible (which is why they’re so funny) because they sum up the contents too well. They give too much away, like those trailers for movies we immediately know we’ll never see.

The best title serves as an ambiguous invitation. It should offer something true about your book that at the same time can’t quite be said. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, by Raymond Carver, is perhaps one of the more classic titles in recent American fiction. It has such an elegant structure, those two, nearly identical halves

What we talk about
When we talk about

culminating in the word love.

Nine words, and all but two (the repeated “about”) are monosyllables. The simplicity of the language echoes the short story collection’s aesthetic too, for this is of course a work of minimalist fiction. And yet that last word, love, complicates everything, maximalizes the title. “Love” is a big subject, and what we talk about, when we talk about it, is not clear from the title. You have to read the book to find out, and you can be sure that there won’t be only one “what,” connected to this bottomless subject. One way to get a better sense of the power of Carver’s title is to contemplate the variations you can find nearly anywhere.

“What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow” is the title for an excellent essay on the subject of prose rhythm by David Jauss, from his craft book Alone with All that Could Happen. But you can also find, with a quick Google search, What We Talk about When We Talk about

Raising taxes
The weather
Biotechnology
Not having kids
Seattle
Ron

These variations are all homages to the classic original, but they have little or none of the poetry (with the exception of the Jauss title); instead, they are informational, as they were intended to be. They narrow the focus of attention. Carver’s title in contrast opens it up, with an implied promise of multiple revelation. Carver, remember, was also a fine poet.

But titling fiction, nonfiction or poetry contains as infinitude of approaches, as well as dangers. An indifferent title can be your essay’s tombstone. An overly flashy title can be a garish neon sign that distracts from the goods in the window. And of course there is no single path to lead you to a final decision.

Sometimes, a title can also set up an anticipation that may or may not be met, which may ironically encourage the reader to see the complexities that can’t be contained by the title. A short story recently published by John Warner in the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter has a mouthful of a title: “Return to Sensibility Problems After Penetrating Captive Bolt Stunning of Cattle in Commercial Beef Slaughter Plant #5867: Confidential Report.” The dry, reportorial nature of this title is undermined by the voice of the narrator, an inspector who slowly becomes undone by the realities and ambiguities of dealing out death in the slaughterhouse–by the end, it becomes increasingly unlikely that this very official-sounding report will ever be submitted.

Gloria Sawai, in her collection The Song of Nettie Johnson, has another great stem-winder of a title, though its effects are quite different from the Warner story: “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.” This is a title that will capture your attention, and sets up a number of questions before you read the first sentence of the story. Is the narrator joking, or seriously delusional? Are we as readers meant to believe in this spiritual event? And if so, what the hell then happens after that wind arrives? Will Jesus behave like a gentleman?

Titles can be so elusive, so frustrating to pin down because they are a concentrated form of the originality and revelation we seek in our writing, the fragile creatures of our imagination that must be named, but not reduced. They must be named in a way that allows them to breathe, and to breathe in tandem with a reader. Sad to say, you’re not likely to be able to rely on your workshop mates for much help. Only you the author know just what secrets lie embedded in your text, just what distillation of words, in the guise of a title, might give those secrets voice, what might best represent the complicated freedom of your book’s irreducible self.

This post is an abridged version of a craft lecture (titled “To Kill a Great Gatsby in Cold Blood or, A Good Title Is Hard to Find”) that I first delivered at the Vermont College of Fine Arts on June 29, 2011. During the lecture, the audience and I collaborated on an entry for the Kardashian contest. We came up with Beyond Spanx, which, unfortunately, was not chosen.

For a personal account of an author struggling to find just the right title, see Erika Dreifus’ thoughtful essay “What’s in a Title?” at The Center for Fiction.

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January 29th, 2012 by admin

The Man Behind the Beard: Santa Confesses

The fall of 1974 wasn’t the best time for me, at least at first. The country was in deep recession, and in the past several months I’d been bouncing from one odd job to another: maintenance mechanic, newspaper truck driver, construction crew laborer, upholsterer’s apprentice, you name it. Then I took a job as a bartender in Tuckahoe, New York, in a mansion that had recently been converted into a dinner theater. The huge building had once been the home of Dutch Schultz, the 1930s gangster, and rumors flew among us about possible hidden passageways to ill-gotten loot. I should have been content with this gig, but in my second week I received word that I was a finalist for another job I’d applied for: a department store Santa. Why not? I thought, and went to the interview, where apparently some scrap of potential jolly peeked out of me, and I was offered one of the plum assignments: my own throne in the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in White Plains, New York. With only a little hesitation, I accepted. I was marking time anyway—in January I’d enter midyear into the graduate creative writing program at City College, where I’d eventually study with Frederick Tuten and Donald Barthelme—and I reasoned that I could always find work as a bartender. But how many opportunities would I have to play a Santa? Maybe I could get a story out of it.

Ten years later, in the fall of 1984 and on the eve of the release of my second book, The Art of the Knock: Stories, the editors at the Washington Post Sunday Magazine (who had recently published one of my short stories in their summer fiction issue) contacted me and asked if I had any holiday memories for an essay they might feature in the Christmas issue. Oh, I have a few, I’d replied.


Click cover to enlarge

The Man Behind the Beard: Confessions of a Department Store Santa

I sat nervously before a mirror in the employees’ dressing room of a large suburban department store: 23 years old and without a wrinkle, I was about to begin my first day as Santa Claus. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The week before I had been a mere bartender.

I started to dress by strapping a pillow around my waist with a length of rope which, when knotted, rubbed hard against my back. Then I pulled the baggy red pants up and around the pillow, and I tied the waist cord. Next came the jacket, also bulky. Finally, I fastened the wide black belt around my belly and put on the black boot fronts that fit over my shoes. Already I felt quite warm beneath the thick layers. I remembered when I had first dressed as Santa: in the employment agency I had stood sweating in the suit before the woman who interviewed me. She had cautiously asked me if I had ever flown in a helicopter before. “No,” I had said, somewhat surprised. “Well,” she had then asked, “would you mind flying in one?”

(more…)

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December 10th, 2011 by admin

The Hidden Face

“What we know of the face is a thin mask of frail, interconnected muscle fibers attached to a layer of fat and skin. What we recognize as the emotions and beauty of the face depend entirely on this mat of tissues.” The face is a mat of tissues? Not perhaps the best term to use if considering the profile of one’s beloved, but James Elkins, in his book How to Use Your Eyes, is less interested in romance and more in the nomenclature of emotions: “Because we attend so closely to people’s expressions, the face is full of names. Many skin folds have names, and there is a term for every curve in the ear and each turn of the nostrils.”

“It is interesting to encounter some of the names of facial features, because they turn the face into a kind of map,” Elkins says, yet even the illustration above, crowded with terms, is merely a beginning. There are over twenty-five names, for example, for the various parts of the ear, from the antihelix to the tragicus. Even this picture doesn’t do justice to a full mapping of the ear:

An ear is a fairly inexpressive portion of most faces, of course, but the muscles about our lips and eyes, and our cheeks, allow for the revelation of a world of hidden feeling. According to Daniel McNeill, the author of The Face, the nineteenth century French researcher Guillaume Duchenne developed a novel way of searching for these connections. He collected the heads of victims of the guillotine and attached live wires to the faces, to chart the range of expressions. He had to work fast, too, because death blunts the facial muscles after a few hours.

Modern researchers, McNeill points out, have favored less grisly methods of investigation. They simply filmed interviews with psychiatric patients, and toted up the expressions that rise to the surface of a patient’s face. In one five hour session, the patients revealed nearly 6,000 distinct expressions.

Does the English language have names for all of these? I don’t think so. Especially since many if not most of these expressions are subtle combinations of emotions that we do have words for, various stews of sweetness and calculation and worry and determination, all stirred together. Here we enter the territory of “nameless emotions,” as the film editor Walter Murch so eloquently labels this gray area of language.

So many words for the muscles of our faces, so many more that can’t encompass the emotive combinations those muscles produce as they respond to and reflect the even more complex landscape of human thought.

An inner landscape that is subtler still than the expressions it conducts throughout the day. This is perhaps especially true when in moments of great emotion we express ourselves at the rate of 160 words a minute. This observation combined with another, that the mind within a severed head remains conscious for a minute and a half after decapitation, inspired the fiction writer Robert Olen Butler to write his grim and haunting collection Severance, 62 fictions of 240 words that each express the passionate last gasp of the mind.

I remember in my early teens staring as this image from some history textbook of King Louis XVI’s newly severed head being displayed, seemingly regarding the raucous Parisian crowd, and I’d wondered what Louis might have thought of his celebrating former subjects.

According to Butler, the king’s mind looked mostly inward:

thrash and flurry in the undergrowth a bird a boar a stag the rush of wings of legs I lift a Charleville to my shoulder the musket cool to my hands I squeeze the trigger and feel heavily that half heartbeat of silence and then the cry and the kick of her, the night my bed I shudder the trees nearby I am alone at wood’s edge be a man the king my father says but I am not a man and I feel the beast there invisible in the dark—the beast of Gévaudan—he is far from Paris but he steps from the woods before me a wolf as big as a lion a hundred dead in the countryside he has passed by the animals of the field to savage a man or woman or child and he faces me and he lifts his ragged muzzle to the sky and howls liberty to kill, equality of death, fraternity of beasts and I wake and I am still a child my king’s horsemen are off slogging through the marshes of the Auvergne to find him but he is with me and I am king now and I pass the smoking musket to my man who hands me another and I shoot and shoot again and again and the bird falls and the boar and the stag but behind me is the beast and he seizes me by the head

In Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution, based on the short story by Eileen Chang, there comes a scene when Mr. Yi—a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese occupation in Shanghai during World War II—reflects alone on the death of his lover, Jiazhi, a death he himself ordered, when it was revealed that she was a spy who had planned for two years to betray him. At the penultimate moment, however, Jiazhi warned him of danger, which allowed his escape and her capture. In the film’s quiet last moments Yi’s face expresses a range of shifting sorrows.

Tony Leung is an accomplished actor, but he isn’t quite able to get across what the author Eileen Chang reveals of Yi’s thoughts in her original short story, thoughts that are much less romantic than what the movie implies:

“He was not optimistic about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy—without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively—as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead, she was his ghost.”

Our faces have evolved for eons in order to speak for us in addition to our words, but our thoughts turn a more supple interior gaze to a secret mirror of our own making, a hidden face whose features fiction writers, poets, and memoirists all struggle mightily to reveal.

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October 28th, 2011 by admin

How Many Selves Hide Inside Us?

Less than a week after I wrote “The Self Is Not Constant,” my latest post for this website, I came upon a TED talk by Shea Hembrey, a contemporary American artist. It’s perhaps the most extraordinary TED talk I’ve ever watched, and it dovetails nicely with my recent thoughts on the morphing self (and Hembrey will also teach you a trick or two about how to shoot flies with a BB gun).

Shea Hembrey spent some time traveling throughout Europe, attending one art biennial after another, and he found himself largely unmoved by a good bit of the work he encountered at those gatherings. His first idea was to create his own biennial, bring together a grouping of artists he admired. But the daunting logistics of contacting, organizing and presenting the work of a large number of, you might say, used or pre-owned artists, led him to another idea: he’d invent 100 artists, and present the varied work of those artist characters in an imaginary biennial.

And that’s what he did. Working for over two years, he came up with all those artists (106, actually, but six didn’t make the cut by the two curators he also invented) and their art, and the result is Seek, Hembrey’s biennial that is now collected into a hefty catalogue.

The art is amazingly varied: drawings, oil paintings, large installations, environmental art, videos, performance art, sculpture, photography, you name it. Hembrey has “found” a talented international array of artists, all of them born and bred–as he would say–in his head, heart and hands.

Here’s Hembrey at the TED talk introducing the work of an environmental artist who digs holes and then places giant mirrors at the bottom, to reflect the shifting canvas of the sky above (click to enlarge all photos).

And here he presents the work of a performance art duo who like to create “local traditions.” Here they are dancing in a cemetery in Tennessee, encouraging people to establish a ritual of dancing on the space that will one day host their graves.

Here’s the work of a South Korean artist, K. M. Yoon, a sculpture of stone and butterfly wings. “In flutterstone,” the catalogue states, “we are startled at seeing how the wings subtly rustle—a stone not of stasis, yet not going anywhere, just surely pulsing with life.”

And here’s a monumental installation piece by another of Hembrey’s invented artists:

And on and on it goes, one stunning work of art after another, each work created by yet another artist that Hembrey has created. What I’ve shown above is merely a small sliver of the artists Hembrey presents in his TED talk, which in turn only touches on a fraction of the artists that appear in his biennial catalogue. He’s the Fernando Pessoa of contemporary art, and like Pessoa he spins off and embodies the welter of voices within.

Like the poetry of Pessoa’s internal literary salon, Hembrey’s work utterly entrances me. I’m reminded of Stephen Marche’s masterpiece Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a faux-anthology of the writers of Sanjania, an island in the Atlantic ocean that doesn’t exist; or the multi-voiced novels of David Mitchell that burst with the weaving stories of a panoply of characters, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. So I was not surprised to hear of Hembrey’s longtime interest in narrative, which he describes in an interview at the Cool Hunting website:

“Coming from the rural South, I grew up with a rich storytelling tradition. And, the quirky, colorful characters that I grew up around made me see the world as a place filled with fascinating individuals. Then as an undergraduate, I was also an English major toying with the idea of becoming a novelist. So, yes, I have always been fascinated by narrative and strong individual characters.”

Don’t most writers, over the course of a career, create their own biennial of characters? I’ve written and published scores of short stories, and each main character within those stories has to come alive inside me, a new separate shard of my various selves given wing, in order for a story to finally begin to breathe its own breath. Writers transform the multiple selves within into works of art, characters who then may pace the stage of a reader’s mind.

Everyone in the world sails along a current of competing voices. Many of us ignore these, or try to shape the ones they’re aware of into the small shoe of a single self. Writers, and artists of all sorts, and really any quiet soul regardless of audience, are the ones who manage to discover those selves and learn how to release them.

When Hembrey is asked, in that same interview, “Does it get confusing being so many people?” he answers, “The sheer number of artists was hard to manage, so I had to focus on just a few people at a time to stay organized and productive. Once I understood an artist and had his or her voice, then they were largely autonomous and then after making their work, I spoke about and thought of them as individuals separate from me.”

Why do we do this, what generating force sets us on this task? Speaking for myself, perhaps, in the aftermath of a childhood drama, for years I’ve been reassembling the broken pieces inside. Or perhaps not. I doubt I’ll ever truly know. Everyone attempts to craft a life path toward what most matters to them, though the reasons why are not so easily discovered.

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September 25th, 2011 by admin

The Self Is Not Constant

When I first lived among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, at first I felt relieved to hear that the language of the Beng did not conjugate verbs. Thank goodness, I thought, what a friendly language—the ever-morphing ways of verbs had been my downfall with both French and Spanish. My relief didn’t last long, though, since Alma and I soon discovered that the Beng conjugate pronouns, not verbs (with a few exceptions—aren’t there always exceptions when it comes to language?).

So a different linguistic challenge confronted me: to adjust to the notion of a past tense I, a present tense I, and a future tense I, and to move with ease through such pronoun transformations in a conversation.

It wasn’t easy—for me, learning another language (and I’ve tried to learn four) is never easy. But the more I thought about it, the idea that a person, not the action, changes profoundly in time began to make more and more sense. Here are two photos that I think aptly illustrate the point, captioned in English and Beng.

He ran/E bé (E: the past tense of he; bé: run)

He will run/O bé (O: the future tense of he; bé: run)

Though running is an action replete with all the physical particularities of any individual moving through space (particularities that no language can completely encompass), I think one might safely assert that the different ages of the two runners above are where the deepest change has occurred. My five-year old self is different from my fifteen-year old self, is different from my thirty-year old self is different from my current (and newly minted) sixty-year old self.

So which “self” am I?

“The self is not constant,” the actress Thandie Newton says, in her recent TED talk, “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself.” Ms. Newton’s father is English, her mother Zimbabwean, and she spent a good deal of her early life negotiating a place within the two contrasting halves of her supposedly singular self.

What she eventually found was not one place to reside, but many, as she took on the challenges of inhabiting the characters she portrayed throughout her film career. “No matter how other these selves might be, they’re all related, in me,” she declares.

You bet! The essayist Carl H. Klaus could easily be offering a coda to Newton’s words when, in his marvelously varied collection The Made-Up Self, he observes, “The drama of one’s personality depends, after all, on the dramatis personae one is capable of performing.”

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa understood dramatis personae. He engaged in a life-long project of giving names, identities and different poetic oeuvres to his many inner voices, turning the contradictory selves most of us gloss over into a literary salon. As Álvaro de Campos, one of Pessoa’s accomplished inner selves, wrote:

I study myself but can’t perceive.
I’m so addicted to feeling that
I lose myself if I’m distracted
From the sensations I feel.

This liquor I drink, the air I breathe,
Belong to the very way I exist:
I’ve never discovered how to resist
These hapless sensations I conceive.

Nor have I ever ascertained
If I really feel what I feel.
Am I what I seem to myself—the same?

Is the I I feel the I that’s real?
Even with feelings I’m a bit of an atheist.
I don’t even know if it’s I who feels.

So why are we inclined to gloss over our multiple selves? Our language tells us to do so. The “self” is a pretty pushy little word, asserting in its seemingly modest but authoritative way that we are defined by a unitary identity, rather than a concatenation of competing facets, each catching and reflecting a different light, other possibilities. For me, the Beng view of identity, as a morphing property expressed through tense changes, is far more insightful than the meager, static definition offered by the English language. Something else the seemingly solid word “self” obscures is its own morphing history, since the Western notion of self has changed, radically so, over time, and Douglas Glover charts this expertly in his essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought.”

Recently, not long after watching the Thandie Newton TED talk, I came upon a rather extraordinary photo series featured in Guernica, “Self Study,” by the Iranian/American artist Natalie N. Abbassi, a series inspired by the dilemma of identity:

“It has always been a struggle for me to explain myself, who I truly am, and how I should or shouldn’t act in culturally diverse situations. Occasionally I feel confused, proud, and even awkward about how to deal with the differences of my two halves. Am I Iranian? Am I American? Should I be Muslim from my father or Jewish from my mother?”

Abbassi approaches this struggle by photographing her two halves as buddies, engaging in daily activities—driving, playing cards, or running—side-by-side yet each maintaining her defining characteristics. Would that we all could look into the imperfect mirror of our inner differences, and clink glasses!

“I Study Myself But Can’t Perceive,” by Fernando Pessoa/Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, from Fernando Pessoa & Co.

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September 15th, 2011 by admin

What Casablanca Can Teach A Writer

Casablanca is widely considered to be one of the best American movies ever made, and certainly it’s one of most enduringly popular films in history. There are a lot of reasons for this, critics will argue—the simple elegance of the plot; the crisp, memorable dialogue; the theme of love, sacrifice and redemption; the perfect casting. No argument from me there! But I would say that what lifts the movie to another realm is this: during the filming, the actors didn’t know how the story would end.

Because neither did the screenwriters. When filming began, the script still wasn’t finished. As Harlan Lebo reports in his book Casablanca: Behind the Scenes, “The crush of deadlines would weigh so heavily that revised material would often reach the Casablanca set mere hours before those scenes were shot.”

This uncertainty created some unusual hurdles for the actors, especially Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Hollywood Lost and Found tells us that “Ingrid Bergman had no idea who her character would end up with until later in production, so she didn’t know how to portray her emotions in the scenes filmed early on. ‘Play it in between,’ she was told.”

What an excellent opportunity for an actor! Not knowing one’s fate is exactly what everyone on the planet faces each day, with no available script handy to settle one’s narrative arc in advance. Roger Ebert, in his review/essay on the movie, sums up nicely how such ignorance can enrich a performance: “Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.” I’d never thought of this before, but every actor, before filming starts, knows the beginning, middle and end of his or her character’s story, and part of the challenge in acting, aside from expressing whatever subtleties of personality are available, is having to pretend that one doesn’t know what comes next.

Recently I’ve been happily working my way through The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda, and last night this sentence jumped out at me, from “Happiness”: “Movies are lovely because if the ones in love are miserable then you suffer a bit but you think everything will turn out for the best, but when I’m miserable I never know if things will end well.” Indeed. Even with 20/20 vision we remain blind to the future. The indeterminacy of our lives is reflected in the energy of Bergman and Bogart’s performances, and viewers sense this, sense the richness of the narrative blindness the actors are struggling with.

Fiction writers struggle with this same narrative blindness when we begin writing a story or novel. We work our way through darkness with curiosity, hunches and inspiration. The novelist Celia Gittleson, interviewed years ago by Poets & Writers Magazine for the article “Writers on Revision: Is Perfection the Death of Energy?” described her process of writing a novel: “At the end, when I finally know what I’ve been writing about and have discovered all the things wrong with it, I rewrite the whole thing.”

This quote almost always surprises introductory writing students. How can a writer not know where he or she is going? Well, like life, we don’t know where we’re headed, and yet this narrative darkness can be an enriching darkness, if we manage to improvise our way through it. The comedian Steve Carell, in a recent profile in The New Yorker, explains his process of acting, which sounds to me an awful lot like what writers attempt on the page: “I look at improvising as a prolonged game of chess. There’s an opening gambit with your pawn in a complex game I have with one character, and lots of side games with other characters, and another game with myself—and in each game you have to make all these tiny, tiny moves that get you to the endgame.”

I’m currently working on the manuscript of a novel ripe with ghosts, titled Invisible Country. The setting for the book is an afterlife that, though set in America, resembles the afterlife of the Beng people, who I’ve lived among in Ivory Coast for years; in their afterlife ghosts exist as a parallel—and invisible—social community among the living. One of the characters I initially envisioned was a fundamentalist Christian who finds his come-uppance in an afterlife he clearly hadn’t been expecting.

Predictably enough, this particular character went nowhere on the page, perhaps because he had first been imagined so that he could be punished. I needed to develop some empathy for the fellow, but how? Eventually I thought I’d try to imagine the source of his religious belief—perhaps a miraculous experience of some sort? So I thought back to the moments of the uncanny that have come my way, and decided to give him a version of an odd encounter I’d had when a freshman in college.

Late that fall semester, I headed for the music building on campus to study for a test I felt certain I’d fail. The professor was at least a decade past his retirement due date, and his primary remaining area of expertise was traveling back and forth in time within each sentence he spoke. We all sat there in class amazed at the unpredictable temporal roller coaster of his lectures, understanding nothing.

Anyway, as I approached with dread the music building, I noticed an odd little turn in the air of a leaf falling from a nearby tree. Some updraft had stopped its fall and pushed it upward. As it fell again, again it twisted up in the air several feet, and then fell, and then rose.

I stopped, increasingly entranced by this aerobatic display that seemingly defied the laws of gravity. I kept waiting for it to finally, definitively fall, and it kept not doing so. Minutes passed, and the uncanny repetition of this unlikely performance finally unnerved me—I reached out to the leaf, touched it, and it fell to the ground. Then of course I reproached myself for disrupting something like magic.

So I gave a version of this memory to my character, Edward, but still the chapter wouldn’t move further, I still didn’t know him enough, not until I altered the memory to suit him. Edward thinks the twists and turns of the leaf before him are assuming some sort of repeated shape, and soon enough he thinks he sees the face of Jesus in that pattern. It shocks him into the ranks of the devout, yet he worries the memory: did he really see what he thought he saw, and if so, what does it mean, what message must he follow? For the rest of his life he is torn by his indecision, and by this point I found myself on Edward’s side, inspired by his gnawing doubt to be able to imagine more of his life.

Like Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, it’s better not to know the way at first. When we start to write it’s better to bumble our way forward, our uncertainty its own drama, the energy of which can transfer to our characters’ inner lives and their unpredictable fates. Readers will recognize the richness of possibility and its echo of their—and our own—inability to see much past the present moment.

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July 30th, 2011 by admin

Nanobots, Water Walls and Dying Flies

Whenever a student comes to my office worried about whether he or she could write a “non-realistic” story for one of my classes, I always approvingly quote this passage from Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories” (included in her classic collection of literary essays, Mystery and Manners):

“Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic . . . I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.”

This usually reassures my nervous student, and me, too: yes, I approve of stories written outside the genre of realism, but I’ve also made it clear that writing a story dipped in fantastic waters comes with the powerful craft challenge of earning a reader’s acceptance through attention to detail. Problem solved, and I feel as if I’ve earned my keep.

Though recently I’ve begun to wonder if I completely agree with O’Connor’s fantasy/realism equation. Certainly “a thing is fantastic because it is so real” holds for SciFi and Speculative Fiction writers, as this brief example from Neil Stephenson’s novel of a nanotechnological future, The Diamond Age, illustrates:

“Microscopic invaders were more of a threat nowadays. Just to name one example, there was Red Death, a.k.a. the Seven Minute Special, a tiny aerodynamic capsule that burst open after impact and released a thousand or so corpuscle-size bodies, known colloquially as cookie-cutters, into the victim’s bloodstream. It took about seven minutes for all the blood in a typical person’s body to recirculate, so after this interval the cookie-cutters would be randomly distributed throughout the victim’s organs and limbs . . .

“Detonation dissolved the bonds holding the centrifuges together, so that each of a thousand or so ballisticules suddenly flew outward . . . The victim then made a loud noise like the crack of a whip, as a few fragments exited his or her flesh and dropped through the sound barrier in air. Startled witnesses would turn just in time to see the victim flushing bright pink.”

I agree, a bit gruesome. Let’s look at a different, more calming example, from one of my favorite novels of recent years, the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age. The novel begins as a Gulliver-like account of the unusual culture of a people who live on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, and then transmutes into an exhilarating, break-neck narrative. This section, from the early pages of the novel, describes the homes of the islanders:

“The houses of the upper town are built on islands of rock among the branching currents. At their rear the houses are attached to the rock. The river splits into two above the roof of a house, and these two arms flow around it before dividing themselves up further . . . the occupiers of many of the houses directed the water across the roof so that as it tumbled over the edge it became a lustrous curtain of water made up of several columns, in which threads of sunlight created the perfect illusion of sparkling beads of coral or a solid wall of water . . .

“When at night I was unable to sleep, I would watch the wall shining magically in the moonlight and listen to the trickling of the water until sleep reclaimed me. Or I would watch the wall from the room as the sun was setting, when it seemed that the wall was composed of a liquid crimson glow . . .

“Some inhabitants of the upper town distributed the water around their house by a system of narrow gutters that trailed across the ceilings; the water would flow over the sides of the gutters, thus creating walls of water inside the house, too. The rooms in such houses would be separated from one another by nothing but these cool, translucent walls. The water would be drained from the house by channels in the floor. These half-transparent walls breathed out an exhilarating coolness even on the hottest nights, but they long made me feel uncomfortable as naturally they granted those who lived within them no privacy; behind the wall to a neighboring room, objects and bodies appeared as deformed and imprecise shapes.”

So, when it comes to the fantastic, I’m on board with O’Connor’s observation that a fantastical world must be fully imagined and realized. Where I part with her is the assertion that “the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein.”

Recently I taught at The Vermont College of Fine Arts summer residency, and one of the stories discussed in a workshop I co-taught with Abby Frucht was a perfectly realistic story, by the student Mattieu Cailler, about a teen-age boy who enters an old woman’s home in order to perform a few simple errands while she’s away. He doesn’t really know this woman, has never been inside her home, and his curious attention to the interior details of the rooms, what they say about her, gives us a complex sense of the personality of a character who remains offstage. Yet the boy’s observations at the same time expose a good swath of his inner life—what he chooses to observe reveals his own character, and his attention to any particular significant detail makes it more than its simple self. Here’s a story where concrete detail is of paramount importance, as a tactic of characterization.

I’d say every fiction writer has to maintain utter attention to concrete detail in order to maintain a believable world, realistic or not. But what is “realistic,” anyway? Human beings contain within them multiple versions of what constitutes the world, and different cultures offer competing versions of realism. Every recorded angle of our eyes, every observation, is above all an interpretation.

Here, I think, is where the ‘creative” comes in triumphantly to what some of us like to call Creative Nonfiction. When attention to detail is at the same time wedded to the writer’s interpretation, then the ordinary world we think we know transforms, and becomes, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, ”so real that it is fantastic.” Creative Nonfiction is above all about interpreting what truth we reveal. I can think of few better examples than this following eerie, intense short essay (only three paragraphs long), “Flypaper,” by Robert Musil (a writer better known as the author of the monumental novel The Man Without Qualities):

“Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it—not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there—it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers, holds us tight.

“Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be normal, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, the way you stand on a sharp edge). They hold themselves upright, gathering strength and pondering their position. After a few seconds they’ve come to a tactical decision and they begin to do what they can, to buzz and try to lift themselves. They continue this frantic effort until exhaustion makes them stop. Then they take a breather and try again. But the intervals grow even longer. They stand there and I feel how helpless they are. Bewildering vapors rise from below. Their tongue gropes about like a tiny hammer. Their head is brown and hairy, as though made of a coconut, as manlike as an African idol. They twist forward and backward on their firmly fastened little legs, bend at the knees and lean forward like men trying to move a too-heavy load: more tragic than the working man, truer as an athletic expression of the greatest exertion than Lacoön. And then comes the extraordinary moment when the imminent need of a second’s relief wins out over the almighty instincts of self-preservation. It is the moment when the mountain climber because of the pain in his fingers willfully loosens his grip, when the man lost in the snow lays himself down like a child, when the hunted man stops dead with aching lungs. They no longer hold themselves up with all their might, but sink a little, and at that moment appear totally human. Immediately they get stuck somewhere else, higher up on the leg, or behind, or at the tip of a wing.

“When after a little while they’ve overcome the spiritual exhaustion and resume the fight for survival, they’re trapped in an unfavorable position and their movements become unnatural. Then they lie down with outstretched hindlegs, propped up on their elbows, and try to lift themselves. Or else seated on the ground they rear up with outstretched arms like women who attempt in vain to wrest their hands free of a man’s fists. Or they lie on their belly, with head and arms in front of them as though fallen while running, and they only still hold up their face. But the enemy is always passive and wins at just such desperate, muddled moments. A nothing, an it draws them in: so slowly that one can hardly follow, and usually with an abrupt acceleration at the very end, when the last inner breakdown overcomes them. Then, all of a sudden, they let themselves fall, forward on their face, head over heels; or sideways with all legs collapsed; frequently also rolled on their side with their legs rowing to the rear. This is how they lie there. Like crashed planes with one wing reaching out into the air. Or like dead horses. Or with endless gesticulations of despair. Or like sleepers. Sometimes even the next day, one of them wakes up, gropes a while with one leg or flutters a wing. Sometimes such a movement sweeps over the lot, then all of them sink a little deeper into death. And only on the side, near their legsockets, is there some tiny wriggling organ that still lives a long time. It opens and closes, you can’t describe it without a magnifying glass, it looks like a miniscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.”

What could be more ordinary than meting out death to a household pest? And yet this is also extraordinary, if examined closely. Musil’s careful attention, combined with his analogies to human suffering—cripples pretending to be normal, men trying to carry a too-heavy load, a dangling mountain climber releasing his grip in despair—makes it difficult to observe the dying flies from an emotional distance. Even I, a hater of all flies—that carrion-swilling beast, bane of my existence in Africa, an annoyance everywhere else—can find compassion for these otherwise unrecorded deaths, see their ends as a mirror of fate. The realities writers strive to honor, whether invented, or observed, or remembered, are transformed by the intricacies of interpretation, and so transform the reader.

“Flypaper” reprinted from Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, translated by Peter Wortsman.

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July 19th, 2011 by admin