So the first week of June, I finally crossed the threshold of one of the little cottages in the photo at the top of the blog. Primrose, or #22, would be my writing cottage for six days. I know as … Continue reading
With the other things I’ve written, I’ve seen the structure from the very beginning. As I type these words, I realize: I’ve also seen the story from the beginning too. So, hmmm…
Anyway, I’ve just read a few pages in Mark Rose’s Shakespearean Design. I spent ten minutes taking apart Pam Houston’s Sight Hound–8 chapters within which 12 different narrators have sections, some speaking only once.
Now I’m on the floor, playing with books. I’ve taken all of Ellen Gilchrist‘s books off my shelf–all 22 of them. I quickly return to the shelf her 1987 and her 2000 versions of Falling Through Space (her journal), as well as her book on The Writing Life, Anabasis (her novel that takes place in ancient times), her Collected Stories, and my hardback copy of The Anna Papers.
After a second’s glance, I also return to the shelf her two lives-in-stories: Nora Jane and Rhoda. I love these two books in which all the stories she wrote over twenty years about Rhoda are collected in one volume and those about Nora Jane, in another volume.
I start with the novels. The first one I pick up is The Anna Papers–possibly my favorite. There’s a Contents page: a Prelude, and then five named parts. I skip the prelude, read the first paragraph of Chapter 1, skip to the second to last page of the first part and read. I turn the page to Part II, then another page to read the beginning of Chapter 15 (so the chapter numbers continue through the parts). I want to catch the reason for the separate parts. I read two and a half pages and am swept away.
That’s when I hopped up to write this post. The Anna Papers is one of the reasons I wanted to learn how to write. To do this. What she did.
I was planning on doing a post on that need to write but then had the opportunity to write a Guest Writer article on the subject for The View From Here Magazine. It is online today with the print issue coming out November 6th, I believe. Here’s the first paragraph:
For six years, I was a lawyer. I went to law school; I passed the bar exam; I was sworn in, and I paid my licensing dues. Et voila. It fits, doesn’t it?
Far more difficult to know if you’re a writer.
There’s the obvious, “You’re a writer if you write.” But that’s like saying you’re a cook if you cook. When I was in law school, I heard over and over again, “You have to learn to think like a lawyer.” But that doesn’t work here either. What defines a writer is not “thinking.”
Which leads to another….
For the last post, I was looking for a quote by Henri Matisse that I never found by the way about not needing to show the whole shape of something in order for the viewer to grasp what you’re creating. In fact, for the Barnes Foundation mural, Matisse intentionally showed only part of the dance so that the viewer would follow the painting off the page. All of which I wish I’d put in the last post…Anyway I found myself flipping through my favorite book on Matisse, Matisse on Art by Jack Flam, and rereading all my underlinings.
Then came some interest in an older post of mine on a quote by Flannery O’Connor from The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: “…I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.”
So I noticed that an interviewer, in the summer of 1931, noticed that Matisse was “looking for a way to summarize again what he had been saying…I had to smile when I realized that he was striving for order in his conversation just as in his paintings.” I love that Matisse did that. I do it all the time.
Is that all? No, there’s more.
Anyway anyway, in the comments to that older post, we’ve been discussing that Frank Conroy “used to say that in his own writing he’d read and re-read what he’d written the day before until he knew what to do next.”
Matisse also said, “…I continually react until my work comes into harmony with me. As someone who writes a sentence, reworks it, makes new discoveries…At each stage, I reach a balance, a conclusion. At the next sitting, if I find that there is a weakness in the whole, I make my way back into the picture by means of the weakness–I re-enter through the breach–and I reconceive the whole. Thus everything becomes fluid again…At the final stage the painter finds himself freed and his emotion exists complete in his work. He himself, in any case, is relieved of it.”
Which is the way I find that I’m writing these days.
Now I’m relieved of this little trail.
Sometimes I sit down at my desk to make a post, and I think I know what I want to write about. So I’m typing away on the computer and what I started with is getting farther and farther down the page as I continue to write and hit enter. Finally I realize I must have had something else on my mind. And there it is–buried treasure.
In an essay entitled, “The Company of Women,” from her book, Living Out Loud, Anna Quindlen writes,
“Most of the time we talked and talked, not in a linear way, but as though we were digging for buried treasure.”
She describes her conversations with women as “free-floating attempts to make order out of daily life.”
That’s also what writing does for me and what I’m trying to do with this blog–make order out of daily life. And so often, just by writing–just by starting to write without even knowing what letters I will hit on the keyboard–there it is.
“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying,
that it’s an intimate ritual,
that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us,
that when we read,
we do it with all our heart and mind…”
Reading, as well as writing, helps to bring to the surface what I’m thinking and feeling. It helps to put into words those thoughts that are floating around unmoored. It gives voice and shape to the amorphous.
This morning, as I found myself wishing for an ordinary day without any of the extra tasks brought on by the holidays, I came across this passage from D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love:
“Ursula often wondered what else she waited for, besides the beginning and end of the school-week, and the beginning and end of the holidays. This was a whole life! Sometimes she had periods of tight horror, when it seemed to her that her life would pass away, and be gone, without having been more than this.”
What makes a life more than this?
There’s a Zen saying, “Magical power, marvelous action! Chopping wood, carrying water.” Is it the state of mind we bring to clearing away the furniture, putting the tree in the stand, wrapping the lights around the branches, retrieving the boxes of ornaments, hanging the sparkly ones, remembering Christmases past? Is it being in the moment, whatever moment you’re in, rather than wishing it away?
Despite appreciating how the sun falls across a vacant lot, how the wind floats a branch high above my car, how fresh it feels to be outside, at the end of a day spent moving from gas station to bank to grocery store to gym without any time to wrestle the inside out, to put words on the page, or to connect to someone else’s words, I feel unsatisfied. As if I have “done nothing.”
We want our lives to catch on something…
David Herbert Richards Lawrence died in France in 1930 at the age of forty-four. He wrote Women in Love in 1916, at the age of thirty-one. It was rejected by publishers. He revised it, and it was published four years later, in 1920.
“Nothing quite so grand as that,” I tell him, though it’s true I’ve written far more than I expected to, having underestimated the tug of the past, the intoxication of memory, the attraction of explaining myself to, well, myself.”
It’s simple. It pulls you right in. And the little exposition there at the end has such a beautiful rhythm that I just want to read it out loud over and over again.
Last January, Richard Russo was in Columbus to encourage support for the Columbus Public Library. On Sunday, the 27th, I was the lucky one who got to drive him back to the Atlanta airport. It’s true. Richard Russo was trapped in my car for an hour and a half. He could not have been more gracious and pleasant. He signed my books. He encouraged my writing. He talked about his friendship with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. If I remember correctly, that friendship started when Paul Newman starred in Nobody’s Fool, another Richard Russo novel that was made into a movie in 1994. Paul would call Rick to ask about specifics. How exactly would Sully stand? Where would his hands be?
I’m looking forward to reading Straight Man. It’s waiting in my tower of books.
“I cannot decide whether it is an illness or a sin, the need to write things down and fix the flowing world in one rigid form. Bear believed writing dulled the spirit, stilled some holy breath. Smothered it. Words, when they’ve been captured and imprisoned on paper, become a barrier against the world, one best left unerected. Everything that happens is fluid, changeable. After they’ve passed, events are only as your memory makes them, and they shift shapes over time. Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing….Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.”
Bear is objecting to the loss Mark Doty was writing about that occurs when we leave the physical world for the world of words.
Bear would be against catching days, would say that we remember only what we remember for a reason. And that we should let memory and time play with the facts. Bear would say, let it go.
I agree that the way memory works is fascinating, but the fascination comes from the variance with the truth. To be able to see the variance, we must know the truth. So I tend to side with Will over Bear.
He says, “…I was always word-smitten. Always reading in a book or writing in a journal.”
At the end of The Hours, in the Acknowledgments, Michael Cunningham thanks Three Lives and Company for being in existence. He describes this bookstore as ”…a sanctuary and, to me, the center of the universe. It has for some time been the most reliable place to go when I need to remember why novels are still worth the trouble they take to write.”
It’s the real books–made of paper and ink–that I find in libraries, bookstores, and on my own shelves, that give me this same feeling of being worth the trouble they take to write.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, writes, “Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” from The Shadow of the Wind
It’s the real books that create this feeling of a hallowed place–this feeling of sanctuary. It’s sitting among them, holding them, smelling them, running your finger down the soft creamy pages…
One of the reasons I write is to find out what I’m thinking, what I mean to say, and then to be able to hold onto it. When I talk, I often repeat myself with such slight variations that it must be maddening to a listener. I tend to want to summarize. I want to get it right and then lock it in. And if I keep coming back to a problem, circling around it from different angles, I can get closer and closer. Revision is my favorite part of writing–getting the words just right.
In The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, she writes to her agent, “…I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think unitl I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.” She was 23 years old.
One of the reasons I read is that I love finding those moments that are expressd so exactly right in someone else’s story. Yes, I think, that’s the way it is. I underline them or copy them in a notebook, always trying to hold on to them.