the next writer in the series: july 1, 2014

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote,

I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month, a guest writer shares how he or she spends the day.

Writing by Writers at Tomales Bay October 2013

Writing by Writers at Tomales Bay October 2013

July 1, 2014: Fenton Johnson

I had read about Fenton long before I met him or read his writing. For those of you who read Pam Houston’s work, this is Fenton the Human (as opposed to Fenton the Canine).

Love gets bigger after forty,” Fenton tells me. “After forty, love says, ‘Come one, come all.'”
–from Contents May Have Shifted

There are so many good writers out there that we don’t hear enough about, and Fenton is one of them–as well as a fellow Southerner, from Kentucky, where my father was born. We were also quite possibly living in France at the same time, in Tours. Although possibly we missed each other by a year. I started with his memoir, Geography of the Heart, and just finished his novel in stories, Scissors, Paper, Rock.

geography of the heartGeography of the Heart starts at the beginning and tells the whole story–the story of Fenton and Larry and their place in the world, this world where we love and where the people we love die, where we are born into families and then go out on our own to find our place, and yet always that pull homeward, where we started out.

All these stories telescope into the present, this moment in which I am among the survivors, not at all a self-made man but a walking convention of these stories and countless more in one particular ongoing intersection of space and light and time, in which I understand what is gone and not gone; what I have lost (two loves, father and friend), what I have gained; how the dead live on in us, their lives now our lives, their stories living on and acted out in our own.

I was beginning to understand the nature of a love so whole that in the end it encompassed everything about ourselves, including his disease and our fear of contagion. I was beginning to understand how I might love through pain and ugliness, for better or for worse, up to and beyond death. I was beginning to understand how love offers some kind of victory, the thing that enables us to become larger than ourselves, larger than death.

This is why I read. This is why I write. To find places in my heart I didn’t know were there.

And as a writer, I love when I have the opportunity to read memoir and fiction that cover the same ground. The comparison is fascinating–so much to discover, so much to learn. Fenton’s novel, Scissors, Paper, Rock, was published first, in 1993. Geography of the Heart, second, in 1996. Perhaps I should have read them in chronological order. Reading the novel, I felt closer to what was happening, but the memoir went deeper. Spoiler alert for the next sentence: In the novel the son’s lover and the son die of AIDS.

Scissors, Paper, Rock is made up of eleven stories, all told in third person except for the last, told in first by the next-door neighbor.

I liked those stories. I liked listening to them change and grow. I heard them for almost forty years and at first I liked them better than the truth and then I realized that they were the truth.

scissors, paper, rockA novel in stories is the perfect form to tell the story of a family–each of its members with a story of his or her own and yet each a part of a bigger picture.

From a sister: By leaving home and family, Elizabeth now knows what she has lost: a landscape more familiar to her even now than any part of Los Angeles; an understanding of blood history and her place in it… These things and more she has given up, in exchange for–herself. Her self.

From the mother: It was not what she had imagined when she was young, or what they’d had in the first years after they married, but it was more than sex–it was all that shared time and memory that had bound them together on this starry, pricking wheel, long after they’d settled into the ordinariness of their married lives. Clark’s death was one more binding thing–even as it belonged to them separately it was another of those things that held them together. They both knew this, in some unchanging way; it was the only unchanging thing they knew.

In each of these books, so much heart and truth, I may need to take a few days before I read anything else.

Come back on JULY 1st to read how FENTON JOHNSON spends his days.

7 thoughts on “the next writer in the series: july 1, 2014

    • Because of all the writing that I’m doing, I’m not reading as much as I used to or would like to. So I get excited when I finish a book and get to move on to the next one. But these books are still sitting on my counter.

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    • Wow, Susanna! I lived there from the fall of 1979 to the summer of 1980–teaching English at the lycée grandmont. And my son is headed there in September for a semester abroad! So I may come visit this fall. We could say bonjour in person over a cafe!

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  1. Pingback: How We Spend Our Days: Fenton Johnson | catching days

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