I’m not as smart as I thought I was, and I would think I could make headway* on this one, but I still seem to be losing ground. *This expression, first recorded in 1887, uses headway in the nautical sense of “a vessel’s … Continue reading
I was just reading over the upcoming November 1 How We Spend Our Days post by Mari Strachan (which is wonderful).
In her post, Mari recites the names of some Welsh towns, each one of which sounds magical. Her list reminded me of a list I had jotted down in June on my way to Vermont.
Is it just my love of the northeast that transforms the names of these towns into music? Or is it the fact that the names are unfamiliar to me–in the sense that I’m not usually driving by these towns?
Yesterday, I was driving from Columbus to Birmingham. I passed signs for Opelika, Auburn, Alexander City, Sylacauga, Pelham. I didn’t make any notes.
Perhaps I’m being unfair to the Alabama towns not to list them vertically.
On Sunday, in The New York Times Book Review, in the essay on the back page,”I’ve Got a Little List,” Arthur Krystal discussed literary lists. He wrote,”Isn’t every list in reality a ceremonial flourish against amnesia and chaos?”
I keep trying different systems. What I really need is one of those hats with a pole that extends out in front of it so that the current list can dangle continuously in front of my eyes…
I make lists of things as I think of them on whatever is handy (like torn-off corners of envelopes). I make more organized lists on sturdier index cards. Sometimes, I make a series of lists in a small flip notebook. Or, like yesterday, I list on a print-out of my schedule for the day–that way the list is face-up and in my face.
The “list” has literary beginnings. According to Krystal:
“List,” borrowed from the French word liste, first turns up, in the modern sense, in “Hamlet,” when Horatio reports that Fortinbras has “sharked up a list of landless resolutes”–i.e., indiscriminately put together a makeshift army.
How do you list?
It’s been another year and I missed it–completely never even thought about it until Friday night when I was visiting another blog, reading a post about how that week was that blog’s two-year anniversary–still not thinking about it–and then at the end of the post, this question: how long have you been blogging?
and I thought well, how long?
I remembered celebrating one year. And then I thought, surely another year has not gone by already.
yes, it has. September 4th was two years. Wow. That was fast.
And it was a big year: I started back to school for my MFA in creative writing. I also started what is turning out to be another novel. I saw Jackson Browne, Carole King, and James Taylor in concert. September seemed to be all about Infinite Jest. January about reading like a writer. In the spring I was traveling and then recovering from traveling. May was all about Annie Dillard and The Maytrees. July I went back to camp, and August was the mini-David Jauss festival. Both my novels placed in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition: my first novel, The Painting Story, on the Short List for Finalists, and my second novel, Between Here and Gone, as a Semi-Finalist. We’ve now had a whole year of the How We Spend Our Days series. Also, I updated the look of the blog and added new links and new pages.
So here’s the annual look back at the words, still hoping to see some sort of pattern emerging. I’ve linked to a few of my favorite posts, but if you see another one you’d like to explore, just pop the words into the search rectangle on the sidebar or go to the archives for that month, also on the sidebar. If you have a favorite post, I’d love to know which one it is.
A big thank you to all the readers out there. And a really big thank you to all those who posted the 1560 comments (double the number from the first year). You have made Catching Days better than it could have been on its own. As you read the words below, I wish for you, as always, fond memories and new discoveries…
September 2009: A Day in the Life of Dani Shapiro-those were the days-wage peace-the splitting sound-from creede-finished-infinite autumn-the germ of everything-the library, and step on it-yellow letters from a shoebox on a rainy pm-the empty armchair
October 2009: A Day in the Life of Adam Braver-unfamiliar-wildlives-still playing with books-poemcrazy-to be read-12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee-eucalyptus-a practice–i give
November 2009: A Day in the Life of Sheri Reynolds-the sweet in-between-waiting for me-snooping-what’s Jackson Browne got to do with it-writing retreat-a brief history of time-winter spring summer fall-abandoned things
December 2009: A Day in the Life of Elizabeth Benedict-books to trees-what have I done with my life-the signal-the ordinary day-it is all just shopping-send in the elves-Christmas magic-a new book bag-VCFA visuals: 1st 3 days
January 2010: A Day in the Life of Abigail Thomas-filled up & emptied out-an equal stillness-frozen-the first residency-reading like a writer: part 1-reading like a writer: part 2:taking it to a new level-reading like a writer: part 3: questions to ask-reading like a writer: part 4: reading a story-reading like a writer: part 5: taking a story apart
February 2010: A Day in the Life of Alexander Chee-over the weekend at sea island-devotion-lines connect in thin ways-from santa fe-from the jersey shore-not firmly based-not that i’m counting-hidden from view
April 2010: A Day in the Life of Robin Black-starting with the moment-no longer what I want-the conversation-evidence-iworld-four women and a sheep-the water is wide-what it is like-the birthday of an author-if I loved you
May 2010: A Day in the Life of Daniel Asa Rose-from their flat, yellowed pages-the maytrees-time to adapt again-the person underneath-so this morning-6 things I learned from Annie Dillard-structure echoes content
June 2010: A Day in the Life of Lucia Orth-framing the past-four poems-more of this world-rejoyce-the old swing set-day dreams-core-some saturday morning fun-mrs. somebody somebody-back in vermont again
July 2010: A Day in the Life of Tracy Winn-the second residency-places that call us back–hoping to discover–proof–writing my way there-my name is mary sutter-staying in the room-not searching for structure-i cannot get you close enough-a life in stories-odd disjointed pieces at strange times of the day
August 2010: A Day in the Life of Diane Lefer-because the detail is divine-you are not here-alone with all that could happen-crossing borders-out my window: 8/17/10-out my window: 8/18/10-toes-look again-catching lives-jane’s passions-Eudora Welty’s potato salad
During the next twelve months, I hope even more of you will join the conversation. I’m looking forward to it!
Names and dates in uneven scrawl. White paint against dark wood. The shed is Chalet A–the insides hollowed out to make room for rakes and saws, park signs and four wheelers.
Kim was here. Becky Howe was here. I remember her. Connie Bryan in 1965. If you want to find out about the summer of ’66, write to Mary Torras, Valley Road, New Canaan, CT. Leslie 1970. Nicole Browning I remember from 1970. Rose was here in 1971. Sandy in 1962. Sally Smith in 1966. Ceci Blewer in ’68. Vee Vee was here. Heather in 1973.
This discovery fills a part of the empty box I brought along today, letting me know that part of the reason I return is to find proof that I was in fact here, that what I remember is not just in my head, not just a dream I had, but something I can touch. And here it’s made of paint and wood—words that persist.
I am part of this place. This place is part of who I am.
I’m beginning to see a pattern. Another place that holds part of me is what used to be my grandparent’s house in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve returned there once as an adult and written this story about it.
I will write more on Saturday…3rd post in 4-part series on Ecole Champlain: Part 1: places that call us back Part 2: hoping to discover Part 3: proof Part 4: writing my way there
Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge is a book I forgot I had on my shelf–a forgotten book. Every now and then, I will pull a book off the shelf that looks unfamiliar–an old book–and thumb through its pages to see what it has to say to me now and whether I should keep it in my library or send it on a new journey.
Poemcrazy was published in 1996. It’s difficult to believe that in that short amount of time, the pages have yellowed around the edges, giving it the look of a book that was surely published before I was born. But no, 1996.
As I said in the last post, I do not write poems. Still I loved reading this book. It’s divided into 5 parts: following words, listening to ourselves, hi there stars, open the window, and lights and mysteries. Lovely. These five parts are further divided into 60 short sections, many offering writing exercises.
Wooldridge writes that it is often when she is walking that words and poems come to her. Then she gives us this snippet from poet Brenda Hillman:
“We walked through night ’til night was a poem.”
As I mentioned in the last post, Wooldridge often writes or tapes words on tickets. “Like a poem, a ticket is small, often colorful and valuable, allowing entrance to a special place.” She loves E.E.Cummings: “love is more thicker than forgot.”
Wooldridge gives us little bits of Emily Dickinson: “Inside a moment, centuries of June.” And Wallace Stevens: “…there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and singing, made.” Little facts like: “Donald Hall claims he wrote 150 drafts of his poem ‘Henyard Round.'”
Wooldridge suggests keeping a notebook and a flashlight on the night table. “We have to be quiet and listen for a bell or a knock. And we have to open the door.” Then she gives us the poem “Writing in the Dark” by Denise Levertov.
I am putting this book back on my shelf.
For today, I had planned to write a review of the book I finished yesterday, but as I sat down to write, I realized that the piece of fiction I started on Saturday and continued with on Sunday and Monday is the first altogether new piece of fiction I’ve started in over two years.
In the spring of 2007, I began a story a week for ten weeks, and when I haven’t been working on my novel, which I began in 2004, I’ve been working on those. I’ve also finished the novel (although it’s waiting for a 6-month read) and three stories, and I have five more stories lined up behind me waiting for what is probably a final revision and one of those, for just that final clean read.
Over two years. No wonder writing something new was feeling…unfamiliar.
So when I started this piece on Saturday–and for the first time I have no feel for whether it wants to be a novel or a story–even without realizing how long it had been since I had started fresh, the thought did cross my mind, I wonder if I’m going to get it right this time.
And I don’t think I meant the story. I think I meant the process.
Which is for sure an individual thing, as in there is not one right way to do it. It has to do with what works for each person. The thing is, I’m not sure I’ve yet hit upon what works for me.
I know one thing though. I think up to now, I’ve spent too much time trying to get the words right before I knew what the story was. Almost as if, if I could get the words right, I would have the story. This time, I’m trying not to get so attached to the words. This time, when I wonder if Lucy accepts her situation or feels bitter or is using humor to cover up how she really feels, instead of choosing one, I’m going to try each one. I’m going to ask more questions.
Actually I know another thing too. Especially for me because I prefer working on a novel, having the opportunity to begin something new is a moment to catch.
What about you–are you satisfied with your process?
Okay, here’s the thing. I got carried away in my post about the detail hunt. When I started writing it, I just wanted to write about how hard it was to catch details and maybe generate a discussion about where all the good ones were hiding and how other people came up with details.
I didn’t plan on writing about meaning, just about how to end up with a stack of index cards, each one bearing a detail, that I could thumb through when I started writing something new. So you see, I didn’t go into enough detail about the cards. In fact, I’m not even sure I mentioned them.
However, now I want to write about meaning.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines detail as:
1a: “a small or subordinate particular.”
1b: “such a particular, considered (ironically) to be unimportant.”
2a: “small items or particulars (esp. in an artistic work) regarded collectively.”
Details are like thermoses; they work both ways. As in,
That’s just a detail OR it’s all in the details.
So how does something that can be defined as unimportant acquire meaning?
Sue William Silverman wrote in Fearless Confessions:
“Maybe I’d find it easier to write if I were more aware of the meaning in my day-to-day life. But I’m not. Only when I write do I discover what my story means, what my metaphors are. In college, the maroon scarf was only a scarf!”
Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction:
“A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both…The windowsill was shedding flakes of fungus-green paint is concrete and also conveys the idea that the paint is old and suggests the judgment that the color is ugly.”
What we want is a detail that tells us something, either immediately or later. This is why it’s often referred to as “the telling detail.” A detail is not “just a detail” when it goes to work for you.
On Wednesday I received a critique of a story from one of the people in my writing group. She suggested I delete a line about a coat because “it didn’t add to the story.” I thought, good point. Then I thought, I wonder why I put it in there–twice. With Monday’s post in mind, I thought maybe the solution is not deleting it but making it work for me–making it produce the echo I was writing about when I had intended to write about a stack of index cards.
Do you ever have that thing where for some reason you notice a word and then it’s everywhere? In each of the books you’re reading. Somebody says it on TV. It’s on the first page of The New York Times. The person reading your novel uses it.
Well, last week it happened to me. And the word was resonant, along with its little family.
resonant: “adj. 1 (of sound) echoing; resounding; continuing to sound; reinforced or prolonged by reflection….” (OAD). Then there’s the verb, to resonate: “to produce or show resonance.” (OAD) Which takes us to the noun, resonance: “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection or synchronous vibration.” (There’s a special definition for mech., chem., and physics, but nothing for literary.) Dictionary.com also adds for to resonate: to evoke a feeling of shared emotion or belief.
The book I’m reading now, Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton: “I had not heard an oriole since I was a child; in my agitated state these notes fell with an extraordinary resonance. I felt reassured. It seemed, in fact, like a sign.”
The New York Times, January 28, 2009, Michiko Kakutani: “In his most resonant work, Mr. Updike gave ‘the mundane its beautiful due,’ as he once put it….”
On Friday, in another book I’m reading, An Accidental Light, Elizabeth Diamond: “Place names resonate with me, like a language returning.”
On Saturday, Jim Nance asked Mean Joe Green about his famous 1980 Super Bowl commercial: “Did you think this would resonate with so many people?”
And then again last night, in a poem, “If See No End In Is,” Watching the Spring Festival, Frank Bidart: (looking back at a life) “it is a vast resonating chamber…”
“Let your words resonate for the reader,” she said, by way of a suggestion. Which is what, I suppose, started me on this little word journey. If I needed to do it, I needed to know more about it.
And this is what I’m taking with me: Good writing sends out little waves of familiarity. It connects readers to the past or lies waiting for them in the future. It echos through their hearts. It continues to be felt over and over again, like certain words.
I hope this post resonates with you. There now, I’ve used it in a sentence.
I just finished Toni Morrison‘s new novel, A Mercy. Which was amazing. Yet I now regret that, while I was reading it, I spent so much time trying to figure out the story. I believe that if I had just let myself succumb to the effect of the words, the story would have worked its way to me. Now I want to read it again for what I missed the first time–allowing the words to roll over me unimpeded by my brain’s search for order. I want to read it again to let the words weave their magic. “With you my body is pleasure is safe is belonging. I can never not have you have me.”
A few of my favorite lines:
About Florens: “Solitude would have crushed her had she not fallen into hermit skills and become one more thing that moved in the natural world.”
About Sorrow: “In the best of times the girl dragged misery like a tail. There was a man in Lina’s village like that. His name she had forgotten along with the rest of her language, but it meant ‘trees fall behind him,’ suggesting his influence on the surroundings.”
About the women: “There had always been tangled strings among them. Now they were cut. Each woman embargoed herself; spun her own web of thoughts unavailable to anyone else.”
I have a new rule for myself: On the first read, I fall in; on the second, I search for order.
“Here I develop that ability to concatenate events which characterizes human consciousness and makes ‘daily life’ possible.”
I had to look it up. To concatenate is to link together, as in a chain of events or things.
Here, in this space, we concatenate reading, writing, and life.
For anyone who enjoyed Gilead, Marilynne Robinson‘s second novel, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, you will love her new novel, Home. For she has just crossed town, so to speak, and turned around to tell us the story from a different porch.
On page 29 of Gilead, narrated by John Ames, he tells us, “I walked over to Boughton’s to see what he was up to…Glory is there doing everything she can think of to make him comfortable…” It is here at Boughton’s that most of Home takes place.
Again in Gilead, on page 86, “Glory has come to tell me Jack Boughton is home.”
Home is written in the third person from Glory’s point of view. Although each of these novels is complete in and of itself, together they become two halves of a greater world.
Some of my favorite lines in Home:
“Such times you had!” her father said, as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade.”
“The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.”
“There is so much to be grateful for, words are poor things…”
“How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, or with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what.”
“And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it.”
“Wordstruck is exactly what I was–
and still am:
crazy about the sound of words,
the look of words,
the taste of words,
the feeling of words on the tongue and in the mind.”
from his 1989 memoir,
Robert MacNeil’s love of words came from his father.
“He always wrote on the flyleaf of each new book the date and where he was, so I can follow him…He treated the bindings of his leatherbound books with oil to keep them supple. He loved the feel of books, good paper, well-sewn bindings….He made them seem delicious, like something good enough to eat.”
In the back of all my books, I write my initials and the year and month. Now I may add a few more words…
*a word not found in the dictionary :)
“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.”
The Oxford American Dictionary defines collaboration as
“working jointly, especially in a literary or artistic production.”
It defines commitment as
“the process or an instance of committing oneself.”
And committing as
“pledging or binding oneself to a certain course”
Something different for today–a movie.
This summer one of my sons, Bobby Martin, was in Paris taking a film class. I had the opportunity to collaborate with him on a short film. I had the easy part–throwing out ideas. He had the hard part–doing all the work. He selected the music and mapped the scenes. He did the filming and the editing. Nevertheless, he graciously added my name to the credits. The film is two minutes and forty seconds. Turn up the volume and enjoy.
Still, he is a poet and a writer. He spends his life fighting against the unnameable. Despite our efforts, he says “something is always escaping.”
We search for the right word. We know it’s there. We attribute its lack to ourselves, not to its inexistence. Most of the time we are right.
“We suffer a loss,” he writes, “leaving the physical world for the world of words….”
Think of the sensation of a rough surface on the tip of a finger –the goal is to feel it again reading those words. The words by their nature come second–a step removed.
Despite the loss, he says our attempt to exist in the world of words gives us “our personhood.”
This is what we want–wordable awareness.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines this beautiful sounding word as
- like prose; lacking poetic beauty.
- unromantic; dull; comonplace.
The top three definitions of prose are
- the ordinary form of the written or spoken language
- a passage of prose
- a tedious speech or conversation
A prosaist is either
a prose writer; or
- a prosaic person
If someone calls you a prosaist, it could go either way. Writers of fiction are often called prose writers to distinguish them from writers of poetry. I personally don’t want anything further to do with this word.
For anyone who loves words and shapes, check out this very cool site: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/.