language

Lost and found

THE SHEEPISH RETURN
Act I, Scene I.
Setting: Desk. Chair. Computer. Writer (ME) in mid-40s, hunched, hair frizzing to high heaven. Lights up on ME typing on BLOG.

ME: Hey, Blog. ‘Sup?
BLOG: New phone. Who dis?
ME: Come on, baby. Don’t be like that.
BLOG: Don’t ‘baby’ me. You’re the one who hasn’t come by in six months.
ME: Please, I’m sorry, I can explain.
BLOG: Six months, and all I get are comma splices. Wow.
ME: No, I missed you–
BLOG. (Snorts) If it were the ’90s and I had a hand, I’d tell you to talk to it.
End scene.

Okay, okay, okay. I’ve been away. I have excuses, none of which are particularly scintillating. Finishing draft + new job + travel + househunt hell + general existential angst = blog neglect. I’ve never professed to be good at this (and by this, I mean blog/social media/communicating with humans). But I also have missed my ramblings, this strange private-public sphere that lets me barf up my mushy writing-life hairballs in the ill-lit hallways of the interwebs. (Reminder: Wear shoes around here, people.)

Chapter XIVVLQ of Bryn’s writing life: No Writing Is Happening (subtitle: I Don’t Understand Roman Numerals). The fiction writing is on pause right now, primarily because I’m wrapping up the semester but also because I’ve stumbled into a bit of a creative dead space. Finished a big draft three months back (good) but have been foundering since, poking at one beached jellyfish of a story for three months with no end in sight (blerg). To mix my metaphor further, basically I cleaned the creative cupboards right the hell out. Didn’t even leave myself a dusty ol’ can of Spam.

The truth is, as I cried to my BFF the other day, I’m feeling somewhat lost, creatively, humanly. That nagging sensation of going in circles, of uncertainty, of being untethered. There are real-life capital-R Reasons, no question, but as BFF reminded me as she talked me off the ledge (again!), this feeling is also capital-N NORMAL in the writing life. We’re always kinda lost as we write, wandering around the spongy, shifting tundra of a story, in the erratic unknown of  the imagination.

This led me to thinking about the Lost and Found — as in a place, or rather, usually a box. In my mishmash of a memory, I have two bins: one at my hometown community pool, where I worked as a lifeguard, and one at the college bar where I worked as a waitress and bartender. What a collection of weirdness in those boxes: smelly damp towels, neon goggles, a lone flipper, broken necklaces, single earrings, sunglasses with loose lenses, left-handed glove, jackets that smelled of cigarettes and sweat and with wadded wrappers in their pockets. The flotsam and jetsam of sun-drunk children and drunk-drunk adults.

As a writer, of course I’m fascinated by such objects: all those potential stories tangled in one stinky box crammed in the bowels of the break room. To whom do these items belong? Who’s missing them? A popular writing exercise is to imagine the drawers and pockets of a character and then to write the story of one of the objects discovered there. Objects accrue meaning. Things can do story-work. And good grief, what heightened emotional stakes in those words, the Lost and Found. To be lost. But, oh, to be found.

But today, as I squirm around at my desk with my dulled mind and rusty fingers, I am most fascinated by the nomenclature: The Lost and Found. Not Lost or Found. And. Small distinction, big effect. An object can be both lost and found at the same time. Not opposite, but circular, entwined.

Time and again, the act of writing is my own Lost and Found. In writing, I am both missing and present, confused and precise, insecure and safe, stumbling and stumbling upon.

If I extend this circularity to myself, to my metaphoric sense of being lost, does this mean I also can be found at the same time?

Well, duh.

Takes me writing to remember it.

The thunder of the ground sea, or what’s under the boat

One of my favorite things about rereading/reteaching stories is that no matter how well I think I know a work, I always unearth new intriguing bits. This past spring when I taught Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I zeroed in on how Shelley describes the breaking up of the frozen northern ocean where Walton and Victor become trapped: the “ground sea.” What strange, evocative phrasing. It comes up three times, first early, in Walton’s fourth letter, and then twice near the end when Victor recounts his chase of the creature. The third usage is at a crucial moment, when Victor is closing in on the creature:

“A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split, and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished: in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice, that was continually lessening, and thus preparing for me a hideous death.”

Since I’m not — spoiler! — a 19th century sailor, I first had to look it up. From the OED: “ground-sea, n: A heavy sea in which large waves rise and dash upon the coast without apparent cause,” with an early 1757 example: A rumbling noise was heard, like that which usually precedes what the sailors call a ground-sea. It also could be a synonym for ground-swell, whose definition is similar and fits with Shelley’s context.

Beyond the shiver-inducing loveliness of the phrase and Shelley’s imagery, and a more general awe at the ocean’s countless mysteries, I’m also interested in the ground-sea as a way of talking about creative writing.

Every semester in workshop, I (repeatedly) ask students a question: What’s under the boat? Oh, The Boat. It has become how I talk about the complexity of a story’s tension/conflict beyond plot (surface), particularly for a character, adapted from one of my professors. I sketched a — ahem — beautiful drawing (aka demented stick people with cauliflower fronds for hands) that transformed into the beautiful clip art here in my Beautiful Boat Analogy:

beautiful boat copy 2

The “picture” is meant to convey the range of elements that make up a story. Not that all stories include or emphasize each element; each story makes its own rules. The key for me is that these elements are intertwined. There isn’t a set hierarchy. All of them work together and feed off of each other. But yes, notice the size of the word conflict, aka tension/the trouble, there under the boat.

In his wonderful little book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern calls tension the mother of fiction. Tension is something the reader should feel right away, even if it’s not clear exactly what the problem is. Lit classes often define conflict in terms of versus: character vs. self, vs. person, nature, fate, society (or some combo: as Stern says, characters don’t only face their enemies, they face themselves facing their enemies). Writers often like to think of conflict as the trouble, or the stakes. This is what’s “under the boat,” lurking, threatening to tip that boat over as it makes its way across the water. I’ve heard the writer Tony Earley talk about it as The Thing on the surface and The Other Thing below, and eventually the two Things converge (you’ll have to ask him to elaborate, but I love that baffling analogy because it captures the weirdness and difficulty of trying to talk about making fiction).

This is where the ground-sea comes as an unexpected, delightful elaboration on my analogy: tension is the ground-sea! It’s the rumble below, haunting, lurking, complicating our characters and plot. It may rise and force a character to act/react, or it will complicate or change how a character acts/reacts.

As with a character’s interior landscape, figuring this out may take time. You may be figuring it out as you go, or it may change on you as you discover more about your character and her world. Ask yourself, What’s the trouble? What’s the problem here?  What’s at stake, and for whom? In my new terms: what is the ground-sea, and when will it thunder?

It’s not easy, but you already know that, right? You’re not writing because it’s easy. This is what we writers push for; this is what makes stories so hard for us but so rewarding for readers. We make our seas roar.

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Resolution redux

Like a kajillion others out there on the planet, I sat down today thinking about New Year’s resolutions: the (in)famous list of things we optimistically hammer out about what we will or won’t do in the coming new year and then give up on around, oh, the Ides of March.

Pretty straightforward, these resolutions, right? A little self-reflection, a little existential freak out (2014! What in the?!?!) and then blam — I dash off my Top 10, and I’m on my way to finally reading Moby Dick and saving pennies for a trip to Italy and dusting the top of the refrigerator.  Easy peasy — until I looked up resolution in my handy-dandy (if rudimentary) computer New Oxford American Dictionary, an old habit when I’m pondering what to write. Guess what I found in that little can of worms? 12 different meanings. 12! Like the months of the year! Coincidence? Yes, but stay with me.

Oh, Language. I’ve lived all the way to 2014 without really thinking about all of the meanings of resolution. How rarely do I think beyond the first meaning, a firm decision to do or not to do something, only occasionally making it to the second, the action of solving a problem.  Of course, the word is connected strongly to narrative, too: traditionally, a plot’s resolution comes after the climax and denouement. Yet how surprising and lovely to see the expansiveness of one compact word, including connections to poetry (prosody: the substitution of two short syllables for one long one), music (the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony), medicine (the disappearance of inflammation, or of any other symptom or condition), and photography/video (the degree of detail visible in a photographic or television image).

My favorite new understanding of the word, though, relates to its etymology: from Latin resolutio(n-), from resolvere ‘loosen, release.’  How strange that the root (a verb) creates a sense of letting go, but the most common sense of the noun connotes desiring control, of grabbing hold or wrestling with — a firm decision to do or not to do something.

In writing, my own usage usually relates only to the latter sense. I often resolve to write X number of words per week. I determine to finish drafts, to sit my butt in the chair for Y hours. I try to be adamant in my belief that my writing matters, even if there are no safe or easy outcomes. Some more synonyms for resolute: firm, unswerving, unwavering, steadfast, staunch, stalwart, unfaltering, unhesitating, persistent, indefatigable, tenacious, strong-willed, unshakable; stubborn, dogged, obstinate, obdurate, inflexible, intransigent, implacable, unyielding, unrelenting; spirited, brave, bold, courageous, plucky, indomitable; informal gutsy, gutty, spunky, feisty; formal pertinacious.

Oh yes, those senses of resolution are absolutely necessary in this writing life, where we get knocked around more than we get a hand up. We must be implacable, unyielding, gutsy, unswerving: we must square our shoulders in the face of rejection and envy and disappointment and blocks. We must keep working, keep on, keep on.

And yet: I love that early root, the sense of loosening or release, perhaps because my doggedness also can be a hindrance: I often find myself, in my writing especially, trying to fix or control things, to wrangle some cohesion amid the unsettling, unpredictable chaos of creation. But creation needs chaos; our writing needs to be released or looseneduntied, freed, unfettered, unleashed — from our intransigent grip. We need to remember to let go.

So, this year I will make but one resolution: to try to embrace those wonderfully contradictory states of resolve. To be both unrelenting and unfettered, unwavering and untied, unyielding and unleashed.

Wishing everyone a joyous, creative 2014,

BC

Staying inside

Mercy. It’s grown a bit cobwebby here at U-Leaves HQ. I think I just saw something scuttle under the floorboards. Apologies to the spammers who keep landing on the same old posts. I know that you are awaiting more of my “extreme informational posts that exceed great influence.” I appreciate the “A+ for simply excellence composing.”

I have been keeping my head down, trying to keep up the rigorous summer writing pace I set for myself. I gave myself until Aug. 1 to work this way, to ignore the outer world that is starting to tap on my locked door. Alas, that deadline hits tomorrow.  That means I’m about to get jiggy (is this how one spells jiggy? Quick: to the Ridiculous ’90s Slang Time Machine!) with all manner of fall teaching prep. I will keep writing, of course, but will have to add other tasks. The ever-precarious balancing act.

Despite the intensity of the semesters, I am ever grateful for the summer to work, for the uninterrupted time to immerse, which can be difficult, if not impossible, at other times. All told, factoring in travel and other whatsits, I had about eight solid weeks of immersion: sitting down every day, getting quiet, thinking, typing, rereading, taking notes, stringing story boards across my office, staring out the window with “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop called it. Some days were a bust, but most were productive, and I met my self-imposed goal.

Even if I hadn’t finished what I planned, I think (hope) I would find myself mostly content as I transition back into a different pace. Because it’s not really about the tally. It’s about the extended time that I got to spend in my fictional spaces, dreaming and puzzling and mucking about in the stories I created.

In the study of a second language, immersion is commonly understood as the best way to reach fluency. Live in a place where everyone speaks the language. That seems analogous to creative writers: Our place is the page (or stage or screen), and we, too, must live there. Primarily that means 1) years of reading and studying others’ books/plays/films, absorbing the craft of storytelling; 2) years of practicing our own stories, poems, and plays; and 3) hours daily/weekly going inside individual projects — going inward to the imagination, to the heady twilight space of creation.

For all of it, we need to carve out time from this insistent world, the one that will always tap — knock, rap, pound — at our doors and call us outside. Some days we must heed the call — some days, the outer life trumps, as it should. But some days, we must resist. Keep the door shut. Stay inside.

The only downside was that I didn’t get to spend time on the first part of the immersion: the reading. I normally devour one book after the next in the summers, nary an annotating pencil in sight. With travel and work through the days and into evenings, I kept to mostly to shorter nonfiction: pieces in the NYT and the New Yorker, mainly. Here’s what I did, happily, get a chance to read:

All of them were good —  heck, look at the writers — but I was engrossed/delighted/left a little breathless by Bender, Goodwin, Livesey, and Saunders. This fall, I will be digging deep into the short story, both for a sophomore lit class and a Forms of Fiction workshop. Another kind of immersion, I hope.

As for fluency: um, I think my analogy may fall apart here. I have no idea at what point anyone reaches this, if ever. Does any writer ever feel mastery? Perhaps. I don’t foresee it in my case. Regardless, I will keep struggling with the strange syntax of this writing life, stumbling over its irregular verbs, its subjunctive tenses, hoping that one day I will dream in the language.

What noisy cats are we

Those who know me know that I have a deep and abiding love for R.E.M. (both the band and the sleep cycle). That title, a lyric from Swan Swan Hummingbird, popped in my head the other day as TW and I were driving, and I sang it out as if it were still 1986 and Life’s Rich Pageant was in the cassette player as I clattered along in my Tercel, traversing the back roads of my hometown.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a song analysis or rank albums or howl for my lost youth (you’re welcome). I’m simply thinking about how art sticks around, how we adopt it and translate it and make it part of ourselves.

Lines come to me a lot: random bits of songs, poems, short stories, novels, movies, plays. They often return out of context, removed from their original state, little fragments that I add to my trove of language. Sometimes I understand why these bits come: the sound or rhythm, the image borne within, the humor. Sometimes it’s a mystery, but there they are anyway, like a flash of sun in the eye that forces me to squint, to take time to look closer.

Perhaps I’m pondering something that is screamingly obvious: People like to quote stuff. Along with porn and cat videos, the Internet is mostly just sites devoted to quotable quotes with hazy attributions (“I like Web sites”– W.B. Yeats). Perhaps, too, such a line-hearing habit is detrimental; first, it’s a bastardization of someone’s art, and second, it’s a colonization of my own imagination. Shouldn’t I remember the whole work? Shouldn’t I be drumming up lines of my own?

I guess if all I did was run around babbling quotes I might be in trouble. But for me, I’m not just repeating them to repeat them. If it’s about language or image, I’m examining that language or image, putting it on repeat or in freeze-frame in order to study it more closely, to understand its effect. Some recent examples: Shakespeare’s “How now, wit, whither wander you?” from As You Like It; Whitman’s “I depart as air/I shake my white locks at the runaway sun”; “They is, they is, they is” from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I turn them and turn them and turn them, and I never tire of their beauty and wonder.

Sometimes, though, these little flecks transform into my own little metaphor. Take the most recent reincarnation of”what noisy cats are we”: It returned to me as I was stopped in a car at an intersection, gazing out at the suburbs of Birmingham, which teemed with gas stations and food chains and exhaust fumes. Whatever the song’s intentions, over time, and removed from its source, it has become something else for me, a way to process an abstraction: something about the desperation of the masses, of how we find ourselves mewing and clawing at the state of our lives.

If I have a point, which is doubtful, I guess it’s that I find the possibilities of such fragments both remarkable and deeply reassuring as an artist and as an audience member. A song, even just a slice of it, can return unbidden to a person more than fifteen years after its first hearing, and allow that person to name and articulate a confusing, unconnected moment. These parts of the whole pulse and shimmer across time, gathering the dust of the universe, just waiting for a space to land.

These aren’t the droids: The feint of fiction

Confession: I recently re-watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back — or as I call them, Princess Leia Buns and Princess Leia Braids. Much to TW’s chagrin, I now have been walking around the house imitating Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick, complete with that awesome hand sweep: These aren’t the chips you’re looking for. These aren’t the ice cream sandwiches you’re looking for. I also asked him, “Don’t you have a Boba Fett doll?” He stared at me. “It’s not a doll.” I think he’s regretting his decision to invite me to that particular viewing party.

Aside from making me remember that I rode my Gold Fever Huffy (hello, handlebar tassles!) down to the one movie theater in my small Arizona town to stand in line to see it, that droid scene has made me think about fiction-writing and all of its myriad trickeries.

I really should just post Tim O’Brien’s wondrous essay “The Magic Show” here and be done with it. Seriously. Here’s one passage: “For a writer, and for a reader, the process of imaginative knowing does not depend upon the scientific method. Fictional characters are not constructed of flesh and blood, but rather of words, and those words serve as explicit incantations that invite us into and guide us through the universe of the imagination. Language is the apparatus—the magic dust—by which a writer performs his miracles. Words are uttered: ‘By and by,’ Huck says, and we hear him. Words are uttered: ‘We went tip-toeing along a path amongst the trees,’ and we see it. Beyond anything, I think, a writer is someone entranced by the power of language to create a magic show of the imagination, to make the dead sit up and talk, to shine light into the darkness of the great human mysteries.”

Seriously.

O’Brien also emphasizes the mystery that lies at the heart of this writing trickery, and I think that is what appeals to me about my jimmy-rigged Star Wars-fiction-writing analogy: Obi-Wan makes Luke (and us, the audience) believe because his trick is mysterious. We see the reality before our eyes: They are the droids! They are! Nonetheless, they are utterly fooled, and we blink in amazement. We see the trick performed, but we don’t understand it — and not understanding, counter-intuitively, is at the very core of why we believe.

Yet, the trick is no easy sleight of hand. Finding that exact language, as powerful and mesmerizing as it might be, gets complicated by each story that we set out to tell. I am thinking now about my current project, in which one of the characters is a young woman living in the mid-to-late 19th century American South. (I have written some about my imperfect process, including here.) As I (re)imagine her world, the choice of language suddenly becomes alien — because it is not my present language. She does not speak in this time or place. My trick is to make the reader believe that she is absolutely of that time and place. At the same time, she must be a fully fleshed-out character, with desires and longings and peculiarities and flaws, who speaks in her own specific voice.

In other words, to poorly mix a metaphor, I have a lot of Jedi mind tricks to pull out my little writing hat. Which means another kind of belief: in myself. And that’s the trickiest one of all.