teaching

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.

Save

Ahem.

Oh, little blog. I haven’t forgotten you. Well, actually, I did, in that forgetting way that’s not really forgetting. You’re like that weird skin tag on my elbow about which I keep thinking, Yeah, I should get that checked. No offense.

Truth is, I’d much rather be jotting down rambly bits about writing. It’s November, which in semester-land means, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S HOLY, WHY DID I ASSIGN SO MANY PAPERS? Teaching. It’s nothing new to say that it can be a creativity-killer, but I’ll beat that poor old horse some more. On second thought, no. That’s boring. I’m so bored with talking about pedagogy et al that I could yank out my vocal chords and wing them across the quad.

I know, I know, it’s always a balance between paying-the-bills work (job-job) and writing (work). I say this all of the time, and it’s true, but I’ve lost the balance for the moment. I’m the fat kid on the teeter-totter once again, hanging lower, feeling the slitted gazes of others. (Ah, grade-school recess: the puke-inducing, scrape-the-skin-off-your-knees merry-go-rounds, those weird double-helix-looking jungle gym things that some kid always fell off of and broke his arm, the metal slides that burned the backs of your thighs…)

I’ve taken in my head (and sometimes aloud) to referring to myself by my last name: Okay, Chancellor: Get a grip. Okay, Chancellor, where’s your son-of-a-bitching purse? So, New Plan. Okay, Chancellor: You will write here with great frequency. First thing, before the day takes over, before the light of day if needs be. Give yourself the space for it. Type until something comes. This is how you write. This is how you write. This is how you write.

The X of Y, or something

During my first year of full-time teaching, my fiction writing of course took a hit. In those last days of spring semester, I was barely holding on, slogging with clumsy feet, clawing at my throat with an eye on the glimmer in the distant sand: summer writing time.

It’s a strange thing, though, to have a substantial — though ultimately limited — stretch of time before you. I spent part of May panicking, like, shit, shit, I only have X time to do XYZ and PDQ. Plus, it’s hard to return to the focus — that “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as Elizabeth Bishop calls it — that new writing demands each time, especially when you’re scrubbing off the rust of months of neglect. I spun in my chair, my worst fears embedded in the blank screen: the summer was going to be a bust. Here I was, with the perfect conditions, everything I needed, and I couldn’t do it.

But come on, little peanut. Everything’s not going to get written in a summer. That’s not how it works, or at least not for me. I have to work consistently, year-long, even when many of those months are unproductive little bastards. When I reminded myself of that, and I switched off Radio KFKD (thanks, Anne Lamott!), the knots in my psyche finally unclenched a bit. I’ve done steady work, much of it messy and some of it total disaster, but some of it not half-bad. I feel all right as the summer days begin (alas) to grow shorter, as my mind drifts more frequently to thoughts of fall planning. Rather than flog myself over what I haven’t accomplished, I thought it might be a nice change to step back and see what I have done. Imagine that. Oh, age.

I didn’t set a specific goal for pages or word count, just more of a grunting Write More. I started a new novel (the one  I have been working on the last few years is in the drawer for the mo’) and am trying to get my story collection into better shape. Here’s the tally:

Novel X: 76 pages

Short-story Y (draft 1): 16 pages

Short-story Z: 7 pages (finished-ish)

Okay, okay, okay. Back to work.