Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Things I’m learning about story building

In Collages, Hautvoir, Story material on January 31, 2010 at 8:26 am

One of the values of a blog such as this one – or any other record-keeping device – is how you can follow the progression of projects through their various stages of enthusiasm, despondency,  hope, wrong turns, total crash, partial recovery, and so on; and, hopefully, on to some form of satisfactory resolution.  Of special interest to me is how the photos and morning notes later translate into fiction. This is probably different for every writer but,  in my case,   I notice there is usually  a twenty-four to forty-eight hour time span between the first spark of a story development – the first triggering image, word, emotion, physical sensation – and the actual writing of that scene. Equally interesting is how the writing itself always contains an element of surprise, when I compare it to the initial jotting: I discover the character has his or her own way of dealing with the material – which is the part that makes the actual writing so much fun.

The photo above is a good illustration of this process: Friday,  on a quick trip to Lavaur to stock up on coffee, I grabbed this shot of a sports shop I’d photographed a while ago. This time, the fishing gear was the element holding my attention, although I had no idea why. I still need to get a few more facts straight about that sport  but clearly, this particular shop window, photographed on Friday, was an essential element in triggering the revision I did yesterday afternoon on a scene  involving a fisherman.

The interesting insight for my own purposes being the following: in the first rush of story, what comes at me is mostly raw emotion – whether soaring to the heavens or best described as raw sewage is irrelevant. Best not to mess with it and just get it down in all of its excess – be it maudlin, gross, incredibly stupid, over the top – whatever. When you’re panning for gold (which you may or may  not find in the end), you start by shovelling mucky sand before panning it. Sedimentary, my dear Watson? You bet, except I spent years and years attempting to have the perfect sentence on the page first, before attempting the next perfect sentence, and so on. In my mind, it was as if the story was supposed to appear in draft form  the way it does in a printed book. Guess what? It didn’t work.

Speech writing and other writing to specs freed me from some of that. You have to start with whatever grandiose or stupid idea someone else wants worked up into a three, fifteen or sixty minute presentation  of how clever (or predictable) his views are on a given topic; or the remarkably deluded image that person has of his importance in the overall scheme of things. You do it by finding recurring themes, listening to that person’s speech patterns and favorite expressions; identifying an emotional core (or creating a publicly appealing one, in the case of some personalities I’ve known). From there, you string together the words until there’s some kind of rythm and progression to the whole thing. You go from messy to presentable and, occasionally, to standing ovation for the orator  (I regret to say the ovations didn’t always match up with my own estimation of what was a good speech, but that’s another matter). Neither ghostwriting nor speechwriting did much for me in terms of finding my own voice; in my case, that came a lot later, and I’m still working on it. Maybe it’s something you work on all your life, the same way dancers or musicians evolve in their own style? Rendez vous in five years for an update on that topic.

Among other things I’ve learned so far: 1) the more growth there is in one character, the more growth there will be in other characters in the story and 2) the best way to deal with that is through partial revisions i.e. when I reach a plateau in one character’s development, I start readjusting the others to that level, until another character pushes the story forward to another level, and so on. It makes for messy drafts out of which the story emerges a bit the way photos used to do, when you dipped the impressed paper into the developing solution. It also makes for drafts on which you must work every day (or miss one day at the very most), if you don’t want to get caught up in a backlog of sensations and emotions in desperate search of their character. Even a short writing session that nudges one character forward by a few millimeters is better than no writing at all.

Off to do just that, as the afternoon will be taken up with a photo shoot on another scene in the film being done locally about the Great Strikes of 1910 in the leather tanning industry.

This was RL Bourges, reporting from Graulhet*

In Artists, Collages, Current reading, Hautvoir, RLB trivia on January 30, 2010 at 6:51 am

Looking forward to  reading this. Rich Oppel writing he’s failed at retirement? Let’s hear it for Oppel. Just the word feels like you’ve been recalled because of that fundamental defect in manufacturing called aging. Thanks; this clunker is passing on the opportunity.

I sense one of my characters will much enjoy  Reporter’s Notebook. Just as I enjoyed having her in my mental backpack last night, while I played town photographer at a vernissage, then at a political rallye.  I’ll save the funniest moments of the evening for her. I live here and some things are best  transmogrified into story.  I know Kate will be more than happy to rework some of them under her byline.

This morning, it’s on to a presentation by architectural students. The good part of all this being a growing sense of convergence in various people’s energies in Graulhet. Visible, tangible things are starting to emerge from all the work people have been doing in the background. I can’t say how satisfying it is to record and report on it. Last year, around this time, I remember thinking the town as a whole felt as if it would never recover from the trauma of its economic collapse. Now,  there’s a growing number of people lifting their eyes off the sidewalk, looking around, talking and laughing. It’s certainly not because the  overall situation has improved, economically speaking. But the focus of attention is shifting away from the glum – at least, there’s movement in the  direction of growth, and hallelujah for that.

Afraid that’s it for now, if I want to get the other blog online and some reading done before the architectural students’ presentation.

photo: at the vernissage, where someone enjoyed playing the celebrity hounded by paparazzi.

* Sometimes, I find some of my characters do a good job at giving me more confidence. (Thanks, Kate).

To seek the unreachable – how does that song go?

In Animals, Collages, Hautvoir, Music on January 29, 2010 at 5:28 am

I was on my way to look at prize-winning Arabian horses when I snapped this photo last Sunday. I snapped it after the non prize-winning horse and I had exchanged horse-human greetings, because I liked the sign in the foreground, and the glimpse of the Montagne Noire in the background. As for the Arabian horses, there were serious buyers evaluating one of them, so gawkers were not welcome; some other time.

Funny how things happen sometimes. One of the thoughts that woke me this morning was related to something I read in my dentist’s waiting room yesterday. I’d picked up a back copy of France’s reference publication in the world of sports – L’Equipe – because I’d happened to chat with one of its former journalists the other day. This particular issue was devoted to what the French call football and the English call rugby.  I chanced on a declaration by the coach of the Liverpool team for whom the game isn’t a matter of life and death; “it’s way more important than that,” he said.

On the face of it, the quote is ridiculous or laughable. Rugby, more important than life and death? Uh… Except, I think I understand what the man meant. You live, you die; that’s what everybody does. What makes the difference is something you care about so passionately that you’ll walk the space between the worlds, if need be, to stay with it – whatever “it” may be.  Actually, one of my characters thinking about it was what woke me up. It was a bitter-sweet thought, in her case, because she’s a sculptor who works in clay. Not the most resistant of materials, for one. For another, what she was realizing was that she kept projecting herself into whatever she was making, as we all do. But the moment inevitably arrives when the work is done. Whether it be good or not, appreciated or ignored, it’s finished. Whatever she had tried to achieve was still unexpressed, in the space between the worlds. There was  nothing else to it, except to go back and give it another shot.

The title: yes, of course, I’m thinking of Jacques Brel’s original version of the song, inspired by none other than Don Quixote. It’s better than wondering what the hell you could do with yourself for the next run through yet another day, yes? I think so (but, in my case, hold the violons and add a bit of humor; I mean, as much as I love Brel, my space between the worlds has a different look and feel to it).

What about baseball caps worn backwards?

In Collages, Hautvoir, Opinion, RLB trivia, Visual artists on January 28, 2010 at 7:32 am

The link between the title and the photo runs through the great burka debate. One of the more minor political figures in the kafuffle contributed her two-centimes’ worth recently by inviting young men to show their loyalty to the values of the République… by not wearing their baseball caps backwards. No, this was not a demonstration of primary anti-Americanism. Apparently, this woman equates such positioning of  headgear with contempt for the values she holds most dear. Her outcry sounded like that of a harried housewife telling her adolescent son: “I will not have you sitting down to dinner wearing your baseball cap.”  As every parent has learned, choosing the wrong fight never improved matters for anyone. Moreover, political figures who decide to act in loco parentis strike me as slightly confused in their  understanding of their mandate.

As for telling women what they may wear or not – and doing so on the pretense of improving their freedom of choice?  How is that going to  resolve  problems of daily coexistence between neighbors whose values happen to challenge the other’s most cherished assumptions? What Joan Walsh and Joe Klein had to say about the Left-Right divide struck at the core of the issue. Left-leaners (bless their hearts, as I am one of ‘them’) tend to love their ideas to the point of disregard of practical considerations such as… well, applicability, for example.  Right-leaners only make that mistake when they forget that it’s not all about control or, at least, that they will never achieve total control on everyone and everything. A sad reality? I know the would-be tyrant I harbor thinks so; I assume the same holds true for everybody else’s.

What does this have to do with the story? Just about everything. It’s never really about burkas, baseball caps, length of hair or appropriateness of dress (or undress).  It’s about self-definition, and the border clashes between character A’s will to impose that definition on character B; and what happens when B complies, or refuses to do so. It’s about compliance and refusal, confrontation and accommodation. It’s about dealing with the unfamiliar, be it discomfort and pain or – heaven’s to betsy! – delight and enjoyment.

As for the photo itself, I snapped it at a town hall meeting the other night and the character is pointing toward the local Photography Club which I’m thinking about exploring one of these days – to finally learn how to use all the functions on my digital camera, for one; and for the fun of rediscovering old fashioned film development, for another.

Box-checker, maybe?

In Collages, Hautvoir, Music, RLB trivia on January 27, 2010 at 8:17 am

This is a case of serious infatuation: I’m probably going to search out and watch every single performance by pianist Krystian Zimerman, and especially those where Leonard Bernstein is conducting the orchestra. I spent over an hour last night, totally entranced, doing just that. My own eyes and ears are corroborated by the attitude of the musicians in the orchestra, by the way: you rarely see  orchestra musicians totally attentive to a soloist’s performance; outside of their own contributions, or preparing for their cues from the conductor, they usually look as if they’re off in their private world, wondering what Mitzi  meant when she said…, or whether they should see about that twinge in their … Not so here. As for the conductor, how often does it happen that he dances around on the podium, and embraces his soloist like his long-lost son? Not often is the correct answer. So, if you enjoy this kind of music, look forward to a moment of unmitigated happiness with the entire concerto series.

Back to earth. Meeting at the employment office this morning with: a) my cv; b) my passport; c) my residency permit; d) my formal attestation from the ANPE (Agence nationale pour l’emploi)  that I am indeed expected in their offices and e) an eight-page document  I received yesterday afternon, and must fill in forthwith. Everything in it must be answered by checking little boxes. Ours is a contentious relationship, little boxes and I. It only gets worse when the public servant must then fill in the corresponding little boxes on his/her document during the interview. My life has a hell of a time trying to fit into little boxes. Off to give it a go. I’d rather be spending some time with one of my characters who’s finally starting to feel like a real person to me. This afternoon, for sure.

Photo: from the days when Graulhet exhibited its wares in Paris. Part of an ongoing process of collecting data for the story in French.

Settling in

In Collages, Contes d'Exil, Hautvoir, RLB trivia, Story material, The Art of Peace on January 26, 2010 at 6:52 am

I chose the above photo because of the main character in a little tale playing itself out locally, and because of another local character whose business (seen in the background) is now up for sale. Reason for sale: radiologists are not supposed to chase people out on the street with an object variously described as a machete, a coupe-coupe, a cane… the list continues, and the story grows according to the teller’s state of mind or of inebriation. Since I wasn’t the one chased with a hunting spear and a blow-dart, I happen to see the radiologist as a Capitaine Haddock, minus the Capitaine’s kind heart and fundamentally sunny disposition.)

Back to the main character of today’s tale. He is only one. I show him as two on the dresser, because of his unfortunate addiction to both spirits and spirituality, and because of his remarkable double take when he saw me last night at the town hall meeting.  His attitude leaves no doubt that he is indeed the one who so liberally contributed to my administrative woes. The  deliverance of my residency permit is not a piece of delightful news for him. Simply put, the days of the proferred hand and of the ingratiating smile are over. Henceforth, ’tis war, comrades, and the gnashing of teeth will resound through the land.

Of course I’m exaggerating, where would the fun be if I didn’t?  If I told it straight, it would be the sad tale of a frustrated and lonely man who aspires to a state of sainthood in order to escape whatever it is that’s grinding him down. Sainthood isn’t working; there must be a reason – foreign heathens, perhaps, who write about the town without benefit of a press card? Or who organize events and get the town to renovate a piece of property for collective use by artists?  As I am now of this town, and not just in it, the gentleman is now part of my reality, as I am part of his. It will be interesting to see how the tale plays itself out in the coming months. My companion succinctly describes the man as “un fumier” (horse manure). In my short-tempered moments, I concur. In my more reflective times, I tell myself there’s real value to having such a dedicated antagonist in one’s immediate surroundings. It means The Art of Peace is still a handy reference to keep close at hand. He’ll clearly give me lots of opportunities to practice #50 – in my own way. How so? Let’s just say non-resistance does not mean non-activity. I like to combine  a bit of Morihei Ueshiba with a lot of Sanford Meisner. (But, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind just good old friendliness and pleasantness; luckily, there’s plenty of that available, if you choose where to look. It helps  even out the not-so great stuff.)

What is certain:  settling in won’t be boring, and keeping my own sacred space – that  for story – will be more crucial than ever.

What makes story?

In Collages, Current reading, Music, Visual artists on January 25, 2010 at 6:26 am

This morning, I was thinking about one of my characters when I chose this photo rather than another I had taken just before. The other shot allows a better view of the drawings and paintings on the floor;  in other words, it’s a photo about the works of art. To my mind, this one  has story potential in it because of the added elements provided by the  position of the chair, the open door, and the glimpse on the outside world. Someone lives here; opened the door; placed the chair in that specific spot.

Before choosing this photo, I’d been lying in bed thinking about one of my characters, about Camus and about Bach. Not because the character listens to the Goldberg Variations while leafing through his Pléiade edition of Camus’ collected works. He’s not that kind of guy, and the books he owns are certainly in paperback editions. The association is more in the writer’s own sense of what constitutes a personal magnetic core  on matters of ethics and morals. Basic  elements relating to structure and invention in the case of Bach; the assurance that, no matter what, somewhere in the chaos, there is always an ordering principle and his name isn’t God: it’s Johann Sebastian.

As for Camus, suffice it to say that when I walked out of City Hall with my papers the other day, the first thing I did was buy myself the Figaro hors-série devoted to him –  for almost fifty years now, he has been the one literary figure most emblematic of my personal views on what this country can stand for. The magazine is a beautiful piece of work, not in the least bit hagiographic; the man and the artist are there, strengths and weaknesses on full display.  The passage that resonated yesterday afternoon for my own writing is the following quote on page 72 of the magazine. It’s taken from L’homme révolté: “apprendre à vivre et à mourir et pour être homme, refuser d’être dieu. Au midi de la pensée, le révolté refuse ainsi la divinité pour partager les luttes et le destin communs. Nous choisirons Ithaque, la terre fidèle, la pensée audacieuse et frugale, l’action lucide, la générosité de l’homme qui sait. Dans la lumière, le monde reste notre premier et notre dernier amour.” (Learning to live and to die and, to be human, refusing to be god. At the noonday hour of thought, the rebel thus refuses divinity in order to share the common struggles and destiny. We will choose Ithaca, the faithful earth, a thought both daring and frugal, lucid action, the generosity of the man who knows. In the light, the world remains our first and our last love. –  The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt.)

It being understood none of my characters would be caught dead saying such things – probably not even in the quietest parts of their own minds. Hence, my personal image of the magnetic core holding together even the most seemingly random or unsuitable set of story elements – and setting them to spin in the sunlight, as it were.

Different perspective

In Collages on January 24, 2010 at 9:36 am

Photo as placeholder to the thought about two of the characters: why exactly are they in the story i.e. what do they contribute to it? How can they do a better job of it? Story-wise, that’s my main focus today.

Uncharted seas

In Collages, Current reading, Hautvoir, Visual artists on January 23, 2010 at 8:29 am

I won’t be using the above photo on the community blog today. Why? Because, added to the fabulous trick of lighting in Baxter’s lithograph (the title translates as:  André identified the problem almost immediately), there’s another work reflected in the dark space André is exploring. Thanks to it, the viewer might assume that André’s problem  is none other than the witch and the squawking chicken in Albert Léman’s litho, hanging on the adjacent wall. But no, whatever André has identified has a gravitational pull stronger than that of a witch, even combined to a chicken’s; a pull sufficient to distort and bend light  at will.  I suspect André’s problem to be a snark, cleverly disguised as a black hole; in other words … deep breath … none other than a Black Hole Boojum, the grand daddy of the  handful of tenth-dan black belt boojums dispersed across the known universe. The exhibition isn’t titled Dessine-moi une histoire for nothing (meaning: Draw me a story). Clearly, it fed right into my habit of spinning unlikely stories, on my way to attempting to  write some of them down.

Several of the characters in my story are now on the threshold to the lair of their personal Black Hole Boojum – the place where you deal with your greatest challenge. By some neat trick of circumstance, the greatest challenge always happens to be the one begging for resolution. Life is clever that way.

It’s a pity you can’t save and replay dreams because I had a neat one in which I was out at sea with a famous navigator (I think it was Eric Tabarly). I happened to be swimming instead of sailing which made the information even more pertinent. The navigator was providing me with a veritable Beaufort Scale of wave magnitude and how best to deal with each kind. Clearly, you don’t use the same techniques to stay afloat in short, lapping waves as you do when saying ‘hi’ to a watery wall about to descend on you.   I think the navigator was Tabarly because the dream brings  me back to an interview of his I read several years ago. The interviewer asked: “But, Monsieur Tabarly, how do you deal with a wave that’s ten or twelve meters high, or even higher? Tabarly replied: “I go up one side, then down the other.”  His response may sound either snarky or simplistic, or both. But from what I know of the man, he was saying: don’t panic, concentrate on essentials, and keep going.


In Collages, Food, Hautvoir, Story material on January 22, 2010 at 9:40 am

After the reading at the Médiathèque, the woman seen here, unknowingly facing the camera, said to me: “You really love photography, don’t you? I always see you taking pictures.” Which is true enough. Especially in the past two years, I’ve taken to recording things visually whereas I used to translate everything into word images for my own benefit. In many ways, photography and writing are incompatible. In the first instance, the eye and the finger make the final decision; while you’re concentrated on them, you rarely pay attention to what the scene suggests, word-wise. When I want to record, I photograph. When I want to experience the scene, I listen to the words it suggests in my head. So, the two are not so incompatible after all, and can be complementary, on occasion.

But the biggest advantage of walking around with a camera is right there in the above snapshot: you can be at an event,and get away from the small talk whenever you so choose.  You can concentrate on what amuses or intrigues; in other words, you  have a good excuse for doing your own thing. As a writer, for example, I doubt I could have gotten away with peeking at people through the library stacks; had I done so, a friendly nurse’s aid would have offered to guide me to the closest infirmary. The camera does for me now what my press aid kit did for me years ago:  it legitimizes my coming and going.  I can sit for hours when writing but, except in extraordinary circumstances, fifteen minutes of social chatter is pretty much my outside  limit; after which the  backlog of unspoken things gets so heavy the chattering becomes downright unpleasant. (Extraordinary circumstances being those where people don’t mind talking about whatever comes up, rather than what decorum dictates.)

The usual schedules don’t apply today – no need to cook or otherwise be on call. It’s just my characters, me and my dog. We’ll see how that plays; one of the characters has been fooling around with a recipe from his childhood. It’s called gibelotte; it’s a catfish soup from the Chenal-du-Moine area near Nicolet, Québec*.  For the character, it’s not coming out any better now than it did then. Maybe if he skips the carrots?

*Sorel, actually; both the writer and the character got confused with another ancestor’s home in Baie-du-Fèbvre, close to Nicolet.