Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Going to a place I don’t know yet

In Collages on March 31, 2010 at 7:22 am

In it’s present, unfinished state, the manuscript stands at about one hundred and twenty-five thousand words (one twenty-six, actually). I’ve re-read and made adjustments to some one hundred thousand of those, on the way to completing a pass involving landing the story. I suppose that could be read as meaning I’m about finished. But the feeling I get isn’t that one; and when I wrote the words “going for the final push” on yesterday’s blogpost, I did not mean “a finished manuscript”. I meant: a complete first draft.

Basically, I don’t know what I’ll be working with at the revision stage, so long as I don’t land that complete first draft. My  gut feeling is there’s another layer to it all –  or, at the very least, something I’m not seeing yet. There’s also a special brand of anxiety that attaches to  an almost-finished first draft; no matter what  you may do in terms of tweaking or re-defining afterwards, whatever imprint you’ve given to the story is what you’ll be working with (or against) all along.

I have a strange relationship to this particular story, because it takes me, the writer,  into a linguistic no-man’s land – at least, one that is considered such in the country in which this story is set. I’ve always avoided that zone, not so much because I’m a coward – at least, I don’t think so; more because it’s almost a foregone conclusion no one in the linguistic communities involved will a) want to publish this or b) approach it otherwise than defensively. It’s a bitch when you happen to inhabit a divide. There’s always one part of your community(ies) of origin willing to embrace  you for the wrong reasons, and another part more than happy to accuse you of high treason for ignoring their historical and moral claims, whatever those may be. And if you happen to treat these highly charged issues with anything resembling levity or less than total solemnity, I wish you well since you’ll be getting the disapproval from all directions, at least in the country of your forefathers.

There’s no point in thinking about it. Any more than there would be a point to paying attention to the folks in the watchtowers  on both sides, while crossing the valley on a high wire.  For now, it’s about making the story be true to the characters. For the rest, qui vivra verra.

Photo done in Chenal-du-Moine, Québec, in the summer of 2004, just before leaving on what was to be a one-year trip to Eastern Europe.

It all makes sense, somewhere.

In Collages, Current reading on March 30, 2010 at 7:54 am

It’s not silence in my head, this morning. It’s too many words and images; say, a tree filled with hundreds of birds settling in after a full day. In this case, since the birds are coming back from a full night of dreaming, there’s an incredible racket since they all have a piece of dream they want to report. So many birds, all at once, you’d think they could lift the tree and fly off with it, if they so decided. One, two, three – you look up, and there’s a full-branched and full-rooted tree, flying through the air with the greatest of composure and naturalness. There’s no point in jotting down the dream images here. I have to let some of the racket calm down so that a word or two will emerge from it all.

Why this photo? Because I like it. It looks like, somewhere in dreamland, Pythagore met a Persian astrologer who was a fesenjahn-loving kind of guy (Pythagore was more your basic, flat bread and olives personality). The meeting took place in a part of the universe under construction;  they discussed the laws governing the universe, and jotted down their main conclusions about it all. Judging from those jottings, the value of pi was still an approximation (or has changed since I first learned it). Pythagore was quite taken by notions of radius and circumference after this meeting, and wasn’t sure why. As for the Persian astrologer, he remains an enigma. I know he was spinning on his head at one point, à la break dancing dervish. He also cleverly impersonated a hood ornament on a jeep, on an African safari. Despite his severe appearance, he was a wild and wacky guy.  His presence in my mind may owe something to the fact I leafed through Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red last night which may not sound wacky; but that’s just because Pamuk isn’t the one reading his book, I am.

I remember waking briefly from all the dreaming with the thought that what matters when you’re writing (same as in acting) is where you are projecting your attention at a given moment.  It may seem either too subtle or too obvious, I don’t know; but I’ve noticed that where I put my attention while I’m writing affects the direction in which the story develops (or where I refuse to put it, which is another way of tying up energy in a specific pattern). A bit the same as when you concentrate on the melodic line of a single  instrument in an orchestral work.

Writing-wise, yesterday,  I needed to check for internal consistency in the first two hundred pages of manuscript, with most of my  attention going to the “political players”.  It feels a bit as if I were marking time, waiting for some of the players to get into costume or know their lines properly; but from the speech writing days, I know it’s also the place in the process where I clean up several of the loose ends before going for the final push.

How will this night be different from other nights?

In Collages, Film, Music on March 29, 2010 at 7:30 am

After two days with the film crew, I ended the photographic weekend with a stop at the Twenty-second annual art show in neighboring Brousse. I chose this painting by Gérard Lafourcade this morning because I loved the story he told me about what inspired it: visiting his grandfather’s farm as a child, he told him he really should remove all those spider webs on the windows in the stable. His grandfather looked horrified, and answered: “But… some of them are more than a hundred years old!” (After which, he gave the boy his real explanation: in his way of seeing things, the spider webs – both new and ancient – were natural fly catchers. Their presence benefited the cows.)

That was just one of the stories I heard this weekend. Meanwhile, the storyteller in my head continued weaving her own tales. For the writer, the title to this post – while a nod to the first question the youngest child asks at the Seder – is also a reference to the events that occur in the final night, and on the final morning, of the story.  I don’t even know the half of it at this point. But doing a quick read-through of some of the passages last night, apart from the various revisions I already foresee, I noticed I had left myself all kinds of clues as to what could happen and why. A bit like those white pebbles Hansel and Gretel dropped on their way through the woods. In the illustrated versions of that tale, the pebbles are usually shown in a neat and unmistakable path the children can follow back. My guess is a) they had small pockets, and few pebbles to begin with; b) they weren’t looking, and throwing them blind: c) they didn’t buy their pebbles cleaned and graded at Lowe’s Garden Center, so they weren’t all the same; d) hence, they had to do a bit of searching about, to locate them on their journey home from the witch’s lair.

The heros in my story won’t walk off into the sunrise like these two. Still and all, somewhere between the lines,  there will be some of that spirit – just don’t tell anybody, or I’ll be embarrassed. (Oh, and notice  the word on the first card to appear on the screen.)

Messy, imperfect lives

In Collages, Film, Hautvoir on March 28, 2010 at 7:39 am

There were three cameramen and two photographers at the film shoot yesterday. Whatever happens to the movie itself, the making-of will have been a well-documented process. At one point, while the next scene was being set up, I started doing what people do with a camera – fooling around. Took a whole bunch of useless shots of shadow figures behind the curtains, plaster squiggles on the ceiling; and this one of the broken fretwork on the piano (propped up with a box of supplies for the film crew.)

During this whole time, I talked with some of the extras, with the crew, with the people who live in this house. Fully engaged in whatever was going on, apparently. Yet, the shadow figures in my head were fully engaged in their own lives. It was almost like watching a speeded up version of a movie: scenes that will probably not show up in the story, but that are crucial to the writer’s understanding of what is going on when the characters are speaking up.

I am writing a messy, imperfect book about messy, imperfect lives. In that, I don’t have far to look: messy, imperfect lives are all around me and I happen to live right smack in the middle of one, myself. The beauty and privilege of being a writer, or a painter, photographer, film maker or other creative type is this: you take all that messy imperfection. You look at it, feel it, taste it, listen to it. You try to let it say what it needs to say. You try to get the flavor of it right. You try to make something of it. When you get it right, it’s beautiful – even if, objectively speaking, it’s “about” ugliness or pettiness or missed opportunities, it is neither ugly, nor petty, nor is it a door you mistook for a wall. It speaks for itself.

Sometimes, the words to achieve that take a long time in forming. Sometimes, the beauty and the truth are in the silences. Sometimes, things unsaid are not unpleasant ones. Quite the contrary. Sometimes, it’s best to let things be what they are, and to love them in their messy imperfection.

Staying the course

In Artists, Collages, FAR - Arts Center, Hautvoir, Visual artists on March 27, 2010 at 7:58 am

There were a lot of proud people in this venue last night*: the Mayor, most of the Majority’s elected members on City council (and even two members of the Opposition); painters, sculptors, photographers, suppliers, sponsors, and so on. Some one hundred and fifty, in total. There were many flavors to the pride. Some of it was overt – the beaming kind, the   “we made it!”, tinged with some disbelief and/or relief. People mingled, walked around, remembering what a dark, dank and dingy place the town’s covered market had been, and how, in its last days, you could only find there a handful of old women, selling garlic and scrawny chickens. (This last comment was clearly an exaggeration but it meant Ye Olde Irreplaceable Covered Market is giving way to Our Great Halle des Arts.)

There was pride in the fact that Graulhet now has a Visual Arts Center, like other “real” towns in the region. On the part of the workers, there was pride in having shown they could do more than change burnt out light bulbs, or paint white lines on pavement. One of the proud-proud moments was when one of the workers said his wife was signing up for drawing classes; not only did he say it, he was  proud to say her work would be exhibited some day. Apart from which the Mayor was ecstatic and the person responsible for making it all happen was cheered (and generously ribbed) by everyone. Meanwhile, one of the truly fine talents in the art show managed to stay upright and gracious through the compliments showered on him; people mingled outside, drinking wine,  on a small street that used to be known for its smashed beer bottles. And this writer’s Night in the House of Anticipated Disaster turned out to be what those things always are – the product of an overactive imagination, manifesting itself at an inappropriate moment.

On with the story? Yes, of course.

*and yes, of course, I’m posting updated photos on the community blog.

On totally messing up and ruining the story at page 358*

In Animals, Collages, FAR - Arts Center on March 26, 2010 at 7:26 am

In what is likely to be one of the final chapters of the story, one of my main characters discovered yesterday that just about everything on which he had built his life was a sham. For some reason, the writer wasn’t expecting that development any more than the character was. If the writer can keep her bearings, the ending has the potential for a Zorba remake – you know: “the full catastrophy” moment, as  you hang from the cliff and watch your grip start to fail. The moment when all your illusions stand revealed in the glaring light of reality, and there’s nowhere left to go, but down without a parachute.  A moment when others see what has evaded you all your life. The short version being:  you are a failure – and a ridiculous one, at that.

It’s the moment when a character has the choice between shooting himself (or others, if he’s so inclined); falling into terminal depression and/or terminal resignation; or finding a first-class alibi and/or scapegoat.  Or, somehow, getting the joke. That, of course, being the only acceptable option, at least for one of my main characters.  You see, just like their author, they are enrolled in a cosmic graduate course in humor. Not the snarky kind. The knowing it’s hopeless, yet sincerely laughing with delight variety (while others, seeing the extent of the mess,  wonder if you are quite right in the head).

Photo: Cybèle, not taking in the art show at the new venue in Graulhet (but most appreciative of the new floor tiles in the town’s former covered market).

*Only to discover pages 1 through 357 aren’t so hot either.

On a tiled wall, brightly

In Collages, Current reading, Sanford Meisner, Theater on March 25, 2010 at 7:36 am

The tile’s the thing, here. It fronts one of the many closed businesses in town – this one, a closed café on rue Saint-Jean. I turned to grab the reflection of a man who had just walked by, speaking loudly on a phone. He was on his way to the mosque, a bit further; it is located in a disaffected Catholic church on this same street.

The tile’s the thing because in my dream, it covered the base of a building in which was located a theater. The only way to access the theater hall was by scaling the tiled based like one would a rock face. The person I was with had managed it; I was still in the process of climbing up, literally gripping the grout with my fingertips. This may sound like a fairly challenging occupation. I suppose it was, although this is definitely an ‘ awake’ thought; in the dreamscape, the business of grout gripping left little time for emoting on the difficulties of the task. In fact, the dream sensation was more of intense attention on my fingertips,  plus a vague puzzlement as to why the architect hadn’t provided an easier access to the venue. (As I write this, I break out laughing. Why? See Chapter 4 in Sanford Meisner.)

Two other elements circling my head, this morning: the first article I read in yesterday’s New York Times. And aspects of the story that are emerging as two of my characters re-visit past events they did not live through together. The writer is the eavesdropping bystander in this instance, as she has no idea what the characters will discover exactly. (I’m still fascinated by those miniature humans, the Floresians, mentioned in the NYT article; they have nothing to do with the story I’m writing, but when there’s an itch… Off to find out more about them.)

Examining the template

In Collages, Poetry on March 24, 2010 at 8:36 am

I started writing a post, and realized just about everything in it was more useful in story. Related as personal recollection, it took on a somberness I don’t experience or, at least, one I don’t associate with it. A bit as if there was a template that applied to specific types of memories: My School Years; or My First Kiss; or… you name it: the day the dog died, the time I fell off the swing, Why Santa didn’t show up that year. If you’re telling the story, it’s for a reason. If others are listening (or reading), they’re doing it for a reason also. The reason is either to re-affirm  or to contest a point of view; or, to discover something unexpected, even in the most familiar-seeming memory.

I wrote a fairly short addition to one scene yesterday, then started reading and revising again, from the top. The more I know about the characters, the more I catch the places where I let the template take over – an internalized expectation of how things should go, based on hundreds of other stories. The template says; this is how people behave; this is how they react. It’s the mental equivalent of  those books supposed to teach you how to draw figures, or landscapes, or  how to become a rich and famous cartoonist.

The short scene I wrote came about because I asked myself why, in the second scene in the book, one of the characters was starting his sentence with: “This time…”  Why “this time”, I wondered. What happened some other time?  “La terre est bleue comme une orange jamais une erreur les mots ne mentent pas”, wrote Eluard. (The earth is blue like an orange never a mistake words do not lie). The poem came about because Eluard refused to “correct” the words “blue like an orange”.

I’ll continue going back and forth between the scenes today.

Photo: a favorite moment from a favorite place.

“I was thinking…”

In Animals, Collages, Current reading, Sanford Meisner, Theater on March 23, 2010 at 8:36 am

This is funny – a bit funny, anyway, because the iteration starts with Sanford Meisner. Chapter 4, more precisely, which I read through once again last night. One of the things on which Meisner insists with his students is: acting is the reality of doing. Most of the exercises he gives his students are designed to take them out of ‘thinking about’ and into direct interaction with real sensations, real feelings and the real people with whom they are in contact. “Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances,” is another way he expresses it. “Don’t think!” he’d tell some of his more cerebral students.

The ‘don’t think!’ part is where it gets funny because one of my characters happens to be a cerebral type. Not only does he think a lot, but he loves ideas. Thankfully, he loves a lot of other things too, but ideas are right up there in his list of interests. He likes to think about his business; about possible solutions to a stalled labor mediation; about issues of language; the future of his society, another way to… whatever.  He’s a thinker.

In Europe, they would call him an intellectual, and be done with it. Intellectuals exist; what can you do; it’s part of the human condition. In North America… you’d best look around and locate the exit, before defining yourself as such; for one. For another, if you happen to be the writer, you have a nice challenge on your hands.  As a reader, I’m more than willing to follow an interesting thinker  through a piece of non-fictional writing. When reading fiction though, I balk pretty quickly when a character starts expounding – just as I do in real life . My brain starts to hum while I smile pleasantly at the expounder, and concentrate on other things. I feed back a word, here or there at the pauses, to show my interest; then I’m off again into whatever appeals – which would probably be bird song these days. They’re arriving in droves; one of them hops around on the moss-covered roof on the shed, throwing up pieces of sod, chirping loudly and feasting every time he finds a grub. He doesn’t look like he’s giving a moment’s thought to the recent results at the French Regional elections, or the language laws in Québec, nor even Obama and Pelosi’s beautiful piece of work on health care. I guess he’s got other things to think about.

“Don’t think”? I’d amend that to: go ahead, but only if it’s real thinking i.e. fun, meaningful  and stimulating. In other words, filled with sensations and emotions, and gets somebody else worked up in that particular scene.  Then, the writer’s real fun becomes making it all those things on the page. Fun. F-U-N with Québec’s language laws? Good luck to me.

Photo of birds. Self-explanatory. I mean… I hope. Or is it? Or maybe… did I… do you…

Thoughts on re-working scenes

In Circus, Collages, Hautvoir, Music, Theater on March 22, 2010 at 8:33 am

First, this is what played over here most of the afternoon yesterday. It’s playing again this morning. Reading some two hundred and fifty pages of manuscript to this tempo? Don’t knock it. The parts in your writing that drag? You know it, believe me.

As for the photo, I took it right after the performance in the circus tent Saturday night. I would have liked to get a shot of the huge “doll’s house” behind the screens, but I didn’t want to disturb the performance. The various layers of screen were also used in the performance – the side ones serving as temporary picket fences on which the children puppets perched and passed comment on the actions of the adults in the house behind them. The “Greek chorus” consisting of the concierge and his wife were either on the ground floor of the house; or travelling in a gondola at the forefront; or singing on the top of the piano (barely visible on the left).

I  have as much fun watching the performers warm-up and wind down as I do watching a performance. Same with sets, lighting, costumes. The whole thing is exactly like grownups behaving like children i.e. playing with total seriousness and dedication to the game. The game gets boring? You change it; add players; delete some. Make the hero bigger or smaller. Add a bunch of screaming banshees. On second thought, make them smiling Sirens explaining their plight to Ulysses. Whatever. The game’s the thing. I fell into the pot when I was little.  I only saw my first play at age nine when I acted the part of a dim-witted child in a convent production. My job on stage was to provide comic relief – a clear instance of early typecasting. What I most remember about the experience was the ah-ha moment Shakespeare  had expressed for all of us years earlier. The whole world, a stage? Yes, indeed.

Thinking back on it now, I realize I became afflicted with stagefright the day I started taking myself too seriously. It still happens way too often. Finding the right brand and dosage of levity is not always an obvious thing. Falling into seriousness is considered the … well, the serious thing to do. Growing up, being an adult requires you be serious or, at least, do a creditable job at faking it. Same with drama, terminal angst, and so on. Again, if you don’t feel them to the bottom of your soul, no problem: with enough noise and special makeup, you can fake just about anything. You can even convince yourself, if you put your mind to it. What nobody can fake is  the delicious rush of air to the head when  the  ah-ha moments occur: a description, a line, a scene that are just right. A laugh that seems to just happen without being forced or contrived. Play, glorious play.