Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

From facts to story

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, Local projects, Music, New story on July 31, 2010 at 6:17 am

The mayor’s most recent projects for the town’s old mill had him working with regional authorities for its recycling into a self-powering hydro-electric station; it would have handled the town’s  needs in electricity. Experts are examining what is left of the structure since the fire. I doubt they will be able to save so much as the old tower: it is heavily cracked from top to bottom and there is such a thing as overbaking where bricks are concerned. My own photographic tour allowed me to see how close we came to losing that entire district the other day. Thankfully, workers have almost finished repairing the only other old building that was affected by the torching of the mill. (As to the fire’s origins, the inquiry is ongoing.)

The preceding paragraph is interesting to me for two reasons: first, as a record for a story still brewing in the background. Second, for the difference between a recording of facts and suppositions (as above) and the type of introductory paragraph that provides more than a lead into an eventual story; one that gets the story rolling. What would that be, in this instance? Perhaps a glimpse at someone lurking behind the singed trees. That person could either be the perp, or someone who had a personal stake in the mill’s existence; or someone who just happened to be there at the wrong moment. That person could be mistaken as the perp – someone saying “hey, I know him! I saw him hanging around near the mill just before the fire happened!” Whatever. Personally, that’s how I know a story project has gone from the simmering/brewing stage to the full launch, the stage of: there is no way I can stop this process until it stops of its own accord.  It’s a bit the same as when you lie in bed at night, going over the day’s events. Some get sorted out and filed for future reference. Others launch you into a full-fledged fantasy. You know you are making up most of it, and that’s just fine by you, because you are tumbling along with your story, smiling away straight into deep, delicious sleep.

This, simply because I discovered it yesterday and it kept me company through the writing during most of the day. The photography is magnificent: don’t miss the final shots. After which, for all subsequent listenings, I find the music is sufficient onto itself. (As for my title, I stick to the factual, for once.)

Rear-View Mirrors

In Animals, Drafts, Irish Mist, New story, Tea, Visual artists on July 30, 2010 at 5:49 am

I woke up thinking about them to the extent of using the words as the title to this post. Logically, I should be posting a photo of a car, but that’s not how my mind works. It’s too late to get issued with a new brain, so I’ll post the shot of the duck/goose at the window, and figure out later what I’m supposed to do with it. Although, now that I look at it, I see the resemblance with my friend Gédéon le canard – something in the eye, yes? In the expression I can only qualify as “goguenarde”; the words  “mischievous” or “mocking” will have to do in English.

Why rear-view mirrors? Partly because of a scene I wrote yesterday. Partly because of the memory of a neurologically-challenged moment when I  lost depth perception while driving at night. I couldn’t tell the difference between what was in front – as in ahead of me on the road – and what was in front – as in, a reflection in the rear-view mirror of what was streaming behind. Scary? Yes. Except, once I realized the body was handling the driving despite the nonsense, I didn’t relax exactly, but I kept my eyes off that goddamned rear-view mirror (and as unfocused as possible),  and made it home to shake the shakes out of my system. There’s a metaphore in there somewhere. It’s such an obvious one I don’t think I’ll bother with it much. Or maybe one of the characters will want to go with it; I don’t know, it’s still pretty early over here, and I’m writing this prior to my first cup of tea. Now that I think of it, a variation on that metaphore is just what I needed for another character’s way of explaining his life’s work.

Now, Gédéon le canard: what do you have to contribute to the mix? “Don’t forget the rest of Benjamin Rabier’s life work,” he answers. True enough, Gédéon. Thank you, my friend.


In Drafts, Irish Mist, New story on July 29, 2010 at 6:44 am

When you remember the past, do you recall entire scenes at once? I don’t.  A scent. An object. A taste. Something specific in someone’s appearance. A few words that still resonate. These are the traces from which I reconstruct events, like an archeologist drawing an entire pot based on one shard found in the ruins. Or an anthropologist extrapolating the existence of another hominid than Homo sapiens, based on the bones from one finger or metatarsal.

Whether this is the case for everyone, I don’t know, but what I call memories resemble a series of jumbled snapshots in an old cardboard shoe box. You pull them up in no chronological or logical sequence. In the case of memories, they fly up at you, as if out of nowhere: a typical house of Southwestern France under a sweltering sun, suddenly reminding you of a winter stroll with someone in an Austrian village. Why? Something in the shape of a tree, perhaps, or a half-glimpsed wind chime – who knows? The memory shows up; its activation changes the meaning of whatever was going on at that point. This story is writing itself the same way. A dream;  a bit of reading from another author;  a few bars of music; and there goes the cue ball, setting off reactions on the billard table.

The photo is self-explanatory. In French, snapshots are called “instantanés” – instantaneous ones. The miracle being how entire stories can be encrypted in a split-second of flashing light.

When the noise dies down

In Current reading, Drafts, Irish Mist, New story on July 28, 2010 at 7:09 am

The poster is in my room. It was on the wall at the Actes-Sud bookstore in Arles when I visited in early 2005. I asked if I could have it. The man hesitated, then he took it down, rolled it up and gave it to me. I like the text (translation below) but I was taken also by the fingerprint. The whorls in them fascinate me; same as do those in a newborn’s hair where you can trace the specific imprint that will produce that person’s characteristic cowlicks or other hair-related features.

The title is from a memory of a Florida campground in which I rented a mobile home for awhile. One of the owner’s three daughters came over to bring me a postal item. She stepped inside, and after only a few seconds, she said: “It’s so spooky in here. There’s no noise.”  The noise in her home environment drove me batty: three TV sets blared all day – not to mention the radio from the campground office, the TV from the Rec Hall, and the gatherings of her dad’s good-buddy network. Maybe she had never had the chance to hear herself think. Maybe the very thought of hearing her own thoughts spooked her. True enough, they can be scary or infuriating at times – but no worse than the  external screeds and the rants she was registering during all her waking hours.  At least, on the internal broadcasting system you can learn to modulate the volume and switch channels, too.

The translation: IN PRAISE OF SLOWNESS –  Faced with the risk of soon having nothing other to consume than fast-food literature, I feel the urgency of resisting to the growing power of culture managers.

The book is a stake of such magnitude that it requires other evaluative criteria than those of its speed of rotation. I even consider its irreplaceable richness to be tied to its slower moments and its more ponderous ones. They are part of those constraints that make a book a freedom that endures.

Yes, there is need for another time for the book: a time for the writer with his work, a time for the craftsman with his papers, with his ink, a time also for the librarian with his choices, for the bookseller with his trade, as well as for the reader with his pleasure.

Time, no doubt, for meetings to ripen, for the accomplishment of unpredictable metamorphoses. Time for slow wonderment. Time suited to the urgency of loving.

Jean-François Manier

Cheyne Editeur

Je persiste et je signe

In Drafts, Irish Mist, Music, New story on July 27, 2010 at 6:59 am

The writer was not whistling a happy tune nor was she thinking pleasant thoughts when she snapped this photo yesterday afternoon. Given that walking is once again part of the writer’s coping strategies, she was walking her funk through the streets of the town, thus joining other disoccupati who meander through Graulhet for hours on end. In this case, having a camera in hand fools everyone into thinking I am gainfully occupied. Nothing but a ploy and a face-saving device. In fact, the writer was dealing with one of those multi-directional funks wherein every aspect of her personal, social and professional life are called to stand up and defend themselves before the Court of Elders. Said Court of Elders not wishing to join the ranks of the unemployed wandering the streets of Graulhet, they are one bunch of nasty right-winger nuts.

I’ve come to consider the inner tribunal as part of my inner writers’ workshop. Among my other ploys for dealing with  states of anguish, despair and assorted despondencies: wild and unsubstantiated yammerings (preferably in longhand and on scrap paper); signed contracts between My Self & Myself (usually short and fairly blunt agreements to get the fucking draft finished, and save the crying and/or wailing for later); doodling (the more atrocious, the better); shaking around aka dancing to something loud and mindless; writing pithy, insulting responses to people long dead who should have known better than to piss me off. After which, I usually resume the writing, for better or for much, much worse.

On this particular draft, I’m not doing the orderly process of reading through from the top as I go along; I only visit back on previous sections to check on a name or some significant detail. If I were to do the orderly reading routine I’ve applied in other cases, I would probably jam up completely, as if catching myself in the act of being vulgar, mindless and tasteless. Best to save the cringing for last, and just keep barrelling down the hill for now. Hence, the title – standard contractual wording in French, meaning: I persist in my lies, aberrations and all other statements I consider to be my version of the truth, and hereby sign my name to every single one of them. So help me The Spirit of Pedro (a personal invocation).

Who decides?

In Drafts, Irish Mist, New story on July 26, 2010 at 6:44 am

On a Sunday afternoon drive, getting to the village of Saint-Mémy involves loops and turns along tiny country roads barely the width of the garage entrance in most North American homes. Once you get to Saint-Mémy, making a photographic record of it consists of one photo of the name marker near a wheatfield, and a three hundred and sixty degree exploration of the church and its reflections in the tombstones of the adjoining cemetery. There are a few houses spread out among the fields, but that’s about it. There was already too much going on in my head at that point so the visit to Saint-Mémy was quite enough additional material for one day. A lot to process, story-wise; I slept long and hard last night.

Who decides is truly the question this morning. The draft keeps swinging away from me like a poorly controlled sail on a yacht. Characters show up, do or say something, then traipse off, leaving me going: “whaaa… wait a minute, whose story is this, anyway?” Apparently, I’ll only find out once the energy runs out. Whether that will be the characters’ energy or mine is still to be determined. (I suddenly  have the mental image of a human fighting with a multi-necked monster, trying to get it to disgorge “The Truth, damnit, I’ll get it out of you”. Good luck, human, good luck. The Truth. All of it and nothing but.)


In Contes d'Exil, Irish Mist, New story, Visual artists on July 25, 2010 at 6:59 am

This post is a placeholder.

The photo is a placeholder for a thought. It  vaguely reminds me  of another wall in the town of Narbonne, one in front of which two of my characters are walking when one of them tells the other: “I’ve decided my next trip will be to Siberia.” As for the title, it’s not a reference to real-life families, no matter how varied and complex those may be. It’s an evocation of literary ones – the realization that all our characters are part of a complex family tree of their own – this character being an offspring of another, created years before. Stories travel inside you a bit like underground rivers do, then suddenly reappear in places where you never expected to find them. I don’t know how it all works. Goethe used the terms “elective affinities”. Henri Michaux’ biographer speaks of “amitiés circulaires” (circular friendships). In either case, how the elements find one another being something of a mystery; not the kind meant for resolving in the final chapter, the kind that saves the world from disenchantment.

This link is a placeholder to a world. Not to forget this one. Nor this one either.

Untitled (II)

In Hautvoir, Irish Mist, Local projects, Music, New story on July 24, 2010 at 6:24 am

Things are pretty quiet around town, these days – I mean, apart from the man-made messes with which to while away the hours. After school,the kids congregate in front of the downtown supermarket and panhandle to buy some beer; then, they wander across the street, empty the bottles and use them as various means of self-expression. The policemen don’t do much about it; they’re busy figuring out where they will be stationed next, now that their pull-out from the town has been officially confirmed. Once night falls, there isn’t all that much to do, except to follow the sound of the cars racing one another with boom boxes tuned to various angry raps – somewhat like competing loudspeakers  atop mosques broadcasting calls to prayer for the faithful; but even that usually dies down between three and five am. When the mayor’s wife showed up with flowers and more tales of horror from the front the other day, I said: “You know I’m not losing a word of this, don’t you? I’ll even tell you the name of the town in which it will all play out.” She left giggling and repeating that name with different inflections and intonations. It’s always nice to know you’ve made somebody’s day – after all, she had made mine with the flowers and the stories.

If all this sounds terribly grim, relax: it is and it isn’t. Don’t ask me how or why, but there’s a place in my head where making something of it –  whatever the ‘it’ may be –  is what matters most. Notwithstanding the speech one of my characters is delivering to another in the background over here, you don’t get to choose what life pitches your way. You don’t even get to choose your first reaction to whatever lands on you. The interesting part kicks in when you say: “OK, so what do I do with this?”

Still. I’d rather listen to A moi de payer than extract a grudging apology from a kid throwing bottles at passing cars. Hell. Who wouldn’t?

Oops. Stuck for a title again.

What is a grown-up?

In Drafts, Irish Mist, Music, New story on July 23, 2010 at 7:25 am

I’ve never worked a draft quite the way I’m writing this one. Usually, I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters, and working out detailed back stories. This time, most writing sessions feel as if a mike had dropped down in front of someone making a statement, or asking a question. I take it from there – meaning I write as quickly as I can without allowing myself too much time to think whether I like or don’t like how the scene is going. Even when I don’t like the scene, I’m not cutting or revising anything at this point. I’ve decided it’s all stet until I find out what the damn thing is all about.

The one constant that seems to be emerging in all the disjointed meanderings is that one basic question I used as a title to this post: what is a grown-up? What does growing up imply? How does it happen? When? Does it mean surrendering to other people’s expectations? Facing up to “responsibilities”, no matter how one defines them? Finding the courage to pursue a dream, despite all opposition? Finding some way to make something out of the trite, the trivial, the commonplace?  When does the decision kick in for this character or that one?

I have my own ideas on the topic, obviously. The most basic of them probably being I consider “growing up”  more a question of unlearning the expected, and heading for the heart of the dream, whatever it may be. Whether any of the characters will agree with me or not, I don’t know.

The drawing is from the ninth or the tenth century. The artist was a Wisigoth, settled in Spain. What the drawing meant to him, I don’t know but it reminded me of some of Jean Cocteau’s drawings I saw yesterday on youtube, used to illustrate Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose). That’s how the writing goes, these days: by associations and whatever iterations they inspire.

Question: Do I realize that none of this will get me a  passkey to the publishing world?

Answer: Without the shadow of a doubt.

Vermouth? Pastis?

In Current reading, Irish Mist, New story, Visual artists on July 22, 2010 at 5:44 am

This question may not strike you as a big deal, although it should. I explain: depending on your cultural background, God created the world in seven days – from chaos to finishing touches such as color-coordinated fashion accessories. Or he churned it out of pre-existing seafoam. Or he wrested it away from his pre-existing nemesis. Or he invented a nemesis with which he could fight trench warfare over the details. For this is an averred fact: both God and the Devil reside there.

Which brings us back to the fundamental question above. According to the man holding the bottles, as any fool can see, vermouth is the only way to go with these little bouchées. This is Southern France, mon ami, replies the maker of said bouchées, not the Isle of Capri. Pastis is a given and the only way to balance out the anchovy paste. I spare you the retort, and the moment when the onlookers will join in the fray. My attention is on the man at the center of it all because he’s the spitting image of one of my characters – last heard of attempting to sink a barge during a moment of inchoate frustration*. Given his own cultural background, his default vote goes to vodka. I shudder at the thought of his voicing that opinion. Watch his face. Imagine him piping up for a shot (or a neat dozen) of potato spirits. Imagine the ensuing silence. The first incredulous: “Mais! Monsieur…” The two gentlemen at the extreme right and extreme left of the photo starting up on their recollections of the Soviet troops during the War. The cook in the kitchen getting excited because his fish will be overcooked if the imbeciles don’t get around to clearing out the appetizers. And so on.

As good a place to start as any other, this morning. (The photo, by the way, is from Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s wonderful Vive la France, with text by François Nourrissier. I’m sure Nourrissier does a great job too, but these days, I’m having more fun providing my own commentary.)

* It happens to the best of us – frustration, I mean. Sinking barges is optional.