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Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

Yours, Mine, Ours, His, Hers, Theirs

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, New story, Revision on October 31, 2010 at 7:04 am

In itself, the photo is nothing exceptional. But as I took it  yesterday, a loud man’s voice broke in, asking me first what I was doing, before adding that it was forbidden. I walked across the street, and showed the concerned neighbor exactly what I had photographed i.e. autumn foliage. As often happens when somebody snaps at you, and discovers he/she was wrong to do so, the man did not apologize, nor laugh; he simply turned around, and walked back into his house. The net result of this encounter being that I’ve developed an inordinate attachment to this photograph; it will appear as the Photo of the Day on the community blog, and I sent it along as a birthday greeting to a relative.

There are days like that: where motives are questioned; values challenged; character and personality given the House of Mirrors treatment editorial cartoonists use with varying degrees of wit and finesse. The saving grace being fiction, at least, for a fiction writer.  Same as a journalist covering an event, the writer can’t be observing her own and someone else’s behavior, and totally letting fly with the outrageous statement on the tip of her tongue – thus 1) sparing both her own and someone else’s legitimate pride and self-respect and 2) reserving the better nonsense for storyland.

Storyland in which most of  the main characters in story are now poised for some momentous event or another. Fiction allows, and even demands that issues be resolved or somewhat tidied up before the words The End intervene. Thank you fiction, where the crow may fly in a straight line, and  cut across  endlessly meandering rivers.

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All I meant was…

In Circus, Drafts, Irish Mist, New story, Revision, Theater on October 30, 2010 at 6:08 am

Getting the various bits to cooperate. As in: The Social Contract (represented above by Figures B and C in the boat) vs The Primal Forces (represented by Figure A). I’ll take it on a very small scale, although the demonstration works just as well if you approach it from the wider political perspective. I’ll take it from: what kind of early-morning person are the characters in this story?

Surprisingly (for those not so arranged), some people rise in the morning, already fully equipped for the balmy boat ride. They may not be dressed yet but, metaphorically speaking, the sails are up, the picnic lunch is already packed, and they are just waiting for the opportunity to signal the departure time. Others… well, others aren’t yet clear on whether they are truly Figure A, Figure B, Figure C, or the boat, or the sea; or perhaps, a combination of all of these. Early morning encounters between these two types of people are fraught, and no amount of careful planning can eliminate the occasional encounter of the type described on the tin, photographed above. (To get this down to the personal, I am sorry to say I usually play the role of Figure A, in these cases, as in: can’t you see I’m not even awake yet? How should I know how well I slept? I’m still figuring out who I am, and whether this is the room in which I make the coffee.)

So: early-morning encounters as metaphore illustrating some of the bigger clashes out there, such as those between Tea-Party candidates (or other such political figures in other countries) and activists for environmentally sound uses of the seas and all of its resources; or any of those two vs those quiet citizens who aspire to nothing other than a quiet day spent doing quiet things with other quiet people. Or said quiet citizen, driven into a raging frenzy by the constant playing of rap (or opera) by a neighbor. Or…

In other words, the fracture zones where one world view gets challenged by another. How characters cope (or don’t) with them. How a discussion between a choice of pickles or relish with the sandwiches can end with a declaration of eternal love, or of lasting enmity; or a stand-off; or a food fight; or…

(The tin contains sugar cubes, by the way, and is an ad for Les machines de l’île in Nantes. Photographed at a choir practice at Théâtre du Rugissant.)

Choosing the Better Choice

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, Local projects, New story, Revision on October 29, 2010 at 6:50 am

The title is straight from a spam filter find, which makes author attribution difficult. The words may even have been generated by a software dedicated to automatic translation. In any event, it has a nice ring to it, and fits both the photo and the conundrum described at a meeting I attended yesterday, so that’s where this post begins.

The photo: a section of a Google map, showing a part of Graulhet now being modelized by teams of architectural students from Toulouse and from Québec City. Graulhet is turning into something of a darling for architectural schools, because the challenges facing city planners are so varied, this place makes an ideal “cas de figure”. As a matter of fact, during yesterday’s presentation, we all broke out into helpless laughter at one point: one of the elected members of City Council and the town’s architectural consultant were explaining some of the intricacies involved in reconciling the various bits of French legislation pertaining to: waterways and their banks; dealing with soil and building pollution by heavy metals; contemporary industrial and residential zoning requirements; expropriations involving absentee landlords;  financial aid programs for owners in zones designated for historical preservation; … and so on.

The presentation itself was a first-phase meeting on a project involving the use of Second Life as a virtual building and renovation laboratory for the section of Graulhet pictured above. Everybody seemed pretty excited about it; I wasn’t un-excited, far from it, but my questions tended more toward my usual preoccupations in those settings i.e. how do you get the message out to the main parties concerned (the town’s inhabitants); how do you get them involved and somewhat excited too; how do you make sure you are taking their concerns into account. A good first meeting; and lots of side conversations involving the human side to all these virtual realities and projections – the so-and-so says such-and-such but really thinks this other thing; don’t tell him/her I told you, and by the way, how are you these days?

Which, of course, brings me straight back to storyland, the only place where I can fool around with the better choices and the really bad ones in all impunity. Call it managed irresponsibility  or virtual realities using words as their principal building tool.

“That’s not how it goes”

In Drafts, Irish Mist, Music, New story, Revision on October 28, 2010 at 6:53 am

It was a gorgeous afternoon. We laughed, we sang, we drank coffee, ate home-baked cakes.  Through it all, like the high-pitched whine of that lone mosquito in the night, The Scolder provided counterpoint. Whether said counterpoint was a necessary ingredient or not, I can’t say. Is the lone mosquito in the night truly required so you will know how much you appreciate uninterrupted sleep?

In any event, The Scolder couldn’t help herself. When she wasn’t scolding herself, she was scolding the others. (No, it wasn’t me! I swear! I was on the receiving end, like everybody else). The funny part being how The Scolder’s comments are the ones that stick. More than that,  all the good-time feeling to the afternoon becomes an indefinite, fuzzy blur , if I discount them – which is probably why I’m concentrating here on the details that grate rather than on the overall pleasantness of the experience. My point not being: why, why, why did The Scolder have to scold, but 1) how and where those pinpricks to everybody else’s balloon occurred and 2) how they influenced (or didn’t) the flow of events, and the other singers’ performances. (Truth be told, everybody else went on with the singing, except when interrupted by the choirmaster who has a perfect ear, and a sunny disposition to boot.)

There are one or two characters ready to latch onto The Scolder’s energy this morning – their motto being either the one used as a title to this post, or variants such as: “that’s not how it’s done in these parts/this house/this country”. For story – as well as for daily living purposes – the point being: how do those negatives impact on the flow  of the story? Do they accumulate and cause flooding, the way a beaver dam or a logjam might? Do they simply skim by? Do they come back later, providing a clue to what  Cassandra was really saying while everybody else was drinking coffee, eating cake, and having a good time?

As usual, there is only one way to find out.

(The photo was done at breaktime, during which everybody drank coffee, ate cake, and had a good time – including The Scolder. And since this post deals with a musical afternoon, here is the kind of thing that gives serious silliness an excellent reputation in this house. With thanks.)

Scenes from Alternate Realities

In Circus, Current reading, Drafts, Irish Mist, Music, Revision, Story material, Theater on October 27, 2010 at 6:39 am

Last night, in a brief (but vivid) episode of what is described in the title, I leafed through the 2010-2011 programming for  Scène nationale d’Albi. I started looking at it because the program itself is gorgeous, both in layout and in content. In no time flat, there I was, living in Albi, selecting the shows I would see (just about all of them – money is no object in some of these alternate realities.) The focus being on the shows, I didn’t spend much time selecting my living space in Albi, nor imagining scenes from living in that space, having friends and family over, writing up a bunch of great stories, etc. No matter. That’s one of the great things with personal alternate realities: 1) you can pick them up and put them down at any point, and 2) you never have to pay the rent. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Maybe writing stories is one way to make use of some of those alternate scenarios. No one lives in Albi in the story I’m presently revising; that doesn’t mean no one will in the story after that. Or that one of the acts in the program won’t inspire for one character or another in this story. Or that the dream of living in Albi won’t come true, at another point in my life. Or that…

You never know. Literally. You project, you assume, you expect, you hope, you dread, you discover, you realize. You do a whole bunch of things; knowing is the least of them. Even when you say: “I knew it! That so-and-so of a such-a-such went ahead and parked his car right up against my front door again! How am I supposed to get out of the house?” Etc? Even then, you knew no such thing; but the so-and-so was kind enough to confirm you in your opinion of him. Predictability is nice. I can’t imagine what it would do to my head, were I to discover the present incumbent of the Presidency in this country were a secret benefactor to the well-being of the Haitian people, for example; and financed a Romanian orphanage out of his own pocket.  Or that the police never plants phony violent demonstrators among the real ones. Or that the piles of loose change flowing from Iran to Afghanistan were dedicated to an ambitious (but discrete) building program of public schools, colleges and universities. That’s the beauty of alternate reality scenarios: they open up mind-boggling vistas, just off the main highway of our regularly programmed thoughts.

All of which may sound like aimless yammering – which it is, in a way. Save for the fact several of my characters are listening in, and not losing a word of it. Now, I must go discover two of the acts mentioned in the Scène nationale d’Albi program: Rabih Abou Khalil, and La Squadra di Genova. Plus, let’s see… Le Grand C and La compagnie Rasposo. That should feed something, somewhere, in one of the fictional characters. Oh! Not to mention this wonderful (true) story about Freud and the French singer Yvette Guilbert? All right, some other time.

But oh, that glorious feeling!

In Drafts, Irish Mist, New story, Revision on October 26, 2010 at 6:53 am

No, I am not angry right now. I’m in a fairly self-composed state of mind; sorting through email messages, night thoughts, morning encounters, and so on i.e. the equivalent of sitting in a car on a cool fall day, and waiting for the motor to warm up.

I was plenty angry at one point, last night though. A combination of delayed reaction to earlier frustrations held in check, and what goes by the name of righteous indignation – mine being directed at a slew of old-old memories that deserve nothing other than the treatment described in the photo above. Maybe that’s part of the fun in watching a building get wrecked; the same kind of fun as kids get in a sandbox, when they destroy the sand castles, highways and byways they spent hours building. A feeling of: è finito, and on to something else.

The old-old memories relate to a so-called religious upbringing heavy on guilt and guided meditations on the themes of the Savior’s sufferings. Six, seven, eight-year-olds invited to use their vivid imaginations the better to visualize a whole parade of horrors for which they are personally responsible? It’s a form of  institutionalized craziness found in so many cultures, it makes you wonder why simpler solutions aren’t found to the build-up of frustrations needing an outlet. For example:  adult-sized sandboxes  installed in public squares world-wide. Responsible adults – from harried housewives to street cleaners to executive officers of international organizations – could have their fits of the screaming banshees on their lunch hour, plow through the sand-castle version of the corporate headquarters/happy home or municipal installations, and go back to their adult occupations, fully poised and rejuvenated. Bumper-cars next to the sandbox would be nice, too. Crash-ka-boom! Destroy that goddamn… whatever.  Ahhhh… that’s better. Back to the office, and to polite, reasonable conversations all about the betterment of whatever must be bettered before the weekend.

Failing adult-sized sandboxes, and opportunities to operate the wrecking ball,  there’s always storyland, of course. Where there’s always the possibility someone will behave irresponsibly, and get away with it. At the thought, I’m smiling like a little kid looking out at her own visions through the classroom window, while the teacher drones on and on and on about the Trials of Our Lord.

Finding the Way Out

In Animals, Contes d'Exil, Current reading, Drafts, Film, Irish Mist, New story, Revision on October 25, 2010 at 6:49 am

On any given day, you deal with a mass of sensations, thoughts and feelings out of which you pick out a certain number and link them together. At the end of the day, you say: boy, was this day ever crappy/great/so-so  – or whatever else you’ve cobbled together as the main theme to the whole experience.

So, it’s no big news if, on a day when both the writer and her characters felt mired down in inescapable problems, both the evening reading and the evening movie felt as if they were aimed straight at the stuck ones. The reading? Still in Dersu Uzala, where Arseniev set out for a little stroll on his own; became caught up in following a Siberian tiger following some wild boars; and got thoroughly lost. He spends a pretty crappy night out in the woods, believe me. Finds his way back to camp thanks to his dog (never go out in the woods without one). And so, the story can continue.  In movie… be forewarned, you either go for this stuff or you don’t. I watched it twice last night, laughing like a little kid; I’ll probably watch it again, or even listen to it as background, so taken am I by the voices. It’s called Yozhik v tumane (Hedgehog in the Fog). Comfort is as comfort does.

The writer is still in a total fog, this morning. It doesn’t matter. Don’t ask me why it doesn’t matter, even when it feels like it does; I wouldn’t know what to answer. Fog is fog. Lost in it are real dangers, imaginary monsters, useful trails, dead ends, and even a dog sniffing the scent of burning logs, and heading straight for a campfire. Why? Because that’s how you get to the next scene in the story.

Photo – I’m not using the same collage technique in the writing of this one, but the visual is a reminder: the story works once you get the pieces in the right order. The only way to make it happen is to keep on paying attention to those cues that fit the story you’re trying to tell. The main thing being to remember that when you feel lost – or to thank whoever or whatever reminds you when you forget – and to keep on moving.

Describing simply

In Current reading, Drafts, Irish Mist, New story, Now playing in a theater near you, Revision, Story material on October 24, 2010 at 7:00 am

The night was split in half, dream-wise – almost as neatly as a fruit with a central kernel, such as a peach or a plum. Before falling asleep, I’d given some thought both to the scenes I’m presently revising, and to a short scene from an unfinished story. Although quite different in tone, both are attempts at capturing something in characters I will politely describe as morally ambiguous. In the unfinished story, the main character seemed intent on setting herself apart from that ambiguity. In the scenes on which I’m working now, the characters are enmeshed in ambiguity and, in some instances, struggling to find a way out of it. A highly uncomfortable place the dream world translated into an image of someone placing a knotted snarl of snakes next to my right armpit. In the dream, we were getting by, the snakes and I, but it’s safe to say  the mood of the dream was wary.

I had read a passage out of Dersu Uzala last night, in which Arseniev, his men and the pack horses had struggled through swamps infested with biting insects (his description of same a perfect match for the tormentors found in the taiga-like areas of Northern Québec.) Having crossed the Sikhote-Alin mountain range, they came out into what reads like an enchantment: a valley filled with flowers, bees, brooks covered with dragonflies, and swallow-tailed butterflies letting themselves float down on a leaf or a twig. As usual, Arseniev’s description is light on qualifiers and personal commentary, but the reader can’t fail to experience the relief and the pleasure of that sight, following on what came before it. And so it was with the second dream.

The other crucial element for revision purposes has to do with the question of dividing time into past, present and future – a useful and fundamental convention for getting things done. In fact, for most purposes, those divisions  match up so well with observable reality only the mystics, the ditzy or the muddled are wont to question it. I don’t consider myself particularly mystical or ditzy (muddled being a separate issue entirely); but it hasn’t been my experience that what we call time behaves exactly as verb tenses do. For present story purposes, the most intriguing of those discrepancies  being the direction from which the observer is recording the observation: from the past to the present or, streaming past it, into what is known as the future. Good luck to me in translating that into language as clean and simple as Arseniev’s notes on bees,  migrating birds or  a large meteor flashing through the Siberian sky, and exploding into natural fireworks, just over the mountain.

(The photo of the dragonfly was done by a friend this summer.)

Whose story is it?

In Drafts, Irish Mist, Local projects, New story, Revision on October 23, 2010 at 7:02 am

There was a lot of good-humored laughing in my dreams last night; I didn’t even seem to care that the old farmhouse was in sorry condition. The feeling to it being:  the wind is blowing through the house, and the doorjamb seems to be held together by the paint? Yes, and your problem is…? Which may or may not be an apt metaphore, when applied to my financial situation; but it seemed more story-related than anything else.

Which was confirmed when I woke up to a Moral Majority type interviewing me about my real views, my real thoughts, and my real opinions about each and every one of my characters. As in: which one is the real you? I’ve never been interviewed for my literary opinions, but often had to answer those kinds of questions in political settings. The fun only starts once you deal with the squirm factor head-on. An interviewer with an ax to grind (or an editorial hatchet job to deliver) asks the same kinds of  loaded questions a prosecutor does in a trial setting. The questions are meant to discredit the guest by inducing squirming, hemming and hawing. “Oh, I didn’t mean…no, that’s not quite…nothing is black or white…” goes the hapless guest while the glint gets glintier in the interviewer’s eyes. What I learned in those settings? Forget the cameras: speak directly to the interviewer; stick to your guns;  and make the cameramen your only audience to the exchange. Nine times out of ten, the cameramen can’t stand the interviewer anyway, and they’re rooting for you to land a few metaphorical punches on the insufferable ass with the pouffy hair and the ego to match.

What that inner interviewer tells me now though is something else. The inner interviewer is nothing other than self-consciousness trying to hijack the writing process. As in: you’re not really going to leave that in, are you? You’re not really going to… What if someone thinks… etc. For me, there’s only one solution when that starts up: stick with the characters, cleave to them through thick and thin. It’s their story(stories), and the rest be damned. If they make fools of themselves, the writer’s job isn’t to beat up on them; if they shine, the writer’s job isn’t to make them her official representatives. If anyone reading the story infers, implies or otherwise decides it’s the true portrait of the writer, all the writer can do is hope to have the guts to say: yes, I stand by every word I wrote.

The photo: I had no thoughts of  my characters when I snapped it this summer; but I can well imagine one of them ending up owning little more than his motorcycle and an electrical guitar at some point down the line. And I can well imagine him being fine with that – at any rate, fine with it while he’s playing.

Having Fun

In Drafts, Irish Mist, Local projects, New story, Revision on October 22, 2010 at 7:11 am

The fourteen students, their prof and the school librarian were fifteen minutes early, and already waiting when I showed up at the Médiathèque yesterday. The students (fifteen and sixteen years old, on average) weren’t scowling exactly, but they wore that neutral expression young people bestow on older ones, when they are expecting to be bored and lectured, then bored some more. They sat at four tables, surrounded by Robert Barthez’ paintings (and one forlorn picture of a teddy bear, left over from Accident Prevention Week), and played at being reporters from four different news agencies, interviewing my two guests for four different kinds of publications. The best part of the experience being the change in the students’ attitude – clearly, they had fun, and so did we; and two of the subsequent “news reports” were spot on, to boot.

Story-wise, I’m still struggling with the basic constraints I had the students explore yesterday afternoon i.e. using space, time and format limitations as tools around which to organize material. Which means accepting I won’t get all of it down (at least, not this time) and focusing on those things I feel  I-the-reader needs to find out from I-the-writer. Given how the mind likes to fly while the eye tries to make it across a line of text, getting the two to collaborate isn’t always an obvious thing – the zip-zip-zip part of the brain usually finding itself somewhere in the future while the fingers are still struggling to make it through the typing of the previous oh-so-brilliant insight. It never quite works, any more than a photo can convey the experience of Northern Lights. The whole fun is in trying anyway.