Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Oy, oy, oy

In Current reading, Drafts, Film, Food, Hautvoir, Music, Poetry, Wine on January 31, 2011 at 8:29 am

The title of the song is: Ay, que dolor! But when I received an email version of our choir practice from Saturday, what I said is what you read as a title to this post. The enthusiasm is there, the rythm and the syncopation aren’t bad. But the pitch? The blending of the harmonies? (There’s no sound balance to speak of, but the practice was captured on a phone, so let’s keep the quibbling where it belongs.) Still: for a first reading of such a tricky arrangement, you see both where the potential lies, and where the work will be needed. Plus, in this instance, the great energy generated in the music room at Théâtre du Rugissant, on a drippy, slate-grey afternoon. I was on middle voice for this number. The woman to my right and I had a great time attacking the initial words with the kind of energy a pissed-off Gypsy lady would use (Hiciste la maleta! ay, sin decirme adios ay que dolor! – packed his bag! ay, without saying goodbye, ay such a pain!) By the end of the number, you know the bag-packer is in for a hard time should they meet again on the street – ay que dolor! The singing was a great warm-up for an evening of Paco Ibanez, live at the town forum. So much so, I’ve now committed Cancion del Jinete to memory, thanks to youtube – and to the writing out of Lorca’s poem in long hand.

The photo is from a celebration last night. Champagne out of water glasses? It tasted fine; so did the snacks, and so did the celebratory mood over a few major achievements. I discovered a book I would never have picked up spontaneously: Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses (Words and Things, subtitle: Archeology of the Social Sciences. Uh… how…interesting). Not only is the title less than inviting but, in the purest style of a French intellectual, Foucault rolls out page after page of solid text, sometimes consisting of a single paragraph on the page, with one measly three-space indentation to break the flow.  But my friend was enthusiastic; I opened the book and read:   “Qu’est-il donc impossible de penser, et de quelle impossibilité s’agit-il?” (Of what is it impossible to think, and of what does that impossibility consist?) My friend photocopied Chapter 11 for me (Les quatre similitudes – The Four Similarities). It’s the kind of reading where one page can feed me for days or even weeks, so I’m good to go for a while.

The most interesting part of that chapter being the way it feeds into my own thinking about how my characters see themselves and others. After skimming through the chapter and taking a few notes, I stopped several times on my way home, taking in different facades that caught my attention and ‘seeing’ them through those different lenses. Seeing the town; seeing the people in it. How the thought patterns set the grid for the internal struggles, the confrontations, the reversals. Fascinating stuff.

Dealing with the old, yearning for the new

In Drafts, Hautvoir on January 30, 2011 at 7:22 am

For some time now, writing this post has been one of the first activities in the morning. A way of taking a snapshot of whatever mental space is the baseline on that particular day. Maybe that habit will change too, in the coming weeks. Everything else is changing: new patterns replacing the way things always were… while they were.

Old patterns. Old habits. You don’t quit a winning game, they say. But when do you quit a losing one? What happens when you do? What comforts must you forfeit, the way a little kid gives up the last bit of ragged baby blanket and moves on to new discoveries, new pleasures, new discomforts and fears; new ways to deal with the world around him. The old is comfortable; the new, exciting. How do little kids do it? They explore a bit; then touch home base again. Then push out a bit further; rush back to the familiar. And so on; until a sufficient number of things are familiar about the new space for it to become home base for further explorations.

Discovering being single again. Relating to others without the certainty of the expected response. That response may have been a disappointment; if it was, well, there was that element of consistency to it. The shared joke is more fun; but the habitual irritant is a guidepost of sorts, a ragged security blanket in its own right. Dismantling the expected; living with that ambiguous beast: the unfamiliar. Discovering the unfamiliar one you harbored within you all those years, and rarely noticed or acknowledged. Saying: this, I keep; that, I discard – including the things you let go with a wrenching feeling in the gut. Re-defining spatial boundaries – my space, your space, no-man’s land, DMZ. Discovering the shared spaces no longer harbored shared intimacy. Wondering if you’ll ever experience intimacy again.

Going out alone, as you’ve done most of your life; but meeting people who say: “I hear you and…”. Nodding; covering for their discomfort; protecting your own feelings, whatever jumbled mix they may be.  Enjoying the show. Enjoying the crowd. Enjoying your aloness in it; acknowledging the not-so-wonderful parts. Moving on to the next discoveries.

Enthusiasm, Energy, Stamina

In Drafts, Film, Hautvoir, Local projects on January 29, 2011 at 7:46 am

For most of my adult life, weekends have been something of an abstract concept. When you generate a relevant portion of your revenue through ghost writing or translation, weekends are simply opportunities for hidden nooks and crannies of time available for work. The phone doesn’t ring as often on weekends, for one. People don’t feel a pressing urge to inform you about an upcoming meeting and why you must act surprised when  you receive an invitation to it – or other social exchanges invented way before web networks took over that designation. In a small town, for example, you can walk down the street for longer stretches of time without interruption on weekends. Of course, on the following Monday, five or six people will tell you they saw you roaming around with your camera; small towns aren’t the best, if you aspire to invisibility. Still; you should be able to form and develop a full sentence in your head without fresh gossip/information/breaking news about why you haven’t seen so-and-so around for a while.

Talking with a film maker yesterday, we were both saying how crucial is the need for down time. There’s a special kind of creativity that gets expressed when things are rushed; pressure provides a certain bounce and vibrancy (or manic pace, take your pick). But it only works for a while. Depending on your age and  your general health, that while can last for a few days, weeks, or even months before the depleted feeling hits full force. With the pace of activity picking up over here – and the upcoming departure of the other resident in this space – downtime is going to become a major consideration. In-between time. Mulling time. Unscheduled moodling time. Time in which to let the brain roam at will, and the body become re-acquainted with its own pace.

Grabbed the photo before a luncheon yesterday on a bulletin board titled: KesKi’s Pass ? Les activités qui ne durent pas. The first part is a phonetic rendition of Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? (What’s Happening?). Followed by the words: activities that don’t last – which is a fair designation for just about everything a busy week involves.

Finding a balance that works. Enthusiasm isn’t much of a problem with me. Energy levels are usually fairly high. Stamina is a whole other story. Weekend is maybe a word I need to redesign to mean: those moments when the jockey lets the horse set its own pace for the amble toward the paddock. Call it what you will: that empty time is the writer’s sacred space.



In Drafts, Film, Hautvoir on January 28, 2011 at 7:43 am

Maybe because I’m working a lot with film makers, these days? I only noticed it yesterday while I did some busy work (that’s the definition for any work  done while waiting for the next scene to announce itself with a sentence, or a few compelling words). When the energy runs out on a scene, I’m usually expecting the story to pick up at that point. My mind takes off in different iterations of what might happen next, and how, and why. All of it more or less interesting; sometimes, much better than what I get down in writing.

But writing from that place doesn’t work; at least, not for me. It’s the mind spinning off into its own versions of what the writer is up to, and trying to second-guess, triple-guess, outsmart the writer. It doesn’t work because  – and this is the crucial point: the writer doesn’t know what the hell she’s up to, except for snapping to attention when the compelling words show up. She writes them down, and goes with them wherever they lead. If she happens to be walking down the street when they show up, they highjack the head, repeating in a loop until she gets the scene down in writing. Moving those words from the head down into the fingers is the crucial part of the exercise; same as coordinating your breathing with your leg and arm movements when you’re swimming. It’s that movement, and no other. Same thing: those words start the scene; no others will do.

A lot of other words get written down, of course. Some of them may even get re-worked into fictional material, but there has to be that essential change in the slant of the thing. It has to be as-seen-by someone else; or, in some way, viewed from another perspective than the one in which the “real” event happened. That’s where this story resides – at the intersection of those different takes on a given scene, and on the town itself.

Working on the translation of a film, at the moment. Concentrating on the words, obviously; but I’m constantly aware of the camera’s position and of the film maker’s choices: why this shot, and not another? The interplay between the shot and the soundtrack; the moments that feel too long in the film are those where that interplay breaks down. The dialogue is redundant because the image already said the essential thing; there’s no counterpoint between the words spoken and the thing being shown on screen. The challenge in writing: having some of the words function as the visuals and the camera movements; others as the soundtrack.  That’s how the writing is going on this draft.

Photo: grabbed while on my way to photograph the graffiti on an old tannery that’s also featured in this particular film; the combo in the trailer being even more intriguing and laden with story potential.


In Drafts, Film, Hautvoir, Local projects on January 27, 2011 at 7:30 am

I fit into the age group, although, at times, I’m not so sure: the show is advertised for 3 years and over. Watching the video excerpt yesterday afternoon, I could relate. It’s something of a constant: things always work out, one way or another. But they rarely do without some major snarls needing to be resolved, and some major fears/personal limitations addressed; in other words, without some dealings with insecurity. The amount of insecurity one body can successfully metabolize at any time being a variable that can leave said body surprised by its great show of courage/spunk/stamina/resilience… (etc); or feeling dismal over its cowardice/stupidity/lack of character/pettiness/… (ad infinitum).

Some people manage their lives in such ways as to avoid vast amounts of insecurity and discomfort. I’ve never been gifted in that regard, so I’ve yet to deal with a fictional character of my creation who manages both the public and the private realms with brio. I’m not even sure such people exist in real life. The minute you move in a bit closer on even the most idyllic of set-ups, you’re bound to catch a sense of the tensions at play.

Still. There are moments of harmony. They are not always preludes to disaster. They may not last all that long – and perhaps, if they did, they would morph into boredom. Maybe humans aren’t designed for huge amounts of ongoing serenity, calm and security. But little bits, here and there, of the genuine article? I doubt anyone could manage the rest without some access to a personal supply of certainty about something. Call it faith, call it hope, call it love; make it divine or human. There has to be some assurance somewhere – if only the assurance that things will improve after whatever bout of craziness and chaos the body must manage at that point in time.


Can I live with it?

In Current reading, Drafts, Hautvoir, Local projects on January 26, 2011 at 7:06 am

Self-definition. In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer comes back on the topic at regular intervals, approaching it from different angles: his take on Hemingway’s suicide, for instance. The distance between the public persona and the private person’s self-image. The notion of creating characters bigger, smarter, brighter and/or nastier than you consider yourself to be; living with the consequences i.e. finding your self in competition with the images others carry around about you.

In the most literal sense, right now there’s a struggle for survival both in the draft and for the draft itself – some of the characters have fallen way below subsistence level; whether they can make their way  back up to the most basic of dignities – a place  to live, the means to pay for it, minimal consideration from their neighbors? I have no idea. There’s a struggle for identity and its meanings – who exactly is minding the store? To what exactly do the characters aspire? Is the town itself as lost, drifting and unmoored as most of its inhabitants seem to be? What happens next? How?

The sense of self. The changing boundaries of. Staying with the draft, while dealing with huge discrepancies between means and aspirations; needs and expectations (not to mention egos). Most of all, keeping some sense of direction; some sense of what it was I set out to achieve. The result may be something totally different; that’s not the point. Listening to the characters. They know what they want. Like the puppeteers at Plasticiens Volants, my job is to give the imaginary ones definition, scope, color, and space in which to soar. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I contracted out with myself when I decided the writer’s life was the one for me. So, yes, I’d best learn to  live with it.


In Drafts, Hautvoir, Local projects on January 25, 2011 at 7:31 am

It was damn cold; the light was gorgeous; snapping the shot yesterday morning was a way to concentrate on the moment, and to  neutralize what felt like just another temporary setback on the road to a paying job. By yesterday afternoon, the setback had morphed into a full-blown hurdle requiring the potential employer’s intervention. I’ll know later today whether the administrative hassle can or cannot be resolved, and whether that employer still has some reserves of enthusiasm to spare on acquiring my services.

I forget where I read it first; about one of the difficulties in writing a novel being the length of time over which the exercise must be sustained. During that time, the writer’s life may be undergoing any number of complications, tragedies, burlesque episodes, bittersweet moments, drudgery, administrative nightmares – life is generous, take your pick and run with it. Unless you’re some kind of supernatural being, there is no way you can then hunker down into the private writing space, as if you were detached from all of these influences; at least, I can’t. Life is a jumble right now. At times, I feel like a dog who’s wandered onto the path of a stock car race; a resilient dog and one intent on making its way over to the field that beckons on the other side. But there are mornings – and this is one of them – where that doesn’t seem likely.

Of course, the only way to keep on writing in such a context is to work the very notion of setbacks into the fabric of the story. Plot goes out the window – if ever plot seemed like a good idea.  Clearly, the fictional town I’m writing about is barely removed from the real one in which I’m living at the moment; and the characters – bless them all – are struggling to keep up with real life as it plays. Is it even possible to write a novel when life keeps insisting it must add on yet one more complication to a fruit cake that’s already way too short on batter? That is the question the writer ponders this morning, while multi-tasking through the remarkably difficult job of getting through yet another puzzling day.

A precious and essential distance

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Local projects on January 24, 2011 at 8:10 am

It’s going to be a huge challenge, I realized, as I walked back from a full day spent on visions for the town’s future. After a full evening of more talk with architects, and more inside information on some of the major plans in the works for this town, the challenge feels bigger still.

In many ways, the characters assembled so far in this draft are in the same relationship to their fictional town as the residents of this real town are in relation to the future being mapped out by the planners. The two questions foremost in my mind this morning: 1) how do you prepare a population as diverse as this one not only to  accept, but to welcome a major re-definition of the town’s appearance and identity; 2) how do I, the writer, preserve the essential distance required for fiction? In many ways, the social isolation in which I spent the past few years was my most precious asset. It allowed me to explore different ways of relating to others – and to my own writing. It kept me in touch with an outsider status circumstances have rendered both familiar and useful. There is an inherent tension between the yearning to belong and the freedom of not belonging; a state of mind I’ve always found useful because some level of discomfort or dissatisfaction feels crucial to the writing process.

The ways in which I’ll experience that tension are about to change in major ways; an entire segment of the local population is eager to welcome me as “one of theirs” (while another segment stands poised with the rotten tomatoes and innuendos) – in other words, I’m about to become a local. The way I’ll  use my time will be different; so will be the way I see the town and its inhabitants, and how they see me.

I happened to chance on someone yesterday who is probably the American writer living here; that’s how people refer to her. The woman, whoever she may be,  had that expression on her face of someone working out words in her head, paying no more attention than necessary to her surroundings; just enough to feed the inner process, and no more.

Living alone, I suppose the inner space in the house will become the place where I can experience that distance. Without it, fiction gets flattened out into reporting – the product of a different state of mind and of a different vision altogether.

Saving the private dream space

In Current reading, Drafts, Hautvoir, Local projects on January 23, 2011 at 8:05 am

I’d bought Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art after attending my only Writers’ Conference. It was in St-Petersburg, FL, in 2003 or 2004, shortly before leaving for Europe; Mailer had been the Guest Speaker at the event. The book stayed in Florida with several others, and was delivered to me two days ago by the Florida resident. It was the furthest I could get away from the local stuff last night, the trials of surviving best-seller status at age twenty-five not being a significant element in my personal story. The book is a loose collection of essays and opinion pieces, parts of which are laughable and somewhat akin to the overpriced popcorn sold at the café in the village of Fiac. (Two euro for a cupful of hot air?  I pass, as I do on many of Mr Mailer’s opinions.)

What I did read with great interest last night was his take on himself and on the writing process of The Naked and the Dead (“…a best-seller that was the work of an amateur” he writes) and, more interesting yet, his struggle through the panic of failure at his second time out.  That Chapter (“Writing Courses”) and the one  titled “The Last Draft of The Deer Park”  may be worth the price of the paperback edition of the book. My favorite line so far being his definition of a professional writer as one who “must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honor decent professionals are entitled to wear.”

Having never pushed myself through final revision of a novel due for publication (and even less through a combination of uppers, downers and other onslaughts to the nervous system), I can’t say if I agree with that definition, nor if gaining the status of “professional writer” warrants that kind of self-destructive madness. Considering my personal circumstances, the question is moot. More to the point, in real life: how to combine the obligations of daily living in this town, with the writing of a story inspired by it, yet not limited by what I know of its inhabitants. Somehow, the story must escape the self-limiting definitions of the real people (including myself)  who live, love, argue, quibble, equivocate, and struggle on here as best they can.

That is the real challenge with the present draft: keeping the hatch open when real life threatens to swallow the bigger, wider dreams. When, instead of magical, flying puppets, life has nothing better to offer than an overpriced handful of popcorn. Then, what do you do?

Aggravation (dealing with)

In Animals, Drafts, Hautvoir, Visual artists on January 22, 2011 at 7:46 am

Once the humorous component kicks in, I’m all right. But first, I have to make it through the seething anger part safely. In the dream, that part was represented by a woman whose enmity, once triggered, never, ever let up. Something like a figure from Greek mythology, albeit dressed in modern clothes.

The photo is a closeup on an old wall. Make that: very old. The brownish parts: bricks made of clay and chopped straw. Doing extreme close-ups is one way I’ve found to deal with aggravation. In this case, the tipping point relates to photography and practitionners of that trade: my mangled and accidental bit of wall art is in response to that whole disdainful, down-with-the-amateurish-plebe mindset this local figure represents only too well.

Life in a small town. Territorial trip-wires. Honors and privileges. Recognition and cold-shouldering. The cocktail following last night’s event was like a road map for that kind of behavior. Seeking out allies; ignoring annoying ones. Causing an incident, or avoiding one. And so on. If someone could trace the meanderings of people across a room at a social event, they would have a history of friendships, alliances, pacts of non-aggression, and flare-ups from old insults, never forgotten.

Why one character and one dog have wandered off to another part of Hautvoir, leaving their usual turf above the river? I hope to find out at some point during a weekend heavy on outside commitments.

Dealing with aggravation: cutting myself some slack helps too. About to do that by sending a note to a friend.