Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

Why are they here? What do they want? Why now?

In Animals, Current reading, Drafts, proto drafts, Revision, The Crab Walker on May 31, 2014 at 7:40 am

Inevitable. A day off, and more than two-thirds into Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Of course, all other considerations flew out the window and I read through to the final words. With a small and wondering stop when I encounter the Bishop of Lavaur at Anne Boleyn’s coronation. The neighboring town of Lavaur still has an impressive cathedral – impressive enough to warrant an invitation to London in the year fifteen thirty-three? My inner world shifts by a fraction of a turn.

Revising a previous piece of writing. Not something I do often. The experience is something like pulling apart a garment to make something else of it. Worth the trouble? I’m not sure. I’ve never been much of a seamstress and even the simplest manufactured patterns left me wondering where to pinch the darts or how to assemble band D to the crimp at piece A and pleat at piece H.

The questions in the title summarize where matters stand between me and the story I once called The Crab Walker. It’s going to be a long day or else, I’ll find my way back into the main channel. If I do, I’ll look up at some point and say: what? did three full hours just go by?

The craziness of blog stats. Random hits, deliberate ones, surges here, flatlines there. Find your own way, make sense of what makes sense to you, hope it leads you somewhere other than to a dead end. If it does, see what you can make of the dead end? I guess.

An image. A flooded campground in Louisiana. Frogs hopping on to the upper step on the rig. Waiting it out with no idea how high the water will rise. Some parts of story writing are like that.


The wimmin

In Artists, Current reading, Film, Poetry, Revision, The Crab Walker on May 30, 2014 at 7:07 am

I remember the green baize on the cover. I remember the line illustrations (woodcuts? I didn’t ask the question, at the time). I don’t remember if I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling before or after the incident with my dog Pogo. I don’t remember how the book came to be in my hands. At the time (I was nine? ten?) the only thing missing from the reading experience were the smells of Northwestern Florida. I encountered those some forty years later. Plus the clinging humidity, the yellow flies, the ten different flavors of churchgoing for a small community of a bit more than a thousand – something like one church for every twelve local people. Plus the beach, the tree stumps, the shrimp. Palmetto scrub, poison sumac, crepe myrtle, magnolias. Abject poverty cheek to jowl with the shiniest cars and the fittest bodies money can buy.

In the mix of movies for all tastes, the manager of the local cinema over here programs what she calls films for her buddies. Grand Hotel Budapest was one. Last night, Nebraska was another. I walked back home slower than slow, taking in the gorgeous evening light around me and the memories of times out on country roads in all those places in North America that don’t make the headlines unless something awful happens there. Maybe “something awful” provides such a thrill because of the stupendous, crushing boredom of the ordinary? In Nebraska, the old man, dragging his lawn chair to the edge of the street, to watch the cars go by. And the endless drinking, of course. The movie’s a beautiful piece of work.

Now. If you think braiding strands of story in the right order is as easy as popping a store-bought pie in the oven, I have to say: not for me,  it isn’t.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Hilary Mantel’s Woolf Hall are the two main pieces of reading by bedside these days. The second moving along faster than the first. I admire everything I read of Eliot’s but I wouldn’t describe the experience as a page-turner. Wit, fine observation, stamina; I find her daunting and intent on proving something damn important. Something with which I agree. Maybe, once you agree, you need to read something else. I doubt George Eliot would enjoy my writing. Plus – sorry, George – there’s always the problem of the first encounter. In my case, excerpts of Silas Marner delivered to bored and snickering fifteen-year old French-speaking convent girls by a sad, sour-faced old teacher with bad hair and frumpy clothes. She looked out on us with despair, except when she soared with her beloved Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “And slowly answered Arthur from the barge …”

Glitter Pen

In Music, Revision, The Crab Walker on May 29, 2014 at 8:02 am

There you were, trying to impress the hell out of someone. This, in times when letter-writing still marked a step up from email and twitter. Choice of paper mattered. Choice of writing instrument. Choice of ink.

The words? Right, oh yes. Those too. Scribbles on one sheet. Not good enough. Too formal. Too stilted. Casual, casual, come on, one-two-three. Thirty-third attempt: not bad. Now, to transcribe on better – damn, handwriting looks cramped. Try again.

The letter gets done. Placed into the envelop, sealed, addressed. Postage stamp? On. Return address: on the back flap. Off to the corner holding the precious thing. The sun shines bright on the old Kentucky home and catches the… shoot… the glitter. Damn. Freeze-frame. You wrote this precious, one-in-a-million  letter in glitter pen? Why not Roses are Red Violets are Blue while you’re at it? Why not Dionne Warwick singing What’s It All About, Alfie?

Go home? Start over again? But will you dare pen the words for the thirty-sixth or thirty-seventh time without discovering how trite you sound? Or without reminding yourself you are out of your blooming mind and should go do something useful for the world instead of, etc.

The writing of this post interrupted by a phone call. Today’s luncheon date is off. The day, all mine? Yes, thanks to a national day of rest to commemorate the Ascension of our Lord, centuries before space explorers made the lift-off. (According to some, the decisive argument in favor of one brand of Christianism over another in this country: the number of feast days in one calendar vs the other. No labor unions back then; feast days were the working stiff’s only time off. If you’re going to pray, it may as well be in gratitude, yes?)

Revision proceeds.

Treading lightly

In Current reading, Revision, Sanford Meisner, The Crab Walker on May 28, 2014 at 8:23 am

I’d most enjoy working from the library this morning, except I have pages of the seven-year old one spread out in batches across the living room. Culling, lifting a sentence here, changing one there. Tightening both the warp and the woof of the story so that the pieces that most matter will fit as if the whole story had been trimmed and shaped just for them. Which it was to begin with, but not well enough.

“Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” (Sanford Meisner). No more – and no less – difficult than doing so in real ones. As unpredictable too, in the acting out – response, reaction time, specifics relating to time of day, state of mind, presence and responses from others. Specifics relating to previous experiences, and lessons learned from them.

Awoke from various dreams during the night. A novelty in the moment of waking. The novelty seemed to be the main point to the dreaming. It consisted of a delay before the usual search for meaning kicked in. A useful delay. One that said: the dreaming does what it’s meant to do without any assists. Maybe the dreams don’t need any more interpreting than brushing your hair or gargling do.

Underlinings and turned page corners on my Fourth Estate Harper-Collins paperback copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The lovely riff on page 205 about “the world of the possible”. The memory system described on page 216 – where I suddenly “saw” the sculpted facades of temples and churches in a different light. And this, on page 247:

‘A man from my college,’ Dr Crammer says tentatively, ‘was told by the cardinal that as an infant you were stolen by pirates.’

He stares at him for a moment, then smiles in slow delight. ‘How I miss my master. Now that he has gone north, there is no one to invent me.’  (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall).

Today’s Agenda

In Current reading, Drafts, Local projects, Music, Revision, The Crab Walker on May 27, 2014 at 6:42 am

The seven-year old manuscript : As things stand (or lie) this morning, about two-thirds of the printed pages are in the no-keep pile next to my bed. Of the one-third remaining – and now on my work table – some are keepers because of a sentence here and there that may prove valuable.

The main point to the search last night: discovering what it was the story wanted to say more than anything else. I may have found the answer somewhere on page two-hundred and fourteen. How to segue into it without the endless loops of add-on characters and incidents: not clear yet.

Meanwhile: shrinking budgets, staff attritions and general glumness prevail, both at the local and at the national level. In some instances, ninety percent of what the politicians consider useful could get chucked out so we could all concentrate on improving the remaining ten percent. I doubt that’s about to happen. Following on Sunday’s elections for the European Union, the mood is a mix of contentious, disgusted, and/or fatalistic – as if the demons had to have their day. The demons to which I refer not being specific individuals as much as specific mind sets.

So, in the midst of all this: keeping some clear spaces i.e. room for growth and pleasant surprises. Reading, writing, music, reaching out. Reaching out. Reaching out some more.


In Current reading, Drafts, Local projects, Music, Revision, The Crab Walker, Theater on May 26, 2014 at 6:43 am

You don’t argue with a tsunami? True. You don’t offer reasoned discourse to a mob? Also true. Both, self-evident. I was a few weeks from giving birth when I was caught in a crowd surge, a few steps away from my apartment on Mansfield. The traditional June 24th parade had turned violent – pro-independence vs pro-federalism demonstrators wishing to express their views over Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s presence at the event. No gunshots that day but stampeding crowds aren’t much fun either. That, among other incidents, being one way to fine-tune your senses to the environment and prevailing winds.

At issue, this morning: the times prior to the rampages, pogroms, and other such times of collective madness. The slippery times when people start believing the inevitable is on the roll. A numbing of the will, in some. Panic, in others. A thrill of vindication, in others still. How do you resist the undertow, how do you escape the insistent drum beat? How do you balance the load to favor further progress up steep slopes or down slippery ones.

You take it slow, for one. May sound counter-intuitive, but isn’t. If the truths I consider self-evident see me through the good times, they’d better be good enough for the bad ones too. If not, maybe I need to refine them a few more notches. I tried to do that in the story I wrote some seven years ago. Fudging doesn’t work. As for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus falling out of favor because of its “graphic violence” (so sayeth the wikipedia entry), you have to wonder what William would have to say about that, after a single day out in the twenty-first century.

Read on, write on, deal with the day or the night. Don’t pretend the worst can’t happen; don’t assume that it must. (Pep talk addressed to me, myself and I, as usual. If useful to anyone else, so much the better.)





The ones that matter, the ones that don’t

In Drafts, Poetry, proto drafts, Querying, Revision, The Crab Walker on May 25, 2014 at 7:50 am

I didn’t see any point in holding on to the sheaf of rejections. I  pasted my list of crossed-out agents and comments on the inside of the bookshelf instead, and  kept only one rejection. The only one that mattered. Why it mattered? Because I felt as if I must have done something wrong for this specific agent to turn down my writing.

I’m speaking here of a novel I mailed out to prospective agents beginning in April 2007. This rejection came in on June 27th. What left me in a mourning mood wasn’t the fact this agent represents writers I admire (all right, that too). What had moved me to send the novel her way was an address she gave to students at Bennington – a noble institution I’ve never attended and never will. What attracted her to a manuscript, she said, what kept her reading as if she’s known the writer all her life: a sense that she would “want to follow (the characters) to the ends of the earth”. That’s how I felt about my characters. I couldn’t see why she wouldn’t agree.  (If so interested, you can find “The Successful Writer’s Personality” on the website of the Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency.)

I’m culling through masses of paper again. Turning a lot of those papers over to use as scribbling material. Struggled some twenty kilo-worth of paper down the steps yesterday. More to follow, once the next bag of dog food is empty.

I read before trashing. I had to agree with every one of the rejections I chucked out. The agents were right: I was playing it safe, in ways I didn’t even notice at the time – trotting out medical information, for instance, so nobody might wonder where the hell I’d picked up my creds. Hemming  and hawing where none such need apply.

I attended a regional event yesterday – the prize ceremony in a short story writing contest. I didn’t compete , but helped a few people in the writing of their own stories. I read some of the winning entries when I came home. Then, I went on reading and culling my piles of paper. Sat down with the failed novel, and started stripping it down to its component parts – those places where nobody’s pretending they know the first thing about why everything’s so screwy. Places where nobody’s apologizing about anything; they’re too busy being who they are, period.

Words that matter. Words that don’t. A good story only has the first kind.

These days, I call it Caution

In Artists, Circus, Drafts, En français dans le texte, Local projects on May 24, 2014 at 7:15 am

There’s something liberating about taking some of my most absurd personal traits and bestowing them on a fictional character. Of course, there’s always the ingrained self-consciousness that says: what if anybody confuses me with the character? What if, what if, what if.

What if: so what? In the worst of cases, they’ll be dead wrong and mortified if they discover their mistake. In the best of cases, I’ll be free to watch my characters act out their own versions of absurd melodramas or of real tragedies nobody wished to acknowledge as such.

The main point being, in my case: getting over myself. Maybe that’s the main point, period.

This said, there are nasty elements of reality that don’t take kindly to humor. Age has honed the coward in me to a healthy edge. Given a choice between circling the field or stepping up to the bull, I whistle a happy tune and wander by riverside, checking out this year’s production of leaves, twiglets, flowers, baby bugs, etc. Mourning does not become me. This may be a matter of physical proportions, and nothing else. When I look at images of famous tragediennes, all of them have elongated bodies and the faces to match. If for no other reason, this bars me from the ranks of tragedy.

All right. Back to the basic dilemma facing any would-be humorist: dealing with those ugly realities most resistant to the light touch. For one. For another, accepting the fact some of the humor will offend. In other words, the bull may escape from the pasture and tackle me as I tiptoe through the wild tulips.

Reason for which I keep honing my cowardice. Something like what trapeze artists do before swinging with abandon: they check the guy wires, the holding pins, the ropes.




In Current reading, Drafts, Irish Mist, Now playing in a theater near you, Ridgewood, The Crab Walker, The Man in the Jar on May 23, 2014 at 8:48 am

All I can say for now: James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss is the best I’ve read in the genre, although Denis Lehane’s Mystic River runs a close second. (The beauty of having no booked appointments today? I read till my eyes closed. Slept till they opened, and read on from there until I finished the book.)

So why adverbs as a title? Because Crumley sprinkles them around. People say things casually, lamely, flatly, and so on. I noticed, but didn’t mind the way I might in another context. The adverbs seemed part of the overall mood. A story in which the narrator drinks slowly on the fourth day as his solution to a three-day bender? You don’t ask where he took his writing classes.

I was pulled back to earlier incarnations of some characters that cropped up in my years of writing. Chanced across some of the draft pages from earlier stories while I cleaned out some of the paper files over here. (Speaking of paper files: funny about that local break-in where some paper files were lifted along with the electronic stuff. I didn’t know there were fences interested in work logs. Specializations in every profession, I guess.)

I was saying – ah yes, some of the folks from my story land store. Who committed all the sins of omission or commission (not enough or too much detail/background, reader feeder, adverbs strung out like Christmas lights in July, etc).  Embarrassing? Keep them at home, hide them in the closet, don’t even send them to someone’s slush pile.

Except. Except every single one of them was born in times when the only writing I could do was in my head or on the corner of a counter, somewhere, between dealing with drudge. Short scribbles to nail down the exact tone of an employer’s whine. Or long, teary rambles of why-why-why. Or long, self-accusatory analyses of my failings as wife/mother/daughter/female/human/sentient being. With loads of excuses for everybody else’s failings. Why? I don’t know. As a pre-emptive strike, maybe. See? All’s forgiven, and the ashes all strewn on my head.  Hell, if you cast the first stone at yourself, and the second, third and twentieth too, they’ll either beg you to stop or run away. Once they run away, you’re free to stop berating yourself; enjoy a pizza and read through the night, if that’s your mood of the moment.

Reading through some of my old stuff now (once set aside the reams and reams of self-pitying stuff, best summarized in short sentences), I’m inclined to agree with one of Crumley’s unsavory characters who has a grant for a scholarly study of the decline of the American pornographic film. While his chosen field of study doesn’t appeal as a steady diet, I liked this enough to mark it off in my copy of the book : “It’s the same in all the arts: as technology advances, humor declines. The limits and definitions of art disappear, then the art is forced to satirize itself too earnestly, and the visual arts become literary, and that, my friends, is the very first sign of cultural degeneracy.”

Of course, as applied to the man’s chosen field of study, the comment leaves me searching for an appropriate response. But laughing too.

Prior to my all-night involvement in Crumley’s novel, the delightful moment in yesterday occurred in the last coaching session when two small boys started riffing while drawing out mother’s day greetings (that wonderful Day occurs this upcoming Sunday, here in France.) One of the boys was using a beige-colored crayon and I asked him what he was drawing. A giant chip, he said.  From there,  emerged the first episode in a story they titled: Ruben, Azdine and the Mutant Chip. No couch potato, the Mutant Chip has set off to gobble up the known and unknown universes (I hold the pen, the boys improvise.) The first episode ends as they attempt to gobble the chip before it takes on black holes. We don’t know what will happen next. We’ll have to wait two weeks to find out. Next Thursday is a holiday.

Explore some Katherine Mansfield, next? Probably, possibly, maybe, perhaps, yeah, I just might do that.


Determinism? Not today, thank you.

In Artists, Current reading, Drafts, Film, Local projects, photography, Poetry on May 22, 2014 at 6:05 am

This happened because that happened. Prior to that, this other thing happened. Mathematics applied to story, be it memoir, ramble in a bar or major literary achievement such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

True, but not so. If story  – the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others – if story were math, you could write it out in equations on a white board. Save a lot of trees that way, and lots of space on a hard drive.

Influences? Yes. Tendencies toward one type of explanation over another? Yes. Personal habits, comfort zones, phobias? Yes, yes and yes. Determinism? Only if you so decide. In which case you may as well settle for one of the world religions or latest trends to “explain” everything.

No time for any of that. No use for any of it right now either.

In the slurry called world news, glimpsed at this morning. Winner Takes All in the Category  of Nonsense: actresses in gowns and jewelry loaned by fashion houses, walking up the stairs at the Cannes Film Festival. Photographers who’ve made it through the scrum aim their cameras at them. Meanwhile, the actresses beam into the eye of their own hand-held gimmick so they can grab a view of their own unspeakable splendor.

To which you must add, the best photographer in the lot: the one who grabbed the shot. Hail to thee, blithe spirit.

Onward, kadima and so on.