Monthly Archives: June 2014

Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Organized Chaos

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Well, to begin with, a Wally boy who shall go nameless (after doing an absolute killer reading from his new novel) came down to the porch at about 10 o’clock last night wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, and for the rest of the conference, I predict we will be asking him over and over what a friend of mine asked this practically naked Wally as he appeared on the porch last night: “You going for a swim?” No, he was not going for a swim. He had locked himself out of his dorm room. His rescue, or his reunion with his room, was not an easy task. Were there spare keys? Who had them? Call the college. Not outside business hours. Call the Wally organizer. Not on campus. He lets us know over the phone who has the spare keys. But where is she? We haunt her floor. Calling her name. Knocking randomly on doors. She must be asleep. Finally, we learn her room number. She wakes, produces a key, and all is well.

Today I’m thinking about organized chaos, in particular, the organized chaos of a first person narrator who is, essentially, like Huck Finn, like Nick Carraway, like Holden Caulfield, talking all the time. Of these three representative narrators, perhaps only Huck and Holden could be said to be “talking,” whereas Nick’s formality and philosophical musings seem to represent the more deliberate and intentional act of the written word. My narrator is talking—all of the time. He’s not the kind of guy who would write a book, but he’s got a lot of stuff to say.

Realistic talk, even storytelling that appears to us in the course of conversation, is rarely neat and tidy. There are disruptions, interruptions, distractions, tangents, repetitions. And composing a work of fiction around this type of point of view can be taxing, especially in the earliest stages of drafting. If the narration wants to feel spoken, there’s a degree of chaos that ensues. And of course it’s kind of a ridiculous conceit: who talks non-stop for two hundred pages? And who’s listening? Who’s the audience? And how might the speaker organize that chaos so that the writer’s hand in it is negligible or invisible. A first person narrator like Faulkner’s Benjy is probably not even viable in today’s publishing and/or reading climate. I sometimes wonder what’s becoming of our contemporary Faulkners. They’ve probably all gone the way of Shakespeare’s sister from A Room of One’s Own, nuts and then dead. That’s terrifying. I don’t want to go there. So I am trying to organize my narrator’s chaos. I am trying to help him get back into his dorm room so as to not have to haunt the halls of Ham, nearly naked, calling the name of the key-keeper.

Today, I did a lot of cutting and pasting, moving text around, trying to remember what this guy has said already and where he said it, trying to make sense of the chronological sequence. Once, I fell asleep in a chair. I watched a Pomplamoose video and then I jumped up and down, danced a bit. Then, instead of going back to my narrator, I started to write this. See, it’s not only that my narrator is telling his story; his story, in fact, takes a bit of a back seat to the stories of two other characters who have told their stories to him. Unlike Fitzgerald’s Nick, my guy is speaking and not writing, but like Fitzgerald’s Nick, my guy is what we call a peripheral first person narrator. His job seems to be to tell somebody else’s story. But he tells it, is compelled to tell it, because it has touched him in some significant way, but he’s got to speak in order to make sense, and as he speaks, he decides (sometimes on the fly) what to reveal and in what order, and hopefully, he lets me in on the plan. My job is to listen. Who’s holding the key to organizing this chaos? My narrator has the key to my dorm room. Luckily, I am fully dressed.

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Filed under Literature, Writing and Reading

Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page

 

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I arrived at Mt. Holyoke College last night right in the middle of dinner after a long day of traveling. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in order to get to the Portland airport by 5 to catch a plan by 6 to arrive in Chicago to hang out for a couple of hours and have lunch with my friend Annie, then to get on a plane to Hartford and from there to share a shuttle with Annie to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass, to arrive just in time for dinner and to enjoy the first readings of the conference and afterwards a drink with Wally buddies. We call ourselves Wallies. I’m not sure why we do that. My guess has always been that Wally must be short or a nickname for the fellow our writing college was named after: Warren Wilson. I cannot, however, at this time, verify the truth or accuracy of my guess. I’ll look into this and get back to you.

Today’s schedule is light. Workshops are the only thing happening during the day. Nothing else formally scheduled until this evening’s readings. So if attendees are not workshopping, they are freee with an extra e. I have been choosing not to workshop so that I can spend my energies writing writing writing. Today, I have not been writing, but rather, I’ve been reading my writing, which is all part of the same thing, ultimately. As I am working on a longer piece, time spent reading my writing is necessary in order for me to immerse myself, to get back into that other world, that world that I left behind many, many months ago now. There’s always a fear that when I come back to something I haven’t worked on for awhile that I will be unhappy with it, that I won’t like it, that I will no longer be interested. That rarely happens to me, happily, but that doesn’t prevent me from worrying about it, nevertheless. I read to myself and I rediscover usually what it was that hooked me to begin with.

I read to myself out loud—so I have to be alone in a room, not in a library or a bookshop or a coffee house–people would think I was nuts—I can’t write in public places because I can’t read out loud. So I’m here in this conference room all alone in the science building reading out loud to myself and I’ve stumbled upon a problem or a dilemma. An opportunity.

I am writing a first person narrative that is set in Oregon—Portland to be exact, my hometown, and on the coast of Oregon—Newport precisely.

For some reason I cannot explain, my narrator has a southern accent. Ultimately, I know I have to understand why that is. Right now, I can’t do it. I only know that this is how he speaks or how I hear him speaking. I have not written in dialect. In fact, I think that if I were to give pages of this thing to someone to read out loud or to themselves, there is no reason to suspect that this reader could discern or would interpret this speaker as being a southerner. And the narrator does not identify himself that way, at least not explicitly, not yet anyway. So when I read it, I am reading something that is not on the page. This interests me.

And so I have this burning question. Must it be on the page? My gut tells me that it should. If I understand the voice of my narrator correctly, his southern-ness is an important trait, something that I cannot leave up to the fates to help my reader understand. My gut tells me that I have to know how he came to be in the Northwest, and that somehow in his narration he must reveal his origins to the reader. But there is a counter-gut feeling telling me that maybe after all the fates should decide. I hear his southern drawl. Someone else may not. Is the story he tells dependent upon his regional identity? Could it be that he just doesn’t identify himself that way, at least consciously or overtly? Unless the character believes his southern-ness is central to his identity or to the story he is trying to tell, why should he mention it? If I read the piece in a particular voice, and somebody reads the piece in a distinctly different voice, is the second voice less valid because it is different from the one I hear? And does the piece suffer with this kind of ambiguity or openness to interpretation? Here’s the question—or the real problem. The problem of how the piece is read out loud, by the writer or anyone else, is moot. It matters little or not at all. What matters is this: Does the thing work on the page? Is it engaging? Is it good? Is the character in question believable, interesting, sufficiently complex? This other stuff is a question of ORAL interpretation, which is a different animal altogether from the writing of effective, meaningful, artful fiction—and that’s what I am hoping to do.

But I still wonder. I’m waffling. I want to understand, still, why I’m reading what’s not on the page and what it says about this character and this book, and what it says about the writer.

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#139: Writer’s Camp

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I’m going to camp.
I’ll be alone most of the time
but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner,
and at least once every evening,
I will be surrounded by friends,
writer friends, people who know me
and who share the dream and the drive
or the dream of the drive or the drive
of the dream to live their lives as writers,
whatever that means.  Whatever it means,
for all of my fellow campers it is a matter of survival;
we do it, as my friend Joan puts it, because we have to.
I’ll squirrel myself away in the science building,
(if no one gets there first) with the great big windows
looking out at the surrounding hills of Mt. Holyoke
and down over the balcony at the tables shaped
like amoebae, and I will pound at the keys
a bunch of words that attempt to tell stories
about people who only exist in my mind
while all or most of my writer buddies
do the same elsewhere.  And in the end we all go out
dancing, as it should be, now and forever,
amen.

 

 

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#138: A New Stupid Smart Phone

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1.
Stupid, perhaps.  But I bought a new iPhone today
because my wallet case broke, you know the one,
the wallet case I bought two years ago
to hold my i.d., some cash, and a 3G phone
I bought for $50 that was already two years
out of date. The old phone was fine, still,
but the wallet was now in two pieces and
there was no way I was going to carry
around two separate things in my pockets,
a phone and a wallet. Now I have this new
phone on which I can have meaningful
conversations with someone named Siri,
but the at&t store didn’t carry wallet cases,
so now I carry two separate things in my pockets,
a phone on which I can have meaningful
conversations with a person named Siri
in one pocket, and a wallet in the other.

2.
I hope it wasn’t a mistake; I have my doubts.
The at&t people sure did make it easy;
having  lowered my monthly phone bill
by 30 or 40 bucks, having rolled the price of the phone
into that lower payment, they sent me away
feeling like I had spent exactly zero dollars,
walking out of that technological zone with
a phone through which I can have meaningful
conversations with a person named Siri.
What’s worse, I think, is that before,
I really couldn’t give two shits about my 3G,
but I like my new phone; it’s pretty, it does
things, it’s fast, and I can’t quit fondling it.
I’m an adult.  I can handle it.  I am conscious.
This infatuation will pass.  Otherwise,
I have sold my soul to the cell phone devil.

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#137: Blog Spam

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I often get comments
on my blog posts that read
almost and sometimes
exactly like this:
“I am genuinely
delighted to glance at this
bloig postѕ
which consists of lots
of valuable information,
thanks for providing these
kinds of data,”
apropos of absolutely
nothing. I’m puzzled.
Is this the deliberate work
of a real person, a real
person who either is
half literate or not a
native speaker, or is
there a machine that
spits this crap out
randomly into the web,
programed by such
a person described
above or acting on
its own, hoping somehow
the message will stick
somewhere? And to what
purpose?  What could
the person or the machine
possibly expect from me
besides: Mark as Spam?
Am I supposed to be impressed?
Am I supposed to become their friend?
Am I supposed to feel inspired
to provide more “valuable information”
and “kinds of data” to this person,
this machine?  Are they hiding
somewhere, in wait for me,
to infect my computer, rob my bank,
spy on my surfing, co-opt my bloig?
Whoever they are, or whatever it is,
I thank them for providing
subject matter for another poem,
but would request respectfully
that henceforward they refrain
from posting comments
on a blog post they’ve never read
unless they are willing to
tell me who they are
and what they want.

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#136: Again, The Last Teacher Out The Door

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Every year,
this is what it’s like.
I can’t get my grades
in on time because
instead of a multiple-
guess scantron test
I ask my students
to make things or
write things,
things which I must
then look at and think
about; and there’s
never enough time
to look and think
properly, so I turn
up the music and I
look at things and think
about things and I
dance. And finally
when I submit my
grades a half an hour
late, students are
still attempting to
send me more things
to look at and think
about and I just can’t.
Eyes buggy from
looking at a computer
all day, legs tired from
dancing, heart aching
a little bit for students
suffering or failing
and colleagues leaving,
I make a lame attempt
to clean up my room,
I pack up the things
I need for the summer,
and I get on my bike
and ride, the last guy out,
leaving behind
a mess for the end
of August.

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#135: The Eight Year Old Uses Tweezers To Pull A Sliver Out of His Daddy’s Hand

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This happened yesterday, for real, and it was one of those events in parenting, perfectly mundane, nearly inconsequential, that nevertheless felt poignant in that moment, and today even more powerful as parents in my state again lose their children to guns. It breaks my heart. Love your kids.

The Eight Year Old Uses Tweezers To Pull A Sliver Out of His Daddy’s Hand

I’m digging around in there
with the tweezers but I can’t
get a grip on the thing.
My son, eight years old:
I know how to do it, he says,
because Mommy has taught me
and she is the master.
Let me do it, he says,
and I give over the tweezers.
And then, hand as steady
as a surgeon’s, he digs gently
into the palm of my hand
and successfully, painlessly,
removes a sliver, tiny and deep.

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