Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Curvature of Time


Several years ago I read Stephen Hawking’s brilliant book, A Brief History of Time, and marveled at his ability to make the Theory of Relativity exciting to troglodytes like me who never braved a science course after high school. Hawking discusses how Relativity shows that time is actually subjective, based on the observer’s relation to gravity. But he then asserts that time is an arrow, always moving in one direction: “Our subjective sense of the direction of time, the psychological arrow of time, is therefore determined within our brain by the thermodynamic arrow of time.”

I think writers operate with an entirely different notion of time. Our idea of time is based more on emotion. In Einstein’s vision of space, the shortest distance between Point A and Point B is not a straight line as it appears on a ruler, but a line tugged and stretched by the gravity of nearby bodies. So the time between Moment A and Moment B is, for the writer, not a simple stopwatch calculation. For the writer, the proximity of an event in time has more to do with its emotional and symbolic power for the person affected by it. The day of my mother’s death, for instance, though it occurred over forty years ago, is far closer to me and easier to recall than the work meetings I attended last week. My first day of kindergarten fifty-five years ago is more vivid to me than my commute this past Thursday.

For the writer, the nearness of the past has more to do with its emotional and symbolic mass than with its place in the linear parade of time. But this applies not only to the past, but to the future. Just as past events constantly erupt in our present consciousness, events from the future that have a traumatic or symbolic power seem to ripple into the present. This happens most often in our dreams, where we are most sensitive to the curvature of time, but it also sprouts up in our waking life. How many times has each of us dreamed some detail only to see it occur a few hours later the next day? Of course we all shrug off all such events as coincidence. But let’s not forget that for centuries scientists dismissed the slight miscalculations that Newtonian physics produced, before the Theory of Relativity revealed that this margin of error pushed open the door to understanding the nature of space.

For the writer, the curvature of time has always been of the utmost importance. Tragedy as a literary genre is obsessed with foretelling the hero’s future fall. Think of the Weird Sisters’ prediction that Macbeth will meet his doom when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and at the hand of a man “not of woman born.” The mechanics of how this prophecy plays out are a huge part of what makes Macbeth’s fate interesting, not the fact that he died after a certain string of events. In Ford Maddox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, the story is told out of sequence altogether, the jumbled way one person would actually recount it to another, in a burst dam of emotions. Wordsworth’s daffodils and Proust’s madeleine are those writers’ proofs of the formula that the nearness of the past is proportional to its emotional or symbolic mass.

So I have to quibble with the physicists’ idea that time is an arrow. As a writer, I see time as being just as oxbowed as space, with emotion and symbolic gravity as the equivalent of the physical force of gravity in stretching the elastic of temporal material.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Brushstrokes

Remember when painters went to great lengths to hide their brushstrokes? Think of the Flemish masters of the mid 1400s, just at the break of the Renaissance. Roger van der Weyden sat bending over the blood-gold head of the Virgin and the angel, using such minute strokes that he had to have a brush with only one hair, so the tool mirrored the image it created. Everything was in the sharpest focus—the pearl-studded brocade of the angel’s robe, the pattern of nails in the wooden window shutters in the background, the distant landscape outside—the way it might appear in the mind of God. The days of the guilds, before the annunciation of the Great Change.


Then Rembrandt upended it, and brushstrokes were no longer shamefully hidden but lavished on the canvas. Even pallet knives, once for mixing colors, were boldly used to scrape light across the surface of the painting, the artist no longer effacing himself with each stroke, but proud of his role in producing the image of the tomato-cheeked burgher. Rembrandt, too, was well worth portraiting, with his global nose that the light loved; the generous, orange lips; and the dark eyes tunneling back.


And later the hummingbird moment when paint and image hovered together, the prismatic brushstrokes of the Impressionists in balance with their subjects, the brush caressing the light. As in Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party:


The painter smoothed all the figures in yellow straw hats and blue dresses flirting or musing or lounging after their meal as if the strokes were of the softest hairbrush, fracturing the air into colors that included all possibilities and beauty in that one moment as delicious as the grapes and wine left on the table shielded by the white cloth.

But with Monet’s final waterlilies the brushstrokes began to revolt, to assert their own importance, almost eclipsing those liquid-dwelling flowers. The strokes were no longer content to portray the painter’s moonbridge, they jittered in and around the rails and the planks, not willing to settle in one place, the way a reflection is miffed by the wind.


Eventually the brushstrokes took over the canvas and became the sole subject. Abstract New York Expressionism, Jackson Pollock’s brush whipping across the surface like a day’s worth of air traffic, time-lapsed from above. Or like a magnified detail of a painting so large it could never fit in a home.


The circle was now complete. The Process was the end. And there it was finally, the heart of the artist itself, not a valentine chocolate box, but a visceral, beating organ with the blue veins and glossy membranes laid bare.

The angels were gone, though, like birds out of season, off to follow equatorial colors, latitudes with warmer numbers, their wings painting the blue air.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 7: Combining Pathos and Humor


The poet Kip Zegers and I were watching a mutual friend read poems, back when I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The friend was reading a series of confessional poems about difficult times in his life. It was difficult to hear that much pain in one sitting. And then the poet interrupted the sequence to insert a light-hearted poem that had the audience laughing. You could feel a palpable sigh of relief among those in attendance, a physical reaction of comfort.
Kip leaned over and said to me, “Audiences need to laugh.”
I’ll never forget that, because at that moment I witnessed firsthand the way that listeners or readers relax and concentrate again when humor enters into a serious piece of writing.
It’s as if you’re at a party and a person you’ve just met starts telling you a story about something awful, like satanic cults torturing canaries. You might start to wonder if the individual recounting the story is a bit nutty, since he or she is telling you something so intense and upsetting without much introduction or warning. If that person inserts a humorous remark, though, suddenly the whole dynamic changes. You realize that even though this is a serious story, the person telling it still has perspective, and that the storyteller does not expect you to burst into tears before you fish your next beer out of the cooler, or snarf a Dorito from the bowl on the coffee table.
I’m not suggesting that Hamlet should be revised to include knock-knock jokes. But there is broad humor even in Hamlet, in the gravediggers’ scene, for instance (Act V, Scene 1, for those keeping score at home). The gravediggers are arguing about a terribly serious subject—whether suicide is a sin, in response to Ophelia’s death. One of them says, “if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes—mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself.” Pretty silly stuff, to argue that water would come along and drown someone, but Shakespeare knew that sort of wacky comedy was necessary to hold an audience if he wanted to prepare them for the deeply tragic ending of Hamlet.
Humor has to be spontaneous for it to work, but you can leave space for humor to enter your writing. The more serious the project, the more important it is for light-hearted landings that allow us a literal breather before we climb the next flight.
Just as tragedy needs humor, humor also needs pathos. If you’re writing a comic piece, full of laughs, it’s crucial for it to have an edge of seriousness. That’s what makes it art, and not just a TV sitcom. For instance, Billy Collins has that hilarious poem “Forgetfulness” about not remembering details of favorite books and other names. It’s a wonderful send-up of the way we lose information as we age:

…one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Lots of great one-liners in this poem, but at the end, Billy Collins veers toward pathos:

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

The poet reminds how funny it is that we forget all these details, but the poem is also achingly poignant, because we see that we are also losing everything that matters to us as we age and move toward death.
Humor and pathos are yin and yang. One can’t exist to its fullest extent without the other. The greatest writers are the ones who know how to weave the two, tastefully and artfully.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 6: Endings

On what note do you end a book of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction? With a crescendo, like a classical symphony? One famous example of that is the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, where Molly Bloom’s soliloquy goes on in an eight-page, nonstop sentence and ends in breathless affirmations.
Or do you finish with a quiet image that lingers, leaving the reader to ponder:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies    
When a new planet swims into his ken;  
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes    
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men 
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—    
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
—John Keats, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”

Ending with a stunning image—“Silent, upon a peak in Darien”—can sometimes be more effective than a crescendo, since it’s understated and allows the reader to measure and experience the full impact of the ending.
But how you end a book depends entirely on what comes before the finale, and how the last act fits organically with the rest of the book. A book is a living organism. You can’t change one thing without affecting each morsel of the text. The ending has to fit with the rest of the book or it will feel manipulative or tacked on.
I once made an attempt to write a young adult novel. I was having real problems with the ending, but I couldn’t identify the problem. I showed my draft to one of the experts in the field, Marilyn Sachs, award-winning author of more than 30 books, including Veronica Ganz and The Bear’s House. One thing Marilyn told me is that you should never try to tie up all the loose ends when you conclude a book. Life is messy. Any denouement that neatly packages all the unsolved questions feels artificial.
In general, the ending has to be different from the rest of the book. If everything is the same at the end of a book, the reader feels as if there is no story, nothing learned or gained. If the middle of the book is wracked with doubt, the ending could well be calm and/or resolved. If the world the book depicts is full of certainty and self-assurance, the ending might involve questioning. If the book is about pain and loss and mourning, the ending often conveys a sense of grounding and renewal. If the story involves childhood innocence, then experience and maturity and wisdom could be the gateway at the end.
In thinking about books that consist of shorter pieces—poems, short stories, or essays—the impact of the last piece is not as important as that of the best piece. The nature of a collection of shorter pieces is that they tend to stand alone. For that reason, the most enduring thing about a book of that sort is not the closing note, but the most memorable note. The exception would be the collection where the final piece is the best piece. Does anyone remember what the last story is in Raymond Carver’s book Cathedral? But you probably do remember the title story, because it’s such an amazing piece. Do you remember the last poem of Mary Oliver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive? Most likely no, but you might remember “In Blackwater Woods,” the poem in the collection that lives on, retyped by countless fans on their websites and shared from person to person, with its stunning final lines.


Other recent posts on writing topics:
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 5: Beginnings

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

The beginning of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a perfect example of how to start a book of poetry or shorter prose. It grabs you with the very first phrase: “April is the cruellest month…” But I thought April was the most beautiful month, you say to yourself, when spring gives us such hope? No way, this is a fallen world, where hope only leads to broken promises. Read the rest to find out why, Eliot seems to tell us. And is if to tempt us into the poem, Eliot ends each of the first three lines with a present participle—breeding, mixing, stirring—active words that move us right into the odd reality of this Waste Land, half-dead even while it’s blooming. You can’t help but read on.
The strategies that Eliot uses to begin The Waste Land aren’t necessary for your book, but they demonstrate that the opening needs to snatch our attention away from whatever else we’re thinking, so we focus only on what we’re reading, and we want to read more.
Here’s another good beginning, the opening sentence of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird: “The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.” A provocative statement, one that makes you want to find out more. Why is good writing about telling the truth? What does she mean by telling the truth?
And then there’s the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” Woolf throws down the gauntlet right from the start. I’m going to break the rules now, she’s saying. Watch me. And she starts with a question, a terrific way to bring the reader into the argument. What does a room of one’s own have to do with women and fiction? Everything, we now know because of Woolf, but back then, she was starting her essay with a total surprise.
Let’s look at the first sentence of Sherman Alexie’s book of connected short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: “Although it was winter, the nearest ocean four hundred miles away, and the Tribal Weatherman asleep because of boredom, a hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare.” Alexie gives us humor, action, and unpredictable events, all in the first sentence. You just have to read on to find out what it’s all about.
The first sentence or the first few lines of a book (in the case of poetry) have to make the reader want to read on. You’ve got to win the reader’s attention immediately. Readers may encounter your book in a library or a bookstore, where there are many other books competing for their interest.
So let’s say you’re putting together a collection of poetry or short stories or essays. Which piece do you choose to put first? Well, I’d say one with an engaging beginning. One that fulfills its promise, and gives the reader the sense that this book will delight and/or instruct, and not disappoint.
You wouldn’t start with the poem or story or essay that is the crux of the collection. You don’t want to give away the ending at the beginning. You want to work up to the climatic moment.
James Joyce holds back the story “The Dead,” the masterpiece of his book of short stories Dubliners, till the very end. He starts the collection with a relatively minor story, “The Sisters,” but one that opens with a crisp first sentence and a page of dialogue, an engaging beginning. “The Sisters” introduces some of the themes of Dubliners, with its narrative about a priest who goes mad after accidentally dropping a sacred chalice. The story’s exposé of the stultifying conventions of life in the Ireland of Joyce’s day echoes throughout the book. But the ultimate laying bare of that situation doesn’t come until the end of the very last story in the collection.
The beginning of a book should provide an active introduction to the book’s themes, it should start on an exciting note, and it should present the dilemma of the book without resolving it.