Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Small Stone

Freedom can taste like happiness
When your soul finds a little ledge above the ocean,
And breathes air like wine
To revive muscles exhausted in the struggle
Of holding your head above water.

After a little pause, though,
You realize that your fingers clinging to stone
Are bloody with the effort
And tidal waves leap to clutch your skirt hems
Because the ocean is still alive, still thirsty.

So you think, “This will never be done,”
And freedom is no better than misery
Since behind you the red angry sky lowers
Over ominous, leaden swells
And the wind cries memories of drowning to your ears.

Then a shadow above
Forces you to raise your head and see
A figure standing on the edge of the cliff.
You can’t quite make out who it is,
Only that he or she is dropping pebbles into the surf.

Of course you think, “What an asinine thing to do,”
Since there you are, wishing
For a rope or a strong hand to save you in that instant,
But the figure remains unmoved
And behind your head the pebbles fall and fall.

There you cling, resisting the pull of gravity,
The suck of tides, for an endless time
(It seems in your distress),
Until balance gives way.
You totter from your narrow foothold in the stone.

There is no need to catch yourself, though.
Your foot falls on a soft slope,
Where your own unruly waves have silted
A billion pebbles into place,
Founding a new peace between land and sea.

Like every human person, you live by struggling
For freedom from the abyss, for identity,
Even beyond sanity doing what you must.
So you yourself and they in time
Build happiness together like a gift. 

***

I've been thinking lately about survival. Those who cling to it amaze us, and everyone of us is (in a small way) a survivor - at least of our own internal pains. However, the very word indicates that we've been through something which leaves us with wounds and emotional turmoil which seem to make happiness a real challenge. I was thinking about this on my way to sleep last night, and it occurred to me that the freedom of surviving something is often assumed to be happiness in itself, but actually the happiness comes later, once everything has been laid to rest thanks to our own efforts and others' on our behalf. 

So the result of all this reflection was a poem. In perusing blogs over the past few years, I've seen writers and poets refer to their briefest works as 'small stones' because even writing a few words helps them survive in their chosen artistic path. In the end, I think perhaps every kind of success and resulting happiness is built out of such small stones. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Writing Exercise

The door creaks on its hinges as it swings open. No one has come here, to the barn on the hill, for—must be years now. The fields this end of the farm have been let go. Too few hands to work them; not enough demand for the hay the barn used to house.

The space under the high rafters is silent. Birds’ nests leak over the corners of beams like strange creatures watching the intruder, but no rustling or cooing, no crisp flap of wings breaks the breathless quiet. The barn’s current inhabitants must be outdoors. The weather has been strangely mild for Idaho; the bulk of snow is melted, even in shadows under the hills and along the highway where plows pass back and forth. Already in February the sun touches the fields with pastel green. By five each morning the birds are up chatting about their good luck.

Wind finds its way through the loose walls. Chaff swirls and puffs across the barn floor in a visible sigh. From an empty knot in a board over the door, a beam of light shoots through the floating particles. They ascend and descend on their brilliant pathway like visitors from another world. A person could reach out and grab hold of the light, perhaps also get carried aloft. Of course, that is only appearance—a trick of the eyes. That knothole has been present since the barn was built, and from that day, too, it has admitted light like a solid presence, as if the air inside had some special quality. No one has ever been transported, though, and many a farmhand has passed through as he hauled in great bales for winter storage.

The wind dies and the motes settle. A shadow passes over the sun. The beam grays, fades. The brown shadows behind open like dark wings. A few bales from seasons past have been forgotten in corners. Rats must have gnawed the twine, because the neat rolls have slumped across the dirt floor. One bale always broke like that, back in the day. The workers cursed, dutifully, when it happened, since it meant one fewer bale to sell, but no one really minded. At the end of the day someone always had a six-pack stashed in one of the pick-ups outside. Hired hands and employer alike would crash backwards onto the collapsed hay, crushing it into a comfortable shape beneath the shoulders.

The beer was cold and slid down the throat like mercury. Baling was hard work; lying in the hot August afternoon in the dusky barn, the muscles groaned and unloosed themselves. A person felt almost high with tiredness.

Inevitably while the men lay there, one of the boys who had tagged along would scramble up the intricate lattice of rafters. The kids were never tired. Watching them clamber about like monkeys overhead only made the weariness of a good day’s work sweeter. Up, up, the boy would go, muscles working in skinny brown legs. Then the trapdoor to the roof would swing open and a shower of late sunlight would fall like gold on the faces below.

No eager child was left to climb up and let in the early spring now. The barn’s roof-door had been latched for years; there had been no time or need for roof repairs on an old structure fallen out of use. The air is musty. Though the wind whines through the boards, it just stirs the old smells. They cannot find a way out, so they remain and stagnate. Only light is renewed through the inch-wide knothole. It travels like an eye, back and forth across the barn floor, picking out a beam here, a rafter there, a pile of straw scuffed across the floor, the delicate shadow of a spider’s web, the ragged edge of a bird’s nest. Every day it casts down its silver pool upon the soft, dusty floor, and finds nothing new.

***

I’ve been reading The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. It’s a fascinating and helpful book – sort of the explicit statement of everything that I’ve thought and slowly learned about writing over the years, plus some new ideas I’d not yet discovered. I’m probably the last person to the party, as you might say, since I believe his works on creative writing are standard fare, but even so I’ll say that if you haven’t read the book, you should!

Anyway, he had proposed in passing a descriptive writing exercise. Basically, he was discussing how symbolism in fiction isn’t something imposed by the writer, but rather the result of careful writing,  reviewed and reworked to develop the hidden meaning which emerges from word choices and tone. So he claimed that a good writer could describe even a barn from a particular character’s point of view, and trick it ‘into mumbling its secrets.’

The exercise is to describe a barn from the point of view of a man whose son has been killed in war. The catch is that the writer cannot mention the son, the war, death or even the man. The focus is solely the barn. Of course that means that the written result of the exercise won’t be about mourning or loss specifically, will only hint at a particular mood, but the point was basically that in good writing even description must support the overall theme and emotion and effect – the ‘dream’ of the story.

Well, I figured I’d try my hand at the exercise, so the first part of the blog is my ‘barn,’ seen by a bereaved man. I like what I wrote, but I’d love to hear the reaction of anyone who takes the time to read the piece, since it’s hard to analyze one’s own work! Also, if anyone else decides to try out the exercise, please send me a link to the result. I’d be very interested to read it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chatting with Strangers

I took a day off from work on Friday, just to safeguard my sanity. Everybody needs a little time to themselves once in a while, after all. For me this occurs about every six weeks. Besides this, my brother is home between construction jobs. He’ll most likely start his next one at the end of February, so I thought a day to spend time together before he leaves would be welcome.

We were supposed to go skiing at one of the local resorts (this being North Idaho, there are six within an hour’s drive). Unfortunately, though, we are having the weather of mid-April in February this year, so it was 45 degrees out. There were avalanche warnings due to the melting snow. We tended to think it would be safer to stay away from the slopes.

My brother has a membership with a local gym, so we decided to go swimming at the pool there instead. It was a lot of fun. When I was a child, my mom took us swimming all winter at indoor pools, so our Friday outing was quite nostalgic.

However, the real interest of the outing came when I was in the public showers, finishing my ablutions before heading out to meet my brother in the lobby. An older woman emerged from the shower stall beside me and seated herself a few feet away. I was inserting my contacts when without warning she said, ‘You’re so skinny! I used to look like that.’

I glanced at her in surprise (firstly because she was in very good shape for being probably in her late sixties, and secondly because I’m fairly trim and fit, but not what I’d call skinny). She seemed regretful of her past slenderness, so I suggested that perhaps the loss of one’s youthful looks was worth it in exchange for wisdom and experience.

I’m not sure if that comment unleashed her tongue or what, but next thing I knew she was telling me her life story.

I discovered that she was preparing for her upcoming fiftieth high school anniversary. I also learned that her father was on a PT boat in World War II, in the Pacific theater, and that he would have been part of a crew to sneak a bomb into Tokyo harbor, had the atomic bombs not been dropped first. She informed me that she had two brothers and two sisters.

Then she moved on to her married life. She showed me her beautiful diamond ring and said that after forty-eight years, she still had the original husband. She also let me know that, while they had been high school sweethearts, they had waited to get pregnant until they married at age twenty. The tone of implied disdain in her voice for those who did not wait so patiently was rather amusing. She also recounted the epic tale of how she and her husband met each other in Europe in the July after they were married. He had been sent over about two weeks after the wedding, but due to paperwork she couldn't join him for another few months.

In the end, she had to travel alone to Germany, but it was quite the exciting journey. Her aunt and uncle got her safely on the train, but almost lost their own daughter in the process. She had to catch a taxi in New York City in order to get to La Guardia, but the man who shared it with her made a pass at her. She switched from training through Europe to flying above it, so her husband was waiting for her at the station in Frankfurt instead of the airport. Apparently everything ended up happily, though, and has continued more or less in the same vein, since they are still together forty-eight years down the line.

I listened to all of this because it was fascinating (and also because I feel that sometimes older people in our world end up quite lonely and the kindest thing you can do is share some time with them).

Afterwards, once I had finished dressing and packing and taken my leave of her, I headed out to rejoin my brother – patiently waiting for a quarter hour in the lobby and wondering if I’d died in the bathroom! I told him all about the lady’s story, and then ended up sharing some of her anecdotes with my parents and friends as well, just because it was so interesting.

Then yesterday I was complaining to my brother that I wasn’t quite sure what to write about for my weekly blog post. Nothing out of the ordinary has been happening at work. I'm also only doing rewrites for an old story right now, which doesn’t make for super dramatic blog material. Very sensibly he suggested that I tell the woman’s story.

As you can see, that’s what I’ve done, but his suggestion also made me realize the reason why I should. At the end of our conversation, the lady said in passing that perhaps someday she should sit down and write her memoirs. Many people have that urge to record their lives, but few in the end have the inspiration and ability (or even just time) to sit down and compose such a long story. However, just by sitting with someone and telling the anecdotes and adventures which made her who she is, the lady has passed on her experience, enriched another person’s mind with it.

Of course, because she happened to be telling her story to a writer, it’s highly likely elements will sneak their way into stories of mine. Writers are never scrupulous about the sources of their inspiration, after all! But in the long run it will all be fair. The lady whose name I never learned will not be forgotten since I’ll tuck her story away in my memory for future use. On the other hand, I have been richly paid for sitting and listening, because she gave me the gift of her experience in story form.

I’ve always been more on the introverted side – the sort of person who avoids talking to strangers for fear of getting involved in awkward social situations. However, after my conversation with the nameless lady, I wonder if perhaps more openness to others would be a good idea. Perhaps strangers are an unmined wealth of story inspiration which all of us writers could use both to create better fiction and to honor the people who gave us their stories. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Short Fiction is Strange

Over the past few months, I’ve taken a break from editing House of Mirrors, so that I could work on getting together a collection of short stories. I chose what I felt like were my seven best stories and I’m editing and polishing them to reflect my current writing style. Since some of them were written as many as seven years ago, this has been an interesting undertaking. I don’t want to lose the original tone and approach entirely, but at the same time I’ve become a better writer since then, so I want the stories to reflect that.

However, while the process is going quite well (I have about one story left), I have only confirmed in my mind that I’m not really a proper short-story writer.

When I was in high school, my favorite literature teacher was deeply interested in the works of Flannery O’Connor. I myself enjoy her stories very much, though I’ve only read about eight, plus one of her two novels (Wise Blood). What I’ve noticed in reading her, along with other short fiction from writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Eudora Welty – to name a few – is that a proper short story has in itself a very small scope, which nonetheless reflects a very wide reality, and in that scope it completes an entire action. These actions often are surprising, even shocking, because the brevity requires a certain intensity of events in order to give them weight.

I do not have the knack for this. Perhaps I could practice my way into the technique, but my short fiction tends to be more like a vignette – a small window upon a world of characters. If I cared to open that window, I could probably develop the vignette into an entire novel.

A young friend of mine just sent me a little Christmas poem recently. It was more like a work of micro-fiction, actually, since in about 50 words she perfectly narrated the story of some shepherds who are suddenly overwhelmed by the appearance of a thunderous choir of angels. It had a plot, a turn, a resolution…I couldn’t do the same if I tried for weeks. My mind just doesn’t work the same way.

I’m not giving up on my little collection of short fiction, since I think some of the vignettes are interesting in their own right. One of the stories even succeeds completely as a stand-alone short story (I hope, at least!). However, it has been a good experience to face my own limitations as a writer. I don’t know if I’m a particularly good novelist according to anyone else’s standards, but for my own purposes, novels just work in my mind. I understand instinctually how to sustain a plot for a long period of time. It’s unraveling it from beginning to end in just a few pages which overwhelms me.

It has been a while since I worked actively on a new novel, and it probably will be a while longer (I fully intend to finish editing these stories, followed by House of Mirrors, followed by my NaNoWriMo novel from a couple years ago). One novel idea has been taking shape a little in the back of my mind, though, and I have to say that it’s a good feeling.

Perhaps the difference between short fiction and novels is perspective. When I think of a novel, I often think of the resolution first: I see the character in terms of achieving his or her proper fulfillment. Once I understand where the (imaginary) person is going, I want to explain the entire process of getting there, which usually means a narrative involving at least few months, if not many years of human experience. After all, human beings usually take quite a long time to reach fulfillment!

I’ve noticed in reading short stories, though, that they often involve characters already hovering on the brink of their fulfillment (or destruction, as the case may be). The story presents them as their lives are resolved, with just enough references to their history to show from where and how far they have come. Just writing that makes me understand better the appeal of short stories – reading along with the full process of human growth can be a challenge in its own way – and even want to become better at them. I’ll probably always write a short story here and there, just to see if I can get the technique down.

In the end novels are my comfort zone, though. Even in reading, I prefer the long, thoroughly developed narrative, to the quick, startling turn of events. Perhaps it’s because I have an analytical turn of mind, so I want to know the whys and wherefores of events and persons, instead of just seeing them for a flash and marveling at how wonderful they then appear.

I get the impression from talking to friends and reading blogs that many people now prefer short fiction, even micro-fiction. I can understand that: it’s a busy world we live in, and it’s better to read something than nothing, so very short stories can be ideal. I may have chosen the unpopular route in heading down the path of a novelist. However, one can’t completely toss out one’s own inclinations. I think frustration and possible failure can be the result of overriding instinct in such a way, so I’ll stick with what comes to me and try to perfect my skills there.

I’m curious, though. Does anyone have any strong feelings about reading or writing short vs. long fiction? What is it about one or the other which appeals to you? If you have a chance to let me know in the comments, I’d love to read about it.