On Annie Dillard and Riots

In the novel I’m working on (*how can I start this without sounding pretentious?…too late*), one of my goals is to break down the divide between how we are able to name objects around us without seeing them. We do this all the time. I don’t look at the tree in my front yard and think of how it’s a lined gray vertical section, breaking into three, and then exploding into a web of gray against blue, marked by fluffs of pink and white this spring.

No, I think: our tree out front is in bloom.

Of course, living in the former way would be exhausting. We’d be crawling up to trees and rubbing our hands against their bark, some version of acid-dropping tree-huggers in awe at the flashes of color around us. We need words to make sense of the world, to move through it.

But art–visual art and even written art–is able to break through our labels and show us mundane, quotidian objects anew. I think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as she describes an experience for a newly-sighted person standing beneath a tree in the garden:

“[She] stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.'”

I think all art begins with this attempt. The creator sees or experiences something so profound that he or she cannot help but try to put words or music or color to it. And, the art which most surprises and transfixes us is that art that shows us this experience–fear or wonder or love–in a language which is both entirely new and utterly familiar. We see the tree with the lights in it and know exactly what this is.

In my novel, during a riot scene where blue-helmeted police move a crowd down the road:

Bodies press against yours, and you take the woman’s hand again and she squeezes. Another gunshot—this one makes you jump and you see wetness on the woman’s cheeks—and the shouts intensify, hammering the air now, the black heads all in front of you, the water somewhere in front of them.

An elbow jabs your back, two steps nearer the edge of the quay, the whistles screeching like an animal and the blue helmets close enough to throw at when you glance back, and someone in front of you throws a stone. The woman clutches your arm just above the elbow and you can hear her recite something, her words so close to your ear; the l’s and w’s and r’s almost seeming to come from within you, but all the syllables are clipped and hurried…

My goal in the scene is to dis-embody the bodies, to make the riot (told in the second person) all sound and elbows and heat. The police are simply blue helmets, because that’s all the main character can see of them through the crowd, and she only sees the bouncing black heads: I want the reader to feel the riot rather than simply be told of it.

Whether I’ve succeeded in the scene yet is not the issue. In the end, we create art with a very Thoreau-ian aim: to suck the marrow out of life and see if, in the end, we’ve really lived. Art–novels and paintings and poetry and music–brings us into contact with a reality we can only guess at and grope for. We shuffle our pack of words or colors or notes and try to help each other–and help ourselves–experience this world in an entirely fresh and familiar way.

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Grover and Roland Barthes (Part I)

As a parent, there are a few books that you almost always steer your child toward. This is because nine out of ten children’s books are excruciating to read more than once (as an aside, if you were read to as a child, you should call your parents right now and thank them: reading the same inane story 100 times might be the best test of a parent’s love). For myself, we have a few classics that I enjoyed as a child–Where the Wild Things Are, most of the Dr. Seuss library–and some newly found standards. 

Though it’s older, one of these standards is The Monster at the End of This Book (TMATEOTB).

To the uninitiated, let me summarize: Grover, your lovable pal from Sesame Street, is on the title page with a thought bubble above his head. This is a boring page, he thinks. On the next page, however, he realizes what he missed: there will be a monster at the end of the book (you can read it following the link above).

The intervening pages entail Grover trying to convince you, the reader, not to turn the page. He ties pages together, builds a brick wall, and does his best pleading. In the end, of course, Grover is the monster at the end of the book (sorry for giving it away).

It’s a fun read (if you have a rapt pre-schooler).

The book was released in 1971 and is the best selling Sesame Street title of all time. And I would argue that it is books like this (along with video games and a host of other influences), that helped usher in post-structuralism and postmodernism to popular America.

But we’ll get to that later. First, how is the book post-structuralist?

For one, it invites thousands of readers (young children) to participate with the text. This is a hallmark of post-structuralist thought–texts are participatory, not simply produced by the author and then the same meaning is inherent to every reader.

But don’t just take my word for it. Roland Barthes, who became a leading post-structuralist, writes in his classic, S/Z: “the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” Later, he continues: “Reading is not a parasitical act…It is a form of work.” In this classic of post-structuralist thought, we have the essential element of TMATEOTB, which is that the reader is participating with the text.

Quite literally, the child is creating and giving meaning to the text as he or she reads it.

Second, we have various entrances to the text itself (Barthes asserts that an ideal text has no real beginning). This happens all the time in texts–we’re unsure where they actually begin, or they have multiple beginnings (the Bible, with its second creation account in Genesis 2, would be a prime example). Notably, in our model text, Grover appears on the title page–does the text begin here? Does it begin on the front cover itself? Does it begin when Grover addresses the reader directly?

Most importantly, once the beginning becomes muddled, you can see how the narrative chronology is no longer as important. What’s important is the play between the reader and the text, between Grover directly addressing the reader and the reader responding by turning the page. The sequence of events (does he build a brick wall or tie pages together first in order to stop the reader?) is not the thing.

Such a move, while not new with post-structuralism, became another essential of the movement.

Perhaps most significantly, however (at least according to Barthes in S/Z) is the use of connotation and denotation. Here’s Barthes again:

Connotation is the way into the polysemy (multiple meanings) of the classic text….Connotation makes possible a (limited) dissemination of meanings, spread like gold dust on the apparent surface of the text (meaning is golden).

Two notes. First, you can see, with the use of parenthetical comments, why reading Barthes is fun (it’s almost like he is so aware of the reader that he wants you to participate). Second, to what he’s actually writing: connotation provides us with multiple meanings of a text.

This is important because in TMATEOTB, the central problem is one of connotation and denotation. Grover believes a monster is awaiting him at the end of the book (connoted to be strange or horrible, but other connotations await). The text is telling us that “monster” does not, in fact, have one meaning. It doesn’t refer to one item or truth specifically. Rather, the seven letters that make up “monster” receive meaning from the other words around it.

We can’t overstate the importance of this. If a word’s meaning is dependent on the other words around it, meaning becomes slippery. It’s not fixed. You might say, like another philosopher:

Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects.

Blaise Pascal predated Barthes by 300 years, but made some similar moves. Pascal also, incidentally, noted the importance of others. Here, he’s talking about how the text was produced, but it’s a short jump (over 300 years) to Barthes’ words about how important the reader’s understanding is:

Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, “My book,” “My commentary,” “My history,” etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have “My house” on their tongue. They would do better to say, “Our book,” “Our commentary,” “Our history,” etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.

(As an aside, the U.S. president was lambasted for a similar statement.)

But, back to words themselves: the slipperiness of meaning, the play of words: this is central to the post-structural concept. It’s important to note that texts have various meanings independent of what the author intended–but this also doesn’t imply that any meaning is possible. Words are defined culturally (we all tacitly agree that these group of sounds signify something beyond them), and meanings are only possible within that framework.

Finally, the logic of the book falls apart on itself–another hallmark of postmodern critique. It’s the time-travel conundrum of the Terminator movies (where John Connor is conceived by the man he sends back from the future to…conceive him?). It’s the same thing here: the title (monster at the end) creates all the drama of the book (Grover trying to stop us from getting to the end), which then leads us to the end. Really, it’s a massive statement about fate, isn’t it? But is it saying that we can’t stop fate or that we create fate?

Perhaps both.

Ultimately, millions of children grew up reading this book, priming them for postmodern ways of looking at the world.

Next time: Implications of millions of children reading this book…and others like it.

Revisioning

In my creative work, my recent mantra has been revision. Looking at the word itself, this isn’t a cleaning up of the text–it’s an entirely new look at the text. It’s a way to fill the text with greater reality. In writing parlance, it’s the best way to develop characters, themes, plots–by writing them again.

Revisioning (or, revising) allows the writer to enter more deeply into the text and find out what’s working, and what’s not.

But rather than tell you about my process, I thought it’d be more fun to show you. Here’s a scene from a story I’m still working on. A teenage girl is leaving her house to go to the movies with a boy. The reader doesn’t yet know the mother’s occupation, but it will soon become clear. The story is set on an imaginary island in the Mediterranean and written in the second person.

Earlier draft:

Before you leave for the cinema, your mother returns. She wears her yellow gloves. You will bring germs inside our house you tell her. I was preoccupied she says. Where are you going?

You put a leg over the green bar. The cinema.

With that boy?

Yes.

I was only at the rectory. You know that.

Then why do you wear gloves at all?

They make everything look cleaner.

The left pedal squeaks again and you tell yourself to find something for it. You look back to see your mother and her tiny yellow gloves, the orange sun above her, and then a cypress comes between you, a cypress growing out of white rock that the road curves around, and then you don’t have to pedal for the next two kilometers.

As the writer, I sense a few issues in the first paragraph. I’m not sure the reader can see the scene yet. Also, I’m not convinced the girl (you) would mention the germs on her mother’s rubber gloves–at least not at first. Here’s the revised version:

Before you leave for the cinema, your mother returns. She wears her yellow gloves. The light is diffuse and apricot-colored as you wait for her, holding the handlebars. She sighs four times entering the yard.

This allows a little more of how the mother is feeling, as well as the scene. I still think there’s more work to be done on these sentences, but it’s an improvement. In the revision process, I really wanted to show that orange/pinkish evening light, and for an agricultural island, apricot proved a good fit (after some research that they could grow in the area–at least the protagonist would be familiar with them). I liked it’s connotations–the sweetness of the fruit and image itself. I also introduced the bicycle (without the random reference to a green bar).

From here, we go into the conversation:

Where are you going?

You put a leg over the green bar. The cinema.

With that boy?

Yes.

She removes the band from her hair with her gloves still on.

Now, the green bar makes sense. With the mother, I’m ramming home “cleaning woman” without explicitly saying it. Plus, the mother’s preoccupation–and forgetting to remove her gloves–portend to other plot elements going on. Finally, offering the beat here (the mother taking off her headband) shows the mother is unsure of what to say, opening room for the young woman:

You will bring germs inside our house, you tell her.

Now it’s time for this line. The young woman says it as a defense-mechanism in order to change the subject. By attacking her mother, and attacking in a place where her mother would be defensive, the young woman is able to gain control of the conversation and drop the topic about the boy.

I was preoccupied. And I was only at the rectory. You know that.

They why wear gloves at all?

They make everything look cleaner.

I kept these lines because they develop other themes going on in the story, especially with the mother.

Ciao, you say, and the left pedal squeaks again. She does not reply and you smile because of the conversation. You look back to see her watching you and wearing her tiny gloves, the orange sun above her, and then a cypress comes between you, a cypress growing out of the white rock, and then you don’t have to pedal for the next two kilometers.

The final paragraph shows how the girl controlled the conversation–and she knows it. That’s what she’s thinking about–not the squeak. I also cleaned up the prose a bit.

Revisioning is a process, more than anything, to question: why would the girl say this? What is going on here? What’s behind this conversation? It’s a chance to literally see the story again and find deeper layers that were present but needed to be unearthed to be seen. It’s a chance to get the story right–going over it again and again until each word says what you want it to.

Hemingway famously rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times. It’s tremendously important as writers to revise, but I’d argue it’s also important as people: revisioning is what allows us to reflect and grow, to unearth deeper layers in the mundane and everyday life. To find the story behind the story.

Revise today. Change your routine and see what you see. Think about what you would do differently–do better–if you had this day again (because you’ll have many, many days similar to this one). Stare at the way a tree moves in the wind, or how a loved one smiles at you (just don’t stare creepily), and always ask yourself those main questions: what is really going on, and why?

Revision is Development

In continuing the recent trend of this blog actually living up to its moniker, I offer an insight into the everyday world of a living, breathing, unsuccessful writer.  Below is a first draft from my latest novel, and the revision that I worked on this weekend — a revision that will be followed by two or three more before I have the novel where I want it.

The road was black and green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  You could not stop the grass from growing here in Kentucky, and the weeds.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago.  I liked driving through the hills because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I tried the radio but knew that unless I was passing by a tower at the time, I could never get any signal.  Static, with faint mists of voices like they were dead and trying to communicate with me across the great divide.  It didn’t bother me too much, but I worried about tomorrow afternoon.  That’s exactly what I worried about.  After a night and a morning in the car, when the sun hung in the sky at four o’clock, that would be terrible to have no other voices.  Late afternoon was always the worst time of the day.  The day was dying and you knew you didn’t have too much light left, but it wasn’t yet night or even sunset.  It was just day stretched out like a desert, with nothing to do but wait for night to come and its peaceful or terrifying darkness.  The darkness doesn’t matter, only that it is a change.  I imagine the same thing happens in the morning, during the dullness of night an hour or two before the sun rises, but I’m never awake at that time.  Maybe tonight.  Maybe tonight.

And, the edits from Sunday:

The road was black, but green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago, and everything grew without limit: the Bermuda grass and foxtail grass and thistle, all mixed together and going to seed and awaiting the judgment of winter.  Trees, though, clutched the rolling hills, their roots deep and intertwined in the limestone, and grass only grew at the edges of these forests.  I liked driving the hills with the trees, because there was a majesty to them and they would survive the winter, because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I turned the radio on, briefly, but only heard fragments of voices against the white static; voices like ghosts.  Or, voices like God trying to say something, but there was too much static and I was driving away.

I needed to reach Memphis tomorrow afternoon.  My radio could find some voice then, among the voices of the city, because late afternoon was the cruelest time: the sun beats and day stops like evening will never come, and we sit with our memory of the morning and desire for the evening, like we are neither living nor dead.  So for that time, I wanted a radio.

You can see some of the development that has come from my revision.  First, the sentences (I believe) are clearer, and I found the detail of the Bermuda grass by going back and working harder to envision the roadside.

Moreover, the first excerpt became too rambling for me — it felt like I was trying to channel Holden Caulfield, with a little more poetry.  By revising and focusing a bit longer on the grass, the radio, even though the thoughts of the narrator move similarly, the second version rambles less.

In focusing on the time of day, I tied the revised version to his overall journey, and then threw in some T.S. Eliot to help portray his thoughts/feelings.  Of course, just at that moment of gravitas, he isn’t someone overly deep, so he backs off and asserts his need for the radio.

I’m also playing with some themes — death (which ties in with Eliot’s “Wasteland”), and a strained conception of God, which made its way into the second (actually, third or fourth) draft.

So, a small window into the inner workings of a subsequent draft.  One of the most important messages I remember from grad school is that: revision IS development.  We cannot help but add a fuller conception of characters and landscape and theme as we revise.

I’d love to hear thoughts (anyone like the first one better?), questions, musings…

On Writing…

So, I woke up this morning in a rather poor mood.  I stayed up too late, because we watched a creepy TV show, and then Brooke said she wanted to watch something else, to fill her mind with different images.  Naturally, she fell asleep as we started the pilot episode of “Psych” whereas I stayed up for another hour.  Whoops.

Ellis woke up coughing an hour earlier than usual.  It was my turn to get up with her.

I don’t know what to do when I’m in a bad mood.  I don’t know how to get out of my own way, how to connect with God or the people around me.  Today, I just ducked into my own shell and finished the book I was reading — The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman.

The book is a marvel.  As all good books do, it is a story about so much.  A newspaper, and the change in society and technology: the struggle the newspaper faces, the struggles the workers face.  A man’s legacy, and how his family fights to keep his newspaper alive.  In following a cast of imperfect characters, it is also a story about ambition and love and loss.  Rachman writes with a journalistic prose: straight and to the point.  He manages to write equally effectively whether he tells the story of a heartbroken man who becomes blindly driven, or about a woman who is all alone on New Year’s Eve, holed up in a hotel so she doesn’t have to stay in her apartment.

At the end of the book, Malcolm Gladwell has a brief interview with Rachman.  In it, Gladwell states how the internet is polarizing, “it has the result of either making you like [the writer] a great deal more than you would otherwise (this is the foundation of Internet dating) or hate them a good deal more than you would otherwise (this is the reason blog comments are so nasty.”  Gladwell goes on to state that fiction reading is a “social discipline,” it is a chance to see characters with nuance and subtlety, to see them with their flaws and strengths, their fantasies and regrets.  In doing so, fiction creates empathy.

While neither Gladwell nor Rachman would assert that fiction writing is itself edifying (there are a great deal of infamously cruel fiction writers), they danced around the edifying aspect of it.  In reading, for one, we see characters as they truly are, and we are not allowed (by the author) to come up with snap judgments.  Writing is the same.

Rachman writes as a journalist.  He tells one moving scene where a woman cuts herself — a dark and disturbing image — yet retains an unsentimental eye; he does not try to make the reader feel sorry for the woman.  In doing so, he actually creates more sentiment: their is no judgment for the woman: this is who she is in her pain and loss and confusion, and we are to have sympathy for her, to root for her despite her myriad other annoying tendencies.

For me, this is one reason why I write.  I need process.  I often cannot tell Brooke how I feel about an event or conversation until hours after, sometimes days.  I need to think.  Writing is often this process.  It allows me to search for meaning in random events, to try to understand confusing people, to see how the pieces of this world fall together.

Writing, and reading fiction, makes me more of the person that I want to be, more of the person I believe God wants me to be.  It, as Gladwell points out, is a social discipline: good writing refuses snap judgments.  And, at least for me, it is an edifying process: I can expel both my junk and my goodness on the page, in equal parts, even at the same time.

I know that whenever a new technology comes about, people panic over how that technology affects us.  And, I believe at the end of the day, that people are similar to how we were 50, or 100, or 2000 years ago: full of the same love and hate and ambition and sympathy.

But.

I cannot help but wonder, maybe a new technology changes how people interact, even for a short time, before they realize the error of their ways.  For example, fiction reading has dropped dramatically since 9/11.  In that same time, internet use has skyrocketed, and we get increasingly inane snippets, increasingly polarizing glimpses of others.  Even long serving members of Congress have admitted that the culture has changed: there is less sacrifice, less desire to work together.

I wonder how our tools and toys are changing us without us knowing it, and when we, as a society, will recapture some of this social discipline: of seeing with nuance and subtlety and sympathy.