Thursday, January 30, 2020
We wonder about people in our past. We wonder, and to some extent are haunted by people who have passed through our lives without any real evidence as to who they were. To the writer, that wonder is a sort of power that fuels creativity and helps appease the gnawing mystery of memory. Abby Frucht, in her book Maids, uses a stream of conscious writing style to recollect and explore that wonder regarding the domestic women she knew as a girl.
This book reminds me of Susan Minot's novel Monkeys, because it is written from a deep place, a place where unresolved questions live--questions about people with hidden lives and loves. To pry open meaning, a stream of conscious style seems appropriate; formalities in language could blunt emotional impact. Author Molly McCloskey gets it right when she says in her blurb of the book "[O]ut of the shards of language a story coalesces." These shards are sharp and puncture. It only seems right that themes of race be written in this way.
At the heart of this book is a question Frucht poses to herself: why "this fug of mortified shyness she can't stand in herself when she's around black people"? By recollecting memories of the women when her interactions began, she constructs characters who may give her answers. There is Ida, the woman who "moves into the hallway her legs and arms attached to the shape of the Hotel Housekeeping Short Sleeve Dress," and Della who "slides her comfortable body between the two twin beds in the master bedroom," marking the text in time, and Cynthia who sits facing away from [the family] into the kitchen where they can look at the buttons at the back of (her) uniform." Frucht writes in Cynthia's voice, composing imagined letters from Cynthia to her husband Charles and daughter Wanda. Frucht the writer, the doctor's middle daughter now grown, asks "is it wrong to hope to imagine Cynthia's feelings? To put words into her thoughts into hopes in her"? This question is posed to the conscientious mind: is it right to invent, in the form of fiction, the thoughts of real people? The creative mind indulges not because the person (character) isn't capable of speaking her own mind, but because the daughter, the observer, the writer, wasn't there to hear it. It's a type of processing, of supposition, to alleviate the nagging mysteries of memory.
I love how the writing in this book is so close to the way actual thought forms in the mind (without commas, without formal grammar and realistic logic) cramming past with present, making unflinchingly honest associations: a unknown black man on a train becomes a potential thief and then Cynthia's husband:
[I]t's nearly impossible to avoid at all times the wrong things to say or the wrong ways of saying the right things to do but the daughter at least likes to try such as by moving the pocketbook sideways as if unconsciously just an inch or two sideways away from his finger the finger jumping in surprise...They slip into his lap the offended fingers the orange plaid cuff with the snaggled thread as side by side he and the doctor's daughter ride the rest of the way to Penn Station in silence less comforting than before their quarrel unspoken coming and going such as when did it start and when might it come undone?... Goodbye she even bids the man now in her mind your own daughter dear Wanda my exact same age whose name waves itself away
Although the prose takes some time to get used to without the formalities of punctuation and language (I had to read the book twice), the book is so satisfyingly human, it's worth the effort.
Sunday, November 17, 2019
I discovered a skull blanched white, turning to stone, smooth with only a few back teeth present. The holes for the missing teeth were delicate crevasses I could peruse with my finger. The skull may have belonged to a skunk; it had a narrow nose, and was the right size. I stuck it between the tripod trunks of a large oak.
I discovered a gray world hovering over the river. I looked deeply into the grayness and felt I could disappear there. It was melancholy but peaceful, a serene oblivion, one we all fear, but shouldn't.
This morning it was bitter cold and the leaves hung lifeless on the trees. They had forgotten to drop, or were just about to, but froze. They are now stuck, and I wonder if they will be hanging lifeless all winter, be covered in snow, form haunting shapes at night. Nature's confusion. I find this obstinate green disturbing.
We walked around the block and the shade was nearly unbearable; we walked and tried to reclaim the sun, but couldn't. I instead found a mask with black shimmering sparkles on bone white. It made me think of Venice, a city of lace and other well-made things, a city, perhaps of "spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made" to quote Calvino. A city that presents a tourist face during the day, and yet, as a tourist, you sense there is something beyond this. The masks hanging in the shop windows indicate another Venice, a Venice that arrives only at dusk and leaves at dawn; a Venice of primal urges disguised in elegance, of intrigue, deceit, play, the antithesis to the banality of daily living.
I discovered a city across the river with a bell tower and a historic brick factory. It is my city, and it should be familiar, but from this perspective, it's not. It is a far away place, a northern city with exclusive artifacts I may find interesting.
Three days ago, I discovered a painting. In it, a poet stands in the portal to a cottage where the dark mystery of November and the gray pathways of a river surround him. The poet is like a ghost who haunts himself and instead of seeming dreary and morose like November can often be, it is elegant and ethereal, like a masked Venice at dawn. To its onlookers, it presents a certain mysticism worthy of exploring, if they would only stop complaining about how miserable November is.
Today on the trail, I discovered a fox. She ran out from underneath the bushes by the bridge and surprised me. She stopped when she was a good distance away, about 100 feet or so, and turned to regard us with curiosity. I talked to her in a soft voice, tried to ease her worries. She was diminutive, had delicate limbs, and that typical bushy tail. My dog sniffed the air; the hair on her back went stiff. The fox didn't move and we didn't move. The marsh grasses around the bridge were still as well, when typically they whisper and rustle. Then I crossed the bridge to the river banks where the river was between tides. The sun came out and I felt as if the sun were a god, acknowledging me, finally. I bowed my head, as if given a blessing.
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
A couple of years ago I gave myself the task of writing from my dreams. I thought I could embark upon the world of flash fiction this way, by using the surreal images and story lines of the unconscious. To do this properly, I used meditation to recall the dream; my life being as it is, it isn't possible to record notes in the morning when I have to get the kids off to school or walk my dog.
Most of the time I sat down to do this, I was immediately convinced that I would produce nothing substantial, that it would be a waste of time, that I really should be doing something else, like looking for a job or cleaning the house. But always, always something materialized on the paper, something obvious and alluring, and I felt satisfied and surprised. I had something to work with.
In a few instances, what I had written was nearly the final draft. This happened with several micro pieces and the story "The Dream of the Moth," which made it into Best Small Fictions 2019 via Waxwing literary magazine. These drafts required minimal manipulation and crafting. Each of these was a gift on a plate; they were waiting for me, and I had to only pay attention to properly receive them. With others, the image from the unconscious was there, as were certain feelings haunting that image, but the story was just a shell and took a consistent amount of arduous crafting, of cutting and adding, cutting and adding, to produce something of merit.
The unconscious is a bouillabaisse of ideas, feelings, and images. Elena Ferrante calls it the Frantumaglia, meaning fragments. I call these up during meditation by listening to a recording of a crystal bowl. The sound of the bowl sets my mind at ease, and when the mind is at ease, it dreams. My writing is a sort of note-taking, but also an interpretation. I do my best to record the essence, the meaning behind the images and emotions. Sometimes I make connections and incorporate past stories or journal entries. I see where the story wants to go.
I have to admit, the flash revision process can be maddening, and at times, completely fruitless. I would like to believe that no story is a failure, that when it reaches the dreadful place of limbo, it is only still evolving. Sometimes it doesn't reach fruition (am I just impatient?), and I have to cannibalize parts of it to fit the needs of another. In the end, this is satisfying as well.
Rejection by a literary magazine is also another way of the piece telling me it isn't finished yet. It's part of the evolutionary process and not a direct insult to my delicate, delicate ego (although I have to keep telling myself this). I go deeper with every rejection, look at my list of criteria for writing flash. I've forced myself to come up with a list and here it is:
1. Something dire; something treacherous. This has all to do with subject matter, either blatant and in your face, or latent and conveyed through images. A famous short short story that comes to mind is Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." (Note: as it is published, "Hills isn't flash because it's more than 1000 words, but it could easily be edited into a flash piece by nixing some of the beginning dialogue and exposition without losing any of its power). It's almost a gimmick the way Jig and the American dance around the dire topic of abortion, but Hemingway's iceberg theory works. Even if you don't know what the euphemism "let the air in" means, you get the sense by Jig's hesitation and the American's persistence that something serious is going on.
2. Image. This is where tapping into the subconscious is so fruitful: it is a bounty of images. If an image is prominent enough and perfectly placed, the story will revolve around it. The mind will pick it up like a glittering shell in the sand. In "Hills" the symbolism of the white elephant, rare and pure, nails Jig's latent desire to have a child and live a more respectable life.
3. Yearning. According to Robert Olen Butler in "A Short, Short Theory" from the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, fiction must include a character that yearns. Plot is the thwarting of that yearning. Again "Hills Like White Elephants" comes to mind because Jig's yearning to have a child is thwarted by the American's selfishness and desire to live a non-committal life. That yearning turns sour and makes Jig a petulant, sarcastic child. The fact that emotion morphs has all to do with
4. Emotional Complexity. Characters need to be round in flash and this is what's difficult because you have to construct the character's complexity in as few words as possible.
5. Vivid, compact, efficient language is absolutely paramount in flash. Jennifer Pieroni gets it right in "Smart Surprise in Flash Fiction" from the Field Guide: "Excellent flash fiction displays a true mastery of language...As in a sonnet, every word in every line matters in the mathematical sense." Unnecessary wordiness will kill a flash fiction piece. A great example of a paired down flash piece is "Snapshot, Harvey Cedars: 1948" by Paul Lisicky, anthologized in Flash Fiction.
6. Surrealism, magical realism. This might not be on everyone's How to Write Flash Fiction list; some people are diehard realists, but I love the surreal, because it's fresh and transcends the cliche of rationale. It's the language of the underworld, the id and the myth, the stuff of dreams, the refreshing exposé of primal inclinations as in Shabnam Nadiya's "Eating Bone" and Rubem Fonseca's "Night Drive" from Flash Fiction International. I want to make my flash pieces like Leonora Carrington's paintings (see above). I want dead people moving in and out of my stories. I love wacky images like Francois Camoin's "father [as] a small blue pyramid with a single brown eye, like the picture on the dollar-bill" in "Things I Did to Make It Possible." I love the falling girl in Dino Buzzati's "The Falling Girl," how she lives her entire life in one delicious descent, and Barry Yourgrau's "By the Creek," anthologized in Sudden Fiction International, in which a group of boys convene in the woods wearing their fathers' heads.
7. Flow/Layering/Density/Depth. This has all to do with language, but also integration of layers of time. You can make a flash piece a moment, a vignette, or you can span a lifetime, so long as you do it efficiently. This means only including what's electrifying, skipping the minutiae, and foregoing the nagging need for exposition (hard for traditionalist fiction writers to do, easy for poets). See "Snapshot, Harvey Cedars: 1948."
8. Epiphany, irony, surprise, and/or illumination. Epiphany is the yearning realized, accepted, and a gain of knowledge; to quote Butler quoting Joyce, it is "a moment at the end where something about the human condition shines forth in its essence." In David Brooks' "Blue," Butler's definition of yearning is satisfied because it is the yearning that is exposed. Kate Chopin's short, short "The Story of an Hour" hits the entire list. Louise Mallard sits in her room after hearing of her husband's death and resonates with the spring outside her window; she realizes that she is "Free, free, free!" because "she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely." Just after this epiphany, Brently Mallard shockingly arrives home safe and sound and Louise dies of what the doctors declare "joy that kills," but we, the readers, know better. Boom, boom, boom, Epiphany, surprise, and irony: just when she gets to live life as she sees fit, she dies.
9. Inspiration. If you want to write good flash fiction, read good flash fiction. The Best Small Fictions series is excellent, as is Sudden Fiction International edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas and Norton's Flash Fiction International edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill. The Review Review's "An Extremely Helpful, Incredibly Comprehensive Guide to Flash Ficiton Submissions" has a list of top notch literary magazines that publish flash.
10. Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. This how-to book edited by Tara Masih contains enlightening essays on the craft and sample stories. It's a must-read if you want to indulge in what Stuart Dybek calls "slipping between the seams."
Friday, August 16, 2019
I peek through/the sliced webbing of my gloves, forget to protect/my belly and throat. Golden birds, velvet bats/escape my mouth and no one hears me.
In “Kitty Genovese Names Her Fourteen Wounds,” wounds become mouths (“There’s a mouth below the mouth across my throat”). The 14 wounds that Winston Moseley inflicted upon Kitty Genovese in the vestibule of the Tudor Apartments in Queens (where some 38 witnesses hid in their apartments) speak to a poet who is striving to hear:
I thought of Kitty so hard, I was afraid she would manifest, smiling—/in the dark corner of my laundry room, from my closet hook where belts hang—
This is a book that was meant to be written. This is a book that transcends imagination and plunges into fate. We artists, writers, poets begin our journeys based on the intersection of curiosity and creative prowess; it’s an exploratory process that poses specific questions. When we are on the path of the truth, the world answers back. A psychology-student friend of mine once termed this as “oracular consciousness.” While Jenn was writing My Tarantella, our mutual friend Jennifer Jean found an image of Kitty Genovese stenciled on a building near her home:
Is this Kitty? Is this who you’re writing about? She was/barely formed, barely filled in, except for the contours of her face:/the messy bob, the arched brow, oh that beautiful top lip curved.
The face on the wall was like a ghost saying Yes. The yes is like a breath, relief. Proof. Corroboration. Keep going.
In “A God Lives in the Amygdala,” Jenn expresses precisely what so many of us feel when we hear of such an atrocity, that God is indifferent to what happens here, that “[h]is indifference has settled deep within our ribcaged country.” It’s something that needs to be said, a frustration that needs to be voiced:
Do you know that nothing outside of our mouths will save us?/A god lives in the amygdala, but he is weak, too, asleep under the new/moon./Did you see an angel’s viscera across the sky?
I remember when Jenn was writing these poems, the haunting images that came to her: gold bugs, bats, Queen of Night tulips. I remember her telling me she wanted to plant the black satin-like tulips in her yard. She was living the book when she wrote it, and this is what makes it not just a book. It’s a life too.
If Jenn is a channel, Kitty is a catalyst. In “After JFK’s Assassination, Things Got Really Bad” Jenn writes “Kitty puts things in order, things I thought I’d forgotten.” Kitty serves as an impetus to shake Jenn’s memory. We’re not talking nostalgia, here; nostalgia is too simplified a word and too rosy. A specific hunger for the past is evident and this makes sense. As we get older, the need to remember becomes more pronounced; it is imperative to have proof we have lived. We need to be connected to this life, because it’s the only thing we’re certain of:
During the Bicentennial, when the Tall Ships
sailed into the Harbor, I wore a tube top
with red and white stripes like the flag’s
bloody wounds. I wore sailor pants deep navy blue
with two rows of white buttons tracing the shape
of my uterus. I wasn’t smiling
Ultimately, Kitty’s murder is more than a murder; it’s a metaphor for the disregarded female—an archetype subtly known and sadly, widely accepted, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s loss:
Last night, on television, I saw a woman scrubbed/of makeup give a speech. I read about a woman who screamed/but no one came.
I found this book to be a seminal work for the voiced and the voiceless. I feel I cannot do it justice by the meager words I’ve typed here. The evocative images, the divining words—it’s a kind of miracle, a kind of justice for a voiceless voice finally being heard.
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
When Creativity and Domesticity Clash, There May Be Brilliance: A Review of Domenico Starnone's novel Trick
Daniele admits that he is afraid of being without work, that he is less in demand, that his body is deteriorating; the James story is a chance for him to sustain his productivity and confidence, his life force. But he is thwarted at every turn by the child and by his own limitations:
I had no fun at all. Playing with the child had not only worn me out but depleted energy from the drawings I'd felt the urgency to pin down...Now they sat there like ailing beasts waiting, mutely and blindly, either to heal or die.
He becomes stumped, blocked. He can't envision the New York apartment where Spencer Brydon sees his ghost and he stops trying. He succumbs to what comes easier, to what demands recognition, reckoning:
I still saw my father in flashes, grim, throwing his hair back with both his hands, and my mother, who transformed amid fits of terror and melancholy from a shabby Cinderella to a lady in a veiled hat, and my grandmother, who having suffered a stroke, now sat always silent, arrugnata, a word that, in dialect, meant a body folded in on itself, curved like a billhook left to rust in some corner.
Daniele realizes in the midst of his reflections that he is the lucky one; yes he has always had "various human types lurking in [his] body, some violent, others wretched" but because he had talent, he could conveniently "crush all [his] other spirits and banish them to the farthest reaches of [his] blood." Without his talent, without his work, however, he lies vulnerable to these; they rise up and taunt him just as effectively as the child does.
I found this book to be utterly spot on in portraying the clash of creativity and domesticity; I read it with awe and empathy. Starnone is like Ferrante, immeasurably close to the witness self, precisely articulating each of the protagonist's experiences and the emotion and thoughts that accompany them. Both Starnone and Ferrante (argued to be one in the same or husband and wife) deal in what I call "the brutal truth." There is no pretense in their writing, no decorum, no niceties, no moral trivialities; these writers write from the primal self:
When my father sent me to the foundry he wasn't being wicked, poor man, he was giving both himself and me a lesson in realism. The tradition in my extremely sprawling family tree was to be a mechanic. Or an electrician, like my father. Or a turner like my grandfather...Or [making a] living by my wits, by hustling, by the wiles of necessity, leaving no doubt that I only ever have women on my mind, that I'm never satisfied with any of them, that I collect them, caress them, take advantage of them, beating them when they don't want to bend over nice and quiet...Or to reject the dark chasms of women and slip into male bodies with the excuse of humiliating them, or only because it's easier to feel at home with known actions and reactions, or because the drives are confused, the flesh is uncertain, always moving without resolution from men to women, from women to men, holes here and holes there, so many useless distinctions.
The story culminates with little Mario locking his grandfather out on the balcony in the rain and the cold. The boy literally holds the old man hostage, and as with most hostage cases, release only comes when something is gained. This gain is twofold: the boy succeeds in gaining the grandfather's undivided attention, and the grandfather gains insight and acceptance: he's never going to finish the illustrations for the James story; he can't, it's beyond him, and that's okay. What's more important is that he's pinned down his own ghosts, in a kind of artistic reckoning.
Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake) does an impeccable job in translating the novel from the Italian and her introduction is written with grace and respect. She gives us food for thought on how a translator deliberates over words, the dance of words on the page, the different levels of meaning. The dialogue she captures is so real it seems as if you're hearing it and not reading it. She informs us of Starnone's penchant for James and how the two stories play off one another. Also included in the text is an appendix of real drawings done by the artist Dario Maglionico, which are haunting and surreal, a perfect and justified complement.
Sunday, July 21, 2019
It's early July in Maine and the beach roses are still in bloom, as are the irises. We're staying where we stayed last year at the Ocean Point Inn in East Boothbay, a charming old inn that was built in the nineteenth century and was once a farm house. Our unit is an efficiency with a deck that looks out at the bay where boats are docked and rock gently with the lapping waves. Across the water is what appears to be an island with rocky shores and rugged firs. There's a house there, a grandiose house and whoever owns it must own the island as well. That's what people up here do: they own islands. We saw one for sale when we were kayaking.
Last night I watched the sun set over the water and an osprey halted itself in mid-air then dove for a fish. I was awestruck at its acrobatics, how it could reverse direction so efficiently, be so precise. It snatched that fish decisively and was back up in the air in less than a second. And then its mate came from somewhere else and the two flew home over the firs. We humans have to think, plan, execute, but animals can simply execute. They run on instinct, a code in the brain.
This place reminds me of the essay by E.B. White titled "Once More to the Lake." White talks about the new flywheel motors and the third track missing; I don't get a sense of the passage of time here, more that time is slower and involves less. You would think I would be okay with that. I want to be okay with it, but the truth is there is this undercurrent of unease rippling inside me, as if all those things time is normally stocked with are rumbling underneath my skin, and I can't let myself truly be present.
The lobster boat chuffs now into the bay there are far away voices. The water is relatively still. It's a quiet sight. A dog roams the rocks on the island, a trap is dropped and the boat makes a turn and stops. I think to myself, why am I not enjoying this? What tears at me?
In a dream my father planted an orchard
when there were apples already in the trees
and protested when I bit into one
In a dream women came to decorate with holiday flowers
begonias in the windowboxes with satin ties
In a dream my English teacher tried to teach me algebra
and a shelf of her precious books was burned
because it took up too much space
In a dream my high school turned into a labyrinth
and I walked through the same shadows again and again
In a dream I had racks of beautiful clothes and pants that fit me
because they took out the tumor and my stomach was slim
In a dream I called my boyfriend by the wrong name
and embarrassed myself in front of my family
In a dream I needed someone to love me
so I thought him up and he appeared miraculously at my side
and freed me from the labyrinth
but this stranger was a quick fix
and I longed for the time I forged my own way
There are tiny bees here that reap the nectar of the antique roses, and I found two mating on my arm. Delicate but steadfast creatures, I had to wait a while before the wind took them away. At night, frogs chirp and croak in the lily pond between the buildings and the lotus flowers peek up from the muck like the soothing thoughts of a bodhisattva. Mary walks the sea wall with tiny daises in her hair and Stephen can recite the totem animals of Maine. When he put on a Polo shirt with miniature sharks on it, I could see the handsome man he's destined to become. And I am half here, because a part of me drifts a few feet above my head in a limbo space, where I am wishing and waiting for a time to create and process the gifts of this place. But that never really comes. Despite the separation from my daily routine, there are responsibilities here, things to do as a family. Even here there are things that must be done.
I debate with myself what I should do in the brief time I have to myself. I could swim in the ocean, but the rocks would cut my feet. The cold water will numb my limbs. The sun burns my skin if I don't use sunscreen and the mosquitoes will devour me if I walk in the woods. This is a treacherous environment despite its beauty and you must be prepared, but I never am.
My husband tries to be prepared at all costs. He spent hours packing the day before the trip and then again just before we left. He gets anxious that he will miss something, the car has to be packed just so, and he often snaps at me and the kids before we leave for one reason or another. His neuroses usually pays off, though, because we have everything or almost everything we need. He packed food, clothes, toiletries, drugs, vitamins, drinks, books, electronic devices and their chargers. (We had to buy salt and paper towels). I am one who believes in spontaneity and being resourceful; he can't tolerate poor planning. He thinks my lack of planning and packing is childish. Reckless. I think I have more faith in life than he does. I am willing to put myself out there, rely on instincts, wit, or at least this is what I tell myself.
The homes on Ocean Point are well kept; some are refurbished cottages, others are hidden mansions accessed only by a private road or trekking up the granite coast. It's a precarious hike, you've got to be careful of your footing, and the question in my mind is what must one do to acquire, build one of these museum-like habitations? And I use the word habitations loosely, because it doesn't appear as if anyone is in them. It's wild on this nook of the coast; all you can hear are gulls and waves and you get a sense of the treacherous solitude of Maine. What must one do? Further down the coastal scenic road and I have a full sense of Have and Have Not. There are "PRIVATE" and "NO TRESPASSING" signs everywhere. I can't help but feel rejected when I see four inviting Adirondack chairs facing the sea and a red and black "PRIVATE" sign.
We went kayaking on the Damariscotta River and it felt right to exert some energy to be fully indulged in the landscape. It cleared my head. In the evenings, we perused the Boothbay Harbor shops, had dinner and ice cream. Mornings, we had a full breakfast at the Inn and were served by hospitable people who spend their summers working at the inn and then live somewhere else during the winter. They were seasonal people, and I wondered about their lives, if they were always working, working, the maids in their beautiful Jamaican braids and their carts full of cleaning items, cleaning the toilet bowls and the rugs and the sinks, making the beds, finding who-knows-what the guests have left behind. What was this place to them?
The last day, we visited the Botanical Gardens (the pictures I have posted are from there). Here people have learned the secrets of the treacherous landscape and have harnessed it to put forth blooms. I finally feel at ease and delight in all the burgeoning flora; it's like the Garden of Eden, and I feel welcome here. A cultured space like this belongs to everyone and no one at the same time.