Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Practice of Attention

Read an interesting article by Roger Housden on the Huff Post, musing on the value of poetry. This line struck me.

Poetry is a way of rescuing the world from oblivion by the practice of attention

One of the great beauties of poetry is that it coaxes the eye to slow down, disrupts the pattern of a-one-and-a-two narrative that we often get trapped in. In the same way that great photographs do. The put space and time back into the claustrophobic business of our world.

It is our attention that honors and gives value to living things, that gives them their proper name and particularity; that retrieves them from the obscurity of the general.

You can read the whole of this brief but worthy article here. 


I went to see the new James Bond movie 'Skyfall' last week, and left the theater a little non-plussed. Some superb cinematography, an opening chase sequence that reminded my heart (after some very tedious trailers and adverts) that it was alive, some gorgeous landscapes. The Bond franchise has always been a repository for action thriller cliches (many of which it pioneered, to be fair) and some pretty lame attempts at titillation in its quieter moments. The best of the films (Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service) have shown a bravura sense of style and physical timing, as good as any in their genre. They pretty much invented their genre. Even the worst of them have a couple of uber-cool moments. The one thing the series has never really done is try to take itself seriously. Until now. Until the Daniel Craig (as Bond) versions beginning with Casino Royale in 2006.

But that's problematic. Bond has long been a momentary break for ordinary guys, from the humdrum of their daily lives, its hyper-real feel and innate ridiculousness a shot in the arm for drudgery. He was an antidote for packing boxes and digging ditches and reconciling lines of figures in accounts books. That was his beauty for a male audience. The downside of that was a bunch of lazy sexist undercurrents, with women characters as tassles with body parts attached. But Daniel Craig and presumably the writers of his films have set out to give Bond depth. But it's like looking for nourishment in a slice of Pavlova. The character's whakapapa works against it. It's not impossible that action movies can have depth - for example the Bourne Trilogy with Matt Damon giving a nuanced and sometimes tortured performance as an action hero for whom you felt you could really care - not just cheer.

In Skyfall they attempt to flesh out Bond's backstory by getting him to ponder some conflicts from his childhood, the one area that's always been off-limits in Bond films. They give him a suitably gothic homestead with threatening skies, surrounded by vast empty spaces, old stone works and scrubby trees. That actually highlights one of the key dilemmas in what the film-makers are trying to do. Even in attempting to access some deeply buried emotional and psychological trauma they're still banging the kettle drums to do it. They'd never consider a two-up two-down with milk bottles in the doorway and a whippet tied up in the yard, and an emphysemic Dad banging back flat beer while confusing Bond with his brother, what's-his-name. That wouldn't do. It has to be an orphan story, stark gravestones highlighted by flames, his parents names etched in chiseled blood. They're still images from a teenaged boys scrapbook.  

There are still some moments where the old ugliness breaks the surface. The flippant 'ta da, the helicopters have arrived' follow up to the moment when one of the temporary women 'characters' is killed. That's a troubling miss-step. But give this crew credit for trying. There are some human moments where Bond is clearly aging. His gun hand wavering is a nice touch. But what will the end point of this deconstruction of one of cinema's great mythologized superficialities leave us with. A broken franchise for a a new crew to try and reconstruct, or a hyper real hero with holed socks and a tremor. Whose purpose will it serve?  This was always about style over substance. Perhaps that was always its point, that a man can be an awestruck boy again, if only in the brief stretch of time between sitting down in a theater's seats and standing up again. Trying not to think that even at his best, Bond is a sociopathic bastard with a cartoonish sense of patriotism, but with cool cars and some serious chat-up lines.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ever diluting circles

The debate about whether ex world heavyweight champion boxer, Mike Tyson, should be allowed a visa for a speaking engagement in NZ in November brought to the surface some disturbing narratives. Some of the more worrying trends were around the diluting of specific language when describing Tyson and his crimes, and showed how language can be used as verbal sleight of hand to hide what is really happening. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in March, 1992. The conviction still stands. It has never been overturned. He did three years of a six year sentence, then he was released.

More than a couple of things bothered me about the way language morphed in this affair, but I want to specifically address two.

Firstly, while the arguments pro and con Tyson's being granted a visa went back and forth various voices on the radio in NZ (callers, interviewees and hosts) described Tyson's crime with such language as: 

'That business at the Miss America pageant.' 

'Look, I think he probably did get a bit wild with her.' 

'Well, we all know it was a ridiculous charge, wasn't it.'

'Look, he's made mistakes, he admits that.'  (This was a very common refrain.)

Language can sometimes become an ever decreasing and diluting circle, where if the words wash round long enough they loose all specificity and potency and ultimately - context and meaning. Rape becomes a 'mistake'. Violence becomes 'a bit wild.' This is the linguistic legerdemain of denial, used both by bullies (including politicians - the diluting term 'collateral damage' comes to mind) and by those whose emotional attachment to figures they've given great weight to (sports stars, musical stars etc) have them acting as unofficial public relations operatives.

Secondly, I'm bothered that a change of language can be perceived to be some kind of cleansing device. In this article in the NZ Herald, there are references to abusive language, and more importantly, content  (and I assume - intent) in some of Tyson's shows overseas. I don't mean bad language, as in profanity, but abusive language designed to marginalize and reduce. Here is a review from the Guardian about Tyson's show. Broadcaster and former MP Willie Jackson defended Tyson, because he believed what Tyson would have to say would benefit disadvantaged youth. I can't agree. For me Tyson represents a dangerous mirage, a false version of the warrior image so beloved in modern culture, and brought to (commercially lucrative) life in characters such as Aragorn (Lord of the Rings) and the All Blacks.

If Tyson is a changed man, as this heroic survivor narrative (rather theatrically) demands, then that will come out in his behaviour. And the chief insight into that is his language.

From the NZ Herald article above:

But Mr Jackson, who wants Tyson to speak to disadvantaged youths in south Auckland, today stood by his support for Tyson's latest visa application.

"Broadway shows are quite different, I think, from messages to youths and to disaffected people," he said.

Mr Jackson would discuss with promoters what Tyson would say on his marae visit.

"If he comes, we do not expect him to be bringing his show to the marae."

But Tyson would have brought himself, the creator of the show with its abusive language used to marginalize and reduce. The man isn't cleansed by a change of language. If only it were that easy. If he waters his on-stage self down to suit an audience, what does that prove. It is simply verbal sleight of hand.

As for 'youth', discussing this with Trisha, she made the comment 'Why is it assumed that whenever the term 'youth' is used, that it is always exclusively male. Don't young women actually exist?'

Maybe Tyson has a knife-edge appeal to some people, in the way when I was a kid we used to light thunder crackers and run like hell. Liking their smoke and noise and primeval sense of destruction, without ever stopping to think what would happen if one went off in our hands. Doubtless someone else would then have had to pick up the pieces.

Boxing has produced a number of fighters much closer to that much overused warrior image. My post last November on the passing of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier was about one of them. But this issue was never about boxing. Now that the legal position has been enforced and Mike Tyson didn't get a visa to visit New Zealand, I'm left with the uncomfortable feeling that the dust it kicked up carries within it more than a few suggestions that our dark underbelly is only ever a euphemism away. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Some ideas on narrative

Here is a link to a very interesting post by Charles May exploring some ideas about narrative.

May is currently writing a book about storytelling and in some of his recent blogposts he is sharing a selection of his background reading for this project.

 In this post he is outlining some of the ideas he found useful from  a book by Jermone Bruner called, Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2003).

Of particular interest is his outline of Bruner's characteristics of narrative and characteristics of the self.

I also like this statement by May:

In his short summary chapter, entitled simply, “So why narrative?” Bruner reiterates what he stated in the introductory chapter—that narrative is not only a human delight, it is also a serious business, the essential means by which we express human aspirations.  Stories are important because they impose a structure on what we experience.  Stories help us to cope with surprises by making them less surprising.   This “domestication” of unexpectedness that story makes possible is a crucial way our culture maintains its coherence.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What we don't know

In prepping for a recent class on getting students to come up with ideas and ways to develop story from a factual base I thought of a couple of news items from recent years, that had pricked and held my attention. They were both news items that had interesting details, but the most interesting - and personally resonant - facets of them were how they highlighted what we don't know, and the emotional and psychological power in that gap in our understanding. Writing is as much about trying to speak to what we don't know, to find some sense or at least symmetry or justification - a language to speak to it in - as it is about what we do know.

The first item was the story of Oscar the cat, from a nursing home in Rhode Island in the USA. Over time Oscar was observed visiting patients and getting close to them in their last hours. He seemed to show the ability to discern from all the ill and dying patients who had the least time left. Articles have been written about the possible whys and wherefores of his behaviour, such as Oscar is able to detect ketones, which are biochemicals given off by dying cells. On a story level I'm not so much interested in the science but the 'what-if' factor, always embedded in the concept of what we don't know. I must admit the first time I read this story that my imagination left me awestruck, wondering (on an emotional level) if Oscar was moving between two worlds, the living and the dead. I had scenes from the movie in my head in seconds. The unknown is such an enormous room for the imagination to bounce around within.

On a sadder note, the other story I was recently reminded of when putting together my class notes was this one, the story of Richmal Oates-Whitehead, a woman who told a harrowing narrative of destruction and solace on the day of the London bombings in 2005, when she had been caught up in the carnage happening right outside her office's door.

She told of treating 12 injured people, or boarding the destroyed bus and seeing 'body parts.' Administering and consoling the injured. She was quoted in the media, interviewed, praised.

But, as later came out, the whole tale was a fantasy. In fact her apparent medical degree and (clinical) career was an invention. She was an administrator, who had trained to be a radiation therapist. A troubled woman, she was found dead only weeks later. No one else was sought in relation to her death.

This story, like the story of Oscar the cat, has a hole running right through the middle of it. A why, a how, a what does it all mean?

Oscar's story potentially suggests a metaphysical dimension, beyond the physics. Or maybe its just about smell, and ketones. Richmal Oates-Whitehead's 'invented' history suggests psychological splitting and need that overpowered her.

A lot of stories involve a retelling of known events, designed to bring order to our perceptions of them, or to get inside what we know and look for human resonance. Or perhaps to pay final respect to those involved. An example of this would be 'Out of the Blue,' the film of events in and around the Aramoana massacre in 1990. Though even though the events are known, the motivations are still a hole in our understanding.

So with the old adage of 'Write what you know,'  we can add: 

'Write what you don't know, or what you don't understand about what you know.'

Friday, September 14, 2012


Picked up an old Granta from the public library (Granta 100, Winter 2007) last week and came across these lovely quotes from the following three writers.

 From Marie NDiaye:

'Marie, why do you write?'

'I've been writing for a long time to try and establish a little bit of order
 in what seems like one big confusion: the world, language, thoughts.
I want to get all of this clear, focus it as you do in photography: at the beginning all blurred. But then you start to focus and the object appears in all its clarity. For me it is the same with the act of writing. Writing is the focussing of what surrounds us.' (p258)

From Richard Ford:

'Richard Ford, do you know what's important to you?'

'No, but I can make it up.'  (p290)

Here is a link to a recent Guardian Interview with Ford where he does talk a little about what's important to him.

From Gao Xingjian:

'Gao Xingjian, what have you never done that you would like to do?'

'Music. Inside of me there is a rhythm. But it's very complicated
to make it real.' (p312)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Te whare tapa wha - text as house and home

Two disparate events have happened recently to do with reading and writing, yet they have become connected in my mind - connected I think, because the first one gave me a way of thinking about the second.

The first concerns the launch of an educational video now available on the website of the National Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy which explores, among other things, what a text is and what reading means, especially, but not only, in relation to tertiary and foundation education. Among other things, the video explores the contribution Mason Durie's Te Whare Tapa Wha model (1982) makes towards understanding the creation and reading of text. Te Whare Tapa Wha, a model originally used to promote the understanding  and use of  a Maori view of health, has been used extensively in the NZ health sector and is increasingly being applied to many other areas as well.

Here is a link to the video.

My (small) involvement in the video - and the project behind it - gave me the opportunity to learn from a gifted teacher and colleague, Herewini Easton (you can see him in the video clip) who has expertise in both Maori and Pakeha/European pedagogies. One of things I learnt from him was to think of a text as a whare - a 'house' that is constructed by the four walls (or dimensions) of wairua, hinengaro, tinana and whanau - spiritual, mental and emotional, physical, social.
Thinking about text in this way is a wonderful opportunity to open up how we view reading and writing; and it makes (better) sense of some of my own feelings about, and responses to, reading and writing novels, short stories and poetry.

The second event  that occurred recently - inside.out - was a NZ Society of Authors Auckland branch event which provided an opportunity for writers to read their work in public. Held on Monday 6th August at 121 Cafe on Ponsonby Rd, it was a lively and well-attended event that grew out of discussion in the Auckland branch that while there are a number of opportunities for poets to read their work, e.g. Poetry Live, there are none for those who write novels, short stories, non-fiction and so on. Poets could also participate of course, and they did.

I commend all those involved in organising and participating in this event which I hope will continue  on a regular (monthly) basis and I very much enjoyed most of those who read their work - but, unfortunately, there were a few times during the evening when all I felt was shouted at, and abused as a reader/listener, and as a fellow writer, as if the 'performer' believed I/we were just a mirror to view themselves in rather than a community with which to genuinely share their best efforts.

Perhaps considering a perspective on constructing and sharing text like Te Whare Tapa Wha would help us to deepen and enrich both our writing and reading and help us all show more respect to each other and to our work.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Doing the work and remembering - Memories of Fairlie

A month ago I travelled south to Christchurch for my aunt's 90th birthday. My aunt - Mary-Lucy - is one of my father's sisters and has outlived him by just over 30 years. They grew up in the small South Island town of Fairlie in the Mackenzie Country, close to the Southern Alps and Mt Cook/Aoraki.

Dad was born in 1920, left formal education at the end of primary school, worked as a shearer on local farms, as had his father, served in the Middle East during the Second World War, suffered major injuries and spent a long time in hospital recovering when he returned home. He loved politics, country music and the poetry of Banjo Patterson. I remember him playing the guitar and singing and have a photo somewhere of him as a young man wearing a cowboy hat.  The Mckenzie Country,  he felt, was a kindred spirit of  the Wild West although there were far fewer cows and many more sheep. One of the things he wanted to do when he was forced to retire from ill health at 55 was to write his memories of the place he grew up.  He didn't live to complete this but had managed to write enough for my mother and I to put together on his behalf, a small publication called Memories of Fairlie in 1982. It included some of his poetry as well as his memories of local people and events.

Since then this little self published book has sold around a thousand copies and my family still get requests for copies from people who either grew up in and around Fairlie, or whose friends and family did.  In the last few years some of the poems included in the book - in the Banjo Patterson style -  have appeared in other books on the district. Recently I've had a request  for more information about Dad and his poetry from another local author who is writing a book about Mckenzie Country poets and wants to include Dad's work in it. Dad would have been very pleased indeed.

All this has made me  think about how important it is to do the work - to write what matters to you, even if it seems too hard or too late, no matter if  the audience seems local or small, and readership is built by word of mouth. No matter how much hope or despair you feel as you write - that's what I tell myself. Go Dad.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The creative class

Interesting and saddening article on Salon recently about how there has been a massive drop in work opportunities for those in what article author Scott Timberg calls 'The Creative Class.' Many groups have suffered in the recession, but this article is, as much as anything, about presiding narratives. About how classes are portrayed, by whom, and with what agenda.

This from the article:

Novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose father was what the writer describes as “a non-famous artist,” sees the American artist as living in internal exile. American history is stamped with “a distrust of the urban, the historical, the bookish in favor of a fantasy of frontier libertarian purity. And the Protestant work ethic has a distrust of what’s perceived as decadence.”

For me, that resonates with my sense of New Zealand too.

There has been much talk recently about anti-intellectualism in large sections of the U.S.Where creative artists are mistrusted, and how people are being persuaded to mistrust creative workers. This opens up the whole debate of course, over just what we consider a creative worker, and who is it that is in the creative class. I often remind my students that creative is not a state of being, but an action, and perhaps an understanding.

The man alone against physical wilderness held great power over this country for a long time, and has never really left us. It is always problematic though, as it can inspire insularity and paranoia. At the very least it is always male-centric and even its view of the rural is onesidedly male.

The same resentful and paranoid chills have affected the U.S.

Again, from the article.

But these seeds of paranoia really blossomed with the invention of the term the “cultural elite.” During the “Murphy Brown” wars of 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California, connecting the Los Angeles riots to a group sitting “in newsrooms, sitcom studios, and faculty lounges all over America,” jeering at regular people. “We have two cultures,” he said, “the cultural elite and the rest of us.”

It will be a long time before the dust settles on this issue, and on the recession in general and its survivors. It is important though, as always, that we drive our own narratives. If we give away control of our stories we become secondary characters in the stories of others.

You can read the full article here.

In the margins

Interesting reflective piece from writer/poet Serie Barford, at the Poetic Inspirations blog, about her life and her poetic process. Serie has taught poetry on some of my courses, and is always well received. It's fascinating to watch an audience and a class switch gears when a poet who is an expert performer takes center stage.
Poetry often slips under the mainstream radar in New Zealand (and often elsewhere) but the poetry community is vibrant and self sustaining and poets, especially those whose public readings add an extra dimension to their written text (as Serie's do) tend to make their own waves, rather than wait for waves to come and find them.

From the article:

I’ve since resigned myself to the fact that I live in the margins and that’s okay because I can create from this space and it’s my ‘inner world’ that keeps me anchored to the ‘outer world’.

Serie's poem 'Plea to the Spanish Lady' about the influenza epidemic that devasted Samoa (and many countries) just after WW1 brings up the the issue of hidden narratives, or more correctly, narratives that are hidden. Hidden by governments, by media who represent just one strata or colour of society. How whole histories and traumas and tragedies vanish because they're not told, outside of the people who directly experienced them.

Here's an excerpt:

Plea to the Spanish Lady (extract)
 Today the Samoan Times is all news:
death notices and a front page
Today the editor died
Today Teuila’s screams awoke me
as she lay between her parents
dipping fingers in their sweat

Serie's work and the work of other Pasifika poets such as Selina Tusitala Marsh, John Pule and Karlo Mila add extra bite and resonance to what in New Zealand was often a very monochromatic literary scene. We can acknowledge Shakespeare and Browning, yes, but we don't need to be imprisoned by them. Poetry also lives here in the Pasifika New Zealand. Now.

Kudos too to Maryanne Pale for setting up this poetry blog. Long may it continue.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The iron dark of the world.

There he stood, just come in from that bare and desolate wasteland, into the well lit hallway with its dreams and ghosts of movies long dead and gone and shorn of all meaning. He'd walked through the tangled mesquite brakes and up beyond the south fork of the river to where the movie theatre stood skeletoned in the burning sunset. He'd stood at the ticket office, the clerk jaunty and misbegotten and he'd bought an ice cream and so burdened he'd made his way through the bloodred reefs of moviegoers to that long, haunted corrider where the theatre doors broke away left and right. Somewhere a tap dripped and dripped, counting away the days and nights and other days and nights of the world. His tie hung canted, angled, a chimera cast perhaps in some demonic tiemaker's forge in the iron dark of the world. A tie whose stripes spoke of that lost dream. A camera bulb flashed.
You're not smiling, the woman said.
I reckon you're smiling enough for both of us, he said.
Did Billy bring the horses in?
Yes mam. Crapped all up and down the hallway.
He'd woken that morning from a dream. In the dream a great black shape had risen from some far off cave across an oily black river and he'd watched as it turned into a thunderhead blacker than any he'd so witnessed before.
He leaned and spat.
His horse whinnied.
It ain't nothin he'd said.
His horse nodded. They rode on.
So riding they came upon a road of bones and among those bones a single flower lay half crumpled but green still and it grew greener as he stood watching. He crouched, passed his hat across his face. No reason, really, he just liked to do that. And then the flower began to rise on the breeze and he rose with it and it grew then into a twig then a branch then a trunk then a torso until what stood before both man and horse and other men and horses (as a crowd had gathered) was a woman. She turned, glanced down for a moment then turned and walked out across that foreland plain where even the vaqueros wouldn't ride. She leaned and drank rainwater from the rockpools, her face lost to them. She walked until the narrator bid her to stop. She turned at last to regard them. Then she was gone. Lost in that thunderhead. He awoke. A thousand years older.
Where did you get those boots? said the woman in the theatre.
Texas. Where did you get that outfit?
They stood.
There's a cafe in the lobby, she said. You a coffee drinker?
Coffee? he said. I once shared a coffee with an old man, just south of Testeverde, New Mexico. He sat in a field in a highland plain where the winter sun turned the grass a burnt umber and the horses milled about, hazing among the flowers whose pollen hung in the sun like powdered gold and...where'd she go?

(A thousand apologies to Cormac McCarthy)

Light and Shadow

I was watching a few clips from the Charles Laughton directed 'Night of the Hunter' on YouTube.It's the tale of two childrens journey to escape a psychotic pseudo preacher. Robert Mitchum plays the preacher, with creepy intensity. 

Laughton, one of the greatest actors of them all, directed a grand total of one movie. One. This one. The critics panned it, perhaps because its sense of cinematography, hell, its sense of everything was way ahead of its time.

Here is a clip from this film. Laughton had a sense of how to use light, shadow and layered sound to create a total experience of a scene. A sensory and cerebral 3-D, without the stoopid gadgetry. The expressionistic vision and use of light/shadow in graduated contrast (the steeple shape above the child's bed, for example) is stunning. It's not a film for the feint-hearted, but worth the experience to see such risky and visionary film-making in action.

First books...

This was the first book I ever owned. Great little story. I must pick up another copy. Parents bought it for my 5th birthday. 

I was the saddest dog you could ever see,
Sad because no one wanted me.
The pet shop window was my jail.
The sign behind me said, "For Sale."

For my 7th birthday (when I was sick in bed with the flu) my mother bought me a set of a half dozen Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton. Then for my 9th birthday she bought me 'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck. I looked at it, looked like a small book, easy read. That was the end of the beginning for me.

Makes me think of first books and of the children lucky enough to be introduced to the world of books and reading early. Ours wasn't a house of books by any means. Even cheap paperbacks required putting money aside, and a book as a present was for birthdays and Christmas only. 

But then I discovered libraries. 

Stories have been captured and housed and transported within many different forms, oral, the early presses, ornate hardbacks, bargain paperbacks, mainstream paperbacks with higher production values, .pdfs, e-books. I'm certainly glad to have lived in a time where, as a child, books were both a voice created in the reader's imagination, and a tactile, sensory object. My early books eventually required large amounts of cellotape. School librarians would shudder when they saw me coming. The 'new' world of e-books will give us different pleasures, and some of the children's e-books out have exquisite graphics and lots of interactivity. But there will always be something to be said for rolling up a bent and battered copy of 'Of Mice and Men' in your back pocket and riding your bike to somewhere with grass and a tree and pulling it out and flattening the pages.  
They're all good times, just in different ways. As long as we keep telling stories, and listening, and reading.

The Ngaio Marsh awards

At the NZ Society of Authors Auckland branch meeting last Friday we had Craig Sisterson come and speak. Craig runs the Crime Watch blog. One of the subjects he spoke about was the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel by a New Zealand writer.

The long list for this annual event is out now.
The longlisted titles are:
  • COLLECTING COOPER by Paul Cleave (Simon & Schuster)
  • LUTHER: THE CALLING by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster)
  • FURT BENT FROM ALDAHEIT by Jack Eden (Pear Jam Books)
  • TRACES OF RED by Paddy Richardson (Penguin)
  • BY ANY MEANS by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins)
  • BOUND by Vanda Symon (Penguin)
  • THE CATASTROPHE by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press)

Great to see this award, both in its role of supporting crime writing by New Zealanders, and also it's dual role in honouring the grande dame of New Zealand crime/thriller/mystery writing, Ngaio Marsh.

Craig made a point also of grouping writers/writing/readers of the genre in wide terms. Crime/mystery/thriller. That takes into account the traditional English cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie (cozy in setting and to a degree - style, not in incident) and texts a million miles away from that, such as Lee Child and his hyper-violent Jack Reacher series of novels. Readers within the wide framework of the genre probably change their positions over time, and this range of scope reflects many different needs, expectations and styles. That's a good thing.

Here is the link to the Ngaio Marsh Awards' Facebook page, so you can keep up with developments. Best of luck to everyone, and congratulations to the organizers for setting up the awards to support and promote this field.

Water flows through flat land...

I look high up on the wall, all the way to the top where there is one of them skylights, them lights that let the sky in. I ask Pa why them city folks let the sky in when the wind and rain and the rustbrown dead leaves of November come in too.
'Don't be asking me such darned fool questions,' he says.
'I need to know, pa,' I say.
'Boy, you need to bring that mule round front. That's what'n you need to do. Lord knows I've suffered enough.'
'I did, Pa.'
'I asked Vardaman to look on it.'
'He's just a boy.'
That boy, that Vardaman, he comes in now carrying a fish, darn nigh as big as he is. He slops it down on the floor, stands with his legs apart, like a man.
'Where's the mule?' says Pa.
'Can't eat no mule,' says Vardaman.
Then that boy, that Vardaman, he goes out, down the long low lazy looping hallway to where you smell the woodsmoke on the wind. We follow him out across the dirt and leaves. I stand. Pa stands. Vardaman stands.
'Everyone else drives around in cars,' I say. 'Why we still using a mule?'
'Can't a man have a moment's piece,' says Pa, 'less'n he's set trials and tribulations by the good Lord on the road to his reward. Lord knows I've suffered enough.'
'Even Didley Dooley has a Nissan Smart Car.'
'Lord knows. Electric cars. Next they'll be a fixing us electric lamps too.'
Then that Cash appears. He's covered in sawdust from his head to his boots. He's wearing his tool belt, the one with his tools in it. He carries a brown paper bag. One of the tongues of his boot hangs loose, flaps in the wind. He reaches into his toolkit and takes out a hammer and knocks it back in. The nail draws blood. His face doesn't change. The look in his eyes don't change neither.
'I smell viddles,' says Pa, looking at that Cash, looking at that paper bag. Cash looks. Pa looks. A feller riding past on a bicycle looks. 'Lord knows I could use some viddles. To ease my journey on the way to my reward. You durn been hunting in that there long grass?
'No, pa,' says Cash. 'I been to McDonalds. Like them normal people.'

(Apologies to William Faulkner)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The old man and the cat.

And the man turned, looked past the wine bottle at the cat. Furry, fluffy, desolate. And the man knew then he would not pat that cat though he wanted to, just like he had in that house in the snow in Austria where he'd sat with another cat and another bottle of wine, where they'd looked out the window at all the cat tracks in the snow, muddy, blurry, and someone said they weren't cat tracks, no, those aren't cat tracks, but they were cat tracks and they saw those cat tracks all that winter until they died.

(Apologies to Hemingway)

Graham Swift on the Narrative Physics of Novels

I've just read an interesting article from the English writer Graham Swift (Waterland, Last Orders) about the slowness of writing. I've long admired Swift, though it would be over the top to say I've loved all his work. There are great snatches: the final image of the motorbike standing alone by the canal's edge in Waterland, the moment the old geezers have their puffing and heaving fight (they're trying to swagger) on the hillside in Last Orders.

Anyone who works on prose fiction likely knows the strange feeling that writing can flow, and you can get a lot done quickly in a scene, but a narrative as a whole is painstaking. I've written most of the passages in my current novel quite quickly, with a sense of being in the real-time 'bubble' of the scene. Hearing the spoken dialogue at the speed those words are spoken, watching characters move across the landscape in the time it would take in the world. And yet it's taken years to get to the point I'm at.

From the article.

I’m not disheartened by the thought that what takes me years to write may occupy a reader for just a few hours. To have made, perhaps, a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, and if that communication becomes for readers not just a means of passing those hours, but a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, then that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.

Most of us are probably not aware of exactly what we're doing when we read, and how we slip in and out of ticking-clock-time. Maybe that's one of the roles of the novel, and of reading itself, to disrupt that regimentation.

The answers to the question that arises out of my opening paragraph are simple ones. Why do novels take so long to write when so many scenes go by in real time?

* drafting and redrafting until it's the best we can do to have the text do the story justice
* writing isn't just the fingers on keyboards phase, it's the reading back, the thinking, the reframing
* the moment so often seen as the 'creative moment' is just a beginning. There's much work to do after that.

To read the full article, click here.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Death of a Salesman's Audience

Interesting article by Lee Siegel in the New York Times detailing how the U.S. economy has become so stagnant for all but the wealthy and theater ticket prices have got so expensive that the (lower ) middle class depicted in Arthur Miller's great play 'Death of a Salesman' can mostly no longer afford to go and see it. A shame for many reasons, not the least of which I'd imagine Phillip Seymour Hoffman would make a great Willy Loman.

From the article:

Certainly few middle-class people, or at least anyone from any “middle class” that Loman would recognize, are among the audiences attending this production. What was once a middle-class entertainment has become a luxury item. Tickets for the original run, in 1949, cost between $1.80 and $4.80; tickets for the 2012 run range from $111 to $840. After adjusting for inflation, that’s a 10-fold increase, well beyond the reach of today’s putative Willy Lomans.

Tickets aren't exactly cheap in New Zealand either, even without the stellar casts. It is rare that I go to the theater, as I usually do the maths in my head about what other books/films I could enjoy for the price of the ticket. Nevertheless, live theater is still a unique environment in which to absorb story.

I'd image in terms of quality of content, Death of a Salesman will be performed forever, but will there be anyone much left who can afford to see it.

Read the full article here.


I've had a couple of discussions recently about writing a synopsis.

Synopses are much more difficult than we imagine, but they need not be a chore. The first things to get sorted are: 
  • who is the synopsis for? (A publisher, an agent, to go with a publicity pack)
  • what is the next action you want the reader to take after reading the synopsis? (ask for more chapters, the whole manuscript, take highlights out for a press release, use as an intro for a public talk about the story)
Publishers and agents will have their own parameters about word count but generally a synopsis is somewhere between 300-600words. 

When crafting the synopsis, remember to regard it as a piece of creative writing, not just as a piece of information to accompany your work. In that sense it's often effective to write the synopsis in a voice close to the voice of the story itself. Don't write about the story in objective terms, e.g. This is a story about... It's unnecessary and just takes up wordcount space. 

Regarding the structure, you could think about it in the following terms:

  • start by identifying the central conflicts in the world of the story - what is missing, what is in trouble, at stake, in jeopardy? 
  • introduce your protagonist, very brief sketch
  • describe how the central conflict impacts on your protagonist, on the other key characters around them. What specific challenges to the characters face
  • what agency does your protagonist have to do something about their challenges. What gifts do they have, what abilities (even if they're dormant.) 
  • what obstacles are in their way (may - and should - be both external and internal. Internal obstacles would included baggage and unfinished business from the past that still haunts them in the present (backstory.)
  • who are their allies, if any. What are their key relationships and how will they be effected by the story's events
  • who and what are their enemies
  • what is the first step to be taken on the road to meet the challenge
  • what are their responses to the first couple of challenges. How do their challenges escalate. What more is put at stake and how. (Their physical safety, their emotional and psychological safety, their morality or ethics)
  • what is at stake in the final challenges towards the story's end. What is line up against them (again both external and internal.)
  • you can give a hint of the climax, or describe it directly (depending on who the synopsis is for, and what you want that reader to do next). Resist the urge to get too cute, e.g. 'But to find out how it ends, you'll have to read the whole story.' There's no need for that and the voice might put people off.

John Cheever.

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the American writer, John Cheever. Cheever (like Raymond Carver) specialized in the short story, and like Carver he wrote sketches of everyday life. His stories had an elegant simplicity and presented middle class suburbia as a place of sterility and coldness, manicured and polite but often dangerous and destructive to the newcomer or the outsider.

My first exposure to Cheever's haunting storytelling (though I didn't know it at the time) was via the film version of his story 'The Swimmer' starring Burt Lancaster. Cheever's short story had originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine in July, 1964. A man spends the entire story in swimming trunks, stopping in at every house with a swimming pool, telling people he's 'Swimming my way home.' The story starts with the character a braggart and popular wherever he goes, but the closer he gets to home the darker the encounters become and people shun him. None of this is explained in exposition but is shown in small disturbing scenes (coming across a hot dog wagon he knows he owns, which is now in someone else's yard, encounters with people he doesn't remember but they recognize him and shy away.) The final scene of the film when Lancaster arrives home to find it locked and boarded up with a cold wind blowing leaves in icy circles is unforgettable. He slowly sinks to a fetal  position in the doorway.  I was about 7 years old when I saw that and it has stayed with me to this day.

Cheever's original thinking about The Swimmer filled 150 pages of his notebooks, which he whittled down into a short story. In his formative sketches he was thinking of the classical story of Narcissus, who died gazing at his reflection in a pool of water. This becomes a thematic metaphor for the story as a whole.

His stories worked mainly by creating relationships of apparent civility but with worrying undercurrents. In that way he was the precursor to Carver, though Carver's cast of characters were a couple of steps down the social ladder from Cheever's. The magazine format with its generous wordcount allowed Cheever room to develop his narratives beyond the 'slice of life' (which he apparently disliked) into morality tales contrasting characters outer success with inner demons, in deft, subtle strokes.

Among his novels, 'Falconer' (1977) set in a prison, but metaphoric of society as a whole, is a classic.

Here is an article from The Telegraph in the U.K. about Cheever and his legacy.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Some thoughts on point of view

I recently came across an interesting way of thinking about first person point of view by the Australian writer and academic, Dr Anthony Macris.

In his chapter in The Writer's Reader: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Poetry (ed) Brenda Walker, Halstead Press, 2007, pp 67-79, he talks about there being two modes for first person point of view, that of the hero and the witness.

According to Dr Macris, the hero narrator is both 'the perceiving agent and the object of these perceptions' whereas the witness narrator is 'present at all events but doesn't dwell on his/her own actions, focusing on external characters and events.'

He goes on to say:
'The skillful alternation between witness and hero modes is extremely important in first person narration... too much focus on the hero narrator [and] the reader can soon tire of their dominance... If the witness narrator function is... too fragmented and inconsistent, the story can lose dramatic intensity and thematic cohesion. Successful alternation between the two modes... allows the reader to identify strongly with the protagaonist... while also making it possible to present a clearly-drawn set of characters, settings and situations.' (p 69)

This quote made me realise why I've always found some first person narrators really difficult. I often feel as if  they are bashing me over the head with their constant dominance. Mostly I just want them to shut up, e.g. Holden Caulfield, the 16 year old narrator of J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Here is a link to another  interesting article by Dr Macris in the Griffith Review called Creative Writing Strikes Back, in which he mentions some of the problems that can happen for writers if they don't have a good understanding of Point of View.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

ANZAC day - a fictional narrative of nation building?

Well, ANZAC day has come and gone for another year and I'm left with an increasing sense of unease.
My unease has been growing for a number of years, concurrent with the increasing popularity of the day and its rituals, especially with the young. I'm not quite sure when I first started to hear, via the media, that New Zealand's  military involvement at  the slaughter that was Gallipoli symbolised the moment we  first became a nation, but it certainly wasn't considered that way when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s.

Many things disturb me about this claim,  not the least because it is based on a view that the ultimate arbiter of nationhood is the (male) experience of war, especially a battle and a war fought in someone else's country. I don't have any issue with people wishing to honour and respect the sacrifices their forebears have made, or with the desire to construct  meaningful narratives about who we were and are, or with debates about what constitutes the basis and nature of our citizenship. What concerns me is who and what are missing from this version, and, to use old-fashioned language, whose point of view is it and whose interests does it serve?

The idea that there is one narrative, and one moment, that defines a person's - let alone a nation's -  identity is ludicrous. Anyone who attempts to construct a narrative is immediately challenged by issues of point of view and perspective. And then there are issues of what to include and what to leave out, what emphasis to give actions or events, what to  hint at or make explicit, what is text and what is subtext.

Surely there are many different narratives that contribute to our sense of nationhood and national identity . One that springs to mind is Archibald Baxter's powerful story of being a conscientious objector in World War 1, We Will Not Cease. His story is as much about courage and sacrifice as are the individual stories of New Zealand and Australian soldiers sent to their deaths at Gallipoli. What a shame we don't have a day to celebrate his perspective.

Here is a link to a book review of We Will Not Cease.


Monday, April 23, 2012


I set myself a task over the summer to read a lot more popular fiction action thrillers. I did this with varying degrees of success. Among the works I read a couple of the very popular Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, including the first of the ongoing series, Killing Floor.

Lee Child's novels have become a sales phenomenon, and Child's ability to put a plot line together is an object lesson in managing rising tension and turning points. The character of Jack Reacher is an interesting study in the ways that popular fiction heroes work. There has been a trend in the last thirty years or so, following on from the anti-heroes of film noir and its literary equivalents, for characters to be portrayed as rebels. Reacher represents a popular variant on this type, and the concept of 'portrayed' is important here. He expresses and riffs off of fundamental but seemingly opposing forces. On the one hand he is ex military, which means he represents the father archetype so beloved of the old westerns and male fiction,(strength, honesty, integrity, physical competence, the ability to act - not just talk), and some wider and often murkier manifestations of this archetype (the system, government, power, control, might as the definition of right.) At the same time the 'ex' is crucial. He's not currently 'in' the military. That gives him the edge of the rebel, bucking up against the system. So he has it both ways, and that appeals to conflicting needs within his audience. The need to be part of something bigger, but the need to be individual. The system - vs the lone wolf. Within - without. It is a constant conflict that is intoxicating for readers who want to be both tribal and individualistic.

Books on film theory often call these characters the 'enigmatic outsider.' In general terms the enigmatic outsider isn't the protagonist, as the creation of a protagonist often comes with a need for exhaustive exposition, which kind of kills the enigmatic part. So Reacher is unusual in that respect and Lee Child cleverly keeps his background sketchy. His constant restlessness, and itinerant lifestyle is an effective device to maintain that tension between 'home' (represented by his military background) and the enigma.

There were early manifestations of these characters in the ubiquitous private detectives of noir fiction, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, for example. They were like the problem child kicked out of the nest (the system) but still trying to do the things the system was set up to do, if it had any god-dammed guts and honesty left (ie: find and bring justice.) Often they were given tragic, or at least dark pasts, conflicts they had to overcome within themselves to overcome the conflicts arising in the plot and relationship lines of the story. The noir P.I.s had an extra edge of unreliability, you never really knew or trusted their motives, or got a sense that they themselves knew. For all his power and decisiveness, Jack Reacher lacks this edge. He fills that gap with extreme violence, metered out to deserving candidates. And for all his scariness, he's really a Sherman tank version of the cosy promise that it'll be alright in the end. That good will win out.

A closer manifestation of the noir detective would be the Dave Robicheaux character from James Lee Burke's stories, but he's still a cop, after all the ruminations and conflicts about the role and meaning of power. Perhaps modern fiction has tipped the enigmatic characters of noir more clearly over to the 'other' side, in characters like Tony Soprano. Instead of a good man in constant conflict with (though using the muscle and lack of morality of ) the bad man inside him we have a bad man who's morality is moment by moment, entirely derived from each situation, each relationship. Constantly demanding we re-frame the whole argument and concept.

I find the hyper violence of the Reacher novels over the top and his all powerful physicality and ability to kill five bad guys without breaking a sweat veers too close to Superman mythology, for me. James Lee Burke's characters are less perfect and stronger for it.

The two action thrillers from my recent sample I found most rewarding were by Michael Connelly. Lost Light and City of Bones. Connelly's characters (including his protagonist, Harry Bosch) strike me as more real, with layers of strength AND vulnerability. There is a lot more ambiguity in his writing. You never know who to trust, and Harry Bosch is just trying to do the best he can in lousy situations - he's not an Old Testament bringer of vengeance. There's no real ambiguity in Harry, but there sure is in the world around him. Who can you trust, and why, and how far?

I could see myself inviting Harry Bosch to dinner and we'd shake our heads at the stuff that's out there. I'd invite Robicheaux, but lock the liquor cabinet. I'm not sure I can see Jack Reacher strongly enough as a real person to even invite him. Anyway, with his lifestyle, where would you send the invitation?

Conflicting emotions.

I recently went to see the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and came out with conflicting emotions. The best moments were excellent, but there were weaknesses too. The strengths ( some biting humour in the dialogue, some poignant performances, by Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Judi Dench.) Weaknesses: I thought the film suffered from too much need to present the quaint India of recent legend, chaotic but happy, personified by the lead Indian character Sonny, played by Dev Patel. I’m more than a little disquieted by indigenous characters acting in ‘type’. Sometimes I wonder if English letters and celluloid still struggles to leave behind Kipling’s cute but paternalistic and patronizing portrayals of natives. It reminds me of what Native Americans sometimes refer to as ‘Chiefing’, getting up in traditional garb, not as an intrinsic cultural statement, but to ham it up for the narrow perspectives of tourists. Sonny’s character and the triumph over odds plotline written for him never rose above stereotype.

That aside, the film is a masterclass in acting. I was reminded for the millionth time what an extraordinary actress Maggie Smith is, and how great actors can rise above limitations in film concepts and scripts. Smith has an ability to portray polar opposites of emotion simultaneously. In this film her words are bitter, cynical and prejudiced, but you can’t hate her because her eyes and her tiny facial gestures betray a terrible vulnerability and sadness that gives you insight into her character.
There is a poignant sequence in the film where she speaks to a hotel worker (as the worker is sweeping) not knowing the woman is an ‘untouchable.’ This plays on the painful dynamic of one prejudice (the Indian caste system) clashing with another (old fashioned racism and belief in racial superiority.) In the conversation though, Smith’s character (whose fear of difference informs her racism) lectures the worker on how to sweep, not so much out of prejudice but because she (Smith’s character) was a professional housekeeper all her life. She is then invited to the woman’s home to meet the family. Smith’s character is in a wheelchair much of the time, and she is aided into a chair inside to meet the family. In the scene’s pivotal moment she sees (through an open door) some of the teenagers in the Indian family playing with her wheelchair. She immediately thinks they are trying to steal it and in her terror and vulnerability (she’s lost without the wheelchair) verbally lashes out.  It all comes out. Her fear, her fragility and her racism (she automatically assumes the natives will steal the chair, of course they will.) Her realization that they are only curious is the film’s most painful moment, and her face is riddled with conflict and shame. Her uncompromising attitude as an actress to avoid soft options and warm, fuzzy ‘conversion’ moments gives her portrayal a searing authenticity.     

I was struck also by Judi Dench’s ability to enrich the physical space in a scene. You often hear comments like this: dominate the space, own the scene, which results in histrionics and ‘big acting’ (the lesser moments by Sean Penn or Keira Knightly, for example.) But Dench dominates her scenes with her gracefulness. She has a dancer’s ability to still the viewer’s eye, to not diminish the background but be in symmetry with it. She is able to do so partly because of her beauty, which is not born of some superficial concept of prettiness or niceness but because the authenticity and humanity in her face and movements carry a possibility that within all the crappy choices and consequences we’re faced with, maybe there is still just a sliver of daylight if we have the honesty and guts to search for it. That sliver of daylight, that tiny spark of hope, is what is beautiful, way beyond any airbrushed, market-researched but ultimately saccharine concept of beauty.  

Tom Wilkinson’s story arc is, in contrast to Sonny’s, handled with care and delicacy and devoid of cliché. He plays a gay man immersed in the world of traditional propriety (a high court judge) who ran away from a relationship with an Indian man forty years earlier and has come back to India to find him, to own up to his fear and betrayal. The scene where they meet is deliberately underplayed and totally lacking in syrupy melodrama and music. A small, delicate thing, allowed to play out mostly within the humanity in the audience, not in huge letters on screen. This is the script’s best realized plot and story line. 

So there were some false notes and weaknesses in concept and in the script, but the best of this film made it worthwhile. It struck as the work of film-makers hedging their bets, willing to have the acidic, but very real bone-dry honesty of a Mike Leigh film, but a little afraid to completely leave cosy cliché behind. 

I'm glad I saw it though, for the acting alone.To remind me of how the best acting is a finely honed study and application of craft, that looks accidental.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The art and craft of storytelling: Songs from the Inside

Last Sunday night I was lucky enough to catch the first episode of a new series on Maori Television, Songs from the Inside (8- 8.30pm time slot). The series is based around four musicians - Anika Moa, Ruia Aperahama, Warren Maxwell, Maisey Rika - who are taken into Arahata and Rimutaka prisons to teach songwriting to prisoners.

I've never visited Arohata prison but I have been to Rimutaka so I was interested to see how authentic this first episode was and to see what kind of attitude and tone the programme had.

All I can say is, if you are interested in genuine storytelling, with its roots on, make time for this programme. Each of the musicians seemed humbled by the experience of meeting and connecting with the inmates, and with the task of helping them, through singing and songwriting, to express themselves and share their personal and collective stories.

Watch and learn.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What we miss...

Most of us who write are always grappling with the issue of getting enough time to write. It’s an old question and will always pressure creative artists of any kind, because to create we need to open up a little bubble in the world, space to think, to feel, to connect. But we can’t live permanently in a bubble. 

It’s not just getting time to write either, but time to read. Time to really see what’s in the world, and to hear the sounds around us. Voices, childrens’ laughter, birdsong, wind in the leaves. Or even sounds that clash and clatter. As I write this the garbage truck is making its snail trail up the street, its engine and lifting mechanism overlaying the rattling of cicadas. Then it vanishes and the other sounds come back in. They all have a place, because as both readers and writers those sounds are our context, unasked for, but still welcome. Sometimes we colour our sound context with music of our own choice, perhaps so we can open up that little bubble of art in the world, while we go about our business. But often we just don’t have time to listen.

The video link was filmed at a subway station in Washington D.C. We are all used to buskers as background music, so no one paid particular attention when a man opened a violin case and lifted out an old instrument and began to play. They didn’t notice that he was playing ‘Chaconne’ from Johan Sebastian Bach’s ‘Partita no#2,’ an unusual choice for a subway busker as it is recognized as one of the world’s most challenging pieces. The busker played it through, most people giving him only a glance. Most of those who stopped were children, standing in fascination, as children live much closer to the edge of that bubble than adults do. Then they were dragged away. I mean, how many of us have time, in our busy task-filled day, even if it’s to stop for a minute to listen to Joshua Bell, one of the world’s great violinists, standing in a subway entrance playing Bach on a violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, that cost Bell something around US$3.5 million to buy. Those few that did stop, put some change into Bell’s violin case. At the session’s end he had collected $32. (His normal performance fee works out at around $1000 a minute. ) It was part of an experiment by the Washington Post, to see how people would react to great art suddenly in their midst.

The passers by had things to do, as do we all. Perhaps they did though, carry a piece of melody, a couple of tones, the quivering of a violin string’s vibrato. Carried it to their offices and schools and truck cabs and construction sites. Maybe it got into their briefcases, the oil stains on their overalls. We have so much to do now, what we don’t have is time. 

I remember once having a coffee in a food hall and a young woman was sitting amid a group I imagined were her family. She was in tears, they were stonefaced, made no movement or even gesture towards her. Some glanced around to see if others were watching.

The woman kept saying over and over :

‘I don’t want to go. I just don’t want to go.’

Finally a child – none of the adults – stood and leaned against her, their small arm trying to circle her waist.

I had no idea of the context, but I remember it made my coffee go cold. That scene often haunts my writing. A lot of scenes do. Tiny scenes that live in the cracks between one job and another, lie kicked to the edge of the footpath as we rush by. A rare human moment amid the clutter of things.

To connect with art; art created by humans, art out there in the world, don’t forget to try and find those little bubbles, that space you need to breathe. You never know when you’ll come upon moments of great beauty, or tiny tragedy, that remind you you are human. You might even come upon a great violinist playing a 300 year old violin in a subway station foyer on a mid-winter’s morning. You never know.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shadows cast in the sand.

The American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) employed a process that has been called the Iceberg, as a metaphor for the way stories often work. This is sometimes called the theory of omission, where the deeper story and the moment that revealed it, were addressed obliquely, not directly on the page. The iceberg beneath the waterline is much larger than the iceberg we see, because our first glance is often not of the totality of something, or the angle we first view doesn’t give us a totality. Often we will never see the totality, or any sense of totality is subjective. Hemingway in fact would write the revelation moment then go back and delete it, attempting to leave it hanging in the air around the story. In the shadow places at the story’s edge. See Hemingway’s story ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’ (1927) as an example.
For the writer the page is the place for describing the events, the action, the physicality of landscape and gesture. For getting the dialogue to crackle and parry and simmer. For writer and reader beneath and around what is described lives a shadow landscape, much larger in scope and more powerful in resonance that what you actually read. This process asks questions of what we even mean by reading. It also goes to perception and connection from personal experience.  
What we see at first glance is not always what is really there. In the photo above, from National Geographic, a first glance sees a group of camels, tall, rangy, against a backdrop of sand. But look closer. At the feet of the ‘camels’ are little white lines. A close inspection reveals those white lines are the camels, what we first perceived as the camels are in fact their shadows. The miss-perception is caused by the fact the photograph is taken from directly above, and the time of day gives an angled light so the shadows loom vast on the sand, and we see only a sliver of the actual camels.
But everything we associate with camels, their shape, posture, the sense of being caught mid-step, is captured in their shadows. Our minds’ capacity for shape recognition constructs them as camels. They are camels in that sense.
Some stories operate like those camels and their shadows. You read the story, your eye passes over the text and picks up the movement and gesture, your ear hears the dialogue and arranges the order of sentences and events in a straightforward narrative. But then the text you’ve read begins to fade, or shrink to a sliver and something else appears not on the page but in the space between reader and page. In the places in the reader they share with the writer, with other readers. Sometimes unacknowledged places. Shadows cast in the sand.
And it is the shadow you carry away with you, not the text.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

The past is never dead. It's not even past -  William Faulkner, American novelist (Requiem for a Nun, 1951.)

I was reminded of Faulkner's quote this week amidst the venting of anger in and around television presenter Paul Holmes' article printed in the New Zealand Herald a few days ago. This article has since been 'answered' by activist and politician Hone Harawira in the Herald, here

We often see a kind of battle of stories in the media, and in general public discourse, often becoming a fight between whose story carries more weight, whose story should gain them the position of power and primacy. A statement that one narrative trumps another.

I'm not going to go so much into the political rights and wrongs of the arguments here. What does strike me though is that in his vitriol Holmes is evoking the memory of his tupuna (ancestors) and their connection with military service. He is using them as authorities and emotional arbiters, saying he wouldn't take them to a Waitangi Day commemoration because of how he feels they would see it. Firstly the point needs to be made that a great many Maori, in fact tens of thousands of living Maori have tupuna who served in wars New Zealand fought in. Paul Holmes does not have sacrifice stories to himself, as indeed no-one does. 

It is though his right to evoke his tupuna and bring forth their suffering in their time into our time, because one is built from the other. Unfortunately the voice Holmes uses, bordering on rabid, makes this point easier to miss. That is a shame, because in evoking the grief and suffering (and the legacy of that) of his tupuna he is in fact calling on the eternal thread of his whakapapa (approximately - geneology) and speaking of it in a permanent present tense. In doing so, he is in fact coming very close to the process by which the Maori protestors he so aggressively dismisses evoke their own whakapapa and tupuna tane (male ancestors) and tupuna wahine (female ancestors.) 

He is calling on inter-generational grief, as an emotional, psychological and symbolic force in the present. 

If Holmes took the time to think about it he might realize how close he is to the emotional truth within the Maori position and the view of indigenous and minority people worldwide, because it is part of our universality as human beings, as the product of our pasts. As Faulkner said - the past is never dead. It's not even past. 

We are all, in very deep and often unacknowledged ways, largely the products of our pasts, and decisions made in the present and future often evoke our pasts. Context is so much more than we can see with a surface glance at any one moment. Faulkner himself lived in the American deep south, whose economy was built so much on the backs of two hundred years of slavery. It is not a question that Faulkner himself did not keep slaves, because so much of what he had and laid his eyes on in his time was built on the backs of those slaves in their time, and in that sense the separation between times breaks down. 

Indigenous peoples worldwide are so often told to move on, that the past is in the past. But who of us is really separated from those before us, or should ever wish to be. If Holmes feels the presence of his ancestors with him now, I respect that, but he must then respect that others can, will and do do the same. 

Moving on suggests to me themes of survival and growth. Not of denial. 
Reminds me of one other quote from William Faulkner. 

Between grief and nothing, I will take grief. 
(The Wild Palms/If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. 1939)

It has taken me a very long time to understand that.