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. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Happy endings

A friend of mine recently challenged me to write a short story that had a happy ending - just for a change, she said. She is a writer too, currently working on a novel, and part of a writing group I belong to. The particular story of mine that prompted her (humorous) plea - an early draft, I hasten to say - ended with the main character choosing to leave a relationship rather than give up a (neurotic ) way of coping with anxiety.

Both the story and my friend's comments got me thinking about what makes for a 'good' or satisfying ending, especially in a short story, and whether good and happy are the same thing. And, of course, it also made me wonder about what people mean by the terms, happy and ending, - happy ever after? - and once I started thinking about that I realised I had a number of other questions, including who is supposed to feel happy at the end, the character or the reader, and are they the same thing?

Once I'd gone down that road I started thinking about Raymond Carver's stories, none of which are a barrel of laughs. One of my favourite Carver stories is, So Much Water, So Close To Home. The story is not a happy one; it is one of the most powerful and devastating I've ever read. It exposes dehumanising indifference, violence and cruelty, yet it is somehow satisfying. Why? Because, in the end, the woman in the story knows so much more about dehumanising indifference, violence and cruelty, and takes her own small, yet dangerous stand against it. In other words, the character is in an entirely different moral/psychological place at the end than at the beginning. This character movement or development makes me as a reader 'happy' even when the story itself is not. And the reason for this is because in some small way, through identification with the character, I too have gained insight into the human condition, witnessed its horror and glory, and come out the other side changed in some way.

In this week's New Zealand Listener (February 4th, pp35-36) there is an article on Kelly Link, an American short story writer, who is noted apparently (I haven't read her work) for her 'open' endings. I liked her comment that:

"Stories that have too neat an ending, they're very easy to put down and walk away from. I don't want to write stories that feel disposable."

I'm not against stories with overtly happy endings, I'm sure I've read many and probably enjoyed them, its just that I can't remember any of them.