In 2017, a volume of selected stories, poems and memoir/essays will be published. Here are two of them:
“NOTES ON WRITING AND READING”
The child of post-World War II self-styled “modern” parents, I was allowed to bring home any books I wanted from the library. Sometimes over the protests of the librarians, who felt adult books were for adults only. But my mother was adamant, something to do with the McCarthy era and with being Bostonians, who had dumped British tea in our harbor without looking back. I remember summer days when she, my brother and I would all lie around reading, breaking only for lunch. My father, never having finished college but a graduate of Harvard Business School, was entirely self-educated in the liberal arts. A transplant from Savannah, he became obsessed with the “absurd hero” in literature. In my family, fiction was considered the source of mysterious yet indispensable knowledge. This was not intellectual as much as it was a point of view on life: that you should think about it and your place in it. That’s in part why, from the time I was a little girl I wanted to write.
The other part was my personal relationship to books. One of those early adult novels I read stands out from all the others: The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. I was so limited in experience, that the nuances were completely obscured, but I still remember two startling revelations: One, that a story of events should cast a larger meaning, the characters and plot in the service of human and social concerns: injustice, futility, love, war. And two, that a metaphor, the red badge, gave a soldier’s wound a heart-breaking significance. Metaphors tied the bow around my love of the English language.
I read all through childhood and school, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I seriously tried to write my own stories. Here I found my greatest mentor in the late Grace Paley, whose casual asides could reveal the largest of human truths. Two of her comments, written on 3×5 cards, have been tacked above my desk, wherever it has been, since I was 18: 1) Be accurate. 2) Go deeper. Four words that revealed a road between myself and the reader. Between myself and myself.
I am speaking personally. All writers come to the page differently, they act out their necessities differently, and they uncover and discover different visions. You can tell fine writers simply from the way, after you finish a story or novel, you say to yourself, “Oh that’s really the way life is,” and though this will happen many times, one “true” presentation of reality never dislodges another. After you’ve read a lot of books, you come to see a landscape of experience. The power of literature lies in individual works but also in the aggregate.
Many writers are not convincing, sometimes on the most obvious level of storytelling—this character would never do that, or famously, so what? Other times on the most subtle level, where a deep sense of our consciousness and emotions resides, there’s a void where we as readers had longed to be met. Like realizing, after the honeymoon, that you married the wrong person. I reserve the same awe today for that most memorable surprise of childhood: reading as a direct encounter with another person’s self. An internal voice, unavailable to us in any other artificial form or in life, addressed to the perfect listener: the one who wants to know these characters and their concomitant fate. The one who wants to listen for information, for truth, for what’s inexplicable, for sound, and to gain entrance to an imagined, all-consuming world. This—though not of interest to all writers and readers—is art.
STRUCTURE AND AUTHENTICITY
Virginia Woolf, in explaining the structure of fiction (most notably novels), wrote “Form is feeling, put into the right relations.” Time is our medium in both life and writing, what happens to and what is at stake for a character over time becomes the dramatic structure. This, in turn, is the vocabulary of the story: first this happened, then this happened then this happened, and this was the conclusion (the end). What is dramatic is defined by what the writer considers important and is moved by: moments and events that lead to consequences.
For example, an exquisite disappointment pitches a character from wild hope back to self-loathing and a previous self-delusion that blunts all feeling. Virginia Woolf’s “The New Dress,” in which a woman’s moment of self-confidence and possibility while at the dressmaker’s, is crushed by the hostess of the party for which the dress was made. One comment upon arrival and the emotional structure of the character’s new self-regard crumbles. Fine writing has vast fields of interest: also brought to our attention is the hostess herself, the stranglehold of Victorian manners, and the roles and restrictions at that time of women in the British upper classes. When we say a work is not “dated” though written in an earlier time about that time, it is because in some way or other the same things still eat at us on a strictly personal level, while societies and cultures also have a way—this at the heart of Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis—of cruelly circumscribing individuals’ desires. (Writers are obvious candidates for the couch.)
Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw are two writers who a hundred, and a hundred plus, years later astound readers with their uncanny readings of society. The writer is the champion of the individual, of freedom and of choice—in both cases, these authors foreground women’s lives, though the critique is culture-wide, as seems so obvious now. Their subject matters also included the corruption of humane values and the senselessness of war, which in their plays, novels and essays, destroy characters and everyday people. Fiction endures because these predicaments and lives in some way or other are still ours.
Luckily, a writer doesn’t have to be smarter than the story or the novel to figure out the structure—the story teaches us. And a writer learns the significance of her or his subject matter by imagining it…by writing it. How can you write something down if you don’t know what it is? This question is the dark cloud over writers’ heads at various times at the keyboard, before imagination, a Muse, call it desperation, strikes, and the words turn into a three-dimensionalized world in which physical action—speech and lack of movement included—can happen. Now we’re in real time…it’s closest to dreaming, where images appear out of nowhere but the mind. When people say of fiction “it’s so visual…like a film,” they forget that films are based on the vocabulary of human vision—fiction strikes us as “visual” when the page is so real to the reader that it becomes active, with its characters speaking and lying down on the grass and squinting up into the sun. And people read as much for the exigencies of a way of living, the cultural surround, the society’s mores, as for individual fates.
Ultimately fiction makes demands on the reader, ones that the writer has wrestled to the ground: the reader has to imagine everything narrated, so that the story is in one way still the writer’s, while its resonant spaces are the reader’s to fill. Just a few of many novels that engender extreme thoughtfulness: E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (inevitably ruined on screen), and Frederic Tuten’s Tallien: A Brief Romance.
STORIES AND NOVELS
Sometimes writers will start what they think is a novel but run into a dead end. Ultimately, you have a novel on your hands when you know too much to fit into a short story. A novel demands accretion of detail, while a story demands an emblematic scene or scenes that in a patchwork fashion of time and/or place reveal an element of existence, or the role of fate, or as in the case of Flannery O’Connor, a moral: prejudice and unkindness and even willed stupidity lead always to punishment. (A Catholic writer’s revenge. No exceptions.)
The reader is often surprised when a jump in time or place lands us where we least expected—or when. A flashback? A memory? And this is what happened? No wonder the present is such a mess! We can interrupt chronology, or reverse chronology to arrive at the beginning of the story last. We catch up to where the writer started us off on page one—it now has an entirely different meaning or a much richer and perhaps more ambiguous context. Joan Didion’s circular, first-person retrospective novels are perfect examples. So how we tell a story reveals the story’s meaning. In fiction, point of view along with the handling of time, are the warp and woof of narrative.
The playwright Tom Stoppard always foregrounds plot (the order in which the action is revealed to the reader). In his radio play, later staged, “Artist Descending a Staircase,” the play opens with the artist falling down a staircase to his death. Enter two more characters, who each accuses the other of murder. Then the past fifty years of the trio’s relationships are revisited, before we return to the present’s second scene, in the middle, then a return to the past before the play’s final and present scene. This structure is not arbitrary but is experienced by the writer as a way to get at the meaning of the action, which includes the fact that the audience knows in the end, what neither character will figure out: it wasn’t murder but an accident, caused by a fly. The plot is in the present—the “story” is in the past. Some writers are by nature loosely tethered to chronology.
I’m thinking also of Carolyn Ferrell and her extraordinary story, “Don’t Erase Me,” told backwards in diary form. The plucky yet disquieting opening monologue (“Gain fifty pounds.”) leads, scene by scene to a revelation of the narrator’s illness—AIDS, we realize—as well to the slow disintegration of her life, difficult from its ghetto beginnings. The story ends (its starting point in time: the first diary entry) with the first signs of her being sick.
Plays are often story-like in that so much must be left out, in order to allow the limited scenes taken together to indicate a whole. There is always a life or lives that stretch before, and sometimes after, an interlude (exceptions Godot, Calvino, etc.), which we must believe in for the story to be successful. So what is left in has a kind of plasticity, in time and place, that novels usually do not. Making one decision in a novel (say, having an omniscient narration) ruthlessly narrows down possibilities—everything works in the service of the whole, like a symphony. Of course there is always room for a twist of fate (who hasn’t encountered several?) since life, over time, is never static or predetermined. Neither is a literary novel. As Grace Paley unforgettably put it, “Every character deserves the open destiny of life.”
So if the writer isn’t surprised by a lot of what happens in her or his own fiction, or by responses to action and inaction, or by truths that emerge seemingly by themselves, then, disastrously, no one else will be surprised. More than anything, don’t we read to be surprised? We read for confirmation of our own thinking, true, but we also read to have our thinking and ideas and emotions turned upside down. Not that that happens so often, but there are other pleasures, too. In a novel, participating in the sheer dailyness of experience is enveloping; we experience strangers over time in a way that we know only our closest family and friends. It’s expansive. A new geography.
BEAUTY AND MEMORY
I remember that at twenty, writing seemed the most important aspiration on earth. One of the follies of youth (and later?) is that you think what is true for you one day will always be true. Writing doesn’t seem that great cloud-piercing mountain anymore, climbable but with difficulty. In my mind it has lost “importance” but gained, over time, that same mystery and sometimes pleasure of reading in childhood. Who knew that receptivity would count for so much? And that what is received sustains and expands the richness of a writer’s being? And, you hope, the reader’s, too? Beauty is not a small part of this, a kind of opiate that seduces the reader through language.
Metaphors and figures of Poetry:
Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun
Adrienne Rich, TWENTY ONE LOVE POEMS, IX
I pulled back brambles and stepped quietly through to the other side, joining my offspring at the picnic table. They were all looking toward the house, where the ball of bees had begun to swarm. It sounded like an old but very reliable machine going full tilt….
Only a thin tongue of wax hung from the branch that once held the ball of bees. The air was full of insects in ecstasy. They bombarded us, but our smell did not trigger any alarms. Somewhere in the swarm the queen gave off a powerful pheromone that said, “Break camp, children. A permanent home has been found.”
Brian Kitely, STILL LIFE WITH INSECTS
There is beauty also in overall form and its emotional arrivals, in the unexpected, in the sheer humanness of moments. We are so often guarded, from ourselves and others, that reading is still the great catharsis, the source of what we fear, hate, or long for.
Further family memories:
The absurd hero remained one all his life, keeping himself busy after my mother divorced him, and after retirement, by copying quotes of D.H. Lawrence, Jean Paul Sartre, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow and others, into notebooks. He read all the Harvard Classics, which he owned, then taught himself German and briefly dated a poet. All this while drinking copious amounts of whiskey and listening to recording after recording of classical music that he took out of the library on yet another educational project. He would tell me long stories about the South over the phone, saying “Lins, you won’t believe this,” before starting. These sessions were, of course, another source of this writer’s calling, that and the fact that my intense father took seriously everything I had to say. Years later, I read a 25-page single-space letter typed on onion skin that as a Merchant Marine on shipboard he had written for my mother about his past, as a prelude to marriage.
As for my mother, she became her own heroine, a brand of what she called “creative thinking,” that allowed her to see life exactly as she wanted to. If she was the main character, the rest of us (including my father until he died) were necessary to get a story out of it, as were friendships, trips to New York where people really lived, and starting her own book distribution business. Our basement was filled with shelves of the newly invented and manufactured “paperbacks” for school adoption. I was her assistant. Books as reading still occasionally infiltrated her consciousness: she went to one of my parents’ costume parties as Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter. In her shocking pink (a la Coco Chanel) chiffon pants suit, she declared that the A on the front stood for Abrams.
Now my brother works in finance but was not unaffected by his original family. He’s a bit of a nut, always parsing grammar in The New York Times, cursing phrases like “went missing,” on the TV news, writing letters to the editor, and like my mother is not above bending the mental rules sometimes, to shore up his world view. On the other hand, he is a happy person. (As was my mother for most of her life, while my father was and I am, too, a brooder.) Not surprisingly, one of my brother’s great joys is reading: biographies of Winston Churchill and Patton, etc. All the spy and naval adventure stories, writers like John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut, and books like How the Scots Saved the World. He reads each book I give him all the way to the end—I think—even when he doesn’t like it. We are the only ones left who remember our childhood, which was beautiful in so many ways, and in others not.
Reading was my beauty.
“THE LOST BOYS” a story
The young man stands at the kitchen window of the apartment where he has lived all his life. No one is left but himself and the parrot, Peter Pan. In the cage above the counter, the big green bird is silent under a cloth canopy in the daylight. Though parrots live for fifty years, this one’s tenure has outlasted either of his parents’. Only fifty years, he was tempted to say. The young man is twenty-one.
The parrot is like an unwanted lover: intimate, demanding, the last thought before sleep. At the same time, parental: guilt inducing, old. Every now and then he is proud of the parrot, who in fact is a genius. He uses the parrot to impress girls, which ultimately is fair play according to his mother. Still. But that’s a whole other story: the parrot talks in her voice. Sometimes he thinks his dreams have come true, and his mother’s back–Hello, sweetheart!–but it’s only the parrot. Fuck the parrot. That, in his father’s voice.
People say his father left because of the bird, but his father was the one who bought it shortly after the young man’s birth. So he is the older sibling of an idiot savant, a loudmouth who never cleans up. How has it come to this? The parrot is all he has. In a manner of speaking: his mother was a New York City schoolteacher and he has her pension and death benefits coming. Her funeral was a month ago.
Here are the facts of the past, which if he whisked off the cage’s cover, would instantly be revealed:
The parrot is musically gifted. Thanks to his mother, it knows the entire score…Mary Martin title role…of Peter Pan. Hence the bird’s name. And it knows the Dylan track off the Band’s Big Pink, I Shall be Released, a parting shot from his father. The parrot is a Democrat; if it could the parrot would vote in each and every election. It would be a Socialist, perhaps an anarchist, only that would be a vote for the Republicans. The parrot is a citizen activist. The parrot can recite one hundred lines of Shakespeare and Invictus by William Ernest Henley. It’s a god-damned cultural hero.
The parrot remembers his mother’s dress size and shoe size, both conflated from disease when she died. The bird knows about breast self-examination, and lumpectomy. How sensitive men are treated in the locker room, and how much it costs to replace gym shorts weekly or get your head stitched if you didn’t have health insurance, which many people don’t, and they wouldn’t either if they depended on his father. Well, the young man never asked to be sensitive, though later you’ll thank me.
Human memory is selective for a reason…something he’ll never forget since the parrot has total recall. Digital birdbrain. At twenty-one he is a man with a past so huge the future seems a tiny and distant pinprick, lights of a port city viewed from so far out to sea one could image pushing off from Atlantis to reach it. Good-bye to playmates Davy Jones, Poseidon and the mermaids. The parrot remembers this scenario from a long ago children’s book. Winged creature that travels time and place in a cage, it has taught him all he knows. The young man realizes with horror that he is the parrot, or worse, longs to be.
He detaches the hook above the ornate cage–his mother was partial to Victoriana–and steers it to the open frame. Four floors below, the spring shrubs are starting to fill in, encroaching on the sidewalks that cut through the complex of apartments. The buildings are undistinguished but the apartments are large and sunny. Thank god for rent control.
The motion evokes bird noises under the pale blue cloth. The young man doesn’t think he could take it if the parrot spoke right now, though something obscene would be OK. Himself the source, for once. His hand disappears behind what his mother had fancied a patch of sky–the bird knows the exact shade of blue, cerulean–to fiddle with the clasp; the prisoner is so clever that after cleaning his cage they have to lock him in with pliers. Peter Pan pecks him.
“Shit,” he says.
“Shit,” the bird repeats. Previously learned vocabulary.
The door pops but is held in place by fabric, which he pinches at the top. The young man hesitates, reconsidering the great question of his childhood. He’s always believed it though never actually seen the beautiful flock of parrots flying through New York. Or maybe it’s just an urban legend that each year hundreds of people get driven so crazy they open the cages at a window and let nature take its course. His mother, who had a way of putting things, called it letting the bird go free.
The parrot has no knowledge of Mary Martin but it remembers Peter Pan. The bird that escaped to Neverland. Outside, in the air…there were many names for what the worldly parrot could even so never have imagined to be this. I’m flying, it thinks. But not that well. Finding the flock called the Lost Boys will have to wait. The parrot suddenly wonders if Peter Pan is a real bird…or just a part dreamed up by the young man’s mother out of kindness. The young man had all the adventures, while the parrot lived in a cage. Still, flying was an integral part of the plot; they’d had to lift the human actress on strings.
The parrot has a brief fantasy of himself and the young man crossing paths out here in the wide world. Like Captain Hook and Peter Pan, but on the same side this time. Perhaps after a few exploits, the two of them will reminisce. They’ll realize how much they miss the past, all that singing in the kitchen and their talks with the young man’s mother.
Heart-broken is the word the parrot will say. Heart-broken.
Should be read by all would-be-writers. Proof of the loss The City College of New York experienced when Prof. Abrams retired.