“Should I have taken the false teeth?” ~ Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man
About twenty years ago, I went on a Robertson Davies binge. I plowed through a number of his big, fat, fascinating novels, one right after the other. Then I moved on to another literary addiction, but Davies’ stories still haunted me. Last week I came across a copy of The Cunning Man, opened it, read the first line, and was again hooked. I’m going to have to read all those books a second time.
I never wrote a word that I didn’t hear as I read.
~ Eudora Welty
Familiarity. Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them. It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full. You don’t know you’ve remembered, but you have. And you listen for the right word, in the present, and you hear it. Once you’re into a story everything seems to apply—what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you’re tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized—if you can think of your ears as magnets. I could hear someone saying—and I had to cut this out—”What, you never ate goat?” And someone answering, “Goat! Please don’t say you serve goat at this reunion. I wasn’t told it was goat I was served. I thought—” and so on, and then the recipe, and then it ended up with—I can’t remember exactly now—it ended with, “You can do a whole lot of things with vinegar.” Well, all these things I would just laugh about and think about for so long and put them in. And then I’d think, that’s just plain indulgence. Take it out! And I’d take it out.
~ Eudora Welty, quoted here
Today there were no clouds at all, but I could well imagine how magnificently the huge, brooding area of sky would look with gray, scudding rain and storm clouds lowering over the estuary, how it would be here in the floods of February time when the marshes turned to iron-gray and the sky seeped down into them, and in the high winds of March, when the light rippled, shadow chasing shadow across the ploughed fields.
~Susan Hill, The Woman in Black
Clouds by Ted Garvin (Own work) CC-BY-SA-2.5
Despite all the time I’ve wasted scrolling through Facebook, I’ve received more from the site than I’ve lost. It’s allowed me to reconnect with students I taught thirty years ago.
Last night I was chatting with a member of the class of 1982. She gave me permission to link to her website. She didn’t give me permission to comment, but I will anyway. What can she do–flunk me?
I want to make it clear that I never taught Judy anything. I couldn’t have taught her anything. She already knew what she needed to know. She was a writer. A poet.
She entertained us periodically with essays describing her part-time job at a nearby country club. I have vivid memories of long, furry tendrils reaching out and wrapping themselves around her legs while she was cleaning out the walk-in refrigerator. Those memories, and others, told in nauseating detail, made me laugh even as I vowed to avoid that particular dining room.
In her junior year, Judy placed in a poetry contest at a nearby college. One of the judges said she’d wanted to place the poem higher, but it was too short. The next year, she won the competition with another poem–the same length as last year’s. I memorized it and later, when I was teaching at a local university, posted a copy of it on the door of my office.
After Judy graduated, I found her mentioned in an article in the Austin newspaper: UT student Judith Edwards had appeared at Eeyore’s Birthday Party in Pease Park wearing a python draped across her shoulders. The accessory seemed to me entirely appropriate. Her goals had never included conformity.
Here’s a link to Judy’s website: http://www.judywords.info/
Browse through her poems and stories. You’ll get an idea of the pleasure I had being her student.
P.S. I hesitate to add this–I mean, I hate to give readers who live outside the United States such a…truthful…view of Texas, but if you have a mind to, read Judy’s story “The Big Texan.” She didn’t make it up. I wasn’t there, but I know it really happened.
At HEB this afternoon, having verified that I had, indeed, spent my last sou on a cup of coffee at Waterloo Writers, I ran my credit card through the scanner. The resulting screen read, Select Tender Type.
Such a formal, old-fashioned word for this new-fangled device.
Polonius: What is between you? give me up the truth.
Ophelia: He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.
Polonius: Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?
Ophelia: I do not know, my lord, what I should think.
Polonius: Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.
Poor Ophelia. She was a sweet thing, and young, and the men in her life treated her so shabbily.
But even though Polonius belittles his daughter to her face, the way Shakespeare moves tender through the passage, varying its meaning from one line to the next, renders the speech remarkable. As Hamlet later implies, Polonius is a rat—and he pays for his treachery a couple of acts down the road—but he has a way with words.
Capulet: How! will she none? doth she not give us thanks?
Is she not proud? doth she not count her blest,
Unworthy as she is, that we have wrought
So worthy a gentleman to be her bridegroom?
Juliet: Not proud, you have; but thankful, that you have:
Proud can I never be of what I hate;
But thankful even for hate, that is meant love.
Capulet: How now, how now, chop-logic! What is this?
‘Proud,’ and ‘I thank you,’ and ‘I thank you not;’
And yet ‘not proud,’ mistress minion, you,
Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next,
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! out, you baggage!
“Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds, / But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next,…” Beautiful. Just seeing it on the page gives me the shivers.
To some, Capulet sounds like a terrible father, but, as I pointed out to my freshmen, year after year, Juliet started it. She was rude and disrespectful. Her father didn’t know she was already married; he thought she would be thrilled to marry Paris. But she behaved like a brat. It’s no wonder Capulet threatened to drag her on a hurdle thither.
The two female characters present an interesting contrast: Ophelia refuses to speak for herself; Juliet shouts. But neither one lasts to the end of Act V.
A scholarly paper might lurk in there somewhere: “Shakespeare’s Women: A Study of the Consequences of Self-Actualization Within the Context of the Father-Daughter Relationship Complicated by Nascent Heterosexual Bonding, with a Focus on Hamlet’s Ophelia and Romeo and Juliet’s Juliet.”
Or perhaps not.
By the time I finished with the Capulets, the cashier had almost finished with the scanning. While she bagged the items, I had time to wonder whether the name of Jason FForde’s protagonist, Thursday Next, was inspired by the once-projected date for Juliet’s wedding.
I also remembered that The Idylls of the King contains a line echoing Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds; I believe it’s spoken by Guinevere–maybe–but I’ve not been able to locate it, and it looks as if I’ll have to re-read the entire Idylls to ease my mind.
But I did find the next lines that drifted by: Guinevere, jealous of Elaine, takes up Lancelot’s gift of diamonds
And thro’ the casement standing wide for heat
Flung them and down they flash’d, and smote the stream.
Then from the smitten surface flash’d, as it were
Diamonds to meet them, and they past away.
That image—diamonds falling into the sunlit stream, and water splashing up, like diamonds to meet them—remains with me when the rest of the book has passed from memory.
Well. By this time, the cashier and I had completed our transaction. I wheeled the groceries to the car. End of shopping.
End of post.
Except to point out that I stood for ten minutes in one of the most boring places imaginable and forgot to be bored.
I was busy elsewhere.
An I had but one penny in the world,
thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.
~ William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost
Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by Miz B of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along. Just do the following:
- Grab your current read.
- Open to a random page.
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (Make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title and author too, so other TT participants can add the book to their TBR lists if they like your teasers.
“I barely had time to flinch before I saw Grace’s body tossed in the air. She flew several feet, then landed in a heap as the unicorn charged again, horn lowered, teeth bared, at the crumpled figure on the ground.”
~ Diana Peterfreund, Rampant
- Author Rave: Diana Peterfreund (thesassylibrarian.blogspot.com)
Questions of the day:
When will I learn that writing is a slow process? That revision is a slow process? That no matter how much I enjoy what I’m doing–and, contrary to normal hyperbolic squawking, I do enjoy it, especially revision–I will not turn out page after page after page in a two-hour session?
That when I finish one scene, I have to go on to the next? That no matter how much I admire what I have just completed, I can’t stop to celebrate by stopping for the day?
That 1800 words is a lot, but measured against the NaNo 50,000, or indeed the 80,000 I really need, it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket? And less than that in the proverbial ocean?
No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Those lines just popped into my head. They show the situation is worse than I thought. There isn’t just one proverbial ocean, there are multitudinous seas. And tossing my 1800 words from the shore would be like immersing a bottle of food coloring. Not even the sharks would notice.
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin – his control
Stops with the shore.
I thought of that, too. My grandfather, I’m told, sang scales to a truncated first line: Roll on thou deep blue ocean–roll! It doesn’t work in iambic pentameter, though. Accents go on Roll and roll.
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
And that slipped in with the others. I sing this one because, as soon as I think of it, it sticks in my head. I would sing more, but this is all I know.
I’ve been wondering what to do after I leave this coffee shop. Now I know. I’ll sing. Driving home. Cooking dinner. From time to time throughout the evening, when I least expect it, I’ll burst into song. David won’t say anything. He appears to have gotten used to it.
I haven’t been stuck on “Mandalay” for quite a while. My default is
Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can’t get friendly with a crocodile
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin
So there are advantages to having Kipling on the brain. I know only half a verse of the crocodile, and failing to reach a natural ending, an “Amen” of sorts, leads to immediate and unfortunate repetition. Sort of like what happens with Little Bunny Foo Foo. I taught Little Bunny Foo Foo to my cousin’s kids when I was in high school. I don’t think their mother has ever forgiven me. I may teach it to her grandchildren.
The clock on the computer tells me it’s past time to start home. I didn’t finish what I started out to do, but, having emptied my brain of over five hundred unnecessary words, I’m much lighter in spirit.
The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one….If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. ~ William Faulkner
One of my instructors, citing William Faulkner’s statement that good writers are ruthless about their art, asked the class whether there were any subjects we could not write about.
One of the students came up with an extensive, and very funny, list of things she couldn’t write about.
But for anyone aspiring to publish, it’s a serious question.
In her memoir, Limbo, A. Manette Ansay writes that to tell her story, she had to tell a story about her father as well. It was a memory so painful that he disclosed it to her only when she was experiencing a deep personal crisis and he believed hearing it might lessen her pain. If he hadn’t given permission to tell his secret, she would not have written her memoir. Her father was more important than her art.
Against all the rules, I’ll digress to say that Limbo is a wonderful book, and everyone reading this post should run to wherever you go and borrow or buy one. I borrowed the book from my library, when I had one, and received no perks for stating this opinion. I say this in a spirit of full disclosure and a certain amount of pique that I have to say it at all. (Actually, since this isn’t a review, I probably don’t have to say it, but I’ve always wanted to use the word pique, and this way I have an excuse to do so.)
Back to the original topic. Because so much of my so-called inspiration comes from people I’ve known or heard about, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what I can’t write about. Is there anything in my life or that of my family that would be best left alone? Is there anything I cannot use as fodder? Anything really really good that, if I were lucky enough to get it into print, might be considered indiscreet? I can use my grandfather’s roll-your-own Bull Durhams and my Cousin Ruth’s statuesque leg, but is there anything that simply must not find its way into the bookstores?
I’m talking about family here.
Of course there are things I can’t write about.
In my case, family includes a whole raft of people I’m not related to, I hardly know, or I’ve merely heard about from other people. For example, my grandfather once knew a man who, as a boy, saw General Robert E. Lee sitting astride Traveler.
There’s nothing wrong with writing about a boy seeing Traveler (who both my grandfather and I knew was much more important than General Lee), but, for the purposes of my art, I consider that boy part of the family. It’s complicated.
Anyway, back to the question, What can’t I write about?
Like many other answers, it depends. Fiction allows–requires–the writer to stretch the facts to get to the truth. Characters aren’t people. Plot isn’t memoir. With that kind of leeway, the possibilities are endless.
And let’s face facts. I am neither a William Faulkner nor an A. Manette Ansay, and I’m in no danger of producing anything that will cause readers to confuse me with Keats. Or even with Janet Evanovich, more’s the pity.
Still, if I were forced to give a straight answer to the question, I would agree with Ms. Ansay.
Whenever I read Faulkner’s declaration, I think of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Keats took comfort from the urn. I take comfort from the poem. “When old age shall this generation waste,” those things of beauty will continue to delight. It’s difficult to put a price on that.
But then I think of all the old ladies I’ve known.
From what I’ve read about him, I believe even Keats would consider them worth more than an ode.
Is there anything you can’t write about?
Another disclosure: Zemanta didn’t help me write this post, but it did provide the pictures and the link below, which accesses an audio archive of William Faulkner’s lectures and speeches. According to the accompanying article, the author was “quite the wit” and would “routinely slay audiences.” I’d planned to say I felt guilty for using Zemanta, but I’m so pleased at getting to hear Faulkner speak that I’m going to allow Z to assist me as often as it wishes.
Image of Grecian Urn by John Keats (1795-1821) (http://www.flickr.com/photos/litmuse/64111434/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Faulkner Speaks! (blogs.forbes.com)