Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Pinnacles: who are these people?

We made our annual pilgrimage to Pinnacles National Monument last Sunday. We only go once a year, usually in March, when the flowers are out and the bat caves are open. I could actually pass on the bat caves, especially when they are filled with several feet of rushing water. Oh, and bats. Not a lot, but at least one clinging to the wall like a sort of husk, where you could put your hand on it. Anyway I notice particularly at Pinnacles that a large number of people show up there who look like they've never been to a national park before. They come in leather jackets and flip flops, carrying cigarettes but no water. And off they go, up the steep hills in the heat, into the caves with several feet of rushing water. And back they come, happy, relaxed, not sweating, not in pain. They don't fall in the caves. They don't get stones in their flip-flops. Whereas I, with my extra-strength hiking books and sunscreen and protective hat and layered clothes--I'm sweating. My feet are hurting. I still manage it all without too much complaining (except in the caves where I refuse to examine the bat at close range because I am balancing on a tiny rock about to topple into darkness). But who are these people with the tattooed legs who aren't having any trouble at all?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

It's like you've never written a word

I took a week (maybe more, I forget) off from writing my novel to work on a new short story. Of course I wanted to get away from my novel. But the other perfectly reasonable excuse is that I thought I was going to have to quit writing, pretty much, for three months because I was going to be teaching two courses in addition to working--so the thought was I would do little sporadic projects like short stories, instead of trying to maintain daily contact with the novel. BUT. My Continuing Studies course at Stanford got canceled, which pained me quite a bit more than I expected it would. I was really looking forward to a different kind of teaching and I'd been planning the course for nearly a year. On the other hand it would have been a ton of work and now I'm seeing the upside of not doing it. Mainly, I can keep writing.

I now face the prospect of returning to the novel after, let's say, 10 days. Robert Olen Butler, henceforth to be referred to as R.O.B. (aka G.O.D.) says that if you miss more than two days in a row it's as if you never wrote a word. And the novel does feel quite unfamiliar at the moment. For a few days there the distance was really nice; I was no longer mired in it, so I could float above and see the whole thing. I remembered what I wanted the novel to feel like and took some notes about tone that I thought were important at the time. But that was last week. Now I'm afraid I'll go back and see that the whole thing is a disaster, and slink off to short-story safety again. Must resist.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bike ride

What is it about the smell of new bike tires that brings back childhood faster than anything? I just went to REI to get a new helmet and had a flashback. There was nothing more magical than picking out a new bike, though I must have had no more than three new bikes in my life. This isn't counting the second-hand bike I got for college which met with a strange fate that still pains me, and of course my newest bike that I got six years ago to go riding with Trev. But we hadn't gone in two years because of my ankle surgery, and then because we never had a decent bike rack. But all that's behind us now and we took our cobwebbed bikes over to Half Moon Bay and rode like the wind! Like a slow wind! But it was such a blast. Bikes must represent freedom to kids, but there was also something about the big wheels and bright colors all lined up in the store, and that new-tire smell. The clean blue sky, the yellow flowers on the dunes, the yellow-green spot that was Trev receding before me, the whitecaps and the clouds...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Conversations, cigarettes, and booze

I picked up Raymond Carver's collection Where I'm Calling From last weekend. I've read a few of his stories before but decided it was time to really study him, since he's still the gold standard for short story writing. I must say that a little of Carver goes a long way. I'd like to read one of these every six months or so instead of all at once. He definitely proves the adage that dialog is something characters do to each other. Most of the stories consist largely of dialog, but it's not conversation. The dialog dredges up events from the past that build to some kind of violence, in a different form, in the present. Cigarettes and especially alcohol give the dialog its pace--people stop talking to smoke or drink--and often its subject matter. Occasionally these "beats" get absurd, with step-by-step descriptions of, say, a man picking up a glass, putting it to his lips, taking a swallow, and setting the glass back on the table. It's all very hard-boiled, with paranoid men and long-suffering women and few words over two syllables. It's true that you can write fairly long and tension-filled stories by stretching out an ordinary moment till you see what's hidden in its cracks.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Shoveling shit

Today was one of those days with my novel. However, my doctor, who says she's a combination of Albert Schweitzer and Mary Baker Eddy, says she only thinks positive thoughts. What would that be like? Anyway my point is to say something positive about shoveling shit, and I think it's this: you must shovel until you discover what the problem is. In the past when I sensed something was wrong with a story I stopped writing. This time I kept going, sinking further and further into the slime until the size and shape of the problem suddenly became clear. You push toward it till it rises up like the swamp thing, whereas if you stay back from it you may never see it. Sadly the swamp thing means some major overhauling in my case, and I'm trying to figure out if I need to go back now and start over, or just move forward and fix later. What I also learned was that I had the right idea in a very early draft and got talked out of it, because I didn't know why I'd put it there. So the larger lesson is never, ever show the first draft to anyone. Second or third draft at the earliest.

Monday, March 06, 2006

That is no country for old men

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress....

Exactly. That is what I am trying to get at in my novel. That and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

When I read Yeats in college I did not get "unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress." I thought I got it. Dionysus, deep, dark laughter, yeah, yeah. But you can't get certain poems until you're older. I mean, I'm not that old, but you have to have the retrospective view of your life, and you don't have it when you're twenty. You have regrets, repressions, but you simply aren't old enough. I can tell by the notes I made on this poem ("Sailing to Byzantium") in my Norton that I had no idea what it was about. "Between two worlds," I wrote. (He's in transit, sailing, see?) I was writing down the professor's explication; I did not feel it. Four Quartets was another one. In college it was, I thought, the hardest poem I'd ever read. But now I can see it's about getting old, just like lots and lots of poetry.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Call Me Joe again

I think "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson might be my new Misery. By that I mean it's the piece of so-called genre fiction that explains the entire world, or at least the literary world. To recap: a scientist named Ed Anglesey remotely controls, via telepathy, an artificial life form named Joe on the surface of Titan. Joe is a sort of macho lizard who drinks methane and battles monsters; Anglesey is paralyzed. At the end, Anglesey's consciousness gets sucked down into Joe, from the emasculated white-collar worker to the blue (literally) collar laborer, fighter, and pioneer. Anglesey's paraplegic body then dies. It all strikes me as a paradigm for character creation, both by writers and readers. Readers and writers do this in similar ways, I think--we give the characters our emotions and thoughts, our consciousness, which the characters use to function in their own worlds. If the character is successful we lose ourselves in them and see their world through their eyes. Their emotions become ours as opposed to the other way around. It's like method acting. When we come back out of the character, we don't come all the way back. Part of us stays on Titan (or wherever the story's world is), and part of Joe (or whomever) comes back with us. And of course there's fantasy involved, of either more or less power than we really have.

Characters like Joe are especially revealing doubles for writers, whose work forces us to be sedentary at least at the time we're doing it. Come to think of it, Stephen King's Annie is another version of Joe, a superhuman monster who kills on behalf of the paralyzed writer Paul Sheldon. She kills the cop who comes looking for Paul, for instance. Paul is Annie's prisoner, and he watches in horror as Annie kills the cop in the kind of comic-opera gorefest that is King's special gift. But as an author Paul knows he's also created Annie. She's his "constant reader" who loves all his books, and she's his character, his Joe. So killing the cop is Paul's literary fantasy too.