Learning the craft: first person first

I have been enjoying Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. The first essay is Richard Russo’s defence of omniscience, and he is very persuasive in showing writers the advantages of omniscience with examples from John Steinbeck and Jon Hassler (and others).

Okay, I am convinced. Problem is, it takes time, doesn’t it? To build to omniscience?

I have completed six stories now, and two out of six are third person. One of the third person narrations is close (we go into the thoughts of one of the characters), and the other, I suppose is “omniscient.” But that one felt very weird to write.  First person narration comes naturally, like a river flowing through me.  Third person omniscient feels distant from me, like I have stepped out of myself.  The disembodiment perhaps brings new powers over time.

I would like to write more in the third person, but I want to see if I can keep the energy of the first person and translate it into third person narration.  This feels like a process that cannot be rushed.

After my book of poems was published, I felt squeamish about it–that I was too confessional, too much of me was exposed.  And yet there is energy there, albeit awkward energy. There is soul. In writing fiction, I need to transmute that richness of my voice, my experience, into the more subtle delineations of the third person narrator.

I started a new full-time job on July 18 after four months “between jobs.” I realize the job takes a lot out of me, though I love it, and I am so grateful for employment that fits my skills and my interests.  I remain committed to my story writing, to learning the craft, to carving out some time each morning. I arranged a 9:30 start so I can fit in my writing time. IMG_0435The blog, however, will be more erratic.

In closing, I offer two paragraphs from my stories, one from a first person narration, the other from my most “omniscient” narrator:

I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now. I liked this corner. It felt safe. The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream. I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen. The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me. The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language. I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.

Rinaldo unbuttoned the top two buttons of his madras shirt, lifted her small hand, and leaning over the bed, placed it on his bare chest, atop the layer of curly, sweaty hair. “Here, Mum, right here.” Ainslie’s thin arm was fully extended, the hand had disappeared into her son’s open shirt. His large hand covered hers, pinning it to his heart, the chest hair protruding from around the hand sandwich. He leaned over her, his other arm steadying his big leaning body so he wouldn’t fall into the bed. On this hot July day, he was wearing cargo shorts and his trunk-like thighs, also covered with thick dark hair, were pressed up against the wooden rail at the side of the bed. Ainslie opened her eyes, surprised but not alarmed by this new position she was in. Mother and son did not speak, but the room was not silent. The sound of Rinaldo’s heart seemed to fill the space, BA-doom, BA-doom, BA-doom. Ainslie felt the reverberations through her body.

 

Work mentioned

Baxter, Charles and Peter Turchi, Eds. Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.

 

 

 

 

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Inter-art and music

Today I am writing about Charles Baxter’s short story, “Gershwin’s Second Prelude,” a beautiful example of inter-art in the form of a short story wrapped around a piece of music. Baxter, like Ann Beattie from the last post, is an American writer born in 1947.

In this story, Kate, the protagonist, is in a tenuous relationship with Wiley. Wiley borrows money from Kate and can’t keep a job. He’s unpredictable and irritating. But he’s also a brilliant, charismatic guy—a great lover and a very funny man who keeps Kate amused with his clown antics. Kate is taking piano lessons from Mme. Gutowski, an ancient Polish pianist who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and knew Ravel, Bartók, and Cocteau. The story runs like two trains on parallel tracks. We switch from Kate and Wiley to Kate and Mme. and then back to Wiley again. When Kate finds a needle in the bathroom cabinet, Wiley admits he likes doing heroin. Kate asks why he does it. “I like to feel like God,” Wiley said. “I like to have the sun explode and then spray over my face” (p. 9).

Meanwhile over on the piano train, Kate is failing miserably at Shubert and Mme. instructs her to cease: “’No more Schubert,’ she repeated irritably. ‘You play like an American. You speed up the tempo to make a climax. This is Schubert, not Las Vegas’” (p. 2). She orders her pupil to play Gershwin’s Second Prelude instead. “’Gershwin?’ Kate frowned. ‘That’s trash’” (p. 3). But Mme. disagrees. Gershwin, she argues “’requires wizard, but teaches tenderness from first bar to end. You Americans have such trouble learning tenderness, I don’t understand. Learn to relax into calm’” (p. 3). Mme. talks about dead musicians as if they were alive and accessible. She encourages Kate to get to know Gershwin, “a nice boy. You two will adore each other” (p. 3).

Here’s where you stop to listen to Gershwin’s second prelude. This is Michel Legrande’s 1994 recording of all three preludes; you can skip to number two from 1:25-3:56. 

After Wiley leaves her, Kate shows up to her piano lesson drunk, and Mme. tells her a story about her lover in Paris many years ago who succumbed to opium and the delusion that you can be happy all of the time. That lover ended up committing suicide by leaping from the top of a cathedral.

Mme. describes those artists who grab at joy and happiness: “’Joy is infected. Joy for too long is infection. Cannot last’” (p. 14). Rather, it’s what appears to be mundane that has value: “’Boredom has its own tenderness, its own mercy’” (p. 15).

I cannot reduce Baxter’s complex story to one takeaway, but perhaps Madame has it right—what may seem boring, the day-to-day sitting at the piano bench (or writing desk) and working at making a connection with the composer/reader, is the key. Grabbing at happiness and trying to make joy last will make you crazy and sick.

At the end of the story, Mme. extracts a promise from Kate that she won’t keep striving to be happy and insists on a toast with imaginary champagne: “’You will become a hero. You will learn to face losses of giant size’” (p. 15). And they raise their invisible glasses to celebrate loss, boredom, and hard work.

I listened to Gershwin’s piece a few times, trying to understand what its presence meant in the story. I felt the melancholy of the persistent refrain. The minor notes seem to undercut the jaunty rhythm, and five notes repeated throughout the prelude seem to illustrate the boredom tinged with tenderness that Mme. spoke of.

This story reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s message about stubborn gladness. She writes that her “ultimate choice, then, is to always approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness” (p. 219). She just plugs away, trusting throughout losses and wins, ups and downs. Note she does not use the word happiness or the word joy; she uses gladness.

Stubborn gladness. Tender boredom.

 Works cited

Baxter, C. (1984). Gershwin’s second prelude. Harmony of the world. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.