Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Steinbeck's common man

John Steinbeck wrote for and about the guy next door, the man that works to pay the bills at the end of the month, for the poor cuss who hopes and hopes even when hope is lost, and loses and loses,  even when he wins.

Tortilla Flat
   He moved slowly and cautiously.  Now and then the chicken tried to double back, but always there was Pilon in the place it chose to go.  At last it disappeared into the pine forest, and Pilon sauntered after it.
   To the glory of his soul be it said that no cry of pain came from that thicket.  That chicken, which Pilon has prophesied might live painfully, died peacefully, or at least quietly.

Okay, so that was not Pilon's chicken and when he exited that thicket, he had already drawn and quartered that rooster, pocketed the parts and left all evidence of its identification behind.  He had a good day, a good meal and a good rule: chickens just wandering about homeless are best eaten fresh.

The Pearl
   His people had once been great makers of songs so that everything they saw or thought or did or heard became a song.  That was very long ago. The songs remained; Kino knew them, but no new songs were added.  That does not mean that there were no personal songs.  In Kino's head, there was a song now, clear and soft, and if he had been able to speak of it, he would have called it the song of the family.

Kino was in tune with the flow of his community, the sea nearby and the sleepy contentment of his family in the breaking morning.  And song was his element and his barometer.

Of Mice and Men
   "No. . . you tell it.  It ain't the same if I tell it. Go on . . . George.  How I get to tend the rabbits."
   "Well," said George, "we'll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens.  And when it rains in the winter, we'll just say hell with goin' to work, and we'll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an' listen to the rain comin' down on the roof--Nuts!"  He took out his pocket knife.  "I ain't got time for no more."  He drove his knife through the top of one of the bean cans, sawed out the top and passed the can to Lennie.

These two migrant workers were keeping the dream of a farm in the future, their own place where they could decide to work or not, stuffed deep in their empty pockets next to dead mice and nicked pocket knives.

And that was Steinbeck, the writer that lived first in the life then wrote the life of those who lived it.  His characters are drawn from people who live in and through hardship, but not the hardship that visits, leaves and sometime later after happy times have worn out their welcome is replaced with another difficult situation to manage through.  His characters are imbued in hardship; that is what life is.  It giveth and it taketh away, and mostly it taketh.

I was driving over a bridge in Bend, Oregon, and a man, layered in several shirts and jackets stepped blithely along the concrete margin that left a tight walkway along the fencing of the bridge.  I looked back (I wasn't the driver) and watched him until we were out of sight.  He wore a grin on his face, was obviously singing loud and joyfully and looked to have taken his last bath some weeks earlier.  He's a Steinbeck man, I remember thinking.  You know them when you see them.  It is hard not to be drawn in by their look of hope, their obvious plight, the sorrow you see coming which they don't seem to.  Steinbeck made me sensitive to them, made me hope and work not to be one, and surprised me when after researching my family tree, I found I was but one generation from them and at times only a paycheck or two ahead of them.

If you want to write about the common man in his glory, in his misery, read Steinbeck first.  Research your family tree.  Look around.  Then sit down and write about the fears that wake you up at night, only let them loose and see what damp place they will land it, dry up, flit about and land in the wet again.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Learning from the masters series: John Gardner & the world of monster

Door to the inside of a monster
John Gardner's Grendel is a work of delight and derangement cluttered in one diabolical monster's mind.  It is poetry garbed in prose, sophistry hiding behind a misunderstood, disadvantaged descendent of Cain.  Gardner slips his monster into the reader, building sympathy and support as the beast twists its words around unreliable reasoning that makes the reader want to believe Grendel's version and feel sorry for him.  Gardner does all this through the voice of the monster as the creature seems to share all his personal feelings, fears and frustrations.  He's honest, sort of.

" 'Ah, sad one, poor old freak!'  I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing.  (It's mostly fake.)"

This short quote is just a few pages into the book.  It contains, "cry," "laugh," "gasping," "sobbing" and the words in parentheses "It's mostly fake." This sharing of Grendel's view of his behavior draws the reader in, grinning (though of course, Grendel would be grinning too, but it is the reader that thinks this is great fun.  And before readers know it, they are so entertained that they fall for him, crazy rapscallion that he is.)

His honesty is refreshing, diverting, entrancing and completely manipulative.  And the reader knows that, too, but that is not enough to keep him or her secure from falling for the monster, and that is John Gardner's gift.

" 'Dark chasms!' I scream from the cliff-edge, 'seize me!  Seize me to your foul black bowels and crush my bones!'  I am terrified at the sound of my own huge voice in the darkness.  I stand there shaking from head to foot, moved to the deep-sea depths of my being, like a creature thrown into audience with thunder."

Pulled in, right to the brink of believing him and then he says:

"At the same time, I am secretly unfooled. The uproar is only my own shriek, and the chasms are, like all things vast, inanimate.  They will not snatch me in a thousand years, unless, in a lunatic fit of religion, I jump."

And thus Gardner twists us about.  First one way and then another, until we don't know if we trust this Grendel or not, but for some crazy reason, we like him and want to continue to spend time with him.  We ignore his eating of people, his sarcasm, his beastliness.   He's just too interesting, too contradicting.

That is the secret, or at least one of the important ones of this work of creating a monster that more than a mother can love.  Grendel is a contradiction.  He wants to be welcomed into the forgiveness of religion, but overlooks the dead man he has clutched under his arm.  He peers into holes in the mead hall wall to watch the Danes live their small lives, like a lonely voyeur, and eats their cattle, old women and wayward children.

We shake our heads at him, and then devour more words, more rabid philosophy.

I haven't written about any monsters yet, but I am going to keep this technique in mind:  the twist of honesty, sympathy and personal fear around destruction, hate and madness.  A monster one can love and hate to hate, though the reader knows, knows with a certainty, here lies a crazy bastard of a monster; don't turn your back and watch his hands closely, and his claws closer.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Seamus Heaney crafts imagery

Amber: imbedding strong images
You know those images that stick with you long after the work has been shelved or sunk beneath a mountain of new impressions? The ones you can read over and over and feel the gritty texture, smell the burning tang, see the vivid stain...that quality of capturing a moment precisely, the vision exacting?

I have read "Graubelle Man" numerous times.  I have heard Seamus Heaney perform his work, though I cannot say if I have listened to him recite this one.  But each time I read this poem, a voice accompanies it.  It is a resonant utterance, that shapes each word in melodic presses of the tongue against teeth, palate, and lips.  The man described is evoked into dimensions that show him half imbedded in soggy peat, various degrees of dark pigmentation on his rippled, sunken skin crumpled against the bone. The reader knows he would feel stiff and cold if touched.

Graubelle Man

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.

He builds an image so deeply that it slides under the skin and settles in for a lifetime.  I cannot dig this image out of my horde of gathered bits of fine poesy.  There is much more to this poem, more images that bring the Gaubelle man described into the view of every reader that examines the piece. 
I cannot imagine that one could teach a person to write at this level.  I can only imagine that it must be sought out, read repeatedly, savored in the hope that in seeping in it will imbue one's images with moments which may find a reader to settle into for a lifetime.  Read, seek these images out, glory in them as reader or writer, make space under your skin for them.