Thursday, September 20, 2012

Searching for a Voice


“I want to write like Ernest Hemingway and sing like Chet Baker’s trumpet”


I have pretty much given up on the second of these wishes, posted for years on the wall above my desk. In spite of the encouragement of my daughter the music professor, no amount of instruction has helped me achieve even a minimally pleasing and accurate vocal tone. I accept that I will never be able to use my voice to summon the naked emotion I hear when Chet Baker made his horn sing. (Mr. Baker’s own singing voice was too cool for my taste--and I don’t think it improved after he got all his teeth knocked out in a brawl.)

As for Mr. Hemingway, I have just finished re-reading A Farewell to Arms for the fourth or fifth time. I read Hemingway for the same reasons people listen to Bach.

I am on the library’s reserve list for the new edition of A Farewell to Arms that includes several endings Hemingway wrote and rejected before deciding on the novel’s exquisite and inevitable final hospital scene. 

Ernest Hemingway’s writing, so naked and exposed, demonstrates his courage far better than any tales of the bulls he ran with at Pamplona. Hemingway was a fearless writer, a man who would use a word three times in a single sentence if that were the one true word he needed. The young Hemingway was befriended by Gertrude Stein in the 1920s, and it’s amusing to imagine that Stein’s rather opaque prose may have given Hemingway the courage to develop his unique spare style (think Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose”). 

Perhaps someone can be taught to write like Hemingway, but I don't think someone can be taught to see like Hemingway, to remember like Hemingway. 

Hemingway’s crystalline prose is in the service of his content. Both For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms are extraordinarily detailed war stories, stories in which you taste the earth and feel the snow. I don’t know which would be more remarkable: to be able to recall such minute detail of a time in one’s past or to create such a world from the imagination. 

Hemingway has no fancy phrases, no ornate figures of speech. His words say what they say, and walk off. Hemingway’s gift is first of all his clear, calm observation, and only secondarily his brave use of language. Hemingway's words are banal, and Hemingway's narratives would be banal if backed by a blunter sensibility. Because life is banal. That’s not an insult, merely a description. 

So if I am to learn to write like Hemingway, I must first find my true content and only then try to find my true words. 

It also wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind one of Papa’s more quotable quotes, applicable to both storytelling and life itself: “Never mistake movement for action.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

An End and a Beginning


A hard-cover composition book and a sharpened pencil--few things speak to me as strongly of possibilities, of new beginnings.

I remember sitting in Prospect Park on a beautiful Brooklyn morning, crying as I wrote and then re-read the touching story of a lonely seven-year-old girl crippled by polio. I was just seven myself, and this was the first chapter of my first writing project, my "book." I don't recall anything past those first bathetic pages--but what I do recall is the thrill of that empty notebook and that sharp no. 2 pencil. The thread that held the sewn-in pages of the composition book between its stiff black-and-white marbled covers gave the project both a permanence and a shape. One hundred pages, ready to be filled in.

A friend's recent death prompted some ruminations on ageing, on memory and memories and the shadows left by old emotions. And when I read the three pages I had written, sitting there at Starbucks, I suddenly knew I had both the prologue and the frame for a novel.

In my embrace of short stories and more recently flash fiction, I had not considered undertaking full-length fiction (my first book, finally completed late last year, came in at novella weight). It has been exactly sixty years since that afternoon in Prospect Park. 

So the first thing I did was walk over to the Office Max next door and buy a composition book.

Yes, my iPad and my MacBook Air have replaced the no. 2 pencils, but I keep the notebook with me, in the car, by my bed, for notes on the developing story. I'm looking forward to meeting this ageing woman who is to be at its center. 

The death of my friend Enrique marks the end of an era of my life, the longest and most interesting one. What I wrote that morning at Starbucks was a goodbye, but it was not a goodbye to Enrique, with whom I had long lost touch until the advent of Facebook. Rather, it was a goodbye to myself, to the me I would no longer be.

In a related development, as I’m sure they say at Channel Seven, I have also decided to sell my little yellow 1991 Miata, whose presence has been mostly symbolic for the past few years, and certainly in the year since I moved south. Miami, with its brutal mid-day sun, is a lousy place to run a roadster. (What's the difference between a convertible and a roadster? A convertible is a closed car with a top you can lower in beautiful weather. A roadster is an open car with a top you can [reluctantly, awkwardly] raise if the weather turns truly hideous.) I'd been taking the Miata out every ten days or so, mostly when I felt the need to announce to the public or to my acquaintances that I'm not the wrinkled old crone the mirror had reflected back to me that morning, but rather the sort of woman in whom a hot pulse still beat, the sort of woman who drives a yellow Miata.

The sort of woman I was in that long, strange trip of an era that ended with the death of Enrique Cárdenas in Miami last month, at 71.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Flasher

I have finally found my niche as a writer, my medium, my genre: flash fiction.

It would be easy to dismiss the current popularity of these short-short stories, often under 500 words, as an outgrowth of the twitterati's limited attention span. But in truth they are a refinement of the traditional art of the short story.

They are shorter to read, but not necessarily quicker to create. What they are is an exquisite test of the lapidary skills of the writer-as-editor, perfect for someone like me, whose two shortcomings as a writer are 1) a facility for creating vignette but the inability to move characters across a room, and 2) a preference for editing over actual writing. Like most people with literary ambitions, when I say I love to write I mean I love to have written. But I do, honestly, love the act of editing.

Flash fiction is an apt name (others are sudden fiction and microfiction) for works that often capture a single moment in time. I think of the big round flashbulbs of my childhood Brownie Hawkeye camera, the way their sudden explosion captured in stark outline a single frozen moment of my existence. Those photos lacked subtlety and shadows, the gray shading of real life. But because of that, they offered a naked truth that makes them still powerful decades later.

Here is how I work: I write my setup, often from an unfinished short story in my files, then rework and refine it, chipping away at that rough rock, waiting for a small diamond to emerge—and  waiting for the "flash" to strike me. What I'm looking for is not so much an "ending" as a moment of meaning.

My first try at flash fiction sank without a ripple (I blame a poorly-formatted entry in last year's "Portland Noir" contest), but my subsequent attempt garnered second place in a recent online contest (and $250 cash, which just about covered my monthly  Starbucks tab).

And I learned a valuable lesson, too, almost destroying a thirty-year friendship in a flash. We've all heard the advice to "Write what you know," but there is peril in taking that too literally. When that moment of stark illumination captures the hyper-reality of an imagined world, powerful drama can emerge. When you're looking at your own real world, be gentle. Just remember how awful we looked in those old Kodak snapshots. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Seasons

As I took my leave of Portland in the waning days of a glorious summer (a 6-week summer, but a summer nonetheless), several people told me they could never enjoy living someplace that “didn’t have seasons.”

Ah, but Miami, I have recently been forced to recall like a slap on the cheek, does have seasons. Or rather, it has “The Season.”

The tourist season has moved in for the duration, and things will get worse before they begin to let up, around April. The restaurants are busy, the Starbucks cafes are fuller than ever, the boardwalk at Hollywood beach pits boisterous international families against kamikaze bicyclists, and miscellaneous out-of-state license plates pepper the traffic jams like a game of fifty-two pickup.

I arrived in early October, when South Florida was still sleepily enjoying its extended summer and going on about its workday business. I moved my little RV into Seville Mobile Home Park (permanent trailer homes with just a sprinkling of spaces for RVs) and enjoyed the quiet of being surrounded by pulled-down shutters and chained-up patio furniture.

But Les Canadiens sont arrivés!

I had been warned that the population of this parc was almost exclusively Quebecois snowbirds, but that was fine with me. During my prior fifteen years of Miami citizenship, I got used to the European and Latin American visitors that filled the stores and roads of Dade County during the winter. This would be my first winter over the border in Broward County, and my first encounter with the French Canadians, butt of much local humor. (Eh?)

So gradually, the trailer homes have been coming to life; the shutters have come off, the sound of hammering and general fixup, from the depredations of a South Florida summer of winds and rain, fills the air. Bienvenue, mes voisins.

I am a very undemanding tenant, wherever I live. All I ask for is quiet. Of course, in most rental situations one asks in vain . . . but the next best thing is being surrounded by people whose language you cannot understand. Conversation is as music, in such a case.

Before the first of the snowbirds arrived I feared that my rudimentary language ability might negate this benefit, my French being sufficient  for reading simple signs and instructions and the aphorisms introducing novels of literary pretense. But no. My new neighbors could be plotting provincial secession or talking about my funny shoes, and I would never know. And I don’t think I can blame it on my seventh-grade French teacher, Mr. Henderson, whose Français  had a resolvedly Brooklyn accent. No, I suspect that these folks are the same puzzle to me that a fast-talking Cockney would be to, let’s say, a Cuban who got an A in her Advanced English class. 

What I enjoy most about living in this enclave is that it has the air of a summer camp. I realize that in other neighborhoods nearby, people rise early and leave for work, come home and attend their children’s school plays . . . but here, in over-55 snowbird paradise, the long winter afternoons are spent sitting on patio chairs, riding bicycles up to the Dunkin Donuts, or playing petanque  behind the clubhouse. 

Once I leave our complex and put my car or my bike on Federal Highway (which turns into Biscayne Boulevard just a mile down the road, at the Dade County border), I am in the thick of The Season, or rather several “seasons.” I am, first of all, in the midst of holiday traffic for the region’s megashopping mall, Aventura (which, unfortunately, is also the home of the local Apple Store and thus I am sometimes forced to abandon all my bah-humbug principles about seasonal shopping and brave the Animatronic Santas in order to pick up a cable for my iPad). And this coming weekend the racing season starts: horses at Gulfstream (half a mile to the south), doggies at Monte Carlo (a quarter mile to the north). 

I may sound like I’m complaining, but this all brings back tender memories of my earlier sojourn in Miami, and fifteen years of going into and coming out of The Season. Perhaps there’s a little more traffic now, and the alta cockers in their white Cadillacs with New York plates, going 25 mph up Biscayne Boulevard, have been replaced by alta cockers in white Camrys with New York plates.  We natives honk and shake our heads, but really . . . we love the energy and money and challenge they bring to South Florida’s “Season.” Even the alta kockers in yellow Miatas with Oregon license plates.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stories

The final piece of my fictional puzzle has come into place, and my female character is about to fall in love. 

I knew, from books and workshops on the art of fiction, that stories are driven by the needs and wants, and thus the goals, of the main characters. Yet "What do you want?” is a question that can often yield an easy answer but little insight. One writing coach offered a slight distinction that made all the difference for me: he asked, What is it your character yearns for? 

Aha! That's a question to be answered not by asking the subject, but rather by observation. And so I re-read my manuscript with that question in mind, and the answer was both clear and startling. (I believe it was the same teacher who said that you can't know a story until it has been told; in other words, often the writer herself cannot see a story’s destination until she  reads it on paper, follows it to its natural conclusion.) 

And it turns out that stories themselves are the key to my character's needs, her yearning. What she longs for is just permission to stop telling her stories, to stop trying to keep those she loves (or fears, or both) alive, to stop trying to hold the world together, purely through the power of her storytelling. She is like Sheherazade, but spinning her tales to save the lives of others.

What she wants, what she yearns for, is permission to be silent. And that is the gift the man from Nebraska will offer her.

So I have been thinking about stories. Our stories have great power. Stories remain as powerful as they were when all of history was passed along through the human voice and scratchings on a cave wall. Stories are the way we learn about life and about ourselves. Stories and their shadows (the silences) are what make us human.

For a child, there is no more powerful utterance than the plea “Tell me a story,” and no moment more full of promise than the moment that follows it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Buy Nothing/Eat Nothing

I have found the American holiday season a little creepy ever since I first noticed that about 90% of magazine articles at this time of year focus on how to “survive” the holidays with sanity/relationship/budget intact. None of this has ever sounded like cause for celebration to me.

For several years now I’ve observed Buy Nothing Day on so-called Black Friday, the day on which Americans endorse the holiday slogan “Peace on Earth” by trampling each other to death at the doors of Walmart and ToysRUs. 

Especially this year, after having successfully divested myself of most of my possessions, I look with dread at the prospect of accumulating more consumer items that I don’t need (or even things I  feel I need that 99% of the world would neither dream of nor want . . . nor even be able to identify).

This year I’m adding something new to my curmudgeonly non-observance of the Season of Joy: I will be fasting on Thanksgiving.

For many years I’ve dodged the invitations of well-meaning friends and relatives, and with no local family here in Miami no one will miss me and all my irritating vegan/gluten-free/chocolate-allergy restrictions. More important, I will be confronting one of my greatest demons head on. The pleasure of food has always loomed too large in my life, a luxury that a great percentage of the world’s population cannot enjoy. Too many people start the day hungry, and remain that way. For many people food is not a joy but a struggle, or an unobtainable pleasure. That I have turned its abundance into a personal contest of will is unseemly. In fact, it is almost enough to make me lose my appetite. 

And so for one day at least, I will find another focus for my thoughts and my wishes and perhaps even my feelings of thankfulness. Life is good, my life is good—and I don’t need marshmallow-covered yams to prove it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Heart Warming

I always sit outside at Starbucks because I can't bear the chill of commercial air conditioning, especially down here in Florida where it is usually cranked up to brutal levels.

But at this moment, here at this little table looking out at the palm trees ringing this parking lot on Biscayne Boulevard, I'm still cold. My hands are cold, my arms in their t-shirt are cold, my toes in their Birkies are cold.

Today's Miami Herald cheerfully proclaimed the advent of winter season--the return of cooler, drier air (a low of 60!)--as if that were a good thing.

This morning in the 5 a.m. chill of my RV I realized that cold is the key to advancing my novel (see previous blog entry). It is the cold--or rather, the inability to get warm--that will finally motivate my dear, settled, unchanging Nebraska architect to cast his lot with the Miami free spirit who has introduced him to the possibilities of life in the tropics.

In the mid 1980s, I wrote a personal essay for the Miami Herald's Tropic Magazine on the subject of love and cold. I had just returned from a summer in Oregon, a journey undertaken in part to put some distance between myself and a relationship whose intensity was causing me some pain. I had always preferred to be alone, unencumbered not only by husbands (there had been two by then) but even friends, who often seemed merely clutter and noise in my life. Yet as the Portland weather turned chilly I came to accept, then to want, and finally to need closer human contact. By the second week of autumn, I was even dreaming of marriage. That the man in question was in any case not available for that particular adventure did not affect the strength of my surprising desire. I knew it was time to head back south.

The lesson of that northwestern summer was an understanding of the role warmth plays in my life. Sunshine, warm air, give me what other people seek from friends, family, even lovers.

And so I see that my Nebraska architect, suddenly bereft of his family's human warmth, will feel his body and then his heart tugged south by the letters of his faithful correspondent.

As for me, I'll dig out my heavy sweater and socks, and hope they'll protect me from making any rash proposal to some random fellow Starbucks customer.