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.