I should be reading the sixth essay in Bringing the Devil to His Knees. I still want to get through that book but the brain of school has me and I also wanted to finish up the Frank Waters memoir I’ve had on my desk for months. Interesting that the last two books I’ve read have been memoirs of writers I admire rather than fiction. I’ve been rereading my own fiction but can’t get vested in longer narratives lately.
And this summer I became so interested in the six armed cross at La Garita this summer in Colorado. I was so taken by the cross. So when I read about Four Corners and read about Taos and Waters’ life traveling around Colorado and New Mexico I had to finish the book. First it made me homesick for Colorado and then it gave me some ideas for another writing project—or rather an old project I’d like to return to. I thought about why I write fiction in the first place. Why anyone wants to create fictive places or imaginary worlds. I thought about how I could add a bit more of the surreal into the writing—more strange dimensions to the writing.
Here is what Waters’ has to say about the cross—and as he writes cross I can’t help but think of the cross on the map the borders make marking the Four Corners area—and the meaning of the cross to the Hopi people and their migration across the continent in their creation myth:
The cross is one of the oldest and most universal symbols known to man. The center point always has been profoundly significant. For if the four arms of the cross extending in opposite directions represent division and conflict, their point of intersection signifies reconciliation and unification. Regarded another way, the horizontal arms represent linear, secular time, the vertical arms represent durational, eternal time. At their intersection they merge into one unbroken timeless time. The center point, in effect, is the meeting point between the conscious and the unconscious.
Anyway, to the Hopi the place and the cross represents the search for spiritual unity—the outer and inner movement of all humanity. Like the Ute or the Hopi concept of space I have been reading from Frank Waters’ book Of Time and Change. A place is neither two nor three-dimensional but four. In the San Luis Valley—New Mexico and Four Corners place in the country—finite concepts of time and space seem inadequate. And of course this reminds me of fictive space…a continuum of time and space…
Anyway I’d like to return to this concept in a piece I wrote called House of Two Bears—a story that follows the Abuelito or where I follow the Abuelito through some of his crazy stories in fiction. I also like the idea in Hopi religion—the idea that if you have a great loss in one of the four worlds you can move on to the next and look for reconciliation. And only in fictive spaces can I follow the Abuelito through time and space. And like Frank Waters notes in his memoir–some people from the southwest just seem more in tune to those “otherworlds”. So maybe the Abuelito was in touch and so maybe I can in a small way get in touch with those otherworlds” via the fiction.
Spent a few nights revising course syllabi for the upcoming spring term so I wandered away from my goal to read through Bringing the Devil to His Knees. And I did want to finish before the term but the brain of school and work is here so I’ll press on, and perhaps this will inspire me to create some new material for the new writing group I’m joining next week.
Anyway, I want to quickly recap what I’ve read: the last two essays–Steven Schwartz’ “Finding a Voice in America and Chuck Wachtel’s “Behind the Mask: Narrative Voice in Fiction”—gave some great insight into the authority within fiction of the subjective voice. Tonight I’m looking at Joan Silber’s “Weight in Fiction” and struck with the idea of appreciating work that is “miniature” and yet not “slight”. Silber gives the example of Jane Austen and how her fictive spaces are placed in “a distinctly limited sphere”—narrow range of event I think is meant by this—and yet at the same time concerned with universal truths. And according to Silber’s analysis, Austen accomplishes this with “authorial ‘telling’”. This is something we came to in workshop last term—the idea that yes showing is better than telling but at times you need to control moments of telling to control limits and pace of story. And another tool Silber credits to Austen is the idea of consequence—characters making ineradicable decisions concerning their futures. Great stuff. I won’t make fun of D for watching all those Jane Austen adaptations she’s always pulling up on Netflix.
I like this idea of mundane worlds, actions and events—as in the everyday banality of life—and then to assign rank and meaning within those worlds, action and events. I think I wrote about this Stanley Kubrick documentary where he obsesses over the mundane details in his film–mundane dialogue and mundane moments that add up to or perhaps leap to overall meaning. Contrasts Silber resolves at the end of the essay. Contrasts that become so important for the writer’s intuition with form must tackle as stories are formed.
More on this as I think of it…
Took a few nights away from reading through Bringing the Devil to His Knees to reread Paul Alexander’s biography of Salinger. I received it as a holiday gift and wanted to reread because New Years Day is Salinger’s birthday and also because it helps me reconnect with Salinger and his material. The work means so much to me and also I admire Salinger’s progression as a fiction writer–much more than the rumors, his legal trials and personal troubles. And as I read I thought of planning a special topics course on Salinger since I have his uncollected stories from Will’s Salinger special topics course. I’d love to follow the uncollected stories again that show his growth and tries at marketable stories and then later stories that give depth of meaning and spirituality which all shows such a growth in his art. Perhaps one day soon but I do want to develop a Latino Lit course.
Tonight I focus on Chuck Wachtel’s essay called “Behind the Mask” and see so many similarities to Steven Schwartz’ essay. Maybe that is why I didn’t underline and annotate much. I was most engaged after rereading Wachtel’s opening and how his family speaking a mix of Italian and English along with the grunts and familiarity of language that comes from an old married couple and how all this helped to build his sense of voice. I couldn’t help but think of the Abuelitos and how they spoke a mix of Spanish and English. Language of intimacy is the classification I’m most focused on in Wachtel’s essay. Wachtel writes: “In fiction it is voice that transforms a series of sparse and diminutive symbols, combed into a narrative discourse, into a dynamic, ongoing reflection of experience…When we read, voice is the most immediate and authoritative presence.” He goes on to explain that this notion of voice precedes, or rather should precede, character and setting and image and ideas. He also goes on to state that this idea of voice and how it is the bare essential that famous writers such as Kafka, Gertrude Stein and Becket and exist as the persona of its speaker. The presence of the narrator but also the presence of the author/writer/artist. Then Wachtel asks how these personas or identities can affect a reader so deeply?
He then begins to throw out answers. First he writes voice is a literal and figurative expression. It is real and also a creation/metaphor. Voices then must be read and heard. Then he begins to discuss sources—quoting EL Doctorow and the idea that we must find voices from outside of fiction and also outside from ourselves to bring to fiction. Great stuff and I am thinking perhaps this might be a great place to begin in a creative writing class. I think this because so many of my students create stories but perhaps don’t see how their stories and ears for language can be dragged into their fiction. They do it in creative nonfiction but then move on to vampire and sci-fi stories and horror rather than bringing voices from Illinois into their stories as I try so hard to bring voiced from Colorado into my stories. Lived and observed life coming together within fiction is how Wachtel puts it. Great stuff.
Then he moves on to persona and the idea that the authority of the narrator’s voice is the first thing readers see and becomes so important. He says the voice/persona is “both an immediate and continuous source of meaning.” He uses Toni Cade Bambara’s narrator from “The Lesson” as an example. The world here in this story—and in her entire collection Gorilla, My Love I would argue creates the world, the fictive space and because the voice is unique and encompassing it creates unique authority.
More on this essay soon…