aesthetics

Punctuation & my pig tale

July 6, 2017 | 12 Comments

The long & short of sentences

June 28, 2017 | 8 Comments

Richard Ford’s new memoir, Between Them, a short book made of two long essays, is a vocal performance. And he’s in good voice. Forget scenes: he’s telling. In contrast, Brian Doyle, a prolific writer of novels and narrative nonfiction who died in May, was a master of the short, tight essay made of long, loose sentences. “His Last Game,” an essay of only 1,184 words,is about an outing with his older brother, who was dying of cancer, in 2012. It feels almost wrong to analyze some of his essays rhetorically, since they’re about what’s sacred. But such study leads to imitation, and that’s what makes writers, even before they know they’re doing that lowly, necessary act, so that, when the greatest joy blesses them or the hardest fate befalls them, they can sing truthfully in their own voices.

Ford seems ambivalent about the semicolon, using only a few in his new memoir, but plenty of dashes, short sentences, and sentence fragments. His style is undergirded by and reflects his forthrightly imaginative approach to his parents. Like they’re two of his fictional characters he’s made up. So he writes confidently, almost over-confidently. As in that great, cheeky (borderline smarmy) “only inexactly” line about his mother’s happiness. But we see in his judgments and generalizations the same confidence (and speculation and limits) we possess in musing upon our own ordinary yet mysterious parents.

He’s skating beautifully for us, in the southern Scots-Irish rhetorical tradition, on thin ice. Take his parents’ early days together. Sprung from loose-limbed, garrulous, backwoods clans—with stomping grounds and boon companions, and surely also with fresh collards and raw elbows—they drank companionably, and sometimes to excess, and in those sepia honeymoon years they “roistered.” His father settled into a bland career as a traveling starch salesman, and his mother accompanied his excursions across the South, until Richard came along.

You keep opening Between Them for their boy’s vocal performance. You can feel Ford’s implicit wink at us as he conjures his parents. His manifest love is how he escapes sentimentality in asking us to share simple affection for them. These ordinary forgettable people from Arkansas, who landed in Jackson, Mississippi, left no trace aside from their gifted only child.

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Feminism & our human destiny

June 7, 2017 | 13 Comments

Giving a friend a tour of Otterbein University recently, my wife and I guided her into its Science Center, mostly so I could re-visit its plexiglass aviary of parakeets just off the lobby. A subject of study by faculty and students, the birds, of the sort sold in countless pet shops, are native to Australia and are properly called budgerigars. Otterbein’s dozen budgies flit about in an array of colors and patterns: traditional greens, spritely blues, luminescent yellows.

“These birds all look different,” I said to our guest. “But all of them have something in common. Can you see it?”

A mathematician, she accepted this empirical challenge and circled the aviary. The birds took scant notice, accustomed to visitors. After she gave up, I said, “They’re all males.” The only giveaway is that, in the traditional patterns, males have a vivid blue cere, a patch of flesh, above their beaks.

Thus the chance to explain that Otterbein academics have duplicated a fraternity house—because a female-only budgie flock would fight. (And surely all hell would break loose if the academics had mixed males and females.)

“But why do they make that noise?” she asked me. “What are they saying?”

We listened to the birds’ chortling—an endless, repetitious but pleasing boy chorus. Why indeed? A traditional survival-of-the-fittest answer: they’re claiming territory. A prelude to war. But surely the best answer—and equally Charles Darwin’s—is: because female parakeets like the sound. Furthermore, they’re favoring males who are sociable enough to flock together to produce such background sound for them to enjoy.

The latter answer isn’t my Romantic notion but arrives courtesy of a remarkable new book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us.

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A creator’s credo

May 10, 2017 | 10 Comments

One day late in the semester just ended, I ran into Shelby Page, a former student. I was leaving Otterbein University’s Art and Communication Building, and Shelby was going in. When she was a freshman, I had taught her and 13 other whip-smart honors classmates in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” I hadn’t seen her since our class. She told me of her upcoming senior exhibit, which I’ve now attended. I was impressed by Shelby’s work and by her brief Artist’s Statement on the wall. Her thoughts on artmaking addressed her work as a visual artist, but they apply to writing and probably to making anything:

“Artwork tends to take on its own life as it is worked on and the basic composition is set up. With each piece, it is a compromise between the life of the piece that has been created and what has been intended for the piece.”

There’s hard truth in Shelby’s insights here, and there’s hope. The truth is that what you envision in a flash hasn’t really been planned, though it may feel that way, and it sure isn’t done. What you sensed was glorious completion was pure possibility. Nothing more, nothing less. A glimmer. The first step is to act on it or to let it go. Let’s say you begin, fired with intention. As Shelby says, your intention quickly meets the reality of what’s emerging.

Art is a field of geniuses, but I presume that, like me, everyone gets humbled. In writing, no one is smart enough to foresee where actual words and sentences will send your notion. And of course the writer is struggling with what s/he’s capable of—at that moment, with that material—and so on into the future. But because art flares during creation, as Shelby says, also lends hope. Especially when, however cheerfully you began, you proceed in fear and trembling. What happened to my plan?

I’ve become a fan of prompts and borrowed structures for this reason—they thwart intention. By raising or lowering the stakes, they bleed off preexisting intention and some anxiety. When I write something with a fully realized intention, it risks being superficial, boring. Without friction, it isn’t deep enough: there hasn’t been enough discovery. I sense this sometimes in others’ work as well. For me, intention, in the sense of chasing a germinal idea or feeling, is vital—but not in the sense of hewing to a predetermined plan, of transcribing what you already “know.”

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A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 25 Comments

Natalie Portman’s inspired performance and its complex layering of time frames distinguish the film Jackie.

Portman nails Jackie’s breathy finishing-school voice—you imagine it began as an instructed affectation, as an adaption to a wealthier milieu, or as an ambitious adoption that became her. She also conveys Jackie’s sincerity, her flashes of insecurity, her fidelity to duty, and ultimately her pain. After the horror in Dallas, she plans Jack’s funeral, even as she medicates herself with alcohol, comforts her two young children, and oversees the packing of her family’s possessions for their abrupt exodus from the White House.

The movie opens after all that, scant days after the funeral, with Jackie being interviewed. She wants to further her husband’s legacy by cementing his image as a noble leader, as an aristocrat who loved the people, as a demigod. This foreground frame (or recurring braid, if you choose) grounds the narrative. Otherwise a succession of flashbacks, not always linear, the segments reflect Jackie’s PTSD and the nation’s disorientation.

Like many a boomer, I carry memories of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy fell in Dallas and Jackie scrambled briefly onto the car’s trunk: to retrieve a piece of his skull, the movie affirms, not to flee, as it appeared to many at the time. Then, as we watched: Oswald’s killing and JFK’s funeral and John-John’s brave salute. But I’d never contemplated Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief, much less her PTSD.

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Survivor. Sufferer. Witness.

August 17, 2016 | 15 Comments

People yearn simply to be good. But that’s a hard wish because most people are good but they sure aren’t simple. Take the late Harry Crews (1935–2012), a prolific novelist and nonfiction writer who became infamous for his drinking, brawling, infidelity, and outrageous public behavior. When at last long-successful and revered, Crews consciously strove to alienate others. He wore grungy clothes, drove junker cars, sported a Mohawk hairstyle, and tattooed on his arm alarming words from a poem by E.E. Cummings:

“How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death?”

What kind of man believes himself to be a freak, declares writers freaks, writes solely about freaks and misfits—including, in his journalism, Hollywood celebrities, prostitutes, and dog fighters—and makes being a freakish outsider the core of his personal and aesthetic ethos?

Ted Geltner answers this conundrum in his absorbing Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews. I hadn’t read a literary biography in a long time, and read this one because I’m writing a review of Crews’s classic memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place for River Teeth; A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative in the fall.

My interest also was kindled because I recently wrote a 15-page essay about my time at University of Florida when Harry Crews was there as the famous writing teacher. I’d had a near miss with a bad man when I was 19, working on a farm in Melbourne, and my essay is about that and my writing apprenticeship at UF and how the two connect.

Oh, the appeal and fear Harry Crews held for me. My father having sold our Georgia farm when I was a boy, I’d grown up in a Florida beach town and felt Crews, a true Georgia grit, would smell it on me.

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The joy of style

June 29, 2016 | 5 Comments

If free indirect style (close third-person narration) epitomizes the novel’s history, according to James Wood in How Fiction Works, so does what he calls “the rise of detail.” Details allow us to “enter a character” but refuse to explain him, giving readers the pleasure of mystery and of co-creation. Wood credits French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) with uniting details, stylishness, and close third-person narration to launch the realist novel that has persisted. The modern novel “all begins with him,” says Wood.

Style begins with what the writer notices—or notices on behalf of her characters—and uses for calculated effect. And yet, in its particulars and overall effect, narrative art retains mystery. A pleasure of How Fiction Works for me was Wood’s joyous riff on one of Virginia Woolf’s lines from The Waves:

“The day waves yellow with all its crops.”

“I am consumed by this sentence,” Wood admits, “partly because I cannot explain why it moves me so much.” While Woolf’s diction and syntax are simple here, her brilliance resides in having the day wave instead of the crops, he says, and “the effect is suddenly that the day itself, the very fabric and temporality of the day, seems saturated in yellow.” But how can a day wave yellow? That’s the thing, Wood notes: yellowness has taken over even our verbs, has “conquered our agency.”

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