Thursday, March 27, 2008

Obits and Pieces

In an admiring and comprehensive obituary of actor Richard Widmark, dead at age 93, in today's New York Times, the author quoted a remark Widmark once made about the craft of acting. The older one gets, Widmark said, the less one knows about acting and the more one is able to recognize the truly great actors.

Indeed, one of the living greats, Paul Schofield, left us not two weeks back, and today's Times carries notices of yet another, Patrick Stewart, maintaining that his current rendition of Macbeth is an opportunity of a life time.

All this as prologue to my conflating Widmark's observation about actors to writers. There are times just before I enter a class room or workshop venue when I am struck by my audacity in presuming to present information to students about writing. Saving grace and salvation appear almost immediately with the reminder that I am not entering with notes written on stone tablets nor am I speaking entirely of my own beliefs but rather am using examples and visions of women and men whose works cry out for recognition because of their ability to transport, transpose, dignify, explain, and evoke.

You can tell the great ones by the stature with which their words appear on the page, neither overdone nor timid, rather confident of the vision they impart to the story they wish to share.

Some days back, I was slathering at the prospect of the new collection of stories by Tobias Wolff, which arrived yesterday and into which I fell with reckless tantivy. He has become, I argue, the American version of William Trevor, a storyteller so sure of himself that he is able to move us, no, more than move, to transport us to places we thought were beyond our frame of business. Such is Wolff's approach to storytelling, however, that he is able to make it our business by including us and them--his characters--in the rubric of shared humanity.

The new stories are featured in a section at the rear. Many of the earlier stories, taken from earlier collections, appear first, prefaced by a brief note from the author in which he confesses to having tweaked some of them in the service of making them more accessible. What a lovely word, accessible. I have a suspicion of writers who opt for the murkiness of obfuscation rather than the target of at least transparency on the way to pellucidity.

Sure enough, he tweaked the opening of one of my favorites, In the Garden of American Martyrs, which made me resolve to revisit that in its entirety. But for the moment, the lure of the new was strong and so I began with the first, something that seemed so bland on the surface as to give me pause, induce me back to the beginning again for a closer look. All I will say of it is that the strategy was worth the effort. I was made to think, yanked from one place where, in many ways, I'd been myself, to a new kind of awareness that is the kind of awareness not arrived at with ease, at least not by me. I was made, in a sense, to grow up. In actual chronology, I'm probably more grown up than Wolff, but remember, he is a gifted writer who has worked at his gifts and by no means squandered them.

Thinking back on it, I realize I became caught up on reading to be transported to times and places where things were happening that made what was happening in my young, routine-filled life seem bland. Now, what I read and write makes me anxious to return to those days, filled with the techniques of masterly men and women who taught me over the years to look for and find the miracles buried in the terrain of the ordinary.

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