Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Alaskan Connection

Every so often, in search of some specific document or record, you uncover a stash of handwritten notes and printed out pages of manuscript that at first seem to be lecture notes for a particular class interspersed with portions of manuscripts from that class.

At first.

Then it is born home on you that you greatly resist giving the same class twice. In fact you could argue with yourself that the dearer the subject is to you, the more likely the notes for the class will have been constructed in a way that sends you off on a different vector than the last time, much like a jazz musician who, even in practice or rehearsal, is not interested in following the same path twice.

And it hits again that the manuscript pages are rarely from students because those will all have been commented on and returned, leaving the hangers on to be from you, written at times gone from your memory, a part of a larger edifice--the place or state you inhabit when working on your own worlds and time frames.

Having just completed "White Sky, Black Ice" by your sudden new interest, Stan Jones, you are aware of one of the significant differences between his work and yours. His novels are set in Alaska, a landscape where weather is of greater consequence than where your work is largely set. To be sure, it rains here, the earth quakes, burns, dries up and there are portions of it where the heat scalds or crackles with inherent lightning. You are not edged by the nature of your stories to make weather so active a participant; there are times in fact when Jones' descriptions of weather make you want your heaviest jacket as well as your sunglasses. You are drawn to Jones' work because of the use he makes of the racial diversity in his landscape, his Native Alaskans easily outnumbering what you would call the Anglos, indeed using a Native as his protagonist.
Jones has caused you to entertain the romantic notion that you could spend some time in a place such as Anchorage, possibly even Nome, simply for the effects of living among a group of individuals who radiate a patina of individuality that is undershot by the humor of the disconnected. It is madness, of course, to think you could live there for any time, thanks to the cold and the relative lack of need for a writer of the sorts of things you write, a teacher for the sorts of things you teach, or an editor for the sorts of material you are retained to edit. It is equally appropriate and wonderful to enjoy so much a writer whose work causes you to suspend disbelief at the thought of a place there, upper.

As you pour through pages from your latest discovery, you notice that you rarely do write about climate conditions, largely because they are so close to 24/7 compatible that they remain shadowy, unimportant in the overall schemata. Your major concerns seem to be individuals whom you could easily define now as Alaskans brought south to the lower States and not particularly happy about it. Your characters seem to have in addition to the agendas they need to succeed on page a kind of cranky response to social conditions closing in on them that cause them to snap and bark at many stimuli without necessarily being querulous or even mean-spirited. It is more a matter of advancing arthritis, too many faculty meetings or their equivalents, too many dog catchers insisting they curb their dog or neuter their cat, too many neighborhood petitions, too many stores such as K-Mart, trying to dictate price, packaging, and shape. Some of them have gone through too many relationships, others not enough; in either case necessary discoveries about the human condition have been given low priority to such thing as individual discovery, making a place in the world, asking the right questions.

Each time you discover such a trove, you take some moments to reacquaint yourself with it before trying to gather it with earlier such finds, if not neat and tidy, at least less scattered about your living and working areas. Some of them have already found their way into print, which makes it seem as though you are not as devoted a creator as you might be, since you can scarcely remember the date or place of publication (and filing some of these in a large notebook produced even more shattering experiences at the discovery of more forgotten publications yet).

The thing is so wide-spread. At your bedside, the new John Banville novel and three new studies of Chaucer, who also reminds you of the Alaskan landscape in the diversity of social and ethical types that you find yourself thinking about that past time, too, yes; I could spend time there. You were thinking of a mischievous way to bring The Miller's Tale into 2010, aware of how well it stands on its own as a story but also how perfect it is in companionship with The Knight's Tale, a perfect follow-up.

You see no way out of it; you will have to live a longtime to get at all this, risking the cranky prospects of arthritis, ill-timed stiffness, suspicions, and the most common trope of all, "I may have told you this before..."

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