Thursday, July 12, 2012

Voices


The day is a rare one when your attention is not drawn to a book in the second shelf from the bottom of the white bookcase in the kitchen.  The book is a hardcover, without a dust jacket.  The dust jacket the book once had was, of course, green.

The book is one few persons have heard of.  The author’s name, when you mention it, always causes a long moment of embarrassed silence.  No one has ever heard of her.  She hadn’t done too poorly for an author no one remembers.  The one book of hers made into a film had Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn as its principals.

You first saw the manuscript of the book when she gave you to read the several bound journals in which she’d handwritten the early drafts in ink. “And when I told them of the green kingdom, they asked me where it was—in what state, or by what river, and I answered them: the green kingdom lives in all men’s hearts for it is less a place than a condition.”

Now the book no one remembers is The Green Kingdom.

You’d known writers before; some of them were quite generous with you, but she was the first to take you in, to ask you to show her things you’d written, to talk to you about them while Dick, her six-toed cat, climbed about her, butting, purring, wanting his shag of a coat to be ruffled.

Often her husband, King, worked furiously on excavating a large backyard pit which he subsequently lined with concrete then encased in a fanciful border of bricks, christening it with great excitement as a fire pit which would burn celebratory fires, for what was a celebration without a fire?

She has been gone since 1983, had moved from California to Tennessee some years before, at which point you spoke by phone, long, rambling conversations where the web of mentor to student extended, and remain with you to this day.  Her name is Rachel Maddux.  You once thought to try Internet search engines out of curiosity to see what had been written about her, discovering there is another Rachel Maddux, also a writer, living in Georgia, her own energy and writing pushing “your” Rachel Maddux to the shadows.

Well enough, you hear your Rachel when the composition is going well, and sometimes when it isn’t and you hear her, the composition gets back on track.

Because of your growing sense of a book project related to noir fiction, you’ve begun rereading the work of another mentor, Dorothy B. Hughes.  Of particular interest so far has been her novel from 1947, In a Lonely Place.  Two birds with one stone.  You’ve written a review as your golden oldie cycle, thinking to get some thoughts and notes for a proposal your agent has become interested in.

The tentative title is Noir Fiction: The Dark Side of Dramatic Narrative.  Dorothy B. Hughes was a constant presence of low-key seriousness, buffered by a sense that any business as demanding as the kind of writing she sought to produce required a sense of humor and a wealth of empathy. You sensed her politics were more or less of a piece with your own, but you mistakenly thought she strove to keep them out of her work.  No such thing.

Yet another mentor, Virginia Gilmore, was an actor, stage trained, a scrupulous and devoted student of technique.  It was she who pushed you to see the strong craft bond between actor and writer.

Voices.

You hear them with a delightful frequency.  Other writers you have not met and yet others you have met are in their ways influences, voices for you to sift from the conversations when you are planning or auditioning concepts and scenes.

The voices of the ladies are the most persistent, perhaps because they were all, each in her way, so articulate, but also because they were so serious as they approached their own craft.

When you dip into your own container of craft, as though looking for a pair of matching sox in a drawer, and come forth with nothing, there is only one thing to do in order to get to the necessary place to compose.

Shut up and listen.

Listen to the voices of your teachers.

Is it a coincidence that you, who never thought to teach, have been at it for over thirty-five years?

Shut up and listen.


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