Saturday, September 21, 2013

Haunted

Every time you attend a writers' conference as a participant, you cannot help seeing yourself as a younger you, in various stages of the person you are now, writing about this phenomenon.

Although you've not attended many conferences as a student seeker, you nevertheless attended lectures, book signings, panel discussions, and readings, seeking some clue from those men and women who had crossed over the line from non-published writer to the established, published, opinionated individual who was able not only to accomplish what you wished to to but who did so with some regularity.  At one time, it was apparent to you that some such individuals were actually invited to submit materials which had been guaranteed publication.

You saw your attitude describe an arc of awareness and change, moving from wondering when your own work would merit such attention to the point of doubting it ever would, to the accelerated point of envy of those who had achieved such status even though it was clear to you they were less admirable as persons than you were.  How fortunate for you that this stage, perhaps your most dismal and meanspirited, did not last for long.  

With some measure of self-awareness and discomfort, you moved on to life at the low end of the economic scale, much of your non-writing time spent in used book stores, debating which collection of stories to buy or wondering if this were the time to move on to some non-fiction part of your education-through-personal-reading.

Major targets of interest for you were the one book or meeting with one person that would remove the stopper from the bottle that had the genie of story telling trapped inside it as, indeed, you felt it to be trapped inside you.

These were days when you were so argumentative in nature that you argued with your books, making contentious remarks in the margins, questioning the author at every turn, sometimes with crude accusations of slovenly writing or, worse, slovenly thinking.

A wise and understanding writer, who later took you on as a student, suggested that there was no such book until you wrote it.  Even then, although the book might be entertaining and probing, it might not be effective in the way you'd hoped for anyone except you.

With this advice and your gradual but determined acceptance of it, you turned a needed corner of understanding.  The miracles in other writers' books were general miracles for their readers, specific only for them.

Soon, your number two pencil comments in your books were signal points showing you how the author achieved the desired effect, or a sign urging you to study this passage closer to determine why this effect worked.

Earlier this morning, in the midst of a seventy-five minute presentation on the modern short story, one of your forgotten deconstruction studies came rushing back to you across an enormous gap of time.  The memory was coincidental because it also had to do with time, how an author you watched carefully was able to achieve a condensation and balance of time.  You began warming to the memory of the short story "The Swimmer" by John Cheever.  Soon, you were the genie out of the bottle, departing from your notes to the swimming pools of the affluent in Cheever World, that WASP landscape between New York and Connecticut, where work meant commuting to Manhattan, traditions, conventions, and behavior were as remote from you as culturally and politically possible.

"It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying 'I drank too much last night.'  You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiararium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover,  'I drank too much,' said Donald Westerhazy.  'We all drank too much,' said Lucinda Merrill.  'It must have been the wine,' said Helen Westerhaxy  'I drank too much of that claret.'

"This was at the edge of the Westerhazys' pool.  The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green."

Only a few brief sentences away from introducing the main character, Neddy Merrill, but already, Cheever is playing with time, condensing it, slipping in an implausible goal, giving the goal anchor and encouragement in ways you could not explain much less understand when you first read it.  You knew however that you must strive to understand how John Cheever caught, in effect, the glint of hangover Sunday afternoon on the Westerhazys' pool and a subsequent number of others.

A friend in the audience remarked how, with the exception of two young girls who were texting, there was no sound in the lecture hall except the scribble of notes and the click of iPad keys, capturing notes.

"Most stories begin with an unstated understanding that the beginning action takes place against some background of distraction,"  you said.

You agree with that, but you don't recall saying it.  You were in the place you find when capturing the hangover glint of a swimming pool on Sunday in a short story.  Your own California short story in which your principal character believes he is watching a man who has been dead for some years, swimming the backstroke in the center lane of the Montecito Y.

How long does it take to chase down the entryway to a process, then find a way to enter it?

How long does it take to be able to do what you wish to do without understanding how you do it until after you have done it.

With one or two exceptions, say Hamlet's father, you do not believe in ghosts, and yet you are quite open to the fact that you are sometimes haunted.  Something unseen explains itself to you, leaves you explanations to questions you have asked in some ghostly past.

Understanding of story is like that and understanding of the universe is like that, and to fulfill your part in the bargain, you are haunted with the warmth of information.

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