Saturday, November 16, 2013

Free-fall

You have spent enough time writing in differing formats, learning on your own to understand them, teaching approaches to their composition, and yes, even to the point of editing the works of others to know which is your favorite form.

The novel is a lovely, growing, nuanced thing, filled with hidden pleasures, turns, delights, and unexpected scary parts.  Many of the characters you meet at the beginning are not the same persons at the end; they have grown, merged into other attitudes and visions.  Some of them will be ultimately alone, and there are parts of you who are sorry for that.  You want them to have arrived at something more than the ability to recognize and live with loneliness and a "get on with it" attitude in life.  For many of them, you see no such possibilities, but you do not see unhappiness.  For yet others, you see characters who have, once again, made wrong choices.  You are left hoping they can piece together systems and ways for getting life right, at last.

The novel is like the plastic ketchup bottles in a truck stop; you squeeze it and a piquant concoction spurts out, each time with its own sound, at once earthy and fragile.  You could with happiness spend the rest of your life reading and writing novels.

An essay is conversation, trapped on a page, the living embodiment of lightning in a bottle.  Essays are the kinds of conversation to be engaged over an elaborate dinner or a plain, simple one, an osso bucco or a mound of fajitas and a pile of tortillas, hechos de mano.  Essays are the friends you have had, have now, hope to encounter as life presents you with opportunities.  You would never have thought some of the things you think or felt the things you feel were it not for essays, leading you to seeing relationships between things you'd never seen before.  An essay is a posole or menudo, a Scotch broth, a bubbling stew, an accident of the kitchen, a collision of ideas.

The more you are at essays, the more you see the connection with the interior monologue of characters in dramatic writing.  Look how far you have come from someone telling you of free indirect discourse, explaining to you how that is the definition for the thoughts and feelings of a character as they are filtered through a third-person narrator.  This is a true enough definition.  You do not argue with it, only with the sense of distance such terms place about ways of intimacy you wish to convey.  Essay is at times the splendid effect of having a conversation with yourself.  Let's get this matter out on the table, then look at it to see where we agree and where we are at unbreachable differences.  Then, let's see if we can make some new understanding of that.

These things are vital to you; you have written dozens of each, learned from the abject failures, noted the way strengths emerge from places you least suspect and, happy to say, you cannot control, nor do you wish to.  An entire venture will have been worth while if one or two things come forth, the hidden, unsuspected small cob of corn in your posole.

The short story is yet another matter.  For the longest time in your entry to the writing life, you had reasons to believe it was the only thing you could write.  These reasons were not without some basis in fact.  There were and still are things you aspire to learn, to take in, to convert to muscle memory.  By the nature of its length, the short story cannot allow characters to undergo the changes they experience in novels or that lovely in-between form, the novella.

In the short story, a person sees a situation emerge in real time, triggering feelings of a potential complexity that is stunning.  The character knows she must or he must do something, cannot sit by and watch.  The short story carries us right up to the edge of implementing that decision.  Thus you often find, in your own stories and those of writers whose work you prize, an ending sense of free fall.  A character is in mid air, having just or about to commit to some action that will have consequences down the road.

Wednesday night, in your fiction class, a student read of his experiences with sky diving, which he managed to conflate with his love of two specific violin concertos, the Tchaikovsky, which you admire more for its being in the key of D minor, the sad key; and of the Mendelssohn, rendered in the key of E minor.  Of the two, you vastly prefer the Mendelssohn, but this was his free fall, and while the thought of diving from an airplane and falling two miles is almost enough to give you a heart attack, you appreciate the pairing.  You'd never thought before of experiencing music with that sense your student brought forth.

In your own mind, you immediately took possession, liking both the Tchaikovsky and the Mendelssohn, but wondering where the Beethoven, in D Major, opus 61 was.  You're going to go sky diving, you go with the Beethoven.  True enough, the Mendelssohn was splendid, close to the Beethoven, but maybe needing another half mile or so of free fall.

No, we are not off on a distraction.  We are still on the short story, which for you has the glorious possibilities of free fall in every key, which is to say every emotion.  Thus do you like Ring Lardner, Louise Erdrich, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Katherine Mansfield.  Thus do you regard Anton Chekhov as the literary equivalent of Beethoven; Chekhov not only gives you the free fall, he takes you up in the airplane, then pushes you out the open door.

This affection for the short story is prompted by the forthcoming collected stories of yours, taking its title from one of the ventures you feel appropriate, "Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay out Late at Night," the refrain from an old Billie Holliday blues, "Fine and Mellow."

Even though the stories you've chosen for the inclusion have been published in journals, they are now up for yet another editorial judgment, and thus your recognition that each of them represents to you some kind of free fall of your own that triggered their onset.  One of the stories, arguably your favorite yet, has gone through without a glitch, leaving you to pick up one or two things you'd like to touch up.  But some of the other editorial notes make you aware of how your see your ability and potential.

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