Archive for July, 2009

Pronouns

July 25, 2009

Heh, heh! That’s probably the worst title for a post in this blog’s history. Is anyone still reading? Well, I’ll just pretend this is going well and forge ahead. Anyway, we’ve been so heavily into reminiscence lately that I thought I’d better talk about something a little more contemporary. And since I don’t do politics. . . .

In our generation, during these last 20 years or so, we’ve witnessed the arrival and installation of a very ugly solution to an old problem with pronouns. You know what I’m going to say, right? I’m talking about this use of “they” and “their” and “them” as singular 3rd-person pronouns when the gender of the subject isn’t known or made explicit.

I agree that our centuries-long use of “he” and “his” and “him” in this situation was not satisfactory. It went smoothly only because we were used to it. In the modern age, we strive to ferret out terms and usages that discriminate against or unfairly exclude people, and in general such striving is good. So, yes, sentences such as “A writer should always be thankful for anyone who reads his book” ridiculously ignore an entire gender of writers, and we needed a better option.

In Japanese, this is a non-issue. There are terms for “he” and “she” in the language, but they’re used much more rarely than in English, even when you know the gender of the subject. Pronouns just aren’t necessary most of the time in Japanese. Sentences very frequently don’t even have a specified subject — you figure it out from context. (For example, if we say “Is talking about politics” or “Sure read that book fast, huh?” I know we’re talking about you, not me.) [It's been famously said many times that English is a language designed to make ideas clear, and Japanese is designed to make them vague. To speak Japanese is to engage in a cover-up. Nothing obscures the facts more efficiently than a good Japanese sentence. This isn't my idea! Japanese friends agree. I once heard a Japanese friend yell "Stop!" (in English) at a Japanese taxi driver when he needed to get his meaning across quickly.]

But back to English, where gender is an issue. . . .

My own ways of dealing with the pronoun problem are: 1.) to structure the sentence, if possible, so as not to need the non-specific pronoun. For instance, instead of saying “Even a resident of a small town should lock his car,” I’ll say, “Even residents of small towns should lock their cars.” Or, if this can’t be done, then 2.) to use “his or her,” “her or his,” “he or she,” “she or he” — or the convenient “s/he.” I acknowledge that this kind of structuring is long and unwieldy, like having to carry your umbrella around all day even between rain showers, but it’s the least among many evils. It’s a burden I’m prepared to bear.

There’s been a big push in certain circles to alternate the use of “he” and “she.” Or, a variation of this concept is advocating the use of “he” by male writers and “she” by female writers. In my opinion, this is by far the worst solution to the problem. This is just plain jarring. I suppose the thinking is that if our society uses this technique long enough, we’ll get used to it, and one day it will be no more jarring than “he” was for so many years.

There may be some validity to the idea of “getting-used-to” — I did make the conscious decision to change from “grey” to “gray,” since I am an American writer, and American editors kept changing my greys to grays. I don’t feel that “gray” is as gray as “grey” is. “Gray” is “grey” with a lot of milk added. But I got used to the change very quickly. Likewise when I discovered about ten years ago that people were no longer typing two spaces after a period, as I’d been taught in high school and had been teaching my students.

My discovery of this was quite a dramatic one. I was actually in class, telling my writing students all about how they should put one space between words and two spaces between sentences (that is, after periods) — the students were all happy and fascinated and nodding and taking notes, because this is stuff they aren’t taught about English in high school — they don’t learn formatting and punctuation much at all, so it’s brand new territory, and they love it. So there I was, wrapping up this great, enlightening lesson, and I finished with the comforting assurance that, if they ever had trouble remembering all the details or {Heaven forbid!} lost my helpful set of notes and guidelines, all they had to do was pick up any book printed in English, see how the formatting was done inside it, and imitate what they saw. To demonstrate the “two spaces after a period” rule, I picked up our textbook . . . which was fairly new . . . and did a double-take. Um . . . well, I thought, I’d try another book, so I picked up something else. Um . . . heh, heh. . . . Everything I could find was showing only one space between sentences! I don’t think the students figured out what was troubling me that day, and mercifully, the class ended.

So I got busy doing some research. I checked the then-current edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and the point in question didn’t even merit a mention. There was no rule about the matter that I could find, which really struck me as odd, since it was such a major deal in Mrs. Bowman’s Personal Typing class. (The Chicago Manual itself, incidentally, was printed with only one space between the sentences.) So then I started e-mailing friends. What I found was that people even five years younger than me had learned to type the two spaces, but everyone younger than that had learned to type only one. There seemed to be this mysterious cut-off point . . . a Paradigm Shift that came along approximately five years after I graduated from high school.

Had a comet passed close to the Earth? Had a hostile country employed some sort of energy beam that was changing the fundamental concepts of our culture? Was it something in the water? Had some previously enigmatic prophecy of Nostradamus been interpreted at last, and did it say “one space between sentences”?! And why hadn’t I gotten the memo?!

It was not long after that, when I visited the offices of Cricket, that one of the editors finally explained to me what was going on. It had to do with the change from typewriters to personal computers, the shift from the fixed, old-style typesetting to the automatic systems of character differentiation. On our old typewriters, the letter “i,” for instance (a very narrow letter) was afforded the same amount of space as the letter “m” (a wide letter). Imagine a “box” of the same size around every individual letter, be the letter large or small. Under such an arrangement, the gaps between sentences needed to be wider for the sake of clarity, so that the eye could perceive where a sentence ended. Now our technology accommodates different letter sizes — “to each according to her/his need.” It gives a smaller plot of ground to the “i,” and it gives a big chunk of real estate to “m,” and all the letters are happy, and the yards between sentences are very narrow.

So I changed my class handouts, and now I teach my students the New Arts, and they take notes and nod eagerly, because they still don’t learn formatting in high school.

So, yes, an old dog can learn new tricks. But it’s not only “getting-used-to” that’s the problem with that alternating “he” and “she.” What it leads to is subtle, perhaps even subconscious mind games. I give you my word that this is not my imagination. . . .

Where I used to see that technique of pronoun alternation a lot was in the writing magazines. (I don’t know if they’re still doing it; I haven’t read an issue in several years.) I think it’s fair to say that well more than half of the magazine industry nowadays is controlled by women. (Does anyone want to dispute that? Fire away if you do — I’m just going on what I observe.) Women are the editors, women are writing the articles. And what I promise you I was noticing was a subtle enacting of “revenge” against males for all those years of “he.” (I’m not saying all the articles did this, but enough did that I noticed the tendency.)

What I mean is this: when a female writer needed an unspecified-gender pronoun that she wanted to cast in a good, positive light, it came out “she.” When she needed a buffoon, it was a “he.” So there were sentences like this: “When a hard-working editor sits down at her desk and digs into her slush pile, she is not at all pleased to see a manuscript written by some writer who hasn’t checked his facts or his spelling.” Has the writer given equal time to “he” and “she”? Oh, yes, absolutely. Has she solved the long-standing problem of gender discrimination? Not at all.

There were some efforts toward coming up with an altogether new word, some singular pronoun that would refer to either a female or a male. I thought “oe” would be a nice possibility, since it doesn’t look like any other existing English word. This solution would be wonderful and complete if we could pull it off. But it hasn’t happened, because introducing a new word into a language generally only works when it describes a new concept or action, such as the Internet or Googling something. For an old concept such as “he or she,” our culture is much more ready to appropriate – even misuse – an existing word.

So we’ve got “they.” “Them.” “Their.” Like it or not, I think the dust has pretty much settled. The change is made. My friend Nick, a college professor, reports that students are almost universally using these plural forms in their papers to refer to singular subjects of unspecified gender. My own students now have electronic dictionaries that provide example sentences using these plurals in this way. I no longer correct these usages on their papers, but I continue to use “s/he” in my own writing. And I ain’t about to stop.  And I’m going to keep putting my apostrophe in “Hallowe’en.”

Fortunately, for me as a fiction writer, it’s not all that big a problem. Where one most often needs to use that structure is in writing non-fiction, so it’s a much bigger issue for friends like Nick.

Tim-in-Germany, I remember discussing this with you back in high school, and you argued then that this use of “they” isn’t a plural being used as a singular: it’s a separate word, a singular that just happens to have the same form as the plural. Well, that’s as good an explanation as any.

So there you have it: “they” and “they” were twins, separated at birth, and one “they” went missing and was presumed dead. Now, at the turn of the tide, that long-lost “they” has come back with a terrible pallor and a dark fire in their eyes, and they is riding on an apocalyptic horse.

From the Places Where They Played

July 18, 2009

Today was one of those days when I just never quite got to writing. I had the Neo and the notes out, and I worked through some scenes in my mind; but I just didn’t write. I’ll chalk my foot-dragging up to one third laziness, one third caution [treading very carefully this close to the end of the story, not wanting to rush], and one third reluctance to finish — writing this book has been so pleasant that I’m sad to reach the end . . . but not really, and not for long — it’s good to get things finished. I’m estimating there are about three major scenes to go before the end. (Which probably means there will be five or six. Or ten?)

Concerning writing days, I’m a notoriously slow starter. I’ll do any number of things before I get around to writing: oversleep, dust some obscure shelf somewhere in my apartment, ride my bike to the store (the day never really begins for me until I’ve been outside), file some piece of paper that’s been waiting in some pending pile for too long, stare out the window, check e-mail, read some long-forgotten files in “my documents,” notice a book on my shelf that I really want to read soon, review my story notes, chew my fingernails, eat lunch, make coffee, take a long walk, open the refrigerator for no reason, lie down on the floor for awhile. . . . But once all the grains of sand build up to the point at which everything overbalances and the poles reverse [What kind of metaphor was that?! I don't think that was legal, even with an artistic license.] — once that happens, then I’m scary. It’s like in the movie Troy, when Achilles gives Odysseus a good-sporting jibe for taking his sweet time in getting to Troy, and Odysseus says something like, “I don’t care whether or not I’m there for the beginning of the battle, as long as I’m there for the end!”

Be There For the End — See It Through — Go the Distance — those should be our goals as writers (or in doing whatever we do). Remember why the “Dead Poets Society” is called the “Dead Poets Society”? — It’s because the members are committed to living out their lives as poets. Poetry is a path that you must live to the end, and not turn aside. You’re finally really a poet-all-the-way when you’re a dead poet, when you’ve lived deeply and drunk life to the lees.

Anyway — I have to quote here from a comment that came into this blog last week, because it’s so well said that I wrote it out on a little piece of paper to keep in my “great quotes about writing” notebook. It’s from Catherine, who I’m quite sure will be writing professionally in the near future.

Last week, Catherine wrote:

“The settings and the music, especially, remind me of some idealized time in the past, when everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t; a time that I can only return to if I have a character whose life envelops me so completely that I can’t look out the window without seeing her through the trees.”

That describes so well the writing process when it’s working (for the kinds of stories, of course, that so many of us love)! If you get a character who’s absolutely real to you, and if you immerse your imagination in a setting that evokes that yearning for a remembered time that maybe you never actually lived through (because it’s been improved by your memory and the passage of years), then I think you’re well on your way to creating something extraordinary. Catherine, I’m in awe of how well you’ve summed this up! We’ve talked before about that C.S. Lewis concept of the longing we sometimes feel that does not have its fulfillment in anything we live through from the cradle to the grave — yet still we feel that yearning: and logically, when there is a yearning, there is the corresponding satisfaction of the yearning [there is food for our hunger, there is sleep for our tiredness, there is companionship for our loneliness, etc.] — and therefore, the longing that has no fulfillment in this life is a powerful indication of the existence of Heaven — of more to the picture than we presently see.

Hope Mirrlees explored that idea (indirectly) in Lud-in-the-Mist, and I think a lot of the other great stories do it, too.

A time in the past, when “everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t” — such is also true of the present, of the mundane — right now in our lives, everything is wonderful except for what isn’t. (When we’re older, these will be the times we look back to with our wistfulness and see all the magic that is here!) Yet a great deal of what is really true and what is beautiful seems to come into focus only when we’re well past it on our careening ride into the future. So, I think, so many of us writers look to our childhoods for the clarity and the perspective that makes a worthwhile story. Not that we always write directly about the things we did and thought then; but that we revisit something of what we felt and perceived in those distant days and shine a light on it through the filter of our experiences since then.

Here’s from Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees:

“In [man's] mouth is ever the bittersweet taste of life and death, unknown to the trees. Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell.”

Memory and hope, the two wild horses that drag and thrash man like a pair of Untowards — these, writers, are two of our most important tools. Bring them to bear!

When I was born, the road I lived on didn’t have a name — it just had a

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

 rural route number. Little by little, the city limits of Taylorville drew closer, and eventually the talk was flying fast and furious of naming the road. The default, front-running name was “Glen Haven Drive” — not because of any careful thought on anyone’s part, but because there is a Glen Haven Cemetery at the first bend in the road. My two childhood neighbor-friends and I intensely disliked that idea, because for one thing, who wants to live on a street named after a graveyard? For another thing, we didn’t like the sound of “Glen Haven” – it seemed ill-suited to a country road in central Illinois. So we thought about it for awhile and came up with “Old Oak Road,” because the road does have an abundance of old oak trees, particularly along its inhabited stretch, before it gives way mostly to fields farther north.

Following some advice from our parents about how to go about getting support for our idea, we boys took a petition up and down the road for the various homeowners to sign if they liked our name. (I don’t remember how old we were; I want to say I was about 9 or 10, which I think is pretty close.) Our dogs also came with us, as they did pretty much wherever we went on our bicycles or on foot; and when they encountered the homeowners’ dogs, they all went through the standard dog protocol of barking furiously at one another.

So our signature-gathering typically went like this:

“Hi! We’re BARK BARK BARK BARK to get BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK if you BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK.”

Sometimes the homeowners had questions, such as:

“What BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK?”

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Most often, they just signed the petition so we’d take our dogs and go. Then came a city council meeting at which the issue was debated (without dogs); and by, as I recall, a fairly narrow margin, we were awarded our tree-loving, heritage-rich name, and there were three happy little boys who got to live on a road that they’d named. I wish I had here in Japan the picture my mom took of us three kids with the road sign, but you’ll have to settle for the one I’ve got.

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

 

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Anyway, that story is the background for telling you about a long poem my mom wrote shortly thereafter. Her poem was titled “Old Oak Road,” and it began with the creation of the world . . . yes, those six days when everything came ex nihilo by the spoken word of God. She traced the history of that region through the time of the undisturbed trees and the animals . . . to the long ages of the moccasined feet . . . to the coming of the white man . . . to the days when Abraham Lincoln rode along the dirt path there and saw the oak trees . . . to the era of the burgeoning community of Taylorville . . . and so at last to the time of the three boys with their bikes and dogs, who gave the road its name.

Yes, my two friends and I were the culmination of history! We all used to laugh together (Mom, too) about the grandiosity of the poem. It’s never been published except in a volume of my parents’ writings that I printed and bound as a surprise for them a long time later. But Mom did capture a certain intangible something there . . . some echoes of the fulfillment behind the yearning.

One quote from the poem that I’ve often used is this:

“Something whispered in their ears — something spoke from out of time . . . / From the places where they played. . . .”

Mom understood that the “places where we play” in our earliest years become for us a sacred well-spring, from which we draw water for various purposes all our lives. In most of what I do even now, the road and the oaks are whispering still.

And finally, one of the main places we played as kids was the barn behind my house. It’s described best in that same story, “Glory Day,” that I quoted from in the previous post. I promise not to do this every week, but let’s go there one last time. Again, there’s nothing fictional about this except the name “John.”

The barn had always called and whispered to John. If the fields and woods were sacred, then the barn was the chapel at the center of it all. It was entirely wooden, built eighty or ninety years ago. Though it no longer housed horses (Dad had sold Banner to a friend shortly after John was born), it was full of the memory of horses: ancient gray carpets of well-trampled manure and straw on the stall floors, the teeth-marks where horses had gnawed at the boards, and in one trough where mama cats sometimes had their kittens, there remained part of a salt-block for horses to lick — it shone in the dimness like a chunk of snow that never melted.

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

A central concrete walkway separated the lower floor into two rows of stalls. Those on the north were dark rooms with doors that closed, and where toadstools sprouted in the cool half-light. Virginia creeper thickly blanketed the entire north face of the barn outside, from the ground to the high hay-door. The vines’ roots sealed shut various hatches and trapdoors, and framed the windows that were open, so that what light entered was a green glow among fringes of bobbing leaves.

 

The south stalls were more open and airy, their walls mere rail fences that only rose chest-high. More of the outer wall on that side was missing, so that the sun had free access to bake the floor in shifting patches. Insects droned in and out; up under the rafters, mud daubers built nests resembling panpipes. Riots of foxtail and burdock, timothy and poison rhubarb spilled in through gaps near the foundation like crowds of clamoring fans desperate for glimpses of the inner world.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

The wide main door on the west always stood open and could no longer be closed, its rollers rusted, its planks in the grip of maples that had grown up along the walls and become, with their counterparts on the north and east, a natural, supplemental framework, steadying the aged structure against the winds. At the barn’s east end, a ladder climbed to the hayloft.

 

The hayloft occupied the whole upper story, the roof arching high above its hay-littered floor like the keel of an overturned ship. Wooden beams transected the space in struts and arches. Birds nested in the eaves. The loft still saw active duty — the tenant farmer from up the road stored his hay bales there in stacked banks that rose to the upper braces. He would remove them a few at a time as needed, so that their cliffs changed as the seasons unfolded. But John and his friends considered the bales to be their own private set of giant building blocks. They could be positioned into tunnels and fortresses — hot, itchy, pitch-black crawlspaces delightfully scented of alfalfa and timothy. Bound at times into these hay-block walls were long, papery snake skins.

The loft was the perfect place for the long, aimless conversations of boyhood — the plans, the fancies, the arguments, the make-believe. And when no friends were available, it was the place to read. John sat in the open hatchway on the west, his feet dangling above the ground far below, and read Lovecraft and Dunsany and The Martian Chronicles.

And so the barn was. It was the best. Suggestion for comments: how about describing that place you played as a child, when summers went on forever, and you could read all day with impunity?

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

Reels in the Dark

July 11, 2009

First, news from the writing front couldn’t be better! The Sacred Woods is entering the home stretch. I’ve been smashing personal records right and left for words written in a day. First there was the 3,315-word output on July 4th (fitting, huh?) — then came a few days of “real” work (the kind where you have to make a living); then 3,827 words on Thursday, 3,121 yesterday, and 2,795 today. The book is now at 57,242. [It's easier to write faster near the end of a book or story, because you have the momentum and focus; you're no longer trying to figure out what it's all about.] So you can see what I’ve been up to, and that’s why this posting is coming at the bottom of the weekend instead of at the top, as I’d prefer. I’m still hoping to have the book’s first draft finished by about the end of the month. This is one of those cases in which the story is practically writing itself: it knows where it wants to go, and I’m just careening along with it, holding onto the bridle for dear life with one hand, opening doors for it and smashing down fences with the other. This has very little to do with my abilities or lack thereof; it’s one of those best instances that we writers always hope for in which an idea finds you and comes pouring through.

I was struck tonight by the words from Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

When writing is going well, it truly is an experience of the Divine — a sacred experience. And so little of it seems to come from “my own understanding.” It’s a “trust-with-all-your-heart” thing all the way, and you just rejoice and give thanks when the paths are straight. A good (writer) friend once quoted this line to me from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, and I’ve kept it right here on my desk ever since: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” That’s what it’s like as a writer, when you’re writing. Worries about your life and the future pale away to almost nothing, because you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing. You try not to get hit by cars when crossing the street, because you feel you have to live until you get this story finished. I suspect it’s something like the feeling a pregnant mother has when she’s carrying around a baby inside her. She knows what she’s supposed to do. The world is remarkably clear.

You may think this is all purple and hyperbolic, but it’s not, really.

Since we’ve talked about Anne of Green Gables — another line from it that has stayed with me through the years — and I’m quoting from memory here, so this will be inaccurate — is something like, “And, as usually happens when duty is looked squarely in the face, she had looked duty in the face and found it to be a friend.”

There’s a line at the end of The Untouchables spoken by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, in which he tries to put his role into perspective when he’s asked by a reporter to give a comment as “the man who got Capone,” the one who put Al Capone behind bars. Ness says: “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

I think that’s true for anything good we accomplish in life, writing or otherwise. But Stephen King makes the point in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that you have to put yourself in that place where the ideas can find you. You have to show up at your keyboard or your notebook (or whatever your particular life’s canvas is). You have to be ready. Writing is a guy who may show up at that place, if he knows you’re going to be there and have the lights on and be hospitable.

That being said, I’m definitely not suggesting that we should sit through our lives waiting for inspiration to strike. Inspiration needs people who are in shape enough to handle the work — to open those doors and smash those fences out of the way. By the same token, you can turn out good, salable stories that are solidly crafted but not necessarily inspired. Nor should we worry too much about what is inspired and what isn’t. Is it a good story? — That’s the more important question.

So, anyway, keep thinking about what Eliot Ness says about being there when the wheel comes ’round. . . . I’ve been thinking this week about how some aspects of life move in circles.

1. As a kid, I read Cricket Magazine. Mom got me a charter subscription when the magazine launched back in 1973. I had the LP record album they put out in those years and practically wore it thin listening to it so much. I remember sending them a story when I was in my early twenties, which came back with a form rejection. I really hadn’t learned my craft well enough yet — the wheel hadn’t come ’round. A little over ten years ago, I started sending them stories they accepted.

2. As a kid, I was fascinated by the covers on the H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks in our bookstore — grotesque monsters with scales and tentacles and eyes in strange places. I would sit in the yard on long summer days, in long summer twilights, delighting in the smell of mown grass around me and the reek of noisome swamps and unspeakable crypts and squamous horrors emanating from the Lovecraftian tales. I used to look at the name “Arkham House” on the copyright pages, never dreaming that one day my own book would be published by Arkham House.

3. As a kid, and increasingly with every decade of my life, I read FATE Magazine. It was my dad’s favorite periodical. (Mom was all Cricket and The Smithsonian.) My very first professional acceptance was a non-fiction article I wrote for FATE back in the April 1998 issue. I still remember literally jumping around the room for joy when I opened their acceptance letter. That’s a good story in and of itself: I was living in Japan and got this idea for a wonderful surprise for Dad. I knew he looked forward to his subscription copy of FATE each month. So without breathing a word to my parents about what I was doing, I researched a mysterious phenomenon in Japan, took the pictures, wrote the article, and sent it off to FATE. That was during their “good” years, when they were doing the large-sized magazine instead of the little digest-sized one that they’ve done before and since. They accepted it, I got to experience being paid for writing (!!!), and the first my parents knew about it was when Dad starting flipping through his copy when it came in the mail. As I heard the story later, he kept repeating “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Then he asked Mom if there could be more than one Frederic S. Durbin teaching at Niigata University. “No,” she assured him, “that’s him.” When I talked to him, he asked me how I got those amazing pictures, and I was able to tell him, “With your old Minolta camera.” That was a very happy circle that came ’round — and I even managed to do it again a couple years later. (“There’s sure a lot of weird stuff in Japan,” Dad said the second time around. Yes, there surely is. Mom said, “You sure can keep a secret!”)

I still read FATE, by the way, and aside from the fascination and escapism, it yields some really good ideas for stories. I won’t tell you which ones — because I sure can keep a secret.

So . . . by grace, in the fullness of time, I got published in Dad’s favorite magazine, and then in Mom’s. And by august old Arkham House, the pulp-era book publisher that has endured.

There’s one more “circle” story: back in high school, I went to my first writer’s conference, held at Illinois Wesleyan University, a conference later known as the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference. The fiction workshop leader that first time I went was Paul Darcy Boles. (I still use a quote from his workshop in my writing classes. I’ll bet you can find it back in the archives of this blog!) At that time he was a hale, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes. We discovered a mutual love of the movie Dragonslayer, and he read two manuscripts I’d sent in: one was a little Tolkien-derivative story, and one was the beginning of what later became The Threshold of Twilight. He liked the Dwarf in my Tolkien-derivative story — he said it wasn’t a “Disneyfied” Dwarf; he said I didn’t poke fun at my characters. About the Threshold piece, he said the only thing wrong with it was that it wasn’t finished. Very much the right things to say to a high-school kid wanting to write! He signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words: “For Fred — A fine writer who knows about enchantment.” I learned a few years later that he had passed away. I’ve never ceased to be grateful for the early encouragement he gave me. (And to Mom, for taking me there!)

What makes that a “circle” story? Two things: one is that just last week I found his book Glory Day on-line and ordered it. He talked about it all those years ago, and the idea fascinated me, but I’ve never thought to try to get a copy. (During the years before the Internet, I doubt it would have been possible.) The second is that I’ve used the title for both a poem and for a  short story that I’m trying to whip into shape for Cicada but don’t really know how. The editors there liked it, but it’s really not a story yet — they’d like to see it again if I can figure out what the story is.

So I’m going to close out this post with a rather lengthy extract from that story (my story, not Boles’s) — because it’s appropriate for summer, and because it brings the Boles circle around — and because the title of this entry is “Reels in the Dark,” and this excerpt is about home movies and what they represent.

I’ll just say that this story is intensely autobiographical. The “John” character is me, and there’s almost nothing in this passage that’s made up. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

At full dark, the home movies began. John had long since become the projectionist, his dad having turned over all the equipment to him. But Dad still governed the proceedings, ensconced in his recliner. Dad’s movies were from the era of eight millimeter film, almost unheard of these days. Watching them was like traveling to the past in more ways than one. TVs, no matter how big they got, could never match the ambience of a darkened room, the whir of celluloid and sprockets, and the bright, flickering images on the tall tripod screen. Dad’s movies distilled the sunlight of long-past days, the green of vanished summers, the faces of relatives now old or gone.

The reel most in demand was a compilation of home movies shot over many years, spliced together in no particular order, one section even having gotten put in upside-down and backwards, with horses galloping in reverse in the sky, consuming their dust-clouds like living vacuum cleaners. Scenes of Mom and Dad’s courting blended with family baseball games (lots of swings-and-misses, and then a long, panoramic shot of a dozen guys searching for the ball in high weeds; but the dramatic hit that had sent the ball there was, of course, the one moment not captured). Picnics in the park gave way to more horses (these right side up); Dad looking like a movie star, young and straight; flowers in the park; and a Labor Day parade. Toward the film’s halfway point, there was a silver dot high in the sky, passing behind a transformer and power lines — an unidentified silver dot which never failed to generate obliging speculation from the audience about just what it WAS. Always Dad nodded gravely and knowingly in his chair, his gaze intent on the screen until the scene changed to the digging of the lake, which Dad had helped to survey.

“We saw more snakes than you’d believe,” Dad would say. “We tramped all through that bottomland, and I bet we saw a snake every twenty steps. They can hide anywhere there’s a blade of grass. Once some of the guys and I were sitting on the ground to eat our lunch. We were in a circle with our feet almost touching, and a snake crawled right out from between us. We never dreamed it was there.”

Dad told stories about the images in the same way every time, and the audience’s questions themselves followed a time-honored ritual. That, too, was a part of the enchantment of old silent eight as opposed to videos or DVDs. No music, no audio required the discipline of being quiet — not that any soundtrack could have competed with the cousins all together in a single room. The audio was supplied anew by the audience each time, viewers interacting with glimpses of the past.

It was almost, John thought, as if all the generations of the family were still here; as if those who had gone before somehow overflowed the screen and occupied the room’s shadowy corners, not ghosts but warm and chuckling presences, not morbidly returned from beyond but rather never gone in the first place — as comfortable and worn as the furniture, as solid as the bookcases, filling a space that must be filled for completeness, but unregistered in the sight.

There came shots of dogs, the wild fox cub Dad had found and cared for until it had been big enough to return to the wild, and then a full seven minutes of nothing but cigarette smoke in a sunbeam at the little house, where Mom and Dad had first lived when they were married — just cigarette smoke filling the frame, curling and swirling above an ash tray. “Now wait,” Dad would always say, holding up a finger. “Now watch. There’s a place where the smoke looks just like Aunt Opal’s face.” An obedient solemnity would settle over the group, and for a few minutes the summer night would take on a suggestion of chill. And this was the only point at which the movie litany varied. For sometimes Dad himself would miss the face, and would mutter, as the footage went on to other things, that somewhere in there Aunt Opal’s face was as clear as day; and at other viewings Dad would shout “There!” in triumph and point at the screen. And the kids in the audience would see only smoke, because they’d never met Aunt Opal; and a few of the cousins might give a start and cry “I saw her!” and rub at the gooseflesh on their arms. But whether Dad or anyone else saw or didn’t see Aunt Opal in the smoke, if anyone suggested rewinding and re-watching, Dad would say, “Oh, let’s go on. It’s getting late.” And even the most curious were secretly grateful, because the curling, drifting smoke was a little sinister.

Years ago, Dad had introduced the trick of running the film backwards in a certain part to the wild amusement of the audience. It was a scene of the cousins as kids, the oldest no more than ten, swimming in a plastic backyard pool. The ritual exclamations were always the same: “Look at Jack!”; “Look at my braces!”; “Can you believe I wore my hair like that?”; “J.T.’s trying to drown me — look, he keeps pushing my head under!” Interspersed with these lines came the frantic identifications of swimmers among all the splashing and submerging. “Is that you, Mom?” a little cousin would ask, standing up in front of the screen and reaching out a hand to touch the past — but blocking the very part of the image that held the most interest. The child would blend with the picture, its glowing colors projected on the hair and skin and T-shirt back, until everyone cried “Sit down!”

There would be the inevitable explanation for the young ones who hadn’t been there: “Dad threw in a bunch of nickels and pennies, and we were diving for them.” The “Dad” the cousins meant was Uncle Rick, and the film’s highlight was when he dashed across the yard in his swimsuit, the pool empty now of kids. Uncle Rick, all berry-brown and with jet-black hair, a scrawny Tarzan, dove into the pool, displacing a prodigious amount of water. At that point, John’s dad would switch the projector into reverse. The tidal wave would return from the lawn to the pool, and Uncle Rick would fly out backwards, land on his feet, and sprint away across the grass, receding into the distance. It was a delight that never grew old, when the whole group would shriek with laughter. This was what they came to see year after year, bringing new spouses, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new babies. In fact, the film had its identity in this scene: the request was always for “the movie where Dad jumps out of the pool,” as if it had been recorded that way.

Maybe the past, John thought, it what we make of it. Once it’s happened, it belongs to us, for our re-shaping. All these decades later, Uncle Rick’s jumping out of the pool was far more important than his jumping in. It was better-remembered, better loved. It became the reality.

John’s favorite part came just at the end, when the audience had had their fun, when the little ones were starting to fall asleep, and the moms were collecting baby bottles and socks, and the dads were jingling car keys. It was a slow pan across a front-yard Fourth of July party in a distant time. Distant, for the film, though it was in color, had a slightly washed-out look, and the cars in the driveway had fins like Batmobiles, and some of the old men wore straw hats or fedoras, and the women had Catwoman glasses with heavy black frames.

The scene always recaptured the crowd’s flagging interest and spawned arguments about who was under that tree, whether or not that car was Uncle Rick’s (Uncle Rick fiercely denying it if he were present), and whether that could really be Cousin Liz at the end of the table. (“When did Liz ever have hair like that?” someone would roar in genuine indignation.)

At the end of the pan, the camera would be pointing at the porch steps. Someone had set down a paper plate there, and the food on it was now being gobbled up by Tag, Dad’s matronly beagle. As the plate slipped to the ground and Tag hurried down the steps after it, the camera went back to the party.

What fascinated John even more than the long-ago people he’d never met was the yard, the trees, the buildings, and the background fields, all of which he knew intimately. Here, though, he was seeing them as they had looked thirty years ago, the landscape more open, the giant oaks younger, the barn roofs straighter-edged. He stared past the picnickers at the root cellar, its concrete dome free of the trees of heaven it now wore, whose roots were destroying it. He gazed in wonder at the ingrown gate — the last remnant of some dismantled corral fence. In John’s own time it was half-swallowed by the trunks of the maples against which it rested, but in the film, the gate was newly leaned in place, its boards smooth and solid.

Okay, wake up! Thanks for wading through a long post! As for comment direction this time — any comments are welcome — but some possible jumping-off points are:

1. Circles of life: tales of things in your own experience that have come full circle.

2. Questions about any of the above. I welcome questions.

3. Stories of things families do together: family rituals, celebrations, traditions, etc. Do you have your own version of the “home movie” experience?

4. Tales of your own “doing what you’re meant to be doing” experiences. Is it writing for you, or something else?

5. Theories on our interactions with the past. Is the past fluid, as John comes to suppose in this story? I think this could be a really interesting topic.

Thunder and Providence

July 3, 2009

Do you know what’s coming next Wednesday? In the early morning hours — to be precise, at six seconds past 4:05 a.m. – the time and date will be:

04:05:06/07/08/09.

Aren’t you glad you found that out? Otherwise, you would have missed it entirely — you probably would have been sleeping or something. Now you can celebrate the moment by running around your yard shouting, waving a couple of sparklers you’ll save from the 4th just for the purpose. That’s what I’d be doing . . . if I had a yard.

Anyway — Happy Fourth of July!

I’ve been thinking hard about this holiday over the last few days.

Not long ago, I read an article about George Washington, which described how he miraculously escaped death on several occasions, both as a young man and during the Revolution. I’m talking miraculous – he should have been toast, but wasn’t — close-range bullets strangely not hitting him, and one instance in which a British soldier had him in the sights of a newly-developed, far-shooting rifle . . . but didn’t realize who this tall, imposing fellow was, and decided it just wasn’t decent to kill a man in such a way. And without the leadership of Washington, it’s very possible — even probable — that the nearly hopeless American army would have been completely hopeless, and the war lost.

A friend this week was telling me about how, by nearly any historian’s estimation, the Revolution was a war that the Americans never should have won. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and severely lacking in training, battle experience, and seasoned leaders. They suffered some terrible defeats. What saved them again and again — and eventually turned the tide of the war — was geography, and the weather, and what many great minds of the time could only attribute to Divine Providence: the hand of God shaping human history.

Throughout my life I’ve connected Glory Day — July 4th — with freedom. But for me growing up, that meant “freedom from school.” I linked the holiday to the fun of fireworks and cookouts and spending time with friends and relatives met only rarely. Fun, fun, fun: but that fun and that freedom were bought at a heavy price.

There was a scene in the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, that really brought the impact of the Revolution home to me. Mel Gibson’s character, an American farmer, comes out onto his porch and sees a line of British redcoats advancing into view from among the trees in his pasture. As I sat there in the theater, that scene jolted me to the core. THAT was the Revolution: enemy troops in your pasture, stepping around the trees you climbed as a kid. Enemy troops in your yard. Shooting at you.

That was the reality then, and it’s the reality today for many people in the world.

It’s about a different war, but I know anyone who saw Saving Private Ryan on the big screen will never forget it. Yes, I mean the first half-hour or so, the intensely realistic depiction of the Allies coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy, under the muzzles of the German guns. When I saw that film, I seriously questioned what I was doing as a writer. At the time, I was working on The Fires of the Deep, a fantasy that takes place during a war. My book included several large-scale battle scenes of precisely that type. The movie made me ask myself whether I had any right to be doing that — to be using war as a part of a fiction book written to entertain readers. I, who have never fought in a war . . . writing a book about war . . . war as entertainment. I felt I should burn the manuscript and go start apologizing to veterans.

Tolkien had far more of a right, if anyone does: he fought in World War I, lost something like three of his four closest friends in the Battle of the Somme, caught trench fever, and was invalided home. So when he writes of battle, it’s quite real. He knows whereof he speaks, and he never misrepresents war. When we read LOTR, we come away knowing that war is a dark, sorrowful thing.

It’s true that martial conflict has always been an element explored and utilized by the poets and writers of the human race, because war is what we humans do, as much as we do anything else. Certainly its drama, its consequence, and its absolutes help to define characters, and writers love to work with stuff like that.

It’s also true that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, one of the best-known and enduring novels of the Civil War, was written by a man who was not a soldier and had no firsthand experience of the war.

So I haven’t given up writing about war (and I didn’t burn the manuscript), but I hope I handle combat as the sad and horrifying inevitability it is in this sin-darkened world.

I have a cousin who is a veteran of Vietnam. Like Tolkien, he lost very close friends in the slaughter. He came home full of metal fragments for which, even now in July 2009, he is having surgeries. He hates the 4th of July — not for what it means, but because of its physical stimuli: in hot, sultry, steamy weather, the sky is full of explosions, and the air is laced with the smell of gunpowder. It’s far too close a reenactment of what he experienced over there. The 4th is a holiday he grits his teeth and gets through.

When he read my story “Seawall,” the climactic battle story at the end of the Agondria cycle, he offered me his experience. “Let me tell you some things about what a person thinks and feels just before and during combat.” I would never have asked him to relive such things, but you can believe I listened with both ears and took very thorough notes. I revised “Seawall” accordingly — so if you read it, you’ll know that the battle parts are as close to the real thing as I can get them — I who do not know war and have no right.

While we’re on this topic: people ask me, since I live in Japan, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What’s it like?” . . . “Have you been there?” . . . “What do people think?” Yes, I’ve been to Hiroshima, but not to Nagasaki. I’ve seen the “Atomic Bomb Dome” — the one gutted, domed building that was left standing in August of 1945, because it was in the blast shadow, directly under ground zero. I’ve seen the Peace Park and the museum there, and that, too, is an experience I’ll never forget. Aside from all the written accounts, the films, the photos, and the half-melted artifacts on display there, three things in particular are etched in my memory:

One is a 360-degree photo, floor to ceiling, that covers the wall of a circular room in the museum. This picture (probably a carefully-pieced composite) was taken at the blast center. It shows flat, charred wreckage to the horizon in every direction. Where there was once a city full of people.

Another is a wall of maps for comparison. The maps are of several major cities in the world, with different colored circles showing you the effects of a bomb equal in strength to that dropped on Hiroshima. I picked out Chicago, where I’d gone to school for four years, and I spent quite a while studying which suburbs would be vaporized, which would be flattened, which would be set ablaze. . . . When it’s a city you know something about, there’s a lot you think about.

Finally, the museum has a long, long wall of illustrated accounts of the atomic explosion and the days afterward . . . done by children. Children who lived through it — what they saw, what they thought, what they felt, what they did. Big, childlike letters and colorful pictures. The pictures are very much like the gruesome scenes we kids (okay, we boys) drew for amusement, from our imaginations. But these were scenes that kids like ourselves actually saw.

The single most memorable piece we played in junior high band class was an arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It started out through a few verses with beauty and grandeur and mounting tension — a brave young country careening toward internal war. In the middle section, after the melody had risen to a kind of scream, all the wind instruments dropped out, and a grand timpani solo took over. The percussionist pounded the kettledrums, rattling the windows. Hooves, rifles, cannon fire . . . North and South, clashing headlong . . . John Brown, convinced “that the sins of this guilty country cannot be purged away but with blood.” Then the shots faded, the smoke rose, and a muted trumpet played a sorrowful lament. Finally, the other voices came back, reacquiring harmony, gathering strength. As a kid in junior high, I got goosebumps every single time we played it.

This isn’t a post about delight and enchantment this week. Maybe it’s a theme I should have saved for Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day. But I thought Glory Day, this time at the height of summer when we live to the fullest and read and write, watch movies, travel, and dream, would also be a good time for us all to remember a respect for our materials, whatever they may be. Those materials come to our hands at a price. Our freedom is the result of sacrifices made on our behalf . . . and it is the gift of a Power greater than ourselves, ordering our days.

Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character delivers a stern speech to Private Ryan, reminding him that his life, too, has been purchased at a great cost, so Ryan has a duty now to use his life well.

Is that not our only response to Providence? G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world around me. And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed TWO?”

And in the words of the unforgettable Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society:

“What will your verse be? Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”


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