Posts Tagged ‘Paul Darcy Boles’

Long Live the Fine Arts!

February 20, 2011

There’s a quote from Paul Darcy Boles that I use every year with my writing students. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought it up on this blog before: “We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world.” When Mr. Boles said it (and I was there, so I know), he was talking about how all of us writers, regardless of genre, language, level of accomplishment, place, or time in history are all engaged in the same basic and fundamental (and necessary) human activity, which has been around since the dawn of our kind. Today, we are still gathered around the crackling flames while shadows dance on the walls and the night looms outside. We are still entertaining our companions with tales — tales that apply to our lives whatever they may be, if we think about the stories and see the connections. Stories bring us fulfillment, but also education, insight, catharsis, encouragement, and hope.

Yesterday was a great day. Through the experience of seeing many dance performances, of having an exhibition of my paintings (such as they are), and of reading one of my poems aloud as a talented young dancer expressed it visually, I felt again the unity among all the creative arts. They’re all about telling stories.

The performance yesterday was mostly about dancing. It’s the second annual event called “T.A.Y. — C” (the letters standing for the names of the central organizers, who are some of the main dancers). It features the dance club of Niigata’s Minami High School (quite a large group) as well as OB’s and OG’s (which, in Japan, means alumni and alumnae — have I got the Latin right? — and those letters stand for “Old Boy” and “Old Girl” — former members who have graduated and moved on from a particular group). So this event also starred university students who came back for it from their various schools all across Japan — and a professional dance troupe from Tokyo. Quite a big production!

It was held in the Ongaku Bunka Kaikan — the Hall of Music and Culture. And what a day of music and culture it was! We gathered in the morning, set things up, had informal rehearsals followed by a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, and then the real thing starting at 6:00 p.m. Lunch and supper were provided for us. The various groups used different parts of the building as dressing rooms. I was with a trio of singers and their accompanists — one of the singers, Aiko-san, is my co-worker at the university who “got me into this.” Their group sang “Singing’ in the Rain” and selections from West Side Story (both including dancers) just before my part in the program.

The images you’ll see below are the pamphlet for my art exhibition, which was held in the corridor just outside the auditorium. This pamphlet was included as one of the inserts in the main program that the audience members received. The teacher who made this for us — free of charge — did a fantastic job, didn’t she?

The cover for the pamphlet introducing me at the performance on February 19, 2011.

Yes, I know that title, “The Dreamworlds of . . .” is awfully pretentious. We were just having fun. I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, and everyone seemed to like that idea. Don’t suppose that I’m taking myself all that seriously, okay? In this scan, the paintings have a strange quality, like you can see the weave of the paper or something. They didn’t look like that on the actual folder.

Pamphlet interior, left side: the English version of my poem (which will appear in THE STAR SHARD this fall).

Pamphlet interior, right side: the translation of "Blue Were Her Eyes," set with great care and sensitivity into Japanese by Ms. Aiko Sato.

In the morning, a group of high-school girls helped me set the exhibition up. They attached monofilament strands to the backs of the paintings, and we suspended them at artistically-varied heights on two large corkboards along the corridor wall, just opposite one of the auditorium doors. I had made special laminated placards giving the title and some other information about each painting (usually a hint as to how to understand it — though of course, who am I to dictate that? — once a painting is out there, it’s all up to the viewer). Personnel announced the exhibition over the p.a. system, too, and invited the audience to see it. In the half-hour or so before the show started and during the intermission, I was on hand to talk with people who browsed the pictures. That was a good time.

The pamphlet's back cover. (That weird rectangle of paper isn't part of it. It's there to cover up my signature.)

My experience with the world of dance is very limited. Back in college, we needed a certain number of p.e. credits to graduate. Not being adept at sports, I wondered what course to take . . . until I saw one called “Folk and Square Dance.” Aha, I thought! Here was a chance to do something that might be fun, especially because I was sure it would throw me together with a lot of girls. That sort of physical contact would be infinitely better than getting slammed into by guys in football or basketball. And the course was a great time, but that’s the subject for a different post. My point here is, in nearly all the dances I’d encountered until yesterday, the moves are prescribed. There are right and wrong ways to do the steps.

But yesterday, these kids were doing what we always celebrate on this blog. They had chosen songs or simply ideas and developed their own movements to express them to an audience. They were telling stories with physical motion. And it was poetry of the most exquisite sort. I wish you could have seen it!

It would take far too much space to recount all of the dances for you (there were 17 other performances on the program, not counting mine). But I’ll try to hit some highlights. During the dress rehearsal I got to see most of them, and even during the real show at night, I went in by a back door and stood at the rear of the dark auditorium to watch the first half (the place was packed, and I heard that it seats 500 people!).

The professional girls from Tokyo did a fantastic piece from Senegal, which featured a red-lit background at one point, driving rhythms, and the music of Africa that evokes heat and an ancient heritage. I do not know how people can remember such a long progression of complex movements, let alone perfectly coordinating them with an entire team of dancers.

One of the more interesting dances was called “Passing Each Other,” performed by a guy and a girl. The soundtrack was simply a jingling, an irregular ringing, as if you would take a spoon, hold it loosely, and shake and jerk your hand to keep the spoon bouncing against a metal pipe. The dancers’ attitudes conveyed a sense of unfulfillment, of longing toward each other, but their paths were always skewed, always at odds, never quite lining up. They never quite managed to come face-to-face and make contact. So it is with some relationships, right? People can bounce all around the edges of a genuine connection, never quite getting there, until time takes its toll and their ways part irrevocably. The jingling became more urgent after the halfway point with a sound like static, which increased the sense of desperation. Toward the end, these sounds were joined by a recurring deeper note which, to me anyway, signified the big chunks of life breaking up and beginning to move, bigger things changing, the time of opportunity passing. At the end, when the guy almost embraced the girl from behind, she bent her knees, slid downward through the hoop of his arms that weren’t quite touching her, and very slowly paced away into the dark with him following — their postures showing resignation and sadness.

The most beautiful dance, I thought, was one called “Cosmos” (the flower, not the Carl Sagan show). It was performed by one girl. I won’t even lessen it with an inept description, but it communicated all that is best in the feminine and in the beauty of spring and awakening summer.

To me, the most interesting and moving dance was done by two girls — the same one from “Cosmos,” but in a different costume, and another girl in a matching costume. It was called “Little Girl.” I had the chance to talk to both of them at the party that night, and we discussed the interpretation of it. The dance showed the fear, reluctance, sadness, and shaky, fluttering hope of growing up, of moving from childhood into adulthood. The dancers very effectively used two pairs of bright red shoes as symbolic props. Barefoot, the girls slowly approached the shoes from opposite sides of the stage at the beginning, and then they did all sorts of things with them — tentatively trying them on, rejecting them, being drawn back to them, and at one point linking them together into a dangling chain of four shoes that then came apart and rained down like falling petals. In the end, the girls put on the shoes and moved forward into their grownup years. (I couldn’t help thinking of Narnia’s Susan.)

The music for that dance with the red shoes was Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” It’s about having a dream when you’re very young, and trying to find what you’re supposed to do in life. The end, which really got to me emotionally, goes like this:

“Now I’m old and feeling grey. I don’t know what’s left to say about this life I’m willing to leave. I lived it full and lived it well, there’s many tales I’ve lived to tell. I’m ready now, I’m ready now, I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing. I had a dream.”

Man, I can’t even type that with dry eyes! Sooner or later, I’d like to get a recording of the song. Isn’t that great, though? Live full, live well, and when it’s time to die, be ready.

I asked those two girls why nearly all the songs the groups chose to dance to were English-language songs. Their answer really made sense. It’s because their audience won’t be familiar with the songs. If the dancers chose popular Japanese hits, the audience would already have a clear mental image of the particular artist singing the song — they would bring all sorts of baggage to it. By using music that is unfamiliar, the dancers have a clean canvas to work with. Isn’t that an impressive answer?

The atmosphere backstage was energetic and a great thing to experience, too. It reminded me of my thespian years in high school, but this was on a much bigger scale. Imagine all these groups (many involving 15 or 20 people, many in identical costumes) crammed into various rooms and hallways, some girls helping each other with makeup, and many of the chief dancers (guys and girls) stretching in near-impossible ways and bouncing on their toes and practicing their expressive twirls and bends and gestures – everybody leaping around, the stage manager with his headset trying to keep things coordinated, the lighting and sound people at their consoles, adjusting toggles, watching the needles hop . . . Most of the large groups had to use long hallways to eat lunch, keep their stuff, and change (outer) clothes in. The room my group was assigned to was at the end of one such hallway, so every time we went in or out, we had to pass among all these high-school girls.

The dance club at Minami High School is incredibly well-mannered and highly disciplined. They act and answer in unison, like troops — Mrs. Funayama’s troops. Every time we would pass them, every one of the girls would brightly say “Konnichiwa” to us. So we would say it back. We all greeted one another all day. (The girls have an abbreviated form of the word that sounds like “Ch’a.” They say it politely, with a little bow.)

Two of my teacher friends from the university came for the big night, as well as one other acquaintance — it was good to see them.

As I said, I spent the first half of the show out in the auditorium itself, standing at the back, so I knew just how packed the place was. Five hundred souls. But when you’re on the stage under the bright lights, you can’t see the audience at all. Out there in front of you is just this huge black gulf that somehow conveys expectation and attention. If you listen really hard, you can hear the gulf stirring . . . you can hear it breathe.

In an interview, Gilda Radner talked about nerves before a performance, but how the moment before she’d go on stage, she just couldn’t wait to go on. That last part has always been my feeling when it comes to performance. There’s this sense that I have to get to that moment or I’ll go supernova — I belong there, I want to be there — I feel that I could tear through an interposing brick wall with my fingers if I had to.

I honestly wasn’t nervous for this one because there was nothing hard I had to do. I had my manuscript on a music stand, I knew the sound and the height of the microphone were adjusted, I knew the material, and I knew Tsuchida-san would do astounding things with the dance aspect – for me, it was just a matter of stepping out there in front of the breathing gulf and letting the moment ignite — enjoying it to the fullest, doing the sort of thing I was born to do.

When you have the audience there, an intangible something nearly always happens that simply can’t be generated artificially. No matter how well you nail a part in a rehearsal, when you’re doing it for real, something kicks in and takes hold and pulls you up out of yourself. I think that happened for both of us. When we’d finished our part (three scant minutes of a long evening of phenomenal dancing and singing), the applause was thunderous, and when I got back into the wings, two of the singers threw their arms around me in emotional hugs, which is pretty rare in Japan.

During the reading of “Blue Were Her Eyes,” I had to be looking mostly at the invisible audience, with occasional glances at the text — so I couldn’t be watching Tsuchida-san. (I’m told that I’ll get to see the video, and of course I saw some of his work in the first informal practice we did in the morning.) [He is the "T" in "T.A.Y. -- C," by the way -- according to one of the singers, he is nationally known among dance people -- he's that good.] What he did in this case was a kind of spontaneous interpretation — chance art, or art of the moment. He had practiced for some weeks with an audio tape I’d made of me reading the poem, but we didn’t meet until yesterday. He coordinated his movements to the pace, pauses, mood, and volume I was using. He started out in a side aisle among the audience, appearing there under a spotlight as I began to deliver the poem. Then he was up on stage, flying and whirling, as the narrative led us through love and painful parting to the battle . . . to long imprisonment like death . . . to eventual release and the reunion of the lovers, with the changes their lives have undergone. By all accounts, he outdid himself — I can’t wait to see it!

Aiko-san, the singer who invited me to be part of this, described how she first started arranging for dancers to dance along with her group’s vocal songs. The stars of musicals, she noted, have to be able to act, sing, and dance. But not everyone is good at all three of those. So why not put together people who excel in the individual disciplines? After all, think of the various talents that go into making a movie — hundreds and hundreds of people working at their own crafts, but joined to produce a whole that no one person could possibly create — not even someone like Da Vinci. (Or a book! Again and again I’ve experienced — and did so again this week — how greatly my writing is helped by editors who know their business. And thank goodness I don’t have to do the cover illustrations myself! Or the binding . . . or getting those pages to be the same size . . .)

Just before the poem, Aiko-san interviewed me on stage. She made the point to the audience that when you see a poem and a dance come together like this, the sum of it is much more than one thing plus one thing. She asked me what the sum was, and I said, “I’m terrible at math,” which got a laugh. She asked me about the relationship between my writing and teaching, and I was able to say how blessed I feel to be able to teach creative writing — to share what I love so much with my students. When she asked what I thought of the dancers, I said they gave me goosebumps, and the breathing gulf laughed pleasantly — I think they were surprised I knew that word. (Don’t worry — I know “goosebumps” has the same meanings in both cultures.)

So — it was a shining day, one of those experiences that remains as a treasure of the heart — one of those times you’re thankful you had the privilege to be there for. It made me want to do more with performance when the opportunity arises.

Let’s all keep living in a way that will take us to that moment of readiness to depart when the time comes. “I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing.” Let’s put on the red shoes, but not too quickly — first, let’s string them together and let them fall like petals. And when it’s time to put them on, let’s put them on with calmness and grace, and discover all that is good about wearing red shoes.

Oh — that’s another thing Aiko-san and I agreed on in front of those two young dancers at the party: there’s nothing at all bad about growing up as long as you keep your childhood’s heart — as long as you love, and take part, and keep space in your life for stories.

God bless the storytellers — including those who pirouette!

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.

Madeleine Stories

May 10, 2008

Today my editor and I were swapping our Madeleine L’Engle stories, and it occurs to me this is something worth blogging about.

I met Madeleine on three different occasions. The first two were at the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conferences in Bloomington, Illinois, when I was a junior-high and then a high-school student. In fact, the inspiration for what would become my first novel manuscript came while I was sitting in Madeleine’s workshop. As I listened, I was doodling in my notebook. Without thinking much about what I was drawing, I sketched a dense grove of trees, and then for some reason, I superimposed an iron-bound door floating in the air in front of–or against–the tree trunks. It was standing open, and I later began to think about why a magical doorway would open in a grove of trees. . . .

Anyway, that first time I attended Blooming Grove, I was enrolled in Paul Darcy Boles’s fiction workshop. (An excellent quote of his that I gleaned then, which I still use every year with my writing students, is: “We [writers] are all storytellers, sitting around the cave of the world.”) Mr. Boles was a great encouragement. I’d written a little Tolkien-derivative story called “Where Lies Adventure,” and he told me the Dwarf in it was “a really good Dwarf.” “You don’t poke fun at your characters,” he said. “This Dwarf isn’t Disneyfied.” He recommended the movie Dragonslayer to me, which I’d seen, and which made him all the cooler in my teenage eyes. And perhaps best of all, he signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words, “For Fred: A fine writer who knows about enchantment.”

But I digress. The conference was scheduled so that I could sit in on both Boles’s lectures and L’Engle’s, which I did.

The second time around, I enrolled in Madeleine’s young-adult fiction workshop, so I was able to submit a manuscript which she critiqued for me. I’ll never forget her wise, diplomatic comment: “I suspect you’re one draft away from being able to send this around.”

Heh, heh, heh! Isn’t that funny, if you think about it? I took it as great encouragement, which was what she hoped, I’m sure. High-school kids who want to write are to be encouraged. But that comment could be made honestly about the very worst pieces of writing. Anything could be “one draft away” from being a work of Shakespeare, if enough were changed in the rewrite.

Finally, the third time I met her was when she did a book-signing at a bookstore in Chicago, when I was a college student. I waited through the line, and when she was signing my book, being the over-eager, excited young idiot that I was, I asked if she remembered me from the Blooming Grove conference. (I would never ask such a question today, and the mere memory of it makes me blush!) Again, ever diplomatic, Madeleine answered, “Probably, probably.”

Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!


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