Friday, June 27, 2014

Why I Write: A Confession



When did I first know I wanted to become a writer?

For me, the question, upon even a moment's thought, becomes strangely unanswerable. I realize that it is perhaps not even the right question to ask. For in my case, I can say that I have always been a writer. As soon as I learned how to write, it seems, at the age of about six, I began writing my own stories. The activity just seemed to occur naturally to me, as though it were in my blood. I was a born storyteller.

So, for me, writing is not something that I see, first and foremost, as a "career", much less a "profession". It is just something I do, as inextricably bound with my being as the color of my eyes.

Nevertheless, writing is something for which I have long felt a sense of aspiration. I am a writer; I aspire to be a great one. But why? And what does it mean to be a great writer?

Let's start with the second question. For me, being a great writer certainly does not equate to being a financially successful one. Anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with literary history knows that many, perhaps even most, of the world's great writers—which is to say the ones that we still remember today, even though long dead—were not necessarily commercial or popular successes. In some cases, true enough, they may have achieved fame, and perhaps even fortune, but in many other cases, they labored in obscurity, never to enjoy the rewards either of money or of admiration, sometimes having very little of their work published during their lifetime.

It should seem obvious that only a certain type of writer would engage in an arduous, lifelong pursuit of the craft of writing regardless of what worldly rewards may (or may not) come. Many writers, especially in today's world, very much strive for "success", defined in commercial and popular terms. And there is certainly nothing wrong with doing so.

But there are other writers who regard their writing not so much a career as a sacrament, and who see the integrity and creative freedom of their work as sacred, money and popularity be damned. There is nothing wrong with that either.

As I have already indicated, I am the second type of writer. This type of writer cannot be overly concerned about achieving fame and fortune, indeed must be willing to give up all hope or expectation of ever achieving such measures of worldly success.

Then, one may well ask, why be a writer?

Well, as I said at the beginning, for this type of writer, writing is not so much a choice—certainly not a career choice—as it is an innate drive to express oneself, to give form to one's own idiosyncratic ideas and imagination, through the medium of language. (I am certainly not saying that more commercially-minded writers do not also feel this same desire for self-expression, and that that is not an important part of the reason they choose to pursue a writing career; but I would suggest that, as evidenced by the conventional style of most commercially successful fiction, and by the prioritization of values that commercial success itself implies, the drive to achieve an almost sacred purity of unique and unrepeatable expression is not as intense for these writers as it is for the more literary-minded ones.)

So, again, the question is not exactly the right one to ask. Literary writers, in a very real sense, do not have much of a choice about being writers. They may choose to use their talents, or to neglect them; but for them, the neglect of their gifts would be far more tragic and unbearable than would be arriving at the end of their life without ever having sold a single book or having won a single fan.

This is because, in a particularly deep way, writing is intrinsic to their being, and is a fulfillment of their being. I very much feel this way myself. For many years I did not make nearly as much use of my writing talents as I knew I was capable of doing, and this caused me to live with a quiet but profound sense of desperation. No matter how successful I may have appeared in other aspects of life—getting married, earning a graduate degree and embarking on a professional career, buying a house, becoming a parent—somewhere inside I felt deeply unfulfilled because I was not writing.

This was of course no one's fault but my own. Two years ago, after my marriage fell apart (but in a way that was only indirectly related to that event), I experienced a renaissance of my literary talents, and began composing poetry and fiction in a way that was more intense and inspired than I ever had before. I found that an idea for a novel which had been lingering in my head for 13 years suddenly exploded into brilliant life, and I was amazed to watch it flow through my fingers and onto the screen, complete, in just six weeks.

The moment after I typed the last sentence of my first novel, I felt myself overcome by a rare sense of breathless euphoria. It was not simply that I had at last written a "real" novel; it had nothing to do with feeling myself that much nearer to literary fame, much less fortune. It was not even the fact that I suddenly felt, for the first time in a lifetime of writing, like a real writer, proving at least to my own satisfaction that I had some genuine literary potential. It was, rather, the fact that I had given concrete form to my highest and truest personal vision—that I had just told a story that felt, to me anyway, powerful and beautiful and original, a story that only I could have told. The emotion was uncannily similar to what I felt when my daughter was born—and indeed, in some sense, I had just given birth—I had brought into existence something that was, in fact, unique and unrepeatable, just like a human being, and that had the potential (in whatever large or small way) to change the world into which I had brought it.

In a very real sense, the writing of the novel was its own reward. Of course, novels exist to be read; if not read, they might as well not exist. And this points to what is perhaps one of the defining features of literary writing—it is, above all else, not a commercial product, but a deeply meaningful and significant communication. I write because I wish to communicate, and because I wish to communicate something important. I am much better at expressing myself in writing than in speech, but that is not why I write. As I keep saying, I cannot help but write. It just so happens that writing is the vehicle through which I can most effectively express what I think and what I feel, and to show other people who I really am inside.

And I think part of my elation over completing The Bluebird of Happiness in the summer of 2012 was that I had at last given voice, in a much more powerful way than I ever had, to who I really am. That certainly does not mean that the novel is autobiographical. It just means that, no matter how fictional and imaginative it may be, it expresses something deeply real and vital about who I am. My goal was not to write a bestseller but simply to express myself in the truest and most powerful way I knew how. And when I reached the end, I knew beyond any doubt that I had done just that; and, for that reason, I felt immensely successful, and I exulted in my success. I had done what I had always dreamed of doing.

*

Almost two years have passed now since that glorious day, and the novel remains unpublished. This is largely because I have made hardly any effort at all to submit it to publishers. A small number of people have read the manuscript, and I know that at least one or two of them have been sincerely, strongly affected by it. I do not think it is a matter of pride as much as a sense of responsibility to my talents that makes me feel it is vitally important for me to have the novel published, to get it out there in a place where as many people as possible can have the opportunity to read it.

I am aware, perhaps too aware, of the novel's flaws (or at least what some may regard as flaws—I suppose it is a matter of artistic judgment and taste), but at this point I do not wish to attempt to change them, even if they are flaws. I do not mind having certain types of flaws in my novels to the extent that they may be seen as revealing flaws in the characters themselves, who I allow to tell most of the story in their own words, in their own way. Or, to the extent that the flaws in the novel can be regarded as my own, I do not entirely mind letting them be—as someone who has battled the crippling disease of perfectionism his whole life, I have become something of a champion of the strange beauty and power of imperfection in art.

But, while I cannot discount the fear of criticism and rejection (even as proud and cocky as I can sometimes, half-jokingly, be about my own talents), I do not think that is the fundamental reason for my procrastination. I think that, more to the point, I have a deep lack of faith in the publishing industry as it exists today. It is not even a matter of doubting that I will ever be able to make a living as a writer—no matter how talented I may be, no matter how well received by critics and reviewers. It has more to do with feeling that I, and my work, do not fit in anywhere in the current publishing system (other than, possibly, the relatively underground exposure of an indie publisher, or the oblivion of self-publishing).

On the one hand, I feel that Bluebird is perhaps just a little too strange and idiosyncratic to be truly popular (and therefore to seem like a good bet for a major publisher to take a chance on in today's bestseller-driven publishing climate). On the other hand, the story may seem perhaps just a little too narrative and emotional to satisfy many in the literary avant-garde. At least that is my own perception. I did not write to satisfy any particular audience, only to be true to my own vision. I expect that each of my succeeding novels may very well appear a bit more outré than the last; Rainbow, my second novel which is currently in production, is already a shade or two stranger (even to me) than its predecessor, and I feel that many of the other ideas I have for novels may very well prove, once written, to be outright bizarre, perhaps even incomprehensible, to most readers. I am not trying to be weird just for the sake of being weird; it is just that writing the kinds of stories I really want to write, and being true to the stories as they develop in my mind, turns out to be quite unlike most other stories that are being written, and certainly unlike the ones that are popular.

For this reason, I do not expect ever to become a popular (and therefore not a commercially successful) writer. But that has never been my goal. As I stated above, my goal is to be a great writer. And the fact is that great writers, though they may seem conventional to us (but only because we are familiar with their names and are taught them, sometimes, in school—not because we have actually read their works, which would no doubt shake us out of our complacency), are great in large part because they are strange. "Strange", of course, simply means that which is not familiar to us. And great writers are great because they write something new, something that no one else has ever written, something that no one else ever could write. So, for that reason, although I would never be so unseemly as to pronounce myself a great writer (I only said that I aspire to be one), I do feel that I at least have the potential to become one, if I continue to develop my talents and remain faithful to my gifts (and true to my vision). If nothing else, I feel that I am far more likely to become a great writer (meaning one who is read long after I am gone) than a "successful" one, if successful means selling a lot of books and having a large fan base.

In one of my blog posts from 2012, as I neared the end of Bluebird, I mentioned a certain philosopher named Gadamer who spoke of reading as producing a "fusion of horizons" between the author and the reader. That idea really speaks to me because, as I said, for me writing is primarily my way of communicating with the world. (As Emily Dickinson so beautifully put it, "This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.")

According to Gadamer's view, when I read, say, "Ode on Melancholy", a fusion is created between my "horizon" (or experience) and that of a certain Englishman named John Keats. In other words, despite the fact that we are separated by 200 years, Mr. Keats and I, in that moment, arrive at some shared experience, some shared understanding, of the world, and of life. To put it in (quite properly, in this case) poetic and romantic language, you might say that John's soul meets mine, and we have a moment of shared humanity, of brotherhood, of friendship in the dark world. That is indeed the true magic of literature. Writers you love are not just distant celebrities; they are friends—which is true even if they can never know you.

I often think, more than I do about any fantasy of having an ardent but small group of fans in the present day (as I have always imagined myself becoming a cult writer more than a literary superstar), those who may read my stories in future centuries. I imagine some other solitary soul, perhaps feeling lost in the world, coming across an old beat-up copy of The Bluebird of Happiness (or, perhaps more likely—though who really knows?—an electronic edition), and setting out to read it.

I imagine that she (I say she because, if the future is anything like the present, the majority of fiction readers will be women), this lone reader, as she quietly but raptly listens to the story I am telling her, will come to see something of the truth, and the goodness, and the beauty, that I, this man long since vanished from the earth, like a ghost bearing a message from the mists of time, am attempting to communicate to her. She will no doubt find the story a little strange, perhaps even more than my contemporaries did; but that is part of the experience of reading true literature. It expands you, startles you, makes you see things in a new and fresh way. I imagine that she might, at moments, and despite the distance in time and culture, laugh, and at other moments cry—both responses evidence of our common humanity, despite whatever separates us.

But most importantly, in the process of reading my long and complicated story about a group of imaginary people (who will nevertheless come to seem very real to her), her soul will be moved, and ultimately transformed. And when she reaches the end—perhaps finding herself emotionally devastated, or perhaps only quietly but deeply touched—she will feel that she has known me, and that I have told her something that is of vital and profound importance just for her. And, even more than knowing methis stranger from the 21st century who has somehow, mysteriously, become her intimate friend—she will know herself just a little better; and she will feel just a little bit closer to understanding the strange, fearsome, but beautiful world we have the privilege of sharing; and she will feel, wonderfully, not quite so lost in it.

It is for her that I write.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ghosts





Ghosts


I saw her first in springtime—a morning snowdrop, soft and light with dew. She was only a tender bud then, smooth and tight and pale, seeming to tremble in the waking dawn, just opening to the pure, oblique rays of the early sun. 

At least that is how I remember her, on that spring day, long ago.
 
I do remember, with absolute certainty, precisely what she wore on that first momentous, breathtaking sight (at least, my memory is quite specific—of course, there is no way now, at this late date, to confirm that the picture in my head matches the historical reality of an irretrievable—forever irretrievable—moment): a light lavender short-sleeved blouse with a burgundy silk trim—or was it a very pale green? with a darker green trim?—no matter; I know that she, most definitely, wore a knee length dark purple skirt and silver sandals with a modest heel. Althoughat times, strangely, when I recall that almost magically sun-saturated noonday moment—so long ago!—I picture, rather, an ankle length skirt, burgundy in color (or, on occasion, it appears to memory as a rich dark brown, like ancient oak), and sandals of the Grecian style.

No less clear, of course, is the image of her face—such a sweet and kindly face, yet tinged, almost imperceptibly, by a wisdom beyond her yearsas though she, this delicate blossom, had already known pain. Nevertheless, her deep brown eyes sparkled as the dawning sun on fluttering leaves that are just waking from the night—that I do recall most plainly.

Her mouthnow gently pursed, plaintive, uncertain, slightly amused perhaps, yet intimating a generous openness to life; then wide with a seemingly effortless and innocent exuberance, a touching and unaffected laughter filled with youthful joy—yes, her mouth was indeed lovely, and pure.

And her nose, noble, gracious, fine, seemed to exhibit the rare refinement of her soul.

Her chestnut hair hung just above her luscious shoulders—shoulders that seemed just small enough to fit the strong but gentle grasp of my hands—but only in my imagination, as I did not actually touch her—and I most clearly see it, that sun-burnished auburn hair, blazed forever in immortal memory, blowing softly in the cool breeze as she laughed. (Althoughit must be confessedfor some reason, I do at times picture her hair that day, more of a mahogany than a chestnut, being pulled up in a loose bun, with but a pair of delicate strands hanging beside her oh so lovely cheeks.)

I remember, too, precisely how we met—it was at Julia DeForest’s wedding rehearsal dinner, held on her parents’ well-tended back lawn—and I spotted her talking with my friend Anthony Fiorello—well, for the sake of accuracy, I must point out that we were not the very closest of friends, but we did get along quite amiablyand I decided, perhaps inspired by the pangs of Cupid’s arrow, that now would be a rather opportune time to say hello to dear old Tony.

One thing I cannot remember, not very well at all, about that first meeting is the content of our conversation—that is, my conversation with her, once our mutual friend had most considerately introduced us—perhaps noticing the way we regarded each other so brightly—but I do recall, with utmost clarity, the feeling of bliss that enveloped me as we spoke.

I suppose any of these memories, no matter how clear and distinct they may appear in my mind, no matter how seemingly impervious to all but the most diabolically Cartesian of doubts, may be questioned—as, to my knowledge, no photographs were made of us that day, so the real truth may never be ascertainedbut one thing that is utterly unquestionable is this: I thought she was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on.

My. That was so long ago.

*

I saw her once, many years later, in summertime. She was married by then, but had no children. I was married too, and my wife and I attended a dinner party at Julia’s home. By that time, Julia had two children and lived in an overly large suburban tract house.

We smiled when we noticed each other—a little shyly, perhaps—though of course I can only speak for my own emotional state, having no direct access to the interior lives of other human beings—yet I did sense, by something in her smile, or perhaps in her eyes, or maybe both, that she felt the same shyness—and we exchanged a few minutes of not entirely relaxed yet not entirely awkward small talk before the appetizer was served.

I could not tell you now what the appetizer was, but I remember quite clearly that I was drinking a whiskey sour, and she was nursing a gin and tonic (I distinctly recall the little lime wedge as it floated among the ice, like a drop of tropical sun that had become lost in a frigid arctic sea).

I am quite certain, beyond any reasonable doubt—it was years nearer the present than our first encounter—that she wore her hair, now seemingly much darker than before, I would dare say almost black, tied up in a most elegant evening do, and that she was garbed in the most lovely red satin dress, as tasteful as it was enticing.

I did not, of course, share that particular impression with my beautiful wife.

There were, I think, about a dozen people in attendance, and she and her husband sat at the other end of the long table from my wife and myself, but I would fail the test of historical accuracy—not to mention simple honesty—if I were not to admit that, at something more than a few moments during the dinner, I found myself glancing in her direction. Just glancing, mind you. I do not think that either her husband or my wife noticed, although—I do believe, in all truthfulness—that she did—and, whether by accident or design, her gaze did meet mine on at least one or two quietly thrilling occasions.

After dinner the party moved outside, in the warm summer twilight, and the guests and their company indulged in more drinks and yet more talk. This time, after debating within myself for perhaps half an hour—and what excruciating debates those can be!—I finally overcame my nervousness and uncertainty and approached her to renew our conversation. I did not even know what to talk about—that had indeed been a huge part of my hesitation—but, to my astonishment, I happened to think of asking her something about a book she had told me she was reading back when we first met, and she smiled quite in earnest and, much to my great relief and even greater delight, there followed a conversation as natural, easy, and flowing as it was lively, stimulating, and wonderful. It must have lasted for nearly an hour, though it seemed, when it came time to leave, that it had only been a fleeting, brilliant moment.

As is the case with our first meeting, I do not clearly recall the substance of our conversation that evening. But to this day I can still feel, most vividly, the peculiar warm sensation of excitement and joy I felt as she and I, on that expansive and starlit summer night, engaged each other in—what felt to me, anywaya most beautiful intellectual and emotional communion.

And though I did not think the thought at the time, in memory the fact seems quite unmistakable to me that she dwelt, that night, at the highest radiance of her beauty—now a glorious white magnolia, fully opened to the sultry summer dusk, exuding a sweet and subtle scent—a blossom wondrously fascinating, mysteriously inviting, yet unreachable.

Alas, I cannot recall what I drank during that latter conversation, although I do remember with ease that she took a glass or two of red wine—I seem to think it was a Pinot Noiror perhaps a Merlot?—and, with mercilessly indelible precision, the faint but pleasing fragrance of her perfume, like rare night-blooming flowers, lingers most exquisitely in a sighing corner of my memory.

*

I saw her again, years afterward, in the midst of a cold wet autumn.

By that time, I was divorced and had been living alone for two or three years. She was still married and had a daughter of about six. I had found her, by chance (when she commented on a mutual friend’s post), on a well-known social networking site, and, after debating with myself for a few days—a debate as exhausting and pointless as ever—I should know by now: just do what the hell you feel like!—I finally decided to send her a friend request. I immediately felt foolish and remorseful, but the next morning I saw that she had accepted, and I stopped berating myself.

I did not make overly much of an attempt to strike up a friendship, but, again to my most pleasant surprise, we soon found ourselves getting along quite amiably—at least as amiably as I had once, long ago, gotten along with Anthony Fiorello—in the glowing, abstracted world of cyberspace.

After a few months—and, once more, after a bout of utterly futile and depleting self-argumentation—I took the bold step of asking her if she would like to get together for coffee sometime. And, much to my delight, she unhesitatingly agreed.

The day was pale and late, just as I felt in my soul. Earlier in the afternoon the sky had turned black and let forth a cold, dismal, leaden rain.

I sat waiting at a little table, a cup of coffee steaming below my face, feeling a stirring combination of nervousness, anxiety, eager anticipation, and wonderment at the notion that I was about to see her again, face to face, after these many years.

And then, suddenly, there she was—entering the coffee shop, glancing about, catching sight of me, smiling, approaching me as I stood to greet her. We met with a modest hug and a grinning exchange of hellos, then found our seats, facing each other, at the little table.

I was startled somewhat by the sight of her—in part because, by then, we had firmly entered what is commonly called (though I always insist it is only a matter of perception and semantics) “middle age”—but equally by her still radiant beauty, and by the fleshly reality of seeing her sitting only a couple of feet before my eyes.

We started a little hesitantly—not entirely relaxed, yet not entirely awkward—but soon enough found ourselves engaged in a low-key, quiet, but sincere and warm conversation annotated by comfortable, meaningful silences.

She ordered tea. English Breakfast, no sugar no cream. That I know.

As with the former occasions, I do not in any detail recall what we discussed, and, strangely, my memory of what she wore that evening is rather less vivid than it is of our earlier encounters; but I do, most clearly, remember these things:

—the way the late afternoon sunlight, peering through the clouds, shone golden, soft, and delicate on her rich brown, lightly gray-streaked hair;

—the way that same sunlight, glinting in the blackness of her tea, seemed to mirror the subtle sparkle in her weary, dark, lovely eyes;

—the way the faint lines on her face made her seem not old but like a soft familiar room, lived in and comfortable and comforting; or like a luscious, lushly ripened, late summer fruit; or like an elegant and beautiful mansion on a hill, full of memory and love, its history gracing it with dignity, wisdom, and all the poignance of life;

—the way her mouth rested, in that recognizable, distinctive purse, with just a whisper of sadness, but retaining—as it somehow deeply satisfied me to see—that same small hint of impishness and lusty, carefree, innocent wildness that I had first perceived in her smile so many years ago;

—the way the cars flitted anxiously by on the street behind her, beyond the rain-wet glass, and the way that her gentle stillness and rich, warm, soft presence contrasted, like a strangely beautiful other world, with the lost and fugitive motion of those rush hour wanderers in the falling dark;

—the way I paid little attention to what she was wearing (though I seem to think, perhaps, it was a gray cotton sweater over a white—or was it purple?—blouse, with gray skirt), but more than once gazed, not too obviously but not entirely subtly, at her pale knee, tantalizingly visible beneath the fine grid of her sheer black stockings, and (especially at moments, toward the end of our visit, when the fading sunlight touched it just right) mysteriously, almost movingly, lovely to behold;

—the way her voice sounded exactly the same as it always had, an unchanged and unchanging resonance unique to her unrepeatable material being—and the way that, even though I had not remembered it distinctly, the sound of it filled me with fond recognition and made my heart feel tender, rather achingly so;

—the way she seemed sad, but not sad—content, or at least comfortable enough, with her life, yet somehow, in a way quite difficult to explain or describe, exuding, ever so faintly, a dim restlessness, perhaps not entirely perceptible even to herself;

—the way the gentle, meandering pleasure of our conversation did not depend on the subjects we discussed, or the liveliness of our speech or gestures—in hindsight, the meeting had a subtly bittersweet air, like rainclouds in spring, and, like those clouds, possessed a strange, silent electricity and quietly brooding energy—but rather on the unspoken yet deeply felt communion of our wandering, searching souls—wanderers no less than those harried, hurried commuters, but ours a wandering of an entirely different and more magnificent order—and the nebulous aura of that communion—which I know beyond any doubt that we both felt, like a small static shock from the stormclouded atmosphere, whenever our eyes met in tacit understanding—that beautiful, wondrous, effortlessly created space that contained only the two of us, for a brilliant and fleeting moment, at that little table.

*

I saw her once more, many years later, in winter.

She had been a widow for about a year. I had never remarried. We had always maintained contact over the years, sometimes more, sometimes less, but no matter how much or how little, we always remained very dear, very deep friends.

We went for a walk in the cemetery one chilly afternoon. A light snow fell upon us as we strolled, slowly, comfortably, hand in hand, among the tombstones.

She stopped before one particular stone. I held her hand as she stood still and silently shed a tear.

“You loved him very much, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, softly. Then, more firmly, “Yes, I did. He was a good man.”

“He must have been.”

I smiled at her gently and she returned my smile, grabbing my arm and squeezing my hand.

After a long moment, she let me know, without saying anything, that she was ready to go. We made our way back to the car, parked along the cemetery drive.

I opened the door for her. “Always the gentleman,” she said. “You’re so old-fashioned.”

We went somewhere for coffee after that, talked, didn’t talk. It didn’t much matter. We just liked to be together.

“What’s so funny?” she said.

I shook my head. “You know, sometimes I think I remember exactly what you were wearing the first time we met, and other times I haven’t got a clue.”

“Well... that was a long time ago.”

“I know. I know you were wearing a skirt and blouse, but for the life of me I can’t remember the colors. Sometimes I think it’s this, sometimes that, other times I just don’t know.” I sighed. “Memory is such a damned funny thing.”

“I remember what you were wearing.”

“Really?”

She laughed, and I delighted and marveled at the way her laughter sounded exactly—I mean, exactly—the same as it had sounded on the day I first heard it, so many years ago.

“No, not really. But I do remember I thought you were very handsome.”

I half smiled, half frowned. “You did?”

“Very much so.”

“Well. That is… good to know. And you know what? You look exactly the same.”

“Oh, listen to you. Now I know your memory doesn’t work.”

“Okay, so maybe you don’t look exactly the same after, what? Forty some odd years? But, in all truthfulness, dear lady, you are just as beautiful as the day we met. And that I do remember, most certainly and most clearly."

She smiled, gently and with just a whisper of sadness. "Yes," she said quietly. "There are some things you just never forget."

Though we spent most of that visit at the coffee shop, my main memory of the day is of the two of us, she and I, at the graveyard, holding hands.

A leaf whirling slowly, brown and brittle and broken, from an unseen tree.

A few flakes of falling snow, transiently gracing the air between our faces as we looked into each other's soulssouls, as we half-joked, that had both always been old.

A fugitive ray of sun, passing briefly as the clouds moved in the waiting heavens.

But, more than anything, I remember the memories I held in my head as we walked—life, it seems, ever more full of them

of a tender snowdrop

a rapturously bursting magnolia

a dark, rich, finely aged wine

a snowy angel, glowing with a strange, solemn hope in the winter dusk

two stars, their orbits fatefully woven together in a mysterious cosmic dance, like an elaborate, elliptical, elegant ballet

always in the shadows of each other's life and thoughts, inhabiting different worlds, but appearing to each other every now and then, on certain rare and transcendent occasions

terribly, wondrously, longingly

like ghosts.



*


Steven Holland
June 2014

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Summer of Martin


On Memorial Day last year I finished editing the manuscript of my first novel, The Bluebird of Happiness. My intention at the start of last summer was to write (or at least to begin writing) my follow-up novel, Rainbow. I did indeed make a brilliant start, but, due to struggles with depression, my progress was sporadic. I have done some occasional work on the story since then, having amassed 13,000 words so far, and, as the summer of 2014 arrives, I hope to catch a wave of renewed inspiration and vision and to ride it as far as I can go--perhaps all the way to Rainbow's end, or at least much further along the arc.

I sometimes feel rather like an actor when I write my stories, inhabiting and identifying with my characters, in some sense "becoming" them in my mind. Since my fiction is primarily written in the first person, it perhaps has a greater affinity for dramatic forms than it does the objective style of the omniscient third-person narrator. For the most part, I do not report what he or she did or said as much as I pretend to be him or her, and to speak in their voice. So, in a very real sense, I am acting when I write, although my performance is expressed through the written rather than the spoken word.

I am starting to feel that with my second novel, I will perhaps take my "acting" beyond its usual level, that level where it exists entirely within my head and so is not visible to the outside world. In other words, in order to understand and therefore communicate who Martin is, I will perhaps, to some degree, attempt to "play" him in real life. Call it "method writing".

Of course, just as with any acting, this should not be interpreted to mean that Martin is me (i.e., merely a fictionalized version of his author). Martin is his own person, and even I do not fully know who he is. Rainbow is, in fact, as I have often stated, an attempt to explore (though not definitively answer) that very question. Any impersonation I may do of Martin Lane is a part of my investigation of this singular and compelling character that, for reasons I do not yet fully comprehend, I feel driven to show forth into bodily existence through the magic art of writing.

One thing I cannot readily imitate about Martin at this point is to inhabit his physical environment, which is in my home state of Florida. But lately I have begun asking myself "What would Martin do?" if he were, say, in Missouri? The question has opened up avenues by which I might more closely connect life and art, by thinking creatively about how I might parallel some of Martin's ways in a different regional environment.

In any case, Rainbow is not a regional novel, but an American one, and thinking about all this is helping me to see all the more clearly the common experiences Martin and I may share by virtue of the fact that we both live in the U.S., which in turn helps me to perceive the qualities that make this an American novel and an American story, despite its strong regional flavor.

The theme of home, always central to the story, is becoming ever further developed and elaborated in my mind. I am beginning to understand more fully the philosophical reasons for Martin's strange lifestyle, and to see how it is a physical manifestation of his metaphysical lostness.

The dreamy Aurora Nightingale, already a character of primary importance in Bluebird, is lately growing into an ever fuller and richer personality in my imagination, perhaps not so much a further development of her self in the first book as an entirely different iteration (which is also true of the other major characters that carry over from the first novel, none more so than Martin himself). Intimately linked to the evolution of her character, Martin's ambiguous yet deep relationship with Aurora is becoming all the more compelling, intriguing, and richly suggestive to me.

Lastly, I must confess that, in the year and more that Rainbow has been developing in my mind, I have sometimes "feared" that it might come to surpass Bluebird, in terms of either its actual quality or its reception, or both. I am no longer afraid of that. Not because I doubt the quality of Rainbow, but because of the opposite, as I feel more and more that Rainbow may in fact be, on average, the better novel (just as Huckleberry Finn is widely considered superior to the still classic Tom Sawyer).

But now, instead of fearing that my sophomore novel might overshadow its predecessor, I am beginning to feel that Rainbow will only more greatly illuminate its point of origin. 


Monday, May 19, 2014

Night, Day



My radiant moon—
    Your adoring sun

I

I will seek thee, rarest
    (O bright and beauteous star)
and will find thee waiting in the night

you, trembling, turn (O fairest grace)
—take my hand (and)
    lead me with witching eyes
where love’s darkest beauty lies

draw me down (down)
—into your longing depths
    (oh sweetly, siren, sing)
to float, to flow, to dream
(down) your dark, forgetful stream

you upon me (my sighing laurel)
    kiss upon kiss
    bliss on bliss
love on blessèd love

II

and I, like lofty Apollo (rise)
    lift you (O my glorious love, my glory)

to an airy metaphysic height
where we (so wild and light)
shall ever love the day (so pure and bright)
and love all the days

where we ever may (bask)
in the golden gods’ delight

oh, to lavish…

i upon thee (my beloved muse)
    kiss upon kiss
    bliss on bliss
love on blessèd love


*

Steven Holland
May 19, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Darkness Clouds

This is one of my early poems, written in late March 1997. This poem was an artistic breakthrough for me, as I devoted far more time and effort to its perfection than I had ever done with any poem before. In this poem I also began to experiment more with imagery and syntax, as well as with alliteration, subtle musical rhythms, and other poetic devices that went well beyond the basic rhyme and meter of song lyrics and other simple poetry I had written up until that time. In many ways, I consider the composition of this poem to mark my transition to becoming a true poet. That is not to say that I was necessarily a great, or even a good, poet (I must leave that judgment for others to make), but it is to say that I had become, objectively speaking, a real poet, and not a mere writer of verse. In hindsight, it is almost as though I had discovered how to use the sorcerer's wand of the magical poetic arts--still just a novice apprentice, but suddenly realizing: Oh! That's how it works! 

Seventeen years later, it surprises me a little to realize that there is still much I like about this little poem (that is not the typical reaction to revisiting one's early, formative artistic works, many others of which I wish I could delete from existence). Other than reciting it at a few poetry readings back in the day, and including it in a self-published (is there any other kind?) chapbook that only a few friends and family ever saw, this is its first publication.


*    *    *

Darkness Clouds


Darkness clouds—whisper,
 
enchant me with your softness sad.
 
Melancholy heights—
 
paint my purple passions,
 
sing my mournful dreams.
 
Electric sorrow sky—
 
reflect my violet hopes,
 
echo my shadowed desires.
 
This cloudness longing,
 
this ethereal ache—
 
translate liquid dark,
 
interpret buried rain.
 
Release catharsis showers—
 
flowers bloom
 
where you weep.
 
Let me lie beneath
 
your sad shadow-fall.
 
Water me as you do the grass—
 
with your tears so soft
 
and sweet.




Monday, May 12, 2014

The Rainbow Report: May 12, 2014

 
 
It's mid-May now, so that must mean it's time once again for my mid-May Martinmania. And surely enough, just like this time last year, my inspiration for the novel known as Rainbow is in the ascendant. Why else would I be experimenting with designing book covers for a novel of which I have so far written only 13,000 words?
 
One thing I know is that I am determined to write this thing, one way or the other--whether it needs to be written, slowly and tortuously, in the erratic fits and starts which have seemed to characterize its progress thus far, or, more hopefully, in a steady drive of inspiration that will carry the novel through to its completion this summer.
 
Of course, that is what I hoped for when I started writing the story at the beginning of last summer, but in any case, I am not set on that timeframe of completion as a definite goal. As I have stated before, this is my art, and it must be given the time it needs to grow and develop and evolve in an organic and natural way. I must have faith in Rainbow that it will continue to reveal itself and, through my hands, realize itself in its own good time.
 
Lately the story has in fact been doing just that, continuing its wondrous unfolding in my mind "like some kind of crazy, beautiful, glorious flower" (as one character describes Martin).
 
One quality of the story that helps me to maintain faith in it and in the value of writing it--no matter the difficulty, the daunting grandeur of the ambition, and the occasional loss of vision and inspiration--is what I might call its "untranslatability". One of the texts that inspires and underlies the novel is Whitman's line "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable." 
 
I see this line as being pertinent both to Martin as a character, in the sense that he is a mystery who cannot be contained by any simple definition of who he is as a person, and also to the novel itself, in the sense that Rainbow cannot be contained by any simple definition of what it is as a story.
 
I think that this quality is something it shares with many other literary works that rise above formula and conventional expectations and standard categorizations, and this is what I mean when I say that the quality of "untranslatability" helps me to maintain faith in the novel. I mean that it helps to remind me that this is one of the best ideas I have ever had, that I have here something original and fresh and new, something that might even be (as it indeed feels to me) powerful and grand (or, as a friend put it, "monstrous and majestic"), and that this story is a living thing, i.e., a story with a sparkling, vigorous life of its own, as Bluebird was (and still is... literary works always live as long as they have readers who bring them back to life, in an endless variety of iterations, with each individual reading).
 
I myself cannot explain or define this novel Rainbow. I can scarcely understand, at an intellectual level, what the story is about, why it is such a powerful vision for me, or why I feel so compelled to write it. That inability to adequately articulate the concept is not because it is devoid of substance, but indeed the very opposite: its substance (speaking here only of the idea that presents itself to my mind, not of my actual work) is, on the contrary, so full, so rich, and so deep, that it does not permit itself to be reduced to any simple explanation or summarization.
 
The closest thing I can compare it to is a fairy tale, or, perhaps even better, a myth. It centers on the character of Martin Lane, an artist and poet, and, to the extent that one may summarize what Rainbow is "about", it is largely about who Martin is, and the way in which he gradually discovers and expresses who he is. It is like a fairy tale in that Martin seems to transform, or rather to realize (both in the sense of "become aware" and in the sense of "make real"), himself, from something apparently ordinary and plain into a wondrous and magical being.
 
I do not mean that the story is a fantasy; I use the term "fairy tale" metaphorically. As I said, however, I think the word "myth" might be a better instrument to capture the nature of this tale. Martin Lane is a mythic figure, and his story is of mythic proportions. Despite his uniqueness, mysteriousness, and strangeness, I believe that Martin can also stand for human beings in general, a symbol of the uniqueness, mysteriousness, and strangeness of each one of us.
 
There is far more to the story, and far more to its mythic nature, than this one aspect can possibly suggest. The novel is "about" a multitude of things, and is also, above and beyond and encompassing all of those things, about one thing. That one thing I can only explain by writing the novel itself. I cannot give words to that one thing other than the words (every last one of them) of Rainbow.
 
In other words, Rainbow is, like Martin Lane, untranslatable.