Rhinelander District Library,
July 20, 2015
“On the Written Word.”
J.S. Kresge, founder of the national chain was invited by the Harvard Business School to honor him by naming a building after him. (I’m guessing he’d plonked down a big donation.) The big day came, he was introduced, stood, went to the lectern, politely thanked his hosts, and told the audience, “I never made a dime talking.” He then returned to his seat, and sat down, his speech done.
I won’t do that tonight, but it makes the point that most novelists keenly feel and understand — writing is an antisocial activity with a highly social output. By antisocial I mean the work is the work and has to be done alone, not by talking about it — but by doing it. It can amount to many years or even decides before the writer sees a result, if ever. WARNING: If you seek instant gratification, avoid this profession.
Professional writers are first and foremost, readers, with almost no exceptions. Dr. Seuss understood this when he advised, “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go.”
Let me say at the outset, in this most appropriate setting, that a community’s library is its biggest, most inexpensive travel agent, bus line, airline, and cruise line, all rolled into one. You don’t have to get on a slow boat to get to China, or a rocket to go to Mars. You have only take out a free book and make the trip on your own time. Show me a better bargain. People who say they can’t afford to travel are not thinking. The library is designed and intended to help people travel and grow mentally and emotionally. It is a social center for people to gather and share and support each other, and as do churches and certain taverns in the north, surely libraries save the sanity and perhaps even the lives of some souls in need.
Libraries are essentials, not luxuries, a kind of heart of the community and what person, or community, can live without a heart?
Let me tell you up front that I am going to talk at some length tonight about Shakespeare, that incomparable playwright who will have been in the ground four centuries come next spring. I promise not to explicate a play. But I am going to talk some about him as a writer, and about the time in which he lived and wrote, and why he remains relevant not just to we who are readers, but because he is an important part of the fabric of our entire culture. More on the Bard later.
Before there was the written word, there was only the spoken word and we need to noodle on that for a moment. Words in the air are no more permanent than mayflies, which usually live only 24 to 48 hours. Spoken words linger briefly in the ears of those who hear them, and mostly fade away after that.
Words written down? They last forever – depending on what they are written on and with, and what they are stored on. For example, there are cave paintings in France estimated at 25-30,000 years old. We don’t really know what they mean. Perhaps they were intended to tell a hunting story, or they might have been a prayer or entreaty to the gods of the day, but the point is that the pictures on stone are still with us to see and ponder. But the words spoken by the people who drew the pictures? Fuhgeddaboutid: They’re gone forever.
Written language changed the course of human beings on the planet. Gutenberg changed things even more.
Recently I awoke earlier than my normal 0400 and there I sat, staring at a sinking full moon, knowing it would shrink over the next few days, then disappear from the visible sky until the next cycle reasserted itself.
This reminded me of local Baraga County, Michigan lore, which advises not to plant until after the first full moon in June – and I figured out only this year that this ditty means don’t plant until the sky is entirely dark again. This dawned on me because this time around we had two 28-degree nights right at the full moon itself.
Despite humankind having walked on the moon, and fetched ultra-cool, very dead rocks and junk back to Earth, we in the U.P. do not look to technology and high science as much as to forms of common sense and word-of-mouth traditions proven over time. I’m guessing Rhinelanderian Hodags are quite similar in such things.
Modern science gives us charts and statistics and lasts and firsts, and fancy graphs, and POWERPOINT Pablum, with means and medians and averages, and high and low temperatures over time, and despite all this, the only wisdom that pertains in our community is that of the old saw of the first full moon in June. Our timing then is not guided by a reverence for science but by the pithy wisdom of the storyteller, who sometime along the bumpy paths of the past, reduced accumulated local experience to a particular moon phase.
This got me to thinking about how story tellers once served an important function in disseminating not just gossip and local news, but actionable information, like when is the best time to plant, such wisdom accumulated by talking to many who knew and finally one person, sometime somewhere, pulling it together into a nice tight aphorism.
By tradition, storytellers passed on not just their own experience, but through collective experience and information and personal observations, gleaned during their travels. Over time storytellers came from two broad groupings, geographic travelers, such as sailors, and fixed-ground types, like farmers, or ranchers.
All human beings crave stories: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we bound for in this life or the next? What else can we be? I don’t know the deep psychological reasons, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the Bible has remained in print for as long as it has because it is one gigantic story answering the questions I just posed, two long stories strung together in two major chunks, the Old and New Testaments.
Ironically it was Gutenberg’s press and mechanical printing that facilitated the global spread of the Bible and its gospel, yet churches and monks who copied manuscripts for a living at that time fought against the printing press as spawn of the devil, even referring to printing as a black art. Obviously this spirited and mean-minded resistance was more economic and personal than a universal concern for human souls.
I find myself sometimes thinking about how story-telling and fiction writing relate to each other. Many people, if not most, probably consider them to be the same thing, but the serious Big L Lit-rah-chuh critics would beg to differ.
Storytelling is defined as oral, and although the story may be entirely contrived – a fiction — it is considered different to critics and to them, a far less artful form than writing stories. Even those who do write stories, no matter how engaging, fantastic, edifying or interesting are sometimes pooh-poohed as mere story-tellers, far lesser beasts in the pantheon of lit-rah-chumps.
A change in the nature of fiction itself began to dawn once we got clear of the anchors of religious dogma and church control dictating what folks could think, write, and read.
The shift began to show around the Renaissance and subsequent centuries have seen various fads and approaches to the written word, realism, fantasy, first-person, third-person, yackety-yak, big stories squeezed down to small cuts of life stories.
As an author I believe in making my readers work to put some of their own ownership and sweat equity into what they are reading. There are techniques for this. For example, I have over a decade given readers very little detail of what my protagonist Grady Service looks like, other than he’s big and tall. I do this is in order to invite you to create the picture in your mind that pleases you.
If we went back to Elizabethan times, those times of Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe and Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I and all the rest of the crowd, we would soon discover a shared belief that a person’s voice is the connective tissue between mind, body and spirit — between this world and the next. Because most people could not read, the voice was an important path to knowledge. Put another way, what you said back then had real weight. It meant something more than filling space or time. Your words were who you were, spoken or written. If you disconnected yourself from the truth of what you were saying, you would pay for it in the next life. What you said here, mattered now and for what came next.
To give one’s word was to give part of one’s self, and how different are our lives now where most of the time we are disconnected from language. These days we seem to believe that speech inconsistency brings small consequences, good or bad; we blather long without thinking and seem to have little sense that not speaking truth as we saw it, was once connected to honor, a long dead ideal for most folks.
Shakespeare understood that people have their own private histories which drive them, and which invariably surface, sometimes in odd ways. All humans seem to teem with unconscious thoughts and desires and often we have no clue of the reasons fueling our conscious thoughts and desires.
Shrinkles: Okay this is a word from the wondrous Limpy Allerdyce, by which he means shrinks, and he makes no distinction between psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, neurobiologists or school counselors. These Shrinkles tell us that we’re driven by thoughts which are 5 percent conscious and 95 percent unconscious, and that life is about continuous, frustrating change.
We modern first world humans have evolved and developed socially and culturally to a lifestyle that emphasizes group security to survive. One of the reasons I love the UP and northern Wisconsin is that there is much more weight put on self -reliance and individualism and, while people are ready to step in and help when they are needed, they rarely throw themselves at others, or invade their space uninvited.
The fact is that we are a combination of both unique individual and social creatures, and most of us, (even the most successful among us) are at best often muddling along, trying to fool and soothe ourselves into thinking we are in control.
Think here of all of us tonight as ants on a log, hurtling down the Colorado River, and each of us certain in our hearts that we are steering.
That’s mankind for you.
But there isn’t a religious recipe or a philosophical one, or a scientific algorithm, or anything else that, if we obey it, will absolutely give us the answer. We’re on that log, remember? Life at its very best is a crapshoot which we each have to cope with as best we can, be we Pope Francis, Scott Walker or Donald Trump. Overarching this is a sense of helplessness, and now and in Shakespeare’s time there was a constant drumbeat of organized religion ordering the have-nots to suck it up, and accept poverty and misery in this life in exchange possibly for a better next life — and all the while the rich got richer and controlled the people making the religious pronouncements and rulings.
In England, starting with Henry VIII, the king was head of the religion and the country, his crown granted to him by God and so his politics and religion became one and the same. Jews and Muslims and “whatevetewims” had to convert or die. Eventually Catholics and Protestants started killing each other in droves and all of this stimulated by organized political religion.
Which is why our founding fathers said “No way, Jose” to a state religion. Wherever such things have existed, there have been serious problems and abuses, including secular state religions like National Socialism (Nazis), Japanese Emperor Worship and Communism.
In Queen Elizabeth I’s day, when someone put their hand on a Bible and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and only the truth, the chance of the witness lying was negligible because to tell a lie meant your soul was headed for eternal damnation – perdition. Nobody wanted that.
In our time, four hundred years later, when we see a politician or other official swearing to tell the truth we’re pretty close to certain he or she is lying, if not by commission, certainly by omission. Truth in modern times seems to reduce to a fast calculation: Do I tell the whole truth, partial truth, an absolute lie, or should I not even answer, and opt for silence? The choice is based on what is potentially the best tactic for that particular moment. Truth and candor are rarely factors in the decision. Will I go to jail may be part of the calculation, but even that’s not particularly germane or even compelling.
When you’ve spent as much time as I have in trucks and squad cars with police you come to understand that most people, never mind their race, age, or socioeconomic status, lie to cops, some in small ways, some in large, but almost all try to disassemble. It is not a comforting thing to learn and it makes me amazed at how even-keeled and non-judgmental our cops remain over long careers of such interactions.
And five years from now if it comes up again, the calculation and response will be rejiggered to fit those circumstances. Life these days seems too often to be about right now, not the past or the future and this is short-sighted and such human frailty is wonderful fare for a novelist.
This just-described squirrelly world is where we novelists reside and thrive. I like to tell people that I get paid to lie. Which is factually accurate because I make up the stuff I write. It’s not real, yet I present it as real and you likewise read it as real. So is fiction a lie or not? I often tell people that I lie for a living. That’s a joke. Sort of.
Franz Kafka posed the following syllogism: “Art depends on truth, but truth being indivisible, cannot know itself. To tell the truth is to lie. Thus the writer is truth and yet, when he speaks, he lies.” This is called Kafka’s Paradox.
The word “fiction” is old and comes down to us from Middle English, say a thousand years back, the period roughly between the 12th and 15th centuries. In Middle English, the word meant “invented statement.” The Middle English word had developed out of so-called Old French, which in turn came from a combination of the Latin noun fictio and the Latin verb fingere, meaning “to contrive.”
So here we are, a thousand years later, and yep, that’s what I do, I contrive. And sometimes my contrivances make people really unhappy or quite uneasy.
Or, books can open new doors for folks. That’s the best.
Last week I had a note from an Australian gentleman, whose son works in Grand Rapids. He came over for a visit, and having read some of my books, took a quick run up to the eastern UP. Here’s what he wrote to me, “I was pressed for time but got time to see Paradise, Tahquamenon Falls, and Newberry. I was able to experience the snowy bleakness of the wilderness as well as the incredible iciness of the lakes. Thank you for the books, through which you have opened up a new world for me. Regards, Ian.
Hunters sometimes whine that I tend to treat the hunting fraternity — and why is it always inevitably described as a fraternity? In any event, some hunters think I treat their tribe unfairly because I don’t show how most hunters follow the law and are law-abiding.
The great writer and teacher Wallace Stegner once wrote, “Lawlessness, like wilderness, is attractive.”
First I’m certain most hunters of the goody-twoshoe school have a little, if any, sense of how much actual cheating and lying goes on oot dere in bush, eh? I usually counter with this line of thought: Your minister’s homilies and sermons, do they regale the congregation with tales of people being good and following the rules, or are they about people doing wrong and getting on-course corrections? Is the Bible only about the good people of the past? How about the nightly news? People don’t want to know who is walking the legal line, they want to know about outliers. I don’t know the reason, I just know it to be true.
Historians and sociologists believe that Elizabethans actually experienced speech, that is, they felt it in their bodies as they said the words. Speech and language were real and personal. For some of us community seems to be reducing to so called-social networks. For Elizabethans it was among real people, face-to-face, with bad breath and body odor, but eye-to-eye, and in the flesh. Conversation was then not just a polite time-passer but a key component of life and learning. You talked seriously with others to learn, yes sometimes hoping to persuade, but also to be open to persuasion, to help you to see better and to understand more.
And now? We often tend to bash our first thoughts onto the keys of FACEBOOK and think that’s conversation. We watch reality shows that are in large part blocked out and scripted and pretend they are real. We have landed in fantasyland and don’t seem to know it.
For Elizabethans, conversation was about living life fully, and growing and staying connected to others. For us it’s far less and we much prefer to operate from easy and insipid, short-cut profiling labels. You ever hear young folks refer to others as dog-boy or hat-girl or some other trivial and silly profiling label? Adults are no better. We label each other conservative, liberal, progressive, whatever, and whatever word we pick, it is loaded with a whole bag of handy identifiers, thus a liberal is an all-in- -one code-word for a godless, socialistic, gun-hating, flag-burning, fetus-killing, unpatriotic son of a bitch who is in essence an enemy depending on which silly label we affix to our own foreheads.
Listen: here’s what writers know. The mind fights for survival by clutching stubbornly to what it knows and initially sees any push to change as an attack. Our whole country seems reduced to what I used to call salesman-think: you either buy my product or you don’t. If you do, you’re my friend. If you don’t, you’re my enemy and there is no middle ground or the possibility of it. You’re with me or you’re agin me.
What writers can see is that several things can be true simultaneously and harmoniously if the mind will think about them in a reasoned way.
I have always told students and aspiring writers that there are all sorts of histories that we have to contend with as human beings.
First, there is our own personal history, which nobody knows but us (and even then mostly we guess at it and constantly re-invent ourselves).
Second, there is family history and that mainly concerns the people close to us, our blood-lines and may or may not be known to others.
Third, there’s our neighborhood or community history.
Fourth, there’s often a formal written history at any and all of these levels, though rarely do the written accounts carry the full and unabridged story.
Fifth, informal unspoken history at any of these levels and known only to a discrete number of people, who don’t willingly or easily share it.
This is the information environment in which we try to live and find our path through and it is a writer’s job to map these paths and routes and entertain, edify, or inspire, or all of these things. Artists wade in all of this and try to give voice to stories.
If you’ve read Harper Lee’s newly published Go Set A Watchman, you may remember early in the book Jean Louise, “Scout,” is returning for her annual two-week holiday in her hometown in Alabama. She is on a train and recalling the local histories and after one particular memory about the man her town is named for during the Creek Indian Wars, she reminds herself, “Recorded history’s version does not coincide with the truth, but these are the facts, because they were passed down by word of mouth through the years, and every Maycombian knows them.”
Miss Lee is talking about one of those “other” forms of history that writers revel in and use.
Most of us in this room are of a generation that got most of its information by reading newspapers, magazines, books (and cereal boxes if we were short of material).
Writing is a lot like trout fishing a river, and by this I mean you have to be learn to “read” a river in order to find fish. It is instructive that you don’t often see the whole fish. You have to learn to see the fish by picking up on small bits and pieces and letting your brain do the calculation to let you know you are seeing a fish. This is an acquired skill some never can manage, much less master. Learning to connect small bits to a larger whole is what writers spend their lives trying to perfect. Readers too.
As a writer I feel real kinship with the Japanese nature poet, Basho, not only because I used to spent a great deal of time in Japan and came to love the country, but because I am a wannabe naturalist and a half-baked poet, and because I admire Basho, who was not just as a poet and writer and hiker, but because he was also the son of a samurai, same as I am. Basho was a great poet and a fine prose stylist as well. He lived 1644-1694 and hiked and wandered (he called it “wayfaring”) all over Japan for his poetic inspiration. Think about this: I use the U.P. in almost exactly the same manner and I even call the blog on my web site, Joe-Roads.
I, like Basho-san, believe dreams to be important components in the writing process. We are not alone in this. Many poets use dreaming in their work. Shakespeare knew this and wrote in Sonnet 27:
Weary with toil I hasted me to my bed
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when the body’s work’s expired.
For me, all books are dreams and tricks, and their writers are magicians. I say this knowing full well that we all sit down to read a novel knowing that the story is made up, and that, while it is constructed, a lot of its substance can look, feel, and sound real, yet it’s neither reality nor history. For example, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels was a novel, not a history and same holds for the movie Gettysburg, which was based on Shaara’s novel. Both the book and the movie felt almost more real than real. Remember Kafka’s Paradox?
What we are talking about this evening is in my mind a kind of magic, and like all magic, it rides on misdirection, which is to say, we want the magic trick to work, and we don’t want to think too hard about how it works. What happens then is that we as readers prepare ourselves to be magically graced. This was once called the suppression of simple truth. The late Samuel Coleridge, creator of the “Ancient Mariner,” was first to call this phenomenon “suspension of disbelief.”
Authors find multiple paths to originality, but inventing a whole-cloth plot from scratch is only one approach. The great bard Shakespeare almost always used work of others before him, or even some sources roughly contemporary to him. Only his poems and sonnets were wholly original.
Shakespeare had a remarkable eye for the untapped potential in stories and tales of others, and he made those his raw materials and churned them through his creative filter, which was not so much focused on plot as it was on characterization. What the Bard did was make characters come alive with many words he created himself. In Hamlet, for example, he used 600 words that he never used in any other play. Over the course of his career he invented more than 1,700 of our modern common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising wholly original words. I am not talking about strange ancient now-dead words, but vocabulary you and I use on a regular basis: gloomy / laughable / majestic/ lonely / radiance / hurry / generous / frugal / critical /courtship /zany/undress / rant. He made new words and expected audiences to understand them in context. Many of those 1,700 words fell into common use and are still used by people right here in this library this evening.
The point of this is, that those words of his from more 400 years ago still live, in me, and in you. How’s that for impact and relevance?
Here’s a factoid. Many, if not most, actors in Shakespeare’s day could neither read nor write. They learned their parts from having the parts read to them and memorizing what they heard.
It seems to me that a lot of Americans are not interested in learning or celebrating our differences as a way to get a viewpoint on how others think as a way of shedding light on our own thoughts. We only want to hear more of what we already believe. Remember the function of conversation in Shakespeare’s day?
To too many Americans, language and reading are just not important.
In a previous life I was involved in what was then called recombinant DNA research (or genetic engineering, or gene splicing, etc) and we were also involved in the so-called “living patent issue” in which we were trying to patent a soil organism that produced an antibiotic called lincomycin. This led to news stories about creating new lifeforms in laboratories and this in turn led to a telephone call from a young reporter excitingly asking, “What happens if there’s another Andromeda Strain?”
I said, “There’s not been a first one. You’re talking about a novel and a movie – you know, a fiction?”
She paused and said, “I know thaaat, but what if there’s another one.”
I said, “Which, another novel or movie?”
She sighed heavily and hung up.
See, values are always changing. Back to Shakespeare’s time, the theater was tremendously popular with all social classes, but it was not considered by the gatekeepers of the day’s culture to be genuine or legitimate art. Poetry was, theater, nuh-uh.
Shakespeare’s originality was his huge ability to make compelling a pretend-story — a contrivance if you will– but unlike today, he made his stories in the form of plays, not novels. Although many of the basic stories he chose were in large part already known and even previously rendered by other authors, including his contemporaries, he brought them to life with his own unique fire and chemistry. What the Upstart Crow could do, like no other writer of his day, was make the old and worn look, feel, and sound new, and in doing so, make them come shockingly alive to his audiences.
What made his work so compelling? More than any other writer of his time he took his audience directly inside the minds of characters, and did it in a way no author had ever done before him. Kit Marlow had made a start down this avenue, but was killed in a bar fight before he could develop it. Delving into the individual mind was just not done then or before. This was a huge shift or swerve in editorial direction, which now seems pretty common to all forms of our literature.
Scholar James Shapiro has written, “The sense of inwardness that Shakespeare creates by allowing us to hear a character as intelligent as Hamlet wrestle with his thoughts is something no dramatist had yet achieved. Shakespeare had written memorable soliloquies from early on in his career, but as powerful as these were, they fall short of the intense self-awareness we find in Hamlet’s voice. The breakthrough is one that Shakespeare might have arrived at sooner or later, but it was given tremendous impetus at the time he was writing Hamlet by his interest in a new literary form, l’essai.”
We learn from biographer Sarah Blakewell that French author Michel de Montaigne created the new genre called the essay by using the plentiful small thoughts and material of his own life rather than either pure philosophy or pure invention. This French publication took place in the late 1580s and it seems likely that Shakespeare either read or was at least aware of Frenchman’s monumental and innovative work. It is this sense of looking inward from both Montaigne and Shakespeare that put literature on the road to where it is now, and this is why we still read both authors and their works.
The major thing here is that literature has, with Shakespeare, moved from the external and large to the internal — an astonishing leap. Remember, there was a time not too long before this when simply asking Who am I? could be punishable by death. One church’s view ruled supreme, and no questions or its authority, doctrines or pronouncements were brooked.
My reputation as a writer began with me placed as an internationally unknown writer of a New York Times bestseller suspense novels and has since skyrocketed to that of a regionally obscure local author of cult classics.
I am known primarily now as a writer of mysteries, serial stories the French called Roman feuilleton. (FOI-e-tone). This is the form that the famous and late French sociologist and ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss called, “the ultimate debased state of the novel as a literary genre.”
Ouch. Such a generous description brings one up short.
So no doubt you are sitting here wondering why this writer of Roman feuilleton dares bring up the most exalted Shakespeare? How dare he? Old Claude would no doubt object, but he’s deep into his dirt nap, and I’m not.
Our great Michigan author Jim Harrison recently told an interviewer that prose is “all about character,” and that his stories are driven by language, not plot. The key, Harrison says, is to find the voice of the character and let that voice tell the story, or guide you through.
Harrison’ s right, and tonight I am going to share with you a very brief look at how a novel is born and I hope it will cast some light on the importance of dreaming and reading. Make no mistake about it, Shakespeare, Harrison or Heywood, all or our stories are made, word by word.
And here’s a great historical irony: When Shakespeare died in 1616, no one, not even the playwright, believed his writing would last, that he was a genius, or that future generations would celebrate him as the greatest author in the history of the English Language. As good ole Gomer Pyle used to say, SUE-PRAZZ! SUE-PRAZZ! SUE-PRAZZ!
This should be a reminder to us that ephemeral polls of popularity of the greatest and best and all that baloney are barely worth the paper they’re written on. Only time beyond us determines greatness. Why does Shakespeare matter? Because he is still here, every day, and not just in high school and college English classes.
While stories may seem to non-writers to materialize out of quasi-dream state, it’s the writer’s challenge to use his or her craft and skill with language to make sure the story he or she is telling grabs and holds the reader.
Author-critic Mary McCarthy once wrote: “We do really expect a novel to be true, not only true to itself –but true to actual life.” The reader not only makes believe that he or she believes a novel, but believes it substantially, as being continuous with or contiguous to real life, which is to say made of the same stuff and it is the presence of fact in fiction, of dates, and times, and places, and names, and distances that provide a kind of reassurance, a guarantee of credibility.
I try to tell my stories using what critics call a close third-person narrator, which means a free and indirect style.
Let’s delve briefly into mechanics here. Listen to this sentence: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” Use of the word “stupid” here begs the question: Whose word is this? It’s unlikely the author wants to call his character stupid merely for listening to some music in an auditorium. So what we have here is the author giving the word to the character without interrupting the flow of thought from the character’s mind. If the author chose to write in more conventional first person, he might have written something like, “It’s so stupid to be crying over this silly piece of Brahms, he thought.” But this last sentence is 12 words and the previous one is only 7, or 40 percent shorter, which makes the composition tighter and performs the alchemical trick of putting you directly into the character’s head, this achieved simply by using that one word, “stupid.” This is an example of why the craft and skills of writing are referred to as art, and why you will hear authors and good teachers emphasize that every word is important.
Novel-writing is a peculiar game and all of who are us immersed in it have similar, yet unique ways of approaching the task. The 10th Grady Service will be out next spring, under the title of Buckular Dystrophy. It had been my intention last winter to use this spring and summer to write the third entry in my other historical game warden series centered on a character called Lute Bapcat. But something kept gnawing at the back of my mind, wondering what happens to Grady after Buckular ends, because that one ends on a somewhat dark and nasty note.
A month or so ago I was re-reading David Landis Barnhill’s Basho’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho, and one morning just before sunrise, something jumped out at me. Here’s what happened: In his little ditty, entitled, “Preface to Lightning.” Basho wrote,
“At Honma Shume’s house, hanging on the back wall of a No stage, is a portrait of skeletons playing flute and drum. Is human life any different than the sporting of skeletons? Zhuangzi used a skull for his pillow and didn’t distinguish dream from reality – truly this evokes the character in our lives.”
The phrase, “sporting of skeletons,’ lept out to me and I have taken it for the title of the 11th Grady Service book. Fits perfectly, though I can’t yet explain why or how because all but 50 pages of the book are still dog-paddling in my inner swamp, but my gut tells me it fits the story and all it involves, so for now I will stick with it, and frankly it feels so solid that I’m pretty sure this is the title for the next Woods Cop mystery. It feels quite good to give birth this largely painless way.
Most likely this happens in the winter of 2009, but I don’t have a specific start date set in my mind. All I know is that it comes after Buckular Dystrophy, which ends around New Year’s Day, 2009.
I woke up with four words in my mind, left the bedroom, sat down at the writing table, and scratched out the following words to begin the new novel:
“With his out-of-the-blue suspension from duty now in effect, the unexpected hiatus had left Grady Service with nothing to do after decades of action, his ship dead in the water, becalmed, perhaps permanently, and then came the headaches, sudden, blinding, painful, a hurt beyond the reach of any known drugs or therapies.
Endure, he told himself. Just get through this, but something deep down was also telling him not to sit back, to fight. And for one of the few times in his life he had no idea how or who, much less what.
Adding to the pain, he suddenly felt no identity, no purpose, was reduced to a lump of human protoplasm taking up valuable space on an overpopulated planet.
Limpy Allerdyce held the thing in two hands, like a supplicant to his master. “Dis take care dose headaches, Sonny, you betcha.”
“A human skull for Chrissakes?” What is wrong with this old man?
“Yah sure, you betcha.”
“How my ‘posed know, Ind’in? Dunno. Real old.”
“You know it’s against the law to possess human body parts.”
The old man winced. “Ain’t no meat on ‘er, jes old head bone.”
“Where in the Mosquito?
“Have to show youse. Don’t got words for place.”
“When did you find it?”
“Twinnyfuckin’ Questions? Wit’ youse’s old man in da way back.”
“My father knew about this?”
“Yah sure, he know all sorts places got ole bones, he don’t pay no attention.”
“He damn well knew where all the bars and taverns were.”
“You betcha, dey’re important to ‘im. Old bones, nobody give two shits. Youse need take dis fella, use ‘im for pillow.”
Service drew back in disgust. “I’m not sleeping on a skull.”
“Youse’s choice. Youse da one wit’ da head-pounders.”
“How do you know it’s from a man?”
“Who else gets seff kilt outten bush ? Take look, dat slicy t’ing dere, like knife, mebbe, tomahawk bonk on noggin, hey.”
Service looked, examined the thing, and after a while asked, “Is it clean?”
What was it Treebone always preached, “If nothing works, try something else.”
He doubted his old friend would stoop to putting a human skull under his head. No chance of that. But he would. What other choices were left?
This approach is a form of first person voice called free indirect style, a term probably only writers and students bother about (or need to), but it is one of the techniques for putting the reader into a character’s mind and emotions. The beauty of it is that as with the sentence with the “stupid tears,” you sense these are the character’s words, when in fact they are words the writer deliberately chose for the reasons we’ve talked about.
Another reason for using first person is that this technique is aimed at creating a sense of veracity, or truth. My protagonist Grady Service is an eye-witness, and he is testifying to you the reader that the things he is going through did indeed happen, even though you the reader know they did not happen, and that the story is fabricated.
Passion for fact in a raw state is a peculiarity of the novelist. Most of the great novels contain blocks and lumps of fact – stubborn, obstinate, unmanageable lumps, and chunks that provide the porridge of the tale, the things that stick to your ribs. Someone once wrote that probability judgments are higher for richer, more detailed scenarios, which may seem contrary to logic and common sense, because adding details make story-telling more persuasive yet less likely to come true.
The notion and link of fiction to truth was so important that in the early going of novel-writing, you had an author like Daniel Defoe telling his readers in 1719 that his book was a seaman’s actual account of his experiences being shipwrecked on isolated island. The Book was called Robinson Crusoe, and it was entirely fabricated by Defoe.
People, critics, and sundry media creatures often talk about my use of the U.P., not just as a setting, but as an overarching force or even a character in the stories.
As an author, I seek first to grab the collar of your attention, to give you the feel of something alive and moving ahead, as if you’ve just been Shanghaied onto an airplane or train. To do this, I orient and comfort you with geographical descriptions, names of towns, mountains, roads, landmarks, counties, rivers, everything, the so-called social topography. I want you quickly captured and on edge and curious, and of course, comfortable to the degree that you keep reading.
Description creates a comfort zone, a familiar site and place, but the Upper Peninsula itself is also a character with force because it is physically isolated, semi-wild, and like all such places, sociologists tell us, a magnet for extremes in personalities.
As the late Bernie DeVoto once wrote, “A wilderness does no coddling. You succeed or you die, fast or slow. Mother Nature reserves the upper hand and the last word.”
Matter-of-fact-carnage and brutality are an essential part of the fabric of wilderness life.
Here is an excerpt from a series of family memoirs about the settlers of Summit, Michigan (that famous frigid suburb of Herman) both of which are about 5 or 6 miles as the crow flies from our place.. The author writes:
“My mother recalled a neighbor boy by the name of Uno Niemi who was hanging on a pole close to the railroad tracks and fell down. The train passed over his legs and the boot with his leg still stuffed inside it was dragged about a quarter mile when it finally fell off. Uno’s brother, Rudolph Niemi, who was running along the tracks, came upon the boot and threw it aside, not realizing the boot still had a foot in it. Uno never made it to the hospital.”
Notice there is no fanfare, and almost no emotion in the telling. This is the sort of attitude that wilderness life breeds in those who choose to face it. Combat has a similar effect. In modern bumper sticker lingo we might say, “Shit happens.”
I try to start my stories as close to the end as I can, and let dialog tell the story as much as possible. I provide a minimum of description of characters, preferring to let your mind create a picture of your own invention. This way, you’re buying into and participating in creating the story that you’re reading. This is why books made into movies often fail — because the actors chosen for the roles look and sound nothing like the ones in your head. So it goes.
They’re different animals, books and movies, and to answer a question you may harbor, yes, I’ve been approached for movie deals. I have been approached repeatedly, which is all I have to say about that folderol.
Let me close the formal remarks with the words of Crowfoot, a Blackfeet warrior and storyteller:
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly
In the night. It is the breath of a buffalo
In the winter time. It is the little shadow
Which runs across the grass and loses itself
In the sunset.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote:
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.
Amen, Mr. Shakespeare. Ah the beauty of a life deep in words. Questions?