Dissecting the Frog

I recently read The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker, which I recommend for any sensible person who loves the English language. It debunks so many of the crumbling rules for writing that drag down our prose, and leaves intact the scaffolding that any writer needs to make herself clear. But the best and most useful things were his examples of beautiful prose, and the scalpel he took to them. Some very pretty passages were dissected to show off their moving parts; something my husband has suggested I do to our library on a few occasions.

With my husband’s encouragement, and Steven Pinker as guide, I’ll try breaking down a few of my favorites. With any luck, the process will train my subconscious to an inert sense of style, and limit my need for eighth, ninth, eleventeenth drafts. More likely, I’ll be just as fussy as I’ve ever been with any draft after the first, but perhaps I’ll know better what to do with it.

This is my favorite book. Ever.

I loved The True Deceiver. It was the winter book to contrast with Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, and while Summer is kindness between a grandmother and little girl, Deciever is a frigged story about two women from the opposite sides of everything finding a mutually beneficial relationship that utterly ruins them come spring. Their polar personalities can’t survive a shift in either direction, and the end leaves them both lost in themselves. It is a very quiet book, hung expertly together in a tiny snow-locked town, and the language is so tight that any excerpt will be wanting the rest of this book. (It was translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, so I’m super impressed with him as well. This book has no seams, no out of sort passages that might remind the reader that English was not its first language.) That being said, I’ve chosen this one near the beginning of the book as it illustrates the town and Katri Kling’s place in it.

“Inside the snow banks were deep, narrow tunnels where the children had dug hideouts for themselves during thaws. And outside stood their snowmen, snowhorses, formless shapes with teeth and eyes of bits of tin and coal. When the next hard freeze came, they poured water over these sculptures so they’d harden to ice.

One day Katri paused before one of these images and saw that it was a likeness of herself. They had found shards of yellowish glass for eyes and given her an old fur cap, and they’d captured her narrow mouth and her stiff, straight bearing. Attached to this woman of snow was a large snow dog. It wasn’t well done, but she could see that they meant it to be a dog, and a threatening dog at that. And crouched at the hem of her skirt, very small, was a dwarfish figure with a red potholder on its head. Mats usually wore a red wool cap in winter.”*

It may seem counter-intuitive to begin this experiment with a translation that I’ve already declared needs the rest of its parts to be truly beautiful, but I love the simplicity of this. It is very tempting to cloud every part of the story with as much poetry as possible. That can be done well, that can be very pretty, but in this the beauty comes from the story itself, not the lens through which we see it. Katri is a cold woman, this is a cold book; everything is ice. The only spot of true color is in the red cap worn by her brother’s tiny effigy; and in Katri’s frozen heart he is the only person who can not be reduced to numbers and yet he is a very small part of this story. (The yellow eyes do not count. Yellow is the color of sun through ice, and the “-ish” lessens its impact. Yellow in this passage is not a color.)

Dwelling on this small scene so early in the book is more than a bit of passive interest in the scenery. It sets Katri’s place in the story as an icy witch feared by children, and when the thaw comes with spring at the end of the book, we see her whole world crash through the ice.

*Jansson, Tove. The True Deciever (New York Review Books, New York)

easy peasey

Scenic Beach, Washington.

Scenic Beach, Washington.

I have a new story featured on Luna Station Quarterly! It’s new because it was posted today and it has never been published until now, but I wrote it about three years ago. Maybe more, my memory is hazy. I was going on a camping trip with some friends and we had the idea to tell each other stories around the campfire, and I wrote the (preliminary) story for A Sea Without Oysters in about an hour based on my impressions of Scenic Beach and memorized its rhythms so I could Are You Afraid of the Dark freestyle it over the fire. Perhaps throw some sand in the flames. That never happened. We ended up talking about terrible movies all night. Nothing lost, I had a great time, and I had a story that I wrote in an hour that didn’t sound like I rushed it. It sounded like I pulled it from something else, like I was recounting some old fairy tale I read a long time ago. That almost never happens to me. I edit EVERYTHING.

I think everyone has in them at least one or two stories that happen automatically, they lay themselves out in the perfect format, all the right language, rhythm and strength, put down with such ease that they read like something that’s always been. I think that’s why in (the comic) Sandman when Dream takes you to the library that holds all the books that everyone ever meant to write, and there’s a book from everyone, that idea holds water. These are good stories, I like these kind of stories. But these lightning-in-bottle stories can hurt. They feel so good that they trick you into thinking every story ought to feel that way.

I can’t pinpoint another writer’s lightning stories. I only know my own. I read through it again this morning at LSQ because I like to see a story in its home and I still really love it but it is not my favorite story I’ve written. My favorite story took a week of muddling through a haze of an idea for the first draft and another two weeks of editing to pain over verb placement just to ensure the story moves in time with the skittering nightmares that plagued the first week. I am not saying that my favorite work is my hardest, I do try to avoid such simple cliche. I am saying that I can not wait for lightning to set off every story. Some fires take work to start, to maintain, but the results of lightning and of work are the same. Lightning is beautiful. To capture it is magic, but work is reliable. Always there when you need it.

It’s easy to read a beautiful story and attribute it to lightning and assume that everyone’s got a rod but you. I read Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver before I read its introduction (because I’m a dummo who’s all “introductions are fer chumps, yo.”) and fell completely in love with every bit of it, then fell completely into despair because how could anyone hope to keep writing after Jansson channeled lightning like that? Then I read the introduction; she struggled with the book, worked stubbornly, laboriously. And it is my favorite book. To know that it did not come about by chance is an endless comfort because I can not depend on chance for anything.

I didn’t cut my feet on the oysters at Scenic Beach. I sliced through the sole of my foot on a stick jutting out of a sand dune in Oregon about ten years before my husband and I went swimming at Scenic Beach. If I tell that story, if I remember to, it will take work to reconstruct that beach, the sword fights with sticks, the faces around the campfire. Or, perhaps, that scar on my foot will be hit with lightning some day and take on its own life outside my brain. But now, right now, I’m stuck with a novel that needs it’s continuity checked. It’s going to be a lot of work.

Oh, and uh… if anyone wants to freestyle some campfire tales, hit me up.

Edward Eager

Or, Don’t Hide Those Roots

Edward Eager, author of Half Magic and its sequels, was my absolute favorite author when I was a kid. Well, he wrestled constantly with Roald Dahl, because Matilda was my absolute favorite book. In most of Eager’s novels, he made it a point to reference Edith Nesbit. He did it to point his readers to his own inspiration, and to insure that the kids who loved Katherine’s adventures in Camelot*, would get to enjoy Mabel’s feisty adventures in fooling the kids next door into thinking she’s a magic fairy tale princess (at least until the magic becomes real.)

I didn’t listen when I was a kid, but I’m glad he put that in there. I did eventually happen upon a copy of Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, and the name bit me, so I picked it up. I read it all in a night like I had done Half Magic when I first found that book as a kid. It was wonderful, even reading it at twenty five, rather than the recommended ten. It has since informed my own opinions on the construction of fairy tales, and both Edith and Edward are in my personal list of references, which I’ll highlight if the story draws directly from them.

In the interest of being thorough on this blog, I’d like to mention that this sentence in particular tends to appear somewhere in my mind (either on the forefront, or in the muddeldy scribbly back bits) pretty much any time I set out to write:
There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, almost anything can happen. -E. Nesbit, The Enchanted Castle

I wrote a story about stories called Lawrence in the Last Days of Knowing (written about in my last post, too, yeah, still thinking about it…) and of course I had a lot of names thrown around the narrative. Names I love, like Nabokov and Kafka, but there had to be one name that stood above the rest. The really important name was in the character’s mask that she wore to obscure her identity; it was a paper mache mask made from a tattered old paperback. It was the only book in the story that the character chose solely for herself. I had a couple names written down in that spot on the page, something to fill in later… I scanned my bookshelf to find the perfect one… and I was lost.

I had to make a choice. Did I want to reference some highly lauded name that I hardly care about, thus perpetuating the canonical literature (and lie about my own background as a reader and writer), or could I really muster the strength to say “This story is brought to you in part by Moominland Midwinter, and Viewers like You.” I could. I did. And I’m still a bad Edward Eager, I don’t think I ever said Tove Jansson’s name aloud. But I stuck with the book I loved, and the story was true for that, even when I was lying about other things.

That small bit of writerly strength appeared in my main character later on in this passage:
For a week, Lawrence filled notebooks with desperate comparisons of famous authors he barely remembered reading. Juvenile assessments of literature perfected were torn from notebooks and discarded in the corners of his increasingly depressing apartment. He had nothing. This latest list of books was no more insightful than the last.

The conviction I had in my roots fueled the story, even when the fore-parts of my head were working against it. My subconscious is a lot smarter than I am. My subconscious is closer in relation to the leviathan that runs through the blood of all humanity, so it damn well better be. (Yours is, too… listen to it.)

*Katherine had the best chapter when I was ten, but as an adult, I enjoy Jane’s bizarre adventure becoming a thoroughly different person in a strange and unfamiliar family who thought to name her “Constance” and force her into piano lessons. It’s a good thing to read whenever you’re worried about the choices you’ve made.