Tuesday, January 15, 2008
WRITTEN WORD 59 - Summation – Play within a Play
Sometimes in literature there is a play within a play, as in Hamlet, or Kiss Me Kate or A Chorus Line, or memoirs that take in the making of this or that production – as in Bob Fosse's life, or Clair Bloome's, or Francis Ford Coppola's. Some people in the workshops have written stories in which there are key subsidiary stories about studying with Stella Adler or Martha Graham. Some write stories in which the story inside the story is what is most important. In one notable case the destruction of the World Trade Center in the present, framed the murder in the past by Klansmen of the author's father. And to some readers there is always a play within a play -- an inner play, like an inner child, or something called the shadow side, or the capital "S" Subtext.
This book that is coming to an end is about the experience of writing – what helps, what hinders – and it is certainly better than those many books by people, many of them terrible writers, who think literary theory is the cat’s pajamas – dramatic arc, and rhetorical modes and things like the Seven Rules of Narrative, and the need for wrap everything up so neatly that every story contains the sort of closure that never exists in life. Wrap them up ever more tightly until they die.
There is a usually unbridgeable gap between theory and practice in writing – the gap between the art itself and the intellectualization of that art – a gap as big at that between a vibrant, echoing Hans Hoffman painting and a monograph by an art historian – or between a Beethoven sonata and a volume on music theory or appreciation – that gap between what is aroused by the works of Tolstoy or Graham Greene or Frank McCourt and the prattling of academic critics
And so within this book about writing there is the writer's story, the play within the play, which here is more important than the play in which it resides. For if writing is an art on a level with other forms of art it must have life. And the only life a writer can really know with any certain thoroughness is the writer's own.
I have written here about how my time in visual art – where line and form and color unfold in ways that always surprise the artist – taught me about writing. And that is something the carefully measured English professors in their ersatz Gothic lairs can never do.
I have told some of my own adventure stories and some of my own harder stories, and some of my coming to life stories. I have tried to depict some of the places of my past – bearing in mind Flannery O'Connor's dictum that the only writing that should be dismissed as pornography is writing that is not true to concrete reality, the medium by which the spiritual can be approached. Writing actual scenes that come form inside the writer is a definition of the spiritual – for this entails stepping into places of mystery where you cannot know beforehand what you will find.
I have written of the way I was invited when not yet 14 by an unusual teacher to go ahead and enter literature, let it roll through me, which was really how I first learned about writing – this teacher in my early adolescence was so different from the cold fish who handled literature in college. And I have written about the time much later when I passed as a professor, entering enemy territory in disguise. And then these years with the Authentic Writing workshops, where we have been able to get to the heart of things without having to bother, as in college or MFA programs, with circumventing silly rules that create barbed-wire barriers to necessary confusion between which person is the teacher and which the learner.
And I return again and again to the ancient version of what publishing is – which is simply reading aloud what you have written to a group, which can be tiny or huge. Robert Frost, perhaps the most published by conventional publishers of anyone in America, always spoke of this ancient version as the publishing he took seriously – as opposed to the publishing houses that rejected everything he wrote for more than two decades.
I have tried to bring to life some my own most pivotal scenes, the scenes that led to change – my father abandoned at death, the family party where everyone was pretending to be British as they verbally hunted down and tried to kill everything I – and maybe they too – loved. I have written about dangerous breeches of national and family loyalty. I have written of fake stories -- fake war heroes as well as fake English people. I have written about surprises entailing new love.
What I have done here is try share scenes that to me gained importance when I wrote them but might have been forgotten if I had not written them, had dismissed or forgotten them, forgotten as if these scenes were like unidentified bodies left on nearly tidied-up battlefields. Might have forgotten them if I stuck to verbal stories, stories worked out in my head, stories that did not need telling since they were wrapped up before I told them. Might have forgotten them if I had not been able to get new pieces to the stories, and revised pieces, and new versions of endings that are constantly supplanting old endings as they are seen on the page, though rarely just in the head, changing when approached on the page again and again from slightly varying perspectives, sometimes turned turned upside down as the context is filled in.
The scenes. Such as me a scraggly swamp rat, forgotten in my family, coming out of a Florida jungle to photographed by passing tourists. Scenes that came in uninvited when I sat down to write.
The constantly recounted, set-piece family scene still there of that night before I was born when a lightning bolt came down a chimney and out a city-like fireplace at that formal mountain house called White Pines – and traveled 100 feet past silk and tassels, costly hardwood, a Steinway, a Nefertiti head, all the way to the far end the formal main room and then went into another formal fireplace and up another chimney, into the cold raw night where there was no protection from the high and raw mountains that this house had seemed designed to nullify.
Back and forth over scenes, and the scenes always changing – if I wrote them. That perfect family place and perfect family becoming, when moving to the page, a place of evil inhabited by monsters – then another time becoming somehow solid, if not so right as before – a place that could remain in the landscape of my life as the past unfolded from the present (as did the future unfold from the present). The perfect place becoming a wasteland, and then another time becoming populated, and then another become a place of first love, and then again a place of awful danger. This as my boarding school from long ago was changing too – because of writing – from being a nightmare place to a life-saving place – and back and forth. These changes.
And more scenes come, and I wait for something new to unfold from them. Turkish soldiers using a live cat as a football, circling the cat, kicking it to death... Then a Javanese soldier way upriver in Kalimantan in a time of ritual cannibalism saying he'll take care of dinner, going out behind the tribal longhouse, putting three dum-dum bullets into the last chicken... In the lobby of the Merlin Hotel, filled with refugees from the Kuala Lumpur’s race riots, Western school girls singing “Please Mrs. Robinson” as a sickly new Prime Minister strides in waving a submachine gun while outside his Malays are shooting 10,000 Chinese... Walking through dark city streets in times of curfew, knowing that being some of those black windows there are snipers. Lying one floor up from Irving Place in New York City, warm in summer, my arms around smooth, silky Anne Marie as through French doors come the 3 a.m.. sounds of horses hooves on cobblestone... Or in a raw Taiwan winter with a lithe young rural bathhouse-massage girl, the two of us fighting for the covers, like cranky middle aged married people in the suburbs...
An outdoor wedding that seems very much like a childhood dream way back in Connecticut -- the dream of a wedding in which I am old enough to leave my noisy house of peril and start my life, this dream in which I am on an actual green hill that I can see from my actual childhood bed. I can see it through a screen door opening to a wobbly outdoor staircase that goes down and out towards the greenery – a private staircase because the room had been a unit of a rural Connecticut boarding house before the commuters snapped up all such places... This dream that broke up recurring dreams of poison rain and torturer-jailers – this dream that as a child had never seemed completely false, never seemed like one of those good-little-boy things that adults thought I would like – as in much later times adults thought I could like stories written with ironic detachment that helped the authors flee form the realities that frightened them.
And I have written about how when I left the cold practice of following outlines (which had gotten me published, which at best may on a few occasions have led to sex I might otherwise have missed), how when I left this cold and safe version of writing, there was no writing theory that could get me back to writing. For by now art, to me, was not clever plans, like those concocted by the octopus of the How-to-Write Industry or the bottom-feeding academics who rise to the surface to gobble up art. Art by this time in my life was a matter of life and death.
I had to find out what had happened -- especially the complex story at the center of so much I had to tell – the story of my brother the good twin and me the bad twin, the two of us winding up, as if in extension of our childhood, on opposites sides in actual wars – each of us having to fight for a corner of life, though at other times surfacing as actual human beings with even hope, but then again coming back to the peril we were in. Am it could have led to my death when he was with the Reagan C.I.A. and I was sometimes underground with the opponents of America's favorite dictators -- Somoza, Chiang, Suharto, Marcos. We both were in extreme danger.
If I could not get to this story and beyond it then I was not practicing art, and if there was no art, only logic, than my work and life would have narrowed down so far that nothing mattered. The much dreaded disease called Writers Block would have been the least of it.
Painting helped. I learned to write in better ways in mid-life by painting, a place where it was natural to leave the linear, and where I did not have the illusion I had had in writing that I was in control of, and knew, everything that logically I needed to know. In painting, material came so certainly from those mysterious places that are accessible only in the course of creating art. Later, in the same way, it was singing that allowed me to go deeper on the page.
The closest thing to theory that helped was, actually, theology – which starts not, as in philosophy, with cold logic, but starts with leaps of faith and imagination, which are then held up to logic but go even further beyond logic. In mid-life I was racing between art schools in New York, and also museums and galleries, from early each morning till late each night – until the point where I had to go to Italy to see art not in museums but in the context of its natural places. Then, a couple of years later, I was still painting but I was also roaming around theology departments in Boston and Cambridge. And I found a mentor – the theologian Thomas Groome. Tom, who became my spiritual director, was the person who gave as crucial spiritual advice, "Fuck the begrudgers," and Tom also wrote and spoke of stories as sacred, a person's actual stories, reflections upon stories, stories played off against other stories, stories changing – and guided me as I bluffed the academic affairs people to get credit for writing stories where they normally would require dry research papers.
Tom Groome, who helped open up to me the late theologian Karl Rahner, who was in and out with the Vatican but fortunately in at the time Pope John XXIII arose, that brief time when everything seemed possible in the Catholic Church.
One night as I sat reading, something happened that was the equivalent of seeing sunshine after years of living in underground caverns. I read a definition of sin:
"That which is not authentic."
And then an encounter with the creative Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, whose take on the Exodus story is that the Israelites, unlike most enslaved peoples, caught on that the version of reality in which they were living out their lives was nothing more than clever theater designed to keep the nobles and the slave masters on top.
Then and now, a writer’s own true version of reality is always subversive and counter-cultural to some triumphal version of some very powerful national or family dictator. Dictators who have no trouble with logic, but are deathly afraid of art.