Posts Tagged ‘American literature’

AIM FOR THE CHOPPING BLOCK

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Today, on the first day of the “winter” break, there’s much to be done.  Christmas cards. Dry cleaners.  Post office.  Groceries.  Arsenal vs. Man City rerun.  But the impulse to write hit me and all else fell away.  My body seems to know when it’s time to hit the keyboard.  Or mini-me (my mini-lappie) or even a notepad.  My body told me what to do today.  Specifically, it let me know that it was time to write about this book:The Writing Life

Some books are like jewels, like my “portable feasts” books.  This book is a perfect, sweet opal, full of charming vignettes.  But it’s so much more than charm.  It’s opalescent quality comes from these heartfelt, LIVED moments in real time.  Discoveries were made, analogies were generated, faith was lost, faith was restored.  Through it all, Dillard’s humor winks at us in daring and in cheekiness.  “Aim for the chopping block”, she writes.  The physical act is not the objective.  Write towards the vision. 

 

Once, in order to finish a book I was writing and yet not live in the same room with it, I begged a cabin to use as a study.  I finished the book there, wrote some other things, and learned to split wood.

Simple conversation, on the surface, but rub it a bit and wisdom shines through. 

(1) Living with writing: it’s a bit like having a child in the house – or a tenant.  Sooner, rather than later, they will need your undivided attention, no matter what else of import may be occurring.  You are the only one who can deliver that attention.  You can’t hand it off to a nanny or a text message.

(2)  Writing that occurs while you’re writing something else.  The entire time I was working on my last post, I was thinking about this one.  It’s awkward and annoying, but typical for me.  One idea begets another.  It’s actually one of the easier things to handle when writing for a specific objective.

(3)  “Learned to split wood”.  Mental links to physical.  Mental activity tied to physical activity.  That’s why writing and typing are so satisfying.  I’m thinking and generating and rehearsing and arguing.  In my head.  My body is washing dishes, ironing, grading papers, talking with someone.  Not always, mind you.  Sometimes I just plain close my eyes and rehearse something in my head, or play with shapes. 

The current’s got me.  Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now.  I just keep at it.  I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.

God, when I was writing my research paper on “The Dream of Gerontius” by Newman, this is what it felt like.  My vision had no shape, no objective other than to cram in other people’s thoughts and either agree or disagree. It was hard!  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.  But I just kept re-reading the poem – the sections where Gerontius or his soul were speaking.  Making comments about what certain lines sounded like, what they reminded me of.  I researched the Latin bits (the only part I truly enjoyed).  So my first, second, and third drafts sounded more like marginalia than erudite scholasticism.  But after about five pages of observations, translations, and kvetches, I had enough wood to grow a stump.  I saw a couple of different patterns I could exploit.  I started to chop some wood, aiming for the stump.  I managed a decent paper.  I tried to do right by the research process.  My insights were scholarly, if not very far-reaching. I was happy with the end product.  I had chopped enough wood.  But I never enjoyed it.  What I did enjoy were the small moments – a turn of phrase, the seamless fabric of quotes and original wording, shaping the vision, working with Latin.  Lots of swimming and a lucky tide.

The written word is weak.  Many people prefer life to it.  Life gets your blood going, and it smells good.  Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.

This is why people don’t like writing – because you can only be admired for it in hindsight.  Never while it’s happening.  While it’s happening, you are judged harshly for not doing something “active” and “useful”.  When it’s all done, though, the tune changes.  It’s a thing created.  After it’s done, it looks like it was work.  When you were working on it, you just looked lazy.  This is the exception to the rule that you can see more clearly from a distance.  Writing doesn’t look like much when it’s happening.  But if you could see inside the brain, you’d see  the synapses firing like crazy and blood flowing through the creative, then the analytical parts of the brain; one then the other then both.  In teaching, this is why non-English people have trouble taking writing seriously. 

You don’t realize how much work it is until you have to do it yourself.  Then you realize you can’t do it well; it’s not as easy as it looks, an denigrate it even more.  _____________________________________________________________

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MY BOOK HOUSE 4: Through The Gate

bk 4 spine0001Book 4 is a treasure of some of our most revered imaginative stories.  Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed: iconic fictional characters whose names define magic and adventure. 

Most of the stories were new to me when I was first introduced to this book when I was a yung’un.  “Doll I’the grass” – I used to read it as “Dolly in the the grass”, but now I know the contraction “I’the” for what it really is.  “Brer rabbit” and “brer tar baby” – still don’t know what “brer” means.

The stories are simplistic in philosophy. It’s a bit unsettling at this age, but it made perfect sense when I was 9.  The beautiful girl gets the prince and her sister gets his brother.  A win-win stituation.  Stepparents and stepsiblings are evil.  Real men do hard labor with giant cattle.  The youngest daughter is the most beautiful and desirable.  Sounds a bit retarded now, but when you’re 9, if your head hasn’t been filled with internet and television filth, you just kind of go with it.

Reading this book, I think it was the first time I had seen Cinderella as something other than a blonde.  She’s wearing a powdered wig and a dress circa 1770-ish.  It looks like it weighs a ton.   My fav look was “Elsa” from “Elsa and the Ten Elves”.  Now there’s a story I could relate to! Elsa was very lazy.  She hated to get up early, and she especially loathed housework. Hellooo! {pointing at myself}. And, she had an absolutely to-die-for hairdo! I can only dream of having hair like that – that long, Teutonic wheat-blond hair. (The pic is in black-and-white, but you could tell it was blonde hair.)

elsa hair0001                cinder dress0001

In the Paul Bunyan stories, there’s a bit about the mess hall that I just loved and read over and over:

so Paul hired Hot Biscuit Slim, and there was a man who could cook!  Hot Biscuit Slim fed the loggers griddlecakes with maple syrup, bacon, ham and eggs, mashed potatoes and gravy, green corn and roasted duck; and he had working under him a man named Cream Puff Fatty who made delicious cream puffs, jelly rolls, gingerbread, jam tarts, and sugared doughnuts as big as platters.

Are you drooling? I’m drooling!

This volume introduced me to the twelve dancing princesses. I’ve seen versions other books, but I think this one may be the definitive.  That whole thing about the youngest daughter being the most appealing was a bit confusing to me back then. She was very young and very beautiful.  Then, as now, that’s all it takes, apparently.  Still, it was a great story about sneaking out to party all night! If literature is dress rehearsal for real life, this story is dress rehearsal for high school.

There’s also a couple of Halloween stories, a folk tale from Russia, one from China, a lovely assortment of European and American poems, and some adaptations.  “The Blacksmith” is the story of the song by Brahms.  “The Battle of The Frogs and The Mice” is a parody of the “Iliad”, and “Hansel and Gretel” is adapted from the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck. And, of course, a story from the Bible. A universe of creativity and a whole lot of psychology.

These are not books you can teach, but the vocabulary for this edition is teachable: fairy tale, folk tale, fable, tall tale, legend, yarn, retelling, adaptation.  There is also burgeoning representation of folk literature from the Americas – Canada, the US, and Mexico, specifically.  Most of the illustrations that are not black/white/grey are black, white, blue and orange.  The exception being “Cinderella” and the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier which is in yellow and black.  I really like how the editors always make it a point to include poems and songs.  When you’re a child, they are integral for learning how to manipulate language.

cross-bulletLINKIFIED:

Der Schmeid (The Smith) by Ludwig Uhland

Paul Bunyan stories at www.americanfolklore.net

Motoko – Award-winning Japanese storytelling

My recommendation for “Hansel & Gretel” – the opera

Br’er Rabbit stories at americanfolklore.net

John Greenleaf Whittier at www.poets.org

Need help coping with stepfamily issues? Step-family.com offers positive support.

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