Sunday, March 27, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back: “The Girl I Was, The Woman I Have Become”

Los Angeles Union Station courtyard, 1979
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

That's me in the picture, which was taken in 1979 at Union Station in Los Angeles. This photograph came to mind because I’ve been thinking about reminiscent narrators and journeys as part of the novel I’m writing. When I look at that image I see a girl headed into unknown territory, taking a break at a brief stop on the way to her destination – looking forward, not back.

Much has changed since those youthful days, including the story I might now tell about the journey north along the edge of the Pacific on the Coast Starlight. Back then, I was on the verge of making some important decisions, thinking only of the future. Now, I look back on that time with layers of knowledge that only experience and hindsight can provide to inform the past.

Writer Ellen Lesser, who was one of my mentors in the MFA program at Vermont College (now known as The Vermont College of Fine Arts), wrote an excellent essay on reminiscent narration. Lesser's article "The Girl I Was, The Woman I Have Become: Fiction's Reminiscent Narrators" originally appeared in The Writers Chronicle and has since been reprinted as one of the essays included in Words Overflown By Stars, which was edited by David Jauss (who was also one of my workshop teachers at VCFA). Ellen wrote the essay after noticing in workshop that "about half the submissions cried out for some added insight, of the sort a retrospective stance on their events could provide. The other half were set up as remembrances but never made particular use of the vantage point; some even appeared to forget, a few pages or paragraphs in, that their protagonists were gazing backward. It struck me that our developing writers had agonized over whether to narrate in past or present tense, in first or third person, but they'd approached this other crucial decision – the point in time from which the story gets told – at best casually, with little reflection." Lesser goes on to ask some important questions that every writer should consider about the use of reminiscent narration, and she looks at examples in the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice McDermott, Edna O'Brien, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Jane Smiley, and W. D. Wetherell. I highly recommend this book, which I also wrote about here.

In telling the story that goes with the photograph now, I might choose to reveal some things beyond the frame of that rainy morning in the station courtyard. I could flash forward and back by decades, layering in whatever is relevant to the story I want to tell. What I’d say now might be very different from what I’d have said in 1979. Even if you are familiar with that grand Art Deco station, and even if you’d once sat on that very same bench back in 1979, you couldn’t know what I was seeing or thinking about as I sat there smoking that cigarette. There are things even I couldn't know then that would add depth and meaning to the story – for instance that this would be the only train ride I'd take on the Coast Starlight. Or, that I'd soon give up cigarettes forever. Or, that I'd marry the guy who took this picture. It's all about framing and perspective. Distance, and finding exactly the right point in time for the telling.

Los Angeles Union Station, 1979
Copyright by
Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Salvage: Rescue, Recover, Reclaim

"Antique Junk" (photo copyright by Dory Adams)

I’m deep into the mess that is my novel-in-progress, work which had been temporarily shelved more times than I care to remember. I’d fallen into a habit of working on it in fits and starts, waiting for larger blocks of writing time to immerse myself more fully in the writing. Guess what – it will never get finished that way. I finally realized that I have to make the time now, even if it’s only a few minutes each day.

Thanks to the help of Scrivener, I’m pulling together all the bits and pieces existent outside the written chapters: notebooks filled with details for scenes and chapters, character sketches, settings, timelines, lists of changes to be made, notes on structure and POV; index cards with research notes; file folders stuffed with newspaper clippings, post-it notes and scraps of paper; maps and photographs. This has allowed me to see the threads and shape of the story better, to see what is left to be done and not feel so overwhelmed by it all. It became clear to me as I worked with these scattered pieces that even during those times I’d claimed the novel was shelved, it never truly was – it was always with me, tugging at me to come back and finish the story.

It’s likely my posts here will be shorter in the coming months, and the focus will probably be geared more toward the writing process. This week, I’m sharing some interesting pieces I stumbled onto from around the web:

  • Cynthia Newberry Martin has a series of posts at her blog “Catching Days” on Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit From The Goon Squad, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Cynthia’s post “Dear LA Times: This is a photograph of Jennifer Egan” takes the newspaper to task for running a photograph of Jonathan Franzen (who did not win this award) instead of a photo of Egan in their article. Additional posts explaining the photo choice can be found at LA Times’ blogs Jacket Copy and Readers’ Representative Journal.
  • One of my favorite books of all time is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Back when I was teaching, I always managed to work at least one of his stories or essays into the syllabus. Here’s a link to a video of a short interview with O’Brien by Jeffrey Brown at PBS.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Only One Hour

“1 Hour Cleaning” copyright by Dory Adams

Time is on mind. Mainly in the context of the novel I’m writing, but also for various other reasons. I’ve been living in that space between two worlds – the fictional world of my characters, and the real world. It’s a good place to be because I’m always happy when the writing is going well, even if it means fumbling my way through the real world a bit distracted.

In the real world, the start of Daylight Savings Time is a date I look forward to each spring. After the darkness of winter, I’m happy to turn the clocks ahead. I don’t even mind losing that hour of sleep on the night of the time change. It seems a small price to pay for more daylight in the evening. Spring is on the way, and it won’t be long until I can set up shop in my summer office again.

In the fictional world, I’m bouncing around time across decades with my characters in two main story arcs, a “now” arc spanning the last few weeks of October 1989 and a “then” arc set in October 1963. I’m at my writing desk very early, getting in a few hours of work on my novel before going to my job. The morning darkness doesn’t bother me much. I don’t even notice daybreak because I’m lost in the writing. A timer on a lamp is set to shut off the light an hour before I need to leave for work – a reminder to pull myself away from the writing and get ready for the workday ahead.

For most people Daylight Savings Time isn’t such a big deal. Unless you’re a Hoosier, that is. Until 2006, some counties in Indiana switched to Daylight Savings Time while others remained on Standard Time. To further complicate timekeeping there, the state is divided by two time zones. I’m glad I never had to deal with that on a daily basis! It may only be one hour, but it makes a huge difference to me as the earth continues to spin on this trip around the sun.

In the News
  • I received an e-mail from Chuck Kinder today alerting me to the recent article in Pittsburgh City Paper by Bill O’Driscoll about Kinder: An Anthology of New Fiction. The anthology was put together as a gift to Chuck from his current graduate students as he recovers from serious health issues. Be well, my friend!

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Muralist Douglas Cooper’s Pittsburgh: “Pinburg”

Pinburgh from Douglas Cooper on Vimeo.

A video titled “Pinburg” is making the Internet rounds these days. I have to share it here as this week’s image because it’s so fascinating to watch. The animated film takes us into one of Cooper’s monochromatic murals depicting Pittsburgh’s industrial landscape and hillside neighborhoods. No matter how hectic your day is, do yourself a favor and lift your spirits by taking time to watch the five-minute video (be sure to view it in full-screen mode with sound). In fact, maybe this would be a good way to start every day.

Douglas Cooper, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, creates amazing charcoal-on-paper murals which emphasize Pittsburgh’s topography. The sidewalk stairways, which ascend to steep hillside neighborhoods and descend to the industrial river valleys, are somewhat reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s drawings. Cooper’s panoramas are filled with complex details for the viewer to discover – framed inside lighted windows, on porches, in passing trolleys and trains, and other surprising places within the scene. Many of these details show people engaged in activities, some of them based on memories of elderly Pittsburghers he has interviewed as part of his creative process.

Each time I see Cooper’s work on exhibition I’m transfixed, pulled into the scene in a very physical sense. Am I standing in the gallery, or am I standing inside the drawing? The scenes seem to be from multiple viewpoints and angles, yet merge together as vignettes that tell a story.

Doug Cooper’s first urban mural (created in 1992-93 as a work in progress at the Carnegie Museum of Art) is now on permanent display at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh. Concept Art Gallery, in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood, has smaller drawings by Cooper on display. To see more of Cooper’s work via the Concept Art Gallery website, click here. Cooper’s book, Steel Shadows: Murals and Drawing of Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) is also still available in the paperback edition (144 pages, 11 x 9).

If you’ve read this far and still haven’t clicked on the “Pinburg” video, go ahead. Do it now. Indulge. Release your inner Yinzer.
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