Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Beginning of beloved Gravely (Scribner's, 1984)

(the term "my omniscient friend" indicates I was already a Fordie even way back then)

            A little while ago, some of those friends who were accusing me of writing books less well than I write rock and roll songs were also kind enough to tell me there was not much rock and roll in this one.

            They are probably right, because this book is about me and my friends and the women I loved before I met the young girl I'm about to marry, whose blue eyes and red hair may well be the death of me.  But for the benefit of anyone who never heard one of my songs or read the notes on any of my record albums, I would like to say a few things here, before we start out toward the first edition of the floating opera.

            A lot of the same people who accused me of writing books less well than I write rock and roll also accused me of confusing all the times and the flow of time and the interactions of the different times, and they too are probably right, because I don't believe that time is, or that time has to be, or even that time ought to be as regular as distance in a Flemish painting.

            I think every moment in the past is just as distant as the last breath I have taken, and they are all equally unreachable and far away, because things grow at different speeds.

            But sooner or later they all end up in the magic realm of Maybe Once and Sir, If Only, where it's all unreachable, it's all imagined – like the naked lunch tomorrow and the voice, Carl Phillips, which can sing inside your head.

            When I was starting on this book, I wanted to begin with a little picture of the way Middleville, Virginia, looked when I lived there, which was pretty much the same time as all of the events described in this book – about ten years ago – and I started that way more than once.  I wrote about how beautiful the dogwood and the redbud are each spring at the time of the Dogwood Festival, and how Thomas Jefferson used to live outside of town on a little mountain when He was alive, and how the Blue Ridge Mountains sometimes looked all blue and hazy, like they might be islands floating on the sea of Earth, but I kept getting stuck.

            Then my omniscient friend suggested that I might want to start at the end of the book, as is commonly done by European authors, according to this person; so for a couple of weeks I tried starting the book by describing the way my next door neighbor, Christian Gehman, is riding around and around and around his gigantic front lawn on his beloved Gravely tractor here in Cismont, Virginia, but I kept getting stuck at that end of the story too.

            However, some good came of the attempt, because those two words – beloved Gravely – kind of got fixed in my mind, and after I had written them what seemed like several thousand times, they took on an unnatural significance.

            By then I was so sick of the project I would gladly have forgotten the whole idea, only I had promised a certain blue-eyed young lady I was going to write it all down.

            And if you break your promises you lose your soul.

            So I was sitting on my porch one afternoon, listening to Christian's tractor go around and around and around, and I was thinking about how much I hate Gravely tractors, because they're all the same and they all try to thump you with those wicked handlebars.  I used to have a Gravely tractor of my own, and it tried to kill me more than once before I blasted it with Spook's old Purdey shotgun.

            And if you don't believe me you can see the rusting carcass in the woods behind my house.

            So I was listening to Christian's tractor and falling asleep when suddenly it occurred to me that I did not have to start at the beginning of the story, like an American writer, and I did not have to start at the end, like Europeans do; I could start in the middle anywhere I wanted to start if that made it come any easier, and after a while, if I had been doing it right, nobody would care where I had started as long as the story could walk and talk all by itself.

            Acting on this principle I kept those words – beloved Gravely – because by that time I believed thy sounded mystifying and momentous and majestic.  I wrote them at the top of every page, and it was just like magic.  Just as soon as I stopped trying to do things in a particular way – just as soon as I didn't have a single idea in my head, the way I do when I am writing a new rock'n' roll song – why, I thought of something else to write down, and then I thought of another thing, and another, and pretty soon I was clipping along without ever having mentioned once upon a time.

            Some of you will probably be glad to know that this book is not written in dialect or spelled funny, and I hope you believe I did my best to make it easy to understand.  I really did.  I changed it completely so many times that my eyes wore out and I had to buy new spectacles.

            Fortunately, I had kept a copy of it just the way it was when I first wrote it down, and, with a few minor additions and corrections that my omniscient friend suggested, that version is what you have already begun to read.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Skaters Dance

Thoughts on what happens when we write .... and read. 


by Christian Gehman

Now.  Maybe … 

         Please, can you imagine? … now … that somewhere in a foreign country, not too far from here, where it is winter—out in the country there, she lives—a skater?  She is beautiful; she looks like someone you have loved, and someone you still love today, and someone you will love tomorrow.

She has those beautiful kind hazel eyes, or bright blue eyes, or the warm brown eyes you will always love.  She may have green eyes, even.  Not for jealousy.
Imagine you can see snow everywhere: a wintry landscape, Currier and Ives, perhaps a barn and cows, a farm yard with some chickens, a log cabin with a porch.  Around this peaceful snowy paradise are snow-covered fir trees: and a wisp of smoke curls up from the cabin's field stone chimney.
Just outside the kitchen window live some chickens in their chicken house, and they are happy making eggs.  In the barn live cows; the horses there are stamping, munching hay, blowing steam out their noses in the cold frosty air.
On this day, our skater gets up early, rising from her sleigh-bed in the rafters of the cabin, fluffing back her goose down comforter—she gets up early knowing she’ll go skating.  Our skater dresses all in green: green skirt, green tights, green leotard, and her form-fitting green skater’s jacket has been trimmed with pure white ermine at the collar.  Each green is slightly different. 
Downstairs in the kitchen she prepares a cup of creamy, warm hot chocolate: a dark liquid not too sweet but creamy and well-frothed with bubbles.  She drinks it sip by sip gazing into the fire.
Then, dangling her figure skates across one shoulder, our Skater sashays out the door. She walks through the wintry landscape with its dark green, snow-covered trees: she sees her breath puff in the frosty air as she walks down to the pond, a light snow crunching under her warm fleece-lined boots.
It has been a cold winter, so the old quarry pond is blessed with black ice three feet thick.  The water in one corner, as our skater knows, is deep enough to swallow you forever if the ice lets go.
She sits down at the end of the short wooden dock to lace her skates up tight.
The pond’s black ice is smooth, unmarked.
Her green skating costume trimmed with ermine; and the way she looks around so kindly, with her eyes:  these are things you will remember.  Also, how she moves:  her swoops and twirls and arabesques, her lutzes, axels, doubles, triples, triple-doubles: how she spins and bends and pirouettes.  A champion of skating, now she's practicing for her performance at the next Olympics.
Each move our skater makes cuts a distinct mark on the ice.  Her skate blades cut these marks quite clearly on the smooth black ice.  Her skates make a slight scraping, grinding, slicing noise, but she is not too much aware of that noise, while she skates.  It is part of her skating process.  Sometimes she might sing or hum or maybe even talk to herself—from pure delight and from enjoying what she’s doing: how she’s skating.

She can glide, she can soar, she can swoop; she can twirl, she can leap, she can spin and she can make your heart stop, fascinated, with the loveliness of all her movements, skating: until finally you know she loves to do the skater's dance for you.

And in her heart someone is always watching. 

      At long last, after skating to a great sufficiency, she goes back to her cabin, stopping at the barn to say hello to the big bay horses and the Guernsey cows, making sure they have plenty of water.  Back home at last, she makes another cup of that sweet dark hot chocolate whose foamy breaking bubbles glisten creamy in the cup.
Before long, while she’s still drinking chocolate, another skater comes over the hill from a neighboring farm.  He looks down at all the marks she left on the ice.  A young man, and he hopes to be a champion one day.  He sits down on the dock and pulls his skates on, lacing them up tight, then glides out on the smooth black ice. 

This second skater, puzzling out the marks that she has left, finds that by skating over them, so that his own skates run where hers ran: he finds that the figure of the skater's dance repeats itself in his own movements: all her swoops and twirls and arabesques, the lutzes, axels, doubles, triples, triple-doubles: all her swirls and bends and pirouettes are reproduced now in his movements.  And sometimes the next skater adds in his own movements or re-skates again some of her figures that he’s already skated over—just to learn them better, maybe—or because he likes to skate them?
Skating in her marks, he feels the same emotions and sometimes almost thinks to see reflections of the kindly look that he has seen so often—in her eyes.
      But of course, he makes a few mistakes, or maybe puts in—now and then—his own material, improves a little here and there on her dance; he grows bored or fascinated by the dance she did and by his own reinterpretations of that dance.  His mind moves with his body as her mind moved with her body when she skated. 

Sometimes his mind goes off completely on a wander of its own, some wild new tangent—and calls up a new, completely different series of movements, which we might call “the dream of skating”but before long it returns to what he has been doing, skating over her marks, and he becomes aware of the wander only when he "wakes" to find himself still tracing out her marks on the ice: that mad, mad whirl of marks whose meaning can be puzzled out only by someone whose ability to skate has been not just well-learned but also practiced.

      This puts him, somewhat, in the same position as you, dear reader, looking at this text and reading, falling, maybe now and then, into your own sweet dream of reading.

      Did you like skating into this fable?

      Is it time for some hot chocolate? … for the foamy breaking bubbles glistening at the cup’s edge: maybe chocolat with whipped cream on top?

At long last, after skating to his heart's content, the second skater finally takes off his skates and puts his boots back on.  He walks home past the skater's cabin, stopping in her barn to say hello to all her horses and her cows (because they’re old, old friends); then he knocks on her front door, she opens her door smiling at him just because he looks so handsome in his tight black skater’s outfit! -- and then he drinks a nice cup of the hottest creamy chocolate with her, looking up to her kindly hazel green eyes.

Will they both hope that possibly "Tomorrow we can skate again" …? 

Perhaps together?


Now perhaps, dear reader, what I have been getting at is that the important thing about reading the great books is the “dance of the intellect among words” – producing which dance, after all, is the main purpose of “education.”

Copyright 2013 Christian Gehman all rights reserved.
Posted to blogspot / novelismo April 29/2013
1,279 words on Tuesday, May 01, 2012
1,167 Words on Friday, February 17, 2012
1051 words on Monday, July 13, 2009
          and tomorrow is Bastille Day!
Copied to Niagra folder, Monday, July 16, 2009
20130130 the skaters dance for laura hartman
1,272 words on January 30, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Past

 Nostalgia may be a plague to history (or perhaps more pertinently, to historians?) ... but seems essential for writers like Conrad, Ford, Steinbeck, Trollope ... the past must be real enough to be important if you're going to write about it. Otherwise you're limited to reporting on the vagaries of a present moment.


Since "SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING" ... don't sit. Get a stand up desk or use a bureau. And as for fast walking and other exercise: the first twenty minutes are the most important; thus, two twenty minute walks -- or even three! -- will do the most for your metabolism. Walking does help restore the brain to its usual potential for writing, but ... it's even more effective to "read something fun" -- a magazine, a comic book, the novel you're reading, Scientific American, Allure -- whatever works for you as an amusement. Simenon works well for some. Others like browsing through cookbooks. So perhaps combining these two will give the maximum boost: 20 minutes of reading for fun, followed by 20 minutes of fast-walking arm-waving moderate exercise in the great outdoors. Or try 10 and 10 -- whatever works for your deadline. It's perhaps worth noting that though "healthiness" may be your aim, a good many of the world's most prolific and acclaimed writers have found that coffee, nicotine and a mild hangover were essential to their writing process -- even more so when the deadline looms. Remember this: "The deadline IS the deadline" -- it's not three days before the deadline (when panic may well set in), perhaps because "the prospect of being hanged wonderfully focuses the mind." Sometimes, however, the deadline's anxiety may prevent setting pen to paper; if this happens, try copying by hand with a pencil for 10 minutes from a book; preferably a book with some literary value.  And remember this: some editors are like dogs: Never Satisfied with the smell of Anything until they've pissed on it a few times."