Friday, June 21, 2019

The Overstory: First Impressions and "Wild Orchard"

I’m afraid this won’t be a very rational post. I started reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory this week. I’ve read twenty-three pages: a prefatory section called “Roots,” and the first chapter, “Nicholas Hoel.” I read these twenty-three pages over two readings, with a few days in between, because it was so good I waited to pick it up again until I could give undivided attention. Twenty-three pages. In them: a saga that stretches over almost a century. Four generations of a family and a story about the chestnut tree brought west as a seed. Twenty-three pages full of characters and yet, I cared about each one. I cared deeply about that tree. Actually, I cared, already, about all trees. There were so many wonderful things happening in those pages and as I read, I couldn’t believe the things that were possible with words: descriptions, humanity, rhythm, emotion, so many universal, a-ha moments. Really. And at the end of the first chapter, I cried. I know that sounds very dramatic but I did. Like the way you’d cry if you saw a baby born, or a particularly impressive natural phenomenon your mind almost can’t process. Or an exquisite painting. Or how you'd cry if you just read fiction that fuels the part of you that believes in the boundless ability of words to touch hearts and souls, that part of you that has always believed but sometimes forgets, for a while.

I don’t know if the next 480ish pages will be able to maintain this level of wonder for me, but for now, I’m loving The Overstory, irrationally. Obviously.
This chapter also deals with the history of the chestnut blight in America, which you can learn about by watching this brief video:


And now, as promised, your first tree poem...


Wild Orchard

by William Carlos Williams

It is a broken country,
the rugged land is
green from end to end;
the autumn has not come.

Embanked above the orchard
the hillside is a wall
of motionless green trees,
the grass is green and red.

Five days the bare sky
has stood there day and night.
No bird, no sound.
Between the trees

and the early morning light.
The apple trees
are laden down with fruit.

Among blue leaves
the apples green and red
upon one tree stand out
most enshrined.

Still, ripe, heavy,
spherical and close,
they mark the hillside.
It is a formal grandeur,

a stateliness,
a signal of finality
and perfect ease.
Among the savage

aristocracy of rocks
one, risen as a tree,
has turned
from his repose.


Friday, June 14, 2019

All About Trees: Summer Reading Project, 2019

Readers of this blog may know that every summer, I like to have some sort of reading project. Last year, I read only novels by Michael Chabon, for better or worse. One year I read several short story collections and another, I tackled the Hilary Mantel series. My idea for this year's annual event started with a chunky novel on my to-read shelf, The Overstory by Richard Powers. The winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, it's "a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world." And from what I understand, it has much to do with trees. I bought the book and was very interested in it, but then it arrived and it was very long (500 pages) and so, because it was a hectic, non-summer time, I put it on the shelf. I'm quite excited about this read, which I know several of my friends have enjoyed.

Then I remembered that once I had really wanted to read a non-fiction title: The Hidden Life of Trees. So I bought that and suddenly, the All About Trees summer project was born. This book by Peter Wohlleben "makes the case that the forest is a social network," and claims "a walk in the woods will never be the same again."

After I decided on theme, things fell together. I already had an arc of Jessica Francis Kane's recent release, Rules for Visiting. This novel is a summer buzz book, about a middle-aged woman who is "more at home with plants than people" but decides to set out on a journey to reconnect with old friends. The book has lovely tree illustrations by Edward Carey, such as the one pictured here and so, more than qualifies for my project.

The final entry, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, I discovered online once I started looking around, and it's a gorgeous, illustrated book originally published in 1996. From the inside jacket: "With this astonishing collection of tree portraits, Thomas Pakenham has produced a new kind of tree book...The sixty trees are grouped according to their own strong personalities: Native, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies and Survivors." And I think that last bit - the grouping titles - is what got me to buy the book. Not sure what a fantasy tree would be, but I intend to find out.

For those who have expressed interest in joining me on this reading quest, I'll read the books in the order listed above, with no particular timeframe other than to try to finish by Labor Day. If you need quantification, it's over 1200 pages of tree-filled goodness. I hope to post an update each Friday, starting next week, along with a tree poem or two. Join me! Spend some time embracing nature (at least, thinking about it) and learning about trees.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

About My Grandmother

I had a long dream about my grandmother’s house last night. I can remember every detail of this place that meant a great deal to me. And I woke up remembering that she passed in June, twenty years ago now.
My dad’s mother was Frances Ellen (Rivers) Vensel and we lived near her my entire childhood. I got my middle name from her—Frances—and although I thought I didn’t like being called Mary Frances growing up, I miss it now. I gave my only daughter the name Frances too.
When we were very small, there were many of us granddaughters and when she’d get our names mixed up, she’d call us Genevieve in exasperation. And this is partly where Geneva got her other name, from this imagined granddaughter. Grandma Vensel was kind, smart and funny.
Her house was immaculate, as my mom would say. Her bathroom shelves held amazing powders, creams and perfumes, and she was always put together—clothes, makeup, hair. I’d go to her house by myself and sleep until noon, then we’d play pinochle for hours. After a surgery she had, she didn’t like her voice, but she sang in church anyway—softly, a beat behind everyone else.
She showed her disapproval in quiet ways, and her affection and loyalty was matter-of-fact. She was a steadfast support and great friend of my mother’s. She loved my grandpa and I believe she missed him terribly every day after he passed.
She was the only person I ever saw stand up to my father. She loved golf—especially  Chi Chi Rodriguez—also Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and when I asked who her favorite singer was, she’d say Engelbert Humperdinck to make me laugh. Sometimes, she’d have a drink or two and be a little boisterous.
She secretly smoked in the garage, where she kept the 1972 Chevelle she truly loved. The car was also immaculate. She wore driving gloves and sometimes, scarves tied expertly around her throat. And she loved me, and all of us, and showed us how to be strong, dignified and true.
There was more to her, of course, much, much more, but she was very important to me, and still is. I keep the last picture nearby, to remind me how fun she could be.

Monday, May 27, 2019

More Considerations: Form in Fiction

I recently read a book about narrative form. Wait, don’t stop reading! The book is Meander, Spiral, Explode, by Jane Alison, an author and writing teacher. Her premise is fairly simple: the traditional story arc is a limited way to imagine the creation of fiction. Why not use other patterns, those found in nature and all around? Why not meander through the text, exploring side alleys. Or maintain a bit more focus, with a plot that spins in a spiral around a central point. Or construct a narrative in which “a powerful center holds the fictional world…tightly in its gravitational force." In other words, an explosion. Alison takes us through a variety of patterns, with examples from literary history and with an eagerness for discovery and creation. For a good summary of the book’s argument, read this.


I marked many passages while reading Alison’s explorations, but one stood above all others:

“The point now: Sebald’s Emigrants was the first book to show me a way beyond the casual arc to create powerful forward motion in narrative: motion less inside the story than inside your mind as you construct sense. This motion involved pattern, arising (I later learned) ‘from the spatial interweavings of images and phrases independent of any time-sequence of narrative action’ (Joseph Frank, ‘The Idea of Spatial Form’).”
Aside from the text mentions, what she’s talking about is that sense of figuring things out, that exercise of filling in white space with what your conscious (and subconscious) is absorbing as you read a story. Plot and character clues, yes, but also the building of elements such as repeated imagery, or the deepening of meaning when a phrase is repeated or used at pivotal moments. Stuff like that. Think about when you’re reading a mystery and something suddenly becomes apparent. A lightbulb moment. That feeling, only it’s about the entirety of the thing you’re reading.

And it occurs to me that this has been a preoccupation of mine from the first moment I began to write. My autobiographical first novel, about the experience of being adopted and finding my biological family, was written from the POV of three different women, each with their own story stemming from that event—the adoption—and how it shaped their lives. Alison might call that a radial, or explosion. The second novel I wrote was called ”Good Sunday” and although I did imagine a structure for it, roughly related to the Catholic Church’s Stations of the Cross (don’t ask—I was young!), this novel takes place over the course of the day and really is probably a meander, as it unifies the story and characters through a series of seemingly random events and imagery. In my third finished (and first published) novel, The Qualities of Wood, my initial impulse was to write a book that seemed like a mystery—with a dead body and cast of possible suspects—but surprise!—the real mystery would be the slow revelation of character, which would sneak up almost imperceptibly as the main character thinks she’s actually solving something else. (A note: as it turns out, readers of mystery, by and large, are not thrilled with a book that pretends to be a mystery but actually isn’t).

And I’ve yammered on and on this year about my most recent book, Bellflower, which is certainly my most obvious experimentation with form. I won’t say more since I’ve already said plenty, but you can read about its form here.
I think anything I write moving forward will start with a consideration of form. If you had asked me where those past projects began, I might have said things like setting, or character, or—in the case of yet another unpublished, untitled novel I wrote after TQOW—an idea. Form is something I deal with as a writing teacher, when I point out the traditional arc structure, show examples of novels that effectively employ it, and then, those that effectively don’t. All of teaching (and learning) about writing seems to follow another type of pattern: Here is what has been written already. Here are some “rules.” Here are things that follow the rules and are wonderful. Here are things that don’t, things that were a deviation and a surprise and yet, are equally or even more wonderful. What’s better than stumbling upon a new, unpredicted path? Writers have always pushed against constraints; form experimentation is nothing new. But flexing your creative muscles with new types of training is always a good idea and form is a good place to start.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Sudden Fiction

In 1986, Robert Shapard and James Thomas edited the inaugural offering in what would become a series of story collections. Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories is considered the first well-known compilation of what we now call flash fiction. Flash is what it sounds like: a story that occurs in a flash; typically, they are less than 1000 words in length. Make no mistake, however; these stories aren’t lightweights. Blaise Pascal famously said, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Writers of all genres would do well to practice writing flash pieces as cross-training for scene impact, characterization, and conciseness at the sentence level. As a reading experience, flash can and should offer the same satisfaction and depth as a longer story. And all flash is most certainly not alike. Even at this shorter length, themes, genres and types vary as much as they do in longer stories. By way of example, here are three of my favorites from the classic Sudden Fiction.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka