Monday, January 14, 2019

Life in Moments

When my grandmother—my mother’s mother—was dying, she was in and out of consciousness, not always lucid, and she often confused my mother for other people from her past: her own mother, a cousin, one of her sisters. She said things that must have come from memories and had no place in the present. And although sometimes my mother seemed hurt when she wasn’t properly recognized, I found my grandmother’s jumbled mental state—a series of moments, people and places, in no determined order—well, I found it to be of some comfort. It’s what's meant by “her life flashed before her eyes,” the most indelible moments rising up to illustrate who you have been.
Long ago, I had a wall hanging that said “Life is not lived in hours, days, or years, but in moments.” And I thought that to be a very deep concept, and I still do. Think about when you meet someone at a party. You don’t sit down and begin a linear introduction: Hello, my name is Mary and I was born in Los Angeles…. What organically happens with people is that we find things in common and we tell stories about our lives. For almost two decades I have been friends with a certain woman who recently told me something about herself I had never known, something that seemed so fundamental I couldn’t believe we had never discussed it. Such are life, and people, and the ways we can know them or never will know them.
I’m telling you all of this in a roundabout way of talking about Bellflower, my “novel-in-moments,” which will be published next month, and to perhaps give you some help if you decide to get a copy of the book (thank you!) and might be perplexed by its form. These musings about life and its moments (among other things) pointed me towards the method of the novel. But let me give you an illustration of what I mean.
Let’s say I want to tell you about a character, a person. I’m making him up now, as I type this. His name is David Price. I will tell you five brief things about him, five moments from his life. 

1.      When David was 41, he had a nervous breakdown. He was out of work for two months, and along with therapy and medicine, he took up woodworking. He made beautiful wall-to-ceiling bookshelves for the den in his house.

2.      David’s mother often tells the story of when he was four years old, and she came into his room to find him arranging his picture books into straight columns and rows on his carpeted floor. He explained the ordering of them, which had something to do with animals and also, children with and without both parents.

(Now, I’ll take a pause here to ask whether you are already drawing some inferences from these facts? Perhaps that David was an orderly sort of guy and maybe his breakdown had something to do with his sense of order, or perhaps from missing a father? This is the way our mind works, filling in the white space when we are given clues.)

3.      For David’s 70th birthday, his three children threw him a surprise party. He’d been quite antisocial for many months after the loss of his wife of 41 years; he hadn’t been in his wood workshop, or reading, or going to the gym regularly as he had most of his life, and they hoped to cheer him up.

(Are you thinking: Oh, good, he had a nice wife and a full life, despite that breakdown? Or did he? How did the wife handle his mental state? And were books a big part of David’s life?)

4.      When David was 54, his book about Vietnam was published by a university press. They threw a launch party for him but he was unable to attend when he developed a bad stomachache. David’s father had died in the war, and David had majored in history, eventually became a history teacher, because of this fact most likely.

(And now we have a timeframe, and can fill in some details about when David was born, etc. We can start thinking about what it meant to grow up without a father, the breadth of this loss.)

5.      David met his wife, Jeanette, at a faculty party, when he was 28. She was a science teacher, environmental. He brought her a glass of wine and told her about his mother’s recent marriage to a pastor. She asked if David believed and he said he’d have to think about it.

(Ah, this Jeanette. A scientific sort of person, serious and straight to the point. How did they counteract each other? And the mother remarried—how did this affect him?) 

Five moments and somehow, a pretty full sketch, at least, of David Price. And this is the method of Bellflower, which tells stories from the lives of three main characters and the family and friends in their orbit. The moments and stories can range from a few paragraphs to many pages. You may read the chapters, and the sections within them, in any order. And there is white space, plenty of it, and sometimes the characters reach across it to touch each other. I hope, if you decide to give the novel a go, you’ll let me know how you decided to read it and of course, what you thought.


Post a Comment

"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