Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The ironies of language


In a couple of recent posts I've been writing about the challenge of making historical fiction "sound" historical.  Yes, of course, there is factual history to get accurate, and there is the historically correct physical look that should guide your descriptions; there is contemporary slang that must be avoided in dialogue and even contemporary attitudes with which you should endow your characters only warily and only for specific purposes.  (Some argue you should never do this at all.)  But there is also the specific words used in the narration.  Especially if one is employing a first person narrator, but even if one's narrator is third person, a writer must work to include only language that feels right for the person and the era and struggle against language that finally isn't, at the same time being careful not to create a too cliched historical sound, something that sounds too much like what we expect, for instance, an American puritan to sound like, or an Enlightenment era Englishman, or a nineteenth century servant to the emperor of China.  Your characters and your narrators must seem historically accurate and yet never cliches.

This effort becomes all the more complicated when one starts to examine the etymylogical history of specific words.  Words one might use without questioning turn out to be "historically challenged," whereas other words that sound thoroughly modern turn out to actually have an extensive literary lineage.   This issue is in my mind currently because of revisions I made to a short story set in 1820 on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  The narrator is a twelve year old white boy of English descent.  One editor who read the story questioned several of my word choices, and quite rightly I should add.  For instance, when she saw my narrator make a reference to chocolate she wondered aloud if a young island boy in the early decades of the nineteenth century would have any notion of chocolate at all.  And I thought: Damned if I bet she isn't right.  I didn't know much about chocolate, but I knew enough to know that.  Some simple research revealed that while drinking chocolate was not unknown in the United States prior to the 19th century, chocolate did not become a confection until the 1830s in England; not until the 1850s did Americans taste bonbons, chocolate creams, and hard candies; and not until the invention of milk chocolate in 1875 could chocolate candy become widely affordable and thus consumable by the masses.   (My narrator, by the way, was hardly from the upper classes, who were almost the exclusive consumers of chocolate for several centuries.)

So I struck the reference to chocolate and began examing other of my word choices.   I wondered about kid (as in "boy"); I questioned stuff (as in junky items) and slug (as in "to hit").  If chocolate was an anachronism, surely these were too, right?  Well, interesting what I found out.  Hardly a newsprung word, kid is derived from Old Norse.  Its use as a slang term for "child" can be found as far back as the 1590s.  Okay, so kid could stay, but surely not so undignified a word as stuff, right? Ho ho, not so fast!  Turns out our contemporary stuff is derived from the old French verb estoffer ("to equip or stock") and by the 1570s was used to mean "matter of an unspecified kind."  So stuff could stay as well.  How about slug?  Three for three?  Slug sounded like such a good old Anglo-Saxon word that I expected only good news.  Yet here the research tripped me.  While using slug to refer to the animal was well in place by the early nineteeenth century--as well as its slang meaning as "strong drink"--the word was not used to refer to a physical blow until 1830.  So, sad to say, slug had to go.

This struggle with individual words makes up, for me, some of the most interesting moments of my writing life, and is certainly part of the exciting challenge of historical fiction.  But finally, no matter how important accuracy is, it can't only be about the research.  Finally what matters is what works for a story.  As I once heard in a fiction writing workshop after a class questioned the feasibility of certain events in a student's story and she responded by saying they actually happened, "the truth is no defense."  In fiction writing it's what seems truthful, seems possible, seems believable that matters.  Because the reader is not going to know or care about the real life events that happened to your best friend or your mother or your dead ex-husband.  The reader only knows the characters in your story.  Similarly, what seems to fit the characters and the story is the final gauge with which a fiction writer needs to measure his words.   But to have his decisions backed up by a little etymological research surely makes him feel better.  Believe me, I know.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Taking the long view


    Yeah, that's me, a couple of years ago, after I ran the St. Jude Memphis marathon.   Since then, I've completed the Mid-South Championship marathon once and the Little Rock marathon twice, bringing my grand total of marathons completed to eight.  The marathon isn't actually my favorite race distance--that would be the half-marathon (which, interestingly, was cited as the favorite race distance of runners en masse in a recently published Runners World magazine study)--but the marathon has so many metaphorical connections to so many life ambitions that on both an existential and a literary level it becomes the one unavoidable contest.  I've already blogged about the nearly seamless comparison between novel writing and marathon running, so I won't do so again today.  Anyone interested in reading further about such matters should hustle out right now to buy, borrow, or steal Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.   What struck me the other morning in the middle of my daily constitutional six mile trek (this one a double loop around the lovely Cobb Island, Maryland, where I happen to be vacationing) was that distance running doesn't just make a superb metaphor for the act of  novel writing but for the sum of one's writing life, whatever kind of writing that means.  Both distance runners and creative writers are required by their disciplines to take the "long view."  By this I don't mean length in the page numbers of our individual projects, but length in terms of our perception of our creative lives.  Writers are often informed that they will need a thick skin to survive all the rejection they will receive--and this is true; writers are often told, in fact I tell my students this frequently, that persistence is almost as important as talent--and this is true.  (The great William Matthews put it very succinctly to a class that I once happily found myself enrolled in.  "There's a lot of talent in the gene pool," Matthews told us.  "Talent isn't the issue.  The ones who keep publishing are the ones who keep getting the work done.")  But even persistence is not quite what I'm writing about today.  What I mean is that to have a successful writing life, or any kind of writing life, one must conceive of it in terms of decades not months.  Because while a month, or maybe a year, or maybe several years, will lead to an apparent nothing, through decades of continued work, effort, and activity one eventually makes for oneself a livable and satisfying creative life.  For each person this will mean something different.  It could be the pleasure of several successful public readings; it could mean seeing one's plays performed; it could mean publishing a novel; it could mean winning a major prize; it could mean working as a teacher of creative writing; it could mean the publications of stories or essays in periodicals you respect; it could mean contributing regularly to a newspaper you love to read; or it could simply mean producing work that is treasured by the people one knows and loves best.  For some people it could mean all of these things.

But one will never know what kind of writing life one can really attain unless one adopts, from the very beginning, the long view.  In my years of teaching I've seen so many students exhibit dire hopes and high plans for themselves as writers, only to find out a few years--or only a few months--later that they've given those hopes up just because they couldn't get a brilliantly satisfying and creative job right out of college.  Or get that one story of theirs published.  I think it must be true for all of the fine arts--for filmmakers and dancers and actors and sculptors and painters--but it strikes me as especially true for writers that they must live out their creative lives with as much as patience as possible.  Not to be macabre, but to give up too early and quit too absolutely is akin to taking one's own life.  At a conference I attended at the end of June (see my recent post), one of my students and I were talking about the tragic phenomenon of suicide.  We agreed that maybe the saddest aspect of this horribly sad act is all the things that the victim will miss out on, things that he could never have imagined for himself when trapped in that well of isolation and despair, but real--or potentially real--all the same.  I feel the same way when I hear about talented writers who got diverted by law school or by parenthood or by buying a fast food restaurant.  Of course, everyone must do what they feel is finally right and necessary for them--and by no means does going to law school or becoming a parent or owning a pizza joint mean that one can't or shouldn't write again--but my reaction when I hear news like this is to think, "They'll never know what they're missing."  I've been writing creatively literally for decades and for a variety of reasons (which I'll have to blog about some other time) 2012 is shaping up to be among the most satisfying years of my writing life--and it's only halfway done!  It's not just me either.  A colleague of mine, in his mid-fifties, after countless and deeply frustrating years of rejection, will soon be publishing his first collection of short stories.   I've never seen him so excited about an accomplishment or so determined to make a project succeed.  So should he have quit at fifty?  Of course not.  Think of what he would have missed.  Why didn't he quit?  It was impossible for him to.  Because this man lives  and breathes the long view.  Writing is his life's mission, one from which he refuses to be diverted.   At the same conference mentioned above, I heard a South African writer read a wonderful short story.  The woman is fifty-one and the story she read was the first one she ever published.  This publication happened only about five years ago.  For decades, she thought of herself as someone who wanted to and should and eventually would write. She held in her head the knowledge (let's call it the long view) that she wouldn't leave the planet without turning her talents to literature.  Finally she did, quite successfully to judge by the numbers of her publications and by the prestigious grants she's already received.  But grants, awards, and publications isn't finally what I'm writing about or the reason for the long view.  What I mean is that by keeping and supporting and indulging that view, and working from inside it, one cannot help but to make a life for oneself in writing--I didn't say a living, but a life--a life that maybe isn't the one the twenty-two year old dreamed of, but is one which the thirty-six year old or the forty-three year old or the sixty-seven year old can't imagine living without.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Absinthe (Re-) emerging


Funny thing happened the other day.  As part of her anniversary present, my wife gave me a copy of France magazine, a lovely periodical published both in the UK and the US for English-speaking francophiles.  Every article and every photograph makes you realize just how badly you want to go back.  Later, in bed, I was reading the magazine only to realize that I'd read this issue already.  I looked at the cover date: July 2011.  She'd accidentally given me a magazine we already owned.  We'd re-gifted ourselves!  As I looked further into the issue, however, I came across an article I'd somehow missed the first time round: on France's new producers of absinthe.  (In 1988, the EU declared legal again the production and consumption of absinthe, after an 80 year ban.)  The article explained that today's brands of absinthe, while still around 70 proof, have a much lower wormwood content than the brands produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Wormwood, of course, is the ingredient that it is usually credited for giving absinthe, in its heydey, its famously psychoactive quality.   As I wrote in a post many months ago, there is disagreement over the spirit's true psychoactive strength, with some commentators claiming that absinte was, and is, no more potent than any other spirit.  Then again, the France article quotes from distiller Dominique Rousselet as he remembers his first drink of absinthe--produced by the traditional method during the years the ban was still in effect.  "One 
glass--bof!" Rousselet says.  "I was reeling, but reeling.  [My friend] told me to call home to get someone to collect me, but when I got to the phone I couldn't remember my number.  I was too embarrassed to tell him, so I pretended to have a conversation.  It was all over the place, my mind.  My brain was swimming. . . .  I had to confess to my friend that I'd completely forgotten my number.  He had the bright idea of using the phone book.  I could at least remember my name!"

At the turn of the nineteenth century, "the Green Fairy" was widely seen as a destroyer of men, savager of minds, and killer of families.  It was blamed, often with little evidence, for murder, insanity, and a new society of benumbed drunkenness.   As I mentioned in my earlier post, part of absinthe's problem was that producers began making inferior but cheaper versions, sometimes--for the sake of holding down cost--substituting for traditional ingredients ingredients that were less expensive but actually proved poisonous.  Van Gogh lived in Paris exactly during absinthe's height of popularity, and he befriended exactly the bohemian types of people who adored and popularized the spirit.  His name is frequently associated with absinthe.  Indeed, the France article only follows this trend.  Beneath the article's title runs a subheader: "From Van Gogh to Oscar Wilde, artists and writers have been devotees of absinthe for decades."  But there is little actual evidence from Van Gogh's letters that he was an enthusiastic consumer of the spirit.  However, the common perception, I think it is fair to say, is that Van Gogh was addicted to the stuff.  Problem is, Van Gogh would likely not have been introduced to absinthe until he moved to Paris in the mid-1880s.  And the years he lived in Paris he wrote fewer letters than in any other period of his adult life.  Thus, there is precious little primary material available from which to draw conclusions.  I suspect that the myth--if that's what it is--of Van Gogh's absinthe addiction can be traced to an account, written by Paul Gauguin years after the fact, of their last weeks together in Van Gogh's Yellow House in Arles.   Shortly before Van Gogh's infamous December, 1888 breakdown (when he cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute), Van Gogh and Gauguin took a trip to Montepelier to see the Fabre Museum.  What was supposed to be a trip that would renew their friendship turned sour and even turbulent as the housemates argued vociferously over matters of art.  According to Gauguin, that night, in an Arles cafe, and without provocation, Van Gogh stood up and tossed a full glass of absinthe in his face.  A few days later, the "madman" was cutting his own ear off.  The issue here is Gauguin's credibility.  Almost none of what Gauguin writes in his account can be verified.  It isn't backed up by any other source or any eyewitness account.  And all of it--per Gauguin habit--seems designed to make Gauguin come off as brilliantly as possible, and Vincent as badly as possible.  (We know, for instance, that following Vincent's death Gauguin told lies about the extent of his artistic influence over Van Gogh, even taking credit for advising Van Gogh during the composition of Sunflowers, despie the fact that the Sunflowers series was completed long before Gauguin even arrived in Arles!) 

We'll never know the full truth about Van Gogh and absinthe--or Van Gogh and Gauguin, for that matter--but it's clear that certain myths are bound to remain.  

Monday, July 2, 2012

International in North Little Rock


For most of the past week, I participated in a terrific short story conference in North Little Rock, Arkansas.  The conference, The International Conference on the Short Story, is the brainchild and baby of Maurice Lee, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Central Arkansas.  For over twenty years now, it has been held in far flung metropoles like Alcalá de Henares (Spain), Cork (Ireland), Lisbon (Portugal), and Toronto.  This year the conference returned, after a break of several years, to America.  It is one of the most unique literary conferences I have ever been to, for various reasons.  First, it's the only conference I can think of that features presenters and guests that divide equally between writers and scholars.  (And of course some attendees are both writers and scholars.)  One can and does move freely between academic discussions of the story form and ideas on how to teach it to sessions in which superb story writers read from their own work.  Each day the entire conference gathers in the afternoon for a plenary session.  Groups that in many circumstances frown on each other's disciplines and occasionally are at each other's throats, listen to and learn from each other. Unlike a few jam-packed, hyper-rushed, steroids-driven conferences I can think of,  at this conference plenty of time is allowed for coffee and conversation; for cordiality; for getting to know and understand other peoples.   The food is plentiful.  The conversations are thoughtful.  The spirit is genuine.  It became quickly clear how many of the attendees return to this conference time after time; so much so they have become old friends: to themselves and to the conference.

Perhaps the best aspect of the International Conference on the Short Story is the most obvious: its international flavor.  Most literary conferences I attend are entirely, or almost entirely, America-centered.  While America was well respresented in North Little Rock, so too was the rest of the world.  Very good writers, thoughtful teachers, and energetic scholars who I otherwise would never have known about are now names I refuse to forget as well as professional friendships I hope to maintain.  The other day at lunch at the wonderful Starving Artist Cafe I was sitting with a Scotsman who now lives in Australia, a Bosnian who now lives in Sweden, and a South African who nows lives in Ireland.  It was fantastic to hear their life stories and about their creative projects as well as to hear about how creative writing--and creative writing teaching--gets on in their adopted countries.  I learned a great deal in a mere hour of conversation, far more than in the hurry up/eat and run/back to networking lunches I've experienced at other American conferences.  The hightlight reading at Friday's lunch featured a prominent Canadian writer; the highlight reading at Friday's dinner featured a Jamaican writer, an Indian writer, a New Orleans writer, and a New York writer.

I can happily report that I had the pleasure, in a Thursday afternoon session, of introducing not only my friend and colleague Garry Craig Powell but the amazing Xu Xi from Hong Kong.  What Xu read compelled me to purchase Access, her most recent story collection, and to invite her to submit to Toad Suck Review, which I serve as Associate Editor.  I can even more happily report that in my session on Wednesday afternoon, the historical short story I read (one of the Nantucket stories featured in my collection-in-progress, Island Fog) wowed none other than the eminent Robert Olen Butler, who happened to be there to hear the other presenter.  He made the point of telling me afterward how much he had enjoyed the story and asked several energized questions about the collection, which--as I said to a friend--now means I can die happy.

Whatever kind of stories you write, historical or otherwise, I urge you to attend the International Conference on the Short Story when it next gathers in 2014.  (The conference is held every two years.)  Where will it be?  Berlin?  Hong Kong?  Lisbon again?  They have not yet announced the destination, but I guarantee that if you can get there you'll say it was worth it.